-Are you sure?-
It was a familiar sensation. Weightlessness surrounded by the consuming embrace of the void, like water clinging to every pore, ushering him slowly downward. Inevitable. Sora opened his eyes.
His station was mesmerizing. The fractals of blue light that pushed past the imperfect glass drew a stark contrast to the bonds of black caulking etching his identity into the window. As always, he appeared young in the image-- a naive 14-year-old soon to be launched into an adventure. He was sleeping, nestled amongst illustrations of his memories.
Sora righted himself in his slow fall, his black and yellow shoes easing onto the darker blue emblems at the foot of his massive monument. He straightened his posture to look along the vast span of his platform, its glow belying a world of black nonexistence. The air was heavy but sharp like a live wire was permeating all space. Sora never had to breathe here.
There isn’t much time.
The voice. Sora knew it well. Its sound was more of a crystal clear feeling. Gravity. The voice was a guide.
You have to keep moving. Can you do it?
The question was palpable. It filled Sora’s limbs with tension and his mind buzzed with uncertainty. Could he?
He obeyed. Taking an extra step for insurance. The air shifted.
So many paths... The voice said and a flash of light in the abyss drew his attention. A rectangular platform of stained glass formed at the edge of the station across the way, followed quickly by another and another, spiraling a trail of colorful light into the air. The shimmering sound surrounded him and the reveal of two other paths on either side of him made him turn his head between them. To where they led, he had no clue.
So many stories. Which one will you experience?
The station had changed. The picture was the same, but the color bled a deep red. Her young face stared back at him from a dramatic angle. So did his… so did…
The emotion was like being pinched awake. It settled a heavy rock in his gut, the weight of which seeped through his body to his toes and his lungs. Wretched bitterness. Longing. He missed them.
So many paths.
The voice repeated.
So many wrong turns.
The floor shivered. From their faces sprung unfamiliar creatures. They were small, green things with sheer skin like a phantom. Angular, almost sharp, their foremost appendages were fit with sprawling daggers. Upon their heads were a strange pair of antenna, sweeping behind their pointed, muzzled faces like long ears. They scratched the platform glass with instant jerks, their eyes boring into him like black pits.
Can you right the wrongs?
The weight in his hands was a beloved burden. His fingers curled tighter still around the textured grip of the key. The power oozing from the blade bathed him in waves of relief, an old friend. He fought the very sudden pressure behind his eyes as his heart embraced the sword to its lonely scabbard. But Sora didn’t even spare it’s gleaming gold hilt and silver shaft a glance and instead trained a focused glare to the creatures. They scuttled in confused, jagged motions like they were being pulled in multiple directions at once.
He coiled himself back, feeling a well of power, a map of instincts, a shiver of excitement. And with a lurch forward, he unleashed a precise swing to the nearest green scrub. The hit was squared. The creature reeled in the kickback, but it could clearly take a little more.
It was like breathing after that. Sora swung the teeth around, bludgeoning the crowd of crawling enemies in efficient strikes. The creatures produced an occasional warble, a garbled screech, guaranteed when their forms collapsed around his key, dispersing into a spiraling puff of shimmering essence.
The pace was sure until he felt a retaliating slash make contact along his calf. The claws ripped into his flesh metaphysically, Sora feeling the gaping damage dig right into the core of his existence rather than make waste of his muscles and skin, even if the pain was just as draining.
‘Come on Sora, I thought you were stronger than that!’
Perhaps Sora’s eye caught his friend’s image too long. The memory grabbed him by the neck and he shook off a spell of overwhelming emotion with a shocked stumble. The Keyblade felt more like splintered wood in his palms. The swipes were a little more reckless and hungry like he was trying to prove himself. Like they would win him something impossible.
The Kingdom Key froze in alert, the stage empty.
Mistakes can be hidden and destroyed. But you can always make more.
Sora took a step back. The floor shimmered again, as though the surface was turned into a quaking and viscous liquid, this time in a dauntingly large radius. Then a massive hand-- animalistic, with curling claws-- exploded out of the sleeping expression of his pictured fourteen-year-old face and crashed along the edge of the stained glass tower. Another paw followed, it’s skin a refracting collection of jagged green glass. With convulsing jerks, the arms hoisted the rest of the creature from the undulating ground, revealing a humanoid head with skin like a cracking emerald. Large pointed ears pulled back from the side of its head and what appeared to be a forward sprawl of rock-like hair grew from its head beneath a crystalline mockery of a crown.
It loomed over him, Sora taking uneven steps closer to the edge of the station. A maw of sharp crystal teeth tore open to the sky, sharing the same pitch-black void inside. It released a deafening wail. Chains rattled, coils of thick links drooping along its rock torse which pantomimed some idea of clothes. It pulled its legs from the portal, feet a semblance of some kind of large shoe, left hanging off the ledge like the gangly limbs of a prepubescent teenager. It stumbled into an upright position with a thrashing tail behind it, tufted like a lion and as dangerous as a morning star.
Its eyes were punched-in holes of envious black. Fixated.
The Keyblade slacked unconsciously in Sora’s hand. And the tail wound itself back.
At its erupting impact, the battle began. A wire of fear launched Sora into an examining defense of the crystalized creature. It swung its paws low and he rolled to avoid it. Fortunately, it was slow… except when chance would cause the beast to blink out of existence like a glitch-- only to slam back into view instantly, a foot closer. For the sake of battle data, Sora let a sweeping claw graze him. Like it’s smaller incarnations’ attacks, the wound dug beyond the flesh, this hit leaving a howling burn in its wake. In the hurling kick-back, Sora parried his weight with a determined post of his leg.
Sora crouched low as he observed its pattern. It keenly targeted him but was bogged down by a horrid windup. After two failed predictable swipes-- dodged along the line between surface and void, the beast leaned back and gathered a luminous ball of energy in its teeth. Sora got the confirmation of a projectile he needed to put himself into offensive motion. The teeth of his keyblade gleamed and promptly tore through the paws of the beast at ease all while the hum of the energy charged.
A pulsing sound indicated its release. Sora scurried to the corners of his heart platform as the blast scattered.
It then became a dance. His keyblade would hack away at the thing when the opportunity knocked, screeches like shattered glass forcing him to fight through involuntary flinches. A respite from the string of leaping hits would force a reassessment, finding weak cores in its arms and drooping head. Its tail was the most unpredictable thing, bludgeoning Sora from behind with a nasty crack. It was one such time that the beast followed up with a juggling swipe and he was found free-falling, the burning pain gnashing his teeth to the point of erosion.
How much could this thing take? Hulking battles like these were a testament to endurance, something Sora was finding himself in short supply of. Impatience seeped into his bones and expelled his sense of self-preservation.
Sora charged forward, jumped high into the air and cracked the green thing in the jaw, it’s resemblance to a big cat more apparent with its profile. He followed up, knocking it three more times back and forth, each blow recoiling up his arm in the strain. Then, with a pinwheel turn to build momentum, Sora struck the beast atop the crown-like protrusion on its head.
It shrieked horribly, a roar like garbled elephants coming from its maw. It seized Sora’s stomach more so than any leap-induced vertigo. And then there was an ear-splitting crack to harmonize with the scream. It cut off abruptly.
The crater of Sora’s attack splintered a blinding light. It branched down its face, beneath it’s draping chains to the tip of its lion tail. The light buckled around those faults before suddenly erupting.
Sora hit the floor of his station in a crumpled heap. Around him rained shards of green crystals. Their landing like tinkling music. Glass on glass. Immediately he registered the exhaustion, but the satisfaction of victory was king. Between panting huffs (was he already out of shape?), Sora watched the creature’s remains litter his station, speckling glitter around a particular illustration on the glass.
A kind and loving eye staring back at him through his sprawled fingers.
That pinching emotion twisted at his heart again. Those same eyes spilling over in tears, fighting a resigned smile. His left hand tingled. The surreal sense of vertigo creeping upon him and crescendoing with blaring, dire, catastrophic alarm. Slipping. He was falling. Her hand in his was the only ledge he could purchase and that too was fading. The strength it took to hide the fear was greater than any blade he had ever wielded.
The voice returned and Sora felt a chill of irritation. Its gravity was somehow painful. Familiar.
… make you stronger. But they too can grow.
A roar ripped through the air. Blustering. Mechanical. Angry.
Sora lifted his head but it was too late. From the heap of crystal shards erupted a figure that closed the distance in a lightning fast dash. He didn’t even get a good look at the thing before he was hurled onto his back, skull cracking against the platform, a foot pinning him by the right shoulder. That angry sound revved again, barreling through the silence. Sora opened the eyes that had reflexively closed.
It stood over him-- smaller-- skin refracting that same green, but of a pale shade, more translucent. The grotesque amalgamation of rock flaked with transparent dust, revealing a human cut face-- a boyish nose and a straight line for the mouth. "Human" was the best approximation, though chains still rattled and a tail still swung behind it. Sora couldn’t help but feel the terrifying sense of recognition in the still void-like gaze of this monster.
Yet in its paw-like hands, a new contraption salivated over Sora, a large sword buzzing and gyrating gnarled crystal teeth like a chainsaw. It curled back along its arc and without warning snapped forward.
Sora wretched the keyblade from his right hand with desperate fingers. In a blink, the shaft was stretched before him in defense as a high pitched metallic clatter rained sparks and glass shards like a screaming blender. Piercing agony bloomed in Sora’s wrist at the relentless pressure and horrible angle, but the opening was clear.
He pushed through the pain, shoving the crystalline, chainsaw-slinging boy back, the weapon unwieldy enough to send it stumbling. Sora leaped to his feet, tossing the keyblade into his dominant hand and following up with a critical strike to its’ side. This monster didn’t cry out. That made things easier. He pressed on.
Fight Fight FIGHT
The satisfaction of the consecutive combo was short lived. Pushed to the edge of his heart station, the lion creature broke from it's mindless, ragdoll stare to size up the drop behind it. A semblance of fear somehow inching along the rim of those punched out holes called eyes.
And then it glitched. Like it’s lesser incarnations and the beastly form it assumed moments before, its physical hold on reality folded over, blinking it out of existence until it stumbled back in.
That’s when the gouging shred of the crystal chainsaw plowed into his shoulder. Sora recoiled back, his free hand grappling the nonexistent wound in a pointless attempt to stifle the oozing bleed out of essence he so surely felt. But the beast was relentless, squaring a blow along his jaw that sent him flying back. Sora smacked the stained glass once again, the keyblade dissolving and his head reeling from the impact while the lion thing shifted back in preparation for something new.
A white glow emanated from behind and Sora whipped his head around to see ethereal chains sprawl from the creature's chest-- now an illuminated blueprint of a heart. Those chains shot out like vipers and Sora’s world was consumed by a lurching jerk as they wrapped around his wrists and ankles and head. Tightly coiled and digging deep, they snaked around his body and began to drag him closer. Sora bucked wildly against his bindings, eyes fixed on the greedy heart of this strange enemy. Every inch forward increased the panic, this electric trill of useless, mind-scrambling alarm.
And for a moment the thing took on a color other than green. An indecisive shade of red along the clothes, hair refining its texture to a dull brown, rock softening to a fleshy tone… Its mirror likeness was a dawning horror.
Sora wrestled the chains with vigor. Between the links was a shocking lack of pigmentation from his skin. His clothes seeped light. A familiar ghostly likeness.
The dreading realization was a cold stone in his stomach. The drain of his corporeal form traveled fast up his arms. His pulse was a war drum.
The beast with his face looked on him with hunger as it drew him in. Sora’s arms, though pulled by the spindles were not bound to his body and he grabbed at the chains curling around his neck with significant contortion. His fingers made clicking sounds against the links, hardening stone themselves. The rubber soles of his shoes squealed along the station, a war between catching friction and sliding rock-on-rock.
At the base of its feet, Sora’s fighting grasp on the neck chain slackened in a violent jerk. The bindings ushering him toward this devouring abomination. The attempt to block from sight the source of his inevitable demise was fruitless. His shaking hands were now a transparent sprawl of pleading fingers.
Sora screamed, tears pooling his vision.
A flash of light erupted in his bound hand.
And everything stopped.
A breathless gasp filled the air. Warbled. The echo of a million voices. Confused. And very much in pain.
Drawn from the scrambled scabbard of his heart, the keyblade settled in Sora’s grip but from there it would not move. Resistance. The chains grew slack. Sora’s keyblade directly impaled the light of the lion boy’s heart. Its black eyes stared right into him.
Sora twisted the key. There was a click.
The glow warmed, spreading along its limbs from the heart where Sora’s keyblade penetrated. The humanoid colors and textures faded into a sheer icy glass. Ghastly and fragile, it caught that illuminating light along the fractal of its skin. The chains dissipated in a flaky smattering of stardust. Meanwhile, the glass on its skin began to chip away, peeling into the ether.
Sora slumped forward as his shackles disappeared. His own limbs had returned to proper color and texture, the firm reality they emitted was a precious intangible gift after their momentary absence. Exhaustion dripped from them, but his hand was still on the hilt of his blade.
He pulled back to take in its final moments. This terrible thing.
And the fading lion boy reached out to him. Yearning. Gaze unwavering. Desperate. It pulled at Sora’s heart in a different way and his fingers twitched in hesitant reception-- if only a little mystified.
It smiled at him and was no more.
The silence was endless. The washing fatigue grew exponentially. It was truly finished.
Only time will tell...
The voice’s return was an ice bath and Sora found every muscle clenched tight. It was a sick nausea that made his keyblade tremble.
...the real winners.
The station shimmered for the third time, this time underneath Sora’s shoes. He stumbled as it undulated like liquid. Permeation kicking in and grabbing hold of his feet while he slowly sunk through reality. Uncertainty pumped heavy heartbeats.
--But don’t be afraid.
Sora’s balanced keeled over and he crashed into the liquid floor. The Keyblade slammed to the ground without clatter. The consuming station then took his hands.
You hold the mightiest weapon of all.
His legs were submerged. He fought in vain as gravity pushed him deeper and deeper. Thoughts stacked upon thoughts. Welling through the panic. Drowning. Defiance. Desperation. Déjà vu.
Not yet not yet notyet idontwanttogobackNONONOjustalittlelongerpleasenot yetNO
So don’t forget:
Sora sipped the air out of instinctive habit, his body, his ears, everything-- gone. Fighting until dark nothingness took him away once again.
You are the one who will open the door.