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Kingdom Hearts - Save Sever Sanctify

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The sun set and the blindingly white cities of Scala were at once shrouded in a blanket of dark, cold solitude. The streets were once more flooded with seemingly mindless creatures whose only goal was to corrupt and consume hearts; they moved in packs, searching for Hearts to feed on, Light to devour. When they got dangerously close to the pair though, there was no hope for them.

The one in the front didn’t even wield a weapon. He discarded his old coat and sported a much shorter leatherjacket complete with a hat and a feather adornment. He was followed by a one-eyed gunslinger who was all bruises and cuts, looking far too tired for that walk. Still he did not complain but wore a genuinely complacent grin on his face. “This will do” the Master of Masters decided as they reached a larger, open area unaffected by the battles fought within the city previously. He pointed at a chair and nudged Luxu towards it. “I’ll take care of this, don’t worry. I’m not that rusty!”

“Are you going to…—“

“Nope” he shook his head and began drawing a circle onto the ground with a piece of white chalk. “They had a good reason to run. Had it not worked out perfectly, all of this city would’ve been destroyed. Then again… it did! No surprise about that, though, I’ve foreseen it.”

“Master” Luxu echoed weakly.

“You keep sweating over the details. Don’t worry, I’ve got it all covered” the Master reassured him quickly and took a deep breath. The city smelled of destruction – dust and smoke and also magic; it was a weird smell, a bit similar to the scent of a rainy day. He kicked a smaller chunk of debris out of the way and began to create a detailed summoning circle, while Luxu just sat and kept watch. “You know, I never had any doubts about your loyalty” the Master added. “That is why you were given this task, and not someone else. See, the future is not carved into stone. Ever since I’ve obtained these eyes, I’ve been peering into the future, seeing small glimpses. But these are merely possibilities, roads we can choose to take or to abandon. I compiled the Book of Prophecies as a guiding post to you all, as a map with marked road.”

“You mean we could’ve ended up differently?”

“Oh, absolutely!” the Master nodded with a wide grin. “There were… I don’t know, trillions or something like that possibilities. Every hard choice you, the Foretellers, your friends and enemies, Xehanort or Sora made changed the future. Well, not changed; more like narrowed it down. And this is true still. But now I don’t need the sight so much, as I am here on the playing field myself.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing, really” he shook his head, stood up and looked at Luxu. “We are here because of our efforts. They are paying Luxu, don’t worry. All that was promised and more will be fulfilled.”

“How did you achieve all this, Master?” the one-eyed Foreteller asked. He couldn’t contain himself so he got up and started pacing up and down, edging closer to the summoning circle bit by bit. For a while his Master did not reply, but continued working silently.

“I’ve studied the future” he replied plainly, with a matter-of-fact tone. “I watched every possibility, sought the best outcome for us, for me, and researched what road leads there. I knew Daybreak Town had to fall, that Maleficent would need to return to the past and back into the future. I knew about Xehanort, about your role, about Riku and Sora. I knew how Ventus would be the key that could spark a series of events. Everything I’ve done in the past was in favor of this outcome. And we are here.”

“But how did you know we would make the right decisions, that I would make the right decisions?”

“As I said, I watched it and knew the ending before it happened. Every other Foreteller would’ve failed in this mission, Luxu” the Master said, looking at his apprentice fondly. “I picked you, because you were the only one I could’ve entrusted with this mission.”

The Master of Masters took a step backwards and looked down at the summoning circle, inspecting his work. It wasn’t art, but it would do anyway. He summoned forth his Keyblade and felt a very slight shock running through his body as the weapon materialized in his grip. That familiar jolt, the weapon’s weight and the strength that surged through his body was something he had dearly missed. He had been without a Keyblade for far too long.

“Always remember. No matter how long it took you to get here, it took me twice as long in that damned city” the Master chuckled, but inside shuddered at the thought of spending another minute in any World similar to that one. Even though the World had no real effect on him due to his Heart being split in half, spending several lifetimes there left its mark on the Master as well. Had he not known of the brand and the Dreamers, he would’ve turned into one a long time ago. But knowing it helped to prepare: he split his heart and left half of it sealed away. It not only made his journey into Insomnia safer, but also provided as a waypoint for the trip back.

The summoning circle lit up and started buzzing loudly, blowing a warm wind towards the Master and Luxu. A sphere started growing above it, becoming larger and larger until it was long and wide enough for people to walk through it. And surely, a group of people stepped through the portal: Ira, Invi, Gula, Aced.

“Long time no see!” the Master waved at them playfully and raised his hat. The Foretellers in front of him were stunned but showed little emotion. “Oh, come on! Aren’t you even happy about me?” the Master teased them jokingly. “Who wants a big hug?”

“Are you really… our Master?” Invi asked carefully.

“Who else would I be? Oh… that Brain kid, right? You do know that he was an AI based on my appearance, right?”

“We’ve been told” Ira nodded and knelt down before his Master. “We are most glad to see your safe return, Master” the other three followed his example and knelt before the Master of Masters.

“Oh come on, stand up!” the Master clapped his hands. “Hm… wait a minute. Where is Ava my dearest?”

The Foretellers looked at each other and then at Luxu who scratched his head dumbfounded. “What do you mean?” Aced asked finally. “She didn’t come with us when Luxu summoned us forth.”

“Really?” the Master suddenly dropped the act and looked at Luxu. “Is this true?”

“Well, yeah. Is this a problem?”

“It is… unexpected” he acknowledged and shrugged. “But really, at this point it doesn’t really matter. She’s out there somewhere, I can feel it.”

“You can?” Luxu asked abruptly. He was quite visibly shaken by the sudden turn of events. His face faltered and he quickly sat down onto a chair, pushing his left hand against his forehead as if it had started to hurt suddenly.

“Yup. I bestowed parts of my Darkness into her; she is my greed after all” the Master of Masters said plainly. “Man, you kids have terrible memories. Ira, can’t you remember any of this either? Even though you were the first one?”

“I am… sorry bit.”

The Master sighed and shook his head. “Well, alright. Guess I can refresh your memories a bit. When you were a bunch of reckless kids I picked you all up at an orphanage and took you to Daybreak Town. I taught you how to wield a Keyblade and told you stories about—“

“About the Champions of the Light” Ira said quietly. He looked at the Master with realization in his eye. “I remember now! You told us about the Champions and how they were abandoned by the Light! You said you wanted to save the World from the corruption the Darkness and the Light and that you needed your own champions to do so.”

“Precisely” the Master nodded. “You would become my Champions and I would become your Light. But no man is without Sin, so I will need you to carry mine. And thus I passed my sins onto you, children.”

“So you know Ava is still around, because your Sin has not returned to you?” Invi guessed.

“Correct. Sharp as always” the Master nodded and gave her the thumbs up. “Ava is here, in this timeline, tucked away somewhere. Not that it matters. She betrayed us when she split from the group.”

“So what happens next? “ Gula asked, he seemed the most weakened amongst them all, probably due to the battle that was fought shortly before the Master’s return. “How do you want to become… this Light?”

“All in due time, Gula. For now, we need my Pride back” the Master said and turned around, looking into the distance. She was behind schedule which irked him slightly more than it should’ve. Leaving behind the rest of the group who were now discussing things amongst themselves, the Master stepped over to the side of the city and stared up at the pale, crescent moon.

For a while he stayed there feeling the evening chill, basking in the light of the night and listening to the distant echoes of the winds and the waves. When he finally heard the movement in the air and could smell the magic he opened his eyes and pinpointed the arriving figure. She wore a scarlet dress that turned dark purple at the hand and had a black feathery collar around the neck. Her legs were bare and darkened by the feet while the front of her thighs and shins were covered in tattoos depicting magical signs. She had long grey hair but wore most of it with a large headdress that made it seem like she had two horns on her head. A pair of black feathery wings grew from her back.

The Foretellers were at once silenced by the approaching witch and the one she held in her arms, wrapped in a blanket. Gula stepped forward summoning his Keyblade and taking up his battle stance. “She’s one of those witches” he remarked viciously, growling in anger. “Why is she here?”

“Down, Gula! Down! Bad boy!” the Master of Masters jumped in front of him and tried to pacify him playfully as if he was a dog. “She’s with us… now at least. Right?” he peered at her over his shoulder.

Ultimecia stood there silently, looking at the band of Keyblade wielders with a distant coldness. She let go of the body she was holding onto and it fell onto the ground unwrapping itself and revealing Ventus’ head.

“Ventus!” Luxu yelled his eye widened. He ran over to the body and the others joined him, surrounding the boy immediately. “He’s not breathing. Master, what is this about?” Luxu asked, half angry, half in despair.

“Brought us a gift, I see” the Master looked at Ultimecia instead. He stepped closer with much ceremony to his movement, letting his boot knock hard against the pavement, and looking down at Ventus with an emotionless expression. “Where did you fish him up?”

“Cut your games” the witch replied with a harsh rigidness. “Everything has gone according to your wishes: The Coven’s return, Mim’s betrayal, Walpurga’s demise.”

“She ain’t dead yet” the Master flashed a smile. “I’ve been saving her for you! Thought you might need a little extra power” he shrugged. “She’s somewhere amongst the ruins. You’re free to do what you want with her.”

“What about Ventus!” Luxu interrupted, looking up at the Master.

“He’s in a terrible shape, but don’t fret, he’ll live” the Master rubbed his palms against each other. “Stand aside children, time to mark the seventh.”

“What?” The Foretellers looked up at him in confusion, not completely understanding what he said. The Master however simply waved a hand and knelt down beside the boy and snapping his finger shrunk his Keyblade into the size of an actual key. “Seven hosts for the seven deadly sins” he uttered contemplatively, pressing the Key softly against his chest. “My wrath onto Ira; my sloth onto Aced; my greed onto Ava; my envy onto Invi; my lust onto Luxu, my gluttony onto Gula… and now my pride onto Ven… onto Superbia” he chanted and pulling the Key from his chest, pressed it to Ven’s.

The Keyblade lit up and then the light passed into Ven’s body. For a few seconds nothing happened but then abruptly Ven’s eyes and mouth opened and he gasped for air frantically. The Master of Masters took a step back and suddenly lost his footing. Ira and Aced grabbed him by the arm to keep him from falling. The others watched in awe as Ventus panted and coughed up water but slowly came to his right senses. “What… happened to me?”

“You had some serious injuries and managed to drown” the Master replied plainly. “But as I promised, your time has come. Rise now, Superbia. Rise, as the seventh Foreteller and the bearer of my pride.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

The sun hung low, covering the water’s surface in a reddish light and warming the sea-scented breeze. High in the sky the first stars twinkled pallidly over the small patch of sandy beached islands in middle of the sea, that Sora had always known as home. He was sitting at the ledge of the wooden pier, looking towards his friends who were busying themselves with trying to keep their small campfire alive and cooking their hard-caught fish for dinner. Riku and Roxas were just returning from the shed with a bunch of branches they could add to the fire, while Kairi and Xion were cutting up things for the salad.

Sora sighed sullenly; he wanted to help the boys out but both of them insisted on him staying put. He looked down at his arm – bound and dressed neatly – and shook his head in discontent. A whole month had already passed since their return from the Sleepless City and Riku recovered just as easily as always whereas Sora’s injuries remained and were unaffected by magic. He was healing of course, but the process was much slower than ever before. He hated sitting around, doing nothing… well ever since that fated night a couple of years ago. Before that he would’ve taken quite the pleasure in snoozing through the work. He looked back up at the others and saw peace and joy glimmering in their eyes. They looked so happy; Kairi, Riku, Roxas and Xion. They were finally at peace and Sora wished he could feel the same. In his mind, the last hours of his time spent in Insomnia played again and again like a broken record: fighting against Yozora, Brain taking his Keyblade and killing the man, and their miraculous escape. But the whole thing didn’t seem like it was the end of it. And he, Sora was equally frustrated and afraid of what was to follow.

“Sora!” Kairi waved at him, and he lazily waved back. She got up and hurried over with a small plate and a couple of bites on it. Cooked fish, potato and sauce made from herbs and garlic. “Want to give it a try?” she asked.

“Sure” he smiled and took one, dipping it in the sauce. “Delicious!”

“I do hope Hayner and the others will like it too” Kairi grinned. “They’ve been tutored by Little Chef, so I want to impress them!”

“They’ll love it” Sora chuckled and took another one.

“If you keep that plate too close, he’ll eat the whole thing” Riku pointed out as he arrived and took one for himself.

“So not true!” Sora pouted. “You two done?”

“Yup. All is good. I do hope the tents don’t give Hayner and the gang too much of a trouble though” Riku commented, looking at the distance where the trio were working on them even then. “I think I’ll give them a hand.”

“Want me to come?” Sora looked at him hopefully.

Riku looked back ready to reply but stopped halfway through the first sound. “Ye—ou should just stay here and test out the rest of the food. Yeah, that would be probably the best idea” he said and patted Kairi on the shoulder, nodding at her. “I’ll be alright. Be back in a bit.”

As Riku hurried off, Sora couldn’t help but think that for some odd reason he changed his mind about it. He looked at Kairi questioningly, who shrugged. “Don’t ask me” she said. “You know him the best. I’ve no idea what’s in his mind.”

“Neither do I” Sora sighed, his eyes falling. “Oh well, another bite then?”

“Come closer to the fire. You don’t have to sit here alone, you know” Kairi suggested. “Come on!”

Sora hopped off the pier and followed her back to the fire, where Roxas and Xion were holding onto each other, looking at the sea like the lovebirds they turned into. Sora rolled his eyes and grinned at Kairi but Roxas of course noticed and voiced his opinion in a now too kindly way.

“Be nice to each other” Xion warned them as she started cutting up a tomato.

“Hey, I haven’t done anything…—” Roxas fumed and pouted. “…yet.”

“Nah, you’d have to get through Riku to touch him” Xion snorted. “You think you can take him on?”

“Sure thing” he shrugged coolly. “Any day, any time!”

“What about me?” Kairi flashed a dangerous gaze at him, but winked jokingly after a few seconds. “Just kidding!”

Sora sat down beside the girls and looked into the fires and once more thought about Insomnia, about the Dreamers, about the Sandman, and about that man… Brain. What was his plan? How did he accomplish all that? So many questions remained and there were far too many coincidences. He had heard about the adventures Kairi and the rest went through in their absence and could only think about how the events were related.

“Where are Isa and Lea?” Sora looked up at Roxas. The boy ran his finger over the burnt scar on his face as he thought about the question. “I think… they are probably either in Radiant Garden or running an errand for Master Yen Sid.”

“How come?”

“Well, Lea took over the King’s role as Yen Sid’s apprentice-henchman business so he’s doing all sorts of stuff for him” Roxas tried explaining. “And he often takes Isa along for the ride; mostly because without Isa he’d get lost somewhere between the Worlds.”

“And how is Skuld?” Kairi inquired.

“Still in coma” Xion replied. “But she’s getting much better now. According to Naminé she should wake up soon.  I’m more worried about Aqua and Terra to be honest. Haven’t really talked to them ever since… well, you know.”

“They’re strong” Roxas claimed. “They’ll be fine.”

“I hope so” Sora nodded and looked into the fire, thinking about all the bad things they had been through and truly wishing for them to find peace and happiness.

The girls continued preparing their dinner, while Roxas fiddled around with a knife and a thicker piece of wood, trying to carve something. Sora merely watched the fire for some time, then lay down and watched the star-spangled sky unwrapping itself above them as the last rays of the sun shrunk beneath the waves.

The scent of their simple yet delicious dinner filled the air and the colder winds were evened out by the warmth of the fire. Sora closed his eyes and just listened to the crackling of the fire and the crashing of the waves. It felt so good, so tranquil. Still, his heart was wounded by the events of Insomnia. The constant danger, the loneliness and hopelessness — it really changed him. As much as he wanted to remain that playful young boy, the city changed him forever. He was still him, but different.

“Hey!” Xion exclaimed after a while. “Ready with those tents?”

“You bet!” Pence answered. Sora opened his eyes and sat up to see the trio arriving. They sat down around the fire, joining Xion, Kairi, and Roxas. Hayner brought a guitar with him and started attuning it, playing a few tunes and humming along with it.

“Oh, you could play music?” Roxas looked at him, eyes widened with surprise. “Since when?”

“Since like forever!” Hayner laughed. “I just don’t have it on me all the time.  And besides, I’m not that good!”

“Say, where is Riku?” Kairi looked around, searching for the boy.

“He’ll be here in a bit” Olette replied. “He said he wanted to be alone for a bit.”

Since dinner was ready the group didn’t wait any longer and everyone was free to dig in. Sora himself grabbed some drink and got up to stretch his legs out. He started down the sandy shore and Kairi soon joined him. They walked quietly, straying further away from the rest until the others shrunk into distant dots beside a globe of fire.

“What’s the matter?” Kairi asked, nudging the boy softly.

“N—Nothing, why?”

“Cause I can see” she winked playfully. “I’ve known you for a bit and you’re easier to read than Riku.”

“Well, what do you think then?” Sora smiled at her. It wasn’t a truly honest smile, more like a sad and shameful one.

“You’ve really changed” Kairi said, more to herself than to Sora. “And don’t take that as a… criticism, because it’s not. I just see it in your eyes; the way you speak, how your mind drifts away. It must’ve terrible.”

“It was” he said honestly, calming his mind before it could begin to overthink it. He ended up crying a few times already, just thinking too much about it and even now his breathing was becoming more rapid and uneven. “But… that’s not. I’m sorry Kairi.”

“Don’t be” she smiled and pulled the boy into a hug. They stayed like that for a whole minute with neither of them speaking, nor moving. Finally, the steps of a third person broke them apart.

“Did I interrupt?” Riku asked, and Sora quickly wanted to reply but Kairi was even faster.

“Not at all!” She looked at Riku, and then at Sora. Their eyes met for a second and even though Sora never said anything to her, she gave a short encouraging nod. “Alright, I’m heading back!” And before Sora could’ve said or done anything she was running back towards the campfire and their friends. The brown haired boy looked at his friend, who stared back at him, and gulped.

“So… how are the tents?”

“Fine I guess” Riku replied and sat down into the sand, facing the sea. Sora waited for a few moments before joining him. He sat on his left and watched the currents quietly, trying to figure out what to do or say. But neither of them did anything. They just stayed and watched the sea and listened to its endless tale. What seemed like hours were actually more like five minutes, and yet during those minutes Sora felt more at peace than before. Just like in Insomnia he was calmed by the aura of Riku who sat beside him like some sort of loyal guardian.

“Do you…—”

“Hm?”

“Do you often think about it? I mean, about Insomnia, Brain, or Yozora.”

Riku didn’t reply for a while. He watched the relentless waves with a fierce gaze, probably contemplating what answer was fitting. “I do” he admitted. “Always. I dream about it, constantly.”

“Me too” Sora said, blinking a few times. “Do you think we’ll see him again?”

“Brain? I’m sure. If what I think is true, he will be connected to those Foretellers.”

“Can he be their Master?”

“I’m quite sure he is” Riku nodded. “It would align with everything Luxu said to me. But don’t worry” he added, looking at Sora and putting an arm around his shoulder. “We’ll take care of it when the time comes. We have a lot allies, a lot of friends.”

Sora agreed and glanced sideway at Riku, but when he looked back at him he turned away. “We should go back” he proposed, feeling his mouth going dry. “I could use a drink.”

“Alright” Riku said and got up. He turned and offered a hand to Sora, and pulled the boy up. “Let’s go, can’t wait to grab a bite…”

- O - O - O - O - O -

When Riku got up the following morning, the tent he shared with Pence and Roxas was already abandoned save for him.  He ruffled his hair and climbed out into the sunlit morning. Hayner and Pence were yawning over a coffee and Sora was sleeping in a sitting position under a tree. Not far from them Xion, Kairi, and Roxas were taking a swim, enjoying the water. Olette was pretty much still in the tent, sleeping.

Riku stretched and yawned lazily, looking for a glass to fill with something to drink. It took him a couple of minutes but he succeeded and joined the tired duo at their makeshift table, which was actually a large log. He sat down and took a sip. “Morning” he grunted.

“Same, but good” Hayner nodded, barely being able to keep his eyes open.

Without further comments they tried keeping themselves awake for several minutes – Hayner managed to doze off in the end – when a keyhole-like portal opened in the middle of the beach and a pair of men stepped through.

Isa and Lea stood there, their faces bearing grim news for a cloudless and sunlit morning like that. Riku stood up and walked up to them and saw the trio emerging from the water at once as well. “What brings you two here?” Riku asked.

“Distressing developments” Isa replied and looked at the Keyblade wielders. Xion and Kairi exchanged a worrying look, and Roxas touched his injured cheek with his left fingers. “As much as I hate to do this, we really need your help, everyone.”

“We’re going!” said someone behind Riku and he didn’t even need to turn around to know who said it. The brown haired boy stepped beside him and he could imagine the determined look he gave as he stood there.

“Not you” Lea shook his head. “Master Yen Sid knew all too well you’d blindly waltz into the battlefield, but he warned us not to take you.”

“What? Why?”

“Cause you are injured, Sora” Riku looked at the boy. The defiant look on Sora’s face made him resemble a puppy that was far too fierce for his own good and Riku couldn’t help but give a small smile. Still, he also had to steel his heart and say things he knew he’d regret. “In your current state, you would hinder the group. I know this, because I’ve fought them”

“How would you even know what we are facing?” Sora complained angrily, clenching his fist. “Am I in the way?”

“Right now, yes you are” Riku replied promptly and plainly. “And if any of us gets injured because they are trying to save you from certain death, that won’t be good for of us.”

“Fine then” Sora took a step back, measuring up the others, none of who objected Riku’s harsh words or stood by his side. Fuming and sulking, Sora slithered off. Riku’s eyes fell even though he was prepared to give him this speech weeks ago. He turned back towards the pair and sighed loudly. “So… let’s hear it.”

Lea and Isa exchanged a glance and after a moment of hesitation the latter nodded and the former stated the obvious: “The Foretellers are back.”

Chapter Text

Stupid Riku! Sora fumed as he walked around in a circle in a faraway cove kicking every bit of rock and log he came in contact with. His eyes stung and he was biting his lips just to drown his anger and hurt in physical pain. Getting in the way, being a nuisance! Why does he suddenly have to treat me like that again! I thought we were over that long ago. I’m not a little kid who needs protection anymore. He seethed absorbedly, not even realizing that he wasn’t alone anymore.

“You really are thick if you believe for a second that Riku or Kairi want to leave you behind because you would be a burden to them” Olette said. She stood not too far from Sora, sitting on a large rock. The brown-haired boy stopped in his track and looked over to her with a mild surprise on his face. “Surprised to find someone here?”

“A little.”

“Come, let’s talk” she said and pointed at another rock large enough for someone to sit on it. “Or would you rather stew in your own juice for a while longer?”

Sora opened his mouth to reply but changed his mind. He had no reason to be angry with her and being mean to Olette wouldn’t have solved anything. He forcibly oppressed his anger and walked over to her as calmly as he could. The girl gave him a bright smile and nodded encouragingly. The boy pouted and kicked the sand; he couldn’t help but feel frustrated and left out of the loop.

“Come on Sora, don’t be like that” Olette nudged him a bit. “You do know that what Riku said wasn’t true.”

“But that’s just it!” Sora burst out. “It’s not true! I wouldn’t be in their way, I can hold my own! I fought Xehanort’s Heartless, Xemnas, even Master Xehanort! I’m not weak, not weaker than they are!”

“That is true, yes” Olette nodded. “But you didn’t really try to crack the code either, did you now?” Sora stared at the girl like he was slapped on the face. What did she mean by that? Crack the code. What code? “Riku said these awful things precisely because he figured you’d be upset about it. He wanted you to be angry and leave in a fit.”

“But… why? Why is this necessary at all?”

“Because he is very much afraid that you would get hurt. We’ve been with you and saw you. Even if you can’t voice it, we know that you are in a dark place and we tried to be there for you. Yes, you did a whole lot of things and saved us plentiful times. But the one person you never cared to heal or save was yourself.” Olette’s words weighed heavily on his shoulder and feeling uncomfortable, Sora put his hand against his chest just to feel his own heart. He felt that heavy baggage he had been shouldering ready to burst and started understanding just what was going on. The girl leaned closer and patted him on the arm “You are strong Sora, probably the strongest one of them. But even you have to take a break sometimes or your experiences, your own suppressed feelings will crush you. Sometimes, choosing to stay away is the hardest.”

Sora’s agitated movement came to a still. His shoulders sank his eyes fell and he let out a resigned sigh. She’s right. He thought to himself. Even if I don’t want to accept it, each and every adventure became more and more tiring. I often wondered if Kairi was injured because of me, because I was too tired or not prepared enough to protect her; if finding Riku or Mickey was this difficult only because I was too burdened to pick up the clues.

“Ever since we came back from Insomnia I feel like I do not belong” Sora admitted and looked at the water. “Had Riku not come after me, I would’ve died there, alone.”

“But he did” Olette said cheerfully. “No use pondering and crying over that now. He went after you because you are important to him. And he knows he can count on you to do the same for him. So don’t feel guilty about any of this.”

Sora gave an unsure nod. There was a real whirlwind of thoughts and feelings inside him, a real storm he wasn’t ready to face or weather just yet. “When are they leaving?” Sora asked suddenly, looking up at Olette.

“Real soon” she replied. “So if you want to talk with Riku and Kairi, you should do it soon!”

“I will. Thanks.”

Olette patted the boy on the hand again then hopped off the rock and dusted off her clothes. “I’m going to find Hayner and Pence! We’re taking a trip to the mainland soon. See you later?”

“Yeah” he nodded and waved her goodbye as she hurried off. Sora watched her leave and thought about joining the trio later the day but he quickly came to the obvious answer that he’d pass. He didn’t feel like going anywhere. Joining the fight along with his friends was different, because at least that could’ve kept his mind occupied. But wandering around town was far from relaxing for him. I’ll have time to contemplate about my misery. He had quite a lot to say to both, but he didn’t want to cumber them with all that. No, it would have to wait. Still, seeing them off properly was important.

Isa and Lea were at the pier preparing to leave, but the rest were nowhere to be found. “Kairi and Riku are at home, getting ready” Lea said as he saw Sora approaching them. “Xion and Roxas are back to Twilight Town already, so I guess you missed them.”

Sora looked at the last rowing boat waiting for him and saw his friends almost halfway to the mainland in the distance. He took a few steps towards the water, but stopped in his track. “Lea.” He looked at the red-haired man, who gave him a curious look. “Please look after them” Sora said.

“Obviously” he nodded with a smartass grin. “I’ll bring them all back in piece. Promise!” Isa shook his head with a knowing smile behind Lea and Sora saw it. He couldn’t help but flash a smile as well and continued his way to the boat.

By the time he came upon the shore of the mainland Kairi and Riku were back, fully dressed and prepared to leave. “Sora…” Kairi whispered quietly. It was a unique scenario and though he wasn’t fully ready to face it, he had to. Sora looked at the two of them and felt a sense of longing. He really didn’t want to be left behind.

“Once this is over, we’ll go on a journey. The three of us, together” Riku declared preemptively, offering an apologetic smile to the boy. “How’s that sound?”

“I could live with that” Sora nodded, trying to look cheerful, but his smile just wasn’t real and faltered all too quickly. “Will you two be alright?”

“We’ll manage” Riku replied. “Kairi will take care of us both”

“You can count on me!” she winked and patted Riku on the back.

Sora nodded. He watched the two of them exchanging a look, nodding, and Kairi opening a portal with her Keyblade. Her talents never seized to amaze Sora; and now, seeing how she was their equal with that legendary weapon, he felt lagging behind. Like so many times. But still, those two were there for him, always.

“Wait!” he burst out suddenly, stopping Riku from passing through the portal. Riku turned towards him, surprised but Sora hesitated. Startled by his own spontaneity, he tried thinking of something, anything that was proper to do but not too much. There was a memory, tucked neatly away in the back of his mind; something that happened with him as well. As he was trying to recall it, his eyes fell on Kairi who gazed back at him. “It’s my lucky charm. Be sure to bring it back to me” the young girl’s voice echoed in his mind. With shaking hands he reached for his necklace as he stepped closer to the other boy and pulled it off. Sora reached out, offering his favorite piece of accessory to the boy. “Take it.”

“Sora, I can—“

“Please” he looked in his eyes. “I got this from the two of you as a present and I have worn it every day ever since. Take it and bring it back.”

Riku stared at him for a few seconds and accepted the charm. “We’ll bring it back together. See you later.”

And with that, Riku stepped through the portal. Sora looked after him then back at Kairi who stepped closer and gave him a hug suddenly. “Don’t worry. We’ll be alright.”

“I know” Sora said, fighting back his tears because once again they were torn apart and for the umpteenth time. “I know. I just want this to be over. For the longest time I had enjoyed all the adventures, all the fights. But I’ve seen where it leads and I don’t want to lose you two. Not ever again.”

“This is the last time” Kairi promised. “Once we are through with the Foretellers, we’ll go away together and rest, alright?”

“Right” Sora agreed and offered her a weak smile. “Take care of each other.”

“We will. See you later!”

Kairi followed Riku through the portal and it closed promptly behind her. Sora sighed with a heavy heart and turned towards their favorite piece of land not far from the coast. The winds began to pick up and the horizon was slowly engulfed by a mass of dark clouds. Guess I should pull the boats out Sora figured.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Kairi stepped out of the portal onto the court of Radiant Garden’s castle. She exchanged a look with Riku who was already wearing the little necklace Sora gave him. Kairi couldn’t withhold a smile seeing the necklace. It wasn’t her place to say anything, but this sight gave her a bit of relief.

“Long time no see” someone welcomed the duo. Kairi stared at the stairs leading to the castle and saw a four people descending. Lauriam, Elrena, Myed, and Ludor seemed like a cheerful little crowd. Kairi was glad to see the pink-haired man back to his original, theatrical self. “Who would’ve thought we’d be working alongside each other again?”

“Oh I was quite sure that this unfortunate scenario would repeat itself sooner or later” Elrena rolled her eyes in dismay. “And of course the hero of heroes is here as well. Where is the brown-haired runt?”

“His name is Sora and he sitting this one out” Kairi replied. “Maybe you should too. I see you haven’t regained your temper” she added with a smirk.

“Never had one to begin with” Myed joined in carefully, earning a damning gaze from the blonde.

“I just hope our luck hasn’t run out yet” Ludor said, in his own distinctive fashion which was equally directed at everyone and no one at the same time. He was gambling with a handful of dices. “The more one bets on the same outcome, the more one is deemed to lose.”

“Well if we lose this time, it’s all gone” Riku replied, watching the man. “The Foretellers are the lesser of two evils. Their leader… Brain or whatever he’s called is the true villain here.”

“We know that quite well thank you very much” Elrena noted sarcastically. “And unlike you we actually fought them head on without being killed.”

“You also got yourself turned into a Nobody” Kairi replied. “Not to mention Sora single handedly defeated all of you. So I wouldn’t act that proudly.”

“Watch your—“

“Elrena, please” Lauriam looked at her pleadingly. “Could we, just for once, not kill each other?” The woman bridled and turned away, arms folded, sounding her dissatisfaction with the group. Lauriam sighed and shrugged his shoulders, while the others chuckled quietly. Kairi was happy to see the Dandelions back to normal – more or less – and could only hope that Aqua and Terra would be similar in this sense, though she understood that this was wishful thinking at best.

Xion, Roxas, Lea, and Isa arrived a couple of hours after Riku and Kairi, and joined the group within the castle’s newly established meeting chamber. It was an unused tower, one of the highest of the building, and was used in the times of old as an outlook. It had been abandoned for some time so Ansem had it renovated and refurbished for a new purpose. It became the temporal quarters for Yen Sid and the meeting chamber for the Guardians of the Light.

Yen Sid sat in his tall armchair behind a thick, rugged wooden desk looking out through the window. Mickey was standing by his chair looking outside as well. The two of them were speaking in a hushed voice. The Dandelions were sitting around a small coffee table, playing cards silently, occasionally grunting painfully or spitting curses towards someone who played a good hand. Riku was leaning against the wall, reading an old tome about the Age of Fairytales, a story Kairi was far too familiar with thanks to her grandmother. It was a tale that became more and more distorted as the years and ages flew past. By the time it reached Kairi, almost nothing of the truth remained. It became an empty, hollow story far simpler than the ugly truth was.

When the door opened and the four from Twilight Town marched in everyone grunted “finally” almost at the same time. “Sorry for being late” Lea apologized. “Had to run a few extra rounds to get everyone aboard.”

“Everyone?” Kairi looked at him, half excited.

“They are down below” Isa said. “They will be here in a few minutes. Ansem and Leon are joining the meeting as well.”

“Good” Yen Sid nodded. “This doesn’t only affect us, but every world out there.”

Kairi waved at Xion and Roxas who joined her and Riku in a distant corner. “Did you get to see Aqua and Terra?” she asked in a low voice, receiving a nod from the two. “And? How are they?”

“They were quiet” Roxas said. “It was hard to read them. They were somber but I guess that is to be expected from them.”

“I still can’t believe what happened to Ven,” Xion shook her head.

“We cannot hope to win constantly” Riku sighed and looked over to the others. “The more connections we make, the more people we can lose.”

“Well we better not lose you or Sora will bash us into the ground” Roxas said with a cheeky grin.

“Same goes for you” Kairi winked. “You better not make Xion mad at you for losing a fight!” she said, making Roxas and Xion both blush.

Before more shots could’ve been fired, the door opened up once more and the next envoy arrived. Terra, Aqua, Ansem, and Leon entered the room. Kairi glanced at the Keyblade wielders and found that she could easily read them. Their fierce movement, their strong gaze told tales of their lust for this battle. However their clothes were creased, they had dark circles under their eyes and their wrinkles aged quite a bit. Terra already had some white tufts scattered throughout his unruly hair and seemed to be less bothered with keeping his chin hairless. Aqua beside him seemed tired and lost in thoughts, her previously delicately worn clothes now hung on her powerlessly. She earned quite a few new scars, probably due to the extensive training they were rumored to be doing. They both seemed as if they had aged a few years under just about a month. Ansem or Leon didn’t seem to change much during the last month, though Leon had changed off his regular clothes for a more uniformed one – black military officer garment with shoulder pauldron and golden lining – which Kairi had seen on other members of his gang. They were now apparently called SeeD, and became an official branch of the Radiant Garden military.

“There are plenty of people here” Ansem noted, looking at each and every one of them. “It reassures me to see so many young and capable people ready to protect the Realm of Light.”

“We fight, because we must. Not because we want to” Lauriam noted dully.

Ansem nodded, accepting his reasons and turned towards Yen Sid. The aged sorcerer hovered his hand above his thick tome which turned pages quickly and stopped where both pages depicted various smaller pictures. With an incantation these artworks floated off the paper and floated onto the ceiling where they became three-four times as large. Kairi watched with eyes widened and mouth hanging open. It was magic she had never seen before.

“What I tell you now” Yen Sid began, “is the result of hours and hours worth of tireless research, thorough investigation, and careful deduction. I cannot say for sure that what you will hear is the one and complete truth, but I do hope that our hard work has brought us closer to reality.”

“Man, I hope so too” Lea nodded. “All that library thrashing we’ve done. Never again.”

“I thought you hated the icky jobs,” Isa noted with a grin.

“I’d rather go back doing that.”

The two went silent and Yen Sid continued. The first of the artworks started moving, turning into a motion picture. “It all started back in an era of Equilibrium where the forces of good and the forces of evil battled” meanwhile the picture depicted two moons – one of light and one of dark – with armies beneath them clashing upon the battlefield. “Light, as we know, had prevailed in the end thanks to Kingdom Hearts.” The white moon turned into the shape of a heart and grew larger along with the army beneath it, enveloping the forces of Darkness. “The war came to an end as powerful warriors emerged wielding key-shaped swords and locked away the lands of darkness using these weapons. Thus the one realm was separated into two halves.”

“Is this going anywhere?” Terra asked quietly, seeming less interested in the story and more in the actual battle.

“It does” Yen Sid nodded and with the snap of his finger the second picture started moving. “Not all served the Light during these ages, yet not all servants of the Darkness were severed from the Realm of Light. Some remained,” The artwork showed the land being cut in half with several evil remaining on the side of the Light instead of the side of the Dark. “They were few and scattered and many of them went on with their lives. Not all, though” One of the figures became larger and larger and the shape of this character became more refined. It depicted a hooded man in a black coat.

“Our enemy” Yen Sid continued, “is a man who calls himself the Master of Masters. He was once a servant of the Darkness and remained so even after the separation. But what could be his plans?” the picture showed the man moving from town to town, finding small figures – children – who started following him. “He amassed an army of children and placed them within a town of his own making, Daybreak Town. He separated them and had them gather Lux while he carried out mysterious research.”

“And he had these children slaughter each other in the end” Lauriam interrupted, making everyone go silent. The picture meanwhile depicted the Keyblade War of the Unions; people wearing the masks of their respective groups clashed with each other beneath Kingdom Hearts. “And when it was over, he used the survivors for his own greedy desires. We all know this story, old man!”

“Watch your mouth” Riku said suddenly.

“He’s right, though” Roxas said, shrugging. “What good does it do to go through this again?”

“Maybe wait until the end and you’ll see?” Xion whispered, trying to hush Roxas.

“No, this is quite enough!” Terra said. “We don’t need to know who that madman is or what his goals are. As long as he is alive we are not safe. The only thing that matters is that we strike first and strike hard.”

“Contain you anger,” Isa warned Terra. “The Darkness is a slippery slope, you do know that.”

“You should really just stay out of this,” Lea nudged his friend.

“Listen to Lea,” Terra retorted. “This isn’t even your fight to begin with.”

“Now that’s a bit too far,” Lea turned towards Terra, but Aqua stepped in front of him to protect him. Slowly more and more people joined in the argument and in a matter of seconds it turned into a large squabble. Kairi watched everyone around her getting into the heated debate and felt the anger surging through her. Is this it? Did we really fall this low?

“ENOUGH!” Kairi yelled, ending the verbal war between the people in the room. Everyone looked at her perplexed and she stared back at each of them. “We are on the verge of collapsing without even fighting them!” she added. “We all suffered loss by their hands; arguably some more than others. But we all carry these scars on our body, in our heart. United, we have a chance against them. If we break apart now, there will be more casualties and we will lose.”

“You are right,” Aqua nodded, sighing painfully. Kairi saw the sadness seeped into her core. She wasn’t the same before and she could understand it completely. Had it been Sora or Riku… don’t think like this. Not now! “Master” Aqua turned back towards Yen Sid. “We apologize. Please, continue.”

The elderly teacher nodded and looked up at the last picture. “What is the Master of Masters plan?” Yen Sid voiced everyone’s question. “Had he truly controlled the threads from beyond the Realm of Light, he must have a different endgame than Master Xehanort had, for he too was expandable,” he became quiet and looked at everyone, taking it slowly, person by person. “He recovered a unique and powerful Keyblade from the edges of death; one that severs all ties. I am afraid he does not wish to corrupt Kingdom Hearts or use it as a weapon. He merely wishes to sever its connections to the Worlds.”

“What would he achieve from such task?” Ansem looked at Yen Sid questioningly.

“I do not know,” Yen Sid shook his head. “Unfortunately, even our knowledge is limited. But if he were to sever the Worlds’ tie with Kingdom Hearts…”

“We wouldn’t be able to use Keyblades any longer,” Riku said.  “It would become worse than the Realm of Darkness, because connection between the two realms exist. But without this connection…”

Yen Sid nodded. “That is why you must stop him at once.”

“So where is this man?” Leon asked.

“He is recuperating,” Mickey said. “We tracked him down to the Keyblade Graveyard.”

“So what. We’re sending in a hit squad to take him out?” Lea looked at the others. “Think we can get close enough?”

“As far as we know he is already alone,” Yen Sid replied. “His lackeys have left for regions unknown.”

“And you think he’s still alone?” Riku queried.

“I smell a trap,” Elrena noted, looking at Lauriam. “I don’t trust this plan, not a bit.”

“You’re right, it does sound like one,” the pink-haired man agreed “but it will never be easier, only harder,” he added. Lauriam turned away from Elrena and looked at the others. “This really might be our best shot. And if it turns out to be a trap, we can still overpower them. We have the numbers and we know of their capabilities. We can win.”

“In the meantime, we need to reinforce our defenses,” Leon said, looking at Ansem. “If the Foretellers are away, who knows where they’ll pop up?”

“Agree. Let us head down and consult with the others,” Ansem nodded in agreement and followed the man out of the room. Yen Sid began opening a portal for the large group and as the vision of the Keyblade Graveyard appeared, one by one the Keyblade Wielders started crossing the tunnel. Isa went straight towards the portal, but Lea grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

The others noticed that what was about to come was not for them to hear and hastened through. Kairi headed towards the portal as well but before she could cross it part of the argument between the two men reached her.

“I don’t want you to come with us,” Lea said in a low, guilty voice.

“What do you mean? Because I’m not a Keyblade wielder?”

“Because I don’t wa—“ that was all that she heard before leaping through and she honestly didn’t want to hear the rest. She carried enough baggage leaving Sora behind to know it was a difficult and somber conversation between them. Her mind lingered on the boy for a couple of more seconds. I hope he’s alright. I know how frustrating it is to stay behind, to watch as the others go and fight while you can’t do anything. It is the worst feeling in the world. She too had her own fill of that experience. Watching Sora, Riku, or the two of them leave somewhere without her. And it was unbearable. Waiting for them to return, being anxious about their wellbeing.

It took a couple of minutes for Lea to get through. By the looks of him, it wasn’t easy to persuade Isa but since the gate closed right after him, he managed to talk him out of it. He looked red but whether it was anger or sorrow Kairi could not tell. Roxas and Xion joined the man by the two sides, trying to crack a couple of jokes but Lea was pretty preoccupied in the head to pay any attention.

“Alright, let’s take care of him!” Lauriam said and looked at the group. “This is going to be one hell of a fight! But we will take him out one way or the other.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Ludor warned the group. “He’s a hell of gambler. And a pretty lucky one at that.”

Everyone nodded silently and the group made their way through the badlands. They weren’t heading towards the graveyard, but the opposite direction towards the canyon. Everyone walked quietly, getting ready for the fight in their head. Some already summoned forth their weapons, the others still waited with that. Kairi herself conjured her weapon just to get used to its weight and to swing it a couple of times. She practiced daily with either Sora or Riku, but was still quite nervous, though this time she had every right to be.

The distant dust storm sent waves of lukewarm wind against them, carrying sand and dust and scattering it, chafing and irritating their skin. It also lowered the visibility and filled the air with a dusty scent, which made some of them cough everyone now and then. Kairi hated being there, especially since it invoked some pretty nasty memories. She could almost feel the scar on her back aching.

Mickey led the group towards a cave with a large mouth and even from afar the cracking flames of the campfire were visible. It was quite unsurprising, when suddenly a man emerged from the cave. Kairi knew it was him. He looked just like Riku and Sora described him. He held no weapon in his hand but wore a reassured smile on his face as he looked at the group.

“Well, nice meeting you all finally, though obviously I’ve known some of you from before. Little Ludor, your magic worked splendidly! Kudos to you and to your master… oh wait, that’s me! And Riku is here, of course, where else. I secretly hoped you and Sora would stay behind, but… can’t blame you for wanting to leave. Hope you took a big nap. I sure did!”

“Enough with the chatter!” Terra barked angrily, taking a step towards him and activating his armor. “You—“

“You are Terra, right?” he asked, tilting his head to the right. “Still in a hurry to hell? Don’t worry, you won’t find your little pal there.” His words hit them like a truck: Terra was stunned, his breathing becoming unstable; Aqua groaned painfully by the invoked memories; Lauriam pressing his teeth together to avoid cursing and yelling. Kairi stood there, completely dazed by the sudden declaration. Could it have been real or was it a lie? “I see you are all surprised. I wonder why, though” he smirked. “He is an important friend and student to me. Now why would I let him be harmed or anything like that.”

“That’s a lie!” Roxas yelled angrily. “Don’t listen to him, he’s playing you all!”

“No, he isn’t,” Ludor shook his head. He seemed somber and distraught, but more in the present than most of the group. “Master, why are you doing this?” he asked, looking at the man.

“I thought you would know,” the Master of Masters replied. “Would it change your loyalties if I told you?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“I agree” he nodded and folded his arms. “So let’s not waste precious time on lamenting about these things. You are here to kill me, and I am here to easily put you aside so you can’t get in my way.”

“So it really was a trap?” Kairi asked.

“Heh. Call it what you wish. This game ends before it even starts” the Master said and finally summoned forth his weapon.

“You really think you can take us on by yourself?” Lauriam asked, looking around just to make sure he really was alone.

“No” the Master said and snapped his finger. Suddenly, seven gates around them opened at the same time and one by one the Foretellers and their sorceress ally stepped through surrounding them.  They were all dressed in the ceremonial robes complete with a fresh set of masks save for Ultimecia who wore her usual garments. Kairi saw a small figure wearing a lion mask and a bright brown shaded cloak. Ventus?

“But you knew all too well that this would happen. I mean, I think you’re not stupid enough to think I’d hide myself so badly without any backup plans.” The Master continued, gesturing wildly and playing with them.

“We were prepared for this, don’t worry,” Lea retorted. “We can still take you on!”

“I don’t think so. You see, they are not here to fight. They are here to assist me.”

The Master nodded and the seven around them used their power to activate the magical circle. Kairi looked down and saw the lines flaring up beneath them. It only took them a few seconds to realize how big of a trouble they were in. “You can’t do this!” Lauriam yelled frantically. “This is incomplete! What are you—?”

“I know it is incomplete,” the Master laughed. “You see, I left behind the clues for you all along. That spell you have created along with the rest, thousands of years before, that was one I prepared for you all. It took me a long time to figure out how to make specific groups of people end up in very specific places, but as we can see I managed just fine.”

“Get off the circle! NOW!” Lauriam yelled and at once everyone ran towards the closest edge, but suddenly from the skies above fireballs, thunderbolts, and frozen spikes rained down upon them. Kairi dashed backwards, barely avoiding a full contact with a large fireball and looked up. High in sky, several witches darkened the heavens, sending magical attacks at them without mercy.

“I should thank you for coming here in such a large number,” the Master of Masters said. “You have exceeded my expectations. Would’ve been even better had the brown-haired kiddo came along, but don’t worry. I will send a whole envoy just for him.”

“I won’t let you touch him!” Riku barked and charged towards the Master of Masters without anymore regard to the attacks and the magical circle. The Master just stood there and grinned wickedly and even raised a hand to bid him farewell. “May your heart be your guiding key, children.”

The next moment the magical circle flashed with a blinding light and Kairi felt every particle in her body explode. From one second to another furious heat washed over her face, setting her very soul on fire. She, alongside Lauriam, Elrena, Myed, Ludor, Terra, Aqua, Roxas, Lea, Xion, Riku, and Mickey were engulfed by the Light emanating from the circle, and by the time it died out, nothing of the group remained, not even a speck of dust. “Well… that was fun,” the Master of Masters said and looked at the Foretellers. “Now go and get me that boy. And burn that garden to the ground while you’re at it.”

Chapter Text

On the brim of the world right above the gaping maw of the Darkness, a throne lay dormant shaped from fresh carcasses and ancient bones. It was a terrible sight to behold: like a pile of dead remains thrown lazily atop each other, but also like a frighteningly magnificent hallow to a mean deity with ceaseless hunger. Blood trickled out from a dozen of bodies, joining into one large red pool at the front and continuing to stream down towards him at the feet of the blackened meadow. And the smell, that odor of a thousand painful deaths mixing into one ornate stench, like all the evils that reek the world but at the same time. And he was sitting on top of that chair. Looking down with mighty, cat-like eyes and grinning like the Cheshire Cat from Wonderland. He saw through everything, he knew everything. And above him, on the pale milky sky a shattered, broken husk of Kingdom Hearts was fading away slowly. It was his Eve, the birth of a new age and the indivertible fall of another.

But that wasn’t everything. As dry as his throat was, he could – by a miracle – still scream in agony as he lay his eyes on the dead husks once more and found the familiar pink locks of a man he hated. From between the cracks of the man’s broken skeleton a single decayed rose stood out. Another body, hanging lifelessly was a woman’s. Her blue hair turned ashen, her once peaceful face savage and violent, as her death was, and her blind eyes staring into nothingness vowing revenge.

He couldn’t take it anymore. Still, he had to watch; he had to recognize. He had to find him. Even if the very sight of the unholy throne burned his eyes, even if the very proximity made his skin crawl, he had to force himself upon the burial mound. Lea…

Isa woke from the restless dream, panting and sweating. The nightmare gave him goosebumps and a surge of adrenalin. His eyes jumped from one corner to another, looking for potential danger but there was nothing; he was alone. Damn it… He laid back on the bed and released the final draw of breath he was withholding. What sort of nightmare was that?! He wasn’t one to have dreams like those but the years had put their mark on him. He reached out with his hand to wipe off the sweat and felt the cold metal brush against his skin harder than he intended.

Tch…

It was difficult, getting used to a prosthetic arm. He occasionally felt a surge of pain where his hand used to be; a phantom pain, that’s how Ansem the Wise called it. As if he hadn’t felt miserable enough without that type of reminder.

“I can’t sleep” he said, staring at the ceiling after minutes of silent contemplation. The dream was so vivid and the awakening was so sudden that all tiredness was swept out of him. It would take some time before he could sink back and he wasn’t prepared to lie still until it’d happen. Instead he rose from his bed, put on a sleeveless shirt, and opened his door as softly as possible. The corridors of the castle were quiet and still at that hour but not void of soldiers. Not that he had to sneak around; he was a guest and was allowed to roam around freely. Still, he didn’t want to raise any suspicions.

The castle gardens were serene all around the day but they were most beautiful in the moonlight beneath the starlit sky. The wind played with the leaves, shaking them every now and then to silence the insects’ orchestra. They were the musicians of the night, though the noises of the late-night tavern life reached across the city as well, mixing not too well with the music of nature. Isa did not suspect to find anyone out there at that late and yet Naminé sat on a small stone bench, drawing almost motionlessly.

“Can’t sleep?” she asked without looking up from her sketchbook. Her hands moved swiftly and fluidly. Isa didn’t reply immediately. He strayed closer and looked down at the book, inspecting the drawing. It was quite breathtaking; the perfect copy of the garden from where she sat. Only, there were people on her drawing: happy boys and girls, men and women. Isa didn’t recognize any of them.

“Who are they?” he inquired after a while.

“Lost stars” Naminé replied quietly. “They are people who think are alone and forgotten, even though they are sorely missed by others.”

“And where are they?”

Naminé looked up at Isa. She looked infinitely sad for a glimpse of a second, but quickly brushed it off with a smile. “They are waiting.”

The man nodded soundlessly and slipped beside the girl, taking the other half of the bench. They sat there for a while, Naminé drawing in peace and Isa watching her like some stone guardian. His heart slowly calmed and his mind boxed the images of the dream away. Still, the thought haunted him: What if it would become true? What if—

“So, missing the others?” Naminé asked once more, giving a side-look, a knowing one.

Isa nodded. “I do. And I miss the chance to bash in their skulls” he added without any hints of joking. “That one-eyed bastard made my friends go through hell and back. The least I can do is to choke the life out of him.”

“I can totally see you doing that” Naminé chuckled. “Maybe I’ll paint it for you.”

“I’ll hang it on my front door so people will know not to cross me” Isa agreed, offering her a smile.

“You’d scare the others away as well: Roxas, Xion, and Lea” Naminé winked.

“I doubt I could do anything to scare off those three” Isa sighed and combed through his long blue hair with his prosthetic arm. “Well Lea at least. He was always there for me, even at my worst.” The man’s thoughts trailed away and down memory lane. He recalled their introduction, their first games and adventures, and their fated meeting with Skuld. Yes, Lea was there for him always and frankly he could not imagine life anyway else but beside him till the end. “It was we against the world for the longest of times” Isa noted “but I’m eternally grateful for those two: Xion and Roxas. They were there for him even when I was cracking beneath the weight of my own stupidity and saved us both from these mistakes.”

“You really love them all, do you?”

Isa nodded with a content smile. He did, even if he never was going to acknowledge that fact before them. Not that he had to; they were smart enough on their own to know.

Naminé continued her work and Isa pondered a while longer about what would await them in the future. He hoped to greet Skuld soon but also to reunite with Lea, Roxas, and Xion as well. Deep down he wished to go and see the world together with all of them and to leave all those misery filled moments behind once and for all.

But before that… He looked up at the sky, knowing all too well that the fight against the Master of Masters and his Foretellers would not end after just one battle. It would’ve been far too convenient after all they had been through.

“Look!” Naminé pointed at the sky and Isa followed her finger’s trail. A crack? It seemed curious, like a small crack on a wall, only it was one in the middle of the sky. It was quite out of place but suddenly Isa had a bad feeling about it. A few seconds later the wind picked up again and suddenly, Isa’s instincts kicked in. He stood up and tried to shield Naminé with his body. He heard a loud noise, like the breaking of thick ice-floe, and at the same time the rift in the middle of the heavens became quite a chunk larger.

“They broke through our seals!” Naminé turned pale, staring at the sky. The protective wards of Radiant Garden!? Isa looked at her utterly dumbfounded by the news then gazed back up at the sky and saw an enormous creature breaking through. The monster was like a bulky brown skinned and red furred werewolf with huge spiky horns and a golden bracelet around his left wrist. He breathed fire, and threw large orbs of flames towards all directions. He was followed by a giant of a woman with skin that resembled the sky and thick locks of sea-blue hair. She wore little cloth around her and breathed freezing air onto the sky.

“We have to get out of here!” Naminé said. “Quickly, inside the castle! Hurry!”

They began to run and around them the bells and horns of alarm were sounded rallying the city of Radiant Garden. As they entered the castle through the side door Isa could already see a group of soldiers marching towards the front gates, halberds and lances in their hand. Aeleus and Dilan were barking orders above them.

“You two!” Dilan pointed at them. “What is going on outside?”

“The Coven is here” answered Merlin instead of them. The aged wizard appeared out of thin air in the middle of the room, with wand in hand. He looked less like the jolly elderly fellow and more like a battle-hardened wizard who just came from a warzone. “We’ve little time to evacuate, so let’s not waste any time!”

“Evacuate?” Dilan looked at him disbelievingly. “Why would we evacuate? We can handle—“

“He is right I’m afraid” Ansem interrupted, entering the hall with Even and Ienzo in his heels. He looked old and tired, probably leapt out of his bed moments ago. “We are in grave danger, Dilan. Our first priority is slowing them down so the others may escape.”

“What is going on, master?” Ienzo asked, paled by the distress of the night. He was wearing pajamas under his white cloak.

“Now is not the time to discuss matters” Ansem replied promptly and turned towards Isa. “We need all the help we can get, little Isa. Could you help us out?” The man nodded and turned towards the door. He didn’t even realize that the quiet of the night turned into a more terrifying music outside. He heard the sounds of battles from the distance even through the crowd and the walls of the castle. “Dilan, Aeleus! Operation Balamb is now in order!”

“Sir!” the two captains yelled in unison and turned to their respective men to give them their orders. Isa joined a small unit and left the castle through the front gates along their side. Outside, the battle was becoming quite fierce between the protectors of Radiant Garden and the Coven: unmanned spells crossed the sky exploding left and right, the earth quaked beneath their feet, and fire reigned down upon them from the heavens. Leon and Cloud were standing on top of a large building in the distance facing the leader of the Coven and her personal guardian, a dark-blue furred creature with long silver mane, large wings, five red horns and large red blades stretching from its elbows. Cloud engaged the monster single handedly and disappeared with it within the smoke and fire around them. Leon too charged towards the witch but Isa couldn’t see the rest as an explosion of closer proximity shrouded the whole battlefield in a thick smoke.

“Move out!” someone yelled near Isa and the soldiers marched on at once. He followed the rest down to the square and saw the horror of the battle up close. The larger monsters were their trump-cards, but not their only soldiers. Small beings, similar to the heartless but not the same were besieging the soldiers all around. On their chest they wore a completely new symbol which seemed to be an orb with three heart-shapes emerging from it in different directions.

“ISA!” The blue-haired man turned and saw Dilan running towards him with a claymore in his hand. “Here. You’ll need this.” He looked at Dilan then down at the weapon which was awfully familiar but different at the same time. He accepted it and felt its weight; the sword had a good balance and was kept in good shape. “Careful around these. They are very strong. Much nastier than any heartless I’ve ever seen.”

“Thanks for the tip” he replied and slashed the air a couple of times.

Dilan and his soldiers joined the battle and Isa didn’t fall behind either. He quickly descended on the battleground and bashed in the skull of the very first creature with the unique symbol. It was small, similar to a Shadow Heartless, but looked less goofy and more frightening with a pitch-black aura emanating from it. It reeked of Darkness, but another kind which Isa had never felt before. Another one jumped towards him but he evaded the attack and slashed it across its chest. One after another Isa destroyed them slowly advancing towards the middle of the square where something large was fighting the men. It was another creature, a dark furred unicorn with white mane and a thick lightning-shaped horn. The beast rose to its hind feet and kicked the air violently, summoning thunderbolts. The soldiers charged towards the creature but many of them were annihilated by its magical attack even before they could’ve gotten close enough to attack.

Isa avoided another one of the smaller creatures and decapitated it. Dilan, who wasn’t too far from him charged the unicorn with his troops and even managed to avoid the lightning bolts, but the beast turned away from him and using the hind legs kicked him in the chest. Dilan flew across the battlefield and landed near Isa. He felt blood rushing to his head. He knelt down, reached for Dilan’s lost weapon, and allowed frenzy to take over. The moon’s light empowered him further and he felt his power growing considerably but also his bloodlust rising. The large unicorn felt his presence and turned its attention towards Isa who was now prepared to take him on. Both of them stared at the other, heaving wildly and preparing for the inevitable clash. And at the same time, both charged towards one another. The great beast stabbed with its horn but Isa made a quick sidestep, raised his claymore and Dilan’s lance and slashed down with a horrifying yell. The impact of the attack caused a smaller explosion, sending bodies and debris flying. The beast collapsed onto the ground, though it was only stunned by the impact as there were no damages to its body. The weapons in Isa’s hand were broken and now useless. Isa dropped them and backed off, shaking a bit himself. Aeleus and his soldiers reached him within seconds to finish the job but the beast had reinforcements as well. New monsters emerged in many forms and shapes. They were assisted by the Coven’s witches who had finally arrived as well. The black-winged witch at the front walked with such casual confidence that made Isa nervous. Her guardian floated behind her.

“We’ve come to take back what is ours” said the head of the witches. “What is mine” she declared assertively and with the snap of her finger set the castle itself ablaze. “Come out and face me!”

“Retreat!” Aeleus exclaimed finally, signaling his men to return to the castle. He himself hurried towards Isa and Dilan. “Help me” he said and grabbed Dilan. Isa helped wordlessly and the three of them hurried back to the castle. They were followed by a sea of monsters and not even the gates could stop them from entering the courtyard. They hurried up until the gates of the castle which were tightly shut. The last soldiers lined up in front of it, armed and prepared to fight until the end.

Aeleus gave Dilan over to the medical unit and returned to the frontline. Isa himself quickly searched for a weapon, but before he could’ve picked up anything someone cast a binding spell on him which completely stunned and made him trip over. He watched from the ground as the gates of the castle opened up and Ansem, Merlin, and Yen Sid stepped out of the building. The three of them walked side by side. Merlin and Yen Sid quickly cast a protective spell around them and pulled their allies into this protected area. Isa too was lifted from the ground and carried to the other side of the barrier where the binding magic no longer had any effect on him.

“Ultimecia” Ansem greeted her with a grave voice. “The era of your reign had ended long ago!”

“Yet here I am” she nodded and tilted her head. “As was promised to me.”

“Promised?”

“By Him” she nodded. “Foretold that the day of my return would arise and that I would bind the witches to my will! In exchange for that I…—“ while Ultimecia was busy giving her uninspired tale Isa looked at the witches and realized how plain and vacant their faces were. None of them were in control of their actions; they were all manipulated. Isa looked at the trio and they too seemed to be fully aware of the situation. Ansem looked back at him and lent him a reassuring smile, though Isa couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by anxiety. The situation was completely out of their hands.

“You need to leave now” Yen Sid noted, looking at Isa. “The others in the castle are ready to leave as well. You are crucial in this battle ahead of us so we cannot allow ourselves to lose you.

“But what are we supposed to do?”

“A gate has been opened!” Ansem proclaimed. “On the other side you will find shelter and allies! We will keep them at bay for as long as we can” he added and nodded towards the witches.

“Damn this whole thing!” Isa spat angrily and shot a furious look at Ultimecia. “This ain’t over yet!”

Merlin waved with his wand and an invisible force pushed Isa and the remaining soldiers through the gates, shutting it tightly behind them. Isa fell on the cold marble floor and coughed painfully. He rose to his feet and tried to make out anything from the noises coming from the outside, but barely managed to understand any of it.

“We have to get out of here” Aeleus said while he helped Dilan to his feet. “Come on, we have to get to the chamber in the back.”

The blue-haired man nodded and took a step towards them, but froze as he realized something was missing. “In exchange for that I would aid him and deliver a vessel for him. The vessel he previously held but lost to the man with the x-shaped scar on his face. You stole something precious from the Master of Masters and I intend to get it back. Now where is she?” Skuld! His eyes widened and he quickly glanced around, trying to figure things out, gather his thoughts. I have to find her, and quickly!  If they get their hands on her I don’t know what will happen!

“Isa! Come on, we’ve got to hurry!” Aeleus spoke once more, losing his patience by the second. He looked up at the soldiers and suddenly realized what he had to do.

“Not yet” he replied, cooling himself down as best as he could. “You go on ahead and I’ll be right behind you. I need to find Skuld first. She’s one of their targets.”

“Don’t waste too much time” Aeleus nodded and threw him his axe. “They’ll break in any minute.”

Without further exchange of words Isa turned and ran straight towards the quarters, where Skuld was being kept. He climbed the stairs, stormed the foyers and kicked down the doors. Far behind him the main gates were breached and the creatures along with the large beasts raided the castle. Explosions shook the building and walls began to crumble. The earth quaked wildly and continuously.

Why the hell were you tucked away! Damn it!

Finally after a last corridor, Isa reached the door but before entering he turned and smashed in a small creature’s head with the axe Aeleus offered him. He kicked the door hard and entered the room.

Skuld was still within a tanker, resting as peacefully as ever. Isa hurried to the control panels and deactivated it, opening the locks. He was used to the controls as he himself worked with them for a brief time. The water was slowly drained but he didn’t spare any seconds waiting. He opened the glass and stood by as the lukewarm water tried to wash him away. “Come on” he said as he hastily lifted Skuld’s body from the tanker and placed it on the ground. “We have to get out of here” he said half to himself and half to Skuld. “Bear with me for a while. I won’t fail you.”

Before he could’ve picked her up again, the walls and the door exploded behind him. Isa crashed against the wall and crumbled. He hissed painfully and reached for his twisted ankle. In front of him where the walls used to stand the two great beasts – Shiva and Ifrit – stood, waiting patiently for the next orders. Just my luck… Skuld.

“You will not take her away this time” Ultimecia said as she descended into the Castle which’s walls were full of large holes by now. “The Master demands her and so he will have the girl.”

“Through my dead body witch!” Isa snarled. He grabbed a large chunk of debris and threw it towards her using his rage. Had Ifrit not caught it, the debris would’ve smashed her head, but the summoned beast was most protective of its mistress. The witch grinned cruelly and stepped closer. Skuld… I’m sorry I’ve…—

“STAY AWAY!” cried out a female voice beside Isa and the next second a Keyblade appeared out of nowhere. Before Ultimecia could’ve made her move, Skuld dashed forward and slashed towards her with a fierce yell. This time however Shiva’s ice wall protected the sorceress from certain death; yet it also bought Skuld just enough time to use her power. She looked at Isa and reached out for the man. “Hurry! Grab my hand!” she said and Isa did so without hesitation.

He could see from corner of his eye how the ice wall shattered and balls of fire, ice, and pure energy shoot out towards them. But he could also feel light engulfing his body and raising it towards the skies. And he saw it, Skuld’s smile: a brave, mischievous, but reassuring smile. And before all those magical attacks could’ve torn them apart, they both left the besieged World to who knows where.

 

Chapter Text

Ever since Insomnia, Sora could rarely find peace in his sleep. He often found himself back in the overwhelming city, surrounded by those dreamers, hunted by the Sandman himself, even though Yozora was killed by the Master of Masters. His nightmares were vivid: full of those bright colors and cold as the streets were. He could almost feel the chilling drops of water splashing against his skin, choking him with the smell of the dirty rainwater. But unlike in reality, there was no Riku in this dream. Only him, Sora was there; alone to face all the madness of the Sandman, alone to bear the weight of the crest burnt into his flesh.

Sora spent as little time sleeping as he possibly could. He sported thick dark circles beneath his eyes and his hair’s spikes were getting more and more depressed, curling downwards without power. He stayed up late, reading or gazing at pictures from their childhood; glorious days fallen far behind them, full of joy and laughter. He missed it with a heavy heart: both the countless hours-long warring with Riku and the never-ending nights they spent looking at the stars and talking about their dreams. If I could… I would say all these things to you he thought as he acknowledged his own hopelessness with a wry smile. I just hope you will come back and I will have the opportunity to chicken out yet again. You, and Kairi both. And everyone. Please be safe.

This evening started out just like the rest. He went back home to have dinner, then spent a little time hiding away in his room. Later, when he could bear it no longer, he opened the window and escaped the confinement of the small, suffocating bedroom to find peace at the distant island’s papou tree. It was their special place, from where they looked upon the endless ocean, where they dreamed of big adventures together.

When he landed on the shore of the lonely island he climbed out of the boat and kicked off his shoes. The seawater licked at his soles with its cold currents and the strong winds of an oncoming shower snapped at his clothes and spikes. It whistled softly above the crashing water, whispering tales brought from afar.

There and then, looking towards the endless sea line, Sora felt he had just returned to the most decisive moment of his brief life: the moment when the island was attacked and they were all scattered throughout the large-wide world. We’ve always ended up separated and divided, looking for or running away from one another he thought somewhat somberly and reached out as if he wanted to touch the wind. Will you all run from me if I go after you?

He shook his head briefly, trying to return from this dark, deep train of thought. He often fell back into this pit, gazing down at it more and more intently, losing his cheerful self slowly. He was quite aware of it and Kairi warned him that this might happen; after hearing about their journey through Insomnia, she tried her best to bring him back into the Light. But the grim reminder of those dark and lonely nights was etched into his skin cruelly.

Slowly, the hours crawled about and the stars lit up throughout the sky. Sora sat on the hunched tree and watched it uninterestedly, yawning every now and then but forcing himself awake. He knew that only the dreadful city would await him. How funny. I’m here, alive, doing the same thing as I did back there. My body is safe now but my heart…

Had the night remained peaceful and quiet, he would’ve fallen asleep sooner or later.

But everything changed when the night sky turned pale and a wide disc appeared high in the heavens. The gateway blew open and the powerful aura of pure magic engulfed the world beneath. It almost swept Sora away as well, but luckily the boy had just enough power in him to conjure a small barrier around him; he wasn’t a big master of magic even after being taught by both Yen Sid and Merlin, but he could muster this amount of magical forte to protect himself.

He gazed up and saw a black mass of monsters rain down upon Destiny Islands through the great gate. Similar to heartless, yet so different: they emanated a vile, cruel sort of darkness from themselves, wearing a new insignia Sora had never seen before.

Without a moment’s hesitation Sora conjured forth his Keyblade and struck down the first of the creatures. The moment Kingdom Key connected and the beast fell, darkness left the body like black ink, leaving behind the dead body of a small creature. Sora’s eyes widened in horror, realizing what evil trick it was; heartless were corrupted and darkened hearts. Defeating the heartless purified these hearts. But this new enemy… it wasn’t even an enemy, only a corrupted and manipulated creature sentenced to sure death! What sort of monster would do this!?

Lightning whipped through the sky above, exploding with a flash and leaving behind thunderous noise. Sora shook uncontrollably and felt his power leaving him. The memory of those he had to kill in Insomnia to empower his bracelet haunted him to this day.

More and more creatures made landing and started gathering around him but he couldn’t force himself to destroy any of them. Fleeing wasn’t an option either: they would sink his boat in a manner of seconds and drag him to the bottom of the sea. He had to fight to survive, but there and then, he couldn’t. Someone, a mean female barked her orders high above the island but Sora didn’t pay any attention to her. He contemplated how to survive without causing too much damage to those poor misguided creatures. Yet he could not think of any way to save both them and himself.

The creatures rushed towards Sora all at once in such large number that the boy wouldn’t have had a chance even if he wanted to protect himself. But the end wasn’t what awaited the brown-haired islander either.

Green flames erupted all around him, burning brightly but with a distinctive coldness. It smelled unlike fire and more like darkness. The creatures that were unlucky perished in the fire, while the rest withdrawn quickly. “You fool! Standing there like the imbecile you are; you wish to die?”

“Maleficent” Sora looked up with both surprise and distaste at the evil fairy, who descended from above riding a small black cloud. “Why are you here?”

She gave him the meanest and most condescending look one could’ve imagined. “My desire is to conquer all and yet I cannot accomplish it if those intruders are not stopped!” Sora was caught off guard by the witch’s explanation. He was quite certain that she was talking about the Master and the Foretellers; but it didn’t really add up. Why was she there and not with Riku and the others? “Well what are you waiting for, you brat?” she asked his a hiss and using her staff ignited the sand around them. “Use that Key of yours!”

“But where should I go? I don’t know where the others are…”

“You really are useless” the witch added and knocked her staff against the sand. The ground beneath them turned black and suddenly Sora felt like he was sinking. He looked down and realized that truly, he was being devoured by the black morass beneath him.

“What are you doing!? Maleficent!”

“Silence!” she thundered. “I’m sending you to a World where you may pull yourself together so we might stand a chance against this tide of evil. Now steel yourself you misguided fool because this journey you are about to partake will tear your soul apart!”

“Wait! Maleficent! WAIT!”

But no words reached the fairy’s ears and Sora soon found himself beneath the black puddle, amidst complete darkness. He felt a surge of negativity rushing his body, his heart, trying to claim it as their own. Every painful memory flashed before his eyes, every mean word or vile attempt against him and his friends replayed in his mind like a broken record. But he fought the urge to yell, to cry. He remembered the good and whispered every praise, every kind wish he remembered. It was a long – seemingly endless – battle between the good and the bad Sora had witnessed and experienced throughout his life. His life and very existence was shattered into bits and rebuilt from scratch, or so it felt. But even within the pitch black darkness, he was able to recall the voices of those most important to him. Riku… Kairi… Donald… Goofy… Mickey… and the others as well… his heart alone might’ve been weak; but those dear people surrounding him, loving him. They were his power as well, and together nothing could stop them.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Light… where does it come from?

Sora carefully opened his eyes and shielded them with his hands as the reddish light of the distant sun felt all too powerful to take in at once. With a painful groan he sat up and touched the thin layer of dust that covered the rocky ground. He pulled his hand closer to his nose to smell it but it was different from the dust in the Keyblade Graveyard. This felt… somewhat similar to something else, yet he couldn’t put his mind around it.

As his senses returned to him he began to hear music in the distance. It was a slow, relaxing tune coming from drums, strings and flutes filling him with both warmth and happy memories even though he had never heard the music before. As his vision came back properly and got used to the sunlight, a whole new world opened up before him. He was sitting on the edge of a large rock formation and in the distance several others rose high from the ground, all brown and orange and red, basking in both the light of the fading sun and the rising moon. Built on the top and carved into the side of one of these rocks was a little city, empowered by several windmills. At first glance, it resembled Scala, but the two were quite different in their atmosphere.

A long hanging bridge led towards the city and Sora gulped as he gazed down onto the bottom of the canyon beneath the rocks. He looked back up at the city once again just to enjoy its view for a while longer before crossing the bridge. Half the town was carved into the side of the rock, while the rest was built on top of it – although the most distant side of the rock rose much higher than the rest and merely hosted one single building at the top. It was a small little building with a huge telescope reaching through its roof and gazing at the starlit sky.

After a while Sora felt ready and stepped onto the bridge. It wasn’t too steady but despite moving sideways a bit, it was in good shape. Sora quickly hurried over not wanting to spend more time on it than necessary and arrived at the far-side where a bunch of guards were eyeing him carefully.

“Hiya there” Sora said, trying to seem cheerful and happy. He walked over to them in hopes of learning a bit about the mysterious World. “Could you tell me where am I?”

“Another refugee?” one of the guards asked.

“Better take him to the others then” another noted and they all looked at him.

“Where are you from, son?” the first guard asked. “Radiant Garden?”

“What? No. What happened to Radiant Garden? What’s this talk about refugees?”

The guards didn’t seem to be too keen to share their knowledge, but they told Sora to follow their leader who took him to the middle square of the town. It was a large court with great fire in the middle. Several dozens of tents were built and wooden tables and benches were placed for the people. “What happened here?” Sora asked as they were heading towards a larger tent and he finally had the chance to take a closer look at the people. Many of them were injured or had tattered, ragged clothes.

“These people can tell you” the guard noted. He stopped in front of the largest tent and called for the ones inside. A couple of seconds later the canvas at the entrance was pulled to the side and Naminé appeared, shocking Sora beyond belief.

“Thank you, captain” she nodded towards the man. “Could you tell Bugenhagen that we would like to speak with him?”

“I will inform him” the guard said and left.

Sora watched him leave, unable to say a word. He finally looked back at Naminé who gave him a warm smile and pulled him inside the tent by his hand. The boy obeyed her silently and stepped inside the make-shift home and base for the survivors of Radiant Garden. Ienzo, Even, Dilan, and Aeleus were all inside. All of them were wearing brown tunic and dark pants with sandals, probably presented to them by the locals. Naminé wore similar clothes, albeit her tunic was a bit longer and she was also presented with a simple necklace with a wooden pendant on it. Her hair was braided and though she smiled bright as a sun, her eyes couldn’t hide the fact that the last couple of days were a lot to stomach.

“Sora!” Ienzo exclaimed with eyes wide open. “You’re alive!”

“Of course I am” he replied with a grin, pointing at himself. “Who could beat me!?”

“No need to be so self-absorbed” Even commented grimly. “Not all of us are as lucky as you are.”

Sora fell silent and looked at them: each wore the same exhaustion and were darkened by the same experiences. Something was definitely off and Sora wanted to know what was going on. But before he could’ve asked Naminé turned to him and began to explain what really happened. “For us, it began with the invasion of Radiant Garden. Everything happened under the cover of night and so fast we could barely follow the events” she began and told Sora from the beginning to the end of how Radiant Garden fell to Ultimecia and the Coven. “Everyone fled where they could. We were instructed to come here and once we regrouped we started sending small forces back with the intention of saving as many as possible. But their numbers were endless.”

“I think I’ve encountered some of them as well when they attacked Destiny Island” Sora said. “Those small creatures. They resembled the heartless… but they are not simply corrupted hearts.”

“We call them Sinsters” Ienzo said quietly. Sora looked at him questioningly, but Even took over before he could’ve continued.

“We know very little of them, but they seem to be corrupted by the presence of a heart that bears a heavy Sin. Since the Foretellers’ names bear great resemblance to the most serious sins, we presume that there might be a connection” he surmised, though Sora wasn’t really able to understand much of that. He turned back to Naminé instead with another question in mind.

“And what of the others? Leon? Cloud? Yuffie? Cid?”

“Some of us are still around, kid” said a grim but not unfriendly voice, and Cid entered the tent. “You told’em everythin’?”

“Not yet” Naminé shook her head sadly.

“There’s even more?” Sora looked at her disbelievingly. “How did this happen? Why?”

“Because we tried to fight a force we were unprepared and unfit to tackle head-on” Ienzo stated. “Sora, our friends… those who went against the Master of Masters…”

Naminé softly grabbed Sora’s hand as Ienzo pronounced the truth of the battle. In that moment, the World Sora had known was shattered. He didn’t blink or move, his mouth was left hanging. The only thing he felt was an emptiness inside his chest. He didn’t even cry or yell or say anything at all. No words or actions would’ve been able to reflect how utterly lost he was. With the little strength he had left inside him he looked at Naminé and saw her mouth moving. She was probably trying to say hopeful things, calming things to him. He didn’t hear any words; nothing could reach him at that moment.

“Bugenhagen is outside” Cid said finally, breaking the silent doom.

Sora felt Naminé pulling him and he obeyed once more. He stepped out of the tent but gazed emptily at the ground in front of him, following the girl blindly to the great fire. As he thought about his lost friends, about Kairi, and Riku, Sora didn’t even realize that they were practically walking past the band who were playing the music all the time.

They walked to the center of the large, intricately set-up camp. In their trail more and more people came out of their tents, watching; some of them more hopeful than others. But one thing that bound them together. They all felt the presence of the Keyblade bearer in their midst and this itself gave them power. Naminé led Sora to the great fire, where more of their friends rested. Sora saw Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie, but Leon’s absence was clear. They all sat there, watching the flames’ dance, listening to the music and the low murmur of the ancient windmills, the sound of the distant animals around them. There was only one vivid soul amongst them. “Ho ho hooo! I see the young Keyblade wielder has finally arrived” said a jolly elderly voice. Sora didn’t feel like looking up, but seeing the shadow of the old man bouncing left and right without touching solid ground he couldn’t help but peek. Bugenhagen was a short little man with a bald head, round spectacles, and a long white beard ending in two braids, wearing a blue jacket above his light-brown tunic. He was bouncing around the fire on a great floating green ball to the amusement of the people around them.

“You are Bugenhagen?” Sora gave the man a weird, surprised glance.

“That I am, indeed” the man chuckled happily and bounced in front of Sora. They looked at each other for a short time without saying a word. The elder reached out and patted the boy on both shoulders and offered him a kind smile. “Do not be afraid. Light has never failed us before. If you keep believing, it won’t fail us this time.”

“Is there a chance my friends are still alive?” Sora asked back a bit cheekily. He was just handed the harsh truth and was now being told to believe in the Light and all that. Where was that or Kingdom Hearts when his friends were in danger?

“Sora…”

“Please, Naminé” he looked at her, half pleading, half angrily. “The only thing I don’t need is false hope. The World seems to be hell bent on separating us for good and at this point I can’t help but question our choices.”

“Ho ho hooo! But questioning ourselves or having doubts is never bad! To be self-assured about our choices, about not willing to bend is a graver ill!” Bugenhagen preached wisely. “The fairy of misdeeds lent us her knowledge, and with it we now have at least a glimmer of hope to stand against the crude Master.”

“All we need are the Seven Princesses of Heart” Even stated. “And as you may know, we have already figured out four’s identity. Rapunzel, Elsa, Anna...—“

“And Kairi” Sora stared at him blankly. “Yeah. Too bad she was there with the others.”

“Which is precisely why we believe that they aren’t dead” Ienzo nodded in agreement, mildly surprising Sora. The boy looked at the scientist confused, who continued. “To be precise, Maleficent told us that the Master of Masters requires the Seven Princesses of Heart, although she herself is not sure why he needs them or why she knows. She just does.”

“I’m not too keen in trusting the babbling of that witch” Dilan noted gruffly, folding his arms and staring into the fire. “Her help brought the Coven upon us.” Many nodded or sounded their agreement with the captain’s statement and knowing the full story from the others, and Maleficent personally, Sora felt similar mistrust towards her.

“So, according to Maleficent the Master needs the princesses for something. And since he knows about Kairi being one of them, he couldn’t have killed her? Which means they are merely trapped?” Sora summarized everything, sounding and looking more hopeful at once.

“Precisely!” Naminé nodded. “But we have to find the remaining princesses!”

“And we can’t think of anyone who has better chances of finding them than you do” Ienzo added.

“I… I’d love to help” Sora said and looked at the others. “But alone…—“

“Who said you hafta do it alone?” said an awfully familiar voice just before Donald and Goofy emerged from the crowd. “Geez Sora, you really think we’d let ya do this alone?”

“Donald! Goofy!” Sora yelped with a surge of relief rushing through him. He hopped towards the pair and pulled them into a warm hug.

“Half pints and junior heroes remember?” Donald said as he hugged back.

“All for one an’ one for all!” Goofy nodded.

“Ho, ho, hooo! I think our vanguard has assembled!” Bugenhagen presided over them happily, bouncing left and right.

“Together, we can do this” Sora promised, to himself than to the others. “… I hope.”

“Course we can!” Goofy exclaimed. “But remember Sora what we said to you when we first met?” Sora looked at his pal questioningly, not too sure about what Goofy was getting at. Donald patted the boy on the elbow.

“No frowning. No sad faces. You have to look funny, like us!”

Sora was surprised at first, but understood. His friends were there for him, just like always. And together, we’ll find and save you all he thought, and managed a smile, an honest one.  “Alright. This ship runs on laughter. Got it. Now all we need…”

“…is a ship” Cid finished the sentence for him. “There’s one behind the canyon. It’s a bit rusty and a tad bit old, but she’ll fly. Make sure to bring it back in one piece.”

The three of them nodded at each other with a wide grin and lined up in front of the apprentices and Bugenhagen just like they used to do in front of Yen Sid. Naminé and the elder chuckled at the amusing sight while the other apprentices gave a nod of approval.

- O - O - O - O - O -

It was the weirdest sensation he had felt in his whole life and it wasn’t a nice one. But at least they were still alive. Lauriam lay on his back watching at the thistle colored sky and tried to muster his last bits of strength to rise to his feet. Around him, the other three Dandelions were similarly sitting or lying amidst the thick grass upon the back of the thick emerald meadow. He closed his fist, grabbing a handful of dirt and sent it flying over at the others. Their coughs and yelps were good enough of a reaction for him to know they were alive and awake.

“Not yet” Ludor complained. “My body is still recovering.”

“Will we ever be able to walk again?” Myed asked on the other side. “I can’t even move my fingers yet.”

“Cause you’re weak!” Elrena claimed, giving a painful laugh. “We all are against that fucking madman.”

“It’s not over yet” Lauriam vowed, more to himself than the others. And that was what he truly believed or at least wanted to. What was supposed to be their decisive battle ended in an abrupt and complete failure on their part. Without thinking, without planning they charged in head-on and walked right into the trap, allowing themselves to be ambushed and utterly defeated in a manner of minutes without putting up any fight. This can’t be the end. Not until I get revenge for you… Strelitzia. If nothing else, his hate and determination to avenge his sister made him press on and survive. But hate and determination are not enough if we can’t get out of here. Where the hell are we even?

He pushed and forced himself again, slowly but surely rising to a sitting position as the binding magic faded from his veins. The more he tried, the easier it got. Felt as if a soft veil had been lifted, torn from his skin, easing his breathing, calming his mind, clearing his vision. Slowly as senses returned, the scent of flowers reached him and the warmth of a distant pale sun warmed his skin. “Don’t give up” he panted in his weakened state. “It will wear off. Just keep fighting it.”

“I am trying you know!” Myed replied with dissatisfaction in his voice. “But man, this is a powerful spell.”

“A lot of power and preparation went into its creation” Ludor agreed. “But I do believe that all this happened for a reason.”

“You think there is a deeper meaning to all this?” Lauriam asked, looking around and searching for any sort of sign that would help him pinpoint their location, without much luck. It resembled the crossroads in-between where every world led to if traveled through on foot but there were no roads crossing this time, only the endless hills and the purple sky above.

“I cannot help but believe that we are all alive for a reason. Would’ve been too big of a gamble even for the Master to let us live, had he no further use for us.”

“Or at least someone” Elrena added. “And where are the others? I recall correctly we’ve started this journey with more than four of us.”

“If I had to take guess, I’d say everyone was sent to a different place or a different time.” Ludor shrugged. “The magic circle was deeply flawed and changed at crucial points. At this point, I’m not even convinced we are in another time.”

“Great” Lauriam sighed and with much effort, rose to his feet.

Slowly, the others started overpowering the binding that held their body down as well, meanwhile Lauriam took larger and larger circles around them, scouting the place in hopes of finding anything. He tried summoning his Keyblade and though the weapon materialized he couldn’t open any sort of gateways using it. During these walks, Lauriam didn’t come across anything unusual or anything that could’ve helped their situation either. Finally, hours later, when Myed himself was freed from his bindings as well, the four set out towards the east in hopes of finding something, anything.

“Why east, though?” Myed asked.

“Just a hunch” Lauriam shrugged.

“You can go any other way if you wish” Elrena added with a grin. “Won’t miss ya!”

“You really can’t get along well with human beings, can you?” Myed shot back, shaking his head. “Really now, you used to be nicer.”

“The World taught me that stronger people tend to live longer” she replied coldly. “Become too friendly or attached and you’ll wind up dead in no time!”

“Better stay away from your rose-haired knight then” Ludor pointed out, making Elrena blush a bit and spew curses towards him for two minutes straight.

Lauriam enjoyed listening to their banter as it made him feel calm, which he needed if he wanted to think with a level head. The hills didn’t seem to be ending but their level rose ever so slightly. More and more trees appeared and the grass bed became thicker here and thinner there. For a while Lauriam had no idea what to expect, but slowly the hilly meadow line faded into a forest, continuing on and on.

The group slowly lost their cheerfulness and talkativeness. Everyone went on quietly; contemplating about their situation, about the situation of the others. Lauriam too became agitated by the scenery which changed slowly, yet did not present them anything hopeful. It took them hours and hours of walking to finally feel the change. The wind, which became stronger, brought with it new smells: wood, rock, and smoke.

Lauriam was the first to catch onto this change. His eyes widened slightly as he took a deep breath, which was all too familiar. Would it be possible? He stopped and looked at the other three, who slowly caught up to him. They too seemed baffled by the scent in the air and the peculiar color scheme of the skyline and the forested hills around them. “I sense trick in this” Ludor claimed carefully. “Whatever we will discover, whatever we will face. Do not forget. We are here because he made it so.”

“There’s not much he can do against us now that our guard is up, right?” Myed asked, looking at the others, but no one – including Lauriam – was too sure about that. The Master had proven himself to be cunning beyond imaginable.

He had everything planned out ever since our time. There is no way we could compete with that foresight. Not unless we act out of the ordinary Lauriam guessed. He beckoned the others to follow him and climbed the steep-looking hill that was barren of trees and rose high above the rest. The Dandelions slowly made their way to the peak of the hill and stepped onto the dusty ground which was surrounded by a small bed of dandelions and larger-smaller shrubs.  Standing there and staring towards the horizon, Lauriam felt his blood freezing inside his body. Just looking at it, he could practically hear its continued soft knocking, its mesmerizing toll — Daybreak Town’s great clock tower stretched just beyond the large hill, and beneath it ran alongside a snaking river, the small cozy city of Daybreak Town, reaching the edge of their World, the great sea.

“What sort of joke is this?” Myed blurted out.

“That sick madman” Elrena clenched her fists.

“I told you so” Ludor grunted with a contorted look on his face. “We are dealing with him. Whatever we face, it is all of his doing.”

“Well no one else would manage this” Lauriam had to agree, even though the idea of this made him sick. “No one else would even dare” he added and looked down upon the town, which – even from that far – seemed not only to be in a perfect shape, but was also teeming with life. Children were running around its streets in smaller-bigger groups, doing all sorts of things. Lauriam felt dizzy. He stumbled towards a large rock and sat down on it, keeping his eyes on the town under. He was searching frantically for one particular building. I will know the truth. I will know what that sicko wants. I will…

And there it was: a large building with purplish rooftop and a tall chimney. There, on top of the roof, a solitary figure was sitting by the ledge and kicking against the air. Lauriam could almost hear her whistling, even though he knew it was just his mind playing tricks on him. Still, he couldn’t help but stare at her and fight back his tears to the best of his abilities; at the girl he had lost to the cruel man’s ambitions; at Strelitzia, his little sister.

Chapter Text

The world around them was a vast and endless inky blackness, and it stank of a thousand stenches, none of which were familiar to any of them. There were no sounds besides the rhythmic knocking of their boots, the soft movement of their clothes’ fabric and their breathing. Even though everything was enveloped in darkness, the road beneath them – a narrow greyish passage much like the one some of them had already encountered in the Realm of Darkness – was still quite visible and bright. Beyond the sides of the road, small shards of glass were floating and spinning slowly. On the surface of these glasses, events played out from the past, their past. Depending on whoever looked upon them, they saw the most wretched and terrible events of their lives play out in front of them.

If this was hell, Kairi got quite tired of it. For the first hours she felt terrified and lost, even though she wasn’t even alone. Aqua, Terra and Mickey were all there with her experiencing the same horrors, facing the same dangers. Still, without Riku and Sora she felt infinitely hopeless. Not because she needed saving but because the three of them were there for each other. Having the King and two great Keyblade wielders by her side was most reassuring but still, her chest felt empty.

We’ve been walking for Merlin knows how many hours and nothing has changed, not even a bit. And we still haven’t heard anything from the others. She was worried about the rest of the group: Riku, Roxas, Xion, Lea and the Dandelions; and for Sora as well. Nobody is there to stop him now, and I’m one hundred percent sure he won’t stop until he succeeds; and if he were to attack the islands. Sora…

“I’m still not sure where we are at the moment” Aqua confessed. Her voice seemed calm, but the suppressed anger was there, Kairi could feel it. Is it surprising though? We’ve been walking and walking without any end in sight. We’re all going to lose our sanity sooner or later she thought gloomily.

“Earlier you said it was a mass teleportation circle, right?” Terra asked, looking at Mickey. “But this has been bothering me for quite a bit. Is it even possible to travel through time without pre-prepared bodies in the future? We all know how time traveling works because Master Xehanort used it extensively.”

“He used one type of time traveling” Kairi replied instead of the others, earning a surprised look from both Aqua and Mickey. She had spent more time with the Dandelions so she knew more than they did, even though she wasn’t quite sure about the meaning behind all that knowledge. “The Dandelions had used another type of space-time magic when they moved forward in time from their timeline into ours.”

“You’re right” Mickey nodded in agreement. “Now that I think about it, I didn’t see any replica bodies when the Foretellers appeared once Braig… Luxu summoned them.”

“They just appeared out of thin air?” Aqua asked, hesitating to accept the fact. Kairi understood as it did seem quite frightening. If they can do this, where is the limit to their power? What else can they do?

“It involved ancient magic, their power as Keyblade wielders, a ritual… so it was quite complicated.”

“And the Master had all of this. The Coven, the Foretellers. Everything suited his purpose to push us out of the way” Terra sighed. “If you can’t defeat us without losses, it is easier to lock us away.”

“But every locked door can be opened” Aqua added on a more positive tone. “If we are locked away, the others should be as well. And I’m not so sure that he locked us in here because he was afraid of casualties. I’d say that would be the least of his worries. Using the same tactic, he could’ve obliterated us just as easily.”

“You think he still needs us” Mickey asked.

“At least one of us” she replied and looked at Kairi.

The girl understood from one single glance what she had meant. I’m still a Princess of Light. He knew I would be there to fight alongside the others, so he must’ve know that the easiest way to capture me without risking anything is by locking me away. It was a sound plan, sure.

“If he has a way of pulling Kairi out then in the end we’ll have at least one shot at breaking out as well” Aqua continued. “Though I’d prefer us to find an alternate way out of this place. I spent quite enough time at the Dark Margin to be waiting around, sitting. If I can help it, I’d rather not wait until he needs Kairi.”

“Agreed” Terra nodded. “I think we both waited enough for a lifetime.”

“More than one.”

The two of them gave a brief chuckle, which was nice to hear. It warmed Kairi’s heart a bit in the cold, harsh place. Come to think of it the black expanse they were in really felt chilly and sometimes it felt like the air was actually full of something. Kairi stroked her forearm and felt scratches and grazes along the skin. It was very shallow and didn’t hurt at all, but her arm was full of them.

She stopped and looked around. It took the others a couple of moments to realize she was lagging behind and only stopped when Mickey called out her name. “What’s the matter?” the King asked with a worried expression.

“My arm, well my body is full of very small cuts and I was wondering where they came from.”

“Yours two?” Terra asked. “I thought I was starting to hallucinate.”

“Small shards” Aqua answered, looking at the two of them. “As you can see both sides of the road are full of larger ones. But the road itself has quite a few very small shards floating about it as well. They move around so they only graze our body. It is meant to torture us slowly.”

“When did you realize this?” Terra asked, slightly confused and amazed by Aqua’s knowledge.

“I made a sudden movement a while back because I wanted to scratch my elbow and the shard didn’t get out of the way fast enough. It reacts to our movement but it’s not fast enough to avoid sudden or rapid movement. Basically if we tried to rush ahead, we’d be full of holes after about a minute.”

“So we were quite lucky not to start running” Mickey realized. “Gosh, guys this place is even more dangerous than I expected.”

“It is” Terra nodded. “This isn’t Xehanort we are dealing with. Compared to this Master… Xehanort seems like a pleasant dream now. And I say this as someone who was his prisoner and host for over a decade.”

“But now we are together” Kairi said suddenly with a fierceness to her that made the others gasp. She looked into their eyes with a determination that probably reflected Sora’s attitude, after all she had learnt that from him, and gave a firm nod. “We won’t fail if we stick together and work together. The Dandelions know more than anyone else; we have your vast knowledge as Masters of the Keyblade; we have some of the strongest and bravest fighters we could ever hope for like Roxas, or Riku. We will win, we just have to keep believing!”

Mickey beamed at her so proudly that Kairi almost blushed. “Gosh Kairi, no wonder those boys always managed to stay positive! Your attitude must’ve rubbed off on them!” the King said with a joyful laugh.

“And we also have you amongst our ranks” Terra added. “Strong and fierce, and always positive. If this battle will be won, it’ll be thanks to your attitude.”

“You think?” Kairi grinned happily. She wasn’t really used to all these compliments and they felt nice in that dark hole of depression. Terra and Mickey nodded in unison. Aqua stepped closer and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders.

“The greatest strength comes from the most unexpected of places. You are our power here, Kairi.”

The girl would’ve – under normal circumstances – shed a couple of teardrops. She had felt inferior to the others for so long, mainly because they were constantly out there fighting and adventuring, while she was either unconscious, studying and slowly losing her memories of Sora, or just waiting for them. She felt distanced from them; and to be there and acknowledged, it felt good. But circumstances were nowhere close to normal and she couldn’t allow herself to be emotional like that even for a second. There would be a time for tears of joy, but that was still a faraway dream. For now, she had to steel herself; and so she did.

“So even if we did travel through time” she thought back to their discussion. “Where are we?”

“The circle was incomplete” Mickey explained, looking at the others. “I am no expert in this advanced magic, but if my hypothesis is correct, we might be in closed off space, that is out of the ordinary time boundaries.”

“So… like this is a pocket world that could be accessed from various timelines?” Aqua asked and Mickey affirmed the guess. “But then has he never actually put anything here before? I mean, there is nothing else here.”

“What if the trail is for that?” Kairi asked. “Maybe, along the road or somewhere else.”

Mickey stopped and stared into the abyss. “We do not know the size of it. We do not know how time flows here.”

“So that just means we have to keep going” Aqua said, looking at the others. “Come on. Waiting here won’t do us any good.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Riku had spent very little time in Twilight Town during the year Sora was sound asleep, but he did visit the location once or twice when he was doing research on the Organization. He easily found the hidden spot where Xion, Axel and Roxas had spent their time, eating ice cream and staring at the distant sun, and watched them from afar. He wasn’t attached to it as much as the trio was but it was a peaceful escape from the other Worlds. Now, he was back there in Twilight Town, and there was no way to escape despite the fact that he could conjure his Keyblade.

Most of the streets were empty, save for the neighborhood which was crowded as usual, and no trains were departing or arriving. The city was neatly locked down as if it was designed specifically for them, to be trapped there indefinitely. After the initial fright, Lea, Roxas and Xion slowly eased into the situation, as they said “for the time being”. Meanwhile Riku stressed over the well-being of Kairi, Mickey and the others, not to mention Sora, who was back on the islands. He was genuinely worried about everyone else and lashed out not once when he saw the laid-back trio.

Days had passed and nothing changed.

Riku rose from his bed and looked out through the windows, down onto the lukewarm streets bathing in the orange light of the twilight sun. He pushed it wide open and leaned out, reclining against the window shelf and feeling the warm gusts and the distant smell of the famed bistro. He fiddled around with the necklace Sora gave him fighting back the dark thoughts that lingered on his mind. He wanted to yell, to kick down every door, to bash open the walls, to break out of their cage. But he already realized how impossible desire that was. Everything seemed like the real one, yet nothing he touched actually felt like it. The people’s skin was cold and hard, the wood felt like steel and the shrubs were of plastic. It was a lie.

He pulled back and looked at his clock. He had a bit more time before they would start the search. It took him a while but the other three gave in and agreed to start searching for a way out, even though they enjoyed being in that place of false promises. The clock tower with their favorite spot was a remarkable replica, the sea-salt ice cream was impeccably copied and the atmosphere was practically the same. All this, and the fact that the Master of Masters defeated them all within minutes just made them frightened, and grateful for these renewed days of peace.

This isn’t right He thought defiantly. Just lying down and accepting it. Enjoying this… false world? Or would it be different if it’d be Destiny Islands with a makeshift Sora, a makeshift Kairi? It seemed unbelievable that Roxas, Xion and Lea would accept that substitute world for the real one. And there they were, enjoying their lie.

A pebble tatted on the glass and Riku looked out. Roxas was standing there, alone. He looked up at him and Riku gazed back.

Riku quickly dressed and left the building, joining the boy on the empty street. His hands were tucked in his pockets and he was leaning against the wall. “What’s with that expression?” Riku asked. The boy shrugged and kicked himself away from the building lazily. “Where are the others?”

“Not here yet” Roxas replied calmly. “I wanted to have a chat with you.”

Riku nodded. He had been waiting for this sort of chat. Though the two of them were not on bad terms, there was still a lot of unsaid words between the two of them from the time when Roxas was inside the Organization and Riku was protecting Sora. It was thanks to he, that Sora was recompleted in the end, though these actions made Xion’s, Roxas’, and Lea’s life miserable or nonexistent for a while. While he truly felt bad for the trio’s losses, if he had to choose again, Riku would’ve chosen Sora over them anytime.

They slowly and silently walked beside each other, down a long and narrow street. It was one of the least frequented parts of the town, filled with back alleys and old, rundown buildings. During a previous exploration Riku had the joy of going through a dozens of ruined houses down that very lane only to come up empty handed.  Roxas didn’t seem to know where they are heading, he was just strolling aimlessly. Riku glanced at the boy every now and then: the scar left by the previous battle with the Foretellers was a permanent mark. It didn’t make the boy any less handsome, maybe a bit more edgy. Roxas often touched the scar or glazed his hand over it when he was deep in thoughts, it kind of became a signature move for him. Just like that blindfold was to me. Thinking about scars, Riku reminded himself of the scars he wore, both on his body and in his heart. His past deeds haunted him still, though he managed to forgive himself more or less. Involuntarily he touched his left forearm, where Roxas damaged him during their fight. It ached no longer, but the left wrist was permanently weakened.

“Where are we going?” Riku asked finally. He stopped and looked at the other boy who took a few more steps before stopping as well. Roxas turned towards him and pulled his hands from the pocket. “I do hope you didn’t pick today to resume an old grudge?”

“Grudge?” Roxas widened his eyes a bit in surprise, as if he didn’t understood what Riku was talking about.

“The fight we had” Riku said. “I hope you don’t want to resume that here.”

“Why would I?” Roxas asked, again seeming quite confused. Riku was taken aback. Did I completely misread something here? Roxas’ mouth twitched and he started laughing after a few seconds, much to Riku’s amusement. “Sorry” the boy said. “It’s just. Xion was so right about you.”

“What?”

“Oh, boy. You and Sora are much more alike than people would think” Roxas said, grinning. “See I wasn’t sure why you were so stiff around me. Xion told me that you’re still guilt tripping yourself over convincing Xion and taking me to Ansem.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I was guilt tripping myself. I just thought that—“

“That I still held that against you and that I was waiting for the perfect moment to call you out because of that.” Roxas nodded. “I won’t lie, after I got back and we kicked Xehanort’s butt I thought about settling that score with you. But then I realized that what you’ve done… I would’ve done the same thing for Lea or Xion. Hell I would’ve done it for Sora as well. I won’t say that I have forgotten or will ever forget about that, because our lives were shattered; but I know that you did the right thing in the end. Because if you hadn’t done so, Xehanort would’ve won.”

Riku didn’t know what to say. He felt stupid and oblivious, and he had underestimated both Xion and Roxas. Though that’s not the first time I’ve done something like that. Sora, how I’ve underestimated you for all those years. Roxas stepped forward and reached out his right hand. “Let bygones be bygones?”

“Thank you.” He accepted the handshake.

“And we will have a rematch” Roxas added with a sly smile. “I want to offer you a chance to lose honorably this time.”

“Oh, was that my loss?” Riku asked, grinning like a shark. “As far as I remember you were unconscious by the end of it.”

“Well I didn’t waltz around looking like Xehanort’s heartless for months afterwards at least.” Roxas winked.

“Well, the challenge is accepted. But I’d rather get out of this place first” Riku said.

Roxas nodded. “I know. And we are aware that you’re quite frustrated by this situation. But we’ve been trapped in certain places during our lives before and we’ve come to accept that sometimes you have to let things proceed.”

Riku didn’t like where Roxas was getting at. “So you want to wait until someone comes and saves us?” He asked in a somewhat accusing tone, letting his feelings of uncertainty and frustration show for a splinter of a second.

“Not entirely” Roxas said, trying to calm him. “Listen, we know that you are worried about the others. And we are as well. Lea has left both Skuld and Isa behind, I’ve left Naminé behind and without us they are all in peril. We know this. But we also know that if the Master did not create this place to be escapable, then no matter what we do or try, we won’t break out.”

“So what then?” Riku asked, hands spread wide. “Should we just, enjoy ourselves? Lay back and have an ice cream? What is your plan?” Roxas couldn’t really answer, because Riku didn’t wait for a reply. “I’ve been to places as well. Worlds from where escape was just a dream or even less. I know what it is like to fight against all odds. But how could I enjoy myself for even a second while the friends I care about are in danger? It just feels senseless.”

“That’s probably because you’re not affected by the World” a female voice said behind Riku. Both boys turned around and saw Lea and Xion approaching them.

“What do you mean not affected?” Riku asked.

“Ever since we’ve arrived, I’ve been feeling this calm dizziness” Xion explained. “And the others as well. Every fear if distant and shortly after awakening we’re still clear in the mind, but soon we drift back into this state. This World was made to calm us and try to make us stay.”

“It doesn’t seem to affect you” Lea added. “Since you’re not attached to it. But we’re being tempted to rest.”

A world that manipulates those who are within. Or is this a world at all? It feels a bit like a place I’ve been to Riku thought. He contemplated about what the trio told him, but it didn’t help much in the end. He just had to accept the fact that they would be pretty useless in searching for a way out. Which means not a lot has changed overall. “Go then” Riku shrugged indolently. “I’ll keep searching.”

“We do want to help though” Roxas said and patted him on the shoulder. “Just understand that if we seem careless or shallow, it is the city trying to manipulate us.”

“Right” Riku noted, understanding their pain all too well. “Let me handle the search. You guys know the place better so you could coordinate my movement, if that works for you.” The trio exchanged a look and gave a unified nod. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed and finally, after a long while Riku felt like they were together.

“Maybe you could start with the mansion” Xion offered, looking towards the tall wall which hid the small weald and the ancient mansion. “On the first day I did try to find an entrance, but never managed to get through. If you could find a way there, you might find something useful.”

“That sounds good and all, but I’ve also a grand lead” Lea added with a grin. “Though it might involve swimwear and melons.”

“You want to go to the beach?” Roxas asked with a wide grin.

“Well, the World is calling out to us. Let’s listen and let temptation lead. Never said we had to close our eyes as well.”

“Alright-alright” Riku said, seeing how the distant promise of a day on the beach already began to affect the trio. “I’ll look for the mansion. You go and enjoy… I mean, scout the beach. Let’s meet at the bistro for dinner and we can swap experiences.”

“Sounds like a plan” the trio agreed wholeheartedly.

Riku waited until they were out of sight. He let his mind linger on troublesome issues for a moment longer, like how the World actively fought against them, then turned around and stared at the gigantic wall. The old mansion. How could I forget? Without a moment to spare Riku hurried to the wall. If there was no hole on it, he could climb it, or better still, make one himself. In the end, he didn’t need to as though there truly were no holes on the wall, there was a small underground passage which led to the thick park beyond it.

The sounds of the city could not penetrate the walls and the distant noises were exchanged for the chirping of birds and bugs, and the slow rustling of the leaves. The air was fresher and the temperature was cooler on that side as well. Riku summoned his Keyblade as he was unsure what he’d find along the way. He followed the path through the forest path and saw the first bricks in the distance. The ancient and abandoned mansion was just like its real-life counterpart, standing in silence surrounded by nature, far from the citizens of Twilight Town. Its gates were open and the front door was slid open as well, emanating an eerie darkness from within.

Riku stepped over and opened up, revealing a completely empty hall without stairs, further doors or anything else. What the…?

“Well damn, you got here a bit too fast” said an awfully familiar voice behind him. Riku spun around, and looked at the man who he came to know as Brain, the Master of Masters. He wore a dark shirt and black leatherjacket with upturned sleeves and a dark, brimmed hat complete with a feather. “Long time no see, Riku” the man nodded, and promptly jumped back before Riku could’ve sliced him open with his Keyblade. “Now, now. No need to get rough just yet” he said joyfully. “I came here in good faith!”

“And you will leave in a body bag” Riku warned him, taking up his usual battle stance. “Where are the others? What have you done to them?”

“I’ve sent everyone to their rightful prison” the Master admitted freely, spreading his hands. “But wasn’t I right to do so?! I come back from the dead and bamm you guys attack me from nowhere! Rightful self-defense.”

“Oh I’ve heard enough of what you and your Foretellers had done!”

“Please, you’ve heard but a portion of the story!” the Master waved his hand. “The truth you see is not so simple. By knowing one tiny fraction of it, you cannot possibly hope to understand the whole.”

“Oh please” Riku rolled his eyes. “Do tell me that you’re the misunderstood good guy and those hundreds of children who died because of you were just necessary casualties. Xigbar, Xehanort, you, and all those monsters who try to justify your misdeeds are damn misguided.”

“That could be” he nodded, his voice becoming quite serious for a second. “But you are misguided yourself to think that your little keysword will do you any good here in the Sundered Shards.”

“The where?”

The Master winked and spun around, hands spread to the sky. “The Sundered Shards, my own personal playground. I’ve prepared a set of locations just for you all, so you can keep enjoying yourself and exploring. Unfortunately, you’re a tad bit quick to catch up, so I couldn’t wrap up this part of Twilight Town for you. But no worries, by the time you’ll wake up tomorrow, you won’t remember being here and seeing this dead end. And by the time you’ll get back here, it’ll be patched up just for you!”

“Don’t you dare temper with my memories!” Riku yelled and charged towards the Master. The man merely grinned and snapped his finger, summoning forth Sora from nothingness. The boy seemed different, wearing a blank expression and dressed in a simple black coat. Still, his appearance shook Riku and the moment he saw his friend stopped his charge immediately, mouth left hanging, gasping for air. It was only a second though and that was more than enough for that Sora to leap into action. The boy’s fist connected with Riku’s stomach and the boy found himself flying through the courtyard of the mansion and crashing hard into the ground of the empty hallway.

The Master’s Sora was already walking towards him, still wearing that blank expression, while the man himself smiled neatly at the front door. “What have you done to him?” Riku asked as he rose to his feet, prepared to defend himself.

“Nothing” the Master shrugged while Sora began his merciless beating of Riku. The boy throw punches after one another with an indifferent look, not reacting to his name or the other boy’s pleading. “This is just a copy, but a convincing one. And not the only one. It does whatever I want it to” and just to prove his point, the Master snapped his finger and Sora suddenly stopped Riku’s pummeling and instead cried out in a horrifying fashion and started calling out the boy’s name and treating his wounds as if someone else had injured him. “Do you want him to tag along, Riku?” the Master asked with a shark smile. “I can see into your heart. I saw it back in the times of old and I experienced it first hand in Insomnia. You would give your life and much more for this boy’s happiness. It must feel lonely and empty without him around.”

“ENOUGH!” Riku yelled, pushing Sora away. “Enough with you! You’re a madman and I’ll die before I’d let you do anything to—“ Riku hadn’t the chance to continue. The last thing he heard was the snap of the Master’s finger and within a second he the Sora copy’s knuckle connecting with his jaw. Then everything went dark.

- O - O - O - O - O -

He wasn’t completely satisfied with how the conversation with Riku went. The chances of him choosing Sora over everything else were slim, but I kind of hoped that he’d settle for the boy he thought disappointedly. Still, the Future I envisioned is still very much attainable. Throw whatever you wish at me, you lump of Light, I will stand victorious and you, forgotten…

He stared at the night sky feeling the very eye of Kingdom Hearts upon him. Not that it truly had one, but he felt it. The Heart of all Worlds, the very essence of life was very much at work. Such a great source of power and yet he had very little reason to fear it. All its defenders, save for a battered and worn-out boy, lay shattered, dead, or imprisoned. He had the princess who was crucial to his final victory and it was only time before he could get his hands on the rest.

Suddenly several gates opened around the small café where he was enjoying his coffee and one after another the Foretellers appeared in the middle of the street. Though they were quite unusual in appearance the people of Traverse Town were used to strange travelers and thus did not care much for them.

“Welcome back boys and girls! How was the trip?” he asked kindly, raising his hat for them. “I hope you watered the plants around Radiant Garden before coming home!”

“Everything went according to your will, Master” Luxu nodded. “The witches wrecked quite a havoc but we helped out here and there.”

“Good. How did the little fellas work out?”

“They were… most useful” Ira said, not sounding too sure about himself. He wouldn’t betray me he thought to himself while glancing at the rest. Some others might. Their loss, though. He grinned even wider and offered a place for them. “What of little Sora?”

“He got away” Aced said grumpily, taking a seat near him. “That Maleficent saved him.”

“Well, can’t help it” he shrugged, though that news was indeed troublesome. Battered or not, Sora’s still in game, which narrows the possible paths and raises the chance of their victory slightly, he sighed and took a sip. “Oh well. What of Skuld?”

“We didn’t find her” Invi admitted. “But Ultimecia said they burnt everything to the ground so that means she’s probably dead.”

“That means she can still be alive” he replied, not too amused with their blunder. Well, they are children in the end. “Alright. Never mind that” he added with a sort of urgency in his voice. “Our next targets are the Princesses. We have Kairi and Luxu has the identity of three others. I want them all here before Sora and his little friends could get to them. I’ll let you guys split the work between you. I want Sora’s movement monitored as well. If you see anything, report back to me. Do not engage out of your own volition, please.”

“We’ll take care of everything” Aced promised.

“Yeah-yeah” Luxu nodded. “But for now, I’m off for a drink. Ven, you coming?”

“I’m Superbia” the boy looked at him, anger flashing dangerously in his eyes. His pride’s bearer glanced sideway at him, then joined Luxu. I don’t think he has forgiven me for all I’ve put him through. Well, can’t say I care to be honest. As long as he sticks to the plan, he can hate me for all I care.

“Alright children” he rose from his seat, stretching lazily. “I’m off. You all get some rest as well. And take a bath. You people reek of flames and ash. Not too healthy to smell so bad” he joked and before anyone could’ve said a word or so he disappeared. Within an instant, the Master of Masters reappeared in another world, which was seldom known or visited by anyone. It was at the brim of all known universes, hidden amidst the nothingness and the void, and hidden buried the oblivion — or so he liked to think.

It was a small, gloomy world with weeping sky and moaning winds. Before him stretched a wide sickly meadow with darkened grass and wilted flowers. At the back of a hill the ruins of a small temple stood patiently as a reminder of ancient times. Behind the temple was a small, abandoned graveyard with six unnamed graves.

He walked towards the resting place of the six and pulled off his hat, trying to remember. T’was long ago, he thought. Maybe it wasn’t even true. After all this time, even my memory is getting hazy. He stopped in front of the oldest of the graves and knelt down beside it. Suddenly, the old scars around his body hurt just a bit more than usual. He wore a sour expression as he recalled all that he had experienced and all that he had endured. He wanted to say a few words, but it wasn’t time yet. No, he still had to remain patient just for a little more while. So he stood up, and with a disgusted expression on his face he looked up at the source of the world’s faint, pale light: a cracked, pale heart shaped moon. “Your Light will fade, you’ll see.”

 

Chapter Text

He was falling through the thick blackness, aimlessly down into oblivion. The feeling itself was not unusual for he had traveled down this lane before, and not only once. Around him, weakly twinkling lights shined palely, reminders of ancient time. He was way deeper than ever, falling to the bottom, to long forgotten history. High above him, pillars rose magnificently, the images of fables painted upon them.

Where are you heading? asked a quiet, distant voice, the same one he had heard before. “I do not know” he wanted to say, but he couldn’t. He held not enough power to utter words, he could merely form ideas. Still, the truth remained, he did not know the destination, only the purpose. Where are you going? asked the indifferent voice once more and he couldn’t answer this time either.

“There” he pointed at a pillar in the deep. It was colorless with cracked windows, darkness sipping through its very shards. The Dark Heart whispered the voice. Why? “To know…” Sora said finally, landing gently on the broken station. As he touched it, the station’s glass lit up and the contents revealed themselves. There was a man in a hood at the middle, raising his fists against a heart-shaped moon; beneath his feet darkness and on each side three pale stars of Light.

The pillar’s glass cracked again and shattered beneath his feet but before he could’ve fallen a hand reached down and grabbed him. Looking up, he stared into the eyes of a man he once saw as an enemy. “Yozora?”

“I see you are familiarizing yourself with the gift I’ve bestowed upon you, Sora” he said.

“Gift?” the boy asked back, eyes widened with surprise. The man nodded and with the snap of his fingers built another station of awakening beneath Sora’s feet. On its surface Yozora, his friends and love, and the great Bahamut battled upon the fields of Insomnia. Sora eyed the sandman suspiciously and backed off, summoning his Keyblade. “Where are we? Is this another one of your tricks?”

“No” came the simple reply. “No surprises and tricks this time. You have fallen asleep and your heart has once again returned to the station of awakening, seeking answers.”

“That pillar I’ve seen…”

Yozora nodded soundlessly. “Ordinary people wouldn’t find it. But you are now bearer of my power, Sora.”

“What power?”

“The Power to see bonds, to see how Hearts are connected. It is not without danger, just like the Power of Waking. But use it wisely, and it will guide you well.”

“How could I wield such power without knowing it? Last time I did something like that, I ended up in a very bad place” Sora protested, sounding just as worried as he had felt.

“You ended up precisely where you had to” Yozora said and patted the boy on the shoulder. “Time to awaken, my friend. Trust yourself and believe in your friends. The connection between your hearts will be his undoing.”

Sora wanted to reply, to say something but as he opened his mouth he found himself waking abruptly from the dream. He was once again inside the Gummi Ship named Shera, lent to them by Cid. Goofy and Donald were eyeing him confusedly.

“Did ya say somethin’ Sora?” Goofy asked.

“I… no” the boy shook his head and looked around; he was still half asleep and his mind wasn’t back just yet. “I had a weird dream, again” he added.

“We’re getting used to it” Donald said, “Every time we go on an adventure you just goof around like that!”

“Hey! Who’s goofing around?” Sora pouted, folding his arms.

“Ya both are!” Goofy chuckled.

“Am not!” both of them said at the same time, making all three of them laugh heartily. The friendly banter died down after a few more seconds and all three of them sighed tiredly. “So, where are we going again?” Sora asked carefully.

“The princesses!” Donald said with an irk in his voice.

“I know that! But where?”

“Well, accordin’ to Bugenhagen, there are only three other princesses left to find!” Goofy said. “We just need to guess which worlds they live in!”

“Oh yes, that’s gotta be easy surely!” Donald rolled his eyes.

“Well…” Sora wanted to agree with Donald, but his eyes fell on a thin thread-like line outside the ship running along the space towards an unknown destination. “Guys… can you too see that?” he asked, pointing at it. Goofy and Donald looked, but saw nothing, questioning Sora’s sanity. “No, it really is there! A thin line of… Light, I think?”

“Sora, when we get back you gotta have your eyes checked with Naminé!” Donald said.

“Hey, that’s rude!” Sora replied and looked at the line again. It really was there, stretching way beyond his field of vision. “Could we follow it?” he suggested, though he know it didn’t really sound like a fine plan.

“Well… we hafta go somewhere, ain’ that right, Donald?”

“I guess” the wizard shrugged. “But you’ll be responsible if we don’t find the princesses in time!”

Sora sighed loudly, knowing that he’d be responsible even if it wasn’t his fault… not that it mattered if the Master would get his hands on the princesses before they found them. “Alright. Grab onto your seatbelts!” Sora winked and deactivated the autopilot. I just hope that this is related to that dream… or we’ll be in a big trouble!

- O - O - O - O - O -

Isa leaned onto the thick trunk of a great tree and watched the scenery ahead of him. A great beautiful land stretched far wide in each direction, named Tsenacommacah by the local tribe of indigenous people: farmlands where the young and the women were working, tall trees and large spikes of rocks towering above them, rivers snaking their way through. Within the depths of the great woods the native’s settlements spread throughout. No sign of danger or worry, only peace and harmony between nature and this curious nation. Behind Isa, the thick forestland reached right to the shores where it turned into vast, endless blob of water.

Though the sight and atmosphere of this World were particularly pleasant and peaceful, still Isa pondered with worry about a great many things. Lea… where are you? You should’ve been there to see her awaken as well. We should’ve been reunited by now. And here I stand without the others, without you. Everything became a blurry haze since Radiant Garden was attacked. In one second he tried fending off the enemy, the next he was running to save Skuld, and then he followed her into the unknown. And now we’re here… in this strange World.

“Frowning here alone again are you now?” came a familiar voice. Isa turned to greet Skuld who wore clothes similar to local’s attire and kept her black hair in a bun so it wouldn’t get in her way. She joined Isa and leaned against another tree, looking at the native’s homeland complacently. “Can’t get enough of this view.”

“You can’t get enough of anything since you’ve awakened” Isa noted with a small smile. “Feeling alright?”

“Yup. My strength is returning. Helping out the locals was a good idea” she nodded and kneeled down to play with the small raccoon that was trying to climb her legs. “Hey there Meeko! You’re here, that means Pocahontas shouldn’t be far behind either.”

Isa watched the girl play with the little animal but noticed the sound of the native’s horn, signaling the return of their warriors. The locals had been at war with another tribe and apparently it had ended. Isa pushed himself away from the tree and turned towards the river, witnessing the arrival of the warriors and braves of the tribe on small canoes. “She should be there, with the others” the blue-haired man said.

“I wouldn’t think so” Skuld chuckled. “You know what she’s like. Going wherever the wind takes her.”

“I’ll go fetch her then. Her father will be looking for her” Isa replied and turned to head deeper into the woods. In exchange for staying with the locals they offered to help and earn their keep, which included a wide range of tasks, from harvest to fishing, animal husbandry and keeping the tribe’s proximity safe from dangerous animals. Isa was tasked with looking after the chieftain’s daughter, Pocahontas, on several days and thus he had but to learn her favorite places around the large forest.

He became familiar with the World quite fast and enjoyed the pleasant tranquility it offered. When he felt angry, he just took large walks by the river or headed deeper into the willow woods to find peace and calm. He had never been so balanced, even though he was worried sick for his friends.

Finding Pocahontas wasn’t too difficult as the weather was more than perfect for quick dive, one of her favorite activities. She liked climbing high rocks and jumping into the water or just enjoying the view from up high. Today as well, she sat there enjoying the early autumn breeze.

Isa stopped and looked at her, waiting patiently for Pocahontas’ eyes to wander towards him. When it finally happened, he beckoned her with a smile. The girl didn’t hesitate; she bravely leapt from the high rock and splashed into the water elegantly, appearing above the surface close to the bank.

“Isa! Did they send you to babysit me again?”

“Nope. Your father has returned. I’m sure he’d love to see you.”

“Really?” her eyes lit up brightly from the joy and Isa nodded, and offered to take her back. Accompanied by the small animals that often followed Pocahontas around the two of them headed towards the camp. Isa peered at her every now and then, noticing that the girl’s mind often wandered afar.

“What were you doing up there this time? Counting trees?”

“Not really. I was thinking” she replied.

“That dream? Have you figured it out?”

“I know it means something, I just don’t know what” she sighed and shrugged her shoulders. Isa nodded knowingly. He too often dreamt of things and thought they had deeper truths to them. But dreams were often merely dreams; other times, though they held truth, he could only realize afterwards what they had represented.

“Maybe you should ask your father!” Skuld offered as she joined them along with Meeko. Pocahontas pulled the raccoon into a hug and agreed with the idea, looking ahead at the distant camp where a large group of people were gathering.

As the trio reached the edge of the camp, Isa and Skuld stopped. They couldn’t venture in too deep as the locals were weary of them and they didn’t want to cause too much of a commotion. “We’ll meet you later” Skuld said. “Willow woods? Then you can tell us if he knew anything about it.”

“Sure! See you two later!” Pocahontas said and turned to hurry back to her father. Isa and Skuld watched her disappear amidst the crowd of people who had all gathered there to witness the return of their friends and beloved ones. They cheered and applauded every warrior and saluted everyone who fell on the battlefield. After a while the pair left the village’s proximity.

They walked silently by each other’s side, both of them thinking about the same thing over and over again. Isa pondered about his friends’ health and Radiant Garden, about the survivors; meanwhile Skuld tried recalling the distant past, the events that took place within Daybreak Town, about the Dandelions, about her lost friends. Isa told her everything he knew and she too shared her part of the story, which she could recall at least. Unfortunately, she didn’t know much about the mysterious Master of Masters who seemed to be the puppet master behind these schemes.

“We won’t be able to stay here for too long” Skuld summarized her thoughts and put them into words. “They will be looking for us, for me at least.”

“Let them come” Isa said, cracking a branch he held in his hands. “I’ll tear them apart.”

“Calm those nerves” she said with a grin. “You’re getting all wrinkled again! That temper does not do you much good.”

“It won’t do them any good either” he nodded.

“Alright, enough of this madman talk! We have to come up with a plan. Whatever the guy is planning, I’m sure that the Princesses of Heart are bound to play a role in it. And I can sense it, clear as day, Pocahontas is one of them.”

“We can’t protect all seven at once!”

Skuld agreed and sat down upon a smaller rock and started digging through her hair. She released the long locks from the bun and let them fall down onto hell shoulders. Isa watched her and thought how happy he should’ve been; after all, his dreams of seeing her again were finally true. But without his friends, without Lea being there as well, it amounted for nothing.

“We need help” Skuld said finally and stared into Isa’s eyes intently. “What’s with that boy you told me about? Sora, was it?”

“Yes, he should be home at Destiny Island, hopefully still safe from the Foretellers and the witches.”

“Well we can’t count on that. Also, we have to find the rest of the survivors. Together, with them, we might still stand a chance.”

“I wish I could be as optimistic as you are” Isa said gruffly, looking down at his reflection in the water. He traced the scars on his face. But if they didn’t a chance, how could we?

“Look!” Skuld pointed at a single canoe swimming alongside the narrow river path. From a single glimpse, Isa knew it was Pocahontas. Well, that was fast he thought and followed the canoe with Skuld at his side. It headed straight for the grant willow in the middle of a small lake at the very heart of the woodland.

After a few steps however the two of them stopped. The small animals that followed Pocahontas gathered around the willow. They seemed quite odd, their skin and fur were darker than usual and small insignias appeared on their chest or back. Isa looked at Skuld, who knew exactly well what was going on. She conjured forth her Keyblade.

“These again” she snarled quietly as she hurried off to save Pocahontas. Isa merely watched as she took care of the creatures. With a Keyblade, she was able to spare them while destroying the corruption but Isa, without a Keyblade, could only kill them. It was a cruel joke.

Skuld quickly freed the creatures from the corruption and when the coast was clear, Isa joined her and together they followed Pocahontas to the trunk of the grand willow tree. The girl was already there, conversing with the elderly, animated tree.

“… my father wants me to marry Kocoum.”

“Kocoum… but he’s so serious” the tree replied with its wise and kind, grandmotherish voice.

“Father thinks it is the right path for me” Pocahontas continued, not noticing her friends’ arrival. “But lately, I’ve been having this dream…—“

“Oh, a dream! Let’s hear all about it!” the willow said in a curious, excited voice. The animals too became quite excited about the prospect of hearing her story and starting buzzing and chattering until Grandmother Willow yelled at them to stay silent, after which every animal suddenly became very quiet and very still.

“I’m running through the woods and then, right there in front of me, is an arrow. As I look at it, the arrow starts to spin.”

“A spinning arrow, how unusual” Grandmother Willow commented patiently.

“Yes” Pocahontas agreed and continued. “It spins faster and faster and faster, until suddenly it turns into something… I can’t really explain it.” Isa and Skuld had heard the story before. It was a dream that had haunted Pocahontas for a long time and unfortunately none of them knew what to do with it. The spinning arrow sounded like a compass to Isa, but since it wasn’t a known gadget amongst the tribe he didn’t want to speak up about it. “I… it is weird I know, but the word Key comes to my mind if I think about that object” Pocahontas added, surprising the great tree and her friends as well. She had never uttered any words about keys to them and it was also an item unknown to the tribe, so her knowledge about it was even more surprising.

The willow tree’s wrinkles – which resembled the face of an elderly lady – moved slowly and Grandmother Willow hummed as she thought about the dream. She peered knowingly at Skuld then turned back to Pocahontas. “Well, it seems to me that this spinning arrow is pointing you down your path.”

“But Grandmother Willow, what is my path? How am I ever going to find it?”

“Hah, your mother asked me the very same question!” Grandmother Willow said happily. “And I told her… to listen. All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth, the water, the sky. If you listen, they will guide you.”

“I hear the wind… but I don’t understand.”

“Listen with your heart” Skuld whispered and turned towards Isa, who also felt the change in the wind. Pocahontas suddenly climbed the tree to look around from its top.

“What can you see?” Isa asked carefully, not expecting anything specific.

“Clouds” she replied hesitantly. “Strange clouds…”

- O - O - O - O - O -

“What a wonderful world!” Sora said in awe as they landed off the coast of the ocean, at the brim of a great forest. Donald and Goofy nodded in unison as they all tried peering through the trees to see what is beyond.

“It kinda reminds me of Deep Jungle” Goofy said. “Ya guys remember it?”

“Yeah, when Sora wanted to fly and crashed us” Donald said, trying to recall the actual events.

“Did not!” Sora pouted. “Anyways, I saw a small village further down the coast. I think we should try there, maybe they know something about this place.”

Since neither Goofy, nor Donald had anything against the idea, they all headed down the coastline and soon the small wooden walls of the settlement appeared. A bunch of men were working on the wall as it was far from complete. “I wonder if this land is so dangerous that you need to build walls!” Goofy said.

“Well, you know how it is, Goofy! We have wall around the castle as well. To keep thugs like Pete out!” Donald claimed.

As they got closer, the men noticed them and some even grabbed weapons and pointed it at them. “Hold on there, lads! You savages from this land, are ye?” Asked the first one and the second smacked him on the head.

“Course they are! Who else would be here, beside them savages n’us?”

“Wait!” Sora raised his hand to show he meant no harm. “We… aren’t from around. We’ve come from afar, from the other side of this water.”

“Oh, are you Spanish?” a third one asked. He seemed younger than the others. He wore green clothes and a small cap above his auburn hair.

“Ya hit your head, boy? He clearly speaks English, not Spanish!”

“Nevermind” the boy waved and stepped over to them. “My name is Thomas. Welcome to Jamestown. You here for the gold I presume?”

“Not our gold, I presume” one of the men commented gruffly. “Become too friendly with’em and Ratcliffe gonna hang you alongside’em, Thomas. I’d be careful.”

“We’re not here for any gold” Goofy said. “We’re looking for a princess!”

The men had a hearty laugh at that proclamation. “Good luck with that! The best thing you get here is some savage girl! Would be careful though, they be wild as animals!”

Sora looked at his companions, knowing that they would not get any further information out of those men. However, if there were others living around there, their chance of finding a Princess of Heart had grown considerably.

“You seem interested in the locals” Thomas said, stepping closer to them. “They’re savages, bad news for everyone. But John Smith could probably tell you more about them. He had met with them and knows a lot more than anyone of us.”

“Thanks” Sora nodded. “And where is this John Smith?”

“I was just about to go look for him. He often disappears and only returns late at night, but we already had a small skirmish with the savages and I have to warn him.”

At that moment, a pompous looking, plump man dressed in tawdry purple clothes complete with a hat arrived with several soldiers. “Thomas! You’re still here. My disappointment in you grows by the hour. Why haven’t you gone to find Smith yet?”

“I’m just about to…—“

“Then go, for God’s sake, man! We need Smith here and we need him now! Only the Lord knows what these savage animals will do with him if they find him first! And take that three useless-looking ones as well. They’d be far too frail to built anything useful around.”

“Yes, Governor!” Thomas saluted. The governor threw him a weapon.

“And if you happen to see any Indians, shoot them. Don’t disappoint me again” Ratcliffe said with disgust and left to check up on the other men. Thomas nodded halfheartedly and lowered his head.

“Don’t worry! We’ll help you find John!” Sora said with a grin. “I’m Sora, and they are Donald and Goofy!”

“Thanks. Let’s go before we get another earful.”

The group left Jamestown in a hurry. Thomas seemed to know the premises quite well but even he didn’t know where John had wandered off to. He was a professional and had far more experience in that New World than any other of Ratcliffe’s men. “I wish I was like him. Brave, and strong, and confident!”

“Sound like me” Donald nodded wisely while Sora and Goofy grinned behind his back.

“You seem to look up to him” Goofy commented, turning his attention to Thomas.

“Well, you know. Everyone does. He has braved these lands before and he is calm and collected even if there’s danger. When we were out on the sea, he saved me” Thomas admitted. “And I’m… I’m just scared and slow to act.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get there in time!” Sora encouraged him. “And even he must have someone he admires” he added. “Everyone has.”

The trio and Thomas continued their journey through the woods and soon daylight turned into evening and the sky shone with a thousand sparkling stars. The forest stilled and quieted around them, and the close-by river became the loudest source of noise. Thomas led them to a small glade of willows, where they finally found John. The blonde-haired man was embracing and kissing a native woman with long black hair under the moonlight. It would’ve been a dream-like, wonderful and emotional scene, had another native not appeared out of nowhere.

The Indian dashed towards them and jumped John, pushing him over and pressing him down by the neck, while raising his axe to finish him off.

“Kocoum! No!” Pocahontas yelled out, but the Indian struck down. John grabbed a thick branch and protected himself at the last moment, while kicking Kocoum off him. The Indian fell into the shrubs while John got up and prepared himself for another attack.

Kocoum however didn’t rise immediately. Instead dark smoke swelled from beyond the shrub and when he finally emerged, the Indian was darkened, his eyes were glowing, and his war-paints burned brightly on his chest. He also wore the symbol of the Sinsters on his back.

“Oh no!” Sora looked at his friends who both nodded, then turned to Thomas. “Wait here! This is going to be dangerous!”

“Wait, Sora!” Thomas yelled as the trio jumped out, revealing themselves to the turned native.

“Who are you?” John asked, surprised.

“Doesn’t matter now. Take her to safety! We’ll deal with him!”

“Wait, don’t kill him!” Pocahontas pleaded.

“We won’t, don’t worry” Sora reassured her and conjured his Keyblade. “Donald, Goofy! You ready?”

“Let’s get him!” Donald raised his mallet and summoned a small blizzard above Kocoum. The Indian roared furiously and unsheathing his daggers ran towards Donald. Goofy stepped in front of him, armed with his shield, and blocked his attacks as best as he could. In the mean time Sora rushed the Sinster from one side, and Donald from the other. The pincer attack however failed as Kocoum retreated and the two of them hit each other with their weapons.

“Hey watch it!” Sora grunted painfully.

Kocoum lead a second attack this time at Sora. He kicked the boy in the water and threw one of his daggers at Goofy. Donald cast slow, halting his movement temporarily but only for so long that Sora could climb out. As the battle continued Sora parried the Indian’s attacks while Goofy threw his shield at him, hitting Kocoum in the end and stunning him for a second. This gave Sora just enough time to land a combo on him and kick him in the water. “What goes around, comes around!” Sora grinned proudly.

The Indian got out of the water and he was quite giddy from the attacks. He couldn’t find his footing and kneeled down. At once the marks around his body flamed up and he yelled out painfully as the dark smoke broke out of him through his ears, his nose and his mouth. It was only a couple of seconds, but it scared Sora. As the dark matter disappeared Sora, Donald, and Goofy encircled the Indian. “You think he’s gonna be alright?” Goofy asked.

The Indian groaned painfully and rose to his feet. Holding his head he started retreating; he also pulled his knife out and pointed it at the trio. “Calm down, will you!” Sora tried to reason with him, but the man got ready to attack once more. He was still confused about the situation so he must had mistaken Sora for the attacker. Kocoum dashed forward, but before he could’ve reached Sora a loud BANG broke the silence of the sleeping forest.

Kocoum fell down and into the water. Pocahontas cried out his name and ran to the fallen warrior while John ran to Thomas who was just as shocked as the rest. “Is he…”

“You killed him” Pocahontas said disbelievingly.

“I thought that…—‘

“Get away from him!” She said angrily, jumping at the man only for John to hold her back.

“Pocahontas, it won’t help!” John pleaded with her. “He was only…—“

“He killed him!” She repeated more fiercely.

The forest awakened around them and the sound of Indian warriors became louder and louder as they rushed to the site of the battle. “Uh-oh” Donald gulped and looked at Sora and Goofy anxiously. “What’s going to happen with us?”

“Thomas, get out of here!” John warned him. “And take those three as well!”

The young man did as he was told and the trio hurried after him, though Sora hesitated for a second. “But… we…—“

“No time!” John told him. “Go!”

Thomas pulled Sora by his jacket’s sleeve until the boy found his own pace and ran after him. Though after a while they stopped and looked back to see John being taken away by several armed warriors. “We have to warn the others” Thomas said. “They won’t stop with him. They’re going to come for us.”

“But it was an accident!” Sora retorted. “We just have to talk with them!”

“No. They won’t listen. Not now, when their friend lies dead” Thomas sighed. “War is coming. We have to hurry.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Isa and Skuld were on the outskirts of the camp when the warriors returned with Kocoum’s body in their hands. They hadn’t seen the attacker, who was taken there previously, or Pocahontas, who had been involved in the events. The chieftain came out of the camp as well and when he saw the body of his warrior and would-be son-in-law, he became furious.

“Who did this?” he demanded.

“Pocahontas was out in the woods” a warrior reported as they brought forth their prisoner. “Kocoum went to find her and this white man attacked him.”

“Your weapons are strong” said the chieftain, pointing his spear at the white man’s neck. “But now our anger is stronger. At sunrise he will be the first to die” he stated.

Isa shook his head. This won’t lead to any good. “They don’t have any choice, but to fight” Skuld whispered. She could read his mind as easy as an open book. Not because of some mystery power. But because Isa’s thoughts were plainly written on his face.

“Nevertheless they are going to lose” he proclaimed.

“What could we do?”

“We can’t do anything” Isa shook his head. “I think it is time we left this place.”

“Would you leave when we need you the most?” Pocahontas asked. Isa, surprised to see her there, looked up at the woman and felt ashamed. She seemed awfully sad, but determined at the same time. “I need to stop this, but without your help I won’t be able to.”

“What can we do?” Skuld asked immediately.

“I need to free John Smith.”

Skuld and Isa glanced at each other. “Alright” Isa nodded and stepped closer to Pocahontas. “We can manage that. Skuld has been sneaking in and out of your village throughout our time here.”

“Really?” Pocahontas asked with a puzzled expression.

“Sorry, I was too fascinated with the place. Had to take a good look around” the girl winked happily. “I know my way around the camp and I have a good idea of where they will keep him.”

True to her word, Skuld managed to sneak all three of them inside the camp without being noticed. She really knew how to get around certain points and also had a good grip on which tent or hut to hide in for a while when necessary. It took them a little while, but they managed to sneak into the hut where they were keeping John.

“Pocahontas” John realized her presence and looked her, as she stepped over and kneeled down to be by his side.

“I’m so sorry” she said, embracing him.

“For what, this? I’ve gotten out of worse scrapes than this. Can’t think of any right now, but—“

“Enough chatter” Isa said, looking at the two of them. “We have to get out of here. Skuld, could you?”

She nodded and conjured her Keyblade to undo the local’s complex binding technique with ease. As John laid his eyes on the Keyblade, his expression changed considerably. “I’ve seen that weapon before” he said.

“Where?” Isa asked immediately.

“There were three other people there when Kocoum died” Pocahontas nodded. “One of them, a young boy had a weapon similar to this one.”

“Sora… it must be him” Isa speculated. “So they are here. That’s good. Skuld, we need to find them.”

“I know” she agreed and turned towards the pair. “Can you two get out on your own? We need to find the other Keyblade wielder.”

“Keyblade?” Pocahontas asked. “So that means…”

“Yes” Skuld’s cheeks reddened with shame. “Sorry, but we couldn’t speak out sooner. We do not know what your life holds, but as for the Key part… we have quite a good idea of what will happen.”

Isa stepped closer and gently touched Pocahontas’ arm. “Do you know what you’ll do?”

“Grandmother Willow” she said. “She can help, I know it.”

“I will stay here” John stated, surprising the others. “If I left” he continued, “it’d reinforce their anger. I trust you, Pocahontas. If anyone can stop them, it’s you.”

Painfully, but Pocahontas had to agree. She got up and turned to the other two. “Let’s go” she said and with that they left the hut and John behind. The three of them escaped the camp separately. Pocahontas headed for the great willow, while Skuld and Isa hurried towards Jamestown. They didn’t exchange a single word while they were hurrying over the forest. Isa himself was deep in thoughts: Sora is here and two others? But based on the description they weren’t Keyblade wielders. Must be Donald and Goofy; which means Lea and the others are still not accounted for. But it also means that there is resistance yet.  We have to get to the bottom of this as soon we can.

Jamestown was already up in arms. Some fat guy was yelling orders from atop the wall while the men were arming themselves and preparing to fight. Skuld and Isa watched from amongst the trees as the whole settlement made ready for war. “This is troublesome” Isa said, feeling his patience running out because of the man they called Governor. “This guy can’t just shut up, can he?”

“Patience… patience. You know your temper will just make things worse.”

“For him at least” he agreed. Skuld snorted and shook her head, patting Isa on the shoulder.

They both scouted the area and though it took quite a while, finally they saw the trio emerging from a building alongside a young man. “There!” Isa pointed at Sora immediately, Skuld following his guide. “We need to draw them here and—“

Before Isa could’ve finished, Skuld stepped out of the shrubs and started running towards them. Isa quickly pulled her back and just in time. She was still dressed as the locals which would’ve made her a prime target. “Are you out of your mind?” he scolded her angrily. “Want to get shot at?”

“Alright-alright. Forgot about it” she scoffed and pouted. “What’s the plan then, Mr. Know-it-all?” Isa picked up a rock and looked at Sora. Skuld eyed him and her expression said more than any words. “I’d say he’s far… too far.”

“I really hate that kid” Isa replied calmly and squeezed the rock.

“Wait. Isa!”

It was too late. He pitched the rock impeccably. It shot through the space between them and Sora like a bullet and barely scratched the boy’s left hand crashing onto a large box behind them, giving them a good fright. As the trio started searching for the culprit, Isa turned to Skuld for help: “Conjure a small fire for us.” And she did.

The trio caught on quickly and followed the clues to them without knowing what awaited them. When they finally reached the glade, Isa and Skuld stepped out of the woods to the trio’s surprise. “Isa? And you are…” it took Sora a short while but after a few seconds he realized who she was. “Skuld… right?”

“The one and only!” she nodded cheerfully.

“What are you doing here?” Donald asked, looking at the two of them.

“We got separated from the rest at Radiant Garden” Isa started explaining. “I went to save Skuld but she awakened and brought us here. We’ve been biding our time here since then. What happened to the others?”

“We know little” Goofy confessed. “It seems like the Master of Masters and the Foretellers have defeated the others and took over several Worlds. We’ve been instructed to find the Princesses of Heart and Sora led us here.”

“So you were right” Isa said, turning to Skuld.

“Told you. Pocahontas must be a Princess.”

“But war is coming” Sora said, looking all guilty. “We can’t stop it.”

“Pocahontas can” Isa proclaimed. “And we need to help her succeed.”

Getting back was more difficult as meanwhile the soldiers left Jamestown under the Governor’s lead. Isa, Skuld, Sora, Donald and Goofy took a roundabout way which took longer but at least they didn’t have to cross the soldiers’ path. As they got closer and closer to the site of the execution, the skies slowly became brighter as the waking sun’s first light shone through and above the leaves of the forest. Upon the meadows the Indians were preparing to execute John just as the five of them arrived.

On the far-end the soldiers marched out of the forest, armed and prepared to fight with Ratcliffe at the helm. They pointed their weapons at the locals, waiting for the order of the Governor. On the other side the natives held spears and clubs and formed an even line, prepared to face their enemies head on.

The chieftain was about to smash John’s head, when Pocahontas appeared and shielded John with her body. “No!” she yelled as she covered the man’s face with her own body. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me too” she said plainly but defiantly.

“Daughter, stand back.”

“I won’t! I love him, father!” she protested, not letting John go. The words shock not only the chieftain, but the soldiers and the warriors alike. Everyone, every soul was lost for a moment as the utterance of true love was presented before them. “Look around you. This is where the path of hatred has brought us. This is the path I choose” she added and leaned on John. “What will yours be?”

The winds picked up, blowing through the battlefield. Isa felt the change… not in the weather, but in the heart of all men. The chieftain raised his staff but not to kill. When he spoke, his voice was calm and no hatred remained within: “My daughter speaks with a wisdom beyond her years. We have all come here with anger in our hearts but she comes with courage and understanding. From this day forward, if there is to be more killing it will not start with me.”

The natives released John and everyone put down their weapons… all but one. Ratcliffe, after a quick argument with his own men, took up a gun and aimed at the chieftain and pulled the trigger. At the last moment, John pushed the man out of the way and took the bullet for him, collapsing.

At this moment the dark smoke that previously infected Kocoum had enveloped Ratcliffe as well and he cried out with tremendous pain, transforming into a large black mass of a monster with claws instead of hands and eyes shining in wrathful scarlet.

“Get away from him!” Sora cried out as he rushed to the battlefield alongside Goofy, Donald, and Skuld. Isa too wanted to hurry there, but he was unarmed so the most he could do was to watch them from afar as they defeated him… at least that’s what his original intention was. But thinking about all those things the Governor had done he became angrier and angrier until he couldn’t control himself. That BASTARD!

The four of them held themselves pretty well against the giant Sinster, but when Isa stepped onto the battlefield with a large club everything changed. Before the beast could’ve blinked or reacted Isa appeared before it and unleashed his inner rage, smashing its face in countless times with the simple weapon until the club itself broke. Then he picked up a rock and used that to continue the pummeling. It didn’t take a full minute and the monster was torn into pieces.

The black smoke once again tried to escape, but this time Sora and Skuld worked together and completely eradicated it. Ratcliffe was mostly unharmed but he was immediately captured and taken away by the soldiers while the rest hurried to help the injured John.

Several hours later at the coastline, John was being put on a boat. They would take him back to England to nurse him back to health. Sora and the rest of the gang watched from afar as the Indians arrived and brought supplies with them. Pocahontas bid farewell to John; as sad as it was, it seemed like the beginning of a better relationship between the settlers and the natives.

“What do we do now?” Skuld asked, turning to Sora.

“We have to get her to safety. You can see, it’s not safe here.” Sora decided. “Could you two take her to a World called Stargaze Valley? The survivors from Radiant Garden are there.”

“And Bugenhagen can fill ya in with all them details!” Goofy nodded.

“What about the three of you?” Isa asked.

“There are a few more Princesses” Sora sighed. “We need to find them before the Foretellers do.”

“Alright. We’ll help out” Skuld agreed. “Right Isa?”

“Right” he said massaging his temple with his fingers. As they turned to leave Skuld started joking with Isa’s temper again, while the man tried to dodge the topic but with little success. Sora, Donald, and Goofy grinned at each other, happy that they managed to help save Pocahontas.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Far from the coast, on top of a large rock formation a pair of figures watched silently as the massive ship began its voyage back across the ocean. The unicorn-masked Ira enjoyed the early-autumn breeze and the fresh scent of the forest it carried upon its back. Too bad it was time to depart.

“We didn’t do much” his Serpent masked partner, Invi stated. “You think the Master will be alright with this?”

“He sees all” he shrugged. “He must’ve known that I would rebel in this form.”

“Isn’t this childish, though?”

The man turned to face Invi and for once he was glad that the mask hid his face, which wasn’t at all as composed as his voice. “He lied to us. He made us play along instead of telling us what to do. Luxu was the closest to knowing the scheme and even he was left out of the loop. He is my Master so I won’t openly betray him. But I’ll test the boundaries of his ability.”

“You really are angry with him” she sighed. “I can absolutely understand. But you should fear his wrath.”

“He is without one. I carry that… his wrath.”

“True enough. Guess it is time to move?”

“Yes.”

“Just so you know, I won’t skip my part.”

“I was counting on that” Ira nodded, sounding thankful. “Though I bear a grudge against him, I do not want us to fail in the end.”

“You really were a bad choice” Invi chuckled softly and opened a portal with her Keyblade. “Onward, we still have plenty of Princesses to catch.”

Chapter Text

Everything was just like they remembered: the long, wide river that stretched way beyond the forests on one side and ran out into the endless sea on the other, the distant hills and mountains spiking out lazily and reaching towards the sky, the cozy thick little buildings or the grand and ancient clock tower that cast its long shadow over everything. The weather did not become any colder or warmer; it matched the sensation he had felt when he was but a young kid. Even the smell was the same; a faint but very unique smell that came from the tower and spread throughout the town. Strelitzia used to say it was the smell of Lux, though he could never understand why. To him, it felt like a lovely bouquet of flowers.

As they passed through the town limits, the trees and shrubs dwindled while the number of houses increased considerably. The natural ground turned into a cobblestoned pathway that spread out like the roots of a tree. They followed the main road, which led them through the thickness of the city until they reached the main square with its glorious fountain, small shops with tiny balconies above them, crates and long benches. Along the way they rarely saw anyone, but the distant noises promised them more than an empty town.

“Where is everyone?” Myed asked, looking left and right with a visible nervousness to him. He was quite unsure about their decision to enter Daybreak Town, and though Lauriam was the loudest amongst them, he could see where his worry came from.

“Daybreak is vast” Ludor shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first for most of the children to gather at one part of it. I’m sure we’ll see them eventually.”

“Agreed” Lauriam said. “I’m quite sure there’s a deeper meaning to this. Without the children, this place is a hollow reminder.”

Elrena stepped over to the fountain and put her hand in the water. She sat down and remained there, looking towards the distant buildings. Lauriam looked at her but didn’t dare to guess what was on her mind. This place is… too much. For all of us. And it really was. He too could feel its overwhelming power, trying to rekindle the flames of hope in his heart, even though he was perfectly aware that it was but a mirage, a fake. “Let’s split up” Elrena said finally, not looking back at them. “We should search for a way out of this place.”

“A way out?” Lauriam asked unsure whether he wanted to leave already.

“What else would you want to do?” she asked without looking at him. Elrena rose to her feet and beckoned Myed to join her. “We’ll take a look at the market. You guys go and see the light tower. Let’s meet back here in an hour and discuss what we’ve found.”

Myed would’ve opposed the plan, had anyone asked his opinion; of this, Lauriam was quite sure. But Elrena was already on her way so the musician had no choice. Lauriam and Ludor watched them leave the square before turning towards one another. The gambler was shuffling a deck of cards quietly, seeming way too serious for himself. “Is there a problem?” Lauriam asked carefully.

“No. Or rather, I’m not sure.” He looked up at the clock tower. His hands were shaking, affecting his thoroughly practiced shuffling skills. “I’m afraid whatever we do ultimately we’ll play into his hand.”

“You’ve known him better than the rest of us. What do you know about this… Master of Masters?”

“Not a whole lot, unfortunately. Rarely did he drop his act to reveal frictions of his true nature. He played a role from the beginning and until the end, just like a true master of gambling.”

“But is he gambling? Or has he hacked the game from the get go?”

Ludor shrugged and stopped playing with his cards, putting them away. “I do not know this man, Lauriam. In fact, nobody does. If we want to turn the tables, we need to stop fighting him blindly and start playing wisely. Many forget that gambling is not just sheer luck, but much more: strategy, deception, calculation. You cannot just count on being lucky enough to get the winning hand.”

“And I know this, but what could we do?” he asked hopelessly. “Look at us! We are here in Daybreak Town and we don’t even know what this is.”

“Then let’s start investigating” Ludor nodded and handed a card to his friend. Lauriam took it and stared at the small piece of hardened paper. It depicted a man – surrounded by a blood-reddened garden – staring and reaching for the heavens, where an angelic being was playing the trumpet from above the clouds. Ludor looked into his eyes, seeming worried for him.

“What does this mean?” Lauriam asked, half angry and half anxious to hear the answer.

“You still carry a heavy boulder. And this isn’t the day it becomes any lighter, I’m afraid.”

Lauriam understood what he had meant. He stepped over to the fountain and sat down, looking for that one specific rooftop where she would always sit and hum away quietly, watching others. I’ve never stopped believing, hoping. Not even after the proofs were thrown at my feet. Strelitzia, I still hope to hear your voice one day again. It was the one thing that made him move forward, that empowered his will just enough so he could make any sacrifice; to see his sister once again.

“Let’s go” he said finally, accepting the fact that she wasn’t there. “Let’s check that light tower.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Elrena was way beyond frustrated by the place and by the trio’s behavior. Myed being a little bitch about every damned wind-moved shrub was one thing, but seeing Ludor all scared shitless and Lauriam staring at a bunch of bricks in awe was something she was not prepared to face. Not because she couldn’t handle the situation, but because her temper had been reduced to almost nothing since their original adventures, the time traveling shenanigans and all that time with the Organization.

She walked with determination towards the market, pushing crates and boxes aside while a hopelessly useless Myed was trying to keep up with her. Why did I even bring this one along? Oh right, I was thinking about stabbing him in the back while he wasn’t paying attention. She tried keeping her mind occupied long enough to calm herself, but it seemed impossible. Thinking back to those good times when she could laugh heartily and enjoy the simple joys of life. What had changed since then? She couldn’t tell. Something broke in her… or something broke her. She did answered another voice inside her. It’s the simple fact that he cares more about her than he’ll ever care about you.

“Probably” she whispered angrily. “But I already decided I won’t care about that. Comparing myself to her would be the stupidest thing.”

“Did you say something?” Myed asked carefully, whimpering as she gave him a dangerously cold stare. “You know” he continued while taking a step back. “It won’t help your cause much if you continue acting like this.”

“I’m not acting anyhow. Fiddle with your little instrument and leave me alone” she replied and pushed a gate – separating two larger districts – open. The market on the other side wasn’t empty, surprising the both of them for a splinter of a second. Children were running up and down, alone or in groups, making noises with their banter and laughter. “Do you see what I see?” Elrena asked, eyes widened by the surprise.

“I do” Myed said, stepping beside her. “All these children. How?” A small group ran towards them and the two had to scatter or they would’ve collided with them. “Hey now!” Myed yelled at the small group. “Watch where you’re going!”

“Because that ought to help” Elrena added, more frustrated with Myed than with the rest. “Come on guitar-boy, time to get to the bottom of this” she said fiercely and began to march through the thick crowd. The kids were varied in size and nature, some of them small – almost too young to be part of the group – while others were of the age and size of Sora’s little gang. Some played and talked annoyingly loudly, while others were more quiet and reserved. Youth had dozens of faces and Elrena knew each and every one of them like the back of her hand. She had spent her own youth amongst them, and made many enemies and friends.

Before Lauriam, there had been others. Some were friendly, others were mean or just plain stupid. None of them were able to keep her interested long enough, though back then she was more shy and cheerful. It was weird to think back to those old days. The times when I could allow myself to laugh and play along, she thought grimly. She went from group to group, joining smaller and bigger teams for missions, but always looking for something else. But all was well, until he came along. Indifferent towards the competition between the unions, trying to befriend different people based on merit, while staying level headed and cool.

The pair marked a smaller bunch sitting on a bench and enjoying their ice creams. Elrena headed towards them, Myed just behind her. “You three!” Elrena said, sounding like she was about to accuse them for murder. The children looked up, seeming uninterested and unhinged by her demeanor. “What is this? What is going on?”

“It’s market hour” said a little girl with brown hair. “Everything is cheap.”

“Yeah. So everyone is here buying things” a blonde-haired boy added. He wore funny glasses and colorful clothes.

Elrena and Myed glanced at each other; neither seemed too sure about how to continue this interrogation. Finally, the musician cleared his throat and stepped closer. “Say, where are your masters?”

“Masters?” asked the little girl.

“The Foretellers. Five of them, wear funny masks” Elrena added for clarification, her impatience becoming stronger by the second.

“I’m not sure who you’re talking about” a second girl said. She was taller than her two companions. “We have no Masters… and there are no Foretellers here, or anyone that matches that description.”

“Then who is running this town?” Elrena asked without any more patience to spend.

“Our big sister” said the trio at once.

“And where is your big sister?” Myed took over, trying to ease the tension.

“Up there somewhere!” the boy pointed at the rooftops. “She likes chilling up there, watching the skies and the birds.”

“Strelitzia” said both of them at once, realizing the Master’s ploy. “We have to get back to Lauriam” Elrena added and they turned to leave when a very familiar figure appeared in the distance. She could only catch a glimpse of him, but the hat with the feather gave it all away. Without a word, the fierce Dandelion rushed after the Master of Masters.

She hurried along the market road, turned towards the narrow corridor-streets and walkway and headed towards the bridge. She could practically sense his presence, which meant that he hadn’t even tried cloaking himself. He wanted to be found. After the short but intensive chase, Elrena reached another one of the town’s many squares. Lauriam stood there at the middle of the square, surrounded by a large garden and listened to the peaceful singing of eveyone’s big sister. Elrena wanted to leap out and pull him away, but the Master appeared beside her – out of nothingness – and gently stopped her by the arm. He raised a finger in front of his mouth, indicating that she should remain silent and watch the events unfold.

Like hell I will, she thought and opened her mouth to shout, but no voice came much to her horror. She touched her neck and looked at the Master disbelievingly, but the man merely shrugged and smiled with his cold wickedness. He tilted his head, pointing at Lauriam.

“Strelitzia” Lauriam said. Though his voice was weak, quivering and barely audible, Elrena heard it impeccably, probably due to the Master’s magic. The rose-haired boy stepped closer to his sister and reached out to touch her gently, carefully. When the tips of his finger reached her shoulder, she froze and looked up. For a long moment, there was an unnerving silence, but it broke as she joyfully shouted his name and jumped to embrace him lovingly.

“Lauriam! You came!” she sounded so happy.

“I… I did” the man nodded and hugged her back. “Strelitzia, what happened to you? How are you here?”

“What do you mean?” she asked back, sounding unsure. “I was always here, waiting for you. You said you’d come to meet me. And I waited for a long time.”

“I’m sorry” the man replied, sounding like his heart had just broken. “I know I’ve failed you”

“You haven’t” Strelitzia patted him on the shoulder. “You are here now. That’s all that matters!”

“Yes. I know… I mean…” Lauriam was trying frantically to connect the dots; Elrena could practically see the cogs in his head working hard to untangle the whole confusing mystery, but to no avail. She herself could not tell what was going on, but it really was getting on her nerves. She stared at the Master who seemed awfully proud of himself, standing lazily with his back against the wall, arms folded as if he hadn’t a care in the World, as if there wasn’t anyone out for his blood in his proximity. This could be the ultimate opportunity, she thought, barely able to control herself. She knew exactly well it would’ve been pointless. He’d never offer his head on a silver plate just like that. Still, it was far too tempting not to try and smash that sanctimonious face with a brick. “You aren’t real, are you?” Lauriam asked after a while.

This was the moment the Master chose to leap into the scene. “Lauriam, my boy! Saying something like this with a straight face to someone is a real mean thing to do!” he said half cheerfully, half faking a sob. Hearing his voice, Lauriam turned around and summoned forth his Keyblade immediately. “And that’s not a proper way to greet your host, either” the Master continued, shaking his head sadly. “I’ve brought you here, to the place you desired and loved the most. I’ve given you the one thing you’ve been wanting ever since our spiral of tragedy begun. Can’t you be satisfied anymore?”

“This is a LIE!” He bellowed furiously. “You goddamn monster! Get out of our head and set us free!”

“Now-now” he warned, using a more strict tone and his index finger to warn the boy that he was out of line. “I will not stand for such a behavior, young man” he said, his voice becoming soft again, slowly. “But I will accept the apology. This must be a lot for you to take in.”

“Master” called Ludor as he entered the scene. He had also conjured his weapon at one point and had four cards floating around him. He seemed serious and worried at the same time. The Master of Masters slowly turned towards him and gave a wide smile as he spread his hands to welcome the newest arrival.

“Ah, the wayward son has returned! It has been too long, Ludor, well not counting that run-in at the Graveyard. How have you fared, dear boy?”

“Master, I am still unsure where this gamble leads. You’ve always been good at hiding your trump card…”

“And you’ve always had keen eyes for the details” the Master nodded. “Still, talking about my plans and objective… that wouldn’t change anything besides killing the surprise. Let it be enough, that there is a sweet place for every loyal person in our new World.”

“A World without Kingdom Hearts?” Lauriam asked.

“Heh” the Master shook his head and tried to hide his grin. “I see the old wizards put their heads together and tried to do the math. They are correct… to a certain extent, yes. But as I said, this changes nothing. You are my dear guests in this place.”

“If we are guests… how can we leave?” Ludor asked.

“Well, I suppose a little game can never hurt, right? Find the exit, and you are all free to leave. Stay too long and you’ll be part of the mirage. Fair enough, no?”

“Give us a hint at least!” Myed begged, panting heavily from all that running. It took him a while to find the rest, but he managed to in the end. The Master looked at him and sighed loudly, shaking his head. Slowly, he disappeared leaving behind nothing but questions. “Well that’s just great. A simple ‘no’ would’ve been enough.”

“I think I can help you” Strelitzia said quietly, surprising all four them.

“How?” Lauriam turned back to her and the others went closer to them as well. Elrena still had trouble with her voice and it bothered her a lot, but even she was aware that it wasn’t the right moment to worry about it.

“We were told not to go close to the Light Tower” she started explaining. “I’m not sure why, but we can’t go too close.”

“Could that be?” Myed asked and the others nodded.

“Very much” Ludor agreed. “Would be an unusual place to look for an exit. I say let’s give it a shot.”

The Dandelions crossed the town and Strelitzia went along with them. Elrena at one point regained her voice as the Master’s magic wore off but decided to stick to silence for a while longer. She kind of enjoyed listening to Lauriam chatting happily with Strelitzia, although she could feel the tension behind his kind words and saw the guilt reflecting in his eyes.

Finally, they reached the Light House which was wide open. It was dark inside so they couldn’t have known what would await them. They lined up, ready to leave… but Lauriam’s voice which they were all waiting for never came. Elrena looked at the man and saw his hesitation. He kept glancing towards Strelitzia, fiddling with his hands.

“We have to go” she said finally, taking over for the man.  She looked at the others and pointed at the building. “You to go ahead. Give him some space.”

“Alright-alright” Myed nodded and went on, followed by Ludor who remained silent.

They entered the building and disappeared in its darkness. Elrena went to the entrance and leaned against the wall. She decided to wait for Lauriam because there was a small voice in her head that warned her against leaving him behind. “You coming?” she asked lazily as if she didn’t care, which was a lie of course.

“Yes” Lauriam nodded and turned back to Strelitza. “I will come back for you. I will find a way.”

“I know you will” she said, smiling. “I’ll be here waiting for you.”

Lauriam pulled her close and hugged her. They stayed like that for minutes and though Elrena wasn’t a patient one, even she didn’t have anything against it. She waited for the man patiently and when Lauriam was finally ready she crossed over with him. But what awaited them on the other side was everything but what she thought it would be. For once again, they stood in the gates of Daybreak Town as if they had only arrived a minute ago.

“What in the World—” she started but couldn’t finish as the sound of clapping interrupted her. The four Dandelions, equally surprised and shocked by the events, turned to see the Master of Masters standing on top of a building, Strelitzia sitting behind him.

“There’s always a next time, lads” he laughed.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lauriam demanded furiously.

“You left through the wrong door” the Master replied calmly. “You’ll find more than one door out of this place. But there is only one that can lead to salvation. I’ll give you your hint” he said, winking at Myed. “You’re searching for the door, closest to your heart. Release it, and the way out will open up before you.”

And without further comments, the Master of Masters disappeared, leaving behind a group of confused people who were just as lost – if not even more – than before.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Maleficent watched the events unfold from the safety of her dominion. She had set up quite a few magical barriers and wards to keep any intruders at bay but as it seemed, nobody was interested in capturing her. Well she knew one person, but she’d never come by herself. “That witch played us all!” she grunted angrily, snapping her finger and sending explosive magic towards a bookshelf, demolishing it. “How could I have been so blind! Her plot was all over the place!” she continued raging. “PETE!”

“Yes?” her most faithful and greatly limited companion saluted anxiously. “Are we gonna go and do them in finally?”

“They are clearly out of your league” she said with disgust. “But not all is lost… for now. We need to regain our place amongst the players so we need something of value in our hands. I will give you a simple task, please try not failing me again.”

“Anything for your Darkship!”

“Retrieve one of the Princesses of Heart. Rapunzel might be a fine idea, as her castle lacks powerful defenses and she herself has limited power.”

“What should I do with her?”

“Lock her away” Maleficent said. “I will try and renegotiate my position within the Coven in the meantime. Hopefully, my proposal will be good enough. Just be sure to get ready.”

“As you wish!” he saluted once again and hurried off to find the ingredients to make himself a portal to Rapunzel’s world. Maleficent herself descended into the deepest pit of her ruinous castle and used the ancient portal to reach the home of the Coven, Salem’s Lot.

The World had not changed even under Ultimecia’s rule. It remained tainted with curses and darkness, sentenced to an eternal stormy night. The evil fairy climbed the hill and approached Raven Rock, the home of their Coven. While the World itself did not change, Raven Rock was now abandoned. From its eyes thick chains reached into the sky, withholding a piece of land from floating away. On that large chunk of land a great castle towered above the World, it was the home of Coven’s newest leader.

“How very extravagant,” Maleficent noted not completely disliking the idea of a floating castle. “I shall take it for myself. It will be fitting for the true mistress of all evil.” She turned into a raven herself and flew up to the castle, circling around it and taking a good look before approaching it. This castle is filled with power, she noted. It won’t be easy to approach her, well it wouldn’t be if I used conventional ways of reaching the Throne Room.

She landed on a bridge behind the main building of the castle. It was a short, straight and narrow bridge leading to a tall bastion which was accessible by no other means. She had heard of the castle before and knew exactly well that Ultimecia’s throne would be behind those doors. She hurried over the bridge and pushed the door open, entering her lair.

Though from the outside it seemed like the room had a ceiling, from within there was no roof only the dark sky above and the distant, paling light of Kingdom Hearts. The circular room had columns placed around and a final thicker one in the middle. On the top of this final column stood the golden throne of Ultimecia, but the sorceress herself was nowhere to be seen. The only person present in the room was the White Witch, who stood guard at the foot of the central column.

“Jadis, how awfully unpleasant to see you alive” Maleficent commented.

“You’ve come crawling back. Quite a shock” Jadis replied.

“You should’ve crawled back to your home world while you still possessed the chance.”

Jadis’ wicked laughter filled the halls and slowly newer and newer shadows emerged from the nothingness. The members of the Coven arrived to help their sister; which wouldn’t be a problem if this castle wasn’t already working hard to deplete my magical powers, she contemplated. “I see you’ve all become slaves to her will, to her lure.”

“No, my darling” Raisin Sweet-tooth said, approaching her. “No. The lure is strong, yes, but we’ve no quarrel with her. She offered a truce and we took it. We serve a new master now.”

“Serving is all you can do” Maleficent noted briskly. “I see some of you didn’t accept said truce.”

“Hecate, Circe and Tia Dalma fled” Morgana revealed. “Their time will come. We will hunt down every traitor.”

“Seems to me you’re getting fewer by the day” Maleficent smiled unkindly. “I wonder how many would suddenly flee if I could strike a blow against you today.”

“Well, that won’t happen will it?” Jadis asked with a fake sweetness. “Or would you challenge any of us, here and now?”

“I’d gladly challenge your mistress, but I see she’s out tonight. I guess you would be enough as well” Even though this itself makes the whole plan a failure, she thought angrily. Ultimecia was the target and specifically because I need to take her out in order to get these idiots back on my side.

“I accept it” Jadis said and with a quick spell locked the door and put a barrier above them so neither could flee. “You will learn to respect and fear my power!”

Maleficent wasted no more time on speaking. Instead she unleashed her magic upon Jadis who countered her spells and magic with her own. It was a balanced battle between two equally powerful witches, trained by the same great and horrific teacher. Yet both of them stepped onto different roads and found or created their own spells. Maleficent steered herself towards the Darkness, harnessing its power, while Jadis longed to learn forbidden spells.

Try to utter the Deplorable Word, Maleficent thought. It comes with a risk even though it is one of the most powerful spells I could think of. Jadis did not seem to tire. One after another, she cast counter-spells and negated every attack of Maleficent who was being siphoned of her powers by the Castle itself.

Maleficent tore out a piece of the ground, hopped on it and flew up high to bombard her enemy from above. Jadis however was fast and possessed superior reflexes, thus she was able to avoid the attack and use the columns to her advantage. She pushed one towards Maleficent and the evil fairy could barely escape the collision. She jumped off the flying piece of debris and floated down to the ground while summoning green flames around her.

The flames however were no match against Jadis’ blackened ice. She used it to extinguish the fire and freeze the ground, hindering Maleficent’s movement. The fairy fell and Jadis quickly kicked her staff away and froze her legs onto the ground.

“This is it, dearest! Accept your death with a bit of dignity” she cackled cruelly and raised her arms high, summoning a sword out of ice. “Farewell, fairy!”

“Fool!” Maleficent bellowed as the sword touched her skin. She let out a shriek and expanded gruesomely as she turned into a large black dragon, roaring and breathing fire. Jadis spat on the ground and her eyes shone up with a dark light.

“If this is what you want, have it!” she cried out and began to utter the deplorable word. Maleficent however was much faster and instead of toiling with some magical attack or waste her time breathing fire, she merely leaned close and bit the White Witch in half.

Jadis’ barrier broke down and Maleficent returned to her humanoid form, falling on her knees and panting from exhaustion. In front of her, the lower half of the dead witch collapsed onto the ground.

“Great performance indeed” said someone, high above her. Maleficent looked up and to her horror saw Ultimecia descend from the sky and taking her place on the throne. Her guardian demon was hovering not far above her with another 2-3 demons watching from higher up. “It is quite sad that Jadis was foolish enough not to fear an actual dragon, but at least she had you waste most of that energy. What commendable sacrifice.”

“You will follow her to the grave” Maleficent spat out.

“I will… maybe. But you” she looked at the other witches and pointed at Maleficent. “Do take care of her.”

The members of the Coven were waiting for this moment. They unleashed their power all at once and for a second, Maleficent thought she was finished. But fate had a different idea. An eerie aura flashed around the body of the evil witch and the ground itself swallowed her in the next moment, saving the fairy from certain death.

“What is this?! I demand an answer! Who are you?” she cried out furiously as the mysterious power emanating from unknown source pushed her back into the Enchanted Dominion’s safety. The gate she fell through closed behind her promptly and there was no answer, only a feeling within her. She couldn’t say what it was, but for a whole second Maleficent felt at peace.

 

Chapter Text

The evening was warm and the sky was starry in the Crescent City. Skuld gazed at the moon above them which took on the same form that the city itself did. The locals called it New Orleans but she preferred its other name as it had a lovely ringing to it.

“Feeling at home?” she teased Isa who replied with a not-so-amused look. He stood a few paces from her, looking at the newspaper he found on a bench. She wasn’t sure what the man was looking for but since neither had any ideas where to begin their search she didn’t mind his private investigation. What truly mattered was that they had to find the princess before the Master’s army could kidnap her. “Are we sure she’s here?” she asked carefully, not knowing what to think of Bugenhagen. The old wizard seemed like a crazy scientist but he was also like a fun grandpa to have around. Still that wasn’t enough to determine whether he was right regarding the World.

“According to our best intel” Isa noted flipping through the pages. “She should be here, somewhere…”

Skuld nodded and waltzed around the street with her hands clasped behind her. It seemed like a modern town; the buildings were neatly lined up and the shops had large glass cases displaying their goods. Nothing like our cozy little home hidden amongst the hills, built around the snaking river, she thought longingly. It had been so long ago that she couldn’t even remember half the things she liked about Daybreak Town. Those cafés, shops, the cobblestoned streets, and the ever-present smell of lilacs; I so much miss them. And the Dandelions… As she watched the display behind the glass, for a split moment she saw her own reflection in the mirror as well; how much she had changed. She had grown taller and though she was saved by Isa, and Lea, and their friends, the mark of decades long imprisonment had left its scars on her soul and body. Her skin turned somewhat ashen and tinges of hair lost their raven blackness becoming white as snow. She wasn’t slender, she was unhealthily skinny, finding it hard to eat or drink.

“Is everything alright?” Isa asked, carefully approaching her.

“Yeah” she nodded, though her voice wasn’t anywhere near reassuring. She tore away her gaze from the glass and looked at Isa. “We need to find her. We need a plan.”

“Here’s our plan” he said and pressed the print into her hands with a reassured smile. “A little reading helps a lot it seems.”

Skuld looked down onto the newspaper in her grasp and started reading the title.

PRINCE ARRIVES TODAY

“Prince Naveen of Maldonia is coming to New Orleans and will stay to visit and enjoy regional festivities. To honor the long awaited arrival of the young prince, local sugar mill owner Eli La Bouff vowed to host ball of never before seen grandeur…” Skuld read the article loudly. She stopped and looked up at Isa who stared back at her with a reassured smile. “You think we’re looking for him? Shouldn’t the Princess of Heart be an actual princess?”

“Who knows” Isa shrugged. “It is a title based on our previous knowledge. It is not a written rule or anything.”

“Well, we can take a look at any case. It is a firm start” she agreed and placed the newspaper back on the bench. “Let’s find La Bouff’s estate quickly.”

The pair hurried through the streets of the town and Skuld unconsciously conjured her Keyblade. Something seemed odd to her, as if someone was watching them from the shadows. Isa too had realized she was anxious so he stopped to see if everything was alright.

“It’s just…” she looked left and right, searching for the source of that feeling. After not finding anything she shrugged it off and continued towards the distant estate where the music played loudly and people were dancing. As they drew nearer, Skuld stopped and looked around once more, feeling the same as before. What is this feeling? she pondered and looked around once more. Whatever lurked within the shadows had yet to reveal itself and so hesitantly, but she continued towards the masquerade ball.

The front court of the great La Bouff estate was filled with people in colorful clothes and masks dancing vividly to the enjoyable music of the band. At the side by the walls tables were lined up, filled with drinks and bites for the hungry and thirsty. Further away, near the front staircase a young dark-skinned woman was tending to her own table which seemed to be a fan favorite of the attendees.

“Here we are” Isa noted. “Let’s split up?”

Skuld nodded, though she still felt an uneasy chill about her. She tried brushing it off and grabbed a lost mask, placing it on her face. Alright, let’s see what sort of party this is, she thought with a grin and headed towards the dancers. As she walked past playing children, drunk guests, and reuniting old friends she recalled the many celebrations they had held in Daybreak Town. So many festivals, so many special balls and happy occasions, she remembered fondly. Oh how much I loved them. Seeing the children and the youth gather on those streets, celebrate and dance and sing. Those who lived further away from the center would sleep at the inn or over at a friend’s house, and we’d all help out in the morning afterwards to clean the streets. So many happy moments...

“Ladies and gentlemen…” called the crier and suddenly the music stopped and every guest, including Isa and Skuld, turned towards the entrance of the estate. A man dressed in exquisite clothes, wearing a small crown and a cloak arrived and ascended the stairs to the ball’s main floor. “… his Royal Highness, Prince Naveem.”

He walked right to the bottom of the stairs leading into the palace-sized building and offered a hand for the young La Bouff who descended in her own sparklingly beautiful gown. They began dancing and before Skuld realized what was happening the attendees returned to the dance floor with renewed vigor to join the astonishing couple.

Skuld was about to join the floor in hopes of catching the eyes of the prince when she heard a loud crash from the side. It was the dark-skinned woman. She fall against the table and accidentally knocked down much of its contents, ruining her own dress as well. The La Bouff lady hurried over to her and took her up into their home, leaving the prince behind for a short while. Now’s our chance! she thought and searched for the prince quickly. The man himself stepped to the side of the floor and headed towards a building.

“We can talk to him now” Isa said, appearing beside Skuld. She nodded and rushed after him, Isa right behind her. The two of them chased the man until a building not far from the main house. As the approached the door, Skuld heard low murmurs coming from inside. She glanced sideways at Isa, trying to figure out what the man was thinking. Should we barge in? Or knock? She wasn’t sure how to proceed and got lost in her thoughts so deeply that she didn’t even realize how the shadows stretched beneath her feet and around them. Only when she heard the quiet snickering of a man nearby did she realize the trap that had been laid out for them. But it was too late…

- O - O - O - O - O -

Hey… hey sleepy head! Wake up! The spiky, flame-haired boy called out to him and grinned. Wake up, yo! We have to get going! Told you not to gawk at the moon for so long! Come on, Isa! “Alright, alright. I’m awake” he sighed heavily and sat up. But Lea wasn’t there and he wasn’t even inside his own room. No, he was in some sort of circular cell with glass walls and two oversized frogs in it. Where am I? he thought, trying to recollect his memory of the events, but hardly able to remember anything. He approached the glass walls and for a second saw his reflection staring back at him. What’s happening? he pondered as he reached up to touch his scars, just like the frog on the glass wall did so as well.

“Hey, don’t be scared!” one of the other frogs said quickly, holding up his hands. “Everything is alright!”

“A talking frog? What is going on here? Skuld, where are you?” Isa yelled enraged. He turned left and right, searching for a way out or his lost friend, but found neither.

“I’m here, Isa” the second frog said, turning towards him, and it suddenly all came back: the tall, dark clothed man with the top hat and the cards; the curious smog that enveloped them. Skuld, or at least the frog claiming to be Skuld, approached him carefully, petting him on the shoulder. “Everything is alright” she said, her voice was the same yet it felt very weird to see a frog speak with her voice. “He’s the prince!” she added and pointed at the other frog.

“What?”

“That man who did this to us—“

“His name is Dr. Facilier, and he’s a witch doctor”

“I think I’ve seen him before...” Isa replied, trying to recall where he had seen the man before. In another world somewhere, maybe in Scala. He must’ve been with the Coven. But if he’s here that means the Master is on their heels. “We have to get out of here.”

“Agreed” Skuld nodded. “I was just waiting for you. Once we break it open we have to escape quickly.”

“But how can we turn back?” Isa asked.

“Well, according to a fairy tale the servants had read me many times…” intervened the prince frog. “If you kiss a princess that might do the trick.”

“Yeah, we’re looking for one anyway” the two replied grimly. “So we’re back at square one” Isa added.

“Well, we need to get out first anyway” Prince Naveen said, touching the glass walls. “I need to get out of here. How am I supposed to find myself a bride like this?”

“Alright. Stand aside” Skuld said and took a step forward, summoning her Keyblade, which took upon the shape of the World around them. It was green and yellow, the handle made out of water lily and the blade a small little trumpet. At the end of the chain hung a little medallion of a Loa. Using her hands weren’t ideal in this shape, so she decided to use her tongue instead, which was quite amusing all things considered.

“Evangeline…” Isa whispered as he looked at the Keyblade.

“Hm?” Skuld looked back at him curiously.

“Nothing, sorry. Let’s go.”

The frog-looking girl stepped forward and used the Keyblade to break the glass freeing all three of them at once. Without a moment’s wait Naveen rushed out of the glass and hurried off. Skuld wanted to run after him, but Isa felt the witch doctor’s presence once more so he pulled her back into a dark corner where he couldn’t see them. Yet the one who opened the cupboard wasn’t the doctor, but the prince in his human form… or at least that was what Isa had thought for a second.

“How did he escape?” an angry Facilier appeared behind the prince who stepped away, shaking with fright. The man stared at the broken glass and turned towards the prince. “You’ve put them in the same glass, haven’t you?”

The man tried backing off from the sorcerer and curiously he stumbled upon the man’s shadow, falling on his behind. “How did I even get tangled up in this voodoo madness?” he said angrily to himself as Facilier approached him. “I can’t go through with this!” he added angrily and tore down his necklace, revealing his true appearance. He wasn’t the prince but a short chubby and balding man. “You wear this… this ghastly thing!” he said furiously and threw the medallion.

“Careful with that!” Facilier yelped and quickly grabbed the pendant before it could’ve landed on the floor. For a moment he seemed like he himself had a good reason to be afraid. “Anything happens to this, I’m going to be—“ he yelled furiously, raising his walking cane threateningly as if he wanted to hit the man, but stopped just before smacking him. He let out a deep sigh and continued much more patiently. “Fun fact about voodoo, Larry. Can’t conjure a thing for myself. Besides, you and I both know the real power in this world ain’t magic. It’s money!”

The short man started to be interested in Facilier’s offer once again as if the word money would’ve been some sort of magical spell. “That’s true” he added, clasping his hands nervously, looking away in shame.

“Aren’t you tired of living on the margins while all those fat cats in their fancy cars don’t give you so much as a sideways glance?

“Yes. I am” he nodded in agreement, his face turning wrathful as he found truth within the witch doctor’s words.

“All you got to do is marry Big Daddy’s little princess, and we’ll be splitting that juicy La Bouff fortune right down the middle” Facilier said approvingly as he led the man to a mirror and slipped the pendant back on his neck again, turning him back into the prince. “60-40, like I said” he added in a whisper with a malicious grin.

“But… what about Naveen?” he asked, turning the witch doctor’s grin into an sneer. He smacked the prince-looking man on the back of his head.

“Your little slip-up will be a minor bump in the road, so long as we’ve got the prince’s blood in this. Now let’s return to the party and find that lovely lady, shall we?”

The two of them left the room while Isa and Skuld exchanged a knowing look. “What now?” Skuld asked.

“We get back the frog prince and find a way to turn him back before they can capture La Bouff’s heart and make her marry this fat pig” Isa replied grimly. “Let’s go.”

The pair hurried out of the building – as fast as their frog legs could carry them – to rejoin the party which by that time had turned into quite chaotic. Isa stopped near the side of the court and gazed at the destruction caused by something and saw an old dog slowly marching towards them. “I’m not sure it would be wise to find out whether she’s friend or foe” Skuld said panicking, but Isa shook his head. “Don’t worry. I can smell killing intent out from a thousand miles.”

And he was quite right. The dog ran around them a couple of laps then sat down in front of them. “Tiana?” She asked suddenly, surprising both Skuld and Isa.

“You… just talked?” the girl asked back, eyes widened.

“Who is Tiana?” Isa asked after a couple of seconds.

“She’s friend. Turned into a frog just like you two” the dog replied. “She and that other frog escaped… into the bayou!”

“Can you lead us to them?” Skuld asked, earning a look from Isa. Is she hoping of riding that dog into the marshes? Not that it would be a bad idea. Probably runs faster than we could, he thought and realized he agreed with the plan very much.

“Hop on!” the dog said and turned around. Skuld grinned and hopped in its back followed by Isa.

“I’m not sure if this is the best idea” Isa whispered but before he could’ve actually voiced his uncertainty to Skuld the dog took off with them on her back. She marched through the dance floor and down onto the streets of New Orleans not stopping for a bit. She hurried towards the wilderness where the prince and that girl, Tiana were. “What about the princess?” Isa asked Skuld after a while.

“She’s not an actual princess” she chuckled and winked at the blue-haired man.

“Yeah, but really. What will happen to her?”

“I’m not sure what the voodoo guy actually wants, but for some reason he wants her to get married first. I’d say she’s not a real princess yet and needs to be in order to awaken her true powers.”

“You think so?”

“Maybe” she shrugged and pointed ahead. “Look! We’re getting closer.”

Isa followed her hand and saw the city limits and the bog beyond it. Green wines and tall leaves hanging low; also smelled very raw to him. I just hope we can find those two in this hellhole, he thought. “I’m getting fed up with searching for lost people you know” he added a short after with a wicked grin.

“Well, you’re getting quite good at it so I’d say keep it up! You could become a private eye once this is over” she laughed kindly and nudged him on the shoulder. “We also have to find Lea and the others right?”

“Right” he said but was unable to laugh it off. He was seriously worried about his friend and the rest of their group.

- O - O - O - O - O -

The bayou was darker than the city as there were no lights, only the ones provided by nature. Besides the pale light of the moon above them, small armies of fireflies lit the way for Isa and Skuld, who were now once more alone. The dog had brought them only to the edges of the bog and not one step further. The stench of the stale marsh water was not much to her liking.

Skuld hopped from trunk to trunk, gazing left and right just to make sure no dangerous animal lurked nearby. Isa was right behind her, swatting away small critters with his long tongue. “I could get used to this” Skuld grinned and hopped onto a large, hollowed trunk that floated on the surface of the water. “How do you not find this fun?”

“I’m not amused by the whole scenario” Isa commented plainly. “I’d rather walk properly once more.”

“Well me too, but you know… it is kinda fun” she giggled and landed on something that felt a bit different, a bit odd. Isa landed beside her and looked at her gloomily. His eyes showed a hint of impatience but Skuld found that to be typical of him. But the hidden worry that was seldom visible; that was more troubling. He is worried for Lea and the others, she thought. Fair enough. I’m worried for them too, even though I barely know any of them. But I feel indebted to them. They had saved me from my imprisonment and are working to stop that madman. I really do hope they are alright. “Wait,” she noticed a slight movement in the distance but it was too dark to see it properly. “Did that log just move?”

“Because those aren’t logs” Isa said and suddenly four alligator-resembling creatures rose from underneath the water. They were darkened and their eyes glowed eerily. The symbol of the Sinsters was inscribed on their backs. “Well this just got quite problematic” Isa noted and stared up at the moon.

“Don’t even think about using that power” Skuld warned him and softly touched his face. “I can fight too you know.  I will protect you this time.”

“If that is your wish” Isa said, taking a step back. “Be my guest.”

Skuld nodded happily and summoned her Keyblade.  “Come at me marsh munchers!” she yelled and prepared to charge.

“What did you just call them?” Isa asked from behind and she felt her face going reddish.

“Well, they do need a name!” she said and looked at the man shyly. “Does it sound weird?”

The frog shrugged casually. “Not any weirder than the names Heartlesses got from that cricket. I’ll tell you about them once we’re through with this sad bunch.”

The Sinsters jumped towards them at once but Skuld and Isa were quickly and escaped the attack. Isa backed away further while she turned and hopped back onto their backs and started pounding them with her Keyblade. It was easy to outmaneuver them while landing one-two attacks every once in a while. For a while it seemed like a walk in a park but after a miscalculated jump Skuld fell into the water and the creatures followed her.

Underwater she was at a disadvantage, but thankfully her magical power was still enough to conjure a shield around her while she quickly swam into the hollowed belly of a large log to escape the attackers. She climbed out through its other end which was well above water and jumped the rest of the alligators from the top. She smacked one on the head and used a quick fire spell to shoo the other away. It blindly ran towards Isa himself, who contributed to their success by knocking the creature out with a sizeable rock.

“I think that was the last one” Skuld noted and returned to Isa. “Nice job! We make one hell of a team!” she chuckled joyfully.

“Indeed we do.”

“So where did they went?”

Skuld looked around them trying to figure out which way to go. They were completely lost and clueless; the bog around them was vast and picking the wrong path could’ve hindered them greatly.  Which way to go? Where would you start? You always were the one with the ideas, she figured. Isa took a step forward and pointed at the distance where large swarms of fireflies were convening towards one direction.

“There” he said with certainty. “I think that might be our cue.”

“You sure about that?” she looked at him expectantly and he nodded. “Alright. I trust you. Let’s go!”

The two of them hastened after the firefly army that slowly marched on. The closer they got the louder they turned out to be but more importantly they were so bright that the whole bayou was shining thanks to them. It was as if it was suddenly daytime, even though they were barely past midnight yet.

“Wait is that music?” Skuld asked and Isa nodded. The fireflies were singing and playing music. Goin’ down the bayou, it said. It was a cheerful, jolly tune and at the head there were another two frogs on the back of a trumpet playing alligator. “Well that is indeed odd,” she noted and quickly added with a grin. “I like it!”

The doubled their efforts and caught up to the bayou band of bugs and their guests who were more than surprised to find others sharing their fate. “Prince Naveen!” Skuld hopped in front of him. “Finally!”

“You two? How glad I am to see you!” the prince frog claimed, but quickly fell silent the moment he looked into Isa’s eyes. He seemed less pleasant and didn’t seem to have forgotten the prince’s flight during their previous encounter.

“You kind of left us in there” he said in a low, dangerous voice.

“Isa, be kind!” Skuld said and gave him an angry stare.

“Did you really leave them behind?” the fourth frog asked angrily. She made the prince blush and look away seeming all guilty. “I’m sorry for his behavior. He’s incredibly spoilt.”

“Princes will be princes” Skuld winked at her cheerfully. “I’m Skuld and my serious looking frog-friend is Isa! We’re glad to meet you!”

“I’m Tiana and our musician Alligator is Louis.”

“Don’t forget your trusty cajon firefly!” a small guy zig-zagged in. “Ray, nice to make your acquaintance.”

“What a happy little band you have here. Where are you all heading to?” Skuld asked.

“To Mama Odie” Tiana replied. “She’s some elderly voodoo lady. Hopefully she can turn us back into humans.”

“Sounds like we also need to pay her a visit. We’re also kind of trapped in this body.”

“You are both welcome to join us” Tiana offered. “Right Naveen?”

“Of course! You two helped me escape from that jar. This is the least we can do to even the odds, right?”

“That’s the spirit!” Ray buzzed above them. “Onwards, down the bayou!”

The large troupe continued for another while singing and chanting, causing a great loud noise. But of course the noise and the lights were tempting and so new creatures emerged from the bog and tried to attack them before a mystery spell tore them apart instantly. And then a tall large shadow appeared in front of them. Seeing the ghastly thing Isa, Skuld, Naveen, and Tiana all hid behind the Alligator… who hid behind Ray of all creatures. The shadow grew and grew until a small black elderly lady dressed in white emerged from the foggy swamp ahead. She was carrying a torch which she easily blew out.

“Not bad for a 197 year-old blind lady” she laughed wickedly. “Now which one of you naughty children been messing with the Shadow Man?” she asked.

“Actually” Skuld said, stepping forward. “I think the Shadow Man is here because he is out to find the Princess of Heart.”

“The what?” Naveen asked curiously.

“A powerful princess whose heart is pure and untouched by the Darkness” Mama Odie said and beckoned the whole lot to join her aboard her ship which was stuck on a tree for some odd reason. They all followed her silently, climbed the thick tree (well the stairs which was spiraling around it) and accepted her drink. She threw her magical torch into the corner where the rest of her magical gadgets were kept. She proceeded to find her large and cozy looking cheer made out of straw beneath a whole lot of candles and fireflies filled colored glasses.

“So the Shadowman has finally found a true purpose” she contemplated, resting her feet on a small leg stand.

“Mama Odie” Tiana tried to bring the witch’s attention to their case. “We don’t want to take up too much of your time but—”

“I know- I know. I’ll spare ya all the music and the singing cause I can see you’re all as stubborn as it gets. There’s only one way…” she said and hurried over to her large leaky cauldron. “Gumbo, gumbo in the pot. We need a princess, whatcha got?” as she spun the large wooden spoon, the brownish-reddish ooze lit up and on its surface the outlines of the only princess they knew appeared before them.

“Lottie? But she’s not a princess” Tiana said.

“Oh she is” Mama Odie replied with a mischievous grin. “Big Daddy’s the King of the Mardi Gras parade, which makes her…”

“A princess” Isa and Skuld said at once, exchanging a worried look.

“Does that count?” Isa asked, looking at Skuld for an answer but she could only shrug her shoulders. She wasn’t sure about it, but Mama Odie seemed reassured about the case, which was worrying enough.

“But only till next midnight when Mardi Gras is over.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

The group returned to the city by next nightfall as it would’ve been dangerous to roam the streets during daytime. The roads throughout the Crescent City were lined with people dressed up in colorful clothes, singing and watching the parade which made its way through the main road. Dancers marched ahead of the large cars which were decorated neatly and the people upon them were throwing gifts to the locals while confetti rained upon them from above. In the middle of the march there was one particularly grand and exquisite car that resembled a great wedding cake. And on top of said cake three people were standing: Eli La Bouff, his daughter and the prince look-alike.

Again, just like old times. I look at these people and see my own, Skuld watched the people beneath them longingly and thinking back to Daybreak Town. “How do we get to her?” Isa asked quietly. He too was watching the events beside her from on top of a building, though obviously he didn’t feel the same emptiness as she did. Tiana and Naveen were down in the streets amongst the crowd. They were trying to get as close as possible and Louis stealthily joined a musical band who were dressed up as animals. “Too many people. Too close to the fire. The Shadow Man can be anywhere.”

“Anywhere… like behind you?” a man asked suddenly and the two of them jumped in fright. Shadows emerged from the ground and grabbed them both pulling them up close to the Shadow Man who had a dark evil sneer, and eyes hungry for power. “Took me some time to find you, frog! You won’t escape again. Not until I have my Princess of Heart. Then, you may go!”

“Not on our watch!” Ray reeled and descended upon the man. Dr. Facilier cried out and tried hitting it so naturally the shadows came to his defense and let go of Skuld and Isa. Using their new-found freedom the two hopped away but not without a prize. Isa used his long tongue to grab the pendant hanging from Facilier’s neck and Skuld cut the rope with the Keyblade. “Give that back!” the Shadow Man urged them with an irked voice and finally swatted Ray. The firefly crashed into the ground hard behind them and Skuld stopped immediately, turning back towards the witch doctor.

“What have you done?” she cried out horrified.

“Skuld, hurry!” Isa grabbed and pulled her on as more and more shadows arrived. He hurried them  off the building onto the streets and ran along the narrow alleyways further away from the rest of the people.

“Where are we going?” She asked, trying to keep up with him. “Isa!”

“We have to get them away from the princess as much as possible. Only then can they access her and break the curse.”

They hurried on towards the old, abandoned cemetery. It was creepy and foggier than the rest of the city. Skuld felt a chill and heard the whispers of the shadows that were chasing them. Finally the shadows encircled them and Facilier appeared once more as if he had been waiting for the two to arrive. “Back off, or we’ll break this thing!” Skuld said, raising the medallion high. In that instant Facilier grabbed a handful of pinkish dust and blew it upon the pair who turned back into their human form and the World around them twisted and turned until it wasn’t the Crescent City anymore but something more familiar to them.

And suddenly she was in Daybreak Town, at the usual fountain square surrounded by dozens of her peers. “Missed me?” asked a gentle voice and Ephemer appeared out of nowhere, pulling her into an embrace. No… this can’t be. This isn’t real.

“Now, isn’t this a whole lot better than hopping around the bayou for the rest of your life?” asked a boy who looked just like Dr. Facilier albeit a whole lot younger.

“Shadow Man” she seethed and clenched her fists.

“Got to hand it to you, Keyblade wielder. You do dream big. Just look around you… you would restore your old world, fill it with happy faces again. Bring back your beloved from the death! You’d turn it brighter than Radiant Garden! And all you got to do to make this a reality…” he said finally. “is hand over that little old talisman of mine.”

“No” she said, shaking her head. “You’re wrong. You mistake what I long for with my dreams.”

“Come on now, darling. Think of all the things that Master had achieved. You think this can’t be reality?”

Skuld hesitated. For the first time, she truly did. Seeing Ephemer again, his smile; it nearly broke her heart, but… “We can’t always get what we want” she said defiantly. The Shadow Man’s face became paler all at once. “We fought together. We laughed together. We had many precious moments. But if this is as far as it gets, then so be it. I won’t take your offer and ruin the lives of so many, not even for him!” she yelled and tried to smash the pendant, but it was seized in the last moment by a shadow and returned to Facilier. Around them the mirage broke down and they were once again in the abandoned cemetery.

“You should’ve taken my deal!” he said pushing her back onto the ground with his walking cane. “Now you’re going to spend the rest of your life being a slimy, little frog.”

“Do you feel it? The moon’s power?” Isa asked from behind Facilier. The man turned towards him as the sight of a furious frog was far too amusing to let pass by. But Skuld saw what the Shadow Man didn’t; the pure hateful bloodlust emanating from him. Isa’s eyes were shining and his scar was pulsing. “You’re far too lax” he added and faster than Facilier could’ve reacted he shot out with his tongue, breaking the pendant in his hand instantly. “Now be gone!”

“No! No! How am I gonna pay back my debt?!” the Shadow Man cried fearfully. Behind him the faces on the tombstones started moving, chanting and a swirl of dark energy encircled the witch doctor. “This is just a minor setback!” he pleaded “I just need a little more time. No, please!” The shadows grabbed him by the hands and the legs and started to drag him away. “Just a little more time! I promise I’ll pay ya all back! I promise!” But the spirits and shadows were unhinged by his words. They slowly pulled him into the mouth of the largest face and he was swallowed by green flames, eaten by his curious friends from the other side.

Facilier, the Shadow Man was no more. But Skuld and Isa, and probably Prince Naveen and Tiana remained frogs as well. The bells tolled, midnight struck; without the power of the kiss they couldn’t return to their original forms. “What now?” Skuld asked, feeling drained and powerless. Not just by the fight, but by the mirage as well.

“Let’s go back. We need to find a new plan” Isa replied in his matter of fact voice as if he was unaffected by it. He helped Skuld up from the ground and patted her on the shoulder gently. “It was very brave of you” he said and offered a smile. “And very strong. I too saw a vision and I’m not entirely sure I could’ve made the same choice.”

“What did you see?” Skuld asked, but already knew the answer. The same person who he had been worrying and fussing about ever since their journey had begun. Nothing was as important to him, than making sure he’d be alright.

They slowly dragged along the path, not talking but pondering: about their past, their future, and about the fake promises of the now deceased Shadow Man. But something happened along the way. It was already way past midnight, but somewhere along the road the power of the spell was broken and both of them returned back to normal once again. Skuld saw her reflection and was happy to see her skinny figure, her white locks of hair. At least she was back to normal. But how?

“There were no more princesses left, so we made one” Prince Naveen said with a wide grin, appearing behind the corner of a building. Tiana was with him, looking dashing and jolly. “Who can be a princess? Well, the wife of a prince apparently” Naveen winked and pulled Tiana into an embrace.

“Tiana?” both Skuld and Isa said in surprise.

“So that means…” Skuld whispered.

“She’s the one” Isa nodded and stepped closer to her. “Princess Tiana, you’re in danger.”

“That’s a bit sudden” she replied, looking to her husband with worry in her eyes. “Is he still around? The Shadow Man?”

“He’s gone” Skuld hurried to reassure her. “No, the danger that looms over you is much greater. But we could grant you safety. How about we take you to somewhere nice? It could be your honeymoon.”

Chapter Text

The space looked beautiful from behind the cockpit of the gummi ship. Sora still couldn’t get used to it and stared at the stars and constellations in awe. The world was vast and full of spectacular sights; it was truly unfair that the only time he and his pals had a chance to gaze at this wondrous creation was when they were in a hurry to save someone from certain demise.

“I told you already, I feel like this is where we need to be,” Sora explained to his companions with a small anger in his voice. He was starting to get annoyed with both Donald’s nonstop blabber about being lost, and his inability to find what they sought. “It has to be here, somewhere.”

“I dunno Sora, we’ve been here for a long time,” Goofy said, trying to find anything resembling a habitable World. There were none, only dead rocks floating around aimlessly. There was one— much greater than the rest combined— and it was mostly stationary, but its surface was rough and uneven; it had no settlements, and emitted no life-signals. If it used to be a World, it was a dead one.

“Let’s just get moving already!” Donald complained. He wasn’t much for standing around idly, but Sora wanted to stay and wait a while. He felt a connection, a strong one. For some reason he wanted to stay there and feel it. Ever since those dreams of Yozora started, he had developed this weird sensation: it felt like strings touching his body all around, and through them, their small movements, he could discern connections; bonds. One such bond led him here; his body was warm with this feeling, he was right where he was supposed to be. And yet there was nothing there, but a dead rock.

“Well if Sora wants to stay, maybe we should!” Goofy offered him a smile and patted him on the shoulder. “Ya know well, that Sora doesn’t idle around for nothin’, Donald! I’m sure he has a plan, sorta.”

“I do,” Sora nodded and grabbed the controlling rod. “We’ll blow this open in no time!”

“Blow it open?!” his two companions yelled in shock and surprise. “Sora, wai—“

The boy started firing at the large rock, but all the rockets and energy bolts disappeared the moment they had touched the surface. There were no explosions, no rock debris shooting towards all sides. Sora, Donald, and Goofy all watched with eyes and mouths wide open. “What was that?” Goofy asked, completely baffled by the unexpected turn of events.

“It… absorbed it?” Donald scratched his forehead. “How? Is this some protective spell? I must know!”

“No,” Sora shook his head. “It just disappeared. As if there was nothing there. We’re going closer!” he decided suddenly. Donald and Goofy tried to gently protest, but the boy didn’t listen to them and accelerated. Slowly, the front of the gummi ship touched the surface, or at least should’ve, and started to disappear like the rockets previously. Sora didn’t stop as the computer showed no warnings of malfunction or damage and shortly the cockpit, alongside with the three of them, went past the surface as well. Beneath it, the real World appeared before them.

“Whoaaaah!” exclaimed the trio as a majestic World shone up before them. It was much smaller than the great dead-rock around it, which was actually none other than a cloaking device. “Sora, you’ve changed!” Goofy noted, pointing at Sora, whose clothes have changed due to Donald’s magic once again. He lost most of his vestments and wore only a pair of dark trousers with light-blue cloth hanging down around his waist, and another, few shades darker, used as belt. His upper torso was naked save for tattoos, golden bands, and another piece of blue cloth stretching across. 

“Is this how people dress here?” Sora asked, laughing. “I like it!”

“Enough playing around, let’s land over there!” Donald pointed at a small clearing and Sora followed his instructions.

“Not a wise-guy anymore, huh?” the boy grinned at his companion whose eyes could’ve shot lightning bolts at that moment. Sora stopped with the tease and landed the ship promptly, careful not to draw too much attention to themselves. He felt the strings move ever so slightly and felt good, they were where supposed to be at that moment; he was sure of that.

They were about to leave the cockpit when the earth quaked beneath them. “What’s going on?” Donald yelped in fright, as the trembling became stronger and faster. Suddenly, the earth opened up under the gummi ship and they fell into a dark, bottomless pit.

“Hold oooon!” the echo of Goofy’s yell echoed throughout the cavern.

Luckily, the ship’s defenses were strong enough not to get injured colliding with the rocks and Donald’s magic saved them from the landing. The three sat there motionless, waiting for additional catastrophes to happen. Luckily, that was the end of it.

They trio got out of the ship and scoured their surroundings quickly, just to make sure nobody was there and no danger lurked nearby. They were in a great cavern which was mostly dark as the night. They heard the noise of a waterfall in the distance, but nothing else. Donald cast a spell on the gummi ship which became invisible; usually these ships had their own cloaking devices, but this one was old and about to fall apart.

“That sure was a bumpy ride, fellas” Goofy grinned. Now that the immediate danger was behind them, Sora felt like smiling as well… smiling with a bit of a relief. And we’re finally here! Hold on guys, we’ll save you.

“Let’s go,” Sora said and the two nodded in agreement. Donald conjured small orbs of fire that illuminated the cavern in front of them and led them through the narrow, coarse path. Goofy, as the knight of the three, went on ahead. Lucky for them, there were no Heartless, or Sinsters anywhere, though nothing else either.

After a long while however, the trio arrived at a large drill-like vehicle and a small camp at its foot. “Look, there are others here! Maybe they know somethin’ about the princess,” Goofy suggested.

“Yeah, let’s take a look,” Sora agreed and took a few steps towards the camp. At that moment, he heard rustling and fast-paced movement. Sora conjured his Keyblade instinctively and took a good look around and almost cried out as he came face-to-face with a small statue depicting a large, open-mouthed face. It was covered in bluish fur and emitted the same colored light from its eyes and mouth. The statue was holding a very tall lance with a grapple-like end. “Hey guys, take a look at—“ as Sora turned back to show Donald and Goofy what he came across, he saw another statue… only it wasn’t standing still, but moving fast; very fast. He turned back and the statue behind him was gone as well.

Sora hurried after the statue-looking person through the camp but hard as he tried to catch up with the masked figures, they disappeared. “Sora, watch out!” Donald cried fearfully, but Sora turned and tried to silence him because of all the sleeping people. His action, however, were futile; soon bright light shone up above them as an army of bugs descended upon them.

“What’s going on?” a young man wearing round spectacles asked, noticing only the bugs around them. The creatures weren’t quite friendly and began to set the whole camp on fire. The man yelled to wake the others and within moments the whole camp was on its feet, fighting the firebugs.

“We’ll help out as well!” Sora said, looking at Donald and Goofy who agreed. “Quick, let’s gather them! Goofy, you’re on!”

Goofy stood onto his shield and both Sora and Donald cast wind magic on him, making him spin around at a furious pace. Soon he created a small-scale tornado and began to draw every bug towards him, not letting them escape. At that point Donald used blizzard to freeze the bugs.

Sora defended Donald, smashing every firebug that managed to escape Goofy’s spinning. As he routed up the remaining creatures, he saw the masked people leaving in a hurry. “Can you two handle these?”

“Go ahead!” Donald nodded, he too saw the masked figures escaping.

Sora rushed after and left the camp behind them. He ran as fast as he could, climbing small walls, hopping over rocks and dashing across dangerous terrain filled with pitfalls, spikes and additional flammable bugs. Finally he reached a small clearing beyond the path, and saw one of the masked figures fighting a Sinster.

The creature was a floating mask looking very angry, emitting dark purplish light from its mouth and eyes, black fumes following in its trail. On its forehead, the mark of the Sinsters was engraved. Without thinking Sora leapt into the battle and using his Keyblade smashed the face into pieces. The creature perished after a small explosion which sent Sora flying, landing a good few paces.

… for a moment, Sora stood amidst a great Darkness, under a blackened Kingdom Hearts. He felt his heart’s ache, crying for help. But it was no use. He tried to conjure his Keyblade, but nothing happened. Around him the bodies of his friends lay lifelessly. Kairi, Riku! He knelt down beside them but they were long gone. And he heard the distant cackling of something dark, ominous, something…

Sora hissed with pain as the crystal touched his aching body but felt the pain drawn from him almost immediately. He squeezed his eyes open and stared into the eyes of the masked figures. The one ahead, who had healed him, took off the mask and revealed her face. The pain completely subsided and she took back her mask.

“Hey, wait!” Sora cried out as they hurried off suddenly. In the next second, the man with the round spectacles ran by, following them, asking for their names. Sora hopped up and hurried after the man.

The two of them followed the masked people out of the cavern system to a mossy cliff that overlooked a large, round island encircled by a great lake of lava. The island itself was mostly underwater with a smaller, real island rising at its middle. The whole round- region stood meters above the lava and ended in waterfalls on all sides. There would’ve been no way of reaching the distant shores of the land, if not for the narrow bridge made of wood and rope.

“Whoaaaah,” Sora gaped at the wondrous sight. “Now that’s a place to live in!”

“It is, isn’t it?” said the man with the spectacles, turning towards him. “But… who are you?”

“I’m Sora. I came here with my two companions, Donald, and Goofy.”

“Ahh, I’ve met them. They will be here shortly with the others,” the man nodded with a smile and offered a handshake. “My name is Milo.”

“And uhh… what is this place?”

“This?” he turned and looked at the kingdom stretching wide before them. “This is the Lost Empire, Atlantis.”

“Atlantis? Sounds a bit like Atlantica” he thought aloud. “And those masked people were…”

“Locals,” Milo finished the sentence for him.

“Milo! Finally!” a group of people arrived, Donald and Goofy amongst them. They were people of all size and race. Their leader was an older, muscular guy with grey hair. “We thought you were gone.”

“No, I followed them here, and look!”

The group looked at the island and seemed just as stunned by its magnificence as Sora and Milo were a minute ago. Sora, Donald, and Goofy grouped up a few meters from the others. “Ya think we’ll find the princess here?”

“Probably,” Sora nodded confidently. “Let’s stick with Milo and the others for now. We may have a better chance together.”

Before they could’ve continued the journey however the masked figures returned, armed and prepared this time. They surrounded them immediately and prepared for any kind of battle. “Holy cats!” the leader of the group said, reaching for his gun. “Who are these guys?”

“They gotta be Atlanteans,” Milo guessed.

“What? That’s impossible!” said a fair-haired soldier who kind of reminded Sora of Elrena for some reason.

Suddenly the leader of the masked people started spouting orders in a language Sora couldn’t understand. After she finished speaking, she took off the mask again, revealing herself before the explorers. Milo luckily understood and started speaking with her, and very soon the whole group realized they spoke not only their mother language, but understood about everything the outsiders spoke to a degree.

“Donald, could you… you know, do something magic-y so we can join in?” Sora asked.

“You don’t need to,” said the girl who led the masked people. “We can understand you perfectly. Welcome to the City of Atlantis. Come, you must all speak with my father now” she said and grabbed Milo’s hand.

Part of the group joined them and crossed the bridge over the lava lake, and the ordinary lake on top of the circular isle, while the rest returned to salvage their camp. Sora, Donald, and Goofy joined those who headed for the city. Atlantis was a miracle; ruinous but breathtakingly majestic. To Sora, it kind of resembled Scala ad Caelum but he didn’t even try mentioning the name because they had to keep it a secret that they were from another world.

What seemed to be an island at the middle of the lake, was actually an island carved into the most spectacular city many had ever laid eyes upon. Citadels and spires reaching high, great all and thick buildings connected by a simple maze of cobbled streets. Tall statues of their ancients towering above them like protective golems waiting for their order to rise from their slumber. It all smelled ancient but in the greatest way; the scent of water washed stones and wildly growing shrubs hanged about the air. It was warm and humid — due to the water immediately vaporized by the lava beneath — but the cold water of the island was a refreshing change.

The visitors were taken to the heart of the city, where behind great doors and strong protectors, the King of Atlantis reigned from his humble throne carved out of stone and made more comfortable with simple cloth. The throne room had no walls, as it was accessible through its doors, due to being situated at the end of a cleft. The sides were overrun by thick shrubs and grass, and the ground was a shallow pond with large rock slabs offering a way through it.

The leader of the masked people, Kidagakash — Kida for short — went before the elderly King and began telling him her tale of meeting the outlanders. Meanwhile, Milo translated her words quietly for the rest.

“Greetings you Highness. I have brought the visitors,” Kida said, and knelt before the King.

“You know the law Kida. No outsiders may see the city and live,” spoke the King in a stern tone.

“Are they gonna imprison us?” Goofy asked Sora and Donald quietly, but both could only shrug uncertainly.

“But father these people may be able to help us!” Kida said, trying to implore her father. As Sora, Donald, and Goofy realized she actually was the princess, they nod amongst themselves happily. Finally, they were getting somewhere!

“We do not need their help.”

“But father…”

“That is enough,” the King snapped at her in his own gentle, yet serious way. “We will discuss this later.”

“Your Majesty. On behalf of my crew, may I say it is an honor to be welcomed to your city,” said the leader of the outsiders, despite the fact that they were most surely not welcome there. Sora scratched his head and exchanged a quick glance with his pals, but none of them were sure about what the man was trying to do.

“You presume much to think you are welcome here,” said the King simply.

“Oh, sir, we have come a long way looking for—“

“I know what you seek, and you will not find it here,” the King interrupted him. “Your journey has been in vain.”

The outsider’s leader did not back down, he gently continued: “But we are peaceful explorers, men of science.”

His trial was met with a soft chuckle on the King’s behalf, “And yet you bring weapons.”

“Our weapons allow us to remove obstacles we may encounter,” he tried explaining.

“Some obstacles cannot be removed with a mere show of force,” he elderly ruler replied and stood up to make his final judgment. As he looked upon the visitors, his eyes stopped for a long second when he glanced towards Sora. He hesitated for a few seconds before finally making his decision. “Very well. I will allow you to stay for one night. You three,” he pointed at the trio. “I wish to speak with you.”

The outsiders were escorted out of the castle save for Sora and his two companions. As the gates closed behind them, the King looked upon them once more. “You are the bearer are you not?”

“We have come here because you are all in grave danger.”

“The only danger to us are the outsiders. You have helped them find us, even though you are strictly forbidden from meddling.” Sora was struck by the ruler’s harsh words, but Donald and Goofy rose to his defense.

“Hey!” Donald yelled at him. “Sora was just trying to help you!”

“Yeah, we weren’t meddlin’!” Goofy added.

“Whatever the intention was, we were protected. Our World is hidden away from prying eyes, both the World, and the city. You shouldn’t have come here.”

“But Kida is—“

“A Princess of Heart. Yes, she is. But she is also the future Queen of Atlantis.”

“There is someone out there, hunting for the Princesses of Heart.”

“And by coming here, you have probably led them to her,” the King said sternly and gave a small nod. “Now it is up to you, to stop them from taking her.”

“That is why we are here,” Sora said. “We want to take Kida with us, to safety, where the other Princesses are gathering.”

“That is out of the question, Key bearer. I expect that foe you have spoken about to appear while the commotion by the outsiders is still loud. Now that you have opened the path to us, I ask you to help us protect our home, and our princess.”

“Of course,” Sora nodded and so did Donald and Goofy. “We will protect her at all cost.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Sora, Donald, and Goofy waited for Kida to leave the throne room. They wanted to talk with her as the King seemed adamant into keeping her in Atlantis, which would’ve been very dangerous. She however never came out, so after a while the trio descended back into the city to join the other outsiders.

Curiously, Milo was missing from them so the trio disengaged and went to look for the young man who was most curious about the language and the civilization. Their search took them into the furthest parts of the city, which was abandoned and in a much more ruinous state than the rest. Finally after hours worth of looking for them, the trio heard their voice and hurried to join them.

“Not so fast,” said a voice resembling Roxas’ and in an instant a short boy appeared before Sora, Donald, and Goofy, wearing a ceremonial robe and a mask. Based on the tales of the others, he quickly realized he was dealing with Gula, one of the apprentices of the Master of Masters.

“You! Where are my friends?!” Sora yelled immediately, conjuring forth his weapon. Donald, and Goofy prepared themselves for battle as well.

“They have been swiped off the chessboard,” replied Gula. “Did you really think the Master would allow himself to be caught unprepared? Have you learnt nothing from the events with Ansem, with Organization XIII, or with Master Xehanort himself?”

“You know an awful lot about it,” Sora noted. “Was he behind everything?”

“Would it surprise you to find out he was? Yes, he did manipulate the events based on his foresight from long ago.”

“Why are you all doing this? What do you hope to achieve?” Gula didn’t reply immediately so Sora pressed on. “I’ve heard what happened to your home. The Master of Masters coaxed you all into unleashing that Keyblade War ages ago! Where did that lead? What did you gain?”

“Don’t speak as if you’d know anything!” he retorted quietly but let his Keyblade disintegrate. “Go and get that princess. It’ll be easier to take her once the rabble has been dealt with anyway.”

Before Sora could’ve done anything Gula snapped his finger, unleashing a wave of Sinsters. The creatures attacked the trio, earning just enough time for Gula to leap away from the battlefield. Goofy and Donald, with combined efforts destroyed the creatures while Sora just looked at the location where Gula stood before, wondering about the boy’s words. It didn’t feel right.

After clearing the threat, the trio continued to a more distant part of the city, where Milo and Kida were, exploring some ruins. The duo were examining some sort of vehicle-like object. It resembled a motorcycle, save for the fact it had no wheels, and had the appearance of a fish. “Found somethin’ good?” Goofy asked them as they approached them.

“No matter what we try, it does not respond,” Kida said, while Milo and Goofy started to inspect it. “Perhaps if you…”

“Way ahead of you!” Donald said, jumping on it and casting lightning in hopes of filling it with power, but in vain. The wizard angrily cursed left and right as Sora pulled him away from the vehicle, letting Milo take a look at the writings on it.

“Okay. Says, place crystal into slot,” Milo began to read aloud the instructions.

“Yes, yes, I have done that!” Kida waved flippantly.

“Gently place your hand on the inscription pad.”

“Yes!”

“Okay, did you turn the crystal one-quarter turn back?”

“Yes. Yes!”

“While your hand was on the inscription pad?”

“Ye— no,” she realized, turning around to face Milo, who was grinning with satisfaction.

“So that was the problem?” Sora asked with surprise, stepping closer to the vehicle and taking a good look at it. “Let’s give it a try!” Milo and Kida activated the vehicle and it rose from the ground, hovering just above it. “Whoah! This is great! With this thing, we could take a look at the city from above!” Sora said, grinning.

“Look out!” Donald yelled and using his fire spell destroyed a Sinster running towards them. The creature burned away, but Kida and Milo were shaken by its appearance.

“What was that?”

“We’ll tell you later,” Sora said, hopping onto the bike. “I’ll take this for a spin and clear the city from these things. You go and hide! Donald, Goofy, go and check on the others.”

“You got it!” Donald nodded and hurried off with Goofy.

“Alright,” Kida said, and grabbing Milo by the wrist they rushed towards a large chunk of debris half-sunk within the water. “I wanted to show Milo something anyways.”

Sora climbed on the vehicle and tried the controls. It was a bit wild, but after a couple of rounds he got used to it. He summoned forth his Keyblade again and felt the power of the World rushing through him, changing the shape of the weapon in his hand. It felt heavy and was similar in material to the crumbling ruins, old moss hanging loose from it. The teeth of the Key were, however, shinning with the same pale-blue light as the vehicle was, and the end of the keychain was a small crystal, Lost Secret. He disintegrated the weapon and using the bike took off.

High above the city a swarm of flying Sinsters was gathering. They resembled the firebugs but were much larger and burst into dark flames.  Sora was careful not to damage the vehicle while he scouted the area. “Alright,” he said. “Time to take out the trash!”

Using the hover-bike he zigzagged between the Sinsters and slashed a couple of them. The creatures exploded shortly after the fatal damage, igniting their close-by companions. Using this technique Sora managed to radically reduce their numbers in a few minutes. When there were but a handful left, from the depths of the lava a great creature emerged.

Sora stopped by one of the tallest towers of the city, where Gula was standing and watching the creature without a hint of worry. He looked over at Sora, who snarled viciously back at him. “What do you think you are doing? You want to destroy this place?”

“If that’s what we must do to get to her,” Gula shrugged. “If you’re so worried about your little friends, you better pay more attention to the Leviathan and less to me, though.” Sora wanted to retort, but the creature fully emerged and was now floating above the city, crackling its large claws hungrily. The Sinster’s mark was engraved on its chest, visible for all to see.  “Off you go, hero.”

Sora pushed Gula’s voice out and concentrated on the creature. He aimed at his head and flew across the city towards it, evading the claws, the poisonous spits, and the smaller bugs summoned forth by the Leviathan. Attacking its head however wasn’t quite possible; his huge mandibles tried grabbing Sora and protected the face from all sorts of damages throughout.

He tried circling around the monster, but as soon as he reached the lower parts of its body, the Levianthan’s gigantic tail smashed against the vehicle, almost shattering it. Sora stirred it away and back towards the head, while trying to figure out what he could do.

The monster elevated itself to avoid the spires touching the mark on its chest, giving Sora an idea. He descended just below the creature and despite the many small claws trying to shred him into pieces he made his way to the mark and slashed it with the Keyblade, causing the Leviathan to below furiously. That’s it! He continued destroying the Sinster’s mark, but at one point the creature span around  and with that destroyed the hover-bike and launched Sora sky high.

Luckily, the creature’s chest was face-up afterwards and as Sora swooped down he stabbed the middle of the mark, causing it to shatter finally and disappear. The Leviathan cried out in pain. It shook Sora off and dived back into the lava pool.

Without anything else to catch Sora was falling hopelessly, saved only by Donald’s magic spell just before crashing into the ground. He floated about a meter above the earth then fell as the magic lost its power. Goofy caught him and placed him down gently. “Nice job, Sora!” the knight patted him on the back.

“Could’ve done better,” Donald folded his arms. “They’ve taken the princess cause you took too long!”

“What?!” Sora exclaimed, panicking. “The Foretellers?!”

“No,” Donald shook his head. “The treasure hunters!”

“Treasure hunters?”

“Show him Donald,” Goofy said and the magician summoned a ball of light. The ball grew and suddenly a bunch of people appeared on it. Based on the angle, it depicted Donald’s memories, as Goofy stood there towering beside him. They were watching the other travelers from further away but heard their voices perfectly due to the echoes.

Milo appeared out of the water and the leader of the travelers knelt down with a pleased smile to face him. “Have a nice swim?” He was surrounded by his other companions, all of them armed for battle.

“Hey, guys, what’s going on? What’s all with the guns?” Milo asked, seeming unsure of what was happening. “Guys?” After a while he too realized and smacked the stone with a fist. “I am such an idiot. This is just another treasure hunt for you. You’re after the crystal.”

“Oh, you mean this?” asked the gray haired man and showed Milo a picture depicting something.

“The heart of Atlantis,” Milo noted.

“Yeah. About that, I would’ve told you sooner, but it was strictly on a need-to-know basis. And well, now you know. I had to be sure you were one of us. Welcome to the club son,” he said, offering a hand to Milo, but the man refused it.

“I’m no mercenary.”

At that point Kida appeared as well and they grabbed and pulled her out by her hair.

“Kida!” Sora yelled, and tried touching the magical sphere which became hazy immediately.

“Hey, be careful!” Donald reprimanded him. It took a bit of time but the ball became clear one more and showed the leader of the mercenaries, his second-in-command — the girl with long, blond braided-hair — Milo, and Kida descending with on a small circular platform into a cavern beneath the throne room. Donald and Goofy were watching the events from the throne room above.

The cavern was tall and empty, filled with nothing but rocks and water… and some more rocks hovering around a magical globe of energy, each different in size and shape, depicting a face.

“Jackpot” said the mercenary leader. Even Kida seemed surprised by the mystical chamber beneath her father’s throne.

“The kings of our past,” she whispered, tearing up. She fell onto her knees and started praying quietly.

“Tell her to wrap it up. We’ve got a schedule to meet” the mercenary leader said, and Milo knelt down beside her and helped her up slowly.

The gray-haired man kicked a small pebble into the quiet lake beneath the rocks, which immediately turned red and started emitting a dark, furious power.

“Let’s get this over with. I don’t like this place,” the second-in-command said. The mercenary leader and Milo started arguing, while the rocks called out for the crystal hanging from Kida’s neck and she started moving towards it. She stopped by the lake, turned around, and spoke in a completely different voice:

“All will be well, Milo Thatch. Be not afraid.”

After that Kida walked over to the middle of the lake and ascended towards the rocks, merging with the sphere of energy. Kida lost her human body and became ethereal with a bright blue hue. She descended back onto the ground and walked back to them, where the mercenaries took her as hostage and locked her inside an iron cell with a small rounded window.

“We’ve got to save her,” Sora said immediately, feeling fury over the events he had missed. “Gula will try to capture her as well. now that she’s not beside her people.”

“We’ll have to get her back before they do!” Goofy nodded. “But how? They blew the bridge!”

“I’ve an idea,” said Milo, who arrived just that moment with several others behind them. “Sora, did the hover-bike work out?”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Milo, the Atlanteans, Sora, Donald, and Goofy were all riding hover-bikes. As it turned out, there were plenty of those tucked away within the empire’s caverns just for safekeeping. Now, it was high time to use them. Using the bikes they traveled through the narrow, smoke-filled caverns to track down the mercenaries, who were preparing to leave using a gigantic rocket-shaped balloon.

“Okay, here’s the plan. We’re going to come in low and fast and take them by surprise!” said Milo.

 “Well, I’ve got news for you Milo,” said one of the ex-mercenaries who sided with Milo. “Rourke is never surprised, and he’s got a lot of guns.”

“Great, Well, do you have any suggestions?” Donald retorted, pulling up his imaginary sleeves.

“Yeah. Don’t get shot,” said another ex-mercenary, giving Goofy a good laugh.

At a far point of the cavern-system Rourke and his mercenaries have already begun to deploy the balloon, preparing to leave Atlantis for good. But just as Milo’s companions had said, he wasn’t surprised and managed to stay calm and collected. He gave out the orders and climbed on the balloon.

The mercenaries started shooting and took cover, while the atlantean army returned the fire with their bows and arrow. Donald unleashed his magic upon them, while Goofy hurried around, protecting whoever he could with his shield.

Sora’s target was the slowly ascending balloon that was protected by several small planes, manned by the mercenary army. One of the planes started shooting at Milo who accidentally unleashed the built-in weapon of the hover-bike, a laser-like energy that destroyed enemy plane immediately.

“We can do that?” Sora asked with surprise.

“Okay, now things are getting good,” another ex-mercenary noted and rallied the Atlanteans for a counterattack. They charged towards the enemy and quickly reigned hell upon them, giving Milo and Sora a moment to land on the balloon and free Kida.

The hopped onto the ascending vehicle where Rourke and his second-in-command were shooting at whatever came close enough. Sora summoned his Keyblade, and turned to Milo. “Go find Kida. I’ll hold them off.”

“We’re losing altitude,” Rourke noted, seeing how the balloon stopped. “Too much weight.”

“Maybe it is time to abandon ship then, captain?” Sora asked, stepping into his line of sight. He raised his Keyblade, ready to attack.

“Lighten the load,” he yelled at his second-in-command who started to throw off whatever she saw unnecessary. She soon found Sora unnecessary as well and took up combat stance, preparing herself for a fight.

“Stop while you still can, Rourke,” Sora pleaded with him. “If you give her back, we’ll let you go.”

“Well, that’s not a good deal as far as I’m concerned,” the man shrugged and gave his subordinate the go. She lounged herself at Sora, but the boy merely stepped aside and gave her a small jab at the back with his Keyblade as she went past beside him. The woman tumbled over the railing, but caught it with her hand.

Sora backed off as Rourke walked over to her. He expected the man to pull her up, but instead he smacked her hand hard enough that she had to let go and fell. “Nothing personal,” Rourke said, looking down.

Above them the rocket-shaped balloon was weakened by the battle and the damages, and any further ascend was now out of the question. Seeing this, Rourke was slowly starting to get furious. “Well, I have to hand it to you. You’re a bigger pain in the neck than I would have ever thought possible,” he spat out. “I consider myself an even-tempered man. It takes a lot to get under my skin. But congratulations! You just won the solid-gold kewpie doll.”

Rourke tore off his shirt and revealed a flaring mark just above his heart; the mark of the Sinsters. From the mark the dark energy spread to his every body part, turning him into dark blue, with cracks on his skin searing, and eyes flaming wildly. He was now nothing more, but another monster of the Foretellers.

Rourke yelled and jumped towards Sora, trying to smack him with his large palms, but the boy deflected the hits with his Keyblade. Alright Sora, don’t panic, he thought looking around him and scanning the area quickly. Just like always. Calm down and think of the rhythm.

After his first trip to Olympus Coliseum, Sora finally started figuring out the way best suited for him. Riku had often told him to try and focus on his strengths and build a style around it, but for the longest time he didn’t get what the boy had meant. He preferred dancing to fighting, and was better at that anyway. But seeing his friends — Leon, Cloud, Hercules, and everyone else — fight, Sora started to figure it out. He started feeling the rhythm of a battle, and using that rhythm he could balance himself properly, unleashing proper counter attacks. This battle was no different, he had to see through Rourke’s rhythm and turn it against him.

The monster lounged towards him and Sora backed off, smacking him a few times, trying to figure out a weak point. But Rourke was unaffected; he cried out and suddenly lava spat out from the cracks across his body.

Sora yelped and jumped away, barely avoiding a grave injury. Wish I had some sturdy armor instead of this local attire, he thought, and hoped that Rourke wouldn’t use that ability too often. He stepped out of hiding and raised his Keyblade to parry his next attack. Rourke was slow and strong, but it made it all the easier for Sora; he could get behind him easily and land quite a few hits before he had to retreat.

He played around with him for a while until Rourke started losing his solid shape. The heat and the energy emanating from his body was a fair warning, and Sora knew well that sooner or later he’d explode from all that energy. He continued to lead Rourke away from the box and Milo to the other side of the balloon, and when the time arrived he jumped off, hoping to survive the landing.

Above him, Rourke exploded and the Balloon started falling down. Milo had already attached the box to a couple of hover-bikes, and were on their way to safety. Sora however was getting closer and closer to his demise, only to be saved by Donald once again. The court wizard pulled him up with his magic and shared his own hover-bike with him.

“Donald!” Sora exclaimed happily, hugging the annoyed wizard. “You saved me!”

“You’re a poor excuse for a hero,” he noted angrily, but laughed just as well. The group returned victoriously to Atlantis where they opened the box, releasing Kida who had merged with the Heart of Atlantis. This merger and her departure from the city caused the lava to become unstable, bubbling higher and higher, endangering the city. Now, by the time they had returned, it was all on the verge of destruction.

“This ain’t good,” Goofy stated, as the lava’s level was rising constantly. “What do we do?”

“Do not worry,” said Kida suddenly in her distant, strange voice. Her return had brought that great source of power back to Atlantis, and re-powered the ancient, slumbering golems who rose once more to protect the kingdom. The gigantic protectors formed a circle around the island and raised a magical barrier around it, defending their home from the eruption around it. The tides of lavas covered the barrier and engulfed the cavern system around it, yet they could not penetrate the barrier or even raise the heat within.

Sora could smell the molten rock, and it was right in front of his eyes, but nothing else. The crowd cheered, celebrated their victory over the mercenaries, against nature, and the return of their ancient power. And once the flames had died down and the lava had hardened around the barrier, it was up to the waters once more, to break that shell open.

Amidst the smoke and vapor, Milo found Kida lying on the ground. He took her in his arms, and slowly she came to. The two of them embraced each other, finally freed from the dangers and the scheming.

“All is well in the end,” Sora grinned at his partners, who nodded in joyful agreement.

“Yeah, well we have different ideas about that,” Gula stepped out of the shadows and with the snap of his fingers summoned a small legion of Sinsters.

“You again! Would you just give up?”

“This was all according to the Master’s plan. The Heart of Atlantis is a strong weapon you see,” he explained. “Trying to take her while it was active, would’ve been quite troublesome. This way however…”

“Hey! Let her go!”

Milo yelled, struggling as a tall bulky figure — wearing ornated robes just like Gula but with a bear mask — threw him aside. He was holding an unconscious Kida under his arms, ready to leave.

“We’re done here, Gula. Let’s go,” said the second Foreteller and raised his Keyblade, opening a portal.

Sora summoned his Keyblade forth. “Not on my—“  before he could’ve continued Gula elbowed him in the ribs, slapped Goofy on the forehead and swept Donald away with his leg within a second.

“Get lost boy,” Aced grunted angrily and left through the gate alongside Gula.

The people around them were in disarray and horror, not knowing what to do. Milo groaned painfully as the ex-mercenaries surrounded and tended to him. Donald and Goofy were trying to get up, coughing, and holding onto their aching parts. Sora however acted without thinking. He hopped up and dashed through the gate right after Gula and Aced into the unknown. There was no time to discuss it, so he acted alone, following his instincts and praying silently that it wouldn’t lead him into his doom.

 

Chapter Text

So you’ve sacrificed us all for this? I… I didn’t know it would lead to this! Oh, you didn’t? Well I did! And you did this. It was your choice! Your foolishness, and not mine! No. You are just like him. You’re no better than he is. Just like you. Because we are one. The different sides of the same coin. The many faces of that one boy. And still, we’ve been grounded because of you.

The voices within his head were all his, and still it felt like a crowded hallway filled with pouting children fighting over nothing. He was he, and there was nothing else to it. Superbia watched the sun set in the distance without any particular feelings attached. He had seldom any feelings left inside him, save for that one obvious one which stemmed from his youth, when the Master would train him and idolize his abilities, compliment him again and again for being vastly superior to the pupils. Those memories, his honeyed words were the only clear recollections he had. Everything else became a hazy, shallow pond. He still found it hard to get used to it all; he had changed sides one too many times. He had been torn apart, reassembled only to be put through the same hell again. Now, he just wanted peace. But that peace was something he couldn’t afford. Not while there was still work to be done.

Twilight Town stretched far and wide beneath him as he sat at the clock tower and awaited the other one. Luxu still had a couple of things to take care of, none what would seem relevant or immediate. He had been gone for quite a while but there was no use in rushing him; The Master knows best. And as long as he’s pleased, I don’t think I need to worry, he said all the time. And somewhere deep inside, Superbia would agree. So he sat there in placid silence and listened to the wind’s rustling sound, the trams perpetual noise, and the continuous clacking of the tower behind him.

“Time to go, partner,” Luxu said cheerfully, gently hitting him on the back. He wasn’t wearing his goat mask, only the dark ceremonial robes that came with it. The man sat down and looked smugly at the city as if it was his. He had been longing for his Master’s return for so long that ever since he had returned, Luxu was like a completely new person.

“Where are we going?” he asked with disinterest, continuing the observe the city below them. He saw a trio that he had been eyeing for a while. They looked quite jolly, having fun around town, not having the slightest of worries. It kind of reminded him of others… various people from less lucid memories.

“Arendelle,” came the answer, “pack for cold. The winter is harsh over there.”

“Those Princesses are there, right?”

“Yup.”

Superbia got up and put his own mask on. He didn’t really like it as it made it difficult to see. Then again, it made their connection with the Keyblade stronger, so in a way those masks were pretty-handy. He conjured his blade and summoned forth a gateway for himself. Luxu rose and followed him through the portal, leaving the peaceful town behind. On the other side, harsh winter and snow covered land awaited them. Even the wind smelled different in that blizzard. Superbia used a spell to warm himself and Luxu followed suit.

“We’re going to freeze to death eventually,” Superbia commented, giving his partner a good laugh.

“As if,” he grinned. “We’ll get the princesses in no time and leave this freezing prison in no time.”

“And I suppose you know where they are?” he asked, raising an eyebrow behind the mask.

“Of course I do. In a castle,” Luxu laughed heartily and proceeded to head towards the distant castle beneath the tall towering mountains and at the part of the grand lake. Superbia followed him slowly, while observing nature around them. Though everything was frozen, there was a hint of spring every here and there. Patches of green, blossoming flowers, brave animals; slowly, step by step, nature would retake the land, and the harsh white wasteland would disappear.

Their path led through the forest, which was quiet save for the stinging winds that howled throughout the journey. Even walking was difficult at times, when the snow crumbled beneath their feet, sinking them ever slightly. But the closer they got to the kingdom, the more agreeable the weather became. The strong currents turned lenient, and the naked trees took upon themselves a thick fur of prickly evergreens, coloring the bland landscape.

Finally, they arrived at the city, which was lively even on chilly days like that. Luckily no one paid too much attention to them, and they could easily travel through the crowded streets without much trouble. They stopped just far enough from the gates of the castle not to draw too much attention to themselves and carefully examined the movement and posts for the guards. They wanted to take care of the whole business with as little trouble as possible, though Superbia wouldn’t have mind a little brawl either. He had been wanting to exchange blows with other Keyblade wielders before but the Master had other plans, and unfortunately his was the final word on the matter.

“This way,” someone yelled suddenly and he shuddered. What was that? A voice far too familiar, he noted, looking around, but not recognizing anyone within the thick crowd.

“Come on, kid!” Luxu waved at him, and Superbia quickly joined the one-eyed Foreteller. They went through narrow alleyways and maze-like streets only to reach the far-side of the castle premises with two guards standing by a smaller, mostly unknown door.

Luxu wanted to take care of them, but Superbia was faster. He ran towards the guards, leapt against the wall and used it as stepping stone before kicking both soldiers out. The guards collapsed unconsciously as he landed behind them. “Show off,” Luxu teased him.

“Well, you’re too old to do things like this. Wonder if you can even use that Keyblade. Shouldn’t you retire?”

“As if!” Luxu laughed and used his Keyblade to unlock the door.

Superbia bowed deeply and pointed at the entrance, “After you, my elder friend.”

“You wish you could live this long,” he noted, and Superbia rolled his eyes. Like hell would I want to rot for this long. He followed Luxu through the castle halls up to the tallest of towers where they suspected the reigning sister to be. But the towers were all empty and led them nowhere. They were about to lose their patience and start wreaking havoc, when down in the ball room of the castle, both Princesses of Light appeared.

Luxu stepped out of the shadows to greet them, while Superbia took care of the guards around close to the grand room. Elsa and Anna were both prepared for their arrival and weren’t surprised nor shaken by Luxu’s appearance before them.

“Being brave is nice and all, but you’re both coming with me,” he said level-headedly, showing his shark-like grin.

“You are not welcome here. None of your kind are,” Elsa replied and unleashed her power, freezing the ground, the walls, the doors, and the windows, trapping them all inside the room. Suddenly it felt like Superbia found himself in the middle of a great and horrifying blizzard. And if that wasn’t enough, she had also summoned a tall monster made of ice. “You’ve walked right into our trap. You’re not going anywhere!”

“As if we’d want to,” Luxu grinned and summoned his Keyblade. The great ice monster charged but halfway through the one-eyed Foreteller changed the shape of his weapon and it suddenly became a pair of guns. Using the long-ranged weapons he teleported around the room and blasted the ice monster into smithereens within seconds before reappearing before Elsa. Superbia watched from the side how his partner was about to lock both princesses within a magical prison, when a pair of fierce fighters landed beside them and landed a hit on the unsuspecting Luxu.

The Foreteller retreated before he could’ve been seriously injured, but still his right arm suffered a considerable damage due to the blue-haired man. “I see you’re still good at taking orders, Xigbar.”

“As if! Nobody is telling me what to do anymore. And the name’s Luxu,” he retorted, his grin twisting into a sneer. “You seem pretty tired, Isa. What happened? Can’t sleep without your red-haired fellow?”

“You will reveal Lea’s whereabouts,” he said, taking a step forward, “You can choose to do it by your free will or with my assistance.”

“Isa, enough!” the blue-haired man’s partner, a girl with long raven hair, tried soothing him. She looked furious herself as well, but the rage inside her was tempered, kept under check. And her voice, it’s her. She’s alive… all this time, she had been alive.

“I see you’re roaming freely once again, little Skuld,” Luxu said, his face reflecting less pleasant thoughts regarding her sudden appearance. “I was hoping you would stay out of this game. But hey, at least you’re something of a wild card, right?”

“Right. And you’ve had your fun long enough!” she rebuked the man. “I will not let you continue this madness any longer!”

“As if! I’m not holding the cards right now. If you think you can stand against us, you’re sorely mistaken!” Luxu retorted, slowly recovering his self-assured posture. “See, the biggest surprise for you is still in the box!” he winked and whistled to him. “Come out and greet your little friend, will you?”

Superbia wanted to tell him a lot of things at that moment; first and foremost that he wasn’t his dog who’d come barking whenever whistled too. But the prospect of seeing her face was just something he couldn’t pass up. So he stepped out of the shadow of the column and as he walked through the frozen marble-ground pulled off his mask, revealing his young face to her. Skuld and Isa’s eyes both widened as they realized who he really was.

“Ven?” Skuld whispered, half-hopefully, half-heartbroken. “Is it… really you?”

“No,” he said plainly, and using magic sped up his movement, appearing right in front of them. Isa raised his hand automatically but he was faster and plain and simply smacked the weapon out of the man’s hand. “My name is Superbia,” he revealed in a matter of fact tone.

“No, that’s not true,” she said, shaking her head wildly. “No. It can’t be.”

“All those tales and whispers about poor little Ven being the big bad were true,” Luxu said in a mocking, belittling voice. He slowly started to walk around them in a circle, explaining in details how the Master had set everything up; how Ventus was the true traitor that had killed Strelitzia.

“But then, why?” Skuld asked, fighting back her tears. “He wouldn’t have trusted you!”

“Brain took the fall,” Superbia replied. “Though it wasn’t the original goal, that sudden turn of events served as well in the end. Now, I am here, wearing the title and the mask I was promised.”

“You are not like that,” Isa said suddenly, grabbing his shoulder. “You are better than this!”

Superbia gave him a cold, hateful look. “Better? What would a dumb lowlife like you know about it? You sold your soul twice, both for nothing.”

“And you’d do the same after witnessing his failure, twice?” Skuld rebuked and pushed him away, summoning forth her Keyblade. “If this is what you have become, I have no choice.”

“Spoken boldly,” Superbia nodded and summoned his Keyblade as well, when suddenly an all-powerful voice echoed inside his mind. Leave them. Come back to me and let the little rays of Light have their hollow victory. “No,” he shook his head immediately.

“Don’t resist it,” Luxu said, pulling him away.

“Let me go you dumb slave!” Superbia tried escaping his hold. “Let me be!”

“Afraid to fight?” Isa asked, looking at Luxu, the man however didn’t take the bait.

“As if!” he laughed and summoning a portal shoved Superbia through, following him immediately. On the other side, back in the heart of the snowy forest high above the city, Superbia pointed his Keyblade against his partner, sneering with fury. Luxu didn’t seem to be afraid, and using his hand pushed the weapon away from his chest.

“Why?!”

Luxu avoided looking at the boy. He gazed at the open water in the distance instead, “He can see the future and he’s working to achieve the best possible outcome. You know that as well as I do.”

“We could’ve finished them. We were stronger than they.”

“Look at the bigger picture, Ventus,” Luxu turned around, but stopped immediately as he realized which name he had used.

“Ventus is dead,” Superbia noted dully and conjured a portal of his own. “I understand your love for our Master, Luxu, I do. But you cannot forever be his mindless, thoughtless pawn.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Sora landed on the other side of the portal, Keyblade in hand. Once again, he was back in his own clothes, and his weapon was the Kingdom Key. It was a World he had never seen before: tall trees dressed into the colors of autumn, their leaves rustled by the ever whispering winds; hills rising and valleys falling endlessly. It was a dead forest, without birds or critters to provide a music; there was a deadly silence, save for the breathing of the four of them.

“Let her go!” Sora demanded. He was in an agitated mood, but was also worried. One against two; my chances are slim, he thought as the gate closed behind him, denying him the chance that his friends might arrive to back him up. No, it was only him, against Gula and Aced. Not even Riku could hold two of them off at the same time, how could he hope to win that battle?

“So this was the big plan?” Gula asked in a snarky, belittling tone. “Come right after us and jump into this unwinnable battle head-on? You do know this isn’t a battle you can win alone, right?”

“Let’s just get rid of the kid already. We are behind schedule.”

“Don’t fret,” he replied to his partner. “You won’t win any favors from the Master.”

“That’s not the plan! I just want to get this over with.”

Gula shook his head and turned around. “Alright, I’ll open the pathway. You take care of Sora.”

“Why me?”

“Cause you still feel jealous of Ira. You still want to prove yourself to the Master. Thus, you taking Sora’s head back to him could award you with those special points, you crave so much,” Gula explained, folding his arms.

Aced thought it over and gave a small nod. He released the girl and Kida fell onto the ground, still unconsciously, and the Foreteller took a few steps towards Sora, summoning his mighty Keyblade. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” he warned the boy.

“Keep dreaming,” Sora rebuked, taking up a defensive position. I need some time to adjust, to get the hang of it, then I can attack back. Just, keep ca—

Though Aced was supposed to be a slow, heavy-hitter, the bear-masked Foreteller was actually surprisingly fast. Sora barely managed to dodge the attack by rolling away from it, and his opponent was already upon him again. The Foreteller attacked relentlessly, while Sora could merely retreat, getting further and further from Kida and Gula, who was taking his sweet time opening a gate.

The winds suddenly picked up and the currents halted both Sora’s movement and hindered Aced’s attack. The Foreteller gritted his teeth and jumped back, allowing the breeze to fly him a few meters back.

“What place is this?” Sora yelped as the winds tried to carry him back.

“The Fallfire Forest,” Gula replied from afar. “It is a great forested world void of life as it is constantly burning up. The winds change the fire’s course and while parts of the World are reduced ashes, other previously scorched areas are brought back to life.”

“A fitting World to be your grave,” Aced added, preparing for his next charge. “The fire in your soul mirrors that of the forest.”

So we have a forest, that’s burning, and strong winds to carry the flames, Sora thought quickly, trying to come up with a viable tactic. Maybe I could separate them using the fire? But that would take a lot of time and Kida will be taken away shortly. Damn!

The time was up and Aced attacked once again. This time, the Foreteller raised his Keyblade high and smashed down upon the earth. The Keyblade roared and the earth heaved violently; cracks formed and ran along it towards all sides, toppling trees in their way. Sora ran towards a tree and using it as stepping stone jumped high to protect himself from the devastated earth’s quaking. He grabbed the thickest branch of a sturdy, tall tree and climbed up.

“Come down and fight me!” Aced raged and threw his Keyblade against it, destroying the stub completely. He re-summoned his weapon jumped towards Sora who lost his balance and was falling down exactly towards him. Now! he thought, and using Aced’s own momentum he avoided the attack and kicked him in the back.

Using Aced’s back Sora readjusted his fall to be more orderly, while sending Aced helplessly against a tree that just started burning a few seconds ago. Sora landed and performed a roll to dampen the landing. Aced however crashed against the tree hard and cried out in pain. His clothes caught fire but he quickly dashed away and discarded the top layer and his cracked mask, revealing his face. He was bald and full of injuries: missing nose, ear, a large wound upon his head.

“I’ve had enough of you!” he bellowed angrily. “I will take your remains back to the Master!”

Sora gave a small, fierce smile. He felt it, the rhythm, and when Aced attacked him for the next time, he needn’t run away. He dodged, parried, using Aced’s own movement and speed against him, and countered only when he was absolutely sure it would work. The first successful hit surprised Aced so much, that Sora unleashed a quick combination of attacks while his opponent stood there, stunned by the events. The finishing move sent him flying  against a tree, causing Aced to yell out in pain and fall on his knees.

“That’s the end of it!” Sora said, raising his weapon. “Give up!”

“Like hell!” Aced roared and in an instant released a much larger chunk of his power, changing his weapon into a great battle-axe. Sora halted his attack and retreated at once, barely avoiding the attack. Aced, however, wasn’t finished yet and pursued Sora, slashing towards him again and again while cackling madly. It didn’t take Sora to realize he was in a trance, similar to how Isa fought, and quickly saw through its weakness. He led Aced to the thickest tree he had seen, and quickly empowered it with all defensive spells he could use. When Aced arrived and attacked, he jumped away and prayed that the Battle-Axe would get caught and stuck in the stub.

Aced struck down and again it sounded like a thunderbolt on a stormy night, but it truly got caught in the tree’s stub. Aced flinched in surprise and Sora unleashed another attack against him, striking him all over his body and causing massive injuries. Aced fell on the ground and Sora raised his weapon for a final attack—

—but Gula appeared in front of him out of nowhere and parried the attack with his own weapon. Sora was caught off-guard and his Keyblade fell out of his hands. Gula slashed him twice then kicked him away. The boy fell on his back and gasped for air; meanwhile Gula helped his partner up.

“He really surprised me,” Aced noted, barely able to stand because of all the injuries he sustained.

“Me too, Aced,” the smaller one noted, and turned towards Sora. “You put on a good show.”

“I’m not done yet,” Sora said, kneeling and staring back at them with a vicious, fierce look. “I will not let you take her!”

“You don’t need to,” Gula said and nodded towards Kida and the portal beside her. “Take her to wherever you want to go.”

“Gula, don’t!”

“Enough,” he said. “You’re barely able to stand. I’m done running errands for the Master, when I could be doing useful things with my time.”

“You… want to betray him? Gula?!”

The boy looked at his partner and shook his head, “He knew about it. He came out and told me to do what I must. And I will,” he replied. “I am going to find Ava, and set things right.” Before Aced could’ve done anything, Gula raised a hand and knocked the Foreteller out.

“What are you playing at?” Sora asked angrily, not willing to trust him a bit.

“Aced knows how I fight. We used to train together, so I had you take him out for me,” Gula replied, taking off his own mask and revealing his young, scarred face and his sand-colored mohawk hair. “The Master knew you would be able to find all the Princesses, and wasn’t too adamant about wanting us to capture them before you. He probably has some plans already, so you better be careful.”

“Wait, so you’re not on their side anymore?” Sora asked.

“This isn’t that easy,” Gula shook his head. “I am his sin, his gluttony. So there may be a time when I need to return to his side. But until he commands me, I will use my power and time to find Ava. She’s here, I know it.”

“Who is Ava?”

“A good friend,” he replied and grabbed Aced by his clothes. “I’m returning him to the others. You go and take Kida.”

“I hope I won’t need to fight you,” Sora admitted.

“I hope so as well,” he nodded. “You know, you remind me another boy, one of the Dandelions. His name was Ephemer.”

“What happened to him?” Sora asked.

“He was far too good and kind for this world. And that was his demise,” he replied with a sad smile, and passed through the portal.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Sora took Kida not to Atlantis, but to Stargaze Valley where he had hoped to find his two friends, Donald and Goofy.

The valley was lukewarm and peaceful as always, the stars shining high above it, and the windmills spinning slowly, crackling tiredly every now and then. The drums and flutes were playing a variety of relaxing music, to sooth the anxiety of the refugees.

Bugenhagen, sitting on his hovering green ball, chuckled happily as he saw Sora and a surprised Kida arrive. “Hohoho, welcome back! And welcome, Princess Kida, you are most welcome to Stargaze Valley.”

“Are my friends here?” Sora asked, hopefully.

“All of them assembled,” nodded the wise elder. “Nanaki, please take the princess around, show her where she can stay, and introduce her to the others.”

“Others?” Kida asked, surprised.

“Yes, there are seven Princesses of Heart altogether,” Bugenhagen explained. “We already have six under our protection. Now we need to find this young boy’s friend, Kairi, to have the complete set, hohoho!”

“Sora!” a pair of familiar voices yelled in the distance. Sora turned and saw Donald and Goofy rushing down the rocky stairs, and quickly he hurried towards them, yelling back their names. The trio hugged, and Sora noticed that from the top of the stairs, Isa and Skuld were watching them.

“Everyone is here then,” Sora noted happily. “I’m so glad.”

“We have some news,” Skuld said, unable to hide her worry. “The seventh Sin of the Master of Masters is Ventus.”

“What?!” Sora exclaimed, couldn’t help withholding a very large smile, which surprised Skuld and Isa quite a bit. “Last time I’ve heard he was dead. But if he’s a Foreteller, that means he is alive. Terra and Aqua will be so happy hear this.”

“About that… we still don’t know what precisely happened to them,” Isa admitted. “And I’m starting to get worried.”

“Don’t be,” Sora said, and patted him on the shoulder — though he was slightly surprised at his own optimism as well — “we will get them back. We have the Princesses, we have many powerful friends.”

Neither Isa, nor Skuld seemed too sure about it, and even Donald and Goofy were sober about their chances. And can you blame them? You were there, you know what horrible things he can conjure up, Sora thought, but shook his head wildly to snap out of it. It wasn’t the right time to be drowning in sorrow. They had to believe and keep going forward. That was the only right way.

“Let’s talk to Bugenhagen,” he proposed, and the other four nodded. The group ascended to the top of the rock towering above the village, where Bugenhagen’s residence, a large observatory stood in solitude. Ansem’s apprentices were there, helping the village elder or simply standing guard at the entrance. Cid was also there, working on the Gummi Ships not far from the building, cursing every now and then.

The group entered the small building and found the bold, long-boarded fellow sitting on top of a small hump of pillows and cushions, his magical floating orb hovering about him. The music from down below was still audible, though barely.

“Master Bugenhagen,” Sora begun. “We really need your help now.”

“Hohoho, I know! But we are still waiting for someone to arrive,” the elder said and offered everyone a seat. “Have some tea, or biscuits! It will do good!”

Though originally none of them wanted to, Sora took a biscuit and took a small bite, only to realize how hungry he was. Skuld poured herself tea and downed it in one go. Then Isa had some tea and a slice of cake. Ten-fifteen minutes later, all of them were full from all the tasty bites, much to Bugenhagen’s joyful amusement.

“See, it was a time spent usefully! You may come in, dear fairy!”

“You do know my proper name, wizard,” Maleficent said, not seeming too pleased by being called for. She stood at the door, Pete a step behind her.

“Maleficent?!” gasped Sora.

“Pete!” yelled Donald and Goofy, pointing at him.

“You pipsqueaks!” Pete replied, pointing back at them.

“Why are we so surprised?” Isa asked, softly face palming himself with his remaining real hand. “She can help us find Lea and the others?”

“I believe so, yes,” Bugenhagen nodded. “She and Skuld might be the ones who can replicate the magical seal that was used to lock them away.”

“Magical seal?” Skuld looked at the elder in surprise.

“It is largely similar to the one you used to travel through time,” Maleficent replied, and stepped closer. “I’ve been able to peer back and see what the Master of Master had done, thanks to a… witch. The Master modified the transportation circle and trapped them inside a realm of his own making.”

“And you think I could help with that?” Skuld asked in surprise.

“Most likely. Also, we will need all the power we can amass old man. Better have something good.”

“Hohoho, you bet! We’ve quite a bit of power stored away now! Shall we get to work?”

 

Chapter Text

Stargaze Valley was another cornerstone of vast energies. Under the starlight of the heavens, and beneath the slumbering rocks, an endless stream of magical energy pulsed continuously. Anyone with a bit of affinity to magic could’ve sensed the potential of the ancient land, too bad Sora could only borrow the magical spells without actually knowing how to use magic. Casting a borrowed spell was one thing, but knowing actually how to conjure it was another.

Sora watched Bugenhagen guide everyone with a serene calmness, turning the village upside-down in order to create the perfect magical circle. Maleficent barked orders more vehemently, cursing under her breath after each mistake by a less experienced wizard or mage; and Donald didn’t seem the least happy about it.

“Let me at her!” he fumed pulling up his sleeves, while Goofy held him back in the most comical fashion. “I’ll teach her how to speak with us wizards!”

“Relax, Donald! She’s just tryin’ to help us!”

“Well I don’t like it either!” Sora said, putting his hands on his waist. “She has betrayed us so many times.”

“I’ve never been on your side before,” Maleficent remarked, walking past them. “We’ve had common enemies, but make no mistake Keyblade bearer, I am not with your little oh-so-happy party. We just want the same thing.”

“The Master of Masters gone,” Sora nodded. “So what are we doing here?”

Maleficent stopped, turned and threw a handful of green dust into the air, followed by a magical spell. In front of Sora and the gang, the last minutes of the battle that took place in the Keyblade Graveyard replayed as if they were watching a cartoon. The trio gasped in horror as the witches and Foretellers appeared, and as the circle lit up, dismantling all of their friends in an instant.

“What was that?” Donald asked, worry echoing in his voice.

“Your foolish friends’ demise,” Maleficent said. “They walked right into the trap of the Master of Masters and fell into his trap.”

“Yeah, we already heard this. How can you be so sure that we can get to them?” Sora asked angrily.

“Because you should be able to use the Power of Awakening properly now.”

Sora’s eyes widened hearing that from Maleficent, though the witch seemed to have surprised even herself with those words. She quickly regained her composure and stern look, and went on with her business. Sora, Donald, and Goofy exchanged a quick look, but shrugged it off.

The preparations lasted for another couple of hours, but the closer they got to finishing the magical circle, the more excited everyone became. Sora, Donald, and Goofy headed towards the magical circle, joining Isa and Skuld who were already standing there beside it.

“So what’s going to happen now?” Sora asked, hoping that Skuld might be able to provide him with answers. However, the girl seemed just as perplexed by the events as he was. It very much looked like they were all just hoping for things to go well without a proper idea.

“Never you worry, children!” Bugenhagen chuckled happily as he descended, sitting on his large green cushion. “We mimicked the Master of Masters’ transportation circle, so we can send you after your friends. However, we’ve also made preparations so you can all return! We will keep the path open long enough for everyone to get home safely!”

“Will this really work?” Isa asked, sounding less than trusting. He was fiddling with his mechanical arm, and wrinkles of worry appeared on his forehead, reflecting uncertainty.

“It will,” Skuld said and patted the man on the shoulder. “We will bring them all home!”

“Yeah,” Sora agreed with a newfound determination. “Let’s bring everyone home! The King, Riku, Kairi. Everyone!” he added and turned to Goofy and Donald, both of whom were all too happy and ready to agree wholeheartedly.

“Ho-ho-ho! All is in good hands here!”

“I sure hope so,” Cid and some of the residents of Radiant Garden chimed in. “Would be good to have some serious firepower on our side if we want to take the Garden back.”

“Don’t worry Cid, we will bring’em home, and get you back your old wreckage park,” Sora assured him, much to the man’s annoyance.

“Call’em beauties wrecks again, and you’ll by flying without a cockpit.”

“Enough chatter you all!” Maleficent said, appearing behind them all, looking just as vile as ever. She pointed at the middle of the large summoning circle and everyone immediately knew what she was telling to them. Sora, Donald, Goofy, Skuld, and Isa hurried over to the middle, while everyone else moved away away from it.

Bugenhagen, Maleficent, the Princesses, and dozens of other magic users gathered around them. Sora was shocked by the amount of spellcasters, wizards, and other powerful people appeared within such a short span of time.

“Wow, so many of them!” he exclaimed, completely enchanted by the most curious looking people.

“They came from all the different Worlds,” Donald said proudly as if he knew them. “I’ve been to the World, where they all studied!”

The lines of the greater circle lit up around them and Sora felt a powerful warmth surrounding him. It reminded him of what he saw thanks to Maleficent’s magic, but realized that it was completely different. The sensation itself was unlike that; and he saw his friends in pain, while he himself felt none.

“Ho-ho-ho! It is a rare occasion that I can welcome so many great and talented masters from all around! And it is also rare, that we need to unite our powers to ensure the success of the Keybearer! Today, however, we shall do that, and use our might to its fullest, in hopes of granting them just enough hope, to succeed! Let Magic Be!”

“Let Magic Be!” echoed many amongst the participants, but not all. Sora saw Maleficent in a stern silence, waving her magical staff rigidly and focusing solely on the spell in front of her.

The music slowly faded out and the colors mashed into a unified whiteness. The air turned freezing and burning at the same time, and all possible fragrances overwhelmed him. Slowly, everything disappeared around them, and even the others — Donald, Goofy, Isa, and Skuld — were gone. Sora ceased to feel: his old bruises mended, the point where his feet touched the ground disappeared, and aches of his heart gone. Only his mind remained, but it turned sharper than ever, past and present pressed together creating a singular momentum where all met: the Islands, that stormy night; meeting Leon and the gang in Traverse Town, and teaming up with Goofy and Donald; adventuring through the worlds, only to find his friends and facing off against Ansem at the edge of reality; the long slumber and the halls of Oblivion; returning back and fighting the Organization in pursuit of Mickey and Riku; the Mark of Mastery and his failure; their journey to save the others only for him to lose everyone; and the endless nightmare in Insomnia. Everything overlapped and scattered, yet he had seen the many thin lines that connected the dots and created a web. And at the middle of this intertwined maze stood he, whose malicious grin was behind every committed act, behind every drop of vileness.

Sora was falling and light turned into darkness around him. Below him, the spider web was in truth cracks on a large plate of glass. And the closer he got, the larger those cracks became. Before he could’ve landed, the station of awakening shattered and the pieces scattered around and hid within the darkness. Only a small shard remained, an island floating amidst the deep, thick black fog. At the centre of this broken piece of glass, a man awaited him.

“Well now, the young hero jumps to the rescue! How gallant of you to join us here,” grinned Luxu, wearing his old Organization coat instead of his Foreteller garment. He wielded his pistols, dangling them lazily as he awaited for Sora to land. “Long time no see, Sora.”

“You! Let my friends go!” Sora demanded immediately.

“As if that was a possibility,” Luxu croaked, shaking his head. “You just don’t know when to quit do you? After all this time, after realizing just how hopeless the situation is, you’re still here, diving head-on into trouble.”

“I’m not like I was. Yeah, I did slip a couple of times. I’ve failed and fell, but my friends were there to pick me up. Now, they need me. I will be their strength!” Sora retorted.

“As if! They are scattered, just like these shards. Welcome to our own Station of Awakening. Welcome to the Sundered Shards Sora. You’ll find it dark and cozy. Just don’t linger for too long. You might lose sight of what you truly looking for.”

“You don’t scare me. You’re just another thug.”

Luxu hummed curiously, his malicious smirk becoming even wider. “As if that knowledge would help you. Don’t get too comfortable. Having all but the most important card will null your progress.”

“I will save Kairi. I’ve done so in the past, I will do so again!”

“And who will save you?” asked a familiar, deeper voice. Sora shuddered as he felt various presences appearing beside and behind him. He jumped forward and turned around only to face Xemnas.

“Xemnas? What are you—“

“Ever the hero, leaping before thinking,” said another familiar voice, high above them. Sora stared up at the sky and saw Ansem descending, hands folded, mouth twitched into an irritating smirk. “Right where we want him to be.”

“To think I’ve handed the x-blade to you. How disappointing,” the ancient, croaking voice of Master Xehanort echoed without the bald master making an appearance. “Your failure will deliver everything into his hands.”

Sora, weakened by the presences and their taunting, knelt down and buried his head into his hands, trying to calm himself. This isn’t real. They aren’t here. We’ve dealt with them. He’s not here. Not here.

“It is time for you to stand aside and allow destiny to make its stand!” echoed the three incarnations of Xehanort at once and rapidly, the three turned into dark, overwhelming shadows and tried to rush him. But at the last moment, a glimmer of light shone up and from it, dozens of threads unfolded stretching far and wide, connecting to the distant shards hidden from plain sight. The threads pierced through the three shadows as well, and they crumbled away without a word.

Feeling rejuvenated through the threads connected to him, Sora stood up and summoned forth his Keyblade with newfound vigor. “Enough with the games!” he asserted, pointing Kingdom Key at Luxu, who didn’t seem to enjoy the scenario much.

“As if I’d let you get to your friends,” he spat out angrily. He raised his guns and pulled the triggers. Dark purple energy bolts shot out of the weapons at once, but Sora was quick to react. He increased his speed with a Haste-magic and leapt quickly forward. It seemed so fast, that one might’ve believed that he was actually teleporting.

“Whoopsie-daisy,” Luxu laughed as he dodged the attack, landing far from Sora and discarding his guns. “You’re still pretty annoying with that thing.”

“Last time I’ve mopped the floor with you, you were moaning about how a Keyblade would change the results,” Sora grinned darkly. “You have one now, right?”

“As if! I haven’t time to play around with you. Didn’t you realize that something was off?”

Sora lowered his Keyblade, unsure as to what Luxu was getting at. He looked around, trying to understand his point, but nothing. The man started cackling frantically, hitting his kneecap and shuddering like crazy. “You really are the slow one. I am but a mirage, kid. The real me is out there, hunting down your precious friends!”

“You!”

“Now-now. No need for fuss. Run along, you’ve given me an ample head-start. This mirage’s time is over.”

And true to his word, the fake Luxu’s body turned into dust within moments, leaving a dumbstruck Sora behind.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Kairi’s body ached at every inch; she was hungry, thirsty, tired, and most of all, very annoyed. The Master of Masters cruel joke seemed to go on forever and ever, without respite or hope of escape. Mickey, Terra, and Aqua were all just like her. They all sunk into a deep, depressing silence long ago, and nobody had spoken for what seemed like weeks. We’ve been going on and on for the longest time now, and we still don’t know if we’ll ever find an exit. Where are we? What is this place?

The narrow road continued through the ink-black realm sprinkled with the shards that glimmered in the most curious light. Their shapes and sizes varied, but they all moved slowly, making just enough room for the four weary travelers to squeeze through. Their bodies were covered in shallow cuts thanks to the shards, but none were too severe or too deep. It was a carefully constructed trap that made sure to drain their energies but not deplete them completely. It was a cruel trick from a cruel Master.

I just hope the others are okay, she thought. She often wondered about how Riku, Xion, or the others were. Ever since their journey there began, she hadn’t heard a word of where the others were or what they were doing. It was frightening, and nobody dared talk about it. They were all full of doubts, and even if they had a speck of hope inside of them in the beginning, the harsh road, the unforgiving circumstances, and the endless journey slowly reaped it away.

After another good few hours of silent walking, Aqua suddenly hissed painfully.

“What’s the matter?” Terra turned immediately. The man had been in a rough shape before as well, but now – after all this walking – he was pale, and dried blood inked his body. His clothes hung on him tattered, and the thick dark circles beneath his eyes told a grave tale of how exhausted he was, both physically and mentally.

“These shards. They are cutting deeper than before,” she noted, casting a small cure spell on the wound. Kairi stepped closer, reached out, and pulled the small bloody shard away from Aqua. She too eyed the thing curiously. “I’ve been wondering about whole thing. It’s weird. They aren’t simple shards.”

“What do you mean?” Mickey asked.

“Light. They emit light, even though we’re in complete darkness. It is barely visible, because they are small and as they spin and float around, you can rarely sense them. But it is there.”

Kairi thought about it, and unsurprisingly she realized Aqua was quite right. Looking back, she too saw it, but didn’t make much of the whole thing. She figured it was how it supposed to be, so they wouldn’t have to waltz around blindly. And maybe that really is all behind it. I can’t imagine anything else being there. She looked down at the small shard in her hand, and suddenly she was looking into the gazing eye. “What the—“

Kairi let go, but Aqua caught it immediately and stared at the shard. “He’s watching us!” she declared, and looked at Terra and Mickey. “Look!”

The two of them stepped closer to take a look, but the eye wasn’t there anymore. They saw something, but it was just a fragment, a small part of a greater picture. The light seemed different than before, and its warmth and color changed slowly. It was missing the rest. The rest.

Kairi looked around and pulled another shard closer, trying to connect it with the one in their possession. The two didn’t match, but the light shining within them was similar. The boys didn’t seem to understand, but Aqua caught on quickly and using a spell pulled several shards close.

“Look!” she explained to Mickey and Terra. “These fit together.”

“Wow! Really! I wonder what it depicts.” Mickey leaned closer and shuffled around with the fragments, connecting them correctly. It was still merely part of a much larger one, but at least they now had a rough idea of what it showed: it was a dark, candlelit room filled with books and mechanical constructs; the inside of a large clock tower, perhaps. A man with blue cat-like eyes, wearing a dark cloak sat by an ancient wooden desk, surrounded by stacks of books and papers, and scribed relentlessly. “Yes, yes. Th….s the o... Fina……ter all this.......I ca....e it. The jou……hat we mu….ake. I will have my …..ance. …..om H..r.s, you will p……..hat you have…... And ..will show you all. ….. is just as tyrannical as …..ess.”

“This is too deformed, too broken,” Kairi shook her head. “We need more pieces.”

“Mickey, can you help me?” Aqua asked, and the King nodded. Together, the two of them combined their spells and shards from behind them and ahead of them were drawn closer. A small tornado swept through the area around them, collecting every scattered piece. Using their Keyblades, Terra and Kairi tried to usher the fragments together, which slowly found their places and connected with the rest. A large glass ceiling appeared above them and the originally blurred ramblings slowly took upon a shape, while the noisy audio turned fluent and orderly.

It really was a study, a very large room with a circular table in its middle. Large cogwheels clicked and clacked continuously, occasionally disturbed by a solitary person’s cough. The man, wearing a long dark robe, sat by his cluttered desk, and stared into the empty space in front of him, occasionally taking notes. When he was staring, his cat-like eyes shined brightly, but when he was taking notes, it all seemed ordinary. “Yes, yes. This is the one. Finally, after all this time I can see it. The journey that we must take. I will have vengeance. Kingdom Hearts, you will pay for what you have done. And I will show you all that light is just as tyrannical as Darkness. I will not forgive you.”

The scene ended, and then restarted again and again. But shards couldn’t stick together, so slowly they floated away to retake their original position.  Kairi looked at the others, and saw that the same confusion on their faces that was growing inside of her. What was that? Is that the Master of Masters? Why? why did he leave these shards behind? Does he want us to understand him?

“We have to go on and… complete the other pictures.” Aqua declared. Terra and Mickey agreed, and so did Kairi. Now at least, they were getting somewhere. Maybe the truth will be revealed, and so will the way out, she hoped. And she wasn’t completely wrong, they walked until the shards changed just enough for them to know that it was a completely different story. Using their magic, King Mickey and Aqua collected the pieces, while Terra and Kairi connected them to reveal the true story behind it.

It took several attempts each time, and there were glasses to be completed. But slowly, the story behind the enigmatic cleared up…

Far away from the centre of the World, at the borderline between the Lands of Darkness and the Lands of Light, stood a small chapel upon a lush green field. It was humble little home for those chosen by the Light, to protect the realm from the encroaching darkness. Their Order used to be great and mighty, but times changed and the war against Darkness faded into obscurity while the once well-known and highly regarded heroes were forgotten.

The last ones, who held the lines, even when nobody else did, were branded as the Seven Virtues of Light. Their powers stemmed from the heart-shaped moon that forever shined upon the field of their struggles.

The Seven lined up on that day, just as they had done each and every time. Their brilliant, white capes fluttered in the strong wind, their long Keyblades glimmered in a thousand hues of Light. One of them, their leader, stood steps in front of the rest, and rested his weapon against his shoulder as he watched the armies ahead of them.

“They are more than usual. Think we can handle them, Casti?” asked a female voice.

“Humi, you are far too modest. We will strike down upon them, as usual. The Kingdom is on our side. Light shall victor today” replied the one at the head. He turned to face the rest, and nodded. “And if by any chance, this would be the day we fall, well it would be an honor to fight until death by your side.”

“We can only lose if we give up. But we must Persist, you know that. We are the shield the guards the Realm. The many orders scattered throughout the Worlds are all based around us. This is the original brotherhood that guards the Light.”

“Well spoken, Indu” said an elderly voice. “And he is right. We will win, Casti. We must have faith in the Light.”

“May Kingdom Hearts be our guiding Light,” said another one, and everyone repeated the words.

Soon, a savage storm struck down, but Kingdom Hearts prevailed and its strong Light shined through the thick dark clouds, down upon the field that was about to become the place where Darkness and Light clashed.

The youngest and frailest of the Seven, who stood one step behind everyone, watched his brothers and sisters in awe, and prayed for their safety. He wielded no Keyblade, only a staff with a small heart at its top. His cape was longer and his hood hid his otherwise unprotected face. There was always one like him; one that did not strike, for Light was gracious and forgiving. He was mercy, while the rest were retribution.

He prayed and sang the might of the Kingdom, while his fellows rushed into battle and brought down the judgment of Kingdom Hearts and won victory after victory for the Light.

But Darkness would not lose forever.

On that land shall darkness prevail and light expire…

All the monsters from hell and further below, all the demons from within and without, every abomination and their ghastly masters arrived. An army far greater than ever before, enlisting the evils of every corner of the known World and beyond, gathering the damned from the nightmares and the realities — with merely Seven proud defenders to stop them.

Darkness prevailed, but light did not expire. Seeing his treasured friends, brothers, and loved ones fall one by one, the last of the Seven fell to his knees and prayed louder than ever. He pleaded, begged for Kingdom Hearts to empower them, to offer them salvation. But the eternally shining heart-shaped moon remained unmoved by his prayer and did not save any of its heroes and champions.

Heart-broken and abandoned by his faith, the Seventh one — Pati of Forgiveness and Mercy — reached down and grabbed the corrupted Keyblade of his closest friend Casti, and drawn upon the powers of Darkness to obliterate everything.

Darkness prevailed, and his faith expired.

After the battle, Pati buried his friends and abandoned the ruined temple, his guard post. “Let this World, or any World for that matter, rot away. The kin of Light deserves no protection from the torment of Darkness. Let them all suffer, just as I have” he said upon the graves of his fallen brotherhood before abandoning his cape and donning a new one.

His journey took him to many places; both dark and light, but neither suited him. His mind however was wrapped around one notion, and one only. “I will have my revenge. Light has forsaken us, forsaken me. I will expire this Light, and bring forth a new one.” Pati sought power, so he sought out those with the most. He studied, he learned; when they wouldn’t share, he took it. During his travels he came across a unique creature that saw the possibilities that lay within the future. He slew the beast and took its eyes for his own, hoping to find that one future where he would be able to triumph.

He saw wars and the Keyblades re-emerging. He saw children who would fight and collect particles of Light. He saw his own Virtues taking a stand and fighting on his behalf, but he also saw the future where his power would be tested and even bested. Children of the skies, lands, and waters would wage war against him, Bastions of the Light would raze his Kingdom. But beyond all that, there was one strand of thread, which led to victory. Kingdom Hearts lay broken and in pieces, beneath his glorious throne. And there, he would become Mercy once more, the last Virtue of Humanity.

Pati had forsaken his name and began working towards that future. He sought out children with strong heart and referring to himself as the Master journeyed through the land, collecting these children. He created Daybreak Town and filled it with those promising youth who could learn to master the Keyblade. He chose the best of the children to become the Foretellers, and placed parts of his Soul inside them. Using those pieces of Souls they would keep him alive and he could affect their thinking and behavior. They would be the embodiment of his vices, while he could retain his purity. Of course, he also kept a few other ones nearby, as he knew they had yet to play their part.

Finally the time for his departure came, and the Master of Masters presented his Foretellers with their gifts, the tome that contained the way to his desired future.

Before leaving the World behind, the Master traveled back to the abandoned chapel and the small cemetery to visit his old friends again. Nothing had changed, and though there were nobody guarding the realm, Darkness did not take over. “Another proof of your betrayal.” He stood in front of the graves feeling unending fury and hatred towards Kingdom Hearts, the source of all Light and the source of hypocrisy. “I will topple your walls and make people forget, just like they forgot about us, about our sacrifice. After all what we’ve done for you, your Light was useless.”

The Master of Masters summoned forth Casti’s Keyblade – which he had never used after the battle – and used its power to reach the dark city where he would wait the day when the boy of the skies and the boy of the earth would arrive.

After witnessing the last bits of the story, Kairi, Terra, Aqua, and Mickey stood silently and stared into the infinite dark. None of them had the power to speak. The great evil mastermind behind it all was just another simple man who swore vengeance against the World.

“Love and hate are really the strongest forces,” Mickey said, lowering his eyes sadly. “But as long as good exists, bad will too. It is how it must be.”

“Darkness never approached the realm again, as it succeeded,” Aqua added. “All it wanted was to infect the Light, and it did. But why did Kingdom Hearts abandon them?”

“Did it abandon them at all? Or is this just a twisted lie that he wants to feed us?” Terra asked, looking at the others. “He’s behind everything that had ever happened. Even Xehanort was his pawn, and that tells a lot. I don’t care, at this point, who or why is doing this. The Master of Masters has to go.”

“Agreed,” Mickey nodded. “Too much is at stake! If he really wants to destroy Kingdom Hearts, we have to stop him!”

“But how could we?” Aqua asked. She was losing hope faster than anyone, which didn’t surprise Kairi. She had already wondered around in the darkness once, and returning to that horrible journey must’ve been really hard to swallow. She wanted to say something soothing, but suddenly she felt something touch her Heart and it numbed her.

First she felt fear, but it slowly turned into hope as warmth spread around inside her. She reached for her heart and saw the others experience something similar as well. “What is this?” Terra asked in surprise. “Can you all feel it too?”

Aqua nodded and gave a small smile. “Yeah. It feels like—“

“Sora” Kairi said, withholding her tears. “He’s here.”

All of them turned around and looked at the same spot, imagining a small window. Mickey, Kairi, Aqua, and Terra raised their Keyblades and slowly a lock symbol appeared in the darkness. Rays of Light shot out of the Keys and a large gate opened up before them.

“We have to go find the others,” Kairi said immediately, and the other three nodded in unison. “I can feel Sora’s presence, but I can also sense trouble.”

“We’re with you,” Aqua stated and patted her on the shoulder, offering Kairi a smile. “Lead the way then.”

Kairi nodded and jumped into the gate. She didn’t know where it would lead, but anywhere was better than inside the twisted mind of that tormented soul. I don’t care how much you’ve hurt because of Kingdom Hearts. I don’t care how fierce protector of the Light you once were. I will never forgive you for all the horrible things you’ve done. And you will pay, I can assure you.

Chapter Text

Remember those days?

The boy with the spiky red hair grinned mischievously once again, and offered his hand. Isa took it, and chuckled fondly as he got up from the grass, and dusted the dirt off his trousers. “Come on! Let’s go back to the Castle!” Lea prompted, scratching his nose. “I’ll race ya!”

“I’ll pass,” Isa sighed, eyes rolling, and folded his arms. “You know I’m not one for running around.”

“Fine. Let’s just go! I want to see her again!”

“Who?”

“X! You know, the girl in the Castle! We promised!” Isa nodded, though felt unsure about it. Getting inside the castle was dangerous the last time as well. They had almost gotten caught, and only Light knows what would’ve happened if they really were. Still, that promise meant a lot to both of them. “Come oon! Please?”

“Alright, alright!” he sighed again, shaking his head. “But we can’t just barge in there during daytime! Use your head sometimes!”

“I do! I chop wood with it!” Lea grinned, knocking his own head softly. “So, you’ve got a plan?”

Isa nodded and turned towards the Castle towering above the city in the distance “Yeah, but we’ll need a distraction. Give me a bit more time to prepare.”

“Alright, but how long?”

“Hm…” Isa rubbed his chin, thinking about how much time he would need. He looked up at the sky and saw the moon shining faintly in the distance. He felt a sudden sickness just by looking at it; his moon-fever — as his doctor called it — was getting worse, but he knew it’d pass soon. “Let’s see. It’s almost full moon now isn’t it? Wait until it becomes a perfect crescent again, then we can infiltrate the Castle.”

“Well, that’s still quite a few days away, but I guess it sounds fair. Better prepare a really good plan until then!”

“Oh I will,” he nodded and looked at the moon again; this time with a sense of relief.

How easier things were, when we knew nothing of the World…

The evening of the perfect crescent had finally arrived and the plan was placed into motion. Lea and Isa hid near the gates and awaited the change of guard as usual; getting into the premises was the easier part, getting actually inside the Castle was the harder.

“So what’s the plan?” Lea whispered excitedly, but Isa hushed him. He focused on the guards who were just about to start their retreat. After that they had about thirty or so seconds to get from their current location to their cover on the other side. “Look! Something is wrong.” Lea said as four figures appeared in the distance. They were the evening shift, but they weren’t supposed to arrive yet; not until the daytime shift left. “Damn it! We’re going to miss our chance!”

“Hold still,” Isa snapped quietly. “You’ll give away our position!”

“But the gate!”

“Forget about the gate. They’ve changed everything since last time.”

“Damn!”

“Don’t worry. I told you I have it covered,” Isa said calmly. “Come on, follow me.” He turned around and snuck away from the gate. Lea followed him obediently, though Isa could clearly hear the anger and restlessness of his friend.

Isa led them to the far end of the wall and pulled a rope out of his bag with a hook attached to its end. Lea offered merely a snarky comment, but Isa paid no attention to it and throw the hook over the wall. It took him three-four tries but he succeeded eventually and quickly climbed the wall. “Hurry!” he hissed down to Lea before jumping down the other side. His red-haired friend followed him and easy as that, they had infiltrated the grounds.

“So, this was the big plan?” he asked with an amused look. “It took you this many days to get a grappling hook and a rope?”

Isa give him a deadpan look, and after a short exasperated sigh shook his head. “It took me time to memorize and figure out the movement of the guards. Since we can only see the change of guard, I had to stay close to the front gates and measure time.”

“Oh.” Isa raised an eyebrow; he was quite sure that Lea still didn’t realize how much effort it actually took to get in without encountering a nearby guard. The flame-haired boy’s mouth twitched into a smile and his eyes narrowed; for a second it felt as if his aura was beginning to burn. “Alright then; what’s next, Isa?”

“Follow me, and don’t lag behind. Also, don’t speak… and try breathing quietly,” he added after a short pause.

How gullible children we were, toying with the rules, doing what was forbidden. And look where it got us in the end.

The two boys followed Isa’s squiggling path through the thin weald surrounding the Castle, avoiding the automated traps, the guards’ patrolling route, and any other obstacles. It took them much longer than last time, but they weren’t caught either. They had managed to reach the castle, without as much as crossing paths with any living beings.

They reached the backyard of the Castle premises, where the weald turned into a rich garden of a thousand hues and fragrances; gleaming in the crescent moon’s light, and dancing vividly in the evening wind. There were no guards around, only a couple of tired apprentices, wearing those long white capes and eating sea-salt ice-cream by a wooden bench.

“We’ll jump them, knock’em out, and enter the Castle using their tags,” Isa said, putting on his serious face so Lea would know he wasn’t joking. The boy stared back at him, looking alarmed and pale at the same time.

“You want to assault them? Isa, that can get us into serious trouble!”

“Not if they can’t see us.”

“But if they will?”

“But they won’t!” Isa insisted and crouching, he stepped out of the shadow of the trees. The apprentices were sitting with their backs to the boys, chatting quietly about their day. They snuck closer and closer, but Lea fell behind. Isa continued on alone, until he stepped out into the moonlight, where the affects of his fever took hold of him again.

He tried controlling his breathing, and keeping his mind clear. Slowly, he continued towards the apprentices, even though he was starting to feel light-headed and sick, which was odd. He continued taking his medication, he didn’t skip even once. And yet, something was off…

Likely, because the fever dazed him for a second, Isa missed a move and lost his firm footing; he fell into the closest flower bed, alarming the students immediately of his presence. They jumped up and called for the guards immediately; that was however the lesser of two evils. The gates of the castle were burst open, and from inside a being with thick dark mane emerged. It had long, thin limbs ending in claws, a large jaw with bloodied teeth, and shining golden eyes with the expression of a mindless bloodthirsty lunatic. The creature howled in a high-pitched voice, then turned its eyes to the blue-haired boy.

Isa grunted painfully, reaching for his aching back as he sat up. He was on a beach, lying in the sand for Light knows how long. While the cold water licked the tip of his feet, the sun’s distant warmth barely touched his chins. On the other hand, the storm gathering in the distance sent waves of chilling gusts to tear against the sunshades. Where the hell am I? he thought to himself, as he rose to his feet. His unharmed hand found its way to his face, touching the x-shaped wound and again he recalled the savage creature’s attack. Why did I dream of that? Such a distant memory.

The man looked around the beach, searching for friend or foe, but found neither. His last memories were of the ritual. I recall it; the whole thing felt like I was being torn apart, chewed and spitted out. Like a kind of reincarnation… but what is this place? Feels far too similar. Almost as if it was… Isa spun around, turning his back against the sea and looking at the great land stretching the other way. And there it was, the vast city, Twilight Town. Why here?

“Out of the way, loser!” said an angry voice, and suddenly Isa felt hands pushing him aside and a trio marching past him.

“Watch your step, kid,” he retorted angrily, making the trio stop immediately. They turned back and stared at him. Their leader had a long coat but without sleeves, and a grey cap. A small scar stretched across his face, crossing just over the bridge of his nose.

“Did you just say something?” he asked back.

“Yeah, I told you to watch your step,” Isa repeated himself, taking a step towards the trio.

“Uncool” said the second member of the group, a girl with a mean look. She stepped in front of Isa.

“Fuu is right, y’know! That ain’t cool at all!” said the third member, another boy, as he stepped beside Fuu. “You don’t want to get on Seifer’s bad side y’know!”

“Rai, Fuu! Step down. This guy ain’t worth the trouble,” Seifer said, looking at Isa. “Let’s go!”

“Train,” Fuu added.

“Oh yeah, we gotta catch the train, y’know!” Rai nodded and with that the trio ran off without further words or warning.

Isa sighed and shook his head while looking at the trio. He couldn’t help but smile, because for a moment it had reminded him of their old days with Lea. Where are you lot? he pondered, feeling slightly helpless. And still, how did I end up here of all places? “Finding you all here wouldn’t even surprise me anymore. You’ve spent an awful lot of time strolling these streets, sitting on top of that tower and watching the sunset. Maybe that’s where I should go as well.”

With no better plan, Isa followed Seifer and his two companions to catch the train. He arrived just in time, but found no traces of those three. Not that it bothered him, still it felt odd. They had set out before he did, and there was hardly a chance to miss the station.

The blue-haired man got into the empty carriage and almost immediately the doors closed behind him. Isa sat down and the train embarked, leaving the station through a small tunnel. It gained speed and soon the shores to the land became just as distant as the city was. Isa watched the scenery change through the window, and thought about all those days they had spent planning a grand escape from Radiant Garden. We just couldn’t sit on our behinds and spend the days idling. You always craved adventures, mysteries, danger. And me? I was fine with all that, as long as it was us against the world. But all that changed, hasn’t it? We are no longer alone. We have friends, waiting for us to get back. People are waiting for you, miss you. That’s why you can’t keep slipping through my fingers. You have to come with me.

The train whistled loudly and entered yet another tunnel. The road started to elevate and the train climbed high, to continue its journey through the high bridges on the other side. But before that, a long stretch of dark passage awaited. The lights within the carriage lit up and in the mirror’s reflection a familiar face looked back at Isa. It was Xemnas.

“What?!” Isa spun around, clenching his fist and prepared to land the first blow. Xemnas, however, wasn’t there, or anywhere else. His voice on the other hand, his cold and deep chuckle was unquestionably echoing within the train’s carriage.

“Still hunting your rogue friend, Saïx? When will you understand, that he had long abandoned you. Even as a Nobody, he had found other purpose, other means to feel.”

“Shut up!” he bellowed angrily, punching the side of the carriage.

“Ah, like the raving lunatic you are…” Xemnas’ words startled him. He recoiled at the sight of the dented wall and the cracked mirror, and all of a sudden Xehanort’s Nobody seemed to be painfully right.

The train left the dark passage, and the sunshine once again filled the carriage. Isa stared into the cracked window and saw his reflection. His eyes were gleaming and he could feel his own insatiable bloodlust; for it truly had no end, no pit. He could learn to control it, wield it, but it would never cease to be there.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Skuld had to use all her power, not to lose her consciousness while falling through the great dark filled with shards. As she was falling, she had seen the endlessly spiraling roads spinning and twisting, joining and branching endlessly; it was a labyrinth without a wall. She saw the others falling as well, and for the longest of time it felt like there would be no end to it, but at once small threads of Light appeared out of nowhere and connected them all like a gigantic spider web. Touching the thread, mysteriously it all became clear where she had to go, and from there on out, the journey was a piece of cake.

The previously abyssal pit disappeared and beneath her was a great town with a tall clock-tower clicking endlessly above it. A quick Float spell did miracles and Skuld found herself descending like some sort of Angel from Heaven, landing in the middle of the Fountain Square, where so many of her journeys had begun in the days of old.

Everything was a perfect mirage of the real one: the colors, smells, even the warmth or the feel of the cobblestones beneath her boots. It really felt like the real Daybreak Town, even though it was but an excellent illusion.

“Welcome home, Skuld.”

The voice she heard was equally joyful to hear, and painful to bear. Slowly, not sure what to expect, she turned around and looked into the eyes of the boy she had grown close to, until fate sent them on diverging paths. Ephemer looked just like in her memories: messy silverish hair, eyes twinkling with life, and a playful smile. The boy stepped closer, and without further words, hugged her. “I’ve missed you,” he said quietly. “Where have you been for so long?”

“I…” she didn’t know what to say. What was she supposed to say to a fake, to a lie? It didn’t seem right; but maybe just for a short, she could pretend, enjoy it? She coughed briefly and glanced at the fountain’s water to see her reflection. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t the pale and skinny adult she had become, but the slender, raven haired girl she used to be. Only briefly, she vowed silently, and looked back at Ephemer, putting on a happy smile for the boy. “Sorry I’ve been gone for so long. But I’m here now.”

“And that’s all that matters,” Ephemer nodded happily, letting her go. He stepped over to the fountain and sat on the edge, tapping on the stone next to him. Skuld nodded and hopped on as well, bumping her shoulder against the boy’s and kicking the air lazily. “So, what’s the outer World like? Is it anything like we’ve experienced in the past?” Ephemer asked.

“Much bigger, and way more beautiful,” Skuld said earnestly. “You would love the Worlds I’ve been to: big cities with beautiful evening lights, endless forests with the most unique people. My friends have been to a sacred kingdom which was underground, so deep that it was surrounded by pools of lava!”

“Wow. That sounds cool!” the boy said, eyes widened at the mention of such adventures. “I wish I could go, see all of it for myself. But you’re not going back, right? We need you here, you know. To accomplish what Master Ava asked us to do. To protect the Dandelions and prepare.”

“I know, Ephemer,” she agreed. “But things have changed, and my role in all of this, has changed as well. I—“

“COME BACK HERE!” shouted an angry voice and suddenly a thunderbolt flashed across the square, tearing a house apart violently. Skuld shrieked and jumped up, summoning her Keyblade, prepared to fight whatever was coming, but Ephemer merely laughed it off.

“Don’t worry! Nothing to be afraid of!”

“No way I’m stopping! Someone help!” yelped another voice, and a tall man appeared at the distant corner of the square. He was holding onto his sitar, and seemed quite appalled by whoever was hunting him. “Lauriam, Ludor!”

“Come here you stupid little musician!” hissed the angry female as she too appeared behind the man and chased him towards the fountain. As they got closer and closer, Skuld’s heart started beating faster, as the truth within that world of lie unveiled itself before her. And though Ephemer tried to stop her, she hopped off the stone and took a firm step towards the duo.

“Elrena, Myed,” she whispered, feeling a dreadful relief washing over inside her chest.

Her friends froze, their weapons disappeared, and the two looked at her at once. “Skuld?” Elrena called out, her mouth hanging open. “Is that… really you?”

She nodded, not once, but continuously, trying and failing to hold back those tears she had been saving for so long. After all at that time, there they stood, reunited.

“Skuld!” Myed ran to her, and pulled the girl into a warm embrace, Elrena only a step behind him to join in. “Where have you been! Why did you disappear! We’ve looked for you!”

“We searched hell and heaven, but you weren’t anywhere!”

“I know. I’m sorry,” she sniffed. “I’m sorry it took so long, but I’m here.”

“Welcome back, Skuld” another voice said and she saw Ludor and Lauriam arriving at the square as well. Both men looked relieved and touched by their reunion. She let go of both Elrena and Myed, and smiled at the four Dandelions.

“We’re not home yet,” she said, and turned back towards Ephemer, who was silently watching the event unfold, a sad smile on his face. He too stood up and pointed at the distance.

“What is over there?” Myed asked. “Is he pointing at the Clock Tower?”

“You are so plain and simple, it actually hurts me not to hit you,” Elrena pouted. “We’ve been in the Tower, and it leads nowhere, can’t your little brain work any faster?”

“He’s pointing towards it, but not at it,” Ludor said, pulling a card out of his pack. “Judgment.”

“On that land shall darkness prevail and light expire,” Skuld echoed the words of the prophecy. “That was his Judgment, and it was our weakness not to challenge it. But your card represents a second chance as well, right?”

Ludor nodded. “Rebirth, if you will. The story of a faithful man’s journey through life and death. How curious, that we too know of such a faithful person.”

“More than one,” Lauriam nodded. “And we too have faith. In each other, and in our friends. Skuld, together with you, we can still win. Can you help us escape this nightmare?”

“That is why I’m here,” she said smiling. “Let’s go home, together.”

The remains of the Keyblade War ravaged the badlands, which lay beyond the mountains. Though the journey first seemed to last longer, the distance was much shorter than in reality. It was a mad joke prepared by the Master of Masters, who seemed to revel in others’ pain. The four friends left the city behind and braved the Sinster crowded wilderness. Lauriam, Elrena, Ludor, and Myed fascinated Skuld with their re-telling of the events; how they got separated, yet ended up in the same Organization probably due to Luxu’s scheming; how all of them served Xehanort great plan, which in turn was merely a foreplay in the Master’s greater schemes.

“How curious,” Skuld mused. “Sora is the Key, the centerpiece of this story.”

“He really is,” Lauriam nodded. “It is not difficult to see Ephemer in him, even though they are like the earth and the sky.”

“Both embarked on the Fool’s journey,” Ludor stated, shuffling his cards. “But he has come a long way.”

“Only because of all those people helping him,” Elrena pouted. “I could’ve mopped the floor with him even in Castle Oblivion if I really wanted to.”

The long travel through the land came to an abrupt end as the passage through the mountains led them directly to the badlands, which were filled with the Keyblades of the fallen. High above it, upon the night sky, a bleeding and fractured Kingdom Hearts pulsed weakly. In the middle of the Keyblade Graveyard, standing at the crossroads, Ephemer was waiting for them.

“I think we’ve found the end of this mirage,” Lauriam noted.

The five Dandelions hurried through the badlands to where Ephemer stood, but by the time they arrived, the boy was nowhere. In one moment he stood there, waiting patiently, in the next he was gone. At the end of the four roads leading out of the middle, however, portals opened with no clues or hints as to where they led.

“Another game it seems,” Ludor noted. “What now?”

Skuld gazed upon all four gates, trying to discern which was the right choice. They all looked and felt the same, so there really was no telling which to pick. But what if there is right or wrong? a voice asked within, and it got her thinking. What if there really wasn’t a good one? She looked up at the fractured Kingdom Hearts. It seemed so unusual, nothing like she had ever seen before.

She summoned forth her Keyblade and aimed at the broken heart.

“Wait!”

The gates disappeared, the graveyard disappeared; they were in the square of Daybreak Town once again, surrounded by a small crowd of children. The city was in flames, the houses were all burning, and the distant Clock Tower’s bells tolled endlessly. Ephemer stood on the edge of the fountain, looking at the gathered.

“What is going ooooon?” Myed flipped out. “I can’t damn take this anymore. We’ve being thrown and transported left and right! This is too confusing!”

“Silence,” Elrena hissed. “Read the room you idiot, and lose your mind after we’re free!”

“You cannot go,” Ephemer shook his head, hopping off the fountain and standing in front of Skuld. “Don’t go. This place, it can be a haven for us. He can grant you all happiness. Strelitzia, the Dandelions, me. We’re all here.”

“You are all fakes,” Skuld said, and she never had felt the words being more painful. “You are not alive, Ephemer. You gave your life for us. If we would hide away here, your sacrifice, everyone’s sacrifice would be in vain. And I will not let that happen.”

And before Ephemer could’ve protested, Skuld raised her Keyblade and struck down. The boy’s eyes widened, he stammered back and tumbled over the fountain’s edge, falling into the water. The flames died away, the bells fell silent, and the children were gone. “So that is your choice then, Dandelions. I would’ve preferred to nurture you here, safe inside this mirage. But if you’d rather face me and fail, then so be it.”

“We won’t play by your rules. Not anymore!” Skuld retorted defiantly. “Together! We can break out! Focus!”

The Dandelions nodded, and all of them raised their Keyblades high, aiming at the same bleeding heart-shaped moon. Small pillars of light shot out from the end of the Keyblades, conjoining and striking against the center of the moon, mending the wound. And once the crack disappeared, the pulsing of Kingdom Hearts became stronger and the gate finally revealed itself.

“Yes!” shouted Elrena and Myed both at once, happily.

“Time to leave this nightmare!” Lauriam stated with newfound determination.

“Let’s go home,” Skuld nodded, and stepped through the gates with her friends behind her.

- O - O - O - O - O -

The train rolled into the station, and Isa hurried out to check his friends’ favorite spot, the top of the Clock Tower. They weren’t there, but there was a small box filled with ice pop sticks. So they do come here every now and then, he figured, couldn’t help but grin. They were just too easy to read. But if they’re not here, and not on the beach… then where?

Isa descended the tower and headed towards the neighborhood to see whether his friends would be there.

The trams were absent, and the shops were closed. There were rarely any people hanging around, but Lea, Roxas, or Xion weren’t there. Isa kept walking and searching, checking every possible corner or café. But nothing. He came up empty handed.

He gave a troubled sigh and headed towards the woods with the hidden mansion behind it. It was his only remaining hope.

The courtyard was empty yet the gates were bust open, and the front doors kicked in. Isa hurried inside, and unsheathed his claymore. “Lea!” he yelled out as he stepped into the mansion, scanning every corner carefully. It was empty, save for the spider webs and the wreckages of the furniture. It took him a couple of seconds, but Isa realized that the inside of the mansion was different than before. The glass windows on the other side were not broken, and the hind garden looked completely different than during their previous visit. Is this place… really Twilight Town? He thought back and slowly recalled other things that caught his eyes, but weren’t conspicuous enough to be bothered by. Where am I?

He took a step forward and the doors closed behind him with a loud cracking noise. Isa spun around quickly, and suddenly felt like he was the butt of an especially elaborate joke. The doors and the wall behind him were all pure white, and even the ceiling and the floor beneath him turned like snow. “What is going on here?” he yelled out angrily, turning back only to find that the foyer changed around him completely, turning monochromatic.

“In this place, to find is to lose, and to lose is to find. That is the way in Castle Oblivion,” whispered a voice somewhere.

“Show yourself!” Isa bellowed, feeling angrier by the minute. “Hand me back my friends!”

“You know the rules. Proceed with caution.”

“Like HELL I will!” Isa roared and dashed through the long corridor, obliterating the closed gates, which turned into glass shards as they scattered. The white walls disappeared and again, Isa was in the old mansion, in its hind court to be precise, stunned and shocked by the previous moments. I’m losing my mind, he realized and looked down at his hands, seeing that the unharmed one was trembling.

He ran across the back garden, which was much larger than the real one, and filled with creepy tall statues. He paid them no attention, and instead focused on the small shed in the distance. It was guarded by two of the statues, both holding a halberd. He didn’t need to think too hard, to understand he’d have to face off against them the very moment he went close enough, so instead he raised his weapon and demolished both statues with one swoop.

After clearing his path to the shed, Isa stopped in front of the door and looked at the small crescent moon emblem engraved into the wooden door, and read the words beneath: Patient VII — Luna Diviner

Isa pushed the door open and stepped inside.

He wasn’t in Twilight Town anymore. It was a small cell beneath the Castle in Radiant Garden: bleak, grey walls, a large metallic door with bars, a single bed and a small desk. He knew that place quite well, because…

“Isa?”

The blue-haired man spun around immediately. It was a voice he had craved for a long time now. All fury escaped him and a soothing feeling came over him, as he stared into the familiar emerald eyes of his friend. “Lea. Is that really you?”

“Well, duh!” he grinned and stepped closer. He stood on the other side of the barred door in a cell similar to Isa’s own.

“Where are we?”

“In a terrible nightmare. First it was all fine and nice, but slowly we started feeling this change. We tried to escape, but the further we got, the weirder everything became. It turned into these twisted images, and we’ve all fallen into similar cells.”

“I’m here to get you out. Stand back.”

Lea wanted to protest, but Isa didn’t care to listen to him. He busted the door open with his Claymore and just like the door the walls around them broke down. Behind Lea’s cell a new passage opened up, leading out into the backyard of the mansion once again.

“This place is giving me the chills.” Isa said. He felt unimaginable relief to see him unharmed. Lea nodded, but didn’t say anything. “We should go and find the others. They might be nearby.”

“Wait” Lea said suddenly, and grabbed Isa’s shoulder. “Shouldn’t we go back first? You know, I really need a breather after all this.”

Isa raised an eyebrow. It was unusual of Lea to suggest something like that, but he hadn’t a reason to distrust his friend. Maybe it was a lot to take in. You’ve only been here for a few hours. They’ve been here for weeks. “Sure, let’s go.”

The two of them headed back to the Neighborhood and soon all bad feelings Isa had, were washed away by the tranquility of the city and his friend’s closeness. They reminisced about the old days, their youth, and all the things that had happened with them. They walked up to the Clock Tower, climbed to the top, and sat down to watch the sun set.

“You know, I haven’t felt so much at peace since that night,” Lea said. Isa glanced at him suspiciously.

“Really now? Never?”

“Well I had better days, but up until now, I feel like we’ve been distanced. We should just get up and leave. Let Sora and the gang fight the war and all this misery.”

“This isn’t you,” Isa shook his head.

“Like anyone could copy me!” Lea retorted with a grin, spreading his hands wide. “What, you don’t trust me?”

“I do. But the Master can get into our heads.”

“Well mine’s empty so he won’t find a lot there,” the red-haired laughed. “But you seem troubled. What’s the matter?”

“I’ve been having these weird dreams lately. Lea, you remember the night we tried to bust Skuld out, right?”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“What happened in the garden?”

“With that creature? It attacked you, and we thought we were goners, but we were saved. You were badly injured though, and Ansem had little choice but to accept us as pupils. That’s how you got those, right? Why?”

Isa nodded and looked at the sunset. “No surprise you wouldn’t know the truth. Even your gazing eye cannot see everything.”

“What?”

Isa looked at Lea, and let go of his restraints. “Master Ansem kept the secret, just as I asked him to, and only us three knew of what had truly happened.”

“Isa, what are you—“

Before Lea could’ve finished the sentence, Isa stood up and raised his hands towards the sky. “This place has been in the twilight for too long. I’ve been standing in the twilight for too long. It is time to draw out the true power of the moon, and of me.”

As the sun’s final rays of slight disappeared beneath the horizon, a crescent moon shone down upon the town with its pale light. At the same time, Isa’s eyes lit up, and the deep seated powers inside him started bursting out. His calm demeanor turned into a frenzied aura.

“If you’re picking a fight with me, you’ll get burnt!” Lea replied, summoning his chakrams.

“Show me your true face, monster!” Isa yelled and smashed his claymore against the red-haired fake. Lea opted to defend and was blown away by the hit, landing in the distance, somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood. Isa gave him no moment to rest, he jumped after him using his powers and unleashed a terrible combination of attacks mid-air. “WHERE ARE MY FRIENDS?”

“A beast has no friends! You are alone, Isa!” retorted the fake Lea. He couldn’t dodge even a single of the attacks and was bleeding from multiple wounds, but seemingly wasn’t bothered by them at all. He snapped his fingers shortly after landing in the middle of the street, setting everything ablaze around him. “You were you true self beside Xemnas! A calculating robot, with no remorse or pity! Why did you return after that?”

“I did so, so I could find my friend.”

“You did so, because if you would feel, you would put everyone at risk, wouldn’t you?” the fake Lea grinned with a devilish smile. “YOU were that beast I’ve seen in your head, were you not?”

“Yes, I was!” Isa bellowed, and his own smile twisted into a sneer. “And you should be afraid of the one cursed by the moon.”

Isa disappeared, then reappeared right in front of the fake Lea and sent him flying with one, well-aimed hit. The red-haired crashed into a wall and his opponent was already there, pummeling him through the wall, until the whole building crumbled around them and buried them both underneath. Isa shoved the bricks aside and pulled his opponent out, landing one punch after the other without any hints of stopping or easing.

“You… fool… you… cannot… kill… me!” the fake Lea blurted out, spitting blood left and right. “Only one, with a Keyblade can. And you are not worthy!”

“I might be not!” he replied while he continued using him as a punching bag. “But if I need an eternity to finish you, I will go all the way!”

“Really? Cause I feel your punches getting weaker!” Lea laughed, and deflected a hit. Using this moment, he slashed towards Isa with his chakram and the blue-haired man could barely escape the attack. He landed meters away and felt all power escaping his limbs. Isa collapsed onto the ground and wheezed with exhaustion. “And that’s the end of your eternity,” Lea laughed as he stood up.

Isa couldn’t move. He knelt there watching the red-haired man approaching and grinning wickedly. It was a miserable way to die, due to fatigue. I did earn this, he thought, thinking back to that night, where everything began. There really was no monster there, beside him. He was the one who couldn’t refuse the call of the moon, who was entranced by its eerie light and soothing song. But while he felt at ease and peace, the World around him was set on fire… by him.

They caught him and locked him up. And after a while he turned back into the boy he was. Ansem inspected him, and learned of his curious sickness. It was hereditary, passed onto him from his mother’s line. Apparently, it all stemmed from a wicked witch who placed a curse on one of his ancestors. But never did he really care about it. For most of his childhood, they had medicine strong enough to suppress it, and all was good. But on that night, everything changed.

“Daydreaming before the end? How rude,” the fake Lea said and he raised his weapon high. “Say hello to all your dead friends on the other side!” Before the red-haired could’ve struck down, a flaming Keyblade pierced through his chest from behind. His eyes widened, and the chakrams fell out of his hands. “H— how?”

“We’re Keyblade Wielders, and we have a Master on our side. You should’ve thought about that before trying to trap us inside that place.” Lea said cheerfully, and pulled his Keyblade out of the fake’s chest. The illusion broke into tiny specks of dust, and were blown away by a gust of wind immediately, leaving no trace of him behind. Lea turned his eyes upon his friend and gave him a small nod.

“Is it… really you?”

“What do you think?”

“Do you remember… that night?”

“You earned those scars,” Lea nodded knowingly. “You tried to attack me, so I gave them to you as a present. And I see you’re still feeling guilty about it, but you shouldn’t. Neither should you use that power.”

“I have to give it my all. I’m not a Wielder like you. I don’t have the luxury of holding back.”

“Neither do you have the luxury to die on us!” Xion said, appearing beside Lea. She looked grumpy, keeping her hands on her waist.

“Come on. Let me help you up,” Lea said, and reached down for his friend. He put Isa’s hand around his neck and helped him on his legs. “Damn, you’re heavy. Should exercise a little.”

“Are the others…”

“They’re here, don’t worry. Riku and Roxas have broken the system, so now we’re about to get out of here. We couldn’t have done it without you distracting him, though, so thanks for coming to pick us up.”

Xion summoned her Keyblade as well as a dozen of Sinsters appeared on the streets.

“Well, we’re not out of here yet, so. Can you stand on your own?”

“Sure,” Isa said, pulling away and finding his balance once again. He reached down and grabbed the claymore.

“You shouldn’t fight,” Xion shook her head. “Let us handle them!”

“No. I’ve come here to protect you all, and that I will do,” Isa replied, and reached towards the moon, still shining down upon them from the night sky. “Lea. You, and many other have already said your mind about this curse, this ability. But I’ve had enough of hiding it.” While he was speaking, Isa’s aura darkened once again, and his eyes started shining in the color of the moon. “It is my curse, and I will fight my own way; by using it. I will turn this curse into a weapon, and unleash it whenever my friends are in need of me!”

Lea and Xion looked at him, and Isa stared back at them. It was a weird sensation. He usually had the urge to attack whatever was close to him, but there and then, he felt no inclination to harm either of them. The Sinsters in the distance however, they were fitting targets to unleash his rage upon.

“I will learn to use this, to control this. Not to suppress it until it explodes inside me, but to quell it. No hunger is insatiable.”

“If that is your choice, I will stand by you,” Lea said. “We’re friends, we stand together. Got it memorized?!”

“I do,” Isa nodded with a malicious grin on his face and pointed at the growing number of Sinsters around them. “But they don’t. So let’s beat it into their heads!”

Chapter Text

“Follow me!” Xion beckoned Isa and Lea and ran ahead. The colorful army of Sinsters around them were becoming thicker and thicker by the minute as newer specimens joined their brethren in the fight. There were just as many types as there were of Heartless, Unversed, or Nobodies, and they were similarly varied in their shapes and abilities.

Xion hurried across the open streets of the neighborhood, trying to avoid the bulk of the force, cutting down those few that actually got close enough to her. Isa and Lea were right behind her. The red-haired Keyblade wielder set things on fire, while his good friend occasionally obliterated a larger or stronger one that braved the distance. Luckily for them, this Twilight Town really was only a mirage of the real one, so they needn’t worry about the safety of the people or the buildings around them. This way neither Lea, nor Isa had to hold back whenever they opted to counter the swarm instead of fleeing from them.

“Where the hell are those two?” Isa barked angrily, sending a trio of Sinsters flying with a well-aimed swoop of his Claymore.

“Sunset Terrace,” Xion replied. “Hurry! We need to catch the train!”

“Ah, the train of course,” Lea grinned. “Got the time table memorized?”

“Shut up and run,” Isa grunted and destroyed another Sinster that closed in on them. “Just how many are there?”

“Used to be more peaceful. They started acting up when we got closer to finding the way out.”

Xion pierced a large one through the chest and hurried up the stairs, leaving the open space behind them. She turned around and while the two men were still climbing, she aimed her Keyblade at a large water tank on top of the building, and unleashed a fireball from the end of the blade. The tanker’s side was blown open and water poured down upon the emerging creatures. Xion turned her weapon towards the stairs and cast a freezing spell, turning all that water into ice. Isa and Lea managed to reach the top without any troubles, while their opponents stumbled back and forth, unable to make the climb due to the slippery ground. Of course, the flying ones hadn’t any trouble following them, but they got a moment to breathe at least. “Onwards!” Lea yelped, before destroying the first one to reach them. “Hurry!”

The trio continued their grand escape, up through the streets until the station heights, directly to the train that was about to disembark. Xion hoped in first, then spun around and shot additional balls of fire towards the Sinsters, while Lea and Isa avoided her attacks with ease. Lea stopped a few meters from the train and combining his favored element and Keyblade granted powers summoned a wall of flame behind them, separating them from the Sinsters. “Grab on!” Isa shouted, as the train did not wait any longer. Lea jumped, grabbed Isa’s hand and allowed the two to pull him inside the carriage. The three stumbled over and fell on the ground, laughing happily while their ride rolled out of the station and sped up towards its destination.

“Wow, that was some running,” Lea sprawled across the floor lazily.

“How did you two know I was here?” Isa asked suddenly, taking a place on the seats beside the window. “If you hadn’t showed up when you did…”

“We knew you guys wouldn’t just sit this one out,” Xion grinned knowingly. “And we’ve also felt a change inside the World’s structure. One night, all of us had the same dream, following a thin thread of Light.”

“And we knew that it could only mean one thing,” Lea added. “That spiky and his little ragtag troupe would come for us.”

Isa gave him a chilling smile. “Ragtag?”

“Hey, don’t look at me like that! You should see those tattered clothes! Shall I lend you a black coat? I must have a few more somewhere lying around.”

“Your humor is like your sense of fashion,” Isa retorted calmly. “Bleak, and hopeless.”

“Hey, better watch it! I’m the savior of the day!”

Xion listened to the two of them exchanging snide remarks happily, and could barely stop chuckling. Lea really missed his friend, even if he hadn’t said a word about it. In that sense, he was much like Riku, who had been brooding ever since they were entrapped in the mirage. But now that they were reunited, his inner flame rekindled. We all deserve to be happy, she thought as she looked at their approaching destination. But to achieve this happiness… we cannot give up.

She felt a tinge of shame, because originally she was completely against joining the fight. We had enough battles, enough struggles, she argued one night, when together with Roxas they were having dinner back in the real Twilight Town. We can’t keep on like this. What if we won’t get so lucky next time? her own words echoed inside her head. And she had known, even back then, that it was an unfair thing to say; but truth be told, she was immensely afraid of the dangers that awaited them. And she still was. But spending all that time inside the mirage together with Roxas, Lea, and Riku, she realized how powerless each and every one of them were. And for the first time, she truly felt useful to her friends. Keeping them occupied, talking to them, sharing way more hugs than she ever thought she would need to hand out. And seeing small signs of relief on the boys’ faces, seeing them smile after a long day full of hopeless search, fight, and investigation… she didn’t regret falling into the Master’s trap with them.

“We’re getting close,” Isa said, waking her from those thoughts. Xion eyed the station, hoping that it’d be clear of Sinsters, and it seemed like they would get lucky. The station was devoid of any living creatures, so their departure from the carriage was much simpler and peaceful than boarding it. Xion took to the front once again, and led the men through Sunset Terrace to the hill at the distant end.

“So how do we get out?” Isa asked.

“We’ve found the door that connects this particular mirage to the greater realm of the Master,” Xion explained. “It took us a while, as the city itself was moving slowly around the door, constantly changing its location from our point of view. But we’ve managed to pinpoint it, and we’ve been safeguarding it.”

“Now we just need to open it up, and leave this hellhole once and for all!” Lea added with a reassuring smile. “It’s a one-way ticket home!”

“Let’s hope so,” Isa said, sounding less optimistic regarding their chances. “The Master is no fool. This all feels very much handed to us on a silver platter.”

“You think that only, cause you weren’t here from the beginning,” Xion declared. “Believe me. A whole lot of sweat and blood was put into finding this gateway.”

“Well, I do hope you two are right. I’ve been here only for a couple of hours, but I’m already on the verge of losing my sanity.”

The terrace was cleared of Sinsters. Xion recalled how many there were when they first arrived. They thought it impossible to break through their ranks, but Roxas and Riku made it possible anyway. Xion walked to the edge of the terrace and looked down upon the city below. The cruelty of the Master was really limitless; how he managed to make her scared of the very place she wanted to live down the rest of her life. He turned Twilight Town against her, and inside her bones she felt that it’d be difficult for her to unconditionally trust that World ever again.

Isa and Lea stepped beside her from the left and right and watched the slumbering city with her. For some time, none of them knew how long, they just stood there and gazed into the distance.

“Will we be alright?” Xion blurted out after a while, sounding just as unsure as she had felt.

“Of course we will,” Isa said immediately. “Together, you guys can never be stopped, right?”

“Yeah! If you or Roxas ever get in trouble, we’ll just save your hides!”

Xion looked at both men with a bright smile and thanked them. However small thing that was, their promptness and eagerness gave her a small sense of relief; and she really had to hang onto these feelings.

“Glad to see you all enjoying the evening,” said a slightly annoyed Roxas behind them. “By all means, don’t rush it. If the World moves, we’ll just find the gate again!”

Xion spun around and jumped over to the boy, who pulled her into a hug. “Hey, what took you so long.”

“Found an extra along the way,” she grinned, pointing at Isa.

“How are you here?” Riku asked, appearing beside Roxas. “What happened?”

“We don’t have time for long tales,” Isa shook his head. “Long story short, the Master started making his move. Radiant Garden fell, and the survivors gathered in another World. We’ve gathered the Princesses of Heart and came here to get you all back.”

“Is Sora alright?”

“He’s here somewhere,” Isa replied. “He, Donald, and Goofy are in the thick of it. But he’s doing fine so far, don’t worry.”

“He’ll be alright, Riku!” Xion added, looking at the boy, but saw worry reflect in his eyes. He had been worried over Sora’s wellbeing throughout the time and could never be assured of his safety.

“Alright. It is time to leave,” Lea declared, interrupting the discourse. “We can get a detailed report on the way. But Roxas is right, if we don’t use the portal it will move! So let’s get going!”

Xion pulled away from Roxas slightly but kissed his cheek before stepping away. “Show us the way, hero!” The boy grinned, blushing, then turned and led the way. Riku, Xion, Lea, and Isa followed him through the terrace up to Sunset Hill, which glowed eerily due to the small orbs of colorful lights gathering at its epicenter. The Keyblade wielders surrounded it, summoned their Keyblades, and pointed them at the orbs at the same time.

The orbs started spinning around each other faster and faster, and finally took up the shape of a door‘s lock. Doorframes appeared around the lock shape, and where the door should’ve been, a silky veil billowed. A mixture of warmth and cold radiated from within the opening gate, and Xion could also smell a familiar scent, albeit it was somewhat different.

“Where does this gate lead to?” Isa asked.

“Wherever it leads, we’re going through,” Riku said and without hesitation, stepped through.

Roxas looked at Xion and caressed her cheek softly. “See you on the other side.”

Lea too hopped over the gate without any words, after a brief exchange of looks it was Xion’s turn, however she hesitated. Pushing her fingers together, she looked up at Isa, who raised an eyebrow questioningly. “What’s the matter?”

“I… just wanted to ask if everything was alright. We’ve heard the fake Lea’s words.”

Isa gave her small smile and crossed his arms. “Well, I won’t say it’s not hard. But I have you guys, so I think I’ll manage to pull through.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Xion said with a wide smile and stepped over to Isa, giving him a big hug.

“I’m not much of a hugger you know.”

“Suffer with grace in silence,” Xion whispered sweetly, and she felt Isa suppress a laugh. “Alright,” she added, stepping away from the man. “Let’s go!”

She turned towards the gate and took a deep breath. The veil touched her skin softly, and oddly she didn’t feel hot, or cold. The veil swallowed her hand and as she pressed on it covered her face, chest, then the rest of her body. It didn’t feel like falling through a gateway, or being torn apart. It was very simple transition from Twilight Town into another World that felt so familiar, yet so very distant.

She stood on the ground made of bluish rocks and dirt, and stared up at the yellow-pink hued sky, and the lonely enormous castle towering above them, stretching and twisting painfully, wielding the crest of the Sinsters on its front wall.

“Hollow Bastion,” whispered Riku beside her.

- O - O - O - O - O -

The small gateway closed behind them and Elrena felt a tinge of worry. She herself had never been to this variation of the World, but she felt quite unwelcome already. “Where are we?” Skuld asked, looking at the Dandelions for help.

Lauriam stepped closer and looked at the castle along with Elrena. “This place is called Hollow Bastion. It was a twisted image of Radiant Garden. Though originally, that castle wore the crest of the Heartless, and not of the Sinsters.”

“This must be the Master’s version of it,” Ludor added, pulling out a card that symbolized the Tower. He pulled a second card and gave a small smirk. “I’ll put this one on hold for now.”

“Whatever,” Elrena said, summoning her weapon and turning away from the tall castle. “We were drawn to this place, so whatever the Master’s realm is, we are at its core. Let’s just get this over with. I’m having enough of his games.”

“I’m with you,” Myed agreed. “Should we head for the top of the bastion?”

Skuld nodded. “That’s the plan.”

“There is an elevation system in place as far as I remember, but we need to activate it,” Lauriam explained. “Elrena and I will head into the castle and activate the system, you three find the elevator and head there. Once we’re done, we’ll follow you up.”

“Before you’d disagree, Lauriam knows the place quite well and I’m good with electric gadgets,” Elrena explained quickly, seeing how a question was being formed inside Skuld’s head. “We can handle ourselves just fine. You three hurry on and clear the topmost floors.”

“Will do,” Skuld assured her. “You two be careful!”

Elrena smirked and exchanged a knowing look with Lauriam. The two of them still made one hell of a group. And it was high time they could once again battle against something on their own. So, without further remarks, Lauriam also conjured his Keyblade and the two hurried through the castle’s front courtyard.

As in the past, the Castle once again towered high above the actual land. Where there should’ve been an emerald hill of meadow and weald, there was nothing but a gaping hole, a deep abyss, so they had to watch their step if they didn’t want to climb through the lower regions of the World. Thankfully the courtyard was void of Sinsters; save for a few lost ones idling around, there were no sources of danger waiting them.

Lauriam led the way. The man walked sure-footedly towards a secret entrance not many knew off. Whenever they came across lost Sinsters, he struck the creatures down without hesitation and pressed on. Elrena followed him quietly, keeping an eye out for ambushes or other hidden threats.

“Look!” Elrena stopped Lauriam, and pointed at a double-winged door in front of them. “Battle marks.”

“Someone else is here,” Lauriam realized, and looked at Elrena. “Friends?”

“Who knows,” the girl shrugged, and slightly raised her weapon. “I’m ready to take’em on.”

“As always. Let’s hurry.”

Elrena agreed and the two switched to running. They stormed the halls of the castle and dashed through the corridors, wordlessly examining the rooms and the signs of battle. Broken furniture, damaged walls, ceiling, and floors. The marks seemed fresh; whoever raided the building before them was only a few steps ahead. The two doubled their efforts and ran down the hallway, and through the foyer.

“Here, this way!” Lauriam noted and took a sudden turn, kicking down a door. “They don’t seem to know all the shortcuts.”

“We do?”

“But of course,” Lauriam smiled, bowing slightly.

Elrena scoffed unamused and entered the room, weapon readied to strike. The Sinsters inside made their move immediately, jumping her, but were far too slow. Elrena danced around them and thrust her Keyblade towards them multiple times, annihilating one after another. “Ugh, still can’t get used to this. I prefer my knives,” she shook her head.

“You should be able to unleash the Weapon’s potential,” Lauriam said.

“Getting rusty I’m afraid,” she tilted her head. “Alright, enough chatter. Show me the way.”

Lauriam led her through several rooms onto another foyer, narrow and long. “This is it,” he said and pointed at the room on the far end.

They hurried over to the door and barged out onto a large balcony overlooking the courtyard. Down below Skuld, Myed, and Ludor were already standing on the large elevator platform, surrounded by a large amount of Sinsters with more and more joining the fight. “We have to hurry!” Lauriam said, turning towards the control panels. “Elrena!”

“On it!”

She ran straight towards the panels, but suddenly a large bat-like creature swooped down from the sky and landed between her and the panels. The Sinster had four inky-black wings with their crest engraved into all of them, twisting horns on its head and a dozen of claw-like legs. “Great,” Elrena rolled her eyes. The creature was joined by several others, barely leaving any room for Elrena and Lauriam to move. “We’re in danger now?”

“Nah, just a bit of practice,” the man said, and suddenly his Keyblade further transformed into a scythe. “You focus on the elevation system, I’ll take care of these.”

Elrena nodded, and dodged an attack. “Better get to it then!”

She didn’t have to say twice. The Graceful Assassin pulled a pouch from under his vest and unloaded its contents, rose petals mixed with a curious dark grain, upon the battlefield. Elrena took a deep breath and closed her eyes, relying only on her other senses onward. She heard around her as the man stepped, jumped, slashed. Now! her inner voice said, and she dashed towards the right. Wordlessly she counted the steps and after seven, she continued towards her left. After three steps she stopped, waited a second, then continued. Jump! her inner voice yelled, and she did as ordered, jumped as far as she could. For a moment, she felt the scent of Lauriam as his scythe flew beneath her, towards a Sinster. She ran on, grabbed the weapon and blindly tossed it back to the man, before turning slightly and hurrying towards the control system.

When she finally opened her eyes, she stood right in front of it. With a wide smirk she concentrated her magical powers into the tips of her fingers and carefully touched the panel. The energy crystals lit up beside her and she pulled the levers one after another, activating the elevators around the castle.

“Elrena! Little help here!” Lauriam called behind her. She spun around and without thinking threw her weapon towards the largest Sinster on the balcony. Lauriam jumped aside just in time. The weapon pierced through the back of the creature, who screamed out in horror. Elrena smirked viciously and snapped her finger, unleashing the magical power infused with the Keyblade and sent waves of electric currents through the Sinster’s body. “Watch out!” Lauriam yelped and Elrena looked up. Another bat-like Sinster was descending upon her, far too quickly for the man to arrive to her defense. Elrena shielded her head with both hands, and clenched her teeth ready for the impact…

Out of nowhere a burning chakram slashed across the sky, obliterating the creature before it could’ve reached her. What?! Elrena looked around and saw Lea landing on the balcony and cutting down another one with his other chakram. Isa landed beside him, and finished another one with his claymore. “What are you two doing here?” she yelled more surprised than angry.

“Saving you of course!” Lea grinned and sent his second chakram flying as well, while Isa protected him from creatures within melee range. “Missed us?”

“Like hell we did,” Lauriam replied, killing a small group with his scythe “But the timing was rather nice.”

“Less talking, and more fighting,” Isa asserted, looking at the three of them. For a second Elrena and the two men took him seriously, but seeing his shady smile appear, they too burst out in laughter. Who would’ve thought that the four of us would be fighting side by side, like in the Organization days, Elrena thought, trying to look back on those days as cheerfully as she could, even though those weren’t her brightest moments. In the end, we’ve only made things worse. Luckily for us, that brat was strong and determined enough to stop us.

The four ex-organization members finished off the rest of the Sinsters, while the elevator began its ascent. Elrena, after cutting down a Sinster, looked over to check upon Skuld, Myed, and Ludor, and saw that three additional people joined them. Roxas, Xion, and Riku were all aboard the elevator, fighting off a particularly large Sinster. Alright, seems like most of them are accounted for. The more of us alive, the better our chances. She still didn’t feel too comfortable being all friendly with everyone suddenly, but even she saw the strength in numbers. Those Foretellers were quite the fighters themselves, and they had even teamed up with the witches. The Master had planned everything out quite nicely. Let him plan all he wants. I’ll cut him if he gets in our way, that, he can be sure of.

“Look out!” Isa warned everyone and pulled Lea out of the way as a large beast landed in the middle of the balcony. The creature had the body of an oversized hound, a long tail burning at the end, and four heads: a lion, a wolf, a stag, and a dragon.

“Inside!” Lauriam cried out, beckoning them from inside the castle. Elrena turned and ran inside, followed by Isa and Lea, and the great beast who was chasing them. The three men shut the door and Elrena locked it with her Keyblade. “This won’t stop him for long,” Lauriam said, panting, as he stepped away from the door. “We have to hurry.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

As the final barrier broke down Aqua raised her Keyblade, pointed it at the gate, and opened the lock easily. The others behind her were doing their best to hold the line. The door opened up and she rushed inside. After a few more steps she turned around and using her remaining magical energies raised another barrier between her friends and the army of Sinsters gathered around them. Kairi, Mickey, and Terra rushed inside the building and the door closed behind them.

Aqua leaned against the wall, panting and sweating hard. Their last hour or so was one long battle against a small battalion of Sinsters swarming the area beneath a castle. Mickey called the place Hollow Bastion, and it was a twisted version of Radiant Garden as far he knew. She looked over to the others and saw the same exhaustion emanating from them as well. “Alright, where to now?” Terra asked, looking at the others. “We can’t go back that way.”

“We don’t need to,” Kairi assured him. “I feel like we need to go to the top.”

“Agreed,” Mickey nodded. “I think we’ll find our way home from there.”

“I seriously hope you are right in that regard,” Aqua noted, offering a small smile. “I can barely stand anymore. Let’s hurry.”

The others agreed and all four of them followed down the long corridors of the Bastion’s basement. It was cold and dark, but it was a welcome change after the insanely long path filled with glass shards, and the blue-rock wastelands outside the Bastion. Still, Aqua craved a good long nap, and a hot bath to wash off the sweat, dirt, and blood, that stuck to her skin. She couldn’t see the others well in the darkness, but their ragged breathing and the scuffing sounds caused by them dragging their feet told tales of their exhaustion.

“Hush,” Mickey said, raising her left hand. Aqua stopped immediately, and the others too. They all tried paying attention to the distant noises, which were mostly water dropping, chains rattling, and the Sinsters pummeling the door outside. But beside the general clamor of the castle and its surroundings, there was a low and annoying voice that kept talking and talking without end. And it didn’t take long for Aqua to understand who it belonged to.

“Donald?!” Kairi asked, with eyes gleaming full of hope. “It is Donald! That means Goofy is here?”

“And perhaps Sora,” Mickey nodded, sounding much more lively and joyful than before. “Let’s go!”

Invigorated by the possibility of meeting their good friends, Aqua, Kairi, Mickey, and Terra hurried on. The castle’s basement kept stretching further with a series of smaller and larger rooms joining into each other, but at the end of that road they arrived at a dead-end, which was one last room filled with small cells. Donald and Goofy were inside the last cell, and though Donald had been their guide unintentionally by talking, both he and Goofy readied themselves for battle since the noise of someone’s presence had alarmed them.

“Your Majesty!” yelped the duo in unison as the King approached their cell.

“Hiya, fellas!” Mickey said with a broad smile, opening the cell with his Keyblade immediately. “Boy, are we glad to see you two!”

“Your Majesty!” they yelled once again, jumping on the King clumsily to hug him, and tumbling over in the end. “We heard what happened! We were so worried!” Donald claimed. “The others were. I knew all along you’d be fine!”

“We’re glad to see you all safe!” Goofy nodded happily. “We came here with Sora, Isa, and Skuld, and—“

“Skuld has awakened?” Aqua asked, eyes wide with surprise. “And she’s here as well?”

“Yeah,” Goofy nodded. “She helped us gatherin’ the Princesses of Heart!”

“And where are the others?” Terra asked, looking at the other, empty cells. “Did you get separated?”

“Yup. Me an’ Donald got trapped pretty much straight away!” the knight chuckled, while the court magician seemed less eager about that. “But I’m sure they’re fine!”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Aqua shook her head. She trusted Sora’s power, as she had witnessed it first-hand. But she was also aware of the Master’s cunning. And it was something not to be trifled with. “We should hurry and find the others.”

“Agree,” Kairi nodded affirmatively.

The group, accompanied by the duo, headed back until a larger hall with several other foyers and rooms. It was a simple, circular room and each of the pathways seemed the same without any ways of distinguishing from the others. Aqua stepped over to a door and pushed it open, revealing a long corridor leading further in. “Which way?” she asked, turning back towards the others. She looked at Donald and Goofy, hoping they might know the way, but they were just as clueless as the others.

In the end, it was Kairi who made the decision. As everyone seemed reluctant to choose, she sat down in the middle and closed her eyes, almost as if she were meditating. Terra wanted to ask what she was doing, but Aqua grabbed his hand, and put her index finger before her lips to hush him. They both looked at the red-haired girl, who sat still for a while, until she suddenly jumped up and ran towards a yet-to-be-opened door and unlocked it with her Keyblade. “This way!” she said and hurried on. The others followed her without question.

The chosen path, for a while, led downwards, but after reaching the bottom-most level, it started to ascend in a circular fashion.

After what felt like an hour worth of walking upwards, the climb ended and they found themselves inside the castle main, in a room that reminded them of the original hallway from Radiant Garden, only this was darker and scarier with blue and green-flamed torches, dark armors, and foyer filled with Sinsters.

“Well, I think we’re halfway through,” Goofy noted happily.

“Watch out!” someone yelled suddenly from the far end, and as every turned they could see Isa and Lea barely avoiding death by trampling. A large beast landed where they stood moments ago, while the two of them scattered left and right.

“We have to help them!” Kairi said, conjuring her weapon immediately. Aqua, Terra, and Mickey followed suit, and Donald and Goofy’s duo weren’t far behind them either. While Terra and Kairi rushed towards the beast, Aqua and Donald unleashed their magical powers against it. Their fireballs were powerful enough to distract the beast long enough for Kairi to pierce its leftmost wolf head.

The wolf growled angrily, and the stag to tried to strike her down with its horn, but she deflected the attack and Terra had a great opportunity to behead the stag, which he did so promptly. On the other side, Isa cleaved the side of the beast while avoiding the dragon’s fire breath.

Aqua could sense the beast’s aura turning blood-red and saw its eyes turning back at the same moment. “Donald, raise shields!”

“Aye-aye!” the court magician agreed and helped her create protective wards against the beast, while Goofy stood in front of them, holding two large shields at the same time just to be sure. The others didn’t seem to realize the danger, but before Aqua could’ve warned them, someone else did.

“Run you idiots!” Elrena yelled as she jumped in and hindered the creature’s bloodlust with an electric shock that stunned the monster for a few seconds. “GO!” she snapped at the others, and every started their retreat. It was however quite late, as the beast bellowed with all remaining three heads and began its charge.

The beast closed up to the fleeing fighters within moments, but before its jaws could struck down, Mickey appeared out of nowhere, and using a Light-infused spell, dazed the enemy, quelling its frenzy for a few seconds. Unfortunately this was the most Mickey could do, and before he himself could’ve ran away, the beast head-butted him with full force. The tiny king flew through the corridor, until Lauriam caught him mid-air.

The beast assaulted the magical and physical barriers in its way, but the combined effort of Aqua, Donald, and Goofy caught managed to stop it. Halted by the triple shielded-wall the monster was open to many attacks, and Isa, Lea, Kairi, Terra, Lauriam, and Elrena struck it down at the same time. Using their weapons, and magical prowess, the monster sustained a heavy blow and was sent flying backwards, crashing against the wall. Terra didn’t wait for the monster to stand again; he dashed over to it and using his large Keyblade chopped off the dragon head as well. The lion was about to tear into him at that moment, but Kairi appeared beside the man, and thrust her Keyblade deep into the head, obliterating it completely.

The wolf howled furiously, jumped up and spun around, striking them both with its flaming tail. Terra and Kairi fell over, and the beast reared above them preparing to trample both to death, until reinforcement arrived. Donald and Aqua cast fireballs, empowering Lea’s chakrams further. The Keyblade Wielder threw the chakrams towards the beast, striking its torso and making it fall back.

The Sinster didn’t stand a chance any longer. Isa rushed over and using the claymore bashed in the fourth and final head.

“Damn, that was something else,” Lea wheezed with exhaustion. “Glad you all showed up.”

“Seems like everyone is accounted for,” Lauriam noted, and Elrena nodded in agreement.

Aqua exchanged a look with Terra, Kairi, and Mickey. Everyone was accounted for? Does that mean— “Sora’s with you guys?!” Donald asked.

This time it was the other groups turn to exchange a look. “Isn’t he with you?” Lea asked, stepping closer to them. Aqua shook her head. “Well, I’m sure he’ll pop up somewhere in the castle. We’ve all found our way here.”

“I think he’s the one calling us,” Kairi said. She looked at everyone, Aqua as well, before stepping over to a door and opening it. “Let’s go up. He’ll be there, I know it.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Riku was unspeakably relieved when everyone had arrived. He gave Kairi a big hug, and both Lea and Isa a high-five for the successful operation. For a moment, it seemed as if nobody was missing, nobody was dead. Everything seemed good and well, until the obvious hit him in the head. “Sora isn’t with you guys?” he asked, looking for his spiky-haired friend, who was absent.

“No,” Kairi said, shaking her head. “But he’s here. I can sense him.”

“Me too,” he agreed, and looked at the great door with the Sinster crest upon it. This version of Hollow Bastion looked similar, but was quite different from the original Hollow Bastion; just like how the Master’s intention seemed to reflect Xehanort’s, while greatly differing in reality. During their long vacation in Twilight Town, he came across several books of old; one of them was about the Master’s youth. It was like an old diary, and based on its contents he had once served the Light. Riku shared the contents with the others, but in the end, it had changed nothing. He was their enemy, and they had to stop him.

“Alright, enough waiting around,” Elrena said and stepped over to the door, pushing it open.

The room behind it was quite similar to the one in the original Hollow Bastion: a tall room with a long staircase, leading to a central hub with several control-panels surrounding it; large thick pipelines twisting around, encompassing the whole of the room; and a great symbol at the back representing the Sinsters, and acting as the frame for a gateway.

In the middle of the central platform was a standing crystal-like coffin. Sora was slumbering inside.

“Sora!” Riku yelled as his eyes found him. He and Kairi both ran for it, and the others didn’t lag behind either. The whole group marched up to the hub, half of them from the left, the rest from the right. The moment they stepped inside the circular hub, dozens of Sinsters appeared all around the room.

“Careful!” Aqua warned them, summoning her Keyblade. The others did so as well, and nobody moved. The creatures watched them with eager, hungry eyes, but they remained still, waiting for the order.

“Bravo!” said someone, and applauded the group. They all turned to face the symbol, and saw Luxu appearing right in front of it. “Bra—vo!” he repeated, clapping his hands appraisingly. “Well done everyone! You’ve managed to beat the old man’s game. I half expected half of you, to leave the other half behind. Would’ve made my work half as easy,” he stated with an ugly smirk.

“Luxu,” Skuld echoed his name, looking furious.

“Hello little one! Haven’t seen you for a while. How’s been life treating you?”

“You will pay for what you’ve done! Not only with me, but with everyone else!”

“As if! Don’t you see? I’m on the right side, you are trying to stop us from doing good!”

Elrena scoffed. “Are you like, really this stupid? I thought Myed was simple, but you. You’re king amongst the fools!”

“Heh, girly. You’ve been around for a while, and you’ve no idea when to stop playing smug. Where did your sass get you?” Luxu shot back. “One death after another; piling failures, like they are trophies. Quite a career, you know.”

“And what about you?” Terra retorted. “You’ve lost more than an eye.”

“As if!” he laughed, shaking his hand in denial. “I’ve been on the winning side all along. This eye? This is the smallest of the tributes I’ve paid to be standing here today!”

“You’ll be losing much more soon,” Aqua retorted. “You will all pay for what you’ve done to Ven!”

“I’ve done nothing, but being a friend to him,” Luxu replied, seeming less snarky and more angry suddenly. “You think that you’ve been so good to him? You think you’ve done a wonderful job? Heh, as if…”

“Enough of your witty replies Luxu! Hand Sora over, and let us go, or we’ll take your head! You don’t have your Master or your friends to hide behind!” Isa warned him. “And I’m not in the mood to play around with your little toys either,” he added, pointing his claymore at the creatures.

“As if! I’ve never hidden from a good battle,” he replied casually, and took a step forward. “No—, I’m looking forward to finish our last one. How’s your new hand working out? Not like the real thing, is it?” he took another step, and another, walking over to Sora’s crystal coffin. “You want the kid? Fine by me, but I’m not giving him for free.”

“Hand him over or we’ll bash you!” Donald warned him, swinging his mace furiously.

“We won’t abandon Sora, no way!” Goofy nodded.

“Good,” Luxu nodded. “I’ve been hoping to hear that. I don’t need him, but I do need someone else.”

The man pointed at a specific person. Riku looked to his right, and wasn’t at all surprised to find Kairi to be the target. Not again. I won’t let you do this, he decided and raised his Keyblade in defense of the red-haired girl. “Through my dead body!”

“And ours as well!” Aqua nodded and stepped over to shield her.

“You can count on us too,” Xion added, joining the group.

Luxu didn’t seem worried. Quite the contrary. His face twitched into a shark grin, and Riku soon understood why. Kairi pushed his Keyblade away and took a step forward. “You have yourself a deal, Luxu.”

“Kairi, wait!” Riku reached for her and grabbed her hand. She looked back and smiled at him reassuringly.

“We need Sora. Trust me, he’ll be more helpful than I.”

“No, you can’t hand yourself over!” Xion said pleadingly. “Please, we can find another way!

“Don’t trust the man,” Skuld joined in. “Kairi, you’re stronger than you think. I’ve not been around for too long, but I’ve heard stories of you. I’ve heard your voice and saw things through your eyes while I was unconscious.”

She smiled back at Skuld and blushed at her words. “Thank you, Skuld, Xion, everyone. But I know what I’m doing. Please, trust me.”

Riku exchanged a long look with her, and dissolved his Keyblade, giving her his approval. “We’ll find you. I promise.”

“I know,” she agreed, and turned back towards Luxu. “Send your buddies away and I’ll go with you!”

Luxu snapped his finger, and suddenly each and every Sinster disappeared. Kairi took another step and allowed the Foreteller to grab her by the shoulder and shove her through a portal he conjured on the spot. Several members moved, but Riku spread his hands to stop them. He himself gave Luxu a furious, aggressive look, but he merely laughed back at them. “Tell spiky I said hi!” he told them, and jumped after Kairi, closing the portal behind them.

The moment he disappeared Riku and the others rushed over to Sora, whose coffin broke instantly. The boy fell onto the ground. Roxas got to him first and shook him awake. The rest surrounded them, and watched as Sora opened his eyes slowly. “Where… where are we? What happened?”

“Sora,” Riku sighed with relief. He looked at him, but he couldn’t smile. Not while Kairi was missing. What have I done again? the pain was immense. He felt like had betrayed her, but before all those feelings could’ve overtaken him, Xion poked him in the arm, and gave him a sympathetic smile.

“Riku, guys. Everyone is alright?” Sora looked around, looking a bit confused, but fine. Riku saw the others’ faces; he wasn’t the only one feeling bad about it. Confusion, sadness, anger — they all looked terrible. Someone has to speak…

“Sora, please stay calm,” he warned him, and with a heavy sigh he told the boy of what happened. The spiky haired boy listened carefully, and though he was shaken by Kairi’s kidnapping, he didn’t flip out. Skuld joined in, took over and told her story, then Isa told him of his experience as well. It was Aqua’s turn, who told the others of their experiences and the story of the Master. When she finished, nobody spoke for a while. So they had witnessed the story as well, Riku thought. And they thought the same thing. His story bares no weight in this. Whatever happened with him, he is still our enemy.

“Whatever happened to him, he came to the wrong conclusion,” Sora said finally, and stood up, looking at the others. “And Kairi made the wrong decision as well, however noble it was. None of us is more important than anyone else. But she trusts us to find her, and we will do that.”

Everyone gave a firm nod, Riku as well. We will, I promise.

“We have to leave this place,” Skuld noted. “And I think Kairi wasn’t in the wrong completely.” This sudden claim surprised most of them, Riku most of all. He turned and looked at the ill-looking girl who was one of the leaders of the Dandelions in the past. “Let me explain,” she added, looking at Riku and giving him a soft smile. “When we came here, we immediately got lost in the Mater’s maze. It was an overwhelming, yet very small thread of Light that connected the dots and the shattered pieces of this realm. That is how we’ve found our way through and reconnected with our friends. And it was none other than Sora, who cast this thread of Light. His heart is connected to each of us, and through him, we can be here. Kairi knew, that without Sora, we won’t be able to find him if he hides away.”

“Skuld…” Lauriam took a step towards her. “This is…”

“Yup. We’ve felt the same thing with Ephemer. No, I don’t think that they are related, but this power they share.”

“So, Kairi knew this. That is why she…” Riku’s voice fell, and his heart ached once again. He felt both sorrow that he himself did not see this, and joy that they have a friend who did.

“And she says you’re more useful than her,” Lea grinned. “She’s practically the smartest one of us. Her insight is something else.”

“Agree,” Xion nodded, brushing off her tears.

“Don’t worry guys,” Sora smiled at them. “We’ll regroup, and find Kairi! Then, we’ll stop this crazy Master, whatever his name is, for good!”

“Well, Sora. It seems yet again, we are to be placed in your debts,” Ludor noted, and pointed at the crest. “Only you can unlock and connect this realm to the Realm of Light. Would you do the honors?”

Sora gave a silly chuckle and summoned his Keyblade, aiming at the centre of the crest with it. The Sinster’s symbol lit up and after it absorbed the light-beam, it discarded the symbol. The gateway lit up, and the pathway to the Keyblade Graveyard opened once again. Slowly, one by one, everyone stepped through the gates.

Riku was the last one before Sora. He hesitated and looked at the spiky haired boy, whose facial expression hardened, now that they were alone. He looked up at him, his eyes angry. “You’ve allowed her to do this?”

“I…”

“Forget it,” Sora shook his head, and walked past him. “What Skuld said might be true, but you didn’t know that did you?”

He didn’t reply, and Sora didn’t wait for further comments. He walked through the gate, and for a long moment, Riku considered staying behind; in a shattered, broken realm, alone — a place where he truly belonged.

Chapter Text

Stargaze Valley was just as serene and peaceful as it was before leaving to the Sundered Shards. Sora yawned tiredly as he stepped through the portal at long last. “Should’ve known Luxu wouldn’t just let us leave,” Lea sighed. He looked exhausted, and frankly, Sora could understand why. After they had left the Shards and returned to the Keyblade Graveyard, hell broke out. Heartless, Unversed, Sinsters; whatever monsters the world could offer, they all appeared. It took their combined effort, but luckily they all got away.

“I could do with a long nap after all this,” Roxas said. His tattered clothes hung on him like an oversized piece of fabric. He fought with a vicious determination, and exterminated probably twice as much of them as anyone else. He really outdid himself back there, and Sora was really glad to see him returned safe and sound. “Xion, you coming?” The girl nodded and helped him towards a tent.

“I think I’ve earned my hero’s rest as well,” Myed said. He was dirty and bloody from all the fighting, and it was quite unusual to see him in the thick of the action. “I’ll just find a cozy corner and get some rest.”

“You do that,” Elrena nodded, unusually soft. “You did good.” Sora’s eyes widened, and he sensed the rest of the group reacting the same way. Elrena picked up on it, and gave them all a dirty look. “What? You’ve a problem with it?”

“Not at all!” Skuld said hastily, smiling pleasantly.

“Enough with this nonsense!” Maleficent appeared out of nowhere before them, looking grim and hateful as usual. She scanned the group, and visibly disliked how ragged everyone was after their journey through the Master’s personal realm. “We have much to discuss. Those of you who have enough power, come to Bugenhagen’s workshop!” And without further warning, she disappeared.

Sora looked up at the observatory on top of the rock, and sighed. He wouldn’t rest again it seemed.

“I’ll go,” Terra offered to Aqua beside him. “You go and get some rest. You’ve earned it.”

“Alright,” she whispered, barely able to keep her eyes open. “Let me know what you’ve agreed on.” Terra nodded and headed for the stairs. Mickey and Riku joined him, and Elrena was about to follow them as well, but Lauriam called her aside for a second. They probably discussed her getting some rest based on her resentful expression. In the end Skuld sent them both to sleep. Isa and Lea both decided to skip the meeting, Ludor on the other hand ascended the staircase silently, even though Skuld protested.

“Sora, you comin’?” Donald asked, looking over to the boy. He and Goofy were at the bottom of the staircase, ready to head up.

“Yeah!”

Sora hurried after them, and silently climbed the rock along with his friends, lagging behind the rest. They were probably halfway through, when the boy saw a familiar face standing at the turning, looking down at the village beneath them, her hands clasped for prayer.

“Aerith! You’re alright too!” Sora exclaimed happily, running the rest of the way to her.

Aerith let her hands drop and turned towards the trio with a big smile. “Sora, Donald, Goofy! I’m glad to see you all back! And you’ve succeeded in saving everyone!”

“Not everyone,” Sora said, dropping the eye contact. “And I didn’t do much. Isa and Skuld were the true heroes.”

“Don’t say that!” Goofy said, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ve heard Skuld! You played a large role in the escape!”

“Yeah, heads up Sora!” Donald added. “And we’ll save Kairi too!”

“You will,” Aerith encouraged him warmly. “So hurry to Bugenhagen’s house. The meeting is starting soon.”

“Thanks Aerith. I’ll do my best,” Sora replied and continued up the stairs, followed closely by Donald and Goofy.

The workshop was filled with people. Beside the Keyblade bearers, many of the Princesses were there, as well as Ansem’s apprentices, Naminé, Cloud, Tifa, Cid, and Yuffie. Bugenhagen floated above the rest, sitting on his large green orb with an intrigued look. Maleficent stood at the back next to Pete, looking at the gathered in cold dismay.

“I think we’ve waited enough,” Maleficent said, as the door closed behind Sora. Suddenly everyone fell silent, and turned to either the evil fairy or Bugenhagen for further instructions. The elder nodded and descended back onto the ground beside Maleficent.

“What are you scheming?” Cloud asked, looking over to the evil fairy. “We still don’t trust you, I’m sure you are aware.”

“I do not require your trust, mercenary,” she replied coldly and turned towards the Keyblade Wielders. “What I need is the Key’s power, to break the shield the Coven has placed around Radiant Garden.”

“You want to attack Radiant Garden?” Dilan asked, raising an eyebrow. “You think we can succeed in taking it back?”

“We have the power, yes,” she nodded. “It won’t be a battle without great loss, but if you truly wish to restore balance, you will have to take up arms. The warriors are now healed, the wizards have gathered, the Princesses are all but united, and the Keyblade Wielders are once again on our side.”

“Why should we waste our time attacking Radiant Garden?” Sora asked, looking at the others. “The Master won’t be there! We should focus on him, and defeat him while we still can! Before he could use Kairi’s powers!”

“Yeah!” Goofy and Donald nodded in unison.

“Foolish boy, you really underestimate the importance of the state of our world,” Maleficent shook her head and looked over to Bugenhagen. “Will you show it to them?”

“Ho-ho-ho! Of course!” The sage clapped his hands three times and the lights went out. Above them, throughout the dome ceiling specks of light shone up, mimicking the universe and its many Worlds. Larger and smaller planets appeared, and a flaming orb started pulsing in its middle. Sora watched in awe as the small model of the Realm of Light started moving and living. “The Realm of Light is this plane of existence, where we live. It is separated from the Realm of Darkness, and is protected by the Light. But how? Kingdom Hearts might manifest on our plane, but it does not belong here. So what empowers the Realm? Several Worlds, that are exceptionally close to the Light’s purest form. They are the bastions of this Realm, and if they would fall, the borders between Light and Darkness would waver and crumble.” The sage drifted up and pushed his hand towards a shining World, sucking out every bit of Light. The World turned black, and shattered into pieces. Around it everything changed, and Sora could see dark portals opening and Heartless swarming the region. “Xehanort’s Heartless attempted to achieve this, and was quite close to succeeding, as Radiant Garden fell,” Bugenhagen explained. “Radiant Garden, the Land of Departure, Disney Town, Scala ad Caelum; they are all bastions of the Light.”

“So we have to protect these Worlds?” Sora asked.

“All Worlds must be protected,” Bugenhagen said softly. “But yes, if these Worlds fall, Light expires.” The sage clapped his hands again, and suddenly the model turned dark, and the ordinary lights of the room lit up once again. Sora looked at Maleficent, then at the others. Some were just as surprised as he was. Meanwhile others seemed to be untouched by this information, as they had probably known already. Once again, Sora realized how much bigger and complex the universe was.

“And what is your plan?” Cid asked, directing his words to the evil witch. “We cannot invade it with a battalion of Gummi Ships!”

“No, we cannot. But we can use the Cornerstone of Light.” Sora wasn’t sure for a second where he had heard of that before. He looked over to Goofy and Donald, and they too shrugged with uncertainty. Mickey however took a step forward, uneasy by what he had heard. “You want to use the Cornerstones in Radiant Garden and Disney Castle to create a pathway?”

“Precisely, your Majesty,” she nodded, and looked at the others. “Several Worlds possess a powerful artifact called Cornerstone of Light. Those cornerstones can be connected, creating ways to travel between worlds. Just like the Corridors of Darkness. A small unit can break into Radiant Garden, locate the cornerstone and attach it to the other one in Disney Castle. The army, waiting in the castle, can then proceed to attack and hinder the defenses of Radiant Garden. Once the defenses are down, the rest can swarm in through other means.”

“That is a bold tactic,” Aeleus noted.

“If the vanguard gets taken out, they’ll just fortify the World, and it’ll be impossible to break in,” Even added. “We need the best of the best to do this!”

“Indeed. We have several capable Keyblade Masters, do we not?” Maleficent shot back, and turned to Mickey. “As the defenders of the Realm of Light, I’m sure you are all ready to throw your lives on the line.”

“We are,” Mickey nodded, though his expression reflected how much he disliked the idea. “But none of us know where to find the cornerstone. Neither can we interact with it.”

“You cannot, but your mage can,” she noted, pointing at Donald. “He should be able to conjure enough power to activate it.”

“Me?!” Donald asked, eyes widened. “I mean, sure! I can… I think.”

Maleficent smirked and stepped over to the table, where the map of Radiant Garden lay stretched out, with several figures representing its current inhabitants. “The Cornerstone of Light remains within the castle, as I am sure you are not surprised by this fact. If we can break the magical barrier, I can conjure a Corridor of Darkness close to the gates. You have to infiltrate the castle, activate the cornerstone and open the gate. Once the warriors are inside, we can wreck enough havoc to splinter the enemy forces into small fragments, routing them up eventually.”

“What is your goal with all this?” Terra asked. His voice sounded distrustful, and Sora knew well enough that he had all the reasons for that.

“I want Ultimecia’s head on a spike,” she replied plainly. “And to disband that treacherous Coven which turned its back on me. The World is currently shrouded in a thick Fog of Vice which stems from her seat of power, a floating Castle above the city. If we can defeat her and dispel her magic, the World can be restored.”

“So we don’t really have a chance here, do we?” Skuld asked, looking at the map. “We have to take them out.”

“Precisely,” she nodded. “Rest up, we will attack at First Light.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Hours later, far from the crowd and the music, beyond a narrow path between two towering cliffs, Aqua stood at the edge of the rock, looking down upon the colorful and serene world beneath them. Stargaze Valley was truly a magnificent World, so peaceful she could practically feel the swirling of Light. She sat down by the rim and hung down her legs. Her eyes scanned the starlit sky almost as if searching for something. For a while, she didn’t move or speak, she merely held onto her charm that should’ve been the bond connecting them all.

“Master…” she whispered after a while. Her voice was tired and weak. “I know you’re watching us from wherever you are. We are doing our best, but I am afraid. I am afraid that we won’t be enough to save him, Ventus. He is good at his core, I know it. This… Master of Masters, who has been the catalyst of every bad thing. He is too strong, and we could really use your help.”

“We cannot keep relying on him forever, you know.” Aqua spun around eyes widened, and found Terra standing a few feet away from him, standing still and looking at the skies. He was dirty, his clothes were tattered, his armor broken, his eyes tired. Terra turned towards her. “You are the Master now, Aqua.”

“But I’m not ready,” she shook her head and turned back, looking down at her pendant. “After all this time, I keep failing. I keep losing either one of you. Why did he make me master? What did he see in me?”

“You are the strongest one of us,” Terra replied, stepping closer to her, and putting a hand on Aqua’s shoulder. She reached over her shoulder and grabbed his hand. “We will get back. We will save Ventus. I promise.”

She looked up at Terra and gave him a weak smile. He looks just as determined as ever. Not a single tinge of doubt. “How can you be so sure?”

“When I was battling Xehanort I started to fall in despair. I was starting to lose control, and soon I did. He took over the body, piece by piece. But I didn’t disappear, because he was with me. And he is still with us; not just you and me, but he is also with Ventus. He doesn’t have to be a spirit inside his heart. He can be a comforting memory, a beacon of good. And I know he is there, constantly reminding Ven that there is more to Light than meets the eye.”

Aqua’s eyes widened with surprise. Terra stepped away and looked back up at the sky, while she rested her eyes upon the man. For a moment, it seemed as if he wasn’t standing there alone, but in front of another man. I can see his Light shining within you. You would make the Master so proud. “How much you’ve grown,” she said finally, offering another, much wider smile this time.

“We both have, but the road is still long,” he added with a grin. “But wherever that road leads us, we will save Ven along the way!”

“Good! I was starting to fear you two would give up!” said Chirithy, who appeared with a puff. Aqua turned towards the small cat-like creature with its small cape and purse, and felt a sudden surge of relief washing over her worries. If you are still alive, and you are still well… that means he isn’t completely lost, right?

“Where have you been?” Terra asked, folding his arms.

“I’ve been following Ventus of course!” the small creature nodded. “I had to keep an eye on him! But he hasn’t been doing a lot lately. That Luxu guy is keeping him close at all times, but I sense Ven battling himself. The Master’s magic didn’t do much good for him, but we have to trust him! Only Ventus can win this battle inside him. It is his choice.”

“But we can be there for him,” Aqua stated, standing up and looking at the other two. “We can help him make this decision. Whoever difficult this battle will be, together we can win.” Both Terra and Chirithy nodded. Aqua turned back towards the sky, and the promised star shower finally began.

“Better make a wish now!” Chirithy exclaimed and jumped high. Aqua agreed and made her own silent wish. Please, let us have him back. Please.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Xion woke drenched in sweat. She was shaking and trembling, holding onto herself as the memories of the dream resurfaced. A land of constant tempest, a field of battle upon which the final hour strikes. There’s a temple in the distance, and unmarked graves. Kingdom Hearts shines with an eerie, pale light, and armies of Light and Darkness battle. There upon the blood-stained meadow the remaining Keyblade Wielders clash for a final time, and one by one, lose to the Master’s gruesome tricks or his Foretellers. Lea, Isa, Roxas… they all lay at her feet, dead, and she remains alone to face them, to fight until her last breath.

“Is everything alright?” Roxas asked with a sleepy voice, shifting and turning, pulling the girl into a hug. “Bad dream?”

“I can barely sleep anymore,” she whispered back, fighting her tears. “All I dream about is death, pain, and sorrow. Why can’t this all go away?” she sighed powerlessly, closing back her eyes. Why can’t it all just end? Why do we have to keep pushing, fighting? We can’t we just live in peace? I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but what has Kingdom Hearts done for us? Maybe he is right… maybe we do deserve better Light.

Roxas sat up and caressed her cheek gently, wordlessly for a while. It took her a few minutes to calm down, to be able to push the horrific images out of her mind. Still, she was afraid to fall asleep, yet too tired to stay awake. It was just another cruel joke.

“I might have an idea,” Roxas offered after a while, and Xion sat up as well, looking at him expectantly. She was ready to try anything, drink any potions, do any rituals. If it promised her a calm night, she was willing to give it a try. “Naminé might be able to help us.”

“Naminé?”

“Let’s go and ask her. She had power over memories. And dreams are… connected to them. Let’s go and ask if she can help us to ease your worries.” Xion nodded and got out of bed. They both got dressed and left their tents. Outside, the village was still wide awake. People were waiting for the star shower to begin, and originally Xion wanted to watch it too but was too tired to stay awake. “Follow me,” Roxas said, and grabbed her hand to lead Xion through the crowd. She followed the boy towards a larger tent in the distance, where the Apprentices were staying.

Naminé was sitting in front of the tent, talking to Aerith. When she saw the two of them approaching, she waved at the pair with a big smile. Roxas waved back, and Xion nodded towards her. She still felt terribly tired. The nightmares began many-many days ago, hindering her sleep every night. “Came to watch the shower?”

“Not exactly,” Roxas shook his head. “We actually wanted to ask if you could help us a bit.”

“I am having terrible nightmares, and well we were hoping that you might be able to help?” Naminé frowned and hummed loudly. Roxas and Xion exchanged a look of uncertainty.

“Let’s see what we can do,” she said finally and nodded. Naminé stood up and stepped over to Xion and stared into her eyes. Xion tried to avert it for a moment, but Naminé told her not to. “I need to see what you see,” she explained with a calming smile and placed her hands on Xion’s shoulders.

For a while, all Xion saw was the girl’s big blue eyes. But the more she looked the more it felt like staring at the endless sky. Suddenly, though she was still looking into her eyes, beyond the blueness, the green field emerged. She saw the tall grass, the few lingering trees, and the ancient temple with the graves. Beyond the meadow stretched a field of death and decay and even further what seemed to be the coastline of a beach.

“The Dark Margin,” Naminé said so quietly she could barely hear her voice. “What is this place?”

“It is somehow related to the Master of Masters,” Xion replied. “I think he served here as some sort of defender of the Light, before all.”

Naminé took a step back. “Your nightmares won’t end until the Master is dealt with. This is his magic,” she stated. “I can try casting protecting wards, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be.”

“Can’t hurt, can it?” Xion replied gloomily. “Every small thing helps. So let’s give it a shot.”

“Look!” yelled someone and pointed at the sky. People around them, left and right, looked up an awe. For a moment Xion didn’t understand. She looked up and her eyes widened when she saw it. The star shower began and in that moment, she didn’t feel tired or sleepy anymore. Amazed by the beauty of it, her heart was filled with joy and hope. She clasped her hands into a prayer and thought hard about what she longed for. I wish we could watch many more star showers together. If this truly works, please let us stay together and watch it again someday.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Skuld walked alongside Lauriam. Unlike the other three, they took a long walk around the spectacular village to enjoy every sight, to memorize every corner, and to have a chat about all those things they couldn’t talk about yet. Again, Lauriam told her their story, this time with additional details, and vice versa Skuld told Lauriam of what had happened to her as well.

“It is still hard to believe all this,” she said with a saddened sigh. “But it can’t be helped. The Master of Masters had everything planned out. No wonder not even Master Ava could do anything against it, not to mention us.”

“We did well in the end,” Lauriam said. “But much of it is thanks to our friends. The Chosen Key, and Ephemer.”

Skuld stopped for a moment and looked up at the sky “The Chosen Key,” she whispered. “Went by unnoticed and still became a crucial part in all of this.”

“We have a lot to thank them,” Lauriam nodded. “The Key, Ephemer.”

The two of them continued their stroll around the valley and soon they returned to where Myed and Elrena were sitting, settling beside them. Myed was quietly playing on his sitar, Elrena humming beside him, hands folded behind her nape. They were waiting for the star shower that was promised. Lauriam sat down beside Elrena and wrapped his hand around her. Skuld found a larger piece of rock and hopped down on it, watching the trio from there. It felt really good to be united with them. He had missed all of them sorely. The absence of the others pained her, Ephemer most of all, but at least not all of them were lost. And Ventus is also out there. We have to save him from the clutches of the Master, and the Foretellers as well… She had spoken to the Foretellers throughout their time in Daybreak Town. None of them seemed to be a bad person. Yes, some were hot-headed or strict, but they were doing their best individually.

Above them, the star shower began, and they all watched it quietly. Myed even stopped playing his instrument. “Don’t stop,” Elrena asked him. “Of all times, do continue tonight.”

“Alright,” he grinned and continued, changing the tune to one they were all familiar with. Skuld and Elrena started humming again, and pretty soon the blonde even began to sing.

“I watch you fast sleep… All I fear means nothing…” Skuld brushed off a teardrop as she was overrun by the memories of those days: sitting around the fire, singing and hoping, believing in a better world. Together, the children went on, to carry the Light and to lit the way to the future. “In you and I there’s a new land… Dandelions’ flight…”

How many times did you sing that song? she thought back. Listening to Myed’s music you came up with those silly lyrics and made us all learn them.

“A sanctuary, our sanctuary… where fears and lies melt away…”

And we’ve found that sanctuary. Thanks to you, we have arrived here, and we are together. Ephemer, if you are watching us, give us strength…

- O - O - O - O - O -

Lea watched the star shower from the rim of the highest rock, sitting beside Isa. Neither of them had spoken for a while, it was just enough to enjoy the silence of each other’s closeness. Lea glanced at his friend every few seconds, maybe because he was afraid that Isa would suddenly disappear. It was stupid, but with Isa, one could never know. We keep losing and finding each other, he thought grimly. “Taking a back seat might be a good idea after all this,” he said finally, not ready to look into his eyes. “We’re getting into riskier business with each day, and I can’t bear the thought of losing you to your anger. You keep being reckless, Isa.”

“Heh, you are worried about me? How cute,” he noted, gazing at the sky.

“Hey, I’m not joking!” Lea said angrily, turning towards the blue-haired man. “You keep toying with that power without consideration of yourself! What if it’ll truly drive you mad?”

“Then so be it,” he replied quietly. “I use it only when I need it. I don’t make a habit out of unleashing my powers, but if my friends are in danger, I won’t hold back because I fear for my own safety. You don’t do that either, do you?”

Lea sighed. He’s hopeless, he thought, shaking his head. “Listen, I’m worried, okay? I am worried because you are my friend. I’ve lost you again and again, and I don’t want to. You can see how bad it hurts. Look at Terra, or Aqua, or even at Sora now! You know well enough, how—“

“Don’t worry,” Isa said, patting him on the back. “I am careful. But I don’t have a Keyblade like you, so I have to fight with whatever I have.”

“You don’t need that power to compete with us,” Lea said and leaned back, laying down on the ground and folding his hands behind his head. “Did you… make any wishes?”

“I’m a grownup. I don’t do wishes,” he noted.

“Aw, come on!” Lea rolled his eyes. Isa had always been a little earth-bound about these things, but after curses, wizards, and large key-swords, believing in the power of stars was the least odd thing Lea could think about. “Don’t be so rigid! What did you wish for?”

Isa grinned, “I wished you’dbe less daft.”

“Hey!” Lea gave him a mock angry look for a few seconds then they both burst out laughing. Isa lay down as well and they watched the stars from there. For a while they fell silent again, and enjoyed the peace of the World around them. “Hey,” Lea said again. “What did you wish for?”

“For a Keyblade,” Isa said without any hint of joke this time. “So I could protect you all. You, Roxas, Xion, Skuld. I want to protect you all.”

“Heh, I’m sure you’ll be able to use one eventually,” Lea nodded.

“And you?”

“I… I wished for your curse to be lifted,” he said. “So I won’t have to worry about your sorry ass!”

They both grinned again and looked up as they heard Skuld approaching them. She stepped over to them and sat down beside Isa, spreading on the ground like the boys. “Stargazing?”

“It is Stargaze Valley after all,” Lea said. “Got it memorized?”

- O - O - O - O - O -

“Another win for the Gambler of Fate!” Ludor grinned victoriously, and pulled the munny placed on the table towards him. Sora watched in horror as his hard-saved munny was all gone in a manner of seconds. Riku was leaning against the wall and listening to them from further away. He was still gathering his courage to go over and ask for Sora. The boy averted his eyes and kept his distance from Riku. He even watched the star shower from there, praying for Kairi’s wellbeing, and keeping an eye on Sora.

“Hey, that’s no fair!” Sora yelled defensively. “Guys, tell him!”

“He won fairly,” Donald said.

“Fair n square,” Goofy added with a sympathetic look.

Sora shook his head. “You’re a lucky guy, have to give that to you! Again, let’s play again! Donald, lend me some munny!”

“Forget about that!” the magician said, turning away and folding his arms.

“Everyone’s luck runs out sooner or later. Better lose at the gambling table than on the battlefield,” Ludor noted cheerfully. “Here’s a small gift for the game. Hope it’ll help you when the time comes.”

“Another card?” Sora asked as he took the offered piece. “This isn’t blank. The other one was blank.”

“Yes, that was a special card I had to make. I forgot about it after I was turned into a Nobody, but there at that moment I was made to remember and I completed the task handed to me by the Master of Masters,” Ludor replied.

“He had foreseen all of this?”

Ludor nodded. “He is very powerful and very perceptive. Those eyes of his gaze into the future and see the possibilities. Using the eye, he could trace the specific routes we needed to take, so we could end up in the future he wished to create. I would say it is futile to fight it, but who knows.”

“And this card is…”

“The Wheel of Fortune,” Ludor finished the sentence. “You will know when to use it,” he said.

“Why don’t you?” Sora asked suspiciously, but Ludor merely grinned and shook his head.

“We all have the roles handed to us.”

“What is your role?”

“I’ll tell you later. For now, your friend seems to be hoping we’d give you two some space. Come on mighty knight and wizard, let’s play a round of black jack,” he said, looking at Donald and Goofy and rose from the table. Sora turned around and saw Riku approaching.

He’s already angry, Riku noted after seeing the boy’s eyebrows lowered and the corner of his mouth falling. Sora looked away in protest and even folded his arms, which meant he was really grumpy at the moment. Still, Riku wanted to talk about it with him. He approached the boy as the other three left, but for a while didn’t know what to say.

“You’re right to be angry with me,” he said. “I should’ve stopped her.”

“Yeah you should’ve,” Sora nodded, still not looking at him. “I can understand that the others didn’t want to interfere with her decision that much, but you should be aware that this is becoming a bad habit.”

“Sora, she was adamant in her decision and—“

“Save it, Riku,” Sora shook his head, finally turning towards him. “I get it. You were worried about me as well, and you made your pick. And I should feel honored, but I can’t. Not like this.”

“I don’t want you to feel honored, Sora,” he retorted. He was starting to feel angry as well, which was rare for him. “Kairi made the decision, and she is entitled to it. It is her life, and only she can choose.”

“But you know we make mistakes! When you didn’t stop me, I almost died down there! You’re calmer, more collected in these cases! You should’ve warned her!” Sora yelled angrily.

“I’ve made the biggest mistake out of us three,” Riku shook his head. “The fact that I’ve been able to put it behind me does not erase what I’ve done! Remember when I was the one kidnapping her? When I tried to steal her Heart? When I tried to take your place? To kill you?”

Riku was panting, looking really riled up and Sora fell silent. It seemed that anger ran out of him as he realized where their argument had led them to. His face fell, and he kicked the ground softly, looking like he was ashamed. “You… you’re right.”

“We will save her, together this time,” Riku promised, calming himself. “But you have to trust her as well. She’s strong, much stronger than she ever was.”

“I know. I’m just… I’m worried, that’s all.”

As if I could’ve stopped her, he thought, feeling that small piece of Darkness inside him growing. As if I could’ve saved her from this. When did I ever manage to save anyone? When I was the one constantly in need of help? Sora took a step towards Riku and reached out for the boy, but Riku turned away and started walking in the opposite direction. “I know she’s the most important person to you,” he said, back against Sora. “And I will do all I can to save her. Even if it means I must use those powers again.”

“Well-well, trouble in paradise?” Maleficent asked with a snarky grin, but it merely took a glance from Riku to silence her. “Do be ready to fight tomorrow, or neither of you will live long enough to see the Princess again.”

“Mind your own business, Maleficent,” Riku snapped at her and continued on. He found himself a cozy rock far from everyone else. Not even the music or the chanting reached him there. It was only him, and the distant sky spangled with stars. He sighed warily and tried to get some rest. His mind and heart however raged within him, not letting him off that easily.

“Riku.”

The boy opened his eyes and turned towards the King. Mickey went closer and sat down on another rock across him. “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve screwed up, again.”

“Kairi is not your fault, you know?”

“Sora is right. I’ve known the price and I should’ve stopped her.”

“You trust her. That’s not a bad thing! We all have to trust each other, if we want to succeed! Like tomorrow, we will have to let some of you in there, so you can open a gate for us! We are all worried, and chances that you fail are high. But we won’t stop you, because this is our best shot! Kairi did the same thing!”

“You are still quite sharp. After all this time, spent in that hellish place.”

Mickey chuckled happily. “Have to keep my wits about me. Unless I want my Master to be angry with me! Yen Sid is in Radiant Garden, trapped. We have to help them.”

“Yeah. We have a lot of people to save,” Riku agreed and looked at his hand. “This enemy is nothing like we’ve faced before. I know you won’t like this, but if it happens, I may need to call upon the power of—“

“I trust you Riku,” Mickey reassured him and hopped of the rock. “You are one of strongest Keyblade Masters, not only according to me, but according to Yen Sid as well! And he has seen quite a few, not only Master Eraqus and Xehanort. If anyone can use the Power of Darkness, it is you!”

Riku didn’t even know how to reply. He had earned the King’s complete trust even though he didn’t deserve it. I cannot express how much power this gives me, Mickey. So I’ll show it to you instead. “We will succeed tomorrow,” he said with newfound determination and optimism.

“I know we will!” Mickey grinned. “So don’t worry, just get some sleep! We have a long day behind us, and an even longer one ahead of us!”

Chapter Text

The Armies lined up at the outskirts of Stargaze Valley. It was a considerable force, filled with warriors from far-reaching realms, wise wizards from many sanctuaries, and survivors of lost Worlds hoping to get back against the wielders of Darkness. It was a grand force and still only a fraction of the whole. Cid and the Gummi Squadron had left earlier as they needed more time to make their way to Radiant Garden. The rest were about to be transported into Disney Castle through various means, leaving a small hit unit behind to get the show started.

Riku stepped closer to his own group and frowned at Maleficent who was slowly conjuring them a Corridor of Darkness for easy entrance.

“I’m not too sure about this grand plan,” Lea said, grimacing unhappily with his assigned role. “Always stuck with the icky jobs.”

“Stop complaining,” Lauriam grunted, stepping closer to the red-haired man and his blue-haired friend. All of them wore the Organization’s recognizable dark cloak (even Riku had one), as it made traveling through the corridors safer. “If you want to stay out, you are most welcome to leave.”

“He’s just generally complaining, don’t worry about him,” Isa replied, pushing Lauriam backwards. “You on the other hand seem a bit on the edge.”

“Boys! Stop it!” Skuld said, standing between the parties and keeping them away from each other. “No use fighting amongst ourselves!”

Riku nodded in agreement, but decided not to join the arguing. He turned and looked at Myed, Elrena, and Ludor, who were quietly preparing themselves for the fight. Beyond them another party was gathering; it was their job to connect the Corridors of Light, while they would draw the enemy’s attention to themselves. I just hope this works, he thought. So far, the Master of Masters seemed to have all their movements monitored and everything was well within his calculations. But how far did he glimpse into the future? How long before they could finally fight him on an even battlefield?

A group of five made their ways to Riku. Aqua, Terra, Naminé, Ienzo, and Donald. They all looked shaky and nervous, but it was understandable. Instead of using their traditional garments, Terra and Aqua both wore their full armor, while Donald finally received his proper mage’s regalia from Disney Castle. He needn’t pretend to be a simple traveler anymore. Ienzo and Naminé also wielded dark cloaks to protect them inside the Corridor. “How long?” Terra asked immediately, glancing sideways to Maleficent.

“A little more time,” Riku replied. “This is a bigger Corridor than she’d usually use.

“I do hope this bold plan of hers pays off,” Aqua said, her voice filled with uncertainty. “I know we have a large army to back us up, but considering the powers of the Master, I’m not entirely sure we’ll have the upper hand at any point.”

“I agree,” Riku nodded. “Still we have no better chance.”

“Get ready!” Maleficent’s mannered, angry voice called out. “The Corridor is open! Once we cross it, there is no turning back.” Riku fell silent, and the others did so as well. A large black gate opened before them leading into seemingly nowhere. It was a familiar road, which he had taken many times previously. Maleficent turned to them and beckoned with her bony fingers. For a few seconds nobody moved. It really was the point of no return. Once they crossed the gate, they would either return as victors, or none at all. Isa was the first to move. He shoved the others out of his way and hurried through the gate, hanging onto his claymore fiercely. Skuld hurried after him, then Lea, and then the Dandelions. Riku looked at Naminé and offered her a positive smile.

“It’ll be alright,” he promised, and she nodded confidently.

Riku turned back towards the gate, took a deep breath, and walked right into it. Around him, suddenly everything went dark and silent. There was an eerie chill in the wind; a welcoming feel he hadn’t felt for some time. He saw dark figures move in front of him, probably Skuld and the others. He took a step forward, and the dark thoughts started coming back to him. You’ve abandoned your friends... you’ve not been able to protect what matters… you’ve betrayed Sora’s trust…

“Enough,” he growled under his breath. He knew it would happen. The Darkness could smell out every fear, every doubt, and attack where their weakest. It would try to feed on that, and tempt them. The coat could protect them from Darkness swarming and swallowing them, but it couldn’t keep the whispers away. Step after step, the whispers came, swirling his head, penetrating his mind, confusing his senses. Tempting as they were, Riku had dealt with them before he was sure he could do so again. I will use the Power of Darkness if I need it, he thought willfully. But I will know when and how. I will decide for myself. And I will not be swallowed by it!

The other end of the Corridor opened to a small patch of garden within the castle grounds. Riku stepped out of the gate and the brisk cold smell of decay hit him. A strong gush of wind carried dozens of withered leaves and petals, scattering them around the mortified garden.

Naminé fell on her knees, shocked by the sight of it all: the garden, and the city beneath them. Riku stepped over to the fence and looked down, Skuld and Aqua on one-one side. There were seldom any fires left; all houses had already burnt to the ground, and were crumbling ruins. The lands beyond the walls of Radiant Garden were also rotting away, all pools of water littered and green with corruption. The fields in the distance weren’t empty: battalions of monsters were waiting eagerly for any pray to lurk nearby. Large beasts were roaming the streets, waiting as well. “They know we are coming,” Aqua said. “They know of our plan.”

“They might, but that doesn’t mean we cannot win,” Maleficent said behind them. Everyone turned towards her, and she gave them a most displeased look in return. “You ignorant fools have crossed me and several others more than we could possibly count. Riku, not even Darkness could contain you. Yet here you whine about not having the upper hand? Don’t make me laugh,” she shook her head and pointed at the castle hovering high above the city. It was Ultimecia’s castle. “Once that castle falls, we will win. But first we need to open the gate for your wretched friends. So let’s get to it!

It was weird, getting told by Maleficent that they had a good chance, but it wasn’t unwelcomed. Riku found himself more spirited than usual, and looked over to the others who were part of the decoy team. “Guys, let’s do this. We just have to win a bit of time for the others. We can do this.”

“Hell yeah we will!” Lea agreed.

“The cards seem to favor us today,” Ludor said, showing them the World card. “Let’s hope the Master has ran out of luck.”

“He can be the luckiest asshole in the universe,” Elrena noted. “Once I get my hands around his neck, I’ll suffocate him!”

Riku turned back towards Aqua and Terra. “I’m counting on you guys. Please get to the Cornerstone as fast as you can.”

“Don’t worry,” Terra said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll be back in no time and help you clean the streets.”

“Hang in there just for a bit,” Aqua agreed. “We’ll join the fight real soon.”

Riku agreed, and waved them farewell then returned to the others. “Time to go,” he said, and climbed over the fence. The others did so as well and they all hurried down through the premises to the central square. Around them, as more and more of the city was revealed, a grim scenario unfolded: the World had been tainted by the corrupted magics of the witches and the deep, vice-infested darkness of the Sinsters. Riku had previously seen Hollow Bastion, a version of Radiant Garden claimed by the Heartless. But this face of it was different again. The magic felt heavy and there was a stench in the air, it reminded Riku of the Realm of Darkness, but this smell wasn’t as clean; no, this was a putrid scent caused by the unholy rituals performed by the Coven.

“Children of the Light,” Ultimecia’s soft voice called out as the Sorceress appeared upon the sky, descending with her black feathery wings, surrounded by great beasts. “How kind of you to come here by your own choice. No more need to hunt you across the Realm of Light.”

“Finally, you’ve decided to show your face,” Maleficent sneered viciously, raising her staff and summoning green flames around her. “I’ve been waiting for this chance!”

“You’ve ran once, and you will do so again, Evil Fairy.” Ultimecia landed in the middle of the square, and at once all flowers decayed around her. The sorceress opened her mouth, tilted her head back, and led out a hellish shriek, alarming every Sinster, beast, and witch of their presence.

“You and your crippled friends won’t stop us now!” Lauriam said, summoning forth his Keyblade and turning into a scythe on the spot. Elrena, Ludor, and Myed lined up beside him, conjuring weapons for themselves as well.

“We shall see about that,” the witch grinned and turned to the arriving army of monsters. “Let the fun begin…”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Aqua stepped inside the castle corridor and froze the nearest creature with a quick spell, and cut down the other with her Keyblade. Terra smashed his weapon against the ground, causing a small quake that hindered the remaining Sinsters’ movements long enough for Donald and Naminé to finish them off with various spells. “Hurry, we have little time to waste!” Aqua turned to the others, and looked at them, waiting for their nod of approval. “Ienzo, you know the shortest route down to the Cornerstone. Lead the way!”

“Follow me,” the man said and combed through his dark-greyish hair with his fingers. Aqua followed him closely and kept an eye for any creatures. Several small Sinsters lingered around the castle, but it was quite easy for them to eliminate those. At one point, they even came across larger beings with great shields and flails, but Terra’s large Keyblade cut through their armor easily. To descend down to the Cornerstone’s cavern beneath the castle, the group had to reach the back of the building. “Master Ansem knew how great power the Cornerstone wielded, and wanted to protect it,” Ienzo explained as they hurried along a foyer. “He had to make sure that reaching it would be nearly impossible, so he had every road shut down, except for one passage. First we need to get to his own study.”

Aqua wasn’t familiar with the castle’s terrain, so she could merely follow Ienzo’s lead and protect him from harm’s way. We have to hurry, she thought, biting her lower lips, after another series of doors led them to a narrow, long corridor. Riku and the others won’t be able to hold the line for too long.

“Hey,” Terra put a hand on her shaking arm, and looked at her through his metallic helmet. “Everything will be alright.”

“For the first time in a while… I’m really not that sure,” Aqua sighed, trying to calm her breathing. “This Master of Masters… he knows our every move.”

“I don’t think he actually sees every move,” Ienzo noted ahead of them.

“What do you mean?” Donald asked, sounding far too surprised, though Aqua shared the curiosity.

“He is reactive,” Ienzo noted. “He has plans to counter our steps, but he never attacks proactively. If he would know what we will do, he could stop us before we even do it. But he stands back and waits for us to make move, which he can react to,” the young scientist explained. “Based on our data, and his movement, I would say the Master has a good idea regarding the possible choices and outcomes attached to them. But he himself doesn’t know for sure what choices we will make.”

“So he needs us to make a move to react?” Aqua and Terra exchanged a hopeful look. “That means, he knows every possibility, but doesn’t know which one to expect.”

“That puts him at an advantage, still…” Donald added.

“But makes him seem less invincible,” Naminé said. “We just have to twist things enough for him not to be able to react to everything.”

“Well, we are already doing that,” Ienzo shrugged. “Here, this is the study.” The man pushed the great wooden door open, and a trio of Sinsters jumped towards him at the same time. Aqua and Terra cut down all three creatures immediately, while Donald cast a protective shield on Ienzo just in case. “Thank you. The passage should be inside the study, beneath the Master’s desk.” The group entered the room, and immediately realized that it had been thrashed, and the secret route uncovered. Aqua kneeled down beside the trapdoor and placed a hand on the stairs, casting a scanning magic to foresee what lay beyond the dark. “I can sense a monster down there at the bottom. I feel a terrible cold around her…”

“Shiva,” Ienzo said immediately. “An ancient queen from the land of Arendelle. Apparently, Elsa and Anna share a very distant relationship with her.”

“How do you know so much?” Aqua asked, looking at the thick tome in Ienzo’s hand.

“This is my lexicon, a compendium of knowledge I’ve amassed under the tutelage of Master Ansem. I have extensive knowledge regarding several Worlds, and inhabitants of those Worlds. Summons are special life forms Master Ansem had been researching throughout his life. Seeing how the witches favored utilizing these creatures, I have taken it upon myself to extend my studies so I may be able to help with them.”

“Good job,” Donald nodded happily. “But how do we kill her?”

“Shiva is an embodiment of ice,” Ienzo noted. “The best weapon against her is fire.”

“Where is Lea, when you need him?” Naminé chuckled.

“We can handle her,” Terra said, raising his Keyblade. “Lead the way, Ienzo.” The man nodded and descended the stairs quickly. Aqua followed him down through the spiraling staircase, which at one point turned into a ramp. It got darker and darker until Naminé cast light-spells, and chillier which they couldn’t counter. At the foot of the staircase the ground was slippery thanks to the ice. Shiva was floating at the center of the large cavern above the single piece of furniture in the room: a white pedestal with a thick glass-globe on it.

“There she is,” Ienzo pointed at her then stepped back as Aqua and Terra took the lead. Aqua watched her carefully while slowly approaching her. Shiva watched them both, but for a while didn’t make any movements. We really shouldn’t play around, Aqua thought. Knowing full well the size of the armies above them, their friends needed backup as soon as possible.

“We attack at once,” Terra suggested and she nodded, preparing her Keyblade. She cast a spell on their weapons, blessing them with the power of fire against their opponent. Meanwhile, seeing their continued approach, the blue-skinned Summon turned and conjured two blades of ice into her hands. “Careful now!”

“Let’s get her!” Donald yelled from behind, unleashing a magical spell and summoning a flaming tornado. “Awwwwww, finally something warm,” the wizard added as his blazing creation embarked towards Shiva. The ice queen conjured a similar tornado but one that was chilly, and sent it towards Donald’s. She also floated towards Terra and Aqua, and readied herself for the duel. Both Keyblade Wielders raised their weapons and as soon as the Summon got close to them, attacked. Shiva deflected and parried every attack, while spinning above them in the air, and sent unexpected counterattacks from all sides.

Aqua jumped back, barely escaping a cut and summoned a large orb of fire at the end of her Key. Shiva built an ice-wall to combat the attack and continued her onslaught against Terra who was pushed further and further away from the group. “It’s getting colder!” Naminé said. She held onto a small orb of fire to warm her and Ienzo. Aqua felt the dropping of the temperature as well and it worried her. If they continued for too long, all of them would freeze to death.

“Donald, Naminé! Conjure a fire and keep it alive!” she ordered and rushed after Terra and Shiva who were fighting by the distant wall of the cavern by then. We have to hurry. Both the others and we are in danger! If we can’t defeat her in time we… no. We will defeat her, no matter what. Aqua concentrated her raw magical energies into the Keyblade and jumped high, aiming at Shiva with her weapon. From the end of the weapon, a dozen of energy beams shot out at the same time, making their way to Shiva and exploding as they reached her. The Summon shrieked and backed off from Terra, who was panting tiredly. “Terra, now!” Aqua yelled as she was too far from Shiva to attack. The man nodded and channeled his powers into the Keyblade turning it from a simple sword into a great canon. Shiva’s eyes widened and she spread her hands wide to counter the attack, but was too late. Terra’s Keyblade-turned-canon shot through her. For a moment longer, Shiva lingered there in the air as if she didn’t understand what happened to her. She then opened her mouth for a shriek, but the light engulfed her and she exploded leaving behind nothing but diamond dust.

“Nice save,” Terra said, leaning against the cavern wall. His armor was damaged all around, and the helmet even broke off. Aqua was in a better shape, but she was also out of breath. “Donald! Your turn.”

The wizard hurried over to the Cornerstone and pulled a small book out of his pocket. “Ah… alright. Step back everyone!”

Aqua and Terra joined Naminé and Ienzo by the fire. “We won’t have much time,” Ansem’s young apprentice said and he pointed at the large gaping hole Terra made with his canon. “They are now aware of our presence and will march here.”

“No matter,” Terra shook his head. “Once the army is here, it’ll be a different war. If we are inside, the mages can teleport the others to the surface in no time.”

“And what will we do?” Naminé asked.

“Save Master Yen Sid,” Aqua replied. “He and Master Merlin can be useful allies against the witches.”

The back of the cavern lit up and all five of them looked at the newly formed portal. It shined in a brilliant Light and beyond it a small army was marching towards the end. Mickey, Goofy (in his proper knight-armor), and Pete (in a darkened knight-armor) were at the head of the army. “Nice job everyone!” Mickey said with a wide smile. “Now we can join the fight, and help our friends!”

“We will go and save the Masters” Aqua reaffirmed and looked at the others. “Come on, they should be locked away somewhere.”

“I think I might know where,” Ienzo said, and took the lead once again.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Roxas stood in the basement of Disney Castle, near the Cornerstone of Light. No matter where he looked, he saw fighters, soldiers, mages; people who were ready to give their lives for this victory. The battle ahead of them was decisive for the future of all, that much was clear to him. But it was shocking to see so many women and men, who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the Realm of Light.

Mickey stood by the Cornerstone with Pete and Goofy at his sides. They were looking over a large unfolded parchment, which showed the castle of Radiant Garden and the ground around it. Several of Ansem’s apprentices were there as well, helping the trio with making plans.

“The grounds can be cleared easily,” said Aeleus, pointing at the many gates and the secret routes they could possibly take.

“If we can clear the main pathway down to the central square, we could also begin the evacuation of citizens still stuck in the city,” Dilan added and pulled his finger through the pathway, which led from the castle to the front plaza.

“We need to target the witches who are maintaining the shields so Cid’s squadron can join us!” Mickey noted. “Dilan, Aeleus. Know anyone, who could quickly and sufficiently get around the city?”

“Say no more!” Yuffie stepped beside them with a shark-like grin. “Cloud, Tifa, and I will handle these mage boys for you, while you take care of the main army. We’ll have the shields down in no time!”

“Good,” Mickey nodded.

Roxas turned to the Cornerstone, which began to pulse beside them. “I’m a bit scared,” Xion whispered. He looked at her, and offered the girl a smile, which made her blush just a bit.

“You’ll do fine. Even I wouldn’t dare anger you after all.”

“Well they already have so joke’s on them,” she replied and summoned her Keyblade. “But really. We’ve been through a lot, Roxas… but this? This is war.”

“A war we will win,” Mickey assured her. “Our friends are already fighting on the other side and they need our help! Let’s go and help them!” Roxas and Xion both gave a firm nod, and followed Mickey through the opening pathway.

The insides of this new corridor between Worlds were bright and shiny, almost as if it was a tunnel made out of crystals. On the far end Roxas saw Aqua, Terra, Naminé, Ienzo, and Donald. They were standing by a small orb of fire. Terra seemed to have been through one hell of a battle, but all of them were panting and sweating even though the weather in the cavern was far from ideal.

“Mages! Make portals just like you were instructed to!” Mickey ordered and hurried over to Aqua to exchange a few words.

Roxas stepped over to the first of the portals and stepped through, arriving inside the hall of the castle. It was mainly empty save for a few wicked Sinsters, but Roxas easily eliminated those with his Keyblade. Xion joined him and together they finished the rest. More and more warriors joined them in the chamber but additional Sinsters arrived as well, and the fight erupted once more. Roxas and Xion, defending one another, destroyed one after another, pushing the swarm backwards towards the courtyards outside the castle building. Roxas separated his Keyblade into two and continued like that, while Xion used a variety of spells and combos to keep the bigger Sinsters away.

Behind them Mickey, Goofy, and Pete’s trio joined the fight as well, making an unusual but effective group with Mickey’s quick attacks, Goofy’s shield tornado, and Pete’s heavy blows. The trio alone made a great show in front of the castle gates, obliterating not only a small army of weaker Sinsters, but also several large ones. Dilan and Aeleus led one-one group of soldiers throughout the gardens to trap enemies between two lines and crush them with a pincer attack. In the distance Yuffie, Cloud, and Tifa made their ways – through the top of buildings – to the distant corners of the city. As they marched on and on, high above them, the magical shield started cracking. Cid and his Gummi Squadron were bombarding the shields while fighting both Sinsters and Heartless above ground.

Roxas cut down a larger, dog-like Sinster and straightened up, exhaling. His eyes fell upon the city sights in front of him, and immediately his heart fell. What have they done? Even if we win… He turned to look at Xion beside him and saw the same horror on her face. As the Sinsters were driven out of the courtyard, more and more soldiers had a spare moment to look upon the city, and Roxas heard and saw their disbelief.

“This is horrible,” Xion whispered painfully. She looked up at Roxas almost begging for him to tell her it wasn’t true.

“This is why we must win,” Roxas replied, feeling anger boiling inside him. “Because if we don’t, they will do this to all worlds.”

“Well I won’t let them.” Xion reached out with her weapon, taking a good look at it. “It feels weird,” she noted, but Roxas didn’t really understand what she meant by that. “I feel like it is calling to me,” she continued.

“CAREFUL!” someone yelled in the distance as a flaming beast slammed into the ground, killing half a dozen of soldiers. It was a large monster with dark fur and red mane, and long ebon-black horns. “It’s Ifrit! Kill it!” The Summon howled infuriated and fires broke out around him, engulfing whoever they touched. Those who were lucky enough to escape the flames escaped shrieking for their lives.

“Careful with that one!” Pete yelled, pointing at the Summon. “I tried to chain it, but his fires are burnin’ hot!”

“We’ll take care of it!” Roxas said and without thinking started running towards Ifrit. He raised his Keyblades and readied himself for the fight. The beast turned towards him and narrowed his eyes dangerously. He flashed his claws, but instead of using those, he summoned orbs of flames and smacked them towards Roxas. He didn’t dodge them, but instead used his Keyblades to destroy the orbs while continuing his run towards the beast. Ifrit bellowed furiously, and slashed towards Roxas with his mighty claws. The boy raised his weapons to defend himself, but the power of the blow sent him flying through the garden, crashing into the ground.

Ifrit roared fiercely and charged towards them. “Roxas, get up!” Xion yelled behind him and tried to run towards the boy and help him to his legs. Roxas couldn’t move by himself; he was still in a daze thanks to Ifrit’s brutal hit and his legs weren’t complying with his orders.

“Get out of there!” the others yelled from the distance and several of the soldiers tried to stop Ifrit. Mickey rushed towards them, but Ifrit was closer and faster than the King. Escaping the monster’s charge became less and less plausible.

Roxas looked at Xion. “Go. Get out of here!” He waved towards her.

“No,” she shook her head and stoped a few paces from him, raising her weapon towards the beast. “I won’t leave you dammit!” Roxas wanted to speak, but the pulsing light that emanated from Xion’s Keyblade silenced him at once. The boy watched, eyes widened, as the Keyblade in her hand flashed up and changed its shape completely, turning into not another Keyblade, but instead a bow. “What the?” Xion grabbed the string of the bow and pulled it back, but there was no arrow in her hand. Roxas wanted to yell at her not to be crazy, but something – a quiet but determined voice in his head – told him to trust her. Xion released the string and a surge of energy shot out from the bow as if she had used a real arrow. The bolt of energy crashed into Ifrit and hit the beast on the bead. It exploded with a loud bang and suddenly flames of Light engulfed the beast, who howled painfully from the attack.

“What just happened?” Pete asked dumbfounded by what transpired around him.

“Xion has awakened the true powers of her Keyblade,” Mickey said with a wide smile. “Roxas was in danger and she couldn’t bear the thought of losing him… so her heart did what it had to do.”

“Xion?” Roxas looked up at her, feeling overwhelmed by feelings. The girl dropped the weapon and pulled the boy into a squeezing hug. “Okay… hey… you’re suffocating me!”

“Don’t you dare say anything stupid like this again, Roxas!” she commanded him angrily. “I will never leave you behind like that! Never!”

“I know, thanks Xion.” The two of them smiled at each other. It would’ve been very romantic and all, but the laughter of Ultimecia made them all shudder and return into the grim reality of the war. Roxas got up and grunted painfully, but several mages cast healing spells on him to ease his pain. He looked over to the main square, where Riku and the rest were almost completely overwhelmed by their enemies. Ultimecia watched everything from high above, flapping her great dark wings lazily.

“You’ve put up quite the show, I must confess. But it is time to finish this little game!” the leader of the Coven uttered coldly. She hummed her magical words, summoning a whole new wave of Sinsters around the fighters below her.

“Silence, whelp!” Maleficent retorted from down below as she obliterated a small unit of creatures with her flames. “I will unmake you for this treacherous act!”

“Come join me in my Castle then, sister!” Ultimecia barked and flew away. Other witches reigned down, taking over her place, sending bolts of fire, ice, or thunder at those beneath them. Maleficent turned into a raven and followed Ultimecia who retreated into her castle. From the floating palace a new swarm of enemies erupted, darkening the skies above them. “Get ready!” Mickey warned the others, and both Xion and Roxas got ready for the new clash. High above the enemy forces however, the shield suddenly broke apart and dozens of gummi ships appeared.

A small red and yellow ship flew past Roxas, destroying a greater Sinster, and Roxas saw Sora in the cockpit of the ship. “Finally! Back in action!” Sora roared victoriously from his gummi ship, arriving beside Cid’s own one, which was greater and more polished than any other ship.

“Eyes on the battlefield, kid. We’ll celebrate after we’ve won,” the grumpy captain warned him through his loud speakers, and bombarded the flying swarm with his whole armory. Lasers, rockets, missiles exploded into the Sinster army, scattering the bat-like monsters towards a thousand directions.

Beneath them the armies led by Mickey, Goofy, Pete, Dilan, and Aeleus finally reached the courtyards and joined the Dandelions, who were being pushed further back. Mickey arrived and froze half of the plaza with his time-magic, giving ample time for the healers to patch up Myed, Ludor, Elrena, Lauriam, and Skuld, and also time for Isa, Dilan, and Aeleus to unleash a combined attack that not only destroyed every enemy on in the square, but demolished a complete building as well.

Roxas grinned at Xion who smiled back at him. “Let’s go,” she said, and he agreed. Roxas gave his Keys a spun, while she empowered her Keyblade once more. “Let’s show them what we can do,” Xion said suddenly, smiling mischievously at Roxas.

“After you,” he bowed deeply, but returning the smile.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Naminé hurried through the corridor, followed by Aqua, Terra, and Donald. Ienzo was a few feet ahead of them, opening another locked door.

“We’re almost there!” Ienzo shouted, avoiding a Sinster and quickly uttering a counter-spell to destroy it. From his book, a flash of Light smote down the creature and it rolled down the stairs unconsciously.

“Why do you think they are being kept there?” Terra asked, and before another creature could’ve harmed the scientist he leapt ahead and cut it in half. “Why not in the castle?” he pointed at the witches’ castle hovering high above the city. Naminé stepped over the crumbling wall an peaked through one of the larger holes, examining the great castle that for some reason reminded her of Castle Oblivion. It was floating on a piece of land, chained to the ground with links as large as buildings.

“Radiant Garden has the best existing magical prisons. We’ve kept several great beings locked away here,” Ienzo explained, turning towards them. “Like Jenova or Chernabog. It takes a lot of magical energy to keep a prison like that intact, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the witches didn’t try to maintain something like that inside their palace. Quite risky.”

“And how come it is up in the tower?” Aqua asked, looking up and examining the remaining flights of stairs. “Shouldn’t it be tucked away beneath the Castle?”

“Most of it was,” Ienzo nodded. “But the towers wield greater power, so parts of it were refurbished to host a set of prisons.”

“Who cares about all that? Let’s save Master Merlin and Master Yen Sid!” Donald frowned impatiently. “We have to hurry and join the fight!”

“Donald’s right,” Terra agreed and stepped over to look down upon the Sinsters marching up the stairs. They were being pursued by a rather large host of enemies and the gap was becoming thinner between them. “Aqua and I will stay behind and deal with them,” he said suddenly, looking at the trio. “Save the masters, so they can lend their aid to the others. We’ll follow you all.”

“What if the chamber is guarded?!” Donald shouted.

“We’ll deal with it!” Naminé said with a reassuring smile. “If we three combine our powers, we can unleash some chaos, right Ienzo?”

“Absolutely,” the young apprentice smiled.

Terra and Aqua lined up beside each other, facing the lower reaches of the tower, Keyblades in hand. “Go, and save the masters!” Aqua commanded them, without looking back, and shaken as she was, Naminé doubled her efforts. The trio climbed on, erasing the vagabond Sinsters that remained in their way, and they still didn’t reach the top, when they heard the first clashes from down below.

The spiraling staircase ended in a thick double-winged door which led them to a circular corridor with several rooms and another, shorter flight of stairs leading to the top.

“Something is here,” Donald said, looking around nervously. “The magic is filled with sparks. This presence… it’s Ramuh!” The mage hurried up the stairs and Naminé ran after him, catching up soon. At the top of the final flight of stairs, in a great hall an elderly man with long white beard stood patiently, wielding a long staff.

“Who’s that?” Naminé whispered, feeling a strange darkness overwhelming the room.

“One of the first wizards,” Donald explained. “He is said to have traded his humanity for power and eternal life. He’s guarding the prisons, this ain’t good.”

“What can we do?” Ienzo asked, looking at the two of them.

“Nothing,” Donald shook his head. “He’s far too strong. Our magic won’t even affect him!”

“But theirs will,” Naminé said, pointing at the only three active cells at the far end of the room. Donald and Ienzo looked at the doors, and immediately realized who were kept inside. “We just have to blast them open!”

“This is going to be risky!” Donald noted, spinning his staff. “But let’s do it! Goofy and the King will need our help.”

“And the others as well,” Naminé agreed. “Donald, Ienzo. Can you keep him occupied? I will unlock the doors.”

“Leave him to us,” Ienzo replied and opened his book, tearing out a couple of pages. Ienzo and Donald looked at each other, both seemingly ready. Naminé took a deep breath, and cast a protection spell on herself, before entering the room. The moment she set foot in the hall, thunders cried and lightning bolts struck down on the floor all around. The ancient wizard-being gave her no more than side-glance. Naminé waited for the Summon to move, or more lightings to strike down, but nothing happened. She took another step into the room, and this time Ramuh tilted his head, scanning her.

“Run!” Ienzo yelled as he jumped into the room as well, and released the torn pages from his hand. Every page turned into a creature or a person, and suddenly the room became crowded with several Ienzos and Donalds and Naminés running around. Ramuh finally turned its full attention to the intruders and raised his great staff, unleashing his mighty magic upon them. One after another, the illusions turned into dust, while the real ones hid and fled the attacks, countering it with their own ones but to no avail; Ramuh was practically invulnerable to their measly magical attacks.

“Take this!” Donald yelled fiercely, and unleashed a high-class fire-spell that almost demolished most of the room. Ramuh, however was unhinged and he didn’t even move, facing the full might of the magical attack. His staff absorbed the spell, and he returned it with a lightning strike that destroyed almost every illusion all at once. Ienzo used the moment to unleash his own magical attack, but Ramuh merely swung his stave and reflected the attack, sending the young scientist flying. Donald yelped in fright and started unleashing every spell he knew, all in vain as the mage absorbed everything.

Naminé landed beside’s the doors and saw Yen Sid looking back at her through the small window frame. He gave a cool nod, and prepared to join the battle. But first, I have to get him out, she thought and started picking the lock with her set of keys. It was a futile effort; none of the keys fit into the lock. Where are the Keyblade wielders when you need them? As the fight started to get intense behind her, Naminé doubled her efforts, trying to force open the locks with her magical abilities. The locks were, unfortunately, magic-resistant to a high degree and their only capable wizard was pretty much in a pinch already. Naminé looked around in a rush to find some sort of weapon, but there was nothing.

“HELP!” Donald cried out, running from the Summon’s attacks.

Naminé looked up and realized that the wizard’s attacks were far stronger than theirs combined. They only had one thing to do. “Donald, this way!” she cried to the mage who turned to run towards her with fireballs and thunderbolts on his heels. Naminé prepared for the moment he’d get close and started invoking the magic inside and around her. A little more, she thought as she slowly began to utter the spell. Come on, Donald! When Donald was only a feet away, she quickly finished the spell, grabbed the other’s hand and jumped high, pulling Donald out of the way along with her.

The spells crashed against the door imprisoning their friends and all at once, Yen Sid, Merlin, and Master Ansem were set free. The two wizards stepped out, and after sharing a quick look negated Ramuh’s power and shackled the Summon. The elderly wizard raged and sent bolts of lightning to all sides, but Merlin easily stopped the spell and redirected it at him, frying the hapless summon.

Naminé let go of Donald and the magic escaped her as well, so they both fell down. Luckily there was no more running, and there was no immediate danger around them. She exhaled tiredly and looked up at the three elderly men. “Master Ansem, Master Yen Sid, Master Merlin!”

“You’ve arrived just in time,” Merlin smiled, waving his wand. “These cells were getting awfully crowded.”

“Thank you for your help my Apprentices,” Ansem agreed. “I believe we still have time to—“ Before he could’ve finished the sentence, Ramuh — who was still very much alive, only shackled — broke out of his prison and raised his staff above his head with both hands.

“Judgement Bolt!” the Summon bellowed in fury the skies suddenly turned dark above them. Ramuh’s face turned into an evil sneer and he disappeared, leaving behind an empty body. Thunder roared in the skies and Naminé could smell sulfur.

“Everyone, run!” Donald yelled, but Yen Sid and Merlin raised walls instead, protecting whoever they could. However, Ienzo was too far from them, still lying on the ground. Naminé shrieked as the room was engulfed in a blinding light, but the sound of the thunderbolt was far greater and absorbed her cry completely. It was merely a moment, but it felt like an eternity. The shields were torn apart immediately, and barely did they escape with their lives.

Naminé sat up and looked over to Ienzo, fearing for the worst. But it wasn’t Ienzo who was struck down, but his elderly master who left the barriers to protect the boy with his own body.

“MASTER!” Ienzo yelled, sitting up and crawling over to him. “Master Ansem! No!” The boy tried to get up, but fell back on his knees, yelling and crying heartbroken. Naminé ran over to them, prepared to heal Ansem as much as she could, but the moment she lay eyes on the man, she knew there would be no healing. Master Ansem, what remained of him, was no more than the brutally deformed ruins of a body. Naminé’s knees buckled and she felt like she was going to throw up. No, this can’t be.

- O - O - O - O - O -

There was something oddly disturbing in the fact, that organs started playing and an unseen choir began singing and chanting the moment Maleficent stepped into the castle. Though she wanted to head straight to Ultimecia’s throne, her powerful magical artifacts created an impenetrable shield. How annoying, toying with me until the very end. I tire of this game, Maleficent thought hatefully. At least the gates of the castle surrendered without putting up a fight. The main hall of the castle was neat and well-prepared for the visitors. She lingered for a moment, eyeing the corners and expecting monsters and witches. Fortunately, none were eager to attack her.

“Show your face, witch!” Maleficent said, stepping over to the wide flight of stairs, leading to a double-winged door. “I do not wish to play hide and seek!”

“Neither do I, sister!” came the reply from above. “Come to my throne. If you can, that is!”

Of course, Maleficent realized as she ascended the stairs. The further I walk, the more this place siphons my energies. My magical powers are being sealed. What a splendid trick you’ve found. I’m quite sure you’ve been planning this for a long time. And the magical trap was indeed strong. In the beginning, it took her no effort to burn the lurking Sinsters to crisps, but the further and further she ventured inside, the harder it became to conjure magic at all.

Finally, after several rooms, foyers, a walk in the inner gardens, Maleficent arrived at a long bridge connecting the castle to the furthest and tallest tower, the center of Ultimecia’s seat. During her last visit, the bridge was empty, but now, five wizards were lined up, waiting just for her to arrive. Of course these buffoons would be here, she thought as she looked at them: Yzma, Morgana, Raisin, Rasputin, and Grimhilde. “I see you’re all very good at following orders,” she remarked with disgust.

“Now-now!” Yzma grinned. “No need to look so sad because you’ve been overthrown, my dearest!”

“I see you are the main bootlicker. What else to expect? Always warming yourself to the stronger ones, right?” Maleficent said with a smirk. “Well I’m not that much of a fool myself, you know,” she added and mustering most of her remaining power she set the two hidden witches ablaze. The Wicked Witches shrieked in pain as Maleficent’s green flames began to engulf them. None of the other five moved or showed any signs of surprise.

“The fact that you sensed those two is commendable at your current power, my dear. However, their sole role was precisely to eat away your remaining powers,” Yzma barked with laughter. “Maleficent, you’re naïve! We never underestimated you.”

“Oh I do hope so,” she smiled coolly. “Because the last witch to underestimate me severely got bitten in half.”

“Two of us shall be plenty for this task,” Raisin noted quietly with her sweet smile. “What say Yzma?”

“Rasputin, Morgana. Would you two do the honors?”

“Of course,” Morgana replied and took a step forward, alongside a chuckling Rasputin. Maleficent showed no signs of worry, however she was already thinking of a way to avoid the clash with those two. Damn Ultimecia, this castle really is a fortress…

“Time for you to join the other wicked witches!” Morgana yelled and raised her hands chanting.

“Not so fast!” someone else yelled and three twinkling stars descended onto the bridge. A flash of light blinded them all for a second, and suddenly Maleficent did not stand alone. Yen Sid, Merlin, and Bugenhagen stood in front of her. Merlin raised his wand and before Morgana could’ve finished her spell turned her into a frog. “That’s more like it!” the famed sorcerer laughed. Yen Sid on the other hand unleashed two-three spells and before Rasputin could’ve done anything, he was simply banished from Radiant Garden through a dangerously vicious hole with sharp teeth.

“Four against three?” Yzma’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “We still have the charms while you’re running out of power old men! We can take them on! We can—“ The witch didn’t have time to finish the sentence, as Grimhilde simply jumped into her and pushed her through the railing of the bridge and send her flying into the chasm below.

“What is going on!?” Raisin cried out in surprise. “You Evil Witch!”

“Indeed I am, but fairest at least,” Grimhilde replied in spite, and she looked over to Maleficent. “You saved me from that hell, now I’ve repaid my dues. Do whatever you want, I am finished with this wicked coven.” And with that Grimhilde, the Evil Witch opened a portal for herself and left the castle.

“The tables have turned,” Maleficent said, stepping forward. “What will it be, Sweet-tooth?”

“Back to eating measly children, I guess,” she sighed and opened a portal. “Just so you know, the Coven had a very good chance to rule everything!”

“But then you decided to sell your souls,” Maleficent replied, tilting her head. “Off with ya!”

Raisin left, and with that the way to the throne room was wide and open. Maleficent didn’t look at the sorcerers and didn’t say anything. She was still working independently, even if their help came handy then and there.

The throne room was still brilliant and glimmering, just like before. The sky above was clear as day and gilded columns of the circular hall seemingly reached up to the heavens. Ultimecia was standing in front of the golden throne, black wings spread afar, her hands wrapped around a magical globe. Beside him stood a man in black clothes, wielding a gunblade; it was Leon.

As the gates behind Maleficent and the sorcerers closed, Ultimecia looked up from her globe more vile and vicious than any other time. “Light… Light… Light, Light, Light! Curse you Guardians of Light!” she spat out, letting go of the sphere, which started ascending towards the top of the hall.

“Light?” Maleficent smiled. “It won’t be Light that kills you.”

Ultimecia looked at her but at the same time it felt like she was talking to someone else, not her. “Swarming like locusts across generations, and escaping your pre-arranged fate. You disgust me. The world is on the brink of a new Era! Insolent fools! Your vain crusade ends here, Guardians.” The witch reached out with her hand and from the palm of it, a series of magical bolts shot out towards all of them.

“Not today!” Yen Sid yelled and raised a wall in front of them, protecting them from Ultimecia’s magic. “Merlin, Bugenhagen, open the portals! Maleficent, I need your help!”

“Quit giving me orders you old fool!” the witch sneered and conjured her flames, sending them against the black-winged sorceress. Ultimecia did not move, but with the flap of her wings, erased both balls of green flames with little effort.

“Hurry!” Yen Sid yelled to Bugenhagen, who doubled his efforts and conjured forth a gateway. As soon as it opened, heroes marched through, entering the throne room.

“Leonheart! Make them bleed!” Ultimecia ordered, and Leon rushed forward, only to be met halfway by none other than Cloud, the first one through the gate of Bugenhagen.

“Curse you all!” Ultimecia shrieked as she flew up high, summoning a large wave of Heartless and Sinsters.

Maleficent unleashed her flames and burnt away any creature that had gotten too near to her or Yen Sid, but she kept her eyes on Ultimecia, who was paying attention to the magical globe she had released prior. Suddenly, three witches appeared, entering the room through one of the portals and flying straight to Maleficent. The evil fairy looked at the trio reluctantly, raising an eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”

“We’ve been on the run since this one took over,” Tia Dalma noted grimly. “And we’ve thought that you might need a bit of help.”

“What can you offer?”

“Information,” replied Hecate, but as she looked up at Ultimecia, her face twitched into horror. “Oh no… it has begun.”

“What?” Maleficent looked up as well, and started feeling something at the same time. An odd sensation, as if she was… out of time? “What is this?”

“Time Compression” Circe explained. “The thing she had been planning for all this time…”

“I will take over from here,” Ultimecia said and suddenly, the whole room turned pitch black. One second, everyone was there, and in the next, everyone disappeared. Maleficent was alone against Ultimecia, who was now floating just in front of her. “For millennias I’ve been waiting for this, to hold the powers of Radiant Garden in my hands.”

“So you really are from a different time,” Maleficent noted, not even surprised.

“I am Ultimecia. The Last Witch. All time periods shall exist as a singular moment.  All existence should be denied.” Maleficent raised her hands, wanting to release all the powers she had collected, but nothing. There was no power in her. There was no magic in her. Nothing remained.  Eyes widened, she dropped her staff and took a step back. What is this? How come I can’t use magic? “This singularity will grow, and consume all” Ultimecia said softly, reaching up for the magical globe. “I will possess all power, and not even that foolish Master will be able to do anything.”

“Weren’t you together in this?”

“Never said, have I?” The sorceress chuckled and floated away. She conjured chains that wormed their way around Maleficent’s body, chaining her to the floor. “No, I used his foolishness. You see, I am from the future. And I know what he doesn’t. There is no future for him, just like for us. For the Guardians of Light will exterminate us all. That is why I have returned here, where the future is made, to take fate into my own hands.” Ultimecia looked up at the globe again, to witness as it reached the ceiling and was unleashed into the World outside her throne.

Remember your… Childhood…

But something was off. The globe was losing its power, and before it could’ve escaped the room, a ray of energy shot through it, destroying the whole thing. “What is going on?” Ultimecia yelled, her eyes widened with panic. “No! No, that’s not… possible!” Maleficent looked up at the ceiling, and couldn’t help but laugh with a gloating joy over Ultimecia’s misery.

“You have underestimated your partner, witch!” she said with renewed fury as the chains broke down and disappeared into nothingness, and as the room once again lit up in a brilliant light. “The Master seems to have a different view on your mutual future.”

“No!” If she had more time, Ultimecia would’ve shrieked on, but the many magical attacks unleashed against her spared her no moment. She was bombarded with magical attacks and torn apart on the spot without mercy, ending her reign as the leader of the Coven.

Reflect on your Memories… your Words… your Emotions…

Maleficent, panting from exhaustion, reached down for her staff, but felt a piercing pain in her chest. It was merely a moment, but it gave her a fright. It was no time to die. There was still much to do. “This thing will collapse,” Yen Sid noted, “We better get out of here.”

Time, it will not wait…

 

“Can’t we keep it in the air?” Merlin asked, looking around hopefully, but nobody, not even Bugenhagen could come up with an answer. After a while, one of the witches provided the truth.

“Only that artifact could,” Hecate replied. “And now it is gone. We have to leave as well!”

The sorcerers quickly conjured gates and escaped. Yen Sid, Bugenhagen, and Merlin oversaw the others leaving, and left one after another. Finally only Bugenhagen and she remained. The bald sage looked back at her expectantly, but Maleficent was not ready to flee. The elder nodded and passed through the gate which closed behind him. She looked up at the throne of the ill-fated witch, waiting for her return.

No matter how hard you hold on… it escapes you.

And she did so, just as was promised a long time ago. A pinkish-purplish smoke forewarned her appearance, and Ultimecia stepped out of nothingness, wearing nothing else but a simple black dress. Her grey hair was loose, hanging lifelessly, her eyes barely reacting to the Light. There was an air of death around her.

Without words, she started walking towards Maleficent, who stood there, watching silently, remembering their first meeting, back even before her magical upbringing under the care of the witch Walpurga. Back then it felt like a dream; she had looked just like right now, before her. That was why she couldn’t really connect the dots before.

“There’s no more need to fight,” said a young, innocent female voice that belonged neither to Ultimecia, nor to Maleficent. “That sorceress is just looking for someone to pass her powers on to.”

“Who are you?” Maleficent asked, looking for the speaker, but there was no answer.

 “In order to die in peace, a sorceress must be free of all her powers.”

“I know, I am one as well,” Maleficent commented, disliking the fact that she was being watched. She turned her attention back to the dying Ultimecia. She stepped over to her, and raised her stave high. Green light started to emit from the staff and the sorceress fell to her knees. Maleficent drained all her powers and as the last drops of magic escaped her, Ultimecia turned into dust and scattered throughout the floor.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Skuld struck the beast down, and released it. Around her dozens of soldiers raised their arms to the skies to cry out in victory, to cheer and celebrate the end of the fight. “Radiant Garden is free!” bellowed many across the streets. The Dandelion looked to her friends, and was relieved to find them alive. Myed was covered in wounds, but was still on his feet, Lauriam and Elrena both escaped with a scratch. Ludor stood a bit further away, but he seemed quite fine as well. Isa and Lea were sitting, back-to-back, covered in sweat and blood, dozens of enemies destroyed around them.

“Nice job everyone!” Sora yelled, as he landed the gummi ship and hopped out to celebrate with the others.

“I can’t believe we’ve won,” Xion said, sitting a large chunk of debris beside Roxas.

“You really should. I mean, hats off to all of you!” said a voice far from the resting fighters and warriors, from the top of a building. Suddenly, a corridor opened and through came a group of five: Ira, Invi, Luxu, Superbia, and the Master of Masters. “I must say, you’ve done a very exemplary job here, today! Defeating the whole Coven of witches, stopping the mean old Ultimecia and her army of Heartless, Sinsters, and Summons; couldn’t have done it better myself. Then again,” he flashed a smile. “You did leave something behind.”

“The princesses!” Skuld’s eyes widened with horror, and she immediately re-summoned her Keyblade, prepared to fight the Master, and she wasn’t alone. Riku, Lauriam, Myed, Elrena, Sora, Roxas, and Xion all drew their weapons, but before any of them could’ve done anything, the Master clapped his hands once and the self-defense system of Radiant Garden activated at once. All weapons turned towards them immediately, and the moment a warrior moved somewhere, he was shot dead by the many defensive weapons of the city.

“You beast I’ll—!” yelled Lauriam.

“Lauriam don’t move!” Skuld warned him, before the man could’ve done anything. “He set the weapons to kill us if we move. Isn’t that right?” she asked, looking up at the Master of Masters. What the hell can we do now?

The Master’s smile widened and he gave a brisk nod, taking off his hat. “Keen eyes, chosen of Avarice. Honestly, I’m impressed with how much of a fight you all put up against me. But fighting me, is like fighting fate.”

“You’ll never be fate!” Sora retorted. “You’re just another loser who thinks he’s so high and mighty! We’ll get you! We’ll get you and take back Kairi! You’ll pay for all of this!”

“Bold words, Keyblade wielder,” the Master replied, tilting his head slightly in amusement. “But honestly I do hope you can be able to keep this promise. Would be terribly boring if you all died on me today. Well, whatever your plan is, that thing won’t wait for long,” he said and pointed at the castle hovering above the city. “Now that Ultimecia’s little weapon is gone, and she’s dead as well, nothing will keep that thing floating. If you don’t move it’ll crush you all. If you move, the weapons will stun and kill you. Pick your poison, Guardians of Light. In the meantime, we’ll go and get the ladies.”

“Through my dead body!” shrieked Elrena, who was fast enough to avoid the bullets. Enhancing her speed with lightning magic, she dashed through the battlefield and jumped high, aiming with her knives at the Master and his apprentices, but the attack was futile. Superbia jumped up and grabbed her hands before Elrena could’ve thrown the knives, and bashed her against the ground as hard as he could.

“Down boy, we won’t kill today,” the Master told him and Superbia accepted his decision without a word. He jumped back onto the roof. Skuld turned to look at Elrena, but couldn’t see her. Even worse, she couldn’t even run to her because of the weapons. As she tried to peak through the ruins behind which Elrena lay, small rubbles knocked against her shoulders. She peaked up and saw the castle falling apart and slowly losing its power to remain in the sky. “Goodbye, Guardians of Light, it was nice knowing—“

“DON’T GIVE UP!” yelled Ludor not far from them. Skuld and the others, even the Master of Masters turned towards the gambler, who was holding onto his pack of cards, shuffling it like crazy, glancing up again and again. “The stakes are too high to withdraw!” he said. “And the Master is bluffing.”

“Never have done such a thing, my little gambler,” the Master smiled at him. “You however, if you pull a card, you’ll die. You do know that. You’re not fast enough.”

“No I am not,” he agreed and looked at the others, including Skuld. No, Ludor, don’t, she wanted to yell, but she couldn’t. She saw the determination in his eyes, and knew that he was the only one who could help them.

“Ludor, no, please!” Lauriam said, turning towards the man with a pleading look. “Skuld! Tell him! Tell him there’s a way!”

“The cards have told me my fate already, brother,” replied the gambler with a knowing smile. “Life is a gamble, but we’re not alone luckily. I’ve been given free cards throughout my life, survived thanks to others. Now it is time for me to repay the debt, and leave the table. I shall do with head held high, and I’m the card that ultimately takes you out!” he yelled, pointing at the Master of Masters.

“We shall see, Ludor.” Another gate opened behind the Master, who followed his apprentices through, but only after taking a last look at his once apprentice.

“Get ready,” the gambler said, looking up at the rubbles once again. “My magic can freeze time only for so long.”

“Please,” Lauriam shook his head, fighting his tears. “No, I don’t want to…”

“Lauriam, you have to stay strong. For those three, for us Dandelions.” Ludor looked at his friend again, then back at Skuld for one last time. And then, he scattered the cards around him, shielding his body just long enough to unleash the power of the final card in his hand; the hanged man.

Everything froze around them: the wreckages in the sky, the weapons and the bullets. In an instant, the very world came to a halt and only the chosen ones were able to move. Ludor was standing, bleeding from all those wounds, holding onto the card with all his powers. “RUN!” he spat painfully and all at once hundreds of men began their flight from the centre of the city.

Lauriam jumped and pulled Elrena from the wrecks, then joined Myed through a corridor. Riku was pulling two soldiers after himself, Xion and Roxas were hanging onto each other. Mickey opened a portal to help soldiers flee, while Goofy and Pete were pulling people into a gummi ship so they could escape. But she; she couldn’t move. “Skuld! Skuld!” She felt Lea’s hand on her own, and saw Isa yelling her name. But all she could do was watch Ludor in the distance, gritting his teeth, clenching his fists, and fighting the power of the wounds and the gravity, and maintaining the moment, giving them all a chance to flee. “Come on! Let’s grab her!” She felt the boys wrapping her arm around them, and lifting her, but she still couldn’t make a move. She just looked and watched, and for a moment his and her eyes met once again, for a last time; and Ludor offered one final, tired smile, before he let go. As the card disappeared from his hands, the guns turned and shot him multiple times, and he couldn’t even move an inch. The castle fell upon the square, Lea and Isa could barely escape with her as well. They pulled her into a building and quickly jumped into the basement, and hid beneath a table, hoping and praying for the best.

“Skuld! Skuld!” she saw Isa’s face again, calling for her. “Skuld! We have to go! We have to go back! The princesses are in danger! We have to stop him! SKULD!”

Chapter Text

Several portals had opened at once and warriors swarmed the through back into the usually serene land of Stargaze Valley. Exhausted from the previous battle, but still in shape to fight, Roxas was one of the first ones to return, Keyblades in hand, looking for the Foretellers or their dastardly master. “Spread out, but do not engage them alone! If you spot any of them, let us know!” he ordered the soldiers. The fighters all did so, and went their separate way, exploring the caves and tunnels to find the lurking enemies.

Roxas joined Xion, who was on her way to the long bridge that connected the city districts. She was ahead of another group of fighters, all shaking in their boot.  Far behind them, more and more soldiers passed through the gates and Roxas heard Riku give them orders before taking off towards the top of the cliff. “Shouldn’t we go there as well?” Xion asked, looking at Roxas with worry in her eyes.

“No, we need to make sure the valley is safe as well. We don’t know the Master’s plans, so we cannot skip anything. We make the smallest error in judgment and he uses it against us,” Roxas reminded her.

Xion nodded and turned around, stepping on the bridge. “Cover me, then.” Roxas hoped nothing would happen, no trap would activate but Xion quickly and painlessly crossed the bridge so that gave him some relief. He stepped on it and walked across as well, while she kept an eye on the plaza around. The soldiers followed them across, and were quickly divided into duos to search the grounds for any signs of intruders. Xion too headed off with one of them, while Roxas stayed back to be available if anyone needed his help. He stood at the middle of the plaza and watched as his friends and companions climbed the rocks, looked inside every tunnel, scouted every building, all in search for the Master.

“He really turned you all jumpy,” said a familiar voice beside Roxas, making the boy jump a little. He backed off and turned towards the other one, a Foreteller wearing the mask of a Lion.

That voice! Roxas froze, his eyes widened, and the Keyblades started shaking in his hands. “You! Are you… Ventus?”

“Who’s Ventus?” the other asked back, conjuring his weapon. “My name is Superbia. Kneel when you speak to me, boy.”

“So it really is you,” Roxas noted, still shaken by the realization. His face darkened by the thought that his friend was used for the Master’s gain. I won’t let him toy with you, even if I have to defeat you first, he decided. The boy tightened the grip on his weapons, and raised them in front of him. “Ven… damn it, I’ll smack some sense into you! Wake up!”

“I told you…” the Foreteller said, snarling underneath the lion mask. “… I am not Ventus!” he yelled and dashed forward striking against Roxas. The boy parried the attack with one sword and slashed towards Ven with the other. Ven parried, then dodged, took a step back and unleashed a counter, a full attack combination making Roxas retreat. Damn, he’s strong, Roxas thought while he tried to avoid being sliced up. He was more on the agility side of things, but damn his powers were enhanced. “What’s the matter, Roxas? Can’t keep up with the real one?”

“Real one?”

“Oh, come on!” Superbia laughed, spreading his hands wide. Roxas used the opening, but it just was a bait, and he was barely able to escape Ven’s sudden onslaught. He was now wounded on both hands and one leg. Damn it! He never played dirty before… “You and I look similar if not the same.” Superbia said. “You can change your hair, you can wear different clothes. But really, we look alike.”

“That’s because you were inside Sora’s heart!”

“Say what you may,” Superbia noted, circling around Roxas. “But that doesn’t help the fact, that you have nothing inside you that would make you an original creature. You’ve taken everything from us, but couldn’t add anything new to it.”

“What do you mean!”

“I mean you are still just a Nobody made up of two people,” the Foreteller said, stopping in front of him. “Do you not want to be your own self?”

“I am my own self!” Roxas yelled, charging blindly towards him, falling right into his trap. Superbia, maintaining his calm, dodged every attack Roxas threw at him in his fury, and using the carelessness of the boy, unarmed him with an attack, and swept him off his feet with a kick.

“You are a shameless copy of us,” Superbia said, raising his Keyblade into the air, prepared to cut him down. “And I will send you back where you belo—“

Two flaming chakrams flew through the battlefield and the Foreteller was almost caught in their way. Superbia jumped away, and Lea landed beside his spot. “Roxas, you alright?!” he asked in worried voice, helping him up.

“Yeah,” he nodded absently. “Yeah, I’m alright.”

“Ventus, what are you doing?” Lea asked angrily, catching his weapons mid-air. “Why are you doing this? What can you possibly gain by this?”

“I am the Master’s Pride, Lea.” Superbia pulled off his mask and threw it aside. It really was Ventus beneath it all. His hair was longer and was tied into a ponytail, while the front remained as spiky as always. “I do not do this to gain anything,” he continued. “I do this, because I want the Master to achieve his ends.”

“That’s bull crap and you know it! Terra and Aqua are worried sick because of you!”

“As if!” came the familiar voice of Luxu, and if Isa hadn’t shielded Lea with his claymore, the red-haired Keyblade wielder would’ve been shot dead. “Well-well, the freaky duos other half is here as well!”

“That is an odd way to talk about yourself,” Isa noted coldly.

“Me? As if!”

“Luxu, why are you not with the Master?” Superbia asked, not looking at the goat-masked Foreteller. “I can handle them. Two injured Keyblade wielder, and a civilian.”

“This Foreteller thing brings out the worst of you,” Lea shook his head, raising his weapons for another attack. “It would be time for you to realize, what mistake you’re doing!” the red-head yelled and threw the chakrams, but not towards Ventus, but instead to Luxu. The Foreteller disappeared, while Superbia charged towards Lea. Isa moved in to protect him, but his claymore was sliced in two promptly and Ventus summoned a powerful current that blew him away. Isa crashed against the wall, and fell on the ground unconscious. “ISA!” before Lea could’ve moved, Luxu’s arrows landed on the ground and exploded beside him, severely injuring the man’s legs. Lea buckled, and collapsed onto the floor.

“Lea!” Roxas hurried to protect his friend, who was now defenseless against Superbia, but his Keyblades didn’t appear in his hands even when he tried summoning them. What the? Why?! You are a shameless copy of us. You have nothing inside you that would make you an original creature. He had no moment to spare on thinking about it. Roxas jumped in front of Lea, spreading his hands wide to shield him as much as he could, facing the Keyblade of Superbia, that slashed him clean across the face.

The sound of Roxas’ painful shriek echoed throughout the valley, alarming even those who weren’t aware of the fight that went down. The boy fell on his back, and was caught by Lea. “You MONSTER!” he bellowed, looking up at Superbia, whose face reflected no pity, or shame. “What have you done?!”

“Finish flame-boy and let’s get out of here!” Luxu called. Several others were approaching and based on their voice, one of them was definitely Terra. “Hurry!” But there wasn’t really enough time. Superbia clenched his weapon’s hilt, but the others were already on their heels, and an arrow of pure energy shot past through him. It was Xion, who was standing by a cavern entrance, ready to release the second arrow.

“Ventus! Don’t go!” Terra yelled, arriving to the scene in his broken, partially destroyed armor. “Ven, please!”

“I’m not Ventus,” Superbia looked up at Terra then fled through a corridor.

“Well I’m not done yet!” Luxu said and spat on the ground, raising his weapon once again. He took aim, and fired at Lea, but once again Isa was there. “What the?!” Luxu recoiled as the scarred-faced man appeared right in front of him out of the blue, falling on his behind. Isa raised his broken claymore and struck down, but Luxu had just enough time to turn his guns back into a Keyblade, meeting his weapon. The claymore would’ve shattered even further, had it remained a simple weapon. But the moment their weapons clashed, a large wave of energy exploded and they were both blown away. Luxu cursed and escaped without goodbyes. Isa on the other hand released his newly forged weapon, which disappeared into thin air. The blue-haired man lost consciousness once again.

Silence fell on the plaza, but only for a second, then Xion rushed over to his dearly beloved, crying out his name again, and again. “Roxas, Roxas! Roxas!”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Riku stepped out of the Corridor of Darkness and sighed in exhaustion. Every inch of his body was in pain, and he was quite sure he had a few cracked ribs already. He needed medical care but there wasn’t enough time. Beside him a small unit stood with several familiar faces.

“Cloud, Leon!” he said, relieved to see them both. “Glad to see you both safe.”

“Could say the same,” Leon nodded. “I’ve been trapped in Ultimecia’s brainwash for so long, I truly felt like losing heart. Glad you arrived when you did.”

“Let’s celebrate later,” Cloud noted, looking up. “I’m quite sure Bugenhagen placed wards and shields on his Observatory, but that won’t keep the Master away for too long.”

“Agreed,” Riku noted. “Come with me. Let’s take a look. The rest can sweep through the city down below for traps.”

The two swordsmen agreed, and they all hurried towards the stairs. Riku glanced around and saw Roxas and Xion crossing a bridge, and the Dandelions caring for the injured; their own amongst others. Ludor wasn’t with them, and it pained Riku to think about the man’s sacrifice. The two of them didn’t interact much, besides a few words here and there, but the gambler seemed like a good sort of guy; trustworthy. And now he’s dead because of the Master’s machinations. We have to stop him before he claims anymore souls…

Riku saw Mickey not too far ahead and doubled his efforts, catching up to the King. “Where are the others?” the King asked, not looking at him. He seemed on the edge, which made Riku even more nervous; if even Mickey had lost his cool that really meant big-time trouble for them.

“I think Sora, Donald, and Goofy are in a gummi ship somewhere. Roxas and Xion are scouting the lower parts of the city for traps. The Dandelions are in shambles, and I can’t see Terra and Aqua.”

“I’m here, don’t worry!” Aqua noted, appearing beside them. She wasn’t wearing her armor anymore, probably to make stair climbing easier for her. “Terra is down below. He felt the presence of Ventus,” she explained.

“Ventus…” Riku echoed quietly. “Is he really alive anymore? I’ve heard the rumors, but…”

“Now is not the time to dwell on this,” Aqua said. “We have to find the Princesses and protect them until the others get back!”

The group climbed the rest of the stairs and reached the plateau atop the rock formation with the Observatory in its middle. The magical wards were already penetrated and broken, and the Master of Masters was nowhere to be found. In his stead, Ira and Invi were waiting for them side-by-side, Keyblades ready for fighting. “Tainted by Darkness, again,” Ira commented, as Riku stopped in front of him. “Have you no shame?”

“Rich to hear that from you! What does you Master dabble with if not Darkness?”

“But you are wrong,” Invi replied. “The Master does not use Darkness. He is without Sin. One could not be without Sin, if one were to use the Darkness. We are his sins instead.”

“No one is without Sin!” Cloud retorted, readying his broadsword. “Your Master is a fake, a liar! He is the biggest Sinster of all!”

“Wretched souls, you do not deserve Kingdom Hearts,” Ira shook his head. “I will stop you from hindering the Master’s plans. I’ve doubted him myself, but now I see, how truly marvelous his sight is.”

“Indeed, you have!” said the Master of Masters, stepping out through the main door of the building with a wide smile, and his hat in his hands. “Ah, I see the main heroes have finally gathered! Though I see quite a few of you are absent. What a pity.” This is trouble! Riku noted to himself. The three of them were far too much for Aqua, Mickey, and him. Cloud and Leon were valuable allies, but against the Foretellers, opponents wielding Keyblades, they were of little help.

“Hand over the princesses!” Mickey said, pointing his Keyblade at the Master.

“I cannot, unfortunately,” he said with a smile. “They are no longer here, you see. I’ve sent them ahead. They shan’t see the bloodshed. Well, we’re on a tight schedule, so let’s get to it!” Riku raised his sword and sprung to action, trading blows with Ira. It was hard to keep up with the Foreteller. Even if he were fully healed and rested it would’ve been difficult, but without those, it was practically impossible. The man toyed with him, and every misjudgment on his part was another successful strike for the other. Mickey and Aqua tried to help him, but Invi stopped them, and their battle ensued as well. The duo could barely handle the whip-handling Keyblade Master, whose every attack unleashed puddles of poison.

Leon and Cloud joined Riku, trying to fight off Ira, but even the three of them had a hard time cornering the man, who turned his Keyblade into a halberd and spun it around masterfully while unleashing powerful spells. Riku was on the constant defense now as he was Ira’s main target, and – of course – the stinging pain in his torso finally affected his movement. He stumbled and Ira was immediately on him, but Leon pushed him out of the way, taking the hit for him. Cloud jumped towards Ira, but the Foreteller unleashed the magical powers gathered in his palm and burned the swordsman using nothing, but the power of Light.

Beside them, Mickey was whipped away and Aqua was alone against Invi. The two women fought savagely, trading blows and magic, while Invi’s dangerous poison started eating and festering the grounds around them. Aqua was exhausted as well, and she was soon overwhelmed by the Foreteller, who used not her Keyblade-turned-whip, but a long fingernail on her left hand to scratch the Keyblade Master’s face. Aqua yelped in pain, and immediately felt the effect of the poison spreading throughout her body. Her Keyblade fell out of her hand, and she collapsed onto her knees, stunned.

“How pleasant this is,” the Master said with a satisfied smile. “The greatest of the Keyblade wielders all lined up before me. And—“ at that moment a shriek came from below, and Riku recognized Roxas’ voice. No, what happened?!

“Roxas?” Aqua uttered in pain.

“Another down, it seems,” the Master added, his smiling becoming even wider, if that was even possible at that point. “You have failed on both fronts. You gained Radiant Garden, but to what end? Kingdom Hearts… will cease to exist as you know it now.”

“Why are you doing this?!” Mickey asked, trying to stand up. “Why?”

“You’ve seen my past,” he replied calmly. “That was the truth. Kingdom Hearts, the source of all Light, abandoned me and my comrades in the past! Not just us, but thousands and thousands, who had fought for it. Kingdom Hearts is a sham. It does not deserve Guardians, neither does it deserve protection. I will remake it, I will create a better one! And I will commandeer the Light justly!”

“Justly?!” Riku laughed out in pain. “You are just another abhorrent monster. You have spent the last millennia making others’ lives terrible! How are you any better than Kingdom Hearts? Who are you even to question Kingdom Hearts?”

“I am the last of the Virtues, the original Guardians of Light, and my name is Pati. I am the Virtue of mercy and forgiveness. So hereby I will grant you both: forgiveness for hindering my work and serving the forces of Darkness, and the mercy of a quick death!” The Master of Masters summoned his Keyblade, the Skeletonkey and raised it, pointing towards Riku. “Goodbye, Keyblade Master…”

What the? Suddenly, green flames surrounded Riku, and the others, and through a Dark Corridor, a female sorceress stepped onto the ground of Stargaze Valley. Who is she? Riku thought, and suddenly realized, only thanks to her smell. She seemed different, as if she were reborn. Her skin had more color and she wore long dark hair under her pointy horns. She had a pair of black wings stretching wide.

“Maleficent. I see you’ve successfully accepted Ultimecia’s powers,” the Master noted. “However, this is unsurprising. For the longest time I’ve been curious how you survived all those ordeals throughout the years. Never would I have thought that it was because of her…”

“Her?” Riku uttered, looking at Maleficent, who didn’t react to the words at all.

“Reveal yourself, my Sin,” commanded the Master, and pointed his weapon at the witch, who was now surrounded by an eerie light. Maleficent’s eye widened slightly, as a small orb of light escaped through her chest, then expanded, taking on a human form. A young girl appeared before Maleficent, sporting shoulder-length pink hair, with occasional thin braids of blue, blonde, red, purple, and orange. Her cheeks and nose-dorsum were dotted with freckles, and her shiny orange eyes almost burned with sadness. Who is this girl? Riku thought, trying to recall her presence, but he couldn’t. When he was working with Maleficent, she wasn’t around. Not back then. Then… when? “Ava, I’ve been missing you,” the Master said.

“You have betrayed us, and the children. For your own disgusting ploy you’ve toyed with us, and my precious Dandelions. You will pay for all of this, Master.”

“Ava!” Ira shouted fiercely. “How dare you call out our Master like that!”

“Get a grip on reality, Ira! He’s using us all! And he’ll discard us, just like he discarded all those pawns long ago! Just like he had sacrificed every children of Daybreak Town.” Ava summoned her Keyblade and raised it to the sky. “But this battle is not over yet! You’re not welcome here, Master of Masters and his lackeys! LEAVE NOW!” she bellowed and a powerful ray of Light shone down from the heavens. Riku felt the Light touching him, and healing his wounds, and he also saw the displeasure on the Master’s face.

“This isn’t over, Ava. I still have the upper hand,” he noted, opening a corridor behind him. “I will be expecting you all very soon.” And with that, the Master and his Foretellers all stepped through the portal, which then closed behind them.

The Light disappeared along with the corridors, and Ava’s hand fell, letting go of her Keyblade. “Damn,” she sighed and almost collapsed from exhaustion. She was caught by Maleficent, who helped her back up. Riku saw the confusion in her eyes, and the uncertainty as to what she should be doing. He himself jumped up and ran over to her. “Thank you,” Ava said to Maleficent, standing back on her legs and hurrying over to Aqua with a vial in her hands. “Drink this,” she said, forcing the potion down her throat. “It’ll clear the poison.”

“Who… who are you?” Aqua asked, barely able to breathe at that point.

“I am Avarice, the Master’s Sin of Greed. I am also the Lost Master, who turned her back on the Master and his pupils. I am sorry for remaining in the shadows for so long when you all needed my help.”

“Let’s slow down a bit,” Riku said, trying to put things together. “We really need the others to hear this as well. And I think your remaining Dandelions would love to meet you after all this time.

- O - O - O - O - O -

It was a somber gathering, but Ava expected as much. The Liberation of Radiant Garden was a difficult task and the Master managed to pull an unexpected on them, resulting in the noble sacrifice of Ludor. Many have died and suffered because of this. And… it is just as my fault as it is the Master’s, Ava surmised. Had I presented myself before, I could’ve banished them before, and I may had been able to save Ludor, or the other Keyblade wielders as well. But would things still be on track then? She was well aware that all hung on the thinnest thread. The Master had well-crafted his grand plan many eons ago and his intentions hadn’t changed at all. He was willing to walk the distance to the very end.

Bugenhagen’s Observatory was in ruins, so the meeting was placed outside, beneath the starlit sky. Ava enjoyed looking at it, using her own eyes for a change. For many-many years, all she could see or hear was what Maleficent presented to her. She had influenced the evil fairy’s actions to some extent to be able to find the information she needed, but had very little influence on the overall picture. Maleficent was standing right across her, on the other side of the circle between Yen Sid and Merlin, who were paying much attention to her, since she absorbed Ultimecia’s powers. On Yen Sid’s other side Mickey, Donald, and Goofy were waiting patiently for her to start the promised explanation, occasionally exchanging a few whispers with Sora. Ava herself was nestled between Skuld and Lauriam; the former occasionally glanced and smiled at her while listening to Sora and his friends, while the latter was looking at the heavens, probably trying his best to stay composed. Riku on Lauriam’s other side was rather depressed as well. He exchanged a few words with Terra, but since then he had been looking at Sora every now and then, his face darkened by remorse. Above them, the old sage Bugenhagen kept hovering anti-clockwise, listening in to the conversations, while playing with his long beard.

“So, everyone is here I guess,” Ava said, looking at each and every one of them who were willing to meet her eyes. “As I’ve said, my name is Ava. I am the Master of Masters apprentice, one of the Foretellers.”

“Yes, we’ve heard that one, little girl,” Maleficent said spitefully as if she held a grudge for being her host throughout those years. “What I want to know is how were you inside me? What does that mean?”

“I apologize for the trickery,” she replied softly. “When you returned to the distant past, into our Timeline, I was already investigating the Master of Masters. After I learned of Luxu’s mission I began to look for a way to stop him, but after spending my efforts on futile actions, I’ve realized that to hinder his work I would need to survive. I hid myself inside your Heart, which was the perfect place to stay out of sight, and remained with you afterwards. It was my whispers that often guided you, or gave ideas. You should’ve forgotten about the past completely, but I weakened that spell so you would retain some of the memories from that era, so that you would start searching for the Book or the Box.”

“So you had the nerve to deceive ME!?” Maleficent raised her voice viciously, becoming quite scary with those black wings spread wide.

“Enough!” Yen Sid raised a hand, to calm the witch. “We were all deceived, but not for her ill intentions. You are a master of misguidance yourself Maleficent, show more temperance for now.” After scolding the Mistress of All Evil, the legendary wizard and Keyblade master turned back to Ava, looking expectantly. “What can you tell us about the Master of Masters true intentions? Why does he need the Princesses of Heart? What is his ultimate goal?”

“As far as I am aware, you have been told of the Master’s past. That bit was unknown to me as well, but it sheds some light in why he actually tries achieving his goals,” she noted. She saw several others thinking about those words. He might had been betrayed by Kingdom Hearts, but was that really a reason to wreck such havoc upon the Realm of Light and its denizens? No, it wasn’t. Ava knew well. And yet, that was his reason. Mysterious plaything the Heart is, he used to say to her sometimes. You see, it’s a small blob of meat and still it is equally the strongest and the weakest thing in the wide-wide world. When you need it to be strong, it grows powerful and resists the thickest of Darkness. But sometimes, occasionally it breaks under the weakest pressure and abandons you forever.

“Yes, we know of it,” Lauriam said. “Then what? We still don’t know what he specifically wants. He talks in riddles, lies, and misleads us. Do you know his true intentions or not?”

“I do,” Ava nodded. “I busied myself looking into his studies, his works. I’ve re-analyzed his Book of Prophecies, and used magic to peer into the mind of those he had spoken to. The Master created the five unions in the distant past, to collect Lux, particles of Light. He had the unions compete with each other, as that act motivated the children to collect even more. We amassed an abnormally high quantity of Lux and stored it away somewhere. He had also discarded his Sins and placed it within his apprentices, to cleanse himself of his Darkness. Every dark or evil deed of his enters the body, corrupts the heart, of his corresponding disciple.”

“What are you getting at?” Maleficent asked.

“And finally, the Master dived into a separate realm to reclaim a powerful artifact that would help him severe connections indefinitely,” Ava continued. “He hates the Light, the source of all Light. He despises Kingdom Hearts, thus he wants to severe its connection to the Realm.”

“But that’s impossible!” Donald yelled. “Without Kingdom Hearts there is no Realm of Light!”

“But, if what Ava is suggesting is true…” Mickey followed up, seeming like the first one to understand. “That would mean…”

“The Master of Masters wants to turn himself into Kingdom Hearts.” Maleficent’s voice echoed disturbingly. Everyone fell into silence, trying to understand what was happening. Ava looked at them, and saw their pained glances, their confused gazes. Thousands of feelings swirled within them, for simply accepting the truth was overly difficult. “So he will use the Princesses to summon Kingdom Hearts I gather.”

“Probably. And we have to hurry, because he won’t wait for too long. He might enjoy turning it into a show, but he won’t push his luck. He might be a gambler at the heart, just like Ludor was, but he won’t waste his time.”

“Then let’s get in there and kill him!” Lauriam said fiercely. “There are five of them in total. We can take them out!”

“Patience!” Merlin suggested. “If we jump in, we’ll just get stuck in his latest of traps.”

“And we don’t want to endanger those who have no power to combat the Keyblade either,” Skuld added, looking over to Lauriam. “I know you hate them with all your heart. But if we go on a suicide mission, that won’t save your little sister!”

“As if anything would!” Lauriam bellowed furiously, staring into the eyes of everyone, including Ava. She saw the disgust and the hate, but she couldn’t feel mad about it at all. He was in the right for hating her. She failed to protect Strelitzia, she failed to protect the Dandelions; she failed all the children of Daybreak Town. “Strelitzia is DEAD! My little sister DIED because of him and his idiot followers! And Ludor as well! And so many more died because of them! I do not care about my wellbeing, Skuld, I don’t. I want to put his head on a pike, and be done with it! That is the only thing I care about!”

And with that Lauriam hurried away before anyone could’ve said another word.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Why should I care about us coming back? he thought angrily. Why should I care about anything at all? I’ve spent all my life hunting for the killer of my sister, and every time I got close to them we are stopped, halted. Why can’t I have it? Why?

“Lauriam,” a thin voice called out, stopping him in his track. He was angry and he wanted to leave, but the voice was soothing and familiar. He turned around and saw Naminé sitting by a bench, drawing something. She gave him a soft smile and pat on the bench. “Come, sit with me.”

“I’m really not in the mood right now,” he said, shaking his head. He wanted to leave, and pursue the Master to the end of the world if he must. There was no time to idle around.

“I’m sorry we didn’t have time to sit down and talk before,” Naminé said. “Then again, it took me quite a while to figure it all out. You see, for a while I was even scared of you and Elrena, after all you’ve put me through.”

“Is this about some sort of guilt tripping? Because I don’t need that. I’ve atoned for that over and over again,” he noted angrily.”

“No, you misunderstand,” Naminé shook her head and closed her sketchbook, placing it down. She got up, and walked over to Lauriam and reached out for his hand, looking up into his eyes. “Take it.”

“I told you I—“

“Please, it won’t take long. I want to show you something.”

Lauriam cursed and reached out, holding onto Naminé’s hand, following her instructions and closing his eyes and ears to the World. As the music became distant, the air felt colder and cleaner, he started hearing the sound of water, and even felt the shallow waves licking the bottom of his boots. A very strong gust almost blew him away, and he had to take a step back, opening his eyes… and realizing he wasn’t in Stargaze Valley anymore.

“Where am I?” he asked, looking at the horizon where the waves and the skyline reached. It was… a curious empty space, sort of like a Final World before the end? “What is this?”

“This is where I awaited to be rescued,” Naminé said. She was beside him all along and he didn’t even realize it. “This is the edge of reality, the place where hearts pass through before they cease to exist. But it is also inhabited by faded remnants of hearts.”

“Remnants of hearts?” Lauriam asked, looking around and realizing they were surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of shining, barely visible objects floating around. “These are people?”

“They are deceased people with attachments so strong they cannot move on just yet,” Naminé nodded. “I’ve been here. And Terra was here.”

“And why are you showing this to me?” Lauriam asked, looking around. As he turned and turned, looking at the fading and appearing hearts, for an instant he saw a complete person in the distance, and his eyes widened immediately. Long auburn hair, pretty white dress with black lace, and the most innocent smile he could ever find. “Streli—“

Lauriam opened his eyes and found himself back in Stargaze Valley, holding Naminé’s hands. “What was this?” he asked, pulling away. “What trick is this?”

“This isn’t a trick,” she shook her head. “The Final World is filled with hearts, that still have work to do in this world. And we are working on a way to save them,” she explained. “But if you die, Lauriam, we won’t be able to bring her back. So you can choose: you either go and face off against the Foretellers and probably lose your chance to save your sister, or you show temperance and get a hope to see her smile again.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

The Master of Masters stepped out onto the dark-green meadows and took a deep breath. It was all coming together finally. All players were actually present, and all unnecessary additions were off the board. His Foretellers lined up before him, being unusually silent; not that it mattered anymore.

“Are you still able to wrap this up?” Luxu asked. “I mean, Gula and Aced hit the road, and Ultimecia kicked the bucket. That’s three sins off the list.”

“No, don’t worry. Ava resumed the mantle of my greed, and though technically Gula and Aced are not here, they still bear my mark, thus my sins. All is according to the vision I’ve foreseen.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about Ava?” Invi asked, seeming the least willing amongst the members. “Why did you lie to us about her?”

“There was no need to poke the hornet’s nest, little Invi,” the man sighed. “I knew Ava would reprise the role sooner or later, and there was nothing to gain, by pulling her out of retirement too early. IF she were present at the Liberation of Radiant Garden, she could’ve stopped us from injuring Elrena, Roxas, Lea, and even Isa, not to mention Ludor would’ve probably survived. But luckily to us, she didn’t know this.”

“So what now?” Ventus asked, folding his arms.

“I will begin the ritual soon, you people get some rest. Your favorite buddies will be here, and you can kill them. Terra included. Make me proud, my beloved Pride.” Superbia did not react at all, almost as if he didn’t hear the man’s name. “At any rate, be ready,” he said and headed to the crumbling temple in the distance.

The Princesses of Heart were inside kneeling before the altar at the back, chained onto each other, forming a circle. Kairi was the one facing the double-winged doors he walked in. She looked angry and vicious. Her fighting spirit was far from broken. “Do not worry. After I’ve used your powers to conjure Kingdom Hearts, you will all be free to leave,” he promised. “Once my Light will shine throughout the Realm of Light, once I will be the one defending the worlds from the Darkness, you won’t ever need to fear anything!”

“You’re a bad liar,” Kairi spat out. “And a terrible man. There is no way in hell you’ll be equal to Kingdom Hearts! Even Maleficent stands closer to the Light than you!”

“Oh but you’re so wrong, dear Kairi! My disciples have offered to take my vices upon themselves, to lift me from such burdens! I am without sin. I wield the Purest Heart. And only from the Purest Heart can Kingdom Hearts be borne.”

“You’re little crusade will fail!” Kairi said, her mouth twitching into a smile. “Because you have accounted for literally everything… save for one single scenario.”

“Oh… and what would that be, girl?”

“I am no longer a Princess of Heart.”

For a long moment, the Master did not reply. He stood there, looking back at her, his cat-like eyes not giving away anything. Secrecy was his forte after all. Would’ve been quite a shock if he started to let his feelings surface in the endgame.

Then he gave her a comforting smile. “I know,” the Master nodded. Kairi’s self-assured smile faltered and her skin turned paler. Precisely, I’ve known from the beginning. Skuld was in a state that was untreatable by other means. The very moment I laid my eyes upon her, I knew she was the Princess and not you, Kairi, although I truly would’ve preferred it the other way around. Having Skuld around was a heavy blow, but I’ve managed to take the necessary precaution just in case. “I knew from the beginning, girl.”

“Then why me?”

“Because you are much more valuable,” the Master smiled. “You will stop Sora from thinking clearly when the time requires him to. Your kidnapping has been weakening both his and Riku’s heart throughout this time, fracturing their bond. And this will assure my victory. So rejoice, little girl, you are no longer a Princess. You are the catalyst of the cataclysm!”

Chapter Text

The citizens of Radiant Garden and Stargaze Valley gathered in a distant corner of the world atop of a smaller rock looking down upon a great plateau. Everyone capable of moving were present, as it was time to say goodbye to the fallen. The ceremony was led by Bugenhagen and a group of local priests, who enacted their job immaculately: some sat and played their instruments, flutes, pipes, and drums; all slow and soft. The others moved, danced; performed the walk of the faith. And then there was the beautiful lady with green and blue eyes, and her long staff, sending off the spirit of the departed, dancing for them in the light of the faltering sun.

Xion stood beside Naminé and held her as she wept when Master Ansem’s body was blessed. The other apprentices stood by them, praying in silence for their beloved mentor and father, who had guided not only them, but the whole of Radiant Garden. Xion could not cry, she had no more tears to spare; not after all that had happened. There was nothing left inside her, but an empty void, and wretched despair for what was to come.

She looked over to the others and saw the Dandelions sitting around the coffin of their fallen brother. Ludor’s body was recovered and blessed many times over. A large portion of their army was indebted to the Gambler of Fate, who used his last bit of luck to save them from certain demise. Master Ava wore her Foreteller garment, but she didn’t put on her fox mask. She watched for further away, standing beside Maleficent and Pete, who surprisingly also decided to attend the event.

“What will happen now?” Xion asked, looking at Riku who stood by their side. The boy shook his head, not being able to look away from the caskets. He too was shaken by all that transpired, and the fact that he and Sora averted each other at all times did not help matters. Xion wished she could’ve said anything to console him, but she knew their hurt would not be mended unless they saved Kairi and stopped the Master of Masters.

“I will seek you out after the ceremony,” Riku said finally, giving her a side-glance. “The time is short and we must decide what to do.”

She nodded, and turned back to Naminé. The fight can wait, she thought. First, we have to lament and contemplate. Now more than ever.

The ceremony soon finished as the sun sunk beneath the horizon and the evening sky turned dark with thousands of new stars shining down upon them. The air grew cold and the sound of hushing-whispering people went silent as more and more turned to walk home. She stayed behind. Naminé needed her, and she needed company. She couldn’t bear to face the reality and return to her own den of despair just yet.

“They will be alright,” the blonde girl whispered after calming herself. She looked into Xion’s eyes and pulled her into a tight hug. “Trust them!”

“I do,” she said, feeling a stung in her eye. “I do.”

The two of them, holding onto each other, turned to walk back to the village. In the distance, portals opened and gummi ships took off. Cid was there, ordering people around business as usual. Yuffie helped him out too, though she was still a bit shaken by the ceremony. Cloud and Tifa were sitting further away, watching the wide world beneath them. Naminé spotted the other apprentices, who were preparing a gummi ship. Ienzo looked at them, and waved with a weak smile. Naminé waved back. “You’re not going?” Xion asked, looking at her.

“Not yet,” she shook her head and turned towards the tents, where the injured were being treated. “They need my help. Not only with healing magic, but also with easing their minds, sorting their memories. Many will struggle with the thought of this whole ordeal for the rest of their lives. I want to help them calm their minds, cleanse their dreams.”

“I envy you for this,” she admitted, looking away. “Being this strong.”

“Me? You guys fight them, you stop them. You are plenty strong, Xion,” Naminé said. “Don’t ever doubt that. I know what terrible things you went through. How terrible it must have felt to be forgotten for all that time.”

“You were too. You were forgotten as well,” Xion smiled. It was a weak, sad smile. Thankfully it is all behind us now. “But thank you. It means a lot. I will go and see how the boys are. You coming?”

“I think I’ll go check on Aqua first,” Naminé said. “They told me she woke up, though she’s still in a rather bad shape.”

“Will she recover?”

“She’ll be fit as a fiddle, but I’m afraid it’ll take some time. She won’t be leaving that bed anytime soon,” Naminé sighed. “Neither will any of the boys.”

Xion gave an understanding nod. She knew exactly how bad they were injured. And it is time to face them, she thought to herself. Until then, they were all sleeping or unconscious, but some of them were bound to have awakened since her last visit. It was hard enough to see them like that, but talking to them? She wasn’t prepared, but nothing in the whole world could’ve prepared her for that. She bid farewell to Naminé and headed towards their tent, slowing down as she had reached the entrance. She didn’t hear whispers or any voices coming from inside. That’s good… and bad. There was no point in delaying, so she took a deep breath and pulled the curtain away and stepped into the tent.

Inside, three beds were lined up one beside each other, all of them occupied: Isa was lying wake on the leftmost, looking at his remaining hand almost as if it wasn’t his anymore. Next to him, on the middle bed, Lea was sleeping soundly. His legs were in an enchanted casing, though it was still possible that he would never walk again. And on the bed on the right side Roxas rested, his eyes and forehead kept beneath a magically empowered bandages and gauze. As she stepped in, Xion felt the warmth of the tent, and the odor of a typical sick-room. It wasn’t her favorite scent, but she was getting quite familiar with it.

“I heard them talking about Roxas,” Isa said in a bleak, hollow voice. “He won’t see again.”

“So I’ve heard,” Xion nodded, wearing a grim expression. She walked over to the boy’s bed and slipped into the chair beside it, placing her hands on Roxas’. “But the newest researches into bodies might help. We are using empty vessels in the end,” she noted. Which is disheartening. We are dolls in the end, not real people like the others.

“I hope you’re not comparing your bodies to ours,” Isa said, catching her complete off-guard. The blue-haired man chuckled weakly. “I knew it. You are real. Just as real as any of us, never doubt that, Xion. And don’t be afraid to use whatever means necessary to save him. I would do so for Lea or Skuld anytime.”

“I believe in Naminé and the apprentices,” Xion replied. “If anyone, they will be able to come up with a treatment. And if it means, using a different body? Then so be it. I just want you all back, safe and sound.”

“To achieve that, first we have to deal with the Master of Masters.” The voice belonged to Riku. Xion heard him enter the tent before, but didn’t look towards him; until then. She turned to face the boy who was good at hiding his feelings regarding Roxas and Lea, though she could see a glimpse of sadness in his eyes. Riku looked back at her. “Xion, we need your help. We don’t have enough fighters to combat the Master and his Foretellers.”

“You have plenty,” Isa said, sitting up. “A whole army.”

“We need Keyblade wielders for this fight,” Riku replied, looking over to Isa. “And as we stand, more than half of the crew is out of commission. Aqua, Lea and Roxas are gravely injured, Ludor is dead, Myed and Elrena are severely weakened, and Lauriam decided to pull out. As of now, it is down to Mickey, Terra, Sora, Skuld, and me. I do not know what Master Ava has in plans, but I cannot count with her.”

“Then we’ll both go,” Isa said decisively.

“As I said, I’m looking for—“

Isa reached forward with his left hand and something spectacular happened. Even Xion wasn’t aware of it, and her mouth was left hanging just like Riku’s. A long, thick key appeared in Isa’s hand, resembling his claymore, ending in a crescent moon. “But… when?” Xion asked, completely baffled. “Isa, when did this happen?”

“Against Luxu,” he replied, allowing the weapon to disappear. “I do not know how or when, but it just called to me. I have this feeling, a name keep repeating in me… Tranquil Crescent. I think it might be its name?!” Riku nodded in agreement.

“I’m glad to see you have become a wielder as well,” the boy said, “but you cannot come along.”

“Why?!”

“Because you’re in a terrible shape. We need to be at our top form if we want to combat them,” the young Keyblade Master explained. “We cannot take go half-hearted or injured. We owe it to the others to return alive. And I cannot promise anything, not this time.”

“Riku is right,” Xion agreed. She stood up and sent a comforting smile to Isa, before returning her attention to the boy in front of her. “I will go with you. And we will win. We will bring everyone home, Kairi included. This time, I will help protect what matters the most.” Riku’s face turned more colorful and gave her a warm, thankful smile.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Ava watched the funeral ceremony from further away, as she didn’t think well about being present herself. She joined Maleficent and Pete, who were both standing a good few paces away from everyone else, and said her prayers from beside them. The evil fairy remained silent all along, and didn’t utter a single word or question towards her, even though Ava was fairly sure she had quite a few inquiries she wanted to make.

When the ceremonies came to an end, the witch and her bodyguard headed towards a secluded cavern. There, Maleficent opened a Dark Corner for the two of them and Pete went ahead, Maleficent however lingered. She turned to face Ava, who had followed them to the cave. “What more do you wish of me, Keyblade Master?” she asked. Her words were sour from the disdain. She scorned both Ava for using her, and herself for being used like that. It wasn’t all that hard to read.

“I couldn’t have resided in your heart, were it completely black,” Ava said hesitantly.

“What are you trying to say here?”

“You have helped not only me, but all these people around us. You have saved countless lives, Maleficent. I do believe that—“

“Do not be misguided, child.” The witch spread her large black wings, maybe to frighten her. “I am the Mistress of All Evil! And now, I bear within my body, the power of the Sorceress Ultimecia. Do not be fooled into believing I did all this for the Light. I did this in hopes of killing the one who betrayed me and stole the Coven from beneath me.”

“Yes, that might have been one of the reasons,” Ava agreed. “I won’t say you are pure good, but you aren’t pure bad either. There is more to both Light and Dark, than meets the eye. So I merely ask you, to keep that hope of yours close to your heart. Never abandon it.” Maleficent raised an eyebrow. They both knew she had seen into her heart extensively. The witch’s mouth twitched into a small smile, and she gave the faintest of nods, before she stepped into the corridor, leaving Stargaze Valley behind.

Ava left the cavern with a small smile on her face. Wherever Maleficent’s road would lead, she had faith in the fairy. That is the only thing we can have, faith and hope. We have to trust the Light’s guidance and goodness that it can reach us all. Like you, my misguided Master. I know you were good in the past. “Master Ava!” The Foreteller stopped and turned to look at Skuld, who was running towards her. “Master, here you are. Come on, we’re going to leave soon.”

“Leave?”

“We do not have time,” Skuld shook her head. “My friends are getting ready to leave and face the Master. You will come with us, right?”

Ava sighed wearily. “Of course I will,” she said. But I’m still afraid to face them, my friends. Ira, Invi… even Luxu. All of them were my peers, we played and trained together. How cruel you must be to all of us? “Lead the way.” Skuld nodded and led her back towards the village.

For a while, the two of them walked side by side soundlessly. Skuld looked left and right, her face revealed how saddened she was by all that had happened. More and more streaks of her hair turned grey, but at least her color came back and she didn’t appear as thin she was after being saved. The power of the Princesses, Ava noted quietly. “Say, Master…” Skuld spoke after a while. She didn’t look at her, but instead kept her look straight to the distance. “Will you be able to fight them to the death?”

Ava didn’t reply, not immediately. She thought long and hard about the question, every time she came face to face with someone of her own. She still remembered the day she had crossed Keyblades with Luxu on the hill above Daybreak Town. It was that clash that gave way to the hell that had spread throughout the Realms since then. Would I be able to fight them to the death? I do not know, this was what she wanted to say. But to be able to defend the Realm of Light, the children of Light, she could not allow herself any doubts. “Yes,” she replied instead. “But I still hope that there is good inside them,” Ava added. “Not even hope. I am sure there is good inside Invi, and Ira, and I do pray that it is not too late for Luxu either.”

“I hoped you would say that,” Skuld said with a smile. She finally looked at her. “I do not want you to lose your friends. I want to save them. I want to save everyone from the Master of Masters.”

At the border of the village, outside a small hut, the reaming Keyblade Masters were gathered. Yen Sid, Merlin, Bugenhagen, Donald, and Goofy were there with them as well. As they saw them approach, the Keyblade wielders exchanged an uncomfortable look. “Everyone is here, it seems,” said Master Yen Sid. “Master Ava, it gives me hope to see you join us.”

“Of course I join this venture, Master,” she nodded, acknowledging the title of the elderly wizard. “And I do hope to be of use to you all. My skills are probably rusty, but I will try my best to keep up with you all.”

“What should we expect?” Terra asked, looking directly at Ava. “Do you have any insider information about them?”

“We will meet them in the World, where the boundary between the Realms of Light and Darkness is the weakest. When all worlds used to be one, that was the borderline, where the forces of evil and good clashed again and again. By the time our era came to be, it was already called Desolate Sanctuary.”

“Ah, yes, we know of that place,” Merlin nodded. “Very grim and quite bad weather. Constantly. Better take an umbrella, if you don’t mind the suggestion.”

“I’ll take one!” Goofy nodded with a grin.

“Yeah, me too!” Donald joined in.

“Guys… I think this time you two should stay behind,” Mickey said sadly, shocking his two trusted friends.

“What?! But, you can’t go in there without us your majesty!” Donald complained. “And Sora will need us as well!”

“Not this time,” Sora shook his head. The boy who used to be so cheerful and loud all those years ago, turned grim and silent. Ava saw the weakly burning darkness that had taken root within him, but it was not yet time to be concerned by it. For now, we need to focus on the Master, she thought. Everything else can come afterwards. “Donald, Goofy. I want to thank you both from the bottom of my heart for all those adventures. You stayed with me, walked the distance with me. Together we made a very good team. But this fight… this is different. Those guys are dangerous, and not Xehanort-dangerous. Much-much more dangerous than that.”

Donald and Goofy were both dejected by Sora’s and Mickey’s words, but they seemed to understand the gravity of the mission. “But you better come back in one piece!” Donald warned him. “No disappearing act like last time!”

“Yeah! And you too Riku! Don’t go off wondering in the Realm of Darkness alone again!” Goofy added.

“Promise,” the boys said in unison.

“Very well then,” Yen Sid nodded, and scanned them all with his small, stern eyes. “Be careful out there, and May your heart be your guiding key.”

“Thank you Master!” Sora, Terra, Riku, and even Xion said at once. Skuld and Ava smiled at each other and followed the others’ example, thanking Yen Sid for the parting words. Afterwards Donald, Yen Sid, Merlin, and Bugenhagen crafted a portal for them, and Ava saw the dark-green stormy field and the abandoned chapel appearing on the other side. It is now or never, she thought, strengthening her own heart. Time to face our destiny and the final act of the Master’s grand plan.

- O - O - O - O - O -

After the Master had left them behind, Superbia turned towards Luxu and looked at him expectantly. “This plan is in shambles. We should just pack up and get out of here,” he said. Luxu’s eyes widened, and he heard Ira hiss angrily behind him. “Go feed a unicorn, Ira. I don’t care if you’ll blindly follow the madman into the oven, but I won’t stay here to die for some glorified retribution mission.”

“How dare you insult the Master like that!?” Invi snapped. “What you say might have some truth to it, but your complete lack of respect for him or his achievements is—“

“Luxu did most of the job,” he turned to look at Invi. He then turned to look at the seething Ira, and the dumbfounded Luxu. “None of you believe in any of this. To be more precise, all three of you are actually regretting this whole thing by now; being fooled by the man, being dragged into his personal vendetta. But it’s still not too late to get out of here, regroup with Aced and Gula. We leave, the old man gets fried by the incoming army, and we’ll find a cozy little world to live off the rest of our lives.”

“If you want to run like a coward, be my guest,” Ira retorted, and turned away.

“Coward…” Superbia tasted the word and it didn’t feel good at all. Well, still a better word than traitor, innit? the mocking voice of Vanitas echoed inside his head. I mean, you… or is it we… did betray all our friends for the laughs. “If this is the choice of the council,” he looked at the others, mainly Luxu, “then so be it. We stay, we fight… and hopefully we’ll live to see the morning.”

“Give it a rest,” Invi shook her head. “Go and collect bugs or count the grass.”

Well, you’re not a fan favorite in these parts, Vanitas’ voice spoke again. He tried not paying any attention to it, but it wasn’t an easy task. The more innocent voice of Ventus had died away some time ago, and now it was only the two of them competing for control, as absurd as it was. Well, you can try your little games as long as you wish. You’ll get bored eventually and fade away, he thought. Keep dreaming little Foreteller. I’m not Venty boy. I won’t just sod off alone. If I fade, you’re coming with me.

Luxu followed him through the field towards the dividing line, a small sinking in the ground filled with a mysterious liquid that looked white and black at the same time. It was the point where the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness were separated. Going through the line was of course strictly prohibited for all who wanted to remain alive. “Why are you like this? This isn’t you,” Luxu said as soon as they were out of reach. “What’s gotten into you? Weren’t ready to see Ventus’ little friends?”

“I would like to remind you that the last time you’ve underestimated me, you ended up begging me to spare your remaining eye. I would advise caution Luxu, I’m in a bad mood.”

“I can see that,” he agreed. “But why? Everything goes according to the Master’s vision. Nothing happened so far, that wasn’t predicted.”

“Yeah, but for some odd reason he always forgot to tell us what happens here, on this field,” Superbia replied, turning back towards him. “I had hoped that when we returned, he would disclose this bit. But for some reason, which I wager is our impending and untimely death, he did not. He didn’t even mention what will happen.”

“Don’t you trust him?”

“Do I have a reason?” Superbia asked, faking a shocked face. “He had the children of Daybreak Town slaughter each other in cold blood. He had you live through a millennia, watching and waiting, and cleaning all the shit he left behind. He made me go through multiple layers of hell, giving birth to not one but two idiot personalities inside me, both of whom would prefer a different outcome.” Oh, you mentioned me! Did I tell you about my adventures with your Luxu friend? He went by other names back then. Braig… and Xigbar… I think that was all. Good times.

“He had perceived all of this,” Luxu nodded. “He glimpsed into the future over and over again, trying to find the best outcome for us all! He never said the best would be easy.”

“For us? Or for himself, Luxu?” Now you’re asking the real question! I say let’s hit the road!

“For himself? As if!” Luxu waved and turned away. “Look, Superbia. Cool off will you? All this action got into your head a bit. We’ll talk when this is all settled. I promise everything will be smooth sailing. We’re this close to complete the task. Don’t lose heart now.”

Luxu took off and Superbia lay down onto the thick grass, looking up at the stormy skyline. The grey heavens lit up for short moments as the thunderbolts stretched across, exploding moments later. The wind whistled continuously in his ears and the smell of the wet grass and dirt filled his nose. For a while, he wondered whether these would be the last sensations he would experience. You are quite unsure about your future, despite being the Pride of the Master, the irritating voice of Vanitas spoke again. You sure you’re not the shyness of him? I mean, come on! Even I would bet my money on you. You kicked Roxas’ ass into next week. Though I would’ve done a better job. “Right,” he commented quietly. He closed his eyes and tried imagining he was flying; soaring high above the grass, amidst the clouds and avoiding the lightning. He toyed around with that feeling for a while, until he heard gates opening in the distance. Showtime!

He stood up, dusted off his garments and hurried over to the others to join them in welcoming the arriving heroes. Ava stepped through first, followed by Skuld, Sora, Riku, Mickey, Terra, and Xion. It was a much smaller force than he had expected it to be. He peaked to the side, looking at Luxu. The man seemed to be enjoying the surprise. Their chances had suddenly skyrocketed. Was the Master truly planning on this?

“Ava, you are still free to join us!” Ira said, stepping in front of the others. “And all of you. If you choose to forsake this quest, we will let you go. Once we triumph over Kingdom Hearts, our Master will surely choose mercy, for he will be Light.”

“You keep fooling yourself with that!” Riku said, summoning his Keyblade. “But all of us know he won’t be the benevolent ruler you make him out to be. He will be unjust, and unfair. He will do whatever he sees fit, and whatever can keep to himself interested. He will toy with us until he gets tired or bored, then he’ll just dispose of us!”

“Spoken like a true follower of Darkness. You are corrupt to the heart. There is no way to redeem you,” Ira retorted, summoning his own Keyblade and turning it into a spear. “I shall bring a swift end to your wretched being.”

“Ira, stop this nonsense!” Ava pleaded with him. “Please, think about it. This doesn’t have to end this way!”

“As if!” Luxu laughed, shaking his head. “Last time we’ve met, you were the one to draw your sword first. Why would it be different this time?”

“I was rash, I concede to that. Not this time. I want to save us all.”

“Nobody needs saving,” Invi replied coldly, and she also drew her weapon. “This is your last warning, Ava. Join us, or leave. If you stay, you die.”

Terra stepped forward. “Ventus, please!” Superbia looked at the Keyblade wielder, who was wearing his golden-bronze armor save for the helmet and the cape. He looked at him pleadingly, and for a second Superbia felt pity for the man. Such a waste of time. Ventus is no more. Bold thinking. I wouldn’t write the kid off that easily. He is gone, and you will wilt away soon as well. Only I will remain, the Pride of the Purest Heart. “Ven, it is not too late yet!” Terra said again.

“Listen to him Ventus! You can come back, it is never too late to join the Light!” Skuld nodded. “Think of your friends! Aqua, Terra, the Dandelions, Ephemer! We were all friends!”

“Enough!” Luxu bellowed, summoning his Keyblade and turning it into a pair of firearms. “You’ve toyed with him for long enough! No more fooling around. Leave him be!” and started shooting at the other side. Everyone who hadn’t done it before, conjured their weapons and charged towards their enemies. Riku parried Luxu’s bullets and Ava dashed towards him, only to be stopped by Invi’s poison. The Foreteller thrust her weapon into the ground, spreading the poison to all sides, scattering every fighter.

Superbia backed away from the poison as well, and parried an arrow from Xion. “You will pay for Roxas!” she shrieked and shot another one, but it was cut in half by not Superbia, but Terra. The man looked at her, giving the Foreteller time to back further away.

“Why are you running away?” Sora asked, appearing beside him and attacking him fiercely. “Afraid to face your friends?” Superbia easily dodged and parried every attack coming from the boy. His rhythm-based fighting style was not unknown to him, and he also had access to Ventus’ and Vanitas’ knowledge, thus reading his otherwise random movements wasn’t all that difficult for him.

“Is this the best can offer? I’ve expected more from the Chosen Key,” he poked at the boy laughing, and easily sweeping Sora’s legs from underneath him. “You’re a weak little boy, Sora!”

“Not on my watch!” Skuld yelled fiercely, jumping between him and his prey, almost slashing off his head. Superbia backed away from her, and blocked every energy ball she shot at him from the end of her Key. “Sora, get up!” she yelled, not taking her eyes off Superbia.

“Man, you people never give up!” he shook his head. “Well, at least there’s some challenge in this.” He looked aside and saw Luxu and Terra going shoulder to shoulder against each other. The armor-wielding man was a superb fighter, and Superbia knew that, but he had little knowledge of the terrain. Luxu was using this for his own advantage, driving Terra towards the dividing line. Nice trick.

“Ventus!” Sora yelled, and he turned back, only to be kicked in the chest. He fall backwards and cursed for his own stupidity. “Ventus, don’t give up!” Sora said again, pointing his Keyblade at his throat. “Don’t let the Master rule over you! You’re better than him!”

“The twerp is GONE!” Superbia bellowed, and clenched his left fist, unleashing the magical energies inside him. The ground shook beneath Sora and Skuld, and suddenly just like a huge fist, a patch of meadow closed around the two. They would’ve been crushed, had Skuld not countered with a powerful protection spell. “There is only me! Superbia!”

“That is a lie! Ventus, I know you are inside there!” Skuld cried out, looking into Superbia’s eyes. “I know you are in there. Don’t give up! Fight for yourself! Fight for your friends!”

“Fight for Terra,” Sora added, and he pointed to the distance behind him, and Superbia involuntarily looked behind him.

In the distance, close to the dividing line, Terra was on his knees, injured by Luxu who was also bleeding from multiple wounds. Yet he stood tall, and was grinning like a devil. He wasn’t holding firearms, but a real Keyblade, and he was about to execute Terra. “He can die there,” Superbia spat out, but the moment he wanted to advance on Skuld and Sora again, something stopped him. NO! “What the?” Superbia’s eyes widened as a white, holy aura surrounded his body. “What is this?” Told you. You’re just as naïve as Venty was.

Superbia looked around but instead of the meadow, he was inside his own station of awakening, a tall pillar. Beneath him on the glass there were three sleeping boys whose heads touched in the middle: Ventus in his plain clothes, Vanitas in his dark gear, and Superbia in his Foreteller garment. Ventus was resting in the Land of Departure, Vanitas was sleeping in the Keyblade Graveyard, and Superbia was in Daybreak Town. It was a perfect representation of the body’s inner turmoil. In front of him stood Ventus, holding onto his Wayfinder charm, looking at the ground with an angry, pouty face. “I won’t let you harm my friends! And I won’t stand idly, while Terra is in danger!” he asserted.

“Good luck defeating me. Alone, you’ll never win,” Superbia shrugged, summoning forth his Keyblade. All he had to do was to walk over and kill the boy. He was weaker, and there was no way he would be able to keep up with him. It was a task far too easy. “This will be a short and clean fight.”

“Not so fast!” yelled Vanitas, and grabbed him from behind with a shark-like grin on him. He pulled him into a tight hug, not letting him go, “VEN!”

Ventus looked up in a surprise “Let go of me you damned Unversed!” Superbia yelped, trying to force the black-haired off him, but with no luck. Vanitas tightened his grasp and pulled him even closer, grinning on like a madman. His eyes, however, were fixated on Ventus.

“NOW YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING. THIS IS YOUR ONLY DAMNED CHANCE! SO TAKE IT!

“Vanitas?”

“Just… do it!” he roared furiously, withholding not only Superbia, but himself at the same time. “DO IT NOW!” Ventus nodded, and dashed towards them. Both of them started screaming from the top of their lungs, and finally Ventus leapt through the final meters, his Wayfinder turning into a Keyblade in his hand, and thrust the weapon through Superbia’s chest. Vanitas let go, and the boy’s eyes went wide with shock and he stuttered as he reached for the mortal wound in his chest.

“No.. . I am Superbia. I am… superior… to you… both.” As soon as he uttered the last word, Superbia turned into dust and everything exploded into a blinding whiteness around them.

“What… happened?” Ven asked, looking down at his hands.

“Congratulations,” Vanitas said with a pained smirk. “You’ve finally won. The body and all its properties are now yours.”

“But you…” Ven’s eyes lowered and he realized the wound on Vanitas’ body. “You’re hurt?!”

“Well, what can I say?”

“Didn’t you want your own body? Didn’t you want to be independent? Why did you do  this?”

Vanitas rolled his eyes. “Of course I wanted it. But I am darkness… your darkness. And so are you my light. We are the two sides of the same coin, so alone neither of us are complete. Only together.”

It was the first time he had felt that, tears for his own darkness. Ventus reached out, and pulled Vanitas into a hug. “You won’t disappear. And you’ll be my darkness, and I’ll be your light. And we will find you a damned body.”

Ven opened his eyes and moved instinctively. He paid no attention to Sora or Skuld, who probably weren’t even aware what had happened within him. He dashed through the battlefield, avoiding stray magic, aiming at the most distant pair fighting beside the dividing line. No more hesitation, no more confusion. This ends now! Empowering himself with magic, Ventus leapt through a large chunk of the meadow, summoning forth his own Keyblade and slashing off Luxu’s hand before he could’ve struck Terra down. The Foreteller shrieked out in pain, grabbing the remaining chunk of his lost arm, and stammering backwards. After a few step backwards, he forced calmness on himself and allowed an exhausted smile to appear on his face. “Figures.” he said. “I… deserve this. If I had stopped that old coot from using you, it’d be different…”

“Like you people didn’t actually use me,” Ven retorted angrily, feeling no pity or remorse. “Were we even friends, or was that just another game?”

“Oh we were,” Luxu nodded, his expression turning sad. For a moment neither parties said anything, but Luxu straightened up and looked at Ventus, almost as if measuring him. “You may not believe me, and you may not remember… but you really were my best friend. And the only thing I begged the Master for, was to grant you a place by our side. Even now, I only regret not helping you, when you needed help the most.”

“You can keep your regrets,” Terra said, stepping forward, and putting his hand on Ven’s shoulder. “It won’t change the fact, that you would’ve sacrificed your big and important friendship for that madman’s desires!”

“As if.” Luxu smiled, and took another step back, through the dividing line, entering the Realm of Darkness. The moment his body passed through the veil, dark energies began to swirl around him, raising him a few meters above the ground, and grinding it into dust right in front of Ven and Terra.

 

Chapter Text

Ventus faltered as the dark energies tore the Foreteller apart, but Terra was there to catch the boy before he could’ve buckled completely. “Ven!” he yelled in fright as he helped the boy sit down. “Ven, are you alright?”

“Yeah,” the boy nodded, looking him in the eyes. For the first time in a very long while, it was that young man looking back at him, whom Terra had come to know and love so dearly. “Terra. I’m sorry for everything. For leaving alone, for pushing you all away, for—“ but Ven wasn’t allowed to finish the sentence. Terra pulled him into a hug, doing his best not to start crying. He still couldn’t believe it. After all that chasing and hopelessness and despair, Ventus was there next to him, well and alive. And Kingdom Hearts help whoever tries to hurt him again, he thought.

“Aqua will give you an earful for all the recklessness,” he said with a smile as he pulled back from the boy. “But don’t be sorry. You were controlled, manipulated. It must’ve been hard on you as well.” He crashed down beside Ven, panting and examining his wounds. None were fatal or overly serious, but it was enough to hinder his abilities.

“It was,” Ven nodded, and he looked back on the battlefield. Terra followed his glance and saw the others fighting. Sora and Skuld were absent from the battlefield; they were making their way through the meadow towards the sanctuary in the distance. Xion was fighting Invi alone, while Mickey, Ava, and Riku were going all out against Ira. “We should help them.” He tried getting up, but Terra put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and pulled him back down.

“We’re both exhausted. I can barely lift my Keyblade anymore,” he admitted, “And you seem like you’ve been through hell.” Ven gave a small, agreeing nod. “If there’s trouble, we can still join in.”

“You don’t know them that well, but both Invi and Ira are strong fighters.”

“So are those,” Terra replied. “They will handle the trouble, don’t you worry.”

- O - O - O - O - O -

Xion dodged Invi’s poison and backtracked a few steps. She was getting further and further away from the others which was probably the Foreteller’s plan all along. To separate her and give her the edge she needed to conclude the fight. They’re doing well in working together, she tried to analyze things calmly. He deals with the main force, while she picks them out one-by-one and silence them. But I’m not so easy to kill either!

Xion transformed her weapon again and unleashed several arrows at Invi, who avoided each and every one with a graceful movement. Her own weapon transformed into a whip and she struck down at her like a thunderbolt. Xion yelped and jumped backwards. “You are but a child with a weapon you cannot use,” Invi scolded her. “Would’ve welcomed you into my Union back in the days.”

“Like I would want to join a troupe of freaks!” Xion retorted, shooting another arrow at the Foreteller. Invi dodged and slashed her whip unleashing spits of poison from the end of it. Damn it, I’m getting further and further from the others! “Your poison is your only weapon?”

“Why would I sully my hands, if you can be stopped by a drop of liquid?” she asked back. “I had no intention of killing any of you,” Invi added. “So for the longest time I’ve used simple chemicals that would stun or paralyze you. It was your group that went on the fierce offensive. I had no choice but to up my game.”

“Didn’t you?” Xion asked back, her eyebrows arched, feeling furious at the Foreteller. She straightened up. “Didn’t you? You attacked countless worlds, kidnapped people, tortured people. You’ve been working on pushing the bastion of light into peril. You’ve hurt my friends, my love! And you dare say, you had no choice?”

“My words will never reach you. You are a fool to believe in Kingdom Hearts’ purity.”

“I DON’T CARE ABOUT KINGDOM HEARTS!” she bellowed furiously, raising her bow. “I only know one thing. The world is better without you all!”

“Xion!” Mickey leapt across the pool of poison, landing beside her just in time to unleash a magical barrier to protect both of them. Xion was so focused on the woman that she didn’t even realize the magic she was conjuring; she was about to wash her away with tides of poison from all sides. Her plan was disrupted by the King, who raised a shield above them to keep the toxic away from their bodies. “Are you alright?” he asked, looking at her. Xion nodded, though inside she wasn’t good at all. She was angry, and lost, and desperate. She feared for her friends, for the world, but most of all for Roxas. And she wanted revenge for him. “Let’s work together!”

“What about the others?” Xion asked.

“Riku and Master Ava can take care of Ira! And if I saw it right, Ventus has defeated the Master’s Sin inside him!” Mickey said with a big smile, which stupefied Xion beyond words. Ventus… defeated the Master’s Sin? What does that mean? Mickey probably saw the confusion on her face, because he began to explain. “The Master of Masters broke down bits of his heart and placed it within his students. These bits were his personal darkness, his vices, and he had placed them within the Foretellers.”

“So… they are all being used?” she asked.

“Probably,” Mickey nodded. “But we need to do everything to stop them. We cannot hold back because of this, or they will defeat us!”

“Let’s stop them,” Xion nodded. “Together.”

Mickey nodded and stopped the magic; at that moment the shield collapsed. The two of them charged towards Invi at the same time and she decided to flee. The Foreteller hurried away from Ira, towards a small bog on the edge of a great forest. Mickey and Xion followed her, the former shooting magic, the latter arrows at her throughout.

The Foreteller stopped at the fringe of the swamp and turned back towards the pair. She raised her Keyblade high and spelled out a summoning spell. Suddenly the earth shook and the trees of the forest shuddered, their leaves trembling. “Nothing will save you now,” Invi said, sprinkling the land around Mickey and Xion with even more toxins, trapping them.

“Sssssomebody called me?” a long thin snake appeared upon the branches of a tree. It had large yellow eyes, quite mesmerizing. “Ah… dearessssst girl. You called again. More food for Kaa the Sssssnake?”

Invi smiled at the snake that slithered closer to her through the bog. “Yes, Kaa, I’ve brought you a delightful dinner. A young girl and a King!”

“Ssssplendid!” Kaa smiled, opening its mouth a few times just to check if those two would fit, “I sssink I will enjoy thissss… feast.”

Mickey and Xion exchanged a worried look, and that was all it took for the snake to jump into battle. Xion avoided the first snap, dodging towards the left towards Invi who was standing with her Keyblade in hand. Xion raised her own in defense, but Mickey landed in front of her and attacked the Foreteller before she got there. Mickey and Invi exchanged blows a few times, before the Master’s apprentice retreated, allowing Kaa to take another shot, at the King this time.

“Xion, now!” Mickey yelled, jumping away from the way, allowing her to take a shot at the snake. Kaa barely avoided the arrow, and was knocked on the head by Mickey who landed beside him. Invi used Kaa as a distraction, and now that nobody was paying her attention, unleashed another wave of poison, using the bog as source. She washed all three of them away.

“Thissss hurts!” the snake cried out.

“All the better,” she said, stepping beside the creature. “If even you can feel it, they’ll die from it soon!”

“Don’t count on that!” Mickey said, landing on the ground unharmed. He released his magical spell, and the shield around Xion broke down. “You can’t fool us with your magic, Invi!”

“They aren’t too cooperating,” Kaa shook its head. “I ssssink it is time for Kaa to sssslyther home.” Invi looked towards the snake in disbelief as it disappeared. She was abandoned by her companion, and suddenly seemed quite open to attacks, which Xion wanted to turn to her advantage. Instead of using her weapon’s bow form, she charged towards the Foreteller, hoping to end the battle with one fell swoop.

Invi, however, was quite ready for the attack, and Mickey realized too late. The King hastily and clumsily tried to protect Xion, which only worsened their situation. The Foreteller thrust her Keyblade into the ground and unleashed her magic, swarming the whole area with poisonous gas, which exploded all around them at once. Mickey and Xion couldn’t raise shields or retreat fast enough, they both exhaled the poison, numbing their mind and their bodies.

Xion fell onto the ground, and her Keyblade disappeared. Mickey sprawled beside her, heaving in pain, unable to move.

“Never look down upon a Foreteller,” Invi said, stepping closer to them. “We never leave openings.”

“That certainly is true, milady.” A man stepped out of the forest, and scattered rose petals into the wind, dispelling the poisonous gases around Invi. He pointed his Keyblade at the bog and using a spell built a bridge of thorny vines across.

“Well, if it isn’t Lauriam. I’ve been looking forward to meet you again, young apprentice.”

“You barely taught me anything, Master Invi,” he bowed theatrically. Xion hadn’t seen him like that for a while; so confident, so calm. She wasn’t sure what to think of that, but she wanted to warn Lauriam not to underestimate her. “It is time to resume our previous battle. No trickery, or escape this time. Whoever wins, takes all.”

“Agreed,” Invi nodded and changed her Keyblade into a whip. “I’ll do my best. I can at least offer you that much.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Lauriam replied, changing his own Keyblade into his trademark scythe. For a moment, everything went silent between the two of them. Only the wind whistled, and then Xion saw it; the movement. The two clashed halfway the distance, scythe and whip, spouting poisons and petals all around and invoking a flurry of decay upon the land. Lauriam met his opponent again and again, crossing blades, unleashing his own sort of toxins. “I shall scatter your rotten heart to the empty winds of this land!” Lauriam bellowed.

“You are a disgrace to the Union. I will remember you by a blackened rose,” Invi retorted, whipping him again and again. The man managed to avoid every severe attack, only allowing the weaker ones to scratch him, while aiming for the kill. The two of them danced around Xion and Mickey in circles, filling the air with more smog and more petals, sprinkling soft golden dust upon them. “And that is it!” she yelled victoriously, whipping the weapon out of Lauriam’s hand. The scythe flew afar and disappeared before it could’ve landed.

Lauriam jumped back, raising both hands this his shoulder, signaling he gave up. His face, however, was twitched into a smirk, and Invi was unsure why. She stepped closer, still pointing her weapon at the pink-haired Dandelion. He didn’t refuse. He waited and smiled, knowing something she didn’t.

“What’s with the grin? Ready to join your sister?”

“Oh I will rejoin with her. She’s coming back,” he said with a mutinous sneer. “Your grand plans will crumble, like Ludor’s house of cards he had been working so hard to complete. You just wait and see.”

“Oh I might. But you most certainly won’t!” Invi grunted and raised her weapon to finish the Dandelion. Before the whip could’ve struck down, however, Mickey appeared and slashed the weapon away, unarming Invi, who shrieked in surprise. “What is this?!” she yelled, jumping backwards, straight into the arrow shot at her. The arrow pierced her through the back, between the shoulder blades and extruding a small orb of oozing darkness through her chest in the front. Invi moaned in pain and collapsed onto the ground.

“Did we get her?” Xion asked, looking up at the others. Mickey and Lauriam both shrugged and stepped closer, just like she did, when suddenly a black wave of energy exploded from her body, staggering all three of them. Xion stumbled backwards, losing her balance, toppling, and falling into the poisonous swamp. She wanted to shriek and she reached out, but before she could’ve realized what was truly happening, she had lost her consciousness.

- O - O - O - O - O -

Riku was panting tiredly. The three of them were already in a pinch, when Mickey rushed off to help Xion. This is impossible, we can’t stop him, he concluded, glancing towards both sides. Ven and Terra were still on the ground, probably too exhausted to fight any longer, and the distance between them and the others was becoming quite large thanks to Invi’s retreat.

“The more you oppose the Master, the greater his ire becomes,” Ira noted. “I am the Master’s Wrath. Unfortunately for you, the longer this battle takes, the stronger I become. And I already am too powerful for just the two of you. Drop your weapon, Ava. I do not wish to slaughter you.”

“I cannot, Ira,” she shook her head. “We have to oppose him! If we don’t, all will be lost!”

“Not all! Can’t you see? He is doing this for all of us. So the Light cannot toy around with us any longer. It cannot just kill us off once it finds no more use to us.”

“He does the same thing!” Riku retorted. “He does exactly that! He kept his mouth sealed about this battle, because you’ve lost two of your comrades already!”

“Superbia was a late addition, and an unwelcome one,” Ira replied. “We never trusted the boy. It was only because of Luxu. But Luxu… he was getting soft. He would have betrayed the Master’s vision for the boy. Invi and I are the only ones, completely and fully in league with him.”

“And what good has that done for you up until now?” Ava asked, lowering her weapon. “Your friends, your Union, the children, our home. You have lost everything, Ira.”

“I will reclaim everything!” he shouted, and launched his attack. Riku raised his weapon in defense, but the man’s speed and strength was far too much for him at that point. He tried dodging, parrying, evading, but every once in a while the spear slashed him or pierced his magic-enhanced clothing. He stumbled backwards against his foe, and Ava’s attacks didn’t hinder his onslaught either. The ex-Foreteller was really rusty, but her defensive and healing spells were thankfully handy.

Ira pushed them even further, when something exploded in the distance, sending a wave of dark energy through the field. Riku turned and raised protective auras around both of them, defending Ava and himself against the dark wave, while Ira used a simple protective spell to defend himself, and resisted the wave, until its power dissipated. This can’t go on like this, Riku panted. He fell on his knees, and Ava wasn’t much better off either. Ira straightened up and allowed a small dark orb to penetrate his chest, expanding his powers even further. The same thing had already happened twice before. It probably had something to do with the other Foretellers.

“So Invi has finally failed as well,” he noted in a grim voice. He didn’t sound sad or disappointed. It was a completely matter-of-fact tone, acknowledging fate’s decision. “Thus I am the last one,” he said. “I’ve been charged with collecting the sins. And now, it is complete. Don’t tempt fate. You two are not enough for this battle!”

“No, we aren’t,” Ava nodded and turned to Riku. “Go, hurry after your friends. The final battle will not end here. We will hold him off. You children have to finish this.”

“Ava…”

“She’s right,” said a young voice, familiar to Riku’s ears. He turned around to find two new entrants standing not too far from them, both wielding Keyblades, and the garments of the Foretellers. A large and strong looking man, and a short, small statured one. “Long time no see, Ava,” said Gula, smiling at the girl. “I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too,” she smiled back. “And you too, Aced.”

“Sorry it took so long,” the large, bear-statured master said. “Ira and Invi tried to make sure we would be late for the big finale.” He held a girl in his arms, Xion. She was unconscious, but breathing. “We picked her up by the swamp. Cure her from the poison, will you?”

“All of you traitors will perish here today,” Ira said, raising his spear. “Go, boy. The Master is probably waiting for you as well. I will remain here and deal with these.”

Riku looked at Ava again, and gave her a firm nod. “Take care.”

“See you after all this,” she replied, turning towards Xion and casting a spell on her. Riku did not remain to see the end of it. He started running towards the distant temple and the ruinous gardens around it. Sora and Skuld were already there, inside, probably fighting a battle against the Master. He had to triple his own efforts if he wanted to arrive in time.

- O - O - O - O - O -

When Sora and Skuld watched Ventus rush after Terra and Luxu, the spiky haired boy instantly knew they succeeded. With a grin, he looked over to Skuld but found her staring at the distant temple-like sanctuary. Sora turned to inspect the solitary ruin as well, and felt strange powers emanating from within its walls. The Master has probably begun his ritual, he thought, feeling a terrible dread overcoming him. We have to stop him, but the others… He turned his attention to his friends and saw them handling Invi and Ira well enough. “Sora,” Skuld looked back at him, her face determined to the war once and for all. “We have to go!”

“Right.” He looked back at his friends again, resting his eyes on Riku. He really wanted to speak with him, tell him he was sorry for doubting his decision and pressuring him. It was stupid of him, but he really was afraid of losing Kairi again. Of course I was happy you chose me, he wanted to say so badly, and yet he couldn’t. He mustn’t. Not until all three of them were safely back on the islands.

“Sora! Hurry!” Skuld beckoned him and he followed the girl’s steps. They rushed right across the great grassy meadow, battle echoing behind them, thunderbolts crackling above them, and the winds howling stronger and stronger as the great storm was about to strike down upon the land. As they climbed a larger hill, Sora looked down upon the great field below and inspected it for a moment. He saw Invi battling Mickey and Xion in the distance, and Riku and Ava doing their best to hold off Ira. Terra and Ven were resting near a thick line that had divided the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness; beyond that line stretched a land of decaying ground, bubbling toxic waters and curiously shaped rocks. Far in the distance, Sora thought to recognize a very familiar shoreline, which he had visited several times before. The Dark Margin. Was that always so close to this place? He did not recall seeing these fields from the shoreline, but then again they usually looked at the endless seas beyond it. “Sora!” Skuld’s voice brought him back and Sora doubled his pace, following the girl towards the ruin.

There was a small wall built of rocks around it, but it was mostly destroyed. The grounds were long neglected, shrubs had grown over the pebbled road to the doors. There was a small wooden passage to the back and Sora counted six graves behind the temple. Skuld summoned her Keyblade and stopped in front of the double-winged wooden door. She pointed the weapon at it, unlocking the doorway into the chapel. “This is it,” she said, facing him for a second. “This is his Sanctuary. Everything ends here.”

“I know,” Sora nodded.

“We have to be careful. He has seen this, and I truly don’t know how we could fight someone with a foresight. But still, we have to try.”

“We will win,” Sora replied with certainty in his voice. “I know we will.” As he said the words out loud, the doors cracked loudly and opened up before them, blinding both with the light that escaped the building.

“Welcome, Keyblade Bearers!” the Master’s voice echoed through the halls and the grounds, and the world around. “Come inside my Sanctuary, and fight for your truth with Passion.” Sora and Skuld looked at each other nervously. The boy gulped, and took the first step forward, possibly into a trap, into the endgame of the schemer’s play.

The inside of the temple was nothing Sora would’ve guessed. White marble walls, a vast blackness instead of a ceiling, and the same circular rose windows he had seen so many times during his travels to the Stations of Awakening. This time, the windows, three on both sides and one in the back, represented one-one for each of the Seven Princesses of Heart. The princesses were kneeling in a circle at the middle of the temple’s hall, just in front of the gallery, where the Master of Masters was standing. He wasn’t wearing his usual dark clothes; he was instead dressed as a knight, wearing bright silver armor and a grand white cape. He still had his trademark hat with the feather on, and his cat-like eyes gleamed with dark intent. He was holding onto the Skeleton Key, the Keyblade he took from Yozora.

The princesses beneath him were resting, eyes closed. Elza, Anna, Rapunzel, Kida, Ziana, Pocahontas, and Kairi; Sora was glad to see them all in safety. Well, not completely out of the danger yet, but now we can release them and fight off this maniac, he thought to himself hopefully. “Release the princesses!”

“I will do so momentarily,” he nodded in agreement, descending the stairs that led to the gallery. “But first, I need them. I need their powers to be more precise, Keybearer. They will invoke Kingdom Hearts, and just some distant image, not some weak avatar. I need their power, to manifest the Door to Light.”

“The Door to Light?” Skuld asked uncertainly.

“Indeed,” the Master nodded. “Here upon this land, where the powers of Light and Dark clash endlessly, we are the closest to the core. Here, we can call upon the Kingdom’s power in its fullest. Only through that, will I be able to accomplish my mission, and sever the bonds of Kingdom Hearts!”

“Why are you so obsessed with Kingdom Hearts?” Sora asked angrily. “You’ve been the servant of the Light throughout your life! You would cast it away?”

“I would replace this corrupted being, that is called Kingdom Hearts,” the Master replied. “For it has betrayed Light’s essence. It has forsaken the good and the pure, and sacrificed its guardians. My brothers and sisters have all bled for Kingdom Hearts, for the Realm of Light. And what were they given in return? They were offered as a bargaining chip to the forces of evil! Just so Light could find new champions, and could reinvigorate its own forces. WE WERE SACRIFICED FOR THIS ROTTEN WORLD!”

“That’s a lie,” Skuld shook her head. Sora didn’t want to believe it either. The Light he knew was fair, and just, and nothing like the one that deranged man had described. But what if he truly spoke the truth? What if Light played a hazard game? They too had their fair share of pain and troubles, but they always came through. Was it merely luck? Was it not because they were the guardian champions of Light? “I refuse to believe this, or any other words you speak! How could you talk of Light’s cowardice and betrayal, when you yourself offered thousands of souls? Who will avenge those children you’ve sent to the slaughterhouse? Who will mend the millions of broken souls that suffered because of your schemes? They were innocents, and they suffered through the same betrayal your brothers and sisters had. Face it, you are just as guilty, as Kingdom Hearts!”

“That may be so,” the Master admitted, lowering his head in shame. “I’ve done countless terrible things. And the children I loved the most, were the ones who had suffered mostly. Ira, Invi, Aced, Gula, Ava. Luxu of them all. I pity these poor souls, and the others as well. But sacrifices had to be made, so we may triumph this day.”

“All for nothing then,” Sora said fiercely, readying his Keyblade. “You won’t win!”

“After all this time, you still think you possess any chance of winning? I’ve seen through all possibilities. I’ve done the math, I’ve calculated everything. We’re at the point of no return, Sora. We have reached the very final thread, and it leads to my victory.”

“You won’t win!” Sora bellowed once more, charging towards the Master of Masters. Skuld joined him and the two of them rushed through the foyer leading to the center, where the Master stood. He raised his Keyblade with one hand, and dodged them with ease, almost as if seeing their moves before they even did them. With the move of his wrist, the Master disarmed Sora and it was only thanks to Skuld’s quick spell that he was spared. The man didn’t even try to attack him, but instead turned to the girl, leading his charge against her. Skuld backtracked quickly, but felt the floor shake beneath her.

The Master jumped up to the gallery and snapped his fingers lazily. Suddenly the whole building began to tremble and a myriad of Lux began to pour inside the seven circular windows, setting on a holy fire whatever they touched. “Careful!” Sora yelled, re-summoning his weapon and shooting protective barriers towards Skuld, who was almost engulfed in the flames.

They hurried to each other, protecting one another from the waves of Lux burning through the building. Working together, the two of them blocked and shielded themselves from the Light’s onslaught until it lost its power and disappeared into nothingness. At that moment, the Master leapt across the room, slashing towards the two of them. Sora pushed Skuld out of the way, and she cast all her protection spells on Sora, barely able to protect the boy’s life from the Skeleton Key’s destructive power.

Sora slid across the room due to the impact, crashing against the wall and jumping up promptly. Skuld rushed to his side, and the two of them raised their barriers at the same time, just before the Master pointed his weapon at them and unleashed a beam of burning Light. “If we don’t do something, he’ll deplete both our shields!” Skuld said, looking at Sora. The boy knew she was right, and that they couldn’t even counterattack him from there. Sora looked around, hoping to see something, find anything to help them. But there was nothing besides them, the gallery, and the princesses… the princesses!

Kairi’s eye was open, and her mouth was gagged with a piece of cloth, but she seemed like she was ready to fight. It was their only hope. Sora looked at Skuld, and nodded. “Take over for me. Just for a few seconds.”

“Do it!” Skuld told him, and Sora released his shield and instead aimed, and unlocked the chains.

As the bindings came off, Kairi darted ahead, summoning forth her Keyblade and thrusting it towards the Master with all her might and fury. And for a moment, Sora thought she succeeded.

But the Master foresaw their last, desperate attack, and easily dodged the weapon slapping Kairi on the face with his armored glove. The girl yelped powerlessly as she crashed against the wall and sank onto the floor. “I’ve told you, I have foreseen this. Everything!” he spat viciously, and shot a powerful globe of Light that exploded and obliterated the remains of their magical barriers. Skuld and Sora crashed against the door and sprawled across the floor.

The Master, using his free hand, levitated Skuld from the ground and flew her over to the place where Kairi kneeled previously. The Dandelion was unable to fight the Master’s power as she had lost consciousness after hitting her head in the door. “The Seventh has arrived,” the Master said victoriously, turning his back on Sora. “Hear me Kingdom Hearts, corrupted source of all Light! I have vowed vengeance for my brothers and sisters, for all those you have sacrificed! Your time is at its end!”

Sora looked up and the ceiling, which used to be dark, and saw the sky above. Kingdom Hearts shined with a pale light, empowering him. He reached out and summoned his Kingdom Key once more. “I won’t let you,” he said, standing up. “You won’t do this. You won’t destroy everything that’s precious to me!”

“You are most certainly welcome to try and stop me,” the Master said, still not facing him. Sora started running and he heard Skuld’s voice, and Kairi’s voice. But nothing mattered in that moment. He felt Kingdom Hearts’ Light inside him, and all he could think about was stopping that madman from completing his obsolete plans. Letting out a long, tired and furious shout, Sora used one of the benches as a stepping stone and leapt across the room, raising his weapon high, prepared to strike true.

“Foolish boy,” the Master smiled, and took a step backwards, completely avoiding Sora’s attack. The spiky haired boy’s eyes widened, and the Master slashed horizontally with his own weapon, which sent Sora flying backwards to the door, and screaming out in pain.

“Not yet,” he grunted in pain, forcing himself up from the floor. “I’m… not… done… yet!”

“Oh but you are,” the Master grinned.

Sora reached out to summon Kingdom Key again, but there was nothing. His eyes widened, and he looked at his palms, where the weapon should’ve manifested. “But… no,” he shook his head in horror, staring up at the Master of Masters. “What have you…”

“The Skeleton Key has the power to sever ties. I have severed your ties to the Light. You are has been, Sora. Go home.” The Master turned back to the princesses and pointed his weapon towards them. “The time to Save our worlds is here, princesses! Evoke Kingdom Hearts, let me Sever its ties! And let the new source of all hearts and light be Sanctified!"

The Master’s Keyblade lit up, and Sora – even without his weapons, his abilities – started running towards him, yelling his name as loud as he could. The temple and the world started trembling, and the heavens above them were splintered, revealing the beating flaming heart; Kingdom Hearts, in its full and dreadful might. And Sora was overwhelmed by the holy flames, and felt his skin scorching, his lungs and heart filled with Light; and then there was nothing else, but pure white light.