Riku’s lungs are aching, suffocating on the cold air, and her feet continue to slip on the loosely packed snow as she battles an Invisible in the mountains of Arendelle. Exhaustion has settled into her bones after hours of trekking through biting wind and snow, conditions she’s experienced before in the Land of Dragons but so much worse. They’ve dispatched heartless after heartless, their enemies becoming deadlier as the air thins around them.
The Invisible lunges towards her and she tightens her numb fingers along the hilt of her blade, swings it up to block and feels her left knee almost buckle from the impact. Every strike and block and swing and parry of Braveheart is done with trembling arms. She’s been on the defense since this fight first started, knows she’ll have to make a big move soon or she’ll completely exhaust herself-
A loud grunt sounds behind her and soon after the blessed heat of a firaga shoots past her to slam into the Invisible. The creature shudders, convulsing as the flames lick up the length of its body, darkness oozing off and swirling into the rapidly melting snow below. She looks over her shoulder at Axel who’s got his hands on his knees but shoots her a weary thumbs up. Taking a deep breath, she summons every last reserve of energy she has left to finish this and get them moving, get them home.
Palm flat against the side of Braveheart, she channels a dark firaga along the blade, the shaft pulsating with violet light, before driving it forward through the still burning creature.
The Invisible explodes into a shower of sparkling streams of light, reflecting off the snow so brightly Riku has to throw an arm over her eyes, blinking away the after image behind the cover of her sleeve. A silence settles over the clearing, branches brushing against each other, distant bird calls drifting on the wind. Her arms finally give out completely, Braveheart arcing to the ground with a thump. It’s waved away in a burst of light and Riku clenches her fist tightly, tries to quell the trembling of her spent muscles as she waits with bated breath. It won’t be long, never is, before another wave of enemies descends. The snow crunching behind her catches her attention and she turns to her companion.
“You just had to one up me, huh? Fire is kinda my thing, boss,” Axel pants out, sidling up to her with a weary smirk and a hand pressed over his ribs. They’re both exhausted, sweat soaking their knit caps, and Riku knows they need to find shelter soon before they pass out and fall prey to the elements. The heavy fur lined jacket and thermal garments the good fairies provided are sticking to her skin uncomfortably, her body chilled through layers of clothing from the relentless wind and the adrenaline drop. In that moment she wants nothing more than a hot shower, soft pajamas, and Sora wrapped tightly around her in their bed, thick comforter up to their ears.
“Someone had to finish the job,” she says, knows Axel is feeling close to fainting too so she tries to keep him engaged, keep him awake. The lack of response is worrying and with no sign of imminent danger, she looks around for suitable shelter shielded from the winds that would allow them to catch their breath and treat any wounds. The snowfall limits her vision, snowflakes blowing into her face until she’s left squinting, but she finally spots a cutout in the mountain, stalactites overhanging a small opening in the rockface. It’s across the clearing, evergreens nearly blocking it from view entirely, and she prays to anyone who will listen that they have enough left in them to make the distance.
“Come on, let’s recoup before continuing to Elsa’s.”
Axel gives her a jaunty salute and follows as she trudges through the rising snow, the powder nearly reaching her thighs at this point. Their footfalls become heavier, more labored as they make their way over. Earlier in their journey, Axel had taken point and cleared their path with fire, the snow had melted enough to make the climb less strenuous. Now, Riku thinks even the idea of using that handy little trick would drop Axel into unconsciousness. They’re low on energy, mana completely drained, and she knows she’s only got half an ether left in her pack. Their gummi phones died within the first few hours, the darkness fueled cold rendering them inert after the first few rounds of fighting.
She’s been in tougher spots, the Realm of Darkness definitely puts a lot of things into perspective, but their situation is far from ideal. As a Master, it’s her responsibility for the success of their mission and the safety of her charge. While it’s gone unspoken, Axel has become her apprentice in everything but name. She’s spent the most time training him, showed how to utilize his affinity for elemental magic, how to channel darkness with light to devastating effects, how to make reparations for the bad you’ve put out into the world. He’s made incredible gains in the last few months and Riku knows he can make even more. She hopes that the chance she’s taking on this cave pays off, for Axel’s sake most of all.
The towering evergreens help block the worst of the wind, the branches groaning under the weight of ice and snow. Riku glances over her shoulder every few minutes to check on her charge. Axel’s head is tucked into his chest, shoulders up by his ears, but he’s keeping pace, stepping into the footprints Riku leaves behind, barely stumbling despite his obvious exhaustion.
They hurry forward the last few feet into the mouth of the cave, shuffling steps echoing off the stone as they move deeper, the violent wind muted by the layers of rock surrounding them. Riku slumps against the wall, chest heaving out metronomic puffs of white as she blinks snowflake dusted lashed up at the stalactites hanging above them. She slides down the uneven wall to the ground, legs finally giving out. Yanking the zipper of her coat as high as possible, she flips the collar up and buries her face until only her eyes are visible. Axel shakes off as much of the snow from his head and shoulders as he can before following suit and plopping down on the ground next to her.
“Shit,” Axel hisses, pulls his gangly legs up close to his chest and burrows his head against his knees, “Not to be a baby, but who’s bright idea was it to send the fire guy here?”
Riku huffs out a hoarse laugh that ends in a coughing fit, her throat stripped dry, “Mine.” Axel snorts, shoulders shaking and Riku’s not sure if he’s laughing, shivering, or crying at this point. She wouldn’t blame him for any of those reactions, she feels like doing all of the above.
Riku digs around in her pack blindly, knocking noisily against its contents until she finds what she’s looking for. She tightens her numb gloved fingers as much as she can around the half empty ether and holds it out shakily to Axel. His eyes widen behind the shelter of his knees, a croaky protest on his lips but Riku just shakes the ether in his face until he takes it with both hands.
“Boss...Riku, are you sure?”
She dips her head as much as she can, her neck a pillar of ice rather than flesh and bone at this point, watches through barely parted lids as Axel uncorks the bottle and drinks slowly. Axel licks his lips when he’s finished, chases every last bit of energy the ether provides and drops the bottle into the snow beside him.
“Was that enough for a small campfire?” Riku tries to keep the desperation in her voice tempered as best she can, the small spark in Axel’s eyes giving her more hope than a few swallows of ether warranted.
“Yeah, I uh, I think I can manage that but we should move a little deeper inside. This wind’ll blow it out before it ever really gets started if we stay here.”
She nods, pushes herself onto stiff, aching legs, tries to hide the pained grimace from her apprentice, nearly succeeds until she sees Axel’s eyes flick past her, wide and scared as he reaches for her with a strangled shout-
There’s a blast of searing cold against her back and she blinks once, twice, before time seems to slow as ice crystals appear in her periphery. They multiply in gleaming branches across her chest, shimmering like starlight along the top of the cave as it coats the entirety of her body and sinks all the way to her heart. Riku feels as much as hears the screeching howl that rips across her consciousness, dissonant chords slamming and crashing together across the universe before darkness consumes her completely.