Antipode Act 2: Fragmented Truths



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Fragmented Truths is the second installment in my Antipode series, an AU that places Riku into the role of Keybearer. If you would like to read the original story, there is a topic for it here, and it can also be found on Fanfiction.net and AO3.

Taking place immediately after the KH1 era, Fragmented Truths is its own story rather than an adaptation of CoM and Days. It also features worlds based on the Sword in the Stone, Great Mouse Detective, and Jungle Book.

Summary: He failed to close the Door, unleashing darkness upon the worlds. Now Riku must press on, faced with the threat of the Organization and a Replica of himself. The Heartless spread, more numerous than ever, forcing him to hasten his search for Sora. But is the Replica friend or foe, and can he conquer his own darkness?

Because this story is so long, I will be posting a few chapters every day. If you want to read ahead, you can find it on Fanfiction.net and AO3.

So, without further ado...

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Chapter 1: New Enemies Arise

The surrounding peace was almost insulting. After spending another day endlessly wandering the same dirt road, Riku almost yearned for the familiar sight of rising shadows, slashing claws... Anything to break the monotony. When he closed his eyes, his mind wandered back to the door to Kingdom Hearts. The same door he'd abandoned. He remembered the black smoke oozing out from between the cracks... stretching, twisting, swelling, and grasping. His own actions transformed that smoke into a tidal wave that threatened to sweep the worlds into the darkness' depths. So why had he wound up so far from the chaos, plunged into an endless sea of grass and dirt? He couldn't begin to help from here.

Yet with no Gummi Ship, Riku and his friends could only move forward. A few stops to hone in their training, rest, and reflect helped break some of the tension, but when the sun sank away and the stars lit the sky, he wondered if they'd ever break free. At this rate, who really knew? Other than the trees, the grass, and maybe a few bugs, they were the only living things in sight. No signs appeared whenever the path forked, and it wasn't like they carried a map. Thus, in spite of their tranquil surroundings, the odds had really stacked against them.

But after hours of meandering and drowning out Goofy's silly songs, Riku, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy finally came to a stop. They parked themselves at the edge of the road, watching the last glimmers of sunlight fade. And, much like the last few nights, they scooped up armfuls of sticks and twigs, flung them into a pile, and huddled close together. One flick of Donald's staff unleashed a burst of heat. Flames flashed to life, hissing and crackling. At least now they wouldn't catch cold, even if the sky drenched them with rain. But while the others broke into friendly conversation, Riku turned the other way, content to etch circles in the dirt. Circles that sprouted antennae with a brush of his fingers, then beady eyes and claws.

He would've added more, but the sound of Donald's squawky laughter yanked him out of his drawing and back to reality.

"You know, Kairi, you're gettin' pretty good with that fire magic!" He smirked, leaning back on the palms of his hands. "Maybe we oughta start teaching you blizzard, right Riku?"

"Huh?" Riku blinked, slowly turning to face the others. It took a moment for Donald's words to register, and then he placed one hand against the side of his neck. "Blizzard? I guess it's worth a shot, but what's she going to freeze? The grass?"

"Oh, I know!" Grinning, Goofy stood up tall and pulled out his trusty old shield. "One of us could stand real still, and she could try hittin' us!"

"Well, you can count me out!" Donald crossed his arms, letting out a huff. "But go ahead, Goofy. You're the one with the shield, anyway."

"Gawrsh, I guess so!"

At that point, Kairi started to laugh, looking down at the wooden sword hidden among the grass. She shook her head and let out a soft sigh before she got up, took a few big steps and plopped down right next to Riku and Donald.

"You could always take turns, you know." A sly smile crossed her face. "But it's okay. I don't mind training without a target."

"Well, it's a lot easier if you can picture the ice freezing over something." Donald frowned, bringing a hand to his beak. "I guess we could just use Goofy's shield or make a big pile of sticks, but…"

...And they lost him. Letting out a soft groan, Riku flopped down on his back, staring up at the endless array of stars. It was hard to tell how many had vanished over the past week, if any. A few might've blinked out here and there, but so long as some stars remained in the sky, it wasn't a total loss. With the door wide open, the Heartless were probably having a field day across the universe, hunting down as many hearts as they could get their grubby little hands on. Still, even though they were stranded without a Gummi Ship and no reasonable way to get around, they'd still have a fighting chance to fix up this whole mess once they caught sight of Sora again.

It was a promise he'd made even before he beat Ansem, and one he held close to his heart. Letting out a soft sigh, he reached for his belt, where he proudly wore Kairi's lucky charm for all to see. Smiling faintly, he held it up with one hand, fidgeting with it just a little. The others went on talking over target practice, and he picked up something about using trees instead, but for the most part he just ignored his surroundings. Occasionally he'd make a few comments when Kairi or Donald tapped him on the shoulder or leaned right over him, but otherwise he was content to gaze at the stars…

At least until he heard a rustling in the grass from behind. Eyes narrowed, he shot up into a sitting position and peered over his shoulder. The others scurried right behind him, and they all let out a collective gasp.

A strange man approached from a distance, slowly trudging closer with each passing second. Red bandages covered his face, leaving only a trace of dark skin around his mouth and a single orange eye visible. He wore a long, red cape that fluttered with each step, and even as he drew near to the group, he kept a straight face and held his hands behind his back. At the sight of this man, Riku stood up straight and called for his Keyblade. At that, the man laughed dryly, and his lips bent up into a crooked smirk.

"There is little cause for alarm," he said, coming to a halt just a few feet away. "I am no enemy, merely an observer."

"An observer, huh?" Riku sneered, leaning forward with one hand on his hip. "And just why should we trust you, old man?"

"Yeah!" Donald scowled, and his beak bent into a sharp frown. "You look awfully suspicious."

"Do you often use appearances to judge one's moral character?" The man shook his head. "I suppose I could simply leave and let you wander for days, if not weeks on end. However, that would neither benefit you nor myself."

"I guess you're right…" Frowning, Goofy began to scratch his head. "We haven't seen anybody in days, and we were gettin' kinda worried!"

"I wasn't worried." Donald groaned. "And I still don't trust him!"

It was pretty hard to trust a complete stranger, especially one with eerie eyes and such a tacky getup. He looked just as villainous as Ansem, Maleficent, and just about all the other foes they'd faced. Plus, he hadn't given them any straight answers just yet. For all they knew, he could've easily been trying to mess with their heads. So, like Donald, Riku kept a close eye on the man, even as Kairi stepped out in front of the group.

"Guys, shouldn't we give him a chance?" She peered over her shoulder and gave the man a brief glance. "The least we could do is listen."

"Yeah, but…"

"Donald, I think she's onto somethin'!"

"Well, I still think he's—"

Heaving a sigh, Riku dismissed his weapon. Suspicious as that guy was, he really was their only lead right now. Giving him a chance to make a case probably wouldn't hurt, as long as they didn't let their guards down. And besides, if he really was an 'observer,' he'd probably know what was going on. They'd never know until they asked, anyway.

"You know what?" he said. "Go ahead, tell us what you want. Not like we've got anything better to do."

"Ah, so you have finally come to your senses." The man lowered his arms to his sides, taking a step closer to the group. "I have come here on behalf of the worlds, and it would be wise to listen carefully, for there is much to cover." He paused for a moment and held out one of his arms, as a swirling mass of darkness materialized just a few feet away. "Of course, there is a time and place for everything. If you wish to escape this realm, I recommend that you follow closely."

"And how do we know this isn't a trap?" Riku rolled his eyes. "First the cryptic message, now darkness… You aren't exactly making the best impression."

"But were you not the one who created a corridor in order to save your friends?"

Just like that, Riku's heart sank like a brick. It did seem kind of strange that he knew about that, but who was he to argue at a time like this? The guy did have a point.

In spite of his doubts, he nodded, turning his attention towards the portal. "Fine, I'll give you that much."

"Then you have little to lose." Slowly, the man turned towards the corridor. "And, should you pass through and find yourself trapped, I imagine that it will hardly deter you. Are you not a risk taker?"

"Nah, I take plenty of risks." Oddly enough, that man's words actually got a laugh out of him. "Guess we'll never know what's on the other side until we jump right in."

Donald continued to silently fume, brow furrowed as he sneered at the man, then the corridor, then turned his gaze up at Riku. Goofy, all the while, looked down at his friend with his brows knit together, quietly muttering something to him that Riku didn't quite pick up. The two huddled together, whispering to one another for a few short seconds before they finally reached a decision.

"Well, I guess it's better than all this walking." Donald sighed, tucking his staff away as he stomped towards the corridor. "But if anything fishy happens, don't say I didn't warn ya."

"Don't worry, Donald." Kairi shook her head, moseying on up to the portal. "If anything happens, I'm sure you can handle it."

"Just because we can doesn't mean we should have to, you know!"

Chuckling, Goofy followed the others with a lopsided smile. "Aw, Donald, maybe ya just need a good night's sleep."

At least they were getting somewhere, even if it involved suspicious portals. Once his friends started moving, Riku hurried along, slipping right into the darkness without a moment's hesitation. While a part of him half expected to end up in the middle of a Heartless trap or thrown into an even greater danger, it didn't take long for him to realize his worries were all for naught. The corridor didn't lead into some mysterious threat; the moment he stepped out, he found himself surrounded by shelves full of books and the occasional statue. Stepping further into the room, he came across a small, square table lined with a couple of chairs and a single candelabra.

But what really stood out in this dusty old library was the duo of chipmunks leaping up and down the moment Riku and his friends appeared.

"Chip, Dale?" Gasping, Donald hurried up to the table, staring at the duo with his eyes wide open. "What's goin' on here?"

"They arrived some time ago after escaping the darkness," said the man as he stepped into the room. "When I caught sight of their ship outside this manor, I took pity on them and allowed them to stay."

"You don't say…" Riku narrowed his eyes, trudging over towards one of the chairs. "That's a pretty huge coincidence. First you find our ship and our maintenance crew, and then you go looking for us? There's something you aren't telling us, old man."

"It is true; there is much to explain." The man slowly approached one of the empty seats, sitting down with a blank expression. "However, now that we are away from that infernal crossroads, we can begin at any time. Perhaps once your friends have taken a seat."

It took a few moments for the others to get situated, mostly on Donald's part. However, once they all took their places around the table, the man leaned back in his seat and began to fill them all in. About time, too.

"Now then," he said, placing his hands on the table, "you are probably wondering who I am and why I have brought you here. To keep it simple, you may call me DiZ. And as for my motives…" He leaned back and chuckled dryly. "I simply wish to negotiate."

"Negotiate what?" Riku leaned forward, tapping his fingers on the table's surface. "If you want us to trust you, we're gonna need some straight answers."

"Ah, but of course." DiZ cracked a crooked smile, looking Riku in the eye. "I am no stranger to manipulation, so I understand your sentiments. If answers are what you seek, then let us start with the state of the worlds. After all, I'm sure you're quite concerned about the overwhelming flow of Heartless…"

Biting his lip, Riku forced himself not to snap back. It was like that guy saw straight through him, and he sure didn't pull any punches. Still, if he knew what was going on, what choice did they have but to listen? In the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Kairi watching him through furrowed brows, while Donald jerked forward, only to get tugged back by Goofy. DiZ continued to smile at this display, continuing his speech without hesitation.

"It is true that the Heartless have run rampant since your failure to protect the worlds. However, they are of little concern." He shook his head. "Rather, you should be wary of a new threat, one far greater than any creature of darkness."

"But I thought them Heartless fellers were tryin' to swallow the worlds!" Goofy frowned, bringing a hand to his chin. "If they aren't our real enemies, then who is?"

"Yeah! We already beat Ansem and Maleficent." Donald huffed, shifting around in his seat. "Who else could there be?"

"Who? Why, Nobody." DiZ gave another dry laugh. "To put it into perspective, let us consider the existence of the Heartless. They are, after all, a result of the corrosion of darkness within the heart, but they lack the bodies and souls of a complete being. Now, surely those empty shells don't merely disappear."

'When the heart casts away the body, where does the body go?' That was the first line in the Ansem report he'd picked up from that man in the black coat. Did DiZ know something about those so-called 'nonexistent ones'? There was only one way to know for sure…

"So, let me get this straight," said Riku, leaning back into his seat. "You're saying these empty shells are a bigger threat than the Heartless. What makes you so sure of that?"

"The key difference between Heartless and Nobodies is simply a matter of wits." DiZ paused, peering at one of the bookshelves. "They are capable of rational thought, but lack the ability to feel emotion. As a result, they feel no remorse for the heinous acts they perform, such as betrayal." It was hard to tell with him looking the other way, but it almost looked like he cringed. Was there something he wasn't telling them?

Kairi sure seemed to think so, with the way she leaned over the table and looked at DiZ with a frown. "It sounds like you know from experience."

It was hard to tell whether she'd hit a sore spot; DiZ tensed up for a moment, but before long he let out yet another laugh, this one almost forced by comparison. Soon enough, he turned back around with a sinister smile, and he placed his hands together.

"I have seen many things in all my years, but none so dreadful as those infernal Nobodies." His smile swiftly shifted to a frown, and he narrowed his visible eye. "It is why you mustn't underestimate them. They have long since formed an Organization and threaten to disrupt the balance between worlds. Unfortunately, I can do little to thwart their efforts, which is why I have turned to you."

It still seemed like this guy was hiding something. If nothing else, it felt like he had some ulterior motive to pit Riku and his friends against those Nobodies in the first place. Like an unspoken grudge… Maybe Kairi was onto something. On the other hand, if they really were a greater threat than the Heartless, they couldn't just ignore his words. Whether or not DiZ spoke the truth, his claims at least merited some kind of investigation. A little recon, maybe.

But first he just needed a little more clarification. "What exactly do you want us to do, then? Take them out, or is there more to it?"

"It would be unwise to merely attack them, though the idea is tempting." DiZ shook his head. "For the time being, I suggest you resume your journey and collect information as you travel across the worlds. You will know the Organization by their black coats, as it is uniform for their group."

Black coats, just like that guy back in Hollow Bastion. Riku's eyes widened, and he reached for the report, skimming it over once again. All the while, the others kept their eyes locked on DiZ, who leaned back in his seat and folded his hands together.

"But wait a second" said Donald, glancing over at Kairi. "We've still gotta work on Kairi's training!"

"Plus, we're runnin' low on supplies!" To prove his point, Goofy dug into his pockets, pulling out a single potion and nothing more.

DiZ chuckled at the sight, resting his hands on the arms of his chair. "Yes, it would seem that you're hardly prepared. Fortunately, there is a town at the end of the forest where you will doubtlessly find both weaponry and supplies. And should you need rest, you are welcome to stay in one of the vacant rooms here."

Riku raised a brow, leaning over the table again. "So you'll let us stay here, huh? And what's the catch?"

"There is no catch. All I ask in return is that you share your findings and, in due time, eliminate the Organization."

All in all, it didn't seem like a bad deal. With their Gummi Ship close by, getting from world to world would be a cinch. Besides, they were probably going to get back to their travels even without this so-called threat looming over their heads. Free room and board was just another added perk in the long run, even if there was still something kind of fishy about this DiZ guy. For now, Riku and his friends could handle a mutual agreement, as long as things didn't get out of hand. If Donald and Goofy didn't agree, well, they could sort that out later on.

After a few moments of quiet deliberation, Riku looked up at DiZ with a smirk. "All right, then. I guess we're in."

x.x.x


People scattered every which way along the streets of Hollow Bastion. Spells flew through the air, crashing into windows, singing doorways and stands, and chilling the cracked pavement to create a slippery mess. Even though the town was in shambles and hardly a radiant place to be, Sora'd managed to catch sight of some people hanging around, gradually making the messy old place their home. He'd hopped from rooftop to rooftop, silently watching Leon and his gang tried to clean up the messes left by all the Heartless that stuck around. They'd even managed to get some kind of security system working… sort of. Sometimes these weird pillars of light would come down and send Heartless flying, but it was a hit-or-miss kinda thing. Not only that, but it didn't exactly stop the destruction going on down below. No, a Heartless defense system was no good against humans. Or people who looked like 'em, anyway.

Sora practically had to scramble around to avoid being knocked back by bursts of white-hot flames, chilled by blizzard blasts, and shocked by powerful electric storms. And the real catch? Most of those attacks weren't coming from the Heartless, but a boy dressed in a black coat who hurried through the streets alongside another boy just a little bit younger. Just who were these guys and why were they making such a fuss? Neither of them attacked any of the people; they always directed their magic at buildings, bits of rubble, and sometimes the ground below. It was like they were trying to scare the people, but not actually hurt 'em.

There wasn't a whole lot he could do as a Heartless. If he were to step out from the shadows, he'd probably send people running away in fear. After all, he might've looked more or less like his old self, but his inky black body and glowing eyes weren't exactly good for first impressions. Because of this, he continued to hop from building to building, sending down blasts of green fire to melt the ice that spread along the ground. When the two boys' attacks drew too close to civilians, he'd warp around and drag the people to safety. Sometimes he'd try and hit the two boys down there too, but they kept slipping out of the way! If he could just get a bit closer, maybe he'd be able to hit them with a slow spell, but he'd have to be crafty.

Or I guess I could follow 'em, he thought to himself, bounding over to yet another rooftop. By the looks of it, they were headed straight into the Borough, right where Leon and his gang hung out half the time. And if they were going to Leon, then he had to see what was up! They wouldn't go after the head of the restoration crew unless they had some other motive.

With a goal in mind, Sora scurried behind the two boys, landing in the shadows behind one of the shops and swerving behind any people that crossed his path. He rushed up one step of steps, past a duck in a silly top hat and down another set, leaving streaks of darkness in his wake. Then, when he finally caught up with the two boys again, he leaped up onto one of the ledges and crouched down nice and low. It was hard to tell if the two of 'em even blinked when he passed by thanks to those hoods of theirs, but after taking a quick look around, the older boy stepped up to one of the houses and leaned back.

And after a moment, he threw back his hood, revealing… silver hair, turquoise eyes, and… Sora's eyes widened, and he slid back just a little bit. There was no way…! That boy couldn't be—

"Riku," said the other boy in a voice too close for comfort. "Are you sure about this?"

"Look, we've gone over this before." The Riku-lookalike shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. "And, trust me, I'm not happy about it, but what other choice to we have? We have to get back at him somehow."

"…Right." The other boy paused, reaching for his hood. He pulled it back after a second, revealing a head of spiky blond hair and an eerily familiar face. He looked kinda like…

No, maybe he was just seeing things, just like that lookalike. It had to be a coincidence, and there was no way that guy down there was really Riku! If he was, then where were Donald and Goofy? Where was Kairi? And why the heck would he start terrorizing the town when he'd worked so hard to protect the worlds? Slamming his fists against the pavement, Sora continued to watch and listen. There had to be more to it…

The lookalike peered over at the ledge for a moment, prompting Sora to sink into the ground. Squinting, the lookalike stepped away from the building and continued to stare for a few more seconds. When nothing caught his eye, he headed back towards his friend.

"Anyway," he said, "we have to cover all the bases, that way if that Fake shows up, he'll wish he'd never messed with us." He narrowed his eyes and slammed his fist against the house. "Especially you."

"It still doesn't feel right."The blond boy gazed down towards the ground. "Isn't there some other way?"

"I wish there was." The lookalike sighed, running a hand through his hair. "But, c'mon, Sora. Xemnas said we can't take him out yet, so this is our next best bet."

…Sora? Did he just call him Sora? But that wasn't right, either! Sure their faces were kinda similar, but that blond guy looked and sounded different from him! If anything, he sounded more like Ven, which made things even weirder. The more Sora thought about it, the more he cringed. Just listening to them go on about replicas, some guy named DiZ, and a twisted revenge scheme made him shake with frustration. It was tempting to jump down there and step in before things got outta hand, but what good would that do? He couldn't talk, he was still a Heartless, and there was obviously something fishy going on with those two!

But for the time being, he opted to crouch down once more, listening in as the two boys moved further down the street.

"Okay," said the lookalike, glancing around the area, "Leon's gotta be around here somewhere. If we can set him off, then we'll be good to go."

"And then we can get back to our mission, right?"

"Yeah, sure." The lookalike shrugged. "But it's not like there's a shortage of Heartless here. I bet we'll have this place cleared out in five minutes."

With that, the two boys continued on their way, rounding the corner and vanishing from sight. Though a part of Sora wanted to trail along and keep spying on them, he'd already heard enough to get a rough idea of what was going on… and it sure wasn't good. Narrowing his eyes, he set up and let out a huff. Those two jerks were onto something, and he still refused to believe Riku was one of 'em! No, that guy, whoever he was, had to be an impostor. And if Riku had an impostor going around and stirring trouble, then what if everybody else took it the wrong way? It could've been some kinda set-up! In fact, that's what it probably was.

Shutting his eyes, Sora shifted around so he stood hunched over on the ledge. Ven, did you get all that?

It only took a few seconds for his voice to speak up, loud and clear in the back of his mind. "…Yeah, I saw everything."

So, what d'you think it means? I mean, that one guy sounded just like…

"Me? He didn't just sound like me, Sora. That's what I don't get!"

Well, whoever they are, it sounds like they're planning something big.
He paused, scratching the back of his head. Almost like they're trying to set Riku up!

And if they were framing Riku for something bad, then how could Sora sit there and let it slide? Sure, he had no idea where Riku was, and sure, he was still afraid of getting spotted like this, but none of that mattered as much as his best friend! If he could just find a way to him and leave some kinda warning, then maybe they could put a stop to this mess before it got outta hand. He'd just have to follow his heart. Their connections would bring 'em back together in no time! If that meant hopping across worlds, then he'd take those chances.

And besides, he did miss his friends.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 2: An Impostor Strikes

Sure enough, DiZ wasn't joking about there being a town close by. Just a short walk past the eerie mansion and through the woods brought Riku and his friends into the middle of a bustling street. Trams zipped on by, carrying passengers through a series of tunnels. Excited kids in summer clothes shot down the street on skateboards, pulling off flips and spins as they hurried along. Massive buildings towered all around the group as they stepped further into the twilit town, climbing up a stairway onto a raised path as one town resident slapped a poster onto the side of a building and took off in the blink of an eye.

The sunset sky and the warm breeze combined with all the hustle and bustle gave this town an eerily pleasant atmosphere. Everything just seemed so warm, from the summer heat to the colors of the buildings and just the overall jolliness. A part of Riku almost wanted to take off and explore his new surroundings; after all, this place was no Traverse Town. Everything looked ten times bigger with all kinds of nooks and crannies just waiting to be uncovered. Without even realizing it, he started to smile—at least until the gravity of the situation came back to him.

Sure, this town looked pretty safe, but that didn't change the fact that the Heartless were on the move. Plus, that Organization DiZ went on about had to be out there somewhere. Shaking his head, he led his friends around the corner, where he stumbled upon kind of stocky kid with a shirt that said "DogStreet" and a black and white headband. After getting directions to 'Market Street,' the group continued on their way. Before long, they made it right into the heart of the marketplace, eying the shops lining a steep slope that reached far beyond Riku's line of sight. It was there that the group split up, with Donald and Goofy taking off in pursuit of supplies, while he and Kairi began their search for some proper equipment.

And boy did Kairi look eager to get started. With a tremendous grin, she strolled down the street with her head held high. Heck, she took off so fast that Riku had to pick up the pace in order to keep up. At that, she stifled a laugh, waiting just long enough for him to make it up to her. Luckily for Riku, it didn't take long, and within moments the two of them took off on their quest to pick up a decent sword.

Sure enough, it only took about a minute to actually locate the shop. The huge sign bearing a shield and staff was kind of a dead giveaway. Shaking his head, Riku led Kairi over to the little stand, where a portly man stood all alone, tapping his fingers on the counter. Once they drew close enough, he immediately perked up, dusted off his short-sleeved shirt, and gave them a great big smile.

"Well, hey!" said the man, quickly looking them over. "I don't think I've seen you kids before."

"That's because we're new." Riku shrugged, leaning over the counter. "Anyway, let's cut to the chase. What kind of weapons do you carry?"

"We've got the finest swords, shields, and staffs you'll ever feast your eyes on." Grinning, the man stepped to the side and gestured to a wide assortment of weapons from big, hulking blades to ornately crafted scepters with fancy jewel décor.

For a few short moments, Kairi skimmed over the different weapons, looking each one over very carefully. Seconds later, she pointed at a ridiculously large sword and laughed.

"Maybe I should go with this one." She straightened her stance, doing a mock swing with her training sword. "What do you think?"

"What do I think?" Riku put his hands on his hips and gave her a smug smirk. "I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself."

"I know that, silly." She shook her head and smiled, turning back towards the weaponry. "How about something light? I've only used a wooden sword, so I don't want to overdo it."

"Light, eh?" The shopkeeper stroked his chin, sliding over to the sword shelf. "Looking at you, your best bet's probably something speedy. A quick jab here and there, but nothing heavy-handed." He skimmed the shelves from top to bottom, squinted, and then let out a soft 'a-ha!' Moments later, he scooped up an armful of smaller swords and dropped them all on the counter. "Okay, kids. Take your pick!"

The pile consisted of a series of rapiers with handles of varying color and design, as well as your standard small swords, scimitars, and even a handful of daggers for good measure. Some bore plain, metallic handles, others were inscribed with swirled patterns or built with complex, sweeping hilts to protect the wielder's hand. They all looked pretty useful, at least more than a piece of wood, but for somebody like Kairi, they'd have to choose carefully.

Daggers were definitely light, but with such a short reach, she'd have to get in pretty close to do any real damage. Scimitars and small swords provided a better range, but were cutting and slicing really her style? Riku opened his mouth, ready to make a suggestion, but he never got a chance; Kairi was already one step ahead of him, reaching for a rapier with a silver cup hilt.

She let out a soft 'hmm', holding the weapon at an arm's length. After turning it over a few times, she placed it flat on the counter and nodded firmly. "I think I'll take this one."

It only cost them about 700 munny to pick up the sword. Overall, it wasn't a bad deal; apparently the fancier swords would've cost them a couple thousand munny apiece, which was no small change. After thanking the man, Riku and Kairi left the shop behind and strolled towards the center of town to wait for the others. Before long, they caught sight of Donald and Goofy clumsily stumbling their way with armfuls of items. On the way, Goofy nearly lost his footing, bumping into Donald's side. This sent the poor duck on a collision course with the ground, as potions, ethers, and other trinkets flew through the air. Despite carrying a heavy load, Goofy scrambled after these items, nearly losing his goods in the process.

Luckily, with a little assistance from Riku and Kairi, they managed to round up all their supplies without too much trouble. A few potion bottles might've cracked on the pavement, but that was hardly a big deal in the long run. Thus, once they squared away all the goods, Donald let out an airy sigh and crossed his arms.

"Well, we're all set," he said. "Let's hurry and get back to the ship."

"Aw, shucks, Donald." Goofy frowned, peering over the top of his potion pile. "Don't ya think we oughta take a look around? I haven't seen any Heartless creepin' around yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't here."

Riku shook his head, placing a hand on his hip. "Staying here would only slow us down. We don't even know what's happening in all the other worlds."

"Yeah, and you heard what that guy said." Donald's brow furrowed. "If he's telling the truth, then we're gonna have to keep our eyes peeled for that Organization and the Heartless."

"Not to mention Sora and your King." Crossing his arms, Riku gazed up at the sunset sky. "If this world was in any real danger, I think we'd know by now. And it's not like we can't come back later."

Stifling a laugh, Kairi leaned forward with her hands laced behind her back. "Just don't get too reckless, you guys. Otherwise Goofy and I might have to save you for once."

"Well, Donald does like gettin' into trouble!"

"You're one to talk!" Letting out a huff, Donald stomped off in the direction of the mansion. "Anyway, let's get movin'. If we hurry, we might have time to drop by the Coliseum for some training."

Once Donald put his mind to something, there was no turning back. Besides, he did have the right idea. Dropping by the Coliseum would give them at least some clue as to what was going on. So, with nothing else to lose besides a few more potions, the group took off down the street, following Donald's speedy lead. Before long, they'd be off on another journey, and they'd finally get to see the repercussions of their actions. With the door still open, they'd probably have a huge mess to clean up, but hopefully nothing too disastrous.

x.x.x

Hidden beneath a veil of branches, Sora peered into the distance, eyes locked on the creepy mansion down below. Surrounded by a tall brick wall and an iron gate, the musty old manor looked almost like something outta Halloween Town. Still, this had to be the place. That red ship resting in the front yard was a pretty big indicator, and he could've sworn he caught sight of his friends rushing through the gate and into the woods. So, if the ship was still there, then maybe he'd have time to warn them! …At least, once he figured out how to do it.

Before he'd left Hollow Bastion, Sora did swing by the castle library, where he managed to dig up a loose pen and a small pad of paper after a little searching here and there. His grip on the pen was kinda shaky, though, and he'd almost dropped the notepad on his way up to the treetop. Narrowing his eyes, Sora bit his lip and slowly brought the pen down to a blank page. Now all he had to do was come up with the right kinda phrasing.

He started scribbling away, shakily writing the following words: 'Go to'

But then he stopped, shook his head, and sighed. That just didn't sound urgent enough! And with a creepy lookalike and some guy with his name running around, this called for some serious action.

Trying once again, he wrote, 'Danger in Hollow Bastion. Hurry!' But he scratched it out and flipped to another page. That still wasn't good enough… Plus, his writing looked all smudgy and illegible. How was Riku gonna read that?

Okay, so maybe what he really had to do was take it nice and slow. Write with big letters that got the point across. Maybe add a few underlines and exclamation points for good measure. That'd get his attention for sure! So, taking a deep breath, Sora tried again, carefully etching out each letter one by one. Slowly but surely.

Eventually, he crafted the following message: 'Riku, get to Hollow Bastion. Now. Something bad's about to happen!'

Satisfied with his handiwork, Sora tucked the slip of paper into his pocket and flung himself out of the tree. He soared over the top of the wall, landing perfectly on his feet. His Heartless body definitely came in handy when it came to pulling off cool stunts like that. If the circumstances weren't so harsh, he would've loved to race Riku again. Right now, though, he was a Heartless on a mission. Briefly, he looked over his shoulder to make sure the coast was clear. With nobody around, he scurried up to the Gummi Ship and hopped right on top of it. Now he just had to lower the note… but then again, the wind could blow it away if he wasn't careful.

Instead of leaving it in front of the cockpit, Sora hopped back to the ground and crouched right in front of the side door. He slowly raised one hand to the handle, giving it a nice, firm pull. Sure enough, it opened with ease, allowing him to place the note halfway into the ship. Then, he pushed the door shut, keeping his message firmly in place. Plus, it poked out just enough to stand out. Now if Riku and the others wanted to leave, they'd definitely see his warning!

With that out of the way, Sora leaped over the wall and crawled back to the tree. He scampered up to the top once more, peering between the branches at the forest floor. Now it was all just a matter of waiting and hoping for the best. Surely Riku'd get there before things got outta hand! He was always one step ahead of everybody else.

x.x.x

If there was one thing Riku didn't expect to find by the Gummi Ship, it was a little slip of paper stuck between the door. As the others gathered behind him, he reached for the note and carefully pulled it away. He flipped it around, eying the inky black text on the page, and his eyes widened. It wasn't just the messy handwriting that got to him, but the actual contents of the message. Danger in Hollow Bastion? But didn't they seal the Keyhole back there? Of all the worlds to revisit, why that one? Something just didn't add up.

But there was no point in ignoring it, especially given the obvious attempt at sounding super urgent. Shaking his head, Riku passed the note to Donald and leaned against the ship.

"Well, you want to check out? It'll give us something to start with, anyway."

"Hmm…" Donald squinted, skimming over the message a few times. "I don't know, Riku. This note came outta nowhere…"

"So?" He shrugged, peering down at the messy writing. "It can't be any worse than DiZ. Plus, I only know one guy who'd write such a messy letter." It was a shot in the dark. They still didn't have a clear idea what'd happened to him, but if there was even a small chance that Sora wrote it, then that was all the more reason to get going, and fast.

Gasping, Kairi leaned over Donald's shoulder and gazed at the message. "Sora… You really think it's him?"

"Could be." With a smug grin, Riku scooped up the note and held it close. "And even if it's not, what have we got to lose? Leon's back there, so it's not like we'd be on our own."

At that, Donald brought a hand to his beak, pacing back and forth. He stopped just once to tap his foot, and then he let out a sigh. Moments later, he turned around and waddled up to the door.

"Well, I sure trust Leon more than DiZ. He'll probably know what to do."

Nothing else needed to be said. After Donald flung the door open, the whole group hopped into the ship and took to their seats. The engines roared wildly as they rocketed away from the ground and straight through the clouds. The once immense mansion grew smaller and smaller the further they flew, and before long they returned to space, swerving between meteors and diving through rings. With the press of a button, the Gummi Ship blasted off at lightning speed, leaving the stars all around as a pale blur. Even as the radar bleeped wildly with "heavy darkness readings," they pressed on until, seconds later, they stumbled upon the sight of a familiar castle.

Something did seem a little different about it, though. The castle itself looked completely intact, and the familiar floating stones of the Rising Falls still rested down below. However, for the first time, they circled around the castle itself and came across something entirely new. At the very bottom of the canyon, resting upon chunks of jagged, blue stone appeared a cluster of small buildings. It was hard to recognize them all from a distance, but given the sheer number of them among the wreckage, they must've been the remains of a town. What's more, clouds of darkness erupted from nearby fissures and several Wyverns soared right past the ship.

Despite the fact that they'd sealed the Keyhole, they really hadn't saved the world from darkness. Not if Heartless still lurked all around them and this poor little town sat in tatters. Rather than go back to the castle, Donald steered the ship down towards the town itself, hovering over rooftops and providing a closer look at the chaos down below. While some homes and businesses stood perfectly intact and at least a few residents passed through the messy streets, that didn't change the dismal conditions all around them. Debris piled up in the street corners, and heaps of wood and bricks stood where there might've been buildings before.

And to think people actually lived in a place like this. No wonder Leon and the others decided to come back! Even the note made sense now, looking at the dreadful conditions down below. Riku had to look away from the windows after a while, because seeing boarded up rooftops, chunks of broken concrete, and more and more Wyverns only made his heart sink. Just how much of this was a result of his actions? Were the Heartless there before, or did the door to darkness lead the way? It was hard not to fret at a time like this, but luckily he wouldn't get the chance. Before long, the ship came to a stop, landing near the stairs of a raised walkway. At that point, Donald silently pushed the doors open; it was time to take a closer look.

As Riku stepped out and peered over the edge, he winced. Cracks lined the ground below, some of the shops were completely boarded up, and for some reason, the townspeople scattered the moment he took to the steps. But it didn't make sense. What were they afraid of? He'd only just arrived, and the functioning shops slammed their windows shut, groups of kids darted down the street, and a trio of Moogles squeaked and took off in different directions. It was almost as if the people of this town didn't want them here. But why?

"I wonder what happened here," said Kairi, placing her hand on Riku's shoulder. "I feel like we're missing something."

"Well, you're not the only one." Donald groaned, stomping down the steps. "It's not like we're Heartless, so why did they run? We aren't here to cause trouble."

Goofy gulped, and he leaned over the edge of the walkway. "Maybe we oughta start lookin' for Leon! He might know what's goin' on."

"If he'll even talk to us." Riku's body grew tense, and he clenched his fists. "If complete strangers are afraid of us, what does that say about our friends? For all we know, they could've heard what happened with Kingdom Hearts. Maybe that's why they can't stand us."

"Riku, don't think that way." Kairi frowned, taking hold of his arm. "We can't jump to conclusions yet. Not when we just got here."

"I know that, really." He sighed, shaking his head. "But we can't ignore the possibility, just in case."

"Well, this is a big town." Donald looked back and forth as he reached the bottom step. "If we're gonna find him, then we'd better keep our eyes out for anything suspicious."

Following Donald's lead, Riku and the others strolled through the now empty marketplace, eying a few strange scorch marks on the surfaces of buildings, puddles here and there, and dents that could only have been caused by a blunt weapon. Come to think of it, some of the dents did look almost key-shaped, but it had to be a coincidence. After all, it wasn't like there were any other Keybearers around these days. Maybe was just thinking too hard, like Kairi said. They'd find out the truth soon enough.

All they had to do was climb up another flight of stairs and follow along the stony path before they reached their next destination. More and more houses filled the street, each in horrid condition. Almost all of the rooftops contained gaping holes, just barely covered by a few boards. These same boards covered up dents and holes along the sides of these houses, and cracks lined many of the windows. Near these houses stood a raised platform, which caught Riku's eye from the get-go. And why? Because, in the blink of an eye, dozens of shadowy figures emerged from the ground, twitching their enormous claws and staring down at the group with their beady little eyes. As these Neoshadows leaped down below, the Keyblade flared to life in his hand.

Of course they'd bump into these guys again. Just seeing them made Riku sneer. Luckily, they all had weapons now. While he rushed straight into the fray, Donald and Goofy slid to his sides. Kairi, all the while, reached for her sword and leaped back, gaining some distance. Briefly, Riku stopped to look at her, giving a silent nod. This would be her first real fight, and these guys weren't exactly easy targets. She'd have to be extra careful to avoid being sliced up by their killer claws, but if she could handle a whole swarm of them back when they were dealing with Ansem, she'd probably be okay. Hopefully, anyway. But with the Neoshadows lunging at them from all directions, there was no time to waste. It was time to leap back into action for the first time since Ansem's defeat.

For Riku, Donald, and Goofy, fighting Heartless was all second nature. They slipped between claw swipes, slamming their enemies in the gut. Their blows sent Heartless flying into walls and rooftops, crashing and slamming into their surroundings. Those that sank into the ground kept the trio on guard, and they kept their eyes on their flattened forms until those pests finally emerged. All the while, Kairi stayed near the back, launching constant blasts of flames that left black marks all over the ground. She didn't just rely on spells, of course; as two of the Heartless drew close, she took a few jabs at them before rolling to the side. She fumbled a little bit, and one of them nailed her from behind, but in spite of the pain, she kept on fighting. At least she was giving it her all.

As the fight went on, a few strange projections appeared here and there, sending Heartless soaring through the air. They only appeared for a few seconds at a time, and many of the projections fizzled out before they could hit their targets. Still, they didn't really need the extra help. With their combined strength, the group plowed straight through the mob, rushing around the corner and into the center of the Borough. Among the scattered houses and debris, a squad of Wyverns swooped down and kicked with their powerful feet, while Defenders lumbered around and launched spells from their shields.

The group split up to cover more ground, with Goofy rushing at the Defenders while Donald sent the Wyverns down to the ground with a combo of gravity and thunder magic. This left them wide open to attacks from Riku and Kairi, who never stayed near her enemies for too long after dealing her hits. She really was playing it safe with her swordplay, but better safe than sorry. Whenever she slipped away, Riku swiftly took her place and finished the job. Add the occasional appearance of those light pillars, and it wasn't long before each and every Heartless fizzled away, leaving the streets completely barren.

But before Riku and his friends could even regroup, they overheard the sound of heavy footsteps. Lowering his weapon, Riku took a quick look around. The source of those footsteps soon became crystal clear; from the lion-shaped medallion to his firm expression, Leon was sure hard to miss. And though the Heartless were gone, leaving only friends in their place, he scowled at the sight of them and held his Gunblade firmly in hand. When he finally reached the group, Leon looked Riku straight in the eye and pointed his blade at his chest.

"You've got a lot of nerve coming back here," he said. "I thought I told you to get lost."

Get lost? Since when? Riku hadn't even seen Leon since they left the Keyhole behind, and back then they were still on good terms. No, there had to be something more to his words. Something he just wasn't getting.

"I don't know what you're talking about." He raised his free hand, giving it a light flick. "And what's with the sour mood?"

"You should already know that, Riku." Leon's tone grew sharper with each word, and he tightened his grip on the Gunblade. "I told you not to lose sight of what's important, and here you are, terrorizing my home. I still can't believe it."

"But Riku would never do somethin' like that!" Goofy narrowed his eyes, holding out his shield. "We came here 'cause we heard somethin' bad was gonna happen, not to hurt anybody."

"Then explain why he attacked us earlier." Leon shook his head, resting his weapon against his shoulder. "I can't think of anyone else with a Keyblade or his face."

"My face?" Riku's eyes widened, and he took a step closer to Leon. "Hold it. Just what happened earlier? I want to know everything."

"You really don't know?" Leon raised a brow, heaving a soft sigh. "I remember seeing you and another boy disrupting the peace. You damaged property, nearly hurt innocent kids, and then you tried to take me out."

…No, there had to be more to it. After all, Riku couldn't be in two places at once, and he'd definitely remember stirring trouble with some other kid. It just felt too weird. What could possibly explain this strange lookalike? Was there really an impostor trying to frame him? Crossing his arms, he tried to work out the logistics in the back of his mind, but nothing came of it. Unless there was magic involved, it just seemed impossible.

As Riku continued to waffle over Leon's words, Kairi stepped forward. With her brows knit together and a frown on her face, she moved past the others, standing face-to-face with Leon himself.

"Please," she said, sheathing her sword, "you have to believe us. I've been with Riku the whole time, and he hasn't hurt anyone except Ansem."

For a moment, Leon loosened his grip on the Gunblade, eyes widening at Kairi's words. His frown softened, and he looked off at one of the buildings, bringing a hand to his face. Shoulders sagging, he turned back around and gave a slow nod. With that, he lowered his weapon and held up his hand in defeat.

"I knew something was off about him." He shook his head, smiling weakly. "The Riku I saw earlier wore a black coat, and he was a little too reckless."

"Oh yeah?" Just like that, Riku snapped out of his daze, leaning towards Leon with a broad grin. "Then maybe I should show that poser a thing or two."

Although… a black coat? The first thing that crossed his mind was that strange man he fought at the castle. That same creep wore a black coat and kept his face hidden beneath a hood. Then, when he left, he dropped that Ansem report about the Nobodies. Combine that with DiZ's description of the so-called Organization, and that impostor's identity became even more suspicious. If Nobodies were created from empty shells, then there was no way he could be Riku's Nobody, but that didn't mean he wasn't aligned with them. If nothing else, it was worth looking into. Even Donald and Goofy started whispering to each other about it, while Kairi slid closer and joined the huddle. All the while, Leon stood perfectly still, eyes locked on Riku.

"I wouldn't get ahead of myself if I were you." His eyes narrowed, and he folded his arms. "That imposter, whoever he was, could wield a Keyblade just like you, and he was no pushover. It was almost like I was fighting you."

"So?" Riku shrugged. "That's not going to stop me, Leon. Especially if he's going around and setting me up."

"A set-up…" Shutting his eyes, Leon nodded. "It wouldn't surprise me, but that still doesn't explain why he has a Keyblade."

"Well, we could always look around." Kairi beamed, stepping away from the others. "If we meet him ourselves, maybe we can get to the bottom of this."

"If you hurry, you still might be able to catch him." Leon stepped past the large house behind him, stopping near a small set of steps. "I saw him run off towards the Bailey. If you pass through the tunnel, it'll lead you straight to it."

Riku didn't even bother to warn the others. With a clear destination in sight, he charged on ahead, passing a few more buildings until he encountered a series of ledges reaching up to a stony bridge. Near those ledges sat a staircase which probably led to the same destination, but why take the easy route? He could easily jump from ledge to ledge, getting right up to the tunnel with less hassle. In fact, that's just what he did. All it took was a single jump to reach the top of the first ledge. After pulling himself up, he bounded to the next ledge, and the next. In a matter of seconds, he reached the bridge itself, catching a quick glimpse at some piles of metal, wood, and stone, along with a battered up fence right behind the bridge.

Donald and Goofy hopped a few times, trying to get to the ledges themselves. After failing their first few attempts, Goofy hoisted Donald up and carefully followed him along. Kairi, on the other hand, giggled and took the easy way up, marching up the stairs and scurrying up to Riku and the tunnel. When Donald and Goofy finally made it to the top, the group pressed on, slipping through the dark and… messy tunnel. Along the way, they kept their eyes peeled for stray pieces of concrete. A few chunks lined their path, and the tunnel walls bore several large claw marks. That imposter must've had a run-in with some Heartless on his way through.

"Ya know," said Goofy, stopping near the tunnel's exit, "I wonder who this feller really is. Seems kinda weird that he'd wanna frame ya, Riku."

"There must be a reason, though." Riku winced, heading towards an open window off to the side. He took a short moment to gaze into the vast, blue canyon below, shuddering at the pulsating black mass in the distance. Rather than dwell on it, though, he turned his attention back to his friends and leaned against the wall. "Anyway, we don't even know who this guy is yet."

"Well, whoever he is, I bet he's nothing but trouble." Donald groaned, hopping over a chunk of stone. "Seems like we're bumping into a lot of trouble today."

"I know what you mean. There's something wrong about all of this." With a somber expression, Kairi stepped past the rubble and crouched near a broken stairway. There she remained for a few short moments, gazing down at the piles of concrete and pipes down below. Seconds later, she whipped back around and mustered up a great big grin. "But I think trouble's second nature to us now "

"Well, I guess you're right." Donald sighed, sliding right up to the ledge. "But we still oughta be careful. Especially if—"

"Wait!" Kairi gasped. "Look over there!"

Was something going on down there? Taking a deep breath, Riku jolted away from the window and skid to a stop right behind his friends. He leaned over the battered up stairs, nearly slipping over the edge once he caught sight of a shady figure trudging along. After all, a boy in black was hard to miss among the wreckage, and by the looks of it, he was heading straight out of the Bailey, passing rusty pipes as he slipped off in the castle's direction. Was this the impostor Leon talked about before? If there was even a small chance, they couldn't afford to hang back and let him get away! Thus, Riku hurled himself off of the ledge, forcing his friends to scramble behind him.

The boy came to an immediate halt once they hit the ground, clenching his fists and jerking forward. For the moment, he said nothing and stood stiffly along the path. It was like he'd suddenly turned into a statue. The guy didn't even bother to look at them as they slowly approached.

Well, Riku wouldn't have any of that. Scowling, he called for his weapon and pointed it straight at the boy. "You're the imposter, aren't you?"

"Impostor?" The boy gave the group a quick glance, and he shook his head. "You're the imposter."

His voice didn't sound familiar, and upon closer inspection, he was kind of on the short side. Given his height and scrawny build, the guy had to at least be a year younger than Riku. That pretty much ruled him out as the impostor on the spot. However, that didn't change a thing; Leon mentioned another boy hanging with that lookalike. And since this kid wore the same black coat, that made him a prime suspect. What didn't add up was the fact that he called Riku the impostor.

"Are you kidding?" he said with a sneer. "I'm not the one stirring up trouble."

The boy shook his head. "You can't fool me, replica. I know who you really are."

"Replica?" Riku's eyes widened, and he slashed his Keyblade through the air. "Is this supposed be a joke?"

"Yeah, what's the big idea?" Donald stomped right up to the boy, giving him a sharp glare. "And who are you?"

"So he got to you, too." The boy gazed down at Donald, shaking his head. "Riku's not gonna like this…"

"Of course I don't like it." Riku let out a huff. "Somebody's going around and trashing my name!"

"Stop pretending." Tightening his fists, the boy looked straight at Riku, and his tone sharpened. "Riku's my best friend, and you're not him."

Best… friend? What was that supposed to mean? Riku's best friend was Sora, and…

No! Could it be?

His grip on the Keyblade wavered, and he lowered it to his side. For a few short moments, he stared at the boy with his eyes wide, and his jaw practically fell to the floor. This guy didn't sound a thing like Sora. Plus, they still hadn't seen his face. The only thing that really matched up was his height and maybe the way he spoke. Even then, they couldn't jump to conclusions. They just couldn't! This had to be a joke. A trick. Some kind of low blow meant to throw him off guard. This guy, whoever he really was, couldn't be trusted. He was probably just another enemy, just another one of the Organization's flunkies.

Yet, despite all this, Kairi crept up to him, holding her hands close to her heart. "Wait, I don't understand. Are you—"

Flinging back his hood, the boy finally revealed his face. Other than his blue eyes, nothing else really screamed 'Sora'. His hair, while spiky, had a completely different shape. Plus, it was blonde, not brown. Sure, his face did seem a little similar, but it had to be a coincidence. Just another trick and nothing more.

…Or was it?

When Kairi came close enough, the boy held out his arm, and a trail of black smoke formed wrapped its way around his hand. Within moments, a weapon materialized in his grasp. Everything from the eye on the hilt to the wing-shaped blade looked too close for comfort. Seeing this sword, Riku slid back and cringed. Kairi, too, stopped dead in her tracks, while Donald and Goofy let out a sharp gasp and frantically looked from the boy, back to Riku, and then to the sword.

This wasn't Sora, this wasn't Sora, it couldn't be Sora, there was just no way…! Riku had to keep convincing himself of this the longer he stared. The sword didn't change. It continued to look just like Sora's old weapon, before he got the Dark Keyblade from Ansem and made his sacrifice. That, combined with the boy's accusation left him with a sick, stabbing sensation in his heart. What was this supposed to mean? What was he supposed to think or feel?

There was no time to dwell on it. Frowning faintly, the boy stepped forward, keeping his weapon at the ready.

"I can't let you go any further," he said. "You should turn back now, while you still have the chance."

"Turn back?" Riku let out a dry laugh, keeping his eyes on the boy. "I hate to break it to you, but we're not going to back down. Isn't that right, guys?"

"We're with ya all the way, pal!"

When he looked over his shoulder, Riku caught sight of the others standing close behind. They all drew their weapons within seconds. Even Kairi slid back and unsheathed her sword. It was all the confirmation he needed. It didn't matter what this guy said about replicas. If he was the only roadblock between them and the impostor, they'd just have to knock him down. Maybe they could force some answers out of him for good measure.

The boy continued to frown as he watched the group slip into fighting positions. He looked at his sword for a moment before he flung his other hand out to the side. Darkness whirled around his palm, stretching out into the shape of yet another blade. Just like the first, it resembled a bat's wing, and that same, eerie eye rested on the handle. Two swords identical to Sora's… Just what was this guy capable of, anyway? While a million questions flooded Riku's mind, he pushed himself forward, holding tightly onto the Keyblade as the boy leaned forward and charged!

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 3: The Other Side

That boy moved like lightning, dashing around the area whenever the group drew too close. He unleashed rapid slashes in quick succession, giving his enemies little time to strike back. When spells came flying his way, he ducked, rolled, and deflected the attacks before spinning around and striking back. When Goofy looped around and swung his shield, the boy slid behind him and struck at his back. And when Kairi launched a few bursts of flame, he parried with one sword and pushed her aside with the other. It was at that moment that Riku bolted over to him, clutching his Keyblade tightly in hand. He wasn't about to let that guy lay a finger on her, especially when she was so outmatched. Gritting his teeth, he drew back his weapon and prepared to strike, prompting the boy to whirl around and take a huge lunge.

As the boy threw himself forward, performing a speedy combo, Riku drove the Keyblade against the tip of his swords, circling back and striking his spine. The boy tumbled forward, but soon spun back around, slashing across Riku's chest. Flames lit up the back of his coat, and the boy stopped just long enough roll along the pavement. Looking over his shoulder, Riku caught a quick glimpse of Kairi, who narrowed her eyes and hurried right over to him. At that point, the flames faded, and the boy threw himself back on his feet. But when he tried to take another stab at hitting Riku, he came face to face with Kairi instead, and she spread out her arms, becoming a road block for his attack plan. It was a gutsy move, given the circumstances, but once the boy neared her, he skidded to a halt and lowered his swords.

"Hey, get outta the way," he said, brow furrowed.

"No. You can't expect us to abandon him." She shook her head, shooting Riku a quick glance. "Riku's our friend. If you want to get to him, you'll have to go through all of us."

"Yeah, and we're not gonna make it easy!" Stomping his foot, Donald launched a column of lightning straight at the boy's back.

The attack hit him at full force, making him jerk forward as he let out a sharp groan. Kairi put a hand on her hip, shooting Donald a scowl, while the boy took a moment to catch his breath. A part of Riku wanted to dive right in and counterattack, but for that brief instant he did nothing. In retrospect, maybe he should've, because the boy swiftly dashed over at Donald and threw him against the wall with one swipe of his sword. Without even skipping a beat, Goofy zipped right over to him, grabbed onto his hand, and pulled him back onto his webbed feet. The boy didn't make any sudden moves and instead turned his gaze towards Donald and Goofy, frowning faintly. For the next few moments, everyone remained still, except for Donald, who grumbled and stomped with his face bright red.

The boy took a moment to examine the group. Lifting one of his swords, he pointed at Riku and said, "Why are you guys helping the replica?"

"Gawrsh, we're helpin' Riku because we care about him!" Goofy scratched his head, tilting it to the side "But we've never heard anything about replicas before."

"They're fakes that DiZ made." The boy shook his head, and his gaze shifted towards Riku. Was he seriously implying that he was a fake?

"What does DiZ have to do with this?" Riku stomped forward, grabbing the boy's shoulder and turning him around. "You're not making any sense."

He glanced at Riku's hand, and his brows quirked. It only lasted about a second, before he lifted his head and looked Riku in the eye. "He created you."

"Created me? Are you…" Riku paused, slapping his palm against his face. "No way. You can't be serious about this."

First he acted like he was Riku's best friend, then he drew those swords, and now he flat-out called Riku a fake, and created by DiZ, no less. How could he even jump to such a stupid conclusion? Was he seriously that dense?

The boy didn't say another word. Instead, he arched his back and raised his swords once again. Though he gazed intently at Riku, his weapons shook a little in his grasp, and his posture grew stiff. He took a few heavy breaths, and for a split second, it almost looked like this guy was actually afraid of fighting.

But he couldn't afford to dwell on it. Instead, Riku charged once again, but before he could land a hit, he felt the sharp edge of a blade drag against his side. The blow sent him stumbling away from the boy, grasping at the wound. In the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the boy darting right up to him again. Ignoring his pain, Riku hurled the Keyblade right into that boy's chest, sending him on a collision course with a giant slab of stone. With the path clear, Kairi rushed to his side, offering a potion with a weak smile. He took it right away, inhaling the whole thing in a single gulp, and when that jerk sluggishly stood up again, he threw himself in front of her. With the way things were going, Riku'd have to step up his game in order to keep her safe. This was not the kind of fight to go into with just a week of training.

"Kairi, stay back." He clenched his fists, glaring at the boy as he dashed in their direction. "I don't want you getting caught up in this."

"Don't be so stubborn." Kairi shook her head, taking hold of his arm."I don't want you getting hurt either, you know."

"Well, yeah, but—" Riku fumbled over his words, just trying to find a good excuse. All the while, the boy rapidly drew closer. Was this ever gonna end?

Ice crystals shot through the air, striking the boy in the chest. Goofy scurried behind him, slamming his shield into his side. As Riku and Kairi hurried over, the boy launched a circle of pitch-black pillars that spread throughout the area. The attack threw them against piles of stone and metal, but they sprung back into action, circling all around the boy, giving him little room to run. Once again, he unleashed those pillars, but that trick wasn't gonna work twice. Holding out the Keyblade, Riku deflected one pillar and slipped past another, throwing himself directly at the boy with a series of rapid dashes.

By the time he finished his attack, the boy lay flat on his back, shakily grasping at his swords. With a broad swing of his Keyblade, Riku knocked the weapons aside and loomed over the boy as he pushed himself into a sitting position. Riku opened his mouth, ready to speak, but he never got the chance. His friends called out his name, warning him to look out, but before he could even blink, he found himself crashing face-first into the wall; a heavy, metallic object struck him straight in the back, catching him completely off guard.

Oh, but that wasn't all. As Riku slowly turned around, his eyes widened, and he stumbled back. Another cloaked figure now stood before him, but this time there was no mistaking his identity. That smug smirk, that silver hair… That Keyblade! Everything about him matched up perfectly. No wonder Leon was suspicious!

The lookalike placed a hand on his hip and leaned forward. It was a gesture way too close for comfort. And when he spoke, it was like Riku'd been slapped in the face. Even his voice matched up.

"I was afraid you weren't gonna show, Fake," said the lookalike, trudging right up to him. "Glad to see I was mistaken."

"Fake?" Riku winced, clutching onto his chest. "If you ask me, you're the fake around here!"

"Oh, so that's how you're gonna play it, huh?" The lookalike narrowed his eyes and stopped dead in his tracks. "You really think you can pull this off. Stealing my life away from me."

Just a few feet away, Donald and Goofy exchanged puzzled glances. Kairi watched the lookalike warily, clutching onto her necklace, while the blond boy got back on his feet and limped closer to his companion. The whole time, Riku stayed silent, just trying to make sense of that lookalike's words. Stealing his life? What was that supposed to mean? Did this guy seriously think he was the real thing? First the blond boy accused Riku of being a replica, now this the impostor implied the exact same thing. The more they spoke, the more it seemed like something was seriously wrong with their heads. It was almost sickening to watch.

"Who are you really?" Riku scowled. "And just why are you messing around with this place?"

"Messing around? Seriously?" The lookalike raised a brow and snorted. "Sure, call it that if you want, Fake. I'm surprised you haven't put two and two together yet."

"Well, it's hard when you guys are talkin' like you're crazy." Donald huffed, narrowing his eyes as he shook one fist in the air. "And quit callin' him a fake! It's not gonna work."

"Donald…" The lookalike paused, gazing down at the ground. "What have they done to you?"

"Hey, nobody's done anything to—"

"Wait a second," said Goofy, tilting his head. "I'm startin' to get the feeling this feller really thinks he is Riku."

"You too, Goofy?" Shutting his eyes, the lookalike sighed. "I can't believe this…"

Slowly, Kairi approached the lookalike, watching him with a close eye. However, once she came a few feet from him, he raised his Keyblade and scowled.

"And you…" He groaned. "You must be his little accomplice."

"Riku, wait." The blond boy shot a quick look at Kairi, and his brows knit together. "Let's leave her outta this."

"Are you kidding, Sora?" The lookalike raised a brow, pointing at her with his free hand. "If she's with the Fake, then she's our enemy. We can't hold back!"

… Sora. It was like that impostor had said the magic word. Riku let out a sharp gasp, stumbling back with his eyes wide, while his mouth hung open. Sure he'd had a few suspicions already. The swords, him claiming to be his best friend… it did match up, but his memories. His attitude. The fact that he sided with that impostor… Sora would never do something like that by choice! Not unless something had gone horribly wrong. Not unless he'd been brainwashed or had no other options! But here he was, acting like that lookalike was the real deal. What kind of sick, twisted joke was this, anyway?

He drew a sharp breath, shutting his eyes tightly and averting his gaze. All the while, he heard the sound of soft footsteps pass him by.

"Sora?" Kairi turned her attention to the blond boy, bringing a hand to her chest. Her other hand held tightly onto her sword. "Is it really you?"

The blond boy nodded, sliding close to his 'friend'. Was he really supposed to believe this was Sora? Riku bit his lip, trembling in place. It was like he'd just been stabbed in the heart, watching this mockery of his best friend stand by that impostor's side. That same impostor continued to point his Keyblade at Kairi's chest, as if she was some kind of target! Could 'Sora' not see how twisted this creep really was? He might've had the looks, the voice, and even a Keyblade, but his ruthless behavior made him no better than the Heartless. If anything, this guy was even worse, since he could actually think and feel, and he still went out of his way to attack Hollow Bastion and threaten his friends.

Something had to be done. If this guy wanted a fight, then a fight he'd get. Biting his lip so hard it stung, Riku raised his weapon and whipped around, pulling Kairi back while he gave that impostor a fiery glare. Donald and Goofy narrowed their eyes, nodding at one another before they began a mad dash towards the lookalike and his friend. Unfortunately, before they could even budge, the lookalike threw his hand forward, and a bright flash filled the area, prompting Riku to shield his eyes with his arm. Then, when the flash subsided, he heard a loud CRASH! Donald and Goofy stumbled backwards, landing flat on their rumps, but that didn't stop them. Within seconds they were back on their feet, throwing themselves forward once again, only to bounce back and slam right into one of the ledges.

So that lookalike could create barriers, huh? And now Donald and Goofy were stuck on the other side, pounding their fists, slamming themselves, and hammering their weapons against it with all their might. But no matter how hard they tried, that wall just didn't budge. They were trapped in a corner, unable to help. Riku and Kairi would have to face these guys alone.

The lookalike's lips curled into a twisted smirk, and he leaned right into Riku's personal space. "Sorry, Fake, but four against two just isn't fair." He chuckled, giving him a sharp shove backwards. "Besides, I don't want to hurt my friends. Just you and your little lackey."

"I'm not his lackey," said Kairi. Her brows furrowed, and she pressed her lips together. "I'm his friend."

"So what?" He rolled his eyes. "The point is, you're on his side. That's all that matters to me."

This was getting ridiculous. At this rate, they'd never get anything done. All that guy did was go on and on about his petty grudges. Because of it, they'd accomplished nothing but pointless arguing. It was obvious that these guys weren't gonna change their minds, so why keep slowing things down? He didn't want Kairi to get roughed up, but at this point, they'd end up fighting no matter what. So why put it off any longer? He'd just have to keep them busy the whole time.

"You know what?" Riku flicked his wrist, propping the Keyblade against his shoulder. "This is really getting old. If you want a fight, then why don't you shut up and do something about it?"

He didn't say a word. Instead, the lookalike crouched down, pulled back his weapon, and lunged straight at Riku's chest. The blonde boy, all the while, looped around and struck at his back. They didn't even give him a chance to strike. Within moments, he became their personal punching bag, knocked around by the swing of their weapons, crying out as the swords sliced his skin and the Keyblade slammed into his gut. It left him completely winded as he collapsed on the ground, breathing heavily while his heart throbbed. The two of them charged, readying another strike. If he didn't move fast, he'd take the full brunt of their attacks.

He was about to get up when he caught sight of Kairi hurrying over to him. She crouched down, offering him yet another potion before she slid back and flung spell after spell at their attackers. Unfortunately, the two weaved their way between the spells, dodging each and every one. Not only that, but they picked up the pace, changing directions towards Kairi instead. Would they seriously make such a low blow? Biting his lip, Riku flung himself back to his feet and rushed on ahead, wildly swinging his Keyblade with each step. When he neared the duo, he spun around, knocking them back. The two swiftly retaliated, however, by striking at him from both sides.

Rolling off to the side, Riku flung his Keyblade straight at the lookalike's back, watching it spiral through the air and nail him in the gut. It hit him a second time on the way back and left the lookalike flat on the ground. At that moment, Kairi circled around the area and hurled a blast of flames at his chest. The blonde boy gasped, staring wide-eyed at her before he performed a swift dash in her direction. Unfortunately, he didn't get a chance to strike. A powerful bolt shot down from above, knocking him face-first into one of the walls. A little thundaga went a long way, and he didn't even see it coming. Shaking his head, Riku knocked him aside with one swing of his weapon. For a moment, he lay perfectly still.

"Sora!"

The lookalike threw himself back on his feet, swiping his Keyblade through the air. Ice crystals gathered and shot forward like arrows, prompting Riku to lunge to the side. Though Kairi fired another spell at the impostor's chest, a whirling wind immediately doused the flames. To make matters worse, that phony dashed in Riku's direction, and though he slipped out of the way, the lookalike whirled around and performed another dash. And another! It was a move Riku knew like the back of his hand, Sonic Blade. And if that's how he was gonna play it…

Riku slid to a stop, performing a horizontal slash that stopped the lookalike in his tracks. Stumbling back, he twirled around, aiming at Riku's chest, but this time he got outta the way, hammering him from the side. In the corner of his eye, Riku caught sight of Kairi and the blonde boy crossing blades. Though she managed a few swift jabs, one swing from his sword threw her back against the barrier. Donald and Goofy continued to pound on the wall, but it still didn't change a thing. They were stuck playing spectators while this hectic battle continued. Who knew when it would come to an end?

It really just became a matter of hitting fast and hitting hard. With Kairi's inexperience, Riku had to keep the two at bay, throwing himself into their paths almost constantly. Sometimes they'd wipe the floor with him by tag-teaming and nailing him from the sides. Their combination of swords and Keyblade definitely made for a rough and painful match, especially without Donald and Goofy to back him up. His cure spells and Kairi's potion stock at least allowed him to keep up a good fight, swinging, slashing, and striking at the duo whenever he got the chance.

His heart raced, and sweat trickled down his cheeks. His breathing grew heavy with each passing minute, and his leg muscles soon began to ache. Still, he kept moving. The lookalike and… Sora stayed on the offensive, so why back down? At least they started to slow down a little, and that impostor looked just as battered and bruised as he did. Maybe if he dragged it out long enough, they'd both run out of steam. Then maybe he could get some real answers out of them.

Reeling back, he gulped down yet another potion and launched another Strike Raid. The Keyblade whirled against the two boys' chests, sending them down to the ground. Despite his aching legs, Riku sprinted over to them, leaped into the air, and drove his weapon into the ground. A flurry of flames charred the front of their coats, while Riku performed a furious series of slashes. The two boys gasped and groaned, rolling out of his path before he could make his final hit. They stood off to the side for a moment, hunched over and panting. However, the lookalike slowly straightened up a bit and tossed his weapon at Riku once more.

But just one blocking maneuver sent the impostor's Keyblade right back at him. The blow knocked him down to his knees, and there he remained for a few short moments, completely silent. The blond boy crouched down right next to him, handing him a potion, but he knocked it aside with the flick of his hand. His entire face scrunched up into a terrible grimace, and he gnashed his teeth. Slamming one fist on the ground, the lookalike pushed himself back up and dismissed his Keyblade in an abrupt flash of light. He slowly shook his head and held his hands in the air. Was he finally calling it quits?

"Not bad for a Fake," he said, "but don't think this is over." He pointed his finger at Riku's chest, mustering up a lopsided smirk. "Next time we fight, I won't hold back."

"Next time?" Riku let out an airy laugh, swiping his hand through the air. "So you're a coward, huh?"

"Not a chance." He shook his head, giving a light shrug. "If I wanted to, I could take you out right now, but where's the fun in that? It's just too soon."

The blond boy blinked. "But didn't the Superior—"

The lookalike gave him a pointed look, placing his hands on his hips. That single gesture made him stop mid-sentence, and he gazed down at the ground. Shaking his head, the lookalike turned away and held out his palm. Dark tendrils rose up from the shadows, twisting and twirling as the darkness stretched high above the ground. Both he and his friend then proceeded to trudge towards the corridor without a word.

But Riku wasn't finished yet. Clenching his fists, he jerked forward, stomping right after the lookalike and his friend. He came close to the duo before the lookalike whirled around, drawing his Keyblade and pointing it at Riku's chest.

"Don't even try it." He scowled. "Or I might change my mind and finish you on the spot."

"Riku, come on." Kairi placed a hand on his shoulder, slowly shaking her head. "If you keep going, you'll wear yourself out."

He couldn't deny that. His whole body ached from all that fighting. His heart still raced, his chest sagged, and he could still feel sweat coursing down his skin. But how could they let him get away? This lookalike attacked Hollow Bastion and ruined his good name. What if he went after more worlds and did the exact same thing? Plus, that blonde boy… what if he really was Sora? If there was even the slightest chance, then they couldn't let him slip from their grasp! Sure his memories didn't match up and he did look a little different, but those swords… They had to be—

"I think your lackey's onto something, Fake." The lookalike snickered, turning his back on the two of them. "Don't work yourself too hard, or you'll probably break. And I don't want things to be too easy."

At that lookalike's words, Riku groaned, fighting back the urge to snap back. The blonde boy gave him one last look before, frowning faintly, he stepped into the corridor. Before following his friend, the lookalike snapped his fingers, causing Donald and Goofy to tumble down to the ground. With the barrier gone, he continued on his way, sinking into the darkness, which soon collapsed into nothing but shadows.

Silence filled the Bailey, save for a bit of grumbling on Donald's part. It took a few moments for everyone to regroup after that crazy encounter, but after a bit of healing magic, Riku and Kairi joined the others near the lowest ledge.

"Gawrsh," said Goofy, "are you okay? Those fellers sure put up a good fight."

"Good?" Donald huffed, rolling his eyes. "You mean cheap! Did you see the way they kept ganging up on them?"

"But don't we do that sometimes?"

"That's different!"

There they went again, bickering over something silly. Heaving a heavy sigh, Riku leaned back against the ledge and shrugged. "Don't worry about me. I've been through worse scraps than that, but…" He turned his attention to Kairi, a frown forming on his face. "Kairi, I'm sorry. If I'd have known they'd drag you into this, I would've at least shown you how to cast cure."

"It's okay." She shook her head, placing her hands on her hips. "I'll just have to train harder next time, so I don't get in the way."

"Well, I hope we'll have time for it." Donald gazed at the wall where the corridor once stood, bringing a hand to his beak. "We still don't' know what's goin' on in all the other worlds, and it sounds like we'll be seeing those two again."

"I still wonder who that feller really was, though." Goofy tilted his head and stroked his chin. "He and his buddy said a buncha weird stuff, don't ya think?"

"If by weird you mean suspicious." Narrowing his eyes, Riku hoisted himself up onto ledge and looked towards the entrance. "Maybe we should head back and talk to Leon again. I mean, the least we could do is report back to him." There was a lot to cover, and next to nothing added up, but maybe Leon and the others would have a better idea of what was going on.

The others all nodded in unison and didn't hesitate to climb back up. With nothing else to do in the Bailey, they all made their way back towards the tunnel, passing through in silence. Before long they emerged in the Borough. There, the streets remained eerily silent as they made their way back towards the center of town. A few lingering Heartless crept out of the shadows, but the group annihilated them before they could even move a muscle. In no time flat, they returned to the large, red-roofed house from before, and it was there that they found Leon leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed and his eyes shut tight.

When Riku turned to face him, he raised one hand and latched onto the doorknob, giving it a firm twist. The door opened with a high-pitched shriek, and he motioned for the others to follow him inside. With a silent nod, Riku led his friends up the steps and into the rickety old house, passing cobweb infested corners and tables lined with dusty, old books. The pale glow of a computer screen provided the only source of light other than a few candles near the walls. Despite this dim environment, though, he did catch sight of some familiar faces. Aerith greeted him with a gentle smile as he passed on by, while Yuffie shifted around on top of some crates and gave a quick little wave. The Beast let out a snort and narrowed his eyes, while Belle, now dressed in blue, gently stroked one of his arms.

An elderly woman stood near the computer, clad in a loose, blue robe. She clasped her hands together and kept her eyes on the group, while Cinderella pranced around, sweeping up some of the dust. Whoever sat at the computer chair remained perfectly hidden, tapping away at the keys without a word. However, it didn't take long before the chair whirled around, revealing Cid, hunched over with dark cycles under his eyes. He waved halfheartedly and leaned back in his seat, adjusting the toothpick in his mouth while Yuffie hopped down and slid up to his side. Aerith soon followed.

"Well, if it ain't Riku," said Cid with a grin. "I'd say I was happy to see ya again, but given the circumstances…"

"Let me guess." Riku sighed. "You guys met the impostor, too?"

"It's not just that, kid." He shook his head. "Trouble's been brewin' all over town since we got back. All the princesses 'cept Alice and Jasmine are stuck here, and there's no shortage of Heartless hangin' around."

Riku winced, looking down at the floor. Oh, he knew what was coming now. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Even with that lookalike dealt with, one problem still remained, clear as day: the worlds hadn't been restored. No doubt they'd figured it out long before he got there. And while the group, save for Leon and Beast, didn't look particularly peeved, they still kept a close eye on him. Almost as if they expected answers. But what was he supposed to say?

"You've got a lot of explaining to do." Leon leaned against the wall, giving him a sharp glare. "I didn't bring it up earlier because there just wasn't time, but now that you're back… Tell me, why are the worlds still connected? I thought you were going to set things right."

"I…" Riku shuddered, clenching and unclenching his fists. He took a quick look at Leon, but immediately averted his gaze. He just couldn't look him in the eye. "I still plan to fix this mess, I swear! I just need a little more time."

"Time for what, Riku?" He narrowed his eyes, folding his arms over his chest. "Do you know what could happen if the door stays open? Did you even think things through?"

"Leon, wait!" Kairi rushed right up to him, biting her lip. She looked at him with her eyes wide open, clutching tightly onto her necklace. "Don't take it out on Riku. He just wanted to find Sora, that's all."

"And not just Sora," said Goofy, "but King Mickey, too!"

"But that's still only two people out of hundreds of worlds, maybe even more." Leon placed a hand against his forehead, heaving a sigh. "You've lost sight of what really matters. You're the Keybearer, and that means you're supposed to do what's best for everyone, not just yourself."

"Look," said Riku, "if you're here to lecture me, don't even try. Believe me, I know, and I don't need you to remind me." He rolled his eyes, propping one hand on his hip. His tone sharpened when he spoke again, and he slowly shook his head. "The thing is, I'm not about to ditch my best friend. I promised Kairi I'd find him, and I'm not giving up until I do."

Leon opened his mouth to speak once again, but Aerith leaned over his shoulder and shook her head.

"Leon, just give him a chance. You're forgetting that he's just a boy." She cracked a weak little smile. "We all make mistakes, and I'm sure his heart's still in the right place."

At first Leon said nothing, simply sneering as he glanced at a dusty corner. He breathed deeply, inhaling and exhaling slowly before he shut his eyes, shook his head, and held up his hands.

"Fine. At least he took care of Ansem." He sighed once again. "Anyway, I want to know what happened in the Bailey."

At least they were back on track now. With that unpleasant diversion out of the way, they could focus on more pressing issues, like Riku's impostor and 'Sora,' too. Looking Leon in the eye, Riku scowled, going over everything in specific detail. The initial encounter with the blond boy, who called him out on being a replica, the fight that followed, keeping the group on their toes… And, of course, the arrival of the impostor himself, complete with more talk of replicas, stolen identities, and resentment. It all came to a boiling point when Riku mentioned how the lookalike isolated him and Kairi and held no mercy for her on account of being his 'accomplice.' He even mentioned the blonde boy's similarities to Sora and the possibility that they were one and the same. The moment he mentioned those two ganging up on Kairi, however, Leon's entire body grew tense, and he shoved himself away from the wall.

"So, how long has she been training?" His brow furrowed.

"It's been about a week," said Kairi, tilting her head. "We would've trained a little more, but we wanted to get here as soon as possible."

"Yeah, there was this weird note by our Gummi Ship." Donald stroked his beak, raising a brow. "It said to get over here before something serious happened."

"Well, it's a good thing you did." Cid shifted around in his seat, leaning over the edge. "That pesky impostor was makin' a huge mess outta our handiwork, and I bet you anything it's got something to do with those memories of his."

"Wouldn't surprise me." Riku ran a hand through his hair, gazing down at the floor. "I don't know what his deal was, but he seemed to think I really took his life from him."

"Still," said Leon, "you cut it real close, Riku. If you plan on keeping Kairi with you, you're going to have to prepare."

"No problem!" Donald smirked, bumping his fist against his chest. "I'll start teachin' her a whole buncha spells! Then there's no way she'll fall behind."

"That could help, but she might be better off with Merlin." Leon paused, glancing at the computer screen. "Problem is, he left Traverse Town a while ago, and we haven't seen him since."

"Oh, come now." The elderly woman finally spoke up, spreading her arms with a smile. "Merlin is an excellent wizard, but he's not the only one skilled with magic, dear."

"So… who are you?" Riku raised a brow, watching her closely. He'd noticed her earlier, but didn't pay her much mind. After all, she could've easily been Leon's granny or just another refugee from a fallen world.

But the woman proved wrong within moments, as she pulled out a magic wand and gave it a light flick. "I'm Cinderella's fairy godmother, and an acquaintance of King Mickey's."

"The King?" Donald jumped back, and his eyes widened. "Wait, have ya seen him?"

"Not in some time, I'm afraid." She shook her head, lowering her wand. "But that doesn't mean I can't lend a hand. After all, there are many spells even you don't know, Donald. Spells that haven't seen use in quite some time."

"Look out, Donald." Riku smirked, leaning over his shoulder. "Sounds like she's got you beat."

"I doubt it." He crossed his arms, tapping his foot. "But I guess we can give her a chance, especially if she's friends with the King."

"Splendid!" The Fairy Godmother beamed, raising her wand once again. "Then all we need to do is…" She looked around, eyes darting from Riku to Donald and over to Kairi. "Now, you said that your friend just began her training, correct?"

Riku nodded, and the Fairy Godmother brought a hand to her chin. She paced back and forth for a moment and came to a stop right in front of Donald.

"Ah, yes! Could you tell me which spells she's already learned?"

"Well," said Donald, "she's already picked up fire magic, and I was gonna start teachin' blizzard and cure… Then thunder, aero, gravity—"

"Basically everything I know." Riku shrugged. "Nothing fancy like sleep spells or poison. Merlin never even showed us those moves."

"Oh my, that's quite troublesome." She tilted her head, tapping her chin with her wand. "Well, you and Donald both seem very competent, so perhaps I should focus on teaching Kairi. Status spells are very useful for a beginner, and it might add balance and structure to your group if she focuses on her own unique magic."

"But I can still show her a thing or two, right?" Donald's brows quirked. "Offensive magic's still really important!"

"Absolutely! I only wish to provide her with a few additional techniques to make your journey a little bit brighter, including a few offensive spells of my own."

It seemed like a pretty good deal overall, especially after seeing what Sora could do in the past. Slow spells would leave enemies sluggish and completely open to attacks. Sleep would leave them out cold, while poison would suck the life right out of them. With Kairi's inexperience, those kinds of moves would save her skin, keeping her from getting overwhelmed by powerful foes in the future. And given the dangers they were supposed to be facing, they couldn't risk another close call.

Kairi must've had the same idea, because it didn't take long for her to approach the Fairy Godmother, grinning widely with her head held high.

"Thank you," she said, lacing her hands behind her back. "I'll take whatever you can teach me, especially if it can help my friends."

"Then come along, dear." The Fairy Godmother placed a hand on her shoulder, leading her over to an empty corner. "I'll show you a few basics and pass on a number of spells to guide you. Once we're through, you should have plenty to practice with."

Well, that didn't sound too bad. While Kairi and the Fairy Godmother discussed magic in the corner, Riku, Donald, and Goofy turned their attention back to Leon and the others. There were still other issues to discuss, namely DiZ and that Organization he talked about. When DiZ came up in the discussion, it brought more questions than answers. Where he came from, his true intentions, and whether or not he could really be trusted all came up in a matter of moments. And, much like Riku and Donald themselves, Leon didn't seem too keen on trusting the guy. After all, a shady figure popping out of nowhere was just a little too suspicious, even if his warnings were sound. But on the other hand, he did manage to pull them out of an endless field and back to their ship. When Aerith brought this up, the room filled with silence, save for Donald, who grumbled something under his breath that was kind of hard to make out.

"But the way I see it," said Riku, shrugging lightly, "we can either work with this guy or wing it. Hard to say which is the best route."

"Well, he does sound like a shady fellow." Cid shifted around once again, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. "But if he's serious about this Organization, I'd say check it out. See if there's any real danger."

"Well, DiZ did mention black coats." Kairi looked away from the corner for a moment, bringing a hand to her chest. "What if they're the ones behind Riku's lookalike? And Sora…"

"I was thinking the exact same thing." Riku cringed, looking off to the side. Though he still didn't understand how or where that impostor came from, it seemed incredibly likely that he was in league with the Organization. "I'm starting to think that maybe he's the replica, and they just did something to make him and Sora think otherwise. And if the Organization can create a copy of me and mess with his memories, then who knows what else they can do? For now, we might as well keep moving and keep our eyes out for anything suspicious. Especially that impostor."

"It's possible. From what you just told me, it sounds like he's out for revenge. This Organization might be using that to their advantage." Leon leaned back against the wall. "Whatever you do, Riku, stay on your guard."

"Thanks, Leon." Cracking a half-hearted smile, Riku moved towards the door, leaning against the frame. "And… we'll try and fix up the worlds, too. Once we get Sora back, we'll end this for real."

"I'll hold you to that." He nodded, and for a moment a smile appeared on his face. Or maybe Riku was seeing things; in the blink of an eye, his stern expression returned, and he crossed his arms. "Until then, you've got your work cut out for you. Don't let us hold you back."

"Oh, absolutely not!" At last, the Fairy Godmother stepped away from her corner, tucking her wand away. "It's important that you all continue your journey. Now that I've shown Kairi a few spells, you need only train her a little, and I'm sure you'll be all right."

"Well, we were gonna drop by the Coliseum!" Goofy grinned, rubbing the tip of his nose. "Phil trains heroes all the time, and I betcha he'll know all kindsa neat tricks!"

"Yeah, and we can always go back and forth." Donald pulled out his staff, sweeping it through the air. "Train a little, visit new worlds. With the warp drive, it'll be easy!"

"Then what are we waiting for?" Kairi laughed, marching right up to the door. "I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a real adventure. Who knows what kind of worlds we'll see?"

There was only one way to find out, and that meant moving forward. Though darkness loomed over the horizon and that strange copy brought Riku a sense of foreboding, he knew better than to mope around. The only way to find answers was to continue on their quest, even if it meant dealing with misunderstandings along the way. So many mysteries remained, like what the Organization really was, how the rest of the worlds were dealing with darkness and, above all else, what happened to Sora. So, with much to do and little time to waste, Riku and his friends bid Hollow Bastion a fond farewell, rocketing into the sky with newfound determination.

x.x.x

"It was foolish of you to interfere with that world. Have you forgotten the aims of our Organization?"

"Look, I don't care. In case you forgot, I play by my own rules, so get used to it."

When Riku returned to the Organization's HQ, things got a little hectic in the blink of an eye. Once he marched back into the Grey Area with Sora by his side, he came face to face with good old Saïx, who gave him his typical glare through his beady, yellow eyes and went on and on about how reckless he'd been, and how he could've easily blown their cover. Basically, pointless rambling he really didn't care about. Did Saïx really think he'd let that slide? Who was he kidding? Naturally, when he started scolding him, Riku stood his ground, snapping back at that jerk without a second thought. Before long, the peace and silence that once filled the room shattered to pieces, as the other members huddled around in a huge mob, watching the whole ordeal.

Demyx stopped strumming his sitar and scurried to the front, while Xigbar gave a toothy grin, slowly shaking his head. Marluxia and Larxene, who almost always stuck together, leaned against the wall, keeping their eyes locked on Riku like a pair of hunting dogs. Even that old geezer, Vexen, came over to watch with a hand propped against his chin the entire time. It was kind of funny in a way. Were things really so dull around here that an argument meant quality entertainment? Well, whatever the case, he wasn't about to back down, even as Saïx straightened his stance, looming over him with a scowl on his face.

"Do you not realize that your actions could have brought unnecessary attention to us? We already have enough to cope with thanks to that foolish DiZ." He folded his arms. "Surely you recall what he did to your friend…"

"Shut up!" Riku jerked forward, hands balled into fists. "The point is, I completed my mission. Or do those hearts I collected mean nothing to you?"

"You may possess a Keyblade," said Saïx, "but that does not excuse your reckless behavior. In the future, I expect you to avoid unnecessary distractions. Have I made myself clear?"

"Whatever." Riku just shrugged, rolling his eyes as he slowly turned away. Really, the goals of the Organization meant little to him beyond getting Sora's heart back. Besides, Xemnas practically gave him free reign, letting him mess around with that stupid Fake as long as he kept him alive. If their leader let it slide, why not his right hand man?

Rather than deal with Saïx any longer, though, he trudged past the crowd, stopping long enough to wave at his friend. "C'mon, Sora. Forget the peanut gallery, Naminé's waiting for us."

"…Right." Sora nodded, slowly trailing along. He kept a blank look on his face, stopping for a moment to look at Saïx before he picked up the pace a little and continued on his way.

It was heart wrenching to see Sora like this. His once upbeat, sappy personality changed almost completely. Half the time he acted all spacey and quiet, almost like a zombie. Was he really as emotionless as the rest of these guys? On his way through the castle, Riku took several quick looks at Sora, who silently followed alongside him. It was great to be with his friends again, no doubt about that, but the circumstances were just plain twisted. Sora'd had his heart ripped out, stolen by that replica. And Naminé… she was fine, but that creep Marluxia always gave her a hard time, and it was hard to leave her alone, even if most missions took a few hours tops.

And then there was that Fake… The one who started this whole mess. If he hadn't ripped out Sora's heart with that Dark Keyblade, if he hadn't taken Riku's life and made it his own… For a moment, he stopped, shoulders shaking. Just thinking about it made his blood boil. And the fact that he had to turn on his old friends, like Leon, left him with a chilling guilt that clutched tightly around his heart. It hurt to ruin their lives by attacking their homes, but it was the only way to get back at the Fake. The only way to make him experience that same loneliness he'd felt when he'd been thrown to the wayside. All he had now were his two best friends, and for their sake, he'd continue to work with the Organization, even if he hated their guts.

His friends were worth it in the end. They were the light that kept him going, even in the deepest darkness. No replica would ever steal that away from him.

TO BE CONTINUED

--

So, as you may have noticed, Rep's perspective uses Riku as his identifier as well. This is due to my decision to write in third-person limited. But, to keep things from getting too confusing, Rep's prose is pretty identifiable because he refers to Riku as "the Fake" and tends to have a harsher tone to his narration. Next chapter, we begin our trip into the world of The Sword in the Stone!
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 4: Higitus Figitus

Of all places to visit for Organization business, it had to be a rickety old cottage in the middle of the woods. A cottage filled with dust and cobwebs, the stench of vermin and decay, and filth all around. As Zexion cautiously sat down at the soggy, wooden table, he brushed back his bangs and let out a soft sigh. A deck of cards lay scattered on the surface, probably from a game of solitaire, if he had to guess. Either way, games were Luxord's forte and not his, and at the moment he had far more important pursuits to worry about than the aesthetics of this little shack.

Instead, he turned his attention to the woman at the opposite end of the table, her lips curled up into a twisted grin as she leaned over the edge. Her rounded face gave her a frog-like appearance, and her shaggy, purple hair looked as though it hadn't seen a comb in years. But, oh, she was perfect for what he had in store. She truly held the potential to further their goals with her malicious demeanor. All he had to do was get through to her, use a bit of careful manipulation to sway her to their noble cause.

If only she wasn't so… eccentric.

That mad woman, Mim, let out a shrill laugh, scooting her chair right up to the table's edge. She looked at Zexion through gleaming, green eyes and continued to grin. "So," she said, "tell me again why I need these Heartless, hmm? What can they offer me that I don't already have?"

Zexion took a deep breath, maintaining his composure. "Simply put, the Heartless would provide you with a little… pizzazz, as it were. If I'm not mistaken, the people of this land aren't particularly receptive of your brand of magic, correct?"

"Oh, absolutely not." She cackled, lacing her hands together. "Why, the very thought of magic terrifies them! Isn't it wonderful?"

"Quite." He narrowed his eyes, leaning back in his seat. "Now, I'm aware that you're quite the sorceress. You possess enough power to overwhelm even the greatest warriors in this land. To that end, the Heartless would simply provide you with an added edge. They obey the strong and can spread themselves far beyond your reach." He paused, bringing a hand to his chin. "What's more, they would certainly give you an element of surprise, not to mention… entertainment. If, perhaps, you were to send them to this jousting tournament, imagine the mayhem you could cause."

"Yes…" If possible, Mim's grin stretched even wider than before, and she hopped up and down. "Oh, yes! Those poor, pitiful knights would never see it coming. They're far too busy trying to worry about kings and silly miracles."

Already she was beginning to see his side, to consider the possibilities. Despite her irritatingly giddy demeanor, she'd already fallen into his trap. Now all he needed to do was continue to string her along, to plant the ideas in her head. Naturally, this would be no problem for the Cloaked Schemer. Her pride would undoubtedly make her a fine victim for those Heartless…

And so Zexion stood up from his seat, approaching Mim with an outstretched hand. "I suppose, then, we need only finalize our little agreement. After all, there is much to do and little time to waste."

Within seconds, she spit in her hand, reaching for Zexion's and giving it a firm shake. Though the gesture itself was hardly pleasant, it was all the confirmation he needed. Soon, she'd be spreading Heartless throughout this pitiful world… Perhaps she'd even become one herself. Regardless, it was sure to be a fascinating performance on her part.

x.x.x

Boards flew through the air as barrels went up in smoke all around the arena. Who knew planting mines would be such a useful trick? As Riku watched the training from the stands, he found himself on the edge of his seat, watching Kairi's movements with a broad grin. Sure, Phil kept shouting orders and waving his arms around wildly, but so far, he'd been doing a pretty good job giving his own… unique insight. Heck, the prospect of a new trainee caught his attention from the get-go, since Herc was out scouting for rookies, anyway. While Riku didn't know all the flashy details, it was great to know that his friend was in good hands. Sure, she was still fumbled her sword every now and then, but after that encounter with the Replica, any progress was a blessing.

So he watched her go a few more rounds, following Phil's orders to knock barrels into one another, watch out for any Heartless that appeared, and focus on taking out as many targets in the fewest number of hits possible. She slipped between barrels when Soldiers drew too close, blasting them with a spell that slowed them down to a snail's pace. After getting in a few jabs, she shut her eyes tightly and fired another blast. Unfortunately, it didn't do a thing; she must've been aiming for a different spell, only to cast slow a second time. Had Donald been around, he'd probably be able to give her some proper tips, but who knew when he and Goofy would get back? Those two were still off gathering information, and it'd been a few hours since they took off.

Well, after about another twenty minutes of nonstop barrel-bashing, Heartless slaying, and spell casting, Kairi finally slumped over, breathing heavily. She tucked her sword back into its sheath and slowly made her way to the platform's edge, where Phil stood with a puffed out chest and his hands on his hips. Shaking his head, Riku hurried down the steps to meet them, stopping right next to Kairi once he finally made it over. Crossing his arms, he smiled at her before directing his attention to Phil, who began stroking his beard.

"Ya know," he said, "that ain't bad for a warm-up, but if ya ask me, we oughta go a few more rounds."

"Seriously?" Riku raised a brow, glancing at Kairi as she continued to catch her breath. "Hasn't she had enough for today?"

"Hey, I've got two words for ya." He held up two fingers and narrowed his eyes. "No pain, no gain. And you said it yourself: she's got a lot of catching up to do if she's gonna take on these… Organization guys."

Shaking her head, Kairi stifled a laugh. "Riku, I'll be fine. All I need is a few minutes to cool down, and then I'll be ready."

And here she poked at him for being reckless. Still, at least she was giving it her all, especially since they were on such a tight schedule. Granted, they'd already been at it for several hours, but all that excess training was sure to pay off in the long run, especially since they were up against a tough crowd. After all, the three Organization members they'd faced so far each dished out some heavy hits. For Kairi to really keep up, she'd need to keep on learning.

So, with all that in mind, Riku nodded, letting out a soft chuckle. "Fine, I'll give you that. Heck, maybe we can go a few rounds for good measure."

"Now there's an idea!" Phil grinned, gazing at the center platform. "You kids take five, and then I'll set you up for some sparring practice."

It seemed like a pretty fair compromise, so he nodded once again, turning towards the door to the lobby. "Well, Kairi, you want to head outside for a bit? Might as well get some fresh air, while we're at it."

"Sure!" Grinning, Kairi slipped past Riku and sluggishly moved towards the doorway. "We should probably keep our eyes out for Donald and Goofy, anyway."

Another good point, and one they couldn't just ignore. So, naturally, Riku followed along, reaching for the lucky charm on his belt, which he tossed up and down as they slipped into the lobby and out the doors. Once they reached the Coliseum's steps, the two of them plopped down next to one another and kept their eyes out on the world entrance. Luckily, no Heartless appeared to ruin the moment. The entire Coliseum grounds looked completely deserted, save for the usual statues and pillars. And since they were alone, maybe now was the time to have a one-on-one chat with her. After all, there was something else on his mind besides training. Something important.

"So," he said, "what'd you think of that Replica's friend, anyway? The one he called Sora…"

Just like that, Kairi gazed down at the ground, heaving a soft sigh. "I don't know what to think, Riku. If that really is Sora, then what could have happened to him?"

"I wish I knew." Riku frowned, propping his chin up with one hand. "I mean, it's obvious they've done something to him. Brainwashed him, probably."

"Well, I guess we'll have to fix that." She leaned back on her hands, smiling faintly. "There has to be a way to help him remember us, even if we have to keep reminding him."

"Probably." He shrugged, gazing up at the sky. Maybe being assertive would get the job done. When Sora worked with Maleficent, he sure didn't give up then, so if that guy really was Sora, he'd just have to keep fighting… But was that guy really all that was left of him? Shaking his head, Riku turned his attention back to Kairi. "But then there's that Heartless, not to mention the note from before. Feels like there's still a lot to sort out, you know?"

"I know." She scooted closer to him, placing a hand on top of his. "But that's something we can figure out as we go. Don't think too hard on it just yet, Riku."

…She just had to slide closer, didn't she? Biting his lip, Riku looked the other way and took a deep breath. No need to make things awkward, especially at a time like this. He opened his mouth to speak again, when the double doors in the distance swung wide open, revealing one grouchy looking duck stomping their way, with Goofy trailing close behind. About time they got back. Rather than continue this discussion, Riku got to his feet and moseyed down the steps, leaning forward with his hands on his hips. When Donald and Goofy finally reached him, the two of them let out a collective sigh, and Donald folded his arms. It took a moment for Kairi to reach them, but once she did, Donald cleared his throat, brow furrowed.

"Well," he said, "I've got some good news and some bad news."

"Oh yeah?" Riku blinked, straightening his stance. "So, what's the good news?"

"Well," said Goofy, scratching his head, "the good news is that lots of worlds are still hangin' in there!"

"And the bad news is…" Donald sighed, shaking his head. "They're not hanging in there by much. The ship's radar kept goin' crazy with heavy darkness readings, and we heard some people talkin' about some guys in black coats."

Black coats could only mean one thing: DiZ was right, and the Organization was on the move. But that still didn't explain just what they were doing or any big plans. To really figure out what was going on, they'd need more information.

"Did you get anything else, though?" Riku raised a brow, bringing a hand to his chin. "You guys were gone for a while."

Shaking his head, Donald lowered his arms to his sides and peered at the entrance. "No luck. We even tried finding out more about that Replica, but nobody knew a thing."

"Well, that's not so bad." Kairi smiled, lacing her hands behind her back. "At least he hasn't gotten too far yet."

Goofy beamed, bobbing his head up and down. "Yup, it means we've still got a chance to turn things around!

"Guess we better put the training on hold, then." Pausing for a moment, Riku gave a quick look at the Coliseum. "I'd hate to ditch Phil, but if the darkness is spreading, then we can't spend all day beating up barrels and crates."

"Couldn't we at least let him know?" said Kairi, looking Riku in the eye. "It just doesn't feel right to run off like this."

"Aw, we can always drop by later." Donald took a few steps towards the entrance, motioning to the others to follow. "Now, c'mon. There's something I wanna show you."

Well, it wasn't like they had much of a choice. Shaking his head, Riku followed along with the others, slipping through the entrance and hurrying over to the ship. Together, they all hopped inside, buckled up, and took off as the engines roared and the ship rocketed into the air. Within seconds, Donald began pressing buttons, pulling levers, and turning knobs, while Goofy leaned forward and squinted at the radar screen. Sure enough, that obnoxious beeping from darkness readings began in the blink of an eye, filling the cockpit with a constant rhythm of ear bleeding noise. Just the sound of it made Riku cringe, and he slapped his hands over his ears.

And it only got worse as time went on. Donald didn't even hesitate to shift the ship into warp drive, sending it flying through space at a rapid pace. The blurred surroundings combined with the siren really didn't help matters. Luckily, that irritating siren didn't last for too long. A few more minutes of soaring through hyperspace soon brought them to their destination. When Donald slowed the ship down with the crank of a lever, Riku took a deep breath and peered out the front window. In the distance, he caught sight of a thick forest and a towering castle. Trails of darkness weaved their way between its towers, and the continuous beeping of the siren pretty much confirmed the presence of a powerful darkness.

Donald's beak bent into a frown as he drove the ship into the forest, swerving between trees on the way down. When they finally reached a clearing, he tapped a few more buttons, allowing the ship to come to a complete stop. With that, the siren faded, and silence filled the cockpit. Heaving a heavy sigh, Riku pushed himself to his feet and looked out into the blackness all around them. It almost looked like they'd landed in a dark tunnel, rather than a forest. The surrounding trees must have been so thick that even the sunlight couldn't make it through. Still, he could make out a few features if he squinted, like bent up branches, thorny bushes, and what looked like the mouth of a cave. Of all the places to land a ship, it had to be here?

When he reached the door, he placed one hand against the frame, tapping his fingers against its surface. "So, why did you drag us all the way here? Wouldn't it have been better to land near the castle?"

"No way!" Donald shook his head frantically, scooping up his staff. "This place is medieval. That means they don't even have planes yet!"

"So it's about keeping the world order…" Well, that made a bit more sense, even if it kind of inconvenienced them. "I hope you know what you're doing, Donald. Do you even know which way we're headed?"

"Sure I do!" He puffed out his chest, shoving the door wide open. "We just, uh…" He blinked, looking around their shady surroundings. "We'll just keep going straight! That's it."

"Well, it's a start, anyway." Kairi laughed, hopping down onto the forest floor. From there, she scooped up a stray twig, squinted, and shot a small burst of fire onto the tip. Within seconds, she had her own makeshift torch. "So, do you know anything else about this world?"

"Nope, it's all brand new." Goofy frowned, stepping over a few large stones. "'Course, the radar's been goin' crazy with darkness lately. Makes it hard to detect anything else."

Well, that was reassuring. Following Kairi's lead, Riku called for the Keyblade, letting the tip ignite with flames. "Guess we'll just have to wing it."

"Just stay close," said Donald, letting his staff act as his own little torch. "I don't want anybody getting lost out here. Just look at how dark it is!"

Which was all the more reason to carry a light source. So, as the group made their way through the darkness of the woods, they huddled close together and kept their eyes out for anything suspicious. Owls hooted up above, and sometimes bushes and tree branches rustled and shook. Bats shrieked and fluttered by, while a series of howls made it crystal clear that wolves lurked in the shadows. Occasionally, Riku even caught a few short glimpses of yellow eyes peering all around him, but they vanished in the blink of an eye. Maybe he was just seeing things.

…Or not. They managed to walk about a quarter-mile before those yellow eyes appeared once again, up in the treetops, hidden between the bushes, and all around the group. Bracing himself for the worst, Riku raised his weapon, still burning at the tip. Before long, shadowy figures leaped out of their hiding spots, their forms revealed by the light of the flames. Lanky wolves with long, jagged snouts lowered their heads to the ground, snarling as they glared lifelessly through yellow eyes. Soldiers swung down from branches, landing flat on their feet. They twitched in place once they hit the forest floor and swiped their claws through the air.

The snapping of branches signified an even bigger threat. More branches cracked and fell below, as a spiraling, blue form dove down from the canopies. It stopped right above the Heartless mob, flapping its tattered wings snapping its jagged jaws. The Wyvern let out a thundering roar that echoed all around them. Without even thinking, Riku slid in front of Kairi and spread out his arms.

"Oh, great…" said Donald. He grumbled under his breath, blasting icy daggers at the wolves, which scattered off in different directions with a series of yelps. Narrowing his eyes, he charged into the mob, launching more chilling blasts that left the wolves and Soldiers half-encased in ice crystals and wide open for a little target practice.

And, sure enough, that's exactly what Goofy used them for when he flung his shield at their frozen foes. It whirled around, slicing Heartless in half and allowing their captive hearts to fly beyond the treetops. Then, when that Wyvern launched itself towards Kairi, Riku raised his weapon into the air, and circular field slammed its body into the ground. With the Wyvern practically flattened by gravity, Riku leaped into the air and dragged the Keyblade against its spine. Then all it took was a fiery blast from Kairi to reduce its body to a blackened haze.

It seemed like they'd cleared the area, but a series of howls sounded all around them. Bushes rustled, and the sound of snarls drew closer and closer. A pack of twelve wolf Heartless crept into view, mouths foaming as they dug they approached. They circled around the group like sharks, tails wagging in anticipation. Even when Riku knocked them away with the swing of his Keyblade, they kept creeping back. Some threw themselves into the air, prompting Goofy to stumble into their path and duck behind his shield when they came too close. A few spinning moves sent them flying into trees, but they weren't down for the count just yet.

Four more rushed at Donald from all directions, forcing him to bang his staff against his heads and launch blasts of fire at their backs. They yelped and yipped, rolling along the ground until Riku dashed forward and sliced them to bits. But, oh, more of them continued to crawl out from the bushes.

"You know what?" Riku groaned, spinning around and knocking more Heartless into treetops, bushes, and a few jagged stones. "Forget the Heartless! Right now, we need to get out of these woods."

"Hey, I'm workin' on it!" Donald scowled, slamming his staff against a Heartless' head. He raised his weapon into the air, twirling it around. "This oughta keep 'em busy for a while!"

The sound of a clock's ticking sounded throughout the woods, and many of the wolves froze up like statues. Then all it took was a bit of slicing and stabbing from Riku, followed by another round of shield flinging to cut them down the size.

At that point, the group took off running, even as Soldiers hopped down from the treetops and Wyverns swooped in from all directions. When enemies drew too close, Riku sent them packing with a series of slashes. He kept especially close to Kairi the whole time, acting as her own personal bodyguard as they hurried along. Of course, that didn't stop her from pitching in. When their enemies plunged towards the ground, she planted a series of circular mines that sent Heartless sky high once they made contact. It was one spell she pulled off without too much trouble, though she still managed to slow their movements every now and then or nail them with some nasty poison.

Several minutes passed, and the group kept on running as fast as their legs could carry them, slipping between trees, leaping over stones, and only stopping when they ran out of steam. Heartless pursued them no matter where they turned, and it really felt like the mobs kept growing as time went on. What started out as ten soon became twenty, then fifty, all at once. That alone gave Riku a sinking sensation in his chest, since the last thing he needed was a repeat of Pleasure Island. They were here to help this world, not let it fall into darkness. So, despite his fatigue, he took a sharp breath and picked up the pace. They had to be getting near the forest's edge by now.

Just a few more minutes of sprinting brought them out of the darkness of the woods and into an open clearing, where they trampled over the grass and dodged rotting logs on their way to the castle. Up in the sky, more of those Wyverns spiraled down, spinning like torpedoes. A duo of Defenders climbed up onto a hill, and their shields spat out flames and exhaled a chilly breeze. Riku didn't stop to deal with them for long, opting for a series of Strike Raids and graviga to get the job done. By now, he could see the castle towers faintly in the distance. Though the dark clouds in the sky blocked out almost all the sunlight, a few little rays shone through and lit the way.

When they came to a stop at the front of the castle moat, their Heartless pursuers gathered around, forming an immense blockade. By now the mob had expanded beyond mere wolves, Soldiers, and Wyverns to include a number of Defenders that stomped their feet and raised their shield, while Wizards warped all over the place, hurling thunderbolts and flames straight at Riku and his friends. With nowhere else to turn, they split off in different directions, hurrying straight towards the surrounding mob.

They hacked, they slashed, they slammed, and they sliced. Lightning flickered through the sky, flames erupted all over the Heartless swam. Ice weaved its way around their bodies, trapping them in a matter of seconds, while mines set off more and more explosions that left the air full of blackened smoke. Wind whistled and whirled around the entire group when Donald unleashed an aeroga spell. The sound of crashing metal echoed throughout the area once Goofy flung his weapon like a Frisbee. The force of gravity dragged Wyverns straight onto the mines, while Riku sliced his way through a crowd of Soldiers. One by one, the Heartless fell, and their dimly glowing hearts shone all around the castle.

Soon the final Heartless faded, leaving the castle grounds completely deserted, save for Riku and the others. For a few short moments, they just stood there, keeping their eyes out for any stragglers. However, when nothing appeared to attack them, they sluggishly trudged through the grass, meeting up right in front of the moat. They all took a few seconds to catch their breath, heal up with potions and cure spells, and cool down from the nonstop fighting. Up above, Riku heard some mumbling from inside one of the windows, and it almost looked like somebody peeked outside, but they vanished before he could get a good look at them…

But, judging by the loud creeeeak from behind, maybe they'd get their chance.

The drawbridge slowly lowered, revealing the entrance into the castle itself. An old, chubby man stood at the foot of the bridge with one hand at his double chin, while the other rested at his hip. The guy had a bushy, red mustache and matching hair, and he dressed in loose fitting clothes. A bulky looking guy with an enormous chin followed along, brushing one hand against the top of his head. Given that he had the same red hair as the older man, he must've been that guy's son. Whatever the case, the two of them made their way down the bridge, keeping their eyes looked on the group with each passing step.

"Well, then," said the older man, "what have we here?" He stroked his chin, glancing down at Riku with a soft huff. "Were you the one who defeated those ghastly beasts, lad?"

"Who, him?" The younger man laughed, shaking his head. "Look, dad, that kid's carrying a giant Key. Do you really think he could slay anything with it?"

Oh, so that's how he was gonna play it, huh? Rolling his eyes, Riku propped the Keyblade against his shoulder, sneering at the younger guy. "Hey, I don't see you taking them out." If anything, he and his pops were too busy cowering inside. Why else would they keep the place locked up tight?

"The lad has a point, Kay." The older man narrowed his eyes, looking up at his son. "If this boy can slay beasts with a key, then what does that say about you? Why, it means you'll have to train harder."

"Oh, come off it." Kay shook his head, and his lower jaw jut forward. "Take a good look at these blokes. A kid with a Key, two idiots in costumes, and a woman with a sword?"

"Hey!" Kairi scowled, placing her hands on her hips. "Why should it matter who we are? We still came here to help."

"Yes, well, Kay does have a point." Kay's father frowned, placing his hands behind his back. "It's all well and good that you defeated those fiends, but it's not proper etiquette for women to fight. Not to mention that these, er…" He paused, taking a good look at Donald and Goofy. "These costumes your friends are wearing are certainly strange."

"Gawrsh…" Goofy frowned, crouching right next to Donald. "Do ya really think we look strange?"

"Oh, just play along." Donald shook his head. "It'll be easier this way."

So this is what it was like in medieval times, huh? Those two really were something else. While Riku was half-tempted to make some crude remark, he held back the urge and allowed his weapon to fade out of sight. That, unfortunately, wasn't a smart choice in the long run. The moment he dismissed his Keyblade, both Kay and his father leaped back with their eyes wide. Kay's father then pointed at Riku, looked over at Kay, and let his jaw drop.

"By Jove!" he said. "What in heaven's name was that?"

"What, this?" Raising a brow, Riku held out his hand, and the Keyblade reappeared in a flash. Once again, Kay and his dad doubled back and continued to stare. At that point, Riku let out a groan. "Okay, seriously. Haven't you guys heard of magic before?"

"Oh, I've heard of magic, boy." Kay's father stood up straight, marching right back to Riku. "And magic has never done me any good. Why, judging by the looks of you, I'd bet that you all practice black magic! It explains the woman fighting and those strange companions." He leaned over Riku's shoulder, peering down at Goofy. "In fact, I bet those aren't costumes at all! You must be enchanted, that's it. Cursed!"

"See?" Kay smirked, crossing his arms. "I knew there was something strange about that bunch. They aren't real warriors at all!"

Said the guy who couldn't even handle the Heartless. Once again, Riku found himself biting his lip to keep himself from snapping back. Now with those two accusing his friends of witchcraft, he found it even harder to maintain his composure. Even Donald started mumbling something about the two of them, though it mostly came out as incoherent squawking. If anything, though, that just gave Riku more of a reason to speak up. It wasn't just about his dignity, but his friends' as well. And, sure, maybe it'd count as meddling, but at this point, would it even make a difference?

So, rather than back down, Riku stood firm, clutching tightly onto the Keyblade. He looked Kay's father straight in the eye, and let a few small embers form at the Keyblade's tip. "Not real warriors, huh? Wanna bet?"

"Gadzooks, he can create fire!" Almost immediately, Kay's father stumbled backwards, holding his hands out in front of him. "Now, lad, there's no need for senseless violence! Surely you could find a few more monsters to slay and leave us out of this."

"Or maybe they're with those beasts." Kay snorted, stomping right up to his father with a twisted grin. "Betcha they just want into the castle, so they can take it for themselves."

"Gawrsh, it's nothin' like that." Goofy tilted his head, giving them sad little pout. "We're just tryin' to get rid of the Heartless, that way this world won't—"

"Goofy!" Donald grabbed him by the sleeve, slapping a hand over his mouth. He gave a sheepish laugh and cleared his throat, looking up at Kay's father with a forced looking smile. "What he's trying to say is that we're, uh… monster hunters! Traveling monster hunters."

"Traveling monster hunters?" Kay's father blinked, stroking his mustache in thought. "Monster hunters with magic, at that? It seems mighty fishy."

"Think what you like." Riku shook his head. "The point is, we're here to help you. Take it or leave it." If they were too busy acting paranoid over it, that wasn't his loss. He and his friends would continue fighting Heartless even if they got sent away. After all, there had to be more to this place than a bunch of trees and a castle.

"Well lad," said Kay's father, turning towards the castle's entrance, "seeing as I'm the one in charge, I believe we can take it from here. I'll have none of your sorcery in my castle." He stopped right at the door, motioning for Kay to follow. "Come on, boy. Before they cast an evil spell on us."

Evil spell… yeah right. Even as the two of them slipped out of sight and the drawbridge lifted once more, Riku didn't even bother to chase after them. It was already clear that they weren't gonna say anything useful, so why bother? Instead, he turned away from the castle and shrugged. Donald and Goofy looked at one another and sighed, while Kairi shook her head and glanced down at her sword. They were all alone again and… completely lost. With those two goons out of the way, they'd probably have to wander around to find anybody else to deal with. Either that, or—

"There you are!" said a familiar voice, as a puff of blue smoke appeared just a few feet away. Everything from the bushy, white beard to the loose blue robes stood out like a sore thumb. Of all the times for Merlin to show up, it just had to be now. Of course, he wasn't exactly alone. A scruffy ball of feathers perched on his shoulder, looking over the group through his beady eyes. Was he some kind of pet? That owl sure didn't show up back in Traverse Town. What's more, a scrawny kid with blonde hair poked his head out from behind Merlin's robe.

Still, at least somebody with some sense had arrived. Shaking his head, Riku let out a soft chuckle and took a few steps closer to the wizard. "Sounds like you were expecting us, Merlin."

"Oh, so this is Merlin?" Kairi tilted her head and tucked her sword away.

"Right you are, miss… Kairi, was it?" Adjusting his glasses, Merlin slid closer, looking her over from top to bottom. When she nodded, he continued where he left off. "Right, well, as I was saying, I had a feeling you'd be showing up here sooner or later, and you're right on time."

"For what, though?" Riku raised a brow, resting the Keyblade on his shoulder. "If it's about the Heartless, we've already seen them."

"Oh, those hideous beasts." The owl groaned, ruffling his feathers. "No, no. This old blockhead's got something else in mind."

"No, not quite, Archimedes." He shook his head, gazing up at the cloudy sky. "While it's true that there is more to worry about than the Heartless, they have been quite the problem lately. And to think I had come here to give Wart—" he paused, pointing at the boy, "a proper education!"

"But these guys took care of them, right?" Wart glanced around, placing a hand on his neck. "I know I saw somebody fighting out here."

"Yeah, that was us." Grinning, Riku performed a quick slash with his Keyblade. "We cleaned up this place pretty good." If they'd waited any longer, who knew if that castle would still be in one piece? "Too bad that old man couldn't get the picture."

"Oh, there's a surprise." Archimedes narrowed his eyes, fluttering over to Riku. "Boy, you'll find that carrying around that giant Key of yours will bring nothing but trouble. And that says nothing of that…" He squinted, hovering over to Donald. "That mockery of a bird!"

"Hey!" Donald shook one fist in the air. "Who're you calling a mockery?"

"Well, you don't have any wings." To prove his point, Archimedes spread his wings out and gave them a flap. "And you wear clothes just like a human!"

"Aw, I don't think he's that bad." Wart shook his head. "But are you really a duck, or are you just using magic?"

"Nope!" Goofy grinned and lifted his chin. "Me 'n Donald have always looked like this."

"Yeah." Donald sighed. "But now I'm startin' to think we should've used some magic to blend in a little better."

"Nonsense!" Merlin reached for his hat, straightening it just a little bit. "There's no need to worry about changing your appearance, Donald. After all, the people of this world have far more important things to fret over, like those Heartless and that strange man in black."

A man in black? Then either the Replica decided to drop by, or one of the other Organization members was messing around. Either way, Merlin had Riku's full attention now. At least he knew what was going on.

"So, when did you see him?" Kairi frowned, peering out into the woods. "And did he look anything like Riku?"

"Oh, no!" Merlin's brow furrowed and he shook his head. "He was a much older fellow, at least by a year or two. As for when… why, I believe it was a few days ago."

"A few days…" Riku shut his eyes, running one hand across his forehead. "Well, is there anything else we need to know? It sounded like you had something planned for us."

"And indeed I do!" Merlin hunched over a little, leaning against his wand. "Of course, I think this is a matter we're better off discussing in private. After all, we wouldn't want that old blowhard to catch on, or he might get the wrong idea."

"Hey, I can't complain." With a shrug, Riku looked up at the castle. For a split second, Kay's father poked his head out the window, and his face scrunched up like a raisin. Of course, the moment Riku laid eyes on him, he slipped out of sight. Ah well, at least he wasn't ranting about witchcraft. "So, you got a place in mind?"

Nodding, Merlin scooped up his wand, held it up high, and waved the group over to where he and Wart stood. "If you all gather around, I'll take you there in an instant."

It sure beat hanging around a musty, old castle, anyway. Naturally, Riku marched right up to Merlin, and the others soon followed suit. Once they gathered together and Archimedes scurried back to Merlin's shoulder, the old wizard twirled his wand around and around. Sparkles of blue and red circled around them from head to toe, and their surroundings began to melt together in a mesh of greys, blacks, and blues. A cold breeze swept through the air, and soon they left the castle grounds altogether.

While Riku didn't know what to expect from old Merlin, hopefully it'd shed some light on the world's Heartless problems and the Organization's actions. No matter what, though, they'd figure things out soon enough.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 5: Mad Madam Mim

When the group finally reached their destination, Riku couldn't help but stare. After all, the place was a mess! Umbrellas poked up through holes in the roof, books piled upon more books lined the filthy walls. Missing bricks left huge gaps where there should've been walls. Combine that with the scattered do-dads ranging from an old globe to a brass telescope, and the place made Sora's room look almost neat by comparison. But despite the clutter, Merlin marched right up to a dusty old arm chair and flopped right into it. Archimedes, letting out a sigh, hovered over to the perch on a wooden birdhouse, where he puffed out his chest and stared at the others. At that point, Merlin swished his wand, and a number of stools hopped out from behind the book pile, forming an arc in front of his chair. Once everyone took their seats, Merlin leaned forward, cleared his throat, and kept his eyes on Riku.

"Now, lad, as I was saying…" He reached for his glasses, straightening them a little. "There's been quite the hullabaloo lately in London. With all the Heartless running about, even the noblest of knights has had little time to prepare for that barbaric tournament."

"A tournament?" Oh, now that was interesting. Riku raised a brow, resting his arms in his lap. "And just what kind of tournament are we dealing with?"

"Well," said Wart, "it's a contest to choose the next king of England! All the knights in the country are gonna be there, jousting, sword fighting…" He cupped his hands together, giving them a mock swing.

"Huh, not bad." Riku smirked. "I wouldn't mind checking it out—"

"That's if they don't postpone it, boy." Archimedes shook his head, fluttering his wings. "Don't forget about those beasts. I heard that they've been tearing London apart."

"Indeed!" Merlin groaned, stroking his beard with a furrowed brow. "But the Heartless are nowhere near intelligent enough to target London specifically, and they only began their attacks after that man in black arrived."

"Well, do you think somebody's controlling them?" Kairi tilted her head, frowning faintly. "It's happened before, with Ansem and Maleficent."

"Ansem and Maleficent?" Wart blinked. "Who're they?"

"People you never want the misfortune of knowing. Conjurers of darkness and deceit!" Merlin sneered, leaning back in his seat. He let his arms fall to his chest and rested them on top of one another. "But, yes, I do believe there's somebody behind this. If not that man, then someone equally as wicked."

"Then what are we sitting around here for? If the Heartless are that big of a problem, then we can't sit back and let them trash the place." Riku slid to the edge of his stool, propping his head up with one hand. He tapped his fingers against his knee with the other, mulling over Merlin's words. Whether it was one of the Organization's cronies doing the dirty work or some other threat, it didn't change the fact that the world was getting torn apart bit by bit.

"I suppose the proper plan of action," said Merlin, "would be to investigate! If we follow the darkness to its source, then we may very well find our culprit."

"But Merlin…" Wart gazed down at the floor. "What about Sir Ector? If we take off without telling him, he'll probably give me ten more demerits!"

"Gawrsh, ten of 'em?" Goofy nudged the tip of his nose, keeping his eyes on Wart. "But why's he gotta be so hard on ya?"

"It's a mystery for the ages." Merlin sighed, and he leaned towards the huge gap in the wall. "That man is practically a slave driver the way he pushes Wart around, and he has no regard for his education! With that said…" He turned his chair around, leaning over Wart's shoulder. "Where's your sense of adventure? If I recall, you've always had dreams of fantastic feats and heroism."

"Well, yeah, but…" He gulped, scooting his stool forward. "Those are just daydreams. There's no way I could really fight those monsters!"

"How do you know?" Kairi folded her hands in her lap, giving him a warm smile. "You can't give up until you at least try."

"But wouldn't I get in the way?" Wart slumped forward, rubbing the back of his head. "You guys all look like you've been training for years, and I'm just a page."

"So?" said Riku, raising a brow. "That hasn't stopped Kairi, and she's still a beginner." He turned around in his seat, facing her with a faint smirk. "Not that it's stopped her from putting up a good fight."

"Riku…" She gave him a light push, stifling a laugh. "He's right, though. A few weeks ago, I could barely handle a sword, but that never stopped me from trying. Just take it one step at a time."

"And you shouldn't let people push you around." Donald's brow furrowed, and he crossed his arms. "You oughta start sticking up for yourself, or everybody's gonna walk all over you."

Wow, even Donald got into the sappy speech, and that barely ever happened. Still, given Wart's obvious lack of self-esteem, even Donald's words probably worked wonders. It was enough to get him to stop and take a look around, anyway. And when Merlin placed a hand on his shoulder and gave a single nod, Wart mustered up a smile and let out a sigh. Seconds later, he got up from his seat and peered out through the opening in the wall.

"Well," he said, "it sure beats doing dishes."

"There, that's the spirit!" It didn't take long for Merlin to fling himself out of his seat and back on his feet. With one snap of his fingers, he sent the old chair bobbing back towards one of the corners, right next to a chalkboard and a wooden globe. From there he leaned against his wand as if it was a cane, chuckling as Archimedes let out a groan and turned the other way. "Now, shall we be going? Perhaps if we're quick enough, that old buffoon won't realize we're gone."

"Hey, the sooner we get out of here, the better." After all, they weren't accomplishing much with all this small talk. Shaking his head, Riku marched right up to Merlin and placed his hands on his hips. He looked over his shoulder for a moment, waving at the others to follow along. Once they caught up, he turned his attention back to the old wizard. "Where are we headed, anyway? London?"

"Right you are, Riku!" He raised his wand into the air, giving it a short flick before… "Oh, Archimedes! Surely you don't want to spend all day cooped up in that old birdhouse."

"As a matter of fact, I do!" he said, stopping right at the opening. He lifted his chin and put his wings on his hips, almost like they were a pair of arms. "I don't want anything to do with those Heartless."

"What are you afraid of?" Riku grinned, folding his arms over his chest. "An owl like you could probably slip by them undetected."

"Precisely!" Merlin nodded, and he marched right up to the birdhouse, looking Archimedes in the eye. "Now, look here, Archimedes. Even if you do stay, there's no guarantee that you'll be safe. For all you know, there could be Wyverns lurking right outside the tower."

"Oh…" Archimedes groaned, slapping a wing on the top of his head. His eyes turned towards the rickety old roof, where countless umbrellas still covered gaping holes. Then, he leaped into the air and floated over towards the hole. After taking a good look outside, he turned back around, hurrying back to Merlin's shoulder. "Well, all right. But don't blame me if anything goes wrong."

"Aw, shucks," said Goofy, grinning widely. "You don't have to worry about that, long as we're there with ya. We've been fightin' our way through Heartless for a long time now."

"Plus, we've got Merlin on our side." Donald smirked, looking up at the old wizard. "And he's about as good with magic as me!"

"Just about?" Riku rolled his eyes. "That might be an understatement, Donald."

"Okay, fine. But his magic's still gonna come in handy!"

"Well, I can't wait to see you guys fight." With a smile on his face, Wart slipped away from the wall and scurried over to the group. "I've never seen a real battle up close, just Kay's training."

"Just don't forget your lessons, Wart." Merlin shook his head and lifted his wand once again. "Fighting may be necessary these days, but nothing can replace wisdom and knowledge."

Not to mention heart, according to some people. But with Wart and Archimedes both raring to go… or at least willing, there was no point in hanging around the tower any longer. Once again, they all gathered together with Merlin in the middle. A few wand waves brought forth another trail of stars that spiraled around the entire tower. Everything blurred, just like before. The piles of books became shops, inns, and homes lining an empty street. The ceiling and umbrellas gave way to black clouds and lightning bolts that flickered in and out of sight, and a chilly breeze sent shivers down Riku's spine as he stepped over a gaping crack.

They'd made it to London, but already things were getting out of hand.

x.x.x

If it weren't for all the thunder, lightning, and icy breezes, Sora might've gotten some enjoyment out of this old town. Colorful banners hung by the rooftops, although if some of them had scorch marks and others looked as if they'd been shredded by Heartless claws. Smoke crept out of the chimneys on each of the little houses, and as he hopped from rooftop to rooftop, he caught glimpses of stone towers and even a castle or two! All the place really needed was a couple of knights, maybe some princesses, and it'd be the perfect image of medieval times!

But nobody appeared along the barren streets, except for the Heartless. Oh, and there were plenty of 'em, too! Wyverns, both brown and blue, dove down and scraped the rooftops with their talons. Wizards warped around, appearing just long enough to hurl flames or icicles at he scattered shops before they vanished without a trace. Soldiers marched around street corners led by Defenders. There were even some goofy looking Heartless with trumpet-shaped snouts that bounced around and played irritating tunes that had to be off key.

Well, he wasn't gonna sit there and let them have their way. Narrowing his eyes, Sora flung himself from the chimneys, soaring above the Heartless procession. He landed gracefully on all fours and dug his claws into the ground. The Heartless, probably clueless about Sora's true nature, continued to march along, and the trumpet-nosed ones blared high pitched notes that made him shudder. But that wasn't gonna stop him! Once he got past the irritating trills, Sora launched himself straight at one of the Defenders, latching onto its face. Though it tried to knock him away with its dog-like shield, Sora looped around and ripped its backside to shreds. When one Defender fell, he flung himself at the other, shredding it without a second thought.

The funny part was that the Soldiers came to a grinding halt, stood perfectly still for a few seconds, and then bolted down the street like a bunch of cowards. Their trumped-nosed buddies hopped slowly behind, but Sora's green fire made quick work of them. Grinning, he scurried along, launching more fireballs as the Soldiers continued to run. Some of 'em fell flat on their faces and burned away into ashes, while others tripped over one another, landing in a heap. If he had a voice, Sora probably would've burst into laughter from watching them, but instead, he opted to tackle the dog pile and maul his way through it.

Still, a few of the Soldiers got away and continued to hurry along with their hands held high above their heads. They bumped into each other a few times on the way, and another one slipped over a stray rock. A part of him wanted to go easy on these guys or just keep running after them, but even if they did look kinda silly, these guys were still Heartless. That meant they could easily drag this world into darkness if they wanted to! No way was he gonna let that slide, especially for Riku's sake. So, after following the Heartless out into the middle of the town, Sora sank into the ground, reappearing right in the Soldiers' path. They didn't even have time to turn around before he sliced straight through 'em.

He skidded to a stop once the soldiers faded, standing up straight and glancing around. No matter where he looked, he couldn't spot any more Heartless. Not even those pesky Wyverns. After turning around at least three times, he rubbed a hand against his forehead and crouched down once again. He was about to make his way back to one of the rooftops when he heard a shrill, giddy laugh from behind. Jerking forward, his eyes widened, and he whipped around only to come face-to-face with something nasty.

The old hag had a face like a frog, rounded with big eyes that almost bulged right outta her face. One of her teeth poked up from her bottom lip, and she had a pair of bushy, black eyebrows. Her purple hair looked like a shaggy, old mop, and she crept up to him with a crooked looking smile that sent shivers down his spine. Despite her creepy appearance, though, Sora stood his ground, pressing his palms firmly against the pavement. At that, the old hag cackled and folded her hands together.

"Oh my!" she said in a shrill voice. "You're the strangest Heartless I've ever seen!"

Strange? Well… maybe a little, but at least he wasn't going around hurting people! At the hag's words, Sora's brow furrowed, and he pressed his lips together. He even arched his back and dug his claws into the ground for good measure. Maybe it'd scare her off!

But instead, she broke into a fit of twisted laughter, clutching tightly onto her chest. "Oh, how cute! The little Heartless thinks he can scare Madam Mim." He shook her head, wiping a tear from her eye. "Silly boy. If you want to be scary, you'll have to try harder." She took a deep breath, and before he knew it, her stubby nose stretched out into a wart-covered pig's snout, and she leaned right in his face. "Like this!"

Without even thinking, he leaped back a few feet, shuddering at the sight of her. He let out a huff and crossed his arms. I don't know about you, Ven, but I've seen way scarier stuff before.

"Have you now?" Mim snickered, and the pig's snout melted away. "Well, I could always make myself even uglier."

…Wait a sec. Did she actually understand him? Scratching his head, Sora took a step closer to her. Hey, how'd you do that?

She placed her hands on her hips. "You think I can't understand a little darkness?" She held out a hand and snapped her fingers. Within seconds, an oozing black puddle appeared on the ground, and from it emerged a blue, horned head, followed by tattered wings and terrifying talons. The Wyvern hovered close behind her, letting out a snort, while Mim stroked its cheek. "See? It comes easy to me."

…A Heartless. Then was she the one controlling them all? Rather than 'say' anything, Sora lowered his head, narrowed his eyes, and flexed his claws. If she was the one causing trouble in this world, then there was no way he'd let her get away with it! It didn't matter who this old lady was, he'd take her on by himself if he had to.

Once again, Mim let out a cackle, bounding closer to Sora. "Oh, so you want a fight, do you?" The Wyvern behind her snapped its jaws, and she slowly shook her head. "I suppose I can give you a sporting chance. We could make it into a little game."

A game? What kinda twisted witch was she? Shaking his head, Sora puffed out his chest and tilted his chin upward. He stood his ground, even as Mim snapped her fingers again and again, and more oozing puddles of darkness formed along the pavement. She started laughing like crazy, and the moment more Wyverns emerged from below, Sora slid back and scowled. He hurled flames through the air, singeing those pests right on the tips of their snouts, and when they swooped down at him, he sank into the ground, completely missing their torpedo dives.

Even as he tore through the masses, Mim stood perfectly still watching the whole thing with a smug grin. By the time Sora shredded every last Wyvern, she clapped her hands together, and a whole new swarm of 'em burst up from below, while swirling corridors dropped Soldiers in a gigantic heap. He didn't even give them the chance to move before he leaped into the air, whirled around, and ripped through the pile Heartless by Heartless. Even in their goofy armor, those Soldiers barely lasted a second before he reduced them to dark smog.

With the Soldiers gone, he hopped back, landing flat on his feet. He caught a flash of blue zipping by and rolled off to the side the moment the Wyverns' talons neared his face. Sliding towards one of the buildings, he raised his hands into the air, creating rows upon rows of flashing bolts that nailed the Wyverns straight in the backs. They squirmed around helplessly and fell to the ground, and Sora charged, kicking, slashing, and launching his fire at every last one. Before long, he had the whole place cleaned up, free of Heartless. At that point, he turned around, glared at Mim, and folded his arms. Was that really all she could do?

Grinning, she slowly shook her head and stepped back. "Not bad for a warm up," she said, "but now it's time for the real game to begin!"

Sora didn't even get the chance to question her. Before he could make any sudden moves, he felt a strong trembling beneath his feet that sent him toppling backwards. Cracks lined the ground all around him, creating deep fissures in a matter of seconds. Wincing, Sora leaped onto one of the rooftops, even as the ground continued to rumble down below, and he wound up sliding down from the edge. Mim, all the while, stood perfectly still, and a pink glow surrounded her from head to toe. In seconds, she stretched higher and higher, growing like a weed right before his eyes.

x.x.x

Riku and the others had barely made it down the empty streets before they wound up stumbling into one another, falling back against building walls, and nearly forming a huge pile on the ground. Only Archimedes evaded the sudden earthquake, but the guy had wings. Of course he'd luck out. Riku, on the other hand, had to keep pressing his feet firmly onto the ground to avoid losing his footing, and he wound up latching onto Kairi for added support. Donald and Goofy weren't quite as lucky, as the two of them face planted right on the pavement.

Oh, and to make matters worse? A loud BOOM echoed in the distance, followed by a rising trail of smoke. Combine that with the thunder and lightning up above, not to mention the harsh winds, and the whole town looked and sounded just like a disaster zone. What next? Was the sky gonna fall? Gritting his teeth, Riku trudged forward, slamming the tip of his Keyblade right into the ground. He narrowed his eyes, shooting Merlin and Wart a quick glance.

"Any idea what's up?" He groaned, stumbling to the side as the ground shook again. "I kind of doubt the Heartless are behind all this."

"Well," said Merlin, propping his hand against a building, "we'll never know unless we press on! Though, at this rate, that may prove more difficult than I had imagined."

"What, what?" Archimedes blinked, fluttering right above Merlin's hat. "You're going to let a few earthquakes stop you? Why not use your magic and save them the trouble of stumbling around?"

"Yes, well, I'm getting there." Squinting, Merlin raised his wand and tapped it against the broken up concrete. Though the ground shook once more, he stood his ground and muttered a few words under his breath. Soon enough, the quaking came to a complete halt, while the gaping cracks crept close together. They chunks of broken cement squeezed shut, leaving the road ahead perfectly smooth. In spite of the icy winds and the continued thunder up above, at least the ground looked passable now.

At that point, Riku heaved a sigh and ran a hand through his bangs. "Well, at least we won't keep tripping now."

"Yeah, and whenever we find the jerk in charge of all this…" Donald scowled, pulling up his sleeves, "I'll show 'em a thing or two!"

"All in good time, Donald." Merlin chuckled, marching ahead of the group. "But for now, we've got to keep our wits about us. There are many nooks and crannies for our culprit to hide in, not to mention the Heartless."

"Then what do ya think we should do?" said Goofy, scratching his head. "We don't wanna waste any time out here, 'specially if the ground starts shakin' again."

"And did you see all that smoke?" Riku crossed his arms. "This town is a disaster. At this rate, we'd be better off splitting up." Sure, it'd divide them, but at least they'd cover more ground that way. And besides, they had no time to waste.

"Riku's right." Frowning, Kairi drew her sword and pointed to the sky. "Plus, Archimedes can fly. I bet he could find out who's doing all this if he tried."

"What? Are you mad?" Archimedes' face scrunched up, and he ruffled his feathers. "Do you not see the thunder and lightning? If I were to fly high enough to look around, I could get struck!"

"And if we don't do anything, this world could fall apart." His own self-concern really didn't matter at a time like this. Watching him there, Riku rolled his eyes and let out a groan. "C'mon, take some initiative."

"And if you don't," said Merlin, waving his wand, "I could always turn into a bird instead."

"Well, I—" He paused, turning around in the air. His bushy brow furrowed, and he glanced up at the sky. Thunder roared loudly up ahead, and another explosion bellowed in the distance. Archimedes' whole body shook, and he ran one wing against his forehead. Then he let out a sigh, scurrying over to the tip of Merlin's hat. "I suppose I could brave the storm. I'd certainly fair better than the rest of you."

"And what about me, Merlin?" Wart swallowed hard, looking the old wizard in the eye.

"Well, you will provide us with an extra set of eyes. Quite essential at a time like this!" Merlin smiled, placing a hand on his shoulder. With that, he turned to the others. "Now, let's hurry along before this blasted storm gets any worse."

They didn't think twice before splitting off. Donald rocketed ahead of the others, frantically twirling his staff with each step. Goofy nearly tripped when he took off after him, using his shield to deflect any sudden bolts. Archimedes let out a huff and took to the sky, slowly beating his wings and swerving around when lightning shot down at the rooftops. Riku and Kairi exchanged brief glances before they rushed down the street. The wind whipped through the air, knocking them from side to side while small white flakes floated to the ground. A series of distant BOOMS and the continuing rise of smoke trails led them throughout the barren town.

They slipped past shops and houses, eying burning banners and shattered windows along the way. Soldiers swung down from poles and Wyverns appeared from all directions. Riku cringed at the sight of them, slamming them into the ground with a single graviga spell. He and Kairi both charged, jabbing, slashing, launching spell after spell. Mines erupted, Heartless drifted into sleep before Riku sliced through them one by one. The stench of smoke grew stronger the further they progressed. Once again, Riku felt a rumbling beneath his feet, and he grabbed Kairi's hand the moment the pavement cracked and split.

The vibrations made it difficult to keep running. Though they managed to avoid falling over for the most part, the quakes, combined with the rushing winds, made them wobble around with each step. To make matters worse, they kept bumping into Heartless swarms of all shapes and sizes. Wizards warped all over the streets, free from the shaking ground. Neoshadows leaped out of dark alleys and slammed their claws into the stumbling duo. At that point, Riku and Kairi let go of one another and fired spell after spell to nail their attackers. A few Strike Raids sliced through any stragglers, and they continued on their way, following the sound of yet another explosion.

When they finally reached an open square, the two of them skidded to a complete stop. Several of the buildings bore black stains along their walls. The air grew hot and dense, and Riku slapped a hand over his mouth to hold back a cough. Slowly, he and Kairi trudged into the center of the square, leaning against one another for added support. Green embers gathered near stoops and the pavement contained several deep dips, shaped like gigantic footprints of some kind. The quaking paused for a moment, and Riku crouched down, squinting at one of the prints. Four clawed fingers and a palm even bigger than his head… Just what was this thing?

Shaking his head, he followed along the steps with Kairi close behind. They slipped around the corner and through a veil of black smoke, coughing and wheezing on the way. Biting his lip, Riku unleashed a whirlwind to clear the way. The smoky wall split in two, revealing their scorched surroundings for all to see. More black smudges covered the surrounding walls, some of which bore huge dents and cracks. But that wasn't all he spotted as they followed the tracks. No, for a split-second, a flash of black flew right past them, and the two came to an immediate halt.

"Riku…" Kairi placed a hand on his shoulder, looking off to the side. "Is that…?"

That same black blur zipped around the corner without a word. A series of loud stomps followed, growing louder with each passing second. Narrowing his eyes, Riku reached for Kairi's charm and attached it to his Keyblade, which transformed in a flash of white. The stomping grew even louder, and a bright orange light shot straight for them. Wincing, Riku grabbed Kairi's hand and threw himself to the side. The flames flew past them and burned through building's door. The footsteps now sounded like mini explosions, booming one after the other. The ground quivered, and Riku watched as more fire flew through the air. Before long, he caught sight of a hooked, purple snout and a shaggy tuft of hair poking out from around the corner.

The creature's bulky body came into view shortly after, complete with a spiny backside, puny little wings, and stubby legs that carried its girth. The dragon cackled as she squeezed between buildings and entered the scene, tail swishing as she slammed her feet into the ground. Her nostrils flared, and she raised herself onto her hind haunches, towering over Riku and Kairi with ease. Even if she looked more like a bloated blimp than a fierce beast, Riku still kept his weapon at the ready, watching the dragon's every move.

"What's this?" She trudged closer, scratching her snout. "A pair of goody two-shoes children?" She took a deep breath and burst into a fit of laughter. "Oh, how lovely. Now I can really liven things up!"

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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In your nightmares!
Chapter 6: Magical Madness

He saw it with his own two eyes. Even in that ghastly form, there was no mistaking that terrible laugh, that unsightly purple hair, and her penchant for destruction. The moment Archimedes caught sight of Mim, he hastened his flying, swerving between lightning bolts and beating his wings with all his might. The wind threw him about, but despite his fears, he had to keep moving. Madam Mim was a monster! A true force to be reckoned with.

And so, the moment he caught sight of that familiar blue hat, he shot down like a rocket, shouting at the top of his lungs. "Merlin, it's Madam Mim! She's the one behind all this!"

x.x.x

"Liven things up?" Riku raised a brow, placing a hand on his hip. "I don't know, this place looks pretty lively already." Between the earthquakes and thunder storm, it definitely had enough problems. A fire breathing dragon was taking it a little too far.

But the dragon just laughed, lips curling into a toothy grin. She leaned forward, keeping her enormous green eyes locked on Riku. "Nonsense, boy! This is only the beginning." Pausing, she lifted her head back into the air and snapped her fingers. A powerful gust then slammed Riku and Kairi flat against one of the buildings, sending their weapons rattling to the ground. "I have the power to do all kinds of terrible things. It's simply no fun to use it all at once!"

"Riku, maybe we should warn the others." Kairi sighed, and she scooped up her sword. "We'll be stronger if we work as a team."

"But where will we start?" Groaning, Riku stomped towards the dragon, pointing his Keyblade at her chest. "This town's huge, Kairi, and I'll bet you anything this is our target." She had the evil personality down pat, not to mention crazy powers. She could've easily been Maleficent's crazy cousin at this rate.

"Target?" The dragon blinked, narrowing her eyes. "Oho, so you've come to stop me, have you? Come to put an end to my fun?"

"If you're the one destroying this place?" Riku smirked. "Then yeah, that's pretty much why we're here."

"So you think you can defeat Madam Mim?" She shook her head, folding her hands together. "Oh, you're a bold one. Dealing with you should be oodles of fun..."

"Riku, are you sure about this?" Kairi frowned, sliding closer to him. "I know you're strong, but what if something happens?"

"Trust me, Kairi, I can handle this." He looked her in the eye, nodding firmly. "Besides, I've got an idea. Just stick close, and you'll see what I mean."

If he could keep her busy long enough, then maybe it'd buy the others some time. It sure beat going on a wild goose chase looking for them with a dragon hot on their trail. Archimedes was probably up there somewhere; he could've easily spotted Mim by now, especially if she'd been spewing fire all over the place. Though fighting her without backup was probably reckless, he'd pulled off worse stunts before. Right now, they had to do something, and running like cowards would just give her some sick satisfaction. At least this way, they'd see what kind of power she possessed.

"Well, isn't that sweet?" Mim fluttered her eyelashes and pretended to gag. "If there's one thing I hate, it's sickeningly sweet friendship! Now I know I'm going to have more fun with you than that silly little Heartless."

"Then go on," said Riku. "Show me what you've got."

Chuckling, Mim got down on all fours, and her tail swished back and forth. "Oh, I will, but you might want to start running. It won't be any fun if I cook you on the spot, my boy."

Riku glanced over to where the Heartless disappeared. Maybe if they followed his trail, they'd catch up with him. If Mim gave them a head-start, then why let it go to waste? Without a word, he looked to Kairi, pointed off to the side, took her hand, and dashed down the street. From behind, he heard Mim's shrill laughter and the booming of her rapid footsteps. He took just a moment to look over his shoulder, lunging to the side the moment flames spewed from her mouth. She reared her head back and took another deep breath, but this time Riku didn't run. Instead, he launched a blast of ice right into her mouth, making Mim choke and gag, while smoke spewed out of her nostrils. Kairi stifled a laugh and planted some mines. Within seconds, Mim stomped right over them and let out a roar.

"So you think you're being funny, do ya?" She placed her hands on her hips and wrinkled her snout. "Well, we'll see who's laughing after this!"

They barely made it a few yards before the ground rumbled, and spikes of concrete shot up in their path. Biting his lip, Riku slid to a halt, whipping around to face the old dragon. Instead, he came face-to-face with a bright pink rhino that squinted its beady eyes and dug its feet into the ground. Nostrils flaring, Mim lowered her head and took off like a bullet, ready to ram Riku and Kairi right into one of the spikes. Though circular mines glowed all across her path, she swerved between them and continued to charge. Grinding his teeth, Riku stood perfectly still, watching as Mim came closer with each passing second. When she drew close enough, he and Kairi leaped to the side, and Mim slammed head-first into the spiky path, sending chunks of concrete flying through the air.

For a few moments, she stood there in a daze, allowing Riku and Kairi to run up to her and get in a few slashes and jabs before she turned around and gave them a fiery glare. A pink glow wrapped around her body, and before he could blink, Riku found himself squirming in the grip of a long, twisted trunk. Mim raised him to eye level, now much larger than before, and she gave a crooked grin. Kairi, in the mean time, launched flames at her feet, but she didn't budge an inch.

"Trying to outsmart me, eh?" She stomped her feet, slowly turning towards the spiky path. "Well, think again, bucko. The game's just getting started."

He struggled in her grasp, slamming his Keyblade against her trunk, but instead of dropping him, she tightened her grip, squeezing his chest so firmly that he could barely breathe. Gritting his teeth, he shakily aimed the Keyblade at her face, forming a picture in his mind of lightning striking her flat on her shaggy mop of hair. Meanwhile, Mim lifted him right above one of the spikes, waving him back and forth. The ground below them shook and parted, creating a gaping ditch that spread from one building's wall to the next. Bubbles of boiling magma crept out of the pit, threatening Riku with a fiery fate. If he were to shock Mim, he'd wind up falling right into a pool of molten rock.

…Or he could glide over the top if he played his cards right.

Though he struggled to breathe, Riku mustered up a smirk, keeping his weapon pointed right at her face. "Go ahead and drop me," he said. "I dare you."

"Riku!" Kairi's eyes widened, and she took a step back. "What are you doing?"

"Just trust me." He glanced down at the pit, then at Mim. "I've got it covered."

"Do you now?" Mim snickered, squeezing him just a little bit more. "Those are brave words for a little boy. Are you surrendering already?"

"Yes." He nodded, fighting back a laugh. "Yes I am."

And before she could even budge, he shut his eyes and let sparks form around the Keyblade's tip. A beam of lightning nailed her flat on the head, and she reeled back with a scream. Just as expected, she loosened her grip, letting Riku fall towards the lava pit, but rather than let himself get cooked, he flipped around and took off into a glide. In a matter of seconds, he made it past the remaining spikes and onto solid ground.

"Now, Kairi!" he said. "Try hitting her with a status spell."

"Status spell?" She knit her brows together, clutching tightly onto her sword. Mim slowly shook her head and stomped closer to her, prompting Kairi to inch back towards the pit. Narrowing her eyes, she raised her weapon, pointing it directly at Mim's trunk. A dim glow spread from the tip all the way around the old hag, as her movements slowed, and her eyelids grew heavy. Before long, she started wavering back and forth, her legs like limp noodles. Then, she fell flat on her side with a tremendous THUD! That old witch was out cold.

And with Mim temporarily out of the way, Kairi whipped around, cracked a smile, and took off running. When she neared the pit, she shut her eyes and leaped into the air. Riku slipped between spikes and held out his hand, grabbing hold of her the moment she drew close enough. Luckily, he managed to pull her safely away from the ditch and back on dry land. The two of them inched away from the spikes and the lava pit, and for a moment they just stood there, gazing at Mim from a distance.

"That was a close one," said Kairi, tucking some hair behind her ear. She stood up straight, placed her hands on her hips, and looked Riku in the eye. "You could've gotten hurt, you know!" Her eyes narrowed, and she pressed her lips together… only to start laughing a second later. "But I shouldn't expect anything less."

"That's right." Riku shrugged, smiling faintly. "But, hey, nice job with the spell, Kairi. Think we've got enough time to outrun her?"

"Well…" She looked over her shoulder, watching as Mim snorted and squirmed. She placed a hand on her chin and turned back around. "We should probably start moving before she wakes up. I'm not really sure how long it'll hold her."

"Long enough to get a head start, anyway." He shook his head, pointing down the street. "C'mon. If we're lucky, we might be able to catch that Heartless."

Together, they took off running, thankfully on a smooth path. Though the wind continued to blow like crazy, the path generally stayed clear. An occasional Wyvern or Wizard popped up from time, but they continued to plow through their attackers and hurried along. Occasionally, Riku'd stop and look around, trying to catch any shady figures along the rooftops, but nothing remotely suspicious appeared, other than a Neoshadow or two. After stopping for about the third time, he sighed and shook his head, while Kairi placed a hand on his arm. They were just about to take off again, when the abrupt sound of squawking rang through his ears. Eyes widening, Riku bolted for the source of the sound, slipping around some old Inn until…

BANG!

"That oughta show you, you pesky Heartless!"

He skid to a stop, eyes locked on a pile of blackened snow, sizzling from the impact of a thundaga spell. He'd just missed the blow by a couple of inches, watching as a heart twirled up into the air. Just a few feet away, Donald stumbled back and gasped. He looked up at Goofy, who banged his shield on a Soldier's head before giving Riku and Kairi a quick wave. The two of them marched closer, and Donald raised a brow.

"Hey, what's goin' on?" He crossed his arms. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Let's just say I wasn't expecting those kinds of fireworks." Riku sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Besides, we were kind of in the middle of something. Right, Kairi?"

She nodded, looking over her shoulder. "Riku and I ran into some kind of witch. She changed herself into a bunch of different creatures, and we just barely got away."

"A witch?" Goofy scratched his head, swallowing hard. "Gawrsh, that sounds pretty serious! Was she as bad as Ursula and Maleficent?"

"I'm not sure, Goofy." Riku shrugged, brow furrowed. "She's definitely a pain, though. That old hag doesn't just transform; she can create earthquakes and lava pits at the drop of a hat."

"Aw, phooey." Donald groaned, slapping a hand on his face. "Well, I guess it could be worse. We'll just have to do what we've always done and show her who's boss!"

"Is that so? Well, now's your chance, ducky boy!"

…Speak of the devil. A familiar cackle sounded from above, and before long, a fat, old lady swooped down on a battered up broom. She wore a hideous pink dress that fluttered in the wind, exposing her bloomers of all things, and there was no mistaking that shaggy hair or her wild eyes. Mim was back in business, and just as ugly as ever. Well, it was only a matter of time.

"You back for more, witch?" Riku rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. "And here I thought a little beauty sleep would loosen you up."

"Nonsense, boy!" She shook her head, swooping right over him. He had to duck in order to avoid being nailed by the bristles of her broom. When she finally stopped moving, though, she hovered just a few feet from the group. "Your little friend might have held me off for a bit, but I've seen far worse spells from a spinning wheel!"

"Oh yeah?" Donald huffed, tapping his foot. "Well, to us, you're just another old hag."

"Just another? Silly bird." She snickered, lowering herself to the ground. "Could any old hag do this?"

Mim's grin widened, and she snapped her fingers. Instantly, Donald began flailing and squawking at the top of his lungs, as his body grew smaller and smaller. Before long, he reached mouse-like proportions, as if he'd taken the Drink Me bottle back in Wonderland. His face turned a bright red, and he stomped his feet, pumping his arms up and down.

"Why, I oughta…!" His eyes became so narrow, they looked like little slits, and he swept his staff through the air. Luckily for Donald, his own brand of magic brought him back to his regular size in a flash. At that point, he stomped right up to Mim and launched a fireball right at her skirt. Unfortunately, she slid back, twirled her broom, and deflected the flames in an instant.

"A few little tricks won't save you," she said. "It's going to take more than basic spells to win this game."

"Says the witch who let a sleep spell slow her down." Riku groaned, tapping his fingers against his thigh. "Look, if you think you're so great, prove it. So far, I can't say I'm impressed."

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Kairi leaned over his shoulder, speaking in hushed tones. "I know we can handle her, but we shouldn't push her too far."

"Yeah, she might start firin' some real nasty spells if we aren't careful." Goofy gulped, taking a step back. "She's lookin' pretty serious about this!"

If by serious, Goofy meant insane. Yet despite Riku's insults, Mim stood perfectly still, her mouth stretching into a huge grin, as she twiddled her thumbs together. Shaking her head, she clapped her hands, and her broom vanished in a puff of pink smoke. She flexed her arms and puffed out her chest, and then she took two large steps towards the group.

"So you'd like to see what I can do, eh?" She snorted. "Well, I'll give you all a personal demonstration, starting with you!"

She flung her hand forward, pointing at Donald's chest. Though he crinkled his brow and pulled back his staff, he didn't get the chance to shout out any spells. A blast shot forth from the tip of Mim's finger, twirling around his face. His eyes widened, and he stumbled back, swinging his weapon forward, but any sparks at the tip rapidly faded, as a zipper formed around his beak, silencing him before he could say anything beyond 'thu'.

…A silence spell, a spell caster's greatest weakness. Though Donald tried and tried to open his mouth, it just wouldn't budge, and he wound up flailing his staff in a frenzy. With his magic completely stunted, all he could do was charge forward and bang his staff against Mim's knee, but she poofed out of the way, reappearing right behind him long enough to give him a firm smack on the back. He tumbled down to the ground with a soft thud.

"Are you convinced yet?" She shut her eyes, holding onto her chest as she let out a laugh. "Perhaps you should run while you still have the chance."

As Donald pushed himself back to his feet, she delivered a swift kick to his side, sending him bouncing down the street. Immediately, Goofy leaned back and charged, pulling his shield back and driving it into Mim in a frontal blow. Unfortunately for him, Mim disappeared once more, and Goofy stumbled over thin air, landing belly-first on the ground.

This wasn't working at all. Though Goofy and Donald both got up fairly quickly and rushed at Mim for round two, she continued to warp all over the place, occasionally launching fire, ice, and even a little lightning to shake things up. Then, when Goofy hurled his shield at her from the side, she whipped around and snapped her fingers, transforming his once sturdy weapon into a cloth pillow that flopped on the ground. Narrowing his eyes, Riku slid back and launched the Keyblade at Mim's spine, watching her cringe and roll forward. Unfortunately, she whipped back around and waved her finger, sending a blast straight at the Keyblade. He had to roll to the side in order to avoid getting hit, and the little blast decimated the board of a nearby building. Just the sight of the smoke and ash made him shudder.

Meanwhile, Kairi kept her distance, planting a few mines and swerving out of the path of Mim's assortment of spells. A path of spikes jutted up from the ground, trailing right after Kairi without pause. Flurries of wind twirled and rushed at her from the front. Luckily, she slipped away from the spikes, and the whirlwinds flew past her and rustled the dangling banners up above. When a row of lightning bolts flew her way, Riku bit his lip and threw himself in her path, allowing her to get out of the way and back over to the others. An aeroga spell dulled the pain of the bolts, reducing it to a minor sting, and he hurried back over to the others the moment Mim waved her hands and chanted another spell.

Unfortunately, instead of concrete, his shoes brushed up against a slick, icy surface that sent him sliding directly into the door of a nearby shop. He managed to break the fall with his hands, but before he could so much as turn around, he felt a jolt run down his spine, shaking in pain. Biting his lip, he sluggishly turned around, eying Mim as she waved her finger in circles in the air. He managed to lunge out of the way when another bolt nailed the stoop. In the distance, he caught sight of Kairi raising her sword, as a circle of purple magic spread out, nailing Mim from behind. Bubbles oozed above her head, and she winced and stumbled around, coughing and hacking from the poisonous spell. Seizing this opportunity, Riku rushed at her, pulling his weapon back and driving it into her chest. She flew back into the Inn's window, briefly vanishing from sight.

But it didn't last long. Just like before, she reappeared in a puff of smoke, her face a bright red. She pulled back her lips, showing off her uneven teeth, and pulled back both of her arms, throwing her fists forward and launching a barrage of flames directly at him. In order to avoid being cooked, he had to keep ducking, sliding, rolling, and running. But although the flames missed, she raised her hands again, sending another attack whizzing through the air.

Eyes widening, Riku performed another roll, but Mim kept launching an assortment attacks, and every time he fought back, she'd either disappear or immediately counterattack. After about a minute or two of constant dodging, his movements slowed. Another spell flew straight at his head and, with no other choice, he raised the Keyblade to block.

Bad idea.

The spell didn't bounce back at all. Instead, it struck the Keyblade at full force, and its hard hilt softened and squirmed in his grip. The blade itself wiggled and hissed, metal becoming scales, and its teeth becoming a reptilian head with snapping jaws. And, judging by the fan around its head, this wasn't any old snake. The moment it reared its head back, Riku flung it to the ground. But, oh, it still tried to strike, launching its head straight at his feet. Though he kept jumping out of the way, it persisted again and again.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense. How could she turn his Keyblade against him? Wasn't it supposed to be a legendary weapon? Yet here he kept seeing it lunge, face-first at his legs. Those fangs, that hissing, the way it swayed back and forth, mesmerizing him with its terrifying dance. When he reached out and tried to summon it again, he found himself holding that squirming snake a second time. When he threw it to the ground, it just slithered back. Everything around him, from his friends to Mim, became a blur as he continued to slip away from its venomous fangs.

"Riku, what are you-"

A muffled voice called out to him, but he didn't respond, too fixated on the serpent that began coiling itself around his leg. Reaching up to his chest. Staring him in the eyes with a piercing gaze.

"Hey, snap out of it, pal!"

Snap out of it? What were they talking about? Didn't they see-

"Riku!"

BAM. A cold blast struck him in the back. The next thing he knew, he felt a sharp sting across his face, as he landed flat on the ground. There he stayed for several seconds, still. Silent. He half expected the sharp sensation of fangs digging into his skin.

Instead, he heard footsteps hurrying over to his side, and when he lifted his head, he saw Kairi kneeling in front of him with an outstretched arm. Donald and Goofy stood right behind her. And that cobra he'd fretted over appeared nowhere in sight. His eyes darted around the area, skimming for any signs of venomous reptiles. Still nothing. With that, he took Kairi's hand and sluggishly got back to his feet.

"Thanks, Kairi," he said, rubbing a hand across his forehead. "I don't know what came over me."

"Don't mention it, Riku." She shut her eyes and laughed softly. "I figured it was my turn to help you."

"But what happened to ya, anyway?" Goofy tilted his head, giving it a scratch. "Ya looked like you were tryin' to get away from somethin'."

"Yeah, because I was." He scowled, looking over at Mim. "She must've done something to my head." And just to test that theory, he flicked his wrist. A white glow surrounded his entire hand, and before long he felt the familiar, firm hilt of the Keyblade, still bearing Kairi's charm. Try as she might, that witch hadn't done a thing to stop him, and so Riku raised his weapon in her direction and chuckled dryly. "I'll give you props for a pretty convincing illusion, hag, but don't think I'm through with you."

"Or the rest of us!" Goofy nodded, lowering his brow. "We're not callin' it quits until we've saved this world, even if that means fightin' without magic or weapons."

Donald swished his staff around, giving a silent nod. At that point, Mim slowly shook her head, remaining perfectly still.

But so what? It wasn't like she could pull off the same trick twice. "So, now what are you going to do? Make us see pink elephants?"

"Oh, I've got a few ideas." Mim snickered, twirling her finger around. "After all, you're the one who used that lovely sleep spell earlier."

Kairi narrowed her eyes, grip tightening on her sword. She took two slow steps closer to Mim, keeping her weapon at her side. A part of Riku wanted to step out in front of her, to do something to help, but any sudden moves might lead to complications. Instead, he slowly followed by her side, ready to strike if Mim made any sudden moves.

Taking a deep breath, Kairi gazed down at her sword, then back at Mim. "Well, what kind of ideas? I'm…" She paused for a moment, cracking a weak smile. "I'm sure that a witch like you could do just about anything."

Wait, what was she doing? Trying to bluff? Riku raised a brow, keeping his eyes locked on Kairi. This could either end up a brilliant idea or a big mistake. But given Mim's ego, maybe it wouldn't hurt to play along.

So, with a smug grin he stepped forward, propping the Keyblade on his shoulder. "I have to admit, you do seem like you could pull off something huge if you tried."

"It's true!" said Mim, folding her hands together. "If I wanted to, I could turn you both into mice or shrink you down to the size of a fly."

"But that's nothing special." Riku shrugged. "Donald's changed me a few times already, and I bet he's got nothing on you."

Just a few feet away, he caught sight of Donald stomping frantically and shaking his fist. Maybe he went a little too far with that one, but hey, at least it kept her from pulling off more crazy spells. In fact, that little remark made Mim's grin grow even wider, and she let out a soft chuckle.

"You're right, it is nothing. Nothing at all!" She stroked her chin, pacing back and forth. "But I could always force you all to break into song and dance. Can you imagine it?"

Kairi covered her mouth, fighting back a laugh. "But why stop there? I bet you could go even further than that."

"Perhaps I should dress you all in pink dresses, too," said Mim. "Something extra frilly for the boy."

Okay, that was taking it a little too far. If the circumstances weren't so dire, he would've slapped his palm over his face and let out a groan. Instead, Riku shook his head, forcing himself to keep grinning. He shot a quick look to Kairi, silently pointing at Mim. Nodding, she took a few steps to the side, inching just a tiny bit closer to that witch. Donald and Goofy both trudged towards her from behind, Goofy carrying his former shield while Donald swished his staff back and forth. With Mim preoccupied with her boasting, maybe they'd get a chance to turn things around. All they'd have to do is keep buttering her up. Already, it seemed like an easy task.

And so Riku ran a hand through his hair and rolled his eyes. "Singing and dancing are nice and all, and dresses might be a little embarrassing, but c'mon. Is that really all a great witch can do? Where's your originality?" He paused, leaning forward. "I bet even Maleficent could pull off something better than that."

Surprisingly enough, Mim's eyes widened at Maleficent's name, and she gasped. Seconds later, her face scrunched up into a sneer, and she rolled her hands into fists. "Maleficent? Bah! I have more power in one little finger than that pale-faced, oversensitive old toad! Throwing a sixteen year fit over a princesses' birthday and getting defeated by 'true love'! And then she tried using a child to do her dirty work…"

The very moment she mentioned 'a child,' a green ball of fire shot down from the air, nailing her on the top of her head. Her purple mop of hair ignited in an instant, and at the same time, Goofy slammed the pillow against the back of her head, while Donald struck her leg. As each attack hit, she let out an agonizing scream and stumbled around, nearly falling flat on her rump.

A shady figure scurried across the rooftops, launching another fiery blast. And another. Each time, Mim screamed at the top of her lungs, darting all over the street. Her eyes became bloodshot, smoke flew out of her nostrils, and she turned her head in all directions, as if searching for the source of her pain. It gave Donald and Goofy another chance to nail her with their weapons, and Kairi even dropped a few more mines as she slipped between flames. Each one went off with a resounding BOOM, making Mim's hair stand up straight.

Eventually, she came to a stop, hunched forward, eyes nothing but slits. Her shoulders shook, and she slowly raised one hand and pointed it directly at Kairi's sword. "Oh, that does it, you little devils! I've had enough of your trickery."

She started to laugh, starting out low and throaty, while her finger started to glow. Though Goofy and Donald nailed her again, she didn't budge, and with a single flick, she unleashed a blast that whipped around Kairi and struck the hilt of her sword. Running didn't make a difference. In the blink of an eye, her weapon broke off into a swarm of pink butterflies, all of which fluttered away, caught fire, and disappeared. Then Mim's body started glowing pink again, it stretched high above the surrounding buildings, and her features shifted back to a familiar, reptilian form.

So there they were, a total wreck, with nothing to fight back other than the Keyblade and Donald's staff. One wrong move, and that could easily change. If Mim really wanted to, she could probably nail them all with silence, change them into ridiculous forms, or burn them to a crisp. So what were they supposed to do now? Run around like cowards? Merlin and Wart were still nowhere in sight. That Heartless continued launching flames, but he still refused to show himself. And worst of all, Madam Mim was completely unpredictable.

It'd take a miracle to get them out of this mess. Something beyond a few magic tricks and smart thinking.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Last one for today! :D The finale for The Sword in the Stone, hehe.

---

Chapter 7: Miracles and Indecision

They'd been watching for several minutes now. How could they not be? The moment Archimedes arrived, shouting about Mim and her magic, Merlin picked up the pace, forcing Wart to scurry along right behind him. Now they stood just a few yards from an old churchyard, where and old stone and anvil rested behind a short, metal fence. From between the buildings, they witnessed it all, from Mim's spells changing the weapons of Riku's friends to her gruesome transformation back into a dragon.

"It's a good thing you found me, Archimedes," said Merlin, stroking his beard. "Why, I should have known that blasted Mim was here!"

"But what're we gonna do, Merlin?" Wart frowned, poking his head out into the street. He slipped back, however, when a fireball flew his way. "Those guys are in serious trouble."

"Well, they shouldn't have encouraged her." Archimedes sighed, shaking his head. "If they had any sense in them, they would have gone looking for us on the double."

"Now, Archimedes, you shouldn't be so hard on them." Merlin's brow furrowed, and he watched as the whole group darted off in different directions. "They've faced terrible foes in the past, such as Maleficent, a witch with incredible black magic."

Archimedes feigned a smile, fluttering his wings. "And did Maleficent change their weapons into butterflies?"

"Well, of course not," said Merlin. "Maleficent would never do something so juvenile, and that's what sets the two of them apart. Mim is far less composed. Why, I'd dare say she's psychotic by comparison."

"Then how're we gonna help them?" Wart gazed up at Merlin, tilting his head to the side. "There has to be something we can do."

"And there is, my boy." Merlin chuckled, lifting his wand. "I'll see to it myself that Mim ceases this madness. After all, I'm sure she'd rather deal with me."

"That's great, Merlin! I just wish I could help, too," said Wart. "All I've done so far is watch, and those guys tried so hard to cheer me up earlier."

"Now, now." Merlin smiled, taking a step closer to Mim and the others. He stopped briefly, turning to face Wart. "Just showing you care makes quite a difference."

With that, Merlin marched right into the madness, stepping between soaring fireballs and leaping Heartless. Wart and Archimedes, however, stayed behind, Archimedes muttering something under his breath, while Wart peered down at the ground. He scratched his head, letting out a sigh, and before long, Archimedes looked down at him and perched himself right on his shoulder.

"You know, boy, you don't have to fuss over their senseless fighting." He paused, looking off towards the churchyard. "But I suppose if you do want to help, you could always get them a proper weapon."

"But how?" Wart blinked, looking Archimedes in the eye. "All the shops look closed right now, and…"

"Who says you need to visit a shop?" He chuckled, pointing his wing at the stone and anvil, not to mention the sword inside. "There's a sword right there. Why not see if you can pull it?"

"Well…" Wart hesitated, taking two small steps towards the churchyard. "I guess it's worth a try."

x.x.x

Black marks covered the entire street and surrounding shops. At this point, Mim kept rearing her head back and spewing flames in all directions, even when Riku and his friends lunged out of her path. Despite her constant spewing of flames and the occasional claw swipes, they managed to get in a few solid hits. With the Keyblade fully functional, it wasn't a major challenge, and even Kairi still managed a few spells, even without proper weaponry. Unfortunately, this hardly deterred that old hag. She just kept launching one attack after the other, calling upon Heartless to make matters worse. Dark corridors filled the air, dropping Wyverns, Defenders, Neoshadows, and even a few freakish Heartless with trumpet snouts that bobbed up and down to heal their companions. It all made dealing with her a colossal pain. Even the assistance from their Heartless ally didn't make a difference. Not really.

Riku managed to roll out of a diving Wyvern's path and slip between two pouncing Neoshadows when he caught sight of a familiar face marching into the street. That blue robe and pointy hat, matched with his bushy beard easily stood out among the wreckage all around them, and he found himself heaving a sigh of relief. Finally, Merlin was there. Maybe he'd be able to sort this out. If nothing else, he'd probably be able to get their gear back.

And so Riku smirked, sliding away from a Defender's shield and giving a quick wave. "And here I thought you'd never show."

"Yes, well, you can thank Archimedes for that." Merlin groaned, stomping right up to Mim and giving her a tap on the leg. "Now, Mim! Enough is enough."

Mim's jaws snapped shut, and she whipped her head around, glaring down at Merlin through her bloodshot eyes. "Oh, so you decided to show up here, you old bungler? Well, I'm afraid you're too late."

"Too late? You listen here." He narrowed his eyes, adjusting his glasses. "I demand that you stop tormenting this group at once, and I'm not going to take no for an answer."

Man, despite being faced with an enormous dragon, Merlin still managed to stand his ground. If it weren't for all the Heartless diving at him and his friends, Riku would've kicked back and watched the whole thing unfold. Instead, he opted to listen while occasionally knocking Heartless out of his path.

Mim took a step back, sitting down on her haunches. She pulled back her lips, showing off all her jagged teeth. "And what are you gonna do about it? Want to fight?" She lowered her head so it was level with Merlin's. "Want a wizard's duel?"

"A wizard's duel?" Riku blinked, slashing a Wyvern in the face. "And what's that supposed to be?"

Donald tried to say something, but with his mouse zipped shut, all that came out was some muffled moans.

Luckily, Merlin wasn't so inconvenienced. He looked over at the group for a moment and said, "It's a battle of wits. One where the two challengers change forms in an attempt to destroy each other."

"Destroy?" Goofy gasped, slapping his hands over his mouth. "Gawrsh, Merlin, are ya sure that's a good idea? This ol' witch is real nasty!"

"Oh, believe me, I know." He sighed, turning back to Mim. "And I accept, Madam, on the condition that you undo the spells you've cast on this boy and his friends."

"Only if they stay out of this, Merlin." Her tail flicked, and she looked at Riku from the corner of her eye. "We wouldn't want to make things unfair, now, would we?"

"Oh, they were already unfair, witch." Riku rolled his eyes. "I don't see why you should—" Before he could finish, Kairi shot him a pointed look, and he shut his mouth on the spot. After that last mess, maybe it would be better to let Merlin handle her for now. Besides, they were all a mess.

With that, Merlin nodded, leaning against his wand. "I think that's more than fair, Madam, so long as you don't cheat."

"Me, cheat?" Mim snickered, letting a puff of pink smoke surround her. It made a popping sound, and when the smoke cloud faded, she returned to her squatty, ugly old appearance. "Oh, Merlin, I won't cheat at all." She grabbed onto his cheek, giving it a tug. "In fact, I won't even use these Heartless."

With a snap of her fingers, all the remaining Heartless, vanished from sight, leaving the street entirely empty, save for Mim, Merlin, and Riku's group. It didn't end there, though. Mim snapped her fingers a second time, and in a matter of moments, Donald's beak unzipped, and the fluffy pillow in Goofy's hands hardened back into solid metal. Butterflies rose from the ashen ground and flocked back over to Kairi, meshing together to reform her sword.

"Now then…" Mim clasped her hands together, and a broad grin lined her face. "If you don't mind, I'll make the rules."

Well, that was a good idea. If she made the rules, she'd probably just cheat, but, oddly enough, Merlin nodded, allowing Mim to continue.

"Rule one, no vegetable or mineral, only animal." She held up two fingers and continued. "Rule two, no make believe things like… oh, pink dragons and stuff. Rule three, no disappearing—"

"Rule four, no cheating." Merlin scowled, groaning when Mim grabbed onto his nose and gave it a pinch.

With that, the two of them turned around and paced off, with Mim counting out the steps. Unfortunately, while Merlin moved forward without hesitation, Mim stayed perfectly still, marching in place. Not only that, but her body became increasingly transparent, until it vanished from sight. Already, she'd pulled a sick trick, and if that was the case, why should they sit around and do nothing?

Shaking his head, Riku called out to Merlin. "Hey, look out! She disappeared."

Immediately, Merlin came to a stop, whirling around the moment a pair of beady eyes appeared, followed by rows and rows of teeth. A bulky, pink body lined with scales appeared right in front of them, smiling sickly with a long snout. Mim, now a crocodile snapped her jaws right at Merlin's face, but instead of taking a bite out of him, his body disappeared in blue smoke, leaving only his hat. At that point, Mim licked her lips and reached right into the hat. Then she let out a high-pitched scream, shaking her hand.

The hat fell to the ground, revealing a tiny blue turtle with bushy eyebrows that latched onto one of her fingers with an iron grip. Not bad for a first move. Unfortunately, Mim managed to shake him off after a few seconds, rushing after Merlin with her mouth wide open. And given that he was stuck as a turtle, he barely stayed ahead of her…

At least until, with another puff of smoke, he went from a turtle to a bright blue rabbit, complete with a bushy mustache. With his new form, her hopped along at a rapid speed, staying just a hair ahead of Mim. Of course, she didn't let up that easily. Once she came close enough, she clamped her jaws down on his tail, ripping off the fluff. At that point, Merlin began scolding her, only for Mim's scaly body to shrink down, gain a bushy fur coat and a fluffy tail. She became a small fox and darted after him, and the two wound up running laps around the surrounding buildings.

"Bah!" Donald hissed, shaking his fist in the air. "Do something, Merlin!"

"Yeah," said Goofy, "try turnin' into somethin' even bigger! That oughta do the trick."

But Merlin didn't become something bigger. With Mim hot on his trail, the two scurried off into an alleyway, briefly vanishing from sight. However, from a distance, Riku did catch sight of something blue squirming along the pavement, like some kind of worm. Then he caught sight of Mim's head poking out from behind a building, and she started to laugh. Before long, her furry body became plump and feathery, a bright pink chicken that scurried after Merlin even as he climbed up the wall of one of the shops. She leaped into the air and latched onto his tail, pulling him down towards the ground and letting go once she'd stretched him far enough. The moment she released her grip, he flew up into the air…

And as he plummeted down, his body grew big and bulbous, and he gained a pair of tusks beneath his whiskers. Though Mim scurried out of his path, she sound wound up squashed beneath his blubbery body, feathers flying through the air. At that point, Riku couldn't contain himself. He burst into a fit of laughter, and so did all his friends. This fight was less like a battle and more like a two-man comedy routine. Who knew a battle to the death could be so silly?

Sadly, Merlin's victory didn't last very long. Soon he got hoisted into the air as a pink, bulky body grew bigger and bigger. He frantically looked around, eyes wide, only to get scooped up by Mim's trunk, as she held him to eye level and scowled.

"You big blimp!"

Instantly, Merlin shrank down to the size of a mouse. In fact, that's exactly what he became, and he made a face at Mim that made her release her grip and reel back, shrieking at the sight of him. Seconds later, she let out a roar, gaining a striped, fur coat, a cat-like physique, and razor sharp teeth. Mim chased after Merlin, leaping into the air in an attempt to squash him, but he zipped out of her way right on time, rushing right up to her tail to take a bite…

But that tail began to rattle, and Mim's body became long and slender. She loomed over Merlin, a forklike tongue whipping through the air. Then, she pulled back her head and prepared to strike, but when she made her move, she wound up striking her own body instead; Merlin had managed to zip out of the way in the nick of time.

Though she tried to make chase, Merlin managed to stay one step ahead of her, crawling into a hole in the pavement below. Then, when Mim leaped down to get him, Merlin leaped outta the way, abandoning his rodent form for a nice set of pincers and six crab legs. When Mim's head came up he snapped his claws, but she kept ducking back into the hole. She did this a few more times until, instead of a snake's head, a horn appeared. And once Merlin latched onto it, the ground below him erupted as Mim, now back in rhino form, called him out for playing rough and charged at one of the buildings. She stormed right up to one of the doors, picking up the pace with each step…

And then Merlin let go, allowing Mim to bust straight through the door with a loud CRASH!

Bricks and splinters flew through the air, as Mim stomped over to Merlin and unleashed a huge blast of flames. She'd returned to her dragon form, still huge, and still purple. Then, once she drew close enough, she scooped Merlin up by one of his legs, dangling him over the ground.

"Now, Mim!" Merlin gulped, squirming in her grip. "I thought you said no dragons!"

"Did I say no purple dragons?" Mim's voice grew louder with each word, and she pressed her snout right against his shell. "Well, did I?"

"That's just an excuse!" Riku jerked forward, pointing the Keyblade at her head. "And that makes two times you've cheated, hag."

"And if you can cheat…" Donald pulled up his sleeves and took a step back, but Goofy grabbed onto the collar of his shirt and shook his head.

"Fellers, wait! Remember what happened before?"

"Goofy's right." Kairi frowned, grabbing onto Riku's arm. "We have to think this through."

"But what's the point?" Mim snickered. "I've already won."

"Have you now?" Merlin snapped his claws, and though Mim tried to squash him between her enormous hands, it didn't work; the moment she slapped her hands together, only a few blue twinkles remained.

But while it seemed like Merlin had disappeared, his voice still lingered in the street.

Perhaps you should have put a bit more thought into your transformation, Madam…

"Merlin?" She looked around, scratching her head. "Now, no disappearing…"

Oh, but I'm still here, Mim. I'm simply very small. A disease, in fact… I'm called malignalitaloptereosis.

Mim gasped, latching onto her neck. "No, you wouldn't…!"

You never did say no to microscopic organisms.

…Perfect. Not only did Merlin catch Mim completely off guard, but he managed to outsmart her while sticking to the rules. And so, as Mim's purple body turned pale and spotty, and she went through a series of hot and cold flashes, Riku gave the old wizard a round of applause. Soon he was joined by Kairi, Donald, and Goofy, much to Mim's chagrin. She wound up whining and tugging at her hair, all while kicking her feet around and spewing smoke out her nose. Her thrashing only increased when Merlin finally reappeared in human form, shaking his head as he turned away from the sickly dragon and marched back over to his hat.

"Now, then," he said, "you'll be needing plenty of rest, Madam, and lots of sunshine. And I advise avoiding the Heartless now, or they might prey upon your vulnerable state."

Mim let out another moan, and she burst into tears. Between sobs, she muttered something about how she hated sunshine, but otherwise, she remained perfectly still. At that point, Riku and the others waltzed right up to Merlin, each of them letting out a collective sigh and facing him with a smile.

"I've gotta admit," said Donald, "that was some of the best magic I've ever seen!"

"Yeah, no kidding." Riku grinned, placing a hand on his hip. "We really owe you one, Merlin. Thanks for getting us out of that mess."

"Think nothing of it, lad." Merlin beamed, tapping him on the shoulder. "Why, if it weren't for her nasty tricks, I imagine you would have had the entire situation under control."

"But we wouldn't have been able to make her sick." Kairi laughed. "Even a poison spell couldn't do that."

"Perhaps not, but getting her to prattle on about Maleficent was still clever." He chuckled. "In any case, I suppose all that's left is to locate the Keyhole and…" He blinked, glancing around. "Oh, confound it all. Where on earth are Wart and Archimedes?"

"Ya mean they're not with ya?" Goofy frowned, scratching his head. "Gawrsh, I sure hope they're doin' okay."

"Well, we'd better get a move on. Perhaps they're still over by the churchyard…" Merlin raised his wand, pointing down the street. "Come along, and I'll show you what I mean."

It wasn't like they had any other leads, and besides, what if some Heartless were still hanging around? If there was even a small chance, they needed to get over there and make sure those two were still in one piece. So, naturally, Riku and his friends followed along, leaving Mim to grieve on her own. They marched past several more buildings and around the corner, and as they went, Riku heard a faint chanting from afar. Were there actual people around now? Squinting, he looked past a few more buildings. What he saw next stopped him dead in his tracks, along with everyone else.

People gathered all around the churchyard, surrounding a little black fence. Tall, muscled men, scrawny kids, and even a few elderly fellows stood there, circled around what looked like some kind of stone, and that's not all. Right in the middle of the crowd stood Wart, holding onto some kind of sword. The people all shouted at once to 'hail King Arthur'. But wait, where was this so-called king?

A familiar brown feather-ball zipped over to the group, soaring over the heads of the crowd behind him. When he came to a stop, Archimedes perched himself on Merlin's hat, breathing heavily.

"You won't…" He raised a wing and pointed at Wart. "You won't believe what happened here!"

"So what's going on?" Riku raised a brow. "And what's Wart doing out there?"

"Ah, I know exactly what happened." Merlin smiled, bringing a hand to his chin. "It all makes sense now. King Arthur and the knights of the round table…"

"Could you be more specific?" said Riku, tapping his fingers on his thigh. "Who exactly is this Arthur guy?"

"Why, it's…" Archimedes paused, puffing out his chest. "It's the Wart! He pulled that sword from an old anvil, and now he's got a whole slew of people calling him king."

"Then shouldn't we go congratulate him?" said Kairi, stepping out in front of the others. "It looks like his life's about to change for the better."

It seemed kind of odd that he'd wind up king over something like that. Wasn't there supposed to be a tournament? And while Wart definitely deserved better than the rough treatment he got from Sir Ector and Kay, it seemed like a pretty massive jump. Still, being caught in the middle of that mob was probably overwhelming. The least they could do was bail him out of there. And so they all marched into the churchyard, squeezing through the masses of shouting men until, at last, they made it to Wart himself.

But before they could so much as open their mouths, Riku's Keyblade appeared in his hand, and it vibrated in his grip. The surrounding crowd became completely silent, save for a few gasps and faint whispers. Then, when Riku glanced at the stone an anvil, he caught sight of an all too familiar shape. A Keyhole-shaped gap rested at the very top, clear as day. And although he'd be showing off among a crowd of complete strangers, there was no reason to hold back. Without a word, Riku pointed his weapon straight at the Keyhole, letting a beam of light fill the gap and seal the world from darkness.

Those last storm clouds in the sky floated away, letting the rays of the sun shine down on Riku, his friends, and, of course, Wart… or rather, Arthur. The crowd broke into another fit of shouting, going on and on about miracles ordained by heaven. While it was all fine and dandy, though, Riku wasn't one for large mobs, and so he propped a hand up on Arthur's shoulder and pushed through the crowd with the others close behind. They didn't stop to look back and see if anyone would follow, continuing to move until they made it to a quiet alley, where at last the group gathered around, eyes locked on Wart himself.

"So, King Arthur, huh?" Riku smirked, tapping his chin. "You know, it's got a nice ring to it."

"You really think so?" said Wart, shuffling in place. "I mean, I don't know if I'm cut out to be king. It sounds like a huge responsibility, and where do I start?"

"Well, you've got plenty of time to learn the ropes, lad." Merlin leaned over his shoulder and lifted his chin. "And I assure you that you'll be a fine king. Why, they'll even write legends about you."

"And besides," said Donald, waving his finger, "now nobody's gonna push you around!"

"Yup! You'll get treated with lots of respect." Goofy grinned. "And you'll probably get your own knights and maybe even a queen someday!"

"A queen?" Wart laughed shakily, running a hand against his neck. "I… I don't know about that. I'm only twelve, so…"

"You've got plenty of time, Arthur." Kairi giggled, lacing her hands behind her back. "Just take it one step at a time. You'll figure it out."

So much had changed over the course of a day. Not only did Riku and his friends learn about some of the Organization's actions, but they encountered a wild sorceress, countless Heartless, and even got to see a boy crowned king. Despite the challenges they faced, they still came out on top, saving a world from the looming darkness and the one who tried to control it. True, they still had a replica problem to deal with, and true, they never did get a chance to speak with their Heartless ally, but their journey was only just beginning. There was no way Riku'd give up now.

x.x.x

"So, why didn't you go to him, Sora? I'm sure he'd understand."

I know that, Ven, but… it's just not the right time.


Perched on a rooftop, Sora gazed up at the sky, looking at the sunbeams shimmering down on the streets below. He leaned over the roof's edge, crouched down on his knees. Right now, he probably looked like a creepy gargoyle with spiky hair, but that didn't really matter. Everyone was out cheering for the new king. Nobody would see him, and if they did, he'd just have to move outta the way. No big deal.

"But is hiding really gonna help?" said Ven, "There's gotta be some other way to handle it."

But what? Sora frowned, shoulders sagging. You know I don't wanna worry 'em, and we still haven't found a way to change back.

Granted, they'd been pretty busy helping out in Hollow Bastion, not to mention looking out for that creepy fake Riku. The fate of the worlds and his friends definitely took priority over his own appearance.

Still, Ven seemed to have his own ideas. "Couldn't you talk to Merlin? You saw how he handled that witch. I bet he could change you back easily!"

You know… Sora's eyes widened, and he threw himself onto another rooftop. I bet you're right! Merlin's got all kinds of magic. If he can turn himself into a germ, then he can definitely get me outta this form.

But… was that really a smart move? For a moment, Sora stopped, folding his arms over his chest. On one hand, getting back to normal would mean no more hiding. He'd be able to go back to his friends, and together they could finally see the worlds together. Riku wouldn't have to worry so much, and he'd definitely get to see Kairi up close again, and maybe he could apologize for all his screw-ups. But on the other hand, he'd lose all his new powers. His speed, his ability to sink into the ground and travel through portals would all go away. These were all powers he could use to make a difference. Much as he missed his friends and being able to speak, was now really the time to return to the light?

He waffled over it for what seemed like hours, but was probably more like five or ten minutes. Torn between the easy way out and lending a hand, Sora stayed right on that roof, scratching his head, pacing on all fours, and letting out the occasional sighs. Then, out of the blue, he caught sight of a familiar man marching down the street, twirling his wand while an owl rested on his hat. Merlin was there, right in plain sight! If he wanted to, he could easily hop down and get things sorted out. Now was the perfect chance!

Sora did slide up to the edge of the roof, and he did think about taking the plunge, but as Merlin passed him by, he felt a sinking sensation in his chest. Maybe… it wasn't the right time after all. Not when there was still so much to do, like checking in on other worlds, figuring out what that fake Riku was planning, and making up for what he did before. Taking the easy way out just didn't seem right, and if he ever changed his mind, maybe Merlin would still be there, willing to help him out.

For now, he'd continue to watch from the shadows.

x.x.x

Many drawings lined the walls of a pale room, where a single girl rested on the edge of a bed, etching away in silence. The drawings ranged from sunset shores to idealized images of shooting stars and two young children standing hand-in-hand. Some of the pictures showed two best friends fighting one another in a cryptic castle, Keyblade against sword, sketched in excruciating detail. Then there were a few… stranger pictures, like a boy getting struck in the chest by a blackened Key, while his best friend watched, horrified. When the girl looked at this picture, she shuddered, sliding over to the image and pulling it from the wall.

"What's this? You're all alone?"

The girl pressed her hand against the wall, shutting her eyes tightly. She knew that voice. It was one of them, the Organization. The same people who took her here, gave her purpose, and forced her to live a lie by planting fake memories inside two innocent boys. When they weren't around, some of the members brought this to her attention. Larxene, the only female in the group, called her a witch, using harsh words to intimidate her. Marluxia always seemed to approach her when nobody else was around, complimenting her skillful manipulation, but she knew it wasn't sincere.

But when she turned around, she didn't see either of them. Instead, she came face to face with a tall, lanky man with spiky red hair.

"Afraid to speak up?" The man waltzed right up to her, slapping a hand on her shoulder. "I'm hurt, Naminé. And here I came all this way just to see you."

"But why?" She gazed down at the floor. "Is it because of them?"

"You know, 'them' is a pretty broad category." He shook his head. "But who says it's got anything to do with anyone else? We don't all have shady motives."

But while his words made it seem like he was on her side, his tone said otherwise. Though Naminé did look up at Axel, she remained perfectly silent, watching him closely. Her knowledge of him was limited. All she really knew was that he'd made a few attempts to speak with Sora's Nobody, only to get yelled at by the Replica. Beyond that, he was an enigma, just like the rest of the Organization.

But he didn't make any sudden moves, instead rubbing the back of his head. "Sheesh, I forgot I'm dealing with a chatterbox here." He paused, straightening his stance. "So, how's your hero treating you lately? I'm surprised he isn't here right now."

"Saïx sent him on another mission," she said. "Sora, too."

"It's pretty impressive, you know." Axel grinned. "He really does act like he's the real deal. Even had the nerve to speak up to Saïx."

"It's what Xemnas wanted." Naminé sighed, clutching onto one of her arms. "But it still hurts, having to lie to them."

"But look at what you've got," said Axel. "Best friends who act like your own personal guard dogs. Surely that beats being all alone."

"It…" She hesitated, peering off towards her countless drawings. "It does."

In a way, she did enjoy the company they gave her and the way they truly believed she was their best friend. It gave her something to look forward to beyond her endless task of manipulating their memories, even if it did require lying. Yet, despite the benefits, it left her cold inside, knowing that despite their attachment, she'd wronged them from the very start…

But such was her purpose. What else could she do?

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Whoops! Got a bit busy writing, so I'm a bit overdue. It's late, so I'm just doing one update tonight, but I'll have more this weekend...

Chapter 8: Freeing Old Foes

They crept through the dimly lit cave, trudging along the narrow path. When boulders rolled rapidly down the countless slopes, the two of them slipped out the way, narrowly avoiding getting knocked into the darkness below. When they made it further into the cave, they continued to slide past rolling rocks, duck beneath torrents of water that burst from the walls, and slice through any Heartless that dared cross their paths. Luckily, Riku knew the Cave of Wonders like the back of his hand. After one romp through its booby traps and puzzles, this little detour would hardly slow them down. And besides, he owed it to Sora to take a few risks. So what if it meant freeing a former enemy from his prison? Sometimes desperate times called for desperate measures.

Before long, they made it into the Treasure Room, where the shimmering coins and glistening gems surrounded them from all directions. Up ahead lay the path to the Lamp Chamber, where they'd surely find Jafar. Then all it'd take was a wish or two, and Sora'd be back to his old self. After all, a genie possessed phenomenal cosmic powers, and he'd have no choice to obey Riku's every whim. Just the thought made him smirk as he marched closer to the entrance. However, before he got too far, he felt a light tap on the shoulder. Heaving a sigh, Riku turned around, facing Sora, who frowned faintly.

"Riku, are you sure about this?" He glanced towards the chamber's entrance. "I know he's a genie now, but I don't think we can trust Jafar."

"Who said anything about trust, Sora?" Riku shook his head, folding his arms. "Trust me, I'd sooner toss that lamp into a pit of lava than call that creep my 'friend,' but don't you want your heart back?"

For a moment, Sora stood perfectly still. He looked downward, letting out a soft 'mm' before he finally nodded. "But what about the mission?"

"Oh, please." Riku rolled his eyes, swiping a hand through the air. "He just wants us to take out one big Heartless. Why sweat the small stuff?"

"Well…" Sora looked around before he slowly took a step forward. "I guess you're right."

"Then c'mon, slowpoke." Grinning, Riku trudged ahead of his friend, stopping near the door. Once Sora caught up with him, the two pressed on, leaving the gold and jewels behind.

The Lamp Chamber looked more or less the same as they'd left it, just with fewer pitfalls. Cracks still lined the floor from when Jafar transformed into a gargantuan genie, and Riku could still make out a bit of orange from the lava down below. Plus, it was hard to miss the added heat that emanated into the room. From afar, he spotted the location of the sealed Keyhole, and a number of raised platforms lined the walls. Of course, they weren't there for sightseeing by any means. Rather than soak in the scenery, he and Sora circled the room, eyes peeled for anything black, shiny, and metallic.

It took a few minutes of skimming the area, but soon they stumbled upon their prize. Resting just below the Keyhole's former location, they came across a sand-coated object resting on its side. Sora leaned over the object and scooped it up with one hand, watching as grains of sand off of its slick surface and down to the ground. And, judging by the solid black coloration, not to mention the handle and spout, this had to be the lamp. Inside, that old vizier was probably just waiting to bust free and wreak havoc…

"So, I guess we just rub it?" said Sora, turning the lamp over a few times. After a few seconds, he passed it over to Riku, who immediately took hold and raised it to eye level.

"That's the idea, anyway."

He narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath, reaching out with his free hand. He hesitated for a moment, hand hovering just an inch away from the metallic surface. Then, shutting his eyes tightly, he swept the last bits of sand away with a single rub. Immediately, the lamp vibrated within his grasp, and his eyes snapped wide open. A trail of red smoke crept out of the spout, spiraling throughout the entire chamber. Sora stepped back, leaning against one of the platforms as the maniacal laughter of a certain genie echoed all around them.

The smoke came together, forming a large, muscular torso with skin as red as the devil's. A familiar, twisted beard lined the genie's chin, and he gazed down at Riku with his yellow eyes aglow. A toothy grin spread across his lips, and his laughter grew louder by the second. He placed his hands together, floating down, closer to Riku's level. As he drew near, Sora bit his lip, slowly approaching the two of them. Despite the fact that he was standing face-to-face with an all powerful genie, Riku stood his ground and twirled the lamp around his finger. At this point, there was no turning back.

So he kept his eyes locked on Jafar, who folded his hands together and let out a sharp chuckle. "Well," he said, "isn't this a surprise? I never expected you to release me, Keybearer."

"Oh yeah?" Riku sneered, tossing the lamp up and down. "Well, don't get any bright ideas, Jafar. Make one wrong move, and it's back into the lamp with you. Isn't that right, Sora?"

Sora bit his lip, nodding slowly. "And don't think you can trick me again, either."

"Sora?" Jafar blinked, hovering closer to the duo. "My, how you've changed. I almost didn't recognize you, boy."

Sora said nothing, averting his gaze, while Riku stepped out in front of him. He placed a hand on his hip, looking Jafar straight in the eye. "Didn't you hear him? If you think you can weasel your way out of this one, you've got another thing coming."

"Oh, but who said anything about weaseling?" Jafar crossed his arms, giving a forced looking smile. "Since you have so graciously freed me, I see no reason to bring harm to you or your friend."

"Like I believe that." Riku practically spat out his words, tightening his grip on the lamp. "Look, we're here for one reason, and that's for a little wish granting."

"Ah, but of course." Jafar's smile faded, and he swept his arms out to his sides. "And I will gladly grant your wishes. However, seeing as I'm obligated to make three of your dreams a reality, it only seems fair that you… provide me with a little assistance."

Assistance? Wow, he didn't even make an effort to hide his motives. Knowing Jafar, he probably had some sick and twisted scheme up his sleeve. And given who he was dealing with, did he really think they'd let that slide? Shaking his head, Riku snickered under his breath, and he cracked a smirk. Once again, he tossed the lamp up and down.

"If I assist you, what good would it do?" He rolled his eyes. "You'd probably just double-cross us the moment things went your way."

"You wound me, boy." Jafar sighed, floating in circles around Sora's shoulders. "All I seek is a little revenge against that street rat, Aladdin… The very same Aladdin who imprisoned me."

Revenge against Aladdin… It figured. Riku opened his mouth, ready to make another comeback, but… no, he couldn't. Even if Jafar was obviously trying to pull the same stunt as last time, and even if Sora knew better by now, they couldn't brush him off. Not necessarily. While Aladdin had once been his friend and ally, he probably sided with the Fake now, just like Donald, Goofy, and everybody else. And even if he didn't, that Fake was sure to come by sooner or later. While he didn't trust Jafar one bit, Riku couldn't deny that using his power could make things a little more miserable for that impostor and his accomplice. And besides, who said he had to let Jafar have his way? They could easily just play along, let him think he was in control.

He'd give that creep a taste of his own medicine. Thus, despite his reservations, Riku gave Jafar a smug grin. "Actually," he said, "I'm after a little revenge myself…"

"Are you now?" Jafar stopped right in front of him, shrinking from his enormous size so that he towered only a few feet higher than Riku stood. "I never expected you to have a thirst for vengeance, even with your level of arrogance."

"Yeah? Well, times change." Riku puffed out his chest, and his brow furrowed. "Turns out I've had my life snatched away by an impostor. A Fake."

"Riku…" Sora's eyes widened, and he placed a hand on Riku's shoulder. "What're you—"

"Sora, it's fine." He shook his head. "What's the harm in cluing him in? Maybe he can help us out."

"Perhaps I can…" Jafar paused, turning the other way. "But why stop there? If this impostor has truly stolen your identity, would it not be beneficial to aid me as well?" He looked over his shoulder, eyes gleaming. "There are limits to my power, so long as I'm bound to the lamp. Rules that even I cannot bend. But if you were to grant me freedom, perhaps I would be of greater service to you."

Freedom at what cost? True, a genie couldn't kill, but if he were to let Jafar go from the start, he'd probably either try and kill them or leave them in the dust. No, that wasn't gonna fly. Though Riku continued to smirk, deep down he had no plans to give him any satisfaction. Instead, he cocked his head to the side and held out his hand.

"Tell you what," he said. "You let me have my first two wishes, and maybe I'll think about letting you loose. Sound fair?"

Jafar's eyes narrowed into slits, and a number of wrinkles lined his forehead. His lips pulled back, revealing all his teeth, and for a moment, he remained perfectly still. However, his lips soon quirked up into a smile, and he reached out for Riku's hand.

"Very well, boy. I suppose it's a fair compromise."

Little did he realize, Riku kept his fingers crossed the whole time.

x.x.x

After spending a few more hours at the Coliseum, it was back to business for Riku and his friends. With only a little information to work with, they hardly had a reason to swing by Twilight Town and report their findings. Thus, instead of dealing with DiZ, they returned to the ship posthaste. And, just like before, that pesky siren kept beeping at a rapid rate, prompting Riku to slap his hands over his ears, shuddering at the obnoxious sound. It didn't help that he kept dwelling on everything that'd happened so far. Despite visiting two worlds by now, they'd learned practically nothing about the Organization, the Replica, and especially Sora. For such a big threat, they sure knew how to cover their tracks. Maleficent could've learned a thing or two from them.

…Still beeping. How was he supposed to keep his thoughts together like this? Cringing, Riku shifted around in his seat and looked over at Donald, who hammered away at the controls.

"Isn't there a way to turn it off?" He groaned. "We already know there's darkness everywhere.

"Yeah, well if we had a working radio, maybe it wouldn't be a problem." Donald huffed, pulling at one of the levers.

"A radio?" Blinking, Kairi turned towards Donald and tilted her head. "So what happened to it?"

"Well, ya see," said Goofy, "back when we first started our journey, I tried cheerin' Riku up with a little music, but then…"

Oh boy, he knew exactly where this was going. "Basically, we got in a fight over music choices, and…" Riku paused, pointing at the busted up speakers. "This happened."

"…Riku." Kairi covered her mouth, letting out a soft giggle. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"But you grew up with him." Donald smirked. "I bet he's given you all kinds of trouble."

"Yep." She grinned, looking back in Riku's direction. "But at least he's gotten a little better, right?"

"Just a little?" Riku groaned, slumping forward in his seat. He looked up at Kairi and arched a brow. "Don't I deserve more credit than that?"

"Well, maybe." Kairi shook her head, leaning over his shoulder again. "But Riku, what's wrong? I know there's more to this than the siren."

Was it really that obvious? Well, knowing Kairi, maybe he shouldn't have been so surprised. So, after a few seconds, he held up his hands in defeat. "Fine, you got me." He frowned, crossing his arms. "Guess I just expected more by now. We still don't know a thing."

"You can say that again." Donald scowled, blasting a large chunk of space rock. "But that's just another reason to investigate, if you ask me."

"Hey, I didn't say we should call it quits," said Riku. "I just hope we're not going on a wild goose chase."

"Well," said Goofy, "I think it's kinda a gamble no matter where we go. There's a whole lot of worlds out there, and just about any of 'em could give us a clue."

"Yeah, you've got a point there." Riku shut his eyes, letting out a soft chuckle. "Guess Agrabah's as good a place to start as any."

"Plus, I never got to see it myself." Kairi leaned back, her head held high. "Even if we don't find anything, we can still make an adventure out of it."

"Well, it won't be long now." Donald pointed at the front window, towards a distant, golden shape. "Better get ready for landing!"

Donald didn't even give them a chance to breathe before the ship reared back and shot forward like a rocket, zooming towards their destination at lightning speed. Stars blurred with the surrounding space rocks, and their black surroundings soon shifted to a bright, blue sky. A familiar sea of sand rested below, and Kairi immediately propped her hands against one of the windows, gazing down with her eyes open wide. At that, Riku snorted, shifting around in his seat. It was good to see her so excited, even if a vast desert didn't exactly scream new or fantastic. In fact, the place didn't look all that different from their last visit, free from even the slightest hint of thunder storms and rampaging Heartless…

In fact, everything looked perfectly safe, at least, until Goofy let out a yelp and pointed straight ahead.

"Fellers, I think we oughta—"

Before he could even finish, the whole ship spiraled around, and heaps of sand brushed across the windows, obscuring their view. The sudden rumbling nearly threw Riku out of his seat, and he found himself clutching tightly to the arms of his chair, gritting his teeth as more sand slammed against the ship and the spinning grew more and more rapid. Kairi, who had been standing the whole time, wound up latching to the back of his seat, feet planted firmly against the floor. All the while, Donald started pounding on the controls. Flipping switches, turning knobs, firing lasers and steering the ship recklessly through the whirling sands.

They went up, down, and swerved from side to side. The crazy winds continued to turn them around without relent. When Donald tried driving the other way, they just wound up spinning in the opposite direction. Soon enough, he started ranting and raving with a series of crazy squawks, and he slammed his fist against the button for warp drive. Yes, even though they were already in a world. But maybe this wasn't such a bad decision, for the moment the ship picked up enough speed, it shot straight through the spinning walls of sand, flying forward in the open air!

…And right into one of Agrabah's walls.

The sudden crash sent chunks of stone flying off in all directions. The ship continued to zoom forward through the winding streets, knocking over barrels, bumping into stands, and getting caught up in the cloth draped over the surrounding shops. The lights flickered on and off, and they nearly crashed into an empty stand. Luckily, the ship narrowly missed it when Donald latched onto the wheel, swerving upward at the last second. At that point, Riku narrowed his eyes and reached straight for the controls. He slapped his palm down on the warp drive button, stopping the ship's frantic movements in an instant.

The downside? The moment the ship halted, it tipped downward and began a plummet towards the center of the marketplace. There wasn't even time to slow its fall. Within a matter of seconds, they slammed into the ground, and everything from the lights to the screen fizzled out in an instant. If it weren't for the sun up above, they'd probably be immersed in darkness. Not that it helped with their rough landing or the sand trickling down the windows. It took a minute for his head to stop spinning, but once the surrounding dust cleared, Riku undid his seatbelt and took a look around the cockpit.

"Hey, you guys okay?"

Kairi slowly poked her head up from behind his seat, her hair a bit frizzy from the wild ride. After smoothing it out, she cracked a weak smile. "Well, it could be worse. At least we made an exciting entrance."

"And a big mess," said Donald, adjusting his hat. "If it weren't for that lousy sandstorm, I woulda made a smooth landing!"

"But, y'know, Donald…" Goofy stroked his chin. "I sure don't remember there bein' any sandstorms the last time we were here. Maybe we oughta take a closer look."

"As long as it's not too close." Donald groaned. "My head's still spinning from that crash."

"Oh, relax." Riku shook his head, heading over to the door. "I doubt we'll need to walk right up to it. Besides, we might as well see how the city's doing." He turned his attention to Kairi with a smirk. "Maybe I'll give you a grand tour while we're at it."

"A tour?" Kairi grinned, placing her hands behind her back. "Well, okay, but only if there's time. Right now, we should stay focused, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I know." He shrugged. "Guess we'll see how it goes."

Without further ado, the group shoved the ship's door wide open and slipped out into the sandy street. Despite all the fuss that should've caused by a strange ship bursting into the town, not a single person stood in their path. In fact, the entire street looked eerily empty, save for the piles of sand gathered in corners, broken boards and dangling rope, and a few shattered pots and crates. As Riku and his friends moved further along, they caught sight of cracks along some of the buildings, while others looked as though they'd nearly collapsed, with only the lower floors fully intact. Some bore strange gashes, as if they'd been sliced with gigantic swords, and when Riku looked at the ground below, he caught sight of a number of large footprints, far too huge to belong to any human or even some of the tougher Heartless in town.

"Sheesh," he said, brushing his hand against one of the buildings. "You'd think that sealing the Keyhole would've made a difference." He stopped near an empty stand, with splattered fruits lining the counter, while sand piled up inside.

"I'd say it's got somethin' to do with that storm," said Goofy, "but that still doesn't explain the big ol' slices in some of these walls." He pointed up at a particularly large gash, curved like a sickle.

"It's probably some kinda Heartless." Donald sighed, glancing from side to side. "But I sure don't see anything around—"

The clattering of metal up above silenced Donald, as he and the others looked up to the tops of the surrounding buildings. Right on cue, a burst of orange rocketed down to the ground, prompting Goofy to rush out in front, ducking beneath his shield. The cold, hard metal doused the flames, but it was just the beginning. Two Red Nocturnes bobbed up and down, launching a second blast straight at their feet. Within seconds, Riku called for the Keyblade, slapped on Kairi's charm, and slid back, flinging ice crystals at their attackers. Donald let out a moan and waved his staff, surrounding the group with a cool breeze. When two Fat Bandits threw themselves down to the ground, they collided with a set of mines and exploded on the spot. However, several more Bandits and Air Soldiers threw themselves over the edge, surrounding the group from all sides.

"You know," said Riku, as he lunged at a Bandit, "this is really getting old!" The Heartless split with a single slash, and two Air Soldiers swooped down from the sides.

ZZZT! Lightning flashed and struck the Heartless down, reducing them to a pile of ash. Grinning, Donald weaved between two Bandits and spun around. When the Heartless fell over, he pointed down the street. "Then let's get outta here!"

"You know they'll probably chase us, right?" Kairi winced, narrowly blocking the swing of a Bandit's sword. She grit her teeth and whipped around it, jabbing it from behind.

"That's how it usually goes." Riku sighed, sending three more Heartless flying into a wall. "But it's probably better if we lure them out of the way."

"Then we better hurry, fellers!" Goofy gulped, pointing up at one of the rooftops, where more obnoxious corridors appeared, dumping another set of Fat Bandits flat on their bellies.

So, rather than waste all day fighting in the street, Riku took off with his friends close behind, whipping around the corner, slipping between hunks of broken stone, and nearly stumbling over some squashed fruit on the way towards the palace. Sure enough, the Heartless did trail behind, Fat Bandits lumbering behind a mass of Red Nocturnes that launched rapid fireballs almost constantly. The Air Soldiers began scooping up clay chunks and hurling them through the air, forcing the group to keep ducking to avoid unnecessary concussions.

All the while, the few people who did show their faces outside wound up screaming and scattering the moment the group passed by. Merchants ducked below their stands, launching fish, produce, and even their own turbans at the passing Heartless. Mothers latched onto their children, tugging them towards the ruined buildings. Luckily, a few slow spells, courtesy of Kairi, made those pests easy targets. The moment their movements slowed, Riku blasted their attackers with an onslaught of ice, slashing through any stragglers that came too close. Goofy's shield knocked back most of the flames, and the constant flickering of lightning from Donald's staff left the remaining Air Soldiers twitching as their bodies burned to a crisp.

By the time they'd whittled down most of their attackers, Riku caught sight of the palace gates looming up ahead. Just a bit further, and maybe they could get some answers. He let out a dry laugh and looked over his shoulder at the others, still preoccupied with the few remaining Heartless. Shaking his head, he flung more ice at their enemies before he picked up the pace, breaking into a full-on sprint towards their destination. Though at first nothing seemed out of the ordinary, once they made it a few yards away from the gates, a familiar, irritating voice caught Riku's ear, and he skid to an immediate halt. A flash of red and blue zipped around, chased by a young man in musty, old pants, a loose, purple vest, and a currently lopsided fez. A small, brown monkey scurried alongside him, leaping into the air and grabbing at the bird's tail feathers. And, oh, there was no mistaking that obnoxious shouting the moment Abu plucked one of those feathers off.

"Gah! Cut it out, you mangy monkey!"

… Iago. Somehow, that parrot managed to bust loose from the lamp. Like nails on a chalkboard, just hearing him made Riku shudder. It didn't help that he was Jafar's little lackey. Maybe he was harmless on his own, but that didn't ease Riku's suspicions. After all, if Iago got loose from the lamp, what did that say about Jafar? Taking a deep breath, Riku clenched his fists and took two large steps towards the pesky parrot. From behind, he heard the soft mutterings of Donald and Goofy, who slowly trudged behind him. Only Kairi remained in place, eyes locked on the hectic display.

"I'm tellin' ya, I've changed! No more playin' second fiddle to Jafar! I'm a free—"

"Seriously?" Without warning, Riku latched onto Iago's tail feathers, pulling him back. For a short moment, Iago looked him in the eye and scowled, but thanks to his frantic flapping, he managed to free himself from Riku's grip… at the cost of two more feathers. On the positive side, both Aladdin and Abu stopped hustling around, turning towards Riku with a sigh of relief.

"Boy, am I glad to see you guys," said Aladdin, marching right up to the parrot. "Do you think you could give me a hand with Iago? He keeps trying to get away!"

"What do ya expect?" Iago groaned, fluttering his wings until he hovered several feet above the group. "Here I am, trying to put my best foot forward, and you just wanna throw me to the guards."

"And how do we know you're not lying?" Donald crossed his arms, raising a brow. Iago, all the while, perched himself on a stack of barrels, eyes darting around the area.

"It's like this…" He paused, scratching his head with a wing. Seconds later, he laughed shakily, and he fluttered back to the group. "I was only workin' for the Jafar because he mesmerized me with that snake staff. You know the one."

"You really expect us to believe that?" Riku shook his head, slapping his palm against his forehead. "We're not dense, and neither is Aladdin."

"Riku's right." Aladdin scowled, tilting his chin up. "Besides, how do I know you're not a spy for Jafar? With all the sandstorms and Heartless attacks, I wouldn't be surprised if he's free, too."

"But isn't that a little harsh?" Finally, Kairi stepped forward, stopping right in front of Iago. "Pointing fingers won't solve anything, you guys."

"Yeah, and just look at him, fellers." Goofy frowned, his lower lip jutting forward. "What if he really is sad about what happened?"

"Sad?" Blinking, Iago looked down at the ground, beak quivering. "Yeah, of course I'm sad! I feel just plain awful about it."

"I'm still not convinced." Aladdin gave Iago one last look before he turned to face the others. "We just can't afford to trust him. If there's even a small chance that Jafar's been freed, then we have to stay on guard."

"I'm not saying we should trust him. Not right away." Kairi shook her head, placing her hands on her hips. "But shouldn't we try to sort out what's happening first?"

"Well, you've got a point." Aladdin sighed, tilting his head to the side. "But if we're gonna to get to the bottom of this, we can't let him out of our sight." He marched up to Iago, grabbing at his tail again, but that pesky parrot swooped between his grasp.

"Hey, enough with the grabbin' already! If you want me to play nice, I'll—"

Luckily for Aladdin, he had backup and plenty to go around. Grinning, Riku pointed his Keyblade at Iago as he ascended towards a nearby building. Before he could get too high, a series of transparent clocks surrounded him, slowly ticking away. Immediately, Iago's body grew stiff, leaving him frozen in mid air. At that point, Goofy hopped up, gently grabbed his torso, and held him near his chest.

"Well, now that he's taken care of…" Riku dismissed his weapon, crossing his arms. "What happened here, anyway? It looks like Agrabah's seen better days."

"That's because it has." Aladdin sighed, gazing up at the palace. "Sandstorms hit us almost every day, and there's always a Heartless or two waiting to strike." He paused, taking a few steps towards the gates. "There's… something else, too, but I think we should discuss that in private." He looked over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes. "And we'd better get Iago secure before that spell wears off."

They didn't have much of a choice. With the town in shambles and the threat of Jafar's freedom, any time wasted could put them at a disadvantage.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 9: An Unlikely Alliance

It was worse than he thought. On the way up the palace steps, Riku caught sight of a swarm of people huddled together right outside the throne room. Men, women, and children in tattered clothes gathered around without so much as a single guard to shoo them off. For whatever reason, Aladdin paid them no mind, tossing a few gems and coins at their feet before he reached for the doors and shoved them wide open. Inside, another pulsating mob surrounded the throne, muttering in hushed tones about the recent sandstorms. As the group passed by, the Sultan looked up from the crowd and gave a half-hearted wave, but from the way his shoulders sagged and his brows knit together, it was easy to tell that something was amiss.

"So, what's with all the people here?" said Riku, looking back at the crowd.

"It's because of the sandstorms." Aladdin frowned, pressing his hand against a wall. "I convinced the Sultan to open the palace gates, that way people can take shelter here."

Goofy gulped. "Gawrsh, is it really that bad?"

All Aladdin did was nod, and he continued to lead the group down the hall and out to the palace garden. There, not a single grain of sand soiled the nearby trees and grass, and the fountain continued to spout crystal clear water into the pool down below. A tiger lay stretched on the pavement, lazing in the sun. He briefly lifted his head as the group passed by, hissing at the sight of the still frozen Iago. Aladdin didn't stop once, continuing to lead the group towards an isolated cage. Once they drew close enough, he flung the door open and pulled out a small key. The tiger crept closer, tail flicking.

"Rajah, knock it off." Aladdin held out his hand, shooing him away. The tiger let out a soft moan, coming to halt and flopping down on his belly. At that point, Aladdin pointed at Goofy, motioning him over to the cage. "Let's put him in here for now. If he tries to break free…" He looked to Abu, who hopped down from his shoulder. "You can let Rajah know it's snack time."

"Is that really necessary?" Kairi's brow furrowed, and she gazed down at Rajah.

"Hey, I'm not serious about it." Aladdin grinned. "But it'll give him the incentive to stay put."

"I think he's got the right idea." Riku shrugged, watching as Goofy wandered over to the cage. "It's either that, or he gets free reign of the palace, and that's the last thing we need right now."

"Well, long as we let him out later, I guess it couldn't hurt." Goofy looked down at Iago before he slowly and gently placed him onto the cold, metallic floor. With that, Aladdin pushed the door shut, twisted the key, and locked it up tight. Seconds later, Iago's breathing picked up, and his talons twitched. The spell must've been wearing off, because the moment the group turned away, he began shouting at the top of his lungs.

"Hey, are you nuts? Lemme outta here!"

They didn't bother to look back. Rolling his eyes, Riku followed along as Aladdin turned back towards the palace, leading them along a stone path between a peaceful stream. Flamingos danced in the water, uninterrupted by the shouting from afar. In fact, before long, Iago's whiny voice faded almost completely, replaced by the sounds of people shouting from the throne room. It was tough to make out exactly what was being said, but Riku picked up something about how the sand ruined supplies for the many merchants, leading to a number of others ranting and raving about rising costs of bread and produce. The poor Sultan sure had his hands full with that crowd. And to think that more people waited right outside the door… Luckily, there were no unsightly mobs waiting for them inside once Aladdin brought them into this side room.

And boy what a room it was. Purple cloths with intricate inscriptions hung from the ceiling. A variety of carpets lined the floor, each decorated with flowery stitching and an abundance of swirls. A few tables and chairs lay scattered throughout the room. Rather than take a seat there, however, Aladdin stepped over an unusually large pillow and towards the back window. There he took a seat on a neon pink bench, lined with a number of smaller pillows. He took a deep breath and propped up his head with one hand motioning to the other seats in the room. Donald and Goofy were quick to scurry towards the chairs, dragging them over to the window. However, both Riku and Kairi remained standing, stopping a few feet from where Aladdin sat.

"So," said Riku, leaning against the wall, "what'd you want to tell us?"

"Well…" Aladdin looked out the window, pausing briefly. "I'm guessing you guys saw some of those gashes in the buildings."

"Of course we did." Donald huffed. "And a buncha footprints, too."

"And that's what this is about." He sighed. "See, it's not just the Heartless and sandstorms that've been tearing up Agrabah. There's something even worse out there."

"So, uh, what is it, Al?" Goofy frowned, stroking his chin.

"It's a monster." Aladdin's tone grew harsh, and he narrowed his eyes. "It's got a head like a cobra, and a body like… Like some kind of machine." He held out his arms, clenching and unclenching his fists. "It shows up outta nowhere, attacks with these giant swords, and when we try to fight back, it hides behind an unbreakable shield."

A shield, huh? Whatever this thing was, it didn't sound like the typical Heartless. But where was this monster, and what were they supposed to do about it? Crossing his arms, Riku heaved a sigh and closed his eyes. "But what about the Genie? Couldn't he help?"

"He could," said Aladdin, "but I haven't seen him in ages. Not since he brought Jasmine back here."

"Then I guess I'll give him a call." After all, the Genie did give Riku the lamp for a reason. If Aladdin couldn't reach him, they'd just have to take a different route. A little summoning never hurt, so Riku reached into his pocket and scooped out the lamp. With a single rub, he expected the Genie to come flying into the room, shouting something random like he always did.

Unfortunately, nothing happened.

"I don't get it." Riku's eyes widened, and he rubbed the lamp again. Still nothing. "This always worked before."

"We'll just have to think of something else," said Kairi, placing a hand on his shoulder. "There has to be some way to stop it."

"Well, if anyone can do it, it's you guys." Aladdin chuckled. "I might not know your friend, Riku, but if it weren't for you, Donald, and Goofy, I'd still be on the streets."

"I don't know, Aladdin. You're the one who really outsmarted Jafar." Riku smiled and leaned forward. "But, hey, we've saved plenty of worlds by now. What's one more monster to us?"

"Just another nuisance," said Donald, puffing out his cheeks. He raised his index finger and waved it back and forth. "But it can't be any worse than Jafar was."

"Well, that's what I'm hoping for." Slowly, Aladdin got to his feet, dusting off his pants. "But first we've gotta find—"

"Aladdin!"

A sudden scream interrupted the conversation, followed by the sound of rapid footsteps. The curtains flung open, and the group whipped around, only to find Jasmine standing in the doorway, her eyes wide, and her chest heaving. She rushed into the room, hurrying towards Aladdin, and once she made it to him, she took hold of his hand, tugged him close, and looked him the eye. Just what was the fuss about?

"Jasmine?" Aladdin blinked, giving her hand a light squeeze. "What's wrong?"

"It's coming!" Her eyebrows quirked, and she pointed back at the entrance. "One of the guards saw it outside the city's gate."

"You mean it's in the desert?" Riku jerked forward, throwing his arms out to his sides. "But what about the sandstorm?"

"That hasn't stopped it before." Jasmine frowned, gazing down at the floor. "And we still haven't made repairs from the last attack."

…And the town was already a huge mess. If this 'monster' really was as dangerous as Aladdin made it out to be, then one more attack could easily total most of the remaining buildings. The people were already panicking over the wreckage and the storms. If they waited around any longer, it'd only make things worse. Maybe barging into the desert wasn't a bright idea, but it sure beat standing around and letting for that thing to reach the city. They had to act now.

With that in mind, Riku stormed towards the door, jaw clenched and muscles tense. His Keyblade materialized with the single flick of his wrist, and when he made it about halfway, he came to an abrupt stop and whipped around. Propping a hand on his hip, he stared at the others, who remained perfectly still.

"Well?" he said. "Are you guys just gonna stand there or what?"

"We're getting there, don't worry." Kairi rolled her eyes, smiling despite the circumstances.

"But if we go by foot," said Aladdin, "then we'll never make it in time." He looked towards one of the smaller rugs, placing two fingers in his mouth and whistling loudly. Immediately, the carpet twitched, leaping off of the floor and looping around the entire room. It flailed its golden tassels like a pair of boxing gloves and swooped down in front of the door. There, it hovered just a few inches off of the ground, and Aladdin zipped over to it and threw himself onto its back.

"The flying carpet?" Riku should've known. That rug sure solved their problems last time, after all. "You sure that thing can handle those winds?"

"Hey." Aladdin smirked. "He's never let me down before."

"All right, fair enough." He shrugged, climbing on board the carpet. "I guess we've got nothing to lose."

x.x.x

"What do you mean you can't do it?"

"Did you not hear me before, boy? A genie has… limitations. It's quite a shame, really."

By now, they'd made it out of the Cave of Wonders and into the storming desert. A single trip through a dark corridor led Riku, Sora, and Jafar right outside Agrabah's city limits. And despite the raging walls of sand all around them, they remained perfectly safe; a genie's power had its perks, and Jafar's stubborn pride prompted him to push the storm away from them by a hair. Just enough to keep them from getting blown away. Unfortunately, things weren't going quite as planned, as Jafar hovered around Riku's shoulder with a twisted smirk. He was probably just trying to squirm free of his control, and that just wouldn't do.

Shaking his head, Riku wrapped his fingers around the lamp and scowled. "You know, Aladdin's Genie had no problem destroying a few Heartless. Why should Sora's be any different?"

"True. Were it any other Heartless, I would gladly bring you his heart." Jafar swooped down to the ground, resting a hand on Sora's shoulder. "Unfortunately, it appears that his heart belongs to more than a mere Shadow." He snapped his fingers, projecting a faded image before Riku's very eyes…

In it, a pitch black figure rested high above the ground, surrounded by a sunset sky. It perched like an animal long a narrow ledge, leaning forward with its empty, yellow eyes locked on the view up ahead. Without a word, Riku leaned over the image and squinted. It was hard to make out any specific details, but that shape… Spiky hair. A human shape. After a few seconds, the image vanished from sight, but just that quick glimpse hit Riku like a ton of bricks. He took a step back and shut his eyes tightly, just trying to wrap his head about what he'd seen…

But before he could dwell on it for too long, Sora stepped up to him, looking over his shoulder.

"Riku, wait." He frowned, shaking his head. "It could be some kinda trick."

"A trick…" Riku laughed. Hard. Of course it was a trick. It had to be! There was no way Jafar would really help them unless it worked in his favor. And to think he almost had him fooled. Just thinking about it made Riku laugh a second time, and he tightened his hold on the lamp. "Nice try, but you're not fooling anyone. I want his heart back now."

The ground shook a little, and from afar Riku heard the sound of heavy footsteps. Still, he paid them no mind, keeping his eyes locked on Jafar, whose lips drooped downward into a deep frown. He exhaled loudly and turned the other way, clasping his hands behind his back.

"My answer remains unchanged," he said. "Whether you choose to believe me is your choice entirely. However, I advise you to make up your mind very soon. Otherwise…"

Chuckling, he floated to the side, as the footsteps grew even louder. From between the swirling grains of sand, a whitish figure approached. It swung what appeared to be two curved blades as it took heavy steps along the desert floor. Two more sets of arms swept through the air, and the creature, whatever it was, stopped just once to let out a mechanical hiss. Right away, the Keyblade flashed into Riku's hand, and Sora quickly followed it up by summoning his swords. The two of them sent Jafar a nasty glare, but all he did was shake his head and laugh once again.

"Two wishes left, boy." He floated into the air. "And time is of the essence. It would be shame if anything were to happen to you two…"

"Spare us." Riku hissed, pointing his weapon at the approaching figure. "Whatever this thing is, we can handle it on our own. Isn't that right, Sora?"

"Mm…" Sora took a deep breath, narrowing his eyes. "Well, it's better than working with him."

"My thoughts exactly, Sora." Riku's scowl faded, and he grinned slyly at Jafar. Letting the Keyblade vanish for a moment, he gave the lamp a little rub. Immediately, Jafar let out a deep, throaty scream. He slid back, eyes wide in shock, but there was no escaping his fate. His lower body transformed into a smoky trail that stretched right up to the lamp's spout, pulling him closer and closer to his convenient prison.

"You filthy, little brat!" He gnashed his teeth, digging his nails into the sand. It was no use; with each passing second, his body began slipping back into the lamp. "Do not think you can make a fool out of me!"

Too late for that. Within a matter of seconds, only Jafar's face remained in plain view, and soon he vanished completely from sight, letting out one last scream. Snickering under his breath, Riku tossed the lamp up and down one more time before he slipped it back into his pocket. The Keyblade reappeared almost immediately, and he raised the weapon at the approaching creature, which stood just a few yards away. He opened his mouth, ready to speak his mind about that thing, but before he could utter so much as a word, a purple flash zipped overhead. Looking up, he caught sight of a flying carpet, headed straight for that monster. And that's not all…

His eyes narrowed into slits, and he inhaled sharply. His grip on the Keyblade tightened so much that it almost hurt to hold it, and his muscles tightened. Up on that carpet, he caught a quick glimpse of silver hair and a yellow getup that could only belong to that Fake. And here he was, trying to steal the glory from him…

Well, that just wouldn't do. With a groan, he marched out into the sandstorm, stopping just long enough to catch Sora's attention. "C'mon! We can't let them have all the fun."

x.x.x

There it was. The monster responsible for all the wreckage. As the carpet swerved around the creature, Riku caught sight of six mechanical arms, each baring a white, sleeve-like design with a golden trim. Its metallic claws flexed tirelessly, and it swept its two, curved swords at the carpet, which just narrowly avoided getting sliced in half. It didn't help that the sand continued to blow through the air, forcing Riku and the others to hang on tight to avoid getting knocked to the ground. And when the creature made a second attempt at slashing them, the very tip of its blade whacked off a piece of the carpet's tassel. Talk about cutting it close. Luckily, they swooped close to the ground before long.

They readied their weapons the moment they landed feet-first on the sand. Aladdin brandished his scimitar, stomping closer to the giant Heartless. Goofy ducked behind his shield, planting his feet firmly on the ground, and Donald twirled his staff. Kairi slipped towards the back and unsheathed her sword, while Riku stomped out in front of the others, Keyblade poised and ready to strike. The Heartless looked down at them all with its lifeless, yellow eyes, letting out a tinny screech. It crossed its swords, forming an X before it slid back and swept its weapons out to its sides.

But before anyone could make a single move, an irritatingly familiar voice called out to them.

"Hey, Fake!"

Riku didn't even have to look to know who it was. From the identical voice, it became crystal clear that the Replica had decided to join them. And just when he thought things couldn't get any worse. Rolling his eyes, Riku paid him no mind, slipping to the side when the Heartless threw itself forward and twirled its blades. Aladdin then rushed behind it, delivering a quick slash, but he soon stopped and stared, wide-eyed as the Replica stomped their way with the blond boy by his side. Each of them leaned forward, pushing against the raging storm as they sluggishly approached.

"Aw, phooey," said Donald, whipping up a whirlwind that pushed away the surrounding sand. "What's he want?"

The Heartless let out a hiss, raising two of its hands. A white glow circled around the entire group, including the Replica and 'Sora'. Two glistening, red orbs materialized in its grip, and it slid back several yards.

"I just want to prove a point." The Replica sneered, hurling his Keyblade at the creature's face. It ricocheted back to him, and the Heartless immediately leaped in his direction. He rolled off to the side, narrowly dodging a spinning blow and followed it up by another Strike Raid. The monster's head bobbed back and forth, but it soon retaliated by throwing itself straight at him. As it drew close, it drove its swords down to his chest…

Luckily for him, his buddy slipped out in front, deflecting the monster's blow and striking back with a sliding dash. The hit sent it stumbling backwards. Leaping into the air, it started to twirl, taking off right in the direction of Riku and the others.

"Okay, first of all…" Riku groaned, sliding out of the monster's path. "I don't have time to deal with you." He raised his Keyblade, pointing it at one of the orbs. Narrowing his eyes, he gave it a light flick, but… nothing happened. Not even a spark appeared at the tip. Though he swung his weapon a second time, nothing changed. Before he could even try another spell, the Heartless came rushing his way, whirling its blades like deadly fans.

"What's wrong, Fake? Your magic not working out for you?" The Replica laughed, shaking his head. "Here, I'll show you how it's done."

Ironically, absolutely nothing happened when the Replica raised his weapon. Right away, his jaw dropped and his eyes widened, and he kept swinging his Keyblade again and again to no avail. Under most circumstances, Riku would've gotten a good laugh out of it, but the fact that their magic kept failing them left him with a sinking sensation. It wasn't just the two of them, either. Between the creature's sword swings, lunges, and spinning dives, Donald kept flailing his staff and shouting out spells. Didn't work. Then, when Kairi raised her weapon to cast slow on the Heartless, it continued sliding around the desert floor and turned in her direction.

Without magic, how was she supposed to hold up against that metallic freak? She barely had any defenses now, leaving her completely vulnerable! At a time like this, the Replica's little taunts barely mattered. What did matter was the safety of his friends and taking this thing out. So, paying him no mind, Riku leaped into the air and took off in a glide towards the Heartless as it raised its weapons and let out a screech. He circled in front of Kairi, throwing himself to the ground and latching onto her arm. Gritting his teeth, he pulled her back, right as the Heartless drove its swords downward. There wasn't even time to dodge the blow before a sharp pain ran down his chest, and he tumbled backward, writing in agony.

But before he could hit the ground, Kairi took hold of his hand and pulled him back to his feet. With a wry smile, she tossed him a potion, but it wasn't long before she darted back towards the Heartless with her sword held high. Up ahead, Aladdin slipped between its twin blades, sliding beneath its legs and striking from behind. He kept it busy by rushing around in circles—or trying to, anyway. Occasionally the winds pushed him back a few feet, at which point he'd drive his scimitar into the ground and hold on tight. As Riku drew closer to the others, he also caught a glimpse of Donald and Goofy hopping up and down and slamming their weapons against one of the orbs. … The same exact orbs that appeared right as their magic stopped working. What a perfect target.

"You said you wanted to prove a point, right?" Riku looked towards the Replica, launching his Keyblade at the other orb. "Well, so far, you haven't proven a thing."

"Not yet, anyway." The Replica huffed, sliding past one of the creature's swords. He leaped up and delivered a series of slashes that reduced the orb to a pinkish haze. Upon landing, he and 'Sora' zipped over to the creature's other hand, hacking away at the remaining orb.

Rather than let him steal the glory, Riku lunged at the glowing target and nailed it from below. The moment his Keyblade clashed with its surface, the orb shattered into a million pieces. A shrill scream escaped the Heartless' mouth, and its legs trembled. Seconds later, it fell to the ground, head swaying back and forth.

"Show off," said the Replica, crossing his arms.

Riku said nothing. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on the creature, slamming his blade against its chin. He slid back and prepared for another hit, but a sudden shove sent him down to the ground. The Replica took his place, banging his Keyblade all over its face. When Riku got back to his feet, the Replica smirked, launching flames at the monster's face while standing in his path. Seeing this, 'Sora' sighed, delivering a spinning slash, and Kairi shook her head.

"Guys, cut it out." She placed her hands on her hips. "We need to stay focused on the Heartless."

"Trust me," said Riku, "that's what I'm trying to do." He let out a groan, blasting the creature's head with a series of bolts.

"What, you can't handle a little competition?" The Replica snorted, banging his weapon against its snout. "Sorry, but I'm not letting a Fake steal the show."

"Riku, c'mon." 'Sora' frowned, grabbing onto his shoulder. "We'll never finish this thing if we keep arguing."

"Then what are you suggesting, Sora?" The Replica raised a brow.

"Well…" He paused, looking up at the Heartless. "We could always team up. Just for now."

"Team up with them? Are you nuts?"

It figured that Riku's copy would be as stubborn as he was, but there just wasn't enough time to bicker over alliances. While the Replica and his friend fought over what to do, that Heartless' body began twitching like crazy. It reached for its swords, pulled its head back, and sluggishly got back to its feet, making a series of clicks and whirrs. Next, it raised its swords into the air, and its body lifted off of the ground. At that moment, Aladdin's eyes widened, and he pointed his sword at the pinkish bubble that wrapped itself around the creature's body.

"Uh oh," he said, swallowing hard. "There's that shield I told you about!"

The exact same shield he said was invulnerable. A shield even the royal guards of Agrabah couldn't bust open. Well, now seemed like the perfect time to put it to the test. Raising his Keyblade, Riku rushed towards the shield, followed closely by 'Sora', the Replica, and his friends. However, when he drove the tip of his weapon down, it didn't even leave a dent. Then, before he could pull back, a series of orange flames burst from the ground, launching straight at him. Shutting his eyes tightly, he cast an aeroga spell that sent the flames flying away. Not only that, but the whirling winds brushed up against the shield's surface and pushed it back by a hair. It was enough to make the Heartless twitch inside its bubble, as if his spell actually hurt it somehow.

… Of course.

A wide grin spread across Riku's face as he rolled out of the creature's path. He then looked over his shoulder, making eye contact with Aladdin. "I think I know how to break this thing," he said, blasting ice crystals at the shield. "Just follow my lead."

"And who left you in charge?" The Replica scowled, but he still followed Riku's example by blasting the shield with electricity.

"Aw, quit whining!" Donald puffed out his chest, sending a fiery barrage straight at the creature. "We'll deal with you later."

Thankfully, the Replica kept his trap shut for the next few minutes. Instead of bickering, he joined Riku and the others, flinging flames, launching ice crystals, and shocking the creature's shield. One spell after the next, he kept up a pretty solid pace, proving once again how accurate his powers were, if nothing else. The entire time, 'Sora' stayed relatively close to him, sending a circle of dark pillars at the shield whenever it floated too close. The Heartless retaliated by raising more fireballs from beneath the sand, but whenever the flames drew too close, he'd vanish from sight, reappearing several feet away. He did this again and again, slipping through corridors before launching more pillars.

While those two stayed close to the shield and kept up their offensive, Kairi created a path of mines along the sand, which went up in smoke the moment the shield drifted too close. Inside, the Heartless twitched and shrieked, and it waved its arms in a series of broad sweeps. The surrounding sand began twirling rapidly, forming a group of tornadoes that flew straight towards her. Fortunately, Goofy lunged in their path, letting his shield take the full force of one of the whirlwinds. It bought her enough time to make a getaway, and as she passed him, Riku gave her a silent nod. Then he hurried forward, pelting the Heartless with white-hot flames.

Eventually, the shield faded completely, and the Heartless fell down to its knees once more. Just like before, its head bobbed helplessly, wide open to attacks. And rather than waste time arguing, the whole group mobbed the Heartless, battering its head with all their might. Slashes, jabs, strikes, and spins all left dents along its metallic face. Lightning strikes left it twitching, and it cried out with a series of beeps and buzzes.

After taking a few more hits, it shakily raised one of its swords and pushed itself onto its feet. Another surge of electricity sent it rolling backwards, and it landed in a heap on the ground. There, it continued to twitch for a few short moments, whirring and clicking at a rapid pace.

Narrowing his eyes, Riku sprinted over to its helpless body. Of course, he wasn't alone. The Replica, probably intent on getting the last laugh, picked up the pace and followed along. Heaving a sigh, Riku pressed on, leaping into the air and slamming the tip of his Keyblade square against the creature's chest. It burst straight through its metallic torso, and cracks began to spread all along its upper body. Darkness oozed from each crevice, leaking down onto the ground. In spite of its injuries, the Heartless sluggishly raised its head and let out one final hiss before its neck grew completely limp. Then, a pale glow formed around its oozing torso, and from it came a single, glowing heart.

Dusting himself off, Riku hopped down from the fading Heartless and dismissed his weapon with a flick of the wrist. Despite the sand blowing in his face and the overall soreness in his body, he mustered up a smirk and folded his arms lightly over his chest. The others all hurried over to him, except for 'Sora', who stood perfectly still, gazing at the Replica from afar. As for the Replica himself, he rolled his hands tightly into fists, clenched his teeth, and stormed over to Riku with a fiery glare.

"Don't get cocky," he said. "The fight's not over yet!" He lifted one of his fists, aiming for Riku's shoulder, but he slipped out of the way in the nick of time. This only appeared to further the Replica's irritation, though, and his entire face scrunched up like an old prune.

"Now, wait a second, guys." Aladdin stepped forward, rubbing the back of his neck. "Do we really need to start fighting again?"

"Believe me," said Donald, "this guy's all about picking fights. Especially with Riku."

"Yup!" Goofy nodded, and his whole face grew droopy. "And he thinks that Riku's some kinda copy."

The Replica's shoulders shook, but he didn't say or do anything just yet. 'Sora,' on the other hand, trudged closer to the group, and he lowered his brow.

"Hey, don't talk over him." He crossed his arms. "That's no way to treat an old friend."

No way to treat an old friend? Talk about ironic. If this guy really was Sora, then hadn't he done the exact same thing? Shaking his head, Riku steadily approached him, lowering his arms to his sides.

"But, Sora," he said, "do you really believe those memories of yours? C'mon, snap out of it."

"Riku…" Kairi frowned, reaching out for his shoulder. "Be careful. He probably thinks—"

"Enough!" The Replica's tone grew sharp, and he leaned forward, teeth bared. "I've had enough." He reached into his pocket, feeling around for something, while 'Sora' gulped and stumbled backwards.

"Riku, I don't think…"

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, Sora." He chuckled, scooping out a small, black object. "And I do have two wishes left…"

…Wishes. Wait! That wasn't any ordinary object. That handle, the spout. Letting out a sharp gasp, Riku stared intently at the lamp. Jafar's lamp. But how…?

"All right, Jafar…" A wide, twisted smirk spread along the Replica's face, as he twirled the lamp around his index finger. With his free hand, he gently brushed its surface, and a trail of red smoke spewed out of the tip. "I want you to drown this Fake in a sea of sand! Turn the whole desert on him if you have to."

The sound of deep, twisted laughter filled the air as smoke continued to seep out of the lamp. Yellow eyes glistened, boring holes into Riku's soul. A massive, muscled torso formed high above him and the others. As his body continued to materialize, he raised his hands high into the air. His lips curled into a wicked grin, and he floated in circles around the group. The ground began to shake, and the winds picked up, throwing the group back several feet. A bright glow formed at Jafar's fingertips, shooting down towards the sand...

His laughter grew louder, and ground began to tremble. "Your wish is my command, 'Riku'…"

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 10: Setting the Stage

WHAM! Riku screamed as he slammed into the wall. Wincing, he pushed himself forward, taking two steps forward before the winds launched him back again. His friends sat down on the shaking ground, struggling to get back on their feet. Up above, Jafar continued to watch them with a sickening smile. The surrounding sands began to rise and fall, like an ocean current. The ripples drew closer with each passing second, rapidly increasing in size. They stretched high into the sky like tidal waves, rushing in from all directions. Once again, Riku pushed himself to his feet, but the quivering ground sent him tumbling back.

Up ahead, the Replica drove the tip of his Keyblade into the ground, leaning against its hilt. 'Sora' stumbled closer, bumping into his side, but soon he joined his friend in latching onto the weapon. As the waves neared, the Replica's eyes widened, and he stepped back, dragging the Keyblade through the sand.

"What are you doing, Jafar?" He scowled, pointing at Riku and the others. "I told you to…"

"Drown the 'fake' in an ocean of sand…" Jafar chuckled. "I know…"

"Then don't drag me down with him!" He gnashed his teeth, staring into Jafar's glowing eyes. "He's the one you want! And… Aladdin."

"Oh, but I have every intention of going after them, boy." Jafar floated in a circle, shaking his head. "But if you do wish to be spared, perhaps it would be wise to wish for my freedom…"

"Riku, forget this!" 'Sora' shook his head, throwing his arm out to the side as tendrils of darkness curled up into the air, wrapping around one another to create a dark corridor. He tugged on the Replica's arm, but he stood perfectly still, continuing his stare-down with Jafar.

Meanwhile, tremors continued to shake the ground, while gusts of sandy wind pressed Riku and his friends stiffly against the wall. Biting his lip, he swept the Keyblade through the air, pushing the storm back with some wind of his own. This bought the others enough time to get back on their feet, latching onto each other for added support. Then, a flash of purple zipped down from above, stopping just inches above the ground. While the others immediately hopped onto the carpet, Riku stood still, keeping his eyes locked on 'Sora'. Biting down hard, he took off in their direction, watching as 'Sora' kept tugging on the Replica's sleeve. It was only when the waves plunged down over them that the two rushed towards the corridor. At that point, Riku stopped in his tracks. A part of him wanted to hurry over there, to try and get another word with 'Sora,' but with the impending danger, there just wasn't time.

The ground rumbled once more, and pressed his feet down firmly to avoid toppling down. From on top of the carpet, Kairi reached for his hand, pulling him towards her and the others. After taking one last look at the portal, Riku shut his eyes and threw himself at the floating rug. With everyone on board, the carpet shot up like a rocket, right as the waves slammed into the wall.

"Whew," said Aladdin, "that sure was a close one!"

"But who says it's over?" Riku sighed. "This is Jafar we're dealing with."

"No, you're right. Knowing him, that was probably a warm up." Narrowing his eyes, Aladdin looked over his shoulder. "…Yep. Definitely a warm up!"

Riku and the others turned around, gazing down at the city below. Heaps of sand flowed over the wall, and the sound of concrete cracking and splitting caught Riku's ear. Oh, and it didn't stop there. Another series of waves smothered buildings, blocking off all access to the doors. Stands collapsed under the pressure of the sand, as evidenced by the split boards poking up from beneath the surface.

Still, the carpet continued to zoom through the air, flying off in the direction of the palace. Unfortunately, rough winds pelted them from the sides, pushing them in zigzag fashion, while walls of sand clouded their vision. It figured that things would only get worse. Shaking his head, Riku looked over his shoulder at Donald, who immediately pulled out his staff. Seconds later, the air cleared, swept away by a spinning breeze just in the nick of time; before they could crash into a nearby building, Aladdin yanked on the carpet's tassels. It swerved to the side and continued straight ahead, even with the waves rapidly pursuing them down below.

Pillars of whirling dirt and debris closed in from behind, carrying tattered cloth, splinters, and chunks of stone and clay. Once again, the carpet swerved from side to side, swooping up and diving down in the mad dash away from certain danger. A cover of grey concealed the once blue sky, preventing even the slightest ray of sun from shining down on the city, and the sound of crumbling stone continued to fill the air; whenever Riku gazed down at Agrabah, he found more sand slamming into the foundations of buildings. Was Jafar really going to trash the town just to get them?

…Knowing him, probably.

The whirling tornadoes continued to chase them, one rushing in from the left, and another from the right. A third closed in from the front, forcing Aladdin to pull the carpet straight up and over the obstacles. As they swooped back down, Riku caught sight of a red and blue speck rocketing straight at them. Then, before Aladdin even got the chance to turn away, he met with a face full of feathers. The carpet shot forward, straight at another building. Teeth chattering, Goofy latched onto Donald and swallowed hard. Kairi shut her eyes and took hold of Riku's hand. Aladdin, grumbling under his breath, wrapped his fingers tightly around Iago's tail and ripped him off of his face. Narrowing his eyes, Iago opened his beak, probably ready to shout something obnoxious, and then…

BAM! The carpet passed straight through a window and met with a rock hard wall.

Everyone rolled over the edge. Though Aladdin grasped at the rear tassels of the carpet, he missed his mark and plummeted down to the ground. Taking a deep breath, Riku squeezed Kairi's hand and reached out for Aladdin's arm. Once he took hold, he leaned down and began a slow, circular glide towards a dusty rug down below. Donald and Goofy followed close behind, while Iago, fortunate enough to have wings, fluttered right after them. Once they made it all the way down, he circled around the group, eyes narrowed and feathers ruffled.

"You guys have got a lotta nerve leaving me back at the palace!" He leaned forward, staring straight into Aladdin's eyes. "Do you know how close I was to being cat chow?"

Really? Was that all he was worried about? Heaving a sigh, Riku rolled his eyes. "Look, we kind of had more important things to worry about. Besides, you were probably safer back there."

"Oh, sure, if by safe you mean getting chased down by a giant fur ball and getting tail feathers plucked out by the guards!" He turned around, pointing at his rear. Sure enough, only a few feathers remained. Talk about demeaning.

"Aw, shucks, Iago." Goofy's lower lip poked out, and he tilted his head. "We're awfully sorry about keepin' ya locked up there! Ain't that right, fellers?"

Sorry for Iago? Well, maybe keeping him in a cage with a tiger close by was a little extreme, but did he really deserve better? Claiming he'd turned over a new leaf and showing it were two different things… but it's not like he could've proven his worth while they were off in the desert, anyway. And with the Replica in charge of Jafar's power, that kind of lifted the blame off of Iago, at least a little bit. So, while a part of him wasn't too keen on idea, he'd at least give him a shot.

"Yeah," he said. "We are. Guess we did get a little carried away."

From behind, he heard Kairi's soft giggle. Before long, she waltzed right up to him and gazed at Iago. "I think we were all little caught up back there, and things are still pretty tense right now."

"Believe me, lady, I can tell." Iago groaned, slapping a wing on the top of his head. "Hard to miss a bunch of crazy tornados flying right at ya!"

"So you really didn't know about Jafar?" said Aladdin.

"Jafar?" Iago blinked, sliding back towards a nearby shelf. Coughing and sputtering, he bumped into a pot, sending it down to the ground with a CRASH! Then, his eyes widened, and his beak hung wide open. "You mean he's been freed?"

"That's right." Riku's brow furrowed, and he gazed at the door. "A certain idiot I know thought it'd be a great idea to use his power. He even wished to turn the whole desert on us."

"Uh oh." Iago gulped. "This is bad! No, this is beyond bad. This is a nightmare! If Jafar's free, then…" He clasped his wings together, teeth chattering. "Then he could come after me! And after I ditched him back at the—"

"Hey, calm down." Aladdin shook his head, giving him a lopsided smile. "It sounds like you really want nothing to do with him, and if that's the case, then we'll just have to make sure he doesn't lay a finger on you."

"Easy for you to say." Iago rolled his eyes, leaning over the edge of the shelf. "But we're not talkin' about the old Jafar. In case you forgot, he's a genie now, and that means he can do just about anything!"

"Anything except kill." Riku brought a hand to his chin. "Guess that makes things a little easier for us."

Iago shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. "Maybe he can't kill, but you'd be surprised what you can live through."

"So now whadda we do?" Donald scowled, pacing back and forth. "If we go back out there, then we'll be waltzing right into a storm."

"But we can't say here forever." Kairi frowned, clutching onto her necklace. "What if something happens to the city? Jafar might be after us, but that doesn't mean he'll stop there."

"She's right." Aladdin winced, trudging up to the door. "If Jafar's a genie, then he'll have no trouble turning over the whole city just to find us."

"Or to lure us out." Riku shut his eyes, leaning against a wall. "Heck, what's stopping him from attacking the palace? I bet he'd love to take his revenge out on the Sultan."

"…And Jasmine." Aladdin's shoulders shook, and he rolled his hands into fists. "We have to hurry! If anything happened to them…"

"Oh, puh-lease." Iago sneered. "You march out there, and you'll be putty in his hands. Believe me, I know Jafar better than any of you."

"So we're at a standstill…" Riku slammed his fist against the wall. "Great. And unless we get our hands on his lamp, we can't do a thing to stop him."

It was one perk Jafar had over enemies like Mim and Maleficent; phenomenal cosmic power and immortality. And to think the Replica was dumb enough to give Jafar free reign over the city! Sure, they could lock him back up again, but if he'd been freed once, he could easily bust loose again and again. Unless there was a way to destroy a genie, they'd never be rid of him for good.

It wasn't like his power could compare to Jafar's. He was a pain to deal with even as a sorcerer, and now he had the universe in his hand. Once again, Riku slipped his hand into his pocket, feeling around for a metal handle. When he pulled out Genie's lamp, he silently shook his head. Of all the times for that blue goofball to be missing in action…

BAM! The walls shook. A waterfall of sand flowed down from one of the windows, and Riku's eyes flew wide open. He glanced around the room, watching as two more pots shattered into a million pieces. His friends all leaned against the walls, and Iago bounced off of the shaking shelf, beating his wings to stay afloat. BANG! Seconds later, the walls rumbled again, and what once was a trickle of sand became a current. The door rattled and shook, prompting Aladdin to throw himself flat against it, but it still continued to shake. With a groan, Donald waved his staff at the door, and a ticking sound filled the air; no effect. Taking a step back, Goofy reached for his shield, while Kairi brandished her sword. The carpet began flailing its tassels and flying loops around the room, while the Keyblade flashed into Riku's hand.

They inched closer together, forming a loop at the center of the room. Shutting his eyes tightly, Aladdin took a deep breath and pressed his back against the door. Sand crept beneath it, reaching out for the group, while the window continued to seep steady flows onto the floor. The sand rose up above their ankles and continued to climb each passing second. One more time, the door shook before it flung open, throwing Aladdin directly at Goofy's chest. Then, out of the blue, a tidal wave of sand burst into the room…

…along with a familiar, blue figure on a surfboard, dressed in shades and flowery swim trunks with two overstuffed suitcases in his hands.

"Whoo-wee!" said the Genie, hopping down to the ground. The wave stopped just inches from the group and caved in on itself. "I'll tell ya, airline security is the worst!" He rifled through one of the suitcases, tossing out pillows, blankets, a laptop computer… and a tube of toothpaste, for some reason. "Sorry I missed your call, kid, but—"

"Genie!" Right on cue, Aladdin flung himself at the Genie. After staring for a few moments, Goofy let out a soft chuckle and rubbed the tip of his nose, while Donald shook his head with a crooked smile on his beak.

To think that Genie took this long to show up… Was he just waiting on the right punch line? Whatever the case, Riku smirked and headed his way. "Way to give us a heart attack, Genie."

"A heart attack?" Immediately, the Genie flung off his shades and whirled around. In place of his tacky trunks, he donned a white doctor's coat along with a stethoscope that he planted against Riku's chest. "Well, your pulse is a little speedy. Better take some deep breaths, relax, and…"

"Aw, c'mon! This is serious." Donald huffed, pushing the sand around with his staff. "While you were gone, we got into a whole heap of trouble!"

"That explains the exotic weather we're having." An umbrella poofed into Genie's hand, and he snapped in his fingers. Within seconds, the sand along the floor began to creep backwards, rising and falling as it slid out the door. "But don't you worry your grumpy little face off. Now that I'm back, why don't I take care of this pesky storm?"

"That'd be great, Genie, but there's something else…" Aladdin frowned, rubbing the back of his neck. "See, Jafar's back, and that means—"

"Oh, so somebody let that cuckoo out of his cage?" Genie narrowed his eyes and threw back his arms. "Well, tell you what, Al. I'll clean up the town and go mano a mano with Jafar, free of charge."

"There's just one more thing…" Turning towards the shelf, Aladdin took a deep breath. However, besides a single pot and a few stray feathers, it looked completely empty.

Looked being the key word.

Judging by the sound of chattering teeth, Iago couldn't have gone too far, and so Riku moseyed right up to the shelf, reached for the pot, and yanked it away. Sure enough, Iago lay curled up in a ball with his wings wrapped tightly around his chest.

"Iago?" A flash of red surrounded Genie's hands, and he threw a few punches at the air. "You want me to give him the old one-two?"

"No, don't." Kairi shook her head, stepping in front of the shelf. "We don't know if he had anything to do with Jafar's freedom."

"It's true." Riku folded his arms. "Unless Iago bust loose when my Replica snatched the lamp, he probably had nothing to do with this mess." That, or he was lying, but for now, they needed to stay focused. Kairi was right about not pointing fingers.

For a moment, the Genie said nothing and stroked his chin. He stomped right up to the shelf, leaned over Iago, lowered his brow, and… laughed. Out of the blue, he just started chuckling, giving the bird a light pat on the back.

"Well, that's a twist!" He shook his head. "Clones, destruction, and a change of heart? Now all it needs is some tear-jerking romance, and we've got ourselves a hit!"

"I think I've got that covered, Genie." Aladdin shut his eyes and smiled, turning towards the door. "But right now, let's focus on cleaning up this mess."

"Say no more!"

Genie tilted his chin up, puffed out his chest, and marched right out the door. He stopped just a few yards away, gazing up at the sky. The sand around him rippled and stretched high above the ground, launching straight at the building. Grinning, he reached out his hand, creating a cloud of smoke that trailed down to the ground. In no time, the smoke revealed a long hose attached to a small, rounded base. At the tip of the hose, a wide nozzle began sucking up sand. Letting out a loud hum, the vacuum slurped up the incoming waves. When bits of whirling wood and stone came rushing in, Genie pressed one little button, and the humming grew louder, faster, and those little bits of debris flew down the hose with ease.

Bit by bit, the sand, the wind, and the wreckage all met their end thanks to a silly gag. Sand that had piled up all around the city vanished without a trace, while battered up planks and torn up cloth straightened and reformed with just one snap of the Genie's fingers. Soon, even a few rays of sunlight shone down on the city as the clouds rolled away. In just a matter of minutes, the chaos and destruction gave way to peace and quiet. And while one last wave rolled down over the Genie, one wave of his hands sent it reeling back.

With the coast finally clear, he floated down to the ground and took a bow. Immediately, Riku along with everyone else came rushing out the door. Everyone except Iago, anyway. For a few seconds, he just sort of hovered beneath the door frame with his eyes open wide. What was he afraid of? It wasn't like they were going to turn on him now. Briefly, Riku watched him from the corner of his eye. When Iago didn't move an inch, he shrugged and turned his attention back to Genie.

"Well, that's one mess down," he said, "but what about Jafar? Soon as he figures out what you did, he'll probably whip up an even bigger storm."

"True," said the Genie. "For all his bad qualities, I have to give Jafar credit for his cleverness. He's about as sharp as a tack."

"But that's not the real problem." Donald clenched his fists and stomped his feet. "As long as he's a genie, it doesn't matter how smart he is!"

"Yup!" Goofy's brow furrowed, and he scratched his head. "But at least we've got a Genie on our side, too. That oughta even things out—"

"If we're lucky," said Riku, "but let's not get ahead of ourselves. If we're going to stop him, we'd better prepare for the worst." He looked up at Genie. "We can't just rush after him without a plan."

"Well, there is one thing you can do." Genie placed his hands behind his back, and he floated back and forth. "If you destroy his lamp, then Jafar's history. Only trouble is, you'd have to find him first."

"But where do we start?" Kairi took two steps forward, looking left and right. "This is a big city, and the last thing we need is for anyone else to get hurt."

"You're right." Aladdin reached for his sword, pointing it at the palace. "Right now, we need to hurry up and find him. If that means spreading out, then I'm all for it."

It was a decent idea. Given Jafar's powers, he could easily pop up anywhere in Agrabah, giving them way too much ground to cover and no time to time to do it. Of course, the palace was always an option. With Jasmine and the Sultan concealed behind its walls, they'd probably managed to withstand the sandstorm. And since Jasmine was easily one of Aladdin's top priorities, it only made sense for him to take off in that direction via flying carpet. On the other hand, the city and even the desert were viable options. Without anyone to cart his lamp around, just how far could Jafar go in the first place?

They'd never know unless they got searching. So, after they finalized their plans, the rest of the group split off. Donald and Goofy stuck with Riku, and the three of them bolted off towards the desert. Kairi, on the other hand, followed Aladdin's lead over to the palace. Maybe it'd be a little risky without the others backing her up, but at least she had her magic to even the odds.

As for Genie, given his insane powers and tendency to just pop up out of the blue, he opted to go back-and-forth, all while keeping his eyes peeled for anything fishy. For whatever reason, though, Riku didn't catch one trace of Iago on the way out of town, nor did he hear a single peep…

x.x.x

"Oh, sure. Run off into certain danger! As for me, I'll be staying right here, where it's safe."

What did he care if those chumps went off and played hero? It was no skin off his back if anything happened to them. He wouldn't lose any sleep if Jafar got his hands on 'em and got his revenge. He'd played his part by sucking up to them, and now he was really scot-free! …As long as the Sultan and the guards didn't come looking for him, anyway. Until then, he had plenty of time to fly the coop. Maybe if he hurried, he could find a new town with no sultan, no guards, and absolutely no genies.

Just thinking about it brought a grin to his beak, as Iago fluttered back onto the shelf. From here on out, he'd be looking out for himself. After all, who needed friends, anyway?

…But those chumps did stick up for him. Sure, they used their weirdo hocus pocus to freeze him and toss him in a cage. Not to mention the way they left him with that pesky tiger. He was as good as lunch for that furball!

But it was still… kinda nice in a weird sorta way. It was like the minute Jafar bust loose, all bets were off, and he was completely off the hook, no strings attached. Why else would they have let him stay behind and out of their hair?

"Bah, thinkin' like that's just not my style." He groaned, slapping a wing on his head. "Look at me, goin' all soft!" He'd never needed friends before, so why start now? And why did he have a weird tingling in his chest, like staying there wasn't the 'right' thing to do? Since when did right even matter?

All these thoughts were just weighing him down. And the more he thought about it, the worse those thoughts became until he wound up pacing back and forth with his wings behind his back, mulling over those silly thoughts of… alliances with Aladdin and the others. Maybe if he played his cards straight, he could convince him to put in a good word for him. If everyone at the palace started thinking he was one of the good guys, he'd have access to all sorts of riches. Not to mention food!

And to think he was sitting here and missing out on the action when he could just as easily cheer them on and keep up appearances. Now that was clever thinking…

In fact, he started flapping his way to the door in the blink of an eye, until the door SLAMMED shut. Were the winds picking up again? Well, the window was always an option. Except, when he tried swooping up and out of the place, the window suddenly started shrinking until there was nothing left.

Something wasn't right. Windows didn't up and disappear! No, it had to be some kinda magic. Something like…

A lump formed in his throat, and he slowly floated back down to the shelf. The door slamming on him, windows vanishing without a trace. That key-kid's friends wouldn't pull a prank like that, and neither would the Genie! No, there was only one guy who'd go that far just to keep him in place. But why would he waste his time here?

A cold shiver ran down Iago's spine. Teeth chattering, he turned around, eyes darting all over the place. With the window gone, the entire place turned pitch black, save for a few little glimmers of light creeping under the door. Then, before he could blink, two yellow, gleaming eyes appeared right in front of him. He almost leaped right out of his feathers at the sight!

"J-Jafar!"

"Why hello, Iago…" That chilling voice, that sinister chuckle. There was no denying it now. Out from the shadows crept Jafar, dressed in his fancy gowns with that creepy snake staff held tightly in his clutches.

Oh, just seeing him here made his heart race and his knees tremble. Without even thinking, he stumbled back, falling flat against the wall. Taking a deep breath, he tried standing his ground, and he even started laughing to try and hide his fear.

"So, uh." He forced a grin, folding his wings together. "What brings you here? Don't you, I don't know, have street rats to take care of or a Sultan to overthrow? Why would you worry about little old me?"

"Why, Iago. You underestimate yourself." Jafar tightened his grip on the snake staff and leaned in over the shelf. "After all, you've managed to convince those fools that you're on their side. I find that very… remarkable, to say the least."

"Gee, that's great! Really, I'm flattered." He gulped, fluttering his wings. "Now, why don't you run along? Don't let me hold you up when you've got important genie stuff to take care of."

"Ah, but that is precisely why I'm here…"

TO BE CONTINUED
 

KingdomKey

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  • Retired Staff
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Gosh, what a lot of updates. I really liked seeing Kairi become more part of the group and fight. Even if she's not precisely the best fighter of the bunch. At least she can keep Riku in check. No pointing fingers. No sassing anybody. lol. The worlds they've been to were a lot of fun to read. I also liked seeing the real Sora help out in his heartless form. It was great getting to see Namine and Axel. Those two are my favorite characters in KH overall. I hope Namine eventually coughs up the truth. It amused a lot, when the Fake Riku asked Jafar to bury the "Fake" in the sand and it turned on him. Ah, such denial. I wonder how this will turn out in the end. And talk about FINALLY! Genie arriving in the nick of time! Poor Iago has to suffer more from Jafar. Whelp, this has been a fun read overall and I look forward to more updates. :)
 

.:Mega:.

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And once again I wound up disappearing without actually meaning to. Well, thanks for the kind words! :D Glad to hear you've been enjoying it thus far. Gonna post a few chapters today to hopefully get back into the grove, starting with...

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Chapter 11: A Genie's Wrath

SLASH!

Two Bandits fell to the ground with one swing of Aladdin's sword, while a group Air Soldiers flung themselves at three cowering children. Before they could lay so much as a claw on them, a pale glow wrapped around their bodies, and they fell to the ground. There they lay, fast asleep, giving Kairi a chance to slip out in front of the kids and perform a few quick jabs. The Heartless twitched a little, but before they could get back into the air, their bodies lit up in flames. With the Heartless gone, the kids inched forward, looking up at Kairi and Aladdin with huge smiles on their faces. Briefly, Kairi looked around with her eyes open for any more Heartless. When none appeared, she patted the kids on the heads and headed up towards the throne room's entrance, motioning for the kids to follow.

"Hold up!"

Before she could even reach the door, she found herself swerving out of a fireball's path and blocking the swing of a Soldier's claws. The kids shrieked and clung to each other, knees trembling, while another Air Soldier dropped out of a portal and swooped over their heads. Muttering under her breath, Kairi knocked the Soldier aside and rushed towards the kids, but about halfway, she wound up tumbling towards the ground with her back ablaze. Luckily, Aladdin was there to even the odds. Once the Air Soldier drew close enough, he jumped up and sliced it from behind. The kids all let out a collective sigh, while Aladdin hurried over to Kairi's side, crouched down, and held out his hand.

She reached for his hand, slowly getting back on her feet. Then, right as the Red Nocturne's hat started to glow, she whipped around and thrust her weapon into its chest.

"Hey, nice one!" Grinning, Aladdin darted over to the door. "Now, let's get these guys inside before more Heartless show up."

"Careful, or you might jinx it." Kairi laughed, making her way up the steps. Once she reached the doors, she pushed them open just a crack, looking back at the kids. "It's okay. Nobody's going to hurt you now."

The kids hesitated, glancing at one another. Then, after a few seconds, they inched towards the door. With each step, they picked up the pace until they broke out into a full-on sprint, slipping into the throne room itself. With the kids safely inside, Kairi stepped back, letting the door swing shut. Leaning back against the frame, she took a deep breath and gazed up at the sky.

"I think that's everyone," said Aladdin, sitting down on the top step. "As long as the guards stick around, they should be okay."

"Yeah, I know." Kairi sighed, brushing a few stray hairs behind her ear. "But I hope Riku and the others are having better luck than we are. I'm surprised Jafar hasn't shown up yet."

"Knowing him, there's probably a reason for it." He sighed, shaking his head. "He could be waiting for us to let our guard down."

"Then we'll have to be careful." Kairi narrowed her eyes and gazed down at her sword. "Right now, we don't know what he's planning."

Or where he was. There were too many spots to hide in the city, and the palace and desert opened up even more options. There wasn't a lot they could do, though. Being in more than one place just wasn't possible, and keeping the palace safe mattered just as much as finding Jafar. For the time being, they'd just have to wait, watch, and hope for the best. Maybe Riku and the others had already found a lead and were chasing Jafar at that very moment. Genie probably would've told them if anything went wrong, and Riku wouldn't give up at a time like this.

So why was she so worried? Without a word, Kairi looked back at the door, tucking her weapon away.

A few seconds of silence passed before Aladdin got back on his feet. He placed a hand over his eyes and squinted. Was something going on out there? Blinking, Kairi stepped up to the edge of the landing and tilted her chin up.

"What's going on?"

"Something's coming." He pointed at a tiny speck in the sky, which drew closer with each passing second. Soon, they could even make out a bit of red and blue.

Iago.

As he drew closer, it became pretty clear that something was up. His beak hung open, and he beat his wings rapidly, bobbing up and down in the air. Seeing this, Kairi's eyes widened, and she placed a hand to her chin. Was he hurt? His shaky flying sure gave that impression, not to mention the sand caught between his feathers. Plus, once he reached the top step, he just sort of flopped there, breathing heavily. At that moment, Kairi crouched down, while Aladdin looked over her shoulder. At first Iago said nothing and continued to pant, but soon he pushed himself up onto his feet, raised one of his wings, and croaked out a few words.

"He's…" He gulped. "I, uh. I know where Jafar is!"

"What?" Aladdin gasped, taking a step back.

"It's, er. Well." Iago paused, dusting himself off with a brush of his wing. His eyes darted around the area, and he dragged one talon along the ground. "See, I was out flyin', trying to catch up with that Key-kid and the others. Figured they were already out in the desert, so…"

"So what happened?" Kairi frowned. "Did you bump into him?"

"Oh, sure. He came… right outta thin air." He lowered his head and gazed down at the ground. It took a few seconds for him to speak up again, but when he did, he fluttered into the air and scowled. "He was out by these creepy ruins. I barely made it outta there alive!"

"The desert ruins…" Aladdin stroked his chin, eyes locked on Iago. "But what was he doing out there?"

"Beats me!" Iago slid back, laughing shakily. "I didn't stick around long enough to ask."

"Well," said Kairi, "you know Jafar better than we do. Why do you think he was out there?"

"Oh, uh. Maybe he was… plotting?" He paused. "Yeah, that's it! He must've been workin' out his next big plan."

"I don't know. What's stopping him from leveling the palace?" Aladdin scowled. "It's not something I want to think about, but he's a genie, and I know he's after revenge."

"Well, what are you gonna do?" Iago huffed, circling his shoulders. "If you two wait here all day, your pals might end up flying right into a trap. It's either that or ya put the whole palace in danger by stickin' around."

"…You're right." Aladdin clenched his fists and averted his gaze. "I'm his first target, even before the Sultan. Just because he's waiting now doesn't mean he won't come after us later."

"Sooo…" Iago gave a cheeky grin, perching right on his shoulder. "Don't ya think you should start moving? If you wanna get the jump on him, you'll have to act fast!"

He was right. If Jafar was out there, then shouldn't they go after him as well? Looking up at Aladdin, Kairi said, "The least we could do is warn them. If Genie isn't with them, they could be in serious trouble."

"Even if he is, they could still use backup." Aladdin took a deep breath, exhaled, and glanced at Iago. "I guess we don't have a choice, but you better not be making this up."

"Hey, easy, pal!" Iago gulped and folded his wings together. "Remember, I ain't the one who released him."

x.x.x

Fireballs whizzed through the air. Mobs of bandits charged, swords blazing, only to wind up in a heap on the ground. Shards of ice burst through Red Nocturnes, while Shadows exploded into a hideous black smoke the moment Goofy rammed his shield into their chests. In other words, instead of finding even a trace of Jafar, Riku and the others wound up stumbling right into a Heartless ambush. Not that this was a problem. If anything, slicing through Heartless and pelting them with magic allowed them to blow off a little steam after dealing with the Replica and Jafar's little storm.

But even then, they weren't making any progress. It was almost like the Heartless had been thrown out there as a distraction. And maybe they were. Jafar had toyed with them in the past. What was stopping him now? Shaking his head, Riku whipped around and drove his Keyblade into a Fat Bandit's back, leaving it motionless on the desert floor.

In the corner of his eye, he caught sight of two Air Soldiers swooping down in his direction. Great. Just what he needed. But instead of nailing them with his weapon, he dug into his pocket, scooped up the lamp, and swiped his hand against his surface.

"You know," he said, rolling off to the side, "we could really use your help right now!"

"Did somebody say help?"

Man, he didn't even blink before clouds of blue smoke filled the air, a surefire sign of the Genie. And, sure enough, once the smoke clouds cleared, there he stood, dressed up in a tacky red body suit, complete with a bright red G on his chest, a flowing cape, and a mask over his face. What was he trying to be, some kind of superhero? Well, it wasn't like theatrics were anything new for him. Rather than question it, Riku slipped between two charging Large Bodies and stopped out in front of him.

"Think you can get rid of these pests?" He pointed his Keyblade at the remaining Heartless.

"Pest control?" Genie laughed, floating up into the air. "I've got just the thing, but you might wanna stand back."

Donald's brow quirked, and he banged his staff against a Shadow's face. "Oh, it can't be that bad."

"Well, suit yourself!" Holding out one hand, Genie wrapped his fingers around a small, metal can with sprayer at the top. What was he gonna do, nail them with bug spray? Well, the moment he pressed down on the can, a pale green haze spewed into the air, wrapping itself around each and every Heartless. Then, right before Riku's eyes, they all fell flat on their backs and shriveled away into bubbling black ooze.

Not the flashiest way to deal with them, but at least it got the job done. Unfortunately, the spray still lingered for a few seconds, prompting Goofy to cover his mouth, while Donald whipped up a breeze to blow it all away. Once the air cleared, Riku smirked and gave the Genie a brief round of applause.

"So, Genie," said Goofy, stepping over a pile of ash, "didja find Jafar yet?"

"Well, I've been scoping out some clues, and…" Genie sighed. "Nothing. He's slipped right under the radar."

"So we're back at square one." Riku slapped his palm over his face. "Of course he'd make this difficult."

"That's just another reason to keep searching." Donald huffed, and he pointed his staff towards the horizon. "We've still got loads of ground to cover."

"And no flying carpet." Riku shrugged. "Unless you want to go back and grab our ship…"

"Gawrsh, fellers, can't we just ask Genie to help us?"

"Maybe you won't have to!" Genie pointed up at the sky. "Looks like Al and the others are heading our way."

Sure enough, a small red speck zipped through the air, alongside what looked like a mesh of purple and skin tones. And given the lack of flying rugs in Agrabah, there was no way it could be anyone but Aladdin and Kairi, not to mention Iago. Why he was with them was anyone's guess, but it wasn't like he'd done anything suspicious yet. For all they knew, maybe he'd actually been helping them out at the palace. That, or making a nuisance of himself.

But it only took about a minute before the carpet dived down and skidded to halt. Then, it hovered about a foot off the ground, giving Aladdin and Kairi a chance to slide down and make their way towards the group. Iago, however, lingered for a few seconds, looking back and forth. He bit down and swallowed hard. Then, after taking a deep breath, he finally headed over to them.

With everyone together, there was no time to lose. Riku didn't even give them a chance to speak up before he said, "How'd it go?"

"Well, we've got a lead," said Kairi, "but you didn't miss much. Nothing really happened until Iago showed up."

"Yeah, some Heartless attacked, but…" Aladdin looked over at Iago, and his brow furrowed. "That's not important right now. Honestly, I'm just glad you guys are still here."

A lead, huh? What, did Iago do some snooping too? That seemed like a little too much work for somebody like him. Then again, Riku couldn't completely dismiss the idea.

"So what exactly did you learn?"

"Well, er…" Iago gulped, flapping his way to Aladdin's shoulder. Once he landed, he fidgeted a little and looked off into the distance. "Okay, it's like this! Jafar ain't hanging around Agrabah. He's out there somewhere…" He paused, hovering forward. "At the desert ruins."

"Wow, I didn't know there were ruins out here!" Goofy turned around and squinted. "But where are they, anyway?"

"Forget where they are." Donald crossed his arms. "What I wanna know is why Iago was out there in the first place."

"Sheesh, are ya still thinkin' I'm with Jafar?" Iago shuddered. "It's nothin' like that, I swear! In fact, I was… well, I was out lookin' for you chumps."

"Right." But would Iago really go out of his way to find them? His uneasiness mixed with his outlandish claims didn't exactly make sense. In fact, Riku kept his eyes locked on the parrot, watching his eyes dart around as he flew in a circle. Either he really did go out there and something went horribly wrong, or he was lying through his teeth.

But it wasn't like they had anything else to go off of. So, after thinking it over, Riku held up his hand and pressed it against his temple. "So, let me get this straight," he said. "You're saying that Jafar's all the way out there, and you just happened to find him?"

"More like he found me." Iago winced, and he lowered his head. "Look, all I'm sayin' is that if you wanna stop the guy, then it's worth a look."

"Well…" Riku sighed, looking over at Donald and Goofy and then to Kairi. "You guys up for up?"

"It's still kinda fishy, but…" Donald brought a hand to his beak. "If he's not here or at the palace, then we've got nothing to lose."

"Aw, shucks, Donald. Ya mean you're actually gonna trust Iago?" Goofy chuckled. "I knew you had it in ya!"

"Hey, I'm still not completely convinced!" He huffed. "But I guess I can give him one chance."

"Wow, you're making progress." Kairi laughed, but it didn't take long for her smile to fade. Brow furrowed, she trudged towards the carpet, stopping just once to look back at the others. "Anyway, don't you think we should get going? We'll have our work cut out for us if we're going to destroy his lamp."

"Then what we need is the element of…" The Genie looked back and forth, reached behind his back, and then… "Surprise!" He flung brightly colored streamers into the air, completely ruining any semblance of seriousness in all of three seconds.

Still, he had a point. Flying straight towards Jafar would get them nowhere fast. If they were really going to stand a chance, they'd have to catch him off guard somehow, even if it was something as simple as a sneak attack. As for how they'd pull it off, that'd depend on just where Jafar was hiding and whether or not he knew they were coming…

Right now, it was hard to say, and for a few short moments, Riku turned his attention back to a certain parrot. Before making his way to the carpet, Iago frantically looked around, as if something was going to leap out of the sand and grab him. Both Donald and Goofy dashed right past him without a second glance, kicking up dust as they leaped onto the rug. Once they took their seats, they looked over at Riku, and Donald started tapping his fingers against his arm. While Aladdin and Genie hurried along, Kairi stopped right next to Riku and gave him a light tap on the shoulder.

"You look a little lost, Riku. Is everything okay?"

"What?" Riku blinked, giving her a quick glance. Then, after a moment, he shrugged and continued on his way. "Don't worry about it. It's nothing."

Once everyone climbed on board, the carpet shot up into the air, zooming straight towards the mysterious ruins. Their sandy surroundings blurred together, and nothing really stood out at first. Then, before long, the flat plane of the desert came to an abrupt stop and dipped down below. Deep down. As the carpet approached this gaping hole, Riku's eyes scanned the area. By the looks of it, the entire valley formed one giant circle, shielded by what might've been a stone wall at some point, if the sand hadn't smothered it over time.

With a new destination in sight, Aladdin grinned and steered the carpet over this wall of sand and straight downward. As the carpet continued to soar, it swerved between lopsided pillars that stuck out of the sand and over half-buried buildings held together by sandy bricks. Cracks crept down the surfaces of some of the structures, while others bore smoothed out corners, as if they'd been weathered down over time.

They slipped beneath towers, behind buildings, and stayed close to the shadows. One wrong move, and they'd easily expose themselves to Jafar. That was the initial thought, anyway. Problem was, despite bumping into plenty of lopsided structures and chunks of broken stone, nothing else really stood out beyond a few stray chests resting on the dunes. If this really was where Jafar was hiding, then why was this place so empty? Not even any Heartless burst out of the sand. The whole place, for better or worse, seemed awfully peaceful.

Maybe a little too peaceful.

Luckily, Riku didn't have to say a word about it. Instead, Aladdin stopped the carpet behind one of the towers and looked over at Iago.

"Are you sure about this?" he said, narrowing his eyes. "I don't see anything suspicious."

"Ah, well…" Iago turned away, grumbling under his breath. He looked down, whimpered, and then sluggishly turned back around. Then, he shakily raised his wing. "Ya aren't gonna have much luck finding him if ya keep stickin' behind these buildings. If you really wanna find Jafar, you'll have to dig deeper."

"But then we'd be out in the open." Aladdin leaned back, and his eyes widened. "If Jafar really is out there, won't he see us?"

"Hey, life's full of risks." Iago shook his head. "This is your one big chance to take him out. Do ya really wanna blow it?"

"…No, I don't." He sighed, tightening his grip on the carpet's tassels. "C'mon, Carpet. Let's get this over with!"

Immediately, the carpet shot forward, sliding past the tower and swooping close to the ground. As it circled around sand dunes, it stayed low, keeping the group concealed behind each little hill. Slowly but surely, they crept between one hill to the next. All the while, Riku skimmed the ground for anything remotely suspicious. The smooth curves of the dunes caught his eye no matter where he looked. Piles of sand that huge could've easily hidden Jafar's lamp from plain sight, but Iago zipped right past them, stopping a few times to point them in the right direction.

It took about a minute of slinking across the ground before they finally reached the center of the ruins. There, the remnants of buildings dwarfed them, partially thanks to the flattened surface of the sand. No matter where Riku looked, not a single hill appeared. This didn't exactly give them a place to hide, but… wait. Was that… something shimmering? He squinted and marched forward, shielding his eyes from the sun. Once again, a dull glimmer caught his eye, and he immediately picked up the pace. Before long, a small, black speck came into view, just barely visible from beneath the sand. Rather than grab it, however, Riku crouched down next to the lamp, peered over his shoulder, and motioned for the others to get over there.

At first they didn't budge. Goofy did scoot forward a little, and he even slid down from the carpet, but instead of heading towards the lamp, he shuddered and took a step back. Donald at least started to move, throwing himself down to the ground and stomping out into the open. However, with Goofy staying behind, he turned back around and latched onto his arm, dragging him straight towards Riku. Covering her mouth with her hand, Kairi stifled a laugh and followed along, while Genie shot through the air. Before taking off with the others, Aladdin crouched down and whispered something to the carpet. With that out of the way, he hurried along, leaving only Iago behind.

And he stayed by the carpet for a few seconds, shielding his face with his wings. His shoulders sagged, and when he finally headed their way, he kept his eyes locked on the ground. Once everyone gathered around, he lowered himself down, stopping right behind the lamp. Then, his beak contorted into a stiff, toothy smile, and he pointed one feather at the exposed, black surface.

"Well, whaddaya know? He left his lamp out in the open!" He laughed shakily and delivered a swift kick. "Now, let's smash this thing before he rears his ugly head!"

Even now, he was acting like a nervous wreck. The fact that he'd kept squirming, whimpering, and looking the other way still didn't add up. Either he was totally shaken from his encounter with Jafar, or maybe, just maybe, he was hiding something… He probably should've asked, but instead, Riku remained quiet and reached out for the lamp, wrapping his fingers tightly around its handle as he plucked it out of the sand. While he half-expected something to blow up in his face or for Heartless claws to reach up and drag him to the ground, nothing happened. Even the lamp remained perfectly still, and only the sound of the wind swept through the air.

At first it started out slow, almost unnoticeable. The breeze whistled and blew through their hair, carrying only a few grains of sand at any given moment. Riku paid this no mind and instead turned to face Aladdin. Like Riku, he remained completely silent, keeping his eyes locked on the lamp. Taking a deep breath, he approached Riku and pulled his sword out of its scabbard. Genie then looped around their shoulders, stopping just a few feet above them, where he held out his arms, laced his hands together, and cracked his knuckles.

"All right!" he said, raising his hand. "Now all we've gotta do is give it a little alaka—"

The winds picked up, filling the air with a chilling melody. The sand began to whirl ever-so-slightly, just a few inches off of the ground. Then about a foot… and then an entire yard of sand rose up, twirling around the group. Immediately, Goofy ducked behind his shield, letting out a moan, while Donald stumbled back and crashed into his leg. The two leaped back in opposite directions, giving each other wide-eyed stares. Meanwhile, Kairi drew her sword and rushed over to Riku. On the way, the breeze began to push everyone back inch by inch, while the lamp trembled in Riku's grasp.

Then, before the Genie could unleash so much as a spark of magic, Riku found himself flying backwards through the air. He didn't even get the chance to call for his weapon before, BAM! His back collided with the corner of a ruined building, and the lamp rattled to the ground. Before he could so much as reach it, another breeze flung it into the air. Though Genie darted after it, donning leather glove for good measure, a red blur zipped past him.

In the blink of an eye, Iago latched onto the lamp and hovered high above the group. In that instant, everyone's eyes fell on him.

"Iago, what are you doing?" Aladdin scowled, planting his feet firmly on the ground. "C'mon, we need to destroy it!"

"Gee, I'd love to. Really!" Iago's face fell, and he turned away, rapidly beating his wings against the breeze. "But ya see …"

SHOOM. The surrounding area lit up with a blinding flash. The ground trembled and cracked, while sand flew into the everyone's faces. Gritting his teeth, Riku pushed himself forward, and he stomped towards the carpet with one arm over his mouth. About halfway, the wind nailed him in the back, throwing him face-down into the sand. When he lifted his head, he caught sight of the carpet beating its tassels against the air. Against… a barrier.

Jafar must've been there the whole time. He must've known they were coming, and, even worse… Iago probably set them up. Just when they thought they could trust him, he turned around and stabbed them in the back.

They'd all been had. Any semblance of trust immediately shattered. Why did he bother trusting him? Why didn't they all just get rid of him when they had the chance? The more he thought about it, the more his blood boiled, and Riku sent the parrot a fiery glare. "What were you thinking?"

"I, uh. Well. Jafar was kinda…" Iago shut his eyes and moaned. "Ya gotta understand! If I didn't play along…"

"Then what, Iago?" Kairi stumbled back, leaning her weight against a tower. When she looked at Iago, she narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together. "You know that we would've protected you if you'd just told us the truth!"

The whistling of the wind shifted completely, and soon a familiar laugh bellowed through the air. Trails of red smoke crept up from the sand, while the shaking ground cracked and split, forcing the others to stumble around before they, too, collapsed. Before long, the smoke squeezed together, forming the shape of a tall, skinny figure. The long, elegant robes, the golden staff with a cobra's head, and that infuriating smirk could only belong to one person.

"Well done, Iago…" Jafar chuckled, stroking the head of his staff. Despite the trembling ground beneath his feet, he calmly strode towards Aladdin and reached out for his chin. "There is no point in fleeing." He turned Aladdin's head towards the barrier, where the carpet continued to pound with all its might. "As you can see, boy, I've made certain accommodations for you and your friends…"

A coil of red smoke wrapped around his entire body, latching onto his hands and feet. Iron shackles bound his hands together, while chains squeezed around his chest. Despite the bindings, Aladdin still squirmed, prompting Jafar to laugh once more.

"There is little hope for you now, street rat. These chains are only the beginning…"

Smoke rose from beneath the cracks, and an orange substance glistened several yards below the surface. A strong, discomforting heat spread throughout the area. Shutting his eyes tightly, Riku pressed his palms flat against the ground, just barely managing to get back on his feet. With one hand against the edge of a building, he called for the Keyblade and began to move forward.

"But aren't you forgetting something?" he smirked, stepping over one of the cracks. "Genies can't—"

"Kill? Boy, you underestimate me." His lips curled up into a toothy grin, and he looked over at Iago. "After all, I won't be bound to that infernal lamp for long…"

"Oh yeah?" Using his staff as a cane, Donald sluggishly pushed himself upright, and his face lit up with the heat of a thousand fires. "Well, maybe you're underestimating us!" His beak bent into an uncomfortable frown, and he thrust his staff into the air. In a flash, a bright blue column of lightning shot down from above Iago. Unfortunately, he zipped out of the way at the last second, completely missing the blow. This didn't stop Donald, however, and he continued to launch flames, icicles, and whirlwinds throughout the area.

Yet, despite the magic in the air, Jafar's grin only widened. Letting go of Aladdin's face, he turned towards Donald and placed a hand to his chest.

"My, such heartfelt enthusiasm. However, you cannot hope to succeed. After all…" He snapped his fingers, and immediately, Donald's body grew stiff, rubbery, and he fell flat on his side. "This is the power I possessed as a lowly sorcerer. And now that I'm a genie…" He crept towards Kairi and Goofy, and the eyes of his cobra staff lit up in a vibrant red. "There is somuch more I can accomplish."

Even with mine squares glowing at his feet, Jafar continued on his way, completely unfazed by any explosions. As he drew closer, Kairi scooted back, holding her sword close to her chest. Jerking forward, Riku picked up the pace, leaping over the widening cracks and launching fire and ice straight at Jafar. He didn't even shudder. Goofy, in the mean time, stepped out in front of Kairi and lowered his brow.

"Just 'cause you're powerful doesn't mean we're gonna give up!" He shook his head. "Ya might have a buncha tricks up your sleeve, but that doesn't mean you're invincible."

"Silence, fool!" Jafar hissed, pointing his staff at Goofy's shield. "If you doubt me, then perhaps you'd like to be the first to experience my true potential…"

"Not so fast, bub!"

Out of the blue, the bindings around Aladdin dissipated into blue smoke clouds. Donald's rubbery body popped back to its original size, and instead of squeaking like a bath toy, he started ranting and raving with a familiar squawking voice. For a few short moments, the cracks in the ground squeezed together, hiding the glowing, orange lava from sight. Even the vicious winds slowed, clearing the air. Then, with his eyes narrowed and his hands balled into fists, the Genie zoomed towards Jafar, slapped a hand onto his shoulder, and whirled him around.

"If you're gonna mess with my pals, then you're gonna have to answer to me!"

"You?" Jafar gasped, and then he stifled another laugh. "The big, blue clown? I perish at the thought." He took a step back and held out his arms. "But if you wish to make a fool of yourself, then by all means, be my guest."

This was the perfect chance to take a grab at the lamp. If Genie could keep Jafar busy for just a few moments, then maybe they'd be able to catch Iago off guard and clean up this mess. In order to communicate this message, Riku looked to the others and then pointed at Iago, who continued to flutter around in a circle. Once they responded with a quick smile and a nod, they all tip-toed past the two genies, ducking whenever spells rocketed their way.

"How 'bout a little of this?" Genie leaned back and flung a barrage of lightning bolts straight at his chest. Each one soared at Jafar, nailing him flat in the gut—or so it seemed. A cloud CRASH echoed up above, and thick cloud of smoke concealed him. However, when the clouds faded, Jafar stood perfectly still, and he burst into a fit of laughter.

"Is that the best you can come up with?" He shook his head. "I'm afraid you're slipping. And, furthermore…" He snapped his fingers, and before Aladdin could even take a swipe at the lamp, he wound up tumbling forward, his feet now bound by a ball and chain, while the shackles took hold of his hands once more, and the chains squeezed his torso. These chains extended from Aladdin and coiled their way around Riku's legs and then Kairi's, Donald's, and Goofy's. Before long, they all plummeted down, their bodies squeezed like grapes between links of cold metal.

"I'm afraid I won't allow any… interference."

This wasn't good. Now what were they going to do? With his arms pressed tightly against his sides and his whole body wrapped between chains, there was no way Riku could use the Keyblade. And no matter how much he squirmed, he just couldn't budge; if anything, his movements made things worse, for the chains dug into his skin, sending shivers of pain down his spine. The others didn't fare much better, either. With Donald unable to reach his staff, he couldn't use magic to bust them loose, and it wasn't like Goofy could break chains with his bare hands.

To make matters worse, Genie's attempts to fight back just couldn't measure up. Once Riku and the others went down for the count, he lunged at Jafar, teeth bared. His body became bulky and coated with striped fur, and he let out a roar. When he drew close enough, he took a swipe with his claws, but with one wave of the snake staff, Genie's fearsome physique shrank down to the size of a little kitten. Then, all Jafar had to do was whack him from behind to send him flying into the air. SPLAT! He collided head-first with the barrier and slid down onto a ruined building. There he lay with stars dancing around his head, completely still.

With Genie knocked out, there was nobody left to combat Jafar. Riku and his friends sure couldn't fight with their bodies bound by metal, and with Iago carting the lamp around, it was only a matter of time before Jafar gained his freedom. Already, he turned their way, taking small steps in their general direction. Any second now, he'd probably nail them with an agonizing spell, just for laughs. But why did it have to end this way? It wasn't just about Riku's well-being. Donald, Goofy, and Kairi… they were all gonna share the same fate. Paralyzed by the chains, they were all completely vulnerable.

"It's almost a shame to see it end like this," said Jafar, looming over the group. "But, alas, all things must come to an end. I believe I've held back long enough…"

His body rose above the ground and stretched high into the sky. His long robes vanished from sight, and his skinny torso grew large, muscled, and bright red. As he let out a cackle, his voice deepened in pitch, while his eyes emitted a golden glow. Legs became a smoke-like trail. His teeth sharpened, and before long, he took the form of a true genie. Playtime was over.

The ground rumbled, the cracks widened, and chunks of land split and floated away. Soon, instead of sand, a sea of bubbling lava surrounded Riku and the others. Still, he struggled, squirming back and forth, just trying to get an arm loose with no avail. And with lava surrounding them in all directions, rolling away was completely out of the question. Jafar didn't just have them pinned down; he had them in checkmate. And now all he needed was that one final wish…

"Now, Iago," he said, gazing up at the parrot. "I order you to wish for my freedom!"

"I… yeah, well… erp…" He looked down at Aladdin, at Riku, and at everyone else. Beads of sweat trickled down his face, and his legs trembled.

Was he seriously hesitating? After everything he'd just put them through? Rolling his eyes, Riku raised his head a few inches off of the ground and sneered. "What's the matter? You chickening out? And here I thought you were fine being his lackey."

"Riku!" Kairi turned her head, looking at him from the corner of her eye. "C'mon, now's not the time."

"But it's true!" Donald huffed, tilting his face upward. "If Iago wasn't such a big coward, then we wouldn't be in this mess."

"Hey, watch it, bub!" Iago scowled, puffing out his chest. "It's not like I wanted to…"

"Iago!" Jafar's voice grew louder, and his whole face scrunched up. "Pay them no mind and finish this!"

Oddly enough, a small grin crossed Aladdin's face, and he glanced at the others. Then, he spoke to them in a dull whisper. "Guys, wait. I think I've got this."

"Whadda ya mean?" said Donald, raising a brow.

"Just play along. If Iago's still nervous, then maybe…"

Then maybe they could turn things back around. All they needed to do was apply a little more pressure. Just enough to knock some sense into that bird. If he really felt bad about betraying him, then this was one chance to redeem himself.

"So that's it?" Aladdin's brow furrowed, and his tone sharpened. "Go ahead, then. Free Jafar. But if you do, you'll always be stuck in his shadow."

Following Aladdin's lead, Riku gazed up at Iago with a smirk. "That's right. You're just a spineless flunky, too afraid to take a stand."

"Spineless?" Iago's nostrils flared, and he stretched his neck forward. "I'll have ya know that I've got plenty of guts! I just know better than to fight a huge genie with…"

"He might be powerful," said Kairi, "but you're the one with the lamp. If you wanted to, you could make him do whatever you want."

"Silence!" Jafar growled lowered his head to Kairi's level. "Your words fall on deaf ears. Do not think for a minute that your feeble attempts at persuasion will succeed."

"Aw, I think he's scared, fellers!" Goofy shut his eyes and started to laugh. Soon, the others joined in, filling the air with the sound of giggles, chuckles, and snickers all at once.

But maybe that wasn't such a smart move. Though at first Jafar simply snarled and leered at the group, soon his eyes lit up blood red, launching a blast straight at the chains. Once it hit, Riku screamed at the top of his lungs, for the blow singed his skin and sent heat trailing down the chains. Yet despite the pain, he continued to laugh.

"Yeah, you're right, Goofy. They're both scared…"

Jafar's eye twitched, and his breathing grew heavy. He pulled back one of his arms, as if he was going to strike, and then, with one clap of his hands, the chunk of land carting Riku the others around began to sway back and forth. In a matter of seconds, it started to descend, sinking deep into the molten rock.

"I've had enough of this charade. It's time that you fulfilled your end this bargain. Free me now, or…"

Iago turned his back on Jafar and looked down at the lava. For a moment, he just sort of hovered there, making no sudden moves beyond the beating of his wings. Then, he looked over his shoulder, and his beak curled up into a grin.

"Ya know, the girl has a point." He swung the lamp back and forth in his talons. "You might have some flashy powers, but who's the one carting around your little lamp?" He lowered himself towards the lava and snickered. "Maybe this whole freedom thing ain't worth it after all…"

And with that, he completely let go of the lamp, letting it fall to its certain destruction. Jafar's eyes widened, and he lurched forward, frantically grasping at it. Unfortunately for him, its small size allowed it to slip between his fingers and land with a plop in the molten ooze.

Immediately, the lamp's surface began to drip, and the spout drooped down, shifting from solid metal to boiling liquid. With his mouth wide open, Jafar grasped at his neck and started to gag. His eyes narrowed into little slits, and he grit his teeth. Then, as Iago grinned smugly at the giant genie, Jafar took a swipe at him from the side, sending him spiraling down towards the lava.

"No!"

Everyone shouted it in unison. Even after he'd turned on them, Iago still managed to save the day. With Jafar's body erupting into smoke, it became crystal clear that the genie had met his end. Yet, despite his heroism, Iago soon made a splash in the lava, with only his tail feathers still visible. Just when he'd finally made a turn for the better, his one shining moment got cut short. Just thinking about it made Riku's heart wrench, and he shut his eyes tightly, trying to ignore what he had just seen…

Meanwhile, Jafar continued to shriek and squirm, while sparks flew all around his body. His bones flickered in and out of view, and he flailed his arms around in agony. Soon, he started to whirl around, with lightning clashing all around him. A red sphere enclosed his body, and the lava began to rise, shifting from a bright orange to a pale yellow. The chains that kept Riku and friends pinned to the ground fizzled away into thin air, and the shackles that bound Aladdin's limbs exploded in a smoky haze. One last time, Jafar bellowed, and then, with a reverberating BANG, his entire form burst into countless glimmers of light that flickered and faded.

When the air cleared, Riku and the others threw themselves back on their feet and bolted forward. Even with the lava gone, a few red and blue feathers still poked out of the ground. Right away, Aladdin got down on his knees, shoveling through sand with his bare hands. In just a matter of seconds, Iago's motionless body appeared, his feathers blackened from the heat, but otherwise intact. Though his chest slowly rose and fell, his breathing was faint. Almost invisible.

For a few minutes, they just waited there, watching over Iago. With the barrier gone, the carpet soon slid their way, and it stood up on its hind tassels, drooping at the sight of the fallen bird. Soon, even the Genie woke up, and after rubbing his head, he floated over to the others. Once there, he didn't say a word. For once, he didn't have a silly gag or random remark to lighten the mood.

"I can't believe it," said Aladdin, cradling Iago in his arms. "After everything we've been through, he finally did something good…"

Riku's head hung low, and he heaved a heavy sigh. Even if they were the ones to push him along, that didn't change the fact that he chose to drop the lamp. Now, he was barely hanging onto his life, and all because he finally had the courage to step up to his former master.

"But wait a sec…" Goofy sniffled, wiping a tear from his eye. "I thought Genies couldn't kill."

"They can't," said a soft, hoarse voice. "But you'd be surprised what you can live through."

Coughing and hacking, Iago's eyes opened halfway. Even after taking a nosedive into a pool of lava, he was still alive! Just seeing him there lifted the weight off of Riku's shoulders. In a matter of seconds, he started to smile, and so did the others. While Goofy held his hands close to his face and tears welled up in his eyes, Kairi reached out and gave Iago a soft pat on the head. Genie, despite being knocked out the whole time, began bounding along the sand, shouting at the top of his lungs. And while he rolled his eyes and acted all tough, even Donald had a faint grin on his beak. For once in his life, Iago wasn't treated with animosity at all. Needless to say, all the praise and thanks made him do a double take and rub his eyes. Maybe he thought he was dreaming.

But by the time they returned to the palace, Aladdin even went out of his way drag Jasmine out, and he told her the whole story. Sure, Iago sort of hid behind everyone at first, teeth chattering and knees shaking, but soon even the princesses reached out for him, pulling the parrot into a surprisingly tight hug. What a change from before, when everyone saw him as the wingman to Agrabah's greatest villain.

They might not've gotten any answers out of the Replica, and whether or not his friend was truly 'Sora' still remained a mystery. Plus, the fact that they let Jafar loose caused the whole mess in the first place. Yet, even with all the problems they faced during this little adventure, it all worked out in the end. And so, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, Riku and his friends headed away from the palace and back towards their ship. On their way out, however, Aladdin stopped to meet them at the front gate, with Iago resting on his shoulder.

"So, you guys are heading off again?"

"Afraid so," said Riku, placing a hand against his neck. "Even with Jafar out of the way, we've got our work cut out for us."

"Well, if you ever need a hand, you know where to find me." Aladdin smiled, holding out his hand. "And I'm sure that Genie wouldn't mind busting a few Heartless for good measure."

"That goes double for you, Aladdin." Riku smirked, giving his hand a good shake. "And if that Replica ever shows his face again, I give you full permission to knock him around."

"And you better behave, Iago." Donald snickered, waving a finger back and forth. "We don't want any more trouble around here."

"Hey, after bein' pushed around for so long, maybe being one of the good guys won't be so bad." He grinned, rubbing his wings together. "If nothing else, it'll be nice to live in the lap of luxury…"

"Just don't get carried away." Kairi leaned forward, looking him in the eye. "Aladdin's already got his hands full with Abu."

"Lady, compared to that furball, I'll be a saint!" Iago flicked his wing and lifted his chin up. Of course, when Aladdin shot him a deadpan look, he shuffled back and rubbed at his neck. "…Not that there's anything wrong with monkeys!"

"Well, anyway," said Riku, "we'd better run. You guys take care, okay?"

"Don't worry, guys." Aladdin grinned, glancing up at the palace. "I think we've got it covered."

x.x.x

It didn't make sense. Even when he went out of his way to use a genie, everything went horribly wrong. His plan to save Sora completely backfired. Sure, Jafar wasn't exactly the most trustworthy guy, but he still had the raw power. The obligation to grant wishes! And not only did he refuse to give Sora his heart back, but when he whipped up a storm to nail the Fake, Jafar went and turned it against him, too! The real Riku. Was that his idea of a joke?

Needless to say, even after he'd made it back to the castle, Riku's experiences in Agrabah kept repeating in the back of his head. Not just with Jafar, but the Fake as well. The way he seemed so confident that he was real deal. The way he completely stole show at the end of that fight, making a fool of him in the process. It just wasn't fair. Why did he get all the glory? Why did Donald and Goofy stick around with him? At this rate, the Fake would have all the worlds eating out of the palm of his hand. There was no way Riku'd ever team up with him again.

Of course, because of his time hunting down the lamp and struggling against Kurt Zisa, his little trip to Agrabah took longer than anticipated. Knowing a certain scar-faced jerk, he'd probably never hear the end of it. So, when he reported back to Saïx, Riku kept the details about Jafar to a minimum. When asked why he and Sora had taken so long to complete their mission, he just blamed it on the sandstorms. Easy enough. And now that his daily work for the Organization was out of the way, he and Sora marched down the hall, turned the corner, and eventually stumbled upon Naminé's room.

She sat on her bed, gazing down at her sketchbook. While they were gone, she must've been working on a new picture. 'Course, with her locked into her work, it almost felt wrong to barge in and interrupt her. But, then again, they were all friends. If anything, their company sure beat the other creeps in this castle. So, after watching her for a few seconds, he cleared his throat and stepped inside.

"You look busy," he said with a smile. "Hope we're not disturbing you."

"That's okay." Naminé looked up from her artwork and scooted over, leaving plenty of room for the boys.

"Yeah, but I didn't want to distract you." Riku shrugged, flopping down right next to her. "C'mon, Sora. Get over here."

Nodding, Sora silently stepped up to bed and sat down next to Riku. He shifted around a little and rested his hands in his lap. Then, he gazed down at the floor.

"So, how was the mission today?" Naminé closed her sketchbook and folded her hands together. "You look a little…"

"Bruised? Dirty?" Riku groaned, brushing some sand off his sleeve. "Well, the less we say about the mission, the better."

"Yeah." Sora frowned. "We cut it real close."

"You were after a Heartless today, weren't you?" She placed a hand on Riku's arm. "Did something go wrong?"

"The Heartless wasn't the real problem." Riku gazed at the wall, clenching and unclenching his fists. "No, it was the Fake. Turns out he was there, too."

"And Jafar." Sora lifted his head and turned towards Riku. "I think that if we'd left his lamp alone, things would've gone smoother."

"Sora, I was trying to—"

"Wait. Jafar?" Naminé's eyes widened, and she leaned back. "Riku, what happened?"

Fine. There was no point in hiding it now. Heaving a sigh, Riku nodded, and he crossed his arms. "Okay, so we wound up freeing him from his lamp. But I swear, I only did it to help Sora."

"It's true." Sora placed a hand to his chest. "All he wanted to do was get my heart back."

"Yeah, but the guy came up with a stupid excuse." Riku rolled his eyes. "And when I tried to make him trash the Fake, he wound up turning his magic on me. Can you believe it?"

"I…" Naminé looked away, shoulders shaking. Was something wrong? With his eyes open wide, Riku reached for her shoulder and leaned forward, looking her in the eye.

"Hey, what's wrong?" He spoke softly, trying not to sound too forceful.

"It's…" She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm just glad you made back here. You know how dangerous the Replica…"

"Trust me, I know better than just about anyone." Riku tightened his hold on her. "I was there when he tore Sora's heart out; I'm not about to let him do the same to me."

"Just… please be careful. Both of you." She opened her eyes and clasped her hands together. "I know you're angry about what he did, but you shouldn't chase after him."

"I'm…" Man, how could he even say no to her? Much as he hated the Fake, his friends came before anything else. And that went double for Naminé. Seeing her sulk and pout made his heart throb. It was like being stabbed in the chest with a knife. And, sure, he didn't plan on letting up on the Fake, but that didn't mean he was gonna push her feelings aside.

No, there had to be some other way to brighten up her day. Something a little unconventional by Organization standards. He took a few seconds to mull it over, weaving together a little plan to keep their minds off of his last blunder. Then, once an idea clicked, he placed his hands on both Sora and Naminé's backs.

"Hey, why don't we all head out for some ice cream?"

"Ice cream?" Sora blinked, rubbing the back of his neck. "Where'd that come from?"

"What, you got a problem with it?" He smirked, giving Sora a light shove. "C'mon. When's the last time we got to relax?"

"Well…"

"Exactly." He shook his head, shifting his focus to Naminé. "And what do you think?"

At first she didn't say a word and instead looked over to her sketchbook, shoulders sagging. It almost like his words made things worse, but how? Wasn't getting out of the castle a good thing? For a few seconds there, he'd almost thought about changing the subject. Then, finally, she looked back at Riku with a faint smile.

"I think we could all use a break."

That was just the answer he needed. With both his friends raring to go… or at least open to the idea, there was no time to waste. With one swing of his arm, a trail of darkness curled up along the floor, stretching higher and higher until a corridor formed. A corridor out of the castle away from all the stress. A chance to kick back, cool down, and, for just a little bit, pretend that nothing had changed between him and his friends. It wouldn't stop him from tracking down the Fake some other time, and he definitely wasn't about to forgive what he'd done.

But it'd been too long since his friends shared a lazy afternoon.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 12: A Moment's Pause

"So, even after visiting three worlds, we've learned… next to nothing."

It'd been long enough since they first spoke with DiZ. While there were still plenty of worlds to visit, and many more that still needed saving, it was high time Riku and his friends returned to Twilight Town. Maybe they hadn't learned much yet. With two Replica encounters and only vague information from Merlin and others to work off of, the overall goals of the Organization remained to be seen. But, on the other hand, despite his creepy demeanor, DiZ was no idiot. If anything, speaking with him might shed some light on their experiences.

And so, Riku, Donald, Goofy, and Kairi all returned to the mansion. To the dusty, old library where they had first spoken with DiZ.

As they explained their adventures, Jiminy paced back and forth along the table, scribbling down notes and occasionally asking for details, like Mim's motivation or the cause of Iago's change in perspective. Naturally, they gave him a few extra tidbits for his book, but the main focus remained squarely on the heart of the matter. Or lack thereof.

"Riku's right, though," said Donald, tapping one of his webbed feet. "The only members we've even seen are that Replica and his partner. Everything else came from word of mouth."

"We don't even know why they created that copy." Goofy looked down, folding his arms over his chest. "Not to mention why they're goin' around givin' Heartless to folks like Mim."

"I see." DiZ turned away from the group, clasping his hands behind his back. He took two broad steps towards one of the bookshelves and then peered over his shoulder at the group. "Nevertheless, even the inkling of knowledge you have obtained will serve you well in your journey. After all, you now have a vague idea of their capabilities."

It was true. The Organization, whatever they really were, definitely had a few tricks up their sleeves. Replication, memory alteration, not to mention plenty of Heartless at their disposal. And that was only the beginning. There had to be more to their shady group just waiting below the surface. All they had to do was keep pushing forward and digging up the answers.

"So, what's your take on it, anyway?" Riku raised a brow, leaning against one of the shelves. "You obviously have a huge grudge against them. Think you can throw us a bone?"

"A grudge? That's quite an assumption." DiZ chuckled, shaking his head. "However, I suppose I do have a few thoughts on the matter. You said that you had encountered one of their members in the past. Think back on that encounter and what it may mean."

"Way to be cryptic, old man." He sighed, pressing his fingers against his forehead. "But, fine. The first time we met one of their members, he went on about testing my power… and then he proceeded to wipe the floor with us."

Kairi giggled, brushing back a strand of her hair. "I don't know, Riku. You guys made it out okay."

"Sure, we won, but that guy was about as tough as Ansem." Riku groaned. He reached into his pocket, digging around until, finally, he scooped out one of Ansem's Reports. "Anyway, right before he left, he dropped this report and said something about bringing him hearts."

"Yup," said Jiminy, flipping through his journal. "I still wonder what he meant by that. The guy sure was a shady fella."

"Do not forget that they are incomplete." DiZ turned back around and strode towards the others. "It is only natural for them to yearn for what they have lost." He pulled back a seat and slowly sat down, resting his arms on the table. "And yet, for whatever reason, they gave power over the Heartless to a reckless witch."

"Right. And all the Heartless do is take hearts." Riku looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head. "Giving people power over them… won't that result in more lost hearts?"

"Do not think for a moment that they care." DiZ's one visible eye narrowed, and his lips pulled back into a heavy frown. "It's not a stretch to assume that this is a part of their plan, however. Without feelings, Nobodies are prompted to take extreme measures to achieve their goals. It would be wise to remember this."

"There's just one more thing, DiZ." Kairi sighed, placing a hand to her chest. Her eyebrows knit together, and she gazed down at the floor. "Do you think... well, would they really go out of their way to change someone's memories?"

He nodded. "If it was beneficial to their cause, then there is no doubt. That being said, I advise you all to forget this Replica for the time being. If anything, it was designed as a distraction."

A distraction? Seriously? Making a perfect clone seemed like a little too much effort just to screw around with them. Just hearing DiZ's words made Riku bristle. If anything, that Replica should've been one of their top priorities. If he went around tarnishing Riku's reputation and releasing vengeful genies, what was stopping him from making other boneheaded mistakes? A part of him wanted to point that out, but… maybe it wasn't worth it. He'd probably just brush him off.

Instead, he shrugged and made his way back to the table. "So, basically, keep looking, focus on the rest of the Organization, and hope for the best."

"For now, it is all you can do," said DiZ, leaning back in his seat. "Now then, I believe we have exhausted the matter. The rest of the day is yours."

With that, he stood up, pushed in his chair, and inched towards the door without another word. For just a few seconds, the room fell eerily silent. The group all exchanged quiet glances. Goofy scratched his head, Donald grumbled, and Kairi gave a light shrug. There… really wasn't much else they could do now. While their discussion yielded vague results, it was crystal clear that DiZ wasn't gonna spoon feed them information.

"So, what now?" That was the important question. Obviously, there was a lot left to do. With worlds still wide open to darkness and the Organization on the move, jumping back into the Gummi Ship and blasting off seemed like a feasible idea. Even a good one. Except…

Well, they'd all been thrown around by sandstorms, squeezed by chains, and pummeled by a six-armed Heartless. And as Riku looked to his friends for suggestions, he had to fight back a yawn. His muscles ached, his eyes stung, and his feet felt like they'd been tethered to bricks.

Goofy must've caught on, because he marched right up to Riku and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Ya know, maybe we oughta take the day off."

Donald's jaw dropped, and stumbled backwards, flailing his arms. "Are you nuts? If anything, we oughta pick up the pace and—"

"I don't know, Donald." Kairi shook her head. "You've got bags under your eyes." She pointed at his face and leaned forward. "I think that's a pretty clear sign."

"Aw, phooey." He sighed, rubbing his eyes. "It's hard to get any rest when there's so much goin' on."

"It's true." Riku fought back a laugh. They really had been pushing themselves lately. "But maybe we do need some downtime… or at least a break from fighting Heartless."

Goofy tilted his head, gave it a scratch, and took several broad steps around the room. He hummed softly, and when he came to a stop, his lips curled up into a grin.

"Well, ya know, we never did get a good look around this place." He raised his index finger and chuckled. "How 'bout we spend the day sightseein'? Maybe it'll lift our spirits a little."

"Sightseeing?" Huh. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. Sure, they saw a little of the town when they went hunting down shops, but that was only a glimpse of what was out there. Getting the chance to see a world without worrying about sudden threats… it'd be a welcome change of pace. And besides, when was the last time he and his friends hung out with no strings attached? Sure, he and Kairi got breaks between training rounds, but even she hadn't gotten a real chance to explore without being thrown into a crisis.

And her eyes practically lit up at the idea. That was more than enough justification on Riku's part. So, he turned to Goofy and nodded, resting one hand on his hip.

"Sure, why not? We've got time to burn. Besides, it'd probably help to learn our way around town."

"Just don't push yourself, Riku." Kairi waltzed behind him, shaking her head. "This should be about having fun, not worrying about where we are."

"Hey, who said anything about worrying?" He leaned towards her and raised an eyebrow. "I know how to relax, and you know it."

Donald smirked. "Sure you do."

"Oh, c'mon."

"I dunno, Donald." Goofy placed a hand to his chin, gazing down at his friend. "When's the last time you got to cool off?"

"Hey!" Donald puffed out his chest like an angry cat. His shoulders jerked up, and he straightened his arms with his hands rolled tightly into fists. "Nobody's asking you."

"Guys…" Kairi huffed, looking up at the ceiling. "Come on. I think some fresh air would do us all some good."

And, just like that, everyone shut their traps. There was no point in arguing once Kairi stepped in. And so, with that little squabble out of the way, they all slipped through the door, back into the mansion's living room and proceeded outside into the summer air. A warm breeze whipped past them, and for a moment, Riku shut his eyes and stood perfectly still. If it weren't for the abundance of pine trees up ahead or the distant sounds of a train's whistle, he could almost picture himself back home on the islands. Even the warm colors of the sunset struck a chord with him. All they needed was the sound of the waves and the curve of the paopu tree, and it'd be perfect…

But dwelling on his home would him nowhere fast. After a few seconds, he sighed and trailed along, into the shade of the forest.

When they entered Tram Common, one of the tunnels opened up, and a tram zipped right past them. When the coast cleared, they wandered out into the street, giving their surroundings a good, hard look. Last time they were in town, they never got the chance to follow along the raised walkways, check out the monster-sized buildings, or even see what all the scattered posters were about. And, boy, were there plenty of options. Tram tracks winded around corners and vanished from sight, their destinations a mystery. As Riku followed along this path, he caught a glimpse of an elaborate archway, decorated with swirls and bells.

During their last visit, they'd completely overlooked this lower path, and while there was no indication of what waited for them down below, they had plenty of time to hop down and take a closer look. The rest of the town could wait. So, turning to his friends, Riku motioned towards the arch before he threw his arms back, leaped down, and wandered towards their next destination.

The path wound up leading them all into a small, empty lot. At the very center sat a raised platform, surrounded by a cluster of wooden benches. Probably a place for people to recline and watch… whatever happened out here. Small, green trees and an assortment of light posts formed a border around the benches. And, as Riku wandered along, he caught a glimpse of yet another bench, pressed flat against a wall. Briefly, he flopped down on this bench and leaned back. Then, when he looked up, he found himself staring at another large poster. With what looked like two bats facing one another and the word 'Struggle' printed in bold text, it must've been an ad for some kind of sporting event.

But that still didn't explain much. What exactly did people do, whack each other with bats? Keeping his hand pressed to the poster, Riku climbed on top of the bench and looked over his shoulder. "Hey, guys. What do you make of this?"

"Well, uh." Goofy stopped near the edge of a whiteboard, leaning against the frame. "It looks like they play some sorta game here." He continued along, stopping in front of nearby a signpost. There, he squinted and trailed his finger beneath the text. "Let's see… Seifer, Setzer, Hayner…"

"Must be a scoreboard," said Donald, pacing back and forth. "But it's not like there's much goin' on now."

"It's too bad." Riku slid down from the bench, giving the poster one last look. "I wouldn't mind seeing what this Struggle's all about."

With her hands laced behind her back, Kairi strode up to Riku. She circled behind him, looking over his shoulder, and gave him a light nudge. "Or maybe you just want the high score."

"Well, I wasn't going to say that out loud." Riku shrugged, and he ran a hand through his hair. "Besides, I'd probably have an unfair advantage."

"Wanna bet?"

The sound of footsteps made Riku freeze in place, clenching his fists tightly as the sound drew closer. Slowly, he turned around to see who was headed their way. Judging by the scar running down his face, this guy was no pushover. He carried himself with his head held high and his shoulders back. The tail of his long, white jacket fluttered with each step, and the way his blue undershirt showed off his chest made Riku roll his eyes. Who was this guy? A street punk? The baggy pants and silly, black beanie sure gave that impression. Not only that, but two others trailed along right behind him. A beefy guy with tanned skin kept his eyes locked on Goofy as he stumbled away from the scoreboard. A stone-faced girl followed alongside him, gazing blankly at Donald.

As the three of them inched closer to the group, Donald turned to face them with his hands on his hips. He arched his brow and tapped his foot, keeping a straight face despite the situation.

"Who're you supposed to be?"

"I could ask you the same thing." The scar-faced thug sneered and continued towards Riku. "I've never seen your faces in this town before, and I know everyone here."

"Yeah, Seifer's the top dog, y'know?" The tan thug held out his hands and leaned forward. "He keeps the whole town in line."

"Oh, that's impressive." Riku shook his head, giving the group a long, hard stare.

"You must think you're hot stuff." Seifer stomped right up to Riku, just a few inches from his face. "Unfair advantage? I bet you couldn't hold a sword if your life depended on it."

"Says you!" Donald's face turned beet read, and he shook one of his fists in the air. "Whatever this Struggle is, I betcha we could beat your record."

"Arrogant," said the girl.

"I'll say." Seifer stepped back just enough to give Riku some breathing space, and a dry smirk crossed his lips. "But if you think you're so tough, go ahead. Try me. I could use a laugh."

"I dunno, fellers. Maybe we oughta get a move on." Goofy placed a hand to his lips, stumbling back a little more—at least until he bumped into the whiteboard. "We were supposed to take it easy today, remember?"

"What's the matter? All bark and no bite?" Seifer snickered. "I knew you didn't have it in you."

Just listening to this guy was enough to make Riku want to bang his head against the wall. Maybe challenging him wasn't the brightest idea, but boy was it tempting. Anything to wipe that smug grin off his face. And besides, how hard could it be? He'd gone up against foes that'd make those thugs whimper like sad, little dogs. So why let this jerk get the last laugh? Even if he did turn out to be a tough contender, one little spar couldn't hurt.

So, despite his better judgment, Riku leaned forward and pointed his finger at Seifer's chest. "If you want a challenge, you've got it."

"Riku!" Kairi took a hold of his arm, giving it a light tug. "Come on, just stay out of this. You'll only give him what he—"

"Better listen to your girlfriend, kid." Seifer swept his hand through the air and looked Riku straight in the eye. "It'll save you some embarrassment."

"Ha!" Donald hopped up and down, flailing his arms about. "You'll be the one embarrassed once Riku's though with you!"

"In that case…" Seifer stepped back, turning to face the tan thug. "Rai, go get the bats. We'll settle this here and now."

Right on cue, Rai marched off towards one of nearby paths and vanished from sight. For the few moments before his return, an awkward silence filled the Sandlot. While Seifer sent Riku a nasty glare, his other lackey made her way to one of the benches and sat herself down. Goofy lowered his head and twiddled his thumbs, while Kairi just sighed and shook her head. Fortunately, it didn't take long before Rai marched back into the Sandlot with his arms wrapped tightly around two bright blue bats. But because those bats covered his face, he wound up stumbling forward and falling flat on the concrete. Each of the bats then rolled along the ground, stopping only when Seifer placed his foot out in front of them.

Hopefully Riku wouldn't come to regret this later. After all, he hadn't even chugged down a potion yet, making his aching muscles a blatant handicap. Then again, it wasn't like he hadn't fought off fatigue before. Rather than let it get to him, Riku breathed in, then out, and marched right up to the bats and scooped one of them up. Before making any sudden moves, he tossed the weapon up and down, just getting a feel for it. Lightweight and spongy, getting nailed by one of these bats probably wouldn't sting near as much as a wooden sword. Then again, he'd be an idiot to underestimate this guy. This was his game, his territory, and one wrong move could spell defeat for Riku. No way was he gonna let that slide.

Once Seifer scooped up his weapon, he stepped backwards and waved the bat back and forth, that all-too-irritating smirk smack dab on his face. Rather than buy into his taunt, Riku leaped—or rather, hopped back, his legs still too sore to get any real air. There he waited and watched. The two circled around the edge of the platform, step by step, neither striking yet. Eventually, it got to a point where Seifer snickered under his breath and came to a stop.

"What's the matter, loser? Too much of a—"

WHAM! That opening was all Riku needed to deliver a swift blow to his chest. The hit sent Seifer tumbling backwards, and he only narrowly kept his feet on the ground. Unfortunately, Riku didn't get the chance to backpedal; once Seifer regained is footing, he dashed forward and drove his weapon into Riku's hip, sending him down to the ground.

For a few seconds, he lay perfectly still, while Seifer marched over to him. His smirk broadened, and he raised his bat into the air until…

"Gah!"

Riku flung himself feet-first at Seifer's chest. This time around, he rolled backwards and barely caught himself with his hands.

"You know…" Riku smirked, running a hand across his forehead. "Next time, you might want to use your head."

"You show him, Riku!" Donald hopped up and down, waving his fist in the air. "Wipe that grin off his face."

"Don't think this is over yet, lamer." Seifer slowly got back on his feet, adjusting his beanie before he scooped his bat back up. "I'm just getting started with you."

After that, Seifer charged, tightening his hold on the bat. Rolling his eyes, Riku hurried his way and dodge-rolled to the side once he drew close enough. Though Seifer whipped around and swung the bat at Riku's gut, he side-stepped the blow and nailed Seifer in the spine. The two then alternated between bashing each other with bats and dancing around one another. They leaped, they lunged, they swung, and they slammed. Despite Riku's fatigue, his fighting experience allowed him to predict most of Seifer's moves.

It was only the occasional slip-up that led him on a collision course with solid concrete. And as the fight went on, Donald and Rai both cheered for their respective sides, shouting out praise like, "Go get 'em!" or "Knock him dead, y'know?" With tensions high, Riku didn't bother to see how Kairi and Goofy were doing; any distractions would leave him open for surprise attacks. Unfortunately, while his strategy was solid and his skills unmatched, Seifer's swift movements and raw determination proved more and more irritating as the fight went on.

A few minutes passed, and Riku's movements began to slow. Sweat coursed down his skin, his heart pounded, and now instead of bricks weighing his feet down, he felt like he'd been tied to anvils. Breathing heavily, he braced himself for Seifer's incoming attack. As he drew closer, Riku pulled back his bat, now shaking in his grasp, bit his lip, and…

It happened so fast, it didn't quite hit him at first. After all, it wasn't like he'd meant to do it.

Purple flames shot through the air the moment Riku swung his weapon, striking Seifer in the chest without warning. Immediately, he scrambled backwards, rolling onto the ground to douse the flames. Riku's eyes widened, and he clutched onto the front of his shirt. How could this have happened? Darkness was the last thing on his mind! And yet… there was no denying what had just transpired. Hanging his head, Riku lowered the bat and stood perfectly still, unable to make eye contact with Seifer.

But the fight wasn't over. Once the fire died down, Seifer launched himself back to his feet and stormed over to Riku, teeth bared and eyes narrowed.

"That's some trick," he said. "But it's not gonna work twice. Better get down on your knees while you still have the chance."

"That's enough!"

Wait, what? Riku looked up and immediately gasped. Marching out in front of him was none other than Kairi, who placed her hands on her hips and pressed her lips together, acting like a roadblock between Riku and Seifer. Fortunately, Seifer came to a halt just a few feet away from her, and he lowered his bat on the spot.

His brow furrowed, and tried to step around her. Unfortunately for him, Kairi stayed right in his path. "Look, this doesn't have anything to do with you."

"No, I think it does." Kairi shook her head. "Riku's my friend, and this has gone way too far." She turned around and headed his way, stopping just briefly to glance at Seifer. Once she reached Riku, she took hold of his hand, squeezing it firmly. "C'mon. Let's get out of here."

She was right. This really had gone on too long. The fact that he'd used darkness just proved her point. At first he didn't say or do anything, though, just glancing down at the bat. Ashes covered the tip, and a faint trail of smoke curled into the air. Maybe… letting his anger get the best of him was what manifested that darkness. Letting Seifer's childish taunting lure him into the fray, pushing himself even when exhaustion overwhelmed him. Wasn't he better than that?

If nothing else, he could sure try to be. So, heaving a sigh, Riku let his bat fall to the ground. The fight was over, and there was no point butting heads about it now. Instead, he slowly turned the other way and stepped down from the platform.

But before he and Kairi made their way to the others, he looked back at Seifer and held up his hand. "Hey, next time, let's have a fair fight."

At first, Seifer just sort of stared. He must've been torn between some blockheaded remark and just calling it quits. After a few seconds of awkward silence, however, he shut his eyes and let out a dry chuckle. "All right. I guess I'll let you off the hook."

"Thank you." Kairi smiled, looking from Seifer to his lackeys. "And please be careful."

"I…" Seifer averted his eyes, and he breathed in deeply. "Right. And that goes double for you."

He didn't say another word. Instead, he just scooped up the bats, waved his lackeys along, and marched towards the Tram Common area. In a matter of moments, Riku and his friends were all alone, and silence once again filled the Sandlot. With Seifer and his gang outta the way, both Donald and Goofy rushed over to Riku. While Goofy stood by his side with a droopy frown, Donald shuffled in place and looked down at the ground.

"Are you okay, Riku?" He sighed. "You looked like you were pushing it really hard."

"Not to mention that spooky fire." Goofy gulped. "Gawrsh, the only time I've seen somethin' like that was when…"

"I know." Riku practically wilted, and he slid onto a nearby bench. "And… I honestly don't know what came over me."

"Well, at least it's over now." Kairi placed a hand on his shoulder, taking a seat right next to him. "That's what really matters."

"Yup!" Goofy stepped right up to the bench, and he rubbed at the tip of his nose. "And I don't blame ya for buttin' heads with that feller. It's easy to get mad when folks start pickin' on ya."

"So much for relaxing, though." Donald groaned, pulling himself up next to Riku.

"Well, the day's not over yet." Riku leaned back, and he gazed up at the sky. The sun hadn't quite vanished yet, and the mesh of reds, oranges, and purples still remained up above. "Maybe we can still turn things around."

"But how?" said Donald, shifting around in his seat. "It'll probably be getting dark soon. Maybe we should just head back."

"Not yet, Donald." Riku slid down from the bench and dusted himself off. "There's still something I'd like to see."

They'd at least caught a glimpse of the Tram Common and Station Heights before. Even if their previous visit was brief, it at least gave them a rough idea of the town's layout, and yet despite the frequent sounds of steam engines in the distance, they'd never once seen the station itself. They'd never climbed up to the very top of the town. If today was meant to be a day off, then what better time to get a closer look? Besides, it'd probably give them a great view of the sunset. And so, with one wave of his hand, he motioned for his friends to follow him. Slipping past the scoreboard, he led the others below a nearby archway and over to an uphill path.

Just a short trek up the hill brought them back to Market Street. By now, the hubbub had since winded down. No skateboards whizzed by, and the shopkeepers appeared to be shuffling through cash registers and shutting their windows for the day. As they climbed further up the hill, they marched past a 'Help Wanted' sign, a locked-up garage, and numerous light posts along the winding road. Before long, they reached the very top of the hill, stumbling upon a wide open plaza. From up there, the town's buildings looked like building blocks stacked on top of one another, and the elevated train tracks resembled something from a play set. When he made his way towards the plaza's edge, a single red cart zipped past him, and he stopped just long enough to watch it trail along the tracks.

With the train gone, his eyes fell upon the horizon. The sun floated just overhead, surrounded by an array of clouds. While it definitely was no paopu tree, the plaza's elevation definitely provided a great view. Not just of the sunset, but of passing trains and the town's entire landscape. Everything seemed to stretch on for miles. Even beyond all the buildings, a thick canopy of trees spread across his line of sight. A part of him just wanted to climb up onto the railing to get a closer look. However, he fought back the urge and instead turned to face the others.

And that was when it caught his eye. Past the short flight of steps and double doors, reaching high into the sky… With four bells hanging at the top and a clock face decorated with overlapping circles, it was hard to ignore the station tower. The sheer height of the building put the Gizmo Shop to shame, and the ornate patterns decorating its entire structure made it a true sight to behold. It was no wonder the others stopped at the bottom of the steps instead of following him to the railing. All three of them craned their necks upward and kept their eyes fixed on the tower. Not that he could blame them. If the plaza provided a great view of the sky, then climbing up there would probably blow it away…

In fact, that wasn't such a bad idea.

"You know," he said, stepping out in front of them, "maybe we should take a closer look."

"Are ya sure?" Goofy blinked, placing a hand over his forehead. "It sure is a long way down from there…"

"So? If anything happens, we can just glide down." Riku shrugged, and he climbed up to the top of the steps. "C'mon. We might as well end this day on a high note."

Donald snickered, making his way through the door. "Well, it couldn't hurt to check it out."

With Donald already inside the station, it didn't take long for Goofy to scurry up the steps. But, being Goofy, he nearly tripped on his way to the top. Luckily for him, Riku caught hold of his arm on the way down and pulled him back to his feet. After a quick 'thanks,' he slipped inside, leaving Riku and Kairi alone. Of course, Riku was just about ready to follow the others when Kairi climbed up the steps and stood out in front of him. She placed a hand on his arm and made eye contact with him. A faint frown crossed her lips.

"Before we go…"

Riku's eyes widened, and he rubbed at the back of his neck. "What's up, Kairi?"

"Well…" She sighed, leaning against the door. "Just don't push yourself so hard, okay? We've all got our limits."

Earlier, she'd told him the exact same thing, but he still went ahead and rushed into a fight. And what did he have to show for it? If a petty brawl was enough to squeeze the darkness out of him, then what about a real fight? If he went toe-to-toe with the Organization without watching himself, he could easily wind up slipping again. He owed it to his friends not to let that happen. Especially Kairi. Darkness existed in every heart. Just because it was there didn't mean he'd let it consume him. He'd just have to keep pushing it back. After all, he'd made it this far.

"Tell you what, Kairi." He smirked, slapping his hand on her shoulder. "Next time I go rushing into trouble, I give you full permission to slap some sense into me. Think you can handle it?"

"Hmm…" Kairi turned around, gazing up at the tower. She pressed her hand against one of the doors and tapped her fingers against its surface. Then, with a smile on her face, she turned around and pulled Riku into a tight hug. "Of course I can. Now, c'mon; Donald and Goofy are waiting for us."

She was right, as usual. By now, they'd both probably reached the top of the tower. And while he would've loved to spend more time with Kairi, that could wait another day. For the time being, it was time to head up to meet with the others. Together, the two of them slipped into the station, passed through the lobby and eventually stumbled upon a winding stairway. Though it took a few minutes of tedious climbing, before long, the two of them stepped out into the open, shielding their eyes from the setting sun. Sure enough, both Donald and Goofy sat along the edge, leaning back on their hands. When Riku and Kairi approached, the two of them turned their attention away from the sky and scooted off to the side.

Neither of them complained. Maybe they were watching them the whole time. Either way, nothing else needed to be said. With everyone together, it was time to finally kick back and enjoy the sunset.

High above the town, the four of them gazed at the sky, taking in the sights and sounds. The warm winds continued to blow, as a passing train let out a whistle. The reds and oranges that filled the sky gradually shifted to blues and purples, as the sun continued to sink below the horizon. The view, the company, everything about it meshed perfectly together. Maybe it wasn't the most eventful way to end the day, but, if nothing else, this was one sunset Riku'd definitely remember.

x.x.x


Of all the people to show up in Twilight Town…

Riku narrowed his eyes as he gazed at the tower, completely ignoring the drops of ice cream making a mess out of his gloves. Sure, the sunset was nice. And, yeah, it was great to have his friends there, but judging by the group of four sitting up above, there was no way they'd be able to enjoy themselves. Not there, anyway. From behind, he heard the sound of Sora and Naminé's footsteps. He couldn't let them catch on. If the Fake was around, then… they'd just have to find another place.

Sure, it'd be easy to go up and knock that impostor to the ground, was it really be worth it? Naminé would throw a fit if he did anything reckless, and today wasn't supposed to be about butting heads. Taking a bite of his ice cream, Riku sighed and turned around. Just once, he'd let the Fake off the hook. Maybe even Replicas deserved some downtime.

x.x.x

One by one, the thrones in the Round Room filled with twisted pools of darkness. As each corridor faded, countless cloaked figures took to their seats, keeping their eyes riveted on their leader. Up above, Xemnas peered towards the others, concealing his face with his hood. His fingers tapped on the arms of his chair, and he remained eerily calm. Then, without warning, he flung back his hood, revealing his tanned skin, amber eyes that skimmed the entire room, and a head of messy, silver hair. Leaning back in his throne, Xemnas glanced to the left, then to the right. Every seat barring one had been filled; other than number XIII, the entire Organization was present and accounted for. With everyone together, there was little time to waste, and so, finally, Xemnas broke the silence, capturing the attention of those around him.

"It has been an interesting few months for our Organization. Thanks to the admirable efforts of a certain… Keybearer, we have collected a plethora of hearts." He chuckled, and for a moment, a faint smile appeared on his face. "In time, Kingdom Hearts shall be ours. However, the Keyblade alone is insufficient. That is why I have summoned you all here."

Demyx slumped forward, pressing his cheek against his hand. "So, uh. What're you trying to say, exactly?"

"It would be wise to listen carefully." Saïx narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "After all, this applies to you as much as the rest of us."

"Indeed," said Xemnas. "Now, I'm sure you are all aware of our recent success with the sorcerer Mim. While she alone provided us with many hearts, it is of utmost importance that we continue forward and form more alliances. It just so happens that we have uncovered a new world and, within it, two very intriguing individuals…"

"Correct." Saïx gazed down at Demyx, looking him straight in the eye. "And since you put yourself forward, perhaps you would like to visit it yourself."

Demyx's eyes widened and he slid back, running a hand over the top of his head. "Oh, I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm really cut out for…"

"Oh, but I insist." Saïx chuckled and shook his head. "Rest assured, you will not be going alone. Remember, there are two targets in this world. As such, Axel will be joining you."

"Whoa there," said Axel, raising a brow. "Don't I at least get a brochure? You haven't even told us where we're going."

"Well, where you're going, you'll be needing more than a pamphlet." A vague smirk crossed Saïx's lips, and he leaned back in his seat. "After all, the jungle is a dangerous place."

TO BE CONTINUED
 

KingdomKey

The Traveler
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  • Retired Staff
  • Graceful Assassin
  • The Gambler of Fate
  • Beauty Within
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  • Whirlwind Lancer
Quite an intense two chapters! Looks like Namine knows who the actual replica is. Poor girl getting all caught up in that kind of trouble again. I liked the bit with Jafar getting over thrown by Iago too. Then there's the fight with Seifer vs Riku. I loved how Kairi stood up to him and protected Riku from going any further. And I'm really excited to see how Axel and Demyx do in the jungle. Which I'm going to venture a guess it'll be Tarzan's world? I look forward to more updates as always!
 

.:Mega:.

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In your nightmares!
Ugh, I really gotta stop being so busy. +_+ Anyway, chapters! Part of the reason it's taken so long is because I've been going back and doing some minor editing on the fic to deal with some technical stuff. Thankfully, I think Act 2 was in a cleaner state overall, so the process took less time. So, onward!

As for which world it is, you'll see. ;)

Chapter 13: Into the Jungle

Of all the places to get sent on a mission, it had to be a smelly, old jungle. It didn't help that the humid air made him sweat bullets or the fact that the constant cracking from the twigs under his feet sent shivers down his spine. Hadn't the guys in this world ever heard of a trail? Instead of a smooth walkway, he pushed through bushes, looped around boulders, and passed over rotting logs that could've split at any second! And for what? To find some creepy, old ruins and smooth talk some ape? Why did he always have to get landed with such hard work? Nevermind the fact that flies kept buzzing around his ears, forcing him to swat 'em away every five seconds. Was this day ever going to end?

Well, fortunately, after what seemed like hours of hiking, the sight of golden towers caught his eye. In fact, it might've been a pretty cool place to check out, if he wasn't in such a hurry to RTC and get some well deserved rest. Plus, moss crept all over the structures, and reached up from between the bricks. It gave the place an eerie look, and if he had a heart, Demyx probably would've leaped out of his skin by now! C'mon, couldn't those smelly monkeys have hired a maid? The place really needed some sprucing up.

But eventually he stumbled upon a musty old throne room, lead by the sounds of a swinging beat. As he stepped into the room, he caught sight of mop-headed monkeys hopping around, swinging, and clapping their hands against the floor. All the while, a big, fat orangutan kicked back on the throne, squeezing a banana into his mouth using one of his feet. Now, a guy like Demyx stood out like a sore thumb. After all, he didn't get stuck as a hairy mutt like Axel, and his black coat didn't exactly mesh with the hot climate. In fact, the closer he got to the big guy in charge, the more those monkeys stopped and stared. It was actually kinda creepy.

But he still went along, scooping out a slip of paper just for a quick once-over. Luckily, Saïx kept the instructions quick and simple. All he had to do was give these monkeys a little talk. Sell 'em on the wonders of darkness. While a part of him still felt a little jittery over the whole situation, it didn't take long before Demyx tucked the card away and turned to face the orangutan. Sure enough, King Louie's eyes were locked on him, and his over sized lips pulled back into a toothy smile.

This was his chance. The sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could get back to strumming on his sitar. So, after a few seconds of helpless staring, Demyx held up his hand and cleared his throat.

"Hey, uh. I heard you wanted to be like a man."

x.x.x

"Okay, so where exactly are we headed?"

After getting a good night's rest back in Twilight Town, it was back to business. With a lot of ground left to cover, Riku and the others slipped back into the Gummi Ship early that morning, and, despite a bit of grogginess on Donald's part, the ship blasted off right as the sun crept into view. Of course, with darkness flooding in from all directions, figuring out the next stop wasn't exactly easy. Had Riku been behind the wheel, he probably would've had no idea where to start. Fortunately, that honor went to Goofy, who'd somehow managed to pinpoint a new world with a little assistance from Donald. Provided his steering wasn't as clumsy as his walking, they'd probably make it there in one peace. If they were lucky, anyway.

Squinting, Donald leaned close to the screen, tapping his fingers against the control panel. "Well, the signal's kinda fuzzy, but it's sayin' something about a jungle."

A jungle, huh? Well, it was about time. Sure it couldn't compare to a town based on Halloween or swimming under the sea, but they'd probably still find some excitement. Wild animals, dangerous turf… if the darkness hadn't taken its toll on the world already, maybe they'd actually enjoy themselves. If nothing else, it'd sure beat getting tossed around by sandstorms and fighting off genies.

So, with all that in mind, Riku leaned back in his seat and smirked. "Well, then what are we waiting for? I'd say we should pick up the pace, especially if we're going to seal the Keyhole."

"Don't worry, Riku! I think we're gettin' pretty close now." Goofy beamed, letting go of the controls just long enough to flash a quick-thumbs up. "'Course, we've still gotta figure out where we're gonna put the ship, plus—"

"Just leave everything to me, Goofy." Donald scooped up his staff, propping it against his shoulder. "All we'll need is a little magic, and we'll blend right in!"

"Magic?" Kairi poked her head up from behind Riku's seat, and her eyebrows shot up. "So, what're you going to do?"

"You'll see soon enough." Riku turned around, folding his arms over his chest. "Donald's magic helped us breathe underwater once; if he can do that, I'm sure he'll set us up."

"Oh, that's right." Donald blinked, and he swiveled his chair around. "This'll be your first time getting changed by my spells." He snickered, giving a little wink. "Well, don't worry! We'll show you the ropes."

"Yup!" Goofy chuckled, poking at a few of the buttons. "Plus, it's kinda fun, once ya get used to it!"

As the world drew closer, an endless sea of green flashed into view. The ship dove right through these leaves, which shrouded their ship for a few short seconds. Branches snapped along the sides of the ship, while insects splattered against the front window. The ship jerked from side to side on the way down, but, fortunately, they passed through the canopy soon enough.

When the rest of the jungle came into view, Riku kept his eyes glued to the windows. Tree branches reached right into their path, scratching the sides of the ship. Massive ferns and bushes rested at the bases of trees, while tall grass quivered in the breeze. Tree roots stretched out like enormous arms, their 'fingers' digging into the ground. Dangling vines swayed from side to side, while moss devoured rotting logs. The only problem was the black mist, which crept up from crevices in the ground, reached out from beneath boulders, and shrouded the jungle in a light fog.

"So, where exactly are we parking, anyway?" Riku turned away from the window, folding his arms over his chest.

"Well," said Goofy, "maybe if I put us in one of those bushes here…" He steered the ship over some branches and swooped close to the ground. "Or uh. We could always slip behind some rocks!" The ship slid to the side, swerving between some tree trunks.

Donald rolled his eyes, tapping his fingers on the controls. "Well, whatever you do, don't bump into any—"

WHAM! The entire ship rattled. Leaves rained down over the front of the cockpit. Lights flickered on and off as the ship slowly slid down with a WHUMP. So much for a smooth landing. Now a blanket of leaves concealed the windows, which bore several light scratches for good measure. Donald and Goofy both sad hunched over in their seats, while their hats rolled along the floor. With his eyes rolling around and around, Donald pushed himself to his feet. He wobbled back and forth, slapping his hand on a few random buttons. After some clicks and beeps, the screen flickered on again with the roar of static. Black and white dots replaced the radar, and the rest of the lights flashed on and off.

"Rats." Donald shook his head, and he bent down to pick up his hat. "Goofy, your driving's almost as clumsy as you!"

"Gawrsh, I'm sorry, Donald." Goofy looked down, tapping his two index fingers together. "But at least we made it safe and sound!"

"Think I'll side with Goofy on this one." Riku reached for his seatbelt, unfastening it in a flash. Maybe the landing was a little rough, but at least this time they didn't get caught up in a sandstorm. "So, you going to set us up with that magic of yours?"

"Hey, I'm getting there. Sheesh." Donald huffed, and he scooped up his staff. He gave it a quick shake before glancing at the others. "You guys better get close to the door, though. It might be hard gettin' us out once we're ready."

"How come?" said Kairi, peering over Donald's seat.

"Probably has something to do with the spell." Riku snorted, and he slowly stood up. "What are you going to do, turn us into snakes?"

"No way! That'd be silly." Donald snickered, and he stomped right up to the door. He latched onto the handle and swung it wide open, letting in a warm breeze… and a few pesky flies. "Anyway, let's get this over with. The more time we dawdle, the less time we'll have to adjust."

"Well, it can't be that bad." Kairi shook her head, placing her arms over the back of his chair. "But go ahead. I know I'm ready."

"Not like we've got anything to lose." Riku shrugged.

"Yup!" Goofy grinned, performing a quick salute. "Fire away, Donald!"

With that, Donald swept his staff through the air. A dark green glow formed at the tip, spreading throughout the entire cockpit. It coiled around Riku's legs, and in a matter of seconds, he fell to his knees, breathing heavily. A warm tingle raced down his spine, and he immediately shuddered. His face felt as if it was being stretched out, and he felt a sharp tug at his ears. His clothes melded with his flesh, covering him from head to toe. The yellow and black pattern of his top shifted to a mat of spotted fur, while his fingers grew stubby and broad. Only his eyes and silver hair remained unchanged, still reaching his shoulders in this new form. And despite the strange change overtaking him, he still managed to lift his head, eyes scanning the area.

Donald's blue, zipper-coated getup evaporated right before his eyes, replaced with a mess of shaggy, black feathers. In place of webbing, his feet gained razor sharp talons, while a set of large wings replaced his arms. The collar of his shirt became a scruffy ring of white feathers, and his hat vanished completely. The only thing that didn't change was his broad bill and the short feathers all over his head. Unlike Riku, though, he stood perfectly still, flapping his wings once or twice. Goofy, on the other hand, fell flat on the floor, yelping as his once floppy ears grew stiff and pointed, while a shaggy coat of grey fur replaced his entire outfit. He stumbled around on wobbly legs, landing back on his belly each time he tried walking. But, on the positive side, at least he wasn't a turtle this time.

But what about Kairi? Letting out a groan, Riku lifted himself up on his front legs, dragging himself closer to the seats. "Hey, Kairi. You okay?"

"Just a minute!"

In the back, Riku heard the sound of shuffling, followed by a soft thud against the back of a seat. Before long, two tiny, black paws reached up over the top. Seconds later, he caught sight of her familiar red hair, except… well, the short, pointed ears were kind of new, not to mention her long, narrow snout. In fact, her face looked almost like some kind of ferret crossed with a cat. And as she lifted herself up and over the seat, the rest of her features came into view, including a grey coat covered in black spots, a tail almost as long as her body, and a white underbelly. It sure wasn't any animal he'd seen before, but, then again, he was no zoologist.

Besides, they had more important things to worry about.

"So, jungle animals." Riku sighed and lowered his head, tail flicking. "Are you sure this is going to work?" After all, a drastic change like this required adjustment. For one, everything just looked… bigger like this. With his head so low to the ground, all the seats towered like trees. Plus, how was he supposed to fight on all fours?

"Oh, relax, Riku." Donald snickered, scooping up his staff with one of his wings. He slipped halfway through the door, tapping one of his feet. "You did fine in Atlantica! All we've gotta do is practice."

"Oh, sure." He smirked, rolling his eyes. "And we'll have loads of time for practice while we're fighting Heartless and tracking down the Keyhole." As if to prove his point, the moment he tried marching to the door, he wound up tripping over his own feet. All four of them.

Of course, he wasn't the only one struggling. By the time Goofy finally got the hang of standing, he wound up slipping along the floor, crashing into Riku from behind. Luckily, Riku's weight kept the two of them from sliding any further and, after a few seconds, Goofy managed to at least sit up.

"Ya know, maybe we oughta get outta this ship before we start worryin' about the Heartless." He gulped, taking a look at his paws. "I sure don't know how Pluto handles walkin' like this, but I think we're gonna need more room to get around."

"Yeah, probably." Kairi giggled, covering her mouth with a paw. She leaned over the edge of her seat and then, after a moment, tumbled onto the floor. Much like everyone else, she wobbled a little as she got to her feet. Despite her new-found clumsiness, though, she continued to smile. "Still, how often do you guys get to see a world from this angle? I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty exciting!"

"See, at least she's thinkin' positive." Donald winked, and he hopped out of the ship. "Maybe you oughta take a few cues from her, Riku!"

Riku shrugged, and he took two slow steps through the door. He kept his eyes on his paws the whole time, moving one after the other. While he didn't exactly trip, his legs still wobbled with each movement. Before long, though, he made it to the ground, continuing to move at a snail's pace away from the ship.

On the way, he heard the constant crackling of dry leaves. Stopping for a moment, he gazed at the ground, eying all the little twigs, pebbles, and patches of grass, things he totally would've ignored, had he been in his usual form. And when he looked up, he slid backwards and gasped, for the trees stretched up like skyscrapers, looming high above him. The rigid trunks and broad leaves of the palms especially caught his eye… They even bore a few coconuts just waiting to get knocked down. A part of him wanted to take a whack at the trees, but… no. They had more important things to worry about. Instead, he took a seat near the tree and narrowed his eyes.

The others followed suit fairly quickly. Of course, Goofy wound up tripping over a loose twig and rolling down to the dirt, while Kairi awkwardly squirmed on her way out. A long body like that combined with four legs must've been a nightmare to control. But, on the upside, with everyone out, they could finally make some progress…

Although, come to think of it, this world was still knee-deep in darkness, wasn't it? Briefly, Riku scanned the area, skimming through the surrounding trees and up at the sky above. A few things immediately caught his eye. For example, that black mist still rolled along the jungle floor, while the crackling of lightning followed by booming thunder echoed all around him. A sharp breeze slapped him in the face, while the palms swayed to and fro. All these symptoms popped up in Merlin's world, too, and that place was a total mess. At this rate, they'd have to really pick up the pace before the darkness got out of hand.

Especially since, where there was darkness, there was bound to be Heartless.

"Bah, this place is a wreck!" Donald scowled, placing a wing on his hip. "Looks like we're gonna have to wing it, otherwise we'll never get things done."

"Oh yeah?" Riku gave him a wry smile and lifted an eyebrow. "So, how am I supposed to wield the Keyblade like this?"

He reached out with one of his paws, sweeping it through the air. And, while a flash of light did appear, and the Keyblade materialized in short order, it just sort of lingered for a moment, wobbled, and then crashed right on top of Donald's head. Immediately, he let out a squawk and flailed his wings around. His feathers ruffled, and his brow furrowed.

"Oh, just use your mouth." He groaned, stomping over to Goofy's side. "It'll be easier than trying to hold it with those paws."

"Yeah, but we're kind of in a bind." Riku lowered his head, and his ears folded back. "Wouldn't it be more practical to make me something with, I don't know, hands?"

"Practical, maybe. Safe? No." Donald shook his head. "You're a predator. In the jungle, that means you're high on the food chain."

…Okay, he did have a point. After all, the last thing they needed was to get chased down by a vicious tiger or something. Still, the Heartless didn't care about appearances, just hearts. A new look definitely wouldn't change that.

"Still, how am I supposed to fight when I can barely walk? Besides, I probably look ridiculous."

"I don't think so." Kairi grinned, scurrying over to his side. "If anything, you look cute, Riku."

"Cute?" His jaw dropped, and he reeled back, bumping into a tree trunk. That was how he looked? Really?

"Yup." Goofy shut his eyes and chuckled. "Ya look like a great big kitty cat!"

…There went the rest of his dignity. Of course they'd say something like that.

For a moment, Riku said nothing and slapped a paw over his face. Talk about humiliating. Here they were, caught in the middle of an endangered world, and his friends still managed to poke fun at him. Thanks to his new-found embarrassment, that rustle in the tree behind him barely registered. For all he knew, it could've been another breeze. But then, seconds later, the trees rattled again, prompting Riku to lower his paw and take a better look around.

Nothing stood out that he hadn't seen before. Other than leaves, branches, and the occasional fruit, the trees looked completely barren. But just to be safe, he reached down and bit the Keyblade's handle, awkwardly lifting it with his mouth. Looking back and forth, he approached the others, who took similar precautions. Donald's staff remained wrapped between the feathers of his wing. After a few tries, Goofy managed to lift his shield using his head, and Kairi scooped up her sword with one of her paws. Together, they all formed a small circle amidst the surrounding bushes and ferns. Nothing changed.

In fact, Riku was just about to heave a sigh of relief until…

SPLAT! A thick, sticky substance hit him flat on the face. Immediately, he wiped the goop away with his paw. Given the sweet smell and seeds on his snout, something must've hurled a fruit at him. And, really, that was proof enough that they weren't alone. With his vision clear, he crouched down, clamping tightly onto his weapon. The others now stood in a straight line, their eyes locked on the canopy above. Once again, the branches shook. Beneath the shadow of the leaves, several pairs of beady eyes glistened. Within seconds, another fruit whizzed through the air. This time, however, Riku lunged to the side, completely dodging the blow. When two more fruits rocketed their way, Donald slammed his staff into one of the projectiles, while Goofy splattered the other with his shield.

Go figure. With all this darkness, it was only a matter of time before Heartless popped up. Shaking his head, Riku pushed himself back to his feet and glared at the wall of yellow eyes. There was no way he'd be able to strike them like this, unless he somehow worked out climbing. Instead, he turned his head just a little to the side, pelting the trees with an array of lightning bolts.

Branches snapped, and three of the Heartless tumbled down into a bush, their forms now completely exposed. They stood hunched over, opening and closing their clawed fists. With long tails, rounded ears, and shaggy bodies, they could've almost passed for normal monkeys, if it weren't for their blue coloration and shadowy faces. Unfortunately, these pesky monkeys dashed forward before the group could land any hits. They flailed their arms, hacking and slashing with their claws.

While the monkeys charged, Kairi leaned back on her hind legs and pointed her sword into the air. As the glow of her magic weaved its way around the Heartless, their motions slowed, buying the others more time to attack. With his eyes open wide, Donald let his staff fall just long enough to scoop it up with his talons. Beating his wings, he hovered above their enemies. Though he wavered a little, he managed to swoop down towards the monkeys and hammer them in the faces. As they fell, Goofy rammed into them with the front of his shield. Despite sloppy footwork, his charge sent them crashing into one of the other trees. Then, when more fruit rocketed down, a sudden breeze swept it back into the treetops, courtesy of Riku's aeroga magic.

But the party wasn't over yet. While the three blue monkeys remained still for a moment, the branches above them quivered once again. Two curled, yellow hats poked out of the leaves, flinging fire straight down at the group. Gasping, Riku leaped out of the way, but his paws brushed up against a banana peel that sent him whizzing right into a bush. The two Red Nocturnes then zoomed straight at him, their hats still sparking at the tips. Before they could launch any more flames, Riku pushed himself back up and sent ice crystals straight at those pests. Predictably, they exploded on the spot.

In their place, four more Heartless crept out along the branches. Unlike the others, these monkeys' bodies were lean and curvaceous, and they each wore a bow on the tops of their heads. In one hand, they clutched onto a large slingshot, while in the other, they held tightly onto whole a bunch of bananas. More of those blue monkeys then swung in on vines, beating their fists against their chests.

They fought them all off to their best extent. Blasts of fire, ice, electricity, and wind at least knocked those suckers down from their perches. Problem was, the group still moved sloppily, leaving them all wide open for attacks. While Riku got in a few lucky slashes, he kept falling over the moment he picked up speed or, even worse, wound up stepping right into a line of banana peels. His friends didn't fare much better, either. While the Heartless moved swiftly around their wild arena, Kairi and Goofy either dragged their feet or tumbled every five seconds. Only Donald managed to stay out of harm's way, swooping, diving, and flinging spells left and right.

Unfortunately, the Heartless remained in constant motion. Rather than take all the hits, they launched themselves at Riku and his friends, forcing them to high tail it along the bumpy path ahead. As they made their escape, they awkwardly trampled over rocks, fallen branches, and bushes. Briefly, they'd stop to pelt Heartless with magic. While Kairi dropped mines every step of the way, Donald rattled the trees with wind and lightning. Riku remained at the front of the group, scanning their surroundings for any surprise attackers. When Heartless did appear up above, he dragged them down onto the mines using the force of gravity.

Explosions reduced Heartless to ash and smoke. Fire and ice filled the air. No matter where Riku turned, more Heartless leaped down from treetops, stomped over bushes, and crept out of nearby streams. Not only that, but those girly monkeys kept dropping bananas in their path, forcing them to slow down or wind up crashing into one another.

It took several minutes of nonstop running and fighting before their numbers started to dwindle. Eventually, only a few stragglers remained, which Riku, Donald, and Kairi incinerated on the spot.

They now stood in a quiet clearing, surrounded by only a few stray trees, bushes, and boulders. Other than the roar of thunder, everything fell silent. And, after taking a deep breath, Riku flopped down on his chest. His heart raced, and his whole body felt stiff and sore from all that running. While the warm glow of a curaga spell eased some of his pain, that didn't change the fact that he'd exhausted himself from that escape. Heck, they'd all worn themselves out at this point.

"Well, at least we know what we're in for." Riku sighed, resting his head on top of his front paws. "And I'm sure there's more where that came from…"

"Yup. Looks like we're gonna have ta be extra careful 'round these parts, 'specially like this." Goofy looked down and whimpered, taking a seat on a bed of grass. "Who knew goin' around on four legs would be so hard? It's even tougher when we're all fightin'."

"Guess I lucked out." Donald swooped onto a rock, fanning himself with his wings. "We're just gonna have to play it safe for now. If we can get to the Keyhole and get outta here, it shouldn't be too hard."

"Except we don't even know what's going on in this world." Riku shook his head, and his tail thumped back and forth. "Remember Mim? For all we know, there could be someone around here pulling the strings."

"Ya know, that wouldn't surprise me one bit." Goofy frowned. "Seems like, no matter where we go, there's always somebody tryin' to control 'em."

"Pretty much." Riku laughed dryly, closing his eyes. "But we've got a whole jungle to search. Who knows what's waiting for us?"

"Well, we'll just have to figure it out as we go." Kairi smiled faintly, and she slipped over to Riku's side. "But first we should rest. We don't want another Twilight Town on our hands."

He knew she was teasing. After all, Kairi wasn't the resentful type. Besides, they'd both already worked out a plan for any sudden darkness outbursts. So, rather than complain, he shut his eyes and let out a dry laugh. "Hah, that's not going to happen any time soon."

Still, they all needed some down time. After all, how were they going to save this world if they pushed themselves past the point of exhaustion? Rather than fight it, Riku continued to laze in the soft jungle grass, only occasionally glancing up at the others. About two minutes of peace and quiet passed, and during that time, Riku sort of slipped into a daze. Thoughts of Heartless and danger crept into his mind for a moment or two, but he managed to push them aside for the time being…

Until the nearby bushes shook, immediately prompting him to lift his head. His eyes darted around the area, but nothing stood out. Even when the grass rustled, it was hard to discern what was going on. Briefly, he caught a glimpse of stripes… at least, he thought he did, but with the thick mist rolling all around them, it was hard to tell.

At least, until a deep voice spoke up from behind the jungle shrubs.

"I say, what an unusual bunch of creatures…"

From out of the bushes came the face of a bulky, orange tiger, who slowly approached the group with a wide grin on his face. He held his head high as he circled around them, tail swishing back and forth. Despite being a fierce predator, he carried himself with a calm and composed air. The shaggy tufts of white fur along his cheeks made him look more like a balding gentleman than a vicious threat. Nonetheless, Riku kept his eyes locked on the tiger, who continued to circle them like a hungry shark.

"Speechless, are we?" The tiger chuckled and came to a stop right next to Goofy, who gulped and scurried back. "My, and after putting on such a good show with those infernal monkeys. And here I had come to congratulate you."

"Is that so?" Riku raised an eyebrow, pulling himself up into a sitting position. "And here I thought you were stalking prey."

"Well, you certainly do have trouble getting up off your feet." The tiger raised one of his paws, revealing his claws. "But I have no intention of killing you. After all, few in this jungle have been able to hold off those beasts. And with fire, too. One does wonder where you obtained such intriguing abilities."

"Well, uh. Ya see…" Goofy looked over to Donald. "We're sorta—"

"Who's asking?" Donald huffed, folding his wings together.

"Oh? Could it be that you don't know who I am?" The tiger shut his eyes, and his smile broadened. "Everyone in this jungle knows Shere Khan…"

"Well, we're not from these parts." Riku leaned forward and sneered. "We traveled a long way just to reach this place. Can you really blame us if our footing's off?"

"Right!" Kairi laughed shakily, scooting back just a little. "We were just so tired from all the walking that we could barely get around."

"Well, you certainly had no trouble fending off those creatures." Shere Khan's smile faded, replaced with a small frown. "Very intriguing… One only wonders what you're capable of under normal circumstances."

…This guy was really something else. Just watching him strut around sent shivers down Riku's spine. It almost felt like he could see right through them, the way he kept questioning their powers and never averted his gaze, even when he came to a halt.

"So, uh, mister Shere Khan, sir." Goofy looked down, shuffling his paws in the dirt. "Where'd those Heart- er, monsters come from, anyway?"

"Well," said Shere Khan, "if I were to wager a guess, it would be the ancient ruins. After all, I've gotten word that 'King' Louie has obtained strange powers of his own…" He took a few more steps around the group and shook his head. "Why, it's thrown this entire jungle into a state of disarray."

"Hasn't anyone tried to stop them?" This tiger sure looked tough enough to handle a few Heartless, so why hadn't he shown himself sooner? While he seemed to know a thing or two, Riku wasn't ready to trust him just yet.

But despite Riku's question, Shere Khan remained perfectly composed. In fact, he stopped once again, looking him straight in the eye. "Why, of course they've tried, but few have succeeded. After all, they wield fire as well…" His eye twitched, and for a moment he averted his eyes.

"Oh, so is that why you were hiding?" Riku smirked.

"Hiding?" Shere Khan narrowed his eyes, and he marched right up to Riku. He placed his paw right against his neck, lightly tapping him with a knife-like claw. "If I were you, I would watch my tongue."

"Riku, c'mon." Kairi frowned, giving him a tap on his leg. "We should at least hear him out, right?"

Riku sighed, nodding reluctantly. "Fine, you've got our attention. Why don't you tell us more about this Louie guy?"

"Where to begin…" Shere Khan turned his back on the group, gazing over his shoulder. His lips curled up into a wide smirk, and his tail thumped against the ground. "That oafish ape has a bit of an obsession, you see. He believes that he is on par with man." He chuckled. "Yet one swipe of my claws would reduce him to a lifeless pile of flesh."

"But what about those monsters?" Donald stretched out his neck and squinted. "You said that nobody's beaten 'em."

"Few animals have even survived. Yet, here I am…" He flexed his claws and lifted his chin. "Still, what a pity… Then again, survival of the fittest has always been jungle law."

Well, that was harsh. Biting his lip, Riku pressed his paws into the dirt and kept his eyes locked on the tiger. Something just wasn't right about this. The guy had 'suspicious' written all over him, but he was their only lead. Even if the guy was a self-absorbed jerk, they couldn't completely dismiss him. Not now, anyway.

"Well, strong or not, I don't think anyone deserves to get trashed by those freaks." Riku shook his head and leaned back. "If those monsters are such a big problem here, then we'll just have to fix that."

"Oh, so you're going after them, are you?" Shere Khan chuckled. "My, how bold. Do you often throw yourselves directly into danger?"

"You don't know the half of it." Donald grinned. "But it's nothing new for us!"

"Yup!" Goofy nodded. "And besides, somebody's gotta teach that bully not to play with darkness."

"Well, if that's what you wish, then, by all means, go. Perhaps you'll be hailed as heroes." Shere Khan stood back up, marching back towards the bushes. "Just know that finding the ruins will require you to venture deeper into this jungle."

"I think we can take of ourselves." Riku sneered.

"Of course." Shere Khan gave the group one last look, still wearing that smug smirk. "But do be careful with that fire of yours. You wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong impression…"

With that, he slinked through the ferns and vanished without a trace.

At first, Riku didn't say a word. He was still trying to wrap his head around what had just happened. After all, there was still something… off about that tiger. Maybe it was the way he kept eying them suspiciously, or maybe it was his attitude. The guy seemed pretty confident despite the circumstances. To trust him blindly would be a big mistake. Still, he'd at least given them a lead. Whether or not he was lying remained to be seen. They'd never really know unless they tracked down Louie themselves.

So, together, they took off towards the ruins. Regardless of what awaited them, they'd get to the bottom of this.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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In your nightmares!
Chapter 14: Meeting with a Mancub

It just didn't add up! Why was it that every world he visited wound up filled to the brim with Heartless? How come those dark clouds always hung overhead, and why was there so much thunder and lightning? Even after hopping from world to world, Sora still hadn't dug up any straight answers. If Riku beat Ansem, then this shouldn't have been a problem, but, nope. Even out here in this jungle, he kept running into crazy monkeys that wanted to rip him to shreds, and there was no mistaking the heart-shaped marks on their bellies.

By now he'd hopped along treetops, scurried across rotting logs, and slinked behind boulders and bushes. For the most part, none of the other animals caught on. Sure, an army of marching elephants almost squashed him, and he nearly tripped over the tail of a sleeping snake, but besides the Heartless, his trip through the jungle went pretty smoothly! He'd even managed to find an ancient city, complete with tall towers, spooky statues, and the blaring sounds of music flowing through the air. How could he pass up the chance to explore such a cool place? Maybe it was kind of a diversion, but he wasn't about to leave any stones unturned. Not if it meant helping Riku!

So, he followed the sound of the beat until, at long last, he stumbled upon what looked like a half-demolished throne room. Moss and grass sprouted all over the place, and, sure enough, a whole slew of those monkey Heartless stomped about, beating their fists against their chests and swaying to the beat. Those funny, trumpet-nosed Heartless were there, too, honking and bouncing along. And in the center of it all a big, fat orangutan leaned back in his throne, tapping his fingers against the arms of his seat. His eyes had a strange yellow tint to 'em, and a few dark wisps crept up from his shoulders. Even with those creepy features, though, he kicked back and hummed a cheery tune.

But besides all the Heartless and that creepy ape, one other guy immediately caught Sora's eye. Tall, skinny, and dressed in a black coat, this man leaned back against one of the walls, fidgeting in place. When Heartless passed him by, he leaned back and winced.

He might've been a little bit awkward, but if he had one of those coats, then he must've been on the same side as that Riku lookalike! And not only him, but his buddy, not to mention that creep that attacked Riku in Hollow Bastion! While Sora didn't know much about them, the fact that they kept popping up across worlds just didn't settle well with him. He'd be an idiot to let that guy escape his sight.

So, instead, he waited and watched, listening in on the conversation…

The orangutan slid down from his throne, bopping to the beat. He swung his arms forward, pointing at the man in black, and a smile appeared on his face.

"So, give me scoop here, cousin. When are you gonna show me how to use that red flower?"

"Red flower?" The man gulped and looked the other way. "Well, uh. I'm not sure if that…"

"Oh, no need to be shy. These Heartless are pretty swingin', but I need something a little more direct." The orangutan slapped one of his palms against the ground, lifting himself with one arm. "Those red fellas can sure make sparks fly, but it just ain't the same. They're pullin' the stops, when I could steal the show."

"Oh, well, when you put it like that… er." The man rubbed at the back of his neck, shifting awkwardly. "Hey! Who needs fire when you can do this?" He held out his hands, and bubbles filled the air, forming what looked like a funny guitar. In just a matter of seconds, a whole bunch of water shot up from the ground, stretching and shifting into human-like shapes. These water people danced around for a few seconds before the Heartless scurried forward and sliced straight through 'em, leaving only puddles on the ground.

The orangutan crossed his arms and tapped his fingers. "You've been showin' off that water trick a whole lot, cuz. It was cool at first, but now I just know you're holdin' out on me."

"…Right." The man looked away, digging into his pocket. He scooped out a little slip of paper, gave it a quick glance, and then looked back at the ape. "Oh, I just remembered! All you've gotta do to create fire is keep digging deeper into that darkness. Once you get deep enough, bam. It's all yours."

Okay, something really fishy was going on here. First of all, why did that monkey have all those Heartless? And just what was that guy in black trying to do? If he was pushing the orangutan into darkness, then he must've had a reason for it. Some evil plot! Darkness was nothing to play around with, and it definitely wasn't the key to making fire. A part of Sora wanted to leap in there deal with that man before things got outta hand, but… no. That was too reckless. Besides, he needed all the info he could get.

"So all I've gotta do is dig a little deeper? Let that dark power flow right through me?" The orangutan raised an eyebrow, scratching the back of his head. "If it's that easy, then how come no animal's ever pulled it off?"

"Hey, hey. How often do you see animals throwing Heartless around?" The man held out his hands, shaking his head. "They didn't know the secret. Or maybe they tried and fell flat on their faces. It happens all the time!"

"Then show me, cousin." The orangutan clasped his hands behind his back, marching right up to the man. "If it's so easy, I'm sure you can pull it off."

"Gee, I'd love to!" He clapped his hands together, and darkness began to twist its way around his feet. "But I've kinda got something I need to take care of, sooo… I'll be seeing ya!"

The man didn't even give that monkey a chance to speak up. The moment a dark corridor's rounded shape formed against the wall, he pulled up his hood, looked left and right, and then darted right into the portal without another word!

Sora pressed his palms against the ground and narrowed his eyes. The corridor hadn't faded just yet, so if he hurried, maybe he'd be able to follow along and see what those black-coated guys were up to! After all, they all had to come from somewhere. If he could just dig up some information, it could clear up this whole creepy darkness mess. So, without even thinking, he launched himself past all the Heartless, past the wide-eyed orangutan, and straight at the chilling darkness.

x.x.x

Even without the Heartless on their trail, maneuvering through the jungle wasn't exactly easy. After living his life as a human, the sudden change into a leopard forced Riku to adapt quickly, and, frankly? That was still easier said than done. Despite all his efforts, he carried himself sluggishly, nearly tripping every few steps. And if that sounded bad, well, Goofy's wobbly walking wouldn't win any medals. It was almost as if his clumsiness from before had been amplified. Kairi, on the other hand, kept looking down at her feet. While this did prevent her from tripping, she kind of dragged behind the others. All in all, things weren't going so smoothly.

They'd made a few stops on their way towards the ruins whenever Heartless popped up. And, despite their shaky footing and a few bruises from each rumble, their combined efforts and especially their magic kept them all in one piece. One fireball to face reduced those blue monkeys to a crispy pile of ash. Their sling-shot totting allies hopped from branch to branch with ease, but one strike from a thundaga bolt left them in a twitching heap. Their numbers proved irritating, and their attacks definitely stung, but compared to a Darkside, it was like a flick on the wrist.

Fortunately, it'd been about ten minutes since their last encounter, and the momentary peace allowed them to stop near the edge of a stream to catch their breath.

A fallen tree formed a bridge over the water, leading to a path lined with pebbles and sticks. After taking a few short breaths, Riku climbed up on top and gazed over into some nearby bushes. Almost immediately, he heard a rustle, and he lowered his head, eyes narrowed. A pair of yellow eyes gazed at him from beneath the leaves, and soon he caught sight of a blackened form trudging towards him. Yet, despite the dark colors of this cat, he didn't seem like a Heartless. After all, his eyes didn't glow, and his belly lacked the distinct emblem found on almost all species. Plus, he stopped at the edge of the log and gave Riku's group a wide-eyed stare.

"Who in the world are you?" The panther stepped closer to Riku, brow arched.

"Just a couple of newbies passing through." Riku shrugged, sliding down from the log. "If we don't look familiar, that's because we just got here."

"Strange," said the panther, tail flicking. "In all my years, I've never seen a leopard travel alongside prey animals like a civet and a vulture, and what is this wolf doing away from his pack?"

"Well, uh, actually…" Goofy took a look at the others. "These here fellers kinda are my pack!"

"Hmm, well I suppose I shouldn't criticize." The panther sighed. "After all, with Shere Khan on the move, you're likely safer as a group."

"Shere Khan?" Kairi blinked, and she awkwardly dragged herself to the log. "You mean the tiger?"

"Yes, but… wait." The panther leaned forward. "Have you already encountered him?"

"Oh yeah." Donald huffed, shakily hovering onto a nearby branch. "He bumped into us after we beat a buncha those weird monkeys."

"Weird monk—you mean you actually defeated them?" The panther's eyes widened, and he took a step back. "Every animal in this jungle has been on-edge since their arrival. Even the dawn patrol has had trouble dealing with them, so how...?"

"Let's just say we're gifted." Riku smirked, and the Keyblade flashed into his jaws.

The panther gasped, and he leaped backwards, ears flat against his head. "What in the jungle is that? It looks like a man's weapon!"

Donald shot a quick glare at Riku and pressed his wings to his hips. At that, Riku let his weapon vanish from sight. Maybe he should've warned that cat first. Especially if these jungle animals weren't even used to magic. With the Keyblade gone, though, the panther relaxed, ears perking up again as he climbed back onto the log.

"Sorry about that." Riku sighed. "But you don't have to worry about my Keyblade. We're really just here to help."

"That still doesn't explain how it appeared out of thin air…" The panther squinted. "Then again, strange things have been turning up ever since the sky blackened. After encountering those strange beasts, I suppose nothing should surprise me anymore."

"Well, don't worry. We'd only use our weapons on those monkeys." Kairi laughed. "In fact, we were just headed to the ruins before—"

A thundering roar filled the air, shaking the leaves from the nearby trees. Immediately, the group fell silent, and the panther whirled around, facing the other side of the stream. He took a deep breath and leaped up onto a tree branch, tail flicking back and forth.

"Oh dear. I knew I shouldn't have left him alone!" Briefly, he peered down at the group, pointing forward with one of his paws. "I'm terribly sorry, but I have to hurry before this gets out of hand."

Before what got out of hand? All of the sudden, this panther was acting awfully vague. Then again, that roar did sound pretty serious. For all they knew, it could've been something like a Behemoth. And if that was the case, then he'd need backup and lots of it. Without warning, Riku called for his Keyblade again, and then he looked to the others.

"Wanna see what's up?" His words still came out awkward thanks to his Keyblade, but he must've gotten the point across, since the others grabbed for their weapons and immediately nodded.

"Well," said the panther, "you're going to have to hurry!"

Well, they could certainly try, anyway. Clamping down on his Key, Riku darted forward, trying not to slip over the edge of the log. His paws hit the ground like a ton of bricks, snapping twigs, kicking pebbles, and shaking the bushes as he hurried along. All that noise prompted the panther to stop briefly, gazing down at Riku's group. Still, he remained calm, leaping from branch to branch silently and smoothly. It was totally different from Riku's stumbling, Goofy's tripping, and Kairi's awkward slinking motions. Donald at least had the privilege of wings, allowing him to fly above the others and occasionally perch on branches. Unfortunately, between crackles, thumps, and Goofy's yelps, noise constantly filled the air. It got to a point where the panther stopped in his tracks, groaned, and brushed his paw over his head.

"Honestly, it's a wonder you've lasted this long." He shook his head. "With the way you travel, you'll only attract unwanted attention."

"So, what should we do?" Kairi frowned, looking back at her tail. "You make it look so easy!"

"First of all, you're putting too much weight on your paws." The panther's back arched, and he stretched out his front legs. Within seconds, he leaped onto another branch without making a sound. "Move lightly. Make sure the ground below you doesn't shift, otherwise you'll alert every predator to your presence."

"But how do ya keep from trippin' with all this stuff lyin' around?" Goofy shuffled his paws, kicking a pebble out of the way. "We're not used to such bumpy roads!"

"Well, I don't know what kind of jungle you came from, but you'll have to adapt." Another roar rumbled from afar, and the panther sighed. "Now, come along! We've already wasted enough time as it is."

There was no point in asking for details. With the panther in such a hurry and that… thing, whatever it was, roaring up a storm, they'd be idiots to stall any longer. On the upside, at least he'd given them a tip for moving around. So, as he followed the panther's lead, Riku put less pressure on his feet, and instead of watching for stray objects in his path, he kept his eyes locked on the giant ferns up ahead. Rather than fuss over the dirt below him, he mimicked the panther's delicate movements… or tried to, anyway. His legs still moved stiffly, but with a bit of effort, he at least stopped crunching leaves and snapping sticks every five seconds.

As seconds became minutes, Riku picked up speed, and he began hopping over larger stones and bushes that crossed his path. From time to time, he'd stop just long enough to get a good look at the others and, sure enough, their movements also shifted from a clunky waddle to a smooth gait. …For the most part. One stone did send Goofy rolling into a tree trunk, but otherwise, they pressed on with few interruptions. And with each step, it felt as those muffled roars neared crystal clarity. It got to the point where Riku's ears rung, and what sounded like a much younger voice caught his attention.

When Riku first took off running, he expected something massive. Something terrifying. Yet, once he and his friends drew to the edge of some ferns, and the panther climbed up another tree, they didn't catch any sign of gigantic, purple beasts with horns or even more of those monkeys. Nope, the sight before them was… well, almost silly in hind sight.

A big, bulky bear with stubby arms and a long snout leaned forward and let out another roar. While his teeth looked like little knives and he definitely had the muscle to knock any of them around with one flick, the moment he stopped roaring, a dopey smile appeared on his face, and he looked down at… a human? Riku squinted and leaned forward, eying the smaller figure carefully. Sure enough, a tan-skinned kid with just a cloth around his waist stood up to that bear and… growled. Pitifully. Sure, it was kind of loud, but it definitely didn't shake any treetops.

"Oh, I can't believe this." The panther leaned over the edge of a branch and shook his head. "All that fuss over a stupid, jungle bum."

Riku heaved a sigh of relief, letting the Keyblade fizzle out of sight. With his mouth clear of obstructions, he gazed up at the panther. "What, you mean you know this guy?"

"Unfortunately."

The bear and the boy circled each other, weaving back and forth. The boy clenched his fists and jabbed at the bear's belly, but he kept slipping out of the way, claws raised. Once again, the boy hopped up and slammed his fist into the bear's chest, but that bear didn't budge an inch. Despite that failure of a punch, though, he still laughed and gave the kid a pat on the back…

Except that one little pat sent him rolling backwards. THUD! His head crashed straight into a fallen tree, and he slid down onto his back. There he lay perfectly still, probably out cold from the crash.

"Aw, who does that kid think he is?" Donald huffed, leaning down towards the boy. "There's no way he could take on somebody that huge!"

"Huh?" The bear blinked, and he turned to face the group. Scratching his cheek, he stomped up to the tree where the panther rested, and his lips quirked into a great big smile. "Hey, Bagheera! I see you finally made some friends."

"Oh, come off it, you big oaf." Bagheera rolled his eyes, resting his chin between his paws. "Shouldn't you be more concerned about your 'pupil'? At this rate, he won't remember a single thing you've taught him."

The bear shrugged his shoulders, and he scratched at his neck. "Oh, I guess I uh… overdid it a little."

"You mean a lot." Riku craned his neck, peering up at the bear. "C'mon, you're twice his size for crying out loud."

"Hey, I can handle it just fine!" The twiggy little kid pushed himself to his feet, stomping over to the bear. His lower lip poked out, and he puffed up his cheeks. "Isn't that right, Baloo?"

"You better believe it!" Baloo hopped back and nodded, and another silly smile popped on his face. "Now, c'mon. Let's go for round two!"

"I think not…" Bagheera pushed himself up and crept to the tip of the branch. "It's far too dangerous to be playing games, Baloo. That's why I need to get Mowgli back to the man village."

"The man village?" Goofy blinked, and he pressed his front paws together. "Gawrsh, ya mean there's people livin' close by?"

…Of course there'd be a village. And to think that they were all stuck on four legs. Riku let out a dry chuckle, but he didn't say a word. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on Bagheera and Baloo, listening closely to their words.

"Yes, and I have every intention to bring the boy there." Bagheera turned his head towards Mowgli. "And, this time, there's no way—"

"Hold it, Baggy!" Baloo lowered his brow, and he stepped out in front of the boy. "You can't take him to the man village. They'll make a man outta him!"

"And would you rather he get swallowed by a snake or trampled by elephants?" Bagheera stretched out his neck so his face hovered just a few inches from Baloo's. "And let us not forget those terrible creatures infesting the jungle."

"Aw, I'm not scared of 'em!" Mowgli shook his head and delivered a swift kick to a pebble. The rock shot into the air and crashed into Bagheera's nose. "And Baloo's real strong. If those monsters pop up again, we can take 'em!"

"See? No problem!" Baloo laughed, placing a paw on Mowgli's head. "Long as he's with me, those pesky monkeys won't lay a finger on him."

"And how do you expect him to survive?" Bagheera chuckled and shook his head.

"Hey, once I'm through with the little guy, he'll be fighting like a bear!"

"It still seems kind of risky, if you ask me." Riku raised an eyebrow, and he stepped out from the bushes. "I know you mean well, but this place doesn't exactly scream 'kid friendly'."

"Riku, that's not our decision to make." Kairi poked her head out from between some leaves and sighed. "Besides, he's just a kid. You have to be gentle."

"Yup, ya gotta take it easy." Baloo clapped his paws together and grinned. "If little britches here wants to stay in the jungle, let him! I've lived here my whole life, and look how I turned out!"

"Yes, and you have claws. Muscle. Teeth." Bagheera pressed his lips together and gazed right into Baloo's eyes. "You can teach him all you want, but he'll never be a bear…"

"Aw, nonsense! He might not look like one, but it's what's inside that really counts." Rolling his eyes, Baloo marched away from the panther and clapped his hands. "Now, c'mon, kid. Let's give this another go!"

"You betcha, Baloo!"

Grinning, Mowgli rushed back at the bear, and the two circled each other once again. They wiggled around, while Baloo shouted more instructions. When Baloo swung his fists, Mowgli rolled to the side and hopped behind the old bear. Though Baloo twirled around and gave the kid a light tap, Mowgli hopped up and socked him in the chin. While Mowgli's blows probably didn't sting much, he at least had some spunk. When Baloo knocked him back, he got right back up, charging and leaping in for another strike. In fact, he was just like Sora, the way he stubbornly kept trying to prove his strength.

As the play fighting went on, Riku turned towards Bagheera, tilting his head. "So, why is he in the jungle, anyway?"

"Mowgli came from… special circumstances." Bagheera frowned. "He's lived here his entire life, raised by a pack of wolves, and if it weren't for Shere Khan, he may have been able to stay."

That explained a thing or two. If this jungle really was the kid's home, then pulling him out of his element couldn't be easy. Maybe Mowgli was a little stubborn, but if the jungle was all he knew, how could they even expect him to go live with other humans? The situation wasn't clear-cut, no matter how they looked at it. Throw in the Heartless and Shere Khan, and it became a convoluted mess.

"Shere Khan's that big of a deal, huh?" Riku sighed, gazing downward. "Well, he did seem pretty full of it."

"Not to mention a little scary." Goofy shuddered. "What's he got against the kiddo, anyway? He doesn't seem so bad!"

"Perhaps not, but Mowgli is human, and Shere Khan loathes man. If he were to encounter the boy, he'd kill him immediately." Heaving a sigh, Bagheera gazed warily at Mowgli and Baloo. "That's why I must get Mowgli to safety. I just wish he'd listen to me…"

"I know the feeling." Riku looked Bagheera in the eye, placing a paw to his chest. "The same thing happened to a friend of mine once. He got wrapped up in a bad situation, and I just couldn't get through to him…"

"Yeah, and me and Riku used to butt heads all the time." Donald smiled, swooping down next to Riku. "And, believe me, half the time I pushed him around, it only made things worse."

Goofy nodded, stepping right beneath the branch. "Plus, my boy Max used to be a whole lot like Mowgli. We almost never saw things eye to eye."

"Then what should I do?" Bagheera shook his head. "It's hard to reason with someone so young. So naïve."

"Just do what you can," said Kairi. "If the village really is the safest place, then you can't give up now."

"And, hey, sometimes you've gotta use a little tough love." Riku smirked. "He might not like it, but if you call it quits, you'll only encourage him to stick around."

And, frankly, that just wasn't a bright idea. Sure, the coast was clear, but Heartless could still attack at any time. The lingering black mist and booming overhead served as constant reminders of the darkness' presence. Yet despite the doom and gloom, both Baloo and Mowgli sang and danced together, scratched their backs against tree trunks, scooped up ants under rocks… They were both so carefree. So… light.

…But now really wasn't the time to dwell on that. After all, Bagheera's words called Shere Khan's motives into question. If the guy was a coldblooded killer, then how could they be sure King Louie was behind the Heartless? They only had his words to work with, and it'd be stupid to trust him blindly. Bagheera, on the other hand, seemed just as knowledgeable of the jungle. Unlike Khan, he didn't carry himself with a sinister air, and he obviously knew his way around the jungle. If there was even a small chance that the tiger had misled them, then it only made sense to ask for an extra opinion.

"Say, Bagheera…" Riku tapped his paw on the tree trunk. "You wouldn't happen to know about the ancient—"

He paused. Some tree branches above him shook, and leaves rained down over the group. Immediately, he gazed up at the tree tops, only to find… nothing. Of course, just because the trees looked empty didn't mean they were safe. Narrowing his eyes, he stepped out of the bushes, taking a short look at Baloo and Mowgli. The two continued to goof off, not even giving those trees a passing glance. Kairi, Donald, and Goofy, on the other hand, all slipped up behind Riku, gazing at him with frowns on their faces. The branches rattled again, and a breeze brushed against his spine. The next thing he knew…

SNAP!

The trunk of a palm tree toppled down, right over Riku and his friends. Without even thinking, he scooped Kairi up in his mouth, shoved Goofy off to the side, and leaped onto a moss-coated boulder. The tree collapsed, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Immediately, Baloo stopped his shimmying and did a double take. With his eyes wide open, Bagheera leaped down from the treetop and crouched down in front of Mowgli, while Baloo swallowed hard and put up his fists. Mowgli inched backwards until he wound up flat against a larger tree. At that point, he held his hands close to his chest and shuddered.

Crack!

Riku placed Kairi down on the rock, and he lowered his head, tail swishing back and forth. He slowly turned in a circle, trying to find anything remotely suspicious. No matter where he turned, nothing caught his eye. Yet branches kept cracking. Bushes kept shaking, and he could still hear the sound of leaves crumpling underfoot. Brow furrowed, he opened his mouth and let the Keyblade materialize in his jaws. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kairi sit up on her hind legs and scoop up her sword. Then, Donald took off into the air, wrapping his talons around his staff. He gazed directly at the ground, and let out a sharp gasp.

"Gah, you guys! Look at the shadow!"

At first, Riku thought he'd meant a Shadow Heartless, but upon closer inspection, a faint, lumpy shadow slowly circled around the entire was hard to make out any distinct features beyond a long tail, but whatever this thing was, it had to be huge. Huge… and invisible. At least, until two white lights appeared just a few feet above it. And, given previous encounters with Heartless, glowing lights were never good news. Riku didn't even give it time to move before he threw himself at the glowing orbs and swept his Keyblade through the air. Sure enough, it collided with something solid. That empty space soon shifted to a transparent, green blob. Soon its jagged teeth, curled tail, and clawed hands came into focus. Its two bulging eyes turned in opposite directions, and it stumbled back into another tree. And judging by the emblem on its chest, this thing wasn't just a giant lizard.

"Get back!" He shot a glance at Bagheera and Baloo. "We'll take it from here."

The lizard marched forward, smacking its lips together. Its fingers twitched, and its tail swung from side to side. However, instead of going for Riku, it spun around, eyes locked on Baloo. Letting out an airy hiss, it raised its hands above its head and took off running. Kairi hopped down from the rock and zipped straight at it, launching a blast at its torso. The spell struck it flat on the back, and its movements slowed right as its horn drew near Baloo's chest. This gave him just enough time to scoop up Mowgli and hop out of the way before the Heartless fell head-first into a tree. Its horn pierced the wood, and for the next few seconds, it violently shook its head back and forth.

"Aw, I'll show ya a thing or two!" Baloo placed Mowgli down on a rock and raked his claws against the lizard's spiny swerved back and forth, jabbing his fists against its scales. "That's right, this'll teach ya not to fight with a bear!"

"Yeah, you show him, Baloo!" Mowgli marched right up to the Heartless, kicking it from the side. It didn't seem to matter that he was up against a giant lizard at all. He even picked up a stick and slapped it against its scaly hide.

But it was too soon to celebrate. Right as Mowgli pulled back his fist, the lizard ripped its horn from the tree, spun around, and smacked the kid. He flew into the air, crashing into yet another palm, and the lizard lunged towards him with its tongue hanging loose. Gasping, Bagheera charged at the Heartless, throwing himself onto its back. Though he swiped with his claws and sunk his teeth into its neck, it continued its mad dash towards the boy.

Squawking wildly, Donald swooped into its path and hammered his staff against its forehead. Goofy, in the mean time, hopped onto the boulder and tossed his shield into its gut. The lizard waddled backwards, swaying from side to side. Loosening his grip, Bagheera hopped onto the nearest tree branch. A purplish glow wrapped around the lizard's body, and it hissed even louder than before. It thrashed about as the spell took its toll, until a cool breeze lashed at it from behind. Clusters of ice then crept down its torso, and Riku smirked at the sight.

With the lizard temporarily frozen, Kairi scampered straight at it, launching flames at its feet. It hopped up and down and swung its gangly arms at her, but Riku made sure to jump in at the last second, taking the hit instead. He rolled right into a fallen tree, cringing as he got back on his feet. Before he could make another move, the lizard stretched its arms high above its head and clapped its hands together. A bright burst of energy rocketed straight at him, and he threw himself forward, just narrowly dodging the blast. With that, the Heartless faded from sight again, leaving only a shadow.

Donald, Goofy, and Kairi all hurried to Riku's side, scanning the surrounding area. Up ahead, Bagheera nosed Mowgli from behind, and Baloo sluggishly trailed behind them. The shadow slid right up to their group, and Riku immediately rushed for it, ready to swing his weapon again, until-

"Gah!"

He shot through the air, crashing right into the boulder. Baloo whipped around on the double, swinging his paws with all his might, but instead of striking the lizard, he wound up tumbling down onto his belly. Then, when Bagheera leaped straight at it, he flew back into a nearby treetop, knocking down a waterfall of leaves and twigs. Panting, Riku stood back up again, pausing as a warm glow wrapped around his body. Looking back, he caught sight of Kairi scurrying up to him with a frown. Donald swooped onto the rock, while Goofy looped around the front.

"Gawrsh, Riku, ya gotta be more careful!" Goofy pouted, folding his ears back. "It's hard to tell what it'll do when ya can't see its body!"

"Yeah, well I can fix that!" Donald scowled, launching a row of bolts straight at the shadow. Once again, the lizard's body appeared, only, this time, its eyes started to glow, and, before long, a series of white blasts soared straight at him.

Though Donald swerved out of the way, the lasers followed his every motion. And, to make matters worse, some of them rushed after the others, too. In order to avoid getting blasted, they had to keep directing the lasers into tree trunks, bushes, and anything else in their path. While they kept the lizard busy, Baloo and Bagheera got back on their feet and continued to push Mowgli along. However, the Heartless spun back around, lowered its head, and charged a second time! Growling under his breath, Riku lifted his head and shot a pale blast at the lizard.

Tick, tock, tick, tock… It froze in place, giving Bagheera and the others a chance to make a getaway. And while the lizard remained motionless Riku, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy all dive bombed it, hacking, slashing, and banging against its torso. Fire singed its scales. Lightning struck its horn. By the time the Stopga faded, the Heartless fell onto its belly, twitching in place. Taking a deep breath, Riku leaped onto its back, lifted his head, and performed one final swipe with his weapon. The lizard let out one last squeak before dark smoke began to wrap its way around its entire form. Just like any other Heartless, it soon faded into nothingness, leaving just one big heart in its place…

It seemed like that was the end of their troubles for the time being. After all, they'd just wasted a giant Heartless and allowed Mowgli and his friends to make an escape. However, before Riku could even blink, he heard a shaking in the distance, followed by a high pitched scream of…

"Help!"

And just when he thought things would get easier.

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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Chapter 15: Secrets Revealed

Mowgli's high pitched screams rang through the treetops, drifting further and further away. As Riku and his friends followed the sound of his voice, they kept their eyes glued to the branches above. They rounded a few corners, hopped over some stones, and eventually caught sight of a certain bear and panther darting along the bumpy path. Taking a deep breath, Riku rocketed straight for them, skidding to a halt once he finally drew close enough. The two must've been too preoccupied to notice, for even when the others caught up, both Baloo and Bagheera continued to follow the sound of the rustling leaves.

And for good reason, too.

Crouching along a path of branches, a whole horde of monkey Heartless peered down at the group. Some scooped up coconuts and hurled them like grenades; others leaped down and raked their claws through the air. Most notably, though, a group of those blue monkeys latched onto Mowgli's legs, dangling him like a piece of spare cloth. Though Baloo scurried straight for them, the Heartless leaped out of the way at the last second, and he crashed right into the tree trunk. Then, they tossed Mowgli through the air, where two of the girly monkeys caught him by the arms and hopped over to another branch.

Bagheera threw himself onto another tree trunk, gripping onto the bark with his claws. He quickly ascended, leaping from branch to branch in his pursuit of Mowgli. However, before he could get too far, a trio of Power Wilds zipped up to him from behind and threw their fists against his back. In a matter of seconds, Bagheera plummeted down, just barely landing on his feet. The few monkeys that already waited on the ground charged straight for him with their claws raised. Luckily, a wall of electricity plowed straight through them, saving the panther from some nasty slashes.

With that out of the way, Riku bit down on the Keyblade and rolled his eyes. The fact that Mowgli'd been swept up by these stupid Heartless just proved Bagheera's point, but with the whole mob flinging the kid around like some kind of toy, it'd be stupid to just stand there and do nothing. Instead, he turned around, gazing up at Donald.

"Think you can try and catch those guys?"

"Hah, that'll be easy!"

Donald smirked, rapidly beating his wings as he took to the air. As he shot towards the monkeys, he banged his staff against their heads, shook the branches with an abrupt breeze, and launched icy bullets at any Red Nocturnes that crossed his path.

…Unfortunately, when he drew close to Mowgli, the monkeys took the kid by the ankles and thwacked Donald in the face! And, just like Bagheera, he fell like a ton of bricks. Fortunately, he broke the fall using his wings, landing softly on a patch of grass. So much for 'easiness'.

"Gawrsh, this sure ain't lookin' good!" Goofy gulped, pointing a paw at the treetops.

The monkeys leaped further and further away, flinging Mowgli from one Heartless to the next. They only stopped long enough to hurl more nuts and fruits, forcing Goofy to scoop up his shield and zigzag straight into open fire. Rather than make him carry all the weight, Riku whipped up a few whirlwinds, shielding himself, his friends, and Baloo and Bagheera from any unwanted splatters.

"Well, hey." Baloo's eyes widened, and he swiped his paws against the spinning gust. "You kids really are something else!"

"You can thank us later," said Riku. "C'mon, shouldn't we try and catch up with those freaks?"

"Yes, that would be a wise idea." Bagheera stepped forward, leaning back on his hind legs. He placed one paw above his eyes and squinted. "There's no telling what those beasts will do with the boy or where they're headed to begin with!"

Kairi frowned, slinking up to the panther. "Actually, Bagheera, we know where they're headed."

"Oh? And just how did you learn this?"

A few more coconuts and prickly pears shot towards the ground. This time around, Kairi swished her sword, driving the projectiles to a near-halt before burning them to a crisp. While Donald rocked the trees with more lightning, Baloo blinked and scratched his head. When Riku dragged more monkeys down with graviga, Bagheera winced and shuddered. A pounce followed by some broad slashes made short work of those Heartless. And instead of putting up a fight, the few remaining monkeys twitched, squeaked, and scurried behind the others.

At this point, Mowgli's screams barely registered; he was too far gone. Whatever those monkeys wanted with him, it must've been elsewhere. At those ruins. On the upside, though, no Heartless meant that they could finally catch their breath and explain the whole situation. After that mess with the lizard, both Baloo and Bagheera at least deserved a heads-up.

Shaking his head, Bagheera sighed softly. His shoulders sagged, and he scowled at the treetops before turning back to the others. "Now, you said that you know where they came from?"

"Well, we were tryin' to tell ya about it earlier," said Goofy. "See, that Shere Khan feller told us they were comin' from some ruins. Said there's a guy named King Louie bossin' them around."

"Ah, that's right. You did say that you encountered him." Bagheera's nose wrinkled, and his brow furrowed. "However, Shere Khan is not one to be trusted."

"Maybe not, Baggy, but think about it for a minute!" Baloo scratched his cheek, pacing back and forth. "Those Heartless look like a buncha flat-nosed freaks, just like Louie's posse. They're monkeys, he's a big, fat ape. It all fits together!"

"It wouldn't be the first time, either." Riku scowled. "My friends and I have seen creatures like that before. They practically flock to anyone with a strong darkness inside them." He placed a paw to his chest, shutting his eyes. "If this Louie guy's selfish, proud, or just craves power, then it wouldn't take much for them to get on his side."

"So these creatures thrive in… darkness?" Bagheera blinked. "Well, I don't quite understand, but King Louie definitely desires power and prestige. I'd hate to follow Shere Khan's words, but…"

"It's our only lead," said Kairi. "If there's even a chance that Mowgli's at those ruins, then shouldn't we at least check it out?"

"It's better than nothing." Donald nodded, marching up to Bagheera. "And if those Heartless try any funny business, we'll take care of 'em!"

"Hey, I believe ya!" Baloo grinned, putting up his fists. "With all those fancy tricks ya got, you might be some of the toughest creatures in town."

"Yes, well, we should probably hurry." Bagheera stood up and slid towards the trees. "Just follow me, and we'll get there soon."

Thus, with Bagheera at the lead, the group made their way through the thick of the jungle and to the distant ruins where Louie awaited them. They passed over streams, between tall grass, and through the ocean of trees, completely undisturbed. Other than the occasional flies that buzzed in Riku's face, the path remained clear, if a bit rugged at times. Eventually, however, their surroundings shifted. Before long, the faintest hint of gold crept up from below the horizon. Brick towers coated in dirt, moss, and cracks loomed high above them. Spooky statues of primal cats sat motionless with their mouths hanging open. All in all, the place looked like a ghost town, the perfect spot for Heartless to hide out.

Bagheera led them silently through this ruined city, creeping behind lopsided columns, slinking below archways. He stopped frequently, looking back and forth, ears flicking. Whenever he gave the all-clear, Riku and the others continued along. Eventually, the silence gave way to the sound of a bouncy beat and loud trills. Clapping, stomping, and whistling all caught Riku's ear. For a place that was supposedly a Heartless stronghold, it sure didn't sound like it. In fact, as they drew closer to the center of the ruins, he even picked up what sounded like… scat singing. What, was there some kind of party going on?

Well, judging by Baloo's bouncy movements, he must've thought so. He started tapping his foot, bobbing his head up and down, and swaying his arms, all while wearing a goofy grin.

"Well, hey!" he said. "Check out this swingin' beat."

"We must be getting close." Bagheera sighed, poking his head around the corner. "And that means we're going to need a plan."

"Well, before we do anything, we need to figure out if he's even here." Riku marched up to Bagheera, taking a seat by his side.

"Of course, and we need to make sure they don't detect us." Bagheera peered over his shoulder, his expression stern. "And that means no silly beat business, understood?"

"Hey, I hear ya loud and clear, Baggy." Baloo stopped, leaning against a wall. Even then, his foot kept tapping, and his shoulders still shook. "But, man, talk about some serious rhythm."

"Yes, well, we have more important things to worry about." Bagheera shook his head, continuing around the corner. "With luck, we should be able to find them soon, so keep close and stay quiet."

He leaped up onto a ledge and slipped beneath a doorway. After a moment, Riku managed to lift himself up there as well. Once the others made it up, they all slipped inside the old palace, passing pillars and chunks of stone lodged in corners. That bouncy beat rang loud and clear, and, just a few feet away, a whole mob of those monkey Heartless swung to the beat, while Crescendos honked and screeched. Immediately, Bagheera came to a halt, slipping behind a short wall of bricks. Donald perched on a particularly large stone, stretching his neck out as he gazed at the horde, while Goofy propped himself up on his hind paws, leaning against a pillar. Kairi, in the mean time, wrapped her legs around a tree trunk, awkwardly dragging herself onto a low branch.

Riku's eyes followed the Heartless as they approached a decrepit, old throne. Layers of dirt rested between the swirly engravings along the back. At each side of this throne, Power Wilds dug into barrels of fruit, handing them off to a big, fat ape, who bobbed up and down, turning his head towards… Mowgli! The kid stood off to the side, surrounded by three Crescendos, which pushed him closer to their king. A few of those Bouncy Wilds stood behind the throne, fanning King Louie with palm leaves, while the Red Nocturnes twirled and dived. Besides the large group, there had to be at least three dozen more Heartless dancing around the throne room, twitching, hopping, and slashing. The scary part? There weren't any normal monkeys at all!

But, oh, that wasn't the only oddity. Upon closer inspection, Riku spotted some dark wisps trailing off of that ape's shoulders, and his eyes bore a faint, yellow tint. Despite his giddy grin and goofy singing, there was no mistaking the presence of darkness. He was practically radiating the stuff! And, if that was the case, then Shere Khan was right. That guy, King Louie, really was commanding the Heartless.

Mowgli was in deep trouble.

"This is worse than I had imagined!" Bagheera's eyes widened. "But why would that fool control those beasts?"

"Well, it doesn't look like he's using them to hurt anyone." Kairi frowned, scurrying along the branch. She hopped down onto the short wall and leaned over the edge. "It's weird. Those Heartless kept attacking us earlier, but now they're just… dancing."

"Doesn't mean it'll stay that way." Riku sneered. "Let's just keep listening. Maybe they'll let something slip."

Mowgli slid to the edge of Louie's throne, pulling a banana peel off of his head. After swallowing the fruit, he smiled at the ape. "So, what do I have to do, Cousin Louie?"

"Well, here's the deal, cuz." King Louie hopped down from his seat, swaying from side to side. "I've been tryin' just about everything to whip up some fire, but so far, it just ain't workin' out."

"Really?" Mowgli frowned. "Well, couldn't you ask those red guys to make fire for you?"

"I could, boy. And, believe me; the idea's crossed my mind." Louie shook his head. "But it just ain't real. Fire or not, these Heartless aren't man's power."

"But didn't a man help you get 'em?"

"That he did! He was a crazy cat who knew how to groove, and he told me diggin' into darkness was the key." Louie frowned, slapping his palm against his chest. "And, oh, I've been diggin' deeper and deeper, but no matter what I do…"

He shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and clapped his hands. That darkness trailing along his back stretched higher into the air, and he flung his arm forward. A flash of purple shot right over Mowgli's shoulder, crashing into the leaves of a tree. The leaves lit up in the dark flames and crumbled to ashes. As the dark flames fizzled away, the ground at Louie's feet blackened. Two pairs of glowing, yellow eyes emerged from the shadows, while clawed hands dragged the Heartless' monkey-like bodies into plain sight. Both Power Wilds crouched at Louie's sides, their lifeless eyes locked on his chest.

Chuckling, Louie snapped his fingers, and the two Heartless stomped over to the rest of the horde. "See? All I get are more crazy Heartless and a few sparks. It might be sizzling, but it's not real fire."

The Heartless monkeys hopped towards their king and Mowgli from all directions. A few Crescendos even bounced onto the scene, honking and screeching each time they hit the ground. They all swarmed together, Power Wilds gripping onto Mowgli's arms, Red Nocturnes peering over his shoulder. A few of the Bouncy Wilds slid behind Louie, while the Crescendos continued to play an obnoxious melody. All the while, Louie started singing about how much he wanted to be like Mowgli and how he needed the power of man's 'red flower' to make his dreams come true.

…That pretty much sealed the deal. If King Louie was gonna force the kid to make fire, then they couldn't just sit there! Mowgli probably didn't know the first thing about whipping up flames, and with all those Heartless crawling around, he could easily get caught between their claws. The situation was just too dangerous. With Louie reeking of darkness, he probably didn't even care about Mowgli's well-being.

Growling, Riku pressed his paws against the short wall. "C'mon. We need to think of something fast."

"Yes, I agree." Bagheera hissed, keeping his eyes locked on Louie. "But we can't just rush in there. Not with all those… Heartless lurking about."

"Gawrsh," said Goofy. "I wonder if we can even sneak past 'em."

"Well, we might be able to pull it off." Riku glanced at the others. "Donald, you can fly, so that gives you a pretty huge advantage. And Kairi's definitely small enough to slip by undetected…"

"Right, and I could always try casting Sleep if they get too close." Kairi placed a paw to her chin. "But how do we get to Mowgli with all those Heartless around him?"

"Aw, I'll just scoop him up when they're not lookin'!" Donald snickered, patting his chest with one wing. "All we need's a good distraction."

"Well, hey, that can't be so hard." Even now, Baloo kept tapping his foot and swinging his body around. He closed his eyes and marched down the path, humming along to the music.

With a groan, Bagheera dashed up to Baloo and tapped him on the back. "Now, don't get ahead of yourself, Baloo. We have to time this just right…"

Baloo didn't even listen. Instead, he kept bopping along, slipping through an old, wooden door without a second thought. Whatever he was up to, they'd just have to work around it. Right now, they couldn't afford to stall.

Rolling his eyes, Riku propped himself up against the wall once again, peering into the Heartless swarm. Louie and his goons continued to swing and stomp, while Mowgli squirmed and pushed his way through the crowd of monkeys. He made it about halfway through the masses before Louie reached out for him with one hairy arm, pulling him real close.

"Now, don't try leavin' just yet, kiddo. These Heartless won't bite…"

Oh, sure they wouldn't. Grinding his teeth, Riku whipped back around and shook his head.

"Donald, Kairi, you guys go on ahead. We'll work out the rest…"

Nodding, Kairi scurried across the floor, while Donald swooped beneath the cover of the trees. Riku kept his eyes on them for a few short moments before he whipped around and gazed at the others. With those two on the job, they just needed a little distraction. Luckily, between the three of them, whipping up a plan couldn't be too hard.

Calling for the Keyblade, Riku pulled himself on top of the wall and pointed a paw at Mowgli. "So, once they get close enough, let's jump in from behind, that way—"

He stopped mid-sentence, and his jaw dropped. One of the doors swung wide open, and Baloo burst into the room, strutting right up to Louie's posse. A tacky, grass skirt lined his waist, while two halves of a coconut shell covered his snout. He concealed his ears with a wig of dried leaves, giving him the look of a simian drag queen. But c'mon. Just what was he thinking? There was no way a disguise that silly would ever work!

...Or maybe it could, because the moment Louie laid eyes on Baloo, he zipped away from Mowgli and slid right up to the bear, singing a bunch of nonsensical scat.

The two circled each other, blurting out random sounds. They hopped, swerved, and shook their hips, completely oblivious to their surroundings. All the while, Bagheera tip toed towards Mowgli, ducking behind columns. Donald, in the mean time, perched on the throne, hunched over with a scowl. The silly dance routine kept on going, buying Mowgli enough time to wade through the sea of Heartless. Some of those monkeys flopped on their bellies and lay perfectly still, while others stiffened like statues. By the time Mowgli broke free of the crowd, Donald dived down and scooped him up in his talons.

Too bad it couldn't last.

One smack on the back knocked the coconut shells off of Baloo's face, while his leafy wig scattered on the floor. His sagging skirt was the final nail in the coffin. The moment it hit the ground, Louie shrieked and leaped back, teeth bared. Immediately, Baloo froze, placing a paw to his face. The surrounding Heartless converged all around him, forcing him flat against the wall.

Squawking wildly, Donald tightened his grip on Mowgli and whizzed towards the door. He made it about halfway before two Power Wilds leaped up latched onto Mowgli's legs, dragging him down. To make matters worse, bananas shot through the air like bullets, landing in the middle of Kairi's path. One wrong step sent her crashing into a statue, and her sword rolled across the floor.

Heartless advanced from all directions. Crescendos blasted a war song. Power Wilds pounced and slashed. Flames soared through the air, while banana peels littered the floor. Even then, the others stood their ground. Sparks flew and lightning crashed, cutting through the crowd. Glowing mines erupted in smoke, creating dents in their mob. Still, the Heartless pressed on. The magic might've cut them down, but their numbers remained high. And with little room to fight off those pests, it was time for a change of plans.

"You know what?" Riku crouched down, and a dry smirk lined his lips. "If fire's what King Louie wants, then that's what he's gonna get."

Leaping into the fray, Riku blasted the mob with flaming bullets. Upon landing, he drew his claws and dashed towards Donald and Mowgli. With one swing of his Keyblade, he freed Mowgli's legs from their Heartless weights. This gave Donald the chance to swoop down and place him on a chunk of stone. With that out of the way, Riku threw himself onto a group of Crescendos, slicing through them like butter. Up above, he caught a glimpse of Donald tossing ice at Red Nocturnes, while a purple glow engulfed the approaching Power Wilds. Eying King Louie, Riku unleashed another flaming burst, scorching the Bouncy Wilds out in front of him.

As the flames died down, King Louie gasped. His eyes widened, and he scurried towards Riku. He made it two steps before Goofy's shield slammed into his chest and threw him against a stone column. The pillar wobbled back and forth. Cracks spread along the base. Then, before Louie could even stand, it collapsed right on top of him, burying him beneath chunks of stone.

Riku shut his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief. With Louie out of the way, they could finally wrap this up. Grinning, he turned around and watched as Bagheera took off towards Mowgli and scooped him up in his mouth. He waved his paw at Baloo, who shoved his way through the Heartless. Though several Power Wilds latched onto his sides, Baloo pummeled them with his fists and continued on his way. Once he reached the others, he leaned back against the wall, panting and sweating.

About twenty Heartless remained. Black blotches coated the floor while smoke lingered in the air. All around Riku, those pests continued to dwindle. Goofy's shield whizzed right past his face, throwing three Bouncy Wilds into another pillar. Explosions roared right behind him, while ice crept over a wall where Red Nocturnes once floated. The numbers just kept dropping. In just a matter of minutes, Riku cut through the last five Heartless, leaving only rubble in their place. Brushing a paw against his forehead, Riku inhaled, exhaled, and flung some healing spells at his friends. After catching his breath, he turned towards the door and prepared to take off…

But the sound of stone shifting stopped him dead in his tracks.

Whirling around, he watched as the stones coating Louie's body shook. One of his fists slipped through the cracks, followed by the other. Soon, his head burst through the top of the pile, and the threw himself back on his feet. His eyes glowed. A black aura surrounded his entire body. When Riku launched flames at his chest, he ducked and swerved, completely dodging the blows. Then, his lips pulled up into a big, toothy smile, and he stomped right up to Riku.

"You've been holding out on me, man cub." He chuckled, pointing straight at Riku's Key. "If you can teach this cat to use man's power, then don't I deserve it, too?"

"But I didn't teach them anything!" said Mowgli. "I never even met 'em 'til today!"

"I find that hard to believe, boy. You've been in the jungle for a while." King Louie snarled. "And here you'd be helpin' creatures that just wanna take you away. Well, ain't that something?" He slammed his fists on the ground. The dark aura spread even further, and the Heartless crept all around him. "Well, the show ain't over yet!"

The ground beneath him blackened again. More Heartless emerged from the shadows. Even after they'd wiped the floor with his army, he was still reaching into the darkness. At this rate, he wouldn't last much longer! The way his eyes glimmered, the way his body gave off that horrible aura. If they didn't do something soon, he'd become a Heartless himself!

"Knock it off!" Riku scowled. His back arched, and his tail flicked back and forth. "Do you really want to throw your heart away over this?"

"Throw his heart away?" Baloo blinked. "You mean that dark stuff can do that?"

"Yup! Either the Heartless'll try eatin' him, or he'll turn into one on his own." Goofy shuddered. "It does all kinds of spooky stuff to people."

"Incredible…" Bagheera slid back. "To think that one's own darkness could invoke so much change."

"It brings out the worst in ya!" Donald huffed, firing electricity at the rising Heartless. "Even good guys can lose it if they're not careful."

"But it's sure made me stronger than most jungle folk." Louie chuckled, flinging dark flames at the group. Though wind swept it away, he kept on tossing more. "Even if it ain't man's power, it sure is a great start."

"You say that now, but those Heartless could turn on you at any second." Riku shook his head, marching in a circle around Louie. "You let your guard down, and that heart's as good as gone."

"Isn't there something we can do, Riku?" Kairi winced. "I don't think he deserves this."

True. He did say that some other man gave him that power… Whoever was behind all this must've known this would happen. They probably expected him to give in. And now he'd gone over the edge. Any semblance of sanity was already slipping away. If they were going to save this guy, they'd have to act fast. But… what could calm the darkness inside somebody when it already reached a boiling point? He was past the point of reasoning. Either they could take him out, or…

Riku ducked, dodging another dark flame. Then another. Each time his attacks missed, Louie growled and tried again. It was pretty sad. If they could just find a way to cool him down, it'd solve all their problems. Cool him down…

Of course!

"You know what?" He looked down at Kairi and smirked. "Why don't you try putting him to sleep? Some rest might do him some good."

"Sleep? Well, I can try!"

Taking a deep breath, Kairi scooped up her sword and pointed it at Louie's chest. A spell spread from the tip of her weapon, wrapping around Louie's torso. After letting out one last growl, his eyelids grew heavy. He wobbled a little, and he rolled onto his back. As his breathing slowed, the darkness around him receded. Other than the occasional twitch, he remained perfectly still.

The few remaining Heartless met their end via Riku's Keyblade. With Louie sound asleep, there was no one left to call reinforcements. And, while he had been a bit of a hassle, Riku still walked up to him and cast a weak Cure spell. Just enough to cover his wounds. Then, after giving him one last look, Riku followed the others to the door.

They wandered through the jungle in silence, leaving the old ruins behind. Clouds still concealed the sky, and lightning still flickered above the treetops. The few rays of sun that breached the clouds eventually faded, and the jungle grew pitch black. After what seemed like an eternity, they reached a small stream. There, Bagheera placed Mowgli down on a soft bed of leaves. He and Baloo journeyed down the path, leaving the group all alone. While Donald took to a nearby branch, Goofy curled up at the edge of the stream, resting his head against his paws.

"So, Mowgli, ya doin' all right?"

Mowgli sat up and grinned, placing his hands on his lap. "'Course I'm okay! I'm a lot tougher than I look, you know."

"Right." Riku smirked. "And I bet you could've handled those monkeys all on your own."

"Well…" Mowgli paused, crossing his arms. "Okay, maybe I did need a little help, but I still can take care of myself."

"Oh, come on," said Donald. "Keep thinking like that, and you'll only find trouble."

"But I've got Baloo! He'll keep me safe."

"Well, I know he'll try, but…" Riku sighed. "Look, just try and be careful, okay? This place is an accident waiting to happen."

"I'll be fine." Mowgli rolled onto his side, covering himself with a leaf. "You'll see…"

A few minutes passed, and Mowgli drifted to sleep. Bagheera and Baloo still hadn't come back, leaving Riku and his friends responsible for Mowgli's safety. As they sat by the stream and watched over the boy, Donald flew around the area, scooping up sticks and dropping them in a pile. Goofy, in the mean time, pushed stones with his snout. With everything in place, Riku swished his Keyblade, igniting the wood pile. The flames danced, casting shadows on the tree trunks. Warmth filled the air. Most importantly, though, the flames lit up the immediate area, so that if any Heartless popped up, they'd see them coming a mile away.

The four of them gathered around the fire, occasionally skimming the area. Thus far, the coast remained clear. A few howls echoed in the distance, and from time to time, some bugs zipped by, but otherwise, nothing too eventful happened. Not at first, anyway. Occasionally the tree leaves would shake, but it seemed like a false alarm. A shadow appeared beneath one of the branches, but vanished in the blink of an eye. But then, Riku picked up the sound of lips smacking and a soft little hum.

Turning his gaze towards the tree, he caught sight of a long, spotted tail dangling down from a branch. Once he stepped up to it, something giggled. The leaves rattled, and he heard a soft hiss. Then, out of the blue, the stranger draped his long, skinny body over the branch. He gazed down at the group with his big, yellow eyes. His forked tongue flicked, and he licked his lips. Stifling another laugh with his tail, the snake glanced at the fire and grinned.

"Well, now. What have we here?" He slithered across the branch. "A del-i-cious man cub… A succulent civet…" He shut his eyes and beamed. "Oh, and a leopard with a funny stick…"

"Delicious?" Riku scowled. "Don't get any ideas, snake. You don't want to mess with us."

"Mmm, but you look so… so sleepy. Wouldn't you like a little… nap?"

The snake's eyes swirled, and, for whatever reason, Riku felt a strange sensation overwhelm him. He tried to look away, but he just couldn't avert his gaze. Something about that snake was just so… so soothing. So…

"Riku!"

A bolt of lightning struck that snake in the head, snapping Riku out of his daze. Immediately, he slapped the snake's snout with his paw, sending him reeling back. The snake rubbed his head with his tail and let out a groan.

"Oh, my poor sinuses." He slithered closer to Donald, pressing his snout right against his beak. "You've just made a serious mistake." He squinted, and his eyes swirled once again. "Now you're going to…"

THUNK!

Goofy's shield banged into the snakes coils, sending him crashing into the bushes. His head crashed into a rock, and the rest of his body fell right on top of him like a twisted rope. Hissing, the snake lifted his head and spit out a few leaves. When he dragged himself free from the bushes, he revealed a great big knot in his tail. Still, he didn't leave just yet. Instead, he looked to the ground and flicked a stone into the flames.

"You must feel so special. Mm … Well, just you wait." He shook his head. "Once he finds out about this…"

"Wait," said Kairi. "Did somebody send you here?"

"Maybe, but why should I say anything to you?" The snake sneered. "I'd sooner catch you in my coils than…"

"Let me put it this way." Riku shoved the snake against a tree. "If you don't talk, you'll have to worry about a whole lot more than your sinuses."

Kairi nodded, gripping her sword. "We do outnumber you."

"And believe me," said Donald, "we're no pushovers."

"Oh…" The snake winced. "All right! If you must know, Shere Khan sent me."

"Shere Khan, huh?" Riku should've known. "And what does he want?"

"He told me there were some clumsy animals he needed to take care of. Said that they were… getting in the way…" The snake moaned. "Now I can see why."

Riku rolled his eyes. "Well, if Shere Khan has a problem with us, he can deal with us himself."

"Careful," said Kairi. "You shouldn't encourage him."

"She's right, you know." The snake slid over to the bushes and shivered. "You don't want to push Shere Khan. It could be the last thing you do…"

With that, the snake looked away and slipped between the leaves. His tail got caught in one of the branches for a moment, and he let out another moan. Jerking forward, he yanked with all his might. Then, after giving the group one more glare, he slipped out of sight.

Still, his words lingered in the back of Riku's mind. While that snake was hardly threatening, the fact that Shere Khan had sent him didn't sit well. It was bad enough that Khan was out for Mowgli's blood, but now he wanted to wipe them out, too? Even when they overpowered Heartless with their strength and magic? If he even tried to attack them, they'd probably beat him to a pulp. Then again, who knew what that tiger was really capable of? Even without magic, he had muscle to back up his fierce appearance. Plus, he was used to going around on all fours and probably knew the jungle like the back of his paw. Underestimating him could be a fatal mistake.

Turning away from the flames, Riku wandered along the edge of the stream. He stopped a few feet away and climbed onto a rock, gazing down at the water. By now, he'd at least gotten the basic motions down, and he held his own with those Heartless, but… still. He was out of his element. What would happen if Shere Khan caught him off guard? Once wrong move and…

"What are you doing all the way over here?"

Riku blinked, turning away from the stream. Sitting next to the rock, Kairi gazed up at him with a lopsided smile. Both Donald and Goofy slowly approached, and soon they sat down by his side. Seeing them there, Riku gave a light chuckle and peered down at the water once more.

"Sorry about that." He shrugged. "Just a little… distracted, I guess."

"Gawrsh, you're not scared, are ya?"

"More like frustrated. I mean, just look at us." He splashed his paw in the water. "We might have made it this far, but now we've got a tiger on our trail."

"So?" said Donald. "He's just a big, grumpy cat!"

"Yeah, and I'm not exactly human right now." He shrugged once again. "Being here hasn't been that bad; I just don't want to be careless. If he attacks, I'm not gonna run, but I know I'm not invincible."

"But you're still strong." Kairi crawled onto the rock. She gave him a light nudge and shook her head. "C'mon. Don't be so glum. There's a difference between being cautious and being a worrywart."

"Yeah, I know." Riku chuckled. "Like I said, I'm not gonna run. I'm probably just over thinking things again."

"It's just part of what makes you Riku," said Kairi. "Don't think too hard on it, okay?"

"Well, I'll try, but I can't make any promises."

x.x.x

He paced back and forth with his head held low. Careful, calculated steps carried him around the clearing, as he anticipated that foolish snake's return. While Kaa lacked brawn, his… unique brand of cunning should have been able to catch those fools off guard, especially if they'd gone after Louie. Even with their 'special' abilities, those animals surely had their limits. Sooner or later, they'd have to stop and rest. Then, all it would take was a little hypnotism, and that snake would have his free meal.

"Oh, my spine… I knew this was a bad idea."

Shere Khan came to an immediate halt, his eyes locked on the bushes. The leaves rustles, and Kaa's bulging snout emerged, complete with a black mark. Likely a burn. And given the lack of bulges on his lengthy body, one thing became immediately clear: that fool of a snake had returned empty handed. To think he had the tenacity…

"I see you've returned." Shere Khan grinned, circling around the snake. "And, what's this?" He leaned close, pressing a paw against his spine. "Did your encounter with those fools not go as we'd intended?"

"You didn't tell me they knew magic." Kaa turned his nose upward and looked to the side. "I may have my own subtle ways with prey, but even I have limits…"

"Oh?" He chuckled. "Well, perhaps I need to give you a little more incentive."

He revealed his claws and pressed down on Kaa's back, making the snake screech in agony. With a pitiful moan, he squirmed beneath the tiger's weight.

"I… get the point."

"And yet you returned without proper results…"

"Well," said Kaa, "I may have picked something up on the way back. A little… secret of theirs."

A secret? Now, that was interesting. Interesting enough for Khan to lift his paw a few inches off of the ground. Just enough for him to breath; after all, he didn't want that fool to slip away.

"Go on, then. Enlighten me."

"Mmm, well…" Kaa took a deep breath. "There was a man cub with them, and I overheard the leopard chatting with his friends. He mentioned being a human…"

A human? Truly? Was that even possible? Shere Khan's eyes widened in surprise, and he averted his gaze. A human in leopard's clothing… What a thought, and yet it explained so much. His use of fire, his unusual spear. The way he clumsily carried himself through the jungle. No leopard would have reached his age with such sloppy footwork. Yes, the pieces fit together rather nicely. Strangers in the jungle with no grasp of their own bodies. A lack of knowledge and respect, while all other animals trembled in his presence.

"Well, there's a surprise twist!"

Shere Khan's back arched, and he whipped around. From out of the shadows emerged that foolish jackal from before. His spiky tuft of red fur stood out even in the dark of night, though his body blended in with the darkness. Despite his small size, he faced Shere Khan without even the slightest trace of fear. Why, he grinned at the tiger and strutted around him as if he was the jungle's highest authority. While Khan would have loved to put that mutt in his place, however, his use of flames sent shivers down his spine.

Nonetheless, he remained his composure, raising an eyebrow at the jackal. "Have you been listening this whole time?"

"I might have picked up a few things." The jackal snickered. "Sounds like you're having a little trouble, tiger."

"Yes, well, I believe I have the situation under control…"

"You say that now, but I know you're bluffing. After all, that kid's got some flashy moves… And don't get me started on that Key of his."

"They all had strange weapons…" Kaa scowled, rubbing his face with his tail. "And that bird brought lightning down on my snout!"

"You've already established your incompetence." Shere Khan shook his head. "In any case, I assure you that his powers are of no concern to me. His body is weak, and he carries himself like wounded prey."

"Hey, if it'll help you sleep at night, just keep thinking that." The jackal snorted. "But, you know, using those Heartless would make your job a whole lot easier."

…True. Despite King Louie's foolishness, his Heartless army did strike fear into the jungle's inhabitants. Their ability to appear through holes in the air and rip hearts from their prey made them valuable assets, to be sure. They possessed fire, the one thing that made him quiver in fear. They were obedient. Unquestioning… Merciless. While he'd rather catch that leopard in his claws and steal his life away, an extra set of eyes would give him a broader range. Perhaps they could even scatter the group and isolate both the leopard and the man cub. Oh, how delightful. How perfect

"Very well, then," he said. "I suppose a slight change of plan is in order…"

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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In your nightmares!
Chapter 16: Swallowed by Pride

It was hard to tell if morning even came. Just like the day before, a thick, grey smog eclipsed the sun. Mud and ashes meshed into a sickening sludge all over the ground, while fallen trees and branches formed road blocks up ahead.

A barrage of raindrops smothered everything in their path. Only the shelter of the remaining trees saved Riku and his friends from getting drenched. However, while Donald and Goofy huddled beneath their leafy shelter, Riku stormed out into the wet weather and took a seat next to Kairi. Gazing down at the stream, he watched the water ripple as he flicked pebbles with his paw.

No matter where he looked, he caught no sign of Bagheera, Baloo… not even Mowgli. The constant downpour swept away any and all tracks. The bushes were completely barren. The sticks and stones that once formed their fire had scattered across the ground. Other than that, nothing stood out, besides the wreckage and the rain…

At least until he picked up the sound of wood snapping, followed by bickering voices.

"Hey, I did what ya told me! I tried takin' him back to that village, and look what happened!"

"And that's exactly why we need to hurry, Baloo! If Mowgli's alone, then how is he going to defend himself against the Heartless and Shere Khan?"

Wait, did something happen to the kid?

Riku's eyes widened, and he spun around. Sure enough, Baloo appeared, shoving branches aside as he trudged towards the group. Bagheera trailed behind him and shook his head, his sleek coat soaked from head to tail.

As the two drew closer, Donald and Goofy leaped out of the shade and zipped up to Riku's side. Then, once the bear and panther reached the edge of the stream, Riku stepped forward and raised an eyebrow.

"So, what happened, guys?"

"Well…" Baloo's shoulders drooped, and he placed a paw against his neck. "See, Baggy and I had a real long talk last night. He kept beggin' me to let Mowgli go. Even asked if I'd marry a panther! Can ya believe—"

"Never mind that." Bagheera rolled his eyes. "The point is, he finally came to his senses and tried taking Mowgli to the man village."

Riku sighed. "And I'm guessing that didn't turn out so well."

"Far from it," said Bagheera. "He's run off yet again, and in the middle of a storm, no less!"

Donald scowled, springing into the air. "Then what're we standing around here for? We'd better find him before he gets into any more trouble!"

Bagheera nodded. "That's exactly why we came here to begin with. This jungle's so vast that the two of us cannot hope to cover everything. And if there's even a slight chance that Shere Khan might find the boy, then we're going to need all the help we can get."

Riku opened his mouth to speak, but words escaped him once realization hit. Last night, that snake showed up, and he caught Mowgli snoozing in the bushes. If he worked for Shere Khan, then he could've told him all about the kid. And if that was the case…

"We need to go. Now!"

He was half tempted to take off just then, but before he could even budge, something gripped onto his tail and gave it a nice, firm tug.

"I know what you're thinking," said Kairi, looking him straight in the eye. "But we can't just run out there without a plan."

Riku lowered his head and shut his eyes. "Yeah, you're right. We don't even know where to start." Heck, if anyone knew Mowgli's whereabouts, it was probably Bagheera or Baloo. "So, how long has it been since he took off, anyway?"

Baloo slumped, and his head hung low. "Well, uh, ya see…" He breathed in. "Truth is, I got so worked up that I didn't stop and think about it."

"That wouldn't be a first." Bagheera groaned. "Unfortunately, we have no leads. By the time I had found Baloo, he'd lost track of Mowgli entirely."

Riku's brow contorted, and he pressed his paw to his temple."Fine. Then we'll just have to improvise."

"Well," said Goofy, pointing towards the treetops. "We might not know where Mowgli's headed, but I betcha Donald could scope him out real easy! And Bagheera's real good at climbin' trees…"

"Of course." Riku smirked. "Between the six of us, it shouldn't be too hard to cover all our bases."

"And if all else fails, I do plan on alerting the dawn patrol." Bagheera slinked towards one of the trees, glancing back at the others. "Just be mindful of your surroundings. In this weather, you're going to have to worry about more than just Shere Khan."

"Aww, phooey!" said Donald. "Good thing I've got wings; all I've gotta worry about's this stupid rain."

"Just watch out for lightning." Kairi giggled. "We wouldn't want you to get hurt, you know!"

"Lightning?" Donald's eyes widened, and his beak flew open. Laughing shakily, he did a quick double take and stiffly smirked at the others. "Well, that's nothing! I use that stuff all the time."

"And what about me, Baggy?" Baloo frowned. "There's gotta be something I can do to help out!"

Bagheera leaped onto a branch and gazed down at the bear. "Just start searching, Baloo. Retrace your steps, if you have to."

With that, he slipped behind a leafy curtain and vanished from sight. Then, Donald rocketed into the sky. Baloo gazed upward briefly and fidgeted a little, but soon he took off as well, stumbling over the wreckage and wading through bushes.

With those three well on their way, Riku turned towards the path of fallen trees, crouched down, and prepared to take off running. However, a light thump on his back froze him in his tracks, and he immediately jerked forward with a gasp. Once the initial shock wore of, he slowly turned his head. Sure enough, Kairi sat right between his shoulders with a mischievous smile. It figured that she'd pull something like that.

"You know, you never struck me as a hitchhiker." He snickered.

"Well, I'm supposed to keep you out of trouble, aren't I?" She leaned forward. "And I can't do that if you rush out ahead of us."

"She's right, Riku!" Goofy chuckled. "I know you're itchin' to go, but remember what Bagheera said?"

One of the palm trees up ahead wobbled back and forth, and then… Snap! It toppled down with a thud, creating yet another road block. The blackened sky flashed for a moment, and the breeze smacked Riku in the face.

Bagheera definitely had a point about watching their surroundings. Taking off into that mess would've been seriously careless. He knew better that. He had for a while. Even if Mowgli's life was at stake, he couldn't throw himself headlong into danger and expect results every time.

His shoulders sagged, and he gave a slow nod. "You're right, guys, but I still think we should hurry. There's no telling where Mowgli is, and for all we know, Khan could've found him already."

Kairi gave him a light nudge, shaking her head. "Thinking like that won't get us very far"

"Then let's hope for the best," said Riku. "Now, c'mon. We've already fallen behind as it is."

They took off together, leaping over obstructions like toppled trees and splashing through puddles. Yet, no matter where they turned, they caught no sign of Mowgli. Just more debris and the occasional flames when lightning clashed with their surroundings. Not even any Heartless crept out from the shadows, even through the thick, black smog and the bright flashes up above proved that darkness still lingered.

They passed over a rotting log and slipped through the tall grass. Water still weighed down on their backs. Branches still snapped and tumbled down over them, forcing them to slide out of harm's way. Then, after a few minutes of constant running, the ground beneath them began to shake. Spikes shot up in a circle all around them, giving them barely any room to breathe. Yellow eyes peered through the bushes. Several more branches dropped to the ground, and a black figure zipped through the air. Riku didn't even get the chance to move before a sharp pain struck him from the side, sending him rolling through the muck.

His breath staggered, and he sluggishly lifted himself up, while Kairi flung a cure spell his way. Raising his shield, Goofy turned his gaze to the sky, while the black figure whisked its way around the spikes with an ear-splitting 'Screeeee!'

The ground rumbled once more. More shadowy figures hissed and crept out of the bushes, circling around the spiky enclosure. Their swift movements made the mob a blur. Only their eyes and the occasionally blue flashes caught Riku's eyes. They circled around and around without pause before three of the Heartless leaped up and over the spikes. Like the others, they moved so fast that Riku could barely make out their features.

All he saw were their bright blue claws closing in on him before Goofy threw himself into their path and banged his shield against their chests. Shrieking wildly, the Heartless collapsed in a heap. It was then that Riku noticed the clear, jagged spines lining their backs, their rope-like tails, and their massive, pointed ears. But that was all he saw before the flying black figure screeched and threw itself straight at his face. This time, however, he called the Keyblade and hurled it at the creature, impaling it against a spike.

It flailed its large, tattered wings. Its jagged beak snapped open and closed.

While the three cat-like Heartless stumbled back to their feet, this freakish bird ripped itself away from the spike, revealing a heart-shaped gap in its chest. Then, it reared back its ugly head and rattled the ground with another scream.

Too bad a lightning bolt sliced straight through it before it could finish its solo.

The Heartless crashed into another spike, but this time, it remained still. Darkness swallowed its entire form, leaving only a faint stain in its place. Then, when those feline Heartless lunged forward, Goofy threw them onto a patch of mines that erupted with purplish smoke. The explosion totaled the nearby spikes, creating an opening for the group to make their getaway. Unfortunately, more Heartless waited for them outside their spiky prison.

At least a dozen of those cats grinned at the trio, tails swishing back and forth. They lowered their heads and dug their claws into the ground. Though the rain continued to fall, each droplet stopped just inches above their backs and hovered in place. Clusters of water fused together into rippling spheres that hovered around the cats, which inched closer to the group with their mouths wide open. A few more trees cracked and collapsed. What sounded like heavy footsteps followed, but the cats' movements were too slow. Too light to be the cause; they just kept slinking towards the group without a sound.

"Gawrsh, fellers…" Goofy whimpered, stumbling backwards. "Ya think Louie sent these guys?"

"I doubt it." Riku scowled, launching his Keyblade at the cats. Four of them collapsed, but the rest pressed on. Those water balls still floated above their shoulders.

"What if it's—" Before Kairi could finish, water struck her in the face, knocking her up against a rock. She retaliated with flames, but they barely phased those cats, which launched more aquatic bullets straight at the group.

As the watery blasts flew their way, Riku swerved back and forth and splattered the attacks with a wall of wind. Growling, the Heartless immediately charged, teeth bared. They moved so quickly that they must not've noticed the mines right below their feet or the shield flying at their faces. Many of the Heartless went up in smoke. Others crashed into the tree trunks. As they slid to the ground, Riku launched himself at the mob and sliced through them with his Key. Lightning rained down on any stragglers. Still, those rumbling footsteps drew closer. Even as the cat Heartless dwindled in numbers, he wasn't about to celebrate.

The footsteps picked up speed. More wood cracked and split. Two palms fell on top of one another, forming an X-shaped blockade, which burst into splinters the moment a Heartless plowed through it.

Stubby legs carried it towards the group. Spikes jutted out of its hunched back. The horn on its nose whirled around like a drill, making a loud, humming noise. And, judging by its bulky body, it'd take more than a few quick slashes to take this Heartless out.

The group split off in different directions. Riku lunged to the left, Goofy to the right, while Kairi scurried onto a large boulder. She flailed her sword around, wrapping the Heartless in the glow of her magic. Unfortunately, nothing happened. It continued to charge at a rapid pace, drawing closer by the second. Left with no other choice, Riku threw himself into the rhino's path, slamming his Keyblade against its horn.

By sheer luck alone, he managed to maintain his footing, while the Heartless stumbled back and kicked its front feet. Its nostrils flared, and its eyes narrowed. Slowly, it backed away, horn still buzzing as it twisted around. Metal crashed against it side, but it didn't even twitch. Instead, the gargantuan rhino continued to back up. Then, in the blink of an eye, it curled into a spiky ball and shot itself forward.

"Guys, run!"

Riku's eyes widened, and he charged at the rolling rhino. He skidded to a halt just a few feet away and banged his weapon into its spiny body. Its rolling came to an abrupt stop, but the weight and momentum hurled Riku into the bushes and against some jagged rocks. Wincing, he pushed himself up and watched as Goofy circled around the Heartless and hammered his shield against its face. The Heartless swiftly retaliated by slamming its feet against the ground, launching a wave of ripples that flung Goofy into the air. Mud splattered in all directions as he landed in a puddle.

"This isn't working," said Kairi, scrambling towards the bushes.

Riku moaned, and he wobbled away from the rocks. "You think I don't know that?"

"Well, you shouldn't have thrown yourself at it!" Kairi huffed, latching onto the tree trunk. "C'mon. There has to be some other way to deal with it besides brute force."

Goofy's shield ricocheted off of the rhino's thick hide, clashing with the bark right above Kairi's head before it flew back and knocked Goofy right into the rhino's horn. Just watching it made Riku grind his teeth. This thing was about as sturdy as a Behemoth! No wonder their attacks did so little.

Rather than risk getting thrown again, Riku backed closer to the tree and kept his eyes locked on the Heartless. Once again, the shield bounced right off of its skin, further cementing the futility of Goofy's attacks. At this rate, he'd only wear himself out, and they still had a man cub to find. Shaking his head, Riku took a deep breath and shouted at the top of his lungs.

"Goofy, enough! I don't think your shield's gonna cut it."

Goofy's eyes widened, and he hopped to the side, watching as the rhino trampled a nearby palm. He gulped, turning his head back to the others with his ears folded back. "But what else am I 'sposed to do, Riku? I don't have magic like you two."

"Just cover for us! We'll figure something out." Even if it meant throwing every last spell at that thing, there had to be some way to wear it down. Slow magic might not've worked, but who said they had to stop there? Keeping close to the tree, Riku tipped his chin up and let the Keyblade's tip light up in an orange glow, spewing fire straight at their opponent.

The flames struck the Heartless square in the forehead, sending it reeling back on its hind legs. Goofy's shield crashed into its belly, knocking it back several feet with a squeal. That dumb rhino didn't seem to notice the glowing circles in its path until an explosion launched it at some low hanging branches, which snapped and rolled to the ground, while the Heartless lay twitching on its side. With its belly still exposed, Riku leaped forward and slashed straight down at its chest.

The Heartless squealed and jerked about, rolling back onto its feet. It snorted and dug one foot into the muck before it lunged straight at Riku so fast that he just barely slipped out of the way, cringing as leaves rained down in front of him. Growling, the Heartless and thrashed its head left and right, its horn spinning faster than ever.

This time around, the rhino didn't hesitate. It darted forward with its head held low, pursuing the group along the muddy jungle path. In order to slow it down, Riku launched ice clusters at its eyes and pressed it down with a little gravity. Sadly, neither spell held it for long, and though a few explosions left it wide open for attack, it didn't take long for the Heartless to start leaping over the mines whenever they sprung up. And that wasn't even the worst part.

The real stinker was the way the rhino would seemingly vanish after taking blows only to rupture the ground when it sprung up in front of the group and steamrolled them beneath its spikes. To avoid getting crushed, they kept hopping into the bushes and ducking behind trees. Blasts of fire and ice drove it to a stop, only for the Heartless to whirl around and charge once again. It drove them this was and that with its combo of charges, rolls, and stomps that sent shock waves rippling their way.

After a while, the jungle became a blur. The constant running, ducking, and sliding left Riku breathless. It got to the point where he ignored everything except the Heartless, which kept charging, leaping, and rolling without pause. Only by slinging spell after spell did he push it back. A bolt to the head made it teeter a little, and a Strike Raid to the side tipped it over completely. A part of him expected to see a flash of metal whiz past him and slice the Heartless' chest or maybe the purple glow of Kairi's poison. Instead, he wound up limping over to the rhino and slicing it all on his own. And, despite his exhaustion he clamped the Keyblade tightly in his jaws and swung his head with all his might. One, two, three hits, each more ferocious than the last…

One final slash split the Heartless in two, letting its enormous heart rise slowly into the stormy sky. Then, after some heavy breathing, Riku collapsed in the mud.

He blearily opened his eyes and raised his head, scanning the area as best as he could. His legs felt more like limp noodles than anything else, so he didn't bother to stand. And, when he spoke, his voice came out hoarse.

"Guys, I think we need…"

But there wasn't anyone around. Suddenly, it all made sense why their attacks stopped altogether. He must've gotten so focused on his fighting that he didn't stop to think about his surroundings! And that meant…

A cold, dry chuckle interrupted his train of thought, followed by a flash of orange and black.

Riku immediately knew who it was. There was no mistaking the way that tiger circled around him like a starving predator, sending shivers down his spine. His yellow eyes bored holes into Riku's heart, and, despite his exhaustion, he threw himself back on his feet, and the Keyblade flashed into his mouth. However, that just earned another laugh from the tiger, who stopped just a few feet from Riku, a broad grin forming along his muzzle.

"Good show, man cub. Truly admirable of you…"

"What?" It was the only word Riku could think of to describe his feelings. How the heck did Shere Khan know what he was? He hadn't told anyone about being a human! Nobody except his friends, anyway, and they were all alone when that happened… weren't they?

"Surprised, boy?" Shere Khan shook his head. "You didn't think you could keep it a secret forever now, did you?"

"Doesn't matter," he said, his voice dripping with venom. "Maybe I am human. That's just another reason not to mess with me."

"You certainly have proven yourself more formidable than I had anticipated. However…" Shere Khan slid up to Riku and narrowed his eyes. "You are now alone. Weak. You've exhausted so much energy facing the Heartless that you have nothing left."

"Oh yeah?" Riku flicked his weapon, flinging sparks at Shere Khan's snout. His eyes widened, and he leaped backwards, smothering his face in the mud.

As the muck dripped down his cheeks, Shere Khan's eyes became little slits, and a dark glow wrapped its way around his paws.

"That weapon of yours is truly remarkable." He strutted up to Riku and gave a soft 'tsk'. "I have half a mind to take it myself… And, oh, I very well could."

Oh, that was a laugh. Maybe Shere Khan did have the strength to swipe his Keyblade, but what good would that do? It'd end up back with him within a matter of seconds. There was no way Khan had the heart to wield it, especially with all that blatant darkness creeping up his legs.

Still, Riku smirked, dropping his weapon at Shere Khan's feet. "Go ahead. It's all yours…" If nothing else, this'd buy him a little time to slip away. To catch his breath. Plus, it'd wipe the smug grin off that tiger's face.

"You're giving up so soon?" Shere Khan blinked, cocking his head to the side. "How… disappointing, and yet, perhaps the most sensible decision you've made."

He reached down, opening his mouth widely over the Keyblade's hilt. As he scooped up the weapon, Riku hobbled over to some nearby bushes, muttering 'heal' under his breath. The deafening roar and bright flash that followed served to only prove Riku's point. The Keyblade returned to him in a matter of seconds, leaving Shere Khan empty handed…

But Riku didn't even get the chance to breathe before a mesh orange and black flashed before his eyes. A sudden weight left him screaming in agony. Claws dug into his back. Paws pressed his spine so hard it felt like it'd snap at any second. And, oh, those yellow eyes peered straight into his, as Shere Khan's lips twitched between a smile and a grimace.

"Ah, ah, ah…" He shook his head, pressing extra hard on Riku's shoulders. "You didn't think I'd let you slip away, now, did you? Especially if you're going to treat me with such disrespect…"

Black pools formed a circle around them. Blue claws reached up from the darkness, followed by the ugly mugs of those cat-like Heartless. Corridors formed up above, dropping two of those blackened birds, whose screeches left Riku writhing. He shut his eyes and tried to ignore the sound, but between Shere Khan's weight and the constant trilling, it was just no use. If only he had the strength to make it…

"STOP!"


His eyes widened. Bright columns of light shot the birds down. The cats tumbled into a puddle and let out a loud snore. A metallic clank echoed right above Riku, and the weight on his backside lifted immediately. Shere Khan rolled onto his side, stiff as stone, while a flash of black and white swooped out in front of him, squawking wildly as it clobbered the cats. Two grey figures, one larger than the other, hopped towards the tiger, bashing him on the head and wrapping his body in a purple aura.

The Heartless exploded and vanished from sight, leaving only Shere Khan. Donald grunted and circled over Riku, while Kairi placed a paw against his foreleg, and Goofy stumbled over to them with his shield in his mouth. Riku's body lit up in green, and soothing warmth spread from head to tail. A potion plopped into the mud, sending droplets at his snout, but at this point, he didn't even care. Biting the lid, he cracked the bottle open and downed the contents straight away. Then, he pushed himself into a sitting position and smiled weakly at his friends.

"Guys, thanks. I really—"

"You can thank us later," said Donald. "Right now, we've gotta get you outta here!"

"And leave Shere Khan? Are you kidding?"

"Riku…" Kairi sighed. "Right now, we need to make sure Mowgli's safe. Besides, you're in no condition to keep fighting."

He lowered his brow and pressed his lips into a frown. On one hand, beating Shere Khan would ease their troubles. On the other hand, they still didn't know where Mowgli'd gone to begin with. And, well, given the way his chest still throbbed and his back stung from those knife-like claws…

Taking one last look at Shere Khan, Riku nodded, and he stepped out in front of his friends. "Then we'd better pick up the pace. And, Donald, hit him with one more blast of stop magic, okay?"

"Believe me, I will."

With Khan briefly pacified, they tore through the jungle once more. The rain intensified, with droplets the size of marbles. The hovering clouds darkened into an almost pitch black. Soon, the greenery of the jungle was replaced by crinkly dead grasses that sprouted up from cracks in the soil. Only a few scattered trees decorated their surroundings, completely barren and coated in dried up bark. It was at the base of those trees that Riku caught sight of a familiar, tan-skinned figure, who yelped when water pelted his face and blue claws dug into his thighs.

Riku glanced at his friends and then broke into a full on sprint, charging at the Heartless and lashing out at their spiky backsides. Donald dive bombed them from above, pounding his staff into their skulls and letting lightning rain down from the stormy sky. While Goofy flung them into the air with a spinning strike, Kairi zipped between their legs and jabbed from below. In a matter of seconds, the Heartless all fell, and Mowgli slid back against the tree trunk.

"I…" He shut his eyes, brushing sweat off his forehead. "Thanks."

"Aw, shucks." Goofy grinned, looking him straight in the eye. "Ya didn't think we'd leave ya alone, now, didja?"

"Yeah, well, I'm fine on my own." He folded his arms. "Besides, everybody else keeps turning on me. Even Baloo…"

"No, Mowgli. They haven't turned on you." Riku shook his head, fighting back a groan. "Haven't you noticed how dangerous it is? Those Heartless almost had you, and if we hadn't shown up, you might not even be here."

Kairi frowned, scurrying up to the lowest branch. She leaned over Mowgli's shoulder said, "They're just trying to keep you safe. It's not that they don't care about you."

"But…" Mowgli looked away, rolling his hands into fists. "Baloo said we were partners! He was gonna let me stay here with him and be a bear. How could he take me back after all that?"

"Because he finally came to his sense—" Before Donald could even finish, Goofy slapped a paw over his beak. A smart idea on his part, especially if they were gonna keep Mowgli on their side.

Now they just had to get through to him somehow, before Shere Khan caught onto their trail. For a few short moments, Riku paced back and forth, gazing down at the dirt. When he finally stopped, he peered up at Mowgli with a weak smile on his face.

"Mowgli, trust me, I doubt he wanted to let you go. Sometimes… friends just have to make tough calls to protect the people they care about." He shook his head. "It must've torn Baloo up inside to have to drag you off, but the fact is, the Heartless are running wild in the jungle, and Shere Khan's no pushover! I know that from experience."

Mowgli bit his lip. Tears welled in his eyes. "Yeah, well… He could've protected me! And he was already teaching me how to fight…"

"But even Baloo had trouble with the Heartless." Kairi reached down for Mowgli's shoulder, giving it a light tap. "I think he wanted to take you there so you could be with people who could really protect you. It wasn't that he wanted to, just that there was no other choice."

"But…"

"Listen," said Riku, "I know you're upset, but the fact is, Shere Khan's on his way right now. If he catches up with us, he won't hold back, and neither will the Heartless. You sure you want to face them alone?"

At first, Mowgli didn't say a word. He fidgeted a little and kicked a small stone into a nearby puddle. His brow furrowed, his shoulders jerked up, and then, finally, he slumped once more, shaking his head.

"To tell you the truth, I was getting kinda lonely out here."

"Well, don't you worry 'bout that anymore!" said Goofy. "You've got friends willin' to stick with ya. Right, fellers?"

"Well…" Riku laughed, shrugging lightly. "As long as he doesn't throw himself into danger again, I can't really complain."

Kairi raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Really? That's kind of funny, coming from you."

"Yes, yes it is." He smirked. "But, hey, at least I've got experience under my belt."

Before anyone else got the chance to speak, Mowgli clutched onto his chest and burst into laughter. And, after dealing with his stubborn streak, that was a definite improvement in Riku's book.

It was a pleasant moment cut way too short, however, when another laugh rung through the air. A deep, bellowing laugh that could only belong to one cat…

"I say, you're all a bit daft, aren't you?" Shere Khan's eyes glistened, and he strutted over to the group with his head held high. "Though I suppose I owe you my gratitude. After all, you've led me to yet another victim."

Riku bristled and called for his weapon, but Mowgli pushed him aside before he could make any sudden moves. He then marched right up to the tiger and placed his hands on his hips.

"Yeah? Well, I'm not scared of you!"

"Such spirit," said Shere Khan, placing a claw beneath Mowgli's chin. "I hope you realize that I could kill you now with very little effort…"

"Mowgli, forget it!" Riku winced. "Just run! We'll take care of—"

"No!" Mowgli shot a glare at Riku, then at Shere Khan. "I don't run from anyone, not even big, grumpy cats."

Donald hopped up and down, flailing his wings. "Knock it off! You'll only make things worse."

"He's quite right, you know." Yet despite Mowgli's insult, Shere Khan maintained his composure, flexing his claws as his tail whipped back and forth. "But such spirit does deserve a sporting chance. Ten seconds ought to be fair…" He chuckled. "If I were you, I'd start running immediately…"

"One problem," said Riku. "You've still got us to deal with."

"Ah, of course. And, rest assured, I do plan to save the best for last." He peered at Riku, and his lips curled into a toothy grin. "'Til then, I have a little… gift for you all."

He tapped his paw against the muddy soil, shooting a wave of darkness straight towards the group. It enclosed them in a black circle, and a sea of yellow eyes emerged. Clawed paws raked the ground. Shrieks and squeals echoed all around them. Rainwater collected in clusters and flew towards their faces. The ground below their feet quivered and cracked as the Heartless marched in from all directions.

Riku and Donald exchanged glances before summoning a wall of wind. While Kairi stuck to her perch and bombarded the Heartless with flames, Goofy lunged forward and slammed his shield against their skulls. Several collapsed in a drowsy heap, and Riku sliced straight through them on his way towards Shere Khan, who sat just a few yards away with his back turned on the group. He began counting down, though Mowgli didn't even bother to run. He just crept towards a broken branch, scooped it up and made his way back towards the tiger. Was he crazy?!

"Mowgli, get going!"

He didn't even listen. Instead, he stomped right up to Shere Khan, who was now on 'four'. Eyes widening, Riku picked up the pace, but a row of spikes shot up in his path, and one of the bird Heartless swooped in from the side. He gasped and hopped to the left, narrowly missing its talons. When it dove in for another attack, Donald threw himself at the bird's back and slammed it into the dirt. Together, they incinerated the Heartless and banged their weapons against the spikes, watching them crumble into dust.

Mowgli now stood just inches from Shere Khan, and he pulled back the stick like he was going to swing it. The tiger's ears flicked, and he whirled around, looking straight into Mowgli's eyes.

Riku's heart pounded. He moved his legs as fast as they could carry him. So fast that his muscles throbbed. He could still hear his friend's shouting from behind, but their words became muddled. They were probably all thinking the same thing, anyway, the moment Shere Khan's countdown ended. With a rumbling roar, he flew into the air, claws poised. Shutting his eyes, Riku bit down on the Keyblade so hard that his gums ached, and he swerved in from the side.

But before he could even reach them and before Shere Khan could lay a paw on Mowgli, a big, grey figure leaped into the fray, latching onto Shere Khan's tail with all his might.

"Run, kid! Run!"

Skidding to a halt, Riku let out another gasp. The figure, the Heartless, his surroundings… everything came back into focus that instant. Mowgli was fine… for now, anyway. He sat down with his back pressed against a rock while Baloo latched onto Shere Khan. Teeth bared, the tiger zigzagged through the muck, around trees and through dried up grass. Heartless sprung up all around him, leaping onto Baloo's back and ripping at him with their claws.

"We'd better do something quick!" said Kairi, sliding up to Riku's side. Three of the cat-like Heartless pursued her, but the glowing mines beneath them sent them sky high.

Baloo continued to slide through the mud with Khan lunging to the left, then the right. To make matters worse, Mowgli managed to push himself back on his feet, and he took off towards them with that stick in his clutches. Two of the bird Heartless launched themselves at him, and he leaped back with a scream. Blasts of water threw him down on his knees, and he latched onto his head with a whimper.

Riku groaned, and he gazed up at Donald. "You hurry and get Mowgli! We'll figure out the rest."

Nodding, Donald zipped forward and brought lightning down on the Heartless. When the coast finally cleared, he clutched Mowgli between his talons and lifted off towards the others. Meanwhile, Shere Khan continued to tear through the clearing without pause, throwing Baloo against the nearest tree trunk.

"Gawrsh," said Goofy, "how long do ya think he can hold on? Shere Khan sure ain't givin' up!"

"Long enough for us to reach them, I hope." Riku scowled "C'mon, let's get over there before Baloo winds up as mincemeat!"

They bolted over to Baloo as he crashed into yet another tree trunk. Goofy's shield whizzed by and clashed with Shere Khan's cheek. Riku leaped up and dragged the Heartless down from Baloo's back, while Kairi lashed at their bellies. With the weight off his shoulders, Baloo let out a hearty sigh, but he kept his claws wrapped tightly around that tail.

"Don't you guys worry about me," he said. "Just get Mowgli outta here!"

"No way!" said Riku, trailing close behind. "We're not about to let a friend become tiger chow."

"You'll all become 'chow' at this rate." Shere Khan growled, leaping straight at Riku. "I'll kill you all, especially you!"

Riku ducked, missing Khan's jagged teeth by a hair. Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance to move before Baloo slammed into him, flinging him against a nearby rock.

With glowing eyes, Shere Khan lunged again, but this time Kairi leaped into his path, blasting flames down his throat. His eyes flew wide open, and he slid to a halt. Baloo yelped, landing belly first on top of Shere Khan.

Coughing and hacking, Shere Khan rolled over and latched onto Baloo's back. He flung the bear down, and thumped his paw against the ground. Five more feline Heartless leaped up from the shadows, clawing, gnawing, and blasting Baloo with a watery barrage. All the while, Khan kept his eyes locked on Riku and Kairi and stepped ever so closer to them both…

"Hey, lemme go!" Mowgli said from afar. "Baloo's in trouble! C'mon!"

Riku didn't bother to look towards him or Donald. Goofy had already leaped onto Baloo's back and thrown the Heartless to the ground, and taking his eyes off the tiger would risk giving Khan the upper hand. Instead, he glared straight into Shere Khan's glowing eyes, orange sparks forming around the tip of his Keyblade.

"Follow my lead," he said, stepping up to the tiger.

"Fire?" Kairi blinked, glancing from Riku's Keyblade, to Shere Khan. "Now that you mention it…"

Shere Khan's eyes fell on Riku's weapon. For a short moment, it almost looked as if he'd trembled. Then he narrowed his eyes, took a deep breath, and broke off into a sudden sprint.

Flames spewed into his face, and he reeled back with a yelp. Grinning, Kairi gave Riku a silent nod and threw fireballs straight at Khan's paws. He hopped to the side and hissed before charging once again. Rolling his eyes, Riku leaped into his path and slammed his Keyblade against Shere Khan's teeth. More fire singed his flank, but this time, he didn't run. Despite the pain, Shere Khan flailed his claws. One swing sent Riku rolling onto his side, and the tiger pounced, snapping his jaws down on Riku's shoulder.

He let out a scream, teeth grinding against his skin as he squirmed free. More orange sparks flew right into Khan's eyes, and he hopped back, rushing towards Kairi. Luckily, he small size allowed her to slip right beneath his legs and hop onto his back. She then brushed the tip of her sword against the top of his head, sending a trail of flames all the way down to his shoulders. Roaring wildly, Khan threw himself into a puddle, and Kairi hopped down right as he hit the water with a splash.

Before he got the chance to move, Riku rammed into Shere Khan's side, slamming the Keyblade right against his chest. The fur on his belly ignited, and Khan flailed his claws. Swerving left and right, Riku narrowly missed each blow; the claws only managed to slice off some of the fur on his cheek. And, with each failed blow, Shere Khan's face contorted. Wrinkles formed along his snout, his ears folded back, and his fur stood up on end. And worse, Riku noticed, after dodging his massive teeth, was the darkness curling up his legs, stretching down his spine, and sprouting from his shoulders.

Shere Khan dragged his claws through the dirt. When more fire flew into his path, he didn't even budge. Instead, he stood there panting with his jaw hanging open. "You've made a fool of me, boy! You've all made fools of me with your magic… but, no matter. I suppose a little challenge does add thrill to the hunt."

His lips perked into a crooked smile, and he circled around Riku and Kairi once more. With each step, the darkness spread further, cloaking his striped coat in a solid black mist. His legs, his tail, everything up to his shoulders became clouded within seconds. Whether or not he noticed was up for debate. His breathing grew more erratic, his strides broader, and though he kept his eyes locked on the two of them, Khan didn't say another word. He just laughed. Quiet and slow at first, but as darkness consumed his entire body, the laughter grew manic. Wild.

Riku shuddered at the sight. He'd gone too far. Even farther than Louie. All of Shere Khan's pride, all his rage had turned against him. Swallowed him like so many others. And as the last of his face sank into darkness, Riku found himself unable to look away. Could he end up like this, too, if he didn't watch his back? And just what was happening to Shere Khan, anyway? With his whole body completely submerged in black smog, he finally came to a halt, legs bent and head held low. His laughter ceased. He wobbled back and forth, and then he collapsed.

For the next few moments, Riku kept his eyes fixed on the fallen tiger, watching him as he lay motionless on the ground. The mud beneath him darkened, spreading like wildfire across the clearing. All the while, Baloo stumbled between the remaining Heartless and jabbed with his claws. Goofy twirled and sliced through them like butter, and the bear fell back against a tree trunk, running his claws over his head. Mowgli dashed over to the two of them, nearly tripping on the way, and Donald swooped in behind him. Riku was half-tempted to dart over there himself, but the spreading darkness and slight twitching of Shere Khan's tail kept him firmly in place.

Kairi gazed up at him, shifting a little. She placed her front paws together and slowly looked to Shere Khan. "Shouldn't we do something, Riku? What if he…"

"Hold on." He leaned forward and squinted. "We don't even know what we're dealing with yet."

As if to answer an unspoken question, Shere Khan's whole body throbbed. The smoke all around him shot up like a geyser, while the ground rumbled and the sky flashed.

A thick, waving barrier reached up from the mud, forming a dome over the tiger's body. Tiny wisps danced across the surface, and a series of muffled thuds resonated inside. Riku's eyes flew wide open at the sound, and he scooped Kairi up in his mouth. After placing her on his shoulder, he leaned back and took off towards the others. The noise continued inside the dome, growing louder with each passing step.

Riku skid to a halt right in front of Mowgli, and he crouched low, his ears folded back. "This isn't right, guys. Whatever's happening to Shere Khan, it's gotta be more than just the darkness getting to him."

"Well, ya know," said Goofy, "we've never faced anybody who's fallen all the way before! At least, nobody who's… well…" He shivered. "Lost their heart."

He was right. Maleficent may've fallen far into darkness, but she became a dragon using her magic. Ursula became twisted by her greed, but it was the trident that made her so powerful. Jafar changed into a genie, Hook barely was a threat in the first place. They might've had connections to the dark, but it never reached a boiling point. So, was this it? Had Riku really pushed Shere Khan off the deep end? Was Shere Khan's hate really so strong that he'd lose himself in the process?

Kairi leaned over his shoulder and cocked her head to the side. She must've caught on again, because she soon slid down from his back, sat up straight, and placed her front paws on her hips.

"C'mon, silly. Now's not the time to start worrying." She scooped up her sword and pointed it at the dome. "If Shere Khan is becoming a Heartless, that's because of his darkness, not yours."

Riku's shoulders drooped, and he turned his eyes back to the dome. "Well, we should still keep our guards up. With this much darkness, I doubt we'll be dealing with a Shadow."

Donald smirked, and he puffed out his chest. "Aw, don't worry so much. There's four of us and only one of him!"

"You mean six!" Mowgli huffed, clenching his hands into fists. "I'm not gonna let that bully get away with this, and neither is Baloo! Right, papa bear?"

"Well, kid…" Baloo gulped. "To tell ya the truth, I think we oughta high tail it back to Bagheera."

"But why?" He slid up to Baloo, pressing his hands against his belly. "Don't you wanna get back at that bully for what he did to you?"

Donald coughed and sputtered, flailing his wings. "No way! You'd only slow us down."

"But…"

"It's true, Mowgli." Riku shook his head. "Besides, what would you rather do, throw yourself into danger and risk getting killed or stick with somebody who can keep you safe?"

"Well…" Mowgli looked down, wrapping his arms around himself. "When you put it that way…"

"Don't worry, kiddo." Goofy grinned. "We'll make sure that mean ol' tiger gets what he deserves for pickin' on you, but right now, you'd better skedaddle!"

"He's right, little britches. Besides, Baggy'd have a fit if I let anything happen to ya!"

Mowgli peered up at Baloo and shut his mouth. Nodding, he turned towards the dome and took a deep breath before marching out into the mud. Before chasing after him, Baloo gave the group one final look, pointed at the dome and put up his fists. Then, like Mowgli, he scurried through the storm and towards the tall, dead grass, disappearing from sight.

The moment they disappeared, a series of muffled thuds echoed within the dome. Cracks spread across its surface. Yellow eyes glistened from within. Orange claws burst through the darkness, and the rest of the barrier erupted in smoke. At first, the smoke obscured everything but those beady eyes. Then, as the smoke subsided, the group let out a collective gasp.

In place of Shere Khan towered a gargantuan Heartless. Its pointed ears, broad chin, and bulky physique were all that was left of the tiger. Blue flames shot down its spine, curling into the air. Sword-like fangs protruded from its jaw, which hung wide open as its tail whipped back and forth. The orange fur that once coated Khan's body became dark as ash, while its stripes were as blue as the flames on its back. And, as it crouched down, eyes fixed on the group, the center of its chest lit up in red, a Heart-shaped emblem forming just below its neck.

The ground erupted in a bright blue streak. Before Riku could even think, orange claws struck his back, driving him into the ground. An intense heat overwhelmed him. He screamed and squirmed, but the weight of the Heartless' paw kept him flat on his chest; he couldn't even turn his head and fight back with his Keyblade. In fact, it wasn't until ice crystals exploded in its face that the Heartless finally leaped back with a pitiful moan, freeing Riku from its agonizing grip.

A cure spell washed over him, soothing his burns. He turned his head to the left and caught sight of Kairi silently waving her sword. It didn't quite hit him why she was doing this until a torrent of fire spewed out of the Heartless' mouth, straight at his feet. Rather than dawdle, Riku tumbled to the side and blasted more ice down its throat. Wheezing, the Heartless stumbled, tail thrashing back and forth. It took a step back, crouched down once again, and then… vanished.

Not even a second passed before it shot down from the sky, driving its claws down over Goofy. He yelped and skidded to the right, ducking behind a nearby tree. His shield flew into the Heartless' side and bounced back. Though the Heartless did tremble, it spun around and sliced through the tree with one swipe of its claws. The remaining stump ignited on the spot, and Goofy scurried out of the way with his tail between his legs. And, though a dome of gravity formed over its body, the Heartless sprung forward in an instant, rocketing straight at Donald as his staff lit up in a cool blue.

Swallowing hard, Riku launched himself into the line of fire, whipping up a whirlwind. The flames subsided just inches from Donald's face, and giving him time to swerve between the Heartless' claws. His face reddened, his eyes narrowed, and he sprung up above the Heartless' head.

"So you wanna play rough, huh?" He slid back. "Well, I'll show ya how it's done!"

BANG! He drove his staff right between its eyes, spreading a layer of ice across its face. Blizzard magic mixed with a physical strike… Come to think of it, that wasn't such a bad idea. So, grinning, Riku let the tip of his Keyblade grow cold before he leaped back and hurled it at the Heartless' chest. Striking dead center, the Keyblade knocked the Heartless straight into a tree, as ice wrapped around its torso. Then, when it slammed its paws into the ground and sent a river of fire across the field, Goofy hopped into the way and pushed his shield against the flames. While he managed to block most of the attack, a few sparks singed his coat, forcing him to stop and roll, right as another blast flew his way. Then another.

Riku sprung forward and kept his eyes locked on Goofy as he swerved between the incoming flames. "What are you doing?"

"Don't worry about me, Riku!" He bit his lip, digging his paws into the dirt. Another torrent of fire flew his way, and he slid to the side. "You fellers keep on attackin'. I'll keep him busy for a while!"

"Just don't do anything reckless!" said Donald, circling over the Heartless' face. "That shield's not invincible, y'know."

The Heartless growled and reared back its head before unleashing another blast. With a yelp, Goofy ducked beneath his shield, narrowly missing the blow. Once the fire subsided, he craned his neck up at Donald and shook his head.

"Might not be invincible, pal, but it's stuck with me this long! And besides, ain't this what knights're supposed to do?"

"Well, you don't have to do this alone!" said Kairi, scurrying over to his side. She leaned back on her hind legs and clutched her sword tightly, gazing up at Goofy with a smile. "The least I can do is slow it down."

Slowing it down would help with its sudden disappearing acts, provided it worked. And given the way the Heartless had stopped spewing fire and crouched down again, they'd be better off thrashing it while they still had the chance. So, Riku turned to Kairi and gave a silent nod before he leaped back and cloaked his weapon with ice again. All the while, Donald bombarded the Heartless' flaming back with icicles, and Kairi zipped straight at its legs, blasting magic at its feet.

The spell must've paid off, because the Heartless didn't disappear at all. Instead, it sluggishly leaped upward, flying straight over Goofy with its legs outstretched. Its emotionless eyes gazed down at Riku, and a few blue sparks formed at the tip of its claws. Once it drew close enough, Riku launched the Keyblade at its belly, watching it crash into its target, leaving a thick blanket of ice before it ricocheted back to him. Then, when the Heartless' claws finally touched the ground, he slid to the side and doused the flames with a breeze while Donald dived down and hammered away at its skull.

They repeated this a few more times, watching it spring into the air, bombarding it with spells as it dived over them, and slipping out of harm's way before it even reached the ground. Then, when the spell faded and flames oozed from its mouth, Goofy charged, ducking, sliding, and hopping to avoid getting roasted. Rows of glowing mines erupted beneath the Heartless' feet. A purple aura wrapped around its flaming body, making it twitch and moan. Ice constantly consumed its face, belly, and legs whenever Riku and Donald launched their attacks.

Finally, the Heartless tumbled down to its knees, panting heavily. It flexed its claws, pushed itself back on its feet, and then collapsed on its side. The flames lining its back shifted from blue to a dull orange. Raindrops pelted these remaining embers, leaving only steam in their place. Smacking its lips together, the Heartless pushed itself up yet again, but its legs wobbled, and it fell once more. Taking a deep breath, Riku rushed straight at it, leaped into the air, and slammed head-first into its chest, slicing it in two.

He landed just a few feet away and turned to watch as its enormous body sank into a pool of darkness and faded like so many other Heartless. Except it wasn't just another Heartless, not really. He and his friends had seen Shere Khan's transformation firsthand. In a way, they kind of put the old tiger out of his misery.

As his friends closed in from behind, Riku shut his eyes and slowly turned away. What was done was done, and, in the end, they did what they had to. And despite the droplets pelting them from head to toe and despite the resounding boom that echoed from afar, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy inched closer to Riku, each of them wearing soft, if a bit lopsided smiles. If they weren't going to let this whole mess drag them down, then who was he to fuss over it? In the end, Khan's fate really wasn't that surprising.

"Well, I guess that's a wrap." Riku snickered, brushing a paw across his forehead. "Unless there's somebody else pulling the strings, anyway…"

Donald leaned forward, stretched out his neck, and placed his wings on his hips. "Don't jinx it, Riku."

"He does have a point, though," said Kairi, bringing a paw to her chin. "Remember what Louie said?"

… Right. There was that one man who supposedly helped him with the Heartless. And, come to think of it, if Shere Khan had gained power over the Heartless, then somebody must've showed him the way. The question was, who? And where were they now?

A high pitched whistle caught Riku's ear, and his head snapped to the side, eyes locked on the patch of dead grass, which swayed in the breeze.

Crunch, crunch, SNAP.

Riku flexed his paws. His tail thumped into a puddle, sending splatters into Donald's face, but he didn't seem to mind. Like Riku, he sneered at the grass stomped closer to it, wings still propped against his hips. The footsteps drew closer. Kairi hopped up onto Riku's shoulder, while Goofy scooted up next to him. More grass crinkled underfoot and then… silence.

"Well, well, well…"

Riku gasped, spiraling around. He stumbled back at the sight of two glistening, green eyes plastered onto the face of a gangly mutt.

He stood just a few feet from Riku with his head held high. A mess of spiky, red fur stretched from the top of his head to right between his shoulders. And if that wasn't odd enough, his scruffy coat was as black as the shadows, and he bore two droplet-like marks right beneath his eyes.

He couldn't have been one of the locals. That jackal stood out just as much as they did with his untamed hair and strange body color. No, this guy had suspicious written all over him, and before long, the Keyblade whisked into Riku's grip. Donald brandished his staff, and Kairi reached for her sword. The jackal gazed at each of them and then turned his head to Goofy, who yelped and ducked behind Donald, teeth chattering.

"Man, you guys make this way too easy." The jackal snickered, shaking his head. "Great job, by the way. Never thought I'd see he day where the hero pushed somebody into the darkness."

Riku winced. What happened to Shere Khan wasn't his fault. He was already knee deep in darkness, so…

"Bah!" Donald scowled, marching straight up the mutt. "So you're tryin' to be a wise guy, huh?"

"Nah, I'm just being brutally honest." The jackal took a broad step away from Donald, peering straight into Riku's eyes. "See? Even he knows it's true. The kid swung his little Key around, shot a few sparks, and old stripes finally lost it. And about time, too. I was starting to think he'd never break."

Kairi narrowed her eyes and leaned over Riku's shoulder. Her face scrunched up, and her sword shook in her grasp.

"It wasn't Riku's fault," she said. "And why do you care? Did you want him to lose his heart?"

"Me? I couldn't care less." The jackal shrugged. "Can't care, actually. But, hey, it's all part of the job. I did what I had to and let you guys handle the rest."

"A job, huh?" Riku lowered his brow, and his ears folded back. If this guy's job had to do with Shere Khan, then suddenly it all made sense. The black fur, his strange, red hair. "You're with the Organization, aren't you?"

"Oh, good guess." The jackal slowly clapped his paws. "I was starting to wonder if you'd catch on."

Goofy shuddered. "Then how come you Organization fellers wanted to make Shere Khan into a Heartless?"

"Sorry, but I don't give spoilers." He snickered. "Besides, that cat was already a lost cause."

"Then here's a better question," said Riku. "Just what are you guys doing with that Replica?"

"Nothing serious." The jackal shrugged again. "He's just like you, off fighting the good fight. The poor kid's completely clueless, and that's all you need to know."

Just like him? Well, that was a laugh. And fighting for good? All he'd done was tear up a town, unleash a genie, and make a complete nuisance out of himself. Heck, Riku was tempted to point that out, but the jackal had already turned his back on him.

He strode towards the dried up grass and tapped his paw on the ground. Black tendrils rose from the mud, stretched and curled into a corridor, and he took slow steps right up to it.

"Wait! I'm not through with you yet!"

Riku flung himself towards the portal, right as the jackal's tail sunk into its dark depths. Biting his lip, he picked up the pace. He had to catch up. He had to know the truth! It didn't even hit him how reckless it was or that the portal led to parts unknown. He just kept running, eyes locked on target, but before he could so much as touch the darkness, Kairi slid into his path.

"Riku, stop!"

He skidded to a halt, kicking up mud in the process. The corridor shrank away, leaving nothing but a few wisps behind, and he let out a groan. He'd almost had that guy. How could she have let him get away?

"We were so close," he said. "Kairi, I could've—"

She placed a paw to his lips and shook her head. "You didn't know where that portal would lead you, and you would've been all alone. Is that really what you wanted?"

"…No, it wasn't."

He shut his eyes and slumped. A reckless move like that would've thrown him right into the Organization's grasp, probably. And if they could tamper with memories, there was still no telling what else they could do. Kairi was right to worry. They all were. Even after butting heads with anther Organization member, they learned next to nothing. Just that, for whatever reason, they really were pushing people into darkness. And that alone was cause for alarm.

"Aw, don't be so glum." Goofy placed a paw on his shoulder. "We might've missed him this time around, but at least we know a little bit more about what they're plannin'. Right, Donald?"

"You betcha!" Donald grinned. "And the next time we see him, we can get some real answers outta him."

"Yeah, you're right." Riku leaned back, breathing deeply. "We'll just have to stay on guard. Who knows what'll turn up next?"

After a while, they returned to the jungle, leaving their encounters with both the Organization member and Shere Khan behind them. The murky path seemed to wind on and on for ages, but other than the occasional falling branches, they went on undisturbed. And, eventually, they caught sight of a shaggy, grey figure, something lean and black, and a tan skinned child crouched by the leaves of a giant fern. At that moment, Riku sprinted their way, sliding to a stop right behind Bagheera, who whirled around with a gasp.

"Ah, there you are! We were beginning to wonder where you'd run off to!" He smiled and let out an airy sigh. "Baloo told me how he'd 'bravely' escaped Shere Khan's clutches, but the fact that you'd taken so long…"

Baloo covered his mouth, stifling a laugh. "What Baggy's trying to say is that he was worried sick about ya! But I told him you kids would be just fine, and here ya are."

Riku laughed. "Well, we definitely had our hands full with that Heartless, so I can't blame you guys for worrying."

"But ol' Shere Khan's a goner now!" said Goofy, tilting his chin up. "You and Mowgli won't have to worry about him anymore."

Mowgli's lips perked into an enormous grin, and he gazed down at Bagheera. "So, does this mean I can stay?"

Bagheera's nose wrinkled, and he shook his head. "Absolutely not. Shere Khan may be gone, but this jungle is still full of predators. Why, leaving you here would be—"

"Aw, come on!"

Riku rolled his eyes, peering over at the others. "Looks like some things never change, huh?"

"Yep, that kid's just as stubborn as ever!" Donald huffed, spreading his wings. He fluttered up onto Riku's shoulder and looked to him with a grin. "Guess we'll have to let nature take its course."

Kairi slid right below Donald, raising an eyebrow. "Are you sure it'll be that easy?"

"Maybe it will." Goofy placed a paw to his chin, tilting his head to the side. "But that's up to Mowgli and his pals."

"Well," said Riku, "it's not like he's going to turn tail and run to the village. At this rate, it'd take a miracle to—"

Riku's jaw slammed shut. From over the ferns and across a large pond came the soft, gentle sound of a woman's voice. Squinting, Riku and the others tip toed up to the water's edge and stared down the winding dirt road.

'Til I'm grown, 'til I'm grown
'Til I'm grown, 'til I'm grown…

From just beyond the rows of tan shacks and the sea of tall grass emerged a young girl. Two pink ribbons tied back her hair, while golden earrings dangled from each of her ears. Her dark complexion mirrored Mowgli perfectly, but unlike him, she wore a neat, loose fitting dress that covered everything but her shoulder and arms, and right on top of her head rested a large, clay jug.

She continued to sing as she stepped down the path, and Mowgli fixed his gaze on her. He waded through the ferns, nearly falling into the water in the process, and then he glanced back at Baloo.

"What's that?"

"Oh, it's the man village," said Bagheera.

"No, no, I mean that…" He pointed at the girl.

Kairi giggled. "That's a girl, Mowgli. And she's a human, just like you…"

"Oh." Mowgli lifted his foot off the ground, but Baloo held an arm out in front of him and shook his head.

"Forget about those. They ain't nothing but trouble."

"Just a minute." Mowgli slipped under his arm, climbing over roots and trudging through bushes. "I want a better look."

"Hold on, little britch—"

Bagheera nudged Baloo with his paw, shaking his head. "Oh, let him have a better look."

Though Baloo scowled, he didn't move an inch. Like Riku and the rest, he kept his eyes on Mowgli as he squirmed up a tree, pushed his way through the leafy branches, and peered over the pond. The girl, all the while, continued her song, fiddling with her hair, scooping her jug into the water… It was almost like she was trying to be alluring. And it must've worked, because, just seconds later, something hit the water with a splash. The girl looked up and burst into giggles, which sent Mowgli scrambling for the bushes.

Riku watched the two closely, snickering under his breath. "Well, Donald, I guess you were right about nature taking its course."

"What?" Baloo gasped, stumbling backwards. "No way! He'll be back. All I gotta do is—"

"Baloo." Kairi leaned towards him with her paws on her hips. "What if he wants to go? Just look at him…"

The girl's water jug came rolling to the ground, and her hands flew to her mouth. Mowgli stared for a few seconds, and then he crept up to the jug, scooped it up in both arms and held it out with a goofy grin. The girl, however, only stared at him and then, humming her little tune, she turned away. Mowgli looked back at the others, and then to the girl. Then to Baloo, then to her…

And then he brought the jug to the top of his head and slowly turned away, nearly spilling water in the process. He stumbled down the winding road, following the girl's song. Though Baloo called for him, he only occasionally looked back. And, by the time he reached the gates to the village, the girl stopped, wiggled her nose, and slipped out of sight.

Mowgli turned to face the group one last time, removed his hands from the jug, and shrugged. With that, he slipped through the gate without another word. Finally, the kid has reached the man village…

Riku leaned back, heaving a sigh of relief. Baloo, on the other hand, fell back against a tree, his arms crossed and his expression sour.

"He's hooked."

"Aw, shucks, Baloo." Goofy frowned, tapping him lightly on the arm. "Just 'cause Mowgli left doesn't mean he's stopped carin' about ya. Why, I bet he had a real hard time pickin' between the two of ya!"

"Besides," said Bagheera, bringing a paw to his chest, "Mowgli is back where he belongs now. He'll live a much safer life with his own kind."

Baloo took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and finally nodded. "I guess you're right, Baggy. But I still say he'd have made one swell bear…"

With a light chuckle, Riku turned towards the pond once again, gazing down at the water. The Keyblade appeared in a flash, dragging him closer. Thought he dug his paws through the mud, it was no use. His eyes fell upon the water and, sure enough, the very center of the pond began to glow. The water rippled and folded into the shape of a Keyhole. Eying it closely, Riku turned his head to the side and pointed the tip of his weapon straight at the water. A beam of light shot into the Keyhole's center, and the water rose into a small wave that crashed over it, covering it entirely. Soon, only the water remained…

But that wasn't all. In a matter of seconds, the bombardment of raindrops ceased altogether. Glimmers of light breached the cloud cover, shining through the treetops. Both Baloo and Bagheera's jaws dropped, and they stared up at the sky. The black shroud that once covered the sky crept away, leaving only blue in its place.

Just as quickly as it had appeared, the Keyblade flickered out of sight, and Riku trudged away from the water, back towards his friends.

"Well, I guess that's it. This world's safe now, which means we'd better go back to where we belong."

Baloo's shoulders sunk, and he scratched his head. "What, you're leavin' already?"

Bagheera raised an eyebrow. "And what do you mean by 'world'?"

Narrowing his eyes, Donald gave Riku a brief stare before whirling around and laughing shakily. "Aw, it's nothing important."

"But you've only been here a day!" Baloo sighed. "Man, just when I'm startin' to know you guys, you take off just like Mowgli."

"Well," said Kairi, "goodbye doesn't have to be forever, you know. I'm sure we'll see each other again."

"I guess that ain't so bad. But no matter where ya go, remember to…" Baloo grinned, clapping his paws. "Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities…"

He kept on singing his song, swaying as he and Bagheera waved goodbye and shimmied deep into the jungle once more. Bagheera even sang along after a little persuasion, and before the two disappeared altogether, Riku caught sight of Baloo scooping the panther up onto his hind feet and dragging him along.

After more than a day of jungle exploration, fighting through Heartless, and facing Shere Khan, it was finally time to leave. Time to continue their search for answers and, most importantly, their friends. While they still knew little of the Organization's true goals, one thing was clear as day: if they'd gone out of their way to change Khan into a Heartless, then chances were they had other tricks up their sleeves. What those tricks were remained to be seen. For the time being, they'd just have to hope for the best and expect the worst.

x.x.x

Twinkling stars littered the sky. Lights glimmered among the sea of buildings down below, from homes to street corners, to towering chapels. Riku's eyes scanned every last one of them while fingers drummed against a pillar. A cool breeze swept across his face, and the ringing of bells echoed high above him. It might not've been the same as the station in Twilight Town, but the view, the atmosphere… It all beat staying cooped up in some musty old castle.

He turned away from the sky, leaning back against the column. Sora sat just a few feet away, his eyes locked on the stars above. He pressed his hands against the floor and leaned forward without a word, as a shooting star whizzed on by.

"Having fun yet?" Riku smirked, folding his arms over his chest. "It might not be the sunset, but I figured it was the next best thing."

"Only the next?" Sora gazed up at him, tilting his head. "But this is amazing, Riku!"

A weak smile appeared on his face, and for a moment, it was almost as if he'd never lost his heart at all. He turned back to the skyline. More meteors zipped through the air, and Sora leaned so far forward, it almost looked like he was going to fall. But, before that could happen, Riku latched onto his arm and tugged him back.

"Don't get too carried away. It's not like Tink's here to sprinkle dust on you."

"…Right." Sora slouched, letting his hands fall to his lap. "Sorry."

"Hey, no big deal." Riku held up his hands and shook his head. "I brought you guys here to have a good time, and it looks like it's paid off…"

Though, come to think of it, Naminé had been awfully quiet since they arrived. Taking his eyes off of Sora, Riku turned towards the wall, where Naminé sat with arms wrapped tightly around her legs. Immediately, Riku's face fell, and he crouched down beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Hey, why the long face?"

"…It's nothing." She stood up, placing her hands behind her back. "This place is really nice. I'm glad we came, but… don't you think we should go back?"

"But we just got here, Naminé." He placed a hand against his neck, gazing over at Sora. "And it's not like we ever get to sneak out with the way Saïx keeps pushing us. It's like the guy's allergic to fun."

Sora winced. "You sure we should talk about him like this? What if he…"

"Relax." Riku rolled his eyes. "It's not like he's here. And besides, my point still stands. We're stuck in a cycle. Fight some Heartless, return to the castle. Sure we might be a little late by now, but it's worth it if I'm with you guys."

"So, what're you trying to say, Riku?"

"I'll just put it this way," he said. "Since you like this place so much, let's keep coming back. If there's time after missions, we can all hang out and look at the stars together."

"Well…" Naminé looked the other way, hugging herself tightly. "As long as you don't get in trouble…"

Riku raised an eyebrow. "Hey, even if I do, what's the worst that could happen? The Organization's a lost cause without my Keyblade."

For whatever reason, she shuddered and cringed. Once again, Riku placed his hand on her shoulder, and she looked back to him with a faint frown on her face.

"That's true," she said. "And… today has been a lot of fun."

"Then why worry? C'mon, it'll be fine. Right, Sora?"

Sora rubbed the back of his neck, and he sluggishly approached the two of them. "Well, it's worth a try."

TO BE CONTINUED
 

.:Mega:.

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In your nightmares!
Chapter 17: Never Was

Where… am I?

The darkness surrounding him finally faded, leaving Sora face down on a cold, grey floor. He inhaled, exhaled, and slowly lifted his head, eying the winding pathway up ahead. No matter where he looked, everything was grey. Dim lights shone on the ground, and rectangular patterns like circuitry coated the ground, the walls, and the columns that towered high above them. Squinting, Sora pushed himself to his feet and gazed up at the dark blue ceiling, held up by crisscrossing beams. From between a few gaps, he caught sight of rolling clouds and the dim glow of the moon…

I wonder if this is where those black coats live… Sure is weird.

"Well, whatever you do," said Ven, "be careful. We don't know what to expect."

Nodding, Sora crept down the path, looking left and right. Along the way, his eyes fell on more pillars, floating grey platforms, and the occasional chest. Before long, he made it to a landing, where he spotted a long hallway with a blinding light at the very end. Narrowing his eyes, Sora shot down the hall, sliding to a halt once he entered the next room.

The path came to an abrupt end. Tall, glass walls reached way up into the air, surrounding a large, blue platform up ahead. And though Sora craned his neck, he caught no sign of a ceiling. The tube-like room seemed to go on forever, like some kinda elevator. And, come to think of it… maybe that's what it was! Grinning, he stepped onto the platform, stumbling back when it jerked upward. Once it got moving, he leaned against one of the walls, eying the strange, heart-shaped symbols surrounding him. Unlike the Heartless emblems, these marks were upside down, with two splinters on each side.

Say, Ven, what d'you think those markings mean? He placed a hand on his chin. They sure don't look familiar…

"Er… actually, Sora, I kinda recognize 'em."


He did? Blinking, Sora pressed his hands to the glass and kept his eyes locked on one of the symbols. So, what is it?

"Well, if you flip it upside down, it looks a whole lot like my old Master's emblem. But that can't be right…"

Master?
Sora paused, scratching his head. You think they're connected somehow?

At first, Ven didn't say anything, though Sora did hear a soft moan in the back of his mind. Then a sigh. Finally, he said, "I dunno, Sora, but let's stay on the lookout. Who knows what we'll find?"

The elevator came to a screeching halt. Another hallway waited up ahead. With no time to waste, Sora rushed on through and he soon reached his next destination. A spiraling stairway and a clear glass floor instantly caught his eye. But that wasn't all that stood out. Just a few yards away, two cloaked figures stood facing each other. One of 'em was a tall, muscular guy with bright pink hair that reached all the way down to his shoulders. He held a rose in his hand and smirked at the woman in front of him, whose bright blonde hair curled back like two antennae.

Now was his chance to learn a thing or two about these guys! All he had to do was stay outta sight. So, rather than risk getting caught, Sora sank right into the floor, listening closely to their words.

"So," said the woman, "any luck with the little brat yet?"

The man shook his head, his smile fading. "Unfortunately, he seems to believe we're all his enemies. I could hardly get a word out of him before he brushed straight past me."

"Of course." The woman let out a long, drawn out sigh. "Maybe you should let me do the talking. I promise I won't rough him up too much."

"Not yet, Larxene." The man scowled. "As of now, any sudden moves would cast suspicion on us. If we're going to succeed, we need to act gradually. Subtlety is key."

"And what about the witch?"

"Ah, yes. That is a problem. With the Replica and number XIII constantly on guard, it'd be difficult to seize her ourselves. And that's all the more reason to work with the puppet. His Keyblade is invaluable. All we need is the right approach…"

Larxene's lips curled into a smirk. "Or we could go for the real deal."

"Impossible. He's too well guarded, and we'd surely attract unwanted attention."

Larxene huffed and placed her hands on her hips. "Then I guess it's back to playing the waiting game."

"For the time being, yes. But until we're given the right opportunity, we might as well continue our charade." The man chuckled, twirling his rose. "Perhaps if we play our cards right, the Superior may allow us to make use of that castle."

"And the sooner we get there, the sooner we can make our next move." The woman snickered, and then she and the man continued up the steps, vanishing from sight.

With the two of them gone, Sora popped back out of the ground, crouching down low. He paced back and forth with a wrinkled brow, just trying to wrap his head around that whole conversation. Who was that witch they were talking about? And number XIII? The Replica could've been that Riku lookalike, but it was too soon to jump to any conclusions. Plus, there was that whole bit about some other castle, and Riku… At least, he thought they meant Riku.

And they said something about making the right move. Were they against the other black coated guys or something? The more Sora thought about it, the more his head hurt and, eventually, he stopped, let out a silent huff and scurried up the stairs. The only way he'd learn a thing was if he kept at it. And at least now he had his confirmation that the guys in black were staying there.

The next hall led Sora into a wide room with a deep blue carpet suspended over darkness. He gazed upward as he crept down the path, eying the balconies looming overhead and the clear, glass ceiling that revealed the night sky. No stars, just more clouds, and that moon from before. Only now did Sora catch onto its weird shape, pointed at the bottom and curving up like the edge of a heart… It definitely wasn't any regular moon, that was for sure! Unfortunately, he didn't get much time to take in the scenery. Not when he caught sight of another guy in black at the very center of the room, arm stretched out as darkness curled up in front of him.

Though Sora couldn't make out his face, one thing that definitely stood out about this guy was his spiky, red hair, giving him the look of a human porcupine. But just as Sora slipped closer to the man, his eyes slammed shut, and he latched onto his head, shuddering at the sound of a sharp, abrupt scream.

"N-no way!"


Sora sank into the floor, as if the man was gonna whip around at any second. What is it, Ven?

"It's… that guy, Sora. He looks like Lea!"

Who?

"An old friend of mine."
Ven sighed. "But I wonder if it's really him."

Well, there's only one way to find out!


Finally, the man stepped forward, sinking into the depths of the portal he'd concocted. With the man outta the way, Sora popped back out of the ground and zipped through the portal behind him. Soon, the high ceiling and ornate decorations shifted to a dark, narrow hall. As the darkness around him faded, Sora placed a hand over his forward and leaned forward, eying the light at the very end. The red haired guy stood just a few yards ahead of 'em, and he made his way forward without a word. Taking a deep breath, Sora sank down again, trailing behind the man as a second shadow.

This next room looked totally different from the last! A number of stiff, grey couches lined the floor, surrounding square-shaped tables that reached just a few inches off of the ground. The ceiling, the floor, the strange little statues by the wall of glass windows… it was all grey, not that this was surprising. What really caught Sora's eye was the huge number of black coated people reclining on the couches, pacing back and forth, and whispering to one another. Others spoke so loudly that all he could hear was a muddled mish mash of overlapping conversations. At last, they'd hit the jackpot! With so many of these black coats hanging around, there was no way they wouldn't find something out about their plans.

But first, they needed to investigate this 'Lea' guy, so Sora continued to slink across the floor, stopping only once when a young man with grey hair peered down and sniffed the air.

When the man looked away, Sora zipped off towards the wall of windows, keeping a slight distance. The red-haired guy now stood next to a tall, stone-faced man. His pointed ears and huge, X-shaped scare stood out right away, not to mention his creepy yellow eyes, and the blue hair that ran down to his back. This man stared right up at 'Lea,' with a huge frown on his face. He crossed his arms and took a quiet breath. Then he finally spoke up.

"So your mission was a success."

"Was there ever any doubt?" The red-haired man smirked. "That tiger was almost too easy, especially once the kid stepped in. All I had to do was give him the right push."

"Well, at least you completed your mission." The blue-haired man sneered. "Demyx, on the other hand, left the ape to his own devices. As a result, the Keybearer was able to pacify him before his darkness took hold."

So they were trying to push people into the darkness… But why? And what'd Riku have to do with any of this? The only thing Sora could do was sit, wait, and listen as the conversation continued.

"I'm guessing the boss wasn't too pleased with that." The red-haired man snickered. "Not that it's anything new. You'd think getting a heavier load would convince him not to slack off. Guess you'll just have to nail him with some tougher jobs."

"And I will. Until then, I have a special mission for you, Axel."

Axel? Hey, Ven… are you sure this is the right guy?

"It's gotta be! He looks like him, sounds like him… And it's not just Lea, either. Take a look at his friend! Blue hair… Lea had a friend who looked just like him."

Axel raised an eyebrow, placing a hand on his hip. "Special mission? Coming from you, that's gotta mean an extra workload. And here I was hoping to catch some Z's…"

"Unfortunately, it will have to wait." The blue-haired shook his head. "I've spoken with Xemnas, and he agrees; number XIII must learn to carry his own weight. He has performed well on combat missions, but the puppet has proven himself incapable of subtlety, and he influences the boy more than anyone else."

"Meaning…?"

"Meaning that you, Axel, will train our thirteenth in reconnaissance, starting tomorrow."

"Yeesh, you mean I have to play babysitter?" Axel reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "And what about his partner? You can barely get within ten feet of the kid before he starts biting your ear off."

"As I'm well aware." A faint smirk appeared on the blue-haired man's face. "Rest assured, the Replica will have his own duties to attend to."

Axel snickered. "Oh, boy. I'm almost afraid to ask."

"Fortunately, you lack a heart. Fear is not an issue."

Wincing, Axel turned the other way and shook his head. "No need to remind me. I've got it memorized."

With that, he slipped away from the blue-haired man and vanished down the hall. For a few seconds, Sora lingered, thinking over what he'd just heard again. From the sound of it, both the Replica and this XIII guy were super important. And if they were supposed to be partners, then it only made sense that they were the Riku-lookalike and his friend. The one he called 'Sora'… But why would he use Sora's name in the first place? They didn't look that much alike! And he sounded more like Ven, anyway.

And then there were the blue-haired man's final words. No heart…

With Axel gone, Sora crept away from the blue haired man and off into an empty corner.

Say, Ven, what d'you make of all this?

"I… I don't know, Sora. All I do know is that they had to be Lea and Isa. There's no way they could be anybody else."


Well, even if they are, there's something really off about 'em. And if they don't have hearts, are you sure we can trust them? It sounds like they wanna keep pushing people into the darkness, and that can't be good!

"No, you're right, Sora." He let out a dull moan. "Sorry, it's just… hard, seeing stuff like this. Especially when we don't know the whole story."

Aw, don't worry so much! There's loads more people here. Maybe they'll give us a clue.


Turning towards one of the tables, Sora shot across the floor. He slid to a stop right next to one of the couches, where a man with short blond hair and a goatee shuffled a deck of cards. On the couch in front of him sat that grey haired man from before, along with a much older looking man with long, pale hair and a bony face. The grey-haired guy held a cup of steaming… something in his hand. Tea, coffee, Sora didn't care to look. Instead, he kept his ears open, right as the group started speaking.

"So," said the grey haired man, "given recent events, who do you suppose they'll send next?"

The blond man chuckled, placing a card down on the table. "Luck of the draw will determine the answer. Who knows how our Superior has stacked the deck?"

"True, he is unpredictable." The grey haired man placed a hand to his chin. "Though, I suppose we can rest easy knowing that neither the Replica nor XIII are likely to partake in these missions. Can you imagine the results?"

"I perish at the thought. Of course, our dear thirteenth is but a pawn, and since this is a game of wits, the odds are already against him."

"Wits and deception, something the boy has already endured once before, Luxord." The grey haired man leaned back, taking a sip from his cup. "He may lack a heart, but number XIII still remembers the sting of betrayal, courtesy of Maleficent. Were he to discover what we are doing with the Heartless… why, it would only cast doubt on us. The same can be said for the Replica."

Maleficent... Just hearing that name made Sora's blood boil. If he weren't hiding in the floor, he would've dug his claws into the carpet and cringed just thinking about what she'd done with him. But that was just it: he was the one tricked by Maleficent, so why were they acting like this XIII guy was him? Unless there was some kinda connection, it just didn't make sense. And how could there be a connection in the first place? After all, it wasn't like there was two of him. That'd just be silly!

"Well," said the older man, folding his hands together, "as long as we all entertain my creation's false notions of reality, I'm certain we'll succeed. Think of all the hearts he's collected already."

"It's true." Luxord chuckled, shuffling his deck. "He is, if nothing else, a valuable trump card."

Nodding, the grey haired man placed his cup down and slid out of his seat. He squinted, peering towards the hallway and took another whiff of the air. "Speaking of, our hero will be here any moment now, so perhaps a change of subject is in order…"

No more than two seconds passed before Sora picked up the sound of heavy footsteps. Lifting his head slightly out of the ground, he caught sight of two boys in black zipping past him. Immediately, he sank back down and launched himself after them, taking note of the long, silver hair of one of the boys and the spiky blond of the other. The two guys he saw back in Hollow Bastion… This was his real chance to learn something!

The two boys stopped right at the windows, where the blue-haired man stood, eyes narrowed with a frown. The Replica crossed his arms, leaning against the glassy wall, while the blond boy stepped back and averted his eyes.

"I was beginning to wonder when you two would return," said the man. "I should hope that you weren't off gallivanting in other worlds when there are urgent matters to attend to."

The Replica rolled his eyes. "Spare me, Saïx. You can't honestly expect us to stay cooped up in here forever."

"Perhaps not, but you've already proven yourself both reckless and incompetent." He placed his hands behind his back, turning towards the window. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that you're more concerned with petty revenge than restoring your dear friend's heart."

"Shut up!" The Replica slammed his fist into the glass, gnashing his teeth together. "Sora's heart matters more than anything else right now. Don't think for a moment that it doesn't."

"Yeah." The blond boy scowled. "Riku doesn't have to prove anything to you."

"How noble of you, XIII." Saïx chuckled. "But that doesn't excuse his sloppy execution. He's sacrificed efficiency for the sake of senseless quarrels. In fact, I've recently been informed of what truly transpired during your last mission." He turned around, taking a step closer to the boys. "You weren't even capable of defeating your assigned Heartless. No, you allowed the Replica to steal your victory. That alone casts doubt on both your commitment and capability."

What a jerk! And this guy was one of Ven's friends? Maybe that Replica guy was bad news, but it was obvious that he cared about XIII! Why else would he get so tense at Saïx's words? And… maybe the bit about XIII's heart being missing was still a little confusing. More like really confusing. Especially since they were using Sora's name all over again… But still, even without a grasp on the situation, just hearing the conversation made Sora wanna burst outta the ground and fling fire right into that jerk's face! But that'd be stupid. He knew better than that… Despite his feelings, all he could do was be a fly on the wall. Or the floor, anyway.

The Replica cringed, clenching his fists. He averted his eyes and took a step back, and he didn't say another word. Number XIII, on the other hand, stomped forward, glaring up at Saïx.

"I thought he told you to shut up."

"…Yeah." The Replica looked up, his expression firm. "That's right. And I meant it, too. If you're so worried about my skills, then I'll prove I've got what it takes."

"I should certainly hope so, as your next mission will determine whether you continue to work independently, or…" Saïx paused, turning towards the others in the room. "We tighten the leash. Xemnas may have provided you with free reign, but I'm not above giving you additional, supervised training."

"But Riku doesn't need—"

"As for you…" Saïx looked right into number XIII's eyes. "You will not be joining him on his next mission. After all, needless distractions will only ensure his failure."

Both boys went completely silent. They looked at one another, sighed, and then shot Saïx two nasty glares. Then, after puffing out his chest and lifting his chin, the Replica stomped past him, waving his hand as he went. For a few seconds, number XIII just sorta stood there, rubbing his neck and shifting in place. Then, he rushed after the Replica without looking back.

"Riku, wait!"

Sora didn't budge. While he could've followed the two of them, he found himself too paralyzed by what he'd just seen and heard. This Saïx guy must've been one of the higher ups. It sure sounded like he had authority over everybody the way he kept going on about missions. And if that was the case, then maybe watching him was the key to finding answers. Everybody else talked over the Replica and his buddy. They obviously didn't know what was really going on. And if he was gonna help Riku out, he needed something concrete. Something big!

So he waited, watching in the shadows as the black coats gradually dispersed from the room. The three he'd been watching at the table all stood up, scooped up their belongings, and marched single file down the hall without a word. A large man with huge sideburns and crazy dreadlocks slammed a book shut and slipped through the darkness. Soon, only Saïx remained, gazing up at the clouded sky. He shut his eyes and shook his head, placing one hand to the glass. From the corner of his eye, Sora caught sight of a tinge of gold shining from beneath the clouds.

"Well, look at you, all by your lonesome…"

A new voice. Footsteps followed, and Sora caught sight of yet another black coated guy. With a scar running down his cheek and a patch over one of his eyes, this guy looked like he'd seen better days. And he must've been pretty old, judging by the grey streak running through his air. But what really caught Sora's eye was the way this guy bounded up to Saïx, slapped an arm over his shoulder, and grinned. Sora half expected Saïx to bite him or something, but… no. He just stood there and sneered.

"Is there a particular reason why you're here?" he said. "Surely you have your own matters to attend to."

"Sure do, and that's exactly why I'm here." The eye patch guy laughed. "The boss wants a word with you, so… Better get packing, unless you want to test his patience."

"Hm. Very well, then." Giving the man a light shove, Saïx stepped aside and flung out his arm. Darkness curled up from the floor, and he gave the older man one last look before he marched right into the corridor.

If he was headed towards the boss, then there was no way Sora could miss out! Without even thinking, he launched himself through the corridor. The older man's laugh barely registered as his surroundings faded into black, and he found himself lying on a cold, white floor. Pushing himself to his feet, Sora gasped and slid back, eying the endless white void below the floor's rounded edge. Turning around, he found himself staring up at a tall, rectangular structure. Placing one hand against the edge, he moved to the side of this object, eying the arms on each side, and a sunken in area for somebody to sit. And this wasn't the only throne, either; no matter where he turned, his eyes fell on one of these towering seats.

Every last one of 'em had that same, upside-down heart symbol at the very top of the seats, and as he glanced around the room, Sora counted thirteen total. Not only that, but at the very center of the floor sat a huge version of that exact same symbol. Once again, Ven's voice whimpered, but he still didn't say a word. Narrowing his eyes, Sora latched onto the back of a throne, shimmying up towards the top. As he made his ascent, a black smog appeared over one of the seats clear across the room, and Saïx appeared hunched over with his arms in his lap. He glanced up at the tallest seat in the room, and Sora followed his gaze…

A man not much older than Saïx reclined in this throne, one hand propping up his face. His tanned skin and amber eyes stood out against his white surroundings, though the same couldn't be said of his long, silver hair. Unfortunately, Sora didn't get much time to soak in this man's appearance before Ven let out a sharp scream. His eyes widened, and he dug his claws into the throne, nearly slipping from his perch.

Ven, what's going on?

"Terra! Sora, that's…"


"Xemnas," said Saïx, leaning forward in his seat. "I've been informed that you requested my presence."

"Indeed," said the man in a deep, monotone voice. Sora immediately recognized it. This was that creep from Hollow Bastion!

So he was the boss all along… But why did Ven call him Terra? And just who was he really? About a million questions exploded in Sora's head, but he pushed them back and peered around the corner, continuing to watch the two men with a close eye.

Xemnas folded his hands together and continued to speak. "A few startling revelations have come to light. Mere moments ago, Lexaeus returned with the data on our next target. It would seem that the world is already drenched in darkness, as is the heart of its most notorious criminal. What's more, a number of worlds have recently met their end. And, while the abundance of Heartless may work in our favor, they are of little use without the Keyblade."

Saïx raised an eyebrow. "Then what do you suggest? After all, sending the Replica to unknown worlds may lead to complications. You've said it yourself."

"The answer is simple." Xemnas smirked. "Direct more Heartless to the Keybearers, both real and replicated. Let them wreak havoc in worlds we can control. This will give them a sense of urgency. It will drive them to fulfill their purpose. Moreover, it will ensure some degree of success, even when our… incompetent members fail to complete their tasks."

"And what of the Replica himself?" said Saïx. "Given recent events, are you certain his freedom is still worth the risk?"

"Xigbar has already informed me of your 'special mission'." Xemnas shook his head. "However, my opinion remains unchanged. For all his recklessness, the Replica has provided us with a plethora of hearts, and his clashes with the Keybearer have yielded intriguing results. We have sown seeds of doubt within his heart… Fueled his curiosity. Strengthened his resolve."

Saïx shut his eyes, and for several seconds he stayed silent and still. Finally, he nodded, placing his hands in his lap. "Understood. However, I have no intention of reassigning him just yet."

"There is no need." Xemnas chuckled. "Let him visit the whale. Perhaps he will encounter… old friends."

Saïx's lips perked into the faintest of grins. "There's no doubt that he will."

"Then I believe we have covered all there is to discuss. You may now take your leave…"

Black wisps coiled around Saïx's entire body. The air rippled as darkness swallowed him up. Soon, only an empty throne remained. An empty throne, and Xemnas, who leaned back, shook his head, and gazed down at the floor. Then, after taking a quiet breath, the air around him folded as well, and a black fog swallowed him up. Once he vanished, Sora slid down from his perch, and his eyebrows knit together. He placed a hand over his chest, clutched onto his blackened necklace and fell back against the base of the throne.

Ven… I don't like this. These guys are up to something really shady. Didn't you hear what they said about the Heartless?

No response. Sora's eyes widened, and he clenched his fists.

Ven? Hey, c'mon! This is important.

"Terra…"


There he was, talking about that Terra guy again. But… was Xemnas really him? Sora didn't even have a clue who Terra was in the first place, but something just seemed off about this whole situation. All these people Ven recognized… old friends, too. And now they were suddenly making shady plans involving the Heartless, clones, and Keyblades? Sora sighed. Whatever was going on here, it was definitely bad news, but at the same time… Ven had been with for ages now and helped him out when he had nobody else to turn to. He couldn't just ignore his feelings.

Do you wanna talk about it?

"…Not here. I don't think I could take any more of this place."


Ven had a point. The whole place, from its endless whites and greys to all the black coats marching around just didn't feel right. And for Ven to see so many familiar faces acting so strange… Sora wouldn't wanna put him through more of that. Not now. No, they'd learned enough for now. Enough to give Riku a heads-up at the very least. So, with a nod, Sora snapped his fingers, and the floor blackened around him. Whites and greys faded into greens and browns. Oranges, reds, and purples meshed together in the sky. A familiar brick fence and iron gate stood just a few feet away by the eerie mansion, and Sora threw himself over the top.

He slid up to the very front of the old mansion and launched himself up onto the rooftop. There, he sat down, palms pressed against its surface, and gazed up at the sunset sky.

So, what's wrong?

"A whole lot, that's what."
Ven moaned. "Almost all the guys we saw looked familiar. Lea and Isa, two of those guys at the table… Even that jerk with the eye patch! It's… I just don't understand."

Sora puffed up his cheeks, propping his head up with one hand. His fingers tapped against the rooftop, and he peered at the sky. Well… When was the last time you saw 'em, Ven?

"I never really stopped to think about it before. It all kinda blurred together after a while." He sighed. "But you were just a kid when I came to you, Sora."

Just a kid? Sora blinked. Well, a lot can change over time, Ven. I mean, just look at me. It hasn't even been a year since I first left home, and I've been through all kinds of changes.

"Right… And those guys. They don't have hearts… That's what Isa said, anyway. But if that's true, does that make them Heartless or… something else?"

I dunno. They looked way too human for that. Plus, most Heartless aren't really smart. And they steal hearts from other people. These guys… Sora scratched his head. It sounds more like they want hearts from the Heartless.

"I just wish I knew what was going on. Terra… If that was really him, what could've happened?"

This Terra guy sounds really important to you, Ven.

"Well, he is my best friend."

Best friend, huh?


So he was just like Riku and Kairi. And if Terra was that important to Ven, then seeing him all twisted must've been like a knife to the heart. Sure, it'd be easy to call him out as being one of the bad guys. He was more than willing to attack Riku back in Hollow Bastion, and all that talk of darkness and manipulation painted him as a villain, just like Maleficent. But, still… they didn't have the whole story. Something could've easily happened to make Terra and all those others change. It could've been just as simple as losing their hearts… Who could really say?

Looking up at the sky once again, Sora took a whiff of the warm, summer air. He placed one hand over his heart, and a faint grin lined his lips.

We'll figure something out, Ven. Don't worry! I might not know much about your friend, but if there's a way to help him and Riku, then you bet I'll do it! All we've gotta do is keep looking and hope for the best.

"Yeah… You're right. I've really gotta practice what I preach and think positive. How else are we gonna move forward?"

Just don't push yourself too hard. We'll just take it one step at a time.


x.x.x

After a long ride back from the jungle, the Gummi Ship finally swooped down for a landing. As Donald hammered some buttons and pulled the ship to a stop, Riku let out a deep sigh and peered out the window. The whole ride back, his mind kept drifting to his encounters with Shere Khan. To his hideous transformation as darkness devoured his heart… And that jackal's words. What a mess. But, on the upside, at least they had somewhat of a lead. And maybe DiZ would be able to shed more light on the situation, just like before.

Once the ship slid to a shop, Riku and the others hopped out of their seats and slipped outside. As always, the warm air grazed Riku's skin, and the sky shone with a blend of warm colors. Though he took a few seconds to admire the view, it didn't take long before he turned towards the mansion's front doors. Unfortunately, before he could get too far, he felt a gloved hand plop down on his shoulder.

"Hold on a sec there, Riku!" said Goofy, tilting his head.

"Why wait?" Riku blinked. "C'mon, shouldn't we get back to DiZ?"

"'Course we should, but look what I found!" Goofy pulled his other hand out from behind his back, raising a short slip of paper for all to see. "Looks like somebody left another one of them notes out here."

"Another one?" Kairi gasped, peering over Goofy's shoulder. "So, what's it say?"

Donald hopped up and swiped the note. "Aw, let me take a look!"

Before Donald even got the chance to glance at it, Riku scooped the note out of his clutches and shook his head. "Nah, the last one was directed to me. Shouldn't I do the honors?"

Donald's arms fell to his sides, and he slumped forward. "Aw, fine. But this better be good."

Well, if it was anything like the last note, it probably was. And, sure enough, when Riku looked down at the paper, he caught sight of the same, scribbled scrawl from before. But that wasn't the only thing that stood out. Once he skimmed the message, his eyes flew wide open, for its contents hit him like a ton of bricks.

It read:

'I went to the black coats' world. They're doing all kinds of shady stuff with the Heartless, and it sounds like they're pushing people into the darkness, too! I don't know why, but I'll try and get to the bottom of this. Until then, be extra careful. They might be sending a ton of Heartless your way.

P.S. For some reason, it sounds like they need your Keyblade. I'll keep you posted if I learn anything else.

- A friend'


TO BE CONTINUED
 
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.:Mega:.

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Last update for now, but we're coming up on one of my favorite arcs. :D Something to look forward to.

--

Chapter 18: The Message

Click, tap. Tap, tap.

The dim light of a computer screen cast pale light onto a cloaked figure. The surrounding machinery hummed and whirred. Everything in this castle was operated by machines. Lifts carried passengers from floor to floor. Cogs kept on turning, controlling the rise and fall of platforms. The opening and closing of doors. And that said nothing of the various machines that extracted darkness from the heart and mass produced creatures of all shapes and sizes. Armored soldiers, twitching in anticipation of their latest prey. Vicious Wyverns with their terrifying talons… Each one represented potential progress for the Organization. It only seemed fitting, then, for a scientist to oversee the procedures.

"Hmm. This is a bit perplexing…"

Vexen cupped a hand over his chin, skimming the contents of the screen. His task was simple in theory. Shut down defenses… hmm. Take out transportation… His fingers drummed against the keys as he skimmed through the pop-up menus. Lift control, data banks… no, that wouldn't do. He needed efficiency. After all, if he took too long fiddling with the system, that meddlesome "Restoration Crew" would surely catch on.

After a bit of digging, a menu popped up reading: "Power Grid". Another popped up by its side reading: "Heartless Manufactory Settings," and a wry grin spread across Vexen's lips.

"Yes… This is perfect. Beyond perfect! Those fools will never see it coming."

x.x.x

'I went to the black coats' world. They're doing all kinds of shady stuff with the Heartless, and it sounds like they're pushing people into the darkness, too! I don't know why, but I'll try and get to the bottom of this. Until then, be extra careful. They might be sending a ton of Heartless your way.

P.S. For some reason, it sounds like they need your Keyblade. I'll keep you posted if I learn anything else.

- A friend'


Riku skimmed the message over again and again, letting the words sink in. So, whoever it was that left this note had somehow managed to reach the Organization's stronghold? But how? And… why couldn't he just talk to them face to face? His grip tightened on the slip of paper, and he narrowed his eyes, eying the bit about the darkness… After all, it did fit in with what happened to Shere Khan. That one Organization member implied that they wanted him to transform into a Heartless. And both Louie and Khan had been manipulating Heartless as well, probably due to that creep's persuasion. But what did his Keyblade have to do with it? Were they really summoning up a bunch of Heartless just for Riku to destroy them?

He repeated the message's contents to his friends and passed the slip around. Immediately, the three looked to each other with uncertain glances and huddled right behind Riku.

"Gawrsh, so they really were usin' the Heartless…" Goofy frowned, placing a hand to his chin. "That DiZ feller did say they'd go to some crazy lengths, but it still doesn't add up."

Donald crossed his arms. "Well, this note's really vague. How do we know he was there to begin with?"

"Because…" Riku turned towards the mansion and sighed. "Look, the last note pointed us in the right direction. Whoever wrote this obviously wants to help."

"Exactly." Kairi grinned. "Besides, all signs point to it being true. And even if it's not, I don't think a little caution will hurt us."

"One thing still bothers me, though." Riku shut his eyes and shook his head. "Do they really need my Keyblade? I mean, I guess it makes sense, if they went out of their way to clone me, but… just what do they want from me?"

"Well, how 'bout we ask DiZ about it?" Goofy grinned. "Betcha he'd know at least somethin' about this ol' letter."

"Heh, well, we were going there anyway." Riku shrugged. "Might as well give it a shot."

Together, the group slipped through the mansion's broad double doors and into the dark and dusty Foyer. Glimmers of light shone through the musty window at the far end of the room, revealing the thick particles floating in the air. Busted up tables and chunks of stone littered the floor. Cobwebs crept over old, stone statues of knights and winged unicorns. On the way up one of the stairways, Riku stopped briefly and glanced at a doorway that had been barricaded by piles of debris, a dusty old painting, and a toppled over statue. To say that the mansion had seen better days was a pretty huge understatement.

Like before, they shoved open the doors to the library and slipped into the center of the room. Other than the shelves of books and a few statues in the corner, however, the room was entirely empty. Grumbling under his breath, Riku turned away from the table and placed a hand on his hip.

"Well, he sure isn't here. Want to check the other rooms?"

"It's worth a try," said Kairi, slipping back into the Foyer. "He has to be around here somewhere…"

One short walk across the balcony and past several more paintings led the group to another doorway. Right away, Donald hopped up and threw the door open, revealing the vivid white walls of the room inside. Everything from the old cupboards to the looming chandelier blended perfectly with the walls, ceiling, and floor. Even the curtains were white as snow. The only things that stood out were the four sleeping bags off to the side. But, just like the library, DiZ was nowhere to be found, thus the group headed down to the Foyer's lower level and towards the one remaining doorway.

Three stained glass windows filtered dim light into the room. Golden unicorn heads rested near the ceiling, while cobwebs draped from the corners. A few chairs sat flat against the walls, along with a filthy old couch. A grandfather clock hung lifelessly, the time frozen at 6:00. Perhaps the most striking feature, though, was the collapsed table that'd been split down the middle, with bits of scattered wood lying all around it. By this point, Riku rolled his eyes and slapped his palm over his face as he turned back towards the door. With no DiZ in sight, they'd truly run out of options.

"I just don't get it," he said, leaning against the door frame. "DiZ is the one who wanted us to report back to him, so what's he playing at now?"

"Well, uh…" Goofy stroked his chin. "Maybe he's off gettin' somethin' to eat! There sure ain't a kitchen 'round here."

Riku laughed. "Oh, sure. I can so see a tall, dark guy decked out in bandages and belts sitting down for a nice dinner."

Donald looked down at his wrist, tapping his foot. "Well, we don't have all day. If DiZ isn't here to explain that letter, then we're just gonna have to improvise."

"Well, what about Leon?" said Kairi. "We could always ask him and the others if they've seen anything strange."

"Huh, good point." Riku crossed his arms. "And even if they don't know much, it never hurts to get a second opinion."

With nowhere else to turn, the group returned outside and marched right up to the Gummi Ship. Each of them took to their seats with haste and, in a matter of seconds, the engine roared, and the ship shot off into the sky, leaving the musty old mansion behind. On the way to Hollow Bastion, stars and asteroids blurred together. Not a single word was said. And, within about a minute, the familiar spires of the mechanical castle faded into focus. The void of space shifted as flowing water and floating stones whizzed on by. As Riku peered through the window, though, something… strange caught his eye. Just like in Merlin's world and the jungle, a thick, grey curtain of clouds concealed the sky. Not a single person passed through the streets of the Marketplace, and boards covered the window of every shop.

The ship swooped in for a landing, and Riku took a deep breath. He glanced to Goofy, whose teeth chattered, and then to Donald, who scowled at the empty streets. Then, when Riku pushed himself out of his seat, Kairi slipped up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"What do you think could've happened?"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Riku sighed. "For all we know, it could just be stormy weather."

Donald narrowed his eyes, flinging the door wide open. "Well, I hope you're right about that. The last thing we need's another fight after that mess in the jungle…"

The group had barely made it out onto the pavement before black pools formed along the ground. Metal clattered against the concrete. Roars echoed all around them. A mass of yellow eyes surrounded them across the walkway and along the steps. More glistened down below. Biting his lip, Riku leaped down to the center of the square, slamming his Keyblade into the ground. A circle of spikes erupted around him, piercing a swarm of approaching Soldiers. At least twelve hearts sprung into the sky, but more Heartless still remained.

Flames rocketed at Riku from the sides, and he rolled out of the way. Sliding up to a Defender, he slashed right across its back and destroyed it on the spot. Before he could make another move, however, he caught sight of a Wyvern's enormous talons flying straight at his face. Grinding his teeth, he threw up his Keyblade against its claws and slid to the left, launching his weapon into its chest.

"Just the weather, huh?!" Donald's face reddened, and he sent rows of lighting straight into a horde of Soldiers. They fell into a twitching heap and exploded on the spot, and Donald hopped down to Riku's side.

"Look, I was just—"

Before he could finish, a white burst flew his way. Then another. Gasping, Riku swerved between the blasts and whirled around, coming face to face with two Angel Stars. Each Heartless screeched and fluttered its wings. Before they could even think about striking again, though, Riku smashed their glassy bodies, exposing their captured hearts and sending shards flying through the air. A breeze swept up the pieces, and Donald leaped into the air, driving his weapon down against an Air Soldier's helmet. As the Heartless hit the ground, Goofy's shield shot down and cut straight through it. He and Kairi both hopped down, landing in front of the weapon shop, where six Neoshadows lunged into their paths.

Riku winced and sprinted towards them, but a blinding flash threw the Heartless his way. Sweeping his Keyblade through the air, Riku eradicated those pests, and his eyes widened when he caught Kairi clutching onto her necklace and breathing deeply. Two more Wyverns spiraled down, and Goofy rushed out and banged his shield into their snouts. Their wings ignited with one wave of Kairi's sword, and Riku launched himself forward with a series of dashes. Their hearts soon rose into the cloudy sky.

"Maybe that note was onto something." Riku sneered, hurling ice at two approaching Air Soldiers. "If the Organization is behind this, they sure know how to lay out the welcome mat."

"Well, at least we know we can trust him," said Kairi, slipping behind a lumbering Large Body. She thrust her sword into the air, and a circular glow formed all around her.

The Large Body sprung up and began rolling in midair, flailing its huge arms helplessly. Goofy's shield grazed its back, and a series of bright flashes followed. The Heartless exploded, and Donald snickered under his breath, hopping up to give Goofy a high-five. All in all, it wasn't a bad technique, and Riku gave Kairi a quick thumbs up before turning towards six diving Wyverns. Rolling his eyes, he waved his Keyblade, dragging the pests straight into the ground. In the corner of his eye, he caught more Heartless springing into the air, suspended in a translucent glow. His Keyblade whizzed through the air and sliced through each one. Air Soldiers, Wyverns, and Angel Stars all erupted in darkness. Their dimly glowing hearts twinkled in the sky like stars before the clouds swallowed them whole.

Goofy spun into a Defender's side, knocking it down onto a row of mines. BANG! The Heartless stumbled back, and then all it took was one more swipe of the Keyblade to annihilate it. More followed, of course. Wyverns flocked and swooped in with their talons at the ready. Soldiers swayed and raked their claws against anything in their path. Flashes of light illuminated the darkened square. Heart after heart took to the air. Up the steps, past the item shop, more whirling corridors appeared. Air Soldiers threw punches at Riku's face. Spiky, round Heartless twirled around, swinging their gangly arms. Wizards cackled at twirled their staffs, forcing Donald to hop back and forth to avoid lightning strikes.

Some Heartless collapsed on the ground, sleeping soundly until Riku and Kairi lunged forward and sliced them to bits. Others hopped onto the glowing circles and went up in smoke or burned to a crisp once Riku, Kairi, and Donald assaulted them with flames. The path to the Borough cleared as more hearts took to the sky, but while they'd escaped the Marketplace, dozens more Heartless perched on the rooftops and ledges, proof enough that they still had a ways to go.

A flood of Soldiers, Neoshadows, and Defenders blocked their path. Dozens of Wyverns circled overhead. Left with no other choice, Riku and his friends plowed through the mob, striking them down one by one. Flashes of light flickered every few seconds. The roar of explosions made Riku's ears ring. A constant clanging sounded from all the weaponry. While Goofy charged ahead of the group, Riku and Kairi cut their way through the crowd. The roof of Merlin's house came into view, and they picked up the pace. More Heartless emerged from the shadows, and the group huddled close together. Then, before they could land a single attack…

SHING!

Metal clashed with the crowd, followed by a blinding flash. Every last Heartless faded on the spot, leaving only Leon, hunched over with his Gunblade in hand. He stood up straight, running a hand across his forehead and then, with a scowl, he pointed to the door.

"Get inside. Quick."

Well, there was no point in questioning him. Heaving a sigh, Riku stumbled through the door with his friends close behind him. Once he made it into the room, he slid back against one of the walls, breathing heavily. Kairi stopped right next to him and gently squeezed his hand, while Donald and Goofy followed Leon towards a table at the center of the room.

Unlike before, the whole house was practically empty. None of the princesses greeted the group, nor did Yuffie, Aerith, or even Cid. The once glowing computer screen had turned pitch black. Only a few glimmers of candlelight illuminated the area. The light bounced off of the piles of old books, casting shadows along the walls. Other than Leon and Riku's friends, the only other person in the room was the Fairy Godmother, who waved her wand, bringing a few more candles to life.

"Oh, dear," she said, shaking her head, "this just won't do. I certainly do hope the others find a solution."

"A solution?" Riku's eyes widened, and he limped away from the wall. "Wait, what's going on here, anyway?"

"It's a long story." Leon groaned, taking a seat on the edge of an old bed. "Let's just say we've had a few… problems since you guys left."

Donald raised an eyebrow. "Like what? All those Heartless?"

"Actually, that's not it at all." Leon slumped forward, propping his head up with one hand. "Don't get me wrong, the Heartless are a problem, but we managed to keep them in line for a while."

…Right. The last time they faced the Heartless, there were some weird pillars knocking them around. Had something changed since then? Given the overall emptiness here, there had to be more to it, and Riku wasn't about to let the answers escape him.

"So, where's everybody else?"

"Over at the castle." Leon shut his eyes, bringing a hand to his forehead. "They're trying to get our defense system up and running again, but… let's just say we've hit a few roadblocks on the way."

Goofy gulped, twiddling his thumbs. "Gawrsh, what kinda roadblocks, Leon?"

"First of all, whoever did this took down more than our defenses." He clenched his fists, turning towards the computer. "We've been hit with a blackout. All our power's dead, even at the castle."

"And if your power's down, I'm guessing you have more to worry about than getting the system back online…" Riku's brow furrowed. "But how can they even get through the castle if everything's down? Isn't the whole place run on machinery?"

"Well, dear, they do have a little assistance." The Fairy Godmother smiled faintly, clasping her hands behind her back. "Merlin has joined them, ensuring their safe travel. And the princesses' light will surely shield them from the Heartless."

Leon nodded. "They'll figure it out. Honestly, I'm not too worried about them. Problem is, with the defense system dead, there's nothing stopping the Heartless from going on rampage and destroying our hard work."

"Hmm." Kairi gazed down at the floor. "It looks like things have already gotten out of hand."

"Actually, it wasn't too bad at first. They still attacked in large numbers, but… nothing like this. Not until around the time you showed up, anyway."

…Of course. The letter did say that the Organization would send more Heartless after them. And, while Riku already had his suspicions, Leon's words sealed the deal. If the Heartless hadn't gotten out of hand until they arrived, then that was proof enough that, somehow, the Organization had been watching them.

Reaching into his pocket, Riku scooped out the message, and his shoulders sagged. "I think I know what's going on, Leon."

"Really." Leon raised an eyebrow, slipping off of the bed. He marched over to Riku and peered over his shoulder. "And I take it this note's got something to do with it."

"Yeah." Riku passed it over to him. "We've got word that the Organization might be sending Heartless after us, and that they need my Keyblade."

Kairi nodded. "That's why we came here in the first place, Leon. We thought that maybe you'd know what to make of it."

"I see." Leon shut his eyes, passing the note back to Riku. "Well, if the Organization really is sending Heartless after you, then it's probably better if you leave."

Donald gasped, flailing his arms. "What?! Are you tryin' to kick us out?"

"It's not that." Leon sighed. "I trust you guys. We all do, but… if the Organization's made you their targets, then staying here won't help you or the town. You have to keep moving."

Kairi bit her lip, shifting in place. "But can't we help you? If your power's down, then there has to be something we can—"

"No." Leon scowled, folding his arms over his chest. "Again, it's not that we don't appreciate the help, but you guys already have your work cut out for you. Every minute you spend here is a minute you could've spent protecting the worlds." He turned towards the computer screen. "Hollow Bastion isn't going anywhere. Even with our defenses down, there's no way the Heartless can actually destroy our home. Not completely."

"Ya sure ya don't need hand?" said Goofy.

"Don't worry, dears." The Fairy Godmother shook her head. "We may have hit hard times, but we're not going to abandon hope. There are so many of us already hard at work, and I'm sure we'll overcome this little bump in the road."

"And so will we." Kairi clutched onto her necklace, and her eyebrows knit together. "This note may not tell us much, but at least now we know what to expect."

"Not only that, but…" Riku smirked. "If our 'friend' really does plan on snooping some more, I'm sure we'll get some answers one way or another."

"Yup!" Goofy chuckled. "Why, we've got a real spy on our side! It's kinda excitin', when ya really think about it."

A spy… Heh. It was kind of funny to think about. If the guy behind those notes really was a part of Sora, then it was tough imagining him acting even remotely stealthy. Still, with two notes down, it was obvious that whoever it was knew what they were doing. Even if Leon hadn't given them the answers they'd hoped for and even if DiZ was off to who-knows-where, they'd still managed to uncover a little more about the Organization's schemes.

And so, after bidding goodbye to both Leon and the Fairy Godmother, Riku and his friends marched back out into the shadowed streets. Though more Heartless lunged their way, the group pressed on, slicing through the crowds. Lifting them up off the ground, impaling them with spikes. Anything to keep moving forward. Through the dark alleys, up the steps, they rushed to their ship, knocking Neoshadows down from the cockpit with lightning flashes and white-hot flames. The engine rumbled, the ship burst into the air, raining lasers down upon the Heartless masses. Both Donald and Goofy bombarded the buttons, hammering away with their fists even as the barren streets and towering castle vanished and the black void of space enclosed them.

With the air clear, Riku crept to the back of the ship and slid down on the seat next to Kairi and Jiminy. He ran his fingers through his bangs and glanced through the window at the floating space junk, silently shaking his head.

"I hope we made the right choice," he said. "Still feels wrong to ditch them like that."

Goofy looked over the back of his seat. "Aw, don't worry, Riku! It's like Leon said, if we'd have stuck around, we'd probably be a buncha Heartless magnets, and that ain't good, either."

"Yeah, you're probably right." Riku slumped over, peering down at the floor. "I just wonder what could've caused the blackout. It's almost too convenient…"

Jiminy tilted his head, scribbling some notes down in his journal. "Well, if ya ask me, those no-good Organization fellas could've rigged it before ya got there."

"That's true." Kairi placed a hand to her chin. "It'd fit with what the message said about spreading darkness…"

"Hah, that's just another reason for us to hunt 'em down." Donald smirked, yanking on a lever that sent the ship zooming through a floating ring. "Why, the next time I see 'em, I'll—"

"Uh oh!" Goofy gulped, pointing his finger at the radar screen. "I hate to interrupt ya guys, but there's a big ol' speck headin' our way!"

"A speck?" Riku slid up to the back of Donald's seat, stumbling back once he laid eyes on the screen. Sure enough, a big, blinking dot zipped closer and closer to their ship. And that wasn't all. In the distance, he caught sight of a faint, grey blob approaching.

Donald's beak flew open, and the pounded at the controls. "Gah! What the heck is that thing?!"

The blob came into focus, revealing a huge, box-shaped head with a row of massive teeth and two tiny, narrowed eyes. It flailed its stubby fins and swished its tail back and forth.

Kairi squinted, leaning closer to the window. "It looks like... some kind of fish."

"No, not a fish," said Riku. "It's more like—"

The whale charged, and Donald let out a shriek. He swerved the ship to the side, narrowly missing its gaping mouth, but the whale swooped up and over them, rushing in from the side. With a yelp, Goofy clung to Donald, teeth chattering. Jiminy gasped and clutched onto his hat. Before the ship could even budge, the whale's jaws flew open, its tongue flapped, and the dark void of its mouth enclosed the ship. Elbowing Goofy to the side, Donald latched onto the wheel and spun the ship around. It rocketed forward, towards the glimmering stars, but already the light began to fade. The ship rumbled and slammed into something up above. The lights flashed. Riku and Kairi latched onto one another as the ship bounced up again.

Then, everything went black.

TO BE CONTINUED
 
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