"Riku!" Keyblade. The word echoed strangely in Sora's head, but he ignored it, even as it whispered again, reaching for Riku, reaching, reaching...
And then Riku was gone, and in his place, a shining light that became a giant key.
"What?" Sora didn't have the time to wonder more, because those shadow things - they were everywhere - were swarming out of the darkness for him. Sora felt a sharp pain in his heart; Riku was gone, Kairi was nowhere to be found. But Sora steeled himself; he couldn't give in to despair.
I will find them! The thought seemed to resonate with the thing - Keyblade? - in his hands, and as he swung it on the shadow-things, they disintegrated in a swirl of dust and darkness. For a moment, he thought he saw small, bright things drifting away from them, but he didn't have time to think about it. They were still coming.
"Riku!" Swing. Dodge. Swing. "Kairi!" Duck. Run and jump, around that tree. Swing. Swing. "Were are you?!" There was no response. In his heart, Sora hadn't expected one, but he had still hoped...
Wherever you are, I'll find you! he promised his friends silently. The shadow-things were swarming around him. So many. Too many; he couldn't fight them all off anymore, and their attacks were starting to hurt. It was wrong, he knew. So many, and the world falling apart around him, disintegrating into nothing.
Had the same thing happened to Riku and Kairi? Eaten by nothingness, and gone forever? No! I won't think like that! He swung his strange new weapon with renewed vigour, slicing his way through the dark hordes.
It still wasn't enough. They kept coming, and coming. Sora's breath came in heavy pants; he couldn't hold out much longer, not if they kept coming like this. He had to get away.
For a moment, he thought he saw a way. And opening, room to dodge through, and-- He didn't have time to finish the thought, much less perform the manuver. A bigger, more frightening shadow writhed into being, right in the gap Sora would have escaped through.
Before he had a chance to react, a twisted, skinny, clawed hand snapped out, going right into Sora's chest like knives of ice. He let out a choked, strangled gasp, that could have been a scream, in another incarnation. There was time for him to realise that he wasn't bleeding, which was strange, and then--
Pain. And darkness. And he didn't know anything else.
When he woke up, he was in a dark place. And he wasn't Sora anymore.
Another star winked out. Idly, Axel wondered how many more it would be, and decided that he didn't care.
"I wonder if there are any surviors this time," Demyx murmured beside him. Axel didn't even bother to look over; he knew the expression his junior would be wearing. A slight frown, concern or curiosity.
Axel shrugged finally, after a few moments, and answered him, "Maybe. There're usually one or two. But most of 'em end up like that." He jerked his thumb back towards the Assassins, and Dancers, and other lesser creatures that waited patiently on their masters. "You know that."
Demyx sighed. "I know. Actually, I was more wondering, well..." He trailed off, and Axel saw him look up at the sky again, at the blank spot where a light had just winked out. Axel followed his gaze, and saw another star, near to the last, go out.
"Let's go back," Axel said. "We're done here, for now." There weren't any stars to watch vanish in The World That Never Was, only the too-close, heart-shaped moon. It glowed with a pale light, but was riddled with cracks and gouges. The Superior had - rather obliquely, even by Axel's standards - indicated that he knew what it would take to fill it up, to fix it - To accomplish our goal, he always said - but he hadn't (in so many words) told any of the others.
Axel had his suspicions though, but he hadn't voiced them. Beside him, Demyx was nodding.
"We should go back," he agreed. In one of the odd moments of synchronicity that plagued the Organization, they both summoned their dark paths at the same time, both from the ground beneath them, sinking into the blackness that would lead them to what passed for 'home.'
As the light of the world they were leaving faded, Axel thought he saw another star vanish from the sky.
Saix was waiting in the Proof of Existence when Axel and Demyx rematerialised there.
"You're--" he started. Automatically, Axel was sure; VII had been the Superior's lapdog since before Axel had been around.
"--Not late," Axel interjected. "We have another day." Saix frowned; then again, he didn't do much else.
"I was going to say that you're early for once in your existence," VII replied coolly. "The Superior is occupied."
"You know where to find us when he's not, then," Axel replied. "Later." With that, he stepped through the glowing gravestone - what a morbid idea that was, too - and into his own place, where none - not even the Superior - could come without his leave. Not the easy way, at any rate.
Axel had dozed off for a while, laying back in his bed, waiting for the Superior's summons. When it finally came - carried by a Dusk, that came sliding through his open window, almost oozing around the fires that always burned there - Axel went, of course. Nothing better to do, he told himself.
The debriefing didn't take long - everything according to plan, nothing and no one of interest in that world, so far.
The mention of two, maybe three more dead worlds got only a nod; such things were occurring more and more often as of late. The lesser Nobodies would be sweeping the usual places for more of their own ilk, and carting them 'home.'
Sometimes, they found something bigger, stronger, more. Then they came back to The World That Never Was, to report, in their almost-silent way. And the Superior sent one of them out, to investigate.
Sometimes - very, very rarely - the Organization's number was increased. XII had come scant months ago, the first woman among them, viscious like a mongoose. More often, what was found was just another lesser thing. A more useful tool, perhaps, but not enough to be one of them.
It was a relief when the Superior let them out of the briefing. Axel stepped back into the Proof of Existence with near-silent footsteps, Demyx a step behind him.
"Hey Axel," his junior started. Axel shook his head, cutting off whatever the other might have said. He could guess; Demyx didn't much like being alone, and while Axel didn't exactly like him, he didn't mind his junior the way some of the others did. Demyx could even be fun sometimes.
But Axel wasn't in the mood for him just then. He gave Demyx a dismissive wave, and walked through the portal into his own place, alone again, except for his servants, who were always there, after a fashion, but didn't really count.
Wordlessly, he sank onto his bed, and didn't give the rest of it another thought.
Not-Sora sat in the dark place, alone. He wasn't certain how he had come to be here, much less how to leave, but oddly, he didn't care. He knew he ought to care - Sora would care - but he couldn't quite make himself.
His face was impassive as he looked over the dark water to the faint light that hung over it. He looked because there wasn't really much else to look at. Sora, he knew, would have looked because he was curious, and not-Sora did wonder, a little. But not enough.
Sora, he knew, would have gone to investigate. Not-Sora sat on his rock, and looked.
He might have stared at the faint glimmer forever, if a spinning white wisp of a creature hadn't wound its way by him. His eyes latched reflexively onto the movement; the creature was followed by three others.
Bizarrely, he almost thought he felt a kinship for the things. It was as he thought that - maybe a little after - that the first of the white creatures came flowing back towards him, to stop, and... look, it seemed.
The creature stayed out of reach, just standing there, moving in place, waving back and forth, almost as if it was dancing in place, but far too regular. It tilted its head at him, almost questioning.
"What do you want?" It was the first words not-Sora had spoken. "What are you?" The creature tilted its head at him again, and then not-Sora got the oddest sense of-- Not satisfaction, but something like it, maybe confirmation, he wasn't sure. But it came from the creature. It started off again, after its companions.
"Wait!" His words didn't carry; they seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness. The creature didn't listen, if it heard. And then it was gone, and its companions with it, swallowed by thick, tangible darkness, gone somewhere that not-Sora didn't think he could follow.
Could I? Would it even be a good idea to try? He wasn't sure. He almost thought he could see it, whatever the creatures had done. Like a half-formed thought, nagging at the back of his mind.
Sora would have tried it, he thought, as long as Riku and Kairi were there with him. Not-Sora wondered if he should do it because Sora would.
But I'm not Sora. It was a stubborn thought. He could remember Sora - remember being Sora - bu he knew he wasn't Sora. He didn't know who he was now.
It didn't much matter, he supposed (although the thought made the hollow feeling in his chest ache even more; he ignored it, and pretended that it wasn't there.) With the creatures gone, not-Sora went back to looking at the faint light.
It was some hours later - maybe some days, he wasn't sure; he thought not, because he was pretty sure he would be hungry - before not-Sora saw another living thing.
A man. In a black coat. Not-Sora could see that he was smiling.
Axel didn't know how long he had been asleep, when he was wakened by the jarring touch of one of his servants. It was just a brush, on his face, but it was enough to snap him wide awake.
The Superior wanted him. Others were summoned. This was all conveyed by his Assassin. Axel rolled easily out of bed. He was willing to respond to the summons; he had nothing better to do.
He strode out to the Proof of Existence, trailed by a few of his servants; he wasn't the only one, either. Zexion was there, and he saw the Dancers following after Demyx as his junior strode up the stairs to Naught's Approach (sometimes he wondered if the Superior had named these places, and if he hadn't then who? It had to be one of the first half). Axel nodded to Zexion, and moved swiftly enough to be the next up the stairs; he knew it annoyed his seniors to be 'beaten' by the likes of himself.
At the gateway to Ruin and Creation's Passage, there was another 'door.' An odd half-space, that only they could slip through. The greatest of the Nobodies. If such a term could be applied to them. It was a twist of the world, and a spill of darkness, and then Axel was striding into the Chamber of Hollow Memory, the white room filled with white thrones, at irregular heights. There was one more than there ought to be.
Axel hopped up onto - into? - his throne with ease, curiosity buzzing in his mind. Xigbar and Xaldin were already there, as was Demyx. Zexion came in mere moments after Axel himself, followed almost immediately by Vexen.
The others came in as well, V alone, XI and XII together, followed shortly by X. VII was the last, except for I himself, the Superior, who came last of all, and only once everyone else was seated.
Trailing him was another, much smaller figure. Smaller even than Zexion, and wearing the same black coat as the rest of them. The new kid's hood was pulled up, hiding his face; whether it was his own choice, or more of the Superior's melodrama, Axel couldn't tell.
The Superior gestured for the new kid to take the new seat - big surprise there - and then ascended to his own. Axel caught a glimpse of blond hair under the new kid's hood, and a flash of blue eyes, as he looked around at his new compatriots.
Welcome to the rest of your existence, kid, Axel thought. He felt a bit sorry for the new kid, but he couldn't help wondering what had made him strong enough - special enough - to continue in even this half-life After. There was no clue in the kid' posture (surprisingly good) or his demeanor (sullen); Axel, like the others, would just have to wait. He was drawn out of his musings by the Superior's introduction.
"...His name is Roxas." Obviously, Axel had missed the first part; not that it mattered. He could guess the rest. The newly-named Roxas took down his hood as he was introduced, and yes, that was blond hair and blue eyes. Darker shades of both than either Larxene or Vexen, deeper, richer somehow.
"The rest of you can introduce yourselves to him later," Xemnas finished. It took Axel a moment to realise that he'd tuned the Superior's voice out again; he was having a hard time looking away from Roxas - even if it was only looking half out of the corner of his eye because of the way they were sitting.
Xemnas' words had clearly been a dismissal, though they were free to stay in the Chamber of Hollow Memory, if they really wanted to. But Xemnas was leaving, with Saix following after, and Vexen - after a long, hard stare at Roxas - following on their heels.
Axel took quick stock of the situation - II and III were heading out as well, as were VI and X. Lexaeus trailed out a moment later, a thoughtful expression on hid face; Axel wondered briefly what he was thinking about. Aside from himself, it seemed like only Demyx, Marluxia, and Larxene were interested in sticking around.
Roxas himself was sliding off his throne. Axel din't really think much about his next actions; he just did what seemed natural, sliding off his throne, and coming up to Roxas before the others got a chance to.
"I'm Axel," he said. "Number VIII." He offered Roxas an easy grin, and tapped the side of his own head. "Memorize it." The kid looked back at him, with the same deadpan he'd worn the entire time.
"So?" Roxas replied. Axel wasn't the least put off by the attitude; he had plenty of his own, and knew well how to deal with it. He decided to take the fact that Roxas had replied to him (after all, the kid could have ignored him!) as a good sign. He slung an arm around Roxas' shoulders, ignoring the kid's slight stiffening.
"Come on, I'll show you around."
Roxas' eyes widened briefly in surprise when Axel not only touched him, but actually wrapped an arm around him. As if it was normal. As if neither of them were something unnatural.
Xemnas - the Superior - had explained it to him, what he was, and what he wasn't. It ought to have upset him more than it did - and it did upset him, especially thinking about what he had been, but strangely, that was fading, and... It didn't matter the way it should have.
I have a name now, at least. Something to think of myself as. It was better than thinking of himself as not-Sora. Xemnas had given him the name, after a fashion.
"Do you know who you were?" the man had asked. Roxas had nodded, and it grew from there. He had new clothes now, to go with the new name; a uniform, and a title and a place in an Organization - the capital letter was audible when Xenmas spoke of it. Roxas hadn't bother to resist rolling his eyes, although it struck him that it was a good thing that Xemnas hadn't seen him doing it.
Not like he had anything better to do than this, anymore. Not like he had anything else at all.
He hadn't really thought about what he would do after the introductory meeting - which struck him as stupid, anyway; couldn't he just be introduced normally? - except maybe ask one of the little white creatures (Dusks, he reminded himself) to show him to the room Xemnas had said would be ready for him.
Now, there was Axel, guiding him out of the chamber with an offer to show him around.
"All right," he found himself saying after a moment. The others remaining seemed a bit disappointed - at least, the woman was frowning - but that concern was fleeting at best. There would be plenty of time.
Axel turned back slightly, and waved to the others before leading him out of the Chamber of Hollow Memory. Roxas went along, paying as much attention as he needed to to where Axel took him. The other Nobody still had his arm slung around Roxas, and it was a little strange, because the Superior certainly hadn't touched him, and they were all wearing the same heavy, body-covering coats and gloves.
Roxas wasn't stupid. Everything in this place was designed to keep them from ever touching each other. But he didn't mind the arm around his shoulders.
Axel couldn't believe that Roxas was letting him keep his arm where it was. Any of the others would have shrugged it off and glared at him long ago. But the kid actually didn't seem to mind it, and oddly, that made him actually feel happy. At least, he thought it made him feel happy; it had been so long, that he was even having trouble matching the feeling up with what he remembered from Before.
"I actually kinda like the view from this one," he commented, as he lead Roxas out to another of the oddly-positioned balconies on the castle.
"Yeah? What grandiose name does this place have then?" Roxas asked, going up on his toes to peer over the unusually high wall, at the dark sea that stretched beyond the dark city.
"Beats me," Axel replied. "I don't think it all has a weird name. I guess," he added after a moment, "if you really wanted to know, you could ask the Superior."
Axel grinned at Roxas' reply, and joined him in looking over the balcony. Some time passed in comfortable silence.
"So what do you like about it?" Roxas' voice was almost startling as it finally broke the silence again. Axel shrugged.
"I'm not really sure," he replied. "Maybe just that it's the only one that faces this way."
"Huh." Roxas turned around, to lean his back against the railing, and look at the castle. It was the first time he'd broken out of Axel's arm, but he let the kid go, turning after a moment to join him.
A wind that was neither warm nor cold blew around them. It was a constant out here, on the upper floors of the Castle, and Axel didn't really notice it anymore.
Abruply, Roxas pushed away from the wall, away from Axel. "I'm going now," he said. He started walking away, and a pair of Nobodies - Samurai, the whisper came in his head - materialised behind him.
Axel considered stopping him, but ultimately decided against it. It struck him as a good way to court non-existence. He could read the tension, the prickliness in the other's shoulders, and even if he put up with Axel earlier...
Well. In some ways, they were all the same.
"See you 'round," he replied. He thought he caught a slight pause in Roxas' steps, and a slight nod of his head, but he wasn't sure.