As promised, Sora and Xion left for the nearest wisteria house as soon as the sky lightened up.
Prior to their departure, Xion had given some of her blood for Naminé's research in creating a medicinal cure to reverse demonification, the remaining time was then occupied by siestas and story exchanges. After the blood sample was extracted, she gave Sora a special needle to extract demon blood samples with, telling him that it could siphon the fluid automatically once it stuck into flesh. Along with the equipment, the elder demoness gifted them two spell scrolls - both of them status spells, as well as returning their Blizzard scroll. All three of them promptly went into his magically enlarged pockets, the first two receiving much protests from the two slayers initially before they were reluctantly talked into accepting them.
The hanafuda card earrings were removed after the excitement of the previous night had faded, carefully kept in a wisteria incense sachet gifted by Kiyoko - the hostess of the first wisteria house he ever visited.
He didn't know the exact reason why, other than a stubborn gut feeling that they had been targeted that night because of those earrings. No matter the reasoning behind it, Sora couldn't help but feel guilty taking them off, for he felt that they had symbolised his full acceptance of becoming a member of the Kamado family. Removing them felt as though he had turned his back on them, for the sake of fulfilling his primary goal. It was an irrational thought, that Sora knew for sure. Xion didn't hesitate to voice similar opinions to him when he told her about it.
Although, it was strangely cathartic when he thought of it as the family legacy was now kept out of harm's way.
Just as they were about to leave - Xion holed up in her box, Yushiro popped by to not only give his version of a friendly goodbye, but offer a parting gift in the form of nuggets of valuable information.
"Hey, Sora," he had said, his arms crossed over his chest and leaning against a wall perpendicular to the entrance. "Have you ever heard of Marechi?"
"No, I haven't," answered Sora truthfully, frowning. He wondered why Yushiro had brought that up. "Why do you ask?"
"Just to confirm," the green-haired demon answered simply, not meeting Sora's curious gaze. "Anyway, Marechi are people with a rare blood. They are the demons' equivalent of a gourmet dish and power booster, rolled into one. A Marechi's nutritional value is the same as consuming fifty ordinary people."
"Then, wouldn't that mean…" Sora trailed off, his face paling in horror.
"Yes, it's exactly what you think it is," he nodded. "If they bleed, they'll be targeted first, as most demons can't resist the allure of the exotic smell. Be careful whenever you're rescuing a civilian from their filthy clutches; they may have rare blood."
"Oh, and another thing," said Yushiro, as an afterthought. "You have a similar effect as Marechi, but it wouldn't matter if you're bleeding or not. It's like a passive ability that couldn't be hidden away, no matter what you do."
"Just great," the slayer groaned.
"But for different reasons," he hissed, voice rising in irritation as though indirectly saying 'I'm not finished yet, you dumbass'. "Demons - the man-eating ones, not us or Xion - are creatures of darkness in a way that's like the Heartless. As such, they feel an innate hatred to the aura of light you and the rest of the awakened Guardians give out. The stronger you get, so will your aura, and the more belligerent they will act towards you. This is especially the case for high-ranking demons like the Twelve Demon Moons. Don't be too surprised if a demon bull-headedly targets you first, if you ever find yourself some allies that are not members of the Guardians."
"So that's why we got attacked all over at Mt. Fujikasane," mused Xion in realisation. "They weren't just hungry for Sora's flesh; they were also attracted by our light!"
"Sucks to be you two," Yushiro offered sympathetically.
"So you're saying we're walking trouble magnets?"
"Sora!" protested the demoness, rattling her box in indignation. "If I become a trouble magnet, it's all because of you! You're the biggest trouble magnet there is in the worlds."
"That's a fitting way to put it," Yushiro barked out an amused laugh.
"Oh, thanks," huffed Sora, feigning offense at their teasing words. He still couldn't stop the amused smirk tugging at the corners of his lips, though.
"Then what about me?" asked Xion curiously. "I am a Guardian as well. But the demons don't show a lot of aggression towards me, aside from a few scathing words about my allegiance, unless I antagonise them."
"Demons are basically shades," he explained matter-of-factly. "Your aura now is muffled because of your curse. You're still light-oriented. Well, as close to the light as a shadow can get. Once you fully and permanently revert into a human, they'll go aggro towards you just as much as they will to Sora."
"So that's how it is," the slayer muttered under his breath, before he brightened up. "We have nothing to worry about, then. By the time we can reverse the curse on Xion, we would be strong enough to fend them off easily."
"Hmph. I should hope so," scoffed Yushiro derisively, but Sora could see a smile on his face. "It's time for you two to leave. The sun's rising soon! Go on, scram! And don't you dare use your magic until your ribs heal over!"
"Heard you loud and clear!" laughed Sora, doing a mock salute to the demon with two fingers. "I'll send your regards to Oyakata if I can, alright?"
"You better!" shouted the demon after their retreating figure, watching the two stepping out of what remained of his concealment spell.
"Hmm?" replied Sora aloud, after making sure that no one could hear him. "What is it?"
"…Father taught you the Dance, didn't he?" she asked tentatively, and he could almost imagine her nervously twiddling with her fingers.
"You mean the Dance of the Fire God?" he blurted contemplatively, glancing up at the soaring black dot that is Matsuemon against the pastel-toned sky. "Yeah, he did. Why do you ask?"
"I know the tradition is that only the eldest gets to learn it, but…" Xion trailed off, letting a pregnant silence drag out for an uncomfortable period. "But can you teach me the Dance?"
"Eh?" spluttered Sora, caught off-guard at the sudden speed at which Xion had spouted the last sentence. "Slow down, Xion. I didn't catch what you said."
"Is it fine with you if you teach me the Dance of the Fire God?" repeated the demoness, this time in a much calmer pace.
"What are you even asking? Of course it's fine!" he exclaimed, feeling slightly hurt that she thought he would refuse her request. "It's supposed to be a family inheritance, isn't it? I don't see why you, as a part of the family, shouldn't be allowed to learn it. But why the sudden interest?"
"Just that… now that I think about it, the Dance is a lot like a breath style. Don't you agree?"
"Yeah," mumbled Sora, frowning as he remembered the mesmerisingly spirited fashion of its dance forms. "It reminded me a lot of the techniques I used to pull off when I still had the Keyblade. Maybe that was why I took to learning it so easily. The breathing rhythm is a bit tricky, though. It's like the Water Breathing, but much rougher and way more intense."
"I can handle it," replied Xion confidently.
"But maybe not now," said Sora sheepishly, scratching the side of his cheek. "Naminé told me to refrain from strenuous activities until I recover, but I'll see to it whenever I can. It's embarrassing to say this, but I think I need to refresh my memory. I haven't done it for… two years, I think?"
"Oh man," she gasped, a dull thud resounding inside the box. "I can't believe we forgot to honour that tradition!"
"We'll make up for it in the week leading to this New Year's Eve," he reassured, patting the side of the box as though he was patting her shoulder. "Somehow. And maybe this time, we could do it together."
"Thanks, Sora," hummed Xion gratefully.
"No problem," smiled the brunet. "Oh, and we're here."
They came to a gate bearing a familiar crest engraved with purple ink - the kanji '藤' surrounded by two intricately drawn wisteria vines. The signature emblem for the family that had been providing sanctuary for the swordsmen of the Demon Slaying Corps. Slowly, the gates creaked open, revealing two girls garbed in identical kimonos behind them, bowing reverently at the newly arrived Sora.
Like before, they were ushered into the residence, repeating the routine that Sora experienced the previous time. Except, this wisteria house was hosted by a family of seven. A middle-aged couple, a gangling youth in his early twenties, a pair of identical twin sisters around Sora's physical age, and an elderly but friendly couple which he assumed were the grandparents. Although, it was different in the sense that he was instantly served breakfast upon arrival and a change in attire. Their uniforms were quickly taken away to be washed and mended.
Not that neither of them minded. Although the latter's sudden appearance caused some confusion amongst the hosts, since she had entered via box.
Mealtime turned out not to be a two-man affair as they had expected. Not because the hosting family had joined them, but because there was another slayer recuperating under the same roof. Like themselves, instead of wearing the Corps' uniform, he wore a dark kimono and a pensive countenance that reminded the two siblings of a disciplined samurai as they were commonly illustrated in literature.
That was clear in the manner as he sat on the floor in a flawless seiza position, both hands on his lap and his eyes closed as though meditating. Spikes of chestnut hair flanked the sides of his head, the rest pulled back into a neat but short ponytail. His complexion was dark, complementing his light brown locks and his brawny frame well. What was amazing was the fact that he did not even so much as twitch at any movements in his surroundings, his posture unnaturally still like a stubborn mountain resisting wear from the passage of time.
The only time the man broke from his meditative trance was when the hosts had brought in their meals. Even then, he didn't move until they had left the room for them to enjoy their meal in privacy. Eyes cracking open, revealing dark brown irises that betrayed no emotion whatsoever, he muttered a word of thanks to their now absent hosts. It was only then did he finally acknowledge his two gawking spectators-cum-juniors with a slight incline of his head.
"Are you from the Corps as well?" asked Sora curiously.
The man nodded.
"What's your name?" the demoness followed up with a question of her own. "I'm Nezuko Kamado."
"My name's Tanjiro, Nezuko's older brother," introduced Sora in an amicable tone, his brow twitching when the still-foreign name rolled off his tongue.
"…Genki Bushida," the hulking man finally relented, his voice a deep rumbling baritone.
"Wow, he's not much of a talker, is he?" commented Sora wryly.
"He's like Lexaeus," Xion chimed in her agreement. "Strong and silent. Someone who would rather let their actions speak for them."
They spent the rest of breakfast in silence, broken by their attempts to engage him in small talk. Ranging from which Breath Style he uses (Breath of Stone) to his current ranking in the Corps (Kinoe) and his family (no response), all of which he offered his responses in as terse a manner as possible. Occasionally, Sora would find himself stricken by the fear that he had found their attempts to get him out of his shell irritating, only to be reassured by the lack of the telltale scent. Instead, a thin smell of amusement enveloped him, much like how an adult would regard the innocence of a toddler.
If it weren't for his acute sense of smell, Sora would have genuinely thought Genki was not at all amused by their nosy prodding. This thought was bolstered even more when the senior slayer politely excused himself, much to the immense surprise of one of the hosts.
"I had thought he was mute," joked the middle-aged woman, who they later learned was named Hoshiko. "Even to us, the most he would do was send us a grateful smile. And that was only once!"
Genki still didn't talk much since their first meeting, although bumping into each other was a regular occurrence. Every time it happened, it felt as though the man would make it a point to at least flash a small but friendly smile their way before walking off to do whatever business that needs his attention.
A doctor visited and examined them after breakfast. To no one's surprise, he had announced Sora to have cracked ribs, prescribing him a week off missions and renewing the bandages wrapping around his splotchy chest. Xion, obviously, had no apparent injuries or physical complications, but she was still permitted to rest with Sora. They had holed themselves up in their assigned guest room for the rest of the morning and partially into the afternoon, studying the three scrolls unrolled before them.
It wasn't really studying like they did with the Fire scroll, now that they know how to utilise them. This was more like skimming through a chapter in a textbook before it was covered in a class.
One of the scrolls waiting to be mastered was Blizzard, and the other two gifts from Naminé. One of them seemed to teach them how to cast Cure, and the other Esuna. The latter was a wild guess, since it had no pictorial illustration unlike Cure, which had an intricate sketch of a bellflower underneath the kanji '癒'. The Esuna scroll only had the kanji '解', which they both came to agree that it meant dispelling a status condition.
Having no other way to proceed due to their current circumstances, they stashed away the scrolls for another day, whilst they filled in their break period with miscellaneous activities ranging from giving their katanas their long due maintenance to chatting with the members of the host family.
However, one thought plagued Sora's mind the entire day. A particular memory from earlier, to be exact. Xion's sudden request to learn the Dance made him strangely giddy, and he had the urge to teach her the steps right there and then in spite of the fact that he was in no condition for strenuous activities. At least, that was what everyone sans himself thought. There was, in fact, a way for him to fulfill her request, but he wasn't sure if he could access the ethereal plane like before. Or whether she could enter the realm, if he could.
She was a Keyblade Wielder like himself, so she shouldn't have any issues. Right?
Ironic that he would find the need to revisit his former prison, because of his current circumstances. It was an exquisite place, with the infinite expanse of sea and sky, but even the most gorgeous of landscapes could get dull if that was all you see. Along with the countless worries of the life Sora had left behind as the price for his thoughtless intervention, there was no room left in his mind for him to properly enjoy the Final World.
Well, he'll have to give it a shot tonight, and hope for the best. For his, and Xion's sake.
That was unexpected. Seems he still got it down, albeit having to take a detour before arriving at the destination.
'It' basically entering the Station first, then getting washed away by a metaphysical tsunami wave before surfacing back at the ethereal realm of sky and water. The Final World had changed little since he last saw it, with the minor exception of the dawn sky when it had been night, as though to reflect Sora's renewed slate. That wasn't the only change that had occurred in said world.
Through the sole reflection in the glistening surface, Sora discovered - in equal parts shock and awe - that he had reverted to his original appearance. Spiky brown hair? Check. Brilliant blue eyes? Check. Tanned islander skin? Check. Crown necklace. Check. His magical combat attire from his final adventure? Also check. What was missing was Kingdom Key, and it would complete the picture of his original self. That last part was a letdown, since the Keyblade still refused to answer his summons. The only weapon that he could wield now was his nichirin blade.
Which now hung from his hip in its scabbard.
Well, fine. He'll take what he could get. Doesn't mean he had expected the weapon to be carried over. Or his entire inventory, for that matter (yes, he rifled through his pockets to find - surprise! Three spell scrolls, his incense sachet and Kairi's wayfinder).
Either way, those were not the most important things. What mattered most was whether his injuries had been carried over into this realm. Only one way to find out.
Drawing in a deep breath, Sora unsheathed his katana, poising it in a horizontal stance in front of him. He closed his eyes, exhaled, and took in another breath to activate Total Concentration Breathing. Much to his delight, his ribs did not ache at the activity, encouraging him to carry on to the next stage of his experiment. In a blindingly quick flourish, he swung the blade into a graceful but deadly arc of sheer concentrated strength, cutting down the neck of an imaginary enemy.
Total Concentration, Water Breathing, First Form: Water Surface Slash!
No pain came after that. If anything, the attack reinvigorated Sora in the same way as inhaling a cup of steaming coffee after getting out of bed. That settles it; his injuries are nonexistent while he was within the Final World. A pleased grin crept across his face. This was the perfect spot to train! Not having to worry about reopening still-healing wounds, and most of all, not having to fret about oblivious people walking in on him practicing magic.
Maybe he could start with mastering Blizzard by his lonesome? Or should he wait for Xion?
The spells could wait, Sora finally decided. I need to brush up on the Dance right now.
Levelling the sword to his eye-level by his side, he ran through the twelve forms of the family kagura, racking his memory as hard as he could. Spins, leaps, lunges, somersaults. Intense movements that turned his bloodstream and lungs into scorching liquid fire. A fitting aftereffect, considering the deity this ritualistic dance was dedicated towards. It was just as he remembered, a dance that could have been a magnificent sword-wielding style.
A pity he hadn't had the chance to perform it for the last two years.
The twelfth form ended, completing the whole dance with the sword angled in such a manner that the point was directed earthwards at a slight tilt to the right. His body trembled from exertion, gasping in breaths despite the burning sensations of his lungs.
Yet, exhaustion did nothing to stifle the euphoric laughter that erupted moments later. Before Sora knew it, he had collapsed onto his rear, elation coursing through his entire system. He was exhausted, immensely so. But the feeling that came with it… it was pure bliss! That wasn't a foreign emotion; it was the exact feeling as when a warrior reunites with the weapon they were meant to wield. Except in this case, this was a style that felt it had been personally tailored to his strengths and combat disposition, despite it leaving him wracked with fatigue after performance.
As skilful as Sora was with the Breath of Water, he just didn't have the affinity for it like he had with the Dance of the Fire God. They were similar in the sense that their effectiveness derived from a special breathing technique, but that was where the similarities ended. The Water Breathing was fluid and graceful, yet unexpectedly powerful when the situation calls for it, just like its elemental namesake. A style that emphasises on adaptability on the battlefield, like water changing its shape to fit its container. While he prided himself on his versatility in combat, the Breath of Water was decidedly not the right one for him.
The Dance, on the other hand, was none of that. If he had to choose something to compare it to, Sora would have gone for the sun with no hesitation. Demanding would be an understatement if it were carried out by an untrained body. Its movements were so intense, so much so that it rivalled the passion of the sun on a severe drought in summer. A sword dance that pushes its wielder's body beyond the expected limits that when executed well, it would grant them an immeasurable boost in power. Fast, furious and passionate, yet not lacking in defenses at it would seem at first glance.
It was a fighting style Sora would definitely have favoured. Well-rounded, not at all lacking in the offensive or defensive departments. A 'Master of All' type.
Letting out one last chortle, he got back up to his feet, fiery determination spurring a desire to bring the Kamado's legacy into battle. Retaking his stance, he redid the routine, again, and again, not stopping until each movement had been "pounded into the marrows of his bones and engraved deeply into his mind", as Sabito liked to call it. Even as fatigue threatened to drag his body to the ground, Sora forced himself to continue developing the Dance into practical sword techniques, form by form.
By the time he had developed the twelfth form into a satisfactory combat technique, he was ready to keel over at a moment's notice. The sword was brought into a powerful horizontal slash, followed by twirling it masterfully by the handle before sheathing it back into its scabbard.
Then, he blacked out, falling onto his back and sinking into the metaphysical watery depths. And he woke up with regret pooling in his chest, the consequences of his impulsive decision hitting him like a bullet train.
Lesson learned: everything sans physical injuries can be carried over to his avatar on the Final World, and vice versa. The latter included whatever skills he had mastered over there and, unfortunately, the same goes for exhaustion. Although the results were worthwhile, the grogginess that clouded his mind and how stiff his body felt was a nuisance. He wanted nothing more than to lie in bed and snooze the day away, but Xion had other ideas.
"Wake up, lazy bum!" she had chided, rolling him to the side with a not-so gentle nudge of her foot. "It's almost noon!"
"One more minute…" he groaned, folding his pillow over his ears to block out the noise. "I'm beat. Do me a favour and let me sleep it off…"
"What in the name of Light did you do last night?!" demanded Xion, sounding like she was just a fraction away from slapping him silly. "You never got tired from walking or fighting multiple nights in a row. What happened to you?"
"Training," he mumbled groggily, beginning to slip back into sleep. "Guess I went overboard."
"What! This isn't funny, Sora!"
"Serious," he said absent-mindedly. "I know better than not to exert my body as it is, so I went to the Final World to train instead."
"What difference does it make?" the demoness sighed, giving out a scent of exasperation. "You should be resting, not wearing yourself out into mush."
"Sorry," slurred Sora. "I just wanted to brush up on the Dance so I can teach you better. Didn't you say you wanted to learn it?"
She gave no response, but there was a stench of regret and shame permeating the air. Moments later, he felt a pair of arms snaking around his waist and a face pressing affectionately against his back. Her embrace felt warm, a far cry from the icy touch she used to have.
"Just… take care of yourself, alright?" whispered Xion, her voice cracking up.
He shifted, frowning when he saw tears brimming in her semi-closed eyes. Quietly, he adjusted himself, pulling her into a tighter hug and brushing his thumb across her eyes. She stilled, burying her face deeper into his chest.
"Don't cry. I don't mean to make you worry," soothed Sora. His lips quirked upwards into a wistful smile, feeling the tears gathering in his closed eyes. "I guess I'm lucky for you to be reborn as my baby sister, aren't I?"
"You sappy idiot," she snapped, but it lacked the usual edge. "If Kairi were here, she would have given you a good lecture."
"Nah," he grinned cheekily back. "She'll slap me first, tell me off and then hug me."
"Smartass," retorted Xion with a relieved smile, leaning against his chest. "I was so worried when you wouldn't wake up."
"Aren't I awake now?"
"You haven't changed much, have you?" she replied in jest, finally detaching herself from Sora, wiping her eyes with a swipe of her sleeve. "Seems like being the breadwinner of the family for years wasn't enough to fully shake the laziness off you."
"Good afternoon. Finally awake, I see?" exclaimed Hoshiko abruptly, entering the room with a tray in hand. The aroma of food wafted into the room. They flinched, turning their surprised stares to the middle-aged woman. "I was about to call in a doctor if you had slept on, you know?"
"Sorry for all the trouble I caused," he apologised, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "I was exhausted."
"I'm not surprised," she chuckled, placing down the tray beside his futon. There was a bowl of rice, some grilled fish, pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming miso soup on the tray. "You demon slayers are so hardworking, but please take care of yourself. Don't make your sister worry so much."
"Hear that, nii-san?" drawled Xion with a knowing smile, purposefully dragging out the honorific.
"Yes, yes," he laughed, fondly ruffling her hair. "Loud and clear."
She scowled in mock annoyance, playfully swatting the offending hand away.
"Siblings," sighed Hoshiko with an amused shake of her head. "Well, I'll leave you to your meal. Call me when you're done eating."
"Thank you," nodded Sora with a grateful smile. The woman returned the gesture, politely excusing herself out of the room.
"Have you eaten yet, Xion?"
"I already had lunch," she answered, pushing the tray closer to Sora. "But you haven't. Just eat, don't worry about me."
He nodded, grimacing a tad when he extended his arms to reach for the bowl of rice. "Yeesh, my arms feel stiff."
"I believe that happens when you train too hard," deadpanned Xion, watching Sora scarf down the meal like he always did. In private, that is. He wouldn't dare eat so savagely in front of people that were not his trusted comrades.
"Yeesh, haven't you told me off enough" said Sora. "By the way, can you-"
"No," she interjected. Sora glanced up, confused. Sighing, the demoness added, "I know what you're thinking. You're not going back to the Final World until you get some rest in, and I won't ask you to train me until you recover fully. That's final."
"Fine," he groused. "But you didn't answer my question."
"Yes. I. Can," she grunted, punctuating each syllable forcefully. "Happy now?"
"Very," quipped Sora, chewing on a piece of fish.
Her response was to bury her face into her hands, muffling a drawn-out groan of frustration.
Xion didn't come to the Final World with him until two days after, after the doctor had deemed Sora well enough to carry out some moderate exercises. He was still confined to the hiatus, anyway.
She took to learning it almost like a duck to water, although Sora noticed that it left her winded every time she executed a form. Aside from the frequent need for corrections in her movements, Xion was doing rather well in learning the Dance. By the end of the third visit, Xion had mastered most of the forms, but applying it to actual combat was still a work in progress. The main problem being that she kept on faltering mid-execution and thus reducing the effectiveness of the attack.
Sora has yet to decide whether it was because Xion reflexively fell back to the Breath of Water, only to change it mid-way to a form of the Dance of the Fire God, or that her foundation was still shaky.
Just like himself, she had reverted to her original appearance of a petite black-haired, indigo-eyed girl upon arriving in the Final World, with nothing from her current appearance save for the aster hairpin in her hair. However, it seemed she had undergone a wardrobe change, rather than changing back into her preferred choice of clothing like himself.
Instead of her chosen attire, she donned a light gray tank-top with black frills at the top hems, paired with a black skirt lined with an alabaster stripe patterned with dark hatches at the edge held at her waist with an ebony belt, her nichirin blade's scabbard slung at her right hip. Over her tank top was a black denim hoodie with midnight blue highlights at the placket and the rim of the pockets, coupled with four silver buttons at the front - two on each side - and sable fingerless gloves to complete the picture. An arrowhead-tipped silver cross charm, just like the one on Roxas' zipper, dangled from her neck from a black string.
To be honest, Sora thought Xion looked better in this getup than her old one.
Before they ended their third training session, the two siblings dedicated their time to learn the three spells. It was a cinch this round, as they now knew what to expect and how to utilise it. Said magical training somehow went from conducting test runs, into an intense game of Blizzard-and-Fire tag that had no clear winner. At the end, both of them had their butts glued to the ground; grinning, panting and red in the face from exhaustion, along from laughing too hard at the ridiculous 'makeup' they inadvertently received during the impromptu game.
The fourth night came as a total surprise to the siblings.
Just like the previous nights, they had wanted to access the Final World. Things didn't go as planned, and they wound up in a different realm by accident. A dark void where the laws of physics held little weight, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a starry sky on a clear winter's night. Scintillating vanilla mist - reminding Sora of the galaxies he'd seen during his interstellar voyages - functioned as a pathway leading to countless massive ornate doors scattered all over the dimension.
"Whoa," breathed Xion in awe, softly landing on the misty path. She took in the new surroundings with amazement.
"Where are we?" Sora mused aloud, watching the breathtaking scenery with his eyes wide with wonder. "This definitely isn't the Final World."
"I don't know," she replied with a frown. "Maybe we should look around?"
Humming in concurrence, they split up, inspecting the various doorways to see if it might yield a clue to their whereabouts. They would have ventured to wherever the gates would have led to, had they not been bound by thick bronze chains held securely in place with a sturdy padlock forged out of light. Inwardly, they both knew they could shatter the lock, but just staring at the chains gave them an eerie premonition that told them doing so was not a good idea.
So they obeyed their intuition. Which presented another set of problems soon enough.
"Hey, Sora!" called Xion, causing said person to snap his head towards the waving girl. "This one's unlocked!"
He rushed over to join her before aquamarine doors, its thick cobalt frames edged with sparkling silver carved in the image of calm ocean waves. Unlike its brethren, the chains that were supposed to bind it shut were ripped off, leaving the remnants hanging ominously from the inner edges. Flickering golden shrapnels of a destroyed padlock scattered haphazardly on the misty ground before the mysterious entrance. Wisps of dark miasma diffused menacingly from the ornate gates, dark smoke overflowing with a horrid pong of sulfurous fumes.
"Do you feel it?"
"The Darkness?" clarified Xion, before nodding once. "Yeah. Clear as day."
"Do you think…" trailed Sora, looking distantly at an unspecified corner. "The Heartless are still around?"
"We hadn't seen any," she shrugged. "But I don't think they would disappear without a trace just like that. Darkness will always exist in people's hearts."
"Should we destroy the darkness plaguing whatever lies beyond this door?"
On cue, Sora latched both hands on the handles and pushed. It yielded to his strength with a drawn-out groan, releasing blinding torrents of golden light that wasted no time in engulfing the two siblings. As soon as it happened, the light receded, dropping them off in what seemed to be in the heart of a spacious hall. The celebration was in full swing, with people dressed in fancy clothes bustling back and forth, engaging in lively chatterings and eagerly downing cups of alcoholic drinks.
"Huh. Wonder what the commotion is all about?" mused Sora, crossing his arms. He walked over to a finely dressed man, and asked, "Excuse me. May I know what's going on here?"
The man paid no mind to him, laughing away at some joke his friend told him and gaily drinking away. Slightly peeved, Sora raised a hand to tap on his shoulder, trying to get his attention. A gasp escaped him when he saw his hand phasing through the man's shoulder, like he was nothing more than an intangible phantom. Or maybe he was the phantom.
"An illusion?" muttered Xion thoughtfully.
"Or maybe a projected memory," he countered with a theory of his own. "This feels a bit too solid to be an illusion."
"Guess we'll have to settle with quiet observations," she sighed. "And keep our eyes peeled on the Heartless or whatever."
Exchanging nods, they split up once again, taking their places in opposite corners. Sora went for the innermost corner of the room, shuddering whenever he walked through a ghostly crowd. That felt too much like walking through dusty cobwebs in a warehouse neglected for decades. Not a single person paid them any mind, as expected, going about their own businesses. It was good, since it left them the opportunity to observe the commotion with a peace of mind.
Eventually, he figured that it was a wedding reception from the snippets of conversations he had overheard. There was no sign of the bride and groom, but Sora assumed that they were most likely somewhere out of his sight - probably still greeting their guests. He leant back against the wall with his arms folded, watching the hubbub with a detached yet alert stance, much like how a stone gargoyle would guard its church from unwanted guests.
Hours flew by, the celebratory mood gradually winding down as guests retired back to their abodes for the night. One by one, they left the room, until all that remained from the celebration were a young couple. They looked exhausted, but their eyes gleamed with happiness, hands intertwined together that strongly suggested an intimate relationship. Sora raised a curious eyebrow, watching the two disappear behind a sliding door.
"Seen anything?" asked Xion, as she walked towards Sora.
"Nothing," he replied with a shake of his head. Even with his sensitive nose and keen instincts, the intrusive Darkness remained out of his senses. "I'm starting to think we're on a wild goose chase."
"Um, who are you two?"
In unison, they snapped their eyes towards where they heard the childish voice from, zeroing on a boy with shaggy black hair and glassy cobalt eyes. Someone who they are familiar with, albeit in a much younger form. He stared back at the duo, fidgeting anxiously at where he stood, eyes reflecting with confusion and nervousness.
"Giyuu?!" spluttered Sora, almost hitting the ground from shock. "What are you doing here?"
"Why shouldn't I?" replied young Giyuu, confusion seeping into his blank countenance. "I live here. And how did you know my name?"
"You can see us?" blurted Xion.
"Is this some sort of joke?" demanded the young boy, scowling. "It isn't funny!"
"No, it isn't a joke," stated Sora, kneeling down to his eye level. "If you don't believe us, get someone here."
Young Giyuu shot off as soon as the words left Sora's mouth, eager to prove them wrong. Moments after, a flustered woman hurried into the room where Sora and Xion were still in, ushered in by none other than young Giyuu. She took a cautious look around the room, her eyes skimming past the duo like they were nonexistent, before turning back to her brother with an exasperated smile.
"There's no one here, Yuu," she said, eyes half-drooping from exhaustion. "You must be tired. Why don't you go to bed now?"
"But…" he opened his mouth to protest, only to be silenced with a finger to his lips.
"No excuses," the woman stated firmly, like the tone a mother would take if their children defied them.
He wilted visibly, throwing the duo a final look before he reluctantly headed to bed. The woman sighed with a shake of her head, gently closing the door behind her and leaving them in the silence of the now empty room. They stared after them, both of them wondering to themselves why young Giyuu could see them when the others could not.
The brunet flinched, his nose picking up the telltale scent of a demon. Faint, but still detectable. His right hand twitched, itching to unsheathe his sword in one fluid motion and run after the demon. Sora shot Xion a knowing glance, to which she returned an understanding nod. The two went after them, creeping through the narrow gap they managed to soundlessly crack open and shutting it as soon as they walked through, with Sora taking the lead.
Crescendoing screams and panicked crashes shattered the calm silence of the house, accompanied by the overbearing stench of fear. Alarmed, they kicked down the door and burst into the room with one hand on the hilts of their katanas, fervently praying that the inhabitants of the house were still alive, by some miracle.
By the time they arrived, the woman from earlier had gone down with a vicious slash at the neck artery. Blood spurted from the three large gashes on her neck as she fell to the ground, crying out in pain as she drew in her last breath before silently slumping face-down in a growing pool of blood. Another corpse - this one male - lay beside her, his glassy eyes rolled to the back of his skull and contributing to the growing pool of deep crimson on the floor. Towering over them was a hunchbacked demon with a curved horn at its top left spot of its head, froth overflowing from its fanged mouth like a rabid beast.
Through the overbearing stench of blood and death, Sora's nose alerted him of a living presence hidden inside a closet. There was no time to investigate, for something else claimed his utmost attention.
Over the couple's lifeless corpses, clouds of darkness escaped from the bodies in huge torrents, enveloping the grotesque demon in an oily cocoon. The shadows slouched away mere seconds after, revealing a white dragon that was twice the size of an average adult male where the demon once stood. Its talons were tinged with inky purple at the tips and vermillion at the heels. Carmine spots dotted all over its tail, and the spikes at its tail were a vivid shade of violet. On its forehead was a black sigil of a heart with a pointed arrowhead end and two batwing protrusion pointing inwards.
"Oh, crap," mumbled Sora, face paling rapidly. "Why a Nightmare Ryu Dragon, of all things?!"
As though understanding what the brunet had just said, the dragon let out a blood-curdling screech as it crashed onto the ground, rearing back and its maw agape as energy condensed in its mouth.
They both dodge-rolled out of there. Just as a massive firebolt struck at the same spots where they once stood. The impact of the detonation blasted them off-balance, causing Sora to slam against the door of a closet where he smelt a human presence from. It wasn't painful at all, but the sudden blast made him a tad disoriented. Staggering, he got back to full height, his back facing the closet and taking up a battle-ready stance with his nichirin blade.
"Any ideas?" shouted Xion, her platinum-gold blade out and ready for battle.
"Um…" Sora racked his head, trying to remember the Nightmare's weakness. Nothing came to mind, and he muttered a string of frustrated curses underneath his breath. "I can't remember! Just avoid the elemental attacks and you should be fine! Probably."
"Isn't that reassuring!" she yelled sarcastically, ducking a swipe that would have severed her head off.
The Ryu Dragon stumbled from the missed attack, leaving a glaring opening in its defenses that Xion wasted no time in exploiting. Before it could land back on all four feet, she drove her blade in a skyward slash, aiming the razor-sharp edge at the dragon's vulnerable belly… only for the katana to phased through flesh, as if the metal was nothing more than a phantom.
Roaring, the Ryu Dragon reared, intent on squashing Xion into a bloody splotch. Sora's eyes widened; she was too far away for him to be able to rush to her defense! Not to mention he couldn't leave the closet door unguarded, in case the Nightmare decided to go after the dreamer.
Fortunately, it seemed that there was no need for his aid. She yelped, instinctively bringing her arms before her in a futile gesture of defense as a black puddle formed beneath her feet, swallowing her whole without a trace. The dragon slammed its full weight with a resounding boom, unaware that she was no longer there. Another portal materialised beside Sora, spitting out a trembling and pale Xion.
"Oh, jeez, I thought I was a goner there!" she breathed shakily, her words punctuated with exerted heaves.
"I'll live," she replied, flashing him a trembling thumbs up and a shaky smile. It didn't last long, quickly morphing into a confused frown "My attack. Why didn't it work on it?"
"We'll have to rely on magic," he said through clenched teeth. "It might be because they weren't Keyblades, no matter how much light they hold. Besides."
Sora tapped at the closet door behind him, eliciting a startled yell and something - or more accurately, someone - hitting the ground from inside. Xion's eyes widened, immediately understanding the weight of the situation.
"The Nightmare is most likely after him," gestured Sora. "At his current state, he is in no shape to defend himself, so we must guard him."
"Ranged attacks it is," decided Xion with a nod.
Nightmare Ryu Dragon bellowed once more, gathering fiery energy within its maw and readying a Flare attack. Their faces hardened in determination, absent-mindedly flexing their dominant hands, channelling and shaping their mana into the best counter-spell they have in their arsenal. The fireball grew to its zenith, and both Dream Eaters' eyes widened, recognising it as the perfect moment to unleash their spell.
"FIRE!" they yelled, thrusting an open palm into the energy ball.
Crimson bursts of sweltering energy shot forth, colliding with the energy ball before it even had time to leave the Nightmare's maw. The collision sparked off a magnificent explosion, blowing up anything unfortunate enough to be in its vicinity. Out of instinct, they threw themselves over the closet door, grunting as they endured the tremendous impact inflicted on their backs. Glaring light seared their retinas, momentarily wiping their visions into a white void and fading seconds later, revealing the house in complete shambles in the aftermath of the detonation.
And the Ryu Dragon was still in one piece, having the audacity to appear unfazed by the fiery backlash of its failed attack.
"Oh, come on!" exclaimed Xion in exasperation, gawking at the Nightmare shaking the dust off itself like nothing happened. "Shouldn't it be smoking at the spines or something?!"
"It isn't called a dragon for nothing," chucked Sora nervously, drumming his fingers against the hilt of his nichirin blade. He got back onto his feet. "Another round?"
She didn't need to be told twice. Twin firebolts were unleashed, hitting their mark on the Nightmare's snout, but it didn't seem fazed by the spells at all. If anything, it looked even more pissed than it already was. Howling furiously, it flared its wings as it stomped on the ground repeatedly, generating powerful shockwaves that shook the entire terrain, open snout spewing out pressurised gushes of liquid flames at random directions.
Not wanting to waste their energy countering it with a lacklustre Blizzard, they tucked a disgruntled boy under their arm and leapt out of the magma's range. Not fast enough. Droplets of magma splattered onto Xion's unprotected forearm, eating away at her flesh until she cast Blizzard onto the afflicted area, encasing the injured area with a thin layer of frost. Sniffles broke their concentration, causing them to shift a curious glance at the charge they were apparently tasked to protect.
"Stop it…" he sobbed, cowering away from the torn battlefield.
"What?" gaped Xion, aghast at the pathetic plea.
"Just leave me," muttered young Giyuu, as if it explained everything. "I'm not someone worth getting hurt for."
"What are you talking about?" demanded Sora, rapidly shifting his attention on the incensed Nightmare and the near-catatonic boy.
"I SAID STOP IT!" he screamed, violently shaking his head with both hands clamped over his ears. "Don't save me! Tsutako-nee is dead because I couldn't protect anyone. And now you will die because I can't do anything! Don't you see? It's all my fault! I don't want anyone to get hurt because of me anymore. It's for the best…"
"Is that why we can't do a number on that Nightmare?" thought Xion, understanding dawning on her soot-covered face. "Because he thinks he was responsible for every tragedy that involves him? This is some messed up guilt complex."
"Well, we'll have to change his mind!" prompted Sora. "No one deserves this, not even my worst enemy!"
"Our job is to defend people who can't fight for themselves," argued Sora vehemently, sapphire eyes glinting with steely determination. "Getting injured is a sacrifice we are willing to make in the name of protecting others. Don't blame yourself for a choice we made for ourselves."
"And don't you think we're going to leave you here, ever!" she added, glowering. "You're in no position to be the judge of your own worth right now. We're ending this Nightmare, and that's final."
"No, you're not! Stop saying that!" snapped Xion, her hand twitching restlessly on the hilt of her katana. "If you were, you wouldn't have spared my life two years ago, against everything your duty stood for. You wouldn't have seen the humanity I still retain underneath the skin of an abomination. And you definitely wouldn't have humoured our conviction to find a cure for this damned curse by sending us to your mentor!"
Young Giyuu's eyes widened, staring dumbly into her own. Sora couldn't pinpoint the exact emotions sparking at sporadic intervals within his glassy blue eyes, but he would be lying if he claimed that he didn't harbour some hope that they had knocked some sense through his noggin. It didn't matter if he responded; what was important was that he changed his mind. That he - somehow, and by some miracle - realise that he still wanted to keep on living.
If not… then the Nightmare would torment him forever. There's nothing much they could do if their charge refused to see what was worth in himself.
"It's true!" added Sora imploringly for good measure. "You don't deserve to be trapped in this horrible nightmare! Nobody does!"
Screeches interrupted their spontaneous pep talk, drawing their attention back to the Nightmare circling overhead. Letting loose a battle roar, it made a steep dive towards them, draconic form cloaked in fiery green. Initially, Sora wanted to activate Firestorm, but he faltered just as the magical energy thrummed eagerly in his chest cavity, Naminé's warnings about refraining from using Limits ringing ominously in his skull. With a resigned sigh, he released the buildup of mana, letting it peter and disperse back into his system.
Eyes snapping back to full attention, Sora seized young Giyuu by the waist, pulling him along with his inhuman leap. Just as the fireball smashed a smoking crater. Shrieking, the dragon pounced onto Sora, wings flared and claws sharpened to a deadly point, only to its claws to be blocked by his nichirin blade.
Snarling, the Nightmare flapped its wings, adding more force behind its already tremendous weight. He grunted at the sudden increase in pressure against his sword, drawing a deep inhale to give him the strength he needed to throw the Ryu Dragon off-balance. With a yell, Sora swung his katana, yanking it free from the dragon's weight and slammed the butt of the blade into its vulnerable torso. Except, the weapon phased through it, just like how Xion's had gone through it like it had been a spectre.
In an anticlimactic turn of events, he hit the ground, not even having the privilege to cry out in surprise when the Nightmare stomped on him. Hard. So hard, that it squeezed the wind out of his lungs like a kid jumping on a very leaky air mattress. Excruciating agony hammered at his chest, crushing his links to consciousness with ruthless ease. One. By. One. Until all that kept him coherent was his sheer willpower, and the immense weight lifting off his body.
Even that couldn't last forever. The last he heard was an enraged battle cry, before falling into the abyss of unconsciousness.
Giyuu was having the worst migraine of his life.
It would have been much more bearable, were it just a mere physical ailment in the waking world. At least he could numb it with some painkillers and then sleep the pain off. But no, his mind decided that a nightmare isn't complete without a splitting headache. A nightmare he had no way of waking up from, forcing him to face his inner demons, all merged into a singular entity. A terrifying force of nature, if he wanted to get poetic.
Whenever Giyuu laid eyes on the living personification of his nightmare, flashes of a foreign memory would play in his mind. Most of them were about a boy with spiky brown hair with a crown necklace (exactly like the one that swordsman wore), a redhead girl (she and the dark-haired girl looked like twins), and fierce battles between the forces of light and darkness. All of which were tinged with heavy, poignant emotions, as though the original bearer of those memories had lived a life full of regret, sorrow and self-hatred.
Not unlike himself.
It felt alien, yet at the same time it felt right. It was like revisiting a childhood memory for nostalgia's sake, only to feel a sense of disillusionment when they saw the alien yet familiar remnant of their younger and innocent days. Deep down in his heart, he felt that he should know them, but his mind obstinately insisted that he shouldn't. That had gone beyond confusing; it had ventured into obscure territories that he couldn't put a name to.
Eventually, the agony of his inner dilemma rose to a tipping point, proving too much for his normally infallible stoicism to handle. Succumbing to a pain-induced delirium, he rambled, acting on a repressed personality and suppressed emotions. He had no clue what he said exactly, other than it was straight from the heart. The feelings that he kept under lock and key, where he had hoped that it would remain in the darkness evermore until it rotted away.
Apparently, that was not meant to be.
A voice repeated itself inside his head, every time one of those baffling flashbacks wound down into oblivion. Over and over, not accepting his tormented silence at the end of each memory as a valid answer. When it posed its question once again, he couldn't help but snap a sarcastic question back.
Do you wish to reclaim your legacy?
What's the price? My life? My sanity? Or my firstborn?
Your sense of humour is insufferable. Do you not want to save them?
Why should I?
Are they not your friends? I recall that you have grown attached to them.
Who I associate with is none of your business. Why do you keep pestering me with that question? I thought I made it obvious that I didn't want to be bothered.
Just like the Key, the Lightning and the Reflection, you are given the chance to awaken. Will you accept it?
You've got the wrong person. I'm no one special. Find someone else to do the job.
Oh, I am afraid you misunderstood. Out of them all, you are one of the few worthy of the 'Guardian' title. That power still slumbers within you, although your original legacy is lost to the passage of time. It is very difficult to mistake the glowing potential hidden within your heart and soul. You are unique, one of a kind, even amongst your equals. There is no one else like you. I can help you unlock those suppressed abilities, if you would let me.
Hmph. I don't see why I would accept this devil's bargain of yours.
Devil? Please. The entity you call 'devil' only exists in the minds of mortals. This is not a bargain, for your destiny has long since set in stone. All I am doing is nudging you towards the right direction. Your comrades - kinsmen, dare I say - are eagerly awaiting your return. It would be cruel to deny them that, would it not?
I have no kin left.
They will be your kin - if you awaken. So what do you say?
Will I leave this life behind?
Oh, no! If that is what you are concerned about, there is no need for that. Your memories of this life will not be wiped clean to make way for the original personality. Think of it as a permanent fusion, with you having traits from both incarnations of yourself. You will still identify yourself as you are now, but with some detachment. Do not worry, your memories and sentiments that define you in this incarnation will be carried forth. Worse comes to worse, you will be living - what was the term again? Ah, yes - a double life, until the whole ensemble is gathered. So what do you say?
On cue, images rushed into his mind, filling up the gaps between the flashbacks. As more of those images surfaced, the pain that once threatened to split his head into halves subsided without putting up so much as a struggle, leaving behind a tranquil calmness. Within a subconscious realm, Giyuu's avatar walked towards the shadows, patting the stirring other-him on the shoulder with a resigned smirk, as though passing on a metaphorical torch.
His other-self flashed a grateful smile back, clapping a hand over his wrist and nodding resolutely, as though to reassure him. Cobalt eyes met teal, and Giyuu's avatar smiled for the last time. His eyes fluttered shut, a peaceful countenance washing over his normally blank features as he fell on his back, limp form fading away into motes of crystal blue light that melded into the stained glass platform. An apt symbolism of the harmonious unification of the two personalities: the old and the new. Light exploded from the Station, whisking the newly awakened reincarnate back into his Dream reality.
As though someone had set his body on auto-pilot, he felt himself breaking into a sprint through closed eyes, the familiar weight of his scabbard slapping against his sides. In a fluid motion, he pulled his katana free from its restraints, just as his eyes snapped open - revealing cobalt irises flecked with teal. Upon exposure to air, the blue blade's colouration darkened into a rich reddish violet hue (like the twilit sky, he noted with amusement), all the way to the third-quarter mark where it lightened into pale gold. A colour the Guardians have come to associate with the element they had pledged their allegiances to.
"GET LOST!" he roared, ramming the butt of his sword into the dragon's temple.
The winged reptile regarded him, but it had noticed him too late for it to evade the attack. The powerful collision knocked the Nightmare off-balance, just enough for it to fully remove its crushing weight on the comatose brunet. Seizing his opportunity, he scooped the boy up and backpedalled away from the dazed dragon, rejoining a gawking Xion's side.
"Riku?!" she blurted out, covering her mouth with a shaky hand.
"Long time, no see. Xion," he greeted back, saluting her with two fingers. Carefully, he placed Sora back on the ground by her feet. "Watch him for me, won't you? It's about time I face my inner demons."
"Go get them," said Xion, the edges of her lip twitched upwards into an encouraging smile. "Promise we'll meet in the real world soon?"
"No promises," chuckled Riku. "But I'll try."
The raven-haired girl nodded, clutching Sora's inert body closer to her chest as they both shimmered out of existence. In a burst of golden light, they vanished, spiriting themselves out of the Realm of Sleep and back into the real world.
He turned his attention back to the Ryu Dragon, taking up his stance, passively watching the Nightmare charging up another fire attack which he identified as a Firaga Burst. Entering a meditative state, Riku inhaled deeply, his posture still as a statue as he waited for the right moment to unleash his hidden technique. Hearing the Nightmare bellowing, he cracked his eyes open lazily, nonchalantly watching the barrages of fireballs hurtling towards him.
Total Concentration, Water Breathing, Eleventh Form: Lull.
The fireballs were sliced into shards just as they were about to hit him, clattering harmlessly as dull shards at the ground beside his feet. Then, he vanished, reappearing in front of a stunned Nightmare Dragon to deliver a lightning quick slash. The attack bisected the Nightmare cleanly into half, wisps of dark miasma spilling forth as it gave one last howl of defeat, crashing onto the ground, never to get up. Glaring light erupted from the disintegrating remains of the Ryu Dragon, painting his entire vision white.
As soon as it happened, Riku jolted awake in his personal chamber of the Water Estate, his breathing laboured and his body slick with a thin layer of sweat. Taking a few minutes to calm himself, he stared at his hands blankly, recollecting the strangely vivid dream that he had and his Awakening within a dream.
Light chuckles escaped him, and he shook his head in disbelief. Once upon a time, he had been Sora's Dream Eater, rescuing his childhood friend from the darkness that tried to trap him within the confines of an everlasting sleep. It seemed that the brunet returned the favour in this lifetime, knocking some sense into him and helped him muster up the courage to stand up against the Nightmare that had tormented him for years. At his own expense, as usual.
So he supposed he could call it even?
He glanced at the window, noting it to be daybreak. Heaving a sigh, Riku got out of bed, walking over to the wall mount where his nichirin blade was propped onto. He wondered if the blade would change colour like it had in his dream, to which his voice of reason instantly ridiculed and reminding him that it would stay that colour once it was unsheathed for the first time. Still, it wouldn't hurt to humour his curiosity, would it?
Removing it from the mount, he pulled the katana out of its scabbard, the exquisite blue metal reflecting his expectant countenance. In the past, when he was just Giyuu Tomioka, he had a mane of shaggy raven hair. Now that he had reawakened his memories as Riku, his once black locks now gained a silvery gradient, turning silver at the tips while the roots kept its dark colouration. Cobalt irises flecked with teal at the outer rim gazed back. Yet another reminder of who he was before entering this life.
Minutes passed, yet no change occurred. Heart inexplicably sinking in disappointment, he was about to sheath it when something miraculous happened.
"Oh crap," he breathed in amazement.
Reddish violet spots dotted all over the bluish metal, oceanic blue fading to light gray to make room for the new colour as the spots grew into splotches. The changeover was gradual, but certain. When the violet hue reached the third-quarter mark, it lightened to a pale golden gradient, a colour that stretched to the blade's tip. Riku's jaw dropped, every thought process running in his mind grinding to an abrupt halt from utter astonishment.
Well, this is definitely going to raise a lot of questions, thought Riku, scratching the back of his head in exasperation.
Another chapter out! Nothing much to say here, but I hoped you enjoyed the latest chapter. Oh, and this fic is placed on temporary hiatus because of my upcoming trial exams. Please be patient with me! I'll be back in, say, end of November. I'll upload more frequently once I'm done with my IGCSEs in October/November. Again, thanks in advance for your limitless patience!