"Do you feel that?" he asked, and Lea just blinked at him.
"Feel what?" he said with a frown.
"Riku, are you okay?" Kairi asked, leaning over and looking him in the eye. "You aren't getting sick again, are you?"
Riku shook his head. "No, it doesn't feel like that at all," he said, trying again to draw a full breath and wincing as his chest constricted. It felt like every nerve in his body was buzzing, electrified, and it was making the hair at the base of his neck stand up. "Something is... wrong, here," he said, getting to his feet and moving toward the door.
"Wrong how?" Kairi asked, and Riku looked over his shoulder at her.
"I dunno," he said, his hand still over his heart, "but we won't get any answers in here."
Lea and Kairi got to their feet and followed him as he stepped out of the train and onto the plush, green grass of what appeared to be a wide meadow. The air was clean and fresh, and off in the distance, Riku could see a great white castle upon a hilltop.
"So it's a kingdom," Lea said, stepping up beside Riku, scratching his head. "I guess we should go talk to the king?"
"I... I guess so," Riku said. Presumably the king of that castle would be in charge of this world, but Yen Sid hadn't given them any direction this time. Previously, they had at least been given a name, or a place to go. Maybe Lea was right: maybe something about this mission was off.
"It looks like kind of a hike," Kairi said, tapping the toes of her shoes against the grass. "Hills and cliffs and everything! Good thing I wore sneakers."
"Why would the train drop us off here, I wonder?" Lea mused then, and Riku looked curiously at him. He lifted his palms. "I mean, I know it can't just pull up in the middle of town, but..." He gestured toward the castle. "That's at least a mile away, on that rugged terrain," he said. "All the previous worlds, we were a little out of the way, but mostly just enough to be securely out of sight of any prying civilian eyes."
"He's right, you know?" Kairi said, tapping her chin, her brow furrowed. "Even though the train can't just deliver us to the doorstep, as it were, it usually drops us off pretty close to where we need to be." She gestured toward the castle. "There's got to be a parking spot closer to the castle than this."
Riku's hand was still pressed over his heart, that heaviness still squeezing his chest and making his breath too short. What was this place? He lifted his eyes again and frowned at the castle, then looked at Lea, his expression a bit strained.
"But... if we're not supposed to go to the castle, then..."
Then who was in charge of this world? And where were they supposed to meet them?
Riku squeezed his eyes closed as the crushing sensation around his heart grew stronger, and he felt Lea close a hand around his shoulder as if to steady him.
"Riku, are you sure you're okay?" he asked, but his voice sounded foggy and far-off somehow. "Maybe we should go back and try again some other day."
"No," Riku said sharply, shaking his head. This feeling, it was so familiar. His heart was pounding, his breath rasping against his throat, and he felt as though his skin was crawling, his nerves were so alight. When had he felt like this? Why did it make his pulse quicken with fear?
You see? It's just as I told you.
The guttural cry of a raven broke through Riku's panic like a hammer against glass, and suddenly he knew exactly what this feeling was, and who was behind it.
You're better off without that wretched boy.
Now, think no more of him and come with me.
We had a deal, yes?
You help us, and we grant you your wish...
He straightened abruptly, taking a stumbling step backward, and as he watched the raven circle overhead, he focused his breathing and narrowed his eyes.
Beware the darkness in your heart. The Heartless prey on it.
In that moment, Yen Sid's lack of instruction made all too much sense.
"I... I know who lives in this world," he said, and as the crushing feeling in his chest grew almost unbearable, Riku grunted in pain, then took a sudden, sharp breath as the feeling intensified, leaving him almost blinded. He knew now why this feeling was familiar. This was a Darkness he knew all too well, a thick and cloying wickedness with a distinct aura all its own. He didn't know how he hadn't recognized it the second they had arrived.
"Riku?" Kairi's voice was thin, and as the raven twisted in a sharp circle in the air, Riku grit his teeth, watching a pool of black smoke curl up out of the ground.
"Both of you, be on your guard," he said stiffly, fisting his hands at his sides as he fought the crushing sensation down, "but don't draw your weapons."
If there was going to be a fight, he wasn't going to be the one to start it. Not here, not on her home turf. Why Yen Sid had sent them here, to this world, of all places, was beyond him, but whatever the old man's reasons, Riku wasn't going to let the ghosts of his past get in the way of this mission. He had already once overcome this feeling of insurmountable weight, of inescapable defeat and powerlessness. He could do it again.
"My, my, aren't you a sight for sore eyes?" a voice echoed from the smoke gathering above the grass, and if Lea and Kairi hadn't had a guess as to what was coming next before, they certainly had one now. The smoke took shape in a flash of green flame, and Lea's hand was on Riku's shoulder again as the figure of a tall, thin woman emerged from the obscurity, a staff in her long, delicate hand and a pair of twisted horns atop her head. She found him with her piercing, chartreuse gaze and lifted her pointed chin, her skin too green to be white but too pale to be green, and her blood red lips parted in what would never quite be a smile. "Riku," she said, her voice clear as glass and dark as night, and Riku clenched his jaw tightly.
"Maleficent," he snarled, lowering his head in a rare show of aggression. Lea's hand squeezed his shoulder, and the older man stepped up next to him, deliberately holding his arm out as if to make a point of placing it between Riku and the witch. Riku honestly didn't know if Axel had ever crossed paths with Maleficent, but Lea obviously knew exactly who she was, and apparently knew enough of the history she had with Riku. This didn't surprise him, given how closely she and Xehanort had worked together, but it was still somehow bolstering that Lea had been so quick to come to his defense.
"I must say, I'm surprised to see you here," Maleficent said, one thin eyebrow arched sharply and her words a little too articulate to sound entirely natural. She daintily closed her fingers around the shaft of the staff and lifted her other hand as the raven cawed roughly, and Riku's eyes never moved from the witch's face as the bird fluttered downward to close its talons around her fingers. "I'm so pleased you brought friends," she said, glancing at them out of the corner of her eye and then turning her attention back to the raven. It hopped down from her fingers onto the orb at the top of the staff, and she fondly stroked its ebony feathers. "The little princess is all grown up, now, and isn't she just lovely?"
Kairi cringed, but only just, holding her ground valiantly as the witch looked her over as though she were a morsel to be savored. Kairi had only encountered Maleficent briefly, but Riku had reluctantly told her of Maleficent's manipulation, and the lies he had been fed. He was never going to allow himself to be led by the nose that way again, and to see Kairi refuse to quail this way despite knowing how powerful Maleficent was... he was proud of her.
The witch made a tutting sound and shook her head a little, putting on quite the show of looking hurt by their defensive reaction.
"Now, is that any way to greet an old friend?" she asked, looking at Riku with feigned injury in her eyes.
"We're not friends," Riku growled, lifting a hand and touching Lea's wrist to let him know he didn't need protecting. He had defeated Ansem's Darkness within his own heart; he could handle Maleficent.
"I see," Maleficent said then in a bit of a huff, and anyone who didn't know what sort of monster Maleficent truly was might have thought Riku was being unfairly cruel; it seemed she still had the same flair for the dramatic and false, and he wasn't particularly surprised. She turned her unearthly yellow eyes toward Lea then, and Lea went rigid again, like her gaze was ice dropped down his spine. "You," she said slowly, squinting a bit, "you aren't like these two."
"No, clearly I'm much taller," Lea shot back sharply, and under any other circumstances Riku might have laughed.
Maleficent smiled faintly, amused by the retort, but shook her head. "Your heart is not like theirs," she clarified. "It's... cracked."
"'Scuse me?" Lea seemed much less alarmed by her presence now and more simply annoyed by her commentary, which Riku supposed was the better option, all things considered. He had never known Lea to be fearful of much of anything, and watching Maleficent's attempts to get under his skin roll right off his back was encouraging.
She inhaled to speak again, then paused when the raven made a sharp coughing sort of sound, crowing fiercely to get her attention.
"Calm down, my pet," the witch said soothingly, stroking the bird's head as it chattered rapidly at her. "There's nothing to... oh."
Her eyes fell on Lea then, and Riku felt him stiffen beside him. The raven made a gravelly sound and snapped its beak, and Maleficent smiled that false smile again, something sinister in her eyes though her expression remained mild.
"I didn't realize," she said. "You are one of Xehanort's foot soldiers. That explains the fractures around your heart."
Lea made a sibilant noise and bared his teeth. "Not anymore, I'm not," he snapped. "Your information's a little out of date."
"You'll forgive me for not keeping strict tabs on my rival's toadies," she replied coolly, examining her fingernails, and Lea made a low growling sound in the back of his throat. "However, it seems thanks are in order," Maleficent continued, meeting Lea's eye again. "Diablo tells me you're the one who set him free," she said, and Riku gave a start in tandem with Lea.
"What?" he blurted, looking up at Lea in something like horror.
"What?" Lea blurted half an instant later, and Riku was relieved that he seemed to have as little idea what Maleficent spoke of as he did.
Maleficent's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and she turned her gaze back to the bird, running her fingers down its broad back.
"Two years past, perhaps," she said then, "after one of Sora's... numerous temporary victories, my pet was imprisoned." She glanced at Riku again, the sinister look back in her eyes. "He was caged, in the ruined castle I had once called my base of operations," she said, and her gaze moved liquidly back to Lea, her thin lips parting in a predatory smile. "You were there," she said, "with a boy... a boy with yellow hair, who bade you set Diablo free." She bowed her head almost reverently. "You have my gratitude," she said. "It is because of you that I was able to resume my endeavors after that particularly nasty defeat."
Riku stared at Lea, and the look of slow, sick, horrified understanding that crossed the redhead's face told Riku that what the witch said was true. Lea's expression screwed up with indignation then.
"Now, just a damn minu--the bird told you that?" he demanded, and he sounded so utterly incredulous that Riku almost wanted to snort with laughter.
Maleficent seemed unfazed, though the smile had faded from her face. "Those who cannot speak with words often have far more to say than you humans are willing to hear," she said, lifting her chin again. "I know not what you three are doing here in my dominion, and normally I would take advantage of your obvious lack of preparation, but in appreciation for your compassion,"--she held Lea's gaze a moment, eyes narrow--"you shall come to no harm here this day." She fixed her eyes on Riku again. "Don't look so shocked, child," she scolded. "We do not have to be allies for me to reward good behavior, and you of all people should know that I never break my word."
"I-I'm not a child," Riku said sharply, his shoulders tense. "I'm not that little boy you toyed with all those years ago, not anymore." Maleficent's eyebrows inched upward, but she made no retort, and Riku huffed. "We have no business with you, we're here to see the ruler of this world."
There was a beat of silence, and then Maleficent's face seemed to warp unnaturally, her lips splitting into a vicious grin that looked too wide for her angled face, and she tilted her head back and laughed loudly.
"You seem to be misinformed," she cackled, shaking her head. "Did you believe that fool Stefan ruled over these lands?"
"Stefan?" Kairi echoed, and glanced toward the castle. "Is he the king?"
Maleficent's lip curled distastefully. "The little king in his glittering castle," she said, "but he has no real power here. You humans always seem to think you are the strongest creatures in any land you lay claim to, but you could not be more wrong." She spread one arm to her side, the flowing, petaled sleeve trailing like ink in water as she moved. "Can you not feel the magic this world is steeped in? Every beast, every tree, every rock and river, this land belongs to the fair folk, and as such, to me."
"Well, that explains Yen Sid's tight-lippedness," Lea grumbled, folding his arms.
Maleficent's lips curled ever so slightly in distaste. "Yen Sid? That old fool," she said disdainfully. She regarded Riku then. "He sends you on this errand to my domain, and does not even deign to prepare you for what you would encounter," she said, shaking her head almost in disappointment, "and yet I am the one you cannot find it in your heart to trust?" She gave a pointed sniff, looking at her nails again. "What odd priorities you humans have." She lifted her eyes without moving her head then. "So what are you doing here?" she asked, shifting her posture and stroking Diablo again. "Surely your mission must be an important one, if you followed orders so blindly as to come here with no information at all."
Riku hesitated, glancing at Lea and then Kairi, and then back to Maleficent. He squared his shoulders and set his jaw, then shook his head.
"Never mind," he said firmly. "We'll get what we need somewhere else."
Maleficent narrowed her ethereal yellow eyes once more, then shrugged her bony shoulders.
"Uncouth as always, I see. Suit yourselves," she said, shaking her head. "I believe you are making a terrible mistake, however."
"How's that?" Riku asked, glowering at her. He really wasn't interested in hearing her advice, but he had to admit to a little curiosity as to what she could possibly think he was wrong about.
"A time will come," she said, her chin inclined a bit haughtily, "when you believe you have won, and everything appears to be going your way." Her expression darkened, her eyes skirting away. "And when you feel you are safe at last, that is when you will truly know betrayal," she said, her eyes finding Riku's again. "All I did was try and prepare you for what is inevitable in every life," she said, "and yet you spurn me, as though I were the traitor. Think what you must of me, but I never lied to you; I merely brought to light that which you already suspected. I kept my word to you each and every time, and this is the thanks I receive." A bitter laugh dusted over her lips, and she shook her head. "You'll get no more chances from me, boy," she said. "The next time we meet, you and I shall be enemies."
Riku looked at her incredulously. "What exactly were we up 'til now?" he asked, his voice a little shrill with disbelief, and Maleficent merely laughed. The witch turned away from them as the raven took to the air once more, and she glanced over her shoulder.
"Enjoy your stay," she said, her voice deceptively gentle. "Nothing here will hurt you on this day, you have my word." The gentleness melted away to something much more sinister then. "However, once the sun goes down... well, who knows what you might find in the dark?"
And then she was gone in a flash of that green fire and the echo of her unearthly laugh, leaving the three of them standing in the clearing as if transfixed by the curling tendrils of smoke left in her wake. Riku came back to his senses first, shaking his head sharply and taking the first full breath he'd been able to draw since they'd arrived. Blowing it out in a whuff, he glanced at Lea, then at Kairi, then rubbed the crown of his head.
"I think we need to have a little chat with Master Yen Sid," he said dryly, and Kairi frowned at him.
"What do we do?" she asked, shaking her head. "You didn't even ask her if there were any Heartless..."
"It doesn't matter if there are or not," he said, shaking his head and closing his hands into fists. "We are not connecting this world."
"We're not?" Kairi asked. "But..."
Riku gave her a stern look, though it wasn't angry. "We ask about the Heartless because we need to make sure the world is safe, not just for us while we're here, but for every other world that's connected," he said. "Whether or not there's any Heartless here, any world that Maleficent is in charge of isn't safe for anything." He lowered his eyes. "Or anyone." He rubbed his upper arms, suddenly feeling chilly, though the day was pleasantly balmy. "Come on," he said, "let's get out of here, before she decides to smite us where we stand or something."
"She said we were safe," Lea piped up, his eyes still on the spot Maleficent had vanished from, and Riku snorted a laugh.
"And you believe her?" he asked.
Lea turned to look at him. "She's fae, right?" he asked. "A fairy?"
"I thought fairies had wings," Kairi said, looking puzzled.
"She's a witch, obviously," Riku spat, and Lea shook his head.
"She said 'fair folk'," he said.
"So," Lea said, turning to face him then, "that means she's bound by her word."
"So that means after she smites us, we can call a lawyer, I guess?" Riku asked flatly, and Lea managed to laugh softly.
"You don't have stories about fae on the islands, I guess," he said. Riku tilted his head a little, and Lea held one finger up in the air, wagging it importantly. "Fairies and witches are confused for one another fairly often," he said, and Riku found himself wondering where in the worlds Lea seemed to get all of his random factoids, "but there are a few very distinct differences."
"Uh huh," Riku said, folding his arms and preparing for another one of Lea's random useless fact of the day sessions.
Lea seemed to realize he was simply being humored, and gave Riku a bit of a dirty look. "Well, fine, clearly you've got more important things to do than listen to a history lesson," he said with a huff. "Anyway, the point is, Maleficent is fae--she plain-out said she ruled the fair folk on this world. That means that when she makes a promise, she's bound by it. She literally cannot break it. That's why fairies are always very specific. She warned us not to hang around after dark, which means her 'you're safe here for the day' contract ends at sunset."
Riku looked dubious. "I'm not sure I'm willing to bet my life, or you guys' lives, on Maleficent being obligated to keep her promises," he admitted, and Lea shrugged.
"Fair enough," he said, and Riku was a little impressed at how much faith Lea seemed to have in this theory. He seemed genuinely unperturbed to still be here, as though the word of a fairy--or whatever Maleficent truly was--was actually enough to set his mind sufficiently at ease.
Riku looked at Kairi, who was staring back at the spot where Maleficent had once stood, her hands clasped near her heart, and he reached over to touch her shoulder.
"Kairi?" he said, and she looked at him, her eyes troubled. "What's wrong?"
She frowned. "She's... very lonely," she said, and Riku snorted.
"What?" he asked. "Kairi, she's the most powerful creature, maybe besides Xehanort, I've ever met. You know what she's capable of."
"That doesn't mean she can't be lonely," Kairi said, her brow furrowed.
Silly boy, you're like a son to me. I only want you to be happy...
"If you say so," Riku said, shaking his head. Mostly he just wanted to get the hell off this world. Who knew if Maleficent was still watching them, still listening to what they said? If she ruled over this whole world, she could have had eyes and ears anywhere and everywhere, and the thought of her cold gaze on him still... it was enough to send goosebumps running up and down his arms. "Lea, if you wanna hang around and test Maleficent's ability to keep her word, you go right ahead," he said, and then jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "but I'm going back to the tower. I think Yen Sid owes us an explanation, don't you?"
He started to walk back toward the train, and Kairi jogged to catch up, reaching to take his elbow.
"What if he gets mad that we didn't connect this world?" she asked, shaking her head. "If there's no Heartless here, wouldn't that mean we didn't do our job?"
"Maleficent is way more dangerous than the Heartless she can command," Riku said stiffly. "I dunno if Yen Sid understands that, but I know if we connect this world and give her access to the train lines, we'll be putting every other connected world in a lot of danger. That isn't something I'm willing to do, no matter who tells me it's my job."
Kairi seemed satisfied with this answer and released his arm before turning to look at Lea.
"What did she mean," she asked, "when she said you freed her raven?"
Lea looked genuinely embarrassed then, and maybe a little remorseful as they returned to the train and the door slid open.
"It was a while ago, like she said," he told them, sitting down on one of the bench seats with a sigh. "Me and Roxas had gone back to Radi--er... I guess it was still Hollow Bastion at the time," he said, watching the door slide shut and planting his hands on the seat as the train began to move. "Anyway, we were there, and things were still a pretty big mess. Roxas saw the bird in a cage by the castle, and he said I should set it free." He shrugged one shoulder. "I didn't think about it, really," he said. "I mean, I hadn't ever really met Maleficent, I couldn't tell her bird from any other big black bird in a lineup, so I threw my chakram up toward the cage and it broke the lock, and the bird flew away." He kneaded his forehead with both hands. "Guess that's one more tally under the 'You Done Screwed Up' column for me," he muttered, and Riku shook his head.
"You didn't know," he said. "If you'd set it free because you knew what would happen, then sure, we'd be having some words right now, but..." He smiled faintly. "You set it free because you didn't want to see a bird in a cage," he said, "and whatever else that might have set into motion, it apparently at least bought our safety today."
Kairi laughed quietly. "I guess the lesson is be nice to animals, because you never know which one might belong to a fairy-witch."
The three of them laughed, though the sound was a little forced. Though Lea and Kairi didn't have the same dark history with Maleficent that he had, Riku appreciated their solidarity; Maleficent was powerful and dangerous, and it was impossible to know for sure just how close that call might have been. 'The next time we meet, you and I shall be enemies', she had said, and whatever their relationship had been up to this point, Riku held no illusions that she would give him any benefit of doubt should they meet again. He could at least take a little comfort in the fact that however much Maleficent might have resented him now, her hatred for Xehanort was far stronger, and that almost made him want to feel sorry for him.
The train rounded a corner, and off in the distance, the pastel oranges and golds of the Mysterious Tower loomed into view, shimmering out of the blackness of space like a mirage in an endless ebony desert. Riku had a lot of respect for Master Yen Sid, and he had always done his best to meet the old wizard's expectations, but somehow today had been a step over the line. Whatever game Yen Sid thought he was playing, pitting him against Maleficent like that, Riku wasn't going to just sit back and accept it. Master, mentor, teacher or otherwise, Riku had learned the hard way that he didn't have to let people disrespect him just because they were in higher standing than he was. His hands would shake, and his voice would shake more, he was certain, but he was going to get some answers from Yen Sid before the day was out, no matter how much trouble it got him into.