The harsh smell of scorching and scalding granite and wood brings tears to my eyes. They water as I struggle to see through the fog of ash and smoke. Julian screams. We break through the last of the trees, dashing through the unhinged gate. Seething heat roars against us, ordering us away. Fire consumes the mansion. My home. I watch in anguish as blazing embers and flaming pillars crash to the cobbled ground in a flurry of angry light. The shattering of glass draws my attention to the broken windows for which spew fire, very nearly drowning out the triumphant roars that scream before me.
The anxiety I feel over the lives of my loved ones is dominated by the shock, disgust…and anger that churns my stomach as I see humans tossing alcohol bottles with lit ends against my home. They scream in glee as their makeshift bombs further feed the monstrous flames. People. Not Heartless. Humans.
Why? Is all I can think as noise begins to fade from my awareness. The crackling and rumbling fire. Julian's terror filled squeals as I dismount. The bellowing of these bloodthirsty men. Even the sound of my own screaming sobs is muted by the onslaught of emotions that are tearing through my heart.
What could drive these people to act this way? To destroy the home of another? To…kill those that have hid away from the murderous world?
The beat of my heart thrums in my ears as I scan the swimming sea of faces for a sign of familiarity. I search out the long platted hair of Aeris. The top hat and red mane of Axel. The snow white feathers of Donald. And the luminous embedded skin and brunette disarray of hair of Sora. My Sora. My love.
I am a smudge in the corner of every eye of this vicious crowd. My cries go unheard and unanswered by the men determined to bring the foundation down. I beg them to stop, to listen, to see me. Instead, I find myself kicked to the stone ground.
"Layoff, you stupid cow!" turning his attention back to embodiment of hell, he screams, "Burn! Back to Hell where you creatures belong!"
Aeris. Axel. Donald…Sora. I beg of you. Not again. I dare to hope – to spare their lives, and in turn, my own.
"Dan…" the short gasp of my name buried beneath the bellow of the crowd pulls me from my assault on an old bearded man. I search out my caller.
Please. Let it be…
I gasp through sobs as I find myself sinking into her trembling embrace.
"Oh, Danny, my child. You're alright – thank heavens. I thought you were still in there." She hardly allows herself to breathe as Aeris combs my hair out of my darkened tear-streaked face. My relief, though great, is short in this moment as I see no one tailing her.
"Aeris, where are they? What has happened? Why are they doing this?"
She sniffles and hiccups, her own tears filling the brims of her eyes as she pulls me away to the abandoned fence. She gazes wearingly towards the burning inferno.
"They came to the gate no short of noon. A thundering stampede of angry, torch-wielding, men driven by liquor. As soon as they busted down the gate, Axel and Donald ensured I was the first to get out through the back entrance. But…Danny,"-my heart jerks uneasily at her tone-" they went back for him. For Sora. I was able to make it to the trees, with not a few minutes grace before the front door was set alight. I…do not know if they made it out in time before the fire spread."
No. "Please. No…" I cry, gripping the lapels of Aeris' jacket as I bury my face in her shoulder, pouring my sorrow and hopelessness into her warmth as Julian towers behind us, nudging my shoulder.
Attention. Trying to draw my attention.
Let me be. I cannot bear to see more. I cannot look into the fire knowing that they are…that he is…
"Monsters." I said, lifting my face from Aeris' shoulder. "They're monsters. Why? What do they gain from this carnage?"
"Danella – my love!"
No…Not him. Not here…The only reason he would have for being here… I gaze through my mourning veil to see him, standing before me, bright and proud. Riku.
"My love, why the tears? You should be rejoicing with us." I cower into Aeris' arms as Riku steps closer. He pulls up short as he witnesses me doing so. "Do not fear me. When the flames finally turn this place to ash, you will be free – free to come home, Danella. We came here to save you from the Heartless, It will have power over you no longer. It burns as we speak."
I hear Aeris gasp in horror as the ringing in my ears becomes a piercing peal.
Riku. How could you do such a thing…? To risk the lives of my family in order to kill the one you have deemed a 'beast'. My 'captor'?
"I was never a prisoner…"
Riku's expression remains unaltered by my muttered words. "What was that you said, my love?"
"I was never a prisoner. I was never here against my will." The feeling begins to prickle back through my limbs as I pull myself away from Aeris' embrace and take a fragile stand. "For the first time since the death of my family; I was free. Free of my worries. Free of my fear and loneliness. However, most of all: I was free of you!"
Something snaps within me, my sorrow buries beneath the blood red rage I feel rising towards this silver haired fool. Beast. Creature. He killed Sora! He stumbles back as I fight the urge to claw his unseeing eyes. He looks genuinely confused by my lack of joy in result of his assault.
"Wha-. That thing attacked you. It is a monster – It is a Heartless. The Heartless killed your family! I am saving you from the same fate, my love."
"I am not your love! I never was and never will be. The creature you have taken upon yourself to execute was an innocent young man. My Sora. He saved me from those men in the alley the day I vanished from the village. Where were you, Riku, whilst I was pinned against a wall by a drunkard?"
"No! You do not get to speak. I care not what you were doing or where you were. It all remains the same. You were not there while he was. Despite all the odds stacked against us, he was able to save me – alone - whilst you have cut the reigns off your bloodthirsty mob. A mob that not only murdered my love and saviour, but two other innocent lives as well." "You have blood on your hands that stain you evermore - no matter how you try to clean them."
The glow of his vanity is now clouded by the sickly pallor of his skin. Yet, his eyes are no longer on me…but behind me. Both Julian and Aeris scream as I turn around to gaze into the blackened forest.
Ever seeking us out. Ever hungry - Heartless begin to emerge through the trees. Drawn to both the poisoned and weakened hearts of these barbaric men. Julian squeals, treading backward while lowering his head warningly against the oncoming swarm, he comes to a halt by my stilled side. Left defenceless by the men of my own village. I clutch the sodden fabric of my dress' bodice, realising that it has been capturing my falling tears. No matter what rage I feel towards Riku, it has not stopped the shedding of my woes over what I have lost.
My lungs become too small for the air I desperately need. The twisting of my heart is like that of a key being turned in a resistant lock. Eventually one will break.
"Danella! Aeris!" a voice makes its way through the white noise.
It cannot be…
"Donald!" Aeris cries as she leaves my side to meet the distraught duck that stumbles his way out of the inferno and debris, screaming. I find myself frozen to the spot, unwilling to let the embers of joy strengthen should this be no more than a trick of mind. That this sobbing, soot ridden creature still burns within the flames as my mind closes in on its own fantasy. Things could not be this way. After all, he lives - he has made it out of the fire – why would he weep?
I hear words make their way through the agonizing sobs. "He's…could not make it to him…"
"Who? Donald, who?" Aeris asks hastily, flicking the tears from his blackened downy cheeks.
Ba-Thump… One heartbeat. One moment. That is all it takes for the joyous shouts to fall silent. Leaving behind the shuffling hush of the Heartless swarm and the crackling of the mansion flames, attention turns to the front door as the wood splinters against the burning walls. Being slammed outwards, a burst of heat and fire reaches out to us. However, the roaring fire is nothing compared to the grief-stricken howl that rumbles through our bodies. A hulking figure emerges from the fire, seemingly unscathed. However, his wail reveals differently. Broken. Angry. Inhuman.
"No…" my voice cracks as I stagger forward, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Despite her tears, Aeris still finds the strength to reach out and stop me in my path.
He collapses at the base of the stairs, a burnt and blackened body falling from his shoulder to his knees as he growls through his tears. His entire body trembles with the force of it.
"Dead…" my heart fractures as he speaks to no one, yet everyone. His fingers, clawing into the dirt, blacken.
Not with mud.
"Sora-!" I croak out, fear of what will come should he not calm.
"He is dead! You killed him…"
Darkness envelops his arms whilst staining his hair, spreading like rain fall over his body.
"No, Sora! Please-!"
"You all killed him!!"
Golden eyes glare us all down before screams ring out through the air. The Heartless are latching onto the villagers, clawing at their chests. Their dark master – their leader – has returned to them with vengeance. They kill to satisfy their own desires and Its bloodlust. Cobble stones run red with blood as bodies thrash and scramble to get away from the Shadows. Jagged claws puncture through human flesh, grasping corrupted flesh as golden eyes glow hungrily.
"Sora, no! You must stop this!" Aeris said as she gains her strength, rushing to stand before It as the Heartless hisses gleefully in Sora's place. Donald and I yelp as Its claw backhands across her face, sending her flying backwards. We scramble to her aid as the Heartless' attention strays back to the one man that lays unscathed amongst this massacre.
Riku. By the look in his eyes, I can see he never prepared himself to face Sora this way. Choosing instead to try and destroy him through an ambush laid onto our household. I see him rummage under his cloak for a means of defence as his eyes grow far more fearful. It hisses in delight, tasting the fear around him in satisfaction.
"Too bad you did not kill me when you had the chance…" It growls, the aura of darkness ebbing around Its clenched claws. The shrieking around us begins to fade as the few number of surviving villagers retreat into the forests. They desert their ring leader for a chance at their own survival. A sacrificial lamb left to the wolves to goad away from the rest of the herd. Only these wolves have a far larger pack.
I cradle Aeris' head in the crook of my arm as I hold my fore and middle fingers against her neck, searching for a pulse.
…Ba…thump. Relief. Her heart beats still.
I hear Riku cry out, yanking my focus back onto him in time to see him leap forth with a flash of a dagger…aiming straight for the Heartless' chest.
My helpless scream dies in my throat as Its hand snaps up, gripping his wrist and jerking it with a crack, snapping the bone as Riku howls, crumbling to his knees. He snivels as the Heartless wrenches the dagger from his grasp, throwing it aside. It wastes no time and plunges Its arm into his chest, breaking through his ribs to latch onto the beating muscle.
A trickle of blood spills from Riku's mouth as his eyes glaze over, a horrible choking, gargling, sound filling his mouth as he grows limp. He falls forward onto the arm protruding from his torso. A stream of red splatters onto the ground and onto Its feet as It yanks the heart from the stilled young man's body, leaving my fiancé as an empty corpse on the cold blood-red cobblestones.
I feel myself break out in a cold sweat as I watch the trail of life's blood pour through the cobbles towards me. My ears burn, my throat dries, my eyes water as I look up to see the Heartless hold the blackened core – which once was Riku's - in Its hand before his face. My stomach turns. It hums to Itself, before hissing, displeased. Dead heart fragments fall from Its clenched grasp. "I would not feed your heart to the lowest of Shadows." The weight within my arms begins to shift but I dare not remove my gaze from the creature standing before me.
It must finally come to realize that there are still mortals within Its proximity for It snaps around, hissing and crouched. Julian titters uneasily yet refuses to turn and run. He stands loyal and brave with us as I hear Aeris begin to cry. It tilts Its head, a gleaming fanged grin pulling at Its mouth as the tears begin to fall from my own eyes once again.
Sora…what have you done?
It purrs, shifting forward on its blood stained feet.
"We meet again, blond beauty." I cringe back, along with Aeris and Donald as Julian brays warningly. "I am sad to say it is not under the best of circumstances, however."
Its disfigured hand reaches out to my face.
"You will not lay a hand on her!"
A flash of blue and white, and a wand appears before me, aimed right between the Heartless' eyes. Donald stands at my side, hovering over me protectively as the feathers on the back of his neck prickle and stand on end. He faces against his family, however lost Sora may be. I am able to witness the Heartless' brow hitch upwards as It gazes down on my guardian, bored. It harrumphs before reaching out towards me again.
The sound of tinkling icicles distracts me as the end of Donald's wand begins to glow and freeze.
"Bliz-!" He is whipped away in one direction as his wand flies through the air in another. The Heartless growls as Donald collides with the broken gate, slumping against the ground, limp and lifeless.
"Donald!" I scream out before my jaw is clamped shut by darkness, yanking my face round to be stared down by the Heartless that was once my Sora.
"If you do not wish to join his fate, I suggest you silence your screams." It spat the words in my face as I try and dig my nails into Its grip, fighting for release as my face aches. Aeris falls to the ground, left forgotten as the Heartless begins to trail Its mouth and nose along my temple and hairline, inhaling deeply. A broken whimper falls from my lips as I try to speak.
It hums, "Mmm…what is that, my pet?"
His grip loosens only enough to allow my jaw to move.
"Please…don't do this…" I choked out, tears soaking my skin and bleeding into the dry blood on Its flesh.
"Why not?" Its tongue flicks out to lick a tear from my cheek. Repulsion shivers down my spine, turning my stomach in the worst way as I try to pull away. Its grip only tightens warningly in response. I break my attempt in retreat as I gaze up into Its slanted yellow eyes.
"Sora. Come back to me…you can fight this." I said, reaching up to touch Its face.
Its hisses back, loosening Its hold on my face enough to jerk away from my touch, reacting as if It had been burned.
"Silence! There is no point in your plea." It cackles unsteadily, fisting Its midnight locks as It glares me down. "He gave himself over to the darkness – to me. There is no going back."
"I do not believe that. I could never believe that…" I ignore the tug on my gown as Aeris tries to stop me from speaking further. "He defeated you once, he can do it again."
Its grin reappears in force, "Ah, how naïve you are, my dear. After the death of his most beloved friend, his brother…how do you expect him to come back from that? One moment of complete and utter despair is all it took to break him."
I steel my resolve. "Love is all it takes to overcome the darkness once and for all. Sora, please. Hear me. Come back to me."
"Never. The darkness has won! It has finished what it started on this heart years ago. There is no coming back." The glee in Its eyes has almost receded.
"You're lying. You do not even believe that yourself. He can come back – and he will!"
I gasp in shock as the Heartless is propelled backward, Its grip on my face leaving behind a throbbing pain. I stumble forward as It crashes against the crumbling stairs. I look back to see Donald dashing up past me, wand held steady in the Heartless' direction at the end dims after the use of a spell.
"Donald?" I said looking from the Heartless to him as the end of his wand begins to glow once again. "Wait – no, don't hurt him!"
With Its wits gathered, It hisses as It claws at the icicles taking over Its body. Weighing It down, bounding It to the granite.
"Get Danella outta here!" Donald instructed desperately as Aeris gathers her footing shakily.
"What? No!" I screamed, "He needs me – Sora's still in there!"
I cannot leave him.
Aeris ignores my words, pinning my arms down with her own as she begins to steer me away from Donald's braced form.
"No, Aeris, do not do this. I can get through to him. Please!" I begged, turning back to look Aeris in the eye. Her expression is broken. She slowly shakes her head, showing her hopelessness.
"What control Sora had left over the darkness was lost as Axel died in his arms." Donald said, back still turned to us as another shot of ice is fired at the Heartless' struggling body, arresting his neck and jaw.
"I do not believe that. I can still reach him. I know I can!" my nails bite into the flesh of Aeris' arms as I thrash about.
"D-Danny…we must go…" Aeris' voice trembles by my ear as Donald continues to cast.
It struggles to free Itself same as I. I tear my gaze from It for a moment to see Julian standing between Donald and I. Tossing his head between the Heartless and me. Conflicted. He whines, taking a step my way yet his head strains in the Heartless' direction. Could it be he believes as I do? Can he sense his master still?
"Your spells will not hold me forever…" the Heartless snarls through bared teeth. Donald's wand begins to glow sun-light yellow, confusing me.
"No…but they can cause their fair share of damage.
Pointed to the sky, a jagged bolt of light bursts forth from the end of the wand, disappearing into the clouds of smoke…
A dark chuckle fills the silence as the hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
"You missed, Little Magician." It said, a sneer curling the corner of Its lips. The grasp around me begins to tighten, strengthening, bracing for something…
A flash of light splits through the clouds. A deep rumble vibrates the air. Not a second later, lightning spider-webs down to the earth, its focal point on one spot alone.
My screams fall on deaf ears as the Heartless is struck down, ice shattering as the electricity rakes through Its body. The strike itself only lasts a moment, however, that does not lighten the power that it assaults the creature of darkness with. Julian rears up, startled and distraught as he screams as the lightning dies. Finally, Aeris' hold on me slackens enough for me to break free, allowing me to dash forward.
"No – wait!" Donald tries to stop me but I am already by the fallen creature's side, turning It onto Its back.
I find myself stilled, both confused and somewhat relieved as I look upon the seemingly unmarred body. How could It withstand such a blow…?
"Danella! Look out!" I see Donald, wide-eyed and fearful before I find I can no longer breathe. A black claw clutches my throat…
"Such a silly little pet," my tearing eyes find gleaming yellow staring back at me as I choke on my words, "to think I could be killed so easily. You should have listened to the duck and left this place while you still could."
A stomach curdling crack shakes through me, the metallic and sickening taste of blood fills my mouth as my eyes droop down to see the Heartless' arm protruding from my broken and blood-splattered chest. I can feel the tug of my insides as Its searching grip slithers past my shattered ribs and aching lungs. To the beating organ keeping me from the brink of death.
Heart beat pounds its last in my ears. Hard to hear.
"Where is your beloved Sora now?" the Heartless amusingly asks, jerking my head upward to look It in the eye, "He would stop me if he still existed. All I need to do is reach…"-Its claw slides further along-"…and I can make you one of us. A Heartless. My equal. My mistress."
One hooked finger reaches my heart.
…I love you…I wish I could have said the words aloud…
White noise. Heart pounding. Warmth…
An agonized shriek fills my ears, pulling me from the darkness as the Heartless' arm is yanked out and away from me.
"What is this magic?!"
I can breathe. I can see. I can feel…warmth. Bursting waves of heat from my heart. I see the Heartless stumble backward, clutching Its human hand.
The earth stirs by my side, yet I cannot tear my eyes away from the Heartless as I witness It hiss at Its 'deformed' limb.
"Curaga." I heard Donald speak clearly into my ear. Green-yellow light shines down on me as I feel the liquid life staining my skin dry. Flesh reattaching. Bones setting back into place. Healing me.
"Fir-!" I slap my hand down onto Donald's wand, cutting off his spell.
"No more spells…" I said, hoisting myself up onto my feet.
"But, Danny, It will kill you." Donald fists the train of my skirt.
"No, It won't," the Heartless hisses in disagreement, clutching Its limp, "Sora will not let that happen. And neither shall I."
The bridge of Its nose wrinkles as It curls Its lip in anger, "You cannot win. This"- It tightens Its claw around the blood-stained fist to the point where it begins to pale-"does not mean a thing."
I continue on my way towards the creature, undeterred. "It means everything, Heartless. It means there – beneath the darkness – Sora still lives."
"'Tis a fool's hope you hold if you think your human can be saved."
Despite Its venomous words, the Heartless still begins to step back away from my advances.
"Sora. Come back to me. I'm here," I said soothingly as I gaze through the Heartless' golden eyes.
"Hear me. Please, find your way back to me…"
"…to us. To your family. They love you, Sora. I-"
"I said enough!!"
The Heartless silences me once again, slapping Its black claw over my mouth as It hisses in my face. I do not fear this creature. I see the faint return of human pupils in Its golden eyes. I feel the lack of conviction in Its grasp.
That's right. You can fight this, Sora. You can see me. Hear me.
Its gaze however, is diverted from my own, narrowing over my head. "I would not do that if I were you, Little Magician. You could end up hurting poor Danny here with those spells of yours. I do not think she would recover as I."
I hear Aeris whimper as Donald sighs, defeated. The ground is struck lightly. His wand lies discarded at his feet now, without a doubt.
You can stop It Sora. I lift my hand up, not to free myself, only to touch the trembling grasp on me gently. It flinches, glaring down on me with darkening eyes. I gaze in wonder as they begin to become more human, blue starts to bleed through the irises. A tick begins to spasm Its neck, making It jerk. It seems oblivious to these changes…
I feel the nails against the flesh of my face loosen; tremors crawling up Its arm. The Heartless furrows Its brow in confusion, the snarling grin wiped clean from Its face. The Heartless grits Its teeth as It tries to regain control of the rebelling limb slowly releasing me from Its captivity. My fingers lovingly stroke It, calling to the human laid dormant as I reach for Its mane with my other hand.
"Come back to me, Sora. Come back, my love."
Drowning myself in the hope of his return, I finally free my face of the creature's claw to draw myself to It and capture Its shadow lips with my own.
I am met by stone; cold and unresponsive, but I do not let it deter me. He needs to feel me in some way, he needs to reach me. A bridge. My hands cradle Its jaw, feeling our skin ignite as I let desperate pleas pass between our kiss.
"Danella! Look!" I hear Donald call.
I dare not stop - the stone beneath my kiss is responding. The flesh beneath my fingers is thawing. The gagged claws at my sides are softening and drawing up to cradle my head and neck. However, my eyes open to see the Heartless fading away before my eyes, a throbbing light emanating from his chest.
I gasp, stopping our kiss but never relinquishing my touch on the face of the man I love. Life quivers in his cerulean eyes as darkness melts from his skin, painting the ground beneath our feet. The Heartless that has tainted this young man's heart for years is melting away…
Brown tresses shine in the fire light. Olive skin breathes once again. The heart beat that was once lost now beats against my hand as I tremble under his brimming gaze. His mouth twists in a devastated grimace.
"Danny…" the return of his voice buckles my knees, "say it."
Confusion does not merge well with the over whelming relief set on leaving me boneless and a bawling mess.
He brushes the premature tears from my cheeks before resting his forehead against my own, hands unsteady as they support me.
"The words you wish to say aloud."
His request cripples me, leaving me to cling to Sora as I kiss his forehead and lips before I meet his eyes and speak, "I love you, Sora."
A last tear of pure darkness leaves him before life truly returns to eyes, shining bright and warm, setting my heart ablaze.
"As I love you, my Danella."