Chapter I: Disney Dreams
December 26, 2003. The heavy snowfall swirled in the darkness outside more intensely this year than any other I had yet to witness or can actually recall. Access outside was barred by at least half a foot of snow outside any exit we had around the house, save the windows.
We were all content with staying indoors, however, since it was night now and we had celebrated Christmas the day before. My many siblings were off in their own little worlds, making merry with their newly acquired toys in the contained environment.
I was downstairs, still in my new pajamas and slippers, playing some of the video games I had acquired the day before. This game is of no particular value in this story, so I choose not to disclose what it was.
My pestilent brother (the annoying kind, not the diseased kind; unless stupidity is a disease) came rushing down the stairs, his new stuffed animal in his hands. "We're having a movie week since we're snowed in," he told me. "Care to join us?"
I paused my game, turned, and asked in reply, "What movie are you planning on watching? It had better not be any of those girly movies, or else I'm not going."
"No, it's just a Disney one. The Mickey Mouse movie we got."
"Oh, okay, then." I saved my game, turned it off, and joined my brother as we journeyed upstairs.
Everyone else was gathered around the television, my dad at the VCR, the premiere tape in his hands. He slipped the tape in and pressed play, sitting down on the couch by the wall between two of my siblings.
The movie was about King Mickey and a quest he goes on with his two trusted servants, Donald the Mage and Captain Goofy, in order to rid the land of the evil outlaw Pete. It was a quaint movie with its funny points and an enjoyable action scene between Mickey and Pete along with plenty of drama, but it was over relatively soon.
As soon as the credits started, I got up from my seat and wandered upstairs through the maze of drowsy bodies. It was time for a good night's sleep of my own but in my own bed. The floor was too itchy for me. As soon as I got to my bed's ladder, I kicked off my slippers, climbed it, and drew my numerous blankets around me. As my blankets heated up, I slowly fell asleep.
I dreamed of resting on a beach in a tropical oasis. The sun was warm on my skin; I had nothing on except a swimsuit. I watched as waves lazily lapped up on the sand no matter how far down the beach you went, inviting anyone to venture into them. A pair of goggles appeared on my head, and a boogie board was planted in the sand next to my towel. Palm trees provided shade from behind me in thick sheets. Everything seemed perfect for a beach-goer like me.
However, my body felt restless, yearning for something it didn't have. It's like that strange feeling of being hungry for peace and tranquility but only having vengeance to satisfy it with. It didn't fit me well, and it was distracting me from enjoying myself on the beach. I got up from my towel and paced down the beach, trying to see if the weird feeling would wear off. But the more I walked, the more restless I felt.
As I turned around to go back to my towel, I caught sight of a raft floating out in the ocean. A single passenger, unconscious, was lying upon it. I slipped on my goggles and ran towards the ocean, leaving all of my other cares behind with each grain of sand I kicked up. I tore through the waves and started to swim towards the raft. With the current pulling the raft in and my natural swimming ability, I reached it fairly easily. Inside was a boy about my age in a thick yellow tank top, blue pants, and white shoes on his feet. His hair was ashen white and slicked down, but it didn't look greasy. In his hand was a magician's staff of some sort.
I used the current to push the raft and the boy to shore. I shook him gently to see if he would wake up, but he failed to respond. Anxious about his condition, I shook him vigorously. He spat some salt water and sat straight up. He looked around at his surroundings and turned to me. "Who are you, and where am I?" he asked.
"I am known as many things, the speed demon, the sinister swordsman and a few other names; you can call me Michael. I don't rightfully know where I am, though," I replied, looking around once before turning back to him. "Are you okay… er…?"
"Riku. And no, no I'm not." Riku held up his staff. "This relic placed a curse on me, a dire curse that can't be removed by ordinary means." He partially unzipped his tank top, exposing his chest. A strange pattern was tattooed there. It was a black heart with an arrow pointing down from the point of it. Two arrows curled off of the main one to form a small cross. The whole thing was outlined in red with a thorny red "X" over the heart. The entire pattern was right over his real heart. "It's the curse of darkness."
My eyes went to the staff as I listened. The energy within seemed to ease the pain within me, calling me to it. "How did you get that?" I asked Riku, pointing to it.
"It was given to me by a mysterious sorceress from a far off land, some place called Hollow Bastion. Her name was Maleficent."
"I've heard that name before. I thought she was killed a long time ago."
"What are you talking about?" Riku replied. "She's been living for the past thousand years. I know I should have stayed away from her, but only she could have helped my town…"
"What are you talking about? What could have been so bad that you had to call upon that witch?"
"Demons were attacking my town, cursing them as I was cursed and dispersing their spirits as well as the population. They were killing everyone; I couldn't just watch. I went to Maleficent: she knew the secret to controlling them. She gave me this staff, and I successfully drove off the shadow creatures with it. However, the following day, I found this mark on me. The staff had turned against me; Maleficent had tricked me! I sailed away, far away, from my island in order to find a way to cure this evil within me. A storm struck my raft, and the next thing I know, here I am."
"May I see the staff?"
Riku held it up for me and said, "Sure, but be careful. It might still contain Maleficent's dark magic."
I took the staff in my hand. It was a simple staff with a glass ball at the end of a wooden pole, held secure by a wooden cage all around it. The grip was a rigid portion of the staff near the middle. It looked absolutely stunning regardless of its plain appearance. Instantly, my restless body calmed down. This rod held a clue to what I desired without a doubt. It felt like I had found myself.
The orb at the end of the rod swirled with a black fog as I gazed into it; the sky did likewise. I hadn't even done anything, just held it! From within the forest before us, a tree splintered. A quake shook the sand. Something was in the forest, something big. Another tree splintered with another quake. A flock of birds escaped from the palms, afraid of getting in the monster's path. A tree flew out of the forest and into the water; a visible clearing formed with the next quake. When the creature stepped from the forest onto the beach, we looked up into the glowing eyes of a five-story behemoth! This humanoid creature was a solid black, except for the heart-shaped hole in its stomach. The beast's red eyes glared at the staff in my hand and reached for me.
"That's the leader of the dark creatures that attacked my home: Darkside!" Riku gasped. "What's it doing here? Was it summoned!?"
I didn't care where it came from or why it was here; all I knew was that I was its target. I wasn't going to be captured so easily. When its hand got within a foot of me, I instinctively swung the staff at it. The crystal orb shattered against the tough skin of Darkside. It pulled its hand back, but it was caught in a dark magic snare, the other end still attached to the staff! Darkside tried to pull its hand free, but the snare was just too strong. It was pulled off of the ground and into the staff as if it had been nothing!
Its dark presence coursed down the length of the staff until it struck my hand. As the dark matter came into contact with my arm, it disappeared into my skin! Snakelike it burrowed its way into my chest, into my heart. The darkness was pumped into every part of my body like blood. Riku looked on helplessly as my whole body turned black, the darkness taking me over and changing me inside as well as out. I clutched my heart, hoping to still feel it beating despite the immensely searing pain all of this power was causing me, but I felt nothing! I closed my eyes and let out a scream of solid terror.
When I opened my eyes again, I was no longer a beach-goer; I was back in my pajamas, sitting bolt upright in bed. I felt dizzy; that dream had taken a real toll on my brain. My breathing was rapid, as if I had just run a mile. I put my hand on my heart. As I felt the thump-thump, thump-thump return to its normal pace, I wheezed a sigh of relief. I looked at my clock, but the time was only 2:46; it was still night. I shook the weird yet terrifying dream out of my head and fell on the pillow again. If I had another nightmare that vivid, sleep would be impossible.
I woke up in front of the doors to a bustling town, the former covered in flashing lights. Neon arrows were pointing every which way on a sign with the words "Traverse Town" right above the two large panels of wood. I wandered aimlessly through these doors into the town, looking for something to pique my interest.
The sign outside betrayed the personality of the town inside. There was hardly anybody around, and those that were appeared to be in some kind of hurry. The buildings were all constructed out of lack-luster red bricks with only a few lampposts' worth light to go by. I could hear a horn off in the distance cranking out a soft but dreary tune; this was the only thing I could say I liked about this town from my first impression.
I only stopped when I caught sight of two characters sitting on a bench right outside one of the shops. One was garbed in blue and holding a staff topped with a witch's hat. The other one was a taller stiff carrying a shield and wearing a green shirt, orange pants, and matching hat. Only the taller one wore shoes, and these were the size of basketball sneakers. They were Donald Duck and Goofy from the movie I saw!
They both appeared to be really down about something. I walked over to them and asked, "What's got you two so down in the dumps?"
"We lost someone, someone important," Goofy replied. "A bunch of those Heartless beings broke into Disney Castle, and kidnapped King Mickey."
"They demolished our guards and even got past us," Donald added. "We thought that he was taken here, but we haven't been able to find him anywhere."
"Can you help us?"
I looked at their dismal faces and couldn't help feeling sorry for them. I wanted to help, but I didn't have anything to offer them. I could offer a third set of eyes, but I wouldn't be able to defend myself if I did find these Heartless. If I only had a weapon…
"If you need a weapon," Goofy piped up, as if divining my thoughts, "you could go to Leon, the blacksmith of this town. He's still got an order for me, but if we tell him you're fighting the Heartless—"
"In that case, sure, I'll help you guys. Besides, I'm looking for something as well."
"What would that be?" Donald asked skeptically.
I unconsciously rolled up my right sleeve and revealed a mark on my wrist identical to the insignia that Riku had in my dream! It was on the same place where Darkside entered my body, the sign of the Heartless's possession.
"You have the mark of the Heartless!" Goofy exclaimed.
"You're with those vile creatures that attacked Disney Castle!" accused Donald.
"No, no I'm not! I was attacked by a Heartless, a huge one called Darkside. My only weapon at the time, a magic staff, shattered against the hide of that behemoth and sealed it within me. I'm looking for a way to reverse the process."
Goofy nodded his head. "Now that explains everything."
"Does it?" Donald asked him, his brow still furrowed with suspicion. "He could be a spy sent by the true ringleader of the Heartless to find and capture us, too. After all, he does have the mark of the Heartless."
I was beginning to regret the promise I made with these two if they were going to treat me like this. "What do I have to do to prove myself to you?"
"Well," Goofy started, "there is a really big Heartless around here that would pose a convincing challenge."
"Defeat it, and we'll believe you and follow you on your journeys; besides, we're wasting our time sitting around here, and maybe we could find the king along the way as well," concluded Donald.
"You two have a deal. Now, where is this 'Leon' you mentioned?"
"Just down the road and to your left. Here, we'll direct you." Donald and Goofy jumped up and took one of my arms in one of theirs, leading me back down the streets of Traverse Town. We must have looked pretty ridiculous, a duck, a lanky dog, and I walking down an empty street going who-knows-where.
Just like Goofy said, the blacksmith was down the street until we got to the fork in the road and down at the end of the route to the left. As we approached, the sound of pounding metal became more distinct. The man working the forge was definitely older than me, maybe in his early twenties. He had spiky brown hair combed down and wore a black jean vest over a white shirt. His pants were black jeans, also. He was busy working on a long sword for the Disney guard, by the looks of it. It was a superb weapon with an excellent luster and a three ring Mickey emblem as the pommel.
He turned from the sword and the forge as he caught sight of us approaching. "Ah, Goofy," he said. "Here to pick up those blades you ordered? I'm not quite done making them yet."
"This isn't royal business," Goofy replied. "Well, technically it is, but it isn't about the swords. Wait, that's not right either."
"What he means to say is that we need a sword for this person," Donald said, slightly impatiently. He shoved me forward into plain sight.
Leon looked perplexed as he looked at me. "What's so special about this kid?"
"He's planning to take out the Guard Armor, a-hyuck!"
"What!? This kid's planning on going toe to toe with that Heartless without a weapon? Here, come with me." Leon forcefully took me by the arm and led me into his shop. Goofy and Donald followed after us.
In Leon's backroom, we found more swords than we could ever care to count. Cutlasses, broadswords, longswords, katanas… any variety of sword imaginable was either resting on a rack, hanging on the wall, or strewn across the floor in a heap. Leon led me to a particular sword in a glass case in the corner. Inside was a sparkling turquoise sword hot off of the forges. Leon removed the glass case, took the sword from the support, and handed it to me.
Leon gazed at the sword in my hand wistfully and said, "I call this sword 'Ethereal Light.' It has a charm that prevents the blade from being stained by darkness. It's completely free of charge for using it against the Heartless."
"I thank you for it," I replied with a bow, taking the blade. I beckoned to Donald and Goofy to follow, and we walked out of Leon's shop.
"Now, where is this 'Guard Armor' Heartless that you guys were talking about?"
"It's down the road and back down where we came from," Goofy replied. "It only comes out at the church there, and only when the bells toll midnight."
"Why at a church?"
"It wants to show that it's an unholy demon by defiling the church with its presence. At least that's what we guess," Donald answered.
"Ah, well, the sooner we get there, the sooner we can send it weeping all the way home to its mom." We quickened our pace down the street, rushing past people getting to their homes. As we progressed, house doors were being slammed shut and windows were being reinforced with wooden supports. I stared at these arcane actions as we got closer to the clearing with the church in the center of it.
As we approached the door of the church, the bell rang out through the town. The sound of slamming doors reverberated back from the deserted streets of Traverse Town. We continued onward, opening this door with a grating 'creeeeaaaak.' We stepped inside, into the cold, dusty room of the church's compact interior. A gust of wind from the dark emptiness caught the door and slammed it shut. Apparently we were expected. I didn't know what would be lurking the halls of this church at this time of night, but I frankly didn't care. Anything that dared show its face here would face my blade's sting. The bell tolled a second time.
Our feet caused the floorboards below us to creak eerily. Strangely, they creaked above our heads as well. Dust was loosed from the rafters above us, falling on our heads like rain or sleet. A particularly heavy step brought a large amount of dust right on Donald.
"BWAAAACK! I can't take this anymore!" Donald shouted as he furiously rubbed the dust out of his eyes. He pointed his wand at the spot above him and yelled, "Fire!" A fireball shot from the wand and caught the ceiling on fire! Whatever was above us was too heavy to be supported by the burning planks and fell through, bringing the burning wood down with it. A dust cloud was kicked up and enshrouded our guest.
"Allow me to shed a little light on the situation," I offered. I swung my sword around like a fan blade, blowing away the dust and putting out what was left of the fire. What I revealed was a black insect-like creature, hunched over, but still no taller than Donald. It stared at us blankly with two yellow eyes.
"It's only a Shadow Heartless," Goofy said with a sigh of relief. "They aren't very tough."
Another pair of yellow eyes loomed out from the darkened hole in the ceiling. Another pair soon joined these, followed by another, and yet another. One of these pairs of eyes broke from the mass grouping of the others and struck the floor, joining its partner. All of the others slid along the ceiling, to the walls, and to the woodpile to join the other two shadows. There had to be at least twenty strong gathered there!
Goofy gulped at this sight and added, "Unless they attack in droves."
One of the shadows charged me, its hands reaching for my chest. I intercepted this by whacking the little bugger square in the face, splitting it in two. "Back off, you little punk," I growled it as it dissolved into the darkness.
Several more of them came, all with the same intent: to get at my chest. I didn't know what they wanted, but I deflected their attacks with a whirlwind slash from my blade. Some needed more than one slash to do in, but all of them disappeared sooner or later.
"Anything else? I'm just getting warmed up," I told my companions with a chuckle. "By the way, where is that Guard Armor you two were going on about?"
A huge quake shook the church as if in response, loosing more dust onto us. Something big was up there, really big. Another shake brought down a large, purple metal shoe from the rafters above. It was big enough that I could have used it for a washing machine! The other shoe in the pair fell with another splinter of wood.
I slowly turned around to face Donald and Goofy, a grimace on my face. "This is Guard Armor? A pair of big metal shoes?" I burst into a laughing fit, even dropping and rolling on the dirt-covered floor in my hysteria. I was perplexed why neither of my companions joined me.
A third metallic mass broke through the ceiling; its landing shook me to my feet. I stopped laughing and stared into the black, colorless eyes of the new creature that stood before me. It was comprised of the two purple feet at the base of a purple concave cylinder with an upraised rim to contain its spherical head, and two likewise arms to keep its clawed hands connected to it. The symbol of the Heartless was clearly visible on the creature's chest, right below its helm-like head.
"Okay, that poses a little more challenge." I held up my sword in a battle stance, awaiting the demon's first move.
It obliged by pointing its clawed arm and firing off its hand like a cannonball at me! I leapt up and performed a mid-air back-flip, slashing a jagged line on the gauntlet as it passed under me. Thrown out of its flight path, the claws of the armored hand dug into the wood of the church floor between Donald and Goofy.
I beheld my handiwork with a smirk on my face. I was about to turn back to face the Heartless when I felt a sharp, blindingly piercing pain in my back. The tip of a purple point poked out from my ribcage. I thrust my sword in an arch over my head and pierced metal. Guard Armor had fired its other gauntlet at me! I angrily ripped the claws out of my back and brought my sword around again, the gauntlet still attached.
Between two of the thing's fingers a heart-shaped object glowed with varying colors. Half of it was a pitch black with no luster at all. The other was just the opposite with a crystalline ruby shine. All four of us (including the Heartless) stared at the object with amazed, wide eyes. "What is that?" I asked myself.
"It's your heart," Donald replied. His eyes never left the object.
All of a sudden, a wiry hand the same color as the dark half of the object tore from my wounds. It shot out, wrapped its pencil-thin fingers around the heart, jerked the heart free of the Guard Armor's grasp, and yanked it back into me. "Okay, that was interesting."
Donald pointed his wand at me and yelled, "Cure!" Green magic wrapped around my wounds, sealing them shut. Not even a scar was left behind! The magic washed away the blood as well.
I thanked Donald for the medical treatment and turned my attention back to Guard Armor, or at least the gauntlet still on my sword. A smile curled my lips as I concocted a plan. I quickly turned around, heaving my laden sword with me. I stopped abruptly facing Guard Armor and threw the gauntlet off my sword and back at it. The hand struck the Heartless full in the head and knocked it cleanly off.
"Watch out!" Goofy shouted. He ran at me and shoved me into one of the pews with his shield.
"What was that for?" I asked him.
"Well, it was either you or the floor." He pointed behind him to the aisle. The planks were torn up in a straight line the whole way down. At the end of this shattered aisle, Guard Armor was putting itself back together. Realizing what had happened, I sheepishly stood up and dusted the both of us off.
After sending Goofy off to rejoin Donald, I stood before Guard Armor. We both knew what we were dealing with now, so this next round would decide the fight. Guard Armor pointed its arms at me again, ready to fire. Before it could, I leapt up and slashed at the Heartless symbol emblazed on its chest. With its weak spot damaged, Guard Armor fell apart, clanking together in a heap. I took this opportunity and hacked apart both of the Heartless's arms until they were nothing but piles of scrap metal.
Guard Armor shook off the shock and reconstructed itself as much as it could. It looked slimmer without its arms. Even so, it was determined to defeat me. Its washing machine feet rushed from the main body like a pair of clumsy rhinos directly at me. As they approached, the first one skewered itself on the blade of my sword using its own momentum. I used this shoe to pound the other one into the broken wood and the exposed dirt of the floor.
Guard Armor, being nothing more than its main body and head, started hopping at me in a mad frenzy. It shattered anything in its path, whether it was the pews, the broken bits of its arms, or its shoe. I backed up in order to get a good angle and swung my sword at this menace, releasing the other shoe. It broke through the metal body of the rampaging Guard Armor and even shattered the stained glass window behind it.
This attack was just too much for the Heartless. Its head fell off its shoulders and stuck in the ground. The rest of it sank into the shadows of the church created by the shimmering moonlight that now shone in through the broken window.
The head also sank into the darkness, but it left something in its wake: another one of those heart-shaped objects, but this one was a solid ruby-colored one that shone brilliantly. Why this Heartless actually had a heart was beyond me, but I was too dazzled by the object to linger on that thought long. Curiously, I grabbed it. When I did, a bright flash lit up the church, blinding me. I closed my eyes to avoid the brightness, the painful light.
When I opened my eyes, I was back in my own room again. The sun was shining through the window, a morning light amplified by the snow reflecting some of it back into my room. My clock read 8:21. It was too late to go back to sleep now, so I shook my head to try to wake myself up, to shake out the weird dreams of the previous night. I crawled out of bed, stepped down the stepladder, and into my slippers before I trudged out the door and down the hallway. A weird annoyance in my shoe bugged my foot the entire time.