My Brother's Keeper

Chapter 16

Hand after hand, Roxas crawls into the darkness.

Gradually the tunnel narrows. Instead of crawling on hands and knees, he falls to his stomach and pulls himself along. So much work just to keep his mission secret, he thinks with some annoyance.

"This is ridiculous." Roxas mutters, and is startled by how loud his voice sounds. Some part of him seems to think the darkness would swallow his words, smothering them in the void. It rumbles in the dark, and Roxas holds in a curse as his head thumps the roof of the tunnel. He feels like a skittish rabbit.

He shudders at the thought of those who perished while building the tunnels. He decides not to think how many died digging the rest of the other tunnels that no doubt snake out in all directions of the castle. Occasionally his fingers would brush against wood supporters, and each time his hear is thankful. Any sense of humanity in the darkness, however remote is a blessing.

The tunnel veers upward sharply. Roxas isn't sure how long he has crawled, though the pain in his back insists it has been at least half an hour. His mind guesses a more reasonable ten minutes. Soon dim light lights up the tunnel, but to his eyes it is a hazing beacon, and seeing it, he smiles. His head emerges in the middle of a beautifully decorated room. Roxas hoists himself out of the tunnel. A bit of dirt has joined the grey paint on his face and hands, only reinforcing the weight image he had.

With only darkness visible outside the tall windows, he has nothing to go on but a vague sense of the direction in which he's crawled. It isn't the castle, but Roxas can tell that this safe house is not far. Probably a rendezvous point for the king and guards.

Other than his blonde hair, he is a mass of black lurking in the shadows.

He slips out and hurries north, his cape flapping behind him. Attached to the castle like an extra foot, there's a prison that is like a giant cube made of thick stone bricks. Only the top floor pokes half above the ground, the rest sticks deep into the earth. Barred windows line both sides, marking the cells of the lesser offenders.

Anxious, he runs the plan over in his mind. With just himself, brute force is a possibility, as he was trained to take on multiple opponents, but with the Prince's birthday tonight, the dungeon is probably less than guarded. Even worse, it can provoke far greater retaliation if he leaves a massive trail of bodies. This will have to be a stealth mission. Arguably one of his favorite kinds of missions.

When he reaches the prison he will sneak around to the back, slip past any guards, and then sneak to enter the prison. Once inside, he will only have about ten minutes to locate Sora before the party reaches its climax and the guests decided to give themselves a tour of the grand expanse of the castle. If Roxas is to be spotted, bearing the emblem of his guild, the guards will flood the room.

He had to work out a few strategies to distract, disable, and render unconscious any guards he might encounter. Picking any lock swill be child's play. After that, it's a quick visit to Sora's chambers and back out to the safe house.

He needs stealth. He needs quiet, and a little bit of magic.

Sora hasn't heard word from Roxas since he ran out of the castle after a spell Axel said to expose Roxas' memories of earlier years. He can't fight the feeling that something's gone wrong.

His stomach drops.

A small light, white and crystalline, like the light he had seen in the woods, appears in a wink at the bottom of the double oak doors. It travels back and forth, as though probing for a way in. There are sounds on the other side, like the slips of gauze fabric over the wooden exterior of the door.

As the dresser sets a silk robe about Sora's shoulders, Sora can't help but keep his gaze on the window reflections in the mirror. Sora half-expected Roxas to arrive in noble's clothes with his hat to cover his hair, but Sora keeps an eye on all the entrances that would appeal to a thief just in case Roxas decides to enter that way; whether to avoid the crowd or just out of pure fun.

Roxas always did seem more in his element climbing through a window rather than file into with the crowds of flamboyantly dressed nobles and dukes and lords.

"Alright your majesty, you're all set." The dresser smiles as he steps back and admires his work.

Dressed in a red top with gold epaulettes and black trousers and black leather boots, Sora turns and finds a rapier strapped to his waist, the brown belt earing the emblem of the family. Solid craftsmanship, if a bit self-indulgent side. A man could live for a month on what this single ruby in the hilt would fetch him. But the hilt is pointless and meant for show.

Sora wishes he had one of Roxas' short swords. Plain, but well-made. Nothing beyond the necessary.

Sora sighs and steps down from the platform and away from the three-paneled mirror. He offers the dresser a satisfied smile as he pins gold straps to his epaulettes to hug his shoulders. He then hands Sora white gloves and hesitant, Sora pulls them onto his hands.

"You look absolutely amazing." His mother's voice speaks.

Sora turns to find his mother dressed in a beautifully slimming a purple lace gown. The bodice a soft sweetheart with silver lacing, translucent, pale purple sleeves. Her hair was kept back in a French braided crown twist bun. Attached to the back of her bodice is a long, transparent cape of deep violet which is decorated with an enlarged family crest and sweeps the floor.

Sora smiles and approaches his mother. She instantly holds out her hands and Sora takes them, brushing kisses on the cheeks. His mother's eyes instantly water with happiness and Sora gathers her in a hugs cooing to her to not cry. Whether it is because of his maturity or for the grieving of Roxas that so often happens every year, he doesn't know. But safe to say he expected it.

"So, where is your friend, Jesse?" she asks tentatively wiping her eyes.

"Who? Oh! Right! Jesse!" Sora exclaims nearly forgetting Roxas' other name now that he's found out it's his brother. "He's going to be late apparently. Probably wants to beat the crowd of others."

"Oh I understand. I just hope he doesn't feel bad about what happened at dinner. What the Duke said was completely uncalled for and frankly rude." Sora's mother assures.

"Thanks mom. Yeah he was kind of worried about that." Sora says rubbing his neck.

"Oh, don't worry. " Sora's mother waves her hand in a dismissive motion. "And don't tell your father, but his personality almost reminded me of how your brother would act." His mother whispers.

Sora feels his heart flutter. "What?!"

"I know, I don't know why but I just feel like he would've been the troublemaker." His mother giggles.

Sora nervously chuckles. "You have no idea." He mumbles.

"Well, come on." She claps her hands. "Time to greet the guests."

She leads Sora out of the room and down the hallway towards the ballroom.

The music grows steadier, firmer, and it is string instruments sighing out a swirling waltz. A crash of cymbals accents a change in melody. The waltz swells even louder, so unlike the deafening, harsh music of Riku's parties. Sora feels guilty thinking that, feeling he should restrain himself from thinking any negative thoughts since he's just lost his father.

New voices filters in from beyond the doors, different from the whispers he heard a moment before. These voices are more substantial, people laughing and talking and shouting. The voices rise steadily, accompanied by the delicate clink and tinkle of glassware.

More voices chime in, one for every second that passes, until they blend into a unanimous, lively hum. Despite the light and laughter, the trilling, swirling tune, Sora clings tighter to his mother's hand.

"Don't worry, honey." She assures. "You'll be fine."

"It's not the guests I'm worried about." Sora retorts.

"I'm sure Jesse won't be so shy." His mother pats his shoulder, kiss his cheek and leaves to enter through a discreet door at the other end of the hall.

Despite being a piece of his attention, Roxas isn't what he was worried about either. He assumes she'd know what it really is he's worried about, or she's probably just putting it out of her head and trying to enjoy the party since it is his birthday.

Xemnas could have some of his minions already inside with the party disguised as guests. Getting in for him would be child's play, and then assassinating his father would be simpler as a drop of poison in a drink, to a public execution by dagger.

Sora forgets that his parents, hopefully still don't know he attended the meeting, and so far Riku hasn't said anything about it. Let alone bothered to approach Sora in general about it.

Soon Sora would have to face the crowd as he's introduced by the Harold after his parents. And still with no sign of Roxas, he grows more and more antsy.

Then as he's going to peek into the ballroom to catch a glance at all the guests in bright colored dresses and suits, there's a breeze that tickles his ear. Sora jumps and leaps back from the door and looks around. His hand instantly fumbles to his ear, feeling for blood or signs of missing hair.

Nothing.

Sora looks around, and fear tugs at his gut when he notices the set of fresh muddy footprints on the carpet, which leads all the way up the curved hallway and the steps to the stairs.

Sora steps back more from the double doors of the ballroom. His hand reaches for the hilt of his rapier. He slowly draws the sword from the sheath.

Fastening his free hand to the cherry wood banister, he sets one foot on the first step. He listens.

At first he hears only the faint hiss of the wind from outside. Then a creaking of the wood floor, loud enough that Sora could make out two within the one.

Sora courageously takes two more steps up the stairs. When he reaches the landing, he holds the rapier in both hands, ready to swing and slash.

The still air clings to the bare skin of his neck while a few strands of hair drift in the otherwise tranquil hallway.

Layers of red and brown cap the tops of tables and green trees are decorated in streamers like that of the Christmas holiday. Downstairs Sora can hear a woman giggling as she's perused by a man in a red suit.

The warm buttery glow of the chandelier reflects off the silver tea set aside on a mahogany vanity causing Sora to squint.

Through the glare, he scans the quiet scene of his home.

Until he hears a door creak open behind him.

Sora freezes. Turning his head, he catches sight of a dark blur as it slides away from the wallpaper and darts inside his father's study.

The dungeon is a dank, smelly pit carved out of the foundation of the castle. Individual cells are simply hollowed-out husks within the stone. The walls are slimy with moisture, iron bars block the view of wooden door's little window, and a few half-hearted torches burn along the aisle between cells.

Roxas kneels down and slides his knife and lockpick into the keyhole. He is extra cautious as he picks the lock to back dungeon door. With quick fingers, Roxas hears the tumbler click. The door opens on rusty hinges, the screeching making his heart triple in speed for a moment. He braces himself against the stone for a minute before he peeks out through the door. He pulls the cape around his body and slips through the doorway.

As he passes the torches, he whips his cape over the flame, instantly extinguishing them. Soon the entire compound is coated in the blackness of night. Roxas lifts his hand in front of his face, and can barely see the outline. He has literally become one with the shadows.

Roxas' feet echo as he slips into another stone corridor. He wasn't sure what he had expected of the compound, but rats running around and the smell of decaying mold was certainly not it. He had at least expected the guards or maids to at least work together to at least clean the place.

He rounds the next corner and nearly runs into a guard, but his toe seems to stick to the ground and jerk back before his mind can react. Roxas ducks back behind the corner as the guard turns. Roxas draws his dagger and flattens himself against the wall as the footsteps come closer, his heart pounding in his ears.

As the guard passes by, a serrated dagger awaits him. It slices his throat and splatters blood across the floor. The blood slides off Roxas' robes like water. He loots the body to find another dagger with a sword and duel-bladed axe. Tucking them away in his belt of daggers, he continues on.

His heart feels heavy as to what he just did, only to curse himself as he hears Lexaeus' voice. About how he can't just easily want to change. Roxas sighs and forces himself to forget it. thinking about it won't help.

But he promises to pray and pay for the man's family.

Roxas navigates his way up the winding stairs out of the dungeon. He encounters no guards, dead or living. The stairs ended in a cramped room with bare walls and a lone door, the outside of which was normally bolted. He pushes it open. The plush carpet feels wonderful to his feet. Even better was the burst of cold air blowing across his skin. Roxas remembers how well Demyx kept usually keeps the house so warm, and how Roxas would stretch out before the large fire roaring in the hearth.

He hurries down a long hall. Over twenty windows stretched along the right. Iron bars crisscrossed across them, but still allowed the chill to drift through the facility. Roxas reaches the end of the hall and slips through the empty doorway, silent as a ghost. A guard stands to the right of it, and he's knocked out with a blow to the head and a hand wrapped around his mouth. As the body collapses across the floor, Roxas makes certain no more guards are about, then heads on through.

"You! Stop right there!" a voice shouts.

Roxas turns and finds a guard with his sword drawn. Roxas instantly crouches down. His shadow cloak swirls about his body, his limbs and head fading away into a shapeless blob of black and gray. Only the serrated dagger shines bright and true in his black hand.

Roxas ducks and slips within the dark corner casted long by the window. The guard sees the scene and comes undone.

"By the gods, this can't be happening!" he panics. Roxas hears him turn and run, but Roxas is quickly behind him and rams his knee into the lower part of the man's spine. As the man falls to his knees, Roxas covers his mouth and chop at the man's neck with his hand and he falls to the floor. Finding a linen closet, Roxas drags and stuffs the one guard into the space, the other he's positioned to look as if he's been dozing off.

Sensing danger before it happens, Roxas whirls out of the way as the blade of a sword whistles past his head. It sticks to the wood beneath the carpet, and without even bothering to look, Roxas spins up behind the guard and grips with full force. He pulls the guard down as he gasps and wheezes for air. His hand claws and slaps at Roxas' face, but it only makes him grip tighter. When he feels the body slack, Roxas drops him to the ground, not even being gentle.

Roxas hurries down the hall, his mind racing. His path led him to the dining hall, which looks lively with the set chairs, covered tables, and lit chandeliers. The music washes over him, building and falling, the melody mimicking itself, then starting over again. He finds himself a doorway away from the ballroom, the host of Sora's birthday. He had to find Sora before he was to be presented before the guests. He hadn't given word to Sora since he'd fled the castle out of panic from the vision Axel had unlocked with one of Zexion's spells.

Roxas crouches and peeks inside the double oak doors.

A chamber of rich ebony lies stretched before him. Thick velvet draperies spill from the tall windows, like black waterfalls. Phantasmal light plays through the stained-glass bloodred panes, setting shadows loose to clamor over the sable walls and coal dance floor.

"The vaults are insufferably damp," one of the men's voices say. "They are encrusted with niter."

"Let us go, nevertheless," the other voice returns, and Roxas recognizes the accent as Italian. The bells on his cap jingle again, and the sound draws Roxas into the ballroom.

He keeps one hand on the door frame as he passes into the room where the smell of perfume and wine mingles with the scent of rich food. He looks up and notices more black draperies. Combined with the deep crimson windows, the space seems like the innermost chamber of a royal crypt.

"The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado."

The two men stand there within the doorway opposite his own, one at the far end of the crowded room, their silhouettes surrounded by a haze of dim violet lights. A bell-capped figure takes the arm of the other. Then that man raises his hand to his face in salute. He draws his cloak in tighter and they hurry off.

Roxas creeps forward, towards the archway on the other side of the room. The door he recognizes as the one from the party before.

Dread, like a poison, spreads its way through him, and Roxas keeps to the sides of the room as he maneuvers through. He makes it to the other door tucked away in the corner. Slipping up the steps, he tries not to make the wooden floor creak despite the carpet being there to muffle his footsteps. As he makes it further down the hall, he hears the clap of a boot on wood.

Sprinting down the hall and into along corridor, he glances back over his shoulder; his heart shuddering at the sight. There's someone following him.

Roxas quickly ducks low and into the closets room on his left.

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