[ Guardian ; Yen Sid ; Steven : Disney : Hall of the Light ]
In the deep blue, starless night of morning of the eighth day, something strange happened: a young man fell from the sky, gently landing in a bush of the courtyard, like so many others... more than a week ago. Yen Sid was alerted by the magic protections he'd put in place, but upon finding little more than a strange young man reeling from loss, he knew too well who this was: another Earthling.
After being giving the man a physical and magical check-up to be sure he was healthy, he alerted the other Wise Ones and brought the man to rest.
Hours passed, and three others showed up, as well, brought in by various forces. Before breakfast, the sorcerer decided it best to give them each time with the Guardian to catch them up on the events of the worlds in the past week, and the Guardian agreed. So did Luke, Feather, and Song speak to the Guardian individually.
Yen Sid had thought, perhaps, to let this first new arrival meet the Guardian first and be done; they thought it wiser to let him meet last, such that the Guardian could walk them in—and after explaining the man's situation, he agreed.
And so here they were. Guardian, sitting in the chair near the center of the Hall, with Yen Sid at their side, while the young man stood opposite, having just been called in.
"So, how are you feeling this morning, Steven?" the Guardian asked shortly after introductions passed (including explanations regarding the entity's existence). The aura they produced had grown stronger since the night before, easily filling the room with the subtle reassurance of light's embrace and security.
The boy, Steven, clad in a plain pair of jeans, sweater with black and white stripes down the sleeves, topped with a frayed hooded vest with matching stripes across the hood, wore the face of someone deeply fed up. His dark brown eyes were raw and red around the edges, evidence of intense crying still clinging to the slightly clammy face that still bore similar clues. His slightly disheveled hair showed just as little interest in his physical appearance as his desire to be present in that room. The question was posed. His eyes redirected to the side, to the floor, to the opposite side, his mind formulating a response.
Oh how he hated that simple question. Whenever a person in authority asked him, it was always an intense battle between his professional indoctrination and his direct nature. Which was right? To reply in a way that was obviously untrue, recorded, practiced, and plastic so that even the most painfully unobservant individual with a modest sense of pride would find such a reply insulting and belittling of one's intelligence? Or, to reply in a way that revealed exactly what can of writhing and festering flesh and sh*t they unwittingly opened by asking a otherwise socially acceptable and encouraged icebreaker utilized in just about any environs that a person would encounter on a day to day basis.
At last he decided on a reply that swiftly, unconsciously, and in a way so selfishly considerate shifted all blame to the opposite party for the consequences of either reply.
"Do you want the polite answer or the honest one?"
Yen Sid raised a stern brow, though he did not speak. The Guardian, on the other hand, simply seemed to tilt their head, peering at Steven through the opaque veil.
Peering into him. He could feel them there. And still, they did not speak, not for some time.
"Why do you assume us to be so shallow, callous, and indifferent that we would inquire yet not wish to know?" they finally asked, the question seemingly genuine. Their sincerity carried an almost childlike innocence, yet the wisdom to cut straight through his deflection. "Some would consider such hasty judgments rude. I am not one of those, though. So for your reference, the honest answer is the polite one."
"Could be better." His reply was short and mildly bitter, showing the distaste to having one observe him too deeply. Hypocritical at its core. Steven, normally observant & analyzing of others, was uncomfortable when placed in the spotlight without a mask to wear that so thoroughly shielded who he actually was that he had nothing to fear. His secrets were safe. He was safe as long as no one knew him—the real him, the one others were kept at an arms length away from with such practiced precision and care that it came so naturally to slip past a prying question. Now, standing before what was essentially a god—goddess—divine being, he had little to no ability to fool, misdirect, and hide himself.
Perhaps for a moment he might have seemed done, but Steven's politeness returned with a sense of composure as he added, "And you?"
"Weary, yet better than I have been for millennia," they explained, nodding. "But we will have plenty of time to talk about my issues. You, on the other hand... may be facing more tribulations sooner than you expect."
They paused again, searching. This time, Steven would know, they were searching themselves.
"Yes, it is true that I can see some generalities of the heart. Especially given our circumstances. However," they shifted, tilting their head forward as if to make the conversation more intimate, "parts of my power are still... weak. Blurry. Tell me, Steven: what is the last thing you remember?"
"You asking, 'What is the last thing you remember?'" Steven's lips quirked slightly. Oh good, at least grief failed to dull his smart-ass wit, though he was quick to recoil as he glanced to the side and marked Yen Sid's unflinching stare, "Sorry."
"I take it you mean before someone found me in the bushes outside?" At this point his expression grew grimmer than it ever had been before this, "I... watched my world fall to pieces. Everyone... all my—" he stopped, the deity's presence was calming, but it still took effort to fight back his tears, his voice cracking a bit as he continued, "I watched my family get swallowed by heartless. I couldn't contact my friends. Phones were dead. The roads were a mess, so many wrecks that it made running on foot the only option. Heartless were only half of the problem... people lost their minds. Looting and rioting in the streets. If it wasn't heartless swarming through the trees, there were mobs of human beings just as, if not more dangerous."
At this point, Steven stopped and recognized just how heavy his breathing had gotten and his voice had raised. He apologized again.
"I made it just past the old drawbridge when I saw the swarm coming. There was a mob back the way I came tearing apart the convenience store. I didn't have anywhere to hide, and there were so many. Like the flocks of starlings that perched in the giant tree in my neighborhood... like a tidal wave in flight... claws over claws over fangs over those sickly yellow blotches. Those aren't eyes. Heartless aren't supposed to be f*cking real..."
Steven turned his head down and rubbed a thumb firmly over his left eyebrow while the same hand's middle finger mimicked the process to the right, "I'm sorry. Really, I'm better than this. Just... I uh... um," his words continued incoherently for a moment before he finally after some effort finished the sentence, "I need a moment."
"This is not a contest. You have recently lost everything you know. Grief is not a weakness or a sign of being worse," they said, shaking their head softly. His response, however, did earn an intrigued look from the sorcerer beside them.
Still, there was a pause, time to let him gather himself. Before Steven could continue onward, however, they posed a question to him: "After the shadows... after the fall. Do you remember anything else?"
"A dream," He replied softly, "On a stain glass circle."
Steven laughed a bit; he recognized the scenario once he gave it thought, but it still didn't seem quite real. "There was this pillar and on it a floating..."
"Well... I'm not sure how I knew immediately even though it was sorta broken, like a fragmented shackle or bracelet. When I looked at it, it spoke... or something else did. It's strange, 'cause despite how fuzzy things were I can remember the words perfectly:"
"So I picked it up... or rather I touched it and just like that it appeared around my wrist:"
A shackle to command obedience.'
'Can you bear this burden?'
"And... I agreed. Nothing like feeling like you've just unwittingly made a deal with the devil, right?" Steven laughed a bit halfheartedly at his own joke, "After that, I saw nothing but white then I woke up—here."
The Guardian was silent once more in contemplation, though this moment seemed to draw on long enough that even Yen Sid turned his gaze toward them with searching curiosity. They seemed to heave a sigh, if they breathed at all.
"I see. You... hmm."
Steven did not need to see an expression to know the feeling of that silence; they were searching for a way to say something. Something they felt heavy, something they had to consider wording for his benefit more than their own.
"For what it's worth, the entity who spoke to you was... is a fragment of my being, lodged within your heart. I am broken, you understand, and my pieces seemed to search out individuals, though I do not yet understand their criteria," they explained. It was an obvious wind-up, a disclaimer to wedge their way to the topic safely, without missed bases. Perhaps such clear indication was relieving to Steven; with this entity, there seemed to be no pretense, no guile or mask.
Though a cynic would always focus on the word 'seemed'.
"There are more like you here, even now. Well over a dozen, in fact. All refugees of Earth's fall, all saved in a similar manner and apparently bestowed power by a combination of my lost essence and their manifest determination to survive," they continued. "Unlike you, however, they have been through much already. You see... I ask you these things, Steven, because you are an anomaly among anomalies. All of them tell nearly-identical stories, with varying personal details, but for one key difference from you: they all showed up a week ago. This, in fact, is the eighth morning since their arrival, counting said arrival as the first."
Yen Sid's gaze was back on the young man, though perhaps more pressing was the gaze of the Guardian: unseen, yet distinctly felt. They held no judgment, no criticism—only what would feel like concern.
"These survivors have been through much already. Whether it was being isolated in the wild, or working together against malevolent forces, this past week has pressed them harder than is fair for anyone," they went on, "and I bring this up because some of what they experienced you should know. And not only because you accepted the burden of power, I'm afraid."
"I see." Steven was silent for a second, staring intensely at a single point on the stone floor, contemplating what had been said. Seven days had passed since others like him had appeared as well. It was nice to know he wasn't alone, but still, why had others shown up a week ago and not him? He could feel this entity's concern and it matched his own. He had other questions, pieces of them inside him, fragments, and they were broken. A spring of sympathy welled up lightly, should he help them? Fix them somehow? Did they need their fragment back? If so, how could he give it back? How should one go about separating a piece of deity from themselves to be returned?
All these things rolled around in Steven's head, but he didn't deem any fitting to say. It didn't feel like the time to ask. So, he shook off the thoughts self-consciously and motioned to them with an open hand and nod, "Sorry, please continue."
"There is... so much," they said, glancing down at the ground. Trying to find the words again, the proper course.
"You know of this realm. From what the others have said, your world knows of the exploits of Sora, from his first venture against Xehanort's Heartless to his second against Xemnas, the former's Nobody," they started, once more going back for a longer thread. "Those events took place two years ago. There has been tensions between light and darkness since, with Xehanort's machinations continuing, but then one month before your fellow survivors appeared, something happened in the cosmos: all of the worlds fused together overnight."
"Such is the chaos that you all have entered. In their travels, they've unraveled further secrets, including the existence of we three Guardians—myself, of Light, and two others, of Balance and of Darkness—and the discovery that Xehanort serves the corrupted Guardian of Darkness," they explained. Their story seemed as if it might go on for some time, except after a moment's pause, there was an odd shift; as if something in the background had caught their gaze, or they had realized a shortage of time.
"That tale is long, and there will be plenty of time to enlighten you and the others more over the next few days. I apologize for my digression," they said, nodding solemnly. "To the point. They have also come across Earthlings who were not fortunate enough to complete their dive when Earth was lost. Those who, for grief or fury, gave in to the darkness as all fell."
"In two such cases, these survivors were doubly-cursed, for as they transitioned from your lost world to ours, dark spirits bound themselves to their hearts and sought to twist them to their own ends," they continued. "Perhaps you might also know these, both of the world of Ivalice: one Chaos, Walker of the Wheel, and another Mateus, the Corrupt. Each took the already stained hearts and, without restraints, sought to mold the hearts to their own satisfaction."
Yen Sid now was watching the Guardian intently, as if suddenly enraptured by the topic. His gaze was tense, but his expression relaxed, as if overcome by realization.
"Whether such attempts were fully successful is... always up for debate. All that is known, for sure, is that both men were lost to themselves; the fragment of my being that had found their hearts was ensnared in shadow, isolated, cut away. They forsook the light, but more than that, also their own, fighting against the other survivors for the growing furor of darkness," they explained, sounding increasingly morose at the remembrance. "As such, much of what happened to them in those times remains lost to me now, save the perceptions of those still connected. In my tormented dreams, I saw visions of their plights against these men and their allies, and now as I wake, I sieve through truth and fiction using their own memories."
"One of these lost souls—I believe he fell to darkness chiefly in despair, and welcomed a bittersweet end. But in his alliance with one of Xehanort's men, he infiltrated the group of survivors as a native, and in doing so... well, it is my belief that perhaps it gave some tiny sliver of himself enough strength to lock his light away in the final moments before the various corruptive taints took over," they said, looking back up now to Steven as they told the story. "Whatever the case, there was enough of his shattered heart that last night, as this group of people struggled to save both a world and a man against an unrelenting horror, they found some measure of success. From within, they were able to heal his heart enough that, rather than be left to oblivion when his plans unraveled, he instead became whole... and vanished into light."
"He went by a number of names, but the one he held closest was... Louis," they said. They softly lifted their left arm, opposite Yen Sid, and to their side a sudden refraction of light splintered in space, like a million million mirrors shattered and reforming. Light cascaded and bent as this strange, prismatic illusion began to take the form of a fully-armored entity, thin cloth hanging from parts of the magic steel. "Louis Luciano. There was much conflict within him. I don't think that final piece of goodness ever really lost its connection, however, because within one of his many deceptions, he planted a second name. A name that resonated deeper than the others could possibly know..."
They slowly brought their hand down, and in doing so, the armor fell away, piece by piece, leaving only the image of a man in his Ivalician disguise. The last piece to fall was the helmet—revealing the 'new' survivor's face.
"Steven," they began, looking back at him now. "Whether or not you believe any of this may never matter. I dare not think you accept me at my every word. But one thing the man who went by Louis preached holds true: perception is powerful. And the other survivors... they will believe, beyond doubt, beyond anything you say, that the two of you are physically and historically one and the same. Eventually, many of them will accept that, effectively, you are separate—that perhaps one is fake, or perhaps even what I believe to be the truth, that Louis' final moments buried the memories of the past week."
"In time, I believe they will all come to treat you as your own person. But for now, your very appearance will carry a heavy significance that you cannot evade, and to hide your face and voice would only sow that much more distrust over time, culminating as you revealed yourself. The sins of a man you may never know unfairly fall upon your ignorant shoulders," they said, sighing and dropping their gaze. "I wished to prepare you as best I could, even knowing there is truly no way to do so."
From that point on, there was no reply. Only silence. Steven stared at the guardian. Stared through them, trying to focus on their vague featured behind the veil of light. His features were tense, running from his furrowed eyebrows, his clenched jaw, to his shoulders, his hands nervously clenching and opening repeatedly, to the thumb that fiddled with his jeans pocket.
If they read his eyes, they might find nothing, or everything, overflowing and bursting thoughts. He was suddenly so confused. With every question and concern bombarding his already weighed down state of mind causing a burning, volcanic desire to scream. His mind returned to countless scenarios in his past, every situation of being caught off guard by an unwarranted attack. A misunderstanding gone overboard. This had to be a mistake. There had to be an explanation. There had to be something to fix this, but he knew too little. He just arrived and this had apparently been going on for a week. They stated things so matter-of-fact, they seemed to know exactly what they were talking about. They showed his face. They'd used his middle name. How was he supposed to deny that? Think. Think. Think. Think. Think.
Then, just like that the walls slammed into place. Gates slammed shut. Moats dug. Chains wrapped around every mechanism called feelings locking everything into place. His posture became straight, his eyes narrowed looking at the guardian but not really focused on, his face turned stony, his tone level and civil.
"...right. Thanks anyway."
The entity silently waved away the projection, which unraveled silently and swiftly into nothing.
"You're sure?" Yen Sid spoke, his tone level though curious. "This was the young man from last night?"
"I have no doubts," they replied softly, though they never took their veiled gaze off of Steven. "He holds a part of me, has always held a part of me. It was lost in nightmare as surely as I was, but it remains shining. When he dissipated, I... called out for it to return, rather than be lost forever. And here he stands."
"His heart holds no detectable trace of the events."
"They were very thorough in their intent to save, rather than simply defeat. However, that brings me to the most presently important point for you, Steven," they said, and their mood seemed to shift from somber to reassuring. "All of this weight need not ever be relevant to your being. You have gone through much, with the loss of your home and so much more. So let me be clear: even though you carry a shard of my being, you hold no obligations to us."
"Yes, a shard of my power found you, helped you survive, and gave you strength beyond imagining. Your heart is touched by my own light, and the light of so many others. So, if you truly choose to persist with this burden, you are welcome to join the others in this horrific fight, or even to stay here with still others and help the cause at home. We have many refugees and untrained looking for home and hope," they explained. "However, you must understand that our fight is not presently for Earth, but for sheer survival. We cannot yet uncover the truth behind your world's demise because so many of our resources are necessary just to keep our efforts strong against the tides of darkness. So, plainly, there is no benefit for you in joining this cause, save perhaps the odds of victory increasing by your addition. As such, you are equally free to go about your life as you please in this new realm. Your power will not abandon you if you decide to walk your own path. And no matter your choice, this will always be a safe haven for you, without judgment, so long as we yet stand."
They paused, though whether it was to breathe or to let the options sink in was hard to tell.
"Finally, there is one key detail. One revelation that you must know before making your decision. Your loved ones from Earth are safe. The captured hearts of your planet were freed from the Darkness recently, and they now reside within me, whole, safe and in stasis. I cannot yet release them because my powers are still weak, but in a few days, I should be able to free them if you wish," they said. "But I do not tell you this to sway your decision. In fact, I let you know for quite the opposite. You may see your loved ones at any time simply by visiting me, and should you desire their return to livelihood before this war is done, then I shall free them as soon as I am able—no matter your decision."
"These people will never be hostages or bargaining chips. If you choose to go on your own way, you may return at any time and request their freedom, and I shall comply. They will not have your powers, and may never properly learn magic or anything beyond their normal Earth natures, but they will be alive," they explained. "Many of your possible companions are deciding to leave them be for the time being, rather than bring them into this world of strife. They will, of course, all eventually be freed once this fighting ends. But again, the fates of those bound to you is your own choice, and entirely separate from your choice of path. The only obligations you have to consider now are those to yourself."
The Guardian spoke earnestly, though they were merely words. Still, Steven would feel a sense of honesty from them; they were genuine in a way that even in his doubt and tension he would find he cannot quite deny or distrust. Even with such weight upon him, he would feel that they spoke true.
"I see." Steven gave a rigid nod, "I don't know how well you think I can fight. I studied magic... back on earth." his voice questioned the words even as they left his mouth, "but that was mundane in comparison to what you're capable of here. I have minimal formal training in martial arts, so I can throw a punch but don't expect me to be flipping off roof tops... I'm not a bad shot with a gun, and I know where to find the safety, but I wouldn't consider myself skilled in gun play. I have next to no actual training in swordplay. Simply, I don't know what you'd expect me to do. My skills were with computers back home. The physical skills I had were swimming and the ever-so-widely useful horseback riding. I don't expect you to have some overwhelming need for a cavalry or swim team."
"If you choose to stay, you will be trained alongside the others in the powers you were granted upon your Station of Awakening. Further, there may yet be a more benevolent spirit within your being waiting to be given form such that they may give you their own power," the Guardian explained. "And even if you choose not to help us, if you desire it, we will still train you so that you will be able to protect yourself out in the world. So do not consider your current state of inexperience a factor worth weight in your decision."
"Understood," he replied simply, his expression still vacant, "If it's alright, I'd like some time before I make a decision. It's a lot to consider."
The Guardian took a moment before nodding in acquiescence. "I understand; you need not answer right away. However, I will warn you, time is not something we have to spare. Their training will beginning shortly after breakfast, and it will take place in a pocket space of greatly compressed time—even just some hours in our world will mean missed weeks in there, timeless though it may be."
"At the very minimum, I would recommend you take part in this training, if only to learn how to best protect yourself," they suggested. "True, there may be tensions among the others at first, but to be fair, there are more than a few who genuinely wanted to see Louis saved, who would be thrilled—though shocked—to see you alive. I know Sora would be excited after the initial surprise wore off, for example."
"At least I know what to expect," Steven replied, his voice steely.
They were silent for a time, simply watching the young man. Something might have nagged at him about that gaze—not a sense of malice, but of reassurance. Indeed, some small piece of him would have felt more at ease around this entity than perhaps any other person. It was not a new feeling, but one that had slowly been burgeoning throughout their conversation. Their honesty, their concern, their genuine desire for his well-being—it all added up to some understanding, unconscious or not, that this entity truly cared.
Perhaps that, alone, was the most strange thing about the meeting.
"You know," they finally said, their voice soft, "there is no shame in feeling emotion. Particularly frustration, in a situation like this. But if you only internalize such feelings and do not make them known, none can offer to aid you. Such is a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolationism."
"Thank you for your advice." Steven seemed a little softer this time, "I'll take that into consideration. Forgive me, I don't mean to seem rude. You're a tad more observant than I'm used to out of people..." Or maybe he was just easily readable in his current state.
"No apology necessary; you've not been rude. Rather... well, I am the Guardian of Light,," they began. "I am the avatar of its principles. So I grow concerned when I see people fall into self-directed traps that would only serve to weaken or strain their bonds of unity. While such forces of light and dark should always remain in balance, we exist in a time where even the slightest shadow might be fed by corruption. I am... perhaps overly vigilant."
"Breakfast is being served upstairs. By this point, many of the others will have awakened and convened. I understand you want time before making your choice regarding your path, but for the present moment, you should let us know," they continued, "whether you feel comfortable being introduced to them now, or—if you accept training—when said training begins. If later, we can arrange for separate dining."
"Ah." Steven made a grimace, "No, that won't be necessary. First off, special treatment just bothers me. Second, might as well get this over with. Lastly, I'm hungry and would rather just grab food now if that's okay. If someone could show me where I could wash my face before we head to wherever the others are, I'd prefer my first impression not be that of a clammy slob."
"Ah, I see. Master Yen Sid...?"
Before they could finish his name, the man had summoned a pedestal, water basin, and mirror for the young man, including a toothbrush and some basic toothpaste.
"I'll go on ahead, then," he spoke, nodding to the Guardian and Steven before walking toward the staircase.
"They're right upstairs," they told Steven after a moment. "They're using up the Throne Room as a dining hall for the moment, oversized as it is."
"Thank you," the man took a moment to wash his face, then spoke up, "So... you're different than what I would have expected. The sort of all light and good deity's I'm used to back home were never represented as being so... understanding. They were closer to—" he hesitated, avoiding the use of lawful stupid as an apt description, "—crusaders. It's my way or no way. Absolute respect and obedience or eternal damnation. That sort of thing. Perhaps it's presumptuous of me, but you don't really come across that way. What makes you different?"
Steven ran the brush over his teeth swiftly as he waited for a reply.
"Well, to be fair, I'm not a god. I'm merely a Guardian of my aspect, of which there are three of us. In the past, we were... like siblings," they explained. "Light, Darkness, and Balance. And these were not correlated to scales of morality or ethics, but more akin to a third axis of union versus individuality on a cosmic scale. And we were never selfish about our causes. We knew from the beginning that some measure of equality would always be necessary for prosperous growth in the respective realms. The other two were... like me, as well, but attuned more aptly to their own aspects."
"Something has changed, and adversely affected us all, but I still hope for reconciliation," they said, beginning to stand as Steven grew ready. They released a small, solemn chuckle. "Perhaps that is merely a consequence of my aspect as well, however."
Steven gave one final look in the mirror before nodding with a grim smile and turning back to the guardian, "Not to sound pessimistic, but by that respect are you really an entity... including the other two, entities, that possesses your own will? You sound more like a being that exists at the whim of something else. A personification of an otherwise intangible element swayed by things that aren't at all within your control. My theory, mostly from previous thoughts regarding gods in general, is that gods exist at the mercy of their believers. Most people think of god(s) as a being they serve and emulate. However, I propose if, say, those that serve light are good-natured, you—a god in your own right—in turn are good-natured, matching them and their desires. But should they be cruel, like I've known gods of light and goodness back home to be to anyone outside of the majority of followers' own spectrum of understanding, you—in turn—become cruel to match their expectations. In such a case, we're presented with the chicken and the egg conundrum. Do the people emulate the god, or is the god shaped by them?"
Realizing far too late he'd been rambling, Steven stopped, "My apologies. Sometimes I talk a bit too much—" normally when I'm around someone I'm comfortable with and have known for awhile, "—so I need to be careful, otherwise I know I can be a tad... annoying."
"It's possible that we were created to act that way, but I assure you we were not born from the whims of mortals. I have as much free will as you, though I suppose even the very concept is debatable, no?" they responded, their tone telling Steven that there was likely a coy smile beneath the veil, if he could but see through. "Indeed, such a theory fueled my concerns before... but be careful not to misplace the blame for actions taken. Misinterpretation is one of the necessary flaws of free will."
"To be fair, I... am not even supposed to be here. On your plane," they continued, their voice growing more somber with concern. "We were always outside observers. When I set things into motion, I..."
They hesitated, and Steven could feel the atmosphere still, as if their very regret was manifest.
"We should go. There are others above that will also have questions, and everyone deserves as much of an explanation as I can understand," they finally said, the air slowly growing warm again, though still tinged with the Guardian's worries. "Perhaps as time goes on the answers will become clearer to us all."
"I see..." Steven couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. There was a lot not being said in that moment, but clearly he wasn't going to hear any more of it right then. He would wait.
With that, he matched their pace and followed the guardian of light out of the hall of the cornerstone.