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Chapter LXVIII: Falling Out

“We have to… kill these guys?” Sora muttered through his clenched teeth, as he pushed his opponent away from him.

“Unless you want the other to be the one man surviving,” Cassim answered. “Then yes, you do.”

“Just a reminder,” Kairi interrupted, picking a moment to throw in a joke while she blocked a whip-like slash from her foe. “…I’m not a man.”

“If ya want, I can play around with ya before cuttin’ ya up,” Kairi’s bony opponent sneered abominably.

It was a very distracting fight for Sora. Every few seconds, he would try to glance over to Kairi, constantly needing the knowledge that she was doing well. However, the cost was that he would nearly always come close to being skewered alive by his barbaric opponent. The same applied for Kairi, who was probably taking the routine to a level far beyond Sora’s. At some points, Kairi completely forgot where she was and attempted to head over to Sora’s side. And of course, her enemy would either intercept her accidental “escape” or would launch an attack on the inattentive Kairi. Time and time again, the distractions piled on, inching both Sora and Kairi closer to exhaustion and failure.

Aladdin, on the other hand, almost seemed as if he was unwilling to fight. Most of the time, he simply tried to evade Sa’luk’s entire onslaught of unrelenting blows. If he could not directly avoid an assault, he would use the dagger his father provided him to block the death strike. At one point, it seemed as if Sa’luk had claimed victory when he knocked Aladdin several feet backwards and straight into the rocky side of the cliff, stunning the young man for a short duration. However, instead of dealing the final blow, Sa’luk toyed with Aladdin and beckoned him to retaliate.

But for Sora and Kairi, their separate fights in the wet, cold, and dimly lit arena were much more horrendous. It was all due to their compassionate hearts that they could not take the life of another living being in a gruesome sporting event for the thieves.

Thus, the inevitable occurred when Kairi finally dropped her guard in whole and was knocked clear off the high cliff in which they were all fighting on. A second later, Aladdin was knocked over as well. Sora, who managed to hold his ground the entire time, completely abandoned his duel and sprinted towards the edge of the cliff. He watched in terror as both Kairi and Aladdin had their blades jammed in the rocky crags, hanging onto them for the sake of their lives. Sora had no time to plan out his actions. Instead, he slid down the side of the cliff to where Kairi and Aladdin were temporarily stuck in.

Little did he know, Sa’luk made his way down the cliff as well, apparently still hungry to finish off Aladdin.

“Out of my way, you brats!” Sa’luk bellowed as he used his free arm to wallop both Sora and Kairi, who were utterly defenseless, off the side of the cliff and into the raging waves of the sea below.

“Sora! Kairi!” Aladdin yelled in vain, knowing he could do nothing in time to aid his falling friends.

For the moments in freefall, time could not move any slower. The entire time before they struck the surface of the sea below, Sora had his hand fully extended in front of him, trying his best to hold onto Kairi. Their fingers could only occasionally touch, but neither of them had the extra inch necessary to fully grasp onto each other. All the stretching was in vain, with their eventual crash into the water imminently waiting.

Knowing that he could not divert his attention to his lost comrades, Aladdin agonizingly took his eyes away from the two messy ripples in the sea. Had he idly stared on for a few more seconds, Sa’luk would have claimed his supposedly predetermined victory as the menacing fighter wound up for his finishing blow. However, the much younger and leaner Aladdin leapt vertically to grasp onto the dagger that he had lodged into the side of the cliff.

Lightning continuously blasted across the rainy sky; the subsequent moments were the most crucial ones. Perhaps Sa’luk underestimated Aladdin’s stamina or perhaps Aladdin was simply fortunate for his timely evasion. But with all the power invested in his latest attack, the failed assault was Sa’luk’s undoing. By missing, the momentum threw the brawny thief off balance, allowing Aladdin to freely counter. Using the wedged dagger as a pivot, Aladdin swung forward and kicked Sa’luk off the edge of the cliff.

Still kind-hearted even in such a dreary period of time, Aladdin reached out with one hand to try and save the falling Sa’luk. But the damage has already been done. Sa’luk bellowed in disbelief and anger as he plummeted down the cliff and into the sea much like Sora and Kairi did. All Aladdin could do was watch as he hung onto his life-saving dagger. Above him, the sounds of cheers could be heard from the remaining, thirty-nine observant thieves. Aladdin hesitantly made his way back to the original arena, to the core of the watchful thieves.

As he expected, the thieves roughly treated him upon his return. Pulled, dragged, and yanked in different directions, Aladdin ended up staring at his father, who authoritatively stood mightily in front of him.

“You killed Sa’luk. The code of the Forty Thieves is very clear on this point,” Cassim finally said. He smirked in a humorous manner at his victorious son. “…You’re in!”

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The unexpected arrival of Sa’luk prompted Sora and Kairi to swim as fast as they could towards the shoreline before the barbaric thief could notice their presence. Still gripping tightly onto each other when they successful made it to dry land, the exhausted warriors could do very little other than providing some warmth for each other. Luckily for them, the stormy weather was on the decline, with much less rain and brutal winds battling against them.

“Are you okay, Kairi?” Sora asked automatically when he regained his breath.

“Yeah… I’m… okay,” Kairi answered in between breaths. “Sorry you had to… ditch your fight.”

“I’m not worried about that at all,” said Sora. “Let’s take a break before finding our way back.”

“I think we’ll be better off just heading back to Agrabah or something,” Kairi suggested. “Or at least go and find the keyhole…”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Sora agreed, almost forgetting about their primary task. “I’m sure Aladdin will be fine without us. Let’s head back to Agrabah then. Maybe Genie or Jasmine can help us out.”

“I don’t think I’ve met Jasmine yet,” said Kairi, getting to her feet.

“She’s a princess, kinda like you in a way?” Sora replied, also getting to his feet. “You know, a princess of heart and all that.”

The words flowed through Kairi’s mind and lingered for a bit. That was exactly the case, her role in this tale of light and dark. She was a princess of heart and he was the chosen warrior of light.

“I see,” Kairi responded solemnly.

“Huh?” Sora questioned as he went ahead to scout the surroundings.

“No, it’s nothing,” Kairi quickly added, changing her tone. She coughed a bit from the salty seawater and tried her best to dry off her sodden hair. She thought about casting a fire spell for a moment, but promptly gave up on the ridiculous idea.

“I think we’re still around the thieves’ hideout,” Sora said after further examining the environment. “We can take a break first if you want, and then make our way around this dumb mountain.”

“That would be wonderful,” Kairi gasped before flopping back onto the sandy, but damp shoreline.

Sora ambled over to Kairi’s side, sat down next to her, and heaved a heavy sigh.

“You know you can just tell me if you’re tired!” Sora laughed. “We’re not totally unstoppable.”

“I bet we can be if we want to,” Kairi answered. She turned and placed her back on Sora’s arm. “Good night, Sora.”

“Uh,” Sora mumbled when Kairi inched herself closer to him. “Yeah. Night, Kairi.”

Cleverly, Sora made use of some chunks of debris scattered around the shores as fuel for a warming fire. It was the least he could do to make the cooling night tolerable. Kairi was far more exhausted than he imagined; she was sound asleep before Sora could finish lighting everything. As soon as he was finished, though, Sora felt his own fatigue weighing. Perhaps just as quickly as Kairi did, his eyelids collapsed and he drifted into his well-deserved slumber.

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A thin layer of morning mist tingled Sora with its light chill. When his eyes opened up, he found himself staring into the bright sun in the sky, momentarily blinding him. With a quiet groan of complaint, he rolled over and tasted the dry sand. Spitting the bothersome sand out, Sora wondered how he ended up on his back in the first place. Suddenly sitting up and aware of his surroundings, the first thing Sora did was search for Kairi. Little did he know, the girl was simply standing behind him. Caught by surprise, Sora fell on his back once again.

“Whoa,” he gasped. “A little early for surprises…”

“Still a lazy bum,” Kairi said with a giggle. She pointed at the sun, which was nearing its peak height in the sky. “By the way, it’s almost noon.”

“What?” Sora gasped again. He quickly stood up and looked around him. The mountains and the seas appeared completely different under the sun, the light mist, and the bluish-gray sky, in comparison to the dark, stormy atmosphere from the night before.

“Anyway,” Kairi continued, giggling again at Sora’s clueless state. “I got up way earlier than you did, so I decided to look around, as well.”

“Did you find anything?” Sora asked.

“You bet,” Kairi answered excitedly, scampering off and beckoning Sora to follow her.

Kairi led Sora through paths of jagged rocks and slippery algae. The impressive obstacle course left Sora wholly amazed at how Kairi acrobatically navigated her way around. Eventually, he noticed that they were steadily climbing higher and higher up the mountain, to a point where he noticed a chain of mountains leading far towards the deserts. Kairi basically found a potential way back to Agrabah.

However, Kairi was far from done. Soon, the two of them reached a flat patch of land where small clusters of horses and camels were kept in captivity. These were likely to be the transportation methods for the Forty Thieves. At least, that was what Sora guessed.

“So what do you think?” Kairi whispered, being careful as to not scare the idle animals.

“Wait, you plan on taking some?” Sora asked.

“Of course,” Kairi exclaimed in a hushed voice. “I hope you’re not expecting me to walk all the way back to Agrabah.”

“But—“

“But what?”

“I can’t ride horses!” Sora protested. “…Or camels!”

“Oh,” Kairi replied, stifling a laugh. “The mighty Sora doesn’t know how to ride a horse.”

“And you do?” Sora wondered out loud.

“It’s what I’ve learned while you were gone, dear,” Kairi declared, happily teasing Sora in the process. “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

“Wait, hold on,” Sora paused, pulling Kairi back. He pointed to two targets further away.

The figures were Aladdin and Cassim, both heading towards the stable that held the horses and camels. Iago, Abu, and the flying carpet also followed closely behind. It appeared as if everyone was on good terms, although Aladdin did seem to have some worried strains on his face. After what sounded like a debate as to whether they should ride horses or hop onto the flying carpet, Cassim appeared to have won the argument and the father-son duo each took hold of a couple of horses.

Without wasting much time, both Aladdin and Cassim sped off down the stretch of mountain passes that Sora took note of earlier. After the two men shrank into the distance, Sora and Kairi snuck out of their hiding place and made their way towards the stable. They still had to remain relatively noiseless, though, since spooking the animals would certainly attract unwanted attention.

“You think they’re going to Agrabah?” Kairi asked.

“I would guess so,” Sora answered. He tried to grasp onto a random horse’s rein, but was immediately countered by the horse’s irritated neigh and attempt to bite.

“Hey, you gotta be a little more gentler, Sora!” Kairi instructed.

Before Sora could complain about the fact that he was almost nipped by the horse, Kairi demonstrated her knowledge by slowly approaching a horse of her choice with relative ease. Subsequently, all the horse did was keep a watchful eye on its visitor. Once Kairi got close enough without upsetting the horse, she gently held out her hand to the horse. When the horse continued to watch without contesting, Kairi tenderly patted and stroked the side of the horse’s face, much to Sora’s incredulity.

“W-wait—how—“

“Now you try,” Kairi said with a giggle. “Just be gentle!”

“Er,” Sora mumbled as he turned to face the same horse that tried to bite him before. “Here goes…”

Following Kairi’s example, Sora slowly approached the horse, albeit a bit awkwardly. Nonetheless, at least he did not aggravate the horse like he did before. This time, Sora hesitantly smiled at the horse before slowly placing his hand on the horse’s face, slowly guiding it to the horse’s neck and mane. As soon as Sora realized that the horse did not react badly, the surge of relief welled up within him.

“Aw, you see?” Kairi cooed happily. “That wasn’t so hard, right?”

“Well, yeah, now that it’s happened and everything,” Sora admitted. “But we’re not riding the horses yet.”

“Oh, have a little patience, Sora!” Kairi answered. She faced the horse that she was petting. “Now all you have to do is think like this horse.”

“…What?” Sora questioned, raising an eyebrow to signify his disbelief. “Really? I have to think like a horse to ride a horse? Um, Kairi, I don’t see these all horses riding each other—“

“Trust me on this!” Kairi said, reinforcing her instructions. “Psh, just watch.”

Kairi kept her hands on the horse for the whole duration, but this time, she hooked her left foot on the stirrup on the horse’s left side. Then, with ease and grace, Kairi smoothly stretched her right leg across the horse’s back and placed her right foot in the remaining stirrup. Murmuring a few gentle words to the horse, Kairi managed to gain the trust of her temporary steed.

“How about it, Sora?” Kairi called out. “You should give it a try, too!”

“Oh boy,” Sora groaned in response. He unwillingly faced his horse again, but tried his best to put on a genuine expression of goodwill. “Think like a horse…?”

“It’s just so the horse can trust you, like you’re one of them,” Kairi explained.

“If you put it that way…” Sora whispered to himself as he softly petted the horse’s neck.

Slowly, he placed his left foot in the horse’s left stirrup, trying his best to remain as stable as possible. Occasionally, Sora would be slightly jerky in his movements, unsettling his horse momentarily. Kairi coached Sora along to reassure the horse that he was harmless. Thus, Sora would alternate trying to get both his feet into the stirrups, while patting down the horse’s neck for reassurance. Eventually, though, Sora managed to find the flexibility to slide his right leg over the horse’s back and insert his foot into the right stirrup. Breathing a long sigh of relief, Sora took hold of the horse’s reins and pushed himself to sit upright.

“Definitely not going to make a hobby out of this,” Sora muttered.

“At least you learned something, right?” said Kairi. She was already well ahead of Sora, able to lead the horse around the stable easily. “Just talk to your horse, Sora. You’ll be surprised at all the commands these guys already know.”

“Like, go!” Sora called out, accidentally smacking the horse’s sides with his feet. In response, the surprised horse reared back and galloped forwards and out of the stable.

Kairi shook her head in response, but found the scene to be humorous. In turn, she ordered the horse she was riding to gallop alongside Sora’s. Fortunately for the both of them, Sora eventually regained control and was able to lead his horse with fewer and fewer problems. Still, occasionally Sora would forget how to manage his own movements and unnerve his horse in some way. But with the knowledgeable Kairi guiding him alone, Sora gradually become less error-prone and was able to handle his equestrian skills quite adequately.

After weaving around the mountain passes for a moderate period of time, the two Keyblade-wielders’ trip back to Agrabah could finally begin. It would have been much easier for them if Aladdin and Cassim were in their sights, but unfortunately, the father-son duo was already well ahead of them. The paths were relatively straightforward, but once Sora and Kairi found themselves at the border of the vast desert, they knew the more difficult part of their return trip had begun.

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