Luxord. Magpie!verse. What is touched by an immortal cannot easily forget.
There is one world Luxord never speaks of, one memory he does not share.
The greatest hurdle all new members of the Organization must face is not the lack of their hearts, but the use of strange magics. Some of them have never heard of spells before. Others have, but in different forms: mana, ether, material, forces. Parlor tricks. Illusions. There is disbelief that they must overcome. There are old superstitions.
But without power, a Nobody is stranded in the World In-Between; stranded and useless, unable to walk beyond worlds and survive the Darkness that lies in wait. Power is what differs an Organization member from a mere Dusk. Even the least of them must discover what manner of creatures they have become.
The lesson is easy to forget.
The castle was far from the sea, nestled on a small hill. The vantage point was barely sound from a tactical standpoint; there was no moat, no great wall for defenses. The blue banner on the wall showed a deformed deer in silhouette. A curious mascot, but Luxord had seen stranger beasts before. Had been attacked by them, sometimes, or eaten them in restaurants.
The stones of the castle were clean, freshly raw from the quarries. They were not old enough to have built up a proper layer of grime, and so showed white veins at every opportunity, shameless as young schoolgirls.
Two guards escorted Luxord to audience. The age in their faces more than made up for the youth of the castle; one of them had a rheumy eye, and the other leaned heavily on his spear as he walked. Their armor had more gaps than metal. Any helmets had been forgotten long ago, likely to serve as water buckets or soup tureens.
It was a country, Luxord judged, that had known strife, but had let the worst of the struggle pass long ago, leaving only scarred veterans and stunted children behind. The lack of defenses implied that all neighboring countries must have been equally devastated. No one had the energy for war. A period of recovery had begun, and any leaders that would rise would be instrumental to restoring prosperity to their people.
The audience hall was shabby, barely larger than a monk's study. No one sat in the heavy chair pushed against one wall. Instead, the only individual present seemed to be a slightly rumpled-looking young man who was busy studying a glass sculpture in his hands.
Judging from the hooked neck and the wingspan, Luxord imagined that the hapless shape to be a particularly creative swan.
"I am a traveling gambler," the Nobody began, falling into the showman's patter perfected by every fresh world he had bilked. The routine had a marvelous success rate. "I make my living by challenging the great kings and queens of the land. Perhaps, if your lord might be willing to enjoy an evening's entertainment…?"
He let the question trail, glancing into the corners of the room as if some grizzled monarch would lurch forth at any moment, spitting beery curses through his beard. The guards had not mentioned a queen.
The man set down the figurine with a small, rueful smile.
"I am the king."
After a modest series of apologies, coupled with a hasty bow, Luxord managed to repeat his offer. He had erred in such ways before; the rules of politeness differed from world to world, and there was one particular warleader who threatened to have him strung up for wearing boots inside the tent.
This world's monarch flashed him a quick grin, as if he were sharing a secret with an invisible person just behind Luxord's shoulder. "A gambler, is it? Perhaps you could take a job as my wizard."
"Ah," Luxord corrected, "but I know no true magic. Your majesty," he added belatedly, still feeling somewhat awkward about the error.
Again, the king's lips curved. "My father once had a wizard that he mistook for a juggler. It was an improvement over his previous one. Mabruk had rotten humor." The ramble was fluid, easy; it was a voice well aware of its own eccentricities. "True magic is everywhere. What is your name? Mine is Lir, but I don't always pay attention to it nearly as much as I should."
"You may call me Luxord, sire," the Nobody replied tactfully, "if you wish."
"Wishing or not has nothing to do with it." Pushing back his chair, the king settled the full of his gaze upon the gambler. It was a strange concentration, fixed in a direct stare; Luxord fought down the urge to back away, acutely aware of the two guards behind him. "That isn't your real name, is it?"
Zexion's survey of the world had mentioned nothing of the Organization's interference before, nor an established Heartless presence. Luxord hesitated despite his own confidence, before finally breaking into an easy laugh. "Every performer must have something memorable for their audience to recall them by. But to a king such as yourself, why wouldn't I give my true name?"
The afternoon light was a warm caress over the table. Lir glanced away, absently moving the swan figurine out of a sunbeam. "Because names have power. The most precious one I ever knew was not real at all, nor did it ever become real, save in a heart."
"And that heart that should not have been real either. But it was." Just as Luxord began to seriously doubt the sanity of the young man, Lir spread his hands in surrender. "Please, stay for dinner. My guards are too tired to make merry on their own, and as you can see, I'm starved for company. We've had visitors recently, but no decent magicians. No one," he added softly, "like you."
They ate in relative simplicity that night. The forests were sparse on game, but the local fields were lush with healthy crops, and the bread was thick and nutty. Lir did not stuff himself, but had a second helping of soup before he pushed his chair back, still looking as wan as ever.
There were others who came to the castle later: bards, poets, mummers and acrobats. Many of them cast suspicion glances to the black-robed figure who stood at the king's side, until Luxord finally surrendered his better judgement with a sigh, and began to dress in the local fashion.
The young king's tastes were strange. He could not abide certain musical instruments, though he expressed enjoyment of the sounds on more than one occasion. He refused feats of horsemanship after one mare had taken a bad fall and broken her leg, whinnying in pain until they'd put her down. Poets found their ballads received with kind indifference. Lir was most fond of reading romantic plays, but he politely refused any showings.
That quirk turned away three theater troops in one week before Luxord finally inquired why.
"'Immortal things cannot love, regret or cry,'" Lir quoted gently in answer. They were walking along the eastern wall of the castle, between empty guard-posts. One servant had taken advantage of the spot to set up laundry to dry. Undergarments fluttered in the wind. "Love is reserved for mortal beings. But you already know that, don't you, Luxord?"
Lir made that swift, bittersweet smile again, the one that graced his features more often than any sorrow could. "I have touched immortal things before, Luxord. I know what you are. Oh yes," the young king repeated, "I know what you are."
The sleek awareness in the king's voice was enough to twinge the gambler's nerves; he pulled away, cards coming automatically to his fingers, dancing in a swarm in the air. The Dusks made hungry whispers in the shadows of the guard-tower, waiting to be summoned.
Seeing the violence of the man's reaction, Lir held up his hands. "Peace. I mean you no harm. But if you are here to challenge me, or to test me -- or even, forbid it, geas me to serve you on a great quest -- then I must respectfully decline. I must be here in case she returns, you see," he added, good-naturedly. "I'm sorry."
"But you are welcome to my castle as long as you'd like before you must seek out your next great task." The king had turned away, pacing along the walkway as if their stroll had never been interrupted by the truth. His voice bounced lightly off the stones. "After all, I know that immortal things must also eventually leave."
The worst quality of Lir was also his best. The young king was disarming with his own honesty, extending apologies as readily as encouragement. He was a man at odds with the history of the land, which -- Luxord gathered -- had been a nightmare under the specter of his father. The guards were petty tricksters, hiding cards up their sleeves if he let them, but they volunteered information readily enough despite any wins or losses. From them, Luxord learned that Lir had been a hero, that he had traveled the world. Lir had been adopted by the king, who himself had borne a fascination with strange beasts.
Lir had fallen in love with a woman who had brought the castle down.
The gambler did not return to the World That Never Was, despite the weeks that passed by. Occasional Dusks smuggled themselves into his quarters, bearing messages from one of the Organization members or the other. Each time, Luxord deftly turned down any offers of support; he wrote flourishes on the subject of Lir's power, claiming that it would be best if no other visitors came from the Organization. Negotiations were delicate. Luxord was still investigating.
Lir did not inquire into his business. Gradually, Luxord came to realize that the young king valued his presence more than the riddle the gambler presented. Sometime in Lir's past, the man had been exposed to power, and the resulting knowledge left him drifting between both existences, unmoored and yearning for a figment that had vanished long ago.
Despite that lack, the world was not unkind. No enemies threatened Lir's domain, and the villagers of his wide country seemed all too willing to forgive him for the harsh rule of his father. Prosperity had returned with the death of Haggard. The world was full and content.
It was a tranquility that made Luxord wonder. The realm must have been touched by Heartless somehow, for the doorway had been opened to connect it with the rest of the worlds. He took to studying the land in curiosity, walking the towers and ramparts of the castle, wondering where the true Darkness was hiding.
Lir eventually joined him, in silence at first, and then with questions. "You remind me of my father," he offered, along with a hot cup of coffee. "Always alone, always searching. But my father and I are flesh and blood. What could bother you, with your blue immortal's eyes?"
"I was looking," Luxord informed him bluntly, "for Shadows."
"It's midday, Luxord," came Lir's uncomprehending reply.
Luxord sighed, taking a deep sip of his coffee left his mouth feeling rancid with sugar and cream. "Make no mistake, your majesty. The Shadows will come to this castle someday. They will be drawn to power. Just as I was," he found himself adding, an oblique warning for the young king who had accepted the Nobody's presence with ease. "They will come."
And yet, Lir remained fearless, tolerating his fate with the serenity reserved for oracles and the mortally-wounded.
"A unicorn cannot come to those who are weak of spirit," he explained later that night, when Luxord had just finished making cards dance upon the table. The wine was bitter; it was a recent pressing from the fields outside Hagsgate, and the farmers were still trying to get the hang of their newly restored bounty. "If I cannot face creatures who are heartless, then what manner of hero am I?"
"Those without hearts might not be so easy to kill, your majesty," Luxord offered over the bridge of two Aces.
"I have slain boneless oozes that dripped over ancient graves and spoke with the voices of dead kings. I have faced the ifrits of the east, with all their whirling fires. I have," Lir added, neatly darting out his hand and plucking a Six of Clubs that threatened to fall off the card pyramid, "struggled against the harremi of the northlands, which cannot be destroyed unless you face them with spears made of mistletoe. All those things had no hearts." Another flip of his fingers, and he was carefully wedging the card back into place. "The worst was my father's creation. Even that, I faced."
"And you killed it as well?"
"No." The king's expression was carefully neutral. "That beast cannot die."
Lir did not share that story all at once. Indeed, it took many more drinks to coax the young king to loosening his tongue -- and even then, all Luxord accomplished was to watch as Lir turned a fair shade of green before stumbling for the privies. The guards laughed at their king's indulgence. Luxord, with the experience of countless saloons, ordered someone to bring him a pitcher of water.
"It still lives out there, you know." Lir's mumble was mixed with a burble of liquid. Luxord waved for Lir to keep drinking; the king took another swallow and winced. "Afraid to set foot on the land, just as it once kept them trapped. All those years, and I never knew why my father always watched the sea. But the Red Bull was his to command. Now it's mine, but I do not want it. I can still hear it out there, at night. It's worse than any dragon."
Luxord waited for the other man to finish his glass, reaching for the pitcher to refill it. "This bull," he asked patiently. "Will you show me?"
Lir was silent for a time, looking at the gambler, and then lurched past him to retch out the window.
They rode to the ocean the next afternoon, Lir wincing from the headache brought on by his hangover. It was an easy trip; the road was still paved, though grass had sprung up in ever-widening clumps. There were few travelers on the road, and all tipped their heads to Lir in silent respect.
Luxord saw the ruins well in advance. What might have been a great fortress clinging to the side of a cliff was now absent, leaving only sparse stones behind, a marble carcass that hinted at formidable dimensions. The earth had been sheared away at an angle -- the wounds were still relatively fresh, eroding a little more each day.
Lir tethered his horse a ways from the shoreline, looping the reins around the branches of a scraggled tree. Luxord followed suit. Neither of them had brought weapons, nor guards; the confidence bespoke well of Lir's people, or poorly of his buried despair. They walked in silence until the soil turned to sand, and crunched underneath their boots.
There, on the beach, Lir took a deep breath and faced the horizon.
He sang of loss, and sorrow, and a little bit about potatoes. He had an untrained voice -- a bit reedy on the high notes -- but not an unpleasant one. It stumbled on the rhymes. The words held little of sense. There was a woman's name, or a few women, and something that could have either been a woman or a rutabaga.
The ocean began to hiss.
Luxord saw the creature's horns first, like a swell of black water rising up from the depths. The darkness crested the waves; it broke free and rose, dripping hot rain that turned to steam halfway down. Then came a snout, a tail, four legs. Its spine was a hump of muscle, coiled and ready to lunge.
The beast lowered its head towards them. The heat of its breath washed over Luxord like a baker's furnace.
He stood perfectly still, and kept his thoughts to himself.
Despite the bulk of its body, the creature's hooves were tiny, almost delicate as they minced closer towards the shore. But then, just as its feet might have left the tide, the Bull came to a halt. It snorted in Lir's direction before turning towards Luxord, then back again, swaying its weight from side to side.
Lir watched the hesitation of the summoned beast without surprise. The resigned pleasantness had left his face, turning it old, old and empty like a man who had seen his own children flayed. "Is this what you have come for, magician? I should warn you," he added softly, angling his head a fraction so that Luxord could see the bridge of Lir's nose in the unearthly light, "if you plan to unleash the Red Bull upon the land, I will have to fight."
"You are bare-handed."
Lir did not blink. "There are worse odds."
A long sigh came out of Luxord's mouth, mixing with the ceaseless beat of the waves. "I am afraid that I must confess my true purpose, your majesty," he began, half his attention remaining on the massive beast which continued to simmer in hungry threat. "I traveled to this land so that I could claim the heart of its king -- along with his body and soul. I must take something home with me."
The ocean flexed, spilling more waves upon the beach. Fire pulsed off the Bull's flanks.
Lir was very quiet. "Are we enemies now, Luxord?"
Coins jangled in the gambler's pocket as he stepped forward. "I have a better idea. Shall we make a wager for who wins the prize?"
The king's magician left that month, before the crops ripened to harvest and the summer fled from autumn. His absence resulted in minor sorrow among the guards -- who had all taken great joy in challenging the man to teach them new gambling tricks -- but restored the stability of their wallets.
And if the seas were calmer that year, Lir's people thought nothing but that it was the way of their land now, the kinder side of Nature showing mercy after so many decades of spite.
And if the king slept easier in his bed, he would not say why.
"You may as well mark that realm off your list," Luxord remarked over lunch one day, watching Zexion flip through reports of various worlds. The numbers of any Organization member who had visited were stamped on the outside of each folder; the one currently in Zexion's hands only had a sparse X. "There's little it can provide us now."
The researcher sighed, propping open the folder long enough to skim a pen across the top page. "So, after all that time, you found nothing worthwhile?"
"I wouldn't say that." The red die in Luxord's grip skittered free as he toyed with the corners; it rolled to a halt near his cup. Two pips glowered on the top face like a sleepy set of eyes, banked to dull menace. "True magic is, indeed, everywhere."