Everyone Who Casts A Shadow
Arthur was not enjoying his day.
One minute he was innocently shooting sweet forest creatures, and the next minute something black and horrible was boiling up from the ground, like all the magic his father had ever warned him against. He stumbled back, watching as it condensed into a thing with a little too many limbs for comfort, turning an inhuman head around to look at him. It had gold eyes, and no mouth. Arthur was suddenly, horribly sure that it could devour him anyway. He was frozen in terror for a long moment, and then his battle instincts took over, looking for an opening, anything to get him out of this alive.
The thing was silent, too silent, as it surged toward him. One long black thing snapped out, like a whip, and caught him on his shield arm. It hurt, cold and nauseating, and he grunted. He lashed back with his sword, but it cut through the creature as if it were so much smoke he was fighting. Arthur fought anyway, grimly aware that he was not going to die gloriously, or even at home in his own bed, but cut down by a creature he didn't even recognize. It was even worse that he was alone. Once it killed him, it would find his knights, and then --
There was a sickening rushing sensation behind him, like someone had taken the air and fabric of the world around him and pulled it out of place. A figure in black, graceful, burst out of nowhere. Even as Arthur watched, shadows condensed around his hand and became a strange, demon-winged blade.
"Fight or get out of the way," said the figure. Arthur realized it was a boy about his age, with silver hair hanging down to his shoulders, like a page, and a blindfold around his eyes. He lifted his hand and great balls of darkness, purple and green and silver boiling in their depths, slammed toward the creature.
"Sod off," gasped Arthur, even as the boy leaped into battle. Arthur sucked in a deep breath and followed after. He noticed that the boy held his sword in a foreign style, a stabbing, piercing grip instead of the thrusting, swinging style usual in Albion, as if his odd blade was a dagger and not a full sized sword. And it was hurting the creature, which staggered back a step. Arthur swung at it again, even though he didn't know if it would do any good. Sheer bullheadedness propelled him. Astonishingly, his blows began to hit the creature. It still got in a few hits, sickening ones that felt like frostbite even through his hunting leathers. He and the stranger hit it both at once, and the thing finally made a despairing, chittering cry and fell, dissolving into black dust and a thing that briefly looked like an iridescent heart floating to the sky.
They stood, panting, for a minute, and looked at each other. The other boy was very pale, more because of the heavy black leathers he wore. His strange blade dissolved into shadow again.
"I've got --" said Arthur, and stumbled toward the bushes.
The boy followed after a minute, after Arthur stopped retching. He offered a rag soaked in cool spring water silently.
Arthur wiped his face and mouth. He felt queasy, shaken.
"It takes people like that, sometimes," said the boy, not quite looking at him. "Especially when they're full of light."
"What does?" said Arthur. Then, "Not that I'm not grateful that you showed up in time to finish the damn thing off or anything (not that I needed the help)", he added, half under his breath, "but who the hell are you? What the buggering hell was that thing?"
The boy said, "We call it a Heartless. It's probably looking for the heart of your world." He added, sounding resigned, "If one came, there's more coming. I knew they were coming, but I didn't -- look, I need to find the Keyhole for this world so it can be sealed."
Arthur sat down heavily. "I want a drink," he decided.
The boy sat down too, legs in a gangly sprawl all over the forest floor. "It's like a door," said the silver-haired boy, leaning forward. "And things can get through it. Things you don't want to come."
"Like magic?" Arthur thought for a moment, and said, more reluctantly, "Are you a sorcerer?"
The silver-haired boy tilted his head. "You don't like magic around here?"
"It's illegal," said Arthur shortly. "You get executed for it. Are you a sorcerer?" he repeated. The boy had saved him, and Arthur felt sick at the thought of capturing and taking him to his father for judgment.
"No," said the boy, and then,"Well, that sucks, Heartless don't usually respond to being hit with pointy sticks."
"Hmm," said Arthur. "What's your name?"
The silver-haired boy's mouth twisted wryly.. "Come to think of it, we never did introduce ourselves. I'm Riku."
"Where are you from?" said Arthur. Riku wasn't from anywhere in Albion or any of the surrounding kingdoms, or even countries. He would have heard stories of people like this, he was sure of it.
"A long way away," said Riku, in a clipped voice that discouraged questions. "What's your name?"
"Arthur Pendragon," he said. "I'm the crown prince of Camelot."
Both eyebrows shot up, but Riku didn't seem awed at all. "I know a king," he said.
"Are you a knight?" said Arthur.
"His Majesty says I am," said Riku, in that same clipped and shuttered voice.
"What's his name?" said Arthur.
"Mickey," said Riku. "From the world of Disney."
Arthur decided he must have heard him wrong. "McKae from the wold of Disnae?" he said, raising his eyebrow. "Were you born there?"
"No," said Riku, and his face went old suddenly, very very old. "I'm from the Destiny Islands. And it's Mickey. MIC-KEY. And Disney. Dis-NEE."
"What about the Isles of Destiny, is that pronounced odd too?" said Arthur. He sheathed his sword. "Where would this ... keyhole thing be?"
Riku considered for a minute. "I think it's somewhere over there." He pointed toward what Arthur realized, with a sinking heart, was the direction of the castle. "I can't tell where, exactly, but it smells like fire and air."
"Why do I trust you?" said Arthur, staring at Riku.
"You're an idiot, probably," said Riku, his voice weary. "I don't know, people trust me for the weirdest reasons. It's not like I give them a reason or anything."
And that, more than anything, was what decided Arthur, the tone of Riku's voice, the way he sounded so tired and resigned at being trusted. It was like a burden he wasn't sure he wanted to bear any more. He said, "All right."
The first step to getting Riku into a position to find this Keyhole or Keyring or whatever it was, was getting him into the castle. Riku had apparently thought he would have to sneak into the castle, but Arthur had a more direct, if slightly more terrifying, method.
Riku held up pretty well to being studied suspiciously by Arthur's father and Morgana and Gaius and the rest of the court, though, standing relaxed and waiting in the center of the smaller audience chamber.
"His name is Riku," said Arthur, a little loudly. His father looked over. "He's a knight of - of King McKae. He's on a quest, and requested our hospitality to rest."
His father stared at him, and then Riku. "Why does he wear a blindfold? Speak, Sir Riku, and answer."
"For my quest, sire," said Riku, surprisingly smoothly. Perhaps he really was a knight. Perhaps he really did know kings. "I swore to wear this until it be completed."
"And what is your quest, Sir Riku?" Uther leaned forward, not a threat, yet, but watching Riku closely.
"That I am sworn not to reveal until it be over," said Riku flatly. "Though by my honor, and by the honor of my king, I vow to you that it is a true quest, and honorable." He bowed slightly, respectful but not deferential. "If it please your majesty, I would stay to rest one night, and go forth tomorrow."
There was a long silence while Uther studied Riku, and Arthur held his breath. Then,
"Very well," said Uther, looking away. "We grant you the hospitality for questing knights. We hope we will see you at dinner this eve."
Riku knelt on one knee, surprisingly quick and graceful, and bowed his head. "I thank you, Sire."
"You didn't seem like the person to be able to speak like that," said Arthur, under his breath, as they marched slowly out of the audience room toward a room for Riku and hopefully something to eat before supper.
"Try living with a sorceress with an obsession about her queenly descent," said Riku, even more softly. "She hammered it in. And His Majesty too, he likes teaching people. But not like she did."
Arthur considered this and then nodded. "Do you like meat pies?"
"What type of meat?" said Riku.
The servant -- his name was either Peter or John, or perhaps Pigsucker -- brought in mutton pies and mead in a silver flagon. Despite Riku's blindfold, he had no problem eating or lifting his goblet to his lips. Arthur said, "How do you manage with the blindfold?"
Riku shrugged, lifting one shoulder. His hands played over the etching of the goblet. He had the long, sensitive hands of a bard or a scribe, but they were hard and calloused as any knight's. He had laid aside his black coat -- dragonhide, Arthur thought -- and black gloves, and was dressed in white and yellow and dark blue and black. Arthur wondered whose colors they were. "I see in a different way. A lot of it is scent. I'm used to it now." As he turned his hand to pick up another pastry, Arthur saw something on his wrist. Quick as a flash, his hand snapped out, capturing Riku's wrist and holding it. He turned it over.
ソラ, read the characters, carved in Riku's flesh.
"Is that a rune?" he said, studying the two characters.
"No," said Riku, turning his head away and pulling his wrist back from Arthur's grip. He raised his hand to his own lips and kissed the scar with the solemn tenderness of a vow renewed. "It's to remind me what I'm looking for."
Arthur looked away.
"Anyway," said Riku, lightly, "Any reason why this castle smells like dragon?"
"What does dragon smell like?" asked Arthur.
"Like a fucking huge flying lizard full of magic," said Riku. "It depends on the type, really. Anybody can smell a Dark dragon, it's like an armory in a damp cellar."
"I haven't heard anything about a dragon, really," said Arthur. "My father was supposed to have imprisoned one. When he banned magic. But I don't know what type it is." He hesitated and then said, baldly, "I didn't know there was different types."
"It doesn't smell like it's a Dark dragon, that's one comfort. Or undead, undead dragons are a pain," said Riku, a little more reminiscently than Arthur really felt comfortable with. "But as long as it won't bother us, I don't see a reason to worry about it." He was thoughtful for a minute. "Unless of course it is guarding the Keyhole, and then we're in for it."
"Let's hope not," said Arthur. "How are we going to find this thing, anyway?"
"Skulking around at night works for me," said Riku coolly. "Is there some place that's particularly important to you?"
"What do you mean, to me?" said Arthur. "Don't you mean the country?"
Riku's mouth twisted up, in a not-quite amused smile. "Arthur," he said. "Don't you know, that as far as the magic and land are concerned, you are the country?"
"Now that's just bollocks," said Arthur. He shifted angrily in his chair. "Wouldn't that be my father? Or the castle? Or --"
Riku shook his head. "It might have been your father once," he said. He lifted his hand and spread it out in a 'what can you do' sort of gesture. "But now it's you. There's a smell of it to you."
Arthur was silent for a long moment. "What does that mean?" he said. He didn't quite like the sound of 'the magic and the land'.
"You know already," said Riku, his voice certain.
Arthur shivered. He looked away, took a deep breath, and said briskly, "You've got to cover that rune on your wrist up. Father won't like it at all, and you can't wear your coat and gloves to supper." He got up and went to his clothing chest, rummaging until he came up with a white samite cuff he'd once worn under a gauntlet. "Here," he said, throwing it toward Riku.
Riku caught it handily. "Thanks," he said.
That night at supper Riku talked courteously, if a little awkwardly, to Morgana, who stared at his blindfolded face with open fascination, and to Arthur's father of far-away lands that Arthur was almost sure were made of Riku's imagination. Especially the part about the pirates. Surely there was no pirate in the world who was frightened of a giant crocodile with a clock in its stomach.
"Have you seen magic, in your travels?" said Uther abruptly.
Riku bowed his silver-bright head. "A year past, my lord, I journeyed to free a maiden from a spell. Magic and I are no friends."
Uther seemed satisfied with this reply, which tasted of court diplomacy to Arthur. He looked over at Riku skeptically, but Riku's face, what he could see of it, remained bland. Uther said, "Perhaps one day other lands will agree that magic is a practice too dangerous to be allowed to continue."
Riku made a polite, non-committal murmur. Morgana said quickly, "Sir Riku, do you dance?" Arthur loathed dancing and Uther claimed to be too old for such foolishness, and Morgana could not favor any knight with her hand more than once or twice a season. Morgana loved dancing.
"Not well," said Riku modestly. "But if you desire it, lady, I will make a brave attempt."
As Arthur and Riku walked to Riku's chambers, Arthur murmured, "I thought you were in the train of a sorceress."
Riku murmured back, "That doesn't mean I was any good at magic."
"Large black fireball things?" said Arthur.
"Not magic," said Riku positively. "Just ... Darkness." He lifted his shoulder in a half shrug. "I can't do anything like magic, proper magic, not healing or calling on the elements and spirits. I just kind of reach for something and darkness comes."
"Enough to get you burned," said Arthur, even more softly, a warning, and Riku's mouth quirked in acknowledgement.
"I thank you for your courtesy, my lord," said Riku, louder, as they reached Riku's chamber. He dipped his head in a bow.
"Thank you for dancing with Morgana," said Arthur sincerely. "She's a complete bitch, but she loves dancing."
"Half an hour to midnight," murmured Riku, barely on a breath, and went in his room.
Arthur went back to his chambers, and allowed his servant -- it might have been James. Thomas? Cowlicker? -- to disrobe him and put him in his night robe. He always had the slightly unnerving feeling that the man was waiting for him to give an improper order to him, which was fine as far as that went, but Arthur had no real interest in servants. If things had been slightly different, if Riku had not lifted his hand to his lips and kissed the scar on his wrist like he had, Arthur might have offered his own bed for the night. Riku was a long way from his home and hearth, and Arthur thought he was very beautiful. It would have been enough. But the way Riku had kissed the characters carved on his flesh suggested that whatever demons haunted him would not disappear during a night of comfort. So better not to make the offer in the first place.
After his servant left, with a respectful bow, Arthur sat down in the window seat, leaning on the side of the wall and looking down. Little, flaring lights glowed all over the castle and town, like fireflies. Arthur felt like he could lean down and hold all of them in his grasp, and would if only he could. The thought of being king, of being responsible for those little lives, terrified him. He watched the lights gradually die, one by one, as Camelot sank into her sleep.
When the bells rang eleven, Arthur rose quietly up and dressed himself in light armor, taking a buckler and a sturdy sword with him. He hesitated a minute over his jewel box but he knew that Riku would leave as soon as they sealed the Keyhole. He picked up a little dragon on a chain and slid it into a pocket. He felt absurdly like when Riku left he would lose a friend. It was an odd feeling. He had plenty of buddies in the other young nobles and knights, but not someone he could speak to familiarly.
He walked softly to Riku's room, sliding past guards and sentries with an ease that made him promise himself a month of surprise drills all around. As he raised his hand to scratch the door, Riku opened it. Arthur blinked. "How --" he breathed softly.
"Smelled you," said Riku, as softly.
"I took a bath day before yesterday!" hissed Arthur, insulted.
"Not that type of smell," said Riku, still quietly. "Come on, I think I smell the Keyhole."
"What the hell type of nose do you ever have," muttered Arthur, standing aside to let Riku slip past and close the door silently.
"His Majesty says I have a stunning career ahead of me as a perfumer if we make it through this mess," whispered Riku, mouth twisting in amusement. "Where do you think the Keyhole would be?"
"You said you smelled it," said Arthur.
"We're in a castle made with magic," hissed Riku, exasperated. "All I smell is magic, and somewhere in there a Keyhole."
"Made with --" began Arthur, totally horrified, but Riku brushed past him, his silver hair a light in the dark that Arthur was forced to follow.
"Your guards are bad," said Riku, after they slid past the third set with depressing ease, despite the fact that Arthur was in light armor and Riku had hair that practically glowed in the moonlight, not to mention silver fittings on his dragonhide coat.
"I know," said Arthur, grimly. "I'm going to personally beat the piss out of every one of them, I promise."
The creatures were around them, flowing with unnatural speed and silence from shadow to shadow. Some of them were small, and almost charming; little lumpy things like kittens. Others were larger, like the ones Arthur had fought in the forest. They stayed away from Riku and Arthur, almost as if they were frightened of something. When Riku turned and looked at them, they slunk back, like cowering dogs. Sometimes they tried to snap at Arthur, but stopped just short of connecting.
Riku insisted that they check every place that was important to Arthur, which was kind of not useful. There were a lot of important places to Arthur. He'd lived his entire life in this castle, not counting campaigns, and he knew it like he did the hilt of his own sword in his hand. The creatures grew more and more numerous as they went from place to place -- the armory, the training yard, even the chapel -- but found nothing. In the stables, Arthur's war-horse was restless, stamping his massive feet at nothing that Arthur could see and laying his ears back, even when Arthur crooned soothing nonsense at him.
The creatures were getting bolder, too, snapping at Arthur and just barely missing. Even Riku could not drive them off for long.
"We've got to find it quickly," said Riku.
"The only place we haven't looked is the throne room," said Arthur. "And my father's chambers. And if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not barge in his rooms."
"It's not there," said Riku positively. "We passed by his rooms and it just smells of ..." he hesitated and then finished lamely, "It isn't there."
"Smells of what?" said Arthur.
"Grief," said Riku. He was silent for a moment, awkward, and then he said, "Let's try the throne room."
As they walked down the corridor to the throne room, it seemed to Arthur that the air was getting cold and musty. He shivered. "There's something there," he said.
"Well, on the bright side," said Riku, as they pushed open the doors, "we're probably in the right place, then."
"What--" began Arthur, and then looked up.
Before them, in the throne room, was a huge dark creature with glowing yellow eyes, like a terrible version of the Pendragon crest come to life. The air smelled of rotting earth and sulfur, so strongly that Arthur nearly gagged. The thing opened its mouth in a silent hiss, and Arthur drew his sword. "Let's go," he said.
Riku was already moving, a flash of darkness in the shadows of the throne room. Arthur spared a second to think that he moved like he was used to being part of a team, someone who went high while Riku went low. The next instant he was blocking the hard point of the creature's tail as it lashed at him. Under the belly, he decided, where it would have to rear high to smash them. Riku was calling forth the dark-colored fireballs, one after another, hitting the creature's head even as it spat black, noxious smoke at them both.
Time went into a blur, a sluggish eternity of blocking and hitting and watching Riku's back while he hit the creature as hard as he could with his own darkness. Arthur had an awful feeling that it would not be enough. The creature was too strong for just the two of them, and yet he dared not call for help from the guards. Riku would be imprisoned for use of magic, and Arthur would probably be imprisoned or whipped for helping him.
The creature's great talons slashed toward him, ripping open his trousers and opening a gash. Arthur staggered. Riku turned toward him, his mouth opening.
Shit, thought Arthur, Bloody buggering hell, they were going to --
"Riku! Arthur!" cried another voice, and a cool white light and a scent like green growing things surrounded him. The pain miraculously faded.
The next instant Riku said, "Your Majesty!", his voice surprised and relieved. There was another flash of the white light, brighter than the sun, and the creature reared back, roaring soundlessly in pain and rage.
Arthur surged up, aiming for the creature's eye, and thrust his sword so deep in that his hand nearly went through it.
The creature dissolved into smoke, boiling up from the ground, many smaller hearts and a great one, nearly as large as Arthur, floating up to the ceiling and dissolving into tiny lights like fireflies. Arthur dropped to his knees, panting. When he caught his breath enough to look up, Riku offered his hand to pull him up. "We did it," he said.
Arthur looked around, wondering where the Keyhole could possibly be. As he looked toward the dais, he realized that the Queen's throne was glowing. His father had never ordered it moved, even though it had been empty since Arthur's mother's death. As he watched, a line of light drew itself on the back of the chair, forming into a keyhole shape.
"Your Majesty," said Riku, "you'll have to --"
Arthur looked over at the newcomer. Arthur's eyes insisted they saw an unusually large mouse in a leather coat like Riku's, but his brain said, no, that couldn't be right, it must be a short man with large ears. He had a sword shaped like a giant key. The mouse - the man - said,
"Well done, Riku, Arthur," and spun his odd blade around, pointing it toward the keyhole in the Queen's throne. A white light flashed out, flowing toward the keyhole.
Arthur heard an audible click, and then a sound like flutes, or angels singing, or the wind rushing over a meadow, joyous, bringing the scent of living things with it, or something he could never describe or remember, only that it was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard, and the thought that he would never hear it again almost broke his heart. For a minute he thought he saw feathers, silver flashing primaries of a hawk, and red-gold stars floating around the keyhole before the light flared, bright and pure, and his eyes closed involuntarily.
When he opened his eyes, the Queen's throne was just as it had always been. Riku's blade dispelled itself with a soft rush of black smoke.
"That's that, then," said Arthur.
"Yes," said Riku. He knelt down and picked up a thing on the floor. "I think this is yours," he said, tossing it at Arthur.
Arthur caught it, and looked at an amber claw, a dragon claw, bound with rubies and gold."Where -" he began.
"Sometimes they're creatures made of things like that," said Riku's king, in his soft, rather squeaky voice. "The power, you know."
Arthur closed his hand around the claw. "I have something for you, too," he said, trying to sound noble instead of completely embarrassed and probably failing. He tossed the little dragon at Riku, who caught it.
"It's a keychain," said Riku, turning it over and over again, as if he could see it.
If you don't want it, thought Arthur, and then he said, "It's just --"
"I'm not used to getting them," Riku murmured, and Arthur felt like there was a story he was definitely, completely, totally failing to understand, and probably did not want to understand anyway. "But thank you."
Arthur smiled. It felt kind of awkward and new on his face, but it was a real smile, not the ones he wore at Court. "I wish you'd be one of my knights," he said. "But your king needs you."
Riku's mouth twitched upward. It was a little painful for a real smile. "Not just the king."
For a moment Arthur saw a look on Riku's face that he was more used to seeing on knights during a long campaign, a bone deep, hopeless weariness, so ingrained that not even rest would dispel it. He said, "You'll make it." He was certain of it.
Riku stared at him for a moment and then his mouth curved into something more like a real smile. "If you say so."
Arthur stood for a long time, watching the empty space where Riku had gone through his dark portal. "I do," he said to nothing in particular, and went back to his chambers, alone. He looked out the window again.
Camelot's little lights spread out before him, like a blanket of stars, covering the little lives beneath them as they slept. Arthur shut the windows and went to bed.