The topmost room of the Tower was still as cluttered as he remembered it. Bookcases crammed full of books and tomes of all shapes and sizes, shelves containing bottles with all manner of things in, a table that had a mass of glass tubes and vials and other things that gave it a distinctly chemical appearance and more besides.
But different this time was the tall man poring over a tome set on a lectern opposite them. He wore a robe of deep blue but no hat, much of his face concealed by the fierce black beard he'd grown. The similarly blue eyes that watched them enter and nervously come to join him had an ageless quality about them, and Riku wondered just how old the Wizard was.
He watched them silently, then when they stopped before them he raised one finger to them. A brief bolt of strangely coloured light touched each of them, replacing what they'd been wearing for what they had been wearing when they came in. He, Sora and Yuffie all had their familiar looks, while the Two of Cups, revealed earlier to have been named Alcinus, actually had a neat suit – though one marred slightly by his injuries from the Wilderness. Leo by contrast had a much more casual look with a simple shirt and torn jeans.
"I just can't make them last," he admitted ruefully at Riku's quizzical look. "They always end up like that after I go through one of those times."
"Perhaps that will no longer be a problem for you," the Wizard said, the same deep tones Riku remembered hearing before, but gentler now they came from him in person. "I know of the magic that affected you. Seeing you of late... I do not believe you have reason to be concerned for that any longer."
"That's a relief to know," Leo said gratefully. "It could have been a bit inconvenient for us otherwise."
"Quite." The Wizard looked over each of them in turn, then nodded again, "Seldom does it happen that five former cards come to me at the same time, and rarer still for the reason you have brought them here, Riku. It is even less often that even one of them has led such an eventful life while caught within my cards. Six weeks, and you have easily risen among the most notable I have seen."
"It wasn't all my idea, you know," Riku said. "Some of it just... happened."
"I know. I'm aware of everything that goes on sooner or later. It helps fill the time between games. When I created this world, these cards... I gave no thought to what I would do. I knew a lifetime would not be enough for what I had in mind, but I didn't consider what an eternal lifetime has to offer."
"Can't you name someone to succeed you and take your place?" Sora asked.
"No, lad. I cannot. The spell I weaved that created all this is dependent on me. Should anything happen to me, it will cease to exist along with everyone and everything within it. When I realized that, I altered it so that I would always be here. Several lifetimes have passed and many thousands of souls have passed through, but still I remain. I must remain. I may wish it were otherwise, but that is the way of things. But that is me, and we are here because of you. Thanks to the magic of..." he paused, gave a short laugh and continued, "Well, magic... I will speak with each of you separately, yet at the same time. I find it is easier for cards to talk knowing that others will not hear, and I always wish to speak with all cards. Now if you would go apart a ways, I will come to each of you."
Leo glanced to Riku then back with a querying look, but the Wizard shook his head.
"I'll see you soon then," Leo murmured to him, then like the others found a different part of the Tower to speak with the Wizard in.
Once they were all separated, the Wizard made a strange gesture that caused another flare of the peculiar light – and then there were five of him, each one beside one of them. They each created a pair of chairs, then the one with Riku took his seat and gestured for him to do the same.
"Powerful magic," Riku noted, slightly awed. "Merlin would probably love to know how to do it."
"Merlin is a little young for this kind of magic," the Wizard replied. "You may be interested to know it was he who intervened at the last Game, though I understand he had your interests at heart. I cannot let outside influences ruin the fairness of the Game, however."
"I thought it might have been something like that. He did sent Yuffie in after all... not that he needed to. I was doing just fine, and so was Sora probably."
"Oh, certainly. Better than some, it has to be said."
"Wizard, I have to ask... do you know why the old King of Swords..."
The Wizard nodded gravely. "You recall of course that Queen Vitesse did not exactly like you. She herself could not act against you, but she was most upset when you effectively overruled her. The King of Swords at the time was... shall we say, known for having an alternative in such situations, though ordinarily he employed it against other cards in the Royal Arcana. I deplore that kind of activity myself, but I choose not to involve myself in the day to day affairs of the world below."
"So it was just her grudge against me. Which only got worse when I survived it instead of the King."
"Indeed. Then you fell foul of her amulets not once but twice. Knocked out of the game by the first, then forced to live someone else's life... I very nearly intervened. The way she employed her magic had annoyed me several times before, but that was the first time I got involved. Then when Sora caused it to happen a second time I nearly did again."
"Why didn't you?"
"I saw what happened, Riku. You didn't appear to like it as such, but you did make the best of the situation. You did some things you couldn't have otherwise, learned many things – after the first two days I chose to leave it instead, and I feel you benefited more from it than you think. Then of course..." the Wizard looked up and over to where Leo was talking with the Wizard with him.
"Leo," Riku murmured. "What you told him today... Leo said he'd been in the Game once before. Why didn't you tell him then?"
"Because he was still subject to it. I won't say exactly how as such, but you can believe that you have had an effect on him. The times he reverts will become less frequent and perhaps even cease entirely with continued contact with him."
"But he's going to be somewhere different to me when we leave... and we'll have to find each other again."
"Perhaps," the Wizard replied, his expression a mystery. "Now there is something I wish to ask you, Riku, before I send you back. Everyone who comes here, I ask the same thing. When you leave, what benefit would you like to have? Just yourself mind," he added. "Leo will have his own chance as well, so there is no need to ask for him."
Riku thought about it for a time. "These cards.. they exist in several places, don't they?"
"But of course. Don't ask for a copy of them though. I cannot do that without leaving, and I cannot leave without everything here ceasing to exist."
"Right. In that case then... I think... in the event I find the cards again... I want the choice to be affected by them. So I can choose to watch, or to come back in again. Not to have the choice of whether I just go into the room they're in and become affected by them."
"An interesting request. But one I will honour nevertheless, and I hope that any future visits you pay are just as beneficial to you as this one has been. I will make one request of you, however. Leo has no human family, and the lion family he had would obviously not recognise him. The closest thing he has ever had was the mage who gave him humanity, so on behalf of that mage I ask you Riku... treat him well. Take care of him, of the amulets you both carry a half of, and the treasured acorn you have been gifted, but him foremost."
"The amulets... will they...?"
"They'll hold their magic outside as well, yes," the Wizard confirmed. "They do have a limited reach on them though. Here in my world it is not so easily seen. After all, to an outside viewer there is barely any distance at all from one castle to another. But outside you will find the range is not nearly as large as it has been here. I would suggest you only use them in the company of each other. Now, I'm afraid that is all we have time for..."
The Wizard vanished, as did the other four, replaced by the single on back at the lectern. The five of them gathered back before him again, and with a last look at each of them he raised his finger one last time...
Merlin's house appeared around him as the magic flare faded. He still had trouble figuring out what colour the magic was, but for some reason he couldn't shake the idea that it was a kind of greenish-purple. Sora and Yuffie were nearby, of course, but Leo and Alcinus were not, having exited at the same point they'd entered.
A covering dome had been placed over the cards to protect them from being caught by them, Riku noticed. Not that he needed it if the Wizard really had kept his promise. As he looked in he saw the Chariot already delivering the replacement cards – he had a busy night there, having to take five cards in.
Yuffie was already on her way out, whatever she was doing unknown, while Kairi naturally was with Sora. Seeing them only reminded him he still had to find Leo again, and he had no idea where to look. All he knew was that Leo had heard his name somewhere – maybe he'd find Riku before Riku found him.
"Well," Merlin said after a few moments. "It's good to see everyone's back safely. Next time, do take care around my artefacts, won't you?"
"Back safely?" Riku asked. "If it hadn't been for you at the last Game, we would have been back sooner!"
"Well, yes, I admit I hadn't expected the spell to... what did it do exactly?"
"A phantasmal hand picked up another card, dropped it by Riku, then vanished. And the Wizard cancelled the Game for outside intervention," Sora told him flatly.
"Now boys, I couldn't have known that was going to happen! I just wanted to see you safely returned to the real world!"
"We were doing just fine," Riku told him. "Or at least I was. And now..." he trailed off.
"Oh, right," Sora said. "Merlin, do you know..." he stopped, then frowned. "He's a... well, he was the Ten of Pentacles, but now he's out and... well, I imagine Riku'd like to find him again."
"I don't think I can help with that," Merlin conceded. "Divination magic isn't very accurate at best. Better to get out there and look for yourself."
It wasn't the kind of answer Riku had wanted to hear.
It'd been a while since he'd brought them out of the cards now, and what had bothered him most – besides being separated from Leo – was the loss of the routine. Six weeks of work meant he'd got into the habit of getting up earlier than most anyone else on the islands, making breakfast because there usually wasn't anyone else around to do it, then finding out what he was doing. Except there usually wasn't. He helped others where he could, surprised plenty with some of the skills he'd picked up when he did, but it was almost always one-off work that didn't last very long.
Since Sora was enjoying a well-earned break from his own work and naturally time back with Kairi, this meant the search for Leo was also on hold because he could hardly search other worlds without him to fly the damn Gummi Ship. Sora refused to let him try to figure it out himself in case he crashed it.
He'd tried to pass the time by wearing the acorn he'd been left, having already decided to get to the point where he could talk to the trees without needing it before he found a good place to plant it. The local trees had however not been nearly as good conversationalists as those he'd met in the cards, though they had been surprised when he first talked to them. One of them had complained at him for a time some twelve years before when he'd climbed it and accidentally broken off a branch, but that had been about the only notable thing they'd talked about.
Now he stared out of the window disconsolately trying to decide what to do as he watched the sun rising again. If there was something around the town he hadn't done by now, it was probably only because people wanted to do at least something by themselves. He was considering maybe putting his skills to use and going into some kind of trade, maybe woodworking or opening a forge of his own, when someone knocked at his open door. He glanced back to find Sora leaning in the doorway.
"Still having trouble adjusting, huh?" he asked.
"Don't tell me you haven't too," Riku replied.
"Of course not. That's why I'm up at this stupidly early hour. I haven't managed to shake that off yet. And I've pretty much taken over the kitchen at home because it's the closest I can get to what we did at the Swords."
"At least you've got something you can do. All I want to do I can't. I either need to get materials for it, or there's no point to it. I could make something sure, but there's no point if no one needs it."
"Maybe you should have come joined me at the Swords sooner then," Sora suggested. "There's always gonna be a place for a good cook."
"Yeah, maybe next time I go into the cards I'll see if I can take the place of a Sword. If I can even find the cards instead of bothering Merlin."
"Didn't you say Leo had a pack once, and that was how he got in?"
"Just a moment then. I'll be right back."
Riku looked puzzled as Sora left again, heading back out into the early morning. After a few minutes he came back, thought there didn't seem to be anything different.
"What was that about?" Riku asked him.
"Oh, nothing. I just happened across someone this morning. As I understand it he made use of something I mentioned to him while in the cards and he only just yesterday found his way here, so when I met him this morning..." Sora moved aside, followed by someone else who came into view. Someone with some very familiar looking torn jeans and a silver ring on a bit of string around his neck.
"Leo!" Riku exclaimed, leaping up to meet him. "How'd you find me here?"
"Weren't you listening?" Leo replied. "Sora told me a few things. Like where I heard your name. Didn't you know you and I used to go to the same school before the Keyblade sent you two off on your adventures? All it took was one train ride from my home to here to find you..."
"He only lives over in Twilight Town and all," Sora added, then awkwardly said, "I guess I'll just... leave you to alone for a bit."
"I guess you know how I felt around you and Kairi now," Riku told him as he left, then to Leo, "Can you stay a while? There's so much I could show you..."
"I'm not going anywhere, Riku. Not without you, anyway. But how about we take some time off from everything and just enjoy a morning in together."
"If it's with you, I don't have a problem with that."
A/N: Well, here we are at long, long last. This one kinda went on for a lot longer than I originally intended, but you know I think it's better for it. And as usual, I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
But this story is done, and I've got plenty more ideas to write, so see you next time!