Chapter 1: Chapter 1 - Radiant Garden
The sky tore open above Radiant Garden, and a star fell out of the hole.
At least, it looked like a falling star. It plummeted out of the twisting darkness briefly revealed behind the sky, and crashed, wreathed in fire, into the broken slopes of the Great Maw. The town walls briefly tottered on their foundations at the shock, and a great blaze of light and a plume of smoke rose from the site of the impact before quickly fading away.
The townsfolk of Radiant Garden shouted and pointed and tried to come to some kind of conclusion as to who should go and investigate, not helped by the fact that half of them wanted to be heroes and the other half very much didn't. The moogles, who knew all about the kinds of things that fallen stars tended to be made of, were halfway down the ravine trail while the wingless were still arguing.
* * *
It wasn't a star.
It was huge, and clearly battle-damaged, but exactly what it was, the moogles weren't immediately sure. Bipedal in shape but apparently mechanical, it resembled a giant in armour or some kind of massive war-walker, though there was no visible sign of an occupant or pilot. It was surprisingly intact, considering that the blue-black rock of the Great Maw had cracked and melted to slag beneath it, although its left wrist and gauntlet were half-crushed as though by monstrous jaws and its armour was covered in scuffs and scorches.
It might have been a Heartless - many of those were unnaturally enormous, and some of them affected mechanical shapes - but the moogles quickly dismissed that possibility. Heartless were many and varied but they always had a certain distinctive look to them. They didn't come in sun-bright shades of violet and gunmetal and white, and they didn't have recognisable faces in the way that this thing did. The proud features were sculpted from intersecting planes of smooth silvery metal, twisted now in an expression of savage pain and fury, overshadowed by the triple spikes of what appeared to be a stylised crown forged of a piece with the war machine's helm.
And attached to its right arm, still gleaming golden despite the beating it had taken along with its wielder, was the biggest cannon that any of the moogles had ever seen.
"...oh my pom."
* * *
The thing was three times his size, a monstrous black hulk of muscled limbs and lashing tendrils and a maw as fanged and ravenous as Unicron's own. Galvatron had no idea what it was other than "trying to eat him", but he was in no mood to stop and ask questions. The creature's claws could tear through rock and it had already smashed Astrotrain, Vortex and two of the Sweeps out of the sky.
"Back!" he shouted as Cyclonus tried to close in to support him, and the warrior fell back in obedient dismay. Galvatron didn't spare him another thought. He needed space, he needed the monster's whole attention on him so he could-
-it lunged at him, jaws snarling open and a look of hateful triumph in its yellow eyes-
-and Galvatron dropped to the ground as it descended on him, braced his heel, and drove his left fist straight up its throat.
The monster's fangs shattered, but still it slammed them shut. Jagged edges stabbed through Galvatron's wrist gears, and he roared in shock as much as pain - it shouldn't have been able to pierce his plating! But he had it, and he kicked off the ground and reached over its head as it tried to shake him like a petrorabbit, and jammed his cannon against the top of its spine and fired-
He'd expected it to die. He hadn't expected it to detonate, in a warping blast of black energy that ripped outwards and engulfed him. His armour withstood the explosion, but the fabric of reality didn't. The universe seemed to splinter around him, and he fell backwards with a scream of wordless rage, crashing into the dark...
He was startled back to consciousness by the sensation of small, soft paws patting at the mounting bolts of his cannon. His battle protocols snapped online instantly and he scrambled to his feet in a surge of mechadrenaline and outrage, internal proximity alarms screaming, optics blazing. "Graaah! Get away from me-!"
They were tiny. His targeting systems were struggling to even get a lock on them, and no wonder - if he fired at one, he'd hit a dozen. Galvatron stopped short, dialled up his visual magnification and stared. "What in the void are you?!"
"Oh," one of the creatures exclaimed, in a very small squeaky voice that he had to adjust his audials to catch clearly. "We're so sorry, kupo! We thought you were-" It cleared its throat awkwardly. "We're moogles, kupo. My name is Leoh, Head Technician of the moogle workshop in Radiant Garden." It folded its paws together and, with surprising aplomb, made him a polite bow. "Um - may I ask who you are?"
He drew himself up proudly. "Galvatron, Herald of Unicron, Emperor of the Decepticons!" His audials caught the resulting ripple of whispers through the crowd of moogles: "Emperor?" "Oh my pom..." "What's Unicron?"
He decided not to dignify any of that with a reply, and continued addressing Leoh. "Where is this place?" The blue-black, crystalline rock around him reminded him of nothing so much as the lavascapes of Thrull, but this was clearly a civilised world of some kind.
"This is the world of Radiant Garden, kupo. Some still call it Hollow Bastion, but we've been trying to repair it since then." Leoh waved a paw to indicate direction, and from his much higher vantage point Galvatron had a good view of the small human-scaled settlement in the near distance. It definitely looked like it needed some repairs. There were bits of Charr that were in better shape than that. "Um, speaking of repairs... are you all right? Your hand..."
Galvatron blinked and looked down at his left arm. He'd dismissed the damage warnings while he was still fighting the monster and had semi-forgotten he'd even been injured, but looking at it now, the beast's black fangs had come close to severing his hand and the servos and tensor cables in his wrist were crushed beyond anything his self-repairs could quickly deal with. "Rrrgh... ah, it's nothing! At least it wasn't my gun arm." He wasn't going to admit to a pack of strange aliens whose motives were still unclear that it actually hurt now he'd remembered to think about it.
The moogles gave him wide-eyed looks. "Even so, we moogles are famed for our weaponsmithing and forgework, kupo," Leoh said. "If you'd like us to repair that for you, we'd be honoured to help." She bowed again.
"...that's a big gun, kupo," one of the other moogles beside her added sotto voce, in tones of awe.
Galvatron blinked at that, and then laughed. "I wouldn't have expected a talent for weaponcrafting in a species like yours!" As a galactic rule of thumb, he had observed that a love of armament tended to go hand in hand with a naturally martial build of one sort or another. The moogles were a distinct anomaly.
"A lot of things thought our ancestors were harmless and tasty, kupo. We adapted." Leoh's grin was surprisingly sharp for someone so fuzzy. "But I've never seen anything like that cannon," she added, looking up at Galvatron in open admiration. "Is it a permanent part of you?"
"Very much so!" He couldn't help but preen a little at the attention, and he folded his arms to run his battered left hand possessively along the cannon's barrel. "The most powerful standalone artillery piece in the galaxy! At full power, twelve million volts DC electrical discharge, or alternatively, magnetically collimated plasma bolts at eight thousand degrees - and a great many possible configurations in either mode. Tight-beam and dispersion options, fully adjustable power settings, integrated targeting software..."
Leoh listened to all of this wide-eyed, staring at the cannon with an expression somewhere between diffidence and borderline lust. "Would you mind... ah... showing us, kupo?"
Galvatron's optics narrowed as he grinned wickedly. "With pleasure!" He raised his arm, aimed at a nondescript spire of rock whose only crime was being higher than the surrounding terrain, and fired.
There was a scream of power, a blast of shattering rock, a plume of smoke, and the sound of about forty small voices all chorusing "Oooooh."
Chapter 2: Chapter 2 - Charr
"Galvatron? Galvatron! Mighty one-!"
Watching reality split like a perished coolant hose in front of his optics and then close itself up again was the kind of experience that made Cyclonus briefly question his own sensory arrays - which was probably why he called out desperately for his lord, even with his processors telling him that Galvatron had just vanished to who-knew-where. His spark felt as though it had frozen to interstellar ice as he tried to absorb what he had just witnessed. Galvatron!
"He's gone!" Scourge blurted out beside him, sounding utterly panicked, and if Scourge was the one saying that, then there was little room for doubt. The last of his foolish hope drained away, leaving despair in its wake.
The only silver lining Cyclonus could see was that the shadowy abomination they had been battling was also gone, though where it had gone - and where it had taken Galvatron! - he shuddered to guess. He gave the appropriate order on habit and instinct, his higher processing functions still in shock. "Decepticons, regroup! Sound off!"
The roll call came back ragged and with several salient gaps, the worst of which Cyclonus desperately tried not to focus on. "What the slag was that?" Drag Strip demanded, over the last couple of call-ins.
He was standing with his heels dug into the ground, a significant portion of Motormaster's weight resting on his shoulder. The Stunticon leader had thrown himself straight at the thing, and hadn't made such a good hand of it as Galvatron. "More to the point," the truckformer growled through a static-glitched vocaliser, "where the slag did it go?"
"Sweeps! I want an answer to that." There was a time and a place for delegation and this was definitely it, because he didn't have the first idea. "Soundwave, did you get any readings as it disappeared?"
"Negative." Soundwave looked up from where he was cradling Laserbeak's broken and twitching chassis in his hands, even his locked fields and modulated voice tight with distress. "Conjecture: the entity was not from this iteration of reality. Destruction returned its energy to its native universe." He hesitated. "Conjecture: Galvatron was pulled with it by proximity."
"When I want your theories I'll ask for them," Cyclonus told him - mostly because he didn't want to think about the implications of Soundwave's hypothesis in case he lost his remaining functionality altogether. "All of you, recover the wounded for repairs and-"
"What are we gonna do? When the Autobots realise Galvatron is missing they're gonna flatten us!"
It took this disaster for the wretched rank and file to appreciate their lord, after the ungrateful carping they indulged in the rest of the time?! Cyclonus's temper flashed over in a snarl of fury as he swung around, optics blazing. "Silence! If any of you overpromoted training drones had a tenth of Lord Galvatron's courage, that wouldn't need to be your first concern!"
Scourge sounded worried. Cyclonus growled and force-reset his emotional control module for the third time in two minutes. "What?"
The tracker shifted awkwardly as Cyclonus turned on him. "Nothing, just, has anyone ever told you that as soon as he's not around, you start acting way more like him-"
Whatever Cyclonus might have replied to that was interrupted by a - he could only describe it as a squeak of utter terror from one of the Sweeps. "C-commander Cyclonus! Sir!"
"What is it?"
Sweeps Seven and Five were clinging to each other, both staring up at the sky. Seven pointed with a shaking claw. "Wh... Where are the stars going?"
"What-" Cyclonus followed the gesture, and the words died in his vocaliser. The haze of Charr's thin, dry atmosphere did nothing to disrupt the view of the celestial skyscape above. The stars shone clear and hard and bright...
...except where they didn't. The sky was striated with great tattered rifts of abyssal black, spreading and opening even as Cyclonus looked up at them. The sight made a mockery of every law of physics, defying the science of light and time. No wonder the Sweeps had been reduced to gibbering - it probably looked even worse to them.
The universe was literally falling apart in front of his optics. And then the ground shuddered and a great grinding creak of sound echoed through the broken city around them, and Cyclonus realised that it wasn't only happening up there. He looked down in time to see the sloping wall of an ancient pyramid barely a hundred metres away crack open and slide asunder in a shower of flying stone.
And a thousand glowing-eyed horrors cascaded ravenously out of the hole.
"Decepticons! Stand your ground!"
"Oh, slag me..."
Chapter 3: Chapter 3 - Iacon
On the bad days, Rodimus Prime had always reassured himself with the thought that he'd survived Unicron, it couldn't get worse.
As broken reports and desperate calls for help poured in from across Cybertron and across the galaxy, he revised that theory. The atmosphere in Iacon's war room was taut with anguish and desperation as he and Kup looked helplessly at the same thing on a hundred different screens. The galaxy was being devoured in front of their optics all over again, and this time it wasn't even happening one world at a time.
"Rodimus Prime! Iacon, Cybertron, anybody, mayday, mayday, are you receiving me? There's a hole in our bucket, dear Liza... end of the line, when it's gone it's gone!"
That feed was audio-only and it crackled out even as Jazz, manning the comms, desperately tried to dial it back in. "Wreck-gar! Roger roger, good buddy, are you receiving me? Hello, hello! No..." Jazz turned in dismay to Rodimus. "Signal's gone. I think that was Junk over and out, Prime."
"Well, if anyone's going to pop up out of this somehow, it'll be them," Rodimus said, trying for a smile. "Who else is still checking in?" The new colony on Paradron II had been lost hours ago, and most of their alien allies had already fallen silent. And Earth... the first they'd even known that anything was wrong was when the always-open checkline to Autobot City had erupted in screaming and then suddenly just gone. Rodimus was desperately trying not to think about that. Daniel, Spike, Arcee, Ultra Magnus, Blaster...
No. No. A Prime's first duty was always to the living. He couldn't deal with that now, he still had people here relying on him to make decisions. When the strange black creatures had swarmed across Cybertron and the stars had started going dark in the distance, the Autobots had been shocked by a sudden influx of comms from Neutrals hidden in forgotten cities, stragglers and hold-outs whom they hadn't even known were there - and even more so by a series of calls from what claimed to be the survivors of the former Decepticon High Council, emerging from bolt-holes in the ruins of the old Decepticon strongholds in the face of something they couldn't keep hiding from. Some had been raging and blaming the Autobots, others had begged for help - Rodimus had shouted Kup down and replied to all of them, linking them in to what little tactical data Iacon had, telling them they could keep anything they could defend. In Rodimus's opinion, right now, they needed every gun and every willing hand they could get.
"Not much else left, Prime!" Jazz was saying, his voice shaking. "Monacus of all places, go figure, rich people have lots of guns... Orodron just went out... whoa, whoa, what's that?! Incoming!"
"What do you mean, incoming?"
Jazz fiddled urgently with the comm board and then a screen fizzed online, showing a feed from one of Iacon's long-range security cameras. At the same moment the audio burst into life, a frantic, static-distorted voice yelling, "Iacon City, come in! Autobots, do you copy? Truce! White flag! Help!"
"Parlay!" shouted a smaller, higher-pitched voice, followed by a clang as of someone getting kicked.
Rodimus swallowed down a desperate laugh that would have been entirely out of place, and ran to Jazz's side. "This is Rodimus Prime! We hear you, who is that?"
"This is Astrotrain!" And indeed it was, Rodimus could see the big triple-changer onscreen lurching down through the tattered skies above Iacon, his wings half shredded and his plating torn as though by giant claws and yet still somehow, desperately, hanging on. "Charr is destroyed, repeat, Charr is gone! We're here as refugees! Let us land!" There was a moment of hesitation, and then, "Please!"
"Lad, you can't be thinking-" Kup began.
"Not now, Kup!" Rodimus flailed at him. "Astrotrain! Who's in command up there? Where's Galvatron?" Surely there was no way the Herald of Unicron would have accepted a ride in Astrotrain unless he was on the brink of offlining...
There was what sounded like a brief argument on the other end of the comm, before a flat, monotone voice replied. "Soundwave: senior officer. Claiming acting command. Galvatron... missing." Even by Soundwave's standards that last had sounded noncommittal.
"Missing? What about Cyclonus and Scourge?"
"Galvatron's gone," Astrotrain broke back in. "The darkness swallowed him. And Cyclonus and Scourge stayed behind on Charr to die with him because they're the lousiest Decepticons ever!" Even in the thick of a last-ditch orbital re-entry, the shuttle managed to sounded genuinely offended.
"Yeah!" came the same smaller voice as before. "We staged a mutiny! We weren't staying there to get... whatever those things do!"
"Vive la desistance!" shouted a third voice.
"Oh, Primus," Rodimus managed, almost laughing again in spite of everything. "All right, come in! The main landing pad is clear, get down as best you can and be ready to deploy with our line of battle! You - you're welcome here."
"Prime, are you sure? I was worried enough about the High Council, but these sons of turborats?!"
Rodimus heaved a sigh. "Kup, I hear you, buddy, but they're Cybertronians too. They may be Decepticons but right now Cybertron needs every mech who's willing to defend it, I don't care what badges they're wearing. And they asked us for help." He spread his hands. "What kind of Autobots can we call ourselves if we ignore that?"
The comm crackled on dead air for a moment, startling them all, and then, quietly, a voice came through. "Soundwave: grateful for the chance to offline on Cybertron. Acknowledgement: thank you."
Rodimus felt his spark hitch at that, and he saw Kup's optics widen and the oldtimer's jaw drop open. "Nope, you're right, Prime," Kup said, shaking his head. "Never thought I'd hear a Decepticon say that."
It had come as a surprise to Rodimus too, but he cleared his vocaliser quickly. "You're welcome," he said. "See you out there, Soundwave."
"Monacus just went down, Prime," Jazz said quietly. "That was the last one."
Rodimus looked at the camera feeds that were still operational. All he could see was crumbling metal and swarming shadows, his homeworld disappearing with a horrifying efficiency that even Unicron hadn't been able to match as beleaguered knots of Autobots, Decepticons, Neutrals and mixes of all the above desperately poured on firepower that didn't seem to do a thing. The Matrix lay in his chest like a stone, silent and unresponsive. He felt like a one-trick cyberpony whose trick had stopped working.
What can I even do about this?
"Let's get out there," he said, turning to Jazz and Kup. "I think we're just three more guns now."
They nodded. "Least we can give 'em something to remember us by," Kup said, hefting his musket laser.
"I'll get to the landing pad," Jazz offered. "Soundwave and me can work together if we have to."
"Till all are one." The words tasted like ash in his mouth, but when the other two Autobots smiled and murmured them back, Rodimus knew it had been worth saying them. "Get going. I'll head down to the walls and see what I can do there."
"Aye aye, Prime!"
As his two officers left the war room Rodimus paused for a moment more, staring at the screens for one last time. He saw Astrotrain touch down, wobbling, and then unsteadily fall into his root mode and spill a score of battered Decepticons across the deck. Soundwave scrambled up, Ravage glued to his knee and Rumble clinging to his other leg; Wildrider was helping Breakdown off the floor, the Lamborghini's right arm hanging shredded and useless at his side. They all looked a motley mess but they also looked willing to fight, falling into a loose battle formation and readying what weapons they had. Jazz came zooming into view and transformed, running over to join them, and the 'Cons simply opened their ranks to let him step in. Somehow, Rodimus found it in himself to smile.
All of Primus's children on the same side. If only it didn't always take something like this to make it happen. He turned to head to the door himself. There was nothing left that he could do here.
He'd only taken three steps when the metal of the heavy sliding door shimmered with a film of sickly green light. He stopped short, grabbing for his rifle as the light turned black at its heart and the blackness expanded, rippling like hot tar. It filled up the space in front of the door, and on the edge of his audial range he thought he could hear a whisper-soft storm of hissing, chittering, scratching noise that seemed to pour from inside the darkness...
He was about to fire into the black void when something stepped out of it.
Rodimus froze. The emerging figure had the familiar frame of a Decepticon Seeker, but it moved in an eerie silence, as though it was somehow up and functional with its engines offline. Its paint was a uniform dark death-grey, punctuated only by sickly burnt-orange wing stripes that matched the unnatural glow of its optics. Worst of all, parts of its wings and legs and a substantial piece of its midsection were coated in a thick layer of black, clinging, oil-like shadows through which Rodimus was appallingly certain that he could see holes. There were wires in there, exposed and burned-out gears, all of it cold and dark and without a trace of the sparking charge and burning fluids that should have been visible in any living mech carrying wounds like those. For a moment, Rodimus thought his own spark was going to stop its pulse as a horrific fear flooded through his systems.
He'd fought the reanimated corpse of Optimus Prime. He'd seen his friends turned into life-drinking zombies by a trans-organic Quintesson aberration. He'd spent the last two years feeling Unicron's dead gaze on the back of his spoiler every time he went outdoors. Somehow, seeing this sleek, elegant, graceful horror looking at him with total self-awareness in its optics was worse than all of those. "Who-"
The Seeker tipped his head, and smirked. Behind him, at the edges of the impossible hole that went through the door to somewhere that the door was not supposed to go, yellow eyes and tiny black claws clustered hungrily. "Rodimus Prime," he said, mockingly polite. "Surely you remember me?"
His voice was a hollow, muted hiss, but the screeling harmonics at the edge of it were still unmistakable. Rodimus only didn't drop his rifle because his actuators seized up.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4 - Radiant Garden
The distance back to Radiant Garden was trivial to someone of Galvatron's size, although the fact that he wouldn't fit through some of the narrower parts of the usual path resulted in some slight adjustments being required. He looked up curiously at the massive, cracked ramparts of the town - they might be in considerable disrepair, but the original construction was as titanically solid and over-engineered as the ruins of Charr, even if clearly built for beings of smaller size. The bizarre patchwork castle in the middle seemed to be a later addition, and nothing like so architecturally or strategically inspiring. Galvatron gave it a dubious look, which he extended to the small houses that cluttered the bailey area of the original fortifications.
The occupants of the houses looked equally dubious right back at him, if considerably more alarmed. Several of the moogles hastily fluttered ahead to talk to the oddly-assorted organics, while Galvatron turned his attention to the pressing matter of where in the township he would actually fit without being in a position to demolish anything by accident. Fortunately, it turned out that the moogles maintained a large workshop building that butted up against the ramparts, and there was enough room on the ramparts themselves for Galvatron to sit down and stretch his legs along the walltop, which he duly did. It wasn't even particularly uncomfortable, and he appreciated the vantage point - as well as being gratified to realise that he probably presented a terrifying spectacle to any onlookers.
"There!" Leoh said, looking pleased. "Welcome to Radiant Garden. We're honoured to have such a magnificent guest, kupo." She bowed politely.
Magnificent was an excellently flattering epithet, Galvatron felt, and Leoh went up another notch in his esteem. "Why thank you!" He favoured her with a suitably regal smile, or at least as close as he could get to one with his dentae showing at the edges.
"May I introduce you to my senior engineers?" She waved a paw at the three moogles standing huddled just behind her. "Moggin, our chief caster and energy specialist; Amaro, our master smith; and Mito, head of machinecraft, kupo." The trio bowed politely: the one identified as Moggin wore a pointed headpiece with sparkles on it, Amaro was clad in a heavy apron and gauntlets and had fur piebald with soot, and Mito was wearing a utility belt laden with an array of tools that were verging on the microscopic from Galvatron's perspective.
All of them appeared to be in awe of him, and Galvatron decided to be generous. "A pleasure to meet you!" he acknowledged, with a wave of his hand in lieu of an answering bow. This might not be his own realm, but an Emperor still didn't bow.
Apparently that was sufficient courtesy anyway, because all four moogles, Leoh included, looked relieved and delighted. "Now," Leoh said, "is there anything we can do for your comfort? There's your wrist if you'll let Mito look at it, and I don't know what you eat but if you tell us we'll do our best to find some, kupo..."
* * *
An hour later, the moogles were attempting to synthesise some variant on energon from a selection of colourful native power crystals, and Galvatron was sitting with his left arm braced on the wall, watching as Mito wiggled self-assuredly between hydraulic joints that would turn him into a smear of blood and fur if Galvatron so much as flexed his fingers. It was surreal to be treated like this, with total respect but such utter lack of fear. Then again, Galvatron had always respected courage, and the fact that the moogles apparently admired him for exactly what he was and seemed to have no illusions whatsoever about him was gratifying.
Void help him, he was actually starting to like these small fuzzy things. He locked out his left hand's motive servos with a thought, making absolutely sure he couldn't twitch and hurt Mito accidentally, and watched with interest as the moogle dug a wrench - tiny to Galvatron, big as a warhammer to Mito - into the crushed gears at the top of his wrist joint. "This must have hurt, kupo," Mito commented, panting slightly with exertion.
"It did!" Galvatron made a dismissive gesture with his free hand, waving his cannon. "But as long as you can repair it I don't care!"
Mito nodded and looked up. "You're brave. I admire that." He bent his head to his work again and there was a ping as something came unstuck, sending a fresh snap of pain up Galvatron's neural nets. Galvatron cursed between his dentae, more out of reflex than real distress. "Sorry, kupo!"
"Ah, never mind!" It hurt a lot less than it had hurt in the first place to be bitten by a... it dawned on him that he still didn't know what he had been fighting on Charr, and that thought called up an entire cascade of associated questions that he'd been too busy reacting to his new surroundings to worry about until now. Where was he in real terms - his astronav dead-reckoning was completely gone, apparently decalibrated in his crash - how did he get back, and what had happened to his throneworld? To his warriors? Cyclonus, Scourge, the Dis-!
-no matter! He was Galvatron, and wherever he was and whatever had happened, he would find what was his and claim it back! Still, information was always useful. "The creature that did this," he said to Mito. "It was about three times my size, black, with yellow eyes and fangs sharp enough to - well, you see, you're working on the results!" He snorted wryly. "Do you have any idea what it was?"
He was taken aback when Mito froze for a moment, and then turned to look up at him with his pom abruptly drooping over his nose and his ears flattened to his round skull. "A Heartless, kupo," the moogle breathed. "Three times your size?"
...that was very big indeed to someone as small as Mito, Galvatron realised abruptly. "As I said!"
"A worldbreaker Heartless," Mito said, his voice shaking. "And you're here, in Radiant Garden... oh, kupo no." His eyes were huge and they glistened with moisture as he looked up. "Then... then your world is gone, Galvatron-kupo. I'm so sorry."
"Gone?!" Mito flinched as Galvatron raised his voice, and he made an effort not to get any louder. "What do you mean, gone?!"
"The Heartless are the manifestation of the Darkness Between the Worlds, kupo." Leoh's soft voice cut in. "When the heart of a world is opened to the Darkness, the Heartless break in and devour that world and consume the hearts of its people. The stuff of the world breaks into pieces, and the darkness in each victim's heart manifests as another new Heartless." She fluttered up to Galvatron's optic level, her expression so serious that it gave even him pause. "Someone unlocked your world, and the Heartless have devoured it. You - you must have great strength of heart, to have found your way here instead of being devoured too, kupo."
She bowed her head, wringing her paws together. "I know this must be a terrible shock, kupo. I - all of us are so very sorry."
Eater of sparks, devourer of worlds... The framing was new, but the concept struck a chord Galvatron knew all too well. His own personal darkness, the black echo of Unicron's power that lingered like a banked fire in the deepest pit of his spark, flared in anger. The universe is mine to destroy! How dare-!
He clenched his fist, optics flashing dangerously bright as he growled wrathfully. "Are you telling me they can't be fought? I blew the head off the one that did this to me!"
Mito and Leoh looked at each other, both visibly startled. "You killed a Heartless?" Leoh exclaimed. "A worldbreaker, at that?"
"Well, most things are dead after they explode, are they not?!" He granted that there had been a few salient exceptions in his experience, but the creature, the Heartless, had exploded very thoroughly. He was certain he'd finished it off before falling through whatever cosmic anomaly its death had created.
"Only magic can destroy the Heartless, kupo," Mito explained, looking up at Galvatron. "Magic, or-"
A klaxon rang out over the town, blaring loudly enough to cut off whatever he had been about to say. Shouting rose from the streets below. The citizens fled to their houses, a few more visibly armed individuals leaping to man defensive positions on the walls. Leoh pointed out across the town, and Galvatron followed her direction to see-
There was a crack opening in the foundation wall of the patchwork castle. It was not the kind of crack that might have resulted from shifting stone or shaking earth. It was a black rift in the substance of reality, spreading and opening even as he watched, and within it there glowed many, many pairs of familiar yellow eyes.
He cursed, scrambling to his feet, startling Mito into flying off his hand. His cannon's familiar power-up whine echoed in his own audials. Judging by the eyes, these were significantly smaller than the Heartless he'd fought before, so they should be easier to destroy!
"Well," Leoh said, pulling out an exotic-looking gun studded with the local power crystals and large enough that Galvatron instantly concluded the moogles had pocket-fold technology or something close to it, "if you did kill that one, then kupo, I hope you can do it again! Here they come!"
Galvatron snarled and levelled his cannon. Rage blazed through him, hot and familiar and welcome, as his combat subroutines dumped mechadrenaline into his fuel lines and his processors raced at battlefield speed. "Watch me!"
Chapter 5: Chapter 5 - Mysterious Tower
Under a tranquil starlit sky, all was quiet on the isle of the Mysterious Tower. Outside the Tower, the shimmering ocean of unbeing that filled the space between the worlds lapped gently at the grassy shores of the unmoored island upon which Yen Sid's home stood. Inside the Tower's high and crooked walls, the great sorceror and retired Keyblade Master was peacefully at work among his books. It was a very ordinary day.
Yen Sid treasured ordinary days. He had had disproportionately few of them over the course of his long life. Having time to focus on his private research or simply relax with a collection of classic occult monographs was a rare luxury, and he was making the most of the opportunity now.
He was deeply engrossed in taking notes on the lost grimoire of Heliodorus of Catania (lost in its world of origin, that was to say - living in a liminal space of the multiverse had its advantages) when the map on the wall of his library blinked with a flash of bright, rippling golden light. The light spread briefly across the whole of the map, like the sudden splendour of the sun rising over the edge of the world, and then coalesced into a tiny, but dazzling pinpoint. Yen Sid jumped, his quill blotting outrageously, and stared.
He rose to his feet, carefully moving Heliodorus to safety away from the splashed ink, and went to examine the map. It was no ordinary map: it took up a whole wall of the library, and exactly what selection of worlds it showed at any given time was highly variable and determined by a complex set of arcane algorithms. It served many functions, depending on its master's needs, but what it did above all was to track the locations of the Keyblades and their wielders, and the extent of any outbreaks of Heartless or other invasions of the Darkness. And a light like that could mean only one thing.
One of the multiverse's thousands of dormant or lost Keyblades had awakened, and chosen a wielder.
Yen Sid peered closer. The light was so bright he had to squint at it, but it finally resolved into a tiny symbol that looked somewhat like a four-pointed star, with four smaller diamond shapes like thrown-off sparks positioned between each pair of its arms. He didn't recognise it, but that was no surprise. Each new Keyblade Wielder generated their own heart-glyph when they were chosen: a symbol that gave shape to something fundamental in their nature, and represented them thereafter in the magical fabric of the multiverse. The map simply detected the new wielder's heart-glyph and placed it in the proper location.
This particular glyph was in Radiant Garden, which suggested that the unknown wielder had probably fallen out of a breaking world and been caught by one of the lost Keyblades as they were thrown through the Dark Pathways. The Keyblades were wilful, and choosy in whom they would bond to; at any given time, far more were dormant than were active, and some had been so for centuries, haunting the interstices of the worlds like ghosts. Yen Sid muttered a cantrip to the map, trying to identify which particular blade had been activated in this instance.
The answer echoed back to him through the threads of the magic, and his heart sank in dismay. That one?!
He mentally upgraded his threat assessment of the situation to a full-scale alert, cast a wistful glance in the direction of the Golden Arts of Heliodorus the Great, and took a deep breath, preparing himself to begin his investigation of the circumstances. But before he had done more than begin the first words of a far-seeking spell, the Tower's alarm bell clanged far overhead. Yen Sid jumped violently, his spell abandoned. The bell sounded only when someone or something had violated the Mysterious Tower's wards without Yen Sid's own invitation.
Whatever trouble had come to the multiverse now, apparently it had bypassed the need for spells and landed right on his front step. Yen Sid snatched up his broom, straightened his hat, and rushed down the steps to the door at the smartest pace a sorceror of his august years could muster.
Outside, the island was at first glance undisturbed. The greensward around the Tower was punctuated only by the familiar trees, and not - as Yen Sid had half feared - by a horde of Heartless. The train tracks were absent, deactivated as they should be when he was not expecting visitors. The golden mist-ocean rippled and glowed in its usual, peaceful way.
The sorceror looked about him in some confusion. And then a figure appeared into view over the edge of the island, seemingly dragging itself from the depths of the mists. It rose to its feet, staggering slightly, and Yen Sid stared.
At first glance, he thought the newcomer was wearing some kind of exotic armour. Angular, stylised wings jutted from behind broad shoulders, long legs ended in thick, heavy boots, and the stranger's head was crowned with a fantastical helm that split into two tall crests. Then he saw the red glow of its narrowed eyes and the way its stern features flexed with expressiveness despite being seemingly forged from plate metal, and he revised his opinion. This was no mere man in a suit, but a living machine.
It stood about his height or a little taller, by his best estimate, but the Tower's magic had a convenient trick of quietly resizing anyone who arrived if they were constructed on a scale that didn't fit well with the Tower's own. Something about the way this machine-creature carried itself made Yen Sid suspect that its natural form was much larger. He watched it turn and reach down, out of his sight, and then a moment later it hauled a second, similar creature to its feet in turn.
The second machine was a little shorter than the first, but made up for that with the breadth of huge, batlike wings that spread wide behind its back. Its face was bearded to rival Yen Sid's own - to his perplexity, what did a machine want with a moustache? - and its fingers, currently curled around its comrade's as though for reassurance, terminated in long claws that looked no less vicious for being, strangely, painted pink. Yen Sid raised his broom, a Thundaga casting already holding its shape in his head and on his fingertips ready to be released-
But the second machine's attention was on its companion. "What is this place?" Its - his? - voice was deep, metallic in its intonation but tremulous with what sounded almost like fear. "I - Cyc, we aren't anywhere. Those aren't real stars." He gestured upwards at the island's silver-studded sky, flinching slightly.
Yen Sid, startled, revised his estimations of the newcomers for the second time. The Mysterious Tower's starscape was indeed unreal, an elaborate planetarium that, like the map in the library, could be commanded to show the skies of any world Yen Sid wished to observe. But from the ground, nobody except him was supposed to be able to recognise as much.
The taller machine frowned. "Well, we're somewhere," he said, in tones far more assured than his comrade's, and he struck his foot against the ground with a heavy thump of emphasis. "This place is solid, whatever it is."
Yen Sid cleared his throat. "This is my home," he announced, stepping forward so that the two machine-creatures could see him clearly. "Known to most simply as the Mysterious Tower. I am Master Sorceror Yen Sid." He made them a slight, polite bow, a carefully measured inclination of his head accompanied by a corresponding raise of his eyebrows. "You are welcome here, strangers, but who are you?"
Both machines startled at the sight of him, and the bearded one spoke first. "A human! But - how are you our size?"
"Ah, no, you are temporarily my size. The Tower's magic has - made adjustments, for both our convenience. Don't worry," he added quickly, seeing his strange visitors' alarm at this, "it is not permanent. As soon as you return to your own world, you will be restored to your natural size."
The taller machine took a swift pace towards Yen Sid, anger flashing across his face. "Our world was torn to rubble and spacedust in front of our optics less than an hour ago," he growled. "What do you know, old man? Tell me what is happening here!"
Yen Sid sighed, dismayed and yet tragically unsurprised by the news. He was still holding onto the Thundaga spell just in case, but those words had raised concerns far more urgent than his personal safety. "Torn to pieces? By black creatures with glowing yellow eyes, and a darkness that splits the earth?"
"Yes!" The bat-winged one grasped pleadingly at his friend's arm, pulling him back. "Let him talk, Cyc. He knows what's going on!"
"I fear that I do," Yen Sid confirmed, with deep sorrow. Again. Again. It never ends. "Your world was invaded - consumed - by the Darkness Between the Worlds. The creatures you saw are called Heartless. They are created from the darkness in the hearts of mortals, and thus their number, at least in potentia, is infinite. Whatever you did, you could not have beaten them back." He guessed from the newcomers' martial appearances that they might take some comfort in hearing that last - if they had fought and lost, the blame did not lie with them. "You two were fortunate, it seems. You fell into the Darkness but were not consumed, and instead you washed up here."
"Consumed?" The emotions that flitted across the first machine's patrician features were an indecipherable tangle - Yen Sid thought he glimpsed panic there for a moment, denial, grief and more, before he locked his expression down into one of taut anger. The two machines looked at each other, sharing a single speaking glance, before the first turned back to Yen Sid. "Have you seen another like us here? Where is Galvatron?!"
The tight-gripped fear in the machine-warrior's voice sent a pang through Yen Sid. Whoever this "Galvatron" was, he was clearly desperately important to these two. "I have not," he said. "But that does not mean he is not alive. There are many worlds in the multiverse. He could be in any one of them, assuming he has as much strength as you two to survive the fall through the Dark Pathways."
"I really don't like this," the bearded machine said, under whatever passed for his breath.
Yen Sid could only sympathise. "Fortunately for you," he said, "you are here, and I am in a position to help you. If your - friend? - is alive somewhere in the worlds, I can find him for you and help you to reach him." He gestured back towards the tower. "Will you come in?"
The two machines conferred with a swift exchange of glances, and then the taller one took a decisive step forward. "Very well. But you had better be as good as your word!"
Yen Sid bowed. "A sorceror must always be as good as his word. Follow me." He turned back to the Tower, and rather to his relief, the two of them did.
And even as he mourned the loss of a world whose name he had yet to learn, Yen Sid still spared a wistful thought to wish he could have had just one full day when the multiverse didn't need his help.
When Rodimus Prime's metaprocessor rebooted, the first thing he noticed was that he felt strangely, inexplicably lightheaded.
The second thing was that it wasn't only his head that felt that way. His whole frame felt light, despite the fact that his weight seemed to be hanging from his wrists where they were drawn up above his head. He struggled through the fog of disorientation to remember what had happened to him, a half-dissociated sense of panic coming into focus in mental slow motion. He had been in the war room, about to leave for the walls of Iacon to join the last-ditch defence against the dark creatures that had overrun his homeworld. And then some kind of portal had opened up in front of the doors, and...
The memory of the undead Seeker smirking at him flashed through his memory banks like a shot of liquid nitrogen to the lasercore. He gasped before he could manage to silence himself, his whole frame twitching with a sudden rush of preternatural fear.
And trying to move, in turn, brought pain. Stabbing charge burned on his wrists and around his midsection, and it sank abruptly into his awareness that he was wearing powered restraints. This situation was rapidly going from - well, not even bad to worse. More like worse to desperate. Bracing himself, he booted his optics, audials, and auxiliary sensory suite, and tried to prepare himself to find out just how bad his circumstances were.
It was still worse than he had been ready for. For a brief moment he was unmoored in time, flashing back two years as a horrifically familiar set of surroundings met his optics. Dark metal walls, curved and uneven, surrounded him. To his left, a great pane of cracked green crystal gave onto an abyss of starless black; to his right...
He was chained to a wall in Unicron's head. And the rest of the fallen dark god's cranial cavity had been taken over by Starscream, who was standing in the midst of a bizarre assemblage of computer banks, cables, crystal arrays, and what looked alarmingly like cages.
And something bright and familiar that shone dazzling in the midst of it all, hooked up with wires and clamps to the rest of the arcane arrangement of hardware, and Rodimus felt his spark turn frozen cold and plummet in his chest. No wonder his frame had felt so strangely light. He was three weight classes smaller than he'd been when Starscream had zapped him unconscious, because that... was the Matrix.
He'd let Starscream - an undead and seemingly even more deranged than usual version of Starscream, even - get the Matrix. It was probably just as well that losing it came with a built-in demotion, because he was fairly sure that he was now officially the worst Prime in Cybertron's history.
Well. Ex-Prime. He was undeniably Hot Rod again right now, and he would have never expected to feel so bad about that.
The only microscopic sliver of mercy that Primus had seen fit to grant him was that so far, Starscream didn't seem to have noticed that his captive was awake. The Seeker was wholly focused on his strange machinery, tapping at the jury-rigged consoles and muttering incomprehensibly under his breath. Hot Rod tried to stay quiet and seize the opportunity to figure out as much as he could of what was going on.
The purpose of the machine as a whole was lost on him. He had never had a scientific bent, but he suspected that even the Technobots would have struggled to make much sense of the spliced mix of hardware that Starscream had bolted together. The Matrix was about the only component he even recognised, apart from the obvious features like the cages.
Looking closer, he realised now that some of the cages were occupied - though not, thankfully, with Cybertronian or even alien prisoners. Rather, they held specimens of the swarming black creatures that had overrun Cybertron, all slumped down on the cage floors as though bereft of will or motivation now that they weren't eating holes in the universe. Hot Rod still shuddered at the sight of them, and dreaded to think how Starscream had managed to make them so compliant. Scattered across the bench at which Starscream was working were loose handfuls of colourful glowing crystals, and he wondered if this was yet another weird Decepticon experiment in squeezing energy out of anything that might be worth squeezing.
Then again, Starscream's engines still weren't running. Whatever was powering him now, Hot Rod would stake his last shanix that it wasn't energon. He tugged carefully at his chains. He really, really wanted to be anywhere but here-
Something brushed against his boot.
He couldn't control the yelp that escaped him. He looked down, and recoiled in horror as one of the little dark creatures looked back up at him. It had tiny, half-formed wings jutting from its back and its glowing eyes were hexagonal rather than circular, and it looked for all the galaxy as though it was trying - badly, but recognisably - to copy the shape of a Seeker. Hot Rod felt his circuits go cold all over again.
And Starscream turned sharply and looked at him. "Oh, you're awake - hey!" He glared at the shadow creature by Hot Rod's foot and whistled, a piercing squeal of feedback. "No! Leave him alone."
The creature drew back, its malformed wings drooping as though cowed. "For now," Starscream added, before putting down the tools he had been holding and stalking over to Hot Rod. The shadow creature retreated behind his boot, clinging there and peering out malevolently.
Hot Rod tried to look as insouciantly annoying as he knew how, even as his internals cringed at Starscream's closeness. The Seeker stank of dead metal, and his aura was nothing but an oily black slick devoid of readable emotion. "So, uh, hi. What's going on?"
"Welcome to the end of the world, Autobot." Starscream smirked. "At least, the end of the world you knew. Don't worry about trying to leave. There's nothing out there." He gestured at the cracked lens of Unicron's empty optic. "There's just you and me. And my little friends here, of course." He looked down at the shadow-Seekerling with an air of paternal pride.
Hot Rod processed that as fast as he could and concluded that Starscream had to be lying. There was no way the power-hungry Seeker would be so blithe about the idea of a universe that didn't contain anything worth ruling. "Oh. So this is all your fault?"
"Not as such," Starscream said, waggling his hand equivocally. "I didn't cause this. I merely took advantage of the opportunity it presented me." He smirked again, smug as ever.
"I'm still going to blame you till I find out who else's fault it was," Hot Rod said. "Although I don't know why anyone would want a universe that had nothing left in it but you, me, and Unicron's head. I don't think even Galvatron hates me that much."
He wondered belatedly whether he should have phrased that in the past tense. Whether Galvatron was even still alive. The notion of him not being alive felt preposterous, but if Starscream was telling anything even halfway to the truth... "What happened to him, anyway?"
He wasn't going to ask Starscream what had happened to anyone he actually cared about. If there was a knife to be twisted, the Seeker would twist it. But learning Galvatron's fate might at least give him some idea of what had happened to everyone in general.
And to his surprise and private gratification, Starscream's face distorted with anger. "I'm still trying to work that out! All he had to do was die and the wretched bucket of bolts couldn't even do that properly!" The Seeker hissed through his vents in exasperation. "But he'll be sorry when I find him. He'll be very, very sorry."
He almost crooned the words, and Hot Rod shuddered. Definitely not asking about anyone he cared about, then. "Are you sure that's not going to be the other way around?"
Starscream laughed - giggled. The sound was chilling. "Oh, I'm very sure. What can he do to me like this? I have power now that that barbarian buffoon couldn't even conceive of! Although you probably can't, either," he added condescendingly.
"You could always try explaining it to me," Hot Rod suggested. "Come on, you've got me chained to the wall in your secret evil base. Isn't this the part where you're supposed to gloat?" And tell me everything I need to know to toss a wrench in whatever you're doing?
Starscream laughed all the louder. "Well done, that was almost clever, Autobot! And if I was Megatron, it might even have worked, but fortunately for me, I'm not. So you can stay there, shut up, and let me work until I need you." With that he turned away, and returned to his muttering at the bench.
Well, so much for narrative tropes. Hot Rod sighed loudly and fidgeted, rattled his chains like Marley's ghost despite the pain every time he pulled on them, spun his engines, and generally did his best to be distracting in the hope that it would put the Seeker off his scheming. It didn't seem to be having much effect, in truth, but at least it was helping him not to panic and not to think too hard about the bigger picture. Bravado had always been his mental shield in a crisis, to the point that even some of his closest comrades had thought that he couldn't take anything seriously, but this situation was demanding all the self-distraction and faux courage he could muster. The only ray of light he could see was that Starscream apparently thought he needed Hot Rod for some reason, which meant that his being summarily executed was unlikely no matter how much he smarted off...
Inspiration struck. He needed Starscream to let him down from these restraints, somehow. The only way he could think of to achieve that was to make himself so objectionable that Starscream had to move him somewhere out of sight and sound. And he had just thought of the perfect strategy.
Thanks to, of all people, Daniel. They'd been talking one summer evening after Daniel had gotten into trouble at school and come to fish for sympathy. He could see his friend's mischievous face grinning up at him now, the memory shining clear and bright in the darkness around him, and he felt his spark lift despite the dire circumstances. If you really want to make someone mad at you, Hot Rod, this is how you do it. Ask me how I know.
He adjusted his vocaliser, calibrating it to maximum carrying power and just slightly out of tune, and began.
"Oh, I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves, everybody's nerves, yes on everybody's nerves
I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves, and this is how it goes..."
Starscream ignored him for fifteen verses, which was far longer than Hot Rod would have given him credit for. Maybe being undead had improved his concentration. But eventually he started to visibly twitch, his wings flicking up and his frame radiating tension. He held out for three more verses, and finally spun around.
"Will you stop singing!"
"Will you let me out of these chains?"
"Fine, then nobody gets what they want. I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves..."
"You learned that song from that little organic germ you called a friend, didn't you?" Starscream said silkily, with a very unpleasant smile.
Hot Rod faltered at that. "What's it to you if I did?"
"I just wondered if you realised how pathetic that was. Your closest friend was a larval human. Such a shame... but I suppose Autobots don't like off-world builds any more than we do."
"Hey! What are you saying, Starcreep?" He knew as soon as he spoke that rising to that bait had been a bad idea, but the insult to Daniel - especially when Starscream was using the past tense, don't think about that now, don't - stung worse than the gibe at himself.
"Oh, you know what I'm saying, Hot Rod. Even your name is Earthen slang. You're barely Cybertronian at all. No wonder you had such trouble leading real Autobots." He turned away, with a final sneer over his shoulder. "And now you can't even try to provoke me without resorting to more Earth nonsense. Pathetic."
Oh no. Starscream was not getting to turn his back and sneer his way out of this. Hot Rod was not going to be ignored. "Well, if you wanted something a bit closer to home, you only had to ask. I can totally do requests." He tweaked his vocaliser's settings a little, and:
"What shall we do with a drunken Seeker?
What shall we do with a drunken Seeker?
What shall we do with a drunken Seeker
Ear-ly in the morning?"
"Oh, you dare-"
"Strip off his wings and throw him to the 'structies,
Strip off his wings and throw him to the 'structies..."
Starscream was staring at him in disbelief. "Who sings that anytime after they get out of basic training?" he burst out, temporarily loud enough to drown out Hot Rod's voice. "Never mind your questionable construction, I can't believe the Autobots appointed someone as their leader who's so ridiculously immature!"
"Well, actually Primus appointed me, so I guess He doesn't have a problem with my attitude." Thanks, Arcee. Starscream didn't need to know that he was quoting his build-sister and didn't really believe a word of that, and he was proud that his voice hadn't faltered. "What shall we do with a drunken Seeker..."
"How about I don't? Weld him to the wall and let Megatron find him-"
"Don't sing that!"
"Oh, wait, was that verse about you? I always wondered- whoa!"
He recoiled as, with a terrifying, viperous burst of motion, Starscream was suddenly right in front of him and glaring into his optics. "You know nothing about me, and nothing about Megatron, and if you did, you'd know better than to bait me like this," the Seeker hissed, his toxic orange optics blazing with fury. "You're nothing but a miserable little newbuild who got out of his depth in his betters' affairs and I should smelt you down for scrap, but unfortunately, I may be going to need you to make the Matrix do what I want!"
Hot Rod froze, and tried not to let it show. That sounded very bad. "What-"
"Shut up! No more! Very well, if you're so insistent on being taken out of your chains, I'll do it. And then I'll move you a level up so you can sit in the dark with what's left of Unicron for an audience and sing all you like, because from there I won't be able to hear you!" He prodded one of his null rays roughly into Hot Rod's side. The remote control for the energon shackles dropped from a pocket-fold into his hand, and the Seeker pressed the unlock button without taking his optics off Hot Rod's face.
Hot Rod gasped and winced as his fetters fell away. His servos were stiff from struggling so long without being able to actually move. Carefully, slowly, and exaggerating how unsteady he felt, he moved away from the wall and allowed Starscream to poke him towards the exit. If he'd remembered the layout of Unicron's processor cavity right, there was only one way out of this section and getting to it would require walking right past all of Starscream's junkertech. He wasn't sure he'd be able to get to the Matrix, suspended as it was high overhead where only a flyer would have thought to put anything, but maybe he could sabotage something, pull out some wires, even let out some of the caged shadows and hope against hope that they went for Starscream instead of him-
"You're a terrible actor, you know. You're not half as weak as you're pretending, are you?" Starscream jabbed him in the flank and he didn't have to fake the sudden stumble he made. "Now move!"
He moved. Deliberately clumsily, veering like a drunken Seeker himself, sidestepping closer to Starscream's machinery as he looked quickly, urgently for anything on it he could break, anything at all that might be useful. His optics were caught by the crystals scattered across the bench - they glowed enticingly in a rainbow of shades, almost like energon goodies. They looked tasty, strange though that thought was. Most of them were simple shards or gem-cut shapes, but one in the centre of the scattered pile was larger than the others and looked like a small blue-green star.
"Hey, those are shiny," he said, reaching out a casual hand towards the little star. "What are they for?"
Starscream practically screeched. "Don't you dare touch th-"
Hot Rod's hand fell atop the crystal, and the universe dissolved around him in a soundless burst of clear green light.
Since this is Kingdom Hearts, there had to be a musical QTE segment somewhere. Hot Rod is getting that level out of the way now so that Galvatron doesn't have to later. Also, I apologise to whoever originally wrote "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Seeker?" because I cannot for the life of me remember who came up with that song first but it wasn't me. If anyone knows, please remind me so I can credit appropriately!
Chapter 7: Chapter 7 - Radiant Garden
The Heartless were more of a challenge than Galvatron had expected.
It wasn't that he couldn't hit them. He had the finest targeting software in the galaxy at his disposal, after all. The difficulty was in focusing tightly enough that he only hit the Heartless. They were so very much smaller than the one he'd fought on Charr, the smallest barely larger than the moogles, and while they were numerous, they were swarmingly agile and they used cover. A blast calibrated to take out a handful of them would also melt a hole in the stonework beneath them. Galvatron wasn't used to battlefields that he was at once oversized for, and cared about not demolishing.
But, nothing if not adaptable in combat, he'd switched his cannon back to its original, Unicron-forged specifications and started blasting them with million-volt arcs of lightning instead of his preferred plasma bolts. The scenery was still taking damage but at least now it was only scorch marks rather than craters, and the Heartless crowded close enough together that a single bolt of charge would easily jump from its first target to half a dozen others.
It took him all of four shots to realise that his fire wasn't hurting them. It knocked them off whatever approximations of feet they had and sent them bowling over stunned, but they were getting up again. Through the red haze of warlust that overclocked his processors, the sight registered first as outrage and then as a cold, plunging sense of dismay. If he couldn't kill these things-!
He made a snap assessment of the rest of the battlefield, trying to grasp the parameters of the problem. Leoh was on the wall at his side, and her exotic crystal-gun was putting the Heartless down - when she got a shot home, her target would explode in a greasy puff of black smoke and a small shower of what looked like tiny bright orbs of energy. Several of the human defenders were using similar guns to equal effect. And Moggin, the moogle "energy specialist", was fluttering above the battlefield on her tiny wings, haloed in green light, throwing bolts of multicoloured power from her bare paws and cutting an inspiring swathe through the Heartless. It wasn't that the creatures couldn't die.
It was his weaponry that was somehow deficient against them, and much as that thought displeased him it was the only logical conclusion from the facts. He snarled in balked fury, rage burning black in his spark. He'd obliterated the other one, the one a hundred times the size of these skittering shadow-vermin! What was so different here?!
A Heartless scurried along the walltop in the corner of his vision, and he swung on it in wrath. A flanking manoeuvre, no less! And it was running straight at Leoh, who was looking in the other direction entirely as she aimed at a cluster of Heartless harrying a yellow-haired human who was swinging an absurdly outsized sword at them-
His combat subroutines reacted to the threat to his ally without any need of conscious processing. With a roar of fury, he brought his fist down on the wall.
The ancient masonry cracked beneath the blow. Sparks of glowing colour spat from under his hand as the Heartless sputtered out of existence. Leoh jumped, turned, saw what she had been narrowly saved from, and let out a startled "Kupo!" before hastily turning back to take her next shot.
And Galvatron realised abruptly what he had done, unthinking, that had made the difference. What had Mito said? Only magic can destroy the Heartless...
He was the galaxy's ultimate war machine, but among the Decepticons, magic was a matter of folklore. He had never thought of himself as possessing any such ability. But - he was also Unicron's Herald, chosen of a dark god, and despite his rebellion and his creator's defeat, that truth lingered in his spark and his circuitry like a brand he could never erase. And in his instinctive rage he had channelled it in that moment, brought his fist down with the Unmaker's wrath burning on his plating like black flame...
He'd known he could do that. He'd known that the last true reserve of Unicron's power was buried deep in his systems and that if he chose, he could manifest it: as black charge that burned spark rather than steel, an exotic weapon better suited to a torture chamber than a battlefield. He just hadn't realised there were places where that dark gift would qualify as magic.
But if it did here, then he had something he could use, and that was all that mattered. He reached deep into his spark, tapping into that corrupted strength, and black arcs of voidfire static crackled between the tines of his crown and sparked from his fingertips. It hurt. It hurt like cold fire burning beneath his armour, like a black hole of hunger where his lasercore should be, but driven on by battle-rage and the lust for destruction he embraced the pain like a lover. Darkness?! Let me show you what real darkness feels like!
The next time he fired the cannon, a dozen Heartless burned away in smoke. He was distantly aware of a ragged cheer from the moogles, but he was already moving, lining up his next shot and taking it, obliterating a handful of Heartless that had been scurrying towards a house in the bailey where a young human woman was desperately firing a rifle out of a window. Something dark swooped at him from the air - winged ones now?! - and he swatted it left-handed, exulting in the sensation of its twisted half-life extinguished against unyielding steel. That was better!
And still there were more of them. The crack in the castle walls wasn't closing, the stream of enemies wasn't slowing, and while he wasn't going to tire any time in the next few days until his fuel reserves ran out, he could already see the organic defenders starting to lose ground. They were brave, and they didn't lack for skill, but they were few and they were mortal. They weren't enough, and he alone simply couldn't aim and fire fast enough to whittle away this sheer number of enemies. Damn it all to the void, he needed something better than this-!
Something - in his thoughts, in the world, in reality itself - twisted. Like the sensation of reaching into a pocket-fold to pull something out of it, the structure of the universe realigned.
There was a blinding flash of golden light, and a sound like a thousand iron bells being struck at once.
And then there was something in his hand that had not been there before.
A weapon. He stared at it for an astrosecond in shock. Huge, heavy, a great battleaxe with two deep notches cut in the steel-gleaming half-moon arc of its massive blade. A black haft ran down to a sculpted bronze guard whose stylised flames curled around his knuckles as though forged for his grip. And dangling from its hilt, on a length of jewellery-fine silver chain, was a tiny golden star that flashed bright as a captured sun.
It was no weapon he had ever seen or imagined. It was certainly no weapon any Transformer would have designed. But it was beautiful, and his spark soared with a bloodthirsty, covetous delight as he clenched his fist around its hilt.
Another of the aerial Heartless dived at him. With barely a thought, he backstepped and swung at it.
His new weapon sang in the air as it swept across in a perfect, weightless arc. The notched silver edge connected with the lunging Heartless. There was a burst of coloured sparks.
And two severed halves of a cloud of black smoke slid apart in the blade's wake.
The rest of the battle was a blur. The Heartless all seemed to notice him at once and suddenly it was as though he was the only target on the field. They converged on him like shrike-bats, and killing them became easy. The great axe spun in his hand as lightly as though he had been forged wielding it. The sky was black around him with dissipating smoke.
And then, all at once, he was out of targets. The air was clearing fast, and the abyssal rift in the castle's flank was gone. He caught himself to a stop, finally aware of the way his engines were racing and the whine of cooling fans on maximum, of the pounding of his spark and the voidfire still blazing around him like a halo. The seemingly spellwrought battleaxe was still in his hand, and felt as irrevocably part of him as the great cannon on his gauntlet. His fingers locked on its hilt. Mine!
Somewhat belatedly, he realised that every single moogle and human in the township was staring at him. "What?!"
"As I was saying," Mito said, his small voice carrying clearly in the awestruck silence. "Only magic can destroy the Heartless.
"Magic... or a Keyblade, kupo."
A ripple of murmuring wonder ran through the rest of the onlookers. Galvatron looked at Mito, and then at the mysterious weapon he had pulled out of void-knew-where. "A Keyblade?"
The voice had arrived in his processors, but Galvatron was certain it hadn't gone through his audials to get there. It was almost like hearing from the Dis, his flagship, when it chose to communicate with him - but the Dis' presence was an obsidian caress, a shadow resting against his neural nets, dark and familiar and above all subtle. This voice was loud, clear, and about as subtle as, well, him.
"Who said that?!"
~You're holding me.~
He nearly dropped the axe in shock before his grip tightened possessively on it again. "What?!"
~My name is Warmaker, and twenty generations of Keyblade Wielders have been too afraid of me to pick me up.~ The voice sounded gleeful. ~But you seem like my type.~
Chapter 8: Chapter 8 - Mysterious Tower
I am so sorry for the long delay between updates here. I've been under a lot of stress the last month or so, and it's taken me till now to surface and have enough brain to write this. Warning also, for anyone who's a stickler for canon lore: I'm playing a bit fast and loose with the KH cosmic architecture in this fic, and some of that shows up in this chapter. I haven't played the later games, and I decided in the end that since this is effectively an AU that happens instead of KH2, I wasn't obliged to include all the lore from every game and instead came up with a somewhat streamlined version that will work for the story I'm writing. That said, thank you to everyone who's been hanging on for this to update, I know you guys are there and I am grateful! ^_^
Under normal circumstances, Yen Sid made a point of impressing visitors to the Mysterious Tower with a few minor bits of arcane trickery and spectacle. The plain spiral staircase for his own use was replaced for outsiders by the misty-glowing, portal-riddled Wayward Stairs. Instead of the warm, cluttered comfort of the library where rather too much of his private self was revealed in his books and trinkets and towering stacks of tea mugs, guests got to face the Master Sorceror across the forbidding and mostly empty expanse of his desk in the upstairs "study". Simple tricks, but they helped him to maintain an air of authority and a degree of mystery; and, he had learned over the years, people actively, if subconsciously, preferred to feel somewhat out of their depth in a sorceror's presence. Many of his guests seemed more comfortable taking his advice when he displayed a confident and casual mastery of things they couldn't get their own heads around.
However, the pair of machine-warriors who had fallen out of the Dark Pathways practically at his feet were a different matter entirely. Most of the seekers of knowledge and junior Keyblade Wielders whom he found himself advising were wide-eyed and overwhelmed, not even looking for answers so much as needing someone to start by telling them the questions. These two, conversely, were sharp as paired blades and had clearly had all the mysteries they could take already. If he didn't give them straight answers with a minimum of set-dressing, Yen Sid suspected they wouldn't hesitate to start breaking things until they got what they wanted.
Not to mention that he needed explanations from them as badly as they did from him. It was unheard-of for a world to become unlocked, let alone for a couple of its lost souls to breach his wards and land on his doorstep, without his receiving any kind of prior warning. He had yet to even learn which world it was that had broken to toss these two into the Darkness. For once the Master Sorceror was himself behind the cusp of events, and he was going to need the cooperation of his guests - and his real work tools, not simply the showpieces he kept in the public study - to regain the advantage. With that in mind, he commanded the stairs to stay undisguised as he led the way into the Tower.
And was startled all over again when the dark-winged mech, Scourge, balked with a look of discomfiture on exactly the step where the Wayward Stairs portal would have been. "How does this place work?" he asked, uneasily. "What is that?"
Yen Sid frowned, pausing on the stairs to answer him. "There is a portal here that leads to an alternate route through the Tower - but I disabled it just now, for your convenience and mine. You can still see where it is?"
"I can see something," Scourge replied, his wings twitching warily behind his shoulders. "Is it safe?"
"We don't have time for your cowardice, Scourge!"
Cyclonus's voice was a growl, but his expression was taut and Yen Sid could tell that he was unsettled by his companion's reaction. He hastened to smooth things over. "Entirely safe. This is my home, and I do not deal in treachery," he assured them both, with a little nod of courtesy to Scourge. "But this is the second time you have seen more than I would have expected. You must have some magic of your own, my friend."
"Magic? Me?" If anything, Scourge looked even more alarmed at that. "Of course not. What kind of a suggestion is that?"
...not one it would be advisable to press now, apparently. "Merely a supposition, I could of course be wrong. Pardon me."
He led the way onward up the staircase, through a door that the Wayward Stairs bypassed entirely, and into the library. As soon as they could see the sky through the windows he noticed that both his guests seemed to relax a little, but perhaps that was only natural for beings who appeared to possess the power of flight. Being in a wholly enclosed space must be discomfiting for them. Yen Sid set down his broom and crossed to stand before the map, noting in passing the bright golden pulse of that new Keyblade Wielder's heart-glyph still shining in the midst of Radiant Garden. "Now," he said. "You were looking for your friend?"
"Our leader," Cyclonus corrected, with sharp emphasis. "Lord Galvatron is the Emperor of the Decepticons, and wherever he is, we should be at his side!"
Emperor. By the Light. No wonder the twilight-coloured mech was so quick with his demands, if he was used to serving as a ruler's right hand. "I see," Yen Sid replied as neutrally as he could. "Decepticons - is that the name of your people?"
There was just a beat of hesitation at that, a flicker of something that looked almost like doubt between the two of them. "The name of our faction," Cyclonus confirmed, nonetheless. "What does that matter? Can you find him or can't you?"
"I can," Yen Sid told him with a touch of asperity. "If he is alive in the multiverse, my spells can locate him. However, the more information you give me to work with, the more effective my magic will be. Now, both of you, please, look at the map, and hold his name and image in your minds. The extra focus will help me to search."
He turned to the map and reached out a hand to it, attuning the strands of its magic through his fingertips, focusing his mind with a couple of slow breaths. His awareness expanded, threading through the stone beneath him and the air around him, brushing the steel-bright edge of Cyclonus's thoughts at his back and the tangle of shadows that was Scourge. His perspective shifted, until instead of simply looking at a map on the wall it seemed as though he hung above the worlds like a hawk on the wind, staring down with eyes that saw all that was to be seen.
Find me the one named Galvatron, styled Emperor of the Decepticons...
The map's magic flickered against his thoughts, a hound casting for a scent. And then, with startling quickness, it caught and tugged and he was falling between the worlds, his body still safe in the library but his mind momentarily freed to skim the hidden pathways of the multiverse. Swift and safe in this form, a projection of his true self so ephemeral that the Darkness could never catch a grip on him, he plunged through twisting shadows and nebular light, riding the crest of a tidal surge of magic...
And found himself in Radiant Garden. Radiant Garden in the aftermath of a battle, its pavements and walkways and courtyards strewn with the glowing orbs of energy and scattered treasure-caskets that were the unmistakable detritus of a Heartless attack overwhelmingly beaten back. Fighters brushing themselves down and tending each other's wounds, scorch marks and blasted holes in the already battered fabric of the town walls... and in the middle of it all, surrounded by an awestruck throng of humans and moogles alike, a towering figure of iron and light decked out in royal purple and shining steel, with a gun the size of a warship's cannon worn casually on its gauntlet. A ferocious grin beneath crystalline crimson eyes; a martial helm that doubled all too clearly as a crown; and, just in case there had been any remaining doubt, in its mailed fist this avatar of destruction gripped the hilt of a massive black and bronze Keyblade.
Warmaker. Warmaker with a wielder finally a match for it. Yen Sid, for the first time in many decades of his long life, felt his heart catch in his throat. The Heartless weren't going to know what had hit them.
Unfortunately, he suspected neither was the multiverse in general. He pulled his awareness out of the spell, though not before noting the golden four-pointed star that now dangled as a keychain from one of the most infamous Keyblades in all of history. Returning to himself in the library, he blinked, shook his head, and turned to the two mechs watching him.
"He is alive," he said, cutting to the most salient point as quickly as he could. "And well, as far as I can see. You will find him here, in the world of Radiant Garden." He touched the golden star on the map. "But there is... something of a complication."
"What do you mean?" Scourge demanded, at the same time as Cyclonus burst out: "What kind of complication?"
The edge of fear in the dark mech's voice rather undercut the impact of Cyclonus's tone of threat. Yen Sid felt a pang of sympathy for them both. Perhaps they weren't so different from the nervous neophytes he was used to after all. "The creatures you faced on your world, the Heartless, cannot be defeated by common means. The only weapons that are truly effective against them are the Keyblades: sentient artefacts of great power, that will serve only wielders of their choosing." He smiled a little, despite everything. "It appears that one of them has decided it wishes to partner itself with your Emperor."
Cyclonus and Scourge looked at each other, and Yen Sid saw both of them visibly relax. A fierce edge of a smile curled Cyclonus's lips. "A sentient weapon?" he repeated. "Something with the power to destroy those creatures... in Galvatron's hands?" His crimson eye-lenses brightened in excitement. "But surely this is good news?"
"There's a catch," Scourge said, resignedly. "Isn't there?"
Yen Sid nodded. "After a fashion. To be chosen by a Keyblade does not simply grant power without responsibility. A Keyblade Wielder is called to stand in defence not only of their own world, but of the multiverse as a whole - and your Emperor may have accepted the power, but not realised what else he was accepting with it."
"Defence?" Scourge repeated doubtfully.
He and Cyclonus looked at each other again, and then the taller mech, with a visible effort of self-discipline, straightened his back, folded his arms across his chest, and turned to face Yen Sid. "Clearly this world is very different from ours," he said, and there was a note of conciliation in his tone now. "But it seems you know much that we need to understand. Would you - please - start from the beginning?"
Yen Sid inclined his head, but before he could reply, Scourge burst out, "How do you know he isn't just lying to us?"
Cyclonus sighed. "Scourge, if he wanted to trick us, he'd tell us something that sounded easier to believe than all this."
Yen Sid bit back a smile as Scourge subsided, looking chastened. "I have no motive to deceive you," he said, gently. "Least of all since your lord has been chosen by a Keyblade. He will need your help, just as the multiverse needs his, and I am happy to try to explain."
He gestured to the map. "It is not that this world is different from yours, so much as that your world was only a part of a larger whole of which you have not, until now, been aware. Each of the nodes you see here represents a self-contained dimension, and one of these dimensions is what I mean when I speak of a world. They are of many sizes - some are no more than a single planet or even a single city or island, while others span galaxies." His voice was low and level, a subtle thread of magic woven into it to try and hold their attention peacefully for as long as it would take him to explain. "In its natural state, the borders of a world are sealed, and it may continue indefinitely on its own terms without ever knowing that other worlds exist. But between the worlds, in the hidden places of the multiverse, is the Darkness, the essence of all hunger and all will to destruction, and the Darkness is ever seeking for weaknesses in the borders of the worlds.
"And since darkness exists also within the heart of almost every mortal being, sometimes the darkness within finds a way to call to the Darkness without, and then the world is, as we term it, unlocked. The borders give way, and the Heartless, the living incarnations of the Darkness, pour in and consume matter and spirit alike. And as the hearts of mortals are so devoured, the darkness within each is set free as a new Heartless, and so with every world that falls, the Darkness as a collective force becomes stronger." He bowed his head for a moment. "Such, I fear, was the fate of your world."
"The essence of all hunger," Scourge echoed, and Yen Sid saw a shudder run through his frame. "That sounds a lot like-"
"Don't say it," Cyclonus cut him off hastily. "Please, Master Yen Sid, continue. You say there are ways to fight the Darkness? These... Keyblades?"
Yen Sid nodded. "At the dawn of creation, it is said that all the worlds were one, and filled with light. The source of that light was Kingdom Hearts, the sum and essence of all that is pure in mortal hearts, and Kingdom Hearts itself was protected by the power of a single perfect weapon. However, long ago, the worlds were sundered from one another in a war beyond imagination. Kingdom Hearts was broken, and with it, the first, pure Keyblade was shattered. Its fragments exist still, taking the forms of thousands of lesser blades that are nonetheless still weapons of great power. Some have more of Light in their nature, others more of Darkness, but one thing they all have in common: they hold fast to the duty of the first Keyblade, to defend all worlds from the hunger of the Darkness. But of course, a weapon needs a hand to wield it, and so the Keyblades choose mortals to join them in doing battle against the Heartless and restoring the worlds left broken in their wake. Do you follow me thus far?"
Cyclonus nodded. "I understand what matters," he said. "One of these Keyblades has somehow fallen into Lord Galvatron's hands... and so you say it will expect him to take up its cause?"
"That is correct, as far as it goes," Yen Sid confirmed. "But he would not have been chosen in the first place, least of all by the blade I saw with him, if he did not have the temperament to do so. He may not know as much yet himself; but the Keyblades do not make mistakes."
"The temperament? What do you mean by that?"
"First of all, to resist the Darkness, a Keyblade Wielder must have a strong sense of self; to do battle with it and defeat it, they must be unwearying in combat and all but immune to any kind of temptation, for the Darkness will use any hidden desire or secret weakness against them. An iron will and great determination, and courage - these are the hallmarks of a potential wielder." He frowned questioningly at Cyclonus. "Would you say that your Lord Galvatron possesses those virtues?"
"An hour after he was sparked, he was arguing with the god who created him," Cyclonus said dryly. "Once, I witnessed him captured by his enemies, and they connected him to the core of a sentient planet that intended to consume his consciousness and leave him an empty shell." He shuddered visibly at the memory, his wings flicking taut with a muted ring of steel. "That world battled my lord mind to mind, will to will, and it melted down and burned. He endured, whole and unharmed. So - I would say, yes."
Yen Sid's bushy eyebrows rose with such force that his hat lifted two inches on his head. "Really? By the Light, yes. Such a heart would be an excellent candidate for a Keyblade." He paused. "How do you think he will take what I have just told you?"
When the two powerful war machines both looked away from his gaze and took what Yen Sid could only think of as a deep breath, his heart sank. "It will depend a great deal on how you present it to him," Cyclonus said at last. "Perhaps I should be the one to explain."
Scourge drooped slightly in what Yen Sid suspected was relief. "I vote for that idea," he said. "If anyone's counting."
"That badly, hmm?" Yen Sid prompted, as sympathetically as he could. If the multiverse was about to be faced with a loose cannon for a Keyblade Wielder, at least forewarned would hopefully be forearmed.
"If you tell him that this is an obligation, or a duty, he will refuse it," Cyclonus said bluntly. "Galvatron accepts no mandate but his own will. But if there are... benefits, opportunities, to being one of these Keyblade Wielders, those might persuade him to at least listen."
"What, exactly, is a Keyblade Wielder expected to do?" Scourge asked.
"First and foremost, they must travel the worlds and do battle with the Heartless," Yen Sid explained. "When a Heartless is destroyed, the hearts it has consumed are released to return to Kingdom Hearts, or to their original owner if their body has survived to be reclaimed. The task of the Keyblades and their wielders is to free as many hearts as they can. When a world has been cleared of Heartless, then they must find what we refer to as the keyhole, the spot at which the world's protective barriers were broken. In the hands of its chosen wielder, a Keyblade can repair the breach and lock the world once again, restoring it to wholeness so that the Heartless cannot return to it." He raised his eyebrows at Cyclonus. "This is, of course, much appreciated by the inhabitants of the restored worlds. A Keyblade Wielder can expect to find allies and aid wherever they go, but in exchange, they must be willing to accept a life of unending battle in which they will always be at the forefront.
"More so than most, in the case of your Galvatron. The Keyblade he holds is one that has not been active in centuries - it rarely finds a wielder it considers worthy. Its name is Warmaker, and it... has a reputation for bloodlust."
The two mechs looked at each other again. "Sounds like a perfect match," Scourge said wryly.
Cyclonus frowned, but Yen Sid could practically see the gears of his thoughts turning. "Perhaps so," he conceded. "But still... I would prefer to explain all this to him myself." He looked to Yen Sid. "You can take us to him?"
"I can," Yen Sid confirmed. "But it will take a little while for the Tower to move between the worlds to Radiant Garden."
He briefly wondered if there was any point, or indeed any appropriate equivalent, to offering them both tea. There probably wasn't. "While we are in transit, might I ask you a few questions?"
Excellent. Yen Sid settled himself behind his desk and reached for his quill and a fresh scroll of paper. "Now, about your own world..."
Hot Rod fell through nothingness until he hit reality, and reality gave way beneath him.
All Autobots, deep down, were afraid of falling. Some less than others, but it was an innate quirk in all their coding - natural, perhaps, in a race whose historic enemies could fly. Hot Rod had never noticed that fear much in himself, but as he fell through a darkness that seemed infinite, lit only by a fading flicker of blue-green light that trailed in his wake, it had risen until it filled his whole being. He was falling in lightless, soundless black and it wasn't ending, wasn't stopping, he wasn't stopping-
And then he was, as he crashed into something hard and bitterly cold that shattered like crystal under the impact of his weight. Pain roared through his frame and then he was plunging into something that felt like liquid nitrogen, a cold that numbed every sensor and filled his mouth as he gasped. He was sinking, choking, why was he choking, his intakes should have automatically closed and his transform seams sealed to protect his internals; and it was still dark, he couldn't see, and there was a hollow thunder in his audials that drowned out everything else. He flailed in desperation, his battered frame responding with incomprehensible sluggishness, and clung to a frantic grip on consciousness as it tried to escape him. How much worse, he thought distantly, dazedly, could his day get-
Muffled through the noise in his audials, he thought he heard a shout somewhere above him. A hand grasped his, small but strong, and hauled him upwards. He tried not to struggle and make things any harder for his rescuer - his frame was a dead weight, if he'd felt light the last time he came round then now he felt ten times too heavy for himself - and coughed and choked as he was hauled up from the freezing depths into equally cold air. He gasped in a breath to try and find out what the atmosphere was made of, briefly wondered why his analytics were offline, then realised everything except basic visual, audial and tactile feedback was offline. He had nothing in his optical display beyond a blurry awareness of a darkly monochrome world half-vanishing behind a screed of white static; and then he landed hard on solid ground, crushing a thick, yielding layer of something cold beneath him, and for a moment all he could do was lie limp and still. His systems were utterly overwhelmed, he couldn't even find his reset protocols...
"Are you alive?!"
The voice wasn't Cybertronian. It sounded human - male, young, high-pitched with concern. He coughed again and tried to reply. "Ah - hah - think so?"
His voice didn't sound Cybertronian either. He forced himself to blank his mind completely, just for a moment. Don't think. Don't jump to conclusions. Don't anything. He counted in his head. One. Two. Three.
It helped, just enough that he could absorb what his frame had been trying to tell him since he hit what he now realised, belatedly, had been nothing more than ice-covered water. He had somehow been reformatted for the second time in an hour, and this time was far more radical than the first.
He opened his eyes again and felt his - stomach, he presumed that was - flip over with a brief rush of vertigo as his sense of scale adjusted and his depth perception hiccoughed. He looked down at his hand.
His human, wet, almost blue-cold hand, that was lying bare in a bank of snow. The white spots in his visual field hadn't been static at all. "Wh. Where am I?"
"This is the Black Water," the same voice of a moment ago told him. "The stream that turns the mill of Schwarzkollm." Hands fell onto his shoulders, shaking him gently. "Can you sit? Can you stand? We need to be away from here, quickly!"
The names meant nothing to him - Schwarzkollm sounded German, so maybe this was Earth? He made a determined effort to sit up. Thankfully his body seemed to have looked after itself relatively well in the matter of not drowning, though there was a burning-raw sensation in his throat and he was battling an overwhelming urge to cough until he doubled over. And he was so cold that he wasn't even shivering, and from what he remembered of human metabolisms that was a very bad sign. "I can if I have to. Can you help me up? Please?"
"Here." The stranger rolled him onto his side and thrust an arm under his to haul him up, and Hot Rod got his first look at his rescuer.
The boy before him was probably a few years older than Daniel, maybe in his late teens, but the look of wide-eyed fear on his face and the tremor in his voice made him appear younger than his height and build suggested. His clothes were antiquated by the standards of the Earth Hot Rod knew, and looked well-worn and much-mended. "Quickly," the boy said, tugging urgently at Hot Rod as soon as he had managed to work out where his feet were. "We need to get inside. If the Master catches you-!"
Hot Rod stumbled with him, willing to go wherever he was led as long as it was going to be warm and dry. "The Master?"
"The Miller of Schwarzkollm. I'm one of his journeymen. He'll have his dogs out after you if he sees you, snow or no snow." They shuffled through the drifts, towards what slowly resolved itself as a great black hulk of a building looming over the thin, sickly trees that grew to either side of them. Only a couple of lights showed in the windows, and had it not been for the eerie snowlight all around them the night would have been as dark as the underdepths of Cybertron. No light pollution, Hot Rod realised, adding that alongside the young journeyman's strange clothing as a point of evidence. Had he fallen through time somehow, as well as space?
Alternatively, had Starscream just zapped him unconscious again, and this was all some kind of processor hallucination and he was going to wake up alone and in chains in Unicron's head any moment now?
He hoped not. Whatever bizarre circumstances he'd fallen into, at least here he was free and someone seemed to be willing and able to help him, and there was a world around him that wasn't being torn apart by shadow-creatures in front of his optics. "My name's-" he began, and faltered very briefly. What was his name here? "Hot Rod" probably wouldn't do, and "Rodimus" wasn't correct any more... "Roddy," he finished, remembering something he'd been called a time or two by human friends. "What's yours?"
"You shouldn't have told me that," the boy said grimly. "If I don't know your name I can't tell it to the Master... never mind, too late now. I'm Krabat, it can't do any harm for you to know that. Here, this way..."
"Pleased to meet you," Hot Rod - Roddy, he supposed he'd better get used to thinking of himself as that - said. "Really. Where are we going?"
"I'll hide you in the hayloft over the stable," Krabat said, steering him around the flank of the huge mill towards a crooked huddle of outbuildings. "It's dry in there and the horses below mean it's warm enough. I'll try to bring you blankets and dry clothes, and food when I can."
Clothes were a very belated thought and Roddy had to look down at himself. He hadn't actually considered what, if anything, he was wearing, and naked was awkward for humans. He was relieved to find that whatever magic had brought him here had also seen fit to dress him in rough but sturdy trousers and a long shirt not dissimilar to Krabat's, with boots and a belt to finish the ensemble. "Thank you."
"Well, I could hardly leave you to drown," Krabat replied, with a quick smile. "Come on, we're almost there." He led the way up a steep, snow-caked, slippery flight of wooden stairs along the side of what Roddy assumed was the stables, and through a door at the top. The door creaked and swung to behind them, sealing them in warm, dry, thick-smelling darkness.
Roddy gasped in relief at being out of the snow, and then his knees went out from under him. He thudded to the floor - rough wooden floorboards strewn with coarse dry strands of what he assumed was hay, human senses were so imprecise and yet so shockingly immediate - and started coughing fit to wake Primus himself. "Sorry," he managed, panting between bouts of horrifying hacking noises. "Give me a minute..."
He thought he heard Krabat murmur something, and then there was light: a small metal lantern with translucent panes, casting a comforting golden-yellow glow. Blinking, he tried to take in his surroundings. They were in a long, low room that he realised was more of a mezzanine floor under a sloping roof, with a rail running along one side of it. The sounds of shuffling and snorting breaths rose from below. The space they stood in was walled by stacked bales of hay, looming, bristly shadows in the lanternlight, and more loose hay was scattered across the floor. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was dry and sheltered and not so bitterly cold as the night outside, and as Roddy's lungs and throat finally got used to themselves and he stopped coughing, he could only be grateful.
"Strip off," Krabat said urgently, coming to his side with what looked like an old sack in his hands. "You need to get dry and rub yourself down with this, you'll freeze to death in those clothes. I'll bring something else for you."
Apparently he'd fallen into a culture where being naked wasn't that awkward. He obeyed without arguing, grateful to drag the sodden, freezing weight of his clothes off his flinching skin. The sack felt horrible but as he scrubbed at himself with it, he realised what Krabat had meant. It did an indifferent job of absorbing water, but the rough friction helped some semblance of life and sensation back to his limbs. By the time he'd done the best he could and put the impromptu towel down, Krabat had vanished, and he'd taken Roddy's clothes with him.
Well, apparently he wasn't going anywhere now. He didn't like the idea of sitting down with a bare human aft on a bale of hay, so he stayed standing, pacing the floor, trying to clear his head.
A sparkle of bright blue-green fire caught his gaze, among the hay on the stretch of floor where he had stood to take off his clothes. He bent to investigate and somehow he wasn't entirely surprised to find the crystalline star that he'd touched in Starscream's laboratory. It was comparatively bigger now, of course, large enough that it filled his palm when he lifted it and comfortingly warm to his touch. Whatever had happened the first time he'd grabbed for it didn't happen again, at least.
He stood holding it, alone in a stranger's hayloft, in the wrong body and with no idea of what world he was on, and somehow still felt as though this was much better than where he'd fallen from. He didn't know what was going on, but he was sure he could find out. He was, at least, free, and Starscream was probably still trying to figure out where in the galaxy he'd gone. He'd had weirder things happen to him - he was sure he had, he'd remember them in a moment - and he could work with this.
There would be a way home. There had to be. He was going to get back to Cybertron, find out what had happened, and fix it. His friends were depending on him, wherever they were, and at least without the Matrix he was free to do things his own way without having to argue with a lot of recalcitrant voices in his head (or outside his head, sorry Ultra Magnus and Kup). He'd got this. He'd totally got this-
The door of the hayloft opened again and Krabat ducked in out of the snow, a bundle in the crook of his arm. He looked relieved to see Roddy still there. "I brought you bread, and cheese," he said. "Water you can get from the pump at the trough downstairs. There's a smock and trousers here, and a couple of blankets." He handed the bundle off to Roddy, who took it gratefully. "And if you have to piss, just piss in the straw in one of the empty stalls down below. Nobody will notice that." He flashed a quick, tight grin.
He hadn't thought about that, but he stifled a laugh at Krabat's suggestion. He'd been human, or something close to it, once before - he should have remembered how absurdly short and inefficient human reprocessing cycles were. "Thanks," he said, rummaging through the bundle and pulling on the shirt. "Do you have time to talk? I'm a little lost here."
"I can for now," Krabat said. He sat down on a haybale and patted it, inviting Roddy to join him. "The Master thinks I'm in my bed, he won't miss me as long as nobody else wakes up."
He tilted his head, looking at Roddy curiously. "How did you come here?" he asked, frankly. "I swear I thought you fell out of the sky and the next thing I knew you were in the Black Water and fain to drown. What happened?"
"Um." It wasn't that he wanted to be evasive, he just literally didn't know where to start explaining. I'm actually an alien was probably going to be so far off Krabat's cultural map that it might as well be in the next solar system, which was kind of the problem to start with. "I..."
The boy gave him a sharp look from dark eyes. "Are you one of the Brotherhood?" he asked, lowering his voice. "A sorceror? Is that it?"
Sorceror. Well, that gave him a framework for an answer of sorts. He knew enough to make a stab at that. "I'm not a sorceror," he said, carefully. "But I was captured by one, or someone like one. I was trying to get away from him and I... I don't know how to describe it, I fell, and then I was where you found me." He managed a grin. "I should probably be glad I hit the water and not the ground."
Krabat nodded solemnly, as though there was nothing odd about his words at all. "The one who caught you," he said. "Was he dressed in dark clothes, missing his left eye?"
"No." Roddy frowned. "Why?"
"Good, then I'm not meddling in the Master's affairs by helping you," Krabat replied, with a look of relief. "I was afraid for a moment - never mind. Listen, this place isn't safe, even if it seems it now. You need to leave as quickly as can be. But for now, stay up here and hide behind the bales. If I come in, I'll whistle, so-" he demonstrated "-and you can come out. If you hear anyone else come in, stay hidden. Understand?"
"Got it, but what's the big threat? This place is just a mill, right? Why isn't it safe?"
"You really aren't from these parts," Krabat said, with a shake of his head. He lowered his voice. "The Mill of Schwarzkollm is a Black School, and the Master is our teacher here. As well as a journeyman miller, I'm a sorceror's apprentice." He cast a glance towards the door as though he was afraid to find someone there listening to them. "I shouldn't tell you more. But if you see a black animal or a bird that's missing its left eye, or if you see a raven, hide from them. And be gone from here as soon as you can. It's Twelfth Night in three days and it's the new moon tomorrow night, and if you're here for either of those..." He trailed off. "You could be in great danger."
Roddy blinked as he absorbed that. It all sounded like superstition, but Krabat obviously believed it enough to be visibly tense with fear, and given that he'd just watched his planet eaten by monsters and been briefly captured by an undead Decepticon, he was open to believing anything. "Trouble is, I don't have anywhere to go," he said. "I don't know how I got here so I don't know how to get home. Is there anywhere you can think of I should go, anyone who might be able to help me figure it out?"
"Where are you from, then? You speak good enough Wendish."
Wendish? He drew a blank, but spared a moment to be grateful that apparently his universal translation software had somehow survived his organic reformatting. "I, uh... probably nowhere you've heard of," he said. "Can you give me an idea of where's close by here? What's the nearest cities, towns, anything?"
Krabat's eyes widened. "I'd say you were jesting with me," he said, "but if this was a jest I think you'd have found a better punchline for it than a dip in the Black Water in midwinter." He gave Roddy a wry smile and Roddy returned it, glad of the small sense of warmth between the two of them. He didn't want to make an enemy of this boy, and not only because Krabat was the closest thing to backup he had to hand. "This is the Electorate of Saxony, in the year of 1704 - please tell me you knew that much at least."
"Course I did," Roddy lied, grinning. "Go on?"
His knowledge of European history left a lot to be desired, but from Krabat's talk he pieced together over the next few minutes that he was definitely somewhere in Earth's past, or a very close facsimile of it - he was fairly sure the Earth he knew hadn't had sorcerors and Black Schools. Then again, maybe it had and he just hadn't had the right datafiles. He couldn't narrow down his exact location, but he was somewhere in what would have been Germany in the time he knew... and was now a pre-industrial culture of hereditary aristocrats, merchants, peasants, and craftsmen for which he had no immediate frame of reference at all. The closest he'd ever been to a pre-industrial culture was that one time he'd accidentally startled the daylights out of an Amish buggy-driver on a Pennsylvania back road. His hopes of getting back to Cybertron any time soon were beginning to fade.
Three hundred miles to the nearest spaceport, he could have handled. Three hundred years to it was more of a problem. "And wherever I go," he said, as Krabat trailed off, having seemingly exhausted the limits of his geography, "I've got to get there through all this snow. Great."
"Better go through any amount of snow than let yourself be caught at this place," Krabat replied, his voice low. "But listen here, get some sleep. Tomorrow I'll steal you some better winter boots and a coat, and do what I can to set you in the right direction. All right?"
"Sure." Roddy nodded. "Thank you." He meant it. There was no reason Krabat had had to be so kind to him, especially not when it seemed he was putting himself in danger to do it.
Krabat simply reached over and clasped his hand. "Good night," he said, and with that, he slipped to the door and was gone, taking the lantern with him. A gust of snow and freezing air blew in briefly in his wake, and then the door closed with a slam and Roddy was alone in the dark.
He stayed sitting down for a moment, not wanting to trip over his own feet in the blackness. After he was sure he remembered what was where, he got up, took his blankets around the back of the closest stack of haybales, and fumbled until he could climb up onto a lower stack that would insulate him from the floor. He burrowed into the hay, wrapped himself in the blankets, and tried to quiet his racing thoughts. If he could think about this rationally, there had to be something he could do.
And indeed, there probably was, but he didn't manage to stay awake for long enough to think of it.
Who's got two thumbs and doesn't have to stick to Disney crossovers if she doesn't want to, because this is fanfic? Correct. The story-world "Roddy" has fallen into here, for those unfamiliar with it, is the Sorbian legend of Krabat, the beggar boy who becomes apprenticed to a miller who is also a sorceror. I'm drawing primarily on Otfried Preußler's novelisation "Krabat and the Sorceror's Mill", but also on the ASP concept album "Zaubererbruder" which retells a slightly different version of the story. Both are highly recommended!
Chapter 10: Chapter 10 - Mysterious Tower - Radiant Garden
If anyone had been watching, it would have been a strange thing to see an entire small island - complete with landscaped lawns, stands of shapely dark conifers, and a crooked and eccentric tower-house rising from amid them - unmoored from its roots and descending through the skies towards a larger, jagged platform of broken blue-grey rock that floated with equally incomprehensible ease in the midst of a void of dim light. Thankfully, the only person who might have been able to see through the shielding spells that hid the Mysterious Tower from sight as it traversed the Sea of Other Skies was in no position to do so, since he was on board the island already. Scourge stood at the window of Yen Sid's library with Cyclonus at his side, watching the world that Yen Sid had named Radiant Garden as it slowly closed into view.
They had answered Yen Sid's questions to the best of their abilities and the limits of their collective paranoia, giving him an outline description of the world they came from: Charr, Cybertron, Earth, the age-old Cybertronian War and the newer version that had succeeded it following the fall of Unicron. Scourge wasn't sure if they'd said less or more than they should. On the one wing, the sorceror had a knack for listening in a quietly interested fashion that made it dangerously easy to keep talking. On the other, Scourge still felt there was a great deal that the two of them had left out.
He stared down at the distant shape of Radiant Garden. It looked absurdly small, an uneven slab of rock no bigger than an asteroid. A single settlement perched atop it with a kind of incongruous mundanity. Yen Sid had explained that Radiant Garden was a recovering world: one that had been shattered by an earlier incursion of the Heartless, and was slowly healing and regrowing itself from the tiny fragment that was left. The physics, let alone metaphysics, of this new reality were enough to make Scourge's processors ache.
At least, if Yen Sid was telling the truth, in a very short time they would be reunited with Galvatron; and after that he could safely leave the job of figuring out what in the void was going on to someone whose logic circuits were eccentric enough that they might actually be up to the challenge. He zoomed in his visual scanners to try and get a better view of the little township sitting amid the barren rocks. It should have been easy to pick out every detail at this range, but his perceptions were being partially baffled by whatever shielding Yen Sid had placed on the Tower - Scourge still wasn't entirely comfortable thinking of it as magic. Some kind of alien exotech that he didn't understand would have been far easier to cope with, so he was privately explaining it to himself in those terms for now.
"Is he there?" Cyclonus demanded, in a taut undertone.
No need to name names - the anxious yearning in his wingmate's fields scratched on Scourge's perceptions like windblown grit against his plating. While for him being separated from Galvatron was a good enough reason to be uneasy, for Cyclonus it verged on physical pain. "When I can tell, you'll be the first to know," Scourge promised him equally quietly. "This place is messing with even my sensors. Wait..."
Through the mists of visual static that were the side effects of Yen Sid's shields, he managed to latch onto a single bright flare of light. Abruptly, like an optical illusion correcting itself in post-rendering, everything made sense. Just inside the walls of the township - the scale had been throwing him off, the place was built for humans, of course! - he could see a tall, bright figure, all purple and silver and gold, haloed in a solar blaze of EM radiation. Scores of much smaller, less distinct figures surrounded it; the landscape itself looked smudged, stained with a fading darkness like smoke that baffled his more advanced sensory arrays, leaving that one figure as the sole undimmed source of light-
"-he's there." Relief crashed through him. He reached out unobtrusively to grip Cyclonus's arm, his claws scraping comfortingly on his friend's plating. "As far as I can see, he's fine."
"Of course he is." The answering pulse of relief through Cyclonus's fields rather undermined the assurance in his tone, but Scourge chose not to comment. "Come on! Master Yen Sid? Excuse us."
"Hm?" Yen Sid turned in surprise as Cyclonus dragged Scourge towards the library door. "Where are you - oh." Well, the shielding spells wouldn't stop the passage of a physical object from inside the Mysterious Tower's protective bubble. And he supposed both of them could fly, so they ought to be fine.
He'd just have to catch them up.
It hadn't been polite and it probably hadn't been politic either, but Cyclonus couldn't have stood in that peaceful, cramped, stuffy room and watched Radiant Garden drift closer at the Tower's sedate cruising speed for another astrosecond. For someone whose aerial comfort zone was Mach 2, Yen Sid's travelling style felt like a funeral march - and he wasn't going to a funeral, thanks be to whatever cosmic power it was that had once again recognised his lord's right to invincibility. He flung himself off the edge of the island at a run, transformed as his feet left the ground, banked hard, and dived.
The strange hazy-golden medium that filled what should have been void space was thick enough to support his atmospheric engine mode, and the roar of his own thrusters and Scourge's lighter engines just behind him was cathartically familiar. He was barely aware of the ripple of exotic energies through his frame as they crossed the boundary of Yen Sid's shields, his whole awareness focused with an aching, desperate hope on the distant figure that he too could see now where it stood bright in the midst of the smoke-stained miniature world below. Galvatron-!
And that blended twin-note of engines was so familiar, so very much expected, that down in Radiant Garden it took Galvatron longer than it should have done to realise that he shouldn't have been hearing it here. It was left to Mito, now fluttering by Galvatron's shoulder as though he couldn't contain his excitement enough to stay on the ground, to point at the sky with a startled "Kupo!"
Everyone, humans, moogles and Unicronian alike, looked up.
The spectacle that greeted them was a dramatic one. Out of Radiant Garden's sunset-bright sky a pair of exotic flying machines dived like thunderbolts, alien fire streaming from their thrusters, the noise of their engines echoing deafeningly from the crystalline planes of the landscape and rolling against the bastion walls. Several weapons were reflexively pointed in the direction of the new arrivals, but the defenders hesitated. Despite their martial appearance, the incoming flyers didn't appear to be actively attacking.
"Hold your fire!" Galvatron roared, the instinct to command taking over before he remembered that he technically didn't have any authority here - although since everyone obeyed anyway, possibly that was a moot point. The Keyblade in his hand seemed to confer quite enough status with the Radiant Garden natives to see his orders followed regardless of any formal sanction. "Cyclonus! Scourge!"
When the two strange craft seemed to disintegrate in mid-air, with a ratcheting, clicking sound that pierced through all organic ears present, there were gasps and cries of alarm. When they reformed into a pair of machine-warriors whose kinship with Galvatron was unmistakable, shouts and cheers rang out in their place. "Kupo!" Mito exclaimed. "Friends of yours, Galvatron-kupo?"
"My lieutenants!" Galvatron watched approvingly as Cyclonus and Scourge touched down inside the walls of Radiant Garden, conspicuously landing as close to him as they could. However, when Cyclonus took a too-quick pace in his direction, he snapped out, "Cyclonus! Watch your step!"
Cyclonus froze. "Mighty Galvatron-?"
"Be careful of our new allies!" He gestured downwards, where several moogles had just dodged out of the way in some alarm. "I can see I'll have to bring you up to speed! Where have you been, anyway?!"
His lieutenants looked at each other. "We-" Cyclonus began.
"Look!" a high-pitched human voice interrupted. "It's the Tower! It's Master Yen Sid!"
All eyes turned once again to the skies. Galvatron stared. What appeared to be an asteroid with an organic garden growing atop it, crowned with a crooked tower that was nearly as architecturally dubious as Radiant Garden's castle, was hanging inexplicably in mid-air, descending with majestic slowness until it came to a halt some way above the walls. For a moment there was no further sign of activity, and then a broad ribbon of golden light unrolled from its nearer edge, unfurling gracefully down the skies. The light touched the edge of the bastion wall near Galvatron's vantage point, and, shimmering, reformed itself into what appeared to be a solid staircase of alabaster stone, decorated with shining golden stars and crescent moons.
~Well,~ said Warmaker's voice in his head, ~I see he's not got any less pompous for keeping.~
//Shut up!// He wasn't sure that radio was the most effective way to talk to the Keyblade, but it was better than talking out loud to a voice that he'd already realised nobody else could hear. He had enough concerns without anyone questioning his sanity. //Unless you know what's going on, in which case, explain!//
~It's a long story, but - uh-oh, here he comes.~
//Here who comes?!//
A figure had appeared at the edge of the sky-island asteroid. Tall and dignified, the newcomer was clad in a long robe of deep royal blue and a pointed hat that reminded Galvatron of Moggin's, adorned with stars and moons matching those on the staircase. The air of majesty he projected was somehow barely compromised by the fact that in his hand he was carrying what appeared to be some sort of sweeping brush.
Warmaker groaned. ~Him!~
//I can see him, but who is he?!//
~Give him a minute and I'm sure he'll tell you!~
//You're not helping!// Galvatron tuned the voice in his head out - as best he could, since it appeared that not exactly using radio also meant not having a mute option - and tried to turn his attention back to his lieutenants, momentarily dismissing the newcomer on the staircase. Wounded, both of them, with gouges in their armour and oil seeping from their joints, though seemingly neither was debilitated enough to feel it; Scourge gazing at him in fear and relief, Cyclonus with his spark in his optics as usual and looking ready to fall at Galvatron's feet should permission be granted him to do it. Mine, alive, safe! - he hadn't realised, until he saw them, how much he had been forcibly killfiling the thought that he might never see them again.
Relief was an emotion he wasn't much attached to. It felt suspiciously like a weakness; but nonetheless, it was pleasing to have the universe restored to its proper order in this much at least. He was about to demand that Cyclonus finish the report he'd been about to make before being interrupted, but before the words could leave his vocaliser, there came another interruption in the form of a piercing honking sound from somewhere down in the bailey. Galvatron startled and snarled, his cannon's barely-cooled capacitor banks whining with renewed power as his combat protocols surged to the fore. Horn noises meant Autobots, and he was in no mood for dealing with them on top of everything else-!
And then his targeting software located the source of the sound as it echoed forth again, and for a blinding crimson moment every other emotion in his processors was swallowed up by exasperated rage. Not an Autobot, not at all. A human, barely more than a larva and not much taller than the moogles, was blowing with red-faced enthusiasm down a length of coiled brass pipe with a flared end, creating a noise that for volume could indeed have rivalled an Autobot air horn but was even more painful to the audials. Beside it, a second slightly larger human-spawn was waving an improvised banner in the form of a scrap of cloth on a stick, and shouting at the top of its small voice. "All hail the Keyblade Wielder! All hail Master Yen Sid-"
"SHUT UP ALL OF YOU! I can't hear myself THINK!"
At a full battle-pitched roar, Galvatron's voice drowned out everyone. Blessed silence echoed in the wake of his outburst as humans, moogles, and his lieutenants all turned alike to stare at him, and with an effort he reined in his fury. His plating rattled on his chassis as his engines spun down, the ragged chime of metal and the rasp of overworked cooling systems briefly the only sound in the whole of Radiant Garden. "Thank you! Now. Cyclonus! Your report, and be quick about it!"
"Mighty Galvatron." Cyclonus dipped his head in a swift, precise military bow. "Charr, Cybertron, and the entirety of our home universe have apparently been destroyed. Scourge and I were thrown by unknown means into this universe and have made a new ally, Master Sorceror Yen Sid." He turned to gesture towards the tall human who was still - wisely - maintaining a safe observer's position at the top of his manifested staircase. "He possesses in-depth knowledge of this universe, including of what he calls the Keyblades."
Cyclonus's gaze strayed to the shining battleaxe in Galvatron's hand. "I would... counsel that you speak with him in private, my lord. It appears there is far more to this place than meets the eye."
Destroyed. He'd already heard it from Mito and Leoh, but it was another matter entirely to hear it from his most trusted lieutenant. Black anger flared through his spark - how dare the Heartless, that was his universe to rule or to destroy! - but at least having had some warning made it easier to accept Cyclonus's words as simply a confirmation, rather than a brand-new shock to his processors. "Only the two of you are here? Where are the Sweeps? The Dis?"
"We don't know, mighty one," Cyclonus said with a wince, bowing his head. "The Sweeps were scattered in the fighting and the Dis was still firing from orbit when Charr broke up beneath our feet. I'm not wholly sure how even Scourge and I landed in the same place."
Scourge's aura flickered and twined more tightly with Cyclonus's at that, and the tracker's wings twitched unhappily. Galvatron instinctively reached out to both of them with his own fields, brushing golden heat laced with the lingering static of battle-fury against their sensornets. Courage, I'm here!
It did some good at least, as Scourge shivered and straightened up, visibly pulling himself together, and Cyclonus raised his head proudly with a suggestion of fire returning to his optics. "We know no more as yet," the warrior finished. "What are your orders, mighty Galvatron? Do we take this world?"
Galvatron's spark warmed with pride. Despite everything, Cyclonus's casual certainty that the three of them together were enough to conquer anywhere they happened to find themselves was gratifying. "No need, Cyclonus! I've been making allies of my own here."
He looked around for the nearest moogles, and found Mito wide-eyed but still holding formation at his shoulder, and Leoh and Amaro together on the wall by his side. "They may not look it to our optics, but these moogles are a race of proud warriors! A species after my own spark - and their technology is impressive, too. Before you arrived they were assisting me with repairs and fuel, so I think it's safe to say they're on our side!"
"We most certainly are, kupo!" Moggin called out. The moogle energy-caster fluttered up from a rooftop in the bailey, joining Mito in the air beside Galvatron and turning to face Cyclonus and Scourge. "Your leader is the greatest warrior I've ever seen, and he carries a Keyblade! It would be our honour to help all of you in any way we can - kupo?" she added, looking quickly at Leoh.
"Kupo," Leoh confirmed, echoed by several other nearby moogles. "Our workshop is at your service and that of your companions, Galvatron-kupo." She bowed low to Galvatron, paws neatly folded.
Cyclonus and Scourge stared. "Thank you," Cyclonus managed, looking from moogle to moogle with a bewildered expression.
"You're welcome, kupo!"
Well, at least that was settled. Galvatron looked up, finally, at the figure standing atop the stairs. "Well?" he called. "Come down, if you want to be part of this conversation!"
~Oooh, you're going to regret making that offer-~
//Did I say you could start talking again?!//
The proclaimed Master Sorceror descended the stairs from his asteroid with dignified grace, his back straight and his head high. An eerie fire flickered in his eyes as he regarded the rapt crowd of onlookers below. When he was level with Galvatron's line of sight, he came to a stop, laid his free hand over his heart, and inclined his head in a very formal, very courteous bow.
"Emperor Galvatron, I presume?"
Chapter 11: Chapter 11 - Sorceror's Mill
Apologies for the long delay in updating! RL happened to me pretty hard in the last couple of months. Thank you to any and everyone still reading this, for your patience and loyalty! <3
Pale grey light slanted through the cracks in the stable loft's walls. With it came thin threads of an icy winter wind, stirring up chaff and dust to dance in the narrow beams of light. The occasional groan of creaking wood and the shuffling and snorts of breath from the horses below didn't break the quiet so much as define the edges of it, a sketch of sound overlaid upon a vast white silence-
Roddy blinked in confusion. Apparently, that was how this frame cleared its air intakes. Pinching his nose seemed to stop it from happening again and, having resolved that minor issue, he lay on his back in his nest of hay and looked up at the dust swirling in the slanting light. Aside from the tickle in his nose and the scraping sensation in his throat that seemed to go with it, he was surprisingly comfortable. The hay beneath him had become warm while he was asleep, and he was pleased to realise that nothing in his new organic body hurt much despite what he had put it through the night before.
Given the last time he'd woken up, finding himself alone and unrestrained, even in an alien place, couldn't feel like anything other than a significant upgrade. A weight seemed to sink into his midsection as the memories of that came back, but he could breathe past it as he remembered that, despite everything, he was still ahead of Starscream's game. The Seeker hadn't somehow found him here while he was sleeping; he hadn't even been plagued by nightmares of shadow-shapes and orange-opticked horrors. He'd half expected bad dreams all night, but instead all he could remember were flashes of airy corridors of stone, sweeping staircases and bright towers against a sunlit sky. There had been voices talking, laughing, a conversation he couldn't remember...
Despite their incoherence the memories felt comforting, and they left a lingering warmth in their wake. He considered moving, then decided not quite yet. Everything had happened so fast in the last handful of days, and he suspected it was all going to start happening again before long. If he had a few minutes of peace to think, he had probably better take them.
Trying to think, at least about anything complicated, felt surprisingly confusing in his new body. There were no file trees, no process-kill options that would allow him to disable irrelevant lines of thought. Everything was scrambled together in his mind, and he suddenly empathised with all the times he'd watched Daniel or Spike or Carly sitting with a pen and paper or a laptop, making notes. No wonder humans wrote things down. Clearly it was the easiest way for them to make their internal data stay in the right places... although by any standards, the last two days had given him a lot to process. He tried to construct a narrative that made sense of it all.
Cybertron is... That was a bad thought to begin with. He interrupted himself and reframed it as Cybertron was attacked and we've lost it for now. That was a situation the Autobots had been in before, and they'd recovered from it last time. It let him keep hoping that this mess could be fixed.
Starscream is back. Not alive, not dead, not exactly a ghost, but he's back and he has a plan. That was bad, but again, not unprecedented. He'd dealt with a vengeful revenant Starscream before, even if he hadn't enjoyed it.
Starscream has some kind of control over those shadow creatures, but says he wasn't behind the attack on Cybertron.
...but he could be lying?
Either way, Starscream is still a scheming opportunist tailpipe, continue to treat him as such.
Insulting Starscream, even if only in the privacy of his own thoughts, was such a familiar sensation that it almost made him smile. Whatever else changed, at least knowing who the villain was gave him a frame of reference. Although speaking of villains-
Galvatron's alive. Starscream's torqued off about that and wants Galvatron dead, but apparently can't find him to kill him. So where is Galvatron now?
That was definitely an important question. The "loose cannon" jokes had gotten old long ago, but that didn't change the fact that Galvatron was far too dangerous, and far too proactive about conquering the universe, to safely be left unaccounted-for. And if Starscream had "kill Galvatron" at the top of his to-do list, Galvatron almost certainly still had "kill Starscream again" on his. Maybe tossing them at each other somehow would be a good way to keep both of them distracted while Roddy tried to... do something. Whatever he could do that might help.
He added "find Galvatron and point him at Starscream" to his list of possible strategies. So far it wasn't a very long list, but anything was better than nothing. However, to do that, he needed to get away from here, and also get his real body back. There was no way he could face off with Galvatron in a human body. He'd get stepped on... and it was at that thought that despair finally crept over him. No amount of strategising was going to get him anywhere if he couldn't leave this strange, lonely place, if he couldn't get his frame back, if.
He stared up at the worn wooden boards of the roof above him, watching the dust motes playing in the pale light, listening to the quiet. This place was so peaceful, he thought. So still. Maybe he was even more tired than he'd thought he was. Maybe instead of racking his processors like this, he should give up and get some more rest and try again later...
The silence was broken by a quiet crunching sound outside, followed by the sharp click of the hayloft door's latch. Roddy froze, and then a familiar whistle reached his ears. Krabat!
He sat up on the hay, shuffling around to get his feet to the floor as the young journeyman appeared around the stacked bales. "Roddy," Krabat greeted him, looking as relieved as Roddy felt. "Are you well?"
"Uh, fine, I think. How are you?"
A flicker of tension passed across Krabat's face. "Well enough," was all he said. He moved to Roddy's side, dropping the bundle that had been slung over his shoulder. "Here. I've found you some better boots for this weather, and a winter coat and cap. There's food here for a couple of days. You need to leave, now."
He did. He knew he did. But Krabat's look and the urgency in his tone tugged at Roddy's spark. "Thanks," he said. "Seriously. But - is something wrong? Are you in trouble? I can't just run away if you could use my help."
Krabat smiled, but it was a smile with shadows and sharp edges and it was too old for the face that wore it. "Nothing I didn't get myself into," he said. "And nothing you can change."
He sat down on the haybale beside Roddy. "Tonight is the night of the new moon, and you want no part of what will happen here then. If you want to do me a kindness, the best thing you can do is go before the Master catches you and keep both of us out of trouble."
"If you're sure," Roddy said doubtfully. He didn't like the sound of that, but if his brief career as Prime had taught him anything it was that some situations were far more complicated than someone who had newly come into them could hope to understand. "But - take care, okay?" He wanted to say call me if you ever need anything, but it wasn't as though this place had the technology for that.
Krabat's smile softened into something more real at that, making him look his age again. "Thank you," he said. "I will, believe me. Now, put these on."
A few minutes later, Roddy - now much more warmly dressed, albeit smelling faintly like a wet sheep from the winter-damp woollens Krabat had given him - crept out of the hayloft door and picked his way down the snowy steps at Krabat's heels. The wind had dropped, leaving an eerie white silence in its wake. Snowflakes drifted down between the dark trees, sifting the thick covering already on the ground slowly but relentlessly deeper. It was beautiful in a way that made Roddy wish very much that he didn't have to go out into it.
"This path leads to Schwarzkollm village," Krabat whispered, lowering his voice as though in deference to the silence around them as he pointed the way. "Turn to your right when you strike the main road, and even in this weather you should make it to Hoyerswerda before nightfall. There's the castle there, and churches, and scholars and men of letters. Someone there will likely be able to help you more than I can."
He pressed a small leather purse into Roddy's hand. "There's enough silver in here to get you a room and food for a few nights at least. Don't worry about owing me, I got it from one who could spare it." He flashed a very quick grin. "Be careful."
"I will," Roddy murmured. "Thank you."
At first he thought he was going to freeze, the air stinging in his lungs with every breath. After what he estimated was a mere quarter mile or so in the clogging snow, he was sweating in his heavy woollens and revising his expectations. As long as he kept moving, the cold wasn't going to get to him any time soon.
It might even have been a nice walk, if he hadn't had so much to worry about as he went. The snow crunched and squeaked under his boots, the only sound to break the almost holy silence around him. The trees bowed down under their burdens of snow and dangling icicles, heavy and still, and thickets of dark brambles formed latticework mounds amid the endless white. He saw nobody and no sign of civilisation for a mile or more until, with unexpected suddenness, he found himself emerging from the forest and onto a much wider road.
To his left, he could make out the beginnings of a settlement: low houses with roofs piled deep in white, huddled and anonymous beneath the snow. To his right, the road ran past the flank of the forest and vanished into indistinctness as though reality's rendering distance had been set too low. Straining his ears, he heard a horse neigh somewhere towards the village, followed by a raised human voice too muffled to make out. A crow swooped overhead with a harsh caw, a fluttering rag of black against the white and grey, and vanished into the trees.
Life still existed, and that at least was reassuring. He turned right, and set off up the road.
It wasn't so bad at all for a while. Walking was still keeping him warm, and the pack Krabat had given him contained more bread and cheese and a tin bottle of water, for which he was quickly grateful. He tramped through the rutted and compacted snow along the main road, alone except when he was passed once or twice by riders muffled in thick cloaks who barely gave him a glance. It might not compare to speeding to his destination on four wheels, but then again, in these conditions his altmode would probably have embarrassed him. His Lamborghini-inspired car frame wasn't designed for deep snow and ruts carved by iron-shod carts.
He wondered where he should go when he got to the town. He'd have to rely on his charm and wits to find someone who'd talk to him, let alone believe him, but that was all right - he felt more comfortable doing that now, as Hot Rod albeit in a new body, than he would have done as Rodimus Prime. Hot Rod had always been good at making friends, it was part of what he was for. Built on Earth as part of the Autobots' official Millennium Project, he had been meant to act as a goodwill ambassador to the human race, and he'd been good at it. He'd enjoyed joining in the fun and weird and interesting things that humans did, attending their events and meeting their celebrities and ordinary citizens alike. He'd done everything from being honorary cool-giant-robot big brother to wide-eyed kids, to bragging about 0-60 times with human rally champions.
It was only becoming Prime that had spoiled it, he thought, with lingering bitterness. Suddenly people's lives and security had depended on him saying the right thing, which was usually anything but the first thing that popped into his head when he was talking to stern-faced military officials or professional politicians instead of just people. As Hot Rod he'd been loved just for showing up and being friendly. As Rodimus Prime he was either expected to magically fix people's problems or else being forced to argue them down about things, and both of those sucked. If it weren't for the larger circumstances that had led him to be here, tramping alone down a snowy road in a world he didn't even know, he'd almost be grateful for the vacation.
Vacation. That was what Daniel had been doing on their own Earth, he thought dejectedly, when all this had struck. The USA had been just starting its summer holiday period, and his friend had called him from Autobot City to ask if he wanted to come hang out and fish for a few days. "Just the two of us, Rod. We can go up to Lookout Mountain. You can still get up there with the trailer, right?" Daniel had teased, grinning tauntingly at him.
Hot Rod would have said yes, in a sparkpulse. Rodimus Prime, buckling under the weight of a thousand things that needed his attention on Cybertron, had had to say no; had to watch the light fade from his friend's eyes and Daniel almost visibly age in front of him, a boy forcing himself to take his disappointment like a grown man. "Okay, Rodimus. I get it. Maybe, uh, maybe next year?"
He had vowed to himself in that moment that he'd move Cybertron and Earth both with his bare hands to make sure next year happened. "Next year, Danno. I promise. Go catch some for me this time, though, 'kay?"
"Sure thing," Daniel had said, and his brave little smile had almost been worse than if he'd broken down and cried... and, alone in the snow on the Hoyerswerda road, Roddy found himself blinking away the sudden stinging in his own eyes.
The promise he'd made was worth nothing to either of them if their version of Earth wasn't even there any more.
As though mocking his dark thoughts, a harsh croak sounded away to his right. He startled out of his self-reproach and looked around, to see a large, squat black bird sitting on a low bough and staring at him with its head cocked. Its right eye, black and beady, blinked at him.
For some uncomfortable reason, he found himself thinking of Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. There was something altogether too knowing about the look the bird was giving him. "Buzz off, Decepticreep!" he called to it, flapping his hand vaguely in its direction.
The raven let out another derisive caw and took off from its branch, swooping under the eaves of the trees and out of sight. Roddy shuddered. For a moment as it had turned its head, he would have sworn it was missing its left eye.
Shortly after that, the snow began to fall more thickly and despite his best efforts his pace grew slower and slower. Snow blew into his face, forcing him to screw his eyes up in an aching squint, and melted cold and wet down the collar of his coat. He trudged onwards, trying to keep his gaze on the road. Shouldn't he have been in Hoyerswerda by now? He'd swear that even without the snow, it was starting to get dark. If he had somehow wandered off the road, or found a wrong turn - he tried not to think about it. He couldn't afford to have made a mistake like that. One foot in front of the other, he told his numbed brains and tired body, and he'd get there eventually.
The trees seemed to be closing in on him as the light faded away. He raised a weary arm to push a low-hanging branch aside, and thought he saw something dark dart away up the length of it. Did squirrels come in black?
He dismissed the question as irrelevant. The snow was deep around his feet, deep enough that he was more shambling than walking, shuffling like a zombie. His toes felt stiff and sore in his boots. Stumbling, he pushed his way through a screen of brittle dead brambles that reared up unexpectedly in front of him-
Beyond the brambles was a clearing, and he was suddenly aware that he was standing in untrodden snow and thick brush, with white-veiled trees crowding him to either side. With abrupt, horrible clarity, like waking from a confused dream into deep and lonely darkness, he realised that in reality, he hadn't been anywhere near the road in hours - and in front of him, looming against the fading sky with only a single light to be seen in its great dark facade, towered the unmistakable silhouette of the Black Mill of Schwarzkollm.
He had gone in a circle. Somehow, impossibly, he had come back to exactly where he had started. With a stifled cry of disbelief and dismay, he collapsed to his knees in the snow.