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The Twelve Dancing Seekers

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An Age or more ago on Cybertron, there was a mighty king who had twelve creations, all Seekers, and each one a more skilled and deadly flier than the last. This flock of fine young Seekers all shared one room, and when they recharged, the doors and windows were all locked down as the king refused to let them fly at night. Yet even with these precautions, and no matter how pristine each Seeker had been the night before, come the morning their thrusters always showed signs of having powered hours of flight. No one could discover how they left the king's eyrie each night, no more than they could discover where they went. The king, at last, proclaimed that whoever could learn where the twelve Seekers went each night could select one of them as their conjunx endura and rule with them as consort after the king's deactivation. But, should anyone attempt to learn the secret for three days and three nights running and yet fail to do so, then that mech would forfeit their head.

"You can't execute someone because they don't solve a mystery within a short timeline!" the youngest and – according to him especially – most skilled and attractive Seeker, Starscream, scolded the king. "It's unreasonable!"

"I have no plans to execute them," the king answered. "Rather, I will have the Royal Physician, Pharma, subject each mech who cannot tell me where you go each night to empurata. They will live with the reminder of their failure."

Well, Starscream thought that was hardly better, but he supposed it was technically reversible. Besides, the alternative was to confess their secret to the king, and this the Seekers could not do.

Despite the risk, it was not long after the king's proclamation that a prince presented himself. He was received politely and with ceremony and shown to the bedroom across from the Seekers' so that he could watch them and find out where they went and flew each night. That night, to keep the Seekers from making their nightly travels, their doors and windows were left open but sealed with force fields so they could not leave or do anything in secret. But the prince fell into recharge, and the next day the Seekers' thrusters again showed signs of having powered hours of flight. This happened the next night, and the next, and on the fourth morning the prince was taken off so Pharma might subject him to empurata. Even with this fate in the offing, many came to discover the secret of the king's creations and earn themselves a share in a kingdom. Yet none who tried were successful and each in their turn lost their heads.

Well, after some time, and many surgeries, it came to pass that a former miner of Kaon who was making his way to the city where the king lived. While on the road, the miner saw a group of fast grounders force an older, slower-moving mech off the road. The miner could not catch up in time to prevent it, but he did stop to help the old mech out of the ditch, lifting him out easily with his powerful muscles.

"You are very kind, young mech," said the older mech. "Please, tell me where you are headed and perhaps I might aid you on your journey as you have aided me."

The miner looked thoughtful. "I am not entirely sure of my destination," he said, "but I plan to take up the king's challenge and learn the secret of the twelve Seekers and how they fly each night despite locks and guards. Then I will see how it goes after, depending on if I have my head or no."

"Ah, well, that secret is not so hard to learn," the old mech said. "You need only heed my advice and not drink the energon that one of the Seekers will bring you at night, then pretend to sleep, so they think it safe to go as they usually do. You should also take this," so saying he pressed a magical amulet into the miner's hand, "and when you wish to follow the Seekers simply magnetize it to your chest and it will render you invisible, dulling the sound of your steps and hiding the prints of your feet and treads."

"I am most grateful for your assistance," the miner said gravely. "I am Megatron. Might I know the designation of my benefactor?" This was not only good manners, but it would also serve to let Megatron track the old mech down should he have turned out to have betrayed him.

"Oh, I have had many designations over the Ages," the old mech answered cheerfully, "but you may call me Maccadam. I must be on my way. Good day to you, young Megatron, and best of luck putting a stop to this empurata nonsense."

And so, having received this good advice and determined to heed it, Megatron subspaced the amulet, went to the king, and declared his intention to solve the mystery of the twelve Seekers' nightly disappearance. Despite his humble origins, he was received politely and with ceremony and also given over to the royal detailers who cleaned and polished him till he shone an even brighter silver than he had the day of his sparking. Then, when it came time for the Seekers to recharge, he was shown to the anteroom where he might watch their door all night. Just as he was settling in the oldest Seeker, Thundercracker, brought him a cube of energon. Megatron thanked him politely but even though he hated to waste fuel he remembered Maccadam's warning and poured it out once Thundercracker left. He lay down on the bed and shut off his optics and manually ran systems commands such that he would appear to be sleeping while remaining conscious. Thundercracker sneaked back to check on him and reported to his siblings their guard for that night was deep in recharge.

Slipstream, who was one of the younger Seekers, snorted. "Idiots," she said scornfully. "They could keep their heads if they didn't all like to have a snack before bed."

"One day one of them won't," Dirge predicted. He sighed and added mournfully, "this is never going to work. We're going to get caught."

"You always say we're going to get caught," Ramjet snapped, "and we never do, so shut up!"

"Don't tell Dirge to shut up!" Thrust snapped back, coming to his sibling's defence.

"Hey, all of you shut up!" Thundercracker ordered, "and start getting ready instead of running your vocalizers."

All the Seekers pretended they had been just about to do that anyway and weren't really following their eldest sibling's command, but not one of them fooled another. They cleaned and polished each other's wings, chatting all the time about how they looked forward to their flight. Starscream, though, wasn't as confident of their safe escape as he usually was.

"I'm not so sure," he said thoughtfully. "There is something different about this Megatron. You're all acting as if everything's normal, but I'm worried something is going to happen tonight."

"You sound like Dirge," Thundercracker said, dismissing his youngest sibling's words. "You worry too much, Starscream."

"Yeah," added Skywarp, caught in the headlock Slipstream had forced him into when she found him trying to write 'shoot me' on her wing in glow-in-the-dark paint, "don't forget how many others have lost their heads over us? Get it? Huh? Lost their – mmph!" Slipstream had slapped a hand over his mouth.

"Skywarp's an idiot," Slipstream said over her trapped sibling's muffled protests, "but don't forget that miner's been drugged. He'll sleep till morning just like all the others."

"Primus us with us," put in Sunstorm, already buffed to a high gloss and almost glowing in the light. "His favour shines upon us and blesses us with success in all our endeavours. As with the others, the miner will not waken. I have prayed for this and Primus has heard me."

Well, his eleven siblings were not as convinced, but neither did they wish to be delayed by a prayer or a sermon, and so none of them argued with him.

When all twelve Seekers were ready, they peeked out of their room and looked across the hall into Megatron's room. Starscream, the lightest-footed of all of them, approached him but Megatron did not move or react, and scans showed him to be deep in recharge. But Starscream's scans were not medical scans, and they were fooled by Megatron's manipulation of his systems. So, they thought it was safe, and Thundercracker went to his bed and knocked a certain rhythm on it. The bed transformed away showing a trapdoor in the floor. One by one, the Seekers jumped in and, using their antigravs, went down, down, down, with Thundercracker leading and Starscream being the last one through.

But Megatron had, on hearing the knocks, powered up his optics just enough that he could see and he saw them leave. He stood quietly and, subspacing the amulet the wise mech had given him, magnetized it to his chest plating. Now invisible, he slipped into the Seekers' room with surprising stealth further aided by the amulet's magic. Checking the trapdoor before climbing down he saw that there was a ladder on one side so that someone without antigravs might go up and down if they liked. Megatron followed immediately after Starscream, but the ladder had not been moved in a long time, and he disturbed the dust, which sifted down on Starscream.

"Something is wrong," Starscream called out to his siblings. "The dust on the ladder has been disturbed."

"You just flew too close and disturbed it that's all," Slipstream said. "Be more careful."

Well, Starscream didn't like Slipstream telling him what to do, and they insulted each other until Thundercracker yelled at them to knock it off, they weren't juveniles any more and did he have to come back there?

The Seekers, and Megatron, continued on until they came to a marvellous bridge with rows of beautiful crystals growing on either side, shining and glowing in a light source far above. Bending low so any damage would be out of the Seekers' sightlines, Megatron broke off a small piece of crystal to prove where he had been. A short, dissonant, chime sounded as the piece came away in his hand.

"Something isn't right," Starscream told his siblings. "Did you hear that? The crystals have never made that noise before."

At the head of the line of Seekers, Thundercracker sighed. "Skywarp quit messing with the crystals."

"It wasn't me!" Skywarp protested. "How come I always get blamed for stuff?"

"Do you really want an answer to that?" Ramjet asked.

"Enough, for P – pity's sake." Thundercracker switched words quickly to avoid a lecture from Sunstorm. "Starscream, stop worrying. Skywarp, don't touch stuff. Ramjet, shut up. Everybody, don't answer Skywarp."

"Hey!"

"Skywarp, you shut up too. We're almost done with this, we don't want to frag it up now."

They left the first bridge and walked a short way across the ground before coming to a second bridge, this one bordered by beautiful golden bushes with copper leaves and golden flowers in bloom. Megatron plucked a small flowering branch from one of the bushes with a snap, and again Starscream worried aloud and had his worry called nothing by his siblings. After that, they went over a hill and came to a third bridge where the gem-studded branches of diamond willows fell, long and graceful and flashing fire, on either side. Megatron took a twig from it and Starscream, frustrated, demanded of his siblings that they at least stop and look around but they would not, and he had to continue on or be left behind.

At last, they came to a large lake of quicksilver and in the centre was an island with a beautifully smooth landing pad and runway in the centre and on it waited eleven mecha who seemed to also have flight alt modes. The Seekers simply flew over the lake, but Megatron had no flight alt or antigravs and could not follow them in the air. Anyone would have thought he would be trapped upon the shore and unable to solve his mystery. But Megatron was a miner and gas leaks are a great danger in mines. His armour was sealed to prevent his most vital components from corrosive gases, and this was more than enough to keep out the denser quicksilver. Megatron simply waited till the Seekers were part-way across then slipped under the liquid metal and, transforming, drove across the bottom.

When Megatron arrived upon the far shore, he transformed and stood still only long enough for the quicksilver to run from his body and back into the lake. All the Seekers had their backs to the lake, and all the mecha on the island had their optics on the Seekers, and so no one saw a thing. His steps on the sand of the beach were hidden by the amulet's power, and Megatron stole up to the edge of the tarmac and watched. Music sounded from unknown sources and all the Seekers, and all the island mecha transformed and took off, flying high above the island, soaring and banking and rolling in an exquisite sky dance. Each island flier danced with a Seeker, except for Starscream, who danced alone. They danced throughout the sky for many mega-cycles, late into the night, while Megatron watched, until they had to have been running low on fuel because they ceased their sky dancing and landed. The island fliers refuelled from beautiful silver energon cubes and yet did not offer the Seekers any. Megatron thought this rude until he overheard Starscream complaining about enchanted energon that you couldn't even touch or you'd be trapped in the cavern for seven meta-cycles. Thundercracker explained, in the tone of one who had said this many times before, that soon enough the curse would be lifted and then Starscream could refuel here all he liked.

Skywarp chimed in with something about Starscream being jealous that Megatron would very much have liked to hear because, even though Starscream danced alone, his form was the most exquisite and Megatron was curious as to why he had no partner. But before Skywarp could finish, Slipstream slapped him across the back of the helm and told him to hurry up, or he could swim back.

Three of the island fliers were shuttles, and they transformed and let the Seekers board their holds. Moving quickly, Megatron hid in Thundercracker's shuttle, the last one in that he might be the first one out.

"I must be lower on fuel than I thought," the shuttle said as they flew. "I could swear there are five or six of you back there, not four."

Thundercracker petted the shuttle's interior wall affectionately. "You're just tired, Astrotrain. Drop us off and then go back and get some more fuel."

"I'd much rather go get some fuel with you," Astrotrain said wistfully.

"I know," Thundercracker said, showing much more patience with Astrotrain than he had with his siblings – not, Megatron thought, that it wasn't justified. "Soon."

On the opposite bank, the Seekers took their leave from the shuttles and promised to come back the next night. While they watched the shuttles take off again, Megatron went swiftly ahead of them, climbing the ladder and taking to bed again to pretend to sleep. When the twelve Seekers checked on him upon their return, their scans again showed him to be sleeping.

"See?" Slipstream said to Starscream and Dirge. "Everything is fine. We're not in any danger at all from him."

"Then we're probably doomed for another reason," Dirge predicted with a deep sigh as they all went to bed.

The next day, Megatron told the king he had no report to make yet. He wanted to follow the Seekers and see the fantastic land below the castle, nothing like the underground of Cybertron he knew, and also to watch Starscream dance through the sky again. He followed the Seekers on the second and third nights, and they did everything as they had done before, each night dancing till exhausted and their thrusters showed signs of having powered hours of flight each morning. On the third night, Megatron also brought back one of the beautiful silver energon cubes as a final piece of evidence.

On the fourth day, the mega-cycle arrived when the king expected an answer and Pharma expected to perform another operation. Megatron entered the king's throne room and approached to give his answer. The twelve Seekers were gathered to one side of the long aisle leading to the throne and on seeing Megatron's confidence became very nervous, murmuring among themselves.

The king asked Megatron, "did you see how my creations got out of their room?"

"I did," answered Megatron. "There is a trap door beneath your eldest creation's bed that lets them leave their room unseen."

"And did you see where my creations go once they have left their room?" the king wanted to know.

"I did," answered Megatron. "The passage below the trap door leads to a great underground cavern, so large that it holds no less than three bridges and a lake with an island and so high the source of the light that fills it cannot be seen. There grow crystals, golden flowers, and diamond willows."

"And is this where my creations fly so that their thrusters show signs of having run for mega-cycles?" the king demanded.

"It is," answered Megatron. "The island on the lake in the great cavern holds a landing pad and a runway and is inhabited by eleven fliers who are not Seekers. Each night your creations meet with these mecha and spend long mega-cycles dancing through the sky with them. These mecha drink enchanted energon from silver cubes, and your creations cannot share in this fuel lest they become trapped on the island for seven meta-cycles. And here is the proof of what I have seen." So saying, Megatron laid the piece of crystal, the flowering branch, the willow twig, and the silver energon cube before the king.

Seeing they had been discovered, the Seekers began to murmur amongst themselves.

"I told you all we were doomed," Dirge moaned. "Now they'll never be able to leave."

Starscream folded his arms and glared at his siblings. "This could have all been avoided if only you'd listened when I said I heard something!"

"Yeah, and instead of blaming me!" Skywarp added, sounding hurt, and the whole thing threatened to devolve into a twelve-way argument between siblings until the king shouted them down.

"Thundercracker," the king said in a stern voice. "You are the eldest and the most responsible. Explain why you have done this thing and why you could not speak of it, instead sentencing so many to empurata."

"Okay, first off, the empurata was all you," Thundercracker said resentfully. "You could have just given them three chances and let them be on their way. Second of all, we couldn't have said anything about it any more than our princes – the fliers – can leave the cavern. It's all part of the same curse."

"I hate to say it, believe me, but Thundercracker's right," Slipstream told her creator. "The only reason we can talk about it now is that Megatron finding out and telling you exploits a loophole."

The king tapped the arm of the throne impatiently. "Obedient creations don't get cursed. What were you doing that someone cursed not only you but eleven other mecha?"

Thundercracker, seeing there was nothing for it but to tell all and relieved to be freed of at least part of the curse, relayed to his creator the tale of how he, his siblings, and eleven princes from other kingdoms had, while all flying together, accidentally trespassed in the airspace of a warlock and the angry warlock had cursed them. The princes were to stay on the island and to break the curse the Seekers – being all from the same family and their disappearance impossible to hide – must visit them each night, dance together, then return to the world above. The island had a constant supply of high-quality energon but until the curse was broken the princes could refuel on nothing else and, should one of the Seekers drink it, they would be forced to remain on the island for seven meta-cycles. Thus the requirement that they all return to the world above would be broken, and the curse extended.

"We'd almost broken the curse," Thundercracker concluded resentfully. "Then you just had to challenge people to figure it out. Now we'll have to start over again and hope you two knowing didn't frag things up."

"Blitzwing will never be my conjunx at this rate," Acid Storm said, sounding as mournful as Dirge, and Ion Storm and Nova Storm clustered around him, the triplets comforting each other.

"Vortex will never be mine," Bitstream said, his voice catching in such sorrow even Slipstream was moved to pat him consolingly on the shoulder.

"At least we'll all be single together?" she tried, but it was no help.

"I saw you dancing alone," Megatron said to Starscream. "Is there no mech on that island for you?"

Starscream tossed his head. "Hardly. I wasn't even with them when they intruded on that stupid warlock's airspace – which they could have avoided in the first place if they hadn't all been too busy acting like lovesick fools!"

Megatron was even more curious now. "If you have no lover there, then why do you accompany your siblings each night?"

"And miss out on the fun?" Starscream demanded. In fact, Thundercracker and Slipstream had made him go after the first few nights as they swiftly tired of hearing him complain at being left behind but Starscream carefully did not mention this. "Besides, I thought it might change the curse, add more energy to break it or something. It didn't though. The whole thing is ridiculous!"

"It does seem an excessive penalty for trespassing in someone's airspace," Megatron said, frowning. "Is there no other way to break the curse?"

"Yes," said Starscream, who had some understanding of the workings of magic. "Either killing the warlock who placed the curse or destroying the curse's anchor would work. I think I know where the anchor is, but it's under the lake of quicksilver, and I cannot enter it without risking severe damage to my components."

"I can," Megatron said thoughtfully. "That is how I followed you to the island. Tell me where this anchor is, and I will destroy it, freeing you all and your sweetsparks to be with you – on one condition."

He was looking intently at Starscream as he spoke and the Starscream's optics were wide as the young Seeker gazed back.

"What is that?" Starscream wanted to know.

"That you let me see you dance through the skies one more time."

Well, Starscream loved to fly, and dance, and show off and better still if he could do all three together. So he agreed, and that night thirteen mecha went down into the underground cavern, but it was twenty-four who came up. Starscream had indeed danced for Megatron, such as he had never danced before, and Megatron had gone under the lake of quicksilver as he had promised. There he found and smashed the crystal sphere bound in wrought iron that was the curse's anchor, freeing the eleven fliers to great rejoicing all around.

Now, this kingdom was not poor, but even the wealthiest kingdom cannot afford the conjunx ritus and accompanying royal celebration twelve times over all at once, nor even in immediate succession. So they were strewn out over several stellar-cycles, each Seeker undergoing the rite from eldest to youngest, and so Megatron and Starscream had a great deal of time to get to know each other. By the time it was their turn, they knew each other perhaps too well but loved each other even so and, in their own way, lived together happily ever after.