It was fair weather that summer in Dukas. The rains had been merciful to the rocky highlands, sparing shepherds from path floods and lost goats. Lilac clouds had been reported in the east, which always boded fair fortune and occasional rains of frogs. The fields were thriving, the minstrels were traveling, and on his front porch, Yen Sid was arguing.
"When I said I would accept menial labor as payment," the elderly wizard enunciated, making certain to roll his vowels for maximum effect, "I did not mean taking on one of your wastrels as a full-time servant."
The messenger squirmed under Yen Sid's scrutiny. His hooves left tiny scratches on the polished marble of the floor. Yen Sid, who was accustomed to visitors with all kinds of locomotion, frowned at his own scuffed reflection and debated the costs of repair.
Like countless wizards before him, Yen Sid had done his fair share of traveling in his youth before settling down in one of the most remote regions he could find. He took pride in making his residence in a fairly sedate branch of the world. The Dukas highlands rarely suffered disturbances, save for the occasional stray demon from Mussorgsky wandering across the borders; even then, a casual display of sunlight was all that was needed to shoo them back home.
Other countries were not so fortunate. The Pastoral Fields birthed record numbers of troubles each year, winning out over even the unstable Stravinsky regions. The gods of the Pastorals particularly reveled in spring-thaw quarrels, unleashing every sort of chaos they could devise until - inevitably - the battered inhabitants would send for Yen Sid to put things back together.
The requests were not uncommon. For his part, Yen Sid rarely minded. Payments for the tasks helped keep food in his cupboards and cobwebs out of the corners of his home - all mundane affairs which the wizard would rather pretend did not exist.
This spring, the gods had been particularly stubborn. One of the storm deities had apparently stolen off with the hammers of a heavenly smith; the hunt for the pilfered tools rampaged across valleys and mountains, tearing up the earth, redirecting streams. The landscape had taken months to straighten out. Specialists were summoned in: geologists from Stravinsky, dowsers from Bach. Spellbooks were unlocked. Bargains were made, some of them rough.
And that all led to one cringing satyr on Yen Sid's doorstep, wringing his hands as if he expected to be changed into a toad without warning.
"Very well," the wizard caved with a sigh. "Send me something sensible, like a dryad. Something in pine. Or birch, birch tends to be reasonable."
"We have," the messenger pled, "a very cheerful lake spirit in mind - "
"I don't want anything to do with water sprites right now," Yen Sid retorted crisply. "The last apprentice I had flooded my basements. They were damp for weeks. Weeks! Do you know how long it takes to dry out magical books? The 18th volume of the Tchaikovsky Symphonic is still giving me spells for tempests instead of tea!"
Over the course of his diatribe, the satyr had backed away, tail lowered like a dog. "Oh," he bleated, "but Master Retlaw -"
The wizard ignored the groveling formality, throwing out his arms with a flap of his sleeves. "Now you suggest an aquadei? What do you take me for - one of those idiot ostriches from Gioconda?"
"He only holds dominion over a minor pool," the satyr assured him, and then hurried down the path, calling back reassurances over his shoulder.
They sent the boy to him anyway.
He showed up with a satchel dangling from one arm, a fishing lure bobbing off the hem of his jacket, and a spattering of blue freckles that betrayed his ancestry faster than any introduction could.
"Master," he began with a brilliant smile, and then paused immediately, shifting his luggage in his hands. "Uh, is it Master Yen Sid, or Master Retlaw, or just Master Yen Sid Retlaw -"
"No water spells," Yen Sid announced instead, and watched the boy's expression fall.
Within the first day, Yen Sid had already learned the boy's favorite color (blue), that the boy had been named after an aunt who was patron to a certain breed of turtles (the full name had been shortened; the family had apparently thought that two Clemmydes would be cause for confusion), and the origin of the tiny, dart-shaped scar on his left wrist (he'd fallen one day while playing, it was stupid, his mother had lectured him for weeks.)
Eventually Yen Sid had reached a breaking point in his auditory tolerance and had thrown up his hands, pointing the boy towards the kitchens in hope that unwashed dishes would serve to extinguish any enthusiasm.
By the second week, the magician was forced to establish certain house rules.
"I do not," he ordered, "want a musical production in my house."
The boy's eyes widened desperately. He brandished a set of panpipes - laced satyr-style, the magician observed, with thin leather lacings wound about the reeds. "But Master Yen Sid…"
"No nymphs," was the verdict in the third month, upon Yen Sid's discovery of several scantily-clad young women in his observatory. Grapevine shoots were everywhere. One of the clay pots had been kicked over, scattering dirt across a jeweled mosaic of the Hours.
Myde appeared from around a corner, a tray of wineglasses in his hands. Yen Sid rounded on him swiftly enough that the boy blanched, and backed away two steps; the laurels that had been placed upon his head began to slip, skewing across one ear in a lopsided crown.
To his credit, Myde attempted to plead his case. "But Master, it's tradition this time of year -"
But the boy turned aside and made one of those sniffling, thick noises - and even though Yen Sid knew it was likely more acting on Myde's part, he let it go anyway.
Damn Pastorals, he thought. So shameless, so good at dramatic flair.
The wizard's lingering sense of dread was proven right the next morning, when half the girls were found asleep in his vegetable garden, and the rest were scattered around the wine cellar. Yen Sid almost tripped over one as he descended the stairs in search of breakfast. She yawned, and tried to embrace his ankle.
As for the boy, he was curled up at the bottom of the courtyard well, blowing fish bubbles while he dreamed.
Despite Yen Sid's fears, the magician's domicile stayed relatively clean. The wells were always full, and if magic was involved, then Myde was at least discreet about it. He was relatively obedient, and intelligent, and if his cultural upbringing had left him with an ever-present naivete, he at least had the sense to turn it into charm.
This fact alone kept Yen Sid from evicting the boy within the first few months.
Myde was young, young and foolish as any Pastoral. Their paradoxical behaviors ignored any physical age. The Pastoral Fields were lush with natural bounties, and all manner of creatures flocked to nestle in the blissful wilderness. Very few of them were dour. They didn't have to be. The land of Beethoven was rich and wide, and in Yen Sid's opinion, all that luxury did nothing to encourage any form of discipline.
But the boy did have some surprises. When asked if he could cook, Myde rattled off numerous dishes and their ingredients, offering to prepare any should the wizard desire. It was with dismay that Yen Sid slowly realized that all of the aquadei's recipes involved seafood - primarily fish, but a few clam dishes that Myde claimed were from his sister.
He was pleasant with the visitors, deftly accepting lists of their requests along with remembering which enchantments had been paid for, and which had empty promises of recompense. He was skilled at keeping track of guests whenever the wizard had company; oftentimes, Yen Sid would finish a project hours past schedule, only to find Myde entertaining the latest visitor with a song and an eager, guileless smile.
That was the problem with making knotty deals with Pastorals. One never knew how they would pay out.
The young lad was well-versed in music as well, which was unsurprising considering his origins. Fantasia was a world of sound. If the Pastorals were infamously lax in any other practice, they more than made up for it through orchestra.
But, most astonishingly, Myde also managed to keep good company with the objects in Yen Sid's home. Numerous spells had been laid upon the furnishings for a variety of conveniences - doors that would open with a spoken word, or windows that would latch themselves. Myde treated each object with respect. He learned where all the enchantments were, and always made sure to thank them.
It was in the middle of the summer that the wizard truly saw the extent of the boy's sympathies. Myde had been sent a care package from his family - clothing and sheet music, coupled with what looked suspiciously like a musical instrument. The contents were rapidly dispersed about the kitchen and lower floors where the boy had his quarters. Small paintings of seascapes appeared on the walls, artfully arranged to be visible from numerous angles of each room. Yen Sid had been occupied in admiring one of them when the sound of strings reached his ears.
Curious, he chased down the tune, working from library to observatory to kitchen - only to discover Myde surrounded by a circle of gallivanting brooms, tiny wooden hands linked together to form a posy-ring.
At first, the wizard only stared. Then he gradually remembered where he had last seen the constructs: bundled together in a remote storage closet where he had planned to dig them out eventually and find some use for them. Yen Sid's former apprentice had not been particularly careful when he had enchanted the things, and at the time, the magician had been too occupied with dehumidifying his basement to care.
Indeed, he had forgotten entirely that they existed at all.
The scrape of his foot on the stairs was enough to catch Myde's notice; triumphant, the boy turned a wide grin towards him. "Do you see that, Master?" His hand patted the belly of the sitar. "They like it!"
"Spare me the nonsense of fauns," Yen Sid grumbled. "Your companions are glorified mops."
"Anything that can dance can feel. And anything that likes music can love," the boy laughed, before breaking out into a rousing encore of some jaunty hat-dance tune. The dustpans clattered on their hooks with appreciation. Judging from the keen of the sitar, it had never been designed with such a song in mind; the notes squeaked and twanged, begging to be put out of their misery.
"Aquadei," Yen Sid muttered under his breath, and sequestered himself away from his idiot housekeeper for the rest of the week.
Numerous would-be apprentices came that year, most in response to what was being called the Summer of the Rising Squash. The plague began in Bach, and had spread all the way to Respighi within a month, infecting numerous crops with a bloating disease. It rode piggyback on farmer's carts and infested young sprouts. One overenthusiastic hedge mage had attempted a miracle cure, only to end up worsening the epidemic, so that all manner of fruits and vegetables had been blighted.
Between juggling requests for a wizard's intervention and his own attempts to dodge any work whatsoever that year, Yen Sid had little patience for applicants.
"I tutor kings, not wastrels," he informed the latest hopeful coldly, glowering down his nose in what he hoped was a suitably discouraging manner.
"But you have one apprentice already," the young woman protested. Her skin was green as new leaves; she rustled when she walked. Two wings jutted out from behind her shoulderblades, and they twitched periodically in a tinny dragonfly buzz.
"He does the chores. Would you want to learn your craft in a slop-bin?" Watching the fairy's nose wrinkle in disdain, Yen Sid gave a satisfied nod. "I thought not. Now get off my doorstep so he can sweep it properly."
She retreated with a huff, casting one final glance towards Myde where he was meekly whisking a broom back and forth on the path.
Myde gave her a smile as she passed, one she did not return.
As soon as she had disappeared down the hill, he promptly let go of the broom; it continued to swish back and forth unaided, continuing on its task. "Another one, Master?" Yen Sid could not tell if the boy was disappointed or relieved. "Should I post a sign on the door?"
"Hiring a dragon to eat them might be simpler." Folding his arms in a scowl, the wizard hrumphed at the sky. The evening weather was insultingly fair; last summer, Yen Sid had been out traveling in Schubert, enjoying the dry hospitality of the Maria monks. This year, he was trapped in his studies pouring over reports of mammoth eggplants. "I have enough troubles on my hands. A very big dragon would solve matters, I think. One with extra teeth."
Myde only laughed, beckoning the broom to follow him as he fetched the dustpan for dumping. "I'll be sure to put out the request right away," came the merry reply, and then the boy was whistling a marching refrain as he sallied off to the next task.
Summer turned to autumn, and from there into snow. In the winter, Yen Sid learned more about his housekeeper: Myde turned sleepy in freezing temperatures, bundling up in thick blankets and shuffling around the kitchen in fleece slippers. He took refuge in the kitchens whenever he could, soaking up the heat that steamed from the fireplace.
He also was prone to catching colds.
"I thought you were a water sprite," Yen Sid stated, baffled at the mountain of handkerchiefs amassing on the kitchen table.
"Water, not ice," was the muffled reply.
Attempting to recall the life cycles of elemental spirits, the magician only frowned. "They contain the same essence at heart. How can this weather bother you?"
Myde made a miserable sound, and then sneezed.
When the spring came again, and the messenger from the Fields suggested another year of Myde's enrollment - early payment for the requests they all knew were bound to come - the wizard grudgingly assented. After all, he'd only recently managed to train the boy to rinse stained glass in citrus water before Yen Sid had to use it in a spell, and besides, Myde knew where all the spices were in the kitchen cabinets.
So the Pastorals were credited, and Myde stayed. Yen Sid was developing a fondness for collard greens anyway.
At the start of the third year, Yen Sid could not be bothered with the arrangements, so Myde handled the matter himself.
It was the fourth year that marked a change in routine. Unlike the previous seasons, Yen Sid hurried through his spring tasks and refused any for the summer. Climbing the stairs to his attics, the wizard descended hours later covered in cobwebs, attempting not to crush a number of irate spiders, and carrying a box of cream-colored invitations in his hands.
When Myde asked, Yen Sid only growled.
Annual dinners were never of much interest to him, no matter who was involved. Yen Sid hosted on formality alone. Possessing great power also burdened him once every decade to entertain the small gathering of wizards, demigods, and other entities of Fantasia; the Council of Stokowski, they called it, but Yen Sid privately thought it was an overblown name for a bunch of gossipers.
His only mercy that year was the absence of the Grand Angelo. The hippo was a drunkard and a boor, but he had held Conductor's rule in Ponchielli for decades, and had bullied his way into their inner circle under that technicality.
Yen Sid himself could not cook unaided. Using magic to conjure food for a banquet of sages was crass, and he did not trust Myde alone to prepare the right courses. Not all the guests were fond of consuming seafood, and besides, the Nutcracker States often included a Shiitake dancers among their representatives. The last thing Yen Sid needed was some ambassador taking offense to their smaller mushroom cousins being served as a side dish.
So that meant chefs to be hired - a prospect which Yen Sid found exhausting. Myde did not bat an eye when he was told to organize the entire production. Instead, he accepted his role as supervisor for the banquet with a flair for theatrics that Yen Sid strongly suspected was hereditary. The gathering was a performance, after all; like any grand celebration, the aquadei rose to the task, fussing over the lighting, the presentation of the courses, and why couldn't Yen Sid wear something other than that battered old hat?
"Your butler is quite good," one of the Saint-Saens flamingos twittered. "However did you acquire him?"
"Pastorals," Yen Sid answered bluntly, spooning more mussels onto his plate.
The answer seemed to appease the flamingo, for it dabbled its wingtip against its beak in what was intended to be a conspirator's glance. "Pastorals," it agreed in a drawl. "They make such... enthusiastic workers, don't they? Tell me, what other services is he trained for?"
Yen Sid stared at the pink-feathered creature before realizing the weight of its implications. "He cleans the house." Then, as the creature began to giggle, "He is also responsible for making certain that I feed you rice instead of cliff mold from my studies in Mussorgsky. Wizards as old as myself tend to become distractible so easily."
That shut it up.
Thankfully, the conversation turned swiftly, broadcast from down the table and picked up quickly through the virtues of gossip. Shadows was heard once, then again, a cool undercurrent of dream that wove its way between the wineglasses.
"Heartless?" The word lurched above the babble of recent performers and failed operas. "What genre have they come from?"
The fellow who started it all only shook his head. He was a severe-looking man from Gershwin, whose suit was cut to a businessman's lines and bore soot-prints on the lapel. Exhaustion stroked dark, sagging lines under his eyes. "They answer to no symphony. And," he added ominously, his smoke-roughed voice lowering to a whisper, "they bring no music with them."
The revelation drew a buzz of horror from the guests.
One of the stouter centaurs snuffled in his beard before leaning forward ominously. The ferns in his mane dipped dangerously close to his plate; unaware of the culinary mess to come, the creature gave another equine snort before speaking. "Are they agents from the Chernabog? Have you seen them, Yen Sid?"
"I hear they steal the songs from anything they touch," whimpered a flower from further down the table, its petals crinkling in dismay.
"I heard the Appia borders have already come under attack."
"They are in league with the Mussorgsky demons - "
"They take your chords and leave nothing behind - "
"Nonsense," Yen Sid snorted, clapping his hands together in brute dismissal of the superstitious twittering. "Myde!" The boy was at his elbow in seconds; Yen Sid gestured towards the corner near the fireplace, a well-lit quarter which had been kept aside for storing the aquadei's sitar. "My guests are restless. Entertain them with something to keep their mood bright."
Myde accepted the order without complaint, his nose crinkling as he smiled at one of the Nutcracker fish. She blushed and hid her face behind a swirl of golden veils. "Of course, Master Retlaw," he replied, smooth as sunlight under glass. "I would be all too happy to."
After the various ambassadors and representatives had left, the excess chefs dismissed, and the last magic carpet bid farewell, Myde collected the dishes and set them to soak. A few leftovers were salvaged to be transformed into meals later that week.
And then it was over.
Pushing aside his preliminary distaste for the next decade's gathering, Yen Sid climbed the stairs to his chamber. The wistful voice of the sitar followed close behind, lone notes plucked in a song too slow to be understood.
Despite the magician's hopes, the mystery of the Heartless refused to die. Predictably, the Council ambassadors continued to send word to Yen Sid, each one imagining themselves unique in their fears. He penned the same brusque reply back every time. Needless rumors would only bring more harm than help, and the last thing he needed was more people begging him to disenchant overripe vegetables.
It was from Bach that he heard the first true warning of merit: that the Heartless might be originating from beyond Fantasia, beyond even the far-seeing watch of the Toccata oracles who dreamed in aurora borealis.
Having no other outlet, he shared this concern with Myde.
"Other worlds, Master?" Fish was on the menu again that night for dinner, and somehow Myde had bartered for several fresh fillets of salmon. Slices of smooth, pink flesh were spread upon the sideboard. Myde was busy frowning at them. The smell of butter was rich in the kitchen, dense with an overtone of thyme. "Aren't those just old flamingo myths?"
Glass jars clicked as Yen Sid picked up containers of ink, examining them for color and consistency. Even though he had his own offices in which to work, the wizard had to admit that there was a simple pleasure to be found in common conversation. "The reach of the Composers was long, Myde." Holding up a vial of brilliant green liquid to the light, Yen Sid tilted it thoughtfully before setting it in the discard pile. "Their music touched more worlds than simply Fantasia. A traveler could spend his whole life chasing their notes, and never once see the limits of the horizon."
Water sizzled off the frying pan. Myde laughed as the droplets popped through the air, and caught them deftly on his fingertips, tiny mirrors of the blue-spot freckles across his cheeks.
"Then I want to hear all of it," he announced, spinning the liquid out into flat rings that shed rainbows before diffusing into mist. "Every last song."
Yen Sid snorted. "No water sprite could do such a thing. And be thankful," he added gruffly. "There are some symphonies out there which should not be heard. I will tell them I am looking into the matter." Thought of the extra work brought a sigh; he accepted the teacup that Myde slid thoughtfully in his direction, stirring in an absent spoonful of sugar. "Perhaps that will ease their minds at last."
An evening spent signing and sealing letters, and then Myde trotted off to flag down a courier to have them all delivered. For a time, the fears of the other sages could be settled - or so the wizard hoped.
But the matter did not end there. First the oceans of Appia were cut off; all contact from the whales disappeared entirely, until not even their long, mournful songs could be heard on the best Gershwin radar. The Unified Nutcracker States reported record snowfalls. Even the Pastorals were suffering, according to the letters from Myde's family: their gods had retreated from any customary winter games, skipping traditional mischief in favor of hiding in the heavy clouds.
When the spring finally broke - several months late - none of the countries bothered to celebrate.
Winter had not released its grip on Appia. Strange beasts were seen haunting the crags of Stravinsky. And everywhere, a silence was beginning to fall: an unnatural series of rest beats that broke through the natural melodies of Fantasia, and left only mute tongues behind.
When the ambassadors came to him a third time, Yen Sid finally agreed.
They moved in early autumn, when the leaves had just begun to turn from green to butter crisp. Yen Sid chose his location with care. He poured over the star charts that described the space around Fantasia, and then went on from there to map out the safest paths available that would not draw notice from the cosmic powers that lurked between worlds.
Finally, unable to dodge the matter any longer, the magician unrolled the final travel plans on the kitchen table, and tapped his fingers along the route he had outlined in silver ink.
"The Bach oracles have noted an irregularity forming between the edge of Light and Darkness," he announced briskly. "It is there that I must study the phenomenon."
When no answer came, Yen Sid turned his eyes to the boy fussing at the sink. "The very fabric of reality is treacherous in those regions, Myde. You do not have to come if you do not feel up to the task."
"Have you learned to steam trout yet, Master?" Dishes clattered as Myde rinsed a soup tureen and hung it up to dry. "Then I'm going, of course. I'll go. Who else," he added shamelessly, "would take care of you?"
Myde's family was warned well in advance, but they still behaved as if the news was fresh, and unbearably painful. They waited until the very last day before making their appearance - but promptly arrived in droves, clustering in Yen Sid's kitchen, weeping effusively about how they would never see their brother, cousin, second nephew, or son again, respectively.
Yen Sid fled from them after a single hour. Two of the aquadei tried to catch him by the sleeves, their fish-grey hair bound up in curls, but he dodged their hands and questions both by disappearing around a corner of space.
With nowhere in his home safe from the prying attentions of Myde's family, the magician took refuge instead in preparing the gummi-coated longship which would ferry them safely between worlds. Even though Yen Sid's former apprentice had offered a more modern vehicle for transport - complete with rodent crew - the wizard found that the old ways were still best.
Magic caged one of his towers easily enough, folding the building into a small suitcase, collapsing it stone by stone into neat rows. Next, he added several of his libraries. If he was to spend time abroad, he could at least keep himself entertained.
Myde came to him sheepishly afterwards, trudging along like a schoolboy caught in a classroom brawl. "My family," he said, rubbing his hand against the back of his scalp, causing his hair to stick up like a bronze haystack. "They're, uh. Enthusiastic. I'm sorry."
Yen Sid waved the awkward explanation aside. "I once spent a summer in Elysium," he informed the boy gruffly. "At least your family wore all their clothes. Are you certain about this?" Hesitation abandoned his tongue for a brief moment; he blurted the challenge abruptly, feeling the weight of it like a stormcloud sinking a barometer. "You are no sorcerer's apprentice. These problems are far beyond the talents of any water sprite."
Myde, in a rare show of tact, chose to ignore the question altogether. Instead, he commented loudly on the fact that he would most certainly need extra strings for his sitar, and hurried off to find them.
Only when they were casting off the last of the lines that kept the longboat tied to shore did the boy finally speak up.
"We will come back, won't we, Master?" The boy's chin was propped up on his hand as he watched the shore recede. For all his apparent gloom, when he noticed Yen Sid glancing over, he straightened up with an instant smile.
Inwardly relieved - though he did not know if the aquadei's cheer was falsified or not - Yen Sid gave a short laugh. "What manner of question is that, Myde? It is the destiny for all creatures to return to their heart's home. Keep music inside you, and you will never go astray."
They made camp on the largest of the stable land masses near the irregularity. Though a more promising plateau beckoned further on with hints of a town, and possibly even normal humans, Yen Sid chose to err on the side of caution. Any large grouping of people would surely attract attention sooner or later from the Darkness. Isolation would serve his cause better than direct contact, and for all he knew, this threat might last for years.
Years, away from Fantasia. Years away from song.
With a sigh, the magician schooled his thoughts properly back into shape.
The island was scarcely bigger than a small pasture, barren of hills and trees. Yen Sid paced the boundaries until he was certain it would not crumble overnight; several warning spells and enchantments reinforced their new home's stability, tested again and again until the magician finally relaxed.
He unfolded his tower from out of his luggage next, waiting patiently for the building to settle down on its new moorings, listening to the stones creak like the bones of an oversized cat. His mail appeared in a tumble of multicolored letters as well: some spilling light from cracks in their envelopes, others sodden with unknown fluids.
Yen Sid spent the better part of the morning sorting through the missives. Not all the requests were related to his task with the Darkness. One was from a colleague inquiring after variations of a certain misdirection spell, and the next was a snippy inquiry from a certain Madam Mim, demanding to know where her counterpart had gone.
He toyed briefly with the idea of inflicting one on the other, before discarding both.
Myde had already adapted to the new land quickly enough, unpacking the basics of clothes and bedding before Yen Sid had even devised which way was satisfactorily north. He chattered excitedly to his sitar as he worked; the noise grated on Yen Sid's nerves at first, before it settled down into a comfortable background hum, a melody of human company in the middle of the void.
When he realized that he had not heard the clatter of boxes for several hours, the magician left the tower.
The boy was sitting on the edge of the island, dangling his feet over nothingness. His shoulders were hunched, hands lowered in his lap. He seemed to be staring over the side into the bleak abyss, the very model of dejection.
Yen Sid approached gingerly, not wishing to spook the aquadei and possibly cause disaster.
He should have known better. A scrape of his foot against the soil and Myde was turning; the boy's hands clutched a primitive fishing pole between them, rigged from reed and twine. When he saw the magician, he broke out into a smile, careless and unconcerned.
"I don't know what I can catch out here," he admitted, giving a flick of the fishing line. "It can't hurt to find out, at least. Do you think any of it would taste good?"
Yen Sid came to a halt beside the edge, careful not to misplace his footing. Far below, the red fishing bobber swung in a slow pendulum arc, tentatively connected to safety only by a thin string. "Are you not... afraid, Myde?"
The magician gave a twitch of one hand. "Heartless. The Darkness. Falling."
Another laugh, and Myde swished the fishing pole through the air, trawling the bobber through nothingness. "Even if I am, Master, there's no harm in trying, is there?"
Time was more difficult to mark without a consistent sky. Though light seemed to naturally orient itself around the distant town, it behaved very little like the sun of Fantasia, taking a long, elliptical orbit: extended sunrises, lazy sunsets, and a noon that barely had any time to scorch before easing away again into pleasant degrees.
Yen Sid's clocks took up the slack, ticking away merrily on the walls of his studies. They were not the only things that filled the silence. Bereft of the natural melodies of Fantasia, both he and Myde were forced to devise replacements. Each clock sang in chorus on the striking of the hour; each one joined the harmony.
Myde made it his business to tune the crystal lights on the stairwells so that they rang different notes in accordance to the cycle of the sun. Around the entryway, he placed several instruments in glass brackets and begged the magician until Yen Sid agreed to enchant them to respond to living beings. They played scherzi for Yen Sid, imitated pizzicato for Myde, and when no one else was around, kept themselves entertained through impromptu jazz sessions.
Yen Sid's offices in the loft of the tower earned special care; Myde rummaged through the boxes until he had unearthed several windchimes, and strung them together above the man's desk.
Still, their new residence was empty of comfort. After staring too long at the blank landscape, Yen Sid unpacked several trees for good measure. Myde promptly celebrated by serving the next meal outdoors. The boy strung numerous fairy-lights upon the branches, laying out a blanket near a clump of sturdy oaks as if they were out on a picnic.
After listening to Myde's repeated sighs at the rocky ground, Yen Sid finally relented one afternoon, and conjured grass.
Peace found them gradually once more. There were fewer applicants turning up on Yen Sid's doorstep for one request or the other. Instead, they had been replaced by countless letters: inquiries from Fantasia, new discoveries on the Heartless, and the general concerns of numerous sages across the worlds. Somehow, Yen Sid's last apprentice had heard of the magician's current task, and now seemed to feel that it was his business to warn his former master of the perils involved. Yen Sid rolled his eyes every time he opened another mouse-stamped envelope; the concern was touching, but he felt sorely tempted to inquire after the state of Disney Castle's drainage systems.
He marked each advance of the Heartless, however, adapting Myde's windchimes into a mobile that contained various scrying spheres. Each had been attuned to their proper location, and rotated in a slow orbit that whispered notes in the faint air currents of the tower. Disney Castle marked one quarter; Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather were pinpointed in a third. It was a tenuous network of mages, each struggling with the concerns of their own realm, but proof that no world was truly alone.
And at the center of those calculations lay Fantasia - a smooth, translucent orb that promised a home to return to one day.
The scrying mobile gave off a constant hum in Yen Sid's study, so long as Myde remembered to wind it up each week; the magician himself frequently neglected to keep track of the days, involved in his own research. Flora and Merryweather were convinced that the Heartless were connected to a witch on their world, but Fauna was still hemming and hawing.
He was attempting to phrase an inquiry into the last known location of Maleficent when his gaze wandered across the mobile, and was arrested by the dark blotch spreading across one of the spheres.
"By the Composers," he swore, jabbing his pen down so hard that the quill-nib snapped.
Myde, who had been rummaging through the closets in the next room over, leaned perilously off his stepstool to peek through the doorway. "What is it?"
"Fantasia is under attack." Snatching the orb from its cradle, Yen Sid held it up to the light. The shapes within were distant, murky; he resisted the urge to shake it until they were clear. Patience kept his hand steady. Slowly, the familiar shape of the Dukas highlands became visible - and near to them, the squatting pit of Mugorssky.
Darkness was billowing out of the demons' nest.
Quashing his initial panic, Yen Sid forced himself to study the symptoms of the attack. "Heartless," he said at last, and the word felt like a death. "We must be quick."
They arrived as the first tides of Shadow had begun to lap at the edges of the highlands, swallowing hillsides and nibbling at the mountains. Already, several of the safer paths had been engulfed; an entire herd of goats fled in a panic past the magician's domicile, scrabbling over the stones as they chose to risk a steep descent rather than dare the artificial night.
"My family," Myde was babbling, even as he was scooping up book after book, stacking them neatly in their padded boxes. "Can we do anything for them?"
Yen Sid spared at glance at the scrying orb; his heart shuddered as he saw the hungry layer of ink that had already devoured half the world. "The Pastoral Fields are still far away," he lied. "The invasion may come to a halt before then - I do not know. Don't drop that!"
They gathered what they could in haste. Even as the magician worked, wrapping spell after feverish spell to package up years of research, he knew he could not rescue everything. His home was too deeply sunk into the mountainside to simply whisk away as neatly as a tower. The enchantments were too old, the protections too intricate to undo in the limited time available. Yen Sid's own confidence in his home had trapped him. He had become set in his ways, and so had ignored the possibility of necessary change.
Resigning decades of work to oblivion, the wizard bound seals on the remainder of his home. The packed cartons were ushered towards the longship with a flick of his hand and a sharp word; Yen Sid hurried along behind, nearly crashing into Myde, who was trying to balance a delicate mechanical egg in his arms while lugging a jar of humming jade beads. With a distracted tsk, the magician caught the boy by the shoulder, steadying him until the magician was certain nothing would fall.
"Do you have everything, Myde?"
"Yes - no." Biting his lip, the boy wavered on the bottom step. He shifted the jar in his arms, using his chin to keep the mechanical egg from falling. "No. I think I've forgotten something. But I don't know what... "
Yen Sid cursed. The sphere in his hand was almost completely black; above them, the skies were as dark as a midnight that had never known stars. "We've no time," he insisted, shoving the boy physically towards the dock. "Go. Go!"
Haste spells launched the ship forward before either of them were fully prepared. Myde slid across the deck, tucking his body around a crate of hourglasses to keep them from shattering on impact. Yen Sid stumbled against the steering wheel; the ship lurched dangerously to the side before he could correct it, threatening to spill the cargo that had not been netted down yet.
They had just barely made it out of the gateway when the Darkness surged forth in pursuit, forcing its bulk out of the narrow portal behind them.
The ethereal currents that supported the longship had already started to turn thick and sluggish, changing from intangible power into a violet tar that clung to the sides of the boat and left streaks of ooze behind. Yen Sid snapped out commands to the air, demanding winds to rise to his call; the answer was a jagged gust that exploded from the sky and nearly knocked the magician flat against the rails.
But it was enough.
The ship surged ahead, sails filling in wide, white arcs of salvation. The shadows fell back. Boxes creaked against the netting as they slid against each other, but nothing broke, and slowly, the distance between them and Fantasia began to widen.
Yen Sid had just begun to hope for their escape when Myde jerked upright, clutching the rail.
"What?" Yen Sid called, but the boy was already hauling himself up onto the railing, slinging one leg over the side.
"We forgot the brooms, Master!" Panic turned the aquadei's face pale. "They're still stored in the closet! I can't believe I forgot about them!"
Blackness roared in a living torrent behind them; the mass of living shadow rippled outwards from the ruins of Fantasia, tendrils questing for fresh worlds. Already, their home had been swallowed whole. Dukas was gone, Stravinsky destroyed - and the Darkness was still chasing, still ravenous for any victims it could claim.
Gripping the wheel, Yen Sid struggled to keep his attention on the ship and not on the death only seconds away. He dared not become too distracted from their course. The path was treacherous, and soaring into nothingness would kill them as surely as any Heartless.
"They are animated bodies," he roared instead. "They cannot feel pain! Myde! Do not be foolish!"
Myde shook his head doggedly, the strands of his hair plastered like a net across his face. The summoned winds tore away his voice; they bit the sails, stirred the dark waters into a froth. "Someone has to get them! I'll come back, Master! I'll be fine!"
And then he was gone.
The hardest part about escaping alive, Yen Sid knew, was the waiting.
For a time, he was afraid that the Darkness would follow him all the way back to his tower and beyond, relentless once it had caught his scent - but the pursuit broke off halfway and left him in peace. Still, Yen Sid did not dare to slow down. He kept his face turned forward. He did not let himself look back.
The ship crawled home without further incident, and nudged against the shore with a subdued bump.
He spent the first night in vigil. Sleep was a danger when the Darkness might be only a horizon away; in token defense, the magician bathed every inch of his tower in light, coupling spells with mundane lamps. He kindled tapers and candelabras, cupped flames in his hands and strung them across the windows, built an army of tiny stars to ward against the night.
They burned and wore down to nothing, dripping wax on the curtains. Yen Sid coaxed them back to life. He renewed them patiently at the start of each day, and tried not to think about how long it had been since Myde had not returned.
Hunger snuck in despite his disinterest. It clawed at his stomach and chest and throat before he bothered to address its concerns. The kitchen was a foreign land. Yen Sid had not bothered to pay attention to its contents for years; now as he rummaged through the cabinets, he was confronted with bottles of strange herbs, labels of ingredients he did not recognize.
Frustrated at last, he resorted to a common summoning, creating fish from thin air, complete with slices of lemon and vegetables on the side.
The spell tasted like ash in his mouth.
Seven days went by on the clocks with no sign of Myde. On Yen Sid's windchime mobile, the Darkness continued to spread. Several of the orbs had been tainted by dark lines, while others turned completely black, just as Fantasia had been engulfed. Like an inkwell overturned, the Heartless seeped through the network of worlds. Everyone was forced to scatter.
When the aquadei did not return after the second week, the mobile in Yen Sid's study finally ran down, spheres clicking to a halt.
Yen Sid did not bother to wind it back up again.
Silence devoured the lower floors of the tower. The crystals were deactivated, no longer singing the hours; the instruments fell silent without the magician's proximity to cue them. Yen Sid deftly absorbed the lack of music, keeping his attention reserved instead for any hint of intruders.
And then one day, Yen Sid heard the sound of the front door jingling open.
The pen fell from his fingers, blotting dark spots across the book he had just been annotating; the wizard ignored it as he shoved his chair back, nearly knocking over a row of shelves in the process. None of his wards had activated to warn him of any danger. If the Heartless had come, they had done so in a guise so innocent that magic itself had been deceived.
Even prepared for the worst - for hope and for fear and for the coldest of truths - Yen Sid's heart clenched when he saw the creature that had made its way into his tower.
Water dripped off Myde's body, soaking every inch as thoroughly as if he had been drenched in a storm. There was no mark of Heartless upon the boy - no Darkness on his heels - but he had been changed. Gone were the blue-spot freckles, the coppery locks of hair, the vivid color that was every Pastoral's birthright. What remained was a faded, bleached copy of a living being.
Most telling of all: the magical instruments did not respond as Myde moved past them, remaining mute in their glass brackets.
Myde did not seem to realize what had happened. One hand clutched a sodden broomstick; the magic to animate it had gone out of the wood, and the straw had all been torn away. His clothes had been shredded by the claws of countless beasts. There were no visible wounds - no blood at all - but the boy limped when he walked, a soft shuffled drag of one foot.
He looked up wearily as Yen Sid descended the stairs, and tried to offer a smile.
"Master," he said, and Yen Sid could hear the exhaustion filling the boy's voice like the ocean overbrimming a cup, "I came back."
The wizard came to a halt on the bottom step. The pressure on his chest was as stark as a fist wrapped around his ribs, gripping until its knuckles were white. He took one shuddering breath before pronouncing the verdict he had feared above all others:
"You are not Myde."
The boy jerked in surprise, staring back in helpless confusion. "Master - "
"Look at yourself!" Anger was the magician's only shield; he grasped it blindly now, fighting against despair. "You're nothing now. Don't try to sway me by acting like a real person."
Disbelief gave way to horror. Myde took a step forward in protest; without realizing it, Yen Sid found himself retreating similarly. "Master. It's me, it's Myde, what's wrong - "
The aquadei's plea almost forced Yen Sid to turn away; only through years of discipline did he keep his face impassive. "You are but a shell of a living being," he intoned. "The shadows have taken the rest away. Where," and his cold dignity cracked into a shout, voice ringing with a strength that felt unbearably hollow inside, "is the music in your heart?"
Myde's shoulders twitched. The hand that clutched the broom tugged it closer to his side; the other moved slowly to his own chest, rubbing at his shirt. He made no reply in his defense. Only fingers clawing, clutching, betraying the fact that there was something gone missing beyond all hopes of recovery.
His expression was empty as he turned his face to look at the magician - empty even of its own disbelief.
Just as Yen Sid began to gather the energies needed to summon lighting to his aid, Myde finally spoke.
"Are you... going to kill me, then?"
Power snapped awake inside the tower. White arcs pulled themselves from the walls, drawn to the magician as Yen Sid steeled himself to destroy the thing that Myde had become. Lightning, fire, earth - anything but water, everything but water, to obliterate the boy's ghost and his memory with it.
Myde swallowed as he saw spellcraft begin to unfold in multicolored petals around the magician. His jaw firmed; he closed his eyes in execution bravery.
"'Anything that can dance can feel,'" came his soft, final whisper. "'Anything that likes music can love.'"
Wildfire hummed inside the magician's palms. Then he clenched them shut.
"Out of respect for the boy I once knew, I will give you the chance to leave my sight. Get out. Get out now," he ordered harshly, feeling his own throat choke on the words, "and never come back."
Myde drew a long breath, head lowering. At first Yen Sid thought the boy - the shell, he reminded himself, the empty remnant - would show his corrupted nature by unleashing an attack, but Myde only extended his arm, holding the broomstick out like an offering between them.
It clattered as he dropped it on the floor.
Torn clothing rustled. Wet boots snicked back towards the door. The latch depressed with a click; it closed the same way, gentle, but absolute.
When the silence crept back in, Yen Sid let it.