Meta Knight de Brillante Armadura had a soft and gentle childhood. He was one of those fortunate aristocratic children whose primary residence was a sprawling country estate on the outskirts of Dreamland’s borders, far enough that the Nightmare Wizard’s doings were only whispers and dark fairy tales but near enough from the kingdom’s outer walls to avoid the frequent fights between the Nightmare Wizard’s soldiers and the rebellious Galaxy Soldier Army. It was an idyllic childhood, until the day it all came crashing down.
The Nightmare Wizard’s knights burst in without warning. Meta Knight hid under his bed as the servants’ screams and pounding feet filled the air. No one seemed to notice him, and Meta Knight remembered feeling vaguely offended at being forgotten. He was the son of a knight and a lady! How dare the household servants all panic and spare him not a second’s thought in the face of the terrible disaster unfolding? That was, until he was found by a stony-faced knight who dragged him out kicking and screaming. Then, Meta Knight wished he’d been forgotten.
The handcuffs were too large, so they bound his wrists with rope instead. The knights insisted that he ought to be grateful as he rode to the capital in a tiny, cramped carriage. And Meta Knight remembered being, at first, relieved. Yes, they had invaded his parents’ estate and taken the servants away. Yes, they had broken things and screamed and taken him to the Nightmare Wizard’s castle, but they were knights! In fairy tales, knights were good, and Meta Knight’s own father had been a noble knight. Surely, these knights were just pretending to imprison him as part of some great plan, and when the time came, one of them would nobly champion him before the terrifying Nightmare Wizard. And maybe they kept his wrists tied together, but some of the knights spoke very gently to him. One even slipped him a piece of candy once or twice. They weren’t so bad. This was all just a formality, and Meta Knight would soon be released, a release accompanied by an apology for the terrible misunderstanding that had occurred.
But then, Meta Knight was left alone with the most feared man in all of Dreamland. The Nightmare Wizard was a tall, skeletal man with bone-white skin and sharp angles. The fashionable men’s suit looked far too commonplace to clothe his strange form, and despite the Nightmare Wizard being so sharp and strange, there was something alluring about him. Looking at him was like watching a dangerous animal, knowing it could destroy you but being unable to look away. The wizard lowered his dark glasses, revealing cold gray eyes, and gave Meta Knight a sharp glance, but the wizard didn’t move from the sofa upon which he lounged. “Shouldn’t you kneel?” the wizard asked, his voice deliberate and gentle. “Surely, you now who I am, little bat.”
Despite his appearance, he sounded trustworthy. Like a caring adult who realized that he was dealing with a small child and was willing to make allowances. Meta Knight still didn’t trust him. Father hadn’t liked the Nightmare Wizard, so Meta Knight resolved not to either.
Meta Knight trembled and sank to his knees. He didn’t even really know how to properly kneel. His parents had never taught him. Even as he sat back on his heels, Meta Knight kept his gaze on Nightmare. That wasn’t something you were supposed to do, but Meta Knight didn’t know that either. He had cut his teeth on fairy tales, and he knew that heroes and knights, with their shoulders back and their chins up, stared monsters straight in the eye. Meta Knight’s greatest misfortune was, perhaps, that he was too young and had too much admiration for courage.
“How old are you?” Nightmare asked.
Despite his desire to be brave, tears burned in Meta Knight’s eyes. He wanted his parents. “Five,” he replied, trying not to sniffle.
When the Nightmare Wizard laughed, Meta Knight’s face twisted with confusion. “A pity,” Nightmare said. “You’re a very ugly child. Had you been younger, you might have had hope for growing out of that.”
Meta Knight had never considered that he might be an ugly child, and he felt a hot sense of indignation mingling with his anxiety. “Perhaps, you have a poor sense of aesthetics,” Meta Knight replied.
He didn’t know what aesthetics were. But Meta Knight had heard his father say that once, and his father was said to be a very witty conversationalist.
The Nightmare Wizard’s lips quirked into a small smile, and Meta Knight, who had no experience with cruelty or dishonesty, melted with it. Perhaps, the Nightmare Wizard wasn’t so bad as the whispers had always said. “You’re mine now,” Nightmare said.
But that wasn’t nice.
“I don’t belong to anyone,” Meta Knight huffed.
“You’re a very precocious creature,” Nightmare mused.
Meta Knight had never heard the word ‘precocious’ before, but Nightmare had sounded friendly when he said it. And yet Nightmare was insisting that he owned him. As if someone like Meta Knight, who came from a very wealthy family, would ever be owned by anyone.
“But you do belong to me,” Nightmare added gently. “Your parents owe me a very large debt, and it’s time that they repaid it.”
A cold flash of fear shot through Meta Knight and seemed to curl somewhere in his chest. He had heard of debts and the terrible things that happened to people who didn’t pay. Had his parents been sent to a debtor’s prison? Had they fled to avoid such a terrible fate?
The wizard rubbed his chin and tilted his head. “Your parents can’t repay their debt, but you can. I think that’s fair, don’t you?” Nightmare asked softly.
A debt. Meta Knight had never heard of his parents having debts. Surely, it was all just some terrible mistake. Meta Knight’s parents were good, honest people. They’d just forgotten to pay the Nightmare Wizard something or other, and once Meta Knight’s parents paid, he would be returned to them. “My parents always repay their debts, my Lord,” Meta Knight replied, his voice quavering only slightly.
Nightmare’s face became very soft and genuine, as if he truly was moved by Meta Knight’s plight. “It’s a pity you don’t come from a better lineage. I could’ve had a use for someone like you,” Nightmare said. “What a clever little thing you are.”
Meta Knight was too young to realize what that comment really meant. He hadn’t known what it meant to work for eighteen hours a day underground, scrabbling around on his hands and knees in the dark. He hadn’t known what it was like to breath in coal dust and mold or what it was like to never see sunlight or to never have enough food. He’d never been screamed at or beaten before. And working in the mines until he was sixty—although no one working in the mines lived past twenty-five—hadn’t seemed so bad when he thought his parents might still rescue him. Then, once he’d realized his parents weren’t coming, he’d tried running away, only to realize how easily he could be caught and how harshly he could be punished. If he didn’t try and run away, the owners of the mine let him have a bed in the orphanage. If he did, he was locked up in debtor’s prison, which was worse.
In debtor’s prison, he couldn’t steal to fill his belly, and even though he was always hungry, any few scraps of food were better than none at all. The owners of the mines didn’t particularly care about the state of their employees; there were always more people in debt to replace them.
And Meta Knight remembered it all with sharp, horrific clarity, and more than anything else, he never wanted Daroach to find out. Because if Daroach found out just who that debt had belonged to, he would take Meta Knight back to the mines, and Meta Knight would once more lose having enough food and soft blankets and attention.
After a couple of months, Daroach realized that Meta Knight had no birthday and set to remedy the situation. Meta Knight had begun working in the coal mines on his fifth birthday. Or so the children’s home had said. Children had to be at least five-years-old to work in the mines, but Daroach wouldn’t have put it past the children’s home to lie and add a few months or even a year or two to Meta Knight’s age. And because Meta Knight vaguely remembered his birthday being sometime in the winter Daroach had determined that Meta Knight was twelve and born on the Winter Solstice, an easily memorable date.
Then, there was the matter of Meta Knight’s education. When asked, Meta Knight had only shrugged, seemingly apathetic to the idea, but Daroach knew this boy—his boy, such a strange thought—was brilliant and would benefit from a good education. The best one Daroach could buy. While Sectonia was the madame to the most elite and upper scale brothel in Dreamland, she also ran a charm school, designed to teach young women skills which might grant them a profitable marriage or—if not that—a position in Sectonia’s brothel. It was not a curriculum designed for small children. Nevertheless, Daroach was determined to give Meta Knight a good, proper education, and of all the people Daroach might entrust Meta Knight to, Sectonia was the most educated. She was smart, and had she been a man, Daroach was sure Sectonia would have been a successful alchemist or astronomer. Maybe even an inventor.
So three times a week, Daroach took Meta Knight to private tutoring in manners and the arts with Sectonia. Meta Knight’s other days were spent learning from the Squeaks. Spinni taught Meta Knight how to throw shruikens and scale the stone buildings on the outskirts of the town, all the ruins of temples and stately manors that had been destroyed in Nightmare’s conquest and left to rot. Storo taught Meta Knight how to lift heavy objects and how to box. Doc taught Meta Knight all a manner of sciences—medicine, astronomy, physics, and algebra. The rest of Meta Knight’s time was spent with Daroach, who had endeavored to teach Meta Knight how to be a gentleman thief.
And really, life went on. It was remarkable how easily Meta Knight fit within the Squeaks’ lives. When Meta Knight was thirteen—or maybe fourteen—Daroach decided it was time for his new, young son to learn something of the family business.
“Not to—uh—doubt your parenting skills, Boss,” Spinni said, when Daroach brought it up to the rest of the Squeaks, “But don’t you think Meta’s a little young?”
The Squeaks were outside their hideout, sheltered from the ice and late autumnal winds by several sheets of metal. They had returned from a rather grim meeting with Sectonia; one of her acquaintances had disappeared. After the detectives were called and found no evidence of the missing woman, Sectonia called for Daroach, but he and the Squeaks didn’t have any better luck than even the Nightmare Wizard’s incompetent knights. So the Squeaks returned and began talking of other matters, namely their upcoming heists. Daroach’s mention of Meta Knight kept them outside. The Winter Solstice was approaching, which meant many of the kingdom’s wealthiest denizens would be away from home, their valuables left unattended. This, of course, required a ton of planning. It wasn’t just a matter of if Meta Knight would be joining them; it was also a matter of which heist.
“Young?” Daroach asked.
Daroach had gone on his first heist when he was twelve, under the watchful eye of his master, a thief of great renown. When Daroach thought of his childhood, though, his stomach lurched; his master hadn’t been kind. Maybe sending Daroach out so young had been just another symptom of neglect, another instance of abuse that Daroach hadn’t recognized.
“It’s your call, Boss,” Storo said. “The truth is none of us really know anything about children.”
Daroach hummed. “Perhaps, we ought to purloin some child-rearing manuals,” Daroach mused. “I’d wager Delilah has a few. She’s seems like she’s good with children.”
“Statistically speaking, you would need a larger sample size to determine if she’s good with children,” Doc replied.
“True,” Daroach replied. “Maybe I should take Meta to a party instead. Let him feel out the waters. I could introduce him as my new adopted son. Wealthy people love those stories of the rescued poor. I’m sure they would think I was wonderful if I told them I had adopted a little coal urchin.”
The Squeaks looked at one another. “I think that might work,” Spinni said. “He wouldn’t even necessarily have to do any thievery. He could just enjoy the party, and you’d have back-up in case something went awry.”
“You could, uh, what’s the word?” Storo asked. “Ease him into it. The stealing bit.”
“I like this!” Daroach exclaimed. “It’ll give him the opportunity to use all those manners Sectonia taught him! Perfect!”
Without any further discussion, Daroach sauntered into their hideout, leaving the rest of the Squeaks to trail him.
“You’re rather enthusiastic about this,” Spinni said wryly.
“Of course, I am! Meta Knight!” Daroach greeted in a sing-song voice. “Your favorite dashing thief has returned!”
Meta Knight’s gold eyes flashed from the loft, and the child quickly climbed down. He’d grown a few inches and put on some weight since Daroach had found him, and Meta Knight looked a bit more how Daroach thought a young adolescent should look.
As Meta Knight approached, Daroach bowed and swept his hat from his head. “We had a good night out. How was yours?”
Meta Knight shrugged.
Daroach ruffled Meta Knight’s hair, drawing a scowl, on his way to hang up his hat and coat. “Come, now! You must have done something all evening,” Daroach said.
“We went out in the snow and scaled an icy rooftop,” Spinni said.
“Did you get anything good?” Meta Knight asked.
The boy still wouldn’t say what he’d been doing in their absence, but that was nothing new. Lately, Meta Knight had seemed very secretive. Even more than he normally was. Daroach suspected something was amiss, but Meta Knight was a good child and would surely tell Daroach when he was ready.
“No,” Daroach said. “We were returning a favor for Sectonia. One of her acquaintances has disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” Meta Knight echoed.
“Sectonia has no reason to worry yet,” Spinni said. “She’s just being cautious.”
“She’s always been careful,” Storo added.
“She has to be,” Doc said, “In her line of work.”
It was true that Sectonia had no reason to worry yet, but Daroach also knew that Sectonia had many enemies. There was the Nightmare Wizard’s disdain for her as well as her long-standing hatred of the wizard Necrodeus. Daroach liked to be optimistic, but—like Sectonia—Daroach suspected that, if her missing friend was found, she wouldn’t be alive. And if Sectonia wasn't careful, she might disappear someday, too; those who opposed the Nightmare Wizard often vanished without warning, and while Sectonia herself might not be directly involved with the rebellious GSA, the gossip swirling around her was very condemning.
“But don’t you fret over it!” Daroach exclaimed cheerily. “Let’s talk about you, Meta! The Squeaks and I think it’s time that you got your feet wet, so to speak. How do you feel about joining me at a ball?”
Meta Knight blinked a few times, appearing taken aback. “Would I be stealing?” he asked.
“Not unless you feel comfortable with it,” Daroach replied. “I just think it would be good for you to get some experience. You can meet some of my connections. I know all sorts—the aristocracy, the GSA, knights—and I’m quite popular with them.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t mind,” Meta Knight replied.
“That’s my boy!” Daroach declared, playing up his enthusiasm to distract Meta Knight from thinking too deeply about Sectonia and favors.
Meta Knight was a sharp boy, and he was far too young to be worrying about the sort of crime that ran rampant under the Nightmare Wizard’s reign. There were monsters in Dreamland, and Daroach was determined to protect Meta Knight from that reality for as long as he could.