"So what you're saying is, none of us actually know where Mistledale is?" Magnus asked.
Taako shrugged. "Hey, don't look at me. I'm super lost."
"And whose fault is that?" Merle's glare was like a physical presence, stabbing into Taako's back. "We'd already be in Mistledale if you hadn't landed our pod in that forest!"
"There were pegasi, Merle! Don't you remember what happened last time there were pegasi?"
"Yeah, the exact same thing!"
Taako rolled his eyes and elected to ignore the angry dwarf. It wasn't like they were in any hurry, after all. The Seekers had yet to locate another Grand Relic, so the Director had begun sending the Reclaimers after other powerful artifacts. Taako suspected it was less about the destructive potential of these items and more about keeping the restless trio of idiots occupied.
So it wasn't like an aimless stroll along a wooded country road would do any harm. Besides, if they got really lost, they could always just summon another pod. The Director wouldn't be happy with them, but when was she ever?
"Hey, why don't we ask those people for directions?" Magnus suggested, pointing to an approaching band of people on horseback. "At the very least we can figure out where we are."
Merle eyed the riders warily. "I don't know, Magnus. I don't like the look of that big one." He pointed at the lead rider, a well-muscled, raven-haired human male who sat astride a jet black stallion.
"We'll be fine. Just--"
Magnus' voice cut off with a sharp inhale, jolting Taako out of his carefully cultivated facade of boredom. He looked up at the fighter and saw what looked like dawning panic on his face.
Taako looked back at the riders. They looked like a normal band of travelers, albeit well-armed and battle-worn. They had their weapons sheathed, their mounts were moving at a leisurely pace, and a few of them were wearing the crest of some noble or other. Just a group of personal soldiers scouting ahead for their lord.
So why did Magnus look so shaken?
"You guys need to hide."
Merle's face echoed the confusion Taako felt. "What? Why?"
"Doesn't matter. Hide. Now. If they see us, run. I'll hold them off."
Merle narrowed his eyes. "Oh, I see how it is. You want to keep all the good loot to yourself!"
With a low growl, Magnus turned around, scooped Merle up by the back of his shirt, and tossed him off the road into the woods. The dwarf landed amongst the bushes with a loud "oof."
Taako had barely a second to appreciate the comedy of the situation when he found himself shoved into the bushes himself. He got to his knees, brushing dirt from his robes, and was about to give Magnus a stern talking-to when he heard the commotion.
As stealthily as possible, Taako and Merle peered out of the bushes. Evidently, the flurry of motion on the roadside had drawn the attention of the riders, who were now charging in earnest towards Magnus.
"It's him!" someone shouted.
"Make sure you take him alive!" yelled the leader.
Magnus shifted his battleaxe to one hand and drew his shield, moving sideways into the center of the road as if to draw the riders away from the bushes. Taako did a quick count of enemies and cursed. Nine to one.
"That idiot! What is he thinking?" Merle hissed. "We have to do something!"
Three of the riders had shot ahead of the rest of the group: two half-elves, one blond and one brunette, and the lead rider. They were closing in fast, the sound of their horses' hooves sending tangible vibrations through the ground. At that moment, Magnus charged forward, aiming for the lead rider. With a deft maneuver, the man jerked the horse out of the way. Magnus went flying past, nearly avoiding a boot to the skull and an axe swung at his head. Before he could catch himself, an arrow lodged itself in his back. The brunette half-elf let out a cheer and a cry of, "First blood, bitches!"
"Ma-!" Merle tried to shout, but Taako slammed a hand over the cleric's mouth.
"Not yet!" he hissed, eyes trained on Magnus' position. The six remaining riders had reached the lead three and were circling their mounts around the fighter, closing him in. Magnus was only about twenty feet away, far too close for Taako to risk a spell. "We need the element of surprise! If they know we're here--"
Merle wrested Taako's hand away from his face and spat, "If they know we're here, they'll leave off Magnus! There's no way he can take on nine guys at once!"
As much as he hated to admit it, Merle was right. Past the bushes, Magnus was weaving and dodging around axes, swords, and arrows. Every time he tried to swing at an enemy, another rider would sweep in from behind and either land a blow or knock Magnus off balance. It was a roiling mass of weapons and equine bodies, not at all ideal for spellcasting, but maybe with the right timing...there!
"Hold on to your butt!" Taako shouted, shoving Merle away and taking careful aim. The air crackled with power as a Thunderwave rolled from his umbrella, tossing three riders in the outer circle from their mounts. The moment the spell was launched, Taako grabbed Merle's arm and began to drag him along the treeline.
"Over there!" someone shouted, and Taako knew they'd been spotted. Pain blossomed in his left shoulder, but he ignored it.
"Hey!" Merle bellowed. "I cast Sacred Flame!"
Taako spared a brief glance to see Merle's spell land before he dove behind a wide tree. The sounds of battle were ramping up, and now their cover was blown. His mind raced, trying to figure out a way out of this. With the riders all clumped up around Magnus, he couldn't risk using his more powerful spells. Merle might be able to buff, but that would mean exposing himself to the enemy. They simply weren't equipped to fight this many people at once.
What they needed was backup.
Taako fumbled with his Stone of Farspeech, struggling to remember the frequency. Shit, shit, shit, what was it? Why couldn't he remember?
A horrible, high-pitched screech distracted him from his task. On instinct, Taako slapped his hands to his ears, dropping the stone in his desperation to block out that awful, awful noise. Beside him, Merle was curled into a ball on the ground, cradling his head in his hands and moaning in pain.
Shit, shit, SHIT! They've got a fucking wizard?
Well, this made everything ten times harder.
Ears still ringing from the Shatter spell, Taako risked a momentary peek around the tree to shoot off Ray of Frost at the nearest enemy. He caught a brief glimpse of Magnus amidst the horses before he had to duck out of the way of another spell.
"I cast Command!" Merle croaked out, pointing a shaking finger at one of the grounded figures. The one in the middle seemed to convulse for a moment before turning around and booking it down the road. There was a shout, and one of the horsemen peeled off from the group to chase down his companion.
"Shit, Taako," Merle said, his voice still tight with pain, "Magnus isn't doing too--oh, no."
"What? What happened?!" Taako demanded, too frightened to look.
"Arrow to the chest, looks like a crit!" Merle staggered to his feet, wincing as the motion made his head swim. Almost instantly, there was an arrow sticking out of his own chest, lodged nearly three-quarters of the way in. With a bloody cough, the cleric staggered backwards.
"Dammit!" Taako shouted. Before he could second-guess himself, he jumped out of hiding and fired a spell at the archer. "Eat a dick, asshole!"
He didn't allow himself the pleasure of watching the man suffer acid burns. He dropped to the ground by Merle, who was fiddling with the arrow and still, somehow, conscious.
"Talk to me, dude."
"I'm fine," Merle insisted, coughing up a bit of blood. "Healing...magic. Just...focus on Magnus!"
As if to drive home the point, Magnus let out a choked cry of pain. Taako whipped around to see the blond half-elf dislodging an axe from the fighter's shoulder, a spray of blood following its path. As he watched, another rider came closing in, charging Magnus and forcing him to jump back--straight into the path of an arrow.
"Gods damn it!" Taako hissed. He glanced around wildly, trying to locate the Stone of Farspeech he'd dropped--stupid, stupid, STUPID--but it was nowhere to be found.
"Merle, can I use your Stone of Farspeech?" Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the stone from where it hung on a cord around the cleric's neck and hastily called the first frequency he could think of.
"Angus McDonald speaking!"
"Ango, we need backup. Tell Killian and the Regulators to get to our position right now!"
"Sir? What's going on?"
"Kid, for once in your life, just do something without asking a million questions!"
When Angus spoke again, he sounded like he might cry. Taako felt a brief pang of regret, but shoved it down. Now was not the time to be getting all sappy and shit.
"Alright, sir, just a moment."
Taako sighed with relief. The Regulators would come and rescue them, Magnus and Merle would be taken care of, and they would all be okay.
Then Magnus screamed.
It took one look for Taako to realize that help couldn't possibly reach them fast enough. Magnus was on the ground, clutching his leg tightly as he tried to stem the tide of blood that poured forth. Taako's stomach churned when he caught a glimpse of severed muscle, soon obscured by the mass of people and horses closing in on Magnus.
The Stone of Farspeech in Taako's hand crackled to life. Somewhere by his foot, a similar crackling noise told him where he'd dropped his own. As he snatched it up, he heard Magnus's voice, choked with pain and terror, utter one word:
And in that moment, Taako made a decision. Magnus was down. Merle was dying. There were seven enemies still remaining, and they'd been unable to kill a single one. The Regulators would never make it on time to save them, and in the meantime Merle might bleed out, healing magic be damned. For the first time since that horrible day in Glamour Springs, Taako couldn't think of a way out. So he didn't think. He acted.
Taako scooped up Merle, turned his back on Magnus, and ran.
Magnus couldn't tell if his companions had followed his order. He couldn't see them past the armed men and women surrounding him, swords and axes and arrows aimed at him from every direction. His leg felt like it was on fire. He gasped for air, every breath making his chest ache where the arrow had pierced it. Somewhere, a man was screaming.
"Magnus Burnsides," the leader said. He was a large man, with muscles that could rival Magnus' in size and pale scar tissue stretched across his neck. He leaned in, placed his sword under Magnus' chin, and lifted it up, forcing their eyes to meet. "We meet at last. Governor Kalen will be most pleased to see you again. He's been searching for you for so long."
Magnus spat blood in the man's face as a reply. His jaw clenched, but he wiped the bloody spittle off with perfect calm.
"We could have done this the easy way, you know," he said, his pitch-black eyes like bottomless pits boring into Magnus' soul. "If you'd only come quietly, you wouldn't be in all this pain."
"Fuck off," Magnus choked out.
"Hey, Saxton," someone said, "should we go after the other two? The elf could be a problem."
The leader, Saxton, waved his hand dismissively. "We'll be long gone by the time they're able to find help. We have what we came for, and that's all that matters." A terrible grin spread across his face as he looked Magnus up and down. The tip of the sword briefly pressed against his Adam's apple before vanishing. "Where's Ajay?"
"He went after Harold, I think," the blond half-elf answered.
Saxton's lips twisted in a grimace. The expression was short-lived, however, as it quickly shifted back into an unpleasant sneer. "Well, Burnsides, it seems you'll just have to wait a little longer to be healed. Be a good lad and try not to bleed out on us, yes? I'd rather not disappoint my employer." Suddenly, Saxton's eyes lit up with exaggerated cheer. "Oh, of course! I almost forgot!"
In one swift motion, he ripped the Stone of Farspeech from around Magnus' neck. He held it up in front of the fighter, tilting it this way and that. "You won't be needing this anymore."
Magnus watched as Saxton closed his fist around the stone and squeezed. When his fingers unfurled, there was nothing left but sand.
This is my first TAZ fic, so feedback would be greatly appreciated!
Chapter by breakdancingsigma (SirFunkalo), SirFunkalo
The atmosphere in the pod back to the Bureau had been agonizing. Taako had managed to dislodge the arrow from Merle's chest, and the cleric had begun to look significantly better once he'd healed himself a few times, but the empty space in the pod had screamed of loss and failure. It had been like a physical presence bearing down on their shoulders, accusing.
Stepping out of the pod into the hangar had been no better. When only two Reclaimers had disembarked, Avi looked as if he'd had a battering ram slammed into his chest. Then Killian and Carey had come running in, weapons at the ready, only to pull up short at the sight of Merle and Taako.
"Where's Magnus?" Carey had asked, craning her neck as if she thought the bulky fighter was somehow hiding behind the two smaller Reclaimers. Taako had let Merle explain, choosing to inspect his fingernails in a carefully calculated show of nonchalance that he most definitely did not feel. Then the two of them had been rushed to the hospital ward, because as it turned out Taako still had an arrow lodged in his shoulder and Merle was a bit too pale.
Which brought them to the present moment, with Noelle tending to their wounds and an uncomfortable silence between them. They'd filled the Director in on all that happened and it still didn't seem real. Taako played with a loose string hanging from the edge of his hospital gown, trying and failing to think of anything other than Magnus' face as the enemy closed in around him.
"What do you think they wanted with Magnus?" Merle asked finally.
"Hell if I know," Taako said. "Maybe they're fans?"
Merle shot him a look. "It's so good to know that you're still able to joke at a time like this!"
"Hey, it's not my fault Magnus decided to rush in to that fight!"
"You're the one who chose to run away!"
"What the fuck was I supposed to do? You heard Magnus, he wanted us to leave him. I was simply following orders."
Merle laughed. "Since when do you follow orders?"
"Since it saved both our asses!"
They lapsed back into silence. Noelle pointedly wandered away, giving them space. Taako picked at the string some more. They really needed to get some new gowns for this place.
"That big guy said he wanted Magnus alive," Merle said. "That means there's probably a good chance we could still rescue him."
"Yeah, let's just rocket back to solid ground and wander around Faerûn until we find them!" said Taako, throwing his arms up dramatically. "We have no idea why they want him alive, Merle. It might not be a permanent thing."
"Well, then we'll just have to figure out who it was who attacked us! Magnus seemed to recognize them, so maybe it's someone who holds a grudge against him." Merle drummed his wooden fingers against the mattress. "Who would have a grudge against Magnus?"
Taako thought for a moment. "Could be someone who had relatives in Phandalin."
"Yeah, but that wasn't entirely Magnus' fault."
"Uh, maybe someone from Boyland's family blames us for his death?"
"They weren't after us, though. They only wanted Magnus. And besides, no one outside the Bureau of Balance even remembers Boyland. Are you saying the Bureau hired a hit on their own Reclaimer?"
"I mean anything's possible, kemosabe."
Merle shook his head. "There's nothing we know of that can't be traced back to the two of us as well. Whatever this is, it's probably something from his past." He chuckled sardonically. "And we know so much about Magnus' past, don't we?"
A sly smile spread across Taako's face. "Maybe we don't have to," he said, his voice taking on that exaggerated lilt that told everyone he was hatching some plot.
Merle leaned in. "I'm listening."
Taako nodded. "Hey, Noelle? Can you call Angus in here?"
Merle groaned. "Great. Just who I wanted to see."
"How are you holding up, Delilah?"
The brunette half-elf glared at Magnus over her bloodstained shoulder. "The fucker took a chunk out of my arm, but I'll live."
"That's what you get for being cocky," the blond half-elf said. "Your an archer. You're supposed to stay far away from melee fighters."
"Don't fucking tell me how to do my job, Ephraim. We took him down, didn't we? And I did the most damage, so go berate someone else for a change."
"It's just a simple safety precaution--"
"I'm fine. Jeez-us."
Ephraim rolled his eyes, which Magnus could only see because the half-elf twisted in the saddle to face him while he did it. Women, he seemed to be saying.
Magnus ignored the man, focusing instead on trying to think a way out of the situation he was in. It was hard; his first (and second, and third) instinct was to try and fight his way out, but that clearly wasn't an option. Sure, the guy they called Ajay had healed the worst of his injuries and he was, arguably, back to full strength, but there were still nine potential enemies between him and freedom. And while they'd been nice enough to give him his own horse (the wizard Harold was currently clinging to Ajay like a baby possum), Magnus' wrists were also tied to the saddle horn, and his ankles to the stirrups. He'd been stripped of his belongings, including Steven the Goldfish, and while he could have summoned the Chance Lance, there wasn't much he could do with the thing in his state.
The blond half-elf slowed his horse until he came even with Magnus. "So, you're really Magnus Burnsides? The Hero of Raven's Roost?"
"That's me," Magnus replied dryly.
Ephraim offered a friendly smile. "Wow. Never thought I'd meet a hero. What makes a carpenter take up adventuring? You must not have been a very good carpenter, huh?"
"I'm an excellent carpenter, thank you very much!"
"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend." Ephraim glanced at their surroundings absently, then said, "Look, I know we didn't get off to a great start, what with the whole 'hired-to-capture-you' thing, but I just want you to know that this is nothing personal. Nobody here is out to get you. Er, personally, that is."
"Speak for yourself," Delilah called back.
"Well, okay, you did sort of horribly maim my friend. But I'm sure she'll get over it."
"No I won't!"
"What I'm trying to say," Ephraim went on, "is that if you need anything, just let me know. I'd be happy to help in any way I can."
Magnus looked down at his wrists. "Uh, could you maybe untie me?"
Ephraim laughed. "I'm afraid not. Nice try, though!"
"Um, then could I at least have my goldfish back?"
The half-elf shook his head. "Sorry, all items found on targets are subject to confiscation. Just company policy, you understand. Ever since the incident with the monk and the prosthetic nose...well, it's a simple safety precaution."
"Oh, yeah, I get it," Magnus said, nodding. "No dogs on the moon, and all that."
Ephraim gave him a look. "Uh...sure. Anyway, I'm Ephraim, if you need anything just give me a holler." He made as if to spur his horse on.
"Wait, I do have one question," Magnus said.
"Where are you taking me?"
Ephraim smiled again. "Oh, that's an easy one. We're taking you to our camp! It's just a few miles north of here, we should be there by nightfall."
"Okay, and where is here?"
"I'm not so sure I should tell you that. Ever since the incident with the druid and the magic compass--"
"Let me guess, simple safety precaution," Magnus recited.
Ephraim brightened. "Exactly! I can tell we're going to get along swimmingly."
"Hey!" someone yelled. "Quit talking to the prisoner!"
Ephraim shrugged apologetically. "Well, like I said, if you need anything!" And he urged his horse on, leaving Magnus alone with his thoughts again.
A few hours passed this way, with only a brief bathroom break to stretch his legs. His knees were starting to cramp up when another horse pulled alongside his own. This time it was Delilah who spoke to him.
"Saxton says you gotta eat this," she said shortly, thrusting a large strip of beef jerky towards Magnus. "Take it."
Magnus looked down at his hands, still secured to the saddle horn, then back at the jerky, then back to his hands. "Uh, I'd love to, but I'm a little tied up here."
Delilah rolled her eyes. "Fucking fine," she huffed, leaning over and placing the meat in his hands. "There. Eat it."
Magnus tried, he really did, but he couldn't quite crane his neck down far enough to reach the food. After a few minutes of ineffectually biting at the air above it, Delilah heaved a long-suffering sigh and took back the jerky. "You're pathetic," she said as she proceeded to tear the jerky in long strips. "Open up, and don't make this weird."
She fed him a piece of the jerky, keeping her hand as far from his mouth as possible. Magnus chewed and swallowed. "So, does this make us jerky buddies?"
"What did I literally just say," Delilah said, scowling. "No, this does not make us jerky buddies. I'm not your anything buddy. I'd just as soon kill you as deliver you to Kalen, but a girl's gotta eat, and the governor is paying us big bucks to bring you back alive." Magnus nearly choked as she shoved another piece of jerky into his mouth. "So eat."
She didn't give him much chance to talk between jerky strips, so he ate in silence. After he swallowed the last bite, he said, "Wow, that was actually pretty good. Where'd you get the seasoning for this?"
"I'm sorry, do I look like a chef to you?" Delilah huffed. "I just bring in the fucking meat, I don't make the goddamn food around here. That's Krug's job." She pointed behind her at an orc, who waved. "Ask him if you're so interested. Or, better yet, don't. Because it's none of your business."
"Okay, I'm sensing some hostility here--"
"Yeah, no shit. You nearly chopped off my arm!"
Somewhere to Magnus' left, a voice called out, "Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration..."
"Shut up, Ajay!" Delilah shouted back.
"What I'm trying to say," Magnus went on, "is that I apologize for maiming you. But you were sort of attacking me at the time, so...we even?"
Delilah just glared at him for a long moment. Then, with oh-so-careful enunciation, she said, "How about no."
Then she spurred her horse on, and Magnus was alone again.
"So what you're saying is, you want me to take up a missing persons case?" Angus asked, adjusting his big round glasses.
"Yeah, you know us," said Taako. "We're kinda dumb. And this is right up your alley, so, y'know, might as well let you be useful for once."
Angus looked down at his notebook, which contained a shorthand account of Magnus' abduction. "I don't know, sirs, this sounds really dangerous. I mean, if you three couldn't even take those mercenaries down--"
"Hey, aren't you supposed to be the world's greatest detective?" Merle grouched. "Are you telling me you can't solve a simple case like this?"
Angus shook his head. "No, it's not that, sir! But it's not really all that simple, is it? I mean, you have no leads and only a brief description of a couple of mercs. And somehow you know absolutely nothing about Magnus' past except that he was a carpenter and knew someone named Julia."
Merle and Taako exchanged a look. "Yeah, we're not great about sharing backstories," Merle said.
"Oh, I know that!" Angus began scribbling a few more notes. "Let's see...I'll need to do some research into Magnus' origins...if I could find out where he's from, maybe I could interrogate a few old neighbors...then I'll need to check my sources on the recent movements of mercenary bands...oh, has anyone tried to contact him on the Stones of Farspeech?"
"Oh, yeah, of course!" Merle hedged. "Totally the first thing we did."
"Yup, definitely!" Taako chirped.
Angus did not look impressed. "You know, I can tell when you're lying, sirs."
"Damn kid," Merle grumbled. Angus ignored him and pulled out his own Stone of Farspeech. Nothing happened when he tried to call Magnus.
"Well, it was worth a shot!"
Merle threw his hands in the air. "No it wasn't! You just wasted, like, five seconds!"
"Just ignore him," Taako said, waving a freshly-manicured hand in the dwarf's general direction. "You can do this for us, right, Ango?"
"I'll certainly try!" said the boy detective, all dimples and sunshine. Taako emphatically ignored his heart melting.
Angus is on the scene! There'll be more of him next chapter. This chapter was originally supposed to be more Ango-centric, but I...sort of got carried away writing the mercenaries. Oops.
Two days later, Merle and Taako were lazing about the Reclaimer's common room when the door was thrown open. Angus barreled into the room, practically bouncing with excitement. "Taako! Merle! I just had an idea that might help us crack this case!"
"That's great, kid," Merle said reflexively. "Come find me when you have some actual answers."
"But I can't get answers without your help, sirs!"
Taako sighed and placed a ribbon between the pages of his book. "What is it, kiddo?"
Angus moved to the center of the room and began arranging folders and papers across the surface of the coffee table. "Well, I was thinking about where I should start, and really the only piece of evidence we have to go off of is the name Julia. Now, just to be sure, do you remember when you first heard him mention this Julia?"
Merle and Taako nodded.
"Okay, where were you?"
"Lucas' lab," Merle said. "What does this have to do with anything?"
"Bear with me, sir," Angus replied. "Now, tell me exactly what he said, and the context he said it in."
Merle thought for a moment. "Well, we'd just defeated the weird pile of ghosts that came out of the astral plane. Then Lucas' mom said some profound shit and turned into a ball of light, and was going back to the afterlife, and Magnus said..."
Suddenly, it made sense. Merle remembered the two floating balls of light drifting back towards the astral plane. Recalled the intermittent Cockney accent belonging to the Raven Queen's bounty hunter. Remembered Magnus calling out, his voice still slightly breathless from being trapped underneath the mirror.
Tell Julia I said I love her.
"Kravitz," Taako whispered. "Merle, Magnus was talking to Kravitz when he mentioned Julia!"
"So...that means Julia is dead, right?" Merle asked. "How does this help us find Magnus? If our only lead is dead, then there's no one with any information!"
"Not exactly," Taako said, a big, goofy smile crossing his face. He raised his Stone of Farspeech to his lips. "Give me a moment."
The stone emitted a crackling noise, like static from the other end of a tunnel. Then there was the sound of someone clearing their throat, and a cultured voice said, "You've reached the Grim Reaper, how may I help you?"
"Kravitz, my man!" Taako said. "Hey, I know this is sort of last-minute, but would you mind popping over for a visit real quick? It's sort of important."
"Well, I'm a little busy at the moment--"
"Hold up, hold up, hold up!" Merle cut in. He pointed at Taako. "Since when do you have Kravitz's Stone of Farspeech attunement? And why?"
"Oh, I-I didn't realize--" Another sound of throat-clearing, and then Kravitz spoke again, this time using the accent. "I didn't realize you weren't alone, Taako."
"Pfft, who cares? Look, it'll be quick, just a few questions and then you can get your sweet ass back to whatever you're doing."
Taako winked at Angus, then leaned closer to the stone. "Please? For me?"
Kravitz sighed. "Alright, but just this once."
"Thank you, darling!" Taako trilled. Moments later, a rift tore open next to the fantasy television and out stepped Kravitz, dressed in an impeccable suit and, thankfully, with his skin on.
"Merle," he said, accent gone. "It's been a while."
Merle glared. "Yeah, since you made me lose my arm!"
"Fair enough, fair enough," Kravitz agreed. He pinned Angus with an intense stare, his blood-red eyes glowing faintly. "And you are...?"
Angus thrust a hand out for Kravitz to shake. "Angus McDonald, boy detective! I'm Taako's student! It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Reaper!"
Kravitz eyed Angus' outstretched hand like it might grow teeth at any moment. "Please, call me Kravitz." Tentatively, he touched his fingertips to the boy's hand and sort of pushed.
Angus blinked. "Oh, I see! You're not comfortable around children. I suppose that makes sense, given your profession."
"Yes, I don't usually meet them in such...pleasant circumstances." Kravitz shot Taako a questioning glance. "That said, I don't fully understand why you've called me here. I assume it wasn't simply about introducing me to your student."
"Right, right." Taako crossed his legs and leaned back in the armchair in a sort of PG-13 flirty pose. "So, long story short, Magnus got kidnapped, and we're trying to figure out who took him and where."
Kravitz sighed. "Taako, I'm a bounty hunter for the Raven Queen, not your personal bloodhound."
"Oh, no, that's not it at all, sir!" Angus said. He picked up a notebook from the coffee table and uncapped a pen from his pocket. "I have a few questions that I hope you'll be able to answer, which should point us in the right direction. If you don't mind, could you tell me about Julia?"
Merle watched Kravitz's face closely. Usually it was a blank canvas, betraying no emotion other than cool detachment, but Angus' presence seemed to have shaken him a bit. Those red points of light were fixed on the far wall instead of the small human in front of him. "Lots of people have the name Julia."
Merle groaned. "You already tried that one on Magnus. Don't pretend you don't know who he's talking about."
"I'm not really supposed to give out personal information. That's just bad customer service."
Merle was about ready to punch the skinny creep in the face, but Angus, for some reason, seemed unperturbed by the verbal roadblocks. "Of course. Could you at least tell me how old she was when she died?"
"That sounds like personal information," Kravitz said.
"Well, I suppose, but it's nothing I couldn't find out by reading a tombstone. Maybe you could point me in the direction of her place of interment?"
Kravitz sighed. "Well, that's not possible, considering the circumstances, but you make a rather convincing argument. She was twenty-five."
Merle closed his eyes and rubbed a hand across his face. Like many dwarves, he found it ridiculous, and more than a little depressing, how short human life spans were. Any early death was cause for grief, but when that early death was a human? That was nothing short of a tragedy.
Angus made a note in his notebook. "Any family that might have been buried near her? If she had a tombstone, that is. You know, they usually list a few familial relations, like 'beloved daughter.'"
Kravitz nodded. "True. Well, her mother does have a tombstone somewhere, so I'm afraid you'll just have to find that yourself, but her father's name was Steven."
Angus nodded. "Julia Waxmen...and her father's profession?"
Kravitz's eyes narrowed, thinning the red light down to razor-sharp points. "I fail to see how this is relevant to your investigation. If you don't mind, I think I'll refrain from answering that one."
"That's fine!" Angus said. "Is it okay if I ask just a few more questions?"
"How old was Steven Waxmen when he died?"
"Mhm, and what was the interval between Steven and Julia's deaths?"
Kravitz fidgeted, almost imperceptibly, with the bottom hem of his suit jacket. He glanced over at Taako. "Measured in...?"
Kravitz hesitated again. Angus looked up at the Grim Reaper with his most innocent expression. "Just tombstone information, sir."
"...They died the same year."
"Cause of death?"
"I don't think that would be found on a tombstone."
"Right, of course. Sorry. Just one more question, sir, and then you can get back to your job. How long ago did Julia die?"
Kravitz rubbed his angular chin with one elegant hand. "Hmm. About six years ago, I'd say."
Angus made one final note before closing his notebook. "Thank you for your cooperation, sir! It's been real swell working with you! If you don't mind, could I get your Stone of Farspeech attunement?"
Kravitz didn't seem to know how to answer that, but made no move to stop Angus. He glanced at Merle as if hoping for some indication of what the hell was going on. Merle helpfully shrugged. "So...that's all, then?" Kravitz asked Taako.
"Unless you want to stay a while longer," Taako said, his long eyelashes fluttering. "I'm sure the boys won't mind."
"This boy does," Merle groused.
"I really should be getting back, actually," said Kravitz. "Merle, it was good to see you again--"
"Can't say the same myself!"
"...Fair enough. And, Taako..."
The elf leaned forward so that his shirt slid down and exposed some chest and shoulder, placing his chin in his hand. "Yes, darling?"
"...Until next time." Merle could have sworn he saw Kravitz blush, which really shouldn't have been possible for a dead guy. It was rather upsetting.
Once Kravitz was gone, Merle rounded on Taako. "So how long have you two been dating?"
Taako rolled his eyes and made a dismissive gesture. "None of your business, old man."
"I'd say it's tons of my business, considering that guy tried to kill all of us and stole my arm!"
"I am not discussing my sex life with you." Taako made a face.
Angus made a small noise. Oh, yeah, the kid was still there. Maybe this conversation could wait.
"Well, that was a colossal waste of time," Merle said, crossing his arms and slouching further down the couch.
"On the contrary!" Angus chirped, flipping back through his notes. "I think we got some very valuable information out of him!"
"How? You didn't ask one question about Magnus!"
"I didn't need to," Angus said, coming around the coffee table. He sat next to Merle and placed the notebook down on the table. "I can infer. Let's go over what we know. Julia Waxmen, daughter of Steven Waxmen, died six years ago at the age of twenty-five. That means that, at the very least, Magnus knew her six years ago. How old would he have been then?"
Taako, who had left the armchair to lean over Angus' shoulder, shrugged. "Human ages make no sense to me."
"He's in his early thirties, I think," Merle guessed.
"So he'd have been in his late twenties, then. From that, and from the message Magnus gave to Kravitz, we can surmise that Julia Burnsides, née Waxmen, was Magnus' wife."
Merle clapped sarcastically. "Great deduction, kid! Couldn't have figured that one out myself!"
"Don't patronize me, sir," Angus said plainly. "There's more we can learn, and that's where Julia's father comes in. Magnus must have been close to him, because he named his fish Steven. I'd bet my bottom dollar that it's in honor of Steven Waxmen. We also know that Julia and her father died within a year of each other. Kravitz's pause when I asked about the time of death was rather telling. I'd hazard a guess that they not only died within the same year, but on the same day."
"You got all that from a pause?" Taako asked, but Angus was on a roll, too absorbed in his passion for mystery to answer.
"Neither Steven nor Julia has a tombstone, so either they died somewhere unsuitable for a burial, or they were just two among a very high death toll." Angus grabbed a folder and began leafing through the pages within. "That seems the most likely scenario for a number of reasons." Without looking away from the folder, he slid a large tome over towards Taako. "That contains a chronological list of every major disaster to happen in Faerûn, going back to about ten years before the founding of the Bureau of Balance. Find the entries for six years ago."
As Taako began flipping through the book, Angus kept up his commentary. "Now, back to Magnus. The two of you met him a little over a year ago in Neverwinter, where the three of you were looking for jobs. We know Magnus was a carpenter before he took up adventuring, and he's really good at it, too. He has immense pride in his craft. Even with the economy the way it is, Magnus should have been able to find work without turning to the sword. But he did, roughly six years ago, when he shows up on the Bureau's records as a mercenary." Angus pointed to the page in front of him, which was covered in names, dates, and footnotes. Nearly every name had a number and/or letter in superscript next to it, but the entry that said Burnsides, Magnus had only a question mark.
"What's the mean?" Merle asked, pointing to it.
"That's part of the record. You see, the Bureau keeps an updated list of mercenaries for a number of reason. Sometimes they can be employed to patrol an area, or take out an enemy. Those are the ones labeled with a '1'. A '2' denotes unscrupulous mercs who can't be trusted to carry out their duty. A '3' is someone who's worked with the Bureau but didn't know the true identity of their employer, and a '4' is someone who's been indoctrinated but isn't actually a member. Then there are notations for loyalties, alignments, and affiliated bands. Generally, this sort of list is more useful to Seekers, because mercenaries come across a lot of jobs and can sometimes point us in the direction of a potential relic. We've got a lot of fours who act as a sort of spy for the Bureau." Angus pointed to the question mark by Magnus' name. "At the time this list was published, Magnus was an unknown. He had no affiliation, he wasn't picking up a lot of jobs, and he had no contacts among the other mercenaries. He just sort of went from town to town, helping out where he could. This notation is fairly common for new mercs, actually.
"Now, if there's one thing I know about Magnus, it's that he values family above all else. If he had any surviving family, there's no way he would have picked up and left home to live the life of a freelancer. I don't think it's a coincidence that Magnus showed up on the list the same year that Julia and Steven died. Whatever caused their deaths was enough to make Magnus leave his home and trade. All this points to a big disaster in what may have been his hometown." Angus turned to Taako. "Any luck?"
"Depends on your definition of 'luck,'" said the elf. "Apparently six years ago was a great time for disasters."
Angus took the book back and scanned the page. "Hmm...seven entries." He pulled his notebook closer and began copying names of towns from the book: Cragmire, Daerlun, Minsorvale, Esmeltaran, Tanistan, Raven's Roost, Maldobar. "We can probably rule out Esmeltaran, since that's a halfling city, but the rest will require some research." Angus capped his pen and beamed at Merle. "So you see, talking to Kravitz wasn't a waste of time! Now we have six lines of inquiry instead of one! We're one step closer to finding Magnus!"
Taako reached down and ruffled Angus' hair, causing the boy to giggle. "Good work, bubbeleh. You'll look into these disasters, right?"
"Oh, definitely! This is one of the most interesting cases to come my way in a long time!" Angus held up his Stone of Farspeech. "And I made a valuable new contact in the process!"
Merle raised an eyebrow. "What, you think Kravitz is going to work with you now?"
Angus looked up with a gleam in his eye. "I think so, sir! He's definitely unnerved by me. If I play my cards right, I can use that to my advantage and get all sorts of information out of him!"
Merle eyed the boy warily. "You're one scary son of a bitch, you know that, Agnes?"
"I've been told so before, sir."
I just can't resist a good detective chapter. No, really, this was supposed to be only part of a chapter, but Angus sort of took charge and I just went along for the ride. Sorry there's no Magnus in this one.
Also I will forever headcanon that Kravitz is terrible at interacting with living children because he's so used to seeing them in times of tragedy and doesn't know how to deal with a kid he doesn't need to console.
WARNING: This chapter contains emotional/psychological abuse and a power imbalance from the point of view of the abused party. It also contains descriptions of dissociation.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
By day three, Magnus had fallen into a routine. They'd rejoined with the other dozen or so mercs in the band, which was sort of odd because mercenary bands usually traveled in small groups, but whatever. The only thing that really changed was that they moved much slower and there were more eyes on Magnus. He had two riders on either side of him at all times, keeping him from doing anything even remotely threatening. Occasionally, Ephraim or some other merc would try to engage in conversation, but they were inevitably silenced by a look from Saxton.
Every day, it was wake up, eat breakfast, get tied to a horse, ride, stop for lunch, ride some more, make camp, eat dinner, and sleep. He was never alone for a minute, not even to pee, and he'd lost track of where they were, sometimes even which direction they were going. His only consolation was that Taako and Merle were safe, and he himself was being treated relatively well for a captive.
The third night, things changed. The mercs had set up camp at the foot of a rocky outcropping, obscured from travelers on the road by a wide swath of forest. Magnus, stripped of his armor, sat quietly in his tent, waiting for someone to bring him his nightly ration of jerky. He could see vague silhouettes on the other side of the canvas, backlit by campfires and lanterns. One large, stationary figure sat outside the tent, sharpening a blade.
Magnus tested the chains around his wrists and ankles half-heartedly. He'd done this every night, and every morning, since they switched from rope to chains. All it ever did was hurt and chafe.
A slight breeze whipped into the tent as the canvas was swept aside. Magnus looked up and was surprised to see Saxton squatting before him.
"How are you enjoying your stay with us, Burnsides?" he asked, his soulless black eyes scanning Magnus' face and body.
"I mean, there's definitely room for improvement," Magnus said, suppressing a shiver. There was just something about Saxton that gave him the willies.
"Mm," Saxton hummed, licking his lips. "Burnsides, I have a confession to make. Will you hear me out?"
A wicked grin sliced across Saxton's face. "When Governor Kalen offered me this job, I was...ecstatic. You see, Burnsides, I know all about you. I know what you did, and why you did it, and I know what it cost you. All of that would have crushed a lesser man. But you! You shouldered on. You took that loss and turned it into strength. Some might say that makes you a true hero."
Saxton's right hand folded so that he was holding up two fingers. He began walking them across the ground, almost absentmindedly, but just a touch too deliberate to be anything but purposeful. "That's why I had to take this job. Ever since I heard about you, I knew I had to be the one to take you down. I wanted it." Something akin to a moan rumbled up from Saxton's chest. "And now, now I have you."
His fingers reached Magnus' knee and continued up his leg, feather-light. Magnus was frozen, unable to twitch a muscle as he watched the hand continue its unsanctioned path up his body.
"But there's one tiny problem with this job," Saxton continued. "You see, Governor Kalen wants you alive and unharmed. He specifically ordered me to deliver you in one piece. And that, well, that sort of puts a damper on my fantasy, doesn't it?" The hand was walking up Magnus' chest now, lingering ever so slightly over his muscles.
"Don't touch me," Magnus managed to choke out. He tried to slow his breathing to keep his chest from heaving under Saxton's touch, trying to hide just how much the man's actions alarmed him.
Saxton laughed. "Oh, Burnsides, it's not like that. I'm not that kind of man. And even if I was, that would fall under the category of physical harm, don't you think?" He drew his fingers back from Magnus' chest. "No, I think I'll just do this." And then, lightning quick, his hand shot out and he flicked Magnus on the forehead.
And suddenly, Magnus was falling. The ground was gone, the tent was gone, and he was hurtling into a black, formless void. There was no wind rushing past him, no sense of direction, only the horrible, gut-wrenching sensation of falling, helplessly, with no way of stopping. He screamed, but no sound came out. He couldn't feel his own body, but he was aware of the position of his limbs, the pounding of his heart, the convulsion of his lungs as he gasped desperately for air.
Then his head and back slammed into something solid and smooth. He felt something give under him, heard a loud crack, and he wasn't falling anymore.
He was at the bottom of a well. Flames obscured the sky as waves of unbearable heat pressed down on Magnus, keeping him plastered, sweating, to the ground. He gasped for air, and his lungs burned.
Then he was shooting towards the flames, pulled up by some invisible, intangible force somewhere around his gut, and he was standing in the flames. It hurt, it burned, but when Magnus looked down he saw that he wasn't burning. He looked up, trying to find a way out, but all he saw was building after building erupting in flames.
Someone ran out into the street, screaming, searching for a relief that was unattainable. A dog whined as it ran past, unrecognizable except for its desperate calls for help. From the opposite direction, Magnus thought he heard a baby crying.
The last wave of fire blew past, leaving nothing but black glass in its wake. Magnus looked down at his feet, at the place where his reflection should have been, and saw a horribly charred dwarven figure instead.
Then the black glass seemed to rise towards him, and Magnus was falling again. He could no longer tell if he was going up or down, left or right, only that he was helpless to stop himself hurtling towards...where? There was no end to the darkness, no pinprick of light to help him orient himself, to give him hope.
He was falling for so, so long. His lungs ached from screaming. He gasped for breath that did not come. In that moment, Magnus wished, prayed, for death to claim him.
Then, with a terrible lurching feeling, Magnus' descent slammed to a halt, and he was back in the tent. He jerked forward, carried by the momentum of a fall that could not have happened. His breath came in great heaves and uneven gasps as his entire body shuddered uncontrollably. His thin cotton shirt was absolutely drenched in sweat. His wrists and ankles ached and bled where the chains had cut into them as he'd tried, unknowingly, to free himself.
"What...the fuck...was that?" he choked out. Each word grated in a throat that felt as if it had been scoured with sandpaper.
Instead of answering, Saxton tilted his head to the side and leered. "Poor, poor Magnus. Did that hurt? It was only a little trip down memory lane. I--oh, dear, was that a bit much? Remember to breathe, Magnus. You must remember to breathe. Maybe some water? Here, have some of mine." He held a waterskin up to Magnus' lips and tilted it, allowing him to take a drink.
Magnus coughed, trying to clear his airway one last time. "Why...are you doing this to me?"
A hand caressed his chin, tilting his head up. Saxton's eyes bored into Magnus' own, reminding him of nothing more than the horrible void he'd so recently fallen through, and Magnus felt his breath catch as a wave of vertigo overtook him.
"I'm not doing anything to you, Magnus. This is all your own doing. You failed to save all those innocent people in Phandalin. You failed to stop that fire. What did you do, Magnus? What did you do to cause the fire?"
"Don't deny it, Magnus. You can't run from it forever. You don't deserve to run from it. We both know it was your fault. And you, of all people, had the gall to survive that disaster." Saxton bared his teeth in a grin. "Just like you survived Raven's Roost. All those people, Magnus."
Suddenly, the hand on his chin was gone. Without its steadying pressure, Magnus felt his stomach plummet and churn. He slumped forward, hands searching for solid earth or canvas or anything to stop the dizziness he felt. When it passed, after what felt like a short eternity, he realized that Saxton was gone, the tent flap swaying as if he had left only recently.
A violent spasm overtook him. Chills ran up and down his spine as he tried to come to grips with whatever that had been. There had to be some reason for all he'd just witnessed, all he'd felt. Some greater purpose. Had he done something wrong? Had he not been docile enough?
Suddenly, a blanket settled around his shoulders. A giant form knelt down in front of him, and Magnus recognized the goliath who was so often posted outside his tent. "You must be someone very special, human. Not every target we bring in experiences the full extent of Saxton's power."
Magnus let out a strangled chuckle. "I don't feel very special, buddy."
The goliath shook his head. "No, I don't suppose you do." He held up an earthenware cup of something thick and steaming. "Drink this."
Magnus obeyed, if only because he had no other option. The liquid was earthy and bitter-tasting, but once he'd drained the cup, he felt...well, not infinitely better, but he was getting there. "Thanks. What's your name, big guy?"
"I am known as Haran."
"My name's Magnus."
"I know." The goliath took the cup back. "You are the quarry of Governor Kalen. Tell me, what did you do to earn yourself such a powerful enemy?"
"I led a rebellion against him. Guess he didn't take too kindly to being deposed."
Haran nodded. "I see. And then, I suppose, you took his power for your own?"
Magnus' eyes widened in horror. "No! No, I would never do that! What's the point of a rebellion if it just replaces one tyrant with another?"
The goliath seemed to consider Magnus for a moment, his gaze calculating and emotionless. Eventually, he said, "You strike me as an honorable man, Magnus Burnsides."
"And for that, I pity you." Haran stood up, bowed nearly in half in order to fit in the tent. "Ajay will come with food soon. You should eat, if you are able."
He exited the tent, leaving Magnus alone to deal with the thoughts that came bubbling up to the forefront of his mind. He gripped the blanket tighter to ground himself.
There was nothing I could have done.
But, maybe, there was?
I am so, so sorry. Magnus deserves so much better than this.
This chapter was really dark, but I promise the next chapter will be lighter on the angst. Incidentally, it will also contain significantly less Saxton. Because fuck that guy.
Despite the thread of hope that Angus had given them, neither Merle nor Taako were feeling particularly optimistic as days went by without word. They didn't dare seek out Angus, afraid that any interruption would set them back another day. If Taako was being honest with himself--and wasn't that a novel idea--he was more worried that Angus would tell him he'd reached a dead end. To that end, Taako found himself avoiding the boy detective's usual haunts. Nothing obvious, just a few less trips to the moonbase's library, a slightly different meal schedule, and quicker treks across the quad. Should Angus find anything of interest, he'd easily be able to find Taako.
It came as a surprise, therefore, when Killian was the one to track him down. "Angus says he has something to talk to you about," she said, folding her muscular arms across her chest. "I'm supposed to bring you to his room."
Taako shut the book he'd been reading and stood from the mess hall chair. "I am perfectly capable of walking there myself, just as Angus is perfectly capable of delivering this message. I don't need you to babysit me."
Killian narrowed her eyes. "I might need to ensure you actually go, though."
"Save your rolls, Taako, I know you've been avoiding him. Not really sure why, but whatever your reason, it ends now." As Killian spoke, she wrapped a hand around Taako's arm and began leading him out of the dining room.
The walk to Angus' room was made in silence. Upon arrival, Taako noticed Carey and Merle standing in the corner; Merle looked more disgruntled than usual, and Taako suspected that the cleric had been dragged here in a similar fashion to himself. As Killian shut the door, Taako took a look around the room.
It wasn't as large a space as the Reclaimers' common area, but it was big enough to function as both bedroom and study. Half of the space was devoted to Angus' work as a Seeker. There was a polished oak desk directly across from the door, upon which sat a plethora of neatly-stacked papers, folders, and notebooks. Along the wall behind the desk were a few filing cabinets, and directly behind the desk, mounted on the back wall, was what Taako had always thought of as a murder board. Angus stood before it, considering the web of multicolored strings stretched between sketches, article clippings, and scribbled notes. To most people, it was about as comprehensible as a Beholder's bowel movements, but Angus seemed to derive a special understanding from the arrangement of paper and string.
Without prompting, the boy turned around and beamed at Taako, who felt a weight lift off his chest even before he heard the words, "I've got great news, sirs!"
"Well, let's hear it!" Merle said. "I've been waiting for half an hour!"
"Actually, it was more like five minutes," Carey corrected.
"Sorry to make you wait, Merle, but I wanted everyone to be here before I divulged my findings."
"That reminds me," Taako said. "Not that I'm complaining, but why are Carey and Killian here?"
"Well, I needed someone to bounce my theories off of," Angus said, "and the two of you were avoiding me!"
Merle and Taako exchanged glances. "You too, huh?" Taako asked.
"Well, it's not that unusual for Merle--"
"Not important, boy-o," Taako cut in. "What's the story?"
"Right!" Angus scurried over to his desk and pulled a series of folders from a stack on his desk. "I looked into the six towns we discussed last time, and I think I know which town Magnus is from." He began to flip through each folder briefly. "There were a few that stood out the most. Daerlun, for example, experienced a rather gruesome destruction at the hands of some powerful wizards commanding dracoliches--that's undead dragons--but the damage reports don't indicate that anyone without magical talent could have survived the attack, so that was out. Cragmire bounced back from the battles fought in and around it, and apparently most of its inhabitants settled down and are living relatively normal lives now that the Voidfish has been brought into play. Apparently the disaster in Maldobar was restricted to a few large, prominent families, none of which carried the surnames Waxmen or Burnsides. Anyway, the place that seems like the best lead is Raven's Roost."
"Why's that?" Merle asked.
"Well, there are a number of reasons, but most importantly, it sounds familiar to Killian."
The two Reclaimers turned to look at the orc by the door. She shrugged and said, "He tried to tell me his life's story while we were waiting for pick up in Phandolin. I wasn't really listening when he said it, but I'm, like, eighty-five percent sure it was something alliterative."
"That's not all," Angus piped up. "The disaster in Raven's Roost was especially noteworthy in that it had nothing to do with the Grand Relics. Apparently, the town had been under the rule of a particularly nasty governor for some time, and there was a rebellion."
Angus had gone into what Taako liked to call his "Seeker mode." The boy was oblivious to his audience outside of his running narrative, almost seeming to talk to himself as he rapidly switched between books and files. Despite the speed with which his eyes scanned the pages, Angus seemed to read every word, committing it to memory and translating the thought into a useful summary within seconds. Every so often, he would turn to consult his murder board, never stopping in his commentary.
"The rebellion took place a few years before the disaster. Reports of it are few and far between, but what little information I could collect seems to indicate that the governor was defeated, but not killed. Then, six years ago, the governor's forces returned."
"So they tried to retake the town?" Carey asked.
"That's the interesting part: they didn't try to retake it. Apparently, the governor's soldiers targeted something called the Craftsman Corridor. The details are fuzzy, but the result was a massive loss of life and the destruction of the trade network in Raven's Roost." Finally, Angus seemed to come back to them. He looked each person in the eye and said, "We know that Magnus was a craftsman before he turned to fighting. It can't be a coincidence."
There was a moment of awed silence, during which Angus maintained an air of gravitas. Then Merle spoke up. "So, what now?"
"Yeah, this is all real interesting and stuff," Taako said, "but unless you've got a follow-up planned, we've hit a dead end."
To his credit, Angus took the criticism in stride. "Actually, I do have a follow-up. I've done as much as I can from up here. It's time for some groundwork."
Carey perked up. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Angus grinned. "We're going to Raven's Roost."
"Absolutely not," the Director said.
The Director cut Angus off with a raised hand. She regarded the young boy and the two Reclaimers before her with her usual cool gaze, and said, "I understand where you're coming from, I really do, but I simply cannot approve this use of Bureau resources. The pods must be reserved for legitimate Bureau of Balance business. I know that our recent loss is hard to accept--"
"But he might not be lost!" Angus protested. "If we can just--"
"I said no!" the Director shouted. Angus shrunk back, and Taako reflexively put a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. He tried to ignore how much that protective instinct scared him by focusing on how best to persuade the woman before him.
All at once, the Director seemed to shrink. She slumped back in her chair, and for the first time, Taako realized just how old she truly was. All the youthful energy that came with her perfect posture, her aura of confidence, and her put-together demeanor--all of it seemed to flee her in that moment. Her desk became less of a formality and more of a barrier. "Please, Angus," she said, her voice cracking. "I know it's hard. We all miss Magnus. He was a light in the darkness, and one of the best men I've ever known. I...I wish there were something we could do. I just can't risk losing anyone else." She looked up, glancing between Merle and Taako. "I--we cannot lose our Reclaimers, gentlemen. That is why I cannot approve this outing."
Taako opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short when he felt Merle's hand on his hip. He looked down and saw the dwarf shake his head ever so slightly. There was a twinkle in his eye that Taako recognized. They came to an understanding in that moment, and Taako nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Well, alright, if you're sure!" Merle said, over-exaggerating every word in that way of his that made everything he said sound insincere. "I guess we'll just have to stay here, on the moon, without Magnus! Since you're not going to change your mind!"
The Director interrupted him. "Merle, Merle--I know what you're trying to do."
Taako groaned inwardly.
"I won't be guilted into approving this mission. You'll just have to come to terms with reality."
"Alright, alright," Merle said with fake dejection. The Director rolled her eyes and made a shooing motion.
"Go on, out of my office. I'm not going to change my mind."
Taako rolled his shoulders forward in a slump and arranged his features into an attractive but convincing pout. "Come on, Angus," he said.
"No, no, that's it, kid," Merle said. "We're not going to convince her."
Angus sniffled a bit, and for a moment, the Director's resolve seemed to waver. Then a shadow passed across her features and she turned her face away. "I am truly sorry."
Taako shot one last dejected look over his shoulder as they passed through the door, just in case.
The act lasted right up until the door to the Director's office was shut. Killian and Carey were waiting in the throne room, and joined them just as Merle and Taako wiped the disappointment from their faces and broke out into huge grins. "So? Did she say yes?" Carey asked.
"Oh, no, she totally shut us down!" Taako crowed.
Killian frowned. "Uh, so why are you smiling?"
"'Cuz I've always wanted to steal a vehicle, and now I have a legitimate reason!"
Angus looked up at him, confused. "What do you mean, sir?"
"He means," Merle said, "that we're going anyway."
"And I know just the guy to help us," Taako said, rubbing his hands together.
They were in luck; even though there were no departures or arrivals scheduled for the day, Avi was on duty, ready for any emergency dispatches or freak accidents that might come his way. When the five of them came creeping into the hangar, he looked up with mournful eyes.
"Hey, guys," he said, "sorry, I wasn't expecting--do you need something? You're not scheduled for any missions, I don't think."
"Avi, Avi, my man," Taako said, laying the charm on real thick, "I have a favor to ask. Now, I'm gonna need you to be cool for one minute, okay?"
Avi's tentative smile dropped. Taako realized, belatedly, that he'd just reminded the man of Magnus. Good. "Uh, okay, I guess?"
"Avi," Angus said, taking a step forward, "we need to use one of the pods. I don't have a lot of time to explain, but there's a good chance that the place where we're going will help us find Magnus."
Instantly, Avi brightened. "It will? Then I'm sure I can get the proper authorization from the Director and--"
"Uh, yeah, we tried that," Merle said.
"She shut us down," Killian said bluntly. "Look, I won't lie, if you help us, you'll be disobeying the Director. All of us could get in major trouble."
"But it's worth it!" Carey insisted.
Avi held up a hand. "You don't need to sell me on it," he said. "Just tell me where you need to go."
"Raven's Roost," Angus said. "I can give you the coordinates--"
"No need," Avi said, moving over to a control panel. "There's a directory. With a few adjustments, I can direct the pod to land a short ways outside the town."
The five of them waited while Avi punched in the coordinates and calibrated the trajectory of the pod. Then the door to the vehicle slid open, and they stepped forward...only to find their way blocked by Avi.
"Sorry to throw this in at the last moment, but I can't let you go."
"What?!" Merle cried. "After all that, you're gonna stab us in the back?"
"No, no! I just...I have one condition." Drawing himself to his full (and considerable) height, Avi said, "I'm coming with you."
"Magnus is a dear friend to me," Avi continued, his voice wavering, "and you'll need someone to keep you safe. I'm going."
Oh, great, Taako thought. The last thing we need is this dipshit slowing us down. "Look, Avi, we appreciate it, but someone needs to man the cannon, right?"
Merle nodded. "Right!"
"And this pod only has five seats--"
"I'll stay behind," Killian said suddenly.
The Reclaimers turned to stare at the orc woman. "Uh, what?"
"Just push the launch button, right?" Killian went on. "Easy enough."
"Look, someone's got to stay behind and explain everything to the Director. I figure I've racked up enough brownie points to stay in her good graces, and if not, well, I don't crack easily. Besides, you've got enough ranged fighters. Avi may not be a Regulator, but he's good in a fight."
Taako tried (and failed) to suppress a snort. "Yeah, that's why we beat his ass in that practice fight!"
Killian raised an eyebrow. "You haven't seen him in a real fight," she said.
Merle sighed and threw up his hands. "Fine, we'll bring Avi! Can we please just get going?"
Avi brightened. "Sure thing! Just let me get my things!"
The moment Avi was gone, Taako grinned. "Good thinking, guys. Now let's get going before he comes back!"
Killian folded her arms. "I'm serious, Taako. I'm staying. You need a melee fighter to stand in for Magnus, and Avi's the only man for the job."
"Are you sure you don't want to come?" Merle asked. "I was really excited to kick some ass alongside you again!"
"Thanks, but you really don't need me. And this way, you'll still have an ally on standby." With that, Killian made a shooing motion and said, "Now get in the pod, and leave room for Avi. No need to stretch this out."
As they filed into the pod, Carey turned and said, "Are you sure you'll be okay, Killian? I can stay with you, if you want."
Killian smiled. "I'll be fine. Go have fun with the boys." She leaned down and pressed a kiss to her girlfriend's cheek, then gave her a small shove. "Don't keep them waiting! We're on a tight schedule!"
Suddenly, Avi burst through the hangar door, laden with a backpack, armor, and an enormous greatsword. He was sweating and panting, and the look in his eyes told Killian all she needed to know.
"Let's go let's go let's go let's go!" she shouted. Avi half-stumbled, half-sprinted to the pod, and ducked inside. At the same time, the doors slid open again, and two figures loomed. Guards, wearing the Bureau of Balance uniform and flanking a much smaller being.
"Davenport!" Davenport cried, and the gnome took off at a run, aiming for the control panel.
"Shit!" Killian hissed. Then she shouted, "I hope everyone's strapped in!" and ran for the control panel. Her long legs carried her faster than Davenport, but he had a head start. Mere seconds separated the time between Davenport's arrival at the panel and Killian's hand slamming down on the launch button.
The glass pod rocketed from the cannon at a velocity that Killian knew would kill anyone not strapped in. She could only hope there had been enough time for everyone to don their seat belts.
Then the guards grabbed her by the arms, and she had no more time to worry about anyone's fate but her own.
Yep, Magnus canonically tried to tell Killian his whole backstory while they waited for the pod to take them to the moonbase. It's the little things that make re-listening to an entire podcast series worthwhile.
Every night for a week, Magnus was subjected to Saxton's unique form of torture. He saw the beheaded, behanded form of the engineer on the Rockport Limited ("why didn't you save him, Magnus?); saw the tree in the center of Goldcliff ("how could you let that woman charge in there?"); watched as the town of Refuge died horribly over and over and over again ("while you fumbled about, taking your sweet time. Did they deserve that?").
Every night, Saxton sent him plummeting through darkness and pain and regret, and then left him. Invariably, five minutes would pass before someone would come with food and drink. The nicer ones would bring blankets; some, like Ephraim and Ajay, would even hold his hand for a while, helping to ground him as he recovered from the horrible emptiness that seemed to envelop him. Other times, it was Delilah leaving food in the tent. He'd grown to dread the sight of her silhouette approaching, because she took special pleasure in fucking with him. Usually that meant blowing out the lantern that burned in the corner of his tent. In the ensuing dimness, Magnus was left scrambling for tangible reassurance that he was here, in the now.
One night after a particularly harrowing mental experience, Magnus found himself with his head pillowed on Ephraim's thigh. The half-elf was stroking a hand through Magnus' hair soothingly, letting the larger human cry pitifully in his lap without complaint. "I'm so sorry," he said quietly, then repeated: "I'm so, so sorry."
Between sobs, Magnus managed to choke out, "I just...don't understand! What did I...do...to deserve this?" His throat squeezed shut, and so his next words came out in a choked hiccup. He turned his head, craning his neck to peer up at the half-elf for answers. "Why is he doing this?"
Ephraim wouldn't meet his eyes. "Because you're a hero, Magnus. Saxton...he's not a good man. He hates heroes. Thinks they're too high and mighty, that they think their definitions of right and wrong are the only correct definitions. In a way, he's got a point." Ephraim shook his head, as if to rid himself of that thought. "But he takes it too far. He got into this business to hunt down heroes. He takes pleasure in bringing them down, in breaking the infallible. He likes taking strong men and women and reducing them to tears. I think it makes him feel powerful. And you, you're the biggest catch he's had in a long time. Not a whole lot of heroes running around these days." A sigh, and then, "And you're not making things any easier for yourself by fighting him. He won't show it, but he's pissed. Usually the difficult ones are subdued by now."
From outside the tent, someone called Ephraim's name. The man carefully slid his leg out from under Magnus and rearranged the blanket he'd draped over the human's large frame. "I have to go before they get suspicious. Just...take it easy, and don't fight Saxton. It's better if you just let him have his way."
It took a few minutes for Ephraim's words to penetrate the haze of despair wrapped around Magnus' mind, but when they did, he frowned. Fighting him? Difficult? That couldn't be right. Saxton had Magnus right where he wanted him, helpless and hopeless. He was getting everything he wanted, wasn't he? All of Magnus' darkest moments of doubt, all of his fuck-ups, all the lives he'd failed to save. His mind was an open book, and Saxton had access to every page.
Magnus boosted himself up, half-kneeling, half-sitting in a way that would quickly become uncomfortable. He paid it no heed.
Magnus knew he wasn't fighting Saxton. He didn't have the mental fortitude to resist the man. But he didn't have to be able to resist.
The Voidfish was doing the work for him.
Magnus could've cried, he was so relieved. Instead, he laughed. It was an ugly laughter, more manic than anything. He probably looked insane, staring at the lantern in the corner, hunched over with a gasping, desperate laughter that came in short gasps and guffaws. At some point, Haran the goliath poked his head in and regarded Magnus with concern.
Magnus didn't care. He was no longer alone with his suffering. He had parts of himself that Saxton could never see, could never even touch, and in the end, he would win. Magnus Burnsides would not fall to anything these bullies threw his way!
And then his side cramped up.
Magnus had been in far too good a mood all day. Every time Saxton turned to check, he saw the prisoner smiling, even as rain poured from the sky onto his unprotected head, soaking him through to the bone. The men tasked with guarding him seemed a little weirded out by this shift in mood, but other than a few side comments to each other they pretty much carried on as normal.
His crew as a whole seemed more energetic. They were getting close to the end of their journey, and some of them had started discussing what they would do with the money from this job. The governor had been very generous with his offer, and Saxton had promised his men a significant cut of the profits.
Left to his own devices, he would have gladly pursued Magnus Burnsides for sheer pleasure. The money was just an added bonus.
Except it was beginning to look as if the money was the only bonus he would be getting out of this job. Oh, he certainly enjoyed his nightly visits with Burnsides. How could he not? Seeing pain and fear etch itself into the lines of a hero's smug face, knowing that it was he, Eleazer Saxton, who put it there...there was nothing more exquisite in the whole world. And Magnus had folded beautifully.
But he was not yet broken, and that would not do. Saxton was not a very powerful magician; his talents lay in one specific area, and that power had taken years of hard practice to perfect. And yet somehow the fighter was resisting him, blocking him from parts of his memories in a way that, no matter how or what he tried, Saxton simply couldn't overcome. Even if Magnus himself broke down, his mind stayed strong.
Saxton grit his teeth against a feral growl. The rain had not let up, and his hat was soaked through. With a jerk he turned his horse to face the band of mercenaries. "Make camp!" he snapped out. His men scattered in all directions to do their assigned tasks.
He waited for night to fall, then went about his carefully-kept routine. It was important to leave the victim apprehensive, he thought, but also important that they come to expect the torture. Leaving it for the evening gave them nothing to look forward to. So Saxton took his time eating the meatloaf that Harold had cooked up. (It was watery. It was always watery when Harold cooked. It would almost be a talent, if it weren't such a shitty taste experience.)
At exactly the right time, Saxton pushed through the tent flaps. His had been a bitter mood all day, only made bearable by the knowledge of what the night would bring. Perhaps tonight he would crack the fighter's hard shell.
Magnus beamed up at him. He waved as best he could with his wrists tied together and said, "Hale and well met!"
Saxton frowned briefly before regaining his composure, with some effort. He forced himself to be casual as he squatted in front of Magnus. "You've been quite the ray of sun today, haven't you, Burnsides? Is there something special you'd like to share?"
Magnus continued to grin. "Nope! Quite the opposite in fact."
Saxton felt his eye begin to twitch. "Is that so? You know you can't hide anything from me, Burnsides."
"On the contrary, I think there's quite a lot I can hide from you.
Saxton's grin became forced. "There's nothing you can hide from me. It's only a matter of time."
"Oh yeah? What if I told you that the V҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉d҉҉҉҉҉҉҉f҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉s҉҉҉҉҉҉҉h҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉s҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉b҉҉҉҉҉҉҉l҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉c҉҉҉҉҉҉҉k҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉n҉҉҉҉҉҉҉g҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉y҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉u҉҉҉҉҉҉҉r҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉m҉҉҉҉҉҉҉e҉҉҉҉҉҉҉m҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉r҉҉҉҉҉҉҉y҉҉҉҉҉҉҉?҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ?"
Saxton stared at the man in front of him. The noise that had come out of his mouth was not human, and definitely not words. It was almost like...static? How could a human voice box make that noise? "Come again?"
"I said, the V҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉d҉҉҉҉҉҉҉f҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉s҉҉҉҉҉҉҉h҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉s҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉b҉҉҉҉҉҉҉l҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉c҉҉҉҉҉҉҉k҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉n҉҉҉҉҉҉҉g҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉y҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉u҉҉҉҉҉҉҉r҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉m҉҉҉҉҉҉҉e҉҉҉҉҉҉҉m҉҉҉҉҉҉҉o҉҉҉҉҉҉҉r҉҉҉҉҉҉҉y҉҉҉҉҉҉҉?҉҉҉҉҉ "
There it was again. Could there be some sort of spell blocking the sound? "One more time?"
He tried concentrating on Magnus' lips, trying to make out the shapes of the words he said, but when the static cleared up Saxton found he couldn't remember a single syllable.
"Oh, sorry," Magnus said. "You can't understand me, can you? See, what happened was, t҉҉҉h҉҉҉e҉҉҉r҉҉҉e҉҉҉ ҉҉҉w҉҉҉a҉҉҉s҉҉҉ ҉҉҉a҉҉҉ ҉҉҉w҉҉҉a҉҉҉r҉҉҉,҉҉҉ ҉҉҉a҉҉҉n҉҉҉d҉҉҉ ҉҉҉t҉҉҉h҉҉҉e҉҉҉r҉҉҉e҉҉҉'҉҉҉s҉҉҉ ҉҉҉t҉҉҉h҉҉҉i҉҉҉s҉҉҉ ҉҉҉t҉҉҉h҉҉҉i҉҉҉n҉҉҉g҉҉҉ ҉҉҉c҉҉҉a҉҉҉l҉҉҉l҉҉҉e҉҉҉d҉҉҉ ҉҉҉t҉҉҉h҉҉҉e҉҉҉ ҉҉҉V҉҉҉o҉҉҉i҉҉҉d҉҉҉f҉҉҉i҉҉҉s҉҉҉h҉҉҉ ҉҉҉t҉҉҉h҉҉҉a҉҉҉t҉҉҉ ҉҉҉e҉҉҉a҉҉҉t҉҉҉s҉҉҉ ҉҉҉i҉҉҉n҉҉҉f҉҉҉o҉҉҉r҉҉҉m҉҉҉a҉҉҉t҉҉҉i҉҉҉o҉҉҉n҉҉҉ , so you can't understand me when I say G҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉r҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉a҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉n҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉d҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉R҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉e҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉l҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉i҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉c҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉s҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉ ."
What the hell is going on?
Saxton was getting frustrated, and Magnus was loving every minute of it.
"Oh, sorry," he lied, "you can't understand me, can you? See, what happened was, there was a war, and there's this thing called the Voidfish that eats information, so you can't understand me when I say Grand Relics."
"Which means you also don't know about Magic Brian, or the Gaia Sash, or Captain Captain Bane, or the Bureau of Balance--"
"STOP IT!" Saxton shouted. Out of nowhere, a hand connected with Magnus' cheek, leaving a red, stinging mark. Then he was flicked back into the soundless, sightless depths of the hell Saxton had created for him.
But it was different. This time, Magnus didn't fear the fall. He didn't fear the landing. He had power here, and Saxton was no longer in control.
He landed with a crunch in the black glass of Phandolin. "Why did you start the fire, Magnus?"
"I didn't. Gundren started it with the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet."
He was falling again. Then he was standing over the engineer in the space between the train cars. "Why didn't you protect him, Magnus? Why did he have to die?"
"Because Jenkins wanted the Oculus. But we killed Jenkins and avenged the engineer."
The colors in the scene seemed to waver, and then he was falling, and then he was standing on a platform of vines, watching as Hurley threw herself towards the silverthorn. Except there was no silverthorn, only an enormous tornado in shades of gray and black. "Why didn't you stop her, Magnus? You let her be torn apart by that wind."
"She survived the tornado. It was the Gaia Sash and the silverthorn that got her. And it wasn't my place to stop her. She's with her girlfriend now."
He wasn't so much falling as the world was shifting around him. There was no hint of color, and, now that Magnus knew what was happening, he realized there was still no trip to Lucas' lab. Instead, he was back in Refuge--except that the town was hazy and malformed, as if he were looking at it through a rainy windowpane. Magnus felt rather than heard Saxton's frustrated scream before he was abruptly wrenched back into the real world by another hard slap to the face.
"STOP FIGHTING ME!" Saxton screamed. "WHY. WON'T. YOU. BREAK?!" He pulled his fist back, and Magnus realized he was about to be punched.
"Hey, what happened to not physically harming me?"
The fist hovered in the air by Saxton's ear. Then, just as Magnus thought he'd won, the other man's eyes suddenly filled with glee, and the fist swung forward to punch Magnus square in the face. Something in his nose cracked as hot blood spurted out. He'd have a black eye in the morning, too.
"Tomorrow night, we'll take a look back at Raven's Roost," Saxton said. "No more of this recent stuff. If I can't break you, Magnus Burnsides, then I'll make you suffer for the rest of this journey." He sighed. "You could have done this the easy way, Magnus. If you'd just let yourself fall apart, all of this would be over."
Saxton stood, a strained grin plastered on his face, then turned on his heel and left the tent."Ajay, get over here!"
Ah. Right. The healer.
Despite the horrible pain in his face, and the knowledge that Saxton might regularly start using him as a human punching bag, Magnus had never felt better. Physical pain was nothing. And now that he knew how to defeat him, even Saxton's magic was nothing. There were parts of his memory that Saxton could never reach. He would never know the truth about the events he used to torment Magnus, to guilt him into despair.
It was a small, possibly even Pyrrhic, victory, but hey, Magnus would take whatever wins came his way. He only wished he could share this moment with Merle and Taako.
Holy shit it's been a while.
Fear not, this fic is still alive and kicking. I sort of ran out of prepped chapters, and then school and work got in the way. If you've read any of my other works, you know that regular updates are pretty much nonexistent, but in the mean time, here's this. Thanks for being so patient!