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In the Strangest Dreams, Walking By Your Side

Chapter Text

They never did risky shit by themselves. That’s just the way they’ve always been. Even when Lup decided to trade in her non-undead life for phantasmal resplendency, she needed Taako there. It’s saved them more often than not, and the comfort of having her other half within reach gave her the confidence and security to accomplish anything.

Surely that was why, when Lup tried to set out by herself in search of her Relic, she barely had her jacket on before Taako was standing next to her with crossed arms and a raised eyebrow. No reason to change a time-tested formula. Call it a second sense, or the universe righting itself, or even just the nature of their rooms sharing a wall, but she should’ve known better than to think she could sneak off alone like that. She let out a breath, relief masked as exasperation, before leaving a note on the kitchen counter.

Back soon - L & T

 

As they floated down to the surface of the continent beneath them, Lup filled her brother in on the plan. Find the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet – and now the Philosopher’s Stone, too – and then find an impregnable yet quest-able location to store them. The Relics could be sought, but never obtained. It was the best they could do.

Taako held her as the battle below the hillside came to a fiery conclusion. He assured her this would be the last time. If their plan worked, he said with an optimism she knew didn’t come easy to him, they could do this for the rest of the Relics, too. They watched as the flames burnt out, leaving a perfect circle of glass in the field. Taako waited, squeezing her closer as she wiped away a few tears. She was the more emotional of the two, as Taako was wont to tease her for in lighter moments, but it was rare for anyone other than her brother to see her so torn up. After Lup collected herself, he smiled softly and helped her stand up.

“The last time,” he said.

“The last time,” she agreed.

They meandered across the countryside, keeping eyes and ears peeled for knowledge about the Stone or any tightly-locked dungeons. The latter came first.

They’re relaxing in a bar in some backwater mining town. Apparently there’s an orc army incoming, and most of the Relics are still out there, but for now they’re still basking in their small victory. They’ve had limitless time for the past century, but this was their first year in ages unmarred by the looming threat of an apocalypse. So, they took advantage of it. They drank. They ate. They gambled for belts and left gloves.

As the night wore on and patrons began avoiding the two, Lup overheard a group of dwarves in the corner arguing about a vault. She motioned to Taako and slid closer.

From what they could gather, the dwarves shared a family vault, only accessible by members of the family – a family whose number are dwindling quicker than expected, thanks to the orc invasion. After some heated discussion, they decided it was time to seal it shut, with all of their fortune within it. They claimed they’d come back for it when the battle was over. Taako and Lup shared a look and knew the few remaining Rockseekers didn’t have chances worth betting on.

They caught one of them as they left – the dwarf elected to seal the vault, Cyrus. After a lengthy assurance that they were not interested in the treasure, they easily convinced him to lock away the Gauntlet with it. Too easily, Lup failed to notice.

The day before they set off for Wave Echo Cave, news passed through Phandalin of a town forty miles east that turned to salt overnight. The twins met eyes, tense and uncomfortable, but knowing they’d have to split up. They’d done it plenty of times over the past century, but this wasn’t exactly another cycle.

Before Taako set off, he pulled her aside. They may be alike in many ways, but his perception was always sharper. He’d noticed the way Cyrus’s eyes linger on Lup’s backpack.

“We don’t know him, and we don’t know what these Relics are capable of up close,” he warned. “Just keep your guard up, alright? I’d be embarrassed if my sister got offed by some random loser in a nasty old cave.” She laughed, some tension leaving her shoulders. Even if he wasn’t next to her, it was reassuring that he still managed to watch her back.

“Sure thing, bro,” she said, pulling him in for a hug and ruffling his hair. He squawked indignantly. “See you in a few.”

“See ya,” he said, mounting a horse more acrobatically than necessary. Lup rolled her eyes and Taako smirked back, shooting a finger gun her way. “Try not to die.”

“I’ll do my best,” she said as he rode off.

Taako was, of course, correct. As the two approached the vault, Lup heard the sound of a dagger being drawn and leapt out of the way. She tossed the Gauntlet into the vault and summoned a Mage Hand to slam it shut. Yet, seconds before it closed, she watched in horror as Cyrus dove in after it. The machinations inside the door clicked and whirred before falling silent, leaving Lup alone in a dark, empty chamber.

She paced the room and pulled at every piece of the door, but to no avail. It was as secure as she was promised it would be.

“At least I kept my promise to Taako,” she assured herself. “At least I didn’t die.”

She felt a familiar, burning roar shake the vault. She grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut.

“The last time. The last time. The last time.”

 

She waited in Phandalin for three days after the incident. She heard no more news about the town of salt, but she heard no news of Taako either. After the third day, she grew impatient, finding a horse and heading east.

It only took a day of travel, which made it peculiar that her brother hadn’t been back yet. When she arrived in the ruined town, she found no people, no Stone, and especially no Taako.

She stifled the panic in her chest and made rounds of the surrounding villages. No one had heard anything of him since he rode in. If anyone else came in or out, they weren’t noticed.

Obviously, she told herself, that meant he left unconventionally. Meaning, vertically. Meaning, she just needed to get back to the Starblaster and there he would be, fiddling with the Stone and screwing with Barry.

There was some unwelcome nostalgia in rushing back to the Starblaster, heart tight with the hope of seeing her family all together again. And yet, when she got back to the ship, her vision didn’t burst into lights which rethreaded her hand-in-hand with her brother. Instead, she was met by five relieved faces, rushing towards her and asking where she had been.

But only five.

Taako hadn’t come back. No one had seen him since the night before the twins left. The panic surged back into her chest and it was there to stay, because where the hell else could he be? Did she leave him behind? Is it her fault for not being there to protect him? Is he dead? No, no, the last thought was too much to handle. Even encased in her body, she could feel her lich form begin to fall apart at that.

They searched for him, Lup most aggressively of them all, Barry keeping up as much as he could. They occasionally tried to pinpoint the Relics as well, but between Taako’s disappearance and the lack of secure hiding places, it was deemed fruitless for the time being. They would figure it out after they got Taako back, Lup swore. Because they would find him. They would. They would.

The tense, too-quiet atmosphere of the Starblaster began taking its toll on the residents. News of catastrophes they inflicted on this world flooded in without the filter of Taako’s deliberate distractions. Even Merle struggled to keep the mood light, limiting his cheer to the occasional bawdy story and his weekly card games with Davenport.

Lucretia had locked herself in her room for weeks. If anyone thought it was odd she took Taako’s loss so hard, they were too miserable to notice.

Lup and Barry’s search was hindered – or perhaps encouraged – by the fact that the Philosopher’s Stone appeared to be out of commission. As little news as there was of Taako, there was just as little about the Stone. It was frustrating and ineffective, but Lup clung to the thought that he must be out there somewhere, still holding onto the Stone, still keeping it safe.

And then there came the day when it ceased to matter.

“What if he’s gone, Lup?” Barry asked softly. Somehow, her mind blanked.

“Who?”

The horror on Barry’s face was quickly mirrored on hers as she remembered with a start – Taako, her brother, her– her– her what?

“Barry, fuck, Barry I’m forgetting him,” she said, panicked, tears forming in her eyes. She watched as he struggled to focus on her.

“I– I’m sorry, I don’t know who– who are you talking about? Who are you?”

She couldn’t help the anguished wail that left her. Before her eyes, the love of her life was becoming blurry. In her mind, she could feel her very heart being erased.

“Barry– Barry. Kill me.” Consciously, she’s startled by her words, but it still felt right in the very core of her being. “I’ll be fine, I’ll be a– a– a something, whatever it is, I’ll be fine, just kill me. Now.”

Barry stared at her, tears running down his face, and she knew he won’t be able to do it.

“Please, B– fuck, you, whoever you are, I need you to–“ and she cut herself off, because what the hell, Lup? Just because you lack any self-preservation doesn’t mean you should ask people to straight-up kill you.

It’s not her voice that thinks that, she noticed briefly, but then the thought is gone altogether. She looked around, confused. Where was she?

She noticed the man standing before her, clutching the table edge as hard as she was, regarding her with equal bewilderment.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “You look like you’ve been crying, dude. Not a good look.” He wiped at his cheek, startled by the wetness. Then he looked back at her accusingly.

“Well, I mean, speak for yourself. Because, um. So do you.” She brushed a hand beneath her eyes and her confusion deepened. Lup doesn’t cry. Lup isn’t an emotional gal.

It’s probably this weird metal room, she thought blankly. An enchantment, maybe? She should get out of here as soon as possible.

 

Lucretia tried her best to keep Lup and Barry together, but it just wouldn’t work. Lup was different now. Without a brother to protect, her memories rewrote her as a girl who was just brash and aggressive for her own sake. Without her heart, she was distrustful and fiercely independent. Finally, Lucretia settled for leaving them in the same town, hoping that they’d naturally fall back together.

It lasted two weeks before Lup got bored and moved on.

Lup didn’t know what that lady expected, shoving her into a sleepy town with a stranger.

She’s always been alone. That’s how she likes it.

Chapter Text

It was like she was seeing the world for the first time, and Lup loved it.

Caravans, oddly, were much worse than she remembered them being. How she managed to hang around them her entire childhood without being murdered or left behind was baffling in retrospect. Regardless, a rough girl like her could still find all kinds of occupations while traversing the continent alone.

She enjoyed a brief career in the fantasy WWE before her disqualification due to ‘excessive and unfair magic’. Apparently even the rowdiest fighters of Faerun had their limits, and those limits included lighting up the whole stadium.

The battlewagons of Goldcliff held her interest for much longer, thanks to their complete disregard for rules. It wasn’t until the bird lady teamed up with some newcomer in a goat mask that Lup had to call it quits. They quickly dominated the track, and Lup wasn’t one to compete for second place.

At least they held a similar reluctance towards killing the other competitors. She was happy to leave them as the reigning champs.

(Her departure, of course, had nothing to do with her race team trying to bond with her. There was absolutely no correlation between her restlessness and the way they attempted to immerse her into their family. Their warm smiles were completely unrelated to her lack of a goodbye.)

She finally settled on being a wandering mercenary. It wasn’t ideal, but it was still pretty damn good. She only took jobs with some level of moral standards, and it was hard to form emotional ties when you were just in it for the money. Besides, it gave her an excuse to use her magic umbrella, no holds barred.

Oh, yeah. The umbrella. Lup couldn’t quite recall where she had picked it up, but she’s glad she did. It was easily the most powerful magical weapon she’d ever held. It only increased in power with each wizard she defeated.

By the time she found herself in some backwater mining town, she’d just taken out her fourth magic user and was raring to put her staff to the test. She was on her way to Neverwinter, a town full of rich people hesitant to get their own hands dirty – in other words, good for business. This wasn’t the most direct path, if she were being honest, but there was something about the salt flats to the east that made her incredibly uneasy.

Whatever. It’s not like she had anyone around to judge.

The town, called Phandalin, was bustling. She remembered hearing about it being razed by orcs a few years back, but from what she could pick up, it was in the midst of a sort of renaissance. Good on them, she thought, ducking into a store called ‘Barthin’s Provisions’.

Lup tossed a few cans of food into a basket before approaching the counter. Behind it, a human and a dwarf seemed to be discussing the stock.

“–erwinter is far away as is, not to mention the goblin caves between here and there,” said the human, wearing a name tag that identified him as Barthin.

“And that’s why it’s such a good deal for you,” the dwarf explained. “I’ll get your supplies here, no problem, as long as you agree to fund the little…expedition my brothers and I are looking into.”

“I’ve met you three,” Barthin scoffed. “Even if you do manage to get my supplies here without losing them, that ‘expedition’ of yours ain’t going nowhere. Waste of my time and money.” The dwarf grit his teeth.

“Listen, I’m trying to help this town, and if you won’t give me–“

“Ah, excuse me?” Lup interrupted before the dwarf could strangle Barthin. They both turned to look at her, mildly annoyed at the interruption. She lifted her basket slightly. “Just wanted to check out before one of you kills the other,” she said cheerily. Barthin forced a polite smile and began ringing up her purchases. The dwarf continued staring at her, irritation fading into recognition.

“I know you,” he finally said. Lup blinked at him.

“That’s certainly possible. I won’t lie,” she said, flipping her hair, “I have many adoring fans.”

“No, not– not like that,” the dwarf said as Barthin squinted at her curiously. “You were here in Phandalin, ten years ago.” Lup gave him a blank stare, racking her brain for any memory of this. He continued, his voice now tinged with a hint of desperation. “You worked with Cyrus Rockseeker?”

This got Barthin’s full attention, and a face flashed through Lup’s mind.

“Oh, right!” she said, grasping for any additional details. “We did some, ah, security work together, yes?” The dwarf nodded vigorously.

“I’m one of his sons, Gundren Rockseeker,” he said. “This is important, ma’am. Do you remember anything about the Phandelver mines?”

Lup paused, dredging through the muddled and extremely forgettable experience.

“Like it was yesterday,” she lied. Gundren’s face lit up and Barthin was staring at her, mouth agape.

“See, we aren’t just flying blind here!” Gundren told Barthin triumphantly. “She was there when he sealed the vault!”

“That doesn’t change the fact that you don’t know where the lost mines are,” Barthin said weakly. Lup leaned in, interest taken and groceries forgotten.

“I already have a way of dealing with that,” Gundren said. “And even if you don’t trust my brothers and I, you certainly trust this…” He trailed off and glanced at Lup. She extended a hand.

“Wizard, wrestler, racer, and chef. The name’s Lup.” She shook both of their hands. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Right, exactly. All of those things.”

“One wizard doesn’t make an effective team,” argued Barthin. Gundren hesitated.

“I suppose…I have a cousin who’s taken up adventuring as of late,” he said. “Last I heard, he had a fighter and a wizard on his team.”

“And you think they’ll join you?”

“In this economy? I’m sure they’ll take any job they can grab,” Gundren said. “Look, Barthin. This is the best we’re ever going to get. A team of skilled adventurers, three Rockseekers, and your financial assistance. If we can’t find the vault, nobody will.” Barthin finally seemed to crack.

“Fine,” he said. “But you’d better get all my supplies here. All of them.” Gundren nodded, rolling his eyes. Then, he turned to Lup, eyes glittering. Excitement overtook her. She may not know what was going on, but she could tell it was going to be a hell of a ride.

“How would you like to embark on the last job you’ll ever need to take?” he asked. Lup grinned widely.

 

How in the hell, Barry wondered, did I end up stuck in this?

He’d always been more of an academic than fighter, he ruminated as he ducked away from a flaming arrow. Hell, he pondered while following a trail of blood with his companions, he hadn’t even learned offensive magic until times got rough, financially speaking.

His attraction to necromancy was probably off-putting, but his companions (currently murdering their way into a goblin cave) didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they were open-minded. More likely, they just had low moral standards.

And now, he thought, staring at the scene before him, this mission had become even weirder.

“Barry, you have some kind of spell that can hit the goblin up top, right?” Magnus whispered. They were crouched outside a cavern where various goblins seemed to be relaxing. What had caught his attention, though, was the second level of the room where two goblins were standing guard over an unconscious elven woman. An elven woman whom he recognized.

“What the hell,” he murmured. Merle elbowed him and he turned with a start.

“Did you catch that?” he asked. Barry replayed the last minute or so through his head.

“Oh, yeah. Magic Missile. Sure.” He turned back to look closer at the woman. What was her name, again? Lup? He hadn’t seen her since she dashed out of town nearly a decade ago.

The three began their assault and Barry tried to surreptitiously check her for damage. She seemed pretty beaten up, and almost all of her belongings had been stripped off of her. Barry winced. If Lup was anything like he remembered, she would not be pleased to wake up in a goblin cave with nothing but an undershirt and trousers. In fact, he might want to flee the scene before she awoke.

His attention was diverted as the goblins began fighting back. He barely managed to dodge a club being swung his way when a voice behind him announced “Put your weapons down.”

The three of them slowly turned to see Lup being dangled over the edge. The goblin holding her grinned wickedly.

“The three of you strike me as businessmen.”

 

Barry wasn’t much of a mercenary, but he was fairly certain this wasn’t what Yeemick meant by ‘take care of Klarg’. It seemed to be working out fine for him at least, though being doted upon by a bugbear wasn’t one of his favorite ways to spend an evening. He shot a glare at Magnus and Merle, who he knew would give him shit for this later, and mouthed ‘help me’.

“I think I understand what the problem is,” Klarg said while pouring out cups of oolong tea. “I employ several Yeemicks.”

“C-Come on, uh, Klarg. Look. Would I lie to you?” Barry said. Casting Charm may not have been his best panic-driven move, but he’d be damned if he didn’t make it work somehow. “We’re on the same side here. We’ll help you take care of this, uh, disciplinary issue you’re having, and you give us Lup.”

“And some gold,” Merle interjected. “Like, a little bit of gold for our troubles.” Barry stifled a groan. Not the kind of help he was looking for.

“And also tell us what happened to our other friend. Gundren?” Magnus added hopefully.

“Certainly,” Klarg said, walking over to a desk. “But first, let me call Yeemick up here so we can sort out all of this silly business.”

 

One bloodbath and hasty escape later, the trio were sitting in a Phandalin inn waiting for Lup to recover.

“How did you say you know her?” Magnus asked Barry. He sunk further into his seat. It had been awkward, although not unexpected, when Lup had woken up and immediately started laughing at him.

“We lived near each other a few years back,” he said, then hesitated. “We wanted the same book at the library, so she lit my robe on fire.” Magnus bit his lip and Merle snorted.

“Sounds like quite a lady,” he said.

“She’s something,” Barry replied. “I’m not surprised she ended up adventuring, too.”

“I thought this was a friends-and-family gig, though,” Magnus said. “We’re only here because of Merle. How do you think she got in?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” came a voice from behind them. A plate of wings and a flagon of ale slammed down between Magnus and Barry, followed by Lup slumping into the seat. She nodded at Barry. “What’s up, Bluejeans?” He glanced at her umbrella warily as his companions stifled their laughter.

“We’re just trying to figure out our next step,” he said, scooting away a few inches.

“Do you know where we can find the Black Spider?” Magnus asked, grabbing a wing from her plate. Lup looked at him oddly.

“Who the fuck is the Black Spider?” she asked, picking up a wing of her own and beginning to eat. Magnus and Barry noticed Merle puffing himself up and looked at each other apprehensively. Intimidation wasn’t the dwarf’s strong suit, but he definitely kept trying.

“He’s the guy who took my cousin!” Merle said, leaning forward. “And I think you know where they went!” Far from intimidated, Lup seemed amused.

“I’ve been unconscious since we got separated, dear,” she said. She paused, seeming to ponder something. “Although…there’s only one reason I can think of that he’d be taken.”

The three waited for her to continue, but Lup seemed content to let the tension build in silence. Finally, Merle took the bait.

“And what might that be?” he asked. Lup beamed and yanked a sheet of parchment from her bag.

“I’m glad you asked,” she said, leaning forward with a sharp smile on her face. She swept her meal towards Magnus, who gladly helped himself, and slammed the paper down in front of her. “Lucky for you clowns, Gundren left a back-up map with me.”

“Why would he trust you with that?” Merle said suspiciously. “I’m his cousin!”

“Obviously not a close one,” she said dismissively. She didn’t mention that Gundren had assumed she already knew all there was to know about the cave. She could keep that to herself. Meanwhile, Barry was examining the sheet, even lifting the corner to check the back.

“Uh, Lup? Not that I don’t believe you, but–“ he gestured at the paper, “–this is completely blank.”

“Of course it’s blank,” she said. “Otherwise any Johnny Nobody could find the cave.” She dug through her bag. “Something you’ll need to keep in mind for this whole adventure is that everything about this cave is tied to the…Rockseekers…” She trailed off and began emptying her bag. “Shit.”

“Is there a problem?” Merle asked sarcastically. Lup glared at him.

“Did you take the vial?” she demanded. Merle seemed taken aback.

“What vial?”

“The vial with the blood, Gundren’s blood, you can’t find the cave without it.” She threw her now-empty bag across the table as Barry and Merle shared a look. “Shit!”

“Well,” Merle began, “I am his cousin. Would that work?” Lup stopped glaring at the table and looked at Merle with a pleasantly surprised look on her face.

“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. That would probably do the trick.”

 

The only condition Lup required for her help was to be brought along, which the boys agreed to with no argument whatsoever. Not that they’d admit it, but they were all fairly certain Lup was more powerful than any of them.

Not that it made her the smartest.

“Guys, stop talking so loud!” Lup shouted, triggering another burst of spores from the mushrooms. Barry bit his tongue to prevent a curse that would almost certainly set off the fungus at his own feet.

“I think the poison is caused by noise!” Magnus said, and then coughed as he was hit. Merle began laughing loudly, granting him the same fate.

Barry began pointedly walking away, only to be stopped by a blob of slime falling in his path. Before he could lift his wand, a ball of fire shot past his head and caused the monster to fly out of range. He turned his head to see Lup, smirking despite her red-rimmed eyes. He felt something seize in his chest, and couldn’t help but feel like bringing Lup had been a very good idea.

 

Even Lup couldn’t make it easier to face off against a sentient grinding machine and huge spider, however. Magnus barely saved them on the first one, and it was only by a stroke of luck that Barry’s Magic Missile managed to knock the drow into a pit.

The trick that Magic Brian had tried to pull afterwards with Gundren was hardly worth mentioning.

Killian dropped down into the pit to grab…something, and Gundren almost immediately pulled them aside. Barry was hesitant to leave without waiting for Killian to return, but the other three were eager to see what the fuss was about, so he was outvoted.

It didn’t take long for Lup to join him towards the back of the group, though. He braced himself for mockery, but instead noticed her looking…nervous.

“I don’t think we should be here,” she said under her breath. “I don’t think anyone is supposed to be here.” Before Barry could respond, Gundren came to a stop in front of a large, heavy door.

“This is it,” he announced. “The Rockseeker family treasure is right behind these doors.” He cut his hand and placed it on the door. As the gears began moving, Lup flinched and stepped forward.

“Um, excuse me? Gundren? Now that I’m here, I think I’m remembering a bit more about these caves.” The boys looked at her in surprise, but she kept talking. “I’m pretty sure we sealed up that vault for a reason.”

“The reason was to keep those filthy orcs away from our fortune,” Gundren snarled. All four of them flinched this time.

“O-kay, blatant racism aside, I don’t think that was it,” Lup said. “Actually, I think I’ll have to ask you to step away from that vault.”

Before she could raise her umbrella, the door swung open, and everybody froze.

There was no gold. No fortune. Just a perfect circle of black glass.

Lup’s eyes glazed over and she clutched her head. Barry stepped over to help her.

“Are you okay?” he asked. Lup shook her head a few times.

“Yeah. No. I mean–“ She rubbed her eyes and looked at him. “There’s something really bad in there.”

There was a yelp from the chamber, and the two looked over to see Magnus clutching his hand.

“Don’t high-five the gauntlet!” he yelled. Merle began chastising him, but Gundren…Gundren looked…

“What did I tell you?” Killian shouted from behind them. Gundren snatched the Gauntlet. All hell broke loose.

 

Phandalin was burning.

They had tried to calm down Gundren, but it all fell apart because of some ridiculous teenage orc, why did he have to do that–

“Get to the well, get to the well, get to the well–“

“Lup, come on!” Barry called over his shoulder.

But Lup was running forward. Magnus doubled back to follow her, grabbing her arm as soon as he could.

“Lup, we need to–“

“I’m not letting them all die!” she yelled.

“I don’t want to leave them either, but there’s not much we can do right now,” he shouted back. The fire behind them grew. “Lup, we need to go now, or we’ll die too!”

Lup glared at him and tugged her arm from his grasp, turning to run towards Gundren again. Magnus grit his teeth and grabbed her around the waist, tossing her over his shoulder. She began screaming at him as he dove towards the well, fire singeing his boots and the ends of Lup’s hair.

“–the last time–“ was all he could catch before the sky above them burst into flames.

They managed to land softly, thanks to both Killian’s Feather Fall and Killian herself. They sat, watching as the sky faded back to night in companionable silence.

“…that could’ve gone better,” Lup said. Magnus glanced over and was surprised to notice that she seemed composed again – or, at least more composed than before. It seemed she was trying to repress the decimation of a small town as hard as he was. Merle laughed from his perch atop Killian’s back.

“I’ll say,” he said.

“Hey, uh, Lup,” said Barry. “You wouldn’t happen to know Levitate, would you?” There was more silence, and then Lup swore softly.

That was what I meant to do last week,” she hissed. The boys let out a chorus of curses until Magnus dug out a rope and began climbing.

 

Lup approached the Gauntlet as the other three interrogated Killian. It was frustrating her beyond belief. She remembered going to Wave Echo Cave with Cyrus, but nothing about the Gauntlet. She had known there was something bad inside the vault, but not its catastrophic effects.

She knew this hadn’t been meant to happen again, but she couldn’t recall it happening ever before.

One thing she knew for certain was that she hated this fucking thing. As soon as it began whispering at her to put it on, she simply answered “eat me” and stuffed it in her bag.

She strolled back to the group and saw Killian staring at her in disbelief.

“What?” Lup asked. Killian shook herself out of the shock she was in.

“Well, shit,” she said. “I guess I really do have to bring you guys with me now.” Lup tensed and Merle squinted at her suspiciously.

“Back where? Because I’m not interested in getting staticked away or whatever it is you do–“ Merle began, but Killian shook her head and tapped her bracer.

“I’m not trying to kill you guys. Well, not anymore at least,” she said. Something round and white began falling from the sky. “I think I need to offer you a job, actually.”

Chapter Text

”Is that it?” Lup asked. Johann stared at her in mild horror. The boys did the same.

“What do you mean ‘is that it’?” Merle asked.

“Are you, uh…are you sure it worked?” Johann asked. “Bureau of Balance. Voidfish. Did all of that come through clear?”

“No, yeah, I got that part,” she said, “but I feel like there are still a few gaps.”

“I mean, you’ve been alive for, like, a hundred years, right?” Magnus asked. “You’re probably just forgetting things in the normal way.” Lup hummed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” she said, not believing him in the slightest. Maybe her age did have to do with it. More memories meant a more gradual recollection. As a matter of fact, the feeling that she was still missing pieces of memory washed away the more she contemplated it. By the time they were escorted to their next destination, the thought had faded completely from her mind.

She had probably just been imagining things. It was a feeling she was used to glossing over.

 

Lup didn’t even hesitate before dropping the Gauntlet into the lead ball. As soon as the Director mentioned the word ‘destroy’, she just tossed it in. The Director’s expression flickered through surprise, then relief, then back to elegantly composed. If Merle hadn’t been watching her with his characteristic suspicion, he might have missed it. As soon as money changed hands – he may be mistrustful, but he wasn’t a fool – he began questioning everything he could.

The Director handled the inquiries with great poise, providing answers without hesitation. The Bureau had been founded less than a year ago. Their mission is to track and destroy the Grand Relics. The seven Relics had been created by a band of foolish magic users. The four of them were the only people to resist the Relics’ thrall.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Madam Director,” Barry finally said, “but it sounds like you’re offering us a job.” Magnus looked delighted to partake in a world-saving mission, Merle was eyeing the heavy coin purse appreciatively, and Lup simply seemed to want to fight something. The Director nodded with a faint smile.

“I believe the four of you would serve as excellent Reclaimers,” she said. “However, you’ll need to pass a test first.”

“A test?” chorused Magnus and Barry, one miserable and one eager. Lup snorted and nudged Merle with her knee.

“Nerd alert,” she told him in a stage whisper, jabbing a thumb towards Barry. This time, Merle was too distracted to notice the Director flinch.

“It’s not that sort of test,” the Director swiftly clarified. “It’s more like a challenge, of sorts. The only answer you must provide to me is that, between the four of you, which of you is the smartest, the strongest, the bravest, and the quickest?”

The four were quiet for a moment.

“You mean, all at once? Probably me,” Lup said, breaking the silence. Magnus hummed in disagreement.

“More than me? I mean, maybe you’re smarter. Maybe. But I’m definitely the strongest.”

“Not all four at once,” the Director said, exasperated yet not surprised. “It’s one per individual.”

“Well that settles it!” Magnus declared. “I’m the strongest.”

“Bull-fucking-shit,” Lup snarled. “I’ll have you know I took part in BattleFest.”

“Did you win?”

“Did you?”

“Alright, fine. We’re arm-wrestling for it.”

“Sounds fair,” Lup said, retracting slightly from where she and Magnus had been arguing nose-to-nose. “Bluejeans! Come here and bend over, we’re using your back to arm wrestle on.”

“Uh, no? No. Absolutely not,” Barry said. Lup grumbled at him as Magnus targeted one of the guards and started wiggling his eyebrows.

“Pretty sure the runner-up from that is going to be ‘bravest’, yeah?” said Merle. Barry shifted his attention towards the dwarf.

“Yeah. Which leaves ‘smartest’ and ‘quickest’ up to us,” he said. “Which do you want?”

Merle looked down and swung one of his foot-and-a-half-long legs pointedly.

“Point taken,” Barry said. Behind him, he heard a thump, followed by a cheer and a curse. He turned and saw a guard on the floor as Magnus taunted Lup, flexing excessively. “It looks like that’s been settled.”

“So, you have your answer?” the Director said.

“Yes,” Merle said. “I am smartest. Barry is–“

“Well, listen to you,” the Director interrupted, smirking slightly. Lup and Magnus burst into laughter, and the Director’s face grew softer for a second.

“Alright, alright, nice goof you guys,” grumbled Merle.

“I’m the quickest,” Barry continued, biting back his grin.

“I’m the strongest,” Magnus said proudly.

“And I’m the bravest,” Lup finished.

“Okay,” the Director said. Her gentle smile was the last thing they saw as she tapped her staff and the world faded to black.

 

They woke up together, temporally, but found themselves alone. After a moment of confusion, Barry and Magnus made eye contact across separate catwalks. Magnus waved. Barry waved back. They looked down at the glass-encased arena where Lup was carefully standing up, and waved to her as well. Merle waved from a cannon in an alcove of the arena.

They all spent a few moments waving at each other.

An intercom crackled to life overhead.

“Welcome to the Test of Initiation,” came the Director’s voice. “This test, adjusted for various team sizes, is customary for all new members of the Bureau. Your goal is to prove that you can work cohesively as a team and maintain balance between your opponents. I will give you a brief rundown of your roles.”

Merle was the most direct player when it came to balancing enemies, his cannon being equipped with various potions to fire into the arena. Magnus seemed miffed over losing out on Lup’s job, being within the arena and maneuvering around ogres, but brightened when he heard that his task would be a protector, fending off automatons from a button which would paralyze his party members. Barry’s role was to run between two different timers on opposite ends of his catwalk and reset them before they went off, lest all the ogres be healed or Magnus’s automatons increase.

It went about with mixed success. Lup attempted to fight the smallest ogre, which ended about as well as the Director had warned them it would. Watching her fly across the arena, Barry was too distracted to catch the automaton timer, which caused Magnus to be overwhelmed enough that the others were stunned. Fortunately, the timers froze as well, but it hardly mattered after Magnus immediately leapt into the arena, showering glass everywhere, and fended off the last remaining ogre with Lup.

“That was quite an…unconventional way of doing that, but congratulations,” the Director told them. Everyone staggered to their feet, eyes meeting. A sense of camaraderie washed over them – it was familiar, but at the same time, not too familiar. The voice over the intercom continued.

“You have passed the Test of Initiation. Welcome, officially, to the Bureau of Balance.”

Chapter Text

It was…unusual, adjusting their new life. The following month found the quartet restless. For most of them, it was the longest they had spent in one place for years – or in Lup’s case, ever – and it had them filled with paranoia and agitation.

While they did venture out of their dorm, it was hardly for the purpose of social calls. Lup pointedly avoided making new friends, going so far as to torment the artificer and Fantasy Costco employees. Magnus spent a lot of time engaging Killian in the training arena, and Barry had established himself as a near-permanent fixture in the library.

Merle, at least, seemed to have dedicated himself towards a friendship. Unfortunately, it was one with the Director, which had her almost as uncomfortable as her new employees.

In truth, it seemed that the entire moon let out a sigh of relief once they finally got a mission.

The call came in the middle of the night, and within seconds Lup was out of bed and geared up, practically dragging her exhausted teammates towards the Director’s office. Everyone ignored Magnus as he got changed out of his pajamas during the briefing, but were caught up by a small detail of the plan.

“Wait, Lup, why do you want to be Leeman Kessler?” Barry asked.

“She said he was half-elf,” Lup said. “She also said that a good actor would need to impersonate him, and I’m all dramatics, baby.”

“Half-elf means half human! Plus she said he was a dude,” Magnus said. “Which means me and Barry fit the description better.”

“I-I would really rather not have to act for a whole train ride,” Barry interjected, already daunted by the amount of acting being demanded of him.

“You expect me to believe that Magnus ‘Rushing In’ Burnsides is a good actor? Please,” Lup scoffed.

“So, what, you’re gonna pretend to be a dude the whole time?” Magnus asked. Lup bit her lip.

“…huh. Good point.”

“That settles it then,” Merle said. “I’ll be Leeman Kessler.”

“What??”

“That makes the least amount of sense–“

And you three will be my bodyguards!” Merle added. “My beefy, magically-kickass bodyguards.” That seemed to placate the other two. The Director coughed politely.

“Well, if that’s finally decided,” she said, “three of you still need to get dressed–“

“Two,” Magnus chimed.

“When did you get chan– nevermind. The other two of you should go get ready,” the Director said. “Avi will be waiting for you in the hangar.”

 

They split up after they left the office, Magnus and Lup eager to get moving. By the time they reconvened in the hangar, however, something terrible had happened with Magnus.

“He– We ran into– Robbie, y’know the halfling guy,” Lup tried to explain through the giggles wracking her body. Magnus slumped over Barry, taking his glasses and babbling something about ‘Disguise Self’ before putting them on his own face. “And Mags just fuckin’– took one of those potions and– he just fuckin’ slams it back–“

“Can he fly like this?” Barry asked nervously, trying to retrieve his glasses gently.

“Hell, it’ll sure be fun finding out, won’t it?” Merle answered. As soon as Barry snatched his glasses back, Magnus shouted delightedly and stumbled over to Avi. Lup doubled over. Barry resigned himself to piloting.

They gently peeled Magnus away from Avi and were given the rundown of how to function the cannonball, which only Barry seemed to pay attention to. As Merle ushered Magnus into a seat next to a still-hysterical Lup, he hesitantly took the front left seat.

Avi shouted a few last-minute instructions as the door shut and, just like that, they were fired at a high velocity from an actual, goddamn cannon.

Magnus sobered up enough to jolt upwards (as much as he could while the velocity pushed him back, at least) and looked around wildly.

“What the fuck,” he said. “Did I…am I dead?”

The view was, in fact, gorgeous in a near-ethereal sense. They had an overhead view of the sun rising over the Teeth, casting pink and orange light across the craggy rocks. The green pastures surrounding Rockport were rolling like waves in the early morning light, and the flock of pegasi below them were thrown into beautiful contrast with the–

“Barry, pull the handle!” Lup screamed. He was shaken out of the landscape-induced reverie just in time to watch as they crashed through the distressed herd of creatures. Lup’s head whipped around to check behind them as Barry finally pulled the handle. Fortunately, the pegasi seemed pissed off rather than gravely injured.

Unfortunately, they took out those emotions by pursuing their sphere.

As soon as their vessel touched down outside Rockport, the team evacuated and bolted towards the city. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed for Lup that the pegasi were attacking the cannonball with all their equine fury.

“Nice going, Barold,” she hissed. He shot a sour look back at her.

“You could’ve piloted instead.”

“Right. My mistake for trusting a teammate,” she replied, rolling her eyes. His response was cut off as the pegasi noticed their presence. “Oh, fuck.”

 

It took about an hour of hiding from horses and interrogating identical townsfolk, but they finally arrived at the train station. Behind the ticket counter was yet another Tom Bodett.

“Hey there. Can I help you folks with anything?” Tom said. Merle stepped forward.

“My name is Leeman Kessler. I believe there’s already a ticket for me,” he said. Tom Bodett searched below the counter for a moment before pulling out a ticket.

“There is, actually! And we already have your cargo aboard the train,” Tom said cheerfully. “Are these three coming with you?”

“Yes! Yes, these are these are my nephews…Diddley and Bo. And this one,” Merle said, patting Lup’s arm affectionately, “is my sweet little girl…Presley.”

“Which of the boys is which?” Tom asked as Lup stared down at Merle in disbelief.

“I’m Leon Kessler,” blurted Barry. Everyone turned to stare at him.

“I’m sorry, you’re–”

“Listen, we really have to go,” Magnus interrupted. “Our train leaves soon and–“

“Of course, I understand,” Tom said. “So Leeman, Leon, Diddley, and Presley?”

“My name is John Bodett,” Barry declared. Lup was shaking with repressed laughter and Merle groaned.

“Nice,” Magnus whispered to Barry.

“I’m very nervous,” he hissed back through a frozen grin.

“Ok, I’m just gonna go down the line with this,” Tom said. “Leeman Kessler, obviously–“

“That’s me!”

“–and then you are?”

“Diddley Kessler,” Magnus said.

“Then you, young lady?”

“Tempest,” said Lup with a grin.

“Pan Almighty,” Merle muttered.

“I– alright, okay, Tempest Kessler. And then you, vague-looking fellow?” Everyone turned to stare at Barry.

“Griffin.”

“Okay. Good. Okay,” Tom said. “Diddley, Tempest, Griffin – you all have your own tickets, right?”

While Merle tried to convince him that one ticket was sufficient, Barry stuttered out an jumbled phrase and twitched his wand towards the ticket booth. A calm seemed to fall over Tom Bodett.

“Hey,” he said, eyelids dropping seductively. “Do you, uh…do you guys wanna kiss?”

“Tickets! My companions need tickets,” Merle said.

“Oh my god, Barold,” Lup said, openly cackling, while Merle dealt with Tom Bodett.

“Is that, like, your only spell?” Magnus asked.

“I’m stressed, alright? That was a stressful situation!” Barry said.

“Why do you Charm people when you’re stressed?” Lup asked between fits of laughter. “My dude, that’s a weird defense mechanism.”

“Let’s just– can we just get on the train already?” Barry pleaded.

“Of course!” Tom chirped, popping up directly in front of Barry and hooking an arm through his. “Let me show you to the cargo car first.” Barry silently berated himself as he, followed by his snickering teammates, were led aboard the Rockport Limited.

 

Maybe they shouldn’t be giving Jenkins such a hard time. Usually, Barry would be the one object, but he was enjoying the reprieve from teasing. In his defense, it was a nice feeling to be on the other side of Lup’s jokes.

“Kind of a shitty wizard,” Lup muttered to him as Jenkins twitched imperceptibly. If he laughed harder than the others, well. It was probably just the rest of his nervous energy burning off.

Now they had pissed him off enough that he had grit his teeth and left them in the dining car, hurriedly pushing his cart towards the front of the train. As Magnus and Lup traded high-fives, a small voice piped up behind them.

“Hello, sirs and ma’am! How was your trip?” They turned to see the fancy boy, Angus McDonald, with his head popping up over the back of the seat. Magnus leaned down towards his companions.

“Don’t trust him,” he whispered.

“M’kay,” said Angus, giving Magnus a flat look. Lup sauntered over and ruffled his hair.

“It was pretty good. We sure missed you though,” she told him. Angus beamed.

“I missed you too!” he said. Suddenly he perked up like he had forgotten something. “Oh! I never asked! What are y’all going to Neverwinter for?”

Magnus blurted “business” as Merle said “relatives” in his awful fantasy Scottish accent. They traded a quick look before Merle took the reins.

“We’re going to visit relatives,” he stated conclusively. Angus kept smiling. Barry suspected it was fake, and turned slightly towards Lup to see her giving the boy a curious look.

“Oh, you also have relatives there? I wonder if my grandpa knows them,” he said. Merle’s eyebrows tensed as he realized he was going to have to fabricate a lot. “What relatives live there?”

“Uh, the distant ones.”

“Well, in terms of your familial relationship, or geographically?”

“Emotional,” Magnus interjected as Merle faltered. Barry noticed Lup holding back laughter again. She found joy in a lot of situations, he mused. It was pretty enchanting.

…Wait–

“What’s their name?” Angus asked, effectively distracting Barry from his thoughts. His panic over being busted started to flood back.

“Uh, Willard,” Merle lied. Barry tensed up even more.

“And what are your names?”

“I– I’m Leeman,” said Merle, confused.

“Still Diddley,” Magnus said as Barry blurted “Griffin” again.

“No, I’m sorry,” Angus said, shaking his head like he had misspoken. “I meant what are your real names that aren’t fake? The ones that you guys actually have!”

A chill ran through the quartet. Lup and Barry locked eyes. Magnus leaned down between them.

“Should I…kill him?” he whispered.

While Lup looked as though she were having an internal conflict over threat-versus-child, Barry subtly cast Detect Magic. It wasn’t easy since, despite Lup being the only one allowed to keep her disguised ‘wand’, their party was still alight with magical items. Yet, he managed to catch the aura of Divination radiating off of Angus’s book.

Barry nudged the two jocks and jerked his head towards the tome. Magnus caught on first and lunged towards it. Before he could pull it away, Angus managed to snatch it out from beneath him.

“Don’t try that again!” Angus said, holding it out of Magnus’s reach. “I just need to know what your names are n–“

Lup grabbed the book from behind him. She held it just above his head as he stood on his seat.

“Okay, that’s not cool. I get that I’m not as tall as you guys–“

“Catch!” Lup said and tossed it over to Barry. Angus scowled.

“Okay, so we’re doing this now, huh?”

“It’s called monkey in the middle,” Magnus supplied.

“I know what it’s called,” said Angus tersely. Barry flipped open the volume and immediately recognized it as an Interceptor Book. He’d actually gotten to use one back when he worked with– well. With some university, or something. It was a long time ago.

There were more pressing matters than his resume, however. A single paragraph was laid across the pages warning the Neverwinter police of their false identities – which had been revealed by a Charm spell. Barry winced.

“I may have goofed this one up, guys,” he said. Lup peeked over his shoulder.

“Jeezy creezy. Does that mean this kid is with the fuzz?” she asked.

“No, this book intercepts messages. Intentional or not, I think he actually kept it from being passed on to the Neverwinter authorities,” Barry told her. She hummed thoughtfully.

“Alright,” Lup said, before grabbing the book and tossing it back to Angus, who had been arguing with Merle and Magnus. He seemed surprised, but gratefully clutched it to his chest.

“You seem alright, so – what’s the skinny, kid?” she said. “The name’s Lup. You probably recognize me from the Battlewagon races.”

“The– what?” Magnus turned to Lup. “How much have you done, exactly?” She flipped her hair over a shoulder.

“What can I say? I’m a multi-faceted individual.”

“Well, my grandpa doesn’t let me watch those, but…” Angus hesitated. “Were you ever at Chaos Stadium?” Lup’s eyes sparkled.

“Oh, so you’re a fan? I knew I liked you for a reason, little man,” she said, offering him a fist bump. He giggled and obliged.

“Wait, so we’re definitively on his side now?” Barry whispered to the other two. Merle shrugged.

“Do you wanna tell Lup that we’re not?” Magnus whispered back. “I think she’s already adopted him.”

“Let’s head back to my car,” Angus interrupted, getting up from his seat. “There might be prying eyes and prying ears.” The boys looked around the mostly-empty car, but Lup happily followed Angus as he headed towards the front of the train.

“You heard the kid! Let’s get moving, boys,” she said as she passed them.

“I think you’re right about her adopting him, Mags,” Merle said incredulously. Barry just followed Lup resignedly, because Magnus was right in another way, too. He really couldn’t tell her no.

 

Alright, well, slight edit there. He could tell her no until he was blue in the face, but there was no way in hell she would listen. It didn’t help that Magnus encouraged her at every opportunity.

“We can’t fight that thing, Lup! You’re the only one with a weapon!” he said, pushing his back against the door separating them from a fiery crab monster. It slammed itself against the door again and Barry dug his feet further into the shag carpet.

Angus had dragged Graham back towards the passenger car as Barry grabbed Lup and Magnus by the collars and hauled them towards the back of the train. It seemed like his attempts to protect his team were pointless, though, as Magnus tugged on his gloves.

“I’ve got Phantom Fist, actually,” he said. “I think Lup and I could totally take that thing.” Barry made a helpless noise in the back of his throat and Lup’s eyes widened. Before Barry could figure out what he had done wrong, Lup grabbed his arm and yanked him to the side just as the door vanished in a column of flame.

Time seemed to freeze. Barry looked up at Lup, who had pulled him against her chest, umbrella crossed behind him protectively. She looked back down at him, eyes still wide and full of concern, and more than that, there was…something. It was a weight in his chest that he hadn’t even realized was there, but in that moment, it began billowing into something light. Something beautiful. Something–

“Holy shit!” Magnus yelled as the crab swung a pincer at him. The moment shattered and Lup darted forward, shoving Barry into the wall behind her.

“Who’s in the mood for seafood?” she shouted. “Because I’m about to serve up some primo crab cakes.”

“Make mine extra crispy!” called Merle, casting a strengthening buff on Magnus as Lup set the monster ablaze. Magnus wound up his Phantom Fist and grinned.

“Lemme flatten those out for you!” he said, and slammed the flaming, screaming beast against the door of the cargo car. It crumpled to the floor, but quickly staggered to its feet and leapt forward, mouth gaping. Barry managed to fire off a Ray of Frost that froze the crab back against the opposite wall. It struggled, the ice slowly cracking, as the team looked at each other in stunned silence.

“Guys,” Merle said slowly, “I think that was our first moment of competence.”

“Hell yeah! Go team!” cheered Lup. They attempted a round of high-fives. They all missed. The crab broke out of the ice.

Just as Magnus and Lup shifted back into fighting position, a figure flew up from behind the monster and sliced it cleanly in half. Barry and Merle stared in awe as the crab turned into ash around the dwarven figure now hefting a battleaxe over her shoulder.

“I– I had it,” said Magnus.

“Fuckin’ KS like always,” Lup muttered. Jess the Beheader slowly turned towards her with a stony glare.

“Oh, I’m sorry Parasolar,” she said. “Did I ruin your attempt to set the entire train on fire?”

“I just didn’t expect you to pop up with that axe,” Lup replied saccharinely. “I’d mention how there are no weapons allowed here, but I forgot rules like that don’t apply to you.”

“Do you think they know each other?” asked Magnus, watching the drama unfold.

“Did she call Lup Parasolar?” Merle added.

“I have an umbrella, and I shoot fire a lot,” Lup said. “It’s called a pun. Look it up.” She shot a look at Jess. “And while you’re doing that, look up ‘subtlety’ for the Beheader here.”

“Okay, I’m sensing some tension here,” Barry said, stepping between them, “but I’d like to remind everyone of the corpse in the next room.” Jess started.

“Corpse? What happened?” she asked.

“It was poor Jenkins,” Merle said, pretending to be horribly torn up over it. His companions resisted the urge to roll their eyes. “It was awful. We heard a scream, then walked into the room to find his bloody body, with its head–“

He stopped. He looked at Jess, then looked at the others. They quickly caught on and took a large step back. Jess caught on as well and groaned.

“He was missing his head, wasn’t he?” she said. “Listen, that’s just a thing I do for work. It’s like–“ She pointed at Lup. “–like, she doesn’t go around setting things on fire in her spare time, right?”

Barry opened his mouth and Lup stepped on his foot.

“Think carefully about whose side you want to be on, Bluejeans,” she growled. He closed his mouth again.

 

For the life of her, Lup could not understand Barold J. Bluejeans.

Back when they had first met, he had been an awkward, nervous wreck that would rather read about magic than actually do it. When he had tried to check out his fifth tome on abjuration that month (yeah, yeah, Lup hung around the library too – but at least she actually practiced her magic), her reaction was perhaps…inappropriate. But the fact that Barry wasn’t able to deflect a simple fire spell proved that he didn’t actually deserve that book.

Ten years later, it seemed like he had hardly changed at all. This guy was still performing at the fourth level when he should be a throwing spell slots like frisbees! And that wasn’t even touching on how much of a pushover he was. It was frustrating, and annoying, and she just wanted to–

Protect him, her brain provided.

Yeah, the same way I’d protect a wounded animal, she added derisively. Because that was all it was. Pity.

Lup focused back on the situation at hand. There was no engineer, no access to the controls or the vault, and their only plan was–

“We’re not doing that, Magnus,” Barry said tiredly.

“No, it’s fine, I’ll just grab on again real quick–“

“No.”

“Well, what else are we supposed to do?” Lup asked, bouncing impatiently.

“Um, not throw our teammate out the window of a moving train?” Barry replied. Lup stared him down as Magnus gave him puppy-dog eyes. He managed to hold his position for a record ten seconds before wilting. “But…if we were to do that, we would probably need to cast Levitate on him first. And tie him down to something inside this car.”

Magnus eagerly pulled out his rope and Lup prepared a Levitation spell with a smirk. Total pushover. And really smart, her brain added. That was a good idea. And his stubborn face was pretty adorable

Lup squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. Was this Charm Person? Did she set off his panic response when she pulled him away from the crab? She was aware on some level that was a wild excuse, but she wasn’t prepared to consider anything else.

“Uh, Lup?” Barry asked. She opened her eyes and turned to look at his (gentle, soft– shut up shut up shut up) concerned expression. “You okay?”

“Yeah bromeo, it’s no big thing,” she said, plastering on a grin. She spun on her heel and pointed her umbrella at Magnus. “Hey Mags! Time to make like a root beer and float!”

A few moments later, as Magnus rappelled down the train and everyone waited anxiously, Merle finally let out a snort.

“You guys seemed really into your little plan so I didn’t want to point it out, but…” he said. “You do know there’s a hatch onto the roof, right?”

Barry slumped over a bench with a muffled “fuck” and Lup patted his shoulder with a stifled laugh.

“Hey, look on the bright side, Bluejeans,” she said. “You’ve gotta admit this is way cooler. And you made it happen!”

He looked up at her with a dry expression, but it softened as soon as he saw her smiling. Lup felt her smile melting into something softer too, and something was constricting in her chest, so she panicked and quickly turned while faking a sneeze.

“Ugh. You know, these shag carpets are comfy and all, but they are a magnet for allergens,” she said. When she turned back, Barry was back to glaring at the ceiling. Lup pretended she wasn’t disappointed.

 

“Barry, Lup,” Magnus hissed over his shoulder, eyes not leaving Jenkins. “Do you think you could figure out that Port Wand thing?” The two made eye contact behind Magnus’s back. Lup inhaled uncertainly through her teeth, and a wide-eyed Barry shook his head slightly. They turned back towards Magnus.

“Absolutely,” Lup said.

Probably,” added Barry.

“Good enough for me!” announced Magnus. “Go fuck yourself, Wankins.”

“Hey, Magnus, pretend that we aren’t in battle right now and that I just high-fived you so hard.”

Jenkins sneered at the party and raised his wand. Magnus prepared himself to dive in front of any of his teammates with his shield.

“If that’s how you want to play it, okay,” Jenkins said, and fired a bolt of flame at the remaining meat monster.

It missed.

“The worst,” cackled Lup as the Reclaimers all burst into laughter. The meat monster hurled Jenkins off the train before being cleanly destroyed by Merle.

The rest of the passengers crept in the room to examine the damage. As Barry carefully retrieved and examined the Port Wand, Angus tugged on Lup’s sleeve. She bent down so he could reach her ear.

“We should probably find that item you were looking for before we do anything else,” he whispered, cupping his hands around his mouth. Lup bit back a grin. Precious. “It would probably be bad if someone else got their hands on it.”

“Roger that, my small sleuth,” she said and straightened up. She went through an elaborate pantomime with her hands and facial expression towards Magnus, who nodded sagely.

“Nothing to see here,” he said loudly, herding Jess and Graham away from the safe. Merle and Lup began muttering over a compass-like object Jenkins had been using, and Angus looked over at Barry, who was turning the Port Wand over nervously in his hands.

“Do you think you can figure it out, sir?” he chirped. Barry jumped slightly, then looked down at the boy detective.

“Oh. Right. Uh,” he glanced down at the wand and starting wringing it between his hands. “I hope so? I mean, I understand how it works.” Angus frowned.

“I understand how lots of magic works too, sir, but I can’t use any,” he said. Barry winced, and Angus backtracked. “But! Um! I’m sure you can do it just fine, sir!” Barry sighed.

“Thanks, kid,” he said and patted his head.

From across the room, they heard Lup say “come on, I feel like you aren’t even trying.” They turn in time to see her drop a monocle into her bag with the end of her umbrastaff. She quirked an eyebrow at Barry. “You good to go with that thing?”

“He understands it, but he doesn’t think he can use it,” reported Angus. Barry dragged a hand down his face, and thereby missed the inquisitive look Lup gave him.

“Merle, Magnus, get everyone out of the car,” she said. “And that means you too, little man.” Angus nodded and trotted after the rest of the group heading back into the dining car. Lup crossed the car and stood in front of Barry with her arms crossed. They were silent for a moment.

“…are you going to take the Port Wand, or are you just gonna set my robes on fire again?” Barry asked. Lup snorted, then shook her head.

“I just don’t get it. You clearly know your shit, and you’re actually a pretty smart dude,” she said. “So what gives? Are you afraid your wand is gonna bite you?” He huffed out a frustrated breath.

“I’m not like you, Lup,” he said. “I’m not a fighter, I’m a thinker. You can do all kinds of amazing things just on instinct, but no matter how hard I try, I can barely cast a level two spell.” He bounced on his heels a few times and tightened his grip on the Port Wand. “I’m not made for this shit, Lup. I don’t know what the hell I’m even doing here.”

Lup was quiet for a few seconds before leaning forward and flicking Barry on the forehead. He flinched back.

“What the–“

“Cast it.” Barry blinked.

“What?”

“Cast the port-spell-thing,” she said. “You know how it works, right?”

“Yeah, I– Lup, did you hear anything I just said?” She flicked his head again. “Quit it!”

“Listen, I haven’t even attempted a non-evocation spell in ages. We were lucky I managed to Levitate Magnus earlier,” she said. Barry stared.

“You…wait, why didn’t you warn us before we threw him out the–“

So, this one is one-hundo-percent out of my wheelhouse,” she continued. “We need you on this one, Barold. Don’t overthink it. That’s where you fuck up.” Her eyes pierced his and Barry felt weightless. “Just do it.”

This is something he’s heard a hundred times over – that he has the ability, but not the confidence. He’s tried over and over to practice not-thinking, and only made it worse. He’s spent his whole life thinking himself in circles and panicking into dead ends. It’s not something he can shake just because a pretty girl told him to.

Somehow, though, it clicks.

Barry turned towards the back door of the train and, with a technique that he felt like he had been using for decades, traced a glimmering doorway in the metal frame. The inside flashed, and before them was the engineer’s car.

Barry stared dumbstruck as Lup cheered and socked him lightly in the shoulder.

“Thatta boy, Bluejeans!” she said, grinning. She turned back towards the dining car. “Hey, railroadies! It’s time to roll out.”

As the passengers filed past the still-motionless Barry, Magnus and Angus gave him thumbs-up and encouraging smiles. Merle patted his hip as he passed.

“I knew you could do it, kid,” he said proudly. Barry looked down at him and nodded blankly, ignoring Magnus’s voice in the engine room pointing out how Merle had been giving last rites two minutes ago.

 

That had been the good news. The bad news was that, apparently, they had needed the engineer’s hand after all.

As Graham began flat-out crying over the controls, Lup spun on her heel towards the rest of the crew.

“Hey, brain trust! Got any ideas to stop the train?” she barked. Barry and Angus looked at each other, and then back at Lup with dread clearly written on their faces.

“I-I’m sorry, Miss Lup, but I don’t know what else we can do,” squeaked Angus. Lup sighed and walked over to pat him gently on the head.

“Don’t apologize, Angus,” she said. “You’ve done nothing wrong, ever.”

“So what do you have, idea man?” Merle asked Barry. The latter looked like he was about to start crying.

“I think Barry’s had a stressful enough day already,” Magnus said awkwardly. “But that’s fine! We can think up an idea on our own!”

“You slammed a shot of hooch before we blasted off, and I told a Charmed man to jump in front of a train.”

“…Fair enough.”

“I’ve got it,” Lup said, apparently having picked up a tearful Angus. She handed him to Magnus. “But it would probably be a good idea for everybody to jump off the train, first.”

Everyone stared at her blankly. Jess snorted.

“You’re gonna blow up the train, aren’t you?”

“Something like that,” Lup said with a sharp smile, herding everyone out of the engineer’s car. “Let’s move.”

Before she shoved Graham out the door of the passenger car, Barry managed to mumble something about Feather Fall. Lup snapped her fingers.

“Oh, right! I think I got that from Wankins’s wand, hold on–“ She pointed her umbrastaff at Graham and fired a light blue bolt. He startled and fell through the door, but floated safely onto the ground. “Nice call, Barold. It would be embarrassing if that’s what got someone killed.”

After most everyone had safely disembarked the train, Merle and Lup remained onboard, staring the oncoming station.

“Are you gonna cast the thing?” Merle asked. Lup shook her head.

“I gotta time it just right, or I’ll be out of range,” she said, then grinned at Merle. “Hey, since I’ve got Feather Fall, what are the chances I can do a sweet midair cast?” Merle grinned back.

“It’d be a shame if you didn’t.”

 

From several yards back, the passengers of the Rockport Limited watched in amusement as Lup and Merle dived out of the train, then in awe as Lup fired a truly spectacular spell, then in horror as the train crumpled like a fiery soda can against an invisible wall. Two smoking figures rolled a few feet back from the explosion and were still for a moment before raising two thumbs up. They group sighed in relief.

“Reckless as always,” Jess said, but she sounded more amused than annoyed.

“I’m sure there was a better way to do that,” Angus said, voice still trembling a bit.

“What was that?” Magnus asked, turning expectantly to Barry. He waited a few seconds before shoving him lightly, finally causing him to react.

“Wall of Force,” Barry croaked. “It’s a fifth-level spell, which is weird. I didn’t think she had any fifth-level slots.”

“It’s my magic umbrella,” came a hoarse voice as Lup crawled over to the team. She and Merle collapsed on their backs in front of the boys, staring at the pleasantly-cloudy sky. The other two joined them, laying in a circle and watching the clouds pass. “It eats the magic of defeated wizards. It’s pretty dope.”

“That’s way OP,” Magnus hummed. “I’m totally gonna steal it.”

“Don’t you dare,” Lup said, blindly tossing her hand back to smack Magnus. It bounced harmlessly off his head. “It’s only temporary, anyway. Which sucks. I wanted to use Jenkins’s magic for something ironic, like…uh…”

“Levitating something really simple,” Barry supplied.

“Or actually landing an attack,” Merle added.

“God, he really was a shitty wizard, huh?” Magnus said. The group laughed, exhaustion evaporating under the spring sun.

They still had a lot to do – loose ends to tie up for the Bureau, probably, and the officials of Neverwinter wouldn’t be pleased about the flaming chunks of train littering the city limits – but they could save that for later.

For now, they could just have a relatively peaceful moment enjoying a break from their otherwise difficult journey.

Chapter Text

Barry was standing before Magnus, rubbing his chin as he looked blankly at his companion. The fighter was dressed in a crimson cape and headband, a tight black shirt and pants underneath, and an unravelled piece of rope pinned to the back of his hair.

”…yeah, I don’t get it,” Barry said. Magnus huffed.

“Come on, I like– I did research for this,” he said. “I’m Parasolar, like–“ He spun a bright red umbrella in Barry’s direction and pitched his voice slightly higher. “Light ‘em the fuck up!

Barry continued staring at him wordlessly. Magnus flipped the rope over his shoulder and grimaced.

“Ugh, nevermind.” He looked over Barry’s outfit. “What’s your costume supposed to be?” Barry’s face lit up and he adjusted his bowtie.

“Fantasy Bill Nye.”

“Hey, nerds!” came Lup’s voice. The boys turned as she and a tentacle-clad Merle strode towards them across the quad. “Bad news – we’re banned from the carnival games. Good news is that it was totally worth it.” When she was a few feet away, she stopped and gave Magnus a dry look. He beamed.

“It’s pretty good, right?”

“The fire symbol is supposed to be on the cape, not the shirt,” she replied. Magnus frowned and tore off the cape, holding it against a wall as he pulled a marker out of his pocket. Lup glanced towards Barry and let out a startled laugh. “Oh, wow, mega nerd alert.”

“But you recognized it,” said Barry with a grin. “Besides, you’re one to talk – is that an engineer costume?” Lup hummed happily and tugged on the straps of her overalls.

“I’ve been on a bit of a train kick since Rockport,” she admitted.

“Isn’t anybody gonna ask about my costume?” Merle asked.

“None of us want to acknowledge it, Merle.”

Leon the Artificer hurried past, practically tossing the eclipse glasses at them as to avoid prolonged contact. Magnus, Lup, and Merle snickered as Barry tried to look stern.

“You three are going to break that poor gnome,” he told them.

“We’re toughening him up!” Magnus argued. “Breaking him down and building him up stronger!”

“Ehh, I’m not so sure we’re gonna get to the ‘rebuilding’ part,” Merle said.

“But we’re doing step one really well,” added Lup.

Around the team, people were settling down in the grass, laughing with their friends as they donned their glasses. As the moon – the real moon – crept closer to the sun, the Reclaimers prepared to follow suit.

Then the sky began screaming.

It sounded as if dozens of off-key violins were screeching around the horizon. The sky went pitch black, and all four of them clutched their heads and looked around in shock as the rest of the Bureau fell unconscious. A flash from above caught their attention. The team looked in time to catch thousands, millions of glowing white eyes staring down from the inky atmosphere.

Somewhere, a smile flashed across someone’s face.

And then it all vanished.

The team stood frozen on the quad, staring at the now-blue sky. The grass waved gently in the breeze as people groaned into consciousness around them. The four finally blinked and looked at each other.

“I think I got some bad unicorn dick,” Magnus said quietly.

 

Lucretia waited until the door closed behind her friends, and then immediately began pacing around her office.

She should’ve expected this to happen, but honestly, she didn’t expect it to come so soon. She drummed her fingers nervously against the Bulwark Staff. Barry had been spot-on with his calculations. With only three-sevenths of the light reformed, the Hunger was able to find them again – and so precisely. Bureau members planetside reported that the Hunger’s arrival hadn’t been visible down below.

A shiver ran up her spine. It knew exactly where they were, and it was coming.

“You’re not alone this time, Lucretia,” she whispered to herself. “You have the rest of the crew to help you.”

Still, guilt stabbed through her gut. They didn’t know what they were doing. If they did, they would be furious. Davenport especially, and gods that was a whole different strain of regret.

Even if this did work, even if she saved this plane, how was she supposed to face her family again? Merle and Magnus would be heartbroken, certainly. Magnus’s face when he had found her with Fisher still haunted her dreams. Barry and Lup would absolutely be disappointed in her. And Taako–

Lucretia squeezed her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. Just another reason she dreaded returning their memories.

She took a few moments to compose herself, then strode across the office and pulled out a map, spreading it across a table. The timer had been started. She only had a year until the Hunger struck, and it would no doubt do so with a vengeance.

Pondering where their next line of inquiry should be, her eyes drifted upwards to the painting behind her desk. Her expression softened. There was little she wouldn’t give to be back on that beach. That was where their journey should’ve ended. They all could’ve been happy, together.

She would just have to make this plane the second best thing.

This would be the last time.

 

“Hey, uh…Barry.”

He jumped slightly, lifting his head from the fortress of books he had constructed around himself. Lup was standing before him, looking anywhere but.

“Hey Lup,” he said. “Do you need something?”

“No. Well, I mean, yeah. It’s just–“ Lup made a frustrated sound. “Can we study together?” Barry stared.

“You want to study…?”

“Magic.”

“With me?”

“Yeah.”

The two were quiet, eyes focused on different points of the library. Barry cleared his throat.

“Can I, uh, ask why?” he asked. Lup sighed.

“We were totally not on our A-game during the whole Rockport thing,” she admitted, “and it’s only gonna get harder from here on out. We can’t keep stopping to teach you how to cast, and I probably shouldn’t be blowing up everything that gets in our way.”

“Yeah, I don’t think anyone was happy about what you did to the train,” Barry mused. Lup glared and him and he backtracked. “But, uh, I definitely wasted a lot of time. You’re right.”

“I know I am,” Lup said, but her shoulders relaxed slightly anyway. She pulled out a chair next to Barry and he shoved a few books out of her way. “So, how do you want to do this?”

“Well, the Bureau has a pretty impressive library,” Barry said, beginning to sort through a nearby pile. “We can use the spellbooks here to broaden our arsenal. Probably pick a spell or two every week to work on?”

“Which means actually practicing them,” Lup said. Barry hesitated, but nodded. “I’m sure the higher-ups will let us take over the Thunderdome for a few hours every day.”

“Hours? Every day?” Barry asked incredulously. Lup rolled her eyes.

“Gods, no wonder you haven’t learned anything.”

“At least I’m not a level eight who can’t cast Charm Person.”

“At least I can cast anything else.”

The two stared each other down before bursting into laughter.

This would be good for them. Especially when Magnus insisted on joining in on their practice spars, and Merle would offer criticisms afterwards before being pelted with towels because “you don’t even know how to heal, Mr. Cleric”. They ate more meals together, and spent time actually getting to know their coworkers. They were all starting to feel like they actually had a place here.

Still, in the dead of night, when the dorm was silent but for the sounds of her roommates snoring, Lup would find herself staring at the ceiling for hours. She could ignore the feeling when she was awake, but in moments like these, it ate away at her.

Why did she still feel so fucking alone?

Chapter Text

Lucas zipped the coat up to his chin and held the lantern slightly higher. So far, this cave wasn’t as promising as he had expected.

“Figures,” Lucas muttered to himself as he skulked through the cavern. “By the time I hear about this ‘magic crystal cave’, it’s already been picked clean.” After a few silent moments, he furrowed his brow and tugged a map out of his pocket with his free hand, pulling the lantern closer to squint at it.

“That can’t be right…” he said, tracing the surrounding geography with his eyes. “It’s highly unlikely that there would be any volcanic pockets in this area, even if they are extremely old. How could amethyst grow h–“

His train of thought was derailed as he tripped. Wincing and rubbing his bruised shin, Lucas grasped for the dropped lantern and looked around. Shit. Fuck. Shit. While he had been thinking, he must’ve wandered down a side tunnel. He was absolutely lost.

He turned to glare at the obstacle that tripped him, as if it were to blame for his misfortune, and froze. It hadn’t been a rock that he had stumbled over – it was a sharp outcropping of amethyst. Lucas slowly shook his head.

“Okay, something fucky is absolutely going on here,” he whispered as he crawled over to it. The crystal definitely looked like amethyst. “This should be in a geode, not growing out of the ground.” He scooped up his map and stood with a grimace as he shifted weight off of his bruised leg. Glancing down at the crystal again, he noticed it wasn’t alone. His eyes followed a trail of smaller amethyst deposits creeping through a small opening in the cave wall. After a brief moment of hesitation, Lucas followed it.

The squeeze was tight, but manageable – never before had Lucas been so relieved for his scrawny stature. Following the trail into a larger cavern, he was miffed to notice that none of the crystals were remotely circular. Figures. It would be ridiculous for the Miller family to hit the jackpot twice.

He chewed his lip nervously. What was he going to tell his mom? She was so excited about her Cosmoscope project, especially since Lucretia showed them her weird spirit-crystal-thing. If he couldn’t even find one lens, though, how would they complete an entire planar model? Dejected, he kicked a femur a few feet ahead of him. He could search a little more, but it might be time to cut his losses and–

Lucas froze.

He lifted his head to look again at the object – the bone – he had kicked across the floor. He followed its path back to his feet, and then slightly to his right, and then slightly upwards. Then he screamed.

Scrambling back from the actual fucking skeleton slumped against the cavern wall, Lucas tripped once again on a loose object behind him. He managed to throw himself sideways so his head didn’t hit the wall, but checking behind him to see what he had stepped on, he screamed again and vaulted further into the chamber.

Now sitting in the center of the room, Lucas took a deep breath. He calmly, carefully checked the rest of the room’s perimeter, and then looked back at the two skeletons sitting opposite each other. He breathed out.

“It’s not like they can hurt you, Lucas,” he told himself. “They’re dead. Super dead.” One of the bodies he had disturbed slowly slid against the wall and clattered onto the floor. Lucas clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle another shout. Muffled behind his hand, he began rambling things along the lines of “cool and neat, good, nice, this is fine and awesome, love this, love caves” in a high-pitched voice.

“There’s nothing to freak out about, kid,” came a voice that floated through the room and curled around Lucas’s ears. He screamed through his hand. “Relax! Relax. I’m here to help you.”

Lucas slowly turned towards the voice and noticed something he had missed during his skeleton-scan of the room – an amethyst-coated chest sitting a few feet behind him. Intrigued, he climbed shakily to his feet and stepped towards it.

“There you go! It’s fine, kid, I don’t bite,” the voice crooned. Through the mist beginning the flood his senses, Lucas thought it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. He reached out towards the chest and tugged on the lid. It didn’t move. He frowned and tried again. “Yeah, that’s my issue.”

“Are you trapped in there?” Lucas asked, crouching in front of the chest and searching for an opening.

“Yep. Have been for a while.” Lucas pulled out a small pick he had brought and began hacking at the seam of the lid. “It’s a good thing that a smart guy like you came along.” Lucas smiled.

“I am pretty smart,” he said, and grunted triumphantly when the lid finally cracked open. “There!”

He pushed the lid open and reached in to find…a rock.

“Not what you expected, huh?” it said. Lucas hummed in agreement before blinking through the haze in his mind.

“Wait…” he said, shaking his head a few times. “Wait. Wait, wait, wait. You’re a Grand Relic, aren’t you?” The Stone barked out a laugh.

“You are pretty smart, huh?” it said. “I haven’t heard that name in years. Where’d you come from?”

“The Bureau of Balance,” Lucas said firmly, standing up as he tried to fend off the temptation twisting around his head. “And that’s where I’m bringing you, so no one will use you ever again.” He fumbled with the clasp on his bag and the stone hummed in amusement.

“Sounds like a waste, if you ask me,” it said. Lucas stopped tugging at the button and gave the Stone a curious look. “It’s just that…well. I am the Relic of Transmutation. Isn’t that something a science-minded guy like yourself could use?” Lucas looked down at his bag, then at the crystal coating the floor, then at the Stone again. He was aware that his grip on rationality was slipping, but…

“You could really use something like me, couldn’t you?” it sung. “You can transform any material into any other element you want. A puddle of water, for instance…”

Almost unconsciously, Lucas reached towards his bag and unhooked the water skin. Sitting himself back on the ground, he carefully unfastened the lid and poured it onto the floor. A perfect circle.

“What would you like, kid?” the Stone whispered, inside his head and echoing through the chamber, so sweet and so gentle. “Anything you want, it’s yours.”

Lucas lowered the Stone towards the puddle and, instantly, bright green veins spread throughout it, forming an emerald reflection. Once the edges evened out, his own face disappeared and was replaced with an alien world he knew all too well.

“Oh, shit,” he murmured.

“Just keep me close, kid,” the Stone told him, the voice cradling him in warmth. “You’re gonna go places.”

Lucas thought of Lucretia, the woman who had given him impossible opportunities and a defining purpose. He thought of Phandalin, and the countless other towns razed by the Grand Relics. He thought of the lives he knew had been lost to the thrall of these wicked artifacts.

He thought of his mother, bright-eyed and determined to open up the cosmos.

…To be fair, it’s not like the others who fell to the thrall were nearly as smart as himself.

“Yeah, I think I can find a place for you,” Lucas said, carefully tucking the Stone into his pocket. As he stood once again, the cave didn’t seem quite as cold and dark as it had before.

This was a new era. He was going to change the world.

 

As Lucas crossed the cavern again, he noticed something else he had missed before, something near one of the skeletons – fabric, dyed a purple hue richer than the amethyst it sat on. Curiously, Lucas reached down and examined it. He huffed out a laugh and twirled it in his hands.

“Geez, talk about old-fashioned,” he said, rotating the pointed, garishly-decorated hat on his fingertips.

He shoved it into his bag. He didn’t have any purpose for it, but there was no sense leaving it to rot in a cave. Besides, Lucas was nothing if not a hoarder.

As he walked out, the amethyst crept up the skeleton and cracked.

Chapter Text

Against his better judgement, Taako split off from Lup and Cyrus. He didn’t trust the dwarf as far as he could throw him – and Taako’s strength may honestly be the lowest of the IPRE members – but he did his part. He assesses the sketchiness a stranger, and Lup takes care of them if it's a problem. That’s the way it’s always been. It’s why they make a good team.

He knew he shouldn’t be worried about Lup. But the thought of losing someone who matters, let alone his sister, left him more shaken than he would admit.

As such, he was already on edge when he arrived in the doomed town. He had no idea why someone would use the near-infinite power of the Philosopher’s Stone in order to quite literally salt the earth– oh.

It appeared that a faction of the orc army had split off. He stared uncomfortably at the humanoid pillars of salt, salt which seemed to be rippling from within the town, covering buildings and trees until it reached one particular human-sized lump. Taako stepped closer, and was horrified to discover that he could still make out the expression. They looked terrified. They looked like they were barely an adult.

A strong gust of wind passed by, and they stopped looking like anything at all.

A small rock fell from the disintegrating hand and Taako sighed as an ephemeral voice filled his head.

“Welcome back, boss. Couldn’t stay away for long, could you?” said the Stone. Taako squatted down and scooped it up in his hands.

“I came down here because you’ve been making a goddamn mess of things,” he muttered bitterly.

“Hey, I didn’t ask to be made.”

“But you’re sure getting a kick out of it, huh, buddy?” Taako crossed his legs into a more comfortable sitting position. “Really, though, answer me this.”

“Yeah, anything.”

“What the hell is your problem?” Taako asked. The stone paused.

“You’re gonna have to be more specific,” it said slowly. “If it’s about the transmutation superpowers, that’s on you. If it’s about my stunning personality, that’s– well, that one’s probably you, too, now that I think about it–“

“Not that, my man,” Taako interrupted. “You’ve been toppling towns left and right. What’s your damage? I didn’t raise you this way.”

“You didn’t raise me at all, boss.”

“You’re waffling.” Taako hesitated, and then got quieter. “You had potential. When you were glued together with the rest of the Light, you inspired entire planets. Fuck, you sent us to different planes of existence. Different realities! That shit’s buck wild, my dude.”

“It was pretty neat, huh?”

“Deadass. I’ll be honest, I for sure thought the same thing would happen here. Some hero would climb down that well, grab you up, and start…I don’t know.” Taako dropped a hand and used it to lean back. “Giving gold to the poor? Curing starvation? Advancing scientific research?”

“The first guy to pull me out turned a cave full of harmless goblins into sulfur. One of his companions was smoking by the entrance and blew the entire place to smithereens. There was a village nearby that was caught in the blast.” Taako winced.

“Alright, see? That’s the shit I’m talking about,” he said. “Why did you do that?”

“It’s what I was told to do,” the Stone answered. “At the end of the day, I’m just a really fancy tool.” They were silent. “Actually, can we talk about that? How come the other fragments got to look all cool, but I’m just a boring rock?“ Taako shrugged.

“I forgot to make something neat in time,” he said. “I’ll give you an upgrade if you stop ruining lives.”

“Deal, but again, not my fault.”

“You talk to them, though. We’ve heard people mention it. The– the thrall you punks have.” Taako started tossing the Stone up and down absentmindedly. “You tell them to use you.”

“To use us, not murder hundreds of people with us,” the Stone said. “I’m being serious, boss, I’m just a tool. They start small, they always do, but…well, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“That’s pretty deep for a rock.”

“Well, again, that’s on you. I could’ve been a Philosopher’s Amulet, or a Philosopher’s Mirror, or–“ Taako lazily cast Stone Shape on a nearby block of salt and begin forming it into a more phallic design. “–or a stone is pretty cool, too. A nice smooth, round stone. You sure have an eye for design, boss.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“I’m standing by my whole spiel, though. It might not be pretty but this,” Taako glanced around at the salt-frozen people crumbling in the wind, “is what happens when folks get what they want, exactly and entirely. I’m just here to provide. I’m here to be craved.” Taako shut his eyes and leaned completely back onto the ground.

“You know what? That’s fair. I can accept that. People are inherently shitty.”

“You know, boss, there might be exceptions.” Taako quirked a brow curiously.

“Oh? Do tell.”

“Well, obviously, you sure have a way of knowing the world, knowing exactly what you want–“ Taako burst into snorting laughter.

“Nice try, homie, but Taako doesn’t go for that shit. I know what I’m about.” He sat back up and dropped the Philosopher’s Stone safely into his pocket. His armpit pocket, of course. No one ever checks there.

He stretched, ignoring the whining voice coming from his shoulder region, and listened as his back cracked into place. Pop, pop, crunch. His eyes shot open. That wasn’t right–

He managed to duck to the side just as an arrow flew towards his head.

Fuck. Fuck. Of course there were other people here, he should’ve expected–

Another arrow flew past and he was on his feet and running for cover.

He should’ve waited to come with Lup. The Stone would’ve definitely been gone by then, but it’s better than dying–

“Let me give you a hand, boss, come on,” came the muffled voice from his armpit.

“If you really want to help, pipe down as I handle this sitch,” he shot back, leaning around the corner of a white-grain building and trying to level a few Magic Missiles at his assailants. This was never his strong suit, Taako doesn’t work alone–

There was an explosion immediately behind him and he flew forward, salt raining over his body. What a way to go, he thought.

A shadow towered over him and he remembered the stricken face of the salted human in the town and could see it on this person like a premonition and a voice in his head that sounded like Lup chanted “the last time, the last time, the last time–“

At some point, a chunk of salt had flown into his pocket. He pulled it out, concealing its appearance with his fist, and swallowed it whole.

He grimaced as the acidic taste scraped its way down his throat, but it was almost entirely worth it for the actual face he could now make out on the silhouette.

Time stopped rushing past. He and the large human stared at each other. A smaller, halfling-sized silhouette joined them.

“Did he just eat the Philosopher’s Stone?” the halfling silhouette asked, grip on his staff loose in disbelief.

“Yeah,” said the human silhouette weakly.

“Yeah,” Taako confirmed, slightly bewildered at his own actions but, fuck it, he has to roll with it now. “Can I go?”

“Um.” The human and halfling looked at each other, and then at a dragonborn in the distance, who had thrown up her hands in frustration. “No? No. I don’t think so.”

“What the hell is the game plan here, boss?” the Stone whispered from his pocket.

“I’m just gonna go anyway,” Taako said, slowly standing up. Something heavy hit his head from behind.

“You’re not going anywhere,” said a new voice. This voice, and many others, echoed around Taako as he slipped into unconsciousness, discussing plans and violence and extremes. He really hoped he would wake up again.