Magnus can’t speak, the energy in the room is too toxic.
“I have your interest, then?” Kravitz prods the dragon sitting across from them, and all eyes are on him. Davenport is as gobsmacked as Magnus, and Angus’ eyes can’t get any wider without coming straight out of his head. The only two calm people in the room are Death and the dragon.
The amulet Roswyth has been toying with this whole time is dangling from their hand, cord looped around their fingers and their elbow on the arm of their chair to let the stupid bauble hang in front of them. Magnus watches the dragon look at the amulet, then give a slow blink and look at Kravitz, then back again. When the dragon looks at Kravitz again, it’s with a shitty ghost of a smile.
“You have my interest.” That’s not good.
“Krav-” Magnus makes a go at not letting this happen, but Kravitz is already leaning in over the table.
“Then make your counter-offer,” Kravitz challenges them, and Magnus wishes Lup was here. This is actually the exact sort of thing Magnus would expect from Lup, and that would make the pill a bit easier to swallow. But it’s not Lup, it’s Kravitz, and Magnus might have to jump over Davenport’s chair to stop this.
Kravitz is not trading himself for Taako. Like- that’s not allowed. So what if he’s got a smart way of saying it: ‘I can’t stop you from catching him again for your collection,’ he said. ‘But you’ll release Taako and replace his transmutation with my divinity. Without me you may succeed in holding Lup and Barry, but that’s only two Reapers out of three.’
No! No, no no and no. He’s playing to Roswyth’s pride in their fucked up magic but no! The fact that Roswyth is even considering giving up one of their crew for someone not from the Starblaster is scary enough- don’t bait the dragon!
Roswyth is reclining in their chair, one leg hooked over the other, fingers drumming on the edge of the table. They turn their green eyes on the amulet again, watching it as they give it a flick with their thumb, sending it spinning until the cord grows taut, then unwinds again. They’re just stalling for time, and when they’ve thought it over they stop the spinning and look back at Kravitz.
Magnus can see that the amulet has the same hexagon flower on it that the box with the poisoned honey did.
“Let us suffer nothing in half-measures, Reaper,” Roswyth says, and Magnus hadn’t noticed before but when the dragon smiles their teeth are too sharp. Serrated. “If you can best me, you will leave with your prize. If you fail, I will collect you both.”
“No deal!” Magnus shouts and Roswyth doesn’t even look at him.
“Kravitz, this is too dangerous and you know it,” Davenport pleads to the Reaper. “Walk away, we can regroup and think of something better!”
“Do I set the challenge?” Kravitz asks Roswyth, ignoring Davenport.
“It would please me if you did.” Neither of them will break eye contact. “I trust it will be nothing so dull as a test of arms.”
“No, and not chance either.” Kravitz agrees. “I’m not about to leave this to a coin flip.”
“Riddles?” Is the prompt and Kravitz actually shows his teeth. He might have laughed right there.
“Not against a dragon. No, I’d prefer a rematch for Lucretia’s pride.” A chess game. Merle has the white queen with him up on the Moonbase, and Magnus wishes the old man was down here to zone of truth Kravitz back to his senses.
“Then you will take the first move,” Roswyth is pleased. Fuck, they look delighted as they weave their fingers together in front of them, that medallion dangling under their hands. “For her honour.”
“Sadly no, white goes against my aesthetic.” The dragon’s smile slips. “The first move is yours.”
“King’s pawn to E-four.” Uuuh, Magnus doesn’t-
“Pawn to E-five.” Kravitz answers, without a board or pieces.
“Pawn to F-four,” Roswyth says, and Kravitz gives a small head tilt.
“Have I touched a nerve? Pawn takes pawn.”
“Hardly,” as they speak, the plates and dishes in front of them all start to melt away until the black stone table is left completely black. The harp has stopped playing. “King’s Bishop to C-four.”
Davenport hesitates a moment, and then lifts his hand and taps it on the cleared table. A chess grid appears, and the pieces begin to populate it, but Death and the dragon ignore it in favour of staring at each other. When they speak the illusion moves, pieces sliding and collecting soundlessly. Kravitz has his hands in his lap, Roswyth is still holding their amulet.
Magnus can’t speak, the toxic air keeps rising.
NO! NO! Kravitz no! No don’t do this- do not-! Just stop! Stop please!
Taako can’t scream. He can’t move, he can’t reach out, he can’t stop this. He wails as the terms come together and he can’t stand it… He can’t even stop watching because he doesn’t have a mental escape or the physical agency to look away. It just- it just happens!
He doesn’t know why Patrice agrees but he can’t watch this- he can’t. He can’t- no, not this, Kravitz can’t do this…
Taako feels a lost, broken peal of amusement come off him when Kravitz defends his sense of style over taking first move against Patrice. That and his man’s question about touching a nerve give Taako just enough sense again to try, just try, and be useful.
KICK IT, BABE! If the only thing he has are his thoughts projected into Patrice’s mind, then fuck him Taako’s gonna scream himself hoarse. Oh wait, he can’t go hoarse! No throat! No lungs! Take that pawn! MMm! Good shit, Krav, good fucking shit! Hell yeah, boy! Fucking chess match? Fucking board game? FUCK ‘EM UP!
“Tower to G-one,” Patrice says, their voice ever so clipped at the end.
“Pawn takes bishop,” Kravitz says, and Taako sees him almost roll those beautiful eyes of his.
“Queen to F-three,” the Keeper-
Lost your bishop? lOsT yOuR bISHoP? We’re like three seconds in and yOU lost yourrrr BISHOP! My man took your bishop~ my man took your bishop~! You suck! You suck! You’re a piece of shiiit!
“You seem vexed by something, Keeper,” Kravitz asks with his voice so smooth, his fingers now neatly laced in front of him. Taako blows him a kiss. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t care. “Knight to G-eight.”
He’s gonna win and YOU’RE gonna lose and I’M gonna go free and I’m gonna look so fucking Choice around his neck like damn, accessory of the year, ultimate trophy elf right here because fuck yeah, son! And then they’re gonna change me back, because my friends aren’t fucking scrubs like you, and I’m gonna suck his dick. That’s right, the whole fucking thing I’m gonna just deepthroat that son of a gun and-
“Bishop takes pawn,” Patrice makes their move and Taako cackles through the declaration. Fuck yeah, Cap’nport, get rid of that damned illusion and let Patrice balance the board in their head while Taako goes ahead and gives- “Threatens Queen.”
“Fair enough, allow me a moment…”
The dance and Taako’s commentary continue. The more he shouts and cheers and jabs in his silence, the less like panicking Taako feels. He can ignore the bone-gnawing terror so long as there are rude, vulgar words. And as he cheers, it gets easier. The words come to him faster, like neat little packages of bad sportsmanship to chew up and spit in Patrice’s ear.
Because Kravitz is winning.
In a flurry of moves Kravitz cuts across the board, once with the black queen, then down again with a bishop, and both of Patrice’s towers crumble. The white king is flanked and he’s not in check yet, but Taako doesn’t have to force his shrill cheering as hard. He’s winning!
He’s winning! They’re going to get out of here and Kravitz is going to be hella disappointed and so will Angus and Davenport and Magnus when they see Taako like this, but they’ll get out of here! Out of here and back to the others, and he can tell them everything he knows and they’ll tell him what they know and they’ll get Lucretia out and put Patrice in the ground where they-
“Pawn to E-five.”
“Really?” Kravitz asks, and beside him Davenport’s face is a precious look of utter bafflement.
He makes his next move to deploy one of his knights, and one of Patrice’s own horses dances its way just close enough to put the reaper into check. But then he gets right out of it and-
“Queen to F-six,” the dragon snaps, “Check.”
“Knight takes Queen,” Kravitz rambles off, tilting his head again with a vapid look. “What was the point of that?” Taako can’t believe it, he’s over the moon. Kravitz is winning he’s winning! In a few more moves Taako is going to be in Kravitz’s hands. Hot diggity shit, he’s got a hell of a feeling welling up through all of him that’s just going to gush over in stupidly specific detail once he feels those familiar cold hands around him!
“What indeed?” Patrice asks. Kravitz hasn’t looked away from the Keeper this entire time, and doesn’t start now. But his expression changes.
He goes from that disinterested sneer to a soft blink and then his lips lose their tug. Another blink, and Kravitz straightens his head up. Taako feels his hopes buckle when Kravitz shifts his weight in his seat, gaze locked on Patrice. There’s a small ribbon of tension between his eyes, and then a slow, damning, sense of realization. But-
But Kravitz is winning. He’s winning. He just has to look at the board- he’s taken all of the dragon’s strongest pieces! His king is surrounded by his own black vanguard and- and- and he’s winning! He’s winning he’s got to- those- it’s not possible that he… that he… is trapped…
Kravitz doesn’t look at the board. He puts his elbow on the arm of his chair and covers his eyes with his hand. Taako hears Angus start hiccupping to keep back tears. Magnus and Davenport are dumbstruck. Taako can’t feel anything. He can’t feel a damn thing.
“Bishop to E-seven.” Kravitz puts his hand down and looks up, rallying behind his own sense of dignity. His face is stoic and controlled. He won’t let him be rattled, not now, and he sits there ready to accept what comes next.
Taako isn’t. Taako doesn’t. He doesn’t accept shit.
Around him, Taako both hears and feels Patrice barely holding in their laughter.
No! He doesn’t accept it, he won’t. His blind refusal means it’s not real and it’s not going to go this way and no! Stay away from him! It’s not right to take him! It’s not right- leave him alone!
Davenport’s illusion remains pristine on the table, the Captain’s fingers drawing a small circle to replay the last set of moves: how the pawn and the queen laid a trap the reaper didn’t see in time to escape it. In front of Kravitz, a small sherry glass appears with a bead of gold light beginning to form in the bottom of it.
NO! Taako screams again, and he feels his anger quaking dangerously, suddenly fragile and undercut by the poisoned cup. You can’t- you won’t! You don’t even want him! He’s not from the Homeworld! He was barely in Fisher’s story and the only things you know about him you got from me! Leave him alone! LEAVE HIM ALONE-!
And then it just- it breaks. His anger breaks. It cracks and it shakes and it shatters out from under him, and Taako knows he’s screaming but it stops targeting Patrice and he- The cup fills and Taako screams.
Kravitz no! No! Don’t do it, don’t drink- please! Istus! Please- don’t let him do this it’s not his fate and it’s not his destiny- don’t let it happen! Istus! ISTUS!
He cries out but she can’t hear him. The only creature who can just starts to laugh.
“Do forgive me,” Patrice can’t wipe the grin off their words, and everyone but Kravitz looks up at them. Taako screams but neither Istus nor Kravitz can hear him. “So enamored was I in our evening that I have erred in manners. When visiting with friends it is only polite to introduce every person at the table, and our neglected party member has attained an undeniable will to be heard. With the challenge concluded, it seems only appropriate to let him have the floor.”
Kravitz is looking only at the poison in front of him. Taako is lifted up, shown off to the horror of his friends, and then something happens.
He feels magic. He feels his magic, his arcane energy, come welling up through his form and it drowns his thoughts.
There’s a sharp, splitting pain behind him like something has speared the amulet from back to front, and then- and then Taako can… move.
Roswyth holds up the amulet they’ve been toying with all evening. There’s a steady charge of magic that all of them can feel, and then the dragon uses their free hand to flick the back of the medallion. The contact makes a sharp tone, like the ring of a bell, and then the spell fires a gust of grey-blue smoke out of the amulet.
What forms in that cloud is a pointed hat, and long ears, and loose long hair, and a familiar nose with the right mouth and jaw, and eyes that are tearful and terrified.
“Taako!” Magnus is on his feet when Taako’s spectre lands on hands and knees atop the table, his clothes are vague and the clearest parts of him are still translucent: not entirely there. His whole bottom half is more smoke than substance and- and not right? Something’s wrong. So many things are wrong but one thing stands out as really, really wrong.
Taako looks at only one person and they have to watch him scramble and claw his way across the table toward Kravitz. He lifts his hand but his slap passes right through the conjured poison sitting in front of him. Their friend doesn’t waste time trying again because he’s reaching for Kravitz and the Reaper gives the softest cry before trying to hold him, his dignified mask pulled away to show the worry Kravitz has been holding onto this whole time.
Kravitz stands but his hands go right through Taako, and the Wizard only fares so much better by grasping at his shoulders, by reaching for his face. He’s shaking his head, babbling words Magnus can’t hear, pearly white tears ghosting down his face. There’s a hiss of more magic and the flesh melts off Kravitz’s hands and the bones can hold the spirit clinging to him.
“Taako I’m here-” Kravitz forgets they’re all in the room and his grip moves from Taako’s arms to cup his face. The Raven Queen’s magic lets him touch Taako’s hair and try to brush away the tears. “I’m sorry, darling, I tried.”
Taako’s shaking his head still, and it’s not in a no it’s okay way, it’s in a panicked and frightened and witless from fear way. Magnus has to stand up and he has to get closer. This is how Taako looked when he came streaking to Magnus’ aid in Wonderland, when he cast his own spirit out of his body to drag him back from the edge of a hungry rift. His friends are in grave, grave danger.
Magus sees Taako mouthing no, no, no, to Kravitz, and not quietly: he’s screaming it, howling in a silence none of them can hear through. There’s a soft ghost moan humming through the glass now swallowed up by his spectre, and it rises and falls as he tries to scream his message out at them.
“-run!” the sound is warped and it doesn’t sync with his mouth, but it’s Taako. It’s distorted and haunting, but it’s his voice. “Lie-! Cheat! Run away-!” They’re clinging to each other and Magnus can see the wisps of smoke being pulled back off of Taako and into the amulet Roswyth is still holding. The dragon is smiling.
He was trapped in there, watching what happened, the entire fucking time.
“I love you, Kravitz, but for once in your life please break your word and-” He vanishes and Kravitz staggers.
Taako collapses into smoke and the cloud is sucked soundlessly back into the amulet in the dragon’s clutches.
Magnus has Rail-splitter in his hands, his knuckles white around the haft and his heart punching behind his ribs. It’s dangerous but he knows Angus has his wand out, not pointed at Roswyth, but definitely out with tears running wet down the boy wizard’s face. Davenport is as red as his hair and goes off completely, tumbling from common into a draconic tongue Magnus doesn’t speak, but he doesn’t really need to speak to get the jist of: you scaly backstabbing son of a bitch!
Kravitz is completely lost between them, silent and staring at the place where Taako was just in his arms. The only thing left in front of him is that glowing ounce of magical gold and the word he gave to the dragon.
“No!” Magnus makes a dive for it, tries to knock the glass away and smash the poison and stop Roswyth from winning again. But Kravitz is just that far ahead of him, just that fucking committed to keeping his word and following through on his deals. Magnus’s hand hits the table and when he looks up Kravitz has already swallowed it. He grimaces at the taste and, eyes closed, sets the glass back down on the black stone.
Magnus fails again.
“Kravitz no!” And then Angus grabs the Reaper’s sleeve and yanks it hard enough for Kravitz to stumble and face him. His face is overwhelmed with tears, but he grabs the front of Kravitz’s suit and tries to shake the Reaper, howling up at him. “He just begged you not to! He begged! We need you and you just-!?”
Kravitz puts his hands on Angus’ shoulders and opens his mouth to speak, but then seizes briefly and a flicker of pain passes over his face. Angus loses his anger and lurches forward with his face at Kravitz’s shoulder and hugs him tight. And he sobs. Angus just breaks down in tears and Kravitz tries to return the hug through another spasm of pain.
“I trusted you!” Davenport rages, and Magnus looks away from the terrible transformation eating his friend from the inside to see what’s going on. Roswyth is too busy placing that cursed amulet into the velvet box to acknowledge Davenport, and they close the lid with a snap. “I defended you! I said it couldn’t possibly be you behind all of this, because I let you dupe me entirely into thinking your lies had merit! A port of call my ass, Roswyth! As if I would ever suffer to return to your so-called paradise knowing what sort of demon lurks under the shadow of the mountain!”
Roswyth looks up calmly, and tilts their head a little so their copper hair falls away behind their neck.
“My good Captain, how do you expect to return to a place you will never leave?”
“Dishonourable worm!” Davenport howls, “You said yourself I would be able to come and go as I pleased once rescuers came! You invited me to come back! To bring you stories! You’re a damned liar, Roswyth, and no more a dragon than I am a giant! To hell with you!”
Magnus immediately takes his shield off his back, and with a quick word Davenport hops off his chair and retreats a few steps so Magnus can be between his friends and the dragon at the table. He trusts his captain but Dav just totally went off on a dragon, and Roswyth finally gives a reaction.
They open their eyes and there’s a very real glow of power soaking through them, lips thinning and pulling back to show teeth that are a lot sharper than they were before. It’s like Roswyth’s ears are pulled up and back, their nose coming down as the colour leeches out of their skin. The copper hair combed down their jaw looks more metallic, like it’s melding into scales, and when the dragon slowly stands up behind the table their hands end in very obvious copper claws.
“Unless you are both willing to come forward and accept my generous offer,” Magnus gets the distinct feeling that Roswyth is finally including him in something, and he doesn’t really like it. “Then I believe our evening has reached its logical end. Make your farewells, and you will see the Reaper again when you return for good.”
“Like hell that’s happening!” Magnus shouts, ready for what will probably be a very, very short fight.
Behind him, Kravitz takes a knee and a sharp crack of dimensional power sparks over him. Half his face is blown off to form a skull, but then comes back against his will as wax flesh. Angus won’t let go of him, his hands lost in the black material of his cape and hysteric cries whittled down to nothing. Kravitz’s hands shock between bone and wax, the transformation far more violent than it’s ever been before. It’s his Queen’s magic actively conflicting with the dragon’s spell, trying to resist it.
“Go-” Kravitz’s voice is just a raw breath. “Angus-”
“Reach Barry- go!”
“We’re not leaving you, Krav!” Magnus has to get in on this, and make himself damn clear: they’re not leaving him.
“Yes, you are.” Roswyth speaks with a very draconic growl coiling up their throat, a golden glowing mist rising over their tongue.
You know what that bad breath makes Magnus think of? The golden goop that keeps hurting his friends. Roswyth wants him and Davenport, they already have Kravitz, and there’s no way Magnus can leave Angus behind. He takes a step back with his shield still up, and on the inside of it where Davenport can see, he traces the thieve’s cant mark for retreat.
The same place on the shield immediately lights up with confirm.
“Angus, lets go!” Magnus calls, and then ducks back to try and get Kravitz’s arm up for a lift.
As soon as he tries it, both he and Angus are struck with a bolt of painful energy that peels off Kravitz’s shoulders. Even the Reaper himself flinches away from it with a gasp, pushing Angus off of him where the attack seared the boy’s shoulder. Kravitz grits his teeth and looks at Magnus, one eye completely waxed over, the other losing the fight.
“Run!” The next jolt of power shows the wax gaining across his skeletal form, and when his skin comes back again Kravitz closes his eyes to hide the pain.
He hates this, Magnus absolutely hates it, but he can’t sprint out of here holding the chaotic power combo pumping through Kravitz’s body. He hates this moment, but he has to live with it.
“Help’s coming, buddy- we won’t be long.” And Magnus grabs Angus, throws the protesting wizard over his shoulder, and hauls ass.
They dash out of the parlour with Davenport is just ahead of him, and as soon as they cross the threshold the Captain flings a spell back to slam the doors shut. It stops the blast of dragon’s breath from chasing them into the winding, spiralling, crossing pathways of Roswyth’s lair.
“Quickly! This way,” Davenport shouts, pointing to a glowing mark on one wall that shows the way out, then around a corner to another mark, to another mark, and another… And it doesn’t feel like the dragon is chasing them, but they run anyways.
They run and they escape. They make it back to cold air and moonlight. The three of them stumble and crash down the mountain. They’re staggering, emotional mess by the time they reach the cove with the ruined ship. They’ve escaped, but they’ve left Kravitz behind.
Nothing feels real right now, just awful. This place is so quiet. The water is a mirror that doesn’t even ripple, and the air is still and soundless.
Davenport is on Magnus’ stone of Far Speech trying to get Merle to send an escape pod down to them, his voice shaking and losing itself in the night. Angus goes right to the water’s edge once they get there, drops to the ground hugging his knees, and just cries at the silent tide.
Magnus has failed again.