Actions

Work Header

Luster

Chapter Text

 

The scene before us is a sandy beach nestled against the rolling sway of frothing sea waves. The breeze off the water is calm and the waves themselves are a heartbeat punctuating the easy summer night. Three figures are gathered lazily around a crackling fire, each one laughing and partaking of the others’ company. The waves, the booze, and the conjured fire of sparkling purple and teal flame makes the night more magical than it should be. How drunk is he? Pretty wasted. Does he care? Hell no.

Taako can feel himself relaxing so low in the canvas lawn-chair that his ass is about to reach the sand, but with a quarter bottle of Grey Goose balanced on his knee the wizard doesn’t mind. On the sand not far from his bare feet is a seared black pan with only a few bones and scales left from a perfectly seasoned seaside dinner. He’s pooped, as well as satisfied, after a day of expert waves washing smooth and warm over Bottleneck Cove’s wayside beach.

“You sure you’re getting on that train tomorrow, Taako?” One of his favourite voices in the world asks before he can nod off completely, and a rude hand snatches the vodka off his knee. Too warm and tired and drunk to fight back, he lets a stupid, dopey grin cross his face and lolls his head to see his sister.

It’s just him, Lup, and Barry here visiting with Merle: Barry, Mookie, and Maevis are off in the manor house sleeping. It’s a happy coincidence that he chose to come south right when his sister and brother-in-law were between contracts. Between the waves and the company, he’s ready to nod off.

“Of course I will,” he lets the words out in the silliest voice he can manage, and watches Lup grin with the mouth of the bottle at her lips. “Why~? Think you’ll miss me too much if I go?”

“She thinks you’ll miss your transfer in Neverwinter, is what I think.” Merle’s comment gets his sister to hum in agreement and Taako lets his eyes close in the warm night with a silent smile. “You will have to be awake if you wanna get to Goldcliff.”

“Awake tomorrow, not right now.” Right now is nap-nap time for the world’s greatest chef and entrepreneur, until he feels Lup twist a lock of his salt-sprayed hair around her finger and tug on it a few times. That’s worth opening an eye for, but only the one.

“Who’s meeting you in Goldcliff anyways?” She’s sitting forward with her elbows on her knees, doing the same twist and tug on her own hair now rather than his.

“No clue,” he answers with a useless gesture. “Ren put it all together, I trust her.”

Unbidden, the rest of his itinerary pops up in his mind: early on the train from Bottleneck to Neverwinter tomorrow morning, with a transfer on the platform to the Limited Express for Goldcliff in the afternoon. If he doesn’t change trains, he’ll either end up in the train depot or Rockport. Three days in Goldcliff for promotional materials and a few guest appearances around the resorts and spas of the city, and then a two-day gap for a possible rendezvous with a certain angel of death… And then back on the circuit for Raven’s Roost, Waterdeep, Glamour Springs, and maybe Refuge- though that last gig hasn’t been formally booked yet. He’s pretty sure Ren will want to be available to come with him to her old home, but it’s smack dab in the middle of exam season.

“-aako. Taako.” Whoops.

“I’m awake-!” And he’s awake-ish again, looking at Lup. She’s biting her lip to hold back a grin, and he’s just happy to see her happy. “Yeah, what? Shoot.”

“I said,” she repeats, “Are you gonna see Kravtiz any time soon?”

“Unless you fuck it up for me and take a bounty by the end of the week,” it’s like tempting a cat not to pounce sometimes, if the cat was elf-sized and looked only slightly more attractive than Taako himself. “Yes, I’ll see him,” in bed. “In Goldcliff. Why?”

Lup gets a liquor-fired look in her eyes, and there’s a sharp glint in her grin.

“Ask him how his shoulder feels, and report his exact reaction back to me.” It’s a Reaper thing, but why his shoulder? What’s wrong with Kravitz’s shoulder? Is he injured? Did it not heal right? Do Reapers even take injuries like that? Fuck, they used their stones of Far Speech yesterday so why didn’t Kravitz say anything?

“Sweet sister, I am not a mere component for your hilarity.” He complains on the heels of Lup’s request, because he doesn’t need to think about what he’s saying as long as he doesn’t say what he’s thinking. “How about we all stop for a second and think about what Taako wants? What does Taako want, huh? The elf behind the fame and fortune and fashion. Who is Taako really?”

“A drunk beach bunny,” Lup says without missing a beat.

“This is true.” And he has to let the grin come out across his face, eyes almost shut again.

When Taako has to be woken up for the third time, Lup douses the fire and they make their drunk, stumbling way back up to the Earl’s estate. Barry is not asleep and is armed with a comb and clean water to catch Lup before she drops in their bed with sand and salt all over her. Taako is less roped in and more led by his sleepy hand, and after a quick clean up loses track of the night completely. Barry combs and braids Lup’s long hair, though she’s taken to shaving half of it away for a more daring look, and Taako is good with the long tousled locks he subconciously started growing out once they came to this world. After a century of being constantly reset back to the same shoulder-length knot of coiled blonde, it’s an achievement for him to have hair down his back.

He’s sitting on the floor as his sister tames the soft mane for him. He falls asleep for good with his face on Lup’s knee and her fingers in his hair. It’s a good way to go.

Speaking in only strictest and most technical of terms: neither twin needs to sleep as long as they do. A few hours of calm and mental quiet is all that’s required but no one ever takes the bare minimum when there are fine cotton sheets and plush duck-down pillows to consider. Earl Merle is not one to skimp on good arrangements for his guests, and even with the headache piercing his eyes from the back when he sort of opens them the next morning, Taako is comfortable.

So is Lup, which registers as a slight surprise. He has his own room at Merle’s estate and so do Lup and Barry, which is where he still is, but Taako is in bed beside his sister and her man isn’t around. With the warm summer sunlight parting the curtains over Lup’s seaside view, Taako takes a few quiet moments to count his own breaths as well as Lup’s, his sister still deeply asleep in front of him.

He pinches her nose because that seems like the right way to get her up. After a few seconds without air, Lup’s face twists and she tries to breathe, then jerks away with a whine and confused scowl. It’s not a hysterical prank to pull, but it’s easily worth his own shitty grin and the way he props his head up on one hand, watching his sister fuss and pull the blankets up over her head.

“Rude, bro.”

“Where’s Barry?”

“Your room."

Why?” Even on the Starblaster, the two of them kept their own quarters. There was an explicit open-door policy between them, but there were doors none the less.

Lup answers his dumb question by scooting between the sheets and cuddling up to him, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hold. He wakes up a little more because cuddling usually means the same thing as co-sleeping, and the hug Taako gives her is reinforced with a kiss on her hair.

“Yesterday was pretty fun, yeah?” He asks and his mind is already going. She’s worried about something on the Astral Plane, something between her and Barry, something about Kravtiz, or something about her Lich form, or about him, or-

Hella.” Lup’s voice is hot and hard through the shirt he slept in. Her next breath is ragged at the end. “You need me to be honest?”

“Your call. Taako’s good both ways.” Tell him. Tell him right now. Lup takes another rough breath and squeezes before letting him go, and the two of them sit up in bed, close enough for their legs to be over and under one another. Her eyes look lost for a few moments, and her voice is reserved.

“Sometimes I just…” He doesn’t prompt her when the words fade, or touch her any more than he already is. “I get scared. Taako I get- really scared.”

“‘bout what?” The Raven Queen, the Hunger, the memories, her choices, the unknown. His thoughts keep going but his mouth stays closed. They can finish each other’s sentences all they like, but not their thoughts. Not their confessions.

“I get scared that…” She wasn’t looking at him and now she is, a few locks of escaped hair casting over one of her eyes. The next words have her so worked up her composure is cracking. “…that you’ll think I’m making up the sick shit I do on the Astral Plane. It tears me apart inside, Taako, really.” No, not really because that’s a lie clear as day, but he folds his arms and looks down at their tangled legs with concentration.

“Hm. You mean like that time you said you took out a Beholder in one hit?”

Yes, Taako, exactly like that.”

Hmm.” Something funny, something silly. He needs to make her laugh and he clicks his tongue before looking up and shaking his head a little. “Well, I think the most important thing to remember here is that you’re my sister, specifically: my twin. The only reason I don’t believe you is because the modesty is laid on too thick, yo. I know for a fact that it was three Beholders and it was one magic missile apiece.”

Lup gasps and puts a hand to her chest.

Kravtiz told you.”

“He did. There’s no such thing as workplace confidentiality anymore, Lulu.”

They get out of bed after that, and since this isn’t Taako’s room it’s tough to get dressed, but he waits for her anyways. Who else can she trust to properly brush out her hair from its braid and reweave the elaborate pleat properly? Barry Bluejeans? As if. That fucker’s the reason the back of her head is such a disaster this morning to begin with.

“What time is your train?” She’s fixing a pair of gold hoop earrings in place as she asks, a set of black and white quartz bangles hanging from her wrists.

“‘bout an hour from now.” He’s still standing there in the loose shirt and red shorts he slept in, finger-combing his own hair in the mirror until Lup gives him her brush.

“I’ll make breakfast, you get dressed.” Yes ma’am. It’s so much work to look as good as he did before Wonderland, but it’s not like he can get on the Neverwinter Direct without dolling himself up properly. He passes Barry at the door to his private room in the estate, and the two of them pause a moment.

“Did she talk to you?” Barry asks.

“Nah, we just sat and stared directly at each other in perfect silence for several hours after you left. It was a little awkward.”

Ha-ha, nice one, Taako.” He’s still standing there, still waiting, and Taako is well prepared for a silent staring contest with Barry while standing here in his pajamas. The other wizard folds easy enough. “Alright, I’ll let you get ready. Just- I’m gonna see if I can convince her to follow me to Goldcliff in a few days. If we come, d’you think you and her could do something fun and get her to open up to you?”

“Barry, my dude, you also speak Common. And Elvish. And Robot?”

“Thieves Cant,” is the correction.

“Same diff.”

“No, not really.” He’s gonna roll his eyes in three… two… “Look, I know what’s under Lup’s skin, Taako. That’s why I know it’s not Lup and I who gotta talk, it’s you and her, okay?”

“Whatever, my man.” Fuck. Now he’s worried. Fuck. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to exfoliate before I moisturize and make sure this face is perfectly highlighted for its long-awaited return to public life.” And he proceeds to do just that.

It’s while he’s in the process of getting ready that the thoughts start bugging him. Maybe he can cancel the trip to Goldcliff. He could say he’s sick, or hit with some kind of crazy inspiration for a wicked cool recipe or business venture. He could even flex his heroic muscles and say ‘I don’t wanna so I’m not gonna’ and plain not show up. Ren would be disappointed if he did that though. And so would his fans. And if Lup doesn’t feel ready to tell him what’s on her mind then him acting funny and bugging her is not going to help.

The issue follows him as the last of his packing is prepped for his departure, including the last minute mirror check. Gold tunic with a flirty off-the-shoulder look, and distressed black denim leggings. Cute ankle boots with gold at the toes and heel. His favourite robe, a Candlnight’s gift from Ren with a felt exterior and silk slip that change colour independently of each other, fastened with a gold cord. He feels like green today, a nice fresh vibe. His hat is not green, the soft felt and its droopy tip are a fantastic purple that does not match his look today. Thankfully, it’s just a twirl around his wrist and a feather of transmutation magic to turn lilac purple and a periwinkle ribbon to the sleek black and gold that do his outfit justice.

His bag is ready to go: one floating  suitcase with essential changes of clothes, hair products, his pocket-spa and numerous business-boring documents. The travel belt and bandolier laden with pouches and satchels is a second nature addition that he can never quite leave anywhere without. His spare wand, his spell book, some potions and rope and rations. There’s plenty of shit in there he knows he doesn’t need, but he still sort of does. He hasn’t used his Hole Thrower in months, but at least Mockingbird Gum is good for a laugh. Arcane Trickster’s Glove, Low Sodium Salt Shaker, Immovable Rod, Band of Projected Thought... he doesn’t need these, but he does.

Enchanted rings on his fingers and looped through his ears, stone of Far Speech in his breast pocket, the Krepstar’s golden arms hanging at his belt and tucked behind the folds of his robe, opposite the spell book. Between the suitcase and his gear belt, all he needs is breakfast and the farewells.

Lup has conquered the estate kitchen when he gets there. She’s teaching Maevis the proper way to work her wrist so the pancakes flip expertly in the pan, Mookie and Merle already chowing down happily on their own stacks of cinnamon-spiced goodness. The meal itself is shorter than Taako could have wanted, but trains wait for no wizard and it’s with a few chill jokes to Merle and a knowing wink at Lup that he takes his leave from the estate.

“Whatever you do,” Barry cautions him as he goes, “Do not miss your transfer in Neverwinter, or Lup will never let you live it down.”

“Have you never met Ren?” Taako asks the idiot question. Of course Barry has met Ren and he gets an eye-roll for the comment. “I should introduce you.” Lup will laugh if he gets lost, but Ren will be disappointed. One should never disappoint their Number Two.

He gets quickly to the station and easily aboard the morning train when it pulls in, his suitcase stowed in the undercarriage and the baggage ticket stuffed in his pocket. Lickety-split he sees himself into an empty car where he can toss himself down and kick up his feet across a vacant two-seater. They depart on time from Bottleneck Cove, and Taako crosses his ankles before tugging down on the broad brim of his black hat. It’s time for a mid-morning nap to bamish the last of his hangover, and he folds his arms comfortably over his chest before letting the motion of the train see him off.

It’s just his luck then that while zoned out and trying to feel comfortable, he finds his thumb and finger wrapped around and rubbing his stone of Far Speech like a cursed talisman. Damn it, Barry.

After an hour of completely worry-free napping on the train, Taako is just about ready to pull out the stone and tell his sister her undead lich partner spilled the beans and she should go beat him up for it. And when she’s done doing that she should tell Taako the thing that was bothering her this morning or else he will find no peace.

“Attention passengers,” the train’s speakers crackle with the voice over his head. “It is my pleasure to announce our complimentary brunch service is now available in the dining car.” Hnng… he’s not hungry. He didn’t get to sit and savour his breakfast necessarily but Lup still got at least three of those pancakes on his plate before he left.

But it is complimentary. And it’s going to be several more hours before they reach Neverwinter. And if he keeps rubbing this stone he’s gonna wear a hole in it. Okay fine, up he gets. Maybe just a cup of tea. With any luck, someone will recognize him and be enough of a distraction to take his mind off Lup for a little while.

He doesn’t have to hope too hard about being recognized, as he hears a soft gasp almost as soon as he enters the dining car. It’s one of the many, many perks of not only being a sensational brand name, but also an interplanar traveller whose journey was broadcast to all of creation by a jellyfish. That tiny, barely contained breath already has him feeling better about today.

In a lot of ways the dining car is unremarkable. When you travel as much as Taako does they all start to blur together after a while: cake trays, finger sandwiches, tiny weenies wrapped in bacon, even the same multi-coloured box of tea samples. That last one is where he hones in and begins perusing the selection. The attendant is quick to pluck a fine china cup and saucer from the ready tray and place it on a serving platter alongside a tiny gold spoon, a folded napkin, and a crystal bottle sporting an enchanted rose. Taako is perfectly capable of pouring his own cup of tea, but he’s more than happy to let someone serve it to him instead.

Chamomile has never done him wrong, he goes with that one and a slice of lemon loaf before finding himself a table near a dining car window and waiting for the presentation. He can see the coastline slowly pulling away from them as the train turns inland for a minor stop somewhere unimportant, and it’s much easier to relax while watching something. Elbow on the table and chin on his hand, this is nice.

“Um-” And it’s even nicer when a shy, delicate voice intrudes on his scan of the countryside. “Um excuse me- I- hello? Sir. It- this is- why I don’t know quite what to say.”

Taako looks around with his chin still on his hand, a pleased smile on his face because yes, this is what he wanted. A young halfling woman clutching a mighty big briefcase and wearing eyeglasses big enough to hide half her face is staring at him, her brown hair a mess of puffy curls and a shawl of loose stitched flowers around her shoulders. For a moment his mind recalls the image of Poloma, the prophet of Refuge, not because of the Halfling’s age but for the distinct scent of something sweet in the air around her. Sadly, it’s not scones.

“Well you’ve started on the right foot,” he purrs, and with his free hand gestures to the chair across from his. The gobsmacked look on her face is precious, and she climbs up into the seat immediately.

“You’re Taako, aren’t you?”

“The one and only, my dear.”

“But I mean, the real Taako! From the Starblaster? From the song?

“Absolutely on point, yes. What can I do for you this morning?”

What he can do and what she wants to do are the exact same agreeable thing: talk about him. She asks some of the usual questions, about the Voidfish, the Hunger, the Bureau, and so on. She asks how the other six of his crew mates are doing and he tells her they’re fine, with details given upon request. When Taako’s tea and loaf arrive on the table there’s a minor pause from the attendant that Taako reads as a silent ‘should I get rid of her for you, sir?’. After all, not every famous person is as endlessly agreeable as Taako is, or as happy to revel in their own fame and renown.

“Please, something for my adoring fan here,” he drawls for the attendant, “What did you say your name was?”

“Patrice, sir.”

Patrice, excellent…”

Patrice orders a raspberry blend with a slice of the same tart, buttery lemon loaf Taako enjoyed, and they get to talking about her after a calm and casual hour of talking about him. It just so happens that she is also, like Taako, an entrepreneur- a businesswoman. And she is also headed for a transfer in Neverwinter, where she will take the train to Goldcliff, to attend a show and conference at the Trust, to see him.

“My my, you’re just full of the best kinds of surprises, aren’t you, Patrice?” He threads his fingers together in front of him as the plates are whisked away. It’s quiet in the dining car, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this train except the two of them and their attendant.

“Yessir! And I brought with me- oh.” Her enthusiasm is abruptly quashed. “I… I should wait until we reach Goldcliff proper, shouldn’t I, sir? Here you were just enjoying your morning and I barged in so abruptly. We’ll have plenty of time to talk business when we reach the city. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was following you around trying to get an edge.”

“Well why not?” He asks, “It’s what I would do if I wanted to make a deal. Though, I suppose I should say thank you for your concern. After all, if you’ll recall I do have a wealth of bad experience from being persistently followed across the Planar Systems.” He laughs here, it’s easier than being serious.

Across the table, Patrice looks at him very quietly for a moment, then gives a determined nod and nudges her glasses up her nose.

“Well, Taako, if you insist.” He didn’t invite her to use his name, but he overlooks it as she hauls that big briefcase of hers up onto the table. She unlatches it and spins it about, pulling the tablecloth as she does so and nearly upsetting his teacup and pot.

Inside there are belts lashing several dozen glass pots in place. Each one is gold-toned and lustrous, filled with sweet syrupy goodness Taako can almost smell through the jars. The pots on the top rows have lumps of perfectly formed honeycomb lodged inside, the bottom ones are just clear golden goodness. There’s a literal rainbow of pots displayed before him, going from a rich brown amber to a yellow so light and delicate it almost seems to glow of its own volition.

“I’m a beekeeper, sir.” The jars are two stacks deep, so that means she’s got twelve, fourteen, twenty-eight… “My family’s owned hives for hundreds of years- though we almost lost everything during the Day of Story and Song. But we’ve been recovering nicely, in no small part due to your efforts- but you know about that, sir, what you don’t know is what an amazing product I’ve brought along to show you.”

“Don’t tell me,” he says with a finger raised to pause her a moment, “You also deal in soaps, candles, wax seals and leather treatments, don’t you?” This catches her off guard a little bit, but that’s okay, Taako’s still looking at the fifty odd jars of honey singing in front of him.

“No, sir,” she answers quietly. “Well, soaps and candles yes, sir, but not the other things. I suppose we could, if we had a partner and could get the traction, branch out a bit more. Our people would have to speak with your people first, and-”

“The people can say whatever they want, it’s Taako who makes the decisions.” Which means it’s time for Taako to work his magic, and he lifts a hand to flag down the attendant without looking away from Patrice and her wares.

He’s brought a large white plate and several small spoons, and Patrice immediately cracks the seals on three of her honeys. He takes a small dab of each one and checks first the smell, then the consistency, then the colour, and finally the taste of each one. They are, in a word, delightful. Honey is what your bees make of it, and as he samples Patrice prattles on about their rose garden, their fruit orchards, their vegetable patch and so on, and the enchantments that go into making sure each hive sticks to its own feeding ground to condense a wonderful flavour into each comb.

“And there’s no conjuration going into any of this?” He asks, because that seems unlikely and he will, personally, have to take a tour to sniff out the finer details. But for right now, Taako is happy even if his tongue is beginning to curl with the sweetness. There’s a wonderful toastiness to the apple blossom, and a nutty flavour from the pumpkin patch, and the colour alone from the rhubarb has him thinking of jellies and jams and glazes galore. Even if there is a bit of hinky magic, this could easily work as a new product line. Easily.

“No sir, and if I may?” she holds up another small jar from the collection and it’s such a pale yellow the honey is almost green. Citrus, maybe? Elderberry? She holds out a hand for his tea cup and Taako passes it over. Patrice puts a simple dollop of syrup on a clean spoon and then pours a hot stream of tea from the last of Taako’s chamomile into the cup. A bit of a stir, and she passes it back to him. Her nerves have eased and there’s a professional focus he really likes behind those thick cut glasses.

“Cheers,” and he takes a sip. Oh. Oh. This is the good shit right here. It’s floral but fresh under the sweet body of the chamomile and there’s a cool touch across his pallet that you don’t typically get from a sweetener in a hot beverage. This is bomb-ass perfection in a cup right the fuck here. Taako’s sold.

“Do you like it?” Patrice asked.

“Okay, so.” He puts the cup down and his hands together, putting on a show of thought before addressing her again. The cloying sweetness is still touching the back of his throat, but that’s what trying several different honeys one after the other does to a dude. “Remember that I am but a simple wizard, and I can’t talk numbers with you right now, but I can say yes. So yes, Taako says yes.”

“You mean it!?”

“Honey, Taako don’t lie.” And Taako don’t let good shit pass by either. He points one finger at the off-yellow jar still sitting in front of her. “And I don’t waste good product either. How much do you charge per unit? You and I are going to Goldcliff together, but I’ll be taking that little jar of wonder for myself. Oh,” and he draws a loop-da-loop with the same finger, looking briefly over the other opened samples. “And the apple one. Magnus’ll appreciate it I think.” He should probably buy a sealed one of apple for Magnus considering how far down his itinerary Raven’s Roost is, but the big guy’ll like it for sure.

Patrice doesn’t give him a number, but she does give him the apple honey. Didn’t he ask for the green one too? They keep talking. It’s been a long time and they should have come through a station or two while sitting here. Maybe he missed it as he drinks his tea and finds another cup waiting for him, another dollop of green stirred in the bottom.

She asks him about his adventures and he thinks he answers. She asks him if he’s involved with anyone and Kravitz’s name springs to his lips but the topic changes again before he can get past an emphatic ‘Oh yes.’ His throat feels like it’s sticking to itself, ears buzzing as it’s hard to focus on Patrice’s voice.

The attendant hasn’t been by in a very long time.

There should be more people on this train, not just the two of them.

About now is when it clicks for him. He stops chewing the toast and honey he doesn’t remember being given, and reaching for a glass of cold water gives him a splash of sweet. Shit. Fuck. Son of a-

Horseshit,” He swears, a something in his blood that usually doesn’t do much doing its thing now. There’s- an essence, a something that doesn’t belong. He can feel his very nature bristling and trying to shake it off. It’s magic and he doesn’t like it and he refuses, flat out rejects, the idea of being charmed. Fuck this. Fuck Patrice. Fuck.

The thrall snaps and his throat opens up, his mouth still stinging from sweet honey, and he stand up to his full height over the table. At his hip, the Krebstar feels warm and his hands clench so hard his rings rub together.

“Forget it. And next time, don’t use a charm spell on an elf, dipshit!”

 Patrice babbles and complains as he up and storms away from the table and out of the dining car. He doesn’t feel good, his steps aren’t steady, and his thoughts are still foggy. When did she cast it? Which parts were false? It all felt right up until he realized it wasn’t.

The door between train cars jams and it takes him a minute to get it open. He’s dizzy- why? Charm spells don’t make you dizzy.

If she drugged him he just needs to find another person on the train. Any other person on the train. This is a morning train bound for the biggest city in the world: there will be other people around.

The door slides open too fast and he stumbles through it, the buzzing picking back up in his ears. Like the dining car, this one is empty. Fuck. He goes further, finds another compartment door, wrestles with that one like the first, and again the next car is full of nothing but vacant seats. Fuck.

The buzzing is getting louder.

He tries the next door, moving steadily back towards the end of the train, and with one tingling hand he fumbles for his stone of Far Speech. He’ll take the teasing later, but pride has no room for Taako getting himself in a sticky situation: honey’s a bitch to get off felt anyways.

"Lup-” he tries to rub the symbol on the stone and it slips right through his fingers, smacking the floor and bouncing under a seat. He’s on his knees right away to scoop it back up. It takes two hands to grasp it. He doesn’t feel good. “Magnus, can you-?” He’s too far away. Why not- “Ren? Kravitz-

He reaches up for the door handle and uses it to pull himself to his feet. He looks back the way he’s come and he doesn’t see Patrice, he doesn’t see anyone. The windows are full of white and the buzzing is making his ears numb. His stone is off.

“Merle-” Turn it on, turn it on, turn it- “Help...?

The door between cars opens and Taako falls straight through into black, buzzing darkness.

 

 

Chapter Text

 Against all odds, Taako does not arrive on the 5:35 train from Neverwinter to meet his contact for the Goldcliff Trust. He doesn’t arrive on the 6:15, the 8:40, or even the 11:26. 

The handler, not entirely unused to the Headmaster of Taako’s Amazing School of Magic being entirely flippant about arrival procedure, arrives six hours late to the Silver Gaze hotel to see what time the wizard must have checked in. Clearly this is just a case of the Wizard avoiding him on the platform for a laugh. 

As it is midnight, the concierge is not terribly pleased with him, but the honest dwarf does his best to remain professional. What strikes both of them as odd is that Taako has not, in fact, checked in yet. 

Perhaps something immediate called on him and he will arrive tomorrow, or the trip itself has been cancelled. That will certainly bad for business if it proves true, but again: it’s midnight. The handler does have an actual life outside of work, including a bed he would like to crawl into. 

It’s the next morning when the news is broken to several members of the Goldcliff Trust Board of Directors. But the news itself is not severe: Taako the Wizard is delayed, and they are working to establish the why and how of it with his contacts. 

Ren, a long-time fan and now three-year business partner of Taako the Wizard, looks up as the flaming brazier in her office at the ASM flares up with an incoming conjuration. Words come floating clearly through the spell from Goldcliff, and despite the early hour she’s left both mortified and apologetic by her boss’s unexpected tardiness. Flippant as Taako might be, he’s always prompt when it comes to wining, dining, and flattering himself in front of a crowd. She thought he was looking forward to the Goldcliff exposition… 

Her Stone of Far Speech was a gift from Taako, and came with his frequency already attuned to it. She takes it off the corner of her desk where it usually sits and brushes her fingertips over the top of the smooth grey stone a few times, until the delicate hum of music and magic align where she wants it. 

“Hello? Taako, it’s Ren calling.” That’s usually enough to get his attention, so she waits a few seconds for a response. When she doesn’t get one, she taps the middle of the stone three times to increase the sound of her voice. “Taako, pick up, please. It ain’t like you to miss a big day on tour, is everythin’ dandy on your end?” 

More silence. Come now, even if he was with his man she’d still get an answer from him. 

Taako?” Nothing. “Alright, fine. Be that way, I know who to call to get you figured straight.” 

She cuts off the link between stones and attunes again, flipping through the rolodex in front of her and checking that against the dates on the almanac at her elbow. He was last at Bottleneck Cove, meaning… 

Hello!” A genial voice calls through the stone, gruff and affectionate at the same time. “Not often I get a call from you, Miss Ren. Called to hear the good word of Pan?”  He’s such a charmer, she has to let herself laugh a little. 

“Sadly, not today your Lordship,” Ren tells him with a smile. “Pardon my intrusion, Merle, but you wouldn’t still happen to be playing host to my employer, would you?” 

To-? Taako?” There’s a surprised peak in his voice, and Ren’s smile falters a little. “Ain’t he in Goldcliff? We saw him off yesterday morning as planned. I’ll admit I didn’t hold his hand and walk him to the platform, but I sure as anything saw him leave.”  That… huh. 

“Thank you, Merle. I’ll, uh, I guess I’ll have to call around a bit more.”

Ain’t he in Goldcliff, Ren?” There’s a soft edge of worry in Merle’s voice. She feels almost guilty now for bearing the curious news that no, Taako didn’t arrive. There’s a pause on Merle’s end before the Cleric speaks again. “We were just joshing him, but you don’t think he actually missed his transfer in Neverwinter, do ya?” 

I think if he had, he would have told me.” It’s not impossible to turn around and go back to Neverwinter after staying on the wrong train. If he’d wound up on a train set for maintenance at the city train depot, then he would certainly have called Ren to let her know he needed help getting out of the sticky city paperwork. But Taako is a traveller by choice and by nature, he can figure out a train schedule the way most people deal with a door handle, or button up their shirt. 

And you haven’t heard from him?” Merle asks, and Ren has to again say that no, she hasn’t spoken to Taako since he told her he was going to Bottleneck Cove in the first place. “I… forgive me, Ren, I’m gonna let you go for a minute and try to get ahold of him myself. Slippery bugger’s probably just pulling a fast one on you.” Merle chuckles in a warm-hearted manner, but it’s not wholly convincing. 

“If you get a hold of him, please ask him to contact me.” 

They make polite farewells after that, and Ren knows she should get back to work reviewing curriculum changes for the next semester, but she can’t. It’s not like Taako to ignore her when she messages him. It’s not like him to get lost on the trains across the continent.

She makes herself put pen to paper. It’s not like Taako to go dark, but it’s not like Ren to let her day go to waste just because something peculiar is going on either.

Merle will find him, and if Taako doesn’t get back to her by lunch time then, well, she’ll just have to go looking for him, won’t she?

 


 

Taako is warm and comfortable when he wakes up, face down on a pillow with excellent neck support, sheets clean and cool and smooth across his shoulders and back. Lots of room for his legs, and sweet morning light that’s shining into the room but not down on him specifically. Taako can take a deep, easy breath, and sink further down into the plush mattress. 

He’s rested and well and- where the fuck am I?

The thought hits him so hard he shudders, eyes bleary as he opens them and blinks rapidly, pushing down with his arms and kicking his legs to get up. Where is he? What’s going on? Maybe it’s a dream and Kravitz is here or he just had a wicked bad dream and Lup’ll think he’s a fool for jumping out of bed like- like this isn’t his bed.

It’s not his bed and it’s not his room or a room he recognizes. He travels and is on the road too much, but this isn’t his bed at Merle’s estate, or at his school in Neverwinter, or his regular room in Goldcliff, or any place he and Kravitz have visited. He sits up and there’s a terrible anxiety crawling up his legs.

The room is tasteful and light, pale wood panelling and floors with cheery white and blue rugs spread over the boards. The bed is whitewashed wood with a veil of mosquito nets around it, like he’s in a very posh beach house. There’s a dresser and a built-in closet, a vanity with a selection of pots and jars. The bedding is white and baby blue with an unopened letter on the pillow next to his. There’s one big window shrouded by curtains and three doors on separate walls.

He gets to the window first, swallowing his terror when his bare feet cross the soft pill of the rugs.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it yet.

He gets to the window and there’s a brilliance so harsh that he swears and flinches away from it. No sunlight ever felt like this, it’s magic and it’s strong and he can try all he likes to face it but it’s futile. His eyes tear up from the glare and he has to cover them for a few moments, just breathing. 

Now he has to think about what he doesn’t want to think about. His feet are bare. He has his leggings on still but everything else is gone. Just. Gone. His shirt. His gloves. His socks. Even the tie for the end of his braid is missing, no rings or cuffs, no tunic or belts. The Krebstar is gone. His spell-book is gone.

‘I’m not going to panic.’ He’s going to panic. He closes his eyes and takes the slowest, deepest breath he can physically manage. ‘I’m not going to panic yet.’

“Well this fucking sucks!” He shouts, hiding behind his own voice. “We were good, Patrice! We had a real nice thing going until you threw a spell at me, and now this! You could’ve had a good thing but you couldn’t do a long play to line your own pockets! Where’s my shit? Those boots are couture.” 

If he’s not wearing his clothes then that means someone touched him to remove them. If he doesn’t have the Krebstar at his side then that means someone took it away from him and he can’t remember how it happened. He still remembers the train, the honey, the sickness that he couldn’t explain on an empty train that should have been full of commuters and travellers. He still has his memories but that just tells him there was another moment in his life where he woke up robbed and confused and for a second now he seethes at the memory of Lucretia and her fucking crusade.

But no, stop. Now is not the time to get mad about that, he gets mad about this. He folds his bare arms and sticks his nose in the air, thoroughly unimpressed.

“I will not be seen like this.” He never thought he’d admit this to himself, but he wishes he had the Bureau bracer around his arm still: if he had that then he wouldn’t be standing here trying not to scream over the loss of his foci.

Without the Krebstar he could channel his power through the spell book, or vice-versa. Without either of them he could use his Immovable Rod, or his Ring of Frost, or literally any token he had on his bejewelled person before waking up here. A magical focus doesn’t have to be a wand per-sey, but it has to be an item that you can hold and channel yourself into. He’s a bomb-ass wizard and he knows he can still crank out a spell or two through sheer fucking willpower, but it’d be like a hurricane trying to fit through a window he can’t even see. If he goes ahead without a focus and isn’t careful, he’ll blow himself away.

The stakes are a bit too high and the game too new for him to go that far right now. He has to calm the fuck down first.

He doesn’t take the letter off the bed yet, that’s too fucking easy. He goes to the vanity to look over the items spread, seeing his reflection at the same time. With a cold flash of horror, he sees the off-centre tip of his nose, the uneven mar of his complexion, and the barely there droop to one eye that the other doesn’t match. His Disguise Self spell is gone and he freezes cold at the realization.

He sits down on the cold wooden stool and goes over what’s on the white table. His heart is hammering, hands clammy, but with a deep breath he forces himself to act like nothing is horribly wrong. A set of empty ceramic jars, brushes for hair and eyelashes, cotton balls, applicator swabs, pore strips, emery boards and tweezers and a buffing square and a set of a dozen empty bottles for nail polish, toner, moisturizer, and so on. It’s all colourless and clear.

The brief notion that he could use one of the brushes as a focus dies when he picks one up and almost drops it. There’s a magic in them he feels and wants away from. Not necrotic, or conjured, or evocative, just a deep down root of not good. He’s in another mage’s domain and nothing he finds here will help him.

Just to prove it to himself, he places one palm flat against the mirror and its a near thing he doesn’t rip his hand away from the wrong of the polished surface. There’s a hand mirror on the table with a wood back and handle, and he can’t bring himself to pick it up.

The closet finally gives him colour, because inside is not a recreation of his wardrobe, but a fair attempt at what someone would probably think his closet looks like. There are robes and magic gowns in a rainbow of colours, one door hosting a rack of belts and sashes and shawls and scarves, the bottom half dominated by shoes, hats, and gloves.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. He can’t even see the clothes themselves for all the bad energy radiating off the rhinestones and silk pashmina. He doesn’t want these things on his skin. When he makes himself take down a simple white collared shirt and pull it over his head, it feels awful. The airy blue silk of a straight floor-length dress tells his hands it’s luscious and fine, but his mind screams to take it off. A white belt is pleasing to the eye as it cinches his waist but he wants to die he wants to die he wants to die.

His hands are almost shaking as he clasps a set of silver bangles around his wrist, and he fakes it as hard as he can to remain in control as he spins to look over his reflection. It’s passable through the pain. He saunters to the bed and sits down, kicking one leg over the other as he reclines and tells himself not to throw up.

He opens the letter, and a puff of honey-scent comes off the paper and makes his stomach settle just a little.

Dear honoured guest,

Fucker doesn’t even use his name.

May I extend my most fervent and delighted welcome to you as you embark upon your new reality within my domain.

Reality. His eyes stick to that word and won’t let go.

What you now face is an existence precious few throughout the world have had the great privilege of enjoying: a coveted position among the most desirable and sought-after aspects of creation.

No.

You have finally ascended to your place as a cornerstone of my collection, and I aspire only to ensure your comfort and recreation here in your palace of wonders.

He can’t breathe. He makes his lungs fill up just to prove he still has that last scrap of control.

Multiple customization options exist for you to tinker and delight with as you enjoy your reality here.

That word again.

To avoid unnecessary personal strain for yourself, you will find a dedicated Book of Accommodations and Alterations upon the desk in your personal study. Simply make note of your desires in the ledger, retire your mind from its fatiguing thoughts, and you will awaken in the idyllic comforts you so deserve.

Ever enchanted and yours, The Keeper.  

He’s going to stuff Patrice’s soul in a jar and slam-dunk it into the Astral Plane when he gets out of here, but right now Taako is sitting on a bed that feels like the only thing around him not radiating with wrongness. He’s light-headed from panic and woozy as he pushes himself back up to his feet. He can rest later, but the thought fills him with dread: to sleep steeped in magic so invasive and hostile is wrong to him.

He crosses the room to one of the doors and opens it, his eyes struggling to adjust to the white glare that greets him as he walks through. It’s almost like Wonderland’s frozen darkness that needed to pull itself together, but scorching with brilliance before he finds himself in a kitchen.

It’s crisp and clean, organized and spacious. Fine stone countertops with a marble pastry slab, wooden boards stacked in a rainbow of treated grains. He’s shocked to find knives here, dozens of different styles and shapes, everything from boning knives to cleavers and paring blades and so on, but it’s as expected when he touches one and feels that shiver of revolt run across his skin. Dishes, plain and white, are behind clear glass windows he can easily open. The pantry, like the jars on the bedroom vanity, is completely empty. The cabinets have containers labelled maize, flour, sugar, rice, and so on, but are empty. There’s a baker’s brick oven washed in white paint, fuel stacked inside of it for burning, but no eggs or milk or almonds or butter. The walls and floor are the same white-washed wood, and there’s a small table just off from the cooking area with a single chair, and there are more windows here: even a pair of French doors leading out onto a veranda.

But there’s nothing outside. Outside is nothing but scalding brilliance, and he keeps away from the windows. The door outside might open, but it’s too hard to look at, let alone approach.

There’s another door opposite the one he came through, and they swing like the shutters of a kitchen passing into- what else? A dining room.

There was a small table in the kitchen, but here there’s a dining room. It’s horrifying in its brilliance and frightfully exposed to that awful light, two whole walls of the circular space nothing but bleached white pillars barely holding back the corrosive nothing outside. There’s a white table, and a dozen or so chairs. The floor is white and grey tile and he can’t stand here he can’t stay here, it’s too unstable.

He retreats back to the doorway and stands there, hands clutching the doorjamb so hard his nails start to bite into it. He can’t stay here but he will. The word that came to mind is unstable. If it’s not stable, if it’s not natural, then there has to be something keeping it together. There’s another door, all the way across the brittle floor, and if he could just-

Agh, but the raw energy is too much and as he feels pain start to crawl over his skin, Taako has to retreat. He’ll figure it out soon, but not this very second.

Back the kitchen leads to four places: the veranda he can’t approach, the dining room he just fled from, the bedroom where he started, and… a library. The theme continues yet again: whitewashed wooden walls, wooden floors, and painfully white shelves housing books bound in dull blue covers. These books contain nothing. Taako isn’t a very bookish person anyways, nevermind compared to most other wizards, but something in him still hurts when he pulls down a thick bound blue book and fans through the pages to see nothing printed. The indexes are blank, the contents construed, the titles worn away by a hand that didn’t care to give them purpose. There are no windows here, but there are many doors. He takes the book in his hand with him, evil energy and all, just to see if things can move between rooms. They can.

A door back into the kitchen. A door- back to the bedroom? A grand double-door leading into the unreal dining room. A door that goes into a parlour.

Blank, stark, white. Light wooden furniture in the form of reading chairs and a couch. A fireplace with painted white brick. Walls and cabinets and fixtures all desperately plain and sterile. Stands where things should be, but aren’t yet. The parlour has two more doors leading one to the dining room, the other into a study.

Before going into the study, he doubles back through the parlour, to the library, to the last door he didn’t try. He’s back in the study as promised by the letter. Well, actually it’s just another whitewashed room with a small wooden desk facing the middle of the empty space. There’s a bay window with a blue seat cushion looking out into the arid nothing of the beyond, and the desk itself is small and plain. There’s a single white quill resting beside a bottle of ink and a large square book.

Before he sits down at the desk, before he even walks towards the book, Taako has to make sure of one more thing about this new… reality.

These rooms, aside from being painfully stark, are all following a pattern he doesn’t like. They aren’t square, or rectangular, or funny-foot-shaped. Each of these rooms is a hexagon. The bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the parlour, and the study, all circling around the library.

He checks the last door leading out of the study and comes into a bathroom. One more door takes him back into the bedroom.

Seven rooms all together. Seven rooms that connect via multiple doors. The only one not connected to the library being the washroom- probably from some misplaced sense of propriety.

He doesn’t have to draw it out to put the pieces together. He got here after sampling Patrice’s fucking honey, and the letter was signed off by The Keeper.

Taako is in a fucking prison realm shaped like a god-damned honeycomb.

“When my boyfriend gets here,” he announces, and he realizes now how silent this dimension is because his voice is so loud in contrast. “He is going to fuck. You. Up. I hope you realize that! I hope you realize damn good what you’ve fucked yourself into!”

The prison and the Keeper offer no response to him. Inside he knows he’s terrified, but there’s also a fire of stubborn pride struggling to catch between his breaths. He may have been a simple idiot wizard, once, not so many years ago when he was still reeling from so many other years being stolen from him. But he’s not that fool any longer. He’s Taako the fucking Starblaster Arcanist, Survivor of the Song, Celebrity Chef and Entrepreneur Extraordinaire. He taught Angus Fucking MacDonald how to wield magic and come hell or high water he’s not going to let some uppity little enchanter with her stupid jar of candied death put an end to him now!

He doesn’t have his glaive but fuck him if that’s going to stop Taako from making due with something else, something better. He created the fucking Philosopher’s Stone, and the Krebstar, and he mastered his sister’s fucking Umbra Staff of Magician-eating Hell-terror! In fact, Lup-!

“I’m not even gonna leave ashes of you behind for Lup to spit on!” He screeches at the white nothing. “I don’t need anyone, I don’t need shit! I’ll bust my way out of here and in the meantime, I’m going to make this place semi-fucking bearable because you couldn’t even be trusted to do that much on your own! No outside? No food? Not even a jar of cole cream? Go fuck yourself and your disembodied white nonsense!”

He’s going to get out of here. One way or another, Taako is going to get out of this nightmare.

“I transfigured a quarter mile of glass into solid fucking sapphire, you colour-blind chucklefuck! You can’t keep me in your beach house of bad taste!”

He shouts and he kicks and he fusses and stomps back and forth and back and forth through the different rooms. He says everything, and anything, that comes into his mind. He could have played it cool but no, fuck this, no playing it cool when he’s this fucking scared. He uses no magic and he tries none of it either, not yet. He’s not going to make any attempt to break free until he can figure out what the hell is holding him. Because if he does tip his hand, if he tries and makes any sort of gain against the forces holding this place together without actually getting out, then he’ll just put his captor on alert. It will be harder to escape if this so-called Keeper gets a proper read on what his strengths and abilities actually are. 

He’s going to be patient even if the very idea eats him up inside. Not today, not right now, but soon. Tomorrow he’ll escape. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow, which hopefully is really tomorrow and not today. He was on a train bound for Neverwinter and never arrived, didn’t he? How long does that give him before Ren and the others realize he didn’t make his transfer? Didn’t make it to Goldcliff? How long was he asleep before waking up here?

How fast or slow is time in this dimension moving, compared to outside? That is a terrifying thought if ever there was one. 

He’s back in the office and he sinks into the cold, hard wooden chair behind the desk, face in his hands for a few short seconds just trying to breathe.

What if there’s time magic involved? Magnus didn’t just pull the Chalice out of his ass one day and go “look at this new kind of magic I invented all by myself!” Time magic is a thing and it’s terrifying. Time magic trapped a town in a single repeating hour for seven fucking years, and even if that was a one-off with the Light of Creation, there are still ways to speed time up. Still ways to slow it way the fuck down.

For all he knows, Taako has already been here for a week. He could have been here for hours just throwing his hissy fit. If he’s a collector’s item then his captor won’t want him going super fast, hitting the end of his elven lifespan, and dying in here. Patrice will want him to survive.

He feels an oppressive, terrifying sense of something that hasn’t come creeping up to him since the years aboard the Starblaster. There’s an awareness, a terror, a violation of reality that spins a constricting web around his heart. He already lived a hundred years, one after the other after the other, unchanging and always reset. He knows. Taako just knows, that he can’t go through something like that again.

He won’t do it.

He’s going to get out of here tomorrow. He makes himself sit up and wipe away the hot, frustrated tears welling up in his eyes, and turns to face the book on the desk in front of him.

Accommodations and Alterations is the title written in gold across the cover. He opens it to the first blank page and uncaps the ink, dipping the quill into the midnight blue pot. Each page is broken up into seven sections, one for each room, with ample room for changes and specifications. 

He might as well start in the kitchen, and hope Patrice chokes on his most exacting standards of service.

 

Chapter Text

 

Sometimes life asks too much of those who live it. Other times, life demands exactly what’s required.

Merle’s lived a long and admittedly very strange life, but the strangest part of it has to be how, after some sixty odd cycles aboard the Starblaster, he and the rest of the crew realized something peculiar about him. Namely, if you have a problem then you tell Merle about it. Not because he can fix it necessarily, or try to pray the sad away, but because he’ll listen. How else could he have picked up the title of Peacemaker?

The thing about being Peacemaker is that it’s also a fancy way of saying Team Dad. He takes that title more seriously than he ought to, but sometimes, like this time, a Dad is what’s needed.

This business with Taako taking a sudden dive off the edge of the world is bad for his digestion, because unless their wayward wizard Blinks back home in the next ten minutes Merle is going to have a very, very, difficult discussion. But he’s the best person for the job. Easily. He’d just much rather hear that little pop of magic before Taako swirls back into their lives and drops himself over Merle’s couch to complain about the lack of seasoning in the Ethereal Plane.

About five minutes ago, Kravitz arrived at the estate through one of his crackling portals. He’s a svelte and very well put-together man, human unless you look too closely, handsome until something sets him off. Merle’s been dreading this and sending more than a few fervent prayers to Pan hoping the Reaper wouldn’t show up at all, because it means things haven’t worked out right on his end.

“Hail and well-met, Merle.” Oh boy. “It’s hardly your responsibility to keep track of such things, but is Taako still staying here with you?” Oooh boy... “Is... something the matter? You don’t look well, Merle.”

“No, no- well, yes.” He’s not lying, he just got his words turned around as he nervously rubs his fingers over the grooves of his wooden wrist. “I mean yes, something is definitely wrong, Kravitz. I’d say it’s good to see you but it’s actually a pretty bad thing you’re here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Here, come have a seat in my office.” Kravitz has good manners and knows to always open his portals inside a special corner of the estate’s main entry hall, the one boasting several attuned sapphires Taako made on pillars of living wood Merle grew with a few charming words. He waves the reaper to follow him, feeling awfully uncertain about how this is going to play out.

Once Kravitz is in his office the Reaper tries to get answers out of him, but Merle hushes him and goes to get Lup. Her and Barry are still here because Merle asked Lup if she’d heard from her brother at all after he spoke with Ren. The answer was another no, with more dead air from Taako when his sister and brother-in-law both took their turns trying to yell through the void at him. Eventually, the three of them had to settle on the only option that seemed reasonable: wait for Kravitz to bring him home.

“Oh no, oh no...” But Kravitz doesn’t have him, and when Barry sees Kravitz he immediately bleats in terror. Merle rubs his eyes with a sigh and Kravitz takes understandable offence to Barry’s outburst. Lup, he can only imagine, freezes at the sight of her team-leader and takes a moment to collect herself.

“Barry, calm down,” Merle soothes, but its too late.

“But if he’s not with Kravitz then where is he, Merle!?” Thank you, Barry.

Kravitz loses his breath and his red eyes widen just a touch, then he looks away from Barry and faces Merle with indescribable care.

“Taako never arrived in Goldcliff,” Merle tells him in a simple, direct voice. “He hasn’t been answering his Stone of Far Speech no matter how much Ren, Lup, or I try reaching out to him. But this happens sometimes, Kravitz, as you well know, because the stones struggle across planar boundaries.” No reception in the Ethereal Plane, and one star at best in the Astral. “Ren hasn’t heard a peep from him on the business end of things, but we thought it safe to assume that he would still meet up with you because he kept talking about it.”

“I tried contacting you, Krav,” Barry pipes up now, fingers pressed to his temples and massaging fiercely as he pushes his glasses askew. Lup is staring at Kravitz with empty eyes. “You told us you were at the Raven Queen’s court and it’s impossible to get a message through there, but if it turned out you and Taako had just taken a spur of the moment trip somewhere- but you never picked up.”

“Because I was at court!” Now Kravitz stands up, not in outrage but just for the sake of moving. His dark complexion is losing definition, the thick ropes of his hair becoming whispers on the ends like his reflection is being disturbed. He doesn’t lose his appearance completely for the skeletal body of a Grim Reaper, but he’s not himself. “When did he leave? When was the last time anyone heard from him?"

“He left three days ago,” Barry says.

Three days!?”

“I’m going to Goldcliff,” Lup announces, stone-faced, and Merle nods.

“That’s a good place to start, I’ll get Sloan and Hurley to help you. And I’ll tell Ren to pick things up in Neverwinter from just asking around to actually looking for him.” This is bad, this is all, all bad. Their friend is actually missing. “And I’ll let Lucretia know what’s happened. Nobody needs to panic, but the Bureau has those nifty cannons of theirs that’ll make getting around a lot faster and easier.” Plus their friends like Avi, Carey, and Killian to help out.

“I’ll handle things at the Bureau,” Barry offers, and he’s already nodding nervously as he ducks out of the room, muttering about triangulation methods. Merle’s got his Stone of Far Speech out and attuning when he sees Lup and Kravitz just standing there staring at each other.

“I thought he was with you,” Lup says in a hushed voice. “I hoped. I really thought-” Kravitz takes a breath and speaks over her.

“I’m going to the Astral Plane.”

Merle’s stone stops attuning. Lup is frozen in place by the words.

“Why?” The only reason Taako would be in the Astral Plane is if...

“I’m starting there and I am going to make absolutely certain that he is not there.” Ruling out the worst option first then, if death is really the worst thing life could throw at any of them at this point. “When I’m finished, I will join the search here. If I find anything, Lup, you and Merle will be the first to know.”

Merle might have protested, once, to being the person who needed to know anything first, but not this time. This is his family and his home is their home. A shepherd can’t tend his flock if he’s running hither and thither over the hills, and a father can’t help keep his family together if he isn’t here where they need him to be and listen when they call out.

Barry and Lucretia will search from above. Lup and Ren will scour the two cities he should be in. Kravitz will rule out the worst-case scenario. Merle will keep them all communicating.

“Do I tell the others?” He asks. Davenport is attempting a voyage across the Wake-less Sea. Magnus lives ten days north of Neverwinter. “Angus, maybe?”

“No, he’s a child,” Kravitz says.

Yes,” Lup corrects, and looks at the Reaper when he faces her again. “World’s Greatest Detective or not, Taako’s his friend and first teacher. Yes, tell Angus.” The lady makes a fair point, and Kravitz bows to it.

“I might give Magnus a heads-up too, then.” Just in case. Well, maybe. It’s not like they can expect him to charge south with nothing to go on. “We’ll find him, Lup, and we’ll slap a homing spell on the Krebstar when we do so that this never happens again.”

The team breaks to begin their search, and Merle reaches out to Lucretia before Kravitz’ portal has a chance to snap shut around the reaper’s shadow.

They’ll find him.

 


 

Sleep is a fucking mistake.

Taako cat-naps, he thinks, but he comes out of it with heart hammering and senses spinning. Elves like him and Lup don’t need to sleep, it’s a luxury, a middle-finger at an early life spent resting only in shifts with brother and sister looking out for one another constantly. Rest is a meditative state, and Taako lets himself settle into it from time to time just to de-stress and chill, but sleep is a sweet and reckless act of defiance that he thought, wrongly, he could get away with here.

He meant to curl up on the cursed bed and settle into a doze, maybe nap for an hour or so, but he went from drowsy to drowning and waking up is exactly the same as snapping out of a nightmare.

He’s in the white room, with the white walls and floor and too many doors, and sits up with the distinct sense that something has changed. He’s still wearing the blue dress and other borrowed clothes, his knees a little shaky as he climbs off the bed.

He wrote out an exhaustive list in the book of annotations before coming back to the bedroom to try out this sleep requirement the letter mentioned, and sees no changes in his immediate environment. He doesn’t search, just heads right out of the bedroom looking for the kitchen.

The cabinets are stocked, the ice box is stuffed, the spices are plentiful and fresh. Flour, corn, coffee, sugar, almonds, lentils, beans, meats of all kinds and cuts. Milk, cream, cheese, butter, oil, shortening, mushrooms, nuts, apples, cucumbers, wine. There are jarred preserves along with fresh veggies and forage, expensive delicacies cast beside mundane fare. A wall of alcohol bottles has bloomed from one of the walls, complete with the bar counter and stools he demanded of the book.

For a moment the bounty… it almost makes him happy. But he remembers himself and before he can do more than take a deep breath of the fresh parsley and mint, Taako casts it down and steps away.

He still doesn’t know the rules of this place, not really. If it’s any sort of fae realm then eating anything is going to be even worse than falling asleep. He’s not ready to fork over his soul even if it means going hungry for a little bit. His curiosity is biting hard to see if it’s real food or just conjured, but he holds back. He can wait, he will wait before eating anything. Putting enchanted shit in his mouth is what got him into this mess in the first place and his palette is not to be further polluted by Patrice’s crap!

Something else has changed and he can focus on it now, walking out of the cooking area and past the lonely white table with its enchanted rose. There’s a plate with another white letter on it waiting for him, and Taako scoops this up as he walks to those beautiful french doors.

Outside is the sea. The harsh brilliance has been painted over with soft sand and spurts of sharp green beach grass. Glass grey shells are half-buried in the sand, and the waves froth with a deep sigh as they pull up over the beach before retreating back into their own domain. The sea is an unbroken band of blue and soft whitecaps stretching to the horizon. It’s a cloudy day, the sky is grey with a coming storm. He can hear the rhythm of freedom just out of reach.

Setting his fingertips to the glass, Taako can feel the negative energy radiating through the door to keep him inside. He tries the handle and it won’t move. He forces it, jiggles the door on its hinges, but it won’t budge.

He goes to the kitchen and fetches one of the chef’s knives. It feels wrong in his hand but he brings it back and wedges it into the space between the doors. He gouges the wood trying to jimmy the lock open, and with another shove there’s an abrupt snap as the knife cracks in two.

“...Awful shitty conjuring.” There’s an echo of shock through him as the chef’s knife breaks, but his voice gets his thoughts in order. It’s not a real knife, it’s a conjuring. All of this is a conjuring. It’s a self-contained and easily mutable domain that responds to someone’s will. He doesn’t know if the book autonomously controls the details, or if it’s just a communication line to the warden of this prison, but he’ll figure it out soon.

This place is too big to be a pocket dimension like his spa or Magnus’ workshop. It’s too tightly controlled and influenced by its maker to be a dimension all its own either. It’s in the middle. It’s a demiplane.

Demiplanes are wicked fucking powerful magic. He’s glad he didn’t try blasting his way out of here in his first few minutes. Patrice isn’t a chump magician like Mr. “Can’t burn a spell slot” Jenkins. The book is going to help him, somehow, get out.

Taako looks down at the letter he picked up. The seal is a bright copper wax this time, not the... he can’t remember what colour the first letter was. Was it important? He gives himself a shake.

Fuck this.

He puts the letter in his dress pocket, takes hold of the lone dining chair at the table, and hurls the fucking thing over his shoulder at the french doors.

He’s right to immediately duck away from the sealed portal because when the chair connects with the glass and wood, it explodes back towards him in a rain of shattered lumber. It’s the first not-him noise he’s heard since coming here and the gunshot rattles the floor and disturbs the utensils in the kitchen. The mess is wide-spread when he comes back around to investigate, but the glass is untouched as expected. The gouge he made with the knife has repaired itself.

“Alright, cool.” It wasn’t magic. Patrice hasn’t learned anything from him and Taako has confirmed that the simplest solution won’t work: he can’t just break a window and crawl out into the neverwhere.

He leaves the kitchen and pulls out the letter, tearing it open and reading as he walks back to the study.

Dear and treasured guest,

Spare him.

All should be as dictated in the Book of Annotations. May I take this opportunity to express my profound joy at your smooth transition into your new perfect reality? Blue really is your colour.  

Taako freezes and feels a sourness lick at the back of his throat, the foul nature of the borrowed clothes amping up over his skin. He hates them. He hates this.

Please take comfort in and enjoy your modified accommodations.  

Sincerely and Gladly yours, The Keeper  

That’s it, that’s the whole letter. Taako folds it back up in its envelope and continues on to the study.

The book itself is clearly magical. It has the look, the feel, even the almost-smell of magic about it. He can suss out some of what’s inside just by picking it up and turning the incredibly dense object over in his hands. Transmutation, a bit of divination, too much conjuration. He can’t pry much further than that without a focus to guide him however, which is disappointing.

Alright. Now he has to get out of here. Okay. He- as crazy as this has always sounded to him, especially after Fisher’s fuckery with his memories, Taako is a scientist.

That sounds really fucking weird.

He is a fucking scientist. And a wizard. A wizard scienti- Arcanist, that’s the word he wants. Taako is an Arcanist. He’s run experiments and formulated theories, and applied controls and recorded data and all that boring shit. How else could he and Lup have cracked the animal kingdom language as quick as they did with the Mongoose family? It’s how he got on the Starblaster in the first place. He’s a fucking scientist and he’s going to get out of here.

He picks up the quill and opens the book to the first blank page. He writes:

  • One notebook and set of pencils, to help me keep notes and get out of here.
  • Handsoap, you fucking animal, because I can’t cook with dirty hands.
  • A new chef’s knife. I broke yours.
  • A new dining chair. See above.
  • A doorway back to the Neverwinter Express.
  • My Stone of Far Speech.
  • My KrEbStAr.
  • My couture boots, because I wasn’t fucking joking about those.
  • Lavender bath salts because Taako’s gotta de-stress, okay.

There’s more he could put, but he doesn’t right now. He closes the book and decides to set some controls. Scientist.

He goes into the kitchen and, without tasting anything, prepares himself a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh tomatoes, rye toast, and freshly squeezed orange juice. He soaks but doesn’t wash the pan, and leaves the tomato water on the cutting board. He puts the food on the table and leaves it.

In the bathroom he runs himself a scalding hot bath, but doesn’t get into it. He leaves and comes back twice, just to see that it’s still steaming. Kay. Cool.

The food is still in the kitchen so he can basically rule out any sort of reset-spell that would obliterate any sign of him as he wanders around. Good to know.

He sharpens one of the paring knives on a whet stone as he goes back to the study, adding “scissors” to the requisition list.

Back in the bathroom, the mirror is an eerie oval hanging on the white wood wall. He doesn’t like looking at his un-disguised face as he unbraids and then brushes out his long hair, but he’s even more put off by the half-shadow he almost sees when he looks at the bath one more time. It’s still hot, but not quite steaming.

This next part hurts. A lot. But science demands sacrifice, and he takes the paring knife in hand before deftly choosing a lock of loosely curled hair and -ugh, his poor hair- cuts several inches off it. It’s sacrilege and split-ends all in one action. Science. Sacrifice. Uuuuugh.

Rather than toss the hair in the same wastebasket he threw the letter, Taako winds the lock around his finger a few times and knots it hard. The hair stays in his hand as he goes back to the bedroom, finds that soft rug next to the bed, and crosses his ankles before sitting down on it.

Elven meditation is not the same thing monks and clerics do. If he’s honest with himself, then mediation is what he did on the train to Neverwinter before getting up and going to that fateful dining car brunch. He doesn’t have to keep perfect posture and count his breaths, going oooooom every few heartbeats. He certainly can, but it’s not necessary. The fact that he chooses to sit cross-legged with his spine straight is just- an effect of stress. When in doubt, go for the basics and stick fast to them. He sits and he closes his eyes, and he takes a steadying breath... and he breathes.

He’s meditated on recipes before, on chartered itineraries, or on graphs and algorithms and incantations and whatever else you please. What he meditates on now is counting, which sounds like entry level shit but is actually super counter-productive when trying to empty your mind and live in the moment. He counts, but there’s a lot of unpacking that goes into it. He counts... and he breathes... and he counts...

Meditating is a mistake.

He feels his counting reach eighteen hundred, putting him between thirty and forty minutes and about how long he wanted to be out for. Then he’s at two thousand, probably because it’s so zen and easy. Three thousand two hundred. Four thousand seven hundred... Seven thousand...

He can’t wake up.

The awareness is in his chest, it bubbles and kicks. Nine thousand, and he’s well over two hours in. It feels like there are tiny threads spinning around his body, each one a feather of force that means nothing, but all together a suffocating cloud wedging between his mind and his projected form.

Eleven thousand, six hundred and forty-two seconds.

He gags, eyes open, and coughs his way out of the meditation like he hasn’t breathed since going under. It- it should never feel like this, waking up, it’s supp- supposed to be easy. The difference between sleep and meditation is that you are still awake and can snap yourself out at a moment’s notice!

He stands up, shaken, and wobbles to the bathroom. He runs the cold water and splashes his face several times, his hair still long and loose as he gets his shirt cuffs wet too. He pools his hands to take a deep drink and catches himself first, shaking the water off and shutting the tap.

He can’t sleep, can’t meditate, and he’s still not ready to try eating or drinking anything here. He’s shaken and confused and when he looks at himself in the mirror- he almost doesn’t see?

He tries again: looks down, looks back up. His reflection is normal now but for a brief glimpse it was like- like it wasn’t?

The bath is still sitting there, waiting for him, but there’s a small jar of lavender bath salts sitting elegantly on the shelf sporting several volumous towels. He touches the water and it’s luke warm, on its way to cold. He drains it and leaves.

In the kitchen the dishes are clean, the leftovers neatly packed and placed in the fridge- and he marvels now that he hasn’t seen an actual refrigerator since his days on the Starblaster, though the Moonbase had almost cracked it.

In the study, there’s the Book of Accommodations and another, smaller leather-bound book. There’s a set of seven pencils, including one red and one blue, all sharpened and ready. On top of the journal is another letter, sealed with copper.

Dear beloved and honoured guest,  

Your wit is expected and treasured. What requests could be fulfilled have been seen to with effortless efficiency, but it bears no explanation why select requests have been denied.  

Ever and Truly Yours, The Keeper  

At least he has the notebook, and he sits down at the desk with it. He doesn’t sit straight, one hand holding his forehead and occasionally dragging back through his hair as he writes.

  • Built-in maid service, not time magic.
  • Shit’s self-repairing.
  • Get fucking ready for how much of a slob I can be, Patrice.

He remembers and stops writing, gathering his hair over his shoulder and feeling through it, finger-combing the strawberry-blond curls until he finds a small surprise: his hair is still cut.

In his pocket, he finds the knot of missing hair still where he left it. Taako takes the pencil back up and writes this down.

  • Nothing will stop me from making sure I look fan-fucking-tastic when I get out of here.
  • Sleep is a bad idea.
  • Meditating is also a bad idea.
  • Patrice, if you can read this, and I’m operating under the assumption that you can: you’re a piece of shit and your honey tastes like ass.

In more academic terms, Taako knows now that if there’s time magic at play then it’s something that’s removed him from Istus’ realm, so bonus time for Taako: that’s one goddess who might happen to notice and then do something about it. He, himself, is not stuck in a loop because he triggered the same spell while meditating that got him while sleeping. His hair is still cut, so he’s not in a Bond Cycle like on the Starblaster, and he moved items around and had them stay there unlike Refuge’s repeating hour.

But one step forward here is still two steps back.

If he’s not in a loop then ya boy Taako is gonna get hungry very, very soon. Self-starvation is a bad fucking way to go and even his pride can’t stand for it. Being physically weak will impact his arcane strength, and he’s going to need all of that to get out of here in one piece. He’s gonna have to eat. He has to. He’s already hungry enough to eat because it’s been a whole day, at least, and he already cooked once without trying a morsel.

He stops writing and looks at his conclusion: he has to eat. Well. Fine. Fuck it then, he’ll eat but he’ll make sure it’s a last meal worth having.

He pulls the Book of Accommodations over and dips the pen. Time to push back for real this time and fucking redecorate.

It’s a lot of writing to get down everything in his head, and that’s the point. It’s a big ole’ fuck you to Patrice’s magic and the Keeper’s grasp on this plane. It keeps his mind off his stomach too. When his hand starts cramping, that’s when Taako knows he’s written enough.

He runs another hot bath for himself, and he raids the stocked and supplied vanity in the bedroom. He makes a complete affair out of it, from tips to toes, pampering himself and easing his nerves at the same time. Some things are missing, like the particular scent of candle he didn’t write down, or his bathrobe, but there’s enough to make it work reasonably well.

Mask applied and fingernails painted, he sinks into the hot scented water and it’s the first legitimately good feeling he’s had since coming here. It’s such a relief to take a deep breath and sink down that... ah... why not? For science.

He picks up his hand and looks at the fresh coat of deep blue he chose for himself. Nail polish takes at least sixteen fucking days to dry sometimes, but as a wizard that’s typically not a problem.

Taako has no focus, and he knows this. And Patrice knows this. But this spell isn’t even really a spell, it’s just a brush of arcane energy blowing past his lips and carried on his breath, cold and sharp and biting his fingertips very, very briefly just to dry the fragile lacquer.

And it works.

Taako grins and dries his other hand, then gives a sigh and sinks down to his nose in the steaming water.

He knows how he’s getting out of here.

Chapter Text

 

Magnus Burnsides is a name known far and wide across this world, but in Raven’s Roost he’s more than a Visitor or the Protector. He’s Magnus Bricklayer. Magnus, the man who replaced The Roost’s bleeding and broken heart with his own deep love for the city and it’s people.  The crafter’s pillar may be gone for good, but the city is steadily coming back to life around the wound.

Several bridges already span the great hole where... someone... someone terrible, gouged out the heart of their city. Rope bridges, metal and lumber spans, even a few short, gutsy attempts at stone. Some chain and iron constructs swing in the wind. There’s a constant effervescent mist hanging between the pillars of the Roost anyways, but they billow up with swirling eddies through the heart. Raven’s Roost is more vertical than pretty much any other city in this world, and looking down from the highest level, the bridges form a delicate lattice of threads over the abyss. Eventually, though not in his life time, the threads will become a tapestry of industry and perseverance, and Magnus is proud to know this is part of his legacy.

“Uh, boss? Magnus, sir.”

“Morning, Enzo!” Magnus looks back from the swirling early-morn mists with a grin and a raised arm, the heavy mug of tea in his hand steaming softly. He’s on the balcony built into the back of the Hammer and Tails, looking down over the Heart, and now he’s joined by Enzo, a half-orc lad with a good heart and a better hand for sanding and carving.

The Hammer and Tails is a three story brick of a building that looks like your favourite log cabin in the woods, only way, way bigger. Magnus rebuilt it from the bones of several long-abandoned buildings on one of Raven’s Roost’s high pillars, and Enzo was one of the first settlers to come back to the Roost after learning that a Hero of the Song was looking to make it a home again. It’s been three years.

“Morning, sir.” He signed on quickly as one of Mangus’ carpenters, and though he doesn’t do much with the martial or dog training that goes on inside, Enzo’s a true and trusted friend, nevermind a fabulous craftsman. “Sorry to interrupt your morning tea, but a package just arrived for you.”

“The sun’s only been up ten minutes,” Magnus points out, then takes a swallow of the rich orange blossom and lemon rind in his cup. “Who’s out making deliveries at this-? Oh,” he grins, “I bet it was Lucy, wasn’t it? Aw, shucks, I thought I told her-”

“No, sir, no, it’s not Lucy!” Enzo jumps to correct him and that’s fine, but kind of surprising. The Half-orc is immediately bashful and looks away, scratching the back of his head with one large hand. “S.. Sorry, sir. I know it’s silly of me to get this worked up, now I feel awful dumb for bothering you so early- but, heroes and all, sir, y’know?”

“Uuh, no, right now I don’t.” Magnus blanks, but he’s not angry. Why would he be angry? He likes the sunrise but it’ll come right back up tomorrow too. “Heroes?”

“It’s from Taako the Wizard, sir.”

“Oh!” What? Taako sent him a package? Cool! “Lead on then, friend! I don’t mind sharing whatever’s inside.” Knowing Taako, it’ll probably be free samples of something about to hit the market, or a tried and true favourite of one Magnus Burnsides. Maybe he included a box of his macarons? And with the amount of promotional flyers and materials he usually sticks with the rest, there’ll be some noteworthy coupons too.

Magnus and Enzo head inside with a little chorus of ‘oh boy oh boy oh boy’ between them that wakes up Johann, Magnus’ personal rescue pup who isn’t quite the pup anymore, but a fully grown and smart-looking Deerhound. His dog gives a big stretch by the fire and then shakes himself awake, trotting along behind them as they recover this oh so exciting delivery.

It’s on Magnus’ desk in his office, which is also his room. His mirror-faced shield and Chance-lance are both mounted on the wall, a fireplace with his Railsplitter above it burning low. Enzo draws the curtains open wide for more light, and Magnus, aww...

“He didn’t wrap it,” Magnus pouts, looking at the plain boring package paper and twine around the square parcel. Usually Taako’s gifts are in ever-more-extravagantly coloured paper. Maybe Ren had to pack it and didn’t get the memo. Still, he gets right to it, taking the first layer of paper off and revealing a sealed letter.

Uuuh... Oh phooey, it’s not from Taako.

“Sir?”

“This is his business seal,” Magnus explains with a pout as he flips the envelope back and forth, the copper wax glistening as it moves. “He uses it for work and contracts, not personal letters.” No macarons. Magnus is sad now. “Ah well, lets see what Ren sent us then.”

It’s all plain paper and twine until Magnus gets to a raw pine box, and inside of this is a lot of paper cushioning and two sparkling, glowing golden jars of honey. He and Enzo both ooooh with appreciation. It might not be macarons, but boy howdy this looks too pretty to eat.

“Where would he get honey?” Enzo asks.

“First rule of befriending Taako is to never question where he sources his ingredients.” Magnus is holding one of the jars in both hands, because they’re big jars. There’s no air inside, just perfect, lustrous honey. A label attached to the lid with a piece of twine reads ‘Rustic Apple’ and he knows he has to try it. “Hey, go get the kettle boiling, Enzo. Lets have ourselves a proper breakfast before the others get up.”

The two of them carry the honey to the kitchen with Johann still tailing happily along behind Magnus. While Enzo gets the black kettle filled and ready, Magnus cracks the seal on the first deep jar. Oooh, this smells like heaven in a jar. Sweeter than sweet and with a flavourful something he can’t name, but wants to taste.

Do do doot, hmm. No one’s done a bread-run yet this morning but there’s a butt-end left over from yesterday. He mentioned a proper breakfast but Enzo’s on that already, fetching a big skillet and some eggs to get ready. There are about six trainees currently staying with Magnus, and Enzo is one of four other craftspeople who lodge in the great house with him.

He’s splitting open the bread when a snuffling sensation wedges between his elbow and his body. The nose becomes a snout and then a whole muzzle, and Magnus looks down at big black eyes sporting the most heart-breaking doggy pout he’s ever seen.

“But this is my breakfast, bucko.” Johann keeps staring, his eyes get bigger, Magnus’ heart clenches tighter. “Here- here, don’t look at me like that.”

He grabs and slices an apple quick as you please but Johann is wasting away by the second, perishing from neglect and denial of sweet gooey golden goodness. Do dogs even like honey? Johann likes apples and Magnus takes a hearty scoop of honey from the jar with the apple slice in his hand. There is, beyond a doubt, more than enough honey between the two jars to let the pupper have a taste too.

“Sit.” Johann sits, spine straight and nose parallel with the floor. “Shake.” One courtly paw is placed in Magnus’ palm. “Sing!”

The Deerhound throws his head back and gives a very, very, good attempt at singing four notes in sequence: B, A, B, E. Not as good as his namesake, but Johann is a dog.

Good boy!” And Magnus lets him gobble up the sticky-sweet treat. “And now no more, or you’ll make your tummy hurt. Okay. A little bit more, but no honey.” He feeds Johann another slice of apple and the dog is delighted by the juicy-sweet bites. Once he’s had all the apple Magnus is willing to give, the dog snuffs at the floor and follows his nose in a few circles, doing his own thing.

Magnus sets out a mug for Enzo and finishes his own tea, ready for a refill of hot water and a nice Neverwinter Breakfast blend. The eggs are cracked and sizzling and Magnus can hear sleepy footsteps creeping about upstairs as the others get up. Enzo gets first dibs on his serving of honey with a big spoonful, and Magnus-

“-!!”

-uh?

“Johann?” They both look up at the canine shriek, and Magnus looks at his feet first and then quickly paces around the kitchen, looking for- and he finds Johann almost instantly, the hound curled up tight and rigid on the floor, hiding as far into the pantry as he’ll fit. His tail is tucked tight between his legs as he starts whining, and Magnus gets down on both knees to try and get him out.

“Johann? Hey, buddy, it’s Magnus.” With the softest voice Magnus can muster, he tries to get the poor animal out of the pantry. He doesn’t fit in here anymore, not like when he was a pup, and Magnus gets both hands around his haunches and drags the black and white-speckled hound out across the floor. “Johann? Lemme see you, buddy, c’mere, c’mere, old Mango won’t hurt you, boy.”

“Here, I’ll go get his blanket,” Enzo offers, and Magnus calls out a thank you before finally-

Oh my god...” Johann is whining incessantly now, he won’t stop and Magnus can’t blame him because his own blood feels ice cold right now. There’s a threatening chill running down his back and he can’t believe- “Johann, Johann come to me, baby, it’s okay, come here.”

He pulls Johann into his lap and his dog unwinds his long body, flipping over and hiding against Magnus. He almost pushes the hound off as a reflex because of what’s happening.

Johann’s muzzle, starting at his lips, is changing. It looks like he’s turning to wax. Honey-brown and solid, because Johann either doesn’t or cannot open his mouth. And it’s spreading. It’s spreading over his muzzle, catching his black fur and dripping down his throat, wrapping around his chest. It’s happening and Magnus can watch it happen and he can’t-

“Look at me, boy, look at Magnus.” He takes the risk and touches the wax, trying to see if he can get his fingers under or around it like a shell and pry it off- but that doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t spread to him thank god but it’s his dog- his dog is--? Being eaten!

“Johann it’s okay, I’ll get you out of this!” How? What is he supposed to do? Enzo comes back into the kitchen with a hair-covered blanket and drops it with a muffled yell. There’s the sound of people moving around in the house, soon the whole place will be awake but Magnus doesn’t know if any of his students know enough magic to- “Enzo! My Stone of Far Speech, it’s on my desk next to Steven- go!

Enzo bolts back towards the office and Magnus runs his hand over Johann’s fur, choking up because his dog is suffering, the poor thing. The hound is terrified and the whining feels quieter as his nostrils seal up, Johann’s eyes wide and white with terror before they’re consumed too.

Johann kicks as the wax takes his belly, as it spreads around his chest and knits over his back. His back paw gives a twitch and by the time Enzo crashes back into the kitchen with the stone in his hands, it’s over. Juanita, Ty So, and Rebecca are standing aghast and staring at the horror in front of them, Petra and Peter approaching slowly and sinking to their knees across from Magnus.

And Magnus himself, oh, he’s a wreck. His throat is so tight he can’t breathe, and his eyes are a watery mess before he lets a sob shake and gasp out of his chest. The tears come and they’re thick and hot, his hands still grasping at the still-warm shape of Johann. The magic that took his dear dear friend acts one more time and the hysteria on the hound’s face fades, eyes closed and mouth shut. His head is resting on his paws, tail and legs tucked comfortably like he’s sleeping.

“...We fed him some of the honey,” Enzo’s voice is soft and brittle, explaining it to the group of crafters and warriors.

“I,” Magnus corrects, and the word breaks him a little more as Peter digs into his vest and pulls out a handkerchief for him, the gnomic dog-trainer barely fending off his own tears. “I fed him the honey. I fed him Taako’s-”

No, no, no, no! No! Fuck this! NO! Taako would never- could never- he can’t! There’s no way! The package wasn’t wrapped properly and the letter wasn’t sealed properly and no! Taako wouldn’t do this! He wouldn’t try to poison Magnus and even if it’s Transfiguration magic- Taako’s fucking specialty- NO!

The magic is still working and it still won’t stop twisting the knife. As Magnus lets go of Johann’s petrified form, the whole thing is shrinking. Johann’s image pulls away and retreats from him, still in that sleeping pose, and it goes and goes and goes until finally Magnus’ companion is shelf-sized and even sitting on a decorative little plaque. His heart is sick and his hands shaking as he picks Johann up as gently as he can.

Ty So has his hand out-stretched over the open jar of honey and the two poisoned cups of tea. He’s a cleric by calling but came to Magnus to better himself as a shield-fighter and defender, his eyes half-lidded as he focuses on channelling a little bit of light through the jar so he can read whatever his senses have to tell him. Rebecca and Juanita have the pine box the honey came in and are looking it over, commenting on the crest lightly burned into the lid: seven hexagons arranged in a honeycomb flower. No name, just the symbol.

“Oh, Magnus.” Petra steps up past her brother Peter, and because Magnus is still sitting on the floor sobbing ugly tears the old gnome woman wraps her arms around him in a tight, healing hug. “Oh Magnus, we’ll figure something out. Honest we will, we just have to- well, I don’t know where to start but between the lot of us we’ll start somewhere.”

“I know where to start,” Magnus answers with a gasp, hugging back for a few sweet seconds, and then he stands. The tears keep coming and he’s holding Johann’s figurine-sized image in both hands again, looking down at it and then out around the people watching him.

His people, who are here because he started something Magnus can never finish, but his legacy is going to get Raven’s Roost back on its feet.

“I want all of you to stay here,” he says, and there’s an immediate chorus of disapproval from them all. “Yes, you heard me.”

He walks to where Ty So has the opened jar of honey next to its sealed mate. Juanita is quick to dump both cups of tea right into the sink, clearly shaken. The cleric looks at him with reservation, but then shakes his head.

“I can tell you nothing you don’t already know,” he’s a smart, suave sort of human, Ty So,  “It isn’t celestial, but is certainly magic. You’d be much better off having a wizard examine it.”

“Thank you, Ty So. I’ll do that.” He’s shaken up inside but nods to back up his thanks before taking the open jar, closing it, and tucking it under his arm. To the unopened jar, he points. “That one, throw it into the Heart.” Where poison and evil magics belong.

Magnus looks at the honeycomb crest on the box and the paper packaging inside, then places Johann’s petrified statue inside and slides the lid back on. He nods like this is the right thing to do and then takes both the honey and the box back into his room.

He starts crying again when he gets there but Magnus is okay with that, he just watched something horrible and horrifying happen to an innocent animal. He’s allowed to be hurt by this, but that doesn’t mean throwing himself on his bed and wailing away the day.

He takes down the Chance-lance, and Railsplitter, and his shield.

He puts on his good Rockseeker boots, and trousers of thicker, stronger stuff than his usual house-pants. A shirt of chainmail goes under his feathered ciuras, and his lucky old pauldron saddles his shoulder comfortably. His stone of Far Speech is sitting on the desk when he opens the letter from ‘Taako’.

Dear Magnus,

Fake.

Hope this package finds you well. Enjoy responsibly!

-Taako

Taako has absolutely never, not in the hundred and twenty-odd years Magnus has known him, opened a letter with “dear” or signed off with just his name. It’s a fake and Magnus knows it has to be fake but if he’d read this first then he never would have opened the damn jar in the first place! This didn’t have to happen!

He crushes the letter up in his hands and almost tears it to pieces, angry tears burning his eyes now as he tries to breathe and keep himself from falling into his anger. No, the others will have to see this. They have got to tell him what’s going on, either with Taako or whoever it was who went ahead and pretended to be Taako. The Wizard himself will, pun-intended, flip it when he hears about this.

Magnus tucks his Stone of Far Speech into his pocket, and picks Steven up in his sealed glass orb, hooking it to his belt. He has to unlock the bottom drawer of his desk for the last thing he needs, and inside a velvet bag is a large silver arm bracer.

He slips the Bureau of Benevolence’s icon over his hand and wrist, and taps the geometric symbol three times to summon a pod as he walks out of his office, through his home, headed outside. Putting a hand to his breast pocket, his stone attunes and connects.

“Lucretia, it’s Magnus,” he says, nodding to Peter and Petra as he passes them, one of the dog-training duo quick to hand him a packed lunch as he goes. He can hear Enzo and Juanita cheering as the cursed jar goes flying into the misty abyss between pillars. “Get Avi to send down the pod I just requested, I need you to look at something for me.”

Magnus?” Good, her voice comes through nice and clear through the stone. “This is sudden, you boys don’t usually put those bracers back on. Are you alright?”

“Have you heard from Taako lately?”

There’s a pause that becomes a silence, from Lucretia, but Magnus keeps walking out of town and away from home until he’s amidst a still-vacant corridor of Raven’s Roost. Avi’s a good shot, but he’s not perfect and there’s no point having a pod ram into some poor folks’ home.

“Lucretia?” He prompts.

“The pod is on its way, Magnus, Barry and I will brief you when you arrive.”


 

Art is suffering, science is sacrifice, and Taako kind of wants to hang himself by Patrice’s pleasantly fluffy towels as he works on his escape.

He’s stretched, contorted, and strained this demiplane out beautifully. He’s forced Patrice to give him his tiny little Starblaster cabin for a bedroom, complete with modular shelving and dozens of tiny shelves here and there. Adjacent to this itty-bitty room is the long, long, really very long, galley kitchen from the Bureau of Benevolence, but he’s kept the ocean view because Taako’s fond of the water.

Parlor? What parlor? That’s the Bureau of Balance training dojo, sans angry giants, and Taako not only stretched the honeycomb’s proportions out lengthwise, but he demanded the multi-level space look exactly the same as the real dojo on the moon. He was also very clear about it being the Balance dojo, not Benevolence's, because after the final battle Lucretia renovated and reduced it. And no no, he wants big.

The office looks like a closet. The bathroom has a waterfall and natural-looking stone pool.

At the center of the comb is the central library of the Legato Fucking Conservatory. He did, sadly, have to give this one a sky because the skylights looking out into the neverwhere was a bit too exposed for even Taako’s iron-clad nerves. Most of the books are blank, but they’re there, and they make a wonderful mess of Patrice’s magic.

To add insult to injury, the dining room is still in shambles. Without a view across the neverwhere to contain it, the space is just too fragile for Taako to step into it, but he needs it to stay this way. Lesser fools would probably slap a view like the one in the kitchen on it just to get rid of the nightmare fuel, but Taako sees his way out between those tall pillars.

What is he trying to accomplish with all this? Some basic geometry and applied planar physics. The geometry is the hexagons, the planar physics is all about that wicked bad energy that’s all around him.

Geometry first:

Imagine a honeycomb flower. Seven cells all equal in proportion and mass, six sides each eighteen feet long. It’s a very pretty pattern, more stable than a triangle, with an outer rim you don’t get with squares, and friendlier to work with than circles. Patrice, he’s rightly sussed out, is working with a hexadecimal system: sixes, twelves, eighteens, and even the occasional twos and threes.

This is a fairly common medium for transmutation spells, and Taako can’t knock it since enough pages of his own spellbook also bow to the power of the number six. Eighteen panes of glass in the French doors, three windows on each exterior cell wall, twenty-four cupboards in the kitchen, seven-hundred and twenty shelves in the library, and so on. He hasn’t gotten around to counting the kitchen silverware or the individual pots and bottles in the bathroom, but he’s pretty sure six will show up again there too.

Back on track: that flower. That flower doesn’t work if the sides of the hexagons don’t match up. They might still slot together at the right angles but they won’t align to form that pretty little flower, and if they lose their alignment then they also lose their strength as a sigil.

Sadly, Patrice isn’t stupid enough to tear their own prison apart just to accommodate Taako’s tastes, so he knows he’s not got the winning edge just yet. Patrice is allowing him to make these changes, to stretch the Keeper’s pattern, to skew and twist and stress it.

He’s allowed this lee-way because Patrice is accommodating for it, spending energy on it. Something has to patch up the messy bits Taako’s pushed out of place, but everybody knows a patch isn’t as good as the original pattern.

The physics:

A demiplane is not self-sustaining. They don’t manifest naturally and they don’t exist indefinitely. Everything Taako can touch, taste, smell, see, and otherwise interact with is formed of positive energy, probably being syphoned off the ethereal plane if he had to guess. Everything he can’t interact with, like say, the world outside his windows, is negative energy.

That’s why the white is so frightening, it’s not there because it’s the absence of thereness: it’s neverwhere.

To force energy to be here is a challenge because it requires that same energy to be not there. It gets really fucking complicated the further down the rabbit-hole you go, but suffice it to say: Taako is forcing more negative energy between the bones of the sigil, while also contorting those bones into bad shapes.

He won’t be able to break the spell by doing this, but he can sure as hell weaken it.

Sleep is bad, but he’s covered this already. Meditation is terrifying, but because he can keep his awareness, Taako chooses to meditate.

He can’t figure out what that gripping sensation is that overwhelms and tries to control him when he meditates, but he’s not as terrified of it after several more uncomfortably close encounters. It’s almost like the Hunger: after a while you stop being scared and just feel resigned. But at the same time it’s not like the Hunger, because Taako can’t help but feel like… there’s something… something he should know.

Every time he claws and kicks his way out of meditation, Taako opens his eyes to find a letter from Patrice somewhere in the room with him. It’s the only outside contact he has, and as bad as it is to rely on that stupid fucking copper seal, he knows he looks for it even on the days- err, cycles, that he doesn’t even open it.

Patrice has asked him to stop calling them Patrice, and use The Keeper instead. Taako has wholeheartedly rejected Patrice’s request, and countered by asking Patrice to bend over and eat their own ass.

The pages of the journal are filling up and he knows damn well that Patrice can read it. He’d be shocked if they were blind to something written in their own domain. But so what? There’s a cat-and-mouse vibe going on here, and Taako is ready to play. He draws out his ideas, puts down his conclusions, and like a good Scientist-Wizard, Taako tests the prison’s limits thoroughly.

It’s actually kind of frustrating that Patrice hasn’t pushed back yet. Intimidating, even. At least in Wonderland Eduard and Lydia would shake things up if you did too well.

He gets the scissors he wants. And the sewing needles he wants, with complimentary threads that Taako didn’t request and doesn’t use. The needle gives him the same bad vibe as everything else, but he threads it deftly and works on his plan.

Is it hindsight if, going in, you already know your plan is creepy and fucking messed in the head a little? He’s calling it hindsight anyways, but this is a fucking travesty of magic and good judgement right here.

The only thing he came here with was his leggings, and although it’s a heartbreaking sacrifice, Taako knows he can keep his hair. He’s lucky he grows it so long otherwise this wouldn’t work at all, but Taako takes his hair about three or four strands at a time, measures from tip to about his chin, and snips them off. The hairs go though the eye of the needle, and the needle passes through the pocket of his leggings as he stitches out a pattern.

He’s making a focus from the only not-shitty-energy-feeling things he has available to him.

He’s also burning these pants the second he gets out of here, because this is fucking creepy, my dudes.

Down the right leg, starting at the pocket, Taako stitches a star from his own blonde hair. It’s tedious and kind of lopsided work, since this isn’t his specialty. Needlepoint requires giving a flying shit and Taako has none of that right now to spare

In order for a focus to work he needs to know the item. He needs to know the threads (of hair) and how they catch the light, reflecting the colour (of his hair), and passing through the thin black fabric to form a patterned image (made of hair).

So fucking creepy.

It takes him a few meditation cycles to get the work done. He spends the hours sitting in the kitchen where he at least has the view of the ocean for company. He got himself a comfier chair and ignored Patrice’s suggestion that he change the dojo back into a parlour where he could have a nice little fire and some comforting music for his handiwork. Nope.

His first meal here, by the way, was an accidental bite of bread and butter while making his aunt’s turkey recipe, followed immediately by half a bottle of vodka because fuck it. He didn’t eat the turkey fresh and hot from the oven, but rather waited another cycle before dropping the cooked and cooled bird in a pot and boiling the fuck out of it to make the actual best meal ever, his aunt’s turkey soup. Suck it, Lulu.

Patrice’s letter today complimented his industrious attitude, and then immediately criticized his material choice. The hair. Yeah, he’s already two steps ahead on that one.

“You can eat my entire fucking ass, Patrice.” And he goes back to detailing the stardust trail down and across the thigh. His progress never resets, his hair doesn’t grow back, and he might not like the missing lock down the left side of his face, but Taako can deal. He drinks his tea and finishes the last bowl of soup from the pot. By noon-ish, it’s finally done.

He’s quick to put the magic pants on, and there’s definitely a change in them as Taako plucks a new outfit from the closet. Red crop-top, cute (not-couture) red boots, some bangles and a set of black ring gloves. If all goes to plan he’ll rip his way out of here with just the leggings he woke up with, but there’s no tangible harm in dressing up just-in-case.

He’s got his heart pumping and it’s hard to stand or sit still, energy buzzing at his fingertips. With a moment to collect himself and an anxious breath, he snaps his fingers and feels his disguise self spell fold neatly down over his hair and face, restoring the lost lock and that je-ne-sais-quoi of his beauty.

It works! Creepy but functional, it’s not his Krebstar but a focus is a focus and Taako is busting out of here.

He goes to the dining room, and it’s just as skin-crawling and shattered as the last time he tried walking through. The white light festers as it scratches over the tile floor, positive and negative energies caught in a static conflict, painfully unable to act against each other. The air is harsh, this room is probably here just to scare whoever inhabits the sigil into using the book to change it. That’s the only thing that makes sense to Taako, anyways.

He gets as far into the room as he can stomach, as close to those austere pillars- their forms entirely black in the glare from the neverwhere. It helps to turn his back to the light, his boots making the tiles crackle gently as he grounds himself, breathing deep. He has his journal in his hand with its bad energy open to what’s going to end up being his last entry. He has one more hypothesis to test before he puts his best foot forward, and Taako breathes deep one more time.

Just like when he threw that chair at the window, right now Taako has to rule out the simplest solution to this demiplane problem: he Blinks. And then he’s on fire.

Blinking is a mistake.

 

Chapter Text

 

There’s no transition, no chance to avoid it. Taako Blinks and he’s on fire, instantly, irrevocably, consumed by flame.

He can’t take a breath to scream because he’s somewhere between planes and the fire sears through him. His consciousness winks out in a cauldron of searing agony.

This should kill him. It doesn’t.

He wakes up drenched in sweat, shaking and shivering on the dining room floor. He breathes in the static air and curls his fingers against the cold tile, his body shuddering and hair tangled over his sweaty face. He’s back in the honeycomb, back on Patrice’s demiplane.

Taako slaps one hand to his thigh, heart ragged and throbbing in his throat, and feels the wiry stitches of the stars and trails detailed over his leggings. He can’t stand up, and his ears and eyes are screaming from the overwhelming sense of wrongness pouring through the harsh white nothing outside the dining room.

On his elbows, he drags himself to the nearest door, clumsily finding one knee, then the other, so he can crawl. He grabs the door knob and fights to his feet, throwing himself through the doorway and into the library: away from the light.

The door slams shut behind him and he slumps down with his back against it, sitting like that with his chest heaving, the sweat still coming down his face and back in thick beads.

Blink has never felt like that before. He’s had the spell negated, he’s arrived and found things he doesn’t like, but the pain- that wracking, horrific fire. That’s new, and it’s bad.

Simplest solution is disproven: he can’t use planar magic to escape, even just for a short jaunt to the Ethereal plane. Is it just an anti-teleportation ward, or something else? He doesn’t know. He’ll have to try something else before making his real bid at escaping: would a rope-trick work? Can he cast Maze or Banishment on an item?  Too many questions…

He rests there on the library floor, feels the minutes start to speed by as he quiets his mind and the demiplane moves and adjusts around him. The threads, those tiny little strands of magic, loop and latch onto his projection, they don’t tighten or constrict, just hold him like vines creeping up a tree, or dust settled on an old table. He doesn’t count or ruminate on anything, he just rests. Just meditates.

He’s missing something…

When he gets up, several hours have passed and his back is kind of sore from the bad place he took his rest in. He could eat, but he’d much rather get a few more experiments out of the way.

There’s a letter waiting for him and when Taako breaks the seal, he’s scolded for ‘uncivil’ behaviour. The address is still warm and Patrice doesn’t seem overly bothered by his attempt. Taako burns the letter with a lick of flame off his fingers, just to prove he can.

Rope Trick doesn’t work: the rope itself is conjured, but as soon as it flies into the void to anchor itself at the point of his choosing, the end ignites in a blast of white fire that devours the rest of the cord.

Banishing one of the library bookshelves reduces the entire structure to toothpicks and shreds of paper.

Maze is just as useless, creating another pile of debris over the Legato Conservatory crest.

For the hell of it, Taako musters his waning strength and pulls together the energy to summon his Phantom Steed- but Garyl is nothing but a halo of furious golden fire and sour smoke before he abandons the casting. The misfire causes a ring of destruction across the library floor, sending paper and burning ash everywhere. Fine, be that way.

He makes notes of these results in his book, prepares himself a light lunch of poached halibut and spring veggies, and then notices something through the kitchen window.

His view of the ocean is unobscured, the water a sparkling blue colour today and stretching over and across the horizon. But something’s different now, and Taako has to get right up to the glass doors to see it clearly.

There’s an island.

Patrice has never put anything in Taako’s view before. He’s never seen gulls or dolphins or ships or anything else, just the waves and the bits of sea grass sprouting from the few dozen feet of sandy beach between the windows and the water. The weather is the only thing that ever changes, although Patrice has added a slot to the Book of Accommodations where Taako can request certain effects: moonlight, storms, sunny skies, whatever he fancies. He’s left it up to the other mage because Taako can’t bring himself to give a fuck.

So why is there an island?

He writes that question is his notebook, and repeats it in Patrice’s book along with a request for a spyglass. The island is too far away for Taako to see unaided.

He runs a few more tests. Taako casts Clairvoyance once on the door to the dojo with no issues. He takes a risk and casts it again on the other side of the bedroom window and falls to his knees screaming when the neverwhere floods his vision with more insidious flames. It takes him a long time just down on hands and knees to recover from that one, touching his face and eyes over and over again just to make sure there are no burns, that his eyes aren’t bleeding from the assault.

The last spells he tries are Detect Magic, which swallows his entire field of vision up in colourless light. So. Yes. Congratulations, everything is magic here. Good job. The other is True Sight, and this has a very different result.

Everything is yellow. But not like, lemon yellow, or flower yellow. It’s very neutral, almost brown, but clearly yellow. It’s all thick, and warm, and matte. It’s everything, even him, because when his third eye opens Taako can’t move. He’s not breathing and he’s not touching anything. He’s just here, he just is.

He’s-

And then the spell ends and he drops back into the library.

“No.” He felt… “Nah, that can’t be it.” It’s- this… he has a lot to go through right now and what’s best for Taako is not to freak out, but to take this a couple steps at a time.

He goes and he takes a bath, a nice hot soak with the rose-water he asked for, and a nice cucumber mask for his skin. And then after making a quick and light pasta for himself he pours a glass of wine and tells himself to relax with his view by the ocean.

He can still get out of here, and he can still use his new focus to help him with his existing plan. Taako just… has to be cool for a little while. Be cool. Ignore that anxiety buzzing in his chest, disregard that nausea plucking at his stomach. So what if he’s got no appetite, pasta’s just empty carbs anyways. Drink some wine and chill. He’s good.

Just gotta be cool.


 

It’s been ten days, and Lup is running on nothing but rage.

It takes a summons from Merle, Ren, Lucretia, Barry, Angus, and Magnus, before Lup finally calls off her hunt in Goldcliff. She arrives on the Moonbase not because she wants to be here, but because each of her friends has straight up told her she’s wasting time when they have more information to work with.

So now she’s sitting at the round table in Lucretia’s war-room and her leg keeps shaking, arms folded tight across her chest, listening to talking and sharing and not getting to the fucking point!

“So, none of you thought to tell me our Flip Wizard was missing?” Magnus might have a point but it’s not the one Lup wants to go over right now. “Guys, this is a need to know kind of thing!”

“We didn’t have anything worth telling you!” Merle complains from the chair beside him, “’Taako’s missing, are we still on for that get-together on Candlenights?’  We weren’t excluding you, Magnus, we just didn’t-”

“You told Angus!”

“To be fair, sir, I am the World’s-” Holy fucking shit.

“I don’t care!” Lup shouts, cutting Angus off in the middle of touting his little horn again. “I don’t give a shit! Why am I here and not out there looking for that bitch who took my brother!?”

Her outburst gets Ren to clear her throat, the Drow quickly opening a file of papers and pulling a few sheets out.

“To business?” She checks in with the others and Lup almost- “We know it happened on the train between Bottleneck Cove and Neverwinter. When I arrived at the station, Taako’s luggage hadn’t been collected and was sitting at the ticket booth. Angus and I tracked down and spoke to every person working on the train, which was a mighty bit of leg work considering how their roster works.”

“The Halfling,” Lup growls, rolling her hands to make Ren speed it up. Barry puts a hand on her shoulder and Lup bites her tongue hard when she looks at him. She is being patient! Ten days of patience, right fucking here, Barry!

“Taako,” Ren continues, but with a bit of a flutter in her voice. “-he was last seen speaking with a Halfling woman on the train’s dining car before coming into Neverwinter. The car attendant said-”

“Under Zone of Truth’s effect!” Angus chirps,

“-yes, under Zone of Truth, the attendant said he served Taako and the woman their tea and cakes, and that she had samples of something for Taako to try as they spoke. He lost track of them as the car filled up, but just before they got into Neverwinter Taako stood up and shouted something about being charmed and then stormed out of the car. No one saw him again after that.” On a crowded train, no-fucking-less.

“As we all know,” Angus takes the reigns now as Ren lowers her papers and folds her hands over them. “The best person to talk to is probably the woman he had lunch with. Thanks to Lucretia and the Bureau of Benevolence’s reach, we went through the ticket list and know that her name is Patrice Roswyth and she booked her ticket from Waterdeep to Goldcliff, with a sleeper car reservation.”

And we know that Miss Roswyth arrived at her destination,” Lucretia adds, “because that’s where she collected her baggage.”

“So why did you call me away from Goldcliff,” Lup seethes, “Unless the next words at this round table are ‘we know where she is’?

The abrupt silence around the table almost makes Lup scream. They don’t know. They don’t know and they have on fucking clue and they’ve taken Lup off the hunt for the last person who would have any idea what the fuck happened to her brother and if anything happens to hurt him Lup will fucking-

Babe,” Barry’s voice is beside her as Lup brings her shaking hands up over her face, fingers parted so she can still see, eyes wide, and frustration boiling over. “Lup, we’ll find him. This is your nightmare scenario and I know that, but-”

This doesn’t get to happen twice, Barry!” Lup shouts and she shouldn’t shout at Barry but she does because this doesn’t get to happen twice! “We don’t get to be separated like this twice! I did it the first time, I fucking vanished off the edge of the map and that’s it! I used the gimmick and now it’s dead and no one gets to take him away from me- no one!

She feels it- in her voice. She feels a pain that shouldn’t have a way out come through her. It rattles her throat, poisons her breath, and there’s this rancor the emotion leaves behind that makes her skin grow tight and her hands start to wither. Barry grabs one of them and squeezes hard, his other hand finding a place at the side of her throat, thumb stroking her cheek in a strong display of affection that really isn’t like him, not unless he’s scared or worried.

‘Give him back,’ she feels the hatred glowing in her eyes as she looks at him. She loves Barry, gods above, she loves him. His lopsided smiles, his bad singing voice, his absent muttering, his sloppy note-taking, his pure delight in his craft. He’s her match and her choice and her man but- ‘Give me back my heart.’ -but he’s not Taako.

Getting back on track is hard after that, but they manage it so long as Lup can keep her mouth shut. Magnus is the one to get the ball rolling this time:

“Did anybody tell you what the woman gave Taako?” He asks. “Because I think I know. In fact I’m pretty sure I know, but tell me first in case I’m wrong.”

“She gave him samples of honey, sir.” Angus has the answer at the ready, and there’s a ripple of something around the table that misses Lup completely. Lucretia is the one to place her fingertips on the cold metal surface of the table and give it a tap, summoning… a large-belly glass jar of honey, a wooden box, and a small wax statue of a dog.

“Then I believe it’s safe to assume that we’ve found our culprit and our method.” Lucretia makes this grave announcement and Lup looks around the table, searching for answers. “This jar of enchanted honey was delivered to Magnus yesterday with a letter from someone pretending very poorly to be Taako. After his dog-”

“-Johann,” Magnus interrupts, and Lup can see him staring at the wax figurine.

“-yes, after Johann ate some of it, the hound was immediately petrified and transfigured into the statue you see here.”

“It wasn’t immediate,” Magnus says, and Lup can tell he’s trying not to choke up. “He suffered. He absolutely suffered through it.”

Lup’s heart stops. Taako.

“I was trying to omit that part but thank you, Magnus.” Lucretia’s tone is clipped but she moves on, Lup does not. “If Taako was affected by the same spell as Johann, then our kidnapper most likely scooped up the figurine and tucked it in her bag with none the wiser. It was a crowded train, but what if he was caught up in it while trying to move between cars? Or if he was impeded by some sort of charm spell, since that’s what he reportedly shouted before vanishing.”

“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Merle says, with a hand raised. “And say that in all the years I’ve known Taako I only know of two people who can charm him, and neither Lup nor Kravitz use magic for that.”

She’s supposed to smile here, or laugh, or say something catchy. All Lup can do is finally squeeze back on Barry’s hand. She feels cold. Lup hears herself ask a horrible question:

“Is Johann dead?” Her eyes find Barry but her vision is swimming. “Inside that thing- is he dead?” Behind those thick square glasses of his, Barry’s dark eyes widen briefly before he gets a determined look that Lup wants to trust.

“That’s what I’m gonna work hard and find out, Lup.” It’s not a promise, it’s a statement. “Lucretia’s already contacted Lucas Miller, and once we’re done here I’m going to take Johann down to Neverwinter and start working at the university lab. He’s this world’s second best Planar and Transfiguration specialist, so between the two of us we’ll figure out what this spell is and how to reverse it.”

“And you’ll get the dog out,” Lup says, because she needs to hear the words.

“If we can, we will.” No, that’s a promise and Lup doesn’t want something that can break. “And once we know how, all we’ll need is Taako’s statue and we can break him out the exact same way.” His words just open a whole new can of worms.

“How do we find her?” Lup can- she knows that there’s probably some magic in the statue of Johann that will help. There has to be. But that means waiting for Barry and Lucas to do their thing with it. If it were anyone else’s life on the line then Lup knows she could jump right in and help them with the data and analysis, but it’s not anyone else, it’s Taako.

“We don’t know yet,” Magnus says, “So how about this question: why did I get this?” Lup pries her gaze away from Barry, too shaken and cold inside to be angry right now, and looks at Magnus. “I understand Taako being snatched up in all of this. I mean I hate it, but I get it, but how do I factor in?”

“Maybe it’s an IPRE thing?” Ren suggests, “I mean, ya’ll did have your story broadcast out across creation, and Johann here has this little plaque with his name on it like he’s meant to be on display. Could this honey girl be out to collect all seven birds?”

That gets Lup’s temper licking at her gut again.

Shit…” Merle swears, looking down and scowling at the table with his one eye. “But shouldn’t she have gone after Lup next then? Bag both ‘Twins’ before moving on?”

“Why take Taako first?” Magnus asks, but Lucretia is staring at Johann’s statue.

“Because Taako is our Transmutation specialist,” she says. “If anyone would have the best shot at resisting a trap based on that school of magic, it’s him. By taking him first, our culprit catches us all unawares and unprepared to counter her spell.”

“Taako first, then why me?” Magnus repeats.

“Because you live in the middle of nowhere,” Merle answers, “And none of us were going to drag you all the way back to Neverwinter just to- oh,” Merle’s dower expression suddenly opens, his gaze coming up and the words dribbling past his lips. “Pan… Oh, oh no, when was the last time any of us spoke to Davenport?”

“No,” Lucretia says in a firm voice. “He’s at sea, there’s no way-”

When,” Merle repeats himself, “was the last time anyone at this table spoke to our Captain?”

The silence is thunderous and Lup can’t fucking sit here anymore. She stands up, hands on the table, and knows she hasn’t taken a breath in several minutes. She draws one now and tells herself to keep it together.

“I can’t help with the research, not this time,” she says, keeping her voice normal even if its tense and fraying in her throat. “Barry and Lucas will do their thing. I’m going to find Davenport. Wherever he is on the Prime Material Plane, I can find him from the Astral. And then- then I’ll rendezvous with Kravitz because no one’s heard shit from him for days and it’s time for a check-in. Maybe he’s found something, but if not there’s no point wasting more time. I’m- you all know I can’t just sit here and talk about this. If I don’t get out there and do something I’m going to lose my fucking mind.”

If this Roswyth bitch is hunting them then Lup cannot and will not sit pretty waiting for her number to come up.

“Taako for Transmutation,” Lucretia summarizes, “Magnus and possibly Davenport for being isolated. Who would the next one be?”

“Um,” Angus clears his throat in a shy way, and Lup’s hands are shaking on the table. “If I may, and I don’t want to be rude, or seem insensitive, but wouldn’t the next target be Miss Lup?”

Lup looks at the teenaged detective and everyone else at the table is looking at her.

“Explain,” she says.

“Well you’re, uh,” Angus pushes his glasses up over his nose, an anxious little blush pushing across his dark skin. “You’re really fired up about this if you’ll pardon the pun, Miss Lup, and this Patrice lady did take your brother and then poison your friend’s dog.” He’s wringing his hands together, a classic Angus McDonald tell that he knows he’s treading the line between honesty and rudeness. “So, uh- it only makes sense to me, given what was in the Voidfish’s song, that- em, you’d be pretty rip-roaring and ready to go if given the chance. You know, do something impulsive like- say- try to switch places with Taako, or go on a one-woman war-path to smoke out our suspect. Or just in general be super unwilling to look before you leap and then get caught.”

Lup takes a deep, slow breath, trying to figure out how to answer that summary. It turns out she doesn’t have to because Barry places a hand on her shoulder, tugs to pull her around, and wraps her up in a warm, safe hug. It feels- it feels like exactly what she needs right now. It’s grounding and it’s solid and it’s real and-

“Find Davenport and make sure he’s okay, babe,” Barry says in a soft voice. Lup nods and closes her eyes tight, breathing in the smell of his skin and hair.

She hears chairs scraping and looks up just as Magnus swings his arms big and wide around both of them. His hug is crushing and almost enough to lift Lup off her feet. Lucretia is there when Magnus lets up a little, adding herself to the group embrace as Merle, having simply up and crossed the table, gets in with an arm around Lup’s waist and Lucretia’s.

It’s what Lup needs even more than the few tears that come out, and the little bit of a sob that she quashes back down. Magnus gets Ren to join them, and Angus is a comforting warmth leaning his cheek on Lup’s shoulder in a bashful teenaged way.

Her family is still here, and the missing parts are coming home soon. They have to be.

“Be careful, Lup.” Lucretia tells her as they all start to pull apart.

“No body eat any strange food from anybody we don’t all know, okay?” Magnus says. “And if you get a fake letter, punch the letter-carrier in the face.”

“No,” Barry warns, “Don’t do that, it’s not their fault probably.”

“Do it anyways, just to be sure!”

There’s laughter around her but Lup doesn’t join. She can feel her heart beating, and her lungs breathing, but she’s not as solid as she wants to be right now. She touches one hand to the little skull clasp on the black choker around her throat and she feels a surge of energy channel through her body. It only takes another sweep of her hand to tear open a reaper’s portal into the Astral Plane, but with a long and hard look back at her family… it’s hard to step through.

Barry’s watching her because Barry knows, but the last thing he can do is give a knowing nod in her direction.

She vanishes into the Astral Plane, and is off to find their Captain.


 

Put your head between your knees and kiss your gonads goodbye, Patrice, Taako’s busting the fuck out of here!

You know what? Why use restraint? Restraint is overrated.

“Put your head between your knees and kiss your gonads goodbye, Patrice!” He shouts, rested and ready and fed up with this claustrophobic hell cluster. “Taako’s busting the fuck out of here!”

He’s wearing blue this time: a marvellously floppy pointed hat, with a sky-blue half-cape over a dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The blue cowboy boots are cute, and the yellow stars and bursts down his leg give him the focus he needs to channel everything into the array of light and power he needs.

He doesn’t care about that fucking island he cares about getting the absolute fuck back to the right reality.

He blows each of the doors off the dining room before he starts, just to give that negative energy more space to run wild and weaken the distinct barriers between cells. He has to brace against the bad power when he steps inside again, this time taking the library door and standing in the middle of the dining room. Across from him, barring the way to the neverwhere, are five pillars each crafted from a single thick beam of wood. There’s the outline of a fence, like this place should lead into a yard of some sort, but it’s all acid white and harsh shadow. This is where he’s going to make his stand.

He’s going to pull a Lup and literally blast his way out. Whatever his true sight revealed, he’s sure a few fireballs and scorching rays will serve him well as he limbers up his hands and shakes out his arms. He can do this. Taako can do this and have enough left in his tank to deal with whatever’s on the other side!

He starts small and uses the terrain against itself: with a blast of thunderous might, Taako launches the dining table off its feet, through the air, and slams it through the pillars denoting inside from outside. The table shatters and blows back, striking the aura of his mage-armour with only a few minor nicks across his forearms.

Throwing his right foot forward and digging his heel in, Taako takes a deep breath and casts his hands one over the other, launching a prismatic orb of sparkling rainbow energy at the thin wooden pillar right in front of him. The orb shatters and bites through the wood, giving him a target for the scorching ray that leaps from his palm and follows the guiding arc of his fingertips.

He sustains the spell and keeps his senses open, the onslaught of painful negative energy making his skin prickle and ears ring. The pillar is dissolving, but slowly, and he clenches his left hand tight as words find their way to his lips, an incantation that’s soundless but solid. The positive energy around him gets caught up in his casting, the splinters of wood rising and forming the edges of a casting circle to ground his magic a little more.

Taako holds the ray for as long as he can, then with a smooth sweep of his arms transitions with his other hand blazing a threatening column of pure liquid sunlight from his flat palm. He braces his arm at the elbow with his other hand, his cape blown back by the sustained wind and heat coming off the magic as it pulses and strikes the barrier between positive and negative force.

The air ripples like water, the pillar obliterated beyond repair as he kicks his foot back to hold his stance and not slip. When the sunlight begins to wane, Taako draws both hands back and catches the tail essence of the sunbeam spell, wrapping and twisting it with his lips forming more soundless words, energy leaking from his eyes and peeling down his shoulders.

He throws his arms forward again and the fireball launches away from him, screaming and slamming into the boundary between existence and not. The blast creates a wave of disturbance that blows apart the next two pillars, the tile floor shattering and throwing shards of black glass into the air where they hover in a state of anxiety.

“Use my own school against me, will you!?” He shouts, arms down, knees bent as he hunches his shoulders, bowing his head and conjuring as much energy as he can through the air, from the floor, leeching off the walls and the residual power of his own burned spells. He can feel each breath come in hot past his teeth and leave him electric and cold. His hands are tight and contorted, knuckles white as he wrestles the very air and then stands straight.

His arms cross and twist, and he has to get the motion right and between his fingers the whispering white threads of the stressed sigil snap and knot to his pattern, not Patrice’s. Transfiguration is Taako’s bread and butter, his mark upon the world. He knows its boundaries and its holes, its weak places where the proper touch can send meticulous pattern spiraling into outright chaos.

A hundred worlds across a hundred years and wit like a knife to slice clean through the veil and into whatever passage of eternity he desires.

He draws his hands together, fingers laced, thumbs and index pointing straight at the fragments of control peeling away from the edge of the plane.

“EAT SHIT, PATRICE-!”

The decimating beam fires off him like a rocket, piercing dead in the centre of the ripples and causing a splitting shriek that rends the ceiling over his head, shattering the floor out from under him until the only thing he can stand on is the outline of tile under his boots. He feels the demiplane buckle, and strain, and between the threads run ragged at the fringe of the prison’s influence Taako can see the way out.

His hands part, and he can’t take a step without plummeting beyond consciousness into the neverwhere beyond, but he reaches one hand out, fingers straining. He can’t screw this up now.

“Give me a door-” he says in words that aren’t words, eyes locked on a point beyond time and hope beating wildly in his chest. He’s getting out of here, he’s getting- “I command you: a door!”

The demiplane buckles and Patrice’s influence comes raining down. It blooms behind him like a cascade of junebug clay from a town trapped in time, matte brown and yellow slops over the broken floor and crawls up the walls to close in on the tear Taako’s ripped through space.

The lines of his spell interconnect and lock, the peak of a wooden door, the jamb, the face, the knob, the lock.

The clay- the wax, drips on his shirt, it laps at his boots.

“A DOOR!” There’s the ripping, tearing sound of magic cutting through the wilted fabric around him.

His fingers touch cold brass and the knob slips into his palm. He grips it, he turns-

“Taako!” And he hears a voice, a voice that makes his head snap to look for it. And he sees the wax but he sees a scythe, and a flowing black robe and the muted edges of a tear through time and space. He sees a silk vest and polished shoes, and he sees the fear etched into white bone as the Grim Reaper passes through the weakened sore of this prison and steps fully into it, right as Taako is supposed to be leaving. And now he can’t leave.

“Kravitz!?”

He lets go of the door, he can’t leave. He lets go of the door and the portal vanishes, the wax closes thick and wet over the view of the neverwhere. It closes him off from the rift, from the hole he punched through the side of the plane.

He’ll try again, he’ll have to try again and with a wiser guard in a stronger prison because Taako showed his hand this round and now he’ll have to recover from it.

He’s also up to his ankles in beeswax, staring at his extraplanar lover who is wisely keeping his feet out of the wax by floating. But his portal is already gone, and Taako doubts that scythe of his will be able to reopen it on a whim.

Thankfully Kravitz isn’t a fucking moron, and seeing the very dire state of their situation he sweeps down in a skeletal flash towards him. Taako has his arms up and is ready to be grabbed and lifted out of the mire, clutching tight to Kravitz’s black robe as the reaper shoots through the air looking for an escape. They’re lucky he tore the doors off the dining room, because it’s through the doorway into the kitchen that they hurtle.

As soon as they pass the boundary between rooms, the chaos stops. A door slams shut behind them and for the first time Taako thinks he hears a lock click. Kravitz lands in the kitchen without slamming into anything, and Taako just- his feet touch the floor- and he-

“Skin-” he demands, eyes tightly shut and hands pushing, then pulling, and shaking the whole time until he grabs Kravitz’s face with both. “Skin right now, before I chip a tooth on you, y-you bonehead!

I found you,

“Krav I swear,” and then Taako kisses him. It’s not good, it’s his lips shoved against bare teeth and chin-bone, cold and pocked. But he knows it’s Kravitz and that’s good enough because this idiot just blew Taako’s chance at escaping and if he doesn’t put his god-damned face back on this fucking second-

There’s that whispery, ethereal who-knows-what and Taako pulls back by a breath to let the magic work, and then he goes right back in. This time there are soft, thick lips to catch his, chilled by death but sweet on him. And Kravitz’ arms circle him tight around his torso, an anxious breath through his nose before the Reaper holds him close and doesn’t let go. His arms firm up and his body fills in under his clothes, and when Taako’s dazed eyes flutter open he sees the deep luster of Kravitz’ complexion and the sweep of his closed eyes, the heavy cords of black dreadlocks kept back behind his head.

He smells like skin and dust and his face is cold to the touch. His lips, his mouth, his breaths all carrying that deadly chill. But that’s okay: this is what Kravitz is supposed to feel like.

“You-” Taako breathes against his lips, fingers curling and petting down his lover’s cheeks, tracing his eyes, feeling along his jaw. “You party-crashing, thunder-stealing, son-of-a-bitch.” And Taako kisses him again, not as desperately this time- not that Taako’s ever desperate, of course.

“’ello, love,” Kravitz jokes with a brief, put-upon accent. His eyes are half-open, and he brushes his nose to Taako’s. He’s only now starting to loosen his hold and let him stand properly. “Miss me?”

“Could’ve lasted another five minutes, I think.” Enough time for him to open the door to his own demiplane, an easy-peasy launch-pad back into the Prime Material plane and freedom. “But I guess you’re stuck here with me now, so it’s all good.”

“Taako,” Kravitz says his name in a hush, then pushes another kiss to Taako’s forehead. He can feel the pause after the kiss and knows it means the Reaper is finally looking around at where they are. “Taako, what is this place?”

“Welcome to hell, my man.” Taako leans on his shoulder as he says it, his hand curled around Kravitz’s wrist as he cups Taako’s face with his palm, brushing his thumb under the Wizard’s eye to wipe away the tears on his skin. Not that he’d ever cry, of course. Or kiss the hands that comfort him. Fuck no, not Taako. “You can probably learn a thing or two from this place for your Eternal Stockade dealio.”

“I don’t think the Raven Queen needs a suggestion box, love.”

“Well I sure do.” He doesn’t want to step out of this embrace. This hug is a good hug, it’s a fucking excellent, top-notch A+ triple gold standard hug right here. He’s not big on hugs, and therefore accepts only the highest quality hugs from every hug batch produced. This is one of those, right here, with Kravitz.

“What… what did I just see going on in there? Are we safe here?”

“I can answer that second one real easy: no, we’re not safe.” He has to step out of the hug now, he knows that tone of voice Kravitz has right now, that sensible ‘we need to talk and not like capital-T talk but definitely establish some verbal communication right now’ tone. But Taako is tired.

He is… he is wiped out… The spells he used are catching up with him, hard, the mental charge holding him up, the spell slots in his mind, they’re burnt the fuck out. Conjuring that door just to lose the opportunity to use it… shit…

Kravitz’s hands are there to stabilize and hold him. They catch his face and he grabs onto his lover’s wrists to stop himself from falling over.

“I…” He should sit down, but he’ll muscle through it first, eyes closed with Kravitz not helping by putting a kiss on one and then the other. “I blew out a window to escape from and you crawled right through instead, my love- my- my guy, um… Summary of events- right… uh… Patrice is a fucking nightmare, don’t eat the honey, uh… don’t fall asleep? But I’m gonna fall asleep- I should sit down, I don’t wanna sleep…”

You don’t want to sleep?” Kravitz moves his cold hands from Taako’s face to his shoulders, and with a defeated mumble the scientistic Wizard goes fuck it and drapes his arm around his lover’s shoulders. Kravitz takes the initiative and swings an arm behind his knees, knocking him up into a bridal hold.

“I know, right? Crazy…” Kravitz carries him. Carries him right through the door into the bedroom, and Taako is laid down gently on the narrow Starblaster cot. He can’t even keep his eyes open, and Kravitz’s cool hand brushing back his hair and stroking his face does not help. “Stay. It’s just spell fatigue, my guy, I’ll be alright.”

“You will, and when you wake up we can talk about all this.” Krav’s voice is a blessing and a comfort. His lips are cold and serene, like Taako’s dipped his mouth in still, tranquil water. The cot sags with his weight as the Grim Reaper sits beside him, Taako’s hand in his cold one. He squeezes it gently, and Kravitz squeezes back.

He failed, but he won a little bit too… He sleeps.

 

Chapter Text

 On the Astral Plane over the churning sea of souls, Lup finds Kravitz. He reports to her, frustrated and angry, that Taako is not on this plane and therefore is not dead, but his signature, his soul, his very essence, is somewhere beyond his reach as the Grim Reaper.


All of the IPRE members, regardless of their cleared status with the Raven Queen, have a resonance to them which any Reaper should be able to track. Kravitz has a theory that it’s the bonds not just between the crew members, but between the hundreds of beings they encountered and bonded with throughout creation that keep the song vibrating around them. But Taako’s is missing, it’s silenced, smothered, gone.


His fears and hers, they overlap in many ways, it’s almost a comfort to feel each other’s anxiety pique at the same time.


With no time to lose, both members of the Raven Queen’s court take off after the distant echo of the last songbird. If the Wordless One is within reach, then they’re going to find him before Patrice does.


So help them, there will be hell to pay if they’re somehow too late.


 

Waking up in the cluster is no better now than the last time Taako actually fell asleep. It’s a rush of bad energy and a heart-pounding fear before he jerks upright in bed, the narrow Starblaster cot throwing him for another harsh loop. He almost forgets that he’s not on the ship itself, not still trapped between cycles of destruction, but then it all comes back and he knows where he is.

His escape attempt failed… It failed in the worst possible way. He used all that magic and all of those skills, throwing his strength into it and succeeding in punching a hole out of Patrice’s realm: and then he had to back down and stay behind. The next time Taako tries to tear his way out, it’s going to be a much harder struggle…

But it wasn’t all a complete loss. As he slowly swings his feet off the bed, Taako stands on shakey legs and takes a quick look at himself. His enchanted leggings are still on, but the half-cape and boots he wore for his escape attempt are gone. He remembers the wax the demiplane conjured to heal and control his damage, and it reminds him terribly of that numbness his true sight granted him.

It’s something to ask Kravitz about. He- he’s still here, right? Taako grabs his hat off the blankets and goes to search.

“Krav?” He heads into the kitchen first, padding around in his socks. His heart eases when he sees Kravitz standing by the tall windows looking out at the ocean view, his black robe tossed over Taako’s comfy sewing chair, hands in the pockets of his pinstripe black slacks. He turns at his name and gives a small, warm smile, shoes clicking on the floor as they meet each other.

“Taako, this place is amazing.” Uuuh-

“No?” He says, slipping his arm around Kravitz’s waist, folding himself close for a brief hug and a kiss on his Reaper’s cold cheek. Taako pulls back a bit with a smile. “No, it’s really not? Nice try, boneman, but you’re not gonna clean this mess up that easily.”

“It’s certainly not the worst place you’ve ever been kept before,” Kravitz, um, must have a point behind saying that but Taako’s not too sure what it is.

“It beats Wonderland, I guess.” Taako’s distracted by Kravitz turning to him and stroking one cold hand across his jaw, tilting his head up just a touch before drawing him into a deep, slow kiss. Oh- oh- this is- he feels his toes curl against the floor, his back giving a small kick with Kravitz’ arm behind him for support.

He pulls his arms up and around Kravitz’s neck because good morning to you too, moonbeam. This is a very nice distraction, but a distraction none-the-less, and Taako enjoys it for a few more seconds before pulling back. There’s a second, softer touch placed on Kravtiz’s mouth as an apology, but right now it’s talking time.

“How long have I been gone?” He asks before his Reaper can kiss him again. Kravitz still has that cold hand on his face, fingers stroking his cheek gently, but he answers the question in a low voice that mirrors Taako’s tone.

“Ten days, love. At least.” Taako closes his eyes and puts his head down on Kravitz’s shoulder, a slow breath steadying him a little. Okay, considering how many times he’s rested and then got up to do things around the honeycomb, that makes sense.

“And how long was I asleep for? Just now, I mean.”

“Uuh,” Krav’s red eyes look up for a few seconds, trying to think it over. “There’s not much to go on here, but I’d say a few hours at least.” Which is- troubling. “I- I’ll admit, I thought about trying to wake you, but you seemed like you really needed it.”

“Was there any magic around me?” Oh- this is important! “Any light, or threads, or anything out of the ordinary at all?” Kravitz just looks at him? Confused?

“No-? No, nothing like that. You were just asleep, Taako, curled up right on that tiny bed of yours.” Taako doesn’t know quite what to make of that, Kravitz is pretty on the level with most magical signatures so any creepy sleep mojo should be obvious to him. Why’s he smiling? “Speaking of which, I know I’ve heard of Elf on a Shelf before, but that bed of yours-”

Taako claps his hands sharp and quick.

“Focus, babe.” Kravitz folds his arms with a fond smile, and Taako almost repeats himself. Focus? This is not flirty fun times! “You didn’t sense anything, okay.” Sounds fake, but Kravitz wouldn’t lie. Must be either much stronger or just subtler than Taako guessed. “What about this whole place? What’s your read on it so far?” If he was asleep for hours leaving Kravitz to wander on his own, he must have some thoughts.

“The library is incredibly disappointing,” he offers, and Taako cracks a smile and nods. “Beautiful, but empty? The books are filled with nothing. And that entire training complex in the south, it feels like it bends the physics of the place out of alignment.”

“Thank you, I do my best work when I’m trying to muck up someone else’s.”

“You-?”

“Okay, sit down and lemme get you a glass of wine. Taako will explain everything.”

And that’s what he does. He fetches two glasses and a bottle of a brand-name merlot, breaking the seal and pouring them both a generous serving. They sit across from each other on one of the Bureau of Balance’s long tables, and Taako uses the threads of magic available to him to draw out the diagrams and graphs he’s memorized from his notebook. The seven cells, the honeycomb pattern, the planar magic, the lock on his spells, the regeneration, what he was doing when Kravitz cut through time and space and interrupted him.

They explore the comb again, together, and Taako can point out the places where the strain is hurting the sigil. Kravitz has his thinking face on the entire time, and it doesn’t waver when they reach the closet Taako’s made out of the office cell and shows him the Book of Annotations.

“So you can change anything with this?”

“With a boat load of limits from the P-monster, sure.” Kravitz proceeds to go through the book, reading page after page of back-and-forth between Taako and the Keeper. What he can have, what he can’t, why certain things have been refused, the suggestions and offers that Patrice has made back to him, and so on.

“A spyglass, Taako?”

“Oh shit, I forgot!”

The best place to look for the spyglass is in the kitchen, because that’s where Taako spends the vast majority of his time anyways. It’s right there next to his comfy chair, sitting on top of one of Patrice’s sealed letters.

Eeeeh, Taako doesn’t feel like reading that right now, or at all. It’ll probably have something to say about his little stunt in the dining room, or worse: about his guest.

He takes up the spyglass and looks out the window, where sure enough the island is still there. He squints and can’t make out much, so brings up the copper instrument and holds it to his eye.

He sees a log cabin on an island surrounded by the sparkling blue waves of the sunny sea. On the island are several trees, and the door is wide open. For whatever bizarre reason, a dog comes running out the door and runs down the beach, chasing the waves and then spinning around in a circle on the sand. It looks, he thinks, like one of those dogs Magnus loves: a deerhound. That seems to be it? Why would Patrice put a dog island on his view?

Taako hears paper tearing behind him and puts the spyglass back to his eye, watching the cabin. Maybe someone’s inside of it? Is it a clue? A message? A taunt?

“Taako, I think you’ve drawn the landlord’s ire.”

“I think the landlord can get fucking bent, my guy.”

Taako.”

“What?” He turns and looks at Kravitz with a defensive shrug, spyglass still inhand. “I tried breaking out of here, their first letter to me post-shit-storm isn’t gonna be all peaches and cream, and I know that. Am I supposed to be scared? Because I’m not: fuck Patrice. And do I have another plan to get out of here? Yes, I do, so: fuck Patrice. And I got you back, so I’m extra not-sorry and: fuck Patrice.

Kravitz watches him silently for a good long moment, then seems to actually hear part of what Taako said and blinks a few times.

“You… already have another plan?” He asks.

Yeah? What, like it’s hard?”

Kravitz keeps watching him in that tailored black vest and smart looking shirt of his. When he gives a smile it’s small and fond, and he walks up to Taako before casually lifting the hat off the Wizard’s head and dropping it on the closest table along with the open letter. He slips his arms around Taako without saying anything, one reaching around his waist and the other crossing his back, pulling him close to his chest and bringing his cheek down on Taako’s hair.

Here’s the thing that Taako’s trying not to struggle with right now: this hugging thing, this touching thing. Not to be misunderstood: he touches Kravitz all the dang time when they’re together, and Kravitz himself initiates a shit-load of that affection because he’s basically a puppy with a scythe.

But this hugging thing, this touching thing, this kissing thing- they are not home right now. They are not safe and well in some familiar place. This is not the time for Kravitz to be cuddling up to him? And it’s frankly not like him to try. They’ll kiss, they’ll hold hands, and they’ll embrace in public whenever and however they like. Taako introduces him openly and proudly with whatever possessive term comes to mind any time he and Kravitz are seen together: my boyfriend, my man, my sweetheart, my angel. My, mine, belonging to me, and he’s good with that.

“I’m just happy you’re safe, Taako.”

But they are not safe right now. Kravitz is- Kravitz is not safe here.

Taako leans on him instead of away, and he returns the hug gently, then very tightly. His fingers curl and grip the back of Kravitz’s vest and he holds on like that. And then- the longer he has to think about it, the sooner he’s holding on tight with both hands.

Kravitz is not safe here. Taako isn’t safe but as far as Patrice is concerned he’s supposed to be here. Kravitz is not. Kravitz is not safe.

Taako blew his best chance at escape and now Kravitz is not safe.

“Taako?”

“How did you find me?” He asks the question fast and soft, and now is one of the rare moments he regrets the fact that Kravitz has no heartbeat for him to hear. “How did you know where to look?”

His reaper hesitates a little before changing his hold around Taako. It’s less casual, not as gentle: a deliberate hold that closes around him to answer the tight grip Taako has on him.

“I followed your song, love.” Taako closes his eyes. He closes them and he listens to Kravitz speak. “That… beautiful, uniquely-you resonance that only you have. The other six have their own song, but you know I know yours best.”

This is not a new line of poetry Kravitz is spinning to comfort him, this is a fact that all seven of the IPRE crew members understand. When you create bonds with people across a hundred individual worlds, and then your story and your purpose and broadcast back out across creation to reach those people all over again, it creates a bond that transcends nearly any other connection. Taako isn’t forever lashed and bound to the mongoose family, or to the institute peers he left behind when he and Lup boarded the Starblaster, but there’s still a connection there, a resonance, a song that can be heard very, very faintly across the Ethereal and Astral Planes.

“Why ten days, then?” He asks.

“Something…” Kravitz gathers his words with one cold hand petting through Taako’s hair. He finds the short lock he sacrificed for his focus and strokes it several times. “Something was muffling it, Taako. I could barely hear it, and for hours there would just be this horrible silence before a few echoes reached me again. I thought I’d lost you, but I didn’t know to what.”

To Patrice’s shitty magic and the wards around the demiplane. Cool. Fucking fantastic. He turns his face close against Kravitz’s neck and hair and breathes deep to stay calm. Kravitz adjusts his arms and rubs his back, not changing the embrace.

“And then the sun came shearing through everything, and I knew where to strike to bring me to you.”

 “Babe, that’s gay.” He smiles, eyes closed, and tries to quit squeezing him quite so hard. “What about Lup?”

“What about her?” Kravitz’s question makes his eyes open. Um. This should be obvious?

“Weren’t her and Barry with you?”

“No, we separated to cover more ground.” That’s still a very bare answer, but it reminds Taako of something important. He pulls back a little out of this tight tangle of arms they’ve got going on and runs his hands around Kravitz’s neck, touching cold skin and wedging his fingers through the collar of his shirt, then remembering no, the cord will be between his shirt and his vest... “Taako?” He can’t find it.

“Where’s your Stone of Far Speech?”

“I don’t think those work here.”

“That’s cool, now give it to me.” The stones have limits but they’re still made to reach across planar boundaries if pressed. If Taako can figure out a way to enhance and boost Kravitz’s, then maybe they can get a message out to-

“Taako- Taako I don’t have it.” Kravitz’s cold fingers catch his searching hands, and Taako tells himself there’s going to be a mighty fine reason why that is. “I realized it while you were sleeping, but several of my belongings vanished when I came here.” That makes no fucking sense and Taako just stares at him for a few seconds. There’s a gnawing pain in his gut, but he’s actually checking if Kravitz is lying to him.

“How-?” It’s Kravitz, Kravitz wouldn’t lie to him. “What about your scythe?”

Kravitz extends one hand and Taako watches closely as there’s a small crack of power that fizzles out around his wrist. The Raven Queen’s weapon does not answer her angel’s call.

Taako hugs him again, tight and hard and barely breathing. Kravitz returns it with a firm kiss planted in his hair, cool breaths trailing down behind his head.

“We’ll be alright, love.”

“Y-yeah, of course.” There’s still two of them now instead of one, and Kravitz’ disappearance will get the Raven Queen’s attention, so even if it’s not Istus’s shtick to get involved with mortal affairs the Queen of the Orderly Passage Between Life and Death is not known for letting her agents go missing. Help is coming, and Taako still has the means to try another way out. “Just... just hold me close and don’t let go for a little while, okay?”

Kravitz does just that, and Taako’s mind keeps churning.

For the rest of the day, and for no gods-given reason, Kravitz is zero fucking help and Taako cannot get himself to accept it. There has to be a reason, and he grabs hold to the thought that it must be that Taako himself is too high strung and stressed from Patrice’s bullshit for Kravitz to focus on anything else. That view shortchanges Kravitz in the worst kind of way, but he doesn’t have the mental stamina to go any further.

For the entire day, Kravitz bugs him endlessly to change the dojo back into a parlour, or to put a larger bed back in the Starblaster cabin. Somewhere comfortable for them to relax, he argues. A place to settle down and breathe and stop crawling right up the walls with anxiety.

Taako won’t do it. He’s too obsessed with trying to get back into the dining room to see what Patrice has done with it, but the doors won’t open for either of them. He uses magic, he uses brute force, he uses the book, but there’s no getting in there.

“Love, you have got to calm down.”

“Focus, focus- focus!” He lets his nerves get the better of him and grabs Kravitz’s face with both hands. “We are not getting comfortable and we are not relaxing! Babe, we need to jet and get out of here before the chump-change magician running this show decides what to do about you!”

“Taako, I’m immortal,” He says in a flat voice with his red gaze hardly wavering. He looks bored. “What do you really think this person can do to me?”

Ooh no!” There is- no reason for them to fight, to argue, to yell right now, but Taako yells and he cuts the air with his hands trying to get Kravitz to take this seriously! “You’ve been trapped and stuck and held up before, so don’t play smug with me!” The reaper folds his arms, listening. “A slick of black oil over the entire Astral Plane, if I recall, did a good fucking job of almost wiping you out of not only my life but all of existence! Immortal does not mean invulnerable!

Kravitz blinks and his expression opens a little, he’s startled.

“You-? You’re worried about me?”

Yes!?” He shrieks back, “Of course I am!? Why wouldn’t I be!” Of all the stupid things to ask when they’re standing here in this-! “Kravitz I’m supposed to be here, Patrice wants me here. They’re not gonna kill me or eject me into neverwhere on a dime- but you? You?”

His words start to peter out. You’re worried about me? Yes I’m worried about you! These aren’t things Taako lets himself say very often. It’s hard to admit and usually dangerous besides, but this is Kravitz, so if Taako has to say it then he’ll say it because he needs the reaper to be on the level with him. There’s a tight quiver of fear that runs around his ribs for a second, like maybe he’s said something wrong, but Kravitz shakes his head with a bit of a smile. He’s bashful, which is probably not terrible.

“Taako, that...” Don’t dismiss him, not right now. “That’s gay.” Oh. Ah- Taako feels a smile, lopsided and dumb, but a smile. He throws his arms out to showcase himself.

“And you expected what else?” He asks, and Kravitz rewards him with a warm grin. Taako can cross the space between and kiss him now, feeling a bit more at ease because Kravitz believes him and knows that this is important. It’s a shame the skeleman goes and blows it between kisses:

“I’m not leaving here without you, Taako.”

“Probably not,” he mumbles back, putting another lip-lock on Kravitz’s mouth and sort of... pushing... with his body. He makes Kravitz take a step back, and then another, and another. They’re in the library and Taako pushes until Kravitz runs into one of the low green reading chairs dotting the conservatory floor. Once he’s sitting, Taako’s happily on top of him, picking up the chill of Kravitz’s skin with his lips, cupping the reaper’s face with both hands to keep his attention. “But...”

“Hmm?” Krav’s hands circle his waist, stroking the small of Taako’s back and then trailing down his thigh, fingertips brushing over the embroidered pattern on the black jeans. They keep busy trading kisses, sweet and easy until Taako travels to his cheek and finishes his thought.

“But if it doesn’t work out, then you’re the one who’ll have to slam dunk everything I know about this place on Lucretia’s desk for me, right babe?”

“Why Lucretia?”

“’cause if she asks for Miller’s help then it’s not me asking for Miller’s help, and you and I both know I’d never ask Lucas for shit.”

“Mm, I do know that, yes.” Good. Taako moves a little and with the help of Kravitz’s hands he adjusts until he’s sitting across Kravitz’s lap, no longer astride him on the small chair. His reaper puts a cold kiss behind his ear and Taako answers it by brushing their noses together briefly.

“Go over it again with me,” Kravitz asks, holding him. “Make sure I understood everything you told me earlier.” Fine, they do that.

Kravitz gets him to play cute and content, and Taako gets to reorganize his thoughts by explaining the demiplane again. The touches traded throughout are tame, but worthwhile: Taako didn’t really need his shirt buttoned up all the way, and he’s always enjoyed the sensation of Kravitz’s voice in his throat when Taako kisses it.

They somehow, with not too much imagination, end up back on a mundane but annoying point of contention: the starblaster cabin.

“Oh my god, Krav.”

“Where do you expect me to sleep then?”

“You’re death! You don’t need to sleep.”

“Said the elf.”

“Okay!” Shit, holy fuck. Fine. “I’ll do it. Look, I’m getting up. Witness me: I am getting up to go give your whiny reaper ass a very generous six inches of my bed. You’re welcome.”

“Shall I try my hand at formulating an escape while you do that?” He asks.

“You fucking better.” And with another stubborn kiss between them, they part. Kravitz stays in the library and Taako opens up the study-closet, pulling out the book of accommodations and flipping to a page where he can change the bedroom again. He nearly settles for just making the cot a “twin” rather than the tiny “single”, but stops himself.

He’s in shit with Patrice, otherwise he’d be able to get in and out of the dining room again. Might as well push his luck, right?

‘I want my usual room in Goldcliff.’ He writes. ‘Give it the view from the hotel with the waterfalls roaring over the cliffs- but not too loud.’ He’s never been so vague before, usually hammering out every detail to the finest minutia, but this one he leaves brisk and simple. Taako closes the book.

In the kitchen again, he moves on to his next-best plan as a way to keep himself from worrying about Patrice or their reaction to Taako’s new roommate.

He pours a slow, steady stream of oil onto a pan, careful not to put too much or too little, until the oil makes a perfect circle. With a charge of transmutation magic at his fingertips, Taako concentrates and... picks up a disk of solid emerald. Thank fuck.

Wait, no. It’s emerald and it doesn’t have quite the same awful resonance as the oil he used, but it’s not perfect. The slope of the oil, from surface to pan, is off by just enough that the disk won’t serve his purpose. Hm.

Taako throws together a quick dough. It’s fast and messy work, just flour and salt and sugar and water, rolled out thin and then cut with the mouth of a cup.

He transfigures this into pink tourmaline, and is annoyed again with the edges that aren’t quite right. Another attempt has the wave of the rolling-pin over the top. Fuck.

Ah.

He pours water into the glass and freezes it, then transfigures- fuck. He has solid ruby with a convex side ruining one of Patrice’s glasses.

Okay, maybe now he understands why Lucas needed both a giant lab and Taako’s relic in order to make his cosmoscope. It’s no joke when they say these crystals must be perfect.

Taako perseveres. He has no reason not to keep working and nothing better to do with his time. Eventually Kravitz comes to find him after a series of blunders, the stacks of reject discs beginning to clutter this corner of the kitchen, a few of them having rolled off the floor and smashed on the tiles. Oh well.

“You are… not making dinner.” Kravitz puts the words together slowly, nudging a reject sapphire with the toe of his shoe.

“Check the oven, my guy.” Taako doesn’t look up from his jerry-rigged setting platform which consists of three baking sheets, a wine bottle he cut the top and bottom off of, the top rings of three glasses, and a lot of precise and kind of dangerous magic use.

First, he has to distill the water, then transfigure it into something chemically different (in this case: wine), then set it, then transfigure it again, ensure the precise cut along the outer edge, and then change it a third time, then this time-

He’s used enough magic with this that his head is beginning to ache between his eyes. The focus stitched into his leggings offers him the help and stability he needs to be useful, but there are only so many hours and so many times a wizard can devote to repeating and modifying the same set of spells. He’s also operating without his notebook, which he hasn’t seen since his escape attempt.

“You’ve outdone yourself, love.” What Kravitz finds in the oven is two ready plates of braised salmon stuffed with herbs and lemon, the thick flesh neatly prepared and ready. Blended mashed potatoes and a serving of grilled asparagus, a red sweet chilli chutney on the side along with three cheese-stuffed mushrooms apiece. He plated the meals up earlier and just left them in the oven to stay warm.

“Is that all you have to say?” Taako could very easily have served himself a piece of toast and hot sauce and kept his focus on his work, but he hasn’t been the easiest cell-mate today and Kravitz deserves something nice for his first hell-scape meal. As his reaper carefully removes their dinner and takes it to one of the long bureau tables, Taako finally calls it quits, staring at the topaz disc that decided to trap air bubbles inside of itself. He’s done. He’ll do more after a rest.

Kravitz comes up behind him with a kiss on his cheek, hands slipping around his waist, and Taako waits.

“Shall I choose the wine?”

“Go for it.”

That’s it? That’s really it? This is Kravitz’s favourite- no, be fucking nice for once, Taako. Kravitz has spent the whole dame day being worried about him on top of dealing with the extreme fuckery that is everything Patrice’s magic worked on them both.

They sit and they eat and obviously it’s fucking perfect, the seasoning, the cook time, the spicy-sweet that Kravitz can pretend to be a gentleman over but Taako has seen him lick the plate before. Once. But he saw it.

“Are you tired right now?” Taako asks him when they’re nearly finished with their meal. “’cause if not I’ve got a request.”

“Anything, Taako.”

“I want you to watch how Patrice changes the room around once I fall asleep.” Kravitz might not be a planar scientist-wizard like Taako, but he’s used his fair share of magic before. His scythe is a divinely gifted planar paper cutter after all. Patrice has never changed anything while Taako is awake, so he’s never observed the process.

After he rests he’ll see if Kravitz can write in the book, maybe it’ll finally tell him if the book is just a conduit to Patrice or actually in control. Can it tell who writes in it? The number of questions he can finally answer just because there’s another person here with him is a huge relief.

“Why do you insist on calling this person ‘Patrice’, Taako?”

“It’s the name they gave when I asked on the train, and I think it bugs them a little.”

“Should you really be trying to upset someone so powerful?”

“Yep.”

Kravitz laughs, kisses his hand, and bothers Taako again to give them a sitting area.

“It’s so exposed in here,” he complains about the Bureau galley. “Sitting in a room meant for sixty when it’s just the two of us.”

“Nah, it usually looked like this on the moonbase,” Taako corrects. “If you got up at stupid-o’clock in the morning and just wandered around, lots of quiet time in the loudest parts of the base.”

“Do you really need the dojo?” Kravitz keeps circling back around again and again on this point.

“It’s not about need, babe, it’s about making this place hurt a little.” And he’s not really eating. Or, he’s sort of eating around his plate, and Taako makes a point to stop looking at it.

“I just don’t see why,” Kravitz goes on, swiping half a mushroom across his plate to soak up the flavourful juice from the salmon, ignoring the chutney before eating, “Given a blank slate and these loose limits, you wouldn’t go ahead and make a palace out of this place.”

Taako doesn’t answer, he takes a drink. He drinks and he doesn’t let himself ask why Kravitz chose the shiraz for their meal, not his favourite sparkling white to go with his favourite dinner as he keeps talking nonsense about being comfortable in the demiplane that someone kidnapped Taako to put him in and-

He finishes the wine and puts the glass down too hard on the table. The whole thing has Patrice’s bad vibes flowing through it, like the table and the bench and the clothes covering him and-

“Taako?” Kravitz asks, crossing his fork and knife across the plate. “You seem upset, love.” He is. Taako puts his head down on the heel of his palms, elbows on the table for a few moments.

“This place keeps fucking with my head,” he whispers. And Kravitz is there behind him, rubbing his back and shoulders, coaxing him to sit back up, then to stand and come into his arms for a strong and solidifying hug.

He smells right. He’s dressed right. He doesn’t have that aura of bad awful reeking falsehood that the demiplane does. His skin is cold and his eyes are warm and his voice is soothing and his kisses are right as Taako kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him...

It’s him. It’s him. It has to be him.

He watched Kravitz come through the portal, he watched the rift stitch itself closed behind him. He felt the magic when he shifted back from his reaper form. It’s him, it’s Kravitz.

It’s his strong arms that swing back and shake down the vest after Taako gets it open and off his shoulders. It’s his black skin hiding behind the buttons of the shirt Taako undoes between kisses. It’s his hands that toss the hat Taako’s been wearing all day off to another table, pulling off the robe he found in the wardrobe and discarding it on the floor.

It’s him, cool tongue and chill breaths and smooth hands iced by death that catch Taako under his jaw and keep them together. It’s Kravitz who reaches down behind his thighs and hikes Taako up, legs around his waist, arms crossed over his shoulders.

“Stress relief?” Kravitz jokes between breaths.

I love you,” Taako isn’t joking as he fumbles the tie off Kravitz’s hair, letting the dreadlocks loose around his shoulders.

It’s him, it has to be him.

The Starblaster cot is small, it is too small, but it wasn’t meant to be a real bed, just a shelf to lay on for a few hours for the few weeks of the original mission. For two men, it’s awkward and cramped and Taako snorts when Kravitz bumps his head on the sloped wall over the cot. He grins and pulls his reaper down onto him, cold lips loving his neck and shoulder.

It has to be him, even if Kravitz doesn’t say much. It has to be him, even when he doesn’t slip back into that ridiculous accent for the kissing and petting on the narrow bed. It has to be him, because Taako doesn’t know what he’ll do if it’s not. So it has to be him, because there’s nowhere to hide if it’s not.

If it’s not Kravitz, because he doesn’t seem to know how and where to touch the way a familiar lover should. If it’s not Kravitz, because he holds and positions himself in ways that aren’t wrong, but aren’t how they should be. If it’s not Kravitz, because no matter how full of love the reaper is, he can’t bring that warmth up beyond his own fingertips on the best of days and the body on top of Taako’s is warm.

It’s not Kravitz.

He should have figured it out sooner- but Taako’s pretty sure he did. The first time his boyfriend’s voice praised the creature that stole him away in the first place. The lack of anger, the lack of righteousness, the lack of Kravitz.

But it was almost him. It could have been him. And if it had been him then Taako wouldn’t be alone here and he wouldn’t be trapped and he wouldn’t be forced to share his prison with an entity he can’t name because if it was Kravitz he could have trusted it and enjoyed this…

The fake is trying. It keeps kissing him, its arms tense trying to touch him and keep itself up and active. Its skin is hot, back misted with sweat, a thrilled heartbeat echoing over Taako’s bare chest. What it’s doing doesn’t hurt, not physically. He’s not contorted, or tied down, or being bruised or bitten or drugged or threatened or forced. He’s just laying here, taking it, completely checked out because he can’t believe he wanted this to be real so badly that he… is actually… doing this?

“Get off of me.”

And it stops.

The demon tries to ask him what’s wrong but Taako knows it’s a fake and says at much. It gets off him and he can pull the bedsheets around himself, cold and raw, and turn away. He stares at the wall.

It ties to touch him, to lean down and give him a kiss. As soon as he jerks his shoulder away the touch retreats. The bed is too small and it has to stand up to get away from him. The demon tells him:

“Maybe you’ll change your mind after some rest, dear.”

Taako wants to crawl out of his own skin.

“I won’t, and you won’t be here to ask me about it,” he says, still curled up on his side. “If you ever put on the face of another person I love, I’ll plunge this entire demiplane into simple, unravelled chaos. I’ll rip open a wormhole so fully divorced from your concept of reality that it takes every ounce of your power and will down with it, and kill us both.”

His words are met with silence, but not solitude. Patrice is still here, and there’s a rustle of fabric behind Taako.

In a voice that isn’t Kravitz’, and isn’t the woman from the dining car, and it isn’t here or there for Taako to pidgeon-hole as a man or woman, the Keeper speaks fondly:

“The Wordless One described you masterfully.”

And then Taako is alone again.

And now it’s okay for him to cry.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Waking up in the cluster is no better now than the last time Taako actually fell asleep. It’s a rush of bad energy and a heart-pounding fear before he jerks upright in bed, the narrow Starblaster cot throwing him for another harsh loop. He almost forgets that he’s not on the ship itself, not still trapped between cycles of destruction, but then it all comes back and he knows where he is.

His escape attempt failed… It failed in the worst possible way. He used all that magic and all of those skills, throwing his strength into it and succeeding in punching a hole out of Patrice’s realm: and then he had to back down and stay behind. The next time Taako tries to tear his way out, it’s going to be a much harder struggle…

But it wasn’t all a complete loss. As he slowly swings his feet off the bed, Taako stands on shakey legs and takes a quick look at himself. His enchanted leggings are still on, but the half-cape and boots he wore for his escape attempt are gone. He remembers the wax the demiplane conjured to heal and control his damage, and it reminds him terribly of that numbness his true sight granted him.

It’s something to ask Kravitz about. He- he’s still here, right? Taako grabs his hat off the blankets and goes to search.

“Krav?” He heads into the kitchen first, padding around in his socks. His heart eases when he sees Kravitz standing by the tall windows looking out at the ocean view, his black robe tossed over Taako’s comfy sewing chair, hands in the pockets of his pinstripe black slacks. He turns at his name and gives a small, warm smile, shoes clicking on the floor as they meet each other.

“Taako, this place is amazing.” Uuuh-

“No?” He says, slipping his arm around Kravitz’s waist, folding himself close for a brief hug and a kiss on his Reaper’s cold cheek. Taako pulls back a bit with a smile. “No, it’s really not? Nice try, boneman, but you’re not gonna clean this mess up that easily.”

“It’s certainly not the worst place you’ve ever been kept before,” Kravitz, um, must have a point behind saying that but Taako’s not too sure what it is.

“It beats Wonderland, I guess.” Taako’s distracted by Kravitz turning to him and stroking one cold hand across his jaw, tilting his head up just a touch before drawing him into a deep, slow kiss. Oh- oh- this is- he feels his toes curl against the floor, his back giving a small kick with Kravitz’ arm behind him for support.

He pulls his arms up and around Kravitz’s neck because good morning to you too, moonbeam. This is a very nice distraction, but a distraction none-the-less, and Taako enjoys it for a few more seconds before pulling back. There’s a second, softer touch placed on Kravtiz’s mouth as an apology, but right now it’s talking time.

“How long have I been gone?” He asks before his Reaper can kiss him again. Kravitz still has that cold hand on his face, fingers stroking his cheek gently, but he answers the question in a low voice that mirrors Taako’s tone.

“Ten days, love. At least.” Taako closes his eyes and puts his head down on Kravitz’s shoulder, a slow breath steadying him a little. Okay, considering how many times he’s rested and then got up to do things around the honeycomb, that makes sense.

“And how long was I asleep for? Just now, I mean.”

“Uuh,” Krav’s red eyes look up for a few seconds, trying to think it over. “There’s not much to go on here, but I’d say a few hours at least.” Which is- troubling. “I- I’ll admit, I thought about trying to wake you, but you seemed like you really needed it.”

“Was there any magic around me?” Oh- this is important! “Any light, or threads, or anything out of the ordinary at all?” Kravitz just looks at him? Confused?

“No-? No, nothing like that. You were just asleep, Taako, curled up right on that tiny bed of yours.” Taako doesn’t know quite what to make of that, Kravitz is pretty on the level with most magical signatures so any creepy sleep mojo should be obvious to him. Why’s he smiling? “Speaking of which, I know I’ve heard of Elf on a Shelf before, but that bed of yours-”

Taako claps his hands sharp and quick.

“Focus, babe.” Kravitz folds his arms with a fond smile, and Taako almost repeats himself. Focus? This is not flirty fun times! “You didn’t sense anything, okay.” Sounds fake, but Kravitz wouldn’t lie. Must be either much stronger or just subtler than Taako guessed. “What about this whole place? What’s your read on it so far?” If he was asleep for hours leaving Kravitz to wander on his own, he must have some thoughts.

“The library is incredibly disappointing,” he offers, and Taako cracks a smile and nods. “Beautiful, but empty? The books are filled with nothing. And that entire training complex in the south, it feels like it bends the physics of the place out of alignment.”

“Thank you, I do my best work when I’m trying to muck up someone else’s.”

“You-?”

“Okay, sit down and lemme get you a glass of wine. Taako will explain everything.”

And that’s what he does. He fetches two glasses and a bottle of a brand-name merlot, breaking the seal and pouring them both a generous serving. They sit across from each other on one of the Bureau of Balance’s long tables, and Taako uses the threads of magic available to him to draw out the diagrams and graphs he’s memorized from his notebook. The seven cells, the honeycomb pattern, the planar magic, the lock on his spells, the regeneration, what he was doing when Kravitz cut through time and space and interrupted him.

They explore the comb again, together, and Taako can point out the places where the strain is hurting the sigil. Kravitz has his thinking face on the entire time, and it doesn’t waver when they reach the closet Taako’s made out of the office cell and shows him the Book of Annotations.

“So you can change anything with this?”

“With a boat load of limits from the P-monster, sure.” Kravitz proceeds to go through the book, reading page after page of back-and-forth between Taako and the Keeper. What he can have, what he can’t, why certain things have been refused, the suggestions and offers that Patrice has made back to him, and so on.

“A spyglass, Taako?”

“Oh shit, I forgot!”

The best place to look for the spyglass is in the kitchen, because that’s where Taako spends the vast majority of his time anyways. It’s right there next to his comfy chair, sitting on top of one of Patrice’s sealed letters.

Eeeeh, Taako doesn’t feel like reading that right now, or at all. It’ll probably have something to say about his little stunt in the dining room, or worse: about his guest.

He takes up the spyglass and looks out the window, where sure enough the island is still there. He squints and can’t make out much, so brings up the copper instrument and holds it to his eye.

He sees a log cabin on an island surrounded by the sparkling blue waves of the sunny sea. On the island are several trees, and the door is wide open. For whatever bizarre reason, a dog comes running out the door and runs down the beach, chasing the waves and then spinning around in a circle on the sand. It looks, he thinks, like one of those dogs Magnus loves: a deerhound. That seems to be it? Why would Patrice put a dog island on his view?

Taako hears paper tearing behind him and puts the spyglass back to his eye, watching the cabin. Maybe someone’s inside of it? Is it a clue? A message? A taunt?

“Taako, I think you’ve drawn the landlord’s ire.”

“I think the landlord can get fucking bent, my guy.”

Taako.”

“What?” He turns and looks at Kravitz with a defensive shrug, spyglass still inhand. “I tried breaking out of here, their first letter to me post-shit-storm isn’t gonna be all peaches and cream, and I know that. Am I supposed to be scared? Because I’m not: fuck Patrice. And do I have another plan to get out of here? Yes, I do, so: fuck Patrice. And I got you back, so I’m extra not-sorry and: fuck Patrice.

Kravitz watches him silently for a good long moment, then seems to actually hear part of what Taako said and blinks a few times.

“You… already have another plan?” He asks.

Yeah? What, like it’s hard?”

Kravitz keeps watching him in that tailored black vest and smart looking shirt of his. When he gives a smile it’s small and fond, and he walks up to Taako before casually lifting the hat off the Wizard’s head and dropping it on the closest table along with the open letter. He slips his arms around Taako without saying anything, one reaching around his waist and the other crossing his back, pulling him close to his chest and bringing his cheek down on Taako’s hair.

Here’s the thing that Taako’s trying not to struggle with right now: this hugging thing, this touching thing. Not to be misunderstood: he touches Kravitz all the dang time when they’re together, and Kravitz himself initiates a shit-load of that affection because he’s basically a puppy with a scythe.

But this hugging thing, this touching thing, this kissing thing- they are not home right now. They are not safe and well in some familiar place. This is not the time for Kravitz to be cuddling up to him? And it’s frankly not like him to try. They’ll kiss, they’ll hold hands, and they’ll embrace in public whenever and however they like. Taako introduces him openly and proudly with whatever possessive term comes to mind any time he and Kravitz are seen together: my boyfriend, my man, my sweetheart, my angel. My, mine, belonging to me, and he’s good with that.

“I’m just happy you’re safe, Taako.”

But they are not safe right now. Kravitz is- Kravitz is not safe here.

Taako leans on him instead of away, and he returns the hug gently, then very tightly. His fingers curl and grip the back of Kravitz’s vest and he holds on like that. And then- the longer he has to think about it, the sooner he’s holding on tight with both hands.

Kravitz is not safe here. Taako isn’t safe but as far as Patrice is concerned he’s supposed to be here. Kravitz is not. Kravitz is not safe.

Taako blew his best chance at escape and now Kravitz is not safe.

“Taako?”

“How did you find me?” He asks the question fast and soft, and now is one of the rare moments he regrets the fact that Kravitz has no heartbeat for him to hear. “How did you know where to look?”

His reaper hesitates a little before changing his hold around Taako. It’s less casual, not as gentle: a deliberate hold that closes around him to answer the tight grip Taako has on him.

“I followed your song, love.” Taako closes his eyes. He closes them and he listens to Kravitz speak. “That… beautiful, uniquely-you resonance that only you have. The other six have their own song, but you know I know yours best.”

This is not a new line of poetry Kravitz is spinning to comfort him, this is a fact that all seven of the IPRE crew members understand. When you create bonds with people across a hundred individual worlds, and then your story and your purpose and broadcast back out across creation to reach those people all over again, it creates a bond that transcends nearly any other connection. Taako isn’t forever lashed and bound to the mongoose family, or to the institute peers he left behind when he and Lup boarded the Starblaster, but there’s still a connection there, a resonance, a song that can be heard very, very faintly across the Ethereal and Astral Planes.

“Why ten days, then?” He asks.

“Something…” Kravitz gathers his words with one cold hand petting through Taako’s hair. He finds the short lock he sacrificed for his focus and strokes it several times. “Something was muffling it, Taako. I could barely hear it, and for hours there would just be this horrible silence before a few echoes reached me again. I thought I’d lost you, but I didn’t know to what.”

To Patrice’s shitty magic and the wards around the demiplane. Cool. Fucking fantastic. He turns his face close against Kravitz’s neck and hair and breathes deep to stay calm. Kravitz adjusts his arms and rubs his back, not changing the embrace.

“And then the sun came shearing through everything, and I knew where to strike to bring me to you.”

 “Babe, that’s gay.” He smiles, eyes closed, and tries to quit squeezing him quite so hard. “What about Lup?”

“What about her?” Kravitz’s question makes his eyes open. Um. This should be obvious?

“Weren’t her and Barry with you?”

“No, we separated to cover more ground.” That’s still a very bare answer, but it reminds Taako of something important. He pulls back a little out of this tight tangle of arms they’ve got going on and runs his hands around Kravitz’s neck, touching cold skin and wedging his fingers through the collar of his shirt, then remembering no, the cord will be between his shirt and his vest... “Taako?” He can’t find it.

“Where’s your Stone of Far Speech?”

“I don’t think those work here.”

“That’s cool, now give it to me.” The stones have limits but they’re still made to reach across planar boundaries if pressed. If Taako can figure out a way to enhance and boost Kravitz’s, then maybe they can get a message out to-

“Taako- Taako I don’t have it.” Kravitz’s cold fingers catch his searching hands, and Taako tells himself there’s going to be a mighty fine reason why that is. “I realized it while you were sleeping, but several of my belongings vanished when I came here.” That makes no fucking sense and Taako just stares at him for a few seconds. There’s a gnawing pain in his gut, but he’s actually checking if Kravitz is lying to him.

“How-?” It’s Kravitz, Kravitz wouldn’t lie to him. “What about your scythe?”

Kravitz extends one hand and Taako watches closely as there’s a small crack of power that fizzles out around his wrist. The Raven Queen’s weapon does not answer her angel’s call.

Taako hugs him again, tight and hard and barely breathing. Kravitz returns it with a firm kiss planted in his hair, cool breaths trailing down behind his head.

“We’ll be alright, love.”

“Y-yeah, of course.” There’s still two of them now instead of one, and Kravitz’ disappearance will get the Raven Queen’s attention, so even if it’s not Istus’s shtick to get involved with mortal affairs the Queen of the Orderly Passage Between Life and Death is not known for letting her agents go missing. Help is coming, and Taako still has the means to try another way out. “Just... just hold me close and don’t let go for a little while, okay?”

Kravitz does just that, and Taako’s mind keeps churning.

For the rest of the day, and for no gods-given reason, Kravitz is zero fucking help and Taako cannot get himself to accept it. There has to be a reason, and he grabs hold to the thought that it must be that Taako himself is too high strung and stressed from Patrice’s bullshit for Kravitz to focus on anything else. That view shortchanges Kravitz in the worst kind of way, but he doesn’t have the mental stamina to go any further.

For the entire day, Kravitz bugs him endlessly to change the dojo back into a parlour, or to put a larger bed back in the Starblaster cabin. Somewhere comfortable for them to relax, he argues. A place to settle down and breathe and stop crawling right up the walls with anxiety.

Taako won’t do it. He’s too obsessed with trying to get back into the dining room to see what Patrice has done with it, but the doors won’t open for either of them. He uses magic, he uses brute force, he uses the book, but there’s no getting in there.

“Love, you have got to calm down.”

“Focus, focus- focus!” He lets his nerves get the better of him and grabs Kravitz’s face with both hands. “We are not getting comfortable and we are not relaxing! Babe, we need to jet and get out of here before the chump-change magician running this show decides what to do about you!”

“Taako, I’m immortal,” He says in a flat voice with his red gaze hardly wavering. He looks bored. “What do you really think this person can do to me?”

Ooh no!” There is- no reason for them to fight, to argue, to yell right now, but Taako yells and he cuts the air with his hands trying to get Kravitz to take this seriously! “You’ve been trapped and stuck and held up before, so don’t play smug with me!” The reaper folds his arms, listening. “A slick of black oil over the entire Astral Plane, if I recall, did a good fucking job of almost wiping you out of not only my life but all of existence! Immortal does not mean invulnerable!

Kravitz blinks and his expression opens a little, he’s startled.

“You-? You’re worried about me?”

Yes!?” He shrieks back, “Of course I am!? Why wouldn’t I be!” Of all the stupid things to ask when they’re standing here in this-! “Kravitz I’m supposed to be here, Patrice wants me here. They’re not gonna kill me or eject me into neverwhere on a dime- but you? You?”

His words start to peter out. You’re worried about me? Yes I’m worried about you! These aren’t things Taako lets himself say very often. It’s hard to admit and usually dangerous besides, but this is Kravitz, so if Taako has to say it then he’ll say it because he needs the reaper to be on the level with him. There’s a tight quiver of fear that runs around his ribs for a second, like maybe he’s said something wrong, but Kravitz shakes his head with a bit of a smile. He’s bashful, which is probably not terrible.

“Taako, that...” Don’t dismiss him, not right now. “That’s gay.” Oh. Ah- Taako feels a smile, lopsided and dumb, but a smile. He throws his arms out to showcase himself.

“And you expected what else?” He asks, and Kravitz rewards him with a warm grin. Taako can cross the space between and kiss him now, feeling a bit more at ease because Kravitz believes him and knows that this is important. It’s a shame the skeleman goes and blows it between kisses:

“I’m not leaving here without you, Taako.”

“Probably not,” he mumbles back, putting another lip-lock on Kravitz’s mouth and sort of... pushing... with his body. He makes Kravitz take a step back, and then another, and another. They’re in the library and Taako pushes until Kravitz runs into one of the low green reading chairs dotting the conservatory floor. Once he’s sitting, Taako’s happily on top of him, picking up the chill of Kravitz’s skin with his lips, cupping the reaper’s face with both hands to keep his attention. “But...”

“Hmm?” Krav’s hands circle his waist, stroking the small of Taako’s back and then trailing down his thigh, fingertips brushing over the embroidered pattern on the black jeans. They keep busy trading kisses, sweet and easy until Taako travels to his cheek and finishes his thought.

“But if it doesn’t work out, then you’re the one who’ll have to slam dunk everything I know about this place on Lucretia’s desk for me, right babe?”

“Why Lucretia?”

“’cause if she asks for Miller’s help then it’s not me asking for Miller’s help, and you and I both know I’d never ask Lucas for shit.”

“Mm, I do know that, yes.” Good. Taako moves a little and with the help of Kravitz’s hands he adjusts until he’s sitting across Kravitz’s lap, no longer astride him on the small chair. His reaper puts a cold kiss behind his ear and Taako answers it by brushing their noses together briefly.

“Go over it again with me,” Kravitz asks, holding him. “Make sure I understood everything you told me earlier.” Fine, they do that.

Kravitz gets him to play cute and content, and Taako gets to reorganize his thoughts by explaining the demiplane again. The touches traded throughout are tame, but worthwhile: Taako didn’t really need his shirt buttoned up all the way, and he’s always enjoyed the sensation of Kravitz’s voice in his throat when Taako kisses it.

They somehow, with not too much imagination, end up back on a mundane but annoying point of contention: the starblaster cabin.

“Oh my god, Krav.”

“Where do you expect me to sleep then?”

“You’re death! You don’t need to sleep.”

“Said the elf.”

“Okay!” Shit, holy fuck. Fine. “I’ll do it. Look, I’m getting up. Witness me: I am getting up to go give your whiny reaper ass a very generous six inches of my bed. You’re welcome.”

“Shall I try my hand at formulating an escape while you do that?” He asks.

“You fucking better.” And with another stubborn kiss between them, they part. Kravitz stays in the library and Taako opens up the study-closet, pulling out the book of accommodations and flipping to a page where he can change the bedroom again. He nearly settles for just making the cot a “twin” rather than the tiny “single”, but stops himself.

He’s in shit with Patrice, otherwise he’d be able to get in and out of the dining room again. Might as well push his luck, right?

‘I want my usual room in Goldcliff.’ He writes. ‘Give it the view from the hotel with the waterfalls roaring over the cliffs- but not too loud.’ He’s never been so vague before, usually hammering out every detail to the finest minutia, but this one he leaves brisk and simple. Taako closes the book.

In the kitchen again, he moves on to his next-best plan as a way to keep himself from worrying about Patrice or their reaction to Taako’s new roommate.

He pours a slow, steady stream of oil onto a pan, careful not to put too much or too little, until the oil makes a perfect circle. With a charge of transmutation magic at his fingertips, Taako concentrates and... picks up a disk of solid emerald. Thank fuck.

Wait, no. It’s emerald and it doesn’t have quite the same awful resonance as the oil he used, but it’s not perfect. The slope of the oil, from surface to pan, is off by just enough that the disk won’t serve his purpose. Hm.

Taako throws together a quick dough. It’s fast and messy work, just flour and salt and sugar and water, rolled out thin and then cut with the mouth of a cup.

He transfigures this into pink tourmaline, and is annoyed again with the edges that aren’t quite right. Another attempt has the wave of the rolling-pin over the top. Fuck.

Ah.

He pours water into the glass and freezes it, then transfigures- fuck. He has solid ruby with a convex side ruining one of Patrice’s glasses.

Okay, maybe now he understands why Lucas needed both a giant lab and Taako’s relic in order to make his cosmoscope. It’s no joke when they say these crystals must be perfect.

Taako perseveres. He has no reason not to keep working and nothing better to do with his time. Eventually Kravitz comes to find him after a series of blunders, the stacks of reject discs beginning to clutter this corner of the kitchen, a few of them having rolled off the floor and smashed on the tiles. Oh well.

“You are… not making dinner.” Kravitz puts the words together slowly, nudging a reject sapphire with the toe of his shoe.

“Check the oven, my guy.” Taako doesn’t look up from his jerry-rigged setting platform which consists of three baking sheets, a wine bottle he cut the top and bottom off of, the top rings of three glasses, and a lot of precise and kind of dangerous magic use.

First, he has to distill the water, then transfigure it into something chemically different (in this case: wine), then set it, then transfigure it again, ensure the precise cut along the outer edge, and then change it a third time, then this time-

He’s used enough magic with this that his head is beginning to ache between his eyes. The focus stitched into his leggings offers him the help and stability he needs to be useful, but there are only so many hours and so many times a wizard can devote to repeating and modifying the same set of spells. He’s also operating without his notebook, which he hasn’t seen since his escape attempt.

“You’ve outdone yourself, love.” What Kravitz finds in the oven is two ready plates of braised salmon stuffed with herbs and lemon, the thick flesh neatly prepared and ready. Blended mashed potatoes and a serving of grilled asparagus, a red sweet chilli chutney on the side along with three cheese-stuffed mushrooms apiece. He plated the meals up earlier and just left them in the oven to stay warm.

“Is that all you have to say?” Taako could very easily have served himself a piece of toast and hot sauce and kept his focus on his work, but he hasn’t been the easiest cell-mate today and Kravitz deserves something nice for his first hell-scape meal. As his reaper carefully removes their dinner and takes it to one of the long bureau tables, Taako finally calls it quits, staring at the topaz disc that decided to trap air bubbles inside of itself. He’s done. He’ll do more after a rest.

Kravitz comes up behind him with a kiss on his cheek, hands slipping around his waist, and Taako waits.

“Shall I choose the wine?”

“Go for it.”

That’s it? That’s really it? This is Kravitz’s favourite- no, be fucking nice for once, Taako. Kravitz has spent the whole dame day being worried about him on top of dealing with the extreme fuckery that is everything Patrice’s magic worked on them both.

They sit and they eat and obviously it’s fucking perfect, the seasoning, the cook time, the spicy-sweet that Kravitz can pretend to be a gentleman over but Taako has seen him lick the plate before. Once. But he saw it.

“Are you tired right now?” Taako asks him when they’re nearly finished with their meal. “’cause if not I’ve got a request.”

“Anything, Taako.”

“I want you to watch how Patrice changes the room around once I fall asleep.” Kravitz might not be a planar scientist-wizard like Taako, but he’s used his fair share of magic before. His scythe is a divinely gifted planar paper cutter after all. Patrice has never changed anything while Taako is awake, so he’s never observed the process.

After he rests he’ll see if Kravitz can write in the book, maybe it’ll finally tell him if the book is just a conduit to Patrice or actually in control. Can it tell who writes in it? The number of questions he can finally answer just because there’s another person here with him is a huge relief.

“Why do you insist on calling this person ‘Patrice’, Taako?”

“It’s the name they gave when I asked on the train, and I think it bugs them a little.”

“Should you really be trying to upset someone so powerful?”

“Yep.”

Kravitz laughs, kisses his hand, and bothers Taako again to give them a sitting area.

“It’s so exposed in here,” he complains about the Bureau galley. “Sitting in a room meant for sixty when it’s just the two of us.”

“Nah, it usually looked like this on the moonbase,” Taako corrects. “If you got up at stupid-o’clock in the morning and just wandered around, lots of quiet time in the loudest parts of the base.”

“Do you really need the dojo?” Kravitz keeps circling back around again and again on this point.

“It’s not about need, babe, it’s about making this place hurt a little.” And he’s not really eating. Or, he’s sort of eating around his plate, and Taako makes a point to stop looking at it.

“I just don’t see why,” Kravitz goes on, swiping half a mushroom across his plate to soak up the flavourful juice from the salmon, ignoring the chutney before eating, “Given a blank slate and these loose limits, you wouldn’t go ahead and make a palace out of this place.”

Taako doesn’t answer, he takes a drink. He drinks and he doesn’t let himself ask why Kravitz chose the shiraz for their meal, not his favourite sparkling white to go with his favourite dinner as he keeps talking nonsense about being comfortable in the demiplane that someone kidnapped Taako to put him in and-

He finishes the wine and puts the glass down too hard on the table. The whole thing has Patrice’s bad vibes flowing through it, like the table and the bench and the clothes covering him and-

“Taako?” Kravitz asks, crossing his fork and knife across the plate. “You seem upset, love.” He is. Taako puts his head down on the heel of his palms, elbows on the table for a few moments.

“This place keeps fucking with my head,” he whispers. And Kravitz is there behind him, rubbing his back and shoulders, coaxing him to sit back up, then to stand and come into his arms for a strong and solidifying hug.

He smells right. He’s dressed right. He doesn’t have that aura of bad awful reeking falsehood that the demiplane does. His skin is cold and his eyes are warm and his voice is soothing and his kisses are right as Taako kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him...

It’s him. It’s him. It has to be him.

He watched Kravitz come through the portal, he watched the rift stitch itself closed behind him. He felt the magic when he shifted back from his reaper form. It’s him, it’s Kravitz.

It’s his strong arms that swing back and shake down the vest after Taako gets it open and off his shoulders. It’s his black skin hiding behind the buttons of the shirt Taako undoes between kisses. It’s his hands that toss the hat Taako’s been wearing all day off to another table, pulling off the robe he found in the wardrobe and discarding it on the floor.

It’s him, cool tongue and chill breaths and smooth hands iced by death that catch Taako under his jaw and keep them together. It’s Kravitz who reaches down behind his thighs and hikes Taako up, legs around his waist, arms crossed over his shoulders.

“Stress relief?” Kravitz jokes between breaths.

I love you,” Taako isn’t joking as he fumbles the tie off Kravitz’s hair, letting the dreadlocks loose around his shoulders.

It’s him, it has to be him.

The Starblaster cot is small, it is too small, but it wasn’t meant to be a real bed, just a shelf to lay on for a few hours for the few weeks of the original mission. For two men, it’s awkward and cramped and Taako snorts when Kravitz bumps his head on the sloped wall over the cot. He grins and pulls his reaper down onto him, cold lips loving his neck and shoulder.

It has to be him, even if Kravitz doesn’t say much. It has to be him, even when he doesn’t slip back into that ridiculous accent for the kissing and petting on the narrow bed. It has to be him, because Taako doesn’t know how to- or what it-

So it has to be him, but it’s not. And he knew before it started and he knows now that it’s too late, and it’s too late.

“Get off of me.”

It stops, but it’s too late.

The demon tries to ask him what’s wrong but Taako knows it’s a fake and says as much. It gets off him and Taako can pull the bedsheets around himself and turn away. He stares at the wall.

The demon stands and in Kravitz’s stolen voice, it tells him:

“Maybe you’ll change your mind after some rest, dear.”

“I won’t, and you won’t be here to ask me about it,” he says, still curled up on his side. “If you ever put on the face of another person I love, I’ll plunge this entire demiplane into simple, unravelled chaos. I’ll rip open a wormhole so fully divorced from your concept of reality that it takes every ounce of your power and will down with it, and kill us both.”

His words are met with silence, but not solitude. Patrice is still here, and there’s a rustle of fabric behind Taako.

In a voice that isn’t Kravitz’, and isn’t the woman from the dining car, and it isn’t here or there for Taako to pidgeon-hole as a man or woman, the Keeper speaks fondly:

“The Wordless One described you masterfully.”

And then Taako is alone again.

And it’s okay for him to cry.

Chapter Text

When Taako wakes up in the tangled aftermath of what happened, he’s in Goldcliff. He sits up, naked, with the silk saffron sheets and woven white lace of the comforter wrapped around him. His hair is loose and curled over his shoulder and chest. He can hear the roar of the waterfalls under the city through the closed balcony doors, the cascading saffron curtains parted to show the distant blur of wasteland and mist.

He looks beside him and on one of the pillows is a sealed letter from Patrice.

He looks across the floor and sees his discarded shirt, and boots, and socks, and bangles, and undergarments. He knows his robe is still in the kitchen, along with his hat. He knows his black jeans are gone, but checks anyway.

Patrice has taken his focus. This is probably the whole reason why they got him into bed in the first place.

Taako lays down, pulls the blankets back over himself, and goes back to sleep.


 

The Astral Plane, much like the Prime Material, has geography. It’s not as hammered down and the rules aren’t nearly as rigid or plentiful, but there are still guidelines and way-markers to follow in the realm of spirits and souls.

For two of the Raven Queen’s reapers, traversing the Astral Plane is unfairly easy: they simply focus on what their destination is, and fly in the direction that feels the best. Having very few limits on their ability to fly also makes things much easier than for any mortal or infernal to stumble into the realm.

Reapers don’t need to sleep, or to eat, necessarily. Kravitz and Lup simply choose to abstain from both tedious tasks as they let the rolling waves of rested souls pass under them. They don’t talk much on the way either, and Kravitz can’t remember the last time he’s spent this long in silence around Taako’s sister.

But Taako is also missing, and Kravitz knows he shouldn’t cloud the air with useless talk, but Taako is...

“Did you talk to him?” Kravitz asks, eyes on the shifting horizon before them, but he still notices Lup waver a little bit in the air were she’s streaking forward just a few feet above and ahead. “Before this happened, I mean. Did you and Taako-?”

“No.” She says, her gaze still fixed forward, the half-light of the Astral Plane striking her cheek and jaw in an overly familiar way. Lup and her brother have an uncanny resemblance to each other that Kravitz didn’t think you could get with different gendered twins, but Taako just hand-waved the curiosity with a simple ‘She’s my sister now, y’know?’. Eyes closed and quiet, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart by face, but everything else is distinct.

The wind is blowing her hair back, familiar blond curls tinted with a red that’s all her own and merely tied in a ponytail, not Taako’s braid. Her black reaper’s cape is cast around her shoulders, the familiar crimson of her Starblaster jacket and robe closed against the wind. Although the two of them will wear as many colours and accessories as they please, Kravitz has learned well in the last three years that Lup is much more practical about her choices when heading into trouble.

The robe may be a staple of her outfit, but the jacket is only buttoned up like that when she’s anxious. Simple black gloves and long black boots, white trousers tucked into them at the knee, means she’s focused on only one thing, and it’s not answering Kravitz’s question.

He looks back at the horizon.

“I thought I asked you to please let him know-”

“Can this not fucking wait?” Lup snaps at him, her spell wavering a little before her focus shifts and she picks up some speed. Kravitz keeps pace easily, he’s the one who got her and Barry used to flying on this plane in the first place.

“You’re a lich and a reaper, Lup.” She knows this, she doesn’t need his reminder. “If you’re worried about the strength of your anchor and what keeps you sane when you shift back and forth-” She loses it.

Of course I’m worried about him!” Lup pulls up short and Kravitz sweeps past her by a good thirty feet before catching and bringing himself to a hovering stop, turning to face her with his own cape filled with the ambient power of their magic. Lup has both hands up in her hair, her gaze lost on the calm ripples of the lake a hundred feet below them. “He’s my brother! And he’s missing! So yes I’m worried, Captain-fucking-Obvious!”

Kravitz isn’t afraid of her outburst, he just hovers there and waits for her.

“I’m scared! Yeah, amazing!” She rages, and Kravitz watches but he can already tell the blurred edges around her form are the magic of the Raven Queen, not her own power. She has her hands over her eyes, and the days of silence as they’ve flown across the Astral Plane finally crumble.I’m scared because he’s mortal and I’m not and I don’t know what forever really means! Yeah, we were supposed to have a few hundred fucking years to figure it out but now he’s missing! Missing! My anchor is gone!”

And that’s why Kravitz brought this up.

Taako’s disappearance is, as Barry put it at the end of their last mission and probably again since this incident, a nightmare scenario. If Kravitz had known either of them a hundred years ago he would now have the luxury of finger-wagging and going ‘I fucking told you so’ regarding their choice to become liches, but he didn’t so he doesn’t.

Barry, to his great credit, is an incredibly competent necromancer on top of his training in arcane research. When he chose to bind his soul to his own magical power, he selected two things as his anchor: his love for Lup, and his unfaltering belief that the success of their mission would safeguard Creation from the Hunger. Ever since the Day of Story and Song, even Kravitz has a hard time identifying Barry’s lich nature, even on the Astral Plane, because he’s just so effortlessly grounded in the salvation won by his companions.

Lup, not to disparage her own arcane prowess and competence as a researcher, is not a necromancer. Perhaps she missed something of the nuances in choosing an anchor that was as immutable as Barry’s, or maybe it’s just something about the wizard herself that meant she couldn’t see beyond the two bonds that mean the most to her. She chose her love for Barry, and her love for Taako.

They both chose their bond with each other, but Barry supplemented his choice with an aspect of creation, while Lup chose a mortal. It’s not the same thing. She’s grounded, and she’s lucid, and she’s strong, but Lup is absolutely a lich.

And now she’s a lich with one of her anchors in peril.

Kravitz slowly hovers back towards her, not touching Lup as she wrestles with her emotions and just levitates there, breathing deep but even to get herself under control. She isn’t a danger, not yet, but the quiet worry that Kravitz and Barry both asked her to share with her brother is taking its chance to burrow and bite into her. The haunting question of ‘what happens at the end of an elf’s long life?’ is growing into the alarm bell of ‘what happens if anything happens to Taako now?

Kravitz doesn’t want the answer to those questions either. Bringing Taako into the Astral Plane is a possibility, and if he’s killed then it will be the best thing for him on a spiritual level, but they…

He holds his hand out to her. After a moment, Lup takes it, wiping her eyes with the back of her red sleeve without looking at him.

“You know I had to ask,” he says. “And you know why.”

“Yeah,” she takes another rough swipe with her sleeve, bloodshot eyes peeking up at him behind her bangs. “I’m not gonna lose it, Ghost Rider, there’s too much left for me to do first.”

“Like find your Captain?” He reminds her, and Lup forces a tight smile.

“Yeah, exactly that.” Good, he’s not pleased with matters, but he can move on and get them back on the path to finding Davenport and hopefully bring him into the know about this Roswyth person.

“Kravitz.” The sound of his actual name is a bit of a surprise when Kravitz gets ready to fly off, and he looks back at Lup again.

She isn’t quite so harried anymore, looking at him with an iron-clad resolve he can appreciate.

“I’m not gonna lose it.” She says again, hovering there with her back straight, shoulders set, eyes unflinching. “He needs me, and I’m not gonna let anything get in my way.”

He lets himself wear a brief smile, and nods. Looking down at his hand, Kravitz channels a bit of energy into his palm for a moment, eyes closed as he hears the echo of Davenport’s song.

“Then don’t fall behind, Fire Hazard.”

And he takes off into the twilight, Lup’s scandalized yell pealing behind him.


 

Taako gets all the way out of bed this time. It’s comfy. It’s soft and big and has that fresh warm feeling that good sheets do. There’s a second letter on top of the first, but Taako ignores them. He just wraps the blankets around himself. He walks over the rug and steps on the clothes the fake pulled off his body. 

Showers, sort of, but gets distracted by the lost disguise spell in the mirror, and the half-there flash through the glass itself. Turns off the water, doesn’t bother washing his hair. Wrapped in the blanket again, he goes back to the bedroom.

It looks just like Goldcliff. White walls with gold panelling, round tables with lace doilies, baskets of fruit and flowers and decadent cakes just here and there and everywhere. It smells like the Goldcliff room, with a pot of orange-peel potpourri in a censer by the barred balcony door.

He doesn’t ask his questions. He just goes back to sleep.


 

When you’re close to a member of the Starblaster’s crew but separated by the planar boundary, you still know. It is, in fact, remarkably easy to tell where they are when it’s just a simple touch between worlds to get there. 

There are bonds, visible, real, feathering through the air as Kravitz and Lup finally reach their destination. On the Astral side the geography isn’t much changed, the sweeping waters of the Astral Plane are still populated with the lounging, rested spirits of those who have lived and died and are waiting to live again. Kravitz can tell even before he or Lup open the portal through worlds that they have come a long, long ways from Neverwinter and the Sword Coast. Still, it’s with only a practiced flick of his wrist and the electric charge of his scythe’s manifesting power that the way between worlds opens up, and he and Lup pass through unchallenged. 

They come out to blue skies, about ten in the morning. A cloudless day, windless. Waveless.

They’re in a great expanse of water again, but unlike the constant motion of normal waves or even the Astral Plane, here there is nothing. The air hangs, not with humidity, but with inertia: nothing will move here unless moved first. Kravitz almost falls out of his own flight spell simply because he expects more from a world that seems to be holding its breath. The sea is glass: unbroken and perfectly flat, no currents or waves or winds to disturb it.

Lup immediately investigates, swooping down low to the water and peering down at her own pure, unbroken reflection. She dips her fingers into the sea and the ripples from her touch and withdrawal spread, and spread, and spread, without hinderance.

“What kind of ship does Davenport have?” Kravitz asks, “I hope it isn’t propelled by wind.”

“Nah,” Lup answers, wiping her fingers off on her jacket. The water itself seems normal enough. “It’s a modified bond engine. Same principle as the Starblaster, but, y’know, not a space ship.”

“Where are we?”

“A place called the Wakeless Sea?” Oh good, she’s just as confused by this as Kravitz is.

They don’t have to search for which way to go, and thankfully the answer is not the bottom of the eerie ocean. An island is within sight, mountainous and green, and the two reapers can feel the strain of the magic holding them aloft in the air now that they’re no longer in the Astral Plane. They carry forward, no longer as fast as they were in the other realm, the sea and sky silent and still around them. It’s like flying between two mirrors, and Kravitz will be happy to get out from under the scrutinizing glare.

Lup pulls a face as the two of them land on the rocky beach. There are no waves, no sigh or crash of the sea striking the land. It sort of defeats the whole purpose being on an island, and Kravitz looks up across the treeline around them. The beach is only about a hundred feet deep, fallen logs and alpine wilderness spreading thick and back inland. The air is warm and the gentle scent of flowers and fresh grass is somewhere, wildflowers peppering the shade and sun filtering between the trees.

There’s nothing left to do but search. A ship will be on the shore, and the two of them pick a direction at random and walk along the water. Every few strides, Lup reaches down and picks up one of the smooth stones, hurling it off into the water. The plop of the rocks hitting the still glass surface and the crunch of the stones under their boots is the only sound for a long, long time.

High above them stretch at least two high cliffs, the end of what look like a mountain’s rugged back. Too high to bother climbing right now, and not where they’re going to find Davenport’s ship. They aren’t going slow, but setting a quick pace over the rugged terrain.

After maybe an hour or two of exploring the shore, the beach dips inland and folds into a cove, the sun sparkling bright and warm overhead as the trees pull back. A river-cut vale of soft spring grass and rolling wildflowers sweeps around them, and the first breath of air they’ve felt since coming out of the Astral Plane blows past their feet.

A ship is- no, Kravitz was about to say it was moored in the mouth of the cove but then he sees the terrible lean of the vessel, its deck slanted toward the still water with a few large logs desperately propping it up. The ship’s white hull is blackened in places, worn from the high seas and beginning to sport a green ring along its new keel. The name Stargazer is stencilled in red along its stern and the large mast is snapped and sitting in the water, ropes abandoned every which way around it. It’s beached, and damaged, and there’s a massive metal ring connected to the back of it but for all intents and purposes, the ship is going nowhere.

There are signs of habitation around, not many, but a flute of grey smoke is coming from a cook-fire, and a covered pavilion made of wood is standing a few hundred meters away. As the reapers approach, there are people, and they’re noticed immediately.

Lup touches the raven pendant at her throat and the enchantment activates, sucking up her black cloak and letting the red of her jacket and robe show clearly in the sunlight. Kravitz makes no changes to his own appearance, simply walking along beside her.

The people are not villagers or islanders, they’re sailors. Everyone has the same blue trousers on, most of them with jackets tied around their waists, or open and covering their shoulders. They’re a rough and tired looking lot, as distressed as their ship. Some have signs of injuries only recently recovered from: bright patches of skin under tears in their clothes, missing sleeves, immediate anxiety around strangers. Kravitz counts three, then seven, and someone goes running past the pavilion and the fire to a small shack that looks semi-decent for keeping the elements at bay. The others gather around the fire, watching the reapers’ approach.

They’ll recognize Lup soon enough even if this isn’t Davenport’s crew, because Lup is one of the Seven Birds. If they attack her, they’ll regret it, but Kravitz can’t recall anyone meeting one of the crew members since the Song and turning to violence. There are now just over ten people gathered around the fire, men and women, human and elves, a few dwarves, a half-orc: a decent assortment of people.

And then, from the shack, there comes a raised voice and, quick and proud as you please, a familiar gnomish man steps out. Kravitz hears Lup give a relieved breath as they continue onward until they reach the edge of the gathered sailors.

Davenport is wearing a blue captain’s jacket, long and well-cut around him, but ragged like his crew and left open in the warm summer meadow. His coppery hair is thinner on top than down the sides, and his moustache has gone scraggled over his top lip. His boots look distressed and his shirt is stained, like everyone else around him, but his pale eyes light up and he throws his hands in the air with a chipper yell as he comes to them.

“Hale and well-met, Lup!” He says, a great smile on his face as he passes his crew to greet them. “I knew Lucretia would send someone out here eventually! Damn stone was lost in the attack, haven’t been able to get a proper message out to-” and then he stops, and stares, and Kravitz sets his teeth. “What the devil are you doing here?”

Huh. That’s the second time in not very long that Kravitz has been greeted very poorly. Davenport catches himself very quickly, not even giving Lup a chance to get past a shocked “Captain?” 

“Blast it,” he grumbles, closing his eyes and giving his head, then both hands, a shake. Kravitz has a hand on his hip and waits. “My apologies, Kravitz, that’s hardly any way to greet a friend. I just…” He stops, rubbing his forehead now with one hand, the other on the small of his back like he’s got a sore spot. 

Then he grumbles something surprising… 

“…find out which one of those chucklefucks is a death-dodger.” 

“-excuse me?” Kravitz can’t help himself, he’s never heard Davenport swear before, nevermind with one of Taako’s preferred terms. Davenport looks at him and seems very tired, then looks at Lup, then back again, and he waves them forward. 

“Come, to my quarters then, on board the ship. We’ll sit and talk there and, Kravitz, I promise to tolerate no resistance against the Raven Queen’s authority.” That’s certainly a nice pledge and not one Kravitz hears very often, but he’s forced to be frank. 

“Captain Davenport, I’m not here to collect a bounty.” 

“Cap’n, Lucretia didn’t send us either,” Lup is quick to add, “We came because…” but then she looks at the ship, and then casts her eyes around the collected crew again. They’ve been here a long while, with no signs of leaving soon. The two reapers share a look and Kravitz feels like he should nod to show he is, probably, having the same thought. “On second thought, yeah, lets talk inside.” 

Davenport looks at them for a long moment, but he’s nodding to himself. If he’s confused, they’ll discuss it. 

The small captain walks towards his damaged ship, and the two reapers follow. 


 Wake up. Eat. 

Half an apple, bit of bread. Not hungry. 

Drink some water. 

Stare out the windows, watch the island do nothing amid the grey waves. 

Finally, for no fucking reason, put a question in the Book of Accommodations: 

‘What’s up with the dog?’ 

Close book, go back to bedroom. Remember the wrong lips on his, the wrong hands on him, the wrong force of something that was never anyone’s business but his. 

Go back to sleep. 


It’s a touch disorienting to sit in a room that’s slanted at a noticeable angle, but the three of them make it work. Davenport pours Kravitz and Lup each a serving of brandy from a very nice bottle, hiding it away again in a secure cabinet that doesn’t seem bothered by the slant of the ship. 

“This was supposed to be a cartography expedition,” he complains with a grumble, sitting down with his own serving of liquor. “But when you bring a set of adventurers on board everything tends to, forgive the pun, go sideways.” 

Lup gives a quiet ‘aaaye’ at the pun and beside her Kravitz tries the brandy. He can’t tell if it’s good or not because it tastes terrible. 

“Why did you bring them?” He asks, “Did you expect trouble in this strange place?” 

“Nothing of the sort,” Davenport tells them. “The Wakeless Sea is eerie, and uncharted, and terribly dangerous for mundane vessels that need sails or limited fuels, but our bond engine is infinite, especially with me on board.” The little smile he gives makes the edges of his moustache puff out with pleasure. “No no, I let the trio come with because that’s what the employer wanted. They had their special maps and tools and a bit of muscle for their own peace of mind, and I didn’t see the harm in it until we got here.” 

“Were you shipwrecked?” Lup asks, and Davenport shakes his head, then stops with a weak ‘nng’ in his throat and wags a finger at her. 

“We were attacked,” Davenport begins, but then his frown deepens and he shakes his head again. “Or rather, punished, by the guardian of this island. It was so hopelessly stupid, I’m just thankful the Keeper could be reasoned with and didn’t go on to slaughter the lot of us.” 

“Are you in danger of another attack?” Kravitz asks quickly, and Davenport puffs out his cheeks with a slow breath, thinking. 

“Not imminently, no.” He drinks from his glass, holding up a hand before he gives a sigh and looks at them with fresh eyes. “Let me tell you a bit more about this place. You’ve come to the Isle of Roswyth, a place-” Kravitz and Lup sit up straight, interrupting the captain before he can even get going. 

“Erm, are you both alright?” Davenport asks. Kravitz finds his knee bouncing and puts aside the glass of brandy. 

“Finish what you were saying, Cap’n,” Lup says. “We’ll share when it’s our turn.” 

“Um… Alright, this is the Isle of Roswyth. Like I said, we were chartered to bring a set of adventurers here to map and scale the island for a cartographer’s work back in Neverwinter.” Here he grows sour again, and takes another drink from his glass. “That turned out to be false: those three idiots were actually sent here to search for some sort of incredible treasure hidden away on the mountain. They endangered my crew and blasted a whole in my ship with their gall!” 

“They tried to steal from this- Keeper?” Kravitz asks. 

“Roswyth, yes,” He answers, with a bitter hum. “And Roswyth blew a hole in our ship after killing the trespassers outright. Don’t get me wrong, now: the Keeper knew we were here the moment we landed, approached us for conversation and news of the outside world, all very cordial and polite- a little too friendly maybe but nothing toxic. Roswyth gave us food, supplies, offered tours of the island’s wonders, and so on. To have your guests turn out to be thieves is an insult I can understand, and I know where to lay the blame.” 

“Are they a halfling?” Lup cuts in. “A halfling woman?” Davenport just looks at her for a long moment, then shakes his head with a shrug. 

“Not a halfling,” he says, albeit slowly. “But I don’t doubt they could look like one if they wanted. Usually they appear like a very tall human, or sometimes an elf, or a bit in-between. Their illusion magic is very powerful, not that they adhere to the schools so much since they aren’t a wizard. Still, it’s more Taako’s style than mine… Lup?” 

She is… pale. Eyes wide, Lup is staring into a corner of the room away from both of them, her fingers white and withered around the glass in her lap. 

Kravitz has to take over and explain for both of them: about the woman named Patrice Roswyth, like this island they’ve come to, and how she’s to blame for Taako’s disappearance and the attack on Magnus. Davenport listens, and he finishes his drink in a long gulp at the end. It’s his turn to be a little pale. 

“The Keeper does make honey,” he allows slowly. “They make just about everything else as well. If you follow the river further inland you’ll see this island is a horticultural dream, a zoologist’s paradise. Flora, fauna, and artefacts of all kinds. There’s an entire plateau just an hour from here where every stone on the ground is a completely different mineral, all arrayed by colour. There’s no real weather here on the Wakeless Sea, so wherever Roswyth places something, it stays there.” 

“How long have you been here?” Kravitz presses, because time passes at relatively the same pace between the Astral and Prime Material planes, but it’s harder to gauge on the former. 

“Five months,” Davenport answers. “We were here about ten days before those fools got themselves killed in the Keeper’s lair, and I just barely brokered the peace to keep my crew safe after the assault on our ship. Since then we’ve just been sitting pretty hoping for someone back home to notice, that’s why I mentioned Lucretia to you both when you arrived. Truly, I wouldn’t have expected to hear anything before Candlenights, since that would make me at least a month overdue for my return.” 

“You said you lost your stone in the attack?” 

“Ooh, and just about everything else.” Davenport grumbles and goes to retrieve the bottle of brandy. Lup takes the opportunity to knock her entire serving back in one gulp, holding the cup out for a refill from her Captain. “One does not argue with an angry island guardian when they pillage your ship in exchange for your lives, not if you have friends living on a floating moonbase, anyways. Most of our tools for repairing the ship were taken, hence her poor, poor state even after this long. But, I made a promise to Merle about Candlenights this year, so as long as I could keep the Keeper satisfied and entertained-” 

He pauses abruptly, eyes wide and back going straight like he’s just felt something run down it. Davenport stops and looks at both of them, mouth agape and a finger raised off the neck of the bottle. 

“Allow me to rephrase that…” he insists, returning to his seat and hopping up on it with a frog in his throat. “As long as I remain willing to share my time with the Keeper and tell them of the home world and the many cycles between then and now, they’ve taken the pressure off. Less death and fire raining from the mountainside, more waiting for the Bureau to notice the lack of contact and send someone looking.” 

“So you’ve been…” Lup struggles with the words. “Telling this person stories about all of us? The whole team?” 

“But it doesn’t make sense for Roswyth to try and hurt Taako,” Davenport is quick to skip right to Lup’s real question: is this Keeper the one to blame for Taako’s disappearance? “Or anyone for that matter who hadn’t wronged them first. Certainly they’ve heard of Taako, the Song reached way out here as well as every other corner of Creation, and they knew me by sight before I could introduce myself on the first day.” 

“Where is their lair?” Lup demands, and Davenport takes a quick breath, rubbing his fingers around his glass. “When was the last time you saw this Keeper?” 

“It’s been weeks,” Davenport answers, then drinks. “At least three now. One of my officers saw Roswyth fly away from the island at dawn one day, and they haven’t been back yet- at least not in any form we’ve seen from the cove.” 

Kravitz has so many questions bubbling up inside from that statement, because it’s just so strangely put. 

“So, the lair is empty right now?” Lup demands, and Davenport is quick to put both hands up, almost dropping his drink. 

Please, get Lucretia to send down pods to help get my crew off this island before you do anything insane, Lup.” 

“What did the adventurers you brought here want?” Kravitz jumps in with his question. His questions. “What were they looking for?” 

“Frankly, Kravitz, I don’t give a damn because the culprits are dead.” Davenport isn’t frantic, but he has a wide-eyed and anxious look to him as he warns them. “I don’t know, and I don’t care. They said they were going to go take measurements from the highest peak, and by that evening my ship and crew were being held hostage.” 

“We get your crew out of here,” Lup says firmly, “And then we set a trap for this so-called guardian.” 

“I cannot express how bad that idea is, Lup, I really, really can’t.” 

She took my brother!” 

“You don’t know that-! And even if you did, Roswyth hasn’t been back to the island since before Taako disappeared. How would he be in there without them?” 

I don’t care!” 

Lup,” Kravitz interrupts their brewing argument with a firm voice, a hand outstretched to stop her. The look she gives him is black not just in spirit but in fact, a rancid sort of magic eating away at the whites of her eyes, blackening her nails, and thinning her skin. Kravitz holds back any urge to curb her lich tendencies. “I agree with you,” he says instead. “I agree with both of you. But if Taako’s safety is at stake, then we can’t afford to be reckless. Davenport’s crew has done nothing to deserve getting caught in the cross-fire, can you at least agree with that much?” 

Lup is staring at him, the poison energy inside of her still roiling, but less violently now. She glares, and she glares, and she glares, but then through tightly clenched teeth she utters something out-loud. 

“…I want him back.” 

“So do I.” 

“I don’t want anything to happen to Taako,” Davenport agrees, leaning towards them. “Or Magnus! Or to either of you. But please, Lup, even if the Keeper is to blame, it won’t be as simple as yelling at them and throwing a fireball to get them to back down.” 

Lup looks at her Captain with hatred in her eyes, teeth still clenched and threads of necrotic energy hissing between them. 

“We’ll get the Bureau to evacuate the crew,” Kravitz says, pulling out his stone of far speech as he says it. The moonbase will probably have to fly closer to where they are to even give Avi’s technicians a shot of the island, and it’s not the easiest citadel in the world to reposition. 

Err. Well, maybe it is. 

“I can give Lucretia our exact coordinates,” Davenport offers, standing up and going over to his desk, his maps all pinned in place so the damage to the ship didn’t disturb them- though his navigators’ tools were not so lucky. “But for heaven’s sake, tell her not to come too close.” 

“Why are you so fucking scared of this Keeper?” Lup snaps, but she’s coming back to herself again as Kravitz attunes his stone carefully. “We faced the Hunger, the Judges, the creepy fungus planet- but this one stupid island hermit has you shaken? Cap’n, what the fuck?” 

Davenport gives a heavy sigh from over his maps, standing on a stool overlooking the desk. He fluffs out his mustache with the breath, and looks at Lup with a flat, even stare. 

“I’m not afraid of the Keeper, Lup, I have an accurate and well-supported wariness of their power, and you should too.” 

“I hardly see why,” Kravitz says, standing up and bringing his stone to the desk, laying it down on the map so Lucretia will be able to hear all of them. Lup joins them both. “This is a research vessel, not a warship, Captain Davenport, it can’t be terribly hard to blast a hole in.” 

Davenport rolls his eyes at him, and Kravitz rests his knuckles on the map, looking down as the wizard begins to drag and draw his fingertips across the desk. There are whispers of magic coming off the contact, the threads of an illusion spinning skillful and quick through the air. 

With a lift of his hand, a small conjuring of a humanoid appears from a column of white smoke and light. White robes with hems that shift between green and gold, a pleated belt of the same beautiful colours. Long, slender limbs and cold white skin, with features that are soft and pleasing, but difficult to nail down exactly: the chin could have a touch of hair neatly combed down it, or the curve of hips and waist could just be the fit of the robes. The figure’s hair is long and worn loose, copper coloured and sleek. 

This is the Keeper. 

“Oh Kravitz…” Davenport grumbles, watching his little illusion stand there for a few seconds, then he uses both hands to pluck at the air and draw the illusion up, and open, and up. The figure’s tranquil face sports a grin, then a growl, and the eyes glow, the teeth becoming sharp, the hair rising and curling back with horns, limbs reforming as the robes expand and billow out. 

Talons, and fangs, and wings, and scales. 

"Hot diggity shit,” Lup swears, as the illusion grows, and grows, and grows, until the lashing tail and gripping fangs cross the entire length of the desk, eyes burning with a raw inferno. 

“Kravitz,” Davenport says again over his lashing, feral creation. “Roswyth is a dragon.”

Huh. 

Shit. 

Chapter Text

Alright, so… Taako’s figured some shit out.

He stretches in the bed he didn’t fall asleep in this time, because he’s gone under so many times without doing much in between that he’s finally… maxed out. He reaches for the stack of envelopes from Patrice and, with a pillow behind his head and shoulders, tears it open.

Yadda yadda adjusting well yadda yadda haven’t heard from you yadda yadda…

He tosses it aside, takes the one under it.

Blah blah blah you’re cute when you sleep blah blah no hard feelings blah blah blah...

The next oldest:

Warble garble misfired spell, do you want it-?

He actually reads this one properly.

Dear esteemed guest,

The hound in question is the result of what you might call a misfired spell. Initially I had no intentions of maintaining my hold on the creature, especially since the retrieval process did not go according to plan. Although I do not believe the hound will be available overlong, I am not opposed to transitioning its current arrangements to match with yours. Simply put: if you desire a pet, however briefly, I am not opposed to such an offering.

Consider it an apology, of sorts, given your rather negative reaction to previous attempts to provide you with company.

Sincerely yours, The Keeper.

You know what-? You know what? You know the fuck what? Taako almost goes back to sleep again. Fuck it. Fuck this place. Fuck the reminder and the fact that Taako just had to read the words ‘provide you with company’ with his own two fucking eyes.

He rolls onto his stomach and pulls the pillow over his head, shoving it down on his arms and just- ugh!

Fuck you! Fuck yoU! FUCK YOU!”

He screams, and he kicks, and he beats the bed with his arms, until he isn’t necessarily calm but reaches the end of the episode. Until he just can’t anymore.He sits up and the tantrum’s done nothing but make his face hot and sticky, his hair an absolute disaster.

Okay fine. He’s had his nap, he’s had his cry, and now Taako goes and pulls himself the fuck together.

Hot shower- hot. Something that opens his pores and makes the exfoliating scrub he uses really buff and get in there to the point where it almost hurts. He fixes himself, magicless though he is again, and whittles away what must be nearly two hours in the bathroom, working his stress out with the most fastidious grooming session he’s probably had since the apocalypse.

Because when he’s cleaning his teeth, or buffing his fingernails, or pumicing his feet, or going through every thread of hair on his head with oils and conditioners and then the fine attention of brushes and fingers, he can think.

He can think, and he’s ready to try again to figure out how he’s getting out of here.

It means another trip to the book, and three brief requests: give me the dog, and I want to change these rooms.

That terrifying spell that wraps around him whenever he meditates or sleeps? That’s how Patrice knows what he’s doing. The book doesn’t do anything, not really: maybe it signals Patrice to pay closer attention, but the Keeper gets everything they need out of... out of something.

Taako didn’t write any details about the room in Goldcliff, but he’s here in Goldcliff.

He meditates while his facial mask sets, and fights and struggles his way out when he knows it’s dry, tending to his skin first before investigating further. When he opens the door to the library, he walks through the spacious aisles of his school’s reading room in Neverwinter, a place he named but didn’t describe to the book, a place that didn’t exist until after the Day of Story and Song.

So it’s not Fisher’s magic giving Patrice a head’s up. This does not reassure him, and the next room just makes the sense of cold doom across Taako’s shoulders settle a little harder.

The parlor-turned-dojo is now the hauntingly familiar heart of his grandfather’s farmhouse. The problem being: Taako doesn’t remember the farmhouse, not clearly, not well. He and Lup didn’t stay there very often or very long, and what shadows Taako lets himself remember aren’t pleasant. There’s a reason a life hitch-hiking here and there on wagon roads, shipping convoys, and railways was what the two of them chose for each other.

The room is large and square-ish, just quashed into the shape of a hexagon for Patrice’s sigil, like a mirror bending the walls where they used to be straight. Sunlight, tinted pink, streams in from high windows, a couple of them show tinted glass hangings, but he only recognizes two or three of them: the butterfly, the blue bird, before his eyes struggle with the rest. The grand table is bigger than it should be, distorted by time, memory, and Patrice’s efforts to rectify those mistakes. It shouldn’t come up to Taako’s chest, but it did the last time he saw it, so it does now.

It’s a bright and beautiful place, though it belonged to a stern and unkind son of a bitch. His potted plants are on the floor and hanging from the strong cedar beams. The plants are all the familiar shades of blue from the home world, the sky outside the windows tinted a soft lavender, one sun a few degrees apart from the true one.

Patrice doesn’t have enough of Taako’s memories to populate the room beyond the table, a single padded couch, the window and the plants. The rest is blurred, terribly, and it makes his eyes and head ache trying to see through the fuzz. But it’s okay. This is cool. It answers his question as he retreats out of the farmhouse and quietly closes the door behind him, into the Library.

Those creepy threads? The little fibres that coil and snare around him when he falls asleep? That odd bit of magic that Taako hasn’t had a name for? He knows what those are now.

They’re Patrice’s influence worming, burrowing, and scouring their way right into the deepest, calmest, oldest places in Taako’s memory. It’s Patrice using Taako to feed the cluster, to be the vines crawling up the frame the Keeper laid out for him: the seven perfect hexagons, arranged all in a flower. Taako can make this realm into anything his heart, his mind, or his memory desire, because as long as he can envision it in his own mind he can make a request of it in Patrice’s book.

No wonder they were able to put Kravitz together so easily, but so poorly. It’s not like Taako was laying around thinking specifically of the Grim Reaper’s favourite condiments or taste in wine instead of... just fucking having him here.

‘The more I change this place and make it my own,’ Taako writes in the book, keeping his hand steady as he goes, his mind still churning the problem over and over in silence. ‘The more beautiful it becomes on your end, doesn’t it?’

He leaves the book alone after that, and goes to make himself a cup of tea and watch the ocean. The dog’s island is a little bit closer today.

He has a lot to think about.


 

Hearing back from Lup and Kravitz with Davenport’s status is a great relief to all of them, but it comes with its own horrifying conclusions. Their Captain never, in any possible way, intended to bring the rest of their crew to harm by telling the dragon Roswyth stories about them, stories which built upon and elaborated on the Voidfish’s song, stories that brought the idea of seven birds in a gilded cage to the forefront of the dragon’s mind, but this is their reality.

It’s been several hours since the message came through from Lup, and Lucretia finds herself just wandering the Bureau of Benevolence as the moonbase quiets down for the late-night shift. She comes into the mess hall, with its long, cold, quiet tables, and the light of this world’s true moon is filtering through the dome’s windows.

She always likes this time of night. When the loudest, busiest place on the quad is at its most silent. When the true moon of Faerun reminds her of the true sun of the home world.

The base’s control room has already begun calibrating and inputting the commands to move the floating island out over the ocean toward the Wakeless Sea, a particularly unstable atmosphere that they might not be able to enter fully, but that remains to be seen. They just need to get within range of the cannons, and those don’t require line-of-sight, just a very carefully calculated trajectory.

Once they extract Davenport and his crew, they can begin the real work of trying to barter with a dragon for a piece of what is now, essentially, their hoard.

That- thought. The sentence: Taako is part of a dragon’s hoard. It’s ludicrous. They’ve encountered so much sheer insanity throughout their lives but this-? It shouldn’t feel like this.

Taako being claimed by a dragon should be hilarious and awkward. It should be Taako himself being flattered, for once, out of any smart comments. He should be poking fun at Lup, sticking his tongue out while she laughs and then tries to dress herself up to the dragon as the better twin. It should be Merle giving the same sort of smile he does when speaking with plants, trying to get a rise out of the Wizard. Magnus should be challenging the great beast to a strength contest, while Davenport and Lucretia try to broker an actual solution to their problem.

Taako sitting awkwardly atop a pile of gold and jewels, complaining that his ass hurts from all these giant rubies.

That’s the way it should be, but instead it’s like this.

It’s all of them losing sleep and feeling gutted. It’s Davenport’s brisk but clear description of three adventurer’s skeletons, chewed and charred, left to decorate the beach while the Stargazer took on water after the trespass into the beast’s lair. It’s the fact that Roswyth is no youngling, no dragon of horse-size or slightly smaller, or a little bit bigger.

Roswyth is a dragon. Davenport has only seen the guardian’s true form once, but the great creature’s wings covered the sky, its body tore the air, and its power is not to be questioned or doubted. It didn’t use its breath to damage the ship, but a thoughtless lick of magic from its scales.

That they may prefer not to fight doesn’t change the fact that should it come to blows, Lucretia’s insides twist at the thought. The damage could be catastrophic, the losses unbearable. Would Taako tolerate them rescuing him if it meant one or more of their friends and family had to die? On the surface, of course, but would he really? Lucretia can’t think it of him. Taako is too self-sufficient to be happy with a rescue anyways, he’d much rather get himself out of the situation and meet them on their way in.

“Madame Director?” She looks up, it’s Avi.

It’s Avi and Lucretia realizes that not only has she taken a seat at one of the tables, but she’s been resting here with her head in her hands, elbows on the cold metal, trying to worry her way through fighting a dragon. She’s not sure how long she’s been here, but she didn’t hear Avi come all the way inside. She’ll have to wager at quite a while.

“Ah- I should have saved my ruminating for private,” she says calmly, but pulls out a smile for him. His expression is open and curious, almost worried. “I’m sorry, Avi, if I seem a little out of it. It’s quite late, did you need anything?”

“Oh, no, Ma’am.” Avi is wearing his uniform, the blue and silver of the Bureau of Balance, with the fitted jacket and matching slacks. Where he dodges the regulations, of course, is the mane of thick black curls defying gravity from the tie behind his head. Is he on guard duty tonight? She can’t remember the roster presently, but the cannons will need him by the time they reach the dragon’s island. He has something under his arm and drums his fingers on it anxiously for a moment. “I just- I was down in the Voidfish’s chamber for a while tonight, but when I came this way and saw you I thought- well, maybe it wasn’t so bright of me: you are my boss, after all.”

That’s… awfully wordy of him.

“Are… you offering me a drink, Avi?” Hopefully that’s not what’s in the box, and Avi gives a sudden laugh that ends in an embarrassing snort, and he holds out the case proper- oh.

“A game, Director.” It’s a chess board. “Something to help take your mind off what’s troubling you this evening. I mean, I also have a drink if you’d like a bit, but this is what I meant.”

Lucretia just… smiles. It’s so much kindness, a friendly I love you that comes across sweetly and at just the right moment. She offers the seat across from her, and Avi makes a flustered noise before quickly opening the board and parting the pieces.

“White or black, ma’am?”

“I’m partial to white, if you don’t mind.”

They set up the board and Lucretia admires the pieces. They’d old well-used, some of the wooden figures beginning to split from age. They don’t have quite the charm of an antique or heirloom, more like something found in a box in a cellar: there’s that musty smell of disuse, a little sticky in places, but therein lies a different layer of charm. Something lost, found again, and played between friends.

They don’t talk much, a bit of polite back and forth all that’s needed. She didn’t know he was one for board games, and he’s bashful about not being very good.

The pieces slide, and click, and collect across the board. Lucretia brushes some of the grime from her knight’s head onto her dress with her fingers, then goes back to resting her chin on that hand.

“What were you doing down in the Voidfish chamber?” She asks, and Avi’s engrossed enough in their game that he’s left his nerves behind. She’s glad for it: he’s not usually so bashful.

“I go down that way to think sometimes,” he answers, fingers dancing here and there before he finally plucks up his rook, sliding the castle across the board and stopping without collecting anything of Lucretia’s, but it disrupts her next move. “It’s peaceful. Good memories.”

She knows what he’s saying, the meaning between the words. Even after three long years, some hurts still ache.

“It’s too quiet sometimes,” she says, shifting her bishop two spaces down, and ending her turn. “Without Johann.”

Avi’s fingers hover at his queen, and Lucretia respects his silence by not looking at his face.

“…yeah,” he says, and moves his queen a space to the left. “Check.”


 

Magnus can’t sleep. This is not uncommon when one of his friends is in danger, and right now many of his friends are in danger.

Sparring with Carey all day helped tucker him out, and it was good practice on top of everything so he’s thankful for her time, but he’s still too wound up for rest tonight. Being back in the old dorm at the bottom of the base is nice, but wore itself out quick since it’s just him and Merle. What he needs is a walk. What he wishes he could do is take a walk with his dog.

He takes Steven for a walk instead, and it’s almost good enough.

There’s a bit more wind across the quad than normal, but that’s because the base is moving. They’ve pulled away from the Sword Coast and are puttering westward, out over the ocean, following the coordinates Davenport gave them for the island where all of this began. Magnus doubts Taako’s there: the sailors saw the dragon leave but haven’t seen it come back, so Roswyth is probably still somewhere on the continent.

They don’t have Johann, who’s down in Neverwinter with Barry and Lucas, but that scaley son of a bitch does have Taako.

Magnus stops on the quad and just looks skyward. The stars are out and beautiful, slowly moving overhead because of the base flying under his feet. Stargazing is more Merle and Davenport’s thing, what Magnus usually does when stressed out is- is...

He gets a sad little tug in his heart, and sets himself down the path towards a particular dome, with an elevator door in it. He doesn’t have to wait for the car, meaning no one’s probably down there right now.

Three years on, he still expects to see Johann standing there, dower and unimpressed, when the doors slide open. First floor: grass stains and free food.

The sad thought makes him smile, and Magnus listens to the elevator music as the box glides down the shaft. It’s a long, familiar ride, and there’s a soft ding when he arrives at the bottom.

Fisher’s long gone but, somehow, Magnus knows he and Junior are okay. He knows the voidfish and its baby are off somewhere, collecting stories and songs and trinkets and other pieces of happiness made manifest. He can take peace in that, but he’s still allowed to miss his buddy.

Out of respect for Fisher and Junior’s contribution, Lucretia had the voidfish’s chamber cleaned up and restored, complete with the giant tank and Johann’s... desk?

Magnus walks into the dark chamber with only the blue light of Fisher’s rebuilt tank to see by, and he gets a chill of severe deja-vu. Crumpled on the floor in front of the tank is a body.

Crumpled on the floor in front of the tank is... Avi?


 

“I didn’t know you had such a sweet tooth, Avi.” Lucretia smacks her lips around the swallow from his flask, handing it back over the board. “But that kick won’t give you an edge. I’ve played more chess games than I care to admit, on more than a few different planets. I was even considered a champion player on one of them.”

“Really?” Avi asks, chuckling as he caps the flask and tucks it away, the sweetness still clinging to the top of Lucretia’s mouth. “Tell me about that.”

“After this match, I think.” And she looks back at the board. Their forces are arrayed in quite the deadlock, but a number of gutsy moves exist that will break the fray wide open. In her hand, she rubs and turns the body of Avi’s queen, thinking over her next move carefully, and absently rubbing off the sticky patch on the black queen’s head.

“We’ll have lots of time for both,” he says.

“Hm?” Lucretia decides on her move and selects her piece, letting her knight sacrifice itself for one of Avi’s rooks. With a quick look up she’s sees he’s smiling very serenely at the board, his green eyes-

Avi doesn’t have green eyes.


 

Magnus rushes in.

“Avi? Avi!”

Oh fuck, it’s magic, Jesus fuck, Magnus doesn’t do magic!

He’s on his knees and Avi’s not hurt. No blood, no wounds, just these tiny, glowing little threads wrapped all around him like spider silk, holding him down on the floor. He’s breathing, eyes closed like he’s just asleep. Magnus grabs the poor guy, shaking hard and trying to haul him away from the threads- like maybe they’re holding him down? He doesn’t know! He doesn’t know he just has to help him!

“Avi wake up!” Magnus drags and rolls him onto his back, kneeling over and giving a clap on his cheek. “C’mon buddy, shake it off!” It’s not working.

Merle!” He gets his stone of Far Speech out by the cord around his neck, smacking the thing to get it working. “Merle! Sound an alarm! Someone’s knocked Avi out in the Voidfish chamber, there’s shitty magic all over him and I need you to get down here!”

“Wha-? What? Magnus- say again, buddy? Avi’s where?”

“Voidfish chamber! Tell Lucretia and get down here immediately!

I- I’m on my way.”


 

You’re not Avi.”

“You’ve stopped watching the game, Director.”

Lucretia loses her second bishop. She takes a knight. Her king is back in check, she retreats and a pawn revives the black queen. Her thumb is numb, the one she was using to rub the stickiness off the chess pieces. She doesn’t look at it. 

“Tell me why you’re here, and what you want.” 

‘Avi’ gives a hmm over the board, gaze drifting for a moment as if distracted. Then he looks at Lucretia again and smiles, spreading his hands to showcase the game.

“I want to keep the most precious pieces of our world safe, Director. Your move, dear, you’re still in check.”

 There’s a hard, numb sensation in her gut. The back of her mouth feels like it’s closing up. Lucretia can feel magic collecting in the palm of her hand, but it’s just emotion, she doesn’t have a plan. She didn’t think of this.

She should have thought of this.

The numbness spreads, there’s a buzzing noise building between her ears. This magic feels terrible.

“Your winning streak is going to end with me,” she says- she vows. “Taako was surprised and I was careless, but the others won’t repeat our mistakes.”

The creature in disguise spreads its hands over the board again.

Around them, the Bureau of Benevolence’s alarm begins to tone, deep and disturbing, through the quiet shadows.

“Let us test that theory,” the Keeper purrs. “It’s still your move.”


 

Merle shouts into his stone that Lucretia needs to come to the Voidfish’s chamber, and then gets himself on the move, Magnus’ panicked words still filtering through the stone around his neck. Avi is in danger, and Merle needs to reach him.

Lucky for him, it’s an elevator ride up from the dormitory he’s sharing with Magnus. Even better: it’s part of the same complex where all the other Bureau members rest their heads. He’s not much of a gadget and procedure kind of guy, even in a crisis, and punches one of the buttons for a random set of dormitories.

The doors open, and his hands are together with the gathering light of thaumaturgy. He pulls that light into himself, through his own chest, and then opens his mouth.

Whoever knows how to sound the alarm in this place, sound it!”

And then he pushes the close door button and rides the chute all the way up to the quad level.

He’s not a fast runner, more of a waddler by convention, but he’s a stubborn one and once going he doesn’t stop. Merle is just reaching the elevator down to Fisher’s old abode when the stern, hair-raising bellow of an alarm starts to roll through the black night. He has to wait for the damn thing to get up to him.

When the elevator doors open, light flood the quad. The domes explode into full vibrant light, every blade of grass and steel bolt illuminated in glittering detail. Merle actually staggers from it, his good eye blinking from the flood, and he paws at the elevator door with his blessed hand before stumbling inside. By Pan, that’s a good system Lucretia’s got.

The elevator ride down to the chamber is anxiety at its best. Thankfully, he has his stone out and can talk through it to Magnus.

“Is he breathing?”

Yeah! Yeah he is, but you’ve gotta help him!”

I’m ten seconds out, buddy, I promise.”

There’s this- this spell! It’s got him all wrapped up and tangled! I can’t get it off him, Merle, I can’t-”

“Four seconds, Magnus.”

The door finally opens and Merle is quick to get out of it. Even down here, the alarm is reverberating at a powerful tone. It’s not screeching or splitting, it doesn’t have to deafen people to be effective: they just can’t sleep through it, or ignore it.

Magnus is kneeling next to Avi when he gets there, the fighter in tears with their friend’s head in his lap.

This can’t keep happening,” Magnus is tears and terror, his hands gripping Avi’s uniform where the young man is cloaked in an eerie, not-good magical light. “This can’t, Merle, it can’t…

“Is this what Johann looked like?” When the dragon’s honey got him.

“No, no! With Johann he was scared and then he turned to wax, I just came in here and Avi was-”

“I can help him, Big guy, you know I can.” He says it because Magnus is scared. He says it because it’s true, a hand over Magnus’s, a smile on his face. “Thank you.”

He closes his eye to get a better read on things. Avi is certainly alive, his energy is there, his physical form completely unharmed. He’s being held by a spell that feels like a very familiar but very effective casting of sleep. The threads aren’t the sleep spell, the threads are something else completely. They… they’re very… bad.

With a steady breath in and a soft whisper of a prayer to Pan, Merle brings both hands slowly down onto Avi’s chest and banishes the enchantments holding him down. The spells unravel, and-

And Avi’s eyes fly open, neck arched and a terrified gasp pulled into his mouth. He cries out and grabs for Merle, a wild-eyed terror flashing over his face as he sits up, and Magnus is right there to try and calm him and ground him again.

What the fuck!” Avi shouts, tears quick in his eyes. “What the fuck- what the fuck-!? I couldn’t wake up! I couldn’t- it- what the fuck!”

“Avi, what happened?” Magnus asks.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Merle tries to calm him with a hush and a hand on his arm, but Avi’s tears keep coming as he swipes them off his face, shaking hard. “I was just- I come down here to think- and- and I was just thinking and then-”

“Avi,” Merle interrupts, and the young man looks at him.

Merle puts a hand across his chest, and with a gentle pulse of magic Avi’s emotions calm. His fear and his anxiety don’t go away, but they’re subdued, restrained- hugged. They’re hugged until they can’t stop Avi from answering them.

“Is-” He struggles, but he accepts the healing touch. “Is that the base alarm?”

“Yes it is, Avi, now try again,” Magnus urges. “What do you remember?”

“I was just down here having a drink,” he says, shaken but calmer. “Should we be sitting here talking with the alarm ringing?”

Avi.” Merle pushes.

“Okay- okay! I thought I fell asleep, but it was a dream, a terrible, terrible dream.” His eyes fade a little bit, looking for the words. “It was my memory opening up like a book, and someone’s hands going over the pages. Not like the Voidfish, nothing like that, but- but it was every page that the Director and I ever spoke on. And some with you guys- you and Taako, but mostly the Director. They just wanted to know about the Director- is she okay?”

The alarm is still blaring, but Merle feels a coldness enter his chest. He’s the one who scared whoever flipped the alarm into actually doing it, and that was with Magnus’ say-so. Magnus is trying to control the moment by telling Avi not to mind his tears, does he think the Fighter has sweat on his face? Hell no, he was terrified.

But Magnus still meets Merle’s eye for a split second.

So Merle gets up and walks back toward the elevator. And he knows, but he doesn’t want to admit it. He knew, but didn’t stop to realize, that Lucretia hasn’t answered her stone since Merle shouted through it from the dormitory.

Carey and Killian do. They hear him. They search for her. The rest of the Bureau is roused and calmed down. Avi doesn’t fly back into hysterics, but he’s a defeated man as Leon kindly takes him aside to cry it out, to remind him that none of this is his fault.

They don’t find her.

What they do find, in the Bureau mess hall with the lights on high and the alarm still tolling, is a chess board. The pieces are all cleaned up and put away, with only the white queen remaining. She’s laying on her side, slain.

Checkmate.

 

Chapter Text

 

Something about the island changes and without ever catching sight of the dragon, Davenport tells them Roswyth has returned. That dirty back-ally fuck hitched a ride on the Bureau’s base, and then took off with its Director for home.

Lucretia is gone and Kravitz has been riding Lup’s ass about her stressing over it. She’s stressed, she’s under stressed, congratu-fucking-lations, Boneman! She’s stressed!

He tries to send her to Neverwinter where Barry and Lucas are being kept in the loop while working on their research into the wax dog, but she refuses. He tells her to go track down the cartographer whose adventurers broke into the lair and were flayed alive for it, but she won’t. He tries sending her to the Astral Plane for busy-work, and she flat out ignores him. Davenport tries to distract her with helping him restore his ship, and Barry keeps speaking to her through their stones, and Lup wants all of them to just fuck off.

She doesn’t want them, she wants Taako.

Roswyth is on the island, the Keeper is back in their domain. Davenport can tell because overnight with the moonbase hovering just over the horizon above the Wakeless Sea, every flower on the island has blossomed.

She hates how beautiful this place is. It’s like a painting: orchards and gardens that sprawl for miles across one side of the island, wild lands with trees and heaths across the other. The mountains are worn down by the centuries and smooth, rugged, wearing a shawl of mists in the early dawn and robed with colour at all other hours. Grey and amber and earthen, she hates the rainbow born into Roswyth’s cliffs.

On the cultivated side, there are hills dominated with collections. Statues of marble, iron, bronze, wood, even paper, rest untouched in this weatherless place. A field of swords, spears, shields, and countless arms and armaments, each piercing the ground like a strange but still right plant. They don’t rust, they don’t lean.

There are birds of every colour, call, and size. The variety is stunning and Lup knows that in any other lifetime she’d be cataloguing them all, something Davenport’s already started just for the sake of having something to do. Tiny starlings fly over chickadee nests, ravens congregating under the shadows of cardinals and robins. None of them seem interested in each other, and they’re all in good health with plenty of whatever it is they must eat here.

The island is a collection of Faerun, and Lup hates how much love and thought has gone into it.

She spends the days between arrival and Lucretia’s abduction just exploring, because it’s the only thing that keeps her sane. Kravitz comes with her sometimes, but usually she’s alone. The day Roswyth returns to their island, they hear a distant boom and a few minutes later a sparkling glass sphere comes to a gentle rest on the beach. Magnus is inside of it with Angus McDonald, and the sphere goes back to the base with five of Davenport’s relieved crew: four in seats, one desperately laying on the floor.

Magnus gives Lup a big, healing hug when he sees her, and then proudly announces that they’re gonna kick the dragon’s ass!

“I just want to help,” Angus says, when asked why he came along instead of returning to Neverwinter or staying on the base. “And maybe another pair of investigator’s eyes will help us find the entrance to the lair!”

She ruffles his hair, it’s good to have him here.

They all know Roswyth’s lair is somewhere inside the mountains supporting the island, and Davenport knows it’s the central mountain with the rounded top, but he can’t for the life of him remember how to get inside.

“You’ve been inside it, haven’t you, sir?” Angus asks Davenport a little while later, once the rest of the crew have been evacuated.

“Oh yes,” and her Captain describes it, sparing no detail, with sketches. “Roswyth is a collector, a keeper of artefacts and history. Because this island is untouchable by the weather, they keep anything that can be outside in the collections on the hills. Everything else is inside the mountain.”

“So if you’ve been in there, how do we get in there?” Magnus asks.

“A dragon’s magic is not to be snuffed at, Magnus. Even if I could find it with my magic, getting in without an invitation is a death-wish. Just be patient.” The only times Davenport has been in there, Roswyth took him. That’s what their captain is betting on now too: that if he stays here and they keep patient, Roswyth will invite him back in.

“Can I ask...” Kravitz puts his thoughts together slowly, the five of them sitting around the crew’s cookfire after a modest meal. Roswyth’s island boasts about sixteen variety of cabbage, thirty potato types, and countless other vegetables, fruits, spices, and gods know what else. Davenport and his crew had permission from the dragon to forage as long as they didn’t take everything of any one thing. “Can I ask why you’ve been in there?”

“Ah...” And the captain balks a little. “Well- what with the Story and Song- and my own vocation as an explorer, well- Roswyth considered me sort of a kindred spirit of sorts. Someone who collects memories the way they collect physical things.”

“This dragon wants to be your friend?” Kravitz presses, but there’s something about Davenport’s crooked smile, his fingers tightening around his bowl, the little kick of his leg. He’s not lying but Lup hones in on him immediately.

“That would certainly factor into it.” Davenport is an ace at cards but shit at lying about himself.

“I’m going to ask Merle to come down here if you don’t start telling the truth yourself, Captain,” Lup threatens, and her captain breaks a little.

“Their interests may be a bit more, shall we say, ardent, than mere friendship.”

“Wait-”

“Oh my god.”

“I realize!” He pipes up loudly as she and Magnus exclaim over each other, the very gross possibility dawning on them. Lup looks at her boss and Kravitz has his eyes quite wide, then blows out a sigh and shakes his head. Angus doesn’t look surprised, the little shit. “I realize- with what’s been happening, that I may have been reading too far into Roswyth’s intentions- or just plain old fooled by an act. But, ahm, well-

“Did they take you to a wine and pottery evening?” Kravitz blurts out, not looking at Davenport. Lup is watching her captain, and sees the red stain on his face.

“That’s private.”

“Captain, what the fuck.” He went on a date with a dragon. Her captain has gone on several dates with a dragon.

“Barring this mess with Taako and Lucretia, I don’t think that’s fair, Lup!”

“They shipwrecked you!

“With good reason!”

“And is there a good reason for what’s happened to Taako and Lucretia?” Kravitz asks. “Are you going to be able to talk the dragon out of holding them? Is that why you’re telling us to just sit here pretty and wait?”

“I think that even if it fails, talking is worth a try,” Davenport says, and Lup puts her face in her hand for a few seconds.

They either have a love-struck dragon that doesn’t understand the social faux-pas of abducting and magically imprisoning a person’s family to impress them, or a Captain who’s been so overwhelmed by his situation that he’s decided his captor can’t be all that bad. It’s all so- so frustrating. Does this mean Taako’s okay? He’s not injured, or in pain? But where is he? Why isn’t he here with Davenport?

Kravitz is rubbing one cold hand over her shoulder. Davenport is trying to tell her it’s going to be alright.

She knows she’s crying and she doesn’t want to be but she’s so frustrated and things are getting worse and she’ll be patient if she has to but nothing is getting better.

She just wants Taako.


 

He just wants Lup.

Woah! Bad thought! Bad fucking thought! Taako jerks a little and stabs his fork into his breakfast, shovelling egg into his mouth and making a big fucking fuss over it. Bad thought, bad thought, no. No thoughts like that allowed!

He wolfs his food: scrambled eggs, some shredded parmesan, fresh tomatoes and rye toast. He slams back the OJ just to then think about how he sure is a fucking fantastic cook and look at the time! Time for him to- uh, not think about that!

Not think about something he doesn’t want Patrice getting their grubby fucking hands all over, as inevitable as it might be Taako is not going to roll out the welcome mat. Patrice already took Kravitz, he knows it’s inevitable that the Keeper will try to take someone else, but Taako won’t let it be her. It just can’t be her.

He tears open his morning letter from the asshole running this show, and it’s odd.

Dear beloved guest,

I come to you with mixed tidings. While I was unable to make the required acquisition to deliver the promised hound to your abode, I was able to make a significant gain which will provide you with previously unexpected delight and entertainment. 

You may shortly experience a disturbance through your domain, but I urge you not to become alarmed. All is proceeding as planned, and soon the incredibly finite nature of your arrangement will experience a dose of considerable relief.

We are home.

Sincerely, The Keeper

Oh. Oh fuck. Home? Okay. What the fuck does that mean? Whatever it is, it’s not cool, it’s not what he wants. Anything that makes Patrice feel more at home makes Taako feel not at home. He doesn’t like it, he doesn’t want to like it. And what he likes even less is that on the heels of his anxiety, there’s relief.

He’s just so, so bored in here. Since losing his jerry-rigged focus, there’s been exactly fuck all to do in the cluster. He can only conjure up books that he’s read before, but he’s not big on reading so the majority of what’s available are from his IPRE days, and a lot of those have entire chapters or even sections missing because even if he read it once, the information’s just gone out of his memory.

Patrice gave him a music box that lets out some chill tunes, but you can only dance by yourself for a few minutes. Cooking for yourself, even if you have a massive tricked out kitchen and a limitless number of ingredients, gets boring. You can only give yourself so many at-home facials before you risk drying the skin out, or fucking with your natural oil production because you keep super-saturating yourself. 

He can’t use his magic, not with any kind of accuracy for the small-scale casting he was trying with the jewel disks, and Patice hasn’t given him another pseudo-spell book to work with. The Keeper’s suggested shit to him like knitting, or painting, or music, or even needlepoint, but it’s all with the same positive-energy materials that still, after however many weeks it’s been, make his skin crawl and his stomach flip.

He’s so fucking bored in here... He was really counting on getting that dog, just so he could have something to be annoyed with, or feed. Even just to clean up after it when it inevitably shat on the floor because it’s a fucking dog and Taako can’t go outside so where the hell would he expect the dog to go? The toilet? Not fucking likely. Maybe Magnus’ dogs can do that sort of fancy trick crap but not generic demi-plane pooches.

So that’s where Taako’s at when the disturbance hits.

The disturbance is a heartbeat, followed by a suffocating pressure. Like his body just expands by half an inch in all directions and sucks back in too far, petrified in place. He’s just standing there watching that stupid island and then he buckles, the tea cup dropping out of his hand and then freezing at his ankle, the stream of spilled liquid trapped in time.

He’s squeezed, and everything flickers. His vision jumps and everything is shades of brown and yellow, he tries to take a step to stabilize himself and he can’t. The demiplane shudders and Taako feels a buzzing crawl over him, magic burrowing through him and coming out in all directions.

His physical self is seizing and hurting, and his petrified eyes can see an alter. He sees a pedestal, with seven slots and lines connecting them but the hurting won’t stop and the squeezing won’t relent and he just wants to scream-

-and then his mind accepts it and it ends. He feels cool relief burst from the centre of his consciousness and the colours come back, the air comes back. He comes back and he’s on one knee from the shock, a broken tea-cup scattered in a puddle of hot liquid around him. The cluster has changed.

He’s left with the hollow feeling that he’s missing something. He’s still missing something crucial. It’s so simple, but he just can’t grasp it.

The latch on the French doors pops open. The smell of the sea is what makes him look up in shock at the sliver of escape in front of him. He can’t believe it, and for a long long moment, Taako just won’t.

They’re home, and Patrice is letting Taako out.

He doesn’t know what to do. His every instinct screams trap but he’s already stuck here. He may not want to go along with Patrice’s little games, but what other option does he have? Go take another bath and then re-read half a book on arcane forms? He’s found a trap in a house of traps built on the promise of being a trap.

Taako stands up and carefully, cautiously, with just his painted fingertips, nudges the door open.

It just swings out. It’s open. A perfectly normal door, leading out on to a wooden porch, with stairs descending to the grey sand of the beach.

He steps outside and all of that changes. He just- he expects so much pain, but that’s not what happens either. He expects the fire, the crippling nausea, the unbearable hurt of trying to escape, and it doesn’t happen. Stepping outside changes things, but it’s not a mistake.

The whole dimension tilts and then snaps back around him. He’s not on a wooden porch, he’s just on ground. There’s a light mist sweeping around his feet, grey earth and flat pebbles under his boots. Everything around him is mist, and it takes him a few seconds of looking around to understand that it’s not quite neverwhere, the absence of thereness, but it’s definitely not the Prime Material Plane. He’s still on a demiplane, just not the same demiplane.

There’s a weight behind him he doesn’t like however, and Taako glances over his shoulder but doesn’t see what it is. What he does see is the faint outline of a lit door, one he can assume leads back to the kitchen and his cluster. When he turns around completely, that’s when he figures out the weight.

There’s a rope between him and the door, invisible when he was facing away, but now coming out of his chest and tethered to the door with a bit of slack. It’s pearly white and not really there. He’s seen this magic before, with Kravitz, when exploring the planes and places only the very powerful and very cautious can enter and still return from. The sight of the rope puts a cold fear in him because it means he’s left his physical body.

And now he feels even colder. He looks down at himself and his clothes haven’t changed. His appearance is the same. He doesn’t have to focus on it, on the positive energy running over his skin from the borrowed clothes, the borrowed hat, the borrowed gloves and scarf and shirt and belt and robe. They don’t have to have changed moving from one aspect of reality to another, but the fact that he was barely even aware of any shift, of that moment of leaving consciousness and entering a state of projected mental-

Projected.

He gasps and claps both hands over his mouth.

Projected.

“I’m a projection.” The words are muffled against his hand. He finally gets it. It clicks. It makes sense.

Taako can eat the food without consequence because he’s no more solid than it is. His meditation and sleep are indistinct because he’s not doing either. True Sight showed him nothing but solid wax because Taako hasn’t been physically transported to another world, he’s being astrally projected into it.

What the fuck happened to his body? What the fuck happened-?

There’s a grinding sound behind him and Taako turns away from the door to his cluster. A shadow in the mists is rising just ahead of him through the grey, a solid block that comes to waist height and then stops. He goes to it, following Patrice’s breadcrumbs, and looks down at the black column.

There are two buttons on it: Trust and Forsake. Taako laughs and it’s shrill, short, and painful.

“Is this a fucking joke?” He asks, and too his profound disappointment, there’s an answer.

“Of sorts.” A voice- a voice he’s only heard once before answers him from the mist. It sounds close, uncomfortably so, before the mists in front of Taako surge up and spiral, forming a figure dressed in a fancy-ass white robe, green and gold accents wherever you please. Their hair is copper and shiny, loosely tousled, and between the robe and a very modest physique, there’s no real point in pinning down their gender.

Patrice is hot, and Taako’s not impressed in the slightest as the other mage opens a graceful hand and gestures at the alter between them.

“Would it fucking kill you to pick an aesthetic and just commit?” Taako complains, folding his arms and jutting his hip out a little. “Kitsch beekeeper, ugly beach house, candle wax obsession, fucking bees, and now smoke and sorcery? If you wanted to rip-off something from Wonderland you should’ve taken the wheel so you could pick your style for the hour.”

Praise fucking Istus, Patrice’s serene and sculpted face gives a tiny quiver at the eye, a tremble at the lip. Taako’s serving up the spice tonight, bitch!

He doesn’t care that Patrice rebounds from it, fuck Patrice.

“I know it’s too soon to expect an amicable rapport between us-”

“Oh bitch,” Taako interrupts, nose in the air. “You have not even begun to see the true amicability that is one Taako the Wizard. And you never fucking will, because you’re going to let me the fuck out of this circus you’re running.”

Taako.

“No.”

“-may I call you Taako?”

“You may fucking not, Patrice!” The mage grits their teeth a moment.

“That is- not my name.”

“Patrice if I gave a shit what your name was I would’ve used it like three weeks ago when I got here.” That’s another zinger for Taako. “Now put me back in my body, because I swear to god I’ve had enough of your bullshit.”

“Then all you need do is turn around, good sir, and walk back in.” Patrice gestures dismissively off behind Taako, and he masks the sinking feeling in his gut with another sneer.

Ugh, don’t be coy with me.” He says, “I’m as much a projection in there as I am out here, so let me rephrase that: put me back in my fucking body on the Prime Material Plane before I flip your shit on its head again.”

“I think the cabin fever’s gotten to you quite badly,” Patrice answers in a breezy voice. “I can’t fault you for being a bit stir crazy, I did get so terribly side-tracked after Goldcliff, but I saw my opportunities and simply had to put my best foot forward. But like I said-”

“I don’t care.”

“-we’re home now,” Patrice finishes, speaking over his interruption. “Which brings us to this little doo-dad I’ve conjured for you. While one of my spells misfired and went astray, the other proved very effective, meaning now that we’re home you’ll no longer have to rely on only myself for company. My libraries of books and music are also vast and highly entertaining, and I will be able to make numerous accommodations that were available between us while journeying as we did. But I’m getting distracted, dear, the buttons!”

Taako keeps his expression flat and neutral, arms crossed, posture crooked, because he doesn’t want to show how damn hard he’s listening to everything Patrice says. Not have to be alone? A misfired spell? He knows that’s what Patrice said about the dog, but Taako didn’t let himself consider what the target of that spell could have been.

“Who am I forsaking?” He demands, not moving toward the buttons. “You know that’s the only choice Taako ever makes. Trust is for chumps.”

“While it wasn’t part of my original vision,” Patrice explains, folding their hands delicately in front of them. “I’ve come to know and understand you quite well, I feel.” Horseshit. “If I simply deposited your fellow tenant into this plain without consulting you, I doubted you would be very impressed. Seniority has benefits: you may choose to be kind to them, or to make their transition an event of suffering. My preferences do not factor in, as I believe keeping you entertained will do more good for all parties in the long rung.”

“Manipulation doesn’t work if you explain it upfront, dipshit.” He doesn’t like this, he doesn’t like this at all. Why would Patrice add people to this place? Why did Patrice even want him in the first place?

“Then why don’t we get right to it?”

They never mentioned a ransom. Taako’s just assumed, very loosely, that he seemed like a challenge for the other mage’s planar magics? But other people. Why would he want other people?

Taako remembers the half-vision of seven slots on an alter.

The misfired spell hit a dog. It hit a deerhound.

Patrice swings one arm out and the mist recoils like a gust of wind chases it off. The barren ground buzzes and froths for a few seconds, and then the outline of a door appears. It grows from thin threads and surges up, non-descript and filled with light that Taako flinches from a little. It’s neverwhere, and something is hanging in it.

His chest tightens and his neck goes straight. The words leave his mouth before he can think.

“Let her go.”

Lucretia is cocooned in thin threads of magic, suspended by her bound arms and crushed shoulders with her toes dangling over white absence. Her head hangs low, the short white cut of her natural hair all he can see because she’s unconscious, her face hidden by the magic and her limp position. Around her the neverwhere flickers: her office, the Starblaster, then a pit of black mire, then a churning sea to swallow her, then a terrifying black forest, then back to Legato, to places that are safe.

Trust or Forsake? Give her the same eerie but safe start Taako had when he woke up in the cluster, or torment her? Terrify her, make her run in circles without any answers or weapons or any way of finding her way back out. Taako’s been hurt and he’s been deceived, but he’s never feared for his life here. Now he’s being offered that very power over Lucretia.

The only threads that connect Taako to Lucretia run through the Starblaster’s engine. Patrice misfired a spell aimed at Magnus. There are seven slots on an alter meant for Seven Birds.

“The choice is yours,” Patrice prompts him, and Taako-

“I said let her go!” He just feels rage. It doesn’t build, it’s just there and he comes storming out from behind the untouched column, advancing on Patrice. “No games! No compromise! Let her go! Let her go!

The Keeper smiles, tilting their head.

“That’s not how this works, dear-”

Taako’s hands come up and bands of twisted blue lightning fire off his fingers. They take Patrice right under the shoulder and the Keeper is blasted off their feet, spinning through the air in a swirl of white silk.

“I warned you!” The spell leaves him shaking, arms trembling as he walks. “I told you not to fuck with my family not to fucking dare go near them again and you pull this dogshit move!

“You know you’re taking a risk acting like this,” Patrice says, standing again with one hand out like they want to calm Taako down. Their clothes aren’t even singed from the lightning. “This is my domain, Taako, and even with all of your power you don’t have the materials to focus-”

Let her go!” His arms come down and darkness sucks the stabilizing energy out of the ground, ripping it forward as whips and tendrils of arcane force based on Evard’s Principles lash out and try to tangle the mage in front of him. The spell leaves his legs trembling, his mind whirring between outrage and trying to keep the spell’s parts aligned.

No spell book, no arcane focus, just raw will demanding the submission of Patrice’s energy to Taako’s control.

“This is the woman-” Patrice spreads and holds their hands down, a shield of immaculate light slamming back the tendrils before they can have their way with the mage. “-who lied to your face about the Umbra Staff, allowing your sister to remain imprisoned inside of it!”

That shit stays between her and I!” Taako screams back, and he feels a seam in the demiplane rip to expose the haunted white of the neverwhere. “It’s none of your fucking business! Let! Her! Go!” His vision is clouded over with spell arrays and formulas, the connecting marks, the symbols of power, the words of arcane knowledge- things that are supposed to stay on the enchanted pages of a magical book for his will to reference and keep his head clear for casting, but now he has to do both. He can feel the energy like a halo spinning around his head, a jumble of all the terrible things he wants to do interfering with one another as he tries to choose one, just one, to cast next.

Patrice’s hand makes a sign and cuts the air, and the alter with the two buttons vanishes. The tear in the plane mends itself and through the doorway into the other prison, Taako hears Lucretia gasp and then silence. He can’t see her, but she drops to the newly formed floor of a white room, on her hands and knees and trembling.

Taako strikes at the mists with terrible fury and feels the world pucker and suck itself in, positive and negative energy twisting in angry, clumsy knots before they rip and the neverwhere pours its acidic glare onto the field again. His head is spinning. He doesn’t care.

“You’re going to hurt yourself!” He doesn’t care!

No one touches his family! No one touches his family! No one touches his fucking family!

It doesn’t matter what Lucretia did! It doesn’t matter what choices she made! It doesn’t matter what she did to him- to Glamour Springs, to Lup, to Barry, to all of Taako’s memories and ten years of his life after a century spent wandering and lost between planes! None of that matters when they’re in danger! Nothing else matters if they aren’t safe, and right now Lucretia is not safe!

He’ll misspell her name on Candlenights Cards, he’ll forget her birthdays, he’ll snub her at parties, he’ll be angry with her in private. Taako will never bury the hatchet she embedded in his spine and left there to paralyze him for ten long fucking years.

But no one else, not man, not beast, not god, is going to hurt her.

His feet leave the ground and he hovers there, he doesn’t know the name of the spell because it’s not a spell: it’s just energy. It’s just rage. Patrice thought he was bluffing. They thought he didn’t mean it when Taako said he would tear the entire demiplane apart and sink the power source with it. Well now his bluff is called and Taako won’t fold.

Taako!

He casts his magic around himself, feels the dimension begin to scream because he tears and tears and tears at it. These aren’t pristine spells like the ones he used the first time, no recognizable forms and easy to identify names. Taako knows the rules and now he’s just smashing them on the ground, plucking out the pattern and not even bothering to reknot the threads into something that makes sense. He just wants it gone, wants to plunge it all beyond chaos and into nothing.

LET HER GO!

He’s a soul without a body and he’s going to take Patrice right down with him into the infernal silence. Taako’s magic barrels right over the line of what a Wizard can do and blasts into the realm of sorcery- and that’s when he loses it completely.

He is a wildfire, blazing down the mountain and devouring the forest for the sake of a single vine. He is the hurricane, swallowing islands trying to knock down a single door. He is the tidal wave, drowning the land to wash away a single foot of grime.

The magic you learn from books and scrolls and teachers cannot be compared with the secrets of true arcana, the power that shifts landscapes and builds worlds. Taako is a Wizard, not a Sorcerer, and his magic is in his mind and not his blood. When his mind cannot hold onto the image of what he’s trying to do, when he feels his very being start to separate like the walls of the demiplane, and fragments of who he is and what he’s even trying to accomplish starts to fray and fade… When Taako cannot stop because what has started isn’t his to command: it’s just inertia, inertia blasted in motion by an outraged little man trapped in a tiny, tiny universe.

Inertia that becomes entropy: the sense of everything slowly, but steadily, winding down into oblivious chaos.

When Taako feels the broken magic devour him instead of the walls of Patrice’s cage… When it sinks its teeth into his foot and he doesn’t have a foot anymore, doesn’t have a shin anymore, doesn’t have a knee anymore… Cannibalized by his own rage is not how he wanted to go, but he’ll accept it. He’ll go down like this even without the satisfaction of killing the Keeper at the same time.

When all of this is happening, that’s when Patrice stops him.

The spirit rope tethering Taako to the cluster goes taught. He thinks it might snap, allowing his soul to be devoured completely until not even the Raven Queen will find enough of him to claim. He thinks this but it doesn’t happen: the rope doesn’t snap, it reels him in.

It pulls Taako back, and back, and back, and he’s flying without a sense of being himself. He’s a projection but he’s incomplete, pieces of him left behind in the entropy, in that Hunger-like hatred he spent a century trying to keep ahead of.

Taako is dragged back through the door to his cluster, and that door slams shut and the magic and chaos and entropy all cut out. The second demiplane is lost to him, and he’s back in the original.

The sound- the chaos, is gone. The hum of his spent magic is gone. He’s laying on his back on the floor, dazed and barely conscious.

Everything is stable. He has failed again.

He doesn’t move. He feels blinded, deafened, shell-shocked into silence. He’s gutted and weak, and just lays there.

“I warned you.” Patrice’s voice comes from everywhere, it sounds disappointed. The ceiling is turning to golden brown wax over his head.

It’s useless to check himself, he’s only a projection, but Taako checks himself. He holds one hand in front of his face and he can see and move his fingers. He holds up the other hand and does the same thing. He doesn’t try to sit up, but he tries to move his leg.

His knee bends, his foot finds the floor.

There isn’t enough of his other leg left for there to be a knee. 

Cool cool.

The wax crawls down, changing walls to wax, and chairs to wax, and everything to wax. He doesn’t get up, there’s no running or flying or fighting to escape this time. It’s more controlled than when the dining room exploded, and Taako doubts any of the doors would let him run to any of the other rooms anyways. If he could even run right now, what with the not-there leg.

The cluster collapses down upon him, and Taako won’t lie and say he’s okay with it, but he doesn’t resist it either.

And it hurts.

It hurts a lot.

Like, it’s tears-in-your-eyes kind of painful. So he just closes them and like… it hurts.


 

“I warned you several times…” And frankly Roswyth would be lying if they said they weren’t disappointed in how today has gone, but as they press the palm of their hand down over the wax to crush and reshape it, this is how it has to be. “I cannot allow you to go ahead and hurt yourself like this, it’s too big of a risk. Once you calm down, I’ll be sure to put you back, but until then you just need to calm down.

The chamber is darker than they would like, but they haven’t been home long enough to strike up the torches or take the covers off the furniture. A few glow lamps keep the brand new display on this wall illuminated gently, but there’s also the acrid stink of corrosive magic feathered through the air.

He’s quite the powerful little wizard, and his temper tantrum has done some damage to the alter Roswyth was working on. In hindsight however, they did have a warning from Taako: the Wizard had said he would try ripping the magic apart if he felt antagonized. Roswyth had just thought he’d do it inside one of the clusters, not on the bridge between.

Oh well, live and learn.

Roswyth lifts their hand up and there is a flat, malformed puddle of wax on the alter. It takes a bit of poking and prying to get the wax off the cold black marble, but they succeed without any troublesome tears or pulls. This is all horribly disappointing, as re-forming the figure will take, oh… possibly weeks? They’ll only be able to start once Taako has calmed down enough to assist in the process, but given his skill with transmutation, maybe it won’t take as long as Roswyth fears.

This is what they get for rushing into things. It was such a relief to be home and so exciting to have the possibility of reintroducing the two Birds to each other that they got carried away. Now the Journal Keeper is distraught and one of the Twins is- well… he’s in a time-out.

Oh well, looking down at the bland lump of wax in their hand, there’s a tangible heartbeat running through it and that’s a good sign. And since he’s in such a malleable form, Roswyth might as well make the poor boy presentable again. Taako would want it that way.

“This is going to hurt quite a bit,” they say, and then carefully cover the wax with both hands to begin casting. “Next time, you’ll know not to take such a terrible risk with yourself. Honestly, a Wizard of your calibre should know far better than to call on magic without a focus.”

The heartbeat picks up considerably as Roswyth’s magic courses between their palms and through the wax, adjusting its properties and altering the colour. Hmm, yes, a nice metal finish would be lovely. And it’s as they’re making these adjustments and changes that, oh my…

“Ah! See? You hurt yourself, didn’t you?” There is a… flaw. When Roswyth parts their hands, the lump of wax has reformed itself into a sleek, heavy amulet. Seven golden hexagons arranged in a floral pattern, set on a white ivory back and all encased in a thin shell of steel around the back and sides. The heartbeat is still frantic and hurting inside, but one of the gold hexagons is marred with a deep black gouge. “I’m afraid I can’t fix that for you. You’ll just have to hope you regain the energy in your own time, and I think this new form will assist with that.”

They find a simple cord in a drawer and thread that through the loop at the top of the amulet, knotting it securely before slipping the cord over their head. Oh, it has such a lovely weight to it, and looks quite fetching against their robe. This is not the intended method of display, but until Taako can play nicely it will simply have to do.

Now, they should really get along with seeing how Lucretia is faring… She does stand so beautifully on the alter, if a little lonely after the literal melt-down Taako had. They can tell even just by looking at her that she is deeply disturbed and frightened after they accidentally let their hold on her slip- but with the shock of Taako’s outburst, it’s a forgivable offense.

Roswyth is honestly a little pleased that Taako was so protective of her. It means that, once things have a chance to calm down, they’ll be able to get along in the display and coexist peacefully! Very good news, very, very, excellent news!

Just four more birds, and the set will be complete. How exciting.

It is so good to be home.

 

Chapter Text

 

Taako can’t breathe. He can’t move and he can’t breathe- but the lack of air doesn’t hurt him. Nothing hurts him. It’s true that he can’t breathe, but the reality is he just doesn’t.

He doesn’t breathe, and Taako cannot move. There’s nothing to move. No eyes, no hands, no limbs. No lungs or chest or blood. He’s solid, stuck, unyielding and immutable. And he remains this way.

He can still think, still remember everything that’s happened. His thoughts are unfettered by his state but the stillness consuming him makes him reign his mind in tightly. The silence keeps him quiet. The nothing is too threatening to disturb. Hysteria lurks at the edge of silence and Taako will not tread upon it. He waits. Taako waits for anything.

He waits in stasis until he feels something. It feels deep, and true, and right. It feels like his, and it comes back again and again, steady and reliable. It’s a heartbeat. It’s his heartbeat, and it’s the only thing Taako trusts.

He counts them: the touches of pressure from his own heart.

In his counting, Taako is calm in the quiet. He knows who he is and how he came to be here, he just doesn’t know what happened after the pain. He doesn’t know why he’s like this. The pain in the wake of the demiplane’s collapse was all consuming. It burned through him in a way few things ever have, because it didn’t allow him the sudden respite of death.

He’s not dead. Taako’s died before. He knows the finality of that last thread snapping, even if he’s always woken up again after a period of absent time. Taako’s never been conscious in death before and he is, undeniably, conscious now.

Taako is many tens of thousands deep in his counting when his awareness expands again.

What he senses next is... motion. It causes anxiety. It’s not pleasant. There’s no context for the motion, no reason or expectation around it. First his sense of it is dulled: he knows when he is upright, and when he is laid down flat. He knows when he is, very subtly, swaying side to side. Soon his sense is more refined, and all the more jarring because of it. He feels himself being lifted from a point where a head should be, the tension that comes down around him. He feels himself bump and knock harmlessly against something when he sways. He feels warmth at his back and knows he’s being held. He feels pressure against and across him, and knows he’s being touched.

Being touched isn’t stimulating. It makes him aware but it doesn’t stimulate. He has no skin, no hair, no breath, no context for what the touch means or is trying to communicate. It doesn’t feel wrong but it doesn’t feel good, it just feels. He feels touched by something, but that’s all he knows.

Movement disrupts his counting. It makes him anxious. He should not be this easy to move. Taako is not one Barold Bluejeans or Magnus Burnsides, but he’s still a grown ass elven man with a good bit of height on most humans. He should not be picked up and swung around like this. There’s no reason to heft him up and then drop him on his back.

Anxiety brings him to fear, and fear is the edge that leads to hysteria. Shh, calm down.

Taako counts. And he waits.

First his heartbeat, then motion, then touch, and then sound.

He’s swinging again, and he hears footsteps. They rattle him, dissonant and echoing, but after so many more of them Taako makes sense of the rebound. The person walking is in an open space, a cave or grand hall, where their footsteps echo off the walls and back to him.

The focus he devoted to counting, Taako redirects into listening. Where is he?

He hears music, very briefly, coming from somewhere far away, but the footsteps walk away from it. He is put down and hears a hard ka-thunk when he touches a flat surface and rolls from upright, to his side, down to his back. It’s harsh and unpleasant, but he lays there, blind and mute, as fabric moves and water splashes.

He hears water come rumbling through pipes, gushing into a pool. He lays there and listens, because all he can do is listen, and as he hears the occasional hum and sigh of a voice, a new emotion slowly comes back to him.

He’s disturbed. And then he’s annoyed. And now Taako is kind of pissed.

What the fuck. He thinks. What the fuck!? Are you taking a fucking bath with me in the room, you fucking creep!?

He is indignant. Distraught. Insulted! What the fuck!?

“Ah…” The voice sighs, and it’s much closer now, the sound of water splashing and dripping, wet feet across soaked stone. Taako is picked up, lifted by that tension at his top, and when he leaves the hard surface he dangles, spinning slowly. “Finally woken up, have you?”

Put me down! Put me down, you fucker!

The voice tuts, and Taako is indeed put back down. Fabric moves and there are soft tugs and hisses as garments are replaced. He may not want to focus on them but they’re the only sounds.

When he’s picked up this time, Taako remains indignant, but waits for what Patrice has to say.

“Awake, but not yet at ease,” the Keeper tells him. Taako can feel himself behind held from behind, like he’s small enough to fit in the palm of Patrice’s hand. The idea is disturbing, but as he’s tilted back and forth, up and down, it makes sense. Why is he so small? “And the flaw hasn’t resolved itself yet. You’d better hope that doesn’t wind up being permanent, my friend, or it will require quite the adjustment on your end.”

Go fuck yourself. Taako projects the thought out as hard as he can, and he hears a flutter of a laugh on Patrice’s breath. Did… did that work? Did the asshole actually hear him?

“Now that you’re awake I can hear you quite clearly, Taako.”

Then change me the fuck back!

“Had you not behaved so recklessly, it would be a simple matter to restore you.” Patrice lectures him and Taako feels the hand vanish, the tension coming back as he’s lifted higher, up and up until he swings around and back. It’s terrifying, but he strikes against something soft and slides down it slowly, coming to rest with the tension still holding him. “But as it stands, you could have killed yourself with that stunt of yours and it was necessary to subdue you. You will remain in this form until I am satisfied with your condition.”

Patrice’s voice sounds a bit different now. Deeper, closer? Like it’s behind and above him.

He’s grasped and lifted again, and it’s disorienting and frightening. He’s aware of his heartbeat picking up as he’s tilted until he’s almost upside down. Something- something moves.

He’s tilted, back and forth back and forth, and the something keeps moving. A shadow? A form.

“Yes, yes, wake up…” Patrice chides, and then shakes him until Taako’s mind cries out for him to stop- just stop doing that… “My apologies. You seem to be quite sensitive to movement.” There’s a pause, like they’re thinking. “There’s not much I can do about that. If I put you down for good then I won’t be able to hear you, and I doubt you’d prefer being kept in a velvet box to walking about with me.”

I’d rather eat the fucking velvet box than walk around with your wishy-washy weak aesthetic ass.

“As entertaining as your comebacks are, my friend,” there’s a sharpness in their tone now. “That smart mouth of yours won’t get you out of this.”

It usually doesn’t, but the look on your face is still worth it every time.

He’s disappointed when Patrice laughs at the quip.

The Keeper stops talking to him after that, and goes back about their business. Taako is alarmed several times by what looks like light. He realizes he hasn’t had a concept of light since being made this way, but now it’s coming back. Brightness and darkness pass him, but they’re formless, flawed. He has to listen to understand anything.

It’s hella boring. For what must be hours Taako can only hear music. It’s a lute and it’s just strumming along making up a tune somewhere nearby. There’s the subtle pop and crackle of a fire, and the occasional turn of a page. Taako’s not moving much, just up and down very slowly, like he’s resting on Patrice’s chest as the mage breathes. He can’t sleep and he’s not tired, like how he’s not hungry, and how he doesn’t breathe, but he’s bored.

After a few hours of reading, he thinks maybe the shadows move when Patrice turns the pages of the book. He’s so bored. He taps down on the urge to ask what the asshole is reading, just for a break in the monotony.

“It is The Complete Poetic Works of-

I don’t care. I don’t want to know. Do not read it to me, or I will vomit on your robe.

Patrice sighs.

“The barbs are unnecessary: I can feel your boredom.”

Then put me in the fucking box.

Patrice goes back to their reading, and Taako focuses on the music and on emptying his mind of too many thoughts. He will not be duped into bonding with his fucking captor over story-time.

The asshole doesn’t do a lot. After reading, they move around wherever they are, walking here and there for long stretches before passing through doors. Taako hears panels of stone move, and the jangle of keys, and the slide of ceramic. He can’t make heads or tails of it, it’s too many different things in no apparent order. All he knows is that, slowly, he’s getting his vision back.

It’s still just shadows, just an oscillation between brightness and darkness, but it’s vision.

He waits. He doesn’t have much choice.


 

Kravitz has insisted for four days now that he can hear Taako’s song again. While this is probably a good thing, it’s made the island feel way, way too small, because the Grim Reaper’s sense of it isn’t strong enough to actually pin-point Taako’s location. Up the mountain isn’t as helpful as they could hope for.

This waiting game is not Magnus’ style.

We’ve done it!” Barry’s voice erupts from Mangus, Lup, Angus, and Kravitz’ stones at the same time, startling the lot of them. “Lup! Magnus! We’ve figured it out, we’ve cracked it!”

The five of them, including Davenport, are quiet for a few moments, and then Magnus snaps out of it and holds his stone up to speak.

“You mean Johann?” He asks, words tripping out of his mouth. “You can get him out from under the spell?”

Yeah! Hell yeah!! We can!” Their buddy is absolutely over the moon about it, and keeps cheering into the stone. “Is Lup there? Lup, babe! Pick up, you’ve gotta get back to Neverwinter pronto.”

“I- I’m here, Barry.” Lup is slow to say anything. She looks pale, and she’s looked this way for a few days now. She’s not quick to break into a grin like Davenport and Angus, or relief like Kravitz. She’s distracted. “Why do you need me?”

Lucas and I are on the final stage of this process and we need a third caster- another Reaper, and one who- Sorry, Krav, I’m not tryin’a knock you, boss, but- uh. Kravitz, you familiar with Bigby’s Second Law of Planar Dynamics?”

There’s a really short, but really awkward pause, before Kravitz lifts his stone up a little.

“No.”

Yeah, uh- we need Lup.” Barry sums up. “Lucas will hold down the transmutation circle, I’m here to keep the definitely-not-necrotic power lines in place, and that means we need a third to manage the stability of the planar boundary.”

“Don’t worry, Krav,” Magnus says, “I don’t know Bigby’s Laws either.” This is probably not a comfort, but he says it anyways.

“Thank you, Magnus.”

“I know Bigby’s Second Law, sir!” Angus squeaks, watching Lup’s pained expression. “I can come to Neverwinter and let Miss Lup stay here in case Roswyth lets them into the mountain where Taako and Miss Lucretia are being held. If Merle sends a pod down from the base, that’ll make things a lot faster.”

Angus, I’m not here to make you feel bad, buddy, but we need real juice for this.” Barry shoots the idea down, and Angus is crestfallen from it. “Lup, I know you don’t wanna leave the island, but we’re talking about a dragon here and- babe, I love you, but you cannot go toe to toe with a dragon. We need to know that we can break Taako and Lucretia out of this spell before we antagonize the caster, and you know it. Please, come to Neverwinter.”

It becomes a low, circling murmur around the room. Even Magnus joins in because the simple chance that Johann can be brought back after the horror he went through has him antsy and eager. Please, Lup, please go to Neverwinter.

“Fine!” She’s not happy about it but she knuckles. “I’ll go. I’m on my way, Barry, but this had better work.”

“It will, Lup, I know it will. Lucas is going to get some rest but we’ll both be ready when you arrive. Travel safe.”

“Yeah.” The fact that they need her for high-level magics helps a lot: she won’t be sitting around pouring over data, she’ll actually be able to exert and push her arcane limits. It’s a whole lot more productive than sitting here on a half-sunken ship. Magnus makes sure to give her a big, crushing hug before she leaves, and he feels Lup lean into it hard before she whispers something to him.

Don’t let anything happen to him…” Gosh, she really is hurting so badly from this.

“You’ll know when we know, Lup, that’s a promise.”

So, it’s with regret and hesitation that Lup opens a portal and leaves the Isle of Roswyth. It’s a few more agonizing days later when they receive their invitation to the lair.

Magnus… has a really bad feeling about this.


 

It takes days for anything noteworthy to happen. Taako learns to quiet his mind and rest whenever he’s being held or carried by Patrice, and to save his mental energy for when he’s placed or hung somewhere, which happens for a few hours every day.

He knows he’s small. He’s been shrunken down to something that can be held in a hand and hung from a chain- but he’s never heard a chain clink, so maybe it’s a cord.

It’s hard to be quiet when Patrice goads him, which he finds the mage doing more and more often as his vision slowly, painstakingly continues to clear up. Taako gets shaken, spun, twirled, and spoken to. He feels like a toy someone’s thrown to a giant asshole of a cat, and his frustrations percolate with nowhere to overflow.

He’s a… necklace? A pendant. An amulet. He knows he’s round and he’s not very thick, not very large either: when he realizes that great oblong blur is the pad of Patrice’s thumb blotting out most of what he can see, he can’t be more than an inch or two across. Unless Patrice has gigantic hands. But you know what they say about big hands and Taako’s not about the idea of Patrice, if they have a dick, having a massive dick.

Nope, not allowed. No monster dongs for the solitary shut-in who probably wouldn’t know how to beat one off with a warm melon and a how-to manual. And they absolutely can’t bone up no matter what. And they’ve got this super wrinkly foreskin that’s like a good two inches too long so they’ve just got a sad, scrawny noodle in their pants. It looks like a wrinkled old ant-eater except it’s a dick and it’s flaccid all the fucking time. There’s a bruise on top that they got in high school and they were too embarrassed to tell their mom about, even when it didn’t heal.

It’s crooked, with a big ol’ kink in the middle and another under the shrivelled head, makes peeing straight impossible and it just runs down their leg into their shoes. Every time. Every single time. And peeing hurts anyways, this itchy burn that sinks right into their pelvis.  Congratulations, Patrice, you’ve had penis cancer this whole time! But not testicular because those never dropped, you gonad-less son-of-a-bitch.

“I seem to recall, with stunning clarity…” Ohohoh, someone’s tone is rather clipped, their feathers ruffled, and Taako would laugh if he- “…your breathless, yearning response when presented with my prowess and attention.”

If Taako could choke, he would choke. If he could stare, he would stare. All he has is his heartbeat, which picks up fast and hard within him. He can’t quiet his thoughts, but he drowns them in the anger that comes surging up through his mind. Anger and outrage and the flat refusal to be humiliated. He thinks of nothing, just drowns himself in anger.

He hates this.

What Taako hates even more, as he finally masters shapes and is working out the details of his environment, is Patrice. He hates their home too.

This place is fancy. Stone walls, stone floors, but no windows so it has a distinct subterranean feel. The spaces are big too, much bigger than Patrice, and there’s no one around except the Keeper. The light comes from a combination of torches in some rooms, but mostly from spherical glow lamps powered by magic. Taako’s not really getting colour back, but he thinks the lights may be tinted blue because they show up a bit better than most things.

Details are hard to suss out because dominating his vision is probably the colour of his form: a familiar honey gold. All the light and shadow passes through the gold, and while the details grow sharper, the skin covering him is unbroken yellow.

He can’t make sense of the rooms. It’s not a honeycomb, which just proves his point about Patice’s lack of commitment, but it’s built like an anthill. Sometimes the Keeper walks up steep inclines or staircases, other times they follow spiralling paths that dive down for several hundred meters. The paths to and fro aren’t familiar even after a dozen passes to rooms and spaces he has seen before. Taako can’t tell which way is the library from the reading room from the steam and pool rooms to the den where Patrice sleeps.

The den is not really a bedroom, at least because Taako’s never seen the bed. It’s a massive chamber with curtains and carpets everywhere, and around a corner somewhere out of his line of sight is where Patrice vanishes whenever they deem themselves tired.

Every time the Keeper sleeps, Taako has two options: he’ll be hung up on the branch of a petrified tree, accompanied by dozens of other talismans and tokens, or he’ll go inside a black velvet box.

Despite his big fat boast, he doesn’t like the box. He is, honestly, kind of fucking scared of it. It’s not a good feeling to have, or a good place to be. Taako doesn’t like the box. Patrice knows he doesn’t like the box and Gods that just burns his bacon fuck Patrice.

He’s ambivalent about the tree. It’s tacky, for one. And the mirror is too far away across the room for Taako to make out the details of the other jewels and baubles. Which one is him? There’s a unique brand of fear that comes from knowing your physical body has been forcibly transformed into a piece of jewellery, and mentally it’ll probably do a number on him to see himself, but he still tries. He tries to see himself.

He tries to move too.

Stupid hope. He doesn’t have muscles, or any physical give and take. He has a heartbeat and that’s about it, and it’s not enough to make him swing or sway. But… he tries. He thinks it over really hard too: left and right, right and left, forward and back. If he can get himself to- just to sway, it would be something. A seed. A stone. A fragment of the beginning of what he can build up into a sense of hope.

He wants to go home…

Taako is plucked off the tree after another useless night, and he realizes the mage is happy about something. Patrice’s attitude is usually pretty content and serene, but this morning they’re happy. As they walk around with Taako swinging side to side at their chest, it’s a very troubling for him.

Also, he says morning but there’s no sunlight down here. Fuck if he knows what time it is, and without a proper body Taako isn’t exactly beholden to time anyways.

“I am going to say this once, and only once.” The words are said with a big bold ugly ass fucking grin. His vision is covered by the stroke and slide of Patrice’s fingers. “You will behave yourself in front of our guests. If not, I will put you away for a time until you can be more dignified.”

Go f… Taako lets the thought peter out. He knows what Patrice means by put away. The box is under Patrice’s arm because they made a point of picking it up and holding it in front of Taako before leaving the sleeping quarters. He doesn’t… like… the box.

Fine.

They enter a room through two large stone doors and it’s one Taako has never seen before. It’s a dining room.

Taako has never seen Patrice eat. This is weird because the Keeper’s been wearing him pretty much all the time since making him this way, but he can’t remember the Keeper cooking or munching on anything. But here they are in a dining room, and it’s some kinda pain in the ass for him to see much more than that. It’s so fucking dark, mood-lighting or some shit, and Taako wishes he had hands, or even some fucking eyes, that would make discerning the smudges and shapes in his off-yellow vision a lot easier.

It’s a stone table, black? It’s dark. This room is weird because the dining area is up here in the back of the room, which is raised a step or two off the floor from the rest. There are couches, a healthy fireplace, bookshelves and baubles galore, and more lush curtains covering the bare rock walls. Patrice has many, many rooms filled with books and collections of delicate treasures, but this is still a new one for Taako.

On the table there are five covered serving platters, with five chairs: four on one side, one on the other. A decanter of wine is out and ready. Taako has never heard a servant, magical or otherwise, and certainly never seen one.

Patrice makes a gesture Taako can’t see, and a curtain falls off the tall golden body of a grand harp. The enchanted instrument begins to pluck and strum its own threads in a tranquil, soothing melody. The Keeper then seats themselves at the solitary chair looking at the other four place settings, and pours themselves a serving of wine from the decanter.

Taako would ask who they’re waiting for, but the wait isn’t long enough. With a loud clatter and a sudden groan of old hinges, the doors on the other side of the room swing open. The first thing Taako sees is a hovering blue ghost light, a simple bit of magic that drifts into the room and toward the table. Patrice stands up politely and receives the light with an open hand, and it brings the rest of the dormant lamps around the room to life. The room doesn’t become radiant, but it’s a lot easier for Taako to manage as the guests arrive.

Taako sees Magnus. His heart stops.

He sees Kravitz. This can’t be real.

Fear petrifies his thoughts. That is absolutely Magnus- Taako’s attention goes to him first because he’s a fucking muscular guy with great brown sideburns framing his face, flat nose and ruddy cheeks. He’s got that bold red tunic on he always loved, it’s so damn bright even Taako can recognize it, but Magnus is too far away for him to tell if the feathered cuirass is under it or not. He has his axe, but it’s on his back. He looks stern and distrustful, and Taako wants to call out what the shit are you doing here!?

And then it’s Kravitz- Kravitz. He can’t be here. He cannot be here. He shouldn’t be here! Stupid black suit and flowing cape- Taako can barely make out his eyes, but he sees the troubled frown pressed onto his features and good he’s not happy to be here but why is he here at all!?

Go away! And then- in front of both Kravitz and Magnus- why? Why? Why is Davenport here? Why and how did the Captain get his tiny gnome ass mixed up in all of this!? He’s the only one who doesn’t look like he’s ready to throw down a gauntlet, but he’s got nerves in his short steps, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his long jacket. It’s not red- it looks green? Does that mean it’s blue? Why is he here? Why are you here!?

If Taako had hands he’d clap them over his mouth, but he doesn’t have one of those either. He feels his heart firing off at a frantic pace because as the three of them come into the room it gets worse. It actually gets worse.

He’s a child! He’s a fucking child, you morons! Why would you bring an actual fucking child here!?

Patrice puts the velvet box on the table next to their spot, and places a hand over Taako. He can’t see Angus’ face as the boy approaches behind Taako’s three stupid friends, but he knows Angus is there. He knows Angus is here, and Angus should not be here!

There’s nothing Taako can conjure up to quiet himself. He can’t meditate through this and he can’t drum up a suffocating anger to hide away under. He howls and he frets behind Patrice’s hand as he hears the Keeper speak.

“My dear Captain Davenport…” Why are they here, why are they here… “You must forgive the tardiness of my invitation. I have been most preoccupied these past few days. Come! I invite your friends to sit. Not all faces require introduction, but certainly some before us do. Welcome, friends, to my humble home. I hope you have found the Island most accommodating.”

The introductions begin and Taako listens as hard as he can. Patrice removes the hand, and he can see their faces. It’s so completely obvious that Magnus doesn’t trust the situation, he doesn’t even want to sit at the table. Kravitz is suspicious of everything, his gaze drifting repeatedly around the room, hands in his pockets. Angus is wide-eyed and openly curious. Davenport looks familiar with it all?

Kravitz gives his name and tells them he’s an Emissary of the Raven Queen.

“The Angel of Death?” Patrice asks, and the tense mood freezes right over.

Taako can see it, the muted surprise before Kravitz’s eyes widen with a swell of outright fury. He says and does nothing. He’s too damn good to fly off the handle, but it’s not Taako’s blurry vision making wisps of energy trail off the edges of Kravitz’s cloak, or eat at the collar of his shirt.

That’s not a title from the Raven Queen, Taako lets the thought project. I call him that. You got that from me and he knows it. Kiss your afterlife good-fucking-bye.

Patrice gives a soft chuckle, and covers Taako again with his hand. It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, but probably just the asshole acknowledging him without speaking.

Angus rattles off his honours and accolades from Lucas’ academy of magic. Magnus gets right to the fucking point:

“My name is Magnus Burnsides,” He says, arms crossed over his chest. “And you’ve been attacking and taking members of my family prisoner for some kind of sick game.”

“Roswyth,” Davenport cuts in before Patrice can answer. “I don’t know what’s been going on or why all clues point back to you, but this is very serious.” What the fuck, Captain, he sounds like he knows the Keeper? And where the hell did Patrice get the name Roswyth?

“Why don’t we all tuck into our meal and see where we find ourselves?” Patrice offers, and Taako screeches in his silence. What a shitty fucking pun! Don’t ever say that about them again and don’t you dare-

Patrice presses the clasp on the box, popping it slightly.

The threat isn’t lost on his friends, even if it isn’t for them. Magnus clearly doesn’t want to sit down and both him and Kravitz glare outright at the box. It gets Angus and Davenport’s attention too, but the Captain is the first to ignore it.

“Sit, just sit. Yes, Magnus, it’s a chair, sit down.”

They sit, and as each of them lifts the silver dome off their plate it vanishes, revealing the meal without the clutter. Taako can barely see the colours of the individual plates, and without the ability to smell them he loses pretty much all the details. Food isn’t appealing if you can’t sense it. Magnus looks like he has a deep pie, Davenport has a roasted bird, maybe a duck or a pheasant. Angus has a personal pizza, and Kravitz has a cut of salmon with- QUIT SHITTING ON HIM.

It’s salmon, and asparagus, and Taako can’t see the colour but there’s a swirl of pureed potatoes and a gelatinous sauce. The corner of Kravitz’s jaw moves as he grinds his teeth at the plate.

Leave Kravitz alone, leave him alone, leave him the fuck alone. You’re doing it just to piss me off now fucking leave him alone! Taako rages and pushes the thoughts out as hard as he can, ignoring the box- fuck the fucking box, leave Kravitz alone!

“Do you think this is a fucking joke?” Magnus says outright, not looking at anyone else’s food but his. He’s angry, but there’s a burn around the big guy’s eyes that puts him close to tears. “Is this funny to you? I’m not eating this, Taako didn’t make it and I’m not gonna insult him by putting a mock up of his best recipe in my mouth.” Magnus shoves the plate away.

It’s his chicken-pot pie. Taako doesn’t magically recognize it, he just knows what Magnus calls his best recipe. Scratch made dough, a sauce made from chicken and beef broth, veggies given a quick sear before dropping them in the shell. Way too much chicken, with bacon bits and button mushrooms, with the pie itself slam dunked on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. It’s pretty much the only meal Taako can make that fills Magnus up in a single serving.

That means Davenport definitely has his smoked rosemary pheasant and red wine glaze. It’s a three day recipe, and technical as shit because pheasants are small and trying to smoke them without making the meat just shrivel up is a pain to get right- but the flavour is all there. And that pizza in front of Angus is a heart-attack pie with six layers of cheese, salami, pepperoni, mushrooms, and chilies with a cheese-stuffed crust. Angus talks a big grown-up game but he’s thirteen and a bottomless pit for greasy food.

It’s not just Kravitz’s favourite meal, it’s all of theirs.

I’m a commercial chef, this is copyright infringement.

“I thought a taste of home would be appreciated,” Patrice says to the sadness, outrage, discomfort, and misery sitting across the table from them. “Heaven only knows, he has these recipes all but woven into his very soul. His hands may not have prepared the ingredients, Magnus, but his heart certainly went into the presentation.”

Magnus looks about ready to just hurl the pie at Roswyth, and Taako is disappointed when he doesn’t.

You clearly don’t get many guests, he projects his thoughts out to the Keeper. Because now they all think you literally carved my heart up and put it in their food, you creepy fuck.

“Give them back!” Magnus slams his hands on the table, standing so fast his stone chair tips back behind him.

“So you do have him.”

“Roswyth this is wrong!” Taako almost misses Kravitz’s low hiss between Magnus and Davenport’s outbursts. “Taako and Lucretia aren’t just friends of mine, they- I thought I put it the best way I could but clearly not! They’re my family, they- we’ve died for each other too many times for me to accept whatever it is you’re doing! Magnus is right, let them go!”

“What-?” Patrice sounds shocked, genuinely fucked up for once. “Back out into the world where anything could happen to them? Absolutely not, Davenport, I would never be so reckless.”

Roswyth!” Davenport’s got his Captain’s voice rising in his throat, a fire-eyed look to him as he stands on the seat of his chair so he’s still tall enough to see over the table. “You called me a friend and now I’m demanding the hospitality that name compels. My family’s done nothing to wrong you- in fact! It was through Taako and Lucretia’s efforts, along with the rest of us aboard the Starblaster, who kept your island from sinking beneath the Hunger’s wrath!”

“Why else would I open my home to them, if not for that very reason?” Patrice doesn’t seem to hear how fucking stupid they sound and Taako is too subdued by what he’s hearing to kick them. “You do not travel the roads flocked with travellers, Davenport, no more than I collect baubles and trinkets that fill the world in their multitudes. I gather only the very few, and the very precious, and I do so to preserve and sanctify them.”

Living people-!”

Mortals,” Patrice interrupts. “Barring two, neither of whom are here today. You have an Emissary of the Raven Queen here himself, at your right, to tell you what will become of your family and even you yourself when those mortal coils expire. This world will lose the most precious and miraculous company of heroes that Creation has ever known! On this isle, made safe by them, they in turn will be saved.”

Kravitz says- and is interrupted.

“I’m not about to give up my place in a world I helped save,” Magnus’ control is fraying and Taako doesn’t know if Patrice has picked up on it, he just has to keep himself fucking quiet so he doesn’t give away what’s going to be a magnificent beheading. “To sit pretty on your fucking shelf! Give them back!”

“Is that all this is about then?” Kravitz repeats himself, louder this time and cutting in before Patrice does more than adjust in their seat and thread their fingers together in front of them. “Mortality? The death of your heroes?” While Magnus is burning up from anger, Kravitz is ice cold in his seat, frostbitten from his own emotions. Taako knows his heart does a little skip-beat because as good as Magnus is in a fight he just- ugh, yes, please, whatever it is, Krav, do it.

“Mine and yours, as you are well aware, Reaper.”

“What kind of existence are you even offering them?” Kravitz demands. “Slumber on the Astral Plane is the reward for a well-lived life, keeping them petrified on a shelf as Magnus puts it is hardly fair treatment.”

“I never said anything about a shelf, that is entirely your friend’s construction.”

“Then what is your offer?” Kravitz repeats. And Patrice thinks.

“Bliss.” Now hold the fuck- “A peaceful and eternal existence with those who matter most.” -this is a fucking lie! This is bogus, complete bologna, you dirty back-alley fuck, Patrice, you-

Patrice’s plate and dome vanish with a wave and they bring that fucking box out front and centre on the table where Taako can see it. He can see the circular indent in the velvet that’s meant to hold him. He knows what he’s being told and he hates it he hates it but-

You’re lying!

I am not” Oh- oh shit Taako got Patrice to actually growl something at him hah now they look fucking stupid! Interrupted your fucking monologue didn’t I- oh shit…

Patrice’s hands reach up and Taako feels himself slip, then he rises, and he swings a little as the cord is lifted over Patrice’s head. Oh shit, oh shit- shit! Shit!

“Although a certain level of petrification is required,” They say, settling Taako in their palm and slowly coiling the cord over him. No, no, don’t- “The magic at work leaves the subject completely oblivious to that fact. They have expressive control over their domain, and as long as certain rules are abided by, they may visit with and interact freely with their fellows. I am no fool who thinks any creature can exist in complete isolation and then still thrive in any manner. A family cannot be segmented and remain strong, they must be permitted to love and enjoy each other. That is precisely what I have been at work creating over these long weeks, and I am very close.”

“And since their bodies don’t die in the state you’ve put them in, my Queen doesn’t interfere,” Kravitz adds, and Taako can see Patrice from a very unflattering angle. If he could close his vision off he would, he doesn’t want to see what comes next.

“That is correct.”

Don’t put me in the box don’t put me in the box don’t put me in the box don’t-

“You’re close, but the magics you describe are powerful and prone to conflict and overlap.” Kravitz says. “You need to test it and that’s why you took Taako first- who better to push the limits of your creation?”

Taako quiets himself. Patrice is distracted.

“I hear you angling for something, Reaper, what is it?”

“A simple fact: wherever living creatures reside, Death will find them. Wherever you have him, I will find him.” Taako’s heart- calms.

I’m right here… I’m right here! Kravitz he’s right fucking here, he’s just across the table, he’s-

He feels pressure. He’s being squeezed- being told to shut up.

I’m right here…

“You’ve already said the Raven Queen won’t bother.”

“How many people like me do you think my Queen has at her disposal?” Kravitz challenges. “On this plane? Only three, and of them I am the only true face of death. I am the Grim Reaper of Urth, dragon, and you know no magic which can hold me at bay forever.” Whu-

Dragon? Dragon?

Patrice is a fucking-!?

The silence in the room is so still Taako can hear Patrice’s heartbeat through the veins in their hand. With the shadow of their fingers caging him he can’t see their face anymore, but he hears something- something terrifying, in the- uh, the dragon’s next words.

“Are you challenging me, Reaper?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Kravitz answers, and Patrice has Taako’s cord wound around their fingers, rubbing it absently. “But what I really want, dragon, is this…” And Taako-

He- he hears what Kravitz says. The words themselves make sense. They’re spoken in Common, they’re delivered slowly. He’s no in a rush, he doesn’t gus it up with fancy frippery and a sales pitch. Kravitz’s voice doesn’t fill the room, but it slides across the table like a hand of cards, deft and easy, and if Taako had blood then it would run cold right now. If Taako had eyes they would spring with ice cold tears. If he could speak- oh, if he could only fucking scream as…

As Kravitz… strikes a deal.

 

Chapter Text

 

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.

“Checkmate.” No.

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-”

“No, sir!”

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.

 

Chapter Text

There is no worse feeling in the world than knowing you belong in a box. The Wonderland Liches could have made Cam suffer so much more if they’d just taken the poor guy’s head and shoved it in a perfectly black space.

He can’t cry. Taako has no tears, no ability to shed them. You don’t realize how important tears actually are until they’re taken from you. There’s a catharsis that comes from screaming into a pillow, from tearing paper into smaller and smaller pieces, from being able to pace, to rage, to scream. By becoming angry, you can let yourself work through it. Taako might not be the most emotionally healthy person in the world, but he never really appreciated the ability to display emotion until right now: when he can’t.

Patrice puts him in the box and Taako doesn’t stop screaming because he never really started. He had- that breath of freedom, that snatch of possibility, but it failed and now it’s gone. He changed nothing by reaching out to Kravitz, Taako just made it worse. His vision cleared in time to see Magnus try to do the right thing, before Kravitz beat him to it.

And then Taako heard Angus screaming.

And he’s been trapped in silence and darkness ever since.

The box mutes his sense of motion. He only knows when the box itself is being carried somewhere, but Patrice takes care to keep it level as they move. He tries to focus on that, but he can’t. He can’t. He saw Kravitz drink. He heard Angus scream. He can’t process it because there’s nothing to process: he saw it, he heard it, it happened and it’s over.

There’s nothing for Taako to do with the pain and the terror and the crushing grief of it. His mind projects a wail of suffering but it doesn’t ease the burden, doesn’t move the wet, choking mass of congealed horror and heartbreak from his spirit. There’s nothing he can do.

He tries and he fails to do anything, and the reality of it all takes hold. The Keeper is a Dragon. Kravitz took the poison. Angus watched it and screamed. Angus was there. Angus was there and saw everything…

Taako feels the edge of silence and the maw of hysteria opening under him. He’s in the box: he can’t be heard. He can’t do anything. He can’t fix anything. He can’t process anything.

He falls and his awareness shatters into panic.


 

Lucretia knows better than to trust anything about the Keeper or this prison they’ve put her in. She reads their letters, learns their rules, and writes in their book, but she’s shaken and doesn’t know what she can and cannot do in here.

Her first day was undeniably the worst. She felt dropped, as if a hand holding her had slipped and let her fall to the floor in a tumble. She fell and the first thing she heard was one of her dearest friends howling with pain and rage, and then Lucretia had to watch Taako nearly succumb to a terrible chaos.

She saw him wreathed in black magic and infernal white light, and then a rope of ghostly light caught and dragged him away like a wounded animal. The door between Lucretia and that rolling misty space slammed shut a moment later, and she hasn’t seen or heard anything from the outside world since then.

Every day when Lucretia writes in the Keeper’s book, on top of anything else she asks or requests, she includes a simple plea: Please, I want to see Taako.

Every letter Lucretia receives, no matter how polite or barbed or confident the wording, includes a simple response: He is not yet ready.

What does that even mean? What are they doing to him? What have they already done?

She worries her hands and walks the small confines of this cluster of hexagons the Keeper’s arranged for her. Why would a dragon choose a beekeeping motif? She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t understand the terror that wraps around her every time she gives in to fatigue and falls asleep either. The first few nights, or what pass for nights, she woke up shaken and let herself cry from it. It’s been awful.

Lucretia just wants to see her friend again. They may not have the same close, reliable bond that they once had, but they’re still family. She may never get that intimacy back, but just being around someone else Lucretia knows she can trust would help her so, so much…

Another day comes and there’s another letter. When she reads it, there’s a levity that worries her deeply.

She’s asked to think of a peaceful landscape. It can be anything, but they ask her what she thinks of as soothing. What’s a place where she could wander and be lost in, but safe and content? And Lucretia knows better than to trust the words or the creature who wrote them. She’s a prisoner here and the dragon responsible for all of this has been hurting her friends. She doesn’t know what happened to the real Avi on that night, and she doesn’t trust the Keeper when they tell her he was unharmed by their influence.

But she’s alone here, and peace is the one thing she hasn’t been able to feel since she was dropped into this nightmare. Lucretia knows she shouldn’t, but she opens the pages of her own memory and, in the Keeper’s book, remembers a place that always made her feel calm.

The Keeper waits a few hours, but not long enough for Lucretia to fall asleep. She feels a change in the air and pulls aside one of the curtains covering the window to her bedroom, her private chamber from the Bureau of Benevolence. The change makes her gasp, and she quickly leaves and goes to the dining room.

The dining room has an open face looking out onto a rich, rolling, alpine valley. The glass doors finally open when she touches them, and there are steps leading down onto a wooden terrace which didn’t exist before. As soon as she steps outside, actually out of the cluster, there’s a chill that comes just from the air, not the magic around her. She feels goosebumps swim up her arms and there’s a damp mist.

She goes back inside to change. The clothing still feels wrong, but over her blue gown Lucretia finds a sturdy jacket with a warm lining, and proper boots and trousers to pull on under the gown. She hikes the skirt up so it won’t drag, and with a scarf around her neck she leaves again.

The alpine air is cool and damp, and she can tell it’s just a few minutes past dawn. There are mists peeling off the mountain between the trees, and the sky is tinted softly violet, clouds obscuring the sight of the true dawn.

A tailored lawn leads from the terrace to the edge of wild pine woods, and Lucretia hesitates briefly before looking back.

Her eyes swim and struggle to see the cluster from the outside, but then it comes together: the log face and façade of a cabin, like the one her mother used to take her to when she was a child on the Homeworld. Like the one the animals built for them in that first world, in that first cycle, before the seven of them understood just how damning their mission had become.

Lucretia also sees a cord of pale energy that tethers her to the cabin, and she feels a terrible sense of doom. The same kind of rope is what bound and subdued Taako. It’s what dragged him away burning and screaming.

She looks back at the rising land conjured from her memories, and hikes onward. She knows it’s impossible, but she tells herself anyways: maybe I can find him.


 

Merle should never be the one to run logistics. He cannot, honestly, figure out how the danged job wound up as his this go around, but he doesn’t like it and he’s certainly not good at it. He piloted the Starblaster exactly once in a hundred cycles, and was a biologist back in the Homeworld. Unfortunately, should not and can not are not the same thing, and Earl Merle is stuck on the moon.

“I’m sorry, Avi, run that by me again?”

But damnit, man, he’s a Cleric not a Director.

“The pods crashed into the sea, sir.” Avi hasn’t been totally himself since the incident with Roswyth. There’s a heaviness in his step and a vacant shadow in his eyes, both signs of guilt. “I know we need to extract our friends, but this is an issue.”

“Well- why did they crash?”

Avi takes a sharp breath, holds it, and with a smile that’s trying hard not to look forced or like his last thread of self-control, he answers.

“Magic.” Uh-huh, yeah, Merle figured that- “The dragon, sir, it crashed both pods I sent down into the Wakeless sea.”

“You really don’t have to call me sir, Avi.”

“I know that, Merle,” He says quickly, “And I know how many pods are still in the hanger and how long it takes to repair and craft new ones. And I know that if a pod en-route to the island can be shot down, then a much slower returning pod will have almost no chance of making it back in one piece.”

“How many pods are left?”

“Three.” Oh. Oh that’s not good. Avi places his hands behind his back and spreads his feet a little, settling his weight. He hasn’t been great since the incident in the Voidfish’s chamber. “A batch of twelve is being prepared in Rockport for us, but they won’t be ready for pick up until next month, and even  then: the base has moved out of their range. We’d have to fly back to the coast, collect them, and fly back here.”

That’s a lot of wasted time. Meanwhile, Davenport, Magnus, and Angus need off that island now.

“Well, I mean... You know the most about the pods and cannons, Avi, do you have any ideas?” He might have to get Lucas in on this to help out, because Merle knows exactly nothing about how the orbs move around beyond tapping the ol’ bracer to call for them.

“I have- an opinion.” Well that’s a funny way to phrase it, kiddo. “But it’s against regulations, sir.”

“What kind of regulations?”

“It’s against the Spirit of the Bee-oh-Bee, sir.”

“Avi,” Merle says in a solemn voice. “Do you think it’ll work?”

“I think...” Avi pauses, hands still behind him, eyes looking up over Merle’s head at nothing. “...that it’d just be really, really satisfying to fill two of those orbs with nothing but explosives, and use them to cover the in and out flights of the third one.”

“You... want to use the Bureau’s cannon as an actual cannon?” Oh... oh yeah, no, that’s definitely against the spirit of Lucretia’s organization. Avi drops his guilty, frustrated gaze.

“It’s wrong.” For the floating moonbase organization that already has its hands in a lot of pockets and its members in a lot of places, to suddenly acquire fiery artillery that can launch from miles and miles over the open ocean at a target. Yeah, that’s pretty wrong. Merle can feel Lucretia frowning from somewhere in the dragon’s liar. But she’s also locked up in a dragon’s lair. Under a mountain. A probably-not explodeable mountain, but a mountain none the less.

And they do have to get Magnus, Davenport, and Angus off that island.

“Avi,” and they have to get them off asap. “I’m gonna talk with Lup and Barry about how quick they can get back here through the Astral plane, and if it’s possible for them to even bring living people along through it. Now, because it might not work and I’m not a fan of having people sit on their hands doing nothing in the meantime, I’d like you to spend the next however long you need... not violating the spirit of the Bureau but, uh, enhancing it.”

“Enhancing it, sir?” Avi manages to look at him again, even if it’s just because Merle’s gone and confused the kid.

“I think it’s pretty benevolent,” he says, letting faith fill his voice to lift Avi’s spirits a bit. “To unload hell on the sum’ bitch who attacked Johann’s best friend in his own sanctuary.”

The kid... who isn’t really a kid, by the way, but Merle can’t help but feel his age sometimes. Avi straightens up a little in his blue and silver uniform and, with a timid bit of a smile, he nods.

“Yes sir.”


 

Break. Break. C’mon and break you piece of shit.

Inside the Arcane Institute is a dedicated science department, and inside of that is a series of very secure rooms and testing chambers. Inside one of these chambers right now are two Reapers, a powerful wizard, a small wax statue of a dog, and about a hundred and forty-nine kilowatts of raw arcana powered by determination (Lucas), curiosity (Barry), and spite (Lup).

Lup’s fingers are curled like claws, her boots planted hard on the metal floor, and her mouth is moving to spin more figures and symbols from her mind to the air. Suspended in the air between her raised arms is her spell-book, not her usual way of doing things, but some of this shit is complicated and she just doesn’t know enough of it on the fly to pull it out of her ass.

What she’s holding together is the middle a tri-level arcane casting circle. She’s tinted her magic red just to make keeping it straight a slight possibility. Below her ring of power is Barry’s bright blue light, and he’s a third of the way around the circle from her, kneeling down with his hands on the floor and his spell book open, chanting a complimentary formula from his own messy chicken writing. Over both of them are the complex webs and strings of Lucas’ white light, which is a real bitch to see and Lup wishes he’d picked a better colour, but he has his wand raised high over his head and his free hand quickly drawing and assigning spell-marks to his layer of the spell.

This thing is a proper bitch to keep upright, and Lup gnashes her teeth because break, fucker, break.

In the middle of this storm of tightly controlled magic is a wax figurine, and Lup hates how long this casting is taking, and how much effort it needs, because there’s no way they’ll be able to replicate this quick and dirty in a pinch to free Taako and Lucretia and-

Focus!” Barry calls out, but he doesn’t stop chanting, which doesn’t make sense but it doesn’t have to: magic is magic.

Gods, the spell on Johann is creepy. It’s skin-crawling. It’s terrible. It’s a little bit messed up how excited both Lucas and Barry are about it, and it makes Lup’s heart ache thinking about how morbidly curious she knows Taako would be if he was here too.

It’s transmutation magic but it’s really detailed. Johann is made of wax, but he’s made of layers of wax. He’s got wax fur, and wax skin, and wax muscles and wax kidneys, and veins and blood and stomach insides- and all of it is wax, it’s solid and not moving, but it’s all still there. The blueprint of how it was done is part of the final effect. They can on principle bring Johann back, but to do so requires transmuting everything else at the same time.

And what about Johann’s spirit? His little doggy mind? That’s inside the wax body, which is typically where you want a spirit to be, but it’s subdued. The mind is within the body but it’s not connected. It’s jarred, sealed, kept away. Johann probably has no idea he’s made of wax, he just knows he’s a dog who wants to do dog things in the false reality he’s been plugged into. He’s a spirit in a wax jar painted on the inside to look like… something.

Now they want to get him out.

Barry is channeling the raw arcana and holding the base steady, feeding magic up for Lup to weave and seal to keep the fragile bubble holding Johann’s spirit steady. Lucas is the one peeling apart the magic, layer by layer, and transmuting every last fiber of the petrified dog back into dog.

It only makes sense that if they botch this, the dog will simply die, and they don’t want that. One, it’ll wreck Magnus and none of them want that. Two, if they kill their only experiment, how are they ever going to work up the nerve to try it again on Taako?

Lup closes her eyes, tightens her core, and with a supporting rush from Barry she starts her formula over again.

Break, you piece of shit, fucking break.


 

If Ren is allowed to ask only one serious question today, it’s why she didn’t get to have the World’s Greatest Detective as her number two on this cattle run. Good thing for her being: she’s allowed to have plenty more than just the one serious question, so she can ask why Angus McDonald wasn’t sent to Neverwinter to help her and get her job done.

This detective work is a bit more walking and dead-end hitting than Ren was prepared for at the outset, but she’s Taako’s Lieutenant and the Deputy Headmistress of the Amazing School of Magic: she can do this.

So Taako was abducted by a dragon. And Lucretia was abducted by the same dragon. And Magnus’ dog was not abducted but was turned into wax by the dragon. The dragon wants the Seven Birds, but it’s had one of them on their island for months without any kind of wax-working magical hoopla. Why?

Well, why did he even go there in the first place? Because he was paid to take a group of adventurers across the sea to map the island. And whoever paid for that mission also paid those adventurers to go and try to sneak into the dragon’s lair, where they absolutely positively died horrific and fiery deaths.

But why did they go into the lair? What were they looking for? And what was worth paying the sum necessary to convince three adventurers to break into a dragon’s lair in the first place?

Ren has an awful lot of question in this vein, and thankfully enough bull-headed determination plus a hefty bag of gold and diamonds to jog the memories of anyone caught stalling on her. And for those to whom the luster of coin and the sparkle of gems holds no appeal, Ren has a strong, tall, and ready-as-hell friend to assist her.

Killian bangs her arm on the shop door three times, then gives it a rough shove with her shoulder. Ren is very pleased to have her orc friend along with her because even without Angus it’s good to have some proper muscle.

The three of them are standing in an alley in one of Neverwinter’s main market districts. The alley is long and winding, too crooked to see back to the thoroughfare they started on, and a bit too dark and dank looking for the sunny weather that holds the rest of the city. Killian’s wife is next to Ren, the dragonborn woman tapping her foot in a puddle of who-knows-what waiting for the rough and tumble approach to work: Ren already told Carey not to try sticking anything in the lock due to the magic resting inside of it.

Open up!” Killian pitches her voice low and hard, adding a snarl around her short tusks. She slams the door again with her shoulder, making it jump on its hinges before she beats her fist on it again. “Garfield!”

Above the door is a simple banner, mildewed from rain and the lack of fresh air in the alley, that reads ‘Grand Opening’. The place may be a dump but it’s absolutely in business, because Ren paid a fair bit of gold to their last contact, whose information Killian beat out of the contact before that.

Garfield the Deal’s Warlock paid to send three adventurers to their deaths on the Isle of Roswyth, after specifically hiring Captain Davenport for the job, and Ren intends to find out why.

“Th-there’s nobody home right now!” A shrill, terrified voice yowls from one of the upstairs windows. Ren doesn’t see anything when she looks up, but that’s okay. “And n-no Garfields either! I- I’m Geoffrey! Geoffrey the Deals- uh- Wizard! Y-You’ve definitely got the wrong business!”

“If you don’t open this fucking door-!” Killian threatens the hidden merchant again, and Carey peels away from Ren’s side and goes to do something sneaky. “Then we’ll just have to go tell the Guardian on the Isle of Roswyth who’s responsible for those adventurers breaking into their lair!”  

There’s a beat where the only sound is Killian’s renewed assault on the door, and then there’s the rattle of a window opening. As soon as a small head and shoulders robed in purple pokes out, Carey’s there with one clawed hand and grabs him from her position clutching the rough wooden side of the building. She gets the Warlock by the scruff, heaves him with a nasty growl, and the very unfortunate mage tumbles from the second story down to the ground where Ren is ready with her wand.

One of her boss’s favourite spells for restraining and discomforting unfortunate people bursts from the ground, the inky blackness cushioning Garfield’s fall before it all takes him so very firmly and fluidly in hand. The tentacles coil around his legs, they hold down his arms, and they squirm and slither oh so terribly until the warlock’s focus- a small pocket account book, by the look of it, falls to the ground at Ren’s feet. She picks it up with a smile as Garfield kicks and shrieks uselessly in the mire of unwanted physical contact.

“We can start doing things the easy way,” she says charmingly as Carey deftly climbs back down to the ground, her wife waiting with a high-five. “Or we can keep doing things the hard way. Ain’t it always better to turn a profit in these situations rather than incur further losses?”

What follows is a lot of protesting, and bargaining, and begging, and finally… answers.

“Look- I’ve had a bad run these last few years,” Garfield protests, sitting now upon a bundle of calmed black tentacles which are still firmly wrapped around his arms and lower body. He lets Ren take his keys and open the magical shop, and they all go inside with him still roped up and captive. The place is dusty, and dank, and looks like it hasn’t enjoyed much success since its opening “My reputation’s in tatters, my grand opening a grand flop! I needed something, I needed a real zinger to get the ball rolling again and- well! Might as well start with the source of my woes, right? Nyaha?

Ren feels a tickle in her tummy that makes her hand clench tight around her wand. She isn’t a violent wizard, not much of a brawler or a hurter. She’s a chef and a businesswoman and a teacher, not a world-protecting super-star.

“Did you-?” So she treads carefully, because Carey and Killian both have a look on their faces that echoes the quiver in Ren’s body. It’s suspicion that promises pain if it turns out to be true. Ren advances just a little on the subdued Warlock, and her tentacles squeeze him so he squeaks and starts squirming again. “Did you send Davenport to that Island just to taunt the dragon?” She asks. “To kill him?”

“What!?” Garfield shrieks. “What! No! NO! Kill? NO! Never- I’m a simple mercantile enchanter, a purveyor of magical mysteries! Not a hit man! I’m a good boy, a good, good boy I swear!” He’s a strange creature, the Deal’s Warlock, all blackness and shadow without enough features to tell what he is exactly. His eyes are points of light, and his mouth is a Cheshire grin that seems to move about on its own. His voice, whittled and whiny, is terrified.

“Davenport’s a Bird!” Garfield screeches, and he shouldn’t be able to cry with how he looks, but there are tears springing to his white eyes as Killian levels her crossbow at him for added effect. “I lied! I lied! I don’t care about any maps I care about the relics! I didn’t pay him to wander into a trap! I hired him to resist the thrall! I paid the trio to sneak into the lair, retrieve them, and bring them back to the ship where Davenport would be able to resist and contain them! That’s all!”

Carey and Killian look at each other, and Ren doesn’t know what passes between them exactly, but Garfield has tearful eyes only for her and she listens to the rest of his squirming, kicking, and crying:

“Nobody was supposed to die!” He wails, “Garfield’s a good boy in a cutthroat field! When someone runs out on a contract you have to do your darned and dirtiest to get back at them and that’s all this is- honest! Besides! I’m pretty sure Roswyth is a vegetarian anyways and wouldn’t eat anybody!! They’re all about that cruelty-free process!”

“You’ve dealt with Roswyth before?” Ren questions,

“O-of course!” The Warlock cries back, “How do you think I knew where the island was? Roswyth’s been a buyer and supplier of mine since I got my start in this business! They had a lifetime Fantasy Costco membership! Platinum perks and everything!! Any time they came across a duplicate of something fantastical or sublime, they’d usually bring it right to me in exchange for first pick of my latest and greatest store-crashers! It wasn’t until Taako did me dirty as he did that everything fell apart! And then-

“Wait, wait- wait, wait.” Carey jumps in, and then all three of them are talking trying to get Garfield to focus on a different point. Finally, Ren wins the right to speak first:

“You’ve made business deals with Roswyth before,” She says, and Garfield nods: he already said as much. “And- yes or no, they broke your last contract together?”

“Yes!” he squeaks, “And it was a most-”

“Shush, I’m not done,” She interrupts, pulling out the notebook where she’s been keeping track of bits and pieces of this great jigsaw puzzle of a problem. “What was the contract?” He already mentioned relics, but he couldn’t mean…

“I needed something big, okay?” Garfield says in a hush, and his eyes increase in size, growing and widening until they take up too much of his black void of a face. “Something- something awe inspiring, anything that could make up for my double-defeat at the hands of Taako the Swindler. And after the Song struck- I had it! All I needed was a partner, and that partner had to be Roswyth because they have means, okay? Not just in gold and charisma but I mean in power. But they had gold too, and they were going to pay me a life-changing amount just for the location, and then between the two of us we were gonna strike a killer deal that would make the Taako Brand Empire look like cheap mock-up of real mercantile expertise!”

“Now hold on,” Ren stops writing and looks up, full offense in her voice. “That’s horseshit.” Garfield sticks his ghostly tongue out at her.

Nyeh.

“What did you need their power for?” Killian demands, bringing her crossbow right into the Warlock’s face so he shies away again with a whimper.

“I needed someone who could get down there,” Garfield says, closing his ghostly eyes again. “The bottom of the ocean isn’t a place you just wander down to on a whim! But that’s where they were, so that’s where we needed to get!”

“What were you looking for!” Carey questions, but the dragonborn’s gaze isn’t steady. She’s thinking, and thinking hard, and coming up with an answer on her own.

“I already told you,” he whimpers back. “I just wanted the relics.”

“…Which relics?” Ren asks, and Garfield tuts in frustration.

“The seven relics of Candlenights past,” he answers with scathing sarcasm. “You know what I mean- And this is why I wanted them! Once she sucked the Light of Creation out of the Grand Relics, everyone just seemed to forget they even existed! If Roswyth hadn’t run off with them then I’d be buying up and liquidating every asset the Taako Brand has ever claimed, and then-”

“Horseshit!” Ren cuts in again. As if they’d ever sell off the brand to someone like this. Taako would eat his own hat, and his shoes, and then his favourite spatula. But yelling at Garfield and thinking about Taako help keep her calm as the meaning behind the Warlock’s words sinks in.

 “You can’t just throw things like that away!” He’s whining to Carey and Killian now, who look nothing short of horrified. “But that’s exactly what the Director did! Sucked the Light of Creation right out of the Grand Relics and then hurled them into the ocean through a chute built into the base! I didn’t even know about it until the Song hit me, and then it all made sense! They weren’t all down there, they couldn’t have been, but half a set is still better than no set! But instead of coming back and making good on our deal Roswyth just-” Ren stops listening.

She releases the spell clutching Garfield and he flops on the floor with a squeak. Carey and Killian still have questions, but Ren doesn’t. She’s got a trembling, nauseating, big bad fear eating through her gut.

She leaves the bag of coins on the counter to pay Garfield for his trouble and his information, and then turns and heads back outside into the alley. She already has her stone of far-speech out. Getting out of the shop gives her a lungful of air that isn’t as stale, but doesn’t smell much better.

She holds the stone and moves to attune it- but then stops. She doesn’t know who to take this to. She doesn’t know where to start. It’s a lot and it’s scary and the two best people to ask are the ones who are missing thanks to the dragon.

“Merle, we’re done in Neverwinter.” So she sends her message to Merle first, so he can have Avi pick them up. “I- I think we’re going to be going to the Arcane Institute to check in with Barry and Lup. There- I have something really, really important to share with everyone when we have a chance to meet up. Um- it’s kind of important.”

I’m glad you’ve got more to share!” Merle’s voice speaks through the stone, and he sounds like he’s forcing that cheer as hard as he can. “It’s been kind of a ghost ship up here! We’re awfully far away but I’ll see what the techs can put together. Stay safe, Ren.”

“Uh- Merle!” She interrupts before he can disconnect from her. “Merle. Could you- uh, this is going to sound pretty funny I know but, um… Could you… get together everything you guys and the Bureau know about the Grand Relics?”

“Huh?”

“See? Sounds funny. But yes please: everything you could possibly remember about the Grand Relics, either compiled on the base or sent down here for the rest of us. Um. That’d be swell.”

I don’t get it, but okay? Whatever you need, Ren.”

“Thanks, sir.”

And with a quick moment just to collect Carey and Killian, Ren gets set on the shortest path to the Institute.

 

Chapter Text

Roswyth has felt their spell break. It was only a matter of time until the hound was killed or released and they can’t tell which fate has claimed the animal, but it doesn’t really matter. Today is still a good day.

“I think he’s ready,” Roswyth says, and in their hand is a small wax miniature. It is a lovely little trinket, a bisected figure which, on one side, is the image of a tall, handsome man in an elegant suit with a feathered mantel and cape behind him. On the other: a flowing robe and the skeleton of the Grim Reaper.

This whole affair is a matter of patience, something Roswyth has in great supply. They bring the miniature up to look it over carefully, and smile.

There’s a hum of emotion from inside the figure, separate from the constant throb of his heartbeat. And then, rippling and wavering, like a reflection in water disturbed by falling stones, they hear:

Where is he!? Anger. There was so much anger in the beginning, but it’s begun burning out. Where is he! Show him to me! Taako? Taako! Indignation, humiliation, and horror. But now all the Reaper has left is a thin skim of anger left over his fear, and beneath that again Roswyth can feel the most important emotion: longing.

Longing, which leads to acceptance, which leads to happiness.

“He misses you.” Longing. The echo that hums deep and sore from the amulet around Roswyth’s neck. Like rain down a windowpane, Roswyth can hear the Wizard’s spirit murmuring despite itself:

Let him go let him go I love him let him go just let him go please please let him go. Roswyth covers the amulet with a hand, hushing the spirit. They can feel the exhaustion eating through the Wizard, and if only he wasn’t so endlessly stubborn then this whole affair would already be settled.

“Today is a good day,” Roswyth states in a clear voice, brushing their fingers around the edge of the amulet. For once, there is no irritated grumbling from the trinket. “I am certain you will want to pay attention.”

It is time to put another piece of the collection on display.


Lucretia keeps hiking. For days, she hikes. She can finally feel the passage of time, and it gives her existence here a sudden sense of balance that was missing before. Now the sun rises, now the sky changes, and the moon comes up between the trees just as the light dips low on the horizon.

No matter how far she wanders or what path she takes, Lucretia is always able, when she wants to, to turn around and make her way back to the cabin. She can hike for hours and hours, from morning into the late afternoon, but turn around and in only about ten or twenty minutes be back where she started. There are many challenges to overcome with this new level of freedom, but the worst one is the urge to call the cabin home.

It’s not home. None of this is home.

The weather changes. Some days it rains, others it’s cloudy and brisk. Occasionally it’s even sunny. She notices barren flower beds and an empty green house that come together over the passing days around the cabin, and tries to push the how and why of their appearance from her mind. Her mother did love to garden...

Lucretia is watching the rain clatter down on the lawn from her kitchen window today, a hot mug of soup steaming between her hands. She has the Keeper’s morning letter on the counter beside her, and is debating whether getting out of the cluster today will be worth the heavy cold feeling of the downpour.

As she’s thinking this, Lucretia hears the sound of paper and looks back at the letter: atop it is a second one. The curiosity makes her put down her lunch and reach for them.

She reads the older one first: the Keeper has agreed to place a wooden span across the river at the five mile mark west of her cabin, and adjusted the flow of the water downstream so that, if she chooses, she may ford the water safely to the south. They confirm with a lively hand that yes, the seasons will certainly adjust with both the whims of the valley’s occupants and the flow of the world outside. They regrettably state that Taako is still not ready to rejoin her.

Lucretia pushes aside the numb fear in her gut and opens the second letter.

Salutations and good morning, Madame Lucretia

Pardon the tardiness of this announcement, but you will experience a change in the atmosphere shortly after reading this letter. I am thrilled to announce the arrival of a new occupant to paradise, and seek your input in how best to welcome them.

As you are a woman of exercise and exploration, I am very capable of allowing you and your new neighbour the adventure of seeking and searching one another out within the valley. But of course, understanding that you may be entirely too eager for such games, a road may be constructed in very short order. Please indicate your preference below:

Sincerely and gladly yours, The Keeper.

 True to the dragon’s word, at the bottom of the page are two squares for the two options: to wander aimlessly, or follow a road.

Lucretia is quick to take a pen from her pocket, one of the several she requested and was granted by the dragon. She checks off A road following the most economical path to the neighbouring residence.

As soon as the pen leaves the paper, the letter vanishes, and every window and doorway in Lucretia’s cluster fills with horrifying white light. The neverwhere swells and then retreats just as quickly, and after blinking the sharp pain out of her eyes and rubbing her arms to get rid of the hellish feeling, Lucretia looks back outside.

She feels a far away shaking and rumbling, and then all at once the rain stops and the clouds roll back a little. It’s not a sunny day, but it’s not the brewing storm she was watching before.

There’s a white gravel path cutting away from Lucretia’s cabin, across the sprawling lawn, and off around the bend of the mountains. She hurries to get her coat and boots, and the long white wood walking stick she found on one of her hikes. The stick is as sickly in her hands as the gloves she’s wearing, but she carries it anyways.

She walks the road and, when she can’t help herself, she breaks into a jog or even a run. The gain of the road is shallow, not climbing the mountains so much as winding and snaking around between them. The trees are dripping and the air smells of cool pine and fresh water. The crunch of her boots and the hum of her own breaths is loud enough to echo.

Roswyth is working on bringing birds and fish and other wildlife into the valley.

Lucretia hikes and she hikes and she hikes. The road makes crossing the distances of the valley much faster than her normal method, and Lucretia knows she’s gone much further than before when a great stone bridge opens up under her feet and carries her across a ravine she’s never seen before. She actually stops atop it in surprise, looking at the cascading waterfalls to one side of her, peering between the cloudy peaks, and then down into an expanse of forest and meadow still shrouded by the dull day. There’s a great grey space down there, miles away, and to her it looks like a beach: the mouth of a cove.

This place is vast.

She resumes her quick pace down the road. Taako might be at the end of it- she hopes he is. The road takes her for almost another mile before it suddenly turns up the mountain and becomes stairs. Now she’s thankful for the rod in her hands because Lucretia is not as young as she was for so long and the going is steep. Up she climbs, and the colder it gets, until finally: a door.

Lucretia’s eyes can’t make out what the black door is held by. She could tell that her own cluster was a cabin, but maybe Lucretia was also the one to decide as much. If this is where Taako’s prison is located then it’s certainly an odd choice: he’s not much of a tower-on-top-of-a-mountain Wizard, but Lucretia can worry about senseless details like that later.

She twists the knob on the door: it’s locked. The door-knocker is brass and heavy, not Taako’s style, and it’s hard for her to wrench up so she can pull it back down three times to be heard. The waiting becomes the hardest part.

Please be Taako. Please, please be Taako.

She knocks again, and then adds to it by pounding her hand on the door afterwards. The rain is beginning to mist down on her again.

“Taako!” She calls, because maybe he’ll be able to hear her as she beats on the door for a third time. “Taako! Are you in there? Taako it’s me! It’s-” The door swings open. It’s not Taako.

“Kravitz-?”

“Where is he?”

How-? Why? Why is Kravitz here? Why does he look so ragged?

Lucretia has never seen Kravitz be anything less than perfectly put together. They aren’t very close but they still know each other and she would still call him a friend. He’s confidence, class, and charm all perfectly dressed and politely controlled. He’s immortal and divinely chosen for his role, so unless you’re Taako it’s hard to fluster him.

Flustered isn’t the issue now: Kravitz looks ill. This shouldn’t be possible for him but with his tired, sunken red eyes and the bloodless look to his lips, Kravitz looks like he’s fallen sick. He isn’t standing with strength, more like he’s holding the open door for support. His hair is still in its dreadlocks of course, but the little gold clips and strands of gold thread that usually decorate them are gone. He has no earrings, no rings, his sleeve cuffs are open and uneven. He doesn’t even have shoes.

Lucretia doesn’t answer his question because she doesn’t know the answer, she doesn’t know where Taako is.

She’s wet from rain and he’s a mess, half-dressed and haggard in only a white shirt and blue pants, but Lucretia opens both her arms out to him. It’s a cold and frightened hug, hard and short-lived, but it’s the first contact Lucretia has had with anyone for what feels like weeks, and she needs those few seconds just as much as Kravitz; who holds on tight before pulling away and bringing her inside.

As soon as Lucretia crosses the threshold, she’s halted by a seizing sensation in her chest. Her next breath is strangled but tension running around her ribs, but then the feeling eases. She’s released. She can breathe again and straighten up where the transition made her buckle, and Kravitz is there with a hand at her arm.

She sees him looking past her with a slow realization, and she remembers the rope tethering her to her cabin. She turns and the rope is still there, only a few inches of it visible before it fades into nothing leading back out the open door.

“…I don’t trust this magic,” the Grim Reaper mutters to himself, and then closes the door behind them to shut out the rain.

Kravitz hasn’t changed any of the rooms. It’s all white walls and white wood floors, with plain fixtures and seven identical rooms. Lucretia feels a stirring of guilt for how she’s modified and changed the rooms in her own cluster, like she’s making things too easy for Roswyth by playing along.

She says he hasn’t changed them, but that doesn’t mean there’s no sign of habitation. It feels like an intrusion, coming into the cluster’s white-washed parlour to see a piano with its keys smashed and a broken chair beside them. There are pages of music scattered on the rug that Kravitz has torn to pieces, rejecting them.

The library has its empty shelves toppled over, they cut through quickly into the kitchen which Lucretia knows the Keeper keeps meticulously clean through their magic: it’s the same here, for Kravitz.

He acknowledges none of the damage to his prison, Lucretia respects him by not pointing it out. Captivity is... a cruelty not everyone can bear the same way. 

They sit at the kitchen table over a pot of steaming tea, and there’s too much to discuss but they have to start somewhere. Kravitz tells her she’d been missing for over a week before he was captured by Roswyth, but she sympathizes when he says he’s lost track of time since then. He recalls his bargain with the dragon with no small sense of shame, going so far as to rub his tired eyes with one hand as he explains it. Lucretia tries not to let the situation become overwhelming. Neither of them can afford to be bogged down with their own sad feelings right now.

“I saw him…” But with his face still hidden behind one dark hand, Kravitz still lets the words reach the surface. “He was right there in front of me and- I couldn’t help him.”

“I’ve seen him,” Lucretia says quietly, respecting the hush between them. “But only once. I woke up and he was fighting someone- Roswyth, I suppose. I’ve seen Taako angry before, I’ve seen him enraged, but I’ve never seen him as recklessly violent with his magic as he was in that moment.”

“…If the two of us are here, and there’s no one else in the valley, then where is he?”

Lucretia can only drink her tea, she doesn’t know. The silence is a hard presence at the table, and they work around it very slowly.

When she asks, Kravitz explains what the rope tethered to Lucretia’s back is. She was leery about it, but he confirms: it means her spirit has left her body. This form she’s in, the tea she’s drinking, the chill left in her clothes as her jacket hangs up to dry, none of it is real in the material sense. It gives her the uncomfortable segue into a topic she doubts he wants to talk about right now.

“Is that why you… forgive me, Kravitz, but- you don’t look well? I’ve never seen you fatigued like this.”

She’s right, he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t answer her for what feels like a very long time, but right when Lucretia is about to apologize and try to change the topic again, Kravitz drops his hand from his face, stares at the teapot between them, and speaks.

“I’m cut off,” he says. “I understood it during the Hunger’s attack, but this time it’s… harder. It feels more personal.” Which makes sense, he’s sitting in what is his very personal soul prison. “It feels like everything’s been emptied out of me and it hurts.”

“I don’t really know how it works with someone who’s been a Reaper for as long as you have,” Lucretia tries to find the tactful way around this question. “But if you step outside, will you leave your body? Do you-? I mean, you’re physical, but you’re also… ah…”

“Dead?” He offers, and she frowns at him. “I am dead, Lucretia. I am very, very dead.” 

“Not to us you aren’t.”

The only way to know is for Kravitz to step outside, and Lucretia can’t help but chide him: he’s not even wearing shoes, it’s raining outside, and cold on top of that.

“It might be a demiplane and you might be dead, but how are you going to face Taako again with a head-cold?” She ribs him because she’s right, but also because Kravitz resists her. Lucretia knows what the demiplane is capable of producing, the variety and possibility of the wardrobe. Kravitz takes almost as much care in his appearance as Taako, he can’t have missed this aspect of the plane, but the Reaper is caught in frustrated silence for what feels like a very long time before he looks back and answers her.

“Follow me.” She does. The rooms are laid out exactly the same as Lucretia’s, and she follows Kravitz into the bedroom with the unchanged blue bedding and white washed floors and walls. He unlatches the closet doors and lets them swing open, then stands there staring at Lucretia with a scowl that is very nearly a pout.

There is a rainbow of colours in front of her. Silk shirts in saffron, fuchsia, goldenrod and other subtle shades. Ties and cravats and scarves from lively green to luminescent purple. The shoes are three rows deep, in several styles, with a smell of fine leather coming off them and they start at white and roll through the rainbow again. The hanging curtain of slacks and pants are all in the same prismatic array as the shirts. The suit jackets and vests and every piece of outerwear all follow the exact same pattern.

Lucretia curls and bites her lips, trying to master her expression.

Not a single item, not one, is black. A second scan of the wardrobe confirms that nothing is saturated or darkened beyond a dusky hue. No jewel tones, no deep dyes, nothing that can be hypenated as something-black. Not even grape purple, or burgundy, or navy blue. All of it is at least two saturated tones higher than that.

Please don’t smile, please don’t smile, please, please, put that knot of humour away and for the love of Istus do not giggle.

 Kravitz is tapping one foot on the floor and she wrongly looks at it. He’s wearing blue pants, and blue socks. Denim and periwinkle respectively.

Lucretia snorts and claps a hand over her mouth and nose, trying so hard not to look at him when she feels his hackles rise. Kravitz isn’t allergic to colour by any stretch, but he has an aesthetic to consider before appearing in public. Black is his base, colour is his accent. A colourful shirt balanced with a restricted black suit is something he looks good in, and he’s as much a fan of jewelery and gem stones as anyone else, but with taste. Taako would be at home with this selection, the Grim Reaper may very well hang himself.

“...can I say it?” she asks, words muffled by her hand. “Please let me say it.”

“No.”

Pastel goth.

“Lucretia!”

“You could pull it off! I know you could, I believe in you.”

“That’s not the point.” It’s not the point, but it makes Lucretia laugh anyways. And- she laughs.

She hasn’t- Lucretia hasn’t laughed, not really, since coming here. She hasn’t even smiled, not consciously, but now she’s standing here in a prison cell laughing. She’s laughing because the Grim Reaper, who has lost everything from the love of his life to his connection to his divine patron, refuses to put on a not-black outfit because it’s against his aesthetic.

She’s laughing and it very quickly goes to tears, but they’re okay tears. They’re relief tears, the valve that lets the negativity drain slowly out of her because it’s okay, she’s okay, and she’s going to be okay- they all are.

She feels Kravitz set a hand on her back as she wipes at her tears, giggles and cries both kicking in her chest. When she looks at him she breaks into another smile again because he’s wiping his own eyes, casual as anything, with his fingertips.

“He loves you so much,” she says. It’s not her place to speak for Taako, he’d probably hate hearing her say it, but it startles Kravitz a little and he just looks at her. “And if you can make me laugh after all of this just by pouting at your closet, Kravitz, just think of all the good it’ll do him if you show up looking like a walking stained-glass window.”

It’s a good thing to say. She means it in the best way possible and she says it as honestly as she can, and it’s a good thing to say. Kravitz is worn out by whatever mind-games and difficulties Roswyth has put him through, and his fatigue is right there on his face.

They hug again. It’s short, but it’s good. It’s tearful, but it’s healing. She agrees to step out for a few minutes so Kravitz can change and be ready to go outside.

“But I’m going to hate every moment of it,” he insists, and Lucretia smiles again.

“At least you’ll look good doing it.”

“I already hate it.”

She touches his arm briefly, and then leaves.


Taako can see the display. At first it’s impressive, but that quickly gives way to a sickening sense of dread. Just looking at it he feels intrigued. It’s terrible, but so- so... fascinating.

“Certainly so,” Patrice says, and Taako can’t tell if he’s flattering the dragon on purpose or because he’s just given up trying to hide his morbid curiosity about the damned thing.

The display is made of seven hexagons, and now Taako is rethinking his original deduction that the demiplanes were powered by the number six. It certainly made sense at the time, but seven keeps appearing too. Seven cells of six sides. Shit. The math just got way more complicated.

It’s seven stone hexagons in a flower pattern mounted on the wall of a chamber Taako has now seen twice: a few days ago when Kravitz’s figurine was placed on it, and right now. The boxes are made of stone, and only two of them are lit: the one holding a small figurine of Lucretia, and the one Kravitz is standing on top of? He’s not in one of the hexagons proper.

“I didn’t plan on adding an eighth spirit to the projection,” Patrice explains, “but as I will be acquiring the Prime Material Plane’s two other Reapers, and you are so entangled with the original, it seemed a fair bargain when he offered to complete the set. Perhaps when the collection is complete I will adjust the presentation method, but for now the mechanics are secure. They seem to be getting along quite well.”

The light around Lucretia and Kravitz is soft and white. It threads from the base of her figurine, through the stone frame, and winds around to Kravitz. Between the two of them, the far right and far left boxes are lit. Taako can’t tell how Patrice can see into the construct of planes they’ve built but there must be a display somewhere.

He can only make guesses right now, so that’s what he does: the clusters are self-contained within the figurines, yeah?

“That is correct.”

And the wall display itself is- a bigger pocket dimension? It encapsulates the smaller pockets. The souls are in their jars and the jars are in a cabinet. When the white lines bloom like that, it means there’s a way for them to navigate the inside of the cabinet to reach each other.

The dragon gives a polite golf clap. Taako is quiet. He focuses on the sight of Kravitz’s figurine sitting there at a height that feels very far away from him, and lets the yearning pain distract him from any other thoughts.

Patrice lifts Taako up, and he recognizes the movement: it starts at his top and he slides up, then gets caught in a hand and turned to face the dragon again. They’ve taken him off.

“Perhaps it is time?” Patrice asks him, and Taako-

He thinks of Kravitz and he thinks of what he went through and what this hellish place is like and how if Taako is let into the display maybe he’ll get his form back again. He was injured the last time, but maybe it’s healed, maybe if- if Patrice puts him back, he can see Kravitz again.

Taako wills himself not to think of anything else, just his angel.

Patrice smiles and strokes a clawed finger down over him. The dragon hasn’t put their claws away since that dinner with Magnus and the others.

“Then perhaps it is time for you to try again,” his heart skips a beat, he’s getting his chance. “But on one very firm condition: you will not use magic. When I am satisfied with your behaviour then I will lift the restriction, but for now, none of it. Do you understand?”

He won’t escape (yet). He won’t damage the planes (yet). He won’t do anything (yet).

Taako isn’t sure how well he smothers that acidic drop of resistance, but Patrice just rubs their thumb over him again and- aw shit!

He’s dropped and dangled by the cord, and with a hard swat of the dragon’s finger Taako is sent spinning and he fucking hates- hates it- god-damn- fucking- agh!

He can’t close eyes or shut off the sensation, just has to ride it out, has to watch the room spin around him like a whirlwind. He sees Patrice and he sees the display and he sees the door and the staff and the gauntlet and- what?

He’s still spinning, but the cord is winding tighter and he’s slowing down, getting ready to hurtle in the other direction, but he sees...

He sees that massive honeycomb flower, flanked by shelves and mounts and glass display cases on the walls. And he sees them, but it can’t be them, but it’s them.

He sees a white bone staff with a jewelled head. He sees a gold monocle, mounted on a satin backing with a finely jewelled chain. He sees a sash behind glass and unfurled to show its pattern. When he stops, he sees a gauntlet of metal and magic clutched in a fist. He sees a silver chalice. He starts to spin again, slowly and then quickly, but first Taako sees a perfectly smooth stone he knows in his gut is laced with lines of gold.

It can’t be the grand relics. It can’t be them. It’s not possible for them to be here, but as Taako is carried forward, still spinning, he can’t ask and he can’t look and he can’t demand answers from anyone.

He stops spinning and Patrice’s fingers are there covering him. He hits something hard and is pushed down. He feels himself sink in- there’s a slot? He fits in a slot and he clicks in place and it’s almost like the box- Istus please, don’t let it be the box.

His vision starts to haze up and that scares him. Taako worked so hard to be able to see again and all he can see around him is white creeping up on him. It comes from all sides, it’s hostile and it’s invasive. His sense of hearing is overwhelmed by the hum and buzz of terrifying magic.

He feels for the first time in weeks, he feels. The sensation is there but it’s something crawling and creeping over him, tiny threads that hook and catch and drag as his field of vision shrinks.

The neverwhere whiteness creeps over him. His senses fade... and shrink... and... and...

And then Taako wakes up in Goldcliff...

He blinks a few times, and then a few more, and then with a gasp he sits up in shock.

Eyes, he has eyes! And hands- his face. He feels his face and his hair with his hands and then down his body, which is naked but it’s here and it’s real-! And it’s not really real it’s a projection but it’s real-er than what he was a minute ago- what he still is, out there, on the display.

He sits there on saffron sheets with his hands clutching his bare chest, feeling his heartbeat frantically kick up as he mentally centres himself. Where is he? What’s changed since he last saw it?

A lot. A lot has changed.

The balcony is there and the windows are open, but Taako can’t hear any water falling and actually- he feels cold? He throws off the covers and swings his legs to- Taako screams.

He falls flat on his back and throws his hands over his mouth, screaming. There’s a terrible split in his consciousness and he feels himself distinctly appreciating and being relieved by the fact that he can scream, that he can feel his chest heaving, that there are real tears pricking his very real eyes. The rest of him is just horrified.

“No-! No, no...!” He feels his voice, his real and honest voice, shrieking behind his hands, his breaths hot and wet on his palms. He lays there and feels himself shake, a few cries whittling their way up his throat and falling like the tears that streak back into his hair.

Taako sits up because he has to, trembling as he is, and looks again. He looks and- and he touches because- because this too is real. The tears keep coming as he explores the wound.

His leg is there but it’s not? He can’t feel it, but there are traces of energy spilling from the stump of his right knee. When he touches the rest of his thigh there’s nothing for him to see or notice, but at the knee things get weird. His fingers reach and push and there’s no pain, just a sudden warmth when his hands cross into that shimmering gold cloud of magic. His leg does in fact end, it absolutely ends, and Taako can feel with both his hand and knee as he closes his fingers over the stump.

Is he bleeding? Is he dying? He touches the magic and he knows it’s coming from him, it’s emanating steadily out and down like a shin and a foot, but he can’t control it and he doesn’t feel himself being drained. When he brushes his hand back and forth through the gold smoke, it moves like smoke and its only with further spill-over that the cloud returns.

There’s nothing there to take weight for him, he tries to slide off the bed with his good leg and feels absolutely nothing to catch him.

Taako, tear-stricken and shaking, hears the sound of paper whisper over fabric. When he sees Patrice’s letter he tears it open with trembling hands.

Dear-

“Just use my fucking name, Patrice!”

As we both now have the opportunity to observe the consequence of your recklessness, I regret to inform you that I know of no immediate remedies for your situation. Rest assured that I am not without means, of course, and will dedicate an appropriate level of focus and resources to, if not resolving, then at least mitigating your circumstances.

For the interim, appropriate mobility devices will be provided once you either exit your accommodations or temporarily retire.

Do note that I have taken the liberty of informing the other two occupants of the display of the arrival of a third member, but have left your identity unspecified so as to heighten the experience of your timely reunion.  Please be aware that they are not likely to delay in paying you a visit. I would suggest attiring yourself appropriately.

Sincerely yours, The Keeper

Taako looks up from the letter and knows he’s still crying. To be fair, he has a lot to fucking cry about.

There’s Angus, and Magnus, and the dragon, and his body, and his leg, and Angus, and Lup, and Kravitz, and Ren, and Angus-

He’s a child...” Taako hiccups to himself, face in his hands, mutilated leg still giving off wisps of energy under him. “Why did you let him see that... Magnus, why?”

But he can’t stay here. Or at least, he can’t stay like this. The letter says Lucretia and Kravitz know he’s here, and they’re coming. He doesn’t know how much time he has or how he’s going to fix himself up into something semi-presentable but Taako isn’t going to let them stumble in on him crying naked and alone in bed either.

There’s nothing around him he can use as a cane, and the room is too large for him to hobble around holding onto anything reliable. So he does the only thing he can do and, although it’s a mental exercise he is not prepared for, and an emotional trial he doesn’t think he can completely manage, Taako closes his eyes tight and aligns the symbols in his mind. He doesn’t have to get the levitation spell exactly right, he just has to make himself light enough to get over to the wardrobe...

He pulls his hands up and swirls them, mouthing the words and trying to blindly pull together the blurry haze of PAIN.

Taako has a split second to gasp, eyes open, and try to scream before everything explodes into white neverwhere. He feels flayed, heat and corruption striking through him. His soul itself is petrified and then he’s spinning, blind and mute, in nothing.

He feels himself rising and swinging and it’s helplessly cruel. He can’t scream, he can’t see, he has no sensation left except the horrible motion of being held up and shaken, shaken and bouncing at the end of a cord held in a furious grip.

“I am beyond disappointed in you!” Patrice’s voice rages at him, echoing off the stone walls of the display room and Taako can’t scream. His mind is full of panic as he’s taken tight in the dragon’s grasp and squeezed. “I gave you but a single simple condition and within moments you blundered ahead and violated it! For shame, wizard! I am most cross with you!”

Magic- Taako used-

I’m sorry! The panic comes through before he can feel anything but abject terror. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I thought you meant escape and I didn’t try to escape! I didn’t! I wasn’t going to escape I swear I was just doing what you said! I can’t walk, Roswyth I can’t move on my own I need help put me back please, please, put me back!

Taako feels his thoughts name the dragon properly and his composure fractures even further. He wants to cry, but all he has is panic as his thoughts scatter and he feels himself being torn apart by emotions he can’t even name, nevermind control.

Put me back, put me back! Please- I need to see them I can’t stay like this- please! He’s begging. Taako is actually begging and he has no way of choking himself to make it stop. He has no filter. He doesn’t have a mouth he can close or a tongue to bite. It’s a direct line from his shaken consciousness to the dragon and Taako feels a sick hate welling up deep inside of him, but this time it’s not for Roswyth: it’s for himself.

Don’t trick them don’t taunt them like this just because I made a mistake- Even Lucretia doesn’t deserve that. She’s a stone cold bitch but she would never wish him harm like this and Taako can’t stand Roswyth hurting her through him. And Kravitz- Kravitz...

I’m sorry! He’s drowning. He hates himself. One more chance- just give me one more chance, I won’t make you angry again I swear!

“I should just put you away for a few more days.” The hysteria builds and crashes through him.

PLEASE DON’T- NO- PLEASE! Not in the box, please, please, not the box, not again. LUP!

No- don’t think of her, don’t, don’t-

LUP! I want Lup! No, no, idiot wizard- no! Lup! Lulu! Help me, find me! Help! Do anything! Don’t put me back in the box I want Lup!

The panic breaks him and Taako can stop none of it.

I want Lup- I need Lup I need her I love her she’s my heart I need her please give me Lup I need Lup don’t put me in the box she’ll never find me there she has to find me I need to see her I want to go home with her I want her to find me I want to be with her give her back to me I need Lup I can’t do this without Lup I need her I love her I need her I love her I miss her give her back I need her I love her I need-

He keeps going and Taako can’t stop. It’s just a stream that runs like any other river, endless and constant. Kravitz is the moon that rises when it’s ready but Lup is the place where land meets see, timeless and reliable and Taako loves them both very differently but there’s a soul-bound need for his sister that he’s tried to tuck so close to his heart that it is his heart. Lup is the nearest and dearest thing that Taako has put everything into keeping away from the dragon, and now he’s handing her over because he has nothing else to give.

Put me back, please, please, put me back inside, he begs. I’ll do better, I’ll be good, I’ll behave, I won’t do anything to make you angry just put me back inside. Please just put me back with them...

He’s been clutched in Roswyth’s hand this whole time, face down to their palm so there’s nothing he can see. He feels the dragon’s claws pressing into his back. They don’t hurt because he’s not flesh, he’s probably not even alive anymore, but he knows the claws don’t gouge or break him. His mind keeps spitting out pleas and grovels, his whole soul is aching from its core, and he waits.

And he waits.

...I want Lup...

The grip slowly, slowly, begins to ease. He hears Roswyth take a slow, steadying breath through their nose.

“You will cast no more unauthorized magic.”

I will cast no more magic, he agrees. He’s already lost a leg, he’s lost every other body-part too. What good’s an arm?

“If you violate the terms again, Taako, you will go back into your box.”

Please no- I won’t do it! I won’t cast magic!

If you cross me again,” the dragon growls over his naked fear, “I will leave you in that box for a century. I am nothing if not patient.”

I won’t cast magic! He won’t cast magic. Put me back- please, just put me back...

Taako feels himself move with the dragon. He’s turned over, face still covered by their palm, and his back hits something hard again. He falls into the slot and he’s pressed down, and down, and down.

Everything begins to haze over with white again, and the buzzing fills him from the outside burrowing in. The neverwhere rises and swallows him. Taako lets himself be taken.

He wakes up back in Goldcliff, naked, mutilated, and afraid.

Chapter Text

Taako picks up the pen and then puts it down. He reaches for it- snatches his hand back. He touches the book and jumps like it’s on fire.

No, no, no, he can’t do this. He’s shaking. He’s exhausted already and all he’s done is get dressed. He’s running out of time and he can’t do this if he doesn’t do what needs to be done right now.

He feels wet tears on his hands and pulls them off his eyes. He’s ruined his eyeliner. He covers his eyes again, feels a breath shudder through him, and then looks back down.

The Book of Annotations and Accommodations is closed in front of him, on its little desk in it’s tiny closet space.

He hates himself and picking up the pen makes him sob again, but he grabs it and he holds it and this time he opens the book to a blank page. He hates himself, he hates what he’s doing, but he can’t face the alternative. Taako can’t let them see him like this.

He holds the pen too firmly to the page, watching the ink bleed across the paper. He has to do this, for himself, because he can’t let them see him like this.

He shuts his eyes tight against what he’s doing, and writes a single line of text directly to the dragon:

I need your help.


 

It takes six attempts with the hell-tower magic to release Johann. It takes weeks of correction and practice and perfect execution to get it done, but at the end of it all Johann the deer hound is, finally, torn free from the dragon’s spell.

The poor thing doesn’t react well to his freedom at first. He’s shaken and left weak, scared enough that it takes Barry and Lucas together to sooth and calm the animal down. He just lays there on the lab floor with the two arcanists kneeling over him, calm words and gentle hands, with chewy treats and a bowl of water. Johann whines, tail between his legs, but accepts the sustenance and the presence of the two wizards.

Lup knows she should join them. She owes it to Magnus to be there with his loyal friend and help make sure Barry and Lucas don’t completely overstimulate the poor boy with their fussing and checking.

She should do that. She should go over there. She should pick her feet up and walk, but she feels both very heavy and very light all of the sudden. Like her chest wants to rise up but her limbs are firmly fixed in space. Slowly, she hears something.

It’s not a sound she can detect with her ears, but a hum that strikes her chest and coils gently and kindly around her heart. It’s a sweet and safe sound, smooth and irresistible. Lup almost thinks of resisting the call, but then she remembers what it is and what it means, and it’s so easy to close her eyes, roll her weight back onto her heels, and drop.

She’s summoned to the Astral plane before she’s even parallel with the floor. The Raven Queen’s call is too lovely to resist, a trust-fall through space that Lup holds her arms out wide for. This is the calmest Lup has felt in weeks.

She feels herself flip, smooth and simple, through the air as she drops. The space is shaded and grey, but not dangerous, not threatening. Her boots hit the floor and she sticks the landing lightly, right in the middle of a fading summon circle of black feathers. She rises up straight with her eyes still closed. She bows, arms flourishing: it’s just polite. It’s a thank-you for the melody humming through her spirit.

When Lup straightens up she- uh, is alone?

Not like alone-alone, there are other presences here, but here is not a place where Lup has ever been without two other people: Barry and Kravitz. And they’re not here. And here- here is the Raven Queen’s court.

Her Majesty’s court and the Eternal Stockade are two very different places. Lup knows the Stockade, she’s there on the regular as a Reaper, but court is something else. Court is for Kravitz, the official Grim Reaper and lead Bounty Hunter for the Prime Material Plane. Lup and Barry have accompanied him a few times, but very few, like: maybe three events total? So if Lup is here then Barry should be here, and if either of them are here then Kravitz should definitely be here.

But she doesn’t see him. Instead, between the pillars of grey that are suspended in the large space, there are about thirty or so cloaked and hooded figures, all in black. Lup recognizes the uniform right away: they’re Reapers, bounty hunters like her, but she doesn’t see Kravitz.

She’s also standing smack-dab in the middle of the hall because this is where she was summoned. Her red jacket and robe are visible under her black cloak which materialized as soon as she entered this plane, and Lup swallows awkwardly as she starts pulling on the black material so it crosses her chest and covers up the dress-code violation.

The three of them take care of the Prime Material plane, but there are lots of other realms to consider. More than a few fiends from Prime will jump ship to the Plane of Thought, or Magic, or even one of the outer planes, and there’s always the chance of a being originating on one of those planes cutting lose and trying to hide on Prime. Lup’s seen Kravitz talk to their extraplanar counterparts before, but they’re not the most social organization and they respect hierarchy.

None of them are talking to her now, but they’re certainly watching from under their hoods. A soft tone of magic lights up the floor beside Lup, taking some of the heat off her as a swirl of six black and blue raven feathers begin to spin and dance in a circle. Moments later, a ribbon of smoke rises and spins itself into Barry’s cloaked form, and he lands on his feet with a light plop. He opens his eyes slowly behind his glasses, blinking away the heady sensation of the Queen’s song.

When he sees Lup standing next to him he smiles and that relaxes her a little bit, and she can look ahead of them and wait for Kravitz to make his own, belated, entrance.

Children

Oh, that’s not good. Lup knows that voice that isn’t a voice. She sees that shadow that isn’t darkness hovering at the end of the hall in front of them. A marble dais is surrounded by wrought iron perches, each one bearing the heavy bodies of powerful ravens, and standing in the middle of them is a force well beyond the Astral Plane’s ability to fully project.

The Raven Queen waits as Lup and Barry share a look, and then answer the summons. Barry mouths Kravitz’s name but Lup just shakes her head quickly, she hasn’t seen him. He’s not here. He should absolutely be here if the Raven Queen wants an audience with any of them because she’s the top of the celestial food chain, it all ends with her, and it’s supposed to go through Kravitz to get to them.

Hierarchy, remember?

The Raven Queen’s projection is big. She’s at least ten feet tall, black static and a steady power that makes the world hum to accommodate her. She wears a white mask over what approximates her face, featureless and yet piercing with her gaze. As the two of them walk forward and stop at what seems like a respectable distance, she elongates and rises up, looking down over them before it feels like she comes forward- though she does not leave her platform.

A big shapeless black-ish power source should immediately scream Hunger to her and Barry, but Lup doesn’t feel it. The Raven Queen is sublime, she’s beyond mere words and mortal sensation, but like rolling thunder or the vast ocean, she’s still normal. She’s supposed to be here, and she’s supposed to be this way, and there’s nothing frightening about something that’s true.

When she extends what approximates an arm of black static, Lup can tell the Queen is holding something. When the static releases, a golden feather rises and spins gently in the air, caught on a soundless eddy. Lup has seen her share of Reaper-related feathers before, but never one that’s gold. They’re usually black and touched with another colour. Lup knows hers has a highlight of fire orange, just like how Barry’s is a denim blue. Kravitz’s looks all black until you get close enough to it and you can see the wine-red tint to the tips. But this one is all golden and matte. It’s familiar, it’s almost like- No.

The feather hovers there, and it spins, and it spins, but it wobbles as it does so, like it’s not light enough to dance properly. It starts to split and then there are six feathers, and they touch the grey floor and continue their dance, even if they’re heavy with it, drawing the summoning circle. A flute of smoke appears just like the one that Barry appeared from, and then it all stops. Nothing appears.

There’s a murmur from the Reapers around the chamber and a few of the ravens click their beaks and shuffle on their perches. Lup just feels her eyes widen. She knows for a fact that the Raven Queen is watching their reaction.

Barry kneels to take the feather as its counterparts vanish and look at it. Lup looks up and meets the gaze of her goddess and asks a question:

“Is that Kravitz’s feather?”

She doesn’t answer. The Raven Queen’s mask tilts and draws closer, like one of her curious birds. She comes closer, and closer, until Lup is almost afraid of her instead of- instead of this.

“Lup-” Barry says in a hush, still looking at the feather cradled between his hands. It’s rigid, with a luster that isn’t like any sort of feather, no matter how stiff the spines. “Lup- it’s wax.NO.

Where is he?

“I’m gonna kill that dragon-” Lup feels the air rush out of her and the tears well up in her eyes. She wants to choke on the rage that strangles her. “I’m rip every gods-damned scale off their hide- I’m gonna- I’m-

Where is he?

The Raven Queen repeats her question and Lup is shaking, she’s trembling so hard from the anger and the outrage that she forgets to be wary of the fact that she just made a god repeat herself.

“On an island in the Wakeless sea- your Majesty.” Barry answers for her, Lup is struggling to keep herself physically together. “An island home to a powerful dragon, one who- their magic’s been causing trouble for us, but not like this! Something about a collection, about wanting the seven of us from the Starblaster to submit to them. But it shouldn’t have any interest in Kravitz, he’s not-”

FIND HIM

The Ravens and the Reapers all shy back from the soundless boom. Feathers drop from the birds in their surprise, and the Reapers mill amongst themselves with low voices.

Lup doesn’t hear any of it.

“Why didn’t Merle tell us?” She asks the air, eyes still watching the Raven Queen and she knows- she just knows, that the goddess is watching her back. “If Merle didn’t know then why didn’t Magnus say something?” Because Magnus is on the island with Kravitz. They’ve been stuck there for weeks, waiting for a chance to go into Roswyth’s lair.

At least, that was the last anyone bothered telling Lup.

What if Roswyth has Kravitz and Magnus? And Davenport? What about Angus?

Oh Gods, Lup left Taako’s apprentice on a dragon’s island. She knows how much he pretends that boy isn’t the light of his life and she left him alone

Stones of Far Speech don’t work in the Raven Queen’s court, and Lup is pulled out of her tailspin of emotion by a sliver of light that widens and unravels in front of her. It forms a long sheet of parchment, a familiar piece of Reaper magic.

It’s a bounty:

For the immediate recovery and return of
Kravitz, Grim Reaper of the Prime Material Plane
Hitherto forfeit unto the Will of the Queen of the Natural Passage of Life and Death for the crime of
Innocent of fault, to be recovered and restored to court
Trusted in apprehension to the ones named
Lup Hallwinter and Barold Hallwinter, Reapers of the Prime Material Plane

His face is sketched across the page with life-like detail, and there’s a stack of information written underneath that Lup doesn’t need because she knows it all. There’s a space at the bottom for Lup to sign her name and a pen conjures itself in the air beside the page. Of course she takes it, and of course with a shaking hand she signs it. Barry quickly adds his name as well and they both easily overlook his nearly-forgotten birth name as it always appears on these sorts of things. As soon as it’s signed, the bounty vanishes.

Find him

She repeats, still looming over them and now much larger and wider than before. She’s a wall of power and influence, demanding something Lup is happy to give: all the freedom from her normal duties to devote entirely to breaking the missing parts of her family out of the dragon’s prison.

Bring him back to me

“We’re going to need this,” Barry says, still holding the wax feather carefully. Lup doesn’t feel the goddess’ attention leave her, or her gaze waver, but after a beat Barry gives a hushed thanks and retreats back a few steps. They’ve received and accepted their mission, they can leave now.

But Lup is still standing here. She feels her heart struggling to beat in her chest, knows there are ice cold tears cutting down her face. She can’t look away from the Queen.

Why didn’t Merle tell her? Why didn’t Magnus tell her? What’s happened to Davenport? Where is Angus?

Too late, Lup notices another tendril of black static reaching out. When it touches her she feels cold, cold fingertips. Her whole being seizes up and her vision goes completely black.

She feels the Raven Queen watching her, and feels- calm…

A single white thread, a bond, coils around Lup’s petrified chest. It twists and flows, knots itself secure and proper between her ribs, and extends back out into that darkness. It hums with her song, and then radiates back with the gentle melody of death.

It’s not an anchor, but it’s a bond just the same. A bond directly from Lup’s heart to the Goddess who forgave her and her lover’s desperate trespass into Lichdom. She closes her eyes and Lup feels safe.

There are two cold hands cupping her face, and then in the black abyss there’s the soft touch of iced lips on her forehead. She feels safe, and she feels loved, and then she feels guilt.

I want Taako…” she whimpers in this place where only her Goddess can hear her. When Lup reaches up to the hands on her cheeks she can feel them as real as anything and holds on tight. “I need him- I need him… Please tell- tell me he isn’t dead. Tell me, please…

Shh, child…” The Queen soothes her, cold fingertips brushing Lup’s bangs back, the touch running back down her jaw to brush aside the tears and cradle her face again. “My poor girl… He lingers beyond my realm, but he suffers there.” He’s not dead. He’s suffering, but he’s not dead, but he’s suffering.

She starts crying again, hard and scared, but the Queen doesn’t let go of her, doesn’t cast her off to deal with it all on her own.

“Wherever life lingers, death will find it. Wherever he is hurting, you will save him.” She murmurs softly over Lup’s head, a promise often repeated by the Reapers of every plane in the system. “What I have recovered is not sufficient to draw his spirit to rest, but it may give yours ease.”

The bond between them tugs on Lup’s heart, and she opens her eyes to see small, soft threads begin to travel down the white length of the connection. These threads are tinted blue, the same barely there colour of a soul cord. They spiral and twist, feeding down the bond until they abruptly arc up toward her face.

They look like strands of hair, and they twist and coil rapidly until they form a small love knot. There’s not much there and it doesn’t feel like Taako. There’s hardly enough of the strands left to coil around Lup’s throat and let the knot hang like a necklace. It’s very short, she knows she won’t be able to take it off. And yet she still feels… better.

The Queen’s hands move and tilt her head up a little, and the Goddess kisses Lup’s brow again in such a tender and- pure way…

“Bring your brothers home, sweet daughter, and the rest will fall into place.”

“Thank you, my Queen…”


 

Roswyth touches their chin gently, stroking the soft trail of hair down their throat and reads the display again. This is both a fascinating and exciting change of pace, especially from Taako.

Adjusting the demiplanes was such a trial on the journey home, but now that the display is working Roswyth can easily peer through the hexagons into the reality they’ve crafted. And the writing from the books appears so clearly in the air.

Time certainly is an issue for the Wizard, but this flip in behaviour and attitude is absolutely worth encouraging. He asks for help, and explains why, and what he feels he needs. It’s not very eloquently put but the good wizard is under a fair bit of stress. Very well, Roswyth accommodates.

They take both hands and tap a claw under Lucretia and Kravitz, then draw their touch down along the edges of the display. This draws the white lines like strings to follow their gestures, and within the reality the two will hardly notice the change: the road they’re hurrying down to reach Taako’s abode simply lengthens. Like yarn being drawn from the heart of the ball, the road extends and extends, looping further and further off its immediate course.

Roswyth did say the road would be an economical path between homes, but neither of them have explored this part of the valley yet so they won’t know the difference. They’ll fix it later, but for now, Taako is right: he does need a touch more time.

As soon as they finish adding the extra miles to the road, the amulet resting in its slot abruptly lights up. Excellent, he was very prompt about putting himself into a meditative state and that makes things easier. This is actually an exercise in teamwork now, and Roswyth gets to work plucking the threads necessary to make the changes. Taako was very brief in his explanation, but his mind unpacks itself neatly and shows them exactly what needs to be done.

His flare for the dramatic has finally been unlocked, and Roswyth is delighted to assist.


 

Kravitz wants to fly. This would be so much faster if he could just cast out the magic to lift himself off the ground and fly.

When the Neverwhere flooded Kravitz’s cluster he was alone again, but the letter told him someone had made their much-anticipated arrival to the valley. He and Lucretia met on the white gravel road near the ravine with the stone bridge, and the road forked down to follow the descending slope of the mountains. They were barely beyond sight of the bridge before the valley shook.

It was violent and terrifying. The ground fell out from under both of them and then slammed back to catch them. In the grey distance they thought they saw smoke and, to their horror, the road beneath them had vanished.

There were no letters to explain what happened, just the two of them left to hike and travel slowly down the path the road had been going.

And then the valley shook again, just as terrible as the first time, and the road was back. Since then it’s been hours and Kravitz… is fatigued?

He’s not used to feeling tired, to losing his energy when there’s something important on the line. Yes after a busy day running around Neverwinter with Taako he enjoys putting his feet up and relaxing, but on a mission there’s very rarely any sort of downtime. Even the flight across the Astral Plane with Lup took several days of non-stop flying and focus to accomplish. Kravitz can rest and he can sleep, he can feel worn out and mentally exhausted, but he doesn’t get physically tired.

He’s tired here, and he doesn’t like it. What he likes even less is how slow their progress across the valley is going.

The sky is grey and cloudy with a sharp wind carrying between the trees. He and Lucretia have walked for long enough that they’ve actually come down from most of the alpine terrain and are walking now with smaller trees flanking their right, and rolling wet meadows to their left. They’ve passed at least two lakes, and the mists coming down off the mountains across the valley obscure the other side. It’s growing darker the longer they walk, but night won’t stop either of them from pressing onward.

Lucretia warns him not to move backwards along the road at any point. They’ve both discovered that the way back to their own front doors is many times shorter than the path anywhere else. Kravitz has walked so far that his feet are aching, but he knows it would probably only take him another half-hour to turn around and be back at the mountain door to the cluster Roswyth keeps him tethered too.

That’s another thing that bothers him: Kravitz has a soul cord tethering him to the prison he left behind. He shouldn’t have a soul cord. Tethers are for mortals who leave their living bodies and wander into the Astral Plane or similar realms frequented by the dead. He’s the Grim Reaper, those rules shouldn’t apply to him!

“Kravitz-” Lucretia is a few strides ahead of him, and stops first as they top a small hill and look down the winding road ahead of them. For whatever stupid reason, the path loops back and forth and back and forth between hills and crops of trees, but from this vantage point and even in the poor weather, Kravitz can see their destination.

The mountains form a bowl holding the valley, but here in the eastern portion of it that bowl is flooded to form a deep cove. It’s a beach, and there in the middle of it, built out onto the water above a stone pier and its windows lit with a soft golden glow, is a house.

Kravitz and Lucretia both ignore the winding switch-back path of the road, and go straight across the rolling hillsides. Their reward is a lot of muddy water and thick weeds, and Kravitz absolutely hates the feeling of cold water swelling through his shoes and sopping up his pant-legs, but he makes himself plow ahead anyways. If he could fly then none of this would matter.

As they get closer Kravitz feels himself giving in to hope. The house is flat and rectangular, and the exterior sides are more glass than wall. It’s restrained, but elegant, with an archway over the road where it hits the edge of the property, and a wall of weathered beach rock is there to mark the perimeter. Outside there’s a folded beach umbrella and a large brick barbeque, the chairs all stacked against the table like the whole set-up has been packed away for winter.

When they’re nearly at the wall Kravitz can see through those warmly lit floor-to-ceiling windows and he recognizes a kitchen, a large cooking and serving space that joins with a dining room that Kravitz knows should be separated by the walls of the demiplane, but from the outside looks like one. Of course Taako would find a way to bend the rules.

A sign is hanging- three wooden signs are hanging on one side of the arch, the words are elegantly carved and then painted onto them so they can be clearly seen. In order, the three boards read: “PRIVATE PROPERTY”, “NO SOLICITING”, and “NO DRAGONS ON THE BEACH”.

Kravitz’s heart eases and he briefly reaches out to touch the warnings, just to make sure they’re real. He can feel the cold water soaking into the grain of the wood, and with a shaken breath he and Lucretia both pass under the arch and approach the house.

The road becomes large flat stepping stones set into the soft sand, and then it’s up three wooden steps onto a polished deck that runs around the entire building. This is one of the few segments of wall that aren’t made of glass, but the wall sconces burn with that warm light. The Cherrywood door has a large round window of beautifully etched glass, covered by a curtain inside. The handle and lock are gold and glow with the light.

Stuck on the window is a simple note in an achingly familiar hand: Door’s unlocked, come on in. -T

They do so, and Kravitz is hit with a wall of warmth that goes right through the damp clothes he’s been trudging in for hours. Lucretia closes the door behind them and he feels the warmth just sweep over his face and cheeks, settling in his hair like a hug. The air smells sweetly spiced, a sign that Taako’s been cooking.

They’re standing in a small entry way with nothing but a mirror on the wall beside them above a table, and a woven white mat that’s catching the sand and water from their feet. A coat tree appears and Lucretia removes the long white coat she’s been wearing and hangs it up, setting her walking stick next to it. Kravitz is slower about removing the saffron-dyed cloak he picked out from the dragon’s unfair range, the heavy wool and fur finding a place on the tree.

Habitually he checks his reflection, thrown off by the brief sense of movement somewhere behind him. He’s come to recognize the effect every time he looks in a mirror in this world. It’s probably how Roswyth is able to see them.

He still hates this outfit. He looks good, but he hates it: the green three-piece jacket isn’t dark enough, it’s too vibrant and it’s lined with a soft cream colour instead of being cut with a darker tone. The vest underneath that is a brighter green again, with his tie a shade of yellow he doesn’t like but knows pairs best with the green and the cream-coloured shirt. His pants match the vest and they’re pinstriped with yellow, a horrible choice, but the only option available to him. His socks are yellow and water-logged. His shoes are the same sickening sunshine hue.  

The only things he accepts about this look are the jewels: the heavy gold and emerald earring he has on, and the matching gold ring on his hand, with the bangle studded with small shards of topaz. At least the dragon gave him his usual cologne. Now if only the rest of him didn’t feel robed in badness.

He adjusts his sleeves again and then carefully brushes his jacket with his hands to make sure there’s no dust or dirt from the long march to get here. When Lucretia touches his shoulder he looks and sees her giving him a gentle, supportive smile. He swallows his nerves and nods to her.

Just like the small entry way to Lucretia’s cabin and the short hall to Kravitz’s parlour, this space exists more in the valley than the cluster. When they open the only other door into the prison proper, that’s when both of them feel the squeeze and pressure of moving between planes. Everything is white, and then it comes together.

Kravitz is a touch thrown off by the sight of a black grand piano when they enter the parlour, but there it is. The fireplace is full of healthy orange flames and warm the space up to a cozy level as night falls beyond the tall windows. There is no light in the valley outside.

The couches are white with gold accents, soft and comfortable, and there’s a large assortment of knick-knacks and collected treasures: a large ruby, a set of silverware, a paperweight, a cluster of diamonds, and so on. It’s a lived-in space, there’s a plate with crumbs on it sitting on the coffee table, and at least three half-finished mugs of tea scattered around in odd places. There are scraps of paper left on the couch and a few spilled over the white rug: hexagons and magical notations scribbled on the few Kravitz can see.

Taako’s not in this room, but on the walls there are paintings of Neverwinter, Goldcliff, Rockport, and a few other locations Kravitz doesn’t recognize. On the mantle as they walk by in search of him, his attention is caught by a small pair of picture frames done in gold, joined together at one edge.

One is a portrait of Angus in his fanciest school outfit, the other is Kravitz himself. This is… probably the most personal declaration of affection Kravitz has ever seen from Taako, and it makes him freeze up. To connect him and Angus like this and then just- display it. That- he knows the feeling it inspires is good but it’s also bold.

He almost takes it, which is honestly an even stranger feeling for Kravitz to accept. When he looks around he sees Lucretia staring at a familiar silver piece that’s sitting next to a framed mock-up of the Krebstar’s design: it’s Taako’s Bureau of Balance bracer.

They have to move on and find him, but thankfully he isn’t hiding.

“You’re laaaate!” When Kravitz opens the door to the dining room- that’s the declaration he hears from the opposite end of a long, decadent table. The space is lit solely by several sconces opposite an entire wall of glass that looks out down the length of the beach. Gold light from inside the house reflects off the gentle waves and bounces back to the glass, and everything in the room is reflected again off the windows. The floors are soft polished wood, the chairs are high-backed and elegant, the white table-cloth holding overflowing golden serving trays and platters of steaming food. And there, at the very end of the table and almost hidden by his own array of food, is Taako.

“Man, did you losers take the scenic route or what?” He jokes in that lilting, throaty voice of his, and Kravitz just starts walking towards him. “I was told to expect you immediately and, like, right away? Y’know, chop-chop get out of bed and get your face on kinda deal and not like, sit my magical tush down for six days waiting for you to finish the great migration!” Taako has a purple hat on with a gold ribbon around the base, a lilac half-cape draped around his shoulders and a sparkling gold gown that goes from his throat to the floor. His hair is braided and pulled over his shoulder, a purple ribbon woven through it while his bangs remain a loose and tousled frame from his drooping eyes.

“Taako-” Lucretia is now far behind him, but she comes down the other side of the table and speaks as she walks. “Thank goodness you’re alright! We were on our way when the valley shook for some reason and the road vanished, like you’d been torn back out of it-”

Pfft-” Taako snorts at her, sticking his tongue out with his chin resting on the curl of his manicured fingers. “As if. By the way, you can sit way over there, yeah, that place, over there, not right here.” He gestures to one of the few chairs around the table, and Kravitz doesn’t look but there’s a single plate located about halfway down the table from Taako. “Dinner’s made so like go ahead and eat, oh Madame Director, but like do it over there. How the fuck did you get dunked on by Patrice anyways?”

“Who?”

Kravitz just walks faster. He passes the last chair to reach him and-

“No.” Taako doesn’t even look at him. He just holds up a finger and gives the command, and Kravitz stops short. What? He folds that finger back down and rubs his thumb over his knuckles a few times. “You sit over there.”

Kravitz looks at the table. There’s a space between Taako’s plate and the next chair over, which is where the plate is. He’s considerably closer to Taako than Lucretia is, but still separated.

“Taako, I-”

“I told you to run away.” The sudden force of his voice hits the windows and bounces back at them. Taako looks at him, actually looks at Kravitz directly, and in his gaze there’s just this terrible- he blinks, rolls his shoulders with an elaborate shrug, and the break is gone. “But you didn’t! So, tough shit, babe, you’re in the dog house. Sit.”

Kravitz doesn’t sit and he doesn’t back away from Taako either. His boyfriend’s gaze drops in stages down him, a frown threatening his expression as he clearly sees the mess of colours Kravitz is wearing. It’s like how Kravitz can see that Taako’s eyeliner is exceptionally thick, and the eye-shadow is much darker than normal, without any gold to lighten his look or any colour at all on his lips to focus the bold colours. He takes a breath.

“You know why I couldn’t do that, Taako.”

“Doesn’t matter, still pissed. Sit.”

Taako.”

He steps forward and walks right into the point of an umbrella. It prods him in the chest and Kravitz has to do a complete double-take, thinking for a moment that the actual Umbra Staff is threatening him from Taako’s grasp before he remembers it can’t be here.

“I know that you didn’t have to tear Angus’ still-beating heart out of his chest and take a fucking bite out of it,” His boyfriend hisses with a level of spite that isn’t like him, and it stings. “But you did.”

“What?” Lucretia says from across the table. “Angus was there? You didn’t-”

Taako takes the umbrella and whacks it three times on the table, angry and petty and rattling the dishware.

“Nobody asked you!” He snaps at her, “I’ve done more than enough on your behalf so just stay out of this.” Lucretia pleads with him anyways.

“We didn’t come here to upset you, Taako!”

He laughs, a sharp and cruel cackle.

Too fucking late!” He howls, but it’s not controlled. “Shoulda thought of that before getting caught! By a dragon! A fucking dragon of all things! You chucklefucks had way more warning about it than I did and yet here you fucking are!” He’s- hysterical?

He’s afraid.

Kravitz lays a hand on the back of the chair Taako pointed him to, and with his heel he hooks the leg and drags it out a bit. He almost sits down, the insulted pain in his gut smoothing itself out because if Taako is afraid then the things he says aren’t going to be entirely honest. If he sits and he eats then maybe it will be enough to calm Taako down and get him to adjust, to at least speak to them like they aren’t just some great inconvenience.

“Taako,” Lucretia tries again where she’s already sitting at her spot down the table. “What happened on that train?”

“What train?” He answers without thinking, and Kravitz sees the way his ears dip and his neck stiffens briefly when he remembers. It’s been- it’s been a long time and he recovers with a nasty scowl. “I got fucked, what do you think h-happened?” His voice shakes because he just scared himself with his own rebuttal and Kravitz wants to know why.

He should sit, but he doesn’t sit.

“Lup and I followed Davenport’s song to the island where Roswyth lives,” he says, distracting Taako enough that he gets his walls back up, one hand still holding the curved handle of his umbrella where it’s laying across the table. “He’s been stranded there for months, though the dragon never harmed or tried to hurt him until the dinner you watched. I- assume, you could see and hear everything from their amulet?”

“Front row seats to the worst performance of your afterlife, yeah.” He says it and then clenches his teeth, because he’s trying to be angry and for some reason that fact gets Kravitz by the throat. “And I told you to run away.” He shouldn’t acknowledge that, Kravitz-

“And I didn’t and now I’m here,” he says in a shorter voice than he should. “Cut off from the Astral Plane and forced to walk through mud and rain just to see you. I hurt you and I scared Angus, Taako, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s done.

“Oh and that just makes it better, then!?” Taako shouts at him and- is this what he wants? Is this really what he wants them to do right now? To stand here and yell at each other as if Kravitz planned to give himself up to a dragon on purpose? To be amputated from his divine patron on a whim? To lose everything, every scrap of magic or self-determined control he has, just to be yelled at by the person he was trying his best to try and save?

“Well why don’t you just turn around and walk right back-”

“No! Stop that, both of you!” Lucretia shoots to her feet again, and when Taako barks for her to sit she just ignores him, walks all the way around his chair, and comes to stand between them.

Taako doesn’t get up as she does this.

“Neither of you are angry with each other,” Lucretia lectures them, and when Taako protests- “No! It’s garbage and you know it! You’ve been here the longest, you know best how awful things can get, and you’re not going to play dumb now and act like you don’t know what Roswyth has put us through. Be as aloof and as rude as you want, Taako, but we both know you’re lying.”

He freezes up at her and Kravitz doesn’t know what to expect next. He feels ashamed for bristling at Taako’s attitude but he’s never seen Lucretia clash with him. Lucretia carries her guilt very quietly around Taako, something solemn she doesn’t care to remind others of but won’t let herself forget, and Taako is the one who’s always ready to weaponize and turn that guilt against her.

He doesn’t do that now. His voice is quiet.

“Then get out,” he says, but it’s meek.

“Make me.” Taako goes ghastly pale at the challenge. Kravitz sees that terrible fear creep over his face again. The realization of his own emotions hits his eyes, and then he drops his chin and the brim of Taako’s purple hat falls to hide him.

“Taako-?” Kravitz steps around her, but his voice just makes Taako bring a hand up over his own mouth. He’s shaking. “Taako.

Lucretia catches his sleeve briefly, and when Kravitz looks at her she’s upset, but calm. She nods to him and then lets him go, walking away down the table to give them privacy. As soon as he’s free to move again Kravitz goes to Taako.

He tries to lift the brim of the hat, but Taako grabs it with both hands and yanks it down over his ears.

No!” Kravitz doesn’t try again, but as Taako doubles over and covers his face with his hands, the Reaper takes a knee.

Taako,”

“No!”

“Darling, look at me.”

No..!” Kravitz can see the black leaking between Taako’s fingers and smudged on his skin, he’s crying and ashamed of it, which is something Taako never lets himself feel. He’s hysterical and afraid and Kravitz doesn’t pull his hands away from his face, but he touches his arms, he tries to rub them, to help Taako feel calm.

“I’m sorry I let myself get angry,” he murmurs, heart aching as his hands reach out. “Lucretia’s right but please, look at me. Let me hold you-? You’re not alone anymore.” And that- he feels stupid for forgetting that.

From the moment he vanished on that train until ten minutes ago when he and Lucretia finally arrived, Taako has been alone. Maybe Roswyth has spoken to him, but what kind of comfort is that supposed to be? Cryptic letters from a threatening force, from a creature that made him helplessly watch the chaos caused by Kravitz’s wager. That’s all Taako’s had to sustain himself on for months and now…

“Taako,” Kravitz rubs one hand across his back, the other resting gently on his arm. He stands up and tries to pull on him, to coax him into getting up. “Taako please, she’s gone, it’s just you and I now.”

His answer this time is a heaving sob, broken up with harsh coughs. He pulls one stained hand off his face and claws blindly at the table, grabbing the umbrella and fumbling it around before he taps the end on the floor? He grabs and adjusts his hold on the hook? He braces his whole body and with the hat still covering his face he slaps his other hand on the arm of his chair, pushing down?

When he stands, he wobbles. He wobbles. He braces himself on the cane -it’s a cane, oh Mother of Rest, a cane- but when Taako stands he has no balance and Kravitz-!

Fear shoots through him and when he feels that tremble he jumps, one arm across Taako’s chest and the other behind him. He doesn’t get in the way of Taako standing on his own, but he’s much too close for either of them to move comfortably.

He has a cane he has a cane he has a cane he has a cane he-

What happened?” His voice is faint and breathless, and when Taako turns there’s just the scuff of one foot and the knock of his cane against the table. He still has his hat tilted between them, is still biting his lips and struggling with his tears. He turns and he leans in and comes to rest at Kravitz’s shoulder with the hat pulled nearly off his head but still stubbornly there like a screen. Kravitz can feel the warmth of his cheek and throat and shoulder, but not see him. His lover’s arm hooks under his and holds across his back, and the frighten trembles are still there as Kravitz wraps him up tight in a hug.

Taako’s next words are tragic.

“…I know you’re probably Kravitz,” he whispers, shaking. “I know you should be Kravitz- and I know I love Kravitz, and I know I need him but…”

Taako holds him a little bit tighter, pushing his face down and taking a deep, deep breath against him. Kravitz knows he can smell the cologne, and because he can’t be this close and yet do nothing Kravitz rubs circles across Taako’s back. He lets his touch travel up so he can comb back the loose locks of hair around his face and ear, petting his hair because he knows it’s soothing for the man in his arms.

It’s supposed to be soothing, but it just makes the next words even harder to hear.

“But I can’t fall for the same trick twice, and losing him again will kill me.”

Kravitz is shaken.

“W-What are you talking about?” He has to- has to step back and break the embrace. The hat falls between them and he has his hands on Taako’s arms, but his love has his eyes shut tight, his eyeliner running in a black mess around them. His grip on the cane is white-knuckle and shaking. “Taako? Taako it’s me, I’m here! You- you saw what happened to me, you were right there and I- darling I’m right here!”

“Yeah, probably,” Taako chokes out, eyes still squeezed shut. “Let go of me?” He-? What?

His hands jump to Taako’s face and Kravitz goes in immediately. No, no, no he can’t mean-?

Taako doesn’t just flinch away from the kiss, he ducks. His whole body wrenches out of the way and he brings his arm up to defend himself like- like Kravitz was going to hit him instead. There’s no contact, he can’t force himself on Taako and his hold on him crumbles because he- because he…

‘He… he’s afraid… of me?

And Taako’s crying again, but softly this time and with more control. He’s crying with that defensive hand wiping his tears this way and that like it’s no big deal.

And Kravitz has to just stand there and… and deal.

 

Chapter Text

They make a terrible pair tonight, the Reaper and his Wizard. Kravitz has forgotten how to move and what to feel, because he keeps hearing Taako’s words from a few minutes ago repeat over and over again:

I know I love Kravitz and I know I need him. It’s so strange, being spoken of like he’s not even in the room. The fact that Taako wouldn’t look at him as he said it. But I can’t fall for the same trick twice, and losing him again will kill me.

There’s love under all that pain but it’s both for Kravitz and not. Taako loves him right now but he doesn’t. He needs him but can’t handle him. He wants him but he’s afraid of him.

Kravitz is used to having people react to him with fear. Even Taako did so, exactly once, when Kravitz appeared unannounced in his quarters after Refuge and demanded an explanation for their death count. But that was years ago now and he’s not used to it anymore, not between them. He doesn’t know what to do about it either.

He wants- Kravitz wants to just rush forward and take Taako into his arms. To hold him and kiss him and squeeze him- tight and loved and safe. He wants Taako to just cry on him, to touch him and prove for himself that Kravitz is real and he’s here and here might be a terrible place but at least there are no more illusions between them. That’s what Kravitz wants.

But he knows that if he dares anything of the sort on Taako right now, his Wizard will never forgive him. He’s already asked Kravitz not to touch him. He already reacted in fear when Kravitz tried to kiss him. This isn’t someone being silly about jumping off a diving board or trying a new meal, this is real fear. This is not the time, place, or emotion for force.

But Kravitz can’t think past it: he just wants to hold him.

“Taako, I...” He doesn’t know what to do. Taako’s tears are quieter now, but he’s still crying as they stand here in the dining room, facing each other. “Do you want me to leave?” Don’t make him leave.

Taako just shrugs at him with a soft hiccup. He shakes his head and blinks, looking at the dining room ceiling and wiping his eyes again. But that could just be him trying to manage the tears, not an actual ‘no, I don’t want you to leave’ answer.

Kravitz just wants to hold his face and kiss him.

“I wanna sit down.” Taako’s voice is raw and weak, and he’s still looking at the ceiling. “Not here.”

Kravitz offers his arm from habit, and Taako barely touches him before recoiling harshly. He shakes his arm out like Kravitz burns him, his cane tapping the floor several times as he wobbles dangerously before catching himself.

“I’m sorry-” Kravitz doesn’t know what else to say. “I- Taako, if Lucretia’s still here then she can help. I might be able to catch her on the road if she left.” He doesn’t know if that’s actually possible, but it’s worth saying- it’s worth trying if it will help Taako even a little bit.

There are too many things he needs to know, and not enough tact or security to let him ask. What happened to his leg? Is he in pain? What trick did he fall for? How would he lose Kravitz again? Is he just talking about the wager, or is it something else? What else?

“No.” Taako finally answers him, but he’s wiping his eyes off with his gold sleeve now. He’s not sobbing, and the tears almost look slower. “I’ll try again.” But his voice is so quiet.

They do try again, and this time Taako very lightly puts his fingers on Kravitz’s shoulder first, then down his arm, and it’s clear the cane gives him a chance but it’s not good enough. He has to put all of his weight on one wrist, bearing down on the curved head of the umbrella, to shuffle his foot forward. Kravitz doesn’t know what to say to him, it’s slow and frustrating trying to move even a few feet.

“Switch,” is all Kravitz can say, and they stop so Taako can try having the umbrella on the same side of his body as his remaining leg. Kravitz tries, so very carefully, try to get Taako to trust him enough to help hold the arm on his wounded side. This is easier. Still awkward, but easier, and Kravitz is content to hobble and trudge this way until Taako gives a rough grunt and swears under his breath.

“Fuck this- fuck this-” he grumbles, his arm uncurling from around Kravitz’s as he adjusts his grip on the umbrella again, and- “Just- fuck it. You’re here so just- be useful.”

Taako swings his arm around Kravitz’s shoulder and hooks it around his neck. This is immediately better and Kravitz takes his hand firmly, his other arm going around Taako’s waist. Now Taako can actually swing his leg, and Kravitz can take his weight, and they can finally walk.

“Canes are for two legs, it seems.” It’s too much to hope that Taako-

“If you think for one hot minute,” Taako immediately huffs, “That you’re ever gonna see me, Taako, with a walker even a day before I turn one fucking thousand then you, sir, are absolutely- have lost your damn mind.” The tremble hits his voice again when he switches tracks, and Kravitz is able to hold back the urge to turn and try to hold him again because of it. Now is not the time.

They reach the door to the parlour and it’s easier for Kravitz to open it for them, so he does. But he makes a mistake.

“I’m absolutely what?” He foolishly thinks the punchline might be worth it.

“...a fake.” It’s not.

Kravitz just stops. He loses all sense of motion. He doesn’t see the parlour in front of them and he almost loses track of Taako’s weight holding onto him. Everything stops because now that he’s heard the words it clicks and it seizes and it’s awful.

I can’t fall for the same trick twice. The trick was him? The trick was him.

He feels Taako pulling away from him, not saying anything, but growing anxious. 

“Do you want me to carry you?” Kravitz asks, but it comes out in a weird voice he can’t measure. There’s a numb force in his gut.

“N-No?” Okay. Alright. Kravitz doesn’t pick him up. They walk to the white couch by the piano, the fire still burning with the picture of Angus and Kravitz sitting on the mantle. He lets Taako down as gracefully as he can, and for the first time since his facade broke Taako actually looks at him.

He looks scared.

Kravitz gives the feeling its name. He doesn’t sit down, he rubs down his cheeks and around his mouth with one hand. He turns toward the fire and tells himself, demands it of himself, that he will not let the anger out now, in front of Taako. He’s not mad at Taako, nothing that’s happened has any fault with him. It’s that fucking dragon-

No. Not now. Not yet. If he lets himself get angry he already knows what will happen: he knows it will frighten Taako, who is already afraid of him, and already anxious with the situation.

So Kravitz covers his face with both hands for a moment and takes a deep, loud breath. It’s better than standing there stoic and staring into the flames. It shows Taako he’s not angry, or at least not overwhelmed by it, and this doesn’t have to frighten him. Kravitz takes this moment just to hurt by himself, and when he calms down with another slow breath he takes the picture frame off the mantle. It’s him and Angus, and Kravitz turns around and Taako is still sitting there. He looks guilty and on the edge of running away, and the only reason he doesn’t is probably because he physically can’t.

“Before anything else,” Kravitz says, because the cane and the fact that there’s only one purple-shod toe poking out under the hem of Taako’s dress is something they have to cover tonight. But this first: “There was another me?”

Taako closes his eyes, nothing else about him moves.

“Yes.”

“What happened to him?”

Silence at first, but then with a hesitant breath:

“When I couldn’t take it anymore, I told Patrice to leave and they did.”

“Patrice?” Kravitz asks, the word falling out of his mouth ahead of the question he actually wanted. Taako hesitates. His eyes remain shut, his lips part for a short, scared breath.

“The name they gave me on the train. I’ve been- I was, using it to bug them.” Fighting back by not calling the monster by its name. Kravitz’s eyes go to his knees again, then to the hands tightly gripping the gown over his lap. If Kravitz could just kiss him…

“Have they mimicked anyone else?” He asks, and Taako shakes his head. He’s so afraid.

Kravitz takes a knee, far enough away that they don’t have to touch.

“How do I prove I’m real?” He asks, the picture frame folded between his hands.

You don’t.” His voice is so fragile Kravitz has to put the pictures down and reach for his hands. He braces for rejection but what happens is Taako takes both his hands up in a tight, terrified grip. Kravitz can squeeze back. He can finally try to help and scoots closer across the rug.

“Ask me anything, love,” Kravitz pleads in a hushed voice. “Anything only you and I could know.” But Taako shakes his head.

“Doesn’t work like that,” he says, and he’s shaking. “Anything I know, Patrice knows. Sleeping- trance, meditation, doesn’t matter: they know.” What? “They just- after this long? They know.”

“Then ask something you don’t know,” he tries. “About court, my job, my bounties-” But Taako is shaking his head still.

“Same difference-”

“Then-” He’s running out of options, grasping at straws now as he changes his grip on Taako’s hands, reaching forward to hold his wrists and try to be just a little bit closer. “Then-” He looks around the room. “Then let me play something for you.”

“What?” The words make Taako open his eyes, looking at their clasped hands.

“The piano,” Kravitz says, looking over his shoulder quickly just to make sure- yes, of course it’s still there. Taako looks past him like he’s never seen the large instrument there before. “Unless you think some dragon is a better musician than I am.”

Taako is actually looking at him now. His gaze shifts back and forth, across his face, to his hair, to his shoulders and back again. Taako is looking at him and he’s confused by something, and Kravitz sees how very tired he is.

“They do like music,” he murmurs. “But I’ve never seen them play.”

“Music isn’t trivia, Taako.” Kravitz slowly stands up, but he keeps their hands together and Taako’s arms lift to make sure they don’t drift apart. “Even if they know I can play, that doesn’t mean a fake can magically do better than me.” Something he just said makes Taako’s eyes widen, and he tightens his grip a little.

“No magic-” he says quickly. “I mean- with the music. I know you can- you do- but not now. Don’t- please don’t… Don’t cast any magic.”

Kravitz knows he stares after hearing the request, but he doesn’t question it yet. He nods, and gives Taako’s hands a reaffirming squeeze, then he lets go. Taako’s grip on him lingers for a few seconds after that, but when he relents Kravitz picks the portraits off the floor and hands them to him. These too seem like a surprise to Taako, because he looks down in confusion before his eyes widen with realization.

Kravitz doesn’t kiss him. He walks to the piano.

The piano is his instrument of choice. It’s not very practical for magic in the field, and he knows a number of other instruments that make up for it, but if he has his choice of elegant, refined, beautiful examples of music, the piano is always the one. One of them appeared in his cluster very early after his capture, in the parlour, but Kravitz refused to touch it. In fact he went several steps beyond that and smashed the damned thing.

This one is much more elegant, with a fine black polish and delicate gold details. There’s a book of music but as he sits down Kravitz discards it. Taako is worried about him being able to actually play like himself, not who is better at reading music.

He sits and sets his fingers to the keys, feels the sudden silence in the room, and finally just… goes for it. Three notes drumming gently under his fingers, then four, then five, repeating smoothly. The instrument is tuned perfectly, although there’s still a negative hum under his touch from the ebony and ivory teeth. Kravitz moves past that. He plays.

His left hand now, to echo and reinforce, and he lets his right move across the scales and pluck a melody from the repetition. So Roswy- so Patrice can read their memories? Then Kravitz doesn’t play from memory. He avoids certain combinations on purpose, no B-A-B-E, no chords from the great Story and Song. He just plays, and establishes his timing, his rhythm, his measure. He’s not playing a song, he’s playing music.

Why can’t he use magic? He won’t ignore Taako’s request or his fear, he just continues to play. He lets his left hand take more control of the music, adding stronger strokes and longer notes, blending it with the melody his right hand. For the first time since arriving in the cluster, Kravitz actually feels something beside the hollow hurt left by the loss of the Raven Queen’s power. If he lets himself, with the music swelling up in front of him, Kravitz could finally do something.

He plays and in doing so plays out his worries. What if Taako is the fake one? What if it’s all a dream within a dream and nothing over the past weeks has been real? What if Taako, in his fear, decides Kravitz is a fake and tells him to leave? What it paranoia turns them against each other? What does it take to bring Patrice in-person into this tiny reality they’ve built?

Patrice. That’s a much better name than the one Kravitz had before. Patrice who has done something terrible to Taako to leave him the nervous, frightened shell sitting on the couch beside him, cradling the picture frame in his hands. Taako isn’t just afraid, he’s injured, and exhausted, and instead of hiding behind a heavy wall he’s half-buried beneath the rubble of his own shattered defences.

Kravitz just wants to hold him through it, but he can’t. So he plays his music instead. For his anger and his fear and his frustration and his heartache, he plays.

And Taako listens.


 

The day Magnus looks at the sky and can’t see the Bureau’s moonbase hovering just over the horizon is, by far, one of the worst days on Roswyth’s island. It’s not the worst, that honour still goes to the day they lost Kravitz, but it’s still horrible.

Like, it’s a good thing. Magnus knows it’s a good thing: it means that in the two days it’s taken the base to get back in range of the coast they’ve been able to get that shipment of new pods for Avi. It means they’ve collected Lucas, and Ren, and Carey and Killian and Barry and Lup from Neverwinter. And now the base will soon putter its way back out to the Wakeless sea and they’ll finally be able to get off of this damn island.

There have been several more dinner invitations from Roswyth since they lost Kravitz, but they’ve rejected every one of them. The three of them have been devoting more and more time over the passing weeks to trying to get the Stargazer sea-worthy again, but it’s been rough.

Angus and Davenport have been using magic, but the mending spells they know don’t work quickly or over too much space. Magnus has also been showing Angus the basics of carpentry, even if shipbuilding is a lot different from cabinetry and that, again, has kept progress slow. At least his pocket workshop has many of the tools that Davenport’s crew had to trade away to Roswyth’s collection.

They raised the ship out of the water with magic to bring the sand and earth up and support her slanted hull, and Magnus has used rail-splitter to liberally thin out the trees and timbers nearby. But they’re still at best just two guys and a teenager, and magic can only carry the process so far. Magnus has repaired and sealed one of the holes punched through the belly of the boat, but is it sea-worthy? Eeeegh…

The worst part about waiting is that no matter how hard they work, they all know that at any moment Roswyth could just fly down the mountain and destroy the entire cove. The fact that the dragon hasn’t attacked them has Magnus in a permanent state of anxiety that he does not appreciate, and would like to stop feeling.

Time moves wrongly here. It’s not sick like in Refuge, but it’s obvious even to Magnus that the island just gives time the ol’ fuck you. Davenport says it’s the Wakeless Sea: there’s no wind, no weather, no rain or storms or currents. There’s a tide but it’s slow like molasses, and that’s just because the moon is a lot bigger than whatever magic keeps the sea so still.

There’s nothing to bring weather to the island. The trees and orchards and gardens and forests stay alive from water that just comes up out of the ground: there are springs and lakes all over the place. You could dig a well by sneezing too hard. Occasional eddies of wind come down from the mountain, but they’re just enough to spread seeds and disperse the humidity of the constant sunlight. Fog in the morning is as constant as the rise and fall of the sun.

So it feels like it’s trapped in time, but really it’s just ignoring the seasons. Magnus knows he’d be losing track of days completely if not for frequent check-ins with Merle.

It’s haunting, how long this nightmare is really lasting.

Taako was at Bottleneck Cove with Merle for the final hurrah of summer. Magnus missed out because of new arrivals at the Hammer and Tails. The rush of construction orders and public projects necessary to get Raven’s Roost secure for another cold and potentially dangerous winter meant he couldn’t take a vay-cay to the south.

This week, it snowed in Raven’s Roost.

Taako has been officially missing for three months. Lucretia’s been gone almost as long, and Kravitz was taken away almost four weeks ago.

Roswyth hasn’t attacked them, they’re all certain now, because being on the island is almost as good as being locked up in their lair. They can’t leave, but they haven’t been killed or turned to wax yet either.

And so Magnus is sitting here on the beach of a dragon’s island, one of that scaley son-of-a-bitch’s apples half-eaten in his hand, listening to the conversation happening hundreds of miles away on the moonbase.

In three months, a lot of players have come into the game. Lord Artemis Sterling’s voice keeps cropping up in the conversation because he is definitely involved now.

When Taako went missing he didn’t attend several meetings with Goldcliff’s Governor Blaine Carrow, who reports to Sterling. Earl Merle hasn’t been back to Bottleneck all season, and he answers to Sterling. Lucretia’s absence has stalled talks between Neverwinter, Sterling’s seat of power, and several southern city states. Avi apparently told the engineering crew over in Rockport that God would kill them with a train if they didn’t get the spheres done faster, and their Union Rep went up the food-chain to Rockport’s Governor who, wouldn’t you know it, also told Sterling.

I understand that armies don’t always fare well against dragons,” the most powerful man in the world is saying now, his voice crackling a bit for Magnus because of the distance, “But an armada is already being outfitted for the sailing to Roswyth’s island. If all else should fail-”

“Bad idea,” Barry interrupts. “Bad bad, super bad, really horribly bad idea. Do you know how many people will die if they try this? They’re ships, m’lord, one blast to the hull and everybody on board either drowns or winds up stranded on the island.”

“Neverwinter is rich but you can’t seriously-” Ren adds, “-expect to outfit every ship in the armada with a magical engine just to get to the island. There’s no wind for a good hundred nautical miles around their, even the base can’t fly any closer because the atmosphere’s so gummed up.”

“I think everyone should remember that the Miller Institute is already working closely with both the Bureau of Benevolence and the Neverwinter navy to-”

“Lucas,” Carey interrupts, “You’ve said this at least four times already and if you say it once more I’m gonna load you into Avi’s cannon as a test-shot.

Magnus takes another bite of his apple. Sitting on the sand in front of him, shoeless and looking way less fancy after over six weeks stranded on the island, is Angus, hugging his knees. Davenport has his palms together, elbows on his knees, and is watching the stone like he can visualize the meeting. They’re all free to speak but there’s not much point. The plan is, for better or worse, already decided.

“Okay, but there’s gonna be collateral.” Killian says. “Like. You boys on the beach gotta be super ready for that. I don’t think it makes sense for Roswyth to charge down the beach at you, but if they do-?”

“I think I’ll be okay with that,” Magnus says, although there’s Angus to consider, so really he’s not. “A chance to plant Railsplitter in a dragon’s skull? I’m down.”

“They’re gonna go for the base.” Lup says, and she sounds just about as done with this meeting as she has been with every other call. “No matter what happens, as soon as we hit phase two that dragon is going to go straight for the base.”

“I already got everyone off this thing who was willing to go,” Merle explains. “Archivists, diplomats, gardeners, cleaning staff, every non-essential person and even a lot of the essentials I gave leave to get out. Your Seekers are awfully stubborn by the way.”

“Fuck yeah,” Carey agrees, and Magnus breaks a smile just because he knows she’s showing her Team Sweet Flips tattoo to the table.

“Then you’ll need soldiers to defend the base.” Sterling insists. “And more artillery. If the base falls into the sea and you don’t allow me to send the ships, then none of you will make it back from this mission.”

The silence through the stones is deafening. Magnus almost checks to make sure the connection hasn’t just dropped. He speaks:

“No one who’s married.” This is... important. “No parents. No one with someone to leave behind. It’s a dragon, Artemis, don’t load the base with soldiers who have too much to lose.”

They’re soldiersMagnus.”

“They’re people who want to defend their homes and their families,” He argues back. “Not go gallivanting off to slay dragons and rescue aliens. Our family is important and we love each other dearly, but rescuing the people who matter to us shouldn’t mean risking someone else’s someone.” And that means anyone who’s on the moonbase when things get hot is going to be in very real, very life-threatening danger. If the base goes down...

“Take no more people on the base than can conceivably fit on the Starblaster,” Davenport says, finally adding to the discussion. “It’s the only real chance any of us will have to escape if the base is compromised and crashes. Merle, choose your people wisely, and Lord Sterling you have to see the sense in keeping as many people out of harm’s way as possible.”

This is Neverwinter’s chance to finally try and repay-”

“No debt is worth paying in the kind of blood you’re talking about,” Davenport shuts the young King down. He’s not technically a King, but the jist is the same. “If all of us die or are captured by Roswyth, then you may launch your armies, but not before. Is that understood?”

Magnus can’t see him, but he knows Sterling balks.

You- you don’t have the authority to command me.”

“Uh-”

“Yeah he does.”

“He absolutely does.”

A few more voices chime in, Angus’ included, telling the most powerful man in Faerun to follow a command from Captain Davenport. Sitting on his empty crate of long-eaten supplies, Davenport looks pretty chuffed about this.

“It’ll be another day or two just to finish resupplying the base,” Merle sums up. “And then the flight back out. Lup, Barry, are you guys ready to fly on ahead?”

“As soon as this meeting’s adjourned.” Barry chirps.

Finally.” Lup is exhausted.

“Don’t make your move until we’re in position, understood?”

“You got it.” One Reaper says, and his wife just grumbles.

The conversation circles a bit more after that, but finally the call ends.

Four more days and this will all, finally, be over.


 

Taako doesn’t trust them.

He knows he should, but he also knows he can’t feel it, not really. It’s almost easier to believe Lucretia when he sees her again, but as soon as she stands next to Kravitz the whole thing gets shakey and impossible to process. It’s like when he fishes through his memories for things Fisher damaged and painted over, anything from before his first day at IPRE is a great jigsaw puzzle of did that really happen and was that me or was that Lup?

Real or not real: Taako slept in the barn whenever his grandfather was mad at him. Real or not real: the wizard he stole his first wand from never caught him. Real or not real: he learned to live with only two hours of rest in a night, because any more than that left him too exposed on the road.

He sees Kravitz and he sees Lucretia here in the cluster again, and Taako just can’t accept it. It can’t be real. It’s like when he saw Lup’s name burned into the wall of his room on the moonbase. He could read it, but couldn’t recognize it for what it was.

They have to be real but they can’t be real: the letters say they are, but he doesn’t trust the dragon.

It’s like going outside of the cluster, which is something both Kravitz and Lucretia demand of him despite his infirmity. He has to go outside and feel the wind, hear the sea, taste the rain. They tell him he’ll be better for it, but he can’t see how that’s possible: none of this is real.

He’s seen the display. He doesn’t know how it works, but Taako’s seen it. None of this exists, none of it is real. Lucretia might be Lucretia but Kravitz can’t be Kravitz.

Kravitz has a soul cord, and it’s both the most compelling and yet most jarring thing he’s seen in years. Kravitz is the Grim Reaper. He’s dead, but not dead, a manifestation of the Raven Queen’s power and will. How the fuck can he have a soul cord when Kravitz is, in fact, just a soul made material? It should help him more when he realizes Kravitz is just as frustrated and disturbed by the cord as Taako, but it doesn’t. He’s not soothed. He doesn’t feel better. None of this is better.

The morning after Kravitz plays his song on the piano, Taako wakes up and an enchanted arm-chair has appeared in his cluster from the dragon. When he sits in it, the chair levitates slightly and he can move it around on his own or be pushed. Kravitz is not there because Taako couldn’t handle having him stay much longer after the performance was complete. He knows it broke Kravitz’s heart to be turned away, but Taako doesn’t have enough left in him to regret it, not really. The pain was very convincing, but not real.

None of this is real.

They both visit him again that day. They say something about how the road has changed and now it’s faster for them to get here. Whoop-di-do, that doesn’t help. It’s like sleeping: he was so eager and relieved to have the ability to just black out restored to him, but he’d forgotten the invasive power of the demiplane. He’d forgotten the fear that comes with trying to wake up again.

It doesn’t help. Nothing helps.

The three of them sit in the parlour again and they talk. Kravitz doesn’t touch him but he hovers, and Taako can’t relax because he’s hovering and just not- not staying in one place where Taako can keep an eye on him.

They discuss the soul cords. Apparently they lead to Kravitz and Lucretia’s respective clusters. Lucretia has some cabin thing out in the woods. Kravitz says his is a godless hike up a steep mountain.

Taako unwisely cracks a joke about his leg. Lucretia immediately asks what happened and Taako feels the life leech out of him again.

“Too much magic,” he admits, but that gives the wrong impression. The dragon didn’t bite his leg off because Taako cast a few too many cantrips. “-without a focus.” They should both know this, they’re both Roswyth. “I tried to collapse the whole plane and lost control of what I unleashed. It took what it wanted and the dragon did the rest.”

Kravitz tells him he could have been killed in the attempt, but his concerns scream of everything Roswyth has ever said about preserving and maintaining Taako like a precious gem. He feels himself inching away from the fake Reaper just enough that Kravitz gets the message and stops talking.

Lucretia sees everything, and then asks Taako to explain everything he knows about the demiplanes. This means fetching paper from the library, and when Lucretia lifts her hand to cast light and form a diagram of what he’s saying-

“Do not!” For fuck’s sake, not in here! “Do that shit in your own house, not here!”

“Taako-”

“I said no magic in these rooms! Not so much as a damned card trick!”

He tries to support himself with anger because he has to keep himself up with something. It crumbles like wet sand soon enough, but Lucretia recoils anyways and she sketches his words out with ink and graphite instead. Fine. Yeah. Like that. Close enough.

He tells them about the display, about their figurines, about the lines that Roswyth draws between them, and-

Fuck Patrice.” -and... and- what?

He stares at the fake, who is standing there, arms folded in a baby blue suit that looks hideous on him, and he’s sneering down at Lucretia’s diagrams.

“Soul containment is right on the edge between Transmutation and Necromancy,” the fake explains, but he said- “The clusters I can understand because we’re still technically within our physical forms, just with the walls of the demiplane contained within the wax transmutation. But this display lets us wander here and there with nothing but these cords keeping the two of you alive. It’s not Necromancy proper, but it’s necromantic enough that when we get out of here I’ll still be able to put a case forward to the Raven Queen.”

“But- what did you say?” Taako feels himself ask in a weak voice.

“I said fuck Patrice,” Kravitz- Kravitz says. Hearing the words said by another person, even if that person probably isn’t who he needs them to be, leaves Taako shaken in a good way.

He can’t remember the last time he felt anything in a good way.

They leave and they come back. They make Taako go outside. Kravitz tells him of the island where Roswyth is keeping them, and Taako tells him what he knows of the dragon’s lair: how the rooms are a maze and they barely make sense. How certain doorways change where they go, probably on a magical timer or by an unseen change caused by the dragon themselves.

He doesn’t explain how he knows this. When Lucretia says he must have seen it through Roswyth’s amulet- uh, yeah. Sure. Through the... uh... amulet...

“Patrice.” Kravitz says on another day, when Lucretia again calls the dragon Roswyth. Taako’s heart skips a little. The next words past Lucretia’s lips almost kill him for good.

“That’s right, I apologize, Kravitz.” No not those words. These words: “Also: fuck Patrice.”

Maybe this will be how Taako’s soul finally escapes the display and ascends to the astral plane.

Another day passes, and another. They just keep saying it to each other right in front of Taako, and sometimes even to him: fuck Patrice. He’s almost delighted.

Lucretia asks him if she should be leery of using her own magic, and Taako tells her to knock herself out if she really wants to try it. He doesn’t care what her and Kravitz do on their own time, but there is to be no magic, enchantment, spell-work, or arcane fuddy-duddling in his cluster. It is a strict zero-arcana zone, and he’s under no obligation to tell them why.

He likes to think he doesn’t know why either, but he does. He has no way of knowing if Patrice can tell when Taako himself is doing magic, or just when there’s magic in play. He can’t risk the dragon thinking it’s him even if it’s not. He can’t risk the dragon’s bluff when he’s out and about at the sea shore or in the meadows to the north. No magic. Taako will cast no magic.

Kravitz sits next to him when they eat. Lucretia brings him questions about the dragon and the clusters and the display. In the evenings Kravitz plays the piano and Lucretia diligently works on her theories, using Taako to double-check her math and frequently pumping him for entire pages of transmutation theory and principles. When they’re all too tired, the other two leave.

Taako resists the growing urge to transform the unused study into a spare bedroom. He hasn’t read any of Patrice’s letters in the last several days.

On another morning he tries baking. Taako wasn’t able to cook that disastrous dinner from the first night and had to have Patrice conjure it all up for him, but he’s taking back the reigns as slowly and carefully as he can. He goes for something simple, something utterly idiot proof that doesn’t require him to be on his feet: muffins.

There are oven-warm, chewy, sweet, chocolate chip muffins waiting on a plate when Lucretia and Kravitz arrive through the wet winter snow. The fire is burning and there are blankets already heating up by the hearth for the two of them to take and comfort themselves with. Taako knows he’s watching how Kravitz politely eats and brushes a smear of chocolate off his lips with one thumb, but the crackling fire and the grey sun shining off the choppy sea behind him are both too flattering to ignore.

He would be calmly cool to the touch if Taako reaches out, but he doesn’t. Instead he clicks the white worry-beads Lucretia conjured in her cluster and gave to him yesterday: he’s begun wearing a blister between his fingers from nervous rubbing. The beads help. They don’t sting.

Kravitz looks and acts and feels so much like Kravitz that Taako ruins their breakfast.

“I want to see your cluster.” The words fall out of his mouth before Taako even considers how that can’t happen. Even with a floating chair, how is he supposed to get up a fucking mountain?

Apparently the answer is fuck Patrice, because it takes all of thirty seconds from the moment he says the stupid thought out-loud until both Kravitz and Lucretia are ready to take him there. They throw a blanket over his lap, they get a cloak and a jacket and a scarf from his bedroom, they bring him gloves for his hands. They don’t go so far as to dress him, but they heap the clothes on him anyways.

Taako almost laughs when Lucretia hands Kravitz a pair of black gloves for Taako and they immediately turn a soft lavender purple. When Taako takes them from the reaper, they go black again. Lucretia’s delight is directly proportional to Kravitz’s disgust with this discovery.

But Taako can’t do this? Like, he physically cannot climb a mountain? Are either of them listening to him? Please listen to him.

“No leg? I am legless. I am bereft of-”

“Taako,” Kravitz faces him and therefore doesn’t have to acknowledge Lucretia draping Taako’s black scarf over his shoulder- or how it turns a soft green. Taako’s mouth is tweaked by a smile. “-if I have to carry you up the entire mountain, I promise I will do so.” Okay but- he’s been dying to know for days now: what’s up with the anti-black aura?

Fuck Patrice.” Fair.

They leave the cluster and Taako’s chair works just as well out here as it does in the house. The other two explain to him that because Kravitz is with them, the road to Kravitz’s door will be shorter and easier to travel. They’re absolutely right and it only takes maybe ten minutes of travel before they’re very obviously going up a slope, and only five minutes from there they reach a ravine crossed with a white stone bridge. Lucretia points across it and says her cabin is that way, and the cord from her chest is definitely pointing in the right direction for that to be true.

They follow the road for a few more minutes, and then comes the flight of white stone steps that make Taako nervous just looking at them. That is a very steep ascension, and his chair has a very low clearance.

Kravitz takes his hand and gets Taako to stand, and he has to resist the urge to pull back and say he wants to return to the beach. There’s got to be at least a hundred steps in front of them, but he puts the foot of his cane down on the first step, lets Kravitz hold as much of his weight as he pleases, and with a hop- they’re at the door.

Fuck Patrice...” Taako gasps, and with a dizzying look back down the mountain: there’s Lucretia with the chair, which she’s dragging behind her with very little effort but a lot of bumping and jostling for the floating seat.

He feels Kravitz’s forehead touch his hair gently as they stand there, the reaper’s arm around Taako’s waist to keep him steady, Taako’s hand curled behind his shoulder. It’s brief, but the touch is so familiar that it almost feels right again. Taakko knows he’s supposed to turn and let his lips catch briefly on Kravitz’s, and that they should share a breath of the cold mountain air around them before going inside. He knows this, just like he knows he should feel Kravitz kiss his hair, or how he should look and nuzzle against his angel’s cheek. Taako should smile at him, be happy, and be in love.

Everything Taako knows he should be doing makes him want to be sick. When Lucretia brings the chair up to him, he practically collapses into it because it’s better than being in the fake’s arms. He sees the tired look on Kravitz’s face, but it’s just too bad because Taako won’t fall for the same trick twice.

His convictions falter a bit when they actually go inside. For starters: Kravitz’s soul cord vanishes. For everything else: his cluster is a sterile mess.

His rooms aren’t stretched out in dimensions the way Taako’s were but they’re trashed. There’s violence in every chamber: a smashed piano, torn books, broken plates, shattered mirrors, ripped sheets. The office houses the empty shell of the book of Accommodations, its pages shredded and bindings torn apart, the ink well smashed on the floor.

Taako didn’t expect this. He doesn't know what he did think it would be like but not this. He couldn’t have imagined this. All he can hear is the first fake’s voice wondering wildly at how Taako didn’t make his cluster into a palace, how he complained about needing nicer accommodations, a softer bed, a cozier kitchen, and other little luxuries.

All of this Kravitz’s walls are still stark white. The floors are hollow wood. The upholstery is all that same sea-side blue.

“It’s a mess, but I’ll not apologize for it,” he says stubbornly, and Taako is just speechless by it all. This is... this is exactly what a prison built to hold an angry, offended, and possibly frightened Grim Reaper ought to look like inside. This is nothing like what the fake who flew into the middle of Taako’s escape attempt would have put together for him. This- this feels real.

The day goes on but Taako is watching Kravitz the entire time. He knows he is. He knows he’s staring but he can’t stop himself. Every little thing keeps jumping out. The way he brushes his eyebrows down with his ring finger, how he hooks his thumbs in the pockets of his vest, the patient roll of his foot when he stands idle.

Yes, he looks ridiculous in the cream and blue ensemble Patrice forced him into today, but his jewelry is still heavy, his grace is all there. The way he tugs at his sleeve when Lucretia calls him out on the complete lack of food in the kitchen and the dangerous layer of the shattered crockery covering the entire floor- it’s right.

“Really? Every cup and glass, Kravitz?”

“I was making a point.”

“You bent the cutlery,” she insists, and it’s her turn to sound fake except it is exactly what she should be saying.

“A very poignant point.”

They do what Lup would appreciate, and Kravitz goes ahead and sets a fire in the library just to show how little he cares about the cluster and anything inside of it. Taako was destructive in a very arcane sense, but never with petty vandalism. Well, there was that chair he hurled at the door that one time, but he never set fire to anything. His curiosity is piqued by the matches Kravitz brings out.

As soon as the books really start to catch, there’s a sudden pressure around Taako. When it releases, the fire is snuffed out and Kravitz is holding a hand to his chest with a grunt. Taako has both hands on the arms of his chair, ready to stand up and go to him before Lucretia speaks:

“Maybe that’s enough of that kind of experiment.”

Taako makes himself settle back down. The next experiment seems simple enough, but he’s the one to blow the whistle moments before they try it.

“Now hang on-” It’s simple. It’s so simple. None of them have ever been inside a cluster alone that didn’t belong to them. Kravitz and Taako are already outside at the top of the steps, Lucretia back inside at the parlour door, when Taako feels his nerves falter. “Maybe don’t do this.”

“Why not?” Lucretia asks, and Taako tries not to choke on his own tongue.

“I mean maybe you don’t do this,” he says. This doesn’t help. “I mean- there’s always the possibility that without Kravitz being inside the entire cluster will just collapse and cease to exist, and that’ll cut your cord and kill you and you’ll be dead.” And he doesn’t want that. But he doesn’t want to say that either. “So, let me do it. If anyone’s earned a free ride to the Astral Plane today, it’s Taako.”

He and Lucretia switch places and it’s so clear on Kravitz’s face that he doesn’t want to close the door anymore. It could kill him- but it probably won’t kill him. Patrice isn’t that sloppy and the whole idea was that the seven of them would exist in here indefinitely, right? So, this shouldn’t kill him.

The split-second before the door latches, his convictions vanish.

But then he’s still sitting here, completely unchanged. Huh. Solved that mystery.

He roams around the parlour a little on his chair, poking at the trash and debris with his umbrella, and after a minute or two hears the door open again and both Lucretia and Kravitz rush inside. There’s some mutual relief, and then lunch.

Lunch is in Lucretia’s cabin, which actually has food in it unlike someones disaster pad. They talk shop, and the weather clears up, and Patrice leaves a letter for Lucretia but she just tucks it away for later. Hours pass. The sky darkens. It’s time to leave.

It makes sense that Kravitz insists on taking Taako home rather than the two of them parting ways at the bridge. Taako has to swallow the request in his throat as they turn down the lane and follow the road down to the beach. By the time they reach sight of the cluster, he’s choking hard on the words. When they reach the door, it’s speak or die.

“Come inside?” He can’t- make the words work nicely. Kravitz doesn’t hesitate before helping him inside, and Taako… How is he supposed to say this?

“There’s something- Kravitz.” Taako doesn’t want- but he does. He does. He can’t feel trust when he looks at Kravitz but he can, just barely, just beginning to push through from below and trying to reach for the sun, feel faith. It’s faith that he can find hope and reach for the possibility that maybe, just barely maybe, it’s really Kravitz here in front of him.

He doesn’t trust him and he can’t hope for him yet, but Taako can, almost, have a bit of faith.

“There’s something I’ve needed to try- to observe, but I’ve never been able to.” And as he fumbles blindly for the words to make this seem not-crazy and not-romantic and not like a trust exercise because there’s no trust prize for Kravitz to win by agreeing- Taako just hopes his faith won’t die. “I’ve been alone and now I’m not, and I don’t think this would work on a fake so just- just-? Will you help me?”

Kravitz, with the softest look and the kindest eyes, says yes. He just doesn’t know what Taako wants.

“I need you to fall asleep,” he says. “Here, in the cluster.”

“I… don’t follow?” Kravitz admits, his hands still in the pockets of his jacket. Then he shrugs. “But I’m fine with that. It’s easier than it should be for me to fall asleep in these demiplanes, you know what I’m like normally.” Kravitz will sleep, but he doesn’t need it. The best times for him to nod off are after a large meal, a bad injury, when he’s still groggy from being asleep before, or after they’ve-

But they’re not. That is not what Taako is asking for. Or implying. Or wants. He doesn’t want sex. Taako doesn’t- his stomach starts hurting. He does not want… no. Even if Kravitz is real, the answer is no.

Privacy is a big fat illusion in this place and even if the dragon doesn’t watch, they’ll know. And besides even that horrible reality, Taako will know. He’ll know and Kravitz won’t. He has memories of something Kravitz hasn’t been told, something Kravitz cannot know because if he finds out he- he…

He’ll know. He’ll know what happened- what Taako let happen. He’ll know and Taako can’t let him know, not if he’s real, not if this is really Kravitz.

“Or I can come back tomorrow?” Kravitz says, worry making his face cringe. Taako blinks out of his own thoughts and feels the burning around his eyes. He knocks tears free and quickly swipes them away, trying to get a hold of himself again. He’s been doing so well at not being like this! “Taako…” Kravitz’s hands are up, grasping the air, but he doesn’t come any closer. “Taako I’ll do anything, please, I just want to help.”

“Couch or bed, take your pick,” he says, doing everything he can just to be fucking cool again, and not make this into a massive deal.

“I’m not going near your bed unless you want me there, Taako.” Don’t say shit like that!

Is he real? Is he real? If he’s not then this is wrong and Taako is wrong and he hopes he dies in this place because he won’t be able to face the real Kravitz ever again if he’s wrong again and chooses to be wrong again. If he’s real- if he is really real, then Taako’s not ready to admit how unfair he’s being or how wrong he is and why does he have to be so wrong all the time?

Taako?”

Bed.” He’s crying, fuck him he’s crying all over again. Taako has his hands tented over his mouth and nose, and just tries to breathe around it without looking up at Kravitz. “If you’re fake then fuck off, if you’re real then come to bed and just let me have a moment’s peace about this, okay? I’m so tired, I’m so fucking tired…

He leaves the instant he finishes saying that. The chair isn’t quick but it’s fast enough. He just leaves Kravitz standing there to make his choice and goes through the rooms to reach the bedroom. It’s dark inside and quiet. There’s a blanket tossed over the vanity mirror after the way Kravitz put forward his theory that it’s reflective surfaces that let Patrice see them.

Taako sits there in the dark and he hates himself for opening his stupid mouth and letting his stupid emotions bring stupid tears to his stupid eyes.

I want Lup… Well tough shit, she’s not here and she’d better not ever appear because it’ll mean Patrice got the best of her. So Taako gets to spend the rest of his miserable nowhere existence without her. Great. Excellent. This is exactly what he wanted from eternity.

“…Taako?” He has his face in his hands and just sits there, trying to calm down. He hears the door swing all the way open and then muffled footsteps before the latch clicks again. With an unseen wave of Kravitz’s hand, one of the lights in the room softly begins to glow next to the bed. It’s not a lot of light, but it’s enough to make the space feel almost comfortable, almost like they’re not trapped here.

He didn’t let the Goldcliff room stay. Taako demanded Patrice change it to anything that matched the vibe of the house, whatever style the dragon came up with, and the white rugs and soft gold lights carry through in here. The bedding is black and brown with white pillows, and Taako’s too upset by what he’s asked for to let in the humour of what Kravitz’s no-black curse might do to the blankets.

He knows a hand comes to rest on the back of his chair, but Kravitz doesn’t touch him. He’s thankful.

“You can change your mind at any time, Taako, and I’ll leave.”

“Because you’re not real?”

“… because I love you.” He hears an awful pain in Kravitz’s voice when he corrects him, but then his presence backs away.

Taako doesn’t turn around for a long time. He listens to the sound of buttons letting go and fabric sliding off itself. 

There’s the click of clasps and the release of buckles, the knock of hard jewelry on the night-table under the glowing lamp. Taako knows because he’s slept beside Kravitz often enough, and been awake on enough nights when the Reaper has come in late or unexpected and tried to quietly slip into bed without disturbing him. He knows the sound of Kravitz brushing off his jacket, and folding his pants along the creases, and the careful way he takes off his jewelry to leave by the bed: bracelets and bangles first, with his cufflinks and any chains of necklaces tucked into the circle, then his rings with his earrings inside of those again.

When Kravitz quietly slips into the bathroom to wash his face and finish dressing down, Taako has to decide what to do with himself. He can’t just- expect Kravitz to fall asleep with him sitting all emotionally burnt out in the corner. But hovering by the bedside doesn’t seem that much better. The most Taako achieves by the time Kravitz comes back into the room in just his undergarments is that he’s turned his chair around. He’s also stopped crying, which is a definite plus.

He just feels apprehensive now, the guilt is buried back down where it belongs.

Kravitz’s dark hands pull back the blankets without trouble, and he slides easily into bed before covering himself back up. He’s just settling down when Taako finally hovers over to him.

“I’m not trying to make this weird,” he says.

“I know that, Taako. It’s alright.” Kravitz tucks his arm under the pillow, the other one adjusting blankets, but he gives a funny blink and seems distracted by something. He turns his face down into the pillow and stays like that for a moment, then closes his eyes. He takes a deep breath and stays in that uncomfortable position.

“Something wrong?” Idiot, Kravitz is trying to sleep. Talking to him won’t put him to sleep.

“No.” His voice is muffled by the fabric. “It just smells like you.”

I love you. Taako’s heart swells, which isn’t fair. Kravitz adjusts in the bed, rolling onto his stomach and pulling his arms under his body so he can lay face-down on the pillow. Taako is stupid, and with far too much sentiment lets his hand grab and adjust the blankets across Kravitz’s shoulders.

And then he- rubs down his back. He’s so stupid. He touches the reaper’s hair, making sure the locks aren’t pulling or tugged the wrong way. His thumb brushes the cool edge of his ear, and then the backs of his fingers brush Kravitz’s neck. And if Taako doesn’t stop he’s going to cry and run away again.

I love you, I love you, I love you. Taako just wants to climb into bed next to him. He knows Kravitz is still awake and aware and probably paying complete attention to him, but Taako yearns just the same. He wants to fall into bed beside him, wounded leg and all, and just be there close to Kravitz.

But if he’s a fake then Taako can’t fall for it again and if he’s real then Taako has no right to be near him. He’s the one who let Patrice do those things to him: to kiss him like that, to hold him like that, to undress and explore and have him like that. That’s all on Taako because he knew something was wrong but ignored it for the chance to feel like he had control again.

So now this is how Taako has to measure control: by making sure he does not fall for it all over again.

He doesn’t get out of the chair, although he’s as close to the bed as he can get. He doesn’t lean over and kiss the Reaper’s cheek, and he doesn’t let himself keep touching his hair or his back or the side of his face when he adjusts just enough to be comfortable. Instead, in the dim light and quiet darkness, Taako does the only thing that feels like it ever really works in this place. He counts.

He counts Kravitz’s breaths. He does so with as much patience as he can muster, because they’re slower than a heartbeat and their rhythm is disrupted every time Kravitz’s body relaxes a bit more into the bed. He doesn’t yawn, but he slowly unwinds, stops paying attention to himself so much or his exact position under the blankets. One-hundred in and his breaths never stop, but they don’t quicken. The plateau begins to lengthen between little bursts of deep breathing, and after almost seven hundred the lines around the one eye Taako can see in the lamp-light begin to fade as Kravitz dozes.

Eleven hundred and sixty-three breaths, and then Kravitz begins to… glow?

Taako almost expects it. Magic usually involves radiant energy, the stuff that’s called for the spell but doesn’t make it into the gears and shuffle of the arcane wiring. He sort of expected this, that Kravitz would be illuminated by the magic of the demiplane, but expecting it and seeing it are different things.

It’s not Kravitz himself who glows either, but very small, very creepy, threads of light. Taako sees them come out of everything: from the fibers of the bed, from the edges of the pillow, from the air, some even sprout and then plug back down into Kravitz’s own flesh.

They’re not bonds, so he can rule that right out. They’re not the same energy as the soul cords either. The light isn’t harsh like Neverwhere and it doesn’t have the dissonant ring to it that Taako would expect from planar magics. He has no idea what they actually are, just that there are thousands of them, hundreds of thousands, and they cover Kravitz completely. Even when Taako lifts the edge of the blankets, they’re there under the bedding, wrapped around his fingers and covering his arms.

They keep growing. It’s not a thin layer of spider’s silk that webs over Kravitz and stays that way, it actually- it’s getting thicker? Not brighter, just- denser. Thicker. The fibers are still growing, the threads still actively weaving around and piercing him?

No that- they’re definitely piercing. They’re going right through him: Taako can see the collection of threads slipping through Kravitz’s eyes and blooming out the back of his head and- and that needs to stop? That needs to stop right now. Taako knows it doesn’t hurt to sleep in the demiplane necessarily but it’s horrible to wake up from, and now he knows why. This is magic that pulls through the soul to find the memories locked inside, and it very blatantly goes through them to do that.

And Kravitz is- grimacing? The peaceful look on his face is gone. Taako just watches with increasing horror as Kravitz tries to move, which is a perfectly normal and usual and a completely reasonable thing for a sleeping person to do, and the threads hold him down. He struggles, and it’s so brief, but it’s so obvious and then he’s held down and loses that fight, sinking further under the bind of magic and his own slumber.

“Kravitz?” Okay, this is enough nightmare fuel for one night. “Krav? Wake up now. Kravitz?

He doesn’t want to touch the magic but then Taako has a hand on him anyways, shaking his shoulder. The magic is uncomfortably warm and thick, but it’s not really in the way of his touch. He can feel the bedding, and Kravitz’s arm under the blankets, and he shakes him. Of course it doesn’t work.

“Kravitz!” Taako stands up. The bed is right there for him to lean down over, and with both hands now he shakes the reaper. “Krav, wake up!” It shouldn’t be this hard-

He’s barely been asleep for more than a few minutes and he wasn’t that tired to begin with so he should wake up. Taako pulls the blankets off him and the loss of warmth doesn’t help, he’s just cocooned in light.

Kravitz!” Wake up- wake up- oh no, no please, don’t let this happen. Don’t let anything happen to him, please.

He tries pushing and pulling the threads away and it doesn’t disrupt the spell. He grabs Kravitz’s shoulder and pulls his dead weight until he rolls over, but the movement doesn’t rouse him.

Kravitz-!!

Cupping his face doesn’t work, stroking his hair, kissing his eyes- all useless. Taako is sitting on the edge of the bed leaning over him and nothing is working none of it is working. Wake up, just wake up, please, anyone, make him wake up.

How long do they sleep for when they lose consciousness and fall into this spell? Taako only knows when he sleeps at night in the display he wakes up and it’s morning, but he’s napped for shorter lengths of time, and he doesn’t know what happens if all three of them fall asleep at the same time. Every time he’s woken himself up from trance it’s been an uphill battle from the inside clawing his way out.

Just because he knows Kravitz will wake up doesn’t help the fact that he’s not waking up now.

“It was a bad idea and I’m sorry now just listen to me just wake up,” he pleads, “Follow my voice? Listen to me? Show me you’re in there, Kravitz, please-” Please, please, please, wake up.

Taako begs and he keeps trying, putting kisses and tears on Kravitz’s cheeks, feeling his cool skin hidden under the suffocating heat of the dragon’s spell. He forgets about his own infirmity and the way he shouldn’t be this close to Kravitz and climbs over him, all the way over, so he can be on the side of Kravitz with more space. And then just- wake up, wake up, wake up…

There’s a crease between his eyes that Taako can barely see through the suffocating threads. He thinks it goes down over Kravitz’s cheeks. The chest under his arm compresses suddenly with a huff, and when he takes a sharp breath in his head moves and his face twists and-

“Kravitz?” And he keeps struggling. His hand grasps once and then with another harsh breath and a stronger attempt he reaches and grabs Taako’s arm, squeezing under his shoulder. “Krav? Honey can you hear me?”

Kravitz gasps and the light vanishes. It doesn’t fade, it’s just gone. Taako’s eyes don’t like the sudden loss of light and the room is too dark for a few moments. But he feels Kravitz breathing and knows it’s laboured from the struggle.

It takes both of them a few quiet moments to adjust.

“…Taako?” because Taako is very much on the bed like he wasn’t a few minutes ago. And he’s not just next to Kravitz but very much around and over him, weight on one elbow to prop him up, but the same arm also tucked around behind Kravitz’s head. Taako’s other hand is also very much touching his face, fingers shaking as he strokes the same line over and over again from the base of his ear down to his chin. It’s how he feels Kravitz swallow before his eyes adjust in the dark, how he knows the Reaper is staring at him, shocked and disoriented, in this very tender embrace.

Kravitz doesn’t move to return the hold, and why should he? Even Taako wonders how long it can last before he can’t stand it anymore and starts clawing his way out of bed and away from him. The real question, funnily enough, is actually how long he can stay hovering like this before his strength crumbles and Taako finally just kisses him.

“…don’t fall asleep again,” he whispers, waiting for relief that’s very slow to trickle down his spine. He was so scared, he was so scared… “Not unless I do first, just- I don’t wanna see that again, okay?”

Taako?” Kravitz doesn’t offer anything more than that to say, which is good because Taako can’t think of anything except the weight of him on the bed and the way they’re both so tired and just went through something mutually awful.

Taako doesn’t kiss him, but now that he’s this close he can’t bear to move away again either. The chair is too far away, the other edge of the bed is too many miles to put up with. He sees the hope flash in Kravitz’s shaded eyes before his angel tamps down on it, and Taako realizes he has enough faith for what he does next.

He shuffles up the bed a bit more, with his arm still under Kravitz’s head and neck, and his hand still cradling his jaw, and then Taako curls around as close to him as two people can be. He feels Kravitz take a breath that’s slow and catches at the end before the reaper squirms closer and his arms start moving. He rolls onto his side and pushes his face flush against Taako’s chest, nuzzling close and firm at his shirt and locking his arms around his waist.

Taako forgets his leg. As in, he actually forgets to worry about it, because he and Kravitz move together until Kravitz is between his thighs, Taako’s good leg hooked around him and down with his ankle behind the reaper’s knee.

Kravitz pulls blindly at the bedding for a few seconds, grabbing and pulling until they’re both covered: Taako from the waist down, and Kravitz up to his shoulders.

And Kravitz holds onto him, and then he squeezes him. He lays his palms flat, fingers spread to touch as much as he can of Taako’s back and sides, and his body is tense as he buries his face close between Taako’s chest and the mattress. Taako has his chin tucked over Kravitz’s head, his arms around his shoulders, and he feels a little bit calmer now.

That calm is threatened when he feels dampness spreading through his shirt from Kravitz’s eyes. He feels the familiar shake and buckle of exhausted crying, but for once it’s not Taako breaking down in the dark. He hears the muffled, broken voice repeat Thank you, thank you, thank you over his frightened heart, and Taako holds his angel a little tighter.

Neither of them fall asleep. 

Chapter Text

It’s almost time to act. Just a few more hours and it’ll all be ready to happen.

Barry’s not big on violent conflict. He can certainly handle his own, and he’ll do what needs to be done- especially to protect the people important to him or the duties he agreed to as a Bounty Hunter for the Raven Queen. But he’s still got his reservations about what’s about to go down between the Bureau and the dragon.

That’s why he’s here on the Astral Plane, in the Eternal Stockade. That’s why he’s in Kravitz’s office, doing something he’s pretty sure his boss would disapprove of if he wasn’t currently a wax bauble in a dragon’s trove. Oh well. Kravitz disapproves of a lot of things: sandals and socks, horizontal stripes, necromancy, wearing shorts in winter, and putting ketchup on eggs.

Besides, Barry’s not breaking any rules by being here. He has a key to the compartment behind his boss’s desk because Kravitz gave it to him. He knows the combination on the magical lock behind that because he and Lup helped pick the cypher. He can find what he’s looking for when the doors open and the objects inside are revealed because the one he wants is the one he made.

Not everything liches and necromancers and soul-devouring monstrosities create for their dark arts can be destroyed. Some things need to be holed up and protected, while others can actually be quite useful if placed in the right hands. Barry carefully sets aside a folded robe of enthrallment, and is careful not to hold the living book of souls for longer than necessary. The compartment is neither large nor small, it’s exactly the right size it needs to be to hold the volumes of books and the arrays of magical weapons.

As well as a silver edged wooden box. This is what Barry wants, and this is what, with reverent hands, he opens.

After the defeat of the Hunger and Jeffandrew’s proclamation that the Powers That Be would set everything right again, Lucretia gave Barry a small gift. He likes to think of it as a peace-offering between them, an apology for that anti-lich field of hers.

She gave him back the Animus Bell.

Without the Light of Creation inside of it, his bell isn’t as terrifying as it was before. And this is a good thing! He saw what horrors the bell allowed the Wonderland Liches to inflict on innocent adventurers. But it’s still a powerful item, still nigh-indestructible and yet delicately beautiful. It’s just a small silver bell with a decorated clapper and a soft ivory handle. It still reeks of Necromancy and carries a hair-raising charge when held, and it’s one of Barry’s most prized possessions even if he isn’t allowed to have and carry it with him.

Kravitz may have put the Animus Bell elbow-deep in his Bad Magic Box, but it’s still Barry’s relic.

If Roswyth wants a complete set of Relics for their collection, then not only are they going to have to get their claws into the other five birds still flying free around their island, but they’ll have to rip and tear the Bell out of Barry’s Many-Times-Dead hands.

He locks and seals the compartment back up, and then goes to rejoin Lup overlooking the island.


 

Taako wakes up with the fast breath and pounding heart required to break out of the spell, and he’s laying warm and secure on his back in bed. He has one hand tucked under his own head, the other heavy from rest around a pair of shoulders tucked against him. It takes him a few quiet minutes to remember what’s going on.

Kravitz picks his head up very, very slowly off Taako’s shoulder. His gaze is soft, dark lips parted, and Taako can tell they’ve been laying here all night just because the reaper’s body feels cozy. He’s taken enough of Taako’s warmth over the hours that his chest and body is warm where they touch, although when Taako moves his hand he knows the rest of Kravitz is still its usual muted chill.

“…you were right.” Kravitz’s voice is hushed, but Taako can feel it travel down between them. Kravitz has his arm around Taako’s waist, shifting it a little as he moves and then lays his head slowly back down at the dip between his shoulder and chest. “That is terrible to watch.”

“When did I fall asleep?” Does Taako trust this? Does he trust any of it? His memory is certainly clear and he knows exactly how this happened: this tender moment here with Kravitz. He remembers the holding and the crying. He remembers when it calmed enough and he rolled onto his back like this, with Kravitz nuzzled against him. Taako knows how this happened, but does he trust it?

“After midnight,” Kravitz answers his question, spreading his warmed fingers across Taako’s ribs. He’s still wearing his shirt and sweater and trousers and belt- he didn’t really dress down after they came inside, the plan was never for Taako to get into bed or fall asleep beside Kravitz. “Three, maybe four hours, I think?”

Taako is quiet with this information, thinking. He lifts his hand off Kravitz’s shoulder and lets it settle on the back of his head, feeling gently down and between the locks of his hair. When he feels the kind touch, Kravitz gives a little shudder- a rough breath that catches in his throat a little.

He moves his head again and when he brushes his cheek to Taako’s shoulder, Taako can feel the dampness clinging to the fabric. Taako moves too now, pulling his hand out from behind his own head and shifting around until one of the pillows is comfortably placed under his head and shoulders, giving him a better position to hold Kravitz from. When he’s settled, the reaper follows suit and cuddles close and warm against him as before.

Part of the adjustment lets Taako see his face, and the barely-there light filtering through the windows and facing the endless sea of the display gives his already sharp eyes the hints they need. Kravitz is exhausted from crying, his eyes bloodshot and skin clammy. So that means- he didn’t spend the last few hours that Taako was asleep just resting, or waiting patiently for him to wake up.

It means Kravitz was worried about him. And it means he had to be worried for a lot longer than Taako’s few minutes of panic. And he tracked that time too, so he could answer the question Taako’s asked so many times and never been able to figure out or measure on his own.

So, what does he do with this information? He could ignore it, or just not acknowledge it, but something else happens instead. Taako lets his hand stroke Kravitz’s hair again, and with the other he brings it around and, without speaking, shows his palm to the reaper on his shoulder. Kravitz takes a beat, then pulls his touch away from Taako’s side and reaches for the offered hand. Their palms touch, then their fingers lace, and Taako can feel the chill that takes Kravitz’s skin down from a normal living temperature to something that hovers a degree or two below the air in the room. They hold on like that in the pre-dawn glow, and then Taako slips his fingers free and brings Kravitz’s hand down to rest on his chest, his fingers stroking the reaper’s knuckles and wrist slowly.

It’s just a little bit of trust.

“Kravitz...” Saying his name makes him real. Kravitz moves his head a little on Taako’s shoulder to acknowledge him. “...am I dead?”

Kravitz slips his hand out of Taako’s grip and places it on the bed. He stiffens and pushes and comes up on his arms, holding himself over Taako and looking at him very seriously in the dawn glow.

“If you are, then so is Lucretia.” That’s a very clinical answer. “But Patrice seemed convinced this whole thing was going to preserve you, not kill.” You, not us, because Kravitz is already dead.

“Yeah, but they also called all this shit a good thing.” So Taako doesn’t put a whole lot of faith in what Patrice says, unless it’s a threat. The dragon always means their threats. “And I haven’t exactly played by the rules for most of my time here. I’m kind of in my own Taako-Centric bracket if you will, and if I’m not already dead then the oozing energy leg will probably-”

“You’re not-” Kravitz interrupts him, then interrupts himself. “I’m sorry- but you’re not- Taako you’re not oozing.

“Do I really have to show you? Are you really gonna make me do this?” Kravitz purses his lips tightly for a second. “It’s my leg, I know what it looks like.”

“Taako, I’ve been laying here with you all night. I would know if you were giving off wounded energy.”

“Fine then, move over.” Kravitz moves and Taako sits up. The covers are warm and he was comfortable, but he pushes away the blankets and finds his legs. Soft grey sweatpants kept him warm yesterday, and they’re easy to roll and pull up. If he focuses on how easy it is then he won’t leave any time or space to fret about the fact that he’s touching his amputated limb for the express purpose of showing it to someone who may or may not be Kravitz.

But he just does. Taako just does it, just shows him. In this nest of blankets and with Kravitz sitting in front of him in just an undershirt and shorts, Taako shows him. The energy is still there, the silky gold smoke that gushes and gushes from the place where his body just stops existing.

“Souls are finite.” Taako quotes as if this is something he wants to be right about. “I know that from you, because you talk about it a lot. If I’m finite and I’m giving this off, then I’m going to run out, and then there will be none of me left.”

“May I?” Kravitz asks, and Taako chokes hard on the quick ‘No!’ that kicks his throat. Wordlessly, he opens a hand as permission.

Kravitz touches the energy and nothing happens. He sets his fingertips around Taako’s knee and again: nothing. He takes Taako’s hands and makes him put his own hands all the way around the clouded stump, but nothing changes.

“Does it hurt?” Kravitz asks him, and Taako tells the truth: it doesn’t. “Then you’re not oozing.”

Kravitz-

“This is the demiplane’s magic, Taako, not your soul.” Taako stops talking and he listens. Kravitz- his Kravitz, is the Grim Reaper and deals with souls and their aspects all the time. But Taako also knows this Kravitz might just be a mouth piece for Patrice because the dragon explicitly told him they were going to look into how to mitigate his circumstances.

So either way he’s probably right about what he says, and either way Taako can’t tell if he’s real or not based on that.

“You’re wounded,” Kravitz allows, “but if you were compromised by it then you wouldn’t be able to touch the site like this. We’d be able to feel actual energy coming off of you, not this smoke, and by now you’d be feeling more of the effects.”

“Effects like what?” Just in case Taako has been feeling something and just hasn’t realized it.

“You...” Kravitz slows and he reaches out, taking Taako’s hands gently in his cool grip. “You’d be unravelling, or fading. More of your leg would be wearing away and then the rest of you with it. Like a lose strand in a sweater, you’d come apart and be taken to the Astral Plane.” Taako hasn’t been doing that. He’d know. He knows he’d know. He’d have to know.

“But what if there’s no path to the Astral Plane from here?” Taako asks, a hollow fear in his voice. “Kravitz something bad happened and I don’t think your boss is gonna like it when she figures it out.”

“The Raven Queen wouldn’t punish you for being wounded, Taako, that’s hardly fair.”

“What if they’ve killed me?”

“Taako-”

“Krav I’m pretty sure they killed me.” And now he’s gonna cry. Oh god, he’s gonna cry. Taako feels it surge up and he knows Kravitz can see it coming because the Reaper shuffles forward on the bed and puts his hands down on either side of Taako’s hips. And he doesn’t try to kiss him and Taako’s glad he doesn’t but he touches their foreheads together, eyes closed, and it feels so sweet-

“They killed me- they killed me-” His voice goes hoarse, and his stupid hands reach out because he has to feel Kravitz’s jaw, his chin, his ears, his neck. He can’t believe he’s saying this but Taako can’t shut it down either.

“Darling, please...

“You’re dead,” Taako babbles. “You’re the Grim Reaper but you have a soul cord- so what if it’s not a soul cord? Not a real one, not connected to a body? Kravitz I don’t have a body, they killed me-”

“Tell me- shh,” His hands come up and take Taako’s face gently, they brush back through his hair, petting down over his head. The knowing touch makes his throat close up and his tears run hot, this feels so real. “Calm down, but tell me.”

They killed me,” he can’t find the rest of the words, and Taako just wants Kravitz’s lips to shut him up.

There’s something so incredibly freeing about just letting that urge connect with the thought. It’s a side-swipe that tears him away from the horrible words in his mouth: he wants to be kissed. He wants it to be Kravitz who kisses him. He wants that love and that affection and that care and all the touches that come along with it. He wants-

“Shh- shh,” But instead- “No-? Taako.” Kravitz doesn’t-? Doesn’t kiss him? “You’re scared, tell me first.”

Kravitz takes his hands so gently in that cool grip, and he keeps their faces touching, but when Taako pushes for the kiss he needs to shut himself up, the Reaper twists just enough to dodge it. This is too much. Taako feels the tears come faster because he can’t ignore that the real Kravitz would also do this: he’d want the information before helping the hurt.

Taako feels his lips start to babble and the words come out: how he tried to destroy this place. How he tried to ruin all of it, the Demiplanes and Display, because the dragon had taken Lucretia after already hurting him with Kravitz and Taako had to do something. Taako tells him about the magic that surged and tried to drown him, how it cut through his soul and he lost part of himself in the chaos, before the dragon struck him down like a fly. And then they…

It hurt-” He gasps, eyes closed and his damaged form is pulled and taken into Kravitz’s arms. It’s not kisses, but it’s safe and it’s strong and it’s real enough that it might be real. “It hurt so much…” And then even after the pain was gone there was no relief: no sleep, no voice, no way to reach out or change anything around him. He was out of the Demiplane but trapped in something far worse.

“Krav, I didn’t come through the amulet at the dinner,” he finally, in agony, tells the horrible truth. “I am the amulet- I just- I fit in the display? Just like the little statues they made out of you and Lucretia, but I’m not Taako anymore! I’m just a rock with a heartbeat, I- I’m-

“I’m going to kill them.” The sudden violence in Kravitz’s voice makes Taako close his eyes again, curled up close and tight in the Reaper’s arms. His cold fingers keep brushing through Taako’s hair, and sometimes they dig a bit too hard, but it doesn’t feel wrong. The way his next breath trembles, the too-firm way he’s got his hand grabbing over Taako’s forearm: this is what Kravitz feels like when he’s angry. “Fuck Patrice.”

Kravitz moves him and Taako’s okay with it. He’s afraid, obviously, but not of Kravitz. Taako’s less laid and more put down on his back by the angry Reaper, who has a sharp, livid intensity in his dark red eyes that Taako knows is at odds with his usual geniality. He’s right here above Taako, between his legs with Kravitz’s weight down on his own elbows to either side of Taako. He’s pretty trapped, and Kravitz is pretty angry, and that’s pretty scary, but Taako doesn’t quite feel it that way.

He was scared and lonely last time, when he couldn’t tell for sure whether the Kravitz with him in the Cluster was a fake or not, so he dragged the imposter into bed and let what happened to him just happen. This time Taako’s scared and tired, more than tired, actually, and resigned as all hell on top of that.

What’s he really gained by resisting so much? By playing cautious? Like, is he really benefiting from all of this? Wouldn’t it just be easier to say yes to Kravitz even if he’s not Kravitz, because then it only has to hurt when the lie comes out and not every other step along the way? It’s been two weeks, maybe a bit more, since Taako joined them in the display.

He could have been kissed so many times in those weeks. He could have cried a lot less too. He could have had sex, probably very good sex, and all the good distractions that come out of ignoring your situation and rolling with it. He could have had his toxic cake and eaten it too, poisoned sprinkles and all.

Instead he’s fought, and he’s resisted, and he’s wept, and he’s been a brat, and like a stubborn child he’s refused what is potentially the nicest thing the display could offer him: Kravitz.

“If you’re dead, Taako, then I’m going to make sure you have exactly the kind of afterlife you deserve for all this shit.”

And now Kravitz, real or not real, is angry, and Taako’s more afraid of him than he wants to admit. He waits, prone as he is, and is ready to just enjoy what comes next because it doesn’t have to be bad if he doesn’t resist. It smells like Kravitz and it feels like Kravitz, and maybe if Taako’s lucky he’ll kiss and touch and make love like Kravitz- like angry Kravitz, which isn’t something Taako has heaps of experience with, but he can adjust and learn.

The funniest part about it? Taako’s attitude is a mistake.

“-why are you looking at me like that?” Kravitz asks, still caging him down. He’s still got that scowl over his eyes, but he hasn’t started anything yet. He hasn’t gone for Taako’s shirt or started kissing his neck. He’s not even pushing down on his hips to work them both up. Taako hears the question and gives a delayed shrug.

“I’m waiting.”

“Waiting? For what?” Oh, he’s confused. He’s pretending he doesn’t know. “For me to kill the dragon?” Fine. Taako can prompt him. The one thing he’s consistently good at is pissing off Roswyth.

“We both know that’s not what you’re gonna do.”

A beat passes, and then with a lurch Kravitz is off of him and off the bed. Taako is a bit thrown by the reaction, confused like he was just shaken awake by something. He clumsily sits up and Kravitz has already recovered his clothes from last night, he throws his shirt on over his shoulders and is sticking his leg through his pants before Taako can speak.

“What are you-?”

“-leaving.” And then- he’s barely dressed. He’s carrying most of his outfit including his shoes and doesn’t even look at the jewels on the nightstand. Kravitz throws down his answer and opens the bedroom door. Taako can’t remember where his cane or chair are.

Kravitz leaves and slams the door behind him.


 

They’ve flown all night to get here with the dawn, and boy has it been a ride. If the moonbase gets any closer to the Isle of Roswyth she’ll fall right out of the sky from the wonky weather and the magic that keeps the sea so quiet. Lucas’s modifications have helped a lot, and they’re close enough that the three-mile shot to the island will be so fast whoever rides a pod down will have to hit the breaks almost as soon as they leave the cannon mouth, but they’re on the razor’s edge.

Avi’s been chewing so hard on the gum in his mouth that his teeth are grinding anyways, but he keeps at it. He’s a cannon technician, not a pilot, but the order to have the barest skeleton crew possible on board the base means he’s picked up a few new hats. It takes a team of three Arcanists to keep the base happily puttering around on most days, but that means they know best what the moon can and cannot handle: and a dragon is definitely in that second category.

The only reason the base didn’t drop out of the sky during the apocalypse is just because none of the Hunger’s tendrils struck and stayed on it for more than a few minutes, but Avi remembers the stomach-dropping sound of the base’s engines overclocking trying to deal with the damage and forces being wrought around them.

So you throw in the bad weather magic that makes the engines struggle anyways, and then you take Davenport’s description of a very big, very mean dragon hiding under its mountain, and you know because you’re staring at the displays and dials that the base is only a quarter mile above the water but is acting like they’re pushing three. There’s no math required to know the coming fight will be quick, dirty, and involve a big splash when the base hits the water.

But it’s worth it. Avi already calibrated the cannons before he came up here to the control room. They just have to hope Roswyth doesn’t like watching the sun come up or else they’re absolutely gonna lose the element of surprise. Moons aren’t supposed to be this close.

All set down there, Avi?” Merle asks, and Avi keeps chewing as he makes another adjustment, the piece of paper in front of him a mess of scribbles and equations. When the cannon fires it will generate this much force and the blow back will probably be half the expected output and that means the forward engines have to adjust just right to keep them all level...

He touches the stone of far speech around his neck and answers.

“Ready when you are, Merle.”

Standby, this might take a bit.”

Avi nods to get himself focused. He tucks his pencil behind his ear and lays his hands solidly on the controls of the moonbase. If Johann is watching this, Avi hopes his old friend thinks it’s sick.

He’s ready.


 

It’s time for a quick morning check-in with the display, and then Roswyth has decided to feed. The smell of ripened fruit from the orchard on the west side of the island has been feathering into the den for a few days now, crisp and succulent, and they’ve been waiting patiently for it to reach the particularly sweet note that the dawn light finally ushered in this morning.

Walking the cavernous halls of the den, they have every reason to be in high spirits and to reap a sense of satisfaction from their hard work. The display has been working marvellously well, and the trio already housed inside of it have been getting along much better over the past few days. Soon their friends on the beach will certainly give in and request to see them, to join them, and Roswyth has already begun the process of adjusting the magic holding everything together. By Taako’s memories alone, they would be remiss to exclude the boy detective from the display overlong.

Roswyth steps through the open door of the display room into a garden?

They stop. The magic was precisely that quick to snap around them, and now they are here. Certainly, this warrants concern and an aspect of caution.

The garden itself is lovely. It is lush and green in the early dawn light, with tumbled stone walls and a great trellis overrun with green vines under the umbrella branches of a flowering cherry blossom tree. The scent of sweet fruits lingers here from the island, overflowing from a table set under the trellis.

Ah. How unexpected, and yet thoroughly flattering.

The table is simple wood and iron, and atop it there is a large platter of fresh cut fruit and vegetables. Beside the platter, there is a game board. There are two chairs facing each other over the board, and seated on the one across from Roswyth is a creature they know very, very well.

He is old and grey, stout but marvellously unassuming. His grey hair is tied and knotted up behind his head, his large beard sporting a few friendly petals from the demiplane. One of his eyes is covered with a gold and black patch etched with the beautiful face of an owl, and his apparel is delightfully relaxed as well. He wears a printed floral shirt crossed with an adventurer’s black bandoleer, the short sleeves showing the join between his upper arm and the twisted living wood of his replacement limb.

Roswyth approaches the table, and Merle Highchurch straightens up in his seat and smiles at him. The cleric gives a kindly little wave with his wooden hand.

“Uh, g’morning!” Merle chirps in a clumsy voice. “Don’t suppose too many introductions are in order. Mind if we, uh, have a talk you an I?”

It is Roswyth’s turn to smile as they place a hand on the back of their chair. Two small plates are set out next to the platter of fruits, and they can see a spread which speaks to Merle’s connection with Pan: ripe pomegranates, fresh dates, luscious apples of red and gold, even slices of sweet raw pumpkin and squash, the open face of a melon and heaping clusters of grapes. There is even, albeit unnecessary, a small bowl of sweet golden honey for dipping.

 They did intend to feed this morning...

“Certainly,” they say, because it’s only polite to answer when spoken to. “And may I say, while a foreword may have been appreciated, I do enjoy your sense of what makes a good parley point.”

“I aim to please.” And Merle shows his palm to offer the seat, and as Roswyth settles the cleric picks up his plate and begins choosing from the spread of fruit- serving the dragon only the brightest and freshest of the hoard.

The chess board is already set up on the table with the white and black sets facing out and away from the two perspective players.

“White or black?” Merle offers, as he is a most courteous host.

“I find I have equal luck with either colour, my friend. Please, have your choice.”

“Guess that makes me white then. Drink?”

“No, thank you, this will more than suffice.”

Roswyth takes the first of the golden green grapes from their plate, and sits down to a morning game of skill.



“He’s in.” As soon as Barry hears Ren’s voice through his stone, he and Lup share a look and drop out of the sky.

Merle is in Parley with the dragon, which means the two Reapers can shift from their living bodies and hurtle through the bright dawn towards the island. Not so far away from them, a soft boom in the sky signals the incoming trajectory of a silver Bureau of Benevolence pod for their friends trapped on the island.

If Roswyth is going to attack the base after this, then Magnus and Davenport want their chance to help defend it.

The two of them reach the island easily enough, but as soon as they try to phase through the mountain an anti-lich barrier rebuffs them. For Barry, it feels exactly as stupid as smacking his nose on a glass wall, and he does a bit of a shapeless spin in the air before orienting himself again. He touches a hand to his breast pocket to make sure his bell is still silent and secure, and this gives Lup the time she needs to solve their problem.

They weren’t sure one would be here, but now he knows Lup will see he was right about not rushing in without a plan.

Fuck you,” she hisses, her scythe pulling itself from the Astral Plane before she wheels the weapon down across her body, slashing the air with two, three, four practised swipes. The barrier buckles and shies back from the strikes, and the two of them take their brief window and rush through.

Going through solid substances as a lich isn’t a good or recommended feeling. Barry doesn’t like it, he really doesn’t like it, but it’s the fastest and easiest way to get into the dragon’s lair despite being neither fast nor easy. Instead of flying, it’s like they’re swimming through sand, only sometimes finding it easier by virtue of how the layers of rock fold and push together. It’s uncomfortable, but it works.

Thank the gods for Davenport, because thanks to him they at least know it’s a Copper dragon’s lair. So. Traps. Lots of traps. And changing passages. And shifting doors. And puzzles- there’s gonna be a lot of puzzles. This is all assuming of course that the books and lore Ren’s been pouring over in Neverwinter for weeks are accurate, but Barry’s still ready for riddles and slider problems as he and Lup drop into an open chamber somewhere about of a third of the way down the mountain.

It’s small and dark and out of the way, but as soon as the two of them are both fully in the room the enchantments in the light fixtures activate.

They’re in a study. A raw stone cave with wall to wall bookshelves, the bindings of the books wrapped in silver and gold and studded with gems. Barry isn’t here for reading but he feels power around him and turns to find a massive purple-bound tome easily as wide as he is tall, resting open on a specially made pedestal. It’s gorgeous.

Barry.” There’s a whole lot wrapped up in the way Lup says his name, and Barry snaps back to what they’re supposed to be doing. Floating over Lup’s barely-there hand is the wax feather from the Raven Queen. It’s spinning awkwardly, but they both know it’s better than any song from the Starblaster. The feather isn’t connected by stories or friendships or other bonds, that feather is Kravitz, and it knows where the rest of him is. It’s a piece of him that the Raven Queen kept safe, and is trusting Lup and Barry to reunite with its owner.

All it knows is how far and which way, sadly, so it can’t navigate the lair for them. But they don’t have to run around like mice in a maze either: they’re liches. Ghosts. This isn’t the right room and Lup takes the time she needs to get the feather to point them in the right direction (that direction), and get a read on how far (that far).

They pass into the walls again, insides upset and energies confounded by the solid mass of the mountain between them and their destination, but they’re moving.

They just need Merle to hold Roswyth’s attention long enough for them to find their friends, bag the relics, and get out.


 

“The safest place for you to be is right here by the ship,” is what Magnus told him as the Bureau’s moonbase began to creep over the horizon last night.

“Yes, sir,” is what he answered with.

“I know you’re smart and capable, Ango, but Davenport and I have gotta get up on the base as soon as Avi can get us a ride,” is what Magnus said after that, with the sun beginning to turn the sky grey instead of black. “And if the base goes down then you’ll be safer here. The Hunger was thousands of little things making up one big bad, this is one big bad that’s been around for a lot longer than any of us, and we can’t risk it. As bad as we’d feel anyways, Taako’d never forgive us if anything happened to you. Does that make sense?”

“I understand, sir.”

“Love you, kiddo.” Is the last thing Magnus said, before checking to make sure Angus still had his grandfather’s knife with him. Of course he did. “Stay safe, alright?”

“I love you too, sir. Please be careful!”

And then Magnus and Davenport left the beach. They gave their new position up on the cliff overlooking the island’s west side to Avi, who calibrated the cannon to send down a pod as soon as the dragon entered Parley with Merle. That’s what they did: they followed the plan.

Angus didn’t.

Angus McDonald, prodigal young Professor of the Miller Arcane Academy, and first apprentice of Taako the Wizard, did not stay on the beach to twiddle his thumbs in the sand like he had for the last month. As soon as Magnus and Davenport vanished through the predawn fog, Angus left just as quickly, up the rocky mountain path to the hidden entrance to the dragon’s lair.

He’s still the World’s Greatest Detective, after all, and he’s always been good at riddles and puzzles.

 

Chapter Text

Navigating the lair is like trying to sew a pattern with your eyes closed. The corridors make no sense, the rooms connect and separate out of order. They can phase through walls, yes, but it’s supposed to be faster to just sprint through a hallway that goes in sort of the right direction. So how come Lup will charge forward with the wax feather in her hand, going the right way, and then all of the sudden the piece of Kravitz guiding them will tell them they’re speeding off away from him?

It’s hard. It’s so, so hard, to keep calm and keep moving. Lup is ready to just throw magic at the stone walls and bring them crumbling down- but that won’t help them find Taako and the others. She gives the feather to Barry because Lup just doesn’t have the patience for it anymore. She lets him lead and holds a hand to her throat, trying to remember the Raven Queen’s love.

She just wants her brother back she just wants Taako back...

If they stop every few yards and use the feather, it gets more chances to realign itself with Kravitz. Their path isn’t straight but rather snakes and coils around. Lup could swear they’re going in circles, phasing through walls and passing through doors, but Barry swears they’re getting closer.

Along the way the dragon’s hoard is incredible. If feels like a museum, room after room of towering and lovingly crafted display cases. There are walls of pottery and ceramics and glass fixtures, books of ancient arcana and history and science and engineering. Four rooms in a row track the settlement, rise, expansion, and fall of the empire that long ago crumbled into the city-states of Neverwinter, Goldcliff, and Rockport. There are tapestries and examples of needles and thread weaving, there are paintings, hundreds of paintings of countless subjects, each protected by warm glass windows.

If Lup wasn’t expecting to find her brother’s petrified body behind one of those windows at any moment, she might be impressed.

They finally reach a hallway with blue glowing lamps and a set of doors that open wide into a salon. Lup pushes through first and just stops. The room is dark and back-lit by something. It’s big, and it’s magical, but she doesn’t know what it is.

“Babe?” Lup can’t look away from whatever this is, but calls out for Barry to come with her and try to figure it out.

It’s a display, sealed behind glass like all the others. It’s easily her height and half again, made of stone with seven hexagon shelves all mounted together on the wall, above a stone alter. The glass is different. It doesn’t let Lup see through quite clearly. She knows the flower is there behind it, but shining off the surface is that light. And it doesn’t move like light should? It swirls, and it knocks into itself, and it skims like oil over water until... until...

‘I’m telling you, I won’t rest in this place!’ Until Lup can hear familiar voices.

‘Please, just sit down for a moment and-’

‘No! I’m sick of being calm and I’m sick of sitting around talking about how awful this all is without doing a damned thing about it!’

‘Kravitz-’

No!

Lup hears Kravitz and Lucretia come from the glass, and when she looks down on the floor the swirling lights make sense: she looks down and sees the hexagon pattern again, and this time she can see them. Their voices project from the display, and on the floor between the spinning patterns she sees a small table with small chairs around it, quaint and simple, like a cabin, with a little couch and a small fireplace and tiny rugs scattered over the floor. The details aren’t clear and the contours fade and blend, like smoke over water. But there they are:

‘Kravitz,’ Lucretia is calm, and controlled, and standing with her white hair and a long jacket that goes to her feet. She has a hand held up to stop Kravitz, who is in front of her at the table. ‘We already know too much of the wrong magic is dangerous here.’

‘Because of what Patrice did to him!’  Lup’s boss yells back, and Lup feels a tremble in her gut as she tries to sort through the words. Who is Patrice? Who did they hurt- was it Taako?

Barry comes forward and kneels at the projection of their friends, casting his hand over the illusion to no effect. It doesn’t disturb the pictures or the sounds, and their friends don’t notice him. They can’t be more than a few inches tall, but they’re so tiny and cast of light and air. Lup could pick up the entire room in both hands and carry it like a plate. She could have Lucretia and Kravitz and the table all resting on her hand.

Barry still has the feather and he hands it to Lup, heading for the glass. She kneels and tries to get a better look around- there’s someone on Lucretia’s couch.

Taako!” she shouts, startling Barry who jumps and then gives himself a shake and keeps investigating. Lup has her hands down and kneels in the light.

Taako’s there, he’s right there, resting on Lucretia’s couch under a thick white blanket. He’s leaning back on the arm of the couch and is watching them argue, his hands fidgeting with something small that Lup can’t make out. He looks tired and miserable and yet when she calls out to him he doesn’t look up.

But the argument stops. Kravitz and Lucretia both freeze and look around the room, then both turn and look at Taako.

‘Did you hear something?’ Kravitz asks.

Lup’s brother shrugs, and shakes his head.

“Lup-! Lup, come help me with this.” Barry calls, and Lup looks away from the doll-house projection to see him standing at the glass with his hands over it. “I think- I think it’s meant to open, or we could just break the glass?”

“Let me smash it,” she says, choking up as she stands and goes to him. The glass is warm under her hands, even through her gloves, but Barry’s right: it’s definitely meant to open.

“Go for it, we’re short on time.” Parley could end at any moment, and they’ve gotta be out of here before that happens.

Lup locks her elbows and settles her weight, and with an angry huff a charge of wicked red light arcs down from her shoulders and pierces the glass. Barry hides himself behind his black cloak for the explosion of shards and magic that shatters the display case.

The projection vanishes but there’s a flutter of sound- voice whose words are ripped apart. The sound isn’t scared and the voices aren’t frightened, but they’re jumbled and taken out of order, parsed to pieces that make no sense. Lup feels the glass crunch under her boots as her and Barry step forward.

The Grand Relics are here. They’re not part of the display but they’re mounted on the wall around it. Without the lights and projection Lup might have cared to look at them sooner, but she does so now: the Philosopher’s stone is mounted at the highest point over the flower, then the Oculus Lens, the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, the Gaia Sash, the Temporal Chalice, and even Lucretia’s Bulwark Staff. The only one missing is Barry’s Animus Bell.

Lup can’t help herself. The thrall built into the relics has nothing to do with it, she’s just too hurt and angry to resist the impulse: she grabs Lucretia’s staff and plants her foot on the wall, pulling and yanking until the hooks holding her friend’s Relic in place bend and release.

The staff doesn’t speak or try to worm its impulses into her mind, but it still has a greedy and needy feel to it in her hand. It’s odd? This isn’t how the staff should feel. It’s almost like it ignores her?

They made these things to hold the Light of Creation, to hide it from the Hunger, but that meant the Relics themselves had to be wanted. So there was always a thrall built into the staff that saved the world, and on its own no it shouldn’t be mind-conforming, but it should still be stronger than this. It should still want her to want it, but it doesn’t? She almost feels the staff pulling away from her, calling out for something else.

Lup takes Lucretia’s staff because her friend had it with her when Roswyth poisoned her on her own base, and it’s the first part of their collection they’re going to lose today. But why does it feel like this?

“We’ll get the others in a minute,” Barry says, more to himself than to Lup. He’s touching and feeling and examining the display itself now. “This... this is really something. And I don’t mean that in the ‘I kinda wanna take it apart and look at it’ way, I mean it in the ‘how do we break it?’ way.”

This room gets worse the more Lup looks around. The display, the relics, and now- she chokes, and walks from the display toward one of the other walls.

Of course this would happen, of course the Dragon would set the room for their collection up this way. Of course, of course there’s a large wooden platform with the words Taako the Wizard, Red Robe of Transmutation etched onto a copper plaque. The platform is surrounded by more tempered glass, and inside is an homage to her brother: a featureless mannequin wearing Taako’s manta-ray cape, his glaive at its belt, his rings and salt-shaker in one wooden hand. The robe and boots and hat he wore on that morning when he left for Goldcliff are lint-free and fresh around the mannequin.

Beside Taako is Lup and beside Lup is Barry and then the display and then on the other side of the room it picks up again with Lucretia and Magnus and Merle. Lucretia’s robe and Bureau bracer are resting in hers, and Lup lets her gloved fingers curl and dig against the glass around Taako’s stolen belongings.

She steps back, and uses Lucretia’s staff to smash the glass, a lick of more red energy arcing from Lup’s hand to make sure the rest of it shatters out of spite. She grabs her brother’s Krebstar first and feels the warmth spiral through the jewelled star as the focus awakens at a familiar magical touch. She breaks the mannequin’s hand off and takes her brother’s hat, stuffing the rings and other magical items into it like a bag.

She’s crying as she blows apart Lucretia’s case to get back her bracer. The robe will have to stay but clothes can be replaced, friends can’t.

Scrubbing the tears off her face, Lup comes back the stone display and she can see two of the hexes are filled with white light. Kravitz’s figurine is right there on top of the display like a macabre birthday candle, oddly out of place, and Lup bends the brim of Taako’s hat around as she knots the soft felt and hooks it through her belt, freeing her hands.

“How do we get them out?” Lup can see Barry’s eyes filled with a pale blue light, the parts of a ritual spell coming together at his lips as he touches the display and plucks at its threads, testing the sound of it. He shakes his head a little and keeps dousing the display, trying to figure it out.

Lup looks into one of the boxes and amidst the brilliant light she can sort of see a figurine. When she reaches in, the light is uncomfortably warm but doesn’t burn her. She finds the figure and is careful with her touch, touching the hair, the gown, the staff, the book. It’s Lucretia.

‘The others are going to find us,’ And she hears Lucretia’s voice, and Lup almost grabs the figurine to wrench her friend out of the display. The magic is heavy. ‘They know where we are! None of us want to be patient, believe me, but Taako’s proven we can’t fight our way out. Even if we escape the display, we’re still miles deep in the lair, and I doubt we’ll be in much condition to fight an actual literal dragon.’

Lup doesn’t hear a response, not really, just a series of parsed up whispers that could be Kravitz’s voice, or could be nothing.

And Lup can see Kravitz’s little statue standing there on top of the display, white threads clutching him greedy and wrong. So when she looks into the second brightly lit hexagon right in the middle, she knows who it is.

And now she’s choking up again, because he’s right here. He’s finally right here and she reaches in and touches- nothing?

Cold darts down her spine.

“Taako?” Lup puts both hands inside, waving them- where is he? She feels the sides, touches the walls, feels all the way to the back until she’s almost up to her shoulders in hot white light. She searches and there’s a round patch that passes under her palm but no figurine- no wax? No Taako?

“I saw him-” No, this can’t be real! “I saw him! Taako!”

“…it’s too much to sift through right now, Lup.” Lup has her hands on her face when Barry finally comes out of his ritual. She’s shaking and she’s afraid and she keeps looking back at the honeycomb pattern on the floor where the glass was projecting their friends with the light. Why isn’t he here? Why was he on the floor but he’s not here? “Lup? We just- we have to get them out. It can’t hurt them more than staying here will.”

“He’s not here-”

“Then we take Kravitz and Lucretia and we look for Taako after. Lup?” He’s not here. “Lup, please!”

Lup takes Lucretia. She puts her hands around her as gently as she can and hopes the heat from the light doesn’t make her too soft or weak to be handled. Lup won’t know what to do with herself if picking up the figurine damages her friend. When she checks with Barry to see if he’s ready with Kravitz, he’s not.

He’s frowning hard at their boss, and the gold feather is over his open hand and slowly spinning.

“Barry?”

“…Raven Queen gave us an edict, didn’t she?” Bring Kravitz back to court. Find him, wherever he was, so she would know he was safe. “And I mean… he’s not mortal…”

“Babe?”

Barry rolls his feet and leaves the floor, hovering at level with the top of the display. With one hand he casts the wax feather forward, and with the other Lup sees his scythe start to form and pull itself into this plane from the Astral.

“Barry, what the hell?”

“We both know how hard it was to break the spell last time,” he says, still staring at the figure with all the concentration and sternness a serious magical theory demands. “And we both know how the Queen feels about it. So, I’m-”

He twitches his hand and the feather stiffens and lays horizontal in the air. A white edge of magic cuts the air and unfurls as the bounty they both signed at court.

“So-” Barry becomes more gaunt as he speaks, magic coming off of him as he doesn’t cast, but he focuses. The black of his robe seems deeper, the feathered mantle around his shoulders flares up, the hood rising on its own to shadow his face. His voice firms up, and he declares: “So: by order of Her Eminence the Queen of the Natural Progression Between Life and Death, I hereby banish this soul to the Astral Plane to face Her Judgement and embrace Her Love!” Um- okay!?

The bounty flies to the figure and wraps all the way around it, its magic conflicting with the strands of white tethering Kravitz to the display and giving off wisps of smoke. Barry lifts his scythe and between her hands, Lup hears:

‘Kravitz, is something wrong?’


 

The morning is awful. Taako knew it would be but going through it has been something else. He almost didn’t get out of bed, and part of him still believes he did the wrong thing by making himself come all the way to Lucretia’s cabin.

Kravitz was already here when Taako arrived, and he would not have minded turning to ash the moment Kravitz looked at him and his heart fucking shattered. He did this, this is Taako’s fault, he’s the one who planted a knife in Kravitz’s heart with what he fucking said at dawn in bed with him and this is Taako’s fault.

Because Kravitz is heartbroken and he’s desperate. Taako can tell. He hates himself but he can still tell. Kravitz has thrown grace to the wind, because what good is being graceful when your partner accuses you of being ready to just take whatever you want out of them?

So Kravitz wants to fight, or maybe he just wants to scream, who knows? Taako doesn’t.

He doesn’t join the discussion, he doesn’t know how to because he shouldn’t be here. Taako should be back in his cluster being miserable and leaving Kravitz the hell alone.

He doesn’t even know- if he’s sorry? He knows he regrets what he said but at the same time-? Is he sorry? It’s Kravitz. It has to be him, but there’s still, like an oily skim, that slick of doubt. Taako hates that he still can’t wash that stain away, but it’s there, it’s here with him on the couch with the blanket over his legs and his chair hovering a few inches away.

“Kravitz, we already know too much of the wrong kind of magic is dangerous here!” So he clicks his worry beads, click click click-

“Because of what Patrice did to him!” -and he doesn’t get involved between Lucretia and Kravitz as they argue. He feels a shudder, and closes his eyes, and pretends he still knows how to breathe.

Click click click.

The air shifts and they all stop. Lucretia forgets what she was going to say and Taako’s fingers still around the beads. Kravitz is the first to speak.

“Did you hear something?”

Taako shrugs, shakes his head. He doesn’t know what that was, but he feels a sinking dread in his stomach. Don’t let it be Patrice bringing someone else they love into the display...

The tense silence passes without a letter from the dragon, and with nothing else to distract them Lucretia and Kravitz slowly pick their argument back up, Taako’s anxiety rising with their tempers.

“Kravitz, we are not alone in this!” Lucretia huffs back at him as they go another round, standing there frosty with her hands clutched in front of her, elbows tucked. “The others are going to find us; they know where we are!” Taako saw them at the dinner, he knows it’s only a matter of time before Magnus and the others try something- he just doesn’t know if it’ll work.

“None of us want to be patient,” she continues, “Believe me, but Taako’s proven we can’t fight our way out.” Oh. Click click click. She’s right. “Even if we escape the display, we’re still miles deep in the lair, and I doubt we’ll be in much condition to fight an actual literal dragon.”

You might not, but I would,” Kravitz argues, and it’s a new angle from him. “And the three of us know more about this cluster and it’s stupid magic than anyone outside. If you two can force open enough of a rift for me to slip back to the Astral Plane-”

“I can’t do that.” Taako hates the halting voice that kicks up his throat. He hates the worm of raw terror squirming through his gut. “I can’t- I really, really can’t. I shouldn’t even be listening to you say it, I should go-”

Kravitz looks at him with that heartbroken pain etched across his face and Taako just redoubles his efforts to bring the chair over and hoist himself off the couch and- and- and...

“Let me help you.” Taako lets Kravitz help him. He shouldn’t. He’s wrong to hurt Kravitz again like this as he’s balanced and helped to his chair, but the Reaper’s hand is at his elbow and Taako’s fingers hold his arm for support. When he’s settled the touch lingers and sorrow darkens the cracks around Kravitz’s tired eyes.

Kravitz turns away and Taako is so sorry...

I can’t stay in here, Lucretia.” He’s so sorry he’s so tired and he’s so, so sorry for what he said- for what he thought, for what he felt at dawn. “No matter what-” Click click click. “I just- I... I-?”

Taako looks up at Kravitz’s back as he stutters, the soul cord taut between his shoulders. Lucretia is the one who speaks.

“Kravitz, is something wrong?”

He wobbles, grabs the arm of the couch, and Taako feels the whole world slow down as Kravitz’s soul cord gives a dull pop and then ruptures all down the length. It just shreds, blown to pieces by a soundless force that drops the Reaper to his knees.

“Kravitz!” His name screams up Taako’s throat. He stands on impulse and doesn’t notice how he’s jarred and hurts when he hits the floor, reaching and grabbing the back of Kravitz’s shirt and his shoulder and trying to turn him and see him and help him and-

He’s disintegrating. He’s going to pieces like black sand, hissing grainy and fragmented as Taako feels a collision of energy between the Reaper and the Cluster. The demiplane bleeds gold smoke everywhere Kravitz contacts it: the floor, his clothes, Taako’s hand. Positive and negative forces splinter and scatter, neverwhere bleeding raw and haggard before something much stronger comes boiling up from below.

My Queen...?!” Kravitz gasps, and the sand keeps running off him into the neverwhere, leaving white bone and crimson light to hold his form before that, too, crumbles. The fear and pain of the neverwhere are enough to frighten Taako to tears, but not to make him let go.

He grabs and he pulls and he screams Kravitz’s name again, but he can’t hear himself. Taako can’t hear anything. He knows Lucretia is screaming with her hands to her mouth and chest, but he can’t hear her.

He feels skeletal fingers grab his hand and Kravitz turns, faces him as a skull weeping black sand and fighting back gold mist. The sand is running through the button gaps on his shirt, and the gold-meshed fabric is threaded with black that tints the garment out of spite. As soon as Taako squeezes his hands, he feels the bones fracture and start to slip away.

“No- no- no!” Not like this- whatever it is- no! Taako pushes his face to the skull and he can feel it he can feel it and he knows. He finally, fucking finally, knows. His eyes are closed and his cheeks are wet and he can feel himself breathing in the cluster’s golden energies as he holds Kravitz’s fading face to his and:

It’s you-” Oh god- he’s too late. He’s far, far too late. “It’s you and I was wrong and I’m sorry, Kravitz I’m sorry- I’m so sorry- I’m so sorry!”

Taako can’t keep track of his own words, it’s like being the amulet: no filter, no hesitation.

I love you I’m sorry don’t leave me don’t go I was wrong don’t leave me don’t hurt please don’t hurt I love you be safe don’t leave me please be safe I’m sorry I love you I’m so sorry don’t leave me please don’t go don’t leave I love you don’t go-

The pull gets stronger and Taako feels Kravitz grabbing him- resisting it. He feels the pull and strain on his hair, around his wrist, from his heart. They both feel and they both want and then-

And then with a flash and the heat of the demiplane reacting to the breach, Taako is broken on the floor and Kravitz is gone.


 

Barry uses both arms for the harvesting blow. He carves straight through the wax and paper and an explosion of shredded magic blasts out and up from the hidden statue. Lup flinches from the brilliant light but knows the wax cuts clean and the bounty funnels the energy straight up over their heads- a screaming geyser of black smoke. There’s an infernal wind that kicks and blows hard from Kravitz, soul, spirit, and prison all reacting violently against Barry’s reaping.

The room buckles and the stones creak and settle, sand dropping over them as a terrible howling screams from the trapped Reaper. Black sand spills from the wound and in the storm it looks like him, like Kravitz breaching and rising up after drowning, but nothing but his spirit’s image forms before he’s caught and blown away by the roaring wind, still screaming.

A tear into the Astral plane is open and waiting at the ceiling, and the bounty binds and drags and carries Kravitz’s soul away to it. And he’s screaming- yelling, raging.

He’s not afraid, Lup can tell. She doesn’t know how, but she can tell.

But she can also hear Lucretia screaming and the terror is very real. Her panic and fear spill over and Lup just- pulls her out.

She pulls Lucretia out and holds the warm wax to her chest, cradling the statue with both hands and tucking her chin down, protecting her, keeping her safe.

Kravitz is reaped and the tear between worlds swallows him and the energy from the bounty. The hole between worlds stitches itself shut and they’re left standing in a room in shambles. The Gaia Sash is fluttering weakly by one of its hooks, the Philosopher’s Stone and Oculus Lens both on the floor surrounded by the shattered glass of the display cases.

“What did you do!?” A voice behind them cries, and Lup turns with Lucretia in one hand and her staff in the other-

“Angus!?” Barry splutters, but Lup says it too and in just as much shock.

There he is: boy detective, beach-worn shorts and wrinkled shirt, his tie sun-bleached and shoes blasted by sand. He has his wand on its lanyard but isn’t holding it anymore, just staring at the two of them and then at the mess wrought around the room.

“No-” Lup says, “No, you can’t be in here, kiddo- you’ve gotta get out and you gotta do that right-”

“I came here to find Mister Taako and I’m not leaving until I do!” Angus actually raises his voice at her and Lup’s more shocked by that than the words he’s saying.

But then those click into place too, and- and hell yeah.

Kravitz is free and the Raven Queen will patch him up. Lucretia is right here, and-

Quickly,” Barry says, opening his hand and immediately conjuring a wooden chest radiating a strange energy. He grabs the Gaia Sash off the wall and drops it in, then the Temporal Chalice. Lup hands Lucretia over to him carefully, and takes over gathering the Relics while Barry kneels and places her on the floor. He pulls out-

“You sneaky ass,” Lup gasps at the Animus Bell, and Barry looks up with a sheepish smile before clearing his throat and casting a thread of magic around the relic.

Lup finds the Oculus Lens on the ground, but when Angus picks up the Philosopher’s Stone there’s a heart-stopping moment where his entire body reels back with a shudder, eyes closed and fingers clutching the stone. Shit-

“Angus?”

Woah...” He shakes again, a shiver from head to toe, but he opens one eye slowly behind his big round glasses. He gives a leery look at the stone, but then takes a deep breath and looks at Lup, nodding. “I... I think I got it.”

“These things were a lot worse when the Light was in them.” Lup watches him carefully as Angus examines the stone, opening and closing his hand around the Relic and blinking through the heady thrall. When he looks put back together, Lup looks up at the display one more time.

Barry is spinning blue light through his bell, ringing it every few seconds with a touch at its handle as red and white spell lines form and dance around Lucretia’s figurine. There’s a light emanating from inside of it, a heartbeat that is stirred by the coalescing power.

The Raven Queen has Kravitz. Barry has Lucretia. The dragon still has Taako and its display is shimmering and shining at her like a damn taunt. At her hip, her brother’s Krebstar intones gently with her rising emotions.

Yeah. You know what? Yeah. Fuck it, yeah!

“If Taako wasn’t being kept here with Lucretia and Kravitz, then maybe somewhere closer to the dragon’s actual den would be the best place to-” Sure, Angus, yes, that makes sense. But so do the arcs of furious red magic that lick and spark between Lup’s fingers, her hand grasping the heart of the Krebstar and bringing the gold and jewelled glaive up in front of her. She gives her wrist a snap and lets go of the focus, setting it spinning and spinning like a pin-wheel that weaves her angry light into a quickly forming blast of raw arcane power.

“We’re gonna find Taako,” Lup says, interrupting Barry’s casting because he sees just how close to the display he is and quickly scoops up Lucretia, the bell, and the extra-planar box and scurries out of the blast radius. “But first-

“Miss Lup-?”

Lup pulls her arm up and back, the radiant spell bleeding crimson around her.

I do THIS!”


 

“Taako-?”

No.

Taako is still on his knees, on the floor, off balance and hurting by the raw pain of what just happened to Kravitz. He’s staring at Lucretia and she’s holding her chest like there’s a knot of pain between her breasts. She looks scared.

Taako-” She’s scared.

“No!” The tears keep coming and Lucretia rushes over and drops in front of him. He can’t remember the last time they touched, not like this: a hug that squeezes both of them so tightly that neither one can let go. There’s a tremble that goes through her and she squeezes the handful of his shirt, and he tries to make his arms circle her a little tighter, bring her a little closer.

Is it Patrice? Is it Roswyth? Are they angry? Did they do it on purpose? Is it punishment? Is it payback? Is it just sick-minded control?

“No- not you too.” Not her too, not like that, don’t make him watch that again, don’t-

“Something’s wrong, Taako, I can feel it-”

“Don’t leave-”

“Taako-?” She seizes up like the words hurt.

Don’t leave me alone!” Too late.

But it’s Taako who moves this time. They’re holding each other so tight, Lucretia’s face hidden against his neck, and then it all changes. He phases through her arms, and her body goes rigid and hard, the cluster giving a violent buckle and drop under them.

And he’s screaming her name, but it doesn’t do anything. The walls bleed wax. The floor bleeds wax. The windows collapse and Taako is moving but Lucretia is trapped in the mess. He feels roped and dragged and the demiplane’s magic hauls him out of the cluster, out into cold mist and wet grass, away from the scream of collapsing reality.

The cabin, like Kravitz, shudders and then collapses on itself, the roof caving like a giant’s fist just punched down on it. The floors flip up and the walls suck in on themselves, and with a spray of gold light and waxy strands, the whole thing ruptures and contracts together.

There’s a deep, soul-blasting boom and Taako feels the display go white hot with neverwhere. When it releases him, the road from Lucretia’s cluster is gone, and the space the cabin once occupied is nothing but a rolling knoll flanked by the silent alpine afternoon. He’s miles, presumably, from the beach, and just sitting on the wet grass in jeans and a sweater, letting the winter rain mist over him.

Kravitz and Lucretia are gone and Taako, without explanation or exception, is alone.


 

Not to tout his own horn, but Merle is absolutely an expert at chess.

The first game with the dragon was a draw. The second game, which they are well into at this point, is looking like it might go the same way. That said: only the foolhardy make such a call before the final move is made.

Still, he has only his King and his Queen left, and Roswyth is dancing with their King between two Towers. Somehow the game isn’t the most interesting thing happening right now. Both Davenport and Garfield were right because Roswyth is a talented conversationalist.

They may not know everything about anything, but they do know something about everything. They’re also, to Merle’s surprise, pretty open to talking about it.

“But to call the philosopher a midwife of knowledge,” they say now, placing their tower down in an attempt to taunt Merle’s Queen into a trap he won’t fall for. “-bespeaks an arrogance of not only the process of birth but the purpose of it. The be and end all of creating new life is not for the sake of holding a squirming, writhing creature for a few moments of satisfaction, and neither should the pursuit of knowledge.”

“That’s a very literal way to go about it though,” Merle hums and haws and no, he’s not going to kill that tower, but he will dance his king back over here by its limited range. This is getting boring. “But I like your thoughts on knowledge as wax: I mean, you can mould it and form it and use it. You apply wax to leather to make it supple, you apply knowledge to an argument to make it stronger. But I think we’re going in circles here, haha, if you know what I mean.” And he opens his hands over the board.

“A fair summation. Yes, I believe a reset is in order.”

They trade the pieces still in play, then reassemble the board using the collection of pieces they’ve each taken from last round. Merle will play as white again, Roswyth is back to black.

“So, tell me about the Relics,” Merle asks, easy as you please. He sure does hope the others are about done on the island, because as much as he’d love to talk religion and philosophy with the dragon, the parley point is starting to feel a bit claustrophobic even for him.

“Ah, is that what this was all about?”

“Yep.” Nope. “How’d you find them all?”

“Regrettably I have not yet located all of the Grand Relics, only most of them.”

“Which ones?” Merle prompts them and, as expected, the dragon is easy with the details of their collection. They can name six, including Merle’s sash and Davenport’s lens, but the missing one is Barry’s bell. “’fraid I can’t help with that. The last time I saw the Animus Bell was after Lucretia dropped it on the surface of the Hunger.”

The gravity of his words takes a sec, and Roswyth sits there with sharp green eyes watching the board, one clawed finger resting on the head of their pawn.

“... an incomplete collection,” they murmur, more to themselves than to him. “Perhaps I shall have him craft another one.”

They mean Barry, and that thought chills Merle a bit.

“A copy wouldn’t be the real deal though.”

“I understand that, but a replica would serve as an homage to the original.” There’s, uh, something about the dragon’s voice as they say that. Something about their eyes too. Something about...

“Sorry?” Merle says, leaning over the board a little. “I didn’t catch that.”

Roswyth repeats themselves but it’s not in Common. It barely passes their lips, just seems to move from chest to throat to air. Merle can’t put it together on his own, but the magic of the parley point steps up and helps him with the draconic growl.

I will have them all, it’s what they want.

Uh... oh boy.

“...they?” He asks, and this is-

“It’s what I want.” That sounds a lot like a correction. Which means it sounds fake. “It’s what they called me for.” Oh, that’s a bad, bad, bad look in the dragon’s eyes. Merle swallows, drums his hands on his thighs for a moment, then leans forward again.

“Are you really the sort to be told what to do by a bunch of empty shells?”

“They are not shells they are the Grand Relics.” Uh- shit.

“And they were made with a mind-controlling thrall worked right into their core,” Merle gives the reminder and he knows he should cut and run instead, but this change is coming quickly. “And we both know you’re plenty smart enough to know when you’re being tricked. Is this gag really worth it?”

“It is no gag.”

“You’re being used.”

And now that Merle’s hearing it this makes sense. The Grand Relics needed to be needed, the Light had to feel useful and desired because that’s what Creation is: the need to perpetuate and enjoy itself. Of course the seven Relics would desire to be together, that would bring the Light of Creation together, and then Light could be wanted by everything and everyone all at once.

Except the Light of Creation isn’t with them anymore.

“Not just used,” Merle insists, “But played like a piece in a game no one’s going to win.” Because Davenport is over it now, but he held out for weeks on blaming Roswyth for the mounting list of crimes. Garfield, who arguably knows the dragon best, was aghast at the prospect of Roswyth killing the adventurers he sent to steal the Relics. Roswyth stooping to kidnapping and collecting people just doesn’t add up with the sources that know them.

So, that means it can’t be them. No more than it was Brian, or Sloane, or June. It’s the Relics. Weakened as they are, Roswyth still managed to collect five of them on their own and held them for months before starting to act out. Have they acted more screwy since collecting the staff too? Merle doesn’t know. No one does, but it would make sense.

“No one’s going to win this,” Merle tells them, and he’s well aware of the fact that Roswyth hasn’t looked at him, and hasn’t answered him yet either, the dragon is staring at the untouched chess pieces before them. “The Light is back where it belongs so nothing’s going to happen even if all seven original relics are in the same room together. What they crave is a purpose they’ve lost, and they’re just using you to make another go at a futile dream.”

The dragon closes their eyes, there’s a small twitch of stress between them.

“You are suggesting I am- enthralled, by the relics?”

“Yep. Yeah, that certainly sounds about right.” Merle folds his hands in front of him, twiddling his thumbs because he’s pretty uneasy. He’s very uneasy. This is a parley point, he’s just about ready to freak out- but not yet.

“You realize, of course,” the dragon continues, “that this mortal garb is but a matter of convenience for me? Not an honest or accurate indication of my true abilities?”

“Oh no, I figured that much. I used to summon a buddy-a mine named John here and he was definitely way bigger on the outside, if you know what I mean.”

Roswyth opens their green eyes at him with a very, very draconic snarl pulling at their pale white face.

“I am not-” and then something strikes across their gaze, and Merle sees the green move in a way that eyes definitely are not supposed to move. The dragon closes them again but it’s not controlled- one goes slower than the other, closed and then open again, and there’s a copper edge where before there was only green. “-not enthr…” the word splits over their tongue and with a quick recoil the dragon’s head snaps to the side.

Merle takes a breath and holds it, his mind clearing as he lets his spirit hover over the proverbial panic button. A parley point isn’t really where he wants to be stuck with an angry or unstable dragon.

“I am not-!

Their hand comes up and then slams down on the board, sending pieces scattering and their copper claws digging deep into the wood. Merle curls his lips into his mouth and bites down to keep from saying anything, palms down against his tummy for a little bit of comfort as a silent prayer to Pan for good timing and better reaction times spins in the back of his head. Oh please, don’t let him blow this.

Merle is sitting across from a very, very angry dragon, and he’s not hit a single nerve, but six of them.

Six threads that puncture the parley point very discreetly, like they’re small enough to slip through the weave of the demiplane Merle’s spell created without disrupting anything in the garden. There are six threads, and they’ve all pinned themselves to Roswyth, and now every time the dragon opens their eyes there’s a straight up fight between green and copper cutting back and forth across their gaze and flowing through their aura.

“Yep, that’s a pretty bad case of thrall ya got there,” Merle says, just to see if Roswyth can still hear through- yes, yes they can. “Unfortunate- bye now!”

He takes his hands away from his body and signals the end of the parley. Everything becomes a deep and solumn darkness, suffocating and silent.

And then he’s sitting in Lucretia’s chair in the Bureau of Benevolence’s main sphere, and he’s shaking and taking deep, sweet breaths of air. On his first full lung of the stuff, he shouts:

“Ready or not, here they come!”

And half a mile down below the moonbase, the first reaction in a chain goes off.

 

Chapter Text

The rain vanishes and Taako, cold on the ground, looks at the cloudy morning sky. He feels the air in the demiplane shift again, then pull around him like wind from somewhere else. There’s a neverwhere static building between his ears, and through the clouds there’s a sudden dawn of crimson. It arcs, and laces, and like lightning it fans over the sky briefly. It’s silent, no thunder, just a jolt of power that starts to build again as soon as it’s spent.

“…that’s no dragon,” he says to himself as the lightning arcs again and spins silently. He’s been here for long enough, he knows what it feels like and he doesn’t feel it now. He doesn’t sense Patrice, and the low buzz that’s starting to scream through the trees and peel apart the mountains isn’t how the dragon’s magic works. When the lightning touches the mountaintops, they vanish. They don’t explode, they just stop being there.

Taako pulls his arms tight around his own body and bows his head away from the sky. Around him, the grass begins to unfurl with gold mist, rising like flames that peel apart the demiplane to reveal the neverwhere bones beneath it. He can feel the soul cord planted in his back starting to pull and carry him back down to the beach- though the water is already draining away and the sand is gold smoke that rolls and vanishes under him.

He lets this happen, arms around himself, and he feels his body being set down at the open door of the cluster, balancing with one hand on the doorway and his good foot planted over the threshold.

The sky is rising. It’s not fragmenting and falling down like the Hunger did so many times across so many worlds, it’s pulling away from the reality around him. He can see it when the red lashes the clouds again: when the arcs fade, the neverwhere is left with its haunting white. The clouds simply rise up into the space between worlds and they vanish. The lightning reaches further with every round, and when it touches the horizon that bleeds away too.

He looks back down and the beach is gone, replaced with white nothing. This is not Patrice.

“…Get me out of here,” he whispers, and then Taako sees the gold mist curling around his hand on the door. He pulls his touch back, wobbling a bit to keep his balance, and knows that when he exhales the smoke is there too.

He tucks his hands under his shoulders. It helps hide the shaking and keep him from dropping to the floor with fear. He can hear the buzzing and he can feel his vision going white around the edges. Taako knows, because it’s beyond his control, that behind him his cluster is being ripped apart just like the sky and the horizon and the water.

Lup…

He stops feeling his hands. He stops breathing the air. He stops standing, and blinking, and shaking, and crying. He just stops. Everything stops for Taako as the buzzing fills his mind and the neverwhere drowns his vision.

The only thing he keeps is his hearing, but even that’s no good as he senses himself laying on his back and being rattled violently. There’s heat that burns uncomfortably hot right above him, but he can’t move to escape it.

Everything is incredibly loud.

He can hear stone breaking, and voices- familiar voices yelling. He’s falling. He hits something so hard it almost hurts. He’s thrown again and he hits again and there’s a bounce and it’s awful. He rolls, he slips, he falls, he settles.

And then he hears a mighty and terrible roar.


 

The fucking thing fights back when Lup attacks it. The display isn’t shielded but it’s built like a brick shit house and her first blow with magic gets spread out over the top of it. The next blast of magic comes off her hand and strikes the join between hexagons, ripping deep into the power holding it upright. Then she attacks the stone again, and the joints again, and the top again.

With each pulse from her and the Krebstar Lup feels herself lose a bit more. She knows the energy that arcs off her shoulders isn’t part of the spell, it just comes away from her. She knows the tears cutting her cheeks don’t help focus her magic, they just dribble and seep from her bloodshot eyes.

She sees runes that make rain and wind and snow and lightning and sunshine. She sees the transmutative strands that imitate movement and sensation and hunger. She rips and blasts at clouds and mountains- but they aren’t clouds and mountains, they’re the magic formulae arranged to look that way from one side, from the inside of the display. Lup guts the numbers and mars the equations, she throws paint over the manuscript and burns the notes that brought it together.

She destroys the display built to imprison her family and torture her brother and she destroys it she destroys it Lup destroys it.

Ready or not-!” And from the stone in her pocket Lup barely hears Merle’s voice yowl as the stone structure finally buckles. The pieces come apart like gunshots and the top half the display sandwiches the bottom, the whole thing toppling forward and slamming into the floor at her feet. With a surge of simple rage, Lup draws the Krebstar in front of her and lets her power grasp and tear the broken pieces apart like rotten fruit. Pieces go flying, shards spinning over the glass-riddled floor and smoke and dust cloud the room.

Barry gasps her name and there’s a sharp inhale behind her, but Lup doesn’t acknowledge the new presence at the door to the display room even when it immediately starts to growl. Oh yeah? Two can play the scary noise game.

But Lup’s isn’t a growl, it’s the hiss and crackle of her fingertips slowly igniting. It’s flames that lick at her wrists and pull along her arms, gnawing at her flesh before the same thing begins to bleed from the corner of her mouth. The heat hurts so good, sliding up her cheek and over her eye, chewing at her ear and through her hair as she moves one foot over broken glass and turns around.

Her flesh corrodes and her emotions are there to fill the gap between black bones and crimson cloak. And it’s anger. And anger. And so much anger. They took her brother away they took her heart away they ripped the anchor from her soul and the rhythm from her life and they took him they took him and won’t give him back.

So the lich turns to face the dragon and Lup’s rotted heart can’t weep because there’s no room for tragedy in this conflict and no mercy in the way of vengeance. She has Taako’s star in one hand and Lucretia’s staff in the other and Barry is small and tucked away, Angus watching the rubble with shaking knees. And her flames grow, and her pain swells, and her anger-

What Lup faces is a creature pretending to be half as angry as she is. Their white robe is rippling with energy and their skin is peeling back over copper scales, their green eyes wide and feral as their face changes from something humanoid to long and fanged and furious. Horns sprout and curl from between locks of hair that wither and fall off, fingers melding into talons and arms pulling back as chest and shoulders and body expand.

“Get out of there! GET OUT!” Merle’s bellowing through the stones, and that’s when Roswyth roars.

It blows back her robe and fans her flames, it makes Angus drop in fright and huddle there on his hands and knees. Barry slams down the lid of the chest holding the other relics, and it vanishes.

The dragon’s wings rip from the robe that vanishes. And they’re still growing, still increasing in size and filling the doorway, backing into the hall. Their head is already as long as Lup is tall, their horns are her height again. Muscles form and writhe under glowing scales, tail spiked and lashing in the space behind them. Something golden glows in the back of their throat, and it shakes the mountain as the dragon’s breath gathers.

“So, you’re the one who’s been hurting my brother?” She leaves marks on the stone as she steps over the debris. She might have created the gauntlet, but Lup was always the Phoenix: her boots burn prints of black glass right into the floor. “I’m going to fucking kill you now…”

She feels the Krebstar-

-Angus dashes and dives between them.

KID!” Barry panics, Lup hesitates, and the dragon’s jaw unlocks with a hurtling stream of gold.

She thrusts the Bulwark Staff out, elbow locked and burning hand scoring the white wood. A prism of sharp white flies over angus’s head and shatters, blowing out a barrier of light that balloons and covers the room from Angus all the way over Barry and Lup. The dragon’s breath collides and Lup feels the staff give a jolt, a cry of surprise almost, before the Grand Relic taps into her own magic and siphons off what it needs and then-some to reinforce and hold the line.

The breath overwhelms the dome and crawls back up the walls, filling everything with sharp yellow light that glows and bears down like threatening ropes of gooey yellow honey flecked with gold. Lup can’t feel fear through her anger, not even for Angus, but she feels offence at the sight of it all. More wax. More honey. More reason to kill.

As soon as the attack subsides Lup is off the floor and brings down the barrier, leaving Angus for Barry to deal with. She has the Krebstar and this time she uses it, flying at the dragon’s face as Roswyth pulls their head back out of the doorway. Once she ducks through the portal, she has the star pointed right at the dragon’s soft throat and crimson lightning webs and fires off the jewels in her hand.

They move and she sees her spell splash against their scaley neck and slide right off, leaving a mark but not blowing their throat out. Four massive talons are bearing down on her and Lup pulls her shoulders into a spin as she keeps flying, escaping the crush of Roswyth’s hand. She rights herself, toes skimming the floor and burning the carpet, and with Lucretia’s staff behind her for balance she aims the Krebstar again unleashes a torrent of white flames.

Her fire skates right up and over the wing Roswyth drops over their shoulder to protect themselves, and Lup doesn’t understand how that works until she can see the dragon again. They’re not coming after her, they’re looking back in the display room and ignoring the lashes of black magic Lup recognizes as Barry fighting back inside. Roswyth has one arm reaching inside and their attention wholly focused on dragging out- No!

“ANGUS!”


 

He saw the amulet. He had to get it. He saw the amulet and Angus had to get it. He had to, it was important, he needed it, he had to have it. It’s not like how he needed the Philosopher’s Stone when he touched it and it tried to sink right into his flesh, but he needed the amulet almost as badly.

It’s their only clue and it came rolling right across the floor after Lup tore the broken display to pieces, small and round and gold with a honeycomb on one side and a silver back on the other. She was letting off arcs of bad energy and Angus was too scared to get too close to her at first, but the amulet was right there. It’s the same amulet that summoned Taako at Roswyth’s table, and Angus couldn’t just leave it on the floor.

So, he dove for it.

Hindsight, probably should have used Mage Hand! Maybe next time!!

Because when Angus grabs the amulet it grabs him. It’s like being picked up and dropped like a kitten, and he’s face-down flat on the floor, hands clutched palms together around the amulet and his body hunched around it.

And he knows he’s between Lup and the copper he knows this but there’s so much more that’s rushing through him that Angus has to try and handle first.

It- it’s so much. It’s like falling into a dream, into a blanket of something that only half-exists but is so very real at the same time. And it’s afraid and it’s confused and it’s braced- warry, waiting. It’s aware, it’s so painfully aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

KID!

Barry screams, the copper attacks, Lup protects them all, and the amulet awakens.

Angus is startled until he realizes he’s not. He feels startled but he is not startled. And he feels anxiety but it’s not his anxiety. And he repeats the word kid, thinks of a child and imagines a boy and it’s a boy in shorts and a fancy shirt and a schoolboy cap and it’s a kid that he knows and he knows because he’s important and it’s Angus it has to be Angus and why is it Angus and-

Anger. Why is Angus here? Why did you bastards bring Angus back here? Why is Angus in danger again you fuckers could you not keep one god-damned person safe for ten fucking minutes while-

Fear. Why is Angus here? Angus can’t be here he shouldn’t be here don’t let him be here what’s that sound-?

Lup sears the air over his head and she’s off, blowing red lightning off the gold star in her hand. Angus has to pull away and sit up, hands still clutching the amulet so tightly in case it falls or flies away from him. He pulls back, blinks through the haze, feels the Philosopher Stone still humming in his pocket and is breathless between the thrall of the Grand Relic and the awareness pouring from the amulet.

There are tears in his eyes because it’s familiar. It’s strange but it’s right. It- it’s…

“Angus!” Barry’s feet clop over the floor and the Reaper kneels in front of him. He puts his hands on Angus’ shoulders and tries to make him look away from the amulet now peeking out between his palms. He says something but Angus can’t hear it, he’s looking at the amulet. He can’t not look at it.

It’s silver and white with a set of gold hexagons on the front forming a flower. One of them is marred by a streak of black, but the wave of recognition and concern that surges up from the amulet hits Angus and goes right through him. It goes through and around and encircles him, because he’s crying. He’s injured. Is he injured? Is he hurt? He must be hurt and if not he will be and he has to hide and escape and get out. Angus has to get out and he has to get Angus out he has to help Angus get out.

Taako-?” and Angus just sobs. The tears are hot and they choke him, and he knows his voice shakes and the awareness reaching out to him reacts so warm and ready that the confirmation almost sounds like him.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s him, he’s here. He’s right here! Angus he’s right here and they have to get out of here and they have to go now.

“Taako- i-it’s Taako-” Angus looks at Barry, who is staring in shock at the amulet in his hands. Angus tries to hold the trinket up but his hands won’t unclench around it. He can’t bear to let go because- because-

“THIEF!”

Angus’ arms are crushed to his chest, hard scales scraping his skin and gouging his back before four massive clawed fingers close and squeeze around him. He’s dragged and he screams, the amulet erupting with panic as Barry shouts after him and stands, hands around his bell and casting magic through the air that doesn’t help.

His legs drag and his feet kick, but he’s dragged through the door and up, and up, and up-

NO NO NO NO ANGUS NO NO THIS CAN’T HAPPEN IT CAN’T BE LIKE THIS NO LET HIM GO LET HIM GO NO DON’T ROSWYTH NO DON’T NOT THE BOY NO NO NO

And Angus sees teeth as large as he is and a throat that glows with a terrible light. Scales like dinner plates and eyes that burn, green like the corrosion streaking layer after layer of heavy copper edges and spikes. And he’s squeezed, and he hurts, and he can’t reach his wand and he was so startled that he has the amulet by his fingertips and if he drops it he’ll scream- he’s already screaming.

Barry’s black magic lashes and swirls through the air. It gashes the copper claws, it strikes at their mouth, and they’re unfazed. A wave of rolling white fire crawls over the copper’s back and its wings deflect all of it.

And he’s crushed and when he screams his lungs compress and then there’s no room to take a breath to fill them- he can’t breathe. Angus can’t breathe.

Fuck Patrice!

There’s a storm-cloud of emotion swirling around Angus’ hands but he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He’s being lifted higher and Angus can’t breathe.

Silver-blooded brat,” the voice charges through Angus’s bones and he shudders from the pain that strips through his body as Roswyth speaks. “Still wet from your shell- they won’t miss you!”

Blink!

He gasps, can’t breathe: the copper has him hanging in their grasp, facing the floor with their palm at his back, claws blunt and hard around him. The amulet is hot between his fingers and he’s barely hanging on to it.

Angus, Blink!

He can’t breathe, he wheezes half the words:

“I don’t-” He doesn’t know that spell, Taako, he doesn’t! Not yet, he-

Not Blink- just blink!

Lup screeches and a sphere of white magic closes around Roswyth’s head, making the copper rear back with its neck swinging and jaws spewing magic. Noxious green surges from the display room and Barry is bones and black power screaming towards the copper’s underbelly.

They open their claws and Angus isn’t dropped he’s pushed and the ground-

CLOSE YOUR EYES!

-he shuts his eyes.


 

Barry screams when Roswyth slams Angus down. The bands of necrotic energy strapped around the dragon’s arm and shoulder just snap like ribbons instead of holding the attack in place. He’s just a child- and it’s a crushing, killing blow.

Those claws come up again and Barry spins his scythe, furious and hurting as he plants the point of it deep in Roswyth’s palm and-

He’s overpowered. Immediately. Instantly. Barry tries to cut and gouge but the dragon’s scales hold fast and won’t let him slash his weapon through the hand. Instead he’s caught and he’s caged and its Barry’s turn to smash into the hard stone floor of the den.

He feels ribs break, he feels the bones under his red and black robes just snap and burst with energy he can’t control or reclaim. The pain is absolutely real and it scatters his thoughts. His scythe is still biting into the dragon’s flesh when it leaves his grasp, and without that immediate connection the weapon vanishes. Rich blood weeps from the wound, and Barry knows that’s a good thing, but he also sees that hand rise and come back down at him-

Nah. He’s a lich. He falls right into the stone floor under him and he is absolutely aware of the pummelling force Roswyth punches over him, but this time it doesn’t hurt. He feels his connection to the Astral Plane remain unharmed, and the energy flowing to him from the Raven Queen’s domain is strong and fortifying.

Barry moves through the rock and he can hear Lup fighting. He rises up again and immediately slides across the ground to reach the shattered impact where Angus- isn’t?

He puts his skeletal hands to the broken rock. No blood. No body. No Philosopher’s Stone or strange draconic amulet. Angus isn’t here.

Angus isn’t dead.


 

“Fire again,” Davenport says, hands behind his back and calm as you please on the edge of the moonbase. Magnus is not nearly so calm, and the view down at the island is not helping him.

The first shot hasn’t landed, sir?” Ren’s voice comes clearly through their stones.

“I’m aware,” Davenport answers. “Fire again, Miss Ren. I trust yours and Avi’s calculations.”

Yes, sir.”

Below them, Magnus can hear the mechanisms that operate the moonbase moving and slotting around. Down in the hanger he knows another sphere is being loaded into the cannon aimed down at the island. They can’t hear the chatter between Ren and Avi who’s down in the base’s main control centre, but a few seconds latter there’s a great boom as the cannon fires again and a silver orb rockets toward the island.

It’s not even out of sight before a plume of smoke bursts from one of the forested patches of the island below- the first orb hits.

“Continue firing as soon as each shot is ready,” Davenport says, and when he receives confirmation from Ren they hear the same series of whirs and shambles under their feet. Another orb, another quick calculation, and another shot as the one before it slams into the mountain in a flash of white and smoke. The shot leaves a visible mark they can see from almost a mile out.

“We’ve got to get Roswyth out from under that rock,” their Captain mutters to himself. He turns and faces the four of them: Carey and Killian and Magnus and Merle.

“And if burning the island doesn’t work?” Merle asks.

“It will.” Davenport’s confidence is only so reassuring when he already looks so grave. They gave their warning to Barry and Lup but the only thing they heard back was a quick stammer from Barry saying ‘yeah, we figured’. It’s been dead air from them since then.

Magnus takes a slow, deep breath, and watches the next shots land and fire from the moon.


 

Angus isn’t dead.

He’s crying, but he isn’t dead.

“S-Sir?”

“I gotcha, kiddo.”

He’s being held and it feels so, so good.

The ground came up so fast but as soon as he closed his eyes he felt the spell conjuring in the amulet shoot through and carry them both away. The landing wasn’t pleasant, but it was cushioned and it was warm and now Angus is here on his knees and he’s being held and he’s holding on as tightly as he can. And yeah, he’s crying, but he’s earned this.

The Ethereal plane shifts and statics around them. It’s grey and muted, but Angus isn’t alone: he has Taako’s long arms twisted tight around him. One hand is pawing through his hair, and his mentor’s head is right against his and allowing Angus’s face to rest on his shoulder.

The confusing cloud of thoughts and emotions is gone, it’s just Taako, solid and steady, holding Angus in the safest hug he’s ever felt.

I found you…” He sobs, and he’s a lot less scared right now as he grips really really hard at Taako’s back. “I- I thought the amulet was just a summoning t-tool or-”

“You found me and now, Angus, you gotta listen to me.” Taako unravels the hug and Angus tries to resist, but he has to let go and let Taako look at him. He looks- he looks exhausted.

His eyes are sunken and his hat is gone. His hair is loose and limp. The Ethereal Plane washes away all colour, but Taako looks even greyer and paler than that. There’s something within him too, something that’s not in Angus and it sort of- pulses? It’s a feeling Angus can’t name and a power he can’t trace. But it feels old. It feels- like Taako’s changed.

“I don’t know how you got in here, but you need to get away from Roswyth and if that means giving me back- listen.” No! No- no, Angus won’t- “If getting you home means giving me back, Angus McDonald, then that’s exactly what you’re going to-”

“No! He shouts. “No, sir! The Bureau’s moonbase is hovering as close to the island as they can get! They’re firing down pods rigged with explosives as we speak! Merle already had Roswyth in Parley just to give us the opening we needed to get in here- and we’re not leaving without you! Kravitz is in the Astral Plane and Lucretia is already with Barry- and we know how to break the demiplane spell and get her out! So we’ll do that! And we’ll change you back! And you’re coming home! And-”

Taako holds his face and kisses Angus between his eyes. He’s shocked- stunned? He’s never- maybe once or twice on his hair, been kissed. Not by Taako. The others yes, but not Taako. A high-five, a secret handshake, a hug, or little grooming touches and affectionate pokes and pinches, but not…

“I didn’t know that.” And then Taako kisses his forehead, and then his temple, nudging the arm of his glasses out of the way. The second hug is warm and strong and real around him again, and Angus squeezes back as tight as he can. “I didn’t know any of that. I’m sorry.”

“Please-” Angus whimpers, eyes closed. He knows the spell holding them here won’t last much longer. “Please, sir, come home…”

“I love you, Angus, and we’re gonna try that.” It feels safe here. They should stay here- but Angus knows they can’t. “I- I don’t really know how this whole amulet deal works, but I’m pretty sure I brought us here, not you? So- so just trust me for right now, can you do that?”

Angus keeps his eyes closed, cheek pressed close to Taako’s shoulder, and grunts m-hmm at him in the hug.

“Then I need you to practice saying these words,” his mentor and guardian tells him, and Angus listens with as much focus as he can as he feels the Blink spell fraying dangerously. As soon as he opens his eyes, Angus knows he’ll return to the material plane with Taako locked back up in the amulet.

So he holds on tight, he listens, and Angus chooses trust.


 

Fighting a dragon, even as a lich, is hard. Barry spends more time and energy just getting out of the way of Roswyth’s smouldering golden breath than he does pulling his own spells together, his grip on the Animus Bell so tight he might just snap the little handle off.

If he isn’t fending off the breath then he’s dealing with the claws, or wings, or the tail, or the spells that coil between the dragon’s horns and launch at him or Lup with no way of predicting what it will be or who it will go for. And they’re fighting in a hallway! Roswyth can move, sure, but their wings can’t expand all the way even in such a large cavernous space, they shouldn’t be able to fight back as nimbly as they keep doing!

Barry feels magic grapple with and haul him to the floor, a twisted net of compulsion and force that makes his skeletal jaws screech in defiance- no! He’s not Magnus and he’s not Lup and he’s not Taako, he doesn’t fight on the regular but fuck this! Fuck this dragon and fuck this power that keeps trying to eat through him!

He screeches and feels energy pull and scratch off his form, a flash of red lightning as his anger overwhelms his thoughts and now Barry’s on his knees, arms bound, energies flailing to get loose. Roswyth pulls in a breath and the waxy golden light floods their mouth, jaws open and coming down right for him-

The sound Lup makes is chilling, but then she’s there right in front of him with the Bulwark staff raised and another prism of light explodes over them. The barrier is much smaller this time, fighting off both the sunlight of breath and the dragon’s very real jaws as they bite down hard and breathe the spell meant to bind and capture them in wax.

Barry feels a sense of alarm somewhere deep, deep inside of himself, something his anger almost smothers but then the rest of him remembers and puts a name to it. He feels the Raven Queen. He feels their patron goddess rousing herself to their plight: to the fact that two of her Reapers are losing themselves in a battle they aren’t winning.

She’s calling them home to the Astral Plane and the barrier over their heads suddenly cracks.

It holds but just barely, the magic flickering and struggling to stay together until Roswyth loses their breath and the violence around them is just the threat of their jaws crushing closed. Barry is still bound and Lup is still holding the staff, her arms shaking and feet leaving black glass streaking the floor as she’s slowly, slowly, being pushed down to her knees.

Hey, Patrice!

The jaws release. It’s sudden and surprised and the dragon is looking before Barry can figure out whose voice he even heard.

They all see Angus standing over the broken rubble where he almost died, the draconic amulet looped around his neck with the gold face hovering between his palms, radiating an incredible light. Whatever he’s doing, whatever power he’s conjuring, it-

“Mister Taako told me something I shouldn’t repeat,” he’s speaking but- but there’s definitely a conflict with the way his mouth moves. He’s shouting the taunt but there’s an incantation spinning between his lips at the same time, a skill most wizards don’t achieve so young. “So I’ll let him say it himself!”

The light from the amulet rises like the sun and even Barry has to look away, the brilliance is just incredible. It only lasts a moment and when it clears, there’s Taako.

He’s standing there all in white, tunic and trousers and cape, a gold belt and gloves and hat circling him like the pattern of the amulet he sprung from. Angus is completely behind him, and Lup’s brother is grinning with an absolutely manic rage.

“I warned you,” Taako says, his voice almost breaking up as he holds his arms out wide. “I fucking warned you not to go near them, not to touch any of them ever again and you did this!”

Behind Taako, Barry sees Angus hoofing it away down the hall. There’s a ribbon of light left behind that makes sense when Taako claps his hands together sharply, and a prismatic cloud begins to form and swirl around behind him. Barry sees the spell slot together like pieces of a master’s puzzle, and the rainbow of light becomes a creature with four galloping legs, two spiralling horns, and a mane of rippling light.

Garyl rears with a deep whinny of “Shit’s fucked up! Let’s ride!” and the Phantom Steed goes after Angus, quickly overtaking him and letting the boy wizard scramble up onto his back.

“Catch me if you can, shit-face!” And Taako immediately bolts into the nearest room, avoiding a wave of waxy light from Roswyth before the dragon leaps forward with both arms smashing into the hall floor.

No!” Lup points the staff at the door and a bubble slams into Roswyth’s snout when the dragon tries to go after him. They rear back and slash their claws down at the barrier, carving through it when Lup doesn’t have the power left to reinforce it.

Barry fights his way out of the weakening web of magic. He and Lup are half-way there when Taako reappears in the doorway, takes a lucky leap over the claws that try to catch him, and with a breathless look up he sees Lup and Barry coming and shouts:

“Fuck off and get Ang-!”

 He’s cut off by Roswyth’s wing sweeping between them to trap Taako, and Lup just screams when they hear the rush of breath and see the spillover of waxy light spread over the floor. The wing pulls back and Roswyth adjusts their stance in the hall, facing them, a deep sound moving in their throat that combined with the pull of their jaws sounds like a laugh.

The wax smoulders and mists and starts to dissipate as it always does. It reaches the tall, petrified, disfigured portion that makes up Taako and... keeps... vanishing?

It vanishes. It fades. It’s all gone, and Roswyth’s laughter stops, the slits of their green eyes going impossibly small. Barry is shaken, and Lup is still on the floor. It doesn’t make sense.

The entire lair shakes with an enormous roar of outrage, and the dragon spins with a new fury to take off after Angus.

Barry gets it.

Taako cast Mislead.

Chapter Text

 

Taako had really, really hoped that the mislead would last longer than that. A solid minute, maybe. Even thirty seconds would have been good.

Instead he made the mistake of running the mislead into a room that had no adjoining spaces, and coming back out had put him right on course for Lup and Barry. Losing the spell and the distraction was so much better than putting either of them at risk of the dragon’s waxy breath.

Now he’s bouncing so hard he can barely think through it, jarred and scared before Angus’ hand closes around him and the rolling, rocking motion of Garyl’s galloping legs is a lot more bearable.

“What now, sir!?” Ay, fuck. Now Taako has to think and thinking is a lot easier when you can’t hear a massive dragon screaming and crashing behind you.

Now? Now- uh… fuck.

Taako can feel the spell holding Garyl together weaving through Angus’ hand and arm and coming through Taako, like it’s tethered to him instead of the boy wizard. It’s the first thing he’s experienced since waking up as a stone that feels right. This spell is supposed to come from him, Garyl is a projection of thought and focus and spell power that has just enough independence to produce speech, but not enough to consider defying or refusing a command from the master.

If Taako wanted Garyl to throw Angus off his back or to dispel completely, he knows the steed will do it.

“Yo boss, what the fuck?”

If- he said if, Garyl!

Taako can’t see from inside Angus’ hand, but Garyl doesn’t break stride to chide him, following the slopes and turns of the dragon’s liar. Angus keeps his face down to the binicorn’s rainbow mane and holds tight to both the amulet and the steed, struggling to keep his seat. The gnawing possibility that at any moment they’ll round a corner and reach a dead-end is beginning to burn a little stronger, and when Garyl reaches a split neither rider can tell him which way to go. He just runs, passes through the open doors and on instinct jumps atop a long stone table.

Platters and ornaments shatter under hooves and against the floor, and a hot wave of dragon’s breath peels down the wrong hall before Roswyth is there behind them, roaring with a fury the two liches behind them can’t distract.

Fight me, you bitch!” Lup’s voice is an infernal echo as Garyl drops from the table, through another door, and a prismatic barrier swallows the portal to delay the dragon by a few more frantic seconds. Taako can’t feel much between the spell and his heartbeat, but he knows the latter is hammering hard. Don’t let anything happen to her, please, please don’t.

“Which way, sir!?”

Taako can’t see, and he wouldn’t know anyw-

Taako feels the sound in a way that makes his thoughts blank. It’s a shockwave of force that slams and stuns Angus, tearing the spell right out of both of them as Garyl whinnies and vanishes. How Taako answers this is hard.

He used Angus to cast Mislead- or Angus used him, he’s not clear on the details. Angus spoke the enchantment for Garyl, and Angus made the gestures and directed the power for Mislead, but Taako was the one supplying the forms and the energy to get it done.

In the split-second that whatever it is hits them and kills Garyl, Taako doesn’t have Angus’ hands or voice. He just has power, just like he did when it was Lucretia hovering in mists and a soul-cord trying to strangle him.

Taako knows the risks and he does it anyways. It’s like slamming his own hand in a doorway, and Taako slams it hard.

A shield snaps closed around Angus, and the eruption of falling rock and fire ricochet and spill against the arcane barrier instead of crushing the boy to death. Taako still hears the cry of pain as Angus is slammed into the wall and slumps to the floor, but Angus is moving: kicking and trying to cover himself with his hands, Taako dangling from the cord around his neck.

He hurts, and he hurts, and he hurts so much, but Taako casts the spell all on his own and Angus is alive- so he doesn’t care about the rest.

He cares about the daylight that comes spilling through the curtains of dust and debris, the air thick with smoke as Angus picks his shaken body up. Taako doesn’t know what blew the hole in the wall, but Angus doesn’t need to be told to get his ass up and start climbing over the rubble to get to it.

Neither of them have the time to notice, or to question, the fact that another piece of Taako’s body is marred by a black gouge.

Polymorph, is the word he gives Angus when they reach the edge of the blast site and it’s a steep, stony drop along the mountain into a smoking landscape cratered by fire. Whatever this island was supposed to look like before, it doesn’t resemble Kravitz’s words anymore. There are black scars gouged into the forest below and as they stand there Taako hears another explosion somewhere too close for comfort, and Angus shifts and adjusts like he can feel it through the stone.

Through the columns of smoke, Taako can see the moon hovering much, much closer than it ought to be. It feels like the only sensible goal.

Angus, Polymorph!

“Y-You’d have to- into what?

Anything that can fly: a hawk, a gull, a raptor, a griffin, anything-

“Why don’t- why don’t you polymorph! Y-You don’t have to stay an amulet, do you?”

He doesn’t know the answer to that question and right now there’s no time to sit and ponder it either. Roswyth’s chilling scream reaches them again and Taako can hear the crash and slam of the dragon catching up. They have to go and they have to go now.

Angus knows how to fly. He just knows it and he’s practiced it and as Taako feels himself freeze up from the closing gap between them and the dragon, Angus’ magic wraps around both of them without taking anything from Taako except the touchstone and support of his presence.  Angus takes off from the hole blasted through the wall of the dragon’s lair, and dives down quick and nimble for the cover of smoke and ash.

The hesitation from the mountain is a heartbeat of panic before the dragon’s outrage erupts in full, righteous fury.


The island is burning. Its entire eastern face is robed in black smoke and deep scars, the orchards blazing and the plateaus of gathered stones blown to pieces. The cannon-fire only hesitates when one choice blast tears a violent rent across the face of the mountain, causing chatter between Ren in the cannon control at mid-ship, Avi in the main control room at the very bottom of the base, and everyone else in the Director’s hall on the top deck.

“Oh shit,” Avi gasps. He jumps the console in front of him to get down to the other panel he needs. He twists four dials and flicks a row of switches, using both hands to steadily turn a crank that makes the base’s engines calm and then begin to build up with a stable hum.

“Quick- quickly,” Ren is busy trying to keep her own console straight in the hanger, swapping the munition order and keeping her cool with a cheery little tune under her breath.

“Steady, this is what we’ve been waiting for,” Davenport cautions all parties, and with an open palm and a shake of his head, is able to keep Magnus, Carey, and Killian from rushing out of the hall to go and ready themselves on the quad. The dragon is coming, but they have to see what exactly Roswyth-

They all hear the fury that shakes the mountain. With a sudden blast of smoke and anger, a great bloom of grey pulls away from the scarred mountain and sheds its ashy cover. Dark copper wings unfurl with a metallic gleam in the bright sun, limbs splayed and tail lashing as the dragon launches from the island and beats the air to close the distance.

Avi’s fingers are punching numbers as quickly as he can think them up, half-hearing Ren asking him why her console is moving on its own, and he locks in the trajectory before telling her to launch.

The numbers look wrong but Ren fires. The orb goes wide but distracts the dragon who lets a flick of breath interrupt its course. Oh, Ren gets it; and her console lets her take control of the cannon again.

“That’s what you get for throwing the others into the sea,” Avi snaps bitterly as the dragon’s breath ignites the explosives. Instead of the orb crashing harmlessly into the water like so many before it, Roswyth is forced off course, wings thrashing, by the shockwave of force that erupts from the glass ball.

They recover with a dive, wings tucked to their body, and pull around smooth to skim over the glassy water, bowed wing tips cutting white spray over the surface.

“Oh my god, I can’t just stand here,” Killian complains, hands tight around her crossbow but knowing she has to stay here, stay put, and just watch the base defend itself from the approach. Magnus can sympathize and he doesn’t even have a crossbow.

Roswyth pulls away from the water and Ren manages two shots that the dragon twists to avoid, still closing in.

“Quick!” Ren says, “Quick quick quick, oh goodness- just do it!”

“Systems ready!” Lucas confirms.

Go!

Avi sees the launch confirmation and has his hands on the base’s throttles. From his position at the bottom of the base, he can see the water and the beast. He can see the golden breath gathering behind the dragon’s teeth as they soar towards him. Johann please, don’t let him die like this.

Roswyth hears the shot and sees another orb, banking smoothly to the le-

It punches-? It grabs their horn! Twisting and yanking so hard the dragon feels their neck bend and shoulders buckle, the air full in their wings until they force one closed to stop the strain from hurting them. Their breath launches and large metal feet plant on their cheek, avoiding the spray. It strikes their eye, it won’t let go of their horn, and it stomps its foot down on their face.

“I’m Upsy! Your lifting friend!” A grinning mechanical voice chitters as Roswyth rolls in the air and tries to throw the attacker off. “And you are! In some shit!”

A cheer goes up through the moonbase, and inside of the Upsy 2.0 mech, Lucas has his stone of far speech muffled. The shrieking noise coming out of him as he wrestles with a dragon isn’t quite dignified enough for the Miller Family legacy, and he won’t let Taako and Lucretia know he sounded like a frightened piglet in the middle of this rescue mission.

Upsy’s ups-and-downs engine initiates, and the dragon is slammed head-first into the sea.

Back on the mountain, Lup and Barry hover at the smoking maw of the destroyed hall. They watch the dragon recoil and crash into the water before looking at each other.

“Angus-?”

“Taako’s inside that amulet!” Barry blurts out, magic threading between his skeletal fingers as he conjures the chest of relics. “You find them, I’ve gotta get Lucretia out of that wax.”

“What about the base?” Lup asks, still actively burning but more focused now that the battle’s shifted out of her immediate range.

They don’t have time to huff and argue about the best tactics to follow, and Lup turns to her stone for Davenport’s orders as Barry throws open the lid of the chest and rifles around in it for Lucretia. He finds her wrapped in the Gaia Sash and swiftly untangles her, kneeling on the broken floor with her and the Animus Bell. If Roswyth is distracted, this is his chance.

“Is this really the time for that?” Lup asks with a huff.

“It won’t take that long,” Barry assures her, and with his relic in hand and the air around them a bit calmer for Roswyth’s distraction, he starts his ritual again.

“Get Lucas out of there!” Is what Davenport orders through the stones, and with a streak of fire Lup takes off from the mountain and soars across the island, looking for the place where the dragon and the elevator dropped into the sea. This leaves Barry to work.

He’s going to get Lucretia out, and she’s going to watch her captor burn.

Down across the island Angus comes to a rough and tumbled landing at the beach by Davenport’s ship- by the burning remains of Davenport’s ship. That- that’s bad, that’s not what he wanted to see. The entire island is smoke and char, the forests burning up and the vegetable patches blasted apart, even the small buildings here by the beach have been bowled right over, the sand littered with jagged arms of broken glass and black metal.

“Now what?” He asks the air, and around his neck he feels a hum from Taako.

What’s that in your pocket?

“Oh- uh? This?” And Angus reaches down into his tattered shorts, pulling out a smooth river rock crossed over and over with a pattern of gold lines. He feels a deep sense of hesitation come from Taako, and is then compelled to sit down and rest while he has the chance. “Sir?”

Angus looks at the amulet. Now he sees the black mark that’s cracked across two of the gold hexagons instead of just the one in the lower corner. He can’t see anything of Taako himself, but the amulet has a gentle pulse of life to it and an awareness that’s unmistakable when Angus lets himself listen for it.

This is gonna sound pretty dumb, and I don’t think it’s gonna work, but...

Angus is willing to try anything, says as much, and Taako thinks it over. He needs his spell book? Or Angus’ wand, or maybe-?

Taako decides and asks for Angus to lay his spell book down on a blank page, open toward the sky. Angus does so and places the Philosopher’s Stone on one page, then Taako down on the other. He asks Angus not to go anywhere, because he’s pretty sure the pain he went through was a result of casting a spell without Angus’ help.

“Wait- that hurt you, sir?”

Taako just answers him with a spew of numbers and reference points. It’s the jargon of arcana that Taako usually doesn’t flaunt because it makes magic look like hard work instead of innate talent and style on his part. He lays it all out in a mess and Angus has to plead a little to make Taako slow down and start from the beginning. It’s transmutation magic, and it’s complicated...

“Sir, what’s this spell going to do?” Angus asks. He has a simple pen in his pocket to draw with, but it’s abused by the weeks on the beach and gouges the paper more than it inks the pages. Still, it works. He trusts the lines he draws a bit more than the purpose behind them:

I’m gonna pull a Magnus.

Because... yeah. That- that’s not convincing.

And down under the glassy surface of the water- can dragons swim? Dragons can swim. Lucas owes Merle ten gold if he doesn’t just die in the next two minutes.

 Without the complications of flight to distract them, Roswyth’s claws gouge and puncture a good chunk of Upsy’s main fuselage. Obviously dragons can reach their own heads, and they’re quite dexterous with their claws, and Upsy might be incredible at lifting and lowering all kinds of things, but this is a dragon and Lucas has several alarms blaring at him from his now very wet control console.

Disengage left hand, redirect power to right foot, and- oh shit.

The dragon gets their claws into Upsy again and this time Lucas is afraid and shields his head with both arms. Those copper-green talons puncture the robot right beside and behind him, barely missing his seat as sea water begins to gush inside. Upsy lets go, Roswyth grabs hold, and the water only resists and cushions so much before Lucas and Upsy are slammed into the rocky sea bed just off the island’s shore. The glass cracks, the talons retreat, and with a push off the murky bottom the dragon leaves him for dead in the water.

Thank the gods he’s in one of his own null suits, because as the water surges around his legs, and floods his smoking console, and makes the belts around him tighten up, drowning seems like a very immediate threat.

“Engage eject sequence!” He searches the rushing water for the buttons he needs, blindly reaching for the switches. From the flooded speakers, he hears:

“-ejEcT SequENcE dISenGaGed.”

“No- Engage!” He corrects, oh no- oh no. “Upsy- engage! Let me out-!”

“PrOjeCTilE tHruSters c-c-oMPromiSeD.” No, no no-

“Upsy!” Let him out-

“pOWer SavE MODE iNitiaTEd”

Upsy!

He’s swallowed by sea water and the deafening crush of the water has him gasping around the chokehold of fear. Calm down calm down calm d- his helmet’s cracked.

No calm, no down, just shrill panic as he fights to get his harness off and fumbles blindly around his seat for the crushed levers that are supposed to manually-

The water flashes with hot red light, and with a shriek inside his cracked helmet Lucas flinches and shuts his eyes. He feels the water swirl and pull around him and there’s the grind of shorn metal, and when he looks around again half of Upsy is completely gone. The voice of a lich calls down to him with:

“You’re the dumbest smart person I’ve ever met, Miller!”

Well, so much for Taako never hearing about this... Lucas takes Lup’s hand and gets out of the elevator.

They’re both miles behind Roswyth, which is unfortunate. The sea calmed so quickly after dragon and mech vanished that when the dragon breaches the surface, the water stretches and swells around their shoulders before the beast erupts in a plume of white spray. They spread their wings and beat the air once, twice, twisting nimbly away from a final cannon shot, and their mouth opens with a waxy golden light.

“No- no- oh no...” Avi can see it better than anyone. He can see the scales, the teeth, the talons, the glow. There’s no way the breath will miss because he knows the base’s cannon and he knows the dragon is deep in Ren’s blindspot.

With a panicked giggle, he dashes to the next console, finds two green switches and flips them, then spins the crank that pops out of the dashboard. The thin sheets of metal that make up the base’s storm screen winch closed around the open windows around the control room. He doesn’t want to see this, he can’t watch it happen, and the darkness that closes around the room is-

The breath hits and the whole base shakes. Avi is knocked over the console and hears the glass around him crack and pop, jets of waxy gold breath firing into the room and striking the ceiling.

Outside Roswyth attacks and then uses another pump of their wings to arc backwards, slamming their tail against the underside of the base with all of its piping and ducts. They twist and reach for a large, nameless piece of machinery on the side of the floating platform, digging their claws in and planting their feet on the base so that when they tear at it, the pieces come falling off into the sea.

The alarms start going. Avi shuts a few of them off: they don’t need to know that the water tank is offline, and the collapsed elevator shaft to the dorms is a necessary loss.

Magnus picks himself up off the floor and Davenport gives the okay this time for him, Carey, and Killian to get out onto the quad. Merle stays behind for a few seconds with Davenport, who takes a deep, steady breath before nodding and abandoning the Director’s Hall.

“Ren, get the Starblaster ready to launch!” That means no more cannon-fire, so Ren flips her screen and inputs the command that Avi showed her. There’s a tense ten seconds spent waiting for him to answer her from the control room, but then it comes through: the hangar floor begins to open up, and with another steady breath and hand on the button, Ren dumps the last of the explosive-heavy orbs into the sea.

There was all that talk about slamming the base and its payload fully into the island as a final fuck you to the dragon, but Ren agrees that it’s not worth the risk of one way-ward attack from the beast lighting them all up in the sky.

She knows they were right to be cautious when the orbs are barely clear of the door before a blasting cloud of toxic yellow breath fills the belly of the base. Ren has to dash wand-in-hand from her console and high-tail it across the hangar to escape, and reaches the wall panel with access to the Starblaster’s docking station.

Ready in five,” Ren’s voice says through Barry’s stone, and he’s standing with webs of magical light spinning vibrant and raw around him. The bell is ringing like its own little alarm in the centre of the web of light, but it’s not as big a pain in the ass to weave together this time as the prototype spell in Neverwinter was. Barry is a Lich, and more than that, a Necromancer. And more than that, a baller artificer who made himself a relic that makes Bigby’s Laws look like house rules for Go Fish.

Lucretia, who has been trapped, and alone, and afraid ever since being ripped out of the display, sees the walls of her cabin begin to melt and fold over themselves. She doesn’t understand and she can’t fight against it, but she feels- she feels...

She’s flying and then she’s falling, falling upward at an impossible rate. There is no soul cord and no valley and no cabin and no garden. There are no white beads and no hot soup and no wax seals and no letters. No stupid book. No more accommodations.

She falls until she hits the ground and she’s on her knees and she’s coughing, choking on the reek of smoke and the ash of collapsed stone. There’s a hand on her arm and another on her back, rubbing in circles, and the daylight is harsh and cold and the stones are warm and black, the wind smells of burning and somewhere far far away she hears the roar of the inferno.

And she’s real again. Lucretia is real.

Taako-” She gasps, lifting her head that weighs at least sixty pounds.

“Angus has him,” And that voice- it’s Barry. It’s her friend. He’s here.  “And Kravitz is in the Astral Plane.”

Patrice?” It’s hard to breathe, and it’s harder to stand, so Lucretia doesn’t bother with that yet. She’s in a hallway with the side of it blown out, looking down a sheer cliff into fire and smoke. It’s such a strange precipice that Lucretia could almost put it back in the display.

“Who?” Oh right, Barry wouldn’t know, and Lucretia doesn’t wonder why her friend is just a red robe floating in blackness, she just makes her face firm and her lips sneer with the answer:

“That fucking dragon.”

“Roswyth?” Barry says vaguely.

Patrice,” she corrects, and still down on her hands and knees, Lucretia damn well means it. “Fuck. Patrice.

“I...” Barry is slow to get it, but even without a face Lucretia can tell when a slow, jovial smile starts to pull itself across his face. She can hear it in the light laugh from inside his hood, and the way one black skeletal hand reaches to his breast pocket and touches the stone of far speech hidden there. “I don’t get it, but I like it. Fuck Patrice?”

“Where are they?”

“Oh, this you won’t like.” Lucretia doubts she’d like anything right now except having her family safe and a hot bath waiting for her, but she’ll take what she can get.

And if that means taking Merle’s Gaia Sash off the broken floor and twisting it around her waist as she stands up, then so be it.

Unhindered, Roswyth circles the base twice more. They surge once over the quad and slam their tail against the glass domes making up the moon’s largest features, leaving broken glass flying in a storm from their wake. When they slip over the edge, they twist and slam their tail again into the side of the metal construct, talons out and rending the side of the base over one of the howling engines. The great machine splutters and begins to choke on its own wiring, and they swiftly move on.

Another dive under the belly of the base, another throat full of hot magic that corrodes the metal and sends more pieces of debris dropping into the sea below.

Every alarm on the base is ringing now, and Avi can’t shut them off. He regrets the metal sheets because his lights are out, only a deep red glow from one of the alarm bells letting him see the half-glowing lights on the consoles around him. There’s smoke spewing from one of them, the screens and switches too hot to touch, and he pulls his scarf up over his nose and mouth to try and make it easier to breathe. It doesn’t help.

One of the ceiling panels blows down with a spray of sparks and smoke and nearly smashes into him. He- uh, is in a bit of trouble now.

Get their attention, damn it!” Magnus is shouting through Avi’s stone, which has its cord looped around the ship’s main throttle. “Quit letting them dive at the engines!

Up on the quad he says this before taking a lunging step and hurling the Chance Lance at the exposed throat and belly of the beast as Roswyth passes overhead again. He watches Istus’ spear spark off the scales and immediately recalls it with the same hand, Killian’s crossbow peppering the air with ratcheting shots- one after the other after the other.

“Wha-?” Merle is saying behind him, as Carey hisses something vulgar in Draconic at the great beast who doesn’t seem to have any fucking time for them. Merle is hunched over his stone of far speech with Davenport, muttering “Say it again, Barry?”

“I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Davenport admits, “But if Lucretia says it then I-” and then they all stagger and stumble as the base suddenly tilts and then drops under them.

Avi, what the fuck!” Shouts the stone at the throttle.

Avi is- uh- getting up. Ow- oh wow, that sure is some blood. Okay? H-He’s okay. Still kicking. Um- oh boy this is some shit he’s cooked up, hasn’t he?

They don’t need lights so he cuts that. Don’t need power in the kitchens, cuts that. Voidfish chamber is null, Johann’ll forgive that. Dorms are a wash. Water heater? Water shmeter.

That gives him about five percent juice back and Avi keys it back into the north and south east engines, trying to make up for the total failure of the eastern one. The base starts to level out and it’s temporary, but its level. Now would be a good time to bail. He hoofs his wounded way to the doors that- oh. Oh ho, this is! Mmm! A thing. This is a thing.

He rubs one hand over his lips, down his chin, and then gives it the old college try to wedge his fingertips into the gap between the very off-kilter and bent elevator doors. Oh yeah, those are nice and broken, firmly wedged in their twisted tracks. Okay, well, at least he tried and now he knows what’s up. Yep. It’s broke as shit. And was his only way out. Baller.

No time for tears, it’s time to drain the power from the elevators too.

“Be seein’ you soon, I guess.” And with that quick hail to Johann, Avi gets back to his console.

“Avi?” Magnus asks, because he didn’t quite catch that mumble from the stone.

Be cool, Mags! Just thinking out loud!” Okay, if he’s-

Brace!” Davenport shouts, and Magnus has the Chance Lance and his shield ready as Roswyth’s head comes back over the edge of the quad for another diving run. Behind him, Merle’s eyes white out completely, and the cleric thrusts both arms out straight, mouth open and an unnatural boom shocking through the air around them.

FUCK YOU, PATRICE!

This has an effect.

For one, the base begins to list again, but this time they can all see why: instead of flying over them and wreaking havoc, Roswyth stops with their talons digging into the quad, ripping through the turf and down into the metal shell of the base. Their wings are open but still, and their shining green eyes are fully focused on the five of them standing in formation in the middle of the quad. Their weight settles on the base’s edge, and with the loud, but deliberate, scream of tearing metal, Roswyth climbs up onto the surface of the base.

“Merle! What was that!” Lup yells, and Magnus does a quick check back to see one flaming, hovering Lich lady and a soaking wet scientist in a broken null suit hurrying up from the opposite end of the base.

Taako can explain it better than I can,” the beloved voice of Lucretia speaks to all of them through their stones, echoing from her and Barry’s swiftly moving position. “But if there’s one thing Patrice can’t handle, it’s being told to fuck off.”

There are clouds gathering around the island which, as anyone who knows anything about the Wakeless Sea will tell you, is a no-no. Angus feels rain spit on his nose and looks up briefly from the arcane circle building around his spell-book, a stick digging into the sand for him and drawing the numbers and symbols into the ground after the paper proved too small. There’s a light building between Taako and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Angus can only half-feel his hands or the magic channelling through him to put the spell together.

Avi, it’s Ren, where are you? You said you could fly this thing and I been read for three minutes!”

“Uh- I’m bit tied up. It’s- it’s not hard to launch! Honest! I’ll walk you through it!”

“This ain’t the time for cold feet, Avi!” Men, sometimes she could just- “Are you coughing?”

“Ah-umm...” Yes. “Frog in m’throat! So, uh, find the throttle, and then look for the blue engage key, it should be right next t-

“What’s that sound?” What’s going on? Why’s he playing chicken with her all of a sudden? “Avi?”

Throttle, blue engage key, y-you got that?” Yeah, she’s got it. Ren’s also got a bad, bad feeling about this.

Fuck you, Patrice!” Magnus shouts, banging his shield with the Chance Lance as the dragon’s thralled eyes go tiny at the taunt.

“Fuck Patrice!” Killian bellows next to him.

“Patrice the un-fuckable, you mean!” Lup cackles, rising up with Taako’s glaive and Lucretia’s staff in each hand.

Carey snaps and growls something profane at the true dragon and Ros- and Patrice bellows back with a feral roar that makes the glass-coated ground tingle and crunch. They advance, but Magnus isn’t scared.

“I’m gonna go get on the Starblaster-” Lucas is scared. Fuck Lucas.

Patrice the Petty!” Davenport caws, weaving together several mirror images of himself between their dug-in ranks.

“Get fucked, Patrice!” Barry yells, weaving wild and fast through the air, his robe blown this way and that as he high-fives Merle and comes down with a crate of grand relics to dump on the ground for easy pickings.

Davenport immediately takes the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, and Merle follows Magnus’ eye to the Oculus Lens and tosses that to him, before taking up the Temporal Chalice for himself. His eyes go back to the approaching dragon, shield up and magic fairy glass hanging from its cord around his wrist, but with a quick call over his shoulder, he asks:

“Where’re the rest?”

“Well, Lucretia has the-” As if Magnus even had to ask.

The sky darkens and the wind picks up strongly, completely unnatural as the eddies and forces of nature begin to swirl around the base with tight focus. The engines don’t have to scream quite so sharply, the air cushioning and supporting the girth of the wounded ship. Patrice charges down the quad at them and barely gets half-way before Lup lifts the Bulwark staff with a yell and a shield blooms over them, scattering the dragon’s breath before the wind grabs and tears it away harmlessly.

Lightning, hot and fast, spits down from the sky and shocks through one of the dragon’s wings. Patrice gives a shocked scream and Magnus looks back again when he hears his family cheering.

Robed in winds that make her blue dress snap and twist around her, Lucretia has both palms open, arms spread, floating just off the edge of the base. She has the Gaia Sash around her waist and her own arcane power bolstering the innate abilities of the relic, making the atmosphere sing. Merle is laughing at the best thing he’s seen in years, arms raised over his head in sheer delight, as Lucretia slowly lifts her arms and they all feel the moonbase stabilize and settle in the air.

“I’m so glad you all could be here,” Lucretia says with what has to be the softest smile ever given before fighting a dragon. When she looks across the quad at Patrice, that smile turns a little bit scary. “But I’m afraid the Bureau has a strict no dragons on the moon policy, which I’m obligated to enforce. Fuck you, Patrice.”

She pulls her hand up and gives a sharp back-hand motion, and the wind comes howling over Lup’s shield and blasts into Patrice’s face, the dragon closing their eyes and ducking their head behind one wing, talons scraping the surface of the quad as they slide slowly backward. Magnus can’t keep the battle-frenzied laugh inside himself any longer.

The Grim Reaper is safe, Madame Director is back, and now they just need Taako for the hat-trick.

Down on the beach, Angus slams his spell-book closed on two magical stones.

It stings like a bitch, but it works.

Chapter Text

A storm a whirlwind a howling sense of chaos and righteousness that screams and screams and screams. Pain and loss and hurt and rage, the need to do more, to become more, to rearrange and lash out, to become real. Nameless and voiceless, armless and helpless, storming in the wind with no sense of direction.

When Kravitz comes back to himself he’s on his knees on cold black stone. His hands are curled weakly in his lap. His feathered cape is pooling on the floor and his eyes are drawn sightless and skyward. He’s sitting in silence, in a pool of white light. The air is cold. The space is familiar.

He takes a single breath and screams, eyes squeezed shut and body shaking, face red and hot from the yell that breaks through him. He bows his face and brings his hands up, clutching his head not because he’s in pain but because he doesn’t know what else to do.

It’s only after the echo of his voice fades, breaths still shuddering that Kravitz feels the other presences around him form and start to move about. None of them do more than shuffle their feet or whisper a few words to those near them. He isn’t ashamed to stay on his knees: he’s been through hell and is allowed to feel that pain, damn it.

Beloved son…

A voice he knows and trusts speaks through all of them, and Kravitz can keep his face down as he takes slower, calmer breaths. He doesn’t know how he got here, but the Queen’s Court is familiar and safe to him. But more than that, it’s distinct.

Kravitz is not on a demiplane. He is not in a dragon’s illusion. He’s not tethered or bound or trapped- not anymore. When he places his hands flat on the cold floor, there’s no thrum of bad energy warning him away from his own power. He feels his connection the Astral Plane permeating his body, granting him solidity and strength that the cluster had been steadily wearing away. The threads of magic he needs only pluck with his fingertips are right there, telling him his scythe is restored and ready.

His shirt sleeves and trousers and cape are all black. Patrice’s shitty curse on him is broken.

He’s free.

“…Send me back.” Kravitz lifts his head and he sees Her over him. She’s on Her dais, black and incomprehensible, Her white mask hovering in the shadows of Her Court. “My Queen, send me back to help them.” Let him kill that gods-damned dragon.

The Raven Queen tilts her masked face just so and Kravitz feels her reaching out for him. The darkness is swift and suffocating, but not dangerous. She has no desire or reason to hurt him.

He comes into a darkness that is complete, only his own form visible in the nothing. This changes when his Queen wills it, and Her form is only distinguished from the abyss by pale hands and wrists, the beak of a raven mask as pearly white as Her flesh. She raises one hand and curls Her fingers, beckoning him closer.

“I know of the dragon,” The Raven Queen tells him as Kravitz comes close enough for Her to take his arm and turn, as if they should walk together through the blackness. “and I know of Fate.”

“Lady Istus is involved with this, your Radiance?”

“As my attention was drawn by the plight of your soul, so has her ear been pricked by the cries of her emissary. Our feelings differ, but Lady Istus’ love is a fine partner for my own.” The Goddess of Fate has heard Taako calling out to her, and she’s answering him. Kravitz takes a deep breath and holds back the need to demand what this means. What does Fate’s assistance look like? What does Death’s?

It feels like they walk in a small circle, only a few strides across, but now Kravitz can hear something in the darkness. He hears breaths, he hears the click of a dry throat opening and closing. Abruptly, he can see the source.

Hovering in the blackness is a large mirror, ornate silver cradling a perfectly round pane of sapphire glass. Standing in front of it, hands tented over his mouth and words muffled by the fear-struck look on his face, is a soul.

A soul, not a reaper. Kravitz stops when his Goddess permits it, and he can see through the grey blue wisps of energy that come off this soul that he’s certainly dead. He’s been asleep in the Astral Plane, or else the loss of colour wouldn’t be so pronounced. Souls sleep until they’re ready to live again, such is the cycle of life and death, but this one has not been asleep long enough for that. He knows too much about himself and who he was.

He was a half-elf, with soft black hair and neatly kept clothes. His tunic and trousers match a feathered hat, and at his belt hangs a short sword. Across his back is a violin case. His eyes don’t leave the mirror, and his distress rises and rises as he watches it.

Kravitz doesn’t know this soul, but he can tell from the decaying details across his outfit that he has been dead for only a few years. There’s a darkness that permeates his clothes, a memory of the wounds that killed him. Between the violence and the time and a touch of something else, Kravitz knows this half-elf died on the Day of Story and Song. Still, he doesn’t know him.

His goddess releases his arm and she doesn’t stop him from stepping forward. He doesn’t know why they’re both here, but the answer is through the mirror.

When Kravitz looks, he understands.

He sees the calm surface of the Wakeless Sea bulge and rupture with the form of an enraged dragon. He sees the magical breath gathering in their throat as they shoot through the air toward- toward the moon?The Bureau’s moonbase is fighting Patrice?  

The dragon attacks the belly of the base and the glass hemisphere protecting the main control room erupts in a shower of shrapnel and fire. In the split second before the inferno shocks through the system, Kravitz sees a human figure peppered with glass and blown away by-

No!” The soul shrieks, “No- no-! Please…!

Kravitz almost shares a comforting word with him about the natural consequences of mortal lives, but as he takes the breath, the images in the mirror shift.

The water erupts, the dragon bursts forth, but now Kravitz can see the human on the base spinning a dial that closes a screen of metal over the exposed glass. Kravitz has enough time now to recognize the human’s curly hair and familiar nose, the wild fear in his eyes as he ducks under his console at the last second before the blast. The breath cracks the windows and melts through the ducting and panels, but Avi survives it handily.

Now Kravitz is watching just as intently. He knows Avi, and he knows what Avi went through when Lucretia was taken by Patrice.

The mirror continues to show the battle. It shows Davenport looking down at the water, then the moment resets and as he looks he says something into the stone of far speech pinned to his jacket. It shows Lucas Miller drowning in the broken down cage of his elevator- but then it shows Lucas still kicking as Lup’s red magic comes surging through the machine to break it open and get him out. It shows Carey bursting through a door on the base only to be caught and flayed by a storm of broken glass, but then instead it’s her at the door again with Killian calling her name, and the delay is just enough that Carey doesn’t step outside.

Kravitz is holding his breath.

The changes are small, but they ripple. An intrusive thought here, a hesitation there, an idea when they need it. Lady Istus is paying attention.

So why is this soul here?

Avi is paying so much attention to one of his broken consoles that when the panel over his head blows it slams down onto him with deadly force. When the image resets, the soul has both his hands on the glass, whispering frantic words. Avi shakes his head and turns away from the display instead of trying to fix it, and when the panel explodes he’s burned by it but not hit.

Kravitz looks at the soul. He’s crying, but there’s magic trying to weakly pool around his mouth. The spell doesn’t come together right, and it doesn’t have the strength to pass through the mirror, but the emotion behind it is almost enough that it shifts Avi’s fate back by a few more seconds.  

The Reaper tries looking for his Queen in the blackness, but She is nowhere to be sensed or seen this time. This leaves him with the Bard, and when the base is shaken and pitches sharply with fire and broken glass abounding, it resets and this time Avi doesn’t break his neck falling into the doors: he gashes his side on the glass instead.

Being injured makes him rest down on one knee, and those breaths of cleaner air keep him conscious as the smoke gets thicker, and thicker, and thicker…

Kravitz makes a guess.

“Why are you here, Johann?”

The sound of his name makes the soul jump and look at Kravitz for the first time, finally noticing him. He’s heartbroken and shaking.

“He- He woke me up.”

“Avi did?”

“I kept- I kept hearing him. You! You’ve gotta do something!”

“I’m not sure if that’s why I was brought here,” but Kravitz can make more guesses. If he’s wrong however, then it will mean nothing but false hope. “You woke up, but how did you get here?”

“She brought me.” Ah. “She said I could watch? But I gotta help- I just have to. Please, I’ll do anything. I will do absolutely any-”

Be careful with your words, Bard.” Kravitz offers the warning as a kindness, but Johann stares at him for a moment and then scowls at him.

“Be careful with-? With my words?” He splutters back, offended. “My words that, like, inspired the entire world? Those words? You want me, the Bard whose song played for all reality, to watch out? Why don’t you watch out! Why don’t you do something!?”

“What are you even bargaining for?” Kravitz bites back. He doesn’t appreciate the reminder that he is here and safe while Roswyth finally gets what’s coming to them. “Avi is mortal, if he doesn’t die here then he will die some other way. You’ve been watching him this whole time: if it’s not the dragon, it will be the fire, if it’s not the fire, it will be the smoke, and if it’s not the smoke, then it will be when the entire base falls into the sea. Are ten minutes of his life worth more than your eternal rest? Be careful with your words.”

Johann stares at him for a few seconds, shaking slightly and fighting with himself before he is, in fact, very careful with his words. And he uses them to make himself extremely clear.

“I know he’s going to die,” Johann tells him. “But not today, and not like this. I don’t want him to survive the next ten minutes, I want him to survive the next ten hours. If I have something worth trading for that, then I’ll trade it, because he doesn’t deserve this!”

They both look at the mirror and Avi is bloodied and coughing harshly in the smoke. He has his neckerchief pulled up over his mouth and nose. His eyes are watering as he looks at the disabled elevator and then back at his stone of far speech. They watch Avi pick up the stone and squeeze it tight, then huck it off into the flames that are greedily eating away at one of the consoles. He puts his hands down on what look like the main throttles controlling the base’s engines, and starts doing something with them.

There’s smoke and heat pouring from the air duct into the control room, and the cracks and holes in the windows are venting the flames. Instead of giving Avi any relief they’re just drawing the air out faster and whipping the heat up higher.

When the image changes again, Kravitz and Johann both understand that Avi is pulling the failing base onto a collision course with the island. He’s either going to suffocate in the smoke or die in the explosion unless something changes. It’s cruel to have let Johann see this much, nevermind how it’s going to end.

Kravitz looks to the silence for guidance.

“My Queen, why did you bring him here?” There’s a stir, but no answer. “You could have shown this to me without involving him, so why?” The darkness pauses. It thinks.

A light forms in front of Johann, startling the bard before the bond twists and twirls in the air, then pierces the mirror. The images change quickly, but the guiding focus of the ribbon knots around each of them. Through Lucretia, Madame Director, who has her hands spread with the Gaia Sash singing around her. To Magnus, who understood, whose lance has dragon’s blood on the end as he recalls it and ducks behind his shield to stave off a swipe of corroded copper claws. To Merle, a friend, who uses the chalice in his hands to create a glowing blue draught that restores the Reaper struggling to stay together. Time undoes the damage of the dragon’s breath and Barry comes back to himself with his scythe out and- that fucking bell, Barry.

To Carey and Killian and Lucas, then down so fast to the island where Kravitz sees Angus barely holding his own against a great surge of magic that is blowing away the sandy beach. To the amulet itself, where Taako is doing something impossible without Kravitz there to help him.

Johann is bound to all of them, not just Avi, and it isn’t the Raven Queen who brought him here. It was Istus.

“I’ll save him,” Kravitz pledges, and Johann does a double-take from the mirror before he really hears the words.

“What?”

“I’ll save him, but I don’t know what it’s going to cost you. This isn’t my deal, Johann, I’m only the messenger.” And then Kravitz feels a tug.

“I’m the most talented musician and composer in creation,” Johann tells him in a dopey, disbelieving voice. Kravitz would grumble at him for the boast, but the tug gets stronger. “I’ll sing for her- for the Raven Queen? I can write whatever she wants, or things she doesn’t want, any genre, for-”

Be careful!” Kravitz tries-

“-forever.” Johann… “Too much?”

“Entirely.” The tugging is persistent. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s distracting. They’re running out of time in this place.

“Well, what do you do?” Johann asks.

Me?” What? “I’m a Bounty Hunter, I shepherd the souls of the dead and hunt down those who go against the laws of Life and Death.”

“You’re the Grim Reaper?” Yes, that’s his title. Johann goes quiet, staring just past him for a few dull moments as he turns something over, then looks at Kravitz again. “Need any help with that first part?”

“What do you mean?”

“The shepherding bit,” Johann explains. “Talking to people. Bringing ‘em back here and stuff. I could do that. I play a mean reverie. Give em a good cry and then lead them to the lake, all pied-piper like.” Kravitz opens his mouth to say no, but the tug stops him.

The tug holds him and then Kravitz understands. This isn’t a debate between a bard and a reaper, this is a deal between Fate and Death. This is all happening by proxy. Istus has her lips at Avi’s ear as surely as the Raven Queen has her hand on Kravitz’s shoulder.

Istus wants something from Death, and Death is considering the offer as Kravitz looks back at the mirror and plays catch-up with his queen. Where is Avi? Kravitz doesn’t know the base very well, he’d have to fly around to the bottom to find the broken windows and the steel trap he’s locked himself inside. But there are other ways to move through physical space, and so long as he doesn’t overshoot completely…

Johann’s offer is not Kravitz’s to accept, but the responsibility of making good on Death’s end of the deal and giving Avi those ten hours rests with him. If he fails, any deal will be null: Johann will go back to his rest, with Avi to join him.

Please.” That’s not what Istus wants, and now that he’s awake and taunted like this with Avi’s suffering, Johann won’t stand for it either. But is his offer good enough?

Kravitz doesn’t hear an answer to his silent question, instead he feels the tug ease up a little bit with a returning wonder: does Kravitz think it’s enough?

To spare the life of someone Kravitz knows Taako and Magnus and Merle would mourn heavily if they lost him? To protect someone Kravitz has no ill-will towards at all? He’s trying to slam an entire fake moon onto Patrice’s island, which is apparently on fire, and those are two points Kravitz can appreciate.

So his answer to his Queen is simple: with or without this deal, if Taako and Angus have a moment’s respite down on that beach, then Kravitz will try to spare Avi. He doesn’t need Johann’s pledge of service. If Lup could pull Lucas from a destroyed elevator, then Kravitz can pull Avi from the maw of the beast. He just needs Fate to put him in the right place, and Death to give him enough time.

On the Celestial Plane, a place beyond the grip of time and consequence, two forces share a look, and a smile, and a nod.

“Fine.” Kravitz says, and holds his hand out to Johann. The Bard gives a little start, warry, and looks at first the hand and then Kravitz. “But no one’s being brought over today. You just sit here and you watch, understood?”

Johann shakes his hand, and Kravitz is fairly positive the rush of energy that spills down from the crown of his head and shimmers down his body is mutual, because the newly awakened soul gasps outright as the deal is made and the terms are set. For Kravitz, it’s a cold flush of energy that squirms and washes through him, purging the final dredges of the dragon’s magic. He still doesn’t know how he was released but he’s not going to question it as the cold is followed by a thrilling roll of sharp, electric vibrations.

The magic sings through his bones and Kravitz feels his skin vanish, his hand releasing Johann as the Bard stares at him. He feels strong, he feels whole, and he feels ready. His feet leave the sense of ground and his scythe comes to him effortlessly.

“My Queen, send me forward.”

Behind him, Kravitz feels a grin open and spread in the abyss. The mirror beside him becomes plain sapphire again for a moment, and then the surface begins to swirl and shimmer like water. With an effortless twist and pull of his body, Kravitz soars through it.

The Grim Reaper is back.


 

Over the Isle of Roswyth the first storm in living memory is kicking up the surface of the Wakeless Sea. The wind whips and whistles over the glassy water and forces it to ripple, stirring up white-caps and spray. The winter winds are cold and unnatural, but they howl with an uncanny force and rise up in a cyclone to bolster up the falling moon.

Lucretia didn’t think this would take as much out of her as it is, and she doesn’t like being proven wrong. The Gaia Sash doesn’t have the Light of Creation in it and gone are the earth-bending powers to conjure storm and waves and surges like child’s play. Her feet rest lightly on the glass-littered ground but her arms are held rigid beside her.

She feels the base’s engines failing, the weight growing heavier and heavier, and knows if she lets go, they’ll all go. She can’t let that happen and won’t flinch when the next attack tries to break her concentration.

“I’m gonna roll you out like a copper penny!” Lup yells, but she has both hands on the Bulwark Staff this time when Patrice follows their liquid yellow breath with those vicious fangs. The Staff is vibrating like it might come apart in her hands, braced against her body as she keeps her weight low and her feet spread, struggling to hold the spell together. The Staff is good but god damn, this is a bitch to keep together, and those teeth are uncomfortably close against the buckling shell of the barrier.

She can’t attack like this, and when the dragon’s maw retreats so they can try again, Lup feels herself wobble and the air come out of her lungs. Or is that the base wobbling? Oh boy, they gotta get off this thing.

But as soon as Patrice retreats, Davenport is there with his hands passing again and again over one another, a radiant chain of liquid heat roping together before he launches it down low between the dragon’s arms. The spell cuts low and then arcs behind Patrice, and then like a saw blade it obeys Davenport’s command and rips right back against the grain of the dragon’s scales. The razor wire sheers at the beast’s impossible hide and makes Patrice to roar and stagger away, shocked by the terrible pain.

Magnus is there, hefting his lance with two steps and the hurling the blessed weapon. Instead of bouncing harmlessly off the scales shielding the dragon’s face, the lance bites quick and nasty. A screech pierces the air from Patrice who snaps their head away from the assault, throwing the bloodied lance to the ground. The blood weeps like tears from their destroyed eye, and Magnus calls back the Chance Lance with a taunting laugh.

Killian is unloading on her crossbow when one by one they notice a sudden change above the base. It has nothing to do with Patrice, not directly, or Lucretia, not that they can tell. The clouds begin to gather and spin, darkening swiftly in a pinwheel of powerful magics.

“Oh-?” Barry wonders aloud, red hood tilted back at the sky. “OH!” There’s a familiar magic that Barry knows extremely well building in that black cloud, so when the vortex spins and drops towards the moon, tearing itself open in a cloud of screaming black ravens, the lich has his skeletal arms up over his head and gives a long, hyped yell of: “Yeeaah, Boss!”

Kravitz is barely visible inside the shrieking unkindness of ravens, but as the swarm drops on the dragon there’s a whirling white flash of divine steel and the arcing spin of the Reaper’s scythe. There’s a shockwave of force from the weapon and the dragon before the copper beast moves suddenly, head low and ducking as its tail and haunches slam into one of the battered Bureau domes. The screech of pain from Roswyth comes with a fountain of blood from their head, the base of their horn cut clean through. The piece of the dragon’s body hits the ground with a spurt of blood, but instead of lingering to savour the decisive blow, the Reaper is gone.

His fall doesn’t end and his form vanishes in a gust of black magic into the ground. And further, through iron and steel and wood and other nameless and fabulous materials. He falls through corridors and chambers and meeting rooms and engine halls. Kravitz falls, he dives, he sweeps down and down and down through the base towards it burning heart.

And as he falls, he sings. He sings apart that piece of metal, these arms of glass. He sings together these heavy carpets and those nuts and bolts. The Grim Reaper robes himself in things that are only of this world, retreating just far enough back into the Astral Plane to avoid hurting himself, and then he slams through the final layer of the base.

Avi hears something bursting down from above and he doesn’t know what it is and can’t focus on figuring it out. He can’t breathe, his lungs are choking on smoke and his eyes are too watery from the gusting clouds to make out anything on his display. He pushes the throttle to max and feels the base begin to keel again, directing itself down on a direct collision course for where he’s pretty sure the island is.

Then he retreats back from the smoking console. His back hits the wall and he starts to slump. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe- he can’t breathe…

That’s when a wrecking ball of twisted metal and glass shatters the ceiling. He’s too out of it to scream, and the colossal weight and speed of the debris slams down through the floor of the control room too. It blows a hole clear through the bottom of the base and crashes into the rolling sea.

A shadow is left behind and that shadow grabs him by the collar, then by the arm, and hauls Avi to his feet without waiting for him to actually get his legs to work. The feathers tickle and scratch at his face, he doesn’t know what they’re from. He’s being rushed forward and the shadow is running and Avi does yelp this time as he’s jumped and they plummet from suffocating hot smoke down into clear cold wind and-

The great silver sails and smooth decks of the Starblaster pass right under Kravitz as they drop, piloted by a single drow wizard. Ren doesn’t even notice them, but the ship seems the better choice than flying with Avi’s suffocated weight around his shoulders. The Reaper twists in the air and darts after the ship, meeting it as the vessel begins a fast and accelerating arc up through the air to reach the top of the base. His feet plant themselves firmly on the deck and takes a knee, helping Avi down to just lay under the fast moving wind and- oh, he doesn’t look good.

“Now you cut that out,” Kravitz scolds, “You’re not dying, we already made a deal about it.” But Avi is in poor condition, coughing violently and eyes bloodshot and full of tears. He’s better off on his side and Kravitz looks for a way to take him inside the ship and off the deck. He can hear from the bridge and acknowledges Ren who’s standing behind the glass, but they can’t reach each other yet.

“Avi!” Lucas is the one to burst through the door from the bridge onto the deck, and Kravitz helps the scientist lift Avi and start to take him inside. He only goes as far as the door, the ship bumping in the rough air, and Lucas tells him he’ll take Avi to the sick bed. Kravitz just has to trust the odd wizard and goes back on deck with his scythe and his promise at the ready.

The Starblaster is fast, but the moonbase is large and looming as it propels itself down towards the island. The base is burning badly and spitting smoke from her torn underbelly, and the smaller vessel has to adjust and adjust and adjust for the speed of the moon so it can keep ahead and hurry up and around over the face of the moon.

She rises. Lucretia feels the Starblaster coming and her winds begin to falter, weakening enough to let the ship rise smooth and magnificent over the edge of the base. The moon is falling and she knows it, it won’t stay up much longer.

Roswyth beats the ground with their wings and they begin to rise. Great copper folds catch the violent air and with a leap the dragon is airborne beyond the reach of crossbow or magic spear. Magnus is the first to call the retreat onto the Starblaster, Lup taking off to the air and landing on the deck so she can activate the gangway for the others. The high-five for Kravitz is fast and giddy as the others run up the folding platform to reach the ship. Davenport is the last to leave the base, watching the dark sky as Roswyth pulls into a spin and fights the storm to break free. Once Lucretia and the others are aboard, the captain finally takes back his ship.

“Merle! Avi needs you-” Kravitz barely gets through it before Merle’s alarm carries him fast and away below deck. He’s a real healer who can make a proper impact on Avi’s health. Kravitz stays on the deck.

“And just what do you think you are doing?” Are the words spoken on the bridge, and Ren’s stomach drops a little, hands on the helm of the Starblaster.

“I- uh, Captain Davenport, sir-”

“Pah! The answer is a fine job, of course!” That- is quite the compliment! “No sense throwing off the stabilizer by trading places now, so keep her steady as you have been and let me run the scans. Get us away from the moon before the storm pulls us down in her wake!” Ren is breathless with this.

“Yes, Captain!”

Scans for what? Scans for Angus. Davenport opens Taako’s old console and his hands ghost over familiar buttons and dials, arranging and rearranging frequencies and landing on the proper channels to identify the life-forms in question. Angus and Taako, and the latter is already wired so deeply into the Starblaster that the computer kicks his profile up and completes its run miles ahead of Angus’.

On the island- on the beach, directly under the path of the falling moon. Mm. Can’t have that.

“Uploading navigation course,” Davenport says, and on the windows in front of Ren that’s exactly what happens: the ship responds to her captain’s practiced hands at the navigation console, and Ren now knows which way to fly and how fast to get there.

“Where’d that shitty dragon go!?” Lup yells, barging onto the bridge as the Starblaster peels away from the falling base, diving to get away from the winds pulling over the shattered quad and sweeping back towards the island. The burning woman runs right for her console opposite the navigation station where Davenport is minding the wind, the smoke, the rocky terrain of the blasted beach. Her screen comes up and she has to stop and look at her burning hands for a second to bring the heat down, then gives her cooled wrists a shake and remember how to use the collage of different shaped and coloured buttons.

She co-opts the lifeform scan from Taako’s station, broadens the search parameters, and gets that sucker fired up so no copper penny bitches can get the drop on them from above.

“Lup, let me do that!” Magnus complains, a quick salute to the bridge before he goes to her. “Or at least give me the Staff so I can get a shield up outside. Here, you take the Lens.”

The exchange is made and Magnus hurries back out onto the main prow of the ship. Kravitz, Barry, Lucretia, Killian, and Carey are all out and watching the sky, leery of when Roswyth might appear through the swirling black clouds and the distant arcs of white lightning.

“Lucretia, seriously, you can tone it down now,” Barry complains, but it’s half-hearted. Lucretia just gives him a helpless look, the power of the Gaia Sash quiet around her waist as the Starblaster pitches and rides the rough blades of wind down toward the beach.

“You know I would if I could, but it’s in nature’s hands.” Whatever spell was holding the Wakeless Sea so steady has snapped from the Sash’s interference, and nature will have her way without interruption. 

Below decks Merle has his Extreme Teen Bible open and there are threads of soft light passing from the holy text in one hand to the silver chalice in the other. The spell ripples and tugs through Avi where he’s struggling weak and tired on one of the Starblaster’s cots. His lungs are poisoned and eyes a bloody red colour from the fumes. But time heals all wounds, and with a bit of divine intervention, time simply starts to undo the chemical damage. 

Lucas’s wand helps draw the symbols for a simple healing word, and Avi feels his body relax a little- he takes a lungful of air and it’s not a complete breath, but it’s more than he could get before. The next one is a little easier, and a little easier, and his eyes don’t burn quite as badly now. He’s shaking and it hurts, but he’s not going to go rushing to meet Johann just yet.

It’s a relief in more ways than one.

Down on the beach, Angus is more aware of the crackling magic in front of him than the moon slowly but steadily falling towards him. The sky is dark and the wind is cold and cutting, rain beginning to spit down on what remains of the chaotic beach.

The sand is almost completely gone, the rocks too. Sea water comes lapping at his worn out shoes and Angus has to rally all of his courage to step forward. He was blown back by the force of the spell he and Taako put together and he can’t hear his mentor’s voice without holding the amulet he’s trapped as, but Angus has to stop and be aware of how likely it is that Taako might have pushed him away on purpose.

Because the ground for a good forty feet in any direction is no longer sand and stone and grass. It’s tourmaline. Bright pink tourmaline, the same mineral that nearly destroyed the world when the Philosopher’s stone went haywire in Lucas Miller’s floating laboratory. It just seems like common sense to be warry.

Ang-

But… that said… in the very centre of the blast zone there’s a light shimmering, crackling actually, and it’s unstable but visible even from this far away. Angus can- almost hear it.

-Angus please!

With a deep breath and a worried look at the raw pink crystal around him, Angus pulls out his wand and casts a levitation spell. It makes him weightless, and not as quick as fly but easier to hold onto as he hovers above the threatening circle of pink and drifts toward the centre. What he can hear gets louder, it actually starts to sound like Taako, but it’s broken up and echo-y. It trembles and breaks apart between words.

He reaches the middle and there on the ground is Angus’ petrified spellbook, blasted to pieces and buried in more crystal. There are swirls in the pink here, ribbons of emerald and sapphire and diamond. But standing apart from all of it, resting damaged and contorted on the ground, is the amulet.

“Sir!” Oh no, “I- I’m so sorry? Mister Taako can you- can you hear me, sir?”

A crackle of gold light snaps off the amulet, the tourmaline grunts and echoes with the sound of struggle.

Angus draws closer and there it is: a white and silver backed amulet, its golden honeycomb face blocked out by the half-absorbed mass of a blue river-rock threaded with gold. The Philosopher’s stone has sunk into the amulet, their masses confused and properties in conflict. There’s a chaotic and unstable energy humming through the artefact as Angus reaches down for it, common sense warning him away from amalgamated stones in case they turn him to pink crystal like the ground.

-won’t hurt you.

Maybe not on purpose, but-

Angus, I won’t hurt you!

Angus picks the amulet up. The charge of magic is bad and uncomfortable in his hand, like a wasp buzzing between his fingers just waiting to sting, but the pain never arrives. It’s anxiety in solid form, and there’s a suffering brand of regret in the stream of consciousness that reconnects to him.

In hindsight, Taako admits, probably my worst idea.

“Sir, you look… bad.”

Trust me, it feels worse. Where’s Patrice?

That question makes Angus look to the moon and- oh, oh that’s much bigger. And it’s on fire, and- and now Angus is really scared. Getting blown up by a falling moon on a copper’s island is never how he thought things would end up.

“I- I don’t know where they are, sir.” But he’s hovering away from the moon now, not that he knows where to go. He can cast fly but not to cross an entire sea. He could, if absolutely necessary, try a differentmethod of flying, but the distance is still too great, he wouldn’t make it. And where are the others? Arethey on the moon? Magnus and Merle and Lup and Barry and Carey and Killian and Avi and-?

A loud, hideous roar screams through the coming night. Angus looks to the mountain in time to see a dragon’s spread wings backlit by the lightning arcing behind the shadow of the violated den. He doesn’t know what Roswyth is planning, or if they have a plan at all, but being caught between a Relic-thralled dragon and a falling moon base is not where Angus wants to be.

He hears the shearing sound of silver sails and the ethereal hum of a bond engine sweep down and skim the choppy waters of the lagoon, and the Starblaster keels hard to turn and show her crowded port side to the shattered beach.

Angus!” Magnus has his hands in the air beckoning him over, the ship’s gangway up and unfolding before a black streak shoots from the vessel and through the air at him. Neither Angus nor the struggling amulet in his hands can react before Kravitz has Angus caught up in a fierce and spinning hug. The three of them are still airborne as Angus squeaks and immediately clings to the familiar scent of cologne and polish. His glasses get pushed against his face and he’ll have to wipe them clean after, but right now-

Now’s really not the time for tears, but everything is wrong with Taako and suddenly nothing is wrong with Kravitz. He’s back. He’s safe and he’s back and he’s here and he’s not suffering and burning up and turning to wax anymore. He’s here. He’s okay and he’s here.

“I’m so sorry I scared you, Angus.” He’s here, he’s here, he’s here.

Kravitz-?

“Where’s Taako?” The Reaper asks, pulling Angus back a little so they can see each other, and the boy detective opens his hands and shows the damaged amulet. Kravitz’s cold hand quickly cups Angus’ and his fingers stray across the half-melded relic. “Darling, what have you done?”

This is exactly what I- the amulet sparks again, interrupting the consciousness- intended. Absolutely! He’s lying, but it’s clear as day and now’s not the time to argue with him.

Kravitz lifts Angus’ hand and places a kiss on the damaged stone, then puts his hand behind the boy and begins to pull.

They fly back to the Starblaster, and the air rumbles again with the roar of the circling dragon.

“Let’s go let’s go let’s go!” Magnus ushers, keying numbers onto a strange pad next to the gangway to fold it back up again. Angus lands on the deck as the ship begins to rumble and hum loudly under them, the water kicked up by the wind and the bond engine as the prow turns away from land.

Lightning forks again and Roswyth’s shadow is easier to see in the flash. It’s bigger, they’re coming closer.

There’s a malevolent golden glow building from them and Angus knows they’ve been seen.

“This is no time for caution- gun it, Ren!” Killian shouts at the bridge, and through the windows Angus can see Ren gripping the Starblaster’s wheel tightly as they pick up speed, silver sails unfurling in the wind and catching the storm’s gusting arms to get them moving.

The Starblaster rises, and the dragon gives chase.

Chapter Text

For the first time in a long time, Taako can feel pain. And not that emotional crap either- he’s had tons of that! Real pain. Real white hot crippling agony is what he’s on about! Mm, yeah, it’s the good shit, undoubtedly.

The pain itself is right but his sense of it is frightening and wrong.  Taako doesn’t have a gut or a back or a body, he just is, and he doesn’t have a concept for where the pain is cutting him. All he knows is that his spell fired, but the execution was sloppy and the result leaves too much to be desired.

He’s with Angus again and that’s a good thing. Angus is frightened but he’s okay. They’re both going to be okay. And then Kravitz is here too.

I’m so sorry.

Kravitz, who was there the whole time. Kravitz, who Taako watched give it all up and still acted the way he did. Kravitz, who was there every time Taako was asked to trust him, to believe him, to love him.

I failed you big time and I’m sorry, Krav, I’m sorry, I-

“Everybody on board!” and they’re flying. Taako’s vision is badly blurred by the grand relic he slammed into himself, but they’re on the Starblaster. Angus still has him- maybe he’s around the boy wonder’s neck, but the activity- the hands, the voices.

“Give him to me!” Lup’s voi- Lup! “Give him to me!Please, please-

And then he’s with Lup. He’s in her hands and surrounded by her voice and she’s crying. His beautiful sister is crying and it’s so hard for Taako to pull words out of the stream of feelings. He simply goes, and it’s simple. Simple language. Simple meaning. Simple simple simple. There are no tears and this is all he has:

I love you

I love you

I love you

Love you love you

Love you love you

Love you love you

Love love love love

Love love love love love love love

He wants to cry? So much. Taako just wants to cry. To grab her hands and cry because she’s here. He’s needed her so badly and missed her so terribly and been cut and butchered down so far that there’s almost nothing of him left but what’s here still wants Lup.

And she’s sobbing so hard and Taako can’t fix it. He feels how hard she’s squeezing him and how badly the sobs are making her shake. Lulu no…

“I’ll kill them-” Lup gasps and it’s so hard to hear her in this much pain. “I’ll kill them, I’ll leave nothing behind-! I’ll-”

The dragon isn’t dead?

“Not yet, sir!” Angus’ voice. Angus is still here. Kravitz’s face, almost out of Taako’s blurred sight, with his arm around Lup because Kravitz is still here too. He was always here. This whole time, he was here and Taako somehow wasn’t with him.

But now Taako is afraid. Is everybody here?

“Pretty much, yeah,” Lup rallies but her words shake. The wind is blowing her tears back across her cheeks. “The whole crew, plus the boss-man, Sweet Flips, Avi and Ren and even that Miller guy.”

Taako counts and that’s thirteen people.

“And me, sir!” Fourteen then. That’s fourteen people on board, and it’s the Starblaster to boot.

Taako’s fear increases. He’s aware now of how the ship keeps banking, how fast she’s cutting through the air. There’s rain slicking the deck. There’s lightning.

Not safe to be on deck when there’s lightning. Security officer should know that.

“He’s calling you out, Mags!”

Where is the dragon?

“Oh yeah!?” Magnus. “Well when we get out of this I’ll give him something to really complain about!” If Magnus Fucking Burnsides puts the Philosopher’s Taako in his mouth he’s going to cast disintegrate.

But where is the dragon?

The ship banks hard enough that even Lup struggles for balance. Taako falls back and bounces harmlessly on Angus’ chest.

Where is Patrice!?

“B-behind us, Sir!”

Show him.

“They- they’re enthralled by the grand relics!” Angus explains this as he hurries along the deck, slipping in the wind and rain as he moves to the back of the ship. Something calls the others, like Lup, to the bridge instead.

Magnus is at the back of the Starblaster by the bond engine’s spinning ring. Killian is with him, complaining that she’s low on ammo as they both glare through the ring into the churning black storm around the ship.

Then comes a flash of lightning and Taako can’t scream, but the dragon is scarcely a hundred meters back, wings down, shoulders rising, rain in sheets down the Keeper’s body. Then back into darkness.

Taako can still see those enthralled green eyes as a dragon screams at the storm, keeping pace with the ship even when the bond engine changes gears and they swerve off into the wind. The ground gained is ground swiftly lost again.

“Angus!” Kravitz’s voice, “bring him back inside!”

“He told me to show him!” Angus protests. He moves like Kravitz is trying to pull him away to safety. “He has a plan!”

A plan? Egh- nothing so concrete, little man, but... Angus?

“Yessir?”

Destroy the Relics.

“Uhhh...”

Destroy them. Break them and break the thrall all in one sweet go. There’s no Light of Creation left in them so have at it. Look, Lucretia’s staff is crumbling anyways!

“Angus, this staff is what’s keeping us in on piece!” Excuse you, Magpie, it’s Taako’s plan, not Ango’s.

And, solution? Get Lucretia. Go get their shield and abjuration specialist to come out here and pull her weight for once.

“...He’s being rude about the Director again, but says she can protect the engine without the staff.” Spare not the sick burns, Agnes!

“Killian, go get Lucretia!” Killian goes, and Taako repeats himself through Angus: destroy the relics.

There’s a beat in the maelstrom, and then a blast of radiant light. It makes Angus jump and hide against Kravitz, blinding Taako between them. When he can see again it’s just in time to watch the broken pieces of the Oculus Lens pass through the ring of the bond engine. The effect is immediate:

Every bond, every connection, every fatal attraction the deadly glass has ever strangled another living being with gathers like threads on a spinning loom. When the lens blasts out, the Starblaster kicks forward with an incredible roar of power.

Somewhere in the howling black madness of the storm, the dragon screams and their wings buckle. It’s brief, but so important.

Patrice roars back into pursuit. The dragon rises through the clouds to sink a bite into the ships silver sails- but Lucretia stops it.  She’s on deck with her hands raised to halt the dragon, and Lup aims a livid red fireball right at Patrice’s wing.

“Someone get my god-damned glove up here!” She shouts, and Lucretia is already undoing the Gaia Sash wrapped around her waist.

“Merle!” Magnus shouts into his stone of Far Speech. “We need the chalice, now!” And then with both hands on the brittle staff, Magnus snaps the bulwark over his knee. The gust of hot wind doesn’t stop him from hurling both pieces through the ring, and there’s an agonized shriek from somewhere high above them in the storm.

Two down, five to go.

“Not my bell! Boss! C’mon, not my-”

Finally.” Kravitz is definitely too eager to stomp the animus Bell Flat under his heel. He grinds down on it until the clapper and handle come apart.

The plan is not quick to make its way down to Merle and Davenport, but the bursting energy from each relic does show up on the ship’s scanners, and the shrill cries of the thwarted dragon are enough to get Avi sitting up in a sick daze.

“Wh- what are you doing?”

“Since you’re up, give ol’ Merle a hand with this.” So it’s with Avi and Lucas’ unwilling help that Smoosher dents the mouth of the chalice, then smacks its foot sideways, and a third blow makes the metal crumple and tear. It’s not quite destroyed before he picks up the damaged relic and books it to the engine deck.

Lup and Lucretia have both ends of the Gaia Sash pulled tight, and Carey’s knives shred the enchanted weave to flaming ribbons. Merle’s sash slithers through the ring and the speed sustained by the engine is what protects them from what the sky unleashes next.

Taako doesn’t know why the black maelstrom suddenly erupts with daylight radiance. He didn’t see, didn’t listen, didn’t understand what Angus meant when he said that the moon was falling. It’s Magnus and Carey yelling it before the others dive and duck for cover that explains it to him.

Several thousand tonnes of magical engineering slams into the Isle of Roswyth. It’s a cascade of shrapnel and fire that blows back and boils the sea. The plateau of minerals melts and the fields and orchards and gardens are blistered out of existence. The mountain protecting a millennium’s worth of treasure shatters, welcoming a torrent of fire and force down to obliterate every page, panel, chest and trove of the great dragon’s collection.

The tree of amulets and its ornaments disintegrate, the mirror that taunted Taako blackens, burns, and turns to smouldering dust and melted iron. The water of the baths boils and bursts back through the pipes as steam, cracking stone and permitting fires of skyfallen force to strip and claw and rend the isle to pieces. Every winding passage and misdirecting corner breaths one last hollow gasp before the inferno descends.

The Starblaster can’t outrun the light, but Avi and Davenport together and screaming can steer her silver sails to keel the vessel flying. They’re braced and terrified, but ride along the devastating wall of displaced air that erupts from the impact. She shakes and she’s burned by the flare but she flies. She flies, and they survive.

But so does Patrice, stunned in a snapshot of incandescent pain, so small against the calamatous explosion, but alive. The faint hope that this might be over dies with the outraged scream of the beast.

Angus… So Taako needs…. The ship stabilizes and Magnus’ Railsplitter chops the fingers from Lup’s gauntlet, rending it like a fat lobster tail for the stressed engine.

Angus, hand me to Kravitz. Just for a moment. Just for one stupid, sorry moment. There are a lot of things Taako’s prepared for right now, but leaving this unsaid any longer is not one of them. His timing is impeccable: it’s right now when there’s just barely enough time for Angus to take off the amulet and make the hand-off.

So there’s no savouring the understanding that he’s passed to Kravitz, it just happens and Taako just asks for Kravitz to shift to the Ethereal Plane. His timing is, again, absolutely amazing, but Death keeps that fact to himself and makes the jump.

The storm gets put on mute. The wind takes a ten minute break.

It’s not quite like being real again. It’s not even enough like it was that first time with Angus. But the roar of the engine muffles down to nearly nothing and everything else is uneven and greyscale along the edges. Taako most of all.

The Amulet is in Kravitz’s hands and they can both see the wispy threads of something streaming out from between the Grim Reaper’s skeletal fingers. He’s still forming, but the bones and the robe come first. Taako is caught up in the detail of the threads because he is absolutely looking at them, which means he’s viewing them from a point that isn’t anchored to the amulet itself. He’s apart from it, apart from himself. Just for these few sweet moments, he’s free.

“Taako-?”

Those threads though- they’re like a soul cord, colourless and faint, but not strong enough to be the tether from the Display. It’s a rope blown apart into dozens of strands, an undeniable realness to them as they snap and flag around in the dead air. But they’re real. They’re really real, and they’re coming from the amulet so that must mean they’re Taako’s, right? But he doesn’t feel real. Not as real as they are. He just feels sick. Sick and dizzy and… not here.

“Taako! You- can you hear me?” Yeah, of course he can. He’s just not here. Not all here anyways. He’s not where enough of those threads lead. They’re just snapping in the wind like torn flags, their ends vanishing like candle smoke and leaving him only half here.

He has a reason for being here, for trying to be here, but boy howdy it’s a trip trying to remember any of that right now. He hasn’t been dizzy in a long time. He hasn’t felt sick. He should relish this, he should-

“Taako!” There’s a stricken, shaking look in Kravitz’s eyes. He always gives himself such dark red eyes, all velvet warm and safe. His hair is fully formed and twisted, his presence pulling together like a neat package under a sharp black suit and no more stupid pastel palette. Taako should comment on that: one more pastel goth joke just to- hah, he can’t?

He should laugh, or smile, but it’s hard: he’s not as real as his angel. Without a physical form he’s even less together. He’s missing. He’s just missing. He looks down at himself, tries to become aware of himself again, and it’s not working.

On the Ethereal plane Taako can be elf-shaped again, and he makes a good attempt. There’s just not enough of him left to get it right. He’s not all here. Trying to focus and keep it all together- keep himself together, is…

He remembers a warm bed and a knee bleeding gold smoke and something something magic yadda yadda form. He remembers the reverent touches and the familiar voice, bloodshot tired eyes and his own stupendously lousy behaviour.

Focus. Please, he just has to focus.

In this place and at this moment, Taako doesn’t need to stand to be vertical. He gave up the ability to stand when he tried to kill Patrice on his own. He doesn’t have that part of his belly because he needed the shield that saved Angus’ life. The philosopher’s stone is what took the most out of him. Stupid risk, bad pay-off: he’s not stronger, not after how the sand crumbled under the numbers and the panic jumbled his math.

“Taako-” Kravitz is close to him, very close, but not touching him. Of course Kravitz wouldn’t touch him after what they’ve already been through. Taako really has to remember why they’re here, because he knows they can’t stay. “Taako, what’ve they done to you? Please say something, I know you’re struggling but- why did you want to come here?” Why indeed. He’s lucid as shit but actually getting the rest of it together is… hard.

The bond engine behind Kravitz is still spinning, the storm is still raging. Time, boy, he’s only got so much time. But that ring reminds him of that shitty Wonderland wheel, so he calls to mind the symbols and then he chooses Eye. Taako’s fine without an eye because as long as he keeps the spare then he can still see Kravitz. He needs his mouth too. He has to tell him now, not later, not never: right now.

“Do you remember that first night,” Words feel weird, but they feel like more than what the amulet can produce. He just has to tell Kravitz and that means ignoring all of his angel’s dumb baby babble about Taako looking like a broken patchwork doll. “In the dining room? Do you remember it?” He needs to remember because Taako needs to tell him.

“I remember,” Kravitz has wide eyes and his hands curled close together, trying to stop himself from touching. That was Taako’s biggest fear and he’s remembering it now, sensible and heartbroken: no touching. “But darling, please-?” He has to tell him.

“That was a test.” Kravitz freezes.

“Excuse me?” He’s staring, too shocked to be hurt yet.

“It was a test,” Taako repeats. Is he smiling? He hopes he is. He hopes it’s one of his stupid scared and fake smiles. He hopes that- “And I failed it pretty spectacularly, didn’t I?”

Kravitz’s gaze searches him and there ought to be plenty there: Taako’s fear, his exhaustion, his mistakes. He’s cracked so badly his foundation is flaking off.

Because he should have known. He should have known and he should have tested and verified and then believed his own results- but he hadn’t. So now Taako just has to say it:

“I said some shit since than that hurt you pretty badly too, right?” It’s not quite a question. He knows he did. He knows what he said and how many times it came up. And more than that, Taako knows: “Kravitz, I’m sorry.”

Just- the way that Krav’s whole body shakes before his shoulders drop. It’s some real moving and touching and emotionally riveting emotion he’s got going on now. There’s this liquid shine to his eyes because being on the Ethereal plane when you belong to the Astral is basically a big metaphysical fuck you to how bodies operate, so Krav gets to cry a little on a plane where Taako doesn’t even wholly exist. The tears don’t fall, but they’re there and they’re beautif- shh, no, he doesn’t have time to fall into this. They don’t have the time. There will be time after. There will be eons of it.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Mm. no. Krav takes what counts as Taako’s hands and that feels good. It feels at all. “You had every reason-”

“Pause.” No, shh. Babe, don’t ruin this. “Man up, Angel Cake, I love you.” Can Taako cry on this plane the way Kravitz can? He can’t, but he can feel. He might not be real but his emotions sure as fuck are, and that’s probably because feelings are the only thing left of him. And he’s feeling this, right now, he’s feeling this more than anything else around him. What count for his hands turn and hold onto Kravitz’s, they even squeeze a little, because Taako has to finish what he has to say, and then they have to get out of here.

“And if I love you this much, Krav, then I don’t get a free pass when I hurt you.” Tick-tock, tick-tock, rampaging dragon on the Prime Material plane. Friends and family in imminent mortal danger. “And I hurt you. Intentionally, deliberately. I was trying to scare you away.” Because maybe it was him but maybe it hadn’t been. And it hadn’t been the dragon but what if Taako had been wrong?  Wrong again. Wrong over and over again. “So I’m sorry, because I did you wrong and your wizard doesn’t flip that way.”

He’ll say it as many times as he can before this is over, and he’s allowed to be forgiven but it has to be forgiveness and not absolution. Just because he’s sorry doesn’t mean the hurt never happened. He doesn’t get to act like he never said the things he did, or that he hadn’t been trying to hurt Kravitz with them.

To push him away. To order him around. To second and triple guess him when he spoke. To dismiss and be sharp with him. To almost get that intimacy back and then to his face call him a monster’s mask. It had been safer that way but selfish. And wrong. And it had hurt him.

He hurt him. Taako hurt him. Taako hurt-

“I know why you did it, Taako.” Because it had been safer for him. “It’s not your fault-” The circumstances? No. But his actions? Hell yes.

“Yeah, I know why I did it too,” he says, time running away between them. Tick-tock. “And I still know it was wrong. Just like how I know I’m sorry for it, and I know-” that they’re running out of time here.

“I know- I know that it doesn’t matter how good the reasons are or how justified something is, Kravitz: I never want hurting you to be okay.” He might still do it but he won’t… let it be okay. It’s never going to be okay when Kravitz gets hurt because of something Taako says, or means, or does.

That’s what he had to say and it’s said now. It’s finally said now. There’s relief in getting something right for once, even if it has Kravitz staring at him in misty-eyed confusion.

Tick-tock, buddy, they gotta go.

“Apology accepted,” Kravitz finally says, his voice thick and eyes watering. Don’t be like that, babe. “What happens now?”

Oh.

“Can you trust Angus?” Big moment. Big question.

“I think so.” Thank you. “Why?”

“Can you trust me?” Bigger moment. Harder question.

“Yes.” Thank you. It brings an ethereal tear to Taako’s eye.

But this spell is fraying. They’re fading. They’re not going to stay here much longer and the amulet around Kravitz’s wrist dangles like a sick promise. Kravitz’s hands are just cold enough.

“Taako?”

“Kiss me first, before I-”

Taako’s not real enough, but Kravitz is. He’s got real hands and real lips and real breaths that pull and blow back on Taako. And for that final moment Taako gets to feel the bond between him and his angel anchor and hold tight. Kravitz is here. He’s here and he’s real, and Taako can touch back, kiss back. Breathe deep and hold on because Kravitz is here, he’s here, he’s real and they-

-go back.

And the wind is cutting harsh and cold enough that Taako dangles and swings dangerously from the cord around Kravitz’s wrist. The Starblaster is keeling again and the Reaper slips on the rain-slick deck. There are voices and shadows and the harsh light of the engine ring.

Taako is cupped in two hands and he hears Kravitz telling Angus that he trusts him. That he trusts both of them. There’s no way for Taako to express what that means but he knows his heart, metaphorically, grows half a size just hearing it. He asked for trust and he got it.

He needs everyone but Angus to move back, and he needs to know where they’re currently going. Where is the Captain taking them if they still aren’t out of the storm?

“We’re going to finish this, aren’t we?” Lucretia asks, and when Taako is able to see her in the next lightning flash, he also sees high over her to the telltale wax mildewing the Starblaster’s lesser sail. A direct hit from Patrice’s belching breath.

“We’re circling the island,” Magnus tells him. Sure, Angus knows, but it’s nice to be talked to by the others. “Or what’s left of it. Cap’n’port’s keeping us about a half-mile away from it so we don’t drag an angry dragon back to Neverwinter.” Fair point. Fair point indeed.

“So, what now?” Carey asks, and then looks at Angus and Taako in a way that’s not very comforting. Angus is quick to snatch his hand shut around Taako, blinding him, but also bringing back the hum of pain through his mangled form from the second stone protruding from him.

“We’re not destroying Taako!” Uh- well duh? Of course not? But now that Taako’s back from his heart to heart with that love of his life person he needs the rest of these assholes to chill.

Six relics are down, dunk. It leaves the thrall at one-seventh it’s original strength, which should be one-half it’s original potency when the Light of Fuck You was still involved. Which it’s not. Win for IPRE.

Undunk, destroying those six did a big gut punch to their bond engine, which is making some very bad noises that Taako’s engineering ears are none to pleased about. Or at least they would be, if he had ears. It’s not delicate or irreparable, but also not a good idea to go smashing the poor thing either.

Seven though. That’s an important number.

The cluster wasn’t built on sixes. It absolutely had the hex numerology going on but it was the number Six’s element of containment plus the unity and control of One. Six walls, yeah, but seven rooms. Six corners to anchor positive and negative space. Twelve interior doors, plus the kitchen exit, plus the balcony: fourteen, not a six. Eighteen exterior walls, except not: three open sides plus three walls that made up the back of the dining room but were open to negative space and therefore exterior: twenty-one.

Seven birds in three collections: Relics, Memorabilia, and the crew themselves. Twenty-one.

Seven chairs at the dining room table.

Seven mountains inside the display.

Room for Kravitz because six birds in the display and Davenport on the island left room for the seventh figure.

Ninety-one days between Taako’s capture and being inserted into the display: ninety-one divided by thirteen is seven. Two-thousand one hundred and eighty-four hours in captivity before being put in display, divided by three hundred and twelve? Seven.

Seven that son of a bitch trapped him using seven.

“Sir?” The math is passing all those numbers around like bad hors d'oeuvres at a party. Two and three for six and one for seven and a modified eight for Kravitz who is also one of three reapers. “Taako?”

He needs the others to get away from the engine, for real this time. And he needs Angus to graph out the numbers with a ray of light from his wand. But he doesn’t slow his own thoughts down, and he retreats behind the numbers to think. To puzzle. There has to be something he can do with this and he watches the engine ring spin and spin and spin with the numbers.

Kravitz trusts Angus and Kravitz trusts Taako. He can’t let him down again.

Two, six, three, seven, eight, one.

Twenty-seven? Too big.

Patrice ruined six. Fuck Patrice.

Four’s a bust. No.

Two thousand sixteen is extremely wrong.

One is boring.

“Why did you fuse with your relic exactly, sir?”

Botched plan. He’d hoped to assume the relic’s power and transmutate himself into some kind of construct: crystal or- wait.

“If we had the materials, couldn’t you still do that?” Wait.

The spinning engine is a giant wheel of sacrifice. The midnight clouds are the black and white circus tent of Wonderland. Taako watches the engine and the numbers until the great Patrician Pain in his ass surges down into view, captured by the flashes of lightning and the glow of the ring, green eyes livid as a golden cloud gathers at the base of their long throat. Without Killian’s bow or the others’ spells, an attack from this position will overwhelm the ship.

Fourteen.

Angus, Kravitz, Ren, Lucas, Carey, Killian, Avi.

Lup, Magnus, Merle, Barry, Davenport, Lucretia.

Taako.

Fuck Patrice, the number he needs is fourteen: the cursed seven times two, you stupid hack.

Angus, do you trust me? And the wheel spins, and it spins, and it spins. It’s all a game and it’s one that Taako can win this time. He’s gonna win this time. No board game. No chess pieces. But no luck either: this is his wheel and his house with his family, and the house always wins.

“Uh-”

Do you trust me?

“I- yes, sir. Of course I do.” Good.

Kravitz chose Trust.

Angus chose Trust.

Trust me, Angus.

It hurts, casting a spell without Angus’ consent: the numbers spin and they converge and they strike down at the boy. They don’t hurt him, they just stun and they lock and suddenly Taako has control. He feels Angus’s alarm and confusion but he repeats himself: Trust me, Angus.

The resistance fades. Taako takes the amulet’s cord off from around the boy’s neck. It’s like controlling a puppet, clumsy and out of touch, but it works.

This is going to work. He takes Angus’ wand and holds it in the same clutched hand as the amulet. The ribbons of power already threading off the Philosopher’s Stone tell him this will work. They chew and they burn and they make his power waver and struggle to keep focus, but this is going to work.

This is how you win:

“I’m sorry.”

Taako chooses Forsake, and he hurls the wand and himself through the Bond Engine at the dragon.


As soon as the amulet leaves his hand the thrall on Angus snaps. And he knows what just happened. And he screams.

As soon as Angus pulls his arm back, Lup knows something is wrong. Her panicked mage hand grabs the wand instead of the stone carrying her brother’s soul.

Kravitz sees it happen and he understands. He just- doesn’t understand.

Patrice’s body recoils and the breath attack splutters, wings buckling from the final break in the thrall. Their claws grasp at the buffeting wind, tail lashing wildly trying to find a way to drop and escape. The dragon does not escape.

And Taako?

He takes every bond, from every world, with every person who has ever known him. That’s a lot of people. He takes those bonds, those ribbons of reality and energy, and he takes every chain, every lash, every noose around the neck of every soul to ever touch the Philosopher’s Stone and suffer from it, and he pours that into the messy seam between amulet and river rock.

And he has the math, he has the know-how, he has the energy, that raw and unparalleled arcane force, that when the Philosopher’s stone explodes in a shower of super-heated spite, Taako has those bonds tethered deep to the rest of him and shoots like a star across the sky.

The ether ripples and condenses: it’s just raw energy, raw positive power, the building blocks the Light of Creation was meant to manipulate like clay. So when the amulet ruptures Taako is still Taako, or at least he’s Taako enough that his spirit and the brilliant energy chaining and pulsing around his barely-there form can aim and deliver the sickest burn in history:

“Take a drag on this, Patrice!”

Collision, contact, that’s all he needs: seven times fourteen? Ninety-eight points of contact between the shards of the Philosopher Stone and the shocked and reeling dragon. Ninety-eight times fourteen? One thousand three hundred and seventy-two points of contact between obliterated Taak-ulet and bloodied copper hide.

Two ghostly radiant palms with ten gouging fingers and two couture boots for fourteen marks to anchor.

One thousand four hundred eighty-four chances to transmute living hide and flesh and blood and bone into the only substance irony allows. Odds of success? One hundred and fucking forty.

He takes the throat first and the crackle of pink tourmaline spikes through the wind. The left wing is petrified mid-flap and nearly shatters. The dragon’s remaining eye blinks blood and tears and crystal before solidifying, and the dust inhaled plugs up the glands for fire and alchemy.

They fall, they spin, tumbling over and over in the storm as the transformation takes over, a chain reaction whose catalyst is spite and the most brilliant mind in one hundred worlds.

You won’t have them! You won’t take them! You’ll never come near my family again because I am never letting you out!

I warned you! I fucking warned you, Patrice!

And anchors. Chains. Bonds. Energy that hurts and rips, power that is unsustainable but heady. He won’t let go and he won’t lose.

The amulet dust becomes tourmaline. The dragon’s flesh and blood and bones become tourmaline. The roots of the crystal dig and spread, they seal the nostrils and lungs and throat, coat the tongue and pierce the teeth. He takes Patrice’s heart and he stops it cold.

He takes Patrice’s mind and he builds the walls, the windows, the floors. He converts positive and negative, shuffles them like cards and then jams them into the lock on the only door.

A giant crystal dragon crashes into the black waters of the Wakeless Sea. Bubbles surge and foam up from the ragged edges. Two heartbeats fighting wildly out of sync are drowned by the darkness and rage of the storm. They sink, quickly, and vanish. Everything gets quiet, and cold, and dark.

Taako chose Forsake.

But he took Patrice down with him.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Taako!” 

Lup doesn’t hesitate or care. As soon as the dragon starts to fall she takes a flying leap over the Starblaster’s rail and plummets after them through the black sky.

Nothing else matters.


 

They open their eyes to chaos. Visually, there’s just nothing to focus on. Colourless, lightless arrays of energy that swim and scatter and collide formlessly, that’s all they can almost register. Aurally, it’s just the same. A voiceless mess of sensations and particles colliding. There is nothing to interpret, to feel, to be. Not yet.

To overcome this, to make real again from nothing, they have to go back further to something infallible: to a truth held in a still-beating heart.

My name is Roswyth, Keeper of Ten Thousand Wonders.

They are Roswyth, Keeper of Ten Thousand Wonders.

My life has spanned the length and breadth of mortal empires. I am ancient among my kin.

Their eyes have witnessed events lost to history. Their heart is a home to tales untold. Whatever path has brought them here, they will certainly reverse and-

FUCK YOU, PATRICE!

The voice is jarring. The anger a thunderbolt that strikes the spine and erupts from the chest with fury and pain.

Roswyth falls and the chaos swallows them.


 

Lup follows the writhing and screaming of the beast, but when the monster crashes into the sea the roiling waves bash and slow her. It’s paralyzingly cold, her flames doused for the painful few moments it takes her to concentrate and shift away from her corporeal form. Water is nothing like the slow slough through stone, and Lup jettisons down into the churning darkness.

She’s not losing Taako again. She absolutely will not let him go. He’s her brother, her anchor, her heart- and she refuses to lose him again now!

But the currents are quick and wild. The rolling water scours away the dragon’s wake and she just can’t follow it. So she dives.

He’s here. He has to be here. The pressure is suffocating and the water murky- this is a sea that barely gets a breeze and now it’s hosting a titanic explosion and a conjured maelstrom. The silt and debris of the stagnant sea is overpowering.

When Lup reaches the bottom with its billowing sands and sharp slabs of dead rock, the dragon is not there.

Something in her breaks, and it hurts. It shatters into stinging pains and poisoned barbs. The sound she makes is hellish, it ripples across the dark sea bed and it changes nothing.

She won’t go back without him. Lup won’t move on without her brother. Her feet leave the ash grey sand and she searches, howling for him.

She’ll find him if she has to scour every nautical mile from here to Neverwinter. She’ll find him.

She’ll find him.


 

YOU’RE GONNA SUFFER FOR WHAT YOU’VE DONE

The voice is in control here. That voice possesses a will that lashes out against their’s and scatters the chaos. Space and direction explode in a great darkness. This will bellows at them to fall, to plummet in spinning terror through the nothing- and this is what happens. For far too long, this is their reality. It takes too much effort for Roswyth opens their wings but when they do they catch the turbulent winds. They descend, but slower. They cannot glide in this maelstrom, but they try.

The darkness rolls and thunders. There’s a sharp wind that tries to rip and claw at their scales and hide- it argues that they are wounded, maimed, and unable to keep up this fight.

Roswyth controls the fall, but the voice bites and cuts with fury that won’t be denied. They try to remember what brought them here. The storm is a memory, but of what? They are hardly so brash as to cast themselves into a great squall. Besides, the tranquil seas surrounding their island home-

SHUT UP

Light erupts in the storm. Greater than lightning and brilliant as the sun, it consumes everything near and far from it. One cannot simply glide abreast with such a cataclysm- Roswyth’s wings curl and their tail coils up. They are shocked, certainly, confusion underpinned with fear, and against the onslaught of fire and raw power they are small.

THAT’S WHAT I THINK OF YOUR FUCKING ISLAND

What? Wh- why? The island- the gardens, their collections and treasures-! Why? What purpose could be fulfilled by-?

BECAUSE FUCK YOU, THAT’S WHY

This is familiar? The cadence and the anger. The eruption fades and the voice is amusing in its furor and- amusing? Amusing? No. They need to know why this is happening and not-

Why is this happening? Why, as the light retreats and the black rain continues to spew down, does Roswyth see a vessel unlike any other, adrift and silver in the stormy sky? Do they know what’s happening? Will they have answers for this? For any of it, because Roswyth lacks the reason and direction necessary to escape from this.

But that vessel, that ship- no. It can’t be- but it is! The ship from the song, the story and song of all those other worlds and the Seven Birds who heralded the fight against the Hunger that nearly destroyed all of them.

They see the Starblaster and they remember.

They remember the Hunger to hear every piece of the story.

The Hunger to own every relic crafted to make it work.

The Hunger- oh sweet fate and all it’s secrets. The Hunger that found it’s way into Roswyth’s very soul.

Roswyth plummets into icy waters. It hurts but not as much as it ought to. Not as much as the memories now justify. The fall is familiar because it’s already happened. The ocean is cold because that was the last thing they felt between waking up from the thrall and succumbing to the Grand Wizard’s spell.

‘What have I done?’ It’s paralyzing, this combination of the truth and reality.

EVERYTHING.

The outrage screams through them like the ice that collects and cracks between loose scales, clutching around Roswyth’s body as they kick and flail, looking for the current’s strength so they can gather themselves and swim against it. But that voice, that familiar, familiar voice.

YOU SHAT THE BED WHEN YOU WENT AFTER THEM, PATRICE.

Taako’s voice.

AND NOW YOU FINALLY GET TO LAY IN IT.

The shock redoubles, but there’s no voice Roswyth can raise to counter the accusation. They’re not swimming, they’re sinking, falling again in a vortex of spiralling anger. Thrashing won’t release them, but they thrash. Claws snap and wings are pulled in painful contortions by the water. There are no waves, no surface, no air, only the darkness and the cold and the memories that come flickering back through the latent hysteria.

They remember now and as they struggle they remember more. They remember everything they need to know that the Wizard’s rage is no one’s fault but their own.

Because Roswyth remembers Davenport and an idea. They remember that idle sigh of what it would be like to have all Seven Birds together on their island along with their gathered relics. It had been a simple idea, an innocuous consideration.

Not literal. Not like this. It was never meant to be a real idea- how could it be? Never a plan, not something to be put in motion. But isn’t that what they did?

Inhibition, sense, consideration, simple decency, did the thrall of the Grand Relics really do away with all of that? The hunger was so deep, so painfully unfulfilled. A song that repeated over and over again without respite until they were flying home again with two of the Starblaster’s crew already with them.

The thrill of the design had compelled a test- but why? Why? Such theories should have been satisfying enough without the need to- the intent of- what? Deception? Mockery? Lies? If Roswyth had needed so desperately to prove mastery over traps and prisons then such proud designs ought have been shared. Boasts, challenges, wagers: these are the currencies of dragons and heroes. Fascinating scenarios, tested between great minds. Games, tricks, novelties, over food and drink and accompanied by laughter and music in a gallery of art and history. Davenport’s thrilling stories mingled with the friendly and invited company of his family.

Not like this. Roswyth never wanted this.

The ocean drags and tears the dragon down until Roswyth is, indeed, falling once more. They spiral and drop without the presence of mind to stop themselves.

They crash and it hurts, as it should, and the darkness ripples outward with powdery silver sand. The black sky is domed over a midnight sea, the air is dry and cold and cutting. The contrasts burn the eye because there is no colour, only harsh gradients of black and white. Stars puncture the sky at equal points, less like a sky and more spikes driving down the edges of a great tent. Their reflections are static on the choppy surface of the black sea.

Roswyth does not take a humanoid form, but their scaled and serpentine body is small, far smaller than it ought to be. This suits them now however because the sand bank holding them is only so large, and in this realm they are pitifully exposed. There are times for pride and grandeur and this is not one of them.

They remember now, and this is why they know that they were injured in the battle that brought them here. The memory comes with shame, not for their broken horn or punctured eye or mangled scales, but for all the points and opportunities in that terrible clash where they could have simply stopped.

It didn’t have to be as bad as it was. None of it had to end this way, had but Roswyth themselves been in control and able to see what is so painfully obvious now: that they had no right to act as they did, to agress as they did, to demand and conceit and attack, attack, attack. Heroes of a hundred worlds and here the great Wyrm rests, breaths heaving and pains multiplying, because there is no balm for this guilt.

So they do not posture on this sandy plane. They do not growl or rise up on hind legs, wings spread and noble.  This is a shame Roswyth provoked and invited down upon themselves. Their dignity is squandered, and this shame is deserved.

Just to make all clear between them, all Roswyth has to do is gaze upon the other spirit anchored here in the monochrome and understand this stain upon all other accomplishments.

Roswyth did not tear apart Taako’s soul, but they are innocent only of the act itself. It was they who provoked the maiming strikes, they who engineered the trap and all its fixtures and the claws which Taako caught and tore himself upon. Theirs is a false absolution: it does not matter who made the cuts if it was Roswyth who sharpened the blades.

Taako, or what’s left of Taako, is here. The light stains him, the shadows greedy and devouring too much of the Wizard. There is rage gnashing his broken teeth, and a deep despair that the quiet sea around them can’t sooth.

YOU DID THIS!

Of course the Wizard is not afraid of them, not here. This is his pocket of reality now.

YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!

They did. And that’s why they don’t answer him. Roswyth foldes their wings and rests on all fours, belly low to the sand. They turn their face away but their good copper eye can still see Taako. This is deference, not pride.

With a low rumble in their chest, the dragon speaks:

I am myself again,”

I DON’T GIVE A SHIT.

That reaction is no surprise, and is fully called for.

YOU DID THIS-

Taako repeats and the image of him flickers. The image’s mouth doesn’t move, no part of it moves. He is entirely too fragile for motion.

AND I DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT ANY HALF-BIT THRALL- IT WAS YOU! EVERY TAUNT, YOUR FUCKING TRAPS, THOSE LETTERS-! IT WAS ALL YOU AND YOU’RE GONNA FUCKING SUFFER FOR IT

Taako gives them no room to agree or to argue. Fire falls down over Roswyth and it is entirely too hot, powered by fury that ignores any other rule of magic. They recoil, claws sinking into the sand and wings spread as skin hisses and pops from the searing rain.

The sand, of course, sucks deep and holds them fast in place. There is no running or slithering away on their belly like a worm. Roswyth simply has to take it, to burn and to hurt.

“This rage-” but they speak, because even the shock and reaction to the pain isn’t enough to stop their voice. “-is your due.”

THEN DIE

 No.

“I am myself again-” and they know what they’ve done. “I own my foul actions- and condemn them!” But there is a mortal limit to this guilt: to suffer and be humiliated is a just practice, but not to die. They have lived a life too long and too full to surrender it on account of one terrible string of mistakes. They may deserve scars and retributions for their heinous actions, but there is a limit, an edge to vengeance even when it is justified, and death is a concession the dragon will not make.

The fire abates but the petrified sand erupts with thick black grasping arms of shadow. They are lost and wild things in the negative space of this plane, and hurt where they twist and contort around Roswyth’s throat, torso, and wings.

But the dragon will not die, no. Their claws are lost in the sand and their jaw can’t quite twist to snap at the tendril wrapping jagged and violent around their throat, but they won’t die from this. This is a demiplane and the form Roswyth holds is but a projection of their real self: they will not die!

THAT’S WHAT YOU THINK

Nay- it is truth! This place is not a place, it is a stark illusion: hastily pinned in place by the stars tacked to sky and sea. Borne of raw power and intellect, yes, and impressive for its comparative strength and speed of completion, but hardly a master’s work! This place barely exists. Its hide is thin and the bones are weak.

“Vengeance is owed- but will restore nothing!” Because that’s all this place is: nothing.

SHUT UP

A surge of shredding, bladed wind howls down over them and Roswyth feels scales peel and tear off. Their wing elbows find the sand to keep the membranes from ripping under the assault. They endure this punishment and do not break free. They don’t fight back,  they don’t test their prison or its Warden.

DON’T ACT LIKE YOU’VE GOT A CHOICE IN THIS

But they do, even if Taako won’t realize it. With all of the magic running wildly under his control, perhaps he can’t.

THIS WAS ALL SOME SICK GAME TO YOU BUT IT’S FINALLY OVER

WE FOLLOW MY RULES NOW

His rage is rooted in pain and justified by suffering, but that hardly makes the situation better. Now isn’t the time to reason with him but with the fragile rules of reality snapping around them like curtains in the wind, there may not be a later.

“I’m sorry for what-”

I DON’T CARE

No, that’s expected, but it still needed to be said and it will still need to be said many, many more times.

“I am so sorry-” Futile acts spark futile rebuttals and suddenly, almost instantly, Roswyth is falling again.

They flail, spin, one wing catches the wrong gust of wind and the dragon is spinning out of control. The sharp rain falls like knives on torn flesh and exposed skin. The maelstrom screams and Roswyth with it, seams in the dark sky pulling dangerously tight and leaking the sharp, static light of the Neverwhere.

Neverwhere is the nothing between everything, the absence of energy and thus the incomprehensible nothing. It is not where souls go when they die, it is not where evil lurks, or the divine rests. It is oblivion and it is very, very close to this dimension of spun glass and anger.

The storm ignites in the cataclysmic explosion that destroyed Roswyth’s home, and they can’t curl into a ball this time as the tumble like a kitten in the deep water waiting to swallow them.

Futility, panic, fear? Something forces them to surrender their true form and hide away behind soft, wingless flesh and tangled hair. Hands will help them fly no more than their wings could provide and Roswyth plummets, a burning in their skin and watering their blind eyes as the dredges of the thrall are stripped away like paint under a toxic wash.

They hit the water, a pebble lost in the roaring waves, but the current takes them by the ankle and rips them down. Down, deep, crushed and hurting. Bubbles flee their mouth with a metallic taste and the restraining cold paralyzes kicks and screams. Down, in the dark, to drown again just like they were burned again, just like they fell again.

When the ocean lets go it throws them down hard onto barren rock and Roswyth has to lay there, shaking, until they can breathe again. There’s a terrible buzzing clawing through their mind and they clutch their head with both hands, hair in sopping tangles, until the pain of Taako’s rough and callous touch abates.

The sky is still black, the terrain still harsh and grey, the stars remain in their artificial alignment that projects them even through the stone pillars and rifts of this new stage.

The island is gone. This is a moon-bathed canyon scratched and chiseled from Roswyth’s memories. They recognize it, but not the reason why Taako chose it.

Taako is not here, not manifest. But Roswyth is not alone.

In the real world the Wyvern Gulch threads deep and barren into the heart of the continent. Taako has not the time, energy, nor resources to reconstruct even a fraction of it. Roswyth took many weeks and countless props and sacrifices to construct the display with its rivers, lakes, mountains and beaches. These columns are soft and malleable- just more of the sand from the first island. When Roswyth runs their claws over the surface, the starlight and dew drops collapse and reform to give the illusion of strong stone.

Just as this death trap plays at being a prison, so the canyon pretends it winds eternal. The dragon staggers only so many yards deep into the labyrinth before they can tell that what is too far behind, ahead, or to their flanks crumbles and reforms in a small, contained circle of deception. They can feel the energy as it cycles and draws, hear the threatening crackle of the Neverwhere lurking under the veneer.

“Killing me,” they repeat, walking slowly and steadily through the illusion. They turn this way and that, ears alert, teeth set, though they will not fight Taako if he reappears. “Will not change what I did to you. And it will not change you back either! You are powerful, but working from inside the amulet will hinder your transformation back into a living being! I know the magic and techniques used better than anyone, and I-”

This is not effective. Roswyth hears the hiss of the Demiplane’s stitches straining and with a turn they dash away from a falling pillar. The sand is thick and muddy, reaching like ropes of mold and decay with the chasm of nothingness opening harsh and glaring beyond them. Taako’s rage is tearing the last of him apart, and he does himself no justice with it!

Taako!” They shout, without daring touch the next falling column as it splits and crashes down, another rift into white oblivion screaming open. Tormenting Roswyth may ease Taako’s ire but it will not balm the wounds! If he lets the Neverwhere into this demiplane, they’ll both fall right out of reality!

Roswyth runs and tucks their arms down and close. Their body changes: feathers, talons, thin bones and a darting physique. As a bird they race into the air and twist away from the rift, away from the ribbons of magic working to seal the sore back up.

They climb rapidly, uncertain where the barrier-

A bolt of crimson strikes them out of the air. It comes from nothing and Roswyth drops, paralyzed and burning, the transformation falling off like a cheap costume before they slam, smouldering, into the rocky ground again.

They hear footsteps, hobbled, clunking, but persistent.

“...Killing me...” they utter, humanoid again with sores opening on their tongue from the burning strike. They force one arm to move and prop themselves up, hurting all over and burned badly from the lightning. “...is not worth killing yourself.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“I’ve been in your head long enough to know when you’re bluffing-”

The colour is violet this time, and Roswyth is struck so hard from below that their body flips and lands hard on their back. Mouth open and ropes of their copper hair covering their face, they exhale slow and broken in the scalding pain that runs back and forth across their body.

 “I said I’d kill us both, you fucking coward.” They can’t see Taako, but he’s here. He’s everywhere.

“Why take-” They cough, to speak is to breathe ash and dispense smoke. “-why-? Accept a draw instead of a victory?” They lift one knee, sliding their foot over the ground- but it’s too much effort to sit up. They stay down, blood in their mouth and the void impenetrable around them. “Why death- over freedom?”

“You killed me.” A matter of perspective.

“I changed you,” Roswyth growls back, not in anger but just to utilize the only part of their throat that feels like it can still work. When they try to look at Taako they see only a film of red. They are bleeding, and burnt, and raw, but still alive. “And I can change you back.”

They hurt, they hurt all over, but Roswyth pulls one arm up and rolls onto their side. Their hands shake, claws broken and fingertips bleeding as they look up through the curtain of their hair at the abysmal dredges of Taako’s soul.

“And if you will not let me do it,” they continue, “Then at least accept the knowledge I have of your condition.”

“You really think you can keep anything from me in here?”

“This is no labyrinth!” Roswyth argues back, “You had not the time and you have not the power to reinforce it! It’s only a matter of time before either I break free or you lose your hold on the magic completely!”

“Lose the arrogance, Patrice.”

“Fourteen, Taako!? Really?” A number too clunky and variant for any hope of stability! Power undercut by spread, too much hazardously clustered and smattered about without time or foresight for craftsmanship! Fourteen stars in the sky and sea, twenty-eight which is divisible by so many variables he may as well have chosen to wrap Roswyth in paper and spared-

The floor shatters with twos and sevens, and Roswyth grits their sharp teeth as they pitch and plummet through the hair raising darkness.

Then comes the tearing rain. Then comes the blinding inferno. Down and down they tumble, bruised and fragile, before they slam into the frozen sea with the currents ripping at throat and arms to drag them down, down, down, into the void.

Roswyth drowns again and screams against it.


 

So the Raven Queen is like, pretty upset by basically everything that’s happened in the last twenty-something hours. Her birds and her reapers are all on edge, running and bumping into each other every time the larger-than-afterlife Goddess shifts her attention.

But Johann isn’t an idiot, y’know? And he was already watching his friends via her mirror, so he’s pretty up to speed on most of the shit hit the big whirlygig fan bolted to the back of Davenport’s boat.

Dragon: bad.

Taako’s sister: mad.

Raven Queen: sad.

Easy peasy, see? He’s got it. He’s even been dealing with a few semi-related things on this end too. That whole “serve the Queen of Life and Death so Avi doesn’t beef it” deal he made? That’s already started.

There’s a change in him. No more soul cord, and lots and lots of indescribable little nothings that all mount up to a big load of something. Who Johann is hasn’t changed, but what is now in a whole other category. He feels power coming into him that wasn’t there before. He knows things the being he was before couldn’t have understood, and the something he is now can’t quite explain.

But he’s still Johann. He’s still himself. He’s just the Minstrel of Death now- or nah. The Grim Bard? Musician Mori? He’ll figure something out. He’s not a Reaper though, Grim or otherwise. No hunting and no fighting, but he’s still gonna serve and that’s not such a bad idea. Having a purpose seems pretty dope.

If anything he has more purpose now than he did before, and this is good? Because for someone like Johann, having knowledge and purpose and no other immediate concerns means... he should go do the thing. The thing he didn’t think he knew before, but now he knows for sure, and he knows how to do it, and he’s kind of itching to try it. He wants to do this.

He feels a flutter of Her attention as he steps away from the mirror. A question without judgement reaches him from Eternity. He knows exactly what to say.

“I’m gonna go do what the Grim Reaper said.” And that’s enough for Her Deathness, so Johann leaves.

He uses this new knowledge to leave Her court, because he knows he can’t really do much of anything from inside her immediate realm. He’s got to go out and find the endless expanse of slumbering souls adrift in their rest, to see the Astral Plane in all its vacant, tranquil glory.

It leaves an odd feeling in him, and he stands there for a few minutes to puzzle on the questions. Okay cool, so he doesn’t just innately know everything, but he knows enough. He can make some educated guesses.

The mirror showed him the Starblaster, destroyed in a mid-air eruption of Dragon’s breath, but then it had shifted and Taako’s plan worked instead. Death agreed to a concession to Fate, and realigned the threads before closing the loom. Mage hand missed, the Grim Reaper had choked, and Taako exploded in a shower of desperate vengeance.

Avi, trapped aboard the Starblaster, was spared the death Johann had feared for him. But the Wizard and the Dragon had fallen screaming into the sea.

Johann heard more than he saw of that moment, and all its dissonant tones. He heard a very horrific kind of anger, of grief, and utter helplessness all shielded by a guiltless and suicidal rampage. He heard the particular resonance of the Grim Reaper’s sudden and terrible heartbreak, and his under reapers’ horror and sanity-straining disbelief. The depths of the Captain’s sorrow with the screaming guilt from Magnus, Merle’s swan-song of denial and the deep toll of loss from the little boy staring straight into the eruption.

So many hearts with their strings pulled tight enough to snap. The Lucretia’s despair, Carey’s rage, Killian’s helplessness, even Lucas’s desperate reach for sympathy and understanding. And Taako, Taako. All of this for that terrible, fading scream from Taako.

The Raven Queen’s emissary takes the violin from his back. It’s not the same one he had in life, but it’s perfectly tuned and looks sick as hell. He tests it, but then loosens the strings.

Test again, and change the tension. It needs more... bitterness? A twist here, and a different fingering hold. Not enough slack to damage the strings, but the right kind of distortion to hurt the heart without tearing out too much of the ear.

He puts the saddle back to his chin and runs the bow down. It sounds terrible. It sounds like pain.

The song is broken and distorted, each maligned note coming slow and difficult from the bow. The melody scatters like marbles dropped over a smooth floor. The song staggers, hobbles, and scrapes itself to pieces. It’s not fair, to play something so beautiful in a way that hurts this much.

Johann matches his boast and plays a mean reverie for Taako, and he lets the song lead him onto a dark and angry place, neither here nor there, not alive or dead, incomprehensible and yet oh so simple. He lets the music cry and the mourning wail lead him on so he can help the Grim Reaper known as Kravitz keep Death’s end of Fate’s deal.

No one is crossing over today.

Chapter Text

 

It takes time to find them. And it shouldn’t be such a heavy toll to pay to bring Taako back, but it is, and they pay it. They pay with these hours that blur into days that encroach upon a week and then more ticking seconds and broken minutes of aching, labouring searches.

The Starblaster’s instruments had to be rebooted, recalibrated, and retuned to this system after the rough ride from the dragon’s island. But systems management was always Taako’s primary duty. It’s been near ten years now since any of them had to manage a console, nevermind his, and the memories and know-how are difficult to put back together even for Lucretia. They manage it, but slowly, so slowly, with the ship moored on the still waters of this glassy sea.

With the end of the battle and the calming of the storm, there’s been the need to recover, to rest, to try and put everything back together. Magnus has never seen Kravitz look so weakened and pale. He has to help Lucretia walk like another ten years have been taken from her. The Reaper and the Director spend a lot of lonely, quiet hours together in one of the lower cabins because Kravitz can’t hear Taako and he doesn’t have the strength to scour the seabed looking for him the way Lup does. None of them have seen Lup directly since the storm, but they know she’s out there, searching.

Angus needs Kravitz to stay on the ship with him. The boy won’t say it, he probably doesn’t even know it, but this is what he needs and Kravitz stays. On the first day of the search Lucas suggests they play chess to pass the time, and Magnus takes the board and the pieces and hurls the lot into the still waters surrounding them. They plop and pepper the eerie stillness and vanish into the same abyss that swallowed Taako.

Lucretia thanks him. Kravitz just rubs his eyes with one hand and stays quiet, an arm around the red-eyed Angus. Lucas suggests he go and help figure out the console readings with Barry for now, and doesn’t come back. The three of them, Kravitz, Angus, and Lucretia, play cards. When Magnus isn’t helping Davenport make repairs to the bond engine he joins them as a fourth.

Carey and Avi and Davenport assess the engine and they know it needs more than elbow grease to get the ship flying again, but just moving across the sea like a normal vessel is easily achieved. Once they’re mobile, and the mapping systems are back online, they can patrol. They lay out a grid, they lower instruments that Merle tinkers and puts back into working order with Avi’s help, and now they can search.

It’s Barry and Kravitz and Merle and Lucretia who argue about what to even search for. Barry says he can’t feel or hear the echo of Taako’s bonds on this plane, so that means he’s either trapped in another demi-plane like before, or he-

“I don’t think he’s dead,” Barry tells them, and Magnus is listening, a role he doesn’t like but he’s been doing a lot of. “But I can check- with the Queen, if you think that’s okay, Boss.”

Kravitz looks like someone’s taken his soul, wrung it tight in a knot, then whipped it until every fiber of him has either snapped or frayed. Eyes sunken, lips thinned, his clothes stale and roughed up. His jewelry is missing and his watch has a broken face. He barely speaks except in low tones, mostly to Lucretia and to Angus, and Magnus knows it’s nothing to get offended over because Kravitz has- he’s been through a lot. He won’t say it, but they all know it. He’s been through a lot.

It’s not Kravitz comforting Lucretia as much as it’s Lucretia choosing to sit next to the Reaper. To keep a hand on his back, or his arm, or to hold his clammy palm with her own.

Barry goes, the rest of them stay and they search.

On a night many nights into this quiet nightmare, Magnus finds Kravitz awake in the cabin housing him and Lucretia, with the director asleep on the couch to one side of him and Angus asleep on the other, and the Reaper’s dark, exhausted eyes still open and staring blankly at nothing.

“This isn’t your fault, y’know.” Magnus… isn’t so sure his input is wanted right now. Or even needed. And maybe his words aren’t kind but they’re what he has and he has to offer something to his friend, because Kravitz is hurting. He’s hurting so much. “Taako’s as reckless as the rest of us when the people he loves are in danger. Going out taking down a dragon is totally his thing.” And he hasn’t gone out per-sey, not until Barry gets back and the Raven Queen says so- but Magnus doubts that’ll happen. He has to doubt. He needs something to keep him going.

“…I didn’t help him.” Kravitz has to be careful not to wake either Lucretia or Angus, but Magnus takes a seat in the small room across from the trapped Reaper, and he listens. “In that prison. I only made everything worse for him. Seeing me there hurt him too much to do any good.”

“You only did what you thought was right, Krav.”

“You tried to stop me and I should’ve let you.”

“I tried to stop you because you’re my pal, buddy, and this whole mess ‘n all was scary as hell for me. I’m just glad the worst is over.”

There is a… very frosty silence that follows, and Magnus isn’t sure what he’s said until Kravitz works through that flare of emotion and tells him what’s so wrong.

“He’s still trapped, wherever he is,” The Reaper says. “Taako is still trapped with that creature, and none of us know how to reach out and bring him home.”

It’s harsh to hear but true at the same time- maybe. Taako might be on a demiplane somewhere but does that mean Roswyth is really with him? Maybe the dragon is dead, maybe they’re both dead, they won’t know until either Barry gets back or the machines on the bridge finally locate that tourmaline beast at the bottom of the sea.

“We’ll find him, Krav.”

“And what if we’re already too late?” That- Magnus doesn’t have words for that. He doesn’t know how to comfort the rage, the grief, or the guilt that Kravitz is carrying with him, and this ship is much too small for Magnus to provoke any kind of face-off between the Grim Reaper and his emotions.

He has to retreat back to the bridge for his shift tonight. When he gets there though, someone unexpected is meeting with the Captain in the low lights of the dials and knobs that make up the ship’s brain.

“I found him,” Lup says, breathless and shaking. Her face is wet with tears that Magnus can’t hug away, but Jeeze Louise does he try. “I know where he is.”

“Then let’s go get him, sis.”

And they do. With the mechanical arm and winch from the Starblaster’s rock and rolled storage compartments, and the guiding presence of Lup’s lich form on the monitor leading the chain and hooks down through the silent waters. They attach the straps and chains and claws to the crystalized body of the great dragon, and to everyone’s relief when they start to winch and drag the beast up, it stays whole.

Taako’s magic shrunk Roswyth by a fair amount. Instead of being easily triple the size of the Starblaster like before, the crystal dragon is about the size of a battlewagon. It’s taller than Magnus and wide enough to fill up the deck of the ship. The weight requires some calculating from Davenport to keep them safe and level, but it works.

The statue isn’t perfect. Like the tourmaline that devoured Lucas’ lab the pink crystal shows the general shape and form of the creature it devoured, but it isn’t like the wax idols of Johann and the others. It isn’t flesh made stone, it’s solid but it’s expanded, contorted, changed. The dragon is petrified from the fall and they can see its legs curled up close, protected by the span of its wings, head tucked down out of sight. Magnus can see where one of the dragon’s horns is missing, curtesy of Kravitz’s scythe.

Magnus is one of the first to touch it, placing his palm right to the crystal as the petrified creature is lifted over the rail of the ship and placed carefully on the deck. It’s warm. Uncomfortably so. There’s an unmistakeable vitality to the stone and Magnus feels a thrum that’s almost like a heartbeat before the sensation weirds him out too much to keep touching it.

“Taako’s definitely not dead!” Barry announces upon his return from the Astral plane, maybe an hour or so after the tourmaline is secured on the deck. “And neither is Roswyth.” Meaning Kravitz was right: Taako is trapped inside a demiplane with Roswyth, and they don’t know how to get him out.

They have Barry and Lup and Lucas all here, but Barry gives a flat no to the suggestion of breaking the two of them out the way they did Johann and Lucretia. Roswyth is a dragon. A very pissy and dangerous dragon. And the Starblaster can’t handle a second sprint across the sky to keep half a step ahead of the beast. There’s also the issue of Taako.

Taako is inside the pocket dimension inside the crystal matrix, but he’s not… he doesn’t have…

“We can grow him a new one!” Magnus declares, because they all saw the Philosopher’s stone explode in a plume of starlight with Taako inside of it. His soul might be safe on the demiplane, but his physical body is- “He must have a hairbrush lying around somewhere, it’s fine!”

“We destroyed the tank when Lup came out of it-”

“Then we’ll fix it, Merle!” Don’t- don’t tell him it can’t be done, not right now, not when Magnus hasn’t had a single thing he could do this entire time! “We have six of this worlds’ best artificers on this boat, plus Lucas. If we can fix the Starblaster then we can fix a stupid body-growing tank!”

But the damage is done. There’s a creeping dread hanging in the air that reckless positivity isn’t going to banish, and Magnus feels the way he’s felt since that package of honey appeared on his doorstep: helpless. He can grit his teeth and clench his hands all he wants, it won’t fix anything.

“Something’s wrong,” Lup says, her voice tight and they all turn under the darkening sky to see her standing beside the dragon with her hand on the pink crystal. She’s gazing at it, unblinking, arcane energy slowly gathering and dispersing as she channels something into the crystal. “Something’s… blocking it.”

She puts both hands on the dragon’s petrified wing, and then Lucas and Barry join her. They touch the crystal and they start to hum and murmur to one another. And then Kravitz joins them, exhausted and embittered by all the tragedy, and he sets his hand on the tumbled pink monster.

Davenport takes Avi and Ren with him to make sure the navigation systems are in order and they can start making good time for home. Carey tries to get Magnus to come along with her and Killian and get a pre-dawn breakfast ready for the crew, but he refuses- gently, kindly. He’d rather stay here as the sun rises and the Starblaster begins to push through the still waters. Merle stays with him, and they watch.

With the ship puttering back towards home the crystal has an undeniable glow to it, deep in its centre. Merle gets him to sit down and they keep watching, not interrupting when Lucas runs off muttering about his notebook, leaving the three Reapers to put their heads together and think through whatever it is they’re sensing from Roswyth’s petrified form.

“…can hear it, can definitely hear it.”

“But why-?”

“It’s different, it’s not Taako.”

I think I know what this is…”

“Magnus?” He doesn’t expect his name from Merle, but he looks beside him where the old dwarf is resting. And Merle’s looking at him with his one good eye, the owl on his patched one watching him just as closely. There’s a kindness, and a weight, and when Merle puts his heavy wooden hand on Magnus’ arm it’s- “You did good, son. You did real good.”

No, he didn’t.

Now see- Magnus is not afraid to cry. He’s not ashamed of having emotions, he knows they make him stronger, a better friend, a wiser man, and so on. So he’s not upset about having to cry, he’s just upset, and so he cries. And it’s difficult because it’s painful and all of this is wrong and not what their family deserved to go through.

“Not really, Merle,” He says it and he chokes up with the effort. It gets stuck right there under his jaw and won’t come out even when his eyes water and overflow. He feels the cool tears thread and spill down through his beard, and rests with his elbows on his knees, hunched over and hurting. He’s tired, barely healed up from the battle with the dragon, hardly having rested since Taako’s big finishing move. “Not really.”

Merle’s hand moves to his back, and there’s no armour in the way because what’s there left to protect himself from?

“You’ve been fighting to keep everyone’s head up since this whole mess hit the fan,” Merle says in his gruff, tired way. “And you’ve done good, Mags. You’ve done real good. I’m proud of you.”

“I didn’t help-”

“You helped me.” Damn it, Merle, he can’t see anymore. There are too many tears in the way. “It’s a small part, but it’s something.” But is it enough?

The pain builds and it builds and- y’know this is what crying is supposed to help with, isn’t it? Crying to let it out, let it go. Crying so you can breathe again, get up and try again, keep moving even if the only place you’re headed is to bed for a good long nap. But this is not helping, and the pain is not easing, and Magnus rides it until he really can’t escape the fact that this is not getting better. It’s not helping. Why not?

Why can he hear- hear something. He can feel it more than sense it, but it’s there, wrapping around under his jaw and behind his ears, growing tighter and tighter around the quiet gasps and the steady tears. It- it grabs him in a way that grief and loss aren’t supposed to. It’s forceful? It’s not internal, it’s definitely not, it- this- music?

Magnus has to use both hands, one after the other, to clear the tears fast enough so he can actually see. He can definitely hear it now, that song, that terrible sadness that won’t relent. He looks up and sees the dragon with the three Reapers standing in front of it, but now only Kravitz is touching the crystal.

And there’s magic flowing out and around the tourmaline, magic that spins and sings and mourns. It’s sadness in aural form, impenetrable and terrible, so melancholy that the only thing Magnus can do is keep wiping away the tears because that heart-ache and cruelty are needling through him like a poison.

“Stop-” he chokes, standing up. Lup has her head bowed, hands clenched, and he can see the tears just pouring down her cheeks. Behind him Merle is still sitting on the bench and he’s got wetness trailing down through his beard. “Stop that! Kravitz- make it stop!” Because Magnus has only ever met two people in this world who can use music and sound to do something like this, and-

“It’s not me.” Kravitz still has his back to them. When Magnus comes closer he can see the way the magic is swirling over the surface of the tourmaline, radiating from it and spinning like a vibrant current. Kravitz’s hand is like pebbles under the surface, forcing the song to bubble and jump and be heard instead of self contained. It’s all a kind of magic that Magnus doesn’t know enough about to explain, but it’s not coming from the Reaper. It’s coming from the dragon?

Or maybe not the dragon.

“You… uppity little man…” Kravitz grunts, jaw set and his attention focused and annoyed on the crystal. “What are you doing? This wasn’t our deal.” He made another deal with someone? It can’t be the dragon, and Magnus never heard or felt any kind of musical magic from Roswyth even for the long weeks he was stuck on the dragon’s island.

That melody though- that fierce and deliberate song that plucks and pulls and drags through the heart like a barbed arrow. The tiny cuts that weep real tears instead of blood, the noose of catgut wires wringing around his heart the more Magnus listens and the more he remembers and it’s so awful.

It’s not even about Taako, it’s just pain. It’s June and her father and the tragedy of Refuge. It’s Phandalen erupting in murderous flames. It’s Lucas’ mother and Hurley’s sacrifice and it’s Julia, his Julia, and the settling dust of Raven’s Roost and it all comes and bleeds together until he can barely stand up for the horrible sound of it all and-

“Johann!” Kravitz snaps, and his face melts away with a black surge, his scythe in one hand and the other still pressed to the crystal. “Open the way! What are you even doing here!? You’re a guide, and neither of them are dead!”

The song reacts to that- the person playing the song reacts to it. The song dims, it quiets, and Magnus can almost think clearly again before there’s a sudden rise and kick to the tempo, the song changing and blending into something else that- that very, very clearly… tells the Grim Reaper to fuck off.

The pocket dimension you are attempting to enter is closed right now for renovations.

It’s like listening to the elevator music from Lucas’ laboratory, but with a lot more synth and spice to the arrangement.

Please come back later and maybe like catch a nap while you’re at it.

It’s catchy and it jives and it’s familiar, so blatantly obvious who’s behind it- but there’s no way! There’s just no way that this song is coming from him!

I know what I’m doing, so chill, it’s Gucci, and we’ll have everything sorted before you can blow another gasket over it. You’re not my boss, man, take it up with-

“I am your boss!” Kravitz loses it a little and thwacks the backside of his scythe against the tourmaline, but the music catches the blow before he can damage the crystal.

Magnus just stares as the magic melds back into the crystal, the melancholy slowly threading back into it just before it eases out beyond his hearing. He can still feel it though and it’s unsettling to say the least.

“What was that?” He asks,

“We can’t go in!” Lup chokes, her face wet with tears that’re dripping down her chin onto her red robe. “That music’s blocking off the demiplane to us! We can’t- we can’t even-!”

“He’ll let us in eventually,” Barry soothes, going to her with his arms open and wrapping Lup up soft and strong. “He’s trying to help, it means Taako’s not alone in there! This is a good thing- babe, Lup, please… C’mon, you need to rest.”

No!” But she goes with him. Between Taako’s plummet into the ocean and Lup’s appearance on the bridge last night, Magnus hasn’t seen her once. Her robe is ratty and her eyes are deeply sunken. She doesn’t move easily and it’s clear Barry has to support her as they leave the upper deck and go find someplace quiet and calm to be alone.

“Johann?” Merle asks quietly, his composure regained now that the song’s retreated back into the dragon. “Like, Johann-Johann? Our buddy from the Bureau? He’s- he’s in there? Kravitz, are you sure?”

“Gods work how they will, and it falls to mortal hands to see it done.”

“Yes or no, kid, it’s been a hell of a week.”

“Yes, Merle, it’s the same Johann.” Kravitz is still deeply annoyed, but he puts his face back on, which is a relief really. The scythe stays in hand. “He and I struck a deal for Avi’s safety during the battle. I don’t know what he’s doing here, or how he found Taako so quickly, but he’s warded the demiplane against interlopers.”

“So we can’t get him out?” Magnus asks, and Kravitz is too busy glaring at the crystal dragon to answer him. “And we can’t go inside?” Silence. Stifling and angry.

“...It’s a power granted to him by my Queen.” No, no, no… Johann, why would you do this? “Neither Taako nor the dragon have factually committed crimes of necromancy, though Patrice is certainly toeing the line. I can’t force a way through Johann’s wards without that authority- not even to let Lup or Barry through. He’s a guide now and if he believes the two of them need to remain inside with him to mediate, then- as much as I hate it, I can’t stop him.”

“Then…” then there’s nothing they can do, not yet, not out here. Magnus looks at the dragon as the daylight rises around them, and he can’t remember the last time he slept, or Merle ate, or Kravitz relaxed. And it doesn’t feel like any of those things will happen any time soon. But at least they’re moving.

The ship, it’s moving. The Starblaster is headed home. And once they’re home they’ll be able to check out the pod machine in Barry’s abandoned base. And they can fix it, and they can get some hair from Taako’s belongings and dunk it in there to get the process started. Kravitz keeps saying Taako isn’t dead and if the Raven Queen doesn’t think his soul belongs with her then Kravitz can’t tell them not to just make a new body for their not-dead buddy.

“Then I… need to go make sure Davenport doesn’t need more help with the engine.” So they can get home faster, and fix the pod sooner, and-

And finally, maybe, get Taako back for real.


 

Did he do it? He did. Johann nailed it in one and the Grim Reaper is taking a coffee break. Or a cat-nap. Or he’s standing outside the physical manifestation of this place just stewing and simmering. Johann honestly doesn’t know the guy well enough to say for sure which one it is.

“So yeah, man, no sweat,” he says, because this place is strange and its rules are shaky at best. He thought waking up on that sea of souls was creepy, and Johann was right, but it pales in comparison to this shit-show between worlds.

Demiplanes, pocket dimensions, shadow realms- they’re not Johann’s speciality. He doesn’t know ‘em, can’t explain ‘em, but he knows for sure that he doesn’t like this one. It’s not like a stretched out phonebooth or an elevator that’s smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside. This place is a nightmare built on a fever dream with the object permanence of a hallucination. It’s a bad trip. A poor ride. A dee-minus on the application of planar science. And there’s such a threatening level of discontent that skitters around like rats on a sinking ship that he-

“It’s shit, Taako,” Johann says, staring right at him, at what’s left of him. “This place is real shit. It’s fucking embarrassing, man, you can’t change my mind.”

He’s not really talking to Taako. Johann is trying but he can tell, he can see, that there’s just not enough left in this place for the manifestation to really be Taako. It’s missing too many pieces, things that show up as an eye, or his ear, the entire left side of his chest, his leg, most of his voice, the colour of his hair and skin. Johann didn’t have the knowledge and know-how before, but he hears it whispering in his ear now from the thread that binds him to the realms beyond this hell sack: shade. Johann is speaking to Taako’s shade.

A shade is more than a fragment. It’s more lucid than a sending or a ghost. It’s what those other things get carved out of and leave behind. It’s a soul with pieces missing, usually a thing reserved for Liches and their phylacteries, but not-so in this case. Taako isn’t dead and he wasn’t trying to achieve immortality. He’s damaged, hurting, and hollow.

Only pieces of him are left here, and Johann can tell pretty clearly by the way the shade is watching him, staring at him, judging and threatened by him, that what’s left of Taako isn’t the best of him. The whisper tells him it’s his rage, its his grief, its his spite and unwillingness to lay down and die just because it’s easier. Grit and gusto, the raw chutzpah that made him so talented and so powerful an arcane force that he’s refused to die until now.

Until now.

“Mmm, no. That’s gonna be a no from me, pal, no dying.”

It’s a big tangled and twisted, but what Johann can get from the enmity in the air and the furious retching around him is a decent concept: Taako wants to keep the others from getting in here, and he wants to pull the demiplane apart and finally fucking kill himself and the dragon.

The shade watches. It hovers, dispersing along its edges and reforming like a heady mirage. He’s no more put together than the rippling sand or flagging sky. The monochrome is disorienting and ugly, the stars falling sideways and plopping into the inky water that opens up like a thousand mouths and a hundred eyes aaaaand that’s fucking creepy, that image. Johann doesn’t like that much at all, that hunger vore monster shit. Nuh-huh, not good.

“Float as ominously as you please, man, it’s not gonna change shit.” He might be bluffing, but Johann likes to think he’s being honest with both of them. “You aren’t allowed to kick it like this. Now I can sympathize with not wanting the Grim Reaper or your sister or your friends and family from seeing you like this, that’s what the wards you wanted are for, but that doesn’t mean you get to just fucking expire like old milk, y’hear?”

Taako doesn’t want Johann here either. He wants no one here. No one but that creature and the pain it has coming for it.

“You got beef, cool, no question. I didn’t say don’t be a dick on the dragon, I said no dying.”

Get out.

“No.”

Get out!

“Make me, bro.”

Both in life and out of it, Johann would never call himself a scrapper. A fighter. A fisticuffs officer. He’s a fucking musician, man, but there’s magic in a bard’s song and this one’s pretty simple to pull off even if reality’s a little sketch.

Taako’s rage boils over and Johann lets the single tone slip off his tongue, and wouldn’t you like it someone else is in his place to take that sheering, screaming, painful blow of whatever the fuck that was. For the Bard it’s just like taking a step back in a dance, do a little swing and a step, slide it to the left, bring it back real slow. For the magic, it’s reality doing a fold and twist so here is there and over there becomes right here.

Roswyth the Bitch is paralyzed with the force of whatever bad magic the shade levelled at Johann, but when the agony passes the dragon drops hard on their knees, hands on the milky sand for balance. They’re heaving, shaken, badly weakened by their experiences here. As hostile as Taako is, he hasn’t tried to hurt Johann until right there, and he’d been easing off the dragon for the sake of getting Johann to help him. It’s as simple as no rest for the wicked as the eyes of the ocean focus on the dragon with a manic energy.

Seems right.

“Don’t…” Oh? Big D wants to talk now? “Don’t taunt him, Bard…”

Oh- okay that- that’s pretty fucking… rich. Johann feels his tongue curl, remembers the Raven Queen’s mirror and that great beast hurtling towards Avi, trapped in a burning control room.

“Yeah, guess I should pick on the guy that got his island and home blown up by the fucking moon instead.” A sharp jolt passes through the air, normally not so obvious, and the dragon’s humanoid form recoils with a hiss and wince, one filthy hand pressed behind their ear from the vicious comment. “I’m really not here to help you.”

“I can see as much!” Jeeze, really? With the snarling and the spittle? Gross. “End this! Unravel this place properly and let me at least offer an amends for my actions! We gain nothing-” Johann looks to the shade, a hand waving at the dragon, “-by idling here any-!”

Reality buckles, it twists and it contorts and it goes a little too hard when Johann sees a threatening white nothing open and peer dangerously between the seams of bubbling sand and viscous black waters. Roswyth is sucked down and they scream again with the sensation of icy teeth biting and gnashing into their body. It’s fucking harsh, and Johann recoils a bit despite, like, egging Taako to do it. But the dragon gets dragged until their mouth is covered, until their broken claws leave blunt gouges in the sand, and then they’re gone.

Not for good, just for now. Johann can still feel them suffering somewhere close by.

“I…” Johann looks at the shade again, because what he hears now is almost a voice that almost sounds like Taako. “I will never… let them out.”

Okay. Dialogue. This is a step forward.

“You may not want to, but you’ve gotta realize you can’t keep them here.” Roswyth is powerful. They’re taking the abuse and they’re suffering with it, Johann can tell, but they’re not as firmly under Taako’s thumb as the shade might want to believe. Johann can feel it, can hear it humming through the yarn and spit holding this demi-plane together. Roswyth is held here, yeah, but they’re not really trapped. They’re encumbered, not bound. “You can’t keep this place together much longer, you know that.”

The shade wavers, rage and spite roiling under the thin shell of his body.

“You want revenge, right?” He wants the dragon to suffer, and suffer, and suffer for everything they did. “I’m not saying don’t be a colossal ass to the dragon, but what’s the point if you kill yourself with it and they escape?” Because they will.

Roswyth breaches the thick black brine of the surreal ocean, clawed arms thrashing as their wings break through the surf. They’re back in their true form, or close to it, all scales and horns and a body made for burrowing through stone and cutting clean through ocean waters. They’re thrashing, trying to swim against the currents ripping at their body to drown them again. Johann watches the struggle but he can tell, he can see, that it’s more determined than desperate. Roswyth is focused, thrashing, maddened, but there’s no mind-dissolving terror.

They’re hurting and they’re tormented, but they’re not defeated. Exhaustion doesn’t really work when you don’t have a body, and the mental fatigue isn’t enough. This demiplane will dissolve and collapse years before the last of Roswyth’s faculties will crumble away.

“You’ve gotta let the others help.”

No.

“When this place goes-” because it’s going. The sky keeps splitting with acidic white nothing. The sand under Johann is only so deep before it falls through to nowhere. “-you’re the only one who’ll go with it.” And he doesn’t think Taako understands what that means. Johann certainly doesn’t. The voice whispering to him is quiet.

What does falling between the lines of reality do to a soul? Where do they end up, how do they continue to exist? What is time in a place that’s outside the realm of gods and demons? What’s magic? What is air? Pain? Sanity?

Taako won’t have any of those things if he crumbles into the neverwhere and Johann can’t say for sure if the Raven Queen will be able to fish his remains back out of it. It’s not what he deserves, this lost bird whose already lost his wings. It shouldn’t be where this tragedy goes, but Taako is close to it, so desperately, dangerously close.

“Taako please.” They weren’t that close to each other when Johann was alive. They were coworkers, good acquaintances, someone to give a mixtape to in exchange for a baller macaroon. But you don’t have to be complete BFFs to not want someone to beef it in the worst and most torturous kind of way.   It’s not fair. It’s not right. “Just let me help you.”

Keep them away,” the shade repeats, his edges fraying now and Johann can feel the energy bleeding off of him trying to anchor the plane together. He’s losing it. He’s losing it bad.

“It’s not just about them not coming in, Taako, it’s about you getting out.” He tries coming closer. It’s less about actually walking and more about just moving. Just not being over there and getting himself over here. “You’ve gotta come out of here.” He holds out his hand.

“…And go where?” A question! Shit, Johann’s not half bad at this if he’s getting Taako to ask questions.

“Anywhere that’s not here, bro.” Just, like… take his hand? Just let Johann take him anywhere that’s not trapped alone with an evil dragon as the sky explodes and the sand melts out from under them.

Because it’s getting back. Roswyth is pulled under one more time but the waves aren’t flowing together anymore, some go up, some down, others bend and fold around themselves like paper curls. The stars are bleeding black ink and the oily air is beginning to congeal and crack at the same time. Reality is faltering and there are so few ways for this to go and they’re falling faster than-

Taako!

The shade takes his hand and Johann pulls him. It feels like a hug, it feels like it should be a frightened, grounding, stabilizing hug.

But Johann pulls Taako to him and when the shade touches him he vanishes. And Johann is standing here in a world unravelling with no shade, no spectre, no fragment of the person he very specifically came here to try and help. Taako is gone. He’s just gone.

Johann doesn’t get it and he doesn’t have time to get it because when Johann looks up he feels the stark and terrifying pain of neverwhere surging down around him, the sky torn back like curtains in a storm and-

“Patrice!” He screams, he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t know why he calls on the dragon and not, like, the Goddess he just pledged himself to or the Grim Reaper or anybody else who’s not a shitty dragon.

The sand buckles and the ground heaves under him, gold light rising and rolling up until it forms a smooth warm carpet of energy. Then a serpentine wing is flared over his head and Johann has to duck and hide under his own arms because the magic that comes spilling and pouring down around him against the collapsing realm is way too much to bear.

Heat twists and howls like a vortex, brilliant white symbols spewing up out of the waxy ground as the straight, hard lines of a hexagon cut and fold under them. As the magic pours it spreads and expands, ramming full force into invisible walls and scaling them, up and over. The hexagon grows, it rises, it hits a ceiling and runs rapid across it to seal away the neverwhere.

Fourteen divided by two, the number of captives, which has now been halved, is seven. The seven-sided pocket of reality seals itself off, and the disorienting collapse is halted.

And now Johann the Bard, newly baptised as an Emissary of the Raven Queen, Overseer of the Natural Passage of Life and Death, is cowering within a small wax-sealed pocket of reality without his immediate charge. He is here, and he doesn’t quite know what it means, that he is sharing this place with a dragon.

“O… okay… This- is fine.”

A murderous, rampaging, and formerly relic-deranged, ancient dragon.

Chapter Text

 

Taako reaches for Johann and then falls right through him. It’s too fast to be frightening: he’s here and then gone before Taako can breathe. The darkness that swallows him up is too complete to fight against, too sudden to register.

He feels himself leave his failing construct and the relief from that weight is paralytic. He doesn’t have to support it anymore, to feed it from himself. The numbers scatter and go quiet, so blessedly quiet, and they take the fear with them. The rage settles because it’s spent, like the rest of him, and he falls. He drops and then he’s floating, ascending by some other will’s greater design, like a kitten caught by the scruff it carries him away to a place and circumstance he does not know, but trusts.

He trusts it, if only because it doesn’t immediately hurt him. He doesn’t think he could fight against it anyways, and trusting it keeps him from harm. It’s not like him to go meekly and quietly, but this night feels too quiet to be cruel. He’s too tired to be afraid.

There’s a pressure that wraps around him, orienting his self in space until he feels suspended on his side. The darkness conforms to the shape of him, even with all his holes and broken bits, accepting and embracing each hurt and flaw. It relinquishes when he pushes back against it, this firmness made from nothing, but doesn’t let him fall. He can grip it only so much with his blurry fingers, feel the soft and supportive presence permit him to reach and push and explore in his limited range. It’s much more than he is, much larger, much older, much stronger.

Much kinder, much softer, much better.

He can pull, and this brings all of it closer to him, surrounding him, accepting him. His face and nose are pressed flush against this protective force. The absences peppering his body are eased by the pressure that hugs him around his shoulders, that cradles his hips and limbs, that curves his spine just right, right here, like this.

It smells like nothing, but when he takes a deep breath his lungs fill with soft crisp air and the dew on fresh leaves. He smells clean and quiet and closes his eyes as the embrace tightens- but not by too much. It’s just right. It’s just enough to know that he belongs here, that she won’t let go until Taako’s ready. Her hand, soft and large and deliberate, settles over his head and strokes down slow and easy over his hair. She does it again, exactly the same. And then again, just as before. It’s either a yawn or a sigh that pulls through his soul before he relaxes deeper into her arms.

It’s calm. It’s quiet. It’s loving and eternal and he’s to tired to question why. Where and how melt away in her sheltering presence, and the gulf between where he was and where he is now begins to open, and then it pulls and separates him safely from the memories. From all of them, from everything that hurt and everything that harmed. He’s safe now, right here, with her. She won’t let him go until he’s ready, because she loves him, truly loves him the way only a mother can, and she won’t let him be alone any more.

Only one thing is missing. There’s just one person who isn’t here.

Eternity asks her son, so gently, what troubles him. Her loving touch brushes back and forth over his brow, an effort to sooth that doesn’t undercut her question or his answer. She just loves him.

So Taako tells her the only thing that matters:

I want… Lup…”

And she assures him the wait is nearly over. The goddess tells him his heart will be here soon, and Taako trusts himself to her love.


 

It’s suddenly very quiet here. It’s stable, and it’s warm, and it’s not going to shit, but it’s way, way too quiet. When Johann looks around himself again he recoils from the very close and very aware gaze of a copper-scaled dragon.

“Personal space!” And he jumps back, because the dragon is right here in front of him, down on all fours, hind legs resting flush on the waxy ground, tail sweeping behind it and around to circle Johann, which is not a great feeling. The beast is bloodied, scales torn off, red blood shining over copper scales that have a luster even in this light that’s undeniably warm and beautiful- but like, still bloodied and probably full of murder. One of their horns has been severed but the bleeding is slowed, the opposite eye gouged away, its mate a deep bronze colour that holds his gaze so hard Johann can’t quite look away.

“…Where is Taako?” Roswyth asks, and settles down with their forelimbs bent, easing their gouged and burnt chest to the ground. They adjust their torn wings and then lower them, bringing the one closest to Johann down so they can nudge the damaged limb with their nose, then use their sharp teeth to tear off the damaged scales and sooth the raw wounds.

“Fuck if I know, man.” The dragon stops grooming. “What did you do? What was that?”

The dragon watches him, weighing, judging, and really fucking calm for all the screaming and thrashing they just did. Johann himself is not calm, or barely calm: he can feel his heart going a mile a minute from that passing graze of oblivion, the screaming collapse of the demiplane after his offer to help Taako just made him disappear. His palms are sweaty and mouth dry as he keeps looking around this blank slate of yellow wax that’s been poured around him.

“I claimed this dimension in his absence.” The dragon says. “I have stabilized and now control it, though I would have preferred to have assisted Taako in its maintenance instead.” When Roswyth speaks it’s not really with their mouth. They don’t form words with tongue and teeth, but it’s definitely audible, it’s a real sound and not like… a projection. It’s dragon magic. Bullshit dragon magic. “He called you Johann, but we are more than just our names. Who are you?”

“Uuuh…” He might as well-? And he rubs his palms down over his doublet to dry them as he answers. “An emissary of the Raven Queen, I guess.”

The dragon gives a displeased rumble, and pulls a few more damaged scales from their wing. Between Johann and the dragon, a perfect circle is drawn in the wax floor, though it doesn’t do anything yet.

“You repeated ad nauseum that Taako was not to perish, have you killed him?”

“What the fuck kind of question is that?” Wow, like- wow. “Coming from you? That I would kill my friend when you were the one doing all that fucking transmutation bullshit and amulet crap and fucking putting people in jars like bugs so you could-?”

“Repeating my crimes back to me does not answer the question. I cannot restore him if he has died.” Now-

“Restore him?” Johann repeats, and the circle between them begins to rise up, to take on depth and shape. “Like, put him back together?” The circle colours itself in with rapid brush-strokes, unreal to the eye but tangible to the senses. Then the pool, only a few inches deep and about two or three feet across, begins to fill with water.

“What else would you have me do?”

“You’re trapped here- or you were.”

“I remained here, but I was not trapped.” Encumbered, but not bound. Right. Johann looks down at the water as Roswyth reaches and dips one clawed hand into it, pulling it back out with a minor splash that the realm’s wax wicks away. They lick at the water dripping from their cracked talons, and then continue to groom themself and their other wounds. “I will need time to recover, but I am not yet finished with my atonement.”

“You really think you can get anyone to forgive you for this whole shit-show?”

“Certainly not.” Well then why the fuck-? “But atonement is not a matter of forgiveness. What is unforgiveable is unforgiveable, and it is naught but insanity and disrespect to demand otherwise. Shall I tell you my intentions? Tell me first, Emissary of the Raven Queen, has Taako the Wizard died?”

“…I don’t know.” He just- Johann reached out to him and then he vanished, and he doesn’t know why. “I’ve only been at this like… a day, or something. Time’s really weird when you’re dead.”

“As it is when you are shrouded on a limited plane of existence.” Is that, like, the dragon admitting they don’t know how to track time in here? Good. Be confused, you stupid copper gallstone. “If Taako has perished, then when I am able to free myself from this situation, I will do the only honourable thing and vanish beyond sight and sense of those I have clearly wronged. But you do not seem convinced of his end, and I am greatly invested in his restoration. When your Queen has made her decision then I will offer my assistance and knowledge to his recovery.”

“…You’d give his body back.”

“I do not clearly recall what it was which struck me from the sky.” Johann saw it happen, but he doesn’t want to tell the story right now. He watches the dragon lean their head over the pool and doesn’t bother wondering where the stream of water comes from before it washes down over their horns and face. It seems refreshing though, kind of healing, and the pool drains as quickly as it fills so it doesn’t overflow. “I was made to relive the fall several times, but not the blow which caused it. However, given his nihilistic behaviour before and after your arrival, I am not convinced that his physical form remains in tact.”

“The amulet?”

“The amulet.”

“Okay, I gotta say it, and I’m gonna say it: you’re a sick fuck, and I really kinda hope you die at the end of this.”

The dragon looks at him with their one remaining eye, the bleeding fully clotted and the tissues beginning to scab and knit into a smooth scar over the other. The water drizzling from above slows and finally stops, leaving only the shimmering droplets scattered over their scales and slipping down their long gilded neck. Surprisingly, it’s Roswyth who looks away first, tending to the deep rent across the wrist of their forelimb.

“Your sentiments… are not unfounded. Nor, I suspect, are they of the minority.”

“You’re awfully wordy, you know that? And like I say this as a bard.”

“Perhaps I am uncomfortable with what has transpired?” Too bad, Johann doesn’t have the sympathy to spare as the dragon looks at him, still grooming their wound. “You are free to leave this place, Emissary. I will remain until I receive confirmation of Taako’s fate, or such time as I deem it necessary to restore myself and escape.”

“Last I checked, you were a giant chunk of tourmaline sitting on the bow of a magic ship.” And their spirit was harboured here inside a pocket dimension that’s neither here nor there as far as planes of reality go. “Do you seriously think you can transmutate yourself back into a real dragon from in here?”

“I do not see why not.” Uuuh… “However, the enmity of the company aboard said ship may prove too violent an interference. I chose to remain here and let Taako unleash his fury, and I choose to lend what assistance is available to restore and regain his living body. But I do not choose to die for this: my life is the one thing I shall still defend, though it be an inconvenience upon others such as yourself.”

“And when the others figure out that Taako’s not here anymore, and it’s just you?” Because Johann’s wards- wait, his wards-

Right on command, there’s a hiss and crackle in the warm air of the demiplane, and Johann feels cold dread go down his back as he somehow just knows there’s a scythe slashing a hole in reality behind him. Roswyth stops grooming again, looking past him at the figure robed in black who comes into their realm, and the dragon is quiet for several long, slow moments before lowering their head down, throat flush to the floor, forelimbs spread and belly down. They don’t divert their gaze, but they’re submissive. Johann turns around.

“H-eeeyy, boss, long time no-”

Where,” Ooh, that’s a scary skeleton face he’s got, pretty creepy, kinda threatening, definitely not his best side. Johann suddenly feels not super great at his job. “-is Taako?”

“Uuuuuuuuuuh-”

Johann!

“Yeah! About that! Funny story-” Is it though? Is it really? “You- um, you might not laugh though…” And then Johann has to… explain…


 

The light is rosy and warm. Lup’s eyes open with her head resting on Barry’s chest, the two of them laying in dusky twilight here on the Starblaster. The warm light is streaming through the gaps of their closed cabin curtains, and her husband is still slumbering quietly, his arm around her and Lup’s flung over his waist in turn. He’s soft, and warm, and comfortable, but Lup is too aware to lay back down. She sits up but doesn’t disturb him.

She was asleep and now she’s not, but it doesn’t feel the same as waking up. It’s stronger than that, more deliberate. She sits there beside the familiar warmth and smell of her lover, both of them fully clothed still from the night spent rigging the dragon up from the bottom of the ocean.

Lup twists and turns around on the bed. She swings her feet over the edge of the narrow Starblaster cot but lets them dangle. She feels that purpose. This pull. She takes a deep breath and then drops from her room on the ship down into an abyssal blackness.

It’s not scary. Lup has answered the Raven Queen enough times not to be afraid of the fall. She’s going someplace she’s meant to be, a place of belonging that doesn’t count or qualify as home, but it’s familiar, and safe, and protected. It’s not home, but the Astral Plane is a sanctuary from all of the Prime Material’s bullshit.

The only part Lup’s not ready for is how the darkness folds itself and moves to catch and direct her fall. It funnels her along like a great slide, slippery and sheer with no slowing down or stopping. And as Lup travels the realities around her slowly begin to shift and change.

She’s not threatened by it, by the glowing haze of daylight that comes creeping through the void. It makes sense to fall from material sunset into ethereal dawn. Lup doesn’t have to question or worry overmuch about her goddess’s direction.

To her, this is what faith feels like despite being something she never had on the Homeworld. It’s a path and a destination toward which the journey might be strange or unfamiliar, it might be unsafe and downright deadly to undertake, but it’s right. This is still the way Lup is meant to go, so she releases herself and falls ever closer to the light.

The landing comes up quick but Lup can see it and brace. She sees the light hit and reflect off a smooth stone floor and lifts her heels. She catches herself with a sharp skim and skip over wide square tiles of blushing opal and walks forward with the black cape of her allegiance swelling quietly behind her.

The darkness hedges this soft place. It’s rather like walls, actually, keeping everything private and quiet. Lup walks toward the brightest part of the glow and it isn’t very far- but distance is a made-up word on this plane. She walks. She travels. She comes to her destination and a figure begins to form in the haze as she moves.

There’s a quiet clicking noise and a worried tut from old lips. From the blossoming pile of old books and carpets comes the seated form of an elderly woman, wreathed in slanted sunbeams and dust that hangs like fairy lights. Her hair is long and loose and white, like curtains of dusk around her shoulders. Lup can’t tell if she’s human or elven or tiefling or dragon, but she’s old and she’s calm and those other identities melt away. There’s a worry and focus across her ageless face and she’s looking down critically at what’s between her hands.

There are two sets of knitting needles and the Goddess is only holding one. The other set is lost and askew in a tangle of threaded moonbeams. The threads are wispy and delicate, barely there in the competing glow of the Goddess’s own radiance, and they don’t pool in her lap like a scarf or a shawl but rather spin and thread off through the aether to a place Lup cannot see. The Goddess frowns and shakes her head without looking up, adjusting her grip on one needle and pushing it down deep, trying to hook a lost stitch or a flaw in her pattern- Lup can’t tell. She hears the Goddess tut at her work, and with a short huff the deity lets it all rest in her lap.

Lup isn’t walking anymore, she just stands and waits until the Goddess of Fate and Destiny looks up.

“Oh, good!” the Lady says to her, and Lup is curious, confused, and tired. “Finally, something coming together smoothly. Do you have your Queen’s favour, dear? I need to see if they match, fingers crossed, you know!” And she holds out her hand, palm up, to take it from her.

Lup almost withdraws.

Almost. She puts a hand to her throat and pivots back, but she doesn’t go so far as to say no- to refuse. Her heart clenches and she feels that fight or flight instinct revving up, but she holds back- controls herself. She doesn’t want to do it, doesn’t even want to entertain the thought of giving up that soft little bundle of sanity the Raven Queen gifted her, but then she’s forced to remember and overwhelmed by the reality that this- this is a moment of faith.

Her Goddess brought her here- why? This isn’t the Raven Queen. The aura, the energy, the whole vibe is wrong for Death. It’s not her way. This is more like a kindly auntie who invites you to tea and talks about your schoolwork, not a mother whose love is as unending as it is unconditional. Her Queen summoned her here but Lup doesn’t see anyone but this woman- this clearly very divine and probably very powerful being. But it’s not her Queen, and Lup can’t quite trust her. Not blindly. Her faith is in Death, not Destiny.

The Raven Queen’s favour is that bundle of hope and stability that Lup has had to rely on again and again throughout this ordeal. In a lot of ways it reminds her of Taako- it feels just like him, his presence, and she needs to hold onto it for her own sake as well as his. She doesn’t know what it is exactly or how it exists the way it does, but it’s precious to her. It’s her Queen and her brother melded into one and Lup will not let it go.

The Lady frowns, but its gentle. She keeps her hand out for Lup to make the offering and the Reaper feels herself shrinking back. She doesn’t want to do it- no! No, she won’t do it!

The darkness moves. Maybe it responds to her distress but she knows it’s not going to punish her refusal. How does she know? She just does. That’s faith. The darkness doesn’t spread or encroach, but then like a bird peering out from beneath its own wing Lup sees the familiar featureless white of the Raven Queen’s mask. Her eternal self is here, and Death’s tranquil sanctuary is the void cradling this pool of Destiny’s light.

Come.

The summons is firm and sweet and Lup won’t deny it. She doesn’t look away from the Lady, but her feet cross and move light and quick to her Goddess.

A filament of that great Darkness extends around Lup’s shoulders and back like a guiding arm. Her senses get duped into the motion of a small-statured woman, hip-to-hip with Lup, a hand on her arm and her presence soft but persistent. Her Goddess is so much more than this illusion but there’s comfort in what’s familiar and this projection is grounding. It’s safe.

But then Lup is standing right at Destiny’s seat. Even with her Queen’s mantle holding and supporting her, this is hard. It’s hard but she has to do it. Even if it scares her, Lup has to be strong. This is the last terrible task her Queen will ask of her poor, exhausted child, and Lup feels that pledge echo in her heart as surely as she feels the arm around her back and the calm nudge of a royal brow against her shoulder.

“Why?” Easy question, it’s not worth the hiccup and shudder Lup feels go through her. But she’s tired. She’s just so fucking tired, and even if the gesture is easy and putting something in Destiny’s hand is a simple task, it’s hard.  

“I need more material,” Destiny tells her, and the Goddess’s voice is warm with patience. Her eyes tell Lup she cares. “For an Emissary I can substitute a stitch or two as needed, but I can’t knit back everything without something to knit in the first place. If you have the real deal with you, be it a few tufts of fuzz or a few fingers’ worth of floss, then that’s still something. It might even be enough.” Wait- an Emissary? Like her? Lup knows the song but-

“It… It’s Taako?” The favour doesn’t just feel like him? It isn’t just an echo of him? These threads, this glow, the favour her Goddess gave to comfort and anchor Lup to her tasks- it’s actually him?

“Let me see, and I can tell you.” Destiny’s hand is waiting.

Lup gives it to her. The favour pulls and eases itself slowly away. Threads of smoke, vapours that almost disperse from the stress of being moved, wind soft and ethereal around Destiny’s wizen fingers. She cups them so gently before bringing them down to the tangled pattern in her lap.

“Oh good,” the Goddess sighs, relieved, and looks up at Lup again with a smile. “It’s not everything, no, but this is much, much better. You go see him now, and you let ol’ Istus sort through the rest.”

“That- that’s Taako,” She stammers, and feels her Queen brace her when her legs fail. “The whole time- this entire time- he’s been in pieces- he-”

And part of him was with you, as he needed to be.

And that makes sense. It’s terrible but Lup gets it. She’s horrified but she understands that fragments of a soul still in the custody and care of a Reaper, have not, necessarily, passed to the Astral Plane. These pieces of Taako have not, truly, died.

Now come be with him, as you need to be.

She does need to be, she really does. Lup feels the Queen lead her away and it hurts to be this tired, footfalls uneven and stumbling as she goes, but she just hasn’t had the ability to rest, not really. No real rest since that last stupid time she saw her stupid brother turn around and go catch that stupid train.

And Taako’s died before, y’know? There weren’t many but Lup remembers cycles where Taako kicked it and left her alone. She was never fine with it, of course not, but she always knew what had happened and- even the times she hadn’t been so sure, there had still been the guaranteed countdown to their reunion to comfort and reassure her throughout the long wait.

Not so, this time.

The last time Lup saw her brother Taako had been eating flap-jacks at Merle’s breakfast counter, and doing so almost as fast as Lup could serve them up. He’d been wearing that boss cape and hat of his and his favourite boots, touting his mock-up of her old umbra staff and his Krebstar with him.

The last time Lup had heard her brother’s voice, it’d been more a jumbled echo than his actual words or presence. Their bond, something Lup’s assumed unbreakable and permanent enough to anchor her soul to, had been barely recognizable for the mutilating damage contorting that broken amulet in her hands.

She has nothing to brace herself with before going into this moment. Lup just doesn’t know what to expect as her Queen leads her away from the dawn and over to the very edge of the abyss. Her sense of the Raven Queen changes as they approach and she becomes grander, deeper, so much more than what mortal expectations can manage.

Like a curtain pulled back around a sick bed, Lup sees- Taako…

And just like that, she’s crying. Just- the ugliest sobs. This shrill and awful “Ugh-! Aah- nngh!”. It’s all she can manage and she won’t take shame from it, stomping her feet like a toddler because the alternative is to collapse and she won’t do that. This pain is raw and it’s real and by heaven and hell Lup is going to let it out. Because this is Taako. It’s Taako, this is Taako and each snivelling breath heaves and hurts as she goes to him because he’s here and she’s here and they’re here, fucking finally in the same place again. Together, finally, again.

He’s laying down in the darkness, cradled and supported by it, on his side with his back to Destiny’s platform. He’s washed out, all shades of moonbeam and starlight like the threads the Goddess was kitting and weaving so diligently. His eyes are closed and hair loose and faded in the darkness. The abyss blankets him as much as it supports Lup’s stumbling, grasping journey to reach him. Like a kitten seeking comfort, Lup feels the Raven Queen lift and twist and handle her effortlessly, manipulating her and adjusting Taako just enough that when Lup reaches her brother, they’re facing each other and she can embrace him in the void.

He’s asleep, bless him, she knows he needs the rest. He’s bare but for the darkness but that’s nothing to her. She gets him in a close, tight squeeze, pulling and nuzzling down on him, hooking her legs around the shadows already embracing him. She’s shuddering and trying to breathe around the fact that he’s here and she’s here and they are, finally, back together, and she won’t let him go not even when she brushes back his hair and kisses his face and she cries and she cries and she cries.

The arm she has over him has further to go than the arm that’s below. That’s wrong. It’s scary. Souls don’t have scents or smells and that’s scary too. It’s normal but it’s bad, because it means he exists here without a body. It’s upsetting. It’s frightening. It’s terrifying. If Taako doesn’t have a body then that means Taako-

Lup plants the biggest kiss she can on his cheek, then another. Then one on his temple- his forehead, and he takes a breath and gets a crease right where she jams her lips between his eyes. She combs his hair back with her hand, again and again because his hair’s always been more stubborn than hers and the locks won’t get off his face for her to kiss it again. His arm moves as she bothers him, leading with the fingertips, to wrap and hold around her waist. Lup’s still crying when Taako’s crusty, vacant gaze looks at her.

He looks at her and oh- that’s scary too. That makes the fear much worse.

“…?” His lips touch and part, almost a “-p” sound. He tries again, with hardly a breath behind it: “Lup…?”

She cups his face with one hand, forcing a smile through the tears dribbling fast and frightened from her chin into the nothing around them. The top side- she thinks its his right? His right eye is tracking back and forth for focus like whenever she wakes him up for something stupid, before he’s rested or really awake. It’s a touch of normal before the gulf of the uncanny opens up like the darkness of his left side.

She can see his left eyebrow and the fan of his lashes, the folds and creases both above and below- but not all the way around. There’s no eye, just like there isn’t enough cheek, and the locks of hair she was abusing don’t end so much as they blur and fade and reform of their own volition.

The darkness blankets, it cushions, and it supports. Lup herself is wrapped up in the quiet nothing and she can move and push it around like blankets- like swaddling. She sees Taako’s chest and its familiar scars, but some of that darkness won’t move: a pocket of empty space cupping his kidney almost to the navel, a void under his left shoulder that devours his heart. When she touches one of those empty places her hand goes through him and-

“Koko- oh my god-” Her voice breaks and the tears come roaring back and he’s so tired and so obviously out of it but he pulls on her with that arm at her waist. Because it’s still him, and he still cares, and he’s so broken and so tired but he cares. They lay together and she hugs him and kisses him and Taako just makes a soft, sleepy noise in his throat as both good eye and bad struggle to stay open.

“…Lup…” he closes them. He’s so tired, she can tell.

“I’m here- Taako, I- I got you…” she still sniffling, her words interrupted by hiccups and hard breaths. “I- I finally got you- I’m so sorry, Ko, I’m so-” He tugs- no, the pull doesn’t fade. Taako holds her because that’s what Lup needs, coming chest to chest and tangled with him. His nose brushes at her cheek as he finds space between the darkness and her head to rest. The kiss of his lips on her cheek is exhausting but deliberate and he loses out to that heavy slumber again.

“Lup…” But he’s better now, because she’s here. And she’s better now, because he’s here.

Lup twists and hugs and tangles with her brother in the quiet, and she cries until she can’t anymore. It’s a relief, finally, because she doesn’t cry until she falls asleep and she doesn’t cry until she has to suck it up and do something important: Lup cries until she can’t anymore. Until there’s just no more crying to be had, no more grief to gouge and pull out of her heart, no more fear to squeeze and wring out from her spine. She cries until she feels empty, but somehow still whole again with her brother’s circling arms and his peaceful face and the gentle nudge of his nose and cheek and the way he feels and how he breathes.

Taako’s here, and Lup’s here, and they’re finally here, together.

Lup finds the first peaceful sleep she’s had since Goldcliff, and the Raven Queen cocoons her weary children in her dedicated embrace, letting the silence of Eternity embrace and protect them. They need it, this reprieve, and Death’s love preserves this moment of rest for them.

But not all is silence in the void.

“…can you not work any faster?” Because the click of needles and whisper of threads is present as well, albeit not to its usual clip and elegance.

“He’s a multi-dimensional, fully realized creation,” Istus tuts to her friend and equal, looking up from the pattern of abilities and emotions in her lap. “Not a pair of socks.”

The clicking, slow, staggered, and clearly laborious, resumes. But though Death has a fountain of patience and a deep investment in the proper order of motions and events… she can’t quite let this one go.

“Did you just imply that socks aren’t real?”

The indignant silence of the needles is Destiny’s shrewd reply.