Actions

Work Header

These Unfinished Creatures

Chapter Text

Kravitz has an intimate relationship with death and dying. That happens, when you spend centuries working as an emissary for the Raven Queen. He’s watched as rituals and superstitions around death change, as funerary practices evolve and mourning fashions shift. He’s seen cities collapse and states rise. Kravitz has seen the fall of gods in his time with the Raven Queen.

This is still one of the oddest funerals he’s ever been to. There’s a suitable amount of guests for the visitation, but no one seems particularly sad. The deceased’s sister keeps putting her teacup down on top of the closed casket and Kravitz has spotted more than one guest leaning against it. The whole thing feels more like a party than a wake.

Far be it from Kravitz to tell other people how to mourn, but still.

When they arrived, Hecuba took one look at the crowd of mourners, muttered something about her estranged husband’s choice in friends, and then retreated to her office, leaving Kravitz to attend to their guests’ needs. It’s not a normal part of his job, but Kravitz quite likes Hecuba Roughridge, the dwarf woman who owns the funeral parlour where he’s procured employment as an undertaker while on assignment in the material plane. She has proper respect for death and all that entails, including keeping a small shrine to the Raven Queen. The shrine makes communicating with the astral plane very convenient. Coming up from the morgue to watch over one funeral had seemed like the least he could do. Hecuba’s taken an unexpected interest in him, fussing over his perpetually cold hands, knitting him gloves and scarves in an attempt to keep him warm.

It’s not his fault he’s got poor circulation—being dead and lacking a heartbeat to pump blood through your veins will do that to you. Kravitz himself never notices the temperature difference until his hand accidentally brushes against that of a living person and they jump out of their skin and start exclaiming about how cold he is. Hecuba likes to mutter under her breath about seedy landlords trying to kill her employees with poorly insulated tenements while she gifts him with knitwear.

Maybe the reason Kravitz likes her is because Hecuba reminds him a little of his real boss, who also has a tendency to be overly concerned for him.

Kravitz, if he’s being honest, isn’t entirely comfortable interacting with the living. It’s not something he does a lot of, as a bounty hunter. Empathy, emotional connection—not really his strong suit. Lurking in the doorway of the visitation room, though, had sounded doable. He’d assumed all he needed to do for Hecuba was stand around looking appropriately sympathetic, a well dressed accessory to match the flocked wallpaper and brocade settees, present primarily to ensure the tea didn’t run dry. People would cry, exchange stories about the deceased as they nibbled on a selection of austere baked goods and drank the weak tea, and then they’d go home and take the messiness of their emotions with them.

As Kravitz watches, the deceased’s sister takes a bite of a scone and then laughs so hard at something the man talking to her says she chokes.

Things are not going the way he’d thought.

“What’s with the face, handsome? Not that it’s not a good face, but you look positively dour.”

Kravitz looks away from the sister having her back heartily slapped by a giggling friend and into—black. A semi-opaque black crepe veil attached to a very elaborate black bonnet covers the—woman’s, maybe?—face. Kravitz has the vague impression of fine features and elven ears beneath it, but it’s hard to make out specifics. The person’s dress is ruffled, high-collared, and elegant—the height of fashion, really—and every bit of it is pitch-perfect mourning attire: no lace, no shiny fabric, nothing patterned. Kravitz has a lot of experience with mourners and he’s seen widows less dedicated to observing all the proper rituals associated with the death of their loved one than this person.

It’s doubly strange, than, that they don’t seem the slightest bit upset.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” they say. “What’s your name? How’d you know the deceased?”

“I’m Kravitz,” Kravitz says, after a moment, in his best work accent. “I never had the pleasure of meeting the deceased, I’m afraid. I work here.”

They cock their head. “Huh. That explains the suit,” they say. “You know, not many men can pull off the black-on-black-on-black thing you’ve got going on. I’m a fan.”

Kravitz thinks he’s maybe being flirted with at a funeral. He’s really not sure how to deal with that. “You, um, you were close? To the deceased?”

“Oh yeah, real close,” they say, and laugh, for some reason. “Nobody closer to him than me in this room.”

Kravitz pauses, looks at the deceased’s sister.

“Oh. Right.” They wave a dismissive hand, wrapped in a black lace glove. “Well, yeah, obviously. But we were close too. Family.”

“Of course,” Kravitz agrees, because going along with this seems much easier than questioning—anything, right now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name?”

There is a long pause, as if they weren’t expecting that question. “... Justin.” They hold out their stylishly clad hand for Kravitz to take and he does, after a beat, bending to press his lips to the back of it.

Justin twitches on contact. “Oh boy! Boy howdy, that's—very chilly.”

“My apologies,” Kravitz says, drawing back immediately because, yes, he definitely is very cold, and really he needs to stop trying to do human interaction because he's demonstrably bad at it.

“No, no worries,” Justin says, rubbing their hands together. “Just a bit of a surprise. Very on-brand though, with the whole funeral thing. I appreciate your commitment. The black, the cold, the handsome-serious-man-brooding-in-the-corner aesthetic.” Justin leans in surprisingly close and reaches up towards Kravitz’s hair. Kravitz pulls back instinctively because he’s only just met this person and so far he’s just—very confused.

Justin stops.

“Shit,” they say, pulling their hand back. “Sorry, my dude. You’re right. That’s rude. Just—are you rocking black feathers in your hair on purpose? Because I’m into it.”

Kravitz had not, in fact, put any raven feathers in his hair when he’d tied his braids back into a neat bun that morning. If there are feathers appearing on his person it means the Raven Queen is anxious for an update on what he’s supposed to be accomplishing in the material plane, which is definitely not being maybe-flirted with by a mourning elf at the world’s cheeriest funeral.

He reaches up and plucks the feathers from his hair, giving Justin a tight smile as he tucks them into the pocket of his waistcoat. “Must have got caught there on the way in today,” he says. “Terribly sorry. It’s not very professional to walk around with feathers in my hair.”

Justin turns their attention to the visitation as a whole, gestures to the laughter and conversation happening around them. Kravitz still can’t see their face, but Justin very successfully manages to convey an air of look who you’re talking to.

It’s a good point. Kravitz, in his tailored cutaway coat, and Justin, in their dress, are by far the most formally dressed people in the room. Even Kravitz’s cufflinks are mourning appropriate—silver skulls with chips of obsidian for eyes. The other men in the room are in day clothes with black armbands. Most of the women present have at least opted for muted colours, except for the deceased’s sister, whose bright red dress would be out of place… honestly, anywhere except the stage or some of the seedier streets of Neverwinter. Her nod to mourning is the same kind of black armband the men are wearing, except hers is trimmed with lace.

“Well, yes,” Kravitz agrees, after a moment. “But most of them probably aren’t getting paid to be here.”

Justin lets out a bark of startled laughter and the two of them get a few looks from the other mourners, although no one seems particularly annoyed. Just amused.

Kravitz actually can’t remember the last time he made someone laugh like that. He can’t help but smile back at Justin, despite the fact that a visitation is a completely inappropriate setting for him to feel this pleased with himself. “Sorry. I’m sure no one had to be paid to be at your… family member’s funeral.”

“Cousin,” Justin says, after a beat. “It’s cool. Death is the next great adventure or whatever. I’m sure you’re very death positive, working at a funeral parlour and everything. I’m into that. I mean, hoping not to die myself anytime soon, obviously, but no need to stand around looking sad at this particular funeral, my man.”

Kravitz really doesn’t know how to take any of this. He looks at the casket again. One of the deceased’s friends works as a carpenter and put it together, which Hecuba had been annoyed about. She makes a lot of money from coffin sales. Kravitz hadn’t even been the one to prepare the body. All the trappings of the funeral—the flowers, the food—had arrived with the guests.

It was… odd. There’s no real reason to use a funeral parlour at all if the family had no interest in any of their services. They might as well save the fee and have the visitation at home. There was a chance the deceased had been a devotee of the Raven Queen, but Kravitz feels like someone would have brought it up. Hecuba, at least, who knows Kravitz as a particular devout follower of the goddess of death. There would also be some kind of offering to her, which so far no one seems to be making.

He’s trying to think of something else to say to Justin to keep this going—offering them a cup of tea, maybe?—when the militia shows up.

“Oh good,” Justin says, sounding very satisfied as the door opens and two uniformed officers walk in. “I was wondering when the show would start.”

“I should—deal with this,” Kravitz says, giving Justin an apologetic smile. “Excuse me.”

He crosses to the two officers hovering in the hallway, putting on his most professional face. “Excuse me, officers. We’re in the middle of a visitation. What’s this about, if you don’t mind me asking?”

The older of the two, a human man with sharp eyes and a bushy mustache, looks past Kravitz, into the room. “So it’s true then?” he asks. “Taako’s dead? That elf’s a slippery son of a bitch. Wouldn’t put it past him to plant his own obituary in the paper in hopes of escaping the investigation.”

Kravitz is never doing Hecuba a favour again. She can knit him all the gloves she wants. He belongs in the morgue, with his fellow dead people. This is outside the scope of his job.

“I really don’t think this is the appropriate place for this,” he says. “Can we talk in another room?”

“Officers.” Justin’s speaking in a noticeably higher voice, as they walk over. “You’re here about my cousin’s death, I assume?”

“Pretty sure Taako’s only surviving family member was his twin sister,” the other officer, a halfling woman says, looking up at Justin. “What’s your name, ma’am?”

“Justine,” Justin—or maybe Justine—says. “Taako and Lup were raised by my mother for a short period. Things got confused, after she died. I came for the funeral. I know what you think he did, but this seems… bad, don’t you think? Interrupting his funeral to satisfy your own suspicions? It’s like you have a vendetta against him or something. I mean, if I didn’t know better I might think that.”

Kravitz is missing something very significant here.

“Our top suspect in the Glamor Springs poisonings dies mysteriously? We’re just doing our due diligence.” The human holds out a hand. “I’m Captain Bane, ma’am. We’re just trying to uncover the truth.”

Justin(e) doesn’t give Captain Bane their hand. “You’ve made up your mind,” they say. “Maybe you should start looking at other suspects. Taako’s dead. You can’t arrest him for the murders.”

Kravitz wonders if Justin flirted with him so Kravitz would be less inclined to like the militia when they showed up. He wonders if the reason Justin waited by the door to the room with him, dressed more formally than anyone else, was so they could to cut off the officers when they arrived. He wonders if Justin is related to Taako and his sister at all, or if they’re just a friend or even someone hired to do this—to stop the militia from bothering the mourners.

Kravitz considers all these questions, then decides he doesn’t really care.

“I really must insist you leave,” he says, in his most professional, polished voice, ticking the level of distinguished in his fake accent up a few notches. “I’d hate to inform Mrs. Roughridge that the militia was harassing our customers. She’d bring it before the Merchant’s Guild.”

The threat of involving the Merchant’s Guild is enough to pull the Captain up short, although his companion doesn’t seem swayed. She’s not the one leading the questioning of Kravitz’s customer, so Kravitz isn’t worried. Kravitz knows men like Captain Bane. He’s spent centuries dealing with people who value power, reputation, and themselves above all else. Bane may not be on the level of a lich or the leader of a death cult, but he’s still a particular kind of selfish that Kravitz recognizes. At this petty level, it’s easy to appeal to Bane’s sense of self-preservation to get him to make the choice Kravitz wants.

Kravitz stays exactly where he is, smiling pleasantly with his hands folded demurely behind his back, eyes locked with Bane’s.

Bane’s gaze slides away from Kravitz’s and he turns to his companion. “We’ve got everything we need here, Hurley,” Bane says. “Come along. We can always question the sister later if we need to.”

Hurley waits for Bane’s back to be turned to raise her eyebrows at Kravitz, a clear acknowledgment that she knows exactly what just happened. She looks at Justin. “Let your cousin know we’ll be in touch. Sorry for your loss,” she says, and follows the Captain.

Kravitz waits until the front door closes behind them to turn back to Justin. “I apologize,” Kravitz says. “We really are a very professional establishment most of the time.”

“Nah, that was great,” Justin says. Kravitz can hear the smile in their voice. “Can’t say I’ve never tried threatening a cop to get them to go away before, but it doesn’t usually work.”

Kravitz is startled into a laugh of his own, relaxing his posture as he reaches up to rub the back of his neck. “I—I wasn’t threatening,” he says, because undertakers probably don’t usually threaten militia captains.

“No, you definitely were. No need to be modest, homie. Cha’boy appreciates it,” Justin says, which perhaps answers the pronoun question. Justin tilts his head, then raises a hand towards Kravitz’s hair again. “May I?”

Kravitz nods before he can really think it through and Justin reaches up, plucking another feather from Kravitz’s hair. He twirls it between two silk-clad fingers.

“You’re molting again,” he says. “Run into another bird between here and the next room?”

“I—sorry, I need to go,” Kravitz says, because three summons from his goddess is too many to continue to ignore. “I’ll be back as soon as possible. Please give my apologies to your cousin if she notices my absence.”

“Oh, we’ll be wrapping up pretty soon, don’t worry about it,” Justin says. “We’ve got all we needed.” He holds the feather out to Kravitz. “Nice meeting you, handsome.”

Kravitz takes the feather from Justin and does his best not to overthink the flirting and the multiple times he’s been called handsome now. He met the militia officers. He can read between the lines. “You too,” he says, and then thinks—fuck it. Kravitz has been stuck on the material plane for nearly two months and this is the most human impulse he’s felt in centuries. He takes Justin’s hand in his again and kisses the back of it again before starting towards the stairs.

Kravitz promptly ruins the debonair impression by remembering where they are and pausing to turn back to Justin. “And—I’m sorry for your loss.”

Justin’s loud laugh follows him down the hallway as he definitely doesn’t run away.

*

Hecuba’s tidy shrine to the Raven Queen is in the basement of the funeral parlour, beside the morgue. It was once a closet, but in a building as steeped in death as the Roughridge Family Funeral Parlour, there’s no need for anything ostentatious. The whole of the converted rowhouse and its daily activities functions as a temple to the Raven Queen. The preparation of the dead, the quiet presence of mourners, the reverence for life and what comes after—all of it has, over the years, sunken into the very bones of the house to power the shrine at its centre.

Places like this, where death is ever-present, are places where the barrier between the astral and material planes thin, where it’s easier for the Raven Queen to hear the prayers of mortals or, in Kravitz’s case, for the Raven Queen to communicate with her emissary.

Kravitz kneels in front of the shrine and places all three of the raven feathers on the small obsidian dish that serves as offering plate for the alter. If Hecuba’s noticed Kravitz’s habit of praying to the Raven Queen more often than most non-clerics, she hasn’t mentioned it. Kravitz likes to think she appreciates someone making regular use of the shrine when it seems like fewer and fewer mourners do.

Kravitz takes a completely unnecessary breath and bows his head.

Some gods have statues. Temples dedicated to Pan, for example, are typically very heavy on wooden carvings of their god. Others, like those dedicated to the Raven Queen, are big on symbols. For obvious reasons, the raven is a very popular choice in her temples. Kravitz, who’s spent centuries serving his goddess, couldn’t have advised a sculptor on what a statute of the Raven Queen should look like—she’s mostly just the impression of shifting darkness, feathers, and movement when you look at her directly—but it’s still disconcerting when statues of very literal birds, like the one Hecuba has in her shrine, start speaking to him with her voice.

“Kravitz,” the Raven Queen says, from the mouth of the little stone bird in front of him. “Three calls before you answered. I’m surprised.”

“I apologize,” Kravitz says, looking up. “Hecuba had me supervising a visitation. It took a moment to extract myself.”

The Raven Queen lets out a cackling laugh and Kravitz sighs, sitting back on his heels.

“Oh, Kravitz,” she says. “She had you interacting with the mortals? My poor reaper.”

There was once a time when the Raven Queen kept Kravitz at arms length, when he was completely in awe of Her and all She was. It’s hard to maintain that distance after the first few centuries. Sometimes Kravitz misses it.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he says. “I did fine. I just—it was an unusual funeral.”

The Queen hums and leans down to peck at the obsidian dish in front of her. The feathers sitting on the plate fizzle into faint smoke and its surface clouds over briefly, then clears to show an image of the astral plane. More precisely, of his domain within it—the Eternal Stockade.

He really does miss home. It took forever to remember to breathe and maintaining the illusion that hides his red eyes got old fast.

“It’s still happening?”

“Another soul this morning,” the Raven Queen says, voice suddenly grave. “Whisked directly from the Eternal Stockade to the material plane and then hidden from my sight. I don’t need to tell you that this has gone on far too long.”

She doesn’t.

Someone in Neverwinter is stealing souls. The Raven Queen wants to know how it’s being accomplished, who’s responsible, and what purpose those souls serve. The perpetrator needs to be stopped and sent to The Eternal Stockade along with the reclaimed souls they took.

In some ways it’s the normal sort of job Kravitz is tasked with—a dangerous necromancer is breaking the laws of life and death and Kravitz needs to right the balance. Except that once he’d crossed over to the material plane, the missing souls didn’t seem to be anywhere. Wayward souls, even those being kept by a necromancer for some dark purpose, should have been obvious to him. Kravitz should have been able to trace their energies—to find them and release them back to the astral plane where they belonged. Tracking souls in the material plane is well within his capabilities as a reaper.

Instead, he’s scrambling for any sort of clue and stuck on this plane until he can figure out who’s stealing souls and what they could possibly be doing to make them just—disappear.

Kravitz is good at his job. He really is. The Raven Queen entrusted him with this case precisely because he’s good at it. One of her most trusted servants. It’s just… tougher to crack than it has any right to be, has led to one of the more unusual assignments of his undeath.

Kravitz has opportunities undercover that he doesn’t as a reaper. Necromancers, theoretically, will be much friendlier and open to talking with an undertaker than the avenging emissary of the Raven Queen sent to pass judgement on their unnatural activities. And he has managed to shut down a few small cults off the side of his desk in the weeks since his arrival, none which were able to tell him anything about someone stealing souls from the astral plane. So far, none of them have even known taking souls from the astral plane was a possibility.

Kravitz rubs his hands over his face. “I didn’t sense anything on this side of things today,” he admits. “Whoever they are, their wards are strong.”

“I don’t want to pull you from this case, Kravitz,” the Raven Queen says, and Kravitz freezes in place, peeking at the statue from behind his fingers. Not wanting to pull him implies she’s thinking about it. “But you may leave me with no choice. Perhaps a fresh set of eyes is needed.”

“No,” Kravitz says quickly. “No, I’ll go out again and see what I can find today. I just need a little more time. I’ve guarded the Eternal Stockade for centuries, my Queen. Please. Let me be the one to protect it.”

The Queen sighs, which is a very strange thing to watch a bird do. “You’re lucky you’re my favourite, my dear,” she says. “Report back to me tomorrow with some progress.”

“Yes, my Queen.” He bows his head again, eyes locked firmly on the familiar sight of the Eternal Stockade in the dish. He watches as the image fades back to obsidian, to stone so highly polished it shows his reflection: his high cheekbones and dark skin, the lighter markings around his eyes and nose that had, when he was human, marked him as someone destined for service to the Raven Queen. A calling that led to a choice he hasn’t yet regretted. He likes to think—although it’s at least mildly blasphemous to presume anything about a god—that the Raven Queen hasn’t regretted offering him that choice either.

He wants to keep it that way.

Kravitz looks up at the statue as it settles, ready to return to its unanimated form. “I’ll have something for you tomorrow,” he says, and the raven nods once before the life fades from it.

Kravitz has no idea how he’s going to keep his promise.

*

Despite its name, Neverwinter is cold as autumn progresses and winter creeps closer. Fog rolls in from the sea and temperatures drop, laying heavy in the cobblestone streets and adding an ethereal quality to the light emanating from the city’s newly installed street lamps. Kravitz is grateful for the chill, if he’s honest. It’s much easier to disguise his own lack of body heat when everyone else is complaining about an inability to get warm. The cold also has the added bonus of keeping people inside unless they have somewhere to be, which means that as Kravitz reaches the shadier parts of Neverwinter—the narrow, dimly lit streets by the docks where the cobblestones turn to hard packed dirt—there aren’t many people around.

With no witnesses, it’s easy to let go of his corporeal form and slide into a nearby wall. Dismissing the construct of his body feels a lot like unbuttoning his waistcoat and shirt collar after a long day. He can relax, finally, and it’s lovely, except that being a glowing ball of soulfire does attract attention if he’s not inhabiting something to keep the glow down.

Kravitz drifts from object to object, making his way down the street towards the entrance to the Lonely Hearts Cantina. Dimly lit and semi-neglected, it’s one of the more popular hangouts for Neverwinter’s middling warlocks and shadier wizards. The entrance is at the bottom of a set of steep stairs and there’s no sign above the door to indicate what’s inside, but the bar is an open secret among Neverwinter’s magic users. Kravitz has broken cases before just by listening to conversations inside.

He’s tried it already, for this case, to no avail, but he’s not sure what else to do.

Kravitz ghosts through a wall and settles in a lamp to observe the bar. The Lonely Hearts isn’t known for quality food or drink, but some version of it has existed along the docks for decades now. There’s sawdust spread over the rough wooden floor and as many seats as the owner could cram into the small space as physically possible.

The bar is usually packed by the end of the night, but it’s early enough now that there aren’t many patrons. It makes spotting the dwarf sitting in the corner, nursing a drink and chatting with a couple of humans easy, especially because he and his friends have been on Kravitz’s mind all day.

Merle fucking Highchurch.

Hecuba and her husband haven’t lived together in quite some time and Kravitz and Merle have never officially met, but Kravitz still feels like he knows Merle well. Anyone who’d abandon their wife and children doesn’t sit well with him, even if Merle’s been making an effort with both Mookie and Mavis lately, according to Hecuba. Kravitz has little experience with children—dealing with criminal cases for the Raven Queen means, thank the Queen, that he doesn’t run into the spirits of children often—and his own childhood is a very distant memory, but he’s not sure Merle’s the best influence on Hecuba’s kids. Kravitz’s completely out of his depth with Mookie, but Mavis seems like a nice person.

Merle doesn’t, as evidenced by his presence in the Cantina the day of his friend’s funeral.

It’s not what he’s here for, but Kravitz moves from the lamp to the ceiling, drifting closer to Merle’s table and darting into the portrait hanging beside their table when none of them are looking.

“—going to be insufferable until it’s done,” Merle is saying. “I don’t envy you.”

Merle’s human companions are mismatched. One is huge, a brawler if Kravitz ever saw one, dressed in the casual clothing of someone who works with his hands—no tie and shirt collar rumpled. He’s vaguely familiar, so Kravitz thinks he might have been at the funeral. The other man is rounder, shorter, and starting to go bald. He hair a pair of spectacles perched on his nose and his suit is blue, which is… a distinctive choice.

“Lup’s been keeping him occupied for the most part,” the round man says, taking a sip of his beer and giving Merle a wry smile. “If you want anything to eat I think we’ve got enough bread and cake to open a bakery right now.”

“Is he letting you eat it?” the big man asks. “When he stayed with me and Jules he kept making us dinner and then tossing it out as soon as we tried to eat.”

“It goes back and forth. I think it helps now that he’s sure he didn’t have anything to do with what happened.”

Merle shakes his head. “You need to knock some sense into him,” he says. “Get Lup to do it for you. He won’t smack her back.”

The big man snorts at that. “Yes he will,” he says. “Last time we went over to Barry and Lup’s for dinner, Taa—they had a duel on the staircase.”

“We’ve still got scorch marks on the carpet,” the other man—Barry, Kravitz thinks—agrees, as he glances around the bar. “Careful, Magnus.”

Magnus shrugs. “I don’t think the militia’s hanging around the Lonely Hearts Cantina. Isn’t that why you suggested it?”

Barry taps his fingers against the bottle in his hand. “Partially,” he says. “I’m… multitasking. You know this is a popular meeting place for necromancers?”

Merle and Magnus both pause at that. So does Kravitz because are you fucking kidding? If all he’d had to do to make the last month and a half more productive was eavesdrop on Hecuba’s husband and his shitty friends, he’s going to be very upset.

“... No?” Magnus says, after a moment. “I mean, I guess I knew you came here? I thought that was all, you know, the twins wanting to hustle people out of their shoes.”

Kravitz fights the urge to do something silly, like move. He doesn’t need the necromancer sitting in front of him growing suspicious because the man in portrait beside their table suddenly started rubbing his temples, but really. Hecuba’s husband is friends with a necromancer. Of course he is.

“Well, yes, that too,” Barry says. “But it’s also… a good place to learn about some of the work being done outside of the university.”

“Barry.” Magnus puts his beer down and glances around the bar. “I thought we were all keeping a low profile until the whole murder investigation thing is done with. Hanging out with necromancers in seedy bars doesn’t sound low profile to me.”

Barry waves a hand between himself and Magnus. “What do you call what we’re doing, bud?”

“Well, that’s…”

“What’s up?” Merle asks, cutting Magnus off. “I’m guessing you brought us here for a reason.”

“You know how the university gives me cadavers sometimes?”

Kravitz really doesn’t understand how academia works. Or what could possibly possess someone to donate their body to an institution like the University of Neverwinter, which has a whole department dedicated to the study of necromancy.

Ostensibly it’s a respectable department, with professors who don’t actually practice dark magic, but Kravitz has been around a long time. In his experience, being academically interested in necromancy is a temporary condition. One followed very shortly by becoming a practicing necromancer. There’s only so much reading and studying someone could do before they’re tempted to try a spell or two. While the occasional spell might not hurt, anyone who spends their time reading necromancy texts is going to eventually want to try something bigger, and then it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to attempting to bind a human soul to your whims in order to elongate your own life.

“I guess so, yeah? I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it.” Magnus looks a little green around the gills at the mention of corpses. Kravitz decides he likes him best.

Barry leans forward, lowering his voice. “They’ve been going missing,” he says. “I had three in my lab and now one’s gone. I reported it, obviously, but when I did I was told it was probably students playing a prank.”

“I mean, if they’re studying necromancy that doesn’t seem unreasonable,” Magnus says. “Think of the pranks you could pull with a dead body.”

“Sure,” Barry agreed. “There’s always a bit of that, but this is different. I was asking around, seeing if it had turned up anywhere, you know? And I’m not the only one who’s missing a body.”

Merle taps his wooden fingers on the table. Hecuba says he’s favoured by Pan. Kravitz really questions the taste of some gods. “You think some necromancer is stealing bodies from the university?”

“I don’t know what else to think,” Barry says. “Who else would want them? They’re all donated. It’s not like taking bodies from a grave. Nobody’s going to get mad that they’re missing except for some academics, and I mean—we’re not exactly intimidating. The university’s not exactly itching to blow the whistle on it either. Think of the outrage.”

It’s actually quite clever, Kravitz has to give the masterminds behind the plot that. No murder, no body snatching or grave robbing—just a little light robbery. It’s a good case for him to keep an eye on for the future, but not his top priority tonight. The bar is filling out now that it’s later and there are more clusters of people he should investigate.

“I wouldn’t mess with you. Lup’s your girlfriend. Also, you’re a powerful wizard who knows a lot of shit about necromancy,” Magnus says, reaching out to pat Barry’s shoulder.

“So how many bodies do you think are missing?” Merle asks. “I don’t know if Hecuba’d tell the kids about misplacing a customer, but Mavis hasn’t said anything about a corpse going missing from the funeral parlour or anything. You think it’s just you?”

“I don’t know,” Barry says. “Not any exact numbers, but it’s been going on for a while. As near as I can tell, about two months now.”

Kravitz, about to leave the portrait and head towards a table of wizards all dressed in black, stops.

Two months could be a coincidence. It could be nothing. But Kravitz, again, has been doing this a long time. He’s learned not to put too much stock in coincidence and body snatchings that started up around the same time souls started disappearing from the astral plane isn’t something he can ignore.

“Shit,” Merle says. “That’s a long time.”

Barry nods, face grim. “And they’re getting less cautious. Yesterday they took two bodies.”

“That’s a lot of… people to steal in one day,” Magnus says. “Damn, Barry.”

“Yeah,” Barry agrees. “Listen, I know we were supposed to just have a few beers and relax tonight, but would you mind if we did some… asking around?”

Magnus downs the rest of his beer. “No problem,” he says. “It’s weird to be here without you-know-who anyway. Doesn’t feel right.”

Merle grins at Barry. “You know how I feel about a good quest for the truth,” he says. “I don’t mind.”

“Thanks, guys.” Barry pushes himself up from the table and Merle and Magnus follow suit. Kravitz hesitates, watching as the three of them move in different directions, then follows Barry. Tailing a necromancer is the riskier choice, but he also seems like the most likely to ask the right questions. Kravitz has no confidence in Merle and Magnus seems more… inclined to action than careful thought.

Plus, Barry heads right to the table of wizards dressed all in black and that was Kravitz’s first instinct too. Necromancers tend to have a certain commitment to their theme.

“Hey,” Barry says, stopping beside their table and waving awkwardly. “You, uh, you’re followers of Orcus, right?”

It’s really not Kravitz’s night. Day. Fuck, it hasn’t been his anything in a couple months now. Of course the wizards dressed like they’re in mourning worship the demon hell bent on ousting his goddess from the astral plane. Kravitz settles into another lamp and glares at them.

“What’s it to you?” one of the women asks, looking Barry over and obviously dismissing him on sight. Kravitz can’t say he blames her. Barry’s not exactly intimidating.

As if to prove the point, Barry adjusts his glasses. “Well, you see, I’m something of a necromancer myself, but I’ve been having trouble getting my hands on… certain ingredients. I was wondering if you knew where I might find them?”

The woman and her friends exchange a glance and then laugh in Barry’s face.

“Are you—fuck—are you, a stranger, asking us where to find dead bodies?” she asks, between giggles. “Orcus bless me, I think I might bust out of my corset.”

“Fuck off, narc,” one of her friends adds, helpfully, in case Barry didn’t get the message.

Kravitz stares down at Barry’s head as he slumps away from the group and reevaluates his chances of getting information from anyone tonight. Apparently being an academic doesn’t translate into having common sense, and Barry and his friends poking around the Lonely Hearts, asking questions about dead bodies with absolutely no subtlety means the place is burned for the night. If Kravitz comes in later and starts asking the same sorts of questions, he’ll be shut down completely.

Kravitz leaves the bar and lets his body reform in the alley beside the building. After spending time incorporeal, this form feels... tight. Especially the eyes, with the added layer of illusion keeping them a dull brown. Kavitz rubs them and does his best not to picture the conversation he and the Raven Queen are going to have tomorrow. She won’t be upset with him, but she’ll I’m-not-angry-just-disappointed him for sure and then she’ll recall him from the material plane. Kravitz wants to go home, but he doesn’t want the Raven Queen to task some other member of her retinue with this job. Whoever’s stealing souls from the Eternal Stockade has made it personal by being so infuriatingly hard to trace.

When Kravitz gets his hands on them, he’s going to show them exactly why you don’t cheat the Grim Reaper.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Kravitz heads to the university. It’s one of the city’s centerpieces, a jewel in Neverwinter’s crown. The university’s buildings are a striking mishmash, some have been around for centuries and some are brand new. Its graduates are at the top of their fields. Scholars flock to the University of Neverwinter because it’s one of the oldest and most renowned institutions on Abeir-Toril, never mind Faerun.

On this particular day, the university’s eclectic architecture is working against its inhabitants, creating tunnels that channel the stiff autumn wind and whip skirts and coats around the legs of pedestrians. Kravitz is bundled up in one of Hecuba’s knitting projects as he works his way across campus, towards the Department of Necromantic Science. Barry may be a lousy interrogator, but Kravitz? He’s quite good. He’ll find out what Barry knows and do his own investigating from there.

The necromancy building is newer and several stories tall. Kravitz steps inside and loosens his scarf as he glances around the airy atrium. There’s a surprising amount of light coming in from outside, although the walls are hung with images of dead spirits and skeletons in case anyone was unsure what building they were in. There’s a painting of a raven beside the elevator that makes Kravitz’s lip curl in disgust. Necromancers who have no respect for the Raven Queen aren’t new, but it still upsets him when it’s thrust in his face like this.

He pushes the call button for the elevator and steps inside. Professor Barold J. Bluejeans has an office on the third floor, according to the university’s registrar. He teaches a single class and is considered part of the research faculty in the department. If Kravitz hadn’t watched him completely fail to have a normal conversation the night before, he might have worried about just walking into a necromancer’s office, but Barry Bluejeans doesn't strike him as an intimidating figure.

The elevator lets Kravitz out on the third floor. Barry’s office is on the far end of the hall. His door has a frosted window and a little brass nameplate on it, engraved with the professor’s name. Kravitz can hear the faint murmur of voices on the other side and briefly considers spying before deciding he’ll try the direct approach first, this time.

Kravitz raises a gloved hand and knocks.

The conversation pauses. A moment later, the door swings open and Kravitz is face-to-face with a pretty elven woman. A familiar woman, with brown, freckled skin and bright hair—the sister of the deceased from yesterday’s funeral. She’s in all red again and even the mourning armband is gone, which isn’t protocol at all.

They stare at each other for a long moment, then she frowns. “I know you,” she says. “You work for Hecuba, don’t you? How did this happen?” She turns and looks over her shoulder. “Babe, Taako’s undertaker is here.”

“What?”

“The undertaker from Taako’s funeral,” she says. “Handsome, dressed all in black? Stood awkwardly in the corner the whole time?”

Kravitz sighs mentally and holds out a hand to the woman. “Kravitz,” he says. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“It’s all good,” she says, and shakes his hand. “I’m Lup. Barry is my partner. I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but, uh, do you stalk all your clients?” She pauses. “Is this a Merle thing? Did he not give you the money for the service? Because we definitely all gave him our share of the fee.”

Kravitz wishes he’d paid more attention to the name’s of the family at the funeral the day before. He might have saved himself from this. “No, this is… a coincidence, actually. I was hoping to speak to your partner about his work.”

Lup’s eyebrows practically raise to her hairline. “Babe,” she says. “Babe, this undertaker wants to talk to you about your work.”

Barry appears in the doorway then, looking wary. “I’m… not looking for any donations right now,” he says. “I get all my specimens from the university, so…”

“That’s not why I’m here,” Kravitz says, unable to keep his distaste at the thought from creeping into his tone of voice. “That’s—no.”

“Cool,” Lup says, after a beat. “I guess come in, if you’re not trying to sell us bodies.”

She moves aside and Barry follows, leaving just enough room for Kravitz to step into the office with them. Lup closes the door and leans casually against it while Barry moves to sit at his desk. There are papers, books, and diagrams scattered over every surface of the room. It was small to begin with, but Barry’s made it smaller still by lining the walls with bookshelves. There’s only just enough room for the rest of the furniture in the room—Barry’s desk and chair, two small armchairs, and a tiny table holding a kettle, a haphazard stack of cups, and biscuit tin.

Barry gestures towards the chairs. “Please sit,” he says, rolling up the diagram he’d had spread out on his desk. “What can I help you with?”

Kravitz’s mind goes blank. He’d definitely had a plan coming in, but Lup had thrown him off. She’s a lot like her cousin, like Justin, and that’s—Kravitz had decided Justin had to be some family friend that got roped into chasing off the militia, but apparently not. There’s too strong a family resemblance even just going off the way they speak. “It’s, uh, about necromancy,” he says.

Barry glances over Kravitz’s head, at Lup, and then looks at him again. “I assumed.”

Kravitz pulls himself together. He leans forward. “I am here to discuss bodies,” he says. “More precisely, body snatchings.”

Barry sits up straighter, suddenly paying a lot more attention. “Has the funeral parlour experienced thefts?” he asks. “There’s been—I don’t want to say an outbreak, but there have been a number of specimens stolen from the university labs. I assumed it was isolated to our labs.”

“I’d heard about one or two cadavers going missing from the university,” he said. “From a friend. Are you saying it’s more than a couple?”

“A friend?” Lup repeats.

“It’s been going on for about two months, as far as I can tell,” Barry says, leaning towards Kravitz. “It must be over a dozen bodies by now. Some people won’t confirm whether they’re missing a specimen, but they’re cagey about it. And some of my colleagues have confirmed they’re missing multiple bodies.”

Kravitz doesn’t want to think about what an ambitious necromancer could get up to with that many bodies and the souls missing from the Eternal Stockade. He grimaces. “Fuck.”

“Exactly.” Barry’s grinning. “You get it. It’s bad. There’s no telling what some cult could be doing with those bodies. I’ve been trying to think of spells that require that much… raw material, and it’s more than most rituals require.”

“It’s more likely a series of rituals of some kind,” Kravitz agrees, because it’s true. The time span involved means the initial bodies taken wouldn’t be much use to the thief or thieves by now. “Unless there’s a very powerful stasis spell involved.”

“That’s true,” Barry agrees. “But maintaining the stasis would be—”

“A waste of spell slots when you had a refreshing supply from the university, unless you were planning something very big.” Kravitz rubs a gloved hand over his mouth. “So a series of rituals that someone’s been working on for a couple of months. Spells that don’t require a body’s soul.” Spells that required souls and bodies separately were darker because they generally called for two deaths. In some ways, this necromancer is being considerate—donated bodies and souls that had already passed over to the astral plane. No murder involved.

It still violates every natural law of life and death Kravitz is sworn to maintain.

“I hadn’t considered that,” Barry says, reaching for a pad of paper and the fountain pen sitting on his desk. “The spells must not require souls at all if they’re just stealing bodies. That narrows things down considerably.”

“Hey.” Lup plants her hands on the desk, raising an eyebrow at both of them as she leans over it. “Not that you two nerds aren’t adorable, but what friend at the university, Crypt Keeper?” she asks. “Barry’s been looking into this for a couple weeks now and nobody’s wanted to talk about it until you show up, the day after my brother’s funeral, to question him. Little weird.”

If Lup wasn’t there, Kravitz is pretty sure he could have gotten everything he needed out of Barry without breaking a sweat. It’s a shame, really. “My friend helps prepare the bodies for the labs,” he says, because that seems like a job that should exist. “He asked me not to bring him up in case fingers were pointed. He’s not in a faculty position. He doesn’t have tenure protecting him.”

Lup is obviously still skeptical, but Barry nods like that makes perfect sense to him.

“I don’t want to get a grad student in trouble, Lup,” Barry says. “Especially not someone from necromancy. You know we’ve got a bad reputation with the other departments anyway.”

“If your colleagues would try to be a little less spooky they wouldn’t have it so hard,” Lup says, rolling her eyes. She straightens and perches on the arm of Barry’s chair, which means her bustle is more or less squished against Barry’s chest, pressing him back in his seat, although he doesn’t appear bothered by it. “So, what, you thought you’d just ask around the department until you found someone willing to talk to you?”

Kravitz stares Lup down. He shrugs.

Lup’s eyes narrow ever so slightly and then she snorts and relaxes. “Yeah, that’s been Barry’s strategy too.”

“Hey. It could have worked,” Barry says. “I didn’t expect them to laugh at me.”

“Babe, you can’t just ask people if they’re stealing corpses.” Lup pats Barry’s arm. “I love you, but you deserved exactly the response you got from the baby necromancers.”

“You’ve been investigating?” Kravitz knows there’s no useful information to be gleaned from Barry’s trip to the Lonely Hearts Cantina, but maybe there’ve been more successful inquires elsewhere.

“I’ve… done a bit of it,” he says. “Not a lot. It’s very preliminary.”

“What he means is unsuccessful,” Lup says. “We’ve been busy. We had a funeral to plan.”

“Ah. Yes.” Kravitz keeps forgetting. In his defense, they’re making it very easy to forget that they’re in mourning. He doesn’t want to judge, but it seems like Justin might have been the only one in the family who was especially close to Lup’s brother. Then again, apparently the militia was investigating him for murder when he died. It made sense that there was some… conflicting emotions there.

Lup shrugs, elaborate and exaggerated, and stands. “It’s very sad,” she says, almost deadpan. “Barry, I’m going to head back to my office. I’m not sure how I feel about Caspar here showing up out of nowhere to your office in particular, but I also don’t really care about your missing bodies, so… I mean, it would be cute if you had a death friend.” She bends down to kiss him and Kravitz averts his eyes. “I’ll see you at home.”

“Love you,” Barry says. He has a besotted smile on his face when Kravitz risks looking back. “Say hi to our guest for me.”

“Definitely, definitely.” Lup ruffles Barry’s hair and then looks at Kravitz. She points two fingers at him, then her eyes, then back at him.

Kravitz finds himself instinctively leaning back in his chair, away from her.

When the door closes behind her, Kravitz looks at Barry, who’s busily writing something in his notebook again. “Your, uh, wife is very… impressive.”

“Girlfriend,” Barry says, looking up at Kravitz and sighing wistfully. “We’ll get married eventually, but with Taako’s funeral and everything it’s not… the best time.”

“Right,” Kravitz agrees, after a beat. “The militia showed up at the funeral yesterday. It seems like there’s… a lot to unpack.”

Barry snorted at that. “You could say that, yeah,” he agreed. “We, uh, heard about the militia. Thanks for helping… Lup’s cousin out with them.”

“Of course,” Kravitz says, nodding. “Hecuba would have my head if I allowed the militia to interrupt a visitation. They really should know better than to show up like that.”

“Well, Taako got into some hot water. We’re working on clearing everything up. We knew there was a good chance they’d pay us a visit.”

“Yes, Justin seemed to be expecting them,” Kravitz agrees.

“Justin?” Barry repeats, frowning.

“Lup’s cousin?” Kravitz hopes he hadn’t gotten the name wrong. “Or… Justine, possibly? With the veil?”

Barry blinks and reacts about a second too slow, nodding firmly. “Yes, of course. Justin. Definitely. He told us all about everything, so. Sorry. It’s been… a long couple weeks.”

“And the missing bodies can’t help,” Kravitz says. As far as efforts to redirect conversation go, it’s fairly transparent.

Barry smiles like he thinks the redirect is for his benefit, which is good, honestly. Kravitz is happy to have Barry think that. “Definitely not. Honestly I’m not sure what my next steps are. I made some inquiries with some of the… less reputable necromancers in Neverwinter last night, but they were close-lipped. We’ve got a sort of family friend who’s, uh, sort of a private detective, but I didn’t want to take this case to him while he’s working on clearing Taako’s name.” Barry runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe he could give us a nudge in the right direction though. If you’re interested in joining. Sort of seemed like you were.”

“Very interested,” Kravitz confirms. It’s a risk bringing up his goddess, but curiosity isn’t a very good reason for an undertaker to decide to start investigating necromancers when they haven’t touched his funeral parlour. “I’m… somewhat affiliated with the Raven Queen. Most in my profession are. Respect for the dead is something we feel strongly about.”

Barry pauses because necromancy is something the Raven Queen looks down on as a general rule. Kravitz can’t say he’s looking forward to working with a necromancer, but it seems like a necessary step at the moment.

“And… you know this is the Department of Necromantic Sciences, right?” Barry asks.

“The paintings of corpses and skeletons in the foyer sort of gave that away, yes,” Kravitz says, voice dry. “I have nothing against necromancers who aren’t using people’s souls and bodies to enhance their own abilities.”

It’s absolutely a lie, but Kravitz is a good liar.

Barry nods, lost in thought for a moment as he studies Kravitz, then holds out a hand for him to shake. “It would be great to have another set of eyes on this, Kravitz. Let me give you an address. I’ll set up a meeting with Angus and we can pick his brain about the case tomorrow.”

Kravitz leaves his glove on as he reaches over to shake Barry’s hand, smiling. “Sounds like exactly what I was hoping for. Thank you, Barry.”

If nothing else, at the end of this Kravitz can at least present the Raven Queen a necromancer, even if Barry isn’t the one he’s looking for.

*

Kravitz has Mr. Tallhill half-changed into his best suit when the summons comes. Kravitz eyes the feather sitting on Mr. Tallhill’s stomach for a long moment, before plucking it off his chest. He can’t keep the Raven Queen waiting, even if he isn't sure how to spin joining forces with a necromancer in a favourable way quite yet.

Kravitz washes his hands in the heavy sink in the corner or the morgue and heads to the closet-turned-shrine. He places the feather on the offering dish as he kneels in front of the altar, bending his head in supplication. “My Queen.”

The stone bird flaps its wings and stretches in front of him before resettling. “Kravitz. Tell me you have news on the case.”

“I do,” he promises. “A lead. There’s been a rash of body snatchings from the labs of the University of Neverwinter. The timeline aligns with the thefts from the astral plane. If we follow that to its logical conclusion—”

“Someone is stealing souls and bodies separately, yes.” The statue ruffles its feathers. “That is… troubling. Have you been able to ascertain who’s responsible for the body snatchings?”

“Not yet. I have a meeting tomorrow. The man investigating the missing bodies has a private detective friend he’s asking to look into the case.”

“This man, is he one of my followers?”

Kravitz was hoping to avoid addressing Barry’s chosen profession, but here they are. “He’s… a professor at the university,” he says. “In the Department of Necromantic Science.”

Kravitz.”

There’s the I’m-not-angry-just-disappointed tone he hates. “I know,” he says. “It’s not… ideal.”

“You’re investigating alongside a necromancer.”

“As far as I can work out, he’s more… academically inclined.”

The little bird statue has no real facial features to speak of, but Kravitz can still feel the waves of disapproval radiating off of it.

“I’m keeping an eye on him,” Kravitz promises, although he’s only met Barry the one time and left trusting that their arrangement to meet—oddly—at a tea house the next afternoon would be followed through with no real insurance. Barry’s round, open face is guileless. Besides, Kravitz can literally see souls when he isn’t masking his vision. He can find Barry again if he needs to. “If this is what it takes to stop whoever’s found a way inside the Eternal Stockade, I think it’s worth it. It’s the only lead I have so far and he’s my in into the inner workings of the university.”

The statue cocks its head, little stone eyes boring into Kravitz’s soul. “I’ll trust your judgement on this, Kravitz,” she says, finally. “Don’t let your time in the material plane muddy your resolve. I worry for you. So long away from home. So long in this human form.”

She shifts irritably, bending down to peck the feather on its offering dish. Kravitz watches it dissipate into smoke and inclines his head towards her again. “I won’t disappoint you.”

One of the raven’s wings whacks the side of his head lightly and he jerks back in surprise, reaching up to rub his ear.

“Kravitz, that wasn’t an admonishment. That was concern. Genuinely, I worry it’s been too long. You’ve never spent months entirely outside the astral plane for a case before.”

It hadn’t occurred to Kravitz that worrying for him could mean something other than worrying about his ability to do his job. “I—I mean, it’s not that bad. I quite like the clothes.” He smooths a hand over his waistcoat, a deep purple today as there are no funerals he has to attend.

The Raven Queen hums to herself. “You do look fetching. You’ve always been very handsome,” she agrees, looking him over. “When was the last time you had to think about breathing?”

Kravitz pauses because he… doesn’t know. To begin with it was laborious, something he needed to constantly remind himself to do, but now it comes as easy as, well, breathing. “Oh,” he says.

“Exactly,” says the Raven Queen. “You see why I might be concerned?”

“I do,” Kravitz says. “But I won’t let it become an issue. I’ve spent an unusually long time outside the astral plane, but it’s an unusual case. It’s necessary.”

She sighs. “I don’t disagree. Still, I’m glad you’ve made progress on the case. Update me on how your meeting with the detective goes. If we can solve this case before your necromancer informant does, all the better.”

Kravitz nods. “Of course, my Queen.”

The statue settles itself and she is gone.

Kravitz is overly aware of his breathing now, of the steady rise and fall of his chest. He tries to exhale all the air in his lungs and let his body be still, but after a minute they start to burn. His chest aches with the pressure of not breathing and he inhales involuntarily, a tension he hadn’t even noticed building up leaving him.

It’s… troubling to say the least. Kravitz glances up at the unanimated raven in front of him, wary, and then gets to his feet. Some discoveries are best kept to himself.

*

The tea house Barry arranged their meeting at has a small, well-kept entrance tucked in between a tailor and a hat shop. It’s very clearly a place catered towards women, and probably not to necromancy professors of any gender. The inside is brightly lit and well-furnished, although the upholstered chairs are a few years out of fashion and there are no tablecloths on any of the tea house’s spindly wooden tables. Its walls are whitewashed and someone has framed pressed flowers and hung them at eye-level. Most strikingly, crystals hang from the ceiling, catching the light like prisms and scattering rainbows around the room. A lot of care has gone into maintaining the space. Kravitz, in his dark suit and coat, feels very conspicuous as he hovers by the front door.

“Welcome! Find a table and someone will be right with you,” a drow woman in a white dress with a lavender apron calls as she carries a tray holding a pot of tea out of a set of doors at the back of the room. “We won’t bite.”

Kravitz hesitates, glancing around the room, but no, Barry’s not here. The only other patrons in the space are an elf and a goliath in the corner, being helped by the drow. He finds a table for three and takes a seat, facing the door. He’s so busy trying to decide what he’ll do if Barry doesn’t show that he doesn’t hear the server approach.

“Wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon, tall, dark, and spooky,” Justin says, and Kravitz turns to see him, face still covered by his veil, still dressed for mourning except for a lavender apron, which matches the apron worn by the drow woman. Kravitz can’t see Justin’s face, but there’s a smile in his voice. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Kravitz finds himself smiling too. “Hello. This is a surprise.”

“Is it? That’s disappointing. I thought maybe you came looking for me.” Justin leans against the back of Kravitz’s chair. “You don’t exactly seem like the tea house type, my dude.”

“I’m meeting a colleague,” Kravitz says. “He suggested the location. You know him, actually.”

“I do?”

Kravitz nods. “Professor Bluejeans,” he says. “There’s been some activity at the university of mutual interest to us.”

“You know Barry?” Justin’s voice really is very similar to his cousin’s. Kravitz can hear the same wariness in it that Lup had when he first knocked on Barry’s door, the unspoken “what is an undertaker doing with a necromancer?”

“Not like that,” Kravitz says quickly. “Really not like that.”

“I mean, far be in from me to judge what gets people off, but, uh, yeah. Glad you’re not into selling body parts, fella. I can forgive a lot for a handsome face, but I think that crosses the line, even for T—me.”

Before Kravitz can respond to that, the door to the tea house opens and Barry steps inside, preceded by a small boy in what looks like a school uniform, short pants and all. The boy’s face breaks into a wide smile when he sees Justin and he rushes over to the table. “Hello, sir!”

“Agnes,” Justin says, reaching out and knocking the boy’s hat askew. “Barold, what the fuck are you doing with the kid and an undertaker?”

Barry smiles at Justin. “Remember I told you about the bodies going missing from the laboratories at school?”

Justin waves a hand. “Vaguely.”

“Kravitz has a friend in the labs who noticed the same thing. We’re investigating it together.”

Justin looks down at the boy. “Is Barold pulling you off your current investigation?” he asks. Justin doesn’t sound at all happy about the idea.

The boy—Agnes?—shakes his head. “No, not at all, sir. He just wanted me to go over his notes and consult. See if I could give them any tips on what inquiries to make next. It won’t take long. The other case is still my top priority.”

“Glad to hear it, pumpkin,” Justin says. “I’m sure bodies being stolen is very traumatic for the death brigade over here, but ol’ Justin is a little more concerned about his immediate future.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I won’t let you down,” the boy promises, and gives Justin a quick hug.

Justin gives the kid’s shoulder an awkward pat and looks at Barry. “So I’ll just bring out some scones and a pot of tea, then?”

Barry nods, taking a seat at the table. “Please. Thank you, T—Justin.”

Justin leaves to get their order and the boy turns to Kravitz, expression very serious all of the sudden as he holds out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he says. “I’m Angus McDonald and I’m the world’s greatest detective.”

Kravitz needs—a moment to sit with that. He reaches out to return the handshake. “Kravitz,” he says. “Nice to meet you as well, Angus.”

Angus tilts his head as he sits, studying Kravitz. Behind his spectacles, Angus’s eyes are intense. It’s disconcerting to suddenly have that much attention focused on him all at once. “I see,” Angus says. “And you’re an undertaker, Mr. Kravitz?”

“Just Kravitz is fine,” Kravitz says. “Yes, I work for Hecuba Roughridge.”

Angus nods. “So you met Barry at Taako’s funeral service.”

“Not—exactly,” Kravitz says. “An unexpected coincidence. Did you know Taako? I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay,” Angus says. “Can I ask one more question?”

Kravitz nods. Maybe Angus is a good detective because people can’t say no to him. He’s very sweet.

“Why are you using a fake accent?”

Kravitz pauses and absolutely does not look at Barry. The accent isn’t strictly necessary for his work, but he—enjoys it, if he’s being honest. Usually he’s not on the job for this long and it’s a way to have fun, to play act. His work voices. They range from Cockney to distinguished gentleman and he decides which to go with in the spur of the moment. It’s a bit of a habit now. “It—um—it’s a work thing,” Kravitz says, dropping the accent like a hot potato.

“Being an undertaker requires a fake Cockney accent, sir?”

Kravitz rapidly revises his opinion of Angus’s sweetness. “Fun little character trait,” he says, and smiles tightly. “I’ll drop my work voice for now, shall I?”

Justin comes carrying a tray with a basket of scones and a pot of tea, saving his bacon.

“Here you go,” he says, half-resting the tray on Barry’s shoulder as he starts unloading it. “Scones, cups and saucers, pot of tea, sugar, milk… fuck, butter and jam. Oh well, they’re dope scones. You don’t need butter and jam.” Justin tucks the tray under his arm. “So body snatching. How’s that going?”

“We were just getting through introductions,” Barry says, giving Justin a wry smile. “You want to join us?”

“If you insist.” Justin grabs a chair and pulls it over to the table, physically shifting Angus’s chair so he can sit beside Kravitz. It’s… gratifying. “Paloma’s a doll, but you would not believe how boring this front of house nonsense is. Ren’s much better at it. T—Justin’s meant for big picture thinking.”

“I’ve been looking over the notes Barry gave me,” Angus says, opening up his satchel and taking out a small stack of papers. “I think it’s fairly obvious you’re looking for someone who works at the university. Someone with access to the labs who wouldn’t raise suspicions by entering them often. I think it’s highly likely they have at least a working knowledge of necromancy as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the department, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Kravitz wouldn’t either. Choosing to make a career studying necromancy spoke to him of very specific inclinations.

Barry’s obviously troubled by the suggestion, frowning as he pours three cups of tea. “I don’t want to think anyone in the department could do that. We all know the consequences of following a career in practical necromancy to its logical conclusion. Either you go mad or you end up biting off more than you can chew and your magic backfires. And there are all sorts of myths about what the Raven Queen does to necromancers who meddle with the natural order of things to much, who extend their own lives through spells.” He looks at Kravitz. “You and Hecuba probably know more about that than I do.”

Kravitz definitely, definitely does. “There are quite a few stories,” he agrees. “Necromancers whose debts are called in by the emissaries of the Raven Queen, areas of the astral plane set aside for souls who broke the laws of life and death.”

“The Grim Reaper,” Barry agrees,  lips quirking into a wry smile as he pulls one of the teacups towards himself. “Some of the stories are a bit far-fetched. Everyone agrees that getting too deep into necromancy leads to a bad end though. That’s not up for debate.”

Kravitz wasn’t aware that his existence was either.

“One, why is this what you’ve chosen to do with your life, Barold?” Justin asks, lifting up his veil just enough to get a scone under it and take a bite. He reaches for Angus’s teacup, adding sugar and a healthy dollop of milk, then takes a sip before passing it back to Angus.

Angus, Kravitz notes, doesn’t seem remotely surprised by this.

“Two.” Justin turns to Kravitz and points the scone at him. “Weren’t you, like, British five minutes ago?”

Kravitz clears his throat. “It’s a work thing,” he says. “It’s a bit of a—this is my real accent.”

Justin lifts his veil enough to get the scone under it again, takes a bite. “Cool,” he says. “Agnes, what do you think? Do I need a work accent?”

“It would go with your mysterious outfit, sir,” Angus says, reaching for a scone for himself. “I don’t think we can assume everyone in the Department of Necromantic Science believes the stories people tell about the Raven Queen’s judgement.”

“Even if they do, people often assume they’re above judgement,” Kravitz says, taking a sip of his tea and taking a scone for himself because they smell heavenly. Kravitz doesn’t need to eat, but it’s another human habit that he’s dipped his toe into during his extended stay in the material plane. “Or they’re desperate or determined enough to ignore the consequences.”

“You’re right,” Barry says, frowning into his tea. “I don’t like it, but you’re right. I should keep an eye on who’s using the labs when. See if there’s anyone who isn’t missing a body.”

“If I was trying to cover up the fact that I was body snatching, I’d definitely take one from myself and move it somewhere else,” Justin says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking too honestly, my man. You’ll never catch your dude that way.”

“I actually think your best next step is to try a stakeout,” Angus says, taking a sip of the tea Justin doctored for him. “That’s what I’d do. You know where the thefts are being committed and that they usually occur at night. If you stake out the laboratories at the university where the bodies are kept, I think it’s likely your perpetrator will make an appearance. You just have to make sure you’re well-hidden. You might want to make a suspect list in the meantime. So you have two avenues of investigation you’re working on. Stakeouts are about being patient. If you have suspects then you can look into their patterns and habits during the day. Ask around. See if anyone’s particularly suspicious. That way you know if there’s someone you should be following too.”

Kravitz is impressed, honestly. “You really are a very good detective.”

Angus looks at him over the frame of his spectacles, unimpressed. “Please don’t condescend to me, sir.”

Justin laughs, startling loud in the quiet tea house, and pats Angus’s knee. “You tell him, pumpkin,” he says, and then leans closer to Kravitz. “Don’t worry. You haven’t really met Angus until he sasses you.”

Kravitz really shouldn’t find any of this charming. He’s smiling anyway. “That’s all right,” he says, and looks at Angus. “I apologize for not taking you seriously before. Thank you for your advice on this case.”

“It’s all right,” Angus says. “Most people underestimate me because I’m young.” He pushes his glasses up his nose. “It can be very useful.”

“So a stakeout,” Barry says. “And… I suppose if we’re coming up with suspects then that’s on me and Lup. We know that the suspect pool looks like.”

“Have I met any of them?” Justin asks. “Because you know who I always thought was suspicious? The annoying one. With the voice. And really good tie? He’s definitely bad news.”

“... Jenkins?” Barry asks, after squinting at Justin’s veil-clad form for a moment. “Jenkins teaches illusion magic. I don’t even know how you met him.”

Justin shrugs. “Lup. Which, speaking of, we should definitely do this with her.” He turns to Kravitz. “How do you feel about dinner, handsome? You do eat, don’t you? You haven’t touched your scone.”

Kravitz dutifully raises the scone in his hands to his lips. It was warm, when it arrived, but it’s gone room temperature in his cold hands. When he takes a bite it’s still one of the best scones he’s ever had—flaky and soft, not at all dry.

The surprise he feels at how good it is must register on his face because Justin hums in satisfaction. “Right?” Justin says. “I keep asking Paloma how she gets the bake perfect every time and she keeps telling me it’s fucking scone magic. So you eat?”

“I eat,” Kravitz agrees. “I’m human.”

“That makes one of us, homie. Cool. So Kravitz is coming over for dinner tonight.” Justin turns to Barry. “The four of us will hash out this Scooby Doo nonsense.”

“The… four of us?” Barry repeats, eyebrows raising.

“I’m very invested in the whole grand corpse heist thing now,” Justin says, and his tone of voice dares Barry to disagree. “Angus has a more important case to focus on and I’m bored. You’ve got T—my time.”

Kravitz has a service tomorrow to prepare for tonight, but he also doesn’t want to say no to this—well, it’s not really an invitation. This enlistment. “I’d love to come help however I can, as long as it’s no trouble.”

“None, my dude,” Justin promises. “Lup loves company. We’ll drink wine and name names. You can be the scribe. It’ll be a blast.”

“It won’t be any trouble,” Barry promises, pulling his attention off Justin. He seems amused, for some reason. “Lup will definitely want to see this. I’ll give you the address. Angus, do you want to come? I’m sure Lucretia wouldn’t mind.”

Angus opens his mouth to reply, but Justin cuts him off.

“Angus has his other case,” he says. “It’s just us adults talking about death and burglary tonight, kiddo. Next time there’s a body involved you’re definitely invited though.”

Kravitz can’t actually tell if Justin’s joking or not.

Chapter Text

Kravitz hasn’t been over to someone else’s house for dinner since he was alive, and when he was alive things were… different. There’s all sorts of etiquette he’s sure he doesn’t know enough about now. Even little things trip him up, like getting to the address Barry wrote out for him before they parted ways at the tea house. Kravitz would normally open a rift to some nearby location and travel that way, but Neverwinter is a very large city and Barry, Lup, and Justin don’t know he can just deposit himself a reasonable distance from wherever he senses their souls and walk, which means Kravitz has to figure out how to flag down a carriage and communicate his destination to the driver.

The little everyday things mortals do are so much more work than just using magic. He doesn’t know how mortals manage. Especially those without magic of their own.

The carriage ride is bumpy and uncomfortable. The bench is poorly cushioned and the cab smells of horse and other people. Kravitz feels thoroughly rattled by the time the driver slows to a stop outside a brick rowhouse. He pays the man, then takes a deep breath, walks up the low steps in front of the house, and knocks on its red door.

Kravitz likes wine so he had a bottle on hand to bring, but he’s not entirely sure it’s appropriate. Kravitz enjoys eating, but it’s not something he’s made a habit of. Not like breathing, which he can’t seem to shake now that the Raven Queen has made him uncomfortably aware of the regular rise and fall of his chest. He certainly hasn’t made a habit of eating with people since setting up his false life in the material plane.

There’s a loud clatter on the other side of the door and then it swings open and Lup is grinning at him. She’s wearing a simpler dress than the red one he’s otherwise seen her in. It’s grey with burgundy accents and its skirts hangs straight, with no bustle to lift them. Her hair is uncovered and pulled back in a loose braid.

“Justin just went to change,” she says, eyes raking over Kravitz. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might be expected to change for dinner, which is—unfortunate. His clothes are a construct. He could be wearing literally anything he wants and he’s not. He really should have thought this through more thoroughly.

“I brought wine,” Kravitz says, holding the bottle out to Lup. “Thank you for having me.”

“Oh, it’s a delight,” Lup says, taking the bottle and stepping aside so he can enter. “I’m very much looking forward to it. I know Justin is too. He cooked. There’s a meat pie in the oven and I think we’re actually going to get to eat it. Take your coat off and stay a while.”

Kravitz shrugs his coat off. “Does… Justin not normally cook?”

“It’s complicated.” Lup leads him past the narrow staircase by the door and down a wallpapered hallway, lined with paintings.

There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive theme to the decoration—the paintings are a mix of styles and subjects, from dark still lifes to bright landscapes, with a few portraits of questionable quality sprinkled among them for good measure. Kravitz finds his eyes lingering on a portrait of what is likely meant to be a tiefling, but looks like an angry shrimp in a suit. “Are these… friends of yours? Family?”

Lup glances over her shoulder and bursts out laughing when she sees the painting Kravitz is focused on. “Gods, no,” she says. “This is all Taako. He travels a lot and always brings back the worst things he can find and hangs them in our house like we’re not the ones who have to live with them,” she says, and then pauses, glancing at Kravitz’s face. “I mean, he did. Do that.”

Kravitz’s ability to be a good dinner guest and make conversation? So far, not great.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up a sensitive subject.”

“It’s fine,” Lup says. “Seriously. Ask me all sorts of questions about him, especially once Justin comes down. It’ll be great.”

They step into the kitchen and Lup sets the bottle of wine down while she searches the cabinets. Justin’s pie smells wonderful—savoury and rich, the air thick with the scent of butter and tarragon. The oven is an older model and wood-powered, so the kitchen is toasty warm. There’s flour and pastry scraps scattered over the counter still, and the large sink is stacked with pots and pans. Judging by the chaos it left behind, the pie was a lot of work. If it tastes half as good as it smells, Kravitz is sure it will be worth it. The whole scene is extraordinarily domestic and not anything like what Kravitz is used to. He feels completely out of his depth and dinner’s barely even begun.

He definitely didn’t think this through.

Lup pulls four mismatched glasses from a cupboard and thrusts a couple at Kravitz. “Carry these. It’s too hot to think in here. Let’s take our wine to the sitting room, yeah?”

She leads the way back down the hall before Kravitz can agree and pushes open the only other door in the downstairs portion of the house. The sitting room is just as domestic and lived in as the kitchen. Half the room is taken up by a large dining table, although it doesn’t look like it’s often used for its intended purpose—it’s covered in books and papers. To be fair, though, so is almost every other horizontal surface in the room.

Lup sets the wine bottle and the glasses she’s carrying on the mantle of the unlit fireplace and clears off a sette, gesturing for Kravitz to sit. “You’re a guest. I promise not to make you clean,” she says, and then clears off an armchair for herself. “Justin and Barry will be down soon. Let’s break into the wine and get a head start, shall we?”

“Lulu, don’t you dare start drinking without me.” Kravitz looks up as Justin comes into the room and his breath catches in his throat.

Justin’s wearing his veil and he’s still all in black, but he’s definitely dressed up for dinner. His bodice is slightly out of fashion, the low bertha neckline leaving his shoulders completely exposed, but it suits him. It’s molded to his chest and waist like he was poured into it, tapering to a pointed v just below his hips, and covered in elaborate, black embroidery. This highly stylized choice is made even more extravagant by the fact that Justin is also wearing a pair of black velvet breeches with gold buttons at the cuff—the sort of trousers a footman might wear—and a pair of semi-sheer black hose that cling to his calves. His feet are tucked into a pair of ladies court shoes with demure bows on the front.

Honestly, Kravitz can’t believe it’s an outfit anyone would wear and is even more incredulous that Justin manages to make it look good. He’s definitely not adhering to mourning customs anymore, but Kravitz finds he really doesn’t care.

Justin collapses onto the couch next to Kravitz and plucks one of the empty glasses out of his hands. “See something you like, handsome?”

“You look… you look very nice,” Kravitz says, which is—there was a time when Kravitz thought he was good at talking to people. It wasn’t even that long ago.

Justin laughs and pats his arm. “Natch. Can’t say I’m not disappointed you didn’t dress for dinner, though I do enjoy the suit. Purple’s a good colour on you.”

Kravitz hums in vague agreement and tries not to stare at all the bare skin on display. This is ridiculous. They’re here to talk about body snatching.

Wine sloshes into his glass and Kravitz starts, nearly upsetting it all over the busily patterned carpet under the settee. Lup, who is holding up a lazy hand and levitating the wine bottle, looks very amused by Kravitz’s extremely flustered reaction to Justin’s—everything.

Justin holds his glass out and Lup obligingly fills it as well.

“So we’re going to stake out a basement full of corpses, huh?” Lup says, as the bottle sets itself down on the mantle. “Sounds like a cool way to get murdered.”

“I’m sure we can handle whatever nerd is stealing bodies,” Justin says, waving a dismissive hand. He’s wearing multiple rings, surprisingly fine jewelry for someone who works in a tea house—a large garnet sparkles on his ring finger and there’s a trio of opals on his middle finger, not to mention the series of gold bands on his pinky. The hand cradling his wine glass—his left—is bare. “It’s not like they put them in the morgue.”

“Just because they’re not murdering people doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous,” Barry says, walking into the room. Like Kravitz, he’s still wearing his clothing from earlier, but honestly that just convinces Kravitz that he definitely should have changed for dinner.

“Yeah, except for sure they don’t like conflict. They’re waiting until no one’s around in the dead of night to steal their shit.”

“That’s genuinely when people do crime, babe,” Lup says. “When nobody’s around and they’re not likely to get caught.”

“Well, I’m a baller wizard, so.” Justin turns to Kravitz. “What about you? Any spooky powers we should know about?”

For a moment, Kravitz has the bizarre urge to say yes, very spooky, and show off his skeletal form. There’s just something about the flippant way Justin talks that makes Kravitz think he’d appreciate it. It would also be suitably dramatic, which is something Kravitz has to admit he enjoys. Hence the fake accents. “Well, I wasn’t always an undertaker,” he says. “There was a period of time when I wanted to be a conductor.”

There is a brief, profound silence.

“Hold up.” Lup leans forward. “Wait, wait, wait. Corpses. Missing. Important. Whatever.” She waves the hand holding her wine dismissively and it sloshes precariously in its glass. “Are you telling us you’re a fucking bard?”

Kravitz briefly weighs his options and then whistles a quick refrain, flicking his fingers at the fireplace, which flares to life. His magic isn’t quite as straightforward as bard anymore, hasn’t been since before his undeath, but that’s difficult to explain without revealing other, more sensitive information about his skillset. “More or less,” he says. “I’m not as practiced at it as I once was.”

“How practiced are you?” Barry asks. “Although we’re all wizards so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Practiced enough,” Kravitz says, which isn’t really an answer, but he’s not sure what level of competence he should claim here. “I can do invisibility and silence if it’s needed for the stakeout.”

“Silence is a handy one.” Lup tilts her head, looking up at Barry. “Babe, I’ve been thinking. We should do this in shifts of two. That way we’re all rested and fresh for it. Split the night in two so everyone gets some sleep.”

“That makes sense,” Barry agrees. “Do you and, uh, Justin want to—”

“I’m staking out with Kravitz, obviously,” Justin says. “Nobody wants to sit around while you two nerds pine for each other for half the night.”

“But… Lup and I both work for the university,” Barry says. “If you—”

“Babe.” Lup reaches up and lays a hand on Barry’s arm, then shakes her head. “Uh-uh.”

Kravitz raised his wine glass to his lips to try and hide his smile, but he’s pretty sure he’s unsuccessful. “I’m sure we can find our way around,” he says. “We’ll just be sitting in the dark for most of the night. If you let us in it should be fine.”

“I mean, I have magic powers,” Justin says, wiggling his fingers in the air. “Point me in the general direction of the cadaver carnival you call home and I’m good, Barold.”

“Okay, okay. So Lup and I will take the first shift, then Justin and Kravitz so we can let you in. Getting out shouldn’t be an issue,” Barry says. “What are we going to do if the thief shows up?”

“Catch him,” Lup replies, almost instantly. “If we hand him over gift-wrapped, everyone will have to admit to the thefts. Which will be bad, yeah, but the university will be able to talk about how one of their necromancy professors uncovered the thefts and apprehended the culprit. That should help keep your funding from being cut.”

Kravitz has his own methods of dealing with necromancers, but they’ll get to that when the time comes. He had souls to track down and return to the astral plane. “I think it all sounds like a very good plan,” he says. “Shall we start tomorrow night? Have you been able to do any work on your suspect pool?”

“A bit,” Barry says. “I have trouble believing anyone is—”

He’s cut off by an alarm going off and Justin leaping to his feet. “Fuck, my pie. I almost forgot I made dinner. Reaper man, with me.”

Kravitz nearly chokes on the mouthful of wine he’d just taken. “S-sorry, is that me?” he asks, doing his best not to drip on his clothes.

“Yeah, duh. Because the undertaker thing? Come on, homie. My pie will burn.” Justin leaves the room and Kravitz dutifully gets to his feet to follow.

A photograph catches his eye as he sets his glass of wine down on the way out. It’s on a small table by the door that offers pretty much the only spare space for his glass. Set in a gold frame, it’s an image of two, nearly identical elves. One is Lup, wearing a much more elaborate dress than Kravitz has seen her in so far, and the other elf must be her brother, although Kravitz wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who’d just lost a twin.

Maybe it’s because Kravitz has only really seen post-mortem photographs since arriving in the material plane, but it strikes him as extraordinarily candid. Lup and her brother are smiling—beaming, really—at the camera. Lup is sitting and her brother is leaning over her, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. He’s wearing an elaborate pointy hat that wars with the parasol Lup has propped on her shoulder. They look happy, comfortable with each other, and very, very alive.

Kravitz’s eyes linger on the photo for a moment before he follows Justin’s path out of the sitting room and down the hall to the kitchen. Justin has the pie out of the oven already and is on his toes, reaching for plates sitting on a top shelf.

“Took you long enough,” Justin says, without turning. “Did Lup say something?”

“No.” Kravitz steps up behind Justin and reaches up and take the plates down. Justin isn’t short by any stretch of the imagination, but Kravitz has a few crucial inches on him. “I got distracted by a photograph. I didn’t realize Lup and her brother were twins.”

Justin freezes and Kravitz takes a hasty step back when he realizes how close they are. He shouldn’t have crowded Justin in like that. “My apologies. That was—I shouldn’t have inserted myself.”

“No, that’s, uh, that’s cool,” Justin says, turning and leaning against the counter. “I forgot that photo was there. But yeah, that’s Taako. What did… you think?”

“It’s a good photo,” Kravitz says, because he’s not really sure how else to answer that question. “You can see how much they care for each other. Is there—I don’t mean to be rude, but what happened to involve the militia and cause… whatever rift obviously occurred between the two of them? I’ve never seen a house so devoid of mourning. Save for you, of course.”

“It’s… complicated,” Justin says. He reaches under his veil and runs a hand over his face. “Fuck. Whatever. Okay. So, Taako was a chef. And he was, like, the best. Hands down. Worked at a fancy resort called Glamor Springs, went on tour working in famous restaurants, did some baller demonstrations for crowds. All that jazz. Then one day he was doing his thing and something went wrong with his food and forty people died.”

Kravitz… hadn’t realized what he was asking for. He winces. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, it’s fine. Well, it’s not fine, it’s fucked up, but just—look. Taako thought that the poisoning was on him. He had this trick… thing where he transmuted stuff. For show. He thought he screwed up and made a sauce with nightshade instead of elderberries. Lup didn’t believe he’d make that kind of mistake though, so she went out and gave the militia hell, ranted all over the university, to anyone who would listen—she’s a fucking legend there. Wouldn’t take man-slaughter for an answer.”

There’s a smile obvious in Justin’s voice, talking about his cousin.

“So like, the head librarian, Lucretia, has this ward who does private investigations—Angus, you met him. She and Lup are friends and Lucretia knew Taako too and thought things sounded fishy, so she introduced me and Lup to Ango and he started looking into things.”

Justin looks down at the pie cooling on the counter. “Angus and Lucretia told us all the symptoms for nightshade poisoning, to compare against what—the witness accounts. What Taako and everyone else who didn’t eat the sauce saw. They don’t match up. What does match up is arsenic poisoning. Taako definitely, definitely didn’t accidentally turn anything into fucking arsenic. So.” Justin shrugs. “They think he didn’t do it. Kill all those people. Had to be someone else, someone who wanted to frame him, but the militia is… persistent.”

Justin is twisting the rings on his fingers, obviously uncomfortable with the road this conversation’s gone down. Kravitz reaches out and covers Justin’s hand with his own without thinking about it, about how cold his hands must be. Justin does start a little, when Kravitz touches him, but doesn’t pull away.

“Are they going to drop the case now that Taako’s passed away or are they going to pursue other leads?”

“They will if Agnes gives them some,” Justin says, lacing his fingers briefly with Kravitz. “Boy, you run cold, huh?"

Kravitz gives Justin a wry smile, even if he won’t get the joke. “Bad circulation.”

Justin squeezes Kravitz’s hand briefly, affectionately, before letting go and reaching for the pie. “Bet I could get your blood pumping,” he says. “Bring the plates and cutlery, dear.”

Kravitz has the distinct impression that if Justin weren’t wearing the veil he would have just been winked at.

*

As far as work meetings go, Kravitz would file dinner with Lup, Barry, and Justin as… unproductive, but he can’t quite bring himself to mind. He hums as he prepares Mrs. Greendour for her visitation, lacing her into her dress without paying much attention to what he’s doing. Justin’s a very good cook and startling easy to talk to. They have a plan for stake outs every other night this week and Kravitz is fairly certain Lup and Barry had come up with a list of names, but honestly he’d spent most of the evening listening to Justin talk about his friend Ren and Paloma, the witch who owned the tea house he worked at, to stories about the prophecies Paloma doled out to customers and Justin’s frustration at not being able to get her to give up her scone recipe.

Kravitz reaches for a pin to hold down a ruffle on Mrs. Grendour’s dress and watches as the laces he let go of keep moving, lacing her corset on their own as the song he’s humming guides her clothing into place.

Kravitz’s bardic abilities aren’t skills he employs very often anymore. Music had been his dream once, at a young age, but responding to the call of the Raven Queen had been much more important. He’d given up on becoming a conductor. He hadn’t regretted it then and certainly doesn’t now, but sometimes… sometimes he wonders.

Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with wondering. It doesn’t affect his loyalty to his goddess or the strength of his conviction in championing the laws of life and death. Kravitz is tied to the Raven Queen by a powerful bond that glows bright and cold inside of him, a bond that’s wrapped around the very essence of his being—his soul—and enables him to do more than he could relying with only his innate abilities.

Still, it’s nice to see his own magic at work. The laces finish fastening Mrs. Greensour’s dree and tie themselves into a neat bow, then lay down still.

Kravitz tucks the bow away and gives the back of Mrs. Greendour’s dress an approving pat.

“Bardic abilities, huh?”

Kravitz actually, physically jumps, jerking around to face the half-open door, where Hecuba’s propped herself.

She laughs. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I came to check in on how Mrs. Greendour was doing. I didn’t realize you were a bard, Kravitz.”

“I’m not, really,” Kravitz says. “I… dabbled when I was younger.”

Hecuba, who at 157 is middle-aged in dwarven years but still much, much younger than Kravitz, looks amused by this statement. “Honey, you have no idea how young you still are. You’ve got a nice voice. She’ll be ready by this afternoon?”

“Of course,” Kravitz says. “I apologize for not preparing her last night. I wasn’t—”

Hecuba holds up a hand, shaking her head. “I’m not scolding you. Honestly, it’s good to see you going out. I appreciate your dedication to your job, Kravitz, but you deserve to have some fun. This person who has you humming, are you going to see them again?”

Kravitz thinks about the stakeout and nods. “We have plans for tonight.”

Hecuba smiles widely and Kravitz feels a little bad. It’s not the sort of meeting she thinks it is. “Glad to hear you’re making friends.” She pauses, gesturing up to his hair. “You’re shedding.”

Kravitz reaches up to touch his hair and two feathers flutter down onto Mrs. Greendour. He hadn’t noticed the summons come in at all. It’s beginning to become a pattern. “Shit,” he says.

Hecuba’s eyebrows raise. If Kravitz had the blood flow to blush, he’d be blushing. “I—apologize. I don’t know how they got there.”

“There are more,” Hecuba says. “We really need to find you a new place to live, Kravitz. That landlord of yours is appalling.”

“Yes, uh, yes. The building absolutely has a bird issue as well as the heat,” he agrees, plucking three more feathers out of his hair. “I’ll start looking for alternatives.”

Kravitz has spoken to his unremarkable landlord exactly three times since moving in. He’s starting to feel like he needs to buy the man a nice bottle of wine when he moves out, just on principle.

He waits for Hecuba to leave to check on the arrangements for Mrs. Greendour’s visitation upstairs, then practically runs to the shrine, dropping to his knees as he places the feathers on the offering dish and bends his head.

He is greeted by the sound of animated stone grinding into life and nothing else.

Kravitz looks up, into the distinctly unimpressed face of the little raven in front of him. “I—I apologize,” he says. “I was dressing a woman for her visitation and got lost in thought and… it won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Five times I called, Kravitz. See that it doesn’t,” the Raven Queen says. “How did your meeting with the necromancer go?”

“It was productive. We have a plan to move forward and he and his companions have accepted me into their group, more or less. We—had dinner.”

The raven ruffles it feathers. “Dinner with a necromancer? Kravitz.”

“Not like that!” he protests, although, yes, okay, it was a little bit like that, but certainly not with Barry. “He’s—Professor Bluejeans has a partner who’s also a professor at the university,” Kravitz says. “She and her cousin are helping with the case. The four of us met to plan. We have a stake out tonight and the professors put together a list of suspects pooled of people with the ability to get in and out of the labs and the appropriate familiarity with necromancy. There’s been significant progress made. I’m hopeful about our ability to move the investigation forward even further tonight.”

“Good.” The Raven Queen flaps her stone wings once and settles, leaning down to peck the feathers on the dish. “Now. Tell me what has you so distracted you missed five summons. It’s not the woman you were dressing.”

“Just the case,” Kravitz says, which is… true, but also not. He frowns. Kravitz doesn’t hide things from the Raven Queen. Not significant things, and perhaps the way his answer unsettles him means Justin qualifies as significant. “That’s not strictly true. It’s—the cousin.”

“The cousin?” Her voice is leading, teasing.

Well, Kravitz did this to himself. “His name is Justin,” he says. “He’s very… he was… unexpected.”

Kravitz.” The Raven Queen sounds absolutely, completely, one hundred percent delighted by this turn of events, which is quite a pivot from her reaction to the last person she thought he was having dinner with. For someone cautioning him against becoming too human while in the material plane, she’s a terrible busybody.

Also the drive behind his purpose in undeath, the goddess he’s sworn his undying fealty to, and the holder of his soul, but still.

Kravitz buries his face in his hands. “I don’t know how this happened,” he mumbles into them. “I just—he’s very… it’s difficult to explain.”

“Is he handsome?” she asks, hoping forward a step. “Tell me about him. Is he a professor too?”

“He works in a tea house,” Kravitz says. “He’s clever. Funny. He dresses very well, and he’s—I’m not sure what he looks like, if I’m being honest. He’s had a mourning veil on every time I’ve spoken to him, but I don’t see why that matters.” He pauses. “I know he’s an elf.”

“A veil? Very mysterious.” The Raven Queen sounds like she approves of this. She’s always had a taste for pageantry. “Perhaps when all this is over I’ll have the chance to meet him. We’ll see. Do try not to be too distracted by your new friend during your stakeout, dear. Report back with the results tomorrow. And have a good time. Wear something nice.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Kravitz watches the statue return to its natural state, feeling very put upon. He’s pretty sure other emissaries don’t get teased by their gods. The Raven Queen does, however, have a good point—Kravitz has the opportunity to redeem himself and wear something that impresses Justin tonight. At the very least he needs to make sure he looks his best for this very important stake out.

*

Kravitz doesn’t bother with a carriage to transport himself to the university. He opens a rift and steps out into the narrow space between two buildings a block away from the Department of Necromantic Science. The sparsely placed streetlamps cast dim circles of light on the campus’s main mall, making the stretches of darkness between the lamps appear even darker by contrast.

For Kravitz, who lives in the astral plane, there’s something comforting about the eerie unrealness of the spaces between those pockets of light. It’s easy for him to weave around the brighter sections of the road, sticking to the shadows and relaxing into the relative anonymity they provide. It feels more like he’s working when he’s in the dark with no one else is around. It’s a feeling marred only by the fact that his darkvision is terrible because of the steadily held illusion spell on his eyes. His vision is the same as an average human—which is to say, not great.

It means he doesn’t see Justin until he hears a whistle from the shadows beside the entrance to the necromancy building and Justin steps into the light. He’s back in his formal mourning dress, veil on despite the dark.

Kravitz wonders, for the first time, if the veil is about more than just mourning. His answer to the Raven Queen holds true, regardless—he likes Justin. Whatever Justin might be hiding under the veil, Kravitz has found someone who makes him feel… who makes him feel. Someone who makes all these human impulses and habits—like humming, like breathing—bearable.

“Look at you.” There’s a smile in Justin’s voice as he steps closer to Kravitz, reaching out to touch his shoulder and run a hand down his arm, over the fine wool of Kravitz’s long, black coat. Kravitz likes it. It reminds him of his cowled robe, with the length, and the way it swishes around his ankles when he walks. “You might not change for dinner, but you clean up good for a stakeout, don’t you?”

“Thank you,” Kravitz says, running a gloved hand down the front of his suit. It’s dark grey with a delicate black pinstripe and his waistcoat is a deep burgundy, rich against the white of his shirt and the black of his tie. He left his skull cufflinks they same. They feel lucky now. He’s had them on every time he’s spoken to Justin. “Are Lup and Barry meeting us out here?”

Justin shakes his head. “The front door’s unlocked because obviously the necromancy department isn’t that serious about keeping the bodies in. They’ll let us into the basement when we get there. Shall we?”

Justin offers Kravitz his arm and Kravitz gamely lays a hand on the crook of his elbow. “Lead the way.”

They enter the building and Justin leads Kravitz through the ground floor, to an otherwise unremarkable door with no signage. He knocks an uneven rhythm on it—tap-tap-taptaptap.

There’s two answering knocks from the other side, then Lup opens the door, looking them over and grinning, slow and knowing. “Shift change,” she says. “Looking fancy, Ghost Rider. You two good?”

“Just peachy,” Justin says. “Thanks for keeping the morgue warm for us.”

“No, it’s very cold,” Lup says, holding the door open for Barry. “And you’re not allowed to even light a small fire to keep warm. Apparently it helps with the bodies. Looking forward to not spending tomorrow night in a morgue.”

“There are a lot of cooling spells in place. Keeps the cadavers, uh, fresh,” Barry says, nodding in agreement. “I’m sure Kravitz is used to it. If anything happens, send us a message?”

Justin nods, reaching up to tap approximately where his temple is. “I’ll reach out to Lup,” he says. “Got those magic powers working. I know the plan, Barold. You chucklefucks have class in the morning. Go sleep or meditate or whatever it is you do.”

“We’re going, we’re going.” Lup links her fingers with Barry’s and steps aside so Kravitz and Justin can move through to the stairs on the other side of the door. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, babe!” she calls over her shoulder, and then laughs when Justin makes a rude gesture and pulls the door to the basement very firmly closed.

Kravitz can’t help the fond smile on his face as he watches Justin lock the door behind them. “It’s nice how close you are,” he says, and takes Justin’s arm again when he offers it.

“You got any family?” Justin asks, lifting the hem of his skirts as he walks down the stairs.

Kravitz thinks, briefly, of the Raven Queen, but even as a lie claiming his goddess as family is a bit much. “Not really,” he says. “Not for a while. My employer has sort of… adopted me.”

“Hecuba?”

Kravitz pauses. He probably should have remembered that Justin knows Merle Highchurch. “She knits me a lot of gloves and scarves,” he says, after a beat.

“You are kind of a human ice cube,” Justin says it with fondness, but it is… a good reminder. He needs to be careful about how close he lets people get. He’s not mortal. His corporeal body is a magical construct. He looks like himself, like he did before he died, but sometimes he feels like this would all be a lot easier if he were a skeleton.

“Bad—”

“Circulation. I remember.”

The stairs lead down to a dark, tiled hallway. It is several degrees colder than the ground floor, which Kravitz finds comfort in. Morgues all have a certain kind of stillness that reminds him of the astral plane the same way darkness does, reminiscent of the spaces outside the Eternal Stockade. It’s peaceful.

Justin pushes the first door in the hallway open and peeks inside. “Yeesh,” he says, letting the door close quickly. “Spirit collection. I don’t know about you, homie, but I’m not down for sitting in a room full of jars with dead… parts floating in them all night. Seriously, how did this become Barold’s thing?”

“What’s your thing?” Kravitz asks, opening the next door. It’s a classroom—tall tables and stools, a blackboard at the front of the room. “This might be a better place to keep watch from.”

Justin presses close to Kravitz so he can look into the room and nods. “Good choice. No weird smell, no dead bodies. I approve.” He squeezes past Kravitz into the room and Kravitz follows. “What do you mean, my thing? I work at the tea house. I guess that’s not my thing.” Justin pauses, pulls a stool over to the door so he can sit and stay close enough to the hallway to hear any footsteps. “I guess… I like cooking. And I studied transmutation. I’m not as powerful a wizard as Lup, but I’m not bad.”

Kravitz pulls up a stool of his own, next to Justin’s. With the door to the room closed, it’s too dark to see much and it makes everything feel more intimate. He finds himself pitching the volume of his voice lower instinctively. “And fashion, obviously.”

Justin laughs, leaning back against the door behind them. When he moves, his leg shifts to press against Kravitz’s through the layers of his skirts. “Yeah, never saw the point in being subtle. Magic helps. I don’t normally rock this much black, but a touch of Prestidigitation and there you go.”

“You wear it well.”

“You’re making me blush, my dude.” Justin’s voice is also softer in the dark, more sincere. “Hey, how’s your darkvision?”

“Not great,” Kravitz admits. “I think we’ll have to rely on sound more than anything else. At least from me.”

Justin nods, then reaches up and lifts his veil, folding it back. In the dark, Kravitz can’t make out details, but he see the impression of Justin’s features—the shape of his pointed ears, a delicate chin, a nose like Lup’s, sloped and slightly upturned, and long, blond hair, pinned into a bun at the nape of Justin’s neck and fiercely bright in the dark.

Justin is strangely tense beside him, once the veil is up, but Kravitz just smiles, gestures towards his ears. He can see something glinting in the dark. “Earrings?”

Justin reaches up and touches his earlobes, then nods. Smiles. Kravitz catches a flash of white teeth. “They’re sapphires,” he says. “They were my aunt’s. They’re lucky.”

Kravitz raises his arm to show Justin the silver skulls decorating his sleeves. Justin’s an elf. He can see them just fine in the dark. “These are my good luck charms,” he says. “Not quite as nice as sapphires.”

“Those are skulls.” Justin laughs, overly loud, and grabs Kravitz’s wrist in his warm hand, fingers brushing against the skin peeking out between Kravitz’s glove and sleeve. He pulls Kravitz’s arm closer, rubbing his thumb over the skull’s little obsidian eyes. “These are the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. Even Barold doesn’t go around wearing skulls, thug.”

Kravitz feels awkward and ridiculous. He feels the heat of Justin’s hand on him like a brand. This close, Justin smells like tea and scones and, under that, something spicy and enticing. Kravitz is hyper-aware of everywhere their bodies touch—his wrist, their legs, his foot brushing against the hem of Justin’s skirts—aware even of where they almost touch, how perilously close their foreheads are because Kravitz is leaning towards Justin like he’s the moon and Kravitz is the ocean, naturally drawn to him.

Kravitz doesn’t know how this happened, how he found himself suddenly drowning in a feeling that’s so thoroughly and wonderfully human, but it’s... not unpleasant.

In his chest, his heart throbs.

Kravitz lets out a startled, breathless gasp and nearly topples off his stool, except Justin tightens his hold on Kravitz’s wrist and grabs his shoulder to steady him.

“Hey… you good?” he asks.

Kravitz rubs at his chest, inhales shakily, and tries to decide. “I... think so.”

He looks up at Justin, who’s even closer now. His face is still cast in shadow, but Kravitz can tell he’s concerned. He feels his cheeks heating from the rush of blood to them.

It’s been centuries. Centuries since he had a heartbeat, since blood flowed through his veins, and the first thing his body decides to do is make him blush.

Justin catches it, obviously, because he smiles again. Smirks, really. There's a gap between his front teeth.

“Sorry,” Kravitz says, trying to pull himself together when all he can think about is the newly beating heart inside him. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s okay, bubala. Totally natural.” Justin squeezes his wrist and lets him go. “I get it all the time.”

The over the top displays of ego mixed with surprising bouts of sincerity, the easy confidence Justin shows teasing him—it’s all preposterously endearing. Kravitz is in a lot of trouble. “Well, with your natural modesty I’m not surprised.”

Justin lets out a startled cackle and Kravitz grins, feels his cheeks flush with the pleasure of success. Justin’s real laugh isn’t pretty, but it is delightful—unguarded and loud.

They settle back against the door and into a comfortable silence. Kravitz reaches up and touches his chest again, closing his eyes to count his slow, regular heartbeats. In the dark, he feels himself growing warm.

Chapter Text

The soft new sensation in Kravitz’s chest—the steady, insistent rhythm of his heart—makes it easy for him to lapse into song, into humming under his breath and conducting an invisible orchestra with his left hand as he writes out the week’s report for Hecuba, head bent close to his desk.

The stakeout was unsuccessful, but still one of the best nights he’s had in a long time. Kravitz doesn’t need to sleep, but it had been tempting to doze off in the dark classroom. They’d spent hours beside each other, talking sometimes, but often quiet, just enjoying each other’s presence.

Justin’s veil had lowered again as the morning crept closer, but Kravitz didn’t mind. Distracted as he was by the feeling of his heart and the effect Justin had on him, it was hard to mind... anything.

Kravitz dips his pen in his inkwell again, ready to move on from Mr. Tallhill’s preparations to Mrs. Greendour’s, when he feels a sudden, sharp tug on the core of him, on his soul, more unexpected and painful than his heart restarting. He knocks over the ink as his hand convulses around his pen, snapping the nib off inside the well.

The Raven Queen needs him—urgently.

Kravitz whistles a hasty tune, getting to his feet and wiping his hand on his shirt, leaving black streaks on it as most of the ink he spilled on the desk retreats back into the bottle. He’ll still have to re-write the report, but it’s some damage control, all he has time to do. His feet are already moving towards the shrine. Kravitz ignores Hecuba in the hallway between it and his morgue, dropping to his knees at the altar and touching his fingers to the offering dish.

“Kravitz,” Hecuba says. “What—”

The statue comes to life, flapping its wings and puffing itself up, the very picture of a distressed bird.

Kravitz doesn’t bother with formalities, ignoring the startled exclamation from Hecuba behind him. “What’s wrong? Do you need me to return to the astral plane?”

“I need you to stop this,” the Raven Queen says. “I need you to work faster, Kravitz. There was another theft.”

He sits back on his heels, newly alive heart in his throat. “How many souls?”

“Five.”

Kravitz’s hands tighten compulsively into fists, composure cracking. “Five?”

“This cannot continue. I won’t have the laws of life and death broken like this. Not anymore. Not if you have to bring in every necromancer in Neverwinter to stop it.”

Kravitz has seen the Raven Queen angry before, even concerned, but he hasn’t seen her like this—seen her distraught. Five souls is a big escalation from two and if she’s reacting to the theft like this than things are even more dire than he thought.

“I’ll stop it,” Kravitz says. “No more thefts, I promise.”

The Raven Queen bends her head and presses her beak to Kravitz’s hand on the dish. The stone feels cold. “I need this done, Kravitz,” she says, raising her head after a moment. “See it through and then come home. You are missed.”

Kravitz resists the urge to do something blasphemous and unwanted, like pet the statue in an attempt to offer the Raven Queen comfort. Instead he bows his head to her. “Of course, My Queen.”

The raven shudders and turns back to stone, still perched over the offering dish with ruffled feathers, looking far too alive.

Kravitz gets to his feet and turns. Hecuba, frozen behind him in the hallway, takes a step back.

Well, fuck. This wasn’t how Kravitz planned on telling Hecuba he was an emissary for the Raven Queen. He’d been planning on offering a blessing and passing on the Raven Queen’s regards when he left. Maybe securing his own replacement so she had less work on her plate.

“Y-your eyes,” Hecuba says.

Kravitz blinks and realizes everything seems much clearer now than it has for the past couple months. When he looks down at himself he realizes that not only has he dropped the illusion spell on his eyes, he’s also summoned his cowled robe with its feathered epaulettes—the uniform that marks his position in the Raven Queen’s retinue.

At least his hands are human. He hasn’t shifted into his skeletal form.

“Hecuba, there are forces at work in Neverwinter right now that required the Raven Queen to send an emissary to the material plane,” he says. “I can’t explain everything, but you should know that our goddess has taken special note of you and your devotion. I’m especially grateful for the hospitality you’ve shown me personally.”

“I make you write me weekly reports,” Hecuba says, voice faint. “I’ve knit you three pairs of gloves and two scarves.”

“And I’m very grateful for them,” Kravitz assures her. “Honestly, the report writing is a lot like being home on the astral plane.”

Hecuba walks backwards to the base of the stairs and then sits down, hard, on the lowest step. “Holy shit,” she says.

Kravitz moves closer, slowly, and kneels at her side. “I’m sorry. I know this is a shock.”

“You think?” Hecuba’s hands are shaking ever so slightly. Kravitz holds himself back from reaching for them because he’s not sure it would go down well. His skin is cold and now Hecuba knows why.

“Can I do anything?” he asks. “Get you... anything? I don’t do this very often. Usually when a mortal sees me it’s because they’ve made some very bad choices.”

Hecuba lets out a breath and looks up at Kravitz, stares into his eyes with a grim expression on her face. “I’m going to have to hire another undertaker soon, aren’t I?”

“I… thought I might help work out my replacement,” Kravitz says. “I don’t want to leave you in the lurch. I appreciate the work. It’s made it very convenient to communicate with the Raven Queen without having to go to one of the big temples. I can have privacy here.”

Hecuba laughs at that. It’s not steady, but it’s a start. She pushes herself up from the step. “Right. Come on. There’s sherry in the kitchen and I need a drink. Apparently I’ve been employing—is your name really Kravitz? That’s what… She called you too.”

Kravitz nods. “That’s my name,” he says, following Hecuba up the stairs. “I have others, but I really would prefer if you still called me Kravitz.”

In the kitchen, Hecuba pulls a dusty bottle of sherry from under the sink and foregoes the facade of sherry glasses, taking out tea cups and pouring generously. She sits at the rickety kitchen table and smooths down her beard with a hand. “So.” Hecuba takes a hearty drink from her cup. “Death. What’s it like?”

Kravitz smiles at Hecuba and takes a polite sip of his own sherry. “For you? Peaceful,” he says. “It’s a chance to put your feet up. A chance to reflect back on your life and be with the people you love.”

Hecuba thinks that over for a moment, then nods and drinks a bit more sherry. “Peaceful. Could be worse.”

Kravitz laughs at that, smile shifting to show more teeth as he thinks about getting his hands on the person responsible for the thefts from his domain. “Oh trust me, when someone truly deserves it, it gets much worse.”

*

Kravitz makes sure Hecuba isn’t going to have a breakdown over seeing her goddess inhabit the statue in her basement or fire him for secretly being Death embodied and then opens a rift as near to Barry, Lup, and Justin’s house as he dares. Kravitz still has no way to track this necromancer, but it stands to reason that if they’ve taken five souls, they’re going to go after more bodies.

It means they need another stakeout—tonight.

He knocks on the door and after a moment Barry answers, looking surprise. “Kravitz, what—” Barry turns and calls over his shoulder. “Kravitz is here!”

“Can I come in?” Kravitz asks. “I can’t stay long. There’s a visitation tomorrow and I need to prepare the body, but this is urgent.”

“Of course.” Barry steps back so he can enter, glancing over his shoulder again. “Babe? You and Justin heard?”

“We heard!” Lup calls back. “Just—give us a second!”

“I’m sorry to come at a bad time,” Kravitz says. “I know we talked about spacing out the stakeouts, but we need to be in the labs tonight.”

“Why?” Lup walks into the hallway, Justin trailing after her. He’s wearing a simple blouse, open at the neck and tucked into a bustled skirt. He has his veil on, but it’s sitting at an odd angle, slightly skewed. For him, it’s a very simple outfit. Kravitz does his best not to stare at the triangle of bare skin on view at Justin’s neck. “I thought we all agreed it made more sense to save ourselves by doing every other night?”

“I know, but I have… a hunch about tonight,” Kravitz says. “Please trust me on this. We need to be there. There will be more thefts.”

Justin cocks his head. “You got a source you’re not telling us about?” he asks, a hand on his hip. “Because we’ve been sharing with you.”

Kravitz weighs his options. He looks at Barry, who knows he’s a follower of the Raven Queen, but who is also a necromancer. And—there’s Justin to think about. Justin, who certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting in the dark and giggling with the Grim Reaper. As bad as he knows keeping a secret like that to himself is, Kravitz doesn’t want to lose this feeling, this thing that makes his heart beat faster because he’s in the same room as Justin.

“I don’t want you to think I’m over-reacting,” he said. “I had a sign. From the Raven Queen.”

“Oh fuck.” Lup drops her head into her hands. “No way. We are not getting messages from the gods. We’re not important enough to get messages from the gods. Most clerics aren’t important enough.” Lup looks up at him. “I’m sorry, Death Note. I like you. But maybe you’re just a little on edge from all this body snatching business and working in a creepy death house isn’t helping?”

“I’m not imagining things,” Kravitz says, shaking his head. “Hecuba’s house is—think of it like a temple. The energies inside feed into the astral and celestial planes. It’s a place where it’s much easier for the Raven Queen to hear your prayers. Or vice-versa.”

Kravitz can tell Justin is watching him, even with the veil in the way. He can feel his eyes. Kravitz looks to him for help. “If you don’t believe I had a message from the Raven Queen that’s fine, but we need to be there tonight. We can take tomorrow off, but please. Trust me.”

“I believe you,” Justin says, and then looks at Lup. “More things on heaven and Faerun and all that, right? Besides, I work for a witch who sells prophecies. It’s not that big a stretch to believe the Raven Queen might get a little miffed about someone stealing bodies and reach out to a follower who’s trying to stop it, is it?”

Lup makes a face. “If I believe this then I have to believe what Merle says about talking to Pan.”

“Oh hell no, you don’t,” Justin says, shaking his head. “You leave him to own up to his dirty plant fetish because that’s his own damn fault. Besides, Krav was molting raven feathers the first time I met him. Hard not to buy him being touched by his goddess after that.”

Kravitz smiles at Justin and takes an inadvertent step closer to him. “Thank you,” he says. “So you’ll come back to the lab tonight?”

“Oh, fine,” Lup says. “One more night isn’t going to kill us, I guess. Barry and I will take second shift this time so Barry can nap first.”

“Thanks, babe,” Barry says, lips quirking into a smile. He looks at Kravitz “I was dead on my feet all day after last night.”

“As long as you don’t get too excited to sleep again.” Lup walks over and plants a kiss on his forehead.

Kravitz’s gaze drifts to Justin. The easy intimacy between Lup and Barry is sweet. Their relationship seems to be grounded in a deep understanding of each other and Kravitz knows he hasn’t ever had that with another person—not when he was alive and certainly not during his undeath. “So tonight? I have work to do for tomorrow, but it should only take a few hours.”

“Yeah, tonight,” Justin agrees. “I’ll bring food. We’ll have a picnic in the Necromantic Sciences labs. Who else can claim a second… outing like that?”

Kravitz smiles, even though he shouldn’t, even though the situation is serious—a disaster if they don’t catch the culprit as soon as possible. “I look forward to it.”

The orchestra’s song has made its way back into his head by the time he leaves the house. Kravitz taps the rhythm of it out against his leg as he looks for a safe place to open a rift back to the funeral parlour.

*

When Kravitz shows up at the necromancy building that night, Justin is already waiting. He’s holding an actual picnic basket with a folded up blanket draped over his arm. Despite himself, Kravitz can’t help laughing. “I didn’t think you meant our picnic would be quite this literal,” he said. “Can I carry something?”

Justin hands over the blanket. “When Justin says you’re going to have a picnic, you can bet you’re having a picnic,” he says, sounding very pleased with himself. “I’ve got Barry’s key. The lab nerds should have cleared out by now. Shall we?”

Kravitz pulls open the door for Justin. “After you.”

“I do like a gentleman. You’re not going to do your distinguished voice for me? Is it just for threatening the militia?”

Kravitz feels himself blushing, which is the real downside of this heartbeat thing. “I… I’ve been doing this job for a long time,” he says, as they walk towards the door to the basement. “You get bored with always doing the same thing after a while.”

“Nah, I get it,” Justin says, shaking his head. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, my man. It’s still dorky as all hell, but never let it be said that I don’t have a proper sense of drama.”

“You? Never.” Kravitz laughs when Justin hits his arm, then takes the picnic basket from him while he fishes Barry’s key out of his dress.

“This is a dope veil and anyone who says otherwise is jealous that they didn’t think of it first,” Justin says, pulling out the key so he can unlock the door. He holds it open for Kravitz to walk through.

“I like the veil,” Kravitz promises. Justin locks the door behind them and tucks the key away. “Classroom?”

Justin nods, taking the basket back and leading the way down the stairs. “I know you’re used to the whole corpse thing, but I’d rather not eat in the dead body room. Or the jars of dead body parts room. Or whatever other wonderful rooms they’re hiding down here.”

Kravitz makes a conscious decision not to point out that the necromancy students probably practice their magic—magic that definitely calls for the use of bodies—in the classroom. Justin will be happier not thinking about it. Kravitz can appreciate that. “You make a good point.”

Justin hums in agreement. “Not just a pretty face here, homie.”

Kravitz wants to tell Justin he doesn’t need to wear the veil when they’re together. That Kravitz won’t tell anyone if he folds it back, even when they’re not sitting in the dark, but he doesn’t want to be rude. Maybe Justin follows some god who likes their followers to keep their faces covered during mourning. Kravitz understands devotion in a way very few people do. His faith in the Raven Queen has literally sustained him for centuries.

Maybe, despite the in-your-face confidence, Justin is shy.

Ambient light makes it possible to navigate the basement hallway, but the classroom is fully dark. Kravitz touches one of the stools, once they’re inside, and whistles a soft tune, casting Light. It’s almost blinding, in the small room, and he whistles again, changing the colour to lavender to soften the light’s impact. He lays out the picnic blanket beside the door and offers Justin his hand. “I can’t imagine those skirts are easy to maneuver in.”

“You’d be surprised,” Justin says, setting the basket down on the blanket and taking Kravitz’s hand so he can wrestle his way down, onto the floor. “You get a lot of extra legroom if you wear them right. People move the fuck out of the way when they see someone in full mourning gear. It’s great. I don’t know why I never thought of it before.”

Kravitz snorts as he sits beside Justin. “You remember my goddess is the Raven Queen, right?”

“Is bird queen not big on people faking mourning?” Justin asks, as he opens his picnic baskets and starts laying things out. “I guess she wouldn’t be.”

“Bird queen,” Kravitz repeats, faintly, feeling sacrilegious just repeating the words.

Justin pauses in his unpacking, then pulls out a couple glasses and a bottle of wine. “Open this and have a swig. It’ll help.”

Kravitz lets himself relax again and laughs. “She doesn’t especially appreciate people play acting at mourning, no, but it’s not strictly speaking against her laws.” He tugs the cork out of the bottle so he can pour them both a glass. “Mourning fashions change so often it would be hard to really enforce any rules governing them.”

“You’re really serious about her, huh?” Justin’s packed food in a series of paper-wrapped packets: a baguette, several types of cheese, sliced apple spelled against browning, thinly sliced cured meat, pickled vegetables, dried apricots. “I guess you’d have to be, to become an undertaker.”

Kravitz takes a sip of his wine. It’s strange, he went without food for hundreds of years but looking at the picnic Justin brought for them he feels… hungry.

“I wasn’t always serious about my faith,” he admits, picking up a slice of apple and taking a bite. It’s sweet and juicy in his mouth. “My family were followers. When I was born they were thrilled. There’s… there used to be a belief, in her followers, about children who were marked for her service.” Kravitz gestures to his face, to the pale patches on his skin. “Children born with a special connection to the astral plane.”

“So, what, because you have vitiligo your parents thought you should be an undertaker?” Justin asks, voice full of scorn for the idea. “That’s a hell of a decision to make for a kid.”

“A cleric, actually,” Kravitz says, grinning. “I felt the same way. I went to the temple with them and I followed the services, but I had no intention of joining an order. I told you I wanted to be a conductor. Music was where my passion lie. I was—I heard an orchestra play for the first time when I was seven. I’d never felt anything like that before. The effect the music had on me, on the rest of the audience—how it could make your heart soar and stutter in your chest. The way it surrounded you. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced.” Kravitz looks down into his wine. “I wanted to make people feel like that.”

Justin is silent. He shifts closer, so their shoulders are touching. “What happened?”

“Fate.” Kravitz takes another sip of wine, glances at Justin. “Death. There was a cult of necromancers. They took my little brother.” He swirls the wine around in his glass, turning his attention back to it. “They were attempting a ritual that required a faithful follower of the Raven Queen. It was… very dark. Gruesome. The Raven Queen came to me in my dream and made me an offer. My brother’s location, his life saved, in exchange for my service to her. It wasn’t even a choice, really.”

It had been more complicated than that. Not just Kravitz's service for his brother’s life, but his life as well. Kravitz had followed the Raven Queen’s directions to the cave where the cult was holed up. He’d offered himself in exchange for his brother, a superior sacrifice—someone marked by the Raven Queen in the place of a child.

If Kravitz hadn’t pledged himself to the Raven Queen, if he hadn’t believed her when she promised to protect him, then the ritual would have destroyed his soul—destroyed him—utterly. If he hadn’t made the trade, than his brother's soul would have been destroyed after he was tortured to death by the cult.

Kravitz doesn’t like thinking about the way he died. He knows, intellectually, about the ritual—that his chest was opened while his life was sustained with a spell. That his heart was pulled from his chest, still beating. It marked him deeply. Even in this conjured body Kravitz still has the scars. And while he may not remember dying, he does remember the apologetic way the Raven Queen made her offer—the sadness in her voice, the sympathy she showed him. It was that, more than anything, that convinced him to take the offer, convinced him she was a goddess he could promise to serve for all eternity.

The Raven Queen had reached into his chest too, before he left to save his brother, and bound his soul to her protection.

Music was nothing, compared to that, to the feeling of having his soul cupped in the hands of a god, to the relief of knowing his brother would live a full and happy life after he was gone. His parents hadn’t been wrong in thinking he was marked by the Raven Queen, but they were wrong about why he was signaled out. Istus had seen his fate and she had pitied him. The Raven Queen had done what she could to alter that fate.

“Fuck,” Justin says, pulling Kravitz’s attention back to the present. “Fuck, that’s—that’s bullshit. You know that, right? You had to agree to be her loyal follower just to save your brother? Of course you’d say yes. I’d do the same for Lup.”

Kravitz reaches for Justin’s hand without thinking about it, covering it with his own and squeezing gently. “I’ve never regretted it,” he says. “She would have led me to him even if I hadn’t sworn myself to her. She told me where he was being held before I made my vow. She gave me as much of a choice as she was able to. And look, I’m not a cleric. We were agreed on what a bad idea that would be.”

Justin laughs and some of the tension seeps out of him. He turns his hand and laces their fingers together. “You’re warm tonight.”

Kravitz looks down at their joint hands, surprised. Justin’s touch still feels hot. He’s still hyper aware of it, but maybe—for other reasons. “Am I?”

“Yeah. It’s nice.” Justin bumps their shoulders together. “Hey, would you mind killing the light? Easier to eat without this veil in the way.”

“Oh—yes, of course.” Kravitz dismisses the spell and they’re plunged into darkness. Justin lifts his veil, folding it back one handed because he hasn’t let go of Kravitz yet. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I should have—”

He’s cut off by the feeling of Justin’s lips against his, soft and full and not quite at the right angle. Their noses bump together and Kravitz makes a startled sound that causes Justin to pull back.

“Sorry,” Justin whispers. “Is this—?”

“Yes.” Kravitz reaches up with his free hand and cups the back of Justin’s head, drawing him forward into another kiss. This one is better, more careful. Justin’s mouth is hot against his and Kravitz’s heartbeat is so loud in his ears that he thinks Justin must be able to hear it too, must be able to tell what his touch is doing to Kravitz.

Justin lets go of Kravitz’s hand so he can press closer, touching his chest. His hands slide under Kravitz’s coat and jacket, smoothing out the fabric of his shirt and brushing against Kravitz's scars. Kravitz shivers and wraps an arm around Justin’s waist. He tugs him closer, exhaling into the kiss because he’s forgotten how to do this and breathe at the same time. Justin laughs and gods above does Kravitz love that sound.

Justin’s tongue finds its way into Kravitz’s mouth. Kravitz’s hands roam over Justin’s dress as he tries to find somewhere to touch that isn’t wrapped in silk, isn’t locked away by an insurmountable amount of boning and structural support.

He settles for cupping Justin’s face in his hands, except it isn’t settling at all. His thumbs rub against Justin’s jaw as they kiss, both of them panting softly in the dark of the classroom. Somehow they've ended up curled together on the hard tile floor and it's not comfortable but there's nowhere Kravitz would rather be. Justin’s hands touch him wherever they can, in the gap between the buttons on his shirt, his neck and jaw and his hair. Kravitz tries to tug Justin closer and his elbow hits the door, a loud bang echoing through the room.

There’s a clattering in the hallway outside and they both freeze, staring at each other in the dark.

“Fuck,” Justin says, pulling back, trying to untangle himself from Kravitz and fit his veil in place at the same time. Kravitz has made an utter mess of his bonnet. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Kravitz is wearing trousers so it’s significantly easier for him to extract himself from the tangle of limbs they’re in and stumble to his feet. “I’ll—just—hold on,” he says. His mind is a blur of confusion because shit, this isn’t like him. Not at all. He hauls Justin up too as quickly as he can, then flings open the door to the classroom, trying to remember literally any spell.

The door to the morgue is half-open and all the lights are on. Kravitz takes a step towards it, then turns when he hears the sound of footsteps running up the stairs, taking off after them instead as Justin emerges from the classroom, ruffled and wine stained.

“Check the morgue!” Kravitz calls, without looking back. He takes the steps two at a time. He can’t let whoever this is get away. He has a job to do.

Kravitz doesn’t hesitate at the top of the stairs. He races out towards the atrium, out through the front doors of the building and onto the street.

There’s no one there. No one but a very startled looking Lup and Barry.

“Dammit!” Kravitz turns in a circle, looking for any hint of where the intruder could be hiding. It’s too dark for him to see much, with his human eyesight, and he feels so useless. He kicks the stone base of a street lamp and turns to face Lup and Barry. “Did you see anyone run from the building?”

“No,” Barry says. “Kravitz, what—”

Justin rushes out of the building, obviously struggling in his corset and skirts. “Krav, did you—oh. Hey, Lulu. Barold.”

Lup looks at Justin’s disheveled appearance, at Kravitz, who must be in a similar state given the way Justin had been tugging on his clothing, and her eyebrows raise. “Did you two just lose our perp because you were making out in the morgue?”

Kravitz is furious with himself. He has no idea how he’s going to explain this to the Raven Queen.

“The good news is they didn’t get any bodies,” Justin says, ignoring his cousin. “Still a full house in there. I think we, uh, interrupted them. I did just have to levitate a body back onto a slab though, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“Fuck,” Kravitz says. “I can’t believe we missed our chance.”

Lup squeezes Barry’s arm and walks over to Justin, reaching up to right the veil on his head. “You missed a chance,” she says. “So much for taking tomorrow night off. I guess we’re back out here again.” She turns to look at Kravitz. “Sorry I doubted your spooky bird mom.”

Lup and Justin really are a lot alike.

“Please don’t call her that,” Kravitz says, rubbing his hands over his face. He can feel a headache coming on. He can’t remember the last time he had a headache. “This is already going to be a lot to explain without that in my head.”

“Uh—excuse me?”

“Lup, not now. I’ll tell you about it later,” Justin says, and walks over to Kravitz’s side. He touches his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he says. “They didn’t get a body. They don’t even know we were there looking for them. For all they know, it was a couple students fooling around. We’re good. We’ll get them tomorrow and we’ll be subtler about it.”

Kravitz looks at Justin’s veil covered face and wishes he could kiss him again. “Tomorrow,” he agrees, after a moment. “We need to catch them before this goes any further.”

Justin reaches up, finger tracing the outline of one of the patches on Kravitz’s skin. “Tell the Raven Queen I promise not to distract you too much. I want her to like me.”

“Do you?” Kravitz asks, lips quirking into half a smile despite himself.

“Of course,” Justin says. “How else am I going to convince you to keep making out with me?”

Kravitz actually laughs and that’s—if Justin can make him laugh now, even after he’s just fucked up so spectacularly he doesn’t know how the Raven Queen will ever forgive him, even after completely failing at his mission, then Kravitz knows without a doubt that he is utterly, utterly lost.

Chapter Text

Kravitz is getting ready to visit Justin at the tea house when he receives the Sending from Barry. The four of them have plans to meet in the evening for another stakeout, but apparently they’re already too late. It’s a short message because that’s all the spell allows.

Another theft at university STOP Five cadavers gone STOP University board in a panic STOP Come if you can

Fear seizes Kravitz. The necromancer or necromancers responsible for the thefts have their hands on both the souls and bodies they need for whatever it is they’re planning. And they managed to accomplish the theft in broad daylight. It shouldn’t be possible.

He feels the spell waiting for his response and thinks it quickly.

I’m coming

He’ll be late for his meeting with Justin, but Barry’s likely sent Lup and Justin a message as well. Kravitz doesn’t have time for the farce of a carriage. He summons his scythe and opens a rift, stepping out into the now familiar space between buildings he’s been using to transport himself to the university campus, and then banishes the scythe. He’s left his tie and coat in his apartment, but there’s no time for formalities. He ignores the looks he gets, striding through campus without a coat on a cold day, and wrenches the door to the Department of Necromantic Science open. There’s a crowd of militia officers at the other end of the hallway, by the door to the basement. Barry didn’t specify where Kravitz was to meet him, but when Kravitz closes his eyes he can sense Barry’s soul above him.

His office, then.

Kravitz presses the call button for the elevator and ignores the dread building in his stomach. He hasn’t told the Raven Queen about his failure the night before yet, but it’s only a matter of time before she wants an update. He’s surprised, actually, that he hasn’t received a summons. Perhaps she senses the tension in him. Perhaps she knows how distracted he was by Justin and his warm hands and soft lips.

When the elevator arrives, the trip to the third floor seems to take hours. As soon as the doors open, Kravitz is rushing down the hall to Barry’s office. He knocks and opens it almost in the same movement. “Barry, what—” Kravitz pulls himself up short. Barry has a visitor. Another human man, one Kravitz hasn’t met or spied on before. He tries to try to collect himself. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No, it’s all right,” Barry says, getting to his feet. He has a grim expression on his face. “Kravitz, this is Lucas Miller. He’s one of the university’s major donors and a scientist in his own right. Lucas, this is the friend I was telling you about. The one who’s been trying to help us figure out what’s going on.”

Kravitz holds out a hand automatically. “Are you interested in necromancy as well?” he asks, because that’s the sort of thing he needs to keep track of.

Lucas stares at Kravitz’s face for a long moment before taking his hand. “I’m not a wizard,” he says, as he drops the handshake. “And I’m an engineer, really, not a scientist, but my mother was interested in trying to redeem necromancy’s poor reputation. She donated the money for the building’s construction.”

“Maureen understood that not everyone interested in necromancy is interested in destroying lives,” Barry says, smiling sadly. “She was a very intelligent woman. She used to come to my lectures and then talk about my research with me after office hours. I was just catching Lucas up on our investigation.”

“You should have come to me earlier,” Lucas says, turning back to Barry. “I could have helped. I don’t want my mother’s legacy ruined because someone decided the labs here were a good... resource for whatever dark rituals they’re practicing.”

“I’m sorry,” Barry says, running a hand through his hair. “I hope it’s not too late for us to join forces in looking into this.”

“Me too,” Lucas says. “She really cared about this department. The building was her last major project before she got sick.” He glanced at Kravitz again, wary. “Sorry, Barry says you’re an... undertaker? How exactly did you get involved with an investigation at the university?”

“I have a friend who’s a grad student working in the labs,” Kravitz says. He can’t tell if Lucas is a snob or suspicious of Kravitz’s motivations. Both, maybe. The way he says undertaker shows a very particular sort of disdain, dismissing Kravitz’s intelligence because of his lack of university qualifications. “He mentioned bodies going missing and I got curious.”

Lucas nods slowly. “And—where is it you work, exactly?” he asks. “If you’re not working for the university labs too.”

“The Roughridge Family Funeral Parlour,” Kravitz says. He doesn’t like Lucas.

“So a professional and not an academic, then,” Lucas says. “I see.” He turns away—an obvious and complete dismissal of Kravitz—looking at Barry again. “I should go back down and try to do damage control. I saw some reporters poking around on my way in. We don’t want this getting out. I’ll try and stop anyone from mentioning the other thefts for now, all right? I’ll see you tonight.”

“Thank you, Lucas,” Barry says, and they shake hands again. “I’m very grateful for your help with this.”

“Of course. I don’t want to see anyone’s career suffer because of this. Least of all yours.”

Lucas leaves without addressing Kravitz again, not even to say goodbye. When the office door closes behind him, Kravitz turns to Barry, eyebrows raised.

Barry snorts and falls into a chair. “I know,” he says. “He’s… a lot to take, but having him on our side is a good thing. He has connections and resources that we don’t. He’s one of the wealthiest men in Neverwinter. In Faerun, probably.”

“Really?” Kravitz had put his attitude down to academic snobbery, not wealth. Perhaps it’s both.

“Yes, his family are the Millers,” Barry says, like that should be significant to Kravitz. He must see the blank look on Kravitz’s face because he blinks in surprise. “Really? I thought everyone knew them. They invented… well, a lot of things, but where they really made their money is elevators.”

“Ah,” Kravitz says. “Which explains why this building has one, I suppose.”

“Gift from Maureen,” Barry agrees. He managed to maintain a wry smile for about half a second before sagging in his seat. He pushes his glasses into his hair so he can rub his face with his hands. “Gods, Kravitz. I don’t know how this happened. I’ve been here since four this morning, working. I went down to the labs twice to check on everything. I thought I was being paranoid.”

“Do you have a timeline?” Kravitz asks, taking a seat in one of Barry’s armchairs.

“Sometime between nine and ten,” Barry says. “There was a class in session downstairs. They said they heard people moving around, but assumed it was just—researchers. Why would they think anything else? Everyone wanted the thefts kept secret, so no one knew they should be suspicious of men moving bodies.”

“Fuck,” Kravitz says.

“Yeah.”

They sit in silence. The only additional information Kravitz has now is that there are multiple parties responsible for the theft. That’s not much. Certainly not enough to assuage the Raven Queen, when he finally gives her his report on how things are going. He’s going to have to own up to the kissing. He’s going to have to tell her about his heart.

“Are Lup and Justin coming?” Kravitz asks, after a moment. When he pulls out his pocket watch he’s ten minutes late for his meeting with Justin at the tea house.

Barry looks stricken. “Shit,” he says. “I should have sent them a message, shouldn’t I? I didn’t think of that. I knew you’d want to know right away, and then Lucas showed up to ask me what I knew about the thefts. I got distracted.”

Justin is going to kill him. It’s true that Kravitz is already dead, but somehow he feels like Justin will manage to find a way around that, and there’s the matter of his heartbeat to consider. That seems to make it much more likely that he could be killed.

“I need to go,” Kravitz says, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry. I’ll see you this evening. I had a meeting with Justin and I’m already late. I just—assumed.”

“A meeting?” Barry looks amused as he gets to his feet again. “Of course. Lup would kill me if I kept you from making it. Go, go.” He makes a shooing motion with his hands. “You can both meet us here around seven. Lucas is going to report back with whatever he can get out of the militia and the University Board. I suspect he’ll have more luck than I ever did.”

Kravitz nods, wishing he’d at least put his tie on before rushing out. He doesn’t want to waste the time heading back home to get it before going to see Justin now, but there’s no way Justin will let it slide.

“We’ll be here,” he promises, and leaves the office.

*

“You’re late,” Justin says, when Kravitz rushes into the tea house. He’s sitting at a table by the door and manages to look unimpressed even with the veil masking his features. He tilts his head to the side. “And you’re not wearing a coat or a tie. Did you get mugged on your way over? I could be convinced to forgive you for being late if you got mugged.”

“I had an emergency message from Barry,” Kravitz says, reaching up to adjust his shirt collar, trying to sort himself out. “I apologize for the state of... me.”

“What sort of emergency?” Justin asks, dropping the teasing annoyance like a hot stone. “It’s fine. Do you need to go?”

Kravitz shakes his head, pulling out a chair so he can take a seat. “There’s nothing I can do right now. There were more thefts at the university. Someone took five bodies. We’re having a meeting in Barry’s office tonight, at seven.”

“Fuck,” Justin says.

“Precisely.” Kravitz rubs a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—I assumed Barry contacted you and Lup as well or I would have sent you a message to let you know I was going to be late.” He reaches across the table and touches Justin’s hand. “I wouldn’t leave you waiting for me like that without a reason, I promise. I… care for you, Justin.”

Justin flinches and Kravitz pulls his hand back. “Sorry. I thought—”

“No. No, Krav, I’m… I do too. About you.” Justin reaches out and grabs his hand. “There’s just… look, there’s something you need to know. About me. Before we… do whatever. Anything else.” Justin takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. “It was really shitty of me to kiss you last night,” he says. “I haven’t been honest with you and that’s… yeah, that’s real bad.”

Kravitz doesn’t like where this is going. “Honest about what?” he asks, wary.

“Me.” Justin lets go of his hand. He reaches up and lifts his veil, folding it back. There’s about half a second where Kravitz isn’t sure what Justin is trying to tell him, where he thinks this was all a lead up to Justin showing him his face by daylight, to talking about a scar or his insecurities—something Kravitz can wave away easily because, honestly, Kravitz couldn’t care less about whatever's under Justin's veil.

He thought he couldn’t.

Kravitz is sitting across the table from someone with the same face as Lup. The same tan skin, the same freckles, the same blond hair—the same everything, although it’s not Lup across from him. This is a face Kravitz has seen before, in the photograph in Lup and Barry and Justin’s sitting room. This is the face of Lup’s twin.

This isn’t Justin. It's Taako.

All the air has left his lungs. Kravitz doesn’t know what to say.

“I didn’t mean to catfish you,” Justin—Taako—says. “I mean, I did, at first, because you didn’t matter, you know? But then you started to matter and that…” He reaches up to play with his plaited hair, twisting the end of his brain around his fingers. “That was unexpected. And I’m… sorry, I guess. For lying. But this is me. Taako. So. Now you know.”

Taako glances up at him. He looks worried, but hopeful. Kravitz doesn’t know what to do with that. He doesn’t know how to respond to this. To being lied to because that’s—if Taako was willing to lie about his name, then what else has been a lie? Not wanting Kravitz, obviously, but that’s… Justin wanting him is such a small part of why Kravitz liked him, why he’d opened up to Justin the way he had.

Kravitz had told Justin things he hadn’t told anyone before, not once in his centuries of undeath. He’d allowed himself to be vulnerable, to be human, and this is... this...

His heart hurts.

Kravitz had forgotten that about having a heart. That it mean you could be hurt like this, that having feelings for someone meant giving them power over you.

It’s been a very long couple of days.

Kravitz closes his eyes and breathes.

Across the table, Taako is still waiting for his response, his ears pricked high, like a rabbit ready to run. He’s wearing his lucky sapphire earrings. In the light of day, Kravitz can see them properly.

Kravitz has been dead much longer than he’s been alive. He’s been devoted to the Raven Queen longer than he’s had feelings for any mortal. He gathers that around him like his cowled robe and pushes everything else down.

“You lied to me.”

“I’d already faked my death to keep from going to jail when we met,” Taako says. “I didn’t kill those people. Angus thinks Sazed—anyway, yes, I know I did. I’m trying to say sorry here, bubala. Taako’s not great at apologies, but… here I am, apologizing.”

Faked his death. Right. This explains why nobody seemed sad about Taako’s death. His friends and family all knew. The employees at the tea house too, Kravitz assumes, since Taako’s lifted his veil here.

Taako threw a whole false funeral in Hecuba’s funeral parlour to throw the militia off his scent.

Kravitz latches on to that. He needs more to be angry about or he might fall apart and he can’t do that. Not yet. There’s too much relying on him keeping it together right now. He has a job to do, a role given to him by the Raven Queen, by whose grace he still exists.

“You really have no respect for the gods, do you?” he asks. “You threw a fake funeral in a temple to the Raven Queen. No real mourners. No real soul to guide to the astral plane. No offerings to her.”

“Is that what you’re mad about?” Taako asks. Some of the tension leaves his body. “Yeah, okay. I did do that, but I’m sure she didn’t mind. What do you want me to do, say a few hail birdies? Donate some money to Hecuba? No sweat, homie.”

“This isn’t a joke, Taako,” Kravitz says as the anger over the disrespect towards the Raven Queen snaps into place and gives him something to feel besides hurt, for a while. “She’s my goddess. I’m sworn to her.”

“She manipulated you into taking a deal,” Taako shoots back, scowling. “You told me the story, my man. As far as I can tell, you didn’t have a choice. Be her servant or let your brother die. Some offer.”

“That’s not—”

“Oh, she told you where he was first? Great. So she guilted you into saying yes to her,” Taako says, shaking his head. “Like that makes it any better. She may be your god, but she’s not mine. The gods never do anything for anyone that’s not in their best interest. Thinking they care about you is a waste of time. You’re just a human. We’re all just mortal. We’re gone in a blink of a fucking eye for them, so why—”

“Stop!” Kravitz is on his feet. His hands are planted on the table, palms flat against it, because he slammed them down without thinking about what he was doing.

The tea house is completely silent.

Taako stares up at him, wide eyed, ears pressed back against his head and tilted down.

“Stop,” Kravitz repeats, in a softer voice. “Just… this was a mistake, Taako. I should have known better than to get involved with anyone in the first place.”

The Raven Queen warned him about becoming too human while he on the material plane. She hadn’t meant like this, he knew. She thought it was sweet, him forming connections with mortals. But her initial advice still applies. He shouldn’t have let this… thing with Taako get so far. This never should have happened.

“Kravitz.”

Kravitz takes a step back from the table. “I’m sorry I yelled,” he says. It’s clear, all of the sudden. He shouldn’t be on this assignment. He’s too close to it. It’s become too personal. “I need to go. I don’t think you’ll see me tonight, Taako. Good luck with the investigation.”

“Kravitz!”

Kravitz turns as Taako gets to his feet, brushing off Taako’s grab for his arm, and strides out the door as quickly as he can without actually running. There are clouds rolling in from the east, as if they sky senses Kravitz’s mood and wants to provide him with the appropriate weather. He finds the nearest dark alley and opens a rift to—anywhere but here. Somewhere Taako won’t be able to follow. Somewhere he can be alone. No Barry, no Lup, no Taako—no Raven Queen.

Right now, being alone is all Kravitz wants.

*

Kravitz walks the streets of Neverwinter for hours. He only lets his feet take him back to the funeral home when the clouds that have been gathering since the afternoon reach a breaking point and the heavens open up. There’s part of him that want to return to the astral plane immediately, but he owes it to Hecuba to stay until he can find a replacement. The Raven Queen will understand that, when he asks her to assign another emissary to this case. She’ll be disappointed, but there’s nothing Kravitz can do about that now. He’s already fucked everything up completely.

It’s dark and his suit is soaked by the time he reaches the funeral parlour. A glance at his pocket watch tells Kravitz that if he really wanted to he could still make the meeting with Taako, Lup, and Barry; it’s only six-thirty. He resists the urge. Not his case anymore.

Very shortly not his case anymore.

Kravitz pulls his wet jacket off as he unlocks the basement door—a door only really used to deliver the deceased and for his comings and goings—and slips inside. He snaps his fingers and the enchanted glass orbs that line the hallway flicker to life, glowing softly.

As much as looking like a drowned rat might suit his mood, it’s not very professional for turning in his resignation from a job to the Raven Queen. Kravitz is about to use a spell to dry off what he’s wearing when he realizes how thoroughly adjusted to humanity he’s really become. There’s no need to dry his clothing because it isn’t real.

Annoyed at himself, dressed in damp clothes that cling in all the wrong places, Kravitz takes a moment to glare at a portrait of one of Hecuba’s ancestors hanging on the wall, then banishes everything he’s wearing and summons a different, dry suit in its place. He could have had a coat and tie all day, if he’d thought of it. How foolish he’s become.

In the middle of mentally berating himself, Kravitz, because he’s used to the particular stillness of the funeral home, hears a soft creak from inside the morgue—the sound of the floorboards under the tiles shifting, maybe, or someone easing a cupboard closed.

It's a sound that is completely out of place in a building that should be empty.

He freezes, eyes on the morgue door. He could summon his scythe, but if anything gives away his real purpose on the material plane, it’s walking around with a massive scythe engraved with raven’s feathers. In the past week he’s inserted himself into the lives of mortals and gotten himself tangled up in all sorts of dramas he thought he’d forgotten how to care about centuries ago. With Kravitz’s current luck, Taako is waiting to try and continue their conversation from earlier. He doesn’t need to walk in on Taako with the scythe. It would just make things worse than they already are.

So Kravitz does what the average human undertaker would do—he walks into the morgue like he didn’t notice the sound. Since settling into his false identity and subsequently being dragged into conversations with Hecuba’s clients about current events that he can’t even begin to follow, Kravitz has discovered that acting oblivious is a good general strategy for passing as normal.

“I thought you’d be here earlier.”

Kravitz pauses just inside the door, hand falling to his side in case he needs to call his scythe.

Waiting for him, leaning against the empty slab in the middle of the room, is a harried looking Lucas Miller.

He frowns. “Lucas. What are you doing creeping around Hecuba’s morgue? You’re supposed to be at the university in half an hour.”

“Barry isn’t as up on his lore as he should be,” Lucas says.

Lucas is nervous. Sweating. He’s looking at Kravitz, but not at his face. Not directly. Won’t meet his eyes. It’s obvious he has something rash planned, but Kravitz is still trying to work out why.

“He doesn’t put a lot of stock in mythology," he says. “My mother always said it was important to have as much information as possible when you start something. She taught me everything I know. She was brilliant. Is brilliant.”

Kravitz takes a step to the side, away from Lucas. “Whatever you think you’re doing, you should think twice, Lucas,” Kravitz says, voice low. “You’re making a mistake.”

“No.” Lucas looks at Kravitz properly then, and Kravitz sees iron-clad determination in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Kravitz.”

Lucas darts forward, taking a wild swing with something small, something sharp and shiny that catches the light and flashes silver as he brings it down—a scalpel.

Kravitz raises an arm to block the blow instinctively and sucks in a pained breath between his teeth when Lucas manages a slash to his arm.

Kravitz raises a foot and kicks Lucas back, darting behind his desk. He glares as he presses a hand over the cut. It’s shallow, harmless for a normal human, and especially for someone whose physical form is just a construct, but it stings and this is another jacket and shirt ruined. “What the fuck, Lucas?”

“You work as an undertaker at a funeral parlour dedicated to the Raven Queen,” Lucas says, as he pulls himself up, sheaths the scalpel in his hand carefully. “I—I’m sorry. I’m sorry it had to be this way, Kravitz, but I know. I know you’re not just an undertaker. You’re her follower. Her paladin or her cleric. You’re dedicated to her and her rules, even though they’re wrong.” Lucas gestures at his own face, then at Kravitz’s. “When children had vitiligo like yours, in the old days, they were said to be marked by the Raven Queen. It’s a stupid superstition, but your parents must have thought it was true. I’m right, aren’t I? You’re looking for necromancers because you’re dedicated to the goddess of death.”

Lucas is responsible for the thefts. Kravitz doesn’t know why or how he’s doing it, but it’s clear now. Lucas Miller has been stealing souls from the Eternal Stockade. He’s been stealing bodies from his colleagues at the university. Lucas Miller is up to something.

Kravitz tries to raise his hand and call his scythe, but pain like fire shoots through his arm and he gasps, stumbling where he stands.

“I’m sorry,” Lucas says again, and he does look genuinely distraught. “I’m sorry. This wasn’t—I didn’t want to do this. It won’t be long. I’m sure… I’m sure the Raven Queen will be good to you. You’re probably happy to join her.”

Kravitz growls under his breath as his knees give out and he collapses, just barely catching himself with his uninjured arm before he faceplants on the hard tiles below him. “What… what is this?”

“Silverpoint,” Lucas says. “When you get to the astral plane, tell your goddess I’m not giving her back.”

Kravitz opens his mouth to respond, to tell Lucas to go fuck himself, but all that comes out is a pained gurgle. It doesn’t even sound like his voice.

He falls forward the final few feet, to the floor, and forces himself to turn his head towards Lucas, to glare as his vision starts to blur, clutching his injured arm against his chest. Kravitz knows how he died, knows he was tortured and that it left deep scars behind, deep enough to stick with him even in his undeath, but he doesn’t remember what dying felt like, that first time.

This time, it burns. It feels like fire worming through his veins as the poison is pumped through his body  by his new heartbeat. It feels like he’s being pulled apart at the seams from the inside out, like he’s being torn up.

His eyes shut without his consent and he curls in on himself, grinding his teeth against the pain.

Kravitz hears the door open. He hears Lucas leave, hears him run down the hall and out into the night, and he knows, lying there, on the cold morgue floor, that he got his wish—he is alone.

Chapter Text

Something about dying makes Kravitz feel utterly human. He tries to concentrate on breathing through the sensation of his body shutting down, tries to calm himself, but it’s agony. He’s panting—can’t stop—and each breath comes out shaking and laboured. His unreal heart shudders in his chest, fighting to keep beating, pumping more poison through his bloodstream. His vision is grey and black and Kravitz is mad, beneath it all. He is furious that he let it come to this, that when he can shapeshift and take on any form he likes he let a little thing like his real appearance be his downfall. Out of what—nostalgia? Foolish.

He’s so busy writhing and berating himself for being too fond of his own face that he almost doesn’t notice the sound of voices outside the morgue.

“—the door shouldn't be open, right?” someone is saying. Someone with a deep voice. It’s familiar, but not.

“I don’t think he’s here. Let’s just go. I don’t see why I should have to apologize anyway, when he’s the one who overreacted, so.”

Justin. No—Taako. Taako, here even though he and Kravitz argued and Kravitz tried deliberately to be as cold as possible when he left. Even though Kravitz yelled at him.

The conversation outside continues. Kravitz grits his teeth and tries to think of a spell to catch their attention, but can’t come up with anything he can do when he’s in this much pain. He settles for the next best thing and kicks the leg of his desk as hard as he can, sending it skidding back, screeching as it slides across the tiled floor.

The door to the morgue flies open almost immediately.

“Krav, are you—fuck!” Taako is on his knees at his side in a moment. He’s changed out of his mourning dress into a blouse tucked into loose, high-waisted trousers and has a scarf looped around his head so it covers ears and hair, but shows his face.

He’s beautiful. Kravitz feels stupid for thinking it now, of all times, but he is.

“What the fuck? Merle! Get your cleric ass in here!”

Kravitz’s breathing has gone shallow. He smiles up at Taako as Taako grabs his arm and forces it away from his chest. The pain has subsided substantially, actually. The burning in his veins feels distant now. It’s a nice change.

“What’s wrong with him?” Magnus looms overhead and Kravitz blinks, realizing that Taako grabbed his arm to show it to Merle. Taako looks pale and pained.

Merle sucks in a breath through his teeth, looks at Taako, then back at the wound on Kravitz’s arm. “Silverpoint,” he says. “Taako…”

“Heal him,” Taako says, his tone of voice making it clear he thinks there’s no room for argument. There’s an edge of panic to it. “You’re a cleric. You’re a cleric for Pan and it’s a fucking plant, Merle. Heal him.”

“Taako, you know I can’t,” Merle says, resting a hand on Taako’s arm. “There’s no cure for silverpoint poison.”

“What fucking use are you then?” Taako snaps, glaring at Merle. He turns his glare on Kravitz, the grip on his arm tightening so that Kravitz actually registers it again, registers the fact that he has a body. “Don’t you dare fucking die.”

Kravitz lets out an entirely inappropriate laugh that becomes a cough almost as soon as it starts. “It’s… it’s okay,” he says. He closes his eyes for a moment, lets a wave of renewed pain wash over him before continuing. “It’ll be okay, Taako.”

“No it fucking won’t. I came here to apologize and everything. Do you know how fucking rare that is? Taako doesn’t do apologies and now you’re just going to fucking die on me and isn’t that typical of my luck. I find a gentleman caller I want to keep around and he goes and gets murdered.”

“Oh shit,” Magnus says, kneeling beside Taako. “Taako, you’re right. Kravitz, who did this to you? Did you see your attacker? We’ll get them.”

Kravitz has no idea how these people pulled off fooling the militia. He has no idea how they fooled him with their fake funeral. He blames it on the soul thefts and Taako distracting him.

He closes his eyes and tries to swallow, but it doesn’t go well. He chokes again, and this time it hurts a lot more. The pain is coming back and it’s really fucking terrible. Kravitz hates dying. “Hold on,” he says. “Give me… a minute.”

“I don’t think you have a minute,” Magnus says, after a beat. “No, uh… no offense.”

Kravitz would smile if he had the energy, but everything is fading fast now. Taako is clutching at his hand and not even making jokes about how clammy they must be. Kravitz remembers, too late, what Taako told him about the murders he’s accused of—that they were poisonings and that Taako saw the people he fed die.

Lucas Miller is going to pay for this.

Every breath, every beat of Kravitz’s heart is a struggle. Kravitz feels death reaching for him and he reaches back, embraces it like the old friend it is.

His body goes still.

Kravitz dies, and it’s a relief, although experiencing death when you’ve done it before—when technically you’re already dead—is strange and unpleasant. But there really is no cure for silverpoint except this, and now that it’s over Kravitz has a lot to say to Lucas Miller about attempting to kill him.

His soul tries to leave his body, tries to drift to the astral plane, but Kravitz still has a job to do. This is going to be hard to explain to the Raven Queen when he does the paperwork for this case. He resists the pull to return home and stays in his constructed body.

Kravitz opens his eyes, lets himself relax now that the pain is gone, and finds himself face to face with a distraught and confused Taako.

Taako blinks down at him. Neither Merle nor Magnus are paying much attention to either of them. They’re too busy whispering to each other above Taako’s head, probably working out how to report Kravitz’s murder without implicating Taako in yet another death.

“I’m sorry,” Kravitz says, squeezing Taako’s hand in his.

Taako’s eyes narrow. “You just—died,” he says. “I watched you die.”

“Yes,” Kravitz agrees. “I tried to tell you it would be okay.”

Merle and Magnus aren’t whispering anymore. They’re openly staring as Kravitz sits up, rolling his shoulders. He raises his arm to check that the cut is gone. It’s a shame about his shirt and jacket, but he can always craft other clothing.

“Okay,” Taako says, after a long moment. “I’m going to need… a fucking explanation, maybe? Someone needs to tell me what the fuck is going on because right now I feel like I’m tripping balls.” He looks over his shoulder at Merle. “He was definitely dying, right? You didn’t screw this up?”

“I died,” Kravitz says. “It’s… well, would you mind if I stood? It’ll be easier to show you if I stand.”

Taako, Merle, and Magnus all exchange a look and then rise to their feet and step back as Kravitz gets to his. He adjusts his waistcoat.

“What are you going to show us?” Magnus asks.

Kravitz smiles and summons his scythe to his hand. He lets the projection of his human form fade, drops the construct of his clothing as his robe unfurls around his newly skeletal form, lets his eyes burn bright with soulfire. “I’m an emissary of the Raven Queen,” Kravitz says. “Some people call me Death or the Grim Reaper. I prefer Kravitz.”

All three of them are quiet.

“Did I make out with a skeleton?” Taako asks, breaking the silence. “Fuck, you were mad at me for faking my death and you’ve been—literally Death this whole time? Okay, one, I feel like you should have known since death is apparently your whole thing, and two—just—real fucking hypocritical, Krav.”

Kravitz sighs as he reforms his human face and skin, leaving the robe and scythe because it feels good to have them again. He lets his eyes keep burning. It itches less and he can see more. “I wasn’t mad at you for faking your death. I was mad at you for having a ceremony in the funeral parlour. It’s dedicated to the Raven Queen. It’s sacrilegious. Not to mention the—the Raven Queen didn’t force me to accept my position in her retinue. But I will… admit that it was a tad hypocritical of me to be as upset as I was about you lying about your identity.”

“I can’t believe I came here to apologize,” Taako says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t believe I felt bad.”

“Taako—” Kravitz takes a step forward, then thinks about what he looks like and vanishes the scythe. This is more important than the comforting weight of it in his hand. “Taako, I may have concealed my identity from you, but I didn’t lie about who I am or the things I told you about myself.”

“Your identity seems like a pretty big fucking deal from here, my dude,” Taako says. His ears are pressed back flat against his head. He is not happy.

Magnus clears his throat.

“This is… obviously this is all definitely, definitely important for you two to unpack,” Magnus says. “But, uh, maybe we could address the murder thing first? And then move on to… this? Maybe when Merle and I aren’t here. Just… as a suggestion.”

Right. Kravitz has a mission keeping him on this plane. He can’t lose sight of that just because he has feelings for an infuriating, selfish, charming, funny, gorgeous elf. He might have been willing to let someone else take over the investigation before, but being murdered has changed things.

“Right,” he agrees. “Lucas Miller broke into the morgue and tried to kill me. He recognized my facial markings as a sign from the Raven Queen. I don’t know what he’s planning, but it’s big. He’s been stealing souls from the astral plane as well as the bodies he took from the university labs.”

Taako stares Kravitz down for a long moment, then sighs and rolls his eyes, completely over the top and dramatic.

Kravitz finds it charming. Dying seems to have taken much of the momentum out of his anger. Taako came to apologize to him. Taako brought his friends along for backup.

Kravitz is fucked.

“Fine,” Taako says. “Fuck, I guess let’s go tell Lup and Barry that the man who pays for all of Barry’s research just tried to kill the literal fucking Grim Reaper.”

“I guess I’ll, uh, I’ll try and flag down a carriage,” Magnus says, taking a step backwards. “Merle, do you want to come with me to do that?”

Kravitz appreciates them trying to give him and Taako space, but there isn’t time for that now. “No need,” he says, summoning his scythe again. He cuts a swathe through the air, opening a rift near the Department of Necromantic Science. “I have other means of getting around.”

Taako gives the rift an unimpressed look, then steps through it. “I liked you better when you were a bard.”

Kravitz gestures for Merle and Magnus to go ahead of him, privately enjoying Merle’s struggle to step up, into the rift and down on the other side without stumbling. He is still team Hecuba, even if Merle is Taako’s friend. Kravitz follows and the tear closes behind him.

Outside, the earlier downpour has eased into a drizzle, but thunder rumbles in the distance. The weather is going to get worse before it gets better. “We were supposed to meet Lucas at seven,” Kravitz tells Magnus and Merle, getting his watch out to check the time. Silverpoint works quickly. They’re only fifteen minutes late. “I don’t think he’d have time to make it all the way here from the funeral parlour travelling by normal means. I doubt he intended to come at all. Whatever he’s planning with the bodies he stole, I think it’s happening tonight.”

“I mean, I don’t really know what’s going on, but Taako says it’s serious,” Magnus says, glancing at Taako, who’s stalked off ahead of them and is halfway to the necromancy building already. “Barry seemed worried too. Me and Merle are here to help, but I’ve got my eye on you.”

Kravitz is holding a scythe and his eyes are burning with golden fire. This is the first time he and Magnus have actually met. “I’m a sworn servant of the Raven Queen.”

“Yeah, well, Taako’s one of my best friends,” Magnus says. “He’s family.” He turns away, jogging to catch up with Taako.

Merle clears his throat and Kravitz looks down at him. “Serving a god, huh?” Merle says, adjusting his spectacles with his wooden hand. There’s a leaf blooming on his thumb. “I know how that is.”

Kravitz starts walking, purposefully elongating his stride to make it difficult for Merle to catch up. It’s occurring to him, now, that he could have opened a rift into straight Barry’s office and avoided being out in the damp, cold night altogether. There’s no need for the farce of the alley anymore. Everyone knows or is about to know who and what he really is.

It should be a relief. He doesn’t have to hide or lie anymore. There’s no illusion spell obscuring his vision. no reason for him to pretend to have less power than he does. An hour ago Kravitz was eager to return to the astral plane, to go home and leave all this behind.

An hour ago he had a beating heart. An hour ago he breathed without thinking.

Now his body is still and Kravitz is unnerved by it. He misses the messiness of life. He misses the way Taako made his heart pound, even the way Taako made him blush. Under the simmering, righteous fury Kravitz feels on behalf of the Raven Queen, he is irrationally angry that Lucas took that from him, took the little corner of humanity that had colonized Kravitz’s corporal form, however fleeting it might have been.

It’s gone now and Kravitz doesn’t know if it will return. If, after all this is done, Taako will be interested in trying to fix the new, fragile thing they’d crushed before it could bloom because of their necessary deceptions. He doesn’t know if anything that happened between them, in the dark of the morgue, was real.

Now is not the time to think about any of this.

Taako and Magnus are waiting for Kravitz and Merle in the elevator, likely only because Magnus is physically holding the door open and not because Taako wanted to.

Taako crosses his arms over his chest, stares Kravitz down. “On second thought, maybe I’ll just take the stairs.”

Kravitz rolls his eyes, which doesn’t translate well with them in the state they’re currently in. “I’ll meet you upstairs,” he says, and tears open a rift to the third floor. He steps through and slams it shut after himself. Taako has a right to be angry. He knows that. It doesn’t keep him from being annoyed that Taako is choosing to be angry now, when there’s so much at stake.

He taps his fingers impatiently against the handle of his scythe while he waits for the elevator, turning and starting towards Barry’s office as soon as a ding indicates that the carriage has arrived. Kravitz makes a point of not listening to the hushed, angry conversation occurring behind him as he opens the door to Barry’s office and steps inside. He’s ready to throw a spell at Lucas if he’s had the gall to show for the meeting, but the room’s only occupants are Lup and Barry, with two of the mismatched tea cups and an open cookie tin on the desk between them.

Barry chokes on the cookie in his mouth when Kravitz enters. “K-kravitz?”

Lup turns and lets out a low whistle. “Damn, Ghost Rider.”

“Yeah, you can say again,” Taako says, elbowing his way past Kravitz and making a beeline for the cookies. He picks up one coated in chocolate. “Meet the fucking Grim Reaper.”

“I really prefer Kravitz,” Kravitz says.

I prefer not making out with undead skeletons who are lying to me, so.” Taako takes a pointed bite of his cookie.

Kravitz closes his eyes briefly. There are much, much more important things to worry about right now, but— “I prefer not to kiss people who are lying to me about their identities as well.”

“Wow,” Lup says. “So… Barry and I missed some shit, huh? Mags, Merle, not that it’s not good to see you, but what are you doing here?”

“Taako wanted backup,” Merle says.

“He, uh, told us about telling Kravitz who he really was and the fight they had. I told him he needed to apologize, but now…” Magnus motions towards Kravitz. “I mean, mostly I think we were worried Taako was going to get murdered if we didn’t come with him for this part?”

“Just because I’m Death doesn’t mean I kill people indiscriminately,” Kravitz says, reaching up to rub a hand over his face. “We’re getting off track.”

“L-Lucas isn’t here yet,” Barry stutters out. “I, uh, I don’t think—”

“Lucas Miller is responsible for the thefts,” Kravitz says, dropping his hand from his face and looking at Barry, eyes blazing. “He came to the funeral parlour this evening and tried to kill me.”

Lup and Barry stare at Kravitz in his robe with his fiery, golden eyes and large scythe.

“And… is Lucas dead now?” Lup asks, after a long moment. “Because like, you’ve got the perfect job to cover that up and Nerdlord isn’t exactly… tough.”

“I was… in a living body,” Kravitz says. “He dipped a scalpel in silverpoint poison and managed to nick me before running out of the morgue.” He gestures to himself. “This body is no longer living.”

“Shit,” Lup says, eyes raking him over. “Looks pretty alive to me.”

“Right?” Taako picks up another cookie. “So are we doing this thing or what? Taako’s got other shit to do. Got his own mystery to wrap up.”

“You don’t need to come, Taako,” Kravitz says. “You’ve got no reason to continue helping me so—”

“Not everything is about you, thug,” Taako snaps, pointing his cookie at him. “This is Barry’s whole career we’re talking about.”

Kravitz pauses, then nods. “Of course. Then shall we…?” He raises his scythe questioningly.

“Kravitz.”

He turns to Barry. Of all of them, he looks the most shaken. Perhaps that’s to be expected as he’s the one in the room who best understands who and what Kravitz really is. “Yes?”

“Are you… going to take me in?”

Four sets of eyes immediately turn to Kravitz. He sees Lup draw a wand and Taako freeze, like it hadn’t occurred to him that Kravitz, the Grim Reaper,  known necromancer hunter, might be targeting Barry.

Kravitz had planned, only days ago, on taking Barry in as a sort of bonus to go along with the necromancer he was actually hunting. He should take Barry in. A necromancer is a necromancer, whether they call themselves an academic or not. The Raven Queen’s laws are black and white.

But Kravitz is empowered to strike a deal and bend the rules when it suits him.

“No,” he says. “I didn’t come here for you. I came to stop a dangerous necromancer stealing souls from the astral plane. I came for Lucas Miller.” He lets his flesh melt away, taking his skeletal form as he extends the magic gifted to him by the Raven Queen, sends it out across Neverwinter, searching for the shape of Lucas’s soul.

When he finds it, across the city and alone, he raises his scythe and opens one last rift. “You’re all welcome to help, if you’re so inclined.”

“Stealing souls from the astral plane?” Barry says. He fumbles his desk open and pulls out a wand. “Fascinating. And, uh, bad. Obviously. Not something I’d do myself, but academically—”

“Babe, let’s not push our luck, okay?” Lup says, reaching out to squeeze Barry’s arm. “Not that I don’t find your enthusiasm adorable, but focus up. We’re not walking away from silverpoint poisoning if we get nicked.”

Kravitz gestures towards the rift with his scythe. There’s a well-manicured lawn and a large house—mansion, really—on the other side. The clouded sky means the only light comes from the mansion’s peaked windows, shining out into the dark of the night. The weather is beginning to turn again. A cool wind blows through the rift and into Barry’s office, rustling the papers piled on his desk and sprinkling rain on the floor. “You need to make a decision.”

“I’m coming,” Barry says. “Of course I am. I need to—maybe I can talk to Lucas. We’re friends. He’ll listen to me.”

Lup stares at her partner for a long moment, then looks at Kravitz. “I’m coming to protect him,” she says, jerking her head towards Barry.

“Me too,” Taako says, reaching up to pull away the scarf looped around his neck, tossing it onto one of Barry’s armchairs. “You chucklefucks are going to need me. Merle, Magnus—you in?”

“Always,” Magnus says, grinning and cracking his knuckles.

Merle shrugs when all eyes in the room turn to him. “Yeah, sure. Why not? You might need a cleric where you’re going.”

Kravitz glances at Taako and reels in his distaste for Merle Highchurch. Healing will be important for the mortals he’s dragging into this. “Can we go?”

Lup twirls her wand between her fingers. “Don’t rattle your bones. We’re coming,” she says, and hops through the rift. Everyone follows quickly after that, Taako and Barry hot on Lup’s heels, then Magnus and Merle. Kravitz isn’t sure what Magnus’s plan, as the only non-magic user, is, but he also doesn’t expect to require five inexperienced mortals to help him take down one necromancer, now that he’s prepared and Lucas’s poison won’t incapacitate him.

He closes the rift behind himself as he steps onto the lawn, looking up at the large mansion looming in front of them. Thunder rumbles through the night sky and the house is briefly illuminated by a bolt of lightning.

The lights in the house flicker and then go dark.

Lup does something complicated with her fingers and her hand catches fire, providing their party more light to see by. “You know when I said the labs were a cool place to get murdered?” she asks, glancing back at Barry and Taako.

“Yeah, blew your load early on that one,” Taako agrees, reaching into his billowing sleeve and pulling out a wand of his own. “You a big enough boy to handle this, Maggie?”

“Don’t worry about me. I can look after myself,” Magnus promises. “What’s the game plan here?”

“I’ll talk to Lucas,” Barry says. “Kravitz… I know what your job is, but I’m sure I can talk him down. I know him. His mother was one of my mentors.”

Kravitz turns to face Barry. The good thing about this form is that he knows his expressions are unreadable. A skull can’t emote. “For every body he’s stolen, Lucas has taken a soul from the Eternal Stockade,” he says. “Think of that like… a prison break from maximum security. He’s not getting leniency.”

“Sure,” Merle says. “That makes sense. Hey, Kravitz, you’re blessed by a goddess but technically undead, right?”

Kravitz doesn’t see what that has to do with anything. “Yes,” he says. “Technically. What—”

Merle brandishes a book at him—a bible, he realizes, after reading the text on the front, for extreme teens. Kravitz feels a spell attempt to grab hold of him and brushes it away.

“Oh,” Merle says, after a beat. “Well, shit.”

In the span of a few hours, Kravitz has been killed, yelled at, had his blossoming relationship with Justin/Taako crushed, spent hours in a wet suit because he forgot he could just construct himself a new one, and now one of the people he’s allowed to come with him on this mission has attempted to cast Turn Undead on him. It is not his night.

“You know what? No more mister nice Death,” he says, and snaps himself into a ball of soulfire.

Kravitz just has time to hear Lup say: “Taako, your boyfriend is such a nerd,” before he plunges into the ground and the dirt around him drowns out all sound from the surface.

Kravitz moves through the earth towards the house’s foundations, determined to get in and do his job before Taako and his friends can make a mess of this. He’s already disappointed the Raven Queen too many times. He needs to fix it. He is the guardian of the Eternal Stockade and that means something. Even if no one seems even remotely phased by the reveal of his true identity, it’s important to him and so is his position in the astral plane.

He’s drawing a line in the sand. He refuses to continue to fail.

Kravitz moves through the solid stonework of the house’s foundations into the basement. It’s a workshop of some kind, not particularly well kept. Utilitarian metal shelves line the walls, holding a mishmash of boxes—all filled to the point of overflowing with gears and piping and other parts—and pieces of half-deconstructed machinery. In the middle of the room there are three enamel slabs, like the kind Kravitz uses at the funeral parlour. Only one is occupied.

It’s obvious, looking at the table’s occupant, why Lucas has been stealing bodies.

Lucas has been resurrecting the dead. Not in their own bodies, but in bodies of his own making—bodies he’s modified. The stolen corpses may be the base of his work, but if the monstrosity on the table is any indication, Lucas feels no compulsion to maintain their dignity in death.

She was human, once, but now is more than that. Her arm has been removed and in its place is a mechanical approximation of a human limb, tapering down to a slender wrist with bare bolts on the end, but not yet a hand. Her chest is open and inside, nestled where her heart should be, is a creation of clockwork and glass—a jar, almost, attached to her human veins with metal tubing. Metal juts from the organs inside her that are still flesh. There are wires all over the room, running along the floor to the table, the ends of them hooked into her skin. She’s attached to some kind of machine, sitting dormant beneath the basement stairs, covered in dials and switches and meters.

Kravitz, who had his chest torn open and his heart ripped out once, feels sick looking at her.

He reforms himself, bone from light and flesh over bone. Even Barry, who has too much sympathy for necromancers in general and Lucas in particular, will have to see the horror of Lucas's work. He’s forming vessels for the souls he steals and giving new life to the very worst inhabitants of the astral plane.

Kravitz has no doubt Taako and the others are making their way to the house, that they’ll be inside soon too, but he can move fast when he needs to.

He’s already wasted too much time.

Kravitz turns towards the stairs, summoning his scythe once more. The door flies open before he reaches the bottom step and Lucas stumbles onto the landing. From behind him, Kravitz hears an echoing boom—he assumes it’s the sound of Taako and his friends attempting to break into the house. With four magic users in their party, they should be able to get inside easily; Lucas must have some sort of arcane protection on his house, at least those parts of if accessible from the surface.

Lucas slams the door shut and presses his forehead to it, panting for breath, his body visibly trembling.

Now seems like as good a time as any for Kravitz to make his presence known.

“Lucas Miller,” he says, drawing himself up to his full height. “You have violated the laws of the Raven Queen and upset the natural order of life and death. By Her ruling, your life is forfeit.”

Lucas whirls to face him, pale in the darkness, his eyes wide beneath his glasses. “Who—Kravitz? I-I killed you,” he says. “You’re dead. This isn’t—this isn’t possible.”

Kravitz lets his flesh melt away, slowly, revealing his skeletal form bit by bit. “I am Death,” he says, and his voice echoes off the stone walls of the basement. “Sworn emissary of the Raven Queen, keeper of the Eternal Stockade, tasked with hunting down those who break Her laws and ensuring they are punished.”

Lucas presses himself back against the door, but doesn’t open it. Whatever Taako and his friends are doing outside must seem more threatening than coming into the basement to find the Grim Reaper waiting.

Kravitz takes a step forwards and Lucas does the unexpected—Lucas jumps over the railing and falls to the ground a good eight feet below.

Lucas isn’t a physically fit man. He lands poorly, grunting in pain, but keeps moving, lurching towards the machine under the stairs.

Kravitz doesn’t know what Lucas’s plan is, but it can’t be anything good. He’s after him like a shot, scythe swinging through the air. He catches Lucas’s thigh and Lucas cries out, nearly going down from the blow.

Necromancers, as a whole, aren’t usually a physical challenge for Kravitz. Not unless he’s dismantling a cult, and even then he’s clever enough to pick them off one by one until he gets them down to a manageable number. Usually what Kravitz has to watch out for is their magic, the zombie hoards and necrotic energies they summon to fight him off.

Lucas makes no more to draw a wand and that catches Kravitz off guard. He hesitates when he should be taking a second, more lethal swing. Barry’s voice is in his head, Barry’s desire to reason with Lucas warring with Kravitz’s centuries of experience, and in that moment of hesitation Lucas staggers forward, wraps his hand around a large lever on the side of his machine, and flips it.

Nothing happens.

“No!” Lucas slams a fist against the machine. His thigh is bleeding, soaking into the grey wool of his trousers. “No, no, no!”

“Lucas,” Kravitz says, voice grave. “This is your last chance. Tell me where the souls you stole are and come in peacefully.” There’s a loud explosion upstairs—the sound of the mansion’s doors being blown open—and Kravitz takes another step towards him. “There’s nowhere for you to go now. I’m a reasonable man. I’ve been known to make a deal.”

Lucas turns to face Kravitz, his back pressed against the machine, body shielding the lever behind him. “You have no idea what you and your goddess do to people,” he says. “You put my mother in your jail, just because she was interested in necromancy. Just because she was a scientist. Did you think I’d leave her? Leave her to rot there for eternity? You can’t have her!”

Something hits the house so hard it shakes, even down in the basement. Something that causes Kravitz’s bones to vibrate and his magic, the arcane core of him, to throb in sympathy as it fills the air around them with a charge of—something. Something like magic, but not.

It takes Kravitz a moment to realize that the shaking wasn’t because of a spell let loose on the floor above them, but because the house was struck by lightning. In that moment, the lights in the basement flicker on.

Lucas lets out a startled laugh. “It’s too late now,” he says, the relief palpable in his voice. “They promised me we’d be together again once I set them free. All those souls your goddess imprisons? The ones you guard in the Eternal Stockade? Did you really think there’d be no consequences for trying to keep them there? You’re a fool. You’re all fools.”

In the harsh, artificial glare of the strange lights that are like and not-like the orbs Kravitz has grown used to illuminating rooms since his arrival on the material plane, Lucas looks mad. His clothing is rumpled, newly bloody, and his hair is a mess. Even his glasses sit askew on his face. Staring Kravitz down, Lucas reaches up and throws the switch behind him again.

This time, the machine sparks to life.

It makes an impossible sound, like souls screaming out in anger and pain, like the snap of a spell hitting home, like the throb of a heartbeat starting again. Kravitz isn’t sure Lucas even hears the sound because he doesn’t react to it at all, but it makes Kravitz weak at the knees. He has to grip his scythe tighter to stay upright as the machine seems to suck all the magic out of the room. It lights up, dials flickering to alert, and as the lingering echoes of its initial start up scream fade, a hum fills the basement.

“What did you do, Lucas?” Kravitz asks, staring at the machine, trying to recover from the shock of it turning on and draining the basement of arcane power. “What is this?”

“This is progress. This is the future,” Lucas says, reaching down to press a hand to the wound on his thigh. “The laws of life and death are wrong. Your goddess is wrong. I’m giving everyone a second chance. Giving everyone lifetimes. Why should you get more time just because you work for her? Why should an elf or a dwarf get to live longer than a human? Why should anyone have to say goodbye to someone they love at all? It’s not fair!” Lucas glares at Kravitz. “The gods get to live forever. I’m just leveling the playing field.”

Kravitz raises his scythe again because there’s no reasoning with this. He’s met necromancers driven mad with grief before. There’s a small part of him that sympathizes, that understands how love could drive someone down a dark path, but just because he understands how someone could make the mistakes Lucas has made doesn’t mean he forgives them.

The Raven Queen’s laws exist for a reason.

“No!” The cry comes from behind him the same moment Kravitz is struck by a painful jolt that pulls him up short. It’s like being hit by lightning—debilitating, however briefly.

He whirls, ready to lash out at whoever managed to get into the basement without him noticing and—stares.

The clockwork woman on the table is sitting upright, her arm outstretched towards Kravitz. “Don’t hurt him,” she says, voice strange and mechanical. Her metal and glass replacement heart is newly aglow in her open chest.

Kravitz staggers backwards when he realizes what he’s looking at, what’s making it glow like this. Her soul, one of the many souls stolen by Lucas, is inside the glass heart. It is unthinkably perverse magic and equally unthinkable in its complexity. Kravitz has seen necromancers at work for centuries and he’s never seen a resurrection like this before.

“Lucas, what have you done?”

“I’ve saved her,” Lucas says, the words biting. “I’ve saved everyone.”

Lucas pushes past Kravitz and runs to the woman. He wraps a robe around her bare shoulders. “Mom, please. Don’t move too much. I need to finish this,” he says, reaching into her body and touching her heart. “Let me finish my work.”

“You need to run, Lucas,” the woman says, reaching up and touching his cheek with her unfinished metal arm. “You need to be safe.”

The basement door explodes inwards and all three of their heads jerk up. Kravitz didn’t hear the front door give way, but it must have, because standing at the top of the steps, wand in hand, is Taako. The sounds of fighting drifts into the basement from the room behind him.

“What the fuck is going on here?” he demands, taking the steps two at a time. “I’ve had a really bad fucking day and if someone doesn’t explain the clockwork corpse situation upstairs I am going to magic missile all three of your asses.”

“Now is really not the time, Taako,” Kravitz says.

“Oh, isn’t it? I’m so sorry, Mr. Grim Reaper.” Taako scowls at him. “When you decided to fucking ghost glide through the ground and ditch us in the front yard, was that the time? How about when you yelled at me in the tea house for lying to you when you’re the fucking Grim Reaper, Kravitz.”

Lucas is closing up his mother’s chest and Kravitz should really be doing something about both of them right now, but— “Everything I told you about myself is true,” he says. “How, exactly, did you propose I broach the subject of me being an undead emissary for the Raven Queen, Taako?”

“I don’t know, but it’s sure fucking not after dying in my arms!”

Kravitz has nothing to say to that. Taako’s chest heaves as he glares daggers at him, his eyes hard as stone.

They’re brown. Taako’s eyes. They’re lovely and almost gold, actually—a colour you only find in elves.

It makes sense, because Lup’s eyes are the same amber-gold-brown, but still. Kravitz has never really seen Taako’s eyes before. What a fucking terrible place to notice them for the first time.

Taako’s gaze flicker away from Kravitz. “Lucas, where the fuck are you going?”

Lucas and his mother are halfway up the basement stairs. Lucas is slowing her down, but she’s pulling him upwards, forcing him to move faster.

Kravitz makes a frustrated sound. “You are far too distracting,” he tells Taako, and rushes up the stairs, after them.

Lucas’s mother raises her metal arm and a bolt of blue light shoots out of it, hitting Kravitz’s chest and sending him flying back, down the stairs. He hits the ground, hard, feels the blow reverberate through his bones.

Taako is at his side in an instant. “I thought this was your job, Skeletor? Shouldn’t you be good at it? Gods dammit, I’m going to kill you if you die on me again.”

“I’m fine,” Kravitz says, sitting up. He’s embarrassed more than anything. He tilts his head as he looks at Taako. “Are you worried about me?”

Taako seems to catch himself, pulling back. “No. What? Get the fuck up, Bones. We’ve got work to do.” Taako stands and rushes up the stairs after Lucas and Maureen. He doesn’t look back.

Kravitz, if he had a face to smile with, would smile. As it is, he pushes himself to his feet and follows. There are things they need to address, but nothing seems impossibly broken anymore.

Upstairs, it’s another story. Upstairs, it’s chaos.

Lucas has built an army of clockwork people out of his stolen bodies.

Kravitz thought Lucas’s mother was a nightmarish creation. The combination of flesh and gears, the surrealness of the mechanics inside her—it was horrifying. Looking at the other monsters, the creatures Lucas crafted to house the other souls he took from the Eternal Stockade, it’s clear that she is his masterpiece—that Lucas was practicing on the bodies he took before her.

They move like puppets on strings, jerky and sudden, and there is very little life in their faces. Some are more human in appearance, but most seem to have been assembled for endurance and stability, not aesthetics—their modified metal limbs are overly large, sturdy, good for using in the fight they’ve found themselves in. Some are on the ground already, smashed or burned or otherwise indisposed, still making twitching movements as they try to right themselves. Most are on their feet.

Magnus has a chair in his hands, using it to fend off two clockwork creatures. Barry and Lup are back to back, magic blazing around them as they fight off a virtual hoard. There’s an angel stood over Merle, wielding a sword, that seems to be doing the most effective job of stopping Lucas’s monsters.

Lucas and his mother are halfway across the mansion’s large foyer, making their way towards the torn open door and the raging storm outside as fast as Lucas’s injury will allow.

Kravitz doesn’t even think before raising his hand towards Lucas, a hand beginning to fill in with flesh and look human again as he reaches not for the gifts given to him by the Raven Queen, but for his own magic. For the first time in centuries, Kravitz grabs for his power and his alone. It’s an instinct, long disused, lurching to life—like his lungs breathing or his heart beating—a muscle he’s let atrophy making itself known.

Kravitz doesn’t whistle or hum as he reaches for his magic—he sings. He sings a verse from a song in a language not spoken for hundreds of years, an ancient dirge that trips off his tongue as easy as anything, and Lucas stops, his feet stuck firm to the floor as the spell wraps around him and settles into place.

Lucas trips, falling to the ground when his feet are caught up in the spell, as his mother lets out an anguished cry and tugs on his arms.

The sound of Kravitz’s lilting voice filling the hall grabs the attention of the other undead in the room. They may be in new bodies, but their souls recognize the man who’s kept them imprisoned. Almost as one, they turn away from their fights, towards him.

“Reaper.” A man, body ticking like a clock, face slack, whose voice emanates from a speaker buried in his neck, gets to Kravitz first. “You’re a long way from home.”

Kravitz twirls the scythe in his hand, bringing it down firmly between him and this wayward soul. “So are you.”

The man lunges, but his new body is not graceful. Kravitz side steps the blow and spins the scythe in his hands. It is infused with divine power, with the Raven Queen's blessing, in that movement. The blade passes through the man but leaves no mark. What it does do is pull his soul clear from whatever container Lucas placed inside him. Kravitz reaches out and grabs the soul before it can escape again, opening a rift to the astral plane and tossing it through. The rift seals itself as soon as the soul is gone.

It’s good to be good at his job again.

He turns to the other creatures advancing on him and smirks. “All right. Let’s do this.”

They move almost as one, some with the same strange energy possessed by Lucas’s mother sparking at their metal fingertips, some with makeshift weapons, some with their bare hands. Kravitz cuts a swathe through them, taking out four—five—seven souls all at once before the sheer number of attackers wins out and one lands a blow, driving a sparking hand into his side.

He lets out a grunt of pain as his constructed muscles spasm, hand almost fumbling his scythe. He doesn’t know what this energy they have is, but he doesn’t like it.

A black tentacle shoots out and grabs the clockwork man who hit him before he lands another blow. Kravitz tries to regain control of his limbs.

“I don’t think so, thugs,” Taako says. He has his wand pointed at the ground. Another tentacle raises out of the square of darkness now spread over the floor, grabbing hold of another of Kravitz’s attackers. “It’s about to get even weirder up in here. Move your ass, Krav.”

Kravitz shakes off the blow and takes a step back, away from the tentacles, then brings his scythe down through the center of the creatures Taako has restrained, yanking out their souls and tossing them back into the astral plane.

A clockwork woman—one of Lucas’s later creations, if how smoothly she moves is any indication—runs around Taako’s conjured tentacles and launches herself at Kravitz with a furious shout.

Kravitz raises his scythe and her momentum does the rest of the work for him.

“Why the fuck do they hate you so much, Reaper Man?” Lup calls, as she sets one on fire.

“I was their jailer,” Kravitz says, preparing himself for another attack as two men edge towards him, both of them with sparks at their fingertips. “They want revenge.”

Lup blasts one of his attackers off his feet and Kravitz reaps his soul, quickly. “Yeah, okay. Good reason to hate you.”

Kravitz has his eyes on the second man’s sparking hand so he doesn’t see the knife he holds in the other one until he feels it between his ribs. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. Not the way the silverpoint did, back when Kravitz could breath and had a heartbeat, but it’s still not very comfortable.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Taako shouts, over the clap of thunder from outside. “If you fucking die again I’m going to be pissed.”

Kravitz is done with this fight.

He reaches up and pulls the knife from his ribcage, tossing it to the floor, then dissolves his physical form, scythe and all. He needs his scythe to remove a person’s soul and send it to the astral plane, but he doesn’t need it to incapacitate their body and make that soul removal process easier.

Kravitz, back in his soulfire form, throws himself into the sweeping stone staircase on the far side of the foyer, feels the rock and wood around him, and focuses on his connection to the Raven Queen’s magic.

In the foyer, Lucas’s creatures are laughing and turning on Taako and his friends again. The tentacles have disappeared.

“We made the reaper run. Do you really think we’re scared of you mortals?” a clockwork woman asks, leering at Lup and Barry. “We are the future. You and your flesh bodies are nothing.”

Kravitz pulls and the staircase comes away from the wall, crumbling in on itself. As it crumbles he builds another body, bigger, made of solid stone and splintered wood.

“Oh, I didn’t go anywhere,” Kravitz says, projecting his voice, since this form has no vocal chords. “I just decided to slip into something a little more comfortable.”

“Holy shit,” Magnus says, from across the room. “Okay, let’s stop worrying about them ganging up on Kravitz for a while.”

Kravitz laughs and the woman who’d gloated over his supposed retreat makes to attack him. Before he can even raise an arm to swat her away, Lup’s got her hand up and is shooting her in the back with a Fire Bolt.

“Flesh bodies,” Lup says, voice contemptuous. “What exactly are you made of? Smells like burning flesh to me.”

Kravitz would grin if he could, but he’s a little busy bringing his fist down and crushing the bodies of the men attacking him. It’s messy, dealing with the problem in this imprecise form, but it’s faster. The stone doesn’t feel their sparking blows the way his human and skeletal forms did. They register, but only just. Ten feet tall and made of rock, Kravitz can destroy the monsters Lucas made, can make sure they don’t have the ability to get up after they go down, that they’re all relatively harmless until he has a chance to send their souls back to the Eternal Stockade where they belong.

With him in this form, it’s only a matter of minutes until the only clockwork person left standing is Lucas’s mother, her arms wrapped around her son, hand pressed to his bleeding thigh. Lucas doesn’t look good. He’s gone deathly pale, and Kravitz would know.

Lup, dress torn, hair askew, has a spell ready in her hand. “Looks like you’re the last one standing. Kravitz, babe, do you mind if I do the honours? I’m feeling a little miffed right now.”

Kravitz has plenty of work ahead of him. He gestures for Lup to go ahead.

Lup raises a hand and Lucas’s mother looks up at her. “Please,” she says. “Lup, Barry—help him. Lucas didn’t mean for any of this to happen. He was confused and mislead. He was sad.”

Barry looks immediately stricken. “M-maureen?”

“Yes,” Maureen says. “Barry, please. It’s not his fault.”

“Yeah? Who the fuck else made these things?” Taako asks, stepping forward and kicking the arm of one of the still-inhabited bodies. “Because I’m pretty sure that was all your boy over there.”

Maureen turns to look at Merle. “You’re a cleric,” she says. “Heal him. Please. He’s dying. He can’t die. He’s so young.”

“I mean, I think you’re heading back to the astral plane pretty soon,” Magnus says, stepping up beside Lup and Barry. He’s got a cut above his eye, but otherwise looks surprisingly intact for a non-magic user involved in this fight. “He’ll just be coming with you.”

“Why would you think I’d want that?” Maureen asks. “I love my son. With all my heart. Being pulled away from him was hell. I thought—” She turns to Kravitz. “I know I broke the rules, reaching out to him, but that was my choice. I’m the one who broke through the planes to communicate with him. That’s my crime, not Lucas’s.”

“And this?” Kravitz gestures at the carnage around them, the bodies littering the floor, the wreck of the staircase and scorch marks on the walls. Outside, lightning flashes. “Whose fault is this?”

“I’ll take his punishment,” Maureen says. “Whatever it is. Give it to me, not him.”

“Mom… no,” Lucas says, shifting in her arms. He’s weak. There’s blood pooling beneath him. “I saved you. I saved them.”

Merle steps forward, shooting Kravitz a stern look. “I’m healing the kid,” he says. “You can all hash this out when he’s not about to keel over and make the decision for you.”

Merle presses a hand to Lucas’s leg and it glows softly. Some of the colour returns to his face. Kravitz sees Lucas’s grip on his mother go white-knuckled where he clings to her arm.

Kravitz would grit his teeth, if he had them right now. “This isn’t up for debate or negotiation,” he says. “I offered Lucas a deal and he refused it. He broke the laws of life and death. Necromancy is against—”

“I don’t think this is necromancy, technically,” Barry says. He’s crouching beside one of the bodies—one of the men Kravitz already removed the soul from—and he’s removed its shirt and has the metal plate on its chest pried open. Kravitz will have to do some self-reflection on the fact that he quite likes Barry.

“Babe,” Lup says. “Ew.”

“I mean, it’s certainly based on the principles of necromancy.” Barry reaches into the thing’s chest and unhooks its empty heart. It’s less refined than Maureen’s, but still seems to follow the same principles—a glass container hooked into clockwork mechanics, metal wires, and pipes. “This is where the souls are kept, right? It’s a phylactery. Like a lich.” He gestures towards the still-living, but immobilized creatures scattered across the room. “Which explains why they’re still, uh, ticking. As long as their souls are safe inside the jars then it doesn’t really matter what shape their bodies are in.”

“How is this not necromancy?” Kravitz asks. “You’re telling me he was creating an army of liches. That’s—if there was a way to serve multiple life sentences in the astral plane, I guarantee you this would qualify for that.”

“No magic,” Barry says, turning the heart around in his hand. “Just… mechanics. Engineering. How did you get the bodies started, Lucas?”

There’s another flash of lightning outside, followed by rumbling thunder.

Barry’s eyes light up. “Of course,” he says. “The lightning, right? The charge from it. That’s—brilliant, honestly. I’d never have thought to—but what magic user would, right? We rely on arcane power so we never—fuck.” He turns to the body in front of him with something like awe on his face.

Kravitz needs to put his foot down.

“Okay,” he says. “That’s it. There is no negotiation here, no room for discussion about whether or not this was technically necromancy. I speak for the Raven Queen, as her emissary in the material plane, and her judgement is final.”

“Kravitz?”

Taako physically jumps, whirling around, when the voice speaks. It’s faint and strained, but Kravitz recognizes it immediately.

“Kravitz?” the Raven Queen repeats.

“Seriously?” Taako reaches up and unclasps one of his sapphire earrings. He holds it towards Kravitz in an outstretched palm. “Just when I think this night couldn’t get any weirder.”

Kravitz stoops towards Taako’s hand, stones grinding together as he gets lower. “My Queen?”

“Where have you been?” the Raven Queen demands. “I’ve been trying to contact you for hours and then souls started coming back to the Eternal Stockade and I felt you reach for my power. Have you solved our problem?”

Kravitz looks at Lucas and Maureen Miller, clutching at each other on the floor in front of him. “Almost.”

“Almost?” she repeats, and he can hear the incredulity in her voice. “You have time to take my call but things aren’t wrapped up yet?”

“Things… got complicated,” Kravitz says. It’s the understatement of the year. Kravitz has no idea how to even begin writing this report.

“That seems to summarize this whole case,” she says. “Very well.”

Kravitz doesn’t realize what’s happening until Taako yelps and drops the earring in his hand. It glows purple-black-blue where it falls on the floor, brighter and brighter until the light sweeps through the whole room and is then abruptly replaced with a deep, dark, nothingness concentrated in the space above Taako’s earring.

The Raven Queen brings with her the scent of wet earth, newly overturned, and the cold, crisp feeling of moonlight on skin. She is an absence of light, a flurry of movement in the dark out of the corner of the eye. Her voice, in this form, echoes with the cry of carrion birds. “It has been centuries since I walked the material plane and once again it is for you, Kravitz.”

She reaches for him with hands that are both like and unlike wings and sinks them into his stone body. She pulls his soul from it and cups it in her unreal palms as his golem crumbles to the ground.

“So out of sorts,” she murmurs. “My dearest reaper, be as I made you.”

The Raven Queen tilts her hands towards the ground and Kravitz’s soul pours from them. His corporeal body reforms itself, kneeling in front of her, looking the way she prefers him—dressed all in black, hair in locs that and fall around his shoulders, wearing silver skull earrings he’d dismissed as too noticeable for his mission and worn as cufflinks instead. His scythe is at hand, lying on the floor in front of him.

“Now.” She turns her attention to the crowd of mortals around her. “Will someone please explain what’s going on here?”

“The clammy mama’s boy over there did some… not-necromancy, I guess? Barry says there wasn’t any magic and he’s a nerd, so I trust him. He raised a bunch of clockwork doll people,” Taako says, arms crossed over his chest as he stares up at the goddess of death. “There was a fight. Pretty sure Krav’s mad about him stuffing his dolls with genuine people souls. Could I get my earring back?”

The Raven Queen turns all of her attention to Taako. She doesn’t have a head, exactly, but there’s still the impression of her cocking it as she takes him in. “You’re Justin,” she says. The amusement in her voice brings with it the faint impression of crying children.

“Taako, actually,” Taako says. “But yeah, I was Justin. There was a whole secret identity thing going on.” He glances at Kravitz and—fuck—now Taako knows Kravitz talked about him to the Raven Queen. It had never once occurred to him that she and Taako might meet.

The Raven Queen doesn’t bend over, doesn’t seem to move at all, but when she raises an arm there’s a sapphire earring cupped in her palm. “Kravitz has spoken of you often.”

“I’m mad at him right now,” Taako says, reaching out and taking the earring from her.

The Raven Queen laughs and it sounds like foxes screaming in the night, like screeching birds rousted from their prey. All the mortals in the room wince at the sound, but Taako still manages to look proud of himself.

“So what is this complication, Kravitz?” she asks, turning her attention to Lucas and Maureen. “One soul has escaped the Eternal Stockade. The other was her accomplice.”

“Please,” Maureen says. “Please don’t take Lucas. He didn’t mean it. He was grieving. He didn’t know what he was doing.”

“Did he not?” the Raven Queen moves closer. Maureen clutches Lucas against her chest. “How odd, to create such monsters without realizing what forces one is meddling with.”

“I found a way to communicate with him,” Maureen says. “I realized that sapphire could act as a conduit between the planes. And once I’d found a way around the rules, the other souls in the stockade wanted to use it too. They wanted to see the people they loved again or to get revenge on those that betrayed them. They all had stories to whisper to Lucas about how they’d been hurt, how they were falsely imprisoned. He wanted to help them. He saw their pain and he wanted to free them from it. Any empathetic person might do the same. You’d do the same, wouldn’t you? For someone you loved? For your child?”

“I have no children,” the Raven Queen says. “I rule the dead, but the dead are not of me. They are my subjects and my charges. Do not mistake me for one bound by your mortal entanglements and emotions.”

Maureen shakes her head, staring up at the Raven Queen in a way no mortal should be able to stand, technically undead or not. Even Kravitz, who has been in her retinue for hundreds of years, has trouble looking directly at her.

“You made him,” Maureen says. “You said so yourself. You came for him. He is of you.”

The Raven Queen is in front of Maureen in an instant, her hands on Maureen’s face, bent down close to her. “You are a brave woman, to speak so to the goddess of death.”

“I’m a mother who loves her son,” Maureen says. “I’ll take his punishment, but let him live. He’s going to do such good in the world. I promise you. I promise all of you.”

The Raven Queen is at Kravitz’s side, then, without ever having seemed to move. She touches his face too and it feels like feathers brushing against his skin. “I trust you to sort out this mess, Kravitz,” she says, and with that she is gone.

Barry breaths out a sigh of obvious relief. “Man, I thought we were toast there for a minute.”

Taako puts his earring back in. He’s looking at Kravitz contemplatively, in a way Kravitz doesn’t quite understand, but he doesn’t have the time to decipher it now.

“Well?” Maureen looks up at Kravitz. “She said you get to decide. What’s your judgement?”

“You have to give them leniency,” Magnus says. “You heard her. It’s not Lucas’s fault. You can’t—”

Kravitz raises a hand to cut Magnus off. “It’s been a very long day. Night.” Kravitz looks out the open doorway. The storm is easing off, but it’s still dark outside. “Whatever time it is.”

The Raven Queen might have said she was leaving it up to Kravitz, but her refusal to speak her judgement meant she was leaving him to make a deal. He knows her well enough to know that. She can’t be seen bending the rules, but Kravitz can.

“Maureen Miller, you will return to the astral plane and the Eternal Stockade. You will not communicate or attempt to communicate with the material plane again.” Kravitz turns his gaze down to Lucas, who is weeping openly now. “In return, your son’s life will be spared, but I will be keeping an eye on him.” He glances around the room, at the bodies littering the floor. “And I suspect he’ll have to answer to the authorities on this plane regarding his crimes.”

Maureen nods. She presses a kiss to Lucas’s temple. “I’m sorry,” she tells him. “I need to go.”

“Mom, please.”

“I love you, Lucas. You are the best of me. I promise you’ll see me again, but not before it’s time.” Maureen kisses him one last time and then extracts herself from Lucas’s grasp and closes her eyes. Her body’s mouth opens and her soul flies out of it, towards Kravitz. It hovers in front of him expectantly and Kravitz raises his scythe, opening a portal. Maureen’s soul slips through willingly.

Lucas breaks down when the portal closes again, sobbing into his hands. Magnus and Barry move to comfort him as Merle takes a pointed step back.

“Didn’t he technically kill you?” Taako asks, giving Lucas a dirty look. “He poisoned you and you’re just going to let him sit around crying instead of sending him to the ghost house?”

“At this point, it just seems easier than holding a grudge,” Kravitz says. He gestures over his shoulder to the bodies littering the floor behind them. “I have a couple dozen other souls to collect tonight.”

Taako tilts his head and glances around. “I don’t have anything else to do,” he says, and walks straight up to Lucas and punches him in the face.

Taako shakes out his hand as everyone in the room stares at him, grimacing and rubbing his ringed fingers. Lucas gapes at him, startled out of crying and clutching his cheek. “I see why you like this shit, Magnus. Very satisfying.”

Kravitz smiles to himself as Lup high-fives her brother. He brandishes his scythe because he does have a job to do here. He can’t keep letting his focus drift to Taako.

It’s tedious, but not hard. Routine clean up work, the kind he often finds himself doing after breaking up death cults. Necromancers very rarely go to the astral plane of their own volition, even after being killed by the Grim Reaper. He can feel Taako’s eyes on him as he works, but he pointedly doesn’t look in his direction. There’s so much between them now. Too much, probably. All their truths are laid bare and neither of them were happy with the revelations.

Kravitz pulls the final soul out of its glass phylactery and sends it on. He turns and finds himself face to face with Taako.

“I think you owe me an apology,” Taako says. “And a thank you.”

Taako is disheveled from the fight. His braid is messy and his blouse is torn at the collar. His black pants are covered in dust—all of him is covered in dust, really, but kneeling on the basement floor left grey patches of grime on his knees and shins.

He looks… beautiful. All Kravitz can think, looking at him, is that it’s so fucking good to see his face, finally, to see him.

“I think we need to talk,” Kravitz says.

“I think you two needs to get a room or something,” Lup says. Kravitz turns to look at her, standing in the open doorway, and she gestures outside. “Seriously. There are carriages headed this way and I’m pretty sure they’re militia. I don’t know if you remember this, Skellington, but Taako there is on their shit list.”

Kravitz looks down at Taako, then offers him a hand as he lifts his scythe. “Care for an escape route?”

Taako quirks an eyebrow at him and grins, taking his hand. “Hell yeah, Bone Daddy. Let’s blow this pop stand.”

Kravitz nearly trips over his scythe as he opens a rift, only just managing to catch himself before he falls straight through the portal. He gestures Taako through first, then follows, accompanied by the sound of Lup’s laughter echoing in the room behind them.

*

Kravitz chose the tea house as their destination because it was the first safe place that came to mind that wasn’t his morgue. And considering what happened the last time he was in the morgue… maybe it’s not so safe after all.

It probably should have occurred to him, before Taako left to make a pot of tea and scrounge up some scones, that the last time they were in the tea house hadn’t been great either.

Outside, the sun is rising.

Taako comes back bearing a tray with a pot of tea and a basket of scones. Kravitz can tell he’s made an attempt to tidy his hair, and his face and hands are clear of grime. Taako sets the tray down on the table and slumps into the chair across from Kravitz. “I hope you’re good with room temperature scones because Taako is fresh out of spell slots over here.”

Kravitz holds a hand over the basket and hums softly, warming them.

“Show off.” Taako smiles as he reaches for one.

“Prestidigitation is a cantrip, Taako,” Kravitz says, watching him smear butter and jam on a scone.

Taako shrugs. “Never do something yourself that you can make a handsome man do for you. That’s Taako’s philosophy. You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve made Magnus do for me.” He takes a bite of his scone and pours himself a cup of tea as he chews.

“You think Magnus is handsome?”

“Why? Jealous?” Taako glances up at Kravitz and smirks. “No need, my dude. Magnus is very married.”

“Jules, right?” Kravitz pours himself a cup of tea and then takes a scone. He doesn’t bother with butter or sugar, just bites into it.

“Not sure how you know that, but yeah, Julia.” Taako adds sugar and milk to his tea. He takes a sip, staring Kravitz down. “So. What the fuck are we doing here, Krav?”

“I… don’t know.” Kravitz puts his scone down and rubs his hands over his face. “Taako, we’ve both told so many lies. And I’m… Death.”

“Yeah, everything makes a lot more sense now,” Taako says.

Kravitz looks up from his hands. Taako’s leaning back in his seat, teacup in hand. “Excuse me?”

“I get it now,” Taako says, shrugging. “I didn’t before. You got all righteous about me making fun of your goddess and it was—a little OTT, honestly. I thought you’d be angrier over the whole Justin thing, you know? Didn’t realize you were lying about who you were too at the time or the fact that you weren’t too upset over that would have made a lot more sense.”

“It’s not that I wasn’t angry, it’s just—you know.” Kravitz gestures to himself.

“Yeah, kind of a pot-kettle situation on the whole lying thing,” Taako agrees. “I mean, I told you I was dead and gave you a fake name and I was still pissed when I realized you had a secret identity too.”

“You were pissed?”

The past tense is… promising. Kravitz doesn’t want to let himself hope too much. They’re both exhausted. Kravitz has been in and out of so many bodies today that all he really wants to do is lay himself down on the nearest horizontal surface and see how sleeping goes. He may not technically require it, but a nap sounds good right now.

Taako taps his nails against the fine china of his cup. “Maybe,” he says. “I’m not a toy. I’m not a faceless diversion for you to spend time with while you pretend to be a real boy or a—a prop to help you sell your con or whatever. I’m a living, breathing elf. I feel things. Even when I’m lying about who I am, I’ve got feelings.”

It hadn’t even occurred to Kravitz that Taako might think Kravitz was using him. He reaches across the table and touches Taako’s hand. He winces and Kravitz almost pulls back, but then Taako laces their fingers together.

“I forgot how cold you were,” Taako says. “Icey boy.”

Right. No circulation to warm him up anymore. “I’m sorry,” Kravitz says. “Not for… the cold. Or, I guess, for that too, but also—I would never use you like that, Taako. Nothing I did, nothing I said was faked. My… my affections for you are entirely real.”

Taako tilts his head, looking him over, and smiles. “Cool,” he says. He looks down at their hands. “I, um. I’m sorry for what I said about the Raven Queen. I saw how she was with you. I get it now.”

Kravitz feels himself relax even further. “Do you?”

“Sure,” Taako says. “Not that I have one or anything, but if I were you I wouldn’t want anyone talking about my mom that way either.”

It Kravitz could blush right now, he would. “She’s not—”

“Oh, she totally is. Protective mama, swooping in from the astral plane to check on you.” Taako leans towards him, grinning. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed.”

“I’m going to have to get used to this, aren’t I?” Kravitz asks, and squeezes Taako’s hand in his. He hopes so.

Taako hums like he’s considering the question, but his eyes are full of fondness, his gaze is soft and Kravitz doesn’t think Taako normally lets himself be soft.

He loves that he gets to see it.

“Maybe,” Taako says. “If you’re lucky.” He pauses and makes a face. “And if cha’boy doesn’t end up in the big house, what with the whole murder charge and faked death thing.”

“I’m sure Angus will figure it out. I can help too, now that this case is done with,” Kravitz offers. “I’m not usually this… distracted at work.”

Taako smirks. “What, you don’t think I’ll keep distracting you?” His eyes flick down Kravitz’s body and—yes, there are definitely some advantages to not having a heartbeat or the circulation in this body required to blush. “Ango is pretty sure it was Sazed, my sous-chef, but he can’t find him so…” Taako shrugs. “I don’t know. Being Justin isn’t so bad.”

“So all you need to do is track this Sazed person down?”

“You say that like it’s easy,” Taako says, letting out a gusty sigh. “Hard to run all over the continent when I’m a wanted man. Lup doesn’t want me out of her sight right now and she’s stuck teaching for another semester before we can go on our revenge tour because like fuck am I letting Magnus, Julia, and Merle go looking for Sazed without me.”

“I can track souls,” Kravitz says. “It’s one of the… little perks of being a reaper. When my eyes aren’t shielded by an illusion spell, I can see them.”

Taako stares at him across the table. “Huh,” he says. “Well, as far as apology gifts go that’s a lot better than flowers.”

Kravitz laughs, overcome with fondness for this haughty, irreverent elf, and then he’s jerked forward by their joined hands and Taako is kissing him, leaning across the table to mash their lips together. It’s as awkward as their first kiss in the morgue. Taako's teeth hit his and Kravitz knows he's cold and that it must be weird for Taako, knowing the real reason for his lack of body heat.

But Kravitz no longer needs to make excuses for his temperature or pretend to be mortal, and Taako doesn't need to stay in disguise when they're together or use a fake name. This new lack of pretense between them will change things, he knows, and it's impossible to predict how. There's still so much to figure out, still so much to talk about.

None of that stops Taako from cupping Kravitz’s face in his hands and holding him in place, or from pressing closer and changing the clumsy beginnings of the kiss into something better, something tinged with purpose and the promise of things to come. It doesn't stop Taako from licking his way into Kravitz’s mouth or Kravitz from moaning against Taako's lips. It doesn't stop Kravitz from clutching at Taako’s forearms, fingers bunching up the sleeves of his blouse, and kissing him back, his thoughts full of Taako and the possibilities stretched out before them.

In his chest, Kravitz’s heart stutters and skips a beat, then settles into a strong, regular rhythm—a steady tempo for him to keep time to.