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Among the Ruins

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Lucretia thought of everything when she set the others--her family--up with their new lives. Well--Merle and Magnus and Taako, anyway. With Lup still missing, and now Barry too, and Davenport being...affected, as he was. She could at least do her best for the three who'd come through alright. A family for Merle. A new rustic home for Magnus. A stage and an audience for Taako, with hopefully enough support from them to fill in the gaps left when Lup--

It wasn't like she was going to leave them like this forever. She just had to find the Grand Relics, put the Light together, protect this world from the Hunger, and then she could get them back. They could find Barry and Lup together, and everything would be fine.

Soon, she thought, watching Taako set up for his first show. Have fun; I'll be back for you all soon.

They would be safe and comfortable and loved while she was gone.

Lucretia had thought of everything.

 

Lucretia was wrong.

 

Years passed. She built an organization around her goals, gathering others to help her locate the Relics. They'd been hard to pinpoint before the voidfish, but now that no one remembered them...

She'd overcome worse obstacles. The people she'd gathered on her fake moon base were perfectly suited to this task. In no time at all, they'd found the first Relic. The Animus Bell. Barry's deadly treasure. If only--

She went after Wonderland. A sorcerer named Cam promised her he knew enough about the place to get her in and out without too much pain. Everything was going according to plan. Except—

Taako was there.

Somehow, impossibly, examining the entrance to Wonderland: Taako was there. 

He looked—amazing, of course. But not very much like himself. At some point, he'd lost his signature hat and not bothered to replace it, letting his golden hair shine in its loose, wild braid. Instead of vibrant colors and mismatched patters, he wore a simple black thigh-length coat cinched tight at his waist and flared around his hips. Even his knee-high boots were black, although the sheer height of the stiletto provided a strange comfort.

The only color in the whole outfit came from the stones in his numerous earrings and bracelets. His single necklace was a thin silver chain wrapped twice around his neck, once tight across his throat like a choker, the rest in a long lavaliere that dipped into his jacket. Whatever pendant or trinket he wore at the end was hidden in his coat but heavy enough to keep the chain taut.

One of Taako's ears flicked in Lucretia's direction a tell he'd been unable to shake since the first day they'd met back on the homeworld. Even when his expression was perfect, those expressive ears gave him away. A surge of affection swelled in Lucretia, love and grief and joy and dread, all mixed in together.

It was so good to see him Lucretia almost felt weak with it. She knew he wouldn't know her. She'd have to pretend not to know him, to send him away quickly. He wouldn't be an asset in Wonderland, with everything he'd learned about magic forgotten alongside Lup and the IPRE and the century they'd run from the Hunger. Even still, it was...beyond description. Just to see him, to see one of them again, after so long. 

She stepped forward, then hesitated.

Taako was supposed to be on the road. He had a show, an audience, fans who loved him and at least one assistant whose livelihood depended on him. That, even more than his current state memory-related powerlessness, shot a thrill of worry through her.

What was he doing here?

At last, seemingly satisfied with the amount of time he'd spent ignoring them, Taako turned. His ears settled at neutral low even as he smiled, hands stuck deep in the pockets of his flirty coat. "Hail and well met, my dudes," he called. "What're a couple little human kids doing here?"

Lucretia blinked.

Cam swelled with indignation. "I am not a kid," he snapped, throwing his shoulders back to put his bandolier of assorted potions and wands on more prominent display. "My name is Cam, and I am--"

"Sure," Taako interrupted, honey gold eyes locked on Lucretia, sharp despite his lazy expression. "Nice to meet you, Dan. And you are?"

"Lucretia." She swallowed hard, hands tightening on the Bulwark staff. "And...and you?"

For a moment, Taako's eyes narrowed, a flutter of suspicion that pulled his ears further back against his skull. His smile grew. "I'm Taako."

"From T.V.?" Lucretia said, trying to make it sound like a guess.

Taako ears snapped back, flatter than she'd seen them in a dozen worlds. "That's a weird thing to say."

Lucreita's heart tripped in her chest. Panic tingled on her cheeks, down her neck. "...Is it?" she asked as calmly as she could. "Maybe I'm thinking of a different Taako."

"My dude." He cocked one hip, perching a hand on it, such a classic Taako stance that Lucretia felt a smile tugging her mouth. "I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's the sitch: there is only one Taako, and you're looking at him. Ch'boy is a one-of-a-kind miracle." He swept a hand down his body, indicating everything from shoulder down. "You think this is easy enough to copy? No. Accept no substitutes."

"Can we go?" Cam demanded of Lucretia. "We don't have the time to waste on some guy."

"Taako time is never wasted, kiddo," Taako said, smirking when Cam glared at him.

"Don't call me kiddo!"

Taako flicked the hand not on his hip dismissively. "You're all pretty young, dude. A human with no gray hair? Basically a baby." He jabbed a finger in Lucretia's direction. "You wanna let Taako in on that T.V. thing? Have we met?"

"Oh, no, I just--" Lucretia fought the urge to squirm. Instead, she straightened her spine, lifting her chin to telegraph a level of self-assurance she didn't quite feel at the moment. "I saw a show, a few years back, with a chef who called himself Taako from T.V. I thought it might be you when I heard your name."

"That old thing?" Taako rolled his eyes, losing enough interest in her that his ears started to relax again. "Nah, that was fun for a little while, but I outgrew it pretty quick. Not really Taako's bag, y'dig?"

"And Wonderland is?" Cam sneered. "Your bag, I mean."

"Rude children get put in the naughty corner," Taako said without looking at him. He turned back toward Wonderland. "The way people talk about this place, I had to check it out. Everybody's got a greatest wish."

"And what's yours?" Lucretia asked.

Taako's ears swiveled back in a little show of some bitter emotion, matched by the twisted grin he shot her. "Spoilers," he hissed through his teeth. Then he smiled, friendly and warm even as his ears stayed put. "Let's team up."

Cam barked a laugh. "And get dragged down by some amateur? Not today, buddy." He nodded toward Lucretia. "My job is to get her through Wonderland, not watch over somebody in way over their head."

"Rude," Taako said with a casual shrug. "Fine then. Don't invite an indescribably powerful wizard into your party. See if I care." He turned back to Wonderland. Just above the door nearest them, his name wrote itself in bold, flaming letters. "Me first," he added with a smirk.

"Wait!" Lucretia cried before she could think better of it. Even if it was safer, if it worked better for her plan, if logic said she should let him go, she couldn't. Wonderland killed people. It was home to a Grand Relic, to Barry's Grand Relic. She couldn't let him face the Animus Bell alone. Not at full power, and certainly not crippled by her machinations.

She just couldn't.

"We'll go together," she declared, watching her name scrawl itself below Taako's. "The more people we have," she told Cam, "the better our odds are of retrieving our item safely. It's better this way."

"Teamwork for the win," Taako said.

Cam rolled his eyes but didn't argue. "It's your mission," he muttered as his name joined theirs. "But we'll regret this, mark my word."

Together, they stepped inside.

 

Wonderland ruined them.

Oh, as a team, they were amazing. Taako was sarcastic and rude and dismissive, but he helped them were he could, protecting people he didn't know. Unexpected growth, for him. Maybe this was who he became without Lup to draw all his protective instincts; he just...took care of others. Of strangers?

It was weird, but it helped. He fought at about a fifth or sixth level proficiency. Nowhere near his true strength, even though it was a great deal more than Lucretia had expected. (It wasn't enough.) They weren't allowed to heal, but he had bandages, salves, little tricks to keep them stitched together. He let them support him too, taking comfort when they offered it. Bizarre behavior from the elf Lucretia knew, but--

It wasn't enough.

Their teamwork was good. Their environment was hell, insurmountable. Unsurvivable.

Another mistake.

The twins running it, liches, were a dark parody of Taako and Lup's effortless coordination. They disguised their torture in games and choices, but none of it was fair. None of it actually led to the Animus Bell.

It was all a trap.

They'd already given up so much. Taako had handed over most of his jewelry, lost the memory of learning to use a bow. Lucretia was color blind, unable to taste sour things. Cam--he kept having pieces of himself taken. A foot, first, then that leg up to the knee. How much more could they stand to lose?

Between rounds of that Pan-forsaken wheel, they battled monsters, forsook strangers, played stupid games. And then--

Lucretia landed on the clock. Time. They wanted twenty years of her life. She couldn't give it to them. She couldn't. Humans already lived such a short time. How could she possibly--

She tightened her grip on the Bulwark Staff.

At the end of this, she would have the Animus Bell. Two sevenths of the Light, back together. She'd broken her family for this, taken their memories. What was twenty years compared to that? If they took the years and finally revealed themselves, left themselves vulnerable to attack, it could be the difference between success and failure. She took a deep breath, let it out, straightened her spine and lifted her chin; she was ready.

"And that's about enough of that," Taako said from behind her. Lucretia and Cam both startled, spinning to face him where he lounged against the far wall. None of them were unscathed, covered in dirt and blood and assorted remains of different monsters. Somehow Taako still managed to make it look good.

Lup would have loved this.

"No interrupting," Edward said in that pleasant, dangerous voice. "It's still her turn."

"How about fuck you," Taako said, examining his nails. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's been fun. Wall-to-wall hilarity. But Taako's bored now."

"Bored?" Lydia hummed. "Well, that's too bad. We'll have to try harder from here on out!" 

"What are you doing!" Cam cried. "Don't antagonize them!"

One of Taako's ears flicked in Cam's direction: Not in worry but in irritation.

Lucretia felt the first tug of apprehension.

"Not talking to you, Dan," Taako said, finally pushing off the wall to saunter toward Lucretia and the wheel. "You liches have a pretty neat gig here, don't you? A little trite, but not bad for a bunch of undead fucks. I've seen worse set-ups. Let's make a deal: You give me your bell, I let you keep playing this game. You keep your bell, I tear this whole place down around your ears and take it anyway."

The silence that followed his proclamation was deep with shock. Then the twins began to laugh.

"How," Lucretia began, spinning to face Taako. "How could you possibly--!"

Taako ignored her. 

"Why would we do that?" Edward chuckled. "I hate to break it to you, champ, but you're not doing so well here."

"Counter offer!" Lydia chimed in. "We keep the bell, you keep playing our game, nobody ever leaves, and we live forever!"

"No," Lucretia whispered.

"I like mine better," Taako said.

"I like your spirit," Lydia said. "Here's an idea: We'll let you leave right now, no more games, and keep playing with the other two instead."

"Ooo," Edward agreed, "that sounds fun! I do love a good abandonment."

Taako laughed. "What is it you think I'm doing here?" he asked. "I wouldn't abandon them any more than I would let you take twenty years of the kiddo's life!"

Love washed over Lucretia, love and gratitude and feeling of such smallness in the face of Taako's protection.

Then he said, "That kind of misery would basically turbo power you for, like, a month. Not a chance, my dudes. Bell or death: Pick."

"You said we were a team," Cam hissed.

"Taako lied," he said, arms crossed, impatient.

"We're going to have to say no," Lydia said.

"Figured," Taako agreed. "Just remember, you asked for this."

The liches were still laughing when Taako started his attack. 

His magic unfolded like a physical creature, lashing out with coordinated bursts of fire and frost, light and wind. The illusions on Wonderland collapsed, revealing the trap at its bare truth. Lydia and Edward were wrenched from their place above the maze, entangled in black tentacles, held at Taako's mercy.

"Please," Edward gasped. "We'll give you the bell!"

Taako smiled and leaned over them, braid sliding over his shoulder as he dipped down face-to-face. Muck and dust and blood slid from his clothes in a wave of Prestidigitation, leaving him in as perfect a state as he'd come in. "Taako doesn't do second chances."

He tore Wonderland down around them. Screams echoed among the thunder of crumbling walls, falling ceiling, all while Taako stood untouched, unmoving, the eye of a personal hurricane. A high-pitched shriek cut off abruptly. Taako kept his eyes on Edward and Lydia, watching them die.

A chunk of ceiling fell onto Lucretia, pinning her on her back against a toppled wall, crushing her right leg. She lost sight of Cam, his arm raised over his head to protect it and then gone in the next moment. The destruction felt like it took hours. Lucretia tried to cast a protection spell but had been out of slots since the last battle. She could do nothing, not for herself, not for any of them, as Wonderland fell.

Finally, it ended. The world stilled. And there was a great silence.

Lucretia opened her eyes. Taako stood watching, pleased, as empty tentacles writhed where Lydia and Edward had once been. He hummed, looking around now, and began picking his way through the rubble.

"Taako," Lucretia tried to call. Her breath caught in her lungs, produced more of a wet bubble than an actual name.

One of his ears lifted tall and swiveled in her direction. He turned as it laid back down, looking at her with an open, quizzical expression. "What's up, kiddo?"

You said we were a team, she tried to tell him, an accusation trapped in the blood leaking into her lungs. You fought with us.

He must have seen some of it in her face, some measure of her confusion and betrayal. He went to her, crouching at her side in those ridiculous heels, a casual display of his well-honed grace. Grace he shouldn't have remembered, tentacles he shouldn't have remembered, Sunbust and Whirlwind that he shouldn't have--!

"Aw, pumpkin." He flicked a lock of dirty hair off her forehead, not well enough for it to stay put but just so that it would swing back in her eyes. "Tell you what. Since you've been such a champ about all this, I'll give you a free tip. A lesson from Taako to..." He tilted his head. "What was your name, again? Luscious? Eh, whatever. So, kid, here it is: Nobody's actually on your side. 'Kay? Nobody's going to help you out of the--" He rolled his eyes, his whole head, his shoulders, to underline his derision. "--the goodness of their heart, or whatever goopy shit human parents are teaching their kids these days."

Taako stood and walked away, gesturing aggressively with his hands as he picked his way once more through the rubble. "I mean, I've met some gullible types in my day, but you? Just joining up with some random elf you maybe saw cook some food one time? You really take the cake, buddy. It's almost like you wanted me to use you as bait." He looked around briefly, then knelt to rummage through a pile of fallen ceiling. "I was going to use the other people in this hellhole, but you made it way more fun." He turned back to tap his temple by his right eye and smirk at her. "True Seeing. Get you some." Then he bent forward, pulling something out of the refuse to buff it against his shirt.

The Animus Bell. Even with her blood loss, Lucretia felt her heart leap into her throat. He couldn't possibly.

"You've been great,"  he said, spreading his arms to include the dead and dying around him. "Really. But ol' Taako's got places to be."

"No," Lucretia breathed.

Taako tossed his long braid over his shoulder. "Open your eyes, kid," he said, cruel in his dismissal. "You were weaker and slower and too gullible by far. So now you lose, and this bell is mine. Taako appreciates your sacrifice." He twinkled his fingers at her. "Buh-bye now."

And he was gone.

At first, Lucretia felt nothing. Soon enough, the silence around her and the pain in her broken bones swelled up through her heart and higher until she felt tears rolling down her cheeks, fat and helpless, removing even more fluids from her body, useless, stupid, pointless things--

"Lucretia? What the hell happened to you?"

Her heart jolted again. She meant to turn quickly toward the sound--the painfully familiar voice--but she didn't have the energy left for it anymore. Her head lolled on her shoulder until she could see him.

Barry Bluejeans. Lich, wizard, science officer. Friend. Hovering in his red robe above the devastation that had once housed his Grand Relic. "Barry," she tried to say, but nothing came out.

He cursed, rushing across the space between them to search her dying body for--

Her Stone of Farspeech. "Who do I call?" he demanded, shaking her shoulder when she started to fade. "Focus, Lucretia! You don't get to just die here, we have a lot to talk about. Who do I call?"

"Avi," she breathed. "He'll have...transport..."

The world faded. Vision first, then feeling, until all she had was Barry's voice, in her ears again after so long. That went too. She and the darkness remain.

And then that, too, was gone.

 

Lucretia came to in a stark white room. That was unexpected enough. The Bulwark Staff rested next to her on the uncomfortable mattress. She took in her surroundings and...kind of just wanted to go back to being unconscious. She was is the Bureau of Balance infirmary, usually empty but now filled with--survivors? Cam was there, and others she didn't recognize, and--

Barry Bluejeans hovered at her bedside, arms crossed, skeletal face projecting more anger than bones should be able to. "Start talking, Lucretia," he demanded. "What have you done? Where is my Bell?"

"I don't have it," she said, nothing over a murmur as she shut her eyes for a brief moment of peace.

Barry swooped down next to her. "Don't try that bullshit on me! Where is it?"

"I saw Taako," she said.

"What? Lucretia, you're not making any sense. What happened?"

She didn't tell him. Couldn't.

Cam spoke up from the bed next to hers. "We went to Wonderland to get the Bell. It was supposed to be an in-and-out mission, but it just-- Wonderland wasn't what I thought it was." He swallowed hard. "Not what I expected. My own fault. We would have died."

"What does this have to do with--"

"There was an elf," Cam continued, scowl wrinkling the skin between his eyebrows. "He said his name was Taako. I thought he was a pushover but-- He killed the liches, brought down Wonderland, took the Bell, and left us all to die. So fuck that guy, basically."

Barry whipped around to face Lucretia again. She watched his shock war with anger. "Taako did that? Taako? How did you erase Lup and leave his memories of magic untouched?"

"I didn't." She cleared her throat to try and shake some of her melancholy. There were still five Relics unaccounted for; she should focus on that, and worry about the Bell (about Taako, his impossible magic, the cruelty of his words) later. Firming her resolve, she struggled to sit up. "I... He lost those with Lup and the IPRE."

"Then how did--"

"I don't know, Barry." She swung her feet onto the floor and tried to stand. Barry caught her with Mage Hand when she stumbled, and Lucretia found her hand reaching for his familiar robe before she could school herself back calm again. "That's something I'll have to figure out at a later date. For now, I have other matters that require my attention."

Barry rolled his head in place of eyes he currently lacked. "Don't try to pull that on me, Lucy. I know you, remember? This isn't something we can deal with later, it's got to be faced head on. You're always leaving loose ends that come back to bite you!"

"Not this time," she said, resolute in her conviction. "This is something I have to do, Barry, and I'm going to. If you think you can stop me--"

"For Pan's sake, Lucretia!" He grabbed her shoulders with Mage Hand to give her a solid shake. "I'm not trying to stop you, I'm trying to help! Why won't you let me?"

"I have to collect the Light again to save this world," she snapped, shaking him off. "I'm not going to abandon it! I can beat the Hunger, I can lock it away--"

"You can't lock this world away from-- No. You know what? Now's not the time." He took a deep, unnecessary breath. "One thing at a time, Lucy, alright? Where is Taako?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "He took the Bell and vanished. I can't...I can't focus on him, Barry. I have to get the other Relics."

"Before he does," Barry said with an understanding nod. "I can help you, Lucretia, but you know we'll need the others too."

"No," she said, trying to push him away. "No! I gave them good lives, they're safe until--"

"Until what?" he demanded. "Until Taako gets the Light and this world is doomed and we have to leave again?"

"He won't," Lucretia insisted, picking up her staff. "I can get them first. He won't even be looking for them, he doesn't remember--"

"He didn't remember the Bell either! Damn it, Lucretia, what do I have to do to get you to accept what's in front of you?" He grabbed the Staff with his magic, jerking it to force her attention onto him. "You thought Taako was safe and he's not. He's...he's killing people and going after Relics you fed to the voidfish. He knew what my Bell was, you can't possibly think this ends here!"

"It will," she said. "I'll make it!"

"We need the others--"

"I just need a chance!"

Barry let the Staff go so abruptly she stumbled. "Fine," he said. "You think you can do this alone? Fine. I will give you one chance."

"Barry," she tried to interrupt.

He held up a skeletal hand. "I know where her Gauntlet is."

Lucretia sucked in a sharp breath. "Barry--"

"My next body is almost ready. You give me back my memories, let me run with whatever crew you put together. We get the Gauntlet? Fine. We'll let everyone keep living their lives and do this thing ourselves. The second it goes off like it did with Wonderland, though, the whole crew gets brought back. You take this deal, I work with you. You screw me over for--" He twiddled bony fingers in wild air quotes. "--my own good? I dedicate every waking moment of my existence to ruining yours."

Lucretia took a deep breath. Held it; let it go. She stuck out her hand. "Deal," she said, and they shook on it.