Kravitz stepped out of his office into a roomful of zombies. And his first thought was, "Not again."
Sighing, he drew his scythe. This was getting ridiculous.
He swung the blade easily, its sharp silver edge passing through the bodies of the trio of zombies closest to him. They staggered to a halt…and then began to knit themselves up again, their bodies healing as if he'd never touched them.
He rolled out of the way of a swinging, rotted fist, giving himself time and space to assess the situation. About a dozen zombies were shuffling towards him. In the back of the room, he could see a dark-cloaked figure bent over a summoning circle, their hands moving quickly to shore up and strengthen the spell they were using. The only other thing in the room was a spare scythe leaned up against a wall, with…something large and bulky attached to its shaft. He couldn't quite make it out in the dim light. About half the zombies were between him and it.
"Welcome!" Lup's voice boomed over the loudspeaker. "To Reaper Training Gauntlet version five-point-oh! Looks like your standard scythe attacks aren't gonna work on these zombies, Skeletor! You're gonna have to get…creative."
A spotlight clicked on, illuminating the modified scythe. But even in better lighting, Kravitz still had no idea what he was looking at. His mind couldn't process it.
Was that a keyboard attached to the scythe??
Oh no. They wouldn't have.
He kicked away another zombie. "Oi, you have got to be kidding me!"
"Looks like the only way to defeat these zombies is to knock them back with a power chord!" Lup practically sang over the loudspeaker. "Who could have possibly forseen this?!"
He switched to skeleton form the moment he felt a blush spreading a cross his cheeks. "This scenario is ludicrous!" he snapped. "It would be incredibly unlikely to run into this in the field, and--" He paused to knock back a pair of zombies with the flat of his scythe, "--if it did, we could simply destroy the summoning circle!" He elbowed another zombie in the stomach. They were closing in on him, making a grab for his cloak and his arms.
There was a telling pause. The dark-cloaked figure by the circle, who was obviously Barry, looked up at the ceiling in surprise.
"Uh, no we definitely can't do that!" Lup extemporized. "Because what if the summoning circle is protected by a shield?"
Barry gestured frantically, bringing up a shield around the circle.
One zombie got a good grip on his cloak and began tugging. Kravitz swore, undoing the clasp of his cloak. He lept up out of the fray, sailing over their heads and towards the keyboard-scythe combo. One particularly eager zombie grabbed him by the ankle, but he pulled loose and landed in an awkward roll.
"You know," he snarled, not even bothering to keep the annoyance out of his voice, "piano wasn't even my instrument!" But he grabbed the keyboard-scythe anyway. It was one of the nicer scythes, too. And now its fine ebony shaft was marred by fantasy duct tape.
Damn it, how was this supposed to go? What even was a 'power chord'? He placed his fingers, played an A-minor chord. A burst of energy rolled out of the instrument, knocking the front row of zombies back and seemingly stunning them. Hmm. It was a start, but not enough. He needed to finish this quickly, so he could sit down with Lup and Barry and give them a good long talking-to.
He should have known better. But he'd made a critical error a few months ago, when he'd disciplined Barry for experimenting with a necromantic tome picked up from a cult they'd recently fought against. "You cannot violate the Raven Queen's law," he'd said. "Especially as her employee! Especially in her domain! Now, unless this is some bizarre training regimen, I suggest you take apart this summoning circle post-haste."
Barry had had the decency to look embarrassed. He'd knelt down and begun to wipe away the partially-completed chalk circle.
"Soooo…" Lup had said, sidling up behind him. "What you're saying is, if it's for training, it's okay?"
That was the moment he realized he'd lost.
And since then, Lup and Barry have seemingly made it their new mission to ingeniously integrate whatever bizarre experiments they wanted to run into 'training exercises.' Which was bad enough. But then somehow they'd found out--likely through Taako, he loved that elf but damn it Taako--that he'd had musical ambitions when he'd been alive.
And now this.
His phalanges tightened over the scythe's shaft. No, he was not going to be pressured like this. Dropping the keyboard-scythe, he channeled as much of the Raven Queen's power as his construct-form could handle, and cast Undeath to Death.
The zombies evaporated with a shriek. Barry looked up, blinking. A door appeared in the wall behind him, presumably leading to the next room in the gauntlet.
He shifted to his human-form and rolled his eyes. Barry and Lup were both powerful necromancers in their own right, but he had centuries of experience, and spells at his command that they would never have thought to protect against. "Now then," he said. "Lup, get in here."
She sighed over the loudspeaker, and then her voice cut off. A moment later, she shimmered through one of the walls. "You ruin all the fun," she said, folding her arms across her chest.
"Fun?!" he snapped. "Our work isn't fun, it's as serious as life and death! Literally!"
Barry rubbed the back of his neck. "We just thought…you know? You've been working really hard, and I--we get that. I think our work speaks to how serious we take this, and how much we appreciate the opportunity. But…we figured, especially now that we're here and can help share the load, you can, you know…relax a bit. Have some fun once in a while."
"Explore some neglected passions!" added Lup. "Bird Mom knows, we could use a little music to lighten up the place."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Listen. As much as I loved music, that was a different life! I have a new life now. With other, more important responsibilities to handle. I don't have time to play around with--" He gestures to the modified scythe. "Whatever this is!"
"A keyscythe," Barry supplied helpfully.
"What's next?" he asked. "A necromantic tomb where I have to dance to a beat in order to strike my foes?"
Lup and Barry looked at each other. Kravitz sighed and pushed open the door to the next room, his gaze squarely on them. Instantly, a heavy techno beat began to play, oontz-oontz-oontz-ing while neon lights flashed against their faces.
Barry blushed. "We call it, uh, necrodancing."
He raised an eyebrow. "Look, can we just set aside the training and focus on working on actual cases? Until the Raven Queen comes back from the Divine Convocation, she requested--"
"We know," said Lup. "Bird Mom left you in charge."
"And will you please stop calling her Bird Mom!" He strode back towards his office. "Clean up this mess, both of you. I've received concerning reports about some sort of death cult whose members have cropped up in multiple cities, and I want to take a look at it before it continues to spread much further." He gestured, and a few of the ravens perched around the office began to gather folders into a pile on his desk.
Barry scratched his jaw. "Is it normal for her to be away this frequently?" he asked. "Didn't she have to attend some other Divine Convocation, like, a month ago?"
"Yeah," said Lup, "I thought you said they were pretty rare."
"Time moves differently for the gods," Kravitz said, pausing in the doorway to consider this. "I admit, it is…unusual to have two gatherings this close together. But if the Raven Queen feels that something requires our attention, she will let us know when she returns." He crossed over to his desk, and reached for the top folder.
Every raven in the office screamed at once. Kravitz staggered back, stunned as the noise seemed to pierce right through him. The ravens took off in a flurry of panicked wings, and then vanished, leaving not even a flutter of loose feathers behind.
They hadn't teleported away. They had simply ceased to be.
He stared at the empty office.
Barry gasped behind him. Lup asked, her voice shockingly quiet, "What was that?"
Kravitz put a hand to his mouth. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
Redmond reached down into his cloak and pulled out a package. It was wrapped simply in brown paper and twine. He handed it to his brother. "Happy birthday, Luca," he said warmly.
Luca took the package, eyebrows raised. He ripped away the paper with enthusiasm, and looked down at the second and third Caleb Cleveland novels. He gasped. "Redmond--you shouldn't have!" He opened one of them and took a delicious whiff of the new book smell. "How did you even manage this?"
Redmond shrugged. "Pulled in a favor from Ren," he said. "Shipped straight from Neverwinter." He chuckled. "Apparently there's twenty books in the series already!"
"Twenty?" Luca's eyes widened. He'd chanced to acquire the first book many years ago from a traveler passing through Refuge, back before the bubble went up. He'd read it so many times by now that it had become quite battered. The fact that Redmond had noticed and gone out of his way…He felt the prick of tears in his eyes, and quickly wiped them away. "Well, I guess I have a lot more to catch up on than I thought!" he said.
It was a lovely evening for a quiet birthday celebration. It was mid-Spring, and the weather in Refuge was mild, the air stirred by a pleasant breeze. They were sitting out on the front steps of the Temple of Istus, sharing a pitcher of ale between them. Overhead, the stars were just starting to come out in the purple of twilight. The town was quiet, the only sounds the musical chirping of insects and the merry ticking of the temple's own clocktower, its gears humming along not by any stored kinetic energy but by Istus's blessing.
"So how's that new acolyte working out for you?" Redmond asked, raising an eyebrow.
Luca sighed. "Well, I admit that his additions to the temple have been…unconventional." He took a deep breath and gave his brother a game smile. "But time moves ever forward, and there's no use dwelling in the past." The corner of his mouth twitched. Such typical phrases of Istian theology had taken new meaning in the wake of the Temporal Chalice and all that it had wrought in their tiny town.
"Amen to that," said Redmond, lifting his tankard in toast. "Still…" He paused, glancing back at the temple doors. The sounds of hammering and whirring had long since died down; that very afternoon, the acolyte had declared his project finished, whatever that meant. Redmond dropped his voice. "Brother, do you…well, this might be the cynic in me, but…do you believe him, when he says he was guided by Istus to undertake this work?"
Luca took a long pull of his ale, and quietly set down his tankard. "To be honest, I was skeptical at first. But I prayed to Istus for guidance, and I sensed her divine approval. As to the purpose it serves, well…" He shrugged. "Only time will tell--"
A horrible mechanical screech tore through the still night air. Luca and Redmond were on their feet in an instant, their tankards knocked over and spilling ale down the steps. Luca turned to the temple's clocktower. His heart leapt into his throat.
The Istus-blessed clock had stopped.
"One more shtory!" Mookie demanded. "Jusht one more!" He smiled his gap-toothed smile up at Davenport.
"That's what you said one story ago," said Davenport, firmly but not unkindly. "And now it's time for bed."
"Aww, but Mavis gets to shtay up!" he said, pointing to his sister, who stood further down the beach, peering up at the night sky with a telescope.
"That's because Mavis is older," said Davenport, sighing. "When you're older, you can stay up later, too. But not tonight."
"I'm older today than I was yeshterday," Mookie pointed out.
Davenport was quickly running out of sighs, and he wasn't in the mood for the endless circular arguments that Merle's son excelled at. He still couldn't believe he'd let Merle wheedle him into babysitting a second time, after the disastrous Incident of the first time.
"Because it isn't really babysitting," Merle had argued. "I'll be up in the main house. I just need someone to keep 'em occupied on the beach for a few hours while I play host. You know Mookie gets wound up when there's a big event going on, and these old fuddy-duddies won't be too happy with my lil' fireball underfoot."
Davenport glanced up at Merle's sprawling beach mansion, its windows all glowing in welcome. The promise had been "only a few hours," but the meeting of dwarven clerics was still going on, and it was way past the time Mookie should have been in bed. He debated the merits of letting the boy stay up versus trying to put him to bed only to have him escape and cause havoc in the house. Arguably, the consequences of the former would be less severe--
"Hey Uncle Dav?" asked Mavis suddenly, looking up from the telescope's eye piece. "Was the Light of Creation kind of…orange-y?"
"No," he said, "it was white, actually. A brilliant white." He'd been so thrilled to find Mavis developing an interest in astronomy. At least he could have a sensible conversation with one of Merle's kids.
"Oh." Mavis peered into the telescope again. "Good, so that isn't the Light falling."
Davenport's heart skipped a beat. He glanced up at the sky, his breath quickening, and a voice in the back of his head said No, not again, I can't do this again I just can't--
"Probably a comet, right?" She paused, giving him an odd look. "Uncle Dav…?"
"Let me see," he said, his throat raw. Mavis stepped aside and he peered into the telescope.
It wasn't the Light. But it was bright, and flaming orange-gold in color, and growing quickly in size. Like a meteorite burning up in the sky. Or like a fireball.
He straightened. It was big enough now that he could see it unaided. And it was heading straight for the beach where they stood.
"Mookie--Mavis--run!" He scooped up Mookie--gods, why were dwarven children so heavy?--and made a beeline for the trees. A roar was building in the sky. "Go go go!"
"What is that?!" he heard Mavis cry out. But he didn't have an answer. The sky grew unbearably hot and bright. He wasn't going to make it to the treeline. This thing was coming down right on top of him! Trusting to Mookie's sturdy dwarven heritage, he tossed the boy into the shelter of the trees, just before he was knocked over by a blast of heat and sand exploding behind him.
The air cooled. The sand settled, and the beach became quiet again. Davenport's ears were ringing.
He pushed his face up and spat out a mouthful of sand. "Mavis?" he groaned. "Mookie? Sound off!"
There was a rustle of branches. "Here," said Mavis. "What was that?"
"That," said Mookie, "was…amazing!"
Davenport brushed more sand from his face, and rolled over to get a better look at what had crashed into the beach just behind him. There was a small crater in the beach. Near the center was a golden double-bladed war axe, embedded in a pool of rapidly cooling glass.
"Hey kiddo," said the axe.
Davenport blinked. "Arumdina?" He looked around, surprised to see the divine axe by herself, with his patron god nowhere to be seen. "Where's…where's Garl?" he asked. "What's going on?"
"Honestly, your guess is as good as mine," she said. "Looks like you and I are going on a road trip!"