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Time After Time

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Barry Bluejeans is falling. 

He has an instant to see someone looking down at him, an unfamiliar face at the railing above. 

The person he was so desperate to remember has disappeared from his head. He doesn’t understand why he feels so relieved now; he doesn’t know why he’s smiling as he falls.

The relief is short lived.

It is replaced with confusion. Fear.

These are also short lived.

He hits the ground.

Barry Bluejeans is dead.

In the field where he has landed, wheat obscures his body. There’s no one to see him anyway. No one saw him fall and crash to the ground. No one sees the red spectre crackling with magical power that arises where the body lays. 

Since becoming a lich nearly twenty years ago, Barry has died a half dozen times. Six times he has arisen from his corpse as a lich. Never has his control been so tenuous. His anchors have been stripped; everything he holds dear is gone. 

For a moment his composure threatens to fall completely. Lightning crackles around him and all he knows is the maelstrom of rage and grief coursing through him.

A terrible noise cuts through his misery. His lightning has struck a field mouse and the screech of pain from the dying animal slices across the blackness in which he is drowning. Instantly he clamps down on his magic, pulling the threads of control tightly around himself. The mouse is dead, its tiny corpse lying charred beside his own crumpled body.

Now that he has control of himself, he can hear noise from the nearby farm. He needs to deal with his body before they find him.

So, struggling more than he ever has in his lich form, he focuses. His greatest fear has always been letting Lup down. He won’t let that happen. Not when she needs him now more than ever. His love for her, his longing to keep her safe and make her happy, it’s everything that has kept him going for so long. It’s everything that anchors him as a lich, everything that drives him as a scientist, everything that defines him as a man. It’s all that matters.

He looks up. There it is in the distance above: the silver ship that has been his home for a hundred years.

No, he tells himself. Lup is my home. My family is my home.

The thought does not help his composure. Barry takes a moment to pull his control tight again.

Fisher, he thinks. Then, the next logical step is: Lucretia.

She’s used the voidfish somehow to… She was erasing Lup, he thinks, and his edges blur once more before he clamps down and focuses. Taako didn’t know Lup, didn’t know me. What’s her goal?

The relics. The barrier. Her plan.

If he had a physical form he’d feel ill. 

Why? Was it just her? Was this because they all voted on the relic plan instead of hers? After everything does she still believe they lied to her about what her barrier will do?

There’s no time right now, he decides. I have to disappear. And I have to cover my tracks. He looks at his body where it lays smashed on the ground. One lens has cracked, a spiderweb of fractures filling one side. He thinks of Lup catching his glasses as they fell at the end of the beach year. She’d saved them. She’d saved him. 

Everything is broken now.

Barry winds tendrils of magic out from himself and uses them to carefully peel the red IPRE robe from his body. He takes his glasses, his boots, anything distinguishing that he can quickly grab with his fingers of solidified power.

Then, he rends a hole in the air, all his concentration focused on imagining a place that is just so. Connecting to that specific bit of demiplane he’s magically marked as his own is actually simpler when he’s made of magic. Finding that specific place is like picking a lock in the dark, forging a key from his power, his memories, his ideas, his beliefs, his personality, his love, his very soul. Now that’s all he is.

A line cuts through the air then pulls wide, forming a square. The square fills out, becomes a cube, then stretches further until it reveals the chest he made at the Hanging Arcaneum. 

Shoving in everything he’s collected, he closes the lid, and lets the connection collapse shut. 

Just like Lup said, he remembers. Using it to stash our stuff when we’re dead. Ready to go for next time.

Only there won’t be a next time. The ship is gone. The cycles are over. Lup is missing.

There’s no time left to think about it. Lucretia could come looking for him. He’s not sure what she might do but he can’t risk finding out. He has to find Lup. 

If I find Lup we can figure out how to take back the ship. We can go, we can… Barry wrenches his thoughts away. He has to concentrate. There’s too much at risk to not stay completely focused on one thing at a time and right now that is getting away unseen. 

He looks back down at his body. The charred creature beside him offers the solution to this last bit of evidence. He doesn’t have Lup’s spell sculpting but he’s far more powerful than he used to be. This time when lightning crackles from his red, spectral form, it’s intentional. The power is focused and immense. Once nothing remains except a blackened bit of earth, he douses it with a water spell before so much as a single stalk of wheat can catch alight. 

Then he disappears, the crops undisturbed by his passage. 

 

—-

 

In tying their lich forms to their memories and positive emotions, Barry and Lup had given themselves a strong anchor to remain who they were. But there’s a cost to that now, he knows. These other emotions threaten to sever those connections and give rein to the power that was always ready to surge forward.

It’s a lesson Barry spends his first day alone learning.

Time drags by in fits and stutters. There are interminable moments where every drop of his considerable power is devoted to holding himself together, to not giving into the rage and despair clawing up inside him. If he lets them get a grasp on him then he’ll never be able to hold himself together. 

As the sun is setting on this first day, he’s just decided to check the lead that, had things gone differently, he and Taako would have investigated. 

Already, he’s had to hide from people. Being a lich has preserved his memories but it comes with an appearance that would frighten most people. So, as he follows the road that will eventually lead him to the Felicity Wilds, he moves back into the trees and shadows when he spots people ahead. 

He doesn’t have to get much closer before he realizes he’d know these people anywhere. There, beside the road, are Lucretia and Taako. There’s a caravan set up and both of them are standing looking at it.

Barry approaches. He can talk to her. This has to be some kind of accident. She wouldn’t have done this on purpose, would she? Did any of them really understand how the voidfish worked? Just because Lucretia spent the most time around Fisher didn’t mean that…

“No, Taako, I told you already. This just belongs to you. It’s all yours.”

Lucretia’s words cut straight through him. He can’t see their faces but Taako’s ears are angled back hard, his shoulders set in a way Barry hasn’t seen for a long time. It’s the distrustful stance he gets when they first meet people on a new plane, the stance both twins used to have when they got suspicious.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Taako protests softly. “There was … someone… family.”

“No, Taako.” Lucretia’s voice is soft but insistent. “You’re an only child and haven’t seen your family since you took off on your own…”

The rest of her words are lost to Barry as his control slips. Lightning crackles from him and hits the tree he hovers near. The tree shatters, flaming shards of wood raining down around him. The spectacle knocks everything else into utter stillness. The silence reminds Barry to pull his power tightly around himself again and regain his composure. 

“Hello?”

Even Lucretia’s gentle voice instills rage in him. She’s done this on purpose. She’s lying to Taako, splitting Taako’s life into one where he never had anyone. It’s not bad enough Lup is gone now Lucretia has stolen even memories of her?

How dare she? 

The rage threatens to wreck him again. A sliver of awareness reminds him of who he is.

He turns away from the awful scene. Leaving Taako behind is one of the most terrible things he’s ever had to do. He feels bent under the weight of it.

But Taako hadn’t remembered him on the deck. He’d never understand him in this form. He has to find a way to fix this, fix all of this. Find Lup, stop Lucretia…

Barry Bluejeans flees. He leaves his friends behind, the elf who has been his brother, the woman that has been his sister. Where are the others?

Those careful anchors and memories, designed to keep he and Lup safe, keep them intact under the constant onslaught of their own magical power, feel as if they are floating away.

Lup’s face, he reminds himself. Keep Lup’s face clear. Find her. Together we can fix this. Together we can do anything.

Chapter Text

Fleeing through the woods, Barry has a revelation, I need to get to the ship. While she’s with Taako, setting him up in that traveling caravan like when he and Lup…  

His train of thought careens off track when he thinks of Lup. It takes considerable effort to hold himself back from falling into the abyss left in her wake. 

Even with Lup erased, how can Lucretia expect Taako to continue without her? Does she really think that she can just remove his twin? The thought is too much, especially on top of his own aching loss. The flash of light from the electricity crackling off of him catches his attention and he drags hold of his magic once again. Pulling it tightly around himself like a cage, he focuses his attention on holding the threads of it while he carefully edges around the thoughts. 

On the move again, fleeing between the trees, Barry tries to make a plan while avoiding the landmines waiting in his memories to pull him under. 

Lucretia is away from the ship. So is Taako. She’s had all day to do whatever she was doing. Where are the rest? Did she do the same with Magnus, Merle, and Davenport? Have they been shuffled off to some prearranged life and fed a history that erases whatever she’s taken?

While Lucretia is gone is his best opportunity to get things from the ship. 

Hell, he realizes, I could take the ship! Why should she have it? I can take it and cover more ground looking for L-

He pulls the thought short abruptly. His maps are on the ship. The maps have all his notes about the places they’ve looked, glassings, possible leads. Most of it is seared into his memory but it will be better to have it all. 

She couldn’t have gone far from the ship with Taako in that state, he thinks.

Doubling back, he makes a fast arc towards the road. Floating through the forest he covers distance quickly. He doesn’t have to dodge obstacles or worry about uneven ground. But if Lucretia is getting Taako settled, or if she investigates the woods after the spectacle he caused when he lost his control for a moment, or even if she just has to walk back, he can move much quicker. He can beat her back to the ship.

Emerging from the woods south of where he’d seen them, it doesn’t take him long to find the ship. The Starblaster is sitting in a clearing near the road. It looks dark, disturbingly empty. It reminds him of taking the violin he’d bought on Tessaralia back to the ship, of finding it empty, dark, and silent. It feels completely wrong. In a hundred years the Starblaster had rarely been any of those things. 

It suits his purposes now, though. Still, when the bond engine begins to spin up at his approach, it comforts him slightly. The ship still knows him at least.

The gangplank descends and he floats up it quickly. He just has to get to the bridge and get the thing in the air. If he’s even a few feet off the ground she won’t be able to stop him. 

His headlong rush through the ship stops at an unexpected sight. There at the wheel, in the seat he’s occupied for so much of their journey, is Davenport.

“Davenport!” Barry cries out, relieved to see his captain and friend. “Lucretia took Taako and…” 

He stops. Davenport is staring at him with horror and alarm.

“Davenport!” the Captain yells at him, holding his hands up as if trying to ward Barry away. “Daven port Davenport Davenport!”

Barry backs away slowly. What the hell…?

“Davenport?” Barry asks gently, staring at an expression he’s never seen in the one hundred and one years that he’s known the man. “What’s… what’s wrong?”

“DAVENPORT!” the man screams in response. “ Daven port Davenport!”

“Okay,” Barry answers. “Okay, I’ll… I’ll go. I’m sorry.” He drifts back through the doorway then stops. “I’ll… I’m so sorry to leave you like this.” Once more his form shivers and his edges blur. Sorrow and rage war inside him but Barry finds a new anchor to hold himself together. “I’ll fix this,” he promises. “I’ll fix all of this somehow.” 

With a whisper of magic he closes the door to the bridge, leaving his captain behind. 

I can’t take the ship now, he realizes. 

Then, Magnus! Merle!  

He has to see if they’re in the same state as Davenport. Merle’s room is the closest and so he goes there first. The place has been gone through, he can tell. Merle’s belongings are always strewn about in a cluttered but not quite chaotic way. Now they are organized neatly. And there, leaning in the corner, is Merle’s Gilley Stick. 

She’s sent him off without… He pictures Merle proudly brandishing the stick. After he’d made it, he’d rarely been without it. He’d used it as a hiking stick, for gesturing, even to knock things down off the top shelves in the kitchen. How could she keep it from him?

It feels wrong to leave it on the ship, so Barry summons his chest and stows the object inside. As soon as it’s safely in his chest, he drops the connection to the demiplane and goes to Magnus’s room. Sure enough, among 100 years of collected objects, there are Magnus’s artificing projects laid out on the desk beside a half finished carving. His strange helmet that is like a piece of sports equipment merged with a bear’s snarling mouth he called Bear Face, and the metal tooth necklace have been left behind.

Barry snatches them up with Mage Hand and heads to Taako’s room. And there’s Taako’s KrEbStAr. Summoning the chest again, Barry stashes Taako and Magnus’s belongings inside. He’ll get these back to them, they deserve to have them. 

What else? he thinks. The maps, obviously. 

He runs through the things they’d made at the Hanging Arcaneum. He has Taako’s, Magnus’s, and Merle’s. He’s not going to take Davenport’s - the man is still here despite what she’s done to him. His own item - the chest - was beyond Lucretia’s reach, of course. Lup had… Suddenly a different image fills his head. The violin!

He can’t stand the thought of Lup’s violin being left behind on the ship. He slams the connection to the chest closed and rushes to he and Lup’s room. It’s exactly how he left it that morning. 

Was it really only this morning? He looks around for a moment. It’s too much to contemplate. He summons his chest once more and begins stowing things in the chest’s cavernous space at random. Grabbing a spare robe - Lup’s, though he tries not to notice - he wraps the violin and adds it to the collection growing inside his own artificing project. He’d never expected to use it like this.

He senses time is growing short so he leaves, pausing at the door for just a moment. How has everything gone so wrong?

There’s no way to answer that. He doesn’t even slow enough to follow the hallways back to the deck, simply floats through the ceiling and off in the direction of the last moments he spent with Taako. 

Lucretia hasn’t touched his table full of maps and notes. In a few quick gestures of Mage Hand he’s gathered everything and rolled it up in one messy bundle. Once more he summons the chest, adds the new items, and severs the connection. The things are safe in his chest now, stored in a demiplane where no one else can reach them. He’ll give them back as soon as he can. And then, for the second time that day, he goes over the railing. 

Once more, Barry Bluejeans flees into the night alone. Behind him, the Starblaster gangplank raises into place again. Crewless even with Davenport still aboard, the bond engine slows to a stop and falls silent.

 

—-

 

There’s a farmhouse outside of a small town. Or there was. It was struck by lightning and caught fire five or six years earlier. Even with the rain, the building had gone up quickly. The couple who lived there barely made it out alive. 

Now, years later, there’s little remaining: the charred outline of the dwelling, a barn, fields gone fallow, and rumors of ghosts and murder that the town kids like to scare each other with. In the summers, children dare each other to trespass inside the barren square where the home had been, to go into the barn alone, and to climb up into the hay loft.

If any of those children came at the moment they’d leave with a story to tell that their friends might never believe, because now? There is a ghost there.

A red robed spectre has taken residence. His control is still shoddy but none of the mice or other vermin who’ve made the space their own are harmed so he considers it an improvement. For days - days that have no boundaries without the need to sleep or eat - Barry exists in a kind of limbo.

And he plans. 

Lup is gone and finding her is all he cares about. But now, with Lucretia putting her own plan into action, he also has to stop that from happening. 

He needs to find and gather the relics before she can, prevent her from dooming this planar system. If she gets them first and puts up her barrier they won’t even know if the Hunger is stopped by the ploy. 

When he ventures back out into the world, he has some loose plans in mind. He will continue searching for Lup, of course. But now he also needs to listen for news of the relics, track them and try to beat Lucretia to them. 

Money. A base of operations. Some way to disguise himself.

His anchors are stretched thin and tenuous but what he has left is his determination to fix things, to make things right. He will find Lup, he will gather the relics, he will figure out how to return his family’s memories. 

I always felt like being loved by Lup was more than I deserved, he thinks. It’s time I try and earn it.

Chapter Text

The first time it happens is while Barry is hovering in the woods near a town called Bree. 

He’s been here once before. As the sun sets over this village, he marks the differences since his last visit and realizes just how long it has been. Two years ago they’d all split up to hide their relics and he’d come here. He’d eaten dinner in that pub - though, at the time the name was different. Now it’s called The Hangman’s Daughter but he’s pretty sure last time it was called something like The Laughing Crow.  

The differences he sees - the new name on the pub, the statuary in the park, the empty businesses in one area and new buildings in another - are all in line with what he would expect any town might show over the course of two years. It doesn’t seem marked by the ravages of a terrible magical relic.

The Animus Bell hasn’t overrun the village with undead. He feels no strong magical signature anywhere nearby signalling catastrophe, especially not a necromantic one. Is it possible in all this time his bell has remained untouched?

This is the thought that reassures him and gives him the first brief moment of peace he’s felt in the week since… since I died, he decides to label it in his head. In the week since he died and in the months since Lup disappeared, there hasn’t been a single moment of relief. But now, even in his grief, he can appreciate the fear he’d felt for this town was unnecessary. 

His relief is cut short when he feels a cold shiver blow through him. As a lich, he has no sense of touch, no gauge for temperature. This is not the cool night that he can see the people in town have bundled themselves against. This sensation comes from something magical. It’s like the beam of illumination from a lighthouse if there were a pair of eyes behind the light, searching through the darkness for something.

As soon as he feels that chill wind, he knows two things. The first is what spell it is. It’s exactly the spell that he and Taako had tried to use to find Lup, a kind of Detect Magic tailored to a very specific source. It’s a spell they came up with that searches for a person’s magical essence. He and Taako had cast it every morning and night. They hoped the failure to find any trace of her was because she was still alive. In her lich form the spell should have found her, especially powered by the two people closest to her. 

The other thing he knows is whose magic has cast it. He’d recognize that flavor of magic anywhere. There are five people in existence whose magical signature is as familiar to him as their faces, their voices, or their handwriting. This spell? This spell was cast by Lucretia.

She’s looking for him. 

Now, as a lich, the same spell can easily find him.

For a moment, the thought of Lucretia trying to use this spell - their spell - to find him makes him absolutely furious. The moment his edges begin to fray and crackle, though, he realizes that losing his control will only make it easier for the spell to find him. He clamps down on his magic, pulls it tight, and then, in that instinctive way that led to a few clutch spells over the years, he shrugs his magic down small. He imagines it as nonspecific, a blur, an insubstantial haze. He can see his form becoming transparent with the effort.

The searchlight spell that had been zeroing in on him seems to falter. It passes back and forth, swinging slowly like a flashlight. Finally, it aims away to the north and fades from his awareness.

She nearly found him. If she’d been closer she might have succeeded; he wouldn’t have been able to slip under the radar ping-like sweep of the spell. He’ll have to find a way to evade that better. Somehow he doesn’t imagine she just wants to talk about things. She’s likely guessed that it was him in the forest when she was with Taako. She has to have figured out he was on the ship. She can’t imagine he’d be willing to help her after witnessing any of that.

 

—-

 

Once it’s dark and there is less chance of being seen, he follows the path he took so long ago. Two years feels like forever now, feels longer than the years they spent traveling. The last four and a half months feel like an eternity without Lup.. 

Barry summons a light as he gets further from the town. He doesn’t like the dark. He’d do what he could to avoid it back on their home planet and he’s liked it even less after those things killed him in the darkness back in cycle 23 or so. 

But now? He is more powerful, more dangerous than anything he might encounter. The light he conjures is not for his comfort. This light is a warning to others, should they see him. If anyone else is on the road tonight, they will want to make themselves scarce in the face of this apparition. He is made fearsome by the force driving him. This is a man whose family has been taken from him, whose love is missing, whose anchors and reason have been stripped away. This is a man holding himself together through desperation and determination. 

This is a man with nothing left to lose. 

 

—-

 

It’s impossible to find the exact spot he left his relic all those months ago. He was in a body, limited to that body’s walking pace and eyesight. When he finds a tree that seems like a possibility, he stops, looks around, and considers his next move.

He’s not gotten very far before memory reminds him of that night sleeping under the leaves, of the misgivings of his duty, of that conversation with Lup over their stones. 

Barry Bluejeans never took Lup for granted. There are so many fears and regrets hanging heavy in his non-corporeal form but that is not one of them. But now there is nothing he wants more than to go back to that moment. Instead of sleeping in the forest, contemplating what to do with his bell, he would have gone back to the ship and held fast to her, never let her out of his sight. 

While he may not have taken her for granted, he is keenly aware of two things. As much as he appreciated her presence, her love, her joy, her - he could never appreciate those simple moments enough.

And there in the forest where he left his relic, a relic that while he still has found no sign of it could still have done so much damage in this world that he’ll never truly know or atone for, he faces the fact that… he let her down.

Whatever happened that last day - and he knows something happened for her mood to have changed so much - she hadn’t talked to him about it. The only conclusion he can draw is that he failed her.

He allows himself to feel it for a single moment and then he shuts it down. Until this is over, he can’t let himself to dwell in his grief or regrets or any of the terrible emotions clamoring inside him. If he is going to survive long enough to find Lup, find the relics, stop Lucretia, fix all of this mess, then he can’t allow himself the luxury of emotions. They will end him.

There’s too much work to do.

It’s been hours since he felt the brush of Lucretia’s magic. Carefully, he allows his tight grip on his magic to relax. It’s a risk but it’s his best chance to find the bell. He chose to come after the bell because it seemed the most doable thing on his list. It was forged with his magic, he should be able to sense it.

Maybe Lucretia was searching for the bell, he thinks. It doesn’t feel true but it’s more generous than the belief that she was trying to track him and stop him before he could stop her. 

If she was trying to use that spell to track the relic, he could have told her it wouldn’t work. They’d tried to find the gauntlet, Taako’s stone, and his bell multiple times with it while looking for Lup. Variation after variation, even with Taako’s considerable magical knowledge, failed to be able to track anything, not even he or Taako. Traces, it seemed, were just too faint to be followed that way. This was a spell for a lich.

For hours he wanders the woods, concentrating on finding any familiar touch of magic. This isn’t like the spell they’d tried to use to find Lup. This is like using his own magic as a divining rod, hoping the ‘stick’ would dip. For the moment it’s the best he’s got.

Just as he’s ready to give up and admit either the technique doesn’t work or the bell has been taken from the area, he feels a brush of something he recognizes. When he’d taken the relic to hide it he’d spent the whole day and a restless night with a maddening whisper in his head. The sound - though it wasn’t truly a sound - had been frustrating; there were no recognizable words yet it had felt like promises being offered to him. 

This time he is able to make out a word. Either being a lich or the years the fractured bit of light has had in his relic has made it clear as… well, as clear as a bell.

“You.”

He doesn’t have to look around for a person who might have spoken. Despite never clearly hearing it before, Barry knows immediately that it’s the voice of The Animus Bell. 

And just as clearly he can feel the faceless thing smile. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s the feral grin of a terrible monster that is very glad to see you’ve brought it lunch.

It reaches for him.

If the thing had lunged after him - leapt at him magically - then he likely would have reacted instinctively as he had with Lucretia’s spell. Instead, it lazily stretches out towards him and for a moment his magic reaches back. 

Barry stops himself. The thing laughs, he’s sure of it.

“Come then,” it tells him and Barry can sense that savage grin is once more aimed at him. “Come and claim me again, father.”

Chapter Text

Searching for the bell after feeling it recognize him is a much different prospect than his dowsing attempt. Once more he pulls his magic tight as he cautiously feels for the relic. On one hand he doesn’t need reminding of how powerful and destructive these relics can be. On the other hand, apparently he did need reminding not to wave a steak over a lion’s cage. 

Again and again, two thoughts circle around, chasing one another. 

It recognized me. It spoke to me.

One hundred years of studying the light and they’d never guessed it was capable of such a thing. 

And now, even with his defenses up and his magic held closely to him, Barry can feel the bell still reaching for him, its whispering voice brushing against his thoughts.

He can sense it trying to find a way in, trying to talk to him, all the while still scrabbling against his defenses looking for a weak spot, a chink in his mental armor that it can exploit.

“Lup,” it whispers.

Barry reacts instinctively. His magic roars forward, knocking away the bell’s fumbling fingers.

He senses laughter from the thing but there’s also surprise. It had underestimated him.

As the night wears on, it leaves him alone. They can both sense one another but there’s a wary truce for now, Barry hopes. 

Barry finds the place where the bell awaits just as the sun comes up. The forest thins out and there, nestled by a large pond, is a tiny log cabin.

The scene should have been picturesque: a cabin by the water, tucked into a perfect little clearing with a vaguely comma shaped pond, evergreens standing tall around the clearing to throw long shadows across the property in the early morning sun.

Instead it looks neglected. The view reminds him of the abandoned and extinct worlds they’d seen in their hundred years of traveling.

Smoke rises from the chimney, though, indicating it isn’t as empty as it otherwise appears. But even that small sign of habitation feels wrong, somehow.

After a moment of study, Barry realizes. The smoke is thin, tinged green, and almost certainly magical in nature. Of course the bell was found by a magic user.

No, Barry thinks, the bell found itself a magic user.

Approaching the door cautiously, Barry listens intently for voices, for any sound at all.

Readying himself for a magical attack or trap, he sees little option but to knock. Using Mage Hand, he raps on the door.

“Hey, buddy!” 

It’s the bell but the voice isn’t just in his thoughts, now. This is an audible voice, and worse, it is mimicking Magnus.

Still using Mage Hand, Barry tries the handle. It opens easily and he pushes it wide, peering inside without moving into the gloomy space that has been revealed.

“Come on in and set a spell,” the thing declares, this time in Merle’s voice.

It speaks again before Barry can respond. This time it chooses another familiar voice to call out, “Not that you can actually sit in this form, though. Right, babe?”

“Stop.”

“Aww. Don’t feel like playing, Bear?” the bell asks, still using Lup’s voice.

Stop ,” he demands again, moving into the house.

It’s a single, open room. In front of the fireplace, two people - two bodies, Barry realizes - are lying on the floor. Their hands are outstretched, reaching towards the bell where it rests on the hearth.

“You killed them.” Barry’s voice is flat, certain.

“Well, uh, I think, um, an argument could be made that, uh, you killed them,” the bell counters in Barry’s own voice. It laughs and the sound isn’t one Barry has ever made. It’s cold, emotionless, terrible. “But yeah, they were a distraction. Call it the work of both of us, if you like.”

Barry looks down again and this time the bodies are familiar. They are Selba and Gheesan. Their hands aren’t reaching for the bell but for each other.

Even though he knows it’s a trick, even if he can feel the bell playing around in his thoughts and memories, the image makes him heavy with remorse. 

“Don’t feel too badly,” it tells him, still using his voice. “I mean, I spent months with these two. They weren’t exactly prizes.” The bell pauses and when it continues it’s his mother’s voice he hears. “Not like you, my boy. Just look at you! A lich only a mother could love!” The thing chuckles then switches back to Barry’s voice. “Besides, you made me a tool for a lich. So these two? They, uh, didn’t really cut the mustard. Your fault, really. Shouldn’t have, uh, specialized so hard.”

“Well, I can stop both of us from hurting anyone again,” he says. He shakes off the image and uses his magic to pick up the bell, ready to fling it in the magical fire burning in the fireplace. “If I destroy you then there’s nothing to…” 

The bell laughs. “You know that’s not how this works,” it tells him in his voice. “Only way to stop me is to put me back together.”

Instead of the two bodies, Barry sees the floor littered with them. They are the twisted, shriveled bodies that had surrounded the light when they found it on the mushroom planet. They are the familiar faces from Legato conservatory, lifeless after they were unable to find the light. They are their own faces, turned to stone by the Judges. They are everyone they’ve ever failed to save. They are everyone they’ve doomed on this world with their relics.

“Fine. If I can’t destroy you...” Barry says. He summons his chest and throws the bell inside. Closing it, he banishes the chest. The bell’s protests are cut off as the connection to the demiplane severs. 

The relief only lasts a moment before the voice returns, this time from deep inside of him. 

“Well. Isn’t this cozy?” It laughs again, smug and awful. “Looks like you and I are gonna have lots of time to talk.”

 

—-

 

The cabin would have been a good place to use as a base but, considering the fate of the former occupants, he rules it out. Without the taunting images the bell provided, he can see how they actually look. They are not Selba and Gheesan. They are not any of the people they’d met over the years. Just two people who had the misfortune to have a terrible magical object left in the woods near their home. 

Based on their appearance, Barry suspects they’d stopped trying to care for themselves. There’s little food in the house and their bodies are thin to the point of skeletal. Maybe the bell was keeping them alive somehow.

The thought is immediately followed by an answer from the bell. 

“Well, of course I was, silly! It’s nice to be needed, isn’t it?” Then it laughs. “Oh. Well, maybe you should just take my word for that.”

Barry ignores the taunt and focuses on the corpses. He should bury them, probably. Do they have people who will come looking for them? He pokes around the house, looking for anything that might identify them or give him clues about someone that should be informed. 

After a thorough search featuring a constant stream of insults and jibes from the bell, Barry is no closer to knowing what to do for the two dead men than when he started. 

He considers the corpses again. Well, there’s one way to find out, he decides. 

Targeting the nearest of the bodies he casts Speak with Dead.

“Ohhhh,” says the bell, “that’s the good stuff! I just love a good necromancy spell, don’t you?”

He uses his magic to turn the corpse over. Blood has pooled under the skin in the man’s face while he’s lain dead on the floor. The part of him that has studied anatomy and physiology and the small amount of forensics he’s picked up immediately catalogs these factors and tells him: this man probably died eight to twelve hours ago. 

When I was in the woods, he thinks. That’s why the bell went quiet.

“Eh, I was busy,” the bell explains. It’s using Merle’s voice and Barry can picture the cleric’s exact shrug the tone would be accompanied with. “Had to get ready for company, ya know?”

Barry ignores the comment and focuses on the questions he needs to ask the corpse.

“What’s your name?”

This time it’s a very different voice that speaks up. It’s not the bell or the corpse he just cast on that answers in a thick, unfamiliar accent. 

“Well that’s just rude, innit?”

Barry whirls around to see a man in a dark hooded robe standing in the doorway. His handsome face gives a grimace of disgust. 

Kill a man with necromancy then use more of the same to ask his name? Guess that’s a lich for ya.” As he speaks, he gestures his hand out in front of him and a long, wooden staff appears in his grasp - a staff with an enormous, gleaming hooked blade atop it.

“Who are you?” Barry asks.

“Well, that’s just your question of the day, isn’t it?” He pauses and looks around, “Gotta say this isn’t the usual scene, though. A log cabin? And where’s the blood? The runes? I’d say this was your first time but I don’t have to consult my books to know - you’ve died at least twenty times! And yet I’ve never seen you report in on the Astral Plane!”

Barry doesn’t wait to ask more questions. He flees. Phasing through a wall isn’t the most pleasant sensation but compared to finding out what that scythe can do? He’ll certainly take that option.

“Oh, we’re gonna play like that are we?” the reaper calls after him. “I expect we’ll see more o’ each other!”

Chapter Text

As a lich, Barry does not sleep. He does not eat or rest or grow tired. Whenever he’d been a lich on the Starblaster, he’d still had the rest of the crew and their schedules to give his days and nights shape, to give meaning to the passage of time. 

Alone, though, time has no markers. There is no calm of winding down before bed, no ‘in the morning’ promise to hope a night’s sleep will make the situation more manageable.

Time moves forward and touches him very little. It’s all one long nightmare of Lup missing, his family scattered, evading Lucretia’s spells, avoiding the reaper, planning, searching… and the ever present voice of the bell in his head.

Or rather, his own voice speaking thoughts he can only hope are coming from the relic.

“If you’d just use me maybe you’d finally be powerful enough.”

He barely resists asking ‘powerful enough to do what?’ Engaging with the bell is what it wants, he can’t allow himself to fall into that trap. Either that or he’d just be talking to himself. Both seem bad.

Still, he’s left wondering. If he used the bell would it somehow give him enough power to find Lup? To stop Lucretia? 

“Oh, you could stop her alright. Stop her dead!” It provides him the image of Lucretia looking afraid, of the light dimming in her eyes as her soul is ripped from her body. “That’d certainly slow her down!” it cackles in his head. 

Barry pushes the image out of his mind. This is coming from the bell, he tells himself. These are not my thoughts.

After retrieving the bell, he’s returned to the barn at the burned out farmhouse. He can’t stay here much longer, he knows, but for now it’s a decent place to hide.

Or so he thinks. 

He’s studying his maps, looking for anything he and Taako might have overlooked. Four months of searching wore out all of their leads and ideas, though. The best theory they came up with was that she’d gathered her gauntlet after the last glassing. As long as no new glassings occur, that theory still holds up.

“Of course she did,” that taunting voice in his head insists. “You came and got me, after all. Except she didn’t tell you, did she?” There’s a chuckle and even just the imagined sound of it makes his disembodied form want to shiver. “Maybe she was working with that other one, the one chasing you. Or maybe she just left on purpose.”

He can’t hold back anymore. “Shut up,” Barry growls. “You’re just a malignant collection of magic, you don’t know anything about her.”

The bell chuckles again. “Maybe so, buddy, maybe so. But you made me.”

It’s quiet for a little while, leaving him to pick at that nasty thought for a while. 

Of course he’s considered that she left on purpose. How could he not? He has absolute faith in her, believes that she loves him, and would never just disappear on purpose. But... 

But even if he and Taako’s theory is correct, then she’d gone to do it alone instead of talking to either of them. That’s still a hard kernel of truth to process. Is it that much more to consider that she left on purpose?

No. No, no, no, he tells himself. Don’t go down this path. She’d talk to you first if she wanted to end things. And things were good that last night.

He doesn’t need the bell to tell him that one night of good didn’t cancel all the hard times in the months before that, all the days they were just scraping through the hours, the way they’d failed each other - the way he’d failed her - as the relics ravaged the world around them. 

Trying to push the thoughts out of his mind, he looks back at the papers spread in front of him. On a corner of the largest map sits the bell.

Barry’s form stutters backwards, lightning flaring out around him. He tamps down his magic before it can bring the barn to the same fate as the farmhouse, but doesn’t take his sight off the bell.

I didn’t put that there.

He’d summoned his chest and gotten out the maps and notes but he’d never touched the bell inside. He’d certainly not gotten it out. 

Did I?

He summons his chest and uses Mage Hand to try to pick the thing up. But instead of his magic grasping the relic, the spell-created hand goes through it just like his lich form would if he tried to grasp something. The relic disappears.

There’s nothing but an echoing laugh in his head.

I imagined it, then. But did it make me hallucinate it or did I do that myself?

There’s no time to consider it further. That problem is overtaken by a new one as he feels the searching fingers of Lucretia’s spell again. It’s like a cold wind through his lich form. Her spell won’t find the bell, he already knows. He and Taako had tried to use it to find relics. Even if it could, in a moment it will be back on the demiplane, stored in his chest, completely out of her reach.

He, however, is well within range of her grasp.

With Mage Hand he shoves the papers back into the chest and then banishes both. Then he tries the same trick that he’d used to evade her previously - pulls his magic in, making it small and compact, then imagines it as a blur, a cloud, something non-specific. 

There’s nothing else to do. Barry flees. 

 

—-

 

For now, all he can do is put distance between them. Her spell comes from one direction and he goes the other. 

At some point, he knows, he needs to set up a base of operations, someplace he can ward from detection, study his maps and notes, and plan. But he also needs a different sort of solution. He can’t simply hide away and let her work. He has to find Lup, he has to collect the relics, he has to try and help the rest of his family.

For two days he travels, continuing long after her spell ends and he can no longer sense her searching for him. He avoids populated areas, doing what he can to evade detection by anyone. He stays moving, alert. She has the ship, she can be anywhere, anytime, and track him quickly.

And for those two days the bell is in his thoughts constantly. 

“Give up,” it tells him sometimes.

“Kill her,” it suggests other times.

“Use me,” it whispers.

As night settles, Barry takes a respite. He pauses outside an abandoned church. It reminds him of the one Merle founded in Fungston. The sight of the crumbling building drops his mood even further. Nearly a hundred years have passed since that cycle on the planet full of mushrooms. They’d gotten the light out that year but what has happened to those people in the time since? Are they still struggling against the spore onslaught?

Inside this church, the place has been emptied of valuables either before the people who used it moved on or since then by looters. There’s no town nearby. Why build a house of worship so far from potential parishioners? 

The bell offers terrible explanations, thoughts that are accompanied with images both horrible and grisly. Barry tries to ignore these and focus on his surroundings. There are no stained glass windows like there’d been in the churches he remembers from home. There are only small openings with shards of glass outlining them to indicate where light would have shone through in the daytime, how they would have lit the space when it was in use. The remaining bits of glass are thick, wavy, lending another touch of antiquity to the forlorn appearance.

Barry studies these details carefully. He needs this distraction from the constant awful input coming from the bell. (He still hopes it’s from the bell, at least.) He needs something to focus on besides the threat of Lucretia finding him, the possibility of the reaper finding him again, and the terrible thought he’s been struggling to avoid: what if the reaper found Lup?

There are papers on the floor but they are sun-faded and disintegrating, the words they might have once held impossible to make out. With his magic he sends a small gust of air through the place and watches the papers take flight, dance on the wind as they tear apart. When the spell ends, the fragments settle to the ground once more, falling like snow onto the rough wooden planks. 

He thinks again of the people of Fungston who set out every day to fight back the encroaching mushrooms. They were struggling constantly just to maintain their foothold and yet they’d embraced Merle’s teachings of Pan with relish. They’d used their spare time to build the First Church of Fungston. He has to believe that even now, after fighting the Hunger, after a century of burning back the mushrooms, that they still endure.

He will as well.

Chapter Text

For weeks, Barry’s time is an endless cycle of interruptions and distractions. It’s nearly impossible to even study his maps, much less actually search for Lup or the relics. He runs into the reaper again. Lucretia’s searching spell sweeps through the area, sending him running once more. 

And constantly he is subjected to intrusive thoughts from the bell. 

It’s wearing on him and he knows it. 

There is a small, quiet part of him that understands the bell is only doing exactly what they figured out the light wanted. It wants to be sought after and used. Being trapped in his chest on the demiplane is preventing that. An even smaller and nearly silent part of him knows that because he made it, it has perfect insight into how best to manipulate him. Him being a lich might even make that more intense. It has constant access to the very essence of him with no distractions or limitations for physical needs. On top of that is the fact that he is literally composed of magic which, he theorizes, gives the bell an even more direct line of communication.

Barry tries to keep the thought small, buried deep inside of him, but he is beginning to suspect he cannot continue to keep the bell.

 

—-

 

There is a place Barry Bluejeans doesn’t have to hide. Among the warlocks, necromancers, and others who deal in dark magics and cursed objects, his appearance is an asset. It marks him as one of them. In back rooms and shadowy shops, he still fits in, his lich form isn’t exactly normal but it’s not questioned. 

Even the bell is quieter while he is among them. Perhaps it’s gathering information just like he is but he’ll take whatever respite he can get. 

He visits these places randomly, avoiding any sort of pattern that might be tracked. There are shops and gathering places scattered across the continent that he can drop in on. A little bit of gold from the stores he’d built up over the years helps keep information flowing.

It’s in the latest of these that he hears an ancient, heavily accented voice say, “You’re… different.”

Barry looks up at sound, still parsing the words as he sees where the voice has come from. A shrouded figure in black and purple robes, heavy with embroidery and detailing, seems to be the one who has spoken. They are definitely looking at him. It doesn’t take much to sense the extremely potent and old power roiling from the being.

“I suppose so,” Barry answers noncommittally. 

The hood dips as if the person has bowed his head slightly. 

The tomes Barry had been inspecting are entirely forgotten. They’d only been a ruse while he listened to conversations around him anyway. This much power beside him is palpable. And yet, only a moment ago he’d been entirely unaware.

A nearly skeletal hand extends from the sleeve of the robe and passes a small orb to Barry. He accepts it with Mage Hand and waits for explanation.

“You interest me,” that creak of a voice pronounces. “I sense interest from you. Use that tomorrow evening.”

Barry spares a glance at the small object he’s been handed - like glass with something purple and swirling inside - and back up to find the figure has disappeared. He looks around and no one around him seems to react in any way. 

Clutching the orb carefully, he leaves. He doesn’t know what the object is so he will not risk placing it in his chest with the bell. Instead he finds a quiet, secret place to spend the daylight hours, and considers the object.

The bell holds itself silent through the day. Barry senses it regarding the orb as well but there’s little he can do to prevent to observations of the relic. 

By the time night falls again, Barry has decided two things. One: the glass object contains a spell that will likely cast itself upon destruction of the container. Two: he’s going to use it.

 

—-

 

Before the cloud of magic clears, Barry is transported. The spell is clean, elegant even. There’s no discernable moment between standing in the field where he chose to break the orb and the moment he is deep within some stone walled dwelling. The room is bare stone everywhere, not so much as a rug or candle to be seen. He turns, and there, perched on the only piece of furniture the room holds, is the lich he’d seen the previous evening. That he is a lich is obvious now as he lounges in the high back chair with his hood down. But his appearance is far different from Barry’s or Lup’s. 

“You came,” the lich states simply. His mouth barely moves in his mummified face and Barry thinks this explains the strangely ancient creaking quality his voice has.

Barry simply nods. 

“What is your name?”

“Barry. Yours?”

The lich makes a rasping sound Barry interprets as a chuckle. He raises his arm and tosses the hand back regally, fingers curled precisely. The gesture seems as if it should be captured in an oil painting, the preservation of some forgotten aristocracy.

“I am called ‘Olga’zar’ these days, I believe. I no longer recall my original name.” He shrugs and drops the hand back to the arm of the throne-like seat. 

Olga’zar rises and a carved staff topped with a glowing red jewel appears in his hand. He steps down from the low dias on which the chair resides and gestures for Barry to follow. “Walk with me,” he commands. Then, tilting his head, he adds, “though I don’t suppose you ‘walk’ precisely, do you?” There’s another noise that Barry can only construe as a sound of amusement before Olga’zar simply says, “Curious,” before turning and walking through an opening that appears in front of him.

Seeing no other option, he complies, drifting behind the corporeal lich. “Is there something you wanted?” Barry asks. He’d come hoping for information that might lead to one of the relics but this matter must be discussed first. 

“You interest me,” Olga’zar answers. “And I have not found anything interesting in a very long time.”

Barry has no response to this comment. Instead, he can only consider what Lup would think of this lich. She’d be delighted, he decides. And she’d probably want to adopt him as a weird, creepy uncle. The thought would make him smile if he had the means to form the expression.

“You have no phylactery,” Olga’zar states as the hallway they’d been in opens to an enormous dining hall. A long table is laid with two place settings. Goblets stand beside each plate, condensation forming on their jewel encrusted sides. “Forgive me for such crass discussion but the fact is clear.”

“No,” Barry answers. “Not exactly.”

Olga’zar settles himself at the head of the table. “Verisimilitude,” he says with another artfully posed gesture, this time indicating the waiting place setting to his right. “As long as it has been since my interest was piqued, it must be far longer since I entertained. The idea appealed to me despite it’s irrelevance.”

Thousands of times, Barry had settled himself at a table with his family while he was incorporeal. The time that comes to mind as he drifts into place at Olga’zar’s table is the time Lucretia stood at the sink and sang something no one else could hear, the time Lup looked at him with a mix of fear and betrayal. The memory makes his magic churn and crackle though his control holds tightly enough that no lightning erupts from him.

He looks up from the place setting in front of him to find Olga’zar regarding him over his wine. 

“Emotions” Olga’zar pronounces. “How quaint. Yet your control is impressive.” He swirls his cup and watches as the liquid forms a tiny whirlpool. Finally, he puts the goblet down and leans back. “Interesting,” he states again. “Would you tell me your story?”

And for a reason Barry couldn’t begin to explain, he does.

The story Barry shares is one he’s never told. There are aspects to it he’s shared over the years; the closest is the version he and Lup told Selba and Gheesan so long ago. This is a much shorter telling and the focus this time is on becoming liches.

When he finishes, Olga’zar laughs. It’s a disconcerting sound accompanied by even more unsettling physical movements, as if the lich no longer remembers how to process such a feeling. “A lich for love!” he declares. “After millenia, finally I am witness to something new!”

When the lich’s delight wears off, he regards Barry once more. A grin has spread across his withered face, making him appear even more skeletal. “You. Are. Fascinating.”

 

—-

 

They speak of many things. It’s clear Olga’zar has had little contact with the outside world in the last few decades. 

His reaction when Barry mentioned the reaper that has been trailing him is a laughing sort of incredulity as if an emissary of the Raven Queen holds no more threat to him than a worm on a hot sidewalk. There are tricks, he tells Barry, to avoiding detection.

By the time Barry leaves - via another of the lich’s teleportation spells - he’s gained, if not an ally then an associate. Olga’zar seems completely board of existence, tired of the pursuit of knowledge and power, disinterested in any of the paths his eternal existence provides him. The call of the relics doesn’t seem to touch him at all. The only thing that draws his interest at all is the novelty of something new, something like Barry himself and his self appointed task.

He hopes, in the future, to learn the tricks he might use to avoid the reaper, especially if they will help him evade Lucretia as well. 

For now, though, he has gained one new thing from his meeting with the ancient lich; there’s an auction soon catering to their kind. It’s the best chance to encounter a relic that he’s had. 

Nestled in his thoughts, the bell laughs. It had been silent through the encounter with Olga’zar and now it feels as if it has buried itself even deeper in Barry’s psyche. 

I can’t keep it much longer, Barry realizes once more.

"Awww," the bell responds, catching the thought. "But we make such a good pair!"

Chapter Text

The walls around Barry shimmer with magical power. The structure he’s in is nearly all illusion and what isn't an illusion is heavily magicked to evade detection or, as he guesses when he finds his attention settling too long on a run of the mill selection of arcane items, make the goods on offer more enticing.

The auction is in the middle of nowhere. Those invited were given a sort of magical access code that let them see through the protective magics surrounding the event and pass inside.

When he and Lup were researching becoming liches, they met all manor of powerful beings both living and un living. But they never encountered such a gathering as this. 

The group assembled here would be a remarkable find for the reaper.

Still, as he wanders the space he can’t help but feel he’s back in one of the hundreds of flea markets they visited over dozens of planes. Only instead of tables full of dented cans of vegetables that Taako always deemed the “used groceries” section, worn paperbacks, or dusty collectibles, these tables offer arcane devices, rare magical tomes, and whatever else warlocks, necromancers, and other shady dealers might offer. It’s exactly the sort of place he and Lup could have spent hours wandering around, discussing everything and everyone they saw. The thought is both sweet and awful, echoing in the terrible hole left in her absence.

“She’d be here if you weren’t such an awful bore,” the bell tells him. “I’ve only been around you a few weeks and I’m bored to tears!”

Barry doesn’t respond to the goad.

Ahead, he catches sight of Olga’zar. The lich approaches through the crowd, disdainfully peering at the items on display, his withered face looking so bored he might turn to dust simply from being required to observe anything further in the space. A flash of relief crosses his ancient countenance when he spots Barry.

He beckons Barry over with one of those artistically posed gestures; his movement is all arched wrist and perfectly spaced and curved fingers moving like a waterfall. 

“Hello,” Barry greets him. He knows this sort of lich didn’t get to his current state through non-violent means but the last thing he needs is another enemy. For now he will warily accept Olga’zar as a temporary ally. 

“Barry,” the other man greets him. “Have you found anything worth such extremes of protective nonsense?” he asks, glancing around. 

Barry shakes his head. “I’ve only just arrived,” he explains. Olga’zar’s judgment doesn’t leave him much room for optimism, though. Even someone as ancient and powerful as he is should at least find the relics worth mentioning if they were here.

“Such a needless display of power to sell silly trinkets,” Olga’zar scoffs.

Barry doesn’t comment, just continues looking around. He doesn’t feel the pull from any of the relics or see any evidence that anyone else does either. But it’s worth looking around nonetheless. 

“Are you going to tell me what you’re looking for?” 

“Items my friends made,” he answers evasively. 

Olga’zar chuckles. “Keep your secrets. For now, you are entertaining enough.”

Barry senses the warning in the comment. Olga’zar may appear as docile as a pet cat with little more to worry about than a minor scratch or bite, but he’s survived for thousands of years and much of that time was spent accumulating power from unwilling sources. 

Giving him a slight nod, Barry moves away from his new friend and returns to inspecting the objects for sale. 

“He’s going to kill you.” 

Barry almost looks around. The observation is stated so flatly that it takes a moment to recognize the source of the toneless ‘warning.’ It’s the bell.

Maybe, he thinks. 

“He will. He’ll kill you and then he’ll use me.” The bell’s disinterest fades as it reaches the bit concerning itself and it laughs. “Lots to look forward to!” it teases.

He can’t get to you, Barry tells it with a thought. 

“He’ll figure it out,” the bell answers. “And I’ll help!”

There’s no way for Barry to know if this is likely but given Olga’zar’s power and age it certainly strikes him as possible. 

“Oh, darling! I haven’t seen this model in centuries! ” a voice behind him loudly proclaims.

“I have to admit the red is a bit more fun than black. But why is it always robes?” another voice responds imperiously.

Barry turns to see a pair of elves dressed in matching colors, their ostentatious outfits contrasting one another showily. They would stand out among this crowd even if they didn’t have a pair of spotlights on them. Which they do. A light glides above each of them like a personal cloud. As Barry looks, the lights shift color. The only thing missing is an upbeat musical soundtrack. 

“So dreary,” the female elf agrees. 

She smooths a hand down her own gown and as she moves her hand over the sparkling bodice of purple and blue sequins the colors shift to pink and green. All four colors are represented in sections of her gauzy, flouncy skirt and the matching frills erupting from the shoulders of the fitted upper part of the dress. It reminds Barry of a long ago cycle that had heavily valued beauty contests for young children. This elf’s dress is precisely the sort they’d have featured on a baton twirling toddler. 

Though even then there’d have been half the colors. 

The male elf with her is wearing a fitted coat made of the same color changing sequins, with a ruffled shirt matching his companion’s skirt peering out from the dramatically V shaped opening of outer garment. His pants are the same colorfully sequined material as her bodice and his jacket, making the pair the most - and only - sparklingly outfitted people in the whole place. 

The pair continue their judging inspection of him and Barry is about to leave when he notices the large object behind them. 

“Oh, you’ve a good eye, at least. I’d speculate two of them, though it’s difficult to tell with this whole look you’re sporting,” the male elf tells him, stepping forward. “All the more reason for you to need our … device.

“Oh, yes! This could be exactly the thing you’ve been looking for!” the female elf adds, moving to stand beside her companion. 

Barry wonders if they are siblings. Are elf twins rare here, he wonders? He spent a hundred years with Lup and Taako but they were frozen at the same age for most of it. To his inexpert human eye this pair could be twins. Or it could just be the ever present thoughts of Lup coloring his opinions to make a pair of elves into a showy mockery of the twins he knows and misses desperately.

“It was certainly helpful to us for a time,” she continues. Her tone is still that of a sales pitch but she’s leaning forward conspiratorially, her hand raised beside her mouth as if she’s whispering a secret to him instead of still talking loudly enough for anyone in the vicinity to hear. “Before we upgraded, so to speak.”

“It’s certainly more convenient than…” the male elf pauses, looking Barry up and down before he continues, “...being incomporeal.”

“Having a body does come with lots of advantages!” his possible sister agrees. She winks at Barry with a grin. “Am I right?” 

“Oh, Lydia, he might not even remember anymore!” the male says, pulling his face into an exaggeration of sadness. 

“All the more reason to have one again!” Lydia counters quickly. “Tell him how it works, Edward!”

As requested, Edward begins going over the details of the pod. “As I believe you’ve deduced,” he explains with a knowing wink to Barry, “the tank takes a simple fluid mixture, a modified spell, and a sample from the donor of your choice and…” he pauses dramatically before revealing, “tada! Creates a body ready for possession!”

“And none of that pesky waiting for it to reach your target age, either! Whatever state the body was in - complete right down to scars, hair, and everything - will be recreated perfectly.” Lydia adds.

“With a large enough original sample, you can create dozens of identical bodies!” Edward says. “This model produces a fully formed and ready to occupy body in just twelve weeks!”

“What sort of sample does it use?” Barry asks.

“Well, blood is always good,” Edward tells him. “But hair, saliva, any sort of tissue…”

“Almost anything that links to one specific person…” Lydia interrupts.

“Or creature, if that’s your bag!” Edward interjects. 

“Or creature!” Lydia agrees. “Just scrape a bit of skin, collect a few cells, whatever you like, this thing can handle it.”

“How much?” Barry asks.

“You can’t afford it,” the bell tells him with a snickering laugh. 

“Oh, who can put a price tag on a prize like this?” Edward asks.

“We’ve had lots of offers!” Lydia tells him, once again leaning forward to faux-share a secret. “So make yours and see if you can beat them!”

“I’ll be back,” Barry promises, backing away from her before turning to go.

“Do hurry!” Lydia calls after him.

“A chance like this doesn’t come around very often!” Edward adds.

 

—-

 

He has to have it. 

In a body he’d be unable to be tracked by Lucretia. He’d likely be off the reaper’s radar as well. 

This device could let him accomplish so much. 

But that duo seem uninterested in money.

There’s only one thing he has that would certainly close the deal: the bell. 

Catching the thought, the bell pipes up, “Oh, no! You and me? Part ways? How can you even consider such a thing when we’ve just been reunited?”

Despite the bell’s dramatic statement, he can sense it’s interest in the plan. 

The drawback of course, is the thought of the bell in their hands. Leaving it in the woods for someone to find was hard enough. Directly handing it over to a pair who clearly already have power of their own? What kind of terrible things could they do with the relic in their control?

“Exactly!” the bell answers him. “We should stick together. Imagine the kinds of things we could do, you and me!” The bell offers him images of exactly what they could accomplish.

Powered by the bell he could destroy Lucretia. He could destroy everything. He could level mountains, drain the oceans, rip apart the entire world.

If he used the bell, he’d have enough power to find Lup.

Of course, he thinks. How did I not see that sooner? With the relic’s power I could boost the searching spell enough to find her anywhere. I could…

“Sure!” the bell agrees. “Let’s do it! We can have her found in no time! Instead of those chumps it can be the three of us! Imagine what we can do together!”

And for a moment, Barry does. He can see it. Lup found. He and Lup together could fix this whole mess, especially if they had the power of the…

“No.”

He says it out loud and a few heads turn slightly towards him. Moving past them, he finds a quiet space.

No, he thinks at the bell. He’s filled with disgust at the thought he’d actually considered it for a moment. 

“Wouldn’t it be worth it?” the bell asks. “To find her?”

For another terrible moment, Barry can’t help but consider it. What if she’s hurt? What if she’s in danger? If she’s suffering and he could help, doesn’t he owe her that? Isn’t that worth anything?

He’s summoning his chest before he realizes, nearly has the opening large enough when he thinks of Lup’s face every time a new relic report came in, every time they heard news of the objects being used.

Using the bell is impossibly tempting but if he started would he be able to stop? 

Closing the tear he’s opened between him and the demiplane where his chest resides is one of the hardest things he’s done. It feels like he’s choosing not to find Lup.

If I used the bell… He can see it all too clearly. He’d never stop. Once he’d used the relic, it would be even easier to keep using it, to use it to go after Lucretia, to use it to try to fix everything that’s been done. And then who would be in control? Him? The bell? Could Lup stop him? Would he become the threat?

He has to get the bell out of his reach if only to keep from using it himself. 

 

—-

 

“I have something I think you’ll be interested in.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” Lydia answers, posing in her spotlight. “I have to say this auction has been dreadfully boring so far.”

“Hardly worth the bother,” Edward agrees.

Barry summons his chest. Edward and Lydia move forward, bending to see better. When he uses Mage Hand to pull the bell out, he can sense their eagerness as much as the bell’s.

“Deal,” Lydia says simply, reaching for the bell.

“It’s yours,” Edward agrees, grasping it first.

Barry forces his spell hand to open and relinquish the relic to the pair. Something in him rages forward, wanting to snatch the bell back. 

He watches it as Edward inspects it.

“We had a deal!” a voice complains. “That pod was mine!”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Lydia responds, her own attention never leaving the bell. “We have another, of course. Did you think we’d take turns?”

The crowd around them has begun to press forward, all attention on the relic. Edward tucks it away in his own secret spell storage. 

The bell is gone. The incessant stream of thoughts and images he hadn’t realized were all coming from it have vanished. In its absence, the silence is a welcome relief. He’s been teetering on the edge for so long it feels unreal to have his mental balance so much restored. 

Hold on, Lup, he thinks. And please forgive me.

“Did you buy something?” Olga’zar asks.

“Yeah,” Barry answers. “A cloning tank.”

“Mmmm,” Olga’zar answers without interest. 

The two of them watch the pair of elves argue with a hooded figure. 

As Barry leaves the security of the protection spells around the auction with his new acquisition, he feels Lucretia’s spell pass over him again. The chill wind is almost a relief. Yes, she’s found him again. But soon he’ll be able to hide from her completely. 

He’s not sure he made the right decision. But he knows he made the only choice he could.

Forgive me, Lup, he thinks again. I swear I’ll never stop, not until I find you.

Chapter Text

Barry prepares for his first body as thoroughly as he can. He’s facing a lot of unknowns. What memories will Lucretia have left him? Will this keep him off her radar? Can his body be trusted to follow the directions he leaves?

Focusing on the procedure and the questions that await him when he is in a body doesn’t keep his thoughts from anxiously circling his decision to relinquish the bell. 

Again and again he asks himself: was he really about to use the relic? If he had, would it have been so catastrophic? And the question that tears him apart: if he’d used the Animus Bell, would he have been able to find Lup? Wasn’t that worth anything ?

He knows the days he spent with the bell had increasingly clouded his thoughts, made planning nearly impossible. But without its constant stream of awfulness in his head, all he can think is that he should have been stronger. What the fuck was he thinking? He handed it over to two powerful beings. Considering the cloning tank he got from them, the pair had almost certainly been liches. And based on what it had told him before, when he’d created the Animus Bell, he’d accidentally tailored its powers specifically for liches.

In his chest - the magically hidden trunk that had briefly housed the bell - are the clothes he took from his fallen body. The dried blood from his clothing is more than enough to make dozens of bodies.

And tucked into the pocket of his robe is the most precious thing he possesses: Lup’s note, sealed with a kiss. And, most importantly, it contains enough of a sample to create a body for Lup if he finds her.

When, he corrects himself. When I find her, if she’s a lich, then we’ll be able to recreate her body, too.

 

—-

 

He decides to set himself a limited test. He can only hope his living self will follow his directions. There’s no way for him to guess what extent his memories will have been affected. His biggest fear right now is that his body will go off, memoryless, and until he dies he - the Barry inside who knows his purpose - will be powerless. 

He leaves directions for himself carefully. Mostly this will be a test of what memories Lucretia has left him but maybe if he’s around people he’ll overhear something that will be useful, something about Lup or the relics or Lucretia or where she’s hidden the Starblaster.

It’s hard to decide how long his test should run. He desperately hates the time cost but it’s unavoidable. This is information he has to learn. And what of the tank? Should he leave instructions for his body to begin a new body growing? It would cut down on the amount of time he will lose to this test but what if he does something wrong with the procedure and the tank is out of commission for even longer than his test period? What if while his body is gone, Lucretia finds his hide out and sees the growing body. That would confirm absolutely who has been using this space. What if his body doesn’t return as he instructs? What if the tank sits for years before he’s able to return. He can barely keep himself together. His edges are unraveling just considering that thought.

It’s terrible, adds even more time to the months he’ll be losing to this test - the body he’s already had to wait to create, the time it will take afterwards to create another - but he decides he can’t risk leaving the tank in use.

Two months. He’ll tell his body to come back here in two months. And then hopefully he’ll have a better idea of what he can expect in future excursions in a body. 

It’s strange, planning to kill himself, or rather, hoping to trick his body into killing itself. After so many mishaps while they sought the light it would now be terrible if he somehow managed to live a long and accident free life. So now he has to hope his body is convinced to come back and drink poison - not that he was making this part clear. 

Eventually he’s done all the preparation he can and it is time to put it to the test. He pauses one more moment and gives a quick prayer to anyone who might be listening: Merle’s nature god, Davenport’s traveler’s winds, Lup, wherever she is… then after a final check of his preparations he climbs into the tank. 

 

—-

 

Barry’s college experiences weren’t exactly the rowdy drinking and fraternity shenanigans that he’d heard about from others in his classes, but upon waking up floating naked in a tank of greenish fluid, his first thought is that somehow that fact has changed.

Except college had been a long time ago.

Barry climbs out and looks around. There are clothes and a pair of glasses laid out on a small chest. The glasses are very similar to the ones he’s always worn but with a few small differences - slightly more squared corners, thinner arms, and when he tries them on, they sit just a little bit differently on his face. But at least he can see.

He keeps staring at his surroundings as he begins pulling on clothes that are just as familiar-but-not-quite as the glasses. Dear gods, is he in a mausoleum? What the hell is going on?

A voice speaks and he jumps, looking around. There is no one that he can see and the stone crypts leave no room for anyone to hide. Or… it isn’t someone in one of the…? No, impossible.

The sound seems to be coming from the pants he’s just pulled on. Barry fishes in pockets that sit just a little wrong compared to his expectations. He digs a small silver coin out of a pocket of the bluejeans and inspects it. Something about the coin is hard to look at; there is a strange wavering to the shapes etched into it. 

And it is speaking to him.

“I know nothing makes sense right now,” a familiar voice says from the coin. “And I realize this is a frustrating response to such a confusing situation but: you will have all of the answers soon, I promise. You just have a little bit of work to do first. Leave here and head east. In about a day’s walk you will come to a town. You need to find some kind of work there. It doesn’t matter what it is - just something in town where you can keep your head down and your ears open for information. In…” the voice pauses for a moment, “In two months, two months from today, come back here and bring this coin. You’ll get your final instructions and then everything… everything will be clear and make sense again. I promise. And you might wonder why you should trust a voice on a coin but I think if you ask yourself, you’ll realize you just do.

The coin goes silent then and Barry takes the suggestion it has offered. He asks himself if he trusts the voice on the coin, if he trusts its instructions. 

He does. He couldn’t explain why a mysterious coin speaking in his voice inspires trust, but it does. 

That same part of him that has given him inarguable direction over the years insists on it, in fact. 

Okay then, he decides, When nothing makes sense and you have no other options… follow the mysterious coin’s directions, I guess. He is in a mausoleum with absolutely zero idea how he’s gotten into such a situation. So… follow the most reasonable path, collect data, and form theories as information presents itself.

A pair of boots are waiting neatly beside the exit. They are even less what he is used to than the clothes or glasses, but they seemed to be the only option. When he finishes dressing, he looks around once more, searching for anything useful he might have missed. Seeing nothing that might help towards either understanding why he was here or where he is going, he pushes open the heavy vault door. As he moves into the sunshine the coin in his pocket gives him another instruction. 

“Oh, and try to make sure this place still looks abandoned and empty when you leave, okay? Those answers I promised are going to work out a lot better if no one discovers this place.”

Barry steps outside. He is disappointed but unsurprised to find himself in a cemetery. Like the crypt he’s just emerged from, it is in an impressive state of abandonment. From the outside though, the appearance of decay and advancement of overgrowth is far greater. There’s no evidence of anyone passing through here recently at all which certainly brought into further question his own presence. Tall weeds obstruct the entrance. How had anyone used this passage?

He looks at the sky. A strange feeling of unfamiliarity passes over him but considering the day he’s having so far it barely seems noteworthy.

Okay , he considers. It seems to be morning from the slant of light and the temperature but… he realizes he has no idea what time of year, elevation, or latitude he might be, though, so who knows how accurate those assumptions are.

Well. At any rate, he has a day’s walk ahead of him according to the coin-voice. Might as well get going.

 

—-

 

By the afternoon he can see a town in the distance. He passes fields where farmers are busy planting. The temperature is warm but not oppressive and the walk is as pleasant as an unexpected journey that began with a wake up in a crypt could turn out to be.

He’s pretty sure this is the town the voice intended. If it isn’t he has no way of knowing. He hopes it doesn’t matter. Mostly he hopes he can find his way back to that crypt in a couple months. He’s pretty sure he’ll manage that part without difficulty though.

As he enters town, the sun is slipping low on the horizon. It is still early enough that most of the businesses on the main road are still open. A young woman is making her way down the street. She’s using a ladder and a long pole affixed with an angled torch to light the street lamps that dot the street like an overabundance of punctuation in a sentence.

She seems as likely a possibility for information as anyone else. He approaches and waits to catch her attention until just as she steps safely off her ladder.

“Excuse me,” Barry calls, “I’ve just arrived in town and was wondering if you know any place that might be hiring?”

She looks at him with a mild suspicion but there’s no hostility in her manner. 

“I’m just here for a few months,” he adds. “Then I have another gig lined up.”

She chews her lip for a moment. He has just about decided she’s not going to answer when she responds with a thick accent.

“Reckon yeh kin try the inn,” she offers. “Last fellar Tex had left a few weeks ago.” She hefts her ladder back onto her shoulder and gestures down the road with her chin. Then she turns her back to him, leaving him scrambling out of the way of the ladder, and makes her way on up the road without acknowledging his ‘thank you.’

The inn. Okay. I’m not sure what I’d be suited to do for a job at the inn but there doesn’t seem to be much call for a…

Huh. 

That thought was a bit hard to finish. 

A scientist. I’m a scientist. 

He can’t really recall where he’s been working recently though. The thought is like a glass wall: smooth and slippery with no handholds to get a grip on; no opening he can climb into. It just slides away cleanly. Huh, indeed. 

He continues down the road and enters the inn. A man in his mid-forties greets him at the sound of the bell over the door. 

Barry’s attention catches on the bell for a moment as he closes the door. He winces in anticipation of… something.

The man approaches and touches him gently on the shoulder, startling him out of his dazed stare at the small and completely average object. Dressed similarly to Barry, he’s stocky with broad shoulders and dark hair that is speckled with grey in his close trimmed beard.

“Sorry,” Barry says, offering the man an apologetic smile. “Lost in thought, I guess.”

“I know the feeling,” the man offers kindly. “So, how can I help you? Do you need a room?”

“No,” Barry answers, then amends, “Well, actually, yes, but… uh, I was told you might be hiring?”

“Oh,” the man answers. He looks down and smooths his blue plaid shirt, fussing with the buttons for a moment. “I hadn’t really decided. The last time…” his gaze avoids Barry and settles on the door, “didn’t work out so well.”

Barry stuffs his hands into his pockets although he knows there’s nothing in them except for the strange speaking coin.

“Well, I’ll be honest with you,” he offers. “I’m a bit limited on options. I’m, well, I’m kind of stuck here in town for a few months until, uh, until I have to be elsewhere. So, if you know of any place that might need someone…” he rubs the back of his neck and is unpleasantly shocked at the pain the movement generates. He walked all day in the sun and has gotten burned. 

The man looks him over for a moment before dropping his shoulders with a shrug. “I’ll tell you what. How about you come on back and,” he interrupts himself, “Are you hungry? I’ve just laid out supper and since the rooms are all empty at the moment I’ve got a bit of a surplus. We can talk and maybe… maybe we can sort something out.”

“Are you sure?” Barry asks, “You’re kind to offer but..” As he says this an enormous rumble comes from his stomach. As well as a day outside without protection from the sun, he’s had a long walk without food. He’d found a decent enough stream that followed his direction for a while. It had kept him from getting dehydrated but his wilderness skills hadn’t covered edible plants enough for him to feel comfortable foraging. They’d all seemed unfamiliar and he’d been unwilling to risk it.

The man gives a loud, booming laugh that gives his features life and takes ten years off his face. It elevates him from a soft sort of tired, rough, minor kind of handsome to a low dazzle of attractive. 

“Friend,” he tells Barry, “I think you’ve been outvoted on formality.” He offers his hand. “I’m Frank but most folks around here call me Tex. I’m not fussy about the particularities so have your pick.”

“I’m Sil…” he starts in response but it feels wrong in his mouth for some reason. “Eh, call me Barry. That’s how my friends know me.” These words feel right even if his brain lags behind on the reasoning.

Frank leads him past the stairs and through a sizable dining room made up with seven small tables and a long sideboard where he assumes food is served buffet style to guests. Frank pushes open a swinging door and steps back to give Barry space to enter first.

As Barry steps forward into the kitchen he’s frozen for a moment. The smells in the room hit him with an imprecise pang of familiarity that squeezes his throat and settles itself into a deep and immeasurable weight in his chest. All day during his long walk to town he’s noticed this weight. In this room it has grown crushing.

“Have a seat over at the table, Barry,” Frank says behind him.

Barry realizes he’s standing awkwardly in front of the other man, lost in thought for pretty much the second time in as many minutes. He moves over to the table, feeling strangely guilty as he takes a seat. The table is set for one person but the food is suited to a larger group - perhaps a half dozen. 

A heaping plate of roasted potatoes, flecked handsomely with herbs and glistening with butter is closest to him and he finds himself thinking of graceful hands making quick work cutting the vegetables. The image is like a reflection on water, hard to understand and impossible to grasp. 

He shrugs away the strange idea and focuses on Frank as the man lays a plate, knife, and fork in front of him on the table.

“Help yourself,” Frank offers. “I’m going to grab the tea from the icebox. Unless you’d prefer coffee?”

“Whichever is easier,” Barry tells him. “I appreciate the hospitality.”

Frank walks back across the kitchen to a wooden box raised up on legs. He opens the top and pulls out a pitcher then grabs two heavy pottery mugs from the drain board by the sink. He brings them to the table, pouring clear brown liquid into mugs for each of them before sitting across from Barry at the place setting that had been waiting.

Frank cuts a few slices from the large baked chicken in front of him then scoops some of each of the side dishes onto the plate. He holds the plate out to Barry and offers, “Switch plates?”

Barry hands his empty plate over and takes the food laden one in exchange. There’s chicken, a large helping of potatoes, a small scoop of fresh cucumbers cut into thick coins and soaked in vinegar, and a steaming piece of cornbread with pieces of corn and onion baked into it.

Barry thanks the man and picks up his fork. He spears a chunk of potato and puts it into his mouth. It’s crispy outside and steamy and soft inside. It and everything else he tries is delicious. “Thank you,” he offers again. “Your food is just wonderful. I, uh, I can’t remember the last time I tasted anything so good,” he adds honestly.

“Thank you,” Frank says with a smile. He cuts a piece of the chicken on his own plate and tastes it for himself. “It did come out rather nice for a simple meal.”

The two men eat in companionable silence for several moments before Frank asks, “So, what brings you to the area?”

“I’m just passing through,” Barry answers between bites. “Just, uh, here for a couple months until the next thing on my schedule,” he explains as truthfully as he can. It’s not like he really has much more information himself, he rationalizes.

“How many is a couple?” Frank asks. “Two? Three? Longer?”

“Two, yeah,” Barry tells him. He pauses to take a long swallow of the cool tea. It’s sweet and delicious, the cup already dotted with condensation like the jug Frank had brought from the ice box.

Frank taps his fork on the edge of his plate, looking thoughtful.

“What sort of skills do you have to offer?”

Barry looks at Frank. “Well, I’m not sure how useful any of my skills might be to you but I’m willing to try my hand at most things,” Barry looks around. “I can help cook or clean, run errands, and I know a bit about keeping books and doing repairs… What do you have in mind?”

“Well,” Frank offers, “It’s coming on summer and things will be picking up a bit around here. I suppose there’s some sprucing up and heavy cleaning that it would be good to have a hand on. I reckon we can work something out for a few days and if that goes well enough then a few months would be fine.”

 

—-

 

Later that evening, Barry is lying in a soft bed, in clean borrowed clothes, with a cool pillow and a full belly. Despite the inexplicable start to the day and the many questions that swirl in his brain but infuriatingly won’t organize themselves into cohesive thoughts, Barry realizes how well things have worked out here with Frank. He should be satisfied with the developments.

Yet the word that keeps presenting itself at the forefront of his mind is “lonely.” 

This makes no sense. Barry has been on his own for the bulk of his life. He was an only child to a loving but busy mother after his father died when he was very young. He pursued learning rather than friendships and hasn’t had close ties since losing his mother shortly after graduating. He is utterly used to being on his own. So why does he feel so abandoned? Why does he feel as if some vital part of his life is missing?

It’s the feeling he had after his mother died. Those first days, walking around the house he’d grown up in, seeing her coffee cup in the sink or her quilt folded on the couch, he’d felt a weight of loss sitting on him, making breathing hard. Now feels like that did but multiplied exponentially. 

Barry is also not used to having so little control over his thoughts. They seem to dance and skitter away from him and refuse to be organized into lists or theories or any of his usual methods for solving problems. So much makes no sense but just dissolves when he tries to examine the inconsistencies. Why is he in the middle of nowhere? He’d had a job… but the thought won’t let him pursue it. The closest he can get to that thought is to worry that his new inability to focus has lead to the end of his career. But there’s just nothing there to confirm or deny this idea, just that inexplicable thing in his chest insisting that something is missing. 

Well, honestly, though, what isn’t missing? Barry wonders.

Eventually the long day of walking and hearty meal catches up to him and pulls him down into sleep.

Chapter Text

Barry is up early the next morning. He tidies the room Frank has offered as part of their agreement and makes himself presentable in more borrowed clothes. 

Downstairs Frank is already at work in the kitchen. He gestures Barry towards waiting tray of warm, buttered biscuits before returning to a sink full of dishes. 

“Thanks again for the clothes,” Barry says as he helps himself to a biscuit.

“Glad they worked out for you! After I get done here, I’ll check with Ellis over at the post office. He’s got a crush on the new doctor and started spending all his time walking to the other side of town for ‘deliveries.’ All that walking has really had him dropping the weight. I think he’s got some stuff that’d fit you.”

Barry mumbles a noise of thanks around his mouthful of biscuit.

“I’ve put together a list,” Frank says, pointing one soapy finger towards the table where they’d eaten the night before. “Do whatever you think you can handle and don’t be afraid to come to me with questions.”

Barry looks over the list as he chews. It all seems doable enough, even with his limited skill set.

“Will do,” he answers and heads upstairs to tackle the first thing on the list: stripping every single linen from the rooms including curtains. “Might as well do a heavy clean while I have help,” Frank has noted next to this item and the next three on the list which are also of the seasonal cleaning variety.

The day passes quickly and Barry is surprised to find himself enjoying his job. There is a certain level of combined repetition and concentration that lets him get into a flow of work in which he is somewhat able to lose himself. It’s something he’s felt in the lab sometimes while running tests or experiments. It’s something he has a distinct feeling he’s been missing for a while now. At any rate it’s nice to become absorbed enough in his tasks that very little of his hours are spent wondering at the bizarre circumstances of the previous day.

 

—-

 

The next few weeks pass similarly. He and Frank work well together when a task calls for both of them. Frank prefers to do the cooking but Barry usually helps with clean up. He takes to it with exceeding ease for someone whose previous kitchen experience was limited mostly to heating up something simple and then washing his single plate and fork.

Frank seems well satisfied with Barry’s work and they agree to extend their arrangement for the full two months. 

The nights are still hard. Again and again he finds himself waking up in the middle of the night reaching for someone. He has nightmares filled with blanks that scare him more than any specific memory ever has. 

The days are easier. While he’s working, the worst parts are the moments between tasks when a vague uneasiness insists he should be looking for… something. Doing… something. He can’t seem to think about the impulse, though, and has to assume it’s connected to his sudden and unexplained change in career. Unable to concentrate on it, there’s little option but to try and ignore the feeling.

The other strange thing is that for the first time that Barry can remember he has a real friend. Frank makes lists for him of tasks he’d like done but that’s as far as he goes toward being a boss. When they are working on something together the effort is equal and the conversation comfortable. They laugh. They talk about their families. (Each are only children whose parents have passed.) They discuss books they’ve read. (They find no common favorites somehow despite both being well read in similar genres. Strangely, neither has even heard of the other’s favorite authors.) And when the conversation runs out or they simply become absorbed in their work, the silence is equally comfortable. 

 

—-

 

A large group checks in one evening. They are a group of dwarves traveling to a family wedding and are in high spirits even before dinner when they begin passing around jugs of wine they’ve brought. Frank and Barry are invited to celebrate with them. The group has no interest in taking over the bar in town. Instead, they set up in the front parlor, push back the furniture, take out their instruments, and have a party. 

Frank has met this group before - or some variation on them. “They come through every year or so for weddings and family get togethers,” Frank says. “Hill dwarves from further inland traveling to meet up with extended family who relocated to the shore at some point. Beach dwarves, can you believe it?” 

The group is lively and fun to be around, though more than one tries to press a religious tract on him and Frank. 

Frank sets himself up at the piano and accompanies the dwarves, playing fast paced dancing songs that, as the evening progresses, transition to drinking songs the dwarves sing jubilantly. 

Barry makes himself as useful as he can clearing away dishes and bringing out snacks. Most of his evening, however, is spent sitting backwards on the piano bench beside Frank, watching the party and listening to the man play.

“You’re really good at that,” Barry tells him during a break. “You sure know a lot of songs. They haven’t stumped you yet.”

“Oh, everyone knows these songs! They’re all pretty standard.” Frank responds. “Who didn’t grow up singing ‘The Miller and the Maid’ or ‘Twenty Cider Barrels,’ right?” 

Barry shrugs. “I didn’t. I don’t know any of these songs.”

“Gracious, Barry, did you fall out of the sky or something? How can you not know…”

Frank’s question is cut off as the group starts to play again. He cuts a look at Barry as he jumps in on the piano accompaniment, clearly familiar yet again with the song the dwarves have picked.

The party seems dimmer from that point for Barry. Despite the ruckus around him, he is lost in thought. The noise and people fade behind the mental shout of fear circling in his mind: Why is my brain full of gaps? What is wrong with me?

By the time the dwarves call it a night and head to their rooms, the sun is threatening the horizon. He and Frank clear away the remains of the celebration and push the furniture back into place. Frank heads into the kitchen to clean up so he’ll be able to begin breakfast. They are tired but the Frank has told him the money from this group is always more than sufficient to cover the long hours. 

“Besides that,” Frank points out, “they’re fun to have around even if it calls for an all-nighter. At least we don’t have to load up on wagons and head out in the heat in a few hours like they do, right?”

Barry is checking the parlor for anything they may have missed but he finds himself drawn almost magnetically to the piano. Looking over his shoulder to be sure that he’s alone, he sits at the bench and hovers his fingers over the keys. He’s never had lessons. Music didn’t rate the study time that academic subjects did in his family. But his fingers move on their own to hover in positions that seem to be the same as what Frank did when he was about to play.

I must have paid more attention to him playing than I realized, Barry thinks. Except that mostly, my back was turned.  

It’s another in a growing list of things he wants to consider but literally can’t. He drops the key cover with a thud and scoots off the bench as if pained.

 

—-

 

They are replacing a section of shingles on the inn’s roof when Frank remarks that the building is looking better than it has in years. “Maybe now’s the time to consider selling, while it looks so good.”

Barry moves carefully as he repositions himself. He’s never been scared of heights but for some reason the view down fills him with a strange certainty he’s forgotten something important and that falling would solve that. Thankfully, the feeling goes away when he isn’t looking down at the ground. 

He’s beginning to consider the likelihood that there is something seriously wrong with him. He’s been screened for jobs before; high security positions want to make sure they aren’t opening themselves for dangerous liability issues. Nothing has ever turned up besides some run of the mill anxiety. He’d have thought that at his age  - though he’s hard pressed to say quite what that age is, north of fifty but beyond that the details become blurred - he’d be beyond the range of new onset for most mental illnesses but still a little young for dementia. Did fear of heights or intrusive thoughts appear suddenly at his age? Neither feels right but again, there’s just an inability to consider the situation beyond that. He shakes off the train of thought, stalled as it is. The edge of a roof is no place to attempt to understand it.

He straightens to give his back muscles a break and pauses in his work to ask Frank, “Is that something you’ve been thinking about? Selling?” 

Frank looks up at Barry. He puts down his hammer, places his hands at the small of his back and stretches his neck and shoulders. “This wasn’t exactly the dream plan. Not that I really had a plan.” The man looks off into the distance, watches the clouds roll across the low hills that fade into the horizon. “Always thought I’d do some traveling,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve barely been beyond the town limits,” he throws in with a wry laugh before picking up his hammer and returning to work.

Barry tacks down a few more shingles as he comments distractedly, “Traveling isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. But neither is staying in one place.” 

The silence between them feels different enough that Barry notices. He looks over to see the other man has stopped working again to watch him, eyebrows pulled down as Frank studies him. 

Suddenly uncomfortable, Barry asks, “I need to head down and grab some more nails. Need anything while I’m down there?”

Frank’s wary stare fades as he shakes his head. “I’m almost done with this section so let’s just call it for now,” he tells him. “Not enough light left in the day to finish everything tonight anyway.”

Barry nods and begins to gather up the loose supplies, packing them to transport more easily down the ladder. “We’ll get things finished tomorrow,” Barry agrees.

 

—-

 

That night he is lying awake again, sleepless after another nightmare, and his words return to him. What do I know about traveling? The only traveling I’ve done is whatever brought me here. It’s just another in what should be a growing list of things he can’t make sense of but the thoughts scatter before he can collect them for examination. 

Barry is tired but sleep seems as remote and untouchable as the stars shining outside his window. He gets up and moves as silently as he can out his door and into the hall, down the gently creaking stairs, and through to the back of the house. He exits through the kitchen door and stands out on the back porch, looking up at stars strewn messily across the sky. 

More blanks, he thinks with a frown. I don’t recognize any of these constellations.

He sits on one of the wide wooden steps and continues looking up into the blackness. The heat of the day has dissipated. When a breeze winds through the yard and finds him, he shivers from more than the chill. Nothing makes any sense but he can’t seem to even think about how little sense it makes. There’s only the constant ache insisting something is missing and the vague uneasiness at the workings of his normally ordered and rational mind. 

He tries and tries, but can’t find any familiar patterns in the stars. Everything feels wrong.

 

—-

 

The rest of Barry’s time passes. The days are pleasant but threaded through with confusing feelings that won’t let him fully enjoy anything. He feels comfortable here in a way that makes him feel oddly homesick. He enjoys the camaraderie he and Frank share but there’s a guilty certainty that he’s lying to the man in some vital but unidentifiable way. Worse, there’s a feeling that he’s letting someone important down by even being here. That he is betraying someone. 

He hates to leave but he can’t imagine staying. There’s a building desperation in him. All he can do is cling to the hope that there will be answers enough for everything when he returns to the strange place where all this started.

The night before Barry is to leave, Frank throws him a miniature farewell party. After the guests staying in the inn have been tended to, Frank summons him back to the kitchen to present him with a small cake. It is covered in fresh, sliced strawberries. 

Barry feels a little like crying just looking at it. It’s been so long since his presence was appreciated or his absence missed that he finds speaking difficult. The hole in his chest feels enormous, the weight of emptiness pulling at his whole being like a black hole with a weight so heavy he may collapse in on himself.

Frank cuts them both a piece of cake and then pours them each an overlarge mug of hard cider.

As they eat, Frank drops several comments that make it clear Barry would be welcome to stay. “I meant to get around to pulling down that old shed,” he mentions. Later he says, “Too bad we didn’t have time to paint the place, that would have looked good.” Until finally, a few more mugs of hard cider have been consumed and the guests have all retired and the dining room and the kitchen cleaned and a mug of wine for each of them begun when Frank says, “Do you really have to go?”

This is the question Barry has been asking himself all night. What does it matter why he was in some stupid tank in some stupid cemetery? What answers could possibly explain the constant confusion in his head or the unnamed ache in his chest? If he stayed here wasn’t it possible some of that would fade? Maybe if he gave it time those things would seem to matter less. Maybe the nightmares would fade. Maybe he could actually belong somewhere.

He steps forward to set his mug in the sink just as Frank steps towards him and Barry is surprised to find Frank’s mouth against his own.

The wine is buzzing his head and fighting suddenly in Barry’s stomach and even though it is a nice - if clumsy - kiss, he is suddenly completely sure he has answers waiting for him that he desperately needs. Barry places his free hand on the other man’s chest and pushes him gently away.

Frank steps back and looks awkwardly at his cup. “Sorry,” Frank mumbles.

Barry reaches up to tilt the other man’s face towards his. He stares into the other man’s eyes for a long moment. “No. Please don’t be sorry,” he says quietly.

He places his mug in the sink and stuffs his hands into his pockets. “You don’t know how much I wish I could stay,” he says honestly. “But there are…” He sighs and the breath is hard to find around the pressing weight that sits so heavy in his chest, a weight he is now sure belongs to someone he loves, though he has no idea who. “There are things I think I have to do. I know that’s a pitiful excuse but you’ll have to take my word that it’s not an excuse at all.”

Frank doesn’t speak. He just looks at Barry, stares at him hard like he’s committing him to memory. “I’m not going to see you again, am I?” he asks.

Barry smiles, reaches out to squeeze Frank’s wrist gently as the man clutches his mug in both hands. Then he turns to go. As he pushes the swinging door out of the kitchen, he’s struck by one of the strongest impulses he’s ever had.

He turns back to Frank. “You mentioned that you’ve thought of selling the place? Traveling? I think you should do that. Maybe …” he pauses, trying to let the certainty settle out into something a little clearer but it doesn’t. It is strong and inarguable but impossible to clearly define. “You’ve got a few years but…” He walks back to look hard into Frank’s eyes. “But I mean it. Don’t…” Barry bites his lip. The feeling is overwhelming him in a way these certainties don’t usually come, scaring even himself. 

“Don’t ignore this or put it off much longer than that. I’m… I’m serious, okay? There’s more for you to see of this world than…” He struggles to recall the name of the town they are in. What had Frank told him it was? “There’s more for you than Phandalin,” he finishes.

Frank’s face is a mixture of emotions, sadness and confusion chief of all. Barry hates that he’s doing this to him. 

“I know things sometimes, okay? And this is one of those times.” There’s another feeling inside him, something insisting that it will come to pass but Barry isn’t sure he should share it. This is already the most direct Barry has ever been about these flashes of certainty that hit him sometimes. When he was younger, he tried to rationalize them but there’s no explaining this one away. Finally he gives in, “And yeah, I think I’ll see you again sometime. But that other part is more important, okay?”

“Okay then,” Frank says. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “But… I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

Barry offers a sad, apologetic smile and 

Barry leaves that night. He takes only the clothes he arrived in and the speaking coin in his pocket. Staying until morning would have been harder, he’s sure. Besides, there’s the light of the full moon to guide him.

Chapter Text

Barry rises from his dead body for the second time on this planet. 

Well. He now has a lot of information. And a body to dispose of. That complicates things but probably less than leaving himself elsewhere. That might have raised a lot of suspicions if he met the same people again. There is a lot more to consider now than when the bond engine did the dirty work for him.

Plus there is the possibility that word could get back to Lucretia. It is always in his best interest to be less memorable. 

At least this way he has his clothes and glasses.

Barry is doing his best to focus on these small advancements in knowledge. He hadn’t known he could be shocked in his lich form but he is. If he’d had the past two months thrust onto him all at once with all his old memories for context while he had a body he’d be sinking to the floor as his muscles stopped working and his mind dealt with the surprise and guilt. Instead he is practically thrumming with wire taut control. He doesn’t deserve to let his emotions take over at all. He deserves to stand here and… float here… exist here and process everything and acknowledge how spectacularly he’s failed. He’s failed his family. He’s failed… he doesn’t even deserve to think her name.

His control is tight and strained, but he won’t allow even a small respite of giving in to emotions. But his magic - fed by those surging emotions and locked with no outlet - is increasing by the moment. Black tendrils of necrotic power begin to extend and red lightning crackles from his form as the power surging in him looks for any break in his control.

For one instant his view catches on the tank and he imagines destroying it.

No.

Lup might need it.

He can no more be angry at the tank than he can be angry at Lup for being gone. Or for Lucretia for… okay he can be a little mad at Lucretia. She should have talked to them. She should have trusted them. 

Not now, he thinks. His control is too ragged already.

And hadn’t he basically just done the same thing to himself? Sent his body into the world without any of the important information about who he was and what was going on? Sure he’d had his reasons that made sense at the time. But it boiled down to being the same thing. 

This situation is a direct result of her actions, he thinks. And I literally had no choice about telling myself some of it. She erased it.

Except not all of it was, was it? Hadn’t he told himself this first body was a test? 

Okay. He can be upset with himself and Lucretia both, but neither will get him anywhere.

When he finds Lup, when they are safe - all of them - then he can deal with what it all means. Until then, this is all raw data to be considered for… For designing future experiments, he decides to phrase it in his head. He needs to detach himself from the emotions of it all for now, try to think about things through the lens of science.

He uses the power that is begging for an outlet; tendrils of solidified magic strip his body of the things he will need in the future: clothes, boots, boots, glasses, coin. Then he lets his power consume the corpse, burning away all traces of it.

Another miserable thought occurs to him. He also hurt Frank.

Okay, for everyone’s good all future instructions will include a rule to not get close to anyone, he tells himself. It’s too risky for a lot of reasons. 

Now. What else has he learned?

His memories. Everything about the IPRE had been gone. That meant he’d no idea what he’d been doing for work, no memories of anyone from the Starblaster, no understanding that this wasn’t the world he’d been born on. He’d had no memory of building the ship with Davenport’s team of engineers, no recollection of Sarthreli  inviting him to head the other team researching the light, not even the memory of the light landing on their home world. As far as his bodied self was aware he was still a teacher. Trying to examine the thought any further dissolved into static and confusion. 

And anything that didn’t add up - like the unfamiliarity of a blue sky with a single sun - became impossible to think about.

He had definitely been able to tell his thinking was off but that was as far as he could get before his thoughts slid away to other things. 

He hadn’t remembered…. anyone, but he’d carried the weight of loss every moment. He’d tried to figure out why his loneliness seemed unusual, tried to figure out why he felt the restlessness of being kept from what he should be doing, had felt a constant pull and certainty that there was something - someone - he should be looking for.

And yes, for a moment he’d wanted to stay, see if belonging somewhere could fill the void left inside him. But he’d known. Even with so much missing, he had known.

Then a new thought hits him, knocking his emotions winding. What if this happened to Lup?

It’s awful to think of her lost and alone. But thinking of her lost, alone, and cut off from understanding why everything felt so incomplete? Cut off from her twin? That’s so much worse. So if she’s found even a moment’s happiness, he desperately hopes she takes it. As to anything else down that path of thought, he’ll have to put that aside for later. Much later.

Okay. So. What else did I learn?

He’d lost everything from their travels. He’d forgotten he could play the piano. He’d forgotten he was a lich. He’d forgotten he knew magic. Even things he should have known, things Lucretia would never have erased… everything since accepting the job with the Institute was gone. But if it hadn’t been specifically taken by Lucretia and turned into static, then he could learn it again. He’d forgotten he knew the geography of the area, that he’d known the name of the town he’d been in. But he’d been able to learn it anew in his body.

Most of that is expected but the loss of magic is hard. He’ll be sending himself out with only… science? To defend himself. Only intuition and his coin instructions to try and gain the relics?

Okay. He’ll figure it out. What choice does he have?

Maybe the most important information he’s gained is that in the months he’d been out in the world - had even been using the name Lucretia was likely to look for - she hadn’t found him. Neither had the reaper. So that might be the biggest advantage to inhabiting a body. He can be out among people without drawing the attention his lich form obviously garners. And apparently at less risk of being stopped by Lucretia or the reaper.

He also knows that she’d left him the name ‘Barry Bluejeans.’ Everything else from the last hundred years, she’d taken. But she’d left him the name the twins gave him. When Frank asked his name he’d tried to answer with the name he used for the first fifty two years of his life but ‘Barry’ was what felt right. Why would she leave that? How did that stay when everything else was gone?

Barry summons his the rift to the pocket dimension chest he stores things in. It had held, thankfully. That was why it was important it not be tied to anything other than his… his Barry-ness is the simplest way to think of it. There’s no portal object to lose and no magical tie to collapse.

His bloody robe is safe inside as well as the most important object: Lup’s note. He concentrates on collecting dried blood from the robe and beginning the tank’s process. There’s enough blood here to run the tank a hundred times. Probably more. Hopefully he won’t need that. 

Even if he uses all the blood, he could also use samples from the grown bodies, though he’s reluctant to do so. There’s the threat of… call it data loss. Make copies of copies of copies and eventually the result is less like the original and more like something new. It’s another risk he’ll avoid as long as he can help it. A copy of a copy is one more step away from Lup, away from the man he’d been when she loved him. He’ll only take that route if absolutely necessary.

And on the subject of copies, he carefully retrieves Lup’s note. It has been a while but he remembers a spell that will duplicate an item. It will take time to channel the spell in order to make a permanent duplicate but he has nothing but time right now while his new body grows. In the future he wants his body carrying more than a speaking coin and a vague weight of loneliness. If his body can’t remember the significance of the note, at least having it will give meaning to that weight of loss that lives inside him even without her memory.

The chore will also give himself something to focus on in his lich form. When they’d chosen this, they’d tied their anchors to each other and to their family and their mission. With those things stretched so thin, control is harder than ever. Maybe keeping a coin for Lup will help. He can talk to her and believe that one day he’ll be able to share all this with her. 

He has a lot of work to do.

 

—-

 

After starting the new body growing and making a copy of Lup’s note, Barry makes another coin imbued with recording and replaying spells. He’ll worry about recording a new set of instructions for his body later. Right now he feels like he’ll lose what little sanity he’s desperately holding if he doesn’t talk to someone.

As always, the person he most wants to talk to is Lup.

“Lup,” he begins. He stops, stares at the coin. A one sided conversation with her feels wrong. He misses his partner, their easy give and take. Talking to her like this feels like he’s taking, like he’s stealing from a memory. It’s been almost a year since he saw her. 

It feels like decades. 

“Everything is so fucked up, Lup. You’re gone. Our family is scattered. I’m trying to fix things but… Sometimes I don’t know if I’m strong enough without you.”

He pauses, tries to center himself. “I have to be, though. I have to be better. I… Lup, I found my relic. I had it for a few weeks. But I couldn’t keep holding it and…”

His voice breaks under the stress, under the flood of shame coursing through him. There’s no physical component to his speaking but it seems that some things transcend forms. 

“I almost used it, Lup. It told me if I used it then I’d finally find you. Nothing else it had said was tempting. But that? I barely stopped myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped. Maybe if I’d used it you’d be here now instead of wherever you are. But I was afraid if I used it then I’d never stop. It promised me so many dark, terrible things, Lup. And if I used it to find you and didn’t stop?”

“It made me want to hurt people,” he admits. “There were times, listening to it that… And it was always in my head, every single moment… Lup everything is so awful and the bell made it seem like if I just used it then…” 

“I don’t know. It’s hard to remember how bad it was, now that it’s not constantly whispering in my thoughts.”

He can’t think about it anymore. He’s already drowning. Looking around, he tries to find something else to talk about.

“I’m in a mausoleum right now.” He pictures her here with him, imagines things if they were different, images the two of them are just out exploring like they used to. “You’d love it. It’s old and abandoned. There’s a crack in the roof and even inside, the weather has almost worn away the names. All around it there’s just this overgrown field. There were probably headstones there too but I couldn’t find them. If there was a church it’s long gone. At night I can see the stars through the hole above me. It’s kind of beautiful.”

He sinks down towards the floor and looks up at the crack in the roof now, at the clouds glowing softly in the moonlight. It reminds him of the times when one of them would be off looking for the light and the other was on the ship and they’d fall asleep talking to each other on their stones of farspeech. If he tries hard enough to believe it, maybe that’s where she is now. She just fell asleep and he’ll talk a little longer, reluctant to end the connection.

Then he remembers Frank.

“I kissed someone. Or, well, he kissed me. I didn’t have my memories but I still knew it wasn’t right. It’s not an excuse, nothing could ever be an excuse for it. I just… I wanted so badly to belong somewhere. Before I met you, before the IPRE? I don’t remember the last time I felt like I belonged somewhere. I was a background character in other people’s lives.”

He laughs, and it’s a bitter croak of sound. “I’m sure you have no idea what I’m talking about. You’d never let yourself be a background character. You’re so vibrant and amazing; you couldn’t be overlooked if you tried. But that’s who I was. I guess you know that, don’t you? But you still saw me.”

The coin glimmers dully in the shaft of moonlight. He stares at it and something inside him feels like it’s breaking.

“Where are you, Lup? Where the fuck did you go? Why didn’t you wake me up, let me come with you? Whatever it was I would have helped you. I would have… Lup, I’d do anything for you. I know things weren’t great and I let you down. And I’m still letting you down. I haven’t found you, Taako is gone, and I gave away what might have been my only chance to find you.”

Dirt and leaves and whatever else has collected on the floor of the mausoleum begin to kick up, swirl around. It takes him a moment to realize it’s because of him. Then lightning crackles through the space and he chokes back his emotions, yanking his control back into place. The coin has knocked to the floor, the spell still recording.

“I’m going to fix everything,” he says, trying to convince himself more than the coin, more than the person he hopes will one day be around to hear the coin, not that he ever really wants to play it for her.

He stops the spell recording his voice. For a while he just studies the thing and considers destroying it. In the end though, he can’t. It’s a poor, poor stand in for Lup, but he can’t bear to let even that go. Instead he summons his chest and buries the coin inside.

Chapter Text

Barry should have listened to the coin. It had warned him not to say anything about the object he was looking for. But how the hell was he supposed to find something without ever saying anything about it? 

So he’d said he was looking for something - a cup of some sort - that had been left here with someone - the scant details the coin had given him - and the next thing he knew he was in a cell. What the hell was so special about a cup to cause all this headache?

Two days though. Two days is a lot to be stuck here.

Maybe the better question is why he listened to the stupid coin about even coming here. So what if it sounds like him? So what if he woke up in a weird tank in a creepy mausoleum and couldn’t explain how he got there? He’d hiked across the desert on the advice of the coin and for his trouble he’d been thrown in jail. If he got out of here - no, when, he insists to himself, when he gets out of here - he’s going to throw that coin in a lake and never listen to it again.

He lays back on the bed. What other options does he have? He can sit up. He can lay down. For a wild bout of excitement he can stand at the bars and look at the empty cells beside his or at the office that makes up the rest of the room.

“Isaak, what did you do that for?” a voice says. “How long has this poor guy been…” the voice stops as the speaker comes into the room and locks eyes with Barry. He’s a tall, dark skinned man with a gray Stetson cocked back on his head. “I’m sorry, buddy, I’ll get you out here in a second.” Tall and broad shouldered, with a neatly trimmed beard, something about the friendly tone and the pure hulk of him puts Barry at ease, though he couldn’t explain why.

The man goes to the desk and opens one of the drawers. He pulls out a ring of keys and crosses to Barry’s cell. Elsewhere in the building, a door slams, making both Barry and the man at the desk jump.

“I’m sorry about my, uh, associate,” the man apologizes. “He maybe got a little overzealous. New people seem to put him on edge lately.” The man sorts through the numerous keys as he talks. “Anyway, what brings you to our little town, friend?” 

Another of those moments hits Barry. He knows he could keep his mouth shut, make small talk, be released, and get the hell out of this town. Or he can say why he’s here, why the coin has told him to come, and see what happens. Even if he suspects that what happens is him staying in this cell until he dies.

Barry is smart but sometimes he doesn’t act that way. He opens his mouth and a thought flashes through his mind - what if the coin is lying to him? But he continues down his damnable path, answering as honestly as he can.

“Someone left a, uh, cup here about three years ago. I’m here to retrieve it.”

The work weathered hands on the other side of the cell door instantly stop sorting through the keys and move to grip the bars between the two of them.

“Fella, you want to try that one on for me again?”

Barry looks up at the man, a face that somehow seems kind even when suspicion is painted across it like a glowing magic sign. Another piece of the puzzle the coin has tasked him with falls into place. 

“You’re Jack, aren’t you?” Barry’s tone is almost exasperated, not at all unsure of the fact.

The other man’s face doesn’t give anything away but Barry still knows he’s right. “Someone trusted you to keep something safe. I’m here to take it off your hands.”

The man turns and walks back to the desk and drops the ring of keys on top of it. He leans back against the desk and faces Barry, arms crossed.

“If that’s true then you can tell me the name of the person who left it with me.”

Barry shakes his head. “I can’t, actually.” Barry forces himself to meet the man’s eyes. “I know that doesn’t sound right but… Look, it’s complicated. Just like that thing that got left with you.”

The man pulls off his hat and rubs thinning, close cropped hair before replacing the hat at a different angle. A less welcoming angle. 

“Friend,” he says, “and I’m using that term because I’m giving you more benefit than I feel this situation warrants right now, have you lost your mind?”

Barry leans his head against the cold metal of the bars, lost and overwhelmed to a degree he’d never known possible. “You’re just full of questions I can’t answer, aren’t you?” he murmurs.

What has he done? He opened his mouth and now he’s going to sit here in jail forever. That terrible hole inside him that drove him through the desert harder than his thirst could ever manage claws at him. Staying here means never finding...

The sound of footsteps surprises him. He looks up to see the man reaching a hand out towards him.

“Yes, I’m Jack,” he offers. “What do you go by?”

Barry’s anxious despondency calms at the change in Jack and he even smiles at the phrasing of the question that somehow applies to him so perfectly. He sticks his hand out between the bars to shake Jack’s hand. “Barry,” he answers. “I go by Barry.”

After releasing his hand, Jack pulls a nearby chair over to the cell and settles himself. “Well, Barry, how about you tell me what you can?” Jack asks, a lilting accent falling over his words. 

He finds himself mimicking Jack’s accent as he responds but trying to think about why he does so makes his head swim. At any rate, he doesn’t have much answer to offer. The coin didn’t give him a lot to work with and the details he has are sketchy at best. But there’s enough somehow that Jack doesn’t simply laugh at him and tell him to leave. 

“Where are you from?” It’s a strange follow up question after the scant details Barry has provided. 

Barry opens his mouth to answer. “I’m from…” This time he’s surprised when he can’t answer. That melodic accent is especially disconcerting combined with the rough curse he mutters at yet another blank, this time where he’s certain one should not exist. Then there’s something about the pairing of swear and inflection that makes his stomach twist, a familiarity that makes the ground seem to tilt beneath him. 

Looking distressed, he can only tell Jack, “I… I honestly can’t remember.” The absence of answer to such a simple question, the feeling of the accent in his mouth, and the weirdly familiar sound of the swear has him as off kilter as waking up in the tank had.

“I guess that’s another one of those complicated questions.” Jack says. He doesn’t seem surprised, just nods thoughtfully. “Where did you learn Elvish?” he asks.

Barry’s eyebrows pull down and he shakes his head. “I don’t speak Elvish.”

Jack laughs. “Well, Barry, either you’re a comedian or I’m in the same addled boat you are because these last two minutes we’ve been speaking Elvish.”

Barry plays the conversation over in his head and it’s true. He stumbles back from the bars in shock. He has to sit down. When the hell did he learn Elvish? 

“Do you know what’s going on?” he asks Jack.

The kindness he’s seen on Jack’s face is even clearer as the man smiles sadly, “No more than you do, I’m sorry to say.” He stands up and moves to the desk. When he turns back towards Barry he has the ring of keys in his hands again. “But you’ve convinced me about as well as I suspect you can. I don’t know what any of this means but I’ll give you a chance. Let’s get you out of there.”

Jack unlocks the door and Barry watches it swing open with relief. He’d begun to think he’d never live to see the other side of the cell. He follows Jack out of the Sheriff’s office and out onto Main Street. When he was hustled through by the Sheriff, he didn’t see much of the town and now, with darkness falling and the last rays of sunset throwing long shadows, he can’t see very much either. 

Across the street is a bank which seems to be closed. Jack heads towards the large building that faces both the bank and Sheriff’s office. It’s the largest building Barry can see and it seems to be a private home.

Jack climbs the steps with practiced ease that fills in another blank. This is the home of the mayor or town leader and Jack must hold that role. He pushes open the door and leads Barry inside. 

“June?” Jack calls towards the back of the house.

“Back here, papa,” comes the sweet voiced reply from beyond a door in the back of the large, open room.

“Make sure your school work is done. I’ll be in for supper in a bit, okay?” Jack opens a different door and stands back for Barry to enter. Inside, a large desk is spread with books and papers. The walls are lined with shelves brimming with books. The whole room makes Barry feel a wave of homesickness that nearly stops his breath. It’s so simple and normal.

“Have a seat,” Jack directs, closing the door behind them. The quiet sound of a bolt shooting home worries Barry but there’s little he can do about it now. He takes the chair facing the desk and waits as Jack circles around to the chair behind the workspace. He turns up the wick on the kerosene lamp beside him, giving the room more light. Then he turns and pulls the curtains on the window behind him.

“I’m going to give you a chance to talk to the chalice, I guess,” Jack tells him. “I don’t know if this is the right thing to do or not but I’m trusting my instinct now like I did a few years ago.”

“Talk to the…?” Barry asks. He shakes his head. He’s here on the advice of a talking coin, how is a talking cup any weirder? “Okay.”

Jack bends to a drawer on the desk. Barry assumes the desk is locked by the jangle of keys before the sound of wood scraping against wood as the drawer slides open.

After withdrawing a small fabric wrapped bundle, Jack places it on the desk and pulls back the cloth to reveal the cup.

Barry finds his hand reaching for it instinctively and draws back, afraid. He looks up to see Jack watching him carefully. “Barry, you just made me feel a lot better about my decision. But go ahead, touch it. I think this is supposed to happen.”

Barry’s eyes return to the chalice. Hesitant, he stretches his fingers to the cup.

There’s no flash, no sound, not even a moment to feel the metal of the cup under his fingers. Instead, he’s no longer sitting in Jack’s comfortable chair in his beautiful and achingly normal office. 

Barry is in an empty white space and standing in front of him is a man he’d recognize anywhere. For all the missing spaces and unanswered questions in his mind, Barry Bluejeans knows himself when he sees him.

“Well, Barry,” the other Barry says to him, “I guess this is a little bit of a confusing way to handle things but I haven’t had a lot of practice at this. Using a projection of you seemed a better way to have a conversation than being a talking cup, though.”

“You’re... the chalice?”

“I’m the power inside the chalice but close enough,” the Chalice tells him.

“What kind of power?”

“Well, not as much as I once had, unfortunately. But I think I still have enough power to offer you a choice.”

“What sort of choice?”

“Let’s see what we can find,” the Chalice says. He turns to take in the endless white expanse surrounding them. He adjusts the glasses he wears on his copy of Barry’s face and squints a little. A scene forms around them, turning the empty white space into an enormous screen.

Barry sees himself crossing the desert towards Refuge. He sees the Sheriff talk to him and then take him to jail. 

“Well, I guess that’s something but not much,” the Chalice mutters. He squints again and the Barry on the screen moves backwards, faster and faster until he’s climbing back into the tank Barry had woken up in. The scene turns to static.

The Chalice makes a face, pulling his copy of Barry’s eyebrows together and his copy of Barry’s mouth into a frown. He shakes his head, “What the hell?”

The static goes on and on, fuzzing faster and faster as the Chalice speeds through it. At last an image appears. Barry is seated at a desk in a room not dissimilar from Jack’s office. Barry recognizes it as his office at the university. The Barry on the screen stands and moves backwards through the door and the scene moves faster and faster as screen-Barry unlives day after average day.

The Chalice shakes his head again, looking more frustrated. The scene winds backwards even faster. On the screen he’s at a different job, then back in school, then a child.

“Well, that’s not helpful at all,” the Chalice tells him.

The scene changes direction once more and the Barry on the screen begins moving forward again, growing older until the screen turns to static again.

“Okay,” the Chalice says, turning to face him. “Time for me to get creative.”

He faces Barry and crosses his arms, studying him. “Instead of a choice, let’s call this advice you take or leave.”

“What’s the difference?” Barry asks, hesitant.

“Creativity,” the Chalice answers unhelpfully. “With a dash of self interest.”

The Chalice takes a deep breath and continues his measuring stare. He adjusts his glasses. “You have a lot of confusing questions and a lot of… well, let’s call them ‘holes’ right?” He gestures to the static covered screens that surround them. “Or maybe we should say a pretty big hole with a lot of echoes.”

Barry thinks of the questions that plagued him during his long walk through the desert: the unexplained tank awakening, introducing himself by a name he’d never used, having knowledge of a language he doesn’t remember learning. And then, underlining all those strange inconsistencies, the weight that insists so much more is missing beyond that. He nods, agreeing with the Chalice wearing his face.

“So, you came here to take me. And you think that will lead you to some answers, right?” he smiles and it’s a predatory smile that Barry’s real face has never worn. “What if I offered you all the answers?”

“You have all the answers?”

“I do not. But there’s a future where you get them. If you choose to follow my… advice, then you have a chance at a future where you get it all: all the answers to all the questions, all the mysteries solved, and all the,” that hungry smile returns and he chuckles, “all the weight of loss explained.”

Barry looks with suspicion at the thing wearing his face. “I’m sure you’ll understand if I think that sounds a little too good to be true.” He takes a breath and tries to act calmer than he feels. That vision of a future with answers dangles in front of him like a fat orange carrot on a string. 

The space around them changes and they are in Jack’s office. The chalice takes Jack’s place and sits himself on the other side of the desk. “I can understand that, yes. But here’s the thing. Usually my offer would be to change the past. And changing the past is a lot harder! You push and pull at a lot of threads. But anyone can change the future.”

The Chalice leans forward, bracing his elbows on the desk, “And I’m giving you the chance to get the future you want .”

He lets that statement hang in the air for a moment. It’s a heady promise and the Chalice knows it.

The Chalice shrugs. “Or, you can take your chances, sure. But I have power. Not the power I once had, no. But still very potent. And it’s power that runs on something you have in spades, friend. If you desire the answers, if you want badly enough, this can be your future. If you need it enough.”

He smiles and it’s the smile of an opponent who knows he holds all the best cards. “Without my help? You’ll have the cup, yes. And that’s a piece that might help you towards your goal. But it’s not the full power that I’m offering you. It’s not the power that will be bolstered by your own desire.”

He leans back in Jack’s chair and puts his feet up on the desk. “Or stick with your intended path. I think I can say with some certainty you’ll get some answers, yes. For a while you may have a lot of them. Without my full power I can’t say exactly. But that feels very true to me. And truest of all? You’ll never get the biggest part that you’re missing. The path you’re on now just won’t intersect.”

“I’ll give you a further bit of honesty. This path is going to be long and unpleasant. If I were giving you the kind of offer I intended, it would be a shortcut. But, instead? Well, I guess today I’m a road sign. One way you get your immediate goal, your path is shorter, your reward is faster. The other? A long road with less certainty for bigger reward. A reward that, for you, I think is everything.”

Barry’s mouth is dry. He has the panicky, jittery tension he remembers from long ago days in school when he’d had far too little sleep coupled with far too much caffeine. Worst of all, he has that feeling that has insisted on truths he shouldn’t be able to know; that feeling he’s struggled not to call premonition. It’s the feeling that made him take a semester off from school and return home. The feeling that gave him a few months with his mother before she died. It’s the feeling that has dictated small choices that spun out larger. It’s the feeling that made him stay home one day and miss the accident he otherwise would have been caught in. It’s a feeling Barry has learned to respect even as he despises it. 

“And if I take this other path you mention? The one you’re suggesting?” Barry asks. “What happens then?”

The Chalice grins. “You tell Jack ‘thank you’ and leave without what you came for, Barry. I stay here. And a new future unfolds.”

Barry swallows. “Okay,” he says.

Jack looks at him, “What?”

Barry shakes his head. “Nothing,” he answers. A strange feeling has settled over him. The anxious tension has gone. Now a cold certainty grips him that he’s done something unalterable. It’s not dread. There’s no regret. But something enormous has changed.

He stands up and Jack’s eyebrows shoot upwards. “Aren’t you gonna talk to it?” Then he squints at Barry, “You did, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Barry offers his hand. “Thank you for letting me. And for continuing to be its keeper.”

Jack nods and shakes his hand. “Did you find what you wanted?” he asks.

“Not yet,” Barry answers. “But I think I’m getting closer.”

Jack looks down at the chalice. “You’re really not taking it?”

“No, turns out that’s not what I, uh, need right now.” He studies the man’s kind face. He doesn’t feel good leaving him with the thing. “Be careful, okay? I don’t know what’s coming for you but as long as that thing is here I think it’s going to attract unwanted attention.”

Jack nods. “That’s pretty much what I was told before,” he agrees. “That’s why I was looking forward to you taking it with you,” he adds. He wraps the chalice back up in its cloth and resecures it in the drawer.

“I wish you luck, Barry,” Jack tells him as he unlocks the office and shows him to the front door.

“Thank you, Jack, for all of it. And I wish you luck as well. I think we’re both going to need it.”

“Have you got some place to go?” Jack calls as Barry heads down the steps towards the darkened street.

“I do, thanks.” A feeling flutters through him and he pauses, looks back at the man standing in the doorway watching him. “I’d maybe keep that thing close to you, you know?”

Jack nods, “I think you’re right.”

Barry makes his way down the main street. He passes the Sheriff’s office and the bank, locked up for the night. Other businesses on the street are also closed. A general store has shut its doors for the evening but across from it the only open business seems to be doing pretty well for the hour. Inside The Davy Lamp, music and voices carry out. The sound of the piano drifting from the open door makes Barry feel better for some reason and as he passes out of town he’s smiling.

There’s a long walk ahead of him but he knows just where to stop and fill his canteen. Besides, walking through the desert at night is much better than during the heat of the day. He can make a large chunk of the journey while the moon is overhead. After all, he’s not in the jail cell anymore. All in all, things could be much worse.

He doesn’t hear the man behind him. The blow he takes to the back of the head would be a surprise but there’s no time for it. Barry is dead before he hits the ground. 

There’s only the moon to witness as Sheriff Isaak drops his mattock pick to the ground beside the man he’s just killed. By the time Barry’s spectral form rises, he’s dragging the body into the bushes by the side of the road, unaware of the red robed lich behind him.

For a moment Barry considers taking action against the man. But he has just saved him a long and thirsty walk through the desert followed by a refreshing drink of poison. He passes into the darkness unseen and leaves Sheriff Isaak to dispose of his body. The glasses, clothes, and coin will have to be replaced but there’s too much tangling his thoughts to worry about it at the moment.  

Floating into the desert free of the restrictions of a body, Barry considers the deal he has just made. 

After all that time standing up to the bell, he’d gone and used the chalice. 

It’s too late to undo it. And anyway, if the chalice’s offer meant he’d find Lup now, then he’s made the right choice.

But he can’t go back for the chalice. They’d recognize him and he wouldn’t recognize them. The Sheriff would certainly be even less inclined to let him into town. If the chalice is off limits, what can he do?

Barry stops and if he had the ability he’d be smiling as a new set of goals becomes clear. Instead of trying to beat Lucretia to the relics he’ll help her. And then, when they’ve all been gathered, he’ll stop her from finishing her plan, force her to fix their memories so they can finally fucking talk about this. 

Helping her will make both their jobs easier.

For the first time since waking up alone in he and Lup’s room on the Starblaster, Barry has a real hope. The chalice told him he needed to want this. That was something he could definitely do.

Chapter Text

Barry crosses Woven Gulch. His lich form is unseen by any eyes other than the desert wildlife who scatter at the lich’s approach. 

The deal he’d made with the chalice occupies the bulk of his thoughts. Again and again, the point he circles back to is: did the chalice actually have the power to know that his simply leaving it with with Jack would mean he’d eventually find Lup?

The thought fractures off into other worries. Had he even interpreted the chalice’s nonspecific predictions correctly? But it had said ‘what he wanted most.’ How else could he construe that but to mean finding Lup?

Barry tries to push the unsolvable questions to the back of his mind and concentrate on planning. There’d be no more trying to capture the relics for himself. Now he has to figure out how to find information and nudge Lucretia in that direction. With that pair of elves in possession of his bell, it should be out of her reach for a while. 

All to the good, he thinks. He doesn’t want anyone near that thing. Save it for last, is all he can hope in that regard. And that in the meantime it doesn’t do too much damage with its new owners.

As he travels, his thoughts swirl, dark and chaotic. He can’t help but regret letting go of the bell, even if keeping it had become impossible. Keeping a tight rein on his emotions means he can’t allow himself to dwell on his shortcomings, on how if he’d only been stronger he could have stood up to the relic better.

As much as he blames the problem on himself, there’s a small suspicion that has taken root inside him that his relic was nearly the perfect weapon against him. Would anyone else be as susceptible? Impossible to know. Yet again he’s only left with a vague hope.

Okay, he decides. Planning. I need to focus on planning.

Short term, I need a base of operations, someplace to actually track these things. I need to start following Lucretia instead of just letting her chase me

And most importantly, now that he’s not in a competition to find the relics before Lucretia and doesn’t have to focus on the ones he already had leads for, he wants to find Lup’s gauntlet. Wherever that is, he’s certain it will lead him to her. 

Facing her as an opponent will be difficult but he can’t allow himself to remember her as the woman who’d been nearly his sister for a century. That kind of thinking would leave room for mistakes. There’s too much on the line now. If he’s going to help Lucretia and not be caught, he’s going to have to stay twelve steps ahead of her. They’ll deal with the rest later.

 

—-

 

Those are the prevailing thoughts as he approaches his mausoleum. Nearing the crumbling structure, some subtle disturbance prickles his senses. 

Immediately on the defensive, his form ripples with barely controlled energy. He launches himself upward and approaches from above. At that angle he can see through the collapsed roof.

There’s no sign of anyone inside so he drifts down through the hole. The tank hasn’t been tampered with from what he can tell at a glance. There’s little else left as evidence of his occupance to have been tampered with. Everything other than the tank is just the scattered detritus of the decaying crypt: broken bits of stone, the shattered glass of a fallen offering receptacle whose mounting bracket had come loose, and the sediment formed from decades of leaves blown through the cracked roof to decay. Decades of dirt and dust and the evidence of animals who’d made their home here for a time gathers forgotten in the darkness like the bones of those interred here so long ago.

Among the disorganized chaos of ruin, there’s no single thing Barry can point to and know has been displaced. Still, he’s certain someone has been here. Lucretia? Those elves that sold him the tank? Some explorer?

It doesn’t matter. It’s time to relocate. 

Barry disassembles the tank for transport. His magic takes apart the contraption with fastidious care but his attention is on the space around him. It feels contaminated now. 

Night falls and the moon rises over the closest thing he’s had to a home since the Starblaster, since the ship he shared with Lup, with his family.

And Frank’s inn, he remembers. For a little while that was almost home as well. At least as much as this crumbling place. 

The thought doesn’t improve his mood.

There’s no way for Barry to know the time. Clocks, watches, and the constantly cycling time tracking devices aboard the ship are no longer part of his life. Or his death. Or whatever this existence could be called. Time is meaningless. It’s one long stretch of interminable emptiness between the day Lup disappeared and whenever he finds her again.

It’s midnight, though. The shadow of the planet hangs dark in front of the moon, only a sliver of light is reflected, arcing along one edge. There is a small sound in the blackness where Barry works, unhindered by the absence of light thanks to the magical enhancements his vision gains as a bodiless lich. The sound is the tiny pop Barry has heard when Taako Blinks. More specifically it is the sound of a caster reappearing after Blink ends, as they reemerge from the Astral Plane, popping once more into the Material Plane and regain a physical appearance. 

He whirls around, the seemingly empty arm of his robe raised, a magical blast of energy prepared to launch. Hanging in the air in the center of the crypt is a glass orb.

Immediately he recognizes the orb-trapped spell. 

Olga’zar. 

The orb drops to the stone floor and smashes. This time, instead of transporting him, the spell brings someone to him. 

The other lich appears, looking exactly the way he has the other times Barry saw him. His ancient, richly detailed robes obscure any details of the withered form hidden within.

“Hello, my young friend,” Olga’zar greets him. 

There is nothing to physically indicate such a resemblance but Barry finds himself thinking of a snake slithering in the shadows, waiting to strike. 

Distantly he remembers the bell’s warning that day at the auction. “He’s going to kill you.” That’s what it had said. 

Barry drops what he thinks of as his arm but doesn’t relax his magic at all. Oddly, he finds himself thinking he needs some better indication of a form. An empty, red robe and a hood full of glowing light don’t help much towards offering body language. The thing he pictures is the array of skeletons in the biology wing at the university where he taught, the way upperclassmen liked to sneak in and dress them up from time to time.

Mentally shaking aside the image, Barry greets his visitor. “Hello,” he answers, sounding amiable enough. “How have you been?” 

“Unable to find you,” Olga’zar informs him. “And I have very good tracking spells.”

“Ah,” Barry says without elaborating. 

“What have you been up to?” he asks suspiciously.

Barry considers the question. There is absolutely no doubt in him that giving any version of the truth would be a bad idea. He’s unable to come up with anything else to offer though.

The silence between the liches expands uncomfortably. The air feels charged even to Barry’s apparitional form. 

Olga’zar doesn’t move at all but Barry can feel him gathering energy around himself. 

“I found you entertaining before,” the lich warns him. “I do not find you so now.”

It doesn’t take precognition to know the issue is about to be pressed. Barry can tell him where he’s been, explain how he had essentially been possessing his own body, give him more details that may lead to problems in the future.

Will lead, he amends mentally. 

If he doesn’t offer up information to the lich, he’ll find out exactly how much power a being could collect over the course of a couple thousand years, especially when the willingness of others to part with such power was no barrier to his intent.

Or, Barry thinks, maybe there’s a third option.

He flees, launching himself up through the broken roof and into the darkness.

Olga’zar’s actions had been slow every time Barry had seen him move, measured and calculated. He’d appeared to be some sort of ancient royalty drifting through an intricate series of court rituals in front of an audience full of subjects.

That mask drops abruptly as the lich hurls himself up through the roof after Barry, trailing him like a shadow attached at the heels. 

A shadow that is blasting spells at him.

Bolts of necrotic energy tear through the night air around him. Some sail wide and others pass disturbingly close.

Another clips him, sizzling through the collection of magic that composes his form. It’s a terrible sensation, a black, burning acid eating into him. 

Barry scrambles to the side, adjusting his attempt at escape frequently, zig zagging through the air at random intervals while trying to angle away from the populated areas to the north.

Whatever the lich had hit him with, he could feel a slow drain on his power. He doesn’t know what will happen if he can’t stop the advance of the corruption. For now he can’t deal with it, has to allow the gradual devouring of his magic while he focuses on evading the liches. 

An idea occurs to him and he darts to the southwest, speeding as much as he can manage, until they are over the long, miserable swamp near the coast. It’s the most desolate location he can think of. He crashes downward, hurtling through the trees without disturbing them. Behind him, he can hear the lich smashing through limbs and shaking every lurking creature around into alertness.

Another spell rockets past him. Barry can feel his power pulsating now, fluctuating wildly. His grip on his magic is slipping. If he doesn’t manage to shake Olga’zar soon, he may not have enough of himself left for the lich to obliterate. 

Please, he thinks as he dodges another spell and flies through the marsh. The thought is offered to no one in particular. It’s a plea without direction, a sucker’s prayer.

Still, it is answered. A rift tears open ahead of him. He speeds past it and whips to the left, sparing a glance behind him hopefully.

The reaper.

He circles around and double back, hoping Olga’zar doesn’t recognize the new player in their terrible dance.

Slowing, he allows the lich to gain on him. As he gets closer to the space where he’d seen the rift open, he pulls his magic as tightly as he can, making himself as small a target as he can. It’s a clumsy job. His power is fraying through his grip, the lich’s spell tearing it like tissue paper in water. 

“Hey!” he calls, hoping the reaper has his eye on him. The moonlight glints pale and ominous on the reaper’s blade as he turns, raising it. 

Instantly, Barry shifts his trajectory, shooting straight up. The blade’s curve matches the moon, Barry thinks strangely.

Olga’zar, immediately behind him and thinking he’d gained the advantage, does not adjust his as quickly.

There’s no chance for Barry to even turn to see what happens. There’s a tearing, ripping, rending sound, echoing through the night in a way such a sound should not be able to, reverberating louder as it travels. 

Power explodes around him.

For the second time that night, Barry flees.

Chapter Text

Barry does not stop moving. He can’t be sure what became of either the lich or the reaper but he has to assume both are still trailing him.

But his power is draining steadily, the spell the lich had hit him with eating away at his spectral form like some sort of wasting disease. 

He doesn’t dare return to the mausoleum. Leaving the cloning pod there unprotected makes him anxious but there’s nothing to do for it. Until he has a new place to transfer the set up to, he has to avoid it. Risk, risk, risk. Pros and cons, all to be weighed out and compared. 

Instead he has to consider what would make the right location for his new base. He needs someplace secure, defendable, hidden, private. A cave would be best, he decides. 

Days pass as he meticulously explores the nearby foothills. Finally, he knows just the location. The only problem is the band of gerblins already in residence.

Barry destroys them.

He scours the cave and every trace of the gerblins with black fire, eradicating all evidence of them. And then he begins the most important step: he wards the cave from detection of every kind he can manage. Making up for the lapse with the mausoleum, Barry uses every spell he’s learned, every trick he’s picked up in his decades of magic study. By the time he’s finished it should be nearly impossible to detect even if standing right at the entrance. Olga’zar, Lucretia, the reaper… none of them should be able to find it unless they directly follow him inside.

He retrieves his pod in the middle of the day, hoping that the daylight and remote location combined will work in his favor. 

Once he clears his equipment from the crypt, Barry destroys that as well. If anyone detects his magic, they’ll find only a barren site in the middle of an empty field.

It’s only once he’s back in his cave, setting up the cloning tank again, that he considers the actions that he’s taken. 

Olga’zar’s spell. It’s some sort of corruption curse. He’s eliminated an entire band of gerblins and razed the final resting place of innocent dead while it’s eaten at him.

He thinks of the bell, of what might have happened if he’d used it. If this is him tainted by a curse, he can’t imagine what he would have been capable of powered by the bell.

Barry summons his chest, still reeling from the realization. He has no way to cleanse the curse, he’ll have to wait for it to wear off. 

That’s fine, he thinks, though it doesn’t feel fine. He is always, always aware of time sliding past, of Lup somewhere out there, of another month/week/day/hour/second that he still hasn’t found her.

But he has to be smart. He needs to grow a new body. Spread out his maps. Plan. He has plenty to do here.

So for months, he does not leave his cave. 

 

—-

 

A man climbs out of a pod of glowing green water. He is naked. In a cave. There are clothes stacked nearby, a towel on top. Mystified by his circumstances but seeing no other alternative, he makes use of them. He doesn’t recognize the clothes but they fit and are similar enough to what he would choose for himself. 

A pair of glasses sits on top of a map and he pulls them on. Like the clothes, the fit is close enough without being specifically familiar. He studies the map and is distressed to find he can’t read many of the words. When he studies the individual letters they are clear enough but trying to piece words out of them makes his head swim and buzz. He gives up.

“Your name is Barry Bluejeans,” a voice tells him and he whips around, looking for the source. The voice is intimately familiar but there’s a quality he can’t parse. It sounds like him but a version of him that’s been through something he certainly can’t remember or understand. It sounds like him on the wrong side of a breakdown.

And the statement is as equally incomprehensible. Barry Bluejeans?

But as soon as he questions it there’s an answering certainty in his chest. Yes. His name is Barry Bluejeans.

The voice continues and Barry searches for the source. A small coin is somehow telling him, in his own voice or something close, that he needs to search for someone.

“Trust your gut,” the coin tells him. “You’ll know her when you find her.”

Again, a certainty deep in his chest echoes this sentiment. Someone is missing, someone important. The fact that he doesn’t remember her doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is finding her.

And so he searches. He leaves the cave and he wanders the world and he tries desperately to find this person his very soul seems to have shaped itself around. 

He despairs but does not stop. She is somewhere, she has to be. He can feel the fact of her solid and certain and missing. Her absence is more important than the holes in his memory and understanding.

Maybe if he can find her things will make sense again. 

 

—-

 

Another year, another body. Barry is driven by a desperation he doesn’t understand. He is climbing, using equipment he doesn’t remember buying and skills he doesn’t remember learning. 

His concentration slips for a moment and then so does his grip.

Barry is falling. There is no despair in the moment. It feels familiar.

A few moments later, a red robed spectre rises from his corpse. There is no one nearby to hear the scream of frustration, the broken curse that the being lets loose on the rocky landscape. 

It’s a clear, beautiful day, but lightning whips out, striking at the rocks and scrub brush vegetation.

Three years.

Three years have passed since Lup disappeared. Almost as long since he saw any of his family. 

He pulls back his magic, tightens his control, and lets his rage die down. 

He has to try new tactics. It’s time to implement the plan he first considered outside Refuge.

It’s time to try and help Lucretia.

Chapter Text

 

Deciding to help Lucretia was the easy part. Now he has to figure out how to make that happen when he can’t risk going near her.

Since relocating, he hasn’t felt the sweep of her searching spell. He has to believe that’s due to his magical wards - not that she’s stopped regularly trying to locate him.

If he’s going to help her get a relic, he has to find one. He has a collection of maps, each one tracking information about a relic. 

The Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, like its creator, is missing with no evidence of it in circulation since Lup disappeared.

As far as he can tell, The Temporal Chalice is still in Jack’s possession in Refuge. While that would be a simple relic to lead her to, he can’t risk the possibility that her collecting it might alter the deal he made with the chalice. That one should be saved until the end.

He’s relatively certain that Lucretia is already in possession of her own relic. He’s never seen any evidence of The Bulwark Staff in circulation.

The Philosopher’s Stone has recently been used but his attempts to track it out of its last known location have gone nowhere. 

The Gaia Sash hasn’t turned up lately. Its last use was months ago.

The same is true for the Oculus. The last time Barry is sure it was used was eight months ago.

Tracking the relics is difficult. With most of them, it can be hard to tell when an event should be attributed to them, especially when there aren't any reports of anyone being enthralled by something to set it off. There are still terrible calamities being caused by powerful magical beings. Not all of the relics are as definitively destructive as the gauntlet. There isn’t always a circle of black glass to indicate a relic has been used. It’s not always 700 people and the lingering smell of peppermint, sometimes it’s only one small family and questions that will never be answered.

He’s only one person, working alone, and sometimes he doesn’t even have the full access to his thoughts. Even when he’s in his lich form and knows what is going on and what to look for, he can’t be everywhere or track every piece of information. 

So, that leaves The Animus Bell. 

He knows where it is located, knows the pair who wield it. As soon as he parted with the bell, he made it part of his work to learn as much as he could about Edward and Lydia. He believes the liches are responsible for the anomaly he was originally tracking as part of he and Taako’s attempt to find Lup, back before… Before.

Since getting The Animus Bell, though, their operation seems to have really stepped up.

And now, with yet another body growing, Barry decides to go scout it out. He needs to figure out how to help Lucretia reclaim his relic. 

 

—-

 

The woods of the Felicity Wilds are so ferociously untamed that even though he sees a steady flow of people making their way through the trees, there are still no paths built up from their passage through the overgrowth.

Barry has pulled his magic down tight and close, using every trick he’s developed in the last few years to go undetected in his lich form. In their years of traveling, it wasn’t something he or Lup ever considered. There really wasn’t a need to evade discovery in as liches.

But now, trapped as a lich most of his time and with any number of threats ranging from Lucretia to the reaper, going unnoticed is one of the most important things he can manage. Being stopped by either of them would end his part in trying to fix all this.

So no one seems to notice the lich here in the woods with them. His ability to go unnoticed may not have anything to do with that, though. The people around him all seem single minded as they make their way through the woods, paying little attention to their surroundings or the others on a similar journey. 

Night falls and Barry passes a trio of orcs who have set up a camp. They sit huddled around their tiny fire. What catches Barry’s attention is the fact that they are staring at papers each hold tightly in their hands, staring so intently they seem transfixed. 

Moving closer, Barry peers over the shoulder of one orc, curious to see if there is some magic at play. 

What he sees doesn’t mean anything in particular to him. It’s a simple flyer advertising something called The Arbit of Tarkashi. Featured in the center is a sketch of some sort of jewelry; Barry is unsure if it’s a ring or a bracelet or some other circular adornment. Some sort of hexagonal stone sits in the center. It’s not a relic. It’s not anything he recognizes or has heard of. 

But when he examines it closer, hovering right over the orc’s shoulder (though he doesn’t seem to notice either because of how intently he is staring at the paper or because of Barry’s focus on being unobserved or some combination of the two) Barry notices a barely discernible haze of magic around it. There’s nothing active on it now, but at some point this thing had a spell on it. 

Circling the campfire and checking the other two orcs, Barry inspects their flyers as well. The youngest of the three has an advertisement for something called Nancer’s Cup. Again there is the faint shimmer of old magic around the paper. It’s the same with the third orc who’s slightly magicked paper proclaims The Star of Deytner to be waiting for him in Wonderland.

Wonderland. So that’s what this place is called. 

 

—-

 

Seeing the circus-like place the pair of liches have created using - at least in part - his bell, is sickening in every sense of the word. It runs his magic cold to see the amusement park style attraction they have made in order to pull people into whatever sort of game they are playing. 

Without a body, his memories still recall the twisting feeling of his stomach heaving at some terrible atrocity. 

To know this has been created not just of his relic but because he literally handed it over to them? It’s crushing. 

And he hasn’t even gone inside yet.

The building is a wide cylinder hulking on the landscape. There’s a clearing around the thing, filled with lights and signs. It’s disconcerting to see this thing sitting in the middle of what had otherwise been untamed land with ancient, enormous trees and unfathomable creatures dwelling beneath them. 

As he watches, he realizes it appears to be rotating and that this effect is also achieved via magic. Everywhere he looks there is some level of magic being used. The lights are magic. The black and white stripes circling the building are magic. The signs and flyers and even the way the area is cleared out in a perfect circle, all of it has been achieved with some level of magic. 

It’s a mind boggling level of magic being expended. 

The amount of magic going just to the superficial things out here hints at an unbelievable amount being used inside. If he helps Lucretia find this place then he’s also going to have to help her with whatever is inside. 

Which means he needs to find out exactly what that is. 

Barry approaches the building, still trying to get a sense of the place. Magic permeates the air as he gets closer. But it’s an odd sort of magic he doesn’t quite recognize. There’s a strange aspect to it, magic used in a way he’s not familiar with. If this were a cycle, he and Lup would be fascinated, would dedicate their year to investigating and possibly learning the skill. Now, though, with everything on the line and no partner, no crew, no regeneration back up, he has to be far more careful. 

So before attempting to enter the place, he waits. He watches. He spends an entire day just watching people enter. Even in this artificial clearing, very little sunlight makes it down to the ground. This makes no sense. He can look up and see sky - though it is a stormy, cloud obscured sky unlike the one he left when he entered the Felicity Wilds. Yet it seems light rarely makes it to the pale scrubgrass that covers the dirt around the building.

Circling the building provides no additional information. There’s only one door. 

And yet. After a full day of observing dozens of groups entering, he sees no one leave.

So he waits.

 

—-

 

—-

 

—-

 

—-

 

—-

 

—-

 

“Lup, I fucked up.”

Magic worn to tatters, his voice is thin, barely a shadow of his normal rough timbre. He’s back in his cave, staring at yet another magicked recording coin. He’s talked to her so much since she disappeared. He talked to her as he waited in the Felicity Wilds, weeks that turned into months that turned into he can’t even remember how long. 

He talked to her as he tracked Lucretia. He talked to her as he tried to figure out how to approach the woman who had once been his family but was now worse than a stranger, the woman who has spent years hunting not just relics, but hunting him too. He talked to Lup as he gave up on trying to talk to Lucretia. He talked to Lup as he arranged for Lucretia to receive one of the Wonderland flyers. He talked to Lup as he wondered what Lucretia would do about Davenport while she went after the Animus Bell.

He talked to her as he followed Lucretia into the Felicity Wilds. He talked to her as he watched Lucretia and her guide disappear inside.

He talked to her in Wonderland, at least in his head. He talked to her as he tried to find Lucretia inside. He talked to her as he learned about the place, about how it worked, about what they were using his bell for. He talked to her as he tore his way into their spells and set up. He talked to her as he did whatever he could to pull their attention onto him, away from the people they were torturing. He talked to her as he made sure their ‘Escape Game’ actually lead to an escape.

And he talked to her after. He talked to her about seeing Lucretia, alone, older, different. He talked to her as he made his way out of the Felicity Wilds. He talked to her as he returned to his cave.

Talking to Lup is how he copes, how he processes things, how he tries to hold her close even after so long since he’s seen her. 

But recording a coin letter to her feels less futile. When he talks to her this way, he’s a man speaking to his absent love. Without the coin he’s just a ghost talking to himself.

His thoughts are wandering; it’s evidence of more control slipping away from him. 

“Five years, Lup. You’ve been gone for five years. Five years and I’m no closer to finding you now than I was the day I woke up alone.”

He doesn’t know how to begin to explain everything that’s happened. How can he tell her the havoc his bell has caused? He made it and then he wasn’t strong enough to keep it himself. He gave it to them and they still have it. 

“Lucretia’s older now. I mean, we saw her look 19 for so long. Five years was a big change. But somehow… I don’t know how it happened. I wasn’t with her, that’s not how it worked and I didn’t know. I should have - I fucked it all up, Lup. She made some kind of wager in there because when she came out even older.

“She lost years, they still have the bell, we barely got out. I don’t think anyone had ever gotten out before.”

He’s not explaining any of this properly and it’s just one more thing he can’t do, one more task he’s fucking up.

Barry is exhausted. He’d never known that was possible in lich form but he knows now that it is. He’s been a lich for months now, burned away his magic until he feels like less than nothing. He’s a ghost’s shadow. He’s a voidfished memory. He’s the lover without his love, the man who has held onto nothing but hope and determination for five years and has forgotten what those things are now.

If he had a form, he’d be slumped on the floor, head in hands, too exhausted to even cry. If he had a body, he’d throw the coin across the cave. It’s not Lup.

It’s not Lup and he needs her right now. He needs her in a way the word ‘need’ was never meant to hold. He misses his family, misses the ease of having a body, misses the time when he didn’t have to constantly struggle to hold himself together. But ‘miss’ doesn’t come close to describing how much he longs for Lup. He yearns. He craves. Every shred of his soul demands her.

He’s driven himself so hard on a gas tank filled with nothing but hope, hope that one day he’d see her again. Every moment has been built on that hope, hope that she’d be safe, be happy, be reunited with her brother. That she’d be.

“Where are you Lup?” 

The coin dutifully records his words but his voice is almost unrecognizable to anyone who knows him.

He is a broken man. 

 

—-

 

Time passes. If he had room in his thoughts, if he had the ability to feel anything other than the literally soul crushing weight of Lup’s absence, he might be worried about how far past the edge he is. 

His emotional bonds, the love and devotion that have anchored him in a form never meant to hold stable without a body, can’t contain his despair. 

For an indeterminable amount of time he simply exists on a razor thing edge. The only reason he hasn’t lost the tenuous hold on himself still in his grip is because that tenuous hold is Lup. 

And he’ll never let her go.

So he exists. He exists because he loves Lup and while he can - and has - given up on himself, he can’t give up on her.

Chapter Text

He wakes up in a tank of green fluid. 

Sputtering, he climbs out, dripping the stuff all over the cave floor.

A cave.

What the hell?

A voice speaks and he jumps, squinting in the darkness for the source. He does not remember ever feeling so vulnerable. He is naked, wet, and without his glasses. 

And he is angry.

“Your name is Barry Bluejeans,” the voice tells him.

“The fuck it is,” he responds. 

What kind of bullshit is this?

The way a deep and insistent part of him reacts to the pronouncement only makes him angrier. 

There’s a glowing lamp on some sort of desk and he moves towards that as an easy target with his restricted visuals. As he approaches, the voice is louder. 

On the desk, he can make out a pair of glasses, a dark mass that might be clothes, and a circle of some dark, glimmering metal. He takes the glasses, fumbles them onto his face, and then stares at the coin.

Because that’s what it is, a coin. A coin that seems to be speaking to him. And it’s using his voice.

He puts his hand over the coin and the sound is muffled somewhat but still easily heard. He paws it to the ground, pushing it off the desk like an irritated housecat. 

The voice keeps speaking but he tunes it out. 

Now that he has glasses on, he looks around the room - cave - more. There’s the tank he climbed out of, the desk he’s now hunched over, a chest, a small bookcase, and an enormous board affixed to the wall that is covered in maps and notes. 

More importantly, the dark mass on the desk is clothes. 

“No fucking towel,” he grumbles. But he begins pulling the clothes on, further irritated by the feeling of trying to put unfamiliar garments on his still wet body. Dark green shirt of some material he doesn’t recognize, boxers, and a pair of jeans all fit him despite the awkwardness of wet skin. 

He looks at the maps on the bulletin board. There are towns and mountain ranges and lakes with names he had never heard of. More disturbingly, there are notes written on the maps, on strips of tape along the edges, and on papers pinned into place; he can read none of them. The individual letters or sometimes a word or two are easy enough to make out but the full meaning of the text swims in his head like a heat mirage, impossible to grasp.

It’s more stuff making him irrationally angry. Something is going on that he doesn’t understand. Infuriatingly, his normally ordered and scientific mind can’t even come up with where to begin to approach the situation. 

The chest has a belt as well as a pair of socks and boots waiting for him. He pushes these aside and tries to open the chest. There’s no mechanism he can see, no lock to force. Running his hand over the front of the thing, he can feel a tingle of something he assumes must be magic of some sort. Standing, he kicks the thing in frustration, earning himself a stubbed toe for his efforts. 

He’s practically growling with the most foul mood he’s ever had. Dropping heavily to sit on the chest, he reaches for the socks and boots.

The speaking coin that he’d tuned out utters a pair of sentences that somehow lance through him despite his efforts to ignore the cursed object.

“Barry,” the coin tells him in his own voice, “that weight belongs to a love you do not remember. She’s out there somewhere and she needs you to do this.”

Instead of picking up the socks, he finds himself doubled over, arms wrapped around his middle, as the anger and hostility that has been rippling off him suddenly alchemizes into a grief so keen he can barely breathe.

I’m not Barry, he tries to argue against the onslaught of misery. I don’t love…  

Even just thinking the words is impossible. 

Whatever happened between the life he understood, the life he remembers, and ending up in this cave full of things that make no sense, it included loving someone. 

It’s the only thing he knows.

And it is no comfort.

 

—-

 

Eventually his tears run out. With little in the way of options, he puts on the socks and boots, feeds the studded leather belt through the loops of his jeans, and considers his situation.

He doesn’t know what the coin had been telling him. The anger and frustration, the confusion, and all of his surroundings had overridden his normal scientific instincts for patience and observation. All he knows is the ridiculous name and that the emptiness inside him that feels like he swallowed a black hole is because he loves someone he doesn’t remember.

Reclaiming the coin from the cave floor, he can find no way to make it replay its message. 

He looks around the cave and his eyes catch on the tank he’d climbed out of. In the dim light of the single lamp, it’s hard to make out many details about the thing.

Returning to the desk, he grabs the lamp. It’s not a lantern. There’s no conventional light source inside: no candle, no oil wick, no battery powered bulb. It has that same dull tingly feeling that the chest did.

More magic. It’s another in the growing list of things that don’t make sense. 

The lamp seems stable enough, though, so he picks it up and brings it closer to the tank. Carefully, slowly, with all the years of scientific research experience he does still remember, he examines the tank.

If waking up in a cave, being told by a coin that his name is Barry, finding letters he can read spelling words he can’t fathom, and hearing the incomprehensible void in his chest belongs to a love he doesn’t remember hadn’t all been enough - been far, far too much actually - then realizing this thing is a cloning tank might be the final straw.

His knees buckle and he crashes gracelessly to the floor of the cave. The lamp slips from his grip and bangs to the floor as well. It stays lit but some fundamental working inside the thing has been jarred and it dims considerably.

The dark closes in around him and he scrambles forward. He’s in a cave, as safe from a tornado as anything could be. But it doesn’t matter. With the light dimmed, all he can think of is their house when he was a kid, of hiding in the basement, of the tornado, of the destroyed house groaning overhead as the rubble shifted, of the fear of being crushed, lost, trapped in the darkness forever. 

With the lamp in one hand, he clumsily gets to his feet. The pale pool of light is barely enough to make out his surroundings. Anything more than a few feet away is little more than a suggestion of a shape, lost in the darkness. 

Everything feels sinister and terrible. 

It’s a terrible hour of clambering his way out of the cave, of the narrow twists and turns and rocky incline. Finally, he’s outside.

The sun is setting. 

It’s too much.

There’s no towns on the horizon that he can see in the waning light, not even so much as a single house in sight. He can’t bear to return to the cave but the impending darkness feels like a living thing coming to swallow him.

And worse than all of that, there’s a certainty gaining voice inside him that every minute he wastes, there are others who are in danger, people he’s letting down because of his shortcomings.

He’s used to not feeling good enough. Science has been the only area he’s ever felt comfortable. But this new conviction that people he cares about are suffering because of his failings is worse than everything else that has happened today.

Everything I can remember happening today, he mentally amends. Because if this is evening, he has no idea what the morning consisted of. How he ended up in a cave, in a cloning tank…

Oh.

Realizing the tank’s purpose had given him the information but somehow it’s only now, in the cooling air of what feels like an autumn evening, under the last touch of the day’s sun, clutching a dimming lamp to his chest like a life preserver, he understands the other half of that equation. The lamp’s dwindling light and the threat of darkness in the cave had driven the thought from his head but it’s back now, back in full force.

He’s a clone. The memories he has aren’t actually his. The voice on the coin that he thinks of as his voice, that’s who probably owns these memories.

His fear of the dark isn’t his. That thought should be freeing but it’s not. It doesn’t loosen his grip on the dying lamp, doesn’t make the long night ahead of him any easier to face. 

Does that mean he’s not Sildar Hallwinter? Again, that insistence in his chest tells him things that make no sense. He both is and is not Sildar Hallwinter. He both is and is not a scientist and teacher. He both is and is not a clone.

 

—-

 

The sun sets, darkness takes over, and he stumbles across the landscape with a strange and silent coin in his pocket and the waning light of a magic lamp in his arms. 

Above him, two moons rise. 

For a long time he stands motionless, studying them. One is waxing, the left quarter of it impossible to see. The other is full. 

The memories that he has - the memories that likely do not actually belong to him, he realizes - include a lifetime of study of, among many other things, astronomy. Two moons so close together in the sky should not be able to be in different phases. 

And then a very strange thing happens. In the course of the day he’s having, it’s barely a blip. 

The moon flickers. Then part of it goes entirely dark for a few breaths before abruptly lighting once more. 

The thought that crosses his mind, a thought that comes with an attached dose of hysterical laughter, is: That’s no moon.

Chapter Text

“Barry?” 

He doesn’t mean to turn towards the voice. He still isn’t ready to accept that as his name. But he can’t stop the impulsive response. 

A man about ten years older than him is aiming a hesitant smile at him. He’s stocky with broad shoulders and salt and pepper hair that is running far more in the ‘salt’ direction in his closely trimmed beard. The hesitant smile turns broad as ‘Barry’ looks at him. 

“I thought that was you! Shit, buddy, you haven’t changed a bit!”

The wide, genuine smile elevates him from a soft sort of tired, rough, minor kind of handsome to a low dazzle of attractive. For the first time since waking up in that horrible tank in that stupid cave, ‘Barry’ finds himself hoping he’s gotten everything wrong. If this stranger knows him, really knows him, maybe things aren’t so bad. 

But how could he forget someone that’s clearly so glad to see him? His shoulders square as he begins to respond, “Sorry, I think you have the wrong -”

His words are cut off in surprise as the man wraps him in a hug. He should stop the man, should push him away, should clear up the mistake. But he can’t remember the last time he was hugged and it feels so fucking good to be enveloped in warmth and camaraderie. The stiffness in his shoulders fades slightly and his arms return the embrace awkwardly. He’s surprised to find tears springing to his eyes. 

“I’m sorry,” Barry tells him as he relinquishes his grasp. “I don’t…” The words stall. He desperately does not want to tell this man that he doesn’t remember him. 

“You said we’d see each other again,” the man says. The smile crinkles the weathered lines at his eyes. “And here we are. How have you been?”

That’s the question that breaks him. How has he been? He has no idea. The memories that may or may not be his own have an obvious gap in them. It’s a chasm, really. A gaping maw that has swallowed whatever happened between the completely normal life he understood and the one that has been thrust onto him since waking in the cave, a life with bizarre tanks, speaking coins, and moons that blink out as if they are under construction.

“I don’t know,” he answers honestly. “I… I don’t know … anything.” The tears that had begun prickling his eyes flood forward and he’s both ashamed and gladdened to have the man instantly wrap his arms around him again. 

“Come on,” the man tells him, “let’s head back to the inn. I’ll make coffee and - hey, I’ve got some of that cake you liked, just made it this morning - and we’ll talk. We’ll sort this out.”

The image this conjures is tempting: a warm kitchen, a friendly face, coffee, cake, a sympathetic ear. 

But it’s wrong and there’s a part of him that knows it, that protests even as he lets himself be led forward. 

Is it so wrong, he thinks, to accept comfort?

That same piece of him - piece of someone - insists it might be, might be something he’d regret, will cause problems and issues and should be avoided. But it’s the same part that insists he both is and is not Sildar Hallwinter, that tells him everything will make sense if he’ll just do what he’s supposed to do.

But I don’t KNOW what I’m supposed to do, he thinks, feeling like a petulant but angry child. I decide. Not some voice on a coin. I don’t know who that guy is.

So, with the warm arm of a stranger wrapped around his shoulders, he allows himself to be guided down the street and into a large building.

A bell rings as they open the door and Barry startles at the sound. It’s just a simple chime, nothing unusual, but it grips him with terror. His hand shoots out and grasps his companion’s arm, fingers wrapping tightly both for reassurance and in a kind of protection. 

“What is it?” the man asks.

Barry doesn’t explain, just lifts his other hand and grabs the bell, yanking it down from the string above the door. He braces himself at the touch, expecting something terrible to happen.

Nothing does. It’s just a bell. Nothing special at all.

It’s just a bell. The thought doesn’t make him feel any better. Nor does repeating it. 

Finally, he turns, feeling the man’s eyes watching him. 

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Barry answers, though he’s as far from okay as he can ever remember being. He hands the bell to the man without explanation.

Accepting it, the man looks down at the bell in his hand, at the fingers Barry still has wrapped around his wrist, and tucks the bell into his pocket without further question. 

Reluctantly, Barry releases the man’s wrist. He coughs, feeling more out of sorts than he did when he woke up in the tank. 

Barry opens his mouth to apologize. Bizarrely, what comes out of his mouth is, “Did you know there’s a fake moon?”

The man laughs and again, the effect is like that smile earlier. The expression subtracts years from his face and pushes him into ‘handsome’ territory. 

“My friend,” the man says, “it’s almost as much a mystery as you.”

 

—-

 

The man leads him to the kitchen at the back of the building - the inn, it seems - and settles Barry at a battered and charmingly appealing table. As the man busies himself with coffee preparations, Barry steels himself to admit he doesn’t know who this kind and caring person is.

It feels terrible. Despite all his anger and frustration of the last few days, the feelings that have longed for some kind of outlet, the last thing he wants is to hurt or even disappoint anyone.

Except maybe that voice on the coin, he thinks. Whoever that is, he can rot for all I care. I hate him and what he’s done to me.

The man seats himself across from Barry and raises his own coffee mug in a silent toast before taking a sip. 

“I grated some nutmeg in it,” he offers with a smile. “You got me hooked on that. And there’s enough sugar to make a horse diabetic in yours, just like you like.”

Barry frowns. He doesn’t remember putting nutmeg in his coffee. He doesn’t even really like coffee but he does like it sweet when he’s chasing caffeine. He picks up his cup and tastes it hesitantly. A wave of something he wants to call nostalgia hits him so strongly he can’t even swallow the mouthful of liquid. His throat is too tight with - is that grief?

Sitting the cup back on the table, he struggles to get the coffee down around the emotion strangling him. 

“You okay?” the man asks him, putting his own cup down as well. “You seem…” He spreads his empty hands in the air and shrugs. “Lost?”

“I…” Barry takes another sip of his coffee and is knocked mildly off kilter again by the taste. “It’s…” He takes a deep breath and plunges forward. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know you. I don’t know me to be honest. I really don’t know what’s going on.”

Barry ducks his eyes, focusing on the coffee cup to avoid seeing whatever response - hurt - might be in the man’s eyes. He feels awful, a coward. 

“Frank,” the man offers softly. “Frank Texican. Most people call me Tex but you always called me Frank.”

“Frank,” Barry repeats. The name isn’t familiar. “I’m sorry.” He forces himself to lift his eyes and meet the man’s - meet Frank’s - gaze.

Frank’s shoulders drop almost imperceptibly but he offers a rueful smile, tugged up on one side. “Well,” he says, leaning back in his chair, arms stretched out on the table in front of him, clasping his cup tightly enough to make the tips of his fingers go white. “I guess I was starting to realize that you didn’t remember me.” He shrugs. “It’s been what - six years? - since you left, though.”

“Six years…” Barry repeats. Is it possible that much time has vanished? Or is it just more evidence he’s a clone with implanted memories? That he never existed before ‘waking up’ in that tank? Then what is the explanation for this emptiness inside him that pulls at him with the weight of a thousand black holes? What would be the point in recreating someone like him?

He looks up at Frank. “Do you have anything stronger?” he asks, gesturing at his coffee mug. “If you don’t mind…”

Frank gives a tired huff of laughter. “Yeah, I think I can do something about that.”

 

—-

 

Frank gets up to check in some guests - a young orc couple that are passing through. 

Barry waits in the kitchen. He is uncharacteristically drunk. Or maybe it is in character for whoever he is now. He’s a bit too inebriated to care about the particulars. 

He hasn’t told Frank his theory for why he doesn’t remember him. It’s too ridiculous to be true, isn’t it? Saying it outloud would only make him a bigger fool. So he puts off the topic and chases understanding at the bottom of a glass.

It doesn’t make him feel better. In fact, the more he drinks, the more that weight inside him seems to scream at him to get up, get over his bullshit, stop feeling sorry for himself, and do something. 

If these memories aren’t mine, he decides, then I don’t owe anyone anything.

He picks up his glass and drains it. 

Frank is drinking as well but he’s mostly talking. Barry doesn’t mind, it takes the pressure off of him to participate. And he has nothing to offer the conversation. What can he say? ‘I woke up in a cave in some weird fucking tank and nothing has made sense after that?’ Not exactly conducive to friendly discussion. So he drinks and lets Frank tell him about things they - or that Frank and some other person with his face - discussed. He tells Barry about things that have happened in the years since he saw him, and eventually, several drinks in, begins a hesitant apology for something that of course Barry has no recollection of. 

“It’s fine,” Barry says, waving his hand. “That was a long time ago. Happened to some other guy. You can’t worry about it.” He laughs at his own joke. Some other guy, indeed. 

If that wasn’t me and I’m some fresh clone of a guy who left me a body blueprint and a set of memories that don’t link to my current circumstances, he thinks with the kind of combination of anxiety and humor that he thinks are probably some kind of baked in setting for this body or this set of memories, then am I underage drinking? 

The thought churns his stomach but also makes him laugh. 

What does it matter?  

That thought is less funny. 

He pushes his empty glass away from himself. “I should get going,” he says, trying to stand. “I, uh, it’s late.”

“Don’t be r’diclous,” Frank slurs. “Stay here. Upstairs.” He laughs and drains his own glass before clunking it heavily back onto the table. “Ya can have yer old room,” he tells Barry, and then laughs as if this is one of life’s funniest jokes. 

Barry lurches unsteadily to his feet. He can barely stay standing while holding the chair and he has nowhere to go. “I guess I’m gonna have to take you up on that offer.”

Frank laughs again, a cheery sound that’s interrupted by a hiccup. Despite everything that has happened, every terrible thing burning and empty inside him, the sound makes Barry smile.

 

—-

 

Even drunk and exhausted from long days of walking and spinning thoughts, Barry can’t sleep. He lays on the bed, unwilling to even turn out the light, unable to relax enough to undress and get under the blankets. 

The building settles silently around him. The gentle sounds of the place feel familiar but he refuses to put stock in that fact. It could be any quiet place in the middle of the night while all the other occupants are asleep.

His thoughts return to the same circles he’s already worn thin in the days since waking up in the tank.

Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing? Why would someone clone someone like... me? Him? Us? 

What is this weight inside me? 

There’s a new thought added to the mix now; what was I doing here before that Frank recognized me?

Somehow the worst question swirling through his muddled thoughts is, why do I feel so lonely I can barely breathe?

He’s drunk, exhausted, and miserable but none of it stops him from noticing a sound that doesn’t belong. It sounds like the front door opening. There’s no chiming bell thanks to him, but the whine of the hinge is cut off then followed by noisy, insistent whispers. 

Dread, thick and awful, twists inside of him. He eases himself off the bed as silently as possible. Cursing under his breath, he cuts the light. Darkness seems to wrap around him with a cold, strangling hand.

He forces himself to slow his breathing while he waits for his eyes to adjust. Once he’s able to make out his surroundings enough to find the door, he opens it minutely, just enough to listen. When that lets him know there’s no one in the hallway, he opens it enough to glance down the hall towards the stairs. 

Whoever is here is still downstairs. There’s been no stirring from the direction he heard Frank go so he’s sure it’s not the owner himself. Frank must be asleep and either way his drinking seemed to have left him much worse for the wear than Barry’s. 

Maybe it’s nothing but the sick feeling twisting through him doesn’t think so. He makes his way out of the bedroom and into the hallway. Each step is slow and careful, trying not to alert the intruders that anyone knows they are here.

At the top of the stairs, he can hear the voices much clearer. He is able to make out at least two voices and from one of those voices the words “burn it” and, hauntingly, “kill the fuckers.”

That’s enough for him. He retreats down the hall. Frank and the couple who checked in earlier need to be warned. He goes for Frank first. The couple hadn’t even seen him and he has no idea what room they are in. The most likely location for Frank is up the smaller staircase on the far end where he heard the man moving about after giving Barry a room. 

Barry is a large man and moving stealthily isn’t in his skillset, much less doing it quickly. Still, motivation lends him inspiration and he makes it up the stairs to the owner’s suite without sign of alarm from below. 

He pushes Frank’s door open and moves inside. 

“Frank!” he whispers as loudly as he dares. There’s no response from the figure snoring on the bed so he approaches him and shakes him. 

“Whasgoin on?” Frank asks. 

“Shhh,” Barry warns. “There’s someone here. It’s… I don’t think it’s good. You need to get that couple awake and get out.”

“Whadarya…”

“Frank.” Barry drops the whisper for a low command. “I need you to wake up and pay attention. You have to get that couple out. I’ll go buy us some time.”

The demand in Barry’s voice seems to cut through the sleep and drink haze. 

“Okay,” he answers, sitting up. 

Barry looks around. This room has more light filtering in the window from the moons overhead and it’s easier for him to see the man’s clothes discarded on the floor. He picks them up and tosses them to Frank. “Get them out,” he insists again. “I think they’re in the kitchen so go out the front.” 

At the door he stops and looks back, “Raise the alarm with your neighbors or something.”

Then he twists the handle and lets himself out.

He creeps back down the steps to the second floor then down that hall to the main stairwell. He counts to twenty, hoping Frank dresses quickly, then rushes down the stairs, heedless of the noise his speed creates. 

Rounding the bannister on the ground floor, Barry charges down the hallway towards the kitchen. There's light beyond that door and no sign of them elsewhere. He pushes open the swinging door forcefully, hoping by some lucky break he’ll catch one of them near it and stop whatever is going on. He has just enough time to wish he’d stopped to find some kind of weapon.

Three men are inside, two of them dwarves and the other a human. One of them has a burning torch and the curtains over the sink bear his handiwork. They’ve already been half burned away and the wall above is scorched, thick smoke has begun to fill the room. Barry pulls his shirt up over his mouth and nose as coughing already threatens him.

Even after tossing aside stealth, Barry has clearly surprised them. He pushes this advantage and, screaming, rushes the one with the torch, marking that as the most immediate threat.

He’s not wrong. The torch is an immediate threat. But there’s another pressing threat in the human he passes as he rushes the dwarf to seize the flame. 

Something hits him from behind, right below his ribs, just as he grabs for the torch. Pain blossoms from the spot and Barry crashes into the dwarf. Surprised, the dwarf lets him wrest the torch from his grip. 

“Who the fuck is this guy?” someone behind him says.

“Who cares?” answers the dwarf Barry had just relieved of his torch. He yanks open the back door and disappears into the night.

Barry whirls with the torch brandished in front of him, ready to take on the other two. Instead, the two push past him, following their friend out the back door. Which is especially good for Barry because that small movement has turned the strange pain in his side into a pulse of pain spreading quickly along that half of his body.

Stumbling, Barry manages to make it to the sink. Grabbing one of the cups he and Frank had been drinking from just an hour or two earlier, Barry fills it with water and begins dousing the curtains and wall. He manages to fling water at the flames twice before his ability to stand disappears. 

The glass slips from his hand and crashes to the floor; he’s on the floor as well before he even knows what’s happening.

“Barry!” Frank yells as he barrels through the door. Two orcs follow him through the door and then more people that Barry can’t keep track of.

“Three guys - two dwarves and a human,” he tells him. And then he’s coughing. The pain spreads again and dimly, Barry thinks, I must be lying in the broken glass. There must have been water still in the glass. 

Frank pulls the shirt down from his face. It had slipped off his nose but still covered his mouth. The man’s face tells Barry something he wasn’t understanding. It’s not water and he wasn’t just hit.

“You’re bleeding,” Frank says. “Don’t move.”

“Don’t let them get away,” Barry tries to say. The words come out sounding mushy and soft. He tries again. 

Frank shushes him. 

“No,” he insists. “They’ll come back.” He can feel the intensity on his own face. It’s important. If they get away then they might come back.

“Don’t talk,” Frank tells him, taking his hand. “Help is coming.”

Two men step over them and go out the door. All Barry can do is hope they are after whoever did this, that they’ll catch them before something worse happens. 

There must be too many people crowding into the kitchen; they’re blocking the lights. 

“It’s dark,” Barry says, clutching Frank’s hand.

And then the darkness swallows him.

 

—-

 

Dying in a crowded room is unfortunate for his lich self. There’s at least ten witnesses when he rises from his newly deceased corpse.

He knows it would be best to make himself scarce, would benefit everyone if he used his newly restored power and mobility to track down the people who would have burned them all alive.

There’s something he needs to do first.

“Frank,” he says, trying to fill his voice with authority even as guilt and remorse fill him, seeing the way the man holds his body’s hand tightly and bends over him. “I told you before, you gotta sell this place and travel.”

And then he’s gone. He didn’t accomplish any of his intended goals this time. But he was in the right place at the right time for once. And now he can be in the right place again.

A red robed spectre drifts through the darkness. Before the night is through, he’ll have made one tiny bit of the world better. It’s as much as he can hope for. 

Chapter Text

Barry Bluejeans has made mistakes. 

It’s the coin’s fault, really.

All the weirdness inherent in his situation when he woke up: the cave, the tank, the confusion in his memory? Even the talking coin itself - none of that seemed to matter when the coin spoke to him, specifically when it told him, “I think she’s there and I think she needs us. She needs you, Barry.”

So, with no further explanation on who ‘she’ was or what sort of help he’d be able to provide, Barry had followed the coin’s directions.

Truthfully, he’d needed no explanation. There was a weight inside him, an emptiness that spoke of a loss he couldn’t explain. That had to be who he was looking for, had to be the mysterious woman who needed him.

That urgency had led him to follow directions that made no more sense than the situation he found himself in. Waking up in a tank, in a cave, no idea how he’d gotten there or who the faceless person in his heart might be? Following directions that made even less sense: find Gundren Rockseeker, get hired as his bodyguard, do whatever was necessary to get on the team going with the dwarves as they sought out their claim on some hold of dwarven treasures?

Sure. Why not? Let’s go. She might be there. She might need him.

Except long before they reached the place Gundren’s map - a map that his blood filled in, proving his claim on the hidden vault they were searching for - they were overwhelmed. 

He’d fought. Automatically his body had dropped into a fighting position to counter the gerblins that swarmed them. The enormous mace in his hands felt a bit out of place but the fighting? That didn’t feel so wrong.

He and the three dwarves had held off the gerblins for a bit. When Nundro fell, the other two brothers had continued to fight but it wasn’t long before the four of them were overpowered. 

Now Barry is floating somewhere between conscious and unconscious, drifting further and further from conscious as the moments pass.

Something filters through the haze that has taken up residence in this brain. A voice that he doesn’t recognize but feels a surge of familiarity at the sound of says low and nearly imperceptibly, “... cause I don’t fucking cotton to that.”

Deep inside that cavernous space in his chest, it’s like a warm fire has been lit. Words that moments ago he’d have thought foreign and impossible drift through his scattered thoughts: Friends. Rescue. Family.

There’s a brief scuffle, then the largest of the gerblins has grabbed him. The extensive collection of injuries he’d gathered screams in protest at the treatment but the noise doesn’t translate to actual sound. Instead the pain erases that blurry line he’d been holding between consciousness and oblivion. 

The last thing he’s aware of is that brief flame of hope that had built inside him being scattered as he hears that same maddeningly unknown yet familiar voice say, “Do either of you have any idea who Barry Bluejeans is, or care?”

 

—-

 

Later, after they do in fact rescue him, after riding with them back to town in the wagon full of Gundren’s supplies, after hours spent lost in contradictory thoughts, Barry stands and watches Taako, Magnus, and Merle leave.

He’s listened to the coin again.

And he hates it.

Like the coin’s directions to secure the job with the Rockseekers, avoiding getting close to people is an instruction he doesn’t understand the reasoning of. But at least when he’d gone after the position with the dwarves, he’d thought he was going to find the person that weight in his chest insisted was missing.

Now he just feels dumb. 

Who was he supposed to be in love with? What did he know about such a feeling? It was ridiculous, as ridiculous as whatever threat the coin imagined might come from befriending people. 

And riding with those three had been the first time in… well, he’s not sure how long, actually, that he’d felt at home. 

The wagon gets further and further away. The weight in his chest seems to get bigger and heavier with each turn of their wheels.

There’s nothing to do about it now. And what he’d told Taako hadn’t been entirely bullshit: he wasn’t going to be much use if he just died. The healing potion they’d given him had kept him from death but the broken ribs he’s certain he has would have been a heavy impediment if he’d gone with them. And that’s hardly the end of his injuries. Maybe when they come back he’ll see if they still need any help.

Of course, once they find Gundren and the Rockseeker treasure vault, they won’t have much need of him.

Barry returns to the inn. It’s a nice, comforting place. He talks to the owner for a bit - the man had bought the place only a few months ago for his retirement - then heads up to his room to rest.

 

—-

 

Ten hours before the destruction of Phandalin:

A few hours of broken sleep don’t improve his situation much. He wakes up with his ribs aching and breathing difficult. After using the bathing facilities, he pulls on clothes that aren’t exactly what his sensibilities want to call ‘clean’ but are less, well, gerblin-y. How do they live in those grubby caves, he wonders. Then he remembers where he woke up a few weeks ago and decides he doesn’t have much room to cast aspersions. 

He returns to his room and dumps the clothes on the floor, unwilling to mix them in with the rest of his clothing that’s still serviceable. Looking around the room, he makes a decision. It’s tricky with his ribs, not to mention the extensive collection of bruises and other injuries, but he strips the linens from the bed and piles them with the clothes. 

Carrying the laundry downstairs is also difficult. Pausing a few stairs down, he leans against the wall and catches his breath. It’s a reminder that he probably wouldn’t have been much use if he’d gone with the boys after Gundren, but it’s cold comfort. 

Once he makes it down the stairs, he follows the hallway back through the dining room and into the kitchen. 

“Hey,” he says, greeting the owner. “I hope you don’t mind but I stripped the bed cause, uh, well, I was kinda grubby when I slept in it last night.”

The man looks up, surprised, then laughs. “I’ve had adventurers stay here before. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, if you’d show me where, I’d take care of it. Especially if you wouldn’t mind my clothes being thrown in as well. Cause my other option is to just burn them.” The phrase is out of his mouth before he considers it but he finds himself wincing at the term “burn them.”

“Also not necessary but since it saves me a trip up the stairs I’ll take you up on it.” The man leaves off the plate of vegetables he’s cutting, and stands. Approaching Barry, he offers his hand before realizing Barry’s arms are full.

“You’re Barry, right?” the man asks. “I’m Ted. Come on through, and I’ll show you where the machines are.”

Barry nods at the question then gestures to the door at the far side of the kitchen. “Through there, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ted answers. “Guess it’s kinda obvious, I suppose.”

Barry shrugs. He’s certain if he goes through the door there’ll be a blue shelf to the left, spattered with white paint down one side. He can’t explain the image and doesn’t try.

Ted leads him through anyway, holding the door open. Barry dumps the clothes into an ancient looking machine and reaches automatically for the laundry powder on the shelf above then adjusts the dials and gets the thing filling with water.

“You musta used one of these machines before,” Ted observes. “I had lessons on the thing when I bought the place and it still took me a month to get the hang of it.”

Barry looks at the machine then shrugs. His hands had just done it automatically. He straightens and coughs, grabbing at his side reflexively as pain blooms through his chest. 

“You okay?” Ted asks, concern clear in his kind voice.

“Yeah,” Barry manages to respond between shallow breaths. Despite the pain, despite the coin’s directions, despite the fact that he’s standing still and barely able to draw a full breath, he’s still kicking himself for not going with the boys. 

He looks at Ted and there’s a desperation in his eyes that he’s unable to mask. “Ted,” he asks, that same desperation just as naked in his voice as the brown eyes behind his glasses, “give me something to do. I need to keep myself busy.”

Ted, may all the gods bless him, doesn’t question the request. He’s silent for a moment, weighing the situation probably, but then he simply shrugs. “There’s not much at the moment, actually. You’re the only guest at the moment.”

Barry’s shoulders fall and Ted hastens to add, “But there’s always stuff to do in a big place like this. I have to admit I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself in for when I bought the place.”

He reaches a hand out and places it on Barry’s forearm, a simple, warm reassuring touch that hits Barry like a battlewagon. “We’ll find something to keep you occupied.”

 

—-

 

Five hours before the destruction of Phandalin:

Barry helps Ted clean up after the small lunch they shared. He’s spent the day doing odd jobs around the inn. There’s been no new guests so, true to Ted’s word, there hasn’t been that much to do. 

“Look,” Ted says as he puts the last of the newly washed dishes in the drain rack. “There’s not likely to be anyone showing up before nightfall so let’s head over to the bar. I think you could use both the drink and the distraction, my friend.”

Barry wipes down the table and counters then shakes out the cloth over the garbage bin. “I think you’ve got a deal,” he agrees. He hangs up the dishrag and checks his pocket. There’s still a few gold coins there and a healthy assortment of silver and copper to boot. His fist closes over the speaking coin. It’s been silent for days now but it’s presence both reassures and makes him nervous. “But you need to let me buy,” he counters.

Ted smiles and nods. “Sure. Twist my arm.”

They head out, pausing at the front door to let Ted tuck a sign into the window requesting guests inquire next door for help.

Overhead the sun is bright. Barry shivers, though, setting his ribs aching again. He can’t explain the bad feeling growing stronger any more than he can explain the weight of loss that sits in his chest nestled deep below his busted ribs. 

Suddenly whiskey seems like the best idea he’s ever heard.

 

—-

 

Two hours before the destruction of Phandalin:

Studying the chessboard, Barry pulls off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He’s been nursing his second whiskey for an hour now. The game has been a good distraction for most of the afternoon. He, Ted, and the barkeep - a dwarf named Carson - have taken turns sizing up against each other. Both Ted and Carson are skilled at the game. They’ve each won once and this game against Carson looks to give the bartender a second win. 

Barry’s attention is increasingly hard to keep focused on the game. He’s gotten up several times now to wander to the front window and look out. Each time there’s been nothing but a handful of people going about their business. Nothing unusual at all that he can tell. But he can’t shake the feeling that something bad has happened and something bad is on it’s way.

Over the years he’s had premonitions now and again - though he hates thinking of them with that label - but this is too nonspecific. Bad. An increasing sense of dread. All he can do is check the road and wait.

This time when he returns to the chessboard, he downs his whiskey then switches to coffee. After a few more moves he loses the game. He watches Ted and Carson square off. Watching the two men play sets off a strange wave of nostalgia he can’t place. 

He considers asking for another whiskey.

Chapter Text

One hour before the destruction of Phandalin:

People have begun trickling in as the sun falls and businesses close for the day. Ted and Carson put away the chessboard as the bar starts to fill with patrons.

That’s fine with Barry, he’s lost the ability to even focus on watching the other two play much less participate himself. The more people that enter the bar, the more anxious he feels. 

Returning to the window he sees a few families out walking together, the ladder-woman lighting the streetlights, a cart waiting with a pair of horses in the reins, and a pair of children leading a trio of goats. The sight makes his chest feel tight. Unconsciously, his hand goes to his hip, rubbing the joint like an old wound. Returning to the bar, he catches himself limping and pauses to stretch. It only ratchets up his certainty that something terrible is coming.

He has to do something. He has to …

Looking around, he sees a dozen people in the bar, talking and drinking. Outside, families are going about their lives, starting their evenings. What can he do? What can one crazy stranger say to convince everyone to … what? Leave town? Run? He’s not even sure what he’s thinking, much less what he could say to make anyone listen to him. 

Sinking heavily into a chair at an empty table, Barry leans forward and drops his head into his hands. He feels like he’s splitting apart. He’s had bouts of intuition before but he can’t remember anything hitting him the way this is. 

He knows something is going to happen, doesn’t doubt it at all despite the clear sky and calm wind. But just as definitively, he knows that no one will heed his warnings if he tries to clear the town or even the bar. Still, only the fact that he has no idea what to say keeps him silent.

Barry startles at the sound of a buzzer. Carson comes out from behind the counter and heads to the backdoor. Barry trails behind him, worried. The bartender throws him a look as he follows but doesn’t comment.

“Hey, Noelle,” Carson says, greeting the halfling who waits at the door with a barrel of cider on a hand truck. “How’s it going?”

The halfling steers the oversized load with skill, sparing a smile as she maneuvers the load into the room. “Pretty good, Carson, how about you?”

“Not bad, no complaints. Many deliveries today?”

“A bit light. Everyone seems to be on vacation this week, don’t they?”

Carson barks a laugh and nods. “Seems like. Business has been a bit slow here, too. Still, it’s given me time to get in a few games of chess. And there’s enough trade to keep the doors open.”

“That’s good,” Noelle responds. 

Barry returns to the window, satisfied the impending threat hasn’t arrived in the form of a halfling delivering a cider order. 

The feeling is drumming inside of him now, screaming in his brain so loudly he can barely make out the voices around him.

In his head, it's a cycling chant: Something is coming. Something is coming, something is coming, something is coming, something is… 

 

—-

 

Forty-five minutes before the destruction of Phandalin:

“Hey Carson!” Barry yells, suddenly inspired. “Do you have, uh, some kind of…” He breaks off as he spies the stairway behind one of the shelves of liquor to the side of the bar. “Can I go upstairs and look out your window?”

Carson gives him a look Barry wishes he didn’t recognize. It’s the suspicious this-guy-is-a-crackpot look he’s gotten a few times as a result of these episodes of intuition or whatever they are. But he’s too anxious to get upstairs and look to care at the moment.

Carson glances over at Noelle then at Ted before shrugging. “Sure, I guess. Whatev-”

Barry doesn’t wait for him to finish. He’s pelting up the stairs the moment Carson agrees. At the top of the stairs he can see it’s basically an open room. The Sleeping Giant isn’t a big place and Carson must live up here. 

Barry doesn’t bother looking around, just hurries past the bed to the window that faces the street. He throws it open and leans out as far as he can manage, looking for any sign of the threat his internal alarms have assured him is on the way.

His stomach drops. As much as he knew it was coming, like every time he’s had one of these feelings before he’d hoped he was wrong. 

But there at the edge of town he sees it. There’s a thin trail of smoke and something small moving straight towards the center of town. From this distance he can’t make it out but it’s enough to make him retrace his steps through the barman’s room. He trips on the stairs, barely catches himself on the banister, and sets his ribs screaming in pain again with the mishap. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. He’s yelling out a warning as he pounds clumsily down the stairs.

The first words out of his mouth are unhelpful but after spinning through his head for nearly an hour, he can’t stop them. 

“Something’s coming!”

The patrons look up at him but don’t move. What alarm is evident on their faces is clearly only for the unhinged person falling down the stairs and screaming rather than what he might be trying to tell them.

“Fire,” he tells them. “Something on fire and heading this way.”

“I’ll go sound the fire alarm,” a woman at the bar says, finally taking his warning to heart.

There are screams outside. Everyone looks towards the front of the bar and when they turn back to Barry, their expressions are much different than before. The crackpot in bluejeans isn’t the cause of the concern anymore.

“It’s not just a fire,” Barry says. “It’s… I think it’s someone, someone magic I guess…”

Ted approaches him, “Barry Bluejeans... what do you… how do you know?”

Barry shakes his head. “I don’t know a lot but something bad is on it’s way here and you folks…” He looks around and makes up his mind. Running his hand through his hair, he squares his shoulders and tells them, “Get out if you can. I’ll try and stop whoever it is…”

The door to the bar opens and the question of “who” is answered.

Gundren Rockseeker isn’t known for his calm demeanor or even temper. In his brief working relationship with Gundren, Barry has seen the dwarf sober and drunk, happy and angry - well, actually, he’s mostly been angry. Now Barry can add “on fire” to that list. The figurative hothead is now a literal one.

Gundren pauses and looks around. Fire crackles off of him, tongues of flame dance up from his hair and eyes and hands, wreathing him in a rippling haze of heat, from the metal glove on his right hand in particular. When his gaze slides over Barry there’s no hint of recognition. The emptiness in Gundren’s eyes terrifies Barry almost more than the flames covering the dwarf. 

 

—-

 

Thirty minutes before the destruction of Phandalin:

He looks around. Everyone in the bar has frozen, eyes locked on the burning dwarf. 

Barry grabs Ted and pulls him towards the stockroom door where Carson and Noelle stand. “Get everyone back here, hide if you can, I’m gonna try and get him out of the bar.”

Barry doesn’t feel brave. He doesn’t feel much of anything, really. For the first time since he woke up to a health potion at his lips and three strangers (familiar, though, so familiar) rescuing him, he’s not questioning anything. He knows what he needs to do - he needs to stop Gundren from blowing up the whole fucking world with whatever that thing on his hand is.

“Gundren!” 

He moves towards the flaming dwarf. Barry hears low voices from the storage room behind him. If he can’t stop Gundren he has to at least buy enough time for the others to get away. “Gundren, it’s me - Barry! Remember me?”

Gundren shakes his head slowly but there’s a flicker of awareness in his eyes now. Barry presses the advantage. “Hey, bud, those gerblins did a number on us but the other guys you hired were -”

“Forget the gerblins,” Gundren growls. The fire burns higher and even from halfway across the bar, Barry can feel the heat rippling off him. “It’s the fuckin’ orcs that are the problem.” 

Gundren looks around again. Barry suspects he’s looking for orcs to aim his destruction at but the bar has emptied out. It’s just the two of them now.

“Gundren, there’s not…” He stops. Reassuring him about the presence or lack of orcs around is not the tactic he wants to take. “Listen, let’s go outside and talk. You just… Let’s just calm down for a minute and talk.”

“I DON’T WANNA TALK!” the dwarf yells, slamming his hand on a table. The varnish blisters from the heat, a spilled cider hisses as it sizzles, then the flame catches a forgotten whiskey, setting the alcohol burning with a blue tinged flame. 

Barry drags his eyes away from the sight, trying not to imagine the damage fire can inflict on people. “Okay, we don’t have to talk. But this isn’t…”

Gundren flings his hand out, gesturing towards Barry in what might be a nearly comical shooing gesture except that a ball of fire is propelled towards him with the motion. The fireball sears his bicep as it passes and slams into the wall behind him - the wall that is one side of the storage room. The collision of flame and wall explodes forcefully, knocking Barry to the ground as something crashes heavily in the storage room.

He lands on his hands and knees, joints and ribs screaming as he’s jolted by the abrupt landing. His shirt and the skin beneath it is blackened at the edges of the hand-sized wound, the center a nasty mess of angry red tissue and charred flesh. 

Getting to his feet, he thinks, ‘ Wish I had my robe. That thing was fire resistant,’ before shaking off the strange thought to focus on the furious, burning dwarf.

He needs to get him out of the bar, away from the flammable liquids and primarily wooden structure. No sooner than he’s decided this, Gundren throws another fireball. This one smashes right into the shelves of liquor displayed behind the long counter along one side of the room. The sound of breaking glass is punctuated by the alcohol catching fire with a combustive whoosh that quickly becomes a crackling roar.

Barry runs for the door.

Several things happen as he crashes through the front door into the street. He’s well aware that he’s made himself a tempting target and he instinctively ducks just as he recognizes three of the four people on the street in front of him. The fireball that should have caught him in the back sails over him, slamming into the mercantile across the street. His attention isn’t on the fire trying to catch there but on the four people waiting in the street right outside the bar.

Taako, Magnus, and Merle are a welcome sight. The misery in his chest from his busted ribs, the agony of the burn on his arm, even the thrumming fear at the situation he’s caught in - all of it fades to background noise in a moment of absolute joy and relief as he takes in the reality of the three of them standing in front of him.

A crash as something in the bar succumbs to the fire pulls him out of the brief respite.

Surprised by their presence, Barry words come out in a babbled tangle. “Oh, my god, you’re back! You guys, you gotta help me, I’ve never seen him like this - well, obviously, I’ve never seen him engulfed in flames and all magical and shit, but things are really bad, you guys, you gotta calm him down.”

The orc with them speaks first. “You would be wise to listen to him, we can’t fight him right now. If we try to fight him, we’re gonna lose. He’s more powerful than anybody you guys have ever met. That’s not an empty promise, he will incinerate anybody who defies him. We gotta calm him down and try and get that glove off of him.”

As much sense as her words make, Barry’s worried by her presence. Given his already potent dislike of orcs, Gundren’s new status as ‘literally on fire’ might mean just seeing her here will set him off.

“Why would you wanna stop me?” Gundren growls as he exits the flaming bar. His voice seems bigger than should be possible. Instead of the gruff rumble of his normal tone, now his voice seems to fill the space, as if the magic wreathing him in flames has infused even his vocal cords with power. “I finally have enough power to get rid of those goddamned orcs.”

He’s staring at the newcomer as he says this, the orc standing with Taako, Magnus, and Merle. She barely quirks an eyebrow at his words. Barry has no idea who she might be but his respect for her blooms strong in response to her stalwart demeanor. It’s clearly too late to worry about setting Gundren off much more than he already is.

Taako’s finger twitch at his side and instantly Barry’s attention shifts at the motion. He glances at Gundren, expecting to see evidence of some sort of magic but there’s nothing. The subtle light of sanity and reason that had been evident for a few moments in Gundren’s eyes is gone. Now there’s only fire - literal fire - burning there.

Whatever Taako had tried has failed.

Magnus makes an attempt next, stepping forward as he speaks. “Gundren, you have to listen. The glove is consuming you from the inside out. Remember your father in the cave! If you don’t remove the glove, you’re going to die!”

The fireballs where Gundren’s eyes should be seem to flicker slightly. “No, I… I can control it…”

“You can’t,” Magnus counters, hands gesturing placatingly, “look at yourself, this isn’t you.”

Gundren laughs, a rueful sound that seems wildly at odds with the fire burning where his eyes should be. “You don’t know what I’m like.”

“I do.” Merle says, stepping in front of Magnus. “We’re cousins, we have the same bloodline…”

“Oh yeah?” Gundren says, aiming his smouldering malevolence at the cleric. “What’s my middle name? Wait, no, fuck it, what’s my first name?

Merle’s expression doesn’t change, his calm patience holds steady even as his words hesitate. “Your first name… is Gundren.” Then he smiles, a beatific expression that feels as out of place as Gundren’s laugh had before but the saintly aspect seems right at home on the cleric’s face somehow. “Your middle name is Lou. Gundren Lou.”

The flaming dwarf seems taken aback. “That’s right.” He swallows and his voice is closer to his normal one as he adds, “I guess y-”

Merle reaches out and places his hands on the flaming glove. Even a few feet away Barry can see - can hear - the expected effect of fire on skin as the dwarf’s hands burn.

Gundren jerks his hand away from Merle’s touch. “What are you doing?!” he yells. “This is mine!”

Upset, Merle’s aura of calm cracks as he tries to explain. “We’re the same bloodline, I can help you control it!”

The slim gain they’d made in calming him, in attempting to tamp down his fire, slips. Flames spike up high and wild around him again. Voice once more steeled with magicked power, he rages, “I don’t need your help controlling it!” 

Everyone seems to pause. The whole town seems frozen. The only sound comes from the flames of the Gundren-inferno.

Merle holds his blistered hands up, making it clear he’s not trying to touch his cousin again. “Now Gundren… you know me. Remember Christmases at Aunt Blarg’s house? Remember, and we’d sit around and drink mulled wine…”

The flames calm again. Voice trembling slightly, Gundren laments, “I miss her so much!”

Nodding enthusiastically, Merle agrees, “She was a good woman!”

“She was,” Gundren says. His flames and voice rise powerfully as he continues, “until she was killed by those GOD DAMN ORCS!”

“Well…” Merle begins dismissively. “That was never proven. And you know what? She loved you and she... Ya know, she gave every year to the Orc Benevolent Fund.”

“I know, and that’s what made her death at their hands so ironic! SO PAINFULLY IRONIC!”

Barry is impressed that even in the face of Gundren’s fiery rage, Merle maintains his calm.

“It is painfully ironic, but is this what she would have wanted? Would she have wanted you to do this, to not only kill all these indiscriminate orcs but burn your own ass up at the same time? I don’t think so. Come on, why don’t you just take the gauntlet off and we can all talk about it?”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Well, sure you can! You’re the strongest dwarf I know! I mean, down through the years, I’ve always turned to you-”

“Bronze Strongarm is the strongest dwarf. And we both know that.” He’s still covered in flames but his still power-amplified voice sounds almost petulant as he argues, reminding Barry of a toddler in need of a nap. “So don’t bullshit me.”

“He’s good at arm wrestling, but you… you are strong at heart.”

Once more the fire begins to recede. This time when Gundren tries to speak his voice is barely a whisper. “I’m s-- I’m sc--”

“I’ve always looked up to you,” Merle adds.

Gundren’s eyes are normal again as he tells his cousin, “I’m scared.”

“You’ve always been my hero. Don’t be scared. Look, we’re all here together.” Merle moves closer to Gundren again but keeps his hands to himself.

“I was a fireball earlier and it hurt.”

“I know. That must have hurt so bad.” 

Barry can’t believe it. Merle is actually getting through to him. He looks at the other three, all riveted as they watch Merle work. Hoping the others have this covered, he begins backing towards the entrance to the bar again. Once he’s sure he’s clear of Gundren’s peripheral vision, he turns and dashes back into the building. 

 

—-

 

Ten minutes before the destruction of Phandalin:

In the minutes since he left, the fire in the bar has raged uncontested. The whole left side - where earlier this afternoon he’d stood at the counter talking to Ted and Carson - has been devoured by flame. He edges right, heading for the back door. He has to make sure everyone has gotten out.

At the door to the storage room he can hear panicked voices. He opens it to find the area filled with everyone from the bar. The half dozen people who’d come in during the calm hour before Gundren’s arrival are huddled with Ted, Carson, and Noelle. 

An enormous shelf has toppled, blocking the back door. Half of the enormous piece of furniture is scorched. It must have been knocked over with Gundren’s explosive fireball.

The shelf has wedged itself between the wall and the door and between it and the barrels it had stored, a sizeable barricade has been formed between him and the others gathered on the far side of the destruction. A few barrels are lined haphazardly along a far wall where they’ve been trying to clear the obstruction.

“Is he still out there?” the halfling asks, stepping forward. Her shoulders are squared, determined.

“Yeah,” Barry answers. He pushes against the bottom of the shelf, trying to leverage his angle from this side to swivel it out of the way of the door that leads outside. “The bar’s on fire but I think…” he pauses to look over his shoulder, trying to guess what’s going on outside. 

That terrible feeling that has plagued him all day gives one more enormous spike of alarm. He straightens, spine stiff with dread. He needs to get back out front. Once more he pushes against the shelf, feeling panicked and out of time. Carson sees what he’s trying and pushes from the other side but the enormous toppled shelf won’t budge.

“I’m gonna…” Barry begins. He gestures behind him vaguely, unsure how to explain everything when he doesn’t even know what he’s going to do. “Just… try to get that door open,” he tells them. “I’ll be back to help,” he says, hoping saying the words will make them true. 

Then he’s running again, dodging the fire once more, racing through the front door, desperate to stop -

 

—-

 

Two minutes before the destruction of Phandalin:

The world outside the bar has changed yet again. Gundren is completely unrecognizable. He’s an enormous pillar of fire, flames ripping away from him to hit buildings all along the street. Even in the few seconds Barry watches, his towering flame continues to grow.

“WHO DID THIS?!” Gundren roars.

“Not an orc!” Merle answers, voice tinged with hysteria. “Wasn’t an orc! Nooo way!”

Barry steps forward and Gundren whirls on him. Again his hand flings out in that almost cartoonish gesture - Barry actually has the thought that the movement seems excessively showy - but this time instead of a fireball, the gesture produces an enormous flaming hand.

“It wasn’t me!” Barry protests.

The time for reasoning with Gundren has passed.

Barry is smashed to the ground by the fiery hand.

 

—-

 

There is pain.

 

—-

 

Then darkness.

 

—-

 

Taako’s voice. “What about Barry?”

 

—-

 

Barry is lost and gone and somehow he still hears his friends.

 

Magnus, good, reliable Magnus protests, “I’m not leaving with all these people here.”

 

And Taako, his friend, his brother, his family, answers, “Well I’m not leaving without Barry.”

 

But they do. Because once again, Barry Bluejeans is dead.

Chapter Text

Dying isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be a thing you come back from.

Even when you have access to a miraculous engine capable of reforming you, it takes time to get your head right, even once you’ve done it a dozen times.

As a lich, it gets even harder. Sure, you don’t have to wait for the special circumstances that allow the bond engine to work its magic. But it’s harder to adjust to the ending of one form and the beginning of a new one.

Another factor, as it turns out, is how accessible your body is. A lich form may be non-corporeal but there’s still some sort of physical aspect to loosening the soul from the body. A body that has, for example, been incinerated and then encased in glass, ends up being a pretty tricky cage from which to free a soul.

So despite having quite an extensive bit of experience with the process, it’s several minutes before Barry Bluejeans rises above the black glass ruins of Phandalin after yet another death in yet another body. 

By the time the red robed figure resolves itself, the glass has cooled, the smoke has receded, and the sky has grown dark.

-

Wreathed by lightning and fury, he crackles with barely held restraint.

-

The world is nearly silent. No bird calls, no sound of chirping bugs, nothing but the distant noise of fire consuming what hasn’t been claimed as glass.

-

For a few moments, there are no coherent thoughts, no sanity at all. 

He has no tears to weep, no body to collapse onto the glassed over ground, nothing but his magic thundering out of control.

 

After all these years, her relic has resurfaced. 

And killed him. 

Incinerated an entire town.

 

When thought is possible, the implications freeze him in place, stop his raging magic instantly.

Taako had been there. Magnus and Merle, too. 

Were they killed? 

 

He turns and sees nothing. The whole town is just... gone. Phandalin has been leveled. Just like those circles he and Taako investigated together when they were looking for Lup. Fragments of buildings at the edges of the devastation are still on fire, crumbling and smoking around a nearly perfect circle of obsidian. A glint in the smoke laden and darkening sky catches his attention.

An orb is rising up - far above the treeline. It’s Lucretia’s. It has to be. It’s going to her moonbase. And if it’s Lucretia’s, then Taako, Magnus, and Merle have to be inside. Some part of his heart soars again, rising with that silver ball up into the glittering night.

But unlike that ball they are traveling in, he crashes down again. 

Lup wasn’t with them.

Everything had been so close: half his family, Lup’s gauntlet, all right there and then…

Gone.

They are gone. The gauntlet is gone. Phandalin is gone. Lup is still gone.

The return of his memories and so much loss after coming so close tears at him. His magic frays, fractures, and unravels again. 

A whole town wiped out - a town he’d seen alive and thriving. 

Ted. Carson. The woman delivering cider. He grapples for her name and is overwhelmed with sick guilt when he can’t recall it. Every single person he’d met in Phandalin is gone. He should have done more. He should have saved people. He knew something was coming and he still let them die.

He is awash with guilt. Rage. Frustration. Disappointment. 

Grief.

Where is she? 

If they found her gauntlet, were together, then where is she?

The storm of his magic once more threatens to burn him up as thoroughly as the gauntlet just destroyed his body.

But he can’t. 

Lup.

He has to hold himself together. 

For her. For their family.

And so, as it has for all the years that his voidfished body forgets, he is bound together again. He has no choice but to endure. 

Staring up at the spec of silver in the sky, Barry steels himself. He has to trust his family if he ever hopes to see them again.

So he does.

 

—-

 

Barry has faced guilt over the relics before. But as he returns to his cave he is haunted by the faces of the people of Phandalin. 

And Lup’s gauntlet. 

How had they found it? Gundren had it somehow. And Magnus, Merle, and Taako had gone after the Black Spider.

The thought seems to wash out his anchors again and for a moment all he can do is clutch at the threads of his magic, trying to keep himself from fraying apart. He should have gone with them. Maybe things would have been different if he’d been there. 

Was the gauntlet in that cave Gundren was searching for? How could Lup have gotten it in there? And however she did it - where the fuck was she?

Barry’s form draws in on itself until he is hunched down in the dirt. Had they been there when Gundren got the gauntlet? Was she close? Did they actually find Lup?

No. They couldn’t have. Taako would have known his sister.

He thinks of the wagon ride back to town with them after the three of them rescued him from the gerblins. Taako hadn’t even known his birthday. He’d acted like… well, he acted like he’d never had any close family, much less a twin sister. 

It hits Barry like a tidal wave. Of course he had. The day that everything … happened and Barry had felt his memory of Lup fading, when he’d spoken, Taako had asked “Who?”

Lucretia had erased Lup. It wasn’t just the crew knowing each other - she’d actually erased his sister.

But still! Taako would have recognized her. Even if she hadn’t known who she was herself, the two of them would have realized they had to be related. Even though her relic has turned up, the twins must not have crossed paths.

So even though her relic has once more turned up, Barry is no closer to finding her than he was. If she’s alive then she doesn’t know who she is and could be anywhere. If she’s dead she’d be a lich and by now they’d have found each other, certainly. A decade he’s been searching for her. She has to be alive and lost. He can’t let himself think of the only other alternative he’s ever come up with: that the reaper found her.

Barry pulls himself together again. If the reaper found her then he’ll just fucking tear apart the astral plane and find her. But first he has to look out for Taako and the others.

Like he told himself after Refuge, he needs to help Lucretia gather the relics. And if she’s got Taako, Magnus, and Merle, then that plan is all the more important. What if she tries to use them to gather the relics? They don’t even have their memories to know just how dangerous the situation is? And they won’t know about the Hunger finding them once enough relics have been brought together. 

As soon as he considers the possibility, he’s sure that’s why she’s united the three of them.

What the hell is Lucretia thinking? Would she really send them out after the relics without their memories?

Rushing onward through the night, Barry heads back to his cave. Whatever her plan is, he’s got to get on with his. If Taako, Magnus, and Merle are going to be out trying to gather relics for Lucretia, then he’ll just have to do whatever he can to make their job easier and keep them safe.