Kravitz shoves his hands in his coat pockets and presses through the howling wind as it whips down the Neverwinter streets. His breath forms clouds of ice crystals that get caught up in the swirling snow. Ice-heavy Candlenights decorations threaten to rip from street lamps and awnings with each gust. The sidewalks are unsurprisingly empty at this hour, and he’s definitely not the smartest to be out in an impending blizzard, but it will be worth it as long as nothing’s changed. As many times as he’s done this, that little worry will never go away. Please be there.
He looks up to the street signs to get his bearings, and then scans the row of shops. There’s the corner grocer, a pub, and a tailor’s shop on one side, and the bakery, a pharmacy, and the old Fern Dancer Tavern on the other.
He heads in the direction of the Fern Dancer, and–there, nestled between the tavern and the pharmacy is a small alley that wasn’t there moments before. He smiles. Warmth fills his chest and spreads to wrap around his cold bones. A golden glow spills out onto the frozen concrete from lamplight somewhere within. He cuts across the street, careful for the iced over puddles, and ducks into the alley. Inside, it’s quiet and still. The wind whistles across the old stone walls of the buildings outside, and he can feel smaller eddies of cold air leak past the barrier, rustling his long wool coat. He feels the object in his pocket one last time, and walks forward, toward the end of the corridor.
Taako shops late one cool summer evening in the Neverwinter market district for rare ingredients. Usually he prefers to work with the original recipe elements before he starts experimenting with transmutation. He needs to know how they taste and feel and smell as they are, because that makes the magic all the more real. There’s a chemistry to it, plucking free the minute bonds that form one thing and knitting them back into another, that lends to the authenticity he’s renowned for in his creations. He has just finished up in a small grocer and heads down the street when he finds an alley that he swore wasn’t there before.
Curious, he peers down the narrow path between ancient buildings. He’s not sure what he expects to find, but it’s not unusual to stumble across hidden places in a city as old as this one. However, what’s there is, well, it defies reason. The cobblestones that pave the way down the alley are dusted with a fine layer of snow. Snow. In the middle of dry summer heat. Taako rubs the back of his neck, feeling the sweat sticking to his hair, and arches a brow at this juxtaposition. Normally this is where he’d turn around and leave and pretend he never saw anything. Self-preservation instincts attempt to kick in, but… something draws him closer. Something that tugs at the center of his chest. The bag of herb jars and vegetables and cured meats is rather heavy, and the snow does imply it’d be a cool place to chill for a bit. So he lets his desire for repose lead him into the alley.
Inside, it’s frigid, which doesn’t surprise him on account of the snow. He’s thankful for his penchant for wearing layers nevertheless, though the fabrics are not suitable for winter. A golden halo of light falls across his path, and ice gleams on the cobblestones. He’s careful where he steps so he doesn’t slip on ice. Definitely wouldn’t want to break his ass in… wherever the fuck he is. Not to mention, what lies beyond the alley is much too strange to warrant a lack of caution.
A small woodland-style cottage with a snow-heavy roof sits before him. The windows are frosted over, but there’s an inviting glow from within. A sign hangs over the door reads: The Fated Meadow Bed and Breakfast. Taako looks back over his shoulder and observes as people pass by the alley, seemingly unaware it even exists. Music and chatter from within draws his attention back to the cottage. He stands there while curiosity and trepidation have a little duel in his brain. But there’s also that longing pull in his chest, and that’s the one that wins out.
He approaches the door and opens it cautiously. Then he’s… somewhere else. Somewhere without a door or windows. Somewhere outside. There’s a meadow surrounded by tall snow-covered trees, which makes little sense considering he’s in the middle of a large city. Well. He was . The sky overhead is dark and filled with so many stars he feels he could fall up into them. At the center of the meadow is a festival where people are gathered—laughing, sharing conversation, dancing. Some pairs have snuck away together to take advantage of what privacy the trees can afford. They lean close with hands clasped, soft and intimate. Snow blankets the perimeter, but the center is green and dry. Paper lanterns dangle overhead, strung from twine that stretches from one side to the other. It’s charming, but he wonders if he slipped and hit his head after all.
Taako adjusts his grocery tote to keep the strap from digging into his shoulder. A levitate spell would do well right about now, but he needs to keep his reserves available for whatever might be going on here. He extends his sense of the arcane, hoping to gather some understanding, but no clarity comes. There’s no skyline beyond the trees, and behind him, the cottage sits at some distance down a dark forest path. It’s as though he’s entered another world entirely, which is not a thing he’s unfamiliar with, but typically there’s a spaceship or his own spellwork involved.
There’s a line of roughhewn wooden tables along one side of the clearing where some folks sit together with bowls of food from the vendors nearby. Among them sits a man with a fancy black coat over a fancy black suit in an unfamiliar style. He’s alone at a table, and has a deck of cards spread out before him. A lantern hangs overhead, capturing him in a faint blue light. There’s that peculiar tug again. A rolling sensation behind his ribs. It’s like a strong sense of relief that he’s found something he lost long ago. Taako presses his hand to his chest and feels his heart pound. He approaches the card-playing man, but is too overcome with the sheer oddness of the situation to speak.
The man looks up after turning over a card from the pile.
Taako wiggles his fingers in greeting. “Um, hi. Well met.”
“Oh.” He shifts back in his seat ever so slightly, surprised. “Hello. You see me?”
“Um, yeah dude. I see a lot of people here.” Taako glances around. “Should I not see you?”
“Finally...I mean, I’ve been—,” he rises to his feet and smiles. “I’ve been waiting for you. I think? You’re the first person to see me since I started coming here.”
Taako eyes him suspiciously.. “Okay…weird.”
“It’s a relief,” he says a little defensively, and looks down. He flips another card. “Dammit. Lost again.”
Taako peers at the cards. Solitaire. “Maybe if you talked to them they’d say hello.”
“I’ve tried, trust me. They don’t see me. Go ahead and have a go at it to see what happens.”
Taako steps toward someone, and as he does so, a couple walks by and nearly bumps into him, except their shoulder passes right through and they seem to have not noticed at all. He stares after them, unnerved, because they’re also hard to focus on up close. Like he can’t look directly at them, though he knows they’re there.
“Okay.” He frowns. “Okay. Have I died? Are you here to take me to the other side?”
The man smiles a little bemusedly. “No, at least I don’t think so. I’m Kravitz, by the way. Care to sit?” He gestures to the chair across from himself.
“Um. Sure.” He sits slowly across from him and sets the tote down by his feet. “I’m Taako. Hey, is this a dream?”
“Nice to meet you, Taako. And I don’t think so, unless we’re sharing it.” Kravitz reshuffles the deck and sets up another game. He flips over a card and moves it to one of the rows.
Taako isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he angles for something a bit less esoteric. “So you come here often, then? It’s, um, nice. A bit cold. Not too sure what they’re celebrating.”
“This is my third time. Found it by accident one day, and just felt like I was meant to be here. Took me a while to find it again, but I eventually did.”
“Yeah, sort of the same. I was walking down a street I’ve literally walked down a billion times before and—okay, I can’t—” Taako pinches the bridge of his nose. “What did you mean by you’ve been waiting for me?”
“I mean, well. I felt like I was meant to be here for someone . Everyone else here has… someone. I started to feel a bit distressed by it if I’m being honest.” Kravitz draws a slow inhale and a little line forms between his brows. “Then you came right up to me, and you see me, so I assume it’s you. Could be wrong.”
Taako’s heart thumps. He considers bringing up that pulling sensation, but it’s just too weird. “Eight of hearts.”
“Oh—didn’t even notice that one. Thanks.”
He’s handsome, Taako decides after a lingering gaze. It’s not something he tends to focuses on overmuch. It’s not very important to him, all things considered. But this guy… he’s good looking in a way that has Taako distracted. The rest of the festival sort of melts away, and all he cares to pay attention to is his nice smile, those warm, brown eyes, and the line of his neck as it disappears below the collar of his coat. His skin looks soft to the touch, and his voice makes his ASMR go wild. He tries not to read into all the signs, but they’re stacking up one after the other.
“You were the only one sitting here by yourself,” Taako says softly.
Kravitz meets his gaze and smiles. “Know how to play rummy?”
“Nope,” a small lie, but one with good intentions. The way someone teaches says a lot about them. “Show me?”
Kravitz deals the cards, and they play a few rounds, before they lose track of the game and find themselves in pleasant conversation. Hours bleed together, and eventually the activity surrounding them begins to wind down. The stars overhead fade one by one as daubs of orange and pink spread upward from the east. The whole night has passed before Taako realises he needs to get home. He was meant to make dinner for his sister and the others. He exchanges a reluctant goodbye with Kravitz, shoulders his bag, and heads down that narrow forest path to the cottage.
When Taako leaves the alley, he looks back to find all of it gone. The meadow, the strings of paper lanterns, the couples dancing. The stones that make the tavern exterior meet seamlessly with the stones that make the tannery. The fresh smell of the wilderness and bonfire smoke is swiftly replaced with that of horses,various food cart aromas, and general city grime. The heat of summer envelopes him, and his tote of food feels heavy on his shoulder. Though he’s certain hours have passed, it still appears to be early evening. The streets are crowded with women in off-shoulder dresses, and men in linen tunics. His mind is somewhat foggy, but his objective returns. He hasn’t missed dinner, so he heads home.
In the weeks that follow, Taako makes excuses to head into Neverwinter to pick up this and that. Every time, he’s disappointed. There’s no path between the tavern and tannery that leads to a cottage that leads to an enchanted meadow. There’s not even a draft of cold air or a chill up his spine. He knows he was there. He’s not one to just make this kind of shit up. Even so, he tells no one. It’s nothing they need to be concerned about.
When the broadleaf trees begin to turn colors with the season, Lup is the first to confront him with her suspicions. She thinks he has a secret boyfriend, and that’s a bit much, though there is… something. She stands beside him, back against the counter, as he cooks.
“Listen, if you’re seeing someone you’re not pulled to, I’m not gonna judge,” she says. “We’ve all done it. You don’t have to hide it from me. I’m your sister, babe.”
Of course she’d bring up the soulmate pull. Taako hasn’t felt it before to know for sure, but what else could it be? Of all the bonds people weave between each other themselves, there’s one that is woven for them when their souls are first formed. Time passes, lives are lived, and gradually Istus pulls on this bond to bring the two together when it needs to happen, and no sooner. The soulmate bond is unavoidable, though some have tried. It’s also not inherently romantic, yet it has indeed been romanticized over the centuries. Taako makes a face.
Lup leans in, softening her voice so the others can’t hear. “You’re the only one who knows I was seeing someone when I felt pulled to Barry.”
Taako stops stirring the sauce and sighs. “Don’t remind me.”
“Hey,” she affectionately bumps his shoulder with hers. “Our bond’s got nothing on some dumb soulmate bond. We don’t need that, right? Soulbonds are strong stuff, but we have something stronger.”
She doesn’t have to define it further. He knows. He holds a spoon out to her. “Here, taste this.”
“Needs rosemary,” she says, tasting. “Good though.”
“I’m not seeing anyone.” He pinches a bit of dried rosemary from the pile and sprinkles it into the sauce. She doesn’t believe him, if the arch of her eyebrow and the purse of her lips is any indication. “It’s only been once,” he says.
“Aha! I knew it.”
Lup gasps, puts her hand over her heart, and seems to perk up just moments before Barry enters the front door. They’re soon pulling each other into an enthusiastic embrace.
Taako watches the steam rise from the pot as he ignores them. He thinks of Kravitz instead, and how it makes little sense if they were destined to have this goddess-issued bond, why would he appear in some weird alleyway mirage? Why would he never see him again? That can’t be what this is. It’s something else. He’s not sure yet, but he’s determined to find out.
The next time Taako finds the alley, it’s the autumnal equinox. He’s very clear on that. He’s been paying attention to such details ever since the first time. There are no soft drifts of snow like there were before, but there’s the distinct smell of wildflowers and rain. The seasons are clearly out of sync, at least he can recognize that pattern. He enters the alley, bursts through the cottage door, and briskly walks toward the meadow entrance. Everything seems the same as before, but now there’s a stone temple with lit sconces at the far end.
Taako walks through the crowd, searches the clusters of friends in excitable conversation, avoids the couples making out in the grass. And there by a little stream of clear water that flows past the new temple, he finds Kravitz. His face is in profile, and the flickering light behind him casts sharp contrasting shadows on his form.
Taako’s heart swells in his chest at the sight of him. The way his full lips are slightly parted, his brown skin edged in gold from the firelight, the lashes angled downward with his gaze. Taako’s stomach rolls over itself in eager apprehension, and it’s like nothing he’s felt before. The pull is there, like it was the last time, and the intensity of it holds him in place. He takes a shaky breath. Kravitz lifts his hand and rests it on his chest the way Lup has done when Barry is near.
Taako shakes his head and grits his teeth. What the fuck is happening to him? He wrings his hands, fidgets with his clothes, to keep his hands still. It’s not love at first sight or some shit like that. The soulbond doesn’t work that way, he doesn’t think (he’s not so sure). Taako is sure he doesn’t just suddenly love this Kravitz, but he does feel the inevitability of it unfolding in that direction. Kravitz is a fishing lure, a candle flame, a godsamn planet, and Taako is irrevocably caught in orbit.
“ Fuck me,” he groans, exaspirated with himself, and rushes over to Kravitz before they can have some awkward ‘ eyes meet across the distance ’ moment.
“Taako!” Kravitz says, and Taako understands what it means when people say their eyes light up.
“Hey!” Taako smiles. “It’s the equinox, isn’t it? That’s when it opens?”
“And the solstice, yes. It’s—it’s so good to see you, Taako.”
“But, but why? Why here? What is this place?”
“I don’t know.” He looks over to the temple as if it might provide an answer. “Want to explore a bit?”
Taako grins. “Hell yeah!”
The stream flows past the temple, and so they head there first. Inside is hazy with incense, and candles flicker on the altar. Gauzy swaths of fabric drape from ceiling to floor. Petals blow in through the columns. There’s a spinning wheel on the dais that weaves a glimmering tapestry by itself, and if he squints, Taako can see gossamer threads connecting himself and all the others here to the loom.
“You familiar with Istus?” Taako asks.
Kravitz is about to respond when two women approach them.
“Welcome, friends!” The taller one says.
The other holds out a tray of some kind of pastry. “Would you like one?”
“No thanks,” Taako says. They do look delicious, but he’s not an idiot. He’s not about to eat some strange food from fuckin’ hallucination meadow.
Kravitz also declines. When the women wander off, he watches them for a moment. “They saw us.”
“Come with me.”
Taako looks at him, then down to his chest where he saw the thread emerge. It’s still there, but he can only really see it when the incense smoke drifts their way. “Wait. So, you’ve been here more than I have, right? Do you trust it?”
Kravitz tilts his head as he considers the question. “I’m not sure yet. The one thing I haven’t done is see how far I can walk away from the meadow. Didn’t want to do it alone, but now you’re here.”
Taako laughs, not hiding a bit of incredulity. “Listen, I want to go with you, but I don’t trust one fucking thing about this place, and since you’re here I kinda gotta include you in that. Just for a little while longer.”
“I, um, I understand. It’s unsettling here, but I’m not going to hurt you, Taako.” He says it softly, earnestly, and Taako feels a little guilty.
“It’s nothing personal, my man. We can get around to that eventually. Maybe we can walk around the meadow and talk? See where the evening takes us?”
Kravitz smiles. “I’d like that.”
As they walk, Taako learns that Kravitz likes wine and lives alone. He plays several instruments, but prefers the cello. He reads when he’s not practicing for a performance. And he loves playing all manner of games. Board games, card games, murder mystery dinner games. He can’t cook to save his life, and he once rescued an injured raven that now hangs around his apartment balcony.
“I call her Trinket. She can’t fly far anymore, but she brings me lost shiny things. She loves blueberries,” he explains.
“She has good taste.”
Kravitz looks down with a shy smile that plucks quiet chords in his heart.
Taako also learns that he likes Kravitz very much. When morning comes and it’s time to part ways, Taako takes his hand. It’s cold to the touch, and he gasps. So does Kravitz.
“Your hand’s so warm — ” “Oh boy howdy, that’s a clammy one — ” they say in unison.
After a nervous chuckle, Kravitz takes his hands again. “I’ll see you in a few months.”
“Tell Trinket I said hello.”
Kravitz leans in and kisses his forehead, then they part ways.
A few days pass before Angus stops by Taako’s office at his Amazing School of Magic. He’s asking about something else, but Taako closes the door, and draws him in close.
“Listen, Angus,” he says. “You’re good at solving mysteries and shit like that, right?”
Angus beams hearing this. “Yes, sir, it’s what I love to do more than anything. Is there something I can help you with?”
Taako ponders how to bring this up and steeples his fingers. “You see, I think I found some kind of… anomalous portal to another dimension. Ever heard of anything like that popping up in Neverwinter? A little park that wasn’t there the day before? You know the trope. We’re talking Brigadoon, faerie ring type shit. Or perhaps that one with the winter wonderland in a wardrobe rings a bell? Bit of a mix between the two ideas.”
Angus looks off to the side as he thinks this over. “Um, I know the phenomenon you speak of, sir, but I’ll have to do some research. Nothing’s coming to me from memory, but I will go find out for you!”
“Excellent, thank you, pumpkin.”
His eyes get huge and deep, puppy brown, and his whole body practically lifts up with his smile. “Oh, sir, that’s—”
“Yeah, yeah, get to it.” Taako cringes at how much this kid activates what little parental instincts he has within himself.
That night, Angus finds Taako and places a couple of books on his desk. One is old, a copy of something written from a previous age. Angus has marked a few relevant pages for him. It’s about Istus, and her threads of fate. Sometimes, she has to tie off threads in strange ways in order to make overall destiny flow more smoothly. Therefore, some people are bound together, but they live in different time periods. Not always is this bond about romantic love, but somehow they need to be brought together. The bonds they forge are influential not only to each other, but to the myriad of bonds they have with others. For these special people, she has created a few pocket dimensions throughout Faerun where they can meet and form their bonds. The dimensions are only able to open on certain traditionally magical times of the year, which makes it very limited, but if a bond is strong enough, the pair will find each other.
The other book Angus has given him is a book about strange sightings in and around Neverwinter. He has marked a few mysteriously appearing shops, peddlers, carriages, and so forth. None of them are similar to what Taako has found.
“May I ask, sir, did you go into the portal you found?” Angus asks after Taako thumps the book closed.
“Did you find someone there?”
Taako adjusts things on his desk while he thinks of how to answer. It’s no use playing coy with Angus, he can figure out anything. “You know what, Agnes? I think your grandpa told you it’s rude to ask too many questions. And if he didn’t, it’s Taako’s rule number one.“