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Tommy Against the Ineffable

Chapter Text

Wilbur looked out over the endless horizon. They’d been at sea for days, and the ocean showed no signs of ending. He’d never ventured this far out before, and he was starting to wonder if the local, orc fairy tales were true: the sea really did go on forever into the blackness night. He heard the wooden deck creak behind him and turned to see the drunken captain of the ship had come to join him. “Morning.” He said as a greeting.

“The hell are you talking about? It’s still dark.”

“Well if you look at the stars, it’s past midnight. Therefore it’s morning.”

“Whatever.” The captain answered, then added, “fuckin’ culty weirdo,” under his breath. Back at full volume, he asked, “So anyway, I don’t think you ever said… What business does a Death Priest have in the holy land?”

A cold wind blew off the sea and made them both shudder and draw their cloaks closer.

“Iortia isn’t as holy as you think.” Wilbur answered in a short tone. “But to answer your question, I’m looking for a god.”

***

Tommy jolted back awake right before he fell over. He’d been leaning against his broom with his eyes closed, dead on his feet, and apparently falling asleep while standing. The stupid squires had made a mess of the stables again, and he’d been up all night cleaning it. He didn’t see why the great Duke in all his infinite wisdom didn’t just hire more stable boys. Tommy was the only one, and all the work was not worth the free meals it came with. Everything smelled like shit in the stables. The hay. The horses. Even Tommy.

He swore that every time he caught his reflection, his blond hair looked a little bit browner than it did before from the dirt and muck. He hadn’t cleaned his ragged clothes in ages, and it showed. He worried that if he ever did take a bath, the dirt would be so ingrained in his skin that it just wouldn’t wash off, and he’d be shit-colored forever.

“Hey, Tommy. How’s the sweeping?” Dream, the worst of the squires, asked as he casually strolled in.

“You fuckin’ prick… You can see how the sweeping’s going, and it’s not great. I’ve been-”

“Did you get my horse ready yet? We’re doing jousting practice today.”

“Does it look like I’ve got your fucking horse ready? I’m still cleaning up the broken glass you dickheads left here yesterday!”

Dream leaned against the frame of the stable door. “Well can you get it ready? Kind of on a schedule…”

“You know I’m taller than you, right? I could kick your ass in a real fight.”

“Eh, pass.”

“You fuckin’-”

“Just get my horse ready.” Dream said as he turned to go.

A gust of wind picked up and blew the stable gate right into Dream, hitting him square in the chest and knocking him over. He fell right into a pile of horse shit. Tommy held back a laugh, knowing full well there’d be hell to pay if someone caught him mocking a noble’s son, even if he was an arsehole. 

“Nice.” He managed to say without laughing.

“Shut up.” Dream snapped. “You didn’t see shit.”

“Oh, I think I see quite a bit of shit.” He said, looking at Dream’s pants. “Are you sure you want to be riding a horse today?”

“I’m going to change! And my horse better be ready when I get back.”

Tommy watched Dream storm out, only letting himself grin once he was out of sight. He laughed to himself as he finished sweeping.

Sapnap, the least worst squire, came in about a minute later. “Where’d Dream go?” He asked. “We were supposed to meet up here.”

“Dream had a little… accident, shall we say? He’s cleaning the shit out of his pants right now.”

“What?” Sapnap asked with a confused laugh. 

“He fell in horse shit.” Tommy explained, pointing at the ass-shaped imprint by the door, which he’d intentionally not cleaned in honor of the moment. “But if anyone asks, just tell them he had an accident.”

Sapnap grinned. “Definitely.”

“So you guys are jousting today?”

“Yeah. Don’t be jealous though. It’s mostly just getting hit in the back of the head and getting knocked off your horse.”

Tommy was jealous. He was very jealous. Everything the squires got to do was so cool, and everything he did was so very uncool. While they were learning to fight, he was scrubbing floors. Even their busy work, like mending dents in their knights’ armor, was so much cooler than mucking stables any day.

“You need me to saddle your horse up too?”

“That’d be great.”

He set his broom against the wall and picked up Dream’s saddle and carried it over to the stalls. “What were you guys doing yesterday anyway?”

“Hm?”

“That ended with all the broken glass in here?”

“Oh, we were using old wine bottles for target practice with our slings.”

“You could have hurt the horses, man!”

“Sorry…” Sapnap said sheepishly. “I mean it was Dream’s idea. I was just kinda there.”

Tommy put the saddle on Dream’s horse, Spirit. “Of course it was fuckin’ Dream.” Tommy muttered, stroking Spirit’s nose. “He doesn’t give two shits about anyone besides himself, does he?”

“I mean I think he likes George.”

“Oh, how could I forget George? Good for Dream, sucking up to royalty.”

“You shouldn’t talk like that, Tommy… You could get in big trouble.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tommy finished adjusting the straps in Spirit’s saddle and reached for the bridle. “Stupid fucking Dream gets away with everthing…” He muttered to Spirit. “He’s such an absolute dick. Why does he get to do cool stuff while I’m stuck here?”

Spirit snorted, almost like he was responding to Tommy.

“Not that it’s bad here. I like you. I’d just rather be out riding than mucking cuz no offense, but your shit stinks.” He adjusted the bridle. “Does that feel okay? It seemed a little tight.”

“Who are you talking to?” Sapnap asked, leaning into the stall.

“No one. Well, Spirit- I mean myself mostly.” 

“I don’t get why they like you so much. Spirit’s kicked me and Dream like five times.”

“Well that’s because you’re mean to him and break bottles in his stable.”

“He’s just a dumb horse. He doesn’t care about stuff like that.” Sapnap reached out to pet Spirit. “Isn’t that right? You’re just a big, dumb-”

Spirit kicked him square in the chest and sent him stumbling back.

Tommy held back a laugh. “See? I told you so.”

“Whatever, man…” Sapnap coughed as he staggered away. “Just saddle my horse.”

***

Tommy sat on the gate, watching Sapnap make passes at the jousting target. It was fun because if he hit the target and didn’t go past it fast enough, the counterweight would spin around and hit him in the back of the head. Sapnap got a few good hits, and he only got knocked off twice, but when it came to Dream’s turn, he rode up to the target and stopped just a few feet away from it.

“What’s he doing…?” Tommy muttered, squinting to get a clearer view. He could hear Dream cussing and trying to urge Spirit to move. He pulled on the reins, and Spirit pawed at the ground and tossed his head back, refusing to go anywhere.

“Come on, you stupid horse! Listen to me! Go!”

Spirit started trotting, but it was in the wrong direction. He took Dream for a full loop around the enclosure. Tommy couldn’t help but cackle at the bewildered look on Dream’s face as he tried to convince Spirit to go the right way. Instead, Spirit picked up the pace to a full gallop, pulling tight turns until Dream fell out of the saddle. He hit the ground hard and just lay there, groaning, as his knight, Sir Puffy, came up to berate him.

Tommy could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard. Spirit trotted up to Tommy and nuzzled him. “I owe you at least three apples for that-” Tommy told him as he tried to catch his breath. “That was the best goddamn thing I’ve ever seen!”

***

Wilbur stepped off the dock and looked around. Oldstone was the biggest city he had ever seen. Massive stone buildings towered over an expanse of people, all crowded together at shouting at each other. But he didn’t have time to sight-see. He stopped the first person he saw and asked them where to find the stocks.

Following their directions, he pushed through the crowd of people until he came to an open courtyard. There was a tall statue of someone he didn’t recognize, and under it were the stocks, just like he’d seen in his dream. 

He scanned the array of people locked up. Old drunks and women and men. None of them seemed like the right age though. But at the very end of the stocks, a small crowd had gathered around the last one. They were all laughing at something. Wilbur pushed through them to find a young teen with dirty blond hair—not the actual color dirty blond, his hair was literally covered in dirt—talking animatedly to the crowd. Well, as animated as he could be with his head and hands bound in wood. He seemed to be telling a story.

“So there I was, cleaning out the stalls, when none other than the crown prince, mighty heir to the throne, walks in. Now mind you, it was past midnight at this point, so I’m like ‘my liege, why aren’t you in bed?’ and he doesn’t answer. He just walks past me, and that’s when I realize he’s sleepwalking-”

“Excuse me,” Wilbur interrupted, “But how old are you?”

“I dunno. Anyway-”

“This is important! What year were you born?”

“Same year the old king died. Now do you mind? I’m trying to tell a story here.”

“I’ve been looking for you. You’re the one. You must be.”

“… What?”

“Have you heard of Lady Death?”

The kid furrowed his eyebrows together. “No…?”

“What’s your name?”

“Tommy… And who are you?”

“I’m Wilbur. Tommy, we have a lot to talk about.”

Chapter Text

“God, you can eat.” Wilbur commented as he watched Tommy finish off the rest of the roast chicken and then reach for more bread.

“I’m a growing boy.” Tommy mumbled through his mouthful of bread. “Besides, you’re paying, right?”

“Right…” Promising him a meal had been the only way Wilbur was able to convince Tommy to hear him out, and even then, Tommy wasn’t doing a whole lot of listening. “So like I was saying-”

“You gonna finish that?” Tommy asked, pointing to the chicken leg on Wilbur’s trencher. 

Wilbur sighed. “Go for it.”

Tommy grabbed the leg without so much as a thanks and took a big bite out of it. He mumbled something unintelligible. Wilbur wasn’t sure how he even had time to swallow between bites. He was shoveling down food like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“Are they feeding you over at the castle?” Wilbur asked after a long stretch of silence.

Tommy shrugged. “Sometimes. Well, porridge usually. Haven’t had proper meat and bread in ages.” He grabbed a few more rolls and pocketed them. “Sometimes I’ll sneak a loaf from the kitchen, but only the burnt ones they throw out. They’ll give you lashes for taking the good ones.”

Wilbur furrowed his eyebrows. “Lashes?”

“You know…” Tommy made a hitting motion with his hand. “With a whip or something?”

“I knew what you meant. I just…” He sighed. “Doesn’t matter. I bought you your meal. Now are you gonna listen to me?”

“Sure.” Tommy leaned back in his chair. “Preach to me, priest boy.”

“I-” He groaned. “You’re making this harder than it needs to be.”

“What? I’m listening.”

“Yeah, but you’re- Whatever. You said you’d never heard of Lady Death, right?”

Tommy shrugged. “Church isn’t really my thing.”

“Well this isn’t like any church you’ve been to. I’m from Scholis, and we have very different gods there.”

“Church is church, man. And I really don’t care about having my soul saved or whatever, so thanks for the food, but-”

“Five minutes.” Wilbur said quickly. “Just give me five more minutes and try to listen.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“I… I’ll buy you a pastry?”

Tommy immediately perked up. “What kind?”

“Whatever you like.”

“Mr. Money over here…” He thought for a moment. “Alright, you’ve got a deal.”

“But you have to listen.”

“Right. Got it.”

Wilbur took a deep breath. Five minutes left him no time to sugarcoat things. “Your god- Well, Iortia’s god- is a complete lie. Total bullshit, doesn’t exist. The real gods are from Scholis, starting with Lady Death who’s basically the mother of all the other gods. And yes, that’s gods plural. There used to be a lot of them, and they used to live on Earth with us, but about seventy years ago, they all vanished. People thought the gods were dead until I came along. I have these dreams, see. And it’s my mission to find the gods and bring them back.”

Tommy nodded slowly. “Right…”

“And I can’t explain it right now, but I know I need your help to find them.”

“Uh huh… Right…” Tommy said slowly. “There are gods among us, and you’re supposed to find them because you have dreams. Got it.”

“You don’t believe me…”

“Oh no, I totally believe you.” Tommy stood and started backing away. “So, uh- Good luck with your quest. Hope it goes well. And… see you never.” He’d already made it to the door of the tavern.

Wilbur jumped to his feet. “Tommy, wait-” He yelled. “You were in one of my dreams! I can’t explain it, but I need your-” Tommy opened the door and bolted. “-help…” Wilbur sank back into his chair. “I really need to work on my sales pitch…” He muttered to himself.

***

Tommy slowed to a walk once he was a few blocks away from the tavern. He breathed a sigh of relief. As nice as having a full stomach was, it was even nicer to be away from that crazy guy. He’d heard stories about the Death Cult, and how they lured unsuspecting kids back to Scholis for human sacrifices. He was probably lucky to have gotten away alive.

He rounded the block and then turned down a narrow alley, cautiously approaching the pile of crates near the end. He knocked on one of the crates. “Ranboo?” He asked softly. “You awake? It’s Tommy.”

“Tommy…?” A weak voice responded.

“You remember me, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I remember.”

“Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

Tommy knelt, lifted up the tattered cloth covering the largest crate, and crawled inside. Ranboo was huddled in the corner, wrapped in an old cloak, watching a candle burn. He had a collection of mostly spent candles that they’d salvaged from the trash, and he always had one lit. He said the light was comforting. 

“How are you doing?” Tommy asked as he sat next to—but not too near—Ranboo.

“Oh, you know… The usual.” Ranboo tried to shrug and winced.

“Does it hurt?”

“Like I said, the usual.”

“Brought you some food.” Tommy said, pulling out the rolls he’d pocketed.

Ranboo’s eyes widened. “Where’d you get those?” He asked in wonder as he carefully moved to pick one up. “They look so fresh… You didn’t steal them, did you?”

“No, this guy bought me dinner. I think he was trying to recruit me into a cult.”

“Did you join?”

“No!”

Ranboo took a small bite. “Well if they give you food this good every night, maybe it’s not that bad…” He joked.

Tommy rolled his eyes. “His god literally has death in the name, Ranboo. What good can come of that?”

“Fair enough.”

Now that he’d unfurled some from his cloak, Tommy took a better look at Ranboo. He was gaunt and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. His brown hair was matted down with sweat and grime, and his fingers trembled as he held the bread Tommy had given him. But still, today was one of his better days. He could move around and talk, he remembered Tommy, and he’d even made a joke earlier. Sometimes, he couldn’t even open his eyes.

Ranboo was sick. Really sick. Neither of them knew with what, and they didn’t exactly have the money to go to the doctor and find out. The priests at Church Prime had declared him a lost cause and promised to pray for a quick and peaceful death. People on the street avoided him at best and actively tried to drive him out of the city at worst, so he’d taken to hiding off in these crates. Tommy never said it, but it seemed like Ranboo was just waiting to die.

“Why do you think cult guy was trying to recruit you?”

Ranboo’s question snapped Tommy out of his glum reverie. “What? Oh, uh… I dunno. He said something about dreaming about me, which honestly is really creepy.”

“I bet he says that to all his recruits.”

Tommy laughed. “Like a pickup line, but for cult leaders.”

“Exactly-” Ranboo started coughing, and the flame of the candle got bigger and brighter, until it was bigger than the candle itself. Tommy could feel the heat radiating off it, and the wooden ceiling of the crate started to blacken.

“Ranboo- Ranboo- Ranboo-” Tommy said in a panic. “You’re gonna catch the crate on fire-”

Between coughs, Ranboo managed to take a drink from his flask. His coughing slowly died down, as did the flame. The candle was nothing more than a puddle of wax now. Ranboo sighed and placed another one on top of it. He took out his tinderbox, but his hands were shaking too much to even open it. 

“Here, let me.” Tommy said, gently taking the box and lighting the candle.

“Thanks, Tommy…” Ranboo said, then he shivered and drew his cloak closer.

“You know, you can always come stay in the stables. It’s not much better than a crate, but it’s warmer, and we’ve got hay and water…”

Ranboo shook his head. “Animals don’t exactly… like me that much. And I don’t wanna get you in trouble or anything.”

Tommy knew that it was hard for Ranboo to say no to things, so he didn’t push it any further. Instead he just picked up another roll and offered it to Ranboo. “You should eat more.”

“Not really hungry… I’ll eat it later.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah… It just- I dunno… It feels like a waste of good food.”

“You’re not going to die, Ranboo. We’re gonna figure this out.”

“How? Neither of us can even read to figure out what’s wrong with me.”

“I’ll figure something out…” He sighed. “I have to go for now, but don’t you dare give up hope.” He moved to get out of the crate. “And you’d better eat. I’ll come shove it down your throat if you don’t.”

Ranboo gave a weak smile. “Night, Tommy.”

“Goodnight, Ranboo.”

Chapter Text

Tommy always woke up before the sun because he needed to have all his morning chores done by sunrise. No one else, not even the roosters, ever woke up this early. So when he climbed down the loft ladder to find Sir Punz standing at the bottom talking to a cloaked figure, it would be an understatement to say he was surprised. 

Sir Punz turned to look at him. “Morning, Tommy.” He said in his usual, neutral tone that made it sound like he cared about nothing and no one.

“Uh…” Tommy scrambled to find something to say. He never had to talk to anyone but the horses this early, so brain wasn’t prepared to carry a conversation. “Hello.” He finally said.

“Have you met the new stable hand? I was giving him a tour, but I think you can do a better job of that.”

“New…” He trailed off as the figure pulled down his hood. It was that culty weirdo Wilbur. Tommy’s jaw dropped, and he took a few steps back. “What- You- What the fuck are you doing here?!”

Wilbur gave a pleasant smile. “Nice to meet you, Tommy. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“You… What?”

“Don’t be rude, Tommy.” Sir Punz reprimanded. “Aren’t you always complaining about not having enough help around here?”

“Yeah, I am. But I don’t want his help!”

“Do you two know each other?”

“Yeah, he-”

Wilbur spoke over him. “No, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Wilbur.”

“Oh, we’ve fuckin’ met. You tried to recruit me into your cult and spouted a bunch of nonsense about there being loads of gods.”

Wilbur furrowed his brow in confusion. “Tommy, I’ve never seen you before in my life. I don’t know what you’re talking about with cults and such, but I assure you, that wasn’t me.”

“No. No, I never forget a face, and you-”

Sir Punz cut in. “That's enough, Tommy. Drop it.”

“But-”

“That's an order.”

“Fine.” He glared at Wilbur. “But I’m not fuckin’ working with that prick.”

“Actually, you’re going to show him the ropes and help him with whatever he needs.”

“But-”

“No buts. We’re done.”

Tommy sighed. “Yes, sir…”

“Now get him started. You’ve wasted enough time as it is.” With that, he turned and marched out.

Tommy slowly looked back at Wilbur. He groaned. “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me…”

“So what’s first, Tommy? Do we, uh… feed them?”

“… You’ve never worked a day before in your life, have you?”

“No! I- I’ve done loads of jobs, um- I was-” Tommy took Wilbur’s hand and examined it; Wilbur cut himself off in surprise as he yanked his hand back. “What the hell?!”

“Yep. Not a day in your life.”

“What do you mean?”

Tommy held up his own hand. Dirt was crusted under his nails, little scars speckled his fingers, and hard-earned callouses showed he spent every day shoveling. “Yours are like a baby’s.” He explained. “You wouldn’t last one day doing a real job.”

Wilbur’s jaw hardened. “Try me.” He dared.

“Fine.” He picked up a pitchfork and held it out to Wilbur. “Here.” 

“And what do I do with this?”

“You muck out the stalls.”

“Right…” Wilbur said, glancing around uncertainly.

“That means you clean the shit out.”

“I knew that. I was just, uh- I was looking for where to start.”

“You start at that end, and I’ll start at this end. We’ll meet in the middle.”

“Got it.” Wilbur took off his cloak and hung it, then went and opened the far side stall, which was Spirit’s.

Tommy winced in anticipation as Wilbur walked in without doing anything to let Spirit know where he was, and then stood right behind the horse. Tommy wondered if he should say something, but before he could make up his mind, Wilbur got kicked. He made a funny noise as he stumbled back and fell.

Tommy laughed, but when Wilbur didn’t get up, Tommy reluctantly walked over to check on him. “You alright?” He asked, still snickering.

Wilbur didn’t answer. He just lay there, clutching his chest and groaning. 

“Get up, you big baby.” Tommy said, nudging Wilbur with his foot. “Spirit doesn’t even kick that hard.”

Wilbur coughed and answered in a strained voice, “That hurt…” 

“Rule one, don’t stand directly behind horses. They’ll kick you if you spook them.”

“That would’ve been nice information to have earlier.”

Tommy shrugged. “Learn from experience.”

Wilbur opened his eyes just to glare at Tommy as he tried to sit up. “Thanks.”

“You know, if you go tell Sir Punz you were lying about being a stable boy, you could clean the shit off your nice clothes.”

“What shit?”

“You fell in it. Welcome to the covered-in-shit club.”

Wilbur seemed to give up on sitting up, instead just lying back down and closing his eyes. “Great…” He mumbled.

“You’re lying in it now.”

“I’m aware.”

“You give up already?”

“No-” Wilbur answered quickly. “Just catching my breath.”

“Well can you catch your breath a bit more out of the way?”

“What?”

“You’re in Spirit’s way. I was gonna get him to leave the stall, so you can clean it.”

“Right, I’ll just go suffer somewhere else.”

Tommy sighed. “Why are you doing this? Like actually. What’s your angle?”

“I love horses.”

Tommy whistled for Spirit, who trotted over immediately. Wilbur yelped in alarm and rolled out of the way moments before he got stepped on. Tommy opened an empty stall for Spirit, and the horse went right in without being asked.

“How’d you get it to do that?” Wilbur asked, sitting up properly. 

“What? Oh. I dunno. They just listen to me.”

Wilbur was silent for a moment. “Tommy… Does stuff ever happen when you're around? Like weird stuff you can't explain?”

Tommy glanced out at the sky. It was already getting light. “Shit…” He muttered as he grabbed his pitchfork and went back to the stall he was supposed to be working on.

“Tommy, wait-”

“Shut up! Stop distracting me, or we’ll both get in trouble.”

Wilbur didn't answer. Tommy got to work shoveling the soiled hay out into his wheelbarrow as quickly as he could without flinging it everywhere. From the other side of the stable, he could hear Wilbur cussing. 

“What’s wrong now?” Tommy asked.

“It’s not- Oh, fuck me! It's not fucking scooping- This pitchfork is fucking broken!”

“You have to scoop from the bottom and pick up all the hay too.”

“… Oh.”

And then a while later, there was a crash and then more cussing.

Tommy groaned. “What is it now?!”

“I, uh… I knocked over the wheelbarrow…?”

Tommy stepped out to see the mess “Okay, that’s fucking it. Get out!”

“But-”

“This may be some sort of game to you, Wilbur, but this is my fucking job. You’re gonna get me in trouble or- or fired, and I need this job!”

Before Wilbur could answer, they heard Dream’s voice at the door “Hey, Tommy. Do you have my horse ready yet?”

“I’ll have him out in a minute.” Tommy answered quickly, hoping Dream would leave before he saw the mess Wilbur had made. “Just, uh- just fixing the straps on his saddle!” He shoved his pitchfork into Wilbur’s hands, stepped over most of the mess, and hurried to saddle up Spirit. He grimaced as he heard the stable doors creak open.

“Jeez, it’s a mess in here.” Dream muttered. “Did you wake up late or…?”

“If you could just wait outside-”

“Who’s he?”

“No one!”

“Hi,” Wilbur said, extending his hand to Dream, “I’m Wilbur.”

Dream took a step back in disgust, and Tommy hurried over to mitigate the damage. “He’s new. He just started, and in fact he’ll probably be out of here very soon, so-”

“New stable boy?” Dream asked.

Wilbur nodded at the same time that Tommy said, “No!”

“You should teach him some manners.”

Wilbur looked offended. “Well aren’t you a right little-” He started to say.

Tommy cut him off. “Sorry! Sorry! I will definitely get on that. He actually took a big hit to the head recently, so he’s not quite right- You’d know about that, Dream.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dream asked with almost a snarl.

“That you’ve been hit in the head before?”

“Since there’s two of you now, it should take half the time to clean the stalls.”

“Yeah, well-”

“I’m telling Punz you’ve been slacking off.”

Tommy’s patience for dealing with nobility snapped. “You’re such a tattletale, Dream. A tattletale and a little bitch, and I know for a fact you’ve been hit on the head too many times because I’ve seen you try to read hymns at church. I’ve never been taught, so what’s your excuse for stumbling through your prayers like you’re five, hm? And on top of that, you’re a shit squire and a shit person, so-”

“You are so in for it when Puffy hears about this!”

“I don’t even care! Get them to whip me all you like! It’s never gonna change the fact that you’re a whiny little bitch, and someday you’re gonna be the world’s worst knight because you’re a coward, and you can’t ride for shit!”

Dream stormed out of the stable.

“That’s right! Run away, Dream! That’s what you do best, little bitch boy!” Tommy called after him. But once he was sure Dream was out of hearing range, he ran his fingers through his hair. “Oh shit… God, I’m such an idiot… Why did I- Punz is gonna-”

“Are they actually going to whip you?”

“Best case scenario, yeah.” Tommy answered. “They put me in the stocks for five hours yesterday because I laughed at him the one time-”

Wilbur mumbled something in response.

“What was that?”

“I said I’m sorry…” Wilbur said quietly. “Didn’t mean to drag you down just cuz I was trying to prove a point… And you were right by the way, I’ve never worked a day in my life. I didn’t realize it’d be so…”

“Hard?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, well… You’d best clear out before the knights get here. Don’t want you getting in trouble too.”

Wilbur sighed. “I’ll get my cloak.”

Tommy leaned against the nearest stall, stomach slowly filling with dread as he watched Wilbur shoulder his cloak and head for the door. Then in came Sir Puffy and Sir Punz, with Dream behind them. Wilbur walked past them, out of the stable.

“Why is the stable such a mess?” Sir Puffy asked as soon as she walked in.

“Like I said, Tommy was slacking off!” Dream explained. “And then he was rude to me.”

Both knights turned to Tommy with matching looks of exasperation. His stomach sank.

“He wasn’t actually slacking off.” Wilbur said out of nowhere, stepping back into the stable. “I was. I made that huge mess, and he was just helping me, so it’s my fault the stable’s such a mess. And honestly, that kid Dream really had it coming, and Tommy barely even said anything bad.”

Tommy’s jaw dropped. Deserved or not, no one had ever taken blame for him like that. Usually, he was everyone in the castle’s scapegoat for everything that went wrong, even if he was nowhere in the area. He had no idea how to react to someone else taking the fall.

The knights turned to glare at Wilbur instead, and he gave Tommy a little thumbs-up.

Chapter Text

Even though he’d shut the stable doors, and he was working as noisily as possible, Tommy could still hear the crack of the whip and Wilbur’s muffled sounds of pain coming from just outside. He was still having a hard time wrapping his head around it all. How was it Wilbur was the one getting lashes, not him? It was always him.

He got blamed for pretty much everything that went wrong in the castle. If a maid broke a vase because she was messing around, it was Tommy’s fault for walking past her. If a cook burnt a pie because he was sleeping on the job, it was Tommy’s fault for eating breakfast in the general area. If a squire got a splinter playing with their wooden sword, they’d probably still find a way to make it his fault.

He’d more or less accepted his position as the permanent scapegoat for everyone’s misfortune. That was why it was so strange to him that Wilbur had owned up to his mistake and was even taking lashes for it, even though Tommy had been right there to put blame on.

When the crack of the whip finally stopped—they’d only given him fourteen lashes—Tommy waited for the sound of the knights’ footsteps to fade away before he went to check on Wilbur. Dream and a few other squires were gathered around him, giggling and poking at him as he lay unmoving on the ground.

“Oh, bugger off, will you?” Tommy told them, pushing through them to kneel next to Wilbur. He was still breathing. It looked like he’d just passed out from the pain. They’d made Wilbur take his shirt off, so the red welts across his back were painfully visible.

“He was crying by like ten.” Dream murmured to another squire. “What a pussy.”

“I’d like to see you do better.” Tommy said scornfully. “Now go find something else to laugh at. Maybe look in a mirror if you can’t find anything else pathetic enough.”

The rest of the squires ooh-ed and laughed. Dream went red. “You’ll end up just like him if you don’t watch your stupid mouth, Tommy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Threats only work if your voice doesn’t crack when you make them, puss boy.”

The other squires laughed again. Dream snarled and stormed off; they followed him chanting ‘puss boy’. Tommy smiled. At least they were mean-spirited enough to latch onto a funny insult, even if they were too dumb to come up with their own.

He carefully shook Wilbur’s arm. “You awake yet, idiot?”

Wilbur stirred, rolled onto his back, then gasped in pain as his eyes flew open. “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow-”

Tommy winced in sympathy. “Yeah… You’re gonna want to sleep on your stomach for a while.”

“Holy-” He pushed himself to sitting. “How’d I end up on the ground?”

“I think you passed out.”

“Oh.”

“Pro tip: You still need to breathe, even when you’re getting whipped.”

“Wow. Thanks. I think a better tip would be to avoid getting whipped.”

“Yeah, well. That’s hard when you’re me.” He stood. “You need a hand up?”

Wilbur tried to stand on his own and staggered to the side, quickly grabbing Tommy’s extended hand to stop himself from falling. “Thanks.”

“C’mon. This is the worst part.”

“What?”

“You’ve gotta clean the dirt out before you put your shirt back on.”

Wilbur was silent for a moment. “You’re a real pro at this, huh?” He said quietly.

Tommy didn’t answer. Instead he just picked up Wilbur’s shirt and started towards the well.

“You ever think about leaving?” Wilbur asked as he followed.

“Nah, I like it here. I mean I don’t actually, but the horses would miss me.”

“Aren’t there at least other stables you could work at?”

“None that would hire me.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a wife-killer.” Tommy tried to say it with a laugh to lighten the mood, but it died in his throat. “Bad luck, you know?” He added quietly.

“Wife-killer?”

“You know… Killed my mum to give birth to me… I’m the worst sort of orphan, actually. Everyone says we’re bad luck to be around or whatever…” He trailed off for a moment. “Do- do we have to talk about this? It’s not really my favorite subject.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s whatever.” Tommy said, trying to shrug it off. “Really, it’s fine. Um- Here, sit there and bite something.”

“What?”

“So you don’t scream or break a tooth.”

Wilbur’s eyes widened in concern. “What?”

“Just sit.” Tommy picked up a stick and held it out to him. “And put that in your mouth.”

“But there’s dirt on it…”

Tommy rolled his eyes and started lowering the bucket into the well. Wilbur sighed and started gingerly trying to brush the dirt off of the stick. His hands were shaking quite a lot. 

“You got a rag?” Tommy asked him.

“I’ve got a handkerchief.”

“Of fucking course you do…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You seem like the type of guy to own a handkerchief.”

“What?”

“I bet it’s got your initials embroidered on it.”

“It does not!”

“I bet you wave it at all the men you fancy as they march off to war.”

“I do not!”

Tommy laughed. “Here, can I see it?”

“Are you gonna laugh at it?”

“Only if it’s blue.”

Wilbur hesitated, then slowly took a pale blue, silk handkerchief out of his pocket. Tommy laughed so hard he almost dropped the bucket of water he’d just pulled up.

“Oh, shut up, Tommy.”

Tommy took the handkerchief and dunked it in the bucket. “Bite the stick.” He ordered.

Wilbur sighed. “This is humiliating.” He said as he put the stick in his mouth.

“Welcome to my world.” He wrung out the handkerchief. “Now brace yourself, cuz this is gonna suck.”

He touched the wet handkerchief to Wilbur’s back, and Wilbur inhaled sharply. Trying to go as gently and quickly as possible, Tommy rubbed small circles on Wilbur’s back, trying to wipe out all of the dirt, of which there was quite a bit because he’d been laying in it.

Wilbur sounded like he was going to hyperventilate. Tommy stopped to wet the handkerchief again. “Breathe through your nose. And try to focus on doing it slowly.” He suggested. “It helps you not pass out.”

Wilbur nodded.

Surprisingly, he did not pass out. Though he was quite pale by the time Tommy finished. He rinsed the handkerchief again and handed it back to Wilbur. “There’s a bit of blood on it… Sorry.” He said apologetically. He knew how much blue dye cost. Usually only the richest of nobles could afford even small amounts of blue.

Wilbur spat the stick out and wiped his mouth. “It’s fine.” He said shakily. “I’d rather have a little bloodstain than a blooming fungus infection.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“So, uh… Thanks. For helping me out, I mean. Even though I messed stuff up for you.”

Tommy shrugged. “Hey, no one deserves a red bloomer.”

Wilbur smiled and nodded, but it looked like he was deep in thought. Tommy wondered again what had brought him here, and why he was so interested in Tommy’s life, but he was almost positive he wasn’t going to get an answer out of Wilbur. 

He dumped the rest of the water. “Put your shirt back on before a biter smells your blood.” he told Wilbur. “I’m gonna go finish up the stables. It’s way past sunup.”

“What’s a biter?”

“You know…” Tommy made a buzzing noise and traced an erratic pattern in the air. “Little scaly thing? They fly around and bite people?”

“I don’t think we have those in Scholis.”

“You’re lucky then. Their bites sting like hell.”

Wilbur nodded again. “Can I help with anything?”

“Honestly, you can help by staying out of the way.”

“… Fair enough.”

Chapter Text

Ranboo gasped and crumpled inward as a spasm of pain shot through his chest. He only managed to stay upright by clinging to the grimy alley wall. It was dark and windy, and the cold was biting through his ragged clothes like daggers. 

It was pre-dawn, and he’d been digging through the trash heap outside the market. When food spoiled, this is where they threw it. Most of it was inedible, but sometimes he’d find something that was only partially molded. Once, he’d gotten almost half a wheel of cheese, though dogs stole it before he could eat it all.

Another shot of pain dropped him to his knees. It was getting worse. Every day hurt a little more than the last. He’d been considering leaving the city, just so Tommy wouldn’t have to come across his dead body some morning. His veins felt like they were burning.

“Hey!” He heard someone yell angrily. “The hell are you doing in the trash?!”

He tried to stand and run, but his legs refused to stand. 

“Get out of there!” The person stormed up to him and shoved him back. He landed hard on the cobblestone, scraping his hand as he tried to catch himself. “Fucking street rats…” They muttered. “Get up! I don’t wanna see you out here again, parasite.”

“I- I’m trying-” He coughed. “I really am-”

“Are you sick? You spreading plague?!”

“No, no, no, no, I just-” A coughing fit cut him off, making his point very unconvincing. His vision was blurred from involuntary tears, so vision was a struggle, but he could vaguely see more people step out into the alley. The arm that was supporting his weight gave out, and he fell back. He could hear them muttering angrily as they closed in on him.

***

Wilbur was sitting up in the hay loft as he watched Tommy brush the horses. The pain in his back had faded to a dull stinging, unless he moved, in which case it hurt like hell. “So, Tommy-” He started to ask.

Tommy groaned. “What now?”

“Have you read-”

“No.”

“Oh… Right. Well would you like to learn how to-”

“No.”

“Are you gonna let me finish a-”

“No.”

Wilbur rolled his eyes. He was finding it hard to be properly annoyed with Tommy now that he’d seen how kind the kid could be. His churlish demeanor was barely skin deep. “So, Tommy-”

“Holy shit, could you be more annoying?”

“Probably. I could come down and poke you every time I ask a question.”

“And I could kick your arse.”

“Probably…” He thought for a moment. “You wanna hear a story?”

“Depends. Is it a good one or a boring one?”

“Define good.”

“Funny.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty funny.”

“And then boring is the stories they tell about old, dead guys when you go to church.”

“Oh… Well this one’s about an old, dead god.”

Tommy looked up at him for the first time in a while. “Gods can die?”

“Sometimes. The real ones can and the fakes certainly do.”

Tommy furrowed his eyebrows. “How do you kill a god?”

“Do you wanna hear my story now?”

“Sure, fine. But it’d better not be boring.” He was trying to hide it, but Wilbur could tell he’d finally caught Tommy’s interest.

“Well, once upon a time, back when the world was first created, everything was dark. We didn’t have the sun or moon or stars or even fire.”

“How did people see?”

“They didn’t really. They just squinted a lot and felt around, mostly.”

“That’s dumb. Whatever god made that decision didn’t really think it through.”

Wilbur nodded. “And speaking of gods, they were the only ones who had light. Up on their high mountain, they had a burning tree hidden away behind gates and guards… One day, there was a human who decided it wasn’t fair for the gods to be the only ones with light-”

“Well it wasn’t.”

“Right. So he climbed up the gods’ mountain and-”

The creak of the stable door interrupted him. He looked down to see a frail-looking figure collapsed in the doorway. By the look on his face, Tommy must have known who it was. He rushed forward to the figure. “Ranboo? Ranboo, are you okay?” Tommy asked with a panicked tremor to his voice.

Wilbur climbed down as quickly as he could to see what was happening. The frail figure—Tommy had called him Ranboo—was trembling and coughing. When he pulled his hands away from his mouth, they were dark with blood. There was blood on his face too, and underneath it, he was deathly pale. His dark hair was matted to his forehead with sweat.

“What’s wrong with him?” Wilbur asked, trying to get a closer look.

“None of your business.” Tommy spat out shakily. “Just leave us alone.”

“Okay, okay…” Wilbur took a few steps back. “Just- just let me know if I can help.”

Tommy was silent for a moment, then stood and shoved past Wilbur on his way to grab a saddle blanket. He carefully wrapped it around Ranboo and, speaking softly, helped him to his feet. “C’mon, Ranboo… It’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna get you help.” Ranboo stumbled as Tommy led him outside, but Tommy kept him upright. 

Wilbur watched them leave in concern. It wasn’t for a good five minutes that he noticed his coin purse was missing. “Son of a bitch…” He muttered. There were a few things a lot more valuable than gold in there. He also had gold, which would also suck to lose seeing as he still needed to pay for a boat ride home.

He hurried out after them. They must be headed for the city. It wasn’t long before he caught up with them, just before the servants’ gate of the castle. When Tommy saw him coming, his eyes widened and he tried to hurry Ranboo forward.

“What the hell, Tommy?!”

“What?” Tommy said, trying to look innocent.

“You fucking robbed me!”

“I did not!”

“Then where’s my coin purse gone?”

“I- I dunno- You must have dropped it!”

“Give it back.”

Tommy’s expression shifted from one of feigned innocence to desperation. “Wilbur, please- He’s been sick for ages, and he needs a doctor.”

Wilbur looked closer at Ranboo, who really did look to be on death’s door. “There’s no way a doctor can fix this. He needs a mage.”

“A what?”

“Come on. Back to the stable.”

“What?! Why? What’s a mage, and how can it help? He needs medicine!”

“Do you know what magic is, Tommy?”

“Like street magicians? Or blood witches?”

“No. Like real, deep magic. Ancient magic. I can help, Tommy. In fact, I’m probably his only chance.”

Tommy hesitated. Then he looked back to Ranboo and immediately caved. “Fine… But if this hurts him, I’ll kill you.”

Chapter Text

“Bar the doors and shut the windows.” Wilbur ordered as he helped Ranboo into the center of the room. “And give me my coin purse back.”

Tommy tossed him the purse and started closing windows. “So how does this work exactly? Do you just say the magic words or…?”

“Yes, Tommy. I say please and thank you, and that invokes the ancient power of the primordial earth. It’s that easy.”

“You know that’s not what I meant, prick.” Perching on a barrel to reach the far window, Tommy glanced back at Wilbur and saw he was drawing symbols on the floor around Ranboo with white chalk. “What are those?” He asked curiously.

“I’ll explain the intricacies of magic to you later. Right now, I need a tinderbox.”

“Why do you need-”

“I said I’ll explain later!” Wilbur snapped.

“Okay, okay.” Tommy grumbled. “Ranboo has one on him. I’ll grab it.” He jumped from where he was perched and knelt in front of Ranboo, who didn’t stir as Tommy rummaged through his bag; he must have finally lost consciousness. It was a miracle he’d made it this far in the state he was in. Tommy’s heart twisted in his chest. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if something happened to Ranboo. He tossed Wilbur the tinderbox. “Now what?” He asked.

Wilbur barely managed to catch the tinderbox. He fumbled with it for a second but didn’t drop it. “Now you need to stay quiet. Seriously, Tommy, not a word. I need to focus.” He said as he knelt in front of Ranboo in the center of all the chalk symbols.

“I can be quiet…”

“Then prove it. Start being quiet right now.”

Tommy bit back a retort and crossed his arms, watching silently as Wilbur reached into his coin purse and took out an even smaller black cloth bag. He opened it and took a pinch of its contents, which turned out to be a sparkling red powder, and sprinkled it on the floor in front of him. Then he dusted off his hands and struck together the flint and steel from the tinderbox.

With a single spark, the red powder erupted into flame and smoke; the smoke billowed up and swirled around Wilbur. Just like the powder, the smoke seemed to sparkle even in the dim light of the stable. Tommy felt the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stand straight up. He shuddered. The air felt heavy, like it did during a thunderstorm or a funeral.

Wilbur breathed in deeply, and when he opened his eyes, they were glowing red. Tommy took a few alarmed steps back. The smoke still swirling around him like his own personal cyclone, Wilbur stretched his hands out over Ranboo’s body and started muttering in a language Tommy didn’t recognize.

The air around Ranboo cracked with red energy, and the smoke swirled to envelope him too. The symbols on the floor around them glowed, filling the room with light, and then vanished. The smoke was gone. The energy was gone. The only thing that remained was a small singe-mark on the floor where Wilbur had burned the powder.

For the first time in his life, Tommy was dumbstruck. That was like nothing he had ever seen before, and he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. “Whoa…” He finally muttered.

Wilbur laughed and leaned back, breathing heavily; he sounded exhausted. “How’s that for magic words?” He asked with a tired grin.

“That was- Holy shit, what was that?!”

“Real magic. Doubt you’ll see it anywhere else… I’m one of the last mages in the world.”

“How-” And then Tommy remembered Ranboo. He rushed forward to check on him. “Ranboo? Ranboo, are you alright?” He asked, gently touching Ranboo’s shoulder.

Ranboo stirred. “Tommy…?”

“Yeah, it’s me. It’s Tommy.”

“Where…?” He sat up and looked around in confusion. “How’d I get here?”

Tommy stared at him, astonished. Ranboo was usually as pale and gaunt as a corpse, but now he had a healthy pink in his cheeks and lips, and the dark circles under his eyes were gone. He looked alive again.

“Do- do I have something on my face?” Ranboo asked. “Why are you staring at me?”

“How are you feeling?”

Ranboo almost answered then paused in thought, looking more and more confused. “It- it doesn’t hurt…” He said quietly. “Why doesn’t it hurt? I… It always hurts.” He flexed his hand in wonder. “I’m not shaking anymore. I can move without- What did you do?” He gave a bewildered laugh. “I don’t even remember the last time I felt this normal. How did you-”

“It was Wilbur.” Tommy explained. “He did magic and saved you.”

“Magic?” Ranboo turned to look at Wilbur. “How?”

“I’m sure you’re both bursting with questions right now, and I promise I’ll answer them, but right now I could really use some water and a nap. You have no idea how much healing takes out of you.”

“Right. I’ll get you some water.” Tommy said, standing quickly.

“Thanks, Tommy.”

Tommy nodded and hurried out. His mind was racing with questions. How the hell could Wilbur do magic? How did magic work? What was that red stuff? What else could you do with magic? Could Wilbur fly or turn people into toads? Could Tommy learn magic too? And could he turn Dream into a toad? When he finished drawing water, he turned to head back to the stables. 

He froze in shock. He could see smoke starting to rise from the direction of the stables. And not the magic, sparkly smoke. No, the stables were on fire, and the castle guards were there with torches. And then he heard that made him drop the bucket and break into a sprint. It was the sound of a horse screaming.

Flames had halfway engulfed the stables by the time Tommy got there. The guards were gathered around, tensely holding their readied crossbows and watching the doors. Wilbur and Ranboo were nowhere in sight.

“What’s going on?!” Tommy demanded. 

“Stay back, kid. This is dangerous.”

The sound of a horse’s screams cut through the air again. “Fuck this…” Tommy muttered. He shoved past the guard and tried the door, which was yet to catch fire. It was barred. He bashed his shoulder against it, but it wouldn’t budge.

Before he could try somewhere else, a guard grabbed him. He was shouting something, but he couldn’t hear it over the blood pounding in his ears. 

“Ranboo?! Wilbur?! Are you in there?!” Tommy yelled to no response. He struggled against the guard, who was trying to pull him away from the flames. “Get off me!” 

A sudden gust of wind blew dust and hay into the air. The guard holding him must have breathed it in because he started coughing and choking. Tommy took the chance to wiggle free and run around to the back of the stables. There was a window back here that never latched properly. He knew because it was the bane of his existence during the winter. And sure enough it was wide open. 

Heedless of the smoke billowing out of the window, Tommy climbed through into the burning stables. There were two horses, trapped in their stalls, screaming and kicking as the flames drew closer, and Wilbur and Ranboo lay motionless on the floor. Tommy couldn’t even see if they were alive, but if they were, surely they could hang on for a little longer. 

He jumped into the midway between the stalls and held up his hands to the panicked horses. “I’m gonna get you guys out of here, but you need to calm down. I can’t do shit if you keep kicking about.”

Spirit stilled, but the other horse Boner ignored him and roared in fear, kicking forward towards Tommy.

“I know shit’s on fire! But I can’t help you if you’re just gonna trample me.”

A burning piece of the thatch roof crumbled inward and fell next to him. He jumped back to avoid the hot cinders coming from it. He coughed. The smoke was getting thicker. It burned his eyes and nose and made his lungs want to rebel.

“And I need your help to get these two out, so you can’t just run off. Got it?”

Finally Boner listened. He stopped kicking and screaming, and both of them stood still, waiting for him.

Tommy cautiously opened the gates of their stalls and motioned for them to follow him. “Now I’m gonna put these guys on your backs. And once we’re ready, you kick the door open, Spirit. And then we make a break for the front gate. Got it?” He didn’t have a clue what was going on, but he knew they should be trying to get away from the guards.

Boner pawed at the ground impatiently. 

“I know, I know. Fire’s scary. But we’re all getting out of here together.”

He knelt and picked up Ranboo, positioning him on Spirit’s back as best he could. Spirit was a big horse. He could carry the two of them. Wilbur would have to go on Boner’s back.

Wilbur stirred as Tommy tried to pick him up.  “My purse…” He mumbled. 

“Building’s kind of on fire, big man. We’ve gotta go.”

“I can’t leave it…”

“Just get on the horse.”

The flames were significantly closer now, and both of the horses were getting antsier. He’d almost gotten Wilbur onto Boner’s back when another piece of the burning roof landed right next to them. Boner roared and bolted forward, kicking the door open and running out. Wilbur fell, and Tommy lunged forward to catch him. 

Spirit tossed his head and snorted, but he didn’t run.

Outside, the guards were closing in with their crossbows at the ready. Tommy shook Wilbur’s shoulder. “Wake up, man! We’ve really gotta run.”

“Can’t let it burn…” Wilbur mumbled. 

“Will you shut up about the bloody purse!? We’re gonna die!”

“Ready, men?” One of the guards said loudly. They all pointed their loaded crossbows at Tommy and Wilbur. “Fire!”