"You will accompany me to the astral plane," Kravitz tells the human cowering before him. "Your time is already overdue. But the end doesn't have to be violent." He pitches his voice to lull: "You can just come with me. It's painless, that way. Easy. Peaceful. Just take my hand."
"It doesn't hurt?" the human asks plaintively.
"Not at all," Kravitz promises, resisting the urge to check the time.
"Well... if it doesn't hurt..." the human stretches his hand toward Kravitz, then suddenly, with a triumphant cackle, looses a fireball into Kravitz's face.
The flesh of his entire head and neck bubbles, melts, and peels away, revealing the bones beneath. Kravitz withdraws his offered hand and brushes away the ash from his stark white skull, then reaches to draw his scythe from the astral plane, materializing it in the mortal world.
It all looks very cool, if Kravitz says so himself, but it goes unappreciated; the human is scrambling up the path, trying to run off again.
Kravitz stalks inexorably after him, a gleaming skeleton in a furling black cloak, scythe arcing out of the shadows. "You died, Gerith Brewster. You died, and whatever promises you may have traded with that demon you dealt with-- the truth is, once you die, you belong to me."
This also fails to earn a reaction, beyond the human's panting and struggling.
"Oh, fuck this," says Kravitz, and swings his scythe. He hooks the soul from the human's body, screams of agony ringing out as the soul tries to cling to the flesh. With a final strike, Kravitz slices the soul from its mortal form and catches it up in his hand, this wisp of light.
The soul struggles and twists, trying ineffectual spells and curses, calling on the demon that allowed it to evade its rightful death in the first place, to no avail. "Put me back," it cries, trying to magic Kravitz into doing its bidding. "Put me back, you're wrong, I don't belong here, I'm not dead, look, I'm only sleeping--"
Kravitz brings the scythe down swiftly and cuts the mortal body in half.
"You're definitely dead now," he says, and carries the shocked and unresisting soul into the astral plane.
"See?" Kravitz says as the soul begins to rouse again for the trip across the astral plane. "Turns out you didn't really need that mortal husk. If you'd just accepted your fate, you could have had a very pleasant afterlife, but since you tried to cheat Death, it's the Eternal Stockade for you."
The Stockade isn't actually all that different from the rest of the astral plane. The incorporeal souls can't suffer from their surroundings in any material way, so the imposing prison shouldn't affect them much. They can still partake of the memories of everyone who's ever lived, which is the true substance of this plane.
But the interesting thing is that if you tell a soul it's being punished, it interprets its perfectly comfortable afterlife as a grim ordeal. It's a strange trick that Kravitz doesn't mind exploiting, especially with jackasses like this guy.
He locks the soul into the Stockade and it quickly joins in with the gnashing and moaning of its incarcerated fellows.
"My body, he cut up my body," whines the soul, "I could have reclaimed it but he sliced it in two!"
"Wouldn't have been necessary if you'd just come when I invited you," Kravitz points out, paging through his book.
"And you left me in pieces for my family to find, you brute!"
"Your family's never going to find your body," says Kravitz. "You ran off to the ends of the earth trying to escape me, remember?" He runs his finger down the page and draws a line through Gerith Brewster's name with the tip of a bone finger.
"How will I be able to rest if I'm not buried in sacred ground? You have to send me back until my bones are consecrated--"
"Will you shut up? Damn." Kravitz claps the book shut, shaking his head. "All this fuss over a bit of flesh. Is it really such a treat to be encased in a drooling, sweating, itchy wreck of a body? Did you get such a big kick out of hangnails and gonorrhea, is that why you want it back so bad?"
"Gono-what?" asks the soul.
"Never mind." Kravitz waves a bony, clacking hand. "Carry on with your wailing and weeping."
The Eternal Stockade fills with echoing shouts and cries as Kravitz leaves it: a fortress full of ghosts diligently torturing themselves.
The palace of the Raven Queen is all arches and open spaces filled with spectral light, a pleasure to behold after the cramped, boxy confines of the stockade.
The bones of Kravitz's hands gleam dully in the sourceless glow that fills the palace. He spreads his fingers and examines them, gazing at the joints and phalanges, and then cloaking them again in flesh.
He studies his lined palms first, pale, marred by the supernatural scars that slash through his life lines, where his fate was cut short. Enough of that, he thinks, and turns them over.
The smooth brown skin, the semblance of veins reaching from wrists to knuckles, the thin shells of fingernails tipping each digit... really, what's the big deal? Flesh provides some extra friction, which is handy for getting a grip on things in the mortal plane, but otherwise, Kravitz could take it or leave it. It's been decades since he bothered to fully embody himself with all the gurgling percolating bits that living bodies have.
"Report," says the Raven Queen, sweeping into view from nowhere in a cascade of glossy feathers.
Kravitz hastily drops his hands, and after an awkward moment of equivocation, clasps them behind his back. "Another name struck from the book. For the time being, we've achieved equilibrium."
"Thank you, my lady."
The Raven Queen flicks and mantles the wings of her cloak. "I have a bit of good news for you, Kravitz. Do you perchance happen to recall those three odd little people who were pecking and scratching around the Philosopher's Stone?"
"Merle Highchurch, Taako Taaco, and Magnus Burnsides," says Kravitz, perhaps too quickly. "Somehow all three have died numerous times yet remained on the mortal plane, all without committing any known acts of necromancy. But we suspended their bounties in light of their help with a breakout from the Eternal Stockade. Is it time to collect? Have they died again?"
"They did," says the Raven Queen. "And again, and again, and again. But Istus has taken them as her followers and blessed them. Their previous resurrections have been ratified. You may remove them from the book. Their bounty is closed, for the time being."
"Yes, Majesty. Perhaps," Kravitz says casually, "I might let them know."
"If you like," the Raven Queen says. "Though they just died another ten times each without crossing over. I imagine they've figured it out by now."
"They didn't strike me as particularly quick on the uptake."
"There must be something to them, if they've earned the blessing of Istus," says the Queen. "Or perhaps there isn't. I suppose we all have our moments of whimsy, when we trifle with mortal lives because really, why the hell not."
"Ten deaths each. That's some blessing," Kravitz says.
"You think that's something, check out the town of Refuge," says the Queen. "Every inhabitant's died hundreds of times. The balance was so out of whack, I visited personally. Istus put in a good word for them, and she tried to make it right. But I'm not so sure it's settled. Look into it for me, when you have some spare time, would you? Consult me before you take action, because I don't really want to step on Istus's toes. But poke around, make sure there aren't any loose ends."
"Is there a bounty involved?"
"Not at present. But you may investigate for yourself and make a recommendation as to whether there should be. Keep it on the back burner, though. Your book must remain in balance in the meantime. That still remains your first priority."
"Of course, my lady," Kravitz bows. By the time he straightens, the Queen has fluttered out of sight again.
Thank fuck for that. As soon as he started to dip, Kravitz already felt like a complete tool for bowing, but by then, all he could do was lean into it. Naturally, though, she left in time to spare him embarrassment.
The Raven Queen can be a bewildering and capricious boss, but she always knows just when to make an exit.
Kravitz has become an expert on mortal behavior, but only within a very particular set of parameters. He knows how a terrified mortal almost invariably reacts to the prospect of their doom. He knows the lengths to which their horror of dying will drive them, and the mistakes and maneuvers they always seem to make.
He could set his hourglass by a mortal's predictable pre-mortem schedule: seeking divine intervention, attempting to summon infernal forces, bargaining for time, fighting to the last breath.
Outside of those circumstances, though, he's really not sure what mortals do with themselves. His own mortal life disappeared in the rearview mirror a long time ago, and only lingers in recurring anxious dreams in which Kravitz finds himself in school just in time to take an exam he's forgotten to study for.
He does, at least, feel reasonably certain that a mortal with a designated living space will eventually return to it. Kravitz peers into the mortal world and finds Merle, Magnus, and Taako on a peculiar false moon; he makes his way to Taako's dormitory room and settles in to wait.
Eventually Taako comes in. He looks good, considering how often he's been dying lately.
He seems a bit tired, though, so Kravitz gets right to the point. "We need to talk, don't we? Because you boys, you've added quite a bit to your death count, haven't you."
Taako doesn't seem all that surprised to see him, pausing for only a moment to consider, and admitting, "That one's on me."
"Is it? I understand you three aren't the only ones who've been racking up deaths lately."
"Of course it's not on me like it's my fault, we didn't do it deliberately, I don't die for fun," says Taako. "It's not my idea of a slammin' good time."
"I should hope not."
"But we maybe could have avoided dying that many times, if we'd been a little more careful about it. And we probably should have known that it was just going to get you all riled up at us again."
"I'm not riled," Kravitz assures him. "I'm not a fan of the way you three keep flaunting the laws of nature, not to mention time and space. But I regret our first meeting. I think we can discuss this calmly and come to a mutually agreeable conclusion."
"I don't think we're ever going to mutually agree to die just because it says so in your book, bubeleh."
"That's not on the agenda tonight."
"Good, because we talked to a goddess a little while ago, and I don't know how much pull she's got vis a vis the Blackbird Queen--"
Kravitz winces, "Raven Queen."
"--Corvid Queen, yes, fine, Raven. Anyway, we have a goddess of fate on our side now, so we're not going to go down easy, probably."
"That's not what this is about," Kravitz promises, spreading his hands. "I'm not taking any action tonight. I've been charged with learning what happened with you three and the town of Refuge. Purely a conversation. No threats, no fighting, I'm not taking anyone to the astral plane tonight. I just want to talk. Is this a good time...?"
Taako sinks onto the sofa nearby. "It's been a long day. Sort of. It was a long hour. Or I guess the hour was a normal sixty minutes kind of deal, but we lived through it enough times that it added up to a long day, and also it was emotionally exhausting toward the end there. But on the other hand, I'm an elf and I don't really need sleep, so sure, take a seat. As long as you promise this isn't going to turn into another golem fight."
"Cross my-- well, where my heart used to be," says Kravitz, sitting too.
"Good enough," Taako says. "I'm just going to pour myself a drink or five while we chat. Want something? Do you drink? Can you drink? Will it leak out of your ribcage next time you go all skeletonized?"
"I can drink. It just vanishes when I change forms, it doesn't linger. So... I'll have whatever you're having, yes, thank you."
Taako splashes wine into a mismatched pair of goblets and hands one to Kravitz, swigging down a good half of his own cup. "What do you want to know?"
"If you don't mind, just... take it from the top."
"From the very top? Because, like... I'm originally from New Elfington..."
"Maybe just from when you started living-- here, wherever this place is, doing... whatever it is you're doing with these shockingly powerful objects?"
"Hoo boy. Uh." Taako leans back, slumping on the sofa, and folds his hands together over the rise of his stomach, twiddling his thumbs. "It had to be the fake moon, huh. The hardest thing to explain. There's no point, you won't be able to understand me anyway. Listen: this is the HQ for the Bureau of Balance. See?"
Kravitz tries to find an equally casual position on the couch, but it feels rude to drape himself all akimbo like Taako is, so he's left crossing one leg over the other and resting his hands on his knee, feeling like some kind of prim schoolmarm. "I don't see, no. Is it really so impossible to explain what the Bureau of Balance is?"
Taako gapes. "You heard me? It wasn't just static?"
"No. Was it meant to be?"
"Well... yeah! Kind of? No one's supposed to know about that unless they swallow this nasty fish juice they made us drink."
"Nasty fish juice. You have a voidfish?"
"You know about the voidfish! I guess Grim Reapering has some perks, huh?"
"A few. I think I see your confusion, but a voidfish can only remove information from the mortal plane. It doesn't affect the astral plane."
"Oh-HO! I see!" Taako rubs his hands together. "In that case! It all started around two years ago. I'd been working with Merle and Magnus, you know them."
"All too well."
"We got hired for a boring guard job, but it got complicated, and it eventually turned out that this cousin of Merle's who'd hired us had a dangerous Grand Relic. Which is what they call those shockingly powerful objects around here."
Taako finishes his wine, pours more, twirls the stem of the goblet. "Anyway, we... it didn't go great... the cousin more or less burned up a whole town. Do you know about that, did you collect a bumper crop that day?"
"Doesn't work like that," says Kravitz. "Souls naturally cross over into the astral plane when it's their time, unless there's something hinky going on. That's when I step in to put things right. But if nature takes its proper course, the souls don't need my help."
"Hm. Kay. Well... we took the Grand Relic, we brought it here, they served us voidfish juice, now we know all the stuff the voidfish made vanish. They told us they were trying to find all these Grand Relics and destroy them, but before us, they'd gotten absolutely zilch, nada, zipperoo. They couldn't even believe we were able to pick up this thing without being tempted to put it on and use it."
"What was it, if I may ask?"
"The, ah, the... glove thing... Phoenix Fire Gauntlet. That. And then," Taako attempts to count off on his fingers while still holding the wine glass, sending it sloshing precariously with each item, "the Oculus, the Gaia Sash, and you know about the Philosopher's Stone, and we just got back from dealing with the Temporal Chalice... which was a tough one, I don't mind telling you."
"They all sound... tricky."
"Eh, even the cup wasn't that bad, I guess. The worst part was that we could have used it to go back in time and save that first town, the one the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet just burned all to hell. It showed us the town right before that, and we had to watch everyone die. Again." With forced brightness, Taako adds, "I guess you see that all the time, though, huh, stud?"
"It's not my favorite part of the job."
"Oh yeah? What is?"
Kravitz looks into his wine, considering it. "I have a clear sense of purpose," he says finally. "Mortal life is full of so much uncertainty and doubt. It's hard to know whether you're doing what you should. Things are much simpler for me now."
"Yeah," Taako says. "That's true here too, I guess. They tell us what to do and we do it. Though, listen. Is it just me, or is this setup kind of weird? I mean, they had an entire fake moon base going up here, they had all these rules and job titles, Director and Regulator and Reclaimer, they had the voidfish and there's a Fantasy Costco up here! It's pretty built out! How did they get all this stuff established when they hadn't even found one relic before us? And since they're just destroying the relics, it's not like that's makin' any paper! Who's paying for all this?"
"Is that a serious question? Are you asking me to try to find out?" Kravitz has no idea how he'd go about that, but he finds himself oddly willing to make the attempt.
Taako finishes his wine and collapses back against the sofa in a heap again. "No. Not your circus, not your monkey, I know. It's just, I don't exactly get a lot of chances to talk about this. Magnus is loyal as a puppy dog, he's not about to question anyone here. And Merle probably doesn't care one way or the other."
"They might surprise you."
Kravitz lingers over a mouthful of wine; it takes focus to taste it when his body is this halfway sort of mystic construct. It's a Syrah with a pleasant spicy flavor and a hint of almond in the finish. He's a little surprised, himself; he would have expected Taako to keep in nothing but rotgut and plonk. He's nearly drained his cup already.
He swallows. "For what it's worth, I agree with you. It's kind of a weird setup."
"Right?! And look, I get why everything is a big honking secret. The wrong people could really crap the sack with these Relics."
"And have," says Kravitz, thinking of Lucas Miller and the Philosopher's Stone.
"Totally. But they go overboard here! It's not that hard to talk around it! They get in the habit of sewing their mouths shut and then shit happens and they won't even crack a stitch to say anything helpful like, say, oh hey, that glove is going to let that guy set lots of shit on fire!"
"That lost town still bothers you."
"Kinda on my mind, since the Chalice just showed us the whole thing again. It's like, okay, we get it, we fucked up on that one. But we didn't know what the hell was going on, so how were we supposed to do better?"
"I don't see how three mortal beings could be reasonably expected to stop an object of such overwhelming power, one that all the people of this moon base had been mustered against without success. Especially not when all knowledge of it had been deliberately obscured from you."
Taako meets his eyes, surprised. "...Thanks. I mean, you sound like you swallowed nine dictionaries, but thanks."
"Speaking of swallowing, do you mind if I--?" Kravitz indicates the bottle.
"Sure, please do. Sorry, that's just bad hosting, there. Drink up, keep it coming, help yourself!"
"Thank you." Kravitz takes the liberty of refilling both goblets. "It's quite good."
"It's from Deepingdale," says Taako. "Strong stuff, too. Can you get drunk?"
"Hm. Too bad. I bet you'd be a fun drunk."
"I-- okay," Kravitz answers, confused. "Not sure why you'd think so, but..."
"Just a hunch! Just some ol' elfish-- elfin-- elven? --uh, wizardly intuition. L'chaim! Salut! Kampai!" Taako gulps more wine, and Kravitz joins him.
"I wanted to ask you about Refuge," Kravitz recalls, though he finds himself a little reluctant to get back to business.
"Oh, sure! What do you wanna know?"
"Just the whole, everyone dying there over and over again, that whole situation."
"Temporal Chalice, baby," says Taako. "There was a disaster looming, someone tried to use a Relic to stop it. This particular Relic controls time. So the Relic looped the hour before the big boom over and over again, for years. The whole thing was isolated in a bubble from the rest of the world. Look, those people weren't fated to die, though, right? Or they'd be in your big ol' book."
"The magic of the Relic seems to have obscured them even from the Raven Queen. And I'm in service to her; my book only knows what she knows."
"Maybe this is one of those cases where ignorance is bliss," Taako suggests.
"Unfortunately, it's my job to determine whether this interruption in the natural order of things requires redress."
"Redress? You never undressed! Which is a shame, in my book-- did I tell you I have a book too? I call it The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Elves."
Kravitz has no idea how to take any of that. "Sounds interesting," is what he lands on.
Taako tilts his head. "Which part?"
Taking a drink to stall, Kravitz finally decides on, "The seven habits. What are they? Or would I have to read the book to find out?"
"Or read me like a book," grins Taako, dropping a shoulder in a way that's somehow... suggestive.
People have attempted to seduce Kravitz before, of course. Mortals will try anything to lengthen their lives. When he shows up with his face on, sometimes they think he can be swayed by carnal appeals. Which he can't.
Flirtation, though... that hasn't really come his way since he took up the scythe. If this is flirtation. Taako and his friends don't seem to take much of anything seriously; this could just be more goofing. Or trying to wrongfoot him to get an advantage. It's probably just goofing.
Kravitz feels the sudden shift of his book going out of balance; a relief, since he's already paused too long to respond to Taako in any remotely acceptable fashion.
"I'm sorry, work calls. I have to go," he says, bringing out his bounty book and flipping it open.
Fortunately it's no one anywhere near here who's disturbed the natural order of things, this time. It looks like a straightforward case of necromancy at the outskirts of Neverwinter.
Taako leans over to peer curiously at the bounty book. "Work, huh? That sucks. Seems like it's pretty much a twenty-four/sev situation for you. Do you ever get to have any fun?"
"It's been known to happen," Kravitz says. "What about you, do you know your schedule for the next week or so? I really do need to learn just what happened to Refuge, and if you lot have been using a voidfish to remove information related to the Relics, that means I can't ask anyone there; you and Magnus and Merle are the only ones who're going to know the whole story."
"Sure, sure. But I don't know what I've got coming up. They could send us out after another Relic tomorrow," says Taako. "Let me get your digits, my dude."
"That's just a fun way us mortals ask how to get in touch on kind of an ongoing basis, you know?"
"If you have a Stone of Farspeech, I can attune it to mine," Kravitz offers, and when Taako swiftly produces his Stone, Kravitz taps it with his own. A few arcane words and they're set.
"Call any time," Taako smiles.
"Thank you for," your cooperation is on the tip of Kravitz's tongue, but he pulls back on that and with a minimum of stammering, changes it to, "for the wine. And conversation."
"Sure thing, my fella."
As smoothly as he can manage, Kravitz draws out the scythe and cuts his portal back to the astral plane, his suit beginning to cascade into black robes with smoky curls and tatters along the edges.
"Nice. Love that look," says Taako. "See you!"
Kravitz waves before turning away, assuming his skeletal form as he passes into the astral plane.
Once the rift has fully sealed behind him, he says aloud, "What the fuck was that, seriously."
But a tug from the book reminds him he has work to do; Kravitz sets his confusion aside and gets back to the familiar routine of hunting down bounties to remove their fate-defying dark magics forever from the mortal plane. No matter how hairy that gets, he has a feeling it'll be much simpler than trying to figure out Taako.