"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.
I knew I wanted to describe the date from Kravitz's point of view for this story, so I transcribed it for TAZscripts, along with some other episodes.
Since I typed up all the dialogue from the date for the transcript, I wound up using almost all of it here. I only made minor edits here and there to remove repetition and clarify things a little. To see the original conversation faithfully recorded, check the episode 50 transcript.
"Hail and well met, my dead dude!"
The moment he hears Taako, Kravitz halts mid-monstrous-stride and retreats to the astral plane. He's far enough off from his targets that they shouldn't be able to hear the voice that comes fluting through his Stone of Farspeech, but he doesn't particularly want to mutter his way through a hushed conversation with Taako while inhabiting a golem of animate driftwood.
"Hello," he answers, finally, once he's back to his own plane. "Sorry, I was working."
"Yeah? How's that shizz going, mighty hunter?"
"Nothing too challenging. I can take a break, if you have time to finish our conversation."
"Today's no good, sorry. I got a million things to do. Plus I need to get my story straight for a big debriefing tomorrow, telling the record-keepers all about snagging that last Relic. But I'm free and clear after that! I was calling to ask, how's tomorrow night look for you?"
"I'm sure I can finish up this hunt by then and free up some time."
"Great! Great great great. There's this fun new wine and pottery place we can try, since you were all into that Deepingdale drank. Say, around seven? I'll give you a jingle to make sure we're still on, and give you directions and all that good stuff."
"All right," says Kravitz. "Talk to you soon."
"Sure thing, hotshot. See ya!"
Kravitz shakes off the strange thoughts he's left with, and throws himself back into his assembled pile of driftwood on the mortal plane. Within a couple of hours, he takes down the two necromancers trying to become liches (more of them. again.) and brings their souls back to the Stockade. If he's lucky, he won't have anything else pressing to deal with between now and tomorrow night.
Without allowing himself to think about it too closely, Kravitz drifts to another section of the Stockade.
"Oh look," says a distinctive, accented voice. "It's Mister Death! Hellooo, Mister Death! How are you, dear?"
"The name's Kravitz," he says. "Not Mister Death."
"Oh, pleasure to meet you formally, Kravitz. I'm Brian."
"I know who you are."
"That's very sweet of you! I know you must deal with a lot of people in your line of work," says Brian. "But you know, I have a question for you, or perhaps it's an observation? Maybe you can confirm it for me."
"Doubt it, but you can try."
"I can't help noticing, my dear, that this part of the astral plane isn't so so different from where we were before we were naughty and put away in prison. Hmmm? Am I right about that?"
"You're out of your mind," says the phlegmatic soul locked up nearby. Kravitz has to think to remember this one's name: Jenkins. "We're in a Stockade full of screaming souls, and you think it's not so bad. You've lost it."
"Crazypants!" agrees the third soul. That one, Kravitz doesn't even bother to try to recall.
To Brian, Kravitz says, "About that breakout of yours. What can you tell me about those three mortals who sent you here to the astral plane, twice now? A dwarf, an elf, and a human, is that right?"
Jenkins makes a disgusted sound, and the third one curses a blue streak, but Brian answers eagerly, "Ahh, yes! Are they in trouble too? Will you dragoon them and bring them here? Do you hear that, my friends-- perhaps we could spend the rest of eternity on our ultimate revenge! If they're locked up near us, we'll give them an earful!"
"If we aren't the ones to kill them, then what's the point?" Jenkins complains. "Not to mention, that torture would go both ways. I don't want to spend eternity anywhere near those three."
"Never mind him," says Brian. "Anything you want to know about the three of them, I'm happy to share. They're idiots, you know. Quite quite foolish. Pure luck that they got the better of us, wouldn't you agree? After all, they got the better of you, too."
"I chose to release them because they'd been helpful," says Kravitz, nettled.
"Oh, of course of course," Brian coos. "But they gave you far more trouble than you expected, before then, yes? I swear, there is some lucky star looking out for those three, those three-- hooligans."
"It's possible you underestimated them. They could be better than you realized, behind those casual attitudes."
"Ach, dear, you don't understand. Taako killed me with a weak Magic Missile. It just happened to hit exactly right and knocked me into a pit. What are the odds?"
"Maybe he just has good aim."
Brian trills with laughter. "Good aim! Is that what you call it? Three incompetents bumble their way through one quest after another, facing off against opponents using the most powerful objects in the world, and somehow they always come out on top, because they have such good aim. I don't think so!"
"If those are the kind of people the gods are favoring these days, I'm glad I'm dead," Jenkins grumbles. "Rude, cruel imbeciles, all three of them. And it wasn't just me they were rude to. On the train where I met them, they bullied a ten-year-old boy! Three adults! Who does that? And poor Marvy! They don't even remember killing him! How insulting!"
"They cut me in half and forgot about it!" snarls the third one.
"Well, don't go looking for sympathy from that guy," another nearby soul suddenly chimes in. "He cut me in half just the other day."
"Wait," says Kravitz, "is that..."
He trails off, blanking.
"Did you forget my name? Already? It was last week! You just slice so many guys in half, it all starts to blend together, huh? What'd I tell you, he's just like those guys you're dragging on."
"Gerith," says Kravitz, after sneaking a peek at the book.
"I can't believe you remember this Brian clown's name and not mine. I heard his story, and you didn't even reap Brian here yourself, so how come you know who he is? What's he got that you want? Hey, you three, put your heads together. How come the Reaper's asking you stuff? What's his angle?"
"Maybe he's just friendly," says Brian.
"It's Taako," says Jenkins. "Some souls were saying they'd overheard them flirting, it's one of the things that kept the Grim Reaper here distracted during the big breakout."
"You mean the failed breakout attempt," Kravitz says.
"Oh, darling, no, don't tell me you've fallen for Taako," says Brian. "He's nothing but heartache, believe me!"
"He's a horrible person," says Jenkins. "Just the worst. Anyway, how desperate are you? Some joker calls you handsome to distract you during a fight, and now look at you, you're hanging out in prison asking ghost convicts for dating tips."
"I am not asking you for dating tips," says Kravitz, trying to figure out exactly when this conversation went completely off the rails. "It's my responsibility to gather information about anyone who transgresses the natural order of life and death."
"Taako called him handsome?" Brian asks. "No one told me that!"
"It was a joke!" Kravitz says sharply, unreasonably annoyed.
"Oh, don't be like that, dear, you're a very good-looking gentleman."
"Enough." Kravitz shifts from his mortal semblance into his skeletal form. "If you can ever offer any useful information, I'll consider improvements to your situation here. Til then, enjoy the Stockade."
"It's really not so bad, though!" Brian calls after him as Kravitz goes.
"It's a prison and we're here forever!" says Gerith. "How is that not so bad, looney tunes? And why don't any of you morons ask him any questions? Hey, Reaper! What kind of improvements can there possibly be in this shithole?"
"Ask around. Apparently the grapevine around here knows everything," Kravitz tosses back over his shoulder, and stalks away.
Talking to condemned souls is probably never a great idea. Talking to nosy, jerktastic condemned souls the day before a tricky meeting is even worse. Kravitz should know better by now. He's certainly had enough time to figure it out.
It's solely the hangover from that obnoxious conversation that makes him feel bad the next day when he eavesdrops on the Bureau of Balance's debriefings about the Temporal Chalice.
He certainly wouldn't feel creepy about it for any other reason. Gathering information like this is his job, his purpose in the natural order. He can't be certain Taako will tell him everything he needs to know, and this way he can learn more without interrogating the elf. It's no different from the kind of reconnaissance that Kravitz has done thousands of times before in the course of his investigations.
Yep. Completely legit. It's all Jenkins' and Brian's fault he feels scuzzy about it. And Gerith's, and that other soul who was complaining about being bisected. It's on them.
Magnus, Merle and Taako all have slightly different accounts of their time in Refuge, and Kravitz has a feeling there's more to the end of it than "The Temporal Chalice tried to get us to use it, but like always, we just blew it off and brought it here." But their stories agree on the broad strokes.
And even though what happened to Refuge was utterly unnatural, in the end, the results aren't much different than if the town had been isolated for some time by a natural disaster. After listening to the saga three times over and reviewing everything he's learned, Kravitz feels convinced that nothing in Refuge is going to need his particular attentions.
He also feels profoundly tacky for listening in. If this conversation tonight with Taako goes anywhere, which it won't, so why is he even planning as if it will-- if-- then he should probably apologize for treating this like just another case.
Speak of the devil: "Hey Kravitz, are we still on for seven?" Taako's voice comes through his Stone of Farspeech. "Hit me up, dead fella!"
Kravitz indulges in an unnecessary sigh before answering. "Yes. You were going to supply directions?"
"Abso-tively, baby! If you need them. But you know where I am, right? You were homing right in on us when we were fighting."
"I know where you are, yes."
"Great! So you can just find me and come join me. I'll be at the place, it's called The Chug & Squeeze."
"The... sorry, not sure I heard that right."
"Chug and Squeeze! You chug the wine and you squeeze the pottery, so what they call it is the Chug and Squeeze."
"This is a wine bar?"
"Yeah, you know, they have to differentiate. This is the rowdy one. They don't cater to like, your pseudo-intellectuals and your... whatever. This is like, the fun one. It's Cab and vase night! You like Cabernet?"
"Great! Toodle-oo! See you soon!"
Finding the place turns out to be a bit more complicated than Kravitz anticipated. The Bureau has some protective magic in place. Most of it barely registers with Kravitz; he had no trouble getting into Taako's rooms or listening in on the record-keepers' chamber.
But the wine bar is closer to areas of the base that have substantially more complex and powerful protective charms, and they interfere with Kravitz's ability to easily trace Taako's location.
He arrives late, a little embarrassed and cranky about the delay, and his discomfort only grows when he realizes a "wine and pottery place" isn't a wine bar that's also a pottery shop, as he'd assumed. Rather, it's a pottery class that also serves wine.
It's a strange venue for a serious conversation, and on top of that, every other pair in the place seems to be a couple on a date. Almost certainly it's meant to disarm him, or possibly Taako's hoping the date trappings will make Kravitz more susceptible to whatever persuasion he intends to bring to bear.
None of that, Kravitz decides, and tries to set the appropriate tone as soon as he sits next to the elf at the pottery wheel. "Taako, this is a pretty unconventional place to have an argument about the fate of a whole small community."
Taako just looks at him expectantly, his expression completely guileless. His clothes seem a little nicer than before, richer fabrics, the blouse shot through with glitter, and his eyes are touched with kohl. The bottle of Cabernet at the table is already half gone. Surely if Taako meant to angle for an advantage, he'd stay sober, knowing Kravitz can't be intoxicated.
Kravitz clears his throat, trying to recalibrate to the situation, odd though it may be. "...But I do like wine, so..." he winces at the sound of his own words; suddenly even that feels wrong, and he lets go of his work voice. "I'm sorry, do you mind if I drop the accent? It's really hard to keep it up, and when I'm not on the job it just feels weird doing it. Is that okay?"
"Yeah, of course!" Taako lowers his own voice to a gravelly basso profundo. "As long as I can drop my accent too."
His own laughter surprises Kravitz a little, and it's even stranger when he finds himself watching Taako's smile, not for signs of insincerity or manipulation, but just because-- just because. Because it's nice to see.
He's so tired of himself and this constant confusion. "Why are we here, Taako? Why can't we just go back to the dorm and finish our conversation?"
"Well... ironically, because I thought it would get weird. But it is. I don't know why I thought this would be a better option," Taako shrugs. "Also you're like, very dangerous. So I didn't want to necessarily leave myself in private with you."
And that's even more exhausting and disheartening, somehow. Though he can hardly blame Taako. Kravitz cultivates an aura of menace. His entire existence is a threat to mortal-kind. Of course Taako doesn't want to be alone with him.
"I'm not going to attack you, Taako. I don't actually have a contract out on you, or Merle, or Magnus, or anybody in Refuge. I'm just trying to make sense of it. I've been hunting for a good long time, and I've never known anyone who's bent the laws as much as you have. So I'm just trying to understand what makes you guys so special."
Taako hums thoughtfully. "Look at what I'm sculpting here." The clay under his hands is forming a low, wide bowl.
An instructor walking among the pottery wheels notices Taako and frowns at them. "Hey, it's vase day! It's Cab and Vase! No bowls!"
"Let me reshape it," Taako says, bringing the walls of the bowl in to make something more like a vase. The instructor nods curtly and turns away, and Taako immediately opens up the bowl again, curling his lip at the instructor's back. "What the hell. This is what I feel like making today. I don't chain my muse up," he murmurs to Kravitz.
"I like your renegade spirit, there."
"Well, that's what I want to talk to you about. Look at this bowl, right? You see how it kind of curves up on each side, and in the middle, there's like a whole big flat part. Right? That's where most people fall into. Lot of people are in this area, right here. And people like you who are charged with sort of keeping the status quo-- those are the people that you need to worry about, the people in the middle of the bowl."
"This is a very confusing analogy."
"It's not confusing at all!" Taako insists. "The people who are down the middle, who are sort of regular Joe Pastas, they're always gonna be here on the flat part, and as long as you keep them under control and as long as you keep the herd thin there, it'll be fine. There's always gonna be edge cases, is what I'm saying. There's always gonna be people on the fringe that don't necessarily adhere to whatever rules you set out for yourself. That's everywhere in the universe, and every plane."
Kravitz opens his mouth to explain again that the regular Joe Pastas just cross over without him; all he handles are the edge cases. But he thinks twice. Because even though he only deals with the unusual deaths, most of them are unusual in the same ways. Necromancers and Dr. Faustus types take up the bulk of his time. That's exactly why he's here: because Taako and his friends are on the fringe of the fringe, operating far outside the rules and even outside the usual forms of rule-breaking.
So in the end, he just nods in response, and asks another question that's been on his mind since their last conversation. "You explained to me last time we talked what you're all doing here, and it sounds important. But the fact that I've visited you as much as I have means this line of work is just preposterously dangerous. So why are doing this, Taako? Why aren't you in a safer career?"
Taako runs the wire tool under the bowl he's made and lifts it off the pottery wheel. He sits back and says plainly, "Because I'm worried no one else will have me."
"Wow, that was... a very honest answer. I'm a bit shocked."
"Well, I mean, that's the truth!" says Taako. "If I can't be honest at the Chug and Squeeze then frankly, my man, I don't know where I can. What else am I gonna do?" He doesn't sound bitter or upset, just resigned. "As far as anybody else knows, my career as a chef is over. Nobody wants an adventurer who's got as little experience as I'd have, going in. I can't put any of this in my resume, it'll look like scribbles! I don't have a lot of job prospects on that front. So here I am."
He plops another lump of clay on the wheel and spins it, and soon, apparently just from eyeballing it, Taako's created a sort of domed lid to fit on top of his bowl that will turn it into a wide vase. He slides the wire under the piece and removes it, gesturing for Kravitz to take his turn at the wheel.
Kravitz sets his own clay in place and begins to shape it. It works out better for conversation than he expected; he doesn't have to look Taako in the eye, he can just focus on the task in front of him. It's actually rather freeing. "I can understand that. I was given a pretty difficult choice when I was faced with the career of becoming a bounty hunter for the goddess of death. I didn't grow up wanting to be that, of course."
"I wanted to be a conductor. But unfortunately, you know, life finds a way... or death, I guess. The goddess of death."
"In this case specifically, yeah, death."
"I appreciate you being so open and honest with me, Taako," he says, glancing up, and even with everything they just admitted to one another, he's startled to see Taako smiling back at him with uncommon warmth.
If he still held onto any illusions of indifference, they escape him now. He doesn't want to see Taako's time end. He doesn't want to carry his soul over to the astral plane. He wants Taako to live out the fullness of his natural life and accomplish everything he wants to do, and cross over without supernatural intervention, peaceful and easy.
"How much more dying do you think is going to happen, just so I know how to pitch your case to the Raven Queen?"
Taako clicks his tongue. "How much more... us dying, or other regular dying?"
"Any dying, at all. What's the game plan there?"
"The thing at Refuge was definitely an outlier, I don't plan to die that many times again. So that was probably-- here's what I'm going to say," and Taako suddenly rests his hand on Kravitz's, guiding the vase he's making. "--Oh, boy howdy, that is a clammy one."
He doesn't shrink away, though, and the incipient vase that was threatening to tilt over begins to take on a more structurally sound shape.
"If we can overlook that unpleasantness, I think you're going to find a very acceptable level of death in the days and weeks ahead," says Taako. "A very normal, sort of corporeal, just, usual amount of death."
It's so absurdly, improbably charming; Kravitz gives up. "Okay. I think I can close the case on this one. The people of Refuge will be safe, obviously. There will be certain exceptions made where they need to be made, for the three of you. The Raven Queen is actually good good buds with Lady Istus, so..."
"Nice!" Taako beams.
"I understand you're now in her retinue, so I think I can close my investigation here. I guess let's just enjoy the rest of the class?"
"Hell yeah! Let's open up another bottle and see where the evening takes us!"
The evening takes them through two more bottles-- Kravitz drinks most of their second bottle, since the alcohol doesn't affect him, and their third is split with two women Taaco knows, an orc and a blue-scaled dragonborn.
The Chug & Squeeze has an enchanted kiln, of course, so their creations are fired and ready for glazing in minutes. Taako uses just a touch of transmutation magic to make the two parts of his bowl-vase fit together perfectly, and paints it with violet and coral orange stripes. Kravitz uses a celadon glaze, and borrows some of Taako's violet to decorate the top with wabi-sabi style drips and dots. Even with Taako's help, the shape came out a bit wobbly, and it's obviously an amateur effort. But the colors glaze nicely, and Kravitz finds he likes it.
When Taako receives his finished vase-bowl after the second magical firing, he seems pleased too, proclaiming it "tasteful and rad." (Even with Kravitz doing the heavy lifting on the second bottle, Taako did have quite a bit of wine.)
After they leave the Chug & Squeeze, Kravitz watches his companion's tipsy, loose-limbed saunter. He's reluctant to make things awkward yet again, but he has to ask. "Taako, I want to know... was this call for business or pleasure?"
"A little bit of both," says Taako. "I for sure didn't want to be dragged to hell or whatever it is you do. I am not interested in that. But also, I love your style. Not crazy about the sort of cold clamminess of the skin, but yeah, you know, it's been a while out here."
Kravitz finally has to admit it to himself: that immediate, casual honesty is attractive as all get out. The smile, the unfazed directness, even the loopy way he talks...
He has exactly no time to savor the realization. A sudden pall comes over the grassy square where they're walking, an oppressive presence making itself obvious to Kravitz's innate sense of the unnatural.
Extending his arm, he draws out his scythe, his cloak cascading down over his shoulders.
"Love this," Taako murmurs, bizarrely enough.
"There's something here," Kravitz explains. "There's something here, Taako, it was--"
"I feel it too!"
Oh, gods. That's adorable, and he can't even pause to enjoy it. "No, not this. There's something here. It was in the Millers’ lab too, I could feel it. It's dead and it's powerful and it's extremely close. Are you harboring a dark spirit, Taako? Do you have suspicions that you might be some sort of vessel?" It might account for the uncanny luck Brian mentioned. It could even explain why Kravitz feels drawn to him, his sense for the unnatural leading him astray.
"Maybe? I mean, it's been a few years... was that a thing for a while? I eat old dead dudes with my umbrella, is that a possibility, maybe?"
That's definitely something they should discuss eventually, but, "No, I don't think it's that." He turns, moving away, trying to get a sense of where this energy is coming from.
The next thing he knows, a sizzling sound erupts behind him, and he turns around to see Taako pointing his umbrella skyward, a blazing flare arching up.
"What was that?"
"The Umbra Staff's trying to kill you, man, it's not me!" Taako grabs his umbrella with both hands, pointing it away from Kravitz.
"The Umbra Staff, check it out, it acted on its own."
"I don't understand. Can I see it?"
"Okay," Taako says, and hands it over right away, carefully gripping it until Kravitz has it in both hands and pointed away from himself.
Kravitz examines the umbrella-- the Umbra Staff, apparently-- but whatever was happening to it before, it feels inert now. "Maybe your umbrella's cursed and maybe you should get that checked out, but what I'm sensing isn't just a curse. This is an undead being like a lich, or something big and powerful." A terrible thought occurs. "You're not a lich, are you, Taako?"
"Not to my knowledge, not a lich, no," Taako says earnestly.
"You're not. Of course. I would know if you were," he realizes, as the spasm of paranoia ebbs away. Kravitz has spent the vast majority of this day confused for one reason or another, and this reason is much worse than the butterflies and uncertainty he experienced earlier. "I've had a lovely evening, but this..."
Taako isn't listening; he's started emptying his pockets. "I've got an arcane trickster's glove... low sodium salt shaker... ring of frost..."
"You can just lay all your stuff out if you want, but I don't think it's-- it's definitely not the salt shaker."
Kravitz doesn't know whether to laugh or-- what. "The gum is not a lich. I'll tell you what, I've had a lovely evening, but I need to go." He opens his passage back to the astral plane, which is finally enough to regain Taako's attention. "I've had a very-- I've had a lovely evening. Do you think I'll be hearing from you again any time soon?"
"Yeah! I mean, as long as I don't, you know, die. Again." Taako gives him an incongruously sunny smile.
"Well, even so, we have ways of dealing with that." And that's the evening's ultimate confession, whether Taako knows it or not (and going by his unchanged smile, Taako absolutely doesn't).
Kravitz has a limited amount of discretion when it comes to his work. He might have just enough to protect a very danger-prone, well-meaning, foolish elf. He intends to find out.
"That's pretty much the best excuse I'll ever have, so I think you'll definitely be seeing me again, for sure," says Taako.
"If that's the case, then hopefully not too soon. Goodbye, Taako."
"Adios!" Taako waves as the rift closes.
He argues over it with himself for a little while, but Kravitz eventually takes a break from kicking himself over the mixed messages he sent-- "hopefully not too soon," what even was that?-- and returns to the Eternal Stockade.
"Hello again, Mister Death! I'm sorry. Mister Kravitz. Hello!"
"Brian. Jenkins. Did either of you sense a dark presence around Taako? Or Magnus or Merle?"
"Hey! What the higgle? I'm here too, you know!" says the third one, the cut in half guy.
"A dark presence, eh?" Brian asks. "Other than ourselves, I suppose you mean."
"Taako is a dark presence, as far as I'm concerned," says Jenkins. "They all are."
"Can't say I noticed anything looming around him, but our acquaintance was sadly cut short," says Brian. "How did your date go?"
It's no use denying it, or asking how they know. "A little problematic toward the end, since a dark presence cropped up and possessed Taako's staff to try to fire a shot at me."
"Is that what he told you? And you fell for that?" Jenkins scoffs. "Obviously he did it. Probably while your back was turned! Was your back turned?"
Kravitz ignores him. "Things were a little chaotic, but... I think I may have told him three different times that I had a lovely evening."
The souls go still and silent for a few long moments.
"Oh, you poor dear," says Brian.
Kravitz sighs. "Yeah."
The first half of a mini-golf date, and Kravitz tells his backstory. It's gruesome. And Kravitz is pretty cavalier about describing how nasty his death was, so look out for that.
In honor of Kravitz properly reappearing in The Adventure Zone at long last, I've come back to this story! I let it lapse because I was so sure Kravitz was going to pop up any moment during The Suffering Game, and I wanted to wait and see if any of my backstory for Kravitz was contradicted in the show. At this late date, I don't think that's likely, and also, I realized: who cares? Here's my backstory for Kravitz and I welcome any jossing with open arms, should it come.
I upped the chapter count because there's more after this, a conclusion to their date and a little epilogue. But for now, here's this.
Most of the time, Kravitz can take his job as it comes. He finds it satisfying to restore the natural flow of life and death and fulfill his purpose in the scheme of things; he never resents doing the work.
On the other hand, if his book is in order, then no one is currently resurrecting the dead, conjuring spirits, or trying to become a lich. Which is a good thing, in Kravitz's opinion. He doesn't mind the occasional lull.
The day after the wine and pottery evening with Taako, though, Kravitz is desperate for something distracting to do.
"Are you lot planning another escape attempt that I could put down, by any chance?" he asks the Stockade hopefully as he passes by.
After a beat of surprised silence-- he doesn't usually engage imprisoned souls in repartee-- one answers, "There aren't any portals to the other side lately except the ones you make. So unless we tried hitching a ride on your cloak, no chance. We all figured you'd probably notice that. You'd notice that, right?"
"It would be hard to miss."
"Okay, well, there goes that idea, and that's the only thing anyone's come up with since you shut down Legion. So."
"Right." Now he remembers why he never talks to the souls in the Stockade; it's weird trying to end a conversation when you both know that the other person has literally nowhere else to go and nothing else to do for actual eternity.
In a rare instance of perfect timing, he feels the balance of his book shift. "Duty calls! Gotta go!" Kravitz says brightly, and takes off.
The bounty book, bless its immaterial glue and bindings, directs him to a big job: a group of adventurers wandering through a dungeon have stumbled on a trap that's revived a powerful wraith and a dozen skeletal undead warriors. Not on.
Kravitz rifts to an appropriate spot on the mortal plane, embodies himself, and joins the fray in the dank, gelid dungeon.
One of the adventurers must make a kickass perception check when they spot him, because in no time, they're all addressing him as "Reaper" and taking pains to avoid getting anywhere near him. Kravitz most likely wouldn't have questioned that or even noticed it before, but now it rankles.
"I'm not here for any of you," Kravitz tells them. "None of you are due to die today." Which he's probably technically not supposed to tell them, but whatever.
"Cool," says the tiefling ranger, "then you won't mind just staying over there on the other side of the skeletons, mkay?"
They're competent, at least, and they handle most of the skeletons themselves while Kravitz takes care of the wraith. By the time Kravitz defeats the doomed soul, the rest of them have bunched up behind their druid, who's furiously casting layers of protective charms and spells against Kravitz.
He breaks through their magic with a swing of the scythe and a chilly "Pardon me," and retrieves the last undead soul from the lone remaining skeleton concealed in a chest behind them. The party members don't even have the good grace to look abashed.
Job finished, Kravitz takes his leave of the dungeon without another word to the adventurers, and delivers the wraith and her skeleton guardians to the Stockade.
A swell of whispers follows him, and suddenly, a completely random nearby soul shouts to him, "Magic Brian wants to know if you called him yet!"
More muttering noises, and someone else adds, "Tazo? He's asking if you called--"
"No, it's Tah-gro!"
"Who's Brian, even?"
"Everyone shut up. Why are you passing along Brian's question?" Kravitz asks the first soul.
"Why not? We're condemned here forever," the soul answers. "We don't really have anything better to do."
There's no good response to that, so Kravitz doesn't try, just makes his way over to Brian and company. It's his own fault for talking to some random soul earlier, probably. Gave them notions.
"Don't have other souls yell your messages at me," he tells Brian. "It's rude."
"How else will I get in contact with you?"
"You don't need to get in contact with me."
"Ohhh," says Brian. "I see, I see. You haven't called him."
"That has nothing to do with anything!"
"I'm sure you'll be in a much better mood once you call him, dear. Besides, it's just good manners."
Kravitz crosses his arms. "Technically he invited me out, so he should be the one to call."
"Oh, but darling, it's Taako. His head is full of stuffing. You know you'll have to meet him more than halfway. Is it nerves? Maybe you need to practice. Let's roleplay it! I think I can do a very nice rendition of Taako's lovely voice, if I do say so myself."
"That's enough. No more messages," Kravitz repeats sternly, and gives his cloak an emphatic little snap and swirl as he walks away.
Belatedly he realizes that gesture probably just confirmed for any souls watching that he's in a snit.
Well, let them think so. He is in a snit. He just helped save a pack of mortals from the shrieking undead, and how did those ingrates respond? By treating him like a walking stack of green slime. He should have just thrown his energy into a golem, instead of taking the risk of turning up incarnated.
Actually... he's a bit chagrined to realize he went in his own form with the vague thought that maybe one of the adventurers might talk to him. Or even flirt with him the way Taako did, and provide Kravitz with a point of comparison. Some way to tell whether this thing with Taako is a genuine connection, or if it's simply the result of being treated like a person for the first time in far too long. Such a silly, selfish impulse.
And now he's put out because it didn't happen, and Taako hasn't called, and just a short time ago, Kravitz wouldn't have cared about any of these things.
He does now, though. He may as well admit it. With that, he finally picks up his Stone of Farspeech to contact Taako.
"Hello?" he begins. Excellent. Scintillating. Off to a roaring start.
"Oh hey, my man!" Taako answers right away. "I was just getting ready to hit you up!"
Even if it's not true, it's still nice to hear. "I've had a bit of a busy day, but now that I have some time... I wanted to check in with you and make sure your staff hasn't done anything else unusual since last night." There, that sounds like a sensible reason to get back in touch today.
"Nah, it's been fine since then. All good in the hood. What about you?"
"I'm all right. Fine. Good. Thanks."
"They're starting us off on this new training regime here," says Taako. "And let me tell you, it. Is. Nightmare town. Between missions we always keep it tight, skill up and all. But we pace ourselves, you know? Take some breaks. Skill... and chill. This new routine, though. Woof. This is the opposite of chill, this is hot as hell. This is antifreeze."
"Sounds like they're keeping you pretty busy."
"Yeah? That's not what it's supposed to sound like. It's supposed to sound like I could use a handsome fella to take me out and help me unwind."
Kravitz is probably smiling like a loon, but he can't bring himself to care. "What would be a good day for unwinding?"
"Friday sounds like a nice, unwindy kind of day."
"Then I'd like to see you Friday. But listen, Taako, before we make plans, I have a confession."
"Before our last meeting, I wasn't sure if you'd be entirely upfront with me about Refuge. So I listened in when you were telling the Bureau of Balance record-keepers about it. I was treating this like any other job, but..."
"Well, yeah," says Taako. "I mean, I figured you would. That's why I mentioned it to you. So you could do your Reaper thing and hear it then. I didn't really want to tell it all twice, you know?"
"You expected me to spy on you? You're okay with that?"
"It's not spying when it's your job and I know about it. Why, did you keep watching when I went back to my room afterward? Because that's spying, my dude. Did you peek? What color's my underwear?"
"You wear underwear?"
Taako laughs. "One word. Lacy."
"...That's a good word."
"Any other good words you'd like to share?"
"So many." Taako's voice takes on a breathier timbre. "Magenta. Corduroy. Applesauce. Cellar door."
" Applesauce," Kravitz can barely speak for laughing.
"Hey, applesauce is lots of fun to say. And eat. Do you eat? You can drink, you must be able to eat."
"I can. But I don't need to, and I got out of the habit. Once you've gone a while without doing it, putting things in your mouth and mashing them to bits and swallowing them? Starts to seem like a really peculiar way to spend time."
"I guess it is. Okay, I won't ask you to dinner, then. Have you ever played miniature golf?"
"I've never played any golf of any size."
"Good, then I'll probably kick your ass. And I like to win! So let's play mini golf."
Over the next few days, Kravitz works nearly constantly to make sure his book is as balanced as he can get it. He even checks up on necromancers who haven't done anything actionable yet, and just to be sure, he nicks potion ingredients and unstuffs voodoo dolls and scuffs up pentagrams drawn on the floor. No one's raising any dead on Friday if he has anything to say about it.
He's earned a day off, damn it.
When Friday comes, he's confident that work is as sorted out as it can possibly get, for the time being. Which means there's no longer anything to distract him from the decision he needs to make.
Kravitz shifts from his skeletal form to his usual semblance of flesh, and looks at his hands. Pale lined palms, long raised scars, smooth brown skin, veins reaching from wrists to knuckles, the thin shells of fingernails.
The skin is cold, of course, as Taako noticed during the pottery class. This form isn't an illusion, it's solid and real, but it's only the simulation of a body, with none of the living details like heat and breath. Kravitz doesn't need those things to do his job, so it's been ages since he bothered. But maybe it's time.
Channeling his soul's energy into the form he's wearing, he brings his body to life.
...And then he has to lay down for an hour, because incarnating to this degree is intense. He has a heartbeat again, his eyes feel wet, his blood is rushing in his ears, his breath rasps in and out of his lungs. Everything feels thick and spongy and substantial, in a way it just didn't before.
Gradually Kravitz adapts. He did have a mortal life, after all, even if it was cut short long ago. He still has a human mind, more or less, that remembers all this autonomic reflex business. Once he's accustomed to all the squishy noisy body stuff again, he can stand and walk normally, and he doesn't have to consciously remind himself to blink and breathe.
All right, so that's done. He's in great shape to play miniature golf. Whatever that is.
Unfortunately between working nonstop and pondering this body thing, Kravitz neglected to find out what mini golf is, or what clothes to wear to play it.
He doesn't even waste time arguing with himself, he goes straight to the Stockade.
"Hello Mister Kravitz! You look much happier," says Brian. "You must have made that call?"
"I did, and now I need to know what people wear to play golf."
"Ah, the King's Game," Jenkins declaims in sonorous tones.
"Is it?" Kravitz doesn't deal with a lot of kings, since they usually make other people do their necromantic dirty work.
"What I wouldn't give to swing the club again in the noble art of ball chess," Jenkins sighs.
"I understand each of those words individually, but not put together in that order," says Kravitz.
"Never mind him," says Brian. "You can conjure anything to wear, yes? You're-- hmmm. You know, dear, you look different. Not just happier. What's changed?"
"You're alive? In the astral plane? I didn't know you could do that! Can we do that?"
"Special Grim Reaper privilege, sorry."
The mouthy soul in the nearby cell barges in with, "Do you get a big kick out of itchy hangnails and shit, is that why you want a living body so bad?"
Kravitz says, "What now?"
"That's what you said to me! When I was mourning my own goddamn death at your hands!" When Kravitz fails to react, the soul adds, "Seriously? Gerith! Guy you cut in half! And then you lectured me about how gross bodies are!"
"Oh, right, Gerith. Be quiet, Gerith. Or, no, wait: do you know anything about golf?"
"What the hell is a golf?"
"Okay, then. Since you have nothing relevant to contribute, shut up."
"You can't just tell me to--"
Kravitz draws his scythe, sweeps the blunt side of the blade through the ball of light that is Gerith, and mutters a command, relocating him to the other side of the Stockade. He turns back to Brian. "Sorry about the interruption. Yes, I can conjure anything to wear."
"Did you just destroy that soul?" Jenkins asks, sounding more fascinated than afraid.
"That would be telling. Brian?"
"Ah. Yes. Well, my dear, just think of the ugliest outfit you can imagine, and try conjuring that. It'll probably be just right for golf!"
"Does the size of the golf matter?"
"It's miniature golf."
Brian bursts out laughing. "Does it matter? That changes everything!"
"Why are you helping him?" Jenkins asks crossly. "He jailed us here. Taako killed us twice. And they're off to have fun and play the King's Game while we rot in this jail for eternity. We should be plotting to ruin them, not giving them fashion advice."
"Oh, I don't know," says Brian airily, "I just love it when people are in love."
"Anyway, why would he stop helping now?" Kravitz asks. "It's thanks to you three that all this is happening."
"Three!" says the cranky guy Magnus cut in half. "Ha! You finally remembered I'm here! Even if it is just to blame me for shit. How about it, genius, are you--"
Kravitz tilts the scythe toward that guy, who quickly shuts up. Not very bright, that one, but smarter than Gerith, at least.
"What do you mean," says Jenkins, "thanks to us three?"
"I'd been throwing simple traps and golems at Taako, Merle and Magnus to test them, get a sense for what it would take to bring them in. Brian's right, they do seem to have luck on their side. But time is on mine. I'd've finished them off sooner or later.
"I had them in my sights. Then you three charged in with the whole revenge quest slash jailbreak attempt. And since Taako and his friends helped put down the escape, I gave them a pardon and let them live.
"But if you hadn't tried to break out, you'd still be enjoying your freedom in the astral plane, and Merle, Magnus and Taako would be locked up in here. And I doubt Taako and I would be getting along so well, in that case. So," Kravitz offers a terribly pleasant smile, "thanks for that."
Brian just hums thoughtfully; Jenkins makes an incoherent sound of outrage.
"You brought every bit of this on yourselves. So you may as well make yourselves useful, and tell me all about this King's Game."
Kravitz slips through his customary tear in time and space to arrive on the moon base a bit early this time. On Brian's recommendation, he started with his usual suit, did away with the tie, vest, and jacket, and neatly rolled up the sleeves of the dress shirt.
("I could just conjure shorter sleeves."
"Rolled up long sleeves look more purposeful! Trust me, it's a style play, he'll appreciate it.")
So he's appropriately dressed, probably, and he just received a crash course in golf from Jenkins, though it mostly consisted of teaching him some vocabulary and rhapsodizing about "the turf," whatever that is. Something something green blah blah rough blah blah fairway blah blah blah, with Brian whispering Don't worry, none of this is in miniature golf the entire time.
"Hey, my man!" Taako's voice rings out. He's in front of a venue that must be a miniature golf course-- Brian and Jenkins warned Kravitz it would be full of garish gimmicky obstacles, and this place definitely fits the bill.
He can't spare much attention for the giant windmills and pirate ships of the course, though, when Taako is hopping up and down waving at him, bouncing in a pleated skirt, argyle knee socks, and a crisp shirt with a Chelsea collar that dips to show the notch of his collarbone. A smaller fascinator version of his usual peaked wizard hat is perched on his long hair, tamed somewhat into a braid, with little curls and strands escaping to frame his face.
...This is definitely a date.
Obviously he knew that. Taako made his interest plain. They flirted, the last time they talked on the Stone. Mini golf is a very datey activity, according to Brian.
He knew, but he's not sure he believed it until this moment.
"Good afternoon," he says as he joins Taako. "You look lovely." Great. He sounds like an octogenarian. And while he's actually considerably older than that, he doesn't want to come off like a relic from a past era.
"I know, right?" Taako says happily. "I am slaying this whole dressy sporty springtime look. Not that we really have seasons here. And it's actually fall, but never mind. Did you see these shoes?" He raises his foot and points it, displaying brogues with contrast stitching and low square heels. "Aren't these the best?"
"Perfect," says Kravitz, possibly a little too earnest.
"I'm liking this casual thing you've got going on," Taako says, taking his arm and strolling to the gate. "Very in favor of that open collar."
"For a short time there, I thought golf meant I was going to be saddled with baggy plaids, but then I was informed the dress code is different for miniature golf."
"Oh gods no. Real golf? I would never do that to you," Taako promises.
There's a window just past the gate, presumably to put down money for playing. Big oversight there: Taako paid for the wine and pottery place, Kravitz really ought to pay today. He doesn't need money, of course, but he has a few stashes of currency here and there on the mortal plane. Occasionally he tries to keep a low profile on a hunt and pay for information rather than coming on strong with the book and scythe and so on.
It turns out to be moot. Taako waves at the person behind the window, who stammers "Hello, Reclaimers! Er-- Reclaimer. And guest. Welcome!" And that's that.
"I'm kind of a big deal around here," Taako says shamelessly as he snags a pair of putters for them. "Very localized, though. Not like you. You're a big deal everywhere, when you're not incognito. The biggest big deal. Do you ever just bone up and do your scythe thing to freak people out? I sure as hell would, in your shoes."
"I have to do that often enough in my work that the urge never really comes over me under other circumstances." Not that he's often in other circumstances.
Leading Kravitz to the first hole, Taako swings his putter, and also his hips, which is considerably more hypnotic. "How is work?"
"Busy. I've been clearing things up to try to make sure we're not interrupted today."
"Really. How are we gonna make sure it's worth all that overtime?"
"Already done," Kravitz admits. "It's good to see you, Taako."
Taako grins and tees off. "I knew I picked the right outfit."
Miniature golf looks fairly trivial to master at first, but Kravitz soon finds himself at a considerable disadvantage.
The first hole is fairly simple, only requiring a little momentum to propel the ball over a water trap which is actually a ball-devouring gelatinous cube, as Kravitz discovers after losing one.
"Oops!" says Taako, who obviously made no effort to warn him.
"It seems a little reckless to keep that around," says Kravitz. "What if someone slipped and put a foot in?"
"Aaah, it's just a little'un," Taako dismisses. "Worst case, you lose some toes, maybe the foot-- Merle lost his arm thanks to you, and he got a way cooler wood arm to replace it, so who's worried?"
The second hole features a planter full of domesticated lash weed which, even tamed, is very capable of ensnaring any ball that rolls too close.
Kravitz is on his fourth ball by the time they make it to the third hole. He resolves to try harder to keep the ratio down to at least 1:1, going forward.
"You asked me about my whole career thing last time," says Taako. "Your turn. You said it wasn't an easy choice, taking your job."
"No. It wasn't."
"Sooo... why not?"
"It's a long story."
"We've got sixteen holes to go," Taako says, "and the pirate ship maze is a trip. Could take hours. Spill, my man. Or do I have to get Merle out here? Zone of truth work on you?"
Kravitz grimaces and lines up his putt. "I don't see how it could." He dispatches the ball with a glancing blow and watches it meander vaguely hole-ward. "I mentioned that I wanted to be a conductor."
"Right!" Taako lines up his shot and sends the ball on a much more direct path toward its destination. "I kind of wondered, like: train, or music?"
"Music. There were no trains, when I was alive. And even if there had been, I never would have seen them. I lived in a coastal town in the foothills of the mountains. Fairly isolated. Nearly all our trade came by boat." Kravitz knocks the ball over a curving speed bump, avoiding the selkie-pond water trap. "And so did the plague."
"Oof," says Taako. "Okay. That took a downturn pretty quick. What happened?"
"A lot of people died. That's the short version."
"Nah, hell with that. Let's hear the long version, we've got all day."
"The long version is, I was apprenticed to a sorcerer. It wasn't precisely a small town, but the isolation made it provincial. The sorcerer was the only person around who knew music theory."
"Ahh, gotcha. Could you move, babe? I'm riveted and all, but I do also wanna take my turn."
"Oh, sorry. Of course," Kravitz steps out of the way.
Taako wobbles the ball just barely past the pond, but the less aggressive approach leaves him in a much better position for the next shot than Kravitz, who will have to somehow navigate past a shallow hill that Taako has avoided.
"So, music theory," Taako prompts.
"--Right. I had the usual responsibilities of an apprentice, running errands, serving the sorcerer, and I picked up enough magic to be going on with. I was focused on music, but I thought maybe I could incorporate some magic into concerts, which may sound foolish, but I was young."
But if anything, Taako perks up. "No way, my dude. As far as I'm concerned, incorporating magic into your performance is a genius idea. Fucking brilliant."
Kravitz raises an eyebrow.
"I'm serious! We'll compare notes later, okay, but I want to hear this story first. You were studying music and magic and somehow this leads to becoming, like, actual Death."
"A merchant ship brought a plague to town, and people started to get sick." Kravitz gives his golf ball a last nudge over the hill and into the hole-- halfway, and then a tiny pair of glowing hands pushes it right back out again.
With a frown, Kravitz tries again, and this time the little figure pops up and gives the ball a kick, sending it spinning. "Is this pixie supposed to be doing this?"
Taako stifles a laugh. "It kind of looks like that's her job? They sell pixie feed at the concession stand, so, you know, I think it's basically like, part of their business model."
Kravitz glances over at the concessions, but this story isn't fun to tell, and he has no desire to drag the whole thing out even longer in order to fetch thistle-fluff and seeds for the pixie.
Instead he hands his putter to Taako, and draws his scythe out of the astral plane. He inverts it, and with a little magical adjustment, he reduces the blade to a size that's manageable for miniature golf. When he taps the ball with it, it sinks easily, since the pixie is now nowhere to be seen.
" Nice," says Taako, with a huge grin and a thumping pat between Kravitz's shoulder blades. "Love that. Okay, you were learning music and then there was a plague."
"A devastating plague. The infected would suffer for months before they died. No one ever got better. Soon half the town fell to it. So the town elders resorted to the darkest ritual from our legends, and picked a champion to challenge Death."
"Huh! You must've been hot shit when you were alive, if they thought you could manage that."
Kravitz shakes his head. "The sorcerer couldn't act as champion, they were too occupied with conducting the rites of the ritual. And other than them, I was basically the only healthy person left who knew some magic. So they trained me intensively in necromancy for a fortnight, and then they killed me."
Taako stops mid-putt, straightens up, and stares. "Uh."
"Part of the ritual."
"--Right. You agreed to that?"
"More or less. They filled my head with a lot of faff about how I was the only hope to save the town. They left out the bit about how they'd do it."
"I feel like I'm gonna regret asking, but oh look, oops, guess I'm asking anyway. Howww...?"
Kravitz leans his scythe against the nearby gnomish windmill from the next hole, and turns his palms up. In this more corporeal form, the scars show as raised keloid lines that run from the cup of his palms down his wrists and forearms, to the creases of his elbows.
"The cuts ran through the lifelines on my hands to symbolize my time being cut short and extended at the same time. They carved those into me with a ritual knife, they bound the cuts with enchanted bands, and then they tipped my body into a cauldron and boiled it down to the bones."
Taako's jaw hangs slack. "--Okay, this story is considerably more fucked up than I expected."
"Sorry," Kravitz says. He deals in death and necromancy most every day; he's lost all sense of what's too distressing for mortals to hear.
Suddenly he realizes that the miniature golf course is actually very, well, mini; at least half a dozen people are within earshot, and they've all stopped playing to stare at him with appalled expressions. One of them is a boy who can't be older than 10.
Kravitz lifts his voice, automatically lapsing into his work accent. "Sorry, everyone! Nothing to worry about, just a story, innit. Forgot this isn't really the place for spooks. Carry on with your afternoon, cheers."
"Yeah, but. A true story!" Taako hisses to him, clutching his arm.
More quietly, Kravitz answers, "Well. Yes," as he quickly stashes his scythe back in the astral plane.
Taako snags his sleeve and tows him to the next hole, waiting until they're further away from the other players and relatively sheltered by the windmill to say, "I hope you mowed those dipshits down when you got the scythe."
"It doesn't really work like that."
"It should," Taako grumbles, wringing his hands on the grip of the putter.
The gesture reminds Kravitz, "Where's your umbrella?"
"My wha-- oh, the Umbra Staff. Yeah, that, well. It acted all woogly around you last time, so I didn't want to bring it out for this. It's strapped to an Immovable Rod in my Pocket Spa. I can get it pretty quick if I need it, but til then, it ain't going nowhere, and it's definitely not pointing itself at you again."
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
"No problemo, my dude." Taako visibly shakes himself and settles his shoulders. "Your go."
Kravitz takes his turn, and his luck runs better this time, the ball curving neatly around most of the obstacles and coming to rest close to the door of the windmill.
Taako spends an inordinate amount of time studying the lay of the land and correcting his aim, and his ball hits the first fire hazard and disintegrates. A pixie brings him a new one, making sure to give Kravitz a wide berth in the process.
"We really should get some pixie chow when we're closer to the concession stand," Taako says. "I think they work for tips."
"I suppose unfair labor practices are no surprise here, considering how dangerous your jobs are."
"Hey, I'm just happy to have a job," says Taako. "But you, you said it was a hard choice to become a reaper-- a reaper? The reaper?"
"I'm not the only bounty hunter for the Raven Queen, but I'm the only one responsible for reaping the souls that are past their natural lifespan. I suppose that makes me 'the' reaper."
"Cool. Only, it doesn't really sound like you had a choice about taking the gig. They just chucked you into a cauldron."
"Choosing came later," Kravitz says. "The effect of the ritual was to bind my soul to my bones. When my soul didn't naturally cross over, my predecessor came to collect it. But he couldn't remove my soul from my skeleton without first breaking the bands, and I had the sorcerer and their arsenal helping me. The entire town gave up all their wealth to supply spell components. And I had almost no limit to the spells I could cast, since I had no body to exhaust. He and I fought from dawn to moonrise."
Taako spends this soliloquy putting his ball through the obstacles, running up a triple bogey before he even makes it to the windmill. Finally he's there, and gestures to Kravitz, "Your go. I guess you won the fight, huh."
"That was the choice." Kravitz times the spin of the windmill and putts, not quite fast enough; a blade blocks the door and wards off his ball. "I could have surrendered. My predecessor spent most of that day telling me how easy it would be to just allow him to destroy the bands that tied me to what was left of my body, and then I'd be free. He swore he'd ask the Raven Queen to go easy on me, since 'this lot's had you over, bruv'-- he promised I wouldn't have to go to the Eternal Stockade if I gave myself up. Which I certainly would've been in for, if he'd defeated me."
"The accent!" says Taako.
Kravitz nods. "For that whole long fight, he never seemed to shut up. By the time I won, I had his accent down fairly well. And I was just a doofus apprentice, I had no idea how to be an avatar of death. So I tried to fake it. Took his scythe, talked in his accent, said the kind of things he'd said to me."
Taako strikes his ball so hard that it rebounds off the windmill blade and rolls all the way back to the fire hazard, burning up again. Another pixie drops a new ball, but Taako just looks at it, toying with his putter. "What happened to the town?"
"Everyone who had the plague died. It was their time," Kravitz answers. "Turned out they had fundamentally misunderstood what the Grim Reaper does. I had no power to restore their lives and no duty to collect their souls. They all passed naturally with no interference from me. There was nothing I could do."
"If you could have, though. Would you have saved them? After they basically hornswoggled you into being murdered and boiled for them?" Taako squints at him. "Or was it boiled and murdered? Holy shit, of course, it was necromancy, it's always the fucking worst. You were still alive when you went into the cauldron."
Kravitz shrugs. Nods.
Taaco stares and fidgets. "Okay. I don't do this. This isn't happening and if you say it did, I will deny it to my last breath," he says, sidling closer to Kravitz, and then he just flings his arms around him and embraces him.
After a startled moment, Kravitz returns the-- well, it's a hug, isn't it? Taako is holding and squeezing him, that's definitely the technical definition of hugging. It's very strange. Even though Kravitz incarnated himself in this living form specifically so that Taako could touch him, he hadn't really expected much more than maybe a handclasp, perhaps a peck on the cheek.
"Thanks," Kravitz says, and at a warning growl from Taako, quickly adds, "for nothing. Uh. It's okay, you know. This all happened a long time ago."
"Still," Taako's voice is muffled against Kravitz's shoulder. "You may be over it, but I'm not! I just heard about it and I'm pissed off!"
Kravitz has to laugh, stroking Taako's back. "Okay, then. Okay."
"Hey, are you guys still on this one?" asks an orc woman toting a putter. "Can we play through?"
A blue dragonborn woman elbows her. "Killian! Let them hug it out, we can wait!"
"Hush up! Nobody's hugging!" Taako yells, still clutching Kravitz.
"Well, if it's not hugging," the dragonborn woman says, "you probably oughtta take it somewhere less public, you know? Angus is like, right here."
"God damn," says Taako. "You try to have a moment! Well, whatever. Do you need a break, boo? I need a break. Let's go get some pixie chow and gross coffee drinks with too much sugar."
"Sure," says Kravitz, and lets Taako drag him along, hand in hand.