Chapter 1: Part One: The Day of Dissolution
Editing is always the hardest part of a writer's work. Knowing what to change, what to take out, what to leave in... Ideas often flow naturally, but it's the clean up afterwards that take the longest time, even for the most skilled weaver of tales. Editing fiction is one thing, but editing real life, rearranging history? That's a whole other endeavor entirely and not one to be undertaken lightly.
Lucretia sits at the small desk in her quarters, carefully snipping, rearranging, redacting, and more. She knows it has to be perfect, has to be as flawless as possible for this to work, but she keeps hitting a rather thorny problem. The elves on their home plane, you see, are not like any they've encountered in any of the cycles since leaving it. They exist in tight-knit familial groups, the bonds that weave between them binding them soul- and magic-deep, with large but less well-connected groups of friends and extended family radiating out from the primary pack-like structure.
It's part of the reason that Taako and Lup are on the ship apart from being at the top of their class and the candidate pool. The Starblaster's bond engine runs that much better given the elves' presence, and even more so because of the unique bond they share as twins. That familial bond has grown stronger with the addition of Barry and Lup's marriage in the eighty-fifth cycle, tying the three of them closer together. And now...
Lucretia sighs, setting her pen down briefly to scrub at her face with weary hands. And now, there's the youngest member of the crew to think about. It had been a surprise when Lup had announced her pregnancy; a pleasant surprise, yes, but it had been in the early days of the Relic Wars, back when the full breadth of what they'd done hadn't quite hit. Lucretia remembers a quiet conversation she and Lup had had when it had just been them and Davenport for one long and depressingly quiet cycle, about how Taako had insisted that the signing bonuses the twins had gotten for signing up for the expedition be used to help Lup finish her transition fully.
“He said that since we finally had the money, I shouldn't have to live in a body that couldn't give me what I wanted,” Lup had said quietly, staring out over the deck railing, her crossed arms supporting her leaning weight. “Taako... He's always done things wholeheartedly, and this...” She shook her head before gesturing absently at herself. “This was something he'd wanted to give me for a long time. He hated how much I felt out of place in my own body, even though I'd been passing as female for so long.”
She laughed, the sound rough and slightly ragged from unshed tears. “He had it all planned out. We went the next day to one of the best permanent polymorph specialists in town. Two hours. Two fucking hours and I was walking out of there as a fully functional woman. I think I cried the first time I had a period; freaked Taako right the fuck out. It meant that I could have kids of my own, you know? Not that I really can, what with the Hunger and all, but maybe...”
“Maybe one day, when we figure out how to defeat it,” Lucretia had replied.
And now, the small family of three has turned to four, Taako taking to being an uncle with aplomb. He's told everyone more than once that he gets to buy his nephew his first wand when he's old enough, because no child born of Lup and Barry would not inherit at least some of their magical talents. If Lup or Barry can't take care of him for any reason, Taako's right there, keeping little Angus (and hadn't that been a discussion for the ages, with Barry and Lup coming to an agreement that his middle name could follow the Taaco family tradition and be Rizo after one of the few uncles they'd had, while his first name came from Barry's grandfather who he'd been close to as a child) company.
It's been hard since Lup left. Barry's been doing his best to balance his research and being a father, while Taako takes over caring for Angus when Barry needs to sleep. It's not uncommon to find one or the other cradling Angus in one arm while they work. Lucretia glances over at the small cot where Angus is napping, a fresh wave of guilt rushing through her. If she manages this properly, then Angus will grow up without anyone familiar in his life. It's not safe to let Barry or Taako remember him, not when they'll question who his mother is and then try to find her. Sure, she could edit around that, make them think Lup died or went missing, but that seems almost more cruel. Better to not have either of them remember.
That's why she'd volunteered to watch him so Barry and Taako could rest, though Lucretia knows her friends far too well. They'll likely still be searching for Lup, as they often do these days, and not rest until exhaustion takes them. Hiding the memories and bonds behind Fisher's static is the only way to keep everyone safe while Lucretia works on gathering the Relics and then destroying them. First, though, she'll need to finish what she's started.
She keeps writing, using a bit of magic to dry the ink once she finishes her work so it doesn't smear. Lucretia drops the journal into the top of Fisher's tank and watches as it sinks and then is caught up in the creature's tendrils. She startles when she hears footsteps behind her, tears springing to her eyes when she sees Magnus.
“God, Magnus, no... You weren't supposed to see this. I'm so sorry, Magnus,” she says, going over to him as a dazed look fixes itself upon his face.
“What are you do-- what?” Magnus asks, and it's all Lucretia can do to not burst into loud sobs so she doesn't wake Angus, though she can't help the tears that track down her face as she helps Magnus sit down so he doesn't hurt himself. It's painful to help her now-former crew-mates to settle into life on this planet that's so much like their own but isn't. She has no idea where Barry went to; she just hopes that he was somewhere safe when his memories shifted and faded into static.
She leaves Angus for last, putting him into the care of a childless human/elf couple who live in one of the better parts of Rockport. They'll take good care of him, she's sure of it, but Lucretia promises herself that she'll occasionally check up on him and the others as much as she can in between looking for relics. She loses time over the next decade- to research, to fucking Wonderland, to creating and managing the Bureau of Balance – and doesn't realize how long it's been until she has to compose herself when she sees Taako, Magnus, and Merle come into the audience hall.
Gods, they all look the same and yet so different. Magnus is the closest to what he had been before, but Merle and Taako... Lucretia has to hide her visceral reaction behind a carefully crafted mask as she greets them like strangers. The past decade has been kind to no one, and it hurts her heart to see her oldest friends joke around without the warmth and understanding that was once there. Still, she pushes on, crafting a persona that straddles the line of boss and friend, being careful not to give herself away.
Some days it feels like she'll shatter. Some days she wishes that this was all just a bad dream and that she'll wake up slumped over her desk, her damnable journal never thrown into Fisher's tank. On those days, Lucretia reminds herself that it's worth it.
It has to be.
Chapter 2: Part Two: Strangers on a Train
I promise not to abuse the Zalgo text generator... too much. Also, all recognizable dialog, etc, (c) the McElroys and The Adventure Zone.
Barry has made it a habit to check in on his son as often as he can, regardless of what form he's in. It's far easier in lich form, because then he can actually remember why Angus is so important to him (he'll definitely be talking to Lucretia about the fact that she's made him forget his own fucking family while in human form when the time comes). Human form comes with its own limitations, but with the recording coin, at least he can leave a message to himself that Angus McDonald, Boy Detective, is someone he should keep an eye out for just in case, be it in person or via the various rumors and newspapers he scrounges up on his travels.
He's following Angus onto a train now as the young boy sets off to start his newest case, keeping unseen so he doesn't scare anyone. The fact that Angus is constantly trusted and used by adults to do their jobs for them rankles something fierce for Barry. The kid is ten. He should be in school and doing other kid things, not solving grisly murders for people with far better resources and training. Barry has to calm himself before he exposes his presence to the world at large, settling in on the empty seat across from Angus as he opens his book and simply basking in his presence, unknowing as it is.
Just as the train is set to depart, he hears three achingly familiar voices down the hall. Barry turns, wincing at what he hears when he finally registers what's going on. Is... Is Merle trying a Fantasy Scottish accent? Good gods. The dwarf has always a terrible voice actor, and it seems like the past decade has not helped that skill in any regard. Barry silently shakes his head, an unseen look of fond exasperation on his face. Merle is ridiculous as ever, and Barry can't help but to soak it in.
Merle and the others don't seem to pay Angus much mind as they pass through the car, though Barry does notice that Taako does an almost-double take when he sees Angus. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but Barry spots it nonetheless. He perks up at that. Maybe... Maybe the Voidfish hasn't erased everything. If he can finagle things just right, then maybe Angus will be taken in by Taako, and by proxy the Bureau. It's a long shot, but it might just work. Barry smiles to himself and settles in to keep an eye on things. At the very least, it's going to be interesting.
Taako is all but done with his fellow Reclaimers. They keep fucking around with Jenkins-- though he is admittedly more than a little guilty about doing the same some, but still, a joke's a joke until it gets tired, and he is well beyond done with this particular goof –and not actually doing anything to find the Grand Relic they're chasing after or who murdered Leeman Kessler. Y'know, the whole reason they're supposed to be there and shit?
He shakes his head before turning away from Jenkins and the pleasure chamber (which, really, could they have not chosen a better name for that? Seriously), his attention falling on the young half-elf sitting alone at a table. He frowns. Something about the kid-- and who lets a such a young kid on a train on his own? --seems eerily familiar, but he can't figure it out. Taako's ears twitch slightly as he takes in a deep breath, letting the scents of the train filter through his nose.
He's always had a fantastic sense of smell, something that's helped over the years with his cooking, but he can't sort out what's tickling at his brain like a particularly annoying stray hair against the back of his neck. Taako steps forward, intending on trying to be subtle about getting close enough to the fancily-dressed lad to get a better idea of his scent from the next table over when Merle and Magnus decide that messing with Jenkins is getting boring and that they need a new target. Taako finds himself wrestling with the urge to sweep Angus up in a hug and then hide him in a corner behind, oh, about five billion protective spells and wards so nothing bad can happen to him the longer they talk to him. He usually enjoys going along with the jokes, but this is almost intolerable.
The thing is, Taako doesn't do protective, especially with kids. That's just not how it works. He keeps himself to himself, especially after all the shit that went down with Sazed and Glamour Springs. Taako cares about Taako and that's it. It's safer that way. No one else can get hurt by him unless he means to do it. Taako getting close to people just ends up problematic for everyone involved, so it's easier to just... not.
This kid, though... He's wicked smart, and for a long time, Taako can't figure out why that simultaneously hurts him to his core and elates him, as if he'd predicted it a long time ago and is just now getting validation for it. He wants to share it with someone, but who? Certainly not Magnus and Merle who, after Merle casts a Zone of Truth that Angus totally resists (and there's that strange flash of painful pride again, what the fuck), wander off to talk with the tacky wizard with 'JUICY' on the back of his robes right over his ass.
Taako pauses, not wanting to leave Angus alone. “Hey, uh, can I sit here?” he asks, waving at one of the empty seats. The way Angus adjusts his glasses while shrugging pings something hard in Taako's memory, as if he's seen the action a thousand times before on someone else close to him, but fuck if Taako can place it. The harder he tries, the more his head starts to hurt, so he does his best to stop.
He hesitates before pulling out some of the dried fruit he'd bought a while back that're still good and places them on the table. They're just sliced dried apples, peaches, bananas, and crystallized ginger in a small sealed clear packet, but they will hopefully sate Angus' hunger. “Here,” he says, earning a pleasantly surprised smile from Angus. “Feel free to chow down, bubelah.”
“Peaches are my favorite!” Angus says happily as he takes the packet and opens it. “Thank you, sir!”
Taako allows himself a warmly amused smile before glancing over to watch Merle and Magnus finish their conversation with the JUICY wizard-- or rather, the wizard wanders off to sit down at a table of his own, leaving Merle and Magnus behind. Taako sighs and then shakes his head in exasperation. The picture of subtlety they are not. Then again, neither is he, but at least he has the common sense not to continually pester the other occupants of the train when they're supposed to be undercover.
Jenkins comes around and serves everyone brunch, though his expression is less than pleasant when he serves Merle and Magnus, the two of whom join Taako and Angus at their table to eat. Angus eats neatly, taking care not to get anything on himself or his clothes. Taako does the same, rolling his eyes at Merle's less than stellar table manners. Magnus' are okay, Taako supposes, and then shakes his head. He's not here to muse on his teammates' table manners. He's here to eat and then retrieve a Grand Relic, preferably without too much collateral damage for the latter, Istus willing.
Once brunch is over, the three Reclaimers investigate the pleasure chamber, enjoying the garden Jenkins shows them. When they're done with that, Taako wanders back over to Angus, intent on finding out more about him. The conversation goes about as well as it can with Magnus and Merle being the big doofuses that they are, and then Angus goes and asks a question that sets all of them stumbling a little.
“And what're your guys' names?”
“I'm Leeman,” Merle says, still in his horrible accent.
“Still Diddly,” Magnus adds with a confused look.
“No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. What are your guys’ real names?”
Magnus stares at him. “Huh?”
“Uh?” Merle manages.
“‘Scuse?” Magnus tries again, just as eloquently as before.
“What do you mean, pumpkin?” Taako asks, trying to furiously figure out a way to get out of this without anyone getting hurt or worse. He casts Detect Magic subtly to see if Angus has a reason to go down this particular line of questioning and finds that the book Angus has been reading has traces of Divination magic on it, which is a curious thing for a young boy to have but, Taako supposes, he can't really talk. He had weirder books when he was Angus' age. He thinks.
The three of them follow Angus to his sleeper car after that to continue their discussion a little more privately, and of course the kid is some sort of genius detective. Shit just keeps getting weirder and weirder after that, and the urge to squirrel Angus away somewhere safe-- another dimension, maybe? --keeps growing as well, to the point where Taako has to grip the curved handle of the Umbrastaff white-knuckle tight to remind himself that no, he really shouldn't do that, even when the giant fire crab thing shows up on the ceiling. While Magnus and Merle want to fight the beast, Taako's helping Angus drag the unconscious form of Graham the JUICY wizard into the next car as far away from the door as they can manage it.
“Shut the door!” Angus yells as Merle and Magnus barrel in behind them. Magnus slams it shut, the door rattling in its frame as the fire crab runs hard into it. Taako groans in exasperation at the exchange that follows, though thankfully the argument between Magnus and a boy a third of his age that really is entirely unnecessary is cut off by the fire crab blasting open the door and entering the train car. Before any of them can do anything, a dark figure in a red robe appears out of thin air in front of all of them, floating a few feet off the ground with one shadowy hand outstretched.
“YOU ARE NOT GOING TO HURT MY F̴̡̜͓̫̌͆̾̊̂̿͢͠A̴̞͙̥̝̻̟̝̿̄̂̋̕M̧̧̙̻͇͉̘̓̒̾̓͟͟Ḭ̷̢̝̠͐̏̾̀̂ͅĻ͚͍͓̟͓̆͗̒̆̈͌͜͠͡Y͕̮̘͍̪͔̫̝̽̋̋̏̒̎̍͠!” it bellows, its harsh voice dissolving into a rush of static at the end as it blasts the crab with dark gray bolts of energy. The crab makes a pained chittering noise before it falls back, mortally wounded and seeking escape. The red robed figure doesn't stop shooting until the crab is thoroughly dead, only lowering its hand when the crab is a motionless heap of chitin and claws. Panting, the figure turns, revealing only two white flickering lights within its hood where its eyes should be.
Taako and the others stare at it, with Angus peering out in great interest from behind Taako, who had shoved the boy behind him the second the crab had come through the door with the Umbrastaff at the ready. The red robe sighs softly before speaking.
“I am sure you have questions, but they are not important now,” it tells them. Its hood turns to look at each of them, pausing when it sees the Umbrastaff in Taako's hand pointing at it. “You... You found HER? How... Where...” It points a thin shadowy finger at it, and Taako notices that the digit is shaking slightly. “Where did you find that?”
“Took it off some dead thug in a cave,” Taako replies casually, not lowering his weapon. “Who the fuck are you, and why did you save our asses? Not that ol' Taako's complaining and all, but one dead crab thing does not a friend make, my dude.”
The red robe shudders, seeming to lose control of itself for a moment. Its form steadies after a long pause as it collects itself. “Now is not the time for that. You need to get what you came here for before someone else does.”
“How do we know you're not the one who's doing all this?” Magnus insists.
“I would not endanger any of you intentionally,” the red robe says. “I cannot stay much longer. Just... Keep one another safe.”
Its gaze curiously seems to linger on Taako and Angus for a beat before the figure disappears entirely in a puff of flame and red smoke. Silence lingers for a long time before it's broken by Graham's soft groan of pain and Jess the Beheader's abrupt entrance to investigate all the noise.
“Wha-- What'd I miss?”
Barry hangs around invisibly for the rest of the trip, too worn out to go visible again. He trails after his former companions and his son, silently groaning when the mystery unfolds and Jenkins is unmasked as the Rockport Slayer. Of course he is. Just... Just brilliant. Barry nearly shimmers into visibility again when the meat monsters bearing the conductor's hands are vaporized, leaving them with no way to stop the train as it barrels towards Neverwinter.
It's a desperate race to figure out what to do next after the Oculus is successfully collected and deposited in Taako's bag. Barry watches them decide to open a portal to the conductor's room and try to stop the train, but it's too late. Eventually, Taako has the bright idea of having them all jump out and then he'll use the gate to Neverwinter to port the train to Jenkins' garden. When the train is 25 or so yards out, Taako grabs hold of Angus and scoops him up against his chest, quickly casting Feather Fall on the both of them before jumping out of the train, the others following rapidly after them.
One flash of light later and the train is disappearing into Jenkins' garden with an almighty crash, the spell shutting abruptly off and leaving the city of Neverwinter unharmed (for the most part, anyways, but no one really cares about Jenkins' garden anyways, so it's not a huge loss on the whole). The ragtag group of travelers (plus one unseen spectral companion) make their way into the station where the Neverwinter Militia comes hurrying up. After saying goodbye to Jess and Graham, the three Reclaimers wait around for Angus to finish up so they can talk one last time.
Taako hangs back once Merle and Magnus are done talking, digging around in his pockets until he pulls out his Stone of Farspeech. “Hey, uh, Ango, you have one of these?” he asks, holding the Stone up. Angus gives him a curious look.
“Of course I do! It's how I get a lot of my jobs. Why do you ask?”
“Figure havin' someone as smart as you on tap wouldn't be a bad thing. Maybe we can help each other out in the future, y'know, quid pro quo and all that,” Taako says with a nonchalant shrug that Barry recognizes as his way of deflecting. Angus looks surprised but nods anyways, rummaging around in his pockets before producing his own Stone. They swap frequencies, testing the Stones quickly before Taako is called away by his coworkers.
Barry smiles to himself as he leaves Angus in the capable hands of the Neverwinter Militia, heading back to his carefully warded cave. He'll need to rest and recoup before he gets tracked by Lucretia, or worse, a reaper. He also needs to check on the state of his slowly growing body. It won't be done for a while but that's alright. He's got plenty of time and other methods if he needs to interact with the world.
The fact that he now knows where Lup is-- or so he hopes, given the magic-devouring properties of the Umbrastaff –and that Taako has taken such a strong interest in Angus gives Barry hope, something he hasn't had in a very, very long time. When he finally reaches the cave near Phandalin and is safe behind the wards, Barry rests, the body replicating pod bathing his lich form in its deep green glow.
Chapter 3: Part Three: Planting the Seeds
I cannot get over the fact that Barry's name was canonically supposed to be Sildar Hallwinter and they changed it to Barry Bluejeans on a whim. It's like, that was a perfectly respectable fantasyesque name, and now he's stuck with having one of the most ridiculous names in existence and it's amazing. Now I can't picture his name as being anything but Barry Sildar Hallwinter Bluejeans and laugh every time.
As always, any recognizable dialogue comes from the show and is (c) the McElroys/ TAZ.
If Taako never sees another vine or elevator, he'll be a happy elf. He sinks down onto one of the seats of Captain Bane's paddywagon, suddenly feeling exhausted as the adrenaline abruptly drains out of him. The ride back to the Goldcliff militia's headquarters is bumpy but thankfully quick. The three Reclaimers follow the Captain into his office, settling in on some chairs there before talking him through what's gone on over the past few days. Taako's nearly falling asleep when Bane pours all three of them a glass of what seems to be alcohol and then toasts Hurley.
After a series of tree-related puns that Taako quite enjoys, the captain presses them to drink. Something about how nervous he is keeps Taako, Merle, and Magnus from drinking, causing Bane to get more and more agitated as time goes on. Taako subtly casts charm person on Bane but the other man resists, seeming to throw off the spell before he's overpowered by a much stronger one that leaves a red glow around his body.
“Yo, Bane, my dude, what’s up?” Magnus asks as Bane stands, grabs Merle and Taako's glasses from them, and then smashes them before downing Magnus' drink. He turns the same black color that Hurley had due to the silverpoint poisoning before falling to the floor dead. Floating behind him is the same red robed figure that had saved them on the train, or so Taako thinks. It looks like the same one, anyways.
They haven't let the Director in on that experience, making up a crazy story of a battle with the crab where Taako levitated it and then Magnus punched it out the train. They'd discussed it on the transport orb ride back, and, since the red robe hadn't hurt them, have decided to keep quiet just in case.
Magnus perks up. “Hey, it's you!” He pauses. “Right? You're that red robe from the train and the crab?”
The red robe inclines its hood briefly in response before speaking, its voice that same rough rasp from before. “You have done well, the three of you, but you still have a long way to go. The more Relics you collect, the more dangerous it will become.”
It holds up a hand and projects a series of familiar faces in the air. “Gundren Rockseeker. Magic Brian. Jenkins. Sloane. Captain Bane. This is the true nature of beings. The want, the hunger, it consumes everything it touches; it can't be stopped or changed. It's the end of everything.”
Its hand drops as it looks at each of them in turn. “I will aid you the best I can, but there are those who will tell you that I am the enemy. Depending on who it is, that may be the case. However, I am not your enemy. I will ask that you don't mention my presence to anyone, just for now.”
“You got a name?” Merle asks. “Or should we just come up with one?”
“Oh gods, please don't,” the red robe says instantly. Taako snickers at the knee-jerk reaction. The red robe hums thoughtfully before continuing on. “I think... Yes... That shouldn't have been...” It clears its unseen throat. “You may call me Dar. It's the closest I think I'll be able to get without causing problems.”
“Dar?” Taako cocks his head at that, the name ringing a faint bell. Not anything that makes his head hurt, which is good, but still vaguely familiar.
Dar nods. “Yes. Now, you should probably leave soon, especially after...” He glances down at Bane's body. “Go back to the Bureau.” He pauses. “Did you tell anyone about our prior encounter?”
Taako shakes his head. “You kidding? Nah, we made up a baller story about the crab fight, and no one else who was there is gonna say anything.”
Dar seems relieved at that. “Good. That's... Thank you. I'll ask that you don't mention this time either, for all of our sakes, unless it's absolutely necessary.”
“Sure thing,” Magnus agrees easily. The other two take a moment of thought before agree as well. Dar hasn't threatened or betrayed them in any way and seems to be actively looking out for them, so it's an easy enough decision to make. He leaves in a small puff of red smoke, his form fading away into the æther.
After grabbing the prize money, they leave Bane's body hidden behind his desk, closing the door behind them before leaving the militia headquarters and then Goldcliff entirely before summoning a transport orb to head back to the base. After the Gaia Sash is destroyed, the Director takes them to her office to debrief. None of them mention Dar or the conversation they'd had with him, still not entirely trusting the Director's motives.
Taako's internal 'What The Fuck' meter starts to shift from its usual state of 'Vaguely Wary' as the Director starts talking about them becoming the only Reclaimers, Pringles being thrown into the brig, giving them a new dorm, and then finally being assigned a seeker who will be assisting them in their search for the Grand Relics. It settles firmly on 'Oh Hell No' after the Director reattunes their Stones of Farspeech and Angus comes into her office.
“What the fuck?!” Taako snaps at the Director, earning a surprised look.
Taako gestures sharply at Angus, though he makes sure not to hit him as he moves. “You kidnapped him?”
“What? No!” the Director replies, eyes wide. “Angus was, um, well... Angus was beginning to be a bit of a thorn in our sides. He, he began to take on some cases from people planet-side, who began to file these missing persons reports for people they couldn’t remember. And it began to get kind of complicated and his, uh, he was getting a little bit hot on our trail, so we figured y’know, if you can’t beat them, hire them.”
“He's ten,” Taako protests. “What about his parents? Or school? Or, oh, I don't know, a normal life?”
“It's alright, sir!” Angus insists. “I'll be able to learn a lot here, and my parents... Well, technically I've been a ward of Rockport since I was six, but the officials signed that responsibility over to the Director, so I'm now her ward.” He smiles. “See? Nothing to worry about, and this moon base is far safer than the surface.”
Taako is speechless, a rare state for him. He stares at the Director for a long time before shaking his head. “Incredible,” he says, his tone flat. The Director shifts uneasily before reaching down to her desk and retrieving a scroll from one of the drawers. She hands it to Magnus, avoiding Taako's narrowed gaze.
“I need the three of you to do me one last favor, if you can report down to the Voidfish’s chambers, and give this to Johann, um, we need to feed the Voidfish this particular information,” she says.
“Can we read it first?” Merle asks.
“I suppose if you want,” the Director replies and then sighs deeply. “It’s, uh, it’s information about Captain Bane. When a member of our order passes away we… we have to get rid of all knowledge of them from the world below. It’s, uh, it’s sort of an ugly part of the job, but it’s necessary to keep little rascals like Angus off our case.”
Angus grins at that, ducking his head a little as his cheeks going a faint pink. Taako huffs softly and then shakes his head. “I'll be talking to you about this later,” he tells the Director tersely before turning to Angus, his entire demeanor softening. “Hey. It's good to see you're okay, Angus. We'll catch up later, alright?”
Angus beams at him. “Sure thing, sir,” he replies. Taako reaches out and ruffles Angus' hair idly before following the other two out of the office. He doesn't see the briefly panicked look that crosses the Director's face before she gets herself back under control but Angus does, making the young man frown faintly.
Angus finds the Reclaimers' new quarters relatively easily a few days later, knocking on the door mid-day in the hopes that Taako will be in and they can talk face-to-face. They've kept in touch since the train by chatting over their Stones of Farspeech from time to time, but Angus wants to actually talk to him now that they're not miles and miles apart. Angus shifts from foot to foot, idly tucking a bit of hair behind one of his ears and then running a finger over its moderate point as he waits. It's a nervous tic of his that he's never been able to break no matter how much he tries.
His hand drops to his side when the door opens and reveals Magnus, who smiles at him.
“Hey, kiddo. What's up?”
“Hello, sir. Is... Is Taako here?” Angus asks, unable to keep a thread of nervousness out of his voice. Magnus nods.
“Yeah, he is. Come on in,” Magnus says. “I'm about to head out, and Merle's off... somewhere, so you've got Taako to yourself.”
Angus nods, trying not to show how relieved he is about that. He doesn't really mind Merle or Magnus, even if they're pulling jokes on him. He knows they mean well. Or at least, he thinks they do. He's not as entirely sure about them as he is about Taako, but that's probably because he's spent more time interacting with Taako than the other two.
Angus steps into the main living room of the Reclaimers' suit, Magnus giving him an encouraging smile before he leaves. Taako's sprawled out on the couch, his wizard's hat covering his face. Angus can tell that he's awake and listening even while feigning sleep.
“Hello, sir!” Angus says brightly. One of Taako's ears twitches, confirming Angus' suspicions. “I know you're awake. You can stop pretending. It's just you and me.”
Taako moves his hat just enough so he can see Angus. “Didn't I tell you to stop calling me 'sir'?” he drawls. Angus just grins.
“It got you to pay attention, didn't it?” he asks, earning an amused huff of laughter from Taako as he sits up and sets his hat on his head at a jaunty angle.
“Sneaky, my dude,” Taako says approvingly. He rests his forearms on his thighs and leans forward slightly. “So, first things first: how're you dealing with being on the moon?”
Angus shrugs. “It's fine,” he says. “Strange, to be sure, but my quarters here are much better than where I was living before.”
Taako hums thoughtfully. “Good. I still don't like how the Director went about doing things, but I can't exactly change it. You going to miss your mysteries?”
Angus pauses. “I don't know,” he admits, and then perks up.“But I'm sure I can be of use here! Finding the Grand Relics is a pretty good mystery to solve, after all.”
“For a given value of safe,” Taako grumbles. He shakes his head before a quick smile flashes across his face. “So, have you explored the base a lot yet?”
“Only the general areas.”
Taako's smile shifts into a grin. “Then let me show you all the best places to go.”
And all the trouble they can get into, but Angus only learns that after the fact. It still doesn't keep him from enjoying every second he spends with Taako, as if it's something that he's always been meant to do.
A month before Candlenights, Lucretia is taking a brief break from her many duties as Director, walking along one of the paths that crisscrosses the large grassy quad when she hears laughter. The bright, joyous sound makes her pause and then seek out the source-- or rather, as she soon discovers, the sources. Taako and Angus are racing around the quad, Angus holding Taako's hat tightly against his chest as the wizard chases after him. Angus is fast for a ten year old, already taking after both his parents in the height department. He hasn't hit any major growth spurts yet, but he's well on his way.
Lucretia's smiles fades greatly as the long-familiar weight of guilt settles over her shoulders like a well-worn cloak. Angus will never know his parents, not truly, and that burden is solely Lucretia's to bear. She watches Taako eventually catch up with Angus, grabbing him around the waist and hauling him off his feet. Angus yelps but clutches tighter to the hat. Lucretia hesitates briefly before casting Clairvoyance on the oak tree they're standing under so she can hear what they're saying.
“-- can't get away from me now!” Taako is saying as the spell activates. “Give the hat up, Angus!”
“Not until-- Not until you promise to teach me!” Angus replies. He's panting, the occasional giggle still escaping him as Taako snatches the hat from his arms and then carefully sets him down before flopping down on the grass under the tree. Angus follows suit, leaning against Taako a little. Taako doesn't complain or move him away, surprising Lucretia.
“You said a wizard needs a hat and that you wouldn't teach me until I got one,” Angus continues on. “I got one, therefore you have to teach me magic.”
“It was my hat,” Taako protests.
“You never said it had to be a new one,” Angus shoots back with a laugh and a grin.
“You little--” Taako huffs before jamming his hat onto his head. “Fine, but most of it will have to wait until we get you a wand. Can't do much besides cantrips without one. Until then, why don't you do some research on what kinds of spells you want to learn?”
Angus perks up at that, having slouched down at being told he's going to have to wait to learn magic. “Thank you, Taako,” he says brightly. Taako lets out a laugh and reaches up to ruffle Angus' hair playfully.
“You're welcome. Now, cha'boy wants to enjoy the last bit of good weather before winter hits.” Taako leans back against the oak's trunk, closing his eyes as he tips his hat just so to block out the early winter sun. He's quiet for a few beats before he cracks one eye open. “You can stay if you want.”
Angus nods and then settles in, pulling a book out of a magically-enhanced pocket. Lucretia ends her spell, her heart heavy. Taako and Angus should have had a decade of this, not a few weeks. She sighs and then returns to her office, praying to whatever gods are listening that the rest of the Grand Relics will be found soon and all of this can be over with.
It's been too long and Lucretia is exhausted. The day she can lay down her burdens is the day she'll truly be able to sleep fully at night. That day cannot come soon enough.
Chapter 4: Part Four: Crystalline Nights
I apologize that this one mainly sticks to the actual episode, but I have plans (Cue evil laughter here) for the next chapter that will take this 'fic veering off towards new territory pretty darn quickly, so please forgive me for this one not being as divergent as I'd hoped.
All recognizable dialogue belongs to the McElroys/TAZ, as per usual.
Merle and Magnus watch Taako put the finishing touches on an elegantly wrapped Candlenights present, his long fingers expertly arranging the loops of the bow just so. The contents of the box are a mystery to them, as Taako had brought it out already mostly wrapped but apparently the lighting in his room isn't right to make the present just right.
“So...” Magnus says as Taako sits back, carefully turning the present-- which is roughly the size of a large shoebox that would fit a pair of tall boots in it –this way and that to make sure it looks perfect. “Who's the present for?”
“Neither of you chucklefucks,” Taako replies, not looking up from his work. Seeming to be pleased with his work, he snaps his fingers, making a chest appear out of thin air. He puts the present inside, moving aside a covered plate as he does so before closing the chest and sending it back to where it had come from. He gets up and starts to clear off the table. “The others are going to be arriving soon. Make yourselves useful and clean up, would you?”
Magnus and Merle exchange glances before starting to help tidy up their living quarters for the upcoming party. The guests arrive and soon the party is going along nicely. Taako's acting like a good host, going around and giving everyone macaroons while Magnus and Merle enjoy the drinks and other food that's been provided. It's nothing heavy-- just some finger foods and the little sandwiches one would have at a fancy tea –but it's still delicious. Taako has assured them that none of it was made with magic, a bit of an odd distinction but one that seems important to him, so they don't comment on it.
Taako makes his escape after Avi presents them with his presents, finding Angus before the others can waylay him. He directs Angus to a quiet corner, making sure everyone else is occupied with other things before he summons the chest he'd put the present in earlier. He opens the chest and hands the present to Angus before sitting back, the chest disappearing into thin air.
“What's this?” Angus asks, looking down at the present. It's wrapped in a shimmering blue-green paper that looks like the back of a beetle's shell; a neatly tied red ribbon decorates the top, its loops almost perfectly equal. He runs his hand carefully over the paper before looking up at Taako, who's giving him an expectant look.
“Well? Aren't you going to open it? Or are you just going to stare at it all day like Merle stares at plants?” Taako teases gently. “Tear that bad boy right open, homie!”
Angus laughs and starts to open the box, placing the bow safely aside before starting to tear the paper. Once the paper is off and in a small pile, Angus opens the top of the box. His eyes widen when he sees what's inside: a wizard's hat and a wand. Neither are spectacularly fancy, but they're just his size. The hat is a deep blue with a white moon dangling from the tip while the wand is made of cedar, the reddish-brown wood carefully stained and polished to a dull shine. The base has a small orb of carnelian set into it and the bottom half is covered in a repeating diamond pattern for a better grip.
“Lessons are every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon unless something comes up,” Taako informs him, plucking the hat from the box and then plopping it on Angus' head. “We'll start with cantrips and work our way up, got it?”
Angus flings himself forward, catching Taako off-guard briefly as he hugs him tightly. Taako hesitates only momentarily before returning the hug, one hand spread against his back. They stay like that for a long pause before Angus pulls away, brushing the tears away from his cheeks.
“This has to be the best present I've ever gotten, even better than my Caleb Cleveland books!” Angus tells him, reaching up to adjust the hat on his head.
“Well, I don't know about that, but they are pretty baller,” Taako agrees. He doesn't comment on the slight wet patch Angus has left on his blouse, whisking it away with a bit of prestidigitation when Angus' attention is elsewhere. He gets up when he hears Magnus calling him over, giving Angus one last smile before going to join the others.
Things start to kick off in a bad way after all the gifts have been exchanged and opened, and soon the only people left at the party are Davenport and Angus as everyone else scrambles to go get ready. Angus looks at Davenport, who gives him a bit of an awkward smile and pats him on the shoulder a few times.
“Davenport,” he says in a reassuring tone. Angus smiles weakly back at him and looks out the nearest window, clutching his wand hard enough in his hand that his knuckles go white and for sparks to shoot out of its tip. The two of them eventually go to join the Director, Angus not wanting to be too far from the action and Davenport following gamely along behind him.
Kravitz has seen a lot of things in his time as a reaper, both good and bad, ugly and beautiful. He's seen souls darker than midnight and ones that shine like the sun. He's seen people defying the laws of his Queen for wealth, power, or a desperation to regain someone they'd lost. The latter seems to be the case for Lucas Miller, who by all accounts has pulled the soul of his mother, Maureen, out of the Eternal Stockade and back onto the Material Plane, though how, Kravitz isn't entirely sure. However it was done, he'll need to destroy it and then take Lucas in for his crimes, as well as retrieve Maureen's soul.
He slips through a rift connecting the two planes, deciding to do some scouting in a less conspicuous form than his usual humanoid one. The moment he enters the Material plane, he looks around, sees three beings in the room, and, not wanting to take any chances in case they are working with Lucas, dives into the oddly crystallized pond and quickly forms a rough golem-like body. Kravitz watches the three beings as they watch him, only moving when one-- an elf from the looks of it – speaks.
“Hail and well met!”
Kravitz focuses on him, head cocking curiously as the elf says something about looking like salt. His soul is... Odd. He moves closer, stopping barely an inch away as he uses his reaper abilities to do a deeper scan. There are seven tethers attached to his soul. Six of them are mostly muted, but one... One is shining almost as brightly as the rest of the elf's soul. The tethers aren't necromantic in origin, that much Kravitz can tell, but he's never seen something like this before.
There are also marks of death on his soul, black streaks that cause Kravitz to pause. He backs up, very puzzled, and then turns to investigate the others. The man has more marks of death on his soul than his companion and has only two of those faint tethers, one leading to the elf and the other... Nowhere. How odd.
The dwarf... Oh, by the Queen Herself... His soul is crisscrossed with the scars of death, so many so that Kravitz is astounded by how bright the unmarred parts shine. There are the same pair of faded tethers; again, one leading to the elf and the other just ending in mid air. This is not-- He can't allow this, not if he wants his Queen to stay happy with him.
Kravitz backs up, surveying the three oddly-dressed beings before pointing one long crystal claw at the dwarf. “You,” he growls, unable to resist a small bit of drama. It may have been a long time since he was a constantly practicing bard, but he still has the instincts that had come with that occupation. The fight that follows isn't particularly hard compared to what Kravitz has faced before, though the fact that they run away instead of seeing it through is odd.
His distraction allows the spectral holy guardian that the dwarf had cast to get a hit on him, making him scream and have to abandon his golem form to escape back to the Astral plane in order to regroup. Whoever those three are, they are not going to get away for long.
Angus has stayed at the Director's side throughout the whole ordeal, his heart and mind racing. What if Taako and the others die? What if the lab crashes down into the sea and starts to crystallize everything? The constant loop of his treacherous thoughts are broken by the sound of Magnus' voice coming from his Stone of Farspeech.
Angus takes a moment to compose himself before answering. “Yeah? What's up?”
“I want you to stay on the channel and listen,” Magnus tells him. What happens next makes Angus' stupid, stupid brain start to panic. At first it's easy enough-- a spelling test, really? --but then the robot or whatever that is conducting the test senses that the three Reclaimers are getting outside help and all communication is cut off.
Angus can't take it any more. He's only ten and even though he's the world's greatest detective, he's probably just got two of his friends and someone who is rapidly becoming more and more like family every day killed and... And...
He breaks down, crumpling to the floor and beginning to sob with his knees pulled against his chest and his hat askew. It's not a pretty sight, and he knows it makes him look like a baby, but he doesn't care. He barely hears the Director trying to soothe him between trying to get a response on her Stone.
“Come in! Come in! Magnus, Merle, Taako, come in! Come in, come in! Is anyone there? Oh, boys, are you--” the Director says, but is cut off by Magnus' voice.
“Go for Magnus.”
“Oh, thank goodness- You... You're safe!”
Angus' tears slow a little, enough to allow him to talk, though it's more babbling than anything else. “I thought I was helping you guys and I knew I shouldn’t have been doing it. And then when it went dead I thought you guys had died and I was just trying to help and I’m so sorry- I’m s-”
“Ango. Angus. Angus!” Magnus calls out. “Director! Slap him for me.”
“Uh, that doesn't--” the Director begins. Thankfully, cooler heads prevail and, after the sound of a short scuffle, Taako's voice comes on over the Stone.
“Hey, Angus, pumpkin, it's alright,” he says soothingly. “These two knuckleheads and I are okay, I promise. A little singed, maybe, but otherwise alright. You don't need to worry about us. You did good, bubelah.”
Angus sniffs. “I’m so glad-- I’m so glad that the three of you are alright…”
“We're pretty good at getting out of tough scrapes,” Merle says.
“Anyway, I had this i-idea,” Angus continues on. “What if you asked him something that the Voidfish erased?”
“Yeah, no, he's dead. He's dead, it's fine,” Magnus assures him.
“He blowed up real good,” Merle adds on.
“We got it,” Magnus ends.
Angus lets out a watery laugh. “Oh, thank goodness. Okay. Well, b--I--I love you, bye!”
He doesn't expect a response, but he does hear a soft, “You too,” from Taako in Elvish. The pit of Angus' stomach grows warm at that, as if he's just had a cup of hot cocoa, and a small smile curls his lips. He's too busy brushing away the tears that linger on his cheeks to notice the pained wince from the Director.
Taako just wants this night to be over. Merle's lost an arm, they still haven't gotten the Philosopher's Stone from Lucas, and said shitty scientist is now waffling on about the various planes of existence.
“This is what I was working on. This is what I was using the Philosopher’s Stone for, is to create the Cosmoscope which I could use to see the whole planar system, and Merle, you asked a very important question earlier that I would also like to circle back to!” Lucas is saying as Taako tunes back in to the conversation.
“Ah, yes... What was it?” Merle asked, making Taako roll his eyes and Lucas sigh.
“You’ve already forgotten. Of course, that qu-” Lucas and the whole room freezes, making Taako instantly wary. He looks around, sighing softly when he sees Dar floating behind them. Dar waves a hand in a circle, silencing their Stones of Farspeech so they can speak uninterrupted.
“What's bigger than this?” Dar says, gesturing at the Cosmoscope. “Last time I spoke to you about the hunger of all things. This is the power it seeks, the power of creation itself. A billion billion lives have been devoured by this hunger in pursuit of its power.”
He waves a hand, tipping over a bin at the back of the room that has rejected disks of crystal and gemstones in it. One of the disks, black with flecks of red, green, and blue in it starts to shake and a dark cloud emerges from it, slowly but surely seeming to devour each disk. Taako stares in horror as the cloud envelops the prime material disk, his stomach turning. Dar snaps his fingers and makes the vision disappear.
“There is no more running, there is no escape. This world is life’s last chance,” he tells them. “You three are the only ones who can make the choices necessary to keep that hunger from reaching its goal.”
“And how do we do that?” Magnus asks. “You can't just tell us that we need to save the world and then not tell us how.”
“If you keep on the path you're walking, you should be able to--” Dar pauses, his entire form going still. “Oh, shit. I, uh... I have to go. There's a... I'll explain more when we meet again. Stay safe. And Taako?”
“Thank you for looking out for him.” Dar disappears after that and time restarts again, leaving Taako to sigh deeply as Lucas continues on with his spiel. One of these days he'll get a clear answer out of Dar.
Kravitz can't believe his luck. Almost all of his bounties in one place, and paralyzed as well? They're damned near gift-wrapped. Well, happy Candlenights to him. He forms a new golem body, going for one that's nearer to his reaper form than the large and bulky one he'd made before. He chuckles to himself and activates all of the Stones of Far Speech in the room he can sense before focusing on his work voice.
“Well, this is hardly fair,” he says, not bothering to keep the pleased note out of his voice. “This is goin' to be a lot easier than I thought.”
He looks over the party, summons his Book of Names, and then flips through it, glancing at the orc and dragonborn women before letting it float at his side. “Well, it looks like you two aren’t on the naughty list, so it uh, looks like it’s just three of you, on a one way trip back to the astral plane,” he tells the three males from before, pauses when he catches sight of the robot floating nervously nearby, and then flips through his Book again. “Oh, uh, make that the four of you.”
A fight breaks out shortly after Kravitz informs them of the existence of their bounties, making him wish he had eyes to roll. How typical. It goes pretty well until the elf says something that catches Kravitz off guard.
“Hey thug, what’s your name? I’m about to tentacle your dick.”
“Hey, hey hey. I’m gonna get you into some tent porn. Let me get that name real quick so I know how to credit you in my tentacle porn I’m about to make with your body.”
“It's Kravitz?” Kravitz replies, confused. The fight continues rapidly until suddenly a mess of black tentacles come out of nowhere and wrap around him. Kravitz is very, very glad that he can't actually feel anything in this form, because that's just disgusting. The rest of the fight goes about as well, leaving him feeling very, very confused and rather disturbed by the time he has to abandon his golem form.
He pauses in the Astral plane to regroup, takes his regular humanoid form, and then makes his way to the mirror portal that alerted him to the issue with Lucas in the first place. He can hear arguing as he approaches the mirror, making him chuckle.
“You guys really aren't that sharp, are you? Still having some trouble figuring this— still cracking this nut, huh?” he asks. He does enjoy the banter, really, he does, but after a while it starts to get annoying. He starts to lose control over his humanoid form, his reaper form starting to bleed in until he's gone skeletal and has his scythe in hand. He's so angry that he doesn't register the presence behind him of thousands of souls all working together until the giant hand grabs him up and starts beating him against the ground before pulling him violently back into the Stockade.
It takes some serious fighting and slashing around with his scythe before Kravitz can break free, and by the time he's managed to set himself to rights, Legion has somehow been beaten and banished back to where it needs to be. One conversation with the Raven Queen later (and gods, Kravitz just knows he'll be getting graveyard patrolling duty for a year after this) and he has permission to wipe their bounties from the Book. Now that the danger has passed, Kravitz goes to collect what souls he can, engaging in a fun little bit of high-card draw (that he may or may not manipulate a bit to give Noelle her year to settle her affairs) before guiding Maureen's soul back to the Astral plane and promising to pass on Magnus' message.
All in all, not the best day's work, but not the worst, either. Once Maureen and the rest of the errant souls are back in the Stockade, Kravitz goes to his quarters and settles in to rest and recuperate, doing his best not to let his thoughts linger on the bright warmth of Taako's soul.
Angus does his best not to fall asleep before Taako gets back, but he's had a long night and he's not entirely sure what time it is, so he finds himself dozing on and off as he waits in a corner. He startles awake when he hears them enter the hall sans null suits. He scrambles to his feet, one hand on his hat as he hurries over to Taako.
“You're okay!” he says before yawning widely, only covering his mouth once his brain catches up with his manners. “Sorry. I just...”
“Wanted to see that we were okay with your own eyes?” Taako suggests with a fondly amused smile. Angus blushes but powers through it, idly adjusting his hat.
“Yes. I also wanted to tell you that I'm proud of you. You three did a great job.”
“Thanks. You should get to bed. You look like you're about to fall over,” Taako tells him. Angus glances at Merle and Magnus briefly before deciding he doesn't care what they think and hugs Taako, mumbling his good nights. Taako returns the hug, wishing him a good night before letting him go. Angus heads off to his bedroom, feeling much better now that he knows everyone's alive and relatively in one piece.
He sets his hat and wand on his bedside table next to his glasses, falling asleep slowly but surely. Nightmares wake him several times throughout the night, but each time he startles awake, Angus catches sight of the presents on his table and relaxes, knowing that he is not alone in the world and someone loves him deeply enough to care about his well-being, both physical and educational, and that's not something he's had in a while. He falls asleep for the final time thinking that even with everything that occurred that day, meeting Taako and the others has to have been one of the best things that's ever happened to him.
Chapter 5: Part Five: Split-Second Timing
All recognizable dialogue belongs to the McElroys / TAZ, as per usual.
Refuge is a nice enough town, if one doesn't count the sudden deaths they experience an hour after they manage to get through the barrier surrounding it. Taako walks alongside Magnus as they make their way to Paloma's hut outside of town, his hands stuck in his skirt's pockets. The dying feels oddly familiar, something he's not sure he wants to examine. He's pretty sure he's never died before, no matter what Handsome McBone-Pants said in Lucas' lab.
The heavenly scent of baked goods wafts through the air, drawing both of them in. Taako grins.
“I'm gonna eat that house!” he jokes. Magnus pulls a scandalized face.
“Taako, no!” he replies, unable to hold his serious expression for too long. Taako grins as Magnus knocks on the door to the hut.
Taako and Magnus exchange looks at the odd-sounding voice but head inside anyways. Paloma seems to be a delightful woman, and Taako can definitely see himself exchanging recipes with her once this is all over. The small prophecy she gives them doesn't seem to be very helpful, to be honest, especially since they're already planning on going to the mine anyways.
“Is that all? Is there anything else? If you give me something very valuable - maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe I will consider a big prophecy,” Paloma says. Taako pauses, his hand running over the Arcane Trickster's Glove he's wearing. Sure, it makes it easy to cast Mage Hand unseen, which is handy- no pun intended –but that's about it. He takes it off and sets it on the table, arching an eyebrow at Paloma as she inspects it.
“Hmm... Very nice, very nice,” Paloma says. “Perhaps not enough for a big prophecy, but a small one? Yes, yes.”
She looks up, startled when a moderately-sized crystal that has a faint red tinge to it falls to the table and shatters. The dust that's thrown into the air shows the dry, arid area outside of Refuge. There's a sudden explosion and then a spectacular fireball that lights up the area before it freezes in mid-bloom.
“You will find that what was lost has been at your side this whole time, but something must be given if something else is to be gained. Trust your instincts. They will lead the way home.”
The air clears and Paloma shakes her head. “That was strange,” she says.
“Not something that usually happens?” Magnus asks.
“No,” Paloma replies, still looking rather surprised. “That is all the prophecy I have for now, unless you have diamonds or more items?”
Taako puts on his best showmanship smile. “No, thanks,” he said, getting up. “We'd better get moving before too long.”
Magnus stands as well, giving Paloma a smile that's far more genuine than Taako's before they leave. They die again after Magnus robs the bank and saves Brogden from inside it, albeit temporarily. The next few cycles are filled with puzzle solving and even more explosions as they work to get into the mine and then figure out where to go from there. Taako takes another visit to Paloma, gets a couple more prophecies after conning Ren and the elf in the bar out of their diamonds, and then rejoins Merle and Magnus to investigate the temple of Istus.
Meeting Luca and Redmond is a trip, and once the three Reclaimers break into the bank for the latter, they rush to the temple, making it in just before the whole town goes up in flames and then collapses in on itself. The moment Taako lays eyes on Istus, he's immediately met with a bone-deep sense of familiarity, peace, and comfort, though he's relatively certain he's never met a goddess before. Of all the things in the world, that one should be pretty damn hard to forget.
He has the feeling that he'll remember this brief moment in time no matter what, even after everything is said and done. The gift She bestows upon him doesn't seem to be as important as the ones She gives Merle and Magnus, but he doesn't complain. He just tucks it into a pocket and then slips the necklace bearing Her sigil over his head and then tucks the sigil underneath his shirt so it's laying against his skin. It feels warm already, serving as a constant reminder that someone is watching out for him.
The next loop seems to move quickly after that, with them going directly to the mines down the well with Roswell in tow. Meeting Isaak goes about as well as things usually do for them, meaning words are thrown around and then weapons. The thought that they really need to work on their people skills crosses Taako's mind as he uses Bigby's Hand to grab the Chance Lance and then pop the bubble surrounding June.
Time seems to flow to a stop as reality shifts around the three of them. Suddenly they're in a spectral form of the Davy Lamp, with the Chalice-as-June sitting at a table with them and offering them a deal. Taako's not too sure about the whole thing, but he agrees to listen anyways, curious to see just how the damn Relic will try to manipulate them.
And oh, it's a doozy.
Pulling Glamour Springs out of his history and showing him that it was fucking Sazed who had really poisoned the food, not him? That's a heavy blow.
“This is the worst thing that ever happened, Taako, in your life. And you can fix it. If you claim me, none of this ever happened. Glamour Springs lives, and you can keep doing your cooking show and you won’t have this--you won’t have this horrible black mark on, what is otherwise, a heroic legacy. Take me, Taako, take the cup, and you can fix it all,” the Chalice says.
Suddenly they're back in the ghostly Davy Lamp with the other two at the same table. Just by glancing at Magnus and Merle, Taako can tell they've been made similar offers as he has, but he has no idea if they're going to take them.
“I need to lay out the rules for you, ‘cause I feel like that’s only fair,” the Chalice says. “If you take the chalice, there are three rules that you have to follow. The first is that you cannot walk the path that you walked in this timeline. Specifically, there’s gonna be no joining the Bureau of Balance. ‘Cause the further you stay away from creating a paradox, the easier your new timeline is gonna be to maintain.
“The second rule is that you forfeit your place in this timeline completely. There is no comin’ back if you take the chalice and cross over. And the third rule is the hardest rule, and it’s the reason I’ve never successfully been able to change the past like this before. I’m gonna create a new timeline for you, but you have to sustain it. And all that entails is that every single thing that happens in this new world we create - good and bad - you have to want it to happen. Or else the timeline won’t hold and you’ll be lost.”
The Chalice-in-June-form sets the cup-Chalice on the table before settling back in its chair, looking around at the three of them intently. Taako's almost tempted to take up the offer, to continue on with his life as it was before he became a wanted man, before all those deaths occurred, but... But...
His thoughts get stuck on one particular thing. Sure, he'll be a free elf, but he'll never have met Angus. He'll never get to share any more experiences with him or teach him magic or hear his free-spirited laugh or hear him ramble excitedly about his newest mystery novel...
He glares at the Chalice's stolen form, magic crackling at his fingertips in his anger.
“Fuck. Off,” he growls. “I'm not falling for your shit.”
The Chalice sighs and then tries one last time to convince them to take the cup after Magnus and Merle give their nos, all but forcing their choices at Phandalin down their throats. Taako just stares solemnly at it all, well aware of the devastation they'd wrought. It's hard to forget when it features so often in his nightmares, after all.
Events move rapidly after that now that they're in the final cycle. Magnus picks up the Chalice and puts it safely in his pack so it won't tempt anyone else. They hop into the nearby mine carts after Isaak takes June away to safety and make their way further into the mine's depths. Taako has just enough time to think that maybe an event or attraction based around the ride that they're taking might be fun (though definitely without the giant fucking worm that's chasing after them) before shit gets real and all four of them are involved in trying to slow the worm down and not die in the process. It's harrowing pretty much the entire time, with all of them digging deep to figure out what to do.
Taako breathes a sigh of relief as they pass through the white space they've seen so many times before, but it's short-lived as the mine cart exits the bubble and flips end over end, sending all of them to the ground. The cart whirls off, landing with a heavy thud a few dozen feet away. Much to everyone's surprise, there's a fireball as it explodes; presumably something has gone wrong with the much battered and over-large engine.
They don't get much time to react beyond initial noises of surprise before not a second later Magnus is pulling Avi down to the ground as the giant worm emerges from the bubble and slams into the ground about fifty feet away. It turns to belch fire at them but stops when its wormlings emerge from the ground. Its joyous roar rings out in the air as it wraps itself around its babies and the burrows down into the ground again.
When Taako turns to look at the others, he finds Magnus slapping Avi, who looks to be frozen with fear.
“Hey, I’ve got a fun question: How long we’ve been gone you think, Avi?” Taako asks, rolling his eyes at Magnus' shenanigans. Avi doesn't respond, even after Merle slaps Avi as well. There's a familiar red glow surrounding Avi before Dar appears, one shadowy finger held up to where his lips should be before he waves a hand in a circle and mutes their Stones of Farspeech.
“Did you retrieve the cup?” Dar asks.
“Yes,” Magnus replies
“What did you change?”
“We didn't do anything with it.”
“You didn't use the cup?” Dar asks, sounding both surprised and hopeful.
Magnus shook his head. “Nope, we all three said no, right?”
“Yeah, we didn't use it,” Taako confirms.
“I'm really proud of you. I thought there was a chance that maybe this would be the one to end your adventure,” Dar tells them. “I need to know: do you trust me?”
Merle and Magnus exchange hesitant looks.
“Sort of?” Merle replies with a half-hearted shrug. “I mean, you have saved our asses a few times, but that doesn't mean we're going to trust you entirely.”
Magnus nods and then the two of them look at Taako, who shrugs.
“Sure,” he says. “I don't have any reason not to.”
Dar seems relieved at that. “Thank you, ” he says. “ I--”
He pauses when the fire that's engulfed the mine cart flares almost ten feet into the sky before subsiding again. A fiery shape emerges from the blaze, the flames dripping off it like water before it reveals another red robed figure. Dar goes stock still, faint red sparks shimmering over his form before he hurries over to the other red robe. They swirl around one another in a joyous dance, rising ten, twenty feet in the air before coming to a stop, their shadowy hands clasped tight.
“Lup, I can't... Oh my gods. You were in the staff the whole time?” Barry asks, keeping his voice low just in case. There's a hint of a shadowy smile on Lup's face.
“Yeah, babe. I went to go hide the Gauntlet in Wave Echo Cave and fucking Cyrus Rockseeker killed my corporeal form with a silverpoint-laced dagger,” Lup replies. “I thought I'd be in and out and back with you and the ship in no time.” She sighs and then glances over at Merle, Magnus, and Taako. Gods, seeing the three of them with her own eyes is both amazing and heartbreaking.
“They don't... They don't remember anything,” Barry says sadly.
“I know. Something Lucretia did... Maybe she found out a way to manipulate Fisher's powers?”
“Or there's a second Voidfish,” Barry muses. “They know about the Relics but not everything else. It doesn't make sense given what we know about Fisher and how its abilities work.”
“Which means that they won't remember me at all, especially not... not Taako. Or Angus.” Lup's form wavers briefly before she gets herself back together. “That's something... something we'll have to deal with later,” she decides, her head lifting stubbornly. Barry can almost see the stoically resigned expression on her face, something he never thought he'd ever get to see again. “Call me... Gods, what was it the mongeese called me?”
“Firepaws,” Barry says with a laugh. “Taako was Foodgiver and I was Brighteyes because of my glasses.”
“Hm. Maybe not,” Lup says after thinking it over.
“How about Ember?” Barry suggests. “Still flame related but nowhere close to your real name.”
“Eh, good enough,” Lup agrees. “We'd better get down there before they decide to do something dumb. Oh, wait a minute.”
She heads down to the mine cart, retrieving the Umbrastaff from the wreckage. It's broken in two and pretty singed, but she's sure she can repair it given time. She picks it up with a Mage Hand and carries it over with her to Taako, Merle, and Magnus. All three look rather suspicious of her, even as Barry joins her.
“We don't have much time,” Barry tells them (and Lup is so going to tease him about that spooky voice later). “Leaving your friend paralyzed like that for too long won't be good. Boys, there's only one Relic left loose in the world, and it's in a place you're not ready for yet.”
“We've done pretty well so far,” Merle points out.
“Trust me when I say that the next Relic will test you far more than any of the ones you've encountered, even the Chalice,” Barry says seriously. “My companion and I will do our best to help you recover it, but until that time comes, you need to train hard.”
“Yeah, speaking of, who're you?” Taako asks, focusing on Lup. She clears her throat rather unnecessarily and thinks about how she wants to sound before replying.
“I am Ember,” she replies, pitching her voice lower than she usually preferred, though it's still recognizably feminine. “Dar is right. The last Relic holds the power over life and death itself. It's not one to be taken lightly.”
“Were you in the umbrella?” Merle asks, looking from the Umbrastaff to Lup and then back again. Lup sighs and then inclines her head in confirmation.
“I was, but it was an accident. You found my corporeal form in Wave Echo Cave all those months ago. I can repair the Umbrastaff, but it will take some time.” She looks at Taako, for once glad that her face is hidden in shadow. Otherwise, she's sure that her expression would certainly give her away with the painful mixture of relief and sadness that's coursing through her right now.
“I can always get another wand,” Taako says with a shrug. “Go ahead. Hey, is the spooky voice thing part of your whole deal?”
Lup can't help but laugh. “Something like that,” she says, glad to know that Taako still has his sense of often irreverent humor. She's heard flashes of it while in the staff, but to experience it first-hand is always a delight. Barry looks at her and holds out his hand to her.
“We'd best go,” he says. “Stay safe, alright?”
“You sure you can't tell us anything about the next Relic?” Magnus asks.
Lup shakes her head. "No, sorry. We would in a heartbeat if there was a safer way, but there isn't.”
They leave shortly after that, Barry releasing Avi from his paralysis. He'd made sure the man had essentially been frozen in time, unable to hear or see what's happened over the past few minutes. Barry takes the two of them back to his cave, breathing a sigh of relief now that they're behind the safety of his wards. He's got his wife back and there's one less Relic free to cause havoc in the world. Life is slowly but surely getting better. Now all they have to do is help get the last Relic and then stop the Hunger from destroying this plane like it has so many others. He's not entirely sure how they're going to do that, but they've still got a few months until midsummer, which means time to plan. Or at least, that's what he hopes.
Chapter 6: Part Six: For Whom the Bell Tolls
All recognizable dialogue (c) The McElroys / TAZ, etc, etc.
Lucretia worries. It's a constant state for her, to be honest, but as each day passes and the arrival of the Hunger grows near, the worry seems to double. There's only one Relic left loose in the world, and it's the one she fears the most. For such an unassuming object, the Animus Bell is the most frightening of all the Relics, doubly so because of the presence of Wonderland. Sure, the others are destructive and life-threatening as well, but the Bell holds the power over life and death, and the capricious beings that wield it. She's never seen them, but their falsely cheery laughter still haunts her nightmares.
It's time to collect it, though, especially with the ever-decreasing time before the Hunger arrives. She calls her Reclaimers into her office, feeling far more weary than she has in a very long time. Lucretia lifts her head from her hand when they arrive, her grasp on her staff tightening as she takes them in. Gods, they all look so healthy and vital right now, but what they'll look like after Wonderland, she doesn't know.
She lays out what she knows and tells them her story, something she has told very few beings. Lucretia's being truthful when she says she doesn't miss her youth, as she's never really been all that vain of a woman, but she can't deny to herself how tempting it is some days, especially now that the Hunger's so close, to go take the Starblaster and hide somewhere until the fateful day comes. She could escape and be back in her recorded state, as well as have all her family back once and for all.
It will literally wipe Angus off the face of the world, though, unless a miracle happens, and Lucretia's not sure if she can face Lup, Barry, and Taako in that situation. It's strange that she fears Taako's reaction the most, but he's gotten to know Angus the best, and there's no guarantee that if Lup and Barry have another child after leaving this plane that it'll be the same brilliant boy that loves to solve mysteries and learn magic. The very idea that hurts her heart, so she pushes it away, mentally berating herself for her cowardly thoughts.
She sends her three boys (and never in a million years would she have considered them that before all this, before they landed on this plane and after everything that's happened here, but times have certainly changed), keeping Angus by her side just in case. If necessary, if the Bell is unable to be retrieved and the Hunger arrives before they return, she'll take Davenport and Angus to the Starblaster and get the hell out of there, hoping and praying all the while that the latter will survive the journey.
She'll save her little family no matter what it takes. She just prays that they'll forgive her in the end.
Lup loves her husband, she really does, but going into the lair of two other liches, especially ones in the possession of the Animus Bell, seems like a really, really bad idea. They wait around the outside of Wonderland until Taako, Merle, and Magnus arrive and then sneak in unseen after them. She wants nothing more than to immediately attack the two liches who control Wonderland and end everything now, but Barry urges caution. Lup feels like she's waited more than long enough to be fully reunited with her brother and the rest of their family. It's been ten years, after all, and she wants nothing more for this to be over and done with.
It pains her to watch the trials and tribulations that Magnus, Merle, and Taako are forced to go through, especially in the second round of wheel spinning when Merle loses an eye, Taako some of his vitality- whatever the fuck that means – and Magnus... Gods. Lup doubts she'll ever be able to get used to seeing him gray. She just wants to wrap him up in soft blankets and feed him a hearty soup.
Barry floats down to Magnus' side unseen and starts making shapes on Magnus' palm in Thieves' Cant, marking 'Silence' and 'Confirm' over and over until Magnus makes the 'confirm' sign back subtly with his other hand. They have a short conversation, if it can be called that, with Barry telling Magnus that there's one room that magically transforms and to wait for a signal before he does anything. When Magnus confirms for the last time, Barry backs off and rejoins Lup in their unseen observance.
While she knows that it's necessary for them to survive, it still hurts Lup's heart to see just how eager Taako is to choose 'forsake' in the next round. Luckily, it keeps them from getting hurt, but then they're trapped in a fucking idiotic dating show. They learn the two liches' names in the introduction, so at least now Lup knows what to call them when she's beating their asses into the ground. She works with Barry to siphon away some of the power from Edward and Lydia, quickly darting down to tell Magnus in Thieves' Cant that it's not time yet and to play along.
Magnus looks annoyed but does as asked, answering the inane questions he's given. The other two play along as well, at least, until Taako does something that no one expects. He casts Tasha's Hideous Laughter on the 'contestant' behind the curtain, something that makes Lup's eyes narrow. What is he-- Oh. Oh.
That wily son of a bitch is creating a distraction. Lup can't help but grin in the shadows of her hood, doing a small dance of joy as she sees him cast True Sight on Magnus. She waves cheekily at him while Barry continues to siphon the magic from the room in an attempt to get more power. Magnus recovers admirably, inclining his head only slightly before focusing on Lydia and Edward again. The weird dating show ends soon, thankfully, and then it's on to the so-called 'bonus round' before it's another round of Spin the Wheel.
Lup holds tight to Barry's hand as they watch the scene unfold, glad that she can't actually cry in this form. We have to get them out soon, she tells Barry, using their marriage bond to speak without being heard by anyone else.
We will, Barry replies. The next room, I swear.
And thank all the gods that may or may not be listening, but what comes up after Magnus picks 'Trust' is something they can definitely work with. They hurry to the back of the room where they start working with the black fog to form a portal out while the boys fight the foes that the room throws at them. It takes a while for them to figure out how to manipulate the fog just right, creating all kinds of objects in their search for a door-- Lup has to laugh at the sight of the portrait, which is her done up all fancy –before they finally hit on the right combination and they get a door.
Once everyone is through (with Lup totally planning on teasing Taako about turning into a T-Rex the first chance she gets), Cam leaves them and the boys make their way up to the platform in the very middle of the vast chamber. Lup and Barry stay unseen, with Barry having to hold her back as Lydia rings the Animus Bell and sends Magnus' soul flying out of his body and towards the Astral Plane before Edward possesses Magnus' now-vacant body.
What happens after that would have stolen Lup's breath from her body if she had either. She watches Taako and Merle save Magnus' soul from oblivion, and gods, it's amazing. The fact that Magnus isn't in his own body, not so much, but at least he's here and he's able to fight back, so that's something. Barry lets Lup go as he keeps manipulating the fog to counter what Lydia's doing, leaving his wife to finally do what she's been itching to do since they entered into this godsdamned place.
Lup goes after Lydia with a few fireballs, distracting her quite handily. She doesn't want to go after Edward-as-Magnus, not when there's a chance to get Magnus' body back to its original owner. The fight between the two women is sharp and fierce. Lydia is a very good fighter, but she doesn't have the century of varied experience that Lup does. Lydia sinks to the floor just as Edward is expelled from Magnus' body by the holy power-imbued Chance Lance, leaving it to crumple like a puppet with its strings cut as he floats upward.
Lup lets a fireball fly at him, pumping as much power into as she can. Weakened by the divine power, the fireball finishes off Edward and turning him to ash, causing Lydia to scream and lose control, black bolts of energy whipping off her. She scrambles over to him, picking up some of the ash in her hands.
“I guess... I guess we still needed each other after all,” she says before pointing a finger at all of them with a scream. A flash of darkness envelops them, the energy swirling around them like a hurricane. When it fades, the Animus Bell is sitting in the pile of Lydia's ashes, looking very innocuous and unassuming. Lup floats down to pick it up, pausing and then turning when she hears Barry speak.
“Oh my gods,” Barry says, pointing at something on the catwalk. There, amongst the various bits and pieces of Magnus' gear, is a third pile of ashes.
“My beautiful body!” Magnus exclaims.
“Well, shit,” Merle breathes. He scratches at his chin under his beard. “That's... going to be interesting to deal with.”
Magnus grunts as he goes through his belongings, checking first on Steven the goldfish before grabbing two of the healing potions and then going over to Taako. One potion later and Taako is sitting up. Magnus hands the other healing potion to Merle, who takes it with a nod of thanks.
Lup clears her throat. “One of you should pick that Bell up,” she says. “Neither Dar or I should try it. We might fall into the same trap as Lydia and Edward did, and that's...” She laughs, the sound rough and entirely devoid of joy. “That's not something the world really needs to see.”
Magnus goes over and picks it up, muttering something as he does so that no one else can pick up. The second he does, the whole of Wonderland starts to dissolve around them in a whirl of black smoke and wind. When it fades, they're back in the clearing they started in, with about a score of other people in various states of misery. After a few conversations and further healing for Taako, the three males and two liches head back through the Wilds, stopping only when they're a few miles away from where Wonderland used to be.
“I understand if you don't entirely trust us right now,” Barry says as he lets the others catch their breath, “but I promise everything's going to make sense real soon.”
“I literally have nothing to lose, so, sure,” Magnus replies. Before they can continue with the conversation, the three Reclaimers' Stones of Farspeech crackle with static. Barry goes still and then, after exchanging glances with Lup, puts a finger to where his lips should be for quiet and projects an illusory image of the Stones above his palm. They can't have anyone from the Bureau tracking them. There's not much they can do about the bracers, but neither Lup or Barry can sense any sort of tracking spells on them, so it's not too much of a concern.
“Sirs? Sirs, are you there, you’ve been out of—sirs? You’ve, you’ve been offline for a while, are you there?”
It's the voice of Angus, someone who Lup is very curious to meet. She misses her own Angus, and wonders whatever happened to him. Hopefully he's somewhere safe and sound. Taako glares at Barry sharply for a moment before getting his Stone out of his pocket and lifting it up to his mouth.
“Hey, little man,” he says after activating the Stone. “We're all... here. We're fuckin' wiped, though, so we're going to camp out here for the night and then get back tomorrow morning after we take a long rest. Tell the Director we'll be there bright and early.”
“I... I don't know how she'll feel about that, but alright,” Angus says, sounding worried. “I'm glad you're okay.”
“Eh, as okay as we usually are,” Taako tells him. “Don't worry about it. Go get some food and then sleep.”
Angus lets out a rough laugh. “Just as long as you do the same,” he says. “Goodbye, Taako, sirs.”
Taako smiles lopsidedly. “Bye, kiddo. Love you,” he replies, the last bit in Elvish. It's become a habit for him to sign off like that, regardless of whether or not those around him understands the language. Angus responds in the same language before signing off and then ending the call. Only once that's done does Taako hand over his Stone to allow Barry to shatter it.
As he does so, the sky turns stormy and what sounds like thunder rolls out overhead, making Lup's non-existent stomach drop. Well, shit. That doesn't give them a lot of time to work with. Just fucking great.
“Listen, there’s not much time. Night’s gonna fall soon and we need to make some headway before it does because… Well, tomorrow’s going to be… fateful,” Barry says. He glances at Magnus and then pulls a recording coin out of his robe before making a note about needing to disguise him. They continue their journey after that, making camp in a clearing near the road leading to Phandalin.
Lup and Barry keep watch since they don't have to sleep, rousing the others as dawn starts to weakly lighten the sky. They keep going, making their way to Barry's cave. Barry and Lup exchange a hug one last time before Barry turns to the others and explains what's going to happen once he enters his body. He gives Lup one long last look before slipping into the tank. He pops his head out of the tank one last time, focusing on Merle.
“Hey Merle, would you be a bud? I’m, uh, I’m gonna be naked as a jaybird when I come outta here. Can you fetch me a change of clothes from that chest?”
“Be glad to,” Merle replies. Lup watches as Barry dips back into the tank and sinks into his new body, her hands tightening into fists. Gods, she hates this, hates knowing that the moment her husband emerges from that tank in his flesh and blood body, he won't remember her or any of the others at all. The coin will help, but not entirely.
The tank opens, letting the brackish fluid within spill out as Barry stumbles out, naked and shivering. Lup can't help but to cast a quick drying spell on him, hating to see him be so uncomfortable. He looks up at her, surprised, his eyes widening.
“Listen to the coin in your pocket,” she tells him, dropping the affected voice she's been using so far. “Trust me on this one.”
Barry pulls out the coin from his pocket and activates it, listening to the first message recorded on it.
“Your name is Barry Bluejeans. You are afraid of the dark. Your very favorite thing in the world is swimming in very cold water on a very hot day. You get ill when you drink milk or anything with milk in it. Your- your father Gregor died when you were too young to know him. Your mother, Marlena, had soft gray hair when you were born, and was the most wonderful woman who ever lived.
“You remember them but you have forgotten so much. And right now, in this moment, you feel a dull weight in your chest. It’s the weight of a love that defined and redeemed you but you’ve forgotten who that weight belongs to. Barry, I’m you, just moments ago and I remember who that weight belongs to, and I can help you remember it too.”
While Barry listens to the coin and finishes getting dressed, Taako, Magnus, and Merle head off to a corner to talk private amongst one another. Lup pays them little mind, drifting closer to Barry. Her connection with him is... odd, muted much like the others, but still there, still safe and sound and wrapped around her very soul, something Lup treasures greatly.
“The red-robed figure there in the cave with you is someone I trust with everything I am, and you can too, just as you can trust the three guys in front of you. They're... well, the closest thing we've got to friends right now, so you'll have to go with them. Try to make sure they don't get into too much trouble. Oh, and you’ll need to disguise Magnus, obviously, and don’t let anyone touch him or we’ll be discovered. You'd better get the lead out, because something big is coming, and you can't help fight it if you're down here.”
Lup watches the four of them leave the cave after gathering everything up that they'll need, trailing them outside. She looks around, an eerily familiar sense of dread filling her when she sees that the colors of their surroundings have already started to fade. Barry gets into Taako's pocket spa so they can get him up to the moon base without anyone noticing, a clever little ruse Lup highly approves of.
Merle turns to look at her as the orb descends, giving her a curious look. “You comin' with us?”
Lup lets out a soft laugh. “Not yet. Get that lich shield down and I'll be by your side before you can say 'fire',” she tells him.
He nods, turning to the orb as it touches down and then gets inside with the others. Lup watches the orb rise into the sky, her composure starting to weaken as the vehicle that holds her heart and soul in it drifts further and further away. She allows herself a moment of weakness now that she's alone, a primal scream rending the air before she gets herself under control again.
Above, the storm clouds hang motionlessly, the only witness to this moment of grief and anger. Somewhere in the near distance, the Hunger approaches, and it's starving.
Chapter 7: Part Seven: Remembrances
All recognizable dialogue is (C) the McElroys / TAZ. I've futzed with the timeline / how events occur for narrative purposes. There will be an epilogue to this, I think, so one more chapter to go! Also, you will have to tear Barry and Taako being best bros from my cold, dead hands, so there.
Taako walks grimly through the deserted Bureau of Balance campus, Merle at his side as they leave the Fantasy Costco and Magnus behind. He glances up at the eerily still storm hanging in the sky, his stomach going leaden with a strangely familiar feeling of foreboding and dread. All he can do is cling to Istus' promise that they're going to be amazing, because he sure as hell doesn't feel like it right now. He feels more like a wet dish rag that's slowly but surely being wrung out, water dripping inexorably away from him.
They make it to the Director's office after what's probably the weakest round of bullshittery they've ever tried to pull, but the Director is distracted by dealing with the Animus Bell, so much so that she barely protests when they insist on going to her office to 'mourn'. Once there, Barry's coin directs them to go through the door in the back of the room. After a short debate, Taako and Merle step into the long hallway beyond the door.
They're pulled under what feels like quicksand, and not even Merle's attempts to save them with his Vroom Broom are enough to keep them afloat. Taako finds himself in a pitch black void, utterly alone and bereft of connections to the outside world. A sense of soul-crushing panic threatens to overwhelm him until the thought that, no, fuck that, he's not alone, not any more, surges through his mind. He's got Magnus and Merle and Kravitz and Angus and Carey and Killian and hell, even Davenport and the Director on his side and--
Taako gasps as the illusion breaks and he back in the real world. He quickly picks himself up off the floor and snaps Merle out of it before looking around to find the source of a dull but rapid clanging noise. He recognizes the hazy dome of Silence around an alarm bell, his knees going weak when he spots Angus standing in the doorway behind him, his wand outstretched and pointing at the bell.
“Hell yeah! Nice magic, little man!” Taako says, too tired to cover his praise in sly words like usual. Angus gives them a stubborn look, the set of his jaw and the glint in his eyes achingly familiar somehow to Taako.
“Start talking,” Angus demands. “I- I need to know what you know.”
Taako and Merle resist Angus' Zone of Truth (and if it was any other time, Taako would've definitely commended him on having such a broad range of spells available to him, but now's not really that time) but Barry-- Barry fucking Bluejeans doesn't and soon he's out of the bag and standing next to Taako, giving Angus a sheepish wave and a smile as he readjusts his glasses.
Taako sighs and then starts talking, giving Angus the Fantasy Cliff Notes' version of what's happened since the last time they've seen one another.
“Angus, I trust you implicitly and here’s the exact 100% truth as we understand it because if anybody can fuckin’ figure out what’s going on, it’s you. So hook me up,” he finishes up. Angus eyes him before lowering his wand, letting it hang from the lanyard that Taako totally didn't spend a half hour agonizing over the last time he went to the surface.
“Taako, thank you. You… I- I promise you, I am—I’m good at this. Let me help,” he says. “I love the Bureau. I love the Director. She’s given me an—an enormous opportunity here, she gave me a— she gave me a home! And so I don’t think she’s doing anything wrong, but those spheres that Davenport takes into the relic disposal chamber? Well, they’re not the same spheres that come out.
“She just did it. She just destroyed the Animus Bell. I made a little mark, discretely, on—on the sphere before they took it in and it wasn’t on it when it came out. So I don’t know what’s going on, but, like, obviously you don’t have to be the world’s greatest detective to know that there’s a bait-and-switch going on. But I’m—I—I feel like we’re—we don’t have the complete truth of what’s going on here. So if you say that you can find it, let me help you get there.”
Taako wants nothing more than to take Angus and jump into the closest transport ball and hide the fuck away somewhere safe, but he knows that they can't run, not now, not when they're so close. “Listen, Angus, you should know something.”
“Yeah?” Angus says brightly.
“If you stick with us, you are… you’re kind of… you’re kind of a bad guy, too. This is not specifically, technically, something we’re supposed to be doing,” Taako finishes up. “I don't want you hurt because we do something wrong.”
“The ones lookin’ for the truth, well, they’re never the bad guys. I know that from my Caleb Cleveland novels,” Angus says as he heads for the door at the far end of the hall. Taako sighs and follows after him, shaking his head.
“Precious,” he mutters under his breath, his fondness clear in his voice. Gods, he loves Angus, especially his joy for life and an indomitable sense of right and wrong that doesn't seem to fade no matter what happens or what he sees. The three males follow Angus into the Director's private quarters, Taako looking around curiously. It's very neat, but what draws Taako's attention is the shelf near the bed that holds eight carved wooden ducks, all lined up in a row from biggest to smallest. They're painted in various bright colors, though the one with blue and white looks like it was dropped when the paint was still wet, because there's a sizable part of the left side of the duck's breast that's scuffed.
He tears his eyes away from them when he catches the sight of the tank in a far corner of the room. The way his mind goes fuzzy and is unable to focus correctly tips him off big time on what's probably in there, even with the added help of Barry's coin. Taako sighs, takes out his canteen, and then goes over to the open top of the tank and fills it up. He takes a sip of the brackish water, gives Merle some after the cleric removes the holy symbol from the disc it's floating over, and then finally passes the canteen to Barry, who takes a drink before handing it over to Angus.
Taako barely notices Ember popping into the room as a growing sense of pressure starts to build in his head.
“Boys, don’t—don’t try to remember too fast, it’s—it’s—it’ll take you out,” Barry gasps as he slumps to the floor, his head cradled in his hands. The sound of marching footsteps coming down the hallway alert them to the incoming guards who have been alerted to their presence there by an alarm tied to the holy symbol. “Boys, don’t put up a fight. It’s—things are in motion now and we just kinda gotta go with the flow, but you’re gonna start remembering soon, but just take it slow. Please, I'm begging you. You gotta take it slow.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about! I just see this Voidfish, this cute Voidfish,” Angus says, giving them a confused look. There's little time to talk after that, because the guards come in and haul them off to the main hall of the receiving chamber, with Ember fading to invisibility just before they come in. The Director is standing up on the dais, and as they're brought into the room, Barry manages to break away from his guards and charges toward her, a look of anger and pain on his face that Taako has never seen on him before.
Davenport of all people manages to stop him, and soon the guards have corralled them all in front of the Director, who's channeling some sort of energy from the relic orb at her feet into her staff, the one that she made when--
Taako groans, clutching at his head, as does Merle. The elf barely hears what the Director-- Lucretia – 'Cretia, gods –has to say as he can feel the bonds that tie him to his friends, his family, surge back into being in his soul and magic, as well as some new ones he's made in the past twelve years since the sundering of their group.
(And planes away, Kravitz, lonely and barricaded in the Eternal Stockade, swears he feels an impossible warmth bloom somewhere deep within his being, bringing an irrational sense of hope and love to him that he can't explain.)
At his side, Barry murmurs something that Taako recognizes as the invocation for the spell Command and a single word, one that only just penetrates Taako's floundering mind:
Taako listens to Lucretia try to explain herself, try to reason away why she'd broken up their family and scattered them to the winds in an effort to save this plane from the Hunger, though it's hard given the barrage of memories that are sleeting across his mind. They jumble around before slowly slotting into place like errant birds on a ledge, shuffling and moving around until they find their homes. Taako struggles to his feet from where he's sunk to his knees after Lucretia stops speaking, breathing as if he's just finished running a marathon. It certainly feels like it, that's for sure.
He stares at her, stares at the woman he once considered a second sister, words failing him. He turns to look at the others, seeing the light of recognition in their eyes, though the guards and Angus all look very confused. Taako shoots Angus a weak but still reassuring smile before crossing over to where Barry is beside a newly inoculated Magnus and pulls his brother-in-law into a tight hug, his grasping fingers wrinkling the fabric of Barry's shirt. Barry returns the hug just as tightly, and gods, it's just as good as Taako now remembers. When they part, neither comment on the tears on either of their faces, even as Barry readjusts his skewed glasses to sit properly on his face.
“So where's-- LUP! Get your ass visible!” Taako shouts, clearly startling Lucretia.
“Taako, what--” Lucretia begins, but gasps when Lup, vibrant and ready to go as ever, fades back into visibility. “Lup? Oh my gods, Lup! You're alright! But-- But where-- How--”
Lup laughs. “It's a long story, but let's just say I haven't been far.” She turns and looks down at Angus, cocking her head briefly before letting out a startled laugh. “Well fuck me sideways. I should've known. I should've guessed.”
“Lup?” Barry asks cautiously. “What's going on?”
“Babe, we owe Taako like, twenty gold,” she says. “He was right. He did get to teach him magic and buy him his first wand.”
Barry blinks and then laughs, the amused sound edged with hysteria. “If we get out of this, we'll deal with that later, okay?”
“Right, okay, money can wait,” Taako says, and then turns to look at Lucretia, his wand pointed at her. “Start. Explaining. You took fucking everything from us!”
“I know that things went wrong, I know I shouldn’t have kept you all in the dark for as long as I did. I swear, I had no idea how arduous a task this was gonna be, I know I have a lot for atone for. But please, just— I’m begging you let me finish this and we can talk about it,” Lucretia replies.
“What-- What are you finishing?” Merle asks with a slightly hysterical laugh.
“I'm going to cast my barrier around this world and stop the Hunger once and for all.”
The silence that follows that statement is profound. They all stare at her, the silence breaking when Barry lets out a shaky laugh. “Lucretia, you can't do this! We told you why the barrier’s not gonna work. It's going to sever every bond this world’s ever had. Please, I— I know why you did what you did, but you just— you can’t do this!”
“We've only got two choices, though,” Davenport says. “Either let Lucretia go through with this or fly out on the Starblaster.” He turns to Lucretia. “Where is it? Where's the ship?”
“We can't run,” Taako says loudly, much to Davenport's protests. “I know that's what we've done in the past, but we can't-- I'm not going to lose the people we've met here.” He gestures at Angus, who still looks very confused. “We don't know if he'll be there with us, and Capn'port, 'Cretia, that's not-- That's not something I'm going to do. So, I guess I'm going to take a leaf from Magnus' playbook and rush in to fight and protect, because Taako's not good out here.” He takes in a deep breath, Paloma's last prophecy filtering through his mind. “What if... What if there's a third option?”
“Like what?” Davenport asks. “It's either we stay here and fight and die, or we fly off and try again.”
Taako opens his mouth, tries to come up with something, and then closes his mouth with a click. His shoulders slump as his mind races. He's saved from having to come up with something when a glowing crystal suddenly pops into being in midair, hovering there for a long moment before falling to the ground and shattering. Suddenly, the area is filled with thick white fog, and they're shown visions of a happy future that makes Taako's heart ache.
He sees his family at a large table, him and Lup, who's back in her body, setting steaming dishes on it before taking their seats next to their significant others. He can't hear anything, but he can see the laughter and joy on everyone's faces. Even Lucretia is there, and somehow Taako finds he doesn't mind. He can feel tears running down his cheeks and can't even bother to comment on them on as he wipes them away. The others are in a similar state, including Lucretia, who looks baffled.
“W-What is this? What does this mean?” she asks
“I would like that one, pl— yes, that one?” Magnus stammers. “This, this one we just saw? I would like this, please.”
“It— it means there is a happy ending if we get to it,” Merle manages, wiping tears away from his face.
“We could close ourselves off, and we could run. There’s a third option though. Lucretia, your spell, could it keep the Hunger bound? Could it... cut the Hunger off?” Taako asks, his mind hitting upon the thought that had eluded him before.
Lucretia freezes, the spell she's been channeling all this time flickering and then fading away. “Huh,” she says, the thought being echoed by Lup and Barry. “That... That could work, but I... I'd have to be on the same plane as the Hunger, and--”
She's cut off when a massive pillar of the Hunger slams through the ceiling. The battle that follows is hard as hell, but once they manage to defeat their foes and clear the room, they split up. They're going to have to do some prepping before they take off on the Starblaster, and Lup has an idea that could very well get them more help in the battle ahead.
Against all odds, they do it. They win. The Day of Story and Song is filled with wins, losses, survival, and death. Once everything is over and the scattered group is gathered back together, Taako looks around. It's going to take a long time for the world to recover, but Taako has faith that they'll manage to do it. Taako leans into Kravitz's side, watching Lup, Barry, and Angus talk, albeit somewhat awkwardly. He locks eyes with Merle and Magnus, his brothers in all but blood, and then grins.
Istus was right. They were fucking amazing, and they aren't done yet, not by a long shot.
Chapter 8: Part Eight: Denouement
And here's the end of the story! Thanks for riding along with me on this journey. I'll definitely be writing other fics in TAZ (Blupjeans is life goals, not to mention I adore Barry to no end), so look for those coming at some point in the future. See you all later, and stay safe out there!
Lucretia arrives to the shared Bluejeans-Taaco household (which is really two houses on adjacent lots with a Magnus-built enclosed corridor joining them at the center), a bottle of wine in hand. The houses sit a half-mile outside of Neverwinter in a protected cove that's deep enough for all but the largest boats to moor in; a dock sits at the bottom of a gentle slope that leads down to the coast, an ever-burning lantern at its end lighting the way home for weary travelers. The houses are one-level but sprawling, a subtle testament to their inhabitants' perhaps not-so-unconscious desire for open spaces after everything they've been through.
Barry's the one who answers the door, a warm smile forming when he sees her. Lucretia returns the smile albeit somewhat less readily, still not entirely sure of the reception she'll get. It's been over a year since the Day of Story and Song and three months since Carey and Killian's wedding, but Lucretia is still working to make amends with her family for all she's done to them.
“Come on in,” Barry tells her, welcoming her in with a companionable hand on her shoulder. Of all of them, Barry and Lup seem to have forgiven her the easiest, something that continues to baffle Lucretia. She tore them apart and took their child from them, and yet they still welcome her into their home on a regular basis. Angus is thriving at Lucas Miller's Academy of Arcane Sciences and is a day student there, returning home to his parents after classes are done each day. Their jobs as reapers for the Raven Queen allow them a mostly flexible schedule, and if they're not there, Angus can just go over to Kravitz and Taako's place, as his uncle is usually there working with Ren on the massive amounts of paperwork that're involved in setting up his own school.
Tonight is not about work, however. Tonight is about good food and family. Lucretia banishes all thoughts of work and steps into the warm house, breathing in the tantalizing scents that float through the air.
“It smells amazing in here,” she says, making Barry chuckle.
“Yeah, Lup and Taako have been cooking pretty much all day,” he replies, a deeply fond expression on his face as he says it. “They banned the rest of us from the kitchen about two hours in. Dav and Merle arrived about a half hour ago by boat. You're the last to get here.”
“Well, hopefully this wine I brought will go well with whatever the twins are making,” Lucretia says, holding up the bottle of wine. Barry glances at the wine and then shrugs.
“It'll get drunk one way or the other. I don't think anyone will mind if it matches exactly with what's being served.”
Lucretia nods and follows him deeper into the house, the sounds of laughter and rapid-fire conversations filtering through the spacious halls the closer they get. Lucretia steps into the dining room to find it full of family and friends who have become family, Barry whisking the wine bottle away from her before directing her to an open chair between Carey and Davenport. Lucretia settles in, her nervousness fading away slowly but surely as she's welcomed by those already there.
Lup and Taako come into the room both bearing steaming dishes aloft on matching Mage Hands. They set the dishes down with a flourish, and Lucretia realizes with a start that the scene before her is the one they all witnessed just before the last battle with the Hunger. She keeps her observation to herself, soaking in the warm atmosphere as dishes are passed around and drinks are poured.
Dinner is a lively affair, as these occasions usually are, and Lucretia loves every second of it. Her family is the very definition of chaotic good and are forces of nature and change in the world. The fact that the world they've so affected is letting them help repair it is amazing and astounds Lucretia every day.
At the meal's end, Lucretia finds herself standing on the back deck of the house, leaning against the deck's railing as she watches Merle and Davenport cast off from the dock, the rays of the setting sun gilding the water in beautiful golds and reds. She sighs happily, tilting her face up towards the sky and closing her eyes. Her solitude is broken about ten minutes later as the glass door behind her slides open and light footsteps tap against the wood of the deck. The warm scents of cedar and bergamot let her know who it is that's coming to rest by her side before she even hears him speak.
“Enjoying the evening?”
Lucretia opens her eyes and turns her head to look at Taako in the rapidly gathering dusk. His expression is hard to read, partially because of the loss of light and partially because of how neutrally set his face is.
“It's been a good night,” Lucretia replies, turning to look back out across the water. “Everyone seems really happy.”
Taako hums, leaning against the railing as well, his forearms braced against the wood. He's silent for a long stretch of time before he speaks, his voice low.
“You know, I almost didn't invite you tonight, but the others convinced me I should. You...” He sighs, the sound nearly blending in with the rush of the water on the shore. “You pulled a lot of shit, Lucretia, and while I understand the reasons behind it, it was still fucking horrible.”
Lucretia goes to speak but Taako holds up a hand, stopping her.
“Don't. Just... Let me finish. It was shitty and fucked up, but you did your best to fix it, even if it took a long time. I don't think I'll ever forget what you did-- none of us will, to be honest –but I'm not gonna hold it over your head.” Taako laughs softly. “Well, too much, anyways. You've been my second sister for over a century, 'Cretia, and I'm not about to forget it. Just... Just don't forget that we're family again, okay? That shit isn't going to fly any more.”
Lucretia puts a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, tears starting to pour down her face. Taako glances at her and then holds out an arm for her in a clear invitation. Lucretia leans into him, breathing in shaky gulps as Taako holds her close. She swears she feels a kiss pressed against her hair. She may not be entirely forgiven, but even being this close to it feels like a weight dropping away from her.
Endings can be hard, sometimes even harder than beginnings. Finding the right words to close out a story with without making it seem trite or saccharine is tough. As Lucretia wipes the tears from her face, she knows that this story that she and her family are making? It hasn't ended with the Day of Story and Song. It's ongoing, chapter after chapter after chapter, and like all the best stories, ends with three simple words:
To Be Continued