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An Umbrella Term

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“Hey, Agnes, are you busy?”

Angus blinks, looking up from the spellbooks he’s studying to meet Taako’s eyes. “Not at the moment, sir? Is there something you need?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes,” Taako says, shifting and looking around like he has something to hide— they’re in the library right now, which is barely inhabited even when it’s not approaching night time, which Angus supposes might be why Taako decided to approach him now. “Now, as reluctant as I am to admit this— and keep this on the down-low, no spreading this around— but… I… might need your help with something.”

Angus sits up. “What is it, sir? Another mystery? I haven’t figured out the last one, but—”

“Hey, keep your voice down, this is a library!” Taako hisses. “And yes, it’s kind of a mystery, though I have one particular thing in mind— are you busy tonight? I want you to stake out my room.”

Angus blinks. “What? How come?”

“I’m pretty sure someone’s been breaking into my room and leaving spooky messages to mess with me,” Taako says. “I’ve tried to stay up and catch them myself, but it never happens when I’m awake— I need another set of eyes.”

“Okay, not to say I can’t do it,” Angus says, starting to pack up his books, “But, um— why can’t you just ask Magnus or Merle?”

“Pff, those clowns?” Taako waves that idea away. “I trust those guys about as far as they can throw me.”

“I...” Angus pauses. “...Couldn’t they— at least Magnus could throw you pretty far? Don’t you mean as far as you can throw them?”

“I know what I said, kiddo,” Taako says.

 


 

Taako gives Angus an hour to get ready for the stake out, then meets him in front of the elevator to the Reclaimers’ suite. Taako complains about Angus making him wait— despite both of them being there fifteen minutes early and, in fact, getting there at the exact same time— and then he gives a short briefing on the situation before vanishing into his room to get ready for bed.

Which leads to the current situation: Angus McDonald, boy detective, pouring over his notes on all the little mysteries that he’s solved in his time on the moon— what happened to Avi’s new case of brandy, (Carey took it,) what the source of those weird thumping noises in the dead of night in the library, (Carey practicing her flips,) who’s been leaving duck-butts carved into all the doorframes (Carey again)— as he stakes out Taako’s room. It’s nearly midnight, and Angus is struggling not to nod off into his book. He tries to keep focused by entertaining thoughts of who the culprit might be— leading theories are that it’s either Carey up to some shit yet again, a wizard with a grudge, or whatever caused the Umbra Staff to destroy his macarons.

Which is another thing— the one thing that’s been bothering him for more than a week now, the only mystery he’s found here and not solved, the Umbra Staff. This… well, if it’s continuing to act on its own, it could possibly be directly asked just what that message it left is supposed to mean— but he’s not totally certain yet, so he just holds that thought for now.

He’s just starting to consider the idea of leaving his post for just a minute to grab some coffee when the faint smell of smoke reaches his nose. Distracted as he is, it takes Angus a moment to place where the faint grey wisps around the doorframe are coming from. As soon as he does, though, he jolts awake and scrambles to reach the doorknob. He barely remembers to be stealthy, cracking open the door just barely enough to see in, but not to be seen himself.

The first thing that comes to mind is that Angus is impressed Taako can sleep through all the smoke filling his room. The second is that he’s impressed the whole room hasn’t caught ablaze a dozen times already.

The third, however, is that well, it’s probably not Carey this time. It’s the Umbra Staff, propped half-open on the floor by Taako’s bed, slowly shifting in angle to write something on the wall— Angus can’t quite make it out through all the smoke— using the same spell it used the last time, Scorching Blast? Ray? Something like that.

Angus holds his breath, half to avoid breathing in the smoke and half from simple suspense, as the umbrella painstakingly writes out its message. It pauses, just once, seemingly going limp for a moment like it’s finished before jolting and sending a breeze to chase away the smoke before continuing its message. It’s only once the wall is totally covered in charred letters that it finally drops back to the floor, inert once more, and Angus breathes.

Silently, he pulls the door open and pads across the floor, stepping nervously over the umbrella and leaning slightly on the bed in an attempt to make out the words. It might be the darkness of the room, or the few remaining dregs of smoke in the air, or just Angus’s exhaustion creeping up on him again— but somehow, no matter how much he squints or rubs at his eyes, Angus can’t seem to focus right on the words. His eyes just sting, and start to water up, and with a final frustrated sigh he turns to leave again.

And promptly trips over the umbrella.

In that moment, Angus is glad Taako is such a heavy sleeper, as it means no one there can hear the thoroughly undignified squawk as the world’s greatest detective slips and falls on his face. The umbrella makes an odd shifting noise almost like a snicker, but Angus is too preoccupied with peeling his face off the carpet to bother paying attention.

He gives the umbrella a teary glare, rubbing at the bridge of his nose where his glasses have left a brand new indent. He pulls himself to his feet with a huff, stumbles over, and leans down to pick the umbrella up by the handle. He just wants to move it, leave it somewhere where it won’t be a tripping hazard—

But a jolt goes through his hand, and there’s an odd feeling. Like he’s being judged, and found unworthy. Then there’s a feeling like someone firmly shoving him away, making him take a step back, and the umbrella jolts in his hand and throws itself away. It twists in the air and lands neatly against the bed, the handle poised perfectly for Taako to take whenever he wakes up.

Angus just rubs at his eyes and fights back a yawn. Fine. That works too.

 


 

He’s not sure just how or when he’d dozed off, but Angus McDonald wakes up the next morning in Taako’s room with a crick in his neck and the sun shining directly into his eyes.

The umbrella is still where it left itself last night, leaned against Taako’s bed, and Taako is still dead to the world under quite a few more layers of blankets than Angus thinks are probably necessary. The message on the wall is still there, no longer full of smouldering embers, and Angus finds that he’d fallen asleep sitting against the opposite wall with his notebook in his lap open to a blank page.

Freshly awake in the morning light, Angus is frustrated to find he still can’t focus right on the letters. He initially assumes his glasses had slipped off in the night, which leads to minute spent fruitlessly searching for them before he realizes they’d been on his face the entire time, and he’s back at square one.

His second though comes when he remembers other writing he couldn’t quite focus on. In his investigations of the Bureau, before he’d known anything about it or the Voidfish, he’d tried to read a missing person’s report. He couldn’t read it, but he could make out individual words and letters.

With that thought in mind, Angus lifts a hand to cover everything but the first letter. R. The message starts with the letter R.

He writes that down, and moves his hand to reveal the next letter, and the next. E, M, E, M, B, E, R.

He pauses before moving onto the next word, reading what he wrote. “Remember,” he murmurs out loud, chewing idly at the inside of his cheek. Remember? What does that mean? Did Taako forget something, or…?

A clatter draws Angus’s attention back up to the bed, where the umbrella has fallen to the floor. Taako is starting to stir, and momentarily forgetting what he’d been doing Angus hops to his feet and races over.

“Good morning, sir!” he says, leaning over Taako’s face with a wide grin. “Are you finally awake? I know who’s been writing on your walls now!”

Taako’s face screw up, a wordless grumble escaping him before his eyes open just a crack. “Ango? Wha…? Why’re you…?”

“You asked me to stake out your room, remember?” Angus frowns. “Because someone’s been burning weird messages in your walls?”

Taako blinks slowly, extracting a hand to rub at his eye’s and then he sits up to look at the wall. “...Oh, right, that. D’jou catch ‘em, little man?”

“...Kinda?” Angus shrugs.

“You either caught ‘em or ya didn’t, kiddo,” Taako says, pushing the blankets aside to fling his legs over the edge of the bed. “Did you see who’s been sneaking into my room or not?”

Angus makes an uncertain noise. “Well, they’ve not exactly had to sneak in…”

“Ango, the only person who’s been consistently in my room every time the messages have appeared has been me.” Taako levels a dry stare. “You’re not gonna say I’ve been sleep-creepin’, are you?”

“Sleep-creeping— I-I mean, no, sir, that’s not it.” Angus shakes his head quickly. “I’m, uh, saying it was your umbrella. The Umbra Staff. Whatever.”

Taako blinks. “It was my umbrella.”

“Yes, sir. I’m, uh, actually a little surprised you couldn’t put it together yourself?” Angus grins nervously. “I-I mean, I kinda suspected it a little, just when you told me the messages were burned in, because it burned those letters into the cafeteria wall...”

Taako just groans and flops back onto his back. “Yeah, that’s just great. Now my items are haunted and want to creep on me? Typical.”

Angus gives an awkward chuckle, then clears his throat. “So, um, I don’t suppose you can read what it says?”

“Hm?” Taako’s ears flicker slightly, and he tilts his head to look up at the wall. He squints, turns to look at it right-side-up, then shakes his head. “Nah, ‘s all smudgey. Same with the other ones, ‘cept for yesterday’s. That one just said ‘it's me’ over and over and over.”

“I see.” Angus frowns, then lifts up his notes to scribble that down in the margins.

In the corner of his vision, Angus sees Taako shifting and standing from the bed. “Well, guess I hafta burn another spell slot on this,” Taako grumbles, going to pick up the umbrella, before Angus stops him with a hand on his arm.

“Wait, sir,” Angus says, and Taako gives him a confused look. “Could you give me a few minutes to write this down? It could be very important evidence.”

“I thought you couldn’t read it either, kiddo?”

“Not in its entirety,” Angus admits, shrugging, “But it seems a lot like how the Voidfish hides written information. I can make out individual words and letters, but I can’t make the connection between them.”

Taako blinks slowly, staring at Angus in silence for a long moment before finally he shrugs and looks away. “Well, if it works for you. I’m gonna go shower, but if you ain't done when I’m back that writing is gonna be gone.”

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll be quick!” Angus says, quickly making sure he’s on the right page and crouching down to rest the notebook on his lap. He lifts a hand to cover the message again, totally focused as Taako steps outside. The first word is remember, right, then there’s a G…

 


 

All in all, here’s what Angus has gathered from the message: the first word is Remember, followed by two words that slip from his mind whenever he tries to do anything but spell them out, followed by a question mark. Then there’s most of a phrase, That motherfucker still owes me, followed by a number Angus can’t remember and a word he’s sure even if he could read it he wouldn’t recognize it. Then there’s a long string of curses further bemoaning the person in question and eventually ending in a wavering line mid-letter where— as far as Angus can tell— the Umbra Staff simply ran out of energy to keep casting Scorching Ray.

All in all, it’s not as much as Angus had been hoping for. It had probably been vain to hope for some kind of total explanation of why the Umbra Staff is doing this, but he still finds a way to be disappointed.

On the other hand, it does establish two things. Firstly, whatever— Or whoever, I suppose— is causing this is a person. Just going off what he can tell of this message, and the one Taako could read before, it must have been someone the wizard had known and somehow forgotten.

Secondly, it says he really shouldn’t let them form a grudge against him.

It’s with this thought in mind that Angus decides not to involve Taako in his investigations. Despite now being thoroughly aware of his umbrella’s pyromaniac tendencies, Taako still continues to carry it with him everywhere, (“It’s a good staff, Agnes,” he’d said as he cleaned up the message,) and Angus doesn’t want the umbrella to attack him if it decides he’s a threat.

So, with that in mind, Angus sets out to investigate.

His first stop is the Artificer’s Office, to see what Leon knows about the Umbra staff. It’s the obvious choice, that book has entries on every magical item Angus has seen yet, so it’s sure to have some kind of clue to this mystery.

Leon is willing to help, though he twitches silently at Taako’s name. “What do you want to know that for?” he asks, flipping diligently through the pages in between glances at Angus. “Couldn’t you just ask him yourself?”

“I could, sir, but he’d probably either brush me off or not remember all the details,” Angus replies, bouncing on his heels in an attempt to see over the edge of the desk. “I figured I should cut out the middleman and come straight to you.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” Leon pauses, flips back a few pages, then tilts the book up. “Ah, here we go. Umbra Staff. Should I read it for you, or do you want to?”

“I’d like to read it, please,” Angus says, and Leon dutifully turns it around. Powerful order of wizards… disguised as an ordinary item… consumes magic of defeated foes… dammit, this isn’t helpful.

Angus frowns. “Mr. Leon?”

Leon blinks. “Yes?”

“Do you know if there’s any known cases of Umbra Staves gaining will and a mind of their own?” Angus asks, looking up with wide, curious eyes.

“Well, Umbra Staves are incredibly rare, so I haven’t really had the chance to observe them,” Leon says, crossing his arms. “Why do you ask?”

“What about other magical items?” Angus presses. “Is there any way for an item that’s supposed to be inanimate to gain a will of its own and act outside the will of its owner?”

“Kid, you didn’t answer my question.”

“Just answer mine first, please.”

Leon gives Angus a long, dubious look, then sighs. “There are a few ways I can think of,” he says, glancing around. “It could be controlled by someone else remotely, it could have been created with an artificial mind built into it, it could have a spirit bound to it— any number of possibilities. Why do you ask?”

Angus frowns, internally weighing the pros and cons, and then he leans in conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anyone about this, but Taako’s Umbra Staff has been doing things on its own. It’s been writing weird encoded messages on his wall—” Probably better not to mention they’re behaving like the Voidfish ate them— “—and based on the messages I’ve managed to decode they seem to be written by someone he used to know.”

Leon frowns. “That sounds like a security risk. Have you told the Director?”

“I’m planning to, just as soon as I know what’s going on.” Angus leans back. “And I’m the world’s greatest detective, I know I can work this out on my own.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Leon says, giving Angus an uncertain look. “But if you haven’t worked this out by next week I’m telling her myself.”

“Please, sir, I’ll have it in half that.” Angus squares his shoulders. “Now, do you know of anything that matches the description I gave you?”

“I’m no detective, but from what you said I’d guess the Umbra Staff doesn’t have a mind of its own,” Leon muses. “More than likely it’s one of the other two options I mentioned, either someone controlling it remotely or some sort of undead spirit is bound to it. Does that help any?”

Angus hums. “I dunno, that hardly narrows it down, though...” He pauses, then looks up. “...Undead, you say?”

Leon blinks. “Yes?”

Angus doesn’t reply, too busy thinking it over. The undead are immune to the effects of the Voidfish, he thinks, chewing on his bottom lip in thought, and nearly everything Taako’s umbrella has written has been either impossible to read— as if the Voidfish ate it— or too vague to mean much… the Umbra Staff could be possessed by the spirit of someone Taako forgot— there could be a second Voidfish—

With those thoughts in mind, Angus leaps into action. “Sorry, sir, excuse me, I gotta go!” he says, sprinting to the door. “Thanks for the help! Don’t tell anyone!”

“Wait!” Leon calls after him, but Angus is already out in the hall and running for the library— though he slows a little after a moment, shifting gears to a brisk trot, not wanting to seem like he’s in too much of a rush.

Once in the library, Angus makes a beeline for the section on magical creatures and pulls out every book that looks like it’ll have anything to say on undead. Within minutes he’s commandeered a table and surrounded himself with a veritable mountain range of books, and he’s quick to bury his nose in the first one and start reading up on ghosts.

By the time he’s gotten halfway through the books, his eyelids are heavy and he’s read this paragraph on zombies three times and still can’t tell what it says. He’s just starting to nod off when a hand on his shoulder jolts him awake, and he looks up to see Taako looking at him.

“What are you doing out here so late, little man?” Taako asks.

Angus blinks slowly, then turns his head to squint vaguely at the clock. Sure enough, it’s nearly 11 PM, well after Angus is supposed to go to bed, and even Taako looks a little worn. “Oh,” Angus says, “I didn’t notice it was getting late. I was busy researching ghosts.”

Taako blinks. “Ghosts, you say? What for?”

“I figured—” Angus starts, then his eyes catch on the umbrella hanging from the crook of Taako’s elbow, and he pauses. “...I was just a little curious about how Noelle might have been brought back, and she couldn’t really give me any answers, so I went to the books.”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of going into necromancy,” Taako jokes, picking up one of the already-read books and opening it to a random page. “We had to cheat to get Death off our own heads, and I dunno if we could do that for you too.”

“Don’t worry, sir, I was just curious.” Angus starts gathering the books back up, which Taako watches with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s a lotta books for ‘just curious’.”

Angus freezes, then shrugs sharply and tries to keep moving. “I just like to read, that’s all.”

Taako hums, obviously unconvinced, but he lets it slide. After a moment, he lifts the Umbra Staff and swishes it through the air, directing the remaining books to file along to Angus so he can put them in their proper places. “Wow, Ango, you’re pretty good at this sorting thing,” Taako comments once they’re nearly done. “If that whole detective thing falls through, I bet you could nail a great job as a librarian.”

“I doubt that’ll happen, sir, but thanks.” Angus keeps the book he’d been reading, a large tome on all manner of undead creatures, hugging it close to his chest as he follows Taako outside.

Once in the open air, Taako pauses and looks at Angus. “So hey, kiddo, you wanna spend the night at my place? Me and the boys were gonna do some Fantasy Monopoly, try an’ see if this thing—” He waves the arm with the Umbra Staff hanging from it. “—Will lay off on me if I got other people around.”

“Okay, but— are you sure you should be starting board games?” Angus asks, falling into step a foot behind Taako. “I mean, no offense, sir, but it’s late, and you do look pretty tired.”

“Tired schmired, Taako’s fine,” Taako says, gesturing vaguely. “Let’s just hurry, before Magnus eats all the pieces.”

 


 

The game lasts nearly until one in the morning, ending not when it’s meant to end but when everyone dozes off on their own. Angus is the banker, and he’s fairly certain Magnus was sneaking extra money whenever he started to nod off, right before prodding him back awake. It also doesn’t help that Angus has his nose stuck in his book for most of the game, what little focus he can spare concentrated on reading the words on the page, which the Reclaimers are all too happy to take advantage of.

They’re asleep now, though, piled up on top of each other with discarded piles of Fantasy Monopoly money and knocked over hotels surrounding them, and Angus is struggling not to join them in favour of getting just a little further through the book. Liches are one of (if not the) most powerful kinds of undead. They typically survive off of their own strong emotions, though in case of emergencies a Lich can bind their soul to an object, turning said object into a phylactery. The Lich can then retreat into the phylactery, existing in a dormant state in which very little magical energy is required to sustain…

Angus blinks, and realizes it’s dark in the room now. There’s a trail of dried drool going down his chin, which he wipes off, and as he squints around through the darkness he realizes everyone is still in the same positions they’d been in before— But who turned the light off, then?

As if in answer, something shifts in the corner of his vision, drawing his gaze just in time to catch the Umbra Staff slumping to the floor. Angus stares for a moment, eyes wide, and then he frowns.

“Why do you keep doing these things?” Angus asks. “What do you know that we don’t?”

The Umbra Staff doesn’t answer.

Angus sighs, shoulders slumping, and he searches through his pockets to pull out his wand. It takes him a few tries to get the cantrip right— his tongue trips over the end, or he draws the vowels out a little too long— but finally a warm light flickers into being around the end of his wand.

He winces in the sudden light, instinctively shielding his eyes and nearly dropping the wand. Taako stirs a little and groans, and in a panic Angus stuffs the wand up his own shirt to dim the light. After a moment, Taako settles back down, and with a relieved sigh Angus takes the wand back out.

“Come on, sir, let’s get you to bed,” he mutters, slinging one of Taako’s arms over his shoulder and lifting. He staggers a little under the weight, but steadily manages to drag Taako across the room and deposit him in bed. He pulls the blanket up to Taako’s chin, positions a pillow neatly under his head, and steps back to admire his work.

Then he turns to consider the other two people still asleep on the floor. There’s not nearly enough room on the bed, he muses, and I’m not strong enough to drag them all the way to their rooms. I could wake them up, or…

Angus turns and trots out of the room, returning a minute later with a collection of pillows and blankets. He pulls a blanket over Magnus and Merle each, tucks pillows under their heads, and finally drops himself to sit at the base of Taako’s bed.

Lit-up wand in hand, he finds his place in the book again and resumes reading. The Lich can then retreat into the phylactery, existing in a dormant state in which very little magical energy is required to sustain their unlife.

Angus blinks slowly, fighting to keep his eyes focused. Theoretically, any object could be turned into a phylactery, including powerful magical artifacts. Identifying a dormant Lich within their phylactery can be difficult, in part due to the hidden nature of this magic and in part due to the fact that the Lich retains some measure of awareness of their surroundings— along with, in the case of phylacteries made from magical items, the ability to dispose of anyone who discovers their nature.

The Light spell starts to flicker out around Angus’s wand. Some magical artifacts previously believed to have been made with Divination magic in them, such as magic mirrors, have instead turned out to be phylacteries containing dormant Liches. Such disguises are easily revealed with merely the spell ‘Detect Magic,’ as Necromancy is clearly different from Divination magic, but even without that a clear indicator is the level of independence exhibited by the item; a true artificial intelligence is nearly impossible to create, a spirit bound against their will wouldn’t be given much freedom, but a Lich can act as it wishes with or without the consent of its ‘owner.’

His wand goes out, the book slips from his hands, and Angus is asleep in moments with his head resting on the wall behind him. A moment passes, then another, and then the Umbra Staff moves, and one of the blankets Angus brought in starts to float through the air. It hovers across the room, faltering ever-so-slightly in its path before finally dropping from the air to drape over Angus’s lap.

The Umbra Staff moves, opening and closing to scoot across the room into a familiar position, angled up at the wall to write, and it pauses. Then, slowly, it burns two words into the wall, and finally goes dormant once more.

SLEEP WELL

Chapter Text

Are there any good liches? Angus McDonald asks himself as he blearily trudges across the moon base to return to his room. He has the book on undead tucked into his side and his wand held loosely in his other hand, and he’s nearly walked right into half of the people he’s come across on his path.

His newfound clumsiness is only in part due to how lost he is in trying to puzzle out this question. He is genuinely still groggy after having just been woken up and told to get a fresh change of clothes, and while that alone wouldn’t normally be cause for him to miss seeing the people around him, the added distraction of a burning question is more than enough.

On one hand, everything the book has to say on Liches warns that they are powerful, unpredictable, and above all dangerous to be around. On the other…

Well. All the evidence points towards Taako’s umbrella being a phylactery; the ability to act on its own, the clear exhibition of a sentient mind able to hold a grudge over something someone owes them, the fact that they know something seemingly wiped from living memory by the— a— Voidfish. It all lines up, except for the part where it’s not aggressive.

The closest the Umbra Staff has come to attacking anyone on its own is when it destroyed Angus' macarons. Apart from that, it’s burned cryptic messages into the walls, scooted across the floor to rest next to Taako, and— unless he’s mistaken— gave Angus a blanket when he fell asleep without one.

So therein lies the conundrum.

Lost as he is in his musing, he finally fails to look up in time and walks into someone’s chest. He jumps back with a yelp, eyes tracking up to find the bemused face of Killian looking down at him. “S-sorry, ma’am! I didn’t mean to bump into you!”

“Don’t worry about it,” Killian says, tucking some sort of wooden box under her arm and kneeling to match his eye level. “I wasn’t paying much attention either, so, uh. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Were you distracted by that puzzle box?” Angus asks.

Killian blinks. “Um, yeah,” she says, holding the box up. “How’d you know it was a puzzle?”

“I kinda guessed, actually,” Angus admits, shifting on his feet. “I just figured, why else would someone make a box shaped like a duck, and the way the feathers are patterned makes it look like you can move some of them, so...”

“Wait, really?” Killian holds the box up and tugs at a few of the feathers, letting out a triumphant noise when one of them pulls an inch out with a click. “Wow, you’re right, I didn’t even notice that part, and I’ve been messing with this since Carey gave it to me. I guess you really are a great detective, huh?”

“The world’s greatest,” Angus says, blushing.

“Mm hm,” Killian hums, ruffling Angus' hat. “But hey, now that I’ve shared, what’s got you all contemplative? It doesn’t seem like you to go walking into people over regular old run-of-the-mill mysteries.”

Angus takes a step back out of ruffling range and adjusts his hat back to its normal state. “It’s not— it’s not really a mystery, exactly, I mean I’ve already solved the— I mean I think I’ve solved it, pretty sure. I’ve just got a different question— I-I mean, I guess it’s related, but—”

“You’re waffling, kiddo,” Killian butts in, and Angus claps his hands over his mouth. “What’s the question? I bet I could help you answer it.”

Angus frowns, lowering his hands and staring at the ground in thought. A moment passes, and Killian says “It’s fine if you don’t—”

“Do you think a lich can be good?” Angus blurts out, and Killian pauses.

Then, she raises an eyebrow. “Where’s this coming from?”

“It’s— it’s nothing, really, I was just...” Angus shrugs. “It’s just a— I’m being philosophical?”

Killian eyes him skeptically, and Angus grins sheepishly. She doesn’t look convinced, but after a moment shrugs anyway. “Well, I don’t really know that much about liches,” Killian admits. “They’re, what, some kinda undead? Skeleton?”

“Oh, um!” Angus hurriedly takes out his book, fluttering through pages until he reaches the entry on liches, and he adjusts his glasses. “Um, liches are— they’re basically really powerful magic users who wanted to cheat death, so they used necromantic power to bind their souls to this plane. They’re powered by emotions— it doesn’t, um, doesn’t say what that means, but supposedly they’re really unstable. And dangerous.”

Killian raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like you’ve already got your answer right there,” she says.

Angus frowns, snapping the book shut again. “That’s the thing, though,” he says, tucking it under his arm again. “It’s a good— the book’s a good reference for, um, what a lich is, or any other undead at that. But it’s pretty clearly biased towards all undead being either totally lacking in any sort of higher intelligence, or— or evil.” He scuffs the toe of his shoe on the floor. “And that just doesn’t sound right.”

Killian frowns. “Well, like I said— not really something I know a lot about.” She thinks for a moment, then clicks her fingers. “Maybe Noelle could help? I mean, she’s basically a ghost? In a robot? So she’s some sort of undead, maybe she’d know more about that than me.”

“Mm. I’ll keep that in mind,” Angus says, giving a small nod, before stepping away. “Well, it was nice to talk to you, ma’am, but I should get going back to my room. I still haven’t showered.”

Killian laughs good-naturedly, waving him off. “No, don’t let me keep you. Hope you can figure out your little question!”

“Likewise! With your puzzle box!” Angus says, waving back before taking off down the hall.

 


 

“Do you think a lich can be good?” Angus asks Noelle later that morning, as she waits for Avi to be done touching up some of her body’s plating.

If Noelle had any eyes, he’s sure she’d be blinking quizzically right now. As it is, she settles for letting her conduit light flicker. “Pardon?”

“A lich,” Angus repeats, the book already open on his lap. “They’re a kind of undead, they’re what happens when a powerful undead decides they don’t want to die and uses necromantic magic to bind themselves to the mortal realm, powering themselves with their own emotions—”

“No, I know— I already know what a lich is,” Noelle cuts in, crossing an arm across the loose wires exposed on her front. “I just— why’re you askin’ me?”

“Oh, that’s, um.” Angus ducks his head and lifts the book up in a futile attempt to hide the embarrassed blush rising in his cheeks. “Well I um, I talked to Killian about it first, because she was the first person I bumped into who— anyway, Killian said she doesn’t really know enough about liches to really be able to answer that, and she said— she said you might be a better person to go to on this, because, because you’re also kinda undead.”

Noelle gives a low mechanical hum, almost mistakable for the servos in her body whirring. “Well, I— I’m not really one for that kinda philosophical stuff,” she says. “Never have been, really, but— I’d be inclined to say sure, it doesn’t so much matter what y’ are so much as who...”

Angus swallows a lump in his throat. “I’m sensing a ‘but’ here.”

Noelle shrugs, the light in her conduit flickering. “Well, you already gotta be a certain kinda person to want to become a lich, right? You wanna not die, and you’re willing to— you’re willing to even risk your sanity to do it. And even if the lich was a good person in life, there’s such a slim chance they’d be able to retain control over themselves.”

“...I see,” Angus says, staring down at the cover of the book. “...Let’s say, hypothetically, there was something that definitely seemed like a lich, but it wasn’t being destructive or anything. Just trying to, I don’t know, give a message. What would you do?”

For a moment, the only sound Noelle makes is the sound of her cooling fans running, and Angus glances over at her. Then, finally, she hums. “I’m not sure,” she admits. “If I were in that situation— if I were completely sure it was a lich, even if it wasn’t doing anything bad… I think I’d still want to leave it alone. Even if it’s not being evil right now, it could change its mind at any moment.”

Angus nods. “Right, I see.”

Noelle looks at him. “Hey, this is all hypothetical, right? ‘Cause if you were— if there were actually a lich on the moon base— that’d be a bit of a security risk, right? You—”

“No, no, def— definitely not!” Angus stutters out. “I’m not— I wouldn’t hide that kinda thing from anyone! That’d be— that’d definitely be bad, and not someone a good detective should do! And I am the greatest detective, so!”

“Haha, yeah, that is— that is a good point,” Noelle says. “Well, just so long as it stays hypothetical.”

“Yes, I— I definitely wouldn’t be lying about there being a lich on the moon base, or my name isn’t Agnes McDonald!” Angus insists.

Noelle’s conduit flickers. “...Don’t you mean—”

“Bye!” Angus says, dropping off his seat and scampering off. “It was nice talking to you!”

Noelle stares after him, totally silent as Avi walks over with her now-repaired plating in his arms. “Something wrong?” he asks.

“Uh…” Noelle shrugs. “...I… hope not?”

 


 

“Hey, Johann, can I ask you something?”

“Hmm?” Johann hums, looking up from the harp he’s idly plucking at. “Uh, sure, kid, what is it?”

“Well, it’s a little weird, I think,” Angus says, running his fingers along a crack in the floor where he sits. “Do you think… hm. Actually, do you know what a lich is?”

Johann blinks. “...Uh, yeah?” he says, scratching idly at his chin. “They’re like, powerful magic users who turn into equally powerful and insane undead spirits…? Why do you ask?”

Angus ducks his head. “I’m just checking, because if you didn’t I don’t think— my question wouldn’t really make sense.”

“I thought that was your question.”

“No, it— I have another question,” Angus says. “It’s, uh— do you think a lich can be good?”

Johann blinks slowly, contemplatively, and then he turns back to his harp. “Well, that is a pretty weird question,” he muses, plucking a few chords and wincing when one of them falls a little too flat. “Didn’t think you were the philosophical type.”

“Well, that’s… okay, not really quite the reason I was asking,” Angus says, leaning back against the glass of the Voidfish’s tank, before quickly sitting back up. “But, um, it’s still purely hypothetical! There’s definitely not a lich secretly here on the moon base, and if there was I’d most certainly go straight to— I’d tell the Director right away. Cross my heart.”

Johann eyes him suspiciously, and Angus feels a bead of sweat trail down the back of his neck. After a moment, though, Johann shrugs and looks back down. “If you say so, little guy. What was the question again?”

“Do you think it’s possible for a lich to be good?” Angus asks. “That is, I mean, like, um, a good person. Who isn’t mean, and dangerous. And insane.”

“...Is anyone?” Johann asks back. “Good and evil, that’s all kinda subjective, don’t you think.”

“That’s not really… the answer I was looking for...” Angus says, balking a little.

Regardless, Johann keeps going. “I mean, take what I’m doing here. I’m the— you call yourself the world’s greatest detective, right?”

Angus nods. “Yes, because that’s what I am. It’s not just bragging.”

Johann nods back. “Right, and you— you definitely are amazing, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone better at figuring stuff out, even people three times your age.” He plucks at a string, frowns, and goes to tighten it. “And me, I’m the world’s greatest violinist.”

“And you’re not bragging either,” Angus says.

“No. You’ve heard my music, I could be the most famous composer down there, I could be rich, revered for all eternity.” Johann twists the string too far, and with a sharp ping it snaps in half. He grimaces. “But here I am, feeding all my compositions to the Voidfish, and no one will ever know my name.”

Angus frowns. “Sir, what does this have to do with my question?”

“Do you think the Director is a bad person?” Johann asks, considering the damaged instrument for a moment before setting it aside.

“What?” Angus sits up. “No, she— she’s not, she made this whole organization to stop bad people, why would she be bad herself?”

Johann shrugs. “I dunno, she’s got me here feeding my life’s work to a weird jellyfish instead of following my passion,” he says. “And all the bureau employees who’ve died— if all their family and loved ones remembered them all of a sudden, and knew the Director was responsible for them forgetting, wouldn’t they be mad? Wouldn’t they say she’s bad?”

Angus narrows his eyes in a frown. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying good and bad are subjective,” Johann says. “Maybe from where we’re standing, what we’re doing looks good, but how can we be sure if we don’t look at it from another perspective?”

Angus hums. “I guess I get what you’re saying, but…” He steeples his fingers, trying to figure out exactly what to say. “That’s… really, not what I was asking. I was— I really meant it in a more literal sense.”

Johann blinks. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yes, um.” Angus hums. “Like, literally. Do you think it’s possible for a lich to be a perfectly reasonable, not-insane person, who could be considered good and on our side.”

“Oh, well, I dunno,” Johann says, shrugging. “Probably not, but I’ve never met one myself, so I can’t really say.”

“Right, of course,” Angus says, leaning back. Light sparks in the corner of his vision, bringing his attention to the Voidfish as it floats peacefully behind him.

Johann notices his distraction, and raises an eyebrow. “What, do you think the Voidfish is gonna answer your question?”

Angus blinks, glances back at Johann, then looks back at the Voidfish with a thoughtful frown. Johann groans. “Oh man, you’re actually considering it.”

“I wouldn’t be much of a detective if I didn’t consider every possibility,” Angus says, standing up and turning around to rest a hand on the glass. The Voidfish remains tranquil, barely fluttering a tendril in response. Angus takes a deep breath, and asks, “What about you, then? Do you think a lich can be good?”

Unheeding of the flow of time and space, the Voidfish continues to billow elegantly, stars and galaxies flickering in its body. It does nothing to acknowledge Angus' question.

Angus waits a moment, then another, before sighing and stepping away. Johann rests a hand on his shoulder. “I dunno what you were expecting, kid,” he says, “but I don’t think you’re gonna get it here. I’ve never known the Voidfish to speak in any way.”

“Yeah,” Angus says, holding his book close to his chest. “I guess I’m just getting a little desperate.”

Johann frowns. “Well, whatever you need to know that for, I’m sure you’ll work it out. You’re a little genius, you know?”

Angus nods, then turns to walk out of the room again. “See you later, sir.”

 


 

By the evening, Angus feels like he’s talked to half the people in the bureau (though it’s closer to half a dozen) and is no closer to a decision. In all honesty, he’s not sure why he’s asking, or what answer he wants to hear. Hell, what if he’s wrong, and it’s not even a lich? He could be panicking over nothing (and he is panicking, somewhere underneath the cover of the genius detective, he’s panicking) and the description of what a phylactery is— is just coincidentally exactly like what Taako has, and—

Angus takes a deep breath, holding the book up over his face while he tries to school himself into something a little more presentable, calm, and not freaking out over nonexistent undead hordes. No, wait, exaggerating too much, there’s only one.

He resumes walking. Which is, admittedly, still way too many for comfort! The optimal number of liches anywhere near me at any time is zero, and this is. Infinity times more than that. Is that how math works?

His feet bring him along a familiar winding path through the base, like a patrol route used for idle pacing. He passes the regulator training dojo, and through the door catches a glimpse of Carey and Killian sparring— he pauses there, for a moment, then hurries along when Killian glances his way— before making his way around the cafeteria and looping around to wander past the Director’s quarters on his way back to his room.

A moment later, Angus finds himself on the floor with a bloody nose, the Director apologizing profusely as the door that just hit him swings shut once more. She kneels down hurriedly, asking if he’s alright, (he tries to say he is but winces at the throbbing pain that sends through his nose, which answers her question well enough,) and then with a murmured word and a tap on the nose he feels the cartilage snap back into place.

“Is that better?” she asks, leaning back.

Hesitantly, Angus prods at his nose. Finding no pain, he wipes away the blood and gives a small nod.

The Director breaths a sigh of relief, starting to get back up. “What were you doing out here, Angus? Is there something you needed?”

“Oh, um, no ma’am, I was just passing by,” Angus says, squinting and rubbing at his nose as he realizes his glasses are missing. “Why— uhm, why were you slamming the door open?” Angus asks back. “If it’s okay— you don’t mind me asking?”

“No, it’s alright,” the Director says, stooping and handing over the glasses. “I was merely… a little frustrated, trying to figure out a… mystery, of sorts.”

Angus frowns up at the Director, glancing down to straighten out the bridge of his glasses before putting them on and blinking up at her. “A mystery? What kind of mystery?” he asks. “I’m pretty good at mysteries, it’s only my job, maybe I could—”

“No, no, I appreciate the offer,” the Director cuts in, giving Angus a hand up and dusting off her skirt. “Frustrated as I was, I would still rather not involve more people than strictly necessary.”

“But—”

“No, Angus, please.” The Director tightens her grip around her staff, gaze turning steely. “If I truly need your help, I will ask for it. You don’t need to know about this.”

Angus narrows his eyes at her, trying to match the intensity of her gaze, before the sound of the door creaking back open distracts them. Turning their heads at the same time, they find Davenport peeking out and giving the Director an uncertain look.

Seeing this, the Director sighs and deflates. “You can come out, Davenport,” she says, motioning him over with a hand. “I apologize for snapping at you.”

Davenport nods silently, shuffling out to stand next to the Director. “Davenport?” he asks, tilting his head quizzically at Angus.

Angus blinks, reaching up to feel if there’s something on his face and finding a trickle of blood still remaining under his nose. “Oh, the Director hit me in the face by accident,” he explains. “Don’t worry though, she patched me up after!”

Davenport makes a small noise in the back of his throat, a look of understanding falling over his face. “Davenport,” he says in a commiserating tone, patting Angus on the shoulder.

The Director clears her throat. “That aside,” she says, tapping a finger on her staff, “I believe we should be moving on? If it’s no trouble.”

“O-Oh, no ma’am, I’m sorry for getting in the way,” Angus says, stepping aside. He goes to cross his arms over his chest, then pauses and yelps, “Wait, I dropped my book!”

“Your book?” the Director asks, automatically starting to glance around the floor.

“Yes, it had a black cover with a white design on it—” Angus starts, urgently, before stopping and glancing over when he feels a prod on his shoulder.

“Davenport?” Davenport asks, holding up the book in an is-this-it kind of way. Relieved, Angus takes it back with a nod, and the Director leans over to read the title.

“The Adventurer’s Guide to the Undead and Necromancy, Unabridged Edition...” she reads, looking up at Angus' face when he automatically goes to hide the cover. “What are you looking into undead for?”

“O-Oh, well—well, you know,” Angus stutters out, looking everywhere but the Director’s face. “Just, um— curious? I was— I got kinda curious about like, um, after everything that happened with the Miller Lab I thought I might find out more about ghosts? So maybe if something like that happens again, we could— we could figure it out a little faster.”

The Director frowns, examining Angus' face like she’s trying to dig up any trace of dishonesty in his expression. He grins nervously, feeling sheets of sweat pour down the back of his neck, and he’s sure he’s about to be called out.

And then, the Director nods. “Learning not to repeat past experiences, that’s better than most other Seekers I’ve seen,” she comments, straightening back up. “Do you have any particular thoughts you’d like to share on your research, compared to what you’ve actually witnessed?”

Angus blinks quizzically up at her for a moment, and then his mind catches up with the meaning of her words and he fumbles with the book. “O-Oh! Well, obviously I didn’t— this isn’t the only book I’ve gone through on the subject, and I haven’t finished this one but— I guess it’s kinda the most comprehensive so far,” he says, opening it up to a random page before glancing up at the Director. “But, um, if you want my opinion on this book in particular— I think the author is a bit, um, biased? In their opinion of undead with free will.”

The Director tilts her head. “How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like,” Angus mutters, flipping nervously through the book in search of a relevant passage before just snapping it shut again. “It’s just, they seem to be of the opinion that undead are either mindless creatures like zombies or skeletons, spirits bound against their will to objects like crystal balls, or— or otherwise, unerringly malevolent? But that’s— that’s obviously not the case. Just— just look at Noelle.”

The Director nods, slowly. “I see what you mean,” she says, shifting her grip on her staff. “Granted, the technology used to allow Noelle to exist in the mortal realm is very recent, all things considered— but yes, that definitely sounds biased.”

Angus nods back, shifting with the book. “Yeah, it’s— it’s definitely a useful resource for how to deal with undead that are definitely a threat? And— and the writer definitely sounds like a seasoned adventurer, I don’t doubt they’ve a lot of experience with undead, but also they don’t seem to consider the possibility that, say, a lich— they never stop to address the question, ‘can a lich be good?’”

“Well, that sort of philosophical talk isn’t the sort of thing I expected out of you,” the Director comments, tilting her head a little with a raised eyebrow. “You normally seem much more direct than that—”

“I’m not,” Angus cuts in, “Being philosophical. I’m being very literal here— can a lich be good? The writer of the book says that a lich is evil, a force for chaos, so dangerous only a team of very high level adventurers could take one down— but what if they’re not? People aren’t always evil, are they? And even if liches are normally insane and not in control of themselves— what if one isn’t? And isn’t evil? No one has been able to answer this for me!”

Angus pants, blinking as he realizes how heated he’s gotten, and then he takes a deep breath and collects himself. “Sorry, ma’am, it’s just something that’s been bothering me all day.”

“No, it’s alright,” the Director says, shaking her head. “I can’t exactly fault you for getting a little too frustrated, considering.”

“Y-yeah,” Angus says, rubbing at his nose and glancing at the door— is he imagining it, or did his nose leave behind a bit of blood where it hit? “By the way, ma’am, what do you think? About— about whether or not a lich can be good, I mean.”

“What do I think?” the Director repeats. Angus nods, and she hums thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve certainly never heard any stories of good liches helping to save entire villages from destruction— and believe me, there are many more stories only I know than stories I don’t. Liches are well known for being destructive forces of nature unto themselves...”

Angus slumps slightly. “I see.”

“...but,” the Director continues, “that’s not to say it’s completely out of the question.”

Angus blinks. “But, wait, weren’t you just saying—”

“Just because I haven’t heard of any specific cases, doesn’t mean it’s never happened,” the Director says. “Like I said, liches are well known to be evil. Perhaps there’s a good lich out there who knows this, and prefers to act from the shadows, assisting adventurers in taking down their more malevolent kin. Perhaps there are liches who simply want to be left alone, or who quietly hide amongst society pretending to be normal— insane, all-hating liches are simply the ones everyone hears about.”

Slowly, Angus nods. “I… hadn’t thought about it that way,” he says, adjusting his grip on the book. “But then, just becoming a lich requires you to have already been an accomplished necromancer—”

“Good people can do the wrong thing, thinking it’s right,” the Director says, leaning heavily on her staff. “People can be pressured into doing the wrong thing, or do it of their own free will and later come to regret it. No one action can fully define a person, Angus. Do you understand that?”

Angus nods again. “Yes, ma’am, I understand,” he says, letting his arms drop to dangle at either side. “Hey, when I asked Killian, Noelle, and Johann this— they seemed concerned I wasn’t behind hypothetical, and that I’d actually found a lich on the moon base. Why aren’t you more worried about that?”

The Director gives him a small, amused smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t be at all worried about that,” she says, tapping her staff on the ground a little. “We’ve got the most powerful wards against that here— I can assure you, there are no liches on this moon.”

Angus tilts his head. “What about the other moon?”

The Director laughs. “Now that, I cannot assure you of. I’d advise you stay well away from it, just in case.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Angus says, nodding with the utmost seriousness. He takes a step back, lifting his arm to hug the book to his chest, and waves goodbye. “Well, I’d better go return this to the library.”

“Alright, see you,” the Director says, giving a small wave back.

“Yeah! G’bye!” Angus turns and takes off at a trot, quickly vanishing around a corner, and once he’s gone, the Director sighs and sags on her staff.

“He is far too sharp,” she murmurs, rubbing at her temples in an attempt to stave off the headache that’s been burgeoning all the while. “Bad enough I have to figure out how Lup’s name is on the cafeteria wall, if Angus makes that connection…”

“Davenport?” Davenport asks, looking puzzled. The Director flinches slightly, looking down at him like she forgot he was there.

“Ah, my apologies,” she says, collecting herself and turning to leave as well. “You may return to your quarters, if you wish.”

Davenport nods, scurrying away, and the Director sighs. What can I do about this...?

 


 

It’s on his way out of the library after returning the book on undead that Angus catches a glimpse of Taako crossing the courtyard. Angus is quick to chase after him, calling out and skidding to a stop several feet away.

“Something wrong, kiddo?” Taako asks as he turns to face Angus, the Umbra Staff swinging lazily from his arm. “You seem like you’re in a bit of a rush.”

“I’m not— nothing’s— I just needed to talk to you, and not let you get away—” Angus cuts himself off, taking a deep breath and adjusting his glasses. “Let me start again— sir, would you mind if I— could I stake out your room again tonight? I have a theory regarding— um—” He motions at the umbrella, and Taako nods. “—Um, and I think if I’m right, I should be able to— to help.”

Taako blinks. “And if you’re wrong?”

“Eheh, um.” Angus rubs nervously at the back of his neck. “Well, if I’m wrong, it could… spellthedestructionofeveryoneonthemoonbase.” He coughs. “B-But! I don’t think I’m wrong, I am the greatest detective ever, after all, I don’t— I don’t get things wrong very often.”

Taako raises an eyebrow. “Did’ja get a promotion or something? Last I checked you were just the world’s greatest detective, present tense only.”

“That’s— okay, I have a lot of different ways to refer to that, okay? It’s not exactly an official title I was given or anything, okay? I just— that’s not the point anyway!” Angus insists. “What I’m saying is— do you want your umbrella to keep haunting you or not? Because I’m saying I’m pretty sure I can do something about that!”

“Alright, alright, just keep your voice down. Don’t exactly wanna broadcast this all over the moon base, m’kay?” Taako raps his knuckles gently on the top of Angus' hat. “And speaking of which, you sure you wanna talk about how you’re secretly planning to take down whatever evil’s possessed my staff, like, right in front of it?” He waves the Umbra Staff a little for emphasis.

“I didn’t say anything about getting rid of it,” Angus mutters, ducking his head. “I just said I’d make it stop burning messages into your wall. Hopefully.”

“Tomato, tomato,” Taako says, turning around and continuing along the path. “Come on, then, you can even camp out my desk or whatever. Never really use it anyway. You got a book to entertain yourself or whatever?”

“Y-yeah!” Angus says, hurrying to catch up. “I was gonna go over my case notes, make sure I’ve got all the right ideas and I wasn’t missing anything— I-I mean, this conclusion I’ve come to, it’s pretty out there? And I can’t afford to be wrong—”

“You gonna tell me what this conclusion is at any point?” Taako asks.

“Only once I’m sure I’m right! If I tell you now, and I’m wrong, I’ll probably just end up spreading needless panic because honestly this could be very dangerous!”

Taako raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like that’s just more reason for you to let a responsible adult know.”

Angus gives him an innocent look. “And what does that have to do with telling you?”

Taako snorts. “Touche, little man, touche.”

 


 

Somewhere else, three letters are written on a scrap of paper and dropped into a tank. Light flickers for a moment, then goes dim again.

It’s far too late now, though. The impact has already been made.

 


 

It’s a pattern Angus has noticed. The Umbra Staff— or the lich possessing it, he supposes— prefers not to act in front of conscious witnesses. There was the first time, sure, but then it had only written a short message (what was it again?) and destroyed a few macarons. Longer messages have more opportunity to be interrupted. Angus had only had the opportunity to witness the one message because he’d been outside the room, and even then he’d been barely awake by the time it became active— they must have waited until they thought he’d have dozed off.

So, then, how would Angus stake out the Umbra Staff while remaining in the same room as it? The answer is simple. He just has to pretend to doze off.

Making it look realistic enough to fool a god-knows-how-old all-powerful undead abomination seems like a daunting task, but then it occurs to Angus that maybe, just maybe, they’re just another person. A person who would be completely unsurprised by a ten-year-old claiming to not be tired at all before passing out within thirty minutes.

It’s with that thought in mind that Angus curls up in Taako’s armchair, his only light a flickering candle as Taako passes out the second his head hits the pillow. For a while, the only sounds are Taako snoring gently and the quiet scritch-scratch of Angus recording his thoughts.

And then, with practiced timing, Angus blinks slowly, rubbing clumsily at his eyes, and continues writing. Another minute, he fails to suppress a yawn, shifts into a more comfortable position. Five minutes, he lets his eyes fall shut and his cheek land on his shoulder. He waits.

Three and a half minutes, told through his eyelashes as he watches his wristwatch, and then a gust of wind snuffs out his candle. There are no open windows in Taako’s room, and even if there were, the moon has no wind to be let in. Bingo.

Angus shifts again, ever so slightly, to better try and get a glimpse at the Umbra Staff at work. Taako left it hanging from the coat rack, where he says he always leaves it. Sure enough, a few seconds later there’s a quiet thump from that direction, a series of shuffling noises, and as Angus' eyes adjust to the dark he sees a distinctly umbrella-shaped shape settle next to Taako’s bed.

He’s abandoned the ruse by now, sitting up silently and turning to the next blank page in his notebook as quietly as he can manage— he has a script in mind, to attempt to make this go as smoothly as possible, assuming he’s at all correct. He should be.

Embers start to collect at the Umbra Staff’s tip, just as Angus drops silently to the floor, and Angus picks this moment to clear his throat. “Excuse— um, excuse me?”

If the Umbra Staff had any sort of voice, Angus is pretty sure it would have let out a startled yelp. As it is, the three bolts of fire careening wildly into the wall are more than enough to get the impression across. Angus winces. “I’m sorry for startling you, I just— I just wanted to talk? You um, you seem like you have some kind of message, you urgently need to get across? And I think I can help you.”

The Umbra Staff doesn’t speak, or move, but that also means it doesn’t go inert— it remains half-open, propped up on the floor in the exact same position, like every muscle is tensed and unsure what to do. Angus was expecting that.

Carefully, he kneels down a few feet away, laying his notebook down in front of him. “I’ve— I’ve noticed, you’re not actually confined to just using Scorching Ray, are you?” Angus says, continuing without the expectation of a response. “You’ve definitely used other spells, like— like whatever you used to snuff that candle. Um. Gust of Wind, if I’m right? So, I was just wondering, if you can cast one spell in particular?”

He nudges the notebook forward, laying his pen down across it. “That is, Mage Hand?”

The Umbra Staff shifts, rolling a little more towards Angus, before closing fully again. For a moment, Angus feels his heart sink— was this not the right thing to do? he asks himself.

And then, slowly, almost hesitantly, a wisp of energy forms from the tip of the Umbra Staff, growing and coagulating into a spectral hand. The hand floats over, takes the pen a little awkwardly— like it’s not used to holding a pen like this— and then shakily, it writes.

Angus holds his breath all the while, eyes focused more on the hand than the words it writes, until finally it retreats a little with the pen still in hand. Angus takes the notebook back, turning it around to read what grand message this mystery has elected to send him, and what he gets is a small incredulous laugh bubbling up through his throat. You sure fit in here, huh? he thinks.

Hail and well met, my dude.

Chapter Text

“What are you?”

It’s a simple question to start out with, Angus thinks, but it takes the Umbra Staff a long time to reply. When it finally does, mage hand lowering to write shaky letters in Angus’s notebook, he’s almost disappointed at the simplicity of its answer.

A lich, is all it says.

“Right, well I— I kinda figured that much out already, but it’s good to have confirmation,” Angus says, turning the notebook around so the hand can write its reply. “What do you want with Taako?”

Again, it takes a long time to decide on what to say. I want him to remember me.

“What do you mean?”

He forgot about me. I want him to remember.

Angus frowns. “How did he forget you? Who are you?”

I’m not exactly sure how. I’m ###, his #### ######.

Angus blinks, rubbing at his eyes and squinting in an attempt to focus on the words. “I’m sorry, I can’t— I can’t read that last bit. What’s your name?”

The hand moves a little faster this time, the writing coming out rushed and difficult to read. ###. My name is ###.

“I’m sorry,” Angus repeats, shaking his head. The hand sags a little in the air, and Angus quickly pipes up again. “Um, maybe I could think up something else to call you? Like… um, actually, what pronouns…? Like, should I call you miss, mister…?”

The hand moves even faster this time, practically stabbing the notebook as it goes. MISS PLEASE, it writes.

“Right, I— sorry,” Angus says, raising his hands defensively. The hand settles back a little, and Angus thinks. Miss… something? Miss… miss…

“How about Miss Umbrella?” Angus suggests.

The hand pauses, then writes. That’s the worst goddamn nickname I’ve ever been given, I love it.

Angus laughs nervously. “I’m— glad to hear it? Um, what can you tell me about yourself?”

I don’t know.

Angus frowns. “...What were you before you died?”

A lot of things. An elf, a wizard and a chef, someone’s sister, occasionally described as a pyromaniac? Be more specific.

“Did you work for anyone?”

I worked for the ######### ## ###### ######## ### ###########.

Angus rubs at the bridge of his nose. “Okay, bad question. How did you die?”

Be more specific.

“...Ma’am, are you deliberately being difficult?” Angus asks, giving the umbrella a frustrated look.

Sorry, she writes. I’ve died lots of times. The last time, I died hiding my relic.

Angus blinks. “...Relic? Like, the Grand Relics?”

She hesitates, for a long time. Then, again, she writes. I created the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet.

“So you were a Red Robe?”

I prefer the old name. Red Robes is so vague.

“You— you’re a Red Robe,” Angus says, leaning back, taking a deep breath to keep himself calm. “I just thought you were a lich— okay, admittedly that’s already pretty bad but— you’re a Red Robe— you’re—”

Gently, the mage hand flicks Angus in the face. He flinches back, focusing on the hand as it points firmly down at the notebook. We weren’t as bad as Lucy’s made us out to be.

Angus takes another breath, leaning forward again. “Lucy?”

The Director?

“Oh, that— is that her name?” Angus asks, shuffling an inch away.

The hand hesitates, before writing rapidly. Yes, definitely and completely that is her name.

Angus narrows his eyes. “I’m sensing some dishonesty here.”

For the first time since casting Mage Hand, the umbrella shifts a little, almost sheepishly. Noooooooooo?

“Did you— did you seriously write all that out?” Angus asks. “Like, I’d understand if you were actually talking out loud, and lying very poorly, but— you actually wrote all those ‘O's?”

Sometimes a gal just wants to pretend she can talk using an actual voice.

“Okay, fair but— you aren’t actually trying to trick me, are you.”

Nope. You’re too sharp for any kinda serious bluff to land.

“I— thank you?” Angus says. Then he blinks, and narrows his eyes again. “Okay, that aside, I don’t just forget things just because I got a little sidetracked. You’re a Red Robe.”

Yes.

“Everyone says the red robes are the bad guys, who made the relics which started that whole war,” Angus says, crossing his arms. “What do you say about that?”

For a long time, the hand just floats there, ponderously. Then, unceremoniously, it flickers out of existence to let the pen drop back to the floor. “Hey!” Angus protests. “You can’t run away—”

Another hand manifests, lifting quickly to press a finger against Angus’s lips and point at Taako, who Angus realizes is stirring a little. Reluctantly, Angus settles back down, letting the hand pick the pen back up.

Sorry, she writes, Mage Hand’s time limit happened. You asked about the relics?

Angus nods. “Why’d you make them?”

She hesitates. I’m not sure how much of this will be readable, she writes, but I’ll see if being vague helps. We were being ###### ## something which ###### #### ## ###. We ##### that thing #### ######, turning the ###### #### ### ###### so ## ######’# #### ##. That part worked perfectly. The war was an unintended side effect.

Angus rubs at his eyes. “Okay, everything between ‘I'll see if being vague helps’ and ‘that part worked perfectly’ is choppy,” he says, pushing his glasses back into place and stifling a yawn. “But— you say, you’re saying you didn’t mean to start that war?”

It’s pretty high up on the list of regrets I have, she writes, though admittedly the list isn’t all that long.

Angus nods. “So— is there anything else you can try to tell me?”

The hand hangs motionless in the air for a moment, before writing again. Let me try something different

“Okay?” Angus says, as the hand already starts moving. Instead of writing, however, she flips to a new page and draws a ring of twelve circles. Your planar system, she writes, with an arrow conveniently pointing at the ring. Then, a little below it, an oval big enough to consume the entire ring. Bad Thing, she labels it as.

Then, she pauses, and doodles a little bird. Us, she labels it.

On the next page, she draws another ring of circles, labeling it Our planar system. Angus frowns. “Hang on, didn’t you already draw that? Our planar system—”

She cuts him off again with a finger to his lips, wagging it gently at him before returning to the page. There, she draws the bird again, next to a star. She circles the entire system, drawing an arrow from the Bad Thing to this circle, and scribbles out the entire system. Outside it, she draws the bird and star again.

She flips to the next page, and draws a lot of smaller planar systems. In sequence, she goes through them, first adding the bird and star, then circling them and scribbling them out. She always adds the bird outside the circle, sometimes with the star as well. Entranced, Angus watches her go through each of them with no apparent pattern to whether or not the star comes with the bird, until finally she runs out of systems and flips back to the first planar system.

There, next to the bird, she draws the star. Then she scribbles the star out, replacing it with seven smaller stars. She draws an arrow out from each of them, all going away from the bird, and then she draws an X over the Bad Thing.

Then, finally, she lays the pen down and leaves the hand floating out of the way. Angus picks his notebook up, flipping back and forth between the pages, his frown growing deeper. “This— what does this mean, who is ‘us’?” he asks, looking at the hand. “Do you mean the Red Robes?”

The hand gives him a thumbs up, then returns to its resting position.

Angus gives the umbrella a frustrated look, turning back to the notebook. “Okay, so if this is the Red Robes,” he mutters to himself, pointing to the bird, “then these are the Relics—” He taps the seven little stars— “And somehow the creation of the Grand Relics— somehow, that did something against the bad thing?”

The hand gives him a thumbs up.

He nods back at it, assured. “So then— what does it mean that the relics are being destroyed?”

The hand pauses, then gives a thumbs down.

“What does that mean?” Angus asks. “Like— do you mean, it’s bad they’re being destroyed, they’re not being destroyed, what?”

The hand pauses, then makes a grabbing motion at the notebook. He gladly gives it up, and the hand scribbles just one word before pushing it back into his hands. Both, it writes.

Angus blinks. “That’s worrying.”

Very. She doesn’t give Angus time to respond, instead flipping back to the drawings and pointing insistently at the series of scribbled-out planar systems. With a small sigh, Angus leans over to consider it.

This is clearly positing that there’s more than one planar system, Angus muses, looking over the page. There’s nothing else it could mean. The bird— the Red Robes— is/are in each of them, and leaves whenever the system gets scribbled out.

Which means the Red Robes come from—

Angus’s thoughts fizzle out, and he blinks. The Red Robes aren’t—

Again, his mind blanks. “I can’t— what does this mean?” he asks, swallowing a lump in his throat and considering whether or not to ignore the pit in his stomach telling himself something is missing. “What are you trying to tell me? I can’t— I can’t understand.”

The hand flips back to the previous explanation, pointing forcefully at words Angus can’t read. When no recognition sparks in his eyes, it retracts a little, sagging in disappointment. The hand starts to fizzle out a little, and Angus makes a noise of protest.

“Hang on!” he says, before quickly covering his mouth when he remembers Taako’s still there. The hand reforms, tilting a little to indicate she’s listening. “What am I going to tell Taako about this?” he asks softly. “I— you know what I told him, I said I was gonna get you to stop haunting him. I don’t wanna have lied.”

She picks up the pen again after a moment, pausing in thought, before writing. Tell you what, I’ll haunt Taako a little less and help you come up with a story, but in return I want a favor.

Angus lets out a small sigh, then nods. “Alright. What is it?”

 


 

Angus McDonald cannot believe a single one of the words coming out of his mouth.

“So, yeah, um— long story short, your umbrella has a spirit bound to it,” Angus says, Taako nodding along with a look of total seriousness on his face, and honestly can’t tell if his teacher is actually fooled in the slightest by this story. “She— she said she’s a she— apparently had you confused with some other person she knew, and was upset because of that. But we worked out an agreement.”

“And what was that?” Taako asks, eyebrow raised, the first words he’s spoken since Angus started lying out his ass.

“Just— really simple, um, she stops burning messages into your bedroom wall, you acknowledge her presence a little more often?” Angus shrugs. “She wasn’t that demanding.”

Taako nods, ears flicking up and down a little as he goes. “Right, right, I got it. There any reason she can’t tell me this herself?”

“She said something vague about spell slots, and then I guess went back to sleep.” This, Angus is relieved to note, isn’t a lie. “Which is weird, because Mage Hand is a cantrip? But I guess being a ghost is different.”

“Oh, yeah, I dunno, I’ve never been a ghost so I couldn’t tell you,” Taako says, shrugging. “Does madame Casper or whatever have a name, though? I don’t want to just keep calling her ‘she’ if I don’t have to.”

“She wouldn’t say,” more like I couldn’t read, “But I asked if I could call her Miss Umbrella, and she seemed okay with that.”

Taako hums. “Miss Umbrella,” he says, like he’s trying it out on his tongue. “Miss Umbrella, Miss Umbrella. That’s a terrible name. I love it. Guess I got another party member?”

“I suppose so, sir,” Angus says, folding his arms behind his back.

Taako nods to himself. “Wonder how they’re gonna get a bracer on this thing,” he murmurs, twirling the Umbra Staff in his hand.

Angus perks up. “Oh, that’s another thing— she didn’t want anyone else to know about her. Like, you can tell Merle and Magnus if you think they can keep the secret, but she doesn’t want, um, anyone? To know about her being here. Except for you I guess.”

“Guess that answers that, then,” Taako says, jabbing the point of the umbrella into the floor. “There anything else, or are you gonna get out already?”

For the first time since last night, the Umbra Staff moves. It twists up, quite clearly under its own power, and hits Taako square in the face with a soft whap.

Angus can’t help the small laugh that bubbles up in his throat. Taako blinks, taken aback a little as the umbrella goes inert and swings back down to hang from his arm again, and then he glares petulantly. “Hey, the fuck was that for?”

The Umbra Staff— or, Miss Umbrella, Angus supposes he should be calling her? She just shifts a little, folding a little tighter. After a moment, Taako lets up on her with a huff, swinging her around to rest against his shoulder. “Well, whatever. You done, kiddo?”

“Oh, um— yes, that was, that was all she wanted me to pass on to you—” Angus fumbles with his notebook, a loose page slipping out. He hurries to pick it back up, folding it in half and tucking it back in at a random spot. “So, um, I’ll be going if that’s alright?”

“Yep, have fun or whatever,” Taako says, waving him off. As Angus trots over to the door and steps outside, he catches a muttered “‘Bout time.”

And then there’s a soft whap followed by a startled “Ow!” and then the door clicks shut behind Angus, and he’s not sure whether to be amused or flattered by how defensive Miss Umbrella has gotten of him after just one conversation.

 


 

There’s a few things Miss Umbrella wrote that Angus keeps going back to.

Three of them he returns to because he can’t read them. The alternate name for the Red Robes, the description of what the Red Robes did, the message written on that torn-out page— it’s a mystery he can’t solve, it frustrates him, no matter which tricks he tries his mind just flows right past gleaning any kind of meaning from them or even remembering the individual letters long enough to copy them down.

Then there’s the attempt at communicating— something, through those messy scribbles. He stares at it occasionally, thinking up different possible explanations or things this could be a metaphor for. Sometimes, he finds his train of thought turning to a staticky buzz, and he’s frustrated because he can’t remember the thought that lead in that direction.

And then there’s the first message. Not the cliched greeting first written in uncertain handwriting, or the message Angus copied down from Taako’s bedroom wall— the first message, written after destroying a box of macarons in the cafeteria.

What did it say again?

He’s sure he knew at some point— it’s what started all this, right? He’s copied it down in his notebook somewhere, he’s sure, probably sketched it as similar to the original writing as he could get, but it’s just— he can’t remember it. He can’t even try looking at the original scorch marks, because the Director has finally bothered to tell someone to fix it— and it was about time, really, Angus can’t fault people for wanting a workplace that doesn’t have cryptic messages burnt into random walls. It just happens to be directly inconveniencing him right now at this exact moment, and so he finds himself feeling rightfully irritated.

It wasn’t long at all, he doesn’t think— or was it? No, no, it takes a while to write using Scorching Ray, if it was more than a few words Taako would have snapped out of his shock long enough to interrupt somehow. Or would he have?

Angus lets out a small growl, winding his fingers through his hair and tugging a little in frustration, pencil digging a little too hard into the paper until the lead snaps off. Feeling more than hearing it break, he slowly breathes in, letting the pencil go and putting his face in his hands.

This isn’t working, he thinks, looking through his fingers at the words he’s scrawled all over the page. They’re all conversation starters, ways he could bring what Miss Umbrella Asked him up— Excuse me, Madame Director— Ma’am, if I could have a word— Miss, could I talk to you for a bit—

He taps the corner of a folded piece of paper against the tabletop. None of these seem right. How am I supposed to do my part if I— when I can’t even come up with a plan of action? This is important, Miss Umbrella’s counting on me— Taako’s counting on me a little I guess? Even though he doesn’t know it? I don’t know if Miss Umbrella will start haunting him again if I don’t do this, or even if she’ll know, but. Better safe than sorry?

With a sigh, Angus drops the folded page into the notebook and snaps it shut. There’s one more thing she wrote which he keeps coming back too because he doesn’t understand it, though not in the same way as the other ones.

Try asking the Voidfish, she’d suggested, when he’d asked if there was some way he could get more information. It might know another way around this damn static.

To Angus’s knowledge, the Voidfish has never communicated with anyone in any meaningful way. It sings, sure, and it can communicate its moods with body language and the tone of its ‘voice', but answering questions? Having conversations? Never.

Then again, Angus muses, two days ago I’d never kept secrets for a lich. There’s a first time for everything.

It’s with that thought that Angus shifts tracks. Instead of actively searching for an opportunity to do this favor, he’ll just wait for the time to come— and until then, he’ll try figuring out how to communicate with the Voidfish. He’s unquestionably a genius, after all. How hard can it be?

 


 

Not for the first time, Angus casually trots a step and a half behind Johann as they step into the elevator. It’s a wordless agreement at this point, that Angus is allowed into the Voidfish’s chamber unquestioned— he finds the dim lighting and the flickering lights from the tank soothing, good for chasing away headaches and focusing on his studies.

He lags behind a little when the elevator doors open, widening the gap between him and Johann before following again, giving a silent nod to the guards and receiving a nod back. It’s not strictly necessary that he be accompanied, god knows he’s wandered in on his own enough times for them to be used to it, but it feels wrong to be in there completely alone. Like there’s an important piece of the room missing. Not that it matters now, considering Johann is right there anyway, but nevertheless.

Like always, Angus lugs his latest pile of study material over to the corner where the wall and Voidfish's tank intersect. Instead of resting his back against the glass, however, he arrays his books between himself and the tank, such that he can easily look up from them at the Voidfish.

If Johann notices the change from routine, he makes no comment, just settling at his desk and unpacking a violin to continue work on his latest masterpiece. The music fades to the back of Angus’ mind, as it always does, his attention focused fully on the book in his lap.

It’s a guide to morse code. He’s already quite familiar with it— you never know when you’ll need to transmit a secret message out in the field, doing detective work. It never hurts to be prepared, especially when you’re researching potential ways to communicate with a magic jellyfish.

The Voidfish, for its part, is just as serene and disconnected as ever. Once in a while, it’ll drift a little closer to the edge of the tank, hum a few notes from whatever song Johann is composing now, hum its own song. (Angus occasionally tries working out the notes to it, but never has the chance to listen for long enough.)

At some point, Angus shifts his position to lean against the tank again, and with one hand casually folded behind his back, raps his knuckles against the glass. Dash dot dash dot dash.

He waits a moment, turning his head slightly to look back at the Voidfish. It shows no response, unless that particular billow just like the rest of its billows is supposed to somehow signal something— but probably not.

He tries again, with something different this time. Dash dot dash.

No response.

Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot.

That one does get a response— but not from who he was aiming for.

“Hey, are you tapping on the glass?” Johann asks, and Angus jumps a little. “You know you’re not supposed to, it upsets the Voidfish.”

“S-sorry, sir, I was fidgeting,” Angus says, quickly returning his hand to his lap with a sheepish grin. “I’ll stop.”

It doesn’t look all that bothered, he doesn’t say, because that would probably count as rude.

Johann just nods, returning to his work writing something down— he seems to have put away his violin somewhere while Angus was distracted, not in its case, did he leave the room at some point wait no there it is behind the desk mystery solved— and ignoring Angus again.

Angus considers the morse code for a moment longer, then heaves a small sigh and shuts the book— “Something wrong, buddy?” Johann asks, and Angus shakes his head— before picking up the next book. It’s a book on sign language, which he gets about three pages into before it occurs to him that the Voidfish doesn’t have hands.

He shuts this book too, contemplates the cover for a moment, then decides to improvise. He grabs his notebook, scribbles down a message, and tucks it between his back and the tank. TAP THE GLASS IF YOU READ THIS.

For the image of regularity, he opens the sign language book again and flips to a random page, appearing for all the world to be totally engrossed in an upside down page on how to say chocolate. From the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees the Voidfish drift a little closer, like it’s trying to get a better look at the notebook, and Angus holds his breath—

And then the Voidfish billows ponderously, spinning slightly on the way to the back of the tank. Angus blinks, turning his head to follow the motion, and gives it an exasperated look. Are you actually just a creature, or are you deliberately messing with me?

Angus doesn’t think it’s actually possible for laughter to be conveyed entirely through tendril swooping, but in that moment it sure seems like it.

Unheeding of Angus’ one-sided glaring match with the Voidfish, Johann clears his throat a little. “Hey, kiddo, you play any instruments?”

Angus blinks, looking back at him, then down at the floor with a hum. “I mean, I can kinda play guitar? But I’m not that good at it.”

Johann raises an eyebrow. “Really? I’d’ve figured the world’s greatest detective would know more than that. Not to like, invalidate— It’s just a little surprising.”

Angus shrugs. “It just never— I never needed to? I don’t generally need to play music to find clues, I can read sheet music— I’m a little better at singing, I guess, but it’s not— I’m not exactly planning on being a bard.”

“No, I remember— you were starting a wizarding apprenticeship under Taako, right?” Angus nods, and Johann continues. “I was just wondering. Figured I could show you a thing or two, if you wanted.”

Angus blinks, glancing down at his book and finally turning it rightside-up and shutting it. “I— I mean, sure? Do you have a guitar on you?”

“I… might?” Johann says, leaning over to look around and under the desk, sliding his chair back to get a better look before finally getting up. “Guess not, but I’m sure I’ve got one in my room. If you don’t mind waiting?”

“No, it’s— I’ll be fine,” Angus says, waving him off, and with a nod Johann hurries out the door and vanishes.

Now alone with the Voidfish, Angus sighs and settles back down with his books. Then, after a moment spent staring blankly at the pile of books that seem much less useful now than when he first picked them up, he turns to give the Voidfish a dry stare. “Can you actually not understand us, or are you just messing with me specifically?”

The Voidfish continues gliding along the edge of its tank, only a small flutter of its tendrils to possibly indicate it heard him at all.

“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Angus says, standing up to press his forehead against the glass. “All I wanna do is talk to you, because that’s what I was told to do, but how would you even talk back? All you do is hum.”

This, at least, gets a little more response. Not much, though. The Voidfish simply hums its seven note song and spins a little as it passes in front of Angus.

“Why did Miss Umbrella tell me do talk to you?” He asks, like the Voidfish has any way of knowing the answer. “Is there some connection between you and the Umbra Staff? Do you...” He takes a breath, and lowers his voice. “Do you know something about the Red Robes?”

The Voidfish stills, floating motionless in the water, but before it can find some way to answer the door opens. “Couldn’t find a small guitar for you,” Johann announces, hefting a guitar case off his shoulder. “I hope this is fine?”

Angus turns quickly, trotting over to have a look.“It’s fine, I learned— like I said, not really a hobby I pursue, I never had my own guitar. The one I learned on was my great-grandpa’s, and he was…” Angus pauses. “Pretty big? To say the least. According to my grandpa. And the guitar was sized appropriately.”

Johann raises an eyebrow. “Really? Didn’t think you had a bard in the family, he sounds like a bit of an oddball.”

“More than a bit,” Angus says, unlatching the case and hefting the guitar out. “Um, let’s not talk about him— what’d you want to show me?”

“Well, first I’d want to know just how good you already are,” Johann says, sitting in his chair as Angus situates himself against the Voidfish’s tank again. “D’you know any songs?”

“I know a few, but not really well,” Angus says, shifting the guitar in his lap before taking a breath and strumming once.

Several things happen at once.

First of all, in some metaphysical state of being unknowable by any person on this place— or perhaps, in this instance, the better word would be character— a die rolls. It clatters, rolling a few inches across a table before coming to a stop on a very, very poor result.

Secondly, and somehow managing to take up most of Angus’s attention, is the sound of the guitar acting as it’s meant to. Sounds a little out of tune, Angus muses. Makes sense, Johann doesn’t seem to use it... ever? He prefers violin.

Finally, the Voidfish and Johann both recoil, the Voidfish making a startled shriek while Johann winces and covers his ears. “Okay, that’s— that’s pretty bad.”

“Yeah, it’s a little out of tune,” Angus muses, adjusting the strings a little and plucking at them. That seems a little better?

Johann, on the other hand, looks physically pained. “No, hang on, give me that—”

Angus just shifts away a little, tightening one of the strings before strumming with a small frown. Johann trips on the way out of his chair, and the Voidfish lets out a trembling hum.

A few more times, Angus makes adjustments to the tuning and plucks at the strings, each time not noticing Johann wincing until finally Johann reaches him and gently takes the guitar. “Here, let me, I’m better at that.”

With a small noise of assent, Angus lets him take it. Johann sits across from him, tightening the strings a little and— with more than a little trepidation— strums.

The sound comes out perfectly clear.

Johann blinks, looking down at the guitar like it just tried to offer him car insurance and a complimentary dish towel. He adjusts the strings back to where they just were, strums again, and maybe it’s a little off now but not as bad as it just was— “Okay, what the everloving fudge is this?”

“Language, sir,” Angus says, leaning forward to take the guitar back. Johann takes a moment to tighten the strings again before giving it back, and Angus lets it settle on his lap.

For a moment, he just frowns thoughtfully at the strings, then plucks a short tune. C A B B A G E. Still a little out of tune?

He looks up at Johann to say something, then pauses when he sees the pained look on his face. “Is there something wrong, sir?”

“That sounds terrible,” Johann says, lowering his hands from his ears.

“What, this?” Angus asks, plucking a few more strings. C A F E. “It’s not that bad.”

The distressed look on Johann’s face says otherwise. “No, it’s— it’s definitely that bad— hang on, are you just spelling out words with that?”

D E C A D E. “Maybe?”

Johann’s ears pin back a little. “No, that was definitely— okay, give me that— that noise—”

Johann makes a grab for the guitar, and Angus leans back just out of his reach. F A C E.

The Voidfish looms behind Angus, several of its tendrils pressing against the glass, and hums loud enough for Angus to feel the vibrations through the floor— three notes, and then a pause, and then four.

Angus looks up at it, and then unheeding of Johann’s distress, he copies it. E G G—

“Jesus criminy, what is that noise?” Carey asks, hands pressed on either side of her head as she steps into the room. “It sounds like someone’s trying to tune a cat with a fantasy power drill.”

“Hey, it’s not that bad!” Angus protests.

“No, that’s a pretty accurate assessment,” Johann groans, picking himself up off the floor. “Now could you please stop doing that?”

“Hang on, hang on, what all’s going on here?” Carey asks, padding across the room to investigate. “What’s the noise?”

“Johann wanted to see if he could give me some tips on playing guitar,” Angus explains, “but as you can hear—” He plucks a chord, sending a chorus of winces around the room— “It’s a little out of tune.”

“I’d say that’s more than a little,” Carey mutters. “Geez, how does a master bard like you get an instrument sounding that bad?”

“That’s the freaky thing— here, let me show you—” Johann reaches out quickly, plucking one of the strings, and it comes out clear. “When I play it, it’s fine, but when Angus plays—”

Angus plucks the same string, and Johann winces. “That happens.”

“I still don’t hear whatever it is you’re hearing,” Angus says.

“That’s super weird, man,” Carey says. “You sure it’s not cursed or something?”

“I was pretty sure, before I gave it to Angus,” Johann says. Angus goes to pluck a few more notes, but Johann finally manages to grab the guitar and wrestle it out of his hands. “Okay, no, stop that. Music time’s over.”

Angus just pouts at him.

“Yeah, you should probably get that checked out.” Carey crouches down, experimentally plucking a couple strings and frowning when it comes out clear. “Yeah.”

She blinks, staring at the guitar for a moment before bouncing back up to her feet. “Oh yeah! Angus, are you free? I got someone who wants to talk with you.”

“Um, sure?” Angus climbs to his feet, following at a trot as Carey returns to the door. “How come?”

“I dunno, she just asked for you to be there,” Carey says, spinning to give the guards a small salute before leading the way to the elevator.

Angus blinks. “Who?”

Carey just hums a small tune, not replying until the elevator doors open and she drags Angus inside. “You might know her already?” she says, once the doors are closed and they’re moving up. “Taako introduced her as Miss Umbrella.”

 


 

There’s a lot to take in when Angus and Carey step into the Reclaimers’ dorm.

There’s Taako balanced on Magnus’s shoulders, looking remarkably at ease with the tip of his hat brushing against the ceiling even as Magnus stumbles across the room and makes worried noises every time Taako so much as shifts his weight. There’s Merle, laughing into a glass of some frothy liquid while Killian props herself up on the couch he’s sitting on, glaring at the table in the centre of the room. And on that table…

“Is that a Ouija board?” Angus asks.

“Hey, Ango’s here!” Magnus cheers, starting to turn before stopping as he remembers the wizard still standing on him.

Taako, for his worth, is completely unfazed by the sharp movement. He just crosses his arms, looking over at Angus before looking away with a sniff. “Ugh. Angus.”

“Hey, c’mon man, he’s not that bad,” Magnus says. “I mean, he did—”

Behind him, a presence looms up into the air, unnoticed until it’s too late— Taako’s ear flicks, he turns his head, but by then it’s too late to dodge the strike.

A massive hand formed of shimmering energy shoves Taako in the back, knocking him clean off Magnus’s shoulders with a startled squawk. He twists in the air, flailing for something to grab onto, and Magnus responds a moment later, leaping forward in an attempt to catch Taako and succeeding, in a way.

Magnus goes skidding across the carpet on his stomach, and Taako lands splayed across Magnus’s back. “My hero,” Taako deadpans.

Carey just watches all this with a raised brow ridge. “Jesus, I was gone for fifteen minutes, what the hell have you all started?”

“We’re playing Haunted The Floor Is Lava,” Killian says, crossing her arms. “It’s like regular The Floor Is Lava, except people who touch the floor are zombies who are supposed—” She glares at Magnus. “—To knock the remaining players into the lava. And also there’s a ghost.”

She reaches out to where Merle was a moment ago, only to realize he’s scooted to the other side of the couch and is preparing to climb onto the armrest.

“Okay, cool, that sounds fun,” Carey says, already perched on top of a nearby floor lamp, “but— why? Weren’t you supposed to be interrogating the ghost?”

“Well, yeah, we were,” Taako says, rolling to his feet and hopping off Magnus’s head— getting a muffled “Ow—” from him— to land on the coffee table. “But we pretty much ran out of questions a bit after you left, and we were gonna just wait for mister Boy Detective to get here, but then the umbrella suggested this—”

Angus lets out a small yelp as he feels something lift him off the ground by the back of his sweater vest. Twisting around in an attempt to find what’s lifting him, he finds the same magical hand that’d just pushed Taako, gliding smoothly through the air to deposit him in the sofa opposite from Merle before flickering out of existence.

“Um.” Taako stares at the spot the hand just was for a moment, before gently nudging the umbrella at his feet. “What, is the game over now?”

“Now it is,” Killian growls, grabbing Taako under the arms and dragging him to the ground. Behind her, Merle picks himself off the ground with a groan, glaring at the back of Killian’s head, leaving the only player off the ground as Carey, still on her lamp.

“Hey, c’mon, Angus isn’t out yet!” Magnus protests, finally peeling his face off the floor.

“No, my feet are touching the floor,” Angus says, leaning over to check. “I’m definitely out.”

“Dang.”

“Well, Carey came in late, so!” Taako twists out of Killian’s arms and leaps dramatically onto the sofa next to Angus, striking a pose. “Taako wins again!”

“Ow,” Angus says, as one of Taako’s arms hits him square in the face. He pushes the arm out of the way, ignoring Taako’s protests, and leans over to examine the contents of the coffee table.

There’s the Ouija board he’d first noticed upon entering the room, and the Umbra Staff laid across the table behind it, currently inert. There’s a pile of loose papers and a pen, some of which are blank and some are covered in messy scribbles which Angus takes a moment to glance over— the rules for Haunted The Floor Is Lava, written in all caps and spaced like it’s been copied down letter-by-letter.

“Okay, first of all, why are you using a Ouija board?” Angus asks, crossing his arms and giving the grown adults clustered around him a baffled look. “I mean, I get the aesthetic of— of talking to a ghost using a Ouija board, but— there are way more efficient ways to communicate.”

“Like what?” Magnus asks, leaning over the backrest behind Angus.

“Um, just writing? With a pen?” Angus deadpans, holding up his notebook and gesturing to it like they’re all idiots. “She— Miss Umbrella can cast Mage Hand, it’s how I talked to her.”

“Yeah, well—” Taako starts, before the planchette shifts on the board. Instantly he snaps upright, grabbing the pen and a blank piece of paper and staring intently at the letters it pauses on, writing them down as they go. Angus watches just as intently, not bothering to look at the paper as he puts the letters together himself.

S P E L L S L O T S

“...It’s a cantrip,” Angus says, incredulously. “It doesn’t— there’s no spell slots involved, you just cast it, even— even I can cast it, and I’ve barely even started learning—”

“Well, you don’t know,” Magnus cuts in. “She is a ghost, maybe magic use is just different for dead people?”

“I’m… pretty sure it’s not,” Angus says. Who’s ever heard of a powerful being like a lich barely being able to cast cantrips? “I’ve researched ghosts, I’m pretty sure they can use all the magic they had before they died the same as before they died— cantrips wouldn’t change—”

“Oh, research schmesearch, how many ghosts have you actually met?” Taako asks. “I’ll bet it’s not as many as I have.”

“Um. Several?” Angus lifts his hands to start counting, ticking off fingers as he goes. “There was the spectre haunting Rockport Manor, though I dunno if you could really count that as meeting it cause I was just a little boy— extra little, I mean— there was that lady bound to a cliff over by the sea, she was a pretty important witness to the murder that happened there before she passed on, I dunno exactly how many ghosts were in that one haunted house attraction I went to last year but it must’ve been a lot—”

Slowly, Taako’s ears start to twitch as Angus keeps going on. “Okay, we get it kid, your life is a murder mystery novel series—”

“—I got to talk to a spirit in a crystal ball for a bit before I had to give it up to the authorities,” Angus continues, undeterred, only pausing to take a deep breath here before quickly finishing with, “And obviously now there’s Miss Umbrella and Noelle. That’s, um, I lost track? A lot. Hang on, let me start over...”

“No, no, there’s no need for that,” Taako says, quickly clapping a hand over Angus’s mouth. “Jesus Christ, kid, what kinda life did you live before we picked you up?”

Angus shrugs, pushing Taako’s hand out of the way. “I am the world’s greatest detective, you know. I’ve taken a lot of cases.”

“You sure fucking have,” Taako says, crossing his arms and leaning back. “You’re practically already an adventurer in your own right.”

Angus laughs nervously. “I… wouldn’t say that, myself, most of the things I do aren’t all that adventurous—”

“Sure they are,” Merle butts in. “Anyway, speaking of Noelle— I just realized, how come she’s not here? Doesn’t she hang out with you two a bunch?”

“Pretty sure she was getting some kinda maintenance done on her body?” Carey says with a shrug. “She’s been in and out of a bunch of engineers’ places for the past few days, I dunno what’s up with that, but she’s just been too busy.”

“That’s a shame,” Merle says. “Bet she woulda loved to meet our new pal here— d’you think we should invite her too next time?”

Carey starts to nod, opening her mouth to speak, but then the planchette jerks into movement. NO, Miss Umbrella says. S E C R E T.

“... C… R… E… T...” Taako spells, before blinking quizzically at the board. “Secret? It’s not much of a secret right now, homie, I’ve already told like four people.”

A mage hand springs up from the tip of the umbrella and soars over to Taako’s face, where it flicks him on the nose before vanishing. Y O U R F A U L T I T W A S S U P P O S E D T O B E S E C R E T.

“She’s got a point, sir,” Angus says, glancing nervously between Taako and the board. “I did say she didn’t want more than a few people to know about her existence.”

“Feh,” Taako says, slumping in his seat. “Since when have I ever listened to something you said?”

“Since just now, sir.”

“Okay, cutting off the pedantics before they get started,” Killian says, sitting down on the armrest by Taako. “Even if you are a pretty much harmless ghost, I definitely think the Director at least should know you exist? ‘Cause, you know, knowing about the existence of employees and all that.”

The planchette practically skids across the board. NO.

“Why not?” Killian asks, leaning forward challengingly. “Go on, give me one good reason I shouldn’t go tell the Director everything I know right now.”

For a moment, all is silent and still. And then, slowly, the planchette moves again. T H E F L O O R I S L A V A.

Killian blinks. Everyone stares at it for a moment, as if waiting for something to dispel the statement, and then with a hup Magnus hops over the back of the sofa and onto the seat. “Well, you heard the lady,” he says, lifting Angus by the scruff of his neck. “Get off the floor!”

 


 

Ten minutes later, Angus is sitting on top of a cabinet next to Magnus, unsure of how his life managed to lead him to this point.

Merle was the first to get knocked out this time, tripping and landing face-first on the carpet. He spent nearly a minute afterwards opining about how unfair his lot in life was. This gives the rest of them plenty of time to run away, some more successfully than others— Killian nearly lands on the ground again, with only a quick spell from Taako managing to catch her and tug her onto safe ground.

By now, they’ve all scattered to the edges of the room, most of the action going on across from Angus with Taako struggling to hold onto a wall fixture while a large spectral hand tugs on him, and Merle struggling to reach Carey on top of a door frame.

Over here, though, Angus and Magnus have nothing to do here but contemplate and shuffle through pockets.

Angus blinks. Hang on, what’s he doing? He looks over at Magnus, for the moment distracted from his inner monologue, and finds him digging through his pockets and bags with a deep frown on his face. “Did you lose something, sir?”

“I might have,” Magnus mutters, pulling his bag wider open in an attempt to see the contents better. “I put it somewhere in here, it can’t that hard to find a wooden d— uhm. It can’t be that hard to find.”

“Maybe I could help you find it?” Angus offers, leaning closer. “I can—”

“No, no, I’m good,” Magnus says leaning away and digging deeper. “Just gotta— aha!”

Triumphantly, he withdraws a small parcel and brandishes it in the air. “Here we go— I made you something, since I wanted to thank you for helping Taako with his ghost problem!”

“Wha— It’s— it was really no problem, honest,” Angus says, waving his hands placatingly. “Really, I’ve done more difficult mysteries for less—”

“Nonsense! I wanted to give this to you, so I’m giving it to you,” Magnus says, pushing the parcel over insistently. “Here, come on, take it.”

“W-well, alright, if you— if you insist,” Angus says, taking the parcel and carefully unwrapping it. Inside he finds a wooden duck, carved of smooth dark wood and engraved with intricate swirling designs along the feathers. Angus’s eyes widen as he turns it around, examining all the little details. “Wow, sir, I didn’t— I didn’t think you could’ve made something like this, after only a day?”

Magnus laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. “What can I say, I work fast.”

“Well, I’ll— I’ll always treasure this!” Angus says, holding it close to his chest. “Thanks, this is— this is like Candle Nights happened again—”

And then Angus gets knocked off the cabinet by a low-flying magic hand. Magnus makes a noise of distress as Angus falls, reaching out in a futile attempt to save him from his fate, but all too soon Angus’s shoulder hits the floor, and he is out.

The first thing Angus does upon officially becoming a lava zombie is fumble around for his glasses, tears pricking the edges of his eyes at the stinging feeling in his shoulder. Then, once he’s able to see again and look around at the rest of the players, he finds them all staring at him with varying levels of shock and distress. He looks down, realizes he’s kneeling on the carpet, and then looks back up.

Then Merle claps him on the shoulder. “Good to have you on the team. I’ll take the ones on the left, you take the right, Umbrella’s gonna keep them near the edges. Go get em.”

And then Merle takes off, and Angus stays stock still for a moment until he slowly turns his head to look at Magnus.

Magnus has a look of utter betrayal and shame on his face. After a moment, he weakly clears his throat and grins. “H-hey, you’re— you’re being a bit creepy there, Ango, you okay?”

Angus blinks, finally, then shrugs. “Oh no, sir, I’m fine,” he says, bouncing a little on his heels before turning and trotting off in Taako’s direction. “I just need to go be a zombie for now. Thanks again for the duck!”

Chapter Text

The next day, Angus returns to the Voidfish, finding all the books he’d left behind stacked neatly in the corner. Johann is already there, engrossed in his work; he mutters a small greeting as Angus passes behind him on the way to his corner.

“Have you figured out what was wrong with that guitar?” Angus asks as he sits down, situating his bag in his lap.

Johann blinks, glancing over at Angus before letting out a sigh and resting his chin in the palm of his hand. “Yeah, apparently it’s enchanted to unleash a sonic attack whenever anyone under the age of twelve plays it. Guess we won’t be doing any music lessons any time soon.”

“It’s fine,” Angus says, picking out a book and cracking it open. They fall into silence again, broken only by the sound of Johann writing and scratching out compositions. In the corner of Angus’s eye, the Voidfish drifts, lights flickering on and off in colorful patterns, occasionally drawing his attention.

Halfway through learning about Vigenere ciphers, Angus is distracted by the sound of Johann’s chair scraping against the floor. He makes his way to the door, and Angus asks, “Where’re you going?”

“Bathroom.”

“Oh, okay.” Angus turns back to his book, curiosity sated, as Johann steps outside and shuts the door behind him. For several minutes, Angus just stays there with his books, but pretty soon he finds his legs cramping up from sitting in the same position for too long.

He heaves a sigh, setting aside his book and stretching his arms up and back, then rolls his shoulder and stands up. His bag goes tumbling out of his lap, flopping to the ground and ejecting its topmost contents— his wand, a couple of novelty snail erasers, and a carved wooden duck.

Not noticing the way the Voidfish stills behind him, Angus just makes an irritated noise and stoops down to scoop the items back into his bag. It’s only once he’s picked up the duck that he notices the Voidfish’s odd behaviour, as it lets out a low keening note.

He pauses, blinks, and turns to look at the Voidfish with a confused look on his face. It keens again, unfurling glowing tendrils to press against the glass almost longingly, its body drifting closer as well.

Angus blinks a few more times, then gives the Voidfish a baffled stare. “What is it? Is there something wrong?”

The noise this time is a little closer to a wail this time, the Voidfish’s bell shifting to press against the glass as well and the lights dimming in it as if in mourning.

Alarmed, Angus steps closer. “Hey, what is it? What’s wrong?”

The Voidfish makes the keening noise again, quieter this time. It drifts sideways a little, towards the feeding hatch, and several of its tendrils leave the glass to circle around it.

“I don’t understand, are you— are you hungry?” Angus asks, following it with the duck clutched close to his chest. “I thought— isn’t Johann supposed to be feeding you? He’ll be back soon—”

The Voidfish cuts him off with a sharp note, jabbing its tendrils first at the glass, then at the feeding hatch. At Angus’s uncomprehending expression, it flutters a little and hums a low note.

Then, slower, it lifts one tendril and points it at Angus.

He blinks. “Me? What about me?”

The Voidfish hums a low, exasperated note, before lifting several more tendrils to point as well. Angus stares at them for a long moment, then shrugs helplessly. The Voidfish goes silent, tendrils naturally drifting down, until it perks up a little.

Again, its tendrils unfurl, but instead of pressing against the glass or pointing, they wind around and around each other to form an intricate pattern. Angus frowns at it, trying to puzzle it out. Some kind of language? Or, no, it almost looks like it’s shaped like…

“A duck?” Angus asks, and the Voidfish lets out a trill and untangles its tendrils from each other. “You want my duck?”

Another trill, and the Voidfish spins to point at the feeding hatch again. Angus just takes a step back, hugging the wooden duck protectively. “You can’t eat the duck, it’s mine! It was a gift from Magnus, I’m not just gonna immediately give it up!”

The Voidfish hums a little more forcefully, jabbing at the feeding hatch, but when it sees Angus unflinchingly standing his ground it relents, drifting away from the glass with a quiet hum. Angus watches it go, relaxing a little once he’s sure it’s given up, and steps closer.

“What do you even want it for?” he asks, letting one arm drop to his side with the duck held in a loose grip while he presses the other to the glass. “Hell, I’ve got so many questions about you— how do you derive sustenance from information? I mean, magic, yeah, but… how?”

All the Voidfish offers up is a small flutter and a droning hum, and Angus sighs. “How am I even supposed to talk to you?” he asks, resting his forehead against the glass as well and shutting his eyes. “I mean, Miss Umbrella told me to talk to you— but how would I even manage that? All you do is sing and glow.”

The Voidfish is silent for a moment. Then, it hums a couple notes to catch Angus’s attention again and drifts a little towards the ladder leading to the top of its tank. It curls a few tendrils in a beckoning gesture and Angus follows, mystified, until he’s standing right at the base of the ladder. “What is it?” he asks.

The Voidfish reaches a tendril up, out of the water, and all the way back down outside the tank. Angus watches, warily taking a step back as the tendril comes near, but the tendril pauses a short distance from him as if it’s thinking.

Angus waits a few seconds. “What—”

The tendril shoots out to snag the duck from his hand, retreating before he’s had a chance to realize what just happened. Once he does, he lets out an outraged squawk and goes for the ladder. “Hey! That’s mine!”

The Voidfish ignores him, humming lightly as it twirls away with the duck in its tendrils. Angus scrambles up the ladder as fast as he can manage, hoping to get there in time to— what, save it from getting eaten? The Voidfish is huge, and he’s just a little boy, there’s no way he can fish the duck out in time.

Nevertheless, when he gets to the top of the ladder he peers frantically into the water in search of the duck, hoping it’s still there— only to find the Voidfish not eating it, but instead… playing with it? Passing it from tendril to tendril in the reverse direction to the way it’s spinning, letting out little hums and chirps every time the duck nearly slips from its grasp. For a moment, Angus just stares in baffled fascination, until finally the duck actually manages to slip free and go bobbing to the surface.

Snapped out of his daze, Angus frantically reaches out to attempt to catch it. The duck comes tantalizingly close to his fingertips, and he leans even further out to touch it— and then a tendril hooks around Angus’s wrist, pushing it away, while another snags the duck and pulls it under again.

“Hey!” Angus protests, resisting against the tendril and managing to dip his fingers a little into the water before another tendril shoots out to press against his forehead.

It’s like a an electrical current runs through his body, then, like he’s just touched a doorknob after rubbing his socks on carpet— and for a moment, a memory he’s sure isn’t his flickers through his mind. A bed of moss covered in sloppily carved wooden ducks— big ones, little ones, a sense of love and adoration surrounding all of them— the walls are covered in gems, they’re in a cave, this perspective is odd how small is the— there’s a pair of burly hands, carving another duck with an old knife, a calm voice talking, this man’s wearing a red jacket—

And then it cuts into static, vanishes, and Angus realizes he almost just tipped over into the water. The Voidfish has extended more tendrils, now, holding Angus up gently and pushing him back into a more stable position as his mind reels.

“Oh,” he breathes. “Oh, that’s what— that’s what she meant.”

The Voidfish hums questioningly, retracting most of the tendrils but the one wrapped around Angus’s wrist and the one previously pressed to his forehead, which instead hovers just above the surface of the water.

Angus breathes, deep and slow, until he feels like he has his thought in order. “What do you know about the Red Robes?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper, as if there’s anyone else here to hear it.

The free tendril starts to move, and then it hesitates, as if it’s worried Angus will fall again. Angus shifts his position to hold more firmly to the tank and gives the Voidfish a hesitant nod, and then there’s the current running through Angus’s body again but all he sees is static.

Then the Voidfish tries again, and Angus gets a brief glimpse of several figures standing outside a tank much like this one— but their faces are static, everything about them is static, the scene turns to nothing but static before vanishing again and trying to remember even just how many were there is like catching smoke.

The Voidfish hums sadly, starting to retract, but Angus quickly extends a hand to stop it. “Wait—” he says, and the Voidfish pauses. “Are there any other— any other Voidfishes? Like you?”

With more energy, the Voidfish sings a chipper note and gives another memory— rough, stone cave walls littered with gems— a huge pond— the perspective is so small, again— and there’s dozens upon dozens of other Voidfishes around, some seeming to tower over everything and others barely bigger than Angus is now— and then there’s a flash of red cloth, and the scene turns to static again.

Angus takes a sharp breath, tries to collect his thoughts, and then dips his head low. “You can’t tell me anything directly, can you?”

The Voidfish answers with another scene of static.

“Can you show me anything about the Umbra Staff?” Angus asks. The Voidfish flutters, tilts a little, not responding. “It’s an umbrella, the one Taako carries everywhere—”

A memory of Taako stepping into the Voidfish’s chamber with an umbrella hanging from the crook of his arm.

“Yes, that— that one. Do you know who used to own it?”

The Voidfish seems to think for a moment, and the Angus sees an elven woman— he can’t make out her face or any features but the red robe and the umbrella held out in front of her— he feels like she should be bragging or something, but her voice is nothing but static, and then the scene vanishes.

“Did you belong to the Red Robes? Before the Director— before the Bureau of Balance?”

The Voidfish seems… confused, like it doesn’t understand the connection or what that’s supposed to mean, but before Angus can try to clarify the door slides open and Johann steps inside. “Jeezy creezy, that took way longer than that should have,” he says, before stopping and staring when he sees where Angus is.

Angus stares back, eyes wide as dinner plates, and the Voidfish retreats back to the back of the tank with its treasure.

“...What are you doing?” Johann finally asks.

“Oh, um, I was— the Voidfish— um—” Angus panics, searching around for some lie to tell before landing on the truth— “The Voidfish stole my duck!”

It comes out a little whinier than he intended, but that probably just helps his case. Johann certainly looks like he believes him, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow. “A wooden duck? That Magnus gave you?” he guesses.

Angus blinks. “Um, yes, it was a gift— how did you—”

“It always does that when it sees them,” Johann explains. “One time I left a couple ducks on the desk here, and the next I knew it was pushing them down to the bottom of the tank and making them race to the top. Gods know why.”

Angus frowns, thinking of what the Voidfish showed him. A much smaller perspective, someone in red carving ducks…

“I still want my duck back,” Angus says, half to to the Voidfish and half just complaining to the world at large.

“You’ll get it back,” Johann assures him. “It’ll get bored sooner or later, but until then you might as well let it have its fun.”

Another protest sits on Angus’s tongue, but he holds it when he sees the Voidfish give a little wave before returning to messing with the duck. He lets it out as a sigh instead, slowly making his way back down.

Once Angus is on stable ground again, Johann returns to his desk and sits down. Angus, on the other hand, starts to gather up all the books and shovel them into his bag. Once he’s done, he shoulders the now-full bag and makes for the door.

“And where are you going?” Johann asks, just as Angus’s hand touches the door, and Angus jumps a little.

“I’m—” The words catch in his mouth, and he doesn’t look at Johann. “I just remembered something I have to do.”

He imagines Johann is frowning, uncertain of whether to believe him, but whether or not he really is doesn’t matter much. “Well, alright. I’ll send the duck back to your room when the Voidfish gets bored of it.”

“Okay, thanks,” Angus says, and then he pushes the door open and leaves.

 


 

Back in the safety of his own room, Angus gently deposits his bag on the floor by the door before tugging out his notebook and dropping into his chair to scribble out everything he remembers of what the Voidfish showed him. First— a muscular man in red carving ducks. In a cave. Home? It felt like home, while I was seeing it— it might’ve been the Voidfish’s home.

Angus pauses to think. Could that man have been Magnus? No, no, the ducks were— they weren’t nearly as good as what he makes. And if it were wouldn’t that make Magnus a—

He blinks, and shakes his head. Mind blanked when I started to think about Magnus, he writes in his notes, before moving onto the next memory.

When I asked about the Red Robes, it first showed me nothing but static, and then it showed several people whose features I couldn’t make out. He pauses, thinking on what he’s written, and then continues. Seven, I think

Then it showed me its home again, with more Voidfishes around, and I don’t know why it turned to static that time. Something nags at the edge of his mind, like he’s missed something important.

When I asked about Miss Umbrella, it showed me an elven woman with the Umbra Staff— which I guess doesn’t tell me anything new— He takes a moment to flip back a ways, checking the first conversation he had with the lich in the Umbra Staff before returning to his place— since she already told me she was an elf. I guess it further confirms she was a Red Robe and an elf? Assuming that really was the same person.

Then he pauses, looks it over, and then shuts the notebook and leans back to think. The Voidfish definitely knew the Red Robes. In those memories of its… home… the perspective seemed smaller? Closer to the ground? Was it a baby, then? I guess it loves Magnus’s wooden ducks because they remind it of when it was real little.

Then, there’s the elephant in the room. The Voidfish used to belong to the Red Robes. Or. Well. ‘Owned,' in as much as a sapient magic jellyfish can be owned? The same way the Bureau of Balance ‘owns' it now.

Does that mean the Director rescued it? he wonders. He ponders the question for a little while, then blinks. “...Hell, what actually happened to the Red Robes?”

The Red Robes were there in the Voidfish’s old home, he thinks, sitting up. I can’t learn certain things because of— static, or I can’t focus on the words, or my mind blanks when I think of the wrong things— what if this Voidfish isn’t the only one they took from their home?

He swallows a lump in his throat. I can’t learn the identities of the Red Robes, not in any meaningful way— what if one of the other Red Robes has another Voidfish— and they’re using it to keep anyone from knowing—

For once, his mind doesn’t blank following this train of thought— and he’s not sure if this means he’s wrong, or that this hypothetical other Red Robe just failed to account for someone learning that it happened— he doesn’t know if he’s wrong, and he’s been wrong before, you can’t get good at something without a few mistakes along the way.

He just doesn’t know how to tell if he’s wrong.

And he’s terrified— But are the Red Robes always bad? Miss Umbrella— she seems nice— she said she doesn’t know why her identity is hidden. She’s dead, she wouldn’t need to be inoculated— she could be being honest, she could not be—

He takes a deep breath, tries as hard as he can to settle his nerves, and with slow movements he picks up the notebook and flips to a blank page.

Another Red Robe has second Voidfish? he writes, as large as he can to fill the whole page, and then he tears it out. He folds it neatly in half, places it inside his desk, and leaves it there. I can think about the ramifications of that later.

Then, with that safely compartmentalized away, he settles down to think. And then his mind stalls at Oh, yeah, I told Leon about this too, didn’t I.

And then he blinks, and scrambles out of his chair. “Shit! I told Leon I’d tell him when I figure this out!”

He only grabs his notebook on his way out, barely slows down once he’s outside— just to put on the image of someone who has somewhere they need to be urgently, not someone who completely forgot a very important conversation.

A few people pass by him in the halls, sometimes greeting him before realizing he’s a boy on a mission and leaving him to his devices. He only stops once he reaches the Artificer’s office, knocking politely before pushing the door open.

The Director is in there, talking to Leon, and Angus almost has a heart attack when he sees her. He must’ve made some noise then, because both she and Leon turn to look.

Mustering every ounce of bravery left in his body, Angus steps inside. “H-hello sir, ma’am, am I interrupting anything?”

The Director looks at him for a moment, a small frown on her face, and then she shakes her head. “Not at all,” she says, setting down Leon’s book of magical items and turning away from it. “I was actually just about to leave.”

Angus gives a small nod, stepping out of the way as the Director sweeps past him and out the door. Once the door clicks shut again, he steps towards Leon’s desk, fidgeting with his notebook behind his back. “What were you talking about?”

“She wanted to know if there’s some kind of magical object that can do something or other,” Leon says, adjusting his book and peering over the desk down at Angus. “She was pretty vague, but I think it was something to do with obfuscating magical presences. Did you want something too?”

“Um— just, something about the conversation we had? Last week?” Angus says, folding his arms over his chest. “About Taako’s— the Umbra Staff.”

Leon blinks, then nods, pushing his book aside and steepling his hands. “I presume you’ve figured it out by now?” he asks, tilting his head slightly.

“Yes, I, actually figured it out completely within a day?” Angus says, rubbing nervously at the back of his neck. “But then a lot happened and I kinda— forgot. That I said I’d tell you about it so you don’t tell the Director.”

“Ah, that’s— understandable, I suppose,” Leon says, shifting in his seat. “Well, rest assured, it hasn’t been a full week just yet, so I haven’t told anyone. What was causing the Umbra Staff to act up?”

Again, Angus repeats the same half-lie. “It’s being possessed somehow by a ghost,” he says. “It— well, she— mistook Taako for someone she knew in life, and so was attempting to communicate with him until I cleared up the confusion.”

“Is the ghost still there?” Leon asks, raising an eyebrow over his glasses.

Angus adds another layer to his web of lies. “No,” he says. “I think she— passed on? Once she realized she was wrong. I’m not entirely sure why, to be honest.”

Leon nods, looking thoughtful. “Well, I suppose if the situation is entirely resolved, I can allow you to be the one to explain it to the Director.

“Yes, I’ll— I’ll definitely be sure to do that,” Angus says, turning away. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go— I have to go.”

“Okay, have a good day,” Leon says, turning back to his book.

Angus nods, steps outside, shuts the door behind him, and immediately starts shaking like a leaf. He has to lean on the doorframe to stay upright, wheezing out a noise like a broken squeeze toy and feeling so glad no one else is around. Having to stay composed after the shock of seeing the Director there probably wasn’t good for my heart, some part of him thinks, underneath all the screaming.

A minute later, once his heart is calmed and his breath has been caught, Angus makes his way down the halls again, thinking aimless thoughts. What else is there for me to do right now? he wonders, idly tapping his fingers on the spiral binding of his notebook. I could try to find some way to talk to Miss Umbrella, I could talk to the Voidfish again, I could…

Caught up in his musings as he is, Angus doesn’t notice the Director until he’s run right into her outside her office. He jumps back with a startled yelp, dropping his notebook, while the Director just half-turns to give him a bemused look.

“Is there something wrong?” she asks, as Angus frantically scrambles to retrieve his notebook from the ground.

“N-No, I’m f— I’m perfectly fine, ma’am,” Angus says, voice cracking a little at the end. “Just a little— distracted.”

The Director frowns, kneeling down to match him. “Are you sure? You looked rather startled to see me earlier, in Leon’s office.”

Angus freezes for a moment, then forces himself to shut his notebook and stand up. “It’s nothing I just— wasn’t. Expecting to see you?”

“I think your reactions have gone a little past startled,” the Director comments. “Please, tell me— is there anything wrong? You can talk to me, you know this.”

“Yes, um— I-I mean, yes, I know I can talk to you, but, um.” Angus bites his tongue, looking away. How am I supposed to tell someone I’m hiding the existence of a debatably honest lich on their moon base.

“W-well, I—” Angus starts, taking a step back and fussing with his notebook. His finger catches on a piece of paper sticking out, and he stares at it for a moment before recognition clicks. “I, um, someone actually asked me to bring you this? In private? A-and I wasn’t sure when would be a good time, so—”

“What is it?” the Director asks, getting to her feet again, and Angus tugs the folded paper out to hand it over.

With a curious look the Director unfolds the paper, eyes flicking over the message contained within, and almost instantly her face goes ashen and she reels back like she’s been struck. “What is it?” Angus asks, bouncing on his heels in an attempt to look at the paper though he already knows he can’t read it. “What does it say?”

“I— I don’t— how—” The Director stumbles back, the paper slipping from her hand and fluttering to the floor as she catches herself on her staff. She takes a long, shaking breath, and meets Angus’s eyes— “Where— where did you get this, Angus?”

Angus opens his mouth to reply, and then realizes he really shouldn’t tell the truth in this situation. But also, shouldn’t he trust the Director? She’s a good person, right?

In the end, the only noise ends up making is a long, high-pitched, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...”

“Angus, this is— this is urgent, Angus,” the Director says, getting to her knees to put her hands on his shoulders. “I need to know where you got this— this message, did someone give it to you? What did they look like?”

Angus freezes, breath catching in his throat as he tries to find something to say— and then he realizes, he doesn’t really need to lie here. “I-I— I don’t know—”

“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I-I mean I don’t know!” Angus insists. “I don’t— really know. Who gave it to me.”

The Director stares intensely into his eyes for a moment, then takes a deep breath, picks the message back up, and stands. “Come with me,” she says, motioning for Angus to follow behind her.

He does so, struggling to keep his hands from shaking too hard as the Director leads him to her desk and sits, motioning for him to sit on the other side. The chair seems far too large for him.

“First of all,” she says, murmuring a spell under her breath as she looks over the message again— Angus feels it take effect, and knows he can’t lie here— and then she turns the message around, to show it to him. “Can you tell me what this letter says?”

Angus looks at it, and the words— message— whatever it is, it swims on the page, he can’t quite seem to focus right on it. “No, I can’t.”

The Director nods, setting it back on the desk. “Can you tell me who gave it to you?”

“I—” Angus bites his tongue, looking everywhere but the Director’s face. Can I? I mean— I shouldn’t— I said I’d only tell a few people, and definitely not the Director— He frowns and shakes his head. “I’m— I don’t— maybe? I don’t.”

The Director frowns. “Do you not— not know who gave it to you? Did you not see them?”

“I— maybe?” Can you really consider it as having seen someone if you’ve only seen the umbrella they’re possessing? He rubs at his eyes under his glasses. “I— I just, don’t. Know? I don’t understand.”

“You don’t know,” the Director repeats. She looks worried. “Do you at least remember anything about what they looked like.”

“I— no? Or.” He blinks. “They— might have been— or. Had? A robe? Um.”

The Director takes a sharp breath. “Nothing else?”

He blinks, remembers an elven woman almost entirely obscured by static— but it’s not actually confirmed she’s the same person. “I-I don’t know.”

The Director sighs, massaging her eyes, and nods. “Right. Alright. Do you— have any idea why? Why you don’t know, I mean?”

Well, I’ve been half-lying my ass off the entire time— Angus stays silent, lacing his fingers together in his lap.

“Angus.” The Director gives him a somber look. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I— do trust you,” Angus says, the words spilling out. “And I’m being honest— you know that. I know you cast Zone of Truth. You know I know that.”

The Director blinks, taken aback a little, then gives him a fond smile. “True, you’re far too sharp to pull one over on you.”

Angus nods. “Right and— I really don’t— don’t know most of the things you’ve asked me— and I don’t for sure know why I don’t know—” Theories. To be fair, very probable theories, but they’re all unconfirmed— “And I want to investigate but— I don’t know.”

The Director sighs and nods again, rubbing at her temples, before picking up the message and reading it over again. “Right. I— understand.”

Angus blinks. “Wait— you do? Because I don’t—”

“No, I mean— I understand that you don’t understand,” the Director says, gesturing vaguely. “That’s what I meant— I didn’t mean, like— me understanding why you don’t know, that’s not what I meant.”

“Right, I— I get it.” Angus shifts backwards a little. “So, um— can I go?”

The Director rubs at the bridge of her nose, but nods. “Yes, you can— you can go. Be careful.”

Angus nods, sliding out of the chair and padding back to the door and pushing it open. He feels the effect of the spell fade, and with that he turns and says— “I hope you can figure out what’s going on.”

The Director nods, giving him a small smile as he shuts the door behind him, and as he walks away he reflects— he’s not even sure if he was lying there.

Then— “Hang on, she could read it—”

 


 

The moment she’s alone, Lucretia snaps the letter back up and stands, grabbing her staff on the way, and hurries towards her private quarters. It’s a simple matter to ignore her own defences— they’re not even at the front of her mind, as the paper in her hand creases a little where she holds it too tight, and she shakily taps in the code into the keypad.

In the safety of her private quarters, lit only by the light of the baby Voidfish, she finally allows herself to break down. It’s been years— years, and now she’s seeing that handwriting again— it’s shaky, messier, like the writer hasn’t written a word since that last note left on a kitchen table— but still recognizable—

And she has to cry, because Lup doesn’t trust her enough to talk to her directly, or she simply can’t— and oh gods, did Lucretia erase too much of her? Angus simply didn’t remember a single feature of the person who gave him a mysterious letter, normally he’d be all over a mystery like that but he’s not. Did Lucretia go too far?

She doesn’t think for a second Angus might have been dishonest— how could he? He’s the world’s greatest detective, he trusts her— he was under a Zone of Truth.

And she has to cry again— the baby Voidfish sings, gently, a few worried notes— because she’s going to defy that trust. The World's Greatest Detective was asked to deliver a message to the Director by a mysterious robed figure, she writes, neat as always on a scrap of paper with only a couple tear stains, and drops it to the baby Voidfish. It tears into the paper, devouring it within seconds, and flashes again— but it’s been flashing constantly, these past few days, and she’ll be honest the noise of that alarm is getting a little annoying.

(Somewhere else on the moon base, Angus continues fretting his way back to his room, memory completely unaffected but perhaps for a single idea of how the Director could misinterpret his words. They trust each other, sure, but they also have their own agendas to follow.)

Then, with that taken care of, Lucretia leans back in her chair and covers her face with her hands. She glances again at the message— holding it well away from the baby Voidfish’s tank— and finally manages to bring herself to laugh.

It’s not just the handwriting that makes Lucretia believe it, but the way it’s written. It’s not even signed— it doesn’t have to be, she would recognize Lup anywhere. Waltzing right back in after a decade, talking it up like she was never gone. It’s like a hole in Lucretia’s heart is almost— almost— filled.

One of these days, you and me are going to have a little talk about who you are and aren’t allowed to make my brother forget, the letter says. It will involve my fists, and your face. Be ready.

Lucretia isn’t sure if she’s dreading or looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

Angus hasn’t been sleeping well lately. It isn’t hard at all to notice— the only places he’s ever been seen are sitting in the Voidfish’s chamber, surrounded by books, in the library, surrounded by books, wandering through the halls, carrying books, learning magic from Taako, surrounded by books, and every time the connecting factor (aside from the books, which are equally worrying) is the deep, dark shadows under his eyes.

And Lup is more concerned about him than she ever expected to be.

That’s not to say she didn’t care about him from the start— he’s a sweet kid, has been since she met him, (or, well, since her boys met him, and also when she got to meet him properly too,) and she did find herself growing attached enough to get defensive. It’s just, he’s a smart kid? And he’s clearly overworking himself, and denying it whenever anyone tries to talk to him about it. Like, denying it really hard.

YOU’RE A GROWING BOY ANGO GET SOME DANG SLEEP, Lup carves into the underside of the kitchen table during one of Taako’s lessons. Angus ignores her, acting like he can’t see her clearly from his position on the ground where he just lay down about three minutes into Taako’s rant on improper lasagna preparation— which, mind you, Lup completely agrees with in every way.

Lup directs her mage hand to drop the knife she was using, and moves it over to prod at the side of Angus’s head. He just swats her away. He’s got a Caleb Cleveland novel open in front of him and is staring so intently at it she’d almost believe he was actually reading it if not for the fact that he hasn’t turned a page in nearly fifteen minutes. Or maybe he thinks he’s reading it, but he’s been getting so little sleep he’s dissociating to the point where he’s just rereading the entire thing from memory. Either-or.

Taako’s pasta rant is starting to wrap up to a point where he might start actually paying attention again, and Lup prods Angus more firmly this time— she dodges the swat better this time, shifting tracks to snatch his hat and dangle it a few feet up, and this at least gets more of a reaction from him.

He frowns, pats the top of his head to confirm the sudden absence of any extra covering, frowns deeper, and finally looks up in search of answers. Lup waves the hat around a little to grab Angus’s attention, then spins over to her message, and Angus stares blankly at it for a good minute without moving.

And then, with a tired noise, he drops his chin back into his arms. If Lup had any vocal chords right now, she’d probably scream, but as it is she just settles for throwing the hat at the side of Angus’s head and shoving his shoulder.

Angus doesn’t react, just sullenly turns a page, then several more with a confused frown— score one for the Dissociation Reading theory. Taako finally notices when he looks around for Angus and has to look even further down than usual to find him, and crouches next to him with a raised eyebrow. “Something got you down, Angus?”

The only response he gets is a grunt. Taako nudges him in the side, lowering his eyebrow. “Hey, hey, listen. You missed a good one. I said what’s got you ‘down,’ and you’re on the ground— Hey, Ango.”

Weakly, Angus laughs. “Good one, sir.”

Taako frowns, propping his chin up on his hand— “Okay, I know you said everything’s fine when you got here, but that’s obviously wrong. Tell me what’s wrong, Angus.”

“‘M fine, sir,” Angus says, not looking up. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Or the night before last night, or the night before that,” Taako continues. “Jeez louise, you’re this obvious— you’d think a great detective like you would pick up a thing or two about lying after a couple years, wouldn’t you?”

He directs the last bit vaguely towards Lup, and she makes a sort of nodding motion in the air— Taako, as much as he’s taken to denying it, is certainly smart enough to come up with a simple sign language to communicate with someone who’s effectively just a hand. He nods right back at her, before moving to lift Angus. “Come on, you great loaf, I need that floor. If you’re not alert enough to listen to me talk about food you’re not alert enough to learn magic.”

“Nooo, I wanna learn prestidigi-whatsits,” Angus whines, automatically wrapping his arms around Taako’s neck even as he protests. “It’s gonna be my birthday, you have to...”

Taako pauses a little on the way up, raising an eyebrow at the top of Angus’s head. “Is it? What do you want to get, then?”

“Mmph,” Angus mutters into Taako’s neck. “Wanna know about the Red Robes.”

“So do I, kiddo, so do I.” Taako pats him on the back. “Anything I can actually give you?”

“...Director’s Voidfish.”

Taako laughs, finally standing up to carry Angus out of his kitchen. “No can do, buddy, the things huge. Even Taako’s got limits, sometimes.”

“Noooo, Voidfishhhhh,” Angus mutters, voice growing further and further away, and Lup marvels at just how incredibly sleep deprived he really is.

And then she realizes that she, inside the Umbra Staff, has just been abandoned on the kitchen table. She sighs, internally, and with a great leap of effort— casts Mage Hand again, to pick herself up by the handle and float after Taako, like the super spooky ghost that she is. She should start banging on the cupboards and writing reminders in blood, that’ll really help the atmosphere.

 


 

Angus wakes up in Taako’s bed with absolutely no idea how he got there.

Immediately, he takes stock of the situation. Taako’s nowhere to be seen, though the Umbra Staff is hanging from the back of his chair, and there’s the faint aroma of burnt food wafting into his nostrils from somewhere out of sight. When he listens closely he thinks he can make out Magnus talking and Taako berating him over something— that’s one mystery solved— and as he sits upright and puts his feet on the ground he’s struck by the thought that this is the first time Taako’s been the one waiting for him to wake up.

Noticing his movement, the Umbra Staff shifts a little and forms a mage hand, which quickly flies over and gently flicks Angus in the nose. He recoils, rubbing the stinging away as the hand zips back to the desk to pick up a piece of paper and returns to show it to him. Take better care of yourself, the paper says.

Angus just huffs, turning his nose up at it. “I was taking perfectly good care of myself, thanks.”

The hand sags in the air, and flies back over to the desk to write another message. Angus follows, curious, and reads as it’s written. The fact that you nearly passed out on the kitchen floor says otherwise.

“I did not!” Angus protests, then pauses. “...Did I?”

Totally did. Then Taako picked you up and you said you wanted Red Robes and the Voidfish for your birthday.

“Okay, fine, I believe you about the passing out part,” Angus says, crossing his arms, “But I— that last bit doesn’t sound like something I’d say.”

I might be paraphrasing a little. The hand pauses in the air, pen still held tight, before moving again. You mind telling me just why you were overworking yourself like that?

“I—” Angus starts, before stopping and glancing around. Taako and Magnus still sound like they’re arguing, and by the sound of it Merle’s gotten wrapped up in it too— which is a good sign. They’re not listening in. With that thought in mind, Angus leans in and says in a hushed voice, “I think the Director has a second Voidfish.”

The hand pauses. Makes sense.

Angus blinks. “Wait, really? You didn’t even let me explain my reasoning.”

You can explain it anyway if you want. I’m pretty sure if I explained my side you wouldn’t be able to read it tho.

“Try me.”

######## ### # ### #### #### ### #### ## ##.

Angus sighs and rubs at his eyes. “I don’t know what I was expecting, really,” he mutters, then pushes his glasses back into place. “Okay, so— I gave her the message like you asked me to, which you know I can’t read. And she could read it just fine, which doesn’t necessarily mean she actively has a second Voidfish— but I’m pretty sure I could read that first message you left in the cafeteria?”

You could. Taako too. It’s remarkable how an umbrella can manage to look so put-out.

“Right, and now I don’t even remember how long it was.” Angus flips open his notebook, flipping around between pages as he talks. “Initially I thought some other Red Robe had it, and was using it to hide the identities of everyone involved— but they’d have to have seen the message in order to erase it, and it’s pretty hard to hide an entire giant jellyfish on the moon. The only one who could manage that is the one in charge of the entire Bureau, thus, the Director.”

The hand floats attentively all the while as he talks, flickering a little when he mentions the possibility of another Red Robe— he files that away for future reference— before dropping to write again. That tracks. You gonna do anything with that, or nah?

“I...” Angus trails off, before dropping into the chair with a sigh. “I don’t know. I trust the Director— she’s a good person, she’s done so much for me, and I want to believe she thinks she’s doing the right thing. But also… I don’t think she’s actually doing the right thing?”

Same .

Angus nods, a relieved smile flickering over his face for a moment before he frowns again. “Yeah, but it’s also— if she does have a second Voidfish, and I tell her I know about it, what’s stopping her from just— just making me forget the entire thing? I want to believe she wouldn’t— but I don’t know.”

The hand circles the last message. Then underlines it, several times. Same.

Angus blinks, then hums. “Oh, yeah, you couldn’t even tell me your name.” He pauses, thinks that over for a moment, then jerks upright. “Wait, if the Voidfish— if the Director— why is information about the Red Robes hidden—”

His mind blanks, and with a wince he lands back in the chair. “Ack, what was I thinking of there? I just— got too close to something?”

The hand flickers out of existence for a moment, reappearing to grab the pen and write another message. You still haven’t explained why you weren’t sleeping.

“Oh, right! I was— trying to see if I could figure anything out about the Voidfish. Or the Red Robes, or the Director for that matter. But I— I couldn’t find anything.” He sighs. “I’m normally so good at this, but— it’s frustrating. I can’t find anything, and I can’t think too hard about what I already know.”

I can, though , she writes. I’m dead, I can remember things. You talk to me about things, and keep talking, and I remember even if you suddenly lose your train of thought.

“I… guess, that might work?” Angus shrugs. “But if I don’t remember everything I’ve said, I can’t properly theorize. I’m not— not to be like, braggy, or pull you down or anything, but— I’m smarter than you, probably. I’m a genius, I’m a prodigy, I’m all kinds of fancy words, I’m almost certainly better at putting pieces together than you. And I don’t— I think, if you’re the one with all the pieces, and I only have most of them, I’m worried we’ll both end up somewhere less than accurate, right?”

The hand looks like it’s about to write again, but the sound of Taako’s doorknob twisting sends it instead into a flurry of crumbling papers and throwing them into the trash can. By the time the door is open, Taako’s desk is totally clear, and the hand has vanished.

Taako doesn’t look like he suspects a thing. “Oh, you’re up finally! About time, I was starting to worry I’d have to carry you all the way back to your room so I could have my bed back.”

“I could’ve carried him,” Magnus shouts from somewhere far away, before a sound of crashing metal drowns him out.

Taako sighs, shakes his head, and strolls over to retrieve the Umbra Staff. “Well, anyway, if you’re done taking a nap, we can like, resume the lesson or whatever. If you don’t feel like leaving?”

“No, I— I wanna learn magic,” Angus says, hopping out of the chair. Taako nods, and Angus follows him back outside to find pure pandemonium once more.

He’s guessing Magnus was trying to cook. There’s a charred mess stuck to the inside of one of the pots, a thin layer of smoke wafting around the ceiling, and several pans scattered around a prone Magnus. Angus stares at Magnus for a moment, wondering if he’s okay, and as if able to read his mind Magnus awkwardly raises a thumb to the air and says into the ground, “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, of course you are,” Taako says, pausing to give Magnus a sharp nudge to the ribs. “Try actually following the recipe next time, idiot.”

“Oh, if you’re gonna be like that why don’t you cook for us next time?” Magnus huffs, pushing himself up off the ground.

The pained look that flashes across Taako’s face is subtle, but Angus is sharp. The small flutter of the Umbra Staff, too. He frowns, and looks away— it’s not his business.

A second later, though, everything is normal. “Sorry buddy, my pal, these gay hands are allergic to any kind of labor,” Taako says, waving his hand like he’s showing off a manicure. “You gotta do it yourself.”

Magnus grumbles wordlessly, but Taako has already started shepherding Angus in the direction of the elevator. “C’mon, let’s go somewhere less chucklefuck-infested,” he says, heading in the direction of their living room.

Merle is there already, reading over a sheet of paper, and Taako leans over to read over his shoulder. “What, you’re still looking at it? We already know what it says.”

“Looking at what?” Angus asks, getting up on his tippy toes in an attempt to read it even as Merle tilts it away. “Did you guys get a letter? What does it say?”

“Hey, can you get the kid out of here?” Merle asks Taako, folding the letter over to hide its contents. “I mean, I get you’re teaching him and all, but—”

The Umbra Staff slides down Taako’s arm a little, lifts to the side, and lets gravity do the work swatting Merle in the side of the head. “Ow!” Merle yelps, jumping away. “Also, do something about your damn haunted umbrella!”

Taako shrugs helplessly. “I can’t help it, she does things on her own.”

“Yeah, well do you have to carry her everywhere?” Merle asks. His grip on the letter loosens, now that he’s thoroughly distracted, and Angus creeps a little closer.

“Not technically,” Taako says, crossing his arms, “But if I don’t she makes a habit of carrying herself. Do you wanna have a spooky ghost chasing you around with an umbrella? Or do you wanna occasionally watch an umbrella defy gravity while remaining thoroughly attached to my arm.”

Merle makes a vague, frustrated noise, snapping his hand away as Angus makes a grab at the letter. “Fine, whatever, fine. See if I care,” Merle says, standing up and throwing the letter at Taako’s face. “I’m gonna see if I can salvage anything from Magnus’s mess over there.”

“Remember to follow the dang recipe, old man!” Taako calls after him, catching the letter and deftly holding it well out of Angus’s reach.

Angus stops trying to jump for it after a moment, instead crossing his arms and giving Taako an attempt at a glare that really comes out as more of a pout. “Come on, can’t you at least tell me who it’s from? I’m a detective, you know, I’m definitely gonna figure it out eventually.”

Taako sighs, ears flicking sharply as he turns away. “Fine, fine, whatever, if it’ll get you off my back. It’s from Jess the Beheader.”

Angus’s eyes light up. “Oh, the dwarf lady from the Rockport Limited? What’s she writing to you for?”

“Says she wants us to come visit and prevent her murder, or whatever,” Taako says. “And also solve another murder, and go wrestling, I dunno.”

Somehow, through some arcane magicks, Angus’s eyes manage to light up even brighter. “Solve a murder, you say? Can I come with?”

“Sorry kiddo, the letter didn’t mention you,” Taako says, very visibly and audibly tearing a strip off the bottom and crumpling it up. “I dunno what to tell you.”

Angus does his best to give Taako a dry look, though the fact that he’s still bouncing on his heels kind of ruins the effect. “Sir. I get the feeling you’re not being totally honest here.”

“No, I’m totally honest here!” Taako says, turning to show Angus the letter while simultaneously setting the torn-off scrap on fire. “Look, do you see your name anywhere on this thing?”

Angus scans the paper, and it’s true— the only mention of Angus was probably on the scrap Taako just destroyed, and Angus thinks he can even see the beginning of a postscript right at the torn edge. The other thing he sees, though, is the date Jess listed. “Hey, that’s on my birthday!”

“Aw, shit, is it?” Taako asks, turning to look at the paper. “Man, that’s so soon— how old’re you gonna be? Like, nine?”

“No, I’m gonna be eleven!” Angus corrects.

“Feh,” Taako says, flapping a hand dismissively. “Nine, ten, eleven, they’re all baby ages to me. You humans are weird.”

“You’re weird,” Angus says, crossing his arms. “You’re like, two hundred years old, and you’re not dead.”

“Uh, excuse me, that’s a hundred and twenty-four, thank you,” Taako says, resting his elbows on the back of the sofa. “Do I really look that old to you?”

“I dunno, elves age super slow, how am I supposed to know?” Angus asks, sitting down across from him.

“No, you just age way too fast,” Taako says. With a dramatic twist, he vaults over the back of the sofa and lands neatly in the cushion. “Now, are we gonna learn magic or what?”

“R-right!” Angus says, snapping to attention. “What’re we learning today?”

“We’re learning a first level spell, I don’t expect you to get it right the first time. This is Detect Magic…”

Chapter Text

They’re in the middle of a dense, bustling crowd in the middle of Neverwinter, and Lup isn’t sure how to subtly communicate to Angus that she wants him to pickpocket her.

Well, not pickpocket as in steal from her— Taako is the one who’d be stolen from, technically, she supposes. It’s more like, she wants Angus to take the Umbra Staff? And get somewhere private, like an empty alleyway or something, she doesn’t care.

Here’s the thing. This is the first time Lup has been off the moon base since managing to properly talk with someone who can— on at least some level— understand what she’s saying, and talk to her, without it feeling like a knife being twisted in her incorporeal heart. And she knows she can’t safely come out up there. Now’s the first opportunity she has to get out of the umbrella, stretch her legs, take a look around on her own—

And her only hope is an eleven-year-old who could barely manage to stutter out a pre-discussed lie.

Sigh.

The streets are getting more and more crowded the closer they get to their destination, Chaos Stadium, and she’s sure it would be easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of people. Hell, Angus is already starting to trail behind, struggling to keep his eyes on the top of Magnus’s head past everyone’s heads.

An idea strikes Lup. There’s no one looking at her, no one paying attention to the umbrella hanging from Taako’s arm, not even Taako himself. With that thought she casts Mage Hand, grabs the umbrella just below the handle, and lifts it from Taako’s arm.

No one notices an umbrella weaving through the gaps between bodies, except for the ever-vigilant Angus— mostly because Lup presses the Umbra Staff into his hands before dispelling the hand and tugging him off in another direction.

Angus is confused, asks a question that’s lost under the noise of the crowd, but nonetheless allows himself to be dragged along towards a nearby alleyway. He stumbles out of the crush, gasping like he was just doing some deep-sea diving, and Lup gives him a moment to recover before tugging him further along.

“What is it?” he asks, quickening his pace to keep his arm from getting tugged on too hard. “Did you see something? Where are you taking me?”

Lup doesn’t reply. She just pulls him further along, going just behind a corner before she finally stops. Angus stumbles a little, shoe catching on a crack in the pavement and sending him reeling just for a moment before he rights himself. “What’s wrong?” he asks again, looking around.

Lup looks around too, but not in the same way. He’s examining the scenery, trying to figure out what’s here that Lup dragged him over to look at— Lup is focused on what’s not here. People. There’s no one here, no one peeking out through a window to see them, no homeless person curled up in the corner watching.

There’s no one here to see them, and now knowing this, Lup retreats back into the Umbra Staff. And then, she twists, wrenching as hard as she can— prying every fiber of her being away from it— it protests, the Umbra Staff was designed to eat magic and Lup is nothing but—

The Umbra Staff bucks and shakes in Angus’s hands, twisting to point away from him before turning inside out and shooting a blur of red lightning away into a wall. The blur falls to the ground, shaking, flickering, shooting off red lightning in all directions— Angus takes a step back, hugging the umbrella close to his chest.

And then, the blur twists into the shape of a red robed figure, crumbled to the ground and heaving with mock-gasps for air. The lightning subsides, and the figure sits up, shaking her hood from side to side and muttering, “Ugh, that was way tougher than it probably should have been.”

Angus swallows the lump in his throat. “M-ma’am?” he squeaks out, like he’s just been struck by the realisation that yep, she’s a lich.

Lup’s hood snaps up, the light inside it seeming to bore deep into Angus’s soul, and Angus very valiantly jumps an inch into the air and squeaks again. “Geez, kiddo, do I really look that bad?”

Angus nods shakily. He looks about two seconds away from fainting.

Lup turns, finding her reflection in a grimy window, and lets out a low whistle. “Whew, you’re right, this look is not good on me.”

She hums, fussing with her hood a little, then lifts one skeletal hand and snaps. With a rush of magic, the red robe vanishes under an illusion of a leather jacket and jeans. Long, elven ears flick a little under her hat, and she turns to grin at Angus behind a pair of mirrored shades. “This look any better?”

Angus blinks. “You look like Taako.”

“I would hope so,” Lup says, pretending to fuss with her illusionary hair. “I’d be a pretty terrible wizard if I couldn’t even get Disguise Self right.”

“Why do you look like Taako?” Angus asks.

“Because I’m ### ######,” Lup says. “That’s kinda how ######## works.”

Angus blinks again, then shakes his head. “I just— I only got static there,” he says.

“Yep, figured.”

“Yeah. Um, so,” Angus shuffles his feet a little, then gives Lup a curious look. “Why’re you, um. Not possessing the umbrella right now?”

“Hey, sometimes a gal just wants to stretch her legs a little,” Lup says, stretching her arms up above her head. “The Umbra Staff gets real stuffy after a while, you know? Plus, I got things to do.”

“Right, I, yeah.” Angus blinks. “Wait, are you leaving? Just like that?”

“Just for the day,” Lup says, waving a hand absently as she wanders back towards the entrance of the alleyway. “I just wanna see the sights on my own, I’ll be back ‘fore you leave the city.”

“Oh, okay!” Angus says, trotting along behind Lup. “Though, how’re you gonna do that? I’m kinda deducing getting back in the umbrella will be just as much of a show as it was coming out.”

“Uhhhhh.” Lup slows to a stop right at the edge of the crowd, then shrugs. “I’ll figure something out.”

“R-right,” Angus says, looking distinctly uninspired.

Eh, whatever, that’s his problem. Lup turns, then, and holds out a hand. “Here, gimme the umbrella.”

Angus shakes his head, hugging the umbrella closer to his chest. “No, it’s— it’s still Taako’s,” he says.

“It was mine first,” Lup grumbles, crossing her arms. Then she sighs, and turns around again. “But that’s not what I was saying, I was gonna use it to go find him and give it back.”

Angus blinks. “Oh, alright— okay. Here.”

Lup takes the umbrella and holds it up, focusing on everything she knows about Taako— an impressive feat, being that she’s known him nearly all of their lives. She grabs Angus by the wrist and pulls him behind her into the crowd. “Come on, this way.”

 


 

“Oh thank god I caught up to you! I was so worried when I lost you in the crowds, that I wouldn’t be included on this adventure!”

Taako groans, followed closely by Magnus facepalming and Merle muttering “Goddamnit.”

“You should keep better care of your kid,” the elf standing behind Angus says, crossing her arms. She’s dressed like some kind of incredibly obvious secret agent, all black clothing, face-concealing shades, and a hat to shade her face. “And also, your umbrella. Someone pickpocketed you.”

“Hey, Ango, who’s this?” Mangus asks, holding a hand up to his mouth in a blatantly transparent attempt to be subtle.

Angus perks up. “Oh, this is Miss Umb— um.” He stops, looking over at the elf with a helpless look.

She seems to catch his drift. “Umber,” she says, sticking out a hand for a handshake.

Taako narrows his eyes, ears flicking a little as she talks. “Have we met somewhere before?” he asks, completely ignoring her hand.

Umber pauses, possibly blinking under those shades, before returning her hand to a pocket. “I’ve met a lot of people,” she says in a lofty tone of voice.

“Well, that’s not vague at all,” Merle mutters.

Umber ignores him. “Why do you ask?”

“Just thought your voice seemed familiar,” Taako says. “Might’ve just been the accent, don’t meet a lot of people with such a clear New Elfington accent.”

Umber makes an odd face, like she’s torn somewhere between laughing it off and bursting into tears. The expression passes quickly, however, and she shrugs. “Well, it’s a rare accent, I’ll give you that.”

“Are you a hologram?” Magnus blurts out.

Umber blinks. “Pardon?”

“You’re not— casting a shadow,” he says, motioning vaguely at the ground. “What’s up with that?”

Umber looks down at her feet, scuffing one of them against the ground without leaving a mark, and then looks back up at him with an offended look. “Hey, now that’s pretty rude, don’t you think? Prying into people’s personal problems? Not everyone can afford to have a shadow, you know.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it—” Mangus stutters out, waving his hands defensively—

“Why d’you look like Taako?” Merle asks.

“Yeah, that too, why do you—” Magnus agrees, cutting himself off when Umber opens her mouth again— “—and I don’t mean that in a racist way, like all the elves I’ve met aren’t anything like Taako, which makes it even weirder that you look, like, exactly like him. Are you some kinda time travel clone or something?”

Umber purses her lips. “Yes, that’s exactly what I am, a time travel clone hologram. You’re a genius, Magnus.”

“Thank you, I— wait.” Magnus narrows his eyes at Umber. “I never told you my name.”

Umber startles a little. “Wha— Um, sure you did! I’m a wizard. Look, Taako, just take the dang umbrella,” she says, shoving the Umbra Staff in Taako’s direction before taking a step back. “I got places to be, things to do, bye.”

She quickly vanishes into the crowd, and all three reclaimers start at the spot she just was for a moment.

Then, Taako speaks. “So that was totally suspicious, right? I’m not alone in thinking that?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” Magnus agrees, nodding quickly. “Super weird how she knew our names— and was there some kinda illusion going on? Or am I wrong?”

“What do you wanna bet she’s the one who stole your umbrella in the first place?” Merle asks.

“Um!” Angus cuts in. “I can— I can confirm she’s not the one who— carried it off, for one, but also not to sidetrack the conversation—”

“You’re already doing that,” Taako comments.

“—Didn’t we come down here for a reason?” Angus asks. The reclaimers blink, and Angus motions to the Chaos Stadium right behind them.

“Oh, right, that,” Taako says. “Well, let’s get this show over with.”

 


 

Sitting on top of the tallest building in Neverwinter, unnoticeable to anything but the sharpest eye even if she weren’t invisible, Lup realizes she has no idea what to do with her day.

Ten years spent dead and barely holding together in a cave, several months barely conscious and unsure of how to contact Taako safely, and then a couple weeks cheerfully haunting him— suffice it to say she’s a little rusty at the whole ‘finding something to do’ thing.

Okay, priorities— she needs to find Barry, and also a birthday present for Angus. The odds that Barry is somewhere in Neverwinter at the same time as her are astronomical, so she needs to leave a message that he’s sure to find next time he comes through.

She hums, idly tapping at her lip. It’d also have to be something vague enough that no one else would be able to get it, but also as obvious as possible so he could find it easily…

An idea strikes her. ...I wonder, who’s the most corrupt corporate official out here?

 


 

It’s not a corrupt official’s house, but Lup does manage to track down a seedy bar conducting some distinctly unsavory business practices. It takes her a bit to magically tint the fire to just the right shade of red all the way through, and she needs to keep close to keep the fire burning only in the places she wants it— enough to chase everyone out and wreck their base of operations, but still leaving behind more than enough evidence of their wrongdoings that even the slightest arson investigation will uncover it.

She’s hoping it’ll be enough to catch Barry’s attention. A mysterious pure-red fire burning perfectly to uncover a large den of criminals— she’s hoping it’s enough, and it’s with that hope that she’s left a message in the alley next door.

In addition, in preparation for the long wait next to a glorified bonfire, Lup made several purchases beforehand. A bag of marshmallows, some chocolate bars, and a box of crackers. Perched on the roof next door, she casually swirls marshmallows in and out of the flames in an attempt to get just the right amount of brown along the edges.

She’s halfway through filling a box with s'mores when someone arrives on the roof behind her. She turns her head lazily, still swirling a finger around and around in the air to keep the marshmallows going, and raises an eyebrow when she sees a handful of armored people— adventurers, she guesses— popping their heads up through a hatch in the roof.

The first one, a red-haired lady dressed like a bard, speaks first. “What’re you doing?”

Lup blinks behind her shades. “Makin’ s’mores.”

“What were you expecting—” the girl behind the first one hisses, before Red-Hair shushes her and whispers something back.

“Why are you making s’mores on the roof?” Red-Hair asks after a moment. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but that’s kinda a building, on fire, there.”

“Oh, yeah, I noticed,” Lup says, turning back to her marshmallows and wincing when she notices one’s on fire. She extinguishes it quickly, decides it’s salvageable, and puts together the next batch of s’mores.

There’s a chorus of whispering amongst the adventurers, chief among them being statements along the lines of this is a terrible idea and what are you thinking, along with the occasional no we can defs take it. Lup hums, sending another handful of marshmallows darting in and out of the fire, and comments, “I can totally hear you, you know.”

A hush falls over the adventurers, and Lup idly turns her head to look at them again. They’re all staring at her with varying degrees of battle-readiness, and Lup quickly takes stock of the odds— a gang of five-ish ragtag adventurers, maybe around fifteenth level if she’s going off the amount of loot they’ve got showing, versus a 200-some-odd year old lich?

(Admittedly, she’s only spent, what, thirty or so of those years actually being a lich? Less if you only count when she’s actively dead? But shush, that’s not the point.)

Yeah, if it comes down to it, she can beat them.

 


 

Hey, Lup, remember what you said earlier about them being around level fifteen? Lup asks herself, dodging bolts of way too much magical energy as the adventurers chase after her. Yeah, make that level twenty and not very fond of showing off their wealth— fuck!

Their ranger fires off a crossbow bolt that barely misses, and while normally she’d be completely unfazed by this they’ve got something going on that lets them hit her even when she’s supposed to be intangible—

The paladin has better aim, landing a strike right through Lup’s back with a thrown javelin. She nearly drops the s’mores— admittedly, she’d probably be faring a little better here if she just agreed to let them go— but manages to wrench the burning searing holy weapon out of her back and drop it before retreating above a building.

She’s given up on the fire being controlled, deciding she’ll settle on it just being a huge oddly-colored fire that happened to start in a slimy den of evil criminals. It’s still likely to attract Barry’s attention, it’s just not as neat and orderly.

Sensing a brief respite in the attacks, Lup stoops down to quickly write a note on the inside of the lid— and then there’s that warlock jumping up from behind, a spell already passing through her lips, and Lup spits out a mouthful of curses she’s sure this girl’s never heard.

The warlock stumbles, seemingly thrown off— probably confused by how perfectly Lup managed to mimic the sound of static— and Lup takes the opportunity to take off again, shutting the box and making for Chaos Stadium.

And then she backpedals, because it looks like they’ve worked out what direction she’s heading and there’s that god damn bard again jesus Christ how are those puns so bad—

Lup dodges up, questions her choices in death, and does her damndest to not drop these dang s’mores.

 


 

The adrenaline’s still pumping through Angus’s veins when he stumbles out of Chaos Stadium, and he’s still giddy over Taako plainly saying something nice to him for once instead of hiding it under a dozen layers of sarcasm and obtuseness. Taako, Merle, and Magnus are all laughing and joking amongst each other, already completely over the fact that they just stopped some kind of god-demon summoning plot or whatever, and it’s only Angus that bothers looking up at the sky and noticing the huge pillar of reddish smoke billowing somewhere off in the distance.

He blinks, slowly, and adjusts his glasses. Wonder what’s going on over there?

The answer crashes into him not a second later— or rather, she crashes into the ground several metres ahead of him, followed closely by a paladin and some kind of huge wolf. Then the answer darts forward before her pursuers can fully catch up, trailing fire and knocking Angus backwards into Taako’s back— there’s a blur of movement, yelling, and by the time everyone’s stopped Angus is on the ground with some kind of box in his hands and the paladin’s yelling at the wolf.

“I told you to flank that thing!” she says, as the wolf shifts into the shape of a half-orc woman. “Seriously, I give you one instruction, a really simple one, and you can’t even do that!”

“Hey, everything was happening really fast,” the wolf-lady defends, as a bard and warlock pop into being next to her looking ready to fight. “I couldn’t keep up.”

“Hey man, what’s the big idea?” Taako asks as he picks himself back up and adjusts the folding of the Umbra Staff. “Jeezy creezy, sending your pal there flying right into us— how rude can you get?”

“That wasn’t a pal,” the paladin spits, making to march towards him before the warlock grabs her ponytail to stop her. “That was the lich we were chasing across town after it started a fire in some bar— and you, Miri— you let it get away!”

“You were there too! Couldn’t you have done some kinda super special paladin stuff to slow her down or something?”

“Ladies, ladies, you’re both to blame,” the bard says, reaching up to rest a hand on each of their shoulders. “That being said— did any of you people see which way that lich went?”

Magnus blinks blearily, lifting his head off the ground. “Lich? What lich, was there a lich?”

“There was a lich,” the warlock confirms, “though it might not have been really recognizable as one unless you had true-sight on— it was disguised as an elven woman, dressed kind of like some kind of incredibly obvious secret agent?”

“Knew it,” Taako says, holding out his hands for high-fives from Magnus and Merle. “Knew there was something fishy about that lady from the moment she said hello, shoulda guess she was some kinda monster.”

“I’m a little disappointed she wasn’t really a time travel clone, though,” Magnus comments. “I still say it’s freaky how much she looked like you.”

“Oh, she’s probably just a fan,” Taako says, posing a little.

Meanwhile, the other adventurers make various expressions of ‘this might as well be happening.’ “You know who we’re talking about, then?” the warlock asks.

“Yeah, we ran into her a couple hours back,” Taako says. “Probably stole my umbrella, definitely gave it back— I still think she did something to it, it’s been acting weird.”

“What, really?” Merle asks. “I didn’t notice it doing anything.”

“And that’s exactly it,” Taako says. “Think it over, what’s this dang umbrella been doing—”

“Um!” Angus quickly talks over Taako, leaving him to rant at Merle while talking to the high-level adventurers himself. “If you’re wondering where that lady— or, lich— went, I think she went that way!” He points down the street, well away from where Taako stands with the Umbra Staff on his arm.

“You sure?” the bard asks, leaning down and resting her hands on her knees to meet his eye level. “This is really important business, you know, we can’t be going off of wrong information.”

“Respectfully, ma’am, please don’t patronize me.” Angus adjusts his glasses, the box he’d mysteriously acquired hidden neatly behind his back. “I’m a detective, I can easily notice where things went, and I say she went that way.”

The bard grins. “Well, alright, if you say so.” She straightens back up and turns to the rest of her team. “Alright, the kid says the lich went further down the street! Let’s go!”

There’s a chorus of nods, and quickly they all take off, leaving just the reclaimers and Angus still standing in front of the stadium.

“...But yeah, I don’t think I was expecting a lich,” Taako says. “Hey, Ango, did you know she was a lich?”

Angus opens his mouth to answer, then shuts it and gives Merle a dry look as he feels a Zone of Truth settle around him. “Are you sure that was necessary, sir?”

“Sure it was!” Merle says. “Go on, answer his question, I’m just making sure you gotta tell the truth.”

Angus puffs up his cheeks and looks away, fidgeting with the box. “Mmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnyes I knew she was a lich I figured it out really quickly,” he finally spits out, all in one breath.

“How’d you figure it out so quick?” Taako asks, leaning casually on the Umbra Staff.

“I’ve done a lot of— I did a lot of research into, um, undead beings, while I was investigating the whole—” Angus gestures vaguely at the umbrella. “—that, situation, um— and. Liches came up. Naturally. Because they’re undead.”

“How’d you figure out that elf lady was one, though?” Magnus asks. “I mean, sure, she was dressed and acting totally spish, and she didn’t have a shadow— but how’d you, um, how’d you manage to figure it out? And why didn’t you mention it to any of us?”

“O-Oh, you know, didn’t want to freak anyone out!” Angus says. “And— and liches are pretty well known for being unstable, who knows what she could’ve done if she felt at all threatened by me— I like, um, I really like staying alive, and not dead.”

Taako frowns. “Hey, you didn’t say how you actually figured it out.”

Angus sweats. “Well, I am the world’s greatest detective. We’d better go, people might start getting worried if we take too long!”

“What— no they won’t!” Taako yells as Angus takes off at a brisk trot, racing after him and stepping in front to block his escape. “We’ve been gone way longer on much more perilous missions, and we got greeted by a standing ovation.”

“If you’re talking about when you retrieved the Gaia Sash, that’s because they knew exactly where you were for the latter half,” Angus says. “Plus you didn’t have a defenseless little boy with you.”

“You’re not defenseless, you’ve got that tiny crossbow,” Taako says. “And your wits. And magic, technically. We don’t need to babysit you every second of every day, and frankly I don’t want to.”

“He does have a point, though,” Magnus argues. “We kinda said we wouldn’t be gone too long. May as well head back now that we’re done with the whole wrestlemania thing, unless you’ve got something else you'd also like done while we’re in Neverwinter”

Taako gives a frustrated sigh, then shrugs. “Fine, whatever, let’s go.”

“And we call the orb from outside city limits,” Merle says, following after them. “We don’t want it crashing into another building this time.”

“Jesus christ, Merle, it was one time!”

 


 

It’s only once they’re seated in the orb and already floating up that Angus opens the box he was given. Taako zeroes in on it instantly, nose twitching as he sniffs at the smell wafting out of it, and without even leaning over to look inside he asks, “Are those s’mores?”

Angus blinks. “Uh, yeah, how’d you—”

Before he can react, Taako has already snatched one up and popped it in his mouth, raising an eyebrow appreciatively. “Still warm, nice.”

Angus glares ineffectually at him, turning the box away and looking inside more properly. He takes one out as he goes, taking a bite— he hasn’t had s’mores like this in… well, ever, maybe? But even if he had, he’s sure it’s the best he’s ever encountered.

There’s a message written in the underside of the lid. Burned in, more like it, Angus realizes, as he adjusts the angle so the light falls on it better. Happy Birthday, it reads, and then a little heart, and it’s signed ~ L Ms U.

He smiles.

“You know what?” Taako announces all of a sudden. “That was a goddamn amazing s’more. Really gets you nostalgic for old times in childhood, sitting all on your own next to a fire and struggling to figure out where to go next.”

“Oh, what’s this?” Magnus asks. “Is it backstory time? Is Taako gonna start actually talking about his past for once?”

“Nope, that was just the free demo,” Taako says, leaning over to snag another s’more. “If you want the full content you’re gonna have to pay, it’s a thousand gp monthly prescription.”

“You do realize no one’s ever gonna care enough about your sob story to pay all that, right?” Merle asks, attempting to take one too and getting his hand batted away by Taako.

“I’m interested,” Angus says, around the next s’more in his mouth.

“You got the cash for it?” Taako asks, and Angus shakes his head. “Didn’t think so. You can’t trick Taako into sharing more that that, no-sirree-bob.”

“Whatever you say, sir.”

 


 

Barry Bluejeans watches the orb containing what remains of his family float up and away from his reach.

He’s— thankful, a little, that he kept far from them while they were on this outing, as those other adventurers seemed strong— they’d have noticed him in an instant.

On the other hand— it’s been bothering him, who that was that had returned Lup’s umbrella and that kid back to them. He couldn’t make out anything distinct other than those elf ears on her— and he wants to be hopeful, he wants to believe she’s been alive all this time and just happened to cross paths with them just this once—

But he’s chased many red herrings, and this just seems like yet another.

The fire, though— it’s hard to miss. Pure scarlet fire letting off reddish smoke is suspicious, to say the least. And so he looks around the area, once the fire has died down, darting behind charred corners whenever someone passes by, and he nearly misses it when he triggers a spell.

He hears some weird grunts, and it takes him a moment to place where he last heard them— I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, Lup’s voice chants, in the language of the mongooses.

He finds the source quickly, a loose brick with a magic mouth chanting that message over and over as long as Barry is nearby, and he barely hesitates in taking it— he hears someone coming to investigate that weird noise, and Barry vanishes, brick in hand, message repeating on and on and on—

It’s been so long, and he can barely imagine meeting up with her again— but still, it’s Lup’s voice, and he thinks just once, he’ll let himself.

I’m okay, Lup’s voice chants, and for once, Barry thinks he is too.

Chapter Text

Lucretia is off-base, meet me in front of her office. Respond in twenty-five words or less.

As far as rude awakenings go, being disturbed by Miss Umbrella beaming her voice directly into his head after roughly a month of no contact ranks pretty high on the list.

He considers responding with a string of the worst curses he can think up in return for getting woken up at— where’s the clock— one in the morning, being asked to do something with very little explanation and no context, but the urge subsides after a moment and he sighs.

“Please warn me in advance next time,” he mutters into the darkness, hoping that’s the right way to reply. “And maybe explain what you’re doing as well. I was sleeping.”

There’s no response, and Angus hopes he wasn’t just waking up with a dream still in his ears. He laces up his shoes blearily in the dark, barely remembering to bring his notebook too as he slips out into the empty halls.

When he reaches the door leading towards the Director’s office, he’s almost disappointed to see the Umbra Staff lying in front of it with no one to be seen around it. “Respectfully, ma’am,” Angus starts, crouching down in front of it, “But what the fuck did you wake me up for?”

The Umbra Staff unfolds and refolds rapidly to flip around, the handle landing neatly in front of Angus’s knee. “Okay, but that— doesn’t really answer my question,” he says, picking it up. “What now—”

The umbrella tugs sharply towards the door, and Angus barely manages to keep up with it without stumbling to the floor. It points insistently at the doorknob, and after glancing around nervously Angus pushes the door open and slips inside.

“Okay, please— can you please explain what’s going on here?” Angus asks. “I brought my notebook and everything, we haven’t even talked since my birthday— what have you been doing?”

The Umbra Staff stops tugging, summoning a mage hand with some reluctance and accepting Angus’s pen. I’ve been figuring out where Lucretia would hide another fish if she had one, and how to get there, she says.

“Well, yes, I— that’s reasonable, I was looking into that too. It’d be in her personal quarters, since no one’s allowed in there.” He narrows his eyes at the umbrella. “What are we doing here?”

Guess.

“I— no. I don’t— I respect the Director, and I don’t— I don’t want to just break into her room, that place is— I can’t just go behind her back! Plus it’s against the rules, and wrong, and we’d get caught. I don’t— it’s just a bad idea.”

Hey do you enjoy not knowing things.

“No, I—”

Didn’t think so, it’s break-in time.

Angus sighs, massaging the bridge of his nose. “Okay, I— I agree with you in principle, people looking for the truth aren’t ever the bad guys— Caleb Cleveland said so— but also, are you sure breaking in in the middle of the night is the right way to do it?”

Yes.

“...Okay, I guess that’s that,” Angus says. With one last frustrated sigh, he shuts the notebook and tucks it away. “Fine, if you’re— if you’re sure we can’t do it some other way, fine. Let’s do this.”

The hand bobs in the air before vanishing, the Umbra Staff once again tugging on Angus’s arm to drag him over to the large, heavy-looking door in the back. Tentatively at first, and then harder, Angus pushes on it. He strains a little pushing it just wide enough to step through, looking around at the hall on the other side before actually entering.

It seems totally empty at first, just lined with a couple columns along the walls, and then he notices the bell tucked into a corner— a less observant person could’ve missed it easily. He hesitates at the edge of the doorframe, uncertain whether or not to move, before the Umbra Staff lifts on its own.

First, it shoots a spell, surrounding the bell in a dome of magic— Angus isn’t sure, but it might be Silence? He hasn’t quite gotten that far in his studies yet. Then the Umbra Staff calls up a mage hand for a brief second to give him a thumbs up before vanishing.

With a tentative nod, Angus steps forward, and immediately his foot sinks into the floor. Oh, his first thought goes, of course the Director would leave more to defend her quarters than just a single alarm bell.

And then, I knew this was a terrible idea.

There’s something crawling on the walls, but Angus is more focused on trying to pry his legs free from the rapidly-encroaching floor— and the Umbra Staff is twisting in his hand, what’s it— she— doing— this is a disaster already why did he agree to this again—

And then the tip of it brushes against his cheek, and there’s the tingling of magic, and he sees that oh of course none of this is real. Obviously.

With a flushed face, he stands back up and trots across the room, giving the alarm bell a nervous look as he passes— it’s slamming as hard as it can, but the most he can make out is a faint taktaktaktaktaktak and even that might just be his brain expecting a noise and making one up.

Finally, at the end of the hall, he finds a keypad of some sort. “Seven spaces,” he observes.

For a moment, the Umbra Staff is still. Then she summons a hand and tentatively taps in a code. The keypad flashes red, and the door doesn’t open, so she taps in another sequence, and then another.

It’s the same characters every time, he notes, just in different orders. Before Angus can glean anything from it, though, the keypad finally blinks green, the door slides open, and neither of them waste any time before stepping inside.

The first thing Angus notices is that it’s cluttered. There’s books stacked everywhere, two of each book— or are those journals? And there’s a map up above the desk, covered in pushpins and string, a small tank in the corner with some kind of prescense supplying the only light originating in the room, a single pair of journals sitting neatly stacked next to an inkwell— nothing obviously out of place, there’s not nearly enough room here for another Voidfish— were they wrong?

Miss Umbrella seems to think otherwise, tugging Angus over to the desk and picking up a stray cup to dip into the tank. She pushes it into his hands, sending her mage hand around to start piling up books seemingly at random while Angus stares down at the water in his hands.

Hesitantly, he takes a sip, and nearly spits it out as he tastes— Voidfish ichor. And there’s a tiny little Voidfish in that tank, drifting along the edge of the tank like it’s following Lup’s hand around and oh, that’s her name, she told me that several times how’d I not—

There’s a distant noise from the hallway and everyone freezes— Angus, Lup, the baby Voidfish, they all freeze, and then Lup frantically shoves the new pile of books into Angus’s arms, then she grabs that floating holy symbol and adds it to the stack, and then for good measure she gently— very gently— scoops the Voidfish from the water and hides it under Angus’s hat.

And then there’s the sound of hurried footsteps and the Umbra Staff is pushing Angus back into the wall, and then casting a spell that he isn’t sure what it does until the Director comes rushing in with a frantic look on her face and her eyes slide right past Angus. The Umbra Staff— Miss Umbrella— Lup— pushes gently, tugs maybe, edging Angus closer to the door as the Director panics over the missing Voidfish and books. And then Angus reaches the door and his shock wears off and he bolts.

He gets all the way to the Director’s office before he has to dodge aside in order to not run right into a troop of guards waiting at the door. He presses himself against the wall as they look around, did they hear his footsteps oh no they’ll realize he’s here— but they don’t look like they’ve realized there’s a kid standing right next to them and barely breathing, and Angus shifts along past them—

And for a moment, his eyes catch on the painting of the Director that’s always hung above her desk— the one so large, looking so empty with only her standing right in the middle— but it’s not empty at all, now, and the Director looks so much younger, and surrounded by friends—

She’s surrounded by Magnus, and Merle, and Davenport, and Taako with another elf who looks just like him— Lup— and another man, he doesn’t know that face. But they’re all wearing a brilliant red uniform. And they’re all wearing patches emblazoned with the acronym IPRE.

Somehow, the thought that the Director used to be a Red Robe, that she must have created a relic too, that she’s working directly against what she’d previously worked for— somehow, it’s only an idle oh, huh. And then the Director steps back out, giving a firm order to the guards, who step away— and in an instant, Angus is gone, thanking every god that’s ever existed that the door was left open just enough for him to slip through.

He runs for as long as he can, as far as he can, until the spell cast by— whatever he calls her now— fades away, leaving Angus perfectly visible leaned against the wall in the middle of a dark hallway. He takes a minute to collect himself, adjusts his hat— there’s a small, confused note sung from underneath it, and that does not help his mental state— and then he picks the books back up, hooks the Umbra Staff on his elbow, and diligently trudges his way back to his room.

It’s a bit of a chore to open the door while carrying so much stuff, but he manages, depositing the books on his desk and releasing the Voidfish. He’s worried, at first, that it’ll get hurt from the lack of water, but the moment he lifts his hat the Voidfish springs into the air and starts bobbing around, seemingly exploring its new area.

“Hey, ma’am,” Angus says, dropping into his chair with a newfound exhaustion. “What the fuck, ma’am.”

I wasn’t expecting her to be back so soon, Lup writes. Sorry about not asking before casting those spells on you, btw.

“No, I— I understand that, I’m not upset about that, I’m just—” He picks up a book, pretending not to notice the way his hand trembles as he does so. “What is this?”

It’s one of her journals, Lup writes. The first one, I think. I’d read that one first if I were you.

“I— okay.” He picks up the holy symbol, a circle containing a many-branched tree. “What about this?”

That’s what was stopping me from leaving this umbrella, Lup writes. You can do whatever with it, idc. Don’t get seen with it probably.

Angus nods. “And what about—” Angus catches the Voidfish, swearing quietly as he gently pulls it away from the journal collection. “What about this?”

I’m guessing the VF reproduces asexually, Lup says. It’s cute.

“Okay, I— I have to agree with you on that, but why did— did you— did we have to take it too?”

Gonna need it to inoculate more people. Not much of a point if only one person is inoculated and then security is increased.

“I—” Angus stops, taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment, then letting it go slowly. His heart’s still racing, and his legs still feel like lead— but his voice only trembles a little when he talks next, so he’d say it’s an improvement. “I don’t— I m-mean, I guess I understand your logic, coming from someone who understands more of the situation than me, but also— couldn’t you have told me, in advance? I could’ve— we nearly got caught, there, ma’am. If you’d told me in advance— maybe, whatever alarm brought the Director back so quick wouldn’t have been tripped?”

The Umbra Staff is silent, motionless, for a long moment. Angus would think she’d left entirely, but for the mage hand still floating in the air. I’m sorry, you’re right. I’d just realized she was gone and didn’t think about it much before using Sending.

Angus breaths a small sigh. “Thank you.”

Still we don’t know when another opportunity could have arisen.

“At the very least, you could have talked to me more,” Angus says.

Fair. Lup pauses, then asks, Could you bring me back to me & the boys’ room? I don’t think I could get away with sneaking through the halls on my own again after all that.

“How did you— how’d you get past the elevator, actually, ma’am?” Angus asks, already moving to pick the Umbra Staff up.

I have a hand, doofus. & before you ask, there aren’t a lot of people out and about at night and the few that are get very spooked by the sight of an umbrella carrying itself around in the distance and rarely approach.

“Right, right, of— of course,” Angus says, standing up. The baby Voidfish drifts sorta near the pile of books again, and on impulse Angus tears out the page Lup’s side of the conversation is on and waves it in the Voidfish’s direction.

Immediately, the Voidfish is distracted, bobbing over and winding its tendrils over and over the paper, crumpling it up into a ball and pulling it up into its bell. The paper vanishes, and Angus half-expects to forget it— but no, he’s been inoculated, and the only other person who knew about this is dead. Nothing changes.

While he’s thinking this, the Voidfish floats back towards the books, and once Angus notices this he scrambles to stop it. “Wait wait no you’re not allowed to eat that! That’s important I have to read it!”

The Voidfish makes a shrill, whining tone as Angus catches it, trying to wriggle its way out of his fingers and failing completely. It hums grumpily as it goes still, the lights flickering a little, and Angus breaths a small sigh of relief. “I have other things I could feed you— or, I can get other things? You just don’t get to have those.”

The Voidfish hums again, wriggling a single tendril out to reach longingly towards the books. Angus gives it a dry look, then looks around for something to put it in— something large enough to hold it, but not something it can get out of— probably something that holds water— but there’s nothing in his room like that, is there?

And then Lup’s hand moves. Stick it in the bathroom?

Angus blinks. “Oh, yeah, that’s— that’d work.”

He pads over to the door, shifting the Voidfish into a one-handed grip so he can push it open and flick the light on. The Voidfish makes another whining noise, squirming again, until Angus shuts the door behind him and releases it. It immediately springs into the air, zipping a short distance away from him before stopping, turning a little like it’s looking around, and slowly drifting down.

Angus considers the room, and after a moment decides to shut the toilet lid, plug the sink drain to fill it up, and grab a bath toy from by the tub. “Hey, hey little— little mini Voidfish, look what I’ve got,” he says, wiggling around the little toy boat, and the Voidfish tenses. “Hey, you want a toy? I’m gonna be gone for a bit— but d’you want this toy?”

The Voidfish zips through the air, snatching the boat as it goes and cannonballing right into the now-full sink. Some of the water splashes to the ground, and the Voidfish hums a string of bright notes. Satisfied it’ll be entertained while he’s gone, and certain there’s nothing important it could eat here, Angus slips through the door again and shuts it.

The Umbra Staff is leaning against the wall across from him, waiting to be picked up again, and Angus nods. “Alright. I’m just— just returning you to Taako, not breaking into anything— everything’s fine, I don’t— I’m not doing anything. Wrong. Here.”

He takes a deep breath, and then his eyes catch on the books stacked on his desk. Hey, some part of him thinks, it’d be pretty suspicious if someone (for instance Madame Director) looked in this room and saw all these stolen books lying around.

He sighs, forehead thumping against the wall. “‘scuse me, ma’am, I need to hide these books too. Won’t take more than a minute.”

 


 

Once he’s finally— finally!— sure there’s nothing suspicious going on in his room, and finally picked up the Umbra Staff and stepped outside, the Bureau of Balance is wide awake. The first he notices is the distant sound of voices, and then as he wanders towards the exit he sees a couple of guards hurrying past— and when he approaches the elevator to the reclaimers suite, the first thing he sees is the Director, fretting around in circles with Davenport by her side, only stopping when she sees the reclaimers stepping out in various states of half-awake.

“Is something wrong?” Magnus asks, by far the most awake of the three of them with only a bit of bedhead and wrinkled clothing to indicate he was just dragged out of bed. “You sounded pretty urgent, I got the implication— is there some kinda emergency going on here?”

“Emergency is putting it mildly,” the Director snaps, and Angus ducks behind the corner to hide. Then, after a second, the Director sighs. “Sorry, that was— that was uncalled for. This isn’t your doing, I’m sure, but— someone just broke into my private quarters, while I was about to leave on official business, and they made off with a very important possession of mine— they successfully bypassed all my defenses, and I’m lucky they missed an alarm— otherwise who knows how far they could’ve gotten.”

“Wait, hang on, I’m confused—” Taako starts, breaking it up with a wide yawn. “What got stolen? I mean, I get it— something important, or whatever— but what was it?”

The Director tightens her grip on her staff, breathing deeply through her nose. “There were actually several things stolen, chief among them being a selection of my personal journals— though that seems to have been relatively unplanned, given they appear to have just grabbed a bunch at random and run.”

Taako raises an eyebrow, rubbing at his eyes. “Wait, so— this whole hubbub is over a bunch of books? You can get those at the library.”

“First of all, they were specifically my personal journals— they contain incredibly large amounts of very secret, very sensitive information,” the Director says. “Secondly, that’s not all they stole. They also made off with the item I was using to protect this base from liches. Now that that’s gone, this base could be in grave danger— you know what a lich is, right?”

“More or less,” Taako mutters. “Undead magic shit, bonds or whatever— super powerful. Long story short, now we’re fucked. Why’re you telling us this?”

The Director gives him a dry look. “While you are largely correct, I wouldn’t completely agree that we are entirely fucked. We just need to be on our toes.”

“Close enough,” Magnus says.

“I’m telling you this because you are some of our organization's best employees— I trust you greatly, and so it’s for the best that you be informed right away.”

Taako snorts and nudges Merle. “Hey— hey dwarf, did you catch that? You hear that? She said she trusts us!”

“Whu-huh? What?” Merle startles awake, looking around wildly before remembering where he is. “Oh, right, uh— hah, yeah.”

The Director gives them a dry look, then sighs. “I’ll also be making an official announcement in the morning, should the situation not be resolved by then. Do try to take this situation seriously, if you can.”

“Pfft, yeah— sure can do,” Taako says.

Magnus nods. “Yes, definitely.”

She sighs again. “I suppose that is the best I can expect from you three. I presume you don’t have any secret insight into the matter that I’m unaware of?”

“Nope,” Taako says, popping the word.

“Not unless you count having insight into how many jokes can be made about the situation—” Merle starts, before the Director cuts him off by thumping the base of her staff on the floor.

“I didn’t think so,” the Director says, turning away. “That is all, I apologize for disturbing your rest. You may leave.”

There’s a chorus of nods from the reclaimers as the Director strolls away, Davenport at her heels, and Angus realizes too late that she’s walking his way— he starts to backpedal, holding the Umbra Staff behind his back, and then the Director pauses as she turns the corner to find him there. “Angus?”

“H-Hello ma’am!” Angus greets automatically. “Don’t mind me, I was just— listening in, a little—” He glances aside, just a flicker of his eyes, and finds Taako giving him a curious look. “—and I heard what you said, about someone stealing from you? Is that why there’s guards everywhere even though it’s two in the morning on a weekday?”

“I— yes, it is,” the Director says, face softening a little. “But why are you out of bed? Like you said, it’s much too early for anyone to be awake, much less a child.”

“I heard a noise that woke me up,” Angus admits. “And then I found— um, I found Taako’s umbrella on the floor outside, and I decided to bring it back to him.”

The Director blinks, tensing a little. “When was this?”

“Um, about one?” Angus says. “And then— I spent a while trying to figure out why Taako’s umbrella was lying around on the floor, and then figured I should just ask him.”

“I’m just as confused as you are, bubbo,” Taako says, appearing by the Director and reaching over to reclaim his umbrella.n. “Seriously, I spent like fifteen minutes looking for this thing— how could it’ve made its way past the elevator? It doesn’t have hands!”

“I would think the lack of any hands would be the least of its concerns, being that it’s an inanimate object,” the Director muses. “Nevertheless, I trust you’ll be heading back to bed now that your quest is complete?”

Angus nods. “Yeah, I’m— I think I could get back to sleep, now.”

The Director nods, waving Taako off as she follows Angus back down the hall. “I’d advise you stay careful, given the thief is likely still somewhere on the base.”

Oh don’t I know it, Angus thinks, staring intently down at his shoes.

“As a matter of fact,” the Director says, “why don’t I accompany you? It’s not too far from my office, anyway.”

Angus’s heart nearly stops then and there. “N-no, I’m sure that’s— that’s really not necessary, really!” he stutters out, waving his hands defensively. “I’m not— I can take care of myself, and I’m sure you— you’ve got a lot of more important stuff to take care of! What with all this— this emergency going on.”

“It’s really no problem,” the Director says, though she doesn’t press any harder when Angus insistently shakes his head and quickens his pace.

“I’ll be— I’ll be careful,” Angus finally says, once they reach the branch between the path to his room and the path to the Director’s office. “I can— take care of myself just fine, but I do know— I’ll definitely be careful, okay?”

The Director just nods, stepping off on her own path. “I know,” she says, just before she’s gone.

Chapter Text

Angus doesn’t even remember getting into bed.

It’s like he went straight from walking down the hall to waking up in his room with the distant sound of running water just barely reaching his ears— he’d think he’d just passed out and was carried here, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s alone here and the door is locked.

Then... there’s the sound of water.

As he slides out of bed, groping around for his glasses before he realizes they’re on his head, the noise bothers him. Where the heck is that coming from? he wonders, sliding his glasses back into place and looking around. There’s no water in my room, unless you count…

He pushes the door to the bathroom open, and bites back a sigh when water pools out around his feet. All the faucets have been turned on at full blast, thoroughly flooding the floor as the baby Voidfish drifts along the shallow currents with that same toy boat wrapped in its tendrils.

Carefully, so he doesn’t slip in the water, Angus sneaks over to the sink to turn it off. And then he goes to the shower, turns that off too, and picks up a towel. “Did you have to do that?” he asks. The Voidfish chirps. “I’m— I don’t exactly understand Voidfish physiology, but— I’m pretty sure the sink was enough for you to swim in, given your, um. Your size.”

The Voidfish makes a confused whine, darting into the air to dodge when Angus spreads the towel out on the ground. It drops the boat as Angus starts mopping up the water, drifting closer to his face until it reaches his glasses and wraps a couple tendrils around the arm.

Angus blinks, instinctively tilting his head away a little when he notices. “Hey, no— you can’t eat my glasses, I need those to see!”

The Voidfish sings a couple notes, dodging Angus’s attempt to stop it and pulling in closer to wind its tendrils around and around the arm of his glasses. He attempts to tug it off gently, before finally giving it up as a fool’s errand when it just trills grumpily at him.

“You’re going to have to move eventually, you know,” he says, hanging up the now-soaked towel and grabbing a dry one. “I’ll have to go outside. You’re a big secret, you know.”

It hums irreverently, and with a tiny flourish extends its tendril to brush against his forehead— and there’s a tiny shock, and a small vision of what it’s like to be hidden inside Angus’s hat.

“That wouldn’t work either,” Angus says, spreading the towel out over a puddle. “You just— I’ve only just met you, but also, considering what you just did here. I’m pretty sure you’d get bored and squirm out.”

It whines, then sags a little, like it’s given up. After a second, though, it perks up and hums a couple notes. Idly, Angus hums them back, to which the Voidfish reacts by humming them again. F E E D, Angus works out, muttering the notes out loud to himself, and the Voidfish repeats its song.

“...Are you hungry?” he asks it, and the Voidfish trills. “Okay, that’s— just give me a minute to clean up the water, and then I can feed you.”

The Voidfish sings again, more insistently, and presses its tendrils against his face, though not showing anything this time. “Hey, it’s your fault! You’re the one who flooded my bathroom, you have to wait for me to clean it up.”

It settles down reluctantly, singing its four notes again before sagging on Angus’s glasses like a limp cloth. A couple times through the chore, it whines impatiently, but nonetheless holds still there until Angus is finished.

Once he’s returned to his desk, he pulls out his notebook and a pen, considering what he could feed the Voidfish. As he thinks, idly chewing on the end of his pen, the Voidfish ponderously extends a tendril towards where he’s hidden the journals inside his desk drawers— like it can sense the sheer amount of important information hidden within.

Automatically, Angus bats it away. “No, I need to read those.”

It whines.

Finally, after much pondering, Angus writes down the date and time in the corner. And then, covering the rest of the page, he writes Angus McDonald spent the morning cleaning up the flooding in his bathroom caused by the baby Voidfish, while the Voidfish clung to his glasses and complained at him.

He stares at it for a moment, then shakes his head and crumples the paper up, tossing it in the trash. No, I don’t know exactly how it determines what vanishes— I don’t everyone to forget my name or something.

On a fresh page, he writes the date again, and then: At 1 AM, an umbrella woke up some kid and made him help her steal stuff, including a fish. The fish then proceeded to make a nuisance of itself the next morning.

He tears the page out and holds it up in front of himself. “How’s this? Does this seem accurate?”

Immediately, the Voidfish detaches itself from his glasses and grabs the paper, crumpling it up and devouring it within seconds. The lights inside it brighten a little, not in any dramatic way— just a little brighter, a little more cheerful.

Then the Voidfish sings its four notes again and reaches for the notebook. “Hey, hey— no— You can’t have the entire thing, I need that,” Angus says, snatching the notebook away.

Ignoring the Voidfish’s protests, Angus starts flipping through the book in search of something he can give. Along the way, he pauses on conversations he couldn’t fully read before— Yep, her name is Lup, she’s… He blinks here. ...Taako’s twin sister, should’ve guessed that one. The Red Robes are the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration, aka IPRE, um. They’re from another planar system? A whole lot of other planar systems? I think that’s it anyway, I’m gonna have to ask her…

The Voidfish whines, bringing Angus back to the present, and with a sigh Angus quickly writes vague summaries of the conversations with Lup— dodging all names— and offers them up. The Voidfish accepts them happily, devouring them quickly before returning to its new perch on his glasses.

“I guess— I guess that’s your new favourite spot, then?” Angus asks, shutting his notebook and leaning down to retrieve one of the journals— Which one did she say was the first— and walking over to his bed. “I-I mean, I guess I can’t really stop you, but still. You’re gonna have to move eventually.”

It just flutters a little, tendrils trailing behind it as Angus settles into bed and opens the journal to its first page. Day 0: I’m nearly quivering out of my shoes in anxiety and anticipation over this mission. I understand completely the risks involved, and I understand there’s no guarantee I’ll even make it back home alive; I’ve accepted all of it completely. That doesn’t change the fact that I will be leaving home possibly for years at a time…

 


 

It’s nearly two hours later that someone knocks on the door, making Angus yelp and jump an inch in the air and making the Voidfish screech a short note and zip behind Angus’s head for protection. Angus hurriedly throws the book under his pillow, shoves the Voidfish under his hat, and scrambles over to the door to find Magnus, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Hey, Ango,” Magnus says. “I noticed you missed breakfast, is something wrong?”

Angus blinks. “Huh? I m-mean, no, there’s nothing— I guess I just got distracted reading a book and lost track of time?” He rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. “But, um, also. You noticed?”

“Well, security is kinda on high alert still, given that thief still isn’t caught,” Magnus says, and Angus fights to keep a straight face. “But yeah, I— did you wanna grab some food? I doubt you got anything delivered, or made something yourself in here, so.”

Angus opens his mouth to speak, but then his stomach cuts him off with a loud growl. “I— um, I guess I could go for some breakfast with you, sir?” he says, a chagrined grin finding its way onto his face.

The Voidfish hums, a couple tendrils worming their way out, and Angus freezes. “Just lemme, um— get my shoes real quick!”

“But you’re already wearing—” Magnus starts, before the door slams shut in his face. He tries the knob, finds it locked, and crosses his arms with a puzzled frown.

Meanwhile, Angus scrambles around his room again, tugging off his cap to free the Voidfish and grabbing a bucket. He fills the bucket halfway from the sink, drops the toy boat in to lure the Voidfish, and as soon as it’s in he sets a large, heavy tome on top of it as a lid.

The Voidfish whines, attempting to stick a tendril through a gap in the covering. “I’m sorry, little guy,” Angus whispers urgently, “I just don’t want you eating all my books while I’m away, okay? I’ll be right back to let you out again.”

It whines again, but Angus ignores it to pad back over to the door and push it open. “Sorry about that, sir! Shall we be going?”

“Wha— right, yeah, let’s go,” Magnus says, uncrossing his arms and leading the way down the hall. “What were you doing in there?”

“I-I told you, I had to put on my shoes,” Angus stutters out.

“I heard water running,” Magnus says.

Angus sweats. “I had to water my shoes.”

Magnus gives him a funny look, then finally sighs and pushes open the door leading outside. “Well, fine, I won’t press on it, but I can still tell you’re totally lying. Which is weird, given your whole— your whole detective thing, truth shtick.”

“...I do want to tell you,” Angus mutters, after moment, “I just dunno if I can.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Magnus asks. “You know, you can tell me if there’s someone threatening you—”

“—Th-that’s not it!” Angus quickly cuts in. “I’m not— no one’s forcing me to lie, exactly, I’m just— I literally don’t think I can tell you.”

“Try me,” Magnus says.

Angus grumbles under his breath, glaring at the ground beneath his feet, before coming to a stop. Magnus pauses a moment later, turning to give him a confused look. “Lup,” Angus says.

Magnus blinks. “Sorry, what?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“No, that definitely wasn’t nothing— was that Voidfish static?” Magnus asks. “How’re you doing that? And what does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m not imitating static,” Angus says, lifting his head to meet Magnus’s eyes. “It’s just— I don’t know, ask the Voidfish? I don’t— I don’t think I can tell you.”

“How’m I supposed to do that?” Magnus asks. “It hasn’t exactly talked to anyone that I know of, you know.”

Angus shrugs. “I don’t know, give it a duck? That worked for me.” He picks up the pace. “In other news— when do they stop serving breakfast again? I want those pancakes.”

“Wait, those shitty cafeteria pancakes?” Magnus asks, hurrying after him. “Dude, I can cook better pancakes than that—”

 


 

Angus doesn’t turn up to Boyland’s rite of remembrance. He spends the day first acquiring a large fish tank from the Fantasy Costco— giving up, of all things, his socks in exchange for a subtle delivery straight to his room— and then filling it, convincing the baby Voidfish to get in it, and burying his nose in a book.

The Director asks him to man the cannon for the Reclaimer’s latest mission, and he’s a little bit shaken up by how close she came to seeing the book and the Voidfish in his room. It doesn’t help that it’s a very important job, and he might end up killing them by accident somehow he’s just a little kid how’s he supposed to deal with having the lives of three grown men in his hands like this—

Magnus says he trusts him, though, and Lup gives him a thumbs up while their backs are turned. That helps a little.

Now, though, now that the Voidfish’s chamber is cleared out aside from Johann, Angus quietly makes his way past the increased number of guards posted all the way to that little corner by the Voidfish with a journal and reads. It’s disguised in the cover of a Caleb Cleveland novel, and angled so that no one else can see what’s written inside— he’s gotten paranoid, maybe, but by now he’s pretty much accepted hia fate as some kind of traitor.

He knows it isn’t true, but he can’t help but feel judged whenever anyone looks in his direction. Here, though, where the only people are Johann, who doesn’t pay him much mind, and the Voidfish, who doesn’t seem to care about anything— Here, it’s a little easier to relax.

The Voidfish sings its song, occasionally, and it’s not hard at all to put together when he’s paying attention and with the context of how its child communicates. E G G, B A B E. A tiny Voidfish, hidden underneath his desk, previously squirreled away in the Director’s quarters.

The question, then, is how to stealthily inform the Voidfish of this.

That’s how Angus spends twenty anxious minutes sitting in the corner, constantly trying to focus on three things at once. Read the journal, watch the Voidfish, wish for Johann to leave just for a couple minutes—

Finally, though, Johann gets up and lets out a yawn, stretching his arms up above his head. “I’m gonna go grab some grub,” he announces. “You want anything?”

“Oh— no, sir, I’m good,” Angus says, trying not to seem visibly excited. “Just get whatever.”

“Alright, suit yourself,” Johann says, shrugging. He pushes the door open, shuts it behind him, and then Angus lets out a shaky breath alone in the Voidfish’s chamber.

“You— I noticed you still have that duck you stole from me,” he says, standing and looking up at the wooden duck balanced on the edge of the tank. “You— I guess you really like that one, huh?”

The Voidfish sings, lifting a tendril to brush against the duck. Angus laughs weakly, then takes a step forward. “I— I know what you’ve been trying to tell all of us, with that song you’ve been singing.”

The Voidfish sings. E G G, B A B E.

“Y-yeah, that one,” Angus says. The Voidfish floats closer, and he swallows a lump in his throat. “I, um— I’m pretty sure what you’re saying is, you’ve got a baby?”

It stills, and he takes that as confirmation— “I-I also may have found it—”

The Voidfish screams.

It’s the loudest noise he’s ever heard it make, and the fastest he’s ever seen it move— one moment, he’s standing with a hand pressed against the glass, then next he has a dozen tendrils wrapped around his arms and body and holding him up in the air.

Hundreds upon hundreds of memories hit him all at once, some his own and some totally foreign, and a couple stick out— a crystal-laden cave that feels like home, Magnus and Lucretia wearing that red uniform— the shell of a hatched egg floating on the surface of the water— an intense feeling of grief at losing a child— Angus’s memory, this time, of discovering the baby in the Director’s quarters—

And then, less of a memory and more of a concept. Angus bringing the baby Voidfish back to its parent.

When reality finally reasserts itself, the first thing Angus notices is Johann’s voice in his ear— and oh, his legs are on the ground again, that’s good. Shame they feel so much like jelly. Good thing Johann is propping him up.

He can’t quite tell what Johann is saying, but when he looks up at the Voidfish in its tank he finds it retreating a little ways back, waving its tendrils in its wake, softly singing its song and the sound is so, so distant. Or maybe his ears are just malfunctioning.

“Hey, hey, kid, are you— can you hear me?” Johann is asking, Angus finally realizes. He seems panicked. “Oh geez, what’d it do to you— hey, hey, can you answer me? Are you okay?”

Angus blinks, struggling to focus on something— and he does say something, he’s pretty sure, just before the world goes dark, nothing too important—

All Johann hears, though, is static.

 


 

“Do you trust me?” Barry Bluejeans asks.

There’s surprise, and then— “Hells no,” Taako says, they’re laughing at the very idea of it, and Barry nearly comes apart at the seams—

But there’s movement, the umbrella at Taako’s side moves on its own— and it swings up, hits Taako on the side of the head, and just for the briefest moment summons a mage hand to give Barry a thumbs up.

And while Taako is yelling at this umbrella, asking what the hell was that one for, Barry is just dumbstruck— and he hears a whisper in his ear.

Did you find my first message? Lup asks. Meet me in the ruins of Phandalin at night, two weeks from today.

And as Magnus, Merle, and Taako are distracted, questioning the ghost possessing the umbrella— what are they calling her? Miss Umbrella? What kind of nickname— Barry recognizes the spell, and whispers back.

“I did,” he murmurs. “It’s really you?”

Lup doesn’t reply, but Barry is already gone— Tres Horny Boys look up after a moment, and realize time is flowing normally again— and Barry has left, already forgetting what he’d been planning on saying. Lup— you’ve been here the whole time, haven’t you?

 


 

Angus wakes up in the infirmary with a splitting headache and a remarkably detailed understanding of the latter half of the IPRE’s hundred-year journey, from the Voidfish’s perspective.

Or, no, sorry. From Fisher’s perspective. It has a name.

The light here is bright, and with a groan he lifts an arm to cover his eyes. He hears a flurry of movement a moment after, replacing the previous sound of worried muttering, and as Angus sits up with his hands covering his eyes he hears Johann sit down next to him— “Hey, are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

“Ow,” Angus says, then winces. His voice is hoarse, a little weak, and he clears his throat before continuing, “How long was I asleep?”

Johann gives a small, relieved sigh. “Only about fifteen minutes,” he says. “You seriously freaked me out there— what did you do to get the Voidfish to react like that? I’ve never seen it like, get angry or anything… um. Ever?”

“Wasn’t angry,” Angus mutters under his breath. Johann makes a confused noise, but Angus ignores him in favour of uncovering his eyes and attempting to see past the light. “Where’re my glasses?”

“Here,” Johann says, pressing the glasses into his hands. “And you didn’t answer my question. How’d you manage to piss of the Voidfish like that?”

“I— I didn’t piss it off,” Angus says, gratefully putting on his glasses and looking around. His eyes land on the book he’d been reading lying on the bedstand— it seems untouched, and an anxiety he hasn’t even noticed eases, just a little. “It was more— excited, I guess? I— said something, and it was very excited to tell me more.”

Johann gives him a confused look. “Tell you? How?”

Angus freezes, then forces himself to shrug and look away. “Um. I mean, I’m guessing that’s what it was doing? It, um— crammed a bunch of, um, memories in my head?” Johann looks concerned, and he’s quick to continue— “It’s not like, interfering with my regular memories or anything though! Um, and I can’t— I can’t really make them out anyway? And they’re all mushed together which I guess is kinda why I passed out, too much junk going on—” Wow I am talking out my ass.

Johann doesn’t look any less concerned. “I think you should let the healers look at you,” he says.

“Well, I mean—” Angus turns his head a bit too quickly, sending another spike of pain right through it. “Okay yeah you’re right.”

Johann nods. “Right, just sit here and I’ll grab someone— they’re just in the other room, okay?”

“You don’t have to be condescending, I’m not that little,” Angus says, nonetheless sitting put as Johann steps out. And in the brief moment of silence, he thinks.

I need to return the Voidfish’s baby to it, he muses. I also need to keep the Director’s attention away from me— and also, Merle, Taako, and Magnus need to be inoculated with the baby Voidfish. And Davenport too?

He sighs and hangs his head. This is gonna take a while.

 


 

The healers poke and prod at him for a while, during which they find absolutely nothing wrong with him other than the blinding migraine he was already aware of— and they quickly deal with that, letting him go afterwards with a strawberry sucker and a pat on the head.

Sticking the sucker in his mouth and tucking the book under his arm, he trots casually down the hall on the way outside. He’d managed to brush Johann off already, though the man is still clearly not convinced on the matter of Angus being perfectly fine, thanks, but he has recluctantly agreed to let him wander alone, so that’s good.

It also happens to mean that when Lup’s voice appears in Angus’s head again, no one sees the distinctly ungraceful way he stumbles and barely manages to catch himself on the wall. Nearly back to base, come talk after Boys are done debriefing. Very urgent. Relates to Red Robes.

Angus blinks, shakes his head, and stands up. “I understand. Will do at earliest opportunity.”

He reaches the hanger only a minute before the Reclaimers, and automatically ducks behind a corner when he sees the Director already there— and then he pauses, to think. Is it really— should I really be this nervous around her? She doesn’t seem to actually suspect anything from me— if anything, it’s more suspicious because I’m nervous with no apparent reason.

He idly pops the lollipop out of his mouth, spinning its stick between his fingers. Hell, why am I so nervous? I think… first it was because I was hiding a lich on the moon base. And then, Lup was very— very insistent she not know. And then…

He lets out a slow, shaky breath. I realized she’s hiding so much. But now I— I know she’s not a bad person, she’s just— she just didn’t think she had a choice in the matter.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be so afraid? But also— The Director marches past, followed closely by a couple guards and the Reclaimers, and Angus skitters silently around another corner. —What if she has some kind of mind reading spell? I think there’s spells like that, and she’s super strong, would she know them? I don’t know I don’t want to risk it—

Angus ends up shadowing the Reclaimers, lurking just outside the main dome until they come out, and just happening to bump into Taako as he steps outside— Angus apologizes profusely, Taako brushes it off, and Angus hurries off with the Umbra Staff in hand before anyone has a chance to realize what actually happened there.

In Angus’s room, the first words out of Lup’s hand are I didn’t think you’d be that good at pickpocketing, given you’re a detective.

“It’s not always that easy to collect evidence the official way,” Angus says, adjusting his glasses. “I’m always sure to give it back, though.”

Good kid. Lup pauses, seeming to consider the room and the Voidfish hidden under the desk, then asks, How much of our story do you know by now?

“Um, the broad strokes, I guess?” Angus shrugs. “I mean, I know where it starts, and I know where it ends, and I know some stuff that happened in between— most of it was from the Voidfish— o-or, um, sorry, Fisher’s perspective.”

Lup pauses. How’d that happen?

“I told it I found the little Mini Voidfish, and that I’d figured out it’s its baby,” Angus explains, “And then it kinda… crammed a whole lot of visions into my head all at once.”

Yikes. You okay?

“I’m okay, I just had a headache.” Angus shrugs. “I think Johann was worse off than I was, honestly. He looked real worried when I passed out.”

Lup pauses for a very long time. Are you SURE you’re okay?

“I— yes, I’m fine, what did you want to talk to me about?” Angus asks. “You said it was urgent.”

Oh right. I managed to exchange a few words with my bf. We’re gonna meet in the ruins of Phandalin in a couple weeks. Wanna come.

Angus squints. “Your… boyfriend?”

Yes.

“Who?”

Barry Bluejeans the light of my unlife. He’s another Red Robe. Also I super hope the answer is ‘yes sure ill come w/ u lup’ because I sure as hell don’t think Taako is gonna agree to lugging me down there for no reason. Even less if I do give the reason.

“Couldn’t you go down there on your own?” Angus asks. “Didn’t I— didn’t we already get rid of the lich ward? In the Director’s office?”

It could go back up at any time. I want to guaranteed be able to get back to my brother, without waiting for him to come down himself.

“Right, I— that makes sense.” Angus thinks it over for a bit. “...Would I even be able to take you, though? I’d kinda need permission to go down, even more so with security tightened like this— I dunno if I could convince the Director or anyone else to let me go down on my own.”

She pauses again. Oh right. Even more so when you just got k.o’d by the Voidfish.

“I’m fine!” Angus protests. “I was only out for a few minutes, and the migraine wasn’t that bad!”

Tell that to the people who don’t fully understand how the Voidfish’s abilities work and realise you’re 11 y/o.

“...Okay, that’s fair,” Angus says. “Still, I—”

He’s cut off by a knock on the door, and the Director’s voice. “Angus? May I speak with you?”

Angus kicks the Umbra Staff under the bed, pulls a blanket over the Voidfish’s tank, and skids to a stop by the door within seconds to open with with a bright grin. “Hello, ma’am! Is there something wrong?”

She seems to be taken a little off guard by how cheery Angus is. “I— perhaps? That’s what I came here to figure out, that is— I heard you were just in the infirmary?”

Angus’s grin drops for just a second. “I… yes? I was there, it wasn’t really that serious though—”

“I had heard you were unconscious, Angus, that seems pretty serious to me.” The Director steps forward, silently demanding entry into Angus’s room, and he lets her in. A Zone of Truth settles. “Truthfully they’ve already told me everything— everything that you’ve told them, at least. And what Johann told them. They said you’d apparently been attacked by the Voidfish?”

“I wasn’t attacked,” Angus insists, sitting quickly in front of the desk and angling himself and the chair as much as he can to block what’s underneath it. “I think it was— trying to show me something,” he says, before he’s properly noticed the spell. Whoops.

The Director raises an eyebrow, staying standing. “What did it show you?”

Angus takes a breath, swallows a lump in his throat, and— Which time? “I don’t— I don’t really remember. It was mostly static.”

“I see,” the Director says, expression not wavering in the slightest. “And are you feeling alright now? You haven’t noticed anything wrong with your ability to remember things, or other cognitive abilities, have you?”

Angus shakes his head. “No, I just had a bad headache, but once they got rid of that I was just fine.”

The Director gives a small nod, smiling slightly. “I’m glad,” she says, turning to leave. “I won’t bother you any longer.”

Angus nods silently, feeling Lucretia dispel the Zone, then sits up just as she touches the doorknob. “Actually, ma’am, there’s one thing I’d like to ask you—”

The Director pauses, turns to look at him. “What is it?”

“Well, it’s less something I want to ask you, more something, um, to ask of you?” Angus says, wringing his hands. “Um, if it’s okay, and not too much hassle given all the security tightening— maybe, I’d like to have a look at the ruins of Phandalin?”

The Director looks puzzled. “Phandalin? Why there?”

Angus bites at the inside of his lip, glancing around at the walls like they’ll help him put words together. “Oh, um, well— I’m just a little curious, about wanting to see up close the stuff the relics can do? And— and I mean, the Phoenix-Fire Gauntlet has already been destroyed, so you can definitely know it’s not like, the thrall trying to get to me or something— I’m just, um, genuinely curious! About this.”

The Director sighs, turns a little, and shakes her head. “Well, while I do believe you about your reasoning, I’m afraid the answer is no— I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a rather strict embargo on people exiting the Bureau, and I expect it will remain there until we can determine who exactly stole from my quarters.”

Angus nods solemnly. “No, I understand. It’s okay. Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s alright,” the Director says, turning to the door again. “Perhaps if you ask another time, I might be able to oblige you on that.”

“Maybe,” Angus agrees.

The Director steps outside, the door clicking shut behind her, and Angus walks over to relock the door before turning to face his room again.

The Umbra Staff rolls out from under his bed, and Lup writes. Well, that was a nice try.

“Yeah, I wasn’t really expecting much from that,” Angus admits, dropping facedown into bed. “I’m still sorry I couldn’t convince her, though.”

Don’t be, Lup writes. She can be stubborn. I’ll work something else out.

“Yeah,” Angus says. “Still, maybe—”

Once again, Angus is cut off by someone knocking on his door. This time, however, it’s much louder and incessant, and the voice it’s accompanied by is yelling— “Hey, open up you brat child! I know you stole my umbrella, you can’t fucking fool Taako— give it back! I need that thing for magic!”

Angus looks at the Umbra Staff. It shifts a little, opening and shutting just a little like a sigh, and then Lup writes, Talk to you later.

He nods, silently, and picks her up by the handle. He pulls the door open just as Taako is mid-knock, shoving the umbrella in his direction with a dry look. “I heard you the first time, sir.”

“Well how was I supposed to know that,” Taako says, immediately hanging the umbrella from the crook of his arm. “For all I knew, you were asleep.”

“I responded within thirty seconds.”

“Nope, not listening to your logic,” Taako says, crossing his arms. “What’d you even need the thing for?”

“...A conversation,” Angus says blandly.

Taako raises an eyebrow. “What kind of conversation were you two having that couldn’t involve me?”

“We were planning your surprise two-hundred-twenty-sixth birthday party,” Angus deadpans. “It’s a surprise because you didn’t know you forgot a hundred and two years.”

Taako opens his mouth to speak halfway through, then stops short and stares at Angus. “...What,” he says. “What— was that.”

Angus blinks and tilts his head innocently. “What was what?”

“You just— Voidfish noises,” Taako says, narrowing his eyes. “Do you know something I don’t?”

“Uh. No, Miss Umbrella was just, um—” Angus pauses to think. “Um. Teaching me ventriloquey.”

“...She’s dead, and an umbrella,” Taako says, looking down at the Umbra Staff. “I don’t— I’m pretty sure this thing didn’t have a mouth last time I checked.”

Angus shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you, sir, that’s just— totally, and definitely what was happening.”

“Well, okay, I completely don’t believe you— is there a second Voidfish or something?” Taako asks, trying to peek into Angus’s room.

Angus panics and pushes him away. “N-Nope! Definitely not, sir, good day talk to you later!”

Taako tries to protest, but Angus just shuts the door in his face and locks it again. Angus stays pressed up against the door for a moment, holding his breath until spots appear around his vision and he has to breathe again— and when he looks out through the peephole, Taako has left, and Angus sags in relief.

He returns to the Voidfish, pulling the blanket off its tank and giving it a little wave. It sings a little song in greeting, brushing a tendril up against the glass.

“Hey, little buddy,” Angus says, touching the glass as well. “There’s a lot of shit going on in my life right now, huh?”

The Voidfish merely sings again, uncaring of any swear words being dropped. Angus stands up, stretches, and returns to his notebook to start summarising this latest conversation. “Here, I can feed you now.”

It sings, one last time, before turning back to only giving silent, shimmering lights. It doesn’t fully understand, maybe, but it knows it’s going to be fed, and it’s content with that.

What a simple life, Angus muses, as he drops a sheet of paper into the tank. “I wish I could be as relaxed as you all the time.”

The Voidfish just chirps.

Chapter Text

Two weeks later, Taako skids to a halt next to Angus in the halls, the Umbra Staff in hand and an odd look in his eyes. “Hey, Agnes! You wanna go on a fancy learning field trip to Phandalin? Just kidding, you have no choice, the only answer is yes.”

“Sir? Is there something—” Angus starts, cutting off with a yelp as Taako grabs him by the back of his collar and drags him down the hall. “What’s going on?!”

“Goin’ on a field trip!” Taako announces. Angus manages to twist out of his grasp, to which he responds by grabbing Angus’s hand and not breaking stride.

“Why?” Angus asks. “I thought— isn’t magic day tomorrow? Why’re we doing this now?”

“‘Cause today is just a great day for visiting destroyed settlements, duh!” Taako says, waving the Umbra Staff around idly. “The umbrella says so, and she’s a good pal who I trust completely, so—”

“S-sir! Shhhh!” Angus hisses, looking around nervously. “Not so loud! Someone might hear!”

“Right, right right right,” Taako says, finally lowering his volume a little. “So yeah, like I was saying! No reason at all! Just a great day for you, me, and an umbrella to hang out by a huge circle of black glass for a nice quiet evening spent learning arcane wizardries.”

“I— if you think so, sir,” Angus says. Behind Taako’s back, he narrows his eyes— it’d take an idiot to not realize Taako’s acting weird, way too jovial and insistent.

Angus raises his free hand to cover his mouth, muffling the noise as he casts a spell. Immediately, Taako lights up with a glowing outline— Enchantment, if Angus remembers the colors right?

The Umbra Staff, glowing blindingly bright with every color until Angus stops trying to make out its school of matic, shifts, and he hears a whispered voice in his ear. Just play along. I Charmed him.

Angus blinks, then whispers behind his hand, “That seems rude, ma’am.”

I’ll apologize later.

Angus nods, finally relaxing his hand in Taako’s grip and hurrying to match his stride to Taako’s. “How’re we supposed to get down there, sir? They’re barely letting anyone use the cannons, and certainly not without the Director’s permission.”

“Psh, cannons schmannons,” Taako says, waving a hand dismissively and taking a sharp turn towards the edge of the base. “We don’t need cannons, Ango, gravity can do all the work for us.”

Angus stops short, making Taako turn to face him at the sharp tug on his arm. “Sir, are you suggesting we jump off the moon?!”

“Hey, not so loud,” Taako says. “And ‘s all cool, I got Feather Fall.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better about this?” Angus asks, nonetheless acquiescing when Taako resumes leading him to the edge. “I don’t— sir, I really don’t like this idea.”

“What are you, scared of heights?” Taako asks, turning to lean against the railing.

“No!” Angus protests, twisting his hand out of Taako’s. “I just don’t want to go hurtling down to earth from really fucking high up! We’re on the moon, Taako!”

“It’s a fake moon,” Taako points out.

“Still!” Angus takes a deep breath. “I just think we should figure something else out before resorting to this.”

Taako seems to consider this for a moment, then shrugs. “Nah.”

And then he grabs Angus by the arms, pulls him close, and topples backwards into the open air.

Angus screams a little, but he thinks it’s lost in the rushing wind— or maybe it isn’t, and everyone just came running just in time to see Taako falling to the world below with Angus in his arms. Whatever the case, he can barely breathe and the only thing he feels is Taako’s arm around his chest and he clings to it and oh gods how long have we been falling how long does it take to hit the ground—

And then Taako shifts, holding the Umbra Staff up, and the wind stops rushing quite as much. Angus chances cracking open an eye, half-sure he’s already dead and just hasn’t realized it, and he realizes the ground is not too far off, but also no longer rushing towards them.

“See?” Taako says, the Umbra Staff held open above his head. “Not so dead now, are we.”

“I— respectfully, sir, I still hold that that was a terrible plan,” Angus says, clinging tighter to Taako’s front. “Tell me when we’re closer.”

“Yeah, yeah, you big baby,” Taako says, patting him on the head.

They keep falling for nearly a minute before the spell starts to falter, dropping them for mere moments at a time before finally giving out and dropping Taako all of two feet to hit the ground. “Here we are! Terra firma!”

“Oh thank god,” Angus says, immediately dropping from Taako and collapsing forward to hug the ground. “I don’t— please, sir, if we never have to do that ever again, I will do anything for you.”

“Noted,” Taako says, looking around. He turns, surveying the area, then lets out a low whistle. “Well, all things considered, we got damn close to our target. Right by Wave Echo Cave.”

“I guess that’s good?” Angus mutters, sitting up dizzily. “How— how far away is that from Phandalin?”

“Oh, it’s real close— actually, you could probably sleuth out the way yourself,” Taako says, leaning over a trail of vaguely darkened earth. “I mean, just from these scorch marks alone—”

The Umbra Staff twists in Taako’s hands, bucking and shaking and turning inside out and shooting Lup ten feet away headfirst through a tree. “Ow,” she says, picking herself up.

Taako blinks, his ears twitching a little at the sound of Lup’s voice. “....Okay, what?”

Lup pretends to dust off her robes, adjusts her hood, clears her non-existent throat, and fires a pair of bony finger guns at Taako. “‘Sup, Taako! I’m the spirit haunting your umbrella, here to guide you and Ango on this field trip.”

Taako squints. “...You’re in a red robe.”

“Fashion choice. Totally unrelated to those other Red Robes.”

Taako shrugs. “Works for me. Where’re we going first, Umbrella Lady?”

“Hm.” Lup thinks, resting her hand around where her chin would be if she had one, and considers the sky.

Before she says anything more, though, Angus speaks up. “U-um, ma’am, could you maybe… um. Do the disguising thing again? You— I— I’m worried someone might come by, and notice you, um. Being all spooky.”

“Oh, yeah, good point,” Taako says. “You’re real spooky looking. I mean jeez, the whole eclipse thing is still a month off, you’re real early.”

“Sure, whatever you say, Koko,” Lup says, snapping her fingers to hide her lich form under the illusion of dark leather, a hat, and sunglasses. “This better?”

Taako blinks. “Hey, you’re the same lich from back then! In Neverwinter!” he says, waving the Umbra Staff vaguely in her direction. “No wonder you didn’t even try to help me, you were off committing arson and picking a fight!”

“They picked it first,” Lup mutters.

“Why’d you decide to look so much like me, though?” Taako says, crossing his arms. “I could sue, you know, I’ve got pretty strict branding rights.”

“I look like you because I’m your sister,” Lup deadpans.

“Weird static noises don’t count as a defense,” Taako says. “I don’t care how you’ve been teaching my protege ventriloquey, if you’re gonna talk to me you have to talk like a normal person.”

“I am talking like a normal person, bro-bro, you’re just not hearing it,” Lup says, crossing her arms.

“No, you just did it again!”

“Um, sir, ma’am, I don’t think this is the time for this?” Angus says. “Can we just— acknowledge that L— Miss Umbrella looks like Taako right now, just because she does, and also is making weird static noises— and then move on?”

Taako huffs, then shrugs. “Yeah, sure, whatever, we’re pals anyway. Where to, good and greatest friend?”

“Well, we’ve still got a little while until nightfall,” Lup says, looking up at the sky. “...Hey, wanna go see where I died?”

Angus shivers. “That seems a little morbid, ma’am.”

Lup grins. “I’m not hearing a no.”

 


 

In retrospect, Angus really should have seen this coming.

Lup’s in the middle of a dramatic reenactment of how she died in front of some heavy vault door— Angus is reasonably certain that’s not even close to a healthy way of coping with having been stabbed in the back with a dagger— when Taako steps forward, holding an arm out in front of Angus, and raises the Umbra Staff.

Lup pauses, turns, and the expressions that flash across her face then— surprise, hurt, resignation, all in just a fraction of a second. “Guess it wore off, then.”

“Yeah, it fucking wore off,” Taako says, voice deceptively calm even as his ears pin back against his skull. “Now you’re going to tell me who you actually are and why I shouldn’t blast you for fucking charming me—”

“I’m your sister, Taako,” Lup says.

“Didn’t catch that,” Taako says.

Lup sighs. “Look, I want more than anything to tell you who I am, but I can’t—”

“Yeah, you’ve probably got another Voidfish hidden somewhere— Can you tell me why you have my fucking face?” Taako asks, and Lup winces.

“I can’t— I’m your twin sister,” Lup says, desperation bleeding into her voice. “Please, believe me, this is just what I look like—”

“Sir, please, she’s not a bad person!” Angus pleads. “She just— we just needed to get off the base, and I’m really sorry and she’s really sorry she had to charm you to do so—”

“You’d better be!” Taako snaps. “That was a serious invasion of my head—”

“—And I’m so sorry,” Lup says, “But it was the only way you could’ve been convinced, you don’t recognize me— actually, Angus, wait. Wait. Junior’s been in that tank a while, right? Did you bring any of its ichor?”

Angus blinks. “What? No, why would I?”

“Dang. I was hoping you might be paranoid or something,” she says.

“No, I— why would I?” Angus asks. “That’s just asking for trouble if someone finds it on me— it’s not like you warned me before indirectly dragging me off the Bureau headquarters!”

Lup raises a finger. “To be fair, that was all Taako’s idea.”

Taako shrugs. “Yeah, I’ll admit, I’ve been wanting to do that for ages. You just gave me an excuse.” He jabs the Umbra Staff at Lup. “Incidentally, I’m still pissed.”

“Can you— can you hold that thought until we get back to the moon?” Lup asks. “‘Cause like, I definitely can’t explain shit right now, but— yes, there’s a second Voidfish, we’re not the ones who had it and hid all these things, and I know things’ll make a whole lot more sense after we get you inoculated. Just… please, Taako?”

Taako narrows his eyes at her, then finally lowers the umbrella and steps back. “I am not turning my back to you, lady.”

“Right,” Lup says, her shoulders untensing at long last. She glides along the floor towards the exit again, Taako stepping out of her way as she goes. “C’mon, sun’s probably going down by now. We gotta get to Phandalin.”

“What for?” Taako asks, following a fair distance behind and keeping Angus behind him.

“Gotta meet someone,” Lup says. “You might know him—”

“—If it’s that other spooky Red Robe, I’m not interested,” Taako says.

Lup shrugs. “That’s fair.”

 


 

When the three of them reach Phandalin, the sun has just dropped below the horizon and no one’s there. After several minutes of waiting, Taako loudly announces his boredom and walks away to the edge of the glass, where he firmly sits down— in plain view of Angus and Lup, and more than close enough to aim any spells— and pulls out his stone of farspeech. Whoever he’s talking to, he seems much more cheerful as he does so, though he still occasionally pauses to glance up at Angus and Lup.

Angus is a little more patient than him, sitting quietly next to Lup for a long while before finally speaking. “Hey, ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking— I’ve read the journals, especially the ones made near the end, when you and the rest all came to this world, and...” He pauses to think. “...I have to ask, why were you gone so long?”

Lup pauses in her idly tracing of patterns in the glass, glancing up at Angus with an unreadable expression before looking back down. “...Well, as I suppose you might guess, it wasn’t intentional.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Angus says, firmly planting his chin in his hands. “I’ve only known you a little while, but the first things you did around me were burning your name in a wall and trying as hard as you could to remind Taako you exist. I doubt you would’ve wanted to stay away.”

Lup laughs a little. “Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t. It’s just… tracking down the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, and retrieving it, took a lot longer than I expected it to. And then finding a safe place to hide it… I’ll be honest here. I know the exact moment everyone— when Lucretia made everyone forget— because I was still alive when it happened.”

Angus looks up at her in surprise. “Really? What was it like?”

Lup smiles bitterly. “Terrible. It was like there was a cold static eating away at my head, and it distracted me so badly I didn’t notice that guy had a knife until it was already stuck in my back. I barely remembered to seal him and the gauntlet away before—” Her form flickers a little. “Before I collapsed, and I died not know where I was or how I got there or whether or not any help was going to come.”

Angus is silent, watching Lup shake and waver next to him, and he tries to rest a hand on her shoulder— but it passes right through, and he pulls back. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s— it’s okay,” Lup says quietly, taking a moment to collect herself before sitting up again. “It’s just— I was understandably a little upset, waking up after that and— and just knowing everyone else forgot too, and the only reason I remembered was because I was dead— you know, liches are powered by emotions, right?”

Angus nods.

“Yeah, it turns out some emotions are better than others,” Lup says, resting her chin in her hand. “Case in point. The despair of losing all your friends and family?” She flickers. “Pret-ty bad. And I could barely— I could barely hold myself together long enough to bind myself to the Umbra Staff, and then it was like going to sleep for years and years, until something happened to disturb me.”

“What was that?” Angus asks, leaning forward, enraptured by her story.

Lup smiles. “Taako found me. Just— just hearing his voice was enough to wake me up, give me enough energy to do something. But even then it was still— you know those times when you’re woken up, and all you want is to go back to sleep, even if you went to sleep specifically knowing you’d have to wake up for something important? But you’re too groggy to remember that, so you just want to go back to sleep?”

Angus nods, slowly. “I mean, in concept? I’m not really a heavy sleeper, but yeah, I get what you’re saying.”

“Yeah, extend that over about ten years,” Lup says. “I mean, I did a couple things while still half-asleep, so to speak? But it was more like sleep-walking, or like, rolling over in bed to hit an alarm clock.”

Angus nods along attentively. “That sounds tough.”

Lup nods. “It was only a little before the whole thing with the macarons that I really managed to wake up and realize, like, shit, I gotta do something here. And then for a little while I was just running on pure desperation— I'm really…” She hesitates. “...I’m really glad you managed to figure it out so fast, actually, ‘cause I was honestly starting to give up, and you… you gave me something way better to run on.”

“What’s that?” Angus asks.

Lup smiles. “Hope.”

Angus blinks, then blushes a little and turns away. “Oh, um, well— I was just doing my job! You know, detective and all— but, um, you’re welcome I guess?”

Lup nods. Then, after a moment, she sits up. “Hey, on another note, did you know that Taako’s an idiot?”

Angus blinks. “What? How come?”

“You wanna know who he’s dating?” she asks, leaning in conspiratorially. “The Grim Reaper. He’s dating the fucking Grim Reaper, which is a terrible idea, all because the dude’s kinda handsome!”

“Um—”

“Okay, more than a little, really,” Lup admits. “But that’s— that’s still just— what are you doing?! The first time you met he was trying to kill you!”

“Ma’am?”

“Not to mention, like, he doesn’t even manage to actually play the part all the time! I mean seriously, dorkus supreme, terrible cockney accent—”

“Ma’am, who—”

“—and who even wears a cloak over a fucking tuxedo!”

 


 

Half an hour later the sun has completely set, Taako is lying down on the grass and seems to have dropped into a nap, and Lup is finally done ranting on Taako’s love life.

“Hey, you wanna learn a neat trick?” Lup asks, the abrupt subject change from the Grim Reaper— Kravitz?—’s taste in wine nearly giving Angus whiplash. She twirls her hand through the air, leaving four bright red lights floating like lanterns between them.

Angus blinks, staring at the lights. “What’s that?”

“It’s this little cantrip called Dancing Lights,” Lup says. “Sorta like Light except, like, infinitely better.”

“How do you do it?” Angus asks, watching in wonder as Lup sends the lights swirling up to spin around high above their heads.

“Here, lemme show you the hand motion...”

She’s patient, calm, as Angus stutters and stumbles his way through the spell until finally he manages to call up a single white lantern just for a moment, before it vanishes. She beams. “Good work, little man, now try making it red! Oh, oh, and make three of them!”

“A-are you sure? That seems to be going a little fast,” Angus says, nonetheless focusing and twirling his wand and willing the light to come out red— and there it is, the same brilliant shade as the ones Lup summoned herself.

“Don’t be so stressed about it, kiddo, it’s a cantrip,” she says. “You’re only having so much trouble ‘cause you’re overthinking things. Move it around.”

Angus complies, moving it a couple inches before sending it rocketing off and out of range. It flickers out of being, and he winces. “Whoops.”

“It’s cool, just summon some more.”

Angus nods, managing to call up four this time.  He tries moving one at a time, getting it a short distance away from the rest before it, too, vanishes. Lup shakes her head quickly, pulling her own down to orbit them. “No, see, they gotta move together. Just doing things alone won’t work.”

Angus nods, focusing hard on the remaining three, and getting them to start spinning around in a circle. “I did it, ma’am!” he cheers.

“You sure did!” Lup agrees, setting her own lights to spin around those three. “Now, let’s see if we can get those up in the air.”

Angus nods, focusing hard on keeping his lights moving up at the same speed as Lup’s, the spinning stopping until they get way up in the air. For a bit, the seven red lights just orbit each other, three on the inside and four outside, and then Angus gets creative.

He moves the lights in a stream out of the orbit, starting to swirl away— before Lup’s lights flicker out, and so do his, and with a frustrated noise he re-summons them at the same time as Lup.

At first, Lup goes to return them up to the idle position directly above them, but Angus has other ideas— his three go roaming in a curving line around within his range, lighting up every spot until Lup sends her own lights chasing after his with a challenging grin.

They do this for several minutes, re-summoning every time the lights go out to resume the game, until suddenly Angus gets up and runs off himself— one light by his side to light his way, while the others continue dodging Lup’s. Lup makes a squawk of outrage, quickly chasing after him, but then the lights go out and when Angus re-summons them they’re nowhere close enough to show where he is— and then it’s a chase, Lup trying to find and catch Angus based only on where his lights are.

Angus laughs quietly, one hand over his mouth to muffle the noise, as Lup sits down on the glassy ground with a huff. His lights float tauntingly by the edge of his range, curved like they’re just edging his range from a different position that is currently covered by Lup’s lights. He creeps backwards, and then his foot hits unexpectedly soft ground— the edge of the glass— and he trips backwards and onto his back.

As he picks himself up, the lights having gone out, his eyes catch on another light— not one from a spell, more like the light under Lup’s hood when she’s not disguising her lich form—

And just as soon as Angus makes that connection, the light— the Red Robe— retreats, vanishing, and Angus is done playing. “Ma’am!” he calls out, frantically clambering to his knees and summoning four lights around him. “Ma’am, over here— I found— come here!”

Lup is there within seconds, looking worried. “Are you okay? Did you get hurt? Did you trip—”

“—I’m fine! That’s not what I called you over here for,” Angus says quickly, “I was— I saw— I think the other Red Robe? What’d you say his name was?”

Lup’s eyes light up. “You saw Barry?”

“I— think? He’s a lich too, right?” Lup nods. “I’m— pretty sure, then, yeah— I—”

Lup is already stepping past him, calling out as loud as she can— “Hey! Barry! Are you there?! It’s me, I’m here, I’m— I’m finally back! Barry!”

Then, behind Angus, there’s a gruff voice. “Lup, you—”

Lup doesn’t hesitate in launching herself past Angus, tackling the source of the voice and sending both of them tumbling through the air and into the grass. Angus turns automatically, moving the lights after them, and finds Lup laughing and hugging a spectre of red. “I’ve missed you so much, you nerd!”

“Lup?” The Red Robe sounds like he’s in shock, his hooded face unseeable but Angus is sure if it were he’d be staring with mouth agape. “It’s— it’s really you? How do you— you’re touching me, but you look— you look alive—”

“Disguise Self, dummy,” Lup says, unburying her face from his chest. “The whole creepy lich aesthetic seriously spooked the kid, and besides, you know I look better like this.”

“Th-that was only the first time!” Angus protests. “I— I just thought it’d be bad if someone was passing by and noticed a lich, like what happened in Neverwinter! I’m— I’m not spooked!”

“A dang disguise didn’t help in Neverwinter,” Lup says, smushing a hand to her cheek. “And no, you’re totally spooked.”

“Um,” the Red Robe says. “Can I, um, can I get an introduction? Who’s this?”

Lup perks up. “Right, right, that!” she says, quickly jumping to her feet and giving the Red Robe a hand up. “Barold, this is Angus McDonald! He’s a good kid and helped me. Ango, this is Barry Bluejeans, he’s a huge nerd and I love him.”

“Angus McDonald?” Barry asks. “Oh, I think I’ve heard of you, aren’t you that, uh… detective? I think I’ve seen you helping out Taako, Merle, and Magnus!”

“Yeah!” Angus preens. “And I’ve also solved a lot of other mysteries— I’m the world’s greatest detective!”

“You sure are,” Barry says, a smile in his voice. After a moment, though, Barry turns back to Lup— “That aside, where were you? We searched— me and Taako, we searched for ages, and then it was just me but— but where were you? Why couldn’t we find you?”

“Yeah, uh, I was kinda. Well. Dead, and also hiding in an umbrella, for most of that time,” Lup says, rubbing sheepishly at the back of her head. “And before then I was moving around a lot chasing the gauntlet and finding a place to hide it— and then when we all, um. Well, I dunno if you forgot? You’re definitely pretty lichy now?”

“No, I was starting to forget, I deliberately killed myself then,” Barry says. “Or, well. Got Taako to do it. That what you did too, then?”

“Nope,” Lup says, popping it. “Got backstabbed while trying to figure out where I was. Then I died, quickly figured everyone else probably forgot too and kinda couldn’t deal with that, so I took a nap.”

“For ten years,” Angus adds.

“Yes,” Lup agrees. “And lemme tell you this— ten years? Not the best nap length. I was groggy and barely conscious for months. Zero outta ten, would not use to cope with existential dread again.”

Barry laughs a little. “That’s, uh— I guess that’s better than some other possibilities I came up with? I thought you were like, dead-dead, or didn’t care about us, or I dunno maybe you’d gotten eaten by the Umbra Staff—”

“Nope, just ordinary run of the mill phylactery napping.”

“I’m glad,” Barry says. “Though, uh— I don’t suppose you could’ve checked in at some point while you were still alive? I mean, your note said you’d be back soon, I don’t think— I don’t think what you did counts as that.”

“Well, it’s not like I was planning on it,” Lup says. “Things just— happened, and by the time I realized how long I’d be gone it was just awkward to be like ‘hey long time no see bro, I’m just checking in to say you probably won’t see me again for at least another couple months probably, kay bye.’”

“You know Sending!” Barry says. “You could’ve at least told us you weren’t dead— actually, come to think of it, why didn’t you send me a message as soon as you were awake?”

Angus perks up. “Hey, that’s a good point— I know you’ve used it to talk to me.”

“I...” Lup raises a finger, thinks for a moment, then sags a little. “I completely forgot that was an option.”

“Of course you did,” Barry sighs. Then he reaches out his arms. “Come here.”

They hug again, and with a sigh Angus flops onto his back in the cool grass. The cloud cover which had previously hidden the moons from sight is starting to pass, illuminating the scene properly, and Angus stares at the smaller of them— has anyone noticed he and Taako are missing? They couldn’t have noticed back when they’d fallen off, otherwise someone would have come to at least collect their bodies, but there’s no one. Are they frantically searching the base? Oh, god, did I lock my room? What if someone finds the journals and the baby Voidfish— what if the Director finds them—

He slowly lets out a breath, counting to ten before inhaling again. No, if she found them she’d probably have already searched the entire base and started sending Seekers down to search the surface. It’s fine.

Lup and Barry have turned to another conversation topic, discussing the Hunger and what to do when it comes— he listens with half an ear, takes note of when they say it’s coming, and continues on his own train of thought. But on the other hand, we’ve been gone for hours— surely someone’s noticed. Magnus or Merle, at least, with Taako not around to loudly criticize Magnus’s cooking. Wonder if they’re worried?

“...We’ve already got the baby Voidfish,” Lup is saying. “Me and Ango were planning on inoculating Taako as soon as we’re back up there— maybe the others too, if we can manage it.”

“Have you already explained everything to him? To Angus, I mean?” Barry asks.

“Only explained a little directly,” Lup says. “We also got a bunch of ‘Cretia’s journals at the same time— he reads fast. And Fisher helped? Kinda.”

“Right, right,” Barry says. “Okay, I— I don’t want to let you go, but… You should get back up there. I— I wish I could go with you—”

“The lich ward is down too,” Lup says. “It was kinda on a whim, and I was sorta expecting Lucretia to put it back up quick— but it was still gone when I left, and— and I’m sure you can get up there—”

“Still,” Barry says. “I’m— I don’t wanna get seen. Just— shoot me a message, when you’ve gotten everyone together, and then— then we can all talk. I’ve almost got a new body to live in, if you can bring the Voidfish ichor when it’s time—”

“Right, right, can do,” Lup says. She stares down at her hands, fingers intertwined with Barry’s, and with a great deal of reluctance she tugs them free and steps back. “I’ll— I’ll talk to you soon. I mean it this time, really.”

“Yeah, I’ll— I’ll hold you to that.” Barry sounds a little tearful.

Lup smiles, looking just as tearful, and then she turns and marches past Angus. “C’mon, get up, it’s time we head up again. We gotta pick Taako back up.”

“R-Right, ma’am!” Angus says, scrambling to his feet and running after her. He glances back for just a second, catching Barry staring after them for a long moment before vanishing into the night.

Then, Lup stops. “Hang on. Where did we leave Taako?”

Angus blinks. “Uh, he was somewhere along the edge of the circle last I saw? Taking a nap, I think.”

Lup nods. “Right, yeah, but… which direction?”

“Uh...”

She sighs, pressing a hand over her face. “Oh, geez. We really goofed that, huh.”

 


 

“Hey, hey, sir, wake up—”

Automatically, Taako’s hand flies out to hit whatever’s disturbing his rest, coming to a rest on Angus’s face. “Ow,” Angus says flatly.

“Y’d better have a dang good reason for wakin’ me up, Ango,” Taako says, one arm splayed over his face to cover his eyes. “You got one sentence before I go back to sleep.”

“You’re asleep in the grass and I already called us the orb to get back up onto the Bureau headquarters,” Angus says.

Taako takes a moment to parse the meaning of those words, then bites back a sigh and reluctantly sits up. “Alright, fine, you win this time. That barely counts as only one sentence, though. Way too run-on-y.”

“It really wasn’t,” Angus insists, though he doesn’t argue any further when Taako grunts at him.

“Where’s umbrella lady?” Taako asks through a yawn, as he stretches his arms. “You get what you came here for?”

“In the Umbra Staff and yes, respectively.” Angus catches sight of an orb falling from the sky and stands back up. “And before you ask, yes, sir, we’ll tell you everything the moment we can.”

“Good kid,” Taako mutters, standing up just as the orb hits the ground. He strides right up to it, motions Angus inside, and then takes the main seat and turns to stare intently.

No words are passed between them on the way up. Angus shifts uncomfortably in the stony silence, opening his mouth to speak now and then before shutting it again and just staring at his knees. It’s only broken when they finally dock in the hangar, when they step out and are greeted by Avi.

“Oh, there you are,” are the first words out of his mouth. “Magnus and Merle have been looking all over for you— you weren’t answering your stone of farspeech, how’d you get down there?”

“We fell,” Taako says, cutting off Angus as he is about to talk as well. “I tripped, and ended up dragging Ango along with me, and I managed to use Feather Fall to keep us from dying but not so much for getting back up.”

“You’ve been gone for hours, though,” Avi says. “What took you so long to call an orb?”

“Decided it was a useful learning experience,” Taako says. “I decided to show Ango around a little, and then after the sun went down I taught him Dancing Lights and we played tag for a while.”

Angus looks at him in surprise. Wait, he was paying attention? And why’s he lying about that— does he actually know Dancing Lights, even?

“Well, that’s— exactly like you, actually,” Avi says. “Actually, come to think of it, if just jumping off the base is an option, maybe the thief could have…?” He trails off, then shakes his head. “Well, I can go tell the Director about that—”

“Yeah, you have fun with that,” Taako says, already pushing Angus towards the doors. “Meanwhile, I got a bed with my name on it, fuckin— talk to you later, or whatever. Bye.”

“Sir?” Angus asks, once they’re safely away from other people. “Um, about the whole telling you thing—”

“You know what, I changed my mind, come tell me about it tomorrow when I’m less exhausted,” Taako says. “I’ve just been through a lot. Taako’s gotta keep a stress-free lifestyle to keep this wonderful look up, and all that— you’re lucky I trust you, kiddo, or I swear there would’ve been a lot more blasting.”

Angus nods, watching as Taako turns and flounces off. “Right, I’ll— I’ll come see you in the morning!”

“Yeah, you do that.”

Chapter Text

“I heard you and Taako fell off the moon,” the Director deadpans, and Angus freezes in the middle of the hallway.

“M-ma’am!” he says, whirling around to face her. “How long— how long have you been standing there? A-and how do you know about that?!”

“News travels fast in the Bureau,” the Director says, with a small smile. “Especially when it’s about the various antics of the Reclaimers— how are you feeling, after a stunt like that?”

“Oh, um, well, it was— terrifying?” Angus forces himself to relax. “I don’t— I don’t think I want to repeat the experience, um, ever, because as great a wizard as Taako is I’m not sure he’ll remember to cast Feather Fall in time again.”

The Director laughs a little. “I wouldn’t sell him so short,” she says, leaning on her staff. “That being said— is there something you’re not telling me, Angus?”

Angus’s face goes carefully, carefully blank. “I— don’t know what you’re talking about? What prompted this?"

“Don’t think I forgot your request to visit Phandalin two weeks ago,” the Director says, voice suddenly stern. “And now you and Taako accidentally fall off the moon, right while it’s over Phandalin, and rather than immediately call an orb back up you spend several hours hanging around, supposedly learning magic. Why is that?”

“I—” Angus chokes back his words and looks away. “I’m— is it really that weird, if that’s what we did? Taako’s a weird guy.”

The Director’s face softens. “I’m not accusing you of anything,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m not going to pry any further— but you know you can talk to me, right?”

Suddenly, Angus is very glad the Director didn’t cast a Zone of Truth this time. “Yeah,” he mutters, and the Director steps away with a nod.

“I won’t pry any further,” she repeats, pushing open the door to outside, “But I would greatly appreciate if you would tell me yourself.”

Angus sprints all the way back to his room, hurriedly unlocking his door— that’s a point for past-Angus’s conscientiousness— and slamming it shut behind him. It’s totally dark and silent in here, at least until Angus flicks the light on, and he hurries over to the desk to look underneath—

And there’s the baby Voidfish, all tendrils wrapped around its toy boat until it catches sight of him, at which point it drops the boat and hits the side of the tank with a loud song. F E E D.

And Angus breathes a sigh of relief. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, little guy. I got dragged off by someone,” Angus says, climbing into his chair and fishing out his notebook. “I’ll get you something to eat.”

He flips the notebook open and stares at the blank page for a long moment, then at all the ragged edges of previously torn out pages, and he sighs. After a moment, he writes, There is a large fish tank containing a baby jellyfish hidden underneath the desk in someone’s dorm room in the Bureau headquarters.

He fills the rest of the page with other things of that ilk— trying to cover himself, in case anyone comes in, so they might not be able to notice any of them. Then he tears the page out, folds it in half, and offers it up. The Voidfish devours it, trilling happily, and spins away into the center of the tank to resume playing kraken with its toys.

Angus sighs. “You don’t really know or care about any of this, do you? You’re just a little baby fish, playing with toys and eating information when you’re hungry. You wouldn’t care if the world was coming to an end, unless you could see it.”

The Voidfish sings happily, managing to tug the boat a couple inches below the surface before it bobs back to the surface.

“Must be nice,” he muses. “‘Course, I wanna be able to pursue the truth, but your way of living works too.”

The Voidfish hums a little, ignoring him, and with a sigh, Angus stands back up and climbs back into bed. I should really get it back to its parent…

 


 

“What do you mean I can’t go in the Voidfish’s chamber?” Angus asks.

“Sorry, kiddo,” Johann says, crossing his arms in front of the still-closed elevator. “The last time you were in there the Voidfish—”

“It wasn’t attacking me!” Angus insists. “Come on, you have to believe me—”

“—Okay, even if I did,” Johann butts in, “It still— you still could’ve gotten seriously hurt. Even if you’re sure it didn’t mean it, you still passed out. I couldn’t— I couldn’t live with myself if you got hurt or even—” He takes a sharp breath, turns his head away. “I just couldn’t. Not under my watch.”

“I could stay away from the tank?” Angus weakly suggests. Johann just shakes his head, and Angus sighs. “Alright, fine, sir. You win.”

He turns and walks away dejectedly, hearing the elevator door slide open just as he’s turning the corner. Under his hat, the baby Voidfish sings a confused note, attempting to stick a tendril out before Angus tugs his hat down again. I was hoping I could do this before seeing Taako, but I guess that was too much to hope for.

Tightening his grip on the strap of his bag, he hurries to the elevator leading to Tres Horny Boys’ suite. Once in the elevator and going down, he pulls out a water bottle and sloshes it around, contemplating the slightly viscous fluid inside. After a moment, the elevator dings, and Angus steps out into the suite.

It’s silent aside from his soft footsteps, all windows covered and the only light coming from a bulb someone left on in the kitchen. The Voidfish peeks out from under his hat again, and Angus lets it, curious himself at this glimpse of the Tres Horny Boys’s suite before they’ve woken up— 10 AM on a Sunday, the only day of the week the Director’s been letting them sleep in on lately.

It’s almost eerie, his logical knowledge that the sun’s high in the sky contrasting with the night-like stillness. It’s a far cry from how he normally sees it, driven into chaos by the mere presence of its inhabitants.

There’s a sharp snore behind Angus and he jumps, whirling around in search of the source as the Voidfish retreats under his hat again— and it’s just Taako, splayed across one of the couches, half-hidden in the darkness so Angus missed him the first time looking. Angus sighs, and pads over to the nearest lamp to switch it on. “Sir? Sir, wake up.”

Taako just grumbles a little, burying his face in a pillow, and Angus reaches over to shake his shoulder. “Sir, it’s morning, I said I’d explain things to you. Sir?”

“G’way,” Taako grumbles, pushing him away and turning away. “‘n turn off that sun.”

“The sun isn’t shining here, sir, there’s just a lamp.” Angus switches tactics, instead grabbing the blanket Taako’s swaddled himself in and tugging on it. “Actually, do you actually need to sleep? I thought elves just needed to meditate for a while.”

“Fuck trancing,” Taako mutters into his pillow, pulling back on the blanket. “Sleep’s better. Don’t gotta deal with shit when I’m asleep.”

“And why are you sleeping out here anyway?” Angus asks, pulling with all his measly strength in an attempt to move Taako. “You have a room—”

“‘M not sleeping anywhere near that lich lady,” Taako says, rolling out of the blanket so Angus falls backwards to the floor— blanket in hand, but no Taako.

Angus huffs, gathering the blanket up in his arms. “And you don’t want to know who that lich lady is? Not even a little?”

“What’s there to know?” Taako mutters. “Lich lady, super secret, lives in an umbrella. Anything else can wait until sometime past seven in the AM.”

“Sir, it’s—” Angus pauses to look at a clock. “It’s almost fifteen past ten. That argument isn’t gonna work here.”

Taako finally opens his eyes and sits up, squinting and shielding his eyes to check the clock as well, and then he falls back to the cushions. “Okay, fine, you win this time. You gonna explain shit now, or what?”

“Yeah, just gimme a sec—” Angus quickly dumps the blanket on the couch opposite of Taako and bustles over to the kitchen, clambering onto a stool in search of a glass. He grabs the first one he finds— a shot glass— and returns to place it down on the coffee table, across from Taako.

Taako raises an eyebrow. “I’ll admit, I don’t really get human aging at all, but I’m pretty sure eleven is still too young to be doing shots.”

“I’m n— I’m not!” Angus sputters. “I’m just— look, here!”

Angus whips off his hat, the Voidfish coming with it with a confused wail. He firmly holds in out in front of him, and Taako leans forward to give it a befuddled stare. “What’re you trying to show me here? And if it’s the start to some kinda magic trick, I swear—”

“It’s not,” Angus says, setting the hat down and gently patting the Voidfish down when it starts to raise itself up. “First of all, the lich in your umbrella is named Lup—” The Voidfish flashes brightly, and Taako blinks. “She’s also your twin sister—” It flashes. “—And you, Magnus and Merle were also Red Robes—” Flash. “—As were Lucretia, Davenport, and Barry Bluejeans—” More flashes. “—And you’re all from another planar system—”

“Okay, okay, stop,” Taako says, cutting him off. “I’m getting nothing but static here, but I think I get the gist of what you’re not saying here. You got a Voidfish. You got a drink for me too, or what?”

Angus nods, catching the Voidfish with one hand as he reaches over to retrieve the water bottle. He pours a little of the ichor out into the shot glass and pushes it across the table, then folds his hands in his lap and watches Taako.

Taako stares at the glass for a second, then picks it up and downs it just like that. “Tastes like gogurt,” he comments, wiping a bit of ichor from the corner of his mouth.

“Mm,” Angus hums, nodding absently. “So, what does the name Lup mean to you?”

“Oh, that’s easy, she’s my sister—” Taako blinks, then recoils and clutches his head. “Ow, ow owowow— shit I have a sister— ow how the fuck did I forget—”

“Um, Voidfish reasons?” Angus says, jumping back a little when Taako falls sideways onto the couch and moans in pain. “Oh geez— sir are you okay? Maybe you shouldn’t— try and think too hard about things— you might hurt yourself?”

“Lup,” Taako rasps, curling up into a ball. “Lup, get her— I need to talk—”

Angus is already on his feet and racing to Taako’s door, tugging it open, and quickly looking over the room in search of the Umbra Staff. “Ma’am, are you— I’m telling Taako, he wanted to talk to you—”

There’s a bang, and Lup goes flying into the wall. “Is he okay?!” she asks, collecting herself and barely pausing to adjust her appearance— a red jacket and dark jeans, instead of the full secret-agent get up— before brushing past Angus on her way to Taako.

Angus pauses to collect the Umbra Staff before chasing after her. She’s knelt over Taako, hovering anxiously and making various worried noises— “Oh no, Taako, you— ah geez, oh no— hey, I’m here—”

“‘Bout fuckin’ time,” Taako says, more affectionate than really mad— and pained, even more than that. “‘Back soon,’ how the fuck is ten fucking years— ow, owow ow. Fuck, ow.”

Angus hovers nervously behind the couch. “Sir? Oh, jeez— is there— can I help at all? Um— would a cool cloth help?”

“I— I dunno?” Lup says. “I— I mean, he’s remembering a whole lot of shit all at once, but— it might? Go try that.”

“Great job talking about me like I’m not— ow— like I’m not right here,” Taako mutters. “Wow you’re just— fucking— greatest sister I’ve ever had.”

“Well sorry for trying to figure out a way to help you with that raging headache you’re giving yourself here,” Lup says. “Come on, can you just— take it slow— you don’t have to remember everything all at once—”

“Yeah I do,” Taako insists, trying to prop himself up on the armrest. “Fucking— ten years, Lup, I didn’t even know what to do with myself— I didn’t know why— where did you— we were looking all over for so long—”

“Hey, I’m sorry,” Lup says, giving him a nervous smile. “I didn’t mean it, honest— I was just trying to undo what I’d done—”

Taako makes a small noise and falls forward. Lup yelps and tries to catch him, barely managing to slow his fall a little before he passes right through her. Angus is there within moments, though, propping Taako up and pushing him gently back to the cushions.

“Please stop pushing yourself, sir,” Angus asks, draping a cloth over Taako’s forehead, hands trembling. “You’re gonna— You’re gonna get hurt.”

“‘m already hurting,” Taako slurs, trying to sit up again before wincing and toppling back. Angus makes a distressed noise, trying to catch him again, but Taako just hits the cushions.

“Aw geez, oh no,” Lup is muttering over and over, anxiously fidgeting and rubbing at her face. “Oh, no, no, aw shucks— oh darn—”

“Ma’am, I understand this is a stressful situation but could you watch the fucking language?” Angus snaps. “I’m just a little kid—”

Taako laughs weakly. “Heheh, he said the fuck word...”

“Okay, okay— ignoring your blatant hypocrisy— Oh geez, Taako, um—” Lup cuts off with a frustrated sigh. “Um, maybe— it’d be better if you were unconscious for a bit— not so stressful for your brain—”

“Hell yeah, fuckin’ waste me, punch me in the face, knock me the fuck out,” Taako mutters, throwing a hand over his eyes dramatically. Then he pauses. “No, no, wait, then you’d leave. Don’t want you to leave again.”

“I’m not leaving, Taako,” Lup says. “I’m staying right here, until you wake up— just as soon as your brain has had a better chance to process all the things you just crammed into it like an idiot—”

“Promise you won’t go?” Taako asks, lifting his arm a little.

Lup smiles. “Promise. I’ll be right here the whole time.”

“Mmph.” Taako seems to think for a moment, then sighs. “Fine, fuckin— do it. Fucking waste me. But if you’re not there I’m totally gonna hunt you down and kill you.”

“I’m already dead,” Lup says.

“Good,” Taako replies. Lup snaps her fingers. Immediately Taako’s face relaxes, and he sags into the couch. Lup adjusts his position to something a little more comfortable, tucks him in again with the blanket, and then stands back.

“So,” Angus says, once it’s clear Lup isn’t going to say anything first. “That could’ve gone better.”

“You don’t say,” Lup deadpans. “Next time, I say we do the full explaining first—”

“Whuz going on?” Magnus asks, stumbling out of his room in his pajamas and rubbing at his eyes. “I heard yelling—”

He stops short on seeing Lup, opens his mouth to say something, and then stops again when he sees Taako lying on the couch behind her. He stares for a moment, mouth opening and closing, before he finally gets a word out. “What?”

“Uh...” Lup says, ever so eloquently. “...I’m a doppelganger here to steal Taako’s identity. Now that you’ve witnessed me here I have no choice but to kill you too.”

Magnus narrows his eyes at her. “I don’t believe you.”

“Bummer,” Lup says. “Any chance you could go back to bed and forget I ever showed up here? And also not come back out for, oh… a couple hours?”

“Nope,” Magnus says, crossing his arms. “Hey, Ango, who’s this?”

“Oh, this is Lup—” Angus starts, before something flashes behind Magnus and he stops short. Then he scrambles to chase after it. “Um— hang on sorry sir excuse me!”

Magnus sidesteps out of the way, watching bemusedly as Angus darts after the baby Voidfish and claps his hands around it just as it’s reaching for a scroll left open on Magnus’s desk. “I’m sorry, I know you’re hungry,” he says when the Voidfish protests, pulling it back to the door and shutting it behind him. “But you’re not allowed to eat other people’s stuff.”

The Voidfish makes a noise remarkably akin to a grumpy squeaky toy. Oh, it’s learning new sounds. That’s… nice?

“Okay, what the fuck, why is Angus talking to a weird glowing nothingness?” Magnus asks. “Am I missing something? Why’s Taako asleep out here instead of in his room? Are you a Red Robe?”

“Voidfish, yes, hell if I know, yes,” Lup rattles off, ticking them off on her hand. “How’d you know?"

“Lucky guess,” Magnus says. “You’re wearing an awful lotta red, is all.”

“Fair,” Lup says.

“So, uh.” Magnus puts his hands on his hips. “Mind telling me why I shouldn’t go running to the Director about a Red Robe on the base?”

“Okay, one, I’d totally destroy you before you got even halfway there,” Lup says. “Two, I was actually here to tell Taako a bunch of stuff— but I’m also willing to tell you those things, if you wanna. Like the fact that hi, I’m Lup.”

The Voidfish flashes in Angus’s hands, drawing Magnus’s attention, and after a moment he sighs. “Alright, fine, talk. I’ll listen.”

Lup nods and motions him over to the empty couch, where Angus quickly takes the hint and pours another shot of Voidfish ichor. Magnus doesn’t need any prompting before he chugs it, wincing at the taste, and slams the glass back down. “So?”

“Okay, so,” Lup starts, perching herself on the back of the couch above Taako. “First of all, try not to think ahead or whatever? Because, um. Y’know. You might die? I mean, probably not, but better safe than sorry—”

“I might just do it if you don’t get to the point, Lup,” Magnus says, then winces.

Lup quickly starts off. “Okay, so there were seven of us— Me and Taako, Barry— you’ve met him? Barry Bluejeans?” Magnus nods. “Right, and then there was you, Lucretia, Merle, and Davenport was our captain. And right now you know us as the Red Robes but really we’re the IPRE— The Institute of Planar Research and Exploration...”

 


 

Once Lup is done rattling off the history of the IPRE, Magnus looks significantly better off than Taako ended up, only holding his head a little. “That’s a lot to take back in,” he comments. “Man, I can’t believe I forgot the fucking power bear. That thing was sick as hell.”

Lup laughs a little. “Of course that’s what you focus on.”

“Well, what else am I gonna focus on? I’m not your brother, Taako is, and it looks like he was focusing on you pretty hard.”

Taako rolls over, regaining consciousness just enough to flip Magnus off before burying his face in a pillow again. Magnus just rolls his eyes. “So, uh, okay, that aside— what do we do now? Do we just, I dunno, fight Lucretia?”

“Let’s— Let’s not fight the Director, maybe?” Angus suggests.

“Nah, that sounds like a pretty solid plan,” Lup says. “Sock her in the jaw real quick— god knows she deserves it.”

“Aren’t you all ghosty-like though, Lup?” Magnus asks. Lup waves her arm through his shoulders in response, and he yelps and jumps away. “Please don’t do that— but anyway, I dunno if you can do any punching stuff like that.”

Lup thinks it over, then shrugs. “I’ll work something out.”

“Work what out to who now?” Merle asks groggily, stumbling out of his room. “And why’s the kid here?”

“Oh, hey Merle!” Magnus greets. “Me and Lup are gonna totally punch Lucretia in the face, wanna join us?”

Merle blinks, rubs at his eyes a little, and asks, “You and who now?”

“Me,” Lup says, raising her hand.

“Oh, you. Nice to meet you, um, Miss Kchsrsrhcsck?” Merle says, walking over. “Why do we gotta fight the Director?”

“Because she erased all our memories of our time in the IPRE—” A flash from under Angus’s hat, and Magnus cuts himself off. “Right, right, you gotta get inoculated first.”

“I’m not doing the explaining this time,” Lup announces as Angus picks up the bottle of ichor again. “Magnus, you do it.”

“Me?” Magnus asks. “Why do I have to do it? When I’m still sorting all this out myself?”

“Well, who else is gonna do it? Angus?” Lup asks, gesturing at the detective in question as he hands the shotglass over to Merle. “Ango, quick question, how well do you understand what— do you know our history super well?”

“Pretty well, I think?” Angus says, shrugging. “I mean, I’ve read all the journals you stole, and there was that whole thing with Fisher, so—”

Magnus holds up a hand. “Wait wait wait, hold up, what’s this about Fisher?”

“Oh, a— a couple weeks ago I got ‘attacked' by Fisher,” Angus says, making a pair of exaggerated air quotes on either side of his head. “It was just showing me a bunch of memories at once, though, and I’m fine now! I only passed out a little!”

“Okay, enough about the kid,” Merle grumbles. He downs the shot of ichor, slams the glass on the coffee table, and crosses his arms. “Who’s gonna tell me what’s going on?”

Lup, Magnus, and Angus all look at each other, glancing around, before Angus sighs and steps up. “Okay, this is Lup, she’s Taako’s sister. They, along with you, Magnus, and a couple other people including the Director used to be Red Robes...”

 


 

“Fuck,” Merle says, once Angus is done explaining with occasional interjections from Lup and Magnus. “That’s just— fuck, man.”

“My thoughts exactly, dude,” Taako says, having woken up about halfway through with slightly less of a headache. “You’re just lucky you didn’t have to remember all of it at once without any help, because boy howdy I still have a migraine.”

“That’s because you actively chased down all the memories, you goof,” Lup says, swatting him on the head with her umbrella. “I told you to take it slower.”

“I consider the fact that you can play the violin much more important than whether or not I have a headache,” Taako says, turning his head and wincing as he does so. “And no, this isn’t a debate.”

“Yeah yeah, mushy mushy goo goo I love you too, bro,” Lup says. “But anyway, in all seriousness, what are we gonna do now? I’ve already gotten in contact with Barry, I can call him whenever, but what’s the plan?”

Magnus hums. “Well, I’d guess we’d wanna grab Cap’nport too,” he muses. “Then punch Lucretia in the face, what else?”

Angus raises a hand. “I want to return Fisher’s baby, but I’m not allowed into the chamber anymore because Johann’s worried I’ll get hurt.”

“That’s easy, I’ll take it!” Magnus says. “I mean, we’re great pals— c’mere, Junior!”

The baby Voidfish shies away a little, retreating behind Angus’s hat. “I’m not sure that’ll work,” Angus says. “I mean, for one, the Director’s paying a lot more attention to you that she is to me. Plus, I was kinda— I was kinda imagining you all make a huge distraction punching the Director in the— in the face, because that’s apparently what you’ve decided to do now—”

“Am I the only one who’s not so sure that’s necessary?” Merle asks.

“No, Agnes agrees with you, he’s just been outvoted already,” Taako says.

“Anyway,” Angus says. “I was thinking, you make a distraction confronting the Director, punching optional, attracting all the guards’ attention while I sneak into Fisher’s chamber to give Junior back.”

“I still wanna talk to Fisher, though,” Magnus whines.

“You can do that any time, you big baby,” Taako says, patting him on the arm. “Hell, go tell the thing about this plan— it’ll be happy to know you remember it, plus you’ll be helping it get its kid back.”

“Yeah, I guess that works,” Magnus says. “...Yeah, plus if I was on fish-delivery duty, I wouldn’t get to punch Lucretia. Okay, yeah, that works. No complaints.”

Lup sits up. “Okay, if that’s all agreed on, when—”

The door slams open, admitting the sound of Carey’s voice— “What’s up bitches, guess who’s late for training!” she says— and Lup is already diving through the wall to hide in Taako’s room.

Two steps into the common area, Carey pauses and takes in the sight of Tres Horny Boys staring at her with various expressions of deer-in-the-headlights and Angus frantically clamping his hands over his hat. “Geez, what were you guys up to in here?”

“Uh,” Taako says, pulling his blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Extreme Fantasy Jenga.”

Carey blinks. “You don’t have any Fantasy Jenga blocks here, though.”

“That’s what makes it Extreme,” Magnus says. “You have to keep track of where all the pieces are with only your brain, and if you get distracted the whole thing falls down.”

“Yeah, Ango’s been way better at it than the rest of us,” Taako adds.

Carey blinks, then hums. “That… sounds pretty neat, actually.”

Everyone else shares a baffled look. Did she actually fall for that? they all wonder, though no one voices it.

“Anyway, ignoring that,” Carey says. “Did y’all sleep in even further than usual? You look like you all just got out of bed, even though it’s like, almost noon.”

“What, already?” Taako asks, looking up at the clock. “Aw man, I should really make some brunch or whatever, pancakes sound good?”

“I could go for that,” Magnus says, and Taako hops to his feet and starts bustling around the kitchen, picking out ingredients and cooking implements.

Carey blinks. “Wait, you cook?”

“Yeah, had a cooking show and everything—” Taako says, before pausing. He stares down at the pan in his hand for a moment, ears flicking, before finally he shakes his head and places the pan loudly on the stove. “Aaand speaking of which, Magnus. Get over here, lemme teach you to not set anything on fire when you cook. How did you you even survive before we met?”

“I’m not always that bad,” Magnus mutters, nonetheless trudging over.

Angus picks this moment to step away, grabbing the Umbra Staff with one hand while using the other to keep the baby Voidfish hidden. He pads unnoticed to the door to Taako’s room, slips inside, and looks around in search of Lup.

He finds her clinging to the wall above the door. “Is she gone yet?” she hisses, disguise dropped and form flickering a little.

Angus shakes his head. “No, but— you’re a super powerful lich, aren’t you? And the other— Barry was able to hide back in— way back in Lucas’s lab, wasn’t he? Can’t you just do that?”

“Subterfuge isn’t really my speciality!” Lup hisses. “Look, just— give me that—”

She drops from the wall, twisting in the air to reach for the Umbra Staff. It moves in response, bucking and turning inside out and pulling Lup inside. It shakes, turns right-side-out a bit at a time, and seems almost like it’s trying to chew up a pissed off lobster that isn’t taking any shit today.

A moment later though, it settles, and a mage hand forms from the tip to give Angus a thumbs up. Angus smiles, gives her a thumbs up back, then looks around. “So, I was— I was gonna go, now, do you want me to bring you back outside, or—?”

Lup makes a thinking motion, then takes the handle herself and leans the umbrella against the side of Taako’s bed. She gives one more thumbs up before dispelling the hand, and Angus nods.

Stepping back outside, Angus finds everyone clustered around the stove. Taako is gesturing very firmly with a pan at the red-hot burner as Magnus listens intently, mixing up a bowl of pancake batter, while Merle and Carey stare in awed silence. Angus chooses not to get involved, instead darting over to the elevator and stepping inside.

Finally free of the risk of Carey potentially witnessing anything, Angus finally removes his hand from his hat. The Voidfish makes a displeased squeak. “I’m sorry, buddy,” Angus says. “I just can’t let you get seen. Though I guess you are kinda inherently hidden at all times, but still. I can’t take the risk of her noticing anything weird.”

The Voidfish squeaks again, and Angus is struck by the vision of what it’s like to be inside a hat with a hand holding said hat down.

Angus sighs. “Okay, fine, I won’t do that again—” It sings a very cheerful note, starting to lift the brim of his hat up, and Angus quickly pulls it back down. “Hey, no! You still gotta hide, I’m just— I’m just gonna try not to crush you next time, okay?"

It squawks, but nevertheless remains still when Angus lets the brim go. Angus takes this as a win, especially so when the elevator doors open not a second later. He takes off at a casual trot, bag held tight to his side, and steels himself for what will come.

 


 

So here’s the plan, reads the scroll Taako slipped Angus at the end of the magic lesson given on that Sunday. It’s written in Lup’s handwriting, much steadier than it was when they met but still a little sloppy— but they’ve come a great distance from the start.

On Monday, around lunch time, I make a big ruckus to attract everyone’s attention. The clock hits 11:30. Magnus and Carey share a sick high-five, Noelle righting herself from her position upside down on the floor behind them. The boys, still pretending not to remember, play along until Madame Director shows up.

We all try to direct attention as far away from Fisher as possible, and while that’s going on you return Junior. Angus, knelt underneath the desk in his room, glares at the baby Voidfish as it dodges around his attempts to catch it. There’s a bracelet with a spider decal around his wrist. We can’t do much about people stationed right in the chamber, but Magnus says the enclosed item should help.

I’ve told Barry about this plan, and he said he’d help however he can. Seated in the rafters above, nearly impossible to detect, another Red Robe watches everyone pass by. Not sure what he meant? But keep that in mind.

Sitting right in the middle of the cafeteria, hidden under both Disguise Self and Greater Invisibility, Lup watches Bureau employees start to filter in. You can come watch the show if you want, and if you finish fast enough.

A couple sparks dance between her fingers, unseen, and she grins. It’s gonna be a blast.

Chapter Text

“I mean seriously, Kills, you should’ve seen it!” Carey is saying, gesturing energetically with one hand while the other balances a tray of food. “Noelle chucked me so hard she just straight up flipped over, and I was like whoosh right onto Magnus’s shoulders and springboarding way up into the air, and I managed to hit all the targets like three times average before I was even halfway down—”

“—And then you panicked when I took an extra second to cast Levitate,” Taako deadpans from behind her. “And don’t you start on me with that team synchronicity shit, you know it’s not gonna be so cut-and-dried out in the field.”

“Hey, a second can mean life or death out there,” Killian says. “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough. You could die, you know.”

Taako huffs, mockingly imitating her speech with a chatter motion of his hand. “Been there done that, homie,” he says. “You’re overreacting— hey, let’s sit over there!”

He points at the middle of the cafeteria, at a table almost empty except for some elf poking at her food. Ignoring any protests, he drags the rest of them all the way over and drops himself neatly in the seat next to her and cheerfully sticks his feet out on the table in front of her. “So! Haven’t seen you around here before, are you a new recruit?”

The elf lady looks at his feet, then up at his face, expression unreadable under her shades. “Taako, you know damn well we’ve already met,” she deadpans.

“Pssh, yeah, but not in here,” he says, waving a hand dismissively. “Speaking of which, the food here is terrible, right?”

“I dunno, I haven’t actually had any of it yet,” she admits, stabbing at the food on her tray with her fork. “Mostly because it looks terrible.”

“Ugh, I know...”

As they go back and forth, Magnus and Merle dig into their lunch without batting an eye. Carey and Killian, on the other hand, are looking between them with mild bafflement. “Yo, babe,” Carey whispers, leaning in. “This lady looks just like Taako, right? I’m not just seeing things?”

“No, I’m seeing it too,” Killian whispers back. “D’you think it’s an illusion? Or Taako cast some kinda variation on Mislead?”

“It might just be a coincidence?” Carey asks. “Though, I’ve never seen her anywhere before...”

Killian shrugs, then speaks up. “So, hey, mystery lady, I don’t think I’ve seen you around before. What’s your name?”

The mystery elf tenses a little, then laughs and leans casually on the table, bracer prominent on her forearm. “Who, me? I’m just a new recruit, name’s Umber.”

Killian raises an eyebrow. “Funny, I didn’t know we got any new members recently. What division?”

“Seeker,” Umber says easily. “And I’m pretty new here, maybe the news just hasn’t spread yet?”

Killian nods, looking sceptical. “How was the test of initiation?” Carey chimes in.

“Oh, it was a mess,” Umber says. “Super tough, I was totally dead at the end of it.”

“Ugh, I know how it feels,” Taako commiserates, propping his head up on his arm. “I mean, those fucking ogres...”

As he goes on, Carey notices Umber’s vision shifting to look at something else. Subtly, she follows her gaze, and finds the doors— and also Noelle floating in, scanner running, managing to look vaguely baffled even from this distance and without a proper face.

Umber looks away after a moment, but Carey doesn’t. As the two elves go off on another tangent together, Carey watches Noelle drift ever closer, weaving between people until she gets about fifteen feet away, when Carey silently stands up and pads over. “Hey, Noelle, something wrong?” she asks. “You’re looking a little lost.”

Noelle’s conduit flickers a little as she turns sharply, one arm raising a little before she recognizes Carey and relaxes. “Oh, Carey, no, I’m— I’m just lookin’ for somethin’, I think my scanners might be on the fritz— or I’m hoping, at least...”

Carey blinks. “What is is?”

“Well, it’s just— you haven’t seen any liches around, have you?” Noelle asks. “Because— because my scanners are insisting there’s at least one around, there’s a huge amount of necrotic energy around, and I’ve tracked it down here— and I’m super worried because there’s so many people here? And the lich ward’s been down for ages—”

Distantly, Carey notices Umber asking the time— she can’t see a damn clock anywhere in this room— and Taako says it’s about 11:45.

“I don’t— I don’t think so?” Carey says, starting to shrug, before she stops and turns. “Though—”

Umber vanishes from her seat, all the doors slam shut, and several seconds later a shining spectre of red flame appears above the table. Taako looks distinctly unimpressed. “Could’ve used more flair,” he says around a mouthful of mashed potato, voice almost deafening in the sudden silence.

“Still no accounting for taste,” the lich says in Umber’s voice, and Carey finds she isn’t surprised in the least. “So, here’s the deal,” she says, floating up a little and letting her voice boom through the room. “I’m totally bored, and have someone I wanna fight, but she’s not here! So until then, we’re gonna play a game.”

Someone speaks up. “What’s stopping us from just defeating you and leaving?”

“Okay, one, I just sealed all the exits,” Umber says, ticking off one bony finger. “Two, I’m stronger than like, all of you combined. Three, the floor is lava, so you can’t walk on it.”

“No it’s not,” someone else says, crossing their arms. “We’re not gonna play along with some childish make-believe—”

“Oh, but who said we’re pretending?” Umber asks. Theatrically, she raises one hand into air, preparing to snap, and Tres Horny Boys raise their feet to put them on the chairs with them.

And then she snaps, and the ground directly below her starts to bubble and melt and crack to show glowing red— and then the cracks start to spread, and within moments everyone descends into pandemonium, running to scrabble at the walls and doors and scrambling on top of the tables leaving food abandoned everywhere.

As the lava spreads all the way to the edges of the room, people slip and fall into the lava— and every time, Umber clicks her fingers left and right, and they stand back up seemingly unharmed but reaching for everyone else— still themselves, but perhaps a little too eager in their newfound roles as zombies.

“How many slots did you prepare Charm Person in?” Taako asks from the table next to Lup, sipping at a Fantasy Caprisun and dodging when she tries to shove him off.

“A lot,” Lup deadpans, charming another couple zombies from their fiery graves. “Not all of them though.”

“Well, obviously,” Merle says, inching away from a nearby zombie. He gets up on his toes, looking for Killian and Carey, before dropping back to his heels when he finds them halfway across the room and using a table as a rudimentary crowdsurfing-rowboat. “Criminy, I know liches are pure arcane power, but this is just ridiculous.”

“Glad to have your seal of approval,” Lup says.

“You sure this’ll get Lucretia’s attention, though?” Magnus asks, sitting atop a tower chairs coming dangerously close to toppling over from the zombies tearing at it. “I mean, you’ve closed off all the exits.”

“Oh, they’ll get a message out,” Lup says. “This is just so Angus has a little more time to do his side of things.”

 


 

Halfway across the base, Angus is still struggling to convince the baby Voidfish to get under his hat. “Come on, this is the last time, I promise!” he says, jumping and only barely managing to graze the very tips of its tendrils where it floats above him.

The Voidfish sings, floating even higher up, and Angus growls. “This isn’t the time for this!”

From the vague direction of the cafeteria, Angus feels more than he hears a loud bang— like fireworks going off. He sighs. “Okay, this isn’t working.”

As the Voidfish hums nervously above him, Angus ducks under the desk to retrieve a toy boat. He removes his hat, balances the boat on his head, and holds his arms out to both sides. “Come on, don’t you wanna play with your toy?”

The Voidfish hesitates, then dives for the boat and ensnares it in its tendrils. Angus quickly pulls his hat over both it and the boat, getting a quiet squawk as the baby Voidfish twists and tumbles into a more comfortable position. Angus ignores it, packing a fresh bottle of Voidfish ichor into his bag and hanging his wand from a brand new lanyard around his neck, and then after taking a moment to adjust his hat— loosening it a little, for the Voidfish’s comfort— he steps outside.

The first thing he notices upon leaving the main dome is the swarm of people around the cafeteria entrances. It’s mostly guards, though the number of people who were just passing by and noticed a commotion is steadily increasing. He’s curious to see just what Lup has come up with, and under any other circumstances he absolutely would have gone over there, but he’s a boy on a mission.

It’s with great reluctance that he turns away, taking the long way around to Fisher’s chamber so as to avoid as many people as possible. He only passes a couple guards, all either looking around in confusion or hurrying in the direction of the cafeteria, and as he’d hoped the elevator is totally lacking in witnesses.

Through the long ride down, he reviews Lup’s message, lingering on the last few lines. PS: I’m also gonna borrow some of that sweet sweet ichor just in case, so don’t get spooked if you catch a cool-ass lich petting ur jellyfish in the dead of night.

He’s… pretty sure he hasn’t seen her, though it’s perfectly plausible he just slept through her visit. That doesn’t stop his brain going overboard with anxieties, what could she need the ichor for, did she forget to grab it? What if something comes up and she really needs it, you should turn this elevator around and go bring yours to her—

The elevator dings, and Angus snaps immediately into the next phase of his plan. Fisher’s chambers are pretty far from the rest of the base, connected only by an obnoxiously long elevator ride, so the guards there wouldn’t be easily drawn away by a ruckus. Additionally, the hall is a straight line from the elevator to the chamber doors, with no hiding places in between.

The elevator doors slide open, and after a second the guards look up and find no one there. The doors shut again after a moment, and one of the guards frowns, wonders if the elevator is malfunctioning, and he looks away again.

Clinging to the wall near the ceiling, covered in a buzz of magic originating from his wrist, Angus breathes a small sigh of relief. It’s not often that he can use his small size to his advantage, but being able to slip out before the doors were fully open definitely helped his odds of not getting noticed on the way up.

Silently, he creeps along the edge of the ceiling, moving to hang directly above the guards. He tugs his wand free, takes a breath, and drops a spell down between them.

A couple seconds later, the two guards slump to the ground asleep. One of them lets out a loud snore. Angus pumps his fist in a silent cheer, then carefully makes his way back down. He takes a moment to make sure the guards are okay, adjusting their positions to something a little more comfortable, and then pushes the door open a crack.

Johann isn’t there, he sees. Fisher is, though, serene as ever until Angus pushes the door open fully and steps inside. It sings four questioning notes— B A B E? and Angus nods.

And then there’s another distant bang.

 


 

“Okay, I appreciate your dedication to a theme, lich lady,” Carey says, clinging with all her might to a chair lifted way up near the ceiling by a pillar of heated rock, “But could you consider setting off less fireworks right in front of my nose?”

The lich— Red Robe— spooky elf lady— hums, scratching her chin thoughtfully, then shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so. You haven’t fallen even once, it’s no fun.”

There’s a sort of cycle going on here, Carey has noticed. Whenever someone touches the ground— here defined as whatever this Red Robe has magicked into looking like lava— they get charmed, and from there swayed into trying to pull other people onto the ground. But when they do manage that, the charm gets lifted and they’re allowed back onto the furniture, from where they resume trying to find some way out of this nightmare.

No one’s actually gotten hurt, she’s also noticed, once the intial panic of the floor seemingly melting wore off. It’s all illusions and enchantments, the only evocation coming in the form of lich-lady trying to startle people into falling—

There’s a click, and another set of fireworks goes off in Carey’s face. This one actually does manage to throw her off balance, the chair toppling backwards and sending her falling until she manages to twist and wedge one of the legs into the pillar of rock.

“Aw, almost got you there,” lich-lady says.

Carey huffs. “Can’t you go terrorize someone else?” she asks. “Like Taako, you sure seem happy enough to borrow his face.”

Lich-lady looks off to the side, and Carey follows her gaze to find Taako lying spread-eagle and face down in an otherwise empty patch of floor. “...Nah, I think he’s good,” lich-lady finally says. “And I already told you, this is my face. See, I’ve got a mole here and my hair’s different and everything!”

“Yeah, that’s real likely,” Carey scoffs, flipping herself into a more stable position on the chair. “You’re a lich, lich-lady, you don’t have a face anymore.”

“And who’s to say this wasn’t my face when I was alive?” lich-lady asks. “Also, stop calling me that, I already gave a name for you to call me.”

“What, Umber?” Carey asks. “That’s so obviously fake, I wouldn’t believe it even if you weren’t busy terrorizing me and all my friends.”

“Take it or leave it, homie,” lich-lady says. “On another note, how long d’you think Magnus is gonna last over there? Bet you these chicken wings he’s down within three minutes.”

Carey turns her head in search of Magnus, finding him on top of a pile of tables and beating back aggressors with a chair. He has a small contingent of wizards behind him, all whispering and gesturing at some kind of hurriedly drawn diagram— figuring out some escape route, if she has to guess— and while the structure is a little shaky, Magnus is doing decently well protecting it.

“I think I’ll take that bet,” Carey muses. Then a large, spectral hand shoves at her from behind, sending her clean off the chair and into a waiting crowd of zombies.

And then she’s grabbed by the ankle and tugged back onto a table, held safe in the arms of Killian. “You okay?” Killian asks, edging away from those reaching hands.

“Kills!” Carey says, eyes wide, and twists around to hug Killian around the neck. “I thought you were busy being charmed?”

“Well, yeah, but then I managed to tug one of those tieflings down,” Killian says, motioning a little sheepishly towards a table with several tieflings mourning the loss of one of their own. “But I got over here as fast as I could because— you’ve noticed it too, right? This is basically Haunted The Floor Is Lava, right?”

Carey blinks. “That game we played a while back with Taako’s umbrella?”

Killian nods. “Like— look, it’s like regular The Floor Is Lava, except there’s a lich and everyone who touches the floor becomes a zombie— and that lich, she keeps insisting on being called Umber, which is super close to Umbrella— you don’t think Taako was wrong about his umbrella being possessed by just a ghost, do you?”

Carey’s eyes widen. “Shit, you’re— I didn’t even think of that! Shit, fuck, where did he—”

She clambers up onto Killian’s shoulders, shielding her eyes from a fresh set of fireworks up by the ceiling as she seeks out the last place she saw Taako— and there he is, still lying on the floor, but now he’s leisurely perusing a cookbook.

Carey frowns. “That’s weird.”

“What is?” Killian asks, getting up on her toes and trying to look around. “Where is he?”

“I don’t think he’s charmed,” Carey says, pointing him out. “I mean, he could just have passed his saving throw, but no one else has, and even if they did lich-lady could’ve just tried it again— what’s going on?”

Killian narrows her eyes. “Okay, I hate to say this, but— do you think he’s working with her?”

Carey hesitates. “...Let’s at least talk to him, before we go tossing blame.”

Killian nods. “How are we gonna get to him, though? If he’s out on the floor, then any way we try to get to him we’re gonna get swarmed.”

“Maybe if we pick him up on a flyby?” Carey muses. “Though, no, wait, rules say he wouldn’t be allowed on the furniture… damnit, is he deliberately hiding out in case someone realizes?”

“I don’t think he thinks that far ahead,” Killian says. “He’s probably just taking advantage of the relative peace over there to take a nap.”

Carey narrows her eyes. “Not anymore, looks like he’s heading for the kitchen.”

Killian perks up. “The kitchen?”

“Yeah? I think so, at least.” Carey looks down at Killian. “Why, what about it?”

Killian hums. “I have an idea, but you’re probably not gonna like it.”

“Guess I’m gonna have to learn to,” Carey says, grimacing. “Where do we start?”

“Can you see Noelle anywhere?”

 


 

E G G, B A B E, Fisher sings, and its baby sings those same notes right back from under Angus’s hat. F E E D, the baby adds, and Angus realizes with some chagrin that he forgot to find something for it to eat today.

He wanders over to Johann’s desk, looking over half-finished compositions and dissertations on whether or not the Voidfish is dangerous. All of the latter category, Angus notes, have been crumpled up at some point.

Fisher sings again, more insistently, and Angus pries himself away from the desk to approach the tank. “Hello, Fisher, I’ve finally managed to do what you asked,” he says, laying a hand on the glass.

Fisher shines, tendrils trailing along the inside of the tank as Angus climbs up to the top with the Tarantula Bracelet still active. Along the way, he tugs his hat free and gently holds onto the baby Voidfish, feeling it shiver into his hand and wrap its tendrils around and around its toy boat.

At the very top of the tank Fisher hesitates, thin tendrils hovering all in the air around Angus but almost afraid to get too close in fear of getting rejected. The baby hesitates too, hiding behind Angus’s hands and singing a small, trembling note of uncertainty.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Angus says, gently unwinding it from his fingers, and then he holds it out in front of him with both arms, like he’s offering it up.

Fisher rises a little from the surface, more tendrils winding together like a glowing net around Angus, and he swallows a lump in his throat as the baby finally releases the boat and floats up, singing a tentative note—

Something shatters, and Angus whips his head around to find Johann standing by the door, mouth agape and broken glass littering the floor around his feet. “What the hell?!”

 


 

“You were right,” Carey says, once the plan’s been explained to both her and Noelle. “This is a terrible plan, any plan that hinges on you getting charmed again is automatically bad. Let’s think something else up.”

“Hey, it doesn’t hinge on it,” Killian protests. “I’m just recognizing that that’s a likely occurrence, and planning accordingly. You need to accept that casualties can’t always be avoided.”

“Well in this particular case they can be, and so that’s what we’re doing.” Carey stomps her foot. “That’s final.”

“Hey, not that I disagree with ya,” Noelle says, thrusters sputtering, “But can you be a little nicer? I can’t carry y’all forever, ya know.”

“Sorry,” Carey says, sitting a little neater on Noelle’s back. “But seriously— let’s not be pessimistic here, it’s better if you don’t have to go back on the floor. Sure, it’ll make talking with Taako a little easier, but also you noticed a bunch of things I didn’t— it’d make questioning him way easier.”

“Okay, fine, fair,” Killian says, hanging from Noelle’s arms. “But still, that’s best case scenario— but if he is charmed, we’re gonna need a sacrifice.”

Noelle sighs. “Gals, if this is the only thing you’re left arguing over, can we do this plan already? I didn’t even know it was possible for ghost-robot arms to get sore.”

Carey sighs. “Sorry, fine, let’s go— but Kills, keep your dang feet off the floor.”

“Yes, babe,” Killian sighs as Noelle starts to drop back towards the ground. Carey strains to look through the window into the kitchen, then points at one of the doors. “He’s on that side,” she says.

Noelle’s conduit flickers, and in a smooth movement she turns towards that door and blasts it open. Killian curls up as she soars through the new opening, feet passing barely inches above the floor, and then Noelle deposits her on the counter.

Taako stares at them, hand on a mixing bowl and his umbrella well out of arms reach, and then he sighs. “Hachi machi, isn’t Magnus supposed to be the one who goes crashing through stuff? What are you three doing?”

“We know that lich is the spirit possessing your umbrella,” Carey says, jumping onto the counter in front of Taako and glaring down at him with her arms crossed. “Why were you hiding it?”

Taako frowns, cracking a couple eggs into the bowl. “What’re you talking about? I wasn’t hiding anything, the lich thing is news to me.”

“Don’t play dumb!” Carey says, sitting down right in Taako’s way. “Miss Umbrella, Umber— it can’t, there’s no way it could be a coincidence, and you said you’d already met her even though I know I’ve never seen her before— just fess up! Why didn’t you tell anyone? Are you in league with the Red Robes?!”

Taako stares at her, not even looking away as he uses a mage hand to retrieve the flour. He keeps staring, for an uncomfortably long time, measuring out a cup of flour to dump in the bowl, and then he grabs the sugar to add that too—

“Goddamnit Taako, at least try to defend yourself!” Carey says, throwing her hands up in the air. Taako upends an entire shaker of cinnamon into the bowl. “Babe, back me up here— you noticed it first!”

“It totally is,” Killian says, sitting cross-legged on top of the Umbra Staff as Taako stirs up whatever’s going on in that bowl. “I mean, come on— she’s even playing that game! The haunted one! And you’re totally uncharmed, even though you’re on the floor. What is this?”

Taako hums, pouring in some milk too. “Well, I’ll be honest, I’m just dumping in random ingredients to see what happens,” he admits, though the flicking of his ears gives away his nerves. “I was gonna make an actual recipe, but then you started sitting on the book, so that’s out.”

Carey blinks, then shifts off of the cookbook. “Oh, sorry— wait, that’s not what we meant and you know it!”

“What, really? Well sorry, it’s just me, idiot wizard who couldn’t even tell there was a lich in his staff and not a boring old ghost, don’t mind me,” he says, dumping the contents of the bowl in the trash and flipping the recipe book open. “What did you mean, then?”

“What is your relation to the lich out there terrorizing everyone?” Killian asks.

“Okay, first of all, no one’s actually getting hurt so keep that in mind,” Taako says, flicking a wooden spoon at Killian. “And second, she’s ## ######.”

Carey and Killian blink, confused at the sudden appearance of Voidfish static. Noelle, on the other hand, perks up. “You #### # ######?”

Taako blinks, ears flicking, and then he brightens. “Oh, I totally forgot you’re dead! Yeah, her name’s ###, she’s really not bad she’s just trying to talk to Lucretia and having a blast playing up the whole evil lich Red Robe thing—”

“I don’t think I’ve heard you mention her before,” Noelle says. “Much less that she’s… a Red Robe.”

“Oh, that’s cause I totally forgot,” Taako says, rinsing out the bowl and tugging out some measuring cups. “Kinda like how those two probably have no idea what we're talking about.”

Sure enough, Carey and Killian are staring at them with utter confusion— Killian cleaning out her ear, and Carey pinching her cheek in an attempt to see if she’s dreaming. “What the fuck is this,” Carey says. “Is there— I’m still inoculated, right? It doesn’t wear off or anything, does it?”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Taako assures, cracking an egg and separating the yolk. “Don’t worry about it, really.”

Killian frowns, motions for Carey to hop over, and whispers into her ear— “You don’t think there’s another Voidfish, do you?”

“The answer is yes, there is,” the lich says from right behind them, a plate of chicken wings in her hands. Carey and Killian yelp and scramble away.

“What are you doing here?!” Carey asks, clambering up onto the cabinets.

“Looking for you,” lich-lady says, holding up the chicken wings. “You win, Maggie’s still goin’ strong.”

“Oh, um, wh— thank, you?” Carey says, dropping back down to the counter to take the chicken wings. She stares at them for a long moment, and then makes a weird strangled noise. “What the fuck??”

Killian sidles on over. “Hey, is that honey mustard? Can I have some?”

“I— I guess? I mean—” Carey nearly chokes her own tongue. “Fuck, what the fuck?”

Noelle whirs loudly. “Hey, are ya sure she didn’t poison it or something?”

“Hey,” lich-lady protests from where she’s peeking over Taako’s shoulder. “No, they’re not fucking poisoned, people who poison food are the worst kind of person. They’re just good old-fashioned chicken wings.”

“Yeah, what she said,” Taako says, stirring vigourously.

“Oh, by the way Taako, what’re you all doing in here?” lich-lady asks.

“Well, I’m here to do some cooking,” Taako says. “They came in here to interrogate me or something.”

Lich-lady tilts her head. “Interrogate you? What for?”

Taako shrugs. “They wanted to know if I’m in league with the Red Robes.”

“...You.” Lich-lady blinks. “They want to know if you, Taako, ## #######, are in league with the Red Robes.”

“Yeah, hysterical, right?” Taako says. “Man, how could anyone ever think that.”

“Okay, what are you getting at?” Killian asks, grinding an entire chicken wing between her teeth and swallowing it. “And why do I keep hearing Voidfish static?”

“‘Cause someone hid a rather important fact about us, duh,” lich-lady says, perching on the counter. “Which, actually— hang on, where’d I put it—”

Lich-lady digs around in her robe, an action which Carey is sure is more for show— and then she pulls out a metal hip flask and holds it up with a flourish. “This thing! Which one of you wants to drink first?”

“What is it?” Carey asks, eyes narrowed.

“Voidfish ichor,” lich-lady says. “Trust me, things’ll make a bunch more sense afterwards.”

Killian frowns, then leans into Carey. “It might be—”

“It’s not fucking poison, you paranoid asses!” lich-lady shouts, throwing her hands up in the air. “Look, if you’re so worried about that— here, Taako, you prove it’s not poison.”

She thrusts the flask into Taako’s hands, and he looks down at it before raising his head to give her a dry look. “Really? Me?”

“Well it’s not like I can drink it, I’m dead!” she says.

Taako shrugs, then takes a big gulp from the flask and swallows it. “Mm, key lime gogurt, my favorite,” he deadpans, before tossing it over to Killian. “Here, you can go first.”

Killian eyes it doubtfully, gives it a sniff, and then shrugs and takes a gulp. Then she tosses it over to Carey, who takes just a sip before refastening the lid.

“So then, I’m Lup,” lich-lady says, folding her hands neatly. “Sup, nice to meet you, all that jazz, I’m Taako’s twin sister. We both used to be Red Robes and then I died and the rest got forcibly disbanded. Questions?”

“Uh, yeah, what the fuck?” Killian asks. “I mean, okay, fine, you’re his sister, I should’ve guessed that— but why are you busy terrorizing everyone out there? These are our lives at stake?”

Lup shrugs. “No one’s getting hurt, really, I’m making sure of that. I just need a really big thing to get Lucretia’s attention—”

There’s a loud bang, like every door in the building is being slammed open. “—Aaand the jig is up. Taako, you wanna come with or nah?”

Taako waves her off. “I’ll be right with you, lemme put this in the oven first.”

“Right, gotcha,” Lup says, drifting for the door.

“Wait!” Carey cries, leaping to her feet. “What’s going on? Where are you going?”

Lup grins a wide, toothy grin. “Gonna go punch someone in the face and demand an explanation. Wanna watch?”

 


 

The first thing Johann notices when he gets back from fetching a drink is the guards asleep in front of the door. The second is the fact that said door is wide open, and the third is the fact that Angus is in there— somehow clinging directly to the side of the tank without a ladder and surrounded by the Voidfish’s tendrils.

Angus speaks first. “Sir, it's—"

“What the fuck are you doing?!” Johann demands, rushing over and trying to find a way up there. “Get down, it’s dangerous— you could fall!”

“Sir, it’s— I’m fine!” Angus insists. “Everything’s fine, I can get down fine— I just— come on, let go, it’s okay, just go—”

It’s an odd sight, Angus fussing with his hands like he’s trying to wriggle them free of some kind of invisible wrapping— is it invisible? Or is there something there that he can’t quite perceive— until the surface of the water splashes and ripples on its own, and Angus climbs back down with no handholds, just his hands and feet pressing directly against the glass. “See, I just have a magic bracelet that lets me climb real good— Magnus gave it to me— I wasn’t gonna fall!”

“Angus,” Johann says, kneeling and resting his hands on Angus’s shoulders. “Angus.”

Angus swallows, meeting his eyes dead on. “Yes, sir?”

“What were you doing up there?” Johann asks.

“I was just, um, doing what the Voidfish asked from me the last time I was here, sir,” Angus says.

Johann blinks. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean, um, I know I kept insisting it wasn’t attacking me which is still true— but I guess you didn’t know about everything the Voidfish can do?” Angus asks, continuing when all he gets is a baffled look. “See, um, turns out it can communicate by showing visions through physical contact— and then I came to talk to it about something, and I guess it just got too excited and showed me way too much at once so I passed out to deal with it— um, but also, before that it basically asked me to bring it something.”

“What are you talking about, kiddo?” Johann asks, feeling a bead of sweat run down the back of his neck. “Are— are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, I— here, let me just—” Angus takes a step back and starts rooting around in his bag, pulling out a water bottle after a moment. He holds it up towards Johann. “Here, drink some of this, you’ll see. It’s— it’s just Voidfish ichor.”

Johann hesitates, but seeing the earnest look in Angus’s eyes he sighs quietly and gives in. “Fine,” he says, opening the bottle and taking a swig. As he wipes a bit of ichor from his lips, he wonders what he’s supposed to be missing— and then he sees a flicker of light from the tank, incongruous with the patterns he normally sees.

And there’s a tiny, second Voidfish in there, mostly wound around a toy boat but tentatively extending a couple tendrils towards the larger one— and Angus smiles a little. “It’s— Fisher, the older Voidfish, has been pining since the Director took its child away, so— so when I found it, I had to reunite them. It just isn’t right for a child to be taken from their loving parent.”

Johann takes a sharp breath. “Shit. Man, I really— I guess I should apologize for not believing you, huh?”

Angus laughs a little, rubbing at the back of his neck. “That— that would be nice, I guess? But really, you didn’t know, you were just looking out for me—”

“Still, you probably get it a lot,” Johann says, sitting down. “So, sorry, I guess.”

“I— thank you,” Angus says. He takes a step back, then, away from the tank this time. “I should— I should get going now, though.”

Johann nods, but the Voidfish— wait, what did Angus call it, Fisher? What kind of name is Fisher? Fisher hums a sharp note, making Angus pause. It lifts one tendril to lift the wooden duck balanced on the edge of the tank, carries it all the way down to where Angus stands, and offers it up.

Angus blinks. “You’re… giving it back? Finally?”

Fisher hums, pushing it at him more insistently, and Angus takes it with a smile. “Um, thanks— I’m sure Magnus will make you lots more soon, though, since he remembers now! Bye!”

Angus hurries out of the room, Fisher waving goodbye and Johann watching until he vanishes around the corner. Once he’s managed to pick out the elevator doors dinging shut, Johann turns back to Fisher. “Guess you’ve got a lot you haven’t told me, huh buddy?”

Fisher hums, gently corralling its child away from the glass.

Johann sighs. “Where do we start?”

 


 

Stepping out of the kitchen, Lup isn’t surprised to see Lucretia at the door surrounded by a shimmering golden bubble. Lup stops just at the edge of the main room, watching from a distance as Lucretia steps inside— the floor returning to normal inside her shield— and looks around.

Lup knows the exact moment their eyes meet. She knows it because it’s when Lucretia takes a step back, catches herself on the Bulwark Staff, and visibly steels herself. She also knows it because that’s the moment Lup rushes forward, leaving a fiery updraft in her wake and stopping mere inches from the edge of the shield. “Lucretia,” she greets, voice like grinding gears— like an erupting volcano— like the ten years she spent barely holding onto existence inside an umbrella.

“Lup,” Lucretia greets back, voice strained and tired. “Why are you doing this?”

“I had to get your attention somehow,” Lup says, fire licking at the edges of Lucretia’s shield.

“And you couldn’t have come and talked to me like a normal person?”

“No,” Lup says. “Now let me through this fucking thing, I need to punch you in the face.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Lucretia sighs. “Lup— where were you? I— we all looked for you, and even after I erased everyone’s memories, I still searched— where were you? Why didn’t you come home?”

“Well, at first I didn’t wanna come back until I was done hiding my relic,” Lup says, prodding at the shield. “And then I was dead, which, you know, thanks Lucretia, really, that was real nice of you. I sure loved forgetting, then dying, then remembering and falling into a pit of despair. Great time.”

Lucretia laughs weakly, looking so, so tired, and so old. “I— I suppose I must’ve timed it poorly, then, huh?”

Lup presses up against the bubble, cheek smushing a little. “Oh, just a little. Also, I’m totally pissed— you made Taako forget! Not cool! And why the heck did you erase my name too?”

“I’ll admit, I panicked a little over finding your name written in the wall and the possibility of Angus finding out,” Lucretia says, leaning on her staff. “You’re the one who stole Fisher’s child, aren’t you?”

“Kinda,” Lup says, clawing at the bubble.

“How did you do it?” Lucretia asks. “I’m not— I’m not accusing you of doing wrong, and I’m— I’m not going to put it back up, now that you are here, but— I’m sure the ward was strong enough to destroy either you or Barry, no matter how hard you tried to pass it. How did you do it?”

“Well, see, I realized while I was making that snazzy umbrella of mine that it could totally vore me if I somehow got beat in a fight,” Lup says, kicking the shield and feeling her form waver from the backlash. “So I built in a little— let’s call it a failsafe, or a metaphysical storage compartment, where I could hide if I ever had to. And hey presto, I had to, so I did.”

Lucretia stares at her for a long moment, and then her eyes widen. “The Umbra Staff, of course,” she murmurs. “You— you enlisted Angus’s help getting into my quarters, didn’t you? He didn’t just find your staff lying around— you asked him for help.”

Lup nods, pacing around the perimeter of the bubble, half-watching people form paths to escape through the doors. “He’s been helping almost as long as I’ve been awake,” she adds.

“No wonder he was so nervous around me,” Lucretia murmurs. “Gods, I must’ve— there’s no way he could trust me anymore, not after seeing what I’ve done to my own family—”

“You’d be surprised,” Lup says, idly turning the floor back to normal and firing a bolt of fire at the bubble. It fizzles harmlessly off, and Lup sighs. “Okay, seriously, I just wanna punch you like one time— can you please take this thing down?”

“There will be no punching,” Lucretia says, voice stern. “I’m not— Lup, please, I love all of you so much, but I think you can understand that I don’t want to be punched.”

“Can I punch you, though?” Magnus asks from behind her.

Lucretia stiffens, turns sharply, and then lets out a small sigh. “No, Magnus— why does everyone want to punch me?”

“I dunno, you’ve just got that real punchable air about you,” Merle muses, stepping out from behind Magnus. “I’m not gonna punch you, though, and only in part because I just can’t reach that high.”

“That’s very sweet of you, Merle,” Lucretia says.

“I still want an explanation though,” Merle says, crossing his arms.

Lucretia sighs. “I suppose that would only be fair. Although...” She turns to look at Carey, Killian, Noelle, and the large crowd of curious onlookers. “...I don’t suppose we could go somewhere more private than this?”

Lup thinks it over. “...Nah, I like it here. All of your employees watching really gives the place a nice atmosphere.”

There’s whispers cropping up, now, people wondering— What’s going on? Why is there a Red Robe, why is the Director having a cordial, almost but not quite friendly conversation with them, was that Voidfish static I heard— and Lucretia grits her teeth. “Really, Lup, I insist.”

“And so do I,” Lup says, standing firm. “I need— please, Lucretia, we— Why did you do it? Why did you have to tear everything away from us?”

“Please, Lup, I promise I’ll explain— but not here,” Lucretia pleads. “Let’s just go to my office— I don’t want to discuss these personal affairs in front of everyone in the Bureau.”

“Well maybe you should have thought of that before making my brother forget I ever existed,” Lup says, crossing her arms. “Talk, please.”

Lucretia sighs, straightening up a little. “I’m very sorry,” she says, and then thumps the base of her staff on the floor. A second bubble forms around Lup, and before anyone has a chance to react, both of the bubbles vanish with a pop— Lup, Lucretia, and all.

Magnus stares down at the floor where they just were. “Well, fuck.”

Chapter Text

When Angus gets to the cafeteria, he gets the sense that he’s missed the main show. What seems like half the bureau is milling around outside, in various states of tired, confused, and angry. He picks his way through the crowd, following the sound of Magnus’s angry yelling, and soon stumbles into a large clearing with Tres Horny Boys in the middle, Magnus kicking angrily at the ground while Taako casts some kind of spell.

“Sirs!” Angus greets, running up to them. “What’s— what’s going on? Where’s Miss Lup?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Merle says gruffly. “She got in an argument with Lucretia, and then got— Lucretia teleported both of them away.”

“Forget punching, I’m gonna straight up murder her when we find her,” Taako grumbles, slashing the Umbra Staff through the air before twirling it into the crook of his arm. “I got nothing. Ango, where do you think Lucretia took Lup?”

Angus blinks. “Um. Her office? That… seems pretty obvious to me.”

“Too obvious, more like it,” Magnus says.

Angus crosses his arms. “Have you checked her office?”

“...Well, no,” Magnus admits sheepishly. “But—”

“No, the kid’s got a point,” Taako says, already making for the door. “I dunno about you guys, but I’m looking for my sister.”

“But—” Magnus hesitates for a moment, then chases after Taako. “Oh, alright, wait for me!”

Merle watches them go, then shrugs. “You coming too?” he asks Angus.

“No, I’ll— I’ll catch up,” Angus says, looking up at the rafters. “There’s something I wanna check first.”

“Suit yourself.”

As Merle hurries off, Angus makes for one of the walls. The Tarantula Bracelet’s magic has already worn off, so that isn’t a viable option, but he has other ways of getting around— for instance, secret maintenance corridors he found within a day of joining the Bureau, during his routine searching for secrets. He doesn’t use them much— in part because he simply forgets they exist, in part because he rarely needs to, and in part because it’s hard to be quiet in them— but from what little he’s seen of them they’ll serve him just fine here and now.

He pops out a loose panel from the wall, ignoring stares as he drops into a crawlspace and replaces the panel behind him, and casts a small light to follow alongside him. He shuffles along until he finds a ladder, and climbs as high as he can go before pushing out another panel and looking around.

Sure enough, he’s up in the rafters now, and he sticks his head out to look around before asking, completely neutrally, “What do you think, sir?”

There’s no startled yelp, but a couple seconds later a red-robed spectre appears on one of the crossbeams. “How the hell did you know I was up here?” Barry Bluejeans asks, sounding a combination of spooked and impressed.

“I guessed,” Angus says. “Also, I figured, if you’re around here somewhere you’d want to be in a place you can see everything going on— so either right in the middle of things, or somewhere high up to watch from a distance. You seemed like you were kinda afraid of the Director, so you wouldn’t be right down there next to her, which just leaves somewhere up. I just got lucky that you hadn’t already left.”

Barry whistles. “Man, you are some kinda genius, huh?”

Angus preens. “Well, I am the world’s greatest detective, after all!”

“You sure are,” Barry says. Then, after a moment, he sighs. “But, to answer your first question, I’m a little worried. Wait, no, make that a lot worried.” He pauses. “Probably panicking a little, actually.”

“You seem pretty composed,” Angus comments.

“Yeah, well, I don’t have a face, so.” Barry fidgets a little. “I was actually just about to go looking. Hey, where do you think—”

“Her office would be the obvious first place to look,” Angus says. “Then if they’re not there, we can start looking in other places.”

“...Alright, fair,” Barry says. He holds out a hand. “Hey, you want to come with me? I got a shortcut down.”

Angus blinks, then warily holds his own hand out. “What kind of—”

His hand touches Barry’s— more like phases through it, really, but it still counts— and then they’re standing in front of the main dome. Angus takes a step back, looks around wildly and then turns back to Barry with stars in his eyes. “That was amazing, sir! How’d you do that?”

“It— that was just Dimension Door,” Barry says, rubbing his head sheepishly.

“Still, that’s— fourth level, I think?” Barry nods, and Angus continues, “I can barely manage first level! So that seems pretty amazing to me, sir.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll grow,” Barry says. “You’ve got a great wizard teaching you after all.”

Angus blushes, opening his mouth to reply before a distant yell catches his attention and he turns his head to find the source. It quickly reveals itself to be Magnus, charging at top speed with his axe drawn— and Angus leaps out of the way, vaguely hearing Barry shout “Wait, it’s a pull door—”

And then Magnus hits the door and bounces right off. Barry sighs. “I tried to warn you.”

Taako blinks into existence next to him. “Try thinking things through next time, dingbat.”

“Fuck off,” Magnus groans, picking himself off the floor. He looks around, gives Barry a greeting nod, and then pauses. “Wait, where’s Merle?”

Just as he says that, Merle rounds the corner, panting and seeming about three seconds from just passing out. “Wait… wait up, for me… next time,” he wheezes, leaning against the wall. “Ow, jesus. I think I pulled something.”

“Yeah yeah, walk it off, old man,” Taako says, striding over to the door and reaching out to pull it open.

And then there’s a yell, a deafening boom, and possibly a little too much fire.

 


 

Roughly fifteen minutes ago, Lup and Lucretia appear in Lucretia’s office, still surrounded by those two bubbles. Lup yelps in surprise, twists around, tries and fails to break her bubble from inside, and then finally turns and glares at Lucretia again. “Alright, fine, you win. I still want to know.”

Lucretia nods, sitting down at her desk and motioning to the chair in Lup’s side of the shield. “Ask away.”

Lup ignores the chair, instead electing to sit directly on the desk and press her face against the shield. “Why the fuck did you make my brother forget about me?”

Lucretia sighs. “You have to understand, I did this— I used Fisher, I made everyone forget, because I knew you’d disagree with my plan, and that— and that at the rate things were going, it would only get worse.”

Lup glares silently at her.

“We were all suffering,” Lucretia continues, closing her eyes to block out Lup’s ire. “You— you were too, we both knew that—”

“I left because I had to do something about it,” Lup says. “That something wasn’t wiping away a hundred years of our lives.”

“You don’t understand, Lup,” Lucretia says. “I only— you left, Lup, and you were gone for so long— you didn’t see what it was like after you left. Barry was desperate to find you, Taako was so tired—” Lup’s ears flick, and her eyes narrow in a glare, but she says nothing. “—I was sure you were dead and gone, they were denying it but I could tell it was eating away at them— It’s no way to live, knowing what a curse we’ve laid upon this world.”

“Which is why I left,” Lup says, gritting her teeth. “So I could deal with it.”

Lucretia ignores her, continuing as if she hadn’t butted in at all. “And you— if I’d left Taako’s memories of you, but not what had happened, can you imagine what that would be like? Searching endlessly for a sister he hasn’t seen in years, and he doesn’t know where or when he last saw her or even what the last thing he said to her was?” She tightens her grip on her staff. “It would have been worse than leaving him to remember everything.”

Lup shifts back, looking away and hugging herself. “...I don’t think you know what it’s like to have a twin,” Lup says, slowly. “Because I know— I know what it’s like being on the other side— being forgotten— and it’s like having half my heart torn out. He— I know, that if I were in that situation, if I were to lose Taako— I’d rather remember he’d existed once, rather than live struggling to fill a hole I don’t know is there. I’d rather— I’d rather know why I felt so lost.”

Lucretia dips her head. “I— suppose I hadn’t considered that, but what’s done is done. Besides, I presume you’ve inoculated Taako, too? I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t given the ability.”

“Yep,” Lup says, popping the P. “Oh, and just so we’re clear, he’s also on the punching train, so be ready for that.”

“I don’t know why I expected anything else,” Lucretia deadpans.

Lup nods. “Okay, next question—”

She slams against the shield, form flickering, red lightning everywhere, flames licking at all the edges. “What the fuck are you doing?! The fucking Hunger is gonna be here in like a month, we were safe for years— why the fuck did you have to undo everything we did?!”

Lucretia stiffens. “Your plan wasn’t working—”

“Like hell it wasn’t!” Lup yells. “Twelve years— twelve fucking years, and I’ll admit I was asleep for most of it, but look what didn’t show up for most of it! But then oh look, there goes Lucretia, undoing everything and drawing the Hunger over— do you understand what you’ve done? The Relic plan might’ve scarred this world— you’ve doomed it!”

Lucretia rears back as if struck, but then steadies herself on her staff. “Please, Lup, you have to understand— we still have a chance, if we can just get the Animus Bell, I can block the Hunger out entirely—”

“Bonds, Lucretia!” Lup snaps. “We’ve told you this already! The bonds of this plane! For fucks sake, can’t you listen and think about something other than your fucking shields—”

And then she stops. Lucretia looks up, confused at the stop in the verbal barrage. “Lup?”

“Hm,” Lup hums. “Oh, that’s— hm.”

Lucretia stands up as Lup floats back thoughtfully. “Lup? Is there something wrong?”

“Hey, quick question, are you enthralled right now?” Lup asks, looking Lucretia over. “‘Cause like, ten years holding a Grand Relic? Plus some extra super power over the past year or so?”

“I’m not,” Lucretia says. “It’s— Lup, I created this staff, do you really think I don’t know how to resist its thrall?”

“I dunno, I think Taako had some difficulties with the Gaia Sash?” Lup says. “Or I might’ve dreamed that bit up. There was a gay tree, and a tornado, so that might have just been a dream. I was still pretty out of it back then.”

“No, I— I believe that actually happened—” Lucretia shakes her head. “Regardless, Taako isn’t the one who made the Gaia Sash,” she says. “If I recall correctly Merle retrieved that in the end— even if subconsciously, he was more familiar with it, and better able to resist, and the same applies here.”

“...Are you sure, though?”

Lucretia glares at her. “Yes, I’m quite sure, and I also don’t understand how this is at all applicable to the situation— can we get back on topic?”

“Right, right, the part where you stop dooming Faerun to a slow death,” Lup says.

“Or, alternatively, the part where you stop trying to stop me from doing the right thing,” Lucretia says.

“How many times do we have to teach you this lesson, old lady!” Lup yells, throwing her arms up in the air. “Bonds! The bonds of this plane!”

“It can survive!” Lucretia says. “I just need to hold it up long enough for the Hunger to get starved out— then we can let it back down!”

“And what about the other planes?” Lup asks. “What about the Astral Plane, the Celestial Plane, the Plane of Thought— what about all the people who live there? Are you just gonna let them die?”

“It’s a necessary sacrifice!” Lucretia snaps. “I’m— I’m just doing what needs to be done, please, Lup, you have to understand—”

“I do,” Lup says. “Please, you need to give it up— we can find another way, we can find a way to fight back against the Hunger for once—”

“It won’t work,” Lucretia says, stepping back and clutching her staff protectively. “It won’t work, fighting against the Hunger has never worked— please, Lup, believe me, this is the only way—”

“There’s always a third option,” Lup insists, flames crawling higher around her. “We have to fight— we have to find that third option, we still have time, please Lucretia—”

“There is no other option,” Lucretia says, stepping back and clinging to her staff like it’s a branch in a roaring river— the only thing keeping her from being swept away. “I’m sorry— I’m so sorry, Lup— tell them, tell everyone, I’m sorry—”

“Tell them yourself!” Lup is frantic, now, barely holding together— “Lucretia, what are you doing, if you want to apologize just do it, why do you have to go through me—”

And then Lucretia vanishes. One second she’s there, the next she’s not, and for just a moment the bubbles continue to hold strong—

And Lup yells, and everything is white-hot and it’s like a bomb’s gone off—

 


 

Haven’t we already done something like this? Taako wonders as he picks his way past the scorched remains of a door. It’s not exact— no plink plink of black glass underfoot, only the dull crunch of charcoal— but Taako still finds himself thinking back a year— shit, has it really been that long? — all the way back to a cave, a dwarven vault, and a gauntlet.

And just like last time, he finds Lup here, though this time at least he realizes it.

If she had lungs, she’d be panting, knelt in the centre of a room barely still recognizable as Lucretia’s office. She’s flickering a little, shooting off red sparks here and there, and as Taako reaches out a hand to touch her he realizes he’s trembling in terror.

“Lulu?” he asks, voice coming out so much smaller than he intends. “Lup?”

Lup lifts her head to look at him and seems to blink. “Oh, Taako— I’m— I— Lucretia’s gone, Taako, I couldn’t stop her,” Lup says, voice shaking. “She— Taako, we can’t leave this world, you know that, right? We— it would be too cruel— after everything we’ve done to it, we owe it this at least, right? We’ll find the third option, right?!”

Her voice grows more frantic, her flickering more erratic, and Taako finds himself taking a step back— “Of course! Of— of course we’re gonna figure it out, what kind of— what happened in here, sis? Where’s Lucretia?”

“I— I don’t know,” Lup says, withdrawing again. She looks down at herself, and makes an odd hiccuping noise. “I— sorry, I probably look real scary right now, huh? I can—”

“No—” Taako blurts out before he even realizes he’s talking. “No, no, you don’t— It’s fine, you don’t need to waste spell slots, Lulu. What’s going on? What happened?”

Lup nods, glancing over when the rest of the crew peeks in through the door. “I— Lucretia teleported both of us off, so we could talk in private, and she— she explained why she forced us to forget, and I don’t really agree with her but I get how she got there— and she might be thralled. Maybe. She’s been holding onto that staff for ten years, and it’s only gotten more powerful in the past few months—”

She cuts herself off at the sound of something shifting, turning her head to find the charred remains of a bookshelf breaking and crumbling to make way for a soot-stained Davenport. He grunts, trying to pull himself to his feet and only managing to get an inch off the ground before falling again.

Taako’s breath catches, Merle hurries over with a healing spell on his lips, and Lup makes a small whimper. “I should’ve been more careful.”

“Hey, hey, no, you didn’t know he was there,” Taako says, reaching over to put his arm around her shoulders before remembering she’s immaterial. “And— he’s not dead?”

“Mmph,” Lup grunts, planting her chin firmly in the palms of her hands. “Still gonna feel guilty. Hey, Ango McDango, you’re here too, right?”

“Right here, ma’am!” Angus says, popping his head out from behind the doorframe.

“D’you have any Voidfish ichor on you?” Lup asks.

“I don’t know why you keep asking me that, but yes,” Angus says, pulling out a three-quarters-full bottle. “I’m guessing you want me to inoculate Mister Davenport?”

“Bingo,” Lup says. “It’s fucking weird, only hearing him say his name like some kinda fantasy pocket monster, so let’s get this over with.”

A round of agreeing nods go around the room, and Angus trots quickly across the room to kneel next to Davenport. Davenport tries to say something— probably his name, as per usual— but all that comes out is a croak. Angus unscrews the bottle and offers it, and he takes it and downs it eagerly.

And then he chokes, half from the taste, and half from the sudden weight of remembering. He drops the bottle, scrambling back, and the first word out of his mouth is— “Fuck!”

Lup whistles. “Classy.”

“Fuck! Fuck, what the— what the fuck!” Davenport repeats. “Just— fuck!”

Merle hums. “Hey, are you sure you gave him the right stuff? Seems like he’s still repeating the same word over and over, just a different one.”

“No, it was— it’s definitely the right stuff,” Angus says, collecting the bottle again.

“I’m pretty sure he was joking, Ango,” Magnus says, walking over and kneeling next to Davenport. “Hey, hey, Cap’nport— you okay? You okay down there?”

“I’m— I’m okay,” Davenport finally manages to choke out. “I’m— fuck, what did she do?”

“Erase all our memories ‘cause she thought it was the right thing,” Lup says. “You wanna join the punch train? Free admission to punch Lucretia in the face next opportunity we get.”

“I can even carry you on my shoulders so you can reach,” Magnus jokes.

“Okay, first of all, I’ll consider it, second I don’t appreciate you making jokes about my height like that and you know I can get on a chair or something myself—” Davenport takes a deep breath and straightens his back. “And third of all, what’s our plan of action?”

“Wow, you’re getting right in the swing of things, huh,” Lup comments. “And here I was thinking we’d have to help you avoid a migraine.”

Davenport winces a little. “That’s— that’s not what’s important right now. What’s the situation, does anyone have an idea of where Lucretia might have went?”

Everyone looks at each other, and a round of shrugs goes around.

Davenport sighs. “Okay, that’s great.”

Angus raises a hand tentatively. “Um, actually, Lup? If we have time, could you— I’d like to fully understand the situation, so…?”

Lup pauses, then nods. “Okay, plainly put, Lucretia’s staff is one of the Grand Relics, and I’m maybe seventy percent certain she’s thralled by it right now...”

 


 

“Sounds like she’s mostly likely to go looking for the final piece of the Light of Creation,” Angus says, arms crossed. “If she needs the whole thing to enact her plan, and she knows all of you are going to get in her way— she’d want to finish it herself.”

Everyone nods, gathered in a circle sitting on the floor. “Which one are we missing again?” Magnus asks. “We’ve gotten, um… well, she already has her relic...”

“She’s missing the Animus Bell,” Barry says. “I know where it is— I caught wind of it a while ago, there’s a couple of liches in the Felicity Wilds. I haven’t tried reclaiming it yet because it’s not going anywhere and quite frankly, I’m not powerful enough on my own.”

Magnus blinks. “But, wait, aren’t you like a super powerful magic wizard thing right now?”

“Yeah, and so are they,” Barry says. “Plus there’s two of them, and they’re running some kind of suffering extortion gambit— they’ve got a whole lot of legs up over me, is what I’m saying.”

“We’re two liches too now, though,” Lup points out, “Plus a party of adventurers— you think we could challenge them now?”

“The question is whether we’ll have to,” Barry says. “Does Lucretia know where it is? If she doesn’t, we could try intercepting her—”

“Actually, sir, I think she does,” Angus says. “She— I haven’t read all her journals, but one of the ones I have— there’s no way you didn’t notice she’s twenty years older than she should be.”

“I just figured she was real stressed from her job,” Taako jokes, though the strain in his voice makes it fall a little short. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“It’s called Wonderland, right?” Angus asks, continuing when he sees Barry nod. “She— back then, before she formed the Bureau, the bell was one of the first Relics she tried to retrieve. She went with a sorcerer named Cam, and they were forced to play a bunch of games— terrible, dangerous games, suffering games if you will— and they were forced to sacrifice things too, including some of Lucretia’s youth. So— I think she knows exactly where she’s going.”

Barry nods and stands up. “All the more reason to go after her ASAP,” he says. “I can guide you there— who all wants to come? It’s gonna be dangerous.”

“I’m coming,” Lup says immediately, getting up. “I mean, obviously— gonna need two liches to beat another two liches.”

Taako stands up too. “I’m not getting separated from you again,” he says.

“I’m coming too,” Magnus says.

“You’re probably gonna die without a healer,” Merle grumbles, picking himself up as well.

“Oh, what’s that got to you joining us?” Taako jabs. “‘s not like you ever use that particular magic.”

“I just healed Davenport!” Merle protests.

“Okay, no fighting, kids,” Lup says, floating between them. “You’re staying, Dav?”

Davenport considers it for a moment, then sighs and stands. “No, I should come. I’m your captain, after all.”

Lup nods. “Angus, you should—”

“I’m coming too,” Angus says. “And before you say— I know it’s dangerous, I’ll keep out of the way— but I need to see this through to the end.”

Taako frowns. “You sure? We’ve got you on our stones of farspeech.”

Angus shakes his head. “No, that’s— that’s not enough. I have to be there.”

Lup nods, hesitantly. “Okay, but I hope you understand we’re totally gonna get you out the moment anything gets anywhere near you.”

Angus winces. “I’ll try to avoid that, then.”

“Wait— hang on!” Davenport protests. “This is— this is an incredibly dangerous mission into the lair of two powerful liches with a Grand Relic! We can’t bring a child into there!”

Magnus raises a hand. “To be fair, he is a genius.”

“And also definitely gonna sneak along with us even if we say no,” Lup says. “I taught him a little too well in the art of subterfuge.”

“Okay, Lup, I love you,” Taako says, walking towards the door, “But your idea of subterfuge involves haunting and forcing me to jump off the moon.”

“Hey, I had very little part in that situation!” Lup protests, following him. “You gotta keep your story straight even if you aren’t, you were charmed, but the jumping idea was all you.”

Taako huffs, turning his nose up at her. “I still can’t believe you charmed me!”

“I said I was sorry!”

Davenport continues protesting as he chases after them, the rest of the crew trailing along behind as they make for the exit. “Look, I already said there’s no point trying to stop him,” Taako says, putting his hand on the door to push it open. “Let’s just—”

There’s a loud clang and the door visibly dents. Taako yelps and leaps away, landing neatly on Magnus’s shoulders, and from the other side of the door they hear Carey’s voice— “Jesus christ, babe, it’s a pull door!”

“Well now you say that,” Killian says, pulling the door open and blinking when she sees everyone. “Oh, there you are, we’ve been looking all over—”

“Out of my way, please,” Davenport snaps, storming past Killian, and she steps aside with a baffled look. “I’m sorry, we’ve got something really urgent to do— Angus, why don’t you stay behind and tell them all about it?”

“It can be explained over a stone of farspeech,” Angus says, trotting after him. “Or— or they could just go read the journals I’ve got in my room— Miss Carey, there’s a bunch of journals in the locked drawer of my desk, you can pick locks right?”

Carey blinks. “I— I mean, yeah, totally, if that’s where we’ll get an explanation for all this, but—” Her face twists oddly. “I— just, what the hell? What happened to Davenport? Is— is that Davenport?”

“Yeah, he can talk again now,” Magnus says, clapping her on the back as he passes by.

“Tell everyone we’re off retrieving the Director,” Taako says, shooting her a pair of finger guns from up on Magnus’s shoulders.

“Okay?” Killian says, trailing after then. “I— where are you going?”

“Down to the Felicity Wilds,” Barry says, making Killian jump and scramble away. “That’s where the last Grand Relic is, and we figure that’s where she’s most likely to have gone.”

“Okay, what?” Carey asks. “One Red Robe lich, okay, fine, but— Taako, Magnus, Merle, where do you find these people?”

“In the bargain bin,” Taako says. “They were having a clearance sale on liches, half-off prices and buy-one-get-one-free. We could hardly pass up that kinda offer.”

“Taako, I’m insulted to know you think I’m worth tossing in the bargain bin,” Lup says, floating alongside him.

Taako shrugs. “Take it up with the person who dumped you there.”

“That was you.”

As they devolve into childish bickering, Angus sidles up alongside Killian and Carey. “I was serious about breaking into my room,” he says. “It’s— what we’re doing, it’s really urgent, and— I just think, the best way would be for you to learn it from as close to the source as possible. It’s the journals labeled I.P.R.E.”

Carey nods. “Right, I think I can remember that,” she says. “You’re trusting us a bunch to not go looking through everything else, though, aren’t you?”

Angus shrugs. “The only thing I have to hide is the thing I’m telling you about right now, ma’am,” he says. “And also— if there’s anything you think you’re missing, the rest of the journals are probably still in the Director’s quarters— if you want to break in there too.”

Carey grimaces. “Nah, I think I’ll pass on that one.”

Angus nods, then trots back to the front of the pack as they reach the entrance to the hangar bay. Davenport shoulders the door open, earning a litany of confused looks as he marches right up to Avi— who takes a very large swig of brandy the moment he sees the Tres Horny Boys accompanied by a pair of Red Robes— and says, “We need to get to the Felicity Wilds immediately.”

Avi stares down at him, takes another swig, and sighs. “Okay, the odds of me dreaming this whole thing up just increased exponentially, which is reassuring— why exactly do you need to go there?”

“Lucretia has taken retrieving the last Relic into her own hands, and we have to go talk her down,” Davenport says. “Also, if I’m being informed correctly, it’s incredibly dangerous and she might die if we don’t stop her.”

Avi raises an eyebrow. “Well, that’s a reason,” he says, turning to the nearest cannon. “How many cannonballs are you gonna need to fire everyone off?”

“Well, there’s seven of us,” Taako muses, finally dropping off of Magnus’s shoulders. “So, uh, two?”

“Me and Barold don’t need the orbs, though,” Lup muses. “You know, already dead and all.”

“Yeah, but we’ll have to follow pretty fast if we want to not waste time,” Barry says. “But also, hm.”

“Okay, actually, let’s not waste the space, I have a pocket spa,” Taako says, pulling his bag open and rooting around in it. “At least three of you gotta go in this thing for us to fit one ball, any takers? It’s got cucumber sandwiches.”

“Oh hell yeah,” Barry says, floating over, before pausing. “Wait, no, I’m a lich. I can’t eat. Damn it.”

“Pat pat,” Lup says, patting him consolingly on the shoulder. “Let’s say, me, Barold, and Ango? That cool with you?”

Angus shrugs. “If you say so, ma’am.”

“Alright, cool, Avi— one cannonball.” Taako sets up the pocket spa and gestures grandiosely at the entrance. “In you go, quit wasting time—”

Angus is bustled in, Lup and Barry following right behind, and then the entrance shuts and all the noise from outside muffles into a dull drone. Barry drifts over in the direction of the sandwiches to stare longingly at them, Lup following him, and Angus just sits down right in front of the exit to wait.

A minute or so later, Lup sits down next to him and plants her chin in her hands. “What’re you looking all serious about there, squirt?”

Angus hums. “Are you sure the Director is thralled? I mean— the whole plan, with the barrier— that outdated the mere idea of the Relics by decades.”

“Maybe so,” Lup says, “But the staff certainly can’t be helping. And— even if she’s not, she still needs to be talked down. Her plan— even if she succeeds in blocking out the Hunger, she’s blocking everything else out as well. It’d be a slow, steady death, starved of any connections.”

“...Are you completely sure?” Angus asks.

“Hundred percent pozzy,” Lup says. “And, to be honest— I’m not sure what else we have left to try, or if we even have any chances left? But this— this plan, Lucretia’s plan, I just know— it’s not the right one.”

Angus nods hesitantly. They sit in silence like that for a moment, until the entrance cracks open and Taako sticks his head in. “Hey, we’re here. Turns out drunk Avi can aim well better than sober Avi, who knew?”

“What are you talking about?” Lup asks, getting up and floating out. Angus follows a half-step behind, and blinks in the sudden sunlight— and then gapes as he realizes they’re all standing right in front of a huge, garish tent, surrounded by billboards advertising all sorts of things. The orb they came down in is lying in a small crater nearby.

“Well, holy shit,” Barry says, coming out behind them. “I figured we’d have to walk at least a little bit, this is great.”

Angus, on the other hand, is more focused on looking at the billboards, advertising all sorts of things— and then he glances away from one, then back at it, and hey did it always say that?

“Why does that billboard have Lucretia’s face on it?” Magnus asks, taking notice at the same time.

“Oh, yeah, it does that,” Barry says. “Look, there’s a couple advertising my bell too— I think they’ve got some kinda spell to show whatever you’re looking for, like a heart’s true desire thing. Don’t worry about it.”

The roulette wheel built into the tent suddenly springs to life, spinning around and around until it stops— and there’s an open door now, with all their names written over it. “Okay, I know I’m one to talk right now— but that is seriously spooky,” Lup says. “All in favor of not doing things their way?”

“Way ahead of you,” Barry says, preparing a spell. “Here, huddle everyone— no, closer than that—” He gets everyone together in a tight huddle, heads touching, and whispers, “Okay, I’m gonna need all of you to stay out here— except you, Lup, you can help. I haven’t tried this before, but basically what I wanna do is— the liches running that place, they’re basically running entirely off of suffering stolen from the people trapped in Wonderland. So I figure, Lup, you and me— we steal a bunch of that stuff to get on even footing with them, get Lucretia out, and then we talk her down.”

“Shouting match round two, I’m in,” Lup says. “You all okay waiting for a little bit? You’ll know when we’re done when the whole place catches on fire.”

Barry frowns. “Well, Lup— no, we’re not necessarily going to set it on fire. This is a pretty solid place for the Animus Bell to stay, all things considered.”

“Spoilsport,” Lup huffs.

“So, the plan is we sit around doing nothing?” Taako asks. “Sounds like my kinda plan.”

A round of nods goes around the circle. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” Davenport says, “But it does seem that’s the best way to go— can you use some spell to confirm when you’ve found Lucretia?”

“Will do,” Lup says, straightening back up and giving a thumbs up. “So, Barold?”

Barry nods, casting a spell, and then it’s like neither of them were ever there. Taako sighs, flops down backwards in the grass, and pulls his hat down over his face. “Wake me up when something happens.”

 


 

Lucretia is not having a fun time.

Well, that’s a bit of an understatement— she’s utterly miserable, even keeping a shield around her at every moment to avoid having to physically fight. The liches have realized they can’t get to her directly, and have instead switched to a more psychological approach.

“He’s doing great, you know!” the female lich says, voice beaming from the ceiling as Lucretia puzzles out this latest arrangement of monsters— some kind of chess-checkers fusion composed entirely of zombies with the faces of people she’s met in dead worlds. “He’s picked out a new corner to sulk forever in, and spends every waking moment cursing your name. It’s real soothing to listen to at night.”

Lucretia sighs. “I would greatly appreciate it if you’d let me think in peace. Don’t you have other prisoners you could torment?”

“No way!” the male lich says. “Just think about it, we so rarely get return visitors, much less ones with surviving party members still waiting for them! Who’d pass up viewing such a rare event?”

“Hey, hey,” the female lich says. “Do you think we should let them talk? Wouldn’t that be such a touching reunion?”

“It would!” the male lich chirps, and Lucretia grits her teeth to hold in the litany of swears that threaten to spill over at the idea— it’d only play into their hands.

“I would much prefer getting to work in silence, actually,” she says instead.

“Too late,” the female lich says blithely. A chute opens in the wall behind Lucretia, and a head rolls out— cursing up a storm, leaving a flickering trail of black smog in his wake.

Lucretia sighs deeply— a trail of smog coming out of her mouth as well— and she rests her forehead on her staff in anticipation of Cam’s reaction to seeing her.

He does not disappoint. “What— Lucretia?!” She suppresses the wince at hearing how hopeful he sounds. “You came back for me!”

“I—” Lucretia chokes on her words. What can I say, here? I— didn’t not really— but how could I say that? And— and douse probably the first spark of hope he’s had in a decade?

Silence isn’t the right answer. “...Lucretia?”

“...Hello, Cam,” Lucretia finally settles on. “It’s been a while.”

“A while— that’s putting it mildly!” Cam says. “I thought— I thought you’d totally given up on me! Jesus, you look ancient now— how long has it been?”

“Only about ten years,” Lucretia says wryly, still not turning to face him. She kneels, staff crossed over her lap. “I’d ask how you’ve been, but— I already know the answer, really.”

“Yeah, terrible as always,” Cam says, smog billowing out towards the ceiling before dispersing midway up. “What about you? You’re— you’ve gotten better at magic, huh? I don’t think I’ve seen you hold one of those things this long before.”

“You could say that,” Lucretia says.

“Hey.” Cam hops around to get in front of Lucretia, giving her a worried look. “Hey, are you feeling alright? You look exhausted.”

Lucretia laughs bitterly. “I’m— it’s fine. I had a bit of a fight with a friend, which I’m still thinking about— but it’s fine.”

Cam frowns. “Bullshit,” he says, hopping closer, smog trailing from his mouth, wavering and splitting in two as it rises. “Lucretia, I don’t know what’s going on— but we were friends, right? One time, at least, even if you did— abandon me. For ten years.”

Lucretia bows her head wordlessly.

“It’s just— come on, you can talk to me, okay?” Cam rests his forehead against the edge of the shield. “I don’t— even if you don’t have anyone else, I’ll listen, at least.”

Lucretia stares at him for a long moment, face blank, and then the shield wavers— just slightly, just enough to let him tip over and roll in with a startled yelp. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it,” Lucretia says, lifting him up and tucking him under her arm. “But some company would be appreciated, I suppose.”

If Cam had shoulders, he would shrug. “Works for me.”

Chapter Text

On one hand, Lup is finding it rather hard to resist the urge to fly down there and start punching Lucretia’s shield again. On the other, seeing Lucretia expressing some vestige of happiness talking to the disembodied head under her arm is enough to stay her hand. It’s such a change from how she’s seen Lucretia today— tired, pleading, angry, desperate— and they were friends, family, for a hundred years, so much longer than any human would normally get to live.

Lup can’t help but care.

Besides, that’s not what they’re doing right now. The nature of how Barry hid them from perception means they can’t see each other either, but she knows he’s still there, every time she tugs at manifested despair and sees it pulled in some other direction at the same time. It’s almost a game, trying to see who can catch and absorb more before the other liches have properly laid claim themselves.

It’s terrible, though, seeing Lucretia stand at a roulette wheel deciding whether or not to give up even more for Cam— she’s already taken a penalty, refusing to forget even a single moment, much less an entire world— and it’s then that Lup thinks, screw subtlety, she deserves a punch to the face and a hug not any of this, and then she flies straight up— right through the ceiling, up to a flashy catwalk surrounded by mannequins and a ceiling caked in smog which Lup tears at, pulling pure suffering out of their control and into hers, not even flinching when she hears the distant sound of those other liches reacting— and she sets everything alight.

Your idea of subterfuge involves summoning the entire elemental plane of fire into the Hunger, some part of her mind that sounds an awful lot like Taako comments, as two flashily-dressed elves appear before her.

“You’re the one who’s been messing with our intake, then?” the sister asks— Lydia, if Lup gathered right.

Lup just nods, not questioning how they located her. It probably has to do with all the fire surrounding her location. “I’m here to pick a fight.”

The brother hums, leaning in to whisper in his sister’s ear— “Does she really think she can take us?”

“Probably,” Lydia whispers back. “We sure were cocky back in the first couple years, after all.”

Lup decides not to point out she’s been a lich for significantly longer than that. “By the way, I’m just curious, where’re your actual forms?”

Edward blinks. “What are you talking about? Are we not standing here, right in front of you?”

Lup sends a tongue of flame at the two of them, and it passes right through them like the illusions they are.

“Touche,” Edward says.

“Well, we’re not gonna tell you anyway,” Lydia says. “How about this— we get this over with quick and resume playing with our current favorite toy?”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Lup says.

She pulls even more on that concentrated suffering, pulling all of it, every last lick— and twists it, in the way that comes in so many forms but always has the same result— the swipe of a match, the flick of a wand, the dropping of a spark, it all ends the same.

Wonderland goes up in flames.

“Well that’s rude,” Edward scoffs. “Are you trying to burn up all our reserves?”

“Hells yeah I am,” Lup says. She pulls on the flames, wills them hotter, bigger— but far above the cylinders marked with names, well above everyone who doesn’t deserve it. She notices a door open down there, Lucretia stepping out and looking up with shock, but Lup looks away as fast as she can with the hope that these liches won’t notice Lucretia too.

And then through the flames comes a wrecking ball, and Lup is distracted from her control by having to dodge up and over it— fire washes over Lucretia’s shield, but Lup pulls it back up and of course she’s fine. Lup’s still alone here— not really, Barry’s somewhere she can’t see, still holding to his stealth, but no one from outside has responded yet.

Understandable, really. This is a very large fire.

There’s a barrage of attacks from the lich twins, Lup struggling to hold onto all this fire while avoiding getting even more distracted by blunt magic trauma, and then there’s a blur of black— a slice through the liches— and there’s a very handsome, very skeletal man standing between the three of them, scythe out, and he takes a step towards Lup—

And Lup hears Taako’s voice distantly, both from far below and crackling through a stone of farspeech. “No, that’s the wrong one!”

 


 

Roughly ten minutes ago, Taako wakes up from his impromptu nap. He sits up, considers the rest of the group chatting about whatever, and then he gets up, walks a short distance away, and pulls out his stone of farspeech.

It takes a moment to dial, and then he hears, “Taako? What is it?”

“Sup, Kravcake,” Taako says. “Hey, are you busy right now? I got something you might be interested in, vis a vis your job.”

Kravitz pauses. “Not… really? What is it?”

“Did you know there’s a couple liches holed up in the Felicity Wilds?” Taako asks, making himself comfortable on the grass again. “Been there for a while, apparently.”

Kravitz is quiet. “...Maybe? I’m… not sure I’ve had to try dealing with them personally, but it rings a bell. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” Taako says. “By the way, the weather in the Felicity Wilds right now is pretty sweet. Not too sunny, not too cloudy— perfect weather for busting some ghosts, giving my sister a hand with that.”

“You have a sister?” Kravitz asks.

“Yeah, did I not mention her?” Taako asks. “Don’t answer that, I know I never mentioned her. Long story. Anyway— you know what’d be super cool? You coming here, right now, and hanging out.”

“...” Kravitz sighs. “I guess this is, in fact, my job, so— fine. You’re in the Felicity Wilds, you said?”

Taako nods, then realizes he probably can’t see that. “Yeah, it’s—”

“No, don’t worry, I’ll be right there,” Kravitz says. “See you.”

“Yeah, see you!” The stone flicks off, and Taako stuffs it back in his pocket, standing up when a familiar rift in space opens in front of him.

Behind him, Wonderland turns into a bonfire.

Kravitz steps out, eyes wide as he takes in the scene. “Gods, Taako, you really know how to downplay a situation.”

Taako blinks and turns around. “Okay, no, that’s new,” he says. “Like, several seconds ago new— what the hell are they doing now? Wait, no, stupid question, Lup’s in there...”

Kravitz ignores him, focusing on the feelings of necrotic energy around here— there’s two separate sources polluting everything here, holding all the garish signs and flashy decorations together, but there’s a third one, the one fueling the fire— and perhaps a fourth, hiding?

Kravitz grits his teeth, taking a step forward and giving barely a passing glance to the rest of the Tres Horny Boys (and some short people) before hefting his scythe and striding confidently forward. “Well, I reckon I oughta do my job right now,” he says, putting on his cockney lich-slaying accent.

“Kravitz, babe, I love you,” Taako says, crossing his arms, “But that is the worst fucking accent I have ever heard in my life where are you going—”

Kravitz launches himself right though the fire, shedding his guise of life as he swings through two of the liches, the more powerful ones hidden under illusions, and as they fly back he turns to the one in red— and from two directions, from both down at the entrance to this bonfire and the stone hanging from his neck, Taako yells at him that that’s the wrong one.

The red lich seems surprised. Kravitz is too. “What the blazes are you talking about, Taako?”

“Okay, first off, good timing on the pun,” Taako says, stone held up to his mouth as he runs to get a little closer. “But also second— if you even think about laying even like, one fucking finger on my sister, I’m kicking you back to the Astral Plane myself.”

“That’s me, bee-tee-dubs, Lup here,” the lich says, pointing at herself and hovering away. “I totally respect your whole job thing, and I’m not really gonna get between you and those other guys, but also gotta watch my own hide.”

“...That’s your sister?” Kravitz finally asks into the stone.

“Yep,” Taako replies, scaling one of the large cylinders. A tongue of flame flickers dangerously near him before simply turning back into smog and vanishing. “Okay, maybe it’s not such a long story— short form, I totally forgot she existed and that she was the lich in my umbrella— which, also, sorry I lied to you about when you thought you felt something on our date— but now she’s here and we are going to talk about this politely over a couple of dead other liches instead of you grimly reaping her.”

“Yes, all those things,” Lup says, now a good fifty feet away. “Speaking of which, uh—”

The twin liches rise up behind Kravitz, magic crackling in their hands— and Kravitz turns, slashing at them again. They dodge back, fire a couple blasts of their own, which Kravitz dodges in turn, and there’s a surge of fire blasting right through where they were a moment ago— blows traded back and forth, only a couple managing to graze the others, until with Kravitz hears a pop mid-swing—

And his scythe clangs off a bubble of shimmering magic.

“What’s going on here?” Lucretia asks, staff glowing, and as Kravitz picks himself up and looks around he realizes he’s not the only one covered— everyone, himself, the twin liches, Taako, Lup, even the others who were starting to climb up as well, they all have their own barrier around them.

“Fight me Lucretia!” both Taako and Lup scream simultaneously, Lup slamming against the bottom of her bubble and Taako pointing dramatically.

“Your not-being-punched days are over!” Lup adds.

“I already said I don’t plan on being punched,” Lucretia says. “What are you doing here?”

“Stopping you, hopefully,” Taako says. “Or, we were planning on it, and then Lup decided the place wasn’t on fire enough.”

“All the lights were garish, it needed redecorating,” Lup huffs.

“Hey, I liked it,” Taako says. “You just have bad taste.”

Meanwhile, a fire rages all around them. The twin liches, their true forms caught in bubbles as well and pulled over here, press up against the sides of their barriers as close as they can get to each other, whispering some plan— and then Lucretia slams the base of her staff on the ground, and their bubbles go opaque.

“There was no point in you following me here,” Lucretia says. “I’m getting the Animus Bell, I’m putting the Light back together, and I’m blocking out the Hunger— why are you still trying to stop me?”

“We’ve already told you, it won’t work!” Lup says. “You’re just dooming it twice-fold— besides, what if it doesn’t even do what it’s meant to do? How do you know it’ll be strong enough?”

“It will be!” Lucretia snaps.

“Uh, real quick, before we go any further,” Cam cuts in. “What the fuck are you all talking about? I’m getting a bunch of white noise when you talk and it’s seriously throwing me off.”

Lucretia pauses, sighs, and sets him down. “I’m afraid it doesn’t concern you—”

“Horse shit it doesn’t concern him!” Lup yells. “It’s the fucking world he lives in!”

“— Even so, we can hardly inoculate him right here and now.”

Lup hums. “Well, actually— Hey, Angus, are you down there?!”

A pause, and then— “Yeah!”

“Do you still have that Voidfish Ichor?” Lup calls.

“Yeah, I’ve still got a bit left! Did you need it?”

“Yeah, could you bring it up here real quick?”

A pause. “I’d love to, ma’am! But I’m a little stuck in one of Madame Director’s bubbles!”

Lup looks at Lucretia. “Could you bring him up here?”

Lucretia sighs, but nonetheless lifts her staff. A moment later, a relatively small bubble holding Angus floats up and merges into Lucretia’s.

Angus blinks and adjusts his glasses. “Well, that works.”

“Could you inoculate Cam, so we can get on with this without any more interruptions?” Lucretia asks, gesturing towards Cam.

“Yes ma’am,” Angus says, picking himself off of the ground and dusting himself off. He pulls out the nearly-empty bottle of ichor out, kneeling in front of Cam, and then pauses. “Um, how am I gonna…?”

Cam sighs. “You got a wand, kid?”

“Oh, yes!” Angus says, quickly taking it out and offering it to Cam. Cam takes it, mutters a spell around it to start floating, and then forms a Mage Hand to take the bottle. He drops the wand back into Angus’s hands, downs the bottle— wincing at the taste— and then says, “Okay, now what was the point of that?”

“Hi, I’m Lup,” Lup says.

“Okay, hi, nice to meet you or whatever— you gonna answer my question?”

“I believe she was just confirming that you wouldn’t be hearing any more static,” Lucretia says. “Anyway, if we won’t be having any more delays—”

“Hey! Hey, Lucretia!” Magnus yells from out of sight, and Lucretia hits her head against her staff. “Lucretia! I can’t see anything of what’s going on up there, can you lift me up too?”

Lucretia lifts her staff up wordlessly, and all the rest of the bubbles raise into the air. “Now, if we’re done with the interruptions— what were we even talking about?”

“You were just saying how you were gonna give up on your plans to seal this world away,” Lup says, resting her hands on the side of her bubble and attempting to regain control of the fires around them all.

“No, definitely not that,” Lucretia deadpans.

“Are you enthralled right now, Lucy?” Taako asks.

“No, Taako, I— I’ve had this plan in mind for decades, you think a little yelling and threats of violence would be enough to shake my resolve?”

“Hey, those weren’t threats, those were promises,” Magnus says. “We’re still gonna punch you, even if you do give up the plan.”

“Lucretia, please,” Davenport says. “We can— this isn’t our last chance, we’ve seen what the relic plan can do— if we leave, and try again in another world, but with more experience doing it— couldn’t—”

“We’re not leaving,” Lup, Taako, Merle, and Magnus chorus. “There’s no telling if it’ll even work again,” Taako adds, Lup nodding along, “The Hunger might just be faster to track us down next time, or more sensitive—”

“—And we’ve got too many friends here to just abandon them,” Magnus adds. “Friends, and family—”

“I have children here,” Merle adds. “And alright, maybe I’m not always the best dad— but I’m not gonna just abandon them to the apocalypse!”

Angus raises a shaky hand. “I’d— I’d also prefer it, if you didn’t leave, sirs—”

“Yeah, I dunno what the hell’s going on here, but who the hell abandons an entire world to die?” Cam asks.

“We might not have a choice!” Davenport snaps.

“We won’t have to if my plan goes through!” Lucretia insists.

As they all devolve into bickering, Kravitz just sits off to the side in his own bubble wondering if he should try to reintroduce himself into the conversation. A timid knock on the bubble draws him out of his musings, and he looks around in confusion, not seeing the source— but he feels it, right outside the bubble, a lich totally invisible to mortal senses.

Kravitz frowns. “What do you want?”

It’s silent for a moment, and then the lich knocks again, in a pattern that takes Kravitz a moment to place as morse code. Ha, take that Raven Queen, spending a century completely memorizing every possible method of communication instead of filing reports wasn’t a waste of time after all.

Can you escape? the lich is asking. Kravitz frowns, and is about to say no, obviously not before he realizes he didn’t try every option.

He takes a moment to check Lucretia isn’t looking in his direction— she isn’t, she’s too busy trying to talk over the sound of Taako shooting every spell in his arsenal at his barrier— before he lifts his scythe, cuts a slice through the air, and steps through.

And then he repeats the process, stepping out of the astral plane to stand on the outside of his bubble. He tilts his head in the direction of the free lich— what next?

It floats over to the two opaque bubbles, pausing in between them. It’s a clear enough message even without anything being said— you’re a Reaper, do your job.

Kravitz frowns, though. Being trapped inside a tiny bubble with a lich doesn’t sound fun— he needs room to swing his scythe, the lich doesn’t. Admittedly, the temperature is probably much more pleasant, he muses, pulling his cloak away from an encroaching fire.

As he thinks it over, the lich seems to grow more impatient. It flits around a little before dropping back down to Kravitz, beginning to knock out an explanation before Kravitz shakes his head. Thinking about it, he taps out himself, in scuffs and taps of his foot.

And then his luck runs out, Lucretia finally noticing him. “You— how did you get out?” she asks, forming another bubble around him.

“I’m not exactly bound to one plane of existence, lady,” he says, defaulting to some random accent given the lack of any specific circumstances he’s had to plan for. “You don’t really think you can stop me with a little barrier, do you?”

Lucretia grits her teeth. “Well, it’s supposed to be more than little— Well, no matter, I still— you’re all distracting me, I still need to retrieve the bell.”

A round of distressed shouts and protests rings around the people in separate bubbles from her, the free lich fretting and tapping out another message that Kravitz listens to intently, but she ignores them in favor of finally letting the opaque bubbles clear up again. The liches inside have dropped their illusions, dark forms wavering in distress and barely managing to hold together until they see each other, and Lucretia lowers them down to meet her eyes. “So, which one of you has the Animus Bell?”

“I don’t— I don’t know what you’re talking about?” Edward tries, voice cracking and barely holding together. Lucretia gives him a long, tired stare, and he wilts. “No, I didn’t think that would work.”

“Why should we give it to you?” Lydia asks, managing to recollect a bit of stability.

“I believe the terms set were that I’d get it upon winning in Wonderland,” Lucretia says. “Correct me if I’m wrong— but does it not seem like I’ve won now? I have you at my mercy, and Wonderland is in flames.”

“Hey, don’t take the credit, I’m the one who set it on fire,” Lup protests.

“Still. I believe I’m owed that much,” Lucretia says, holding out her hand. “So? Which one of you? I won’t hesitate to destroy both of you if I don’t get a straight answer, so you know.”

They’re both silent. “...We’re the only thing keeping your friend there alive, you know,” Lydia says, nodding towards Cam.

“The enchantments on him are still holding for now, even out of our direct control,” Edward adds, “But if you kill us— he’s caput, right with the rest of this place.”

“All the more reason for you to hand it over already.”

“Look, Lucretia, you’re great and all,” Cam says, “And I’ll admit this is kinda a miserable existence being a head— but could you maybe not bring whether or not I live or die into the argument?”

“Hey, technically the liches brought it up,” Merle points out.

“Still!”

“You won’t have to if they would hand it over like they said they would!” Lucretia snaps. “I won’t ask again— give me the Animus Bell, or I will end you.”

The liches hesitate, look over at each other, and then Edward shakes his head. “We don’t have it on us.”

Lucretia sighs and turns away. “Of course.”

“I feel like this is a good time to mention,” Kravitz says, stepping through a rift into Lucretia’s bubble. Lucretia jumps away, Angus startles a little, Cam just glances at him. “I’m gonna have to take both of you in anyway— Grim Reaper, and all. You’ve been around for a while, you’d already know the whole spiel?”

“Blah blah bounty hunter natural order of the world, yes, we get it,” Edward says. “We can totally take you the same way we took the last ones who’ve come by.”

“And how is that?” Kravitz asks.

“Like we’d tell you,” Lydia scoffs.

“Hey, uh, reaper man?” Cam asks. “If I’m, uh, only being kept alive by those liches— then, um. When I die— and, I mean, I’m kinda already approaching acceptance on the whole that’s-gonna-happen train— am I gonna get thrown in the stockade with the rest of the necromantically-assisted lives, or…?”

Kravitz blinks, then shrugs. “Well, it’s kind of a grey area, but you’ve never actually died and this whole thing is against your will, so— no, most likely not.”

“Right, right, cool, thanks.” Cam turns away again. “That’s all.”

Lucretia thumps her staff on the ground. “Where exactly is the bell?” Lucretia asks, staring intently at the liches.

“We stored it in the central pillar,” Edward says.

“It might’ve collapsed, though,” Lydia comments. “There’s a lot of fire.”

“Hey, speaking of which,” Edwards says, sitting up. “Aren’t there all those other people we’ve got trapped in here?”

“That’s right!” Lydia says. “All this fire out of control— you should really let us go, so we can make sure it’s not getting to them!”

“I think not,” Lucretia says, turning around to leave. “I’d tell you all to stay put while I deal with this, but you don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

“Actually, miss— could I have a word?” Kravitz asks, hefting his scythe.

“Only if that word is no,” Lucretia deadpans.

“Fair,” Kravitz says with a small incline of his head. Then he drives his elbow into her gut, hooks the blade of his scythe around her staff, and tugs it out of her hands.

In an instant, all the bubbles pop, and Kravitz leaps away after the lich twins. Lup is the first after him to react, righting herself in the air and regaining control of the fire, forcing it to swirl and condense into a replica of the sun— white-hot and hard to look at, but much more compact— and she pauses to help Taako up before chasing the liches as well. Everyone in the air falls, a chorus of pained grunts echoing up when they hit the ground below, and Angus winces in sympathy.

Lucretia, meanwhile, lets out a distressed cry and scrambles after the staff. It tumbles across the ground, coming to a stop at Angus’s feet, and Angus steps back automatically before he hears— it’s like whispers, so many whispers, all these voices chanting it’s not such a bad plan, are you sure they’re right about the bonds, it’ll work out it’ll work out do you really want to die don’t let them abandon you you don’t want to be alone again never alone never again use me use me use me—

And Angus only realizes he was reaching out to take it when he’s blasted away. He bounces, skidding to a stop right at the edge of the cylinder they’re on, and it hurts— but not as much as the distress at what he almost did there.

“Sorry, kid!” Barry says, visible once more, a couple wisps of magic still wavering around his hand. He stoops down, retrieves the staff, and turns to face Lucretia. “So?”

Lucretia huffs. “You know we don’t have any other ideas to take down the Hunger,” she says, picking herself up. “It’s either this or we run again— why can’t you all listen to me?”

“We can come up with something else,” Barry says. “We still have time, Lucretia, time before the Hunger arrives— we can use it to come up with some other solution! It’s still a month out— it’s not too late, not unless we use up every last second fighting each other when— when we’re supposed to be a family.”

Lucretia lowers her gaze, a guilty look on her face, and then she sighs and lets her head hang. “Well, you have my staff now anyways, there’s not a whole lot I can do without it.”

“Really, ma’am?” Angus asks, picking himself up. “Even I know spells that don’t need a wand or a staff or anything— like Mage Hand!”

“What am I going to do with Mage Hand?” Lucretia scoffs. “Oh, look at me, I’m the Director, I can use Mage Hand and a couple other cantrips— look out, I can pick up a rock and drop it on this incorporeal lich’s head from a distance—”

A bright red mage hand zips in out of nowhere and punches Lucretia right in the nose with a crunch, knocking her back on her ass. “That was for Taako’s memories of me!” Lup yells from across Wonderland.

Lucretia sits up, hands clamped over her nose to staunch the bit of blood seeping through. She narrows her eyes. “...Touche.”

Distantly, there’s the ringing of a bell— and then an angered shout, a burst of heat and light, and Angus strains to see what’s going on over there— he can’t see past the light of Lup’s sun, but he does see the rest of the team who’d fallen all the way back to the bottom chasing after the liches as well, so he figures it’ll probably turn out alright.

Lucretia sits cross-legged in the center of the cylinder, sulking with her chin in her hands; Cam sits awkwardly off to the side like he’s trying to think of something to say; Angus stands right at the edge, straining on the tips of his toes to try and keep track of everything happening; Barry floats anxiously well out of anyone’s reach. “Why did it take you so long to show up?” Angus asks, after he’s accepted he isn’t going to make anything out the way things are now. “I mean, I’m sure you could’ve been here from the start.”

“Hm?” Barry lifts his head. “Oh, I was evacuating everyone unrelated to this whole mess. Started as soon as I realized Lup’d gone off the rails and those guys were distracted.”

“Oh,” Angus says. “I… hm. That explains why I haven’t seen anyone I don’t recognize here. Good thinking, sir.”

“And then I suppose you hung around invisibly, waiting for an opportunity to take away my staff?” Lucretia wryly asks. Her hands twitch, like she’s starting to reach for a pen before remembering there’s nothing there.

“Miss Lup said she thought you might be enthralled by it,” Angus says. “Were you?”

“Even if I were, or am, would I admit to it?” Lucretia asks. “And would it have changed anything?”

“I don’t know,” Angus admits. “I just— I thought you were stronger than that, ma’am, and— maybe you are, if just the tiny glimpse I heard from the staff is what you’re always dealing with, and you don’t let it show?”

“In my experience, it was actually quite quiet, after the initial seduction attempt,” Lucretia says.

“Okay, no, no talking about what it’s like to be thralled by one of the Grand Relics,” Barry says. “Short form— don’t go anywhere near them unless you’re one of us seven and are specifically not planning to use them. Yes, Lucretia, that excludes you.”

Lucretia slowly lowers the hand she’d started to raise.

They’re silent again, for a while, until Cam speaks up. “Looks like that fight’s gonna be over soon, huh?”

“Is it?” Angus asks, straining to see past Lup’s sun. “How can you tell?”

“Well, okay, I can’t,” Cam admits. “I just figure based on you all’s sorta vibes— probably winning by now. Or, I mean— maybe I’m just being anxious because I know you winning means I’m dead?”

“Do you have something you want to say, Cam?” Lucretia asks.

Cam’s face shifts a little oddly. “Uh, not a whole bunch, just, uh— since odds are I’m gonna be dead real soon— just, uh, wanted to say that all things considered this is the happiest I’ve ever been in roughly ten years? After you left me here?”

Lucretia winces. “I’m very sorry, Cam.”

“Nah, I get it,” he says. “Just, uh— don’t do it again, to anyone else? Because yeah, not the best thing you’ve ever done to someone.”

“Not the worst, either,” Barry mutters under his breath.

“I’ll try to avoid it,” Lucretia says, giving Barry an annoyed glance.

Cam nods, the movement a little awkward given he’s a disembodied head lying on the ground. “That being said, I— I guess next time I see you is— is gonna be in the afterlife, huh? Considering— I mean, I know what happens to souls who try to get out, and I’m not fond of the whole ghost-prison thing happening to me.”

“Well, I am a crotchety old lady now,” Lucretia comments, smiling slightly. “It shouldn’t be too long.”

“You’re not that old,” Cam says, giving her a wry smile. “Lose another twenty years to those assholes, then you can talk about age.”

Lucretia laughs a little. “I suppose it just feels like a lot more, after— so long. I feel a lot older than I look, even like this.”

Cam chuckles, face dropping after a moment. “...Hey, Lucretia,” he says after a moment. “You’re— I dunno, um, if I was getting the right message from that argument earlier, but… you’re from another world?”

Lucretia pauses, then nods.

“D’you think you’ll still end up in the Astral Plane attached to this world, or would you go to the one attached to your home?” Cam asks.

Lucretia stares at the ground, thinks of a planet with two suns, and says, “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t go to this one. Our homeworld was eaten, along with its entire planar system.”

“...And you think the same’s gonna happen here, huh?”

“I know it will,” Lucretia says, knuckles whitening as she twists her fists in the fabric of her skirt. “Unless something is done— it will happen.”

Cam nods. “Hey, I know I’m probably gonna die soon, so it might not matter— but, when whatever this thing is shows up— don’t let this world die, okay? In any way, eaten or whatever— there’s a lot of stuff I like here.”

Lucretia nods. “That’s what I’m doing already, yes, but— I promise.”

“I just figured you might do it better if you’ve promised someone,” Cam says. He hops away, then pauses, and says— “I’m gonna go see if there’s any way I can help out, and I guess this’s the last time we’ll talk, so— see you around, okay?”

Lucretia gives him a watery smile, rubbing at her eyes. “Yeah,” she says, voice shaky. “Some day.”

Cam smiles back, and then hops over the edge— and that’s the last they see of him. Lucretia sits back on her heels, head bowed, and Angus considers comforting her or something— but no, she probably needs a moment of quiet first, he thinks.

Instead, Angus turns his attention back to the fight, and sees that it’s starting to loop back to them. He can make out the combatants again— there’s Kravitz swinging wildly at one of the liches, Magnus carrying a seemingly unconscious Taako on his back, Merle and Davenport running to catch up— Lup’s missing, until she flickers back into vision with a crack of red lightning, a pale light in one hand and the Umbra Staff in the other. She shoves the light into Taako’s chest, turns to the remaining lich— the sister, if Angus has to guess— and lifts the umbrella.

Whatever Lup says then— if she says anything at all— Angus can’t hear it. He can see the lich attempt to fly away, though, and he sees Lup fire off a bolt of fire, and he sees the Umbra Staff turn inside out to suck the lich in.

Barry alights on the ground next to him. “Guess they’re done over there, huh?”

Angus nods, turning to Lucretia and offering her a hand up. She accepts it after a moment, letting him pull her to her feet and following him and Barry down to ground level as Wonderland begins to vanish.

The rest of the team meets them halfway. “You have the bell?” Barry asks.

Lup responds by holding it up, careful not to let it make a noise. “Plus a couple umbrella pals, being held until we figure out how to move them directly from there to ghost jail.”

“I still say you should just give it to me and let us in the Astral Plane work it out,” Kravitz sighs. “It would be the simplest solution—”

“Nuh uh, buster, you’d probably end up giving up and just snapping it in half,” Lup says. “Which, admittedly, would work— hey, no getting ideas.” She crosses her arms as Kravitz gets a thoughtful look on his face. “I happen to like it quite a bit, and don’t want to make a new one.”

“Is Taako okay?” Angus asks, looking worriedly at where Taako is still slumped over Magnus’s back. “He looks… kinda hurt.”

“Don’t worry about it, he was just possessed for a little bit,” Magnus says, waving a hand dismissively. “And then got his body beaten up— he’ll be fine.”

“Mmph,” Taako says, confirming his words. “Why do I feel like I’ve been thrown in a woodchipper?”

“Almost dying is like that,” Lup says.

“You sure he didn’t actually die?” Merle asks. “I mean, soul disconnected from the body— seems pretty dead to me?”

“Why don’t we ask the literal grim reaper standing right next to us,” Magnus suggests. “Hey, Kravitz— does having your soul torn out of your body count as dying if you don’t get to the astral plane and go right back in within like, five minutes?”

Kravitz stares at him for a moment, then wordlessly summons a large tome and starts flipping through it. “Nope,” he says after a moment, snapping it shut. “You’re still at nineteen deaths.”

“Dope,” Taako says weakly. “Can someone heal me?”

“Heal your damn self,” Merle mutters, nonetheless pulling out the Extreme Teen Bible and muttering a spell. Immediately, most of Taako’s injuries knit themselves back together, and he hops down to his feet.

“Okay, this place is caput,” he says, looking around at everywhere Wonderland used to be— now just a large, empty clearing, with a couple small groups of stragglers scattered around the edges. “We heading straight back up now? Do I gotta stuff all of you in the pocket spa again? Krav, are you coming?”

“I believe I should be returning to the Astral Plane with that umbrella, so I can do my job,” Kravitz says, holding out a hand towards Lup.

Lup eyes him warily, then sighs. “I want it back within a week, else you’re toast,” she says, handing it over.

Taako blinks. “Wait, just like that? You love that thing, why’re you just giving it up?”

“No, don’t worry, they had a whole argument over it before you woke up,” Magnus says, and Taako visibly relaxes.

“Yes, good talk,” Kravitz deadpans. He tucks the Umbra Staff under his arm, slices a rift in reality, and prepares to step through— but before that, he turns to Taako. “I’ll come talk to you this evening, if that’s fine with you?”

“Sure thing, babe,” Taako says, giving him a thumbs up. Kravitz smiles, then steps into the astral plane and vanishes.

“...Okay, first off,” Magnus says, turning to Taako with an incredulous expression. “What was that?”

Taako blinks, ears flicking a little before perking up. “Oh, yeah, I’m dating the Grim Reaper.”

“You do remember that time he tried to kill us all, right?” Magnus asks.

Taako shrugs. “Honestly, who hasn’t at this point? Who wouldn’t want to?”

“I haven’t,” Angus says, raising his hand.

“We know, Angus,” Magnus says.

“And I don’t want to.”

“We know.”

Chapter Text

The ride up is awkward, to say the least. They end up calling two orbs, splitting the group in two— Tres Horny Boys and Lup in one orb, Lucretia, Angus, Davenport, and Barry in the other. Both Relics go in the pocket spa, very far away from Lucretia, who spends the ride up staring out at the ground below like a moody child on a long road trip.

Davenport, meanwhile, spends the ride glaring daggers into the side of Lucretia’s head, while Angus shifts uncomfortably and Barry sits stock-still like he’s completely dissociated from the situation.

There’s a small group of people there when they step out of the orbs. Avi’s there, of course, looking even more drunk than when they left and visibly still questioning whether or not he’s conscious when Lup greets him.

Carey and Killian are still there, Carey balanced on Killian’s shoulder and engrossed in one of Lucretia’s journals, and Johann is sitting next to them perusing another one; Angus recognizes it as the one containing Lucretia’s studies on Fisher’s physiology. Killian is the first to notice them, standing up quickly— Carey remains undisturbed, Johann nearly falls over as he was leaning on her— and runs over to them. “You’re back!”

“We sure are!” Lup chirps, phasing through the second orb and not even looking as she catches Lucretia by the sleeve before she can slip away. “You all caught up now? Understand everything?”

“Uh, not everything,” Carey says, looking up from the journal. “I’m still kinda reeling— seriously, something that eats entire planes? That’s kinda hard to wrap my head around.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Barry says.

Behind them, the second orb slides open to admit the Tres Horny Boys. Taako takes two steps out, and then launches himself at Lucretia and punches her in the face. “That’s for making me forget Lup,” he says, stepping back.

Lucretia rubs at her cheek where she hit, the bandage over her nose somewhat ruining the dry look she tries to give him. “Anyone else?” she asks, looking at the remainder of the people gathered around her. “If you’re here to punch me, may as well get it over with already, instead of forcing me to wait anxiously for the moment you decide is right.”

“You know what, I was gonna punch you too,” Magnus says, “But that other idea sounds better. Keeps you on your toes.”

Lucretia sighs. “I don’t know what I was expecting,” she mutters.

“Wait, wait, back up, what’s happening?” Carey asks. “Why’re you punching?”

“The Director made everyone forget about that whole journey using the Voidfish,” Angus pipes up. “They’re, uh, still pretty pissed about that?”

“Shhhshhhphshhhh spoilers!” Carey says, waving her arms around wildly. “I only just got past the world with all the Noelles!”

“Hang on, are those my journals?” Lucretia asks, squinting at the books Carey and Johann are holding. “Where did you get those?”

“Angus’ room,” Carey says, burying her nose back in the journal she’s reading. “He said I could grab them, so I did. Your prose is a little too flowery for my tastes, bee-tee-dubs.”

Lucretia sighs and rubs at the bridge of her nose. “At least it wasn’t directly from my quarters,” she mutters. “And don’t worry, it gets a little more streamlined later on. I had lots of time to practice.”

“Mm-hm,” Carey hums, back to reading intently.

“Okay, no getting sidetracked,” Davenport says, shoving Lucretia to get her moving and waving off Carey and Killian. “Let’s find a better place to talk about this. Suggestions?”

“My office?” Lucretia suggests as they all make for the door outside.

“No, that won’t do,” Lup says, floating along behind her. “I kinda trashed the place after you left, you’re gonna need a serious cleaning crew to make it an office again.”

“...It can’t be that bad,” Lucretia says. “Can it?”

Taako shrugs. “I’d say it was a couple notches below that Gauntlet’s glassing? And a lot more contained, obviously.”

“No, more than a few,” Lup deadpans. “Believe me, I know fire, a bit of charcoal isn’t glass.”

“That other room before the office looked fine, though?” Magnus says, trotting to catch up with them. “Aw geez, what’s it called— the place with the dais thingy—”

“No, I know what you’re talking about,” Lucretia says. “And I wouldn’t know? Lup?”

Lup shrugs. “I wasn’t really looking—”

“It was fine!” Davenport snaps, taking the lead and marching in the direction of the main dome. “Come on, we need to discuss this already!”

“Yeah, yeah, geez,” Magnus says, following obediently.

The door continues to be dented, and the area around the door leading to Lucretia’s office is charred, but it’s still a reasonable place to discuss the matter of what to do. Everyone arranges themself into a rough circle, looking around at each other— Angus is glancing at everyone, nerves clear in his face, Taako looks like he’s considering punching Lucretia again, Magnus is lost in thought—

“The Hunger is going to be here in roughly a month,” Davenport finally says, getting the elephant in the room out of the way first. “We can argue about whose fault it is later— what do we do?”

“I still hold that you should give me the Relics back so I can cast my barrier around this plane,” Lucretia says, hands folded neatly behind her back.

“Lucretia, literally no one here agrees with that plan,” Magnus says.

Lucretia shrugs. “Nevertheless.”

“Still, we should examine why that isn’t a good plan,” Barry says.

“If this plane is completely cut off from all other planes, it’s going to die,” Lup says. “Slowly, yes, but it will happen. Ghosts won’t move on to the Astral Plane, clerics won’t be able to reach their gods, without a connection to the Plane of Magic eventually even wizards and sorcerers will lose their magic too. Everything will wither, and then turn to ash, and it will be just as bad as the Hunger.”

Everyone stares at her. “Geez, Lup, that’s dark,” Taako comments. “How d’you know that so specifically, though?”

“I don’t, actually,” Lup says, shrugging. “I’m mostly guessing— not the ash part though, there was that prophecy? Paloma’s prophecy about the third option?” Taako blinks, ears twitching as he tries to remember, and then his ears flick up in recognition and he nods. “Whatever the details, shit’s gonna be bad, and we don’t want that.”

“What else can we do, though?” Lucretia asks. “Run away, abandon all our friends and family here, and spend another hundred years searching for some other way away from the Hunger?”

Taako shakes his head. “No, that’s not it— I’m pretty sure that’d fall under the Hunger bad end? That’s not right.”

“Is there any way to fight back against the Hunger?” Angus asks. Everyone turns their heads to look at him, and he blushes bright red— “I— I mean, I understand there’s nothing you can do to fight it, but can you, um, do something… instead of, um, doing something to us to keep it away, we do something to it?”

Barry nods along with his words. “We know fighting it the old-fashioned way is hopeless for anything but buying a couple minutes,” he says, “But maybe if we work out some other way to harness the Light?”

“What, though?” Lup asks. “Do we just… super— super big boom?”

“I don’t think you can blow up the Light of Creation, Lup,” Magnus says. “Maybe we like— put some kinda enchantment? Or— or something to subdue the Hunger? Make it stop coming after us?”

Taako perks up. “Wait. Wait, wait, hang on, I just had an idea.”

“What is it?” Davenport asks.

“What if we take Lucretia's plan,” Taako says, motioning vaguely in Lucretia’s direction, “And just… kinda… flip it?”

Lucretia tilts her head quizzically. “What do you mean?”

“I mean— I mean, we just gotta— flip it,” Taako says, tugging at his hair, ears flicking around. “Like— fucking, words, you just— you just gotta flip it turnways.”

“Like...” Lucretia looks puzzled. “You want me to… invert the shield? So it’s protecting everything outside from this plane? I’m— that’s the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do here, Taako.”

Lup perks up. “Wait, no, I think I know what he’s— we put the shield around the Hunger instead of here, right? So it’s the Hunger that’s cut off from everything, instead of us. Is that what you’re getting at?”

Taako beams and shoots finger guns at her. “Yes! Those words, the mouth words she just made, that is what I mean.”

Lucretia opens her mouth to speak— and then she pauses, shuts it after a moment, and thinks. “...Ah,” she finally says. “That… that may just work, actually. I’m not sure how I never thought of that myself, to be honest.”

Taako beams even brighter. “Well, it is me, after all.”

“Okay, blatant self-glorification aside— hell yeah, Taako, good thinking,” Barry says. “Um— so, when the Hunger comes, you just… cast your spell?”

“Well, I mean, I need to be on the plane in order to put my barrier around it,” Lucretia says. “So, I’d— I’d imagine there would be a bit of flying up there beforehand? But— yes, that sounds about right.”

“Right, on that subject,” Davenport cuts in, “What happened to the Starblaster? Where did you put it?”

“In a secret hangar bay I had the Millers build into the base when they made it,” Lucretia says. “It’s— don’t worry about it, I can show you where it is.”

“Cool, cool,” Taako says. “So, plan is— as soon as the Hunger shows up, we just pop up there and trap it?”

“Wait, are we sure you won’t get trapped up there too?” Magnus asks.

“I— cannot guarantee that,” Lucretia admits, then raises her hand when he starts to protest. “However, it— we have an entire month to plan, yes? We’ll work something out.”

“That’s fair,” Magnus says.

“And if you can’t we just leave you there,” Taako says.

“Okay, Taako, no,” Lup says. “I know I was the one to start this whole punch-train, and I don’t regret that, but let’s not joke about leaving party members behind on the world-eating abomination.”

Taako’s ear flicks. “Yeah, okay, fine, just as long as you don’t hit me with an umbrella this time.”

“I would be considering it, if your boyfriend hadn’t taken the dang thing,” Lup says.

“Oh yeah,” Magnus says. “While Kravitz has the umbrella, how’re you gonna cast magic, Taako?”

Taako gives him a small glare and goes digging around his bag, pulling out his old wand. “Ta-da,” he deadpans. “Still got a seam where it was snapped, but perfectly usable.”

“Alright, alright, just asking,” Magnus says. “Uh, was there anything else we needed to talk about right now immediately?”

“I… don’t think so?” Davenport says. “Does anyone else have something they want to say?”

“Well, I believe I ought to apologize for my behavior,” Lucretia says. “I was— perhaps a little too myopic? And— and I clearly failed to look at the bigger picture, so—”

“It’s okay, Lucretia, we’ve already forgiven you,” Merle says, finally looking up from where he’s been flipping through the Extreme Teen Bible.

“I haven’t,” Taako says.

“Eh, I’m kinda getting there,” Lup says, with a wiggly hand motion.

“Yeah, I’m still totally gonna punch you at some point, but forgiveness will occur afterwards,” Magnus says.

“That’s very sweet of all of you,” Lucretia says, surreptitiously wiping at her eyes. “That’s— that’s all from me, for now? Shall we all— all split up, and do our own things, while I figure out fixing up my office?”

“I vote for that idea,” Magnus says, raising his hand. “I still haven’t talked to Fisher, too much shit’s been happening since yesterday and I need to get on with that already.”

“Um— I also, want to check on how Fisher and Junior are doing,” Angus says.

“Alright, that’s three out of eight, motion carried,” Taako says, turning away. “I just remembered I left a casserole in the oven, so bee-are-bee tee-tee-why-ell you chucklefucks.”

“Wh— Taako, that’s not how majority vote works and you know it!” Davenport protests as Taako hurries off. He crosses his arms. “I mean, I was gonna agree anyway, but still.”

“Eh, you know he was just in a hurry,” Lup says, drifting past, Barry following after her. “I guess I should go apologize to all the people I traumatized, so laters.”

“Seeya Cap’nport,” Magnus says, giving a small wave as he drags off the once-more-distracted Merle, Angus tagging along at his heels. Then he pauses, giving Merle one last push out the door, and turns to head back. “Actually, no, Lucretia, one last thing—”

“Yes?” Lucretia asks, turning to face him.

“MAGNUS!”

A firm swing hits Lucretia square in the jaw, throwing her a couple feet back, and Davenport makes a distressed noise— but she just laughs, as she picks herself up and rubs at her face. “I should’ve seen that one coming, huh?” she comments.

“Gotta stay on your toes,” Magnus says, smugly. “Okay Ango, now we can go.”

Slowly, everyone files out, until it’s just Lucretia and Davenport. For a moment, they both just stare at the door everyone left through, and then Lucretia slowly looks down at Davenport.

“You’re not planning on punching me in the face too, are you?” she asks.

“Still considering it,” Davenport replies immediately, not looking up at her. “Definitely not now, though, there’s nothing for me to stand on here.”

“Noted,” Lucretia says, immediately resolving to stay well out of arm’s reach of all furniture around waist height for the foreseeable future. That’ll make repairing my office a lot harder, she muses, though I suppose first I should survey the damages— “If you’ll excuse me,” she says, turning away as well, “I need to do something about my office.”

“Good luck with that.”

 


 

Merle elects to part with them well before the Voidfish chambers, saying he doesn’t want to deal with two bratty kids and their parents at the same time, even if one of those pairs are some weird jellyfish— Magnus, confused, asks what he means, and Merle just shrugs and wanders off muttering about what kind of name Junior is supposed to be.

They run into Johann at the elevator— Johann still has that journal, now tucked under his arm, and he looks surprised to see them here. “Oh, Magnus,” he says. “You, uh— I guess you’re here to talk to the— to Fisher?”

“Yep!” Magnus says, stepping into the elevator as soon as it opens. “I haven’t gotten a good chance to since I remembered, but now that I don’t have to do any pretending and also Fisher’s kid is back with them, I might as well!”

“And I think I should make sure the little guy is doing okay,” Angus adds. “It seemed pretty nervous when I brought it in— I dunno— I don’t know if it should have to stay in the same tank as Fisher? If that would stress it out, I mean.”

Johann shrugs, pressing the button to the Voidfish’s chamber. “They both looked pretty happy last I saw,” he says, “But that was a while ago, and it’s pretty hard to judge jellyfish emotions.”

“Yeah, I’d rather see for myself,” Magnus says.

The ride down is long as always, Johann taking the journal he has out and opening it to a random page a minute in, reading in silence until the door slides back open. The three of them hurry along, Angus nearly hesitating when he sees the guards he’d knocked out earlier up and talking. They don’t give him more than a passing glance, though, so Angus strides on past like nothing is wrong at all.

The moment Magnus and Angus step into the room, there’s a pair of delighted notes sung from Fisher’s tank. The first, a little softer, comes from Fisher— it rests a couple tendrils on the glass, lights flickering as if in a warm smile, and Magnus smiles back and waves.

The baby Voidfish, on the other hand, lets out a loud squeal and rockets out of the water, diving to crash into Angus’ head while singing an intricate song— and Angus blinks at the visions crashing into his mind, of the Voidfish’s cavern, of a sloppily-carved duck, of so many works of art lost to the ages.

He shuts his eyes to the visions and catches the Voidfish in his hands, tugging it away from his hat. “Okay— okay, little buddy, I get you’re excited but— I need to be able to see, okay?”

The Babyfish squawks at him, tendrils winding around his fingers. It left its boat behind in the tank, he notices, which he guess means it’s gotten over the initial nerves on seeing its parent? Or maybe it was just so excited to see Angus.

Magnus, meanwhile, just walks up to the tank and puts his hand on the glass on the other side from Fisher’s tendrils. “Hey buddy,” he greets cheerfully. “Sorry I couldn’t come talk to you the moment I remembered, had to keep the whole thing a secret, you know? You mad about that?”

Fisher just hums contentedly, and Magnus laughs. “No, of course you don’t mind, you’re just a weird jellyfish. You wanna see how much I’ve gotten better since I last made something for you?”

Fisher perks up, humming a complicated series of notes accompanied with weird gesticulations so fast Angus and Johann wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it even if they knew what it was trying to communicate. The most Angus can work out is the repeating pattern of D C D C every now and then, but even that makes no sense to him.

Magnus looks just as puzzled. “What’s that, buddy?” he asks. “Are you trying to tell me Johann fell down a well? Johann’s right there, silly, it’s not an issue.”

Fisher stops, drifts for a moment, then lifts a tendril to point firmly over at Angus. Angus steps forward hesitantly, and Fisher jabs the tendril again, more specifically at the bag— and with a jolt of realization, Angus digs around in it until he retrieves the wooden duck he just got back.

“I think it’s saying it already knows how good you’ve gotten,” Angus says, holding the duck up, and Fisher sings.

“Oh,” Magnus says. “But, then— hang on, Fisher, you haven’t been stealing my gifts for people again, have you?”

Fisher pauses, then drifts back a bit.

“Come on, I explained this decades ago!” Magnus says crossing his arms. “You get plenty of ducks directly from me, you don’t have to steal from other people!”

Fisher makes an odd tilting movement and sings, B A C.

“I guess it couldn’t while you’d forgotten it?” Angus guesses with a shrug.

“And to be fair, it did give them back when it was done,” Johann says, looking up from the journal on Voidfish physiology.

“Still!” Magnus huffs, crossing his arms. “See if I make you any more ducks now.”

Fisher sings a distressed note, pressing against the glass, and after a moment Magnus lets up the serious look and laughs. “Okay, no, sorry— I wouldn’t do that to you, old buddy.”

Fisher croons.

“I think you’ve spoiled it,” Angus says, gently dissuading Junior from messing with his hair.

“You’re being too strict with Junior,” Magnus retorts. “Weird magic jellyfish need all the best accommodations, don’t they?”

Fisher hums in agreement.

“Okay, while I do agree we should keep the huge alien fish happy,” Johann butts in, “I’ve gotta agree with Angus here— you are being pretty lenient about it stealing people’s things.”

“It’s not like Fisher’s gonna do it again!” Mangus says. “Right, buddy?”

Fisher hums vaguely, drifting away, seemingly pretending not to realize Magnus is talking.

Magnus’s face goes flat. “Buddy.”

Angus laughs a little, then blinks when Junior tugs a little on his hat and seems to reach for the tank. It sings an odd series of notes which Angus takes a moment to parse out, and then he asks, “Do you want your boat?”

Junior hums a high note, giving him a vision of the toy boat floating in Fisher’s tank, exactly as it is right now but from Junior’s perspective instead.

“You can just get it yourself, you know,” Angus points out. “I don’t— you don’t need me to get things for you, you know.”

Junior whines, but nonetheless peels itself free of Angus and slinks through the air. It floats above the surface of the water, almost hesitantly reaching out to grab its boat, and then as soon as it has it in its grip it darts away and returns to sit on Angus’ hat. It sings a tune, and gives Angus a vision of the inside of its own tank— quite possibly the clearest message it’s given him yet, can we go back home?

“Are you sure you wanna go now?” he asks it, and it squeaks and settles even more firmly. Fisher seems to notice, and gives a distressed hum— to which Angus raises his hands defensively. “Hey, I’ll bring it back again! It just— I’m not the one asking to go, here!”

Fisher hums again, a little worriedly, but settles down— and Magnus turns. “Oh, are you leaving?”

“Ap— apparently?” Angus says. “Junior just— decided, so I guess that’s just what’s happening now?”

Magnus nods. “Well, have fun!”

“Don’t pass out on the way,” Johann adds.

“That was one time, sir,” Angus deadpans, pushing the door open. “But I’ll see you soon!”

 


 

The first person— or rather, people— he runs into outside the elevator are Lup and Barry, having some kind of hushed conversation. He takes a moment to adjust his hat— Junior having retreated under it seemingly to take a nap— before he wanders over to listen in.

“Okay, so if we disguise you as a donkey, we might be able to get past relatively unquestioned,” Lup says, lich form hidden under the illusion of a bulky trenchcoat and several scarves. “Then we can make our way to the center of the quad and have some kinda announcement—”

“What are you two talking about, ma’am?” Angus asks.

Lup yelps, arms windmilling as she scrambles away. “When did you get there!”

“Just now, ma’am!” Angus says. “Are you coming up with a pointlessly complicated scheme to prolong the time before you have to apologize to all the people you terrorized today?”

Lup stares at Angus, then slowly points at him and turns her head to look at Barry. “He’s too smart, Barold,” she says.

“Don’t go complaining to me,” Barry says, shrugging. “You’re the one who adopted him.”

“If you want my advice, I’d say you should probably lay low until people aren’t so upset about it anymore,” Angus suggests.

“I’m sick of just sitting around in an umbrella all the time, though!” Lup says. “I wanna wander around! With my feet!”

“Well, okay, you can do that and also lay low,” Angus says. “I don’t— I don’t really know what you actually did while I was gone? But you know disguise self, you can just— not look like you for a while?”

Lup blinks. “...But I look so good, Ango.”

“Sometimes you gotta make sacrifices, ma’am,” Angus says. “Come on, why don’t you— I don’t know pretend to be two unremarkable Bureau employees? And— and catch me up on what I missed? I’m honestly super curious about that!”

Lup and Barry look at each other for a moment, and then Lup shrugs. “Alright, I’ll admit it, that’s a way better plan than what I had in mind,” she says, clicking her fingers to turn into a generic elf wearing sweet shades. “Barry?”

“I didn’t prepare Disguise Self,” Barry says, chagrined. “I’ll just go invisible and follow you around.”

“And we can talk to the air, good plan,” Lup says, as Barry vanishes.

“I… don’t think it’s all that good,” Angus says. “So, uh— where to first?”

“Let’s head to the cafeteria,” Lup says, setting off. “That way I can better illustrate my point— you remember when we all played The Floor Is Lava, right?”

 


 

It’s the second most distressed Angus has ever seen Taako, second only to remembering Lup.

“Hey, bro, bro, it’s just a casserole,” Lup is saying, crouching next to him and seemingly wanting to pat him on the back if it weren’t for her intangibility. “You can make another, ‘kay?”

“But I was supposed to be having a cool comeback to cooking,” Taako whines from where he lies on the floor, curled up around the scorched remains of his abandoned casserole. He has his hat pulled down to cover his face, but the puddle around his head pretty clearly indicates what he’s been up to. “I’m a failure, Lup.”

“Sir, you got distracted from one dish,” Angus says. “You can try again, this isn’t some kinda cooking competition.”

Taako sniffs. “Maybe it is, Agnes,” he says. “Isn’t that what all life is? Just one big cooking competition that I, Taako, have to win—”

“Okay, no, don’t do that,” Lup says, going to grab him by the back of his shirt before remembering she can’t. “Get up, dingus, you gotta at least lemme check if any part of it is salvageable.”

“I already checked,” Taako grumbles, nonetheless sitting up— Angus gets a glimpse of his eyes rubbed red and puffy, before Taako tugs the brim of his hat back down. He picks the casserole dish up, puts it on the counter, and returns to sulking on the floor. Angus looks at the dish too, then wrinkles his nose at the smell and goes to sit quietly next to Taako.

“Why’re you getting so upset about this, of all things, anyway?” Lup asks, poking at the charcoal. “It’s just one dish, gods know we’ve wrecked more in stupider ways throughout our lives. And unlives, in my case.”

Taako grunts. “...’S not the point,” he mutters after a moment. “I haven’t cooked anything big in years. I was trying to get back in the swing of things.”

Lup pauses, staring down at the wrecked casserole, then picks it up. “This is about Glamour Springs, right?”

Taako flinches, like he’s been slapped, and Angus feels like maybe he shouldn’t be here for this.

“Look,” Lup says, “I’m not gonna say I get how you feel— aside from that it’s super shitty, and possibly— um. Definitely, traumatized. In some way.” She dumps the charcoal in the trash, dish and all. “But, just… if you wanna talk about it at some point, I’m all ears?”

Taako sniffs, and rubs at his face. “Well, I’m not gonna talk about it now,” he says, sitting up. “Maybe later.”

“Later works,” Lup says. She picks up a wooden spoon. “Now, I think I’m gonna make a pie, wanna help me mix the ingredients? Or is that still too much?”

Taako tilts his head, thinking it over, then stands up. “What the hell,” he says, ghosting his hand over his face— Angus catches a spark of magic passing there— before he lifts his hat to show a bright, totally un-smudged grin. “You don’t have taste buds anyway, someone’s gotta taste-test it.”

Lup huffs. “That’s not necessary when you’re as good as me!”

“It’s totally necessary, Lulu,” Taako says, snagging a bowl. “You can’t eyeball everything, you know!”

“Oh really, hand-Worcestershire?”

As they start into playful bickering, moving easily around each other as they start gathering ingredients, Angus picks himself up and trots over to the door. He spares a small glance back at them, noting that they’ve already collected nearly a dozen mixing bowls between them, and then he shuts the door behind him and heads off for his room.

 


 

It was probably too much to hope he’d get back to his room without another interruption.

“So, Angus,” Carey starts, after nearly a minute of casually sauntering alongside him. “How’d you get to know about all this nonsense?”

“You mean how I found the baby Voidfish, or how I found out about Lup?” Angus asks.

“Eh, both?” Carey says, making a wishy-washy hand gesture. “Let’s go with meeting lich-lady, that seems like it came first.”

“Taako asked me to solve the mystery of who was burning messages in his wall, so I did that,” Angus says. “Then I, uh, researched just what could have been causing a magical artifact to gain sentience? And— figured she was a lich.”

Carey whistles. “And you didn’t tell anyone because…?”

Angus shrugs. “She wasn’t actually hurting anyone?” he says. “Um, why are you asking about this?”

“Just curious,” Carey says. “I mean, I’ve got a rough understanding of most of the stuff leading up to those guys all getting here, but the journals don’t exactly include that part of things.”

“Maybe you should ask Lup, ma’am,” Angus says. “I mean, I’m just a little boy and it’s getting late! I need my rest!”

“It’s not even close to dinner time yet,” Carey says, glancing at the nearest clock.

“I’ve had a long day,” Angus says. “Tell you what, ma’am— why don’t you ask Lup, and then later if you still wanna hear about it from me, you can ask me in the morning?”

“...I don’t wanna go looking for her, though,” Carey admits.

“She was in the kitchen last I checked, with Taako,” Angus says, stopping in front of his door. “She was under a disguise, but, um— she should still be perfectly recognisable if she’s still cooking?”

“Gotcha,” Carey says, stepping away. “Alright, catch you later!”

Angus nods, waving after her as she goes, and then with a sigh looks down at his door. There’s a couple scratches around the lock that weren’t there when he left, further proof that Carey did indeed take him up to break into his room, but when he unlocks it he finds everything in exactly the same order as when he left it.

Junior stirs under his hat, lifting the brim as they pass by the desk, and hums a little. “You wanna go back in the tank, buddy?” Angus asks, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

Junior hums again, then wriggles free of the hat and bobs around to hang from Angus’ glasses. It sings a small tune Angus doesn’t recognize.

“Hey, did Fisher teach you songs?” Angus asks, lying on his back on the bed. Junior hums in the affirmative, and Angus asks, “D’you think you could sing one for me?”

Junior hums a little thoughtfully, goes silent, and then a little messily starts to sing an intricate melody. It smooths out quickly, though, resolving into something like a lullaby, and Angus thinks he might recognize it— has he heard Johann practicing it, some time when he’d been studying in the same room?

Slowly, his eyes slide shut, Junior’s soft singing in one ear a welcome respite from everything that’s been going on in his life since— how long, even? Since the past few months, when he’d met Lup, since that time on the Rockport Limited meeting Tres Horny Boys, since he first took on the title of detective? When was the last time he really felt relaxed, and calm, and happy?

Angus tells himself he’s just going to close his eyes for a couple minutes, and then those minutes become an hour, then two, and then he jolts awake in total darkness— no sunlight shining in through the window, all the lights turned off, Junior missing.

He fumbles blindly for his wand, starting to cast Light before pausing, and instead casting Dancing Lights. Four white lanterns spring into existence in front of him, and he lifts them up to light his entire room— the clock says it’s one AM, someone turned out all the lights, and he doesn’t know where Junior is.

The logical first place to look is, of course, exactly where it should be, Angus thinks, and immediately crouches down to look under his desk. For a moment he panics as he doesn’t see the distinctive greenish glow of a baby Voidfish, but then he realizes every single bath toy previously in his bathroom has been relocated to Junior’s tank— and when he prods the cluster, a couple rubber ducks drift away only to be tugged back into the defensive formation around Junior.

Angus chuckles. “You like those too, then?”

Junior squeaks.

“I hope you didn’t eat any of my stuff,” Angus says, looking over his desk and not seeing anything amiss. “I mean, nothing looks missing, which either means you didn’t do anything or you covered it up real well— so, good job either way? Um, or, should I really be congratulating you if you lied…?”

Junior squeaks again, attempting to sink a little further into the water but failing as the much more buoyant toys remain on the surface. “Sorry,” Angus says, getting up. “I’ll leave you alone.”

He looks around his room once again, making sure everything is still in place, and then takes his glasses off and places them on the table. He digs out a couple energy bars to make up for missing dinner, looking over his notes as he eats, and then after nearly half an hour sighs and returns to his bed.

What are we going to do about the Hunger? he wonders most of the way to sleep, thinking up different ideas on how everyone could get safely on and off the plane without dying or getting trapped— but, on the other hand, the final thought he has before falling asleep is nothing of that ilk.

Hey, he idly wonders, barely conscious, if Junior were to broadcast everything they’ve been fed to the entire world, does that mean people would get a cool story accompanied by a bunch of random junk about some kid’s conversations with an umbrella?

 


 

.

 

.

 

.

 

A month later, an unmoving storm floats overhead, not roiling like storm clouds are meant to, but simply… floating. Like a curtain, pulled shut to hide the horrible stage being set behind it.

Davenport, Lucretia, and Tres Horny Boys all board the Starblaster with long-winded goodbyes, swapping random items with each other and the people they’re leaving behind— and something twists in Angus’ chest, like they’re being like this because they don’t expect to come back? But that’s not true, they’re always like this, they’re always just as fearless and flippant in the face of mortal danger—

And then the Starblaster leaves, soaring through the clouds and out of sight, and Angus breathes a shaky sigh as he watches them all go. Barry, in his brand new body, lays a sturdy hand on his shoulder and gives him a warm smile. Lup, still in her undisguised lich form as her new body has only been growing for a little under a month, drifts over to his other side and gives him a thumbs up.

“You ready to keep this moon safe?” she asks, crowds of inoculated Bureau employees behind her working to set up barricades.

“I-I think so,” Angus says, mentally running over all the combat spells he’s crammed into his head in preparation for this moment.

Lup nods, still beaming, and then lifts her head to the sky— and the storm breaks, to reveal columns of tar, colored like black opal, crashing down to earth. And as one they all breathe a sigh— “This is it,” Lup says.

And Angus smiles too. “This is it.”

“This is it.”