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Something Bigger Than This

Chapter Text

Everything made sense the moment he touched the book. It was his, and he had known it was his, and it would always be his, and the instant his fingers made contact with the cover he knew. The pieces came together around him in a flurry of scenes and light and thought, a thousand tiny clues clicking together like a jigsaw puzzle to form an image he’d always known in the locked part of his heart he could never get himself to look into. The book was him but better, his story but more complete.

It opened to the first page.

 

Angus McDonald was the world’s greatest detective. He had caught some of the worst criminals of several kingdoms, saved many lives, and understood a great many things, even despite his tender age (ten years, which he would say very fast and a little quietly when asked). But for all of that, he still had trouble understanding precisely how he’d wound up where he was.

Where he was was sitting next to a campfire in a remote forest, on a surprisingly well-crafted log chair. He was holding a mug of tea. None of this was particularly strange. That the tea had followed a meal more impressive than those found in some five-star restaurants was, and that the chair had been crafted from a fallen tree in ten minutes was, and the company he was keeping, which had done these things, definitely was. Angus stared at them over the rim of his mug; his companions were weird on their own, and maybe weirder as a group. There was Merle, who didn’t like Angus very much, and who had an arm made from living wood; there was Magnus, who could use an axe like a whittling knife and who was quite excited about his pet fish; and there was Taako, who cast high-level spells as easily as he breathed, and who’d somehow made a four-course meal out of random shit they had found in the woods.

Angus, for all his detective chops, didn’t know that much about them. He’d come across them while looking for the source of a magical signal that had been getting people in trouble for months, pulling in mages of all types and not letting them go again. They were looking for the same thing, and, when he had refused to drop it, had allowed him to come along with them.

At the moment, they were having a rare moment of quiet. Magnus was humming as he whittled, he supposed, but it was a quiet sort of humming. Merle was reading, and Taako had thrown himself dramatically upon the ground the instant he’d finished eating and was lounging with great purpose. Angus kicked his heels against the chair, watching him. He glanced at the sun disappearing into the horizon, then back to the wizard on the ground, and started counting down in his head. Three, two, one.

Taako stood up. He brushed the grass off his skirt and stretched idly, saying, “I’ll be back in a bit, gonna go for a little walk before we turn in.”

Magnus grinned up at him. “Oh, are you gonna tire yourself out?” he asked, “because that’s good for sleep-”

Taako kicked a pebble at his head.

“Have a good time on your walk, sir!” Angus said, looking between him and Magnus. Taako glanced at him, but only for a second.

“Yeah,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, “try not to get killed before I get back, guys.” He turned on his heel and walked with purpose into the woods. There was a long moment of silence.

“He does this every night,” Angus said.

“Yep,” Magnus replied, not looking up from his duck.

“You’re not going to tell me what he’s doing, are you.”

“Not a chance.”

“Will you tell on me if I follow him?”

Magnus looked up at him, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Ango, if you can follow him and get back here without him noticing, that’ll be a goddamn accomplishment and a half. I won’t tattle.”

Angus looked at Merle.

“I don’t give a shit,” he said, rolling his eyes. “If you get eaten by bears, that’s your problem. Or if he turns you to stone or whatever.”

“Thanks for that vote of confidence, sir! I’ll be sure to avoid hungry bears,” Angus replied. He put his tea down by the fire, hoping it would stay warm until he got back, then trotted off in the direction Taako had headed.

He was good at tracking people in cities; he had less practice in forests, but it wasn’t hard, in this case. Taako wasn’t subtle, and his shoes weren’t made for being sneaky. They weren’t made for walking on dirt at all, really, but he was dedicated to his Look.

Angus was trying to be sneaky, though. He caught himself holding his breath as he walked, watching the ground for twigs that could inconveniently snap or particularly crunchy leaves. It was summer, so there weren’t any of the latter, but it never hurt to be observant.

As he walked, Taako’s strange, lilting voice started to carry through the trees, incomprehensible at first, then, as Angus put aside some of his caution and quickened his pace in an effort to catch up, a little clearer. “ -telling you, handsome,” he was saying, his tone amused and uncharacteristically affectionate, “that’s why you need to keep a couple’a those really big ones-oh, uh-huh, sure, ‘cause that’s always worked for you before.”

Taako’s footsteps came to a slow stop in another, smaller clearing. Luckily, it was ringed by boy-sized bushes, and Angus hid and watched as Taako waved a hand at a stump, turning it into a squishy leather armchair, then collapsed onto it, throwing a leg over one arm. He was holding up a small, glowing crystal on a chain - a stone of farspeech, Angus’ mind helpfully supplied. They were rare and incredibly difficult to make, but he’d seen them once or twice before - and grinning at it, his face unguarded.

Angus started to feel a little bad about following him, but he stayed and listened anyway. He couldn’t quite make out what the person on the other end was saying, although he could catch their tone of voice, fond and harried and a little tired.

As they finished whatever they were saying, Taako snorted. “It’s not like you’re doin’ anything else with ‘em, but whatever. We’re probably gonna-hah, yeah, keep arguing about it for another century, exactly. Before you give up and just do it my way, obvi. Anyway, on a more immediate, me-centric note-” Taako paused as the voice broke into laughter, himself grinning as he waited for it to die down.

After a moment, Taako sighed, fiddling with one of his earrings. “Listen,” he said softly, “I know I’m workin’ right now so I’m not supposed to, but-” He paused, and the voice said something else, sounding frantically apologetic. “Nah, homie, this ain’t about your birds, it’s just...been a while, and-”

The voice said something else and Taako smiled indulgently at the stone of farspeech. It was an expression Angus had never seen on the wizard before; it was soft and open and completely without his characteristic irony, and it hit Angus that not only was this not something he was supposed to be seeing, it wasn’t something anyone was supposed to see. He glanced away, feeling bad, as Taako said, “okay. If anyone asks, I didn’t do this.”

Suddenly, there was a crackling sound and a burst of blue light washed across the entire clearing, illuminating the bushes Angus was in. He turned back, and when he did, Taako was gone. Where he had been was just his chair, sitting on a perfect circle of solid sapphire.

Angus stared at it, then stood up, brushed himself off, and bolted.

 

When he got back to the campsite, everything was more or less how he’d left it. Magnus had finished what he was whittling in record time (a wooden jellyfish? Somehow he had managed to make it look translucent. Angus didn’t ask.) and the plants around Merle looked like they’d grown a few inches since they got there, but Angus shook that off as a side effect of his jumpiness. He was probably just imagining it.

Magnus glanced up at him as he skidded to a stop in front of the fire, still breathing fast. “You okay, kiddo?”

Angus shook his head mutely. He didn’t know how to explain what had happened, or why it had freaked him out so much. As far as he could tell, Magnus knew very little about magic; just saying “Taako can apparently transmute rough ground into smooth precious gemstone and also teleport without any preparation, I guess,” would probably not mean anything to him, and Angus figured he’d probably just resort to waving his hands frantically rather than explain the theories of magic properly.

Magnus raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sir, uh. Taako’s gone,” Angus said after a second. He spread his hands apart. “Poof.”

There was a moment of silence, then Magnus shrugged. “He’ll come back,” he said, nonchalant.

“He always does,” Merle added without looking up from his book, “whether we want him to or not.”

Magnus chucked a wood chip at him. 

Chapter Text

When Angus woke up the next morning, Taako was sitting next to him, looking for all the worlds like he’d never left. He was leaning up against a tree, looking more relaxed than Angus had ever seen him. His long hair had fallen out of his usual plait and over his shoulders in a deep purple-red waterfall, and he had taken off most of his jewelry; he only had on a single necklace, which was tucked under the collar of his shirt, and although he was still wearing numerous earrings, they were simple studs rather than his usual extravagant dangling jewels. Only one of his regular earrings remained; a blue-black feather, hanging on a simple silver chain from his left ear. It had always seemed incongruous to Angus, next to the glittering gems he usually wore. Now, by the simple studs, it looked more like a part of Taako than anything else; Angus realized that, unlike every other earring, he’d never seen the wizard without it.

He filed that away for further consideration, next to the bracelet on his left wrist and the simple jade pendant around his neck, under “emotional meaning to Taako, accessories with.”

Merle and Magnus were also awake, although only reluctantly. Angus could smell the strong coffee that Merle made every morning.

“Good morning, sirs!” Angus said, stretching. Taako raised an eyebrow at him, and he continued, “where did you go on your walk last night? You didn’t come back for a while.”

“I went to hell, caught a crow with my hands, and devoured it raw,” Taako said, completely deadpan. Magnus choked on his coffee.

-Taako !” He said, thumping on his chest and coughing.

“What?” Taako pointed a lazy grin Magnus’ way. “It’s how I unwind, Magnus, you knew this. Hunting crows in hell.”

Angus blinked. Taako was obviously messing with them, but at the same time, he didn’t show any of the signs people usually displayed when they were lying. If he had a tell, Angus couldn’t find it. He’d have to work on that.

“I hope you had fun with that, sir,” he said instead of contesting it. Magnus made a sound of defeat.

“Oh, yeah, it was a great time,” he said, standing up and rolling his shoulders. “Can we go ? I’m sick of the woods.”

“Aw, I love the woods,” Merle said, packing up what stuff they had that wasn’t already in bags.

“Yeah, that’s because you have a thing for plants,” Taako shot back. “ My fetish is actual furniture and a functional stove. You want some breakfast before we head out, pumpkin?”

Oh, he was talking to Angus. “Um, sure! Thank you, sir,” he said, hesitant. Taako rolled his eyes, tossing him a sweet roll from somewhere in his bag. It had to be a bag of holding, but Angus had no idea how he had gotten all these powerful magical items. Most people only ever saw bags of holding or stones of farspeech in expensive stores or magic demonstrations- they weren’t for everyday use.

“You don’t have to be so polite all the time, kid,” he said, ripping another roll in half unceremoniously and shoving one half in his mouth. When he spoke again, his voice was muffled. “‘Sh not like we cn’ leave you behind.”

“Yeah, you’re stuck with us,” Magnus said cheerfully, picking Angus up one-handed and depositing him on his shoulders. Angus yelped in surprise, but stayed up there after he let go, leaning his chin on the top of Magnus’ head. “How far are we from Neverwinter?”

Taako and Merle both shrugged, so Angus pulled out a map from his pocket. He’d been marking where he stayed each night on it, to record his progress. “Um, it looks like about a day and a half’s walk from here? Which is good. Do, um, do you guys have a place to stay there?”

“I’m a cleric,” Merle said dryly, “so if ya don’t mind the temple of the Peacekeeper, sure.”

“Oh, no, sir, I have a place to stay. The captain of one of the police departments owes me a favor. But I don’t think he’d also take three strange men into his small home, where he lives.”

“Not stickin’ with us, Ango?” Taako said, smiling at him in an unfamiliar way. “We are still looking for the same thing.”

“Oh, no, sir, I already have a place where I can stay. I lived in Neverwinter for a year once before.”

“Huh,” Taako said. “Well, that’s a moot point anyway, because there is no way I’m going to one of your gross plant temples, Merle, when my brother-in-law has a house there with actual fuckin’ plumbing.” He pulled a key on a loop of string out of his pocket and spun it around his finger cheerfully.

“Hey! My temples are not gross ,” said Merle.

“He gave you the keys?” Magnus said over him. Taako glanced at Magnus and rolled his eyes.

“Of course not, he left them on the table and I duplicated them in case I was ever stuck in Neverwinter on one of my dumb adventures with you chucklefucks.”

“So, technically, that means you’ll be breaking and entering,” Angus said slowly, “because you don’t want to sleep in a temple.”

“Got it in one, kiddo. Besides, it’s not really breaking and entering, since the house is at least partially Lup’s and she doesn’t care if I use her stuff.”

Magnus opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it and shut it again.

Merle said, “doesn’t she, though?”

“Nah. Hell, this skirt is hers, and she didn’t care that I took it with me,” Taako said, “although it might have been mine first , actually, now that I think about it.”

Merle stared at him. He groaned dramatically, throwing his hands in the air and saying, “okay, fine , I did actually ask Barry before we left, in case we had to go through Neverwinter, and he doesn’t care because he’s Barry Bluejeans and he’s offensively nice all the time .”

Magnus laughed. “Why are you mad that he’s nice?”

“He’s damaging my brand , Burnsides! I can’t be both mean and aloof and have a fuckin’ teddy bear in denim as a brother! I already have you filling that role!”

“I don’t wear denim,” Magnus said. Angus could feel his shoulders shaking with laughter.

“Fuck off.”

“So we’re just ignoring that he called my temples gross, okay, I see how it is,” Merle muttered, glaring up at them.

“I stand by it.”

Merle scoffed, affronted. “Rude!”

“There does tend to be a lot of dirt in them, Merle,” Magnus added, sounding amused. “You gonna extend an offer to me ‘n’ Merle to stay at Barry’s house or are we stayin’ in the dirt church?”

From there, their conversation broke into an amicable argument about whether or not dirt enhanced the churchgoing experience, which took about two hours to have, and the end result of which Angus could not have explained if asked. Also, somehow, he had been talked into continuing to work with them once they got to Neverwinter..

“I’m just sayin’,” Taako had said, tossing some unidentifiable bit of food into the air for the birds that had been following them to fight over, “we’re looking for the same thing. We’re obviously not gonna kill you or anything, ‘cause, like, we’ve been in the woods with you for a month and you’re not dead yet. You know parts of Neverwinter we don’t, and we know, like, actual useful skills, like how to kill things and be rad,” he had been ticking things off on his fingers at that point, “ -and if you stick with us you can do all the nerd shit that I don’t want to deal with.”

“Uh…”

“You know, like actually putting in the effort to find it instead of just following the magical pulses. Detective shit. You’re good at that, right?”

He was good at that. But they had a point. Angus had never tried to solve a mystery alone before, but no one he knew had wanted to search for this artifact with him. He was certain he could find it on his own, but getting to it when it was so powerful, and he was so small, would present a unique challenge without some form of protection.

Protection these three could provide, no matter how oddly they went about it. Besides, he liked them, and they seemed to like him well enough, even if they did like to play keep-away with his stuff. The world looked a little bigger when he was perched on Magnus’ shoulders.

 

He must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes it was dusk and he was seated, his head pressed against Magnus’ arm. Drowsily, he glanced around, realizing slowly that they weren’t walking anymore. Instead, Angus, Magnus, and Merle were sitting in the back of a cart, facing away from the driver. Taako was nowhere to be found, Merle was trimming a potted plant he’d found somewhere, and Magnus had the arm not being used as a pillow slung over the edge of the cart and was chatting with the driver. Something about axles.

The driver was a man Angus didn’t know but could swear he’d seen before. He was nondescript; middle-aged and middle-height and middle-weight, with just one of those faces . Friendly, forgettable. The kind that felt like you’d been companions a long time ago, but Angus didn’t have a long time ago, because he was only ten. He immediately decided that he would make a perfect getaway driver, but he also realized that was probably not what was happening right then.

“Where are we?” Angus asked, his voice still rough with sleep. Magnus jumped a little and turned away from the driver to look at him.

“Oh, we’re still on the road, but we should be in Neverwinter in like an hour,” Magnus said cheerfully. “Mell here was nice enough to give us a ride.”

The driver - Mell - waved. Angus nodded blearily, then sat up straight and looked around again. The cart was still just a cart, empty except for a couple piles of fabric neatly tied with rope, Magnus, and Merle.

“...Sir? Where’s Taako?”

“Huh? Oh, he’ll be here,” Magnus said, waving his hand vaguely.

“But carts move faster than people, sir.”

Magnus shrugged. “Taako’s evening walks wait for no one,” he said, looking resigned. “See? He left his stuff with us. He’ll be back soon.”

He pointed. Sure enough, sandwiched in between two bundles of fabric were Taako’s bag and umbrella, carefully placed so they wouldn’t be damaged with the bumping of the cart. Angus blinked at them. They remained where they were, and offered no answers.

“Oh, he did give me some dinner for you, though,” Magnus said cheerfully, handing Angus a rather shaken looking bowl of chicken marsala that somehow still managed to look extravagant. Angus took it without comment.

It was still warm, which was odd. Angus figured Taako must have magicked it so it wouldn’t get cold, and felt warmth bloom in his chest to match even before he ate it. He smiled; it was nice to think that Taako cared enough to make sure it was still warm, even if it was just because he was insufferably proud of his cooking skills and needed to make sure each meal was gourmet.

A few minutes later, something odd in the sky above them caught his attention, and he glanced up to find two birds dancing around each other about twelve feet above them; at first he thought they were fighting, which was odd, because usually doves and crows didn’t even interact . He was about to point it out as some sort of bad omen when he realized they weren’t fighting at all, or even touching; they just flew in dizzying circles. This continued for a long moment, then the crow bonked its head into the dove affectionately and peeled off into the woods near them. The dove, for its part, flew down directly toward their cart.

As it landed, its feathers melted away in a flood of iridescent purple and it grew up and up and up , until it was a person, standing perfectly comfortably on the corner of the cart. Angus gaped as he caught the hat that materialized in the air after he formed, spun it around,and put it on his head with a flourish.

“‘Sup,” Taako said.

“Did-did you just cast true polymorph ? To go on a walk ?” Angus said, too stunned to be polite.

“Sure did,” Taako said, grinning at him and sitting down on one of the bundles of fabric. “Did you eat?”

“I-yes, but-”

“Don’t worry about it, Agnes,” he said, his grin getting bigger by degrees. “I’m a man of great mystery and panache, didn’t you notice? Gotta cultivate that.”

Angus didn’t respond. Before Taako could add anything else, Magnus cut in with, “ignore him, Ango, he’s just showing off. He does that.”

“Oh, sure, and you don’t, Mr. Builds-a-Rocking-Chair-Out-Of-A-Log -”

“That’s different!”

“Both of you are showoffs,” Merle said grumpily, picking a leaf off his arm. “I think that’s why I keep gettin’ sent with you, to keep ya humble.”

Both Taako and Magnus laughed at that, and through his wheezing Angus heard Taako mutter something about angels and golden vines and something else he couldn’t catch.

“Sir?” Angus interjected after a moment, poking Taako with his foot.

“Yeah, what’s up.”

“Were you talking to that crow? Can you talk to crows when you’re transformed?”

Taako stared at him for a second, then he laughed. “No, sweetie, I can’t talk to crows. I’ve been feeding that one for a week and the second I transformed he was on my ass to race him.”

“He knew it was you?”

“He saw me shapeshift and figured it out. Crows are smart little shits. Hey, just like you!’ He said, ruffling Angus’ hair.

“Can’t be that smart to want to hang out with you after your joke about eating them this morning,” Angus returned. Taako blinked at him, then chuckled.

“You’d be amazed how self-destructive they can be,” he said, sorting through his bag idly, “they’re just like people. Besides, how much harm could I do as a dove?”

“I’ve seen doves do some nasty shit,” Mell said from the front of the cart.

“Don’t tell the kid that, Mell, goddamn! I’m tryin’ to lull him into a false sense of security!”

Everyone else laughed, so Angus did, too, looking warily at Taako. It had sounded like he was joking...but it was hard to tell with these people. He wished he had a journal with him that wasn’t full where he could write down his observations on them; he had set out expecting to only be gone a week or so, so he hadn’t bought a new one for the trip, and he’d finished his current one really fast travelling with his new clique of lunatics.

He sighed and propped his arms up on the edge of the cart, looking out ahead of them and away from his companions. He could just barely see the lights of Neverwinter in the distance, sparkling like earthbound stars even from what had to be a few miles away still. It was always stunning, as a view, but especially at night like this-- all that could be seen was magic light in a thousand hues, far enough away it blended together and glittered, a magical opal full of people, with fire in every color.

 

He waved goodbye to them at the city gates, promising to find them once he’d gotten a place to stay and look through his evidence. Magnus offered to walk him wherever he was going, but he waved him off with a cheerful, “don’t worry about it, sir! I know what I’m doing!” and a smile. Taako scribbled the address of the house they’d be staying on the back of a page from his notebook (a bathroom reader? Or something?) and ruffled his hair, and Merle just scoffed and said, “good riddance, kid, try not to die.”

So, all in all, a tender farewell. He grinned as he wandered down the cobblestone streets of Neverwinter, still busy even fairly late into the evening. He’d had the city map memorized for years, and stuck to the main roads despite his desire to take the fastest way. Magnus had been right, it was dark out, and Angus was very small, so it was better he stayed where it was well-lit and well-policed.

Speaking of which, he might as well get started. He walked up to one of the officers guarding a night market and tugged on his sleeve. “Hello, sir,” he said, “I don’t suppose you’d be able to point me to the nearest hyperpowerful magical artifact?”

The officer jumped and spun to look down at him. That wasn’t a good sign about his projected tenure on the force, if he couldn’t notice a child walk up to him without trying to muffle his steps or anything . That didn’t matter, though. The guy stared at him.

“Who are you? Where are your parents?” He asked, taking in Angus’ neat clothes and well-kept bag.

“I haven’t got any,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’m Angus McDonald, I’m a detective, we haven’t met but I’m sure you’ve heard of me. Anyway, magical artifacts?”

When all he got in response was a blank stare, he sighed and patted his arm. “Sorry to bother you, sir, have a good night,” he said, then continued on his way. He ducked down a back alley - sorry, Magnus - and sped up, reaching a trot as he neared the captain's house. He didn’t want to bother him too late, but he also didn’t really want to have to find a hotel.

Something had been off about that officer, though. Even for a simple guard, he’d seemed...blank. Hollow almost, like he was missing some core part of personhood. And the fact that he hadn’t recognized Angus’ name was weird, too. He didn’t like to brag, but he knew for a fact he was well-known among police departments across the nation.

He’d write it down when he got a new notebook. For the moment, though, he had arrived at his destination: a cozy, relatively small house owned by the captain of the largest precinct in Neverwinter. All the visible lights were already off, which was both a disappointment - he didn’t want to wake anyone - and, honestly, confusing. The Jeremiah Laurent he knew didn’t go to bed until hours past sundown, and his husband always left a light on for him. But here was their house, dark and quiet only a short time after the sun’s light stopped hitting it.

Angus made a note of it and knocked at the door. The sound rang, hollow and loud, but there was no response from inside. He cocked his head, puzzled, and tried again. When he still didn’t get a response, he called out, “Captain Laurent? Miles? Are either of you there? It’s-um, it’s Angus. McDonald. That is. Not that you know another Angus?”

After a long, concerning moment, a light came on and the door swung open. A tired-looking tiefling man stood in the doorway, looking down at Angus blankly.

“Miles! Hello, sir, sorry to wake you up,” Angus started.

“Why are you in Neverwinter,” Miles said over him without preamble, his tail scratching at the floor agitatedly. Angus blinked at him. Miles was usually friendly and welcoming.

“Um...I was looking for something, sir,” he said. “I had hoped Jeremiah was here? I wanted to talk to him about-”

“Jeremiah isn’t here,” Miles said, voice flat. “You shouldn’t be either. Goodnight.”

“What? Miles-”

The door shut. Angus stood there for a moment, shellshocked, then pulled out the paper Taako had given him.

He’d buy a notebook tomorrow, and write all this down. For now, though, he needed to find somewhere safe to stay.

Chapter Text

Merle stared at him from the doorway of Barry Bluejeans’ house. He looked resigned, which Angus narrowed down to being either because of his presence or because he wasn’t sleeping in a ”dirt temple.” One of the two.

“Yeah, alright, come in, ya little shit,” he said, rolling his eyes and stepping aside. “You’ll probably get a kick outta the library in this place anyway.”

“There’s a library?” Angus said, looking around at the entryway. The whole house was surprisingly impressive; it was spacious and well-built, not a noble’s house but not a commoner’s either, with what looked like a garden in the back, although Angus couldn’t be sure; it was surrounded by a tall stone fence. He was surprised he’d never noticed it before, honestly-it was in a part of town he’d frequented, and it was lovely, but he hadn’t recognized it at all .

The interior was mostly in shades of red and cream, and there were strange knickknacks scattered around that Angus wanted to stare at, but he was too tired to, really. He did notice that none of the furniture seemed to fit a theme; it was from every culture and time period, placed haphazardly around wherever it was convenient. It lent a lived-in feeling to what was otherwise an aristocratic place, and felt somehow familiar.

Despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t turn off his brain, and as he stepped into a large living room he took notes in his mind of things that would have been important if he’d been casing the place; that burn on the carpet there said that someone had been careless; the metal art pieces on the walls said whoever lived here appreciated abstraction; the countless symbols and statues and icons said they worshipped the Fire-Twin heartily . There was even a painting of her, hung on the wall above the hearth. Angus looked at it and could almost appreciate how someone could become so passionate about a goddess; in the painting she stood wreathed in flames, arms outstretched and head thrown back, her lips curled in a laugh and her bronze skin glittering in the firelight. As Angus inspected the painting, he realized she looked almost like Taako , and he remembered-this place belonged to his brother-in-law. Perhaps his sister had posed for the painting?

Here and there there were also little tributes to the Lover, bells and sketches and the tiny paper robed figures Angus had learned how to make in preschool, placed very intentionally on top of the dedications to the Fire-Twin. It looked like something a family would do, a contest of sorts, my god is better than your god, in good spirits but serious.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Taako come into the room. “I didn’t realize your family was so religious,” Angus said, yawning.

Taako snorted derisively. “We’re not. Barry just has many emotions about the Fire-Twin,” he said.

“You have her gauntlet tattooed on your arm,” Merle responded from where he’d collapsed onto a couch.

“Fuck off, Merle,” Taako said idly, his attention still on Angus. “You gonna be stayin’ with us after all, little dude?”

“Yes, sir. If you don’t mind,” Angus said, twisting his hands. “I think something’s wrong with my friends, and, well, I didn’t seem welcome, so…”

“No worries,” Taako said, ruffling his hair. “You can have Luc-the spare room. Magnus took Lup and Barry’s, and I took, well, mine , and Merle has some vendetta against beds-”

“I like the outdoors, is that a crime !?”

“-so there’s still a room left.”

Angus swallowed. The immediate acceptance into, and subsequent bullying by, their group had seemed strange to him at first, and it still was, but Taako’s immediate, casual welcome was a reminder of how kind they were willing to be.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, shoving down the pang in his chest. He started to move, then said, “I don’t-I don’t know where…”

“Oh, right. C’mon, I’ll show you. Magnus can give you the tour tour in the morning.” And then he was walking out of the room, unbothered, taking for granted that of course Angus would follow him, of course it was fine, of course he belonged here with them when they’d only known him a month.

And of course he did follow, jogging a little to catch up, since Taako was so very tall and Angus was really definitely not, and Taako led him upstairs to a comfortable room decorated all in blue, and he didn’t remember getting in bed but the next day he woke up to the warm light of morning, curled in blankets softer and warmer than he’d felt since he lived with his grandfather.

He rubbed his eyes blearily, momentarily confused about where he was. He’d been too tired to pay attention to the room the previous night, but now that he was awake he was impressed. It was simple, but everything was masterfully made; gracefully carved white oak made up most of the furniture, which matched, unlike the rest of the house; other than the bed there was an armoire and a lovely desk and a bookshelf, which held a series of texts in a language Angus didn’t recognize, bound in leather and embossed with metals in a range of colors. Each book had a symbol on the spine, six of which Angus recognized as symbols of devotion to the Six and the Lord of Crows from a long, long time ago, but they were the only ones out of maybe thirty volumes on the shelf he recognized. He looked at the books for a long moment, then shook his head and glanced around the room. Hanging on one wall was an oil painting of a city street, busting under a...purple sky? Odd stylistic choice, when everything else seemed to be realism.

He stood up, pushing aside any thoughts of purple skies, and padded out of the room. Upstairs, there was less extravagant dedication to the Fire-Twin, although there were nods here and there to her or the Lover or the Stone-Twin, which Angus assumed was Taako’s doing. He was pretty sure Taako worshipped the Stone-Twin? He specialized in Transmutation magic, which was the Stone-Twin’s area, but he also a stylized tattoo of a gauntlet traced where it would rest on his arm in brilliant metallic reds and yellows, which was almost certainly a dedication to the Fire-Twin, but also he always wore a crow-feather earring, which could be seen as a tip of the hat to the Lord of Crows, so Angus really had no idea one way or another. He’d heard Taako hum a song Angus vaguely recognized as a hymn to the Director, once, but when Angus had commented on it he’d immediately stopped singing, stood up, and looked disgusted at himself in silence for a good two minutes, so he figured it probably wasn’t her.

Maybe he didn’t have a favorite god. Angus was the sort of pragmatic that prayed to an appropriate deity per situation, more than having any one favorite; maybe Taako was the same way, to more of an extreme? He knew Merle was a follower of the Peacekeeper, and Magnus an ardent worshipper of the Insurgent; apparently her particular brand of justice-focused rebellion really struck a chord with him, because he got excited any time she was mentioned and started rattling off facts about her time as a mortal.

He retraced his steps from last night to the stairs, hesitant to touch anything but at the same time curious. Same as downstairs, nothing up here seemed to match; it all looked like it had been collected over years and years, odds and ends piled up in the course of a long, long life. Whoever lived here had travelled, clearly, and studied, and purchased or stole or otherwise accumulated many things. Angus picked a tiny glass animal up off a display table, a ferret or something similar, and tilted it so it caught the light. He didn’t recognize the style of glasswork; it was certainly nothing found in Neverwinter.

He set it down gingerly and continued down the hall, bare feet almost silent on the woven rug. Downstairs, the smell of frying food and the sound of chatter drifted towards him, and he followed it from the base of the staircase through the living room he’d seen the previous night, through a cozy dining room, and into a massive, well-kept kitchen. Magnus and Taako were both there; Taako was standing at the stove, cooking what looked like pancakes, and Magnus was leaned against a counter, cracking wise.

Angus took a deep breath and stepped into the room. “Good morning, sirs!” he said, smiling nervously. Taako waved a hand at him, not turning away from the stove, but Magnus grinned.

“Hey, Ango!” he said, “I heard you’re staying with us now!”

“Oh, um, yes, sir! I am. My contact...wasn’t home.” He sighed, rubbing his arm and looking away. Magnus blinked, concerned.

“Is everything okay?”

“I honestly don’t know,” he said, thinking about the blank look on Miles’ face the previous night. “There’s something weird going on. I don’t know if it’s related to the relic, but I have to look into it.”

“Oh, yeah, ‘course,” Magnus said easily. “None of us are gonna begrudge you helping out your friends.”

“We’re not in a rush anyway,” Taako added, calmly flipping a pancake.

“Yes we are,” Magnus said, rolling his eyes. “The relic is gonna wreck shit if we don’t find it and get it where it needs to go.”

Taako shrugged. “It’s not the only thing that can and will wreck shit,” he said, “that’s what people do. Wreck shit. Angus might as well deal with his own issues before he tries to fix the rest of the world. How many pancakes do you want?”

“Five. Taako, if we can keep more-” he paused and glanced at Angus, then continued, “-more people from killing each other with this relic we should.”

Taako waved his hand dismissively, loading pancakes onto a plate. “Whatever,” he said, “they’ll figure out new and creative ways to murder one another with or without the relic’s help. Kid might as well deal with the people that matter to him before he starts worryin’ about the ones he’s never even met. How many do you want, pumpkin?”

“Um, just one is fine, sir. And I definitely don’t intend to let the relic sit around making people do terrible things! I can multitask,” Angus said, taking the plate Taako passed his way. “Besides, we haven’t been here long enough to figure out if these things are related. I don’t discount connections until they’re disproven!”

Magnus shot him a grin through bites of flapjack. “Hell yeah,” he said, “ love that detective shit, Ango, ‘s great.”

Taako made a disgusted noise. “I can’t believe I ever cook for you, Magnus,” he said, “you’re revolting.”

Magnus stuck out his crumb-coated tongue at him, causing Taako to groan and Angus to burst into laughter. Between his giggles, Angus found himself thinking that maybe staying with them would be… nice. Maybe it could be fun , even.

 

After breakfast, as promised, Magnus took Angus on a tour of the house. He wasn’t the best tour guide in the world, but it was entertaining to follow him from room to room and hear his commentary on the decor; “this is the living room, where Barry has shown how obsessive he can get,” or “technically there’s this big fancy dining room but I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten in here ever,” or, outside a locked door upstairs, “this is Taako’s room, I’ve never been in there but I’m sure it’s a disaster zone,” and, finally, “this is the libraa-oh, there you go.”

Angus ducked under his arm, darting past him into the largest room in the building, which was absolutely full of books. It spanned both floors, with shelves reaching up all the way to the ceiling. There were books in more languages than he recognized, of all shapes and sizes, bound in a hundred different materials; there were weathered paperbacks and perfectly maintained leather-bound tomes, spellbooks and journals and novels, encyclopedias and textbooks. Scattered here and there were soft, worn chairs and well-loved desks; it was clear there had been many hundreds of hours spent at and in them, here or wherever they were housed before it. The shelves, like the decor of the rest of the house, was a mishmash of styles from a dozen eras, some stacked on top of each other precariously, surrounded by haphazard piles of books that had been taken down and never reshelved.

Angus must have been gaping, because Magnus laughed behind him and said, “okay, I see. I'll leave you two alone to get to know each other, squirt.”

Angus nodded mutely. Magnus ruffled his hair affectionately and left, and Angus was on his own. In a massive library. With no rules. Nobody was telling him what he could or couldn't touch, nobody would yell at him for reading above or below the level they'd set for him…

Taako found him two hours later, curled in a squashy red armchair, buried in an account of a medical anomaly from four hundred years ago, six more books stacked next to him in a To-Read pile and one - a short mystery novel starring a plucky young heiress who discovers a terrible secret about her family, written nearly seventy years ago - on his other side. He'd already finished it.

Taako coughed deliberately, shaking him out of his reverie. The wizard stood in front of him, one hand on his hip, a faint, unreadable smile on his face. “Gods,” he said, “Barry would fuckin’ love you. Little nerdlet growing up into a big nerd.”

Angus smiled at him, as big as he could, bouncing a little in the chair. “Hello, sir! This library is amazing,” he said.

“Yeah, the guy that owns this house is as big a dork as you are. He never gets rid of old books, even dumb ones.” He picked up a pamphlet from a table, flipping through it idly. “A how-to guide for putting together a thing that isn't even made anymore. Why does he still have this.”

“I think it's neat, sir!”

He put the pamphlet back down again, eyeing Angus. “...of course you do,” he said, amused. “Listen, I don't wanna ruin your fun, nerdlet-” oh gods that nickname was gonna stick, wasn't it, “-but last I checked, we still had some mysteries to solve.”

Angus blinked at him a few times, and reality clicked back into alignment. Right. The relic . His friends. He had things to do. The library would still be there when he had done them.

He put aside the medical text and stood up, nodding seriously at Taako. “Right,” he said, “I got distracted. That was my bad, sir. I still need to get a new journal, and stop by the precinct, and run by the places we pinpointed when we were on our way here. It's only, like, ten,” he said, checking his pocket watch, “so there's still plenty of time to get things done.”

Taako regarded him with something between amusement and respect. “You want someone to go with you, little man? City like this, it’s pretty dangerous for a ten-year-old all alone, stickin’ his nose where it shouldn’t be,” he said.

Angus smiled at him. “I have a crossbow! But I’d appreciate the company, sir,” he said, delighted Taako would even consider coming with him.

Taako rolled his eyes. “Let’s just get it over with,” he said, steering them out of the library. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this for you. There’s just a new restaurant that opened here and I’ve been meaning to check it out.”

“Oh, of course, sir! I would never think for an instant that you cared about my well-being,” Angus said, grinning. Of course, he knew the truth, and he knew Taako knew that, but he did try so very hard to maintain his cold and impolite persona, and it was the least Angus could do to play along.

The first thing Angus noticed when they left the house was that Neverwinter was strangely quiet. Usually it was a bustling cultural center, never silent even for a moment; it was still active, certainly, but there was a strange feeling in the air, like anticipation, like the whole city was holding its breath, standing just at the edge of a cliff in a windstorm. Angus had never seen anything like it. Taako must have noticed, too, because he twisted his hands anxiously around the handle of his umbrella, clenching and unclenching his fingers without thinking. His eyes darted from person to person, and although his face maintained a practiced sort of indifference, there was something about the look in those eyes that set Angus on edge.

“So where are we going?” Taako said, in an unconvincingly casual tone of voice. “You said you wanted a diary?”

“Evidence journal, but yes, sir. There’s a bookshop I like down by the old bridge!”

“Same diff, kiddo,” he said, idly braiding his hair over one shoulder. He’d hooked his staff into his belt, and looked for all the worlds like he wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

Angus wasn’t so convincing. He flicked his hand mirror open and shut nervously, glancing around, taking in every detail of his surroundings as a anxiety-reducing habit as much as it was for any actual purpose. The street was fairly clean, and not empty; there were people walking by, small booths peddling wares, frayed flyers on the walls with job listings and shop names on them. One was a repeating pattern with no large words, so he centered his focus on that one. It was a stylized image of a sun, or a star, or maybe just a ball of light, it was hard to tell, magicked to glow faintly in the shade cast by the wall. He counted six of those posters on the way to the shop, which was only around half a mile.

The store was quiet, but unlike the rest of the city, it was always quiet; the kind of instinctive hush that always falls over rooms filled with paper, the quiet that wrapped around you like a blanket, the kind of quiet that felt safe . Angus breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped inside, enveloped by the smell of paper, calmed by the familiar ringing of the bell as he pushed open the door.

The Red Dove Bookshop was exactly as he’d left it; its dark wood shelves, holding rows upon rows of paper and inks of all kinds, lay undisturbed by whatever had the city unsettled. The display in its shaded window was different; a new novel by famed Neverwinter author Vivian Whisper is here! the little easel behind the books read, all of it artfully arranged to entice; but otherwise, it was the same. The air was still, the light a soft honey-color; the floor was covered in mismatched carpets in shades of green and blue; behind a massive mahogany desk sat the owner, still curled in her leather chair exactly where Angus had seen her last, her wild cloud of orange hair floating in all directions, visible around the edges of the book she was holding inches from her face, obscuring her features.

At the sound of the bell, she lowered the book and glanced at them, then grinned.

“Angus! Hello, dear,” she said, adjusting her disproportionately large wire-framed glasses. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been in here! Who’s your friend?”

Angus smiled back at her, already starting to drift toward the stationary section. “Hello, Libby,” he said, happy to hear her voice. “This is Taako. Sir, this is Libby, the owner of this shop!”

Taako looked Libby up and down, pursing his lips. He took in the frayed bandanna tied around her head, her huge glasses, her patchwork tunic; “hello,” he said, clearly unimpressed. She grinned at him. Her smile was warm and infectious; she was the sort of person who was more freckle than skin, and who always sounded like she was singing; she had helped Angus quite a lot on a case the previous year, with both research and some truly wonderful tea. Her friendly aura seemed to affect even Taako, because he smiled back at her reluctantly and glanced away, at the shelves of old books on the far wall. He wandered in that direction, much to Angus’ delight. He’d hoped Taako would like this store.

Libby hopped over the desk as Angus started looking through the notebooks, walking up to him with her hands in her cavernous pockets.

“So,” she said, in that accent he’d never been able to place, “back in Neverwinter, huh?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Angus replied, thumbing through a soft cloth-bound journal.

“What for? Last I saw you, you were eager to get gone, kid,” she said, not unfriendly, just curious, “after your grandpa… well, after. Weren’t you headed to Goldcliffe?”

Angus sighed. “I got involved in a mystery that took me back here, ma’am,” he said. “I’m not going back to the estate anytime soon, though.”

“Makes sense,” she said, patting his shoulder. “Here, how ‘bout this one?”

She handed him a thin leather journal, edged with tiny runes. He started to protest its size, but she gestured at him to wait and opened it, flipping through pages, and pages, and pages , and it dawned on Angus that it was charmed to take up less space than it should. In the front cover there was a pen, nestled carefully in soft blue satin, itself glowing with similar runes.

Oh, he really wanted it. “I- I don’t think I can afford this, Libby,” he said, without letting go of it. He clutched it to his chest subconsciously, and the shopkeeper laughed at him.

“It’s on me, kid,” she said gently. “If your mystery can get the damn city up and running again I’ll give you anything you want from the whole shop .”

“You’ve noticed it too! What’s wrong with everybody,” Angus asked, pivoting in his mind. Then he remembered his manners. “-Thank you, also,” he said, sheepishly, “so much. For the journal.”

Libby chuckled, adjusting her glasses. “I have no idea,” she said, “I don’t leave the shop enough to really get what’s happenin’ on the outside. But something’s up, you mark me. Everybody actin’ all hush-hush at the market, folks aren’t buying anything except the same three books-”

“Which books?”

“Okay, detective, slow down,” she said, grinning at him, “I can show ya, but it’s all pretty dense. I have no idea why these people want ‘em, and I’m almost out at this point. It’s weird, ‘cause I’d never sold more than one or two copies of these in all the years I’ve had ‘em.”

She led him through the maze of shelves back to her desk, and reached under it, pulling out three heavy books. Angus stood on his tiptoes to get a look at the covers: a textbook on rune magic, an account of the world before the New Gods, and a theoretical text on the nature of the Light of Creation. A fairly incongruous set of books, certainly, but there must be some connection if people were-

Wait.

“Hang on,” Angus said, ducking out of the shop momentarily. Libby watched him go, her head propped on one hand. Taako was still engrossed in the old books on magic, so much so that Angus wasn’t sure he’d even noticed their conversation.

When Angus came back in, he was brandishing one of the fliers he’d noticed earlier. He laid it down on the desk and flipped open the book on the Light of Creation, flipping through it until, yes, there, he was right.

Within the book was the same symbol on the fliers, pressed into the page in shimmering golden ink.

“I think I’m gonna buy these, ma’am,” he said, much more calmly than he felt.

Chapter Text

“So run me through this one more time,” Taako said, thumbing through the book on the Light. “You think whatever’s makin’ the city all weird is related to this wildly inaccurate horseshit about the light of creation?”

“Theoretical text, yeah,” Angus said, fiddling with a fork. They had headed to a little diner off one of the main streets after leaving the bookshop; Taako was quite enthusiastic about their food. Apparently his sister had eaten there once? Angus hadn't quite been able to follow the course of Taako's rambling on the way over, he'd been too preoccupied thinking about the fliers. “I think whatever organization is stirring up trouble is doing it based on what it says in this book, sir,” He continued, tapping the pages with the end of his fork.

Taako hummed, still skimming through the book. “Thing is, though, this book is full of shit,” he said. Angus looked at him blankly, waiting for him to elaborate, and he sighed.

“Listen,” he said, “the light of creation isn't a god. It's not sentient and it doesn't have a plan . Everything in this book hinges on that and it doesn't work that way.

“How do you know?”

“Call it intuition,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Besides, why would a perfect, all-knowing being of infinite power entrust the universe to a group of people as incompetent as our gods? Nobody planned that.” He shut the book, shoving it back at Angus with both hands. “If somebody is preachin’ this shit we should stop it,” he said, turning his attention to the menu. “Rubs me the wrong way.”

Angus blinked at him, startled by the outburst. He'd never seen Taako really care about anything that affected other people before, especially not debates on the nature of the cosmos, but the elf definitely seemed unsettled. He was rubbing his thumb anxiously across the stone charm on his bracelet, the one he never took off, like somehow it would protect him from whatever was wrong. Angus was increasingly curious about his religious leanings.

“I don't like it either, sir,” Angus said, “which is why I have to understand it. Nothing stays scary for long if you shine enough light on it! Er, pun not intended.”

Taako laughed and flagged down a waiter. Well, that was the end of that conversation, for now.

Over lunch, Angus paged through the other two books. He was unable to make heads or tails of the rune magic, which was unlike nearly anything he'd seen, but the history text seemed promising. When he offered the rune one to Taako, the wizard’s eyes went wide, and he snatched it, inspecting it intently.

So lunch was a quiet affair. It was a nice day, and the food was good, and Angus learned quite a lot of interesting facts about the time before the rise of the New Gods, but he didn't manage to get any connections . It was infuriating, but the only link between the books he could see seemed to be that the Six had more of the Light of Creation’s power in them than any of the New Gods.

When all that was left of his quiche was crumbs, Angus dropped his head onto the table, groaning.

Taako looked at him. “Somethin’ wrong?” he asked.

“Did you know that early elves thought that if you burned down a building, everything inside went to the Fire-Twin as an offering,” Angus asked the table.

“I did know that, actually. Led to a lotta arson way back when,” Taako said, voice laced with amusement.

Angus turned his head so his chin was on the wood, looking skeptically at Taako. “You're not that old, sir,” he said.

“‘Course not, sweet pea,” Taako said smoothly, that same unreadable smile from earlier on his face. “Get your head off the table, that's unsanitary.”

Angus reluctantly complied, rubbing his eye before shoving his glasses up his nose with more force than was strictly necessary. “I don't get it,” he said irritably.

“What's got you in such a fuss?”

“This is just a textbook! I figured one of these would be some sort of-manifesto, or spell, or something, but this is just a history textbook! It's just what we all learn at daycare with a layer of academic discussion on top!”

“Go on,” Taako said, one eyebrow raised.

Angus smacked the page he was on with one hand. “It's the same story we've all heard; in the beginning there were the Six and the Oracle and the Lord of Crows, and they ruled alone until the ascension of the Insurgent, and so on. It's just accounts of daily life and sacraments and stuff from before the Insurgent!”

“...So it is,” Taako said, tugging the book over to look at it. “What are you gonna do about it?”

Angus blinked. “What?”

Taako shrugged. “Listen, bubbleh, my usual strategy for finding stuff is throwing spells around till it turns up in the rubble. Your speciality is connectin’ and deducin’ and shit, so work it out.”

Angus stared at him for a short while, then smiled. “Thanks, sir,” he said, adjusting his glasses and taking the book back. “Was there anything interesting in the rune book?”

Taako hummed noncommittally. “Some,” he said, seeming to choose his words with uncharacteristic caution. “It’s mostly theoretical, concepts for interplanar summoning ‘n such. It’s all really advanced, and I have no idea why more than one person every blue fuckin’ moon would buy it, unless it was for a class or something.”

“Inter-whatal what?” Angus said, staring at him. Taako flapped his hand, dismissive.

“This sort of research is what wizards get up to when they’ve run out of shit to do that’s useful,” he said, “none of it should be interesting to a little boy.”

“But the mystery -“

Taako raised an eyebrow at him, and Angus got the distinct impression that the conversation was over. He sighed, making a mental note to bring it up again later if he could think of a good enough argument.

As it was, he had other things to do before going back to the house. He stood up, shoving the books in his bag, and said, “sir, do you want to come with me to the precinct or-”

I would prefer not to ,” Taako said, cutting him off. He always looked distinctly uncomfortable with law enforcement, and sitting around in a precinct with nothing to do while Angus talked to people did seem like something he’d hate. Angus nodded.

“I’ll see you later, then, sir!”

Taako nodded, standing up and stretching. He dropped some coins - more than he owed, Angus thought - on the table and gave Angus an after-you type gesture. Angus grinned at him as they left the restaurant, and he rolled his eyes and waved, and with a flicker of light and the sound of wingbeats he turned into a dove and vanished into the sky.

 

He managed to mostly shake the feeling of unease that had settled over him the moment he entered the city by the time he reached the precinct; not that he wasn’t uneasy, he just knew it wasn’t productive to worry about it. The city was still huge and loud and fascinating, and he had to be at the top of his game to keep it that way.

With that in mind he pushed the door open, the bell hooked to it jangling. The tabaxi behind the desk glanced up, then down to Angus’ level, and they smiled brightly.

“Angus! When did you get home, bud?” they said, darting out from behind the desk to muss up his hair. Angus smiled. He liked Asa; they’d always been very helpful, and treated Angus like a kid without being condescending. They also made really good tea.

“Hi, Asa,” he said, “just last night, on a case. But I feel like there might be more going on than just my search for a magic item.”

Asa sighed. “Yeah,” they said, “everything’s weird. Captain disappeared a few days ago; he was lookin’ into something real fishy, but he was being cagey about it. We’re all worried he finally pissed off the wrong folks and got himself snatched.”

“That’s probably why Miles was so upset,” Angus murmured.

“You talked to Miles? He hasn’t left his house since the captain vanished. Won’t talk to any of us.”

Angus nodded, starting to walk towards Jeremiah’s office. “Do you folks want my help? I am a very good detective, after all,” he said.

Asa seemed to waver, their eyes flicking from the door to Jeremiah’s office to Angus and back again nervously. After a moment, they sighed, rubbing the back of their head, and jogged over to the door. They unlocked it quickly and ushered Angus through.

“I can’t give you too long, ‘cause his stand-in doesn’t know any of us have a key and wouldn’t want you looking around-”

“Wait, why would you hide that?” Angus said, turning to stare at Asa as they shut the door quietly behind them. They made a tiny hissing noise.

“I don’t like him,” they said. “He’s off . And he doesn’t listen to any of us, and he says there’s nothing wrong when there clearly is- ” they paused and took a deep breath. “He’s from higher up, and he brought a bunch of new people with him, and they don’t care about what we have to say. Between you and me, Angus, I think he’s with that stupid cult-

Angus whirled to look at them; as they were talking he had been wandering the room, checking for any obvious reasons Jeremiah would have vanished, but when Asa said cult all of those considerations were shoved unceremoniously to the back burner.

Cult ?”

Asa blinked at him. “Yeah, you haven’t seen their flyers around? The Church of the Light? They’re your standard immortality-seekin’ nutjobs, they’re just annoying,” they said, shrugging. “Pretty harmless, it seems like, but they come in sometimes yellin’ about people squelching their religious freedom by telling them to stop shoving pamphlets at people on street corners.”

Angus paused. That would explain the book on the Light of Creation, but not the rune magic or the history, and none of it seemed to have anything to do with the relic.

He sighed, consigning himself to working two cases at once, and asked, “they don’t do, like, ritual summonings or anything, do they?”

“Not that I know of,” Asa said, leaning against the doorframe as Angus glanced over Jeremiah’s desk. “All that’s regulated by the city council, anyway. Usually nobody does summonings except the magic school.”

“Mm,” Angus said, flicking through some papers. Case reports, stolen items, personnel evaluations...nope, nope, nope, all useless.

He dropped down to the ground, giving a cursory tug at the drawers just in case they were unlocked, and when they weren’t he pulled a hairpin out of his pocket and dealt with it himself. Inside the lowermost drawer was what he’d been looking for; the captain’s journal, where he wrote notes on the cases he ran. It was entirely in code, of course, but Angus knew all his ciphers by heart. He’d cracked them for fun on his downtime between cases when he was just starting as a detective.

He flipped through it for a moment, then smiled and dropped it into his bag. That would be enough, for now. If it wasn’t, he’d come back. He shut the drawer and locked it again, grinning at Asa as he did, and followed them back out into the lobby. Asa looked like they wanted to maybe lecture him on lockpicking and stealing, but it seemed like they weren’t gonna. He smiled up at them cheekily, adjusting his glasses.

“Thanks, Asa. You’ve been a big help!” he said, giving them a quick one-armed hug. “I gotta go.”

Asa frowned, trying and failing to look disapproving. “Should you be taking that?”

“Yep! See you later!” he said, grinning. He shot them a thumbs-up and turned to leave. As he was heading to the doorway, however, he got into something of a collision.

It only took a fraction of a second, and he found himself on the floor, staring up at a tall, affronted-looking half-elf in a coat that designated him as a deputy chief. He scowled at Angus as he scrambled to his feet, apologizing.

“Who are you? Why is there a child in my precinct? Yes, you, tabaxi; did you let him in?”

“Uh,” Asa said.

“Sir, I’m, um. My name is-” Angus started, but the deputy chief waved him off.

“I don’t care. I have things to do. If someone stole this brat’s candy just deal with it and get him out,” he said, sweeping out of the room. Angus stared after him, and Asa groaned into their hands.

“I toooold you,” they drawled, “he sucks .”

Angus nodded, swallowing. There had been something dangerous in his eyes, something sharp and angry, that made him wrap his fingers around the wooden base of his tiny crossbow and wish he had something that could do more damage.

Which gave him an idea.



“You want me to teach you magic?”

Taako stared at him, face reading surprise and confusion, kitchen knife halfway raised above the vegetables he was cutting for that night’s dinner.

“Uh, y-yes, sir, I do,” Angus said, clutching the handle of his wand for emotional support.

“Why on Earth would you want to learn magic from me , kid?”

That wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “Um,” Angus said, blinking, “you’re the best wizard I’ve ever met, sir! I’ve seen you cast spells I didn’t think were theoretically possible ! And-and, I live with you now, I guess, which means I’d have time to learn in between mysteries, and, uh, well, I get into danger a lot, but I really am only just a very little boy, so I thought-”

He jumped and cut himself off when he felt Taako’s hands on his shoulders. “Angus. Breathe,” he said, looking him in the eye. Huh, he hadn’t been breathing, had he? He’d needed to explain. Involuntary muscular function came second. Taako sighed, giving him a little squeeze before letting go of his shoulders. He said, “listen. All of that is true, and I’ll do it if you really want. B-”

“Oh, thank you, sir! This is going to be so amazing, I’ve read all these books but I really want to understand how it feels and-” Angus bounced on the balls of his feet, flapping his hands, and probably forgot to breathe again. Whatever. Taako snapped his fingers in his face to get his attention.

-But we need to set some ground rules first, kiddo.”

“Oh, right.”

“First: I’m not a teacher, Ango,” Taako said, shifting his attention back to the vegetables. “Never have been. I’ll give it a shot, but you’re gonna have to do a lot of the legwork.”

“Of course, sir!”

“Second,” he said, and Angus suddenly felt a tug as a mage hand took the wand from him, “I’m taking this.”

Angus felt panic fluttering in his throat again. “B-but, sir, I need that! It’s a conduit, and it’s one of the requirements for most spellcasting, a-and-”

Taako sighed dramatically, trading the kitchen knife to the mage hand and taking the wand. He leaned his hip against the counter and turned back to look at Angus, spinning it between his fingers in a mesmerising pattern. “No, yes, no, wizardlet, you only got one out of three of those right.”

“What?”

Taako cast a cooling spell over the vegetables with a put-upon wave of one hand, then grabbed his umbrella and ducked out the back door, shouting “c’mon!” over his shoulder. Angus, seeing no other way to get his wand back, followed.

When he got outside, he saw no sign of his wand, only Taako, holding the Umbra Staff casually over his shoulder, and Magnus, who was working on something at the workbench. He waved at Angus as he came out with a smile, then went back to his work.

“Next question,” Taako said, pursing his lips, “which casts my spells, me or my staff?”

“Um, you, sir.”

“Correct! The point of the staff is to make them stronger , Agnes, and to let me cast spells I usually can’t. See, without the staff I can do this- ” he flicked a hand at the other side of the yard, where Magnus’ training dummies lay scattered in pieces. They lifted themselves up, rearranging themselves in a circle and knitting their torn pieces back together. As Angus gaped, Taako continued. “-But with it, I can do this .”

And he pointed the staff at the dummies. A rope of fire as thick as Angus was tall shot out from its tip and engulfed them, cradling them in a brilliant light. Angus shielded his eyes.

When he opened them again, four of the dummies were gone, but the one that had been in the center of the circle still stood, perfectly undamaged. Angus gasped and clapped a bit, until he heard Magnus yell “oh goddamnit, Taako!” from the other side of the yard. Taako snorted.

“You had decapitated them all anyway, dumbass!” he shouted back, then turned to Angus. “I couldn’t have done that spell without this staff. But I didn’t have to use it to put them together because I know what I’m doing.

“Magical conduits, or arcane foci, or whatever, help you control your magic and let you go past your limits. But you have to know those limits first, before you can safely start passing ‘em, got it?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“Not gonna lie, Ango, your limits are...not very far away right now. You’re gonna putter out real fast. That’s just how learning goes.”

“Why’s that?”

“Magic’s a muscle,” Taako said, rolling his eyes. “Most people have some, but if you don’t use it it atrophies. It’s not just gonna come bursting forth as some sorta...ethereal six-pack right away, you gotta do the work to get it there.”

“What about sorcerers?”

“Sorcerers are using magical steroids. Listen, it’s not a perfect analogy.”

Angus laughed. “I think I understand, sir! But, in my books, they all said that wandless magic was impossible until you were, uh, magically yolked, I guess.”

Taako sighed and ran a hand through his hair irritably, muttering something incomprehensible in an Elvish dialect Angus didn’t recognize. Then, reverting to common, he said, “Yeah, well, your books were super wrong, kid. Today’s wizards are idiots.”

Today’s wizards? “Everything you’ve told me is different than what I’ve read, actually,” Angus said, considering. “Where did you study, anyway?”

“I didn’t,” Taako said, casually waving his hand. Iridescent purple smoke shot out of his fingertips and spun around the place where he’d destroyed the dummies. When it dissipated, there were five dummies again, although they were slightly more fashionable than the ones Magnus had been using.

“...What?”

“I mean, I guess we audited some classes, but that was like thirty years after we’d become wizards,” he said, shrugging and turning to head back inside. “We learned as we went.”

Angus followed him back into the kitchen and was immediately handed a bowl. “Stir this,” Taako ordered, then turned back to the vegetables and kept talking. “School is fine and all, Aggie, but you can’t be perfect at magic if you’re just following a recipe. Everybody’s tastes are different.”

“Have we switched metaphors, or do you literally consume magic, sir?”

Taako grinned. “Little bit of both. Try and keep up, sugar. Anyway, your magic is different from mine, and mine is different from my sister’s, which is different from her husband’s, et cetera. So, obvi, we don’t all learn the same way. But ,” he said, dumping the vegetables into a pan on the stove, “just like each dish has defining characteristics, every good wizard’s gotta learn some core truths.”

“Like...Irving’s laws of magic? Or-”

“Ugh, Irving, that guy was such a square ,” Taako said, rolling his eyes in disgust. “No, not those. Those are for losers.”

“They’re...widely accepted as the laws governing all magic in the universe, sir,” Angus said, biting back a laugh at the open revulsion on Taako’s face.

“They’re wrong. And boring. No, I’m talkin’ about understanding how to do magic by feeling, ” Taako said, spreading his exquisitely manicured hands wide and grinning somehow wider. "We're goin' all the way back."

Chapter Text

“Okay, give it another shot,” Taako said, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers together beneath his chin. “Mage hand. Go.”

Angus screwed his eyes shut and took a deep breath, concentrating. He ran through the cantrip in his head again, murmuring the words.

Nothing.

He choked back a frustrated noise, scrubbing his real hands down his face angrily. He couldn’t tell what he was doing wrong , and Taako just sat there with his hands linked together, face impassive.

“Sir, please,” Angus said, “this would be so much more practical with a wand-“

“Nah,” Taako replied immediately, easily, hardly even looking at him. Angus groaned in frustration and Taako sighed, leaning forward in his chair.

“Kid, you’re giving the spell way too much power,” he said, his arresting mismatched eyes catching Angus’. Angus frowned.

“Honestly, sir, it doesn’t feel like I’m giving it any power at all,” he replied. Taako snorted and waved his hand airily.

“I don’t mean magically ,” he said. “You’re giving the spell - words, movements, wand patterns - you’re giving the spell way too much power over you. There’s nothing inherent about incantations. You can cast mage hand without saying shit , or in another language, or in a fuckin’ dream, it doesn’t matter. It’s like how you shouldn’t need to say a catchphrase every time you walk.”

“But-“

“Your book learning is fuckin’ you over, wizardlet. C’mere.” He gestured Angus over, and Angus went, perched on the arm of the chair and sighed. Taako grabbed his hands, arranging them in front of him so they were pressed together uncomfortably.

“Hold your hands like this,” he said, and let go. When Angus nodded, he continued, “see how you can feel ‘em? The skin, the tendons and veins and muscle?”

Angus thought about it, felt the places where his hands touched and tried to understand them. Then he nodded. Taako smiled faintly at him.

“Just feel another one,” he concluded, voice bored. Like it was that easy.

Angus frowned, thinking, and-

It was that easy. Another hand was there, suddenly, where before it was not, shimmering blue and disembodied. He yelped, startled, and it vanished again, leaving him staring at his hands in stunned silence.

He was dragged out of it by the sound of Taako slow-clapping. His right hand against a purply mage hand, of course, his left still idly twirling a pencil. His stance was sarcastic but his smile -small, languid, genuine -was proud.

“Well done, pumpkin,” he drawled. “Took your first steps. You’ll be runnin’ in no time.” He stood up, dropping the pencil on a table and ruffling Angus’ hair affectionately.

“Thank you, sir! That was...that was weird! It wasn’t there, and then it was , and all the things I read said you can’t feel with a mage hand but I could , and-”

Taako shepherded him out of the kitchen with a hand on his back as he babbled excitedly, flicking a mage hand into and out of existence. Angus bounced on the balls of his feet and grinned up at Taako, saying, “-thank you, sir.”

Taako glanced down at him, a faint, unreadable smile on his face, and some insane impulse propelled Angus forwards, had him quickly wrapping his arms around Taako and then letting go again, still so excited that he’d done real magic!

Taako blinked down at him, startled, and he flashed Taako a smile. A plan to go show Magnus was half-formed in Angus’ mind when one of Taako’s necklaces started screaming.

Well, not screaming , ringing, like a church bell but sped up. It was glowing, showing through the thin fabric of his shirt, and Taako and Angus both jumped. Taako clumsily yanked the stone pendant up to his face and tapped it twice. He was frowning at it as he said, “hey, I’m kinda-”

“Taako,” came a voice from the other side - the one he’d been talking to when Angus followed him, he realized, and Taako went still.

“Sorry,” the voice said, sounding stressed and kind of miserable. Taako’s face twisted to something unfamiliar; concerned and off somehow. He waved a hand, then realized that was useless, and shifted.

“..No, it’s fine. I just finished this lesson anyway, still got the kid with me but we’re done- what’s up?” he said, eyeing Angus uncomfortably.

“Sorry,” he repeated, and Taako rolled his eyes as he continued, asking a question in a language Angus didn't know

Taako pursed his lips, glaring skeptically at the stone. “Kravitz, if you called me because your secretary is mad at you again I-”

“She’s not my secretary,” the voice - Kravitz - said, with the kind of resigned exhaustion that came from having the same argument many times. “And, no. Sorry, I know you enjoy making fun of me.” He paused while Taako huffed a laugh, that same faint smile from earlier showing again. It was lovely, and something in the core of Angus ached when he saw it, like it was something he wasn’t supposed to see.

“Then what? D’you just want the hot goss, or…?” Taako asked, leaning casually against a wall. Over the line, Kravitz sighed.

“I can’t contact her. She’s just-not responding. She-” he paused, then switched to the language from earlier, something lilting and musical, almost birdlike. Taako raised his eyebrows, looking concerned, and detached himself from the wall, responding in kind. He made an apologetic face at Angus and pointed at the stone before striding rapidly out of the living room and up the stairs.

Weird.

Angus shook his head, trying to resist the urge to Look Into The Mystery, and trotted off to find Magnus.

 

After lunch with Magnus (out, for sandwiches and ice cream, the latter celebratory and sweet and eaten with the best possible view atop Magnus’ shoulders) Angus returned to his research. He was trying to make sense of the rune book, but it seemed to bounce uselessly against his skull each time he opened it, and Taako refused to explain anything in it. The wizard would shut down or change the subject anytime he brought it up.

Eventually he groaned and shoved the book away, head swimming with discussion of relative arcane matter displacement and visual transition of energy in a fixed semiplanar state and other such nonsense. It was as though the author didn’t want it to be understandable.

Taako hadn’t had this problem. He had barely glanced through it, and gotten it, and refused to explain. Angus dropped his head onto the desk with a thunk , wondering if he had a reason not to answer Angus’ questions or if he was just being prickly, when something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.

One of the books on the shelf had a symbol embossed on the spine that he’d seen repeatedly in the rune book and once in the text on the Light, one he’d circled in his own journal with half a dozen frustrated question marks next to it. He frowned, momentarily feeling bad for snooping through someone else’s stuff, then shook his head and stood, walking over to the bookshelf.

The volume was thick and old, bound in faded red leather, sitting at the front of a row of books that represented the Six, all bound in the same red leather. Other volumes on the shelf were bound differently; for example, the volume for Lord of Crows was bound in black and shimmering gold. Angus frowned, running his index finger down the spine of the mystery book, tracing the two symbols pressed into the leather; one was a decorated circle with some kind of chain, and the other the one he’d seen in the books, likewise a circle but one winding into itself in a way it was hard to look at for too long, that made his head swim dizzily and his vision blur.

Clearly magical, then. He tugged it off the shelf carefully, releasing a puff of glittering dust, and set it carefully on his lap. It was thick and heavy, well-made parchment held in what felt like metal under the leather.

When he carefully undid the bronze clasp and flipped the book open, he almost dropped it completely. Every page was filled with tiny script in a language of symbols Angus didn’t recognize, neat and careful marks made in a dark blue ink faded slightly with time. He couldn’t seem to get his eyes to focus on it; symbols slipped through his mind like water through splayed fingers, twisting in his vision until his head spun. It was like white noise, drowning out anything of use in a forceful wave until he slammed the book shut again near-violently, gasping.

Only one thing stuck with him; a tiny sketch in the bottom of one page, clearly drawn with no small amount of love, of a dignified-looking gnomish man with one corner of his mouth twitching up in a tiny smile. It was a similar style to the paintings littered around the house of the Fire-Twin, a kind of delicate realism that seemed to breathe on its own.

He put it back on the shelf, hands shaking, and blindly grabbed for his own journal, scribbling yet more question marks beside the symbol. It was frustrating, the way his eyes couldn’t seem to focus on it.

He sighed, reaching into his bag to grab the history book, and felt his fingers bump against a smaller, well-worn journal. He startled, then realized it was Jeremiah’s case journal, and smacked his forehead with his free hand. He’d forgotten he even had it.

“Dumb,” he said, and fished it out. He flipped it open, then laughed out loud at the first page, which had a note written in cipher that read, McDonald, if you’ve somehow got your grubby little hands on this without asking me, I’m going to throw you in the holding cells until you learn not to be nosy. Stop learning my ciphers.

“Oops,” he murmured, snickering again at the postscript at the bottom of the page, which said, and remember to eat your damn vegetables. I know Miles and Asa spoil you. Angus took a moment to smile, letting the familiar ache in his chest that came with their kindness settle, before he opened to a more recent entry in the journal.

The Church of the Light has to be connected to the disappearances. They didn’t start until this damn cult got popular, it read, and Angus frowned. The ones I’ve talked to just puke up the same garbage about the light leading them, “finding the truth,” whatever that means.

Disappearances, plural. Angus flipped back a ways until he found a list. Missing-- Violet Flashfire, human wizard. Darius Ilaham, elven wizard. Wizard, wizard, wizard, sorcerer, wizard. Some two dozen academic magic users gone in the last month and a half, vanished without a trace. Only one had any connection at all to the cult that Jeremiah could find, and six were fairly prominent figures in the college. Signs pointed to kidnapping, and for a moment Angus wondered bitterly if the cult was having the same trouble with the damn rune book he was.

He copied down the list to his own notebook, hesitating before writing one more name at the bottom, Jeremiah Laurent, human police captain. He shut the book with a snap and took a deep breath, silently promising his friend he’d find him. Eventually.

Chapter Text

 

A few days later, after a particularly challenging—and particularly rewarding!— lesson, Angus caught Taako staring at him pensively, rhythmically tapping his bottom lip with one finger, his other hand fidgeting with his pendant. When Angus caught his eye, he gave the detective a wry smile and rolled his shoulders.

“Say,” he said, yawning performatively. “You know anything about blessings?”

“A little, sir,” Angus said, hopping up onto a barstool next to him so he could be marginally closer to his level. “Divine healing, cleric powers, visions, that sort of thing?”

“Sorta. Did you know that a ton of wizards get items blessed? Or they used to, anyway.”

“Items…?”

“Sure,” Taako said, dropping his pendant so he could absently unbraid his hair. “Rocks, jewelry, books, whatever. You present it to a temple and they put it in a weird bowl and if the gods like you they give it magic shit.”

“I thought you didn’t want me to have, ah,” he made air quotes with his hands, “shitty dumb wizard training wheels, sir,” Angus pointed out, and Taako snorted.

“‘S different.The point of a wand is to do the magic for you. Point of a blessing is to help you pick a direction for your magic to go, ‘n’ give you some reassurance that somebody’s watchin’.”

Angus stared at him for a moment. “Did...you-“

“Yep.”

“Which-“

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Taako said, stretching lithely, “lotta gods. Some of ‘em don’t get temples anymore. You’re gonna talk to the twins, anyway.”

The way he said it — the twins— felt like it was a casual acquaintance, not gods. Lacking capital letters. Angus opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and switched subjects to something arguably much more dangerous.

“So, did you find her?”

Taako blinked. “Her…?”

“Yeah, your husband’s secretary. That he called you about the other day.”

Taako’s eyes widened minutely, then he frowned and shook his head. “She’ll turn up,” he said, avoiding Angus’ eye. “Krav just worries.”

He shifted and stood, looking above Angus’ head at the wall and sighing heavily through his nose. “Besides,” he said, “that shit’s not your jurisdiction, Ango. Don’t worry about it.”

“But I’m a detective, sir,” Angus pointed out.

“She doesn’t live even close to here, kid,” he said, “I don’t think you’d be able to find her. Anyway, she can handle herself.”

Angus frowned, but he let it go. Instead he leaned forward on the counter, propping himself up, and said, “sir? You know things about symbol magic, right?”

Taako gave him a measuring look. “Why?”

Angus sighed. “There’s one I found that makes me dizzy to look at, I was wondering if you knew why.”

Taako hummed noncommittally. “Show me,” he said, drumming his fingers on the marble countertop.

Angus grabbed his notebook, flipping through the pages until he found the sigil. “This one, sir.”

Taako leaned forward on his elbows, his curls falling in a wild magenta curtain over his shoulder. He traced the rune with one sharp, glittery claw, face unreadable, and said nothing for a very long moment.

“...There’s memory-addling magic in this symbol,” he said finally, choosing his words carefully. “It doesn’t wanna be looked at.”

Angus blinked. “I didn’t infuse my drawing with anything-“

“Mm, no, I know, pumpkin. The symbol doesn’t want to be seen. Shit’s old magic, older’n the new gods probably.”

“What does it mean ?”

Taako gave him a measuring look. “Figure it out, detective,” he said after a moment. “You’ve got..mm. Some. Of the clues.”

Angus frowned at him, but he just grinned and grabbed his umbrella. “C’mon, kid, time is gold.”

“Wh-oh! Are we going to the temple right now ?” Angus jogged to catch up with Taako, striding through the living room.

“Yep.”

“I don’t have anything to bless,” he started, and Taako paused, considering.

“...I’ve got something you can use,” he said, a shade more sincere than he usually spoke. Angus stared up at him but he offered no further clarification, just twirled his staff in his hand and kept walking, pausing at the shrine to the Fire-Twin in the living room. Magnus poked his head inside at the sound of his boots clicking decisively and raised an eyebrow.

“Where ya’ going?”

“Temple,” Taako said distractedly, flipping through his brother-in-law’s little prayer books. “Gonna bless the kid.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow, leaning against the doorframe with a grin. “Aw, Taak ,” he said, and Taako looked up to glare at him.

“What.”

“You like him!”

“No, I just don’t want him to embarrass me. Go away, Magnus.”

Magnus’ grin grew. “Nah, I think I’ll tag along,” he said. “Got some prayers to burn for the Insurgent.”

Taako groaned, dropping his head back dramatically. His hat fell off and he scrambled to grab it, which kind of ruined the scene, and Angus laughed.

“You both suck,” Taako said, glowering. “And you, Magnus, have just volunteered to babysit while I do some other stuff at the temple.”

Angus blinked. He didn’t need a babysitter and Taako knew it, and—hadn’t he said he wasn’t religious? What business would he have at the Temple of All, of all places?

At least that was where he assumed they were going. There were one or two places dedicated specifically to the twins, but by Magnus’ comment…

 

There was a Temple of All in nearly every city. They ranged from single-room shrines to the Six to massive architectural wonders with dedications to every minor god; Neverwinter’s was the latter, with a huge central chamber for the Six ringed by winding halls only the clerics seemed to fully get. Angus had never spent much time there, because his grandpa had never been particularly religious and there wasn’t a lot of crime that took place within its halls, so he glanced around as they came in.

The central area was a raised dais, open-roofed and in a ways from the massive iron-wrought doors; other small shrines lined the walls on the way up to the stairs, interspersed with columns. They seemed to be arranged by order of the age of the gods, and were of varying levels of complexity and upkeep. A few were more or less completely ignored, while others were beautiful and perfectly well-kept. At the foot of the stairs were two shrines and a door; Angus recognized symbols for the Oracle, the Insurgent, and the Lord of Crows respectively. The Lord of Crows wouldn’t have a dedication in the temple proper; the door probably led to a small area of worship and a mausoleum, as well as a few friendlier-looking rooms for the mourning. Angus knew there was an entrance to the city’s catacombs beneath the temple, and it was probably within the area blocked off for the god of death if it was anywhere.

All of that was beautiful, but none of it had anything on the Six.

Six massive statues, made of various materials, formed a semicircle on the central dias. Even the shortest, the Peacemaker, was easily seven feet tall and impeccably detailed. At the apex of the curve was the Director, formed of marble and white oak, her staff held firmly in a huge hand.

It should have seemed unbalanced, but the Twins seemed to share the space to her left, their strange asymmetrical symmetry taking up about as much of the semicircle as the Protector did to her right. They stood back-to-back, the Fire-Twin gazing upwards with hands full of flame --real flame, kept burning year-round -- and the Stone-Twin gazing down, into his hand, open palm glowing with sourceless light. His other hand was at his hip, wrapped around the staff of a glaive.

“You okay, Ango?” Magnus nudged his shoulder and he realized he was staring. He shook himself, startled, and nodded. Magnus nodded back, giving his shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then turned, wandering off toward the shrine to the Insurgent.

Taako twirled his umbrella around his hand idly, staring up at the Twins. Looking at them, he almost looked like he could be their shadow; staff held loosely in his hand like the Stone-Twin’s glaive handle, head tipped back with the same half-up smile as the Fire-Twin, long ears and curved claws and crinkled, wild hair. The air felt charged around them, dust mites sparking in the shaft of daylight, something in the softness of that light tricking Angus’ eyes into thinking, just for a moment, that the statues were breathing.

Taako turned, and the moment shattered; grinned gracelessly at Angus, crooked and ignoble and alive , a beautiful and self-serving and incomprehensible elf standing at the foot of a cold statue wrought of stone and metal.

“Okay,” he said, decisive, “Angus, c’mere.”

As Angus approached, Taako reached beneath the collar of his shirt, carefully extracting one pendant from the tangle of jewelry he had there and pulling it off over his head. The leather strip holding it caught on one of his ears and he hissed faintly under his breath, muttering something Angus didn’t catch, then he flicked his ear, knocking it off, and tossed the pendant to Angus.

He caught it, barely, felt it before he really saw it; a round stone, worn smooth over what was probably centuries of absent worrying. He opened his hands, flipping it in his fingers. It was the jade pendant Taako never took off, and for a moment Angus just stared at it, trying to commit to memory the faded lines etched into it before Taako inevitably took it back and flippantly explained whatever lesson he was getting at here with it.

The stone hummed, faintly, without sound; a gentle murmur of magic that Angus could neither identify nor understand, one that somehow had the same feeling of being old and worn down past recognition as the stone it was sunken into. Angus traced the faint swirling grooves with his fingers, awed, then glanced up at Taako.

“Sir?”

Taako raised an eyebrow.

“What do you want me to do with this…?” He waved the pendant in his hand vaguely, and Taako raised his other eyebrow to match, a frown playing at the corners of his lips. A different frown, than one Angus had seen before, but gone before he could try and read into it, replaced by an eyeroll and a smirk.

“We’re gonna bless it, obvi, kiddo,” he said.

Angus stared at him.

“But,” he started, then shook his head and tried again, “-but it’s yours !”

“Noooo shit,” Taako said with a snort, “I told you I had something, not that I’d steal something from the temple. What did you expect?”

“I don’t know, a pebble or something? Sir, this pendant- it matters to you, I can’t take it.”

Taako went still. “How do you figure?”

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen you take it off! I don’t wanna-I’m not-” he sighed, hand curling protectively around the necklace. “-You can’t want me to have it, not- not for good,” he said, smally.

Taako sighed, a huge gust of air escaping him like Angus had killed him. “Listen, kid,” he said, voice soft, “I don’t...that’s the pendant I got blessed when I was, fuckin’-your age? Probably. Point is, I don’t need it anymore.”

Angus stared at him. He didn’t know if he could do anything but stare. Taako didn’t just... give people things, especially not things he cared about, especially not if “people” was Angus. But Taako just stared back, eyes stubborn, as if daring Angus to say something, and he couldn’t think of anything to say, so instead he shook his head and smiled.

“I...thank you, sir,” he said, quietly, trying to encapsulate the enormity of those thanks with his voice and face and eyes. Taako smiled faintly at him, soft like he didn’t like to be, before he closed himself off again, shaking his head and squaring his shoulders.

“Okay! Where the fuck is a priest,” he said with a businesslike clap of his hands. “Supposed to have one here to say their dumb ceremonial mumbo-jumbo before you can put the rock in the bowl.”

Chapter Text

The ceremonial dish was wide and shallow, split down the middle with a thin flat ridge; it fit into the impression in the base of the statue with a soft, definitive click. Half of the inside was lined with bronze, the other rose gold; the bowl itself, and the ridge down the middle, were a simple, nondescript stone. Angus gently wrapped the jade pendant in its leather band, waiting for the priest to nod before he set it down on the ridge, balancing it carefully.

There was a brief moment of silence, then it started to tip from side to side, slow at first then faster and faster until it was teetering wildly; Angus took a step back, wary. Behind him he heard Taako take a sharp breath, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away to check on him, because the pendant was starting to glow.

It shuddered, red and purple iridescent light twisting around it for a fraction of a second before it shot into the air on a pillar of fire and glittering smoke, coming to a hovering stop between the heads of the statues. The flame and magic in their hands erupted at the same times, the crystals of their eyes glowing eerily with reflected light. It hung there for a long, long moment, wreathed in magic almost too bright to see.

Taako hissed something under his breath in that language that sounded like birdsong and old places. Angus couldn’t understand it, but by his tone it was probably rude. After a moment, the fire died down; Angus hadn’t realized fire could look petulant, but it seemed to slink back into the Fire-Twin’s hands resentfully, leaving the glittering purple magic of the Stone-Twin twisting around the jade for a fraction of a second before vanishing, letting the pendant fall into the rose gold side of the bowl with a decisive clatter.

There was a long beat of silence.

“Well,” said the priest, visibly shaken, “that’s that then!” He clapped, trying for some replaying of the decisive motion Taako had made earlier and missing the mark. Shaking his head, he continued, “you-ah- you’ve been chosen by the Stone-Twin. After some…” he pursed his lips, thinking. “ -Deliberation , between them, it seems. You must be quite a remarkable young man!”

Angus stepped forward again, carefully fishing the pendant out of the bowl. It was unharmed, physically unaffected by its ordeal, although the hum he’d felt earlier was mostly gone. It seemed... buried, masked by a different, stronger one of a different tone; it thrummed in his hand, a magic that was as inexplicably familiar as it was alien and powerful.

He held it up to the light, tipping it back and forth to appreciate the strange iridescent sheen it had taken on. He was so transfixed by it that he actually jumped, nearly dropping it, when a large hand came to rest on his shoulder.

“Whoa!” Magnus said, chuckling, “sorry, kiddo, didn’t mean to spook ya. Can I see what you- aw, Taako .” he said the last bit with a delighted, saccharine tone, almost mocking. Taako scoffed.

“What.”

“You gave him your pendant? You do care about him, that’s adorable.”

“Fuck off, no I don’t,” Taako said, shoving his hair behind his ear. “It’s just-a good conduit- stop laughing you asshole- ” he cut himself off with a squawk as Magnus reached around, pulling Taako and Angus both into a hug. Angus was lifted entirely off his feet, giggling against Magnus’ shoulder.

“Ango, that was so cool,” Magnus said. “They both wanted you bad , buddy. You’re somethin’ special, that’s for sure.”

“Special nerd ,” Taako muttered, without heat. Angus smiled, wrapping his arms around Magnus’ neck. Magnus released Taako, but kept holding Angus, resting him easily on one hip.

“Taako’s not gonna tell you, so I will,” Magnus said conspiratorily, ignoring Taako’s derisive noise. “Usually, the items just tip into the bowl. It could be a coincidence most of the time. I bet-” he glanced at the priest, who had walked off and was gesturing wildly at the statues to another cleric, “-these folks have never seen anything like it before.”

Angus didn’t say anything; all the words he might have said got caught somewhere between his thundering heart and his dry mouth, sticking and molding together into one big nothing that pressed against the roof of his mouth and encouraged the tears that had been threatening to spill all morning; he buried his face in Magnus’ shoulder, wordless, somewhere between weeping and giggling.

“Aw, bud,” Magnus said, giving him a reassuring squeeze. “You did good!”

Angus nodded mutely, fists balled in Magnus’ shirt. It meant-he wasn’t sure, but it meant something that the gods had noticed him, something too big to see from where he was currently. But at face value, it meant- it meant he was important , not just for helping real important people but for him, himself, quiet little boy turned lonely detective turned...whoever he was becoming, this person with magic and friends and a place that was starting to feel like how the word home was described in books.

The amulet hummed against his chest, satisfied. Angus held on to Magnus, looser now but still unable to catch the words he was grasping for; instead he settled for regulating his breathing, wrapping himself in the smell of sweat and sawdust. No matter what reason the gods had for caring what he did, Magnus’ hands were the same, big and dry and calloused, and he was still the same warm, solid presence; a constant Angus was almost scared about how quickly he’d come to rely on.

“Okay, that’s adorable and all, but Taako’s got one more thing he’s gotta do here, so can y’all hang tight a minute?” Taako said breezily. Angus detached himself from Magnus’ shoulder to look at him; he had a crooked grin, umbrella propped against his shoulder casually. Magnus shifts Angus on his hip and grins back with a nod.

“Sure, bud! I’ll show him the Insurgent’s shrine, I know all the stories.”

“Ugh,” Taako said mildly, still smiling. “We get it, you’re halfway to being her cleric, gross. But yeah I’ll be right back see y’all later bye.” He said the last bit all in one breath, while adjusting his hat and backing away from them. He shot them nervous finger guns, then whipped around and through the low, simple door to the part of the temple dedicated to the Lord of Crows.

Angus blinked. Taako’s tail flicked behind him as he stepped through into the darkness beyond, long hair bouncing with his steps. The door shut silently behind him, a whispered breath of crypt-dust air escaping into the temple proper.

“Sir? Does Taako pray to the Lord of Crows?” Angus asked, leaning against Magnus’ side. “He has that earring and everything.”

Magnus considered this for a moment, then made a noncommittal noise, waving his hand from side to side. “Sorta. There’s... history there, I guess?” He paused. “..He thinks the guy gets a bad rep. He’s not evil , just..you know, spooky.”

Angus nodded, then shook his head. “So-the Insurgent?”

Magnus brightened immediately, a grin crossing his face. “Yeah! Did you know she didn’t just lead a revolution?”

They turned away from the door.

Chapter Text

Taako was acting strange.

That wasn’t news in and of itself; he was a weird person in a lot of ways, a mess of contradictions wrapped in glittery clothing, but since their visit to the temple he’d been...twitchy. Frustrated, snappish. For a while, Angus thought it might have had something to do with his blessing from the Stone-Twin, but when he asked Magnus and Merle they had given him a resounding no; Magnus ruffling his hair and telling him that he hadn’t done anything wrong and Merle actually bursting into laughter, telling him “nah, kid, he couldn’t be any more thrilled about that shit. You’re fine.”

He wanted to believe them. He tried to shake off the feeling that something was wrong and focus on his case, but it itched at him, information just out of his reach. It was useless to strain to get to it, so he threw himself into his research on the cult instead. As far as he could tell, it had started to gain traction in the city shortly after he first left and had been getting steadily bigger since; from the notes Jeremiah had taken and some careful poking at passersby in the market he learned that their general idea was that something was corrupting the light of creation, causing all the impurity and pain in the world. They weren’t particularly clear on what that something was, but they were very adamant about it.

He groaned, shoving the book away. Their reasoning was opaque and circular, and part of him thought looking into it at all was sort of futile; why understand the bad guys when you can just catch them, his justice-focused brain insisted, while his nosy little shit brain danced away with all the evidence held over his head in an internal imitation of Magnus.

Either way, he had made some progress; in going through his notes he’d found overlap in the missing mages connected to the artifact and to the cult; five high-level arcane university researchers had all vanished within two weeks of each other after beginning to investigate the relic. According to Jeremiah’s notes, one of them had been considering joining the cult herself, and the others were her coworkers and friends. Her name was Violet Flashfire; she was the second to go missing, and the only person on the list with definite connections to the church. Apparently she had met a guy at the site of a magical anomaly and they had hit it off. He was a member of the cult, they became serious uncharacteristically fast for her, she vanished—not altogether an unusual timeline, where cults were concerned. Only two days after her disappearance, two of her colleagues vanished. five days after that, another. Two more days, and the last important member of their department —which primarily studied the line between arcane magic and celestial—was gone as well.

Violet Flashfire had been one of the names linked with the relic, too. Damn it. He’d managed to get into a mentality of considering them different cases, but if this woman who seemed to be central to the cult was looking for the relic....

He sighed, dragging his fingers through his hair. Nothing was ever simple, especially not in Neverwinter. He needed to map out a more clear timeline, cross-reference the other missing relic-seekers with cult events-

Someone rapped on his door and he jumped, sitting up straighter. Out of the people he lived with, Taako was the only one who knocked like that. Angus shook his head, put his glasses back on, and called, “come on in, sir!”

The door swung open and Taako slipped into the room, bare feet making no sound on the carpet. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it languidly, flicking his gaze briefly over Angus’ cluttered desk. “You busy?”

“Well-”

“Wait, actually I don’t care, if you want to learn scrying magic come with me,” Taako said, flashing him a grin. Angus laughed softly.

He hopped down from his desk, shoving work thoughts aside, and followed Taako out into the hall. “Scrying, sir?”

Taako shrugged. “You’re a detective,” he pointed out, coming to a stop in front of the door to his room. Angus had never actually been in there before. “-I, uh, I figured you might have some use for it.”

Angus was still formulating a response when the door swung open. He opted to stay quiet instead, after that, because most of his focus immediately switched over to committing the room beyond to memory.

Taako’s room was, in many ways, quite a bit like him. It was dim and cluttered and seemed to have no discernible organizational theme past shiny things everywhere. Scattered throughout the room were bits of glass and crystal that caught the light brilliantly-some even hung before the window, casting brilliant jewel-tone shadows across the room. His bed was more like a nest, frankly, a round mattress covered in mismatched pillows and worn quilts. A purple chair in the corner seemed to have taken the closet’s job from it and jewelry was strewn on every available surface. It was a disaster, and Angus kind of loved it; as a detective he could garner a lot about people from their rooms, and this mostly just confirmed what he knew about Taako already. He was strange and eclectic and had a surreal, cluttered sort of beauty accented and weighed down by the secrets he kept and the stones he wore.

Taako flopped down casually in an ornate wooden chair sitting by what at first glance seemed to be a normal vanity, but upon closer inspection had half a dozen strange compartments and a small ritual circle burned purposefully into the surface of the wood. Angus stood nervously by the door.

Taako waved at him impatiently. “C’mere, squirt. Can’t learn shit hoverin’ in the doorway like a shy dust mite.”

Angus shuffled forward nervously, carefully picking his way through the clutter on the floor and glancing around for somewhere to sit. He pulled a dark red ottoman out from under what might have been some sort of extravagant evening gown or maybe a curtain, levering it into place next to Taako.

Taako gestured to the mirror. It was perfectly round, made of a material Angus couldn’t quite place that cast a soft purplish hue over the room’s reflection and was framed with intricately twisting filigree in a gleaming rose gold. It seemed to hum at a matching tone to the jade pendant Angus had currently knotted around his wrist.

“So, the best scrying tools are perfect circles,” Taako said casually, gesturing vaguely towards the mirror. “Material matters too, although it’ll be up to your own sorta magic mojo bullshit what works best for you. Silver’s a good startin’ bet, but I use amethyst. I use it as a conduit for most of my shit, actually, but it’s a little much to try when you’re this new.”

Angus nodded, wishing he’d brought a notebook with him. He wouldn’t actually forget anything, he never did, but it was always nice to have things on paper so he could organize his scattered thoughts. As it was, though, he just leaned forwards to peer into the mirror and asked, “Why is it so powerful, sir?”

Taako gnawed on his lip thoughtfully, one ear flicking, then said, “so, there’s different-uh, different-fuck, this is niche- so you’ve read about the spell blink?”

Angus nodded again, blinking owlishly up at him. “Yes, sir. You teleport by stepping into a mirror world, right?”

Taako waved his hand. “ Mirror world isn’t quite the right word for it, but, yeah. There’s other… realms… and each of ‘em has some kind of linking substance that channels the energy from it. So, like, the land of the dead, uh, uh, the astral plane, that can be channelled through sapphire, and-uh, and magic, in its purest form, that’s amethyst. There’s a whole, um, a whole field of study around the planes an’ shit, but it’s-it’s mostly theoretical and really, uh, really really small. I… dabbled, in it, a long-ass time ago, ‘s how I know this shit.”

Angus leaned even farther forwards, staring wide-eyed up at Taako. He’d never heard of any of this, but something about the way Taako spoke felt true, not like he had fallen into believing some cracked theories or was just making things up to mess with a little boy that trusted him.

“So, uh, what’s the plane you go when you cast blink associated with?”

“Milky quartz, but that’s not super important. Don’t try to use white quartz for scrying, it sucks. You’d be way better off with a metal. Like I said, use silver, most mirrors’re made of it anyhow.”

“Got it, sir! My pocket mirror is made of silver.”

“Oh, dope,” Taako said, “then you can practice on that. Less dangerous than using mine.”

Angus had a moment where he wondered if Taako had been planning to give him volatile materials and just see what happened, but he shook it off. “I admit I haven’t read as much about scrying as I have about other magic, sir,” he said, kicking the ottoman idly.

“It’s fiddly, for sure,” Taako said, scratching something into the ritual circle with his thumbnail. “Doesn’t always show you what you wanna see. It’s easiest if you have an object that, uh, that links you to whatever you’re lookin’ at-so, like, Magnus made this-” he grabbed a small wooden flower off the edge of the vanity, “-so I can use this to look at him, probably.”

Taako dropped the flower in the center of the circle and murmured something that left a taste like rust and sugar in Angus’ mouth, and after a moment the mirror seemed to ripple, Taako’s reflection vanishing to show a view of Magnus’ workbench, the man in question leaned over it, focused entirely on something they couldn’t see for his large hands. Taako smiled softly, glancing at Angus. “See? It’s not specific, can’t zoom in or out, but you’re smart, I’m sure you could use it for good or whatever.”

Angus nodded excitedly, then hopped off the ottoman to run over to the window. It looked out on the backyard, where, indeed, Magnus was working. He turned to grin at Taako. “So, what was that incantation?”

 

Two hours later, they sat on the floor of Taako’s room, fiddling with his hand mirror. Taako had removed it from the backing to scratch a spell circle into the wood behind it - “it’s efficient, an’ people won’t figure it’s there,” - then sealed the silver back into it with a whisper and a flash of light. Now Angus was trying his best to recreate the effect from earlier with the same wooden flower. So far he’d gotten a view of the bench from Magnus’ hands, a view from the perspective of the flower itself, and one short-lived image of a room he’d never seen before that Taako identified as Magnus’ home workroom.

“Like I said, it’s fiddly,” Taako said, leaning back on his hands. “Everything you do effects the end product. I’m good at gettin’ clear images because I’ve been doing it so long, but it’s probably gonna be weird puzzle pieces for you for a while.”

“That’s okay, sir,” Angus said, letting the mirror snap shut. “I like weird puzzles! Otherwise I wouldn’t have this job, or have agreed to live with you.”

Taako snorted gracelessly and leaned forward to ruffle his hair. “Little shit,” he said. Angus grinned, recognizing Taako’s brand of rude affection for what it was.

He leaned back again, resting on his palms and staring up at his mirror. He’d sucked his bottom lip between his teeth the way he did when he was thinking, then he said, “I’m gonna try something real quick, hang on.”

He stood, carefully removing the black feather earring from his skin, and dropped it in the circle on his desk. Angus scrambled to his feet, watching carefully-this was a chance to see into why Taako always wore it, maybe even to understand what he-

Taako spoke the incantation.

The mirror shattered.

Chapter Text

“Fuck!!” Taako’s hands moved quickly, raising a shimmering barrier between them and his vanity to block the shards of crystal that flew from it. Angus yelped, ducking, then backed up a little to give Taako space.

He dropped the barrier, waving his hand to gather the fragments of amethyst and scowling at them. “Well, I guess that experiment didn’t work,” he said wryly.

“What were you trying to track, sir?” Had he been trying to look at the Masked God? What was his plan there, even.

“The bird that dropped this feather. Guess it’s not around,” Taako said, shaking his head loosely. “Gods, now I’m gonna have to make a new mirror, that was dumb of me. Don’t be like this, Ango.”

He flopped back onto the ground, throwing an arm over his face. “Okay, lesson over, I’m gonna wallow in my own incompetence, get gone.”

“Okay, sir,” Angus said, laughing slightly. “Do you-do you want, um, like, water or something?”

“I’m good,” Taako said, muffled. “I’ll just be here nursing my ego. Go bug Magnus, kid.”

“Okay, sir!” Angus repeated, standing up and wandering to the door. As he left, he glanced back at Taako and frowned.  His bangs had fallen out of his face, and there was some sort of dark smudge on his forehead that Angus couldn’t quite make out. As he watched, Taako groaned quietly and rubbed at it like it was hurting him.

Weird. Angus shook his head and padded downstairs.

 

It got worse. Over the next few days, Angus threw himself into his research to avoid Taako, who was snappish and rude and, much more upsettingly, seemingly in constant pain. By the afternoon of the day following their scrying lesson, Taako had accepted some kind of mudlike concoction from Merle to, evidently, dull the pain in his head. Even after that, though, he was anxious and jumpy, constantly staring at his stone of farspeech as though it would talk to him at any moment.

Angus worked, because he didn’t know what else to do. He figured out that the deputy chief was from the high-class district of the city, and that he was a wizard, and that he’d been seen with Violet Flashfire about two weeks before her disappearance, getting lunch at a bistro uptown. He figured out that the Church of the Light believed that the primary thing holding back the light was some kind of being made of a darkness antithetical to its sacred brilliance, and that they were using… something … affiliated with the light to track it and learn how to kill it. He was beginning to be fairly certain the object they were using (which a woman he’d charmed into talking to him over ice cream in the market had described to him as some sort of lantern, shedding light on the unseen but blinding if looked at too closely) was the same relic they’d been looking for at the beginning of all this.

He marked down potential for brainwashing/transferring information? in his evidence notebook. He’d laid it out next to a few of the journals, the textbook, and the pamphlets, trying to cross-reference them in a way that would make the journals make sense. Unfortunately, nothing he did seemed to find any cracks in the language or code they were written in, all unfamiliar symbols in a neat, precise hand. The art, however, he’d been able to focus on parts of; lots of little sketches that seemed to move when he only saw them out of the corner of his eye. One caught his eye, a careful pencil drawing someone who seemed to be Taako or a relative grinning over his shoulder at the artist from atop some sort of stone wall, a handkerchief corralling his wild hair and a collar of gems around his neck. The only part left unfinished was his eyes, which the journaler had left blank for some reason. It was a startling contrast to the intricate detail of the rest of the drawing, almost eerie. He’d found the sketch in the journal marked with the symbol of the Lord of Crows, a journal that, like most of the others, gave him a headache to look at for too long.

Even this drawing did, frankly, but there was something about it that he kept coming back to. An unguardedness in the smile on his face, maybe, or the way his ears were in completely different positions. It felt gentle, in a way Angus wasn’t familiar with, at-home and happy. It was especially strange considering that most of the other sketches in the journal were of the mask of the Lord of Crows or completely impossible to look at without the room spinning; had Taako been some sort of cleric in the past? Was that why he wore that earring? Was that even Taako, or some ancestor?

They weren’t pertinent questions, but they nagged at him nonetheless.

He shut the book and shelved it, and was internally debating whether pestering Taako for a magic lesson was worth dealing with his bad mood when there was a sharp knock on the house door. Angus stood, padding downstairs in time to hear the clock of the lock and the scratching of hinges as the door swung open.

For a moment, Angus’ brain went to white noise; it was as though the goddess in the painting on the wall had stepped into the room, fire taken flesh in a tall, freckled form. Then she stepped through the entryway and was an elf, with curly red hair and scarred arms where skin was visible between her shirt and her red calfskin gloves but otherwise nearly identical to the one sulking upstairs. She didn’t seem to notice Angus, instead stretching as the door clicked shut behind her, and waiting for a moment before raising her hands to her mouth to holler, “Taako! Get down here, birdbreath, we need to talk!

Angus startled at the noise and she glanced at him, blinking twice before grinning. “Hey, you must be Angus,” she said, at a much more reasonable volume. “I’m-“

“Lup!”

Her eyes (the inverse heterochromatic shades to Taako’s, Angus’ brain supplied unhelpfully) flickered up to fix on the top of the stairs. Taako had bolted out of his room at the sound of her voice, gauzy maroon robe flapping around his legs. “-Lup, yes,” she said, her smile gentling.

Taako came down the stairs three at a time. “What are you doing here? I thought you were covering for me while we were away, did something happen?”

“Okay, first of all this is my house,” she said, taking his hands in hers. “And second, yes, something happened, down here. You-“ she lifted their joined hands and raised a skeptical eyebrow at him, “-Are freaking out.”

“Fuck you,” Taako said, with no malice in his voice. “I’m cool as a shitload of cucumbers.”

She pursed her lips. Taako sighed loudly, ears drooping as he dropped forward to press his forehead against her shoulder. “Okay, maybe the cucumbers have been left on a metal table in the sun but listen, ” he mumbles, and she huffs something that’s almost a laugh.

“Your head hurting?”

“Yeah.”

“Bad?”

Taako nodded minutely, and Angus shifted his weight nervously from one foot to the other, feeling like he maybe shouldn’t be here to watch this. Lup apparently agreed with him, because she wound her tail affectionately around Taako’s ankle for a moment before gently pushing him off her. “Come on, I’ll buy you lunch and you can fill me in on the deets. Where’d you leave my umbrella?”

“It’s over there,” Taako said with a vague wave of his hand. Angus wasn’t sure if the wave was to point out the umbrella or to be a catalyst for whatever magic turned his loose-fitting pajamas into casual clothes, and he wasn’t going to ask. “Jus’ summon it, Magnus can fix whatever you knock over.”

Lup rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers, conjuring a small flame that grew and lengthened until, with a pulse of light, it coalesced into Taako’s —or Lup’s, Angus supposed, although he wondered why Taako was using it—staff, which she spun around her hand in a practiced motion. She nodded to Angus with a smile before corralling Taako out of the house.

The door shut behind them with a soft but final click , and Angus sighed. It was probably for the best in the long run that he not eavesdrop on personal conversations from the person who was housing and teaching him, but he itched to understand what had been hurting him.

He sat down on the couch with a huff, leaning on his forearms and staring vaguely at the painting on the wall. There was no doubt, now, that the model had been Lup, but somehow the elf on the canvas still felt unfathomable.

Divine.

Whoever had stayed in Angus’ room had been an incredible artist, for sure. He wondered who they had been. Had they penned those journals? They were old, too old to have been written in this house in this lifetime. The author was either long dead or not human; either way, no one had been in that room in a long time before he got there. There was something sad about that, about beautiful things being left to silently collect dust in a sunlit tomb.

Angus shook his head to clear it and stood. He’d been inside too long, his mind getting caught up in the mysteries of this old house rather than the city around it. He stretched and trotted to the back door, glancing around the backyard for Magnus or Merle.

Merle had turned the yard into a garden in the month or so they’d been there, although it wasn’t near as neatly organized as the word implies; a few small paths wound through hundreds of the overgrown plants that seemed to grow wherever Merle went, all winding over and around each other to form a thick, almost magical little forest in rich greens and vibrant colored flowers. Something about it gave the impression that you’d stepped past the bushes into a different world. Angus wandered into it, padding across the mossy ground to the center, where Merle usually was.

Sun filtered in through a break in the leaves, casting a pillar of warm yellow light on Merle where he sat against a tree. He had a letter in his hands and was reading it with a serene smile on his face. He glanced up when Angus came into view, giving him a friendly little wave.

“What’s goin’ on, kid? You don’t usually come hang out with the weird old man,” he said, and Angus smiled.

“Hello, sir! Taako’s out to lunch, I thought I’d come say hello.”

Merle raised an eyebrow. “He went to lunch? I thought he was moping about his beau not havin’ called him in two whole days.”

Huh. “Uh, well, his sister showed up and made implications along the line that if he didn’t go with her she’d drag him by the tail, sir! So.”

He snorted, folding up the letter and pocketing it. “That’d do it, for sure. Lup’s an unstoppable wrecking ball. Surprised she came all the way out here, though!” He drummed his fingers along the wood of his prosthetic forearm. “Usually she takes over his day job for him while he’s away. They do pretty similar shit, so it’s not that much harder. If he was feelin’ shitty enough she made the trip…”

Merle shook his head. “Whatever! That’s their business. I am enjoyin’ nature.”

Angus sat down on the ground across from him. “Does this count as praying for you, sir?”

Merle shrugged. “More or less. The Peacemaker isn't too picky. ‘S long as his people are spreading the good word and appreciatin’ the world around ‘em, he’s good.”

“It must be nice,” Angus mused, mostly to himself. Merle grunted at him in a way that felt like a question. “—Oh, just-to really have faith in a god, you know? I mean, I guess I’m aligned with the Stone-Twin now, but I don’t- I don’t worship really. Or, uh, ascribe to tenants or whatever. I don’t think I could if I wanted to, you know? My brain just isn’t wired to accept that some things are greater than explanation.”

“You are the weirdest nine-year-old I’ve ever met,” Merle said, smiling crookedly.

“I’m eleven, sir.”

“Whatever. Same difference.” Merle flapped his hand dismissively. “You don’t need to worship a god exclusively for who they are or whatever, the way I see it. Find something you agree with an’ preach that, regardless of the big fellas in the sky, you know? If the stars align, the stars align! If not…” A shrug. “You’re still livin’. Still spreading whatever good you settled on. That’s the point, at the end of the day, if you’re doing it right.”

Angus blinked. That was a strange position for a cleric to take, but he thought maybe he was starting to understand what he meant.

Chapter Text

Lup didn’t stick around long; her reason for visiting was to comfort her brother, after all, to help him get over whatever was causing his headaches and nasty mood. In the two days she spent visiting, though, Angus couldn’t help but take a shine to her; she was like if someone squished Magnus and Taako together and gave the result a wide-brimmed hat and a fondness for open flames.

Angus noted with interest that she had a tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. He only ever saw about half of it, because she didn’t tend to remove her gloves, but what he could see was a glittering symbol presumably magically altered to reflect light like crystal. It was similar in a lot of ways to the metallic gauntlet outlined on her brother’s right hand. He wondered if they’d gotten them at the same time-it seemed like some sort of strange devotional to the Twins, although given their respective schools of magic it didn’t make much sense for Taako to have the Fire-twin’s gauntlet and Lup to have the Stone-twin’s gem.

On the second day, he decided to ask. Not specifically about the tattoo, but. “Miss Lup?”

She glanced at him over her book. They had both settled down in the library, Angus at the desk with his case notes and Lup curled in a squashy chair with some novel in a language he didn’t recognize.

“What’s up, little dude?”

“Um, this might be a weird question, but. What god does Taako pray to? It’s just-he has a tattoo for the fire-twin but wears a crow’s feather earring and is a transmutation wizard, I don’t…” He waved his hands, spinning his pen between two fingers. “I mean, I guess it’s not important to me specifically but it’s been driving me bananas.”

Lup blinked, then nodded. “...Bananas,” she repeated, great solemnity in her voice. Angus laughed.

She considered for a moment. “Have you asked him?”

Well. “No, ma’am, but he’s mentioned not being super religious once or twice.”

Lup smiled at him vaguely, tugging on one earring. “Well, there you have it, then.”

“Ma’am, with all the respect in the world, I’m not dumb . Nobody gets a religious symbol magically tattooed on their arm for shits and giggles.”

Lup looked taken aback for a moment, barking a startled laugh. “Fuck, alright, you’re not wrong,” she said, “Koko’s had that tattoo for ages, though. He has...hm.” She fiddled with an ear, contemplative. “Us and the twins, we have an agreement. It’s not religious like what a normal person would do, really.”

“Is that what your tattoo is, too?”

Lup blinked, then nodded. “Yep. We figured, magic elf twins, might as well pay our dues to the oh-gees. I deffo don’t worship the Stone-twin, though.”

“No, you worship the Lover, right?” Angus asked the question innocently, and was quietly proud when she looked startled and then impressed, chuckling softly.

“Yep. I guess you noticed my memorabilia arms race with my husband, then?”

He hummed an affirmative. “It’s kind of hard to miss, ma’am.”

Her laugh came out a little sheepish. “It started small, you know, little runes, a bell here or there, some candles...but we’ve been together a long time and after that fucking portrait some escalation was required.”

“Escalation? I thought that was…” the biggest thing they’d done, maybe? Words were tough to describe what they’ve done, so he vaguely gestured instead. Lup snorted gracelessly.

“Yeah, it’s the most buckwild shit here, but at the house we live in?” She shook her head. “I shit you not, sugarpie, I had a fifteen-foot marble statue commissioned. It lives in the goat pen.”

“Isn’t that sacreligious?”

“What? Nah . I bet the lover would be thrilled to take a day off and hang out with some goats.”

Angus considered arguing, but he kind of liked the sentiment. Lup was weird , but he liked her.

 

She left a few hours later, with much assurance that yes, Taako, I’ll keep my eyes open, yes, Taako, I’ll be careful. She shot Magnus a sharp-toothed grin and gave Merle a hug(difficult, given their height difference, but not impossible), promising him she’d check on his garden back home.

And then she was gone, leaving Taako with the eyes of a man adrift. He was better than he had been, but still, Angus could tell something was wrong-he was twitchy during lessons and would disappear for hours with no warning, coming back with his eyes tired and grey dust on his hands. When Angus asked, he just shook his head.

“Work,” he said. “Don’t worry about it, pumpkin.”

Angus, like usual, didn't listen to instructions.

 

One morning, Angus woke early. The world outside his window was still swathed in the hazy blue light that comes just before dawn, signaling that it would be a few minutes still before the sun’s rays stretched over the multicolored rooftops of Neverwinter. Angus knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, not after the dream he’d had; it was one he got regularly, lately, hazy and hard to remember, just flashes of voices in tones that sounded like song.

He sat up and climbed out of bed, fumbling for his glasses. There was some sort of sound outside that he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

He padded quietly to the balcony, scrubbing at one eye. The sound was coming from...above him?

He turned, squinting up at the roof. It sounded like birds; rustling feathers and the occasional caw or coo, covering what sounded like someone murmuring softly.

A crow took off from the roof right above his head, startling him.

Angus was good at magic. Taako had told him so, that he was learning fast, had even said some threats about upstaging him that he was pretty sure were jokes. He was good, and he was proud of it. He could cast a second level spell without supervision, easy .

He told himself this firmly as he silently cast levitate, trying not to yelp as his feet left the ground.

Angus carefully navigated his ascension, gripping the brick wall as tightly as he could. He knew he was supposed to land softly if the spell ended suddenly, but he didn’t want to take any chances or go too high.

A crow pecked at his hand when he tried to grasp the lip of the roof, but not hard enough to dissuade him, really. He pulled himself up onto the roof— man, it was easier than doing it without levitate. He had to get more spell slots for detective work.

As he settled softly on to the smooth clay of the roof, he realized he was absolutely surrounded by birds. Crows, mostly, although he could spot a dove or two in the mix, coexisting quite peacefully with their corvoid companions.

And there, in the center of it all, was his teacher. Taako was facing away from him, sitting cross-legged with his hair down, floating around his shoulders in the faint morning breeze. He was haloed in faint predawn light, the ethereal serenity of the scene cut into only by the fact that he appeared to be surrounded with papers.

Several sheets were floating in front of him, a large tome open and balanced on his knee, pages occasionally flipping seemingly of their own accord. He had out a wand Angus didn’t recognize, and was skating it along the illegible writing on the papers, occasionally flicking it to the side, taking the sheet it had been on with it. When he did, it would turn into a glittering black stone and skitter to the feet of a crow. The crows would pick them up in a beak or a claw and take off, often bapping Taako or Angus in the head(seemingly intentionally) with a wing as they flew away to the west, fleeing the rising sun.

Angus watched him for a long moment, mesmerized by the repetitive, unfamiliar movements, until Taako’s voice cut through his reverie.

“You may as well come sit down, kiddo,” he said, as the sun began to show over the horizon. “You’ve been staring.”

Angus jumped, which startled a dove that had settled on his hair. He felt a little bad, but he really wasn’t interested in being a nest so he obeyed, padding over and settling on the roof beside Taako.

Taako shut the tome with a bounce of his knee, the few remaining loose pages shimmering into nothingness as it closed. Angus was sad he didn’t get the chance to read them, but that was probably Taako’s intention, and anyway this gave him the chance to really take a look at his mentor. He was still wearing his pajamas, and there was a paper bag settled in the negative space between the crooks of his knees.

He was also wearing something Angus had never seen before, which he’d missed from behind due to the volume of his hair; a white circlet, with glittering onyx beads inlaid on either side of a sapphire that lay dead center of his forehead. The crown itself was a material Angus couldn’t quite place, off-white with gold threading framing the gems. It drew his eye, something about whatever magic filled it making a strange feeling twist deep in his core. He wasn’t sure if he liked it, but he had a hard time looking away.

“You’re up early,” Taako said, leaning back on one hand and fumbling to open the bag with the other.

“So are you, sir,” said Angus. “I heard weird noises, so I decided to come investigate.”

Taako snorted, tugging about half of a small loaf of nut bread out of the bag. “Fair enough, I guess,” he said. “Got any conclusions?”

“Just that you’re weird!”

Taako pursed his lips, giving him a Look, and said, “how did you get up here anyway? There’s not a ladder.”

At that, Angus couldn’t help puffing up with pride. It was a clear diversion of subject, but... “I used levitate! I kept a hand on the wall as a tether and climbed up.”

Taako grinned at him, ruffling his hair. “Clever. You landed okay?”

“Mmhm! I managed to release the spell without wasting a ton of magic, even. So, anyway, your obvious diversion tactic aside, what are you doing up here before dawn, sir?”

Taako wheezed, a startled noise somewhere between a laugh and a cough. He shooed away a crow that had come to investigate the bread and rasped, “- fuck, kid, you don’t pull punches, do you?”

Angus shrugged.

“Fair enough. Here, have some bread,” Taako said, ripping the loaf in half and holding out one part. Angus took it, raising his eyebrows over the rims of his glasses.

“That’s not actually an answer, you know,” he said. Taako rolled his eyes.

“Shut up, I’m tryin’ to formulate a response. Either eat or feed the birds, bratling, lemme think a second.”

Angus tore a bit off the bread and tossed it to a crow. “You’re usually better at coming up with lies on the spot, sir,” he said conversationally.

“Yeah, well, it’s early,” Taako replied, his ears flicking in the way they always did when he was holding back a smile. “Can’t expect me to be up to my usual standards.”

“So are you not gonna answer me?”

“Probably not, no. Sorry.”

Angus held out a bit of bread, immediately rewarded with a crow landing on his knee to take it, and sighed. “You’re not, but that’s okay, I guess. Just, um…” He trailed off, frowning.

Taako blinked at him. “What?”

“...Are you okay? Only you’ve been stressed about something, and nobody will tell me anything, I just-” He scratched the crow under the chin, letting its weight on his leg ground him. “I’m worried, is all.”

The look Taako gave him then was unreadable; his mismatched eyes, always so strange, felt alien for a moment, timeless. His tail flicked. Then he shook his head and grinned wryly. “Angus, you’re like seven-”

“I’m eleven and you know it, sir.”

“You’re five years old ,” Taako declared, bumping Angus’ shoulder with his own companionably. “-it’s not your job to worry about me. It’ll be fine, I just have more work than usual because of some weird stuff happening back home, that’s all.”

Angus frowned. He got the feeling it was more than that, but peace with Taako always felt like a delicate balancing act; tip too far in any direction, and it might all come crashing down. He sighed, feeding a bite of bread to a lovely grey dove that had come to balance next to the crow, leaning against it with more comfort than Angus knew they could have with each other. Taako reached over, giving the dove a gentle scratch behind its head. He had an affinity for birds; it was something Angus had noticed even before this truly absurd rooftop scene. He was gentler, with them, than he ever was with people. He said that was because they were too stupid to understand rudeness, but Angus knew crows, at least, understood rudeness perfectly and Taako still treated them like a doting grandmother treats her toddler grandchildren.

As if on cue, he pulled a peanut out of his bag and tossed it to one of the crows, crooning at it. Angus couldn’t help smiling-Taako had such goofy and arbitrary rules, that only he seemed to follow, but it was...endearing. Seeing him soften was a rare and treasured thing, spikes and harshness blown away by the soft morning breeze to reveal an elf Angus wasn’t sure he really knew.

“...Well, you can always talk to me, sir,” Angus said finally. “You know that, right?”

Taako turned to blink at him, startled, then laughed. “You just want to know all my secrets.”

Angus smiled. “Well fuck, sir, you caught me,” he said, and Taako’s delighted cackle made not understanding almost worth it.

Chapter Text

Another dream. Blurred colors, old words, something ancient and familiar overlapping something new. A dim room, a pedestal, men in long robes, but at the same time light filtering through the great windows of what could be a cathedral or a palace or both, voices mixing and mingling to create a discordant song—

And then he woke up. Angus groaned, rolling over and folding his pillow over his head. He’d hoped he could make it a whole night without a weird dream, but apparently not. Apparently waking up at screw-this o’ clock in the morning was just his life now.

It would be one thing if he could at least figure out whatever the dream was about, but it always seemed to cut out right before anything came into focus enough to gather any conclusions. So it woke him up and was useless and frustrating, which was a list of several Cardinal Angus Sins.

It had been three days since the thing with the birds and almost two months since their arrival back in Neverwinter. The city was still strange, and getting worse; crowds at the weekly market days were improbably sparse and uncharacteristically quiet, leaving Angus with a growing sense of unease.

It didn’t help that the police were less than no use to his investigation—it was clear that Asa and others wanted the best for him, and for the captain, but that the deputy chief (Angus finally figured out his name—Aten Cross—by filching a paper off a desk at the central station, where they didn’t know him so well and took his story about someone stealing his purse at face value) had them focusing almost entirely on petty crimes rather than letting them investigate the disappearances.

Angus nestled deeper into his bed. It was his favorite bed he’d ever slept in—not the fanciest, just a simple oak frame with dark blue sheets, but the comforter was heavy in a way he wasn’t used to, and it soothed him, somehow. He still woke up at weird hours, but the anxiety that had always threatened to consume him as he waited for the sun to rise was lessened by the comfortable weight of the blanket.

He wondered who had slept here before, and if it calmed them too. He wondered who had sat at the desk before him, if it was there the books on the shelf were penned, wondered if they had asked someone to craft the beautiful furnishings or if, like Magnus, the artist had made them in a fit of enthusiasm. They were much too old for Magnus to have made them, but something about the smooth lines of the oak felt like him, somehow, and that was soothing too.

Angus rolled over, staring at the darkened ceiling with a sigh. Part of him wanted to get up, read, make the most of the quiet, but part of him wanted to curl back up beneath his heavy blankets and breathe slow till the sun fell warm across his body.

His wayward brain wouldn’t let him doze, of course. He wound up rising long before the dark retreated and carefully summoning a ball of light, floating it over his shoulder as he padded to his desk and clambered up into the chair.

The smooth surface of the desk had been almost completely overtaken by evidence; it looked chaotic, but Angus had a System, Merle, it was just subtle.

He was still struggling through the book of runic magic—Taako steadfastly refused to help him with it, looking increasingly frustrated each time he saw the book, and he didn’t want to push it. He pushed the book aside for the time being; he was still groggy enough that the words would all blend together on the page, anyway.

He flipped back through his journal until he found a passage he’d been reminded of the previous night—he’d overheard a cultist on a street corner talking to a small cluster of people, and Angus had scribbled down what he was saying before the proprietor of the store he was in front of came out to shoo him away.

“They know he’s the cause, friends, they hide away his marks in our temples and go quiet at the mention of his name! We are being lied to, friends, told he’s a god when in fact he is a monster.”

Angus frowned. He tapped at the paper with his pen, scribbling down a quick doodle of a wing. He had to mean the Lord of Crows, but why? In the book about cults he’d found deep within Lup and her husband’s library, it said that they often focused on the abstract concept of death as an enemy, but… To target the Lord of Crows specifically, when their whole deal was about the light of creation, seemed strange.

Angus groaned and dropped his head against the desk. He wished that people would quit mixing the gods up in their crimes and stick to things that made sense, like money, or revenge. He was sick of gods. Why they couldn’t just stay in the sky and leave him alone he’d never understand.

With a small pang of guilt, Angus rubbed the pendant around his neck. He didn’t mean it, not totally, but he wished he could narrow down the scope of his investigation at least a little. He couldn’t exactly call a deity over for a round of basic questioning.

“Probably be cagey even if I could,” he muttered, biting back a yawn.

“Who’d be cagey if you what?” Taako asked from his doorframe, knocking as an afterthought. Angus jumped, which accidentally scattered a couple of his papers.

Gods, sir,” Angus said, both as an answer and as an exclamation. “Do you just levitate for fun, and to scare little boys when they’re focusing by showing up without footsteps?”

Taako grinned wickedly. “It wouldn’t be particularly out of character for ol’ Taako, I admit,” he said. “What’cha doing up so early?”

“Just couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d get some work done,” Angus explained, pulling his legs up in the chair.

“Are you sure you’re a child,” Taako drawled, raising an eyebrow. “‘Cause lemme tell you, eleven-year-olds don’t usually get out of bed at five in the damn morning to get some work done.”

“You remembered that I’m eleven!”

“Don’t get used to it, kid.” Taako rolled his eyes, although his ears flicked in the way they did when he was happy. “What’s your name again?”

“Count Tipplesworth Ichabod Bananabottom the third,” Angus said smoothly. Taako choked on nothing, clapping a hand over his mouth as he laughed.

“Well, Count Bananabottom,” he said, his voice going pitchier than usual through his snickering. “Is there anything you want for breakfast? I can’t pick.”

“Ooh, can we do crepes?” Angus asked, hopping down from his chair. “And, second question, can I help?”

Taako hummed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he considered. “Yeah, I guess, as long as you don’t fuck up my kitchen. C’mon.”

“It’s your sister’s kitchen, sir,” Angus pointed out, and Taako scruffed his hair.

“Pedantic little shit. Come on, do you want tips and tricks or not?”

Angus laughed, obeying when Taako told him to find and chop some fruit for the toppings while he grabbed the ingredients for the actual batter. The sun had only just risen; the light that filtered through the kitchen windows was still somewhat ethereal in quality, that early-morning haze that made everything feel just a step removed from real. Taako was quiet, moving around him in the kitchen in an easy sort of way with none of his usual barbs. He’d pulled his hair up into a messy ponytail as they walked into the kitchen, and enough of his bangs were out of the way with it that Angus could make out the mark on his forehead a little more clearly; it helped that it seemed darker than it had when he’d first spotted it, too, almost black rather than the faint caramel shade it had been when Taako had been teaching him scrying. It’s clear, now, that there’s a sort of coil to it, an angular spiral with a bent tail that feels half-familiar to Angus.

He wanted to ask, but just looking at the mark kind of made  his head hurt. He couldn't imagine Taako wanting to tell him what it meant.

 

As they were about to put the pan on the stove, there was a knock at the door. Taako’s ears flicked upwards.

“I’m not expecting anyone,” he murmured, seemingly to himself. “Definitely not Lup, and Barry wouldn’t knock.”

Angus set down the knife he was using to cut strawberries, frowning. “It could just be a neighbor or something?”

“No, definitely not,” Taako told him. He sounded absolutely certain. “This house is warded to hell and back. It’s impossible to find unless you have the address.”

Before Angus could ask about that tidbit, whoever it was banged on the door again. Taako straightened his hair and started walking in the direction of the foyer, his tail lashing around his legs in agitation. Angus followed him, because of course he did, how could he not? There was too much mystery for him to just keep prepping breakfast.

Taako yanked the door open right after the third knock, ears pinned back. On the other side of the door was a tall, dignified looking woman with white hair in a sheet down her back, a folded tapestry folded over her arm.

“My name is Istus,” she said, staring into Taako’s face with unreadable, pale eyes, “and I need you to help me find my wife.”

Chapter Text

Taako stared at her. Istus stared back, her shoulders set and her posture steady. She was really quite striking, tall and sort of ethereal. She had white freckles scattered across her face, which Angus distantly remembered being a common thing when drow and humans mixed--she had rounder ears than an elf and brown skin, but her eyes were slitted and there was no sign her hair was bleached. Dangling from one ear was a crystal teardrop.

“Excuse the fuck out of me?” Taako said, crossing his arms with a frown. Istus brushed past him into the house, eliciting a squawk.

“I said,” she said, pushing some of the clutter on the dining table aside and laying out the tapestry she’d carried with her. “I need you to find my wife. Look.”

Taako made a face at her back, but he shut the door and followed her to the table, leaning against it with one hand. Angus padded after; as confused as he was, he was also curious, so he had to see this tapestry.

It was somewhat difficult to understand; mostly twisting bands of color, darting in and out of knots in an impressively complex way. At several points she’d woven in small images--here, a gemstone; there, a black feather, a flower, a book. She smoothed the cloth down with her hands, and Angus realized the work was unfinished; she’d tied off the thread carefully at several points, but it was clear she intended to put it back on the loom.

“What am I supposed to get out of this,” Taako asked, still frowning. “-And, more importantly, how did you find my house and why.”

“Those answers are connected, actually,” Istus replied, glancing up at him. “See this iridescent thread?” She pointed to a shimmering white band, the only one that was a constant through the entire work, which took up much of the image.

“Yeah…?”

“That’s me. I’m a clairvoyant, I work through weaving. This is my wife,” she pointed to a similarly iridescent black stripe that wound around her own neatly, sparkling strings mixing. Near where it began on the cloth was a small illustration of a black bird. “-Raven. I don’t know how you know her, but she’s been missing for weeks now, and I can’t scry her. Every time I try, I just come up with abstract images of stone walls, and when I tried her….” she trailed off, pausing to finally look at Taako and Angus. Her eyes fixed on the mark on Taako’s forehead. “...When I tried her… employer, all I got was you.”

As she spoke, Taako had gone slightly ashen. “...You could have just started with her name, lady,” he says, “...I know Raven. I don’t know where she is, though, not any more than you do.”

Angus glanced up at him and asked, “... is this the same person you were looking for the other day?”

Taako jumped. “ Fucking- I forgot you were there, Angus, please breathe like a normal human,” he said, running a hand through his hair.

“I don’t like to be loud. Sir, I thought you said that was out of my area!”

“It was,” he hissed, rubbing at his forehead. “But that’s not even-Angus, go deal with breakfast, okay? I don’t want to get you tangled up in this bullshit.”

Angus turned, gawking at him. Was he trying to dismiss him from a mystery? One that was literally on his doorstep? “ What ?”

“I said scram,” Taako said, raising his other hand to his forehead too. His tail lashed behind him, anxious and irritated. “Everything about this sucks, I don’t need you getting h—“ he paused. “...Getting in the way. If you still want crepes, go ahead and make ‘em. If not…just go.”

“But this is what I’m good at, sir! What-“

Angus ,” Taako said quietly, meeting his eye. There was something in the way he said it that made Angus straighten, something that tasted just faintly of magic. Taako let it hang for a moment, then, “ go .”

He went. He walked to the kitchen on autopilot, eyes burning with indignant tears. For all his teasing, Taako had never really treated him like a child before, had always acknowledged and accepted his skills, his smarts, his worthiness to be there.

He covered the crepe batter with a cloth and tucked it in the icebox—he couldn’t find it in himself to cook, instead just grabbed some of the berries out of the bowl he’d been putting them in and took them with him up to his room, risking a glance back down at the table on his way up the stairs.

Taako stood bent over the tapestry, murmuring something far too quiet to hear and tracing his hand along a line, his ears pinned miserably back against his head. Angus scrubbed a hand over his eyes and kept walking.

He ate the berries at his desk in silence, then wiped his hands on his pants just to spite adults in general. He wanted to go back to bed. If he’d still been at home, this wouldn’t be so surprising. He’d been able to handle this kind of thing, once. When had he lost that?

Angus scribbled something in his notebook and crawled back into his bed, pulling the heavy blanket over his head miserably. He pulled his pendant out from under his shirt to stare at, wishing it would give him answers beyond the low, comforting hum of magic that clung to it.

“Why did you make such a big thing of choosing me?” he asked, brushing his thumb over the ancient carvings. “And what was the point, if it doesn’t make people any more likely to listen to me?”

The pendant hummed, warm against his fingers. Angus sighed. “You don’t care either. I don’t know why I thought you might. Gods are just bigger grownups, aren’t you? Even less likely to listen.”

He hesitated, tempted to throw it outside his nest of blankets, but something stopped him. Instead, he just pulled it from around his neck and wrapped it around his wrist instead, crossing the leather strap several times to keep it secure against his pulse.

He fell asleep wishing he could help.

 

It was Magnus that woke him up, some hours later, with a gentle knock against his door. “Angus? Kiddo, you in there?”

He blearily pushed the blanket back off his head. “What?”

“Just checkin’ in on ya,” he said, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. “No offense, but you kinda look like shit, Ango.”

“...’S Taako’s fault,” he mumbled, folding the pillow over his head. “Is he still downstairs with that lady?”

“What? No, he left before I was done talking to Julia this morning, I have no idea where he went,” Magnus replied, giving Angus’ shoulder a gentle pat. “Are you okay? It’s like eleven, you never sleep this late.”

“I’m fine. Taako was just mean, that’s all, it threw me off.”

“He’s always mean,” Magnus said, frowning. “Did he…what did he do?”

Angus sat up. His head sort of hurt, which he was willing to chalk up to sleeping at a weird time. “Some woman came by, asking about her wife…He didn’t want me to help. I must have still been sleepy, I don’t really remember it too well.”

“Huh. Well, he’s out right now, anyway. You wanna do anything? I think Taako made crepes.”

Angus stretched, frowning. He had meant to do something today, but his head was all foggy. “I think… I’m pretty sure I was planning to look through the library for something,” he said, “but I’m sleepy, and I can’t remember what it was.”

Something about the Lord of Crows? He never forgot things, and he realized vaguely he’d probably be more freaked out if he were less sleepy. He pushed his blankets off him and stood, legs wobbly. Magnus had a look on his face like he really, really wanted to reach out and steady him, but thankfully he didn’t; Angus would have hated it.

“I can leave you alone if you want,” Magnus offered, “but seriously, you look kind of sick? You got a fever, bud?”

Angus didn’t protest Magnus’ hand as it came to press against his forehead, then huffed softly when it ruffled his hair, big fingers calloused but gentle. “Is that how you measure a fever, sir?”

“Hush,” he said, laughing. “I think you’re good on the fever front, but take it easy, okay? I’m gonna go see if I can find Taako.”

“All right, sir,” Angus said quietly. Once Magnus was gone, he levered himself up out of bed, rubbing his temple as he padded to the desk. He’d left his notebook open?

Raven? He’d written, T knows something important about the Lord of Crows.

He stared at the page for a moment before frowning and clapping the book shut, the runes etched into its leather glowing faintly as it closed. He shook his head to clear away some of the fog lingering there from whatever had happened that morning

It was long past time, he thought, to visit the catacombs.

Chapter Text

Angus stood frozen in front of the carved ebony doors to the catacombs, his hands tightly clenched. That was fine for the one wrapped around the strap to his bag, and less than ideal for the other, which held a small bouquet of flowers. He knew he could push the doors open; they didn’t even have a latch, indicative of the masked god’s welcoming hand, and would swing open with only a gentle touch; but it was hard to convince himself they were anything but foreboding.

The last time he had been to the Sanctuary of the Dead had been after his grandpa...well. He shook his head to clear it, trying to rid himself of bad memories like a dog shakes off water, and pushed on one side of the double door. It swung open without a sound, and Angus remembered enough of the temple’s etiquette to shut it gently behind him before descending the steps into the sanctuary proper.

The Sanctuary wasn’t a particularly frightening place on its own; in fact, the clerics in service to the Lord of Crows went out of their way to make it a comforting space, with low, warm light effusing the whole visiting space, leaving no dark corners to fear. It was quiet, but peaceful-quiet, a gentle sort of silence broken only by the whisper of feathers and the tapping of footsteps on stone. Often there were mourners scattered around the main chapel, families finding comfort in each other or individuals speaking in low voices to gentle people in dark robes. Funerals happened in a deeper room, so generally there weren’t many people gathered in any one place in the chapel.

Angus walked quietly through the room, running his fingers lightly over the carvings on the walls. Abstract patterns, mostly, swirling lines surrounding intricate marigolds and birds in flight. Over and over, though, he noticed one rune worked into the abstractions, a twisted geometric shape with a familiarity he couldn’t quite place. It was in the back of his mind, just barely out of his reach.

He kept walking, past the candle-covered altar with its black-iron crow skull at the end of the room and through the small door to its left, into the hall that lead to the actual catacombs. He nodded at one of the clerics as he passed, who smiled softly at him under her mask. It only covered the upper half of her face, which meant she was still relatively new to the order, but she had that soothing air about her most of them exuded.

“Going to visit someone?” she asked, her voice quiet but warm. Angus nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. My, um, my grandfather,” he said, stumbling slightly over his words. It was only partly an act; he really was young and nervous, but his wide eyes and trembling voice were largely just to get her to believe he wasn’t there for anything else. Why would an eleven-year-old come to the catacombs if not to visit a deceased relative?

“Do you need help finding him?” To her credit, she asked instead of assuming. Angus appreciated that.

“No, ma’am,” he said, “but thank you. I’ve visited him before, I know the way.”

“Then walk in peace, young one,” she said, nodding. “And do be careful, the stone can get slippery if you go down to the lower levels.”

He smiled at her, leaving her behind with a final thank you! that he mostly even meant. As she passed through the door to the main chapel he slowed his walk, lingering on the carvings in the walls. They changed slightly as one got closer to the tombs, growing gradually less soothing; more skulls appeared, more distinctive unknown symbols became apparent in the stone, the flowers began to disappear. The soft light got darker, more forbidding. It was all normal; the closer to the actual dead you get, the more things become aimed at them, at reflecting their existence and preventing any visiting necromancers from getting any bright ideas about casting inside the necropolis.

Along the right wall there were doors, of course, mostly locked - the clergy had to live and work somewhere, and funerary preparations had to be done in certain rooms on the uppermost level before a body could be taken down to its ultimate place. They also had symbols carved into them, although usually it would be only one per door, carefully worked into the wood. Angus couldn’t really “read” them, given the particular language of runes used in the Sanctuary and other necrotic temples was taught only to the clerics themselves.

He had stopped to examine one, a simple ebony door with that same recurring symbol that had been frustrating him since he came inside, when he heard the grinding of stone against stone behind him. He whirled to look for its source, his mind flying uselessly to the possibility of a cave-in.

It wasn’t a cave-in, of course; it was simultaneously much better and much worse. Around fifty feet behind him, a door that had been invisible a moment before had slid open, making a horrible crunching sound that made Angus wince.

“Ugh, I hate that noise,” said someone on the other side while Angus panicked silently, eyes darting to the knob on the door he was standing next to. He weighed the power of fear against his curiosity, and of course the curiosity won out; he went very still and waited, fixing his gaze on the secret door.

Two men came through it, one wearing a cleric’s robes, fixing his mask onto his face as he crossed the threshold and the other… the other he recognized as Aten Cross, the deputy chief who had taken over after Captain Laurent vanished. He was taking off a necklace as he talked, some kind of golden sun he shoved into his pocket before Angus could get a good look at it. He’d been the one speaking, Angus realized.

“I know, but at least it’s my turn on the fuckin’ hallway,” the cleric said. “At least we won’t have to deal with anyone hearing us.”

Shit . Angus stayed perfectly still until they turned back to shut the secret door, then used the grinding to mask the sound of him fumbling with the knob on the rune-door, which opened, to his shock and good luck. He slipped through it as quietly as he could, breathing a sigh of relief as it shut. Hopefully they hadn’t heard him, or seen the light spill out of the room he’d entered.

Because it was brightly lit, enough so that Angus had to blink spots out of his eyes until they adjusted; there was a round skylight in the center of the ceiling that he could see the bright sun of Neverwinter through, as well as lit candles scattered around the room. Angus stared around, transfixed, at the chamber he found himself in.

The light wasn’t anywhere near the most interesting part of the room; it was relatively small, only a little bigger than Angus’ bedroom back at the house, with a raised dais to one side and a glittering, clear pool to the other. Above the dais was a massive mural, taking up the entire wall, of a crow and a dove circling each other above a background of skulls and starfields, that same geometric spiral in the center of the space between them.

The pool had a mosaic along the bottom, a mask worked in glass almost like the one the Lord of Crows was generally depicted wearing but-- different , lighter, more like what someone would wear to a masquerade than a wake, with glittering purple worked into the patterns across it and a thinner, more delicate beak. That same symbol was there, vivid black in the very center of the forehead, right where-

That’s where he’d seen it. On Taako’s face, getting more and more stark over the last few weeks, covered perfectly by that crown he’d worn on the roof. The one he was always rubbing at like it hurt him.

Angus didn’t even think to take out his notebook, too transfixed by the chamber. He walked slowly up to the mural, unwilling to touch it but so fascinated, struck by how similar it was to the birds that had danced above their cart the evening they arrived in Neverwinter, the dove that had turned out to be his teacher. He could almost hear his voice, I’m a man of great mystery and panache, spoken so glibly as Angus gaped at him for his feat of magic.

Great mystery, indeed. Angus was about to peek through the door out to the hallway when a very real voice cut through his thinking.

“Angus? What the fuck are you doing here?”

He jumped, turning around in alarm to where the voice had come from; there was another door on the opposite side of the room from the one he’d used to enter, and Taako was standing halfway through it, his hand still resting on the knob.

“Taako? Sir, I--I just came down to the catacombs to-”

“Did you follow me? Second question, how did you follow me, you were asleep when I left.” Taako looks genuinely alarmed, which is something Angus isn’t used to; usually he’s somewhere on a spectrum of unimpressed to smug.

“I didn’t follow you,” Angus said. “I didn’t even know you were here!”

Taako pursed his lips, cocking one eyebrow. “Sure, and you only found this secret room super deep in the temple by accident. Come on, kid, I’m not that dumb.”

“I only came in here because some guys came through a secret door and I’m pretty sure that if I’d stayed where they could see me something bad would have happened!” He said it all in one breath, anxiously ripping the leaves off a flower. “Sir, I don’t think everything here is right.”

Taako blinked. Frowned. Stepped out into the room, shutting the door behind him, and said, “okay, show me.”

With a sigh of relief, Angus gestured to the door leading out to the hallway. “I’m kind of nervous, but they should be gone by now.”

“Yeah, and I’m a badass, don’t worry about it, little man,” Taako assured him, striding to the door without concern and swinging it open. He held it for Angus, waving a hand at the little sanctum once they were both through. Angus could just barely see the candles all go out at once, the skylight shimmering to darkness. He decided he could ask later.

“All right, where’s this secret door?” Taako stared around at the hall’s uninterrupted walls, unimpressed. “You’re smart, wizardlet, so I mostly believe you, but.”

Angus nodded. He led Taako down the hallway, finding the area he was fairly sure the door was hidden in. He ran his fingers along the carvings in the wall, searching carefully for a latch or mechanism, and let out a satisfied “ yes!” when he felt something click and depress.

“Oh, it’s loud, watch out,” he added, and Taako looked down at him in mild alarm as the door started to grind open. He wasn’t surprised when the elf clapped his hands over his ears, the tuft of his tail puffing up in displeasure.

Once the door had finished its unpleasant journey, Taako removed his hands with a grimace. “You weren’t kidding. What the fuck is this?”

“I’m not sure, sir - the two people I saw come through it were a priest and that weird cultist police deputy I told you about, Aten Cross? I think maybe the Church of the Light has infiltrated the order.” He fiddles with the flowers again, scuffing at the ground with one shoe. “I mean, hopefully it’s just the one guy. But... this doesn’t strike me as an official tunnel.”

“No, it’s not,” Taako murmured. He ducked through the door, a small ball of light floating from his hand to illuminate the space beyond. It was a marked difference from the graceful carvings of the Sanctuary, just rough-hewn stone with an occasional wooden support post. The tunnel curved downwards into darkness.

Taako crouched down, brushing his hand over a set of symbols painted over the ground just before the door. “This is an anti-scrying spell. That might be why… Angus, come on. I think this might be somethin’ important.”

“What I don’t understand is why they’d be here, of all places,” Angus said. “They’ve got beef with the Lord of Crows specifically, I think? So I can’t think of a reason they’d have a hideout in his temple unless they were trying to destabilize his clergy.”

“Scroll back a bit, explain their problem with the ol’ ell-oh-see,” Taako responded, standing back up. He brushed off his leggings, grimacing slightly at the dust that stuck to them, and flicked one hand at the runes beneath his feet.

Angus answered his question, even as the symbols dissolved into smoke and ash. “They’re an immortality cult, I think. They think if they kill the god of death, they’ll kill death in general, and that’s what the Light of Creation intended all along, I guess? To make a perfect, deathless world.”

Taako rolled his eyes so hard it looked like he was rolling his whole head. “That old chestnut, I see,” he said, “well, they’re full of shit, but they must be at least passably good at magic to have done all this. Come on, we should keep going.”

“Sir, um, if we’re going into a cult’s secret lair, don’t you think we should have...I don’t know, backup? A healer maybe?”

There was a beat of silence before Taako groaned and nodded. “Yeah, okay, fine, let’s go get the chucklefuck brigade. After that it’s Taako’s fun magic murder corner, capisce?”

“We could maybe, uh, maybe try keeping the murder to a minimum, sir, if that sounds good to you, actually,” Angus said, wincing as the door began to grind closed. “Like, maybe even no murder? Ideally?”

Taako made a face, looking contemplative. “I’ll think about it, wizardlet. Even if it’s what no fun nerds do.”

Angus smiled and bumped his shoulder against Taako’s arm. “Thanks for listening to me, sir. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of this situation. Really dig down to the core of it.”

“I’m not responding, in the hopes that you’ll stop making tunnel jokes,” Taako said, actively avoiding looking at Angus as they started to walk back to the main chapel. Angus grinned.

“It’s all downhill from here, sir!”

“Oh, shut up,” Taako said, although there was affection in his voice.

His hands were trembling. Angus was glad he’d convinced him to get Magnus and Merle, because although he probably didn’t think he noticed, Taako was scared of whatever they’d find down that tunnel.

Chapter Text

Taako was practically vibrating by the time they got home, his tail flicking behind him anxiously. He kept flexing his fingers, clenching and unclenching his hands to the point that Angus was half afraid he’d cut his palms open with his nails, and his strides were long enough that Angus had kept having to break into half a run to catch up on the way back.

“Sir, wait up,” he called, and Taako slowed down slightly. “What’s so scary about this?”

Taako glanced down at him, frowning. “Who said I’m scared?”

He pursed his lips, looking up at Taako skeptically. “Well, your body language, for one.”

Taako rolled his eyes and didn’t respond, choosing instead to yank open the front door and holler, “ hey idiots! Wanna come beat up a cult with me?”

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that that worked, really, but Angus was mildly impressed anyhow by how quickly Magnus’ “ hell yeah!” and Merle’s “ fine, whatever” came from other rooms in the house. Apparently they were always down to fight a cult, who knew.

Magnus came jogging into the living room a few seconds later, strapping a guard to one arm. “Hey guys! Who we thumpin’?”

“Church of the light,” Taako replied absently, reaching over to swap his gauzy shawl out with a sturdier coat. “‘Parently they’ve got beef with our mutual pal the masked god, and somehow-” his face twisted into a look of utter disgust, “-they’ve got a secret tunnel into the fuckin’ catacombs.”

“Do you think they could actually do anything to him?” Magnus asked. “I mean, he’s a god, and a big one at that.”

Taako grimaced. “They’ve been using reconditic runes, I don’t know what they’ve got up their shitty little cult sleeves. If I ever figure out who wrote a fucking textbook about those things I’m gonna turn their legs into casu marzu, mark my words.”

“Who’s getting turned into maggot cheese, now?” Merle asked. He walked into the room much less energetically than Magnus, although there was a spark in his eye. 

As if on reflex, Taako replied, “your mom. No, just some dumbass academic that thought writing a book on runes that can trap gods was a good fucking idea. Honestly.”

“Wait, they can what? Sir, is that why you didn’t want me reading that book?” Angus asked, his eyes wide. 

“Yes, Angus, that’s why I didn’t want you reading it,” Taako said, “nobody should be able to do that. Definitely nobody should write it down in a book where anybody can read it. Fucking hell.”

“Didn’t you use them one time to-”

“Shut up, Merle,” Taako snapped. He tugged anxiously at his feather earring. “I know exactly what I did. Now are you coming or not?”

“Alright, alright, geez! Calm down, touchy,” Merle said, raising his hands up in entreaty. “We need anything special, or are we goin’ in wands a-blazing?”

Magnus ducked out the back door, calling “second one, I think!” He came back in with an axe over one shoulder and his shield on his back. “Just sort of based on, uh, the murder in Taako’s eyes? That’s my guess.”

“Not wrong, big guy,” Taako muttered. He pulled out a small compact mirror and hissed something under his breath, then snarled in frustration. “Come on, let’s go before I break this fucking mirror. Wait, shit.”

He shoved his hair out of his face, then pressed his fingers against the mark on his forehead. As he pulled them back, something flickered over his face, ghostly-translucent at first and slowly forming, flicking back and forth from the circlet Angus had seen before to an intricate colombina mask and back to the circlet before he could register any of the details about it. As it solidified, Taako glanced into the mirror again and let out a resigned sigh.

“Good enough, I guess. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“Sir? What is that crown?” Angus couldn’t contain his curiosity entirely, especially considering the day he’d had. “What does it have to do with the Lord of Crows?”

Taako paused, eyes flickering to Angus and then away again. He didn’t answer.

“Sir…”

Magnus patted Angus’ shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll just get us into the sanctuary without anybody bugging us, that’s all.”

“The idea that we’d use the door is cute, Burnsides,” Taako muttered. “Come on.”

When they got near the Temple of All, Taako took a turn Angus didn’t recognize, leading them into the vast building and down a long hall. Angus recognized the murals along the walls as dedications to the Twins, but he didn’t have enough time to really get a good look at them, given how hard it was to keep up with Taako without distractions. 

They passed through an archway, and suddenly they were outside again; it took a minute to gather his thoughts enough to realize it was an enclosed courtyard rather than another world, such was the difference between the pristine church walls and the wildness of the yard. It was overgrown with ferns and peonies, with a mossy statue of the twins in the center that looked like it was once a fountain. The Fire-Twin was whispering into the Stone-Twin’s ear, one of each of their hands curled over each other between them. There was a space between the palms —the Stone’s facing down, the Fire’s facing up—where it looked like water once flowed. The Stone-Twin’s other hand was gone, fallen to the grassy floor and reclaimed by moss and weather. 

As tempted as Angus was to stick around and catalogue every crumbling fragment of marble and glass, Taako hadn’t bothered to slow down. He strode to a spot at the feet of the statue, his ears pinned back as he muttered something under his breath. 

“Man, this place is a mess,” Magnus said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “I mean, I’d expect this from the Peacekeeper, but the twins?”

“Maybe their clerics realized that letting nature claim your holy spaces makes them more powerful,” Merle said serenely. “Those are nice ferns.”

“Leave the ferns alone, you gross old man,” Taako grumbled, stepping back. “And come on. Time’s a-wastin’.”

At the base of the fountain a hole had opened in the ground, roughly four feet across. Taako glanced at his companions, raised one eyebrow, and stepped into it, casual as can be. A moment later, Angus heard the soft click of boots on tile.

“I don’t know featherfall!” Magnus yelled. From the bottom of the hole, Taako sighed. It was loud enough that it was definitely pointed and intentional.

“I cast it on all of us, dingus, I knew you’d bitch at me if I didn’t! Now get down here!”

Magnus rolled his eyes, muttering, “well you don’t gotta be a jerk about it.” He hopped into the hole without further prodding, though, seemingly mollified by Taako’s assurance. Merle followed, and Angus was left in the garden, wishing he had enough time to stay and look around.

Beside him, a dove fluttered out of the grass and into the sky above. He stepped into the hole.

As he landed it sealed into a pane of glass, seemingly having served its purpose. Angus looked at it for a moment, then paused to take in his surroundings.

He was back in that sanctum again, standing between the bird mural and the pool. He wondered if there was a secret entrance to the catacombs for every god, or if there was some special connection between the Twins and the Lord of Crows he didn’t know about. 

Beside him, Taako was tapping his foot impatiently. “If we’re done gawking, can we goooo?”

“Chill out, Taako, I’ve never been in here before,” Magnus said, “that’s a dope mural. How long has that been there?”

Taako rolled his eyes. “I dunno, Mags, I don’t live here. A hundred years? Two? Who cares, there’s a cult downstairs to kill.”

Magnus heaved a sigh and gestured to Taako to lead the way, looking put out. Angus was sort of with him; he had so many questions about the little sanctum himself that he could probably write a book of them, but he doubted he’d get any answers. Right now, anyway. 

Taako led them out into the hall, looking at Angus when they neared the hidden door. He raised an eyebrow and said, “you know how to get this fucker open, right?”

“Oh! Uh, yes! Hang on,” Angus said, running his fingers along the grooves in the stone until he found the button again, glancing back as he clicked it. Taako had already covered his ears, and Magnus tentatively followed his lead. Merle didn’t seem phased by the noise, regarding the door with the same kind of bemused blankness he reserved for pretty much everything related to the cult.

“Secret doors are always fun,” Magnus said, once the grinding stopped. “Probably any guards or anything know we’re here now, though.”

As though to prove his point, two figures in white robes came running down the hall towards them, one with a mace and the other carrying a thin sword. Magnus rolled his eyes before stepping forward, cracking one over the head with his elbow and throwing the other into the wall, where he slumped, unconscious, to the ground. 

“Hey Merle, could you make sure these dudes don’t get up?” Magnus asked, poking at one of them with his toe. “I’d ask Taako to do it, but there’s murder in his eyes, so.”

“Yeah, all right,” Merle said. He pressed one hand to the wall and closed his eyes, humming softly. For a long moment, nothing happened, and Angus was just about to speak when he heard a crackling sound above him. 

A crack was forming in the roof of the tunnel, small at first but spreading, dropping dust onto the unconscious cultists. Angus stepped back, frightened of a cave-in, but just as the crumbling became genuinely concerning several long, twisting roots burst through, weaving a support across the roof and reaching down at the same time. 

The cultists were hoisted into the air, knotted securely into the tangle of roots on the ceiling, nearly out of the way unless you happened to look up. 

Merle knocked dust off his hands with a triumphant little laugh. 

“Nice,” said Magnus. “Let’s keep moving. Hopefully they didn’t set off any alarms, but if they did we gotta go fast.”

Angus hummed, gazing down the pathway. It was dim and quiet, dusty stone floor sloping downwards into blackness. “That was impressive, sir.”

“Thanks, kid,” Merle said, gazing serenely up at the trapped cultists. “Not a trick I get to pull out enough.”

Angus laughed softly, then started down the tunnel, summoning a little ball of light as he went. “There’s probably gonna be a fork up ahead, follow me,” he said cheerfully. “One side will almost definitely be a trap.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Taako asked, his steps hurried enough that Angus had to jog to keep up. 

“This isn’t my first secret-society-underground-maze rodeo, sir,” he chirped. “They always get sloppy.”

He was right; when they came to a fork in the tunnel, he barely slowed down, only giving the left branch the most fleeting of glances; no footprints in the dust, crumbling stone and a sharp turn that obscured what lay beyond. Definitely trapped. The branch he took was clearly well-traveled, although he didn’t love the way the ground sloped sharply downwards ahead of them—having the way ahead obscured was never great. 

But on they went anyway, walking down the silent hall by the light of Angus’ spell. After a few more minutes, they started passing doors, crude things hewn from scrap wood and jammed into the sod and stone around them without much eye for craftsmanship. Most were at least partway open, and as they passed Angus spotted just the barest hints of the dark cells beyond. They all seemed to be furnished the same way; a cheap bedroll shoved up against a wall, a bucket and an extinguished candle thrown haphazardly into the room. They gave off a noticeable smell of mildew and rot that made him want to scrub at his nose to get rid of it; most potent was the old hay making up the bedrolls, but beyond that was the revolting, telltale stench of death. 

He didn’t poke his light into the cells. He didn’t really want to see what lay beyond the cracked doors.