Actions

Work Header

Drag Your Cities to the Sea (No Light, No Light)

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

Kravitz comes to with the sound of a clanging and a creaking that splits his head in two and makes him blink blearily in the dark.

The sound of his cell-door opening.

And Kravitz is filled, suddenly, completely, with an overpowering dread.

Because there is only one reason that anyone would come to open his cell.

He recognizes the guard, he thinks, the one at the cell door. But he’s so tired, he’s so tired and he’s been in the dark so long he can’t think – he can’t –

There’s a hand on his arm, and he’s pulled roughly to his feet, and there’s – are there two guards? Someone’s putting a rope around his wrists, someone’s binding him and he tries to fight back but he’s so tired, and the guards feel so strong and before he knows it he’s bound and being shoved down a hall, being forced to walk, one stumbling step in front of another, away from his cell and to – and to –

The moment Kravitz enters the light he’s blinded.

It’s so bright, and it’s so hot, and Kravitz has spent so long in the cold dark that he can’t see, his eyes hurt as they try to adjust and he wants to close them, and then there’s a hand across his face, hard, and he gasps and stumbles, back into the arms of another guard, and he’s in the dirt-covered yard, and the sun is so bright.

“Wake him up,” someone says, voice rough and commanding. “He’ll be up in a half hour and she'll want to see his eyes.”

There’s grumbling, and Kravitz is being shoved around roughly, and then he’s underwater, or his head is at least, cold, cold, they’re drowning him, and he struggles, and is very much awake.

Before he can get enough of a grasp on his faculties to realize that he should grab a drink while his head is under, they’ve pulled him back out. So much for it.

Now alert, it all comes back to Kravitz in a rush, and yes, he can name the guards that flank him on either side, and can feel the raw and painful gnawing in his stomach that makes him want to double over, and the pain in his throat like the claws of some feral animal dug in deep, and the pounding in his head and the exhaustion settled into his bones and his veins.

Then there are blows. He doesn’t know what hits him as he huddles on the ground, but he brings up his arms to try and protect his head, and feels the sharp crack of canes, or swords, or whips across his back. Feels the tears in his skin and the blood begin to flow, the heat of it, his shirt shredded. He doesn’t know how long it goes on, but the pain consumes him, like fire on his crumpled form.

And there’s a weight in his chest, one that Kravitz can name. One that he’s been carrying for gods only know how long. One he can identify and refuses to pick at, for fear that in this moment, the careful control that has kept him holding on in that black, stinking place will shatter, and that they will get the satisfaction of seeing him crack on this, his last day.

He is bound, and beaten, and starved, but he is not broken, and he will not allow them that.

So he schools his expression and his breath as best he can, as he is taken through the yard, flanked on either side, and loaded up in a cart, made to stand there, hands bound, ankles tied down, as it begins to move, as the palace gates swing open, and Kravitz is brought out into the square.

The first thing he hears is the roar of the crowd, screaming and shouting so that he is deafened. The first thing he sees is the gallows, standing tall and proud in the center of the square. The first thing he feels is the crack of something on his face, and the first thing he smells is rotten egg, shortly after.

He gets a chance, then, as the cart pulls slowly forward, to take it all in.

It seems the whole of the Astral City has come out today to see the spectacle, and Kravitz holds his head high as more projectiles are lobbed his way by a crowd nothing short of furious. They yell at him, and they scream, words like scum and traitor and other horrible things. There are people on the balconies of the buildings surrounding the square, and most notably, across from him, opposite the gallows, a raised structure, like stands, under a canopy of black fabric, black curtains closing it in on three sides, and Kravitz can’t see inside of it but he knows without having to that that is where She sits. That the seats are fine velvet and that she will be placed quite directly in the middle, where she can see the faces of those who hang. Where she can see their necks snap and the light leave their eyes.

Where She will watch it leave his.

It makes it all the more important that he not allow himself to break.

But the journey of the cart is slow, and the sun beating down on Kravitz combined with his lack of any semblance of strength or health and the pain, the pain is making him dizzy, and he almost fears he will faint. He has to steady himself as all manner of refuse is hurled at him from the shrieking crowd below. When he reaches the gallows, it is almost a relief, even with his heart beating a mile a minute, and the weight on his chest suffocating and having taken up a remote residence in his gut as well, his whole body being slowly inhabited by dread, and fear, and – and –

His feet on the hot, rough wood of the platform feels so sharp, and so real, and suddenly it hits him.

That this is it. That in a few short moments, he will be gone, and regret, regret, white hot and sharp lodges itself in him right over his heart, and Kravitz finally allows himself to understand exactly what will be lost here today.

The trapdoor is slightly shaky under his feet as he stands above it, just that much less secure than the rest of the platform, just enough to alert one to its purpose, and the sun beats down, and somewhere behind him and to the side of him people are shifting around, taking places, preparing.

The roar of the crowd is somehow stronger yet. And there are drums - how did he not hear them before? Drums that he's known since - he can't remember when. All he remembers is that he used to rejoice in them, and now...

There's a crescendo, and Kravitz lifts his eyes to the stands in front of him, and he can’t see into the shade, but he fixes his eyes, there, there in the very center, right where he knows She will be, and he doesn’t flinch as the rough rope is pulled over his head, as the noose is secured around his neck. Doesn’t flinch as his bonds on his wrists are tightened one last time, and his ankles, too, so that he cannot move from his place.

He just looks straight ahead, and hopes that something in his expression will compel Her to face what She has done.

Taako.

It bubbles up from somewhere deep in him, unbidden, and Kravitz resists for the smallest fraction of a breath, before he allows it to consume him.

Taako, Taako, Taako, Taako.

Taako will miss him, he’s sure, when he hears what came of this. When he finds out, he will mourn, surely. But Kravitz has enough energy, enough presence of mind to hope that he will not hear of it for a long while yet. That somewhere, Taako is holding hope in his heart, that the news of Kravitz's fate will be slow to reach him, perhaps so slow that it will all be over before Taako has the chance to know grief.

That is Kravitz’s greatest regret. That he will never see Taako again, certainly, but more that Taako will have to suffer because of him.

Taako, and it’s a desperate thought, and Kravitz wonders what he wouldn’t do to see him again, one last time. His face, illuminated by candlelight - even a glimpse of his hair in the sun, of his spells - 

Something flashes in the corner of his eye.

Strange that he looks away, so intent is he on staring down his one-time mother, but he does, a mindless reaction, and it only takes him a moment to spot, on the executioner’s hand, a ring.

Fourth finger, on his right hand, and it strikes him as odd – don’t the executioners wear gloves?

It's as though time slows, and Kravitz's mind with it, because it takes him far too long to recognize... he knows that ring. He’d know it anywhere, in a thousand years.

Taako, he thinks again, only now it means –

The floor drops out from under him and Kravitz goes down.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Kravitz keeps his eyes shut against the flickering candlelight, feels the hard stone floors beneath his knees, pressing, hard enough to hurt as he kneels before her Majesty's throne. He can feel the weight of her scepter as it presses against his shoulder, his head.

"Rise, Admiral," Her Majesty's voice caresses his ear like the friendly embrace of a winter's night. And Kravitz obeys, a swelling in his heart, turns to look at the assemblage before him, gathered in their many black cloaks and silvered jewelry, looking on in imperfect silence.

“This is Kravitz,” the Raven Queen says, and her voice booms in the room almost supernaturally, filling the corners. “Lay your eyes upon him and see that he is blessed among my people. He has shown himself worthy, has garnered my favor, and as such I have elevated him to power second only to my own. Look upon him, and see the face of one who will bring safety to the Astral Coast. So it is done.”

For a moment he indulges himself, dwells in the feeling of a hundred eyes upon him, relishes the clink of the medals pinned to the breast of his uniform, the way they catch the light of the candles lining the walls and the edges of the Queen’s dais.

And with a trembling heart and trembling hands, he takes his place beside the Raven Queen, standing at Her right hand.

There is a polite clapping, the sound of many gloved hands brought together, and then there erupts in the room the sound of instruments, and the assembly, taking off their black outer garments and handing them off to all manner of valets and servants, looks like a blooming garden as they begin to dance.

“Kravitz,” comes the Queen’s voice from next to him, and he immediately bows his head as She addresses him. “You have pleased me greatly. I expect that you shall continue to do so for many years."

“It is my greatest wish, my Queen,” he murmurs, and bows low, to kiss Her gloved hand.

“Go,” She says, and when he straightens she's smiling at him, a rare, cold thing. “Greet your guests. You will not have long to do so. Your ship leaves harbor at dawn, and I expect your crew to be fully prepared.”

This is news to Kravitz, but he keeps his expression schooled into a sort of impassive pleasantness as he thanks Her and descends from the dais onto the dance floor in measured steps. He is immediately swamped by people, shaking his hand and offering their congratulations, many of them genuine, many more of them with a twist in their smile that Kravitz knows all too well.

No matter. He is Admiral now. The Raven Queen has placed Her faith in him. They are inconsequential.

The evening spins away in bright, shimmering threads of many colors. Kravitz does not dance. He spends very little time in small talk with the many lords and ladies, the gentry that have been asked to a celebration and ceremony such as this, most of them involved in the Queen’s retinue in one way or another, whether it be in monetary support, or by their own hands, or by the contribution of their sons and daughters to Her service. He drinks the Queen’s wine, and talks with them, ignoring as best as he can their covetous looks and thinly veiled criticism.

It is something of a controversy, Kravitz being put into such a position of power now, as young as he is. He’s only been in the Raven Queen’s retinue for maybe… a decade? A criminally short time, in the eyes of many. His humble background, too, is unpopular among the wealthier of the retinue. The highborn families of the Astral City consider it an honor for their children to work for her Majesty, and many of them erroneously expect powerful positions to be given to them in a matter of years.

No one in the assembly could ever verbally disrespect Her choices, though, especially not with Her sitting above them even as they speak, watching the assembly with a practiced nonchalance. The moment one enters Her hall, they are on their very best behavior, and shall remain so for the duration of their stay.

So whisper as they might, not a one of them can touch Kravtiz. He is protected personally by his Queen and Goddess, and for his merit. He has nothing to fear, and even less to be ashamed of.

He spends the evening among the bright swirling crowd, soaking up their praise and suspicion like a sponge, and that evening he retires to his brand-new quarters in palace, said to be the finest next to Her own, with an adjacent office and sitting room the likes of which he has never seen. His bed will be the most comfortable he’s ever slept in, the thick mattress below and the thick blankets above and thick curtains surrounding him in silence and warmth.

It is there he finds a letter upon that very desk, stamped with Her seal.

His orders are inside.

To leave the Astral City the next day, and to take his ship out with its crew for the very first time, a patrol of the coast, an inaugural pseudo-voyage that he might become accustomed with the crew and with his new position. Routine, but Kravitz is already thrilled. It is everything he’s been waiting for, to be recognized as such by his Queen.

He goes to sleep with it on his mind, a sharp satisfaction settled into his bones, his lungs, his mind and his heart.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

By the time the dawn hits the next morning, Kravitz is already on the deck of his own ship, his new pressed uniform with its silver brocade shining in the early light of the sun peeking over the horizon as the ship pulls smoothly away from the deck and Kravitz watches the Astral City drift away behind them. Her palace on the cliff’s edge, the slope of the city down to the water, the way the sun casts gold and orange light at the buildings in grayscale stone.

His crew works diligently on the deck, Kravitz having to give them few orders at all, as capable as they are. He simply stands at the rear of the ship, letting his men take them out and away from the city, admires the wide shadow cast by their massive black sails, and let the sun shine on his back until his home is far out of sight and nothing surrounds them but ocean.

Kravitz breathes in deep, the cool morning air of the sea stinging his lungs, and he smiles.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“Admiral!”

Kravitz leaps from his seat and moves out onto the deck as quickly as he can manage without looking completely undignified, squinting from the brightness of the sun, an abrupt adjustment from the darkness of his cabin. His first mate stands on the deck, spyglass in hand, looking resolutely toward the horizon where Kravitz can just barely see the white sails of a ship.

The man hands him the spyglass immediately as Kravitz comes to stand beside him.

“Looks like our first voyage won’t be completely without excitement, sir.”

Kravitz raises the glass to his eye, finding the ship, and sure enough, there on the mast, a flag. Skull and Crossbones.

Pirates.

Pirates very obviously headed directly into the Raven Queen’s waters.

And now Kravitz smirks, a quiet excitement rolling through him. It won’t take him long to please his Queen. No more than a week to prove himself. And these pirates look to number only one ship, hardly even challenge Kravitz’s. It will take no more than half an afternoon to take them down.

Kravitz turns to his first mate.

“Set a course for the pirates’ ship. They will not trespass upon our Queen’s waters for long.”

True to Kravitz’s expectations, all the pirates are either captured or killed by the setting of the sun, their ruined ship, torn to pieces by the Raven Queen’s cannons, on its way to the bottom of the sea. It’s a decisive victory, and one that Kravitz knows will please Her.

He sends the captured pirates to the brig, all of them guaranteed to be put into the Stockade when he returns to the Astral City. But Her Majesty ordered a month-long tour of the coast, and who is Kravitz to deny Her? Three weeks in the brig will do the survivors some good, allow them to consider their choices to live a life of dishonesty and crime, and if they don’t have the food or water to support the extra passengers, well, that’s not really his problem, now is it?

He sleeps well that night.

By the time he returns to the Astral City at the end of the month, his crew has handily destroyed two more pirate ships, the brig positively full of prisoners, and even more of their kind at the bottom of the ocean along with their useless ships.

He has sent no word back to the Astral City all the long while, partially out of convenience – to dock and send it by land would be take time, and why should he send a letter by sea when his ships are all in use? But even beyond that, Kravitz must admit an element of spite that motivates his actions. When he finally docks, it’s no surprise that his fellow captains and the rest of the retinue, those who have looked down on him for years, are shocked at the parade of enemies of Her Majesty that are led through the streets of the Astral City in chains to face Her judgement.

He gives his report to Her in person. And she raises two eyebrows when he reports to her the number of captives they took. Which is… unprecedented.

He cannot overstate his pride.

And thus it continues. The months in Her retinue are long, and the work is hard. Her standards are high, and to satisfy them, Kravitz must be ruthless. But his conviction never falters. She is omnipotent. She is the avenging force of Justice, and Kravitz Her hand. She will keep the kingdom free, and for Kravitz to do her bidding is the greatest honor on this earth.

He would do no less for his Mother.

Kravitz hunts, and Kravitz kills. Kravitz gives orders and watches as the kingdom is made safe.

And when he lies in bed at night, he thinks to himself that surely…

This must be what happiness is.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

Taako’s fingers curl tightly around the ropes of the Starblaster’s rigging as the ship cuts smoothly through the waves of the Sea of Souls below, his heart pounding in his chest and his eyes on the horizon. It’s quiet in the rigging, especially after a victory, when their victims lie far behind them and the hull of the Starblaster is weighed down with riches, and Taako relishes wind buffeting him and the crashing of the waves, the constant sway of the ship.

In these moments, it’s freedom that hangs sweet on his tongue and settles in his lungs, and Taako loves nothing better.

He laughs, loud and long, throws his head back and lets the sound of it get swept away over the water, and for only one moment he allows himself to relax. Victory lies behind them on the sea, in the form of a trade ship sent from Lady Istus’ kingdom, laden down with rich fabrics and fine wines, bound for the Astral City.

It had been quick work, and easy.

And it had been sent on its way, of course, without any harm to the crew…

But with a fraction of its original cargo.

Taako hadn’t been sure about the decision to immediately announce themselves to Raven Queen by attacking a ship on their first day in her territory, but no one on The Starblaster was very subtle. He supposes it’s only a matter of time.

After all, it’s not like they don’t have a reputation.

But still.

He tries to focus on the sea ahead of him. He’s off the watch at sundown, and he needs to be on until then. The Raven Queen loathes piracy, and has stopped at nothing in the past to keep her seas free of it. Taako will not be the one to let the crew down; it’s impossible for him to be too careful.

The sun dips down low. The adrenaline of the battle behind him drains. He climbs up the rest of the rigging, hauls himself into the crow’s nest, and leans back against the mast as he watches the day slip away, waits for the sight of more enemies. But there are no more ships on the horizon. There’s nothing, and Taako lets the golden light of the setting sun spill over him until it goes red, and then until it goes away completely.

He heaves a deep sigh, and then he turns over to head down to the deck.

He makes quick work of the rigging, landing on the deck with a thud , brushing stray hairs out of his face. He can never keep a braid in all day, not in this wind. One of the little annoyances of a life on the water.

“What, no sweet flips this time? We not worth impressing?”

His sister’s voice sounds from behind him, and Taako smiles.

“Gotta keep things fresh, Lulu,” he says, turning around to look at her She's standing with her hands on her hips, light from the main cabin of the ship spilling out behind her.

“Call me that again and I’ll rip your ears off,” she says, but she’s smiling. “Come on, everyone’s doing drinks in the main cabin to celebrate. Magnus got us some good shit off that last one.”

Taako groans. “Ale is for straight people," he groans. And if Magnus went out of his way to nab some of it, it's ale. And would it kill these merchants to sell some goddamn wine for once.

“Ok well Barry and Lucretia like it, so that’s just patently untrue –”

“Barry and Lucretia are traitors,” Taako gripes, but he walks past her toward the open door of the cabin. “Who’s on watch?”

“Lucy put up the cloaking spells, so we should be good for a bit. But I think Magnus and Barry are going to be going out in a couple hours or so.” Lup follows along behind him as he crosses the deck, and upon entering the cabin, Taako sees that the celebration is well underway.

The other five are already in there. The large wooden table in the center, usually covered corner to corner in papers, has been cleared and the place is illuminated by candles. The warm light makes the room cozy, as does the smoke from the pipe Davenport and Merle are passing back and forth at the head of the table. Magnus has a large stein of ale in his hand, and from the flush of his cheeks Taako thinks it’s not his first. He laughs too loudly, too close in Barry’s space, and Barry’s a bit flushed but still smiling in his quiet way. Even Lucretia’s looking up from her journal every once in a while.

He’s honestly a bit surprised by how jovial the mood is, this being their first day in the Raven Queen’s territory. He was expecting something more somber, but far be it from him to complain.

“Taako!!” Magnus shouts, “get over here, bud!” he pushes another stein of ale across the table, full, and probably waiting specifically for Taako to come off the watch. Ale sloshes out onto the table as it goes, and Taako doesn’t break eye contact with Magnus as he catches it effortlessly and takes a swig.

Shit.

Magnus raises an eyebrow.

Taako shrugs, clears his throat. “It’s alright, I guess.” It’s excellent .

Magnus laughs uproariously, raises his stein and takes another drink. Lup plops down into a chair by Barry’s side, kisses him on the cheek before she grabs up her mug and drinks too. And Taako, despite himself, can’t keep the smile off his face. It’s nice, he thinks, sitting here with these people – Taako hesitates to call them family. But they’ve had a good few years.

He hopes it’s enough.

He drinks. Damn . Can’t shit-talk Magnus this time; Lup was right; this is some good shit. Worth the spell slots it took to buy Mags the time to grab it. It probably won’t go on the black market: too easy to trace, and not terribly valuable to anyone but the exorbitantly wealthy anyway. But it’ll be nice to have some good drink on the ship for once. Taako loves the freedom of the sea, but after a while, the long months away from the luxuries of land get tiresome. Transmuting ingredients for their food takes energy and time and it's never as satisfying as cooking with the real thing. And in the coming months, if they end up sticking around in the Sea of Souls, he’s almost certainly going to need to keep up maximum spell slots at all times. It’s going to be hard, living off stale biscuits and salted meat again.

It almost makes Taako sick thinking about it.

Lup’s hand on his pulls him out of his distracted reverie, and he looks up to see her eyes keenly on him. Concern lingers around her eyes, a non-verbal check-in, and Taako shakes his head, raises his glass. All good.

A nod, and she looks away, jumping back and shouting over some ridiculous thing Magnus is saying, and Taako tries to shake off the feeling of dread that, in spite of how well the day has gone, is lingering over him. Another sip of ale, a deep breath, and Taako will be good to go.

But before he has the chance, Davenport, at the head of the table, clears his throat and stands up.

Taako’s known the captain for years now, but it never ceases to impress the way he can go from a jovial, friendly gnome to a commander in a moment. If Taako didn’t know better, he would think there was some magic involved, something that makes the captain appear taller, or more imposing, or something. But Davenport’s always been like that, half capable of shapeshifting at a moment’s notice.

Maybe it’s why he and Taako get along so well.

When Davenport stands, the table falls silent. Everyone’s backs get straighter, and they sit up taller in their chairs, save Merle, but even his eyes focus a bit. Because when Davenport speaks, the crew pays attention.

The crashing of the waves outside and the wind across the deck are the captain’s accompaniment.

“Good job today, everyone,” he begins. The light from the candles plays across his face as he speaks. “A clean sweep like that is just what we needed on our first attack in the Raven Queen’s territory, so thank you for your hard work and focus.” Taako can see Magnus sit up a little taller from here, pride in his posture.

“But I’m sure you’re all aware of the challenge ahead of us.” And he mood in the room immediately sours. Taako can feel it as easily as he can see fruit going brown. It’s like the temperature has dropped five degrees. Even Lup isn’t looking up, instead flicking her butterfly knife open and closed with dexterous fingers.

“The nest few months, if we're taking up residence here, will require even more focus and organization than we used today. I know that we all have varying levels of history with the Raven Queen and her kingdom, and I know how difficult it can be, manning a ship with such a small crew. But I would remind you of the Astral Coast's reputation. Working here will challenge us in ways I'm sure we can't even imagine yet, and we need to be on our guard."

Taako takes another sip of ale, mostly to hide his bitter expression. Some of them can't imagine it, he's sure. And then, some of them don't have to imagine.

But I would remind you of the work we’ve done," Davenport says, "Of our reputation.” Taako’s eyes sweep the table. Lup looks up from her fiddling. Barry adjusts his glasses. Magnus is wringing his hands like he’s going to crack his knuckles but he already has. Merle lets out a puff of smoke. Lucretia writes.

“We were not the most… respected –” Lup snorts, amused – “pirates in the Stillwater Sea for nothing. And beyond a bit of caution, we have no reason to alter anything about ourselves now that we are facing the task before us. If we continue our mission as we have conducted it the last few years, we will meet success.”

Taako doesn’t care for speeches. Not like the rest of them. He doesn’t feel a stirring in his blood, he’s not inspired . He’s not a bleeding heart like Lup or Barry; he doesn’t care for oratory. He sits in his chair, and adrenaline doesn’t hit him. He doesn’t feel a turning in his stomach from nerves or a swelling in his heart. It’s not his game. When Davenport speaks, Taako listens, but for the sake of the rest of the crew, not for his own. He doesn’t need to be told what’s ahead of them. He’s already there, would be even if he didn't have a history with the Astral Coast. 

Instead, he watches the room. He looks at the crew, the way Lup stops fiddling, Barry’s folded hands on the table. Merle’s fingers drumming on the arm of his chair and Lucretia’s still, and Magnus’ hand curling around the handle of his half-full stein of ale.

And Taako sees that they’re ready.

He turns his eyes back to the Captain.

“This is what we came here to do,” Davenport says, “and I don’t think there’s another crew in the world who can do it better.” He grabs his Davenport-sized stein of ale, and raises it up, a smirk creeping onto his face.

Next to Taako, Lup sits up straighter in her chair, and raises her stein too.

Taako rolls his eyes at the theatrics, but he picks his up, raises it alongside the rest of the table. Even Merle leans forward to grab his.

“Let’s give her hell,” Davenport says, solemn as the grave, deadly as a cold winter night, and he brings his stein to his lips –

“Magnus, go !” Lup shouts.

“Shit!” Magnus tips his stein and starts chugging his ale, but it’s too late, Taako thinks. Lup has her head tilted all the way back and then she slams her stein down on the table with a resounding thud . She wipes her mouth, laughing, and flips Magnus off cheerfully.

“Come on, not fair, I don’t know how much she had left –”

“Ye of little faith, Barry had an eye on it, right babe?” Lup says, nudging Barry.

“She’s right, Magnus,” Lucretia cuts in, “rules are rules. Better luck next time.”

“But I wasn’t ready –”

Taako’s eyes cut over to Davenport, sitting back in his chair now, feet up on the table, just watching them, unable, Taako sees, to keep a smile off his face as Magnus challenges Lup to another round. He snaps his fingers and Taako hears Magnus gasp and another burst of laughter from Lup. He looks back –

Both steins are completely full. Davenport is grinning behind his own glass mug of ale. His eyes meet Taako’s and he raises his stein one more time, a private, quiet toast.

Taako drinks, and leans back, and watches his crew.

Give her hell indeed.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

When Lup first got into piracy, she thought there would be a lot more fighting.

Granted, for the average person, there’s an awful lot of it. In the grand scheme of things, piracy is high on the list in terms of professions that inherently include a lot of fighting. And property damage. And general larceny. All things that Lup enjoys, really.

And the magic was a nice bonus as well.

But the other parts, well.

It’s really… it’s mostly waiting.

Lup isn’t good at waiting like Taako. Taako can be still, can sit for hours on watch and not miss a bird flying overhead, or the shadow of a cloud across the bow. Lup can’t. The long hours in the crow’s nest leave her restless and jittery, and more often than not she zones out up there, just scanning the horizon for signs of danger and coming up with nothing.

She knows she needs to try, for the sake of the crew, and their safety, especially now that they’re in the Raven Queen’s territory, a notoriously dangerous place for pirates. But as the day slowly marches past, Lup’s attention drifts.

She didn’t sleep well last night. The victory was a weight off their shoulders, to be sure, but after the drinking and the toasting and the laughter died down, Lup found her dreams filled with running in the dark, and Taako’s cries, and alone, alone, alone

She shudders where she sits, tilts her head up to the sun above and focuses on the crashing of the sea below and lets it wash the fear and exhaustion out of her mind.

And she looks back to the horizon.

And there’s nothing. Just like there always is. Nothing but the Starblaster and the other ship, alone on an endless blue –

Wait .

She pulls her spyglass out of her coat pocket and presses it up to her eye, scanning until she catches sigh of the little shape in the circle of the glass and she looks but she can’t see, not yet, she can’t see who it belongs to, what flag it flies, it’s too far away.

The minutes tick by slower then, and sometimes Lup forgets how absolutely vast the ocean is, how very long it can take to get from one place to the next, and just how much space their little ship can cover. She remembers it now. It’s another half hour at least before the Starblaster gets close enough for Lup to identify the other ship’s black sails.

One of hers .

She calls down on her stone of farspeech, alerts Davenport, who she can see comes out on deck for a moment, takes a look of his own, and then retires back to the main cabin. Business as usual, he says, and then once again there’s nothing left for Lup to do except sit back against the mast once more and watch.

Except now there’s something to watch.

Truthfully? Lup still isn’t sure if this is better or worse.

The ship hovers on their horizon for a few more hours, heading in the opposite direction they are, and Lup watches the whole time, but it never signals to an ally, it never changes course, it never does anything , just goes on its merry, constant way, and never spots them. Luce does her job well. But still. Even long after Lup’s off the watch, lying in bed with hardtack in her belly, she doesn’t relax.

Her dreams, for the second night in a row, are filled with darkness and dread, and Lup wakes up with it still hanging heavy on her, the soft dawn light peeking through her window doing nothing to ground her the way it usually does.

She wants Barry , wishes they weren’t on different shifts. Maybe if she asked Dav…

Pull it together, Lup , she thinks, throwing on her day clothes, tying her hair up in a punishingly tight ponytail. You’re not a child anymore. This is what you came here for, now pull yourself together .

It’s not fifteen minutes before she’s back out on deck, gritting her teeth to face the day.

A day’s travel later, they reach the city.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lup double checks the magic streaming through her, makes absolutely sure Disguise Self is up, and she gazes through the tree-line at the outskirts of the city, waits for a moment when she can emerge without anyone paying her any mind. The ranger's clothes she's illusioned onto herself will help, but one can never be too careful. She waits, again, until the moment she won't be seen.

And then she leaves the tree-line.

No eyes immediately go to her, which is good, but she still keeps up the brisk walk toward the city, darting in between the low houses on the outskirts, past laundry lines and outdoor fires, finding her way slowly to a dirt road winding through these little homesteads. Dirt quickly becomes cobblestone, the buildings get a little taller, moving from squat huts to two-story shops, apartments, townhouses. It’s not long before Lup finds herself in the city center.

Perfect. Can’t scope out a town without finding the heart of it.

Towns have many hearts. Some of them are in the center, some of them are in small taverns run by beloved families. Some of them are in a home, with the highest respected Elder.

Phandalin’s is not the City Center, Lup can tell immediately, but she begins her search there anyway. She needs to know what she’s up against.

It isn’t hard to see.  

A tall, stone building is hung with the banners of the Raven Queen, and, in lesser prominence, a coat of arms depicting what looks like a hammer, done up in gold on a teal background. Must be the ruling family of the city, under the Raven Queen’s control.

In fact her flags, her colors, the black and silver are hung up everywhere . The street lamps depict her standard, and the black uniforms of the reapers permeate the streets everywhere. It’s a bit…

It’s ostentatious, for one. But that’s not what gives Lup pause.

It seems… insistent in a way. Like it’s proving a point.

Recently conquered, Lup files away in her mind, a quiet and deeply distressing confirmation. It would explain the presence of so many troops. Every city needs a certain amount to enforce the rule of law. But this is more than that. This is a transfer of power.

 

*~*~*~*~*

“What the fuck is that?” Magnus said, staring at the harbor in the distance before them. The harbor of a seaside city, and the whole crew was gathered on the deck as the ship was still in the rolling water. Raven’s fleet ships in the harbor, black sails filling the space, people coming and going, fine houses on the coastline, their docks flying the Queen’s standard. A mass of silver and black authority.

The revelation hit Lup like a ton of bricks, settled in her stomach and made her sick. She looked over at Taako and saw the hard look in his eyes, and it took everything in her not to just go over there and hold him and tell Davenport to turn the fucking ship around and go right back to the Stillwater Sea and relative safety.

But.

“She’s… she’s expanding.”she blurted out. “She’s colonizing. She’s taking land; her borders didn’t go this far South before.” Fuck, they’d been in her territory for days, now. It’s a miracle they weren’t spotted. Their intelligence was wrong, no one thought that the Raven Queen’s kingdom stretched this far. This is madness. A good, what, hundred miles down the coast of expansion? More? How could they not have known?

“We need to get in there,” she said to the crew. “We need to find out what’s going on.”

*~*~*~*~*

 

It had been bad enough, seeing it from the ship, but now, Lup cannot ignore what’s right before her eyes.

The Raven Queen is expanding her territory, and with that knowledge Lup’s stomach twists and her mouth goes dry and she curses herself for it. They knew. She knew, or at least she should have, because she remembers this. She remembers the careful, slow march of the reapers to the Queen’s borders, and the gossip in the dark corners of the barracks but… but those memories were deep, and Lup hadn’t wanted to confront them, and –

And she hadn’t thought it had gone this far. She hadn’t thought that it could happen so quickly.

But she's been gone a long time. I wasn't like the Raven Queen waited for her.

She needs to be extra careful. She can’t afford to be brought down here, with the reapers on high alert for trouble. She needs to be invisible .

She makes sure not to loiter anywhere too long, makes sure to take plenty of turns around corners and down alleyways, always toward shops. Some of them, she enters, looks around at the wares before leaving. Twice she sees the cautious eyes of the Raven Queen’s reapers on her. She pays them no mind. The best way to look arouse suspicion is look as though you’re trying not to. And besides, this particular elf will never be seen in this city again.

She takes in the streets for a little over two hours, watching the passerby, learning the traffic patterns.

And then, as the sun is slipping down low in the sky, she looks for the bar.

If Lup knows one thing, it’s that a person can learn a lot in a bar. Pubs, taverns, inns with nothing more than a few poor tables and a plank with a serving girl behind it, right up to fine clubs: where there’s a bar, people’s true nature comes out. At the center of every deal, there’s a bar. They’re places of anonymity. Find the right bar, spill the right amount of gold, and you can get anything. Information, work, the solutions to all your problems handed to you. All it takes is a couple ales and a little sweet talk.

The city center is too posh for what she needs, so she skims through the streets on the outskirts, where the cobblestones are newer, and the streetlamps have yet to be blackened from soot. The buildings sag, but their facades have been recently washed, and the reapers in the street are regularly stationed. She looks where the cleanups and the renovations are happening, because the pointed attempt at making something clean and new and safe means that there was something there that needed to be erased.

It’s an unfortunate part of the job, that the kind of people Lup needs to talk to are always the ones that garner the most attention from law-enforcement. But piracy has never been strictly legal, and if she wants accomplices, she’s never going to find in them in the posh neighborhoods. People with money don’t like thieves.

Still. It’s hard to tell just from a first look where she’ll find what she’s looking for.

She guesses, after a while, that she’ll have to take a chance. She ducks down a narrow backstreet between some of the taller buildings, and sees, settled in the row, a sagging inn. The brand-new sign reads “The Stonehill Tavern” and there’s noise of loud patrons spilling out with the light of candles and lamps from inside.

It looks as good a place as any, and Lup pulls her belt tight to herself, making sure her coat hangs securely over the daggers and coin purse and her gun affixed around her hips before she pushes open the door to go inside.

The place smells strongly of pipe-weed and alcohol, and the patrons are human and dwarf alike, a few elvish-looking characters spread around the room, rough ones with scars on their hands but not their faces. There are a few tables at which she can see cards spread out, and a very loud Dwarven party in the corner, probably one too many ales along, regulars by the looks of them. There are two staff, both of them young, a boy and a girl human, and a gruff-looking man behind the counter. There isn’t much space in here left for a solitary proprietor to sit save for the stool at the end of the bar.

Perfect.

Lup makes for the empty stool, walking past patrons who eye her semi-suspiciously to get there, but say nothing. She slides onto the stool, resting her arms on the bar, and she waits.

The gruff human man, polishing a glass, walks over to where she sits.

“Haven’t seen you around here before,” he says, “you new in town?”

“Maybe,” Lup says noncommittally. “And maybe I just haven’t been by your place before.” The man snorts as though that’s highly unlikely. Lup likes him already.

“Phandalin ain’t too welcoming to strangers these days,” he says, keeping his eyes fixed on the glass.

Lup digs in her coat pocket, pulls out a small coin purse stuffed to the limits with gold, and drops it onto the bar, letting the metal thunk and clink inside the sack. The bartender’s eyes go to it.

“I mean to keep a low profile,” she says. “Maybe you can help me.”

He doesn’t say another word, just grabs her an ale and leaves her to watch the tavern from her seat.

But there’s not much there.

The patrons at the bar eye her distrustfully, and most of them are alone. A few groups of human men, looking like they’ve come off a work day, a dwarven woman deep several glasses in and fading. No one she can use. The loud Dwarven party in the corner is no use to her either, too intoxicated to be discreet. There’s a table over there of a couple dwarves and a half-elf playing cards, a little rough-looking, all of them, and maybe Lup can get in on their game, get some information out of them –

“– got taken away just this week. No one knows when he’ll be out. If he gets out.”

A voice from her left catches Lup’s attention. Over there, in a dim corner, three human men huddled over their ales, shoulders slumping, talking low. But not low enough. Lup thanks whatever god is listening for her elven hearing and listens in.

“They say his chances don’t look good. My neighbor got taken up a couple months ago, havent’ heard a word from ‘im since, meanwhile his family’s barely able to buy bread.”

“I heard they take ‘em to the capital city, slap a uniform on ‘em and send ‘em up and down the coast, places they’ve never been so they’ve got no loyalty –”

She’d never allow that. Criminals in the ranks of the Reapers?”

“She’d have to. Only way She’ll get enough manpower to continue this plot o’ hers to take the whole damn coast –”  

They’ll do perfectly. Lup finishes her ale, orders another from the bartender, keeps listening as she waits. As her drink comes sliding down the bar Lup catches it, and, dropping a few gold coins on the counter, slides off her barstool and makes her way across the floor weaving around and between tables on her way to the corner of the room where the men sit.

The one on the far side of their table sees her approaching, eyes her suspiciously, and he gestures to his friend, talking, who pipes down immediately and turns to watch. Lup can’t help the smile that creeps onto her face. They’ll do perfectly.

There’s a fourth seat at the table, unoccupied. Her back will be to the door, but Lup’s going to have to take a chance anyway. She’ll keep her ears pricked for danger, and at least maybe from this angle the reapers, should they come in, won’t see enough of her to get suspicious. Disguise Self has long since worn off. She doesn’t want to draw too much attention.

Yet.

She walks up, stands by the unoccupied seat, and sets her ale down on the table.

“Evening, gentlemen,” she says, pitching her voice lower than normal. “Is this seat taken?”

It isn’t. They all know it isn’t. It’s just a matter if they’re going to admit it or not.

As is always the case in groups of humans, there’s a leader. The man directly across from Lup looks her up and down, and the other two, gathered to him, watch her, and then him, and then her with careful eyes.

“Depends on who’s asking,” he finally says, and Lup smiles wider, all teeth. She’s done this enough to know that getting into the chair, into the door, is half the battle. With that sentence, her chances of pulling real, useful information from them have doubled.

“Someone who might share you gentlemen’s feelings on… current events.” She says, watching him carefully, not looking at the others, focusing on the leader. She’s laying it on a bit thick, perhaps, but this is no high-court. The amount of subtlety needed here is the bare minimum to keep the law off her back, and in a seedy inn, just dressed up enough on the outside to look respectable, that’s hardly a concern. She can see community ground into the wood-grain of the floorboards and the tables here. Can smell it in the air. A community older than the Raven Queen’s occupation. A community alive but not well, dwindling under Her thumb, choked out and trampled, and barely holding on.

Lup is good at community. She’s good at reading people. Taako is too; they had to be, but he’s good in a different way. Taako will suss out your secrets as soon as look at you, specializes in one-one one, can pick and prod right to your core and leave you wide open, everything inside you spilling out. But Lup can see the emotion, the culture of a group as easy as she can name the color of their clothes.

She’s laying it on thick, but such is the way of things in seedy bars on the outskirts of town. At this table, everyone knows the game they’re playing; everyone knows the steps to this careful dance. All that’s left to do is execute them in time.

The gruff man raises an eyebrow in surprise, cocks his head a bit as he looks her up and down again. Lup leans forward, and her coat hangs open a bit, lets the man see the knife she’s got strapped to her belt, the gun on the other side. She’s heavily armed for an evening out at the bar, and they both know it.

He leans back a bit, resting against the wall behind him, the wood-back of the bench built into the corner.

“Haven’t seen you around before,” he remarks casually, except that it’s not casual at all, and it never is. Being a stranger in Phandalin, Lup is realizing, is a capital offense. Strange, for a port town, but it’s also a city that doesn’t seem to be responding well to Her Royal Majesty’s occupation. At least not on the outskirts. Lup supposes she can’t blame them for a bit of mistrust.

“I’m passing through,” she admits. And then – what to say next. She waits a moment, considering. But then, fuck it. It’s not like she’s got all the time in the world. Might as well go all in.

“But I couldn’t help but overhear from my place at the bar,” she purrs, “and you three seem like the kind of men who can help me with my business while I’m here.”

“We’re not necessarily ones to hand out help to those we don’t know,” says that man. And that's Lup's sign to bring out the big guns.

The only thing more satisfying than the sound of the cloth-bound gold hitting the table is the way the men’s eyes all flick to it in turn, curious and hungry, and Lup has their full and undivided attention. She takes the opportunity to sit in the fourth chair, take a sip of her ale, before she undoes the drawstring at the top of the pouch, lets the sum of the gold pieces spill out into her hand and onto the table. Showing all her cards.

It’s more gold than they have to their name; she can tell by the way they eye it. More gold, probably, than they’ve seen in months, maybe years, and even split three ways there’s enough to feed a family for a few weeks to come, even if they were to stop working today.

“All I’m asking for is a bit of information,” Lup says, leaning in close and low over the table as they each look back up, and she makes eye contact with each of them in turn. “If you can help me, this money is yours. Leave me ten gold or so to get myself out of a tough scrape or two, but other than that, you’re welcome to it.”

“Who are you?” the one on her left says, face slack in disbelief, and seemingly unable to take it anymore, the suspense, the secrecy. “How did you get this?”

“The less I say about who I am, the safer all of you are,” Lup says honestly. The man looks stricken. All three of them do. “Look at me, really look for a minute. Do you think someone like me wants to be known around this town? Do you think any of you want to be connected with me?”

They’re silent. Listening.

“I need to conduct business in town, of the… buying and selling nature. I have things, valuable things that I need to get off my hands, and I want the money they’re worth. But like I said, I’m new here, and I need to keep a low profile. I need someone to point me in the right direction.

“I heard you talking earlier. I know you’ve got your eye on things. I know you know the rumors going around this town. I know you distrust Her Majesty as much as I do.” One more sweep of their faces with her eyes drives it home. “Help me tonight, and put some gold away. Feed your families. Get ahead. All I need is the name of a buyer.”

There’s a long silence as they sit, seeming to consider And for a horrible, long moment, Lup is afraid that she’s misjudged, that she picked the wrong quarter of the city, the wrong bar, the wrong table. Maybe they don’t know anything and she’s wasted all this time, and all this legwork, and maybe one of them will stand up and raise his hand and shout for the reapers and then

The one on the right speaks first.

“I might know of somebody,” he says, looking more at the table than he does at her. “My neighbor, couple weeks ago, was looking to get himself some things on the black market. Askin’ around like you.”

Lup folds her hands up, waits.

“He got taken away, and we don’t know if it was debtor’s jail or something worse, but he – he said there was a man…” he trails off, mutters under his breath, “at least I think it was a man…” he shakes his head, seeming to clear it. “Anyway, he talked about some sort of operation out to the East side of the city, a guy who’ll buy and sell you just about anything.”

“Do you remember his name?”

The man nods.

“Goes by the name o’ Garfield.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Out to the East of town , Lup had said, but the thing is that that’s not very specific, and Taako doesn’t particularly love legwork.

Especially legwork in the middle of the night.

They could’ve waited until tomorrow, Taako had said, that it didn’t fucking matter that they go out now to find this Garfield and go through all the wheeling and dealing that it would take to get an entire ship’s hull of cargo off their hands in exchange for more liquid wealth. But Lup had said that the guy operated 24 hours, supposedly , which is just insane in Taako’s humble opinion, and then Davenport had said that they were less likely to be caught at night, which was ridiculous, thank you very much, and the long and short of it is that Taako’s now walking, nay sneaking the streets of Phandalin in the middle of the goddamn night trying to find a fucking black market merchant to sell the thousands of yards of fabric they have in the hold, just on the off chance that this Garfield is going to have any interest in that whatsoever in this backwater fucking town. Like the first buyer Lup got a name for, who probably makes his living in farm equipment or illicit weapons sales if they’re really lucky, is going to know silk from linen , fucking really , Lup.

See, Taako knows that this is how things are done in their line of work, this is how the money is made, how they keep the wheels turning and the cash flowing in, but Taako also knows that he could be in bed right now, and that Magnus insisted on coming along because his “rustic hospitality” could help them, except that it won’t because no one is going to be out in the middle of the night, Magnus , and now Taako’s having to hold him back from rushing around every corner because he’s not exactly the picture of stealth .

Taako might actually, literally tear his hair out if this goes on much longer.

And besides, they’re just wandering around the eastern outskirts of the city hoping they’ll run into some secret… what? Warehouse? Lup said this guy was black market, but if that’s the case, how the fuck is he apparently able to buy and sell anything .

Taako’s seen weirder, but not much weirder. He’s skeptical to say the least.

“Taako!” Magnus whisper-shouts from behind him, because Magnus only has a true whisper about fifty percent of the time, and this is it, Taako’s dead, Taako’s actually going to die right here in this moment. This is the end of him.

What, ” he hisses back.

“What are we looking for?”

Fuck if I know, homie.” He says, and he’s about to call Lup on his stone and tell her no dice and they’ll try again tomorrow because it’s truly going to kill him if he has to sneak down another street and try to discern a building from the building that they’re looking for.

“Do you think that’s something?”

Taako looks.

And at first, he doesn’t see anything, just another street of buildings in the dark, grayscale with his darkvision and unremarkable. But he squints and looks again, scanning the facades and there . A large one, maybe an inn or a tavern or something, the windows boarded up and the façade worn down, chipping and missing chunks and dirty, and Taako’s about to roll his eyes and tell Magnus to just go back the ship when he stops.

See, Taako knows magic. He knows the shape and the feel of it. Knows that when Lup’s magic brushes up against his skin, it feels different than Barry’s or Lucretia’s or Davenport’s. It’s like… the feeling of a color, and their magics are different colors.

He’s getting ahead of himself.

The point is that magic doesn’t just come out of thin air, there’s energy in it. And Taako knows how to feel around for that energy. In a crowd, picking out individual magical signatures is hard because there’s so much stimulus, but here? In the Raven Queen’s territory, where magic is so scarce as to almost be nonexistent? Taako feels something stand up on the back of his neck as he turns away from the building Magnus pointed out, and upon looking back it becomes clear.

There is big magical energy coming off of that building

Illusion magic.

It may or may not be Garfield, he thinks, but whatever it is it’s big magic just the same, and that, in her lands, is worth investigating. So he checks around, making sure the street is free of reapers before he sneaks out, signaling for Magnus to follow, and the two of them creep through the shadows on high alert, until Taako’s standing in front of the boarded-up building and looking up at it, shrewd and discerning.

It’s illusion magic for sure, thick, cloaking magic like they use on the ship. You can almost smell it in the air, Taako thinks, if you know what to look for.

There’s something at this building, or in this building, that isn’t as it appears.

“Do you think this is the place?” Magnus whispers in the dark.

“Not sure,” Taako whispers, preparing to cast Detect Traps, when Magnus says,

“Only one way to find out!” and is on the doorstep, raising his hand to knock before Taako even has the time to move.

“Magnus no ,” he hisses, ears flicking back immediately in distress, but Magnus has already knocked by then, the sound of his hand on solid wood echoing through the street, and Taako rushes to his side, pulling out his gun at the ready, wishing he could use his wand, but if the reapers see him using magic, they’ll –

There’s a strange sound of a door opening, and Taako turns to look.

And his eyes go wide.

Because where there was once a splintered, rickety wooden door, decrepit and rotted with age, there is now an open entrance into the building, and warm yellow light spilling out of it, flooding him and Magnus with it and casting long shadows behind them. And in the doorway –

When Taako asked Lup to describe Garfield to him, she said that her contact couldn’t, and Taako had been half convinced that she was just fucking with him and had been half ready to cut her down then and there, but now he thinks he may understand.

The figure in the door is both tall and short and neither somehow. They wear a long cloak, hood completely covering their face, not the weirdest thing to answer the door in in the middle of the night for a very illegal meeting, but certainly a bit off-putting. In fact, all of the… person… in the doorway is off-putting, not in the least for the lack of any distinctive visual features. Taako looks, but the hands are tucked inside the robe’s sleeves, and the feet covered by considerable fabric, dusty and darkened from what looks like continuous trailing across the floor.

There’s a moment that feels long as the three of them size each other up, at least Taako thinks that’s what they’re doing, he can’t tell , and it’s a strange thing to feel looked-at without any outward indication of it, but there’s the sense that he’s being looked over, head to toe, and then the – the thing ’s head turns under the hood, until he’s looking at Taako and a bit down, and Taako follows his imaginary gaze to his hand, still clutching his gun.

Now that’s not a very nice way to greet your old buddy Garfield!! ” Comes a voice, high pitched and cracking, in an accent that Taako not only can’t place but can’t even begin to conceptualize, as Garfield, Taako’s assuming, positively shouts out into the street .

Taako’s got his gun up in a second, every hair on the back of his neck standing up, and even Magnus is looking nervous at that amount of sound, looking up and down the street for sight of reapers, anyone coming to investigate the noise, not that his human eyes will do them any good.

Shut up, ” Taako hisses, “Are you insane? Do you want to get us killed?!”

Mmmmm, I don’t know, boys, that depends on what you’re here for!” Garfield says, unbothered as anything, and then steps aside to let them in.

Taako’s too goddamn tired for this.

He walks into the damn house.

The door slams behind him and Magnus with a tremendous sound, shaking the foundations of the building as a little dust comes raining down from the ceiling, and for a moment, Taako’s afraid the whole building is going to come toppling down.

Because this is very clearly the place they were looking for.

Clutter lies in every corner of the room they’re in, and through the doorway on the other side, Taako can see more beyond. It’s… it’s unbelievable . Lup said this guy had a reputation of being able to get anything, and Taako had rolled his eyes, but he spots everything from farming equipment: hoes and rakes and blades for plows and spare wagon wheels, to bags of glittering gems hanging from the ceiling and gold and silver jewelry; there are locked chests, some plain wood, others finely carved and gilded. There are wands , and a very finely polished wooden staff inlaid with pale pink crystal, and there are weapons too: Taako sees pistols and shotguns and old-timey muskets, spears and glaives and daggers, curved scimitars and broadswords. There are mundane items, playing cards and dolls and simple-looking books, and then the horrifying opposite, jars with pickled eyeballs or fingers, or whole fearsome-looking claws off gods only know what creature, all stacked from floor to ceiling.

As it all is. That which isn’t leaned up along the walls is kept in stack-like piles in the middle of the room, completely bare except for Garfield’s eclectic… collection. The piles run in straight rows, with only enough room to walk between, and Taako realizes they’re aisles , and the whole place, as far as he can see, is like some bizarre fun-house imitation of a general store, only Taako has no idea how any of the items there are inventoried, or how one would get their hands on any of them.

Ah-ah!! No touching the merchandise!” Taako hears Garfield’s voice call from where he’s disappeared into the next room, and Taako sees Magnus’s hand snap back from where he’d been reaching for a sword with rubies set into the handle. Taako sends him a glare for good measure, and Magnus pouts, gesturing toward the sword wildly with a pained look on his face.

Not now , Taako signs, and he turns to follow Garfield into the next room.

And the next, as Garfield straightens a jar precariously resting on a stack of books ( is that Draconic? ) which in turn is precariously balanced the butts of several swords which have been turned upside down and are being stored in what looks like an umbrella holder, before he continues through the next door to a room that is, shockingly, just a little less full of garbage.

Instead there’s a long desk at the other end, or maybe more of a counter, since it’s at standing height (kind of), and there are various tools and weapons mounted on the wall behind it, probably protected by some serious wards, if Taako had to guess, as they’re clearly better-kept than anything in the rooms behind them. There’s things hung all over the walls, really, mostly very expensive looking weapons , and Magnus is positively vibrating next to Taako with the effort he’s making not to touch them.

Taako appreciates his commitment.

Garfield moves around behind the counter-desk-thing, long robe trailing behind him, and he steps up on something behind it, Taako thinks, so that he can take out a pen, an unadorned wooden one with a silvery nib that he dips into a nearby inkwell as he slides a leger over in front of him, flipping it open with one hand. Taako tries to look very carefully, to glean any information about what in all hell he is , but his hands are gloved, and there’s no information to be gathered from that either. Magic hangs so thick in this place that even that could be an illusion to alter his appearance and Taako would be none the wiser.

So boys! ” Garfield says, pen hovering over the book, “ What can I do for you today?! Some weapons, perhaps?? You two look like fightin’ men!

Taako takes a deep breath, trying to collect himself. It’s been a long night, and one that Taako didn’t even want to have, and now he’s gotta try to turn on the charm and negotiate a sale, when all he wants to do is collapse, so tired from the day and nervous from being in Her territory.

But this is his job. This is what he’s good at.

“Well, actually, Garfield,” he says, settling an elbow on the counter, and leaning in close. ‘We’re not really in the mood for buying today. In fact, we’ve some things we might like to get off our hands.”

Garfield’s whole posture changes. He straightens up from where he’s bent over the desk, and Taako can almost feel the excitement rolling off of him.

Well , ” he says, sounding positively delighted (and somewhat deranged), “ That’s very different , then, isn’t it?” He shoves the leger aside, the many jars and inkwells and paperweights collected on his disaster of a desk clinking as he does so. He leans on the wood, his black-gloved hands folded in front of him, and Taako could almost swear he sees the glint of sharp teeth somewhere under the hood.

You boys sound like you’re looking for a deal!! Comes Garfield’s voice.

Taako sighs.

It’s going to be a long night.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

After a while, one can get used to palaces.

Perhaps the marble floors, always pristine, or the wide, high windows over-looking the Sea of Souls, or the columns and the expansive corridors once dazzled him, but given a certain amount of time one can grow accustomed to anything, and Kravitz hardly pays them any mind as he stalks through the halls in the direction of the Raven Queen’s throne room, his black uniform coat whipping out behind him as he turns corners, his newly-shined shoes clicking on the stone below him.

His Queen has summoned him. It is in his best interest not to keep her waiting.

But the walk to the throne room from his office is long. At times he almost wishes She had an office of Her own, but the Raven Queen always uses the throne room when She needs to hold audiences. Kravitz has always supposed it makes sense, it being somewhat centrally located, and in the portion of the palace more heavily trafficked by those from the Astral City or the rest of the kingdom. The inner recesses of the palace are for those who live there, like Her Majesty. Like Kravitz.

He remembers the early days in the palace, and later, the first few months of his position. He must have been a picture, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and desperate to please. He remembers how in that first year, every time She called on him, he was afraid it would be the day that She relieved him of his position, the day that he unconsciously, unknowingly failed Her and his time in Her retinue would be up.

He thinks his current position suits him much better. It has been years since he has truly worried for his standing. Of course, it has also been years since he’s has a real problem to deal with. He used to go out so often, his position one of battle, of cunning and command of ships, of long stints at sea, ridding her waters of those that would challenge her authority.

Now, he still has the position of Admiral, but it has been months since he has left the Astral City; only leaving the harbor for routine check-ups, tours of a short portion of the coast to ensure his ship and his standing crew are ready for orders, should they come. But they never do. There’s no one in the Sea of Souls to challenge him – to challenge Her . Now he spends most of his time holed up in his office, overseeing Her Majesty’s new territories from a distance. Oh, there are issues to be dealt with every once in a while, young upstarts in some of the new cities, the occasional resistance to Her presence. But for the most part, the new lands turn over their governments easily, and the people are grateful for a trained military, for an organized government, to take them – hah.

To take them under its wing , as it were.

At any rate, Kravitz is glad she has called upon him. She is, after all, Kravitz’s Queen and Mother. He won’t say he misses Her when they get little chance to speak one-on-one, but he certainly appreciates their meetings, often a new assignment cropping up from them, and Kravitz wonders, as he turns the final corner, spying the throne room doors, what She has for him today. He comes to a halt outside of the doors, sealed tightly, nods to the guards on either side, who bow in response, and he clasps his hands behind his back as they go to slowly open the doors, three times tall as Kravitz, imposing and ornate, with their silver gilding and relief in the shape of the Astral Coast’s Crest, surrounded by motifs of Raven’s feathers and thorns.

The throne room is elegant but unmistakably imposing, the ceiling rising nearly three stories, the marble floors set in many-colored stone in the image of another giant Kingdom’s Crest, massive columns rising on either side and the windows to the East looking out, past the wide balcony and over the terraces on the cliffside below, to the Sea of Souls sparkling in the morning light. The view is breathtaking, and always has been. Even more so at moonrise. It’s been one of Kravitz’s favorite features of the palace since the day he was first allowed into the throne room to stand guard.

But even as imposing as the room is, the sparkling candelabras in silver and gold, the black and white marble, cold and authoritative, it is nothing compared to the Raven Queen on Her throne.

The moment one enters the throne room, their eye is immediately drawn to the far end, and the throne itself. The dais itself rises a full seven feet above the floor of the room, a good three hundred feet from the door, up wide steps. Kravitz will forever think that there is nothing in the world that makes one feel smaller than crossing the wide space from the door to speaking distance with Her Majesty. It is by design. Once intimidating, even to him, Kravitz takes comfort in the sense of insignificance that comes with entrance to the room. He rests in the reminder of where power truly lies, and of his place in the equation.

He glances out to the sea, restless today, stirred up by the wind. And when he looks back…

Kravitz has seen Her many ways, awaiting him at the end of a long aisle, preparing to bestow upon him the greatest honor in the kingdom, or standing stock-still on the very edge of the steps to deliver justice to those who threaten the safety of Her people. He has seen Her harried after the work of a long day, and with Her lips pursed in thought or in frustration. He has seen Her resplendent against the rising moon on the nights of balls and festivals. But of all of them, Kravitz thinks that this is his favorite. On work days, a desk of sorts is brought out into the throne room, placed before the seat of Her Majesty, and across it are scattered papers galore, candles and wax and stamps for Her seal, ink and pens, and She is bent over the table, hard at work. She, at these times, looks almost human, almost mortal as he, or anyone. In moments like these, Kravitz almost wishes to reach out and touch her.

Such a thing would be almost blasphemous, unsolicited. But she is his Mother. Kravitz supposes this one attachment might be permitted, as She is its source.

When he reaches the steps, he kneels, bowing his head low in respect, crossing his right arm over his chest, hand balled into a fist. A practiced motion, more natural sometimes than sleeping, something repeated hundreds of times over two decades and more.

“Your Majesty,” he murmurs in greeting, and then he waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And the Raven Queen’s pen does not cease in its careful movement across the paper, the near-silent scratch of it now thunderously loud in this empty, stone space.

Kravitz’s knee is sore from the kneeling. He can see his face in the mirror-shined floors.

She does not acknowledge his presence.

And it is at this, and only at this moment, that it occurs to Kravitz that something might be wrong.

The sound of a pen’s flourish. Of paper folding. And then, Her voice, soft, demure, and utterly domineering.

“Send for Lord Acras, please,” she murmurs, and Kravitz feels as much as hears the courier guard hurry down the steps and across the horrible length of the throne room and out the door. He nearly flinches at the sound of them closing, leaving Kravitz, the other guard, and Her Majesty alone in the room.

And Kravitz has not been permitted to stand.

The Raven Queen snaps her fingers, and with a rustling and the sound of hurried footsteps the other guard comes from her left, down off the dias, to stand before Kravitz.

“You may rise, Admiral,” comes her voice, and only then does Kravitz get up. He looks first to the guard, who is holding out to him a stack of papers, handwriting filling them from edge to edge. Kravitz nods his thanks, taking them, his heart half about to beat out of his chest, and he tries to ignore the twinge of pity in the guard’s eyes as he hurries back up to his post beside the Queen, stands at attention, silent, his face almost a perfect mask of indifference.

Almost.

Kravitz’s throat is dry, and he swallows, and turns his attention to the papers in his hands. He begins to flip through them, skimming them as best he can.

And now his heart stops.

Thirty-thousand gold pieces worth of silk stolen from…

Attacked by a hostile vessel…

Destruction of property…

The Royal Navy nowhere to be found…

Pirates

He can feel his blood begin to boil, and his face begins to heat at what he reads in the letters . They’re letters, all of them. All of them from the Southern Sea. All of them reporting the same ship, nameless. And all of them describe being robbed blind by a band of ferocious pirates, faster and more capable than any they could have even conceived of. Pirates who can get in and out of a ship in a matter of minutes, who can steal an entire hold’s worth of cargo somehow without ever showing more than one member of the crew to the ship they attack.

Pirates that Kravitz has heard no report of before today.

The Raven Queen is patient, allows him to read through every one of the letters, these from merchants, those from noble families, until there is no more to read, and he lets his hand drop to his side, his grasp on the papers tight, vindictive.

Then She speaks.

“Admiral, are you familiar with these documents?” She says, and Kravitz can already feel his heart sinking. It is the quality of her voice, the softness, the expectation in it. She does not yell. She is quiet in her anger, but Kravitz can sense it all the same, bubbling under the placid front, and he…

He is, for the first time in years, worried.

“I… cannot say that I am, Majesty.”

“Curious.” His blood runs cold. “Well. Now you have read them. Will you tell me what they are?”

“They are… they are reports, Your Majesty.” To avoid Her questioning, to deflect or to grovel is useless. “Of a pirate ship, off the Southern Coast, and the… various damages done to your citizens by this ship’s crew.” He feels like a child, reciting before his captain, only so much worse, for now the stakes are not a slap on the wrist or a night without bread. The repercussions in this chamber, in this palace, are far greater.

“You are correct.” She says. “Now tell me, Admiral, how many of these… reports do you hold in your hand?”

“Twelve, Majesty.” Her lips twitch, and Kravitz knows it’s coming.

Twelve .” The word in the large room takes on a sharp, painful quality, and all of a sudden, with that twist of her voice, twelve , once simply a measurement of quantity, is the most dreaded word in Common to Kravitz’s ears.

Twelve letters,” She continues, “twelve letters that I have received this month alone, with reports of this ship attacking my citizens in my waters. At least four trade ships kept from their final destination, ransacked in the last month and a half. Our kingdom’s merchants and manufacturers’ goods unable to even pass out of our waters without being intercepted. The Rockseeker family’s personal yachts held up for trinkets. Twelve letters this month. Will you tell me what day it is?”

“It is the twenty-sixth, Your Majesty.”

“Indeed. It is reassuring to see there is at least a small measure of awareness left in my retinue.” Kravitz wants to sink through the floor and cease to exist. “Now. Answer me this.” Kravitz looks carefully over her left shoulder, not daring look her in the eyes and see the displeasure there. “Do I, Admiral, strike you as a monarch who has the time to deal with petty theft personally?”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“And would you also tell me whose responsibility it is to protect our domestic waters and our cities from foreign attacks such as these?”

“It is the responsibility of the Royal Navy, Your Majesty.”

“Then,” She says, her voice like ice, so that Kravitz half believes that the power of it will freeze the throne and the floor and all the palace until it could be shattered to pieces with one firm tap on a strategically placed wall, “Will you kindly tell me why the Royal Navy is so incompetent as to have not have captured one solitary band of pirates in the last two months?”

“I am afraid I cannot, Your Majesty.”

“You cannot. Why is that?”

“Forgive me, Your Majesty. I was unaware of the threat.” It is the truth, but not an excuse. They both know it; anyone would. It is Kravitz’s job to be aware, to know. That he didn’t is a testament to his perceived incompetence. A testament to his true incompetence. When did his fleets stop communicating with him? When did he lose their loyalty? “The Astral Coast is expansive. I am only aware of that which our Reapers stationed at Sea see fit to report back.”

“And they have failed to inform you?”

“It would appear to be so, Your Majesty.” The truth. Bitter on his tongue, in his mouth, his heart. It is unsatisfactory. It is inexcusable. Kravitz has never felt so ashamed.

“Who among your Commodores is in command of the Southern fleet?”

“Commodore Jenkins, Majesty.”

“Very well. From this moment forward, he has been relieved of his command and is to report to the Astral City immediately.” She snaps her fingers at the courier to her left. “See to it.”

Kravitz looks back to her, almost surprised. He didn’t expect… but then, why didn’t he? Hasn’t she made it clear that those who do not perform their duties to Her satisfaction will no longer be awarded the opportunity to do so? Isn’t that Her rule of thumb?

And yet, upon hearing the words, satisfaction creeps into his mind and heart. It winds itself around his ribs like a vine and inhabits his blood. He’s thought that Jenkins is incapable of his positions. Notoriously hesitant to use the resources given to him, Kravitz isn’t surprised that he wasn’t able to take down this mysterious enemy in the Southern Sea. It makes sense, too, that he wouldn’t let Kravitz know of his failure, not wanting to finally be ousted. Queen only knows if Kravitz had heard of this a month ago he would have put an end to Jenkins once and for all.

“You are to absorb Jenkins’ ships into the greater Navy,” the Queen says, and Kravitz snaps back to attention. “Standard reassignment procedure. And you are to depart the Astral City tomorrow morning, and see to this threat yourself.” Kravitz tries to school his expression, to not look as shocked, as admonished and elated as he feels all at once at the order. “The fleet may be plagued by incompetence, but you have not once failed me, my Reaper. I trust that you can take down one unruly vessel and its crew?”

Kravitz could burst. It’s a punishment, in a way, but a gentle one. Not even a disgrace. One who did not know her so well might even call it a vote of confidence. Kravitz will have to make up for this mistake to get back into her good graces, perhaps, but his image will not suffer publicly. Not if he plays his cards right.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he says, and bows low, this time from the waist. Holds it for a moment longer than he’s required, an apology.

“See to it, then,” she says, with a lazy wave of her hand. “I will have a letter drafted by tomorrow morning. You are to present it to Jenkins when you see him. It will contain his orders.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Another bow, and another snap of fingers tells the courier guard to take the letters from Kravitz’s hand, and then he can finally turn, and make the long walk back to the doors, his mind already far away. There is work to be done before he can leave tomorrow. He doesn’t know how long it will be until he runs across the pirates, it could be anywhere from a month to several, it will take a good week or so to even get to Phandalin, the last reported –

“And Kravitz?”

He freezes.

“Yes, Majesty?”

Her voice comes softer, less veiled. These are no longer words for Her Admiral, Her servant. These are meant for him . It is presumptuous, unfathomably so, for Kravitz to imagine a distinction between the two. But moments like these almost seem to encourage it, blur the line between Goddess and Follower into something almost… tender.

“Now, more than ever, you must be able to keep open communication among your forces. Times are hard for us, and I will not see the strength of my kingdom crumble for my troops being spread too far, too thin, and not possessing respect for lines of power. See to it that your fleet understands this.” There is but a hint of ice in her voice now, but the message is received all the same.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“There is a mess to clean, Kravitz. Do not let this happen again.”

Kravitz nods, and upon hearing her pen pick up it’s deliberate course across paper again, he makes his way across the rest of the floor, doing his best not to heave a sigh when the doors behind him swing mercifully shut.

But all the same, he puts his head in his hands. Walks away from the doors a short way, leans against the wall.

He’s forgotten what it feels like to be nervous in his Queen’s presence, what it is to be told that he is not holding up the duty that he swore to the kingdom. Perhaps he has become complacent in his time sitting behind a desk rather than standing at the helm of a ship. Perhaps being warm and dry and wanting for nothing has softened him

It must be remedied.

If he stands there a moment too long, the guards lining the hall say nothing; they simply stand too, solemn and silent, with Kravitz, as he takes a moment to collect himself.

And then, he gets up.

There is work to be done.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Things never seen quite so bleak come morning.

Alone in his quarters, the long day of readying himself for a voyage allowed the Queen’s words from their ill-fated meeting to echo in his mind. The sound of disappointment in his Mother’s voice twisted in the silence, and Kravitz had hardly slept, so great was his anticipation, his disappointment and shame in his own performance. And so great was his anger at those who would do her Majesty’s subject wrong.

But come morning, the grey light of a summer sun preparing to rise washing the Astral City in gentle, forgiving tones, the feel of a wooden gangplank beneath Kravitz’s boots, the events of the day before occupy only a small corner of Kravitz’s mind.

It has been so long since Kravitz has been ordered onto the sea, since he’s had a real mission, so straightforward a goal, and in a way, he has missed it. The crew is in excellent spirits, and he has missed them , the anticipation that rolls off them at the beginning of a voyage. He has missed the sound of wind in black sails, the sound of the crew shouting orders back and forth on deck, the spray of saltwater and the crashing of waves against the bow as the ship pulls away from the dock and leaves the Astral City behind.

Kravitz, Admiral though he may be, was raised here . On the seas, and in action. This is where he made his name, and the slight adrenaline of knowing he has an objective again thrums in his veins. The wish for revenge is like a drug, and it’s almost as though he’s been living behind a thick sky of clouds only to have them part, all of a sudden, and let the sun shine through.

He has grown complacent, he thinks, surveying his crew, as he walks across the deck. He has grown accustomed to a soft palace life and it has dulled him at the edges. So complacent as to trust, to trust his Navy, to trust his rivals. To trust that he will always be informed, and while he was busy trusting, his subordinate hid vital information of him, concealed a series of attacks, that, were he paying attention, never would have slipped past him. Was there some long-forgotten report that crossed his desk to which he paid no mind, trusting that things would all work out, that the problem would simply be handled?

Well.

No more.

The briny sea air stings his face and his lungs, and Kravitz revels in the sheer presence of it, in the wonderful energy of waking up, and realizing you are alive.

It is a week’s journey to the South end of the Astral Coast, and six days go by without incident. A few nights Kravitz tells his crew to dock at the coastal cities along the way, and he performs the occasional inspection, sits and speaks with the other Reapers over wine, asking them about the mysterious pirates, collecting information on the state of their affairs. A few have heard news from the south, a report here, or a rumor there, but there is little information to be found. He mostly gets the impression that the pirates have remained in a fairly small area of the Queen’s waters. It makes sense, really. Far from the Astral City, perhaps they were expecting this to happen, expecting their activities to go unnoticed and unpunished if they remained on the outskirts of the kingdom. They have either done an excellent job keeping to themselves, or there really is foul play at work in the fleet, and this has been concealed from him intentionally.

Which is a very distressing thought, for one. But Kravitz can’t say he cares for either possibility.

His arrival in Phandalin on the seventh day is well-received by the Rockseekers, the governing family,who throw a fine dinner in Kravitz’s honor, and ill-received by Jenkins. Kravitz relieves him of his duty, and the man, though clearly displeased, takes it surprisingly well. Kravitz privately enjoys the way all the color drains from Jenkins’ face during questioning. Faced with a direct order from the Queen, the truth comes out. Jenkins, though very much aware of the havoc the enemy ship has wreaked on the cities under his jurisdiction, has not once set out after them. In his desk are reports, hoarded, from his subordinates, meant to be sent to the Astral City, to Kravitz’s desk. When Kravitz finds them upon the search of Jenkins’ office aboard his flagship, his wrath is something truly terrible to see. Jenkins weeps, begs for forgiveness, but it is useless. He is the Admiral, the right hand of Her Majesty. The entire crew avoids his gaze for the rest of the evening. Jenkins is sent immediately back to the Astral City, along with a full report detailing Kravitz’s findings.

Kravitz doesn’t doubt that the man will spend the rest of his days breaking gravel for roads in the hot sun, or rotting away in the cellars of the Queen’s palace. But he cannot bring himself to pity him.

Those who disobey Her Benevolence deserve nothing less.

The ex-Commodore’s men are re-assigned at random to new posts, some remaining in Phandalin, others being sent to far-flung corners of the kingdom. Kravitz spends a full day drawing up the rosters, the appropriate papers for every one of them.

And then, when all is settled, his ship leaves Phandalin’s harbor, in search of the pirates.

The ocean is a vast place. Kravitz knows this. But he also knows from the letters sent to the Queen and from the Rockseekers’ reports that it will not be long until they run across the pirate ship. The pirates have been unopposed by Jenkins in their time here; they will be lazy, expecting little resistance, if any. He sails along the route that trade ships heading South from Phandalin take, and he waits.

One day passes.

Then another.

And then a week.

He has given orders to the other Raven’s Fleet ships stationed in Phandalin to patrol as well, to send word if they are able to come across any new information. But he receives nothing. He will not admit to the paranoia that accompanies the lack of information, but makes a mental note to take it up with the Queen when he gets back home; their rules for accountability among the Retinue must be updated. He cannot be left in the dark anymore.

And then.

On the tenth day.

He has given the crew orders to tail a trade vessel on its way to the Stillwater Sea. They have been on its tail for three days now, with nothing to show for it. Kravitz has been considering returning to Phandalin to regroup and reassess, and is drafting a letter to the Raven Queen to that effect when –

“Admiral! Unidentified vessel off Starboard!” comes the voice of his first mate through the door from the deck to his private cabin, and Kravitz is already out of his chair, throwing on his coat as he heads out onto the deck himself.

There is indeed an unidentified vessel off the Starboard bow of the ship, barely visible along the horizon. The mate hands Kravitz a spyglass, and he brings it up to his eye to look.

It does not, upon first glance, look to be a sinister vessel at all. Bright, and sleek in the warm light of late afternoon, and there is no skull and crossbone flag upon this ship to intimidate those it wishes to attack. What stands out are the bright, blood-red sails blown out full, however, unlike anything he’s ever seen, and Kravitz feels something curl in his stomach at the sight, restless, eager.

The ship they’ve been looking for. Here. And soon, the pirates in the flesh.

Heading directly for the trade ship, no clear indication that they have spotted Kravitz’s.

“First mate,” he says, unable to keep the smile off his face.

“After them. Full speed.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

Then orders are being shouted, and the ship changings course, and Kravitz makes his way to the bow as they begin to make their approach, bringing his spyglass back up to get a closer look.

It’s almost… laughable.

The ship looks more like something used for a pleasure cruise more than anything else, light, speedy, and smaller than many of the ships they often encounter on the seas. Kravitz thinks of how lovely the bright red sails would look on the ocean floor. It’s almost a shame he won’t be sinking them in shallower waters.

But these pirates have humiliated him in front of his Queen, as well as hurt hundreds of citizens with their shenanigans. They won’t be leaving today with a ship intact.

The pirates are getting close to the trade ship now, and Kravitz is only three ship’s-lengths behind them. He turns around, shouts to the first mate to ready the cannons and prepare for battle, and when he looks back to the pirate ship –

He sees nothing.

Literally nothing.

Disbelief running through him like a hot twisted cord, Kravitz rubs at his eyes and looks again, and sure enough where there was a ship in front of him only moments before, pulling up alongside the trade ship there is nothing now – beside the cargo ship is only the vast expanse of water and the gleam of the setting sun, and he puts his eye against the spyglass again, searching, and nothing, nothing, how –

“Sir!”

It strikes Kravitz that there is something terribly wrong going on here.

He turns to his first mate in time to see the man point of the port side of the cargo ship, and there , there is the red-sailed ship in all its glory, honey-colored wood shining and pristine in the golden evening light, gold motifs along the sides, and blood red positively filling Kravitz’s vision.

And absolutely not where it’s supposed to be.

Kravitz’s brain doesn’t even have time to form the thought how when smoke pours out of the side of the ship, and cannonballs streak across the cargo ship’s deck, and the air erupts in shouts as his crew leaps into action.

“Battle stations, all hands!” he shouts, “Take us back around! Prepare to fire!” For good measure he draws the sword at his hip.

The mystery ship fires upon his again and Kravitz grits his teeth, and he watches, near helpless, as their vessel tries to get into a position to fire upon the pirates, but – but Kravitz had put them on the other side of the trade ship, because that’s where the pirates were , and now be has to circle back and find some way to get around the obstruction of one of his kingdom’s ships to fire upon his enemy, every moment they spend maneuvering a waste of precious, precious time.

He can see the trade ship as the pirates board it, unable to make out more than vague shapes through the canon-smoke surrounding the two vessels, and there are flashes of light coming from the deck that Kravitz can’t see clearly – does this mystery crew have guns ? But no – these are blue and purple and green and all manner of colors and he –

He catches movement out of the corner of his eye.

Movement in the shadows near the entrance to the Captain’s quarters.

His quarters .

There could be no reason for any of his crew to enter his quarters now .

He’s immediately rushing across the deck to his cabin, pushing past his crew readying themselves for battle as the ship speeds toward the mystery vessel, and – and then it happens.

“Admiral, look out!”

One of the large, black sails comes loose from the rigging and falls, billowing out in the winds, to the deck.

No one this side of the deck can get out from under it. The fabric falls, draping wide and heavy over the deck and Kravitz is suddenly blinded, surrounded by the dark that the black cloth creates around him, and the heat, the suffocating heat, and it’s so much and so heavy that it brings him fully to the ground, but Kravitz is trained well. He doesn’t waste a moment in shock before trying to fight his way out, before moving solidly in the direction he was going before, hauling crew members to their feet as they try to find their way out from underneath the fallen sail.

It’s hard, terrible work, but they make it, and Kravitz shouts –

“First mate, a headcount!” –

Before running into his quarters because he knows there was someone there, he saw

Nothing. He expected a ransacking, or a cowering crew member, or a pirate mid-search but he throws open the door, light flooding the room and he sees nothing out of place as he looks around, nothing, not the bed, not the table, not the dresser for his uniforms, not on the desk –

Nothing.

“Admiral!”

He rushes back out the door to see again, his first mate pointing off of the Starboard side, and he looks, and there, next to the ransacked cargo ship, the red-sailed vessel is gliding smoothly away, completely unmarred.

“After them!” he shouts to his crew, but not a one of them moves.

“Admiral,” his first mate says, “the sails .”

And it is then that Kravitz realizes. Not only the sail that fell upon him, but all of his ship’s sails have fallen, as neatly as if they had been simply… cut from the rigging by… by what?

And in the light of the setting sun, in a shocking sort of silence, Kravitz sees that his ship and his crew have been immobilized somehow in a matter of minutes, and another cargo ship attacked, and there is nothing he can do to pursue the perpetrators.

For the first time, Kravitz, Admiral of the Raven Queen’s Royal Navy, Second to Her power, Lord of the Retinue and all its reapers, is powerless .

“Shit!” he curses, throwing his sword down onto the deck and shocking the crew enough to make them jump straight into the ear.

“Don’t just stand there,” he snaps. “Get to work!”

The crew leaps into action, and Kravitz takes one more look at the red-sailed ship as it sails away. He could swear that on its stern he can see something moving, and almost by fate something rolls against his foot and it’s the spyglass, and he puts it up to his eye, looking –

And sure enough, there, in the small circle of the glass he sees a figure, leaning on the railing on the stern’s high deck, and waving to them. Waving to him , it almost feels like. Someone in an elaborate coat and ostentatious feathered hat, and underneath the hat, the face is illuminated by the sideways light, and Kravitz sees some kind of animal, brown fur and beady black eyes and a snout, a mask of some kind. It’s like a picture straight out hell, the vague inhuman quality of it, combined with the anger in Kravitz’s veins, and yet it is so jovial , so –

He throws down the spyglass in frustration, knowing that with how quickly the ship is gliding away over the waves there isn’t any way that his crippled ship will be able to follow.

“First mate,” he says, defeated, “tell the crew to re-hang the sails. Then set a course for Phandalin.”

“Yes sir.”

And with that, Kravitz retreats back to his cabin, rubbing his face. He makes it inside and leans back against the door, and it takes everything in him not scream in frustration.

How could things have gone so horribly wrong in so short a time?

Never has an enemy ship so thoroughly defeated his own crew. In fact, they’ve never been defeated at all . It’s a crushing blow, and one that will greatly displease the Raven Queen. It’s an embarrassment, the immobilization of the ships a clear humiliation. And he wasted time mid-battle, if it can even be called that, by coming back here . What will his crew think, seeing him run to his quarters during an engagement with the enemy?

And there isn’t a thing in his cabin out of place. It was a childish whim, the trick of the light getting to him, seeing ships where they shouldn’t be, and shadowy figures on deck. And it was nothing at all. Not a thing out of place.

Except.

The thought comes to him more than he comes to it; it nags at him as he stares at his desk, and something is wrong, isn’t it?

He was in the middle of drafting a letter, had left out the ink and the pen and the paper with half a page carefully transcribed from his notes for Her Majesty, and now on the desk there is still a sheet of paper, but it’s almost entirely blank which means –

His letter to the Raven Queen is gone .

He rushes to the desk, picks up the paper on it, and reads a note, mockingly short:

Thanks for the pen,

—— The Mongoose

Kravitz panics. He immediately goes to the desk drawer in which he keeps copies of all his correspondence with Her – his notes, and the drafts of his letters –

They’re gone. All of them, every one of them, gone without a trace.

In the next drawer, where he keeps the ledgers for the crew – their records of service, their pay, all the information about the entire fleet , about her entire retinue of Reapers

Gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone .

He slams to drawer shut with a curse, buries his hands in his hair and tugs on the locs so hard it hurts – it’s not his only copy of the records, but, but –

But it’s nothing good to see these missing either.

It could be just a taunt, just a message sent. Both the theft and the note, a similar theme. I was able to get into your quarters and you didn’t even know, I took this right out from under your nose and you couldn’t do a thing to stop me .

But Kravitz feels it’s more than that. This was reconnaissance.

These are not just simple pirates. They are something more, that much is clear.

And now they have all the information on the Raven Queen they could possibly want.

And it was Kravitz who left Her defenseless.

He collapses in his chair at his desk, burying his head in his hands, tugging on his hair, hard. He scrubs at his face and rests his chin on his hands as he thinks and then –

He sees the note on the desk again, taunting him. The signature, mocking him.

—— The Mongoose

Resolve wells up in him, somewhere deep, and furious, and unnamable.

Well.

At least his enemy has a name.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

 

*~*~*~*~*

Docking in Phandalin after their run-in with the pirates is its own kind of disgrace.

Kravitz wonders if this is what defeat feels like, having to face the Rockseekers and tell them that the ship is still out there, having to face the merchants who were relying on the cargo ship to deliver their goods across the sea, having to face his crew, who has never once seen him so utterly helpless, at the mercy of a few restless hooligans. It’s embarrassing .

Kravitz has never taken embarrassment well.

His crew behaved admirably, getting the ship back in order, but they need a day, maybe two in the docks to re-hang the sails properly, to collect more and better rations and to send messages to the Raven Queen.

And for Kravitz to figure out what in the Queen's Name had even happened.

See, in the days following the battle (if it can even be called that) Kravitz has interviewed every one of his crew, asking anyone who might be responsible for hanging the sails what could possibly have gone wrong. He’s searched every bunk, every cabin and nook and cranny, for the missing information and records from his cabin. He’s questioned every one of them in regards to the note left on his desk. But the thing was no one had made a mistake, or at least no that they would admit to, and Kravitz could think of no reason why, out of nowhere, when all his crew had been very diligent in preparing and maintaining the ship, their sails would come billowing down atop their heads. And the first mate did  a head-count mid-battle, and there was no one from the crew unaccounted for in the moments after the burglary. If it’s foul-play, it’s incredibly well executed.

Which is not an encouraging thought.

Of course it could be foul play, what with Jenkins’ way of behaving in the area, but he had pinned that down to the actions of one solitary captain, far from home, lazy, and not wanting to show himself for the incompetent buffoon he is.

And none of that accounted for the fact that he had watched a ship teleport in real time . A whole ship! Entire ships didn’t just instantaneously change location on a whim, and if anyone in the world knows it, it’s Kravitz, so what on earth could have happened? Because Kravitz either watched an entire ship teleport in front of him , or he had hallucinated the entire thing and has no place commanding a bathtub schooner, much less the flagship of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.

Kravitz feels vaguely like he might be losing his mind, and doesn’t care for the feeling one bit.

The crew’s gone ashore now for the evening, and Kravitz is pacing, back and forth, from his office in his cabin, out onto the deck, bow to stern and back again. The two reapers left guarding the ship at the top of the gangplank eye him worriedly, but Kravitz pays them no mind. No, his mind is full of blinding, white-hot frustration and worse , confusion, sneaking through his veins and into his heart and back out among his extremities. The note from the Mongoose is given pride of place on his desk, for it’s not like he has anything else to replace it with, and every time Kravitz sees it he’s spurred to anger and frustration all over again.

He refuses to leave the ship, to go into town, even with the Rockseekers’ invitation to stay in their manor. They seemed mildly understanding, at the very least, in regards to his failure. But still. It doesn’t mean much when Kravitz knows from experience that they’re likely to turn right around and send a letter the Queen’s way letting Her know exactly how spectacularly Kravitz failed.

The thing is, Kravitz thinks he knows, in his heart of hearts, just how the pirates were able to so thoroughly obliterate his crew. He just doesn’t care for the conclusion. And his brain wraps round and round like so many tracks he’s wearing into the deck with his pacing, and every time he thinks through every twist and turn, relives every chaotic second of the encounter, until he comes to the same, terrible conclusion.

There is no way the crew of the red-sailed pirate ship could have executed the feats they did without supernatural assistance.

Which means…

Magic.

And of course, magic of any kind is strictly forbidden in the Raven Queen's lands. The mere possession of an arcane focus is enough to be put to death. It has been so for years.

And as such, Kravitz is completely unprepared to deal with magic. His experience with the arcane stops at maybe one or two spells he’s seen from a distance over the years in Her retinue but it’s not like… it’s not like he knows anything about it, even written information on the subject is forbidden in Her lands. He’s never even seen a book on the subject, and this is a whole ship, full of arcane experts, they must be, because Kravitz didn’t even know magic could do that ‒ it’s a ship full of animal-faced, spell slinging, murderous thieves that took Kravitz’s ship from fully functioning to not functioning at all in a matter of seconds .

He stops in his pacing, leans on the guardrail on the side of the ship, rests his head in his hands.

What is he going to do ?

The Raven Queen must know of the confrontation sooner or later. Kravitz fears what her reaction will be when she does hear of it. At best she won’t be pleased, at worst she’ll be furious. She sent him South to deal with this, and after only one run-in, Kravitz is completely out of his depth, with no idea what to do next, and nowhere to turn. With a crew that saw him completely fail at his duty, and knows he’ll fail again, because they can see that he has no idea what went wrong.

Magic , Kravitz thinks. He’s sick to his stomach. These people must be truly evil to employ magic on a regular basis, as if the piracy wasn’t already bad enough. The Raven Queen always said that magic is for those mortals who wish to become like gods, that it isn’t to be trusted. That it can do terrible things. That it is the tools of anarchists and the lawlessly greedy, those who would turn nature to their will and the world to their bidding.

And now Kravitz has got a magic pirate ship on the loose in the Southern Coast.

The lights of Phandalin twinkle in the night in front of him when he looks up.

Kravitz closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.

Opens them.

There’s only one thing to do, isn’t there? He’ll have to adapt.

Kravitz crosses the deck, one more time, lets the door to his cabin close behind him with a thud. He ties up his locks, rolls his shoulders twice, and puts pen to paper.

Your Most Benevolent  Majesty,

 

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The thing is, Taako knows his sister.

Years with a person will teach you things. You can learn the way people think, the way they talk. At a certain point you can predict the next words out of their mouth before even they know what they’re going to say. You learn their expressions, the way their face bends when they’re happy or sad or thinking hard about something. But the thing about Lup is that when Taako met her, it didn’t take any time at all. Those years that it takes to know someone inside out were nonexistent for the two of them, or they passed in a day, and there was nothing to be known that they didn’t already know about each other, and then everything they learned after simply expanded upon that already infinite knowledge. The way Taako knows Lup now is beyond infinite, some value that encompasses everything and still more.

Taako knows his sister. Which means that he knows where she’ll be after the day they’ve had, knows how the encounter with the Raven’s fleet worked on her emotions, and exactly what is twisting her up inside in the aftermath. He knows to shoot Barry a look as they pass in the tiny hall below-decks, and head back up to the deck of the ship, and into the main cabin, and to look for her sitting at the table, with no candle to light the room.

The moonlight filters in through the small, thick glass panes, lighting Lup up in profile. She’s beautiful, Taako thinks abruptly, and his heart hurts from knowing it. She’s always been the pretty one, even though they have the same face. She’s pretty now, her hair falling out of her braid, just like his, and leaning over the table, tracing her finger over a page of the Admiral’s thick ledger.

Taako closes the door behind him, and suddenly the sounds of the sea are cut off into silence, and the room darkened by degrees. Lup doesn’t even look up as Taako enters, and that’s how he knows it’s bad.

He walks over to her, his boots clunking against the solid wooden floor. Gods, he’s tired. He wants nothing more than to strip down into his sleep shirt and fall down into his bed, lost to the world. Burning spell slot after spell slot every day will do that to a person. But Lup needs him. Taako would walk the oceans for her.

He puts a hand on her shoulder, and she immediately brings one up, clasping his. Her nails dig into the back of his hand. Taako can’t understand why she keeps trying to grow them; it doesn’t take more than a day for them to break anyway.

“Hey, Lu,” he says, gentle. He looks over her shoulder, down into the book, and his stomach twists when he begins to read the page. It’s a list of names, positions, promotions. There are dates of joining the retinue, and these… these are dated from 22 years ago, and Taako knows what she’s looking for, looks for it himself, the two names that are noticeably absent.

“They edited it,” she says, and in the quiet room her voice is barely audible, “or replaced it, I guess.”

“What did you expect?” Taako says, “did you think they’d keep around any evidence that there are people in Her retinue who are anything less than thrilled to serve?”

“Guess not.” It’s a long moment before she speaks again. “It just doesn’t sit right with me, I guess,” she says, and Lup’s voice never wavers when she’s upset – you don’t hear nervousness in her tone the way you might in another’s. But Taako knows. “That you can erase a person like that, like they never… I mean, ten years we gave to them, and now they’ve just… erased it. Like we never even existed.”

“Think of it this way… that we got out, you know?” Taako says.

“I know, I just – fuck, Taako. Look at it. Most of them don’t even have last names. ” And Lup drops her head into her hands, seemingly unable to look at the book a moment longer.

“We’ve gotta do this Ko,” she says, miserable. “We’ve just got to.

And isn’t that the crux of it, Taako thinks, emotionless, as he runs his hand over her back, in long, soothing strokes. It’s funny, how they balance each other out. Taako remembers their younger days, right at the beginning of their time together, and how Lup had to drag him from pillar to post, directionless as he was without her. But Lup’s emotions are what pull her astray. Taako’s practical. He’s not cruel, but neither does his heart beat out of his chest at the sob story of every starving family and orphaned child. Taako’s not directionless anymore; in fact, without him, Lup would spend so much time tending to every detail, worrying herself sick over every dilemma that she would never be able to move.

It’s not that Taako doesn’t care about things. He cares about Lup . He cares, albeit reluctantly, for the crew. At times, he can even bring himself to care about people ; random people, people he doesn’t even know. But what Taako knows is how to control his caring. Lup’s caring spills out of her and gets on everyone she meets. Lup’s whole personality is caring. Taako can’t do that. To put your heart out on the line for the world to see isn’t just dangerous, it’s gauche .

They tether each other to the ground, the two of them. They take turns being the big sibling. So Taako’s the big sibling tonight.

“Look, Lu,” he starts in, “we’ve got a plan that’s gone off without a hitch so far. Did you see the way that Admiral reacted to those spells?” Lup snorts a little laugh, half-hearted. “Dude didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I wish I could’a seen his face.

“We’ve been working on this for years, haven’t we?” he says, and Lup nods. “And she doesn’t let her people use magic at all , and we’ve got six dope-ass spellcasters on our side, plus one whole Magnus.” Lup laughs at that one, truly, fully, and Taako smiles in spite of himself.

“You can’t tell me that Merle counts as a ‘dope-ass spellcaster,’ Taako,” she says, and Taako shrugs.

“Okay, fair, so we’ve got five dope-ass spellcasters, one whole Magnus, and a Merle,” he says, “but if the plan is to make for maximum chaos to wreck bird queen’s whole shop, then for once the old man might actually be useful.” She laughs again, turns around in her chair to look at him.

“You know, you might actually be right,” she says, shaking her head, and her tone is halfway between joking and genuinely strategizing, and that’s how Taako knows she’s going to be okay.

“Of course I’m fucking right, I’m the smart twin aren’t I?”

Lup shakes her head, beaming at him. “You’re the worst and I hate you.”

Taako just squeezes her hand, just the same as his own. Save the nails, of course.

“But seriously, Lu,” he says, “Barry’s probably worried himself halfway to indigestion by now, waiting for you.” He reaches past her, closes the book with a thud . “No more fucking staring moodily at the ghosts of your past or whatever in the middle of the night. Go get some fucking rest you absolute drama queen disaster.”

Lup laughs again, bright and loud and full, throwing her head back a little bit before she gets up from the chair. She turns around, kisses Taako lightly on the cheek, and then, just as she’s pulling back from it, she seems to rethink, and pulls him fully into a tight hug, standing there, hanging onto him for long moments in the dark and the quiet. And of course Taako’s arms come up around her immediately, because it’s Lup , and she’s Taako’s whole entire heart and soul and he adores her, from the tips of his toes to the ends of the Earth, and to not stand here and hold her for everything he’s worth would be against the natural order of things.

It occurs to Taako, then, that maybe he’s more than just tired from the day. And maybe Lup isn’t the only one feeling a little emotional.

“I love you, Ko,” she breathes into his hair, and his ear flicks around at the feeling of her breath on it. He’s long since gotten used to these turns toward the maudlin from her, but knows all the same that they need to be treated with care. So for once, he doesn’t joke, doesn’t deflect. He says a quiet you too into her hair and lets her pull away. Lets her lead the way down below decks and watches her squeeze through her door into her and Barry’s room, candlelight still flickering inside as he waits up for her. Then, and only then, does Taako ready himself for bed.

But his mind works uneasy circles around his conversation with his sister as he brushes and re-braids his hair, takes out earrings and changes into his sleepshirt, and in his mind’s eye he keeps seeing the page he caught Lup looking at. There were fewer names there than he remembered there being people in their class. Maybe some of them went the same way he and Lup did. He doesn’t want to think about the other reason their names might be missing.

The thing is, Taako’s not beat up about their time in the retinue. It’s not… it’s whatever , really. If anything, it’s valuable. Without it, there would be no way for Taako and Lup to know all the information they do on the bird fuck herself and be able to target her system in any way that mattered. It’s fine . So why won’t his brain stop dwelling on it? Why is it like those thoughts are at the end of track or the beginning of a loop that he can’t escape? Why can’t he stop seeing Lup’s face from across a courtyard of people, blonde hair against her black uniform, blood on her cheek from an accidental nick from a training sword? Why won’t he stop seeing her eyes shining in the dark, wide and frightened above his bed, every time he closes his own?

Taako’s been living on the Starblaster for years. It’s been a long time since he and Lup have needed to huddle together on the road, whether for warmth or for safety, or for the sake of not having to pay for an extra bed. But still, tonight the emptiness of his bed plagues him, until he tosses so much he can’t sleep, and has to lean up against the wall and resort to meditation, the sound of the sea outside his tiny window carrying him all the way into the next bright, relentless day.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

The next good day sees Kravitz back out on the water, the hull of his ship packed with salted meat, hardtack and gruel, and lime juice, anything they can carry for a prolonged episode at sea. Kravitz knows it’s an almost excessive precaution, knows that they’ll likely be close enough to the shore that they could potentially find a nearby port town and restock their supplies, but at the same time… he doesn’t want to take any chances. The less time he spends dallying, taking trips to and from the shore for the sake of comfort , the better.

The Mongoose needs to be caught. Yesterday .

After last week’s failure, he knows it’s essential that he work to get himself back in the Raven Queen’s good graces. And so, as per his letter, Kravitz takes his crew and sets out upon the sea. He sends out letters to the Commodores and Captains stationed up and down the coast, to keep a look out for the red-sailed ship, to report their findings. He gets a copy of the list of every single cargo vessel planning to leave Phandalin in the next month, their routes and destinations, and assigns guard rotations for each and every one, even borrowing Reapers from the city of Phandalin when need be. It is no trouble. Kravitz is Her most trusted advisor, and commander of all Her military. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Kravitz is not about to make it easier for pirates to take advantage of his people.

He sends a letter to his secretary back in the Astral City, asking him to send a backup copy of Kravitz’s records, as quickly as he can, and he doesn’t care how many copyists need to be put on the task. The loss of the information will be of the greatest concern to Her Majesty, he knows. He needs to take down these pirates before the confidential information of the inner workings of the Raven Queen’s retinue can be used against him by the pirates somehow, or worse… disseminated to the public. Military information is not public. Kravitz must ensure it remains that way.

If all goes well, the pirates will be at the bottom of the ocean before too much more trouble can come of this.

The note left on his desk is ever present in his mind. The Mongoose . A poor alias, in Kravitz’s opinion, but he remembers the rodential face he saw peering back at him from under an ostentatious feathered hat as the pirate ship sailed happily away from him. Ostentatiousness like that… this Mongoose is likely captain of their operation. It would explain the note at the very least, and the manner of the man… at least, he thinks it was a man, waving to him from the ship the last time.

He muses over the Mongoose day and night, until it’s all that he’s got spinning in his mind and it’s haunting his every breath.

It doesn’t help one bit that there’s nothing else to do but stare at the ocean all day and night, nothing to distract him from his thoughts as he encounters nothing but plain, empty horizon, day after day.

He sails the trade routes, back and forth, hoping to run across the ship again. He follows cargo ships ripe for a ransacking, those laden down with precious jewels or luxury goods, but he sees nothing. There’s not a hint of the red-sailed ship, not a trace of the Mongoose or his crew.

And then.

After nearly a week, there , on the horizon. A flicker, a flash of red sails. Smoke. Another ship, he thinks he sees, white sails. Another trade ship, just in the process of being completely and utterly overrun, like last time.

There .

“First Mate!” he shouts, “ready the crew!”

They speed toward the ship, Kravitz pacing up and down, shouting orders at the many members of his crew, and men scramble up the rigging and wait atop the crossbars that hold the sails aloft, double-checking ropes and knots, and ready to react at a moment’s notice.

And they get closer, and closer.

Kravitz can see it again, the tell-tale signs of magic on the deck of the trade ship, through the smoke from cannons fired, bright flashes of green and gold and purple, and he’s waiting for something to happen, any moment, as he pulls around to come alongside the red-sailed ship, close, so much closer than he was last time, and –

He’s expecting something big, expecting the sails to billow down, or for a mysterious figure to appear on the deck, and challenge him to a duel, or for the cannons from the enemy ship to fire.

He does not expect the ocean to open up beneath him. He does not expect  his ship to go down.

Because all of a sudden there’s movement , and everything happens so quickly – the ship is tossed, and rocks violently, and he can hear the men shouting in the rigging as Kravitz is thrown to his knees by the deck pitching suddenly beneath him, and –

It’s absolute chaos, the swirling of the water, and the pitching of the ship, and the men in the rigging, hanging on for dear life, and only by the grace of the helmsman are they saved, the man gripping the wheel of the ship for dear life as the whirlpool beneath them sends them to pillar and post, and Kravitz doesn’t know how long it is until the water smooths, and calms, and the violent movement of the ship returns to the usual rocking of waving ocean, and Kravitz stands on shaking legs to find that the ship is gone, and the trade ship is lying still in the water, and there’s no way of knowing which way the pirates went.

He’s soaking wet, and so is the deck, and the men come down from the rigging slowly, looking pale and terrified, most of them, not that Kravitz blames them. Even he, in his many years, has hardly been in water so violent. The most terrible of storms, perhaps, could compare, but for a whirlpool, large enough to nearly swallow up a naval ship the size of theirs, to open up below him in the perfect light of a sunny, beautiful day, is a distinctly uncomfortable and distressing occurrence.

“First mate,” Kravitz says, shaky, “a headcount. Tell me who we’ve lost, and then prepare to continue the pursuit of the pirates.”

“Aye, Admiral,” the man says, and Kravitz stumbles into his cabin and collapses onto the floor.

He has five minutes of exhaustion, five minutes of blind panic and breathing hard, before his heart is overtaken by the knowledge of defeat , again, and his veins are chilled by fury.

Defeat once at the hands of the pirates is a fluke, one that can be written off, and forgiven. Twice is a pattern. It cannot become a pattern. The Raven Queen is Benevolent, but powerful, and strict; she must be, to keep Her kingdom safe. Kravitz’s punishment will be heavy indeed, when she hears of a second defeat.

He hauls himself back up to his feet, and walks out onto the deck, and orders the pursuit.

By some miracle, none of his crew are lost in the mayhem of the whirlpool, even with so many stationed in the rigging to prevent another loss of the sails, and Kravitz, if he believed in the gods, would thank them for the good fortune, whatever benevolent force saw fit to not kill half his crew in one fell swoop.

And then they continue on.

And for two weeks he follows the rumor of the Mongoose’s ship. And every day is the same. Every day there is another letter, another Raven from some ship in the fleet, swearing they spotted a red-sailed ship, here, or there, and no number of requests for backup before engagement can get Kravitz there quickly enough to face the Mongoose head on. He always slips away, he and his crew, before Kravitz can reach him, and the conversations are always the same: I saw it, I swear , and but he couldn’t have gone far , and sometimes I didn’t send any letter , the most frustrating of all. It’s not just frustrating, it’s infuriating, going around in circles like so, but what else can he do?

He has the distinct feeling he’s being toyed with, and Kravitz doesn’t care for it one bit. No one’s ever been clever enough to toy with him before. It’s strange and terrible, and the thought of it sends electricity arcing up his spine whenever his thoughts turn the Mongoose’s way.

He paces the deck of his ship as day after day goes by with no sign of the red-sailed menace of a ship, and he waits, and his crew gets antsy, and Kravitz does too, and he wants more than anything to know that the ship is at the bottom of the ocean, the Mongoose along with it. Wants to see it with his own eyes and sink it by his own hand.

The novelty of being out on the sea once more, of being in charge of a mission, has long since worn off. He finds himself clenching his teeth in his sleep, clenching his fist when awake. Small aches and pains spring up all across his body from the tension he carries, and each day weighs a little heavier with them.

Kravitz longs for the death of the Mongoose and for the comfortable embrace of his bed in the Queen’s palace. He longs for peace in the kingdom once more. No more can the people suffer under the hands of lawless hooligans. Time is of the essence.

So where in the Queen’s Name are they?

Even more discouraging, he thinks, on the fifteenth day after his latest face-to-face (or, he supposes, ship-to-ship) run in with the Mongoose and co, is that Kravitz has no comprehension of their magical abilities whatsoever. It could be that the ship doesn’t ever have to be visible at all unless the pirates choose to show themselves. Not only is trying to find one ship on an entire sea like finding a needle in a haystack, he may just be working with an invisible needle .

He can remain on the sea indefinitely, that much is true, he thinks on the sixteenth day, pacing up and down his cabin, one wall to the other, again, again, again. He doesn’t need to return to the coast to restock supplies for months, potentially, is free as a bird to track the pirates wheresoever they may go. He sent out ships in every direction he could imagine, with orders to report back any sightings of the red-sailed ship, or any more recorded attacks or thefts.

The letters come, the Ravens come, alighting on his guardrails and screaming news to the lofty skies, but it’s of no use. No matter which way he goes, they’re gone before he can see.

On the seventeenth day, another Raven comes, this time with the report of another attack, weeks old. These merchants hadn’t even known their stock was missing until arriving across the sea to their destination, only to open the hold and fine three quarters of their inventory gone without a trace.

But no word of whereabouts . Kravitz, vengefully, crumples the paper and throws it overboard, letting it land in the traitorous sea.

Day eighteen, nothing but rain. Silence and rain on the deck, and Kravitz, in his cabin, lit by a solitary candle, ruins a dozen perfectly good sheets of paper with unusable drafts of letters to Her Majesty. He doesn’t know what he could possibly say.

Two weeks and five days after the whirlpool, and over four months since the Mongoose’s first theft, Kravitz receives a Raven.

It settles on the guardrail port side of the deck, and squawks up a storm until Kravitz comes out of his cabin, blinking blearily in the morning sun, and removes the letter it carries tied carefully to one of its legs.

He skims it over, then startles, goes back, and reads it again. And again, and his hands tighten on the paper as he reads until eventually it rips in his grasp. He turns around and begins barking orders at the helmsman at the wheel, and then whips around and orders the first mate to wake the crew and get all hands to their stations.

There’s been another attack.

Red-sailed ship… attacked by early morning… unable to detain vessel… cargo ship sustained heavy damage… in pursuit; please send reinforcements .

What better reinforcements than his own crew?

The letter is from Captain Bane, a well-seasoned member of the fleet, established and in command even before Kravitz was. Reliable. Sturdy. Just what Kravitz needs. They’re north of him, both ships, and the pirates have done it again, but Kravitz swears this target will be their last. He has a goal now,he has somewhere to go, and he will intercept them. He’ll have other ships for backup, Bane’s, and he will send for more. He will take them out this time.

The ship, needless to say, cuts north as quickly as possible, but it’s hours before they can reach the coordinates described by the Captain in his message. By then the red-sailed ship will have moved, and Kravitz won’t know where to look for them.

But it’s better than nothing. So they go. And Kravitz sends a Raven to let Captain Bane know he’s coming, that he’s on his way. And he hopes beyond hope that when they reach Captain Bane their two ships can close in on the pirates and surround them, take them out.

And for hours, Kravitz is on his feet. And for hours, he looks out over the water, and watches, and waits. And he wonders how he’s going to know, if he sees the Mongoose’s ship, whether or not it’s real .

The sun goes down, and the sun goes up, and Kravitz pursues Captain Bane who pursues the pirates, and the sun goes down and up again and Captain Bane swears he’s close, and Kravitz sends Ravens to other ships in the fleet requesting backup for a hopeful ambush, because no amount of magic can out-magic four ships on one, and the sun goes down and up again and then on the third day there’s Captain Bane’s ship, waiting on the water, and the pirates there, ahead, their red sails hovering over the horizon.

Kravitz puts a truly excessive number of men on watch and the rest of the crew on high alert in the pirates make any move. And then he pulls his ship alongside Bane’s, and drops the gangplank.

Captain Bane is a broad man with graying hair cropped close to his skull, no-nonsense. He’s been in the Retinue as long as Kravitz can remember, as hardly aged a day in all the time. It’s funny like that, being granted long life for their service. Kravitz doesn’t know how old Bane truly is, but he’s well respected, and competent. He crosses the gangplank onto Kravitz’s ship, followed by his first mate and helmsman, and bows respectfully when he comes to stand before Kravitz.

“Captain Bane,” Kravitz says, “a situation report, please.”

Bane nods.

“I’ve been following them for the past three days,” he says, “found them in a skirmish with another cargo ship headed south from the Astral City. The cargo ship sustained heavy damage and made for Phandalin, but we were able to engage the pirates, and did some damage to the ship. They fled, and we pursued. We thought that we wouldn’t be able to keep up, but the damage to their hull has slowed them down. Even with their… extranatural abilities, it seems they don’t have the power to repair it out here.They’re stranded.”

“And they haven’t engaged you?”

“Not since the original skirmish, sir. The cargo ship was equipped with self-defense mechanisms as well. I don’t think they were expecting to sustain the damage they did.” Bane points to the ship, sitting still along the horizon. “Look at it,” he says “it’s a sitting duck. All we need is to finish it. There’s only so many tricks they’ve got up their sleeves.”

“Captain, may I remind you that those tricks were enough to severely embarrass, and in fact, nearly incapacitate the entire southern fleet. Don’t underestimate their capabilities.”

“Admiral,” Bane says, “I really think ‒”

Kravitz looks through his spyglass at the ship for long moments while Bane is speaking, trying to discern the nature of the ship on the horizon. Can magic repair a ship’s hull? He’s inclined to say yes, but Bane’s story does sound, well… reasonable . It’s entirely possible that this is it, that all Kravitz needs is here, waiting in his hands, and if he waits any longer, maybe the pirates will find a way to repair their ship, and then he will have missed his chance, and where will he be?

He has to engage them.

“Excellent work, Captain Bane,” he says, handing the spyglass back to his mate, “I think we may have them. Prepare your ship to engage. We will flank the pirates on either side, and be ready to lay into them when we get close. We must be quick. If they get a chance to take advantage of us, they’ll slip from our grasp again.”

“Yes, sir,” Captain Bane says, and returns to his own ship.

Kravitz’s ship prepares for battle.

And then.

And then.

It is the long lead-up, and the time it takes for a ship to cover a few leagues of ocean is so much time and yet none at all, and Kravitz’s heart rate increases, now two miles from the pirates, now one. And then ship does not move, and as they approach Kravitz can see it, the way the vessel rides low in the water; she must be taking on water as they speak, slowly sinking all on her own.

Well Kravitz is nothing if not helpful , he thinks, gleefully, as he orders the men to ready the cannons.

Now five-hundred feet, now two-hundred feet. Now he and Bane circling the ship, on either side of it, and the deck is deserted, or at least he thinks it is, until he looks through his spyglass and sees, there, on the deck, a solitary in an ostentatious hat and what looks, from his long distance, several hundred feet to the port side of the ship, to be a mask. Brown fur, beady eyes.

The Mongoose.

He allows himself one moment to marvel at it all, the fact that such mayhem can be caused by such a source, by one nightmarish figure, it is now revealed, without any crew behind him, just a god complex and a ship that can defy the laws of logic.One moment to think over every crime this Mongoose has committed in the Raven Queen’s territory, and to think to himself that really, how much wealth does one man need?

He allows himself that one moment to savor, and to breathe.

And then he orders his cannons to fire.

His and Bane’s cannons lay into the ship simultaneously, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch, through the smoke, through his glass, as the ship’s wood splinters and breaks, gaping holes left in the side, as one of the cannonballs hits the mast and sends the sails careening sideways, and Kravitz keeps moving, circling the thing, never in one place, as the pirates, pirate , really, just the one, is trapped, his lovely little ship damaged now beyond repair, and Kravitz can see a flash of indistinct energy from the deck of the ship, and the water at his hull turns to ice, freezing his ship in one place, probably damaging the rudder the point of disrepair.

But he laughs.

Movement or no, he’s within range, and the pirate ship, thanks to a clever shot from Bane’s vessel, no longer has a mainsail. Kravitz would like to see the Mongoose magic his way out of that one.

They fire, and fire, the two ships on one, until finally, the red-sailed ship is going down in the water, and Kravitz orders his men to stop.

And then he watches.

He watches every moment of it. From the very first sign that there was a fatal rupture in the hull to the very last second before the deck disappears beneath the waves. When he looks, as the ship is sinking, he can see the solitary figure, lying on the deck, dead. The Mongoose, who made Kravitz look a fool, dead. Satisfaction is not strong enough a word to express how he feels.

The ship goes down, and down, and down, and at the last moment the red sails float atop the water for moments before they, too, are dragged down by the weight of the ship they’re still attached to, tied to in small places, and the blood-like stain they make on the water is gone, too, nothing remaining of the pirate’s ship but a smooth, blue spot in the midst of the waves.

And then a cheer rises up from behind Kravitz. A cheer from his crew.

They clap each other on the back and they laugh and whoop and yell, and Kravitz smiles, his eyes drifting back to the spot where the ship went down.

Captain Bane will have to be congratulated, of course. There will be reports to write up and testimonies to take from the crew, so that every breath of the battle can be recorded. But for the moment, Kravitz just looks at the spot on the water where the ship went down, and thinks of the note in his quarters from the Mongoose, and imagines red sails settled, finally, on the floor of the sea. He thinks of the masked man who stole so much from him, so much honor and pride, and so much wealth from his people, and he imagines him sinking down, down, into the cold depths of the unforgiving ocean, quiet and dead, and the scavengers of the deep sea feeding on his flesh.

He smiles, a small, twisting thing, and something in his chest hurts, and that must be joy. And pride, that he’s undefeated once more. That his Queen, his Mother will be proud of him. It is contentment that his job has been done right, and he is the master of these seas, no Mongoose and no pirate and no ruffians and thugs. He is in control. As it should be.

One more moment allowing his eyes to linger on the distortion in the water.

The space of a breath.

Then he turns from the sea to his crew, holds his hands up, and they fall silent, looking to him attentively.

“My friends,” he says. “We’re going home.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

The morning light skips across the ocean’s waves, flashing up into Lup’s face. Funny, she thinks. She didn’t remember it being quite so sunny in the Raven Queen’s kingdom. She isn’t sure if the years of misery that stand out so clearly in hindsight have colored her perception of the place to the point that she can’t remember the weather anymore, or if it’s simply the expanding border, but sometimes when she walks out of her cabin and onto the deck it still surprises her. She’s been in the Raven Queen’s territory for almost three months, and the sun still surprises her. Funny, how flexible memory is.

The sunlight flashes on the water, and Lup ties her hair up behind her, and gets ready for the day ahead, the ship gliding back smoothly in the direction of the city.

Go time.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“Are you sure the two of you will be okay on your own?” Davenport asks, the ship pulled up a little ways from the shore, as close as they can get before the water gets too shallow. Lup and Magnus are standing by the rowboat, ready to drop down into the water and make their way to the coast.

“We’ll be fine,” Capn’port,” Lup says, and the captain rolls his eyes. “Besides, y’all are facing the real challenge out here. You need all the magic users you can get.”

“We could probably spare Merle,” Taako says, looking very pointedly nonchalant, messing with his nails and definitely not making eye contact with anyone else in the crew. Lup half feels bad, leaving him for so long, but she knows she’s right. The Starblaster can’t spare Taako and the away mission could never go off without Lup. They had all talked about it last night, labored over the decision for hours until they were completely sure it was the right thing to do.

Splitting up the crew is no simple matter, and when they choose to do it, especially for an extended period of time, they always make absolutely sure they’re not making the wrong decision.

Merle protests the implication of his magical uselessness, and Lup takes one more look at her family before saying goodbye to them for a month or more. Taako isn’t even paying attention to Merle, and instead his eyes meet hers, and it’s like a thousand moments they’ve had over the past twenty-two years in each other’s company.

She knows he’ll be lonely. She will too, for the gods’ sake, but she needs to be in Phandalin right now. And Taako needs to be on the ship. It’s just the way of things. It’s the best course of action. If they ever want to make real progress against the queen, they need to put some serious effort into getting people on their side. Phandalin’s just step one.

But they’ve gotten the Admiral’s attention now, and really, they would rather not have it. It’s not disastrously, so outmatched is any ship in the fleet compared to a fully operational Starblaster , but if they want to get into bigger stuff beyond just robbing trade ships, they’ll do better without everyone on the Astral Coast looking out for them. Hence the plan.

The more Taako and the rest of the crew can keep the forces away from Phandalin, the better. Petty theft is distracting. Insurgence needs to be masked, or it will be quashed before things can even get started.

Taako’s good at being shiny, and shiny is what they need, miles from the coast, drawing reapers away from where Lup and Magnus are going be doing a hell of a lot of legwork.

Taako walks over to her, and doesn’t say anything, just wraps her up in a big hug. Lup reciprocates gladly, squeezing her brother tight.

“Give ‘em hell, Ko,” she says, “I’m looking forward to a good story from this one.”

“Oh, bet ,” Taako says, pulling back and flipping his braid. He’s smiling now, not fully, but enough, and genuine enough that Lup knows she doesn’t really have to worry about him. “You won’t even believe some of the things that Taako’s got cooked up.”

Lup just slaps him on the shoulder, and turns away, and then there’s Barry next to her. He smiles at her for a second, and then he grabs her, and sweeps her into a dip, and kisses her hard and passionate , and Lup sees stars, and fumbles to kiss him back.

It’s a moment before she’s back on her feet, stumbling a bit.

Damn ,” she whispers, bringing a hand up to her mouth, unable to keep a smile from her lips. She definitely hears Taako say “gross” from behind her, but she pays him no mind as Barry smirks at her, and takes her hand.

“See you in a month,” he says, squeezing. Lup leans in and kisses him once more, quickly, just for good measure.

“See you in a month,” she says, and then she’s climbing into the rowboat with Magnus, who waggles his eyebrows at her as they’re lowered from the deck into the water, and Lup laughs and picks up her oars.

She’s not facing the Starblaster as they row toward the shore, instead looking into the thick tangle of trees that lines the Astral Coast outside of Phandalin. When they reach the shore, Lup jumps out, feet splashing into the shallow water, and helps Magnus pull the boat up into the tree line. And when she turns to look back, the Starblaster is gone, the wards having already hidden it from her view. All that’s left is bare, empty ocean.

Good luck , she thinks, and then she and Magnus go about hiding the boat.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lup and Magnus walk the three miles from the spot where they stashed the boat in the woods. It’s hours before she and Magnus hit the dirt roads that wind between fields of farmland, little stone walls lining the road. The day has gone from a bright sunny morning to monotonous gray afternoon, and Lup and Magnus begin their journey down the road on foot. Lup takes note of the state of the land, the little squat houses she sees in the distance and the brown-gray barns. It’s good country. She can see why the Raven Queen would want to move in. They could get a lot out of this land.

It kind of makes her sick to think it.

They’ll have to hit these homes eventually, find an in to these people, living on the outskirts of the city. There are few signs of the occupation out here – in fact, Lup can almost forget in these fields that She’s got a presence here at all – but she has to think that these people have been hit by her laws somehow.

But Lup’s contacts are further in the city, so they keep moving.

Lup wants, more than anything, to put her hood up, hide her face. She knows it’s irrational; no one will recognize her here. But still, for so many years they’ve had masks to hide them. Hers is in her pack, but watching a humanoid mongoose woman walk around in the middle of the day is bound to draw more attention than any regular elf and human.

The fields turn to squat rows of poor housing, which turns to streets with tenement houses, which turn to the dingy neighborhoods of row houses and inns that Lup’s accustomed to. Lup’s made a few trips in and out of Phandalin so far, more than anyone else on the crew. After hunting down Garfield’s spot, Taako stayed mostly on the ship, portaling in and out of Garfield’s when need be (and negotiating that particular magical allowance had been a nightmare), while Lup’s been doing most of the… interpersonal work.

She’s long since gotten familiar with the Stonehill inn and tavern, and tonight, as she has a few times before, she checks the street for Reapers with a preliminary sweep of the eyes, and when she sees it’s clear, she walks out and pushes open the door.

The same smell of ale and pipe weed fills the air as the first night Lup entered, several months ago, when summer had just begun and the nights had no chill. Time is rolling by, day by day, and for all that Lup’s world is constantly changing, the Stonehill remains much the same each time she visits.

Same working men, looking down into steins of ale or at card games on their tables. Same insular groups at each table, eyes flicking to her as she enters. Same bartender, polishing glasses, who looks up and nods. Lup has something of a reputation here, now. Some of their eyes flicker with a sense of recognition when they see her, a few raised eyebrows as they see Magnus, a stranger here.

And of course, at her usual table in the back, a man already there, sipping an ale and pointedly not looking at her as she enters the bar and snags a drink for herself and Magnus from the bar, leaving the same generous sum of gold she always does on the counter for the bartender. Then she cocks her head toward the corner table, a signal for Magnus to follow, and she goes to sit down.

Adam Redcheek, the man who originally gave them the tip off about Garfield, is sitting alone tonight, so much the better for Lup to walk over and get a chair, she supposes. But it makes her nervous all the same, hoping nothing’s happened to the others to prevent their coming here.

But she pulls up a chair, sits down all the same. Adam looks up at her, expression guarded.

“Adam,” Lup says, nodding, “where are the others?”

“Still working,” he says in answer. “Mac’s kids are sick, and the doctor takes his share, don’t he? As for Jed,” he shrugs, “guess the money ain’t stretchin’ as far as it used to. The Rockseekers are taxin’ more than ever and askin’ im’ for longer hours in the mines. Long way from the city, those are back in the mountains. You wanna work a substantial shift, most men stay up there camped for days now. Makes it hard to grab a beer after the day’s done, you know?”

Lup frowns, bites her lip.

“It’s gotten worse,” she says, not a question.

Adam shrugs. “Not getting any better, I suppose.” He raises his glass, takes another sip of what Lup now knows is cider, not ale. “I suppose it’s a load off to get a free glass or two for the sake of supplyin’ every bar in a few miles’ radius, but,” he sighs, “times are hard.” He takes a sip from his glass, wiping his mouth wearily.

“Who’s your friend?” he asks, nodding toward Magnus.

“Adam,” Lup says, “I'd like you to meet Magnus Burnsides. We’ve… got some similar philosophies.”

Adam gives Magnus a long, hard look, and Magnus, suddenly so young in Lup’s eyes that it almost hurts, extends his hand across the table, palm open, eyes dead serious, with something in them so… understanding that Lup suddenly remembers all the things she forgets about Magnus on a daily basis, watching him joke around on the ship with the rest of her family.

There’s a long moment, and then Adam claps Magnus’s hand in his.

“It’s nice to meet you, Magnus,” he says.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Staying hidden requires a lot of magical energy.

Now, it’s worth it, at least most of the time. An ounce of prevention and all that. It’s just… using up the high-level spells so often takes a toll on everybody.

And they needed the reconnaissance if they wanted to progress in this master-fucking-plan at all, Taako knows that. It’s just that… well. Now they know they’re here. Now the Raven Queen’s Retinue is painfully aware of their presence and that means sneaking around and stealing from ships is getting harder and harder. Getting back to Garfield to liquify their assets is getting harder.

Or so Lup says. Taako doesn’t go on the away missions into the city much; it’s much more Lup’s bag. He just teleports in and out of Garfield’s to make the deals. So he hasn’t got much of a read on the climate of Phandalin, but still. Things are hard, and getting harder since their run-in with the Admiral’s ship, and they need a new tactic or two.

And they’re working harder every day to keep the Admiral out at sea, on their tail, instead of back in the city. If he were to return to Phandalin now it would be disastrous, with Lup and Magnus doing the work they are to win over people. Disastrous for the crew, for the people of Phandalin, everyone. And disastrous for Taako, who was the one who chose to advocate this plan right from the beginning.

It was the right call to make, he knows that. He just needs to follow through.

See, Taako’s read every single one of the Admiral’s letters. Taako knows that even though their magic has reduced the man to complete incompetence, to clown-shoes levels of threat, he’s still been the largest threat to the Starblaster in years. His record of eradicating their kind like so much vermin is nothing to scoff at. Taako knows that in the last month, they’ve been able to play a sort of long game, popping up here and there, and remaining hidden the rest of the time. And it’s effective as hell . But he also knows that playing the same strategy forever is what gets people killed.

The Admiral hasn’t gotten close yet, but he will. One of these days, he will, or the crew will slip up somehow. If they want to establish themselves in this country for a long time, they can’t sustain the kind of exhaustion that comes with this level of magical expense day after day. They’ve been lucky so far, planning out their attacks for after recovery periods, when they’ll have more ability to cast at high levels, but all it’s going to take is one time being surprised for them to face some real consequences.

A crew of seven, no matter how powerful, cannot overpower a Raven Queen ship if it allows it to get close. They need some new ideas.

The only problem is that Taako doesn’t have any.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

A little gold goes a long way in Phandalin.

It’s a terrible testament to how bad things have gotten, that these people are so willing to take the gold of a stranger. It takes a little convincing, of course. A little convincing that they’re not lenders, that they aren’t going to come back charging interest later, dragging your children away and taking your new tools and equipment that you just had the money to invest in so you could get ahead next season in recompense for borrowed money that was never paid back.

It takes some convincing, but not enough for Lup to feel at ease about these people.

Still, she and Magnus, and their gold, do very well in Phandalin. Adam Redcheek knows a guy who needs a little something to feed his family, who knows a guy who needs to mend his roof, and of gold is good for that but that’s also an opportunity for Magnus to say let me help you with that , and one thing leads to another, and pretty soon you’ve got a whole neighborhood of people who know from the purses and pouches and guns on your belt not to acknowledge you on the street, but who will still meet your eye across the dim space of a bar.

They get a room in the Stonehill. Lup learns the bartender’s name, Ned. Learns that his kids work the tables in the evenings, that they’re good kids for wanting to help out, and that every time a Reaper enters his establishment he gets nervous, because they’re right around recruiting age, and those black-suited folks have a way of sweet-talkin’ the young ones into marching right off to gods-know-where with their lives signed away on a shiny, new contract for service.

Lup raises a glass and says she understands, and Magnus nods sympathetically.

They always tip very well for their drinks. Lup has disposable income right now, and a little gold never hurt anybody.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Bird boy gets close, one day. It surprises Taako more than he cares to admit.

They’ve got another cargo ship right off the port side, and Taako’s mid-theft when his head comes above the line of the deck, and he sees, past the red sails of the Starblaster , the black-sailed flagship of the Royal Navy approaching steadily over the waves.

“Shit!” he shouts, scrambling up to the deck, dropping the gold he was pilfering from his right hand and drawing his wand. A few quick spells clear the way, but the ship is going to be within firing range any moment and Taako knows that they aren’t quite at full capacity because they’re in the middle of something and they’re missing Lup and Magnus, who does a lot of the heavy lifting, you know, intimidation-wise, not to mention the actual heavy lifting –

He’s getting distracted, he thinks, firing off another magic missile at a Reaper who swings at him with a short-sword, blasting her back against the guardrail. The Admiral is here . They need to act fast.

“Taako!” Barry shouts from across the deck, where he’s caught up slinging spells at two more Reapers and a merchant coming at him with a sword, “what are you doing? Get going!”

“Bigger problems!” Taako shouts, cocking his head toward the approaching ship.

Barry’s eyes go wide.

“Shit!” he shouts, slinging another spell, and Taako doesn’t hesitate.

“Get outta here!” he shouts at Barry, not even bothering to look back to make sure he’s following as he takes a running leap off the ship, pushing off the guardrail with his feet and landing on the Starblaster ’s deck with a thud.

The ship is getting closer by the moment. And they haven’t got any wards up right now, haven’t needed to, because cargo ships don’t have cannons.

Taako’s already used up all his big spells working on the illusions with Davenport. The only person who would have anything right now is –

“Merle!” he shouts, and the dwarf turns from his position at the guardrail to look at Taako, who points to the Raven’s Fleet ship rapidly approaching. “You got anything?” Taako says, desperately.

“Well, lemme see,” Merle says, cool as anything, waddling past Taako, pulling a little book out of the holster on his belt, flipping through it at a downright leisurely pace when this is not the time to be leisurely . “You know, I coulda sworn I saw something in here the other day that was just right for this,” he mumbles.

Merle ,” Taako’s voice has gone thin in the middle.

“…maybe in the back…”

Merle!” Any second now they’re going to be in firing range.

“Ah!” There it is! Merle waddles to the guardrail, extends his arm, and shouts, “I cast… Shape… Water!”

And all at once the ocean opens up beneath the Admiral’s ship, moving in a circular motion, and Taako looks, and looks, confused, and then –

“Oh my fucking gods ,” he exclaims, delighted, because the Admiral’s ship is caught in an honest-to—gods whirlpool , one just the size of the ship, so it spins around, and around, and if the Admiral wasn’t thrown off before, he most certainly is now, and it’s honestly kind of incredible.

“Oh my gods,Merle,” Barry’s voice comes from behind them, “isn’t that a little excessive?”

“Shut the fuck up, Barold,” Taako says, “it’s excellent .”

“Alright, jokes aside,” Davenport says, and Taako turns around to see that the whole crew has returned to the ship, all of them more than a little worse for wear, “let’s get out of here.”

They do, Taako looking back periodically the whole way and giggling, the thought of the proud, stuck-up man from his letters going around and around in that whirlpool tickling him somewhere deep and indefinable. It’s certainly quite a thought.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

It’s not enough to just pay people off, of course. There’s more to it than that.

It’s secret meetings in the back rooms of pubs, people crowded in tight and silent, as Lup speaks to them in a voice that won’t carry outside about her experiences in the Retinue, about exactly what will become of their sons and daughters if they’re not careful.

But that doesn’t mean it’s terribly hard.

Lup had thought, that being strangers, they would not have done half so well in Phandalin as they have. But here, a little gold gets fathers out of debtor’s jail, and farming equipment to improve next season’s harvest, and maybe you can get ahead and not have to surrender your elder sons and daughters to the Reapers’ ranks for the few silvers that come to you each week as payout once the taxes are subtracted. A little gold, a little talk, a few suggestions in people’s ears. A few rounds bought in the dimness of a bar, a few things said over them.

Lup comes back the inn in the middle of the night once, having to really sneak about to do so. Rooftops and everything. There’s no official curfew in Phandalin, but there’s an implied one. They can’t arrest her for walking the streets past midnight, but she’ll certainly get some attention.

She does not need that.

She slips in through the window, and Magnus, changing out of his day clothes, nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Good gods, Lup” he whisper-shouts, clutching his shirt to his chest, “you scared the shit out of me!”

“Sorry,” Lup says, “I was out late. Didn’t wanna go in through the door.”

“Yeah, me too,” Magnus says, “but I went through the door, you know, like a sane person.” Lup snorts, closes the window, and starts going about the business of settling down for the night.

“How’s it going?” she says, “I mean with you, and the whole… convincing people thing. Is it working?”

Magnus beams.

“Hell yeah,” he says, “I’ve got rustic hospitality comin’ outta my ass,” he gestures broadly in the air, like he’s showing off a sign, “Everybody loves Magnus!”

Lup can’t help but smile at that, and then she tugs off her shirt and get ready for bed.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“There were more of them, that time,” Lucretia pants, from her position leaning up against the mast of the ship.

“No shit,” Taako snips back, “thanks for that tip-off, Creesh, real helpful.”

“Taako.” Davenport admonishes him. Lucretia however, is unphased.

“They’re putting more Reapers on the ships,” she says, “more to stand guard on the trade ships.”

“Good,” Barry says, laying on his back, “that’ll keep them away from Phandalin.”

“Yes,” says Lucretia, and Taako throws an arm over his eyes. He doesn’t want to talk about this now. “That’s good news for Lup and Magnus, but it’s bad news for us. That last ship had cannons on deck that we weren’t expecting. They can’t track us down, so they’re going for self-defense.” Taako might take a nap, right here in the hot sun on the deck. Would anyone know? Probably. Ugh.

“They’re not going to let up until we’re sunk,” Lucretia says.

The idea comes out of Taako’s mouth before it fully enters his brain, born half of contrariness and half of exhaustion.

“So let them sink us,” he says.

“Very funny, Taako” Lucretia deadpans, not any kind of amused. But something about…

Taako sits up, the idea creeping over him like fog over a still lagoon.

“I’m not being funny,” he says, slowly, as it comes to him in parts. “Let them sink us, or at least think they have, because then they won’t follow us out here or in there.”

“What do you mean, Taako?” Davenport asks, in that tone of voice that says you’re crazy but in a way that just might be useful .

“We’ve got the best fuckin – illusion wizard this side of the world on our side, don’t we?” Taako says. “Let’s give ‘em a fucking illusion. We let them think they’ve gotten us, and then we can go invisible and meet up with the others in Phandalin, no one on our tail.”

“Taako, that’s big magic,” Barry says, “I don’t know if we can pull that off.”

Taako looks to Davenports, who’s got his hand in his chin, stroking his beard, lost in thought.

“It’s big magic…” he says, “and we’d have to be so close… I don’t think I could navigate and keep my energy on an illusion of that magnitude, and detail for that long. And staying in one spot is too dangerous if there’s going to be Raven’s Fleet ships around. Plus I wouldn’t know how to make an illusion interact in real time with any projectiles they were sending at the ship.” Dav looks at Taako, shakes his head.

“I’m advanced,” he says, “but not that advanced. I don’t know if anyone is, anywhere.”

Taako slumps back, defeated, closes his eyes once more.

And then he opens one.

“We’ll use another ship.”

Barry sits straight fucking up next to him . “Another ship…”

“Another ship…” Dav trails off, his gaze far away.

“All we have to do is plan one more assault on a cargo ship. We’ll tie up the crew, hold onto them for a bit, and then we can do work on the ship, right? It’s still big magic, but then all we’d have to do is alter the skin of it, not create it out of nothing. And in theory, if a skin is layered onto it –”

“That alteration would hold through any damage sustained,” Barry finishes. “Taako, that’s brilliant!”

“The magic would be woven into the material of the ship itself,” Taako continues, looking at Dav, “like half-transmutation, half-illusion. That way if some of the ship is damaged, the magic isn’t compromised, because it would be anchored elsewhere. Hell, some of it can just be straight transmutation. Changing white fabric to red isn’t even a first-level spell.”

“It would take an entire night, at least,” Davenport says.

“We can make time for that,” Taako insists. “All we need is one more assault.”

“That just might work,” Lucretia chimes in, finally. Her eyes are far away too.

Dav just stares a the boards of the deck for a long moment, and the rest of them stare at Dav, except Merle, who the whole time has just been lying on the deck with his eyes closed. Taako’s half convinced he’s asleep. Except –

“Some smart kids, Dav,” he says, “might as well listen to ‘em.”

The Captain’s attention snaps back to the present time and place, it looks like, and then he fixes Taako with a serious look.

“Alright,” he says, “let’s give it a try.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

They were distrustful of the magic, of course. Lup is still amazed by what a job the bird queen did of eradicating it from her territory. The sight of a wand spooks these people more than the mention of Reapers. But after viewing what it could do, they’ve settled into an uneasy acceptance of it. Lup thinks she’s used Mend more times in the last month than she has in years, and it’s no rare thing for something to get broken on a working ship, so that’s saying something.

She supposes, too, that it’s easier to turn people to their side here, though, than elsewhere in the kingdom, where Her Majesty is better established. She’s not looking forward to spending the next… however long convincing people she’s not evil just because she knows a few spells.

At least the information they’ve gotten from the Admiral on the inner workings of the retinue will be of some use to them. With it they can finally start planning with some specificity where to hit and what to do there, which cities they can target in the near future, and which will take time to reach.

That is, when Taako and the rest of them get back to Phandalin.

Lup doesn’t know what the plan is. But there are fewer Reapers in the streets by the day, more and more of them being sent out every time a cargo ship leaves dock. Lup hopes her family is safe, hopes that they can return soon and start planning.

Lup knows that it will be completely different from anything they’ve ever done before, when things finally start to be put in motion. They won’t have anything to fall back on, then. The choice to come back into her territory and oppose her feels like jumping off a cliff, wildly dangerous, and utterly committed.

At the very least, she thinks, slinking through the streets of Phandalin, the retinue in the city hasn’t caught onto their movements yet, or so it seems. Lup knows that if they knew what the crew was up to, they’d arrest every one of them immediately. Or at the very least they’d try. But so far, she’s been able move around with relatively little difficulty. She’s impressed with the citizens. It seems they can keep a secret when need be, which is encouraging. The more they can get away with without drawing attention, the better off they are.

She certainly is glad for it tonight. Laden down with illegal gold, if a Reaper were to catch her there would certainly be questions, if not worse. But almost no one pays her any mind as she walks quickly, head down, through the backstreets of Phandalin to the poor residential districts on the Southeast borders.

The houses here are dingy, run-down and leaning to one side, their exteriors made of wood and stone or roughly plastered. Smoke rises from the chimney, and they lay in rough rows along dirt roads. Behind them, in the daytime, women are hanging laundry or children are playing with rocks, sticks, or hoops and more. Some are raised bit off the ground, have a small porch to speak of. Others look as though the dusty dirt beneath her feet flows right in through the doors, and the house hasn’t any floor at all. But Lup ignores them, walks out past them to a small field before the edge of the woods that surround the city. Barely a field, really, more like a glorified clearing, that someone used to tend to but doesn’t bother to anymore. The barn in the center is almost fallen in, the roof sagging in some places, looking on the verge of collapse.

It’s a good place to meet. No one in the city would suspect it. Lup walks through the high grass, up to her waist, and raises her hand to open the door.

There’s a creak, and even in the no-light coming from the barn, Lup can see the eyes of a few dozen people looking directly at her.

“Evening, all,” she says, letting the door swing shut, the latch re-locking with a click .

She squats down on the floor and starts untying purses from her belt.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The Captain had decided to listen to Taako, to give his plan a try.

Which is how Taako finds himself sneaking onto the deck of an Astral Coast trade ship with Merle, Barry, and Lucretia by his side, tiny knife in hand, sharpened to almost surgical ability earlier that day. Davenport is back on the Starblaster, ready to come get them and take off at a moment’s notice. They’re invisible, all of them, but they’ve got to be careful anyway. The deck will be guarded. If anyone was to run into them, it would be a disaster.

And sneaking onto an enemy ship is hard work.

Blink is well within Taako’s wheelhouse these days, but the time it takes him to make it across the water and up the side of the ship whilst in the ethereal plane nearly uses up the entire spell, and even in another plane of existence, it’s no easier to haul himself up the rope, hooked on the ship’s guardrail, hand over hand. Manual labor was never his strong suit. He’s better at being wily, clever, casting just when he needs to and twisting reality to his will to fool his opponents, to make them be exactly where he needs them to be. But piracy will lend anyone a certain measure of physical strength, over a long enough period. Hand-to-hand combat is too important to ignore, as is being able to pull your own weight, literally.

He scrambles up onto the deck of the Raven Queen ship, slipping out of the ethereal plane along with the others, and casting Turn Invisible just in time. They sneak across the deck quietly as they can, on high alert. Even invisibility doesn’t make up for the squeaking of leather or of loose boards.

Thankfully, it goes without incident.

A few Sleep spells and the guards are solidly passed out, tied up back to back and leaning sideways against the mast.

They make their way through the decks below, sneaking in and out of rooms. Casting sleep on people already sleeping is a bit weird, but effective, and soon everyone on the ship is detained, tied up and unable to do anything against them.

Then they head back up to the deck, signaling to Davenport, who pulls the Starblaster up alongside them.

They haven’t got any time to lose. For Taako and Dav to work on the cargo ship by daylight would draw too much attention should any reapers cross their path. And with the whole ocean looking for them, it’s too big a risk to take. They need to work now.

To cover a ship completely in an illusion that will hold in the event that there is no magic user actively powering it… that’s big magic.

And Big Magic takes time, and intent.

Taako takes the knife from his pocket, goes to the guardrail, and touches blade to wood.

The first rune takes shape quickly enough, but precisely. It’s not Taako’s fastest work, but these things can’t be rushed. Big magic takes time, and work, and intent. And after years on a pirate ship with the others, Taako’s learned the ins and outs of enchanting, of working magic deep into the grain of work and the fabric of rope, until it’s almost irrevocable.

But those are projects that take days. They can’t be stealthily done in a night like an illusion enchantment like this. This is Big Magic.

See, it’s one thing to cast a spell. Most spells are small magic. Say the right words, use the right components, and then… magic . Taako doesn’t know where it comes from, but he almost, at times, feels as though he plucks it out of the air, like he can feel it in every breath and all it takes is the right conduit to channel it. Small magic is instantaneous. You pull the magic from the air or up through your toes and send it out in a burst.

But big magic.

It’s like a slow cook. Small magic can be dispelled, because it was never tied to anything. It comes from the air and after it’s done its job it returns to the air, just like that. Simple. Easy. Straightforward. Big magic comes when you need to tie it down. When you need to spread it thin and even over a large space. Magic, to Taako, has always been inclined to roam. It takes time and it takes effort to ask it to stay in one place for an extended period of time and expect it to listen. To tell it to live, indefinitely, in a plank of wood or swath of leather or piece of glass. It doesn’t give up its freedom easily.

It’s why each rune that he carves into the ship’s guardrail must be precise, must be in exactly the right place and must be exactly the right shape, and the order of the strokes must be done perfectly. The concentration involved is near exhausting just in itself, but more than that, the channeling of energy from the air and placing it, carefully, firmly, and securely into the wood. It takes any energy Taako has right out of him. These aren’t spell slots he’s burning – big magic can’t be defined in increments like that – but it’s a massive effort all the same. He’ll nearly be down to cantrips by the time they’re done.

He and Dav start on the Starboard side and work their way around the ship, Dav to the bow, Taako to the stern, meeting back up on the other side, until there are runes in all of the guardrails encircling the deck of the ship. Which will have to do. From a distance, the illusion will be plenty convincing. And that’s all they need. After a while, Lucretia and Barry join them, apparently leaving Merle to watch over the captured crew.

They work on the deck, the guardrails and the floorboards and around the bottom of the mast. Lucretia ties a rope to herself, dangles off the side of the ship, Barry belaying her, and makes carvings around the portholes and strategically along the hull. Once Taako finishes the deck, he does the same.

It takes them all night. They have to go inside, too, for the sake of matching the grain of the wood, for the sake of continuity, and it takes hours, and hours, rune after careful rune.

They’re back on the deck as the sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon. They stand in a tight square, and the four of them clasp hands.

Marrying magics is hard. Weaving them together, making them hum along the same frequency, work in tandem. It’s no simple task, and they all stand clasping each other’s hands for long moments in the silence of dawn. They stand in silence and they breathe and they take the ends of their magics and weave them into a cord, strong and complete and all-deceiving, encircling the ship, and Taako feels it extend up and above them and cover the place up, resting in thin layers on every inch of rigging and wood. Taako can feel it humming through his veins and his mind and heart and breath, and then…

Then there’s a snip , like cutting thread in sewing, and Taako can feel the magic humming still, but now around him instead of in him.

He opens his eyes.

Around them is a ship, textured to look exactly like the Starblaster , right down to the shine of the wood beneath Taako’s boots.

And Taako grins.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lying completely still on the fake Starblaster ’s deck as cannonballs smash into the ship around him, Taako thinks that maybe his plan was not quite so foolproof as he thought.

The crew is safe, he keeps reminding himself. The crew is safe, and on the real Starblaster , and it will all be fine, and Taako’s got a shield up around him, one Lucretia promised would last an hour, and through all the smoke the Raven Queen’s ships don’t have a good vantage point, and it will be over soon.

But his heart beats fast as he lays there, still and silent, and feels in his bones the cannonballs punching through the ship’s hull. The deafening sound of wood splintering and metal groaning fills his ears and the smell of smoke fills his nose, and Taako waits.

Sinking into the cool, still water after the ship goes down is almost a relief.

Until Taako inhales.

The Cloak of the Manta Ray, worn underneath his coat and all, allows Taako to breathe as he enters the water, but the feeling of water in his lungs, especially salt water is never pleasant. Not at all.

Taako hates using the Cloak of the Manta Ray.

But he can breathe, and he can move – a step up from playing dead on the ship. A risky move, he knows; Lucretia had tried to talk him out of it, but it was the only way to convince the Admiral he had accomplished anything. He had to see the Mongoose dead.

Taako gave himself a reputation, and this is how he pays for it.

He sinks and sinks into the water until he’s definitely too far down for the Raven’s Fleet ships to catch sight of him, and then he treads water to keep from sinking further, and he waits. And it takes such a long time for the Admiral and Bane to clear out. Taako’s a clever elf, and the cloak affords him the ability to stay underwater for such a long time, even makes swimming easier. But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get tired. He’s just beginning to worry when the shadow of another, smaller ship moves overhead, dropping a tiny anchor down into the water, weighting down a thick rope. Taako swims upward and he tugs on the rope, hard , and twice, very deliberately.

The rope begins to move up.

Taako braces his feet against the little anchor at the end of the rope, and lets himself be pulled, until he finally breaches the water.

He immediately begins coughing.

While the cloak of the Manta Ray is on his shoulders, the water in his lungs will not kill him, but he’s in the air now, and there’s still water in there, lying heavy and hurting and, well, it all has to come out somehow. Taako holds on as tightly as he can, and coughs, entire abdomen moving as he heaves water out and out and out , trying desperately not to fall. He’s hauled over the guardrail, soaking wet and dripping on the smooth wood, and Barry pulls his hair up out of his face and immediately throws him a blanket, helping get him warm and dry as Taako falls to his hands and knees and sputters like a man dying.

It’s a long minute before all the water’s out, and Taako has to use the remainder of whatever willpower he has left to push himself up to his feet. He waves off the crew, and he heads below decks, stripping down the whole way.

He’d forgotten, in their time spent in climes further South, how cold the Sea of Souls is. He remembers now. Sinking into that water, letting it go inside him felt like his whole body was seizing up. His chest is on fire .

“Do you think they suspect anything?” Barry says, gathering up Taako’s wet clothes as they head down the stairs, seeming not to care that he himself is getting completely soaked just from contact with them.

“Hell if I know,” Taako snaps, shivering. He bursts through the door to his room and immediately starts changing, drying himself with the blanket Barry tossed him as best he can, even casting prestidigitation and lighting a few extra candles on his desk for the miniscule warmth they give off. But nothing at sea is ever really dry. Or warm, except when it’s the hot sun beating down on the deck and there’s nowhere to go but forward and back, bow to stern, and the wind dies too, so you’re sitting in one place, roasting and sweating all the precious freshwater you can get at sea out of your body all at once.

He’s tucking in a mostly-clean, mostly-dry shirt, and looks behind him to see the whole remainder of the crew standing in his doorway, looking at him expectantly.

“Oh fine,” he says, shuffling over to the bed and pulling his quilt off it, wrapping it around his shoulders. He’s got water in his nose, still, and sniffles a few times, picks up his already sopping wet shirt and blows his nose, trying to finally clear out his sinuses. The feeling of salt in there is, in a word, unpleasant.

“I don’t think they suspect anything,” he finally says, looking up, where Davenport has him fixed in a serious gaze. “They bombed the shit out of me, anyway. Bird boy really went for it. I was even surprised by his uh… enthusiasm.” He hadn’t gotten much of a glimpse of the Admiral, just the shocked look on his face as the sails on his ship went down during that first fight. And this time, just a silhouette on the deck of the vessel across the way, still while his crew rushed around wild.

“I don’t think he suspects anything,” Taako says again, thoughts far away. The Admiral wouldn’t, would he? Taako doesn’t think so. He thinks he knows the guy pretty well. He’s read every one of his letters stolen from his office, some of them twice, three times, trying to get inside his head. Gotta stay one step ahead and all that.

And the Admiral’s got some sort of pride complex; it’s evident in the way he writes to the queen. He’s seeking approval too, clearly. Taako wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk away from the Starblaster situation as things are now. He saw the ship go down with his two eyes, and Taako knows it was a convincing replica. It was convincing even to him and he knew it was a fake. The sight of his ship sinking around him, going down with him on it, and making himself do nothing to stop it was almost impossible , even with the knowledge that it wasn’t real.

So the Admiral is probably not after them. Taako thinks it pretty likely that he just decided to head back home and take the praise for his accomplishments. That even if he thought that there was any chance of the survival of the crew, he saw the ship go down , and that’s hard to reconcile with a trick. The Admiral hasn’t seen much magic before, and sometimes it’s easier to just… not break your brain in half trying to imagine impossible things. Taako understands that feeling.

“He’s not following us,” Taako says, “and even if he was, he can’t see through the wards, can he? So we’re good.”

Lucretia nods, “we’re hidden pretty securely. If he’s not suspicious, we should be able to get back to Phandalin without incident.”

“Fuckin’ great,” Taako says, falling back onto his bed. He’s exhausted. Like, full body exhausted. The cloak of the Manta Ray is a cool fuckin’ asset, but it sucks . It’s like drowning but you’re conscious the whole time and then you have to just get up and keep going like you never drowned in the first place.

He shivers on the bed, and wraps the quilt a little tighter around himself, his eyes passively looking at the ceiling and his whole body aching.

He thinks the crew leaves. He doesn’t watch. No, Taako drifts, and breathes, and pulls his quilt tight around him, trying, trying to get warm. Prestidigitation warms the blanket, but even that feels like effort.

He doesn’t know how long he lays there, staring blankly at the ceiling. But after a bit there’s a dip on the mattress next to him, and he turns his head to look.

It’s Barry. Looking soft and rumpled in the way he always kinda does, but he’s got a bowl of something in his hands, steam rising from it, and Taako’s a bit impressed that he walked all the way from the galley to here without spilling it. He shouldn’t be, they’ve been at sea for years, but Barry’s never been the most coordinated guy. You’ve gotta celebrate the little victories, after all.

“What is it?” Taako asks, wary, because Barry’s a nightmare of a cook.

“Don’t worry,” Barry says, “it’s just soup. We had some leftovers, and Luce is mostly responsible for it anyway, so it’s not burned or anything. Thought it might warm you up a bit.”

“Thanks,” Taako says, pushing himself back up to sitting, and pulling his legs up on the bed so he can sit cross-legged, still wrapped up in the quilt. He takes the bowl from Barry, and it’s hot enough to almost burn his hands, but not quite. It’s nice. Present in a way that Taako needs right now.

It’s really mostly broth, and Taako just puts the rim up to his mouth and drinks straight from the bowl. It’s hot, and salty, and Taako can feel the warmth of it all the way down as he drinks. It’s better than dry biscuits and jerky, and rations are running low. Soup, these days, is a luxury, especially when Taako has no spell slots to transmute food.

“You look like hell,” Barry says, when Taako sets the bowl down in the little space made by his crossed legs, so it won’t spill on his bed.

“Well, you try fuckin’ almost dying,” Taako grumbles, sweeps his hair away from his face. Barry goes over to the desk/vanity and grabs a length of cord, brings it back for Taako to tie his hair up. “Thanks.”

Barry’s too good to him, sometimes, Taako thinks. It’s almost a little weird. Lup’s the one he’s in love with and all. Back when they first got together, and Barry was so nice, it skeeved Taako out. Made him feel like he was being treated like a placeholder for his sister when she wasn’t around. But time told that wasn’t it at all. Barry was just… good. Just like that. All on his own.

Taako doesn’t let people look after him, not outside of these six he’s come to know on this ship. But sometimes Barry takes care of him most of all, even more than Lup.

Taako knows she entrusts him with it when she’s not around. That she needs to feel like Taako’s always going to be okay, and that Barry is a means to the end of that. Taako gets it. And Barry’s – well. At this point, Barry’s family.

Still. Taako wants to see Lup again, and soon. These weeks have been too long.

Almost as though he can hear Taako’s thoughts, Barry speaks.

“Should be back in Phandalin next couple of days,” he says, “depending on how the wind blows. Back before the end of the week, at most.”

Taako shivers under his blanket, and takes another sip of his soup.

“Good,” he says. He presses the side of the bowl against his chest, lets some of the warmth leech into the cold, cold skin. “Good.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Returning home is an immense relief.

Kravitz had forgotten, in the past few comfortable years as Admiral, just how difficult things are at sea, the way that no one is ever really dry or clean, how long the days feel when you’re confined to the space of one ship. His feet hit the stone of the Astral City’s docks, and solid ground has never been more welcome to him. She must have gotten word of his coming. There is already a carriage waiting at the end of the dock with Her Crest emblazoned on it in silver. Kravitz says a goodbye to his first mate, and climbs inside without hesitation, leaning back against the soft black velvet of the seat and allowing himself to be carried away to the palace.

The journey back home felt twice as long as the journey to Phandalin, even though the pirates were so far north that it was actually a far shorter trip. Maybe Kravitz was just homesick. Scratch that, he was definitely homesick.

The carriage pulls up outside of the castle gates and Kravitz steps out.

Gods, he hopes the Queen is happy to see him.

She hasn’t been in contact with him since he arrived in Phandalin. Strange, for Her; Kravitz has been sending Her updates frequently since he left. It does no good to hide anything from Her Majesty, and he’s never had reason to. It was a bit embarrassing, constantly sending letters detailing his failures, but Kravitz rationalizes it thus: he’s never failed before, and every officer has the occasional slip-up. Perfection is expected, but is ultimately unattainable.

He thinks.

He hopes.

His feet have been absentmindedly guiding him to the throne room, and Kravitz realizes he is only a hallway away. He checks his uniform, straightens his pins, ribbons, and the like. He’s in his working uniform, so many of the medals are missing, still packed away with his dress uniform in his bags. No matter; the Queen has always asked to see him when he returns from sea. In recent years, he hasn’t even waited for a summons, but simply headed straight for the throne room upon his return. There is no need, now, to be in full dress. She will understand.

Before he knows it, he’s standing at the throne room doors, and the guards are bowing low, and moving to open them.

From the moment he enters the room, Kravitz is relieved.

He does not presume to imagine that he can read Her Royal Majesty’s moods. She is all-knowing, and Kravitz cannot hope to understand Her vision.

That said.

She speaks almost as soon as he enters the room, even before he makes it across the long expanse.

“It is good to see that you have returned, Admiral,” She says, “I certainly hope it is with good news rather than ill.”

Kravitz walks quickly to the steps leading up to her throne, kneels low, and She quickly acknowledges him, allowing him to rise.

“The pirates are defeated, Your Majesty,” he says, “Captain Bane and I sank the ship ourselves. I watched it go down with my own eyes.”

“A relief indeed,” She says, and then she looks up sharply from the document laid on Her desk before Her. “I was beginning to wonder if they would be caught at all.”

If blushes showed on Kravitz’s skin, his face would be bright red. As it is, he’s glad She doesn’t see his embarrassment. The burning in his cheeks and the blood rushing in his ears is his own. At least he can give the impression of composure.

“Your Majesty, I wished to explain –”

“Excuses, Kravitz?” The Raven Queen interrupts him, and Kravitz almost thinks it is genuine surprise that colors Her tone. “It is not like you.”

“I know, Majesty,” he responds, pressing on. “I would not bring it up if I did not think it important that you know why these pirates presented such a unique challenge.” The Queen leans forward in Her chair, endlessly patient, resting Her arms on the desk before Her.

“Well,” She says, “go on.”

It occurs to Kravitz that his mouth is dry. And then it occurs to him that he is nervous.

“Your Majesty,” he says, “I – the reason the pirates were so elusive, from the beginning, is because it seems they were very – accomplished in the magical arts.”

The mood in the room instantly changes. The Queen sits up stock straight in her chair. The Reapers on either side of her throne, standing guard, who have so far kept their eyes impassively facing forward, look to Kravitz sharply.

The Queen’s tone is cold and flat when she speaks.

“Magic?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“How accomplished?” Her voice sends shivers down Kravitz’s spine, and he has to take a moment to remind himself that he has done nothing to draw Her ire. That he is only reporting the facts, like he always has.

“They… had the ability to create powerful illusions, Your Majesty, and the ability to alter nature to their will, to create natural phenomena such as whirlpools and –”

“A good thing, then, that they are dead,” the Queen cuts him off sharply, “and can do no more harm to our people with this magic.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Kravitz agrees quickly. He pauses a moment, wondering if he should go on, but pushes ahead. “Your Majesty,” he says, “I have never seen the likes of these pirates before. And they came from abroad. I worry that in the future, we might see more like them –”

“Which is why I shall need you to be more diligent than ever, Admiral.” The Queen interrupts him again, and Her expression is stern. Then She sighs, rests an arm on the desk in front of Her, and looks to the side, seemingly taking a moment to collect Her thoughts. Kravitz waits.

“It is not a surprise to me that things along our borders are… more complicated than they have been.” She speaks slowly, deliberately, choosing each word with precision. She fixes Kravitz with a deep, complex look, and he’s suddenly reminded how very old She is, how knowledgeable. It makes his chest swell in a way he hasn’t the time now to define.

“Things will be more difficult for you, Admiral,” She says, “I am well aware that when you joined my retinue, your position was far less demanding. But there is no one in my ranks who has served me better.” Kravitz’s very heart wells up with pride at that, and he stands a little taller. “Our plans for the expansion of the Astral Coast will go forward, Admiral. We have a duty to the people of these lands to make them safe. You, in particular, are instrumental in this. And therefore, you must be diligent. You must take every task into your heart and mind as though it is the last thing standing between order and anarchy, and you must commit to it with the conviction that implies. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Kravitz says, hanging on Her every word. He hardly ever hears Her speak like this, soft and gentler than usual, like there’s no one in the world but the two of them, and nothing in the world but the wisdom She imparts.

It is inspiring, and Kravitz feels it in his very blood. Conviction, like She said. So what if the Mongoose fiasco was more difficult than he was used to? They are defeated, and Kravitz need only work a little harder moving forward. But since when has he shied away from hard work in Her service? The Queen searches his eyes and Kravitz tries, he tries to show Her that he understands, that he not only knows but feels her message.

She must be satisfied by what She sees, for She leans back in Her throne, and nods slowly.

“Thank you for your service, Admiral.” She says, “I expect a full report of the month’s happenings on my desk tomorrow. For now, you are dismissed.” It is neither congratulations nor chastisement, but Kravitz bows his head quickly to accept the thanks, grateful to Her all the same.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he says, bowing low, and then he turns, and walks from the throne room, his shoes once again clicking pleasantly on the marble floors. By the Queen, he’s looking forward to freshening up. For being Admiral of the Royal Navy, Kravitz finds himself more comfortable on land by the day.

He exits the throne room, the doors closing behind him with a thud, and Kravitz cracks his neck, rolls his shoulders. He’ll have to get back to work soon, but –

“Admiral Kravitz!”

A voice from his left, down the hall, and Kravitz turns to look to see Lord Acras hurrying down the hallway toward him, long coat billowing out behind him, long silver scarf around his neck hanging loose by his sides, the same color almost exactly as his graying hair. His long legs carry him quickly through the space between them, a Reaper just behind, hurrying to keep up, with long rolls of paper tucked under their arm. No doubt some sort of maps or plans to present to the Queen.

“Lord Acras,” Kravitz says, bowing slightly to the man. “Good day.”

“And to you,” the man says, smiling as he does, close-lipped and tight, but not disingenuous. He stops before Kravitz, inclining his head in respect. “It is good to see you home safe. I hear it has been a harrowing two months.”

“Nothing beyond my crew’s capability,” Kravitz says mildly, and upon the man’s raised eyebrow he chuckles. “I will admit, however,” he continues, “that we did encounter a few unexpected obstacles.”

“Well,” Lord Acras says, “you and your crew never fail to deliver. Our Queen is pleased to see the pirates defeated, and to see you back in the palace, I am sure.”

“I would not presume to assess Her Majesty’s feelings,” Kravitz says, mindful of the other Reapers standing in the hall, “but your vote of confidence means a great deal, my Lord.” Lord Acras smiles again.

“Well, it’s you doing the hard work,” he says, laying a hand on Kravitz’s shoulder, squeezing. His fingers are bony and strong, not surprising anymore, but the first time Kravitz shook his hand there was a certain disconnect in his mind between the mild-mannered, pleasant but generic man, and the strength of his grip. “I was hoping to catch you on your way out and thank you for your service.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Kravitz says, inclining his head again. Lord Acras takes his hand away, and there’s a moment of pause before Kravitz sighs. “I am sorry,” he says, “if you have an audience with Her Majesty, I should not hold you here any longer. And I’m afraid I’m a bit scattered after arriving home.”

“Oh yes, of course,” the man says. “Please, don’t let me keep you. Welcome back, Kravitz.”

“Thank you, Lord Acras.”

The man stops short, shakes his head with a little breathless laugh, and turns back to look at him from where he was about to enter throne room.

“How many times must I tell you, Admiral,” he says, good-natured, “to please call me John.”

And then the doors open, he straightens, striding into the throne room, and leaving Kravitz in the hall. Kravitz chuckles under his breath again, and then turns, walking back down the hall to the wing of the palace that house his quarters, thinking only of taking a nice, hot bath.

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*

 

After a summer spent chasing the Mongoose and his compatriots hither and yon along the southern coast, the autumn brings a much-needed quiet to the Astral Coast. Kravitz works diligently in the palace on overseeing the ongoing occupations along the Raven Queen’s borders. There are a few trips by ship to cities on the Northern Border, a week spent in Raven’s Roost in its impossible cove, another in Rockport, doing a routine inspection of the training camps for new Reapers.

He keeps a keen eye out for signs of trouble, but all the reports he receives from his Captains and Commodores across the realm are optimistic. There’s the occasional cropping up of small bands of vagabonds in the south, but each and every one lasts no longer than one run-in with a Raven’s Fleet Ship or squadron of Reapers. Kravitz reads each report carefully, writes back, demanding a full account of every movement, every party arrested, every person who gets away, every raid on each Phandalin household. But there is nothing that warrants his personal involvement. The Reapers in Phandalin’s vicinity are doing an excellent job.

He meets with Her, a few times a week, to update Her on Reaper recruitment and the movements of their Reapers on land and at sea along the coast. The influx of Reapers they received when Phandalin was first occupied a little over a year ago has dried up, but even that is little cause for concern to Her Majesty. Lord Acras visits his office about as often as Kravitz sees the Queen, bringing in maps of the surrounding territories and discussing with Kravitz their plans for future expansion. Kravitz, though a bit bogged-down in the logistics of it all, is quite comfortable once more. Bureaucracy suits him. There is order in it, and Kravitz likes order.

The Reapers’ Ball comes and goes, Kravitz spending three nights in his finest dress uniform, glass of wine in hand. The summer’s fiasco is brought up semi-frequently by the society, all of them flocking to Kravitz to whisper and connive, but Kravitz pays it little mind. His critics are fueled more by jealousy than anything else. The Mongoose’s shenanigans are no longer any concern of his.

Two weeks after the Reapers’ Ball comes the first snow of winter in the Astral City.

And with it, Kravitz receives a letter.

To His Most Honorable Excellency, Admiral Kravitz of the Queen’s Retinue,

        You are hereby cordially invited to the celebration of the Astral Coast’s acquisition of the former city-state of Phandalin, brought into the fold of Her Royal Majesty’s kingdom in the 11th month of the 537th year of Her Majesty’s Reign. The Rockseeker clan, governing family of the City of Phandalin under Her Majesty’s power, shall be holding for the people of Phandalin, a festival, from the 25th of the month through the 30th, to commemorate Her Majesty’s Supreme Generosity.

        Cyrus Rockseeker, Head of the Rockseeker Clan and Governor of the city of Phandalin, would be most honored if Admiral Kravitz would grace the festival with his presence, in representation of Her Benevolent Majesty, and for the purpose of accepting the sincere thanks of the people of Phandalin for his continuing part in their protection and safety.

        Honorably,

                    Cyrus Rockseeker.

 

The leave of the Raven Queen to attend is easily obtained, and soon Kravitz is packing his things for a short stay in Phandalin. The trip down the coast to the city will be longer than his stay there, really, and sailing the Sea of Souls in the winter is always somewhat unpleasant. At least heading southward will leave him in warmer climes if nothing else. Plus, it is important to keep the relationship between the Astral City and the further cities in the kingdom strong.

It does not escape him that even with the reports from his Reapers detailing no more unrest in the city than the occasional dissatisfied group of ruffians cropping up here and there, one does not simply hold a festival for the sake of doing so. The implications behind the Rockseekers’ choice to commemorate the arrival of the Astral Coast to Phandalin are clear.

Festivals are hard work. The Reapers’ Ball every year makes more than enough work for Kravitz, Queen knows. They aren’t put together expediently, or without significant coast. No, parties, as everything, have a specific purpose; they are utilitarian. Because with all the military power in the world, what makes or breaks a kingdom is morale. Kravitz knows this. Festivals and parties, lavish public celebrations and holidays from work… they are to make light of the world. They are to show off the shininess and the pleasantness of everything you’ve created and to win over those who might not be on your side.

So even if Phandalin is not a hotbed of unrest, Cryus Rockseeker’s announcement is more than just a party.

It is a power play.

Public opinion must not be in favor. Perhaps the murmurs of unrest in Phandalin are becoming more than murmurs, after all.

So for the Admiral of the Retinue to arrive in the city for the celebration, to attend the banquets and hob-nob with the well-to-do of the city is an extension of that power play. Kravitz is a good fighter, yes, and possesses a fine enough strategic mind, but he knows as well as anyone that one of his main points of utility is visibility .

It is hard to feel quite so bold in your opposition to Her Majesty’s Benevolent Will when the right arm of Her power is staring you in the face.

It does well for him to be seen.

So two days later, Kravitz’s ship is casting off from the Astral City’s harbor, his crew alongside him as they head once more to the southern coast and to Phandalin.

But sailing in the winter is miserable.

If it weren’t bad enough already being damp all the time at sea, the weather in the colder months picks up, and gives them fewer clear, bright days at sea. The Astral Coast in the winter time is overcast almost constantly. When it doesn’t snow, it rains. The stronger winds propel them down the coast but kick up the waves for rougher waters, day after day. Kravitz has to take to the precautions of tying and tacking things down in his cabin, just to keep everything stable.

Arriving in Phandalin, where the cold air still snaps against his cheeks and through his hair, but no longer poses any danger from prolonged exposure, and where the waves no longer toss the ship to and fro, is something of a relief.

They dock in the city, and Kravitz, an echo of almost a half a year ago, steps off the gangplank onto the wooden dock. And he sees Her Standard being flown by a party of Reapers standing where the dock meets the cobblestone ground beyond, where carriages and carts gather and people and things enter and leave the city.

A good many ships are docked in the harbor today, and every one of them done up in the finest blacks and silver linens Kravitz has seen this side of the Astral Coast. So the festival must be well under way.

Kravitz leaves the ship, allowing the crew to finish up, and walks to the end of the dock, where the Reapers part to reveal none other than one Cyrus Rockseeker.

Cyrus Rockseeker is the only member of the Rockeseeker clan, in Kravitz’s opinion, worth his salt. The only even half-pleasant point of contact in a surly family, an extensive network of sons and cousins and their spouses and children, Cyrus would be pitiable if he wasn’t so formidable. Standing hardly at four feet, he still manages to cut an imposing figure.

He still bows to Kravitz at his approach.

“Admiral Kravitz,” he says, “thank you for taking the time to attend our little celebration. It is nothing close to the splendor of the Astral City, I’m sure, but I speak for the whole of the Rockseeker Clan and the people of Phandalin when I say that I am most honored by your presence.”

“Thank you, Governor,” Kravitz says, with an incline of his head. How tired these dances get after time, the endless stream of titles and courtesy. The deference shown to him remains a pleasant reminder of his accomplishments, but the constant talking in circles may be the one thing that gets to him.

A good thing, then, that Cyrus isn’t much of a talker. He leads Kravitz to his carriage, the Reapers following behind, and they ride back to the Rockseeker mansion, on the Northern side of the city.

All the while, Kravitz watches the streets passing by carefully, looking out for any sign of the discontentment he suspects may have called him here. But by all outward appearances, the city is preparing for the festival, and nothing more. The black and silver standard hangs over the doors of fine houses and inns, and Kravitz passes by people in the streets hanging banners and streamers. Typical festival fare, though nothing quite so… plebeian as decorating the streets with anything besides Her Majesty’s crest would be allowed in the Astral City. But Kravit supposes that Phandalin’s decor has something of a rustic charm.

There’s change in the city, even since the summer when he was here last. Granted, Kravitz didn’t see much of the city then, but still. It’s evident, in little ways. The cleaner streets, the presence of the Reapers on the corners in their pressed uniforms. Cities that are adopted into the Astral Coast always go through these periods of rapid change. It’s an improvement, in his opinion. Things are so much easier, so much more pleasant , when they are ruled by order.

There are few people on the streets in the middle of the day, something Kravitz finds a bit strange, but then, there is a holiday tomorrow. And while not coated in snow like the Astral City at this time of year, it is suitably chilly outside. He supposes it’s not uncanny for there to be fewer people out than the summer, when the streets were practically flooded.

The Rockseeker mansion, when they arrive, is as ostentatious as ever. Wood paneling covers most of the surfaces, a taste of the somewhat rustic atmosphere of Phandalin, laying as it does on the outskirts of civilized territory. Past it lies the Felicity Wilds, a large expanse of dense forest in which all sorts of formidable creatures are said to dwell, but the clearing of the forests supplies Phandalin with an excellent up and coming industry in raw materials. The resulting cleared land allows for an agricultural expansion that, in a few years, will prove itself invaluable to the rapidly expanding territory under the Raven Queen’s rule. The heads of animals killed in the hunt hanging on the walls pay homage to the lands surrounding the city.

The Rockseekers themselves, though, made their fortune off of mining. They still do.

It’s almost unfair, really, how rich the land surrounding Phandalin is, Kravitz thinks. The Felicity Wilds to the South, and to the East the inland mountains under which lies a network of silver mines that could be the envy of the world. And plenty of hands in the city to work it all.

It is no wonder the place is ripe to be plagued by piracy and lawlessness. People will go to incredible lengths for wealth, and even greater lengths to acquire that wealth unlawfully. Kravitz should know.

It is strange to him that there would be unrest here . In an up-and-coming city, so prosperous and on the fringes of society, Kravitz would think the people would be grateful for the protection an empire can bring.

But people can be short-sighted, he supposes. Only seeing what’s directly before their eyes, and unable to conceptualize a greater picture outside of it.

Perhaps this celebration of Her Majesty will remind the people of Phandalin what they’re in for, living within the bounds of the Astral Coast. And everything they have to gain from it all.

Cyrus shows him to his room, a fine, opulent suite on the third floor, guest bedroom with attached office, and Kravitz thanks him. He freshens up, changes from his working uniform into a dress uniform, and takes dinner with the family, Cyrus’s sons as surly as ever. But the food is excellent, and the wine suitable, and the fires roar in the hearths, so there is little to critique.

“Governor,” Kravitz says, once they’ve risen from their chairs and the table is being cleared, “do you think we could have a moment in your office?”

Cyrus easily concedes, and they leave the dining room, Kravitz aware of the discerning eyes of Cyrus’s sons on him. Cyrus’s office is across the front hall of the mansion; Kravitz remembers it mostly from a fateful day in the summer during which he borrowed it to deliver the news to Jenkins that his service in the Raven Queen’s Retinue was no longer needed.

It’s a dark place, once again all wood and plush fabrics, with a thick layer of pipe-smoke residue worked into all the linens and the walls, even the lampshades. No sooner do they enter than Cyrus lights a pipe and takes a puff. Kravitz grimaces. Smoking has never been his particular… vice, is far less prevalent in the Astral City than here.

He and Cyrus sit in a pair of chairs by a window looking out upon the front yard, and Cyrus snaps his fingers and a footman comes around the corner from the still-open doors to the office, draws the curtains shut quickly, and bows out. Cyrus pours Kravitz and himself a drink, sets both glasses on the polished wooden table in between them. And he sits across from Kravitz, smoking and waits.

Kravitz takes a sip of his drink, a smooth bourbon (Cyrus has good taste, and even better stores), and then speaks.

“I would like to inquire into the state of Phandalin, Governor,” he says simply. And really, Cyrus nods right away, as though he’s been expecting it. “One does not simply throw frivolous parties, especially none so extravagant as this. You know as well as I do the power behind them. And I think you know that I speak for Her Majesty when I say that I need to be aware of every happening in Phandalin, especially being as new to the kingdom as it is.”

Cyrus nods again, and reaches forward, drinks as well before he replies.

“The people of the city haven’t been… entirely satisfied with the occupation. Or the governorship, to be completely honest. The change in the governmental structure, choosing a family to oversee the city in Her name has not gone down as smoothly as we had hoped.”

Kravitz nods. “Has there been any… visible backlash?”

Cyrus shakes his head, “Nothing more than the occasional band of nay-sayers, making noise in the street. We’ve dealt with them. But… it hasn’t been received well.”

“It never is,” Kravitz says wryly, “the people will see only what they wish to see, and in the meantime will staunchly ignore all the good done unto them.” He waits a moment, and thinks. Takes a sip of bourbon, lets it roll around in his mouth a moment as he considers.

Nothing Cyrus has said should be of any concern. Such things have happened before, low morale in cities along the borderlands. It isn’t anything new.

Could it be as simple as that? Just a case of lower morale in a city full of people unused to the organized rule of a greater government?

“This is nothing we haven’t seen before,” Kravitz says, almost before he realizes he’s going to speak. But he’s right. There’s a set plan of action for these types of things. “Give them a few years,” he says, “it’s not so long in the scheme of things. Keep them working, keep the presence of the Reapers strong. Take care of the rogues and the pirates; their children will begin to enroll in the Reapers’ ranks soon enough, and things will mellow out. There will come a time when no one cares to remember things before the Raven Queen’s rule.

“But in the meantime, your festival should do the job. Allow the people to see what we have created here.” He pauses, considers his next words carefully.

“As much as I’d like to forget it…” he says slowly, “this summer taught us that there are rogues to the south and the west that would seek to disrupt the order of this place for personal gain. The people must be made to remember that, and to remember who it was who protected them from the continuing attacks. The festival will do half this job. I , with my presence, shall endeavor to do the other.”

Cyrus nods again, takes another drink. “Thank you, Admiral,” he says, “it is a relief to hear you say this. We have been pushing just the agenda you recommend for these… five months or so. But it is good to hear it affirmed.”

“Well, the Queen has Her eyes on this place,” Kravitz says, “the Astral City would hate to see Phandalin struggle. She will be pleased you asked me here, if I can be of service.”

“I am sure you will be,” Cyrus says, affirming. He looks at Kravitz, a small smile on his face. “I hope you will be pleased with tomorrow’s festivities,” he says, “we have planned to begin on the water. Every family in Phandalin with a ship or yacht will be on the sea, should the weather permit it. We will spin it as a reminder from where our adversaries came, and subsequently, our protection.”

“Very elegant.” Kravitz approves. It will be a good way to draw Her Majesty into this space, so associated is her kingdom with the water, so associated are the Reapers with being seamen, even as they move away from that function. And in a way, extending the city of Phandalin into the water for a night will make a nice picture.

He finishes his drink, his day finally catching up with him.

“I thank you for your time, Governor,” he says, rising, and Cyrus scrambles to stand as well. “But I think I will retire for the night. I eagerly await tomorrow’s festivities.” Cyrus bows, and Kravitz nods, and then he turns and is headed, mercifully, out through the foyer, and up the fine, carpeted staircase, to his chambers, and to bed.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The next day dawns bright and beautiful, a nice sea breeze clearing the sky of clouds and snapping the air with just the amount of chill that makes Kravitz thank the Queen for the thick wool dress coat of his uniform. He spends the day in the Rockseeker household, catching up on papers and correspondence, delivered to his quarters last night from the cabin on his ship.

Come evening, he dresses in his finest dress uniform, spends a good half hour checking to make sure all the medals and pins are in the correct place, all the ribbons. He attaches his ceremonial sword around his waist, pulls his hair half-back and makes sure that everything is just so.

He is given his own carriage to the docks of Phandalin, and a fanfare upon arriving. There is a crowd gathered on the street and on the ships alike, whistling and cheering over the sound of the music as Kravitz and governing family board the Rockseekers’ ship, a beautiful vessel, once more in the same dark wood they are so fond of in their home, and capable of hosting near to two hundred guests.

The ships cast off from the harbor of Phandalin, and Kravitz has to admit it is quite a sight to see, every one of them decked out in lanterns and festive trimming. Kravitz’s alone is overflowing with guests in bright clothing and sashes, glasses in their hands filled with Cyrus’s finest wine. Servants duck below decks and emerge with finger foods and drink, and a string quartet is stationed near the bow. It is an elegant affair.

And for the thousandth time Kravitz has to admit that expanding southward has its merits. The water here is so much less violent than the Northern Seas this time of year. And the people of Phandalin seem to be so much more… genuine than the typical crowd of the Astral City.

It has been so long since Kravitz has been a part of any social event not in the Astral City that he sometimes forgets his reputation in the rest of the kingdom. The noble folk of Phandalin flock around him, hang on his every word. These nobles, who have just gotten their children into the Retinue, who are just finding ways into the Astral Coast’s high society , instead of the relative simplicity of being a wealthy family in an adjacent city-state, are far kinder to him, and far more appreciative, than what he is accustomed to at home.

They’re still conniving. They’re still hoping for favor. But they are far less likely to openly criticize. They haven’t the confidence in their stations yet to challenge him. It’s a change.

He wears the uniform and drinks the wine, and smiles at the jokes and tells tale of the Capital City to the North for the sake of the many who haven’t been. And as the sun sinks below the horizon and the lights from the many ships in the harbor twinkle like stars upon the water, it seems that Cyrus’s festival of the Raven Queen is going swimmingly.

Just past sundown, Cyrus climbs to the high upper deck on the stern of the ship, and motions the helmsman aside, and motions with his hand for the music to stop. The attention on the ship turns to him.

“I would like to propose a toast,” he says.

“To Her Benevolent Majesty, The Raven Queen,” Cyrus begins, raising his glass, “in thanks to Her and Her Retinue, for molding our chaos to order, for providing to us the means to prosper, and for protecting our city, and making our people safe. She has imbued the people of Phandalin with purpose unlike any other; She has left an indelible mark upon our city, and for that we are eternally grateful.

“We are gathered tonight to honor Her in her infinite wisdom and power. We are gathered tonight to be reminded of the events of the past, and to look forward to our brighter, stronger future, guided by Her Majesty’s Infallible Hand.” Cyrus raises his glass a touch higher, flourishing to finish off the toast.

“To the Raven Queen!” he cries.

Kravitz, along with the company, raises his glass as well, up beyond eye level. A cry of The Raven Queen goes up from the ship, and Kravitz brings the glass to his lips.

And the ship to the port side of their own explodes.

Kravitz’s head whips around, to the left, back in the direction of the city, and looking to where the lights are still sparkling brightly over the water, just in time to see a Raven’s fleet ship, burning, falling apart, the mast tipping over and falling to the deck. Too far to act, and far, far too close for comfort.

And then, the screams begin.

From all around him, screams of the noble men and women on the ship, as they panic.

Because a Raven’s fleet ship is going up in flames, just a short way across the water, and for a moment Kravitz almost doesn’t comprehend what he sees, the plume of smoke, orange and gold in the night sky, rising from the ship there in front of him, the fire swallowing the deck, the colors of black and silver of the Raven Queen disintegrating before his eyes.

And then Kravitz is back in reality with the sudden, stunning realization that they are all under attack.

He whips around to Cyrus, there on the highest deck, raised above the company, goblet still in hand, looking utterly flabbergasted at the destruction of the fleet ship, and Kravitz begins to shout orders to him –

He feels more than hears the second explosion.

Kravitz is thrown backwards, and the first thing that occurs to him is the wet on his hand from the wine, spilling everywhere along his coat and his arm as the glass in his hand shatters. And then the ache of his body having hit the deck, hard, his ribs protesting to the very idea of breathing. There’s a high-pitched ringing in his ears. And then, the heat. Heat everywhere around him, fire, fire everywhere , and it’s going to burn him, this is how he’s going to go –

But it’s gone. It’s all gone in a moment, it’s over, like it never happened, except the sail above him smolders along the edges, along the guardrails, too, pockets of fire that look almost incidental , throwing strange shadows onto the deck in flickering orange light in a hundred directions, and Kravitz sees the rest of the party strewn out across the deck like him. There is but one figure standing.

And when Kravitz lays his eyes on it, any air he was able to get after his fall is knocked right out of his lungs again.

Because standing over an incapacitated Cyrus Rockseeker is someone Kravitz thought he’d never see again.

He’s tall, or perhaps just thin for his height. A long coat falls from shoulder to knee. An ostentatious feathered hat, a scimitar in his right hand and what looks like a stick his left. But worst of all, peeking out from under the wide brim of the hat –

Black, beady eyes. A brown, furry face. Rodential.

The Mongoose.

“I have to say, my dude,” comes a voice from under the mask, the sword in the Mongoose’s hand finding its way under the chin of Cyrus, “this doesn’t even make ya boy’s top ten parties ever crashed.”

Something in his voice reverberates in the air and makes Kravitz’s head spin, but he’s got to – he has to do something.

Kravitz, lungs burning, legs aching, struggles to his feet, and draws his sword.

And the way the Mongoose turns his head to look, the firelight reflecting in those small, black glass eyes is hellish and unnatural, and Kravitz, were he not so angry, might even be afraid.

The Mongoose, then, utters two words that, Kravitz really thinks, just encapsulate the situation perfectly.

“Oh shit.”

And then there’s no time to think, because Kravitz charges forward, running up the stairs to the upper deck of the ship and the Mongoose fumbles, turning around and pointing the stick at him, and three globes of light emerge from it and whiz toward him, and Kravitz ducks, turns around and swings his sword at the Mongoose – and is thrown back against the rail of the ship by an unseen force. He catches himself before he can go spilling over the side, and looks up through the smoke from the spreading fire along the deck, to see the nobles running for cover, but there’s nowhere to go – and just in time to see the Mongoose pointing the stick at him before he turns, and vaults off the sterncastle to the deck below.

Stop him! ” Kravitz bellows, and blessedly there were Reapers on board, of course there were – Reapers who have been attending to putting out the fires but no who turn and draw their swords, charging the Mongoose, who spins, and fires off more… more spells at them. Kravitz runs down the stairs to catch up, after him, following, and two of his guards go down with balls of light to the chest, hitting the deck, prone and dazed. But they’ve distracted the Mongoose long enough for Kravitz to get behind him -

Kravitz wishes fervently that he had his good sword, not his ornamental one, as he takes his next swing at the masked man.

Once again, the contact of their swords against each other seems like more than just the opposition of another blade, more than metal on metal. It’s something beyond that, something that sends Kravitz flying backward and up against the rail, and he hisses as his hand makes contact with smoldering wood from the original explosion.

And he moves to attack once more, and the Mongoose, facing away from him, pulls one glove off his right hand and places it on the mast.

And the mast begins to change. It lightens in color, and then it begins to… collapse, almost, and then –

It is such a feat that for a moment, Kravitz is struck to the core with fear and horror, as he watches the enchantment spill up the mast and through the rigging, and the sails, and everything over their head, and then – it all comes billowing down, onto the deck… sand.

Kravitz is agape looking at it, and then the Mongoose turns, and Kravitz could swear those black eyes were looking at him, and then –

“How did you do that?” he can’t help the words as they spill out from his lips

And then there’s a force like hitting a wall, and Kravitz is thrown backwards over the railing of the ship, and his stomach leaps up into his throat as he falls, and finally, with a tremendous splash , hits the water below.

Cold , and panic .

Don’t panic, he tells himself, don’t panic – you’re not drowning here .

Your shoes – get your shoes

His boots come off with a tug and a push, and then Kravitz kicks , and pulls with his arms, and breaches the water.

The saltwater is on his lips and his face and in his hair and it runs into his mouth as Kravitz comes up, sputtering. He treads water, gasping, half at the effort, half at the cold, seeped in through the wool on him, now saturated and heavy, and –

“Hey, thug!”

A voice from the deck, high, screechy, not at all what Kravitz thought he would sound like –

In the light from the burning wood, Kravitz can see the shape of the Mongoose, of his mask, eyes gleaming once again in the dark, and there isn’t any expression on it, none at all, but Kravitz could swear he’s smiling as he leans over the railing of the deck and yells.

“That’s for last time!”

And, right before Kravitz’s eyes, he disappears into thin air like he was never there at all.

And Kravitz struggles to stay afloat, and marvels at what he saw in a sort of horrified awe, and screams ring out over the water as ships are attacked there, and there, and there, the sounds of crackling fire and booms ringing out in the cold night. And the freezing water sets into him and Kravitz has to remind himself to breathe as it dawns on him, one piece at a time.

That it isn’t just his ship that has fallen under attack. He can see it now, past the ships on the horizon, the light rising up from the land, where the city of Phandalin lies.

No, it isn’t just Cyrus’s ship, or his, or a few merchants, or a few Reapers.

It is the whole of Phandalin.

It is the whole of the Astral Coast.

The Astral Coast is under attack, and Kravitz, favored in Her sight, second to divinity, Lord among Her Retinue is trying desperately to stay afloat in the waters off the coast of Phandalin, without a weapon, without a crew, and without a plan.

 

END OF PART 1

 

*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

It is the orange light of woodfire that silhouettes Lup as she leaps from the deck of a Reapers’ ship into the frigid water of Phandalin’s harbor.

The impact of breaching the water is hard, even with Lup’s perfect form, and it nearly steals the breath from her lungs. She manages to surface, and then she’s off, Haste buzzing in her blood and her brain, as she paddles madly back to the Starblaster .

Thank goodness for saltwater, or Lup would be on the bottom right now.

And thank goodness for the relative stillness of the sea, or she would be dashed to pieces as she hauls herself, hand over hand, up the rope to the Starblaster’s deck, pulling herself over the railing with a final grunt of effort.

Davenport’s hands are already raised, his eyes alight and unfocused with magic, and Lup doesn’t even get to check if everyone’s back before a tap of Lucretia’s staff sends the ship on its way. Lup catches her breath for a moment as her surroundings come into focus. Taako and Barry stand on the upper deck, Barry at the wheel and Taako staring into the distance off the stern, poised with his wand held high, wet to the bone and watching the harbor intently.

Lup takes her place beside him, and with a flick of her hand their clothes are dry.

“You should save the energy,” Taako says, not looking at her.

“Since when have you given a shit about saving spell slots?” Lup asks, and she knows he can’t see her through the mask, but the smirk is evident in her voice. But Taako doesn’t answer. And there’s a set to his shoulders that Lup doesn’t like. He should be playing up the cockiness right now; he’s always high energy coming off of Mongoose theatrics – why is he so… quiet?

“What is it?” she asks, stomach already growing heavy with dread. Again, Taako says nothing. Something is wrong, she’s sure of it. “Taako,” Lup says, grabbing his arm, “ what is it?”

“Don’t grab me,” he hisses, pulling away. “And shut the fuck up. We have a job to do.”

“No one’s looking at us, Taako, and if something’s happened, I need to know about it!”

“And I’m going to tell you!” He snaps. “Back at the safehouse with the rest of the crew. Don’t waste our time by making me give you a briefing out here,” he says. He lowers his voice and leans closer. “Stick to the plan, Lu, that’s how we operate.”

He’s right, of course. Lup is keyed up from the gravity of the night, but Taako’s right. Stick to the plan, and no one gets hurt. That’s why they have a plan. If the plan needed changing, Taako would tell her.

But this night is under Lup’s supervision. This is Lup’s plan. This is Lup, putting people on the line. That knowledge has been weighing on her for months. It’s hard not to get jittery now that everything’s in motion.

It’s hard not to be jittery when the sound of screaming still echoes from the water, from the chaos she has wrought for the sake of the plan. It’s hard not to be jittery when Lup, and the rest of them, have just sent a message, an unmistakable, undeniable message to the leadership of Phandalin that they are here and they are… well…

Violent.

But the crackling of flames and the splitting of wood and the screaming grows softer and softer the further they get from the chaos, and the closer they draw to the shore of the now still, dark city of Phandalin. Not that Lup is fooled. By now the Reapers who remained in the city will have seen the attack on the assembly offshore. They will not be so easily taken in.

The crew has to act quickly. Every moment they delay is another the Reapers have to prepare themselves.

As the ship pulls closer to the docks of Phandalin, Lup and Taako leap of the side, and with four hands from the twins below and mage hand assistance from Barry above, the ship is tied up within less than a minute. There’s a comfort in the motions, in the practiced efficiency of their life’s work. Whatever new ground they tread tonight, they know their ship. They know how to sail.

Lucretia and Davenport join them on the docks.

Let’s go , Davenport signs, and with their masks firmly affixed they move into the city.

The streets, so crowded for the festival’s opening night only a few hours ago, are deserted now, even the street lamps unlit, plunging Phandalin into a darkness and stillness that is both a blessing and a curse. The crew moves in waves, Lup and Taako leading the pack and signaling to the others when it is safe to move. Barry and Lucretia, without the help of lights, are moving completely blind, and while they’re all practiced at this kind of stealth, Lup thinks it’s better not to take any chances. It’s slow going, having Taako and her scout out every block ahead of the rest of them, but it would be slower to get into a fight. Or worse, to get ambushed.

She looks up into windows for the movements of curtains, looks for shadows around corners and lanterns in homes. But the city’s a ghost town. If Lup hadn’t been here just a few hours ago and witnessed the celebration, she’d have thought the place had been abandoned for days. The people of Phandalin know how to hunker down and hide when they need to. The Reapers must have put out an order to keep everyone in their homes.

Still. It’s creepy. It makes her skin crawl.

A sparkle out of the corner eye, and her head whips around to see Taako’s mongoose face looking at her, dead eyes shining as he puts out the sparks in his palm.

Focus up , he signs, and Lup nods.

Pull it together, she scolds herself as she checks the next block, ducking carefully into a small alley as two reapers walk on the perpendicular street ahead of her. Pull it together. It’s just another operation . You’ve done plenty .

Ah , say her second thoughts in return, but it’s not just an operation, is it? This is a Revolution , and you’ve never planned one of those .

Shut up , She tells herself, raises her pistol at the ready as Taako leaves his hiding place and gives the all clear to keep moving.

They stop three more times, making their way across the city to the Eastern side of Phandalin, and the old, abandoned barn that Lup staked out months ago as their base of operations. Out around the side it already had a cellar entrance; it only took a week or so to dig that cellar large enough to hold the meetings, and Lup was golden. It was a good place to meet: off the beaten path, a ways into the woods, and not in direct sight of anything from the city. As the shape of it appears through the trees, Lup hopes fervently that some of the townspeople were able to make it here undetected. If not, she doesn’t know what they’ll do.

If there are reapers hiding in the trees, there’s nothing they can do about it now, she thinks. The last 50 yards or so across the clearing has no cover. Lup takes a deep breath, signals an okay to Taako, and then they move.

A secret knock on the cellar door and Lup hears a latch click on the other side. She and Barry haul the doors open, and there’s Magnus, right on the other side, Adam Redcheek close behind him.

They slip into the cellar quickly, humans first, then Dav, then Lup and Taako last, moving like cogs in a well–oiled machine as they shut the doors behind them, lock and bar them fast.

Immediately lights flare up behind her, Magnus with a torch in his hand and handing one to Barry.

“Anyone hurt?” he asks, looking around himself as though to verify their eventual answer. There are head shakes all around, And Magnus leads them deeper into their hollowed–out hideaway down what could almost be called a corridor. It’s so low that even Lup has to duck a little; Magnus is hopelessly hunched over. The smell of Earth is strong. Now, after months, it immediately evokes the emotions of stolen food and covert exchanges. Of fire in voices and hearts and the feeling, the swelling in her chest that comes with something new.

She’s been here a long time. Longer than anywhere but the ship in years.

They crouch–walk for a moment, and then they come out into the main room of their little burrow, a wide space, now filled to the brim, as Lup can see, with people. Her heart swells with the sight of them.

They came . They actually came, and Lup thought they would, she really did, but she couldn’t be sure until she saw them there, actually in the room, on the night of it all, and Lup can see Magnus has already gone about distributing the weapons. All manner of swords and daggers and even firearms rest in the arms of the people gathered there, their clothes dirty, many of their faces painted, some of them in masks as well – not nearly as elaborate as the crews, but masks all the same.

“They came,” she says out loud, and Magnus looks over. Maybe there’s more awe in her voice than there should be, but she can’t help it. “They actually came.”

Magnus nods. “Merle and I counted about six–hundred,” he says, and Lup could cry.

“That’s enough,” she says. “That’s more than enough.”

“Well,” comes her brother’s voice, and Lup remembers . The momentary euphoria of people on their side drains away like water from a wash–basin, and she turns to her brother, who studies his nails, nonchalant, like he’s not about to drop a bomb on them. But Lup can read Taako. She always could. He’s worried. And when Taako worries, Lup worries.

“Taako,” she says, trying to keep her voice down, so as not to concern the townspeople, most of whom can probably hear her perfectly well in the dead silence of this dark, earthen place, “what did you see?”

Taako’s eyes flicker from one face to the next in their little impromptu huddle, Adam included.

He makes a decision.

“Maybe we should go back into the hall,” he says, his voice low, “just for a minute.”

“And have this conversation in a single file line?” Magnus says, sounding almost amused, but the tone is off.

“We can do it here,” Lup says.

“I don’t want to lower morale , Lulu,” Taako says out of the corner of his mouth, looking significantly over his shoulder at the hundreds of people gathered behind her.

“Don’t fucking call me Lulu,” she snarls, quiet, “and if there’s something wrong, you need to stop pussy footing around. We need to hear it , Taako,” she says. “These people, who might be risking their lives in the next couple of hours, need to hear it. What. Did. You. See.”

Taako squirms.

“Listen,” he says, “it’s not a dealbreaker okay, it’s just – I ran into an… old friend on the Rockseekers’ ship.”

“Yeah, we don’t really have a lot of ‘old friends’ out there, bud,” Barry says. “You’re gonna have to specify –”

“If any of you would give me a fucking second to talk, maybe I would!” He says, throwing up his hands. It’s a strange gesture, huddled together as they are.

Taako licks his lips, and Lup sees one more decision flash behind his eyes before he speaks again.

“The Admiral of the Royal Navy is here,” Taako says. “He was on the ship. He saw the whole attack.”

It doesn’t sink in at first, doesn’t hit Lup why the information is relevant for a second. It’s like there’s a buffer between her and Taako’s words, and they don’t quite reach her.

And then they do .

And everyone starts talking at once.

“He wasn’t on the guest list for the festival!” Lucretia says, “we got it weeks ago, we knew everyone that was going to be out there, and you’re telling me our intelligence was wrong?”

“Maybe he was a last–minute invite –” Magnus, now, but Lup is far away.

The Admiral. The Admiral of the Royal Navy. Who has pursued them across the seas before, who sank the Starblaster, or thought he did. Who hates pirates more than the Raven Queen herself. Admiral of the Raven Queen, who, according to their stolen records, has overseen the sinking of fifty–seven enemy ships in the Sea of Souls, three dozen of them pirate ships, eleven of them smugglers’ vessels, and ten ships under the command of surrounding “enemy” city–states during the war of the relics.

The Admiral, who is a direct line of communication to the throne itself, who commands the entirety of the Reapers’ Retinue, who knows more about protecting the Astral Coast from this kind of thing than anyone. Who is here . Maybe a dozen miles from where she stands now, plotting every minute the retaliation to the most aggressive attack the Astral Coast has seen in two decades.

The Admiral, who has yet to foil their plans once. Whom they have managed to escape time and time again. Who clearly has no knowledge of magic, who has fallen for every trick.

“Fine,” Lup says, and everyone in the circle stops talking. Lup looks to each of them in turn.

“So what if the Admiral is here?” Lup says. “What does that change?”

“Lup,” Davenport starts, his voice almost… disappointed.

“I’m serious!” she cuts him off. “ What does it change?”

Everything , Lup,” Lucretia cuts in.

“How? We’ve escaped him before. Has he suddenly acquired some magic I’m not aware of? Can he walk on water?”

Lup ,” Lucretia says, closing her eyes, exasperated.

“If he’s here,” Magnus says, “it could mean that the Astral city is onto us. It could be we weren’t as subtle as we thought.”

“The Raven Queen doesn’t seem the type to worry too much about subtlety ,” Barry chimes in. “If she knew we were here, I don’t think she would wait until we strike first.”

“It’s not her style,” Lup agrees.

“Taako.” Davenport, now. “What do you think? Did he seem like he was anticipating anything? Did you get a good enough look at him?”

Taako smirks.

“Oh I got a pretty good look at him –”

“Taako,” the Captain chastises. Taako rolls his eyes.

“Honestly? He looked like he didn’t know what hit him,” Taako responds, shaking his head. “He looked like he was seeing a ghost. Can’t say I wasn’t flattered.”

“So either he’s a good actor or he didn’t know anything.” Barry says.

Lup sighs.

“I agree with Lup,” Merle cuts in. “We’re not going to get anything outta waiting. We said that once we started in on ‘the plan’ we’d have to go through with it all the way, well. We’ve started on it. Only way outta this is forward.”

“What if the Admiral brings in reinforcements?” Lucretia counters. “We don’t have a backup plan in the event of it.”

“That’s just a risk we’ll have to take,” Lup says, but her mind is far away again, back in what Taako calls ‘strategy mode.’ He used to, back in the day, call it Eagle Vision: the idea that Lup could see everything, spread out all in front of her like an eagle can see the lay of the land. And Lup’s had a knack for strategy for years. Trained into her by the Reapers, trained out of her by the crew and trained back in again.

She weighs the pros and cons. If they attack now, they could all be killed tomorrow. If they don’t, they almost certainly will be killed. Perhaps the crew could escape but the people? They’d have at most a week before the Queen did away with most of them for crimes of conspiracy.

She puzzles over it, thinks until she’s worn grooves in her brain.

“I say we attack tonight,” she says. All eyes in her little circle become fixated on her. “We’ve begun,” she says, “we can’t back out now.”

There’s silence around the circle for a moment, and then Merle says, “what the hell. I’m with her.”

Davenport nods, as does Barry. Taako links his arm in hers, a silent agreement. Lup looks to Magnus. Magnus is looking at Adam Redcheek.

Adam, whom Lup met that first night at the bar, takes a long moment to stroke his beard, his eyes staring off into space, vaguely in the direction of Lup’s feet before he says,

“I don’t think we can send these people home empty–handed tonight.” He looks up at her. “If we don’t give it a shot now, we never will.

Lup nods, and looks, then, to the final member of the circle.

“Lucretia?” she says.

Lucretia shakes her head, slowly, a tiny movement.

“I still don’t like it,” she says, “it’s not what we anticipated, but,” she shrugs. “I guess I don’t know anything else we can do.

“Okay,” Lup says. “Then we give it fifteen minutes to get suited up and ready to go before we head out, wands and weapons at the ready.”

“Should I tell the folks?” Adam says. “I don’t want ‘em scared off.”

“You’d better,” Lup says. “They’ll need to be ready for anything.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

It only takes fifteen minutes to spread the word around their little makeshift bunker about the Admiral, about possible reinforcements. Offers are made to leave to anyone who cares to take them. Lup sees a few break off on their own, discussing leaving versus staying, no doubt. It half makes Lup sick to think about it, but she can’t stop anyone. It has to be their choice.

And in fifteen minutes sharp, Lup gives out a strong, piercing whistle.

The people of Phandalin shuffle to their feet, guns and swords and lances clutched tightly in their grip.

And then they’re on the move.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lup’s never lead a revolution before.

She lead a mutiny once, on her and Taako’s first ship across the Sea of Souls to the countries beyond the Astral Coast that border the Stillwater Sea. A merchant, returning from a city on The Coast had let them come aboard if they would work on the crew. But the captain was a tyrannical maniac, would beat sailors for nothing.

The sailors whispered of mutiny in their bunks at night. And Lup thought that sounded like a good idea.

So Lup lead a mutiny. Threw the jackass out of power within the week, placed the first mate in charge and locked the original captain in the brig for the remainder of the journey.

It was her and Taako’s first act of piracy.

In a way.

It’s always kind of been like that, Lup doing what needs to be done when people need it. When it was time for her to leave the Raven Queen’s retinue, she’d left, and she’d never done that before either. The difference between never having killed someone and having killed someone was nothing more than the thrust of a saber. Nothing more than a trigger stood between her and her first time firing a pistol.

Lup supposes, in the same way, that nothing now stands between her and a revolution besides an assault on Phandalin’s Reapers’ barracks.

All the same, it feels different.

A revolution has to start somewhere. She supposes in this case, it starts with Phandalin.

She’s forced to shove whatever remaining qualms she has down deep as she treks across the city, townspeople in tow like a terrible twisting snake through the streets, torches raised high over their heads. It’s very old–fashioned angry mob, the kind that’s usually after The Starblaster when they’ve stuck around somewhere too long. Being at the head of one herself has her vibrating with barely–restrained energy, turns all her senses up to their highest. She can feel the aching in her feet from hours of action already, the way her clothes are stiff from salt that prestidigitation didn’t remove –

The barracks lie along the coastline, have their own set of docks and everything, set apart from the city by a high stone wall. There are sentries posted along the corners in guard houses. There will be training grounds inside, storage for weapons, meeting rooms and offices in the building proper. And of course, the housing for the Reapers.

It’s been years since Taako and Lup have been in a Reapers’ barracks, but with any luck it will be much the same as it was then. Any inside information they can stitch together will give them that much of an advantage.

Lup’s heart flutters in her chest.

Because their action in the Queen’s territory up to now has been theft, mostly. Trafficking of illegal goods. Use of magic. Illegal thoughts harbored in her mind and heart, illegal words whispered in dim, smoky rooms. Tonight’s action, if all goes as planned, is an act of outright…

She won’t even let herself think the word.

It’s treason, certainly, and it feels like treason, even as long as she’s been out of the Retinue. Tonight’s assault isn’t an attack on the queen’s people, it’s an attack on Her, and if Lup knows one thing about the queen, it is that she will not take this lightly. No one questions her and lives.

Tonight changes everything.

They get in, incapacitate the Reapers as much as they can. Lup and Magnus take the headquarters, find whoever is in charge, and subdue them. Break down the command structure and everything else will follow. They’ll have control of the city before dawn. It’s simple. It’s straightforward.

And a million things could go wrong.

It seems only a moment until they’re there. Lup can see the unforgiving wall of stone down the street, and it’s time.

Darkness , Lup signs, and there’s no light to be had. Nothing to be seen. She casts invisibility on herself and steps out of the line of it, out of the barrier, and there, the gates to the barracks rise ten feet high in their stone wall.

She advances slowly, silent as she can, and feels, to her right, a presence come up beside her. Good. Taako is in position.

They advance on the gate. Lup can see sentries atop the barracks’ walls, playing lookout, can see the fear in their eyes. They know something’s coming. She looks to her left. Taako’s there, on the other side of the gate, back against the wall, waiting for her signal.

Ready? Lup signs. Taako answers affirmative.

  1. She takes a deep breath, raises her hand: one. Two.

On three she and Taako whip out from their places against the wall, Taako sending six magic missiles at the hinges on the gate, and Lup casting a fireball that reaches blows the iron–barred doors back, back, into the courtyard, and scorches the dusty ground.

Lup yells .

The answering cry from behind her in the street is invigorating as Lup charges into the courtyard, already hearing the frantic bells calling all Reapers to arms who aren’t already there.

And some of them were ready. No sooner has Lup crossed the threshold of the barracks and draws her sword than she clashes with a human woman, built like a brick house, their swords colliding with a force that jars her teeth and a clang that thunders in her ears, her heart beating fast.

And she begins to fight. 

Fighting is easy. Fighting is a muscular reaction. It’s inertia. It’s instinct. Lup knows when to duck and slash and leap out of the way. Fighting is blood. It’s vital . It consumes all of your attention because you could die . It makes you heart beat and your blood flow and makes you feel alive , because any moment you might not be.

Blades were her strong suit from the beginning. Lup is a master with swords and she wields one in each hand, a whirlwind of deadly intent. The human woman is quick work, Lup disarming her and bashing her on the head with the hilt so she crumples to the ground before six seconds is up, and by then the courtyard, the training yard, is filled with townspeople, Garfield’s stolen weapons in hand as they take on the Reapers.

Another runs up on her left, goes down even quicker than the woman – two handed on a blade meant for one, probably a new recruit, Lup catalogues quickly. She scans the crowd. Flashes of magic illuminate it, along with torchfire. She spots the door to the headquarters complex, dark stone extending from either side of it to form the barracks proper. And then there, by the front gates,

“Magnus!” she shouts, as he finishes clocking a reaper on the head, who crumples at his feet, “Let’s go!” And she starts fighting her way inward. Magnus is quickly by her side, helping her push her way through, though it doesn’t take half as much effort as she’s used to expending in real skirmishes. The barracks, though not abandoned, are sparsely populated tonight, and by Lup’s assessment, full of recent recruits. The experienced Reapers were sent to protect the nobility tonight on the water, as Lup predicted. These were meant to monitor the streets, break up drunken skirmishes and the like.

Phandalin’s citizens may not be skilled with the blade, but then neither are their opponents. They’re faring even better than Lup hoped.

Lup and Magnus reach the doors, and with a throw of Magnus’s shoulder, the doors burst open, and they slip inside.

It’s empty. There’s a spiraling staircase leading up to a second floor, a small landing before a door through which Lup cannot see, when with Darkvision. She casts light on Magnus’s sword and the room is lit with a dim, gray glow. There are doors in three directions ahead of them.

Alright, Lup signs , we start on the left . Let’s go .

Lup and Magnus have the clearing of a base – or a ship, or anything really – down to a science. As the crew always does, they function like a well–calibrated machine, Lup leading the way for the sake of her sharper vision, Magnus close behind her. They both have pistols drawn and at the ready; she’s so much better with swords, even now, but nothing intimidates like a gun.

They start with the barracks, bunk after bunk lying empty and cold, threadbare blankets tossed over them haphazardly by Reapers who lept from their beds in a panic.

For a moment, Lup could swear she sees in, just in one bunk down at the far end, an elf, frae almost exactly like her own, curled and shivering in a ball.

And then the moment passes. The room is empty.

You good? Magnus signs at her.

Lup nods. Keep moving .

Room after room, and not one person to be seen in any of them. They make it through the barracks, and then the inner courtyards, and then they’re back in the foyer and making their way up the spiral staircase to the second floor.

Offices on this one. Small, sparsely furnished reprieves for those Reapers deemed competent enough to oversee their fellows. There will be information in here that they need to turn over to Lucretia once the place is cleared.

Each room. Empty. Empty. Empty. The sounds of fighting from outside winding down.

It can’t have been that easy , Lup thinks, as they whip through the door to the final, largest office at the end of the hall. A larger desk here, made of half–decent material, an actual rug and a cabinet and a chair that’s more than a few slats held together with iron nails and optimism. But empty. Empty as they’ve all been. Magnus walks around the desk and goes to –

BANG

And it’s not the bang of a gun, Lup thinks frantically, it’s not, because she would know, no – it’s the bang of a body , a person , falling from the ceiling and landing heavily on the desk and Lup realizes, as soon as she sees the glint of the claws and the teeth that they didn’t check the fucking ceiling .

Magnus is disarmed within a second before Lup can do anything but draw her wand, his gun clattering to the floor. And there’s a set of daggers at his neck, and he’s looking at Lup, shocked and grave, and over his shoulder, holding him in place, her eyes fixed on Lup as well, is a blue dragonborn.

A dragonborn in the dark coat of a Reaper.

Because they didn’t check the fucking ceiling . And Lup knew it had been too easy. And now Magnus is trapped –

“Don’t move,” the dragonborn says, “or I kill him.”

At least she had the common sense to point her fucking wand at the dragonborn in the scuffle. At least she’s got that going for her. But it comes, now, to a test of reflexes. What’s faster, the casting of a spell or the slip of two daggers against her best friend’s skin?

Lup can speculate, but she’s not keen to test.

“The base is surrounded,” she says instead, “you’re the only one left. Drop your weapons.”

“She’s not the only one,” says a voice from behind her, and Lup could curse herself for her stupidity. Two? How did she miss two ?!

She doesn’t move her body, only turns her head enough to see the woman in the doorway. An orc. Enormous. Built to the point that even Magnus would be jealous. She’s got a crossbow pointed right at Lup’s back. Because of course she does.

“You can’t win this,” Lup says. “Five more of my crew are outside.”

“Then when they come in here there’ll be another two pirates dead,” the orc woman snarls at her, hands on the release. “I’ve got plenty of bolts left for them.”

A clattering and a boom from outside rocks the room for a second, and in the panicked glance from crossbow orc that follows, Lup moves and points her gun directly at her, standing now so she’s facing the side wall, one hand in each direction, one gun trained at the orc and a wand at the dragonborn. When the orc looks back her eyes go wide. Lup cocks the pistol.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the Dragonborn tense, flinch at the sight. Sees the look she shares with the orc woman, confused, desperate –

And a lightbulb goes off in Lup’s head.

“Put. The weapons. Down.” Lup says, like she’s not panicking, “and we can all go free tonight.”

“Like hell,” the Dragonborn says. “You think we’re going to trust a trick like that?”

“It’s not a trick,” Lup says, and this better fucking work, because Lup didn’t come all this way to die in a Reapers’ office during their first fucking attack in Her territory. She’s not going to be outdone by Her so easily. She drops her wand.

“See?” she says. “Not a trick.”

Taako’s gonna fucking kill her for that risk, but the glance the two women share tells Lup she’s spot on. She pushes forward.

“You must be good fighters,” she says, “and better strategists to have caught us, and I commend you. But the fight for the side of the Raven Queen in this city is over.

“You have three options tonight. You can kill us, and my crew will kill you. You can drop your weapons and be taken prisoner, or…” she pauses, looks to each of them in turn.

“You can join up.”

The orc woman scoffs, but the dragonborn’s staring at Lup with wide eyes, and it’s almost as if she can see something in that Reaper’s head snap.

“I’ve been where you are,” Lup pushes on. The dragonborn presses the knives a little tighter against Magnus’s throat. Lup tries to ignore the way his breath hitches. “I’ve cared about someone too. Someone the Reapers didn’t allow me to care for. Someone they tried to take away from me.”

Neither of the women are talking now.

“Because that’s their way, isn’t it?” She pushes. “No one above Her.” She can see the way they flinch at the inflection, so like their captains’, their lords’. “And they will enter every nook and cranny of your life and control it until you have no choice but to obey,” she says, “and when they find out that you’ve got someone you care about? Someone you would do anything for?” She has their attention now, three pairs of eyes in the room focused solely on Lup, “it doesn’t matter how long or how hard you’ve worked. How much life you’ve given them. The moment that they find out your loyalty is in jeopardy they will break you for it.” She’s getting riled up, now, and the Dragonborn’s eyes are wide and flicking rapidly between Lup and crossbow orc.

“It was my brother,” Lup says. “They tried to take him from me. To make me forget I ever knew him.” She swallows, her throat tight and voice thick. “I wasn’t about to let them.”

The orc bares her teeth. “You come in here,” she snarls, “guns and wands at the ready to kill any of us you can find, and you want to preach to me about righteousness?” Her tone is hard as iron, as steel, dripping with murderous contempt.

But she hasn’t fired yet.

“What we’ve done today we did for the people of Phandalin,” Lup says, “so that they no longer have to live under fear of starvation. Or debt. Or being worked to death by the same people who would rob them of everything they have for the sake of a few extra coins.” Lup looks to the orc woman. “Look at the number of people we’ve gotten to join us, just in a few months, and tell me that we’re acting against the people’s will. Look at your own records , at your masters . And then tell me that what I say has no foundation.”

Lup wishes she and Magnus weren’t wearing their masks, wonders, briefly, if the anonymity is worth the loss of humanity that comes with it. This speech would be more compelling coming from an elf, she knows it, rather than the cold, dead eyes of the Mongoose mask.

“And if that doesn’t convince you,” she says, imbuing her voice with all the conviction she can, “then just think about what you’ll be giving up when you pull that trigger tonight. Imagine a life with people you love. Imagine love , not loyalty. Not obedience. Not blind faith.”

“If that doesn’t convince you,” she says, “then shoot.”

In Lup’s business, expectations are dangerous. Expectations get you killed. You expect someone to be in position when you asked them to be, and you have no backup. You expect your spell to go as planned, and the target resists, and you’ve got no plan B. The life of a pirate is a life without expectations, or at least it should be.

Lup’s never been able to rid herself of them. Taako says it’s because she’s got too much hope.

All the same, Lup expects the orc woman to put the crossbow down. To lower it. Lup expects that the dragonborn, her lover, will certainly convince her to let them go.

So it’s more of a surprise than it should be when the orc woman shoots.

In such close quarters the sting of it burying itself in her flesh should be near-instantaneous.

It isn’t.

The bolt clatters to the floor, the orc crumples, a beam of light shoots over Lup’s shoulder and there’s a scuffle behind her. But her eyes are drawn to Taako in the doorway, standing over the unconscious orc. He pulls his mask up, and his eyes are still flashing with magic and fury. Lup can just make out the shape of Lucretia over his shoulder.

“What the hell was all that?” Taako snarls at her, stepping over the orc’s body. Lup glances to her right and sees Magnus standing over the now–unconscious dragonborn. “Were you trying to get yourself killed, dipshit?” He smacks her on the side of the head, not hard, but sharp enough that Lup knows he’s angry.

“It was a calculated risk!” she says, rubbing her temple. “And it ended up being fine!”

“Yeah, because I saved your ass,” Taako grumbles, bending down to pick up her wand and handing it back to her.

“Still fine though,” Lup argues.

Taako glares at her.

“Of all fucking people,” he whispers to her, intense as he gets, “you should know not to try to fucking reason with them, Lulu.”

He doesn’t give her a chance to answer. He just goes over to Magnus and gets to work tying up the dragonborn. Lucretia’s already made quick work of the orc, is double–checking her knots. She looks up at Lup and cocks her head toward the hallway, as though to say get out there .

She wants to stay with her brother, wants to talk him out of his anger, because she hates it when they fight. She wants to go through the desk in the office and find out every document they have. She wants to sit down and plan their next attack.

But she did put herself in charge of this little operation, and the people outside will need guidance and pretty words to keep up morale. So she slips out into the hallway, passes the offices and goes back down the stairs. She fixes her hair. She takes a deep breath and ignores how close she came to dying. She’s been close to dying before. More times than she can count. It’s not a new sensation. And Taako will forgive her, too, for the scare, once things come out alright. He just needs a minute.

She walks back out into the courtyard, and it’s Barry, turning to her and smiling, that allows her to finally realize –

They’ve won.

Lup takes off her mask, raises it high, and with her wand sends a firework into the air.

The cheer from the crowd is deafening.

 

Chapter Text

Kravitz is in the water for far too long, before the Reapers on the Rockseekers’ ship are able to pull him back aboard. By then a formidable chill  has settled into Kravitz’s bones – his shoes are long since lost to the ocean, as is his sword . He was barely able to keep his dress coat on. His feet make wet indentations in the sand when he’s finally able to pull himself onto the deck. The sand that was once the ship’s masts and sails .

Kravitz is beginning to sense something of a theme between the Mongoose’s attacks, he thinks wryly. 

But delayed as the rescue from the water was (and once again, the Mongoose has humiliated him with the need for rescue ), Kravitz is in action from the moment his feet touch the deck.

“Captain!” he shouts, and the Reaper attending to the Rockseeker ship scrambles over to him, disorganized and panicked, as Kravitz fixes him in his gaze.

“Prepare a rowboat for my departure.”

“A – Admiral,” the captain stammers, “what shall we do?”

“I,” Kravitz responds, holding his hand out to a woman on the deck who hands him her shawl, “am going to kill the Mongoose ,” he wipes the saltwater off his face, squeezes out his hair, “tonight. This will be the last moment he is able to wreak havoc upon her Majesty’s kingdom, I swear it.” He tosses the wet shawl to the deck, where it lands in the sand that once was their mast and sails with a wet thwap .

“Prepare a rowboat,” he says to the captain again, “and find me a queen–damned sword .”

It’s not fifteen minutes until he departs the ship, two reapers prepared to row. Cyrus insisted on coming along with him, and Kravitz couldn’t argue; it’s not only an admirable move for Cyrus to attempt to take back his captured city with his own hands, it’s a practical one. Kravitz has seen what the Mongoose and whatever cohorts he employs are capable of. And he highly underestimated them.

He will not make the same mistake again tonight.

The boat, carrying Kravitz, Cyrus, and Cyrus’s son Gundren departs their pleasure barge and cuts through the choppy water off the coast of Phandalin, in the direction of the northernmost of the two Reapers’ ships that were stationed in the harbor tonight to oversee the festivities.

He can see, across the expanse of the harbor, ship after ship that has been destroyed, vandalized, some with holes in the side, others with smoke rising from them in thick columns as their crews no doubt scramble to put out fires. The entirety of the harbor is in chaos, lit by flame, but even more distressing is the city behind it. It is invisible in the night, not a light to be seen, save the tell–tale flash of… magic from the direction of the Reapers’ barracks.

So. That’s their plan.

Contrary to what one might believe, Kravitz’s skillset was never in diplomacy. He was trained first, and foremost, to fight. To kill . Strategy came later. Politics came later. But at his core, Kravitz has always been a weapon. An extension of the Raven Queen’s Hand, and more inclined to, more capable of carrying out her orders with a blade than with his words.

The look on his face must carry some of his murderous intent as he boards the Reapers’ ship, as he calls for a sword again , and a Reaper with terror in her eyes gives him her own. As he meets Tharden, one of Cyrus’s sons in the Reapers’ ranks, on the deck. As he orders the ship to the harbor, all lanterns extinguished, fast as they can go without damaging the vessel further. He must be the very picture of the Admiral of the Raven Queen Consumed with Righteous Fury, because every Reaper shies away, and none dare question his orders or his intent.

The ship turns towards the docks and piers of Phandalin, and Kravitz breathes in the smoky air from a deck still smoldering beneath his feet.

And he waits.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Waiting. If there’s one thing Taako’s good at, it’s waiting.

The fight for the barracks ended and Lup gave another speech about rights and taking back what’s theirs and whatever else to the people of Phandalin (Taako doesn’t pay much attention anymore. Speeches are Lup’s domain) and then the remaining townspeople who weren’t injured or dead departed the barracks quickly, with the intent of taking control of Phandalin’s powder stores, a few blocks away. Taako remembers casing the joint a few weeks ago with Lup in preparation. It won’t be guarded, and if it is, not heavily. Transporting all the powder back to the Barracks and preparing the place for a possible siege or retaliation won’t take more than a few hours.

But for now, Taako has been ordered to wait.

It’s almost a relief. Taako’s used to being quick on his feet, he has to be, but falling into a well–curated place in Lup’s plans for him is comfortable. It’s simple . Lup thinks things through, treats people like cogs in a machine, knows their skills and strengths and uses them to the highest advantage. It’s one of her best skills. So long as she doesn’t go renegade, things work. And it’s far easier taking commands from her than coming up with plans on his own.

So Taako’s waiting. “Holding down the fort,” as Lup said, a position that makes use of his keen eye. If anything happens, he’ll be ready to call Lup back. If nothing does, he gets to rest.

Merle stayed behind as well, tends to the wounded behind Taako and, later, will tend to the dead. They tried to keep the casualties to a minimum, but, well.

This is a revolution. People will die.

He would feel beat up about it, but it wasn’t like Taako knew any of them terribly well. He doesn’t allow himself to. That’s Lup’s domain, too. There will be mourning eventually, from her and from the families. Tonight there are more important things to think about. The night is young enough that they’re not out of danger yet.

He settles against a stone parapet and gazes over Phandalin’s roofs, waiting.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Killian waits inside a small, dark room, the stone wall cold against her back through the ripped material of her Reapers’ uniform.

Carey refuses to look at her.

The barracks have grown silent, at least to Killian’s ears, not half as keen even as a half elf’s. She sighs. The air betrays her melancholy, showing her breath in the cold as it escapes her lips.

She did the right thing. The pirate elf was going to kill them. She only began using her oily words when it was clear she was going to die. Killian never should have let her speak as long as she did. She’s slippery, and every word from her lips makes too much twisted sense. Killian could see , as she spoke, Carey’s mind being twisted and turned around and changed. She was – she is dangerous. Killian did the right thing, trying to kill her while she still could.

She was still too late.

And now Carey refuses to look at her. 

Her mind moves in sluggish circles. She wonders if there’s still magic lingering in it somewhere deep where she can’t perceive it.

The Mongoose. Killian has met her. Not half so imposing as she was last summer, nor half so clever. Far more talkative. And far more female than Killian remembers.

There’s a brief commotion outside, noise filtering in through the window, someone crying out. Probably from an injury being patched shoddily by pirate hands. Killian doesn’t think about the townspeople the Mongoose claimed were in the courtyard, supporting her cause. She doesn’t think about the possibility that what she said may have had a glimmer of truth to it –

Because to think that is blasphemous.

Besides , her training tells her, the people are not to be trusted so much of the time anyway. They are simple–minded . This is why our Queen guides them with a strong and uncompromising hand .

Killian wonders when she began to call her thoughts her training .

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lup waits with bated breath.

The townspeople she recruited – what’s left of them anyway – need all the help they can get loading the barrels of powder onto the carts they were able to scrounge up from the barracks. And Lup helps them, her dark–vision far more useful in a room too dangerous for torches.

But the Reapers’ barracks were only so equipped, and certainly not ready to move all the powder at one time – they don’t have nearly enough carts for all the barrels. They’re going to have to make trips back and forth, and back and forth, and even though it’s not a long journey, Lup hates that they have to waste time. They’re even staggering the carts as best they can, but.

She waits anyway.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Lucretia waits leaned up against the wall of the barracks, no journal here now to distract her, and all her magic nearly exhausted. Nearly. She always keeps one spell on hand. Just in case.

But one isn’t much, and it certainly doesn’t make her useful to an operation like the one Lup and Magnus are conducting with the powder. Not with her upper body strength (well, lack thereof). So she waits.

It just… doesn’t sit right with her. It was too easy. Things aren’t supposed to be this easy.

Merle tends to the wounded, tailed by Adam Redcheek’s teenage daughter, a bright young girl, from what Lucretia has seen over the months. Wanted terribly to go with her father on the mission, but was told to stay behind and help “hold down the fort.” She’s a fighter. But she’s also a kid.

(Lucretia’s a kid) –

The only thing is, Lucretia thinks, looking at the girl, that between the people who are left, she’s not sure they can fend off an attack, should one come. She wants to get back to the ship. She wants to prepare for something.

But she’s not the strategist here. This was Lup’s plan. Lup’s to lead, and Lucretia’s to follow.

She looks at the youth in the face of Adam’s daughter, and she thinks that maybe, if things were different, they’d be friends.

She sends up a prayer to any god that cares to listen that the night will be as uneventful as possible.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The action has wound down, and now silence lays thick over Phandalin, no sign of light or noise from the barracks, now. And Kravitz and the small fraction of the Retinue in his company land their ships in the harbor and evacuate them with a well–rehearsed organization. Nundro, Cyrus’s third son, joins Kravitz and his brothers, bringing with him another crew to bolster their ranks.

And then they’re on the move. 

The Reapers are eager, as soon as they realize exactly what their target will be. They’re inspired by vengeance, as Kravitz is, and it’s an effective motivator. They will fight harder tonight, more determined. This is their home turf, their honor that is on the line.

Kravitz only hopes their training has been good enough. Border cities are volatile; he should never have forgotten that. He should never have assumed Phandalin wouldn’t be.

Border cities means weaker training regimens. They mean new recruits. There are veteran Reapers here, to be sure, those imported from the Astral City, those with loyalty to the Queen that would rival even Kravitz’s. But. There’s no guarantee that will be enough. Some of these Reapers will have family on the other side of the fight this evening.

And too much has gone wrong in Phandalin already.

The Mongoose has proven himself a master of manipulation if, in only a few months’ time, he’s turned an entire city against Her. Perhaps he uses his magic to poison their minds, to make them abandon their reason, to make them value chaos over order.

Whatever he does, Kravitz is determined to put a stop to it.

It’s been a long time since Kravitz has been called upon to do so much… fieldwork. And yet, he settles into his Reaper training like it’s hardly been a day. He hasn’t been called upon to train in months, yet his body still remembers how to move silently in the dark, how to lead a legion of Reapers with seemingly nothing but his thoughts. How to tap into their energy, their anticipation, and channel it into a precise and deadly attack.

The Mongoose dies tonight.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“This is taking too long,” Magnus murmurs. “We shouldn’t be leaving the barracks exposed like this.” The powder stores aren’t even half empty. It’s been hours.

Lup hears him, he knows, but he can’t see her expression behind the mask.

She makes no move to change the orders, either.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

If they get much closer to the barracks, whoever is on lookout will spot them.

And it’s clear by now that underestimating the pirates, the rebels , will only be detrimental. They’re able to employ enough strategy to incapacitate the better part of Phandalin in only a few hours. They’ll have a lookout. Probably one with darkvision. And planning an attack on the night of a high, large moon like this will show their movements, but will also show Kravitz’s.

It doesn’t completely ruin them, though.

The barracks have high walls; to scale them is nearly impossible, but what it does mean is that the lookout will be seeing the majority of the streets around them from above. Or at least from a steep angle. If Kravitz can keep the Reapers mostly behind buildings and under any overhanging structure they can find, he can keep them from being seen.

The pirates didn’t have benefits of using the inside of buildings either.

Being the Hand of the Queen’s Retinue has its perks.

Houses that are locked are opened in the name of the Queen. Tenement buildings. Apartments above stores. Reapers enter through backdoors and leave through front doors. Avoiding streets that will be visible from the barracks’ ramparts. They are given access to homes and shops close to the barracks. Close enough that Kravitz can see.

He stands in the plush apartment of a Phandalin merchant, his coat still dripping seawater onto the expensive rug while the man cowers in the corner. And there –  a gap between buildings that gives him a view of the barracks’ gate, open. Carts roll in and out. The pirates are hard at work.

Or, rather, they’re making the townspeople work for them. And the idiots are buying it; he would bet money on it.

The populace is so simple . The thought fills him which a hot white rage. So stupid. Stupid enough that they would follow a disastrous group of treasonous, magic using , disordered devils , and for what? A coin or two? Not even that. They would tear their own lives apart for the illusion of influence.

The carts roll in and out of the gates, in and out. He can’t see horses. The people are pulling them themselves, breaking their backs for the perpetrators of their own demise. It makes Kravitz’s skin crawl.

In the light of the moon, he can see the barrels in the backs of the carts clear enough. Tharden Rockseeker confirms for Kravitz that they are coming from the powder stores of this city, must be, based on the barrels and direction. So the pirates are fortifying the barracks in preparation for a siege. They assumed there would be more time between the initial attack and Kravitz’s retaliation.

They were wrong.

He calls Cyrus and his sons to him, and lays out the plan. The sons to the powder stores, flanking the rebels, who are spread out along the street and whose defenses are weak. Kravitz and Cyrus, and the other half of the Reapers on hand to the barracks. It’s not the ideal layout of troops; Kravitz wishes he had more experienced commanders, but desperate times call for… well. He’s glad that Gundren seems willing to step up to lead, though not officially a Reaper. He will do in a pinch.

Cryus’s sons leave the apartment, and Kravitz turns back to the barracks through the window.

Now, to work.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Taako’s been staring at the harbor when it occurs to him, almost like a sixth sense, and makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck and along his arms.

There are fewer ships in the harbor than the night began with.

He counts twice, three times, and yes – there are fewer. There are fewer ships in the harbor than there were when they began the attacks. Two fewer, to be exact, and Taako doesn’t know which ones because he was in the thick of it, and he doesn’t remember anymore the positions of each vessel, and he wishes he could check for black sails but most of them have no sails anymore – 

Whichever ships have moved, however, ships have moved nonetheless. And they couldn’t’ve moved out to sea, Taako would see them from his vantage point atop the wall, at least on the horizon, so they must have – 

They must have come ashore .

Someone’s coming , he thinks, and that’s when the shouting starts.

From down the street, shouting, and the sound of a fight, a sound that Taako would know anywhere, coming from the direction of the powder stores. A counter–attack. A counter–attack right where Lup is, undefended, only Magnus by her side, and a few dozen under–armed, under–trained townspeople and Taako could panic because how did he not see?

And that’s when the barracks fall.

Because of course they would plan two attacks.

Taako should’ve known. They should’ve called off the second wave of the attack the moment that he realized the Admiral was in town.

The Rockseekers are sluggish and idiotic, largely incompetent and unwilling to waste resources on military conflict.

The Admiral is not . Taako should know. He’s read the letters. He’s got the man’s files in his cabin back on the ship. He should’ve seen this coming. He should’ve seen this coming .

The courtyard is full of screaming civilians, caught completely unawares by the Rockseeker’s attack, and it’s all Taako’s fault .

“Fuck!” he shouts, pulling his mask down over his face, and running along the wall back towards the guard tower with the stairs that would take him back to the courtyard. 

He makes it as far as the doorway and no further.

Because no sooner has he set foot inside than he feels the sharp point of a sword against his breast, and sees a shadow looming in the dark.

Taako backs up, the armed figure following, onto the high wall, and as they emerge into the moonlight the shadow makes himself known as a figure he now knows a little too well. A figure all in black, medals decorating the chest. His hair still sticks to his coat, both of them still considerably wet. His face is contorted in absolute fury and malice as he stares Taako down, breaths heavy, though from exertion or anger, Taako can’t tell.

Admiral Kravitz of the Astral Coast, Right Hand to Her Majesty, The Raven Queen, has his sword pressed against Taako’s chest and, short of leaping over the barracks’ walls, Taako has no escape.

He’s out of room, and out of time.

So he speaks.

“Well you didn’t waste any time, did you, my man?”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

It all went to shit so quickly .

One moment, they were halfway to securing the barracks for tomorrow’s imminent confrontation with the city’s Reapers.

Two minutes later the confrontation is happening , and Lup is completely unprepared.

She leaps off of the cart she was standing atop and into the fray, sword clutched tightly in her fist.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

He shouldn’t be surprised, but all the same, the Mongoose’s flippancy has Kravitz’s blood boiling and heart racing as he holds his sword to the pirate’s chest.

There are men and women fighting for their lives down below, in the courtyard, in the street ; the fate of an entire city stands in the balance of the fight between them, and the Mongoose can afford to be flippant about that, because what do these people mean to him?

Kravitz can’t wait to see the man’s blood on his blade, to see his name slandered and defiled after his death. He’s caused the kingdom far too much trouble already. This is no time for games.

“It’s over, Mongoose,” Kravitz says, imbuing his voice with all the sullen menace he can. “Your crimes against the Raven Queen end tonight.”

The Mongoose just sighs .

“Yeah,” he says, “I was afraid you’d say that.”

The first strike almost surprises Kravitz, but his training kicks in at the last second and he parries, the Mongoose’s blade sliding against his own with tremendous force and sound. He turns around, quickly, and stands at the ready to go again.

“Huh,” the Mongoose says, “you’re a bit quicker than I remember.” He sounds almost  contemplative. “Little swim doesn’t tire you out, huh, pretty boy?”

Kravitz attacks.

The Mongoose parries as easily as he did, stepping aside and back just in time. Giving up ground on purpose, and Kravitz knows it’s a mind game, but it infuriates him all the same.

“Alright,” The Mongoose says, “if that’s the way it’s going to be.” 

And everything happens very quickly.

The Mongoose,as it turns out,  is an excellent fighter. Kravitz didn’t expect it, with his size, his perceived stature beneath the ostentatious coat, and the way he seemed to fall back on magic when Kravitz challenged him on the ship. And certainly, he can’t handle a sword the way Kravitz does. There are ways that he attacks, forms he uses, that betray his discomfort with the weight and the heft of it, but it doesn’t stop him from posing enough of a threat to keep Kravitz busy.

And Kravitz’s coat is still heavy with dripping sea water. It’s heavy and leaves him encumbered.

They fight. Across the ramparts around the barracks, Kravitz pushing the Mongoose back, and then vice versa, whirling around each other on the walkway around the wall, too narrow for Kravitz not to be continually conscious of the side. He stays as far from it as again, fearing that same push–back magic that the Mongoose used on him on the Rockseeker ship. If the Mongoose were to use it, there would be nothing Kravitz could do but die in the service of his Queen, from that fall. Not a terribly honorable death, and not the one Kravitz has been hoping for.

After a few minutes, the Mongoose speaks again,

“You’re not bad, bird boy,” he quips, pushing Kravitz back and getting a foot up on the raised ledge around the barracks, kicking off into an elaborate flip over Kravitz’s head.

Kravitz takes the momentary lull to strip off his coat, wishing desperately to be rid of some of the weight on him. It lands at his fead with a wet thwap , and Kravitz brandishes his sword once more at the Mongoose.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Killian hears the sounds of outside, and in a matter of moments, Reapers come swarming through the barracks and she and Carey are cut free from their restraints. 

She wastes no time in charging into the courtyard to join the fray.

Killian was surprised, before, that the townspeople were able to take the barracks so quickly against trained Reapers. They were stronger and faster than she was expecting.

When she runs out into the courtyard, she does not see the same fight. 

The people are holding their own, to be fair, as best they can, especially considering their numbers are dramatically reduced from when they first ambushed the place (where did the rest of them go ?). But these are no new recruits like most of the Reapers under Killian’s command. These men and women in black she doesn’t recognize. They fight more ruthlessly than her recruits. She spots Cyrus Rockseeker among them. She watches one of them run a young man in farmer’s clothes through with a blade, watches his eyes bulge and his mouth fall open from the pain as he collapses to the ground.

She has to join the fight. 

Her feet don’t move. 

Why now, does this battle look more like a massacre to her? Two hours ago she wouldn’t have batted an eye. Ten minutes ago she was wishing for this very outcome.

Why does she hesitate?

MOVE , she tells her feet, but they refuse to budge. Her finger won’t lie on the trigger to her crossbow the way it ought to. Her eyes won’t leave the violence before her. A reaper fires a crossbow and a man with graying hair around his temples and a frayed shirt goes down without a sound. One of the pirates, a woman in a bird mask, is facing off against a Reaper, holding him off as best she can with nothing more than a knife, and behind her, back to back, is a girl with a curling red hair who looks no older than sixteen .

It finally hits Killian, for the very first time, that the Reapers are killing civilians .

Not civilians , says her brain, her training kicking in, traitors against the empire. Those who would oppose Her Majesty’s benevolence. Those who would bring chaos to Her Perfect Order.

The other part of her brain sees a Reaper go at a sixteen year old girl with a sword and snaps .

The Reaper is dead at the pull of Killian’s trigger, and, she can see, across the courtyard, a pair of eyes flickering toward hers, and Carey, smart , capable , incredible Carey, drops the body of the wounded Reaper she was dragging away from the fight and stares at her in awe and horror as the one Killian shot drops to the ground, crossbow bolt lodged deep in his throat. And the girl looks too,  her eyes wide and older than they ought to be, and, more urgently, the woman who was facing off against the pirate turns her head, and looks too. Her fellow Reaper’s eyes burn with murderous intent as she registers the raised crossbow in Killian’s hand.

Not fellow anymore , her thoughts shout.

And then, Carey, forgive me .

And she fires again.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

They were spread out, in the street, and it made them vulnerable.

And Lup could only do so much.

But not everyone has a weapon, as resourceful as the people of Phandalin are (and gods, she’s proud of them for holding off as many Reapers as they are, for keeping it together so long when they are so terrifically outmatched), and the Reapers are decimating the few fighters she has out in the street.

Lup likes to avoid killing as much as she can, but tonight, she cannot. There’s no time – she whirls around and runs a Reaper through, wincing at the blood and the look on the man’s face as he collapses to his knees. Then she moves on, jumping between carts, and Barry, where’s Barry

Her sword clashes against another and she pushes , deflecting, slipping out from underneath the blade at the last second. But it returns, quick, and Lup, parrying again, catches a glimpse of the wielder. 

One of Rockseeker’s sons – Gundren. Lup remembers hearing him speak in a town square a few weeks ago. He was oily and somehow gruff. Remembers, in a flash, the gossip on the street as to why he had not been put in command of a legion of Reapers like his brothers, that he lacked control, common sense. Some of the people going so far as to call him unhinged

Lup braces herself.

Gundren fights like a madman. He lacks finesse with his blade, but he more than makes up for it with the sheer gusto he uses, leaping and charging Lup at every turn. She’s dextrous enough to avoid him, to parry his blows, to deflect well, but the sheer force behind them from the stout dwarf has her tired quicker than she’d like. He’s reckless and ruthless, and it’s not a fighting style Lup is able to counter with just her sword in hand. She leaps atop a cart, still in the road, loaded with powder barrels, to escape him – he follows her atop it. She clamors onto the barrels, he does to.

Their swords cross at a furious speed, and Lup needs to watch her back, no one is watching her back – 

A particularly fierce blow from Gundren sends her stumbling back, and she feels as her foot hits the edge of the cart and then hits nothing at all, and she grasps desperately onto the side to slow her fall, swinging to the ground – right as Gundren leaps. The cart nearly comes crashing down atop her with a tremendous sound, barrels spilling out of it and into the street – and Lup thinks she even hears the sound of splintering metal.

She goes back, away toward the powder stores, past another empty cart, Gundren pursuing her. There’s a brief thought in her mind of drawing the fight away from the barracks, but her breath and her heartbeat and her thoughts are coming too fast for her to generate a plan. Adrenaline floods thick in her veins, and she can’t think , can only react to every blow from her adversary.

This is what it feels like to be on the edge of death. Only a few hours ago, she was caught in a standoff between two Reapers, and she didn’t feel this fear. But now, almost completely drained of her magic, limbs exhausted from lack of rest, mind exhausted from battle, and a blade inches from her face, her throat, her heart , Lup remembers what this feels like. Blinding, terrible, panic all of a sudden – 

She loses focus and her sword flies from her hand with Gundren’s next strike, and Lup unarmed, animalistically terrified, makes her last bid for safety – 

She casts whatever spell lies in the tips of fingers, instinctive – 

And a jet of flame shoots at Gundren from close range.

The first worst part is that she misses

The second worst part is when she realizes what she’s done.

The magical fire hits the empty cart behind Gundren and the wood immediately bursts into flame. It burns quickly, pieces of it falling off and hitting the ground from the impact of the spell like a physical force. Gundren whips around, surprised at the heat, or the light, Lup doesn’t know, and she scrambles, her eyes frantically scanning the ground for her sword

And Gundren’s not attacking.

He’s staring at the burning cart.

He’s staring at a piece of the cart at his feet, a part of the walls of the thing, almost torch–like in it’s length and width, flame licking against one end of it.

She realizes, too late, what he’s thinking, as he reaches down for the makeshift torch, as he takes it in his hand. He’s still not looking at Lup. He’s looking at the torch. He’s looking at the road ahead of him.

And Lup knows .

“NO!” she screams, too late. The torch has already left Gundren’s hand.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The guy’s better than Taako gave him credit for originally. He’s got experience behind a blade, probably an ungodly amount of training. He’s got impressive reflexes, and something about the way he fights – it’s almost fastidious . It’s organized. It’s… dramatic . The man took off his coat to duel, for fuck’s sake, even though he must know how valuable every layer you can manage to put between yourself and a blade is valuable.

(Taako will not think about the fact that he doesn’t mind the view it gave him, because even he knows enough to know he’s not going to get distracted, now of all times.)

But still. Fighting the Admiral is almost… fun , in a strange way.

He’s flashy. Shiny. Picky and uptight, if his letters are anything to go by. And Taako already feels like he’s gotten inside the guy’s head. 

Now to ruffle his feathers , he thinks, almost viciously. 

At least, that’s the plan.

He’s right in the middle of another complicated spin, maybe showing off a little (and isn’t that good for the Mongoose image), and is about to hit Kravitz with another attack when the night is shattered and broken apart by an explosion from the street below.

A boom and a flash of orange light from the street, past the other side of the barracks, and Taako just has time to turn his head – 

BOOM

– rocking him to his core, rattling his teeth, shaking the ground underneath his feet, the wall underneath his feet, as the courtyard, the barracks, go up in fire and smoke, just like that, and there’s stone flying and burning wood, and the wall feels on the verge of collapse beneath his feet – 

Taako has seen a lot in his day. Piracy is not walk in the park. As professions go, he could’ve picked a safer one by a long shot.

And there are certain things that come with being part of a death–defying profession. Certain senses you develop over time, a way of discerning which feelings to push through and which to heed. A sense of vital self–preservation.

Taako’s heart, his soul, his brain, all cry to him in this moment to get. Out .  

Kravitz is sputtering in the smoke, gaining his footing back, and he’s just as confused as Taako, by the look on his face. Taako can see the debris that’s fallen on the roofs of the homes nearby, can see the fire in the street one, two, three blocks away, and he leaps up onto the wall, the courtyard impassable, ready to make a rooftop escape as best he can – 

And the Admiral’s coat is just lying there, discarded, and still wet .

And Taako gets an idea.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

One moment Killian is fighting with whatever Reaper comes her way, trying to stay alive, and the next there’s a tremendous sound like a hundred cannons and she’s on the ground, and there’s smoke all around and fire and stone on the ground that looks as though it’s from the barracks’ walls and – 

“Come on!” a voice shouts from her ear, cutting through the ringing there and splitting her head, and it’s Carey, and she’s pulling on Killian’s heft, and the pirate is standing over her, disheveled, her gray mask just barely discolored with ash. The girl stands behind her, the one with the red hair, an arm draped around the pirate’s shoulder, and leaning her weight against her – 

“We have to get out,” the pirate – the woman says, her voice carrying something that makes Killian’s blood stir in her chest. “Can you walk?” And she holds a hand out to Killian, as though to help her up.

Time freezes. 

And in that moment, the adrenaline of battle runs right out of her blood and Killian feels the full weight of that crossbow bolt found its lodging in the throat of a woman she once fought beside. She takes a moment, assesses the girl standing beside her left and Carey hovering at her right and the pirate before her – 

And Killian takes the pirate’s hand.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

For the second time that night, Kravitz is knocked off his feet by an explosion.

It shakes the wall, and lights up the sky, and when he comes back to himself, the barracks… the city is ablaze, fire and brimstone raining down, and smoke thick and heavy, and he thinks no , because he saw what the pirates did at sea to the ships, but it had always – he never imagined they were capable of this

The Mongoose .

Kravitz will destroy him for what they’ve done here .

He whips around, sword at the ready, but the Mongoose is standing on the wall, adjusting his coat… adjusting his coat around his shoulders. He balances right on the edge, like any moment he’ll fall, and there’s something in the Mongoose mask’s black glass, inhuman eyes that bore into him, fiendish and revolting.

The voice seals it, though, the high, bright sing–song, like a child playing a game.

“You know what’s a shame about your queen’s whole… thing?” the Mongoose taunts, and he fiddles with one of the many medals on Kravitz ’s coat. One given to him for his extraordinary service in destroying just the kind of people the Mongoose exemplifies. He sighs, and Kravitz could rip his throat out with his bare hands.

“It’s just that black looks so good on me .”

And then he leaps, off of the wall, and time almost seems to slow as he’s suspended in the air, a supernaturally long while, propelled by a magic Kravitz will never understand, until his feet touch down on a roof across the street, and he takes off, bounding over the roofs and quickly disappearing behind the fire and smoke already catching there.

And Kravitz let him go , again – 

The stone wall crumbles under Kravitz’s feet, then, all thought leaving his head as he plummets into ash and flame.