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Phantasmal and Resplendent

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There was always something about Taako's umbrastaff that put Kravitz on edge.

It struck Kravitz as a very unconventional weapon, but then again, Taako himself wasn't a conventional wizard by any means. He'd noticed it when they first met, but Kravitz didn't have the time to ask about it until the next time he saw Taako, which was their date at the Chug N' Squeeze.

A particularly awkward silence had fallen upon them after the instructor yet again reminded the two of them that they were making vases today, not bowls, and Kravitz was struggling to keep his lump of clay vaguely vase-shaped. Kravitz had taken the opportunity to ask Taako where he got his weapon. Taako shrugged, further shaping his lump of clay into a bowl to spite the instructor. "Found it off some skeleton chick in a cave," he explained. "It's nothing special though. Apparently there's a whole bunch of dudes that made these, they must be everywhere."

It struck Kravitz as odd that he'd never heard of an umbrastaff in all of his centuries of working for the Raven Queen, let alone an order of wizards devoted to creating them, but it was possible he just never crossed paths with them. It was particularly strange, however, when Kravitz did the research (he had a lot of free time, okay?) and couldn't find any record of umbrastaves in Faerun.

There was also the unsettling fact that the umbrella had tried to blast Kravitz back to the Astral Plane on his and Taako's first date.

Of course, it was possible that Taako had been lying for one reason or another. He could have been trying to show off to Kravitz, although if that was the case, Taako certainly would have made it clear. There would be no reason to lie.

It was also possible that Taako had been aiming for Kravitz and missed. Kravitz preferred not to think of that option. Besides, Taako had seemed to be genuinely surprised at the umbrella, and had even let Kravitz inspect the weapon. Taako just wasn't the kind of person to do that. Regardless, Kravitz did his best to avoid being on the wrong end of the umbrastaff from then on.

Although Kravitz had never voiced any concern about the umbrella, Taako seemed to have picked up on it. Kravitz found that on the following dates they went on, Taako took care not to swing the umbrastaff while he was gesturing. He also kept the dangerous end pointed towards the ground. Though he never explicitly said so, Kravitz greatly appreciated the effort.

Kravitz's stone startled him and he was brought back to reality. He checked the frequency on the caller ID. Not surprising, really. Kravitz had only given his frequency to one person.

Kravitz smiled. "Hello, Taako."

"Hey Bones, you busy tonight? The oh so very gracious Madam Director decided to give us the whole night off. Can you believe the generosity?"

Taako's voice was dripping with sarcasm. Kravitz chuckled and said "As it so happens, I've got the night off as well. Did you have something in mind?"

"Aww hell yeah, the stars have aligned for this one. I've got an Unlimited Pasta Pass for the Fantasy Olive Garden in Neverwinter and it's been burning a hole in my pocket. Do you want to see how much we can get away with eating before they kick us out?"

Kravitz laughed whole-heartedly. "That sounds delightful, Taako. I'd love to."

Fifteen minutes later, Kravitz found himself walking into the Fantasy Olive Garden. Looking around, he searched for and found Taako, who had already been sat at a table and was perusing the menu.

"Hello Taako," Kravitz said as he sat down, smiling. He found recently that when it came to Taako, it didn't take much to make him smile. "How is it at the Bureau?"

Taako handed Kravitz a menu without looking up. "Oh, you know, same old same old," he said, waving his arm. "Training for the big mission coming up."

The two of them ordered an absurd amount of pasta and waited in relative silence. Taako was usually the one doing most of the talking, but tonight he seemed to have something else on his mind. He'd been taking more time to respond to Kravitz' attempts at small talk than usual and seemed to be zoning out more. Taako didn't even ridicule the food once it had arrived.

"Taako, are you alright?" Kravitz asked, setting his silverware down. Taako had been silent for a long time. Usually he was rambling about a stunt the Tres Horny Boys pulled or something ridiculous he'd seen in his years on the road. He always had something to say and whenever Taako spoke, Kravitz was captivated.

It took Taako a moment to realize that Kravitz said anything. "Sorry babe, what was that?" He asked, looking up with half-lidded eyes. He dropped his fork to the plate, which Kravitz noted was almost clear already. Taako didn't usually eat like this. Not that Kravitz had a problem with how much Taako ate, it was just so different from his usual pattern that Kravitz wondered if he ate anything else that day.

Kravitz frowned. "What exactly has been going on at the Bureau?" he asked.

Taako waved his hand dismissively in the air. "Like I said, my dude, jus' training. Director's gotta keep us in shape for the next relic." He eyed the freshly filled basket of breadsticks and brought a few over to his plate.

Kravitz tapped on the table a few times, thinking. He reached across the table and took the hand Taako wasn't using to prop his head up. "When was the last time you were able to rest?" He asked.

Taako lifted his head up and held a breadstick to his mouth. "Meditated for a few hours this morning," he explained, taking a bite. Kravitz sighed.

"That's not what I meant," he said. Taako looked up at him mid-bite. "When was your last day off?"

Taako sat back in his chair, doing the math. "Two weeks," Taako said. "The last time we went out."

"When was the last time you ate?"

Taako squinted, trying to remember, then lowered his head. "Breakfast," he mumbled. "Yesterday. Guess I just forgot."

Kravitz wanted to say something, but before he could, Taako's umbrastaff started to vibrate. Then it started glowing. Before either of them could react, the umbrastaff jumped into Taako's hands and casted a spell on him. Taako gasped and blinked a few times, looking confused but a lot more awake than he did just seconds before.

Taako looked up at Kravitz and seemed to be fully rested, and now that the spell was down, Kravitz realized that Taako had cast Disguise Self on himself. "If you have any ideas about what just happened I'm all ears," he said.

"You didn't cast that spell?" Kravitz asked.

Taako shrugged and shook his head. "I don't even know what spell that was," he admitted. "I do feel a lot better, though."

Kravitz stared at the umbrastaff. Then he looked at Taako's face and saw that it had more color than it did before. The bruise on his face that the spell couldn't hide was gone, and Kravitz was willing to bet that any of his other injuries were gone as well. Kravitz knew exactly what happened.

"It casted False Life," he answered. Taako still looked confused, so he explained further. "It means that you've been temporarily healed, at least for an hour." Kravitz glanced at the umbrastaff again. It was no longer moving. "It's a low level necromancy spell, but it must have been cast with a higher spell slot if you were healed that much."

Taako stared at the umbrastaff before chuckling and setting it back on his chair, where it was before it moved itself. "Guess it really likes me," he said, before going back to his pasta.

Kravitz stared for a moment at where Taako was once bruised. "Taako, you were hurt that much just by training?" Kravitz asked.

Taako laughed lightly. "Yeah, Merle's not the best at healing."

"Shouldn't they have, I don't know, other clerics? Potions, maybe?" Kravitz suggested.

Taako looked sheepish. "Yeah, well," he started, his eyes darting anywhere but Kravitz, "I wanted to get out of there and spend some time with you."

Kravitz sighed, then smiled, then took Taako's hands in his. "Dove," he said softly, "I love spending time with you, but you won't make it very far if you don't let yourself be healed." Kravitz rubbed his thumb over Taako's knuckles. "Will you please heal after training next time?"

Taako leaned over the table and gave Kravitz a quick kiss. "Yeah, I promise," he said, pulling away to dig in to his plate again. After a quiet moment Taako smirked, put his fork down, and said "You're never gonna believe the stunt Angus tried to pull off during his magic lessons last week."

Kravitz smiled. "Oh?" He hummed, leaning his head on his hand. "Do tell," he said.

By the time Taako finished his story, the two of them were roaring with laughter, and judging from the looks of the other patrons, it was probably time for them to go. They spent the rest of their time together walking through a nearby park. They both found themselves staring at the umbrastaff at different times of the night, but neither said anything.

About half an hour into their walk, Taako grabbed his side and groaned. Kravitz caught him and held him upright. "Taako, are you alright?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

"I think that spell wore off, my dude," he said. Sure enough, Taako's injuries had reappeared, and this time Disguize Self didn't hide them.

"I think it's time to get you back to the base," Kravitz said, summoning his scythe with the hand that he wasn't using to support Taako. He opened a rift directly into Taako's room and walked the both of them through.

Kravitz led Taako to his bed. "Sorry 'bout cutting date night short, Krav," he said, sighing. "I dunno when we're gonna be able to do this again." Taako laid down, still holding onto Kravitz' hand.

Kravitz sat on the bed next to Taako, brushing the hair out of Taako's face and kissing his forehead. "Rest, dove," Kravitz whispered. Taako smiled and hummed, closing his eyes. Kravitz stood up and tried to step away from the bed without disturbing Taako when he kicked something across the floor. He looked down. The umbrastaff, of course. Why would it be anything else?

Kravitz gingerly picked it up by the handle. "Taako? What should I do with this?" He asked.

"Just put it on the door handle," Taako said. Then he pulled himself up on his elbow and squinted at the umbrastaff. "Actually, wait. Hold on, can you do something for me?" Kravitz nodded.

"Do you think you could, I dunno, see what's up with the umbrastaff?" Taako asked. "I just...I don't know why it keeps doing these things, and I think you'd have better luck at finding out than I would." Taako laughed softly. "Plus, you'd probably kill me if I didn't go to sleep, like, right now."

Kravitz smiled. "Of course, dear. I'll have it back to you before breakfast."

Taako yawned and laid back down. "Good, thanks Krav. Oh, and just be careful with it? It's weird, but I've kinda gotten attached to it. It's saved me a lotta trouble." Kravitz hummed in affirmation and kissed Taako's forehead before opening a rift and leaving Taako's room.

As soon as the rift closed, the umbrastaff reacted. It was vibrating irregularly, almost as if it was panicking. Kravitz, not knowing what else to do, spoke to it as if he was reassuring a lost child. "It's alright, Taako's just resting. I won't do anything, I'll get you back to him as soon as he wakes." Surprisingly, the umbrastaff stopped vibrating as if it heard and understood him. Kravitz couldn't believe that actually worked.

Alright, he thought, first things first, Wave Echo Cave. It was the place Taako mentioned finding it. It wasn't too far from the glass circle that used to be Phandalin, so Kravitz found said cave easily enough. He followed the winding paths of the cave and eventually found an empty vault at the end. With nowhere else to go, he decided he should start investigating the room he was in.

After a few moments of finding nothing but wet rocks and spiders, the umbrastaff, as if sensing Kravitz' frustration, started to move in his hand. Kravitz dropped it and it spun around, pointing towards a secluded corner of the cave. Kravitz  picked it back up and walked over to where it seemed the umbrastaff wanted him to go and found the skeleton Taako described.

"Was this your last...owner?" Kravitz asked. He set the umbrastaff on the ground behind him and crouched to examine the skeleton. The skeleton's clothes seemed to have deteriorated years ago except for the red robe slung across its shoulders. It was in pretty good condition, considering that everything else rotted away. Kravitz reached out to touch the fabric. In doing so, the fabric shifted and revealed a circular patch.

"I.P.R.E.?" Kravitz said. He'd never heard of anything like that before.

As soon as Kravitz mumbled the initialism, a ball of fire erupted by his side, just missing him. In his panic to get away from the danger, he stepped on the umbrastaff and shattered it.

It was like a bomb went off.

Kravitz immediately felt a strong necromantic presence as red and yellow fireworks erupted from the broken umbrastaff. Kravitz shielded his eyes and felt another wave of heat explode outward, yet it seemed to weave around him. Spell Shaping, Kravitz realized.

Suddenly, Kravitz heard an agonizing scream that sounded exactly like Taako's.

When the explosion finally died down, Kravitz brought his arm down and opened his eyes to find a lich in a red robe kneeling before the broken umbrastaff.

Kravitz immediately stood and summoned his scythe. The lich jolted their head and looked up at him before desperately shouting, "Wait, please! Let me explain."

Kravitz hesitated. The lich's voice spoke in Taako's voice, but a slightly higher pitch. "Taako?" Kravitz stammered.

The lich took advantage of Kravitz' confusion and vanished.

Kravitz spent the rest of the night chasing the lich down, but was barely able to catch up to them. At one point, he found the lich. He had them cornered, but the lich wasn't focused on him; they were focused on something just behind him. Kravitz glanced over his shoulder and saw another red-robed lich preparing a powerful spell aimed at Kravitz.

"Barry, don't hurt him!" The cornered lich cried.

"He's going to kill you, Lup! I won't let him, not when I've just found you!" The new lich—Barry evidently—was losing their composure. Lightning began to trail off of them.

"He's Taako's boyfriend!" The lich—Lup—cried.

Barry regained their composure and rushed forward. Kravitz raised his scythe to strike, but Barry dodged, grabbed Lup, and they both disappeared without a trace.

Kravitz searched for the red-robed liches for the rest of the night, but he couldn't find a trace of either of them. Frustrated, he returned to Wave Echo Cave to collect Taako's umbrastaff.

Kravitz knelt down in front of the broken pieces of the umbrastaff and gathered all the pieces together in a bag he summoned. Taako's not going to be very happy about this, he thought. Then he paused. Those liches knew Taako. Does Taako know them? The lich from the umbrastaff—Lup—cares about Taako. And evidently, so does the other lich—Barry. They didn't attack when they found out we were...close.

Who are they? Why hasn't Taako ever mentioned them?

Kravitz summoned his book of bounties and found a new entry: "Lup Taaco; lich," Kravitz read. He paused. This can't be a coincidence. He turned a few pages back and found what he was looking for. At the top of the page read Taako Taaco; 8 deaths, crossed out with the word Pardoned written in the margins. A few lines down was Taako Taaco; 11 deaths, followed by a circled question mark, then crossed out with an arrow pointing to the previous entry.

Kravitz hummed. He hadn't noticed Taako's last name before. Any time Taako mentioned it, he wrote it off as a joke. However, with the last name confirmed, and with a lich in his book that had the same last name, Kravitz' research mission got a lot more complicated. Taako had never mentioned having any family. Kravitz furrowed his brow. Actually, he'd explicitly said that he had none.

Kravitz jumped when his Stone of Farspeech went off. There was only one person who had his frequency. "Yes, Taako?" he answered.

"Hey babe, you free right now?" Taako's voice rang out. "I just made a huge breakfast and the guys aren't gonna be up for a while."

"Sure," Kravitz replied, glancing at the bag with the umbrastaff pieces and grimacing, "I'll be right over." He sighed. "We have a lot to discuss."

"Krav, is something wrong?" Taako sounded worried.

"I don't know," Kravitz replied. I hope not. "I'll be there in a minute."

Chapter Text

Kravitz was originally going to take a few minutes to sort through what he'd seen in the past few hours and figure out what he was going to say to Taako, but instead he found himself swinging his scythe as soon as he hung up from the call. Might as well get this over with.

Kravitz stepped through the portal to find Taako humming softly and swinging his hips while stirring something over the stove. Taako flipped whatever was in the pan a few times, then transferred it to a plate. He turned around and when he saw Kravitz, he smiled. "Hey babe," Taako said, putting the plate of—what Kravitz could see now—a hash on the crowded table.

"Feeling better?" Kravitz asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. He didn't want to ruin Taako's good mood.

Taako put the dirty pan in the sink and said "Yeah, a lot." He wiped his hands on his apron and walked over to where Kravitz was standing. He kissed Kravitz' cheek and led him to a seat at the table. "I took some healing potions after you left. Turns out my HP was a lot lower than I thought it was." Taako dished them both up with some of everything.

Kravitz smiled. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. Taako watched him intently. He took a bite of—is this a pancake? I've spent too much time in the Astral Plane—and was taken aback. "Taako, this is delicious, I didn't know you cooked."

"Well, natch," Taako said, beaming at the praise. "They don't let just anyone have a cooking show."

As the two ate, Taako recounted stories from his days of Sizzle It Up! with Taako. Kravitz nearly forgot why he was there.

Eventually, Taako told a particular story from when he was shopping about a child demanding shrimp heaven and Kravitz lost it. The two laughed a bit too loud, though, and Magnus' door opened.

"Taako? What're you doing up?" Magnus mumbled, only vaguely forming words. His eyes weren't open, and he slouched against the doorframe.

Taako turned to Kravitz. "Don't worry, he's like this every morning," he whispered, "I'll deal with him, just get in my room."

Kravitz nodded, doing as Taako said.

"Come on Mags, let's getcha a cup of coffee and you'll wake right up."

"Wazzat th' death guy?"

"My dude, you're still sleeping. I made breakfast."

Kravitz chuckled as he closed the door. Then he remembered why he was there in the first place. He retrieved the bag and opened it, finding the same broken pieces of the umbrastaff he scooped up earlier that night.

Kravitz felt terrible. He broke his promise to Taako. Even worse, no matter what Taako insisted, the umbrastaff was one-of-a-kind. There was no replacing it. And repairing it? Well, Kravitz had looked into it, but the technology used to create the umbrastaff was far too complicated for him to understand. A simple fixing spell wouldn't work. He shifted the pieces in the bag and something caught his eye that hadn't before. There was an inscription on one of the pieces that used to be the handle. "Lup," Kravitz read. Huh. The Lich. So she did own this.

Taako entered the room rolling his eyes and mumbling something about Magnus' appetite. Then he turned his attention back to Kravitz.

"So, you find anything out about my magic umbrella, Bones?" Taako asked, bouncing on his heels. Kravitz had rarely seen Taako so energetic and happy, he almost didn't want to say what he was going to. But he needed answers.

"Taako, we really need to talk about some things."

Taako's entire demeanor changed. Now, he was a statue. His smile wavered, but he caught his slip up and plastered on a fake smile. "Oh?" He asked, all the excitement of that morning gone from his voice. His ears dropped. "Let's sit then," he said, emotionless. The two sat on the bed next to each other.

Kravitz hated seeing Taako like this, but he couldn't put this off any more than he already had. He needed to know exactly what Taako knew, so he casted a spell. Both he and Taako failed the save. That's alright, he thought. He didn't count on lying anyway.

"Where did you get the umbrastaff?" Kravitz asked.

Taako looked up at him, confused. "Wave Echo Cave," he answered. "I thought I told you, there was this dead chick in a red robe holding it, so I just took it. Merle tried first, but it zapped him away."

Kravitz caught a detail he hadn't noticed before. "How did you know that was a woman?"

Taako opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He looked stumped. "Huh, I dunno. I just-" he closed his eyes. "Damn. It gives me a headache just to think about that."

That's odd, Kravitz noted, but he continued. "Do you know anyone named Lup?"

Taako's head jerked to stare right at Kravitz. "Um, Krav? You're kinda speaking static there."

"You can't hear me say Lup?"

"Whatever that word was, I can't understand it. It's like the Voidfish thing I explained?"

Kravitz hummed. "Do you know anyone named Barry, then?" He asked.

"N–Yeah." Taako paused. "My brain's feeling fuzzy. Kravitz, did you cast Zone of Truth on me?" He asked.

Kravitz winced. "I'm sorry, I did. I just need to know that you're telling me the truth about what I ask."

Taako shrugged. "I get it," he said. "Death  stuff's super serious."

Silence fell between them. Kravitz cleared his throat.

"So, this Barry, was he a necromancer?"

"Barry Bluejeans?" Taako asked, laughing. "Furthest thing from, my dude. Merle, Mags, and I met him when he got ambushed by a bunch of Gerblins on the way to Phandalin. He died when the town–um, when the town got glassed. Why?"

Kravitz frowned. "That's the only Barry you know?" He asked. Taako nodded. He is dead, though, Kravitz realized, that might add up with him being a lich.

"So, um," Taako started, "Can I ask you a question, now?" Kravitz nodded. "What happened with my umbrella?"

Kravitz sighed. He wasn't looking forward to this. He handed the bag of umbrastaff parts to Taako.

"I went back to Wave Echo Cave." Kravitz looked away and started playing with his sleeve. "I found the skeleton and there was a patch that said I.P.R.E. on it–"

"You're speaking static."

"What part did you understand?"

"You said you found the skeleton and after that it was all static."

Kravitz hummed. Taako had told him a bit about how the Voidfish worked before, and luckily, that you could talk around it when you needed to.

"I found the skeleton and its robe had something on it that I could read. So I read it, and the umbrella reacted. I stepped back to avoid a fireball, and then, well, I broke it."

Taako sighed, rustling through the pieces. "What happened then?" He asked.

"A red-robed lich appeared from the umbrella," Kravitz said. "They screamed, and they sounded almost exactly like you, Taako. I hesitated and they used that to escape."

Kravitz looked at Taako to make sure he understood everything. "No static here, my dude. What else?"

"I caught up to them, and then another red-robed lich appeared. They knew each other. The one from your umbrastaff was called the name you can't hear, and that lich called the other one Barry. Barry was going to attack me but the other lich told him I was your boyfriend."

"They just let you go?" Taako asked.

Kravitz shrugged. "They did."

"Weird."

"Do you know any liches?"

"If I did, I don't remember."

The two sat in silence again, digesting the information.

Taako was the first to speak again. "So, what about the umbrella, then?"

Kravitz took Taako's hand. "I'm sorry, dove. It's far too technologically advanced to fix, even with magic. I tried to find the people who created them, or at least some books or plans, but they don't exist. I've looked all over, and from what I can tell, your umbrastaff is–was–the only one in existence."

Taako leaned up against Kravitz' shoulder. Kravitz put an arm around him, silently thanking his Queen that Taako still felt comfortable enough to do this. Taako sighed, melting into Kravitz. "You've had quite the night, haven't you," he said.

"I guess I have."

"Good to know you earned that breakfast, then."

Kravitz laughed lightly. He kissed the top of Taako's head. Then the two of them enjoyed the quiet morning together.

Suddenly, a pounding on the door jolted the two of them from their peace.

"Taako!" Magnus yelled through the door, "the Director wants us to be training, like, now, so get up!"

Taako groaned. "I'll be out in a second!" He yelled back. He and Kravitz stood up.

"I'd better get going as well," Kravitz said. He cupped Taako's face in his hand. "Are you going to be okay without the umbrastaff?" He asked, concerned.

"Look at you, getting all worried for me," Taako said, grinning. "Yeah, I'll just tell them I rolled over on it in my sleep or something. I'll be fine."

Kravitz kissed Taako goodbye. "Remember to rest, dove," he said, opening a rift.

Taako waved. "I'll call you once I do," he said.

Kravitz smiled and left through the portal. That went much better than I expected.

Chapter Text

At work, Kravitz was in his element. He was literally made to do what he did. He enjoyed his job, and if he had any say in it, he wouldn't stop. His Queen, however, always made sure that he got enough rest. He was thankful for that, now. He wasn't the best at keeping track of time.

When he got off work, it had been over twelve hours since Taako had left for training, and Kravitz was getting worried. Taako hadn't called. Kravitz called Taako a couple times, and he didn't pick up. He decided to drop by Taako's room to make sure he wasn't hurt or dying. Or still training. If it was the latter, he was going to have some serious words with the Director, professionalism be damned.

What he didn't expect to find on the other side of the portal was Taako, sitting on the floor, methodically sorting and assembling the broken umbrastaff pieces as if they were Fantasy Legos. He didn't seem to notice Kravitz' arrival at all. Kravitz stepped closer to him. "Taako?" he asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Taako jumped and screamed bloody murder. "Kravitz!" Taako gasped, dramatically clutching his chest and trying to stop himself from smiling. "Don't you dare sneak up on me like that again!"

"I'm sorry dove," Kravitz said, trying his best not to laugh, but failing. Taako mocked annoyance and gently hit Kravitz' chest. Taako couldn't keep up this ruse for very long, though. He wrapped his arms around Kravitz' neck and kissed him. Kravitz kissed him back and placed his hands around Taako's waist to pull him closer.

Their kiss was interrupted when the door to Taako's room flew open, a panicked young detective running in, holding a training wand attached to a lanyard. It was still radiating magic from a recently casted spell. "Sir!" He shouted, "Sir, are you oka-" He looked at Taako, then Kravitz, then the way they were embracing each other. He squinted and tilted his head, his eyes scanning the two of them. "Sir?"

Taako sighed dramatically and let go of Kravitz (much to his dismay) and said "Hey! Stop detectiving us." He looked at the now open door. "And did you seriously use Knock on my door?"

Kravitz knew who this child was immediately. Although he had never met Angus, Taako had talked about him so much he might as well have. After the brief feeling of annoyance that his and Taako's kiss was interrupted, Kravitz was impressed. Taako didn't mention that Angus was already learning level two spells.

Angus said to Taako, "Sir, I heard you scream. I thought you were dying, but-" Angus trailed off as his attention turned to Kravitz. He started thinking harder. Kravitz could almost see the math equations floating around Angus' head.

Kravitz didn't have much experience around children. Luckily, he didn't see that many in his line of work, but it made meeting Angus—who was another big part of Taako's life, even if he would never admit it—a bit scary. He had no frame of reference. Then again, what little he did know about kids would probably be thrown out anyway. Angus wasn't like most kids. He also didn't like to be patronized.

If this is how I'm meeting Angus, might as well make a good first impression, Kravitz thought. He walked to Angus and stuck his hand out. "Hello, I'm Kravitz," he said. Short and simple. Don't overthink it. "You must be Angus. I've heard a lot about you." Angus cautiously shook his hand, tensing at the cold skin.

Taako scoffed. "No he hasn't," he insisted as his face turned a touch redder.

"No I haven't," Kravitz agreed, winking at Angus, who was standing expressionless.

Angus turned to Taako. "Sir, are you aware that this man is a lich working for the Death?"

Taako playfully hit Kravitz' chest with the back of his hand. "Babe, I thought you told me you were Death."

"I'm not a lich?" Kravitz interjected. "Though I suppose that's not much of a stretch to assume. And Taako, it was you that I was capital-D Death." He turned towards Angus. "I'm actually a reaper for the Raven Queen. You were close, though."

Angus' hand gripped his wand tighter. "Didn't you try to kill Misters Taako, Magnus, and Merle this Candlenights?" he said, his voice tense. Kravitz thought it was actually kind of adorable that Angus was trying to protect Taako.

"Water under the bridge, my dude," Taako said, waving his hand in the air. "We're all good now. And you know you don't have to call me 'sir' or 'mister'."

Angus did a quick scan over the two of them one final time, then nodded. "Alright, Mister Taako," he said, though he didn't let go of his wand. He turned his attention to the scattered umbrastaff pieces on the floor. "What happened to your umbrastaff, Sir? Is this why you didn't use magic at training today?"

Taako bent down and rearranged a few of the pieces as he spoke. "Krav found out that a lich was possessing it and it broke." Taako stuck his tongue out slightly as he concentrated.

"How did training go, by the way?" Kravitz asked.

Taako didn't answer, too focused on the task at hand, so Angus did for him. "Mister Taako did a lot of evasive maneuvers and used a short sword. He did well, even if he spent most of his time showing off his dexterity."

"They don't call me a 'Flip Wizard' for nothin' kiddo," Taako said. His hands were flying over the umbrastaff pieces, finding pieces that fit together in ways that weren't obvious. He mumbled nonsense words that seemed to activate certain parts. Kravitz and Angus watched in fascination.

After a moment, Taako triumphantly held up what looked like one-third of a repaired umbrastaff. "I don't know why you thought it'd be impossible to fix, Krav," he said, "it seems pretty self-explanatory to me. Right, Ango?"

Angus stared wide-eyed at the partially fixed umbrastaff. "Sir, I've never seen anything like this."

Taako shrugged and went back to fiddling with the pieces. "No offense kid, but you're like, six."

Angus rolled his eyes. "I'm ten, Sir. You know this."

"Whatever."

Kravitz shook his head in disbelief. "In all my years as a reaper I've never seen such a high level of artificing. And I've seen some pretty advanced necromancers."

"Where'd you learn how to do this?" Angus asked.

"I learned it at th-" Taako dropped the piece he was inspecting. He furrowed his brow. "I was at th-" he started, then froze. His eyes glazed over and he stared straight forward. Then he winced and grabbed at his head.

"Taako?" Kravitz said, rushing to his side and holding him. Angus had gone to Taako's other side.

"Headache, babe," Taako mumbled.

"Like the Voidfish static?" Kravitz asked. Taako nodded. Kravitz slowly rocked back and forth and kissed the top of Taako's head.

"There shouldn't still be static," Angus said. He was squinting, but looking at nothing. Detectiving, Kravitz realized. "We've already been inoculated."

Kravitz said "It shouldn't, but Taako can't hear me say Lup or talk about an I.P.R.E. patch."

"I heard the static then," Angus said. "It did hurt a little, but it's gone now." He looked to Taako, concerned. "Sir, if this is a goof, it's not funny," he said, a hint of desperation in his voice.

Taako groaned. "Not a goof this time, kiddo," he said, slightly strained. He looked up at Kravitz. "Babe, could you get me some tea?" He asked. "That usually helps when I get headaches."

"Of course, dove," Kravitz said. "Would you like to lie down?" Taako nodded. Kravitz set him down and kissed his forehead. He dimmed the lights as he left the room with Angus.

Chapter Text

As soon as he left the room, Kravitz realized two things: first, he had no idea where the tea was kept. Second was that Magnus or Merle could walk into the room and spot him at any time. Angus noticed Kravitz' hesitation and said "Oh, you won't have to worry about the other two finding out about you, Sir. They're both planetside right now. Magnus went to get carpentry supplies and Merle's out with his ki—I mean, he's on a short mission."

Kravitz nodded. If he needed to breathe, he would be able to do so more easily now that he didn't have to worry about Taako's other friends running in. He followed Angus into the kitchen area and picked up a clean mug from the counter. He filled it with water and used Prestidigitation to heat it up.

When he turned around, he saw Angus balancing on the edge of the counter, digging through one of the highest shelves. If Kravitz had a heart, it would have stopped. He dropped the mug and rushed to pick Angus off of the counter.

"What were you doing up there?" Kravitz asked after making sure he was safe on the ground. It came out harsher than he meant it to, but he was too worried to fix it.

"I was only getting the tea," Angus said. "Mister Taako keeps his favorite kind up there."

"You could have fallen."

"I'm not a baby," Angus huffed, crossing his arms defiantly.

Kravitz couldn't help smiling. No wonder Taako likes this kid so much, he thought.

"I'm not," Angus insisted, looking away. "I'm the World's Best Detective, and I can handle myself."

Kravitz knelt down to Angus' level—is that the right thing to do? Is that too patronizing? I hope it's not—and placed his hand on Angus' shoulder. Angus jumped at that, so Kravitz rested his elbow on his knee instead. "I don't doubt that," Kravitz said, "but that doesn't change the fact that what you did was dangerous. You could have easily slipped or lost your balance, and you'd get hurt on the way down. I know that Taako wouldn't want you to get hurt, and I wouldn't either." Angus was looking at him now. "You could have asked me to get it for you, or to help you up. That way we wouldn't have an accident. Do you understand?"

Angus nodded, then rushed forward to give Kravitz a hug. "Thank you Sir," He said, speaking in a quiet voice. Kravitz, surprised, hugged back. He was relieved that he didn't mess this up. Angus pointed to Taako's favorite tea, and Kravitz got it down for him. "I can make it like Taako wants," Angus offered. "He's made it in front of me many times." Kravitz nodded and gave Angus the tea. Kravitz watched Angus carefully prepare the tea.

"Mister Kravitz?" Angus said, not looking up.

"Yes, Angus?"

"Thank you for taking care of Mister Taako," he said. Kravitz didn't know what he meant by that. Angus looked up at him for a moment before turning back to the tea. "Madam Director's been overworking them, but Taako pretends he isn't tired. He still has me over for our magic lessons even though he's exhausted."

"Well, he enjoys your time together, Angus," Kravitz said. "He doesn't show it, but he likes to talk about you a lot."

Angus nodded. "I know Sir," he said. "Still, he hasn't given himself the chance to rest. But yesterday he ran out of the training arena once we finished. Misters Magnus and Merle said he wasn't here. He must have been on a date with you," he deduced.

Kravitz nodded.

"This morning he was well rested, and Mister Magnus said he cooked a big breakfast. Taako only ever cooks when he's in a good mood. He hadn't touched the kitchen for a long time. And today he was more careful to not get hurt."

Kravitz smiled. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "I asked him to rest and take better care of himself."

Angus smiled right back. "Thank you, Sir." Then he picked up the cup of tea. "This is ready now."

"Let's take it in to him, shall we?"

Angus and Kravitz walked back into Taako's room. Taako woke up from his meditation when they entered and Angus gave him the tea. "Thanks kiddo," Taako said, ruffling his hair before sipping his tea slowly. He relaxed back against the pillow he was leaning up against. "Got it perfect." Kravitz sat down next to Taako, and Angus sat on the edge of the bed in front of them. The three of them sat in a tranquil silence as Taako finished his tea.

Taako placed the empty mug on his bedside table and leaned into Kravitz, who placed his arm around him and kissed Taako's forehead. "Feeling better?" He asked.

Taako nodded. "Still don't know why it messed up my head so much," he said.

"I know why," Angus said. Taako and Kravitz looked up at him expectantly. "It's because you're trying to remember too much. It happened a lot when I was talking to people that were close to relic-users. When they tried to remember too much, especially when it was important to them, they complained about getting a headache." Angus frowned. "That doesn't explain why you're still hearing the static, though."

Taako shrugged. "Well, I guess I shouldn't try thinking that hard again," he said.

Kravitz felt a pulling sensation at the back of his head. He knew what that meant. "Dove, I need to go. My goddess is calling me," he said. Taako nodded. Kravitz squeezed his hand and kissed him. Kravitz then stood up and summoned his scythe.

"Wait, Sir?" Angus asked. Kravitz looked at him. "You can hear through the static, right?" without waiting for a response, Angus dug through his bookbag and handed Kravitz a bookmarked notebook. "Taako's umbrastaff burned something in the wall a while ago. I wrote it down, but I can't read it anymore."

Kravitz opened the notebook and gasped. Inside the book were three letters—LU, and P.

"I'll look into this," Kravitz promised. Angus nodded. Kravitz opened a rift and left to visit his Queen.

Chapter Text

Kravitz knelt before his Queen's throne in the Astral Plane. She had insisted that this formality wasn't necessary many times before, and yet, Kravitz still did it.

Stand, my child, She told Kravitz. He obeyed. You need not kneel before me, Kravitz. You have served me well for centuries. Our relationship has outgrown these formalities.

Kravitz smiled. They'd had this conversation before, but this time, he was reminded of someone else. He remembered how Angus called Taako "mister" and "sir" even though he was told he didn't have to. "Thank you, my Queen," Kravitz answered, "but with all due respect, I would like to continue showing my reverence in this way."

As you wish, Kravitz. A moment of silence passed before the Raven Queen spoke again. I have called you here to give you a new objective.

A new objective? Kravitz wondered. "I do not understand."

The Raven Queen explained. There has been an unusual imbalance of the forces of life and death. Two liches have been brought to my attention by Istus. What do you know of this already?

Kravitz looked up to answer. "Yesterday I had encountered two liches, ones that knew each other but had been separated."

You did not apprehend them?

Kravitz shook his head. "They are more powerful than I have ever seen," he said. He then told his Queen everything he knew about the liches, including how they showed him mercy.

The Raven Queen nodded slowly after taking in the information. I am pleased that you have not been hurt. However, it may be for the best that they escaped.

Kravitz took a step back, stunned. "Sorry?" He asked. His Queen had never said anything like this in all his years of serving her.

Istus has informed me that they are most important to the fate of our planes, that they will help us weather the coming storm, though she did not specify how. She has also informed me that although liches are a dangerous abomination, these two have taken care not to harm anyone in their necromantic pursuits. Including in their initiation as liches.

"Is that even possible?" Kravitz asked.

The Raven Queen fell silent for a moment. Not that I know. But Lady Istus insists that they will do no harm to us or anyone else.

"What do you wish for me to do?"

Your new objective is to find them. Do not harm them, but learn of their past. Find out what their goal is, and use your best judgement to help them or not. I will not assign you any bounties until you have completed this assignment. I trust only you with this.

"Thank you, my Queen. I will not disappoint you." Kravitz opened a rift and was halfway through before–

My dear Kravitz, one last thing.

Kravitz turned to her. "Yes?"

How did your date with that former bounty go?

Kravitz stumbled, embarrassed. He could tell it amused her. "It went well, my Queen," he answered.

I am glad to hear this. Kravitz could hear the smile in her projected voice. That is all. You may go, now.

Kravitz left, a little flustered. Then he remembered that he had a job to do.

The first thing Kravitz did was check his book of bounties. Lup Taaco; Lich, he read. Then he turned a few pages back to Taako's first bounty and found what he was looking for: Barry Bluejeans; Lich. Kravitz hummed. So this man is the same one Taako knew.

The first thing Kravitz thought to do was check around where Taako met Barry, and he found that the area was riddled with caves, which were popular hideouts for necromancers. I should start by searching every cave, but that would take too long. Kravitz ran along the entrances of the caves until he came across one that gave him bad vibes. He really didn't want to enter.

He walked in that cave.

Kravitz could feel the wards against reapers trying to keep him out, which told him he was going in the right direction. A less seasoned reaper might have skipped it, but he had been around for centuries. Although the type of wards were new, the tactic wasn't. As the cave got darker and more spooky, Kravitz felt better about what he was doing. He kept walking.

Eventually, Kravitz came along a fake wall. To be fair, it was a very convincing fake wall, but nevertheless, Kravitz walked right through it and was met with a furious red-robed lich.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" the lich screamed, red electricity radiating off of them. Kravitz wasn't intimidated; Istus and the Raven Queen had both assured him that the lich wouldn't hurt him. "LEAVE."

"I don't think I'll be doing that," Kravitz said. "I'm not here to take you or the other one to the Astral Plane. I'm only here to talk."

The lich seemed surprised for a split second. Then they rushed up to Kravitz' face, the lightning growing, and shouted "YOU MUST LEAVE OR BE-"

"Barry, babe, what's going on?" The other lich interrupted, appearing behind the other from nowhere. Kravitz was still taken aback by how similar they sounded to Taako. "Oh, hey, it's Taako's boy-toy." They waved at Kravitz, who politely waved back.

The first lich turned to the other. "Babe," they whined, "I'm trying to intimidate him."

"I'm only here to talk," Kravitz said again. Both liches turned to him. "I don't know why, but Lady Istus has taken a liking to you. My Queen sent me to find out why. I'm not going to do anything else."

The liches looked at each other. The second one shrugged, and the first one turned back to Kravitz. "ALRIGHT," they said, "BUT IF YOU MAKE ANY MOVE AGAINST US, WE WILL NOT HESITATE TO DESTROY YOU."

Kravitz nodded. "That won't be necessary, but thank you," he said. "Also, could you turn down the volume?"

"WH–THIS IS MY VOICE!"

Kravitz sighed. "Look, if we're going to talk, I'd appreciate having working ears."

The second lich laughed, putting one of their hands on the other lich's shoulder. "Cool it Bar, this guy knows about faking an intimidating voice. You should have heard him in the lab. This guy tried to pass off a terrible Cockney accent. Thank the gods he bailed two sentences in to Taako's date."

The first lich made a sound that sounded like a sigh. "Alright, I'll tone it down." They stuck out their hand. "I'm Barry. Barry Bluejeans," he said. Kravitz shook it cautiously. He'd never tried touching a lich without throwing it to the Astral Plane and didn't know what would happen. It didn't hurt, though, which was good.

The second lich made a peace sign and said "Hey, I'm Lup."

Kravitz waved. "So, uh," he said, looking between the two, "to avoid guessing, could I know your pronouns?"

Lup beamed. "She/her," she said, "Thanks for asking."

"He/him," Barry said.

Kravitz nodded. "Alright, thank you. Now, I have to ask, how do you know Taako?"

"He's my brother-in-law," Barry said at the same time as Lup said "He's my twin brother."

That would explain why she sounds so much like Taako. Kravitz hummed. "Not that I don't believe you," he said, "but Taako has never mentioned having any family."

The two liches looked at each other and sighed. Lup said "Yeah. Lucretia made them forget us."

"Is this about the voidfish?" Kravitz asked.

"Oh thank the gods we don't have to explain Fisher," Barry said. "That would have taken forever. Yeah, we figure that Lucy has a second voidfish she's using to erase Taako's–er, everyone's memories of us."

"A second voidfish..." Kravitz repeated. This makes so much sense. "Of course. But who's Lucretia?"

"Taako calls her Madam Director," Barry explained. "She's our friend."

"Then why did she make you forget?" Kravitz asked.

Lup and Barry looked at each other. Lup said "That's, well, it's a very long story."

"I have nothing but time," Kravitz assured her.

Barry and Lup gave him an abridged version of their 100 year journey on the run. They told him about the Institute of Planar Reasearch and Exploration, and their mission that went long.

They told him about the Light of Creation and the Hunger that followed it. How they reset every year as they entered a new plane. How they found the voidfish and Magnus saved it from the Hunger. How they became liches on an unpopulated plane full of information and used their love as an anchor.

They explained their work at The Hanging Arcaneum and their plan to split the Light of Creation into seven objects–and Lucretia's proposed plan to shield the plane and sever every bond it had. They also mentioned that this was where Lup made her umbrastaff.

Then they arrived on this plane. They saw the destruction their relics caused and Lup went missing and died trying to seal her relic away, and because she was a defeated lich, her umbrastaff absorbed her. Barry started to forget Lup, and Taako killed him so he could remember.

Then Lucretia put up wards to keep Barry out of the Bureau of Balance and began her own plan, recruiting Taako, Magnus, and Merle, who could resist the thrall of the Relics because they were the ones who made them.

Kravitz knew there were details they left out, but only because their story took a few hours instead of 100 years. Of course they would leave some things out. He knew something between Lup and Barry must have happened between year zero and using their love to become stable liches. But that was private. And anything else could be told later.

"I'm so sorry that happened," Kravitz said. He couldn't think of anything else to say.

Barry and Lup, having locked hands during their retelling, sighed. They didn't say anything either.

Suddenly, Kravitz' Stone of Farspeech went off, disrupting the silence. "Can I-" Kravitz asked, and Barry gave a 'go ahead' motion.

"Hello, Taako."

"Hey Krav. So you know how the Director's been giving us a break?"

"Yes?"

"Apparently that was just for the weekend, so I don't think we'll be able to have a date anytime soon. Sucks, but a job's a job, right?"

"I understand," Kravitz said, turning away from the liches so he wouldn't get choked up watching Lup react to hearing her brother's voice outside the umbrastaff. "Just take care of yourself. And my Queen gave me a new job, so if you need anything, I can be there right away."

"Thanks, Krav." Kravitz heard a pounding on the other line and a muffled voice. Taako said "Well, I've got to go, Magnus is pounding at my door again. Bye."

"Goodbye, Dove." Kravitz said, hanging up the stone. He looked back up at the liches, who were staring right at him. "What?" he asked.

"We-" Barry looked at Lup and back at Kravitz. "We're just so glad that Taako found you."

Kravitz smiled. "Me too," he said, "though I wouldn't say it was Taako who found me."

"Oh really?" Barry said. "Well, I have to hear this story."

Chapter Text

Kravitz left Lup and Barry after recounting his and Taako's first meeting. He needed to report to the Raven Queen. He couldn't tell Her everything; that would have taken too long, and She didn't need every detail. That's why She gave the job to Kravitz instead of doing it herself. Though Lady Istus and Kravitz had both informed Her that the liches were safe, She was still put off by the fact that there were two of them just running around.

After meeting with his Queen, Kravitz wasn't sure where he should go. Taako still was busy training (he promised to call Kravitz when he was done) and he didn't want to be in Taako's room without his permission. He supposed he could go back to Lup and Barry, but he had just left and was concerned that it would be awkward if he showed up so soon after leaving.

Then he remembered that the Raven Queen had given him an apartment in the Astral Plane. He hadn't visited it in years—Kravitz was something of a workaholic, and in the little free time he allowed himself, he usually just went exploring around Faerûn. But now he had this mandatory time off work, he could use it again.

The apartment was exactly the same as he left it: empty with only the bare essentials it came with. As he walked around, he thought about what he could add. I should get more furniture. A comfortable chair or two, maybe. Oh, and a bookshelf. That would give me something to do. Oh wait, is it still

Kravitz rushed to his bedroom, which was empty except for a mattress on a bed frame and a closet door. Occasionally, if Kravitz came across something he liked in the field, he would create a rift that led to his closet, which he only remembered when a wave of trinkets came crashing out at his feet. He dug through the mess of gemstones, books, and rare objects and found what he was looking for—his cello. He thanked his Queen that he kept it in a hard case, otherwise everything he had shoved in the closet would have harmed it. He brought it out to the apartment's main room, making a mental note to sort through the mess of trinkets he left on the floor, and sat in the one chair he had. Kravitz started by tuning the cello, which took a while, considering how long it had been. Once he had finished, he applied rosin to the bow and started playing.

Kravitz had forgotten how much he loved making music. Just hearing the cello play almost had him in tears. He let himself go and took advantage of his muscle memory. He started with scales, then the songs he learned in his earlier days, occasionally going off on his own and improvising. He probably would have played forever if his Stone of Farspeech didn't interrupt him.

Kravitz gently set his cello and bow on the floor and answered. "Hello?"

"Krav, babe, I'm trying to bake but Angus is being annoying and won't stop bothering me about you. Would you entertain him?"

Kravitz smiled, knowing that Taako was teasing Angus because he was probably listening. "Of course. I'll be there in a moment." He put his instrument away and opened a rift to Taako's room.

Taako was on Kravitz as soon as he stepped through the portal. Kravitz was surprised at first, but quickly adjusted and embraced Taako.

"I take it you missed me?" Kravitz asked.

Taako scoffed. "As if. I was just letting you indulge in Taako's Radiance."

Kravitz smiled and kissed Taako. "Of course, dear."

The two of them spent a couple quiet moments just enjoying being held by the other. Then Taako said "Well, the kid's waiting for us out there. We'd better get out there before he breaks in, since he can apparently do that." Kravitz chuckled as Taako led him out of the room.

Kravitz was greeted with a "Hello, sir!" as a very energetic Angus McDonald waved from his seat at the kitchen counter. Angus had a notebook in front of him that was sitting on top of a very thick book. After greeting Kravitz, the child went back to taking notes, though it was obvious he was still paying attention to his surroundings.

Taako put his hair up as he walked into the kitchen. He dug through a drawer and put on an apron that quite honestly shocked Kravitz. The apron read "I'm the Cool Twin." Why does he have that apron if he doesn't remember Lup?

Angus beat Kravitz to the punch. "Why does your apron say that, Taako, sir?" He asked.

Taako blinked a few times before saying "I've always had this, Ango. Found it in the caravan I used for Sizzlin' It Up with Taako." He shrugged. "I think I bought it when I was blackout drunk to be ironic. There's another one in there that says I'm the Hotter Twin. I've got tons of stuff like that, actually." Kravitz made a mental note to tell this to Lup and Barry—he's sure they'd get a kick out of this. Taako started pulling ingredients out and started whatever he was going to make.

"Mister Kravitz, sir," Angus said, glancing up at him from his book, "Could I ask you some questions?"

Kravitz nodded. "Yes, why not?" He said, sitting down next to Angus. He ignored Taako's snickering.

Angus flipped through the large book, closed his eyes, and concentrated. After a short moment, Kravitz felt the full effects of a very competent Zone of Truth. "Just to make sure you don't lie, Sir," he explained. They both ignored Taako's exasperated sigh.

Kravitz shrugged. He had no intention of lying, anyway. He figured that even if he did try to lie, Angus would see right through it without the spell. "What's your first question?" He asked.

Angus thought for a moment. "Why won't Taako tell anyone about you?"

Kravitz blinked. "I don't think that's a question for me?" he said, looking at Taako, who was pretending to ignore the two of them.

"It's not because you're dangerous, is it?" Angus said, his voice lowering as much as his ten-year-old vocal cords will allow. "Or because you threatened him?"

"No, no! Not at all, I-" Kravitz started, but then he started to doubt himself. Is Taako really dating me because he's afraid I'll take him to the Stockade if he doesn't?   "At least, I hope not?"

"Taako isn't doing anything he doesn't want to," Taako said, putting down whatever he was mixing. He leaned on the counter to face Angus and Kravitz and said "except for having this conversation. Listen, Ango, you'd probably be the first one to know if Kravitz does anything to piss me off. And he doesn't. Except for when he sneaks up behind me with those frozen hands of his." Taako gave Kravitz a pointed look, which Kravitz chuckled at. "Anyway, I didn't tell anyone because it's nobody's business who I'm dating. That's it, kiddo, you don't have to worry about this doofus." Taako lifted himself up and went back to stirring.

Angus hums, pulling a second notebook from underneath the textbook and writing something down. "Alright," he mumbles. "So, my next question, what exactly do you do for the Raven Queen?" He looked up at Kravitz, looking curious.

"Officially I'm a Reaper, but I've been called an emissary or a bounty hunter, which isn't inaccurate. My job is to enforce the Raven Queen's rules, so the majority of my time is usually hunting down necromancers and cleaning up their messes."

"So, why did you go after the reclaimers? Mister Taako is a transmutation specialist, not a necromancy specialist."

"Well, that was a very strange case. I was originally sent by my Queen to stop Lucas Miller from raising his mother along with every soul in the Eternal Stockade. Then I met Taako and the others." Kravitz summoned his book of bounties to show Angus, who gazed at it in wonder. "My Queen gave me this book. It tells me what death crimes have been committed. I recognized the reclaimers' names because they had such high bounties."

"Can I read it?" Angus asked.

"You can try," Kravitz answered, opening the book. "It's enchanted so nobody but an emissary can read it." Angus flipped through the book, disappointed.

"Do you get paid?" Angus asked.

"I do. The bigger the bounty, the more I get paid. Though I'm sometimes allowed to take a souvenir, so long as it isn't necromantic in origin."

"Where do you keep the souvenirs?"

"I have a small residence in the Astral Plane."

"You're dead, right?"

"Yes?"

"Why do you need money, then? Do you have to pay rent, or something?"

Kravitz laughed. "You're a thorough one. No, I don't need to pay rent or anything to survive, but Reapers do have free time that we can spend our money on."

Angus nodded. "What do you like to do?"

Kravitz thought. It had been quite a while—not counting earlier that day—since he had allowed himself free time. "Well, lately I've been enjoying spending time with Taako."

"Gross, sir." Angus said, though it was likely sarcastic. "What else?"

"I've also spent a majority of my spare time reading."

Angus' eyes lit up. "Oh, really? What sorts of books do you like to read, sir?"

Kravitz then listed off all the books he could remember reading, with Angus voicing his opinion of the books he had read for himself. When Kravitz mentioned that he'd enjoyed the Caleb Cleveland: Kid Cop book series, Angus flapped his arms in excitement. Angus asked Kravitz which book was his favorite and who his favorite characters were, and the two were in their own world.

The two stopped talking when Taako placed a tray of muffins in front of them. "Eat up my dudes, your nerd talk is making you both more adorable by the minute." Taako froze, realizing what he said, and ran out of the Zone of Truth as fast as possible to say "I meant deplorable!"

Kravitz and Angus laughed as Taako pouted from across the room. Taako then used Mage Hand to give Angus a noogie. "Alright sir," Angus said, giggling, "I'l dispel Zone of Truth now!"

"Good!" Taako exclaimed, walking forward to give Angus a real noogie before letting up. "Now eat some of these muffins, I can't have my apprentice being all skin and bone."

Angus happily bit into a muffin. "Thank you, sir!" He said. "This is very good!"

Kravitz bit into his own muffin. "Angus is correct, dear. Perfect, as always."

"Well, natch," Taako said, his face going a bit red. "Could I do anything less?"

Kravitz took his hand and smiled. "No," he said. "You'll always be perfect."

Taako, still blushing, said "Krav, there's little ears present."

Angus rolled his eyes and hopped off his chair. "I'd better get going anyway, sirs. It's past my bedtime," he said, putting his books into his backpack.

Taako scoffed. "Come on, kiddo, be your own man! There's no bedtimes on the moon."

"Sir, you're the one who insisted on a bedtime."

Taako ruffled Angus' hair and said "Oh yeah, I did. Better let you go, then. And don't stay up all night reading those Casey Colorado books, I don't want to find you passed out on the floor of your room again."

"I won't," Angus said, grinning. "And you know it's Caleb Cleveland." He picked up his backpack and walked out.

Taako let down his hair and said "Thanks for entertaining the kid, Krav." He draped an arm around Kravitz. "He was starting to get on my nerves."

Kravitz kissed Taako's cheek. "No he wasn't," he said.

Taako sighed and leaned to whisper to him. "No, but he's still at the door trying to spy on us." He turned toward the door and said "Go to bed, Agnes!"

A moment of silence passed before a quiet "goodnight sirs!" came through the door, followed by soft footsteps down the hall. Kravitz and Taako laughed. They held a conversation while Taako put away the rest of the muffins and they both walked to Taako's room to cuddle.

"So," Taako said after they both got comfortable, "what did you think of Angus?"

Kravitz ran his fingers through Taako's hair and said "He's a good kid, I can see why you decided to teach him. And he has excellent taste in books."

"You're a nerd. You're both nerds." Taako let out a soft sigh and relaxed into Kravitz. "Hey babe?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think you can stay with me for the night?"

"Of course, dear. There's no place I'd rather be. I'll still be here when you wake up."

Taako's sighed again, and Kravitz could feel him falling asleep. Though Kravitz technically didn't need to sleep, he felt himself get a little drowsy as well.

"Krav?" Taako breathed, half asleep and barely intelligible.

"Mhmm?" Kravitz hummed in response.

"Love you." 

"I love you too, my dove."

Chapter Text

Reapers didn't need to sleep. Sure they needed rest from their work to maintain their mental health, but there was never a need to fall unconscious for a few hours. Kravitz was a bit worried that he might not even be able to sleep when he went to bed with Taako, as he'd never done it before. However, he found that not only was it possible, but that he even dreamed. He didn't remember his dreams, but he knew they were pleasant.

Not needing sleep meant that Kravitz was a very light sleeper. He woke up instantly when he heard knocking at Taako's door, even though Taako didn't.

"Taako, there's someone at your door," Kravitz whispered.

"They'll go away soon," Taako mumbled, snuggling closer to Kravitz, refusing to open his eyes. Whoever was at the door gave up, their footsteps getting quieter before disappearing. Kravitz counted his blessings and went back to cuddling Taako.

Kravitz had just fallen asleep again when the knocking came back, this time more frantic. The sudden noise shocked Kravitz into sitting up, which made Taako wake up. "What's going on?" Taako asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Kravitz took a moment from the chaos to admire how beautiful Taako was, even when he just woke up and hadn't put any thought into his appearance. Especially then. Gods, I'm lucky, Kravitz thought to himself, a smile forming on his face.

"Taako, I'm coming in there!" Magnus yelled through the door.

Kravitz and Taako looked at each other frantically. "Don't come in, I'm fully nude!" Taako yelled. Kravitz looked down. Taako was wearing pajamas. Kravitz raised an eyebrow. Taako shrugged. "I panicked, okay?" He whispered.

"The Director's like, ten seconds behind me and she's pretty pissed you're late again," Magnus warned.

"Hold her off, I can't find my pants!" Taako yelled, jumping out of bed.

"What do I do?" Kravitz whispered, panicking.

"Get down," Taako whispered back, gesturing wildly, a little less quiet. Kravitz dropped to the floor on the side of Taako's bed opposite the door. This is never going to work.

"Taako, is someone in there?" A new voice asked through the door. That must be Lucretia.

"No!" Taako lied, throwing his comforter over Kravitz.

Kravitz heard the door open, then immediately heard Lucretia say "Oh,"

"Yeah, I warned you," Taako said. "Let me get some pants on."

A minute and some shifting fabric sounds later, Taako said "Alright, I'm decent. What do you want?"

The door opened. Someone entered and then mostly closed the door behind them. Kravitz didn't hear it shut, though.

"Taako," Lucretia said, "You've been late to training the past few weeks. Normally, I would let it slide, but you've made a habit of being a few minutes late every day." Kravitz heard Lucretia start to pace. "This is the third day in a row you've been late by more than just a couple minutes."

"Yeah?" Taako said, nonchalant.

Lucretia sighed. "It's gotten to the point—Taako, I'm starting to get worried that you may be influenced by darker forces." Lucretia stopped pacing. "Have you been in contact with the Red Robes?"

Taako sat down on his bed. "No, and I wouldn't even have the time to anyway, with how busy you've made me."

A moment of silence passed before Lucretia spoke. "Yet you've found time to regularly go down to the surface." Taako didn't respond. Kravitz heard Lucretia walk toward the bed. "Why didn't you use your umbrella during practice a few days ago?" She asked.

"Broke it."

Another beat of silence.

"You used it yesterday."

"Fixed it."

"Taako, I'm only going to ask you once," Lucretia warned. "Who have you been meeting on the surface?" Taako said nothing. "Taako?" Lucretia urged. Taako stayed silent. Lucretia waited about thirty more seconds before saying "Alright, then. I'm sorry for this."

Kravitz heard a thump—what must have been Lucretia's staff hitting the ground—and Taako immediately slumped over on his bed. It took all of his self control to not reveal himself to defend Taako, but there was no telling how much more trouble the both of them would be in. Kravitz waited with bated breath to hear what Lucretia would do next. To his relief, he heard her start walking towards the door. As soon as the door closed, he threw the blanket off of himself and rushed to Taako's side.

Taako was laying on his bed, fast asleep. Kravitz casted Detect Magic and found that Lucretia cast an abjuration spell, not an enchantment spell like Sleep. Kravitz took Taako in his arms and shook him in an attempt to wake him, but he didn't stir.

Kravitz heard Magnus' voice through the door. "What happened?" He asked. "What did you do? Is he okay?"

"I have reason to believe that Taako has been in the league with Red Robes," Lucretia answered. "He won't be going anywhere; I made sure of that."

"You killed him?"

Kravitz looked down at his boyfriend in a panic. Oh gods, could he really be—no, he's still breathing.

"No, gods no Magnus, he's only sleeping. I cast Imprisonment," Lucretia said. Kravitz recognized that spell. He also knew that Dispel Magic was his only chance of waking Taako without Lucretia's help, but he didn't quite have the slots to dispel it at a ninth level. He stood, still holding Taako, and summoned his scythe. Hopefully Barry or Lup have the spell slots, he thought.

"Follow me Magnus, I need your help to-"

"I'm not going." Magnus said. Kravitz looked to the door in surprise. He had the thought that Magnus didn't seem like the type to defy authority, but then he remembered Raven's Roost. He supposed it wasn't that surprising after all.

"Excuse me?" He heard Lucretia say.

"I—what if a Red Robe, or someone possessed by one tries to get him? Even if he is working with them, he's my best friend. I can't leave him when he's vulnerable like this."

"Fine," Lucretia said, though she didn't sound too happy. "But before I get back, don't let anyone through this door, including yourself." She ran down the hall and away from Magnus.

Magnus opened the door almost immediately after Lucretia left, and Kravitz suddenly realized how bad the situation must look to him. Here was the Grim Reaper, who previously tried to hunt the reclaimers, holding Taako's unconscious body with his scythe summoned right after Lucretia suggested that Taako was being influenced by dark forces. Magnus drew his sword and said "What the hell are you doing here?"

Oh my Queen, how will I get out of this one, Kravitz thought. "I don't have the time to explain, Lucretia will be back any second."

"How do you know the Director's name?" Magnus asked, raising his sword and coming closer.

"Taako told me, and he's my boyfriend," Kravitz said. "You probably don't believe me, and I don't blame you. I just don't have time to explain before Lucretia gets back and we'll all be in trouble. I have to get Taako to someone who can wake him up. Just—go ask Angus when you get the chance, he can vouch for me."

Magnus looked at Kravitz, then at Taako, and bit his lip. Then he lowered his sword. "Alright, I'm trusting you. But if you hurt him, I swear I won't stop until I hunt you down."

"Noted," Kravitz said, tearing a rift to a cave near Lup and Barry. "Now, get outside before Lucretia comes back." Magnus nodded and closed the door behind him. Kravitz stepped through the rift with Taako in his arms, picking up Taako's umbrastaff at the last second.

"Barry! Lup!" Kravitz called out once the rift had closed. He crossed into the invisible wall where the two liches were working.

"Hey Bones," Lup called out, not looking up from her work.

Barry looked up. "Oh my gods, what happened?" He asked. Lup turned and screamed at her brother's unconscious body.

"He's fine—just sleeping," Kravitz explained. "Lucretia cast Imprisonment on him. Can either of you cast Dispel Magic with a ninth level spell slot?"

"Uh, ch'yeah," Lup said, already preparing the spell.

"Wait," Barry interrupted, causing Lup to lose her focus. "What are we going to do when he wakes up? He doesn't trust us. He thinks we're evil."

"I didn't think about that," Lup admitted. "You have a room here, right babe?" she asked. "Like, a normal person room and not a lair-y room."

"Oh yeah, I forgot." Barry floated over to a wall and revealed a door. "There's a bed you can put him on in here. I'll just stay out here so he doesn't, uh, freak out too bad."

Kravitz nodded and opened the door, gently placing Taako on the bed. Lup followed behind him and said something that Kravitz didn't quite catch.

"What was that?" Kravitz asked.

"Do you think he'll hate me?" Lup asked softly.

Kravitz looked up at her and considered her question for a moment. "No," he said. "Even if he doesn't remember you, your bond is still there." Kravitz turned back to his boyfriend, moving a lock of Taako's hair out of his face. "You helped him every way you could when you were in the umbrella, and he knows that." Kravitz turned back to Lup. "When he asked me to inspect the umbrastaff, he told me to be careful because he was attached to it—to you. He won't hate you. And even if he doesn't warm up to you right away, I swear I'll do everything in my power to change that."

Lup nodded and took a moment to absorb his words, then rushed towards Kravitz and hugged him. "Thank you," Lup said. Before Kravitz could react, she let go of him and said, "Once I cast this spell, I'll go in the other room with Barry. If he reacts badly, let us know and we'll get out of there." Kravitz nodded, and Lup cast the spell. True to her word, she disappeared.

Taako bolted upright, and if Kravitz had been leaning two inches forward, he would have been knocked back. "No, don't!" Taako yelled, then paused once he realized he wasn't still in his room. He turned to look around at his surroundings, then finally to Kravitz. "Krav? Babe, what's going on? Where am I? Where's the Director?"

"You're safe, my dove," Kravitz said, taking Taako's hand. "The Director's on the moon still. I think she was going to lock you up."

"Where are we?" Taako asked.

"Near Wave Echo Cave," Kravitz said. "I brought you here to meet a couple friends that were able to wake you."

"Friends?"

Kravitz bit his lip. "Do you remember when I told you about the Red Robe from your umbrella?" Kravitz asked, watching carefully for Taako's reaction.

"Yeah," Taako said. "She saved you, didn't she?"

"And you, from inside the umbrella."

Taako nodded. "She's cool in my book, then."

Kravitz sighed with relief. "She and her—" Husband? Fiancé? Boyfriend? "—partner are helping us. He's the Red Robe that's been following you."

"So I guess this means that the Red Robes aren't evil?" Taako asked. Kravitz shook his head. Taako dramatically flopped back on his bed. "Why can't these things ever be straightforward," he complained. "Well, I guess I'm going off the grid now. Not the first time. So, where are these friends of yours?"

"They're just in the other room. They were worried you might freak out if you saw them right after waking up." Kravitz moved his hand to cup Taako's face. "Speaking of, how are you taking all this?" He asked, using a softer voice.

Taako sat up and leaned on Kravitz' shoulder. "At this point, I don't trust anyone. I can't, Krav. It's a lesson I learned on the road a long time ago, and I was stupid enough to forget it when I was with the Bureau. I let my guard down, and now the Director turned around and stabbed me in the back." Taako lifted his head and stared at Kravitz. "Krav, there's only two people in this world that I can trust with everything and they are you and Angus." Taako's eyes widened as he realized—"Oh gods, Angus. What happened to Angus?"

"As far as I know, he's fine," Kravitz said, and Taako sighed with relief. "He wasn't there when I took you, and he's smart enough to stay out of trouble. I'm sure if something's going on, he'll figure it out." Kravitz' words seemed to soothe Taako.

"Well, when am I meeting these friends of yours?" Taako asked, swinging his legs over the side of his bed and standing.

"Whenever you're ready, my dove," Kravitz told him.

Taako nodded and started patting around his body until he pulled a Stone of Farspeech out of one of his many pockets. "Oh sweet, I still have this thing." Kravitz stood and handed the umbrastaff to Taako, who was pleasantly surprised. "I'm ready," he said.

Kravitz nodded and took Taako's hand in his. He squeezed it reassuringly, then opened the door.

Chapter Text

Kravitz rarely knew how Taako was going to act in any given circumstance. It was annoying when he first met Taako (because he was trying to kill him), but since they've been dating, Kravitz found it enchanting. There was never a dull moment when they were together. Kravitz had no idea what Taako was going to do in the presence of two powerful liches who he'd been told were the most evil and power-hungry beings in all of existence.

"So which one of you have been stalking me and my buddies?" Taako asked, never failing to surprise Kravitz. He wasn't expecting Taako to be so casual. Lup and Barry were floating, frozen in place. They clearly hadn't expected this reaction either.

After a moment of still silence, Lup slowly raised her arm and pointed to Barry. It took a few seconds for him to notice. He looked at her arm, then to Taako, then back to Lup. "Way to sell me out, babe!" He said.

"So, uh, quick question—" Taako started, but he was interrupted by Lup.

"Nuh-uh Taako, that's not how you play twenty questions. We get a turn now," Lup said, placing an arm on Barry's shoulder.

Taako shrugged. "Alright, sounds fair."

Lup hit Barry's chest. "Ask the dude a question, babe."

Barry sputtered for a moment before saying "Do you want a chair?" Lup turned her head to him, disappointed. "What? I couldn't think of anything."

"Yeah, I could use a seat," Taako said. "Some food too, probably, since I didn't get breakfast."

"I'll cook something up for you," Lup said, making her way to another room.

Barry motioned Taako and Kravitz over to a table. Taako and Kravitz sat down on one side, and Barry, being a lich who wasn't able to sit,  hovered over to the other side of the table. The three of them waited in silence for Lup to return. Barry wasn't sure how to position himself, moving from standing, to attempting to make it look like he was sitting, to leaning on the table, and back to pretending to sit. Taako was occupying himself by taking inventory. He pulled various items out of his pockets, examining what he brought with him. When he found a saltshaker he put it on the table.

"Now serving customer 69," Lup said, finally bursting through the door. She carried a plate of breakfast hash and placed it in front of Taako. "Eat up, dude."

Taako put his salt on the food, watched it for a moment, then picked up a fork and took a bite. His eyes widened, then he shoveled more into his mouth.

Kravitz spoke up. "Perhaps we should establish some ground rules?" He said.

"This isn't truth or dare, Ghost Rider," Lup said.

Kravitz sighed. "No, but there are certain things that Taako can't hear. Like your name, or the Starblaster." Taako looked up from his food as a reaction to hearing the static, then went back to eating. "He tried to remember The Hanging Arcaneum and he ended up with a migraine."

Taako nodded. "Yeah, that sucked."

"Did it hurt when we said it just now?" Lup asked, worried.

Taako shrugged. "Nah, not really. It's just kind of an annoying feeling."

Barry said "So, uh, I guess this means we shouldn't try to get him to remember anything?"

"It's probably for the best," Lup said. "He wouldn't be able to anyway, the Voidfish does a pretty good job of erasing stuff."

"You know about the Voidfish?" Taako asked.

Lup nodded. "I've known it since it was a baby. I didn't take care of it personally, but it was like, our team mascot. It was always around."

Taako finished his last few bites of food. "So, who are you guys, anyway?" He asked.

"I'm Barry," Barry said. "Barry Bluejeans."

Taako burst out in laughter. "You—you're serious?" He said, gasping between laughs. "The guy who got kidnapped by gerblins? Bluejeans? You're a necromancer?"

"To be fair—" Barry started, before being interrupted by more laughter. "To be fair, I had no idea I was a lich while I had a body."

Taako took a few deep breaths and calmed himself. "No wonder you were so horny for Merle's blood. That actually makes a lot of sense now."

"It—I wasn't horny, it was for the map!" Barry protested, throwing everyone else into a bout of laughter.

"Yeah," Lup said, "the only fetish this guy has is for denim."

"Lup!" Barry whined.

"Oh, I like you, Umbrella Lady," Taako said. "You were the lich from my umbrella, right?"

"Technically it was mine first," Lup said, "but yep, that was me."

"And you tried to kill my boyfriend?" Taako said, with no malice in his voice. Kravitz tried to ignore the rush of warmth he felt when Taako called him his boyfriend. Now's not the time.

Lup shrugged. "He said he sensed a lich, and he usually kills those, so I panicked."

Taako nodded. "Yeah, yeah that's understandable," he said, "so why did you kill my kid's cookies?"

Lup put her hands up in defense. "That was collateral damage, I was trying to send a message. I swear I didn't mean to."

"Your kid?" Kravitz said, smirking. Taako's face and ears turned a bit red. It wasn't often that Kravitz had the chance to tease Taako, so he took the opportunities when he could. 

"I didn't say that," Taako insisted. Kravitz knew better than to argue. "Anyway, he still thinks I destroyed those cookies. And yeah they were bland, but they weren't that bad. The kid actually showed some promise. It took forever to convince him I didn't hate him." Kravitz gave Taako a knowing glance and Taako said "Even though I totally do. Anyway, what do I call you, Umbrella Chick, since I apparently can't comprehend your name?"

"Not Umbrella Chick," Lup said. "Way too long."

"How about Lulu?" Barry suggested. "It's not that far off from your name. Could you hear that, Taako?"

Taako gave a double thumbs up and Lup sighed. "Yeah, that's fine," she said. "So, now that we have that cleared up, what's up with Lucretia? Bone Boy didn't really explain anything."

"Wait a sec-" Taako said, holding up a finger. "How do you know the Director's name?"

Barry answered this time. "She's our friend. We all used to work together before, well, everything happened." 

"That's vague, but okay." Taako said, nodding. "Well, first she got pissed I was late to training again. Which, whatever, it's her fault I'm so tired after training, I should be able to sleep in. Then she thought I was sneaking down to the surface—we're on the moon, by the way—to do, I don't know. Evil things. Meeting up with you guys, maybe. Which I wasn't, you know. I just didn't think it was her business I was going down to go on dates with the Grim Reaper. Then she asked what happened to the umbrella—" Taako held the umbrastaff up—"and I guess she found it suspicious that I was able to fix it. Then I got my snooze on. Or, she made me get my snooze on. I don't know what happened until I woke up in that room over there."

Kravitz cleared his throat. "I was there, I can help with that," he offered.

"You were there when Taako woke up?" Lup interrupted, smirking. Kravitz felt his face flush in embarrassment. "Hold up. Kravitz." Lup grinned and Kravitz was immediately filled with dread. "Did you take my dear brother to bone town last night?"

Kravitz buried his face in his hands. I'm in Hell. I'm dead and in Hell. "We didn't, Lup, I swear to my Queen we were just sleeping together," Kravitz insisted.

"Sleeping together, or sleeping together?" Barry asked with a matching grin.

"Not you too, Barry," Kravitz groaned. Kravitz looked to Taako, who was red in the face trying to stifle his laughter.

"So did you two—" Lup started, but Kravitz quickly interrupted.

"We didn't do anything, really, can we please get back to the topic at hand?" Kravitz begged.

Taako exploded with laughter. Lup and Barry joined in. Kravitz rolled his eyes. He couldn't really be annoyed when the three of them were laughing like the family they used to be. "Alright, that's enough," Taako said, wiping away some tears. "Trust me, I love it when Krav gets flustered, but there's some important business we should probably get to."

Lup leaned forward with her elbow on the table. "Wow Taako, never thought you'd be the one to get serious."

Taako leaned back, shrugging. "Not really, I'm just curious. Krav was about to talk about what I didn't already know." 

"Alright then, Bones," Lup said, "Lay it on us."

"Thank you," Kravitz said, biting back a finally. "Lucretia left after Taako went down. Magnus was outside the door, and Lucretia wanted him to go with her, but he said he would stay to guard the room Taako was in. Of course, instead, he rushed in as soon as Lucretia was gone, which was just when I was picking up Taako. Understandably, he was concerned. Somehow I convinced him to let me take Taako here and told him that Angus could vouch for me."

Just then, Taako's Stone of Farspeech rang. Taako picked it up to look at it. "It's Magnus," he said. Then he tossed it to Kravitz, who fumbled with it before catching it. "Here ya go, Krav."

"What?" Kravitz said, staring at Taako in confusion. "Why don't you answer this?"

"I don't know what to say," Taako explained.

"Fair, but neither do I," Kravitz said, the stone still going off in his hands.

"If you talk to Magnus, these guys can catch me up with whatever they need to," Taako said.

Kravitz knew he to act fast or the stone would stop ringing. "Alright, I'll do it," he said. "Excuse me, then." He stood up and walked a few feet away to answer the stone.

Chapter Text

"Is this Magnus?" Kravitz asked, a reasonable assumption as the call was coming from Magnus' stone. However, Magnus was not who answered the Stone of Farspeech.

"Mister Kravitz?" Angus' voice answered instead. "Why are you answering Mister Taako's stone?"

"Oh, hello Angus," Kravitz said, surprised but not alarmed, "Taako gave it to me because didn't know what to say." A Mage Hand appeared in front of Kravitz and flipped him off, which gave him a chuckle. "Angus, why are you calling Taako from Magnus' stone?"

"Mister Magnus gave it to me," Angus answered. "He also didn't know what to say. He's right next to me, sir. I'll put it on speakerstone."

After a few shuffling sounds, Magnus' voice came through loud enough for everyone at the table to hear. "Taako? Are you there? Say something if you're still alive!"

Kravitz turned around and was surprised to find that Taako, Barry, and Lup already in the middle of a card game. He turned it to speakerstone and held the stone out to them. Taako turned away from Lup and Barry, rolled his eyes, and said "Oh no, I'm dead. The handsome reaper man totally tricked you, ya goofus." Kravitz gave him a look and Taako said "Nah, I'm just goofing. I'm totally fine, Mags. Krav here got some of his buddies to wake me up. You should talk to him about it, I'm kind of busy." Kravitz raised an eyebrow and gestured to the card game. Taako made a shooing motion towards Kravitz and picked up his cards again.

"But, you're there," Magnus protested, sounding a bit confused. "Taako, you have to understand—I just saw the literal Grim Reaper take your unconscious body away through a crazy portal. I have no idea what's going on—want to talk to you."

"He has a point, dove," Kravitz said.

"Trust me Koko," Lup said softly, "you should really talk to him. You might regret it if you don't."

Kravitz could see something shift inside Taako. His eyes softened, and before long he nodded. "Yeah," he said, "Yeah, okay. Let's talk." Kravitz sat back down in his chair and placed the stone in front of them. Taako leaned his head on Kravitz' shoulder, and Kravitz smiled. He took Taako's hand in his.

"Thank you," Magnus said. "Gods, Taako, I'm so glad you're safe. I—I don't know where to start."

"I do," Angus said. "Who's there with you? I heard another voice over the stone."

Taako sighed. "Listen, Angus? Magnus? This is gonna get weird. You two should know something before I tell you. This is, technically, the exact opposite of I'm supposed to be doing. Even talking to me is against the rules right now. If you don't hang up, you are—you're kind of a bad guy, too."

Kravitz could hear the smile in Angus' voice as he said "The ones looking for the truth, well, they're never the bad guys. I know that from my Caleb Cleveland novels."

"Precious," Taako mumbled, though Kravitz knew he would never admit to it. "How about you, Maggie? You up for this?"

No sound came over the stone for a moment. Then Magnus responded, "Yes."

"Alright, then. No going back." Taako took a deep breath. "Well, for starters, the friends that Kravitz brought me to are Red Robes."

The sound of pencil on paper was all that was heard through the stone.

"Are the Red Robes there right now?" Magnus asked.

"Yep, two of 'em," Taako replied.

"Can I ask them something?"

Taako looked up at Lup and Barry, who both gave him a thumbs up. "Go ahead, my dude. They're listening."

"Am—could I—ugh, stupid static." Magnus said, frustrated. He took a deep breath. "Am I connected to the Red Robes somehow?"

Lup and Barry jumped out of their sitting positions immediately. Kravitz would have too, but Taako was still leaning on him. The surprise didn't pass over him, however. "You are," Lup said, "Maggie, how did you know?"

"In Refuge, there was a statue of a Red Robe," Magnus explained. "I was given a sketch of an earlier version, and he—the Red Robe—he had my face." Magnus grunted. "I can't think about it. I know it means something, but I literally can't think of what it means, and it hurts to try. All I know is that the Director—she isn't telling us everything."

"We're working on it Magnus," Barry promised, pain present in his voice. "You're so close, but don't hurt yourself trying to think about it."

"Can I trust her?" Magnus asked.

Lup and Barry looked at each other, then back at the stone. Lup said "She—Lucretia doesn't want to hurt you, Magnus. She would never do anything to hurt you. She's not telling the whole truth, of course, but I know for a fact that nothing she's doing is of malicious intent."

"Thank you," Magnus said, sighing with relief. "I finally have some answers."

"The Director's coming," Angus said. "She messaged me on my stone. She said she had to talk to me about something concerning Taako."

"Ugh," Taako said, lifting his head off of Kravitz. "We were just getting somewhere, too. Ango, you need to start crying. Like, hard. Go all out, kid."

"Okay, sir!" Angus said, already starting to sniffle.

"Magnus, you're gonna tell the Director you're letting Angus know that I defected or got in trouble and disappeared or whatever so she doesn't get all suspicious that you're conspiring or something."

"That's genius," Lup said excitedly, "Lucretia has no idea what to do with kids, especially crying ones!"

"Thanks Lulu," Taako said. "Anyway, one of you, call back when you get the chance. I have no idea what's going on, but Ango here has a chance if he gets more info."

Angus made a sniffling sound. "Thank you sir," he said in a shaky voice.

"Great job, kiddo. Gonna make a fine—" Magnus or Angus hung up the stone, "—actor one day."

The four of them stared at the stone in silence, not knowing what to say. Kravitz turned it off and handed it to Taako, who just held it and looked at it. After a few moments, Barry got up and took Taako's empty plate into the kitchen. Taako was still staring straight at the stone but his eyes weren't focused on anything at all. He was sitting completely still, barely breathing.

Lup made her way to the other side of the table and put her hand on Taako's shoulder. Well, she hovered her spectral hand over his shoulder, since she couldn't technically touch him. "You alright, Koko?" Lup asked.

Taako opened his mouth, and no sound came out. He shook his head and tried again, this time successfully. "Why does it hurt to think about you?" He asked, not looking up.

Lup stepped away from him, panicking. Her worst fear was happening. Kravitz knew that she would never want to hurt Taako, but her very existance was doing that. "I'm so sorry, Taako," she said, backing away, "I'll go, I—"

"No!" Taako shouted, his head snapping toward Lup so fast that his braid almost hit Kravitz' face. "Don'leave me again!"

As soon as the words left Taako's mouth, he collapsed on the ground, letting the Stone of Farspeech drop to clutch his head. "Taako!" Lup and Kravitz screamed, rushing to his side.

Chapter Text

Taako is in pain.

That was the only thought running through Kravitz' head as he cradled Taako in his arms. Taako was shaking and struggling to breathe, and Kravitz couldn't begin to imagine what Taako was experiencing. He knew Taako had a migraine after trying to remember The Hanging Arcaneum, but this—this was so much different. The Hanging Arcaneum was a place. That was a fact that Taako was trying to recall.

Lup wasn't just a fact. She was Taako's heart, his everything. She was his sister, she was always with him. They had an unbreakable bond that had almost been completely erased. When Lup said she would leave Taako, something inside him must have remembered—at the very least, a familiar feeling of loss—something tugging at his bonds. Something that was just strong enough that he could pull a few words from the static.

The thought of being a red robe gave Magnus a headache whenever he tried to understand the picture he was given. Taako got a migraine just from trying to remember where he learned advanced artifacing.

Remembering that Lup left him—Kravitz had no idea how much pain Taako was in.

Kravitz hastily cast Sleep on Taako, and breathed a sigh of relief when he went limp in his arms. At least he isn't hurting, he thought. He looked up.

Lup was trembling. Red lightning was blasting out of her form. The sight of her coming undone was terrifying—not just because of the explosive raw energy of an unstable lich, but also because she was a friend. She was almost family. Barry had come back into the room at some point, and now he was holding her and whispering to her. Kravitz didn't know what to do. He felt powerless. He just watched helplessly as Barry attempted to bring Lup back to herself.

Kravitz stood up, Taako asleep in his arms, and brought him to the room with the bed. Kravitz laid Taako down and kissed his forehead. Absolutely clueless of what to do, he opened door and peered outside. Lup and Barry were still fighting for Lup's stability.

Kravitz heard a yelp from behind him. Taako must have woken up. Kravitz cursed the short duration of Sleep and turned to find Taako curled up on the bed.

"Krav," Taako cried desperately, "It hurts."

"I know, my dove," Kravitz said, holding Taako, who clung to him, ironically, for dear life.

"It hurts so much," Taako sobbed, his fingernails digging into Kravitz' back.

"I know," Kravitz choked out, unable to hold back his own tears any longer. Once again, he was completely powerless. "I swear, Taako, I would do anything to take the static away from you."

In the midst of his desperation, Kravitz was struck with a realization. There was a way to take away his boyfriend's pain. The second voidfish. That's what's causing the static. If I could get its ichor for Taako to drink...

Kravitz pulled away from Taako, only slightly so that their foreheads were touching. "Taako," he said, "Where on the moon is the Director's office?"

Taako managed to answer him. Kravitz kissed him and leaned him back on the bed. "I'll be right back, my love," he said. "I promise."

Kravitz summoned his scythe and opened a rift to the moon base. Kravitz scanned the moon for the dome that contained the Director's office and cut another rift to put him inside of it. Luckily, he guessed the layout correctly and landed inside her office, if the large portrait of herself above the desk told him anything.

Unluckily, he was not the only person in the room.

"Davenport!" a gnome exclaimed, jumping up from a chair in surprise.

Oh, my Queen, Kravitz thought. He barely recognized Davenport from what Lup and Barry told him. Taako didn't mention his former captain very often, but now that the gnome was in front of him, those few details came rushing back. Davenport was something like Lucretia's servant or aide, and the only word he could say was his own name.

"So much was taken from you," Kravitz realized. "You spent your life preparing for the mission. Your name is all you kept."

"Davenport?" the gnome said, confused but still frowning.

Kravitz made a decision. "I can help you get your memory back," he said. Gods, how much does he hurt right now, if everything about himself was erased? Is he always in pain? "Captain Davenport, does Lucretia have a hidden room somewhere?"

Davenport nodded slowly, squinting suspiciously at Kravitz. Which was understandable. A stranger appearing out of nowhere calling you by name and speaking static? That wasn't something anyone would expect.

"I promise, I'm not here to hurt you, or Lucretia, or anyone else," Kravitz told him. Davenport didn't move.

"I'm desperate," Kravitz pleaded, losing his composure and falling to his knees. "The love of my life—of my death—he's in so much pain right now. It's killing him. His sister—her husband—if I can't give him the voidfish's ichor, they'll be gone forever."

Davenport blinked, cocked his head to the side, and walked to the wall to the side of Lucretia's portrait. He dispelled an illusion and revealed a large door. "Thank you, Davenport," Kravitz said, standing up. "Truly, I couldn't be more grateful." Davenport jumped back, startled, as Kravitz summoned his scythe and cut a hole past the door. "Oh, sorry," Kravitz said, wincing. "I should've warned you about that."

The next room, Kravitz was prepared for. It was an illusion that was meant to impede whoever came in. He'd seen it done before, but it was rare that he had the opportunity to dispel large illusions such as this one in his line of work. Kravitz appreciated the variety. He found a door at the opposite end of the room and cut another rift into that room, finally finding what he was looking for.

Alarms went off as soon as he stepped foot in the room. Kravitz knew he wouldn't have much time. He went over to the voidfish's tank and summoned a bottle, filled it with ichor, and turned around. Instead of warping out immediately, he remembered Davenport.

Kravitz opened the door to the second voidfish from the inside and found that Davenport had already gone past the first door and dispelled the room's illusion for himself. Kravitz went over and handed him the bottle, saying "Take a drink of this. You'll remember everything." Davenport glanced at the bottle, then took a swig and handed it back. Kravitz didn't have the time to witness the aftermath of his decision. He cut one final rift to Lup and Barry's cave.

Lup was stable again, much to Kravitz' relief, with Barry at her side. When Lup saw Kravitz, she was furious. She flew right up to him and screamed, "You weren't in there? What the Hell! My brother is in pain, and you leave him alone?"

"I found the second voidfish," Kravitz said, showing her the bottle of ichor, and Lup stilled for a moment. Kravitz rushed to the room Taako was in and found him clutching his head.

"K-Krav," Taako breathed, reaching out to him.

"I'm here," Kravitz said, holding Taako's face. "I—I'm so sorry I left, but I'm here now, and I brought you this." He sat Taako up and lifted the bottle to his lips. "Drink it, it'll help," he said.

Taako drank. He made a face. "Gross," he said.

And then he reeled back, worse than before.

Kravitz' stomach dropped. He felt as though gravity had tripled and the temperature had dipped below freezing. He wondered if he remembered wrong, wondered if Lucretia had poisoned the ichor, or if it was already poison and Taako was joking about drinking it. Lup and Barry were in the room now, hovering over Taako.

"I'm sorry," Kravitz said, breathless. He could feel himself shaking. He fell to his knees. "I'm so sorry, I thought-"

Lup was whispering frantically to Taako. Barry knelt down to put an arm around Kravitz and said "Hey, listen buddy, it's okay—"

"It's not," Kravitz bawled. Tears flowed unrestrained down his face and he gripped his stomach. "It's not and I know it. I promised to help, and I—I just took him from you." Kravitz felt Barry put his arms around him again. "I'm so, so sorry," Kravitz whispered, collapsing in on himself.

"Taako's not dying," Barry said, finally. Kravitz looked up at him in confusion. "He's remembering. He'll be fine, it's just—one hundred years and half of your heart is a lot to forget, and it's not fun remembering all at once. See, Lup's helping him."

Kravitz glanced at the twins. Lup was clinging to her brother as much as she could in her lich form. Taako was shaking, but no longer crying out. Lup was still talking to him. From the few words that could reach Kravitz, he knew she was relaying their memories. Making it easier for him. With Barry's help, Kravitz stood up on his shaky legs.

"You did it," Barry said, clapping his hand on Kravitz' back. He smiled. "Taako's going to be just fine. All we have to do now is wait."

Chapter Text

Kravitz and Barry had long since left Lup and Taako to give them privacy. The two of them had been standing in silence. Barry was staring at the door while Kravitz was looking anywhere else.

"How long do you think it'll be?" Kravitz asked in an attempt to make conversation.

"What was that?" Barry asked, snapping back to reality and looking at Kravitz.

Kravitz sighed, glancing at the closed door. "Taako remembering, I was wondering how long it'll be until he'll be alright."

"Well, I don't know if he'll ever be alright," Barry said, and after seeing Kravitz' face he added, "No no, not like—um. I mean, he's going to remember, and he'll stop hurting, but...he's just been through so much. We all have, and I don't know if any of us will be 'alright' again."

Kravitz nodded. Barry nodded back, and they stood beside each other, staring at the door in silence again. Kravitz was beginning to feel restless.

"I gave Davenport a drink of the ichor," Kravitz said.

"Oh," Barry said. "How did he take it?"

Kravitz blinked. "He...drank it?"

"No, I mean, the remembering."

"I don't know, I didn't stay to see."

"Oh."

More silence. Kravitz' mind started to wander.

He wished there was anything he could do to help, and he knew Barry felt the same. But Kravitz hadn't known Taako for all that long. Even Barry, after one hundred years, probably wouldn't be able to help him all that much. If Lup hadn't been available, Kravitz had no idea what they would have done.

Kravitz didn't know everything that happened to Taako in the century he forgot. Barry and Lup gave him an abridged version. They only had the time to tell him about a few cycles in detail. But this was the first time he actually got to think about what they didn't tell him. Specifically, what they left out intentionally.

Barry and Lup hadn't said much about their own relationship, other than it officially started at the Legato Observatory and had grown strong enough in the years following to stabilize themselves as liches. And Kravitz knew that they didn't have to. After all, it was a very personal story to tell a complete stranger. But now Kravitz wondered if they had left other relationships out. More specifically, those that pertained to Taako.

He wondered if Taako had been in a relationship during the century.

His curiosity quickly turned to anxiety as he wondered how Taako would react when he remembered the hypothetical relationship. He loved Taako, loved him more than anything or anyone he had ever cared about before, but if there was someone Taako had history with, someone who shared his past—

I can't control Taako's feelings, Kravitz told himself. I can't force Taako to stay with me. That would make him miserable, and I could never live with myself if I did that. If he fell in love before me, then— 

"It should only be a few hours at most," Barry said, snapping Kravitz out of his thoughts.

"What?" Kravitz asked.

 "To answer your question from earlier, about how long until they're done."

"Oh."

Even more silence followed.

"I hate this," Barry said before Kravitz could start thinking again.

"Not knowing how they're doing?" Kravitz suggested.

"No." Barry paused. "Well, yes, but specifically I meant small talk." After a moment to reflect on his words, Barry said "Not that I hate talking to you, of course. I was just never very good at it. It's a two-way street, you know."

Kravitz barely had time to open his mouth before Barry continued. "Not that you aren't good at it, I'm sure you're fine. I was talking about me, I just get so anxious and—"

"Barry," Kravitz said. He was ignored.

"—I can't come up with anything to say, you know? Like, if there was a class or degree for small talk I could probably learn eventually—"

"Barry," Kravitz interrupted, more stern.

"But there isn't one? We're just supposed to know it without instruction? So—"

"Barry!" Kravitz shouted, finally snapping him out of his downward spiral. Kravitz held his hands up and lowered them. "It's fine. It's not your fault, I don't know what to say either."

More silence. Kravitz was trying to avoid his own spiraling thoughts.

"Do you play cards?" Barry asked, finally giving both of them something to do what wasn't making small talk.

...

Kravitz wasn't sure if they were playing the game right at this point. Actually, he wasn't quite sure what game they were playing anymore. All he was focused on was the lich in front of him. Barry was cheating, Kravitz was sure of it. He just needed proof before he could call him out on it.

Stranger yet, not all of Barry's cheating was to get the upper hand. Of course, there was a lot of that, but sometimes he 'slipped up' to encourage Kravitz to let his guard down. Kravitz knew better. Taako had explained a similar grift to him on one of their dates. An hour later they were kicked out and ended up dragging a couple dozen shoes to Taako's bedroom. Taako surely would have told Barry this strategy.

Kravitz had also dealt extensively with necromancers trying to cheat death by challenging him to a game of cards. He knew all the tricks they liked to pull (such as, oh, using a cheating card deck, which he ignored exactly once because he was already having a long night and didn't want to do the paperwork for three people with over eighty deaths between them). At least, he thought he knew all of the tricks. Barry was turning out to be a very interesting opponent.

Needless to say, Kravitz was also cheating. It was only fair, he reasoned as he cast an illusion to change the face of a card. I'm just leveling out the playing field. Kravitz tapped his cards with his index finger—a fake tell he had developed for this game.

Barry and Kravitz had been so focused on trying to cheat each other so much that they almost didn't notice when the door opened. Lup entered, then closed the door behind her, alone.

"How's Taako doing?" Kravitz asked, standing. "Why isn't he with you?"

Lup didn't say anything. She made eye contact with Barry, who after a moment, held his head in his hands, saying "Oh my gods, really?" in a tone of voice that didn't suggest worry. Rather, it sounded like...annoyance. That didn't help Kravitz' anxiety, though.

"What? What's wrong, did something happen?" Kravitz asked frantically. "If there's anything I can do—"

"It's nothing, Kravitz," Barry said, his hand still on his forehead. He looked up at Lup. "Do I really have to say it?"

Lup nodded, smiling. "Yep," she said. She poked Barry once. "Come on, babe, say the thing."

Barry sighed. "Alright, Taako! You can come out!"

A second passed. Then Taako kicked the door open and said, "I'm gay!"

"Oh my gods," Kravitz said, laughing from relief alone. He was overjoyed at seeing Taako standing, smiling, and not in pain. He was back to his usual self.

Taako and Kravitz locked eyes and everything that had worried Kravitz earlier came rushing back to him. He stiffened and prepared himself for the worst. For Taako to break up with him. Thank him for a good time, and then ask him to leave.

Then Taako ran into Kravitz, almost causing him to lose his balance when they collided. Before Kravitz could react, Taako's lips were on his and Kravitz melted into Taako.

Lup pretended to throw up in the background. Taako pulled away from Kravitz to point at her and say "Hey! You have no right to do that! I had to deal with you and Barold pining after each other for a hundred years!"

Kravitz smiled and lifted one of his hands to wipe his own tears.

"What's wrong, Skeletor?" Taako asked, smirking.

"Nothing," Kravitz said, overjoyed. "I was just so worried that you weren't—that after you remembered everything, you would want to—to break up, and I hoped you wouldn't, but—" He held Taako's face with his free hand and said, "I love you, Taako, and I'm just so glad that you're okay."

Taako stared at Kravitz, eyes wide and turning glossy. "You sap," Taako said, "You gave me Lup back, how could I leave you?" Taako held Kravitz tighter and kissed him. "Thank you," he said between kisses. "Thank you, I love you, thank you, thank you—"

Chapter Text

After everything had calmed down, everyone sat around the table. Occasionally they made small talk (and were much more successful with the twins there). They were all waiting for a call from Magnus or Angus before they could really do anything. Right now, Lup was shuffling cards in increasingly showy and complex ways, adding a deck of cards when she got bored.

Evidently, Taako had enough of the calm.

"I saw the Hunger," Taako mentioned.

Lup jolted and initiated an impromptu game of 156 card pick-up. "You what?" She said, not even noticing the cards flying around her.

"How sure are you?" Barry asked, several cards going through his form. "When was this?"

"It was during the Midsummer Harvest Festival," Taako explained. "Everyone passed out, except for Magnus, Merle, and me, but we saw the Hunger's eyes. I didn't know what it was, and nobody would tell us anything, so I thought it was a hazing thing at first. But now I've got a pretty good idea that it was the Hunger Scouts."

Lup and Barry were silent. Kravitz spoke up and said "So, if I'm understanding correctly, that means that the Hunger will be here by Midsummer?"

Barry nodded solemnly, counting on his skeletal fingers. "We have less than a month, then," he concluded.

Lup slammed her fist on the table and the remaining cards went flying. "What was Lucretia thinking, combining the Light from the relics before she had all of them?" Lup tapped her fingers on the table. "She needlessly imposed a deadline. What if it took her another year to find the next relic? Did she even think of that?" Each of Lup's fingers were rapping on the table with great force. "If she had only just waited, like we all agreed to do, then the Hunger would have starved, instead of coming back full force with nobody knowing what was happening! And then the planes wouldn't be cut off from each other!"

Taako reached for Kravitz' hand. Kravitz suddenly had the realization that being cut off from this plane meant that he wouldn't see Taako again once Lucretia casted her spell. He squeezed Taako's hand.

"I mean, there is another option," Barry said, and Taako's ear flicked at that. "I don't like it, but...we could always try again next cycle."

"I can't do that," Taako said instantly, squeezing Kravitz' hand tighter. "We're not leaving this world to the Hunger." Tears started falling from Taako's eyes and Kravitz wrapped his arms around him. "Dammit!" Taako shouted, openly sobbing now, "I told myself that I wouldn't get attached to these worlds, but I can't just—Angus—" Taako cut himself off and leaned into Kravitz. "I can't let him fend for himself."

"Merle's got kids here, too," Barry said. "I saw him with them, not too long ago. He just started getting back in their lives. He'd have to leave them."

"And Julia," Kravitz said. "Magnus' wife. She's waiting for him in the Astral Plane. They would have been reunited after he dies, but now he'll never see her again."

"This sucks," Lup groaned. "This sucks!" She shouted. "We've only got two options, and they're both terrible!"

Taako's ear flicked again. He lifted his head off of Kravitz' chest and said, "Wait. Lulu, say that last thing again."

"They're both terrible?"

Taako shook his head. "No, before that."

"This sucks?"

"No, that there's only two options," Taako said, squinting as he recalled the story. "In Refuge, there was this witch, Paloma I think. She made the most amazing scones and I can't believe I didn't get her recipe." Taako blinked. "Oh yeah, and she also gave prophecies. There was this one, it went—In the future, you will be offered a terrible choice between two options that will determine the fate of reality itself. In this moment of crisis, remember: there is always a third option—so, obviously, there's got to be another solution, right?"

Taako stood up and started pacing. "We could close ourselves off, and we could run. There's a third option though." Taako stopped dead in his tracks. "Lucretia's spell, could it keep the Hunger bound? Could it cut the Hunger off?"

Nobody moved for a full thirty seconds.

Then Barry said, "Huh."

And Lup said, "Huh."

Then Kravitz watched as the three of them grinned in unison. "So, it's possible, then?" He asked.

"There's no reason it shouldn't work," Barry said. Then he laughed and Lup joined in. Taako barreled towards Kravitz to embrace him. "Gods, how have we not thought of this before?"

Kravitz smiled. There was hope for them, after all.

Chapter Text

Taako spent a few hours flipping through some of the spell books that Barry collected over the years. When he came across a spell he remembered casting, he jotted down some notes on a loose sheet of paper. Essentially, he was recreating the spell book he used on the Starblaster. He wondered briefly if Lucretia knew where it was. He shrugged it off and instead contemplated writing the names of spells he'd relearned in the past decade.

Lup and Barry were on the other side of the room, double, triple, and quadruple checking the math of cutting the Hunger off from every other plane. They were both pretty sure it was possible, but truthfully, they just needed something to do while they waited for Angus or Magnus to call Taako.

For a few minutes in the beginning, Kravitz had been hovering awkwardly between the two parties, wanting to help but unsure of what he could do. Taako took pity on him and sent Kravitz out on a much needed grocery run to restock the pantry. Even when Barry had a body, he tended to put off eating when he was working. When he didn't, he forgot that food had existed altogether (that is, until he remembered the twins' cooking and the family dinners on the Starblaster).

It was late at night when Taako's Stone of Farspeech finally rang.

Taako jumped at the sound, stunned from the intense state of focus he'd been in for the past few hours. He immediately answered it.

"Hello?" Angus asked.

"Good news, kiddo! We figured out a way to fix everything!" Taako exclaimed, almost talking faster than he could think. "Like, literally everything! Just give the stone to Lucretia, I'll explain everything later."

 There was a long silence before anything happened. Taako heard Angus take a deep breath before saying, "How do you know the Director's name?"

Taako frowned. "She told me," Taako said. "What's wrong, Angus, did something happen?" Lup and Barry looked up from their work across the room, watching nervously but not interrupting.

Angus sniffed and Taako's stomach dropped. "I—I don't know what's going on," Angus admitted, cautious but determined.

"It's okay, boychik, just tell Taako what's on your mind."

Angus paused. "Tell who?" He asked.

"Me—Taako, from TV?" Taako said. "Master wizard and chef, reclaimer, your magic teacher, has a cool umbrella..." Taako trailed off.

"I heard static. How could I be hearing static if I've been inoculated?" Angus asked, his voice getting louder as he grew more frantic. "How do you know about the reclaimers? Are you a Red Robe? Why would a Red Robe have a Stone of Farspeech? And how do I have your frequency? Why is your name static?"

Taako was shaking. He knew he should be feeling something, but could barely process what was happening. All he knew was that he couldn't lose his temper. If he did, Angus would hang up and there would be no chance Angus would trust him again.

"You know me," Taako said, "and I know you." Taako spoke slowly as he thought about what he said. "Your name is Angus McDonald and you're the best detective in the world. And the moon. You're ten years old and smart enough to find the Bureau of Balance through the Voidfish's static. You work for them and you have for months. They've found five of the Grand Relics so far, and the Reclaimers are Magnus, a human fighter who loves dogs and wooden ducks, and Merle, a dwarven cleric who carries around an Extreme Teen Bible and needs to learn some self control around plants."

"That's all true," Angus said. "But-"

"Angus, tell me, who's been teaching you magic?" Taako asked. "If I'm right, you should be getting a small headache and feel static."

"That's accurate, how do you know all this?" Angus asked. "And how do I know if I can trust you?"

Taako took a deep breath before continuing. "I can't give you all the answers you need. Not without sounding like static. But you don't need me to know that you have just forgotten something very important. I used to work for the Bureau, but I have been erased from your memory. You put my name in your stone before it was static, so you must have trusted me before."

"I suppose that tracks," Angus said. "Alright. I don't trust you, but I don't not trust you."

"I can work with that," Taako said. He had no choice. "Tell me, Ango, where are Magnus and Merle right now?" He asked, hoping that they were in Lucretia's office, remembering the century. Or perhaps in the same room, listening in on the phone call.

"The Director just sent them down for the last relic," Angus answered. "In the Felicity Wilds."

Taako's hand was shaking uncontrollably. "Thanks, Angus," Taako said. "I'll talk to you later."

Taako hung up and set the stone down. Then he pulled his hair and screamed.

He felt something, a vague presence on both sides of him. Heard something that might have been his name. Taako cried without restraint. He couldn't control himself if he tried. He breathed in, but it wasn't enough, and he found himself gasping for air. He crossed his arms and squeezed, trying in vain to ground himself. The world was disappearing, and Taako felt completely alone.


Kravitz arrived at the cave at either the perfect time or the worst time.

Taako was writhing on the floor, Barry and Lup trying to comfort him but not physically being able to in their lich forms. Kravitz dropped the groceries and held Taako, casting Calm Emotions on him.

Taako was breathing normally. His softened the grip on his arms and relaxed into Kravitz. Taako finally opened his eyes and saw that Kravitz was holding him.

"Hey," Taako said.

"Taako, oh thank my Queen you're alright," Kravitz said, standing both of them up. "I was so worried—what happened?" Taako looked around, and saw Lup and Barry on the other side of Kravitz. Taako tested his footing, taking a couple steps, and then left Kravitz' arms to pace.

"I could understand where Lucretia is coming from," Taako said, turning away from then, "when she was trying to find the relics to take down the Hunger. I could forgive her for that. But she took Lup, and I will never forget that." Taako paused, considered, then said, "But give it a few decades and I might have been able to get over it."

Taako took a deep breath. "I thought there wasn't anything else she could take away from me."

Taako clenched his fists and spoke through his anger. "But now that she realizes her plan is flawed, she erased me and sent Magnus and Merle to the Felicity Wilds in a last-ditch attempt to cut off this plane from all of existence. She took Magnus and Merle. She somehow managed to take Angus away from me."

Taako turned towards the only family he had left.

"I'm going to kill Lucretia."

Chapter Text

Angus had always been terrible at keeping a planner. He knew it was a good idea, and that it would help him be organized, especially since he was extremely busy for a ten-year-old. He knew he had problems keeping track on the projects, research, and work he was doing, but there was something so impossible about writing what he was scheduled to do every single day. His record for keeping a planner was one month. He attempted keeping a planner every so often, but it always ended the same. Starting strong but forgetting after a few weeks.

Angus thanked all the gods that he started yet another attempt at keeping a planner the week before the name in his phone turned to static.

Angus snuck a peek at his schedule one final time as he stood outside the Director's office door. Magic lessons with Taako was written at least twice a week for as far as he had bothered write out.

He took a deep breath, composed himself, and knocked.

The Director, after a few moments, opened the door and let Angus in. They exchanged pleasantries and after noticing the distinct lacking of a familiar gnome, Angus frowned and asked if Davenport was alright.

"It's just that we usually play chess in the library, " Angus explained, "but today was the first day he hadn't been shown up, and I was worried."

The Director surprised by Angus' concern, but quickly composed herself and said, "Oh, no need to worry, Angus. Davenport has just been feeling a bit stressed lately and I had him take a break off-base."

"Oh," Angus said, nodding. He knew that the Director was lying. He wouldn't be a decent detective without some sense of when people were and weren't telling the truth. He just hoped he knew the Director well enough that she wouldn't put Davenport in any danger. Angus felt a bit of anxiety for the gnome, anyway. He knew that Davenport could easily get overwhelmed in stressful or overstimulating situations. Angus hoped he was okay.

"Is that all you're here for?" The Director asked, clearly wishing that was the case.

"Oh no, Madam Director," Angus said, opening his planner to that day's date. "I'm here for the magic lessons." Angus gave his most convincing smile. Seeing the Director's confusion, as he expected, Angus quickly added, "I must have gotten ink on my hands from all the fancy pens and smudged your name, but I'm here, right on time."

The Director smiled unconvincingly. "Yes," she said, "of course. Your magic lessons, how could I forget." The Director gripped her white oak staff and Mage Handed a beginner's spell book from her large bookshelf. "Now, what spell would you like to work on today?"

 


 

Kravitz warped everyone to the Felicity Wilds, but there was some sort of dark magic that prevented him from honing in on Magnus and Merle's souls. Or any souls, really. As such, Kravitz took them as close to their friends as he could and they headed off in the direction he couldn't travel. Taako was furiously messing with his stone as they walked.

"Come on, Merle, pick up, pick up—" Taako mumbled into the stone. He grunted in frustration. "Alright," he said, dialing a new frequency. "Maybe you'll pick up this time, Mags."

Lup and Kravitz had taken turns consoling Taako, but Barry had been silent and was wandering a few feet away from everyone else. His head was down and he didn't look up at Taako—or the others, for that matter. Kravitz and Lup met eyes, and Lup waved her hand, gesturing that he should talk to Barry.

"Maybe they're in the middle of a fight and that's why they aren't picking up," Lup suggested as Kravitz walked off.

Kravitz moved to walk next to Barry and said, "Are you alright?"

Barry looked up at Kravitz, then shook his head. He sighed. "They're after my relic," Barry told him.

"Oh," Kravitz said, not really knowing how to react. "So, does this mean you know what they're up against?"

Barry shrugged. "Not really," he said, "My relic was more... abstract than the others. I didn't really define everything that it could and couldn't do. But I've heard stories about these woods. Not—not the normal ones, like how dangerous the creatures are, or about getting lost. I heard stories about people who found a place called Wonderland. If they made their way out, they received the thing they went in for."

"What was that?" Kravitz asked, curiously. On occasion he found wayward souls speaking of such a place, though since they didn't commit death crimes, his job only entailed leading them to the Sea of Souls and he didn't get many details.

"Whatever they wanted most," Barry answered. "Gold, treasure, magical items, mythical potions...anything. The survivors all described what was inside differently, so it must have been personalized to each visitor. But one thing was consistent. It was Hell for them, in Wonderland."

"Ugh!" Taako grunted in the background. Kravitz looked back and saw Lup talking him through it. He turned his attention back to Barry.

"Your relic could do this?" He asked.

"I don't know for sure," Barry admitted. "But it has to be there." Barry produced an illusion of what looked like an obnoxiously decorated piece of paper. "When I was in a body, without a memory, I was given this—an invitation to Wonderland with the Animus Bell as the reward. I, uh, kicked the bucket before I got the chance to go." Barry dispelled the illusion.

"What did you create it to do, exactly?" Kravitz asked.

Barry grimaced. "You're not gonna like this," he warned. "All the relics were based on a school of magic, and mine was...necromancy." Barry paused to see how Kravitz would react. Kravitz was uncomfortable, but not more than he was when he found out that two of Taako's family members were liches. He was more uncomfortable that Barry wasn't telling him what the relic did.

"You can take the soul out of someone's body instantly and painlessly. If the user so desired, they could rearrange the the souls of the others. Or if they desired, they could take the soul's place."

Kravitz shuddered.

"Do you remember dying?" Barry asked.

Kravitz shook his head.

Barry sighed. "Dying hurts, Krav. There's so many ways you can die, and the seven of us experienced most of them. I figured if one of the crew was attacked on this plane, if they had an accident or just had bad luck, the least I could do was help them pass without pain. And if someone was threatening us, I could use the bell to stop them. I never even thought about someone using it maliciously. I was so single-minded. We just—we didn't know the thrall the relics would have."

"I get it," Kravitz said, then reconsidered. "Well, I don't really get it, not like you do, but I can understand why you did what you did." Kravitz placed a hand on Barry's robed shoulder and said with all the sincerity that he could muster, "I don't blame you, Barry. And I swear that after all of this is over, regardless of what happens, I'll do whatever it takes so you, and Lup, and Taako, and everyone else will stay together."

Liches didn't have the ability to cry, but Barry was just a few tears away from proving that wrong. "Thanks, Krav," He said. "You're a pretty good dude."

Kravitz opened his mouth to say something—what, he wasn't quite sure of yet—when he was interrupted.

"Oh hells yes, Maggie!" Taako yelled, causing Barry and Kravitz to stop in their tracks and rush over. It was the first time the stone that Taako was trying to contact was ringing out instead of going straight to voicepost.

On the last ring, Magnus answered and said, "Heyyyy, Director, didn't think you'd find out this soon. First off, real sorry about the mess I left, and uh, I swear I was gonna return the two guards but I kinda left them in the cannonball and then a dragon kind of destroyed it."

Taako was nearly speechless. "...Magnus, what in the fresh Hell happened while I was gone?"

"This isn't the Director?" 

"Uh, nope," Taako answered. "But seriously, what happened?"

"Who is this?"

"Uh, the name's Taako, homie. But you probably can't hear that."

The line went silent. Then Magnus said "Merle, come listen to this."

"Who is it?" Merle asked.

"I dunno."

"What do you mean you don't know? It's your stone!"

"Just because it's mine doesn't mean I know who's calling me."

"That's not how it works?"

"What, do you think caller ID just exists for every other person and shows up even if you don't have their name in your system?"

"Why wouldn't it, there could be some sort of magic out there that does that!"

"That's not how magic works, old man!"

"How would you know how magic works!"

Taako shook his head and sighed as Magnus and Merle went off on each other. "See," he said to Barry, Lup, and Kravitz, "This is what I've had to deal with for the past eleven months."

"Hey, I heard that, you...guy!" Merle said. "Hey, what even is your name, anyway?"

Taako rolled his eyes. "It's Taako," he answered.

"What's with the static?" Merle asked.

"That's why I called you over," Magnus said.

"Hey, idiots, shut up, I'm trying to tell you!" Taako shouted, clearly frustrated but not being able to get through to the other two. "Krav, did you have to deal with this when we were in that crystal nonsense lab?"

Kravitz smirked. "Sort of, but it was worse. You see, there was another person to annoy me." Taako elbowed Kravitz, who shrugged and said, "Just wait it out. Their curiosity will outweigh their need to babble on."

"You sure about that?" Lup and Barry asked simultaneously.

Kravitz shrugged. "You know them better than I do."

Merle and Magnus were still hollering at each other as if there was nobody on the other side of the stone. If nothing else, it was entertaining.

 

Chapter Text



Taako turned off his stone, closed his eyes, and focused. Kravitz watched as Taako's ears twitched while the rest of him was completely still. Then Taako pointed out in a direction and said, "They're that way!"

The four of them set off, not quite running, but still keeping a fast pace. As they walked, they discussed what they would do when they find Magnus and Merle, and what to do about Wonderland and the Animus Bell.

"I could go in and follow them," Barry suggested. "It was my original plan, you know, for when the three of you went together. I'd just sort of, you know, be there as backup, try to figure out how to get you guys out if you needed it."

"Do we even want to go inside?" Kravitz asked. "I've come across those who lost their lives in Wonderland. I just think it might be, well—risky is putting it lightly."

Barry sighed. "I know, Kravitz, but we need to get my bell out of the hands of whoever's using it."

"So I'll go in with Magnus and Merle, right? And then you guys'll come in with us," Taako said.

"No, I don't think so," Barry said. "I don't know the kind of undead detection they have in there, but I doubt it would let two liches and a reaper just walk in. If it was just me, however—"

"Uh, babe," Lup interrupted, "love of my life, death, and undeath, you're my best friend and I love you, but if you think you're going in there without me—"

"I can't lose you again, Lup," Barry said. "It's too dangerous."

"Well, I can't lose you either!" Lup said.

"Then I'll go," Kravitz said. Lup and Barry looked at him. "You two can go back to the cave and figure out a way to contact Lucretia."

Taako gave an exasperated sigh. "Geezy creezy, it's like you guys forgot I exist." Taako pointed to Kravitz. "Hey, bone man, in the crystal lab, you were this white blob that went into crystal golems, right?" Kravitz nodded. "So, could you do that to a living person?"

"I could," Kravitz said, furrowing his eyebrows, "but Taako, that would be possession."

"Exactly," Taako said, smiling and shooting finger guns at Kravitz. "When Liches are possessing someone, it's, like, a million times harder to track them, or something. We used to do it all the time on the Starblaster. We'd have one person go in to negotiate, and if things turned sour, BAM!" Taako punctuated his sentence with a clap. "Double liches on the attack! We could just do that here, yeah? And we don't have to explain to Magnus and Merle why two red robes, the Grim Reaper, and someone they can't remember is going to follow them into their mission. Everyone would get in, and you guys could leave my body if you need to do some legwork."

Kravitz placed a hand on Taako's shoulder and looked him in the eyes. "Taako, are you sure you want to do this?"

Taako rolled his eyes. "Uh, ch'yeah, I suggested it, babe. Would I offer it if I didn't want to do it?"

Kravitz considered, then said, "I suppose not."

"Besides," Taako said, "it's you guys. I'm totally down for whatever you guys want to do. Just—Lup, don't make me say anything stupid while you're in my brain again."

"No promises," Lup said before her form descended on Taako and disappeared. Barry followed soon after, but Kravitz hesitated.

"Are you absolutely sure about this? Kravitz asked Taako. "I'm just worried—three beings possessing you might be a bit overwhelming. And there's no guarantee that none of us would take over your body, even by accident."

Taako pulled Kravitz close and kissed him. Taako pulled away ever so slightly and said, "I don't say this a lot, but I trust you, and I love you. Let me do this."

Kravitz was dazed and did nothing but smile stupidly for a moment. Then he nodded, reverted back into his soul form, and descended into Taako.

It was a strange feeling, inhabiting a body that wasn't his own. Kravitz often used possession when he was working, but that was mostly because he had a flair for the dramatic. He did it to intimidate his bounties and have a little fun at the same time. He only stuck to inanimate objects, though, generally old dolls or giant crystal golems.

Kravitz had seen more than enough cases of possession in his line of work. Necromantic cults thrived on it, forcing their victims' bodies to participate in their rituals. So he vowed to never possess a living being without their consent.

If he was being honest, Kravitz never even considered that consensual possession was a thing that could happen. Then again, he supposed, I never thought I would be working with two liches and pardoning hundreds of death crimes for a small group of beings that came from beyond the planar system.

Being inside a living body again was an experience that Kravitz couldn't have prepared for.

The first thing Kravitz felt was a heartbeat. Then Taako took a deep breath and Kravitz could feel the air rush into Taako's lungs—it was satisfying, the feeling of air filling his chest.

The next thing Kravitz noticed was the sensation of temperature. Taako's body was so much more sensitive than Kravitz' usual construct was. He noticed for the first time how warm it was in the Felicity Wilds. He also felt as sweat gently cooled Taako's body. As Taako started walking, Kravitz could even tell the difference of temperature between shade and direct sunlight.

"You doing good, Bone Man?" Kravitz heard Lup's voice say. For a moment, he had forgotten all about the other two passengers on the Taako Express.

"I think so," Kravitz answered. "It's a little strange being inside a living body again."

"Yeah, I get that," Barry said—or was it thought? "Don't worry, you get used to it pretty quickly."

"Hey, I think I see them," Taako said out loud, bringing everyone's attention to their current line of sight. Sure enough, there were Magnus and Merle, arguing a few dozen yards away.

"You got a plan, Koko?" Lup asked.

Taako scoffed. "Who needs a plan?" He said, trotting forward and calling attention to himself.

"Hail and well met!" Taako called, "You dudes need a wizard in your party?"

 

Chapter Text

Magnus immediately reacted to Taako's presence by reflexively swinging his axe at Taako, who was just out of the line of attack. "Woah, who are you?" Magnus exclaimed. Merle, standing at his side, was holding out his Extreme Teen Bible as though that would intimidate anyone taller than a stickbug.

Taako held up his hands and said "Woah there, my dudes, I mean no harm. I'm here to help, actually."

Magnus slowly lowered his axe but didn't take his eyes off of Taako. His eyes quickly found their way to Taako's left hand—or rather, his bracer. "You're with the Bureau?" He asked. "I guess you do sort of look familiar."

Taako opened his mouth to answer but Merle said "What do you mean? He doesn't look familiar to me at all. Wait—maybe he's one of those guys that left the Bureau and we gotta kill him!" Magnus raised his axe again at Merle's statement.

"Alright, Krav, I get what you mean. We are kinda dumb," Taako thought.

"Who are you?" Magnus demanded again.

"I'm Taako," Taako answered. "But you probably couldn't hear that, even though you've been inoculated by the Voidfish."

"Alright, what's going on here?" Merle asked.

Taako shrugged. "Honestly? No idea," he lied. "One second I'm up on the moon, doing my thing, and the next thing I know, nobody can remember what I'm doing there or hear my name. Then I wake up on the surface with the cannonball summoning mechanism thing on my bracer broken. I've been trying to track down other Bureau members for months so they can take me back to the moon to get this whole thing fixed. You guys are the first ones I ran into."

Merle held his chin and hummed. "So if no one from the Bureau can remember you, how does Magnus know you, then?" He asked skeptically.

"Well, I didn't say I knew him, just that he looked familiar," Magnus said.

Taako spoke. "But you don't know how, so I must be not too familiar."

"But not too not familiar," Merle countered.

Taako suddenly snapped. "Oh, I know! I did a show in Raven's Roost a few years back. Sizzle it Up, with—uh,"

"Koko," Lup supplied.

"Shut up," Taako thought. "Great, now I can't think of anything else."

"It was called Sizzle it Up! with Koko, but, you know, with my actual name. You might remember me from then."

Magnus' eyes went wide open. "Oh yeah! I remember that show! You made this, like, really good pot roast—man, I wouldn't shut up about it for weeks! Julia teased me so much about it."

Taako smiled. "I can make it right now, if you'd like. I could use a long rest, anyway. You guys are welcome to join. You good with that, Merle?"

Merle squinted at Taako. "Wait a second, make it with what? We don't have any kind of food on us—well, except for gorp. And how do we even know you aren't some kind of saboteur that's not gonna poison us?"

Taako's pulse quickened at that accusation. Kravitz could feel Lup and Barry's confusion. He supposed that perhaps Taako's reluctance to cook must have started after they got split up.

Taako smiled to mask his uneasiness. "Well, first off, I'm a wizard that specializes in transmutation, so I've got no problem turning that gorp into first-class ingredients. Second, I'll be tasting the food as I go, so I'd be long dead before you ever got a serving."

"Won't make that mistake twice," Taako thought.

"What does that mean?" Lup asked. Taako ignored her.

"And lastly," Taako said before Lup could press harder, "Look, I probably don't know as much about Wonderland as you two, but I do know that it's super dangerous. Even as a high level wizard, there's no way I would last very long alone. And you two wouldn't do much better. Look, we all stand to gain from working together. Plus, once this is all done, you guys can take me up to the moon and we'll get this all straightened out with the Director."

Magnus and Merle looked at each other. After a tense moment, Merle shrugged and said "Alright, fine, if it means doing less work then sure, welcome aboard."


 

Kravitz knew that something had been holding Taako back from cooking. He loved cooking and was very talented, that much was obvious, but it took Taako being in a very good mood to actually do it, and having other people eat his food was an entirely different thing. Sure, Kravitz was curious, but it was obviously hard for Taako to think about, so he never pressed whenever it came up. He was starting to think that perhaps he should have. It might have made this conversation a bit easier.

Lup was having none of Taako's stubbornness, and now there was nothing for Taako to do but think while he prepared the pot roast. Which made it harder to ignore Lup.

"Koko, spill—what happened?" Lup asked.

Taako jerked his hand while slicing vegetables. Luckily, it was the one not holding a knife. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't act dumb, you know what I'm talking about. Something about not making a mistake twice?"

Taako sighed and put the knife to the side, putting the vegetables into the pot and stirring. "When we all got separated, Lucretia left me with a wagon that had 'Sizzle it Up! with Taako' written on the side. So I started traveling from town to town, doing all these flashy shows, transmuting food for the fun of it and entertaining whoever bothered to watch. I did get pretty popular. Even got so busy that I needed to hire a stage hand." Taako gritted his teeth and Kravitz could feel the hot wash of anger fall over Taako's body.

"Taako, you're going to ruin the roast," Barry warned, and it was only then that Taako noticed that he was frantically stirring the pot. He stopped, put the spoon down, and put a lid on the roast.

"My last show was in a place called Glamour Springs," Taako thought, sinking down next to the fire. "It was one of my biggest showings. There were forty people in that audience." Taako smiled bitterly. "I made one of our favorites, Lulu. Thirty-garlic-clove chicken with an elderberry garnish and I didn't taste a single thing. I handed out samples and then people got sick. Really sick. I had Sazed get us out of there as quickly as possible. The next day, Sazed took off and left me with nothing. I didn't blame him." Taako took a staggered breath. "Every single person in that audience died that day. I thought—the only thing that could have happened, was that I must have transmuted elderberries into nightshade. I promised I would never cook for anyone else again."

Hot tears were falling down Taako's cheeks steadily. Kravitz wished so desperately that he could leave Taako's body to comfort him. "Then Magnus' stupid cup showed me that Sazed put arsenic in the chicken to get me back for pushing him out of the spotlight. So it wasn't me all along, and everything was fine, right? That doesn't change the fact that it could have been my fault. I still fed those people their deaths. I should have tasted along the way like any good chef knows to do."

"Woah, woah, hey—" Magnus' voice called from behind Taako— "Are you alright?" He asked, now right by Taako's side.

"Y-yeah," Taako answered shakily, "doin' just peachy."

"Well, no offense, but I don't believe you," Magnus said. He held out his arms uncertainly and said, "You look like you could use a hug?"

Taako practically launched into Magnus' arms, relishing in the familiarity and comfort that Magnus had to offer. Kravitz was relieved that someone was available to help.

"Oh Koko," Lup said, "I'm so sorry."


 

A few hours later, the pot roast was finished. Taako explained that he had a special salt shaker that would turn pink if there was any poison and took a bite off of his plate to prove it. Magnus and Merle dug in and immediately their eyes went wide and they shoveled it all into their mouths.

"This is even better than I remember," Magnus declared, plating up seconds only seconds after he had his first. "Man, this tastes like home!"

Taako's chest warmed at that declaration. Another swirl of pride filled his chest when Merle snapped and said, "That's what I was thinking! There was something about this that just takes the homesickness away. I feel like I'm at the beach!"

Despite what Lup, Barry, and Kravitz assuring him that everything was fine, along with the salt and his own body not being poisoned, there was something inside Taako that everyone felt that told them that something went wrong. Taako's foot was tapping uncontrollably underneath his robes and his hands were shaking.

Kravitz hoped that the feeling would pass before long.


 

The next morning, with their health and spell slots replenished, Taako, Magnus, and Merle (along with Lup, Barry, and Kravitz) set off to find Wonderland. It didn't take long to find the large building in the middle of a clearing. Flashing lights sped by and eventually a giant billboard stopped in front of the group, saying "TAAKO MAGNUS MERLE" in a very fancy font, with another equally gaudy font spelling out "THE ANIMUS BELL" with a picture of a relatively plain looking bell on the sign.

"That's it," Barry confirmed. "I'd know it anywhere."

Kravitz was very uneasy once Taako walked within a certain radius. "This place is swarming with undead energy," He warned. "I've never sensed anything like it in all my years of reaping."

The trio walked up to the building, and in response, one of the black-and-white roulette-like panels opened up, revealing a dark room. Not dark as in the absence of light, though. It was as though they were about to step through a portal into the end of the universe.

"You guys ready?" Magnus asked.

"Yep," Taako answered.

"Ready as I'll ever be," Merle supposed.

"Alright," Magnus said, drawing his battle axe. "Then let's go."

The Tres Horny Boys—along with Taako's three undead hitchhikers—disappeared into the inky blackness.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Kravitz noticed when Taako walked through the door was the darkness. Taako turned around, and Kravitz expected to see a door close menacingly, but there was almost nothing. Taako looked around the room and even with his Dark Vision, Kravitz could only make out basic shapes. The only thing he could tell was how large the room was.

Out of nowhere, spotlights flooded the room with light and a runway appeared with two figures standing—no, posing—on it. The two figures appeared to be male and female twin elves, both wearing different but equally gaudy outfits in gold, green, and purple. The female elf raised a single gloved hand in the air and snapped.

As soon as she did, the room lit up in bright neon lights that flashed along to loud, pulsating music that seemed to come from the air around them. Every time the lights flashed, the elves stroke a different pose, making their way towards the party of adventurers.

Needless to say, Taako was loving every second of this.

When the two elves made their way to the end of the runway, the music stopped and Taako applauded enthusiastically. 

The male elf spoke, his voice seemingly coming from the air all around them. "You made it. Welcome to Wonderland!"

Then the female elf said "Hopefully you didn't have too much trouble navigating the Wilds."

Suddenly, Kravitz felt an intense dread—a sure sign that something very necromantic and very dangerous was so near that he could almost feel a physical presence. Taako turned his head and the male elf's hand was on his shoulder, though Taako couldn't feel it. The hand was weightless—and the source of Kravitz' dread.

"Careful Taako," Kravitz warned. "That elf is definitely a lich."

"Noted," Taako thought. "The other elf probably is too, then, right?"

Kravitz focused his soul's energy on sensing necromantic presences. Obviously, he felt Lup and Barry—he'd be concerned if he didn't, with them occupying the same body, and all. As he reached his soul out into the room, he felt two more presences, one directly behind Taako and one near where Magnus was standing.

Two pairs of liches, Kravitz thought privately, though there was an intense difference between the liches.

Lup and Barry were liches that sustained themselves with love. Their essence was tied to their love for their family and each other, which gave off a strangely comforting vibe. Kravitz only really noticed it when he was focusing on them like this.

His attention turned to the other liches and felt an even deeper dread than before. Their essence was tied to something else altogether—something nefarious. They were using some other feeling or emotion to control themselves.

"They're definately liches," Kravitz told Taako, "Nasty ones. Please be careful."

"Are you excited for your quest’s end?" The male elf asked. "Whatever you seek, you will find it in Wonderland."

"Uh, sure?" Taako said.

The female elf appeared behind Magnus and rested her hand on his shoulder. "It's not gonna come—" The female elf said, scaring Magnus, who screamed. She laughed. "It's not gonna come easy, though, dear, are you prepared for that?"

Magnus, bewildered and uncomfortable, blurted out, "What? Was that an innuendo?"

The female elf winked and said "Maybe." Magnus hummed uncomfortably and his entire body tensed.

The female elf disappeared and took her place back on the runway. The male elf also appeared next to her.

"Hey, check it," Taako noted, "They don't have shadows."

"Are you guys holograms?" Magnus asked, apparently also noticing the lack of shadows. "Are you illusions?"

The female elf said "When we look this good, does it really matter?"

"I mean kinda," Taako thought with an air of annoyance.

"What's up, Koko?" Lup asked. "I figured you'd be all over this."

"I kinda was, but they stole our eccentric twin elves schtick, Lulu," Taako thought. "We did it first—and we did it better."

"Hell yeah we did," Lup said.

The male elf's voice filled the room again. "The rules are simple. You will be evaluated through a series of tests and games in order to determine the extent to which you truly want your prize."

The female elf spoke. "The tests will be rough, but they're important. In Wonderland you can only find the things you truly desire by losing the things that hold you back. You follow the rules of the tests, you push through the pain, and you will leave here happy."

The male elf spoke again. "You break the rules, you try to find shortcuts, and you won't leave here... happy. Ready to get started?"

Taako looked over at Magnus and Merle, who both looked back at him, and the three adventurers nodded.

The two elves raised their hands in the air and snapped. They disappeared into thin air and the platform they were standing on transformed into a giant roulette wheel that placed itself in front of the adventurers. Each panel had a different symbol on it. Two floodlights moved to reveal a large stone door behind the wheel with three red dim circles over it.

The male elf's voice said "This is the Wheel of Sacrifice. You spin it, and you give up whatever it lands on. You are, of course, free to refuse if you land on something you value too much to lose, but there will be a penalty for your reluctance."

The female elf said " After completing enough sacrifices, the door will open." Then the voices were gone and the only light in the room was directed to the wheel.

Merle said "I gotta tell you, the production values in Wonderland are stunnin'. They are absolutely beautiful."

Taako shrugged. "Eh, I've seen it before."

Barry thought, "Yeah, these guys have nothing on the escape rooms from cycle fifty-two."

Taako looked at the lights above the door. "So, looks like we've gotta give up three things to move on, yeah?"

Magnus lifted a hand to his chin. "Now is this the kind of thing where we each do it once, or every time we spin it all three of us have to sacrifice whatever comes up?"

The male elf's voice came back to explain, "Each of you will take one turn at a time. And you spin the wheel and whoever spun the wheel is the one who will have to do the sacrificing."

Magnus volunteered to go first. He spun the wheel, landed on hand, and in a moment that would set the tone for the rest of the adventure, the two elves debated if the punishment they chose they would crush their spirits too early on. Magnus ended up just losing his pinky finger, which Merle was bitter about. In a split second, Mangus' finger was gone and one of the lights above the door turned green.

Merle spun next and landed on eye. The elves decided to take his Dark Vision.

"Could I give up an eye?" Merle asked.

"Not yet," The female elf answered.

Merle's dark vision was gone and another red light turned to green.

Finally, it was Taako's turn to spin. He grabbed the wheel, swung his arm, and—he landed on the skull.

The female elf said "Skull's a nasty one. Skull is...sort of like delayed gratification. Well, not for you, for me. All skull means is at some point in the future, you will face some pretty bad luck. I'm not gonna tell you what that means necessarily but I will be honest. It won't be great. What do you say, Koko?"

"I...don't know," Taako answered.

"You're turning this one down?" The female elf asked.

"Now hold on, Koko," Magnus said, "before you do, take a look at the other things on that wheel. There's not, like, a good one."

Taako sighed. "Yeah, but my rationale is that—there's a chance I won't have to suffer the penalty alone, right? It may be something that impacts all three of us."

Magnus and Merle stared at Taako. They obviously had no idea why he would care about their wellbeing. They didn't know that Taako had been on their adventures with them, and had been crewmates with them for a century before that.

The female elf spoke up. "I do wanna point out it will only affect you, Koko. It's your burden to bear."

Taako repressed a sigh of relief and said "Yeah, fine, I'll take the bad luck."

The final light turned green and the stone door opened to reveal another pitch black room.

"Hey Taako," Barry said before they walked through the door. "Did you notice the fog?"

"What fog?" Taako thought.

"Whenever anyone complained, there was this, like, black fog coming from their mouths."

Taako hummed. "I'll be sure to look out for it."

"Could that be what's powering the other liches?" Lup suggested.

"Maybe," Barry said. "But I think it would be best if we kept a positive attitude from here on out."

 

Chapter Text

 

The door vanished behind the three adventurers and they were left alone in the darkness again. A light appears in front of them, and as they get closer, they can see that the light was emitting from a pedestal, which was roughly chest-high (or head-high for the dwarf). The pedestal had a screen wrapping around it that showed the pixelated faces of the three adventurers that stood before it. On top of the pedestal were two buttons, one reading "TRUST" and the other "FORSAKE."

The female elf's voice filled the room.

"Only one of you will play this particular game. Let's find out who it's going to be."

The pixelated faces spun around the pedestal and landed on Merle.

"The rules of this game are simple," The male elf said. "You all probably know this already, but you're not the only ones currently making your way through Wonderland right now. This section of the game will be something of a... a competitive mode. Right now there's another group in another chamber identical to the one you're standing in now. Now the next room you'll face will feature a deadly, deadly challenge. But based on your decision in this room, you can change your fate in the next."

"Oh", Taako thought, "it's just the prisoner's dilemma."

"The prisoner's dilemma?" Kravitz asked.

"Yeah," Taako explained, "It's this thought experiment thing. The idea is that two prisoners are captured and separated during questioning. They can either confess to the crime or betray the other person. If they both confess, they each serve one year in prison. If they both betray, then they both serve two years."

"What if one of them confesses and the other betrays?" Kravitz asked.

"That's where things get interesting," Taako said. "The one who betrays goes free, and the one who confesses is sentenced to three years."

"Did you ever have to deal with this before?" Kravitz asked.

"Lots of times," Lup said. "We figured out early on that we should just coordinate what our decision would be before we went on missions. But, uh, that's not really an option here."

"Yeah," Taako said, "I'm glad I'm not the one who has to deal with this right now."

Merle slammed his hand on the "TRUST" button. The walls illuminated bright white and letters appeared on the wall in front of them, reading "YOUR DECISION: TRUST."

Taako held his breath as "THEIR DECISION:" appeared.

Bright red letters reading "FORSAKE" filled the rest of the screen.

"Shoulda picked forsake," Taako mumbled. "Now I've got that bad luck looming over my head during the worst possible outcome."

"Don't worry," Magnus said, putting a hand on Taako's shoulder. "I'm a protection fighter."

"You suck!" Merle yelled at the disembodied liches. Black smoke came from his mouth and rose toward the ceiling.

"Hey, Koko?" Magnus asked. He waved Merle over to join the conversation "In the other room, when I was like 'I don't wanna cut off my pinky,' and now in here, when Merle was all like, 'I don't wanna go in there bad—guy', this like fog stuff came out of our mouths. What's that?"

"Whenever we complain, there's this sort of necrotic energy that makes the fog leave us," Taako explained. "So here's my best guess: This place isn't trying to kill us. It's trying to make us miserable. And it seems like it's feeding off of that. That's my best guess. This is a place designed to make us miserable and it's—every time that we vocalize that, it knows that it is succeeding and it's feeding off of that energy."

"So do you think it's better to give it what it wants? Or to stay super positive?" Magnus asked.

"Oh, I have no idea," Taako said. "I mean, I will say this. I don't see any reason to feed it if we don't have to."

"Yeah, let's swing towards the positive side of things," Magnus agreed. "Alright, let's do this."

The three adventurers entered the next room to find the ceiling covered in industrial equipment with a hatch in the center. The door disappeared behind them and three large cubes appeared before them.

"Welcome to the Monster Factory!" The male elf exclaimed. "This is so exciting. Each of you will roll these dice in front of you and you will build a bespoke foe to square off against. It could be something new altogether, nobody knows! Now, based on the consequences of the Decision Game, there will be some... difficulties imposed on you during this challenge, but let's not worry about that. Let's roll those bones."

Merle volunteered to go first. The die in front of Merle had names of different monsters on it. He rolled the die and got "slime." The box glowed bright green and disappeared.

Magnus went next, rolling the box with adjectives on it. He got "poisonous" and the box disappeared.

Taako went last and rolled "regenerating." He sighed with relief and said, "Oh, that could have gone so much worse."

The machinery roared to life. Sounds of industry filled the air around them as the monster was being created.

"Aw, that's so disappointing," The female elf whined. "I've seen a regenerating poisonous slime before."

"Oh, well that's nothing to worry about," The male elf said, and Kravitz didn't like the sound of that. "They didn't win the decision game. So they're gonna do it again."

The three adventurers rolled again and got exponentially worse results.

"Hell yeah!" The male elf exclaimed. "A flying, electrified dire bear! Wonderful! That would be what you would have to face if you both chose "betray", but unfortunately you all are getting the sharp end of the stick, so to speak. So, one more dice."

Another die appeared, this time rolling itself before anyone could read what was on it. As soon as it landed, the elves squealed in delight, filling the adventurers with dread.

"Oh, this is delicious!" The male elf said. "Not only are you facing off against a regenerating, poisonous slime and a flying, electrified dire bear, you're going to face off against multiplying regenerating, poisonous slimes and multiplying flying, electrified dire bears. This is gonna get zany!"

The machines whirred to life again and two beasts fell out of the hatch. The first was a fifteen foot cube of slime that emitted a horrible stench. The other was a giant dire bear with beautiful angelic wings. Bolts of electricity crackled around the bear as it roared, shaking the room.

Taako gripped the umbrastaff. He looked over to the other two adventurers. Magnus had his shield out and Merle was flipping through his Extreme Teen Bible. Then Taako turned back to the monsters in front of them and prepared for battle.

 

Chapter Text

Taako immediately started preparing a spell. When he was alive, Kravitz had been a bard, so he was familiar with the feeling of magic being channeled through a living body. It was an entirely different experience, though, when the magic was being called by sheer knowledge rather than an instrument. It was an interesting sensation. 

Being a wizard herself, Lup must have been able to recognize the specific spell Taako was preparing, because she said "Taako, what are you doing?"

"I'm casting Flesh to Stone," Taako thought back at her.

"I mean, it's slime," Lup pointed out. "I wouldn't—it definitely doesn't have flesh."

"Uh, in what reality is that not made of flesh?" Taako asked. "Its flesh is—well, flesh."

"I mean," Barry interjected, "if the spell were called 'Surface to Stone,' would that then work? Is that where the line in the sand is drawn?"

"Yeah, yeah of course it would," Lup said, "but this is, uh, if this thing had flesh it would be a bag of skin full of goo."

"What's holding it together then, Lup? Surface tension?" Taako asked, incredulous.

"Um, yeah?" Lup said.

"What do you call it then, Lup," Taako asked, "what do you call it when like a pudding gets that film at the top? Is that not called a 'skin?'"

"Well that's a crème brûlée, Taako."

"No you're talking—It has flesh! Its flesh is made of goo!"

"Mmmm, definitely I don't think so! Because if we're doing that then you could be like ,'hm, the ocean, I'm gonna turn all of it to stone with this spell because the surface of this ocean is like flesh.'"

"If the ocean were a sentient being, Lup, moving around attacking people, then yes, I would say I would have a leg to stand on in that argument!"

"I can't believe we're having an argument about whether or not slime is flesh," Lup said. "Come on, Taako, do you really wanna cast a spell and have it not work?"

"Okay, fine. Fine!" Taako yelled. "Alright, I'm gonna cast a different spell on this stupid slime, it's called Disintegrate." Taako then immediately bent over and cast the spell so it looked like it was coming out of his butt.

The ray hit the slime and most of it evaporated into thin air. As soon as it was hit, the slime split into two and the ray refracted and hit one of those slimes. The ray kept refracting until there were only three knee-height slimes in front of them.

Magnus and Merle gaped at Taako's spell and the destruction it wrought. "Glad you brought me now, my dudes?" Taako asked, leaning on the umbrastaff.

The Multiplying Flying Electrified Dire Bear roared, a wave of electricity flying off its body. The electricity gathered and manifested itself into a projection of the bear and both bears flew down at Magnus. Magnus dodged the electric one, but the real bear managed to get a pretty big hit on him.

The three slimes regenerated, growing from knee-height to waist-height in an instant. Two went to attack Taako—understandable, considering he disintegrated their bigger form. Taako raised his arms to shield himself, and did get hurt, but only felt one of the slimes hit him. Taako looked up and saw Magnus standing in front of him, his shield raised. Magnus looked back at Taako, nodded, and got back into his position.

The last slime hit Merle, who luckily was resistant to poison damage, so he didn't get hurt too bad. Merle lifted up his bible, recited a spell, and a forty-foot high cylinder of fire opened up in the room. Two slimes and the electric bear projection were gone, and all that was left was an ankle-high slime and the real bear, which was looking pretty much fine.

Taako took his attention off of Merle for a second and looked at Magnus, who was holding a soaking wet rope that he tied to the Chance Lance and his grappling hook. Magnus hooked the grappling hook to a piece of machinery and readied his lance.

"Hey, Bear!" Magnus yelled. "You've been a bad boy, and you're grounded!" Magnus hit the bear with the lance, and the bear's charge of electricity shot down the rope. It hit the machine and sparks flew into the room. The bear's wings burned off, giving off a terrible smell as the bear fell to the ground. Magnus then went to attack the bear with Railsplitter, but somehow managed to completely miss.

Kravitz felt something tap Taako's shoulder. Taako looked down and found a bolt on the floor. Then a few more fell and found their way next to Taako's feet. Not a second later, Taako looked up just in time to see a large piece of machinery land directly on him.

Several things happened at once.

The first thing Kravitz felt was a sort of whiplash—not just physical, but that too, more that his soul was being thrown from Taako's body. He just managed to stay in Taako's body, but it felt less crowded.

Before he could think about that, though, Kravitz was hit with the pain. He hadn't experienced anything like this in a long time—probably not since he'd died. The most pain he felt was a burning whenever radiant damage hit him. But that was nothing like this.

Taako couldn't breathe. His head was pounding—it had been hit on the way down, but he had managed to fall so his head and arms weren't being crushed under the machinery. When Taako opened his eyes, everything was blurred and the lights were blinding. The weight on Taako's lower half was crushing and the pain came in waves, from barely manageable to excruciatingly overwhelming. Kravitz could feel the life literally being squeezed out of him.

In an act of desperation, Taako clenched his teeth as he reached over to grab the umbrastaff. As soon as he touched it, he cast Blink, and suddenly his body was thrown into the ethereal plane. He was released from the hold of the machinery and scrambled away from it. He looked around just in time to see the Hunger Scouts before they scattered.

Taako took a deep breath. Blink would gave him a brief moment to himself.

"Well, that was unlucky," Taako thought.

Kravitz would have laughed if he hadn't been feeling so much pain.

"We all here?" Taako asked. "Krav?"

"I'm here."

"Lup?" 

"Yeah, I'm here too, bro."

"Barold?"

There was no response.

"Barry? You there?"

"Taako, I think he's gone," Lup thought, panicking.

Before long, a red-robed figure Blinked into the ethereal plane.

"Taako?" Barry called. "Oh thank the gods, I—I got thrown out when that machine hit you. Are Kravitz and Lup still in you?"

Taako nodded, still sitting. "Yeah, they are. You gonna hop back in, or—?"

Barry shook his head. "Nah, I think I've got an idea on how to help you guys from the outside. I'll be with you, I'll just be hidden."

"Sounds like a plan, Barold," Taako said. "Well, spell's almost up. Better get ready for the fight again."

"Yeah, just—good luck out there, Taako."

Taako nodded. "You too."

Then the spell ended and Taako—along with Kravitz and Lup—was transported back to the Prime Material Plane and thrown right back into the battle.

 

Chapter Text

When Taako stepped back into the Prime Material Plane, he took a moment to take stock of his surroundings. There were no more slimes, and Magnus was just rushing back to his place after attacking the Dire Bear. Taako made an impressed noise; Magnus had actually been able to do a good amount of damage on the bear, which was now shooting sparks out from its body.

Taako casted a spell over the bear and a cylinder of rock hard ice pounded into the ground. The bear made an attempt to dodge, but failed. The bear tried to charge towards Taako, but didn't make it past the wall of frost. When the spell ended, the cloud of frost dissipated and the bear was standing there, frozen solid and defeated.

Magnus and Merle ran up to the bear, yelling at it and trying to shatter it. A bolt of pain shot through Taako's body and he fell down, vomiting blood. Magnus and Merle had turned to look at the injured elf, wincing at how badly he'd been hurt. Merle flipped through his Extreme Teen Bible and cast a spell to heal the group. Taako's wounds started stitching up and he let out a sigh of relief. The pain, though nowhere near gone, was being lessened.

"Now, hold on just a second, what do you think you're doing?" The male elf's voice said, filling the room with intense dread.

"That's cheating!" The female elf shouted. "You know the rules: once you sacrifice something here, you don't get it back!"

Taako's body was hit with a bolt of necrotic energy and he doubled over. His wounds reopened, and the pain came flooding back. All the healing that had been done to him had just been undone.

Kravitz gathered up all his strength, prepared to call his scythe and tear those liches apart. Just as he was about to exit Taako's body, he felt a force hold him back.

"Kravitz, don't!" The force called. It was Lup.

"I'm going to destroy them," Kravitz said, fuming.

"We don't know where the bell is," Lup reasoned. "Please, I know it's hard, gods I want to kill them for hurting Taako too, but we can't blow our cover!"

"You two okay in there?" Taako thought, laying motionless on the ground.

"No," Kravitz said, "I can't just sit here and watch you suffer."

Taako took a deep breath, which caused a soreness in his chest. "Well, you don't have much of a choice, my dude," Taako thought. "Who knows what they'll do when they find out there's a Reaper in here? We don't know who they'll take it out on."

"Taako could end up getting more hurt," Lup mentioned. "And the others, too."

Kravitz would have glared at Lup if he'd been able to. He knew she was right, but he was still enraged.

"As soon as we get the okay from Barold, I'll let you go to town on them, but for now stay put, yeah?" Taako said.

Kravitz calmed himself as best he could. "Yeah, alright," he agreed. "But I hate it."

"I don't like this any more than you, Ghost Rider," Lup said, "but we've got no choice but to wait."

"Damn Lulu," Taako said, "How'd you get to be the most patient one here?"

"Ten years in an umbrella will do that to you," Lup thought, sadly.

"Koko?"

Taako looked up to find Magnus, who had also just been unhealed, offering a hand to him. Taako took his hand and stood, though it took a great effort for both parties.

The two elves revealed spectral projections of themselves to the group. The male elf said, "Great job! Now, smile and show your opponents how well you did!"

The elves disappeared and a large LCD screen appeared in front of them. It turned on and showed two halflings dressed in adventuring gear. The two halflings were making faces at them.

Magnus flipped them off, and they responded by flipping him off as well. Magnus, realizing that, looked over to Merle and Taako and mumbled, "C'mon guys, like c'mon. Guys, help me out."

Merle shook his head. "You're gonna make that mist come out of your mouth," he stage-whispered.

As soon as Magnus realized he was making black smoke, he changed to waving one hand and giving a thumbs up with the other. The halflings responded by flipping him off even harder. Magnus just smiled. He pointed to his eye, made a heart with his hands, and then pointed at them.

Taako started to laugh, but just ended up making himself puke again.

The screen shut off and a door appeared across the room.

Just then, the three adventurers heard a voice that they hadn't heard before. "Wow, you guys got boned that round, huh?" The voice said. "Why didn't you pick forsake? Y'all need to study some game theory."

"Hello?" Magnus called, looking around the room. He started walking toward the direction of the voice, which appeared to be coming from a piece of machinery along the wall. "Who goes there? Hello? Hail, and well met!"

Magnus and the voice played a bit of hot-and-cold before kneeling down and looking under a machine. Magnus found a disembodied human head.

"Blaaahhh!" The head yelled.

Magnus didn't react. Neither did the others. Kravitz, however, was horrified. The amount of necromancy involved in keeping a severed head alive was appalling.

"I'm just kidding," the head said.

"No, that's fine, I've seen worse," Magnus said, shrugging. "I just fought a flying bear, why would someone's head bother me?"

"Would you actually mind fishing me out of here for a bit? I've been chilling under here for awhile, but I think we're good for now."

Magnus reached under and grabbed the head in the most comfortable way he could. Taako looked the head over and squinted. The head hadn't been chopped off. There wasn't any blood or gore, just a barely-there neck that ended.

"Hey guys, my name's Cam!" The head says. "Sorry I can't greet you with a formal handshake, but it seems that I've misplaced my everything."

Magnus laughed.

"What are you guys doing here?" Cam asked.

"Oh, fighting bears," Magnus said, like it was something he did on a regular basis. To be fair, that was definitely something he would do.

"How's your trip through Wonderland going?" Cam asked.

"Oh, y'know. It's fine," Magnus said, shrugging. "I lost a pinky."

"Oh that's it?"

"Again, comparatively, I realize-"

"You, oh, sorry, sorry, you lost a PINKY?"

"Listen, I get it, like, I'm not gonna sit here and say it's the worst," Magnus said. "I'm talking to a head, like I get that there's worse."

"And you're standing next to a guy who got his arm chopped off," Merle added.

After a bit of back-and-forth, the three adventurers agree to take Cam with them through Wonderland. In turn, he'd been there for a while, so he'd be able to give them information.

"Cam, how come we can't heal?" Merle asked.

"Oh, well that would defeat the point of of this place, right?" Cam said. "Like, you guys understand like that the point of this place is to make you suffer, right?"

"We really didn't do our prep on this one. We kinda just got thrown in," Merle said.

"I have two questions for you, Cam," Magnus said. 

"Shoot."

"One, you mentioned the first room? Is this just a cycle or is this one room and then we do something different and then the next room something different?"

"It's kind of like a cycle. It's one of those—what are they called—endless cycles."

"I know all about that," Taako mentioned.

"Yeah guys, there's no getting out of Wonderland," Cam explained. "I don't know, you came here for a bell and that's great and all, but you're gonna die here? And they're gonna make you suffer just as much as possible before you do. It's the only reason why this place exists."

"Why do people come here if that's the truth?" Taako asked.

"They come here because whatever treasure their heart desires is supposedly waiting for them here. But that, well, that hasn't been my experience."

"Okay, so I have my second question," Magnus said. "When we suffer or get angry, this like black fog comes out our mouths? What is that?"

"That's suffering, boss," Cam said. "Do you—how much do you guys know about liches?"

"Uh, they get stitches, I think?" Magnus said.

Taako rolled his eyes and gave a very competent and brief answer about what liches were. He didn't mention that he knew all this because his sister was a lich, or that he was currently acting as a carrier for her soul.

"I don't know if you've guys have figured this out but this place is run by two pretty powerful liches that, well, aren't just sort of mindless beings," Cam explained. "See, if a lich can anchor themselves with a powerful enough sort of emotional attachment, then they can sort of maintain their identity and they can maintain their sanity and I wonder—have you guys ever witnessed like, a magic that's kinda more powerful than you could explain? That was kind of born out of a moment of intense passion or emotion?"

The three adventurers nodded.

"This is gonna sound pretty cornball but bear with me. There's a school of thought that powerful emotions are a form of energy, just as real as heat or light or magic. So a particularly strong fear, or joy, or fury, or love, they're not just these cognitive effects, they have real actual power in the world around you. So, using one of those emotional attachments, a lich can anchor themselves to their former identities. Something like a powerful love, or determination, or pure joy, they can maintain their reason without losing themselves to the magical power that they've bonded themselves to. But somehow the two liches that run this place are empowering themselves not with their own emotion, but with the emotions of people who came into Wonderland. Specifically, suffering. So, that's why you're here, and that's what they're gonna get out of you, whether you like it or not."

He's talking about bonds," Taako thought.

"That's terrible," Lup said. "Barry and I never even considered using suffering as our anchor. That's—that's horrible!"

Kravitz agreed with her. In fact, it only doubled his determination to tear those liches apart. If there had been any shred of good in them before, it was long gone now. He'd have no remorse for them.

"I have a thing—" Magnus said, lowering his voice. "So here's what I'm thinking, fellas. If Cam's right, and I have no reason to doubt him-"

"I'm right!" Cam interrupted.

"I know, I'm including you in this, Cam, I know you're there. Then this is a rigged game, right?"

"Yeah," Taako said, waiting to hear where Magnus was going with this.

"So, the only way to win a rigged game is to change the game, right?" Magnus said.

"Right," said Taako.

"Right, so I don't have anything specifically in mind right this second," Magnus said, "but we need to keep our eyes open for an opportunity to change this around because I'm not getting trapped in another endless cycle. We did that in the last one, I'm not doing that again."

Merle and Taako agreed.

"Koko?" Magnus asked.

"Hmm?" Taako hummed.

"I would like you to pick the word, that's gonna be the word to let us all—like, let the four of us know that it's about to happen. That it's time to make our move."

"Sautée," Taako said instantly. "It was my go-to code word on the Starblaster," he explained for Kravitz.

The others in the room nodded, then went to the door to leave the room.

"Wait," Cam said. "If I join your group everything's gonna get just a little bit harder for you guys, you're gonna have to sacrifice a bit more if I go with you. You're gonna have to take on my sacrifices because, well, look at me. I don't really have anything else to give. So if I come with you it will be a little harder, but I promise I can carry my weight, I can help you out with information and tips and tricks!"

"Maybe if I put you in my bag, the liches won't know you're with us?" Magnus suggested.

"Wait, I don't think that's—" Cam started, but whatever he was about to say was muffled by Magnus' bag.

They walked through the door and stepped into another dark room. Bright lights shone around them, and a familiar looking wheel spun intimidatingly in front of them. They looked to the opposite wall, where four dim lights stood above the door.

"That's right! You're spinning the wheel again, only she's a bit hungrier this time!" The female elf said. "The sacrifices demanded will be a little bit brutal. Also, you've added another member to your party, I'm not really sure how you did that, but you will need to complete FOUR sacrifices if you want to pass on to the next chamber!"

For a moment, Kravitz was afraid that the liches have realized that he, Lup, and Barry followed Taako inside.

"Hey, what? What member?" Magnus asked, in a very high pitched voice. "Wha—hold on, I believe if you count, you will find here but three."

"Yeah, do a quick head count!" Taako said, causing Merle to burst out laughing.

"Cut that out!" Cam shouted before being shushed by the others.

"Uh, what if we say no?" Magnus asked.

"I don't understand?" The male elf said, sounding confused.

"Well, what if we just don't?" Magnus asked.

"Then you—then you lose."

"Well, I mean yes, but I would also like to know the parameters, like I'm just wondering - like I get what the win scenario is, what's the lose scenario here?"

"You just don't get your prize."

"And you let us go, we leave? That's it?"

The male elf laughed. "Oh, no, no no no. No, once you start through Wonderland, you have to finish!"

"We can finish though, right?" Taako asked.

"Yeah, of course," The male elf said. The sound of distant paper rustling filled the air, and the male elf says, "Let's see, let's see, if you finish you'll end up getting—Ohohoho. So that's your prize, huh? Hmm. Okay, well yeah, you're making good progress, let's see what you can do!"

The tinkling of a bell filled the air.