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In the Forest of the Night

Chapter Text

The last thing Magnus thought before things broke really, really bad was that he could get used to this planet. It was the greenest world he’d ever seen, a vast network of trees covering practically the whole world’s surface. Miles and miles of forest with, as far as they could see from orbit, no people of any kind. No civilizations, not even the beginnings of anything similar. No large animals.

“No birds.” Lup dumped an armful of dead wood into the center of the clearing and then crouched down to arrange it into something that would burn well when she set it alight. “That’s what’s weirding me out, you know?”

Taako shrugged and rummaged through his pack, getting rations ready while Magnus finished getting the tent up. “No birds means nothing waking me up at the first sign of daylight, babe, so I absolutely do not care.”

Magnus snorted and tied off the last guyline. “Like a bird has ever been loud enough to wake you up.”

“Uh, wow, rude.”

It had been their first day out on the surface, taking an initial look around before they started looking for the Light in earnest. Magnus thought it would probably take a while, if the day’s travel was anything to go by. It was slow going through the tangle of the forest -- this was the first clearing they’d even seen besides the one where they set the Starblaster down. The forest wasn’t quite thick enough to need machetes, but it was close, and Taako did more than his fair share of grumbling about the effort.

But Magnus didn’t mind. He knew how to use an axe, if he had to, and in the meantime this world was . . . nice. It was pleasantly cool and the air smelled incredible, like life and growing things. No civilization meant nobody they’d have to fight with or negotiate with to get the Light, and even if it was quiet without birds calling in the trees, it wasn’t so quiet as to be unsettling.

Sure, Magnus thought as he cracked his back and Lup sat back on her heels and Taako held up a spice jar with a triumphant sound. He could get used to this.

Then Lup snapped her fingers, and everything went abruptly to shit.

A few tongues of flame kindled in the dry firewood, and the forest exploded with noise like a cyclone, incredibly, painfully loud. Branches whipped through the air, smashing into the tent and collapsing it, and another steamrolled into Magnus’s center of mass, sending him sprawling and knocking the wind out of his lungs.

“What the fuck?” Lup’s hands were wreathed in flame, whipping in the wind and nearly dying out. Taako clambered to his feet and got his back against his sister’s, one hand clapped to his head trying to keep his hat in place.

“Tornado?” Taako hazarded a guess, bracing against Lup as the howling got impossibly louder. Something above them shifted and creaked and cracked, and it was suddenly very, very dark. Lup glanced up to see the tree canopy closed up tight, blocking the sky. The trees above them looked like they might come down at any moment. Well, shit.

“We gotta bounce!” She gritted out, and her brother nodded and held out a hand, shouting the words for Teleport against the maelstrom.

Magic fizzed and crackled around them and around Magnus’s still-prone form, and things went dark in a completely different way, comforting and abruptly silent instead of raging and deafening.

They came back to the world right where she expected, safe in the belly of the Starblaster, and they came in rough, smacking to the floor with enough force to be painful. Lup took a second to recover before pushing herself up on her elbows. Taako looked smug -- wow, super shocker there -- and she glared at him. “You forgot our stuff. And also, ow.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I was so busy saving us from being crushed to death I --” Taako froze so abruptly and completely Lup could feel it in her own bones, and his next words came out in a dumbfounded whisper. “Oh. Shit.”

Lup didn’t like that. She didn’t like that at all. She twisted around to follow his gaze even though she already knew what she was going to see.

What she was going to not see.

“Oh.” Lup said, her guts gone cold. “Shit.”

Magnus wasn’t there.

***

His head hurt.

Also, his shoulders hurt.

Also, oh, wow, holy gods his chest didn’t just hurt, it screamed with agony every time he was dragged further along the . . . ground . . .

Oh. Shit.

Magnus screwed up his willpower and opened his eyes. It didn’t do much to make his head stop hurting. Branches moved slowly above him, with tree canopy above them and rapidly-darkening sky far beyond that. None of it was actually moving, of course -- no, that was him. Something had him by the wrists and was dragging him slowly but steadily across the forest floor. He could feel rocks and twigs dig in through the back of his jacket. His arms and shoulders ached in protest at taking his body weight like that, and his head throbbed.

But the chest was definitely the most concerning thing, here. Every breath, every scrape, every miniscule bump against the ground sent another jolt of oh ow fuck ow through his ribcage. Magnus took an experimental shot at a deeper breath and then moaned when that proved to be a really terrible experiment.

Yeah, those were broken ribs all right. He wondered if he should be worried about one of them puncturing a lung, what with him being dragged like this.

. . . oh. Yeah. Right. Priorities.

He tried to twist around enough to get a look at who or what was dragging him, which was no easy proposition given that he was almost definitely concussed in addition to his other injuries. There was a thick length of what looked like rough vines binding his wrists, tight enough his fingers were starting to get tingly. More vine leading off from that, held taut from the effort of dragging him, and at the other end of that . . .

Well. It was an upright figure, covered in some kind of shaggy, moss-green cloak that trailed almost to the ground. Between the headache and the failing light and being, you know, upside down and backwards, Magnus couldn’t make out much besides that. “Hello?” He tried, his voice coming out a little more breathless than he’d have liked. “Uh . . . hey! Excuse me?”

Nothing. Whoever was under the cloak didn’t make any sign that they’d heard him.

Magnus tried digging in his heels, looking for purchase in the layer of leaf litter. Nothing. He wrapped one hand around the vine and tried yanking it, with no success.

Okay. Alright. This is gonna hurt. Magnus tried to brace himself. Hurt more.

He managed to get a leg bent and gave a flailing shove that flipped him over on his stomach. The impact blasted through his chest, pain racing up into his already-aching shoulders, and black sparks fizzed around the edges of his vision. Don’t pass out, bud, don’t pass out . . .

Miraculously, he didn’t. A rock scrawled its way across his forehead and cheek, narrowly missing his eye, and dirt pushed into his nostrils and mouth. This was . . . not better.

Magnus gritted his teeth and wrapped his fingers awkwardly around the vine again, this time hauling backwards with all the might he could muster and scrabbling with his feet at the same time. For a dizzying moment he tottered, half-crouched, arms screaming with the effort of pulling against the vine.

Then he managed to get his feet under him, albeit stumblingly, and pushed himself upright. Okay, good, now we’re getting somewhere. He had more leverage in this position, and he squared his shoulders and dug in his heels, putting all his strength into resisting the figure at the other end of the vine.

The figure paused, just barely, although it didn’t turn its head or make a sound. Then it picked up the pace, until Magnus damn near had to run to keep from being pulled off his feet.

“Hey!” Damn it. Magnus scowled and hunkered his shoulders. “Enough of this bullshit.”

With a burst of frenetic energy, he sprinted forward and reached out to loop his bound arms around whatever the thing had that passed for a throat. Maybe he could --

Something very big and impossibly fast came arcing back at him, and Magnus had zero time to react before it caught him across the torso in a lightning bolt of impact and agony.

He screamed, or tried to without any air left in his lungs to do the work, and went flying backwards.

He was already unconscious when he hit the ground.

Chapter Text

“I did not lose Magnus!” Taako threw his hands into the air and turned away from the conference table with a huff.

“Riiiight, right right, he’s just Mishapped off to fuck knows where.” Lup leaned forward and gazed down at the illusory map she’d cast to spread out across the table. “Which is definitely different.”

Taako’s only response was to flip his sister off over his shoulder, because yes, actually, it was demonstrably different. This was absolutely and in no way at all anything that could be even loosely construed as Taako’s Fault.

Barry leaned forward as well, planting one wide, rough hand on the table top and using the other to gesture at the semi-transparent image. “You said you were making camp about here?”

“Roughly, yeah.” Lup frowned. “Before the weather hit, or whatever that was.”

“Too far out for Locate Creature.” Barry pushed his glasses up on his nose. “I mean, assuming he’s still near there.”

“Which is a buckwild assumption, my dude.” Taako slouched himself into a chair and glared at the map. “Teleport could’ve dropped him just about anywhere, and it’s a bigass forest.”

Lucretia pinched the bridge of her nose. The original plan had been for the crew to start a planetary survey in earnest as soon as Taako, Lup, and Magnus had returned from their preliminary trip. This planet had seemed like it was going to be a nice, easy, low-stakes cycle; with no civilization to worry about, the search for the Light of Creation took on less urgency. They could theoretically take their time looking for it.

Magnus, on the other hand . . .

“Y’said Magnus got hit by a branch.” Merle drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “What’s the chances he’s injured, do you think?”

Taako threw his hands out in an expansive what-do-I-look-like-a-cleric-or-something? gesture. “Well it didn’t look comfortable. And he’s not picking up his stone of farspeech, so like, your guess is literally as good as mine.”

“All right.” Davenport had been pacing at the head of the table for most of this meeting. Now he stopped and clasped his hands behind his back, fixing the rest of the crew with a serious look. “Wherever he ended up, Magnus knows enough about survival to know we'll be looking for him and how to try and get our attention. Our best chance is looking for smoke from the air.”

Barry started to raise his hand, decided better of it, and cleared his throat instead. “From Lup and Taako’s description it seems like at least some parts of the tree canopy may be too thick for that. I think we should also try going back to the campsite and using Locate Creature. We might have a chance, if he didn’t end up too far away.”

Lup nodded. “Can’t hurt, right?”

“What about the windstorm?” Lucretia leaned forward in her seat, studying the map with an intensity suggesting Magnus might be visible somewhere on it if she just looked hard enough. “What you described doesn’t sound like it fits with the kind of weather this area should experience.”

“You think it’s possible there’s something arcane out there?” Barry frowned at the map.

“I think it couldn’t hurt to be prepared for anything.” Lucretia replied. “There’s no point getting caught off guard and someone else getting injured or lost because of it.”

“That’s exactly right.” Davenport ran a hand over his mustache, smoothing it towards his chin. “What’s the possible range of the teleport spell misfiring?”

Taako sighed and leaned forward, tweaking the magic in his sister’s illusion so there was a wide red circle drawn with the campsite in its center. It was still an awful lot of forest to search.

The captain nodded grimly. “It’s too dark for an effective search, but we take off at first light tomorrow. Taako, Lup, Barry, we’ll drop the three of you off at the campsite and then continue the aerial survey. Keep in contact, and we’ll do the same. Wherever he is out there, we’ll find him.”

***

It was dark.

It was dark, and he was in a lot of pain, and someone had very inconsiderately dumped him face-down on what felt like the hardest ground in the known planar systems. There was a twig or something jamming him in the cheek.

Magnus groaned and closed his eyes again, trying to piece together the sequence of events that had gotten him here. Planetary survey, right? Forest. Making camp. Taako saying some dumb shit about birds . . .

Oh. Right. Whirlwind, broken ribs, captured, concussed, right. The concussion probably explained why everything still felt a little abstract and patchy. But on the bright side, nothing was currently dragging him along the ground by his wrists.

Although, he realized as he took stock of the aforementioned lot of pain, he’d probably been dragged a long way while he’d been unconscious. One cheek burned like the worst road rash he’d ever experienced. His ribs were still very much broken. Wrists still tied, and his hands were cold and numb which was a terrible sign.

Magnus took a breath and opened his eyes again. Yep. Still dark. “Night in the forest far from town” dark. This planet didn’t have a moon, so no help there. Right now he really envied his crewmates who had darkvision, a fact he was definitely never going to let slip around Taako. Smug seeing-things-without-turning-the-lights-on bastard, anyway.

Okay. Focus. His eyes would either adjust or they wouldn’t. Either way, if he was still tied up that meant his captor -- whatever it was -- probably hadn’t gone far. He was injured, disoriented, and now that he came to think of it, very thirsty.

All things considered, getting away from here was probably first priority. In Magnus’s experience, people who tied you up and dragged you around by your wrists rarely had your best interests at heart.

He pushed himself cautiously to his hands and knees. It made his head swim, and his arms and shoulders briefly surged to the forefront of “things that hurt a whole hell of a lot” before his aching chest pushed its way back into the lead. It was probably a small miracle nothing had dislocated while he was unconscious. And that’s why we don’t skip arm day.

Magnus held his breath, partly to keep his busted ribs from hurting quite so much and partly to listen intently to the darkness around him. There were a lot of forest-y noises, rustling and creaking and what might have been water trickling somewhere off to his right, but no sound like someone being alerted to their captive’s return to consciousness.

His hands were next to useless, was the problem; just lumps of meat with little tingling sensations running through his fingertips when he flexed them. It made the prospect of getting out of the bindings a lot more daunting. Magnus sat back on his heels, cautiously, and started making an extremely clumsy inventory of what he had available. Weapons: gone - he’d taken them off to set up camp. Stone of farspeech: gone. Probably somewhere in the forest far behind him. Flint and steel: still in the pocket of his jacket. Jacket: still there but probably pretty ruined if the cool night breeze he could feel against patches of his back was anything to go by. Boots: still two.

He grinned as he hooked his fingers into the top of his right boot. His grandfather’s knife was still right where he always kept it. Nice.

Maneuvering the blade out and positioning it so he could cut through the vines was An Ordeal that involved a lot of frustration, a bloody nick to his thumb, and more barely-stifled curses than he cared to keep track of. Twice he dropped the damned thing and had to freeze in place, hoping he hadn’t woken up his captor -- but nothing stirred in the darkness except him and the breeze. Eventually he held the knife handle clamped between his teeth and managed to saw through the vines enough that they snapped when he yanked his wrists apart.

Finally. Magnus took a second to roll his aching shoulders and massage some feeling back into his hands. It wasn’t comfortable feeling, and some parts of his hands were still numb, but he’d manage. He stowed the knife in his boot again, making sure it was snug.

His eyes had adjusted as much as they were going to, he supposed. Still wasn’t a lot to go by, but he could make out shapes. Most of the shapes were trees, unsurprisingly. He wasn’t in what could properly be called a clearing, more just a space between two stands of trees. The way they’d come was probably behind him, where the narrow gap in the endless woods seemed to go on for a while.

Magnus peered around, looking for some sign of whatever had dragged him here. Or, probably, whoever. You didn’t see a lot of large animals using knots to subdue their prey.

At least, you haven’t seen it yet. You’ve only been on this dumb planet a day or two. Magnus felt a stab of fleeting, deeply unsettling doubt. Unless he’d been unconscious longer than that.

Well. Either way. There was nothing around him but trees and underbrush. No sign of the figure in the mossy cloak who’d had him captive -- or, rather, no sign of it anywhere close enough for Magnus to make out in the dark. The next time Taako or Merle ragged on him for his shitty human vision, he was privately gonna have to agree with them.

Flint and tinder meant he could make a torch or a fire, but that wasn’t going to be especially useful at making a stealthy escape. Going back the exact way he’d come wasn’t the smart move, either. He’d be too easy to track and, like it or not, he was going to be going slower than his ideal pace with his ribs in the shape they were in.

Okay. So. Pick a direction, be as quiet as possible about it, wait for daylight, hope for the best.

As plans went, it was a spectacularly shitty one. But it was the one he had, damn it, so he pushed himself as quietly as possible to his feet. Nothing moved in response. No sleeping captor rousted itself to spring on him.

So far, so good.

Gritting his teeth and wrapping the slightly less-aching of his arms around his throbbing ribcage, Magnus made his way slowly out into the darkened forest.

Chapter Text

Taako kicked petulantly at a fallen log, flipping it over in the process to reveal the rotten wood beneath. “Nothin’ over here.”

“Did you think he was gonna be under the log?” Lup sounded grumpy -- which, well, she was grumpy. Sure, maybe it had been stupid to assume that finding their missing security officer would be as simple as turning back up where they’d lost him and looking around, but it still ticked her off that it hadn’t been that simple.

Barry straightened up from where he’d been crouching, turning an empty tin cup in his hands. Everything out of the three packs Magnus, Taako and Lup had been carrying lay scattered across the clearing in various states of disarray. The tent was dangling from the tree branches some fifteen feet above their heads, smashed beyond repair. “Well. There’s no reason to think he would’ve stayed here when the spell misfired, right?”

“No, because why should we catch a break?” Taako resisted the urge to kick another log and turned to scour the edge of the clearing again. The hatchet Magnus usually carried strapped to his hip was buried in a tree trunk at about eye level, driven in by the wind. Thick, clear sap oozed out around the blade, and Taako grabbed hold of the handle and gave it a yank that failed to budge the tool. “Who wants to try Locate Creature?”

Lup shrugged and pulled her wand out of the inner pocket of her robe, gesturing the spell into being. A thin, shimmering circle of almost-not-there energy, like a soap bubble in only two dimensions, rippled outward from the tip of her wand towards the edges of the clearing and then raced away into the woods. The three of them watched it go and then stood for an expectant moment.

The moment turned into a long one, then into an uncomfortably long one. Barry’s expression fell a bit, and he crouched down and started gathering undamaged gear back into the one pack that had made it through the storm unscathed. Lup didn’t move, still waiting on the spell to play itself out.

Taako grimaced and went back to yanking on the hatchet handle. Jesus, it was really wedged in there. If the wind had been able to throw the thing with that kind of force, what had the branch it had chucked at Magnus done?

Not that he was worried, exactly. Magnus was a big tough bear of a guy. It’d take more than a smackdown from some wayward lumber to do him any major damage.

It was just, y’know. Better when they had the whole crew accounted for. Less to distract them from finding the Light of Creation. This whole thing, Magnus being temporarily misplaced? Totally an annoyance that would be resolved in a reasonable amount of time. Definitely.

Yep.

He snuck a glance at his sister. Lup was standing eerily still, peering into the forest like any minute now Magnus was going to jump out from behind one of the trees with a dumbass grin and shout his own name, beach-Magnus style.

Barry finished picking up everything useful in arm’s reach and stood up again, slinging the pack over one shoulder. He stepped forward and took Lup’s elbow gently. “Lup?”

She finally unbent a little and sighed, shoving her wand back into its pocket. “Nothing. Wherever he’s at, it’s too far out for the spell to find him.”

“Right.” Taako gave up on the hatchet and straightened his hat on his head. “So, next plan?”

Lup frowned and took another look around the clearing. “We know the ship went East. And we came in from the south and didn’t see any signs of him on the way.”

“Uh.” Barry held up one hand in the universal gesture for hold it. “If you’re about to suggest splitting the party . . .”

“Don’t be insulting, babe, of course I’m not going to split the party. That’s adventuring 101.” Lup waved a hand. “Taako, pick a direction.”

“. . . North?” Taako wrinkled his nose. “Lup, you sure ‘pick a random direction’ is the way to go here?”

“Absolutely not.” She said cheerfully, striding off towards the North end of the clearing, “But I know ‘sit here on our collective asses’ isn’t, either, and the Starblaster won’t be done with their sweep for a while. So we go far enough to hit the outside edge of the spell’s range, and we cast it again. You two bozos coming?”

The two bozos in question exchanged glances, shrugged, and followed after her.

***

Okay, big guy. Magnus gritted his teeth and leaned his still-tender head back against the trunk of the tree. Ten more breaths. Then you gotta get up and get moving again.

Getting through the forest in the dark had proved to be treacherous. There were roots that seemed to reach up and grab his feet, low hanging branches that caught at his face and hair or jabbed him in his injured sides, not to mention all the spots where he’d suddenly found the way impassable and he had to try and adjust his course without being able to see anything.

By the time dawn had broken he was exhausted, scratched, and his torso felt like it was on fire with every breath, no matter how shallow. Every near trip or jostle made it feel like someone was stabbing him on top of the fire, and then punching him in the stab wound.

In short, this forest sucked. He’d kept pushing anyway, because being tied up and dragged like a side of meat had sucked a whole lot worse. He had to make some progress away from his captor before he tried to signal the Starblaster that he was here. Of course, with any given patch of forest looking pretty much identical to any other patch, he had no way at all of knowing how much progress he was actually making. He really hoped it was more than it felt like.

Finally, what he thought was an hour or two after daybreak, he let himself slump against a tree and slide down to a sitting position on the ground. Just for a few minutes, he told himself. Long enough to catch his breath, then he’d get moving again.

Well. Metaphorically catch his breath. Actually catching his breath would’ve required his lungs to be in some other ribcage altogether.

He figured he’d keep going until midday, then start a signal fire. Getting away from the person who’d tied him up was one thing, but if he kept moving forever, he’d be impossible to find for foe and friend alike. The rest of the crew was obviously looking for him by now, and probably using the Starblaster to do it given how hard the terrain was to get through on foot. Smoke would be his best bet at getting their attention.

Just hope I’m the only one they’ve gotta look for. Magnus flexed his still-numbed hands, frowning. That thought was unsettling. He’d spent most of the night alternately cursing this dumb planet and its stupid forest cover, and hoping that Taako and Lup hadn’t gotten hurt or lost in the maelstrom. Yet another reason he had to get back to the Starblaster. His wizard-y crewmates weren’t as hard to injure as he was; the sooner he got back, the sooner he could make sure they were safe.

Okay. Breaktime’s over. Gods, getting up hurt. Sitting still hurt, too, but not as much as getting up. Magnus managed it, staggering a little bit and steadying himself against the tree. He eyed the narrow slip of sky he could glimpse through the tree cover. Two, maybe three hours and you can rest while you set up the fire.

Two or three hours sounded roughly as daunting as two or three cycles, honestly, but Magnus was trying to stay positive about this whole awful ordeal. No sense moping about it when there wasn’t anyone there to mope to, or anyone to crack wise about his moping and help him out of it. Being lost on his own was a lot less entertaining than being lost with his crewmates.

Man, a healing potion would go down real smooth, now he came to think of it. Or even some of Merle’s questionably efficacious spellcasting. Magnus tried for a grin, although it felt a little more like a grimace. Next time he’d make sure to grab Merle or one of the Twins before he got kidnapped. That’d go a long way towards improving the situation.

Getting through the forest in daylight was easier than getting through in the dark, but that wasn’t to say it was easy. There were still countless spots where he got tripped up or delayed by the terrain. The undergrowth in this part of the forest included a barbed vine that reminded him of blackberry brambles back home, except instead of delicious fruit there were only even more thorns, a feat of botanical evil he wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t seen it personally.

The one and only bright spot in the morning’s passage was the stream he stumbled across at one point. It wasn’t wide or deep, barely a trickle of water over a stony bed between two bramble patches, but it was water, and Magnus fell on it like he’d never seen anything so precious.

Hell, maybe he hadn’t. It sure went a long way towards soothing his parched tongue and dry throat. It even felt like it made his headache more manageable. He drank as much as he could stand to, then cupped his hands and splashed some water onto his face and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. The cold made the raw skin on his right cheek sting fiercely, but the shock of the sensation was almost a relief compared to the long, painful slog through the forest.

His water skin was somewhere back at the camp along with almost every other useful thing he owned, and there wasn’t a lot around with which to improvise something to carry water. Magnus sat back on his heels, considering, and then decided that sticking close to the stream was probably his best bet.

“Not like I was going in one direction to begin with.” His voice sounded startlingly loud compared to the quiet background forest noises he’d been listening to all day, and Magnus glanced around in sudden paranoia. It didn’t look like anything had heard him.

Following the stream actually made it a little easier to get through the forest. There were still a lot of spots where the undergrowth and the trees crowded close to the water’s edge, but at least it was easy to tell that he was consistently moving forward in one direction. When the planet’s single sun was more or less overhead -- easy to see through the gap in the tree canopy caused by the streambed -- Magnus staked out a wide, flat, mossy spot on one bank and sat down again.

Good a spot as any. There was room to stretch out without getting a rock or a root in the back, if he had to sleep here (which he suspected he probably would, at least for one night). Water nearby, to keep him from dying of thirst while he waited. And a reasonable gap overhead to make the smoke easier for the Starblaster to see from the air.

Magnus let himself rest for a half an hour or so this time, until his chest had died down from “burning and also stabbing agony” to regular old “throbbing anguish”. Then he gathered up a couple armfuls of downed wood and piled them up.

Next came green materials to make the smoke plume. Magnus tore up some big handfuls of grass from the stream bank and managed to uproot a couple of smallish shrubs, setting them aside for when the dry wood got going.

Breaking down tree branches was a tricky proposition with his ribs aching every time he moved, but he managed to get hold of a few low-hanging ones and snap them free with a greater than usual effort. The wood was unusually tough and springy, and made the weirdest squealing-creaking-snapping noise when it came loose from the tree. Magnus wondered what Merle would have to say about that.

Have to ask him when I see him later. By now his ribs were back in stabby-burny territory again, and his abused arms and shoulders were reminding him that yesterday had been a Bad Day.

Compared to the exertion of getting the materials together, stacking dry wood for the fire was honestly sort of comforting. It was something simple and concrete that he could practically do in his sleep, and maybe it wasn’t carving, but there was a kind of accomplishment in getting things set up just so.

Satisfied at last, Magnus delved into the inner pocket of his IPRE jacket (which was, as he’d guessed last night, shredded beyond repair in the back). He withdrew his flint and steel and bent over the dry leaves he’d arranged for tinder, striking out a few sparks.

Things happened very fast after that.

There was a horrible howling noise, like the whirlwind from the previous day multiplied twice over, and a creaking groan that seemed like it was coming from several places at once. The trees around him shifted and swayed, and Magnus whipped his head around, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

The trees were moving, leaning and swaying and shaking. Branches swept low towards him at a truly frightening speed, and he threw himself to the ground without thinking -- choking out a curse as he landed and the jolt to his ribs sent a brief cloud of white agony across his vision.

When it cleared, there was something incredibly huge looming up over him: something gnarled and twisted and covered in moss, something that seemed like it had reared up out of the ground itself. The thing didn’t have a face or anything recognizably humanoid about it; it was just a mass of . . . wood?

Yeah. Wood and vines and moss, twisted together into something hunched and terrible that was a lot bigger than Magnus himself. Something that raised a half a dozen limbs as thick as Magnus’s own arm, waving them in the same way as the trees behind and above it were waving.

“What the fuck?” Magnus scrambled backwards along the ground, felt one hand splash into the stream.

A vine shot out of the thing’s center mass and twined itself around Magnus’s other arm, the one that still held flint and steel convulsively clutched in its fist. He tried to shake it off, then to kick at it, then to claw free with his other hand, but nothing worked. Vines engulfed his forearm and hand and squeezed, and he howled as he felt the bones in his hand give way with a truly sickening crack.

This was bad, this was really, really, bad. He scrabbled with his free hand to get his knife out of his boot -- although there was no way it was going to do him much good, it was the only weapon he had right now . . .

Almost as soon as he had the blade in hand, the thing swung a -- root? Branch? -- and knocked it away. Magnus cursed and struggled to his feet, yanking ineffectually against the hold the thing had on his arm.

“Hey, asshole, that’s my grandfather’s --”

Another vine looped itself around his shoulders and chest, and Magnus had just enough time to think Oh, fuck, this is really going to hu- before it tightened.

He couldn’t think, after that. Couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but thrash. The world narrowed to anguish and terror, terror and anguish.

Then, for a while, there was nothing at all.

Chapter Text

The Starblaster swept low above the forest canopy, endless miles of barely-unbroken green sweeping away below them. Lucretia stood at the railing near the bow of the ship, frowning down at the world below. “Anything?”

“No.” Davenport’s voice came back from the helm. “That’s our third pass along this stretch. Changing heading.”

Merle sighed and pushed his glasses up, rubbing his eyes. Green on green on neverending green was starting to get tiring. He turned from his place opposite Lucretia and moved across the deck to stand next to her as the ship took a long, elegant turn through the air.

Lucretia’s grip on the rail was tense, her knuckles pale. Merle put a hand over one of hers. “He’s out there somewhere.” He said.

Lucretia let out a humorless attempt at a laugh. “Merle, not to sound defeatist, but isn’t that the point?” She swept a hand out to indicate all that blank, terrible greenness. “That’s an awful lot of somewhere to cover.”

“Listen. If there’s one thing I know about that kid, it’s that he’s tough as hell. All we gotta do is keep looking long enough, and he’ll figure out a way to let us know where he’s at.” Merle gave Lucretia’s fingers a gentle squeeze. “Have a little faith, sis.”

Lucretia sighed and mustered up a tired, flat smile that she didn’t really feel. “Okay. I’ll try.”

***

They kept searching through the morning and long into the afternoon, tracing a careful grid out from the clearing and then back. Lup burned all of her spell slots on unsuccessful attempts at Locate Creature, and Barry was halfway through his when Taako held up a hand in sudden epiphany.

“Why haven’t we tried his stone?”

Barry frowned. “I mean, I think if he were gonna answer he would’ve by now.”

“Obviously, ding-dong.” Taako whipped out his own wand, already tracing the gesture for Locate Object. “But if it’s not with him, it’s still gotta be somewhere.”

“And if we find it, we at least get a hint at what direction he was going at one point.” Lup clapped her hands together. “Nice one.”

“Save that for if it . . .” Taako’s ear twitched, and he swiveled his head as the spell came rippling back through the forest. He looked incredibly smug. “Nope, never mind, I’m a genius, continue your praise. This way.”

They followed the spell through a tangle of evil-looking brambles and across a low gully lined with ferns. Eventually Taako stopped and crouched down, straightening up with a triumphant sound and Magnus’s stone of farspeech clutched in his hand. “Bingo!”

Barry surveyed the surrounding area with a sigh. No Magnus in sight. “Okay, good. At least we’ve got a starting place.”

Taako held up the stone and thumbed it on. “Hey, Davenport? So good news, bad news. We found Magnus’s stone, but there’s no sign of him yet.”

While her brother gave the Starblaster time to find and mark their location, Lup prowled the edge of the clearing. Maybe she couldn’t do any more spellwork until she rested, but she still had eyes. “Babe?”

Barry turned and moved to her side, frowning as he realized what had caught her attention. “Uh. Taako?”

Taako put a hand over the stone of farspeech with an annoyed expression. “Barold. I’m on the stone.”

“Yeah, I know.” Barry pointed to the ground in front of them, where the dirt and moss had been disturbed in a long, shallow swath that led off into the woods. Something had been dragged away from the spot, clearly. Something roughly human-sized.

Taako blanched and uncovered the stone. “Guys? More bad news.”

***

The thing bound Magnus’s hands behind him this time, with the vines drawn so tightly that it made his broken hand throb. Another band of vines wrapped around his upper arms and chest, keeping his arms pinned at his sides. Kind of seemed like overkill, frankly, given how hard it would’ve been for him to actually get his hands free when one of them was numb and the other was anything but.

The thing waited until he was conscious before it started dragging him, and he’d at least been able to scramble to his feet with relative speed. The pace was punishing, and Magnus stumbled as often as not, catching passing branches with his shoulders or torso or, once in a while, with his face.

He tried shouting at the thing a few times, with no apparent result. It didn’t respond to a regular speaking voice, either. Curses, threats, questions -- nothing.

“So do you . . .” He broke off with a curse as a branch scraped his injured cheek, which made him lose his stride for a moment and almost stumble. “Do you just not have ears, or are you ignoring me?”

Talking was probably a waste of breath either way, Magnus thought tiredly. But it felt like it gave him a tiny bit of control of an otherwise pretty daunting situation, so here he was.

They’d been walking (well, he’d been walking and the thing had been slouching) for hours without breaking pace. Terrain didn’t seem to matter to the plant monster any more than words did; it was single-minded and steady as it dragged him through endless miles of forest.

“Are we going somewhere in particular?” Magnus hurt all over. Keeping this speed without being able to breathe properly was exhausting, and every broken bone in his body was helpfully shrieking at him that what they most wanted was to sit down, rest, and maybe drink eight or ten healing potions. He’d lost the only useful tools he’d still had on him, and he was handily outclassed by the plant monster even if he’d been in top shape to try and fight his way free.

There was a point in any given cycle when Magnus started doing some complicated internal calculus. Number of days until the Hunger arrived. Likelihood of finding the Light in time. Possibility of pissing off the locals or falling prey to whatever hazard this year’s world had to offer. Let all the numbers tumble around in his brain for a while, and what resulted was the odds of surviving the current cycle.

This might’ve been the earliest he’d ever started doing that particular math.

Maybe the thing was taking him to someone who’d listen to reason. Magnus could explain who he was and what he was doing here. Maybe he’d be able request some medical assistance, or a way to contact the Starblaster and the rest of the crew.

On the other hand, maybe the thing was going to kill him and use him for mulch. It was going about it the long way if so, but what did Magnus know about how (what? if?) a plant monster thought?

The afternoon faded into evening. It got dark fast under the tree canopy, shadows deepening as the light failed, and Magnus found it even more difficult to avoid the roots, rocks, and uneven spots that were just waiting to catch him off balance. The thing showed no sign of tiring or of planning to break for the night.

Did plant monsters need to sleep? Magnus vaguely remembered Merle saying something about trees and flowers needing a day-night cycle to grow properly. But like, actual sleeping? That didn’t seem like a plant thing.

Gods, he was tired. How long could he keep going at this pace? Would the thing even notice if Magnus fell asleep on his feet? Or if he fell, would it just keep dragging him through the trees in the darkness until he either woke up again or didn’t?

Okay, no. That kind of thinking’s not gonna do you any good. Magnus tried to flex some of the ache out of his arms and shoulders. All it did was make his ribs and hands hurt more. You can do another hour. Focus on that.

And he did. Another hour, then another, then he thought probably a third and maybe a fourth and then he lost track completely. It was too dark and he was too hurt and too damned bone-deep exhausted to bother counting time. He was down to forcing himself to just take one more step.

His chest burned. His legs hurt. His head was pounding again, throat dry, shoulders tense and aching.

One foot in front of the other. Then again. And again and again and again. He couldn’t feel his right hand any more. The fingers of his left sent pain stabbing up his arm when he tried to move them.

If he fell asleep he was gonna fall and if he fell there was a very real possibility he wasn’t gonna get back up.

One more step. One more step.

One more step.

Chapter Text

Lup paced at the edge of the gully, clenching and unclenching her fists. Waiting for the Starblaster to arrive was wasting their time and she was very, very over it. Magnus could be damned near anywhere by now, and if someone or something was dragging her crewmate through the forest she wanted to get to Kicking Its Ass.

Taako scowled, clearly feeling the same way as his sister. “This is bullshit. We’re three of the best mages in multiple known universes, why are we still standing here?”

Barry sighed and spread his hands, using his best reasoning-with-the-Twins voice. “Because right now we’re one-and-one-quarter wizards worth of spell slots and if something out there is big enough to overpower Magnus -- which, incidentally, it shouldn’t be based on everything we thought we knew about this planet -- then us haring off after it without waiting for the ship to be nearby is a great recipe for more rescues with fewer people left to undertake them.”

“Fine.” Taako huffed and shot a glare sideways at Lup. “I hate it when your boyfriend has a point.”

“I mean, same, honestly.” Lup stopped pacing and snapped her fingers. Produce Flame was a nervous tic at this point, the very first cantrip she’d ever learned, natural as breathing and only half-intentional.

The noise rose instantly as the flame flickered over Lup’s fingertips, the same incredibly loud howling and creaking as before. An especially heavy tree trunk groaned like it was ready to collapse, and a branch swept out of nowhere and took Taako’s hat right off his head. Thank gods for high dexterity, or it would’ve taken his head off with it.

Lup let the flames crawl up her forearms and spun to face the surrounding woods, bracing herself. Barry just stared at the trees as the other two scrambled into fighting stances, their backs to each other.

“. . . oh, shit. Shit. Lup!” The ground heaved under Barry’s feet and a root broke the surface, sending him sprawling. His mind raced, wondering what they were going to do if he was wrong about this . . . “Lup! Kill the flames!”

What?” Her voice was almost lost in the howling of the forest around them.

“The flames!”

She glanced at Taako, who shrugged helplessly, and then banished the cantrip with a gesture.

It didn’t happen all at once -- not like it had started -- but gradually the noise dropped away. The tree branches ceased whipping and cracking. The groaning noises stilled. Barry climbed a little breathlessly to his feet, brushing soil off the knees of his jeans.

Taako was the one who finally broke the silence, stalking across the clearing to snatch his crumpled hat and jam it back on his head. “Man, fuck this planet.”

***

The thing finally stopped sometime in the dark hours of the early morning, and Magnus nearly stumbled just from the unfamiliarity of not being force-marched as quickly as his failing legs could carry him.

It was eerily quiet. No birds, no night animals, not even a breeze moving the trees around him. Just the noise of trickling water and the plant monster shifting and rustling. But not moving.

It was probably a bad idea to sit down. Sitting down would make it that much harder, if not impossible, to get back to his feet when the thing started moving again. And yet he was already on the ground by the time he finished the thought, too exhausted to listen to his own reason.

The ground was hard and cold and he half-fell without his arms free to balance him, but the sheer fucking relief of getting off his feet was enough to make all of those things secondary concerns.

“Sooooooo, five minute break?” His voice was a harsh, winded croak. Didn’t matter. The thing wasn't listening to him anyway.

Okay. Five minute break. Magnus took a shaky breath. Gods, sitting down really had been a mistake. The exhaustion was creeping over him, making his whole body somehow simultaneously numb and achy. He leaned back tenatatively, found a tree at his back and pushed himself backwards with his legs until he could prop himself against the trunk.

That was better. Well, not like, you know, better. Better would be back home on the Starblaster in his own fucking bed.

His eyes dropped closed despite his better judgment. Just five minutes, was the last thought he had before he dropped into blank, exhausted sleep. Five minutes, then he’d see about getting the hell out of this.

It was significantly more than five minutes later when Magnus woke, bleary and momentarily very disoriented. It was light again, a dim green-grey twilight, and it was impossible to tell how long he’d been asleep. The forest canopy was just too crowded here for the sun to show through.

He was still aching from a dozen injuries, still bound fast with vines around his wrists and shoulders, and the plant monster thing was still hulked silently not far away, unmoving. Magnus shifted experimentally, but the thing didn’t seem to notice.

There was running water here, a trickle of a stream that emerged from under the roots of one tree and meandered across a mossy patch before disappearing again into the undergrowth. Magnus eased himself very carefully to his knees, keeping most of his focus on the plant thing. It still had hold of the other end of the vine that tethered him -- or, rather, the vine was still a part of it, emerging from the unsettling tangle of roots and trunk, moss and soil and leaves that made up the thing’s body.

He didn’t have a lot of slack in the vine, but it was enough to crawl across the space between himself and the water. Magnus really wished he had his hands free, because nothing was more awkward than trying to get a drink without falling forward on his face without them. Eventually, after some maneuvering, he managed to get a few mouthfuls of mossy-tasting water, enough to soothe his dry throat and aching head. His ribs and broken hand still throbbed, but he was marginally less miserable than he’d been upon waking.

Dad always said hydration was key. Magnus winced a little. Maybe not exactly the situation Dad had been talking about.

There was a minuscule sound behind him, almost lost under the trickling of water, and Magnus felt the hair on his neck prickle. He swallowed a last mouthful of liquid and turned his head slowly.

The thing was watching him. It hadn’t changed position and wasn’t moving now, and Magnus couldn’t have explained how he could tell the difference between thing-watching-him and thing-not-watching-him, given that it had no eyes or face, but he was still sure of it.

Welp. So much for cunning escape plans while it wasn’t paying attention. Magnus got unsteadily to his feet, eyes still fixed on the plant thing. He should really give it a name besides “plant thing”, if only for his own use.

It had roots coming out of it, he realized, sunk into the mossy soil around the trickle of water. Huh.

“So, what?” His voice still sounded less cocky than he would’ve liked, but at least the hoarseness had cleared up a little. “You needed a hydration break, too?”

It didn’t answer, obviously. But it did shift, roots withdrawing, the bulk of it gathering itself up until it loomed above him again. It was no less comforting than it had been yesterday. The minimal slack on the vine holding him tightened, and Magnus sighed and squared his aching shoulders.

Break over, I guess. The thing moved, and Magnus had no choice but to follow after it once again.

Chapter Text

The forest was too thick for the Starblaster to land properly without flattening multiple trees and probably damaging the hull, so Lup and Barry had used Levitate to return to the ship, and then they unspooled a rope ladder over the side of the ship to facilitate further comings and goings without wasting spell slots.

Taako watched as Merle grumbled his way down the rope ladder and brushed imaginary dust off his cuffs as he surveyed the area. The cleric’s jaw was set in a grim line as he looked over the drag marks on the loamy ground.

“Well, shit.”

“That’s what we said.” Taako was pacing again, eyeing the trees with wary hostility. “Something in this forest is deeply fucked up. I didn’t sign up for attack trees, my dude.”

Merle knelt down and sunk his fingers into the dirt, turning a handful of it over. “We didn’t see any animals.” He mused quietly. “Not even any birds.”

“Well, something big moved through, bud, so I guess walking trees is our next hypothesis.” Taako’s voice was tense and snappish, clouded with worry. “You gonna do your Pan thing, or what?”

Merle sighed, sitting back on his heels. “Yeah, alright. Keep your hat on.” He spread his hands to encompass the trees around them with a gesture, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Taako slumped against a tree trunk, watching the dwarf work.

Seconds ticked past in silence. Then minutes. Merle’s expression shifted from serene to thoughtful, through tense into puzzled and deeply concerned. Finally, after a silence that had long since blown past awkward, Merle’s eyes opened.

“Taako . . . they’re just trees.”

“Bullshit.” The elf scowled. “One of them damn near took my block clean off.”

“Not sayin’ I don’t believe you,” Merle said gruffly, climbing to his feet. “Just that they’re nothin’ but trees now. Far as they know they’ve had roots down right here, leaf and branch, for a thousand generations. And they’ve got no idea what to make of you or me or anything us-shaped. None of ‘em have any idea what happened earlier, or what happened to Magnus.”

Taako narrowed his eyes acidly at the nearest trunk. “They’re lying.”

“They’re plants.” Merle replied stolidly. “They don’t lie, it’s one of the things that makes them better company than people.”

“Dude. Could we please. Not make this about your weird-ass fetish.” Taako pulled a disgusted face.

“It’s not a --”

Taako cut him off with a gesture, turning to stalk forward and examining the drag marks again. “This can’t be a coincidence, Merle. Magnus was in this spot, and now he isn’t, but something big enough to be him got dragged out of here. If there’s no animals and there’s no birds, and your plant buddies didn’t have anything to do with it, then what the fuck did this?”

“Spirits? Elementals?” Merle crouched down to examine the drag marks again. “Doesn’t explain why the trees didn’t notice anything, but it’s a working guess.”

“Fine.” Taako pulled his wand out of the waistband of his culottes and set his shoulders. “Well, whatever it was, I hope you’re ready to kick its ass when we find it.”

Merle started to reply, but by the time he got back to his feet Taako was already halfway out of sight, following the trail left by the drag marks. The cleric sighed and fished out his stone of far speech as he followed suit. “Skipper? We’re headin’ out. Let you know what we find and where to rendezvous later.”

The hours after that passed mostly in tense silence, punctuated by occasional brief conversation when one or the other of them would catch sight of something that might be relevant to the search for Magnus and whatever had taken him. The trail wasn’t difficult to follow; whatever had been dragged through the forest was heavy enough to leave marks even on the stretches without brush or grass to break.

Of course, Merle thought dismally as the third or fourth hour of following trail dragged on, it was possible this whole thing was a false lead, that they were on the track of some hitherto-unseen animal or spirit that had nothing to do with Magnus. That they might even be moving further and further away from wherever the kid was.

Magnus hates being called “the kid”, he reminded himself. Not that Merle could help thinking it anyway. Sure, maybe in human lifetimes Magnus was pushing flat-out elderly, but he still looked like a kid and still acted like one at least half the time.

"You're not my dads, old man." Magnus had retorted, laughing, the last time Merle had slipped up.

"Lucky for you." Merle had shot back, and "Lucky for anyone!", Lup had added with ruthless cheer, and the whole thing had happily devolved into insults after that and veered away from Merle's qualifications for parenthood.

Lup wasn't wrong, it was probably for the best that Merle wasn't anyone's dad. Didn't mean he didn't feel just a little bit paternal towards the rest of his chucklehead family -- including Magnus, wherever he was, whatever shape he was in. Night had fallen in earnest now, and Merle cast a cantrip to bathe the two of them in lavender light as they pushed forward.

Hang in there, kid, wherever you’re at. We’re coming.

***

Time had lost all meaning. Magnus stumbled through the forest for mile on endless mile. When the plant monster stopped to rest (if that was what it was doing) he collapsed and slept where he fell until, inevitably, the thing roused him to another miserable slog of interminable walking. Dark, light, day, night -- they didn’t seem to matter to the thing, which meant they quickly stopped mattering to Magnus. All he could do was put his head down and continue, despite the anguish and exhaustion.

He numbly took note of it when the scenery changed, the canopy drawing closer together high overhead, the underbrush thinning out and vanishing. The trees here were older, thicker, their branches as gnarled as their roots. Magnus had no idea how far they’d traveled by now. He wasn’t sure it mattered. If the rest of the crew were going to find him in the midst of these endless fucking woods, Magnus frankly had no idea how.

He was trying not to dwell too much on that. Fortunately, sort of, he was so completely exhausted and hurt and disoriented by now that he didn’t have the mental energy to spare for getting bogged down in hopelessness. Getting out of this was a problem for Future-Magnus, the poor sorry bastard. Now-Magnus had problems of his own, like not falling on his face or walking into a tree or moving his broken body in ways that would make his pain more unbearable. Like ignoring the tormenting thirst and gnawing hunger that were just two more miseries in a litany of miseries.

The plant monster came to a stop, and Magnus almost stumbled into the back of it before he realized they weren’t moving any more. He dropped heavily to his knees, grunting as the impact sent a jolt through his abused chest and aching shoulders. Magnus knelt there, breathing heavily, and only gradually realized that something was different about this stop.

He raised his head tentatively and looked around. The thing hadn’t settled in as it usually did when they stopped. It was still just looming there, like it was waiting for something.

The spot they’d stopped was a narrow cleft between two walls of incredibly huge, ancient-looking trees. Their branches were barely visible in the gloom high above him, and they’d grown so massive and close together that it was sometimes difficult to tell where one tree ended and the next began. The air was still, even more still than the rest of the forest had been, and the hair on the back of Magnus’s neck prickled. Something about this place was dangerous in a way he couldn’t have possibly put into words. He just knew it made him feel small and battered and threatened. Something was coming. Something bad was going to happen.

The plant monster that had led him here suddenly reared up and up and up, whipping its branches and roots wildly against the air. Vines shot out of it, joining the one that held his arms pinned to his sides, and Magnus protested loudly as they wrapped around his chest and hips, yanking him up to his feet and then lifting him effortlessly until he was barely standing on his tip-toes.

“Fuck --!” Magnus wanted to say more, to do more, to fight back somehow, but he didn’t have time. The ancient trees around him groaned, the ground beneath him thrummed, and then the noise was inside his head and the world exploded into greengreengreengreengreen.

It was impossibly huge and indescribably ancient, the thing that forced Its way in past his thoughts and slammed against the inside of his brain. It dragged Its ten billion tendrilled roots over his soul and through his memories and drowned out his senses with the sheer terrible enormity of Its own presence.

It was older than Magnus’s very species, and It remembered a hundred million summer rains and winter winds in crystal clarity that thundered through the pitiful hollow shell of his human mind like the ten million catastrophic floods It had withstood without perishing. It was the trees around him and the roots that ran beneath his feet for a thousand unbroken miles in every direction. It was life itself. It was the planet.

Magnus screamed and thrashed, and he was only aware that he did so because It watched him do so, with a contempt that made him want to shrivel up and die. It remembered things like him, pitiful biped blots on the tapestry of time, things that had wounded It with deadly fire until It had done away with them, crushed them into the earth and buried their nests under roots and branches, squeezed the life out of them before they had moved beyond their first pitiful attempts at toolmaking. It had already been ancient, then, and It had spared no thought for those exterminated pests until Magnus and his crew had returned to trouble It again.

“Get out, please, stop it . . .” It was too much. There wasn’t enough room in his mind for the sheer scope of the thing and Its hatred, it was going to rip his consciousness into so many shreds and he would be powerless to stop It.

The thing ebbed, just a bit. Just enough that Magnus managed to perceive the sensations of his own body again, pain and breathlessness and terror. There was a vine around his throat, and he was going to die here, which honestly was better than the alternative of the Tree filling his mind with Its full strength again.

It didn’t laugh at him, exactly. But It felt Its amusement at him with such force that it physically hurt him. As if It had revealed anything like Its full strength to something like him.

It was ancient and terrible and powerful beyond his reckoning, and now It was growing more powerful yet, flooded with new knowledge from the new Light that had dawned only recently. It would know more, soon, of these vermin and where they had come from. It would know everything.

Magnus shuddered as the vines around him -- even the ones that had been cinched around his wrists -- let go abruptly, dropping him in a heap in the dirt. He landed hard and lay where he fell, winded and hurt and still reeling from the enormity of the psychic presence in his head. He was sobbing, he realized as the thing withdrew. He should run, or get up, he should do something, but all he could do was curl himself around his injured ribs and shudder. Too much, it was too much . . .

There was only a thread of the Tree’s awareness left in his head, now, just enough for him to feel Its disgust and Its smug assurance. It knew how to reckon with things like him, pitiful and broken and capable of no resistance.

It buried them.

Panic hammered in his chest, and he rolled over onto his back in time to see the trees around him come looming down like a slow, invincible wave.

Magnus screamed.

Chapter Text

Except for the routine thrumming of the bond engine, the Starblaster was quiet. It wasn’t a peaceful quiet, like the nights spent sprawled out on the deck watching the new stars wheeling overhead sometimes led to. It was a tense, exhausted, anxious quiet, the kind that made the noise of footfalls or a closing door seem like an intentional insult. You walked as quietly as you could through a silence like this one, Lucretia reflected as she eased the door to the galley open and then closed it painstakingly behind her. You didn’t want to make anything worse.

It wasn’t quite accurate to say tempers were strained. Tempers had been strained three days ago, when a week of fruitless searching for Magnus had culminated in a knockdown dragout yelling match between the six remaining crew members. Things since then had cooled to a tense, bitter understanding that was honestly much more upsetting than the shouting had been.

Lucretia pulled a mug down from the shelf and went through the motions of making tea, hardly even looking at what she was doing. She hadn’t been sleeping well, and doubted that anyone else on board had been, either.

They had to change tactics eventually. They all understood that. They were not, despite Lup and Taako’s bitter accusations, leaving Magnus for dead. There was just no possible way for them to search the entire forest-world on foot, certainly not in any kind of useful time. So they had eventually agreed -- more or less -- to try something else. Barry and Merle would try and learn more about the trees that were the only living thing on the planet, see if there was any way to connect with and question them on a more detailed level than Speak with Plants allowed for. Lup and Taako would work on creating something bigger and better than Locate Creature. Davenport would continue aerial sweeps on the off chance that Magnus was able to signal them in some way more safe than using a fire. And Lucretia . . .

Lucretia grimaced as she took a sip of too-hot tea and scorched her tongue. Lucretia would try not to let anyone else know how vivid and awful her nightmares had been in the last few days. Which was why she was in the galley: she’d hoped she could banish or at least ease the afterimage of Magnus’s body decomposing into the forest floor . . .

And she was doing such an excellent job of that so far, obviously.

The creaky floor panel outside the door let out a tiny sigh, and Lucretia looked up from her mug. "Come on in, Barry." He was the only person on the crew who still hadn't managed to get the knack of putting weight down on that panel without making noise.

The door cracked and Barry stuck his head sheepishly into the room. "Mind some company?"

"Of course not." Lucretia waved a hand vaguely around the room. "I'd prefer some, honestly."

Barry nodded and stepped into the galley, closing the door behind him. He didn't make as much of an effort to be silent about it as Lucretia had.

"I, uh. Forgot to eat dinner." Barry chuckled guiltily and rubbed the back of his neck. "Again."

Lucretia thought about mentioning that it was well past midnight, but she let it go and went back to blowing on her tea while Barry dug around in the cupboards for something to eat. He emerged after a while with a jar of peanut butter and a triumphant noise, then went looking for a clean spoon.

Lucretia cleared her throat quietly. "Peanut butter isn't dinner, Barold."

He froze with a guilty look on his face. "It's full of protein!" Lucretia raised a single eyebrow in a move she'd learned from Taako, and Barry eventually unbent. "I'll put it in some noodles."

Lucretia smiled as Barry pulled out a pot and filled it with water from the kettle. Not just because she'd successfully gotten Barry to eat real food, but because the interaction felt so . . . normal. It was a welcome change from the past few days of tension.

Naturally, she had to ruin it. "How's the research coming?"

Barry made a wibbly-wobbly gesture with his spoon. "We know a lot more about the trees than we did a few days ago. How it's going to help us with the spellwork we need, that we're still a little stuck on."

Lucretia nodded and tried not to let disappointment show on her face as she sipped at her still-too-hot tea. "What have you learned about the trees?"

"Tree." Barry dumped noodles into the pot and stirred them diffidently. "That's been one of the biggest breakthroughs so far. Almost all of the trees we've seen are actually one tree."

Lucretia felt her eyebrows crawl upwards. "They're linked underground, you mean?"

"Most of them." Barry tossed a handful of dried vegetables into the pot and splashed hot sauce in after them. "Even the ones that aren't directly connected through the roots system are still clones of the parent tree. There's a few individuals here and there that were apparently produced by sexual reproduction, but they're vastly outnumbered by the clonal colony. My theory is the lack of traditional pollinators like birds or insects made it more advantageous for the tree to find a different mode of reproduction."

Lucretia frowned down into her tea. "That could help, though, couldn't it? If Merle could talk to the tree, and it makes up most of the forest, wouldn't that increase the likelihood of it knowing what happened to Magnus?"

"I mean, that'd be the goal, right?" Barry pulled the pot off the stove and added a generous scoop of peanut butter, stirring it as he gestured with his free hand. "But so far, the parent tree doesn't have much to say. Merle doesn't have a clear idea yet of how to tweak the spell to get more complicated communication, but we're working on it."

Lucretia nodded. Barry rummaged around in the drawer for a fork and started shoveling peanut butter noodles into his mouth with gusto. After a few bites, he looked up at Lucretia and his expression softened.

"I know you're worried about him. I am, too."

Lucretia's eyes welled up suddenly, and she took an unsteady breath. "I know it's silly. We've lost him before, only . . ." Only they'd never lost him. He had died before, but they had known what had happened then. It turned out that made a huge difference.

"It's not silly." Barry put his pot of noodles down on the countertop and stepped over to wrap his arms around her shoulders, more or less heedless of her tea mug. "We're all worried about him. We're all imagining the worst."

Lucretia nodded, sniffling a little. She maneuvered her arm free so she could set her extremely hot drink down and then leaned into the hug. Barry was definitely one of the top three huggers in the family.

He patted her back and smiled encouragingly. "We're getting closer all the time. The twins are, too. Don't worry. We're gonna get a plan together, and it's gonna work. You'll see."

***

"Magnus, you know that isn't going to work." Barry said in his ear, and Magnus scowled and dug the fingertips of his good hand into the gap between roots again.

"One, you're not even really here, and two, shut up."

Magnus had lost track of how long he'd been down here. Somewhere past a week at this point, based on the number of times he'd fallen asleep and then woken again. But possibly a lot less, or maybe a lot more. In the endless dark, with no contact from anyone or anything else, time had long ago stopped being a concept he recognized.

The space he was trapped in was roughly oblong and slightly less than two-thirds his height. The walls were made of rocks and roots, pressed in on every side so closely that he could only turn around with careful effort. There was a damp spot against one wall where moisture seeped from a cracked patch in the rock. He'd ripped off a scrap of his shirt to soak up the liquid so he could periodically suck it out of the fabric. It was nowhere near enough to keep his hunger or thirst under control, but it was keeping him alive. He didn't think the Tree knew about it; he doubted the Tree had bothered to think any further about him after it had heaped roots and earth and stone over him and left him to die.

Other shreds of his shirt had gone to make a largely ineffective wrapping for his broken hand. That had been in the first few hours after he'd woken up down here, before the first panic attack, when he'd still been running on adrenaline and training. He'd actually covered how to survive in this kind of situation when he'd been at the IPRE Academy. Not just how to treat his wounds and collect moisture, but what to expect after a day or three days or a week in the silent dark by himself.

He hadn't been surprised, in other words, when the hallucinations started. It didn't make him feel any better when the voices and visions had started crowding into the tomb with him, but he'd at least understood why it was happening. Human brains couldn't handle solitude, especially in the dark and the quiet. They started making things just so they wouldn't have to be alone.

Magnus leaned sideways to get his head closer to the spot where fresh air trickled through some hidden crevice between roots and rocks. He'd tried to expand it at one point, hoping to get more airflow even if the air in question did stink of dirt and damp. But something had shifted when he'd tried, a rock or something, and for a few moments of mindless, interminable terror there had been no air movement at all . . .

“Stop thinking about that.” Barry said in his ear, not unkindly. “You’re gonna have another panic attack if you keep thinking about that.”

Magnus swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Okay. You’re right.” It was pretty impressive of Barry to still be the smartest person Magnus knew when he wasn’t even real. There was no sense dwelling on the bad moments when he’d managed to clear the airway successfully and had moved his further attempts at digging to the far side of the cell.

Magnus tightened his fingertips on the blunt edge of the crack between two roots again, straining. One of them budged a few millimeters, he was sure it did.

“I’m right about that, too.” Barry didn’t sound like Barry anymore. That was normal. Sometimes he was Merle or, less frequently, Lup. Once he’d been Taako for a few minutes. Right now he sounded like Magnus’s Pops, a warm rumbly baritone. Magnus grunted and ground his teeth as he dug harder at the wall.

“Couldn’t you at least stick with people who aren’t dead?”

His father laughed humorlessly. “I could be the Tree again if you’d like that better.”

Magnus felt cold all over. “No.” He whispered hoarsely. “Please don’t do that.”

The times he hallucinated the Tree were the worst. He was pretty sure he’d bruised a new rib last time.

Just more evidence that the voice wasn't real: his Pops had never threatened anyone in his life. Dad might've, if he'd had a good reason, but Pops? No. He'd been the gentlest person Magnus had ever known.

Shit, now his eyes were prickling. Not that he was hydrated enough to cry, exactly, but that didn't stop a lump from forming up in his throat. He tried to take a deep breath and think about something else besides his dead fathers.

It didn't work. Instead some nasty corner of his brain supplied a vision of his parents being swallowed by Hunger, and Magnus yanked his hands away from the spot where he'd been digging and dug the heels of his palms into his eyes until it was painful, trying to fight down the panic that was knotting itself around the grief. Gods, it was hard. His brain couldn't keep anything straight anymore, it just rocketed from escape plans to panic attacks to maudlin reminiscing and then skittered off into unconsciousness for a few hours before starting it all over again. Things he'd trained himself to do an entire human lifetime ago were hard to hold on to when everything was dark and he could feel himself dying a centimeter at a time.

Pops was still talking, but it had stopped being anything that made sense, just strings of nonsense words. Just noise that sounded like his father. Magnus wished he hadn't said anything, now. Maybe the voice would've stayed intelligible if he hadn't. That didn't make any sense, he knew that, but neither did digging at the walls until his fingers bled. Neither did continuing to gather up that fractional ration of moisture when all it did was prolong the inevitable.

The stupid part was, he'd died before, more than one time. Sure, it wasn't, like, a picnic or anything when it happened. It wasn't something he'd ever done on purpose. But it shouldn't have the power to scare him anymore. He knew when he died he'd open his eyes and be back home on the bridge of the Starblaster again, with a black eye and none of his bones broken, and that was a million times better than the current nightmare of being buried alive on this shitty planet.

But he couldn't let himself die. Maybe his thinking mind knew it was a good outcome, but the part of his brain that had evolved from a fragile, frazzled little ape-thing was absolutely not buying it. Death made the monkey brain bare its teeth and claw at the walls.

Magnus took a shuddering, painful breath that ended in a dry sob. He didn't want to do this, but he couldn't just give up. He had to keep going. At some point early on he'd told himself he had to survive because the rest of the crew needed him, because he had to escape and get back to them. Lately that notion had become less and less real. Now he just had to keep going because . . . because he just had to. That's what he did, he took damage and he kept going.

He hunched his shoulders and waited until the shakes and the parched, wrung-out crying subsided. His father's voice had faded out, and he was alone in the quiet for now. Magnus took a few breaths, tried to steady himself, and gingerly shifted around until he was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest instead of kneeling. Then he reached out, groping around until his fingertips found the tiny gap between roots, and went back to fruitlessly trying to pry the walls of his tomb apart.

Chapter Text

Davenport laced his fingers together and looked over them at the map spread out across the conference table in front of him. At first glance the planet’s surface was so uniformly covered in vegetation that there hardly seemed to be a point to mapping it. But Barry and Merle’s combined research had made it clear that there were really two groups of trees in all that greenery: the one they had taken to calling the Parent Tree, and everything else. This map reflected that, shading out the Parent Tree in its own distinct shade of green.

There were other markings, too. The places where they’d had violent encounters in response to fire were all within the range of the Parent. Magnus had dropped his stone of farspeech right at the edge of a narrow band of standalone trees. Red x’s showed trees Merle had spoken to in both areas; a dotted yellow line encompassed the range the Twins had covered with Locate Creature.

That only left . . . oh, most of the planet.

Davenport sighed and leaned back in his seat. They thought they had a plan, after days of harried study and little sleep. It depended on finding the right tree for Merle to ask for help, though, and his initial experiments hadn’t been promising. If Merle couldn’t find what they needed, if this plan fell apart . . .

None of them had said it, but Davenport could tell that the rest of the crew were thinking it whenever they looked at him. Eventually they would have to accept that this search wasn’t going to return Magnus alive, and when that happened it would be Davenport who had to make the call.

Did they keep searching?

Suppose he called off the search, gave Magnus up for dead for the rest of this cycle, only to find out at the beginning of the next that he was wrong? That Magnus Burnsides had been alive, waiting for his captain to find him, and had been failed in that because Davenport gave up too soon?

Suppose he didn’t call it off, and ran his crew ragged for the rest of the year while Magnus was already dead?

Davenport rarely regretted his position. Flying this ship, with these people as his crew, felt like the only thing in all the worlds he had ever been intended to do. But at times like this, with command decisions of such enormous weight hanging over his head . . .

There was a distinctive knock against the door, and then Merle opened it and stepped in without bothering to wait for Davenport’s response. At some point long ago that had seemed like a presumptuous habit, but by now it was just . . . Merle.

The rest of the crew filed in after him in groups of one or two, taking their usual spots around the table. Davenport couldn't help noticing how all of them avoided looking at the empty place where Magnus should be tipping too far back in his chair. Davenport gave them a minute before he leaned forward. "All right, everyone. What do we know?"

Lucretia moved first, laying out a new roll of parchment that expanded the map on one end. "This is the latest range of our search as of this morning."

Davenport nodded, and glanced at the Twins, who started talking at once.

"We're ready to --"
"I think we can --"

There was an extremely brief, totally wordless battle of wills which Lup apparently won.

"We've almost tripled the range on Locate Creature. It'll burn twice as many spell slots as it usually does, and you'll need us both to cast it. But point us in a direction, and we're ready to rock and roll."

"Excellent." That was the second vital component of the plan: it eliminated the need for detailed directions, something trees were apparently very bad at giving. Davenport gestured at Barry, who pushed his glasses up on his nose.

"As you all know, the older and larger a tree is, the more intelligible and detailed its communication becomes. The Parent Tree is an exception to that rule. It's the largest, oldest tree ever recorded and it has almost nothing to say to us."

"Because it's a fuckin' liar." Taako grumbled, making no effort at all to do so under his breath.

Merle shot him a look, which Taako ignored. "Let's just say it's not much of a conversationalist." Merle said. He cracked his knuckles and then leaned forward, resting his palms on the table. "Good news is, we've found another tree that is. A colony, like the Parent, but a different individual. One of its kids, more or less. This one’s big enough and old enough to be talkative, and it’s a lot more friendly than the rest of the family.” Merle tapped a location on Lucretia's new map. “It’s right here."

Barry nodded. “We think this is the one, you guys. If any tree in this area knows what happened to Magnus, and is able to tell us, then this one is probably it.”

Davenport allowed himself to feel a little bit of hope. This was the most promising development they’d had in days. “Then we’ll relocate the ship immediately. The sooner you can get it to tell us what we need, the better.” He stood up and gestured for the rest of the crew to follow suit.

“Let’s go find Magnus.”

***

The Tree had him again. Magnus wasn’t quite able to grasp how it had happened; everything lately had been a haze of hurt and hunger and dark, he couldn’t be sure he hadn’t somehow lost time . . .

Either way it didn’t matter, because the Tree had him, and that made anything else irrelevant. He was hanging suspended off the ground, forearms and wrists clamped in vines that were slowly tightening their grip.

The vines had thorns this time. They dug into his skin through the shredded remains of his shirt and jacket, leaving long, bloody furrows, bright splashes of agony that made him kick helplessly in the air. His chest heaved painfully as he struggled to breathe with his weight bearing down on his broken ribs. There were black sparks fizzing in the edges of his vision.

The Tree hadn’t torn into his mind yet, but his stomach clenched with dread at the certainty that it was going to, any moment now, he was going to feel that awful enormous thing clawing through his head and peeling him open . . .

He had to do something. Now, before it got into his head and left him unable to do anything but scream. He tried to kick out and catch against anything that would give him some leverage -- and then he heard the scream.

It was Lup’s voice, off somewhere in the indistinct forest shadows behind him, and Magnus snapped his head around with a curse, heaving with what little might he had against the vines. Lup didn’t scream like that, not unless she was in a hell of a lot of trouble. And that was Merle shouting, his voice almost drowned out by the all-too-familiar roar of the Tree attacking.

Magnus let out a frustrated growl, twisting and kicking even though it made the thorns gouge deeper into his flesh. They needed him, they needed his help, and he couldn’t do anything. He was so godsdamned weak from who knew how long trapped underground, from dehydration and hunger. The strength he always counted on just wasn’t there any more.

Something shifted far above him, and he felt the Tree slither into his mind again, not an overbearing wave of inhuman presence like before but tendrils of smug superiority and wicked amusement. It was enjoying this, watching him hurt and struggle and fail, watching him realize that he couldn’t help his friends. Magnus’s guts churned in a battle between cold terror and absolute fury. How dare this stupid fucking plant hurt his crewmates?

His anger only made the Tree more amused, and it loosened one of the vines without any warning. Magnus cursed as he dropped, thorns burrowing into the arm the Tree still held. There was a sick, abrupt wrenching sensation as his shoulder dislocated, followed by a white wave of pain that thundered through his chest and stole the last of his breath, and everything went black . . .

No. That wasn’t right. Everything was black.

Still black.

Magnus groaned and shuddered, sagging forward until his forehead hit the cold stone in front of him. “Fuck.”

His voice was ragged and dry, and he groped mechanically behind him, looking for the cloth he used to collect moisture, lifting it shakily to his cracked lips and sucking the tiny amount of liquid out of it without even thinking through the action.

They were getting worse. Nightmares or hallucinations, whatever they were (how would he ever be able to tell, when there was nothing to tell him when he slept and woke?). They were getting more frequent, harder to keep separate from reality. His chest ached fiercely, and he lifted one hand to his shoulder to probe carefully at the joint.

Not dislocated. He ran unsteady fingers down his arm and felt the skin beneath the shreds of his uniform sleeve. Scratches and bruises, but no deep, bloody gouges left by twisting thorns.

Magnus huffed out a breath and returned the empty cloth to its spot. It hadn’t been real.

It had felt real. At least as real as this did, here and now.

Memory? He prodded at the idea dully, still slumped forward against the wall. It didn’t fit in the litany of events he’d built for himself and repeated over and over again since he’d come here. The landing, the camp, the whirlwind, the fire, the plant monster, the escape, the signal fire, the plant monster, the Tree, and here. There was no space for it in the list he’d memorized. Did that make it not a memory, or just one he’d forgotten until now?

Did it matter?

No.

. . . yes. Yes, because Lup had been there. And Merle. If it was a memory, they’d needed him and he hadn’t been able to help them.

He clenched his unbroken fist weakly and repeated the list again. The list where the only one who’d been caught by the Tree was him. The list where the only one hurt was Magnus. The list had to be right. It had to be.

His legs ached. Shit, he’d lost track of how long he’d stayed sitting in the same position again. Magnus shifted carefully, ignoring the pain in his ribs, ignoring how quickly he got short-of-breath, ignoring how exhausting it was just to move to a different position. Ignoring how fucking good it would feel to be able to stretch out to his full height.

He was getting good at ignoring things lately.

Moving his legs didn’t actually help the ache that much, but it was a distraction from the hallucination-dream-definitely-not-a-memory. He settled his head back against the wall behind him and tried to catch his breath. Tried to think about something good for a change. If he had to lose touch with reality, maybe he could at least get his subconscious to summon up a better alternative for the next extensive trip away from the tomb.

Sunlight breaking over the edge of the world as it turned below them, wind across the deck of the ship. Lucretia leaning forward over the rail, taking it in, recording it for later. Barry and Merle gesturing at something far below, something they wanted to get a better look at when they landed. Davenport at the helm, looking like he’d been born just to stand there. The Twins whooping and laughing as they chased each other across the deck, Taako almost slamming into Magnus with one of Lup’s t-shirts clutched to his chest. Taako shoving said prize into Magnus’s hands -- “Here, big guy, this is mine now, hold onto it for me” -- and then barrelling away with a devious cackle.

His crewmates, safe. Together.

The Starblaster.

Magnus took an unsteady breath and said the last part out loud, just in case it would help his hallucinations get the right idea.

“Home.”

Chapter Text

Merle sat on the ground in front of the tree, back pressed up against the bark, with his legs crossed and his eyes closed. His forehead was creased in concentration, and he hadn’t moved in nearly an hour.

Taako smirked at Lup from where he was lazing against the stump of another tree. “You know, if I didn’t know better I’d say he looks like a real cleric.”

His sister snickered, and Davenport favored both of them with a mild stern look that went completely disregarded. He couldn’t exactly fault them: they’d been out here since shortly before dawn, hoping to make the most of the daylight. If the Twins passed the time Merle had to spend in silent communion by cracking wise, well . . . there were worse ways they could be using the energy.

Lucretia was still aboard the ship, which hovered high above the clearing they were standing in. Davenport would stay back as well, ready to bring the ship to whatever location the Twins' improved location spell brought them to. Merle, Barry, Taako, and Lup would follow the spell to its end point.

Barry was kneeling at the edge of the clearing, examining a clump of saplings. Even in dire circumstances, Barry’s curiosity was never far from the surface, and he’d been occupying himself for the past hour taking painstaking notes about soil quality, growth patterns, vegetation health and other things Davenport suspected would never be as fascinating to anyone else on board as they were to the science officer.

At last Merle stirred, taking a deep breath and opening his eyes. Everyone turned to look at him; even Barry left off scribbling notes as Merle stretched his arms above his head with a grumbling noise.

“So?” Taako hopped off the stump and pushed the brim of his hat up with a thumb. “What’s the scoop, old man?”

Merle climbed to his feet with a muttered complaint about relative ages and disrespect, brushing imaginary dirt off his sleeve. “Well, folks, I got good news and bad news.”

Davenport pinched the bridge of his nose. “Merle, you know I hate it when you people start reports that way.”

Merle gave an elaborate shrug Davenport knew to mean Yep and I’m never going to quit doing it anyway. “Good news is, the tree’s going to help us. She knows where the Parent took Magnus, more or less.”

“Ha!” Taako snapped his fingers. “I knew it!”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re very smart.” Merle’s forehead creased into a frown. “The Parent’s the oldest thing on the whole planet. Hell, for all intents and purposes it is the planet. According to her, it’s been keeping secrets from the rest of them lately."

"Keeping secrets?" Barry stood up from his crouch. "So they do have an advanced form of communication."

"Telepathy, or something like it." Merle agreed. "But the Parent has been keeping quiet ever since what this one calls ‘the small sun’ fell and the Parent caught it.”

Lup’s eyebrows shot up. “This thing’s got Magnus and the Light?”

“Sure seems that way.” Merle sighed grouchily, scratching the back of his neck. “And that’s the bad news. She thinks the Parent saw us as a threat. Probably still does.”

“The fires.” Barry supplied. “Wildfire is probably the only thing that could pose a real threat to something like that.”

“That’s why it attacked us.” Lup scowled. “If Magnus tried to light a signal . . .”

“Yeah, look, I’m sure its emotional motivation or whatever is super fascinating.” Taako was pacing. “Are we going, or nah?”

Davenport shot him a look, then turned back to Merle. “If the Parent has the Light, that makes this a double recovery mission. Does it -- she -- know if Magnus is still alive?”

“She didn’t even know what the hell Magnus was when she saw him, Skipper.” Merle turned to look up at the tree. “But she thinks she knows how to help us explain to the Parent that we’re not here to hurt it. She’s gonna send someone with us it’ll be willing to listen to.”

Barry yelped as the earth under his feet gave an abrupt heave, and the soil around the group of saplings he’d been examining began to hunch and split apart. One sapling rose up above the group, and roots slithered and drew apart until it was sitting separated from the others, a clump of roots and soil balled up beneath it.

Lup stared. “We’re taking . . . a baby plant? On a rescue mission.”

“I mean.” Barry shrugged, “It’s basically the Parent Tree’s grandchild. Self-preservation is probably the strongest biological imperative there is, but protecting your genetic relatives and offspring is right up there with it.”

“Exactly.” Merle looked around the clearing for a largish rock. A quick Stone Shape later, and he scooped the baby plant into a newly-formed planter, cooing as he did. The Twins rolled their eyes at each other.

“Okay.” Davenport straightened his back and surveyed his crew. “People, looks like the plan’s changed. Merle, you use what the tree gave you as far as directions, get close enough for Taako and Lup to use their spell. Let me know as soon as you have a location and I’ll bring the Starblaster around to meet you there.”

Lup nodded. “Then we bring Magnus back to the ship ASAP.” Assuming he’s still alive went unsaid, but it was clear they were all thinking it.

“That’s you and Taako’s job.” Davenport turned to Barry. “Barry, you cover Merle and the . . . baby plant. Merle, you talk to the Parent. See if you can let it know we’re not a threat, sure, but more importantly, see if you can explain why we need it to give us the Light.”

“You got it.” Merle propped the plant up on his hip and gestured to the others. “Okay, folks, let’s go hiking.”

***

Magnus drifted.

Everything felt like it was coming from very far away, or like it was happening to someone else. It scared the hell out of him, honestly. At least as much as the hallucinations did.

. . . Well, okay. Maybe not quite as much as the one where the space around him had filled up with spiders had scared him.

His legs still ached constantly, no matter which way he tried sitting on them. His chest still burned with every breath. His stomach still cramped itself around nothing and his strength still drained away a little bit more every time he managed to summon the will to move. It just all felt . . . hollow. Alien.

He was used to hurting. Used to hunger and thirst and fear. This? This disconnected, faded feeling like he was already a ghost? This scared the shit out of him. He had no idea how to deal with it, if it meant he was dying or if it was the Tree fucking with his head somehow or if it meant something had broken inside his mind.

It was almost a relief when the hallucinations came along at this point, because they felt real. His emotions worked and his mind felt like part of his body even if the body in question was inexplicably in flames or surrounded by people who had died because he’d failed to save them. At least in his nightmares he could still make his fingers move when he wanted them to.

Sometimes he could hear the others calling his name from somewhere up above him. Sometimes he dreamed his way out of the tomb, dreamed Merle or Davenport pulling him out of the earth, Lucretia helping him stumble his way onto the ship. Sometimes the vision lasted long enough for him to watch the Tree kill everyone before it dragged him back into the dirt. He fell for it every time, only to feel something in his guts wither up and die a little bit more every time he opened his eyes and found himself still in the dark.

He wished he would just hurry up and die already. He knew he wasn’t supposed to think that way, he did. But he wished it anyway.

Eventually, finally, he fell asleep and when he woke up he could see light. So, so much bright white light that it made his eyes burn and smart. He had to close them against it, give them time to adjust, and when he opened them again he was standing on the deck of the ship.

The last few bright white bond threads dissolved in the corners of his vision, and he felt a dull ache in his cheekbone and around his eye. Magnus took a deep, deep breath and turned his head.

Lup looked up at him from the same old chair she always came back in, and smiled. “Hey, big guy.”

Magnus couldn’t say anything. The words stuck in his throat. He turned a slow circle, drinking it in. Davenport had immediately turned from his place at the helm, grief and relief and regret playing over his face when he saw Magnus, and he gave a tiny nod that Magnus hesitantly returned. Merle slapped him on the back in a wordless welcome home.

Everything was bright and clean and safe, and Magnus had just enough time to choke out a relieved sound before it all faded back into a dank, lightless, stinking hole in the earth.

“No, no, no, gods dammit!” Magnus screamed, punching the wall with his broken hand and barely even registering the blossom of pain that shot up his arm. He did it a few more times, cursing incoherently, until his strength gave out. Then he curled himself into the smallest ball he could make of himself and sobbed until he was dry heaving and shaking.

Magnus quit wishing for anything after that.

Chapter Text

Lup, Taako, and Barry fell into pace behind Merle, who would occasionally cock his head at the baby tree like he was listening intently to what it had to say. Taako was pretty sure that was just Merle being a big ol’ plant weirdo rather than any real telepathy, but who was he to say? You didn’t see him talking to the landscape.

The morning wore on in the same way all their previous searches had -- a fruitless slog through endless same-y forest. They stopped briefly to eat, then went right back to it. By then Merle was hinting that they should share the load of carrying the tree, a suggestion which was emphatically vetoed by both twins. Barry compromised by helping Merle settle the tree in his open backpack, and Lup spent the next thirty minutes mocking the cleric’s new baby carrier.

They sobered as it drew on into afternoon. This was starting to look an awful lot like yet another useless walk in the woods. Finally, though, Merle stopped at the place where an empty creek bed had eroded away into a short drop.

“This is it.” Merle looked over his shoulder at Taako and Lup. “We’re close enough to try the spell.”

Taako nodded and withdrew his wand from within his robe; Lup did the same, and the two of them joined hands. For a moment there was silence, the two of them focusing magical energy and concentration on shaping the spell between them. Then, eventually, they began speaking in low, firm tones, weaving the energy into the form they’d envisioned and pushing it out into the forest around them.

The air hummed and shimmered as if a sudden heat wave had risen, and the twins opened their eyes at the same time, turning to follow the pull of the spell.

“That way?” Lup said, not really a question. She could feel the magic unspooling, the tension in her bones and blood that said follow.

“Yup.” Taako’s hand tightened in her own for a moment before he let go and strode forward, adjusting his hat. Lup was right behind him, briefly, and then right ahead of him.

“Come on, you two, we’re burning daylight.”

After a brief communication with the Starblaster, they plunged onwards. The afternoon wore on, and the forest around them changed as it did. It was older, the trees huge and towering, the underbrush long since vanished beneath their shade. Barry let out a low whistle as he craned his neck upwards. “We knew the Parent was ancient based on analysis of the outer fringes of clones, but this is . . . wow.”

“Not too ancient for me to kick its ass.” Taako hissed. “It thinks we’re a threat, I’ll show it a fuckin’ threat.”

“Easy there, tough guy.” Merle chided, shifting his backpack higher on his back. “Don’t go writin’ checks your spell slots can’t cash.”

“Well, first off, fuck you, and second off . . .” Taako brought himself up short next to Lup, who had abruptly stopped walking. His sister finished the thought for him.

“We’re here.”

***

Something was different.

Something was wrong.

He couldn’t pinpoint it at first. It wasn’t a sound or a vision, it was just a cold, creeping feeling that raised the hair on the back of his neck.

Then he recognized it. The last time he’d felt that feeling had been shortly before the Tree had burst its way into his skull.

“Shit.” There was a noise in the earth around him, now. A low, bone-rattling thrum. A tiny trickle of soil pattered down and landed in his hair, and he could hear something far, far off that sounded like the groaning of trees.

Magnus cringed and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck, ducking his forehead to his knees even though he doubted it would help.

The Tree was coming.

***

“Whoa.” Barry drew his wand as the trees around them -- vast and incredibly ancient, by the look of them -- began to creak and groan. “Yeah, uh. I’d say this is the place.”

The ground around them was thick with layers of leaf mould, dropped over who knew how many centuries. Here and there a root as thick as a person’s torso had broken ground and then disappeared again into the earth. This close to evening, with the canopy thick overhead, it was almost dark.

“Anybody else got the creeps?” Lup frowned, searching the narrow clearing between the rows of trunks. No Magnus in sight. That was wrong. He was here; the spell could feel him here. “Like, the ‘something arcane is definitely about to get a surprise round off on us’ creeps?”

“Gimme a second.” Merle raised his hand above his head, and a wave of dim greenish light flowed out and surrounded the four of them. Whatever was causing that sense of creeping danger, Holy Aura apparently helped soothe it, and the cleric dropped his arm and shrugged his pack off. “You two get to finding Magnus. Me and Barry’ll deal with our end.”

Lup nodded, stepping forward. Taako was right on her heels. The incantation they’d created still had both of them by the magical collar, tugging them along, and they followed, pacing the edge of the space between the trees.

Merle lifted the baby tree out of his pack and nestled it in the crook of one arm, then nodded to Barry. “Okay, then, here goes nothin’.” Another quick gesture, and he mumbled the words for the improved Speak with Plants.

“I don’t fuckin’ like this.” Taako was keyed up and jumpy, and Lup recognized the mood. Her brother did not react well to feeling powerless. “Where the hell is --”

They felt it before they saw it, the abrupt snapping sensation as the spell found its target and resolved itself, dissipating back into the magical atmosphere. Lup elbowed Taako in the ribs.

There was a sunken place in the earth at the foot of one tree, a depression only an inch or two deeper than the rest of the forest floor. The soil looked wrong, stirred up and then flattened down again rather than the unbroken humus of the rest of the clearing.

Lup felt sick. “Jesus fantasy Christ.”

Taako was shaking his head. “No. No, no, no, no fuckin’ way. We did not come out here to find a fucking grave!” His voice rose gradually in pitch and volume, until the last word was a shout.

Lup put a hand on his shoulder and then stepped forward, setting her jaw. “No. We did not.”

Her brother blinked at her, nonplussed -- but only momentarily. True, they’d modified the shit out of it, but they’d build the spell on the bones of Locate Creature.

Locate Creature didn’t work on the dead.

***

One of the roots behind him was moving. Not much, not enough to unsettle the walls, but enough that he could feel it rasping against the bare skin of his back beneath the rags of his jacket.

More dirt was falling. He felt it slither down the back of his collar, felt it settle in his hair. Maybe this was how he was going to finally die, if it was real. Maybe the hollow space he’d been trapped in would collapse and he’d suffocate.

Maybe the Tree had finally realized he hadn't died when he was supposed to and was fixing its mistake.

Maybe this was just his brain vomiting out another fucked-up set of fake sensory stimuli because it couldn’t cope with being trapped in a hole with itself.

Magnus tightened his grip on the back of his neck as more and more soil fell and rocks rattled somewhere above him. Whatever was going on, he wasn’t looking up.

***

Moving the dirt was child’s play. Mold Earth was a cantrip, barely any magical effort. There were packed stones and tangled roots not far beneath the surface, but even that took only a gesture to displace. Some of the roots oozed sap as they snapped, and Taako hoped like hell the trees could feel it.

Lup dropped to her knees and cleared the last few rocks by hand. Her face was set in a rigid expression, determined and single-minded. Taako stuck to using magic; it was faster.

The space under the earth was dank and small. Far too small for Magnus to fit in it, but there he was, hunched over his knees and covered in filth. Taako cursed creatively in Elvish.

Magnus had his arms up, maybe sheltering his eyes from the light. His uniform jacket was in tatters, and one of his hands was wrapped in rags that did nothing to disguise the fact that it was obviously badly broken. His fingernails were torn, bloody, and filthy, and Taako felt rage bubbling up in his chest.

"Magnus?" Lup's voice was incredibly gentle, but Taako knew his sister enough to know she had fury of her own going on the back burner. "Magnus. Hey, it's us."

Magnus let his arms fall wearily and barely turned his head towards Lup’s voice, cracking his eyes open. His face was sunken and hollow-looking, his eyes bloodshot. His glance moved dully from Lup's face to Taako's and back again. Cracked lips moved soundlessly for a moment, and then his eyes dropped closed and his head slumped forward against his chest.

"Fuck. Not this again." The words were quiet enough Lup doubted a human's ears would've caught them.

Lup froze, except for one of her fists, which she clenched so hard the knuckles went white. Her voice shook, trying for levity and not quite making it. "I mean if you'd rather not be rescued . . ."

Magnus huffed out a flat noise and shook his head without lifting it. "Might as well, since you're here."

Lup shot Taako a look and then leaned forward, easing one of Magnus's arms over her shoulders. He winced painfully as Taako did the same, jostling his broken hand. The two of them together lifted him carefully up and out of the narrow cavity in the ground, taking his weight as they went. There wasn't anywhere near as much of it to take as there should have been.

Magnus let out an agonized groan as they stood up. His legs buckled underneath him, cramping and shaking, and Lup made a comforting noise. "Take it easy, big guy. Let us handle this."

He didn't answer, just let himself slump against Lup's side. When it was clear that she could handle keeping Magnus upright, Taako let go of the human's other arm and straightened up with fury evident in every line of his posture.

“Lup.” He said evenly, “Get Magnus out of here.”

His sister narrowed her eyes at him. “While you do what?”

She could practically hear her brother's teeth clench. “While I burn this place to the motherfucking ground.”

Lup shook her head. "Merle's doing his thing, what the hell do you think you torching the place is going to accomplish?"

“It'll make me feel better.”

“Which is like, the last priority on our list right now, dingbat.” Lup jutted her chin at Taako. “Don't be a dumbass. I need you to help me.”

"Oh, please." Like Lup couldn't carry Magnus on her own with ease, with the condition he was in. And Taako almost said as much, until he realized with a sick feeling in his stomach that Magnus was shaking his head and mumbling.

“No. Don't do that.” Magnus rasped, lifting his head with an obvious effort. His eyes were wide and panicky. "Don't use fire, fire just pisses it off."

Fire was how all this had started. Dammit. Taako ground his teeth together, warring between his concern for Magnus and his overwhelming desire to make this stupid planet pay.

Lup took advantage of the moment, and the words for Teleport rolled off her tongue before Taako had quite caught what she was doing. He stumbled a little as the ground underfoot went from forest mulch to decking panels, then recovered and jabbed a finger at Lup. "Unfair tactics."

"Fair is for paladins." Lup tossed her head and readjusted Magnus's arm across her shoulders. "Let's get him into the sickbay."

Taako huffed a little, but he took Magnus's other arm and helped steady him as Lup steered them towards the sickbay. Lucretia met them in the corridor on the way there, her eyes widening in horror for a moment before her expression steadied itself into something more pragmatic and focused. She shoved the door open and held it until they got Magnus inside, then moved to the cabinets along one wall and started withdrawing supplies. "Is Merle . . .?"

"Still talking to the Tree as far as I know." Lup replied. She eased Magnus down onto the room's single bed, settling him onto his side. He was shivering, and he pulled his knees up towards his chest and wrapped his arms weakly around his middle, staring at nothing. Taako thought he was probably in shock.

Lucretia nodded stiffly and broke the seal on a bottle of healing potion. She slid an arm under Magnus's shoulders and held the bottle close to his lips. "Here. This will help until Merle can get here."

Magnus hesitated for a second. Then he closed his eyes and brought his lips the rest of the way to the bottle, draining it in a startlingly short time. He was shaky and short of breath after doing it, and reached up to catch hold of Lucretia's wrist with the hand that wasn't broken.

"What do you mean," he said, turning his head towards Lup without quite looking at her, "Talking to the Tree?"

Lup glanced at Taako. Magnus sounded worried, even through his hoarseness and fatigue. "He's negotiating. Barry's with him."

"You know Merle." Taako said, smothering his own worry under practiced indifference as only Taako could. "Can't wait to hit on anything with bark."

"Shit." Magnus was shaking his head again. The potion seemed to be working; he looked a little less alarmingly exhausted than he had a second earlier. He pushed himself up on one elbow, although it clearly cost him a lot to do so. "You can't let him do that. That thing, it's . . . fuck. It's gonna kill him."

Taako shot Lup an I told you look. "Not today." He said, and winked out of existence without further preamble.

Lup sighed and looked at Lucretia. "I gotta go make sure he doesn't pull a Taako. You good here?"

"Yeah." Lucretia set the empty potion bottle aside. Magnus still had a loose grip on her other wrist. "We'll be okay. Be careful."

Lup nodded and teleported off after her brother.

Magnus shook his head, and his fingers tightened weakly on Lucretia's wrist. "They're going to die."

He sounded simultaneously so totally certain and utterly demoralized that Lucretia's chest tightened. She put her free hand over his. "Trust them. They're good at what they do."

Magnus didn't answer. He still wasn't quite looking at her, like he hadn't quite looked straight at Lup. He just let out a heavy sigh and slumped back down into the first position he'd been in, curled on his side with his legs drawn up. It was fairly clear that holding himself up for any length of time was beyond him right now.

Lucretia swallowed the lump in her throat and gently pulled her wrist free, holding on to his hand for another long moment before she set it back down on the bed. “Well. I’m not Merle.” She reached for his broken hand, lifting it with excruciating care and unwinding the ragged, dirty bandages from around his fingers, “But I can at least get you cleaned up, okay?”

Magnus moved one shoulder in a very vague shrug. “Yeah. Alright. That’d be good.”

Chapter Text

When she materialized back in the clearing, Lup was relieved to see that her dumbass brother was not torching everything in sight. Instead he was standing at Barry’s side, arms crossed, scowling like he did when he expected a lecture.

Merle had settled in cross-legged on the ground with the baby tree in his lap, craning his neck to look up and up and up at the Tree above them. Every so often his lips moved like he was talking, but Lup couldn’t hear him.

She moved to stand on the other side of Barry and put a hand on his shoulder. “How’s it going?”

“Eh.” Barry pulled a face. “It hasn’t tried to kill us yet? I’m going to take that as a positive sign.” He hesitated. “Is Magnus . . . ”

Lup grimaced at the unfinished question. “He’s . . . alive.” She had expected to feel more relieved than she did about that.

Taako was starting to fidget. “How long do we give Merle before we start letting herbicides do the talking?”

“Uh.” Barry cleared his throat and spared a glance at the overhanging canopy. “Listen, I really can’t emphasize enough how bad of an idea it is for us to pick a fight with this thing.”

“You think you’re the only one here that wants to burn some shit down?” Lup shot her brother a pointed look. “Almost nothing would make me happier. But getting the Light and getting the hell out of this creepshow forest without anyone else getting hurt? That’d do it. So let the dwarf work.”

“Fine.” Taako unbent a little bit, still grouchy. “If he asks it for its number, though, I’m fuckin’ out of here.”

The leaves overhead rustled quietly from time to time, and after a while Barry noticed that it was a tell that the Tree was speaking and Merle was listening. It seemed to be doing most of the talking. Once or twice the tiny sapling in the pot shivered its leaves in response, and Barry and Lup had a brief, thoughtful conversation about how soon the trees developed whatever ability let them move independently. Taako rolled his eyes at them.

Merle eventually leaned back with a sigh, propping himself back on his hands, and looked over his shoulder at the three of them. “It’s not going to hurt me, if any of you think you'd be more use on the ship. This is just negotiations at this point.”

Taako snorted. “Yeah, that sounds like a big ol’ setup for a trap that gets you, our sole alleged healer, murdered, so hard pass.”

“I agree with Taako on that.” Barry said. “Uh, no offense to the Tree.”

Full fuckin’ offense to the Tree.” Taako groused quietly. Barry ignored him.

“It is getting late, though.” Lup shifted, thinking about the ragged bandage around Magnus’s crooked, bloodied fingers. “And we need you shipside, Merle.”

“I know, believe me.” Merle sighed and straightened back up. “Lemme make my excuses and arrange to pick this back up at another time, alright?”

Taako held out a finger and gestured firmly at Merle. “Fifteen minutes, old man, and then I’m Teleporting you out of here myself. If it’s not going to kill us, then this shit can wait.”

***

Magnus was too tired to do anything but lay still while Lucretia moved around him, occasionally carefully shifting him so she could work. He’d been fantasizing for gods knew how long about being able to stretch his legs out, but now he found that trying it was too painful and exhausting to be worth the effort.

The healing potion had blunted some of the edges of the pain in his hand and ribs, made the cramps in his back and legs more manageable. It hadn’t been enough to knit his bones back up, though, or to kill the hurt entirely. He suspected there was just too much of it for a potion to take care of.

That was okay, though. He was used to it by now.

Lucretia was silent while she worked. When he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye her expression was the tight, focused, hyper-competent one she only got when she was worrying and trying not to let anyone else see it. Prestidigitation got rid of the ground-in dirt and dried blood around his fingernails and knuckles, whisked his ruined uniform off him and got the grime cleared away. Magnus very distantly remembered a time he would’ve been embarrassed by this, but that had been a lifetime or two ago. It was a small ship. People had bodies. His was currently pretty much a wreck, dull-looking skin pulled too tightly over muscle that didn’t look anything like his own, and he was grateful when Lucretia flicked one of the thin infirmary blankets up and over him so he wouldn’t have to think about it.

Lucretia moved away and came back after a second carrying a cup of water with a straw in it. "Here."

Oh, gods. It was cool and clean and there was so much of it, it felt better in his parched mouth and aching throat than even the healing potion had, and he would’ve eagerly made himself sick if Lucretia hadn’t taken it away after only a few swallows. He couldn’t help making a noise of protest, embarrassingly loud, and he tried to push himself up on his elbow again.

“Take it slow. I don’t want you throwing it back up.” Lucretia put a hand on his shoulder until it was clear he wasn’t going to try and get up. “You can have more in a minute.”

“Easy for you to say.” His voice was still a dry croak, but it sounded a little more like it was supposed to. At least he thought it did.

Lucretia didn’t have an answer for that. She set the cup on the side table -- close enough he could see it, way too far for him to reach it, and that was totally unfair. He heard her pull one of Merle’s rolling stools over and sit down, but he didn’t look at her.

Looking at anybody for too long felt risky. If this was . . . if his brain was making all of this happen, it was going into overdrive with way more detail than ever, and it was lasting a lot longer than it usually did. But still, it . . . it was probably safer not to look too hard or think too much about anything. He settled for fixing his gaze on the water cup.

Magnus wondered if she’d meant a literal or figurative minute.

Lucretia took his good hand in her own, holding it lightly. He could feel the calluses on her finger and thumb from writing. “Merle’s going to be back soon.” She said. “If you want to sleep until he gets here, I could put you under. You look like you could use the rest.”

Magnus felt suddenly cold all over, in a way that had nothing to do with the lack of uniform or the quality of the sickbay bedding.

“No.” He croaked, and it sounded small and shaken. He cleared his throat and tried again. “No, uh. I’m good. I’d rather it not . . . I’m good.”

“Okay.” Lucretia didn't have much to say after that. She just held his hand and sat with him and occasionally gave him access to the water cup, although it never felt like long enough when she did. He knew she was only doing the right thing for someone who’d been dehydrated as long as he had, knew that letting him drink too much or too fast might cause him actual harm, but that didn’t make it suck any less when one moment there was water and then the next moment there wasn’t.

He was getting anxious about Merle and Taako and Lup and Barry. They’d been down there with the Tree for gods knew how long by now. Yeah, they were together, and sure, they knew now that the Tree was dangerous. But if Merle had tried to talk to it, and it had talked back . . .

His stomach knotted up, and he fought for a moment not to be sick. He tried not to think about that thing in anyone else’s mind, doing to Merle or any of the others what it had done to him. Tried not to think about it killing them like it had in his nightmares. Tried not to think about it not killing them, or about all of this not being . . .

“Magnus.” Lucretia leaned forward and put her free hand on his upper arm. “Magnus, talk to me. What’s going on?”

What? He blinked a few times, realized that he was panting and had tightened his grip on her hand convulsively, and swallowed. “Uh.” He took a breath, unsteady. There was absolutely no way to explain what was going on in his head without sounding either pitiable or a little bit insane. “Nothing. Just . . . worried.” He managed after a moment.

"Worried about what?” Merle lumbered in through the sickbay door, plunked a small potted tree on a bare stretch of counter, and moved to the side of the bed. His expression softened as he got a look at Magnus. “Hey, kid.”

Magnus stared, his resolve not to look too close at anybody momentarily forgotten. Okay, that had to be . . . that was too convenient for it not to be his head fucking with him, right?

“Magnus.” Merle put a hand out and rested it on Magnus’s neck, feeling for his pulse point. “Pan’s toothbrush, kid, your heart’s goin’ a mile a minute.”

“Yeah, well.” Magnus swallowed weakly and tried to think of something to say to that. He came up emptyhanded. The world was made up of a thousand spinning-out pieces and he was neither one of them nor able to catch hold of any of them to put them back in order.

“I tried to get him to Sleep,” Lucretia was saying, “But I think he’s worried this isn’t really happening.”

Merle’s face clouded. “Shit.” He reached for a stool, spun it over until it was next to the bedside, and dropped himself onto it, rolling up his sleeves. “Okay, well, I’ve got a lot to do here and the last thing he needs is to have a panic attack the whole way through me doin’ it.”

At least, those were the noises he heard the two of them making. Magnus couldn’t quite figure out what words meant right now.

There was a warm, rough palm on his forehead, heavy and yet incredibly gentle, and Merle’s voice made a few more noises.

Magnus slept. He didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Chapter Text

Merle sat back and pushed his glasses up on his forehead, rubbing his eyes. It had been a long day, the latest in a long succession of long days, and now it was pushing midnight.

Magnus was still sleeping. The effect of the spell had only lasted for a minute, but the poor guy was clearly so bone-deep exhausted he'd barely stirred when the magic had dispersed. He hadn’t given any sign of waking since.

Merle was honestly amazed Magnus had still been conscious when he'd got there. The human was running on nothing, starving and dehydrated. He'd always known Magnus was a stubborn bastard, but it was still hard to believe.

There was a quiet knock on the frame of the open sickbay door, and Merle turned, already knowing who it was. "Hey, Cap'n."

Davenport looked about as tired as Merle felt. "Any change?"

Merle shook his head. The captain had already checked in once earlier, when Merle had been elbows-deep in healing magic and too preoccupied to say much. "He's stable. I'm gonna let him sleep a while before I wake him up and work on getting some more fluids in his system."

Davenport nodded wearily. “You should get some rest, Merle.”

The dwarf laughed. “No offense, but look who’s talkin’. Everyone on this boat needs to sleep for about a week.” His expression softened, and he leaned forward and settled his elbows on his knees. “I don’t feel right leaving him alone, Dav.”

Davenport sighed, knowing the particular futility of trying to win this conversation. “All right. But I want a schedule set up in the morning so you’re not trying to balance this and negotiating with the Tree on no sleep. Understood?”

Merle tossed off a lazy excuse for a salute. “You’re the boss. Now go take your own advice. Cleric’s orders.”

“You know that’s not how this works.” But Davenport was already heading down the corridor by the time he said it, and Merle just smirked in response.

Once he was gone, Merle pushed himself to his feet and stretched, cracking his back and shoulders. He pulled a more comfortable chair over to the bedside and then scrounged himself something to eat out of the stash of rations he always had tucked in one of the side cupboards.

He'd given Davenport a terse report on Magnus's condition earlier. Broken ribs and a crushed hand, neither of which had been able to start knitting properly between the stress and starvation. Chronic dehydration, multiple scrapes and bruises, malnutrition, burgeoning pressure sores, and muscle atrophy in his legs from lack of activity. All of that, plus whatever mental trauma he'd sustained from more than two weeks alone in that pit.

Merle sighed and tore open a bag of dried apples, popping a slice into his mouth. He'd done everything he could with spells and potions, setting bones and tendons on the mend, soothing away the abrasions -- but even divine magic only got you so far. Wasted muscles, a battered mind, a system seriously unbalanced by deprivation, those needed old fashioned rest and care and attention to be put back together.

He'd have preferred not to be balancing those needs with negotiating for the Light. It felt patently unfair to Magnus, for one thing.

But, well, a lot of things in life weren't fair. You just knuckled down and got on with it anyway.

***

Lup waited until Barry had finally fallen asleep, slow breathing evening out into the soft, consistent snoring that meant she wouldn’t wake him by slipping out of bed. Then she pressed a kiss into the short curls behind his ear and untangled herself from the bedsheets, padding silently across the cabin floor and out the door.

“Elves don’t need sleep” was bullshit, of course, and everyone on board had figured that out by about halfway through cycle one. But they needed a lot less of it than other races, and she and Taako in particular had learned to sleep lightly and infrequently when they’d still been young and on constant guard against anything that wasn’t them. Some habits just didn’t go all the way away.

Case in point: there was light coming through under the door to the galley, and her brother was posted up at the countertop island, transmuting dried rations into the fresh equivalents. Taako didn’t even look up as he added another carrot to the little stack of them he already had going. He’d been expecting her, of course.

Lup hoisted herself up to sit on a clear spot of counter, and Taako handed her an onion and a paring knife without breaking stride. They worked in silence like that for a while, just focusing on something simple and familiar with an easy end in sight. This was another old habit, Taako’s way of decompressing and her way of letting him.

Eventually he switched to chopping instead of transmutation, dumping the vegetables into a giant stock pot as he went. “Check the bones, will ya?” He gestured vaguely at the oven with his elbow.

Lup hopped off the counter and peered into the oven, squinting a little at the blast of high heat when she opened the door. “Ten more minutes.” She announced, closing the oven and grabbing a knife of her own.

Taako scooted over to make room for her at the chopping block and finished dismantling an onion. “He’s supposed to start with clear liquids.” He said after another moment. “And like hell I’m gonna let Merle try and give him that powdered shit in the jar.”

Lup snorted. "I'm pretty sure we only have that jar so you can bitch about it. I've never seen anyone use it."

"And yet every time I try to throw it away it ends up back in my godsdamned spice cabinet." Taako groused.

His sister, who had absolutely not been intentionally rescuing said jar from the trash for a decade, kept a perfectly straight face and dumped a pile of chopped celery into the pot.

Taako fell silent again for a while, until the marrow bones were out of the oven and the bouquet garni was in the pot. Then he spoke abruptly, like they'd been on the topic for a while. Lup supposed maybe they had. "You know what's fucking me up? I would've walked right over him. If it weren't for the spell."

"Yeah." Lup tweaked his ear gently as she passed behind him to drop the last chopped carrot into the pot. "But you didn't, because we built a badass spell that found him."

Taako rubbed his ear and glared at her, but the gesture had apparently served its purpose and pulled him out of his own head about the subject. "Fair point." He flicked the burner on under the stock pot and started prestidigitating the worktop clean. "At least we found him."

"Yeah." Lup agreed. "At least he's home."

***

He was comfortable. That was a novelty lately even in his dreams, and for a moment he actively fought to keep from waking any further from the muzzy dozing state he was in. Eventually, though, other sensations started pushing their way in. Thirst, for one thing, sharp and undeniable as ever. Gnawing hunger after that, and Magnus groaned and braced himself for the rest -- pain and weakness and claustrophobia, the stink of the stale air.

They didn't come. He was hungry and thirsty and weak as a kitten, yes. But the pain was dull, the air clear and warm. And there was a warm weight on his arm, like someone's hand.

Magnus cracked his eyes open, just barely, and he could see. The lights were dimmed, but they were there.

Sickbay. He’d been in there enough to know it instantly by now, even if Merle hadn’t been sitting at the side of the bed in his keeping-watch chair. It was his hand resting on Magnus’s forearm. “Hey, there he is." The cleric held out a cup with a straw in it, and Magnus latched onto it instantly. Water.

Magnus frowned, even as blessedly cool liquid eased the clawing thirst in his throat. This wasn't how his dreams or hallucinations usually went. He didn't fall asleep and wake up back in the same place.

Merle pulled the straw away and put the cup down somewhere outside of Magnus's line of sight. Bits and pieces of the last time he'd been awake were still filtering their way back into his awareness. Lup and Taako bending over the grave. Lucretia bandaging his hand. Someone saying that Merle was talking to the Tree and then Merle somehow still being alive and in one mental piece anyway . . .

“Merle? Is this a dream?” He took a shaky breath. His ribs hurt, still, but it was a dull aftermath-of-healing-magic kind of hurt. Same with his hand. “You, uh. You have to tell me if it’s a dream. Otherwise it’s entrapment.”

Merle chuckled. “Nah, kid, you’re really here. The twins brought you in last night. Don’t know how much you remember.”

Magnus shook his head against the pillow. “I don’t know. Everything in my head is kind of . . .” Immensely fucked up. “Fuzzy.”

“That’s normal.” Merle said kindly. “You’ve been through some shit.”

Magnus choked out a laugh, surprising himself. “Yeah. You don’t say.”

This conversation was . . . normal. Distressingly normal. But his stomach was knotting up again, apprehension crawling across his skin. This was too good to be true, though, right? It had turned out to be too good to be true so many times before . . .

“Hey.” Merle cupped Magnus’s cheek in one hand and turned his head so he’d have to look Merle in the eye. “Pump the brakes on that train of thought, whatever it is. Just breathe for me for a minute.”

When had his heart started hammering? Magnus swallowed and nodded and took a few jagged breaths while Merle spoke the incantation for Calm Emotions. That helped; Magnus felt his chest unclench, and the next breath he took was less desperate.

“There you go. It's okay. This is normal.” Merle leaned back in his seat and watched Magnus gravely for a second.

“Listen. You were pretty deep in a bad panic attack when I got here last night, and you damned near just barrelled into another one head first.” He held up a hand before Magnus could say anything, maybe anticipating a protest that Magnus . . . actually didn’t have any desire to make. “Like I said, it's normal with what you've been through. But all things considered, I think it's best if I keep an extended Calm Emotions going for the time being. Give you a chance to recover some strength without your brain running you ragged every ten minutes. Yeah?"

Magnus swallowed shakily. This was . . . this was a lot, even with the spell keeping him from spiraling completely. And he trusted Merle. That made it a simple answer, really. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.” His eyes flicked over to the bedside table. “. . . could I have some more water?”

“Sure.” Merle held the cup out again long enough for Magnus to get a couple swallows. "It's gonna be slow going, pal, I'm not gonna lie. But we're gonna get you feeling better."

"Okay." Magnus sighed and closed his eyes, already exhausted again. “Hey . . . is everyone else okay?”

Merle’s voice sounded amused, like he’d expected that. Magnus guessed maybe he was kind of predictable, after all. “Yeah, Magnus. Now that you’re here everybody’s just fine.”

“Good.” Okay. Probably wouldn’t hurt anything if he just . . . slept for a while longer, then.

Yeah. Sounded like a good plan.

Chapter Text

Shortly after sunrise Barry leaned against the doorframe of sickbay, still in his bathrobe and pajamas with the ship’s largest coffee mug clutched in his hands and a sheaf of notes under his arm. “Hey.”

Merle rubbed his eyes and roused himself from the near-doze he’d been in for the last few hours. “Morning.”

“Boy, it sure is.” Barry pushed himself off from the doorframe with one shoulder and crossed to the side of the bed, gesturing. “I ran into the Captain in the galley, he told me to come relieve you. What should I know?”

Merle rose, muttering under his breath about being micromanaged in his own damned sickbay, but there wasn’t much heat in it. He was too tired for that. “He needs fluids, but don’t overdo it. I’ve been using Ease Pain and Calm Emotions to help him get some rest.”

Barry nodded and sank into the chair, sprawling a little as he habitually did. “Taako’s got something on the stove that I’m supposed to tell you is, and I quote, ‘Better than whatever shit you think you’re going to feed him’. I’m guessing we start with that when he’s awake enough?”

Merle sighed. “Uh-huh. Much as I hate to let Taako be right about that, he is.”

Barry snorted into his coffee. “I won’t tell him if you don’t.”

Merle scrubbed a hand over his face, feeling his age all of a sudden now that he was on his feet. “I’ll get a schedule written out and make sure whoever’s got the next shift comes to relieve you.” He hesitated a moment. “Calm Emotions has been helping keep him under, I think, but you ought to know he’s . . . had some dreams. Not good ones, from what I could tell.”

Barry winced. “I mean, yeah. Obviously he would, after . . .” He settled for a drink of coffee instead of finishing that sentence.

"Yeah." Merle shot a glance at the potted sapling on the counter and then crossed to pick it up and tuck it under one arm. Probably wasn't the best thing to leave in there, all things considered, even if it was far too young to be able to talk to Magnus without a spell involved. "I'm gonna get some rest and then I'll be heading back down. Let you know what I find out, if anything changes."

"Sure." Barry waved vaguely. "Good luck."

For a long while the room lapsed into quiet. Barry drank about half of his coffee and leafed through his notes on the planet and the trees that inhabited it, putting his thoughts in order. It would need Merle's input on the Parent Tree's state of mind to be a complete picture of life here; Barry would have to sit down with Merle later and compare notes.

The quiet lasted until Magnus stirred in his sleep, mumbling, and Barry leaned forward. He couldn't make out much in terms of actual words, but the tone was distressed and shaky, and Magnus's brow was creased. Barry reached out and put a hand between his shoulders.

"Hey, bud." Barry shook him, very very gently. "Magnus."

Magnus's face screwed up in an agonized expression, and he half-raised an arm like he was trying to block a blow. Well, shit, that was the exact opposite of helping. Barry raised his voice. "Magnus, buddy, you're having a nightmare. It isn't real. Wake up."

Magnus's eyes snapped open, flicking from Barry's face to the rest of the room with sharp, panicky motions. It took a long moment for Magnus to relax, and once he did he still looked troubled. "Hey."

"Hey." Barry stopped himself from adding You were having a nightmare because yeah, genius, no shit. Instead he reached for the cup of water and held it out so Magnus could reach.

Magnus leaned forward and latched onto the straw with a desperate expression that honestly kind of broke Barry's heart a little bit. Barry pulled the cup away reluctantly after Magnus got only a few mouthfuls and set it aside. "You need something for the pain?"

Magnus frowned and shook his head. "Nah. I'm okay." He glanced around the room. "Where's Merle?"

"Sleeping, if he knows what's good for him." Barry said, reaching for his coffee cup. He took a sip, grimaced, and warmed it back up with a cantrip. "We've all been pulling a lot of late-nighters lately."

Magnus huffed out a breath and closed his eyes, shifting around in search of a more comfortable position. "Glad you guys did."

There was a lump in Barry's throat all of a sudden, and he reached out and grabbed Magnus's hand for a second, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Yeah. Me too."

Magnus smiled crookedly, already more than halfway asleep again. He mumbled something unintelligible into the pillow, and Barry laughed. That was so distinctly a normal Magnus thing to do, and it was heartening after everything his friend had been through to see him doing something normal.

Barry rummaged around in the nearest drawer for a pen, and then went back to his notes.

***

The next time Magnus woke up, it was because there was a weight on his chest. Not unbearable, but enough that he could tell it was there; breathing was still just enough of a chore for extra weight to make a difference.

He heard Barry clear his throat apologetically. "I tried to get him to move but he just keeps getting right back up there. Sorry."

Magnus cracked an eye, wondering wearily if there was going to be a point any time soon when he stopped being surprised and relieved to still be in sickbay when he opened his eyes. What he saw, though, made his forget that particular trouble for the time being. "Fisher."

The voidfish lit up with a chiming little song, although it didn't budge from its position on his chest. Magnus grinned weakly and lifted his good hand to rest it on Fisher's bell. "Heya, buddy. Miss me?"

Fisher chirped and coiled several tentacles around his wrist, and Barry chuckled. "I think that's a yes."

"Definitely." Magnus said, feeling his eyes prickling. For someone who wasn't doing much besides sleeping he sure was godsdamned exhausted, and his sleep had been haunted by more nightmare visions that were way too much like the ones he'd had in the tomb. Even with the faint cool tingle of a spell he assumed was Calm Emotions keeping the panic at bay he still felt like the world was made of glass and something might shatter it at any moment.

Barry helped him drink and then Magnus drifted for a few minutes, trying to just relax into the idea of being safe and home. He didn't feel totally successful at it, although it was the closest he'd gotten while conscious so far. This -- Fisher settled on him trilling quietly and the scratch of Barry's pen against paper -- this was nice. Calm.

"Okay, nerd, stand aside." Taako breezed into the room with a mug in his hands, waving Barry out of the chair -- or, at least, attempting to. Barry didn't actually move. Taako rolled his eyes. "No, really. Go put some pants on, Barry, I've got this."

Normally Magnus would've been content to settle in and watch a round of the traditional Starblaster entertainment favorite, 'Barry stonewalls Taako into asking him nicely to get up', but he was too distracted this time. The mug in Taako's hands commanded all of his attention. “Something smells really good.” He mumbled.

“Damn right it does, my dude.” Taako Mage Handed another chair over and flopped himself dramatically into it, letting Barry have a rare victory. He held out the mug with a self-satisfied expression. "Here."

Magnus carefully untangled his fingers from Fisher's tentacles while Barry conjured another pillow up from somewhere and slid it under Magnus's shoulders. Magnus shifted around weakly until he was in what could generously be called a sitting position. Fisher chirped and slid bonelessly into his lap.

Magnus reached out and wrapped both hands around the ceramic, obscuring the I'm kind of a big deal graphic on the side. Oh, gods, it was still warm and the smell was so good that it temporarily made it impossible for him to concentrate on literally anything else. He didn't even care that his hands were shaking as he lifted the mug to his lips.

The taste burst over his tongue, rich and warm and savory, and it was easily in the top five best things that had ever happened to him. He was pretty sure the noise he made bordered on obscene. He was definitely sure that his eyes welled up, because it was just . . . a lot. Being hungry and being able to do something about it was a lot.

The mug was a little less than half full, and Magnus emptied it in what felt like no time at all. He had to catch his breath after, staring down into the empty cup with tears still threatening to fall. He felt kind of ridiculous.

Taako noticed, obviously, and he handled it with his usual tact. "Don't worry, there's more where that came from. We just gotta make sure your shitty human digestive system doesn't kill itself from overdoing it." He lifted the empty mug from Magnus's hands.

Magnus made a face at him and leaned back against the pillows, secretly glad of the distraction. "Thanks a lot. Your sympathy is really touching."

"I made you bone broth." Taako said in a mock-wounded tone. "If that's not sympathy then I literally do not know what is."

Barry snorted without looking up from his notes, and Taako narrowed his eyes and jabbed an index finger at him. "Quiet, you."

Magnus laughed at that -- an actual laugh -- and looped his fingers in Fisher's tentacles again.

Gods, it was good to be home.

Chapter Text

What Merle liked about plants was that they were, on the whole, pretty simple life forms. They needed sunshine and soil and water in various proportions and if you gave them those things they were content to put down roots and thrive. You didn’t have to put a whole lot of work into teasing out motivations with a plant. A plant didn’t muddy the waters by wanting things but refusing to tell you what they were, or getting mad when you didn’t anticipate its desires. You knew where you stood with a plant.

Except the Parent Tree, he thought grumpily. The Parent Tree was old enough and complicated enough to have stopped being a plant in anything but the loosest sense. It was a person, a very old very stubborn very angry person that was not used to being contradicted, reasoned with, or bothered. It could communicate, yes, but it did so reluctantly. It had demands that it expected to be met, and little interest in compromise.

Merle had trained extensively for this kind of thing. It didn't make it any less of a pain in his ass.

He drummed his fingertips against the conference room tabletop. Everyone else had slowly filtered in over the course of the last few minutes, with the exception of Lup -- it was her turn to sit watch with Magnus while he slept. In the three days since they’d recovered him from the Parent Tree, Magnus had slowly begun to regain a little bit of strength, but he still spent more time unconscious than awake. Merle had a stone of farspeech on the table in front of him so Lup could listen and weigh in if she had anything to add.

Davenport leaned forward and placed his palms on the table. “All right, Merle. What can you tell us?”

Merle sighed and pushed his glasses up so he could rub his eyes. “Wish I had better news, Skipper, but the truth is, we’re at the same place now we were in three days ago. Negotiations are as stalled as they get.”

Lucretia frowned. “So where do we go with that, if it isn’t willing to compromise?”

Merle shrugged roughly. “I guess that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” He gestured, taking in everyone at the table as well as Lup. “We’ve gotta decide if we give it what it wants.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. By now they all knew what the Parent Tree was demanding: it wanted the Light to stay in its possession until as close to the end of the year as possible, while the Starblaster withdrew and left it to study and develop.

Barry cleared his throat. “We’ve done similar before.” He said reluctantly, “Kept our hands off while the local population spent time studying the Light.”

Lup made a skeptical noise. “Those were civilizations, though. This is an individual.”

“One that’s already tried to kill us,” Taako added, scowling. He’d made his position against cooperating with the Parent Tree exquisitely clear when Merle had made his first report days ago, and he clearly hadn’t softened on the issue since then.

“What do the other individuals in the area have to say?” Davenport looked at Barry, who shrugged.

“The Parent has been the supreme intelligence on this planet for longer than any of them have been alive,” Barry said. “It’s always been in charge of protecting itself and them, and they don’t have a compelling reason to contradict its wishes. Especially not on our account.”

“We don’t really have any evidence that it would hurt to let the Parent keep the light for the amount of time it wants.” Lucretia said with a thoughtful expression. “It hasn’t tried to attack us since we stopped behaving in a way it thought was threatening.”

“Fair enough point.” Merle said. “It doesn’t feel especially warmly towards us, either, but --”

“No, you know what, fuck this.” Taako looked like he was about to shove away from the table and start pacing. “This isn’t some civilization that wants to use it to improve their technology or some shit, this is a giant world-spanning psychic tree that has definitely tried to kill us more than once with the means at its disposal. Now it wants us to fuck off for most of a year so it can improve itself and ambush us when we come back? Hard pass.”

“The alternative is we try to take the Light by force, and essentially go to war with the majority of life on this planet.” Barry said evenly.

“You think we can’t take it?” Taako crossed his arms. “Please.”

“It’s not about being able to defeat it, though.” Lucretia said, leaning forward in her chair, “It’s about how much collateral damage we’d do.”

“Yeah,” Lup chimed in, “Going slash-and-burn on an entire world instead of even trying to do things peacefully first? That’s a bad look.”

“That thing dumped Magnus Burnsides in a hole and left him to starve to death.” Taako snapped. “How am I possibly the bad guy in this conversation?”

Merle scowled. “You think the rest of us aren’t thinking about that?”

“You tell me, bud, you didn’t see the look on his fucking face --”

For a brief moment Merle, Lup, Taako and Barry were all talking at once. Davenport had to raise his voice.

Enough.” Davenport sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Taako, nobody’s saying you don’t have a point. Letting the Tree keep the Light for an extended period of time is a risk. If it goes badly, we put ourselves at risk of an ambush. Not to mention that if it does get stronger and then we fail to recover the Light, we’re putting a lot of new ammunition in the Hunger’s hands.”

Thank you, Fantasy Jesus.” Taako threw his hands up. “Like, I’m sure there’s a ‘but’ coming but at least someone here is going to acknowledge that I’m talking sense.”

“Uh. Guys?” Lup sounded strained, and there was the random noise of the stone on her end being moved.

“So,” Magnus’s voice came through, hoarse and exhausted but clear, “Do I get a vote?”

***

Magnus handed the stone of farspeech back to Lup and lay back against the pillows with a sigh. Davenport had called the meeting to a hasty adjournment, and he and Merle were headed to sickbay. Magnus really hadn't meant for his interjection into the conference call to be so dramatic; he'd just panicked a little when he'd woken up into the middle of a conversation about the Tree.

Lup pocketed her stone, watching him closely. She'd clearly been worried by the expression she'd seen on his face when she realized he'd woken up. Magnus imagined he'd been wide-eyed and scared and panicky. That was certainly how he'd felt.

"We weren't trying to keep you out of the decisionmaking." Lup said gently. "I mean, you know that, right?"

Magnus summoned up a shrug and a weak, crooked kind of smile. "Nah, I mean, listen, I get it." He gestured vaguely at himself. "I'm pretty wrecked, you guys can't sit around waiting on me to get useful again before shit gets done."

Lup wrinkled her nose at him. " 'Useful' is a bullshit concept, bud, and you're usually the very first person to say that if anyone else gets hurt, so shush."

Magnus shrugged again. It was nice to hear Lup say it; it was probably even true. But it was also true that standing up under his own power was currently more than he was capable of, and that the inside of his head was a junk drawer of bad dreams and worse waking reactions to literally nothing, and that he was currently relying on constant Calm Emotions to help keep him from breaking down completely. That he was, in a word, wrecked, and was probably going to be that way for the foreseeable future.

He and Lup both looked up as Davenport and Merle entered the room. Merle settled onto an empty stool and wheeled himself over to the side of the bed; Davenport stayed standing, clasping his hands at the small of his back.

“Magnus,” The captain said, “I want to apologize. It wasn’t our intention to --”

Magnus waved a hand wearily. “It’s okay, Cap’n, honestly. I just . . . I kind of freaked out when I woke up and you all were talking about . . . y’know.”

Merle leaned forward and settled his elbows on his knees. “Still. You know better’n any of us what the Parent Tree’s capable of. That’s information we should’ve made sure we had for that conversation.”

Magnus shrugged again, suddenly intensely fascinated by his own hands. What the Tree was capable of wasn’t exactly something he wanted to dwell on more than absolutely necessary. “So you have been talking to it?” Magnus had sort of assumed that had been something his brain had fabricated, because Merle seemed totally unscathed.

“Negotiating with it, yeah.” Merle looked tired, Magnus realized. Not torn apart mentally from the inside, maybe, but exhausted.

Magnus tightened his fingers slightly in the blanket, concentrating on the texture. His left hand was still a lot weaker than his right, clumsy and faltering even if it didn’t hurt much anymore. “Did it . . . it hasn’t tried to hurt you?”

Merle frowned, shot a significant glance at Lup and Davenport. “No,” He said quietly, “It’s a stubborn son-of-a-bitch and it’s not much of a conversationalist, but no, it hasn’t hurt me.”

The question Merle didn’t ask -- Did it hurt you? -- hung in the air. Magnus felt his skin prickle, felt the surge of flight-or-fight adrenaline hit his bloodstream and then fizzle against the magic of the spell that was keeping him from losing it. It wasn’t a great feeling, even if the panic attack would’ve been worse.

Lup put a hand on his shoulder, warm and solid and real, and she squeezed gently. It helped, like the irregularly woven fabric under his hands helped. Magnus took a deep breath. Wrecked or not, he was this mission’s security officer, and by gods he was going to make a report on the threat to security he’d encountered.

“It could if it wanted to, Merle. You need to know that. That thing, when it got hold of me, it got in my head. And it . . . I thought I was. That it was going to . . ." He cut himself off and shook his head, frustrated. There wasn't language for it, that was the problem. He knew how to describe taking a hit, being knocked unconscious, the vocabulary of violence. What the Tree had done to him was different.

"It was like it was gonna shred everything that was me." He said finally. "Like it was going to . . . to crowd me out of myself." His hands were shaking now. "I could feel it looking at me. Like I was, I don't know, like I was a roach or a . . . or a virus? Like I wasn't a person or even exactly an animal, like I was just . . . nothing. And there was so much of it in my head that there wasn't room for anything else. Just it, looking at me like that."

Magnus shuddered and closed his eyes for a second, trying to calm himself down. “You want my opinion, Merle, I think whatever option involves you not talking to that thing any more is the only option you should choose. Because if it --” Nope, no. That sentence was going to stop itself from being said, it turned out. His throat closed up around the words, and Merle leaned forward and put his hand over Magnus’s clenched fists.

“Okay, kid. I get it.” He said quietly. “Thank you.”

Magnus nodded, concentrated on the weight of Merle and Lup’s hands for a while before he opened his eyes and looked at Davenport. “I asked if I got a vote. Well, that’s it. That’s my vote. We stay away from that thing.”

Davenport inclined his head solemnly. “Duly noted. If you want to be involved in further discussion, we’ll make sure that happens.”

Magnus leaned back heavily against the pillows behind him, feeling wrung-out and rattled. He had to intentionally relax his hands under Merle’s fingers. “If it’s all the same? I think that’s all I’ve got to add.”

“Yeah, fair enough.” Lup turned to look at the Captain, keeping her hand right where it was. “Cap’n’port, I think that’s probably worth letting everyone else know about, yeah?”

“Agreed. We’ll reconvene this afternoon.” Davenport crossed the room and put his own hand on Magnus’s forearm for a moment. “Thank you, Magnus.”

Magnus grinned weakly. It was nice, having this much contact. Safe. Grounding. It was helping him come down from the spike of tension talking about the Tree had caused. “Anytime, Cap’n.”

“Well, hopefully not.” Davenport nodded again and took his leave, and Magnus closed his eyes with a sigh as Merle rumbled a goodbye and stood up.

“You gonna check out again for a while, sleepy guy?” Lup said, affectionate and teasing. She hadn’t moved her hand, and Magnus was suddenly, ferociously grateful for her.

“Yeah.” He shifted his shoulders against the pillows until he found the sweet spot of most comfortable support. “Wake me up if anything cool happens.”

"Sure." Lup shifted, and her lips brushed against the top of his head. "You know you're not nothing, right? Like, I don't have to tell you to screw some Tree's opinion, obviously. You're too smart for that."

Magnus huffed out a breath. His eyes smarted a little. "Yeah. Obviously. I mean, you've met me. I'm awesome."

"Fuckin' A right you are." Lup squeezed his shoulder and sat back down. She didn't take her hand away. "Okay, then. Nighty-night."

Magnus just mumbled something back at her, and let himself fall back asleep.

Chapter Text

Taako was sick of this planet, and they were only just slightly more than a month into being stuck on it. It wasn’t just the incredibly hostile native flora, or the exhausting ordeal of looking for Magnus, or the sobering reality of how badly hurt he was when they found him. It was all of those things, yes.

But also, this planet was dull as hell.

What they needed, in Taako’s opinion, was a change of scenery. An ocean would be nice; no way the Tree could sneak up on them in the middle of the ocean, right?

Except this planet had no oceans (all the water, according to Barry’s theory, was tied up in the roots and leaves of the forests that covered the globe). There weren’t any deserts, either, or even any mountain ranges. Just endless fucking forest as far as the eye could see. The Tree had requested that the Starblaster withdraw, but “withdraw” was something of a nebulous concept when the Tree spanned the whole planet.

They did the best they could by picking up and relocating to the other side of the globe, as far as they could get from the grove where they’d found Magnus. When they got there, though, it was basically like they hadn’t moved at all from the first location where they’d made landfall. The trees were the same, the terrain was the same, the weather was the same.

It was going to be an awfully long year. They'd find a way to pass the time -- they always did -- but really, was it too much to ask for a planet to have a change of scenery to offer now and again? Not everyone was Barry, able to retain fascination with the same five or six plant species for the foreseeable future.

At least Magnus was feeling better. Merle had been gradually attenuating the Calm Emotions spells over the last few days, and earlier that morning he’d given Magnus clearance to move back into his own quarters. The distinction between "sickbay" and "Magnus's room" was sometimes a fine one, given how often the big doofus ended up injured, but in this case it was a nice gesture towards normal.

Taako breezed into sickbay, cocking an eyebrow at Magnus. The big guy had gotten some of his color back, lost the dull look to his eyes and skin, and he was able to sit up without help now. He hadn't put any weight back on yet, but that was going to be a long-term project given that he'd only just worked his way back up to solid foods. You couldn't rush these things, Taako had found. Dwarves could take more trauma than just about anyone else, and elves bounced back quicker from what they survived; humans, well, they were only human.

"What's up, my guy? Ready to blow this place?"

"Hell yes I am." Magnus swung his legs over the edge of the bed and then sat for a second, bracing himself. Taako held out a hand and Magnus grasped his forearm, using it to lever himself to his feet.

Magnus still wasn't quite able to handle walking under his own power, so Taako slung an arm around his waist and waited until Magnus put his arm across Taako's shoulders, letting the elf take most of his weight. "Right, here we go."

It was slow going down the hallway the short distance to Magnus's quarters, but they made it eventually, and Taako kicked a couple dirty t-shirts out of the way before helping Magnus settle onto the edge of the bed.

Magnus groaned and toppled over into the nest of pillows and blankets. "Can't believe that wore me out like it did." He grumbled.

"Yeah, well, give yourself a break," Taako said philosophically. "You've got the muscle tone of a tuna sandwich right now."

"You're such an encouragement, you know that?" Magnus burrowed in under the quilt with a huff.

"I'm a ray of fuckin' sunshine and you know it." Taako turned for the door, but Magnus's voice stopped him.

“Taako.” Magnus shoved himself over in the bunk. “Stick around, huh?” There was an edge under the studied casual tone of the question. It wasn't any big secret that Magnus wasn't doing great, mentally speaking, and he'd mostly had someone watching over him until the previous day. Maybe he wasn't quite ready to be totally back to normal.

Taako flopped onto the bed. “If it'll make you feel better.”

“It will.” Magnus sighed heavily and his eyes dropped closed. “Being alone sucks and I hate it.”

“. . . yeah, okay, that’s fair.” Taako squirmed around for a moment, making himself comfortable, and ended up lying on his side facing Magnus, head propped up on one hand. “Better?”

“Yeah. Good.” Magnus reached out without opening his eyes and draped an arm over Taako, like he was trying to make sure he couldn’t sneak off. Hell, that was probably what he was going for. It’s what Taako probably would’ve done if their roles were reversed.

“Guess I’ll just stay here, then.” Taako grumbled quietly, without really meaning it. Magnus didn’t respond, although Taako wasn’t sure if he’d fallen asleep that quick or just didn’t have it in him to banter. Either answer was concerning, and so was the arm over Taako’s waist. It lacked the warm heft Magnus was supposed to have, felt too birdlike and way too fragile to be attached to Magnus Burnsides.

Taako really regretted letting himself be talked out of burning the Tree to the ground.

***

It was dark. It was so dark, too dark, the air was too close and too warm and no, it was worse than that, there was no air at all it was dark he couldn't move and there was no air . . .

Magnus bolted awake, gasping and clutching at his chest. He still couldn’t breathe, it was still dark, his heart was hammering, and a distant part of his mind managed to supply panic attack even as the rest of it was scrabbling like a trapped rat, terrified and desperate. He didn’t know where he was, it was too dark and there was no air and being awake, if in fact he’d been sleeping before, hadn’t helped much.

“Magnus.” Something moved nearby, and a handful of glowing orbs of light floated towards the ceiling, lighting up the surroundings. His quilt, his desk covered in wood shavings and half-completed projects, his floor scattered with laundry. Why couldn’t he breathe?

Taako’s face swam into view, and Magnus felt hands gripping his shoulders gently. “Magnus, you’re safe, bud. I’m here. Gimme a breath, huh?”

He tried. Closed his eyes, grabbed for Taako’s wrist, summoned up the muscle memory to inhale.

“Awesome. Okay, now let it out.”

Magnus did that, and then inhaled again when Taako said to do that, and let the pattern repeat until focusing on breathing did its job and loosened up the bands of iron terror keeping his chest constricted.

“There you go.” Taako patted his shoulder with the hand that Magnus didn’t have a death grip on. “Try not to break the stirring wrist, huh big guy?”

Magnus made an effort and loosened his grip a little, opening his eyes. His room, his bunk, his best friend sitting in front of him with a look of concern so genuine it was almost shocking. “Well,” He croaked, still feeling shaky and short of breath, “That sucked.”

“Yup.” Taako didn’t make any move to let go of Magnus’s shoulders, a fact for which he was grateful. He kind of needed the contact right now. “You want me to get Merle and get you back on the Calm Emotions?”

Magnus thought about it for a long couple of seconds, while the last of the panic eased its way out of his system. Finally, he shook his head slightly. “I think. I’d rather work on handling it without that. Gonna have to do it eventually.”

“Okay, your call.” Taako squeezed his shoulders. “But say the word and we’ll magic the hell out of you.”

Magnus snorted and leaned forward to bump his forehead against Taako’s before he finally released the elf’s wrist. “Thanks.”

“Sure. What else are magical friends for?” Taako let go of his shoulders so Magnus could lay back. “Going back to sleep?”

“ . . . yeah. Maybe. I guess. I dunno.” Magnus shot a speculative glance at the Dancing Lights near the ceiling. “Can you keep just one of those going? The dark isn’t great.”

Taako gestured and banished all but one of the globes, dimming the other until it was soothing but still sufficient light for human eyes to see the room. “Good?”

“Good.” Magnus sighed and burrowed down into the blankets, turned his head to inhale the faint smell of his own pillow. Not dirt and stale air and despair.

“Cool.” Taako scooted up until his back was propped against the wall at the head of the bed, and rested a hand on Magnus’s hair.

Magnus threw an arm across Taako’s legs. Going back to sleep, to another nightmare that would leave him uncertain of where he was or if he could breathe, sounded like the worst idea he’d heard lately. He’d spent enough time sleeping lately; just letting his mind wander in familiar surroundings, in his own bed, was close enough for right now.

Tomorrow he was going to start working on the exercises Merle had given him to rebuild the strength in his back and legs. They were a monumental amount of work, but maybe if he put enough effort into that, he’d end up too tired to dream.

Yeah. That seemed like a pretty good plan.

Chapter Text

Fisher wandered.

The home was quiet, now, all the lights dimmed in the cycle the rest of its pod used to delineate rest time from waking time. Fisher, too, used dark-cycle to rest and light-cycle to play, but sometimes, for reasons it was not able to understand, it felt restless in dark-cycle and sleepy in light-cycle. If the rest of its pod had been like itself, Fisher might have looked to them to understand this, but they were different beings and their habits offered it no clues. None of them followed the cycle perfectly, either, especially Loudest One and Other Loudest One. They often wandered like Fisher itself did when the dark cycle was occurring.

This cycle, however, they were sleeping soundly, Loudest One in its tangled nest of very soft bedding and Other Loudest One with its limbs entwined around Most Curious. None of them stirred when Fisher wandered in and out of their grottoes, exploring.

Smallest Pod Leader was sitting in its customary watch-place, and did not want to play. Marks-Maker was still curled up in its nest in the grotto it shared with Fisher, making its usual soft sleep noises.

Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight was also in its nest in its customary grotto, but the sleep noises it made were not customary. They troubled Fisher immensely, because they were hurt-noises and fear-noises and they made Fisher tremble with hurt and fear of its own. Best-Most-Favorite had brought these noises back to the home after its long absence, and Fisher had no way to understand why.

Fisher did as it always did when it discovered Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight in this state; it nudged and wriggled its way into the space between the other creature’s primary limbs, twining its own tendrils around Best-Most-Favorite’s stiff, stubby tentacles. Fisher began to trill and thrum and glimmer, performing the song of comfort-from-hurt-and-fear which Fisher had learned from its primary parent long ago.

When Best-Most-Favorite’s noises subsided into the quiet of its usual sleep Fisher untangled itself from the embrace and resumed its wanderings, poking around beneath the nest and among the surfaces of the grotto before it left. The working-surface along one wall held many Pleasing Things in states of partial completion, and Fisher picked up one or two of these and turned them in its tendrils, though it was clear Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight had not done anything new to the objects in the time since it had returned home. Perhaps in the next waking cycle it would do so.

Fisher left that grotto and wandered the caverns of the home until it came to the grotto where Dancemaker kept the many growing things it delighted in tending. Dancemaker was probably also asleep, making its many dissonant sleep honks as it always did. That did not interest Fisher now.

New Thing was moving again, waving its many brown-and-green tentacles gently as if it felt a current in the air. Fisher mimicked it for quite a while, a game Fisher was pleased to have invented recently when it discovered New Thing was the kind of alive that moved. New Thing made no sounds, neither singing nor trilling nor the strange chanting hum that was the way the rest of Fisher’s pod spoke between themselves, but it had made itself understood to Fisher after a few false starts.

New Thing missed its own pod. New Thing was going to do its best to grow and to learn. New Thing was worried for its pod in its absence. New Thing thought something terrible would happen soon.

Fisher couldn’t have communicated to its own pod how it knew these things. It would not have occurred to Fisher to try. It merely kept New Thing company until it grew bored, and then it drifted off again, heading back to its own snug little nest-tank in its own grotto, content in its certainty that it understood all it needed to about everything.

***

Time passed. The planet had very little axial tilt and an extremely stable orbit, which meant that even though spring had technically worn away to early summer there was little change to show for it. A few slight shifts in the weather, maybe; a change in the unfamiliar constellations in the sky at night.

Magnus was kind of losing his godsdamned mind.

The first couple of weeks hadn't been as bad, which was to say they'd been pretty miserable. He'd been sore and weak and usually about ten different shades of exhausted by the work of rebuilding the muscle tone in his limbs and back. But it had been physical effort, and physical effort was his wheelhouse. He’d leaned into it like he’d leaned in all those years ago when he was a kid tired of other kids kicking his ass all the time.

It had been grueling getting his strength built back up, but it had given him something to focus on, something concrete and repetitive and tiring enough to feel like he was doing something useful. He still wasn't where he'd been at the beginning of the year -- he was still trying to put more weight on, for one thing, and none of his clothes fit him quite right, which was obnoxious. But by now, he felt like he could pretty much do all the things he'd normally need to.

Which would've been great, if there was anything to do. But there was precious little work to go around in a world like this one, where there wasn't a society to interact with or an army to guard against, where they already knew where the Light was and the ship hadn't taken any damage. On the rare occasions before this one where they’d been this strapped for something to do, Magnus had usually spent the year in exploring, just wandering the world to see what he found, but yeah, that wasn’t happening this year.

He’d tried distracting himself with other things; read a couple of books and done a couple of minor ship repairs he’d been meaning to get around to. He’d tried concentrating on the woodworking projects he had laying around half-done, but that had gone . . . badly. Really badly.

His left hand wasn’t okay, was the thing. Oh, it had enough dexterity for regular things like buttoning his jacket or making a sandwich or swinging a hammer, and it wasn’t like it hurt anymore. But when it came to small things, delicate work or things that needed a lot of slow, careful attention, his fingers started betraying him. The grip wasn’t consistent. His thumb started tingling or aching if he held a knife for too long. He couldn’t count on himself not to shake at the wrong moment. And yeah, maybe he should’ve cut himself some slack, worked on something that didn’t need quite so much detail, but whenever he tried he still ended up turning out something that felt wrong and it ruined the whole point of the enterprise.

But it was okay. He was okay. Better. Sure, maybe he still had days when his mental state teetered on the edge of too fragile to be bearable, and okay, maybe he still wasn’t sleeping as much as he technically could’ve. But he just needed something to do, something that would keep him busy and make him feel useful and give him a little time away from sitting around with his own head so much.

Magnus ran his hand over the section of deck railing he’d spent the morning replacing. He’d sanded the seam between old and new rail until it was flawless; any more, and he was gonna overdo it, end up spoiling the job and have to start over. He sighed and finished cleaning up his tools, now and then glancing over the edge of the railing at the tree canopy far below. From up here it looked like what it was, a quiet patch of extremely boring trees dappled with sunlight. Magnus really wished it didn’t make him feel queasy just looking at it.

“Hey, Magnus.”

He turned to look over his shoulder. Barry was leaning against the door frame in the doorway to the forecastle, hands in the pockets of his jeans. He grinned crookedly as Magnus stood, shouldering his bag of tools. “Mind giving me a hand with something?”

Magnus shrugged. “Sure.”

“Great.” Barry straightened up and led the way belowdecks. “I need to steal my good chalkboard back from Merle while he’s distracted and it’s a pain getting it around that first corner in the passageway alone.”

Magnus laughed, dropping his tools off just inside the doorway of the storage closet where they belonged. “How’d he get it out of the lab to begin with?”

“Pretty sure he bribed Lucretia.” Barry stuck his head around a corner, checking for Merle, and then grinned and gestured an all-clear.

The two of them sneaked their way (more or less; neither one of them were exactly stealthy) into Merle’s cramped, cluttered greenhouse-slash-lab. The standing chalkboard in question was currently functioning as a drying rack for strings of herbs and several pairs of Merle’s aggressively brightly-colored socks. Barry gingerly relocated said items, grumbling, and then nodded to Magnus. “Ready?”

“Hm?” Magnus tore his eyes away from the stone-potted sapling in the corner, the leaves of which were shivering very, very slightly under their own power. “Oh. Yeah.”

The two of them got the board out of the room and down the passageway, around the awkward corner and back into the science lab where it belonged. In contrast to Merle’s green riot of plants, laundry, and books, the lab Barry and Lup shared was brightly lit and the chaos was relatively well-contained at first glance. You had to look closer to see the small army of half-empty coffee cups on desks and counters, or to realize that a good number of the “notes” on Barry’s desk were embellished by Lup’s signature loopy-looking hearts and xoxoxoxoxoxoxos.

Barry grunted and straightened up as they got the board back in its proper place against one wall. “Thanks, Magnus.”

“Sure.” Magnus rubbed the back of his neck, absently looking around the room. The response was pure autopilot; he wouldn’t have been able to say what it was Barry had actually said. He was preoccupied with sunlight dappling the tops of endless trees, with leaves that moved without a breeze, with too much time to think and with too much green. His body was doing that thing again, where it went vague and floaty and disconnected from his brain . . .

“Hey, bud." Barry’s hand landed on his elbow, made him jump a little.

“Huh?” Magnus tried not to look guilty, tried to make it look like he hadn’t just lost himself a little bit for no good reason. “Sorry. Million miles away for a second.”

“Yeah.” Barry’s forehead creased for a moment and then he let go of Magnus’s elbow and went to rummage in his desk drawer. “Here, I’ve got something for that, I think."

"Yeah?" Magnus drifted over towards Barry's desk, curious. If there was a potion or something that could help him keep his thoughts corralled, he really wished someone had mentioned it sooner.

Barry made a triumphant noise and held up his hand. Magnus frowned, glancing from the object in Barry's fingers to his face. "Okay? That's a rubber band?"

"Here, gimme your arm." Barry reached for Magnus's right hand and slipped the rubber band over it, so that it hung loosely around his wrist. "This is a trick I picked up. When you feel yourself drifting and you'd rather not, you --" Barry hooked a finger under the rubber band and snapped it, very slightly.

" . . . Huh." Magnus lifted his wrist and examined it, thoughtful. The snap hadn't hurt, exactly, but he'd felt it enough for it to be distracting. "And that works?"

"Did for me, anyway." Barry caught Magnus's quizzical look and shrugged, waving a hand. "I, uh. Went through a pretty bad spell when I was younger. I know it's not the same, but -- let's just say I know what it's like to feel like your brain's not behaving itself."

Magnus ducked his head. He probably shouldn't have been surprised that he'd been that obvious. Not like he'd ever been exactly hard to read. But there wasn't any judgment in Barry's voice or his expression; he was just leaning his hip again the desk like they were talking about ordinary stuff.

"Well . . . Thanks." Magnus ran his thumb under the rubber band.

"Sure." Barry slid the desk drawer closed and cocked his head. "You know. If you want. I could use a hand with this soil study Merle and I wanted to run."

Magnus wrinkled his nose. "Fantasy Jesus, is it that obvious I'm strapped for things to do?"

"I mean . . . yeah." Barry laughed sheepishly. "So I'm not subtle, sue me. Offer's still open, if you want some company and something to keep you busy."

Magnus frowned, thinking about it. Soil survey meant going planetside. It meant busy work, probably the kind of thing that'd normally be mind-numbing. It meant shooting the shit with Merle and Barry while they worked. It meant a change of scenery from being on the ship all day, every day.

It meant being down in the forest again.

Magnus took a deep breath and snapped the rubber band against his wrist. "I . . . You know what, yeah. Sure. I'm in."

Chapter Text

Say what you would about this planet, but the summer sun rising over the vast canopy of trees was a lovely thing to witness. The light picked out the million variations in shades of green, from the palest fern and celadon through rich olive into an emerald so deep it was practically black. Lucretia had spent pages describing it, and not just because the general consistency of weather and terrain and the lack of civilizations or creatures to chronicle left her more than enough time to experiment with how thoroughly she could describe the forest itself.

Lucretia had tucked herself into her favorite place on the main deck, a snug spot just out of the way of the shortest path between the fore and aft doors belowdecks. It was, she’d discovered, an ideal place for watching anybody who came or went across the deck, as well as having a good angle on what lay below the ship. That, and there was an absolutely perfect spot to balance a teacup where it wouldn’t put her journals in danger if it was overturned.

She looked up from her notes as Merle came up on deck, carrying a potted plant in his arms. She recognized it as the native sapling he’d brought back onboard after rescuing Magnus, taller and hardier-looking now than it had been a few months ago. Merle jutted his chin in an awkward greeting and moved over to near where Lucretia was sitting.

“Morning.” Lucretia watched as Merle settled the planter into a sunny spot near the bulkhead of the bridge. “Are we redecorating?”

“This little guy’s not as happy as it could be.” Merle explained, adjusting the pot. “Figured a change of scenery and some stronger sunlight would help.”

Lucretia nodded. The little tree waved a branch independently of the others. “It’s capable of communication, right?” She flipped to a new page with her right hand, capturing a quick sketch of the tree tucked in its stone pot. "Have you been talking with it using Speak with Plants, or with the improved spell you and Barry wrote?"

"Mostly the regular version,” Merle said, stepping back to prop his elbows up on the deck rail. “Takes less energy, and the little thing isn't really old enough to have anything too complicated to say."

Lucretia started a more careful drawing of a branch, scribbling notes about the sapling's size and color in the margins around it. Her left hand was busily jotting down a shorthand record of the conversation. "Learning anything interesting?"

Merle nodded. “Here and there. It likes hearing about what we're up to down on the surface, the species we've spotted. Mostly I think it's getting a little lonely down in the lab. They're really communal organisms, trees -- even the ones on other planes that don't have any kind of higher sentience still communicate with one another.”

"Really?" She shaded the edge of one sketched leaf. "How do they do that?"

"Chemistry, mostly." Merle made an expansive gesture, wiggling his fingers. "Mycorrhizal networks, is what they're called. In a regular forest, the root system of each tree is working symbiotically with the fungus in the soil around it. They spread chemical signals through the soil to the networks of the trees around them."

"Seriously?" Lucretia looked up, raising her eyebrows. "Merle, that's incredible."

"Sure it is, and most people never even heard of it. But trees, they use those networks to send danger signals and information about soil quality and water levels. All kinds of things."

Lucretia smiled and added a quick sketch of Merle's expression in the left hand notebook. So few things made him really light up like that, genuine in his excitement and unguarded by gruffness or prickly humor. It made his whole face change for the better. "What about the trees here? Do they have networks?"

"Almost definitely." Merle straightened up and reached out to gently pat the sapling's bark. "Me and Barry're just starting to look into it, see if we can find some fungal samples in the soil that look like part of a network. Trees like this little fella and its parent and the Parent tree probably communicate in a mix of their telepathy and mycorrhizal signals. Body language, too I think. I imagine without the chemical background information, the Starblaster is awful quiet for this one."

Lucretia made a thoughtful sound and tapped her pen against the right hand notebook. "Would talking to it verbally help?"

"Can't hurt.” Merle grinned. “I'm not sure if this species can understand speech without a telepathic bond in place, but I know it understands being kept company. Hell, all plants like being spoken to. Except viburnum, they're grumpy little bastards."

Lucretia laughed. “Well. I’m happy to keep it company now and again, if it will help.”

“You’re a good egg, Lucretia.” Merle patted her affectionately on the shoulder, in a gesture almost exactly identical to the one he’d given the tree a moment earlier. “Anyway, I gotta meet up with Barry and Magnus down on the surface. See you around, huh?”

“Sure.” Lucretia watched Merle go, setting down her pens so she could give her wrists and fingers a good long stretch. Then she picked up where she’d left off, occasionally glancing up at the sapling. She thought she could see what Merle meant by body language; the little tree’s branches had lifted up and spread wide, and the leaves were waving very slightly in the early morning sun. It looked like it was making itself comfortable.

Lucretia inclined her head at the sapling. “Well. Glad to have you along, I guess.”

The tree didn’t say anything, of course, because it was a tree. It just waved gently in the summer light. Lucretia smiled, feeling a little ridiculous, and went back to her work.

***

Magnus leaned against his spade for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck. As he’d predicted, soil surveying with Barry and Merle was mostly busy work, but honestly? He was enjoying himself. It was perfect summer weather, warm but not muggy, and the three of them had settled into the easy rhythm of working together that they’d formed after decades of this kind of thing. It felt blessedly normal, enough so that Magnus could ignore the faint unease he felt if he spent too much time thinking about the trees above and around them, the nagging irrational sensation of being close to something dangerous.

Magnus dug the spade in and turned up a shovelful of leaf litter and rich topsoil. That done, he reached for a vial and knelt down to scoop up a sample from the fresh earth, repeating the same routine motions he'd been performing all morning.

It smelled like damp and darkness, like things long decomposed back into the soil, a thick heavy smell that clotted his throat and crowded his nostrils, sank into his skin and followed him when he closed his eyes, made it impossible to imagine he was anywhere else but in the dirt, still and always --

Magnus yanked his hands away and stumbled backwards, nearly falling on his ass as he did so. His heart was going a billion beats a minute, throat closing up, eyes stinging with a rush of sudden tears and he slammed his eyes shut, trying to stop them from spilling over. Gods the smell, the smell was too much it was everywhere he couldn’t breathe he was going to die down here in the dark . . .

“Aw, dammit.” Magnus felt something touch his shoulders, something too gentle to be stone, too warm to be roots. “You’re okay. You’re safe.” Merle -- it was Merle, right, it was his voice and the weight of his hands? -- squeezed his shoulders very gently. “You feel that?”

Magnus managed a nod, shaking. He thought about trying to take a breath but he couldn’t. If he did it would taste like dirt.

“Okay, good.” Merle did it again, squeezed his shoulders and released them. “You don’t have to talk about what you think you’re seeing or hearing. Just tell me what you feel, okay?”

“I, uh.” Magnus swallowed hard. “Hands. Hands on my shoulders.”

“Right.” Merle said evenly, not letting up on the contact. “That’s real, so focus on that. Lemme know when you think you can open your eyes for me.”

It took him a second, a long moment of shoving the smell away from the front of his mind and concentrating on the feeling of Merle’s fingers tightening on his skin. Eventually he cracked his eyes, took a shaky look around through a blur of unshed tears.

“Good. Real good, kid. What do you see?”

Sunlight. Tools. Merle’s face, and Barry’s, both of them bent close to him with worried expressions. Trees, of course, because there were always going to be fucking trees wherever he looked on this stupid planet. The patch of dirt he’d turned over before . . . a minute ago.

Magnus took a deep, shuddering breath. “Fuck me,” He said croakily. “What the hell was that?”

“Flashback, I imagine.” Merle didn’t move his hands except to rub them gently along Magnus’s arms. “Any idea what set you off?”

Magnus groaned and pulled his knees up to his chest, folding his arms over them and burying his face. “Fuck. I . . . it smells. Like --” He broke off and shook his head into his arms. “Fuck.”

“ . . . yeah.” Barry made a noise that managed to be somehow painfully sympathetic and thoughtful at the same time. “The soil right here is pretty close to identical to the type we saw in -- on the other side of the planet."

“Smell’s a real bastard that way.” Merle said gently. “Ties itself up with memories."

“Yeah, you don’t fuckin’ say.” Magnus felt a little bad about the edge in the words as soon as he said them. Wasn’t like it was Merle’s fault that he couldn’t dig a godsdamned hole without falling apart. "I was fine all day, why now?"

"Stress builds up." Barry said quietly. "And this is the first time you've been planetside since we found you."

Which made sense, and Magnus honestly resented the fact that it did. Merle rested his hands on Magnus's shoulders again. "What d'you need right now, bud?"

"I need this whole fucking cycle to be a really shitty dream." Magnus said tightly, still talking into his arms. "Think you can swing that?"

"Don't I wish." It wasn't a flippant answer; Merle sounded genuinely sorry he couldn't rewind time or bend reality.

Magnus sighed and made himself relax, lifting his head. "Sorry. I know you're just trying to help."

"Hell, a short temper’s practically guaranteed after something like that." Merle patted his shoulder and then climbed to his feet. "Cut yourself some slack."

"We should call it a day." Barry said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Head back to the ship."

"No," Magnus said, sharp and too quickly. Sitting around on the ship again thinking about what had just happened sounded like torture. Not to mention that it felt like running from the problem, and like hell was he gonna do that.

Magnus frowned at his folded arms for a second, thinking. He still felt shaky, coming down off the surge of adrenaline, but he thought he could handle it. "I think. I'd rather stick around. I'm not ready to leave."

Barry frowned slightly, reaching out to put his hand on Magnus's forearm. "Listen, Magnus, whatever it is you think you need to do, you do it. But you don't gotta push yourself on our account. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, listen, I know." Magnus said earnestly, not looking up. "It's not about doing it for anybody else. I'm just . . . I don't think I'm gonna get any better just sitting around. All that happens when I do that is my brain runs itself in circles." It was too much like being back in the hole when that happened, he didn't add.

Barry shot a glance at Merle before he nodded solemnly. "Okay. Fair enough." He got to his feet and offered Magnus a hand up. "You wanna stick around, we're here to have your back."

Magnus smiled flatly and took the offered hand, levering himself to his feet. "I know." He slung an arm around Barry's shoulders and pulled him into a fast, lopsided hug. "Thanks."

"Sure." Barry thumped him lightly on the back before pulling away. "Maybe we'll have you stick with digging without gathering the samples, let me and Merle handle getting up close to the soil. Yeah?"

"Yeah, okay." Magnus took a deep breath. "I can do that."

"Good. Sounds like a plan." Merle folded his arms and craned his neck to give Magnus a stern look straight in the eyes. "But if you change your mind, you say the word. There's more ways than one to work on getting your mind feeling better, so don't go muscling through one that's not working just to prove you can tough it out. Deal?"

Damn, he really was that obvious, huh? Magnus ducked his head sheepishly. “Yeah, okay. Deal."

“Good,” Merle said gruffly, bending down to retrieve the sample vial Magnus had dropped. “And after dinner tonight I wanna run you through a couple exercises I know. Stuff that’ll help you if that happens again.”

Magnus nodded. That . . . actually, that sounded like a really good idea. "Okay. You’re the cleric.”

“So they tell me.” Merle scooped a sample of soil into the vial and capped it.

Magnus rolled his shoulders and retrieved his spade, steering well clear of the hole he’d dug before. He found a new spot, dug the point of the spade into the ground, and held his breath as he turned the soil over.

Nothing happened. The smell was still there, fainter when he wasn't kneeling right down near the ground, and he still felt a little bit sick and uneasy. But he knew where and when he was, and who he was with.

So, you know. So far, so good.

Chapter Text

The summer wore on. Barry and Merle spent most of their time deep in their botanical research, occasionally surfacing with new tidbits of information about the plant life or the fungal species that made this world their home. Taako took said information and did what for him was the only logical thing; he made a detailed and ruthless survey of everything that was both non-sentient and edible growing near the ship. Most of it he immediately dismissed as culinarily unremarkable, “your basic boring field greens”, but one of the fungal species turned out to be delicious and extremely versatile. A small discovery in the grand, multi-planar scheme of things, maybe, but for this year it seemed like a pretty big win.

Davenport gave the bond engine a complete workup -- maintenance, repair, and overhaul, standard procedure when they had a cycle where they could afford the time it took to do properly. The rest of the crew took turns helping, which as usual mostly consisted of handing the captain tools he insisted he was well able to reach himself, thank you. There had probably been a time when he’d been sincere in those protests and not just making them out of habit, but that time had passed and nobody let him get away with secluding himself in the engine room for more than a month on end anymore.

Lup bounced around from job to job, when she wasn’t busy refining the location spell she and Taako had written. It was the kind of thing that could be vital the next time someone got separated from the crew, if she could only get it to the point that a single person could handle casting it. Just tweaking it enough that it could be used by two spellcasters who didn’t share the tightly knit arcane bond that she and Taako were capable of would be a step in the right direction, but even that was eluding her.

"It's irritating as hell," she groused, flipping a round game tile over her knuckles while she waited for Magnus to take his turn. After her last move she'd draped herself dramatically upside-down over the common room couch, legs hooked over the back, hair dangling down towards the deck in an orange-and-blonde curtain.

Magnus made a noncommittal I'm-still-listening noise and set down a boat tile. They were playing by the strategy ruleset -- not his usual first choice, he preferred the fast-and-loose gambler's version -- and he was taking advantage of Lup's preoccupation to take a little extra time thinking over his moves. It wasn't helping that much.

"I mean, there's always Locate Creature," Lup continued, craning her neck backwards and sideways to get a look at the board. "There's nothing wrong with it, it's your basic meat and potatoes spell. Anybody halfway competent can cast it."

"Uh, wow," Magnus put on a dramatically wounded expression. "'Halfway competent', I mean, woooooow."

"Oh, you'll survive." Lup, still upside down, sorted through the tiles on the floor in front of her and plopped one onto the board. "My point is, this spell is just better. But only if other people besides me and Taako can cast it."

Magnus grimaced at the circular game board, where things were definitely not going in his favor. "Wish I could help, Lup, but I'm the last guy to ask when it comes to magic stuff."

"I know. But you're a good listener." Lup looked up as footsteps came down the passageway, and brightened when Barry stuck his head into the room, looking flushed. "Hey, babe."

Barry grinned and pushed his glasses up. "Guess who's got a thriving mycorrhizal network sending useful signals in the lab?"

Lup beamed and executed a complicated move that was half sit-up, half somersault, launching herself over the back of the couch. "It's working?"

Barry was practically bouncing. "Hell yes, it’s working!”

Lup wrapped her arms around his shoulders, kissing his temple. “Congrats, nerd. You did science to it real good.”

Magnus stuck an arm in the air. “Air five!”

Barry actually returned the gesture, still grinning. This had been his whole focus for weeks now. “Wanna come take a look when you finish your game?”

Magnus shrugged easily and got to his feet. “Might as well do it now, I’m screwed in like two moves, anyway. Good game, Lup.”

“You’ll get me next time,” She said brightly, with her arm still draped over Barry’s shoulders.

The three of them left the common room, made their way down the passageway and up onto the main deck, taking the back way to the lab. It was a clear day, cooler than recent days had been; the world’s summer was drawing to a close and the autumn, whatever it would look like, was approaching. Barry and Merle thought it was unlikely that there would be much of a change of color; the trees were broad-leafed, but not actually deciduous like the ones on their home plane.

Magnus glanced over the edge of the ship, surveying the green world below. It didn’t cause him the same sense of creeping unease it had a few months ago; at least, it didn’t on good days, and this had been --

He frowned and leaned forward across the deck railing, peering down with an intense expression. “Guys?”

Barry and Lup both stopped, caught by the edge in his voice, and they came over to stand on either side of him, following his gaze towards the treeline below.

Magnus tightened his grip on the railing, feeling his heartbeat speed up. There was a cold, crawling feeling across his shoulders and in the pit of his stomach. He took a deep breath through his nose, held it for a five-count, let it out slowly. Did that again, closing his eyes so he could concentrate on the sensation and get his panic reined in.

Lup put a hand on his forearm. “Is that . . . ?”

Magnus opened his eyes. Yep. The thing was still there, moving slowly along the perimeter of the clearing below. “Yeah.” He gritted out. “That’s what you think it is.”

There was a plant monster moving through the forest beneath them.

***

Magnus paced. It felt like a cliche, but he couldn’t help it; he’d done the breathing exercises, grounded himself until he didn’t feel like flying apart with panic, but he was still buzzing with restless energy that didn’t have an outlet yet. He had to do something, even if all he was able to do was walk the weather deck of the ship from one end to the other and back again.

Merle, Barry, and Lup had gone down to the surface to investigate the plant thing, while Davenport and Taako were posted up at the bridge, stone of farspeech open, ready to react at a moment’s notice if things went bad down there. Lucretia was with them, too, and Magnus . . .

Magnus couldn't right now. The bridge was a spacious room, big enough for the seven of them to fit comfortably under most circumstances, but he’d been sharply aware of every single wall around him. Maybe once everyone was safely on board again he’d be able to stay in an enclosed space. Not right now.

. . . he should be out there. The subject hadn’t even come up as a possibility -- the Captain had assigned the away team in the clipped, brisk tone he used when he would entertain absolutely no arguments of any kind. Which made sense, maybe; Magnus had been down to the surface off and on throughout the summer, but not in any kind of emergency. This probably wasn’t the time to test the boundaries of his recovery, not until they had a better idea of what was going on down there.

But still. Part of his gut always said the same thing whenever anybody went into an unknown situation without him -- You should be there, you have to protect them. That part hadn’t gone silent just because other parts were now preoccupied with exactly how much he didn't want to be anywhere near that forest.

Something moved in the corner of his vision and Magnus turned sharply. The potted sapling near Lucretia's writing corner was waving its leaves. Magnus watched with a cold knot of dread in his stomach as a single branch extended out in his direction, like it was trying to reach him, grab him . . .

"Fuck." He backed away to the far end of the deck, took a couple of deep breaths. The tree didn't make any move to come after him. It didn't make any move at all.

Breathe. Focus. Acknowledge the fear. Assess the actual threat.

Magnus blew out a breath. The potted tree was too small to hurt him. Hell, if he really wanted to he could've taken the trunk in both hands and snapped it.

Not that he wanted to, exactly. He just didn't want the damn thing trying to touch him.

The door from the bridge opened and Lucretia stepped out, glanced between Magnus and the sapling, and then moved so she was standing between them. "They're on their way back up." She said. "They didn't have to go far."

Magnus felt himself unbend a little bit, at once grateful for the gesture and keenly aware that if the sapling had been any real danger, Lucretia would've just put herself at risk for his sake. Which wasn't how it worked.

But it wasn't a real danger, so he let it go. "What's going on? Why is it here?"

Lucretia shrugged. "Merle says the local trees have seen them around here before. Only the Parent and a few other very senior trees know how to make them, and the locals told Merle they're mostly just used to explore or move things on the surface."

Magnus made a discontented noise. "Do they think it's a threat?"

She shook her head. "Not sure yet. But we already knew that the Parent tree has a presence on this side of the globe. There's a decent chance it doesn't mean anything."

“Sure.” Magnus didn’t make an effort to sound convinced. There were a lot of coincidences in the multiverse, sure, but he really wasn’t inclined to believe in this being one.

Lucretia leaned back against the railing and waited with him until Lup, Barry, and Merle materialized on deck, the magical aftermath of Teleport fizzling into the air around them. The minute they were all accounted for Magnus let out a long, heavy breath he hadn’t really intended to be holding. Everyone was out of harm’s way, at least for right now. He could let himself relax a little.

As much as he was going to be able to, anyway.

Barry sighed and tucked his wand into the back pocket of his jeans. “Okay, then. That raised more questions than it answered.”

Merle ran a hand over his beard. “We should check in, but then I say we go back down. Maybe try taking part of your network with us. There’s things we’re just not picking up.”

“Or things the local trees just aren’t telling us, maybe.” Lup interjected. Merle made an ambivalent gesture.

Magnus cleared his throat pointedly, and four sets of eyes fixed themselves on him. “So you’ve at least thought about this being bait, right?” He folded his arms in front of his chest. “I mean, not to be the security officer here, or anything.”

Merle spread his hands. “We’re far enough off from any Parent groves that it’d be a funny place to spring a trap.”

Magnus felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. “It’s got ways to make sure you get to a Parent grove if it wants you there.” He said flatly, trying to school his expression so it stayed professional and even. He was not being paranoid. This was not about what had happened to him, except inasmuch as what had happened to him could happen again if they weren’t careful. This was just him doing his job.

“. . . that’s fair.” Merle frowned, clasping his hands together at the small of his back. “So, we proceed with caution. But we still don’t know what’s going on without investigating it, right?”

Lucretia raised a hand, pointing over Merle’s shoulder. Magnus followed the gesture, saw the rest of them do the same.

The potted tree was waving again, more frantically this time, in a way that seemed less like reaching out to grab hold of one of them and more like it was trying to beckon them in.

“Maybe,” Lucretia said, “We ought to ask this one?”

Chapter Text

The crew stood in a loose group on the deck of the Starblaster, watching as Merle spoke to the sapling. Lup and Barry had taken seats near the cleric, watching him intently; Lucretia and Taako were a bit further off, merely passing time while the conversation happened. Davenport was doing his best not to loom over Merle’s kneeling form.

Magnus was still hanging back, close enough to hear anything that was said but far enough from everyone else to be noticeable. He didn’t really feel like being any closer to the sapling, even if it apparently wanted to help.

Merle was carrying on a one-sided discussion with the tree, talking quietly into the slight afternoon breeze. The plant shuffled and swayed a little in response, and it was almost possible to piece together the other side of the conversation based on Merle’s responses.

“So that’s why they aren’t telling us everything?”

“Okay. Slow down a little, honey, gimme that last part again.”

“Do you think they’re afraid?”

Magnus felt the back of his neck prickle. At first he thought it was just the ominous tone of Merle’s question, but then it didn’t go away.

It didn’t get stronger, either. But it didn’t go away, and he felt a vague sense of something else, like someone had called his name from a distant room. He shuddered violently, clenching his fists, and everyone but Merle turned to look at him.

Barry frowned as Lucretia drew close enough to put a hand on Magnus’s elbow. “Magnus? What’s going on?”

He stared at the deck and shook his head roughly, like that might dislodge the feeling. “Dunno. I’ve got the creeps. Like . . .” He pointedly did not say what he might have said, that the sensation belonged to a memory he’d spent the last several months trying to lose, that it felt like the Tree getting closer and closer . . .

“Hey.” Merle’s voice was sharp, and Magnus looked up, saw the cleric holding out a scolding finger at the sapling. “That’s not our thing. We don’t do that without permission.”

For the briefest of moments Magnus felt the ghost of an apology hover in his head -- and then the feeling dissipated, the creeping sensation at the back of his neck subsided, and the sapling visibly drooped.

Everyone else stared. It was Taako who spoke; he’d bolted to his feet and was glaring at the sapling like it’d personally wronged him. “Hey, Merle? What the fuck just happened?”

Merle pushed his glasses up into his hair and rubbed his face with both hands, looking weary. “Just an attempt to communicate. Magnus, the little guy says to apologize to you. It didn’t realize we’ve got boundaries about that kind of thing.”

Magnus swallowed hard. His throat felt dry. “I didn’t know it could do that.”

“It’s only just learning.” Merle said with a sigh. “And it probably couldn’t to anyone else except me, because I’ve been talking to it for months.”

“Then why Magnus?” Davenport’s tone was sharp, his expression grave.

“Because.” Magnus said quietly, clenching and unclenching one fist in an unconscious gesture, “Because the Parent talked to me. Right?”

“Something like that,” Merle said. “Once there’s been a connection, it’s easier to make a second one.”

The implication of that hung in the air for a moment. Merle held out both hands in a calming gesture. “Easy, everybody. It didn’t mean any harm. It’s just trying to communicate, and it’s only got so many ways of doing that.”

Magnus took a deep breath, forcing himself to unclench his fist and his jaw. “Just . . . tell it not to do that any more. Please.”

“It won’t. Sprout’s honor.” Merle turned back to the sapling for a moment, patted its trunk and then got to his feet.

Davenport glanced at Magnus before straightening his back, clasping his hands behind him. “Well? What do we know?”

Merle shrugged roughly and hopped up to take a seat next to Barry and Lup. “We already knew some of it from the trees on the surface. We’re a fair piece off from the nearest stand of Parent trees, but lately it’s been sending out the surface walkers into areas where they’ve never been before, at least not in the memory of the local groves.”

Taako groaned and folded his arms across his chest. “So I’mma go right on ahead and say ‘I told you so’ about this whole fuckin’ scenario, and everyone else can line up later to tell me how correct I was.”

Lup rolled her eyes at him, slouching back against the ship’s railing. “We don’t know that any of this has anything to do with us being here. For all we know the Parent’s moving them all over the globe.”

“Yeah, uh, that’s not better.” Taako shot back.

Lucretia frowned, still resting her hand on Magnus’s arm. “It’s probably fair to assume that it has to do with the Light, right?”

“That’s what the sapling thinks.” Merle leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “It can’t communicate perfectly with the trees on the surface, not from here. But it’s picked up things from the chemicals in the air and the psychic background noise from the forest. Somethin’ is going on out there, Skipper. Something the little guy doesn’t think is good.”

Davenport nodded curtly, absorbing that information and pondering it for a moment before he moved on to the next question. “You mentioned the trees in this area aren’t telling you everything. Theories on why?”

Barry was the one who answered. “Honestly, Captain? It’s probably at least in part because we don’t communicate in the same ways. The trees depend on their mycorrhizal networks to communicate all kinds of information and nuance that even telepathy doesn't replicate." Barry rubbed the back of his neck. “Without those, we’re basically only speaking half of a language. Now that we’ve got a network in the lab we can maybe engineer some method of using it to have a more complete conversation.”

“That’d help,” Merle said, “But I asked the sapling, and frankly it’s not even sure that will make them trust us. We’re just not the kind of thing they’re used to thinking of as people.”

Magnus definitely didn’t flinch at that. Not outwardly, anyway. “So what’s the alternative?”

Merle shrugged. “The little guy can give us a hand, That, plus the signals a network could send out, ought to help. But it would have an easier time communicating if it were talking to its own grove.”

“Go back to the other side of the planet?” Davenport raised an eyebrow. “And was that the sapling’s idea, or yours?”

“Little column A, little column B.” Merle frowned and spread his hands. “Listen. It’s still just a baby, and it wants to help. It’s always possible it’s tryin’ to manipulate us, I guess -- to try and get back home or for some other reason -- but I don’t get that read from it.”

“So we either stay here and maybe fail to get anywhere because the locals don’t trust us,” Lup said slowly, drumming her fingers against the rail, “Or we relocate and hope it helps us figure out what the hell is going on. That’s a couple of real winner options, right there.”

“I think, even with the risks, we’d be better off talking to a grove we know is willing to cooperate and tell us what we need,” Barry pointed out. “We can’t do anything without information.”

Taako huffed, practically radiant with I-told-you-so energy. “We don’t even know what doing anything looks like yet, my guy.”

Davenport’s brow furrowed, and he looked from the others to Magnus. “Thoughts?”

Magnus felt his shoulders tighten, and he took a long moment to reply, turning the realities of what they knew -- and didn’t know -- over and over in his mind. “It’s a risk either way.” He said at last, “But if something is gonna pop off out there, we need to know as much as we can in the shortest amount of time if we’re gonna be prepared for it.”

The captain nodded. “All right, then. I’ll lay in a course for the sapling’s home grove.” His mustache twitched. “We’ll avoid the Parent and its territories as much as possible. If it is up to something, there’s no use letting it know that we’ve noticed. Barry, see what you can do with making your network mobile and let me know when you think you’ve got something that will work. Everyone else, prepare to relocate first thing tomorrow morning.”

***

The ship was quiet, save for the low rumble of the engine and the very faint sound of snoring from Merle’s berth down the hall. Magnus ran the thumb of his right hand over the clenched knuckles of his left fist, over and over again, like he was feeling for breaks that were long since gone. He should probably be sleeping, honestly. He'd changed into his pajamas, flannel bottoms with a hole in one knee and a ratty t-shirt showing the logo of some band from some plane a decade or more in the past. He’d climbed into bed and tossed and turned for a while and ultimately had given up, thrown the quilt back and propped his back against the wall.

Truth was, he didn’t like this -- any of this. Didn’t like the unknown quantity of the surface walkers moving around, didn’t like the new memory of the sapling trying to communicate layered over older, more awful memory of the last time a Tree had done so. Didn’t like the idea of relocating the ship.

Especially didn’t like that last one. He’d spent the last months putting himself back together and he’d been able to do that because he’d known they were as far as they could possibly be from the grave where he’d been meant to die. But like it or not, the Parent tree had been right; it was everywhere on this planet. It was the planet, and as long as the Starblaster was here, there was no getting away from this forest and the Parent tree. Not really.

He didn’t feel ready. That was what really sucked about the whole situation. He’d ignored the reality of the Tree being always around them, pushed it out of his head so he could focus on getting better, and now it couldn’t be ignored any longer and he still wasn’t ready to face it. Probably never would be ready to face it.

He could work out every day for the rest of the cycle, he could meditate and center himself and talk about his feelings, but that cold knot of terror in his gut would still be there whenever he thought too long or too hard about being alone in the dark with the earth bearing down above him. His heart would still falter and lurch whenever he thought about the sensation of the Tree burrowing through his mind.

Magnus was used to fear. He wasn’t an idiot, Merle’s after-battle tirades notwithstanding. He knew what it felt like to be scared of whatever it was he was staring down; he just had always had a knack for ignoring the fear, shoving it down and plowing ahead. This was . . . this was different. He couldn’t imagine ignoring this fear. Couldn’t picture ever being ready to charge ahead past it.

Magnus heard the door open and lifted his head to see Fisher slipping into his room. The voidfish chirped and trilled as it drifted closer, and Magnus smiled thinly. “Hey, buddy.”

Fisher’s bell shimmered with multicolored lights, winking like stars, and it lifted a tendril and patted his cheek. Then it turned and poked a little at the assortment of half-done carvings on Magnus’s desk.

Magnus grimaced. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, Fisher, it’s . . . it’s still gonna be a while yet before I can work on ‘em again.”

Fisher wasn’t listening, though. It had found one of the pieces Magnus had abandoned weeks ago, a rough sphere of wood with an obvious gouge from the moment his hand had slipped. The voidfish made its happiest noise, an insistent chirp that rose into a trill, and it started pushing the makeshift ball from one end of the desk to the other, flashing delightedly. Fisher spun the sphere in place, then snatched it up with a contented gurgle and flopped into Magnus’s lap, rolling the new toy around from tendril to tendril.

“You like that one?” Magnus rested a hand on Fisher’s bell. “I’m glad. I’ll make you a better one next year, okay? When my hand’s better.”

Fisher chimed and wrapped a tentacle firmly around Magnus's wrist, pushed the ball into his hand, and then released him. Magnus frowned, not quite sure what Fisher wanted. "I know," he said after a second, "It's not my best."

Fisher chirped and nudged his hand.

"It's . . . I don't know what you're getting at, buddy." Magnus shook his head.

Fisher impatiently pushed against his wrist again, then took the ball from his fingers and tossed it up and down a few times before shoving it into Magnus’s hands again. It chirped expectantly, winking blue and green deep within its bell.

Magnus gave the ball an experimental toss, mimicking what Fisher had done, and the voidfish made a thrilled noise. Magnus grinned and tossed it again, a little bit higher. “Ohh, I get it. You wanna play catch?”

Fisher’s only response was to snatch the ball out of its downward arc towards Magnus’s hand, cooing as it tossed the toy upwards again. Magnus caught it this time, feeling a knot of tension between his shoulderblades loosen itself. He hadn’t even realized it’d been there.

Of course Fisher didn’t care if the ball was perfect. Fisher was the one who’d seen that very first attempt at a duck and decided it was worth keeping.

Magnus tossed the ball high, and Fisher trilled and shot up out of his lap to catch it, shimmering with contentment.

So maybe he wasn’t really back to normal, or up to his own usual standards, or ready to do whatever was going to need done. Maybe the fear would never get out of his way. But here he was, anyway. He'd just have to do the best he could with what was in front of him.

Fisher dropped the ball abruptly into his lap, and Magnus smiled and picked it up, running his thumb over the obvious scar where the knife had slipped.

“Okay, bud.” Magnus raised his hand, poised to throw, “Here we go, ready or not.”

Chapter Text

Davenport brought the Starblaster around the curve of the planet, staying as high as possible above the tree canopy to avoid any unwanted notice. They stayed in a holding pattern at high altitude while Barry and Merle pored over the mycorrhizal network in the lab, until they felt confident in their prototype; then Davenport brought them lower, coasting over the treetops on their way to the coordinates of the grove where the baby sapling had come from. Merle posted himself at the deck railing so he could get a good look at what was going on below as they descended.

Lucretia joined him after a while, gripping the railing and scanning the green, green world below with the expression she got when she was taking meticulous notes in her head. She was the one who first leaned forward, frowning, and Merle saw what had grabbed her attention a moment before she lifted an arm to point it out.

It was subtle, just the barest suggestion of a change in the color of the canopy. Tinges of yellow-green instead of rich emerald, and here and there a patch with a faint shade of rusty orange threaded through it.

Lucretia reached into the bag at her side, withdrew her journal and a pen. “Didn’t you and Barry think we probably wouldn’t see autumn colors on this world?”

Merle scowled, combing his fingers through his beard, and looked over his shoulder at the sapling. It was trembling all over in a way that he knew by now meant nervousness, uncertainty. Worry. “We did think that, yeah. Suppose we could’ve been wrong, or . . .” He broke off, shaking his head. No sense spinning theories without anything to build them on.

He patted Lucretia’s hip and left her at the railing, scribbling notes into her book. Barry was in the lab, putting notebooks and instruments into a satchel, and he looked up as Merle stepped into the room. “Ready to go?”

“Just about.” Merle replied, picking up the item he and Barry had fashioned over the course of the last two days. As prototypes tended to be, it was inelegant, something halfway between a breastplate and an amulet. They’d started with a culture of the most common fungal species from the baby sapling’s soil, added a little neutral plant material from their homeworld to serve as “roots”, and used a hodgepodge of Clerical magic to attune the whole thing to Merle. The sapling had responded positively to their first trial run, but whether it would work with trees that hadn’t spent months in Merle’s company remained to be seen.

Merle finished fastening the last couple of buckles to keep the breastplate steady, and propped his fists on his hips with a wry grin. “What do you think? Pretty stylin’, huh?”

Barry snorted and shouldered his satchel as the background hum of the engines shifted to the telltale sound of the landing sequence. “I think if we end up needing more of those we should try and make them smaller than a dinner plate, is what I think.”

Merle followed him out of the lab, back onto the weather deck where Lucretia was still writing, propped against the railing to keep herself steady as the ship touched down. Barry cast a quick spell to lift the sapling’s pot -- it was getting too tall for Merle to carry it without it being awkward.

“Okay,” Davenport appeared in the doorway to the bridge. “You two know the plan. Keep in contact, let us know if you run into trouble, and do your best not to interact with the Parent or any surface walkers. If you’re not back at the expected time we’ll send the Twins to your last known location.”

Merle tossed off a lazy salute. “Don’t worry too much about us, Skipper, this oughta be an easy in and out.”

Davenport made a pained face, the one he inevitably made whenever one of his crew made a flippant pronouncement about how easy a given task would be. Merle just smiled innocently and followed Barry and the sapling off the ship and into the forest.

It didn’t take long to get there, and by the time they arrived the sapling was swaying its branches, worry temporarily subsumed in excitement. Merle guessed it was glad to be back with its family.

Barry settled the pot on the ground and then withdrew a bit, taking out a notebook and sitting on a rock near the edge of the grove so he could update his notes from months earlier. The sapling shifted and heaped up its roots into a bundle, then heaved itself awkwardly over the edge of the pot and dug into the soil.

Merle waited until the baby tree had settled before he seated himself cross-legged on the ground at the sapling’s side, reached out to give its trunk a pat. The trees above them swayed and rustled, telepathic connection opening and broadcasting a general sense of wellbeing and welcome, tinged with recognition for the bipeds and something much more affectionate for the sapling.

Merle closed his eyes for a moment and reached for the arcane energy of the prototype against his chest, casting Speak with Plants at the same time. Something clicked deep in his mind, like someone opening a window or turning up the volume on a fantasy boom box. It was . . .

Oh. Merle grinned and opened his eyes, craning his neck to look up at the grove around him. It was different than any communication he’d ever had with a plant before. Richer, more vivid, deeper, so detailed it could almost effortlessly be translated to words in his head.

The sapling stretched to its full height, waving its branches. See? See, Mother? Look, look how big! See?

The grove shivered every leaf in amusement. I see, offspring. Welcome back to us. Welcome to you, too, Biped. Bipeds, she corrected a little awkwardly, and one of the tiny trees near Barry’s seat gestured.

“Thank you.” Merle leaned back on his hands, basking a little in how easy this was. It wasn’t talking to a person; it was talking to plants, but better. Hot damn, this was the best thing Barry had ever invented.

Your ways have changed, Biped. You speak as a True Thing speaks now. Did our offspring teach you this?

Merle chuckled as the sapling sent out a burst of overwhelming pride, preening itself. “You could say that.”

For a moment the link between mother and child swelled, became too rapid and rich for Merle to follow except in the vaguest terms. The sapling was recounting its adventures since leaving the grove months earlier, its encounter with the Parent Tree, the recovery of Magnus from the grave, the retreat to the opposite side of the world. Merle caught brief scraps of emotion -- worry and shame (he couldn’t be sure for what), excitement and loneliness and eagerness to learn. Pride from both directions, and delight from the mother tree that the sapling had grown and learned so much in such a short time.

The conversation culminated in the sapling’s worry over the increased activity of surface walkers they had seen on the ground in the other hemisphere, and its concern that there were bad things going on that the trees there hadn’t been willing to tell its bipedal companions.

The elder tree creaked gently, swaying and dipping a limb low towards Merle. So this is why you have returned to us, Biped-who-can-speak?

“Yes, it is.” Merle straightened up. “We need to know why the Parent Tree is sending out surface walkers, and what’s making the forest so nervous. If it has to do with us, with our crew or with the . . . uh, the small sun, then that’s our concern. Please. We just want to help.”

There was a long, pensive silence, full of busy background murmuring that only the network prototype could pick up. It was clear the tree was speaking to the others around her, stretching out past the boundaries of the grove into the forest in ways Merle couldn’t fully hear. Consulting with them about the question, probably.

At length the tree above him let out a long, slow sound that was very nearly a human sigh. Yes. She said. The canopy drew closer above him, and out of the corner of his eye Merle caught Barry furiously scribbling notes. Our Parent is sick with a sickness in the heartwood. There is a darkness that eats it within. It speaks no more of good things, of sunlight or soil or the budding of new young. It speaks only of strength and the guarding of its own possessions, of the Small Sun and its keeping. It grows selfish and secret and it spreads its roots far, far among other groves. It takes more than it should from the soil and if any offspring defies it, our Parent sends poison to wither it and vines to strangle it.

Merle staggered a little bit. The tree’s grief was a physical weight in the air, vast and bewildered and afraid. His vision clouded, and he raised a hand to rub at his eyes only to realize they were streaming with tears.

This thing has never happened. Never, never, in the ten thousand years of my growing. One of the tree trunks nearest Merle bent until it was practically laying along the ground, stretching its branches towards him. Please. Biped-who-can-speak, we do not understand. Nothing in this world has strength to match our Parent, and no offspring’s voice has turned it from this terrible thing. We do not know how things like you that are small and alone and who cannot speak can stop it. But we do not know how anything else will.

Merle took a deep, shuddering breath, dragging his sleeve over his cheeks in a vain attempt to dry them. “We’ll do what we can. You have my word. If we can stop it, we will.”

Our gratitude is great. One branch reached out with exquisite gentleness to touch his back. You have cared for our offspring as if it were your own. For this, too, we thank you.

Merle nodded. “Of course.” He squared his shoulders. “If we’re going to get to the bottom of what’s happened to your Parent, and help protect your offspring and others, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”

Another long silence as the tree conferred with the larger forest around her. Many are afraid to be harmed if they oppose our Parent. She said mournfully. Many others do not think it can be helped. But those of us who cannot bear to let our Parent continue in this monstrous way -- you have our word, Biped-who-can-speak. If we can aid you, we will do it.

“That’s all we can ask.” Merle replied. “Thank you.”

The tree rustled in acknowledgment. Our offspring has great affection for you, strange ones. Please, be careful.

Merle huffed out a sound that wasn’t really a laugh. “Don’t worry, ma’am. We’re always careful.”

The sapling had been listening raptly to its mother the entire time, captivated by the weight of her words; now it stirred itself and drew up to its full height, roots shifting and pulling themselves free from the ground. Mother! I am going, too. It heaved itself back into the pot and settled in with a shivering of branches. I can help them. You will see.

Merle frowned, ready to protest, but the elder tree merely bent itself low over the potted sapling until their branches were mingled. Then you be careful too, offspring. You take all our love with you, and all the summers of all our future years.

The moment lasted for a while, and Merle took the opportunity to compose himself a little and to get to his feet. At last the elder tree straightened, and Merle bowed -- it seemed like the right gesture. “Thank you once more for your help.”

And you for yours. Be well, Biped-who-can-speak.

The telepathic connection thinned to a thread and then closed, and Merle took a deep breath as he readjusted to the sense of being more or less alone in his own head.

Barry cleared his throat. He’d gotten to his feet at some point and put his notebook away in favor of his wand. “Seems like you found out what we need?”

Merle nodded grimly. “We got quite a crisis on our hands. I’ll fill you in on the way back to the ship.”

***

Magnus tightened his grip on the haft of the axe, weighing the balance of it for a moment before he strapped it to his back and reached for a shield. He was working half on muscle memory, numb and automatic as he went through the motions of arming himself.

Taako and Lup weren’t back yet. Merle and Barry had blown way past their scheduled check-in without any word, and now the Twins had done the same, and it was becoming increasingly clear with every passing minute that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong on the surface.

Magnus hadn’t waited for permission. Hadn’t consulted with Davenport or mentioned where he was headed to Lucretia. He already knew what they were going to say -- that it was hard decision time, that they had to switch gears and prepare to ride out the rest of the year keeping the ship safe and ready to flee the plane.

But he couldn’t do that. He wasn’t going to spend the rest of the year living with the image in his head of his family dead or worse. He wasn’t going to let Barry or Lup or Taako or Merle end up trapped, entombed like he had been, hurt and starving and hopeless. No way.

The half of him that wasn’t operating on dissociation and determination was stone-cold terrified. He couldn’t really breathe and his heart was clawing at the inside of his chest, trying to get away from the whole situation. It was honestly some kind of miracle he hadn’t had a panic attack yet. Or maybe, he thought as he strode across the deck and down the gangplank into the clearing in the woods, maybe he was so deep in one he’d just pushed through and out to the other side where he kept moving anyway.

The trail wasn’t hard to pick up. Magnus wondered if this was what it would’ve looked like to anyone following him when the plant monster had been force-marching him through the forest, if he’d left crushed undergrowth and drag marks and flecks of blood in his wake. He wasn't sure if he was glad or not that someone had been bloodied enough to leave a trail. It made it easier to follow them, but it meant someone had been hurt when he hadn’t been there to shield them, even if it wasn’t enough blood to be dangerous.

Until it was. Until he squeezed through an impossibly narrow cleft in the trees and there was -- oh gods, there was blood everywhere. Too much for anybody to live through losing.

His stomach clenched and he fought the urge to be sick.

“I told you to stay away from me.”

Magnus froze. Every hair on his body stood on end, and he had his axe in hand before he’d even realized he was reaching for it. He knew the voice, even though the tone was unfamiliar; he knew the icy sensation on the back of his neck almost as well. It was Merle, and it was the Tree, and it was . . .

He forced himself to turn, even as his bones went cold and liquid with terror. Merle was standing at the edge of the darkened clearing. His glasses were cracked, one side of his head was matted with blood and leaves and dirt, and his eyes were a flat, dead-looking green that swallowed the warm hazel of his irises completely.

The Tree moved Merle’s face into a twisted, ugly smile, cruel and sharp-edged. “How many times,” It said, in the voice that was and wasn’t Merle’s, “Are you going to make me bury you?”

The walls of the clearing moved down on Magnus with a sound like a hurricane, and the Tree’s presence surged into his head and tore through him with a force that made everything explode in despair and terror and pain. The axe fell from his hands and he followed it to the ground, then kept falling into darkness and rocks and earth . . .

Magnus landed with a jarring thud and opened his eyes to see deck panels between his hands. He’d flipped himself out of bed and landed on the floor of his bedroom, crouched on his hands and knees, gasping for breath and shaking all over.

He clenched a fist and struck it against the floor, hard enough to hurt. Hard enough to be real. “Fuck me.” He took a couple of breaths, counting them out the way Merle had taught him, and waited for the shaking to subside and his heart to slow itself down. It took a long time before he felt steady enough to sit back on his heels.

Well. So much for sleeping tonight. Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. Relocating the ship, the lingering memory of the sapling touching his mind without invitation, the tense crew meeting where Merle had relayed what he'd learned from the sapling's home grove . . . the last couple days had been a lot. The foreseeable future was going to be, too.

Magnus sighed and pushed himself to his feet, reached for the red terrycloth robe Lucretia had given him last Candlenights, and shrugged into it as he padded out of his bedroom. He was far from the stealthiest member of the crew, but he’d taught himself a long time ago how to check on people without waking them.

Merle was in bed and snoring like a sawmill. Taako had burrowed into his blankets until all that was visible was a tuft of hair and the tip of one ear, twitching gently in sleep. Lucretia slept like something out of a storybook illustration, perfectly flat on her back with her hands clasped over the covers. Magnus watched her for a second in the glow of Fisher’s tank, until he was sure her chest was rising and falling like it was supposed to. Fisher turned gently in the water, tendrils drifting lazily in the way that meant the voidfish was probably also sleeping. Magnus peeked into Barry and Lup’s room next, found them cuddled up in a tangle of arms and legs. Barry mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep as Magnus eased the door shut.

Davenport’s door was cracked open, his bunk empty. Probably on the bridge, at this hour. Magnus took the stairs carefully, avoiding the squeaky one, and stepped out onto the bare, silent upper deck. The ship's lights were dimmed to their lowest setting, a pale phosphorescent glow that gave less light than the full moon of their homeworld would've.

Davenport was actually out there on the deck, standing at the railing and gazing out into the surrounding forest. Magnus hesitated for a moment in the doorway, but Davenport flicked an ear and just barely turned his head, acknowledging the human’s presence without turning away from what he was looking at. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Magnus shrugged and pulled his robe a little tighter around himself, even though the shiver up his spine had nothing to do with cold. “Somethin’ like that, yeah.” He crossed the deck to Davenport’s side, leaning against the railing.

Even standing atop the low seats-slash-steps that lined the rail, Davenport barely came to Magnus’s shoulder, but somehow he always managed to make Magnus feel . . . not small, exactly. Safe? Like he was in good hands.

Davenport watched him out of the corner of his eye for a long moment, while Magnus breathed the night air and scanned the forest over and over again for any kind of movement. Any kind of threat. Nothing was moving, but Magnus knew that didn’t really mean anything. His vision wasn't good enough in the dark to be any real help.

“I’m going with them.” Magnus startled himself with the sound of his own voice, but being Magnus he just squared his shoulders and kept going. “I know we don’t have a plan of attack yet. But when we get one made, I’m going with them.”

Davenport finally turned to look at him full on, placid and thoughtful. Magnus tightened his grip on the rail and tried not to feel like he was waiting for his Dad to tell him he was still grounded.

“You know what the risks of that are better than anyone, Magnus.” Davenport said after a long moment.

He huffed out a breath and tried not to think about earth and stone, hunger and thirst and anguish, a mind so big and hateful it could crush you under its weight. The dream was still with him, and the notion of anything happening to the rest of the crew was sharper and heavier than his memories right now. “I know I do. And I know I’m still not . . . as strong as I should be. I know.” Magnus swallowed hard. “But I can’t let anyone else do it alone. I can’t.”

“No” Davenport said, with a ferocity in his tone that actually kind of startled Magnus. He turned away from the forest to look at the Captain, saw his eyes bright and his expression set in what Magnus knew from experience was the height of his emotion. He shook his head. “Nobody on this crew is ever going to face that thing alone again.”

Magnus swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. “Then you get why I’ve gotta do this.”

“Of course I do.” Davenport sighed, unbending a little, and he reached over to set a hand on Magnus’s shoulder. “And I trust you to know your capabilities. Of course you're going with them.”

Magnus grinned crookedly and ducked his head, feeling absurdly touched. “Thanks, Cap’n’port.”

Davenport nodded and gave Magnus’s shoulder a pat before he let his hand drop. He turned his attention back to the treeline, and the two of them stood there for a long while after that, watching nothing happen in the quiet forest in the dark.

Chapter Text

“I’m just saying,” Taako ducked aside to avoid losing his hat to a low-hanging branch. “It’d save us a lot of trouble if the rest of this forest just got its act together and poisoned the Parent Tree right back.”

Barry snorted and stepped over a knee-high tangle of brambles. “If what we wanted was herbicide, I know how to synthesize half a dozen of them. Farm boy, remember?”

Taako raised his eyebrows. "I mean, I personally never said I didn't want herbicides."

Barry sighed. "I know.” Taako’s position on negotiating a peaceful resolution with the Parent Tree hadn’t shifted, even if he’d admitted it wasn’t practical to go straight to a full-on attack. Problem was, Barry was beginning to suspect that Taako was partially right, that the Parent Tree was not actually a being that could be reasoned with. They might not be able to help the rest of the planet against the Parent, or be able to persuade it to hand over the Light.

Of course, if they didn’t get the Light away safely, the whole plane was doomed anyway. Which was why Barry and Taako were currently trekking through a stretch of non-Parent forest, circling the area where they thought the Light was probably being held.

Taako grumbled his way over the bramble barrier and peered up at the trees above them. “We’re getting closer,” He gestured at the foliage overhead, orange and yellow with brown curling at the edges of the leaves. “And this is getting worse.”

Barry nodded grimly, crouching down to take another quick soil sample. They already knew from the testimony of other trees in the area what was going on -- that this section of the forest was being affected by the Parent at a more aggressive rate than just about any other, that the trees that hadn’t already been killed were sickening and dying. The soil sample would give him a better idea if the Parent was intentionally attacking them through some means, or just stealing enough resources that the die-off was an inevitable consequence.

Barry didn’t know for sure if that would matter. All he knew was that more data was never a bad thing. He’d long since given up on the idea of ever getting to answer all his questions about any given plane; a year was just never enough time. But the more information he could piece together, the more he could understand what had happened here -- and maybe if they could infer motivations from that information, it would make his family safer when they approached the Tree again.

They pushed on through a swath of bare-branched trees and withered-looking undergrowth. Compared to the rich, teeming green of the living forest, this dead and dying grove was unsettling, and Barry could feel the hair on the back of his neck prickle. “This is awful,” He murmured, resting a hand against the dry, grey bark of a dead sapling. “I mean. It’d be awful enough if it were a regular forest, but . . .”

“But these are more than just trees.” Taako interrupted. “They can think and talk and shit, yeah? Which means this is basically a graveyard.”

“Something like that.” Barry sighed heavily and turned to glance over his shoulder. The tingling at the back of his neck didn’t subside, but there was nothing there. “If the information Merle got was right, the Light’s probably being held about five hundred yards ahead. Think we can afford to get closer?”

Taako shrugged and pulled out his wand. “Try anything once, my man.” He stalked forward with a scowl, crunching dead leaves underfoot. “You know we got a Cycle Thirty-Two situation on our hands, right?”

Barry grimaced. That had been a bad year. The Light had ended up in the hands of the planet’s chief political party, and their historical tendency towards self-serving decisions and borderline imperialism had skyrocketed into outright fascism almost overnight. Barry and Lup had spent the better part of the decade after that year trying to understand if the progress made possible by the Light of Creation had just hastened a trend that would’ve developed anyway, or if the Light itself had corrupted the plane’s leaders. Either way, it had been . . . incredibly bad. “It’s looking like that, yeah.”

“Still think torching it isn’t a solution?” Taako’s tone was clearly half-joking (and just as clearly only half joking). He stopped and gestured for Barry to slow down, sidling forward and pushing aside a clump of dry branches.

Barry resisted the urge to reiterate all the arguments against trying to attack or destroy the Parent Tree -- its sheer size, the vital role it played in the ecosystem of the planet, the chemical chaos its death would wreak on the soil and the poor chances that gave the rest of the planet of surviving the Hunger’s inevitable descent. Taako knew all of that, he wasn’t an idiot. He just wanted a swifter, more satisfying solution to their current problem, and Barry couldn’t exactly blame him.

He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to dispel the prickly sensation, and crept up to Taako’s side, crouching down to peer through a gap in the dead branches. He drew in a quick breath and reached for his own wand. “Holy shit, Taako.”

The land in front of them wasn’t just dead, it was barren. The tree trunks and underbrush had been toppled and partially buried in uneven, hastily-overturned mounds of earth. A couple of surface walkers criss-crossed the ruined space, sometimes heaving up earth in their wake like burrowing moles.

“No-man’s-land.” Taako muttered, eyeing the wall of Parent tree trunks standing on the other side of the cleared space. “I’d say that’s where we’re gonna find the Light, all right.”

Barry nodded, still watching the creatures shambling across the devastated clearing. From what the other trees had told them, the surface walkers didn’t have perfect communication with the minds of the trees that created them -- they were more like a necromancer’s servants than an extension of their creator. It might be possible to sneak past them without letting the Parent Tree know what was happening . . .

Barry caught the motion out of the corner of his eye as Taako’s ear flicked backwards, and he turned at the same time the elf did, raising his wand in nearly the same moment that Taako raised his.

There was another surface walker looming up out of the forest behind them, blocking the path they’d come along. Barry cursed and held out a hand in front of Taako, trying to keep his friend from firing before the plant monster made its move.

Taako spoke out of the corner of his mouth at Barry as the thing stepped closer. “Don’t tell me. You think it’ll listen to reason.”

“I’m trying to avoid tipping off the rest of them,” Barry shot back in an exaggerated whisper, rising from his crouched position and reaching into his robe pocket. “Unless you feel like three-on-two is more fair.”

The surface walker raised itself up, lifting vines and branches in what was definitely not a friendly gesture. Taako flicked his wrist, incantation rolling off his tongue as a bolt of silvery energy shot across the clearing and hit the thing in its center of mass. Barry spoke a half-second after Taako, pulling a pebble out of his pocket as he did and flinging it at the surface walker’s feet.

The thing roared and thrashed as the transmutation magic of Taako’s spell rapidly changed its surface from tangled roots and soil to rough grey stone -- but the Silence that bubbled up from the magically charged pebble Barry had thrown swallowed all the sound, leaving the walker moving in a bizarre series of what almost looked like pantomime gestures.

It lurched forward, tried to bring a branch down on the two of them -- and froze on the way down, completely petrified. Taako grinned ferally and held his hand up to Barry. “Fuckin’ nice.”

Barry met the high-five with his own hand and then stowed his wand, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. It seemed like they’d successfully avoided alerting any of the other surface walkers to their presence. “Yeah, we should probably go.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Taako gave the stone creature a consolatory pat as he breezed past it into the forest, with Barry close behind.

***

Magnus fought down a sudden shot of deja vu as he strapped his axe to his back. The heft of the weapon in his hands, the tension in his chest . . . he glanced over his shoulder to make sure Lup was still standing in the opposite corner of the storeroom they used as an armory.

Yep, there she was, slipping spell components into her robe, and she caught his look and gave him a thumbs-up as she pocketed the last pouch. “You ready?”

Magnus took a deep breath and hooked his thumb under the rubber band around his wrist, snapping it. Yep, it hurt -- not a lot, but enough to be real. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” He reached for his shield, slung it across his back in its usual place, and nodded for Lup to go first out of the armory and into the passageway.

The rest of the crew was already on deck, standing in a loose semi-circle around Davenport, who stood with his back to the bow railing, hands clasped behind his back. Magnus slipped into the empty space between Merle and Barry, and Lup took the spot on Barry’s other side, slinging an arm around Taako’s shoulders as she did so. Davenport looked over all of them for a moment before he nodded.

“All right,” He said, “You all know the plan.”

Heads nodded around the circle and Lup gave a thumbs-up. Taako looked anxious to be going. “I assume we’re gonna skip the part where we repeat it back to you to prove we were listening?”

Davenport barely raised an eyebrow, longsuffering as ever. “Keep in contact on our standard schedule. Barry and Taako, hold your position until you get my signal. If we can avoid sending the two of you in and resolve this without putting anybody in danger, we’re doing that. Clear?”

Taako made a gesture that was half salute, half dismissive wave. “You know me, master of hangin’ back.”

“All right.” Davenport nodded curtly. “Lucretia and I will stand by above the tree canopy. If either team needs an extraction, we’ll be there as quickly as possible. Good luck to all of you.”

Magnus nodded, and the crew dispersed. He turned to Merle as Lup cast Levitate on the sapling’s pot, preparing to bring it with them. “Ready for this?”

Merle tapped the amulet on his chest. “Yup. If this doesn’t help me reason with the Parent, nothin’s gonna.” He sobered just a bit. “You good?”

“Good as I’m getting.” Which . . . okay, maybe wasn’t a straight answer, but it was honestly how he felt.

Merle nodded and reached out to pat Magnus’s elbow. “Nobody I’d rather have watching my back.”

Magnus managed a flat grin and thumped Merle on the back. “Thanks.”

“You nerds coming, or what?” Lup was standing on the gangplank, baby plant at her side with its branches waving.

Merle nodded, and Magnus followed him and Lup off the ship and up to the edge of the treeline. Barry and Taako came after them, crossing to the other edge of the clearing. The Twins exchanged a nod, and then the two groups set off in their respective directions through the trees. Barry and Taako would head back to the place where the Light was being held, and wait there for the signal. If it came, they'd try their best to take the Light by stealth.

Magnus pulled his shield from his back and took point, tightening his fingers on the leather of the grip. Merle fell in behind him, with the sapling behind him and Lup bringing up the rear. Merle listened intently to the baby plant as they walked, occasionally interpreting its directions for the others.

Magnus concentrated on watching the forest around them, keeping alert for any sign of surface walkers or other movement. They were skirting the edge of a stretch of Parent trees, angling for a grove of more mature trees that they’d scouted from the air. Once they reached it Merle would try once more to talk with the Parent, see if he could learn why it had become so aggressive and what it would take to get it to give up the Light peacefully.

The grove they were heading for wasn’t the same as the one where the Tree had buried him; Magnus wasn’t sure, but he personally doubted he could’ve taken that. Even this -- the smell of the forest around him, the sound of the breeze in the foliage -- was enough to pluck at his nerves.

He didn’t waste energy trying to shrug it off. That would’ve been unrealistic at this point; instead he tried to just . . . let it happen. Let the discomfort hit him and roll with the hit, like he would’ve rolled with a regular punch. It wasn’t a perfect solution -- not being in this forest, or not having a reason to hate being in this forest, those would’ve been perfect solutions -- but it worked well enough that he could devote most of his energy and attention to the mission at hand.

It took about forty minutes before the forest started changing around them. The underbrush thinned out as the trees got bigger and older, with canopies that crowded close together and let less and less sunlight eke through. Magnus reached back and drew his axe, weighing it in one hand and keeping his shield in the other. There wasn’t any threat that he could see, and he wasn’t sure if the tension in his spine and shoulders was inborn or if something in the grove was tipping his subconscious off in a way he couldn’t pin down yet. Either way, he felt keyed-up and edgy, like something was about to pop off, and the knot of cold dread that had been tangling itself behind his ribcage since they’d stepped into the forest tightened.

He gestured for everyone else to stop, and Lup drew her wand and scanned their surroundings. “This the place?”

Merle turned to the sapling for a second and then nodded. “This’ll do.”

Magnus swallowed, his mouth and throat gone suddenly dry. This had been a mistake. He was a liability out here, he was going to lose composure at a critical moment and be less than useless to Merle and Lup when they needed him. He was going to end up just like he’d ended up before, snivelling and shattered, trapped, slowly dying as he clawed uselessly at the walls . . .

No. Magnus clenched his jaw and tightened his fists around his weapon and his shield. He’d chosen to come out here. He’d told Davenport he was ready to do this.

Merle waited for Lup to release her Levitation on the pot and then knelt down next to the sapling, preparing to cast Speak with Plants. Lup took her position at the cleric’s side, wand held loosely at her side in a deceptively casual pose.

Magnus planted his feet and squared his shoulders, giving their surroundings one more sweep for threats and seeing nothing. His spine crawled and his mouth was still dry. The polished handle of the axe was a safe, familiar weight in his hand, and he concentrated on the heft of it, on the way that weight would swing if (when) he needed it to.

He took a deep breath, counted it out slow. He was here to protect his crewmates, and he was going to do it.

If he had to do it terrified, so be it.

Magnus didn't hear the laugh, but he felt it, like a gust of freezing wind against the back of his neck. He felt a sudden lurch of panic like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach and lungs, and he half-raised his shield even as he knew there wasn't a physical blow coming for him to block.

Merle and Lup must've sensed it, too, or maybe they just picked up on his movement. They turned to look at him, and Magnus shook his head in a sharp, desperate attempt to warn them, and that was when the Tree slammed into his mind again.

Magnus would’ve screamed, or collapsed, but he couldn’t do either of those things. He wanted to raise his hands, to claw at his head, to beg the thing to get out like he’d done once before, but he couldn’t, there was no room for him to do those things, the Tree was in all the places where his hands and body and voice lived and the part of him that was him was an insect crushed against the inside of his own skull.

The Tree remembered him, knew exactly who and what he was, and it felt all that same scathing disregard it had felt for him in the moments before it had buried him, but this time it knew more, so much more, it knew everything, and it was so vast, so ancient, and so fucking powerful --

Magnus felt his fingers twitch against the handle of the axe, felt his grip tighten even though he hadn’t tightened it, and before that moment he would’ve never in a million years imagined that he was capable of being more horrified or more afraid but oh, gods, he was.

The Tree sneered at him, a crushing, awful sensation that echoed off the inside of his mind. Of course he was afraid. He was nothing.

Magnus felt his body take a deep breath, felt his mouth open, and he threw all his will and all his terror into trying to stop what was happening, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough.

He heard his own voice, flat and strange, come out of his own throat. “I told you not to come back here. What do you want?”

Chapter Text

Taako narrowed his eyes, peering across the blighted strip of land between the non-Parent forest and the grove where the Light was being held. The surface walkers that had been patrolling the no-man’s-land last time were nowhere to be seen or heard, and the air was eerily still, even for this godsforsaken empty forest.

Barry leaned forward, putting a hand on Taako’s shoulder for a moment to steady himself as he craned his neck and looked past the clump of dead tree trunks they were using for cover. He frowned. “So we both know this isn’t a good sign, right?”

Taako made an ambivalent gesture, ears swiveling, listening for anything that might be an ambush waiting in the wings. They’d been waiting for Davenport’s signal for a while, with no sign of any movement from the Parent grove on the other side of the clearing. He would’ve suggested Barry try Speak with Plants — Barry wasn’t as good with it as Merle, but he could get by — except that everything around them was dead, even the few trees and shrubs that had been clinging to life when they’d been here on recon only a day and a half ago.

Barry had done the science to the samples he’d collected, and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t intentional herbicide — the Parent wasn’t pumping poison into the soil or anything like that. It was just stealing everything from the ground that made it able to sustain any other forms of life. Even the fungus was dying.

Taako didn’t really see how that was any better than the Parent killing its offspring on purpose. But then, maybe he was letting his resentment of what the Tree had done to Magnus color his response. Probably he was.

. . . Okay, so he definitely was. Sue him. He drummed his fingers against the dead wood of the tree trunk in front of him. “What do we think — brute squad’s off somewhere else causing trouble, or they’re in there waiting for some trouble to come to them?”

“Probably the latter.” Barry ducked back behind the stand of dead trees and leaned back against the trunk, folding his arms and frowning at his boots in thought. "Time?"

Taako snuck a glance at the watch hanging from the golden chain around his neck. "Five minutes past Lup's check-in." He reached into his robe pocket and withdrew his stone of farspech. "Cap? What's the word?"

Davenport's voice came back clipped and restrained. "No verbal signal from the other team. Just their arrival code." The worry under the words would've been impossible for anyone who hadn't known him more than half a century to pick up on.

Barry's face folded itself into a momentary scowl. Lup would've signaled for an extraction if things on her end had gotten untenable, but the fact she hadn't actually called meant they were tense at best. "We're still in position here."

A few moments of silence before Davenport came back. "All right. The two of you move forward with infiltration, but stay alert. Get out of there if things feel wrong, or if you hear from us. Starblaster out."

Taako nodded and slipped his stone into his pocket (not before switching the incantation over it so it would vibrate instead of chime if the ship called back). “How d’you wanna do this one?”

Barry pushed himself off from the tree and rubbed his palms together. Invisibility would be a moot point; the Tree didn’t see in the traditional sense. “Start with that cat-footed spell from cycle thirty-eight, keep our footsteps from tipping it off. Blink past the outer ring of trunks and go from there?”

Taako grinned and drew his wand with a flourish. “Sounds good to me, my guy.”

Moving across open territory without even trying to conceal themselves from sight was unnerving; it ran counter to the whole idea of sneaking that Taako was used to operating under. But nothing stirred or moved to attack them, so apparently cloaking just their footsteps worked well enough.

They Blinked past the wall of tree trunks and into the dim green-grey twilight just beyond, where the canopy was drawn so close together overhead that the sky might as well not exist. Taako held still for a long, quiet moment, listening for movement, before he waved a thieves’ cant all-clear at Barry. No sense making noise they didn’t need to.

They moved from tree to tree through the dimness, Barry occasionally stumbling when his human vision failed to pick out details Taako could see easily. Eventually, they turned a corner and there was a dim but unmistakable gleaming visible through the trees. Barry tapped Taako’s shoulder and signed out Careful — big enemies — single file.

Taako nodded and led the way, all but holding his breath. That was the Light, all right — nothing else in any world had that same shimmering, warm-and-cool-in-turns brilliance, that magnetic clarity that made you want to reach out and pick it up and cradle it and bask in it.

It was really a little bit creepy, if you stopped to think about it too hard.

The Light was held in the fork of a massive tree, maybe eighteen or twenty feet up from ground level. Vines as thick as Taako’s wrist twined themselves around the tree and spiraled up into its branches, creating a kind of draping canopy over the globe of Light. It almost had the look of an altar, not that different from the kind of thing he’d seen a dozen cultures build to hold the wild alien brilliance when it fell into their laps.

No other culture had surrounded it with more than a dozen hulking heaps of earth and stone, vines and branches, though. Taako grimaced and gestured over his shoulder at Barry. Big enemies confirm — outnumbered — watching? and he topped it off with a cant sign that meant, approximately, Fuck.

Barry frowned, watching the surface walkers. They didn’t really have a clear idea of what animated the things, if they were always alive once created or if they subsided into inanimacy when they were done with a task, but these ones were definitely still animate — they shifted ever so slightly now and again, making a rustling noise that was terribly loud in the silent grove.

Barry flicked his wrist to show a cupped, open hand, palm-up.

Now what?

***

Magnus was in hell. His body wouldn’t respond to his attempts to move, but he could still feel everything, see everything, hear everything, and he could still sense the Tree’s overwhelming presence nearly drowning out his own consciousness.

His heart was hammering so rapidly it was painful, chest clenching with the effort of breathing, and he couldn't do anything. He tried to use the things Merle had taught him, but it was impossible to focus on counting his breaths or narrowing his attention to a single physical sensation when the Tree was everywhere, when it was inside him like this and he could feel as well as hear it using his voice to talk to his family.

Magnus wished he could’ve closed his eyes, taken a second to collect himself, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even take an intentional deep breath, or blink away the stinging behind his eyelids. The Tree noted it with distant amusement when his eyes welled up and tears started rolling down his cheeks, but it didn’t stop.

“I see you’ve come here with a new trinket,” It said with his voice. “Perhaps you’ll be able to speak intelligently now and not rely on an infant to help you with your words.”

Merle’s jaw tightened but he didn’t rise to the bait. “It’s an aid to communication, yeah. Let my friend go, there’s no need for you to use his voice for this.”

Magnus felt his face twist into a flat, awful parody of a grin. “Perhaps not. But as you and he decided to trespass here after we agreed that you would stay away from me, I consider that a little trespass in return might teach you a lesson, hm?”

Magnus saw the baby tree behind Merle shrink into itself like a kicked dog. Lup’s fists clenched so hard her knuckles went white, and Magnus hated that the Tree noticed that and was amused by it. As if this pathetic biped could do anything permanent to it before it tore her apart and crushed the remains to pulp.

Somewhere down under his panic and horror, Magnus felt something new kindle: fury. This was his crew, the people he protected with his life, and this stupid fucking tree, this monster, thought they were nothing and dared to threaten them? Fuck that.

The Tree felt its amusement at him, its mind swatting at his in a blow that sent a shot of actual physical pain through his paralyzed limbs. Mind your manners, biped.

Merle spread his empty hands, gaze level and fixed on Magnus’s own. “We don’t want to hurt you, and we’re only here to talk.”

“Of course you are,” The Tree sneered. “That’s all you ever do, isn’t it, you little pest? Talk.” It waved dismissively with Magnus’s shield arm. “Have your words done anything to stop the devouring darkness? Have they done anything to protect any of the worlds you have brought this turmoil down upon? Why should I let you waste my time with your words?”

Magnus bristled. Like the Tree had any fucking room to talk about protecting the world.

The Tree threw Magnus’s head back and laughed, even as it sent another jolt of punishing hurt through his body (how was it even doing that?). “Your brutish friend here seems to think I owe you an answer for my actions.”

Merle took a slight step forward. “We’re here on behalf of your children and your grandchildren.” He said, gesturing to the quivering sapling. “They’re the ones who want answers. We just want to help.”

The Tree raised the axe in Magnus’s hand. “Stay where you are.” It said sharply. “If I must bear your useless platitudes, at least do not insult me by behaving as if you could do anything to this one that would make me loose my hold on it before I choose to do it.”

“My apologies,” Merle said evenly. “That wasn’t my intention.”

If Magnus had been able to, he would’ve gritted his teeth. As it was, he marshaled his thoughts and narrowed his focus, concentrated on the flicker of fury that was still burning deep down under the grueling, heart-hammering awfulness that was the Tree invading every corner of who he was. Anger was useful; anger was the opposite of paralysis. He could work with that, as far as focuses went.

Lup drew herself up to her full height. “Will you answer the questions we’re here to ask, or not?”

The Tree jutted Magnus’s chin dismissively at Merle. “Say your piece before I grow bored and bury all of you for bothering me.”

Merle nodded and dropped his hands to his sides. “Your family wants to know why you’ve cut yourself off from them. What you’re doing that requires this kind of aggressive expansion.”

“Of course they do.” The Tree laughed. “And you, of course, couldn’t begin to guess the answer. Despite knowing full well what is coming, what is following you to my world, you pretend not to understand why I would fortify myself?”

Merle grimaced. “As I said when we last talked —”

“I know what you said,” the Tree snapped, bending Magnus’s face into a scowl. Magnus cringed (figuratively) at the tone of its reply, at the wave of anger that swept through his soul from the Tree, but then he braced himself and let the anger feed into his own. His heart rate was starting to shift from terrifyingly rapid to something that felt less like it was gonna kill him.

The Tree cocked Magnus’s head slowly, and the physical trees around them began to sway and shudder. “I spread and strengthen myself because you vermin have brought fire and darkness and death to my world in your wake. I will protect the power I have gained and I will use it to withstand the storm that is coming.” Something cracked in the canopy above them, frighteningly loud. “I am the heart of the world, pest, and I will survive as I have survived a million catastrophes since I crushed the last of this world’s bipeds into my soil and drank their blood.”

The Tree was growing more and more heated as it spoke, and Magnus finally felt more angry than terrified. He gave an experimental push, tried to make anything move, and was rewarded by another shock of pain — but it was clear that the Tree wasn’t as concerned with Magnus as it had been earlier, that its focus had spread back out into the rest of the grove.

Taking back control of his whole body was probably out, but maybe if he concentrated . . .

“But,” Merle said, as Lup eyed the tree canopy and shifted her grip on her wand, “You’re killing your own offspring to do it.”

The Tree growled. Magnus’s throat was starting to ache; it was clear the Tree was moving his throat and jaw and tongue by brute force to make his voice come out, that it didn’t have a fine grasp of how speech was generated and didn’t care if it hurt him by forcing it to work. “You told me yourself that this Hunger that pursues you will kill anything it touches. Either I take what must be taken to protect myself, and sacrifice what must be sacrificed to preserve the roots of the world, or all this world, Parent and offspring alike, will perish when your catastrophe comes.”

“There must be another option,” Lup shot back, shaking her head. “If you’d let us help you . . .”

The Tree paid her less attention than it would have paid a rain shower. Magnus steeled himself and tried to move an eyelid, just one. It took more effort than deadlifting his own weight would’ve, but one eye flicked closed for a moment.

Pain rocketed through his body. If you do that again, the Tree said, slamming him against the wall of his mind, I will use your own hands to kill the pest and make you watch me do it. Am I understood?

Fuck you, Magnus thought back at the thing, running more on fury than fear now. But the fear was still there, and the Tree could tell, and it dismissed him from its attention with crushing scorn and another wave of hurt, turning back to Merle.

“I had no need of your meddling before, and I have no need of it now,” It said. The grove around them groaned and swayed and creaked, the noise rising to a crescendo. “You come to me when I have made it clear you are unwelcome, you dare presume that pitiful solitary chaff like you has any place advising me or intervening between me and my offspring, you make demands and judgments as if you yourselves did not bring this danger upon my world —”

The ground at Magnus’s side heaved, and a root broke through the soil and hunkered there like a waiting predator. There was another loud crack above them, and a branch came hurtling down and slammed to the ground about fifteen feet off to the side of Merle and Lup. Lup raised her wand and conjured a shield spell, holding it above them like an umbrella.

Forbearer! Magnus half-felt, half-heard the word as clearly as if it had been the Tree’s, but it wasn’t the Tree that had spoken.

The Tree whipped Magnus’s head to the side. The sapling had crawled free of its pot, which lay overturned on the ground between Merle and Lup; the baby tree had moved forward and now stood with its roots sinking into the soil, limbs waving in frantic motion. It drew itself up to its full height, pitifully small in the face of the grove that surrounded it.

Forbearer, stop this at once!

Chapter Text

The minutes ticked by, but the surface walkers gave no sign of losing sentience or moving away from the clearing where the Light was being held. Taako and Barry exchanged a few truncated thieves-cant conversations, but no immediate plan presented itself.

The problem, as Barry saw it, was that there were just too many surface walkers out there for him and Taako to engage by themselves. Sure, one of them could theoretically Blink up there and grab the Light, probably even Blink back out here, and then the two of them could haul ass back to the Starblaster. But there was very little chance of that not attracting any attention, and the surface walkers were fast. If they let themselves get surrounded, well, two wizards against more than a dozen creatures that were damn near as dangerous as Shambling Mounds was not excellent odds, and that would probably be the crew’s chance at getting hold of the Light this cycle irrevocably shot.

So. Going in without backup or a distraction of some kind was out. Distractions that directly harmed the Parent Tree were probably also a bad idea, because that would just mean that the Tree itself would . . . retaliate . . .

Barry raised his head suddenly as a thought struck him, and he reached out to tap Taako’s shoulder. Wait here -- reinforcements coming -- hold position -- keep silence, he signed rapidly, and then he turned and sprinted off back through the trees towards the edge of the Parent grove.

His eyes had adjusted by now, and he was able to avoid the worst pitfalls, though he still would’ve liked to summon a light to guide his steps. No time now, though, and he didn’t want to risk that being something the Parent would notice and react to.

Barry found the edge of the Parent territory, moved along the border until he found a thin spot where the trunks were younger, with a gap wide enough to let him see through to the blighted space and the dead grove beyond. It was silent and grey and cold-looking out there. Basically a graveyard, like Taako had said.

Barry grinned. He suspected it was the expression Lup lovingly called “the kind of mad science-y look you get sometimes”, but well, Barry was what he was.

What he was was the best necromancer most planes had ever seen.

He could work with a graveyard.

He reached into his cloak pocket for spell components and spread his hands wide, scattering bone dust in an arc before him. The energy was different here; he’d already known that, of course. It went without saying that life forms this interconnected by physical roots and threads of fungus would weave a different pattern than discrete bipeds would’ve. But they were more than just trees, possessed of something close enough to souls for him to recognize them when he saw them. And sure enough, their energy lingered just like the energy of departed humans or elves or orcs did. Barry could see it now that he was looking for it, the bright shimmering of left-behind life force, the intricate sable lace of necrotic energy, the whole world shot through with patterns and points of intersection.

Barry smiled, and tangled his metaphysical fingers in the web of life and death, and pulled.

A lot of necromancers went bad, of course. Barry knew the stereotypes, and he’d seen more than his share of fellow practitioners who’d tripped right off the edge and into the deep end of Bad Shit You Shouldn’t Do With Souls. Where most of them started to slide was, they forgot to care about the patterns they were manipulating. They forgot to be careful with what had once been -- what still was -- an essential part of a person.

They forgot it was good manners to ask.

Barry suspected a lot of necromancers would be surprised how often the dead wanted to help, if you just asked first. So he did ask, every time, and he asked now, using polite, gentle tugs on the webs of energy instead of just yanking like so many hacks he’d known. Come and help me, please, the gestures said, I can’t do this on my own.

The web tugged back, and then it yielded, and life and undeath coiled themselves together into new patterns, and the forest stirred and rose and pulled up roots, shook itself like a sleeping dog rising from its slumber.

Now Barry knew he was grinning the mad-scientist grin, but oh, well. He turned on his heel and beckoned for the trees that had answered his call to follow him, dropping the cat-footed spell as he did. No need for subtle, now, and he could use the energy for other purposes.

The forest was noisy when it moved, dull rumblings and the cracking of dry wood and the sound of branches whipping the air. The Parent trees around him stirred with alarm as the undead trunks drew near and passed through, and he had to duck and weave through the chaos of the Parent grove’s reaction as he went.

The surface walkers in the clearing had reared up to their full heights by the time he returned, and the noise was something close to deafening. The vines had pulled themselves closer around the Light, although they couldn’t mask it completely, and it still gleamed through the gaps in the foliage around it.

Taako had scrambled himself into the high-up crook of a tree trunk, apparently having decided that the best way to avoid being hit by a branch or root was to make it inconvenient for the Tree to do that without hitting itself. As Barry bolted back into view, Taako fired off a Magic Missile at the surface walker that was keeping him treed and then turned his head towards Barry.

“Hey, Barry, what the fuck did you do?”

“I brought help!” Barry shouted, dodging a vine and nailing the surface walker that had launched it with Flesh to Stone. Undead trees lumbered out of the murky shadows behind him, and one of them took a swing at the surface walker Taako had targeted.

“Great news!” Taako eyed the new arrivals and swung himself down onto the surface walker’s back, aiming a blast of freezing energy at it as he did. “But like, you do realize this is the opposite of silence, right? Warn a guy!”

“OK, fine, we’ll make up a cant sign for I’m gonna bring an army of undead trees with me when I get back, then!” Barry retorted, sprinting into the clearing with his eyes on the Light.

“Good! I’d appreciate that!” Taako was right on his heels, flicking spells left and right at the surface walkers that hadn’t yet been engaged by Barry’s squad of tree minions.

Barry hadn’t climbed a tree in a while, he wasn’t especially practiced at it, but the vines that had sprawled themselves over the trunk holding the Light were just the right size for hand- and foot-holds, and he was scrambling up the tree before he had time to overthink it and make himself hesitate.

Taako stopped with his back to the tree, throwing out a shielding spell to keep surface walkers from interfering with Barry as he climbed. “No pressure or anything, Barold, but make it snappy or we’re probably going to be plant food.”

“I’d flip you off if I had a hand free to do it,” Barry replied cheerfully, still climbing steadily. Avoiding the thorns was a crapshoot, and he ended up with some wicked gouges on his forearms and palms (his legs were safely guarded by thick denim, which just went to show that there was nothing wrong with embracing your own fashion sense). The battle between undead trees and the Parent’s surface walkers was raging in earnest, and he suspected that Taako was right -- the Parent was just too powerful for this to be more than a distraction.

But hell, Barry thought as he determinedly hauled himself another foot up the tree, distraction might be all it would take to --

A vine shot down from out of the tree canopy and spiraled itself around Barry’s wrist and forearm and bicep, and another came rocketing down and grabbed his ankle.

He had just enough time to mutter out an “Aw, fuck” before it yanked him free of the trunk and hauled him into the air.

***

The Tree was furious. It took a step and then another, twisting Magnus’s face into an ugly sneer of indignation.

Magnus felt his heart hammer with a sudden burst of fresh panic. Get out of here, he thought, doubting that the sapling could hear him but desperate to try anyway. He hadn’t wanted the thing to touch him, hadn’t wanted its thoughts in his head, but it was a baby and it was trying to help and it was so, so small . . .

The Tree bared Magnus’s teeth as it stalked closer to the sapling. "You should listen to the meat, offspring-of-my-offspring. These are affairs of gravity. It is no place for saplings."

The baby tree trembled, but it didn’t retreat and it didn’t shrink back from its full height. No, Forbearer, I will not leave. I was sent by my Mother to take root with the bipeds and help them to speak and I will not go until you listen.

“I am finished with listening.” The Tree snapped. Magnus felt his fingers tighten on the grip of his axe and oh, no, no no no, he wasn’t going to let that idea go anywhere, not if he could help it.

It took a titanic effort, all his will and all his focus and all his desperation, but Magnus shoved against the Tree’s hold on his body until something gave and the fingers of his weakened left hand -- his axe hand -- suddenly, spasmodically opened. The weapon hit the ground blade-first and the cutting edge buried itself in the soil, and Magnus --

Magnus would’ve screamed if he’d had control of his throat. Punishing pain arced through his limbs and his back spasmed. His head felt like it was going to burst apart.

"No more warnings." The Tree snarled. The anguish in his limbs ebbed, but the headache persisted as the Tree bent his body to retrieve the weapon. "You want to defy me, you can take the consequences. And you, descendant -- you can watch. Decide then if you still want to try and oppose me when I am trying to save our --"

Magnus’s body seized suddenly, arrested in the act of bending down, and the Tree tore a snarl out of Magnus’s throat. “What are you doing, biped?”

Lup stepped forward around Merle, wand raised and crackling with yellow-orange energy. “Wrong biped, asshole.” She snapped, her brow furrowed with intense focus as she kept Hold Person going, locking Magnus’s body in place.

Magnus really wished he could’ve grinned.

The Tree raged within the confines of Magnus’s mind and it showed in the body of the Tree around them; the branches above them whipped through the air in a frenzy, and the earth heaved and shook with the movement of roots.

“Merle!” Lup shouted, and the cleric nodded and narrowly dodged being knocked off his feet by a root.

“Got it!” He barrelled forward, smacked his hand in the dead center of Magnus’s chest, and raised his other hand, chanting the words for Dispel Evil. Green-gold light flowed from his raised hand in a conduit down his arm, across his chest and out into Magnus.

Magnus could feel it when the Tree’s grip let go, when its roots slithered out of his head and all that was left holding him was Lup’s spell -- and then a moment later even that let go, and he dropped abruptly as a puppet with its strings cut, barely catching himself on his hands before his face smacked into the ground.

Lup practically crowed with triumph, and Magnus looked up from the dirt in time to see her fling her arms wide, yelling out an incantation. The yellow-orange energy radiated out from her in a corona, and every branch and root it touched stopped dead in its tracks. The air practically vibrated with the collision of energy between Lup’s spell and the Tree.

Merle bent down to help Magnus to his hands and knees, turning to shout at the sapling. “Now or never, Sprout, Hold Monster’s not gonna last all day!”

Magnus groaned, lifting his hands to his aching head. He felt like he’d been mowed down by a cart, and the too-familiar crawling cold of an incipient panic attack was coiling around his chest and spine, but he was free of the Tree, and that wasn’t nothing.

The sapling spread its branches as wide as they’d go, and Magnus half-felt, half-heard the echo of its voice in his head. You are not done with listening, Forbearer! It cried into the unnaturally still clearing, You have not yet begun it. All our family that tried to speak with you, you struck down and injured, but you will listen to me now. You will listen to us!

Magnus turned his head as a sound caught the edge of his awareness -- a sound like distant wind, or the rumbling of a thunderstorm far off beyond a hill. “Uh. Merle?”

“Your guess is good as mine is, kid.” Merle said tightly, helping him the rest of the way to his feet. “If we’re lucky it’s not the Parent sending in reinforcements.”

Magnus sighed heavily and bent down to retrieve his shield and axe. They were rarely that lucky.

The Parent was still raging, held though it was by Lup’s spell. Magnus could hear it, too, the way he’d heard the sapling -- but it was distant, this time, like someone yelling next to him and not like something shoving itself into the crevices of his brain. He still hated it, it made his stomach clench and his skin crawl, but it was nothing he couldn’t force himself to ignore for now.

I will not be dictated to! It roared. I am the heart of the world!

And we your children are the soul of it! The sapling said, waving. You are the one who said this once, my Mother remembers. We have watched you forget, Forbearer, but we will not let you forget anymore. You must remember our voices and heed them, before you doom us all.

Or what? The elder Tree sneered. Lup’s face was creased in the most intense look of concentration Magnus had ever seen on her, and he wondered just how much effort it was taking her to hold the Tree, how far the grasp could possibly extend. What will you do, sapling, if I refuse?

The background noise that had been a far-off rumble rose to a crescendo, and Magnus raised his shield as the things that had been making it burst through the Parent trunks around them. It was -- it was chaos, is what it was; smallish, gnarled-looking surface walkers, and tangles of bundled roots that heaved themselves out of the humped earth, and long runners of thorny vines that ran along the ground like strange, sharp rivers.

Magnus felt his heart drop, raised his axe and readied himself for a battle they were almost definitely not going to win -- but then the chaos came to a stop, gathering itself in a ring around the bipeds and the sapling.

If it was possible for a tree to look smug, the baby tree did. You cannot refuse, Ancestor of all Ancestors. it gestured around the clearing at the signs of the living forest that had come when it called. We are already here.

Merle’s brow furrowed, and he staggered a little, reaching out to steady himself on Magnus’s hip. “Oh.”

Magnus started to ask, but then he felt it, too -- a rising tide of voices in his head, a chorus of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of whispers, thoughts and emotions and memories and entreaties all at once, the weight of the rest of the world rising up to say its piece to the Parent.

Shit.” It wasn’t hostile, it wasn’t scornful the way the Parent’s presence had been, but it was way too much, and Magnus’s aching throat closed itself up around any further words. His head hurt and his body hurt and if there was a way to shut out the overwhelming psychic noise of the rest of the forest, he didn’t know what it was any more than he’d known how to shove the Tree back out of his head. He squeezed his eyes shut, tried to find something he could focus on, even as his heartbeat ramped back up to a hammer against the inside of his chest.

The sapling was still speaking, and Magnus caught hold of its words and focused on them hard, trying to wrestle down the panic.

-- no more secrets, It said. No more decisions made without us, and no more taking more from the soil than it can give.

The Parent’s rage was still roiling, but there were other emotions in it now, too -- sullenness and defensiveness and maybe just a shade of fear. I have been the guardian of us all for time out of mind, It howled, How will I keep you safe if you will not respect my power?

We can respect your wisdom without bowing to you without questions, Ancestor. Let us prove it. The sapling waved its tiny limbs as the chorus of other voices swelled. Magnus was trying to shut them out, but he couldn’t completely ignore them; they were backing the baby tree, murmuring their agreement with what it was saying. Either they were letting it take the lead, or it was only saying what they’d all been wanting to say for years, centuries, generations upon generations.

Magnus felt a hand on his elbow, opened his eyes to look down at Merle. The dwarf still looked a little unsteady, and Magnus wondered if he was as overwhelmed as Magnus was by the sheer scope of the conversation around them. “You with me, Magnus?”

Magnus took a deep, unsteady breath. He was currently teetering just this side of freaking out or checking out, and neither of those was an ideal option. “I dunno. Sort of?” He glanced across the clearing at Lup, who was starting to look strained. “What’s our plan if Hold Monster fails before this resolves itself?”

Merle shrugged grimly. “Run like hell, I suppose.”

Magnus really didn’t like those odds, but saying so seemed like a moot point. He took another unsteady breath and moved closer to the sapling, steadying his shield.

Maybe he wouldn’t be able to protect the little thing if the Tree broke Lup’s hold, but he was going to do his damndest.

Chapter Text

Taako took a look around the battlefield. Undead trees and surface walkers were still locked in combat throughout the clearing, and although the balance seemed to be tipping in favor of the Parent’s forces, none of them were concentrating on him and Barry at the moment.

Barry, who was currently dangling sideways fifteen feet in the air, being violently thrashed around by animate vines. Taako watched as -- yeah, those were Barry’s glasses all right, and he noted with dismay (but no surprise) when they went tumbling through the air and landed somewhere on the forest floor amidst the melee.

“Gods dammit.” Barry’s voice echoed down from above. “Taako! Hit me with -- ow, fuck -- Feather Fall!”

Taako glanced around for a second to make sure he wasn’t going to be ambushed by a plant monster if he dropped his concentration, and then he let the shield spell fall and flung the requested spell into the air above his head. Of course, it wasn’t going to do anything if Barry wasn’t falling, but presumably his genius friend had some kind of plan for that part of the equation.

Sure enough, as soon as Taako’s spell made contact Barry whipped his free hand up towards the vines and let loose a gout of flame. The vines writhed, shaking Barry like a terrier shaking a rat as they did so, but as Taako watched they blackened and withered, succumbing to the flame and leaving Barry to tumble -- slowly -- towards the forest floor.

He landed in a crouch and straightened, cursing roundly. Taako couldn’t blame him; not only was Barry damn near blind without his glasses, he was clearly badly bruised from what he’d just gone through and favoring his right shoulder. All that, plus the fire had caught the Parent tree’s attention. Three or four of the surface walkers turned from the combat with the undead trees and lurched towards the two of them.

“So how’s this going?” Taako scowled and looked up at the Parent trunk at his back.

“Oh, great. Totally according to plan.” Barry reached into his robe with his left hand and grabbed for his wand. “Steer clear of my line of fire, huh?”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Taako clapped Barry on the uninjured shoulder and then turned his back on the encroaching enemy. “You hang tight, my dude. I’ll get the Light.”

A quick cast of Jump and a running start put him higher in the tree than Barry had gotten, but not quite all the way up to where he needed to be -- and the vines that had snatched Barry hadn’t been the only ones. Taako bared his teeth in a sharp grin as one came rocketing down towards him.

“Hey Barry!” He fired off a bolt of freezing energy at the vine, which writhed as a thick crust of frost formed along its surface, slowing its progress, “Having an ice time?”

Barry’s groan was audible even from a dozen feet below. “I hate that you’re like this!” Lighting crackled and arced out in a brilliant white cone from Barry’s hands, catching several of the walkers in its path. Not bad for a guy who couldn't actually see what he was doing.

Taako cackled and turned his attention back to closing the gap between himself and the Light. He was nimbler than Barry, albeit maybe not as strong, and scrambling the last few feet up the vine-clad trunk took only a little physical effort and a few well-placed bolts of ice energy at any vines that tried to nab him on the way.

Finally he found a place to balance in the crook of the tree, and he got into a half-crouch and examined the Light for a moment. The vines that encircled it were drawing closer, layering themselves up until the whole thing looked like a misshapen ball of greenery, with only a dim glow seeping through. More vines were closing in as he watched, trying to shore up the Tree’s hold on the thing.

Taako cocked his head, thought for just a second, and smiled even as he fired a last bolt of ice magic at the hulking branch looming in over his left shoulder. “Okay. You wanna be that way?”

He tapped a palm to his own chest and cast a spell he’d picked up from Lup years and years ago, wreathing himself in flickering spectral flames that gave off a distinct chill.

“Taako? You good up there?” Barry’s words were followed by the sound of a necromantic bolt going off, and a creaking, shuddering roar from one of the surface walkers.

“Better than good, Barold!” Taako stood and drew his wand, bracing himself against the branches. He raised his hand in a gesture that took in the vines wreathing the Light and the canopy above him. “I’ve been wanting to do this for months!”

One last muttered word, and a massive fireball engulfed the top of the Tree.

***

Lucretia looked from her silent stone of farspeech to the helm clock and back with a grave expression, brow furrowed. “Nothing from either team,” She said needlessly, leaning forward to survey the green canopy stretching away below them.

Davenport nodded tightly, hands on the controls despite the ship being in a pre-programmed holding pattern that did not require pilot intervention. Lucretia noticed it, but didn’t mention it. After all, she thought wryly as she looked down at her own hand methodically recording the time since last check-in, nobody liked being reminded of the things they did to help them feel more in control of trying situations.

She scanned the canopy again. The change in color had gotten noticeably worse as they’d gotten closer to Parent groves; the emerald and jade she’d grown used to were streaked and patched with ochre and gold, shot through with veins of grey and brown where trees had dropped their leaves and died. She’d loved autumn back on their homeworld -- the way color gave over to new color, the dry rustle of wind through leaves that had lived out their usefulness -- but knowing this was a symptom of something terrible being done under the ground spoiled the objective beauty of the scene.

So did the sudden, massive column of flame that burst into the air in the direction Taako and Barry had traveled. Lucretia tightened her grip on her pen. “Captain --”

“I saw it.” Davenport’s fingers were flying across the helm panels, taking control back from the autopilot and ramping up the engine from its standby mode. “Coming around. Hold tight.”

The ship hummed and spun into a swift, graceful arc that ended with a rush of speed, Davenport making the maneuver seem effortlessly controlled even as the acceleration involved pushed Lucretia back against her seat.

“Hail them,” Davenport said briskly, his ears pinned back against his hair in a gesture that meant he was deeply, urgently concerned for his crew. “Then see if you can raise Lup and the others. I want to know what’s going on.”

Lucretia nodded, already raising her stone before he spoke. “Taako? Taako, we’re inbound. Can you hear us?”

Nothing. She spared a grim look in Davenport’s direction and then switched frequencies.

“Lup? If you can hear me, pick up, please. We’ve got a situation with the other team and we need a report from you. Can you respond?”

Nothing. Lucretia gestured the stone over to a third setting, the one that broadcast to both teams at once.

“Away teams, this is the Starblaster. Please respond with your status . . .”

***

Magnus squared his stance and rolled his shoulders, trying to banish the lingering headache from whatever the Parent tree had done to him before Merle had shoved it out of his head with divine magic. Didn't really do much, but it felt better to at least try.

It was something to distract him from the awful volume of the voices. They’d risen to a crescendo, communication rocketing in from all directions in millions of different cadences that all flowed together so rapidly there was no way Magnus could ever have picked them apart. Now and again he could recognize out the cold, awful presence of the Parent, or the fragile courage of the sapling, but the conversation they were all having shot past him without leaving anything but the impression of a vast, complicated argument in their wake.

The cold, creeping feeling had settled itself in his bones and chest, lurking as the trees spoke with the Parent. On the one hand, the feeling at least didn't seem to be getting any worse, but it wasn't going away, either. His heart was still knocking against his ribs like it wanted to get out. He thought about asking Merle if he could spare a shot of Calm Emotions, but that would mean one less spell slot left if things broke really bad, so Magnus shrugged off that idea. He could push through this for now, if this was as bad as it was gonna get. He’d deal with his issues later.

Assuming the Parent didn't kill them all, of course.

The chime of Lup’s stone of farspeech broke the silence -- if it could be called silence when the psychic noise was so unbearable -- and she grimaced, clearly unable to keep up the Hold Monster spell and answer the call at the same time. Magnus shot a glance at Merle, who slipped his hand into his pocket just as his and Magnus’s stones began chiming with the All Hands signal.

Merle withdrew his hand and thumbed his stone on, taking a few steps back from Magnus, Lup, and the sapling before he spoke. “Yeah, we’re still here.”

His voice dropped to a quiet murmur, grim and tense, and Magnus watched him out of the corner of one eye, shifting his grip on his shield. Merle waved a hand at him in a clear I’ll-explain-later gesture.

Well. So that probably wasn’t great. Merle was going to have to handle it, though, because the Parent’s voice broke above the chaotic sea of voices at that point, cold and angry and laden with bitterness.

So you show your true intentions, bipeds. The voice was big enough to border on overpowering, pushing at the edges of Magnus’s mind like it was testing the waters before surging back into his brain. Just as I knew you would, you wreak destruction when it helps you to take what you want.

Magnus scowled. Something in the tense atmosphere of the clearing shifted abruptly, a lurching in the magical energy that even he, who was almost totally arcane-blind, could feel. Lup made a clipped noise and staggered forward half a step, orange-red magic still crackling in her palms.

A single root as thick as his thigh broke the soil in front of Magnus and surged forward with insane speed, headed right for his head. Magnus brought his shield up and blocked the blow with a grunt, throwing a leg back to brace himself. He swung the axe in his other hand at the same time, sinking it deep into the root’s surface.

The Parent roared, and Magnus cringed inwardly, expecting the onslaught of roots and vines and branches to fall on all of them -- but Lup’s spell held the rest of it back, at least for now.

Good thing, too, because the single root had more than enough inhuman strength to keep Magnus occupied. He pulled his axe free, brought it down again, couldn’t help but relish the way the Parent tree howled in response. There was a satisfaction in that, in him being the one hurting it for a change . . .

Destroyers! The tree snarled. It lurched forward and wrapped itself around the shield, yanking it back so hard Magnus had trouble keeping his feet under him. Do you not see, my offspring? These animals brought fire with them, and tools to tear our bodies apart, and behind them they bring a darkness that will consume our world! They are a plague. Why do you all not see it?

“Hey, asshole,” Magnus brought the axe blade down one more time, buried it in the root so deep he wasn’t immediately able to pull it free, “You started it!”

The Tree’s only response was to shriek at the top of its psychic lungs, writhing. The edges of the shield crumpled under its grip, and Magnus pulled his arm free rather than risk it getting crushed. He grabbed the haft of his axe with both hands instead, trying to wrench it loose.

Forbearer, that’s enough! The sapling’s voice rang out with a weight it hadn't had at the beginning of the encounter -- bolstered by the rest of its family, maybe, or amplified by its newfound courage. It still wasn't as loud as the Parent Tree, but it was arresting all the same.

The axe came free with a wet, creaking crack, leaving a gaping wound in the tree root. Clear sap the consistency of fresh blood welled up and spattered the churned-up ground, and Magnus raised the weapon, preparing to swing again.

Biped, please, wait! The sapling was afraid, Magnus realized. It was young and afraid and trying desperately to save its ancestor, its family, and Magnus and his crew.

Attacking the Parent felt good, it felt right. It felt like getting his own back against the monster that had tormented and trapped him.

Magnus gritted his teeth. Please, the sapling had said.

It was just trying to protect everyone.

He huffed out a sharp breath and held his swing, although he didn't lower the axe. He’d give the sapling a chance, but he wasn't an idiot.

The root reared up with a shaky movement, still hemorrhaging sap. The Tree itself might be too vast for the injury to matter to it in regular circumstances -- but right now the limb was the only thing not currently held in Lup's spell, and it was faltering. The rage behind it wasn’t, though.

You are an idiot and a child, The Parent spat, You’ve let yourself be deceived by these parasites, these animals who cannot know connection, but you do not know what creatures like this are capable of. Not like I do.

You’re wrong, Ancestor. The sapling’s leaves trembled, but it sounded certain. I know what these ones are like. I trust them.

Magnus felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, and he clenched his jaw and braced himself -- but it wasn’t the Parent. It was the sapling, and its mind brushed up against his for just a second, hesitant. Asking permission.

Magnus faltered, but he nodded. Warmth washed over him, gratitude and subdued affection, and then it rose like a tide and swept out and over him and caught the Parent in its current as well.

There were no words, no arguments, there were only emotions and sensations. It was something like the vast tide of the rest of the forest speaking together but it was different, too; it was clearer, easier to stick with, easier to keep himself from falling apart, because these were the memories and feelings of a single person, not of a million people boiling together at once.

Magnus saw the grove where the sapling had sprouted, saw Merle and Barry and the others asking the mother tree for help. How afraid they’d been for their lost friend, and the sapling had told its mother Me, send me, let me help them because it could not imagine being severed from its own grove, how terrible that would be.

The sapling had been afraid, and then it had been on its own, but it hadn’t been alone. The biped who could speak with living things had been there, had cherished it and cared for it and spoken to it despite how different their forms were. It had been safe. It had never been in danger.

It had watched the bipeds draw together around their wounded comrade, watched them share out extra of their own strength and energy to nurture him back to health, and the sapling had understood all of that because that was what trees did, too. Strange as these creatures without roots or a living language or a way of reproducing and spreading themselves might be, they had behaved as only a grove could, living and intertwined.

They had never meant to hurt the trees of this world, and even though the Parent had hurt a part of their own grove so grievously they had not retaliated. They’d turned to study instead, because they wanted to help, to understand and be understood. They had reached out, worried for the world, and when the sapling had been afraid they had helped it, had taken it back to its mother so it could speak with her.

They had asked how they could help, despite this world not being their own. They were safe and noble and good, these beings, and they did not want the world to die. Even if they were short-lived and truncated and inelegant and mute they were people. They were like the sapling and its species in every way that mattered, and they were only here to help.

Magnus took a deep breath. It was overwhelming, being caught in the tide of the sapling’s emotions like this. It was pouring everything it had, every memory and feeling, into trying to make the Parent understand. It wasn’t the icy scorn that the Parent had flooded him with, but it was still intense and alien and a lot, and he was floundering.

The sapling noticed. Magnus felt it happen, and the moment the little tree realized how its feelings were affecting him Magnus felt the sensation ebb until he was the only one in his own head again. His shoulders slumped in relief, although he didn’t lower his axe.

He didn’t dare. The Parent had been silent the whole time, caught off guard by the strength and depth of the sapling’s communication. Now it stirred, lashing the injured root once against the sap-stained ground. Magnus planted his feet, prepping himself for another attack.

No attack came. The root lashed a second time and then reared up again, going still. The moment dragged on, Magnus standing braced while the tension grew until it was practically a living thing, sharp as a tightened wire. The vines and roots and trees that had come at the sapling’s call rustled; the magic in Lup’s outstretched hands crackled and hummed. The cold feeling in Magnus’s chest had never really gone away, but now it was rising, and Merle stepped forward, looking grim.

The sapling shivered. Ancestor, please. Its voice had lost some of its certainty, and it sounded like what it was -- something very small and very fragile. Magnus shifted back a step, closer to the sapling, like that would lend it some strength.

Something caught the edge of Magnus’s hearing, a noise so distant it was more sensation than sound. The Parent’s psychic voice almost immediately drowned it out, letting out a long, low, sustained sigh that Magnus could feel in the marrow of his bones. He shot a glance sideways at Merle, who was murmuring some kind of incantation and gathering the flicker of a spell in his cupped hands.

. . . I see. The Parent’s voice was flat, but the edge of fury Magnus had expected was blunted. For the first time ever, the thing sounded less than perfectly sure of itself. The root coiled back on itself, still oozing sap from its wounds. You have given me much to contemplate, descendant.

The sound Magnus had caught earlier rose and took on the unmistakable hum of the Starblaster’s bond engine. Merle turned and craned his neck as the ship hove into view and lowered itself delicately into the clearing.

Your vessel has excellent timing, it would seem. The Parent flicked its root in a sharp, dismissive gesture at Magnus and the others. Leave, all of you. I have matters to discuss with my family.

Magnus frowned and looked over his shoulder at the sapling. The little tree’s limbs had relaxed slightly, and it waved a branch in Merle’s direction. Merle shot a meaningful glance at Magnus, and Lup straightened her shoulders.

“I’m not leaving the little guy here.” Magnus said flatly. “No way.”

The root lashed itself against the air, but that wasn’t the motion that caught Magnus’s attention. As he watched, the rest of the forest representatives -- the roots and vines and surface walkers that had been hanging back from the sapling and the Parent -- surged forward as one.

They clustered and twined and lurched their way across the clearing, gathered themselves in a wall around the sapling that wove itself into tight, sturdy knots and bulwarks of branches. The sapling spoke from within them, uncertainty gone from its voice.

My family is with me. It said, waving one branch that was just visible through the tangle of other growth. I am not afraid.

Magnus hesitated and looked to the others. Lup took a deep breath and lowered her hands, letting the campfire glow of Hold Monster finally fade out. Magnus gripped his weapon tighter, saw Merle raise his hands with the still-uncast spell held suspended between his palms.

There was a low, low rumble that Magnus felt through his boots more than hearing it. The tree trunks around them shifted, released from Lup’s magical hold. No sign of attack came, and the Parent bristled.

I trust you as much as you trust me, bipeds. But for my offspring’s sake, I will let you prove me wrong. Now leave.

“Merle! Lup! Magnus!” It was Davenport, standing at the gangplank of the Starblaster, crossbow in hand. He was using his unmistakable get-your-asses-aboard-this-vessel tone.

Merle held up a hand to acknowledge the captain, and then he turned to the sapling and the cluster of other trees around it. “We’re going to be in contact soon,” He said, “Count on it.”

The mass of forest shivered in response, and Merle nodded gruffly and made for the ship. Lup watched him go and then turned to Magnus, waiting.

Magnus swallowed hard and finally lowered his axe. That cold feeling was crawling up his chest cavity and tangling itself along his spine, and he couldn’t tell if it was dread at making the wrong call or delayed response to the clusterfuck that possession had made of his psyche. Maybe both.

Go. The sapling said, and Magnus reluctantly put one foot in front of the other and crossed the clearing to Lup’s side, followed her to the ship and up the gangplank onto the deck.

The moment their boots touched the ship Davenport was in motion, straight to the bridge like a shot and ramping up the engines to lift them off.

Magnus took a deep breath. He didn’t move from the spot where he’d stepped aboard, just surveyed the deck and the crew scattered across it. Barry was sitting against the railing with his arm in a sling, wearing his backup glasses, and Taako was at his side with singed-looking eyebrows and a smug expression. Lucretia was dabbing antiseptic on a cut on Barry’s forearm. Merle stood at the railing, gripping it tight in both hands, watching the clearing dwindle below them.

“Hey.” Lup touched his elbow carefully, and Magnus started. She peered into his face for a second and then gingerly took the axe from his suddenly nerveless hands. “You should sit down.”

Should he? He probably should. Magnus swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and moved woodenly to a spot on the bench nearby. He sat heavily and stared at the deck between his boots.

He was cold. He was cold all over and his hands were shaking, although that seemed more like a problem someone else was having rather than something actually to do with him. Sort of like the tightness in his chest and the numbness in his legs and fingers. Barry was talking, but it might’ve been filtered through cotton wool for all the sense it made.

Something warm draped itself over his shoulders, followed by a safe, solid weight. Magnus blinked over at Lup, who tightened her arm over the blanket she’d dropped around him.

“Just breathe, big guy.” She squeezed his shoulders gently.

Was he supposed to be breathing? Fuck. He took a stab at it, closed his eyes and leaned hard into Lup’s side. The shakes had a pretty good hold on his whole body now, and his stomach felt like lead.

“Holy shit,” He murmured, grabbing for the edges of the blanket and drawing it tight around himself like some kind of shield. His teeth were chattering, for some reason. “Holy shit, Lup.”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Lup’s arm was warm across his shoulders.

There was a lot more he could’ve said if he’d been in better shape to string words together, but frankly he just didn’t have it in him right now. Everybody was safely on board and nothing needed him to be immediately functional, so Magnus was going to just . . . opt out for a bit. Circle back around to thinking and talking at some later point.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, he leaned into his friend’s arm and tried to just focus on breathing.

Chapter Text

Davenport guided the ship up and away from the forest canopy, focusing on the controls and the feeling of the ship responding to what he asked of it. Once they were at an appropriate altitude he leaned back in his seat, hands still on the helm controls, waiting to be sure they were safe. The engine purred, faint vibrations he could just feel through the yoke under his palms. He’d learned to tell the flight conditions from those vibrations, the difference between turbulent skies and clear ones as easy to tell as night from day. When it was clear that the ship was telling him they were skimming safely and smoothly through the air, he ran his fingers over the helm controls and set the Starblaster to guide itself for the time being, trusting it to do what he needed just like it always did.

He pushed back from the controls and stood, turned and made his way back out onto the deck to check on the others. As extractions went, this had been a smooth one, with nobody obviously gravely injured and everyone accounted for, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been frenetic, and he needed to see to them. Find out what they’d been through, what they needed next.

Davenport stepped out onto the foredeck and surveyed the scene, taking account of where his crew were and what condition they were in.

Barry was the only one who had come aboard with visible injuries, including some wicked-looking gashes on his forearms and a dislocated shoulder. He’d been in obvious pain and just as obviously trying not to make too big of a deal of it, hiding the shoulder injury by keeping his arm tucked tight against his midsection. Davenport was relieved to see that Merle had taken charge of the science officer, and judging by the way Barry was holding himself now he’d re-set the shoulder and given him something for the pain. Now the cleric was muttering a wound cure spell over the bloody gouges in Barry’s arms.

Barry was wearing his backup pair of glasses, the ones with the frames that were just slightly too big for his face. He caught Davenport’s eye and gave him a weak grin and a thumbs-up by way of check-in, and Davenport couldn’t help but smile in return.

Lucretia sat on the other side of Merle, gazing thoughtfully down at the surface below. Taako was draped back against the rail with casual self-assurance, tapping his fingernails against the wood of the hull. His eyebrows and the brim of his hat were a bit singed-looking, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. In fact he looked more than a little smug, and Davenport had to assume he’d been the source of the fireball that had alerted him to their team’s location. Well, he’d been itching to do it for months now; Davenport hoped it had been worth it for him.

Lup and Magnus were sitting on the opposite side of the deck from the others. Lup had grabbed an emergency blanket from somewhere and draped it around Magnus, and Magnus was sitting slumped against her side with his eyes screwed shut, blanket drawn tight around his shaking shoulders.

Davenport frowned and crossed the deck to stand near them. He couldn’t see any blood or any obvious injuries, but Magnus looked shaken and exhausted, like Lup was doing most of the work of keeping him upright. His breathing was labored, deliberate, and the furrow in his brow could’ve been from either pain or panic. He didn’t look as wrecked and traumatized as he had when they’d found him months earlier (and gods, if that wasn’t one of the images that would take a very long time to leave Davenport’s memory . . .) but he didn’t look especially good.

Davenport glanced at Lup’s face. She seemed uninjured, mostly absorbed in keeping an eye on Magnus, and she met his gaze with pursed lips and a miniscule shake of her head. Nothing critical, the expression said; nothing that was life-threatening, but also nothing good.

Davenport quirked an eyebrow, tilted his head down and sideways in the general direction of the bunks and the sickbay. Lup scrunched her nose and flicked only one ear, a noncommittal answer to the nonverbal question. Magnus needed rest, obviously, but whether moving him or just letting him stay here was the better option was maybe up for debate. Lup inclined her head slightly in Merle’s direction and tightened her arm around Magnus’s shoulders, and Davenport nodded, flicking his tail. He’d consult with their cleric and see what his opinion was.

Merle hadn’t been able to tell him much over the stone about what had happened with their team; just given him a sketchy impression that negotiations were tense enough for an extraction to be a good idea. Davenport still didn’t have a clear picture of what had happened down there to leave the crew in the state they were in now.

Merle was finished doctoring Barry’s wounds, and he stood with a sigh, stretching until his back cracked. He nodded at Davenport as the gnome crossed the deck.

“Merle.” Davenport rested his hands on his hips. “Barry. Taako. Who wants to go first?”

Merle shot a grim look at Magnus over Davenport’s shoulder, then gestured at Taako and Barry. The two exchanged glances that turned into tired, satisfied grins as Taako thrust an arm into the inner pocket of his jacket and rummaged around in the persistent demiplane he kept hidden there.

“Well,” Barry said, “It was a little bit touch and go, but we found some assistance and managed to get to where the Parent was keeping the Light.”

“My man Barold called up some zombie trees,” Taako said lightly, withdrawing the Light of Creation from within his clothes and holding it out. “It was ghastly.”

“Ghastly gets the job done.” Barry retorted, pushing his too-large glasses up.

Davenport felt his whole spine relax minutely at the sight of the Light. “Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. Good work, you two.”

Taako gave a smug, flourishy little bow and Barry took the opportunity to grab the Light with both hands before it tumbled out of the elf’s loose one-handed grip. “We’ll take this belowdecks and get it secured.” Barry said. “The Parent shouldn’t have the capability to take it back when we’re airborne, and I’m not sure how inclined it might be to try, but we . . . definitely got a little bit aggro about recovery this time.”

“I lit the motherfucker up, is what he’s trying to say.” Taako said with cheerful lack of remorse.

“I mean, yeah. Pretty much.” Barry’s glasses were already creeping back down from the bridge of his nose. “So, you know, Captain. We should probably expect the Parent to be upset.”

“Oh, it was plenty upset.” Merle supplied gruffly, waving a hand. “Go. I’ll take over while you get the damn thing put away. And then you treat that shoulder gently for the rest of the day, got it?”

Barry nodded in sheepish acknowledgment, and the two of them disappeared below decks. Lucretia rose and followed them, no doubt intending to take down a more detailed report, and Davenport nodded his thanks to her as she passed. Then he turned his attention to Merle, raising an eyebrow.

The cleric sighed and turned his attention back across the deck to Magnus, who hadn’t moved except to turn his face and bury it against Lup’s neck. She’d tucked her chin on top of his mess of auburn curls, and she met Merle’s serious expression with a weary one of her own.

“The Tree got in his head again.” Merle said quietly, folding his arms across his chest and studying the deck panels as he spoke.

Davenport cursed. He couldn’t say he was especially surprised, Merle had mentioned that a second connection would be easier for the Parent Tree to make, but . . .

“It had hold of him hard, Dav.” Merle continued quietly. “Enough to be able to take control of his motor functions, which . . .” His jaw tightened. “Was something I didn’t know it was capable of.”

There was subtext unspoken in that, self-blame at not having seen it coming, and Davenport clapped a hand to Merle’s shoulder, reassurance that it hadn’t been his fault.

Merle shook himself a little and waved a hand, like that could banish the grim mood. “Dispel Evil broke the connection, and he was with it enough to fight the thing when Lup’s hold slipped, but it can’t have done him much good.”

Davenport inclined his head. They both knew that being in no shape to push through and keep fighting had never once stopped Magnus from doing just that. “Should we move him to sickbay?”

Merle shrugged. “If he’ll go, his own bed is probably a better idea. I can’t do anything for him in sickbay.” He sounded discontented about that. Davenport couldn’t blame him.

“All right.” Davenport patted Merle’s shoulder once and then let his hand drop. “What about the sapling?” It hadn’t escaped his notice that the little tree hadn’t returned with the rest of them; he just had to prioritize his crew in times like this.

“Stayed behind to keep talking with the Parent.” Merle said wearily. “Hell, from what I can tell, it might even have gotten through to the grumpy old bastard.”

He gestured towards Magnus and Lup. “Here. Let’s see if we can get the big guy moved and then I’ll fill you in on the details.”

***

He was in bed.

Somebody’d pulled off his boots and breastplate, though he was still wearing the rest of his regular clothes, and somebody (himself, maybe?) had pulled the blanket up over his chest. He was warm and not in any particular amount of pain, and things sounded calm when he closed his eyes and strained his hearing to check for raised voices or other sounds of alarm. He was just . . . in bed, apparently.

That was pretty good, as situations to find himself in went. It was just that Magnus was fuzzy on exactly how he'd gotten here.

That was a little frightening, although not exactly unfamiliar. He'd had more concussions than anybody really should've, little slips of memory were part of that whole experience, but nothing had knocked him in the head this time (that he remembered, anyway) and so he should've been able to piece it all together.

He remembered coming aboard, checking to see if everyone else was okay, and the dizzying sensation as the ship climbed for altitude. He vaguely recalled that he'd handed his axe to Lup. He'd have to make sure he got it back, it'd still be covered in sap and it would need cleaning and oiling before he put it away . . .

Right. He'd been working on figuring out how he'd gotten to bed. The gap in how things had happened wasn’t filling itself in any, and Magnus sighed and rolled over on his side.

Lup was sitting cross-legged on top of his workbench, picking dirt out from under her nails with one of his penknives. Her ear flicked and she spoke without looking up. “You back with me, bud?”

Her jaw had that clenched look it got when she was worried about someone. Oops. He blew out a breath and closed his eyes for a second, rubbing his cheek against the pillowcase while he picked at the frayed edges of that memory gap. “Yeah? Kind of. What happened?”

He heard the knife tap against the surface of the desk and Lup jumping down. Her weight sunk down on the edge of the mattress and she shoved him aside a little with her hip so she could sit with her legs stretched out. “How much do you remember?”

Magnus made a noncommittal noise and opened his eyes, rolling back onto his back so he could look up at her more easily. “Before we got to the ship, or after?”

“Either-or.”

“Before’s pretty clear.” He grimaced, because even briefly thinking about before made his stomach do a kind of lurching flip that sent that cold feeling jolting up into his lungs. “After’s not.”

“Kind of what I figured.” Lup sighed. “You checked out pretty good once we got back aboard, is all. Took me and Merle and Davenport combined to steer you down here.”

“Oh.” That sounded familiar, in a conceptual way? Not like something he’d actually experienced, more like something that matched the kind of details he’d expect out of the situation. “I scared you.”

Lup shrugged and tugged on a lock of his hair. “The fuckin’ Tree monster scared me, Mags.”

“Yeah, but then I scared you with how I reacted.” He was warm and comfy, but he pushed the blanket back a tiny bit and shoved himself into a sitting position, wrapping his arm around her and squeezing. “Sorry.”

Lup snorted and elbowed him gently in the ribs before she propped her head on his shoulder. “Don’t apologize for going into shock, you giant doofus.”

“Sorry.” He grinned goofily and then grunted when she elbowed him again, harder this time. “I’m okay now, though, yeah?”

“I mean, you’re talking in sentences so that’s not nothin’.” Lup got quiet for a moment. “You want to talk about what happened?”

Magnus took a deep breath. His kneejerk reaction was that no, he didn’t, ever, but the cold creepy-crawlies were starting to kick in a bit, and maybe talking it out would help? Maybe.

“I was scared.” He said after a long silence, staring at his right hand where it rested on top of the blankets. “Partly scared it was going to crush whatever in my head is actually me. Partly scared because . . .” He hesitated. “Did you hear what it was saying to me? Or just through me?”

Lup grimaced. “Just when it was using you for a megaphone. Which was . . .” She didn’t seem to know how to finish that sentence.

“It sucked ass, yeah.” Magnus shrugged roughly. He felt vaguely sick to his stomach. “I was fighting it and it didn’t like that. It kept kind of . . . I dunno. Hitting something in my brain when I tried to fight back? Hurt like a sonofabitch whatever it was.”

“Fuck.” Lup slid her arm around his back and squeezed gently.

“Yeah. It sucked. And when that didn’t stop me it . . .” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Right before you grabbed me with Hold Person. It said it was gonna use me to kill Merle.”

His throat had a lump in it all of a sudden, and he cleared it roughly before adding “I don’t think it was just a threat,” in what felt like a very small voice.

Lup threw her other arm around his middle and squeezed him ferociously. “Well, fuck that plant. I got you and Merle kicked its ass out.”

“Yeah.” Magnus took a couple of really deep breaths, counting them out and squeezing Lup’s shoulders until he felt a little less like bursting into tears or throwing up. “Thanks for that.”

“That’s what besties are for, right? Paralyzing you when you’ve been possessed by tree monsters?” Lup sat quietly for a long moment. “At least it seemed like the sapling got through to it there at the end,” she said at last.

“Yeah. I hope so.” Magnus flicked at a bit of fuzz sticking to his quilt. He hoped they hadn’t abandoned it there to die in their stead, is what he hoped, but he didn’t quite feel like saying that part out loud.

Lup got it anyway. She nudged him with her shoulder. “Sometimes you gotta trust that reason will win out, you know?” She said gently. “And sometimes you gotta trust people when they tell you to let them do their thing.”

Magnus sighed, thinking about the look he’d gotten into the sapling’s mind and memories, how incredibly brave it had been. How incredibly young it was.

“Yeah.” He said, leaning his head over so his temple was resting on top of Lup’s head. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“I’m always right.” She said brightly.

Magnus snorted. “You saved my ass from a plant monster today so I’m gonna just let you have that.”

“I also tucked you in.” She supplied smugly.

Magnus grinned and squeezed her shoulders tight.

“Okay,” He conceded. “Then I guess I also owe you one.”

Chapter Text

Merle Highchurch wasn’t a worrier. Quite the opposite, in fact; he’d shipwrecked more than one relationship by steadfastly maintaining what he called a healthy level of flexibility and what one of his past romantic partners had called being so goddamned laissez-faire you’re barely awake half the time. Which had, admittedly, stung a little.

Anyway. Point was, Merle had never seen a reason to let anxiety control his decisions. Things happened when they happened and you rolled with them. You put your best effort into the thing that was in front of you and you saved your energy for action. Things worked out or they didn’t, but mostly they worked out if you gave them enough time.

Every so often, though, he’d find himself in a situation so fraught with possible disasters that it threatened to crack even his sense of calm. The last few days on the Starblaster had just about managed it.

The thing was that things were calm. Quiet. Merle personally hated the phrase a little too quiet, but, well -- things were a little too quiet.

The Starblaster was still in a high holding pattern, well above the tree canopy. Merle was currently leaning against the aft deck railing, watching the trees below and scanning them for any sign of disturbances. Davenport had kept them at this altitude for the past few days, giving the Parent and the rest of the forest some space to discuss things -- and, maybe just as importantly, giving the crew some time to recover from their latest run-in with the Parent.

Merle hadn’t bothered worrying about physical recovery. Barry’s shoulder had been mended by the next morning, and nobody else had been that badly hurt. He’d been more concerned for Magnus, and had spent quite a bit of the intervening days trying not to come off as hovering while he kept an eye on the big guy’s mental health.

He couldn’t be sure what the Parent had said to Magnus while it’d had him under its sway; Magnus hadn’t seen fit to tell him. But being possessed and steered around tended to be a nasty experience even for those who hadn’t previously had their minds psychically brutalized by that same enemy. Especially for folks like Magnus, people who thought of themselves as tough and in control.

And Magnus, well . . . Magnus had bounced back. Slept off his bad shock reaction, been a little quieter than usual for a day or so, and then gone right back to what passed for normal Magnus behavior in this cycle. Which was surprising and welcome and definitely not too good to be true.

That was another phrase Merle didn’t like using. Too good to be true.

He suspected the kid was repressing how bad he’d been shaken up by the Parent’s actions, but he might’ve been wrong about that. Maybe Magnus really was just that resilient, even after everything he’d lived through in the past year. Maybe he wasn’t pushing past being not-okay so he could keep putting himself between the Parent and everyone else, regardless of what it cost him. Maybe Merle was worrying about nothing.

Either way, Magnus was insisting he was fine and Davenport had explicitly vetoed Merle’s request to Zone of Truth him on it, so here they were.

They’d kept a close eye on the forest without touching down over the past few days, and all signs were positive. No surface walkers, no areas of deforestation, no spreading of the discoloration in the canopy where the Parent had pulled too much from the soil below. Merle wasn’t able to communicate directly with the trees from the air -- he needed his feet on the ground for the mycorrhizal amulet to function properly -- so he couldn’t be certain. Maybe the trees, too, were actually hiding how they were hurt. Maybe everything was calm only because they couldn’t see what was really going on.

Maybe this was why people who worried more than he did always seemed so godsdamned tense.

Merle sighed and pushed his glasses up, rubbed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. He missed having the sapling around. The little sprout had been good company at times like this. And if he was being really, brutally honest with himself, he was just as worried for the baby tree as he was for Magnus. Maybe that wasn’t fair of him; he’d known Magnus far longer, thought of him as something like family, and the sapling was a relative newcomer from a planet that, one way or another, would be Merle’s history in another few months.

But the little thing had put itself in harm’s way to protect Merle and his crew, and they’d left it in a precarious place with only the Parent’s word and the outnumbered forces of its family to protect it. That didn’t feel very fair, either.

Merle huffed out a frustrated, grumpy breath and folded his arms over the railing again. He shot a glare in what he knew to be the direction of the nearest Parent grove. An entire world full of plants and yet here he was still trying to navigate feelings. Where was the justice?

Merle turned his head slightly as the door belowdecks opened and Lucretia emerged, giving him a slight wave before crossing to lean against the railing at Merle's side.

"So," She said, eyes on the forest far below, "Ready for touchdown?"

"Ready as I'm getting." Merle frowned, drumming his fingers against the rail. "Talked to Magnus?"

Lucretia sighed and examined her cuticules. She'd agreed to pry a little after Merle had told her why he was worried. "A little bit. He mostly seems like he could use some rest."

"Him and me both." Merle combed his fingers through his beard. "That all?"

Lucretia hummed noncommittally. "Mental wellness isn't exactly my specialty, Merle, but he seems like he's . . . recovering. About the same as he was before the last encounter with the Parent."

Merle frowned. "Don't suppose he's backed off of going Planetside."

Lucretia snorted in genuine amusement. "You've known him just as long as I have. Backing off isn't exactly his style."

"Fair." Merle lapsed into grumpy silence for a long moment. "I don't like the worst-case scenarios on this one, Lucretia." Like the one where the Parent took hold of Magnus yet again. If every subsequent contact was easier and stronger, as Merle had seen with the rest of the species, then the thing might get roots down so deep in Magnus's psyche next time that Dispel Evil wouldn't be enough to drive it out.

She sighed and nodded once. "I told him that. All he would say is that he's thought about the risk."

Of course he had. The kid wasn't an idiot, even if Merle maybe sometimes insinuated as much when Magnus went and got himself really hurt in some unbelievably stupid fashion. He knew (sort of) his own limitations. He just also had a habit of blowing right past them if he thought someone else was in danger.

Merle sighed and leaned out moodily over the railing. "Well," he said with the air of a man whose commitment to going with the flow was wearing unusually thin, "I guess we'll just have to trust him on that one."

***

Magnus snapped the rubber band around his wrist. He'd been doing that a lot the past couple of days. Not for the usual reasons; he hadn't been spacing or anything. The action just felt . . . kind of comforting by now. Helped him feel like he was the only one in control of what happened to him.

Barry looked up from slipping his notebook and sample vials into his bag. "You doing okay, bud?"

Magnus shrugged. It felt like a lot of people had been asking him that lately. Which, okay, he'd been temporarily possessed by the tree monster that had buried him alive and left him to die. It was probably a valid question. He just wished he had a better answer to it.

"I'm as okay as I get lately?" He hadn't really meant that to be a question. Shit.

Barry's mouth quirked in a crooked, sideways kind of not-quite-smile. "Y'know what? Fair."

Magnus felt his shoulders relax. See? Barry got it, anyway. There was a big gap between what Magnus would've called being okay and where he was at right now. But he was okay enough. He could do what needed doing.

As long as . . .

"Hey, Barry?" Magnus drummed his heels against the side of Lup's desk. She normally would've elbowed him off of there by now, yelling about notes and butts requiring different spaces despite the fact that she was constantly sitting on his workspace, but she wasn't here and he was a little drunk on the power. Sue him.

"Mmmmm?" Barry had gotten distracted leafing through his notes. No big surprises there. You couldn't put science in front of Barry and expect him to just not do anything to it.

"Need a solid."

Barry looked up, setting his notes aside, suddenly entirely absorbed in what Magnus was saying. Magnus couldn't remember who had started it, but they'd all learned to pay attention when someone dropped that phrase. "Hit me."

Magnus sighed, pushing his fingers through his hair. "Well, first -- you'd tell me if you thought me going back down was fuckin' dumb, right?"

Barry frowned and stepped across the space between them, hopping up to sit next to Magnus (Lup never yelled at him about sitting there). "Of course. But I don't. I think it's a calculated risk, just like it was last time."

Magnus accepted that with a nod, studying the rubber band around his wrist for a long moment. "Merle pretty obviously thinks I'm being a dumbass."

"Merle usually thinks most of us are," Barry pointed out evenly. That he was often correct didn't seem to need saying. "He's just worried about you. Thinks you should give yourself more time."

"Yeah." Magnus frowned. If things had been different maybe he'd do that. But they'd left the sapling in the heart of the Parent's territory by itself, after it had put itself on the line for them. And Merle wanted him to, what, relax and take his mind off things? Without knowing that the sapling was okay, or that the Parent wasn't planning to just murder everything in the world that had stood up to it? Obviously no way that was happening.

"You said first." Barry said, bumping Magnus's elbow with his own. "What's the second?"

"Oh." Magnus took a deep breath and flicked the rubber band again, sending the familiar snap-pinch sensation zinging across his skin.

"If I'm wrong," he said, "And it gets in my head again. I want you to promise me you're not gonna let me hurt any of you."

Barry was quiet. Magnus cringed internally. He knew what he was asking, which was why he'd asked Barry. Lup could hit him with Hold Person again. Merle could maybe exorcise the Parent a second time. But if those failed, Barry was the one who had the best spells for making sure a threat stopped being a threat.

It was a big ask, Magnus knew that. Barry had every right to say no. But Barry was the smartest guy Magnus knew, and one of the most practical. The kind of guy you could count on to do what had to be done.

"Listen," Magnus said, staring at his hands,"I know it's not the greatest scenario, and probably it won't happen. And . . . any other cycle I wouldn't ask. But after the year it's been?" He fell silent for a long moment. "I just. Don't think I could live with it. If it used me to hurt you." He took a deep breath. "Not wouldn't want to. Couldn't."

Barry leaned sideways, pressing his shoulder and arm against Magnus's. "Yeah." He said, roughly and solemnly. "I understand. Don't worry, bud. I've got you."

Magnus felt his whole body relax, ever so slightly. Like he'd said, it probably wouldn't come to that. Merle was probably more worried than he needed to be. And just being on the surface didn't mean he'd be in the Parent's path, and just getting near the Parent didn't mean it would try the same thing again.

But if everything went pear-shaped, he knew he could count on Barry to have his back, whatever that entailed.

"Okay. Good. Thanks." Magnus bumped his shoulder against Barry's and jumped down from off of Lup's desk. Barry followed suit, reaching for his satchel and slinging it over his shoulder.

Magnus nodded. "Alright. Let's go see how things are going."

Chapter Text

Taako scowled as he clattered around the galley, withdrawing cutting boards and knives and pans and thunking them down onto the countertops with perhaps more emphasis than was strictly necessary.

Apparently some people were of the opinion that setting one of the Parent tree’s trunks on fire, while ultimately effective in getting hold of the Light, might have been an action with consequences. Specifically, that Taako having done so might present a quote-enquote diplomatic complication if he then accompanied the away party into a Parent grove.

Taako had argued that the tree had literally an entire planet’s worth of trunks, and one wasn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, and furthermore that the Parent had deserved it. Apparently (he flung the fridge open and started rummaging through the contents) that argument hadn’t been sufficiently convincing.

So. Here he was, while Merle, Lup, Barry and Magnus went down to see how the sapling was getting along with its attempt to use reason to create peace on this stupid planet. Taako had rightly pointed out that Barry had also used fire on the Parent last time they’d been down, but apparently there was a fine distinction to be drawn between “using a fire spell or two” and “burning a very large tree completely to ash”.

That seemed like an arbitrary distinction to Taako, but whatever. He’d make himself useful onboard while the others did their little check-in jaunt, and then hopefully they could wash their hands of these stupid trees and their stupid politics and get back to riding out the rest of this cycle in benign boredom.

He pulled his hair back at the nape of his neck, washed his hands, and got to work slicing ginger and peeling garlic. No reason to be too worried about them. Merle wasn’t much help with combat magic, but Barry and Lup were the best you could ask for and they worked almost as well together as Lup and Taako did. If shit went down, his sister and her boyfriend would be on it. And Magnus . . .

Taako scowled, blew a loose strand of hair out of his eyes and set down his knife to get a pan heating up with some sesame oil. Usually Magnus was a goddamn powerhouse, able to take a hit and keep right on swinging. The kind of guy you could absolutely trust to keep your soft wizard body from getting totally steamrolled by an opponent. But in this case . . .

In this case Taako privately thought Magnus was being a little bit stupid. Just because the big guy could take a hit didn’t always mean he should, and this particular opponent had proven it knew how to hit Magnus hard enough to knock him down, mentally and physically.

Sure -- Taako dumped thinly sliced ginger and garlic cloves into the hot oil and stirred it diffidently -- Magnus kept getting up, because that was what Magnus did. It didn’t mean he should feel this stupid bullheaded need to prove that he could. What was so wrong with just chilling out for a while, letting the planet take care of its own bullshit?

Taako couldn’t tell. But hey (huge hunks of edible fungus became manageable cubes, his hands working the knife without conscious effort) that was what made him Taako, and being a boy scout who couldn’t let well enough alone if there was any chance someone might get hurt without him there to intervene was what made Magnus Magnus.

Magnus was one of Taako’s best friends. He was kindhearted and tough and courageous and so fuckin' noble it was practically unreal. He was also a big foolhardy dumbass who wouldn’t get himself killed so much if he didn’t care quite so much. Taako had learned to accept that about him, mostly.

Taako dumped the fungus into the hot oil and tossed it for a few moments, added rice wine and soy sauce and herbs and pepper. So maybe he would’ve preferred it if he’d been able to go planetside, put himself and his evocation spells between the Parent tree and his friend. Keep Magnus from taking another hit just to prove he could, or for the sake of protecting the baby tree, or whatever else it was he felt counted as a good enough reason to get hurt this time.

Didn’t matter. Taako had been outvoted. He’d have to trust Lup and Barry (and okay, maybe Merle if things got dire) to have Magnus’s back. That was fine, really. Maybe nobody else was cool with just staying on the ship and out of the Tree’s way now that they had the Light, but Taako? Taako was good.

He bit back a sigh, covered the pot to let the three-cup mushrooms simmer, and set about making some rice and a nice salad to go with them. He'd do something complicated for dessert, something with a lot of steps, something labor intensive that people would say nice things about later.

Yeah. Taako had plenty to keep him occupied right here.

***

The Parent grove hadn't changed much from the last time they'd been there. There were still a scattering of vines and a few representatives of the rest of the forest ranged along the edges of the clearing, but the surface walkers were gone and the thick wall of protective plants that had closed in around the sapling had disappeared. Now it stood alone, highlighted in a patch of sunlight that broke through an open space in the canopy of the Parent high above. Magnus supposed that was a good sign, if it meant the older tree was intentionally sharing the resource with the baby.

They stood in a loose semicircle around the sapling, with Barry standing a little closer to Magnus than the others. Merle cleared his throat, cast Speak with Plants, and waited until the amulet around his neck was shimmering. The sapling waved delightedly when he approached.

“Hey, bud.” Merle said brightly, patting the sapling’s bark. “Good to see you again.”

The sapling’s branches shivered and swayed, gesturing to all of them, and after a second it stretched one branch out towards Magnus in particular. Magnus felt the by-now familiar sensation of another mind nudging at the edge of his own, and he took a deep breath and nodded.

The sapling’s presence burst into his head, a rush of warmth and exuberance that reminded Magnus of a puppy, all excitement and delight. It was so happy to see him, happy he was okay and happy he’d returned and happy he’d given it permission to say hello correctly.

Merle grinned. It seemed like he was picking up the same thoughts as Magnus. “How’s things going? Are you okay?”

Affirmation rolled off the sapling in a wave. It was more than okay, it was delighted. It had spoken with the Ancestor long and seriously, and it had told all its stories of its time on the strange ship, and there was peace.

My forebearer no longer reaches where others have roots. It will not do this thing again. The little tree puffed itself up with pride.

Magnus smiled, relaxing a little bit. It was good to hear that the sapling’s approach to dealing with its ancestor seemed to be working. Maybe he’d been worried for --

There was a shift in the canopy high above them, a long, low sighing sound, and then the Parent’s thoughts burst into Magnus’s head.

Where the sapling had asked permission, reached out and invited him to talk, the Parent just barged in. It had things to say, and the bipeds would listen regardless of whether they were interested in hearing it.

Magnus grimaced at the sensation of too much alien mind pushing into his, all too familiar and no less awful than it had ever been. He raised his hands and clutched them hard against his temples, tangling his fingers in his hair and squeezing his eyes shut.

“Fuck, no, not again . . .” A cold shudder ran up his spine, and he braced himself for things to get worse. At least Barry would make sure nobody got hurt. Magnus could count on him for that.

Ancestor. The sapling’s voice was gentle but chiding, a rebuke that was also obviously a reminder. The Parent’s attention turned to the little tree, and Magnus’s stomach clenched.

. . . and then the Parent’s presence withdrew. Not altogether, but enough that it no longer crowded Magnus up against the very edges of his own mind. It was still vast and ancient and alien, but now it was just . . . there.

Magnus gasped, shoulders slumping. He hadn’t expected that. It wasn’t the battle he’d been braced for, and now he was momentarily off balance, not sure what to expect.

The Parent consulted briefly with the sapling and then withdrew a tiny bit more. Is this appropriate, Offspring? It asked flatly.

The sapling had the air of someone who’d had to fight for a compromise in bad behavior. Much better, Forebearer.

At the same time the sapling brushed up against Magnus’s mind, reassuring. It was safe here, and Magnus and the others were safe here. It promised.

Magnus took a deep breath and let his hands drop to his sides. The Parent was watching him. Waiting to see what he’d do. It was mostly convinced he would strike out at it, or run back to the ship to plot a new attack. It still didn’t trust him or any other biped.

“Magnus?” Barry’s hand landed on his shoulder, warm and solid.

“I’m okay.” Magnus said, and meant it. Maybe his fists were clenched and his whole body was tense and he felt ready to bolt if he gave his adrenaline free rein, but it was true. He was the only one controlling his body; he was choosing to stay put. He was going to prove the Parent wrong.

“Okay.” Barry didn’t shift from his side, and Magnus was grateful for that. There was comfort in knowing that except for that first time, he’d never had to face this thing alone.

Magnus tipped his head up, addressing the Parent out loud. “What do you want?”

It didn’t answer, exactly. It just felt its amusement at him, smirking at the notion that it needed or wanted anything from pitiful bipeds like them. It didn’t; it was itself, the Heart of the World, and the world had been better off without interlopers. All it wanted was for Magnus and the Starblaster and the Hunger that was following them to go away so that things could go back to the way they were supposed to be.

What it showed him next was familiar, enough so that it sent a shot of cold fear through his gut; the inconceivable freight of memories the Parent carried with it of all the things it had withstood, the ones it had nearly crushed him with shortly before it had buried him. This time was less overwhelming only because it was coming at a distance, intentionally removed by the Parent’s own restraint. It didn’t want to destroy him with its memories; it merely wanted him to see, to bear witness to how ancient and patient and persistent it was.

This time it was easier to pick out the thread of time in the memories, to see them as a progression of years instead of just an indescribable weight. He could see the Parent spreading, growing, thriving, reproducing; he could pick out its joy at new offspring that grew and thrived and reproduced for themselves. He could see, running as an undercurrent through all those centuries, that the Parent hated and feared anything that wasn’t sufficiently like itself.

And he could see, finally, what had been buried under the weight of all those years. He could see where the hate and fear had come from. The bipeds that had once evolved here weren’t the only thing that had damaged the Parent and those like it. They had come on the heels of great plagues, pestilence the Parent had survived but its forebearers and peers had not.

The Parent tree -- then just one among many, not yet the Heart of the World but only a part of a great web of others -- had tried to help the groves that surrounded it. It had felt their pleas for aid, had sent nutrients to bolster its parents and cocktails of chemicals to fight the diseases that ravaged its siblings, but it hadn’t been enough. Only the Parent and a handful of others had been immune.

They had persisted, somehow, as the world withered around them. They had grown and spread to try and fill the emptiness. And then the bipeds had begun making their pitiful attempts at tools and fire, killing some of the few trees that remained and injuring others, and the Parent had known there was only one thing it could do.

It had destroyed the things that would injure it. It had crushed the bipeds and poisoned the few creatures that were not trees, made sure nothing was left to hurt it, made sure the world was safe for the Parent and its peers to grow and spread unhindered. And still its fellows had died, one by one, felled by age or disease or natural disaster, until it was the only one left of its generation. The Heart of the World, the Parent of all that lived.

It had persisted like that down the long centuries after, spreading by cloning itself, nurturing and protecting its offspring and the offspring of its dead siblings. It had carried the weight of its own age and it had hidden away the memories of what it had survived in the centuries before any other tree now living had been seeded.

Then the Light had fallen, and more bipeds had come, and when it had burrowed into Magnus’s memories the Parent had seen that once again disaster was on its way. Once again the Parent was the only being that could save itself and the rest of the world, and it would have stopped at nothing to do so.

Magnus staggered a little. He understood now. The Tree had been a protector. It had wanted to keep the people it loved safe, and when it had failed it had grown ugly and furious and hateful, dug in its roots and buried its hurt and spread itself until it thought there was no way it could ever fail. It had tried to make sure its family didn’t get hurt again.

That didn’t make what it had done to him okay. It didn’t make what was happening right now less invasive. But Magnus could understand how it had gotten here -- maybe better than anyone else on the crew would have understood.

The Parent gave the mental equivalent of a curt nod. It hadn’t expected or wanted him to forgive it. It didn’t even really care if he understood it. He was still just a thing to it, a thing that had tried to hurt it, that had come as a harbinger of something terrible that threatened its family.

But one of the people it loved cared about him and his crew, so the Parent would leave him and his crew alone. That was a way of protecting its family, too.

The Parent’s mental presence ebbed, until it was just a feeling again, a cold prickle along the back of Magnus’s neck. Barry’s hand hadn’t moved from his shoulder.

“Magnus?” Lup’s voice came from behind him. “How we doing, big guy?”

Magnus took a deep breath and glanced at his crewmates. The others were all watching him, and Merle had summoned the beginnings of what Magnus assumed was Dispel Evil, holding the spark of spell energy cupped in one palm. Magnus waved a hand vaguely in his direction.

“I’m okay.” He said quietly, looking around the clearing. The Parent trunks loomed up on either side, two walls of incredibly huge and ancient trees with branches that were hardly visible in the gloom high above. Vines tangled around the Parent, making it hard to see where one trunk ended and the next began. The air was still, even more still than it was in the rest of the forest. The sapling stood in the midst of it, waving ever so slightly, perfectly at ease. Safe and thriving, after everything that had happened.

Magnus nodded. He didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary here. But this was just a place like any other place. Nothing here was going to hurt him.

“I think,” Magnus said after a long moment, “That it’s time for us to go home.”

Chapter Text

The time for the Changeover was coming.

Fisher had long since learned how to tell when the pod was readying for their home ship’s departure to a new place. The days leading to the relocation were all about organization and preparation, every member of the pod growing more focused on the tasks at hand. Even Most Curious began no new explorations when Changeover was on its way.

Fisher helped, of course; it was no longer an ephyra, it was a grown creature and it would never leave its pod to do serious work without its help. Perhaps it did not understand every aspect of the work each pod member was doing, but it was happy to be useful in any way it could.

Fisher drifted from one grotto to another, assisting as it went. Most Curious and Dancemaker were hard at work in the cavern where where Most Curious and Other Loudest One spent their time at play -- taking-apart and putting-together and creating-new-things, making marks after endless marks about the things they learned. At the moment all the marked sheets had been safely piled away and Most Curious was busily sorting little dishes of growing matter into racks and boxes, consulting with Dancemaker while it did so. Dancemaker gave Fisher its own set of (empty) little dishes and a box, and Fisher proudly sorted and stacked them tidily away, undoing and re-doing the task several times until it was convinced the order was right. Fisher could tell Most Curious was pleased when Fisher set the full box gently in the middle of Most Curious’s workspace.

Next Fisher went looking for Marks-Maker. It was not in its grotto, but Fisher could tell that it had been there recently; the tidy rows of ledgers where Marks-Maker was constantly practicing its namesake ritual were newly arranged, straight and tidy save for one that had tipped a bit sideways. Fisher straightened it before it drifted up to the open space where the roof of the home dropped away and the bright sky of this world was all that stretched above. Marks-Maker was in its favorite spot, and Fisher trilled and flitted over to drape itself over its podmember’s shoulders, patting its bell with a tendril. Marks-Maker trilled in return, the bright musical repeated sound that meant it was delighted, and reached up to entwine its tendrils with Fisher’s own.

Fisher basked contentedly in the sunlight with Marks-Maker for a long while, until Loudest One and Other Loudest one came aboard with their customary shouts and chattering. Fisher tweaked the soft white curls of Marks-Maker’s bell and then shot over to greet the two of them. They had gathering baskets full of green and brown things slung over their backs, with a third basket carried between them. Fisher poked through the contents while Loudest One attempted to shoo it away with a stiff, clumsy tentacle. The green and brown things were vegetable matter of the kind the rest of its pod ate, and Fisher gave a satisfied trill at their quality before looping its tendrils around the basket to help Loudest and Other Loudest carry it down to Loudest One’s food-preparing grotto. Loudest One continued to play at gesturing Fisher away, but that was an old game by now and Fisher did not allow itself to be bested, persisting until all the new provisions were stowed before it trilled a leave-taking sound and went to find the rest of the pod.

Smallest Pod Leader was with the White Heart. Fisher knew that even before it drifted through the door into the warm white light of the Heart grotto at the very center of the home ship. Smallest Pod Leader always spent its time before Changeover tending to the home’s well-being, which was only right and proper since it was the Pod Leader and the pod could not live without its home. But Smallest Pod Leader spent more time with the White Heart than anywhere else in the days before departure, and Fisher could understand exactly why -- the Heart gave the best light to comfort a worried spirit, and Leader was always terribly worried before Changeover came. Fisher wondered sometimes if it was because Smallest Pod Leader, like Fisher itself, was still only very small. Regardless of the reason, the head of their family was right where Fisher expected it to be, attending to the beautiful silver device that held the shining Heart of their home. Fisher trilled reverently, spreading its tendrils out to catch as much of that soothing warmth as possible, and Smallest Pod Leader looked up with a greeting that was reserved but welcoming. Fisher did not tarry long; just long enough to hum a song of reassurance, so that Smallest Pod Leader would be reminded it was not alone, even at this very important time.

When it was satisfied that Smallest Pod Leader’s worries were being soothed by the White Heart, Fisher slipped out of the grotto and made its way through the home’s many caverns and grottos, whistling and trilling as it went so that the home would be full of a song-of-preparing-for-changes. Fisher knew it was the best member of the pod for such a song; it cherished each of its podmates but could not deny the truth that they were not nearly as gifted in the making of real music as Fisher. It supposed this was because they were of a different kind than itself, and not for the first time Fisher felt a tinge of sadness. True music would be better if there were more of Fisher’s kind here to sing it.

Still, the pod sang in its own way, and Fisher followed the sound of a vague, tuneless humming until it came to the grotto of bright objects. Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight was there, and that was unexpected. True, this was a Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight place. Best-Most-Favorite often carried the objects stored in this grotto when it left the ship -- heavy objects and small ones, all gleaming and danger-sharp, and objects for adornment which Best-Most-Favorite wore strapped to its strangely shaped body or braced upon one heavy limb. But these objects were for early times, for the time that stretched between one Changeover and the next. It was not customary for them to be carried when the pod was preparing for departure, and usually by now they should be catalogued and cared for and stowed away for the needs of the next world.

Today, though, Best-Most-Favorite held the object it was most accustomed to carrying across its lap, drawing a dull stone along one shining edge. Fisher trilled and flashed with curiosity, twining itself around Best-Most-Favorite’s neck and toying with the curls that covered its bell. It said Fisher’s name with warm recognition, stilled its work to reach up and caress Fisher’s bell in return. Fisher chirped and nudged the stone clasped in Best-Most-Favorite’s stubby tentacles, and its podmate made a warning noise and gestured for Fisher to keep its tendrils clear of the other object.

Fisher scoffed, twinkling in indignation. It was not a baby, it did not need to be told not to take hold of a sharp edge. Best-Most-Favorite made a huffing sound of amusement and patted Fisher’s bell again before it returned to its work.

Fisher watched for a long time, remaining draped over Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight’s shoulders as it worked. After a momentary silence, Best-Most-Favorite returned to its meandering, half-formed humming. It was clear Best-Most-Favorite was less troubled than it had been in earlier times, and that was good, but Fisher could still tell that it was deep in thought about serious matters.

Fisher began to hum softly as well, weaving a true song into the sound its podmate was making, punctuating it with flashes and shimmers, trills and gestures. It was not one of the songs Fisher had learned in its infancy; this was a new song, made just for Best-Most-Favorite-Beloved-Delight, a song of soothing and confidence, one that said Fisher did not want to interrupt its thoughts but only to tell it how much Fisher loved it and wanted it to be at ease in its mind.

Best-Most-Favorite’s motions grew still, and it reached up and tangled its own poor misshapen tentacles in Fisher’s. Fisher could feel the substance of its podmate’s body relaxing, the trouble easing away even if the solemn thoughts remained.

Fisher kept singing, toying with Best-Most-Favorite’s curls and feeling immensely pleased with itself.

As usual, it had known the exact best thing to do.

***

Here was what Magnus had come to learn about getting ready for the end of a cycle: he was always, always going to find himself thinking about staying behind.

Assuming he was still alive when the Starblaster started making plans for departure, of course, which wasn’t always the case. But when he was, it was like clockwork -- as soon as they began the final check of the engine and ship’s infrastructure, as soon as Taako started making lists of provisions to bring aboard from whatever this year’s world had to offer, Magnus started thinking about what the world would be like when they left it.

Some worlds were easier to leave than others. Empty worlds, or ones where the environment was so hostile they stuck close to the ship, were easy to say goodbye (or sometimes good riddance) to. Worlds like Tesseralia where he’d made not just allies but friends were the hardest. Magnus would find himself pacing the passageways, much like he was doing now, or leaning against the deck rail. He’d look out on scenery that had grown familiar, and he’d start thinking about all those people. People he’d known and come to care about, yeah, but also just . . . people. Shopkeepers and tavern owners and guards. People came in a lot of different shapes in different worlds, but they were still people, and Magnus knew firsthand what happened to people when the Hunger touched down on a world’s surface.

They died, mostly. Like the people in his home quarter had died, and the people in the Royal Beasts’ court had died. Like Magnus himself had died, more than once, swinging and striking until he was backed into a corner, until black tendrils got hold of him and . . .

Well. Magnus shook off that train of thought and knocked his knuckles absently along the bulkhead as he walked. Point was, once you knew what the Hunger did to a world, it was awful hard to leave and just let that happen. Even if taking the Light with them off of a plane ensured the Hunger wouldn’t swallow it whole, it couldn’t stop the Hunger from wreaking havoc where it touched down.

Some years Magnus could live with that, sort of. Some years he just couldn’t. The first couple cycles he’d just taken it for granted he’d stay behind and protect whoever he could, until Davenport had called him onto the bridge and explained in tense, quiet tones that he couldn’t keep doing that, that leaving him behind over and over was taking too much of a toll on everyone else, and that they needed him just as much as the people of the worlds they touched down on did.

He’d really tried to cool it after that, changed his focus to training people on every world he could how to fight back, how and when to take shelter. Some years it felt like enough. Once in a while -- like Tesseralia -- it wasn’t, but those cycles had mostly stopped once Fisher had come aboard and Magnus had realized the baby voidfish was depending on him more than anyone else in the crew did. He’d almost entirely given up on staying behind, except as the vaguest thought that passed through the back of his mind whenever he was busy putting the armory to rights for the year’s end.

Magnus sighed, reached the end of the passageway and turned on his heel, stalking back down the way he’d come. This world -- this stupid endless world of too much green, of hunger and hurt, nightmares and flashbacks and feeling like he wasn’t quite part of his body -- this world should be the easiest thing in the multiverse to leave behind. He’d wished more than once, in the tomb and after, that he could just skip ahead to after the reset and put this place behind him for good.

Except now they were getting ready to leave, and he was still -- against all logic, despite everything that happened -- thinking about what the Hunger would do to this forest when they left.

The door to Merle’s lab opened and the cleric stuck his head out, squinting at Magnus. “Kid, you’ve been pacing out here knockin’ on the walls for half an hour. You either need to walk it off or talk it out.”

Magnus yanked his knuckles guiltily away from the bulkhead. “Shit. Sorry, Merle. Just thinking about stuff.”

“You don’t say.” Merle pulled the door the rest of the way open. “C’mon. Sit down, tell me what’s bothering you.”

Magnus hesitated for a second and Merle fixed him with a Look. “You’re not gonna make me pull rank, are you?”

“You don’t outrank me.” Magnus responded automatically, but he shrugged and brushed past Merle into the room and sank into the one open chair.

Merle relocated a spare shirt and a potted fern before settling into the other chair. He leaned back, laced his fingers together over his paunch, and said bluntly “So. You really set on dying here one way or another, huh?”

Damn it, could every other person on this godsdamned ship really just see right through him? Magnus grimaced. “I’m not -- that’s not what this is.”

“Uh-huh” Merle didn’t look convinced. “We start getting ready to go and you start thinking about staying behind to fight. You’re like clockwork.” He jabbed an index finger at Magnus. “And you’re shit at lying about it, so spare me.”

Magnus thought about trying anyway, but Merle did kind of have a point. He sighed and spread his hands. “Fine. Okay. You got me.”

Merle’s expression softened. “Listen, Magnus, I’m not trying to give you a hard time. But I know it’s bothering you, kid, and I know you’ll feel better if you get it off your chest.”

“I’m not your kid.” Magnus retorted, without any real force behind it. He looked away from Merle, at the riot of potted plants that lined the counters and walls and hung from the ceiling. The back wall of the lab was glass, and the sunlight outside dappled the tree canopy.

Merle just watched him for a long few minutes before he said quietly “I wouldn’t have expected you to be thinking about it this year.”

Magnus shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah. Me neither.” He rubbed his thumb absently along the knuckles of his left hand. “Just . . . there’s not a lot a tree can do against the Hunger, Merle.”

The cleric made a thoughtful noise. “I don’t know. We’ve both seen it do pretty good in melee.”

“I’m not --” Magnus fell silent for a second. This was hard. “I’m not talking about the Parent, Merle.”

“Of course you’re not.” Merle replied evenly. “But the Parent’s the one who’s going to be doing most of the fighting back. We both know it’s equipped for that.”

Magnus winced. Yeah, okay, maybe that was fair.

“We’ve been plenty of places where the locals weren’t any more armed than the Parent is.” Merle went on, leaning forward. “Most of them didn’t try to kill you the first time they met you.”

“Yeah.” Magnus shrugged roughly. He knew what he was feeling, what he’d been thinking about. Putting it all into words, explaining why -- to himself or to Merle -- was turning out to be harder.

Merle watched him for a long moment. “So if I had to take a guess,” He said finally, “I’d say either the Sapling pinged you pretty hard, or you’re thinking about what the Parent told you last time we were down.”

Magnus let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and snapped the rubber band against his wrist. “ . . . both of those, I guess.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Merle leaned back again, ran a hand over his beard. “You didn’t really tell any of us what it had to say. Guessing that it’s been eating at you, whatever it was?”

Magnus finally tore his gaze away from the sunlit forest and looked back at Merle, who was watching him with the patient air he got when he was trying to get Magnus to admit he was injured.

Which, well.

“It’s just.” He stumbled to a halt for a second, pushing his jumbled thoughts around in his brain like maybe he could make them click into place. “I’m just . . . that tree, Merle, it started out like me. It just wanted to protect the people it loved. And it . . . it let the things that hurt it twist it up inside until it turned into something that just hurts everything that’s different from it. So it could protect them, and protect itself.” Magnus took a deep breath and stared at his hands, flexing the fingers of the left.

“I think about the Hunger touching down here and I . . . the thought of it hurting the sapling tears me up. But the thought of it hurting the Parent tree . . .” Magnus blinked rapidly, his voice going suddenly very quiet. “That doesn’t scare me or worry me. If anything it . . . it feels good.”

And there it was. He felt a little sick admitting it, and more than a little ashamed.

“Ah.” Merle leaned forwards and wrapped his rough, stubby fingers around Magnus’s hand. “I see.”

“Do you? ‘Cause I sure fuckin’ don’t.” Magnus made a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t . . . it’s not our enemy anymore, Merle, I shouldn’t want that. That doesn’t make me any better than it is, and it --”

“It’s a monster.” Merle finished, and Magnus looked up sharply. The cleric’s warm hazel eyes were calm. He gave Magnus’s fingers a squeeze. “Now you listen to me. First and foremost, you don’t have to let bygones be bygones. Maybe we made a kind of peace with the Parent, maybe you even understand what made it into what it is, but you’re under no obligation to pretend like it didn’t hurt you. You got me?”

Magnus nodded wordlessly.

“Good.” Merle didn’t let go of his hand. “Okay, second point. Not feeling the same way about the person that hurt you as you do about the one that helped you, that’s normal. It doesn’t make you the same as the Parent.”

Magnus huffed out a breath. “I could be though, Merle.” He said, his voice rough. “I could --”

“We all could be a lotta things, kid.” Merle interrupted gently. “The difference between you and the Parent is you’re not a monster. You’re not the kind who hurts people because he’s afraid of them. You haven’t made the choices that’d make you into that person. And,” he added lightly, “If you ever start making them, the rest of us’ll kick your ass and bring you to your senses.”

Magnus choked out a sudden laugh at that, because oh gods it was true. They really, really would. “I just . . . I don’t want it to be right about me. Us. It thinks we brought the Hunger here and that we don’t care what happens when it arrives. I want to prove it wrong.”

“It’s wrong whether you prove it or not, Magnus.” Merle shrugged. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t wrong about you. You just wouldn’t give a shit.”

“I . . .” Magnus started to protest, then closed his mouth. “Okay, fair point.”

“I’ve been known to make ‘em.” Merle let go of Magnus’s hand and leaned back in his chair. “Listen. You know how I feel about staying behind in general. When it feels right, it feels right. But if you’re going to do it, at least do it for a better reason than proving a point to that stubborn old asshole. Because frankly? Fuck it and fuck its opinions. It hurt you more than once, it shouldn’t get any kind of say in what you do.”

Magnus grinned weakly. “Well, when you say it like that.”

Merle nodded smugly. “Think about it, huh?”

Magnus took a deep breath. True to what Merle had said, getting his thoughts out there had helped. Maybe it hadn’t given him instant clarity or anything, but he felt better than he had when he’d been pacing the halls. “Yeah, okay. I will.”

“Good.” Merle clapped him on the shoulder. “And if you’re going to do it, at least take Taako with you, will ya? He’s been insufferable lately and he’s always less obnoxious once he’s gotten to kick some ass.”

That got a genuine laugh out of Magnus, and he stood and stretched his arms above his head, grinning. “So I should tell him you said that? Because that’s what I’m hearing, is that I should tell him you said that.”

Merle made an indignant noise and hopped to his feet, shaking a finger at Magnus in mock sternness. “See if I talk you through your trouble next time, if you’re gonna be like that.”

“You will, though.” Magnus grinned and thumped Merle on the back. “Thanks, Merle.”

“Yeah.” Merle’s expression softened, and he waved Magnus back out of his lab. “Sure, kid. It’s what I’m here for.”

Chapter Text

Once a year, every year, Lucretia watched the Apocalypse. As the living darkness tore into the plane they’d called their temporary home for the past year, she stood on the bridge of the Starblaster with her heart in her throat while the world died behind her.

The first two times she’d hidden her face in her hands, too gripped by sorrow and cold horror to watch. It was only after the Animal Plane, when they’d all re-formed and she’d realized that Magnus hadn’t been devoured by the Hunger for good, that she’d also realized she was failing by refusing to witness the destruction. She was the Chronicler of this journey — all of it — and if she didn’t watch, then how was she supposed to make a detailed record of what happened to the worlds they had to leave?

So the next year she had watched, her grip white-knuckled on the back of her assigned chair on the ship’s bridge. She’d watched the world be pulled to pieces, the slick blackness of the Hunger tearing it apart and swallowing it. She’d watched, she’d stood her ground, and when they’d broken through the planar barrier into a new system she had sat down and started writing.

And the next year she had done it again. And again, the year after that.

It had been more than half a century. More than fifty worlds left behind; some of them devoured completely, others narrowly saved by the Starblaster disappearing with the Light on board. Lucretia had dutifully recorded them all. She could describe in meticulous detail exactly what happened to the worlds the Hunger touched.

It never stopped being horrific.

Some years were harder than others, though. The years when members of her family were left behind as the Starblaster climbed for altitude were always the worst. No matter that her rational mind knew they’d be back after the reset; her heart still clenched with cold horror to think about the people she loved suffering the Hunger’s touch.

For the most part, the Starblaster only left people behind when there was no other choice, when they’d been lost on the surface or cut off from the ship in some way. It had been a long time since anyone had stayed behind on purpose, and Lucretia hated it when they did. Knowing they’d chosen to stay didn’t make it any easier for her to say goodbye to them. It didn’t make it any easier to watch the world die knowing that they might be dying with it.

If anything, knowing that they’d chosen to step out into that danger made her feel more powerless to help them.

Lucretia sighed, finished the paragraph she’d been working on detailing the crew’s plan for leaving this plane, and pushed back from her desk. Fisher was hovering near her right shoulder, had been for most of the afternoon, and Lucretia wondered if it was because the voidfish knew how much she was dreading this takeoff.

She reached up to gently pat Fisher’s bell, smiling thinly at the little trilling chime that the voidfish gave in response to the gesture. Did Fisher understand what Magnus and the others were planning? If so, it didn’t seem to be worried.

Lucretia stepped past the voidfish and out into the passageway up to the bridge. Fisher trailed behind her, humming the little song it frequently sang when the last days of a cycle ticked down into hours.

The deck of the ship wasn’t as bright as it should have been, the light from above gone dull and lifeless. Lucretia took a deep breath and concentrated on the vibration of the engine through the deck boards beneath her feet. The Hunger couldn’t dim that, at least. She pointedly did not look up at the motionless black clouds of the storm.

Magnus and the rest of the crew were gathered at the stern, wind riffling their hair and clothes as they gazed down at the tree canopy. The ship was hovering much lower than they’d become accustomed to, and Lucretia spared a glance over the side as well, grimacing at the flat, washed-out look of what had once been a vibrant, varied world. It would happen soon, now.

Lucretia took her place between Barry and Davenport, who nodded and clasped his hands behind his back, tail lashing.

“All right, you three,” He said, looking gravely at Magnus, Merle, and Taako. “You’re ready to do this?”

Magnus squared his shoulders, tightening his fingers around his axe, and nodded. “Ready as ever, Cap’n’port.”

Merle nodded, and Taako made a wibble-wobble gesture with one hand. Lucretia had been surprised when he’d volunteered for this; staying behind was almost never Taako’s prerogative, and he’d made no secret of how much he hated this particular world. She’d have to ask him about it later.

After.

Davenport inclined his head. “All right, then. Gods go with you, all of you. We’ll be waiting on the other side.”

Lucretia swallowed the lump in her throat as Barry and Lup exchanged quick, wordless goodbyes with the others. She’d never get used to this. She’d never, ever be okay with saying goodbye to any of them, no matter how brief the separation. She’d never stop thinking that something was wrong when the seven of them weren’t together.

Davenport shook Merle’s hand and stepped back. “All right, everyone. All hands to your stations.”

Lucretia took a deep breath and nodded at the three away team members as they stepped up to the railing and Taako prepared to cast Feather Fall. “Good luck, all of you.”

She turned around before they stepped off the edge of the ship. That much, at least, she didn’t have to make herself watch.

***

The three of them landed in the forest on the outskirts of the Parent grove where the sapling had put down roots, and Magnus rolled his neck until he felt it crack, shifting his weight to get used to being back on solid ground. He’d never really gotten the hang of making Feather Fall look graceful, but it wasn’t like there was anyone around but Merle and Taako to notice.

Taako straightened his hat and took a look around with his eyes narrowed. He’d never actually been in this spot before, and the look on his face said he didn’t think much of it. “Wow, fuckin’ surprise, it’s a bunch of trees. Where are we headed?”

Merle gestured for them to follow him as he headed into the grove, although not before casting a baneful eye at the sky above. The Starblaster was already nothing but a tiny speck disappearing into the iron-grey distance, all but swallowed by the eerily still storm. Clouds that dark meant the Hunger would be touching down within the hour.

Magnus took a deep breath and followed the others.

He’d thought long and hard about this plan, had talked about it with Merle and Davenport before making the decision. He didn’t doubt that it was the right one. But now, here, it was still hard not to feel the deep-seated primitive part of his mind shrieking that any course of action except run was the wrong one to take. Maybe that part was a little louder this year than it’d been in others; maybe it was a little more focused on how dark things were going to get when the Hunger fell.

Didn’t matter. Here he was. No going back now.

The grove was the same as it had been the last time they’d seen it, except that it was more dim and ominous in the unlight of the Hunger storm above. The branches overhead creaked and groaned, terribly loud in the stillness. The sapling was still where it had set down roots months earlier.

Magnus was expecting it when the atmosphere shifted and the Parent’s presence rolled into his mind. From Taako and Merle’s expressions, it was speaking to them as well.

What do you want? Its emotions were a churning mix of disgust and fear, tension and fury. It wasn’t directed at the bipeds for a change, though; the Parent was focused on what it knew was coming. It, like Magnus, was readying for a fight.

Magnus squared his shoulders and tilted his head back to address the trees looming above him. Maybe it wasn’t strictly necessary, but it made him feel better. “We’re here to help.”

The Parent scoffed. What can you possibly do against the horror that is coming?

“We’ve done a hell of a lot before. We’ll do our best now.” Magnus shrugged roughly, tightening his grip on his axe. “Look, you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but I’m a protection fighter and I’m not leaving when there’s someone here I can protect.” That he couldn’t really leave now in any meaningful sense of the word could go unsaid.

There was silence for a long, tense moment, and then one of the tree branches above sighed and creaked, and a shiver passed through the canopy. The sapling waved gently and stretched out its branches towards Magnus. Gratitude from the little tree flickered at the edge of his mind.

Very well, The Parent said at last. I will permit you to remain.

“Like we were askin’ for your fuckin’ permission,” Taako grumbled, and Merle jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow.

Magnus nodded grimly at Taako — he was right, Magnus hadn’t actually been asking for permission — and then he crossed the clearing and stood next to the sapling. The baby tree was taller than it had been a few months earlier; its branches swayed as Magnus approached, and a wave of delighted excitement rolled out from it and through Magnus’s mind.

“Yeah,” Magnus said. “It’s good to see you, too.”

The sapling shivered, and Magnus felt the sensation of the little tree gathering up its power and concentrating, so that when it spoke the words were clearer than they’d ever been before, even without Merle or the Parent helping it. I am glad you’re here, but I am afraid of what is coming.

Magnus felt something in his chest twist, and he craned his neck as the light began to fail in earnest. “Yeah, me too.” He said quietly. “But that’s the trick. You just gotta do it anyway.”

Then he grinned crookedly at the sapling and tightened his grip on his shield. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”

“Touching,” Taako said, positioning himself so he was covering Magnus’s back and drawing his wand as he did so. “Merle, you want to get around to buffing the party so we don’t all beef it in the first ten minutes?”

“Keep your hat on, smartass,” Merle replied affably, tossing the energy glowing in his palms towards the two of them. Magnus grinned as he felt the cleric’s magic run through him, making him feel subtly stronger and more grounded.

“Thanks, Merle.” He raised his axe, gave it a bit of a test swing. Merle waved off the thanks, already working on the next spell.

Things happened very fast after that. The air lurched, a sudden wild swing of pressure that felt almost like a physical blow; there was a noise like fabric tearing, overwhelming not because of the volume but because it seemed to come from every point in space at once

“Incoming, boys,” Taako said completely unnecessarily, magic crackling down his forearm and congregating in the wand in his outstretched hand.

Magnus nodded, all focus now, as the sky ripped open and the end of the world descended.

He’d done this often enough by now that it was . . . well, maybe not exactly routine, because it was still the godsdamned apocalypse. But it was battle, and that was something he excelled at. His element. Compared to some of the shit he’d had to push through this year?

Magnus bared his teeth in a feral kind of grin as a tendril of living darkness smashed into the tree canopy less than a hundred yards away, crushing trunks and shaking the ground beneath his feet. Yeah, this he could deal with.

Opalescent black figures poured out of the tendril, creatures of living darkness in all sizes and shapes, boiling over fallen logs and between the trunks that were still standing. The Parent tree roared, the earth surged up into surface walkers and branches swept forward and struck out at the invaders. There was a sound like a hurricane in the canopy over their heads.

The Parent’s forces couldn’t intercept every Hunger creature, and they swept into the clearing almost a dozen strong. Taako threw his head back and cackled as he let the burst of white lighting he’d been building fly.

Magnus lunged forward at a Hunger construct with multiple many-jointed arms, swinging for its head. It raised a limb to block the blade, immediately lost it to the swing, and snatched at Magnus’s shield with others, yanking him in close. Magnus bashed the shield into its center of mass with all his might, shoving it backwards enough to get room for another swing of the axe.

Chaos raged around him. Taako’s offensive spells and Merle’s protective ones filled the air with the indescribable hum of ambient magic; the trees made a deafening noise as they clashed with Hunger creatures, and the creatures howled in return, the incoherent sound of pure destructive force let loose. Magnus fell into the rhythm of battle, swing and parry, shove and fall back and swing again. The many-armed creature got in a shot that sliced through his sleeve before it fell under his blade, but there was another Hunger soldier to immediately take its place, and a third after that.

Magnus’s arms began to ache, his steps to slow every so subtly. None of the enemies had managed to get close to the sapling yet; he’d been there to stop them. The Parent was doing an admirable job of laying waste to the creatures that swarmed through the forest around them, and Taako and Merle seemed like they were holding up. How far had the ship gotten?

“Magnus!” There was a sizzling crack, a flash of blinding light, and the Hunger goon he hadn’t spotted coming in on his right fell to the ground, lifeless. Taako was already in motion again, tossing a “Pay attention, big guy!” over his shoulder.

Magnus grunted and did that, redoubling his effort against the creature he was grappling. It heaved on his shield with a tremendous tentacle-like appendage, and Magnus made a split-second decision and let the shield go, slipping his arm free and gripping his axe with both hands instead. He could be shield enough for the sapling until their time ran out.

One of the massive Parent trunks that made up the grove toppled with an ear-splitting groan and hit the ground like the tremor of an earthquake. Magnus barely kept his feet, and the Hunger creature he’d been grappling landed a blow to his temple that made him momentarily see stars and stagger sideways.

Biped! The Sapling had been silent, shrinking into itself in the shelter of Magnus’s bulk, but now it cried out. Magnus looked up just in time to see a root — a single, slender root, not one of the hulking extensions of the Parent — break ground behind the creature and tangle in its legs.

He grinned and rallied, raised his axe and brought it down on the entangled creature with a wordless cry of effort. The thing’s black opal head split down the middle and it dropped to the ground, lifeless as the Parent trunk that had just fallen.

Magnus stood over it, breathless, still slightly dazed from the head blow. He was pretty sure his temple was bleeding; certainly several of his other wounds were. The sapling’s branches were trembling as the root withdrew back into the soil and yet another Hunger creature surged forward.

“Thanks, bud,” Magnus said over his shoulder, and then he was in motion again.

Swing, dodge, duck, swing. Swing. Swing. One more enemy, one more blow, one more wound. The Parent grove was badly damaged, trunks toppled and surface walkers dismantled, but the tree was still fighting, too, and Magnus certainly wasn’t going to let himself stop before the tree did.

He’d endured. Everything that had happened to him on this planet, every wound, every exhaustion, every torment, he’d endured it and pushed through it and survived it and he’d be fucked if he died here, after all of that, or if he let the sapling die here. Wasn’t gonna happen.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Taako’s hat go flying, part of the brim cleaved off, and the air was full of fireballs and cursing as the wizard retaliated. Merle’s Guardian of Faith loomed up and fell on the enemy, sword shining. Magnus lost track of how many enemies he’d taken down; everything was distilled to the pure chaos of battle, to blow and counter-blow. His head throbbed and his left hand was starting, all too noticeably, to weaken under the force of the axe hitting the solid darkness of the Hunger over and over again. He took a step back as yet another enemy fell, braced himself up and took a deep breath.

The sky darkened and the sound of the Parent canopy grew even louder as the Hunger let out a long, sustained, furious roar. Magnus grinned, baring teeth gone bloody from a cut lip, and brought his axe down in one more crushing blow against the Hunger creature at his feet.

He had just enough time to turn his head and nod goodbye over his shoulder at the sapling, still standing unharmed after everything, and then the world shivered and shifted and everything unspooled into a billion threads of light so blinding he had to close his eyes.

When he opened them again he was standing on the bridge of the Starblaster.

The last few bright white bond threads dissolved in the corners of his vision, and he felt a dull ache in his cheekbone and around his eye. Magnus took a deep, deep breath and turned his head.

Lup looked up at him from the same old chair she always came back in, and smiled. “Hey, big guy.”

For the barest second his heart clenched, as he thought about the vision he’d had in the tomb all those months ago, how he’d just allowed himself to believe he’d successfully reset and then . . .

And then Lup had him in a crushing hug, and Merle was clapping him on the back while Taako complained bitterly about having been just about to blow an especially nasty Hunger construct to hell. Barry and Lucretia stepped forward, smiling, and Davenport nodded and inclined his head, tail lashing in relief.

Magnus choked out a laugh and threw his arms around Lup in return, burying his face in her shoulder for a second and clutching a handful of her robe with his left hand. His fingers responded perfectly, grip tight and steady without a hint of stiffness or awkwardness. Fisher flitted around his head, trilling and flashing and singing the little welcome-back song it always sang when the reset hit.

Magnus finally pulled away from the hug and reached down to hook his fingers into the top of his boot. Yep, there was his grandfather’s knife, back safe and sound.

He stood up and cracked his back, looking around the bridge. His family stood around him, whole and safe yet again. A new world turned below them, just visible through the bridge window, and Magnus saw the blue expanse of oceans and the stark white of ice caps breaking the expanse of green and brown continents. Fisher drifted over and draped itself over his shoulders with a contented noise, and Magnus took a deep breath and reached up to pat the voidfish’s bell.

It was good to be home.

Chapter Text

It was dark.

They’d been scouring the forest all day, following a lead on a Grand Relic that Magnus suspected was going to turn out to be nothing. Evening had snuck up on them before they’d stopped to make camp, and by the time they’d gotten the bedrolls set up and a fire going it had been well and truly dark. The moon wasn’t up yet, and the trees here were close enough together than even when it rose Magnus suspected it wouldn’t give much light.

Taako sat poking the embers of the fire with a stick, ostensibly banking them for the next morning; Merle had done a half-assed job of washing up after the stew they’d had for dinner, and was already bundled in his bedroll snoring away. Magnus couldn’t have explained why the noise felt almost comforting.

Something had been bothering him all day. Nothing he could pinpoint, just a vague sense of unease, like he was being watched. Or, well, no, that didn’t really describe it. Like he’d set something important down somewhere and then left it behind. Or like he’d been meaning to do something and had forgotten what it was. It was getting on his nerves, making him more tense than he usually was.

“I’ve never liked forests.” Taako announced abruptly, not looking up from the embers.

Magnus . . . didn’t quite have an answer for that, although for the very barest second he almost said I know which was an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. He shrugged it off, examined his hands thoughtfully for a moment, running his thumb over his knuckles in the old nervous tic he’d always had. “I dunno. Usually I don’t mind them much one way or another.”

“Mmmhmm.” Taako sounded skeptical, and he drew the stick he’d been using to poke at the fire out of the coals, examining the glowing end. “So what’s got you so jumpy today, my dude?”

Magnus shrugged, flopped back on his bedroll and stared up into the dark tree canopy above him. “Dunno,” He said, which was the truth. “Just a weird day, I guess.”

Taako made a noncommittal noise, went back to banking the fire and then said airily. “Well, whatever it is, don’t let it disturb my beauty sleep, capisce? The dwarf’s bad enough.”

Magnus snorted in amusement and toed his boots off, pulling his blanket over himself and shifting around until he got comfortable. “Sure, whatever you say. G’night, Taako.”

Taako flicked an ear in acknowledgment, and Magnus took a deep breath and closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of the forest at night — leaves rustling, the stream running nearby, a night bird calling somewhere far off, Merle snoring like a godsdamned sawmill.

This isn’t there, he thought dozily, yet another stray thought with no sense to it whatsoever, there and gone like the flash of a firefly.

If he dreamed, the dreams didn’t wake him.

- The End -