Only a few steps into the forest it became clear that this cold hike back to civilisation was turning into a cold and awkward hike back to civilisation.
Angus slowed down so he was no longer out in front of the group, and cleared his throat.
“I forgot to tell everyone back there how I found you, what with all the… distractions and all.” He pointedly did not look at Barry or Kravitz; he appeared to be trying to engage their recently freed acquaintances rather than calling anyone out.
“Mr Corvin Achatels,” he nodded at the quiet human who had edged away from the dwarf with the crazy family, “I was contacted by your fiancé to find you after you went missing four days ago. He said you’d never missed Tuesday night music practice, and he knew instantly something was wrong when he got home and saw your violin left out on the table.”
The human looked relieved, “We’ve been playing together on Tuesday nights for years, but right now we’re practicing for our wedding - we’re going to play for each other. I suppose he’ll have to forgive me for missing a week, with an excuse this good.”
Corvin smiled to himself, and the atmosphere of their little group was considerably warmer than a few moments ago. He and the others looked transported to memories of the loved ones they would see again soon.
A wedding. Kravitz didn’t often find himself in the business of saving people, and he found himself unexpectedly glad that he had found this cult in time to save this human, who had a home and a fiancé and a violin.
Kravitz too had a home he too wished he were in, he still played his cello when the feeling took him, but he didn’t think about love very much. Love was so very much the domain of the living, and he had not been alive in a long, long time. The cats he cared for we already dead, merely spirits - as were most beings he interacted with in his day to day existence - and they passed on eventually to become one with the Astral Sea, as all must.
He knew, abstractly, that the bounties he collected had loved ones. Most living beings did. They had families, friends, bonds… and he took them anyway. He knew they were alive, that they must love and be loved, but their lives were forfeit to the Raven Queen for their crimes.
Death had changed his perspective. In the early days that he rarely recalled, Kravitz had felt something when he took lives, even as he knew it was the right thing to do. Now, when he looked at the necromancers, the liches, the countless forsaken and twisted souls whose names made it onto his list, he saw beings who were as good as dead the moment he laid eyes on them. He saw only… dust.
The most Kravitz could say was that he harboured some affection for certain beings on the Material Plane. But this was a recent, and inconvenient, development.
Barry was the only creature on the Material Plane he had spent a significant amount of time with; the only bounty who had made much of an impression apart from annoyance - although there was definitely some annoyance. But he would still take Barry Bluejeans to the Astral Plane one day, regardless of how much he might enjoy their banter. That was the balance of the world.
And wanting Angus McDonald to be a little more careful with his bright and precious life was not the same as love, he was sure of it.
Their haphazard party were all startled from their individual musings by words floating through the silence from behind them, their speaker having drifted to the back of the group and out of sight.
“Yeah, being kidnapped by a weird necromancy cult is, uh, it’s a pretty good excuse for leaving. And I’ll bet, your fiancé, he’d forgive you just about anything if it meant he got to see your face again. If he got to hold you, and hear you play your violin for him.”
Barry had a naturally rough voice already. He had no throat which could get choked up, and he lacked most of the features which could show subtle emotions like sorrow and longing.
“You should do something nice for him when you get back. Spend a whole day with just him - spend a week. You have no idea what he went through- what it did to him to come home and find you gone . But he doesn’t blame you, he could never blame you for this. To have you back, that’s… everything.”
The very forest had gone silent. There were no footsteps on the ground, they had all stopped as one.
Corvin was staring at Barry with a look of understanding. As if he could relate, somehow, to this being that was essentially just a voice coming from under a hooded red robe.
Kravitz knew that Barry had always been more than that. He understood, fundamentally, what a lich was made of, he knew, perhaps more than he’d like to, about the process of warping one’s very soul with magic to create a pure and powerful being that defied the laws of death.
But Kravitz had known hundreds of liches in his service to the Raven Queen - granted, he hadn’t known most of them for very long. Still, this lich was different in ways that defied understanding. Every time he thought he was comfortable, every time he thought he understood, Barry threw him so off kilter that he could never quite get that previous picture of him back.
There he had been, lost in his thoughts about how little he felt connected to love and to living things, how infrequently he truly cared for creatures of the Material Plane outside his sympathy for the dying - and even that was always tempered by the knowledge that their peace would come soon.
And then there was Barry. Speaking of emotions Kravitz had no name for, and sharing some kind of understanding with Corvin about these unnameable feelings. Uttering comfort for love and loss as Kravitz had never known - or couldn’t remember knowing, and that was the same thing, wasn’t it?
Barry spoke of his family sometimes, in roundabout and offhand ways. Kravitz had never thought to wonder what became of them, only to occasionally be curious why a man as seemingly loving and intelligent as Barry would decide to become an abomination.
He thought now that the two might be more connected than he had ever imagined.
“Sir, have you- did you lose someone? Or several someones?”
Angus had also been staring at Barry while Kravitz’s brain swirled in useless circles - but then so had everyone else. It had been a speech that almost demanded some staring.
Barry met Angus’ calculating yet kind look as best he could with his small, burning eyes. Kravitz could almost see the cogs spinning behind the boy detective’s thick glasses, itching to solve the mystery.
“Is that why you do it Angus? To bring people, I don’t know, answers I guess? To tell them where their loved ones went, what they did, how they died? If so, it’s a good thing you do. Closure, and all that stuff.”
Barry was more still than Kravitz had ever seen him. Unnaturally still, even for an unnatural being.
“I try my best to find people alive, when I can. Maybe I could help you-?” Angus tried to offer.
“Nah, kid. You couldn’t. Not even if you wanted to. You don’t have the answers I’m looking for - no one does. Trust me, I’ve been looking long enough to know.”
Angus looked doubtful. “The answers are always somewhere, sir, they’re just often hidden.”
“Sometimes, kiddo, the answers aren’t hidden so much as they’re just forgotten. My family’s gone from me, for now, gone where I can’t reach them.” He straightened, and lifted himself up where he’d been sinking slowly into the ground.
“But don’t you worry about ol’ Barry here, I haven’t given up. I got too much to live for to go with Bird Bones here just yet,” he ‘winked’ his flame-eye at Kravitz once more, earning himself an eye-roll. Kravitz could see the benefits to having a fully expressive face, sometimes.
Barry turned pointedly to Angus, “So, tell us more about how you cracked the case, boy wonder.”
The detective looked at Barry over his glasses, pursing his lips in a clear attempt to convey that he knew a poor attempt at a subject change when he heard one.
But Angus turned and started walking again, looking back over his shoulder to start telling them, “Well, it didn’t take me long to find two other missing persons reports from the two preceding days to Mr Achatels’ disappearance…”
Kravitz tuned out as they all started walking again. He didn’t mean to, he just couldn’t keep his thoughts focused on anything, and couldn’t help but let his mind wander away from Angus’ comfortable background chatter.
Only to tune back in when a single clear thought did occur to him.
“Say, Angus, how did you find out about those missing persons reports? They tend to be confidential police files.” Not that it had ever stopped Kravitz when he needed to find someone.
Those were mortal laws, anyway.
Angus looked slightly guilty, and turned to look at where he was going rather than meet anyone’s eye.
There was a slightly subdued, “I was just speeding up the process. Lieutenant Hurley would have shown me the reports if she was on duty that day, it was just bad luck that it was Lieutenant Korfmann instead.”
Barry was snickering quietly.
Angus continued, with a little more confidence, “Anyway, a good detective makes their own luck! Time is of the essence with missing persons cases and I would be a lesser detective if I let some grumpy desk worker who wouldn’t know a real lead if it bit him on the nose compromise my work!”
He had finished quite heatedly, Barry’s snickering underlying his entire speech.
“Why, Angus!” Kravitz said, grinning audibly. “That was almost rude!”
“I think that was the most almost-rude thing I’ve heard you say.” Barry agreed, still laughing.
Angus turned around to respond but nothing came out of his mouth. He looked firmly caught between his desire to rise above their teasing and his aversion to being rude, even if just by implication.
“Don’t worry lad,” the dwarf quickened his pace so he could gently slap a hand on Angus’ shoulder. “Your pal Yarin Stonevaren will go have a word with this Korfmann. Give him a good talkin’ to about lettin’ brilliant young detectives do his job for him, if he’s not goin’ to!”
Now Angus was truly speechless, and looked a little horrified as Yarin nodded meaningfully while he mimed punching his fist into his palm.
They all watched him look pleadingly at the enthusiastic dwarf for a few moments before the tension broke, as Yarin fell about laughing - great guffaws that set everyone else off too.
Even Angus, eventually.
Kravitz noted with some amusement that this had well and truly achieved what he suspected to be Angus’ original intention: to help their rescuees starting talking, and forget some of their fear and doubt. Distract them a little from what had happened, and from the fact that they were walking through a freezing forest in the middle of the night.
It was a good move, distracting them. He wondered how much practice Angus had with traumatised people, in his line of work. Actually, he wondered how much Angus himself was-
“I really hope you are joking, Mr. Stonevaren, I’d hate to tell your sister that I came all this way only to lose you tragically in this forest,” Angus levelled an unconvincing glare over his glasses.
Yarin just laughed some more, apparently not very concerned by the threats of a nine-year-old.
Choosing to be the bigger person, despite the physical impossibility of the task, Angus continued on.
“ Anyway, the notes section said that your sister filed the missing person’s report after checking every tavern in town when you didn’t show up for work last Monday.”
Angus turned to look at their halfling companion over his shoulder. “And, of course, the missing person's report for Ms Carmentia Marsh was filed by-”
“My mother. Naturally.” She sighed, “literally no one else calls me that, it even says ‘Tia’ on my official Goldcliff Trust account.”
Tia looked thoughtful, “Actually, and I, er, know this is a weird time? But would you be interested in doing some work for the Goldcliff Trust? We’re having some, hm, problems of a sensitive nature that I can’t give details about without permission from my superiors. But we’re not having much luck investigating on our own, so?”
Angus slowed to walk beside Tia, then reached into an inner pocket somewhere and produced an official-looking business card, handing it to her with a gleeful look on his face.
“Oh wow, this looks very professional.”
Tia saw Angus’ expression and quickly backtracked, “You are, of course, a professional, as you’ve demonstrated. I didn’t mean to imply, er… And I wouldn’t go recommending anyone I didn’t think was a professional to my managers to help with sensitive bank issues.”
Corvin saved her from further digging this hole by joining in this recruitment drive.
“Actually Angus, and I don’t know if you do this sort of thing, but if you have time for multiple cases, Matesh and I had kind of a running joke that the wedding venue we booked was a front for some kind of exotic animal smuggling ring. But the more we joked about it the more we realised ‘hey that actually makes a weird amount of sense’, and, well…”
He looked a little guilty, “It would be pretty inconvenient if we had to find another venue two months out, so if you couldn’t start on the case for a little while that would be… Um, not that you’d ignore a potential problem, I’m sure, or that we wouldn’t rather see justice happen than have to re-shuffle some things, of course.”
Angus’ bright, toothy grin was shining in the moonlight as they walked.
“Of course, sir! Your fiancé already has my contact details, obviously, so I hope you don’t mind if I don’t give you a card too?”
Corvin smiled back, “Actually, why don’t you go ahead and give me one anyway - so I can pass your details along to anyone else who might be in need of a great detective?”
Barry hooted unexpectedly next to Kravitz’s ear, fortunately the reaper was too tired to react. “Hell yeah little man! Gotta build your brand - someone pretty clever taught me that.”
Angus looked pleased at all this praise, beaming at Barry before handing Corvin another fancy little card.
There was so much spring in the boy’s step now that Kravitz was worried he might hit his head on one of the low-hanging branches that hadn’t previously been a danger to the small detective. As it was, Angus was having to slow his stride every ten feet or so, in order to avoid getting too far ahead of the rest of the reasonably-paced party.
Kravitz was just glad that these didn’t sound like necromancy-related cases, at least.
Although he supposed that Angus could not reasonably have known that this missing persons case would turn out to be a well-resourced necromantic cult kidnapping future sacrifices. Still, the young detective should have some backup in the, unfortunately likely, instance that he stumbled upon more of the same.
He was still trying to work out how to broach the topic with Angus without making him react poorly to the implication that he needed help, especially in front of these people he wanted to appear professional to.
“Angus, could I have a quick word with you, sometime before you run off and finish this case?”
“Ooooh,” a voice floated over, “someone’s in trouble!”
Kravitz felt confident that Barry had definitely forgotten his earlier, somber, mood by this point and was back to his usual inappropriate self. If not a little more… barbed than usual.
As with every other time Kravitz had gotten a glimpse behind the curtain, however, he just couldn’t quite see the same picture as before. Barry’s cheer echoed, almost, in the spaces left by the depth of his sincerity and loss. Maybe it always had, and Kravitz could only hear it now that he knew what to listen for.
Barry often felt like a puzzle that he might never figure out. Or perhaps would only figure out after several decades of visiting him in the Eternal Stockade - if Barry would still speak to him at that point. The idea of seeing Barry locked away, of only talking to him through a cell wall, gave Kravitz no satisfaction anymore. He didn’t burn with the Raven Queen’s justice at the inevitability of locking away another powerful abomination, not like he had in the first few years of chasing him down.
But these were unthinkable thoughts, thoughts to contemplate approximately never - or perhaps at the end of the world, whichever came first.
So Kravitz stopped thinking them. He’d probably given Angus way too much time to overthink his request as it was.
He shot a half-hearted glare behind him, “No one is in trouble except you , as always. I just want to ask Angus something, perhaps in private.”
“Of course, sir! We’re nearly back at the village, and I have a room at the tavern.” Angus looked a little unsure, and glanced at their recent additions to the group.
“I, well, I hope you don’t mind staying the night? Only, it’s the middle of the night, in winter, and we don’t have any way of getting you back to your homes until morning anyway, I know you’re all probably keen to go home…”
“O’ course, lad, I don’t know about the rest of youse but I’ve already been out in this cold far too long. We don’t get wind like this where I’m from - I reckon it has teeth!”
Tia and Corvin were nodding along, looking like they were enjoying a midnight hike through the forest in mid-winter about as much as Yarin was.
“A nice night not to have skin,” Barry chimed in, smugly.
Kravitz couldn’t help but feel that this might have been directed at him, but he fortunately couldn’t feel the cold even with his corporeal form.
Corvin was the only one with a proper reaction to this comment, he looked extremely disconcerted and began walking somewhat faster, and away from Barry.
Tia looked too tired for Barry’s absurd humour, which Kravitz felt was reasonable, and Yarin’s default response to strange situations was apparently to laugh. He was either over his earlier shock, or still firmly in its grasp.
Everyone had followed Corvin’s lead on the faster walking after being reminded of how cold they were, and it was only a few more minutes before they could see the edge of the forest, and some faint lights of the village nearby.
Kravitz stopped just on the edge of the tree line, realising that if he stayed out of sight he wouldn’t have to answer any awkward questions - he could leave that to Angus, who seemed to be good at it.
The whole group stopped when Kravitz did, and he turned to Angus.
“I’ve really been gone long enough, so if you have a moment to talk now…?”
Yarin had already caught on by the time Angus turned to look at their rescuees.
“Don’t worry, this dwarf can find a tavern easier than a bit of good stone! Come on you lot, I need a pint. We’ll see you in there, Angus.”
Yarin drew Tia and Corvin with him, heading towards the faint outline of the only large building in the village that still had torches burning outside.
The dwarf’s voice drifted to them on the wind as he walked away, “Ach, I hope there’s no adventurers in the tavern lookin’ for clues and local gossip. We’ll have to tell them the necromancers are already dead and they’ll be so disappointed...”
Angus faced Kravitz with a gleaming grin almost too big for his face.
“Well, that was fairly successful, wouldn’t you say so, sir? Thank you for all your help! And now I have two new potential cases to start on when I get back!”
“Yes you’re certainly- ‘building your brand’? Was that it?” Kravitz asked uncertainly.
Barry floated over and pretended to lean on the reaper’s shoulder. “Yes, Kravitz, that was it. You’re hip with the cool kids now.”
Kravitz tried to swat him away with little success, so he settled on stepping sideways and leaving Barry awkwardly leaning on thin air.
“You’ve never been ‘hip’ with the ‘cool kids’ in your life, Bluejeans.”
Barry clutched a hand to his chest like he’d been mortally wounded. “I’ll have you know, Kravitz Reaperman-”
“-that I hung out with some extremely cool people in my life and in my death. The coolest, even. We all had, uh, matching jackets and robes - now that’s cool. But also warm!”
Angus was giggling too adorably for Kravitz to be truly annoyed at Barry’s antics. And that was definitely the only reason he chuckled along too.
The boy detective’s giggle was a rare enough phenomenon that he couldn’t find it in himself to discourage it - Angus always had a lot to prove to people, he couldn’t afford to do childish things like giggling.
Hopefully he didn’t have too much to prove to Kravitz anymore, hopefully he’d listen.
“ If we can get back to the conversation at hand,” he sent a pointed look at Barry, who was still pretending to lean on the piece of air that Kravitz’s shoulder had recently occupied, looking for all the world as though he had intended this all along.
Kravitz turned back to Angus and tried to project his sincerity, “I meant what I said earlier - I’d like you to call me if you end up with a case or in a situation that sounds like it might be necromancy, or even just some serious magic. I know you can take care of yourself pretty well, better than a lot of adults, but magic is different, and you just aren’t properly equipped to take it on. And that’s not because of your age.”
He didn’t want to trip Angus over into thinking he was lying to drive his point home, but he really did want to drive his point home.
“And, now I’m not just saying this Angus, you’d also be helping me with my job. It’s more like a favour to me if you call me and I can come deal with any forbidden magic myself; before it gets worse, or before anyone else hears about it and gets bright ideas about raising the dead themselves.”
Angus looked like he was considering Kravitz’s words carefully, not that he had expected anything less from this extremely intelligent boy.
“It would be good to have someone I can call when there’s suspicious magic going on. I’ve been reading up about various magics and rituals but there’s just so much! And a lot of the ancient and forbidden stuff is hard to get access to if you’re not already part of a well-established cult, so I don’t know a lot about it.” Angus paused to take his first breath since he started talking, before continuing, “I thought about trying to go undercover and join one but I don’t think I have a good enough disguise that they’d take me, and it would be a pretty risky move anyway.”
Kravitz slapped his palm to his forehead. It made a more satisfying sound than when he was a skeleton.
At the same time, Barry laughed but it sounded quite strangled. “Yeah, uh, they probably wouldn’t take a kid on. Hopefully. But you, uh, you probably shouldn’t go looking for that kind of stuff anyway. That’s how you get reapers on your tail. Better to have one on speed-dial than on your tail, I imagine.”
Kravitz felt like he’d been doing a lot of Barry-ignoring tonight - but really, why break a habit now?
“Here, Angus, we can attune frequencies” Kravitz pulled out his stone of farspeech from within his cloak, “I, uh, assume you have a stone too?”
He was just thinking of potential ways to procure some Material Plane currency to buy Angus a stone when the child managed to get his out from under his very fluffy coat without opening it and letting the cold air in.
“Oh, good. We don’t actually get great reception in the Astral Plane, there’s all that magical interference and the like, but it should work well enough.”
They were just pressing them together to exchange frequencies, and Kravitz was congratulating himself for a conversation well handled, when Barry felt the need to chime in again.
“Of course, if you’re after a necromancy expert to help you out, you might want my frequency too. I might even know more about it than Kravitz here! After all, isn’t the best way to learn something to actually do it?”
Kravitz concentrated on resisting the urge to turn around and swipe at him with his scythe. He’d jump out of the way, of course, but maybe he’d take a hint. It was unlikely, though.
Angus frowned up at the lich. “You can learn most things books, I’ve found. I didn’t get some kind of… detective apprenticeship, before I started taking cases. I learned a lot from my books! Like picking locks!”
Kravitz wasn’t going to point out that the boy had almost certainly had a steep learning curve on the job, he didn’t feel like helping Barry make his case.
“No, you’re right, of course. Kravitz has had loads more time than me to get super well acquainted with necromancy for sure.” Barry, unwisely, continued, “hey Kravitz, actually, can I have your stone frequency too? For if I wanna tip you off about necromantic activity as well?”
Kravitz thought seriously about chucking his stone at Barry’s head, but then he’d probably just attune them, and he’d have to change his frequency. And explain to the Raven Queen why he’d changed his frequency.
Unaware of Kravitz’s unhappy internal monologue, the lich was still talking. “Like how there was some necromancers a few months back that, uh, decided it was a good idea to have their base a bit too close to mine, and I had to go deal with them myself, which was a real hassle, you know? Next time, I could just call you instead of doing your job for you!”
Now he was sure Barry was definitely trying to vex him for some reason - probably entertainment. Interestingly enough, though, Kravitz remembered the last big group of necromancers that arrived in the Astral Plane without being brought in by a reaper, because it didn’t happen that often. And because someone had to go fish their souls out of the Astral Sea.
These souls had been cross referenced with the book of bounties, in order to properly process and have them sentenced. Kravitz had been the one to do the paperwork; a nasty group, big on ritual sacrifice and tying distressed spirits to the Material Plane, keeping them from finding peace in the afterlife. He had been glad when they were locked away.
Kravitz put his stone back in his cloak and turned to face Barry with a bland smile on his face.
“Sorry, Bluejeans, it’ll take a bit more than that to get my frequency. And frankly, you’re just not my type.”
He wasn’t sure if Barry was trying to disguise his laughter as coughing, or his coughing as laughter. Either way, the sounds he was making would have sounded very concerning coming from a living creature.
Kravitz turned back to Angus and gave him a more genuine smile - they came easier when pointed towards the boy detective than anyone else. He tried not to think about it too much.
“You did a great job here tonight, Angus. Please use that frequency if you need it, my Queen doesn’t like to see bright-burning souls like yours before their time - and the whole Plane can feel it when she’s unhappy.”
Angus smiled back, “I will, sir, a good detective knows when to call in backup.”
For once, Kravitz didn’t question the urge to ruffle Angus’s soft curly hair, making him giggle once more.
“Now, you have a warm tavern to return to, and I-” Kravitz could feel a gentle tugging on his soul.
“It’s fine, Angus, my Queen is just wondering why I’ve been gone so long. She can probably sense the souls I stashed away earlier and haven’t dealt with yet.”
Angus looked like he had approximately three-thousand-and-five questions in response to this new information about the Raven Queen and the Astral Plane, but Kravitz was already summoning his scythe and cutting open a rift to his home.
Kravitz paused only long enough to turn his head and tell Barry, “I’ll give your regards to the Raven Queen, shall I?” Before stepping fully through the portal and letting it close behind him.
It was a pity Barry Bluejeans didn’t have a face, Kravitz felt like he would have treasured the look on it for a long time to come.