The next call Barry gets is in the late afternoon several weeks later, and once again, something tells him exactly who’s going to be on the other end of the line before he even moves to pick it up.
(Then again, it’s barely been an hour since he gave Merle that cryptic nod, so it’s not exactly difficult to guess the reason for the call.)
“You saved my kids,” Merle whispers, sounding dumbstruck even now. “Why?”
“I — I just — why wouldn’t I? I had the power to stop innocent people from getting hurt. Of course I saved them.”
“Well, that’s real altruistic of you,” Merle murmurs. Bit by bit, his normal enthusiasm creeps back into his voice as he continues: “Not sure how you’re supposed to reconcile that worldview with making the Relics, though. Too bad I can’t cast Zone of Truth over the stone, ha!”
“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” Barry replies. “Anyways, you need to teach your kids to be more careful. Odds are I won’t be around during the next… freak accident.”
“Yeah, their passive perception stinks,” Merle agrees with a sad laugh. “Or at least Mookie’s does, as much as I love the little fireball. Mavis is a bright little thing when she’s not busy looking after her brother — she reads at a college level, you know! Probably gonna make a hell of a wizard one day!”
“Give it to me like you would under Zone of Truth, Merle — did you call me just to brag about your kids?”
“Don’t tell my boss,” Merle answers in a hushed whisper. “I’ll get my employee phone plan revoked!”
Barry struggles to stifle a laugh. “Merle Hightower Highchurch, calling up the enemy to have a friendly chat? What would the Director think?”
Merle laughs too, the irony lost on him. “You know, you’re a much better conversationalist today than you were the first couple times we met. What’s up with that?”
“Uh… I dunno, social anxiety? How’s life on the moon treating you?”
“It’s got its perks. Apparently the gravity is low enough up there that my spinal cord decompressed, so now I’m a millimeter taller — and trust me, I know it doesn’t sound like much, but we dwarves have to take what we can get!”
“I can imagine.” An idea occurs to Barry — it’s a long shot, but worth a try. “How about the gnomes — are there any gnomes up there? How are they doing with the gravity situation?”
“Well, Leon doesn’t ‘like’ me or ‘the crew I hang with’ so I don’t really talk to him. And Davenport, well…”
Barry very nearly short-circuits his Stone of Farspeech as sparks of magic course through his form and down his sleeves. “What about Davenport? How is he?”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line, and Barry gets a bad feeling that he came across as a little too invested in Davenport’s well-being.
His fears are confirmed when Merle asks: “What, do you know him?”
“Just heard the name in passing,” Barry lies. “Never met him, but most names from the Bureau that I hear in passing end up belonging to pretty important people. What’s his — what does he do for your operation up there?”
“You know, I’ve never really thought about it before, but — if we could make this our little ‘Truth Zone’ here, for just a second — I’m not really sure why Lucretia hired him in the first place. All he can say is his own name, and he always seems kinda anxious about one thing or another — again, I never know what, since he can’t really talk.”
Barry doesn’t know how to reply.
“Damn good at cards, though! You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a good game of yooker these days — or even chess, for that matter. You play either?”
“No.” Barry’s pretty sure that Merle and Davenport are the only people in the planar-verse who know how to play the game they’ve dubbed “yooker.” And he doesn’t even want to think about that chess remark.
“Darn. Well, I should probably get going — I can’t miss karaoke night with the boys. We’ve been trying all month to get Lucretia to join us, and she finally let it slip that she hasn’t got anything going on this evening!”
“Oh. Well, uh… don’t let me keep you from that, then. Nice talking to you.”
After he switches his stone off, Barry adds in a whisper: “Wish I could join you.”
“Sup, Little Red Riding Robe?”
“Don’t call me that,” the Red Robe groans. From the other end of the line, Taako hears the faint rustling of papers — his call must have interrupted something. He doesn’t feel too bad about it, though.
“What, would you rather be the Big Bad Wolf?” Taako asks. “I thought I was doing you a solid and painting you in a sympathetic light!”
“You know what, fine. Little Red Riding Robe it is,” the Red Robe replies. The hostility in his voice begins to dissipate as he goes on. “Tell me, Taako — is this just another prank call?”
Taako chuckles. “Oh, you wish. See, I stumbled across a piece of info that might just interest you…”
He pauses, waiting to see how the Red Robe reacts, but he’s met with silence.
“I’ve got your number, Riding Robe, idiomatically and literally. So this afternoon I took a quick vacay to the Stone of Farspeech service provider’s offices, cast a few Charm Person spells, and figured out just what name that number was registered to. Pretty clever, huh?”
It might just be Taako’s imagination, but it feels like the silence grows a little more tense.
“Now tell me, who’s this Sildar Hallwinter guy?” he asks. “Is that an alias, or did you just mug a dude and take his phone?”
The Red Robe chuckles. “Huh. That’s some genuinely impressive sleuthing — then again, I should’ve expected as much from you, Taako.”
“Well, uh, to tell you the truth… it was technically Angus’s idea — you ever hear about him? The boy detective? Little snoop was going through my dresser and found the paper I jotted down your number on, and dragged me into this quest to track down your true identity.”
“And does he think this case has been cracked wide open by this new info?”
“No. He’s pretty sure Hallwinter isn’t your real name — and don’t tell him I said this, but I trust him on that one-hundred percent. He’s pretty good with this stuff.”
“What did you really call me about if you’re so sure, then?”
What if she’s just gone?
“Well, I —”
I can’t remember her
Please, Taako, just kill me!
“Taako? Taako, are you with me?”
He doesn’t feel like he’s with anyone. Even lying on his bed, beneath a pile of heavy blankets he doesn’t remember arranging, he still can’t stop shivering. He’s so cold, and so, so alone.
He clutches the Umbra Staff close to his chest, close to his heart. It’s the only warm thing he can feel.
“Please, Taako, can you say something?” the disembodied voice continues. It sounds like it’s trying very hard to stay calm, and mostly succeeding. “Tell me what’s happening? I have Merle and Magnus’s numbers — I can call them if you need someone to come help —”
It also sounds very familiar, but trying to place it makes Taako feel like he’s teetering over the edge of a void, about to lose his balance and plunge into darkness.
“W-who is this?”
“It’s me, Taako, it’s… it’s the Red Robe.”
Taako’s eyes finally land on the Stone of Farspeech at the corner of his bed, and hesitantly extends a hand towards it. It’s not quite as warm as the Umbra Staff — but it’s certainly not cold, either. He pulls it closer, wrapping his fingers around it.
The Red Robe lets out a short, sad chuckle, which the speaker garbles a little bit. “There are some who call me Little Red Riding Robe. Or Sildar Hallwinter.”
“Sh-shit.” Their earlier conversation returns to Taako quickly, as he tries to sit up in bed. His teeth are still chattering slightly when he tries to speak. “I — I dunno what just happened. I just b-blacked out —”
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. It’s not your fault.” There’s a pause. “Hey, do you think you can you tell me a little more about Angus? He seems like a bright kid —”
“He is. B-been picking up magic real fast too. He’s a nosy little shit who never stops asking questions to all two dozen of his adoptive moon parents and I’m so glad Lucretia hired him.”
“He was right about Sildar Hallwinter being an alias, you know. Did he say what tipped him off?”
“He’s got contacts in the police force planetside like you wouldn’t believe. There was hardly anything in any of their files about Sildar, so we talked to Johann and he told us that name never got fed to the Voidfish. From there, Angus just figured that no real person would have that little info about them floating around.”
“Huh. That makes sense. Did Merle and Magnus come along for this adventure, or was it just the two of you?”
“Nah, Magnus was hanging with Carey and Merle was napping. I could hear him snoring from a room away.”
“What about the Director? I’m assuming you didn’t mention this to her?”
“Oh, hell no. She’d throw us straight in the brig if she ever learned how long we’ve had your number without telling her.”
“Yeah, I figured. I trust Merle and Magnus are doing well?”
“Yeah, they’re… well, actually… okay, look. I probably shouldn’t be telling you of all people about this, but something’s been off about Magnus lately. I thought I was imagining it at first, but now I’m pretty sure he’s trying to avoid the Director — which is actually kinda hard these days, since she’s been overseeing our training more and more. And he’s been really awkward around Johann, too. I’ve never seen him like this, and… I’m kinda worried.”
The Red Robe goes silent for a moment. “Well… what happened in Refuge must have been hard on him. I’m sure he’ll feel better soon.”
“Yeah, yeah. He’s pretty tough…” Part of Taako feels guilty for revealing so much to the Red Robe, but part of him doesn’t want to hang up. Magnus and Merle are already fast asleep — what if he blacks out again, and no one’s on the phone to talk him out of it?
Then again… is that what the Red Robe is aiming for? To gain Taako’s trust, and act so supportive that Taako can’t help but reveal sensitive information during a late-night, emotionally vulnerable ramble?
No, Barry wouldn’t do that. If he wants information, it’s just because he’s worried about you.
“Well, this has been a great chat, Riding Robe,” Taako says with an exaggerated yawn. “But I’ve got to get to bed. You never know if tomorrow will end up being a long day of saving the world.”
“You do that,” the Red Robe tells him. “And remember, you can always call me back if you need to.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. G’night.”
Magnus’s body is gone, and it’s Barry’s fault.
(Strictly speaking, it’s the fault of the Animus Bell. It taunts him even now, tucked safely away in the possession of the Reclaimers, calling to him and promising to ensure his family survives when the Hunger comes. To bring Lup back from whatever worse-than-undeath fate she met. But Barry recognizes enough of his own voice in his Relic to know that it’s lying.)
Barry made the bell, he put it out into a world that was not his own, and both that world and his family paid dearly.
I’m going to find a way to get your body back, Magnus. I promise.
“I think we deserve some answers from you,” Magnus slowly declares, still holding his detached mannequin arm in his remaining hand. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem angry — just tired.
Oh Magnus, you don’t know the half of it, Barry thinks. He doesn’t say anything, but he nods to Magnus and then holds out his hand, creating an illusory Stone of Farspeech in his skeletal palm.
And one by one, without exchanging any words between each other, the three Reclaimers hand their stones over — first Magnus, slowly and solemnly; then Merle, with a guilty look on his face; and finally Taako, hesitant as he begins to raise his hand but resolute by the time he plucks the stone from his ear.
Barry flicks his hand, and the devices shatter.
“I’ll buy you new ones soon,” he promises. “But let’s get you those answers first.”