Another Path - Asidian - Baldur's Gate (Video Games) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

Astarion has spent two hundred years waiting for a hero to come.

It isn't the foolish sort of idle dreaming that one reads about in adventure tales, no – he doesn't moon about in picturesque arched windows, pressing his hand to his chest and sighing. But he does hope sometimes, furtive and distantly yearning, in the same way he still prays to gods who never listen, every now and again.

Fairy stories hardly tell of the world the way it really is; Astarion knows that better than anyone. In real life, no one arrives with a gleaming blade to slay the monster.

In real life, Astarion is the monster.

Perhaps it's true to those old tales then, after all, that the day a hero finally appears, the man slides a jagged stick of wood neatly through Astarion's chest.

And Astarion, who is dazed and barely conscious – Astarion, who is lying battered and broken in a sarcophagus, where his master has shut him away for what feels like an eternity – Astarion, who for an instant can't decide whether he's pleased the stake has missed his heart or not – stares up, half-blinded by the moonlight, and he hisses, "You wretch," in a voice that's a pathetic sort of a whisper.

He reaches to take hold of the stake, and his hands don't want to comply.

He's slow and clumsy, desperately weak with lack of blood. When he grabs hold, every place he's broken screams out in protest. His fingers, crooked and scraped clean of nails from scrabbling desperately at unyielding marble, struggle to close. Astarion forces them to anyway. He takes hold as best he's able, and makes to pull the stake out again.

But the hero, curse the man, seems to have realized he missed.

Perhaps it's too dark for proper aim, but the man has another stake in his hand now, as though he means to try again. Astarion flinches back – realizes he has nowhere to go – closes his eyes, and gets his hands up as though to ward off the blow. "Wait," he rasps, in a voice hoarse from screaming.

And for a wonder, the stake doesn't drive home.

For a wonder, it hesitates, and there is a single, dizzying moment when Astarion thinks that the man has listened to him. Then he hears a voice calling from somewhere across the grounds: "Hold up! We need one of them alive!"

Another voice replies, just as far away: "They're vampires. They ain't alive in the first place!"

And the man standing above him says, "I thought we were finishing them off?"

He still hasn't brought the stake down. Astarion closes his eyes, dizzy with pain and exhaustion and the scent of blood. It has been so very long since he's been this close to anything with a pulse.

He can't seem to concentrate over the throb of the man's heart – the promise of blood in his veins. The smell of him, rich and tempting.

"The lord's gone!" yells that first voice. "Cleared out and left them. We're going to need information!"

Astarion thinks he might be weeping – his cheeks are wet and somewhat sticky. He tries to pull the stake from him again, and he finds he can't quite manage. His hands won't close down properly.

"Well," says the man, "I guess it's your lucky night, vampire." He reaches out to bat Astarion's hands aside – takes hold of the stake and pulls, and out it slides again, the hard wood scraping along the wound as it goes.

Astarion keens and tries to curl in on himself – doesn't get that far. The man's hands are on him, then, steady and sure. They drag him up to sitting, and Astarion goes right back over, unable to support his own weight.

"Come on, now," says the man. "Don't make this harder than it has to be."

And Astarion hisses like a cat, and he snaps, "You shoved a gods-be-damned stake through me!"

Then he says nothing at all, because the man is shoving something into his mouth. It's a poor decision, truly. If he weren't still bound by his master's command, he could have bitten down and drawn blood – managed to steal a precious taste, before the gag is fixed into place.

But the command still holds, and however much he wants to, his jaw refuses to close – and then the opportunity is gone, and the man is winding strips of fabric around him, to keep the gag in place.

Astarion shrieks and thrashes – or tries to, anyway. He hasn't much got the strength for either, and so he ends up doing not much more than shoving at the man's hands.

"sh*t," says the second voice, from somewhere closer now. "Mine's dead."

"Mine, as well," says the first voice. And then: "Wyll?"

And the man standing above him – Wyll, by all accounts – says, "Secured."

He reaches into his belt pouch, then, and for an instant Astarion is certain he'll produce another stake. Instead he comes out with a round bottle about the size of his palm, the liquid inside black in the dim lighting from the moon. He uncorks it, and suddenly the air is thick with the smell of herbs Astarion doesn't recognize, sharp and astringent.

It's not an unpleasant smell, but Astarion cringes back, all the same—twists and bucks in Wyll's hold, fearing poison. Instead, the man pours the liquid onto the newly-made hole in Astarion's chest.

He expects it to sting. Expects it to burn, the way it always does when Cazador sprinkles sea salt into his shredded flesh, to watch him beg with the pain of it.

But whatever this liquid is, it doesn't hurt at all. The pain eases, and the ragged edges of the wound begin to seal, and Astarion is so busy staring down at it, struck insensate with surprise, that it takes him an endless moment to realize the man has wasted a healing potion on him.

It makes sense, of course – they want him alive, now, or as close to alive as he's been for two hundred years – but it's such a curious feeling, having pain inflicted and then eased again. Astarion isn't quite sure what to do with it.

Wyll is binding his hands now, solid knots, competent and sturdy. Astarion suspects he can slip free of them in all of two minutes, if he has a moment to himself.

Certainly he doesn't want to stay around to see what they'll do when they discover that he has no information for them. All he's known is darkness for a very, very long time now; all the information he can give is about the way the sarcophagus had pressed down around him, and the creeping horror of being trapped there with the slow torture of starvation, and the way he'd prayed rasping, breathless prayers for someone to come, anyone to come and lift him free again.

This is not, Astarion reflects, precisely what he'd had in mind.

All the same, he can't help but feel the vaguest sliver of relief, as Wyll reaches down to lift him free of the sarcophagus.

Perhaps there is no gleaming blade to slay the monster. Perhaps Astarion is being slung over the man's shoulder like a sack of potatoes instead of lifted in his arms like a princess in a child's tale. Perhaps he's being saved from one sort of hell so that self-righteous pretenders can torture him for information he doesn't have.

But Astarion watches the sarcophagus draw slowly away with each step of the man's feet, and he finds that he is grateful all the same.

Chapter 2


The response to the first chapter of this absolutely blew me away. Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to read and comment!

I hope you continue to enjoy as I meander my way through, trying to figure out where this is going. ^^

Chapter Text

In adventure tales, rescues are all the same.

A swift white horse carries the hapless damsel to safety. She sits side-saddle in front of her dashing hero, whose arms hold her, strong and sure, as they ride across the drawbridge and into the light of the rising sun.

This not-precisely-a-rescue, Astarion discovers, is nothing like that at all.

Instead he finds himself dumped over the back of a mule and lashed to the saddle in the dead of night, the only light the grudging sliver cast by the crescent moon.

Most probably, he suspects, the gods are having a laugh somewhere at his expense.

He makes a sound of protest at the indignity of it – muffled behind the cloth still stuffed into his mouth – and Wyll's hands don't so much as falter in securing him. "Quiet," he says. "It won't be long."

The clever thing would be to play along.

The clever thing would be to lie meek and compliant – not as though he has much strength left to struggle – and pretend to go along with no fight at all.

But the ropes tug at his wrists and his ankles, and Astarion rather suspects that the bones there are broken, a casualty of long months spent battering himself against unyielding stone. They grind in the worst kind of way, and then there's a tug, and all at once the pain is worse. Rather than meek and compliant, he surges upward, a scream muffled behind the gag – has to be pressed down again with firm hands and held in place for the remainder.

By the time the man is finished, Astarion has gone limp again, pain making shadows dance at the corners of his eyes.

"Ready to move?" says another voice, closer now. There's the flash of lantern light, somewhere distant.

"He isn't going anywhere," says Wyll.

And he's right, Astarion realizes, twisting his wrists first one way and then the next, to try and find some slack. There is none, and his plan to slip away into the night, however tentative it might be, is going to have to wait until he's off the back of the blasted mule.

The ride isn't long, but it's a little slice of every one of the hells.

The bindings tug at broken bone in time with the creature's gait, and the hateful thing seems intent on finding every pothole in the road. Worse than that, though, is the smell.

Not the smell of the mule, no – it has the unmistakable stink of the stable, strong but not unforgivable. It's the scent of the creature's blood that feels like the worst sort of torture, bound as he is face-down against it.

The blood-scent cuts through him like Cazador's flaying knives, narrow and wicked and impossibly sharp. It peels parts of him away – sets an ache in him that's deeper than any broken bone. Astarion makes a low, keening sort of sound, lost under the clop of the mule's hooves. He works his jaw, trying to dislodge the gag – bites down on roughspun cotton instead of warm, living flesh.

It's worse somehow than when Wyll was near enough to bite. There's no compulsion keeping from him from this, only a few scraps of fabric.

If he could manage even a mouthful, he's certain it would be enough. Certain it would seem a feast, after so very long without.

But he can manage nothing at all, and the mule clops on over cobblestones and into the night.

Lost as he is in the all-encompassing want, Astarion has little sense of time, and he can see nothing of the world, face-down as he's bound. The monster hunters speak, from time to time, but it is so dreadfully hard to concentrate on anything with the need that wells up in his chest, threatening to choke him.

And so it comes as a surprise when there are hands on him again – steady and sure, undoing the bindings with the same brisk efficiency as they were applied.

There's a dizzying moment of disorientation and then he's being lifted again – settled back on a shoulder, the scent of blood richer now, more intoxicating. Astarion tugs at his bindings as best he's able – makes a noise of protest half lost behind the fabric of the gag.

"It'll go worse for you if you struggle," Wyll tells him, and Astarion, who knows that better than anyone, makes himself go still again.

He's quiet as those measured steps carry him inside; there's a subtle change in lighting, and a new warmth in the air, and what little Astarion can make out from his field of vision shifts from cobblestones to polished wood.

"Here," says another voice. "Put him in the cellar."

They're such innocuous words, really.

Astarion has heard so many worse ones from his master's lips over the centuries.

But they wedge like a dagger in his brain, sinking deep and prying him open. His heart hasn't beat in hundreds of years, but it seems to clench in his chest, now, slowly upending itself as some icy thread of terror takes hold.

Under Cazador's loving hands, he's spent nights as a pretty bauble to lure in unsuspecting souls – spent nights chained and collared like a dog – spent nights lying still and silent on a bed of broken glass. On one memorable occasion, when his master was particularly displeased with his performance, Astarion has spent the night hanging from the ceiling by hooks pressed neatly through his palms, the holes slowly tearing larger as the hours slipped by.

None of those things quite inspire the same creeping dread as this does – as the thought that, so newly freed from being trapped alone beneath the earth, he might now be returned to it.

Astarion screams into the gag, then. It's not a particularly loud scream; his voice is ravaged, still, and mostly gone. But it's shrill and piercing, and all at once he begins to struggle in earnest.

He squirms and thrashes – aims a kick vaguely toward Wyll's calf, and finds that the angle is wrong for him to reach it.

"Would you look at that," says the other voice. "Didn't know any better, I'd think we got us a vampire what's scared of the dark."

The other monster hunter laughs, then, the sound low and booming – reaches out, casually, to slap Astarion's back, as though they're in a tavern, gathered around with tankards in their hands.

There's the sound of a door opening, and Wyll says: "We're to the stairs, now. Be still, unless you particularly want to be dropped."

Then they're descending, and each step it grows darker, and Astarion can't be still. He doesn't have much strength in him, but he bucks and shrieks and struggles all the same.

It's something of a novelty, to be able to fight back for once. Usually, his master prefers him only to beg.

But Wyll's hold on him is firm and careful, and Astarion doesn't so much as slip. He isn't dropped, and nor does he squirm away; he's set on the ground, at the bottom of what looks like a set of stairs.

Astarion doesn't need to breathe – hasn't needed to breathe for centuries – but his chest is heaving all the same, as though he can't get enough air. In the dim lighting of the cellar, he can only make out Wyll in silhouette, and even through the panic he has the time to think, somewhat bitterly, that the man looks like a storybook prince, all strong jaw and sensitive eyes and sculpted nose.

Then Wyll draws away again and leaves him on the floor, and Astarion finds he can't quite help himself. He reaches out with his bound hands to clutch at the hem of the man's trousers.

It's pathetic, really.

The very lowest kind of groveling, the sort that Cazador so enjoys, but bound and gagged, there's nothing else that Astarion can manage.

In the end, it serves him not at all.

In the end, Wyll jerks his leg away, and he turns to climb back up the stairs. A moment longer and the door swings closed again, leaving Astarion alone beneath the earth.

Chapter 3


The response to this fic continues to be absolutely incredible. Thank you guys for coming along on this ride for me!

My greatest regret for this chapter is that elves have darkvision even in no light conditions, so Astarion couldn't have zero visibility for max panic. Alas. Curse you, D&D mechanics. -_-;

Chapter Text

Astarion cannot, he discovers, work his way free of the rope in two minutes.

His hands won't cooperate.

When he stays very still, they throb with the sick, deep ache of broken bone; when he tries to move them, that pain becomes sharp and sudden, nigh unbearable.

It doesn't stop him from trying, but he doesn't try too terribly long , subsiding at last to lie on his side on the cellar floor, chest heaving to suck in gasps of air he doesn't need.

It unsettles him a little to discover that he even has the option to just lie here. By all accounts, he's gods only know how far from his master without permission, and the compulsion to rejoin him ought to be kicking in like a fish hook in the throat, reeling him in until he has no choice but to comply.

Astarion doesn't feel it at all – not so much as a tickle of an impulse.

It's a novel sensation.

He rather suspects he's only been granted the leeway because Cazador doesn't wish to be found just now, but it feels like the barest taste of freedom all the same.

But all of that – none of that – changes the slow gnaw of panic in his chest, at being so shut away. It dips wide and deep and cold, and Astarion has never been more grateful for his keen elven eyes. The room is swathed in darkness, but it still appears in twilit shades, faint gray shapes provided by his darkvision: an arched ceiling, and a mound of crates stacked in one corner, and a perfectly ordinary set of stairs.

It is a room, Astarion tells himself. There's space here.

If he had the strength, he could sit or even stand. If his arms weren't bound, he could spread them out and not be stopped by the cold, slick pressure of unyielding marble.

Why, it's practically a lakeside holiday.

But curse his useless lungs, they haven't gotten the message yet, and his chest heaves until he's dizzy with it. He ought to be planning his escape – ought to be rummaging through those crates for something sharp enough to cut through the rope.

But his legs are as useless as his arms are; he's weak as a newborn kitten and twice as wobbly, and when he tries to right himself, all Astarion manages to do is kick his way across the floor a handspan or two.

He hasn't gotten very far before the door opens again.

This time, the light that spills in isn't only backlit from the doorway. This time, the man who carried him into this place has a lantern with him, and it spills its light, mellow and golden, into the dark places of the cellar.

It's lovely, really. Captivating.

It's been a very, very long time since Astarion has seen the flicker of a flame.

A brief moment's delay, as Wyll locks the door behind him and descends the stairs, and that flickering spot of gold is coming nearer, casting light onto a face that's scarred and handsome and somber.

The smell of him is bewitching, more unendurable the closer he comes. When he settles himself on the floor beside Astarion, the scent of blood begins to cut away at him like a saw, jagged at the edges.

"Mind my words, vampire," says Wyll, and Astarion finds that he has to concentrate quite hard to mind the words. It's so very difficult to think of anything but the mesmerizing pulse of the man's heart.

"You still live for one reason only," says Wyll, "and that reason is that you might lead us to your master. Nod if you understand."

Astarion can scarcely think past the want. All the same, a part of him shies from the threat of another stake plunged through him, and he nods, the gesture not entirely steady.

"I'm going to undo your gag," says Wyll. "We're going to have a little chat, you and I."

His hands are on Astarion then, undoing the knots in the cloth. Some of the tension eases, and then the fabric pulls away, and those steady fingers tug the gag out of Astarion's mouth.

He flexes his jaw – licks at his lips – finds that his mouth floods with saliva, the instant it's gone.

He's miserably hungry – can scarcely think – but he knows very well that this conversation could determine the outcome for the rest of his potentially very short life.

Astarion licks at his lips again, careful. "Thank you, darling," he manages, voice rasping and weak. "That was rather beginning to chafe."

And for a wonder, the man leans in to examine the place where the cloth was bound – frowns at what he sees. "Apologies," he says, and for a moment Astarion can say nothing at all.

It's been decades at least since anyone has offered him an apology, and certainly not for anything so trivial as a fleeting discomfort.

"I don't suppose you could see about the ropes?" Astarion says, painstakingly casual. He lifts his arms, slightly. "There's something to be said for being tied up by a handsome man, but they're a touch tight for my taste."

"Do you take me for a fool?" says Wyll, scowl deepening – and Astarion, who does very much take him for a fool, opens his mouth to assure that he would never dream of such a thing.

He never gets that far, because Wyll is looking at his hands, now, still presented as though in half-prayer – looking at the shape of them, highlighted in the golden glow of the lantern.

They look dreadful, all told. Every nail has been scraped clean, and the fingers are crooked and battered. The backs of his hands are ragged and uneven with the shattered bone beneath the skin. There's not a hint of a bruise, of course – not so much as a whisper of swelling. He hasn't enough blood for that.

And Wyll is staring with what looks very much like dawning horror, as though he hasn't noticed until just now. Perhaps he hasn't, Astarion reflects. Humans have such terribly useless eyes.

"What in the name of the gods happened to your hands?" says Wyll, and there's something in his voice just then, more genuine alarm and less carefully banked threat.

Astarion offers him a smile, crooked and charming. "It comes of clawing at solid marble, I'd imagine," he says. "Lovely stone, really. Makes the most lavish floor tiles. Not at all something I recommend beating your fists against."

He can see the moment that comprehension dawns – the way Wyll looks him over, this time. Really looks , holding the lantern aloft so that he can take in the sorry state of him. There's a lot, Astarion reflects bitterly, to take in.

He's a terrible mess, clothes torn and stained with his own dried blood – from back when he still had blood in him to bleed. His feet are bare, likely as misshapen as his hands are from endless hours, and days, and months spent battering them against the inside of the sarcophagus.

"You weren't sleeping," says Wyll, the words slow and careful, as though he's feeling them out.

"Elves don't sleep, darling," Astarion sniffs. "We meditate."

"You weren't meditating, then!" says Wyll, and the tone is so sharp – so angry – that Astarion flinches back, without meaning to.

"Gods above," says Wyll, but he says it to himself, soft and a little lost. He's rummaging through the pouch at his belt again, and he comes out with another of those round bottles as wide around as his palm, and Astarion stares at it for a moment, entirely caught off guard.

"Drink this," says Wyll, and uncorks it roughly, and presses it to his lips.

It has the same scent as before – herbs, sharp and medicinal – and this time Astarion knows very well that it isn't poison. He's not entirely sure why the man is wasting another healing potion on him, but he fully intends for it to be empty before Wyll can change his mind.

He tips his head back and swallows – drinks down the potion and lets his eyes shudder closed as it spreads slow fingers of relief through him. It's not enough; there's too much damage for it to ease everything away. But there is an easing, for the first time in a long time. That slow, deep ache subsides a little, and Astarion shudders as the pain relents.

The potion pulls away, and Wyll says, "Another," and then there's a new bottle at his lips.

Astarion can't fathom why, but he drinks this one down, as well, and the pain recedes a little further – a third, and he's all but floating in the relief of it.

He can't remember the last time he was whole and uninjured, free from the hurt of his master's endless parade of torments.

"There," says Wyll, and his voice is oddly soft, in a way that Astarion isn't entirely sure how to parse. "That seems to be the worst of it. Are you still in pain?"

Astarion opens his eyes again to find Wyll peering down at him. His expression matches his tone – oddly soft. Oddly concerned .

The man really is a fool.

"I haven't so much as a scratch," Astarion tells him, and he lets his smile return. He means for it to be practiced and charming – finds to his displeasure that it's wobbly around the edges, far more genuine than he intends. "Do be careful, though, my dear. If you spoil me too much, I'm afraid I'll be quite taken in." Astarion rallies – slips into a different smile, the kind that comes with half-lidded eyes. "Handsome and generous. Whatever will I do?"

He isn't entirely sure what response he expects.

Certainly it's not for Wyll to surge to his feet, graceless and abrupt, all at once.

"What you'll do," Wyll tells him, "is wait here. Give me a moment."

He doesn't wait for an answer. He's turned already and is making for the stairs.

It isn't until he locks the door after him that Astarion realizes he's left the lantern, and that its golden light spills into the dim corners of the room, keeping the darkness at bay.

Chapter 4


Thank you again to everyone who is reading. Your responses have been giving me life. :>

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The light from the lantern is mesmerizing.

Truth be told, Astarion wants nothing more than to lie beside it and watch the flickering flame – the soft hues of gold it radiates into the world, the first color he has seen in far too long – and lose himself in the floaty, pleasant daze that's descended over him. The hunger is still agony, but it's agony he's lived with for what feels like eternity. Here and now, with no blood to torment him with things he can't have and no pain riddling his extremities, it's more tempting than it ought to be to close his eyes and allow himself to drift, just for a moment or two.

It would be foolish to give in.

He needs to be free of the ropes – to be free of this place altogether. The longer he takes to return to Cazador, the more he'll regret having dawdled. Even if he can't feel the pull of the compulsion to return, he knows this as surely as he knows anything; it's woven into the fabric of the realms, a hard and inevitable truth.

Even so, he lets his eyes flicker closed, just for an instant – savors the way the flame makes the inside of his eyelids glow a faint but vibrant red.

As he lies there, basking in that precious, flickering glow, another thought occurs to him. It seems almost impossible – the very wildest sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

But if the compulsion is gone, what's to stop him from leaving the city?

If Cazador has slackened the leash for fear that Astarion will lead killers to his doorstep, why shouldn't he take advantage? Ships come and go from Baldur's Gate to places all up and down the Sword Coast. He could be away before anyone was the wiser – never set foot here again.

Never have Cazador's hands on him again.

It's a dizzying thought.

His master will think he's still in the thrall of these monster hunters, somewhere, and Astarion – Astarion will be free and clear, somewhere far from here, away from an endless parade of nights filled with charming words and greedy hands and the scent of forbidden blood.

It's a lovely dream. He hasn't allowed himself to think of anything so fanciful in a century and a half.

But it's a thought for later – a fantastical what-if for if he can manage not to be staked before he gets that far.

For now, he opens his eyes and gets to work.

This time, the ropes are nothing to him, the broken bones all mended – a deft twist and a few well-placed plucks from clever fingers and he's sloughing them off. All told, it takes him rather less than two minutes.

Astarion allows himself a brief, satisfied sort of a smile – ignores the way his hands shake, and goes to push himself up to sitting.

He can't manage it.

It's not just his hands that are unsteady; his arms are, too, and they wobble and give way to leave him lying on the floor again.

Astarion curses under his breath and draws himself up, as best he's able, for another try. He makes it mostly upright this time before tipping over again – falls all the harder, for his effort.

This won't be some glorious escape, then. That's fine. Astarion has managed a great many things in inglorious ways, these past centuries. He'll take what he can get, so long as he can get it.

This time, he doesn't attempt to rise at all. This time he drags himself along the floor on his belly like a snake, trembling with the effort. Every inch feels like a hard-won victory, and he tries very hard not to think about the fact that he has no solid plan.

He can take cover in the shadows in the corner – rummage through the crates to find something that he might use as a weapon.

He won't be terribly effective, perhaps, but he doesn't have to best one of the monster hunters in a fight; he just needs to stay hidden long enough to plant a blade in the throat when they come too close.

It's not precisely a plan, but it's the best he has.

He clings to it all the way to the crates along the walls – clings to it as he scrabbles with the first of them, trying to pry the top free with nothing but his fingers.

It puts him in mind of the marble again – of slipping his nails into the nearly-invisible seam, and prying, and prying, and prying until the flesh gives. All at once, Astarion finds that he can't continue. All at once, he feels that same sick, icy sort of dread that he'd been filled with when the door had closed, and he'd been alone down here without the lantern.

He's so busy riding it out that he hardly notices the sound of the door opening again.

There are footsteps on the stairs, and Wyll is cursing as he finds the ropes, and Astarion really does need to find a weapon, two minutes ago if possible, but if it isn't now is a reasonable substitute. But his head is reeling and his hands are trembling, and he ought to be prying the crate open but he finds that he can't.

"I might have known you wouldn't stay put," says Wyll.

And Astarion turns toward him and flashes the best smile he can manage, and he says, "I told you, darling. The ropes were a touch tight for my taste."

Wyll reaches out to scruff him like he's an unruly kitten, and Astarion bristles at the casual gesture – tips back over again, as soon as Wyll sits him up.

This time, Wyll doesn't admonish him for being difficult. This time, Wyll draws back, frowning – sits him again up so that he leans against the crates behind him, the propped-up pose allowing him to remain upright.

"What's the matter with you?" says Wyll, and Astarion can't help it.

He laughs, low and rasping at first, and then gradually higher pitched, perhaps with a hint of hysteria to it. If he was putting on a show, it would be rather a nice touch.

He isn't putting on a show.

It's genuine, and it's entirely out of his control, and he hates it.

When at last Astarion can speak again – lolls against the crates, still unable to support his own weight – he fixes Wyll with a smile that he suspects is every bit as unhinged as that laughter had been.

"My dear," he says, "If I were to begin a list, we'd be here a tenday."

Wyll's frown puts a crease in his forehead, and he amends his question: "Why can't you sit up?"

"Oh, that," says Astarion, aiming for airy and unconcerned. "It comes of being starved, I suspect."

"Starved," says Wyll, levelly.

"Yes," says Astarion. "I rather find that sarcophagi leave something to be desired, as far as amenities are concerned. Not so much as pillow, to say nothing of how much there isn't to hunt."

Wyll is watching him with that look again, all slow-dawning horror. Astarion sees it creep over him by degrees, as he takes in the implications.

Wyll's mouth works, but no sound comes out. He clears his throat – tries again.

"How long were you there?" he manages, at last.

Astarion considers something flippant in reply – discards it, just as easily. This man might be his enemy, but he's the sort that fancies himself a hero. If Astarion plays him the right way – pretends that he means to help, or offers the right kind of incentives – he may yet concede to bringing a wayward rat.

It's pathetic, how even the thought makes his mouth flood with saliva. He has to take a moment, to swallow – licks at his lips without meaning to.

"What day is it?" says Astarion.

"The seventh of Deepwinter," Wyll tells him, and that – surely that's not right. He's been trapped far longer than a tenday; he knows that for certain.

A thought occurs to Astarion, then. It is not a terribly pleasant thought.

All at once, he goes very, very still.

"And the year?" he manages, voice quiet. He can't bring himself to look at Wyll's face.

"1492," says Wyll, and ah, yes. There it is.

Astarion closes his eyes for a moment. He clamps down hard on the impulse to give in to that laughter again. He presses a hand to his mouth, just for an instant, and then he takes it away again, and he says: "A year and a tenday."

"A year and a tenday," Wyll repeats, voice blank of inflection.

Astarion thinks he might weep. He thinks he might scream.

He can't help but wonder how much longer Cazador had meant to leave him.

His chest makes the most awful hitching motion, though he doesn't need the air. "My master was quite displeased, you see," he manages, and the words feel distant and swimmy. His head is reeling, as though he might black out.

He feels Wyll's hands on him, then, pressing down on his shoulders, and Astarion wants to tell him to let go, but the words won't come. He's shaking quite badly, just now, and his throat is too tight.

"Lie down," says Wyll, and his voice is very soft, and there's something in his tone that Astarion isn't certain how to parse.

Astarion is shaking, and shaking, and then he's lying on the floor, and he doesn't quite remember how he got there.

"Breathe," says Wyll. "Just breathe for a minute," and Astarion wants to snap that he doesn't need to breathe, but just now he's gasping like a fish on the docks, trying to take in air that does him no good at all.

His eyes flicker closed. When he opens them again, Wyll is busy opening the crate Astarion had failed so badly to unlatch before. He's reaching inside, and Astarion just has time to think, with a bitter twist of irony, that this is how he'll get the weapon he'd wanted so badly, right between his ribs. Then he realizes that what Wyll is pulling free isn't a blade at all.

It's fabric, soft and shapeless, and Astarion's mind can't seem to keep up – can't scramble fast enough to provide a reason why – right up until Wyll spreads it out on top of him, hands gentle and steady and sure, and he realizes that it's a blanket of all things.

A blanket, of all things, and then Wyll is reaching back into the crate again and there's another settled atop the first, and the weight of them – and the warmth of them – is so unexpected that that he feels something inside him break entirely to pieces.

They're soft, pressed in against him, and all at once Astarion is certain he will weep. It's been a very, very long time since he's had anything that's soft.

He hasn't much strength left in him, but even that little bit is enough to pull the blankets up to cover his face – to curl in on his side and lie there, shaking, for long moments.

And if his cheeks are wet before too terribly long, well – Wyll can't see his face anyway, so this little lapse in self-control is scarcely as humiliating as it might be otherwise.

Astarion tells himself this, at least.

It feels as though he's here for ages. At length, he realizes how close Wyll is sitting beside him – that the man is cross-legged on the floor, the warmth of his leg a solid pressure against Astarion's back. That feels nice, too.

Eventually, by slow degrees, he stops shaking quite so badly. Eventually his cheeks shift from sticky and wet to sticky and dry.

Eventually Wyll speaks again, voice as soft as the blankets. "I'm not going to tie you up again," he says.

Astarion doesn't reply to that. He doesn't shift the blankets down to look at him, either.

"I need to go back upstairs," says Wyll. "For a while, at least. Just rest here, while I'm gone." There's a hesitation, then. "Perhaps we can help each other, you and I."

It's a laughable thought.

The man is a monster hunter. He'd as soon put a stake through Astarion's chest as help him. He's already put a stake through Astarion's chest.

But then – he's already helped, too. More than that. He's shown more kindness than Astarion has seen in centuries.

"Perhaps," Astarion allows, and his voice is a ragged croak from the tears.

There ought to be more. He ought to be charming the man senseless, trying to secure this alliance.

The words, he finds, won't come. They're stuck in his throat, somewhere behind the awful, tight aching feeling buried there.

A hand settles on Astarion's shoulder, through the blanket – squeezes, the contact brief and warm. Then it withdraws again, and the sound of footsteps fade away toward the stairs.

When Astarion peers out from beyond the blanket at last, he sees that Wyll has paused to move the lantern closer to him.


A thousand thanks to the incredible phoenix-art-official on Tumblr, who did art of this chapter. I'm still absolutely losing my mind over this. Thank you again so much! <333

Chapter 5


Chapter 5, in which the sailing is not so smooth.

Chapter Text

Astarion allows himself to drift.

He's exhausted in every way there is to be exhausted – starving and pushed to the very edge of his limits. He's struggled for all he's worth when he has no reserves left to struggle with , and he feels it weigh upon him now.

Probably he ought to keep trying.

Probably he ought to rouse himself and attempt to open the crate again.

But he feels weak and hollow from the weeping, and a traitorous part of his mind won't stop asking what if .

What if Wyll is right: what if they can help each other? What if, instead of torture for information he doesn't have, he's allowed simply to be ? What if he can rest here, in the flickering light of the lantern, and rub his fingers carefully over the fabric of the blanket, back and forth, forth and back, relishing in the feel of it, plush beneath his fingertips.

It's the most foolish type of wishful thinking.

At best, it will get him killed.

But Astarion can't seem to muster the willpower to rise again – can't seem to drag himself from the close, soft weight of the blankets. They hold him in place so much better than the ropes ever did.

Wyll is gone longer, this time. At some point, Astarion hears what he thinks might be voices raised in an argument, somewhere upstairs. He can't pick out any words, though – can't seem to concentrate on much of anything.

He feels strange and floaty and unmoored, in a way that is not entirely unpleasant.

At some point, he must drift into a trance; the world recedes to something half-there, and for a while he's unaware of much at all. It's the sound of the door opening again that drags him back into focus. He blinks, in the warm glow of the lantern, and gazes idly up toward where Wyll stands outlined against the door frame.

And a voice says, "Gotten awfully cozy, haven't you?" and the voice isn't Wyll's voice at all.

It's a hard voice – a mocking sort of voice. It's the kind of voice that makes Astarion try to sit bolt upright, only he still can't support his own weight, and he wobbles and goes down again, a soft curse on his lips.

He stays where he lands for a long moment, head reeling, forehead pressed to the stone of the floor. By the time he can look up again, the man is at the bottom of the stairs and fast approaching.

When he reaches Astarion, he crouches beside the lantern and leans in – and here is a monster hunter, if Astarion has ever seen one. None of Wyll's soft, clean-shaven good looks, no; this man has a hard jaw speckled with stubble and hard eyes, and his lips are drawn back in a sneer.

"Listen here, spawn," he says. "You might think you're pulling a fast one, but let me tell you – you ain't fooling all of us."

Astarion lets a smile come to his lips, charming and empty. "Why, darling," he says. "Whatever do you mean?"

For his trouble, the man reaches down and seizes Astarion by the front of his shirt. He hauls him up so that he dangles, limply, in that iron grip – shakes him, hard.

"Watch your mouth," says the man. "Might be you've got the Blade of Frontiers wrapped around your pretty little finger, but I've got more sense in my head."

"And such a convincing way to show it," Astarion purrs. "Tell me, does aggravating the people you hope to beg for assistance work often for you?"

The man backhands him across the face, hard enough to set Astarion's ears to ringing.

He suspects that he has a split lip – suspects that he would be bleeding, if he had enough blood in him for it.

"You think you're funny," growls the man.

"I have it on good authority that I'm marvelously entertaining," Astarion tells him, and he gets backhanded again for his trouble.

"If it was up to me," the man says, "you'd have coughed up everything you know by now. We'd be halfway to your master already."

Astarion licks carefully at his split lip. "Ah," he says. "But it sounds as though it isn't up to you."

"Keep testing me," says the man. "Ain't nobody going to look twice if some pasty little smartass gets roughed up."

Astarion laughs, soft and rasping. He knows this man's type; he's taken dozens of him back to Cazador's palace over the centuries. Hundreds. Imbeciles with their heads stuffed full of their own importance –more strength than sense, and hard hands used to taking what they want.

For once, Astarion finds, he doesn't have to smile and flirt and play along.

For once, this isn't a stage show where he has to feign anything but derision.

He lets it show – lets his lip pull back in a sneer. "Go on, then," says Astarion. "Do as you like. When your compatriots wonder why an ever-so-cooperative informant has gone silent on them, I'll leave it to you to explain."

The man is scowling like an ogre; it does him no favors, twisting his features into a mask of rage. For a moment, Astarion fears he's pressed too far – that the man will haul back and hit him in earnest, this time.

It doesn't come.

Instead he reaches for the dagger sheathed at his waist, the motion calm and controlled.

Ah, Astarion thinks distantly, and waits for him to begin cutting.

But that doesn't come, either. Instead, the man presses the blade to the heel of his own palm – nicks it, just a little. For an instant, Astarion has no idea what he means to do. Then the blood-scent hits him, so heady and intense that it feels as though the man has slammed a morningstar into his abdomen.

"Wyll said you were hungry, spawn," says the man. He holds his hand out, and Astarion can't take his eyes from that thin trickle of blood. "Poor little vampire, locked away where its fangs couldn't tear out any throats."

The hunger has claws . It's raking away at him inside.

Astarion wants with an intensity that's impossible to bear – needs, in a deep and visceral way.

"Go on," says the man. "Take a bite. Leave your toothmarks in me and not a single person will look twice if I plant a stake in you."

The man's hand is closer now, as though in offer. That single rivulet of blood seems the most important thing in all the world.

The pain is incredible – unspeakable.

"Aren't you hungry, little spawn?" says the man. He reaches out, almost gently, to smear a drop of blood on Astarion's lower lip. "All I need is an excuse."

It's the very best thing Astarion has ever smelled.

He can't recall ever wanting something this badly before, and he's spent two hundred years wanting so very many things.

He groans as though the man has shoved the dagger in him, after all – tries to pull away, and doesn't have the strength for it. If it wasn't for the compulsion, his teeth would already be lodged in the man's wrist.

"I thought you were starving," says the man, and he smears another line of blood onto Astarion's cheek.

Astarion's chest has begun to hitch, deep and ragged, pulling in air he doesn't need. He squeezes his eyes shut, and he tries to look away.

"I thought it had been so long," says the man.

He presses his bleeding hand to Astarion's lips, and all Astarion wants to do is bite down – to take what little he can before the stake drives home and puts an end to him.

But the compulsion from his master is strong – is everything – is his world. His lips stay pressed into a thin, tight line; his jaw clenches and refuses to open.

"Stubborn thing," says the man, "aren't you?"

This time when he hits Astarion, it's with his open palm. The blood splatters, leaving a trail of droplets over skin and floor and lantern.

There's so much of it. The wretched scrabble of need twists tighter still, pathetically yearning. It feels like watching a feast scattered to the floor, ruined before a single mouthful can be eaten.

Astarion bites down on his own tongue, unable to bite down on anything else. There is no blood to well to the surface.

The man has just drawn back to hit him again when the door creaks open and light spills into the room. Astarion half-turns – half hopes, even dazed and wanting as he is, that the figure highlighted in the door frame will be Wyll's, this time.

He doesn't get a chance to see.

The man drops him as though burned; Astarion lands hard on the stone of the floor, a soft keening sound caught somewhere in his throat.

"What in all the hells do you think you're doing?" says a voice – and somewhere, distantly, through the all-encompassing need, Astarion is aware that it's Wyll. Somewhere, even more distantly, he's aware that he's grateful , and there's something dangerous about that, but he can't concentrate enough just now to think about why.

"Step away from him," Wyll says, and the man is standing, and he's holding his hands out, palms forward, an easy smile on his face.

"Just having a little fun," he says. "Seeing if your pet spawn is any trustworthy."

"What did you do?" says Wyll, voice tight with barely leashed fury.

Astarion realizes, vaguely, that he's still making that wounded keening sort of sound. He ought to stop, but he can't seem to. He can't seem to think, past the scent of the blood that's still on him.

He reaches shaking fingers to wipe it away – wishes, with every fiber of his being, that he could lick his hands clean. That he could get down on his hands and knees on the floor and lap at those spilled droplets.

The man is talking, still, casual and disarming. Wyll's replies are shorter, sharper, tenser.

Astarion finds he can't focus enough to pick out what they're saying. He's shaking all over, now; he can't tear his gaze away from the blood on his own hands.

Now the voices are much louder, a distant hum of background noise. He really ought to be paying attention. He'll need this, later, as leverage.

He can't.

His chest is still hitching, helpless and ragged, and he can't . He wants so badly for something to ease the endless, hollow ache inside him. A mouthful would be enough.

A drop would be enough.

Distantly, he's aware of a door slamming. Distantly, he's aware of Wyll settling beside him.

Then Wyll is speaking, but the words don't cut through the white noise. Astarion can't open his mouth, lest the blood seep in. He can't tear his gaze from the crimson smears streaked across his hands.

For an eternity, that's all there is.

Then gentle hands sit him up – lean him back against the crates behind him, so that he doesn't have to support his own weight. A damp rag reaches out to wipe at his hands, cleaning the blood away.

A moment later and it's wiping at his face, as well – both cheeks, so very gentle, and then the line of his lips. The blood-scent, sharper than any blade, recedes somewhat – unbearable, still, but no longer eating him alive.

That cloth keeps going – wipes away the blood from the floor, and the lantern.

Wyll says something, the words a background hum – rises, and moves toward the stairs.

For a moment, there's a rush of mindless, wordless alarm, like the water in a river under a bridge. Astarion half turns toward him, scrambling to come up with the right words to keep him from going.

But Wyll doesn't go. He passes the bucket through the door – takes another one in return. He stands there for long moments, speaking with someone, words too low for Astarion to hear.

Then he returns again, down the stairs, to sit beside him.

The smell of him is rich and captivating, an impossible tease – but after the raw scent of fresh blood, so close and so tempting, this new version of unbearable seems almost bearable by comparison.

It isn't much, but he'll take whatever little he can get.

Chapter 6


The response to this fic continues to be absolutely incredible. Thank you all so much! <333

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The silence is long.

It stretches out, vast and endless; the world is somewhere distant and muzzy, far away from him.

At last Wyll speaks, quiet. This time the words filter in, as though from a great distance. "We owe you an apology," says Wyll. "He had no call."

Astarion turns to look at him, and even that faint motion seems to take great effort. He's shaking quite badly, still – leaning his entire weight up against the wooden crate behind him, in order to remain sitting upright. "Well, darling," Astarion manages. "I suppose you'll have to make it up to me."

Wyll gives a considering sort of a hum. He reaches, careful, to retrieve the blankets from the floor. "You showed remarkable restraint," Wyll says, and he draws the blankets up around Astarion's shoulders, hands very gentle indeed.

Astarion feels his lips twist in an expression that's the bitterest sort of smile. Isn't this precisely the opening he needs?

He ought to play at being noble at heart – a hapless damsel, doing his very best to fight off those nasty vampiric urges. Wyll fancies himself a hero, after all; that's what he'll want to hear.

But Astarion's head is still spinning; his thoughts come slow and sluggish, as though packed in cotton, and all the rest of him is adrift somewhere far from here, quite unmoored. Before he can decide just how to phrase it in order to paint himself in the best light, he finds that he's saying: "I'm afraid restraint is for less desperate men."

"Oh?" says Wyll.

"I'm bound by my master's rules." Astarion touches a trembling hand to his own chest and puts on as pretentious a voice as he can manage. "Though shalt not drink the blood of thinking beings."

"Ah," says Wyll, and he says it quietly. He leans in, examining Astarion's expression. "Then, if you'd had the choice –?"

If he'd had the choice, Astarion would have made that sorry wretch of a man regret ever laying a hand on him.

He would have gulped down as much as he could avail himself of – would have reveled in it, right up until they tore him away – and when they drove the stake in him, he'd have died happy, at least.

But Astarion has some sense about him, still. He says, "It's been a dreadfully long time. I'm afraid hunger might have made me do something I'd regret."

When he glances over, he sees that Wyll is watching him. Astarion reaches down, automatic, to draw the blankets in closer. The gesture is only partially for show.

"I don't suppose," says Astarion, carefully. He pauses and licks at his lips. "I don't suppose you have something you might spare."

"Blood, you mean," says Wyll, tone flat and unreadable.

"Not from you, personally," Astarion is quick to add, the words smooth and reassuring as he can make them. The delivery falls somewhat short of his intentions; his voice wobbles on the last word. "It isn't as though I'd be able to –" He cuts himself off – swallows. "A pest, perhaps. A rat. That's all. It doesn't have to be much."

Wyll is looking at him still, and it's a strange sort of a look. It's not a pleased look by any means, and Astarion curses himself for a fool.

Of course a monster hunter doesn't mean to feed his quarry. Of course the man wishes to keep him weak – easy to control.

But Astarion is so very hungry. If there's any chance at all, he means to take it.

He leans in, the pose practiced and casual, a scene played out in a hundred inns and flophouses the city wide, spanning a stage of centuries. He's near enough almost to touch Wyll, if he leaned in just a little further.

"I may be a monster," Astarion tells him, voice affectedly breathy, "but I do know my manners. And I can think of more than a few ways to thank such a dashing benefactor."

He peers up through his lashes – coaxes his smile wider, coy and inviting. He can smell Wyll's blood thrumming through his veins, desperately tempting, a luxury he can't even dream of tasting.

Astarion will take whatever he can get in its place. Scraps. Anything at all.

But Wyll looks more disturbed than charmed, and Astarion feels a part of him twist, off balance, as though he's missed a step in the dark.

"There's no call for that," says Wyll, and his voice has a hard edge to it again.

"No call, perhaps," Astarion purrs, and leans in nearer, letting his fingertip trail along the length of Wyll's arm. It takes all his strength to do it. "But we needn't hold off for propriety's sake, darling. Let me show you just how accommodating I can be."

Wyll reaches out to take hold of his hand, then, and for an instant, Astarion thinks that he's won this little game of lanceboard. He splays his fingers and leans into the touch as though there's nothing he wants more.

And then Wyll takes Astarion's hand between both of his own, very warm and very steady, far too firm for anything flirtatious. "I would not ask for your thanks," says Wyll, and his voice has that edge to it again. "Most certainly not like this."

A part of Astarion flinches at the rebuke – runs through an assessment, and finds himself wanting. He's filthy, still, and covered in dried blood. His hair is almost certainly matted, and this man has seen him cowering on the floor for the past however-long-it-might-have-been. That's never much dissuaded Cazador, but he's lured back enough unsuspecting humans to know that pathetic isn't precisely a look that appeals to everyone.

"I'll admit," says Astarion. "I'm not at my best. But I can be a new man with a bucket and a rag." He doesn't want to beg. He feels he's bare inches away from begging anyway. "And perhaps a little taste of something, first. Just so that I have the strength to give you the proper attention."

Wyll's expression grows darker with every word. By the time Astarion is finished speaking, he has the intensity of a summer storm, all roiling clouds and banked lightning. He looks as though he'd quite like to break something, and all at once Astarion finds himself hoping the something doesn't end up being his face.

Perhaps he ought to have begged, after all.

But Wyll doesn't strike him, however ominous the expression that clouds his handsome features. When he speaks, his voice is mostly steady, even.

And what he says is: "What's your name?"

The words are so unexpected that Astarion falters, the come-hither smile wiped entirely from his face.


"Your name," says Wyll. "What's your name?"

Astarion's mouth works. He glances aside, and then back again.

"Astarion," he says at last, quietly.

Wyll reaches out and takes his other hand, as well – holds onto the both of them. His palms are really quite warm.

"Astarion," says Wyll, low and solemn like a vow. "One of my compatriots is out hunting. When she returns, there will be something for you to eat. You needn't thank me for it, or any of us for it. In words or in deeds."

It's curious, Astarion thinks.

He feels a little as though he's reeling, even though he's still sitting upright. Dizzy from the hunger, he supposes.

"Hunting," Astarion manages, with effort.

He falters to a stop. Swallows. Can't help the way his eyes flicker toward the stairs. "Truly?"

"Truly," says Wyll, and his tone is so very gentle.

"I don't suppose," Astarion begins, and then trails off again. Rallies. "I don't suppose she mentioned how long she'd be."

He says it casually – as though he's inquiring about the weather.

"Soon enough," says Wyll, and Astarion can't stand the look in his eyes, every bit as gentle as his voice. "Though, I have something that may help with the wait."

He reaches into the pouch at his waist – produces a small glass bottle, like something a noble-born lady might use to keep her perfumes. It's glowing, faintly.

"This will help you rest, if you'd like it," says Wyll. "It offers true sleep, for a time, for humans and elves alike. I can wake you when she returns."

Astarion's eyes dart to the bottle – back to the stairs.

It's a terrible offer, all told.

He isn't safe here – can barely sit up, let alone defend himself. The very last thing he needs is to render himself dead to the world for the gods know how long – to subject himself to the sort of sleep humans find every night, entirely unconscious.

Instead Astarion finds himself saying: "And what of you?"

"What of me?" says Wyll.

Astarion keeps his voice painstakingly level. "Do you mean to stay?"

He sees the instant when understanding flickers into place.

"I'll stay," says Wyll. "For as long as you sleep, I'll stay. None will lay a hand on you. You have my word."

It really is a dreadful offer. Astarion would be a fool to take it.

This hunter is no more trustworthy than any of the others, after all.

But all the same, he finds himself reaching out, very careful indeed, to accept the little bottle from Wyll's hand.


The potion is of course the Potion of Angelic Slumber. (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter 7


In which Astarion finally catches a break.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

True sleep swallows him completely, and for a time, there is nothing at all.

There are no dreams – no phantom sensations of hands on him, or blades peeling at his skin, or the endless, unendurable pain of hunger. For once, Astarion does not hear his master's voice.

He sleeps, not in the half-aware state more common to elves, but true sleep – deep sleep – something vast and bottomless and dreamless.

It seems to last no time at all.

Then a voice is saying, "Astarion," and it cuts through the close, swaddled darkness of his own unconscious mind.

"Mmh," says Astarion, and turns over to curl in on himself a little further.

There's something soft pressed to his face, and he gathers it in nearer – tucks his arms around it, the better to keep it.

"Astarion," says the voice again.

Astarion wants to tell the voice to stop bothering him, but he suspects that if he speaks, it will wake him the rest of the way up, and waking the rest of the way up seems, just now, as though it's the very worst kind of tragedy.

He makes a quiet, petulant sort of noise instead – burrows down into the soft thing.

There's a pause, and then a hand sets itself on his shoulder.

It isn't a conscious decision. The reaction is built into him, brick by brick, from the ground up. It's a reaction that comes of instinct alone, because there's only one person Astarion knows who sets hands on him when he isn't fully awake, and that person's hands never mean anything other than pain.

He flinches, so sharp and so sudden that it jolts him the rest of the way awake, eyes wild as he scans for his master.

But Cazador isn't here.

It's Wyll, the regal lines of his cheekbones highlighted gold in the candlelight, already taking his hands back and holding them up, palms out, to show that he means no harm. "Apologies," he says. "I did not intend to startle you."

Astarion finds that he's gasping for air that he doesn't need. His face is still pressed to something soft – a blanket, or perhaps two, gathered in against his chest and clutched there in a manner he suspects he'll find really rather embarrassing if he thinks about it for too long. There are more atop him, heavy and soft, at least three of them.

He doesn't remember there having been so many, when he went to sleep.

"Yes," says Astarion, fumbling to make himself sound unconcerned. "Well, just don't do it again."

There's a slight pause; Wyll smiles at him, and there's something softer in it than anything Astarion is used to. "I wouldn't dream of it," he says. "How did you sleep?"


If this is how humans sleep every night, frankly Astarion feels a little cheated.

"A bit longer would scarcely have gone amiss," he says primly, instead of answering.

"Ah," says Wyll. "Yes. I hadn't intended to wake you, but my companion has returned from hunting, and I thought you might appreciate something fresh."

All at once, Astarion is incredibly awake. He makes as though to sit up – reels, dizzy with the motion, and curses, and slumps back down again.

The hunger crashes over him like a waterfall, a relentless pounding that's nearly too much to bear. The anticipation makes it worse somehow, and Astarion hadn't been aware that it could be worse.

Wyll reaches out – hesitates, before he sets a hand on Astarion's shoulder. "May I?"

Astarion nods – licks at his lips – swallows against the sudden moisture that floods his mouth. He can smell it, now that he knows to look for it under the intoxicating scent of Wyll: something animal, rangy and wild.

Wyll's hands take hold of him, careful, and guide him up to sitting – lean him back against the crate pressed into the corner of the room.

There are more blankets, Astarion is reasonably certain. They pool around his waist, making a blanket nest now that he's upright, and Wyll reaches to rearrange them, automatic, into a more comfortable position.

Something in Astarion's chest feels strange and aching at the sight of it, at those hands fussing over such a little thing. He doesn't have the time to examine it very closely, though; he's quite preoccupied, just at the moment, trying to catch a glimpse of the promised meal.

"Wyll, darling," he manages, with great effort. "You're terribly considerate, and far be it for me to discourage a gentleman. But if you don't hurry – "

His voice cracks, on the last word; realization dawns on Wyll's face.

"Yes," he says. "Yes, of course." And he reaches behind him, for something on the floor, and Astarion's eyes dart toward the motion, captivated by the promise of blood.

He expects what he's asked for: a pest. Something that won't be missed – a rat, or perhaps even a mouse.

What he doesn't expect is a rabbit, the plush white of its fur tinged golden in the lanternlight. There isn't a hint of blood on it, though it hangs limp and dead in Wyll's hand; however it was killed, it was managed in a way that didn't waste a single precious drop, and for an instant Astarion is dizzyingly, pathetically grateful.

Then Wyll presses the creature into his hands, and Astarion's thinking mind gutters to a stop. The smell is overwhelming; it lodges itself into him and pries, and Astarion makes a low, helpless sort of a noise and hunches in over it, biting down with shaky desperation.

It's good, is all he can process.

It's better than good.

Blood spills into his mouth, fresh enough to still be warm – gamey and vibrant and a thousand times better than the rats that were all Cazador ever allowed him. He gulps, and gulps, and gulps again, and for a wonder there's still blood left. It's so much larger than a rat – there's so much more to it – and Astarion gets four full swallows before the feast slows to a trickle.

He worries at it with his teeth – works at the fur with his tongue, trying to coax free every last drop. He's shaking, he realizes distantly.

He scarcely registers Wyll at all, so intent is he on drawing forth everything the rabbit has to give – scarcely pays him notice, right up until Wyll shifts and makes as though to reach out toward him.

The reaction is built in.

Astarion makes a sound caught somewhere between a snarl and a whine – a feral, wounded animal sort of a noise.

His fingers close down on the rabbit in his hands; he clutches it in closer and twists to one side, protective, hunching in over the creature to prevent that reaching hand from snatching it away.

It was always a favorite game of his master's – to make him beg, grant him a taste of something, and then to take it away again before Astarion could finish what little it had to offer.

"Easy," Wyll says, very soft, like he's trying to soothe a feral cat, and Astarion would bristle at the tone, would snap something sharp and unkind, but his mouth is full, and he doesn't intend to let go of the rabbit long enough to respond.

"I'm not going to take it," says Wyll, in that same careful tone. He shifts again, so that he can reach closer still, and Astarion wishes desperately that he had a dagger – that he could lash out enough to buy himself another few seconds.

Then he sees Wyll's hand. It isn't empty, fingers spread and reaching.

It has another rabbit in it.

There's an endless moment, when the world tilts a little sideways. When nothing quite makes sense.

Then Astarion is too busy snatching up the second rabbit to worry about trivial matters like whether or not something makes sense, clinging to the offering as tight as his shaky hands will allow.

When he bites into it, he discovers that this one is every bit as fresh as the first – every bit as satisfying – every bit as good, each swallow working to soothe the relentless, yearning need inside him. He groans softly, and his eyes flutter closed, that jagged, too-sharp edge finally beginning to blunt to something bearable after all this time.

By the time he's finished, he feels lightheaded with it. By the time he's carefully licked every scrap of blood clean from the fur, a peculiar sense of contentment has settled over him, soft and warm as the blankets still pooled about his waist.

Astarion can't remember ever having had so much at once before.

"I know it wasn't much," Wyll is saying. "Not after so long without. But my compatriot has set out again to catch you something more."


It seems an impossible sort of a promise.

Astarion would do unspeakable things, if it meant that Wyll would follow through.

He licks at his lips, carefully – sits himself up, and finds that he can sit up, just a little, without needing anything to support his weight. "Oh, you do know how to sweet-talk a man, don't you, darling," says Astarion.

"It's hardly sweet-talk," Wyll tells him, tone steady and even. "Just a little of us helping you, so that you can help us."

Ah, yes. That again.

Probably Astarion ought to be worrying about what he means to do when the hunters discover he has no information to give them.

But perhaps that can come in a little while, yet. Perhaps he might be able to charm another meal from them, first.

"And what a help you've been," Astarion purrs.

And then, on a whim, because it will be much harder to interrogate him while he isn't awake to be interrogated – and surely not at all because his body is suffused with a strange, deep sort of lethargy, and the thought of that true sleep settling over him is more appealing than it ought to be – Astarion says, "I don't suppose you have another of those potions, do you?"

Wyll is looking him over, careful and considering. It's the sort of scrutiny Astarion doesn't particularly want; he lowers his gaze and peers up from under his lashes, doing his best to look exhausted and unsteady and in need of a bit of kindness.

He tries hard not to examine how very little of that feels like an act, just now.

"We may have another on hand," says Wyll. "But before that, I think that you and I should have a talk."

And there it is. The part Astarion has been hoping to avoid a while longer yet.

But for all that, he oh-so-desperately wants that promise of more to come to fruition. And despite himself, Astarion finds that he quite wants the potion, as well.

"Yes," he manages. "I suppose we'd better."

Already, his thoughts are running along ahead, trying to land on the best way to spin the fact that he has nothing of value to tell this man. Already, he's thinking about what will happen if the hunters decide he's being obstinate rather than honest.

But for the first time in a very long time, he's fed and he's warm and he isn't in pain. For the first time in a very long time, he has unspeakable luxuries: light, and blankets, and something to ease the awful ache of hunger.

He isn't sure what he means to say, just yet, but there's one thing he knows for certain.

Whatever it is, he had better play nice. Astarion isn't sure he can avoid a stake in the chest, much less keep these gifts he's been granted – but he certainly means to try.


I did a little research for this chapter on how much blood is in a rat. Apparently about 1/10 of a cup on the low side and 1/4 of a cup on the high side. A single rabbit is double the more generous estimate.

Anyway, this boy has been having a rough time.

Chapter 8


Thank you so much to the folks who have been reading. Your enthusiasm and your comments are incredible. You're all amazing. <333

Chapter Text

"So," says Wyll. He's sitting cross-legged across from Astarion – a casual sort of a pose, as though he's seated on a picnic blanket with a friend. His hands are folded in his lap, fingers intertwined. "What can you tell me about your master?"

Astarion makes a disgusted sort of a scoff, even while a part of him all but rejoices at the opening.

It's the best lead-in he could have asked for. Not "Where is your master?" or "Does your master have any safehouses?" Instead, a question he might actually provide an answer to – something far more open-ended.

Astarion can work with open-ended.

Perhaps if he gives the hunters enough general information, they won't notice that he has nothing of true importance to offer.

"You know his name, I presume," says Astarion. "If you found your way to his estate."

Wyll nods. "Cazador Szarr."

"Every bit the monster one might imagine a true vampire," Astarion says, words more bitter than he intends. "Not content to slink in the shadows, though, no. He rather prefers to hide in plain sight, behind dazzling soirees and his little spider's web of high-class connections."

"He had them often?" Wyll asks, perhaps a touch too intent to be casual. "These soirees?"

Astarion thinks about it. "Once a month at least, if I had to guess." He pauses – thinks harder. "Although, my information is a touch out of date."

"Hmm," says Wyll. "And what of the connections? Did he ever mention what he was getting out of them? And from whom?"

"Darling, we were hardly his confidantes," says Astarion.

But Wyll is watching him with a great deal of focus, and Astarion – well, Astarion does so very much want another meal.

There's another part of him, deeper still, baked into his very bones, that balks at this – that imagines what Cazador would do if he learned Astarion was spilling his secrets. Not a year sealed beneath the earth, next time, but two, or five, or ten – trapped away forever, never to see the light again.

Even the thought of it – even the barest edges of imagining it – feels like a shard of ice lodged in his chest.

But these hardly count as secrets, do they? It isn't as though he's leading them to him. Any coiffed noble at any one of those balls would be able to offer up a few tidbits; it isn't as though he's giving away anything of substance.

Astarion licks at his lips – tries hard not to wonder how much of this decision rides on the simple fact that he wants another rabbit quite badly indeed.

And at length, he adds, "Though I suppose it was easy enough to overhear things, from time to time."

"Oh?" says Wyll, and his tone is remarkably mild. "Go on, then. If you have any names."

Does he have any names?

Astarion thinks back, and it feels a little like trying to wade through deep water. It's been so very long, and even before the endless horror of the sarcophagus, the years have not been kind. After a while, all nights become the same.

He remembers days spent forgotten, kneeling in the corner, as Cazador goes about his business as though Astarion isn't there. He remembers careless voices through the floorboards, as he lies starving and bloodied in the cellar. He remembers Cazador offering co*cktails of an evening, the best and brightest of Baldur's Gate reclining on the sofa while Astarion kneels between their legs to provide the entertainment.

He doesn't know all of their names, no. But he knows some.

"Baron Bormul," says Astarion. "Lady Hullhollyn. Milon Tillerturn, and Madam Linnacker, and –" Astarion pauses. Thinks of narrow fingers in his curls, tugging too hard – a breathy whimper, and a hand with entirely too many rings patting at his face. "I'm afraid I don't recall the name. Dreadful man. Ridiculous hair. A monocle, of all things."

Wyll sits up a little straighter. "Lord Petric Amber?"

"I couldn't say," says Astarion. And then, because Wyll looks so invested, and he'd really quite like for Wyll to continue being invested – for any of this to earn him another mouthful or two to eat – he adds, "Yes, I suppose it could have been."

"And they knew about Lord Szarr?" says Wyll, the words carefully probing. "These visitors of his?"

Astarion finds that he's holding to one of the blankets in his lap. The fabric is really quite soft, some sort of time-worn patchwork. He ought to let go, but he can't quite bring himself to do it.

"They didn't know that he was a vampire, if that's what you're asking," says Astarion. "He kept that particular subset of his proclivities quite private."

Wyll is watching him very intently indeed now. "But not all of them," he says.

Astarion blinks. "Pardon?"

"You said that that particular subset. That means they knew of others."

There is a long, uncomfortable silence.

Astarion thinks of another year trapped beneath a slab of marble, and he glances to one side. "Some," he allows. "Yes."

Wyll is watching him – waiting, Astarion thinks, for him to elaborate.

"Perhaps I'd better not say," says Astarion.

Something must show on his face. Wyll is frowning, now – leans in, eyes earnest and intent. "You don't have to provide details. Just – a hint, if you would. If you can. Please."


It's such an innocuous word. Astarion can't remember the last time it's been directed at him when he isn't sprawled out in a bed, mouth busy swallowing down the co*ck of some poor bastard who will be dead before the night is out.


As though he can choose to answer – or not. As though he's the one who holds the power here.

It's an intoxicating feeling.

Astarion looks up again, to meet Wyll's eyes. "There were a handful who took their entertainment in – shall we say, similar amusem*nts."

Wyll takes a slow breath in. He lets it out. His jaw is clenched so tight that a muscle in it jumps.

"With you," Wyll says, and it sounds like a question, but also not a question at all.

"With me," says Astarion. "Some nights were rather bloodier than others. There were... a variety of tastes."

Astarion examines his nails, pretending at indifference. He rather suspects it would be more believable if his other hand wasn't refusing to let go of the blanket.

For a long handful of moments, silence reigns.

Then Wyll says: "And the missing people? What of the men and women disappearing out of flophouses in the lower city?"

Astarion runs his thumb over the blanket. It really is very soft. "I'm afraid I can't name names for them, darling."

Wyll leans in, intent and earnest. "But you know of them."

"None of the recent ones, of course," Astarion hastens to tell him. "So if you've lost someone special, I'm afraid it wasn't me."

For a long moment, Wyll watches him and says nothing at all. His eyes flicker back and forth over Astarion's face, like he's reading a book. "But before your master locked you away," he says, carefully. "Before then, it was you."

Astarion is on dangerous ground. He knows that.

He's standing over the center of a frozen lake, and the ice has begun to crack. He ought to be better at watching his tongue than this. He's out of practice.

"Yes," says Astarion, reluctantly.

"You'd go out into the city and –"

"Yes," says Astarion, the word a little more brittle this time – sharper, like a warning.

He takes in a shaking breath he doesn't need – lets it out.

Starts again, mind racing on ahead, scrambling to come up with what Wyll wants to hear.

"I can't precisely say no to him, my dear." Astarion licks at his lips – tries to rearrange his thoughts into something resembling working order, and finds that he can't. "He sends us out to do his hunting for him. A few pretty lines, a bat of the eyes, and back they'd come."

"He kills them," says Wyll, tone careful.

"Drinks them dry," says Astarion, and can't quite keep the longing from his voice. He clears his throat – glances aside. "If we did a very good job, he'd ask whether we wanted to join him."

Wyll is watching him closely now. "You said that you couldn't drink from thinking beings."

"Just so." Astarion gestures with his free hand, aiming for flippant and falling rather short. "If I said yes, he'd grant me the kindness of a rat, putrid and half gone to rot. If I said no, he'd avail himself of his favorite flaying knife and we'd have a memorable evening together, just the two of us."

He can feel Wyll's eyes on him – lifts his gaze, slowly, to find that Wyll is staring with naked horror.

"A charming man," says Astarion, words jagged like broken glass. "Truly."

Wyll takes a shuddering breath in. His eyes are perhaps a touch too bright, and Astarion wonders for a strange, unsettled moment whether he means to cry.

The man is a fool.

What sort of a monster hunter cries over his mark?

"Astarion," says Wyll slowly. "I want you to understand something."

Astarion glances back up at him. "I'm listening, my dear."

"We're going to find your master," Wyll says, tone low and intent. "And we'll see him put to death for what he's done. No one will ever come to harm at his hands again."

A laugh bubbles up out of Astarion's throat, then, sharp as a blade and just as deadly.

"I might have known the hero would be one for fairy tales," he says, before he can think to rein the words in.

Wyll doesn't flinch. He doesn't falter. Instead he says: "You'll never come to harm at his hands again."

All at once, Astarion finds that his throat has grown too tight. His traitorous lungs, which don't need the air, hitch in a breath anyway.

The words seem an impossible fancy. They are an impossible fancy.

But even if they aren't true – even if they can't be true – they lodge in his chest like the blade of a saw, cutting away at him inside.

"You're a fool if you think he'll be dispatched so easily as that," Astarion says, and he's horrified to discover that the words aren't anything like steady.

"We are well aware of the risks," says Wyll.

"He's more powerful than you know," says Astarion. "He's –" The words break; Astarion swallows.

"I know," says Wyll, and reaches out to catch at his free hand.

"You don't know," snaps Astarion. "He's an absolute – he's a monster of a man. He can do what he likes, to whomever he likes, and he has the power to get away with it."

"We aren't few in number," says Wyll. "And we're well-trained."

"Well-trained fools," hisses Astarion, "are still fools."

Wyll hasn't let go of his hand, yet. He ought to snatch it away, but it really is very warm where their palms press together.

There's silence for a long few moments – the sound of Wyll's breathing, steady and even – of whatever reflexive attempt passes for Astarion's breath, unnecessary and ragged, to match the tightness in his chest.

"Do you know where he is?" Wyll asks at last, softly.

He ought to lie.

He ought to make something up – get them to bring him to some location far from anything and then slip away again. He's had enough to eat that he thinks he can walk.

From there, he can find a way out of the city. He can be free and clear of this mess once and for all.

But Wyll is looking at him still, gaze intent and earnest. His palm is very warm against Astarion's.

Astarion can't shake those words still echoing through his mind, the most impossible, fantastical promise he's ever heard: "You'll never come to harm at his hands again."

He's spent centuries dreaming that someone would tell him that.

Astarion shakes his head, the motion careful. "Like I said, darling. My information is a touch out of date."

The hand in Astarion's squeezes a little tighter – reassuring, almost.

"Alright," says Wyll. "That's alright. We have plenty to start from."

Astarion regards him sidelong. "You have hardly anything at all."

For the first time, the corner of Wyll's lips quirk upward, into a grim sort of a smile. "We know his connections, don't we? We'll start there. When you flush out a fox, it runs for shelter."

Despite himself, Astarion finds that he's smiling back. It's a wan, sardonic sort of a smile – an honest smile, more tired than charming.

"Careful, darling," he says to Wyll. "This fox has quite the set of teeth on him."

Chapter 9


Thank you so much to everyone who's still reading. You're all wonderful! I hope you enjoy. :>

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The hunters, it seems, are having a rousing argument upstairs.

Astarion can't make out any of the words, but the raised voices and the tones are quite unmistakable. He makes his way to the top of the stairs for a time, to try to better listen in – but the words are no clearer from the little landing there, and he hasn't anything on him to pick the lock, and even that small amount of exertion has him exhausted and dizzy.

By the time he gets back down to his little nest of blankets, he needs to take a few moments to recover again.

Those moments come and go, and the argument shows no signs of abating.

At length, Astarion rouses himself again – pokes through the box Wyll opened, and avails himself of the rest of the blankets. He spreads them out on the floor, and he reinstates his nest atop them, and he tries very hard indeed not to think about the fact that whatever the hunters are yelling about just now is likely to decide whether he lives or dies.

The second crate, easy enough to open now that he isn't panicked and scrabbling and pathetically weak, holds a variety of household goods.

Astarion helps himself to two candles – three candles – five, actually, just in case, you never really know – and then a likely looking pair of pillows, as well.

The third crate holds rations, and while Astarion would quite like something to eat, none of what's packed away here will much help him.

He selects a bottle of wine, though, just because he can – brings it back to his blanket-nest before he realizes he hasn't anything to work the cork free with. Then he gets up again and manages, with quite a lot of effort, to pry free one of the nails from the now-open crate – uses it to painstakingly peel aside the wax and lever the cork out of the bottle.

When he's done, he considers the nail briefly – but it's a wide thing, clumsy, too large by half to fit into the lock of the door atop the stairs. He pockets it, instead.

Then he lights himself a candle – then two – then three of them, and sets them about his little nest, and he sits there drinking his wine.

It tastes like vinegar and dust on his tongue, and he hasn't been able to get drunk since the change – but he finds that he quite likes sitting upright, swaddled in soft things, helping himself to something he doesn't need just because he can.

The wine is all but gone by the time Wyll reappears. There are a few sips left at the bottom of the bottle, and Astarion is considering taking another, since no one is here to stop him or tell him no, when the door at the top of the stairs swings in.

There are two figures outlined in it, and all at once Astarion goes stiff and alert, eyes trained on the doorframe.

"Stay here," says Wyll, in a tone that brooks no argument.

"So that you can spend more time with your pet vampire?" says the other voice, and Astarion recognizes it quite well indeed as the man who'd come to call, earlier. He wishes, with a simmering sort of resentment, that the crate with all the home goods had contained a kitchen knife.

"Oh, don't hold it against him, darling," Astarion calls up the stairs. "He's ever so charming, and not everyone can be enough of a fool enough to aggravate their only source of information."

The man beside Wyll snarls – takes as step, as though to start down the stairs. "The way I hear it, spawn, you don't have anything left to tell us."

And for an instant, Astarion feels a sinking, icy sort of dread.

The man is right, after all. He does have nothing left to tell them. There's nothing to offer, in exchange for keeping his chest free of stakes, now that he's given them everything he knows.

He thinks of Wyll's words – impossible words, too good to be true, of course they were – and he slips on a smile that shows all of his teeth. He may not have a knife, but the nail from the crate is a reassuring weight in his pocket. He's learned all too well from Cazador exactly how much damage can be done with a nail.

Then Wyll is reaching out to set a hand on the man's shoulder, and he says, "Aradin," and his tone is so threatening that he sounds like another person entirely.

The man – Aradin – scoffs and turns back toward the door. "I'm telling you," he says. "This is a stupid plan."

He slaps Wyll's hand away, and turns from the cellar – stalks off somewhere out of sight. It isn't until he's gone that Wyll comes the rest of the way inside and closes the door behind him.

It isn't until he's gone that Astarion feels the tight line of his shoulders begin to relax again.

Wyll takes a deep breath – runs a shaky hand through his hair. "I apologize for him."

Astarion sniffs, delicately – finishes off the wine, in one long pull. "Gods know someone should," he pronounces. "Atrocious man."

"He's upset because he didn't get his way," says Wyll, and carries on down the stairs.

"Let me guess," says Astarion, and waggles his fingers. "A nice, sharp stake and a rousing celebration after, the better to enjoy the vampire spawn no longer lurking about the cellar."

"More or less," says Wyll, and comes to stand by the blanket nest. He eyes the extra padding – the candles – the bottle of wine. "I see you've made yourself at home," he says, and there's a hint of amusem*nt in his tone.

"It was rather a long argument, my dear," Astarion tells him, dry. "Who did win, by the by?"

"A sort of – conglomeration of ideas, if you will," says Wyll, delicately, and sits himself down beside the blankets.

"Goodness," says Astarion. "Have you ever considered a career in politics? I've never heard a sentence say so very little before in all my life."

Wyll snorts, a sound that comes somewhere adjacent to laughter.

"You would be surprised." He hesitates, then; the smile slips away from his face. "I'm afraid it won't be an easy plan to explain."

"You'll find I'm much better at following along now that I've had something to eat," Astarion tells him.

Wyll glances up at him – spends a long moment, searching his face. "And it's rather riskier than I'd hoped."

"And here I thought the lot of you were strapping young heroes," says Astarion, wryly. He takes another swig from the bottle – remembers too late that it's empty, and sets it aside.

"Risky for you, I mean," says Wyll, and Astarion goes very still indeed.

"Pardon?" he says, carefully.

Wyll holds his hands out, palms face forward, as though he means to soothe a riled animal. "There's more exposure involved than I would have preferred," says Wyll. "I wanted you to have nothing to do with it."

"Ah," says Astarion, distantly. His ears are ringing. "And instead?"

"Well," says Wyll. "Your master has gone to ground."

"Yes," says Astarion. "We've covered that."

"And he isn't likely to show himself for some time," says Wyll.

Astarion's eyes are fixed on his face, trying to read the expression there. It's quite a lot more difficult than he would like. "That stands to reason."

"But," says Wyll, "if there was something he would be willing to show up for –"

All at once, it feels as though someone has kicked the floor out from underneath him. All at once, it feels as though he's clinging to hold on, but there aren't anything like good enough handholds, and gods save him, but he is going to fall.

"No," says Astarion, faintly.

"You wouldn't ever be in real danger," says Wyll. "He wouldn't ever come close to you."

Astarion is shaking.

He really ought to rein it back in again. He really ought to think through some sort of strategy here – think of a way to talk Wyll around, somehow.

Instead, he's rising to his feet, and his teeth are bared, and he's saying, "Absolutely not. Absolutely not," and his voice is shot through with something dangerously close to hysteria.

"All you have to do is be somewhere visible," says Wyll. "A public place, that's all – somewhere he's likely to receive word of you."

"You don't understand," Astarion hisses. "He can make me do whatever he wants. The only reason I haven't gone crawling back to him is because he hasn't made me yet."

Wyll stands as well – slowly, telegraphing the moves. "And why hasn't he made you?"

"I don't know," says Astarion, and there's a jagged, desperate sort of an edge to the words that he can't quite get under control. "Probably he knows that if I wander away back to him, I'll have a horde of wretched monster hunters on my tail."

There's a beat of silence, as Wyll considers this. "Then he'll have to believe you've lost us. Where would you go, if you were trying to get clear of the city?"

"To the docks," says Astarion immediately. The answer comes easy – built into a thousand fantasies, stretched out over centuries, of what it might be like if he could only find his way free. "But that has nothing to do with anything," he hastens to add. "If Cazador is lounging about in some noble's manor, he's hardly liable to watching Grey Harbour."

Wyll nods to himself. "You're right. It will have to be someplace more visible. A high class affair, maybe. You can pretend to be looking for connections to smuggle you out of the city."

"I'm not going to pretend anything," Astarion hisses.

"I know that you're worried," says Wyll, tone very gentle indeed. "I do. But if you want your master dead, this is the best chance we have."

"You're an idiot," Astarion snaps, the words bitter on his tongue. "Why in all the hells would I go to some noble's soiree to find passage? He'll know it's a set-up. He knows I'm not stupid."

Does he, though?

A thousand whispered words come to Astarion's mind, then – fingers in his hair, and blades on his skin, and Cazador murmuring: "Foolish boy. You never did know when to listen."

Astarion is shaking, and he finds that he can't stop.

His stomach is churning, and he rather suspects it isn't the wine.

"I'll tail you," says Wyll, voice low and earnest. "You won't be alone. And when he makes his move, all we'll need to do is follow you back to where he's staying."

Astarion thinks of the nail in his pocket. If he puts Wyll's eyes out and makes a break for the door, he might still be able to salvage this.

Did Wyll lock it after him? Astarion can't recall.

"It isn't that easy," says Astarion, and his voice is trembling as badly as he is. "He isn't some weak little nothing that you can waltz in and plant a stake into."

"We know what we're up against," says Wyll.

"Yes, you, of course," hisses Astarion. "And what about me? What about when you fumble this idiotic f*cking plan and he finds a way to make a year in a sarcophagus seem like kindness next to whatever new horror he concocts?"

Now's the time. If he means to make a run for it, he should do it now. His hand eases toward the pocket with the nail in it; panic thunders along his veins like an ice storm.

"Astarion," says Wyll then, and something about the way he says it slices neatly through the panic.

It's so calm, and so careful, and so – soft, really. Softer than it has any right to be.

Astarion falls silent.

"I meant what I said," says Wyll. "You'll never come to harm at his hands again."

Astarion laughs, and it's a rusty, ugly thing, caught somewhere in his throat. "You can't promise that, darling."

"I can," says Wyll. "And I am. On my life, Cazador Szarr will never touch you again."

It sounds like some foolish bit of nonsense from the pages of an adventure tale. It sounds like the sort of words that ought to have him swooning and sighing and draping himself, picturesque, over a divan riddled with rose petals.

Instead it makes him feel as though he might weep.

Astarion swallows, and he glances away again.

It's the worst plan he's ever, ever heard. If Cazador gets hold of him again, he'll find ways to make a year with no food and no light seem child's play by comparison.

But Astarion has spent so very long dreaming – and hope, he's discovered, is a vicious, stubborn little thing that never quite dies, no matter how hard he works to snuff it out.

Astarion glares hard at the stone of the floor – at the blankets puddled against it – at the candles that flicker softly, keeping the darkness at bay. "Say it again," he demands, voice a ragged sort of a whisper.

"On my life," says Wyll, softer than before, "Cazador Szarr will never touch you again."

He holds a hand out, palm up – an offer, if Astarion chooses to take it.

He would be a fool to. If this doesn't get him killed, it will get him worse than killed. He'll be lucky if the world is kind enough to grant him the mercy of death.

And as for Wyll – Wyll won't survive another tenday.

Yet he finds that he reaches out to take that hand, all the same. It's warm, and the palm is calloused, and those fingers curl in around Astarion's own.

It feels like a pledge, the insipid sort that knights swear in fairy stories.

Astarion still feels as though he might weep.

"I'm afraid I've nothing at all that's suitable to wear to a ball," he says at last, when he thinks that he can speak again.

It feels a little like stepping out onto a tight wire strung between the tallest ramparts of Cazador's palace.

Perhaps he'll fall. Perhaps someday, years in the future, he'll look back at this moment as the worst decision he's ever made.

But hope really is a stubborn little thing. It's been beaten so badly that it ought not be able to scrape itself together and rise up off the floor any longer. Astarion rather thought it had bled out, by now.

And yet when Wyll smiles, Astarion feels something kindle somewhere in his chest, close and warm, not dead at all, even after all this time.


I was complaining to someone about how I'd wanted to make the nameless asshole in Chapter 5 an NPC from the game but couldn't think of anyone who was a big enough asshole, and they suggested Aradin. And you know what? He is absolutely that big an asshole. So it's Aradin now. (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter 10


Thank you again so much to everyone who has read and commented. You're all amazing.

I think I actually know where I'm going with this now. So... victory? (✿◡‿◡)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Wyll goes, and he promises that when he returns there will be more to eat. He promises soap, and water for a bath, and a change of clothes.

It all sounds, frankly, like some absurd fantasy – like fathomless luxury, on top of everything he's received so far.

Curse the man to the hells and back for being so damnably earnest, but despite himself, Astarion actually believes he means to follow through.

This time, there is no argument upstairs – or if there is, at the least, it's none that Astarion can hear.

This time, the door stays closed for hardly any time at all before it swings open again. In it stands a woman, and she doesn't dither in the doorway but strides inside, taking the stairs with a steady, single-minded intensity.

She's wiry and small of frame, a touch on the older side; her narrow face is lined, and her hair, elaborate coils and braids, has all gone grey. But there's an understated strength in her steps, and a certain economy of movement. She stalks like a panther, coiled and prowling; despite himself, Astarion eyes the door, which she's left open, calculating whether he might be able to make a dash for it before she's had time to react.

He doesn't get the chance. The door, it seems, is open for a reason; a tiefling woman with dusky red skin steps in behind her and then closes it.

The new arrival is massive, with broad arms and muscled shoulders, and even at the sight of her, every alarm bell in Astarion's mind begins ringing. She looks like a bruiser, if he's ever seen one – the sort to break any bones that need breaking.

At least for now she stays where she is, at the top of the stairs, arms folded across her chest.

But the other woman is fast approaching – stands above him, looking down. She has sharp features and arched brows; despite her age, the eyes set in that face are bright and considering.

She's trouble, Astarion knows right away.

"I suppose I've been deemed safe enough for visitors," he says, pleasantly. "To what do I owe the pleasure, darling?"

For a moment, she doesn't answer; she just continues to stare down at him, as though he's some bug scuttling along the cobblestones. He feels a sharp spike of annoyance at the look, and forces himself to shove it down.

For all that he's won Wyll over, he knows very well that Wyll's opinion here isn't the only one that matters.

"Perhaps I wish to meet the spawn I've been gathering rabbits for," she tells him, and when she speaks, her voice is crisp and direct, a heavy accent curling the words.

Ah. The compatriot Wyll had mentioned, then. Astarion tries on a smile, charming as he knows how. If she means to bring him another rabbit, he can forgive quite a lot. "The lady of the hour," he says. "And one of my very favorite people just at the moment, might I add."

The woman snorts. She stares down at him for another moment longer, and then she reaches out, casual, to take hold of one of the smaller crates. She drags it into place beside him – sits atop it, and leans forward so that her forearms are resting on her knees.

"I will be plain," the woman says. "Wyll is a good man, but he is something of a fool. He is taken in too easily by a pretty face and a convenient story, you might say."

Astarion feels himself go very still – evaluates every line of his body, the position of every limb, and forces himself to relax. When he looks up again, his expression is one of wounded innocence.

"My dear, you're hardly inspiring trust," he says, the words carefully tinged with mild reproach. "I haven't much experience with alliances, but from what I understand they aren't often begun with accusations of ill intent."

The woman leans forward slightly. "Make no mistake," she tells him. "This is no alliance. You have things we need to know; you can offer up the bait for our trap. In exchange, you carry on without a stake in your heart. Have I made myself clear?"

Astarion feels, suddenly, as though the ground beneath him is riddled with rot. After Wyll's words, intent and earnest – after the warmth of the man's hands and those avid promises – he had almost come to believe –

But no.

Hope may be stubborn, but it's foolish, as well. Astarion ought to know that better than anyone by now.

"Blindingly," he tells the woman, and feels his smile go crooked and a little bitter.

"Good," says the woman. "You may call me Jaheira." She reaches into the pouch at her waist and comes out with a small vial of liquid – not the healing potions Wyll had given him, nor even that delightful little brew that had allowed him to sleep. This is something else entirely. "You and I are going to get to know one another, now. I will ask you questions; you will give me answers. Then we will see whether Wyll has been taken in."

She doesn't reach out to offer him the potion. Instead, she drinks it down herself. When the bottle is empty, she corks it again, and she slides it back into her pocket. Then she says: "Tell me about your master."

Astarion spreads a hand – gestures casually toward the pocket with the little vial. "Come now, sweetling. Not a word of explanation?"

The woman tips her chin up. "A little something," she says, "to help me ensure that you speak the truth."

All at once, Astarion suspects he knows what she's availed herself of. There are several possibilities, really, but none of them are good. At best, he'll need to watch what he says; at worst, she'll be peering directly into his thoughts.

Cazador never needed to employ such crude methods; when he wanted the truth, he could always just order it. A word of command, and out it would come like a fish hook lodged down his throat, dragging the words out inevitable and unwilling.

He despises that this will be much the same – that he hasn't a choice here, any more than he's had one for the past two centuries.

He despises this woman, too, suddenly and viciously – wishes with a sharp spike of resentment that he had a dagger – realizes that he needs to stop wishing he had a dagger, because odds are very good that she can see that, curse it all. The resentment grows deeper still, dark and ugly; something tight and borderline-panic wells up to twine together with it, the understanding that if anyone is going to get stabbed here, it's likely to be him.

Jaheira is only watching him, sharp eyes watchful.

"Your master," she reminds him.

"You'll find that I've told Wyll already," Astarion says, and he can't quite keep from sounding like he's sulking spectacularly.

"Yes," says Jaheira. "We spoke. He said that you have been sealed away for some time."

The reminder comes with images: the cold, slick feel of the marble; the pain of splintered bone. Screaming until his voice is raw, and begging for someone – for anyone – for the barest scrap of mercy. Hunger like some vast and fathomless thing, swallowing him whole, until death seems kinder.

Jaheira's expression flickers – goes guarded and stiff. It isn't quite a flinch, but he suspects it's as close as a woman with her poise can come.

Astarion can't help the vicious surge of triumph that flits through him at that, nor does he suppress the smile he gives her, showing entirely too many teeth.

"Charming experience, wasn't it?" he manages, when he trusts his voice "Though, darling, you'll find my head isn't precisely an appealing place to visit."

His hands are shaking, slightly; he smooths them against his trousers, to steady them.

"I am not here for pleasant things," says Jaheira. "I am here for the truth." She takes another breath. "Let us speak of the people you lured away. What of them?"

He can't suppress those memories any more than the others: long nights in rundown taverns, or in back alleyways, or in his master's chambers, entertaining some new guest until Cazador deigned to arrive. Hands on him, wandering, greedy – practiced smiles and charming words – faking the way he arches beneath them, trembling less from pleasure than from the creeping ache of starvation.

Blood, later, great gouts of it, as Cazador drinks his fill. Waiting on his knees, unable to touch a drop.

Cleaning the mess with rags and buckets, and wanting, and wanting, and wanting.

"All gone, I'm afraid," he manages, distantly. And then, on its heels: " Must we do this?"

"And those names you gave," says Jaheira, unyielding. "Are they true?"

Powerful men sprawled on a couch; hard hands; the way Cazador gestured them to do as they liked, casual and proprietary. Split open and laid on his back, staring up at the ceiling, feeling a thousand realms away from what's happening to him.

Wishing, with a distant sort of ache, that he could just not be here anymore.

"They are," Astarion grinds out. He wishes again for a dagger, quite a lot more strongly than before.

For a long moment, Jaheira says nothing. She just watches him, eyes flickering over his face as though she's reading a book. At last she says, "I have one final question. Do you wish to see your master dead at our hands?"

The tangled knot of emotion that rears up out of him is staggering in its intensity; it catches in his chest and swells there, as though it means to break every last one of his ribs on the way out.

"I wish to see him dead at my hands," Astarion snarls.

Jaheira is still regarding him with that level, knowing sort of a look. "But?"

Astarion bares his teeth. "But if we swipe a blade at him and miss, sweetling, I'm the one who's going to pay for it. Do you understand?"

He doesn't want to imagine what Cazador will do to him. He can't imagine what Cazador will do to him. Two hundred years, and his master still manages to find new horrors. Astarion can't conceive of anything worse than the time spent trapped inside that tomb, but he knows that Cazador will find something.

He will find something, and Astarion will pay, and pay, and pay.

Jaheira nods, slowly. "Yes," she says. "I think I do."

"Splendid," Astarion manages, faintly, caught up in hating her.

And then the woman smiles, a crooked, sardonic sort of a smile. "Hate me all you like, little spawn. The price for this mission, if there is one, will not be yours to bear." There's nothing gentle in the way she holds herself—nothing gentle in her tone. She is not, Astarion suspects, a woman who does gentle very well. But after a moment, she leans in, and she adds: "I am not so taken with you as Wyll, but nor would I consign you to suffering such as that."

The laugh that chokes him comes out as an unsteady thing. "The both of you are so sure it will all go to plan."

"I am the High Harper, little spawn. Making sure that things go to plan is my job."

Realization dawns, like the slow brightening in the sky that heralds a new day. Astarion peers up at her, and he can feel that his eyes have gone very wide indeed.

If what she says is true, this woman pulls the strings of dozens of trained fighters. She has access to at least three safehouses the city wide, and those are just the ones Astarion has heard whispered of.

All at once, the words are caught in his throat.

All at once, hope, that wretched, stubborn thing, feels as though it might strangle him.

"A word to the wise," Jaheira tells him. She stands, and she looks down at him, and her expression is not quite so hard as it was before. "Do not think how much you would like to stab someone before you know who they are."

"Yes," Astarion manages. "Point quite taken."

That sardonic smile grows a touch wider. "I will send you down something to eat. Rest, if you can. When we make our move, there will be much to be done."

Then she turns for the stairs with that confident, understated strength, like a panther readied to strike, and her bodyguard trails behind her, shutting the door after them.

In the lanternlight of the cellar, Astarion rests his forehead against the soft folds of half a dozen blankets. He takes in a breath that he does not truly need, and he lets it out again, slow.

His chest aches, and his eyes burn, and he's surrounded by fools. But gods help him, the High Harper.

Perhaps they have a chance at this, after all.


Yes, that's Karlach on the stairs. I've wanted to get her in here somehow, and then I got to her in-game line about wondering how things would have turned out for her if she worked for Jaheira instead of Gortash, and my brain went: !!!!!

PS, I took liberties with Detect Thoughts because it seemed more fun. Let me have this. >>

Chapter 11


Time for Astarion to get some nice things (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter Text

When Wyll appears in the doorway at the top of the stairs again, Astarion is midway through a second bottle of wine.

"You know, darling," he says, casually. "Failing to warn me about dreadful old ladies lying in ambush is hardly a way to begin a relationship."

"Come now," says Wyll, and bends to retrieve something at his feet, out of sight in the hallway beyond. "She isn't as bad as all that."

Astarion's eyes dip down to follow the motion, idly. He sniffs, as though insulted. "I'll have you know I'm trying to improve my standards."

Wyll huffs what sounds suspiciously like a laugh. "Oh? Well, in that case, she's just awful."

When he straightens again, there's something really rather large in his hands. It takes Astarion's mind a long moment to catch up with he's seeing, and when it does he sits bolt upright in the nest of blankets.

"Is that – ?" he manages, and his voice catches, before he can quite finish the question.

"It is," says Wyll. He balances the thing on his shoulder, and he pulls the door closed behind him, and he starts down the stairs. And then, decidedly gentle: "It may help, as far as improving your standards goes."

"Ah," says Astarion softly – not entirely steady. He sets the wine aside with a shaking hand, before he drops it. "Then it's for – ?"

Wyll is at the bottom of the stairs, now. He crosses over to the little nest that Astarion has made for himself, and he sets what he's carrying down on the edge of it.

"For you, yes," Wyll tells him.

Astarion swallows, with effort.

This time, what he's been brought isn't a rabbit at all. It's an entire deer, and it's warm beneath his palm when he reaches out to touch it. Astarion feels as though the world is reeling all around him, even though he's still sitting on solid ground.

"Go on, then," says Wyll, and his tone is so kind that it feels like the sanding-paper that carpenters use, scrubbed across an open wound.

Astarion glances up at him, and then back down to the deer again.

He ought to say something, he's sure, but the words are stuck someplace in his throat.

When he nods, it's a jerky, unsteady sort of a gesture – and then he's leaning in, and he's biting into the creature, and he stops worrying about words altogether.

It's richer by far than the rabbits, and Astarion moans softly as the first taste spills into his mouth. It's heady and bright and satisfying, easily the best thing he's ever tasted, and after the first few swallows it strikes him in a distant, wondering sort of way that there's still more. The flow of blood hasn't abated even slightly, and Astarion makes another sound, caught somewhere low in his chest, as he begins to gulp in earnest.

There's just so much of it.

There's just so much of it, and Astarion swallows it down greedy and urgent, hands trembling where he clings to the deer.

It's beyond a feast; it's beyond extravagant. It's more than Cazador would have allowed him in literal months at his most generous, but here it is, all at once, and Wyll is sitting back and making no move to take it away again.

Astarion drains it dry. He drains it dry, and by the time he's finished, he's outright dizzy with euphoria.

He feels replete for once – feels sated for once. The gorgeous, foreign feeling of having had enough shivers through him in waves, and he revels in it.

When he lifts his head again, he sways slightly – laughs, enraptured and slightly unhinged.

Wyll reaches out a hand to steady him. "Doing alright?"

"Oh, darling," Astarion breathes. "I've never been better."

Wyll smiles, and the expression crinkles the corners of his eyes. "Good. If you feel well enough, I believe I have a few other promises to keep."

For an instant, Astarion can't even remember what they are. He's all but floating, so giddy that he nearly feels drunk. Then it comes to him, all in a rush. "That's right," he says. "You did promise me a bath, didn't you?"

"Just so," says Wyll. "Though you'll have to wait a moment or two, I'm afraid, while we get everything in order."

Astarion, who finds that he's feeling quite magnanimous indeed, now that he's been fed, waves a careless hand. "I'm hardly in a hurry, dear."

"A moment, then," says Wyll. "If you would."

He bends to retrieve the deer corpse and turns back toward the stairs – opens the door and calls out: "He's ready, Karlach, go on in."

The hulking tiefling woman who had accompanied Jaheira appears in the doorway, then, and she has a wooden tub that's half her size balanced on one shoulder, as though it weighs nothing at all. She clops down the stairs with an easy, casual sort of confidence – sets the tub on the ground a bit away from the nest of blankets.

Then she turns to him, the grin on her lips entirely at odds with the sheer physical imposition of her size.

"Astarion, yeah?" she says, and she saunters on over to him – holds out a hand. "Sorry I couldn't say nothing earlier. Introductions got to keep, when the boss lady's got something she wants to say."

Astarion, who finds that he's charmed despite himself, reaches out to accept her hand. "Karlach, was it?"

"Sure is," says Karlach, and she gives his hand a shake as though they're business confederates, meeting at the dock to arrange a deal, rather than a bodyguard and a half-starved wretch burrowed in a pile of pilfered blankets. "Let's get you cleaned up, yeah? No offense, soldier, but you look like you've had a rough time of it."

She doesn't say it unkindly – and she doesn't say it with pity, either. A part of Astarion wants to bristle at the implications, but he quite likes that word, actually: soldier, as though he's come through some sort of battle and survived it.

In a way, he supposes that he has.

"You have no idea, darling," Astarion tells her, and she squeezes his hand a little.

"Well, hang in there just a bit longer," she says. "It's going to take a minute to get all the water down."

She isn't wrong. It does take a minute, and then some. They bring it down a bit at a time, in kettles hauled by Wyll and cauldrons hauled by Karlach and, little by little, they fill the tub. When it's ready, gently steaming, Wyll brings a bar of soap, and some clean linens, and Karlach sets out a change of clothes.

It all feels somewhat extravagant, truth be told.

He stands, a little unsteady – dips his fingers into the water. It must have been quite hot indeed, to start, because it's the perfect temperature now, so warm he can hardly stand it.

There's a tangled sort of knot lodged somewhere in his chest; he swallows against it, and he half-turns, trying to form the right words of thanks.

What he finds is that Karlach is gathering up the blanket nest, and Wyll is bending to help her.

He doesn't mean to squawk like some ungainly rooftop bird, but he finds that he does anyway – finds that he reaches out to take hold of the other end of the blanket Wyll has in his arms. "Now hold on," says Astarion, and his voice is a register too high, brittle about the edges.

Wyll's smile falters – struggles into place again, softer than before. Karlach has paused, arms full of fabric, to dart a glance his way, and this time, that careless grin has been replaced with something more troubled by far.

"I should have asked," Wyll tells him, and lets Astarion take the blanket. "We mean to launder them. We'll have fresh bedding prepared, by the time you've bathed."

Astarion's hands are still holding tight to the cloth. His knuckles have gone white where he clings to it. "Leave this one here," he says, and he says it haughty and commanding, and he tries very hard not to notice the way his voice cracks around the edges.

Wyll nods; he makes no move to take the blanket back. "It's yours."

Astarion keeps hold of it, as they gather up the rest of the nest. He watches as they bundle the blankets up the stairs. At the top of them, Wyll glances back down at him. "Take your time," he says. "When you're done, come knock on the door. Nobody will bother you until then."

That tangled knot in Astarion's chest coils tighter, curling in around itself. He nods, carefully – doesn't quite trust his voice to respond.

"Is there anything else you need?" Wyll asks him.

And that – oh, that. When was the last time anyone has asked him what he needed?

Astarion finds that he can't recall. Never, maybe.

He gathers himself as best he's able – swallows against an aching tightness in his throat. At last he manages, "Not just at the moment," and his voice wobbles on the last word, despite his best efforts.

"Until later, then," says Wyll, very soft indeed, and he closes the door behind him.

All that's left after that is to see about the bath.

Astarion undresses with unsteady hands – all too aware of the way the cloth clings to his skin with own blood, the pale lines of his limbs marred by evidence of old hurts.

He's done this too many times before – spent countless nights with a rag and a bucket, cleaning off the leavings of his master's punishments. He knows all too well that if he doesn't get the worst of it off, he'll spoil the bath water immediately.

And so he stands there beside the tub – wets a cloth and wipes it over his face, and his neck, and the ridges of his collar bone. By the time he's done, the cloth is ruined; he needs another for his chest, and another for his arms, and still more after that. When at last he's clean enough to step into the tub, he's shivering from the cold.

The water greets him like a hearth fire, warm and welcoming, spreading heat through chilled limbs. It seeps into him like mulled wine in the winter, and Astarion sinks down into it like he's never needed anything more.

He can't remember the last time he was warm. Not like this, where it surrounds him on every side, pressing in close and comforting.

Baths, Astarion might be tempted to think, are a blessing from the gods.

He knows better, of course. The gods are horrendous bastards.

But there is something of the divine in the heat of the water – some rapturous bliss to be had in the way it soothes sore muscles and lulls him into a vague, drifting sort of a daze.

He could stay like this forever, he thinks, as he lets his head sink back against the smooth wood of the tub. Suffused with simple pleasure, full and sated and warm, not so much as a scratch on him.

Astarion is aware, vaguely, of the ache in his throat. His cheeks are wet, and it has nothing at all to do with the bath water.

For a time, he ignores it. He lets himself drift, thoughts in a pleasant sort of a fog. The flickering flames of the candles – all five of them, now, and the lantern besides – leave little specks of reflected light in the surface of the water.

It's lovely.

Astarion lifts one hand, idly, and lets the water run through his fingers – does it again, just for the feel of it. On the third time, he catches sight of his own nails: not splintered any longer, nor red and raw, but caked with filth and dried blood.

However much he wants to lounge about, the water will hardly stay hot forever. He supposes he'd best get cleaned up before the lovely warmth of it has faded.

And so Astarion helps himself to the soap beside the tub – sniffs at it, surreptitious, and is pleased to find it a mild scent, earthy and herbal, replete with undertones of sage. It lathers the wash cloth with a rich, frothing foam, and then all that's left is to get to work.

It takes longer than he'd like by half, despite his preliminary wipe-down. He has to scrub where the old blood has settled into the creases of his elbows and the spaces between his toes. His hair, when he ducks it into the bath to rinse it free of suds, turns the water vaguely pink. He has to spend what feels an eternity, clearing the mess from beneath his nails.

But when he's done, it's glorious to be clean again – glorious to be free of any proof of the past year of his life. He stands, cautiously, and he finds that his legs don't wobble – reaches, careful, to retrieve the extra bath linens.

Then he towels himself dry, and he rubs the water from his curls, and when he's finished he steps from the tub.

The clothes are simple, but they're clean and well made – cotton, soft to the touch. Astarion pulls them on, carefully – does up the lacing on the chest and the buttons at the wrists. They're too big on him by half, all but dwarfing his narrow frame; they won't flatter his figure, but there's no helping it, he supposes.

He spends a long time there, just staring down at himself. He's dried his face already, but perhaps he didn't do a very good job.

The water, Astarion finds, is dripping from his chin again.

Chapter 12


Thank you so much to everyone who's reading. The response to this fic has been incredible, and I love you all ;;

Chapter Text

Wyll is as good as his word.

All Astarion needs to do is tap on the door at the top of the stairs before it's swinging open again, and there Wyll is, standing on the other side.

It's gratifying, really, to see the man's expression.

Astarion can't help but laugh at him, low and amused – can't help but lean in, to peer up from under his lashes. "I did mention that I clean up pretty, darling."

Wyll clears his throat, and he glances aside. "Yes," he manages. "Well. Consider yourself proven correct. You look a proper gentleman."

Every line of the man's body announces that he's flustered , and quite frankly, it's delightful. Astarion leans in to set a hand on his arm, just to watch him squirm. "I suppose I have you to thank for the outfit?"

"Until we find something that will fit you better," says Wyll. "I hope it will suffice."

"My dear," Astarion purrs. "It's hardly an imposition to find myself dressed in the clothes of a handsome man." He steps in closer, the motion graceful and insinuating; when Wyll steps back, Astarion fills the newly empty space, venturing beyond the door and into the hallway.

He doesn't mean to run; his odds, he's begun to suspect, may well be better here, with this merry little band of monster slayers and Harpers. But old habits are hard to break, and Astarion finds himself casing the hall for exits, taking in a path of stone that runs one way and then the other, draped with tapestries, lost before too long in either direction with a corner that hides the rest from view.

And there, leaning up against the wall to their right, arms folded over her chest, is Karlach. She barks a laugh, bright and bawdy. "Think you're barking up the wrong tree, soldier. Wyll here's saving himself for his one true love."

Astarion arches a single eyebrow. "Oh? I suppose the lucky paramour is delighted."

When Wyll laughs, it's decidedly less bawdy – soft and a touch self-conscious. "I'm afraid I haven't met anyone, just yet. But the person of my dreams is out there, still. I have faith that I'll find someone worth waiting for."

"A valiant monster slayer and a hopeless romantic," Astarion says, in a tone that leaves little doubt as to what he thinks of both. "Darling, I've read adventure tales less cliché than you are."

Wyll sputters – smooths down the front of his doublet, though it doesn't need smoothing. "Matters of the heart are anything but cliché," he says, and he says it so earnestly that it's almost endearing.

Astarion sniffs, delicately. "I'll leave you to write sonnets to your someday-beloved," he says, primly. "But before that, I believe you promised me more bedding."

"Right," says Karlach. "Nearly forgot!" She unfolds herself from the wall and pads off down the hallway. "You better shove over, mate, or I ain't going to be able to get all this down the stairs."

At first, Astarion hasn't the slightest notion what she means.

Then she reappears carrying an entire bedframe, and all at once he understands quite well indeed and scrambles aside to make space for her.

Next comes a mattress, and great piles of blankets, easily as many as they took to launder, all in cotton and wool. A charming patchwork quilt is the crowning glory, in a dozen colors and patterns.

There are pillows, too, and an extra lantern; there are socks, thick knitted things in a vivid shade of lavender that don't give fashion so much as a passing nod but look so breathtakingly soft that he'll forgive them. By the time they're finished and Astarion stands in the cellar again, surveying the absolute treasure trove that lies at his feet, he's quite aware that he's gaping.

Karlach grins her toothy grin at him, and she claps him on the shoulder. "Get some rest, soldier. You look like you could use it."

Then she saunters for the stairs, and he's alone again with Wyll.

"Feeling a little better, I hope?" says Wyll.

Astarion laughs, and it's a breathless sort of a sound, entirely more overwhelmed than he intends it to be. "Darling, I haven't felt this alive since I was alive."

"High praise," says Wyll. "The good news is, you have a while to recover and enjoy it. We've started to talk timelines, and I suspect we're a tenday out at least, from making our move."

Despite himself, Astarion feels a touch of the tension run out of his shoulders. "No likely galas coming up to bait your little trap with?"

Wyll hums, the sound low and thoughtful. "There are a few. But if we mean to have enough security in place to keep you safe, that means quite a lot of invitations. We might manage one or two on short notice, but nothing on the scale of what we need."

Astarion has begun to edge over toward the bed – leans down, to rub the quilt between his thumb and forefinger, and discovers that it's very soft indeed.

"A pity, truly," he pronounces, airily. "I suppose we'll have to call the plan off."

"Fortunately," says Wyll, tone dry. "We've found a solution."

Astarion sets himself down on the edge of the mattress – settles and then rises and does it again, just to feel the way it gives beneath his weight. It's lovely, soft and oh-so-very yielding. The stuffing is wool or cotton, he thinks, rather than straw. "Oh?"

"Oh," says Wyll. "We have a – connection, who will host the affair. It should guarantee that we can slip enough people in."

Astarion pauses – glances toward him, eyes sharp. "If word leaks to Cazador that it's a trap –"

"He won't catch word," Wyll assures him. "I swear it. Our connection is an honorable man."

Astarion reaches down, casually, to pick up the socks. "Quite a lot of men have that reputation who don't deserve it, darling."

Wyll tips his chin up, intent and earnest. "This one does."

"Well?" says Astarion, and unrolls the thick, warm bundle cradled in his palms. They really are remarkably lavender. "Don't keep me waiting, dear, not with a lead-in like that."

"Duke Ravengard," says Wyll, and he says it with a certain inflection to his tone that Astarion finds he can't quite parse.

"Ravengard," says Astarion. "Truly? How in the hells did you manage that? The man hasn't hosted an event since his son came of age – and word is, he didn't attend even that."

Wyll winces, slightly – glances aside, uncomfortable, finding something suddenly very interesting about the cracks between the stones on the floor. "I was able to call in a favor," he says, carefully.

Astarion leans down to pull on the first of the socks. It's a dreadful thing, like something a child would receive from a doting aunt. It's the warmest clothing he thinks he's ever worn. "Oh, you do have friends in high places," he purrs. "Charming and connected both. If you're not careful, sweetling, you're liable to make me swoon."

Wyll snorts, a sound that doesn't truly contain enough amusem*nt for it to be a laugh. "I don't know that connected is the right word. We aren't exactly what you'd call close."

Astarion waves one hand, dismissive, the remaining sock flopping with the motion. "A favor from the duke is a favor from the duke," he points out, primly, and pulls the sock into place.

Wyll glances up from the floor, finally – breaks into a smile after a beat of consideration, the expression crooked and frightfully warm. "You know," he says. "I think lavender is your color."

Astarion sets a hand to his chest, mock-offended. "I'll have you know that every color is my color."

"Oh, of course," says Wyll. "That rare complexion that can manage to flatter chartreuse."

"Chartreuse," Astarion sniffs, with everything he can muster of his dignity, "is an abomination, and not to be counted."

When Wyll laughs, it's a quiet sound. It's lovely, really; it catches somewhere in his chest, bright as the long-forgotten sun.

It's absolutely dreadful.

Then Wyll says, "I suppose we'll know what shade to put you in for the ball," and Astarion squawks, the least dignified sound he thinks he's ever made, and hisses, "You wouldn't dare," with enough venom in his voice that Wyll holds both hands up, palms out, to placate him.

"I wouldn't," he says. "I wouldn't, truly."

Astarion allows himself to be placated, though he makes a show of sulking about it. "Just for that," he says, "I'll want something with gold thread."

Wyll hums, consideringly. "I don't know that we'll have time to prepare anything custom," he says. "But perhaps someone can venture by Facemaker's Boutique and bring you a few options. There ought to be time for adjustments, even if we can't get you something bespoke."

Astarion leans in a little, trying hard to keep his expression casually uninvested.

"Oh, I'll need five outfits to choose from at least," he says.

"Five, is it?" says Wyll, with amusem*nt.

"And shoes, of course," says Astarion.

"Well, it wouldn't do to go barefoot," says Wyll.

"And a cravat," says Astarion. "Are cravats still in style?"

"You've just missed them," Wyll tells him, consolingly. "They fell out of favor last season."

"Hells," says Astarion. "Well – a cloak, then, at least."

"A cloak I think we can do," says Wyll.

There's silence, then. It stretches for several beats, and then for several beats longer.

During it, Astarion wonders when the last time was that he'd asked for something and actually gotten it. He can't honestly recall.

Cazador is enamored of the sound of his begging, but the things that he begs for – another sip of blood; a moment's rest from the jagged rip and tug of a saw; for him to please, gods, please be let out, he promises that he'll be good, he swears – have always been an impossibility. An abstract. Some childish fancy, too grand to be hoped for.

And yet here he sits, amidst a mound of blankets, the world's most ridiculous lavender socks on his feet, fed and bathed and promised some dazzling new wardrobe to wear to this absolute disaster of a plan.

He takes in a breath that he doesn't need. He lets it out again, slow. At some point, he's taken hold of the quilt, and he isn't entirely sure when it's happened.

"You must be tired," says Wyll, kindly. "I've gotten hold of another of those potions, if you'd like to rest for a while.

"Yes," says Astarion, carefully. "Yes, I think I'd like that."

Wyll digs into the pouch at his belt – comes out with another of those glowing bottles. There's something comforting in the soft light it gives off – something quite promising indeed.

Astarion reaches out to take it.

"I suppose you've things to do," he says. "Blades to sharpen, monster hunting meetings to attend."

"I'll stay," says Wyll. "If that's what you mean. You needn't worry about Aradin."

Astarion, who was in fact worried about Aradin, draws himself up as though offended. "Darling," he says, "I'm hardly weak as a kitten anymore. If he wants to try to waltz with a vampire, I can assure you, he won't find me nearly so dull a partner this time."

"Best for him, perhaps, that I don't intend to let him find out," Wyll says.

Astarion smirks – stretches, languid and deliberate. "Best for him, indeed." He swings his legs up onto the bed – arranges the blankets about him, the quilt with all its colors and patterns atop the mound. "Well," he says. "If there aren't any farewells to say, I suppose I'll say good night."

"Good night, Astarion," says Wyll. "Rest well, and may the dreams that find you bring you peace."

It ought to be outlawed, he thinks, for anyone to be quite so earnest. The sound of it spreads through him like the heat from the bath did, slow and gentle, warming him all through.

"Gods above," Astarion says, and rolls his eyes. "Has anyone ever told you that you don't have to be quite so much a prince out of a fairy story?"

Probably there's a retort to that. From the look on Wyll's face, caught between amused and offended, it's even likely to be a good one. But Astarion's drunk the potion down already, and it's nothing if not fast.

By the time Wyll opens his mouth to answer, he's fallen back against the pillows already, the sweet pull of true sleep guiding him down into its embrace.

Chapter 13


Looking vaguely like this might be 21 or 22-ish chapters, all told. We'll see how it goes!

Thank you again so much to everyone who's taken the time to read and comment. I love hearing everyone's thoughts <33

Chapter Text

Dreams don't find him at all.

Wrapped in the velvet embrace of the potion's effects, Astarion knows nothing – deep, endless, restful nothing, up until his eyes flutter open and the waking world returns.

For a moment, the disorientation is all but dizzying. For a moment, he can't recall where he is; all he's aware of is the weight of something soft above him, warm and yielding, and the gentle give of a mattress. There's the smell of sage, and a deep, radiating, satiated contentment that is so absurdly unexpected that his mind, still only half awake, stumbles muzzily about in confusion.

He blinks his eyes open – takes in the soft glow of the candlelight, and the colored patches of the quilt. There atop it, at the very edge of his bed, is Wyll – seated on the floor but fast asleep, his head resting on the blanket.

He looks delectably vulnerable like this. There's something almost pretty to the curl of his lashes and the bow of his lips – to the long, tempting curve of his neck. Even the scars along the side of his otherwise unmarred face only seem to serve as an accent, highlighting the dashing good looks.

It's unfair, Astarion thinks to himself, with more than a trace of bitterness. If someone had painted this man as an illustration into the adventure tales Astarion used to so treasure – stolen moments, snatched here and there when he'd dared risk them, the words on the page his only lifeline to an existence beyond sex and hunger and pain – if someone had put the shape of this man in between those flowery words of hope and heroism, Astarion would have laughed, and called it the most inane sort of drivel, and turned the page and kept reading anyway.

But here he is. Here he is, asleep on the edge of a prisoner's bed – a monster's bed – like he's keeping vigil at the sickbed of a beloved.

"You know," Astarion says. "I'm beginning to think you're quite bad at this monster hunting thing."

Wyll, to his credit, startles awake.

To his discredit, the foolish man doesn't even make to reach for a weapon.

"Ah," he says instead. "Welcome back. I didn't want to wake you, if you needed the rest."

"So you had a little lie-down with a vampire, instead," says Astarion, the words arch and amused.

"I was trying to stay awake," Wyll admits, quite wry indeed. "But you've been out for the better part of a day."

A day. Truly?

It feels the blink of an eye. He tries to imagine Wyll sat beside him the whole while – notices, at last, that several of the candles have burned down to guttering pools of wax and been replaced with new ones.

Astarion falters – laughs, an unsteady breath of a noise. "You might have found your own bed, darling."

Wyll lifts his chin, a gesture that's almost stubborn in its determination. "I promised I'd stay."

Astarion thinks again of stolen moments – the spicy, mellow scent of an old book – sitting tucked into a nook of stone up on the ramparts of Cazador's palace, pages spread open on his lap, viciously mocking every sentence as he reads it.

He thinks of finishing the book and then beginning it again, immediately, because the ending – oh, the ending is as unbearable as all the rest, bright with the promise of new horizons.

That same feeling is caught in his chest, just now: something unspeakably tender, like pressing on a bruise.

"That dreadful old lady has the right of it," he manages, at last. "You truly are a fool."

The next few days pass in a pleasant sort of haze.

Each brings with it something to eat, fresh and plentiful: rabbits, or ferrets, or deer, or a boar.

The hunters never demand anything of him in exchange for the privilege. His skin stays whole and unbroken for the longest stretch Astarion can ever recall.

When he complains of being bored, Wyll, sweet fool that he is, brings down a small pile of books to choose from, and Astarion takes to lounging in his bed amidst the blankets, idly kicking his feet as he works his way through a truly dreadful series about a girl who's really a dragon.

Wyll keeps him company, more often than not, and they talk of trivial things: the goings-on of various nobles, and the style of shoes Astarion wants for the ball, and the absolutely atrocious paint job on the new banner they've hung out front of Sorcerous Sundries recently.

From time to time, Karlach ventures by as well, bringing lively conversation of a different flavor: the blacksmith's apprentice she wants to f*ck, and how she's recently adopted a dog, and all about the time she punched Aradin out because, in her words, he was being an absolute twat.

Even Jaheira comes to call once, though her visit is markedly free of gossip. Instead, she brings him a floor plan of Duke Ravengard's ballroom. She spends near an hour laying out the safety precautions that they're taking, and how she means to have a man posted at every door, dressed in Ravengard's livery.

She's insufferable, Astarion finds.

They all are.

Devils take him, but he rather likes them.

"What do you think you'll do, when your master is dead?" Wyll asks him one evening, apropos of nothing.

Astarion is in the process of pouring wine into his cup – pauses midway, a little splash of the liquid pooling on the stone of the floor.

"Pardon?" he says.

"Well," says Wyll. "You'll be free to do as you please, won't you? Surely you've given some thought to it."

Astarion sets the wine down, carefully, on the little bedside table Wyll's brought him for his books.

He hasn't thought about it, truth be told. He's had two hundred years of dreaming – idle escape fantasies that seemed nothing more than childish yearning for something so very thoroughly out of reach. Now that he's so close, it feels as though he's tempting fate to snatch it away, if he thinks of it in earnest.

"I always thought," Astarion says slowly, "that I would take a ship somewhere. The sea scarcely counts as running water, and the Sword Coast has more than its share of attractions."

Wyll hums, thoughtful – reaches to wipe the spilled wine with a handkerchief. "Neverwinter?" he muses. "Waterdeep?"

"You know, I never got that far," says Astarion, and to his own ears his voice sounds bewildered – disconcertingly young. "The draw was always 'away' more than the destination."

When he glances up, he finds that Wyll is watching him with earnest brown eyes. There's something entirely too soft in that expression; it cuts like the edge of the flaying knife, laying him bare.

"Oh, stop," says Astarion, and he reaches out to snatch up the glass of wine. "You look as though I've kicked your puppy."

Wyll's smile goes crooked and a little unsteady. "I haven't got a puppy."

"Well," sniffs Astarion. "Kicked Karlach's, anyway."

"Astarion," says Wyll, and then he falters to a stop. He swallows—rallies. Tries again. "If I'd known, before. If I'd had any inkling that in the center of the Upper City there was someone – someone doing the sorts of things that he was doing to you –"

"– it wouldn't have made a scrap of difference," Astarion cuts in, sharper than he intends. "How old are you, dear? Twenty? Twenty-five? He's been picking me apart since before your parents were born."

Wyll winces – shifts, eyes trained on the ground at his feet.

"There have been generations that have been and gone and turned a blind eye," Astarion pronounces, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "A year or two off the end would hardly have mattered." When he downs the wine, he doesn't sip it but swallows it all in a single pull, like choking down cheap whiskey.

Not for the first time, he wishes, bitterly, that he could get drunk.

"All the same," says Wyll, quietly. "If I might have spared you a year, or an hour, or even a minute of suffering at his hands, I would have."

For a long moment, Astarion says nothing at all. He just looks at this man, this impossible, unspeakable, infuriating caricature stepped straight from his dreams.

"I've decided," says Astarion, abruptly.

"Decided?" Wyll echoes, plainly taken aback.

Astarion tips his chin up. "I've never seen a play at the Oasis," he says. "I've always rather wanted to."

Wyll blinks at him, looking for all the world like nothing so much as a startled barn owl. "What about Waterdeep?"

Astarion waves a hand, careless, and reaches to pour himself another glass of wine. "Do keep up, darling. My master won't be here anymore. Why should I go running with my tail between my legs?"

For a moment, Wyll says nothing at all. Then, slowly, he begins to nod. "It's your city, too," he acknowledges, at last. And then, quite careful indeed, as though meant as a peace offering: "I've heard that there's quite a spectacle showing, just now. A poetic monologue with some grand illusory magic, and a young lady on the trapeze."

Astarion's hand hesitates just for a moment. Then he reaches out to pour Wyll a glass, too – lifts it up, to offer it.

"I wouldn't mind a little company," Astarion says. "If you find that you're inclined to spectacles."

Wyll doesn't reach out to take it, just yet. He spends long moments searching Astarion's face, as though looking for – something. But perhaps what he sees pleases him, because the smile that spreads across his lips is very warm indeed.

"They have their place, I find," he says, and he reaches out to take the wine.

Astarion lifts his own glass, in a toast. "To the stupidest plan I've ever heard."

Wyll taps his glass to Astarion's, and the ring of fine crystal chimes pleasantly in the candlelit cellar. "To your freedom," he says, and then he drinks.

Chapter 14


Thank you guys for sticking with me. This continues to be a blast to work on. :>

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The fabric of the vest is a fine indigo brocade, shot through with strands of silver. It's a lovely pattern, truly: stylized clouds against a night sky smattered with stars.

Astarion thinks it's the finest thing he's ever worn.

"A trifle dull, isn't it?" he says, as he swans his way out from behind the changing screen set up in the corner of the cellar.

Wyll and Karlach are precisely where he left them, seated on a pair of crates side by side, arranged beside his bed as though chairs in a bedchamber to entertain visitors.

At the sight of him, Karlach surges halfway to her feet. "Yo, fangs," she calls. "Looking good!"

Wyll has been fussing with another of the outfits – preparing the next, doubtless, for him to try. At Astarion's reappearance, he glances up – pauses, and does a gratifying sort of double-take. "The cut does rather suit you," he says, and there's something in the tone that's pleasingly flustered.

"You're only saying that," says Astarion, primly, "because you like the lavender."

Truth be told, the shirt is a thing of beauty. It's all in lavender, as pale as the vest is dark, crafted of light, flowing silk. It sets off the indigo, and the both of them look eye-catching indeed against the smart black trim of the trousers.

"What's wrong with lavender?" says Karlach. "There's flowers in the park that color, and they don't got nothing on you."

"Why, darling," says Astarion, and flutters his lashes at her. "Kind of you to notice."

She laughs at that, loud and brash, and when Astarion smiles back at her, he finds that for once the expression on his face isn't for show, a painted-on surface to distract from what lies behind it. For once it's genuine – a trifle giddy, honestly.

Somewhere at the back of his mind, a slow bubbling panic is fighting with whatever this strange, bright new possibility is, and the anticipation of the both of them may well squeeze the un-life from him – but here and now, in this moment, he feels more as though he's been launched into flight than caught in a free-fall.

"Have you decided on a victor, then?" says Wyll, mild and amused. "No need to try on the rest?"

"Oh, come now," says Astarion, and swipes the final outfit up off the little table that stands beside his bed. "There's only one left. Surely you wouldn't deprive me of my fun."

"Surely not," says Wyll, at the same moment Karlach says, "Let him live a little!" and elbows Wyll in the side, casual.

Astarion gives them a delicate finger waggle of a wave and disappears again, behind the changing screen.

The final outfit is as formal as the others, but more constricting by half. The collar is sharp, and the sleeves have a bit of a flair to them. It's a deep, vibrant crimson, and the double-breasted coat that sits atop it echoes more of the same, blood red framed by black.

It puts him in mind of the halls of Cazador's palace, he finds. It puts him in mind of blood that stains the carpets, and the scent of iron in the air, and screaming echoing off down the hall, half muffled by the heavy drape of velvet curtains.

He's worn something like this, once, when he accompanied his master to the private chambers of a noble he wished to impress. Astarion dreams of that night, still, and the dreams are not pleasant ones.

This shade of red, he recalls, does quite a lot to hide the blood.

His fingers are stiff on the buttons of the lavender shirt as he undoes them; the silk is cool beneath his fingers. As he pulls it off and begins to undress, he finds that his hands aren't quite as steady as they were before.

On goes the crimson of the new shirt, just the right shade to hide the blood. Up go the buttons, gold set with garnet, a deep and gleaming red like his master's eyes.

Astarion is preparing to announce that he doesn't much care for this one, after all, when he hears the unmistakable sound of the door at the top of the stairs opening and then closing again.

"I see the fashion show continues," says a heavily accented voice, amused.

"And you've missed near all of it," Astarion says, brightly, as he tucks his shirt into place and does up the buttons along the cuffs. "A tragedy, you know. You might have had more of this."

When he steps from behind the screen, he does it with a flourish to the sight of Jaheira coming down the stairs. She moves to stand behind Wyll and Karlach, watching him with a raised eyebrow and a hint of a smile. "However will I survive the disappointment?"

"Oh, honestly," Astarion sighs. "Where's the enthusiasm?"

Jaheira's smile creeps a little wider. "Reserved for grander things, I'm afraid."

Wyll sits up a little straighter, turning toward her. "Have we a final date?"

"We do indeed." Jaheira withdraws a slip of paper from within some hidden inner pocket; from here, Astarion can make out the crisp edges of the parchment and the flowing, elegant script. "The invitations have been sent out. On the twenty-third of Deepwinter, our trap springs closed."

Karlach tips her head to one side. "Taking our time about it, huh?"

For an instant, Jaheira's eyes flicker to Astarion; Wyll's do, as well. Astarion finds he can't quite parse either of their expressions.

"The duke had his opinions," says Jaheira, smoothly. "Besides which, it is best that our quarry has adequate time to stew in his troubles. When an opportunity presents itself at last, he will be rash and prone to haste."

Astarion still resents her, rather. Her poise and her confidence are insufferable; he can't forget the way he'd felt so very laid bare before her, every last moment of pain spread out for her to pick through like a vulture crouched over a corpse.

But he does rather like the thought of Cazador as a quarry, for once. There's a certain appeal to that: his master, one more rabbit for this woman's snare.

When he smiles, it's a narrow thing, slow and considering. "You know," he says, "Perhaps you aren't as dreadful as I'd imagined."

Jaheira fixes him with a canny look, a wry smile playing about the corners of her lips. When she waves the invitation, it is an idle gesture. "Keep your blade for the one whose throat deserves it, little vampire."

Astarion sketches a bow, every inch of the gesture courtly and proper. "Believe me, darling," he purrs. "I mean to."

By the time he straightens up again, Jaheira is headed for the stairs.

"Going so soon?" says Wyll, turning to look back toward her.

"The Harpers have many talents," says Jaheira, tone dry. "But without a hand to guide them, I find they gallivant in the dust like a rooster with no head."

Karlach makes as though to rise. "You need me, boss?"

The old woman waves a hand, dismissive. "Stay," she says. "I would not interrupt something so grand as a fashion show." She reaches the top of the stairs – pauses there, hand on the door knob.

When she glances back, her eyes linger over Astarion. It's a sharp gaze – insightful. Under that piercing stare, he feels dreadfully seen.

"A lighter shirt would suit you better," she says at last. "Red, I think, is not your color."

"I might have run, you know," Astarion says, apropos of nothing, the evening before the gala.

He's dressed in more of Wyll's clothes, a comfortable ensemble in cream and forest green that laces at the chest.

The lavender socks don't go with it at all. Astarion has them on anyway.

Wyll is cross-legged at the foot of the bed, atop the blankets, and between them the surface of the patchwork quilt has been overtaken by a game of whist, the Talis cards splayed out in dazzling array.

Wyll's losing somewhat spectacularly. It's because Astarion has been stealing his cards every time he glances away.

"Oh?" says Wyll, mildly, as he considers his options. After a pause, he lays a four of waves over one of the stacks.

"Several times, really," says Astarion. "You've grown remarkably sloppy, my dear." He taps a four of flames to Wyll's four, and claims them both -- and then, just to be contrary, he palms the four of stones, as well, when Wyll glances up again.

"And yet here you are," says Wyll, and spreads a hand.

"Here I am," says Astarion. And then: "Your move, darling."

Wyll begins a new stack – lays down the Night, the whole of its painted sky smattered with stars. Perhaps he hasn't any cards to go atop it, because he ends there, with a casual tap of two fingers to concede the round. "I don't suppose," Wyll says, carefully, "you mean to say why."

Astarion stares down at the swirl of stars for a long moment. "Because I'm a fool, I imagine." He makes as though to select a new card -- hesitates, and changes his mind. Sets the Sun down, at last, to obscure the Night, its painted golden rays and brilliant cobalt sky covering up what lies beneath it. "A part of me still wishes I was on a ship to Neverwinter by now."

For a long moment, Wyll stares down at that little painted sun. When he glances up from the cards, his smile is so sincere that Astarion quite forgets to steal the five of winds when he's not looking. "Another part, it seems, has found good reason to stay."

Astarion tips his head to the side – fixes Wyll with a slow, considering sort of look. "That part of me has been quite seduced by pretty promises, I'm afraid."

He ought to add more. He means to add more.

Perhaps some clever threat involving a knife and what Astarion will do if those promises fall by the wayside.

But his throat is very dry, and Wyll's lovely brown eyes are very earnest, and somehow that would-be violence withers and slips away, unspoken.

"They're more than pretty promises," Wyll tells him, low and heartfelt. "I swear it to you."

"Would you look at that," Astarion drawls. "This new one is as pretty as all the rest." His hand, deft and clever, makes to steal the five of winds, after all.

He only gets caught because Wyll reaches out just then, earnest and gentle, to take hold of his hand. The look on his face, bewildered and then comically indignant, is a sight to behold.

"Have you been stealing my cards?" he demands.

And Astarion can't help it. He laughs, there in the cellar with its blankets and its candlelight, the sound not a ragged gasp or a rising tide of hysteria, but something far more genuine, high and light and breathless.


Disclaimer: all I know about Talis cards and the game of whist, I learned from the Faerun wiki. The cards are the cards in the Talis deck; no rules were mentioned for whist, so I just made something up. If those live in one of the Faerun setting books, oops. I was too lazy to go dig mine out. >>

Next chapter: the gala (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter 15



Chapter Text

The gala is a glittering masterwork of light and color.

Duke Ravengard's grand hall has been transformed into a dazzling spectacle, beset with glowing candles that catch and reflect delicate hanging sculptures of crystal. They sway gently in the air, suspended from fine silk ribbons, and the light through the graceful facets of them sets little motes of liquid gold to dancing through the room in shimmering ovals.

Everywhere Astarion looks is a riot of color: silk gowns in butter yellow, and delicate chiffon sprays in deep ocean blue, and pressed linen all in ripe-plum purple.

At any other time, he might call it stunning – but Astarion can't appreciate it, just at the moment.

He's too busy feeling as though his long-dead heart has squirmed to panicked life in his chest, trying to claw its way up his throat. He's too busy feeling as though it's strangling him.

This is a terrible idea.

He takes a glass of wine, and he wonders for the hundredth time how he ever agreed to an idea like this.

He smiles charmingly as a young woman passes by, and he thinks that if he had a spell that might turn back time, he would use it to carve out his own wretched tongue before he could agree to what is surely the worst plan ever conceived by mortal minds.

Astarion checks the exits again, just to be sure – recognizes a few familiar faces among the Harpers dressed in the livery of Duke Ravengard's estate. It ought to reassure him.

Instead Astarion rather feels as though he might vomit.

He sips at his wine, and he laughs at a joke that a well-dressed middle-aged gentleman is telling. He scans the crowd, surreptitious, to look for Wyll, doing his level best to seem as though he isn't a hair's breadth from bolting for the door.

Wyll is meant to be tailing him.

Astarion takes another sip of wine, and he laughs again, and it's higher pitched than before, a touch jagged at the edges.

Wyll must be here somewhere, of course: one more trim, charming figure amid the polished upper crust of Baldur's Gate. He'd sworn he would be here, and Astarion's eyes flitter over the dance floor and then to the doors again, just to be sure, and he finds that his next sip of wine drains the goblet.

A hand touches his arm, then, a bare brush of contact, and Astarion – Astarion jerks backward and drops the gods-be-damned glass.

It shatters on the stone of the floor into a hundred, thousand pieces, and Astarion whirls around, expecting dark, sleek hair, and narrowed eyes, and a knowing smile, and he finds –

Wyll. He finds Wyll, and he just has the time to take it all in: the flattering cut of the man's sweeping white coat, and the way that trim of burnished gold brings out the warmth of those earnest brown eyes, and the concern that suffuses his face. All at once, Astarion finds himself dizzy with relief.

"Apologies," Wyll is saying. "Apologies, my good saer, entirely my fault."

Astarion is aware, over the ringing in his ears, that half the ballroom has stopped to stare at them. If they wanted to ensure that he'd be spotted, there's no better way than this, and the very thought of it makes him feel a touch faint.

He unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth – manages to swallow, with difficulty. "Not at all," Astarion tells him, and his voice sounds breathy and strange, even to his own ears.

Wyll, thank all the gods, seems to have kept his head about him. He flags down a passing servant, an elderly maid, and he says, "Vittoria, would you mind having this seen to?"

And the woman says, "Of course, my lord," and there's something about that exchange that ought to strike Astarion as odd, he thinks, but he can't wonder over it too much, just now. He can't think of much of anything, he finds; his chest is heaving as though he needs air, and he feels all of those watching eyes like hands on his skin.

"Thank you," says Wyll. And then, to Astarion: "Allow me to make it up to you, saer. Come, I'll find you another drink."

He takes hold of Astarion's arm – as carefully as before, but this time, he makes certain that Astarion sees it coming. The touch is light, is gentle, and he steers them toward a vacant table at the corner of the room. An instant later, Astarion is sinking gratefully into a wrought iron chair with its back to the wall.

All around them, those watching eyes have turned back to their food, their drinks, their partners, their gossip. Astarion lets out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding, and he smooths his shaking palms against his thighs.

"Have I mentioned lately, my dear, that this is a terrible idea?" says Astarion, in a voice that isn't entirely steady.

Wyll slides into the chair opposite him – flags down a passing servant with trays of sparkling wine, seizes one, and passes it Astarion's way. "The hard part is over," he promises, soft. "Nothing will be more difficult than it was to walk through that door."

Astarion flashes Wyll a weary sort of a smile. "I would have gone straight out the window, truth be told, if it hadn't been for Karlach."

"She does have a reassuring sort of a presence," says Wyll, "doesn't she?"

Astarion snorts – takes a sip of the wine. "More that I thought better of mussing my hair by getting manhandled just before my grand debut."

Wyll stifles a smile. "It is rather dashing," he says. "Quite finely coiffed, if I say so myself. It would be a shame to ruin it."

"Lucky for you, then, that I didn't run after all," says Astarion, very dry. And then, before he can think better of it – before he can think of anything else at all, really, he says, "Wyll, darling. Why don't you ask me to dance?"

"To dance," Wyll echoes, sounding a touch taken off guard.

"Since we've officially met, now, before all the city's finest," says Astarion. "Surely a charming young man such as yourself knows a step or two."

There's a scrap of truth to the request: Wyll cuts quite the eye-catching figure. If this were another time, another place, Astarion suspects he would want nothing more than for this man to hold a hand out and ask him to take a turn around the dance floor.

Here and now, he has something far less of a storybook romance in mind. Here and now, he thinks he might scream if Wyll slips off into the crowd and leaves him on his own again.

Perhaps Wyll sees something of it in his face. His expression softens; when he smiles, very gentle indeed, it crinkles the corners of his eyes. "I would be delighted if you would join me for a dance," he says. "After you've had a moment to catch your breath, of course."

"Please, darling," Astarion sniffs, voice pitched low enough that he won't be overheard under the murmur of conversation. "I don't need to breathe."

"After you've accustomed yourself to the crowd, then," says Wyll, just as soft. "It must be overwhelming, after so much time."

There's a pause; in it, Astarion takes another sip of wine, to buy himself a moment to respond. When he lowers the glass, he says, "Perhaps it's taken a touch of readjustment." He sets the goblet on the table – turns it by the stem, clockwise, a single half-rotation. "Though it's scarcely the crowd I'm concerned about, you know."

Wyll nods, careful. "I know," he says. He opens his mouth, as though to speak – subsides. Makes another attempt of it. "Did you know," he says, softly, "I think you're the bravest man I've ever met, even to be standing in this room."

Astarion glances at him sidelong. For an instant, he thinks of sniping back that Wyll hasn't the slightest notion what bravery is – hasn't the slightest idea of the ways he's crawled, and begged, and debased himself. But the man looks so damnably earnest just then – so intent – and Astarion does very much want him to stay for that dance.

"I'll have you know," he says instead, primly, "that I have it on good authority this whole thing will go off without a hitch. Something about a certain someone's hands never being on me again, as I recall."

Wyll leans forward a little, over the table – splays his palm out, face down, fingers spread. His expression is solemn; if he were down on one knee, he would look every bit the knight in some adventure tale, prepared to swear an oath to some fair maiden he's sworn to protect.

It's patently absurd.

"I meant that, you know," Wyll tells him, very soft.

Gods, but this man is impossible. Sometimes Astarion can scarcely stand to look at him.

"Well, yes," says Astarion. "I'm rather counting on it." He lifts his wine glass and takes a long sip – finishes it off and sets it down again. "Now are you going to ask me to dance, or aren't you?"

And Wyll takes to his feet. He sweeps forward in a half-bow, courtly and picture-perfect. He offers Astarion his hand, and he says, "May I have this dance, saer?"

And Astarion sniffs, and places his hand in Wyll's open palm, and he says, "Oh, I suppose."

The musicians are seated on a raised wooden platform at the far end of the great hall. It's a beautiful stage, all of smooth, dark wood – not temporary, it seems, but a permanent fixture, high enough off the ground that the players are easy to pick out, in their glimmering outfits of silver and white.

Whoever arranged for the musicians, Astarion reflects absently, knew what they were about. Talented hands guide the bows of the violins, and talented fingers coax the melody from a handful of flutes, and a harpist stands at the far back corner of the stage, her hair falling like a curtain over her lovely face as she plucks out music that seems as though it shouldn't even be a part of this realm.

It's lovely. It's ethereal.

If Astarion still had a heart that could beat, he's certain that it would be slamming in his chest just now, strained nigh to bursting with the awful awareness that at any moment, this entire night could go terribly, terribly wrong.

Still – Wyll's palm is very warm against his own, and Wyll's steps are very sure as he guides them out to the center of the dance floor. When Astarion feels eyes on him, this time, he doesn't feel quite as acutely that he might crawl out of his skin.

He thinks instead of how they must look: Wyll, with his handsome, clean-shaven face and warm brown eyes, posture impeccable as any fairytale prince. And Astarion beside him – well, Astarion isn't entirely sure how he does look beside him, but beautiful, surely, and with a truly stunning outfit, all in lavender and indigo, to help him along.

"Shall we?" says Wyll, and he lifts a hand, palm out, toward Astarion.

It's an offer – the starting position for the court reel that the couples on the floor are dancing.

Astarion smiles at him, demure; he tilts his head. He says, "Darling, there's nothing I'd like more," and he presses his palm to Wyll's own.

Wyll moves the way he looks he ought to move: all elegance, pure grace, every step a measured, courtly thing.

It's the easiest thing in the world to follow his lead, closing in to circle after him as he begins the first quarter-turn.

There's a give and a take to dancing, Astarion has always found. With an inattentive partner, it can be something truly dreadful: a series of awkward moments, of stepped-on toes, of sputtered apologies and curdled pride.

Wyll, he discovers, is not an inattentive partner.

He steps into the turns as though he means them; his touch against Astarion's palm is steady and firm, and when they come apart and join together again, twirling in time with the music, he's exactly where Astarion expects him to be.

"Will wonders never cease," says Wyll, the next time they're close enough to speak. "You might have said that you knew your way around a dance floor."

"Really, darling," Astarion tells him, haughty. "You don't get to be as old as I am without picking up a thing or two."

They part again – trade partners with the pair beside them – but not before Astarion hears Wyll's laughter, low and melodic. When they come together again, he's still smiling, the lights from the chandeliers dangling far above them sparkling in his eyes.

For a wonder, Astarion finds that some of the tension has crept out of his shoulders. For a wonder, he finds that just as the music begins to fade, the song tapering off into the quiet of murmured background conversation, he would really quite like another dance.

"Shall we see what they play us next?" Astarion asks, and he tilts his head just so, offering up his hand in turn.

"Leading this time, are you?" Wyll asks him, lightly, and presses his palm to Astarion's.

"Do try to keep up," Astarion purrs, and then the music begins, and they're off again.

They dance two reels, and then a waltz, and then something altogether slower, a handspan closer, the turns they take about one another just distant enough to be within the bounds of propriety. Wyll has noticed that extra closeness, Astarion thinks; by the time the final song concludes, Astarion can hear the racing of Wyll's heart, a drumbeat thundering in his ears.

The edge-of-his-fingernails terror has abated, somewhat; it hasn't been washed away, no, but he finds that it's allowed itself to be ignored, for once, in favor of something else entirely.

The something else, Astarion is startled to realize, is fun. Against all odds – against most things that might be considered common sense – he's here on the dance floor at a dazzling gala, dressed in an outfit the likes of which he's dreamt of, idly, for the past two hundred years. He's waiting for his master to appear to snatch him away, and somehow – somehow – he finds that he's having fun.

It's the worst kind of foolishness, he thinks idly. All that time sealed up in the cellar has quite addled his brain. There are a thousand and one things to think about beyond the next dance – a thousand and one worries of what awaits him at the end of this night, somewhere far from here, sealed up and screaming.

And yet Astarion finds that he offers his hand again, and he says, "I don't suppose – ?"

He never quite finishes the invitation.

A man's voice interrupts him, low and somber, an edge of disapproval to the tone. "Wyll," the voice says, and Wyll starts as though guilty, half-turning toward the new arrival.

Astarion turns as well, and when he does he sees that Duke Ravengard himself is addressing them. The man is something of a legend – or something of a menace, depending upon which circles you happen to be running in.

His portrait has appeared in Baldur's Mouth often enough for Astarion to recognize his face – severe brows and piercing eyes, stark beneath a head shaved entirely bald.

"Our illustrious host himself," Astarion says, brightly. "I must say, my dear, you do know how to throw a party."

No sooner has he spoken than those piercing eyes pin him with an implacable gaze. The man's face, already grim, starts to frown.

"Is this the creature?"

That little spark inside him, that small swelling thing awakened by the music and the touch of Wyll's hand, goes quietly sour.

And then Wyll hisses, "Father, please," and something goes more sour still.

Astarion looks between the two of them, and – yes, there it is. The same strong jawline and the same sensitive brown eyes – a certain furrow to the brow when they're upset and, just now, it seems, the both of them are.

"Darling," Astarion croons, with a smile that only just hides his teeth. "You never mentioned that daddy dearest was the star of the evening."

Wyll, for his part, at least has the decency to look ashamed. "It didn't seem entirely relevant."

"It's a little relevant," Astarion tells him, cooly.

Duke Ravengard clears his throat, pointed. He fixes Astarion with a lingering glance. "I'd like to speak to my son for a moment. If you'd excuse us?"

Astarion presses his hand to his chest. This time, his smile is closed-lipped and practiced. "Anything for his excellency the duke," he says, honey smooth, and gives a little mock-bow that's precisely three degrees too shallow to be proper.

Then he turns and stalks toward the table at the corner where Wyll had sat him down earlier – realizes he's going there, and makes himself stop, and turns instead toward the banquet table, where he seizes a goblet of sparkling wine.

It's dreadful. Not just vinegar but sparkling vinegar, and Astarion swallows it down and takes another, just because he can.

He's not entirely sure why it bothers him so badly; it's as Wyll told him. Duke Ravengard is an honorable man either way.

Wyll's father or not, the man has granted them the venue for this awful plan; their relationship has no bearing on anything at all.

Perhaps, a small voice whispers at the corner of Astarion's mind, it isn't the omission that rankles quite so badly.

Perhaps it's that word: the creature, as though that's the way Wyll told the tale to his father – told of Astarion to his father – in private, when there was no one he felt he ought to charm.

Astarion swallows down the second glass of wine – catches the startled gaze of a mousy young maid who watches him do it and fixes her with a flat look, daring her to say anything. She doesn't – flusters and turns away – and Astarion helps himself to a third.

Gods, sometimes he wishes he could get drunk.

He skulks his way over toward the wall – sips at the wine, this time, rather than swallowing it straight. There's a commotion near one of the doors, and he glances that way idly – catches sight of a flustered dwarven guard with long, dark hair shot through with a smattering of gold. She looks decidedly upset about something or other.

Astarion can't hear much of anything, but he can make out a little: "Helm strike me dead, Gregor said that?" she's saying. "Please, Aradin, just for a minute. I swear I'll owe you anything you like."

And then another voice is saying, "Go on, I can man a door as good as anyone." Astarion recognizes the voice right away – it's Aradin's, shot through with that smug, careless bravado that so makes Astarion want to bury a knife in his ribs.

Maybe he can break the glassware off at the stem. Broken glass, he's found, always makes such jagged cuts.

But he doesn't break the goblet, temptation be damned. All he has to do is get through this stupid night and this terrible gods-damned plan and he'll be free of all this – free of idiotic Harpers, and of inane dress-up balls, and of Wyll, and his insufferable charming face.

Astarion throws back the rest of the wine – scowls, and turns toward the table, as though to get another.

And then a voice at his elbow says, "I think you've had quite enough," and Astarion goes very still indeed.

He knows that voice.

It's written into the scars on his flesh and it's carved in the very marrow of his bones. It speaks to him in the nightmares that come during his reverie, and it chases him to waking, and all at once Astarion is sure that if he needed to breathe he would have stopped, just now.

A pale, elegant hand reaches out to pluck the glass from his hand and set it casually on the table.

Then Cazador says, "Take my arm, boy," and Astarion reaches out to take his arm.

He tucks it into the curve of Cazador's elbow, as though they're a couple going out for a stroll in one of the parks of the upper city. His mouth, caught in a rictus of a smile, can't open to scream.

It's fine, Astarion tells himself.

This is the plan. This is the stupid, awful, gods-f*cked plan, and it's going exactly as it should.

"Come along, child," says Cazador, voice smooth and even, a blade cloaked in silk.

And Astarion – Astarion can do nothing but what he's told.

They make their way toward the side of the room, below the glittering chandeliers. They pass through teems of people arrayed in silk and velvet – through chatter and gossip and bright, pealing laughter – through the grandest ball Astarion thinks he's ever been to.

This is the plan, he tells himself. This is the plan.

"I hope you've enjoyed yourself, boy," says Cazador, conversational. "You've had quite the remarkable little holiday, haven't you?"

"I'd have come back if I was able," says Astarion, and he can't quite stop the pleading tone that creeps into his voice.

"Would you have, indeed?" Cazador asks him.

They're passing the table in the corner, now – the one where Wyll sat him down until he'd stopped shaking quite so badly.

He's shaking again, he finds.

"Of course, master," says Astarion. "You know better than anyone – you know I know better than to run."

"Hm," says Cazador. There's something teasing to the tone – something almost playful that never bodes well. But Astarion knows what's lurking behind it, like a snake coiled to strike: the edge of a temper that's carefully leashed, but only for here. Only for now.

Astarion's hand is unsteady where it holds to Cazador's arm. Dark spots dance at the corners of his vision.

He knows this is the plan. He knows .

But as they approach the door in the far corner of the grand hall, Astarion feels something sick and cold twist inside him – meets Aradin's gaze as they come even with one another and then as Cazador leads him past.

He knows how this is meant to go.

He knows that an alarm is meant to go up, quiet, whispered Harper to Harper, so that a hunting party can set out to track Cazador's path.

Astarion half-turns, frantic, just in time to see the way Aradin smirks at him – just in time to see the man settle in against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, and start to whistle, turning back to face the glittering gala inside the duke's manor.

"You're making a spectacle of yourself, boy," says Cazador, sharply. "Behave."

And Astarion – Astarion opens his mouth as though to speak, but instead his chest hitches, jagged and unsteady, trying to drag in air that he doesn't need. It feels as though there are bars of iron wrapped around his ribs, tight and squeezing tighter.

"Master," Astarion manages to gasp, through the rising, icy wave of panic. "Please."

Cazador inclines his head, slightly – steers Astarion toward a stately black carriage parked at the far edge of the duke's walkway.

Through the rising tide of terror, he can see the bodies of the Harpers that were posted along the west wall, crumpled in the immaculately trimmed hedges.

"If I hear one more word out of your lying, faithless mouth," Cazador tells him pleasantly, "I will find a way to make what I have planned seem a luxury. Have I made myself understood?"

Astarion's mouth snaps closed so fast his teeth clack together. He nods, frantic; his chest hasn't stopped hitching yet, and the black spots at the corners of his vision are really quite remarkable now.

He's aware, peripherally, that the footman has stepped down to hold the door for them.

"Well?" says Cazador. "Go on, boy. Get inside."

And Astarion – all Astarion can do is listen.

Chapter 16


The response to the last chapter was absolutely incredible. Thank you all for the kind words and incoherent screaming, it was a delight to see. <333

And thank you again SO very much to the amazing thecheeseburgercat on Tumblr, who drew Wyll and Astarion in their outfits for the gala. I love it so much!! They both looks so dashing! :>>>>

Chapter Text

"I'd like to speak to my son for a moment," says Wyll's father. "If you'd excuse us?"

Wyll turns toward Astarion, an apology on his lips – winces when he sees the smile there.

It's a pretty smile – a practiced smile – and when he says, "Anything for his excellency the duke," the tone behind it is just a shade to the left of polite.

Wyll doesn't think he's ever seen a sarcastic bow before, but there it is, the lines of Astarion's form a touch too stiff, a touch too exaggerated. And before Wyll has a chance to get another word in edgewise, Astarion is flouncing off across the dance floor.

Wyll watches him go – glances back toward his father. "That might have gone better," he says, and he can't quite keep the reproach from his voice.

"You've brought a vampire to my grand hall," says Wyll's father. "What did you expect?"

"He's not some mindless animal," Wyll protests. "Creature, father? Truly?"

Indignation burns like an ember somewhere in his chest – and something far guiltier, besides. The look on Astarion's face in the instant that word had registered lingers in his mind's eye – something genuine, just for an instant, before it had been hidden away again.

"Well, he is," says Wyll's father. "And if it weren't for the fact that you mean to catch another monster with him, he wouldn't be here at all."

Wyll grits his teeth – resists the urge to answer back. Two tendays ago, he'd have felt the same – but that was before he'd learned Astarion's name. Before he knew that the man enjoyed vapid adventure tales and wry, witty jokes. Before they'd planned a trip to the theatre, when all this is said and done.

Wyll thinks, sometimes, about the night he ventured forth to the Szarr manor, hunting monsters. He thinks about how very close he came to putting a stake through Astarion's heart and ending him entirely.

An inch to the right, and the man he's grown to know in the time since would have been gone for good. No dreams of the future; no stacks of books on a bedside table; no drinking wine from a goblet in a pile of blankets.

Just gone, and the last thing he knew would have been a year of pain and hunger, followed by a brief moment of terror and then – nothing.

Wyll thinks about the others, sometimes – the spawn they didn't miss. An elven woman and a halfling man, both of them put to death in the space of a single heartbeat. He wonders if they, too, had hopes of escape – if they, too, had dreamed of something beyond the walls of Lord Szarr's palace.

It makes Wyll a little sick, every time he comes around to it again.

Wyll scrubs a hand over his mouth, absently – looks back up at his father. "I suppose he wouldn't," Wyll manages. He swallows – rallies. "There was something you wished of me?"

"A report," says Wyll's father. "Has there been any sign of their lord? I'll not have my guests put in any danger."

Wyll shakes his head, slow. "We've seen neither hide nor hair of him. It may take some hours yet. Word will have to reach him before he can make any meaningful sort of move."

Wyll's father lets out a breath – a displeased huff of a sigh. "And I'm meant to keep this little charade going until then?"

All at once, the notion that Wyll's father could call this short occurs to him. If he so chooses, he could send all the guests home and leave them scrambling for a way to set another trap, this time with Astarion's position compromised.

"Father," says Wyll. "Please. If we end this now, we'll never get another opportunity like this one."

"I'm well aware," says Wyll's father, curtly. "Else we wouldn't be standing here."

All at once, Wyll feels as though he's twelve years old again, on the training field, with his father watching as his instructor disarms him of the rapier in his hand. His cheeks burn; the tangled knot in his chest feels remarkably like shame. "Thank you," says Wyll. "Truly."

"Hm," says Wyll's father, noncommittal. "Well – keep me abreast of the situation. I'll not have the goings-on in my own home kept from me. Understood?"

"Understood," says Wyll.

Duke Ravengard spares him a curt nod, and then he turns to walk away.

Wyll watches him go – takes a moment, to collect himself. Later, he'll have to find a way to make this up to his father. Later, he'll have to find some triumph that can balance the scales against a request dismissed as "foolish" and "frivolous" and "unnecessary."

Later, he'll have to try and find the newest hole in the tattered shawl of their relationship and attempt to patch it over, one clumsily sewn hole in among a dozen or more already there.

But for now, there are more important things to attend.

Wyll takes a steadying breath, and he turns toward the rest of the great hall. His eyes scan the gathered guests, searching for a pale figure in a stunning outfit of lavender and indigo.

It really is a lovely soiree, he reflects, as he searches the crowd. Vittoria outdid herself on the planning, with only a few suggestions here and there on Wyll's part. It's remarkable, really. If Wyll hadn't known that she'd been his father's maid for thirty-five years, now, he might have suspected that she was an event planner by trade.

He'll have to tell her, later, how brilliant a job she's done.

In the here and now, though, he finds that he has other things on his mind. Astarion hasn't returned to his table, nor to the dance floor. He's not in the arched doorway that leads to the adjoining hall, either.

Wyll frowns, and he ventures to the raised dais where the musicians are performing. He stands on the bottom step, that he might peer out over the dancing throngs to get a better view.

Still nothing. That familiar figure, striking enough to stand out from even a distance, is nowhere to be seen.

Wyll veers toward the back of the room – steps through the arched door into the adjacent hall. It's more crowded in here; there's less space, and the bar at the far corner, it seems, is serving hard liquor. Still, it shouldn't be enough people to make him feel like this: vaguely claustrophobic, as though something unnamable is closing in on him.

Wyll stands beside the door, and his eyes scan the crowd with increasing urgency. He'd know that well-coiffed head of curls anywhere, and it's not here, either.

By the time he turns sharply to the right, approaching the door where Karlach's stationed, his palms are damp with sweat.

"Have you seen Astarion?" he asks, and his voice, aiming for even and in control, is remarkably unsure.

Karlach's lounging against the doorframe, looking bored – but she straightens up at that, yellow cat's eyes narrowing. "You're sh*tting me," she says – and then, when she realizes that he isn't: "f*ck. No. Not since a while ago."

"Right," says Wyll. His chest feels as though somebody is laying weight on it, one unbearable boulder at a time. "Where's Jaheira?"

"You think the hunting party went out and she didn't say nothing?" says Karlach.

Wyll doesn't know what to think.

It could be that. He hopes it's that.

"I'll find out," he tells her. "Jaheira will know what's happened."

Jaheria doesn't know what's happened.

He stands to the side as she snaps orders in a back corner of the grand hall, looking out of place in a blue dress that seems more battle tunic than ball gown. He feels ten years old again, seated to one side as his father talks to the other adults – feels helpless and frantic and not a little sick.

"Begin a search," Jaheira commands, "starting at the manor and spiraling outward. Interview everyone who might have seen where he went."

"Yes, ma'am," says the Harper in Ravengard livery.

"Quickly, now," says Jaheira. "We have no time to waste."

The Harpers turn to walk away; so does Wyll.

"Not you," Jaheira snaps. "Walk with me."

She's setting off across the dance floor in long strides, with all the barely-banked agitation of a caged panther. Wyll has a full head of height on her, and he still has to scramble to catch up.

"Where did you last see him?" Jaheira asks.

"There," says Wyll, and he nods to the spot on the dance floor, where Astarion had turned and walked away. Even now, he feels something in his chest twist at the recollection.

"And when he left, where did he go?" Jaheira demands.

"I'm not sure," says Wyll. "Behind me somewhere." He turns – gestures toward the back half of the hall. "I thought he'd gone back to sit down again."

"Plainly not," says Jaheira. "Or if he meant to, he was intercepted along the way."

She's begun to move in the direction Wyll indicated, and her eyes are narrowed, sharp and watchful.

Wyll thinks of broken hands, and of the heavy marble lid of a sarcophagus. He thinks of Astarion clinging to the blanket that he'd brought.

He thinks of how scared the man had been, to go anywhere near his master again.

Wyll has made what feels a thousand mistakes in his life, but he can't ever remember one worse than this.

Jaheira's coming up on one of the doors now; when she speaks, her voice is like a whipcrack, pointed and abrupt. "You," she says. "You are not meant to be on this door. Where is Fytz?"

Wyll is half lost in his thoughts. He's half lost in the remembrance of his own words – the promise that Astarion's master would never lay hands on him again.

When he looks up, he sees that Aradin is standing at the door – and all at once, with an awful, icy sort of dread, he thinks he knows what happened.

"She had something to attend to," Aradin says, in a casual, unconcerned sort of a drawl. "Her husband had an emergency, as I recall."

"I see," says Jaheira, sharply. "And while you were standing in for her, I don't suppose you noticed anything out of the ordinary?"

Aradin leans back against the doorframe, casual as anything. "Just a party and some well-to-do types dancing."

"Nothing else?" Wyll cuts in, unable to quite stop the way his voice pitches up with the tension.

Aradin makes a show of looking him over; his eyebrows lift, in the worst pantomime of surprise Wyll thinks he's ever seen. "Why, young lord Ravengard," says Aradin. "Don't tell me you've lost your pet vampire."

"Aradin," says Jaheira, sharply.

"Did you see him," Wyll grates out, "or didn't you?"

Aradin spreads his hands – smiles, wide and unconcerned. "Not all of us have such a hard time keeping from ogling the prisoners, you know."

Wyll feels his hands curl into fists; he steps forward, a retort on his tongue.

"Leave him be," says Jaheira. "We have other concerns."

Wyll grits his teeth together – manages to choke out: "You're right. Of course."

And he might have left it there, if Fytz the Firecracker hadn't come storming up through the crowd just then, her friendly face darkened with an uncharacteristic scowl. "Aradin, you f*cker," she's saying. "My husband didn't get in any accident!"

Wyll turns to look – takes in the way Aradin is leaning against the door, arms crossed, languid and self-satisfied. The smirk on his lips, Wyll is suddenly sure, tells everything he needs to know.

One of his hands reaches out to take hold of Aradin's shirt – Ravengard livery, bearing his father's colors – and the other hauls back to punch the bastard.

There's a crack when his fist connects; Aradin curses and stumbles forward, hands going to his nose. "You asshole!" he gasps. Blood is starting to drip from between his cupped fingers.

"Fytz," says Jaheira, in a voice unbending as steel. "See Aradin to a holding chamber, if you please. He and I will have a very long talk, later."

"You're both crazy," Aradin hisses. "Are you even listening to yourself? He's a f*cking vampire!"

"You got it, boss," says Fytz, cheerfully, and twists one of Aradin's arms behind his back. "Start walking, saer, or you're about to get another fist in your face."

She says more after that, but Wyll isn't listening. He's stepping out past the doorway and into the brisk night air.

The hum and laughter and sweet trill of the orchestra falls away as his eyes sweep across the even-cobbled walk and the manicured hedges of his father's garden. Little rose bushes dot the edges of the walkway, and – here, too, there is no sign of Astarion.

Above, the moon shines wide and bright, a silent, all-seeing eye.

In the distance glimmer the lights of the whole of Baldur's Gate, infinitely wide – tens of thousands of homes and shops, taverns and temples, thoroughfares and alleyways.

Somewhere, in one of them, there is a man scared out of his wits, desperately waiting for the help he's been promised to arrive.

And Wyll – Wyll has no idea how to find him.

Chapter 17



(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Despite the late hour, the lights are still on inside Sorcerous Sundries.

Out front of the towering building, the new banner still hangs, its poor paint job eye-catching in exactly the wrong way.

All Wyll can think about as he passes it is Astarion, curled up in a patchwork quilt sipping at a glass of wine, viciously mocking the color choices the artist had made. He remembers Astarion's voice, a careless purr – Astarion's smile, slightly crooked, just wide enough to show off a single fang.

At the time, it had been charming, a comfortable moment tucked away in a quiet corner of the world. Thinking about it now, Wyll feels as though he might be sick.

His heart is hammering in his chest as he steps up to the counter; this late, there are only a handful of other customers, but the glowing, lifelike figure that mans the service desk is still in place, a placid, welcoming smile across its face.

"Good evening," says the illusion behind the counter. "Welcome to Sorcerous Sundries. How can I help you?"

"I need to speak to the master of the tower," says Wyll.

"We have a wide array of scrolls and potions for the discerning wizard or magical amateur," says the illusion.

"Please," says Wyll. "I don't need any scrolls. I need to speak with the wizard Lorroakan."

"Good evening," says the figure behind the counter. "Welcome to Sorcerous Sundries. How can I help you?"

"It's a matter of life or death!" says Wyll, voice edging up in his desperation.

"We have a wide array of scrolls and potions for the discerning wizard or magical amateur," says the illusion, in the same bland, pleasant tone.

Wyll slams his fist down on the counter, hard. "Tell me where Lorroakan is, gods dammit!"

The old lady browsing the shelves two aisles over has stopped to stare. But more importantly, a voice near to his ear makes a disappointed tsking sound. "Really," it says, low and smooth and faux-offended. "I know I'm in demand, but is that any way to treat my counter? It's genuine hard wood, you know."

Wyll sucks in a breath – turns toward the speaker. Standing there is the spitting image of the illusion behind the counter, but this time in the flesh.

His straight hair, an auburn that veers toward ginger, is oiled into something smooth and sleek; his robes are pressed and brushed and spotless. He's buffing his nails on one of his sleeves.

"Lorroakan?" says Wyll. "Thank the gods. I need your help –"

"Ah, ah, ah," says Lorroakan, and holds up a single finger. "I trust you have an appointment?"

Wyll stumbles to a stop. "I'm afraid I don't. But this is of dire importance –"

"Most irregular," Lorroakan interrupts smoothly. "I'm afraid I just don't see visitors without an appointment. I'm booked out months in advance. Terribly popular, you know." He pauses – considers Wyll and smiles. "Unless, of course, you intended to book an emergency slot. There will be a consulting fee, of course, but –"

"Yes," Wyll interjects, urgently. "Yes, wonderful. Whatever you want. Someone's been kidnapped, and it's absolutely vital –"

Lorroakan shushes him – clucks, softly, as though a child has spoken out of turn in a library. "Not here, good saer. Come up to my study, won't you? We can talk in private. The portal is up the stairs and to your left."

Wyll opens his mouth to say that he doesn't care about finding somewhere private – that every second they spend here, a man is in unspeakable danger. He doesn't get the chance. With a flicker of light, Lorroakan is gone before he can say anything at all, and Wyll has nothing left to do but grit his teeth and turn for the stairs. He takes them at a jog, two at a time – breathes a curse when he reaches the top and finds not one but four portals.

For a brief, frustrating agony of an instant, he's half-certain he'll have to try them each in turn, to find the man's blasted study.

Then he finds that one of the portals is beset by sparkles all in a rainbow of hues, and he turns toward it with due speed, stepping through and into the interior of what seems to be a library.

The circular chamber is ringed with shelves upon shelves of books, the very picture of academic opulence. Globes and alchemical equipment and display cases that house yellowed scrolls all gleam despite their apparent age, meticulously cared for. Lorroakan himself is lounging at one of the desks, not a hair out of place.

"Come," says Lorroakan. "Sit. Can I get you a drink? I have a lovely brandy from Marsember. Quite a remarkable flavor to it, if you're a connoisseur. I guarantee you've never tasted anything quite –"

"I don't want a damn drink," Wyll manages, the words rushed and strangled. Then he catches sight of Lorroakan's expression and swallows down the rest of what he wants to say. He forces himself to take a breath – let it out slow.

He won't help Astarion by offending their best chance at aid.

"Apologies," Wyll says, shaky. "I mean no offense, but time is of the essence. This is a matter of life and death."

"So you've said," Lorroakan allows, though there's a tinge to the tone, a bit sour around the edges. "A kidnapping, was it?"

"Yes," says Wyll, eager. "I've heard that wizards of your skill can locate missing people. What do you need of me? I've brought something of his –"

"Hmm," says Lorroakan. "Well, let's see it."

Wyll fumbles them out of his pocket, clumsy in his haste – offers them over.

"Socks?" says Lorroakan, archly.

"Aren't they suitable?" says Wyll. "If you need something else –"

Lorroakan waves him off. "They'll work as well as anything, I suppose. Dreadful color, though."

He takes the socks from Wyll's hand, thick and soft and woolen, breathtakingly lavender. They look as though they belong to someone's grandmother.

Wyll thinks of Astarion again, pale fingers reaching out to take hold of them for the first time. He thinks of how carefully the man had held them, turning them over and over in his hands, trying and failing at pretending to be unaffected by anything so mundane as being granted something warm to wear.

Wyll ties very hard not to think about what Cazador must be doing to him right now.

"How long will it take?" says Wyll, voice tight with strain.

"Oh," says Lorroakan, "not long at all. With a wizard of my power, I merely need –"

"Show me," Wyll cuts in, an edge of desperation to his tone. "Please."

Lorroakan fixes him with a condescending sort of a look – sniffs, as though offended. "Well," he says. "I suppose."

The spell itself seems to take no time at all; a few murmured words; a brief glow of light, and the socks hover in the air. Lorroakan closes his eyes, and his brow starts to furrow.

"Well?" says Wyll. "Do you see anything?"

Lorroakan hushes him, and Wyll falls silent.

For an endless span of seconds, the man says nothing at all; there's just that faint glow, and the furrow of concentration, and then – finally, after what seems an eternity – Lorroakan looks up again.

He puts on a charming smile, all showmanship, and he says, "I'm afraid I can't help you."

For a heartbeat, Wyll thinks he's misheard. "You can't – what? Why? Did the spell fail?"

"My spells," Lorroakan snaps, "don't fail. But in this case, it seems the person who's taken him doesn't want him to be found."

Disappointment settles in Wyll's stomach like a mound of ash, sick and heavy. "Is it – is it some sort of magical shield? Surely there must be some other spell. Some manner of counterspell –"

"I'm afraid not," says Lorroakan, soothingly, and reaches out to pat at his hand. "But I'm certain you'll find another way. Doubtless someone will have seen such an eye-catching young man."

Its such an odd thing to say. Such a specific thing to say.

Wyll looks again to the socks, dowdy and lavender. He looks to Lorroakan's bland smile.

"Pardon?" he says, slowly.

"Well, he is rather striking," says Lorroakan. "You don't see eyes like those just anywhere. I have the better hair, of course, but I suppose if you like curls –"

"You – did see him," Wyll manages, distantly, through numb lips. "What," he starts. And then: "But why – ?"

"Lord Szarr is quite the lucrative patron, you understand," says Lorroakan, tone conciliatory and mild. "Remarkable influence, as well. He saw to it that I received my appointment to the tower, you know."

It feels as though the floor has opened up beneath him, and that it's yawning wide enough to swallow him whole. Wyll feels as though the whole world has tipped sideways; some sick, betrayed thing wars with righteous indignation in his chest.

"He's going to be hurt," says Wyll, and his voice, he discovers, is shaking. "That monster is going to do terrible things to him –"

"Then you'd best track him down, hadn't you?" says Lorroakan, smooth and unconcerned.

Wyll makes a sound somewhere low in his throat, half hurt and half outrage. He reaches out to take hold of the front of those ridiculous, over-embroidered robes. "Now, you listen to me –"

Lorroakan arches a single eyebrow, a sculpted picture of genteel offense. "Oh, I think not," he says. "Laying hands on a wizard in his own study? The nerve of some people!"

He waggles his fingers – waves his hand – and suddenly, Wyll is standing out front of Sorcerous Sundries again, the doors closed for the evening and all the lights off inside.

"Wait!" calls Wyll, and turns toward the door again. He tries the handle – finds it locked – leans in hard, trying to force it. However much he strains, though, it doesn't give, and after a moment he subsides, panting, alone in the street. After a handful of heartbeats, the lavender socks materialize on the ground beside him.

Wyll takes a ragged breath in, and then another.

Carefully, he bends to retrieve the socks with a shaking hand.

He'll have to find another lead, now. Find some other wizard, to cast a spell of finding, and he doesn't even know where to begin.

Gods above.

He'd promised Astarion. He'd promised him.

He'd looked the man in his eyes, and seen his terror, and told him, again and again, that he would keep him safe.

Pretty promises, Astarion had called them.

Perhaps, Wyll thinks, with a sinking sense of despair, that's all they'd ever been.

Wyll tucks the socks into his pocket – turns to go. Perhaps Jaheira will have found a better lead than he has.

And just then – just as he turns to leave – a voice says, directly into his ear, "It seems as though someone is having a rough evening."

It's a voice Wyll doesn't know – a woman's voice, soft and amused, with a little lilt of self-satisfaction to it.

When Wyll turns to look, he sees that someone's standing there.

She's striking really, with vivid eyes of black and red, flawless skin a shade of palest blue. Her horns taper upward with all the grace of a temple's spire, and her lips are painted in a perfect, glossy mauve. But it's the wings that truly give her away: great, arched, imposing bat wings, nothing at all like what he might expect from a tiefling.

Wyll draws back, instinctively – reaches for the hilt of a sword that isn't there, attired as he still is in his gala finery. "Stand back, devil," he hisses.

The woman doesn't stand back at all. She only smiles at him, those dark eyes knowing.

"Come, now," she croons. "That's hardly any way to treat someone who's come to offer you a deal."


Thank you for the Discord server, who enabled Wyll having a an unpleasant evening with Lorroakan instead of finding a competent wizard, and especially to smallhorizons, who suggested the idea of a Lorroakan who had been installed in his position thanks to Cazador.

I'm so sorry for this cliffhanger, but not sorry enough not to have done it. (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter 18


Everyone continues to have a grand time (✿◡‿◡)

Chapter Text

He should have run.

The words keep ringing through Astarion's mind like alarm bells, loud and growing louder, an endless, mindless panicked din that won't shut up enough to let him think.

He keeps seeing the moments play out, over and over again: an open door, a turned back, an instant when no eyes were upon him. He could have been gone. He could have been halfway to Neverwinter by now. He could have been en route to Waterdeep.

He could have been anywhere but here, in this gods-be-damned carriage, with his master seated beside him petting gently at his arm, as though they're a doting young couple.

Astarion wants to scream. He wants to cry. He wants to fling himself from the carriage doors, preferably at an angle that will land him directly under the horses' hooves and smash his brains out.

Instead, all he can do is sit here, regretting every cursed moment that brought him to this place.

He should have known better.

He did know better.

He's told himself a thousand, thousand times before: there's no such thing as help, not for someone like him. Not for something like him.

All those pretty promises, all those nights of gentle words, they'd all been nothing but wishful thinking. Nothing but lies, dressed up to trip him into falling for the bait.

And gods, what bait it had been.

Even now, he can't stop thinking about it. Even now, when he closes his eyes, he can see Wyll's earnest face and soft brown eyes. He thinks of playing cards and blankets and ridiculous lavender socks – a fashion show and plans of a trip to the Oasis – perfumed soaps and food that came every day, without fail, and what a miracle that had been.

Of course it was too good to be true. He'd been a fool to ever think he could keep it.

"The creature," Wyll's father had said, as though every evening Wyll stepped out of that cellar and spoke about Astarion the way he must have truly seen him all along: pathetic but dangerous, nothing like a person at all. A lever for a plan, to be placated enough that he would walk blithely into the trap without coaxing.

Easier all around if the mark doesn't know that they're meant to take the fall. Astarion ought to know that better than anyone.

And yet there's still some wretched, yearning, idiotic part of him that insists that's wrong. That bleats like a lamb at the slaughter, throat already slit, crying for someone to save it without realizing its fate is already sealed. That clings to hope – stupid, stubborn, useless thing though it is – and whispers that Wyll had promised. He'd promised, as though anything so insipid as a promise might save him.

The seething, ugly, bitter knot of resentment in his chest wars with the panic, every bit as strong. For Wyll, yes, and for Karlach, and for Jaheira, and for the whole gaggle of useless f*cking Harpers. But for more than any of them, for Astarion himself, the worthless, empty-headed thing who'd believed them – who'd thought even for an instant that there might be an ending for him like something from an adventure tale, where a dashing young man with a kind heart plucked him out of unending misery.

Gods, he's been a fool.

He doesn't realize he's crying until Cazador reaches out, almost casually, to run a single finger over the line of his cheek; when he withdraws it, it's wet from Astarion's tears.

Astarion squeezes his eyes shut. Every instinct in his body is screaming for him to cringe away, but he stays perfectly, perfectly still. When Cazador repeats the gesture on the other side, he makes himself lean into it.

Maybe he still has a chance.

Maybe when he's allowed to speak again, he can spin this to his advantage.

Cazador will have found his siblings by now, surely – the ones who got staked. He'll know – something. Something, surely. That there were hunters? That the gala was a trap?

He'll know that Astarion hadn't gone willingly, at least – he has to believe that. If he knows nothing else, he knows that Astarion values his own sorry skin.

And so – and so it's just a matter of convincing him that Astarion couldn't get away. He'd tried – every night, naturally. He'd wanted nothing so much as to be back by his master's side, but there were a terribly lot of hunters. Now that Cazador's reclaimed him, he'll step in to fill the gap left behind by his missing siblings. He'll work twice as hard, three times as hard, anything Cazador asks of him, only gods, not the sarcophagus again –

Shut up, he tells his own mind, vicious and bitter. Shut up, shut up, shut up.

It's fine. It will work. He'll make it work.

Gods above, but it has to work.

The carriage ride takes a thousand years, and somehow also only the space of a few moments, both at once. When at last it clatters to a stop and the footman sees to the door, Cazador says, "Come along, boy," and slides from the padded seat.

Astarion follows after him like a well-trained dog, a perfect two steps behind and to the left.

In their wake, he's aware of the carriage clattering into motion as it pulls away, and ahead of them stands a manor Astarion doesn't know. It isn't a towering display of opulence, as is the fashion in the Upper City, but it's a stately affair, three stories in muted grey stone, with paned windows and a trim little garden out front.

He doesn't know the place. Wherever they are, he's never been here; certainly it's not one of the manors of the noblemen whose names Astarion gave to Wyll half a lifetime ago. If the Harpers deign to look for him at all – and why would they? – it won't be the first place they search, nor the second, nor even the tenth.

Astarion's chest is heaving in panic, sucking in air he doesn't need, and he fights the compulsion to obey as hard as he's able – as hard as he's ever fought before, he thinks – and still his traitorous feet carry him below the lintel and into the house.

Inside, the windows have been set with dark, thick velvet drapes to blot out the light. At some point, Cazador must have returned to his palace to retrieve some of his things, because Astarion recognizes the art that hangs in the halls, masterful oil paintings of truly ghastly subjects.

"Charming, isn't it?" Cazador says mildly, as he reaches out to close the door behind them. "It will serve, temporarily, until I see your benefactors dealt with."

Astarion follows him down the hall, nausea and dread vying in his chest for space amidst the burgeoning tangle of terror that feels as though it's crushing his ribs.

To the right they pass a lavish sitting room; to the left, a lounge with a richly appointed chaise. There on the ground beside it lie a small mound of corpses, two adults and three children, beginning to decay. The owners of the home, Astarion thinks, and he knows an instant's sympathy before reminding himself, viciously, that at least for them it will have been quick.

Astarion won't have the same luxury.

Onward they go, into a modest study with shelving for books; Cazador kicks aside the carpet here, and he points imperiously to the hatch beneath it.

"Down," he commands, and Astarion reaches out to pull open the hatch, hands moving without his consent.

If he means to take his chance, he needs to do it now. If he hopes to talk his master around, he'll have to speak, warning be damned. "Master," he manages, voice shaking. "If I may –"

"Have you forgotten," Cazador tells him, "what I said about speaking?"

Astarion hasn't. How could he forget a promise like that? "If I hear one more word out of your lying, faithless mouth," his master had said, "I will find a way to make what I have planned seem a luxury."

He can't afford to make this worse for himself, but gods help him, if he says nothing at all he's going to walk right into whatever Cazador has planned for him.

It takes him an instant's hesitation to consider, during which Astarion's body continues to carry him as it's been commanded – swinging him onto the ladder that leads to the room below. He's shaking so badly that it takes him two tries to take hold of the first rung.

"I haven't, master," says Astarion. "But please. If you'll only hear me out –"

His traitorous body carries him out of sight, down into the room below. Perhaps it was a wine cellar once, but Cazador has made it something else entirely, moving the casks and bottles to the far side of the room so that there's space along the wall for a table with manacles, and pliers, and a jagged bone saw.

Astarion's feet touch the floor. He stands there for an instant, rooted to the spot, wide, wild eyes scanning the scene. It looks all too much like the kennels. The implements on the table are tools he knows all too well. And there – there in the corner, back amongst the prized wine casks and ancient bottles – there is the sarcophagus, the unfeeling marble walls of it a ghastly specter in the dim light of the cellar.

Astarion whines, low in his throat; he quakes, and his knees feel suddenly watery and weak, scarcely able to hold him up. He turns to bolt for the ladder, panic gripping him, chest heaving too fast and too shallow with breaths he doesn't need.

The only thing that keeps him from scrambling up it is the fact that Cazador is already descending to join him.

"Please," Astarion babbles, as his master climbs downward, steady and unhurried. "It wasn't as though I – I chose to be swept away. It wasn't as though I could have run –"

His voice breaks on the word run, because he could have – gods be damned, he could have – he could have been halfway to Waterdeep by now, and his chest feels as though there are iron bars around it, crushing him, and his lungs, working in wretched, useless reflex, heave like a bellows.

"Go on," Cazador tells him, voice low and dark, like velvet riddled through with rot. "Keep talking. The more time you waste with aimless prattle, the longer you'll spend shut away."

Astarion whines, then, high and helpless. He shakes his head in wordless denial, and he reaches out with trembling hands to clasp at his master's sleeve in supplication.

Cazador shakes his hand away.

"Undress yourself, boy," his master tells him. "It wouldn't do to ruin such fine attire. I'll see that it goes to someone who deserves it, after you've been sealed away again."

Chapter 19


Please mind the rating increase. This chapter contains graphic violence, so if that's something that you aren't comfortable with, I recommend you skip that section.

Thank you all so much for continuing to read! The amount of support this fic has received is absolutely incredible. To everyone who's left a comment or kudos, you're amazing. <333

And thank you especially to the wonderful phoenix-art-official on Tumblr, who did art of a scene from chapter 4. I stuck it up in the appropriate chapter, but I'm putting it here too, so the folks who don't end up going back to reread can see it, as well. :>

Chapter Text

"Come, now," croons the devil that stands before Wyll. "That's hardly any way to treat someone who's come to offer you a deal."

Wyll scowls at the woman – draws himself up to his full height, still nowhere near as tall as she is. "I don't deal with devils."

"Don't you?" the devil says, idly. She examines her nails, as though it's of no concern to her, and the gesture is so careless – so familiar – that it makes Wyll's breath catch in his throat. It reminds him of Astarion, seated in a mound of blankets, playing at unconcern. "I would think there's something you need a deal for quite direly, just now."

"I don't know what you mean," says Wyll, through gritted teeth, though of course he knows very well what she means.

"Oh?" says the woman, and her smile spreads wide and then wider. It puts Wyll in mind of the strange catches that the fishermen returning to Grey Harbor bring back sometimes, from deep water: strange, pale things from farther out in the depths, their mouths too wide, hiding jagged nightmare teeth behind them. All at once, he's certain that if she parted her lips, she would have teeth like that – bladed, jagged things, a threat all their own. "And here I was under the impression that you'd lost something."

Wyll glances aside, unable to quite meet her gaze. "Nothing I can't find."

"Certainly," purrs the woman. "Given time. But does he truly have time, pet?"

It's impossible not to remember the way Astarion looked when first they found him. Wyll can still recall the state of his hands, battered and broken, all of the nails torn free. He remembers the shattered bones in fingers and palms and wrists – the shattered bones in his feet, from battering at unforgiving stone. He remembers how damnably weak Astarion had been – how desperate he was, for simple creature comforts like a scrap of light or the warmth of a blanket.

He remembers Astarion's voice, soft and unsteady, offering up his body in exchange for a mouthful of blood. Remembers later, the way Astarion's eyes had gone wide and a touch fragile when Wyll had brought him something, after all – the way he'd trembled, clinging to his meal as though it was the most precious thing in all the world.

Wyll swallows, with effort. "There are other wizards than Lorroakan," he manages, and he doesn't answer the question.

The woman hums, a thoughtful little sound. When she steps forward, her footsteps click delicately on the cobblestones as she saunters her way over to set a careful hand on Wyll's shoulder. He jerks back but doesn't pull away – not entirely – and her smile grows wider still.

"What was it you said?" she purrs. "'If I might have spared you a year, or an hour, or even a minute of suffering at his hands, I would have'? Well – here's your chance, pet. You can spare him more than a moment. More than an hour. Months, perhaps, of the most excruciating torture you could even imagine."

Wyll has no answer for that. In his heart of hearts, he's been hoping, somehow, that Cazador hasn't yet had time to do as he pleases. That perhaps they're traveling still, en route to some new place where they might go to ground.

But what if the devil is right? What if that monster has already begun picking Astarion to pieces?

"I can show you, if you like," says the woman, coy and coquettish.

"You can –" Wyll's eyes go wide; he turns toward her. "How?"

When the devil laughs, her voice is low and pealing, like the distant ringing of discordant bells. "Come now," she says. "It would be a poor sort of a deal if I didn't have the power to follow through, wouldn't it? How am I meant to give you what you want, if I don't even know where he is?"

She reaches up, casually, to trace a finger along Wyll's jaw bone. "I'll tell you what. This little peek is free of charge. A demonstration of what I can do, if you like."

Wyll swallows, with difficulty. He knows that he ought to walk away. He can feel it in the sick, leaden weight that's settled into his stomach. Instead he says, "Show me."

The devil lifts a hand, and where she holds it out, fingers outstretched, the air above her palm seems to warp and distend. There, hovering directly before the doorway to Sorcerous Sundries, is what seems to be a tear in the very fabric of the world itself – an oval perhaps the size of two fists pressed together, torn ragged at the edges, and in the center lies a vision of a place that is nothing at all like the peaceful nighttime streets of Baldur's Gate.

There are only the vaguest hints of a location: brief snatches of grey stone and the faint suggestion of what looks like a wine barrel, there in the background. If Wyll had held hopes that he might be able to place where Astarion has been brought from this single glimpse alone, it's dashed to pieces in the space between one breath and the next.

But the location isn't what catches Wyll frozen.

The location isn't what arrests him where he stands, icy horror heavy in his lungs and tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

Because there, spread out like a fragile, broken thing against that nondescript grey stone – that's where Astarion is chained.

There are heavy black manacles that look like iron, and they're so tight around his wrists that they cut into the flesh. He's bled, at some point, but the blood is already dry, and no more spills from the wounds.

And it should be flowing. It should be absolutely gushing, because Astarion's pale, manicured hand is split wide open, skin and muscle peeled back with horrific precision. Through that bloodless hole, Wyll can count every one of the small bones in Astarion's palm – in his wrist – and he can see, all too clearly, that the bones have been broken already. They're splintered into shards, and when casual fingers reach in to yank one out, Astarion convulses and makes the most heart-rending sound Wyll thinks he has ever, ever heard.

When the scream abates, Astarion writhes there, trying in vain to yank his hand back; his chest heaves, and tears run down his face.

"Master, please," he says. "Please, please – I didn't mean –"

"Didn't mean what?" says the voice of Lord Szarr, somewhere just out of sight, invisible to Wyll's watching eyes. He sounds cold, the anger not rising flame but a lake of ice on a winter's day, waiting for someone to step through into the frigid water. "Didn't mean to dally with the wretched creatures who thought they could help themselves to my spawn?" Those pale fingers seize another bone, and Astarion's whimpers rise in pitch, in desperation. "My palace?"

He yanks, and Astarion shrieks – tries again to wrest his hand from Cazador's grip, and finds that he can't. He curls in on himself as best he's able, shaking.

"Master, please," he gasps. "I would never – never dream of going against you –"

For an instant, those pale fingers withdraw.

"Oh?" says Cazador's voice, thoughtful. "Go on, then. Tell me the truth, boy. What was it you hoped would happen?"

Astarion's eyes, that remarkable shade of crimson, seem to darken somehow, at the words. The red of them spreads and deepens; they seem almost to glow.

He whines , like a wounded animal, the sound high and panicked.

And then he starts to speak, the sound of it ragged and unsteady, as though it's being dragged out of him against his will. "I wanted you dead," he gasps. "I wanted my knife in your gods-be-damned eye . I wanted to – to eat more than once a tenday, and to say who might touch my body, and to – to see a play at the blasted theatre ."

And then, gasping and fighting and tight with pain, as though this hurts more than all the rest: "I wanted him to be real."

Wyll is aware, in his periphery, that the devil has shifted. He's aware that she's leaning in, now; he can smell the scent of her, some too-sweet flower with a faint undertone of sulphur.

He finds that he can't breathe.

"Ah," says Cazador, through the projected image. And then, almost gently: "In my eye, was it?"

That pale hand, spattered with blood, lifts very carefully toward Astarion's face. He cringes back from the way it pets along his jaw – from the way the thumb smooths carefully over his cheekbone.

"Please," he breathes. "Master, please – please –"

"Perhaps I'll take both of yours," Cazador says, idly. "Before I seal you away again."

Astarion is crying in earnest now, chest hitching in great, hysterical heaves. "I'll be good," he manages, the words barely comprehensible through the sobs. "Please – master, please –"

"Shut your wretched, mewling mouth," says Cazador, the threat in his voice coiled like a snake poised to strike. "One more word, boy, and I'll take your tongue with them."

And his thumb creeps higher still, toward an eye that's wild with terror.

All at once, the image flickers out; the devil waves her hand and it disappears as suddenly as it came.

"I think that's quite enough of that," she says.

For an instant, Wyll can say nothing at all; he's aware that there are tears on his own cheeks, running down his face to catch in the collar of his gala finest.

When he can take a breath in, he turns to the devil again. "You'll have your deal," he manages. "Take me to him."

The devil arches a single delicate eyebrow. "Alone? Unarmed? How brave of you, pet, to want to die in front of your would-be damsel."

"I'll fetch my sword," says Wyll. "Then send me." He's turned, already, toward the Ravengard estate – aware of how far he's come to be here, and how very, very much damage might be done, in the trip back to retrieve a weapon.

"Or we can make a slightly weightier deal," the devil purrs.

Wyll turns toward her – takes in the demure curl to her lips.

"What deal?" he says, breathless.

"You'll hunt monsters for me," she says. "Devils, demons, the truly heartless. In return, I'll send you along your way just in time for a dashing rescue, and I'll give you the power to enact it unarmed."

"That's all?" says Wyll.

"Oh," says the devil. "And one other small token. Plus of course the little matter of your soul."

She sounds amused about it – sounds very pleased indeed. The look on her face reminds Wyll of a cat crouched outside of a mousehole, certain its prey will be out any moment now.

The worst part is, she's right.

"Agreed," he tells her, and his voice is mostly steady as he says it. He scrubs his arm across his eyes – straightens up and turns to face her.

When the devil smiles, her teeth are not at all the undersea horror he'd suspected. They're very ordinary, and very white, and very straight. When she waves her hand, the contract appears floating in midair, exactly where that hole in the fabric of the world had been, laying bare a cruelty Wyll can scarcely conceive.

The woman reaches out with delicate fingers to offer him a quill.

"Go on, then," she tells him.

There isn't time to read it properly. He's all too aware that for every moment he delays, Astarion spends more time lying on that cold grey stone, writhing in pain.

He takes hold of the quill, and he scrawls his name on the dotted line – and when he's done, the devil presses herself up against him.

"Now," she says. "About that token." She waves a hand, and the scroll disappears again. "I'm afraid it's not a terribly fortunate night for eyes, pet."

Chapter 20


Okay, whew, sorry this one took a while. It was fighting me something awful, but I think I've finally gotten it ironed out. Thank you so much to the folks who have stuck around and are still reading!

Also, thank you again so, so much to two incredibly kind and talented artists who drew art of Chapter 14. You are both amazing! <333

The wonderful pippintruman on Tumblr drew Wyll and Astarion playing cards and the incredible maia-beans on Tumblr drew the cellar fashion show. These are both DELIGHTFUL, thank you both again so much!! <333

Chapter Text

Sometimes, when Astarion is very lucky, he can drift away somewhere beyond the fetters of his own body.

When his master is careless, too wrapped in his own head to pay much attention – when the point of the torture is the act rather than Astarion's reaction to it – when the shift of the flaying knife becomes predictable, if not bearable – sometimes Astarion can left himself fade away to someplace else.

That nothing-space is the closest thing he's ever known to reprieve. The world becomes dim, and fuzzy, and not relevant to him at all. Sometimes, he blinks and it's hours later. Sometimes, when he's very lucky indeed, he loses whole days.

Just now, that respite from everyone and everything is entirely out of reach.

His thoughts keep chasing themselves around and around in his head; his chest keeps hitching. He's trying to count how many words he's said – trying to imagine how much worse he's made this for himself, just by speaking.

Why can he never shut his mouth? He would curse his own wretched, foolish tongue, but he doesn't have it just now, to curse.

It's on the floor, a great pink slug of a thing – an obscene chunk of discarded meat, wet and gleaming. He's been told a thousand times how clever his tongue is; his master has told him a thousand more, that he loves to let it get him into trouble.

And it certainly has, hasn't it?

"One more word, boy, and I'll take your tongue," Cazador had told him, and Astarion – wretched, mindless idiot that he is – had kept talking.

If he could still speak, he's sure he would still be begging.

If he could still speak, he's afraid that he might scream Wyll's name, and that, he thinks, would be more unbearable than all the rest.

Cazador is petting at his jaw again, very soft indeed, and Astarion whines and flinches back – whines again, more urgent this time, when Cazador holds him in place by digging his thumb and forefinger, hard, into Astarion's jaw. The bone creaks in protest – threatens to break – and he goes very still under the relentless pressure.

It's the wrong choice, if choice it can be called. Cazador traces his slow way up toward Astarion's eye; his finger skims over the eyelid, feather light, deceptively gentle.

Astarion makes a noise somewhere low in his throat, wordless pleading – wants to shake his head, but he's afraid that if he does Cazador will begin what he intends all the sooner.

"Hush, child," Cazador tells him. "It will be over soon. Then your punishment can truly begin."

But before Cazador can begin to press down – before he can start to make good on his threat – a deep, visceral, world-rending rumble comes from somewhere behind him. It's like nothing Astarion has ever heard before – as though someone has mingled the sound of thunder with the tearing of parchment, if the parchment were composed of the very fabric of the cosmos.

For an instant, Astarion has no idea at all what it might be – and then a space in the air begins to open up, and the sight of it answers one question and poses a half-dozen others.

The grey stone of the cellar seems to peel away. Behind it – riddled all though it – there is a gaping void, vast and fathomless, dotted with stars. For a moment there's nothing but this.

Then a figure appears, clad all in white and gold like a prince in a fairy tale.

Ah, thinks Astarion, in a distant, reeling sort of a way. His mind has finally given out. He's lasted centuries – but this, it seems, was the final straw. Whatever fragile threads have been holding his sanity together are well and truly unraveled, because here is Wyll Ravengard, expression incandescent with righteous fury, a spectral rapier that glows with tendrils of ghostly flame in one hand.

"Step away from him," Wyll grates out, and Astarion—Astarion thinks to himself that Cazador will take his eye, now, because there's nothing here to stop him. It's only the two of them in the room, after all. This is nothing but Astarion's panicked mind, conjuring up some pathetic fancy – some impossible hope of rescue – as a last moment attempt to make the unbearable somehow possible to be borne.

But Cazador's thumbnail doesn't press into the white of his eye.

In fact, Cazador is pulling away entirely – is straightening up – is smoothing out his frock coat with bloody hands, as though embarrassed to have been caught at his work. He turns with a smile on his lips, chill and lifeless as porcelain.

"Ah," he says. "Young master Ravengard, is it?"

The words rush through Astarion like the waters of the Chionthar in winter, harsh and swift and riddled with ice. For an instant, all he can do is stare; the words echo in his mind, slow and rolling and endless.

Wyll is really here.

Wyll actually came .

Wyll is standing here in this godsforsaken cellar with a sword drawn as though he means to wield it – as though he means to wield it on Astarion's behalf .

There's a long, earth-tilting, soul-shaking moment when nothing beyond that registers. Pressure builds in his chest that has nothing to do with the broken ribs, and he sobs it out in wild, unhinged relief. He bleats a sound, and it's meant to be Wyll's name, but all that comes out is a formless croak, slick with blood and drool.

"Gods," breathes Wyll, and his voice is low and shaking. "Astarion. I'm so – words can't say how sorry I am. I'll see you from this place, I swear it."

Cazador slinks between them like a panther; he's taller than Wyll, graceful in the way of a great cat. He prowls nearer, and Wyll, the sweet fool, doesn't know to shrink back from him.

Astarion's eyes dart behind him, to that tear in reality. He waits for Jaheira to step through – for Karlach – for the Harpers.

No one comes.

"Will you, indeed?" Cazador asks, as though making casual conversation – as though they're at an event in some noble's manor, nibbling canapés and sipping fine wine. "I'm afraid you won't find it quite as easy as you might expect."

"I don't expect it to be easy," Wyll growls. "But I swear to you, I will see it done."

He draws back that peculiar, spectral blade; his eyes blaze in a way Astarion doesn't think he's ever seen before. One of them seems an odd color, a washed out, pale shade of grey, and there's a smear of blood that runs down Wyll's cheek.

Astarion has never seen Wyll fight, but he doesn't think he has ever seen a mortal man move quite so quickly. He seems to blur , almost, darting into Cazador's guard with a grace that seems nigh inhuman. When he strikes, the blade glows red, riddled with streaks of crimson lightning – when he strikes, it bites into Cazador's shoulder, deep enough to draw blood.

"Insolent wretch," Cazador hisses, drawing back to press a hand to the wound. "Death will seem a mercy by the time I finish with you."

The words have scarcely left his mouth before Astarion is picturing it; he can see it in his mind's eye, all too vivid. He's lived that threat a thousand times before – can imagine all too clearly the way Wyll's face will look, creased with agony.

Astarion makes a drawn out, urgent sort of a noise, incomprehensible without his missing tongue.

Where in the name of all the hells are the Harpers?

When Cazador speaks again, it is neither promise nor threat. He speaks words of power – the words of a spell – and the force they create ripples out like a wave, shattering everything in their wake. The stone of the floor splits beneath their feet, and the buckles on Wyll's boots warp and give way. The table with the implements of torture groans and then splinters, jagged shards of wood flung halfway across the room along with the pliers and the saw.

Wyll cries out with the pain of it, but he doesn't go down. Instead he lifts a hand, and from his fingers arc more of that eerie crimson lightning; his eye seems to glow with it, a deep and sanguine red.

The first blow hits; the scent of scorched flesh reaches Astarion's nose, and the jagged tear that punches through Cazador's shoulder leaves a hole in its wake, a bloodless wound that Astarion can see the far wall through.

He's so shocked that he can't quite process it for a moment – and perhaps Cazador is shocked, too. Perhaps Cazador didn't expect Wyll to land a blow any more than Astarion did, because he stares for an instant, stunned.

It lasts for an instant only. Then Cazador's form dissolves, a pale and shapeless mist all that remains of him.

Astarion makes to call out a warning – can manage only that pathetic, wordless noise from before.

There's no time for anything beyond that – no time to suppose as to what Cazador intends to do. That fine mist, ghost pale, envelops Wyll, settling over him like the smothering dirt above a coffin.

An instant later, Cazador is solid once more; an instant later, the tip of Cazador's flaying knife drives into Wyll's side and through the ribs. He gasps with the pain of it – gasps with the shock of it – sets hands on Cazador and shoves him, as though they're a bunch of common drunkards in a tavern, having a fist fight.

Cazador stumbles back a step, and Wyll raises a hand to gesture toward him; all at once, the place where Cazador is standing is shrouded in darkness and the cellar is beset by the ghastly scent of sulphur and decay.

From the cloaking shadow, Cazador hisses, "Perhaps I'll peel the skin from you."

Astarion's eyes dart again to that yawning portal in the middle of the cellar. He wills Jaheira to step through it. He wills Karlach to.

But the only person he sees there – is it a person, or is his vision playing tricks on him? – is the vague form of a woman with skin of palest blue and watchful crimson eyes.

Wyll gets the sword up, wicked sharp, still glowing with that strange and unearthly power. He makes as though to step into that thick and choking darkness, but before he can, Cazador's arm emerges from it, like a hand clawing its way up from grave soil.

He takes hold of Wyll's elbow and he twists; the snap of the bone breaking is too loud in the close confines of the cellar. The blade clatters to the floor.

"Or perhaps," says Cazador, slowly. "Perhaps it's time to think about replenishing my lost spawn. Would you like to be a replacement, child?"

Astarion sucks in a sharp breath.

All at once, he can see how it will go – Wyll on the floor, the last of his blood swallowed down into Cazador's waiting mouth. Wyll rising again with eyes of glowing red, all of those stupid, senseless, heroic impulses tethered by the chains of Cazador's commandments.

And then – darkness. Nothing. A decade in the tomb. Perhaps two.

When at last Cazador lets him free – if he ever does – this sweet fool of a man, this idiotic would-be hero, won't be the person Astarion has come to know any longer. He'll have been scrubbed clean of his kindness, taught long lessons in pain on the subject of what happens when you try to grant mercy.

They'll be the blistering ruin of their former selves, the pair of them, and Astarion will be so blastedly grateful to see anything but a cold and featureless slab of marble that he won't be able to bring himself to care.

Cazador stalks forward, all deadly, graceful intent – and Wyll, wretched thing that he is, hasn't the sense to retreat. He dives for the blade on the ground, and Cazador's kick takes him in the ribs; Astarion can hear the crunch as they break.

His eyes dart to the portal again, desperate.

Where are the Harpers? Surely someone is coming.

But no one comes, and Cazador is leaning down to take hold of a fistful of Wyll's hair. No one comes, and Cazador flips Wyll over onto his back. No one comes, and Cazador straddles his chest and hisses, "You will regret raising a hand against me, child."

No one's coming at all.

The understanding unfurls in him like a corpse rose spreading its petals, and for a moment Astarion can do nothing but stare, struck motionless – soundless – numb with terror.

After all this – all the pretty promises and the wretched, desperate clawing of hope inside his chest – after the sheer impossibility of the fact that Wyll came at all – this is how it will end.

Cazador has a hand on Wyll's throat, now; he's squeezing, and Wyll gets a foot up to kick him, hard, but can't quite manage to buck him off.

No one's coming, Astarion thinks to himself.

And then a part of him whispers back: but someone is already here.

It's a foolish notion. It's the worst idea he thinks he's ever had, and Astarion's has had some truly awful ideas, across the centuries.

And yet the thought springs into his head, fully formed: that for all the commandments his master has given, for all the things Astarion is bound to obey – for all of his master's precious rules, he has never once thought to say, "Thou shalt do me no harm."

It's agony to stand, and the chains attached to his manacles offer barely enough give to allow it.

The bones in his legs have been seen to with hammers, and Astarion lists clumsily to the side, as though drunk. One of his hands has been laid open like a filleted fish, but the other – the other is still mostly intact. He scrabbles for one of those shattered shards of wood from the ruined table – turns toward where his master is pressing Wyll down against the hard stone of the floor.

Wyll's eyes are bulging with the lack of air – one that lovely doe brown, and the other that cold, pale shade, like stone. He doesn't have time to wonder about it, just now. He doesn't have time to think much of anything.

His thoughts are a dull, endless scream of panic rattling around inside his skull; the terror blares like sirens, races like the heartbeat he hasn't had for two hundred years.

He's pictured this moment a thousand times before. He's lain broken on the floor of the kennel, dreaming of it; he's closed his eyes and planned out every detail, every drop of blood, every minute twitch of pain on his master's face.

In the end, he doesn't get to see that pain. Cazador is facing Wyll, after all.

But the makeshift stake sinks into Cazador's back with shocking ease, and Astarion wrenches it out – feels the way it snags in his flesh – and then jams it back in again.

It's not deep enough.

He's not strong enough, not now that he's been tortured half to broken, every drop of blood that was in him spilled across the cellar floor. He sobs, and the sound catches in his chest – tears out of his throat, ugly and jagged and wet.

Cazador has let Wyll go – is turning to face Astarion. "You impertinent fool," Cazador says, and the words are stunned and breathless.

Astarion makes to wrench the stake back, so that he can plunge it into his master's flesh again, but Cazador's hand closes on it and twists , hard enough to prise it free from Astarion's grasp.

He raises the thing – hauls back with it – slams it directly into Astarion's ribs, too low by half to be aiming for the heart. "You worthless – gormless – traitorous -- pathetic – wretch of a creature." With each new word, the stake judders back and slams forward again. By "traitorous," Astarion has fallen to his knees; he gets his arms up, to try to block the blows, and the next one spears neatly through his ruined hand. White-hot agony splinters through him; he keens and curls in on himself.

He tries to call out for mercy – tries to beg forgiveness – and his useless mouth, torn asunder, refuses to say anything at all.

The world swims at the edges of his vision; black spots dance in the periphery.

The whole of his line of sight is Cazador's face, twisted with rage. That sleek black hair, usually so immaculate, is disheveled and out of sorts. Astarion would be proud of that, if he had space for anything but terror.

Then something else appears above him: Wyll, just behind his master's slender form, raising up a hand.

When he speaks, red lightning crackles from his fingertips; the world smells of rot and ozone. It strikes Cazador in the back, dead in the center, and from Astarion's vantage point, he can see the hole it eats away on the other side before flooding out, a stream of crimson and smoking ruin.

Cazador twitches; he looks down at his own chest.

Astarion wants very badly to tell Wyll that it has to be a stake or else the bastard won't stay down. He has a brief, delirious moment where he thinks that, if he had a tongue, there's some quip to be had about Wyll being as bad at hunting monsters as he's always suspected.

But the black dots at the corners of his vision are spreading now, swallowing up all the rest of the world. He's either bought them the moment they need or condemned himself to the worst hell he's ever imagined, and he hasn't the faintest idea which.

Something warm and wet slides down his cheek, and he isn't sure if it's his own tears or Cazador's blood. Time seems a strange and senseless thing, every second lasting for minutes, or hours, or days.

Then Wyll is moving, that entirely-too-fast-to-be-mortal grace. Not to cast another spell, no, nor to summon that peculiar crimson lightning. Instead he reaches downward – not to retrieve his sword, but to avail himself of one of the shards of the shattered table.

That sharpened fragment of wood is far clumsier than a rapier, but it's hurtling toward Cazador's chest, close and then closer, and then Cazador lifts his hand, and – it stops.

Just like that, it stops in midair, still held tight in Wyll's fist.

Astarion sucks in a gasp through the bloody ruin of his own mouth – glances up toward Wyll's face, expecting to see that same vacant stare worn by Cazador's mortal thralls. What he sees instead is far worse: glowing red runes encircling Wyll's wrists, holding him fast in place, despite the awareness that still glimmers in Wyll's eyes.

"Brave little thing," Cazador croons. "Aren't you?" He reaches out, almost gently, to draw his thumbnail across Wyll's cheek – presses so that it cuts deep enough to draw blood, a line of crimson welling up in its wake. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy taking you apart."

"You'll never get the chance," says Wyll, and jerks hard against the restraints – and for his efforts, Cazador laughs at him, soft and low, and leans in to lick that line of blood away.

Astarion has to get up. He has to get up, and he has to do – something. He's in too far now to beg for forgiveness; what he's done already is beyond unforgivable. This has to work, or the both of them are doomed to whatever horrors Cazador's imagination can conjure.

His hand scrabbles shakily for one of those shards of wood; when he makes to stand, his whole body seems to radiate pain. Entirely too many things are broken; entirely too many places are torn.

But he doesn't have to stay up for long. He just has to stay up long enough for this stake to find its mark.

"Perhaps you're right," says Cazador, idly. He cuts a new line along Wyll's cheek – leans in to lap that up, as well, every taste healing a new portion of the hole through his chest. "It would be selfish to keep you for myself."

Astarion lifts his shaking hand, high and then higher. He's not sure whether he has the strength left, to push the point of it through – not when he couldn't manage before.

He never finds out, one way or the other.

Cazador raises a single finger, as though signaling a well-trained dog, and Astarion freezes perfectly in place, limbs overcome by the wordless command. He trembles—whines softly. His eyes dart to Wyll's face.

"Perhaps we should recruit a little help, hm?" Cazador's voice grows cold and pleased and lilting; he gestures, imperious. "Come here, boy."

Astarion sobs and shudders – fights against the compulsion with every scrap of willpower to his name.

In the end, he has no more choice than he ever does.

In the end, he bows to his master's will.

Chapter 21



Chapter Text

"Come here, boy," says Cazador, and Astarion’s traitor body can do nothing but comply.

Every step is a struggle.

Every step laces pain through him; it shudders through his shattered bones and it trembles in his missing flesh, and however much he wants to, he can’t let go of the sharpened shard of wood clasped in the only hand he has that’s still functional.

Astarion takes another step, and then another – makes a low, hurt noise somewhere at the back of his throat. If he could speak, he would ask Wyll what in the hells he’d been thinking.

If he could speak, he would ask this insufferable fool of a genuinely good man why he hadn’t run screaming instead of delivering himself into the waiting arms of a monster.

He doesn’t have time to think it for long – doesn’t have time to curse Wyll’s name, in the depths of his own mind. He takes another step, and then he stops, the clink of metal loud in his ears.

When Astarion glances down, he sees that the chains attached to his manacles are taut, preventing him from going any farther.

But Cazador had said, "Come here, boy," and the compulsion is seared into him like a handprint on his soul. He must obey. He can do nothing but obey – and so he strains against the bindings, and he feels the broken bones in his arms grind from the pressure.

"Stop it," Wyll cries. "Unhand him!"

Cazador doesn’t laugh, but his eyes take on a pleased, gleaming sort of light. He co*cks his head, like an owl considering a mouse.

"Unhand him," Cazador says, and a smile plays about the corners of his lips. He turns to Astarion, then – reaches up to caress his cheek, nails still wet with Wyll’s blood. "Wherever did you manage to find someone as foolish as you are?"

This time, the sound that leaves Astarion is closer to a sob. When he presses forward again, struggling to meet his master’s demands, something in his arm gives way with an audible crunch.

Gods help him, but it’s true. He ought to have known better.

He ought to have known it was never going to end any way but this.

Cazador lets him struggle for a moment – lets him tug on his own broken arms, just because he can. Every press forward is agony; he can feel the weight of Wyll’s stare on him, but hasn’t yet dared to meet the man’s eyes.

"You’d best step a little closer," says Cazador at last, idly, to Wyll. "He’s always been dreadful at following orders."

A careless wave of the hand and Wyll lurches forward – into range of the chains that bind Astarion.

"Listen to me," says Wyll, and his voice shakes with the intensity of it. "Whatever happens, I will see you free of him. I swear it."

Astarion’s chest hitches; he makes a miserable sort of a whine. His mouth is a bloody ruin, where the tongue used to be. But if he could speak, he would tell this absolute idiot of a man exactly what he thinks. Exactly how much his blasted promises are worth. Exactly how stupid he is, to have charged in alone after a – a nothing. A monster, and one that he hardly knows besides.

Astarion can feel the tears on his cheeks, a wet trail that catches at the corners of his mouth and drips from his chin. His hand holding the scrap of wood is shaking so hard he can scarcely keep hold of it.

Cazador looks between them, eyes narrowed. His smile is a sad*stic, pleased little curl. "Ruin his sword arm, I think," he says, idly. "For daring to raise it against me."

Astarion shakes his head; he sucks in a breath of air through the mangled mess of his own mouth. But his hand moves on its own – stretches to the limits of what his chains allow, and presses the tip of the stake to Wyll’s forearm.

He can’t say anything at all. Can’t tell Wyll that he deserves every second of what’s coming, for being so damnably, foolishly naive.

He can’t even say that he’s sorry.

Astarion lifts his gaze, finally, to meet Wyll’s eyes – falters, just for an instant, when he gets a closer look at what greets him. They aren’t the same gentle brown he’s become so accustomed to, no – one is a false eye, pale and lifeless stone, and the socket around it leaks blood.

Astarion’s brow furrows; he opens his mouth to ask, but nothing comes out.

And then it doesn’t matter, anyway – then he’s pressing down with the tip of the stake, and both of Wyll’s eyes squeeze shut with the pain of it.

It takes Astarion three tries to find the tendon. The tip keeps slipping; it’s jagged and not wide enough by half. By the time he’s finished and Wyll’s hand goes limp from the damage, there’s blood all down his side, and all over Astarion’s arm.

Gods help him, but all he wants to do is lean down and lick it up.

"Now," says Cazador. "I think we’ve dallied enough, don’t you?"

The words spark a bolt of bright panic down Astarion’s spine like lightning; he sucks in a ragged gasp, and he shakes his head, wildly, a frantic whine caught somewhere in his throat.

"It’s alright," Wyll tells him, sweet fool that he is, even with his ruined sword hand, even with blood in his eye socket, even bound by the glowing runes of Cazador’s magic. "It’s alright, Astarion."

Cazador leans down, casually, to lap at the blood from Wyll’s wrist, the way Astarion so aches to; as he does, the rest of his injuries knit closed, the only evidence that they’d ever been there the ragged tears in his clothes.

Then Cazador straightens again, calm and collected, and he turns to Astarion. "Lucky for you, boy, I won’t take your eyes, after all. I’d much rather you see what’s coming." His gaze slides toward Wyll, idle and considering. "And lucky for you, you impertinent thing, that you have more use to me as an object lesson than a spawn."

Astarion shakes his head; the whine grows more desperate in pitch. He can’t seem to control it – can’t seem to stop himself.

With a casual wave of Cazador’s hand, the manacles fall away from Astarion’s wrist.

For a fraction of a second, he’s free; he bares his teeth, and he lunges with the stake, and –

"Stop," Cazador commands, voice like a whip crack in the tiny cellar.

Astarion stops. His hand stays where it is, the tip of the stake no more than a handspan from Cazador’s chest.

"Get in the box," says Cazador, and Astarion begins to sob in earnest. He shakes his head – shakes his head like the denial might somehow stop this. He tries to will his mouth to form words – struggles, with only lips and breath, and finds that the sounds he makes don’t come close enough to words to be comprehensible.

But his traitor limbs don’t understand his terror – can no more fight off the command than they ever do. His steps bring him toward the sarcophagus in the corner, to where its open mouth has been yawning wide this whole while, waiting to swallow him whole.

When he touches the edge of it, the feel of the marble makes the world grey out at the edges. His head swims; his stomach roils.

"Oh," says Cazador. "I nearly forgot. Drop the stake, boy. There will be no easy way out, I’m afraid."

Astarion drops the stake.

He watches it clatter to the ground, still slick with Wyll’s blood. Then he climbs into the sarcophagus and he stands there, chest heaving, thoughts a panicked nothing-space of white noise and terror.

"Go on," says Cazador. "Lie down."

For some reason – for some absurd, wishful, desperate reason – his eyes dart to Wyll, as though Wyll can stop this. As though those pretty promises might come through at the last moment and save him, after all.

But Wyll is caught in those banded red runes, and though he struggles to break free, he can’t take so much as a single step forward. "Let him go," Wyll is yelling, as though that might do anything at all. "Let him go, you monster!"

And Astarion – Astarion lies down.

On every side of him, the grey marble rises up like mountains, impossibly high. He’s aware distantly that he’s making a wounded, panicked noise somewhere in his throat. Cazador is still talking, out beyond the confines of this cursed box, but he can’t make his mind parse the meaning behind the words.

He stares up at the cellar ceiling, frantically; his eyes dart over the arch of the grey stone and the light that casts shadows across it. He takes in the sight as though he’s starving and someone has granted him a sip of blood – takes in the sight not knowing when he’ll next see something beyond cold, grey marble.

He’s so intent on memorizing it – so intent on remembering how the light looks, spread out across the ceiling – that it takes him by surprise when Wyll appears in his range of vision, framed by the walls of the sarcophagus.

Those red runes ring his wrists, still; he’s fighting hard against their pull. But Cazador appears beside him, and with a careless wave of the hand, the force of those bonds tug him down into the sarcophagus to lie beside Astarion.

There’s not space for two – not really. Astarion has to shift onto his side, so that Wyll isn’t half atop him.

Cazador is speaking, and Astarion realizes distantly that he’s been speaking all along. "—dead in a handful of days, of course. Humans are such fragile things."

Wyll speaks, and the murmur of his voice is pitched low, for Astarion’s ears alone. "I swear to you, all will be well."

Astarion wants to tell the man to keep his useless promises. He wants to scream at the wretched, unfeeling gods.

It will do no more good this time, he knows, than it ever has before.

And so instead his chest heaves; the tears spill down his cheeks to drip onto the marble beneath them. The interior of the sarcophagus, he realizes with distant horror, is still streaked with his own dried blood.

"In a year," says Cazador, "he’ll be nothing but bone."

There’s a brief pause, and then Cazador’s hand reaches down into the sarcophagus – wipes away Astarion’s tears, thumb almost gentle as it ghosts over his cheekbone. "When those bones are finally gone, and there’s nothing left but you and the dust that remains of him, I’ll consider letting you out again."

Astarion screams then, high and panicked; he scrabbles at the hold of the compulsion like a rat caught in a trap, frantic to be free, and all his efforts allow him to do no more than twitch against the power that binds him.

He can do nothing as the marble slides into place above them – nothing, as even the dim light of the cellar is stolen away.

Chapter 22


Can I just say that the folks reading this fic are incredible? Thank you so much to everyone who has stopped by to leave a comment or a kudos; you give me life. <333

Also, thank you again SO much to the incredible bumblingdragon on Tumblr, who drew the scene from Chapter 20, in which Cazador gives Astarion a very bad time. Heads up for graphic depictions of gore and Astarion having a rough day.

Chapter Text

Astarion knows this darkness.

It lives in his dreams, every time he slips away into reverie.

He knows the feel of the marble beneath his shoulder blades, cold and unyielding – knows the way it leeches all hint of warmth until he's left trembling with the endless chill. He knows how the immobility, almost bearable at first, begins to creep into an ache and then a throb and finally one last agony as the inescapable pressure of his own weight sloughs away the skin.

He knows how close the walls of the sarcophagus are – how hard it presses in all around him, no space to stand, or sit, or spread his arms.

It's pressed in even closer around him, now.

Lying on his side like this, the marble applies a steady weight to both of his shoulders, just shy of painful.

There's no space in front of him, either; Wyll's chest is pressed to his, close enough that he can feel him breathing – close enough that he's all too aware of the staccato rhythm of his heart. The entire sarcophagus smells like his blood, and the scent of it is maddening, now that Astarion has been bled dry again.

He needs to think.

Surely there's a way out of this. Surely there must be something they can do.

They'll wait until Cazador has left the cellar, and then – he's not sure. His mind is a wordless hum of panic, the frantic backdrop to the too-fast hitching of his chest.

"Hush," Wyll tells him, softly. One of his arms slips in around Astarion's waist, very careful indeed. "It's going to be alright."

Astarion sets his less-ruined hand against Wyll's chest and shoves him, as hard as he's able.

If he had his tongue, he would tell this insufferable idiot of an optimist exactly why it's not alright.

He knows the way this will go. For three agonizing days, he'll lie here in this tiny coffin, half lost in pain, tormented by the smell of Wyll's blood. Wyll will make stupid promises up until he realizes how very wrong he is, and then he'll regret having consigned himself to this hellish, claustrophobic demise. He'll spend his last moments resenting that he'd ever met Astarion, and then – then he'll die.

He'll die, and Astarion won't be able to touch his blood any more than he's able to now. This lovely, idealistic fool of a creature will rot away as Astarion slowly begins to starve. For months, there will be nothing but the stench of decaying flesh; there won't be anywhere to go to escape it, anything to think about beyond what's become of this man who dared to extend a little kindness.

Then slowly, even that will go. The softness of rot will give way to dry and brittle bones. Astarion will lose himself to hunger, to pain, to loneliness.

In time, perhaps those lifeless remnants will seem some sort of company. In time, wrapped in the embrace of old bones, perhaps he'll be able to imagine that Wyll still lies beside him.

"I swear to you, Astarion. I swear it." The arm around Astarion's waist tightens, slightly – a gentle squeeze, perhaps meant to be reassuring.

It's not. Nothing about this is reassuring.

He can't seem to stop shaking – can't seem to stop the way his chest hitches, too hard and too fast, sucking in air that he doesn't need – but gods help him, he leans in against Wyll anyway.

For now, at least, there are arms around him. For now, there is something more yielding than hard marble – some manner of warmth, to keep the endless, aching chill at bay. For now, there's the sound of a voice, low and soothing, murmuring against his ear: soft assurances, and gentle nonsense, and a thousand little nothing-sounds that are meant to calm him.

They don't, of course. They can't.

But Astarion makes a wretched, keening sound all the same, and he forces his broken arm to move, and he clutches Wyll to him as best he's able.

Outside the sarcophagus, there's vague noise, as Cazador moves about the cellar – some strange, distant crackling sound that Astarion can't place, the soft words of what must be a spell. He can hardly bring himself to care.

For the moment, there's only this – Wyll pressed up against him, warm and solid, and Wyll's voice in his ear, and Wyll's hand petting at his back with infinite care. The whole world is the press of the sarcophagus and the smell of him: rich, heady blood that Astarion isn't allowed to touch. It's the worst kind of temptation, and for a moment, a thought shudders through him, wild and reeling: at the very least, Wyll will be dead and gone by the time the starvation sets in to drive him from his mind with want.

At the very least, by the time the hunger is strong enough to tear him apart again, all that lovely fresh blood will have rotted away, gone along with all the rest of Wyll.

Astarion makes that sound again, a desperate, high-pitched keen. Wyll tucks him in closer, so that his forehead rests against the nape of Wyll's throat, and – for all that it makes the blood-scent sharper, curls it into the places inside him that are empty and wanting, Astarion leans into the touch.

If he presses forward all the way, when Wyll's arm is around him like that, his back doesn't have to touch the marble of the sarcophagus.

It isn't much, but gods save him, somehow it feels like everything.

He doesn't know how long they stay like that. It feels an eternity, but perhaps it's not very long at all.

He's aware of Wyll's voice, soft and low, murmuring comforting nonsense; he's aware of the all-encompassing, crushing presence of those marble walls. Somewhere in the distance, vaguely, he's aware of the sound of Cazador out in the cellar beyond.

Astarion drifts, a little.

The world fades away to a rush of white noise around him, like the roar of the Chionthar after the autumn rains. He lets the pain and the terror recede – lets himself become lost in that quiet nothing-place where he goes sometimes, when he doesn't want to be inside himself.

For a time, that's all there is.

Then Wyll says, "This wasn't the deal," and his voice is sharp, simmering and incensed, not at all the same tone of those soothing nonsense whispers at all.

Astarion blinks into the darkness, and all at once he's aware again, no fuzzy distance keeping him from his hurts. Wyll's arm is still around him; out beyond the sarcophagus, all is silence. Cazador has gone.

Astarion shifts slightly, in Wyll's hold – makes a soft, inquisitive sound.

"Did you hear me?" says Wyll, a touch louder than before. "This wasn't the deal!"

He is incensed – and Astarion flinches back from him, without meaning to. There's nowhere to go, and for the first time, with horrifying clarity, he realizes exactly how much damage Wyll might inflict in the three days before death claims him.

If Wyll decides that this is his fault – and it is Astarion's fault – the next century may yet be even more of a horror.

Astarion makes a choked, rasping sort of a sound – tries to say "please."

He can't manage, without his tongue; the sound of it is senseless and indistinct.

"Hush," says Wyll, much gentler than before, as his hand strokes carefully over Astarion's back. "Not you." And then, far louder: "Mizora!"

A voice comes, then, a quiet purr in the enclosed space. It isn't Wyll's voice; it's a woman, low and self-satisfied. "Something the matter, pet?"

And Wyll hisses back: "What do you think?"

Laughter chimes through the air, soft and melodic, like the pealing of a bell. "I think you've gotten yourself into quite the pickle. Really, now. What did you expect, charging off before your backup arrived?"

Astarion is losing his mind. He has to be losing his mind.

He's hallucinating this, to fill the silence. That's the only explanation.

But even still, the word "backup" catches at his thoughts – trips him and leaves him staggering. He sucks in a sharp breath, and Wyll's arm tightens around him in response, steady and reassuring.

"I couldn't say anything while Cazador was in the room," Wyll tells him, quiet and intent. "I sent word to Jaheira."

Astarion's chest hitches; his grip, holding tight to the back of Wyll's shirt, tightens to something white-knuckled, broken bones be damned.

Then Wyll says: "Even still, it wasn't meant to come to this." He lifts his voice a touch, a hard edge to the words. "You promised me the power to enact a rescue, Mizora."

Astarion makes a sound, a half-choked little thing.

He trembles, caught up in that most impossible of all words: rescue. It makes his chest tight – makes his eyes sting – makes his throat feel as though it's closing in. Some nameless emotion rises up to strangle him, so sharp and sudden that he hitches in a sob – feels Wyll stroke carefully along his back, in reply.

That laugh comes again, breathier this time – amused. "I promised you the power, pet, not the common sense to use it properly."

"And yet," Wyll grates out, "here we are, and the rescue hasn't been enacted."

Astarion's mind is reeling; his thoughts are a rush of noise behind his ears. He can't seem to keep up – can't seem to think at all.

For the life of him, he can't imagine who this woman might be. A wizard, perhaps? Someone powerful enough to have created the portal in the center of Cazador's cellar, he realizes distantly. That figure he'd seen in its depths, dimly, as though through frosted glass.

When the sniff comes, it's a delicate, dismissive sort of thing. "That sounds like a planning problem to me."

"I want the lid off of this sarcophagus," says Wyll, "before that absolute monster comes back and finds a way to be rid of the portal."

"Please," says the woman. "Him? He couldn't dispel my magic if he tried."

"Do you really want to risk it?" says Wyll. "It would be a dreadful shame, to avail yourself of a blade only for it to be broken before you could wield it."

There's a moment of silence at that. At last, the woman sighs. "Fine. Don't say I never did anything for you."

There's a sort of a – hum, there in the silence. It feels like lightning; it tastes like a storm. The hair on the back of Astarion's neck stands on end.

"Go on, then," says the woman.

There's a pause. Then Wyll says, softly: "Tuck your head in."

His hand comes up, carefully, to press itself to Astarion's hair – guides him in more firmly, so that he's tucked against Wyll's chest. Then Wyll withdraws again, reaching upward so that his palm is pressed to the marble overhead.

Astarion hasn't needed to breathe for two hundred years, and in this moment it serves him well. He goes stock still, breath catching in his chest.

Hope, that vile thing, so bright it scorches him like the sun, feels as though it might burn him away entirely.

"Please," Astarion tries to say again – to Wyll, or to the mystery woman, or to the gods, who surely don't care one way or the other.

It's garbled, just as it was before, but perhaps Wyll understands.

A brilliant glow suffuses the tiny space, red as the gleam of rubies – red as clouds at the horizon, with the very last light of sunset. A sound follows: an impact, sudden and violent, bracketed by a much louder crack, as of something heavy being dropped onto cobblestones from a great distance.

There's a grinding, scraping sort of a noise, and then – light. All at once, there's light.

Wyll is sitting up, then – tugging Astarion with him, favoring his off-hand, gentle but steadying.

"Go through the portal," he says, voice soft and intent. "It will put you out in the city."

Astarion's mouth is dry; his chest feels as though it's being crushed by iron bands. This moment – the dim light of the cellar, the fact that he's sitting up again – feels too large to fit inside him.

He lists against Wyll, dizzy with the enormity of it.

"I'll come with you after he's been taken care of."

Astarion blinks; the world sways around him. His vision is blurry, and his cheeks are wet again. He shakes his head, and he tugs at Wyll's shirt.

"It's not safe for you to stay here," Wyll is saying. "You have to –"

Astarion shoves him, hard – as hard as he's able, anyway, which isn't very hard at all. He jabs Wyll in the chest, vehement – points toward the portal.

"Well, imagine that," says the woman's voice, from nowhere. "One of you has a glimmer of common sense."

Astarion points again, harder this time. His arm shakes, just from holding it up; the breaks in the bone throb with agony.

Wyll looks down at him for a moment, expression soft, a crease between his brows. "Alright," he says. "We'll go together. We'll get you someplace safe, and then I'll come back when Jaheira arrives."

That's not what Astarion wants, exactly. He wants to take Wyll and run, and keep running, and keep running, until both of their legs give out. But he can't precisely argue the details just now, and the important part is to get through the portal and away from here – and so he nods, shaky and intent.

He takes hold of the sides of the sarcophagus – tries to rise, and discovers that he can't support his own weight. His legs tremble like a newborn kitten and give way, dumping him onto the hard stone of the cellar floor.

By his knees there lie a half-dozen shards of the shattered table and a few choice implements of torture; Astarion takes hold of the knife, with its curved, wicked little blade, and he holds tight to it as best he's able, hand shaking fit to drop it.

"Gods," Wyll breathes, softly. He's climbing out of the sarcophagus, too – comes to kneel beside Astarion. "I'm so sorry. I should have –"

Astarion shakes his head again, violent – jabs toward the portal, with the tip of the knife.

"Yes," says Wyll. "Yes, of course. Later."

He reaches out, then, achingly gentle – gets his arms up under Astarion and lifts him like a princess in a fairy tale, held close and careful to Wyll's chest.

Astarion has spent two hundred years waiting for a hero to come.

He's spent nights huddled up in the watch tower of the Szarr palace, tucked into an alcove to hide himself away, furtively reading stolen adventure tales – dreadful stories, where the hero always wins and no one who needs help is ever left behind. He's spent endless moments on the cold stone of the kennel floors, hungry and hurting, idly imagining that someday – someday, maybe –

This. Someday maybe this, cradled in the arms of a man who'd thought him worth coming to save.

Astarion shudders, and he squeezes his eyes shut.

By all accounts, he ought to be out of tears by now, but he finds, to his humiliation, that his face is wet again. Wyll takes a step forward and then another – unsteady, perhaps from the blood loss.

But they're nearly there. Now that Astarion knows what to look for, he thinks he can see a street through the other side of the portal. A normal shop, with a normal wooden door. There's that ghastly painted banner at Sorcerous Sundries, and the cobblestones of the street, and a little tuft of grass.

He can practically taste the night air.

Then a voice filters down from somewhere on high, drifting through the open trap door in the cellar's ceiling.

It's Cazador's voice, in such a tone of glacial fury that it turns Astarion's veins to ice.

"You dare to defy me, boy?" he says, and all at once, the air is filled with the leathery flap of bat wings. Astarion whines; Wyll curses, under his breath, and breaks for the portal.

He's too slow.

The fluttering creature darting through the air takes form, and all at once, there stands Astarion's master, blocking their way to freedom.

Chapter 23


Been fighting off a bout of covid, so I've been trying not to touch this fic to avoid working on it with feverbrain. The fever is not altogether gone, but I am impatient, so please enjoy anyway, and sorry for the uhhh probably rough edits. o/

Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. You're all lovely. <333

Extra thanks also to the incredibly kind faorism on Tumblr, who drew the scene with the sarcophagus. :>

Chapter Text

The man trembling in Wyll's arms ought, by all accounts, to be dead.

If he'd been mortal, he would not still draw breath – but he isn't mortal, and breathing is something he's left behind for centuries, and so somehow, impossibly, he yet survives.

Guilt coils low in Wyll's stomach like a sickness; it tightens his chest, and it claws through the whole of him. All he can smell in this wretched room is the scent of Astarion's blood – though at least, thank all the gods, they've left that claustrophobic nightmare of a tomb behind.

They needn't go much further. Even with his good arm out of commission, Wyll has strength enough to carry Astarion to safety, he thinks.

All they need do is make it through the portal.

Sorcerous Sundries may have barred its doors to him tonight, but there are other shops nearby; if he asks it of them, surely one will allow them inside. Surely someone will spare Astarion a back room to rest, somewhere safe, until the monster who's inflicted this upon him can be rendered harmless.

A pair of potionmongers sell their wares along this street, if Wyll recalls correctly. He'll buy the lot – do all that he can, to tend to Astarion's hurts.

By then, his message ought to have reached the Harpers. Wyll hasn't the faintest idea how fast an imp might fly – has never encountered one of the creatures, much less summoned one to do his bidding – but the little creature must have found Jaheira by now. Surely it's on its way back to the portal, with reinforcements in tow.

With the extra blades, they'll be able to put Lord Szarr down once and for all.

And then – hells below. Wyll doesn't know if there's anything he could possibly do to earn Astarion's forgiveness for this disaster of a night, but he intends to try. He'll do everything in his power to keep this man safe and comfortable, and if he decides he wants to leave the city, after all, Wyll can hardly blame him.

It's a solid plan. In five more steps, they'll be through the portal, free and clear, breathing air that doesn't smell like the thick copper of spilled blood.

Then a voice comes, all carefully banked rage, from somewhere above them: "You dare to defy me, boy?"

It's Cazador.

Wyll's breath catches in his throat, even as his mind begins making its calculations. There's still time. They can be away before –

In his arms, Astarion makes a keening sort of a whine, tight with terror. The space before the portal seems suffused with a faint, white blur, and when Wyll blinks again, Lord Szarr is standing there, bloodied from their fight but no longer injured, towering over the pair of them.


"I assigned you a punishment, you mewling wretch," says Cazador, and those implacable red eyes are fixed directly on Astarion. The irises, red as a dying sunset, seem to glow; when he speaks again, there is a note of power behind the words, as there was when he issued his commands to Astarion. "Now return to your –"

He doesn't have the chance to finish.

Astarion, trembling in Wyll's arms as though he may well shake himself apart, reaches up one badly battered hand. It's the better of the two – the one still mostly in one piece – and he's gotten a blade from somewhere, a curved knife perhaps from amidst the mess of torture implements scattered across the floor.

It leaves his hand before Cazador can finish speaking, a flash of silver that streaks through the air, fleet and precise. For an instant, Wyll feels a swell of pride at his bravery – at the strength of spirit it must take to carry on resisting even in the face of such pain. Perhaps such a tiny blade won't be enough to turn the tide, but even the attempt –

Wyll's thoughts skitter to a stop as the blade finds its mark: lodged in the hollow of Cazador's throat. The words cut off midway, before he can complete the command.

Cazador makes a wordless noise, pain and rage, some snarl that calls to mind a rabid animal. And there in his arms, Astarion huffs a breath that may well be a laugh.

It lasts all of an instant.

Then Cazador Szarr is flinging himself at them bodily, every bit the rabid creature that snarl made him out to be.

Astarion squawks, half pain and half panic; Wyll gives a cry of alarm as he goes down under the assault, sprawling the both of them to the cold stone of the cellar floor.

Cazador's nails are sharp things, formidable for all they've been neatly manicured, and they flash in close and quick, aiming for Wyll's single good eye.

He doesn't get it. Wyll hisses in a breath and rolls, and Cazador darts after him; dimly, Wyll is aware of the scrape of metal on stone, and of the fact that it's the sound of the man availing himself of an awful, jagged saw amidst the ruins of the destroyed table.

Wyll's ears ring with horror; he gets a hand up, and a crackle of crimson lightning springs from his palm. There beside the now-healed hole in Cazador's chest there opens another, spilling blood that was Wyll's until not so terribly long ago.

Cazador staggers – falters – looks down at the gaping wound burned into him, still smoldering slightly from the heat. Rage twists those genteel features; he reaches up toward the dagger planted in his throat, as though to draw it out.

No sooner has he reached to remove it than Astarion is there at his side, snarling – a feral thing. A mad thing, face twisted with emotions Wyll can't begin to put to words. He has a jagged piece of wood in hand again – must have availed himself of another, from among the mess scattered across the floor – and he bears down with it, aiming to stab his master quick and hard between the ribs.

He never gets the chance to bring it to bear. Cazador takes hold of his arm – snaps it, the echo brittle and sharp in the enclosed space of the cellar.

The sound that comes from Astarion's throat is inhuman – a keening sort of wail. When Cazador lets go, his arm dangles at a sickening angle, rendered as useless as the other. That manicured hand lifts Astarion up as effortlessly as he might a doll – tosses him, with frightful ease, so that he sails across the little cellar to land somewhere against the far wall with a sickening crack.

Then Cazador is reaching again for the blade in his throat, and Wyll lunges in to prevent him removing it. If they can keep him from speaking – keep him from issuing commands, or from using his spells – they may yet have a chance.

It's a chance that withers on the vine, no sooner than Wyll has imagined it. That elegant hand, clawed despite all its pretense at civility, takes hold of Wyll by the throat. Lord Szarr closes down, and he begins to squeeze.

All Wyll can see is the man's face, ghastly pale, eyes the crimson of fresh blood and lips pulled back into a sneer. His other hand is reaching even now for the blade that renders him speechless. When it's gone, all he'll need is a sip or two of Wyll's blood to mend the injury again.

Then this wretched monster of a man will order them back into that box, and however much Wyll knows that help is coming, he thinks it might be the end of him if he has to see Astarion come all to pieces like that again.

Wyll fights and thrashes – ignores the throbbing in his bloodied arm, to try and pry himself free of Cazador's hold.

It's like fighting a mountain; it's like trying to bend steel. Pact or no, strange new devilish powers or no, he hasn't the brute strength to best this man.

His vision begins to swim at the edges, black spots dancing in the periphery; he scratches uselessly at Cazador's hand.

And then, all at once, the world is filled with a sickening, wet sort of a thud. A line of flesh and blood splits open, a gaping diagonal painted in crimson across Cazador's chest, and the hand on Wyll's throat falters, the pressure in the grip relenting.

Wyll sucks in air – gasps, desperate.

And from somewhere behind Cazador, Karlach's voice says, "Hells below, mate, you look rough."

And then Jaheira says, "It comes of being foolish enough to face a vampire lord solo, I would imagine."

There are other sounds, Wyll realizes – footsteps, and the muffled voices of Harpers filtering into the room from the portal. His head lolls to one side; he catches sight of two, three, five figures with silver harps clasped to their cloaks.

Cazador, it seems, has caught sight of them, as well.

"Stop him," Wyll rasps, through a voice that's haggard and strained, but already it's too late.

Already Cazador has dissipated into a fine white mist; it's drifting away, up toward the hatch in the ceiling.

Jaheira hisses a curse – calls out, sharp and sudden, speaking a spell into being. Ice crystals crackle along the floor; the air goes chill with the bite of a harsh winter's morning.

It isn't enough. Cazador is gone already, fled into the upper levels of the manor.

"Follow him," Jaheira demands. "Do not let him slip away."

Near a dozen Harpers turn as one to obey her command; hands take hold of the ladder and begin to ascend, and Jaheira turns to follow them.

"Not you," she says to Karlach, when her bodyguard makes to join the chase. "See them to safety. I am not yet so old that I cannot handle a leech."

Then she's gone, up and away, and the cellar is silent once more.

All Wyll can hear is the ragged rasp of his own breathing. After a moment, or perhaps two, he becomes aware of another sound: a soft, high sort of whimper, from somewhere away on the far side of the room.

The edges of his vision are still swimming; the pain in his arm throbs in time with his heartbeat.

But when Karlach comes close, bending in over him, Wyll gasps, "Astarion. Is he – ?"

Karlach takes hold of Wyll's good arm – hauls him up to sitting, even as she turns to scan the room. Wyll sees instantly the moment that she spots him; she winces, sucking in a sharp breath through her teeth. "f*cking hells."

She lets go of Wyll's hand – turns instead toward the corner of the cellar where that awful, animal whine is coming from.

Wyll staggers to his feet to follow her – arrives just in time to see the ghastly way Astarion has landed, battered against the stone of the cellar and left to slump to the floor like an afterthought, a crumpled pile of pale limbs and bloodied flesh.

"We got you, mate," Karlach is saying, and she digs into the pouch at her belt – pulls free a round bottle filled with red liquid.

Astarion is barely conscious – barely reacts to the words, much less the touch of her hand, so gentle upon his shoulder. He makes no acknowledgement of the potion – certainly doesn't move to take it.

In an instant, Wyll is there beside him, reaching out with his good hand, gentle as can be.

"Astarion?" he says, carefully. "Can you hear me?"

Astarion's eyelids flicker; he keens again, softly.

"I know," says Wyll. "Gods, I know. I'm so sorry."

Karlach is pressing the potion to his lips, now – holds it there for a beat, motionless, before it becomes clear that Astarion can't manage even to drink it down. Then she tips her hand, spilling the liquid carefully into his mouth.

Astarion swallows, convulsively; a thin trickle of the potion spills from the corner of his lips. Some of the damage begins to knit together, the terrible caved-in set to his ribs becoming less a horror show and more something that seems as though it might actually be survived.

"Have you any others?" says Wyll, and his voice is low and fraught.

"One more," says Karlach. "Don't think it's going to make much of a dent on all this, though."

Her eyes flicker to Wyll's arm – to the streak of blood that trickles down his face from the false eye. "Are you – ?"

"Give it to him," says Wyll. "He's had a far worse time than I have."

Karlach nods, terse, though Wyll doesn't miss the crease in her brow and the concern in her eyes. All the same, she presses the bottle to Astarion's lips – and this time, thank all the gods, he at least has the strength to drink it down on his own, tipping his head back to accept it and throat working as he swallows.

It's only then, as he parts his lips – only then that Wyll realizes why it is he can't talk.

There's no tongue here; his mouth is an empty ruin, and it makes a terrible sort of sense, when more of the liquid runs in rivulets down his chin. Wyll sucks in a gasp – feels his eyes burn with tears, now that at last he has a moment to breathe, a moment to feel beyond the thundering demands of pain and adrenaline.

He reaches out with gentle fingers – scoops up the remnants of the potion, gathering the last few drops on his fingers. He presses them gently between Astarion's lips; they may not be much, but at the moment, Astarion needs all that he can get.

"We'd best see him out of here," says Wyll, and his voice hardly shakes at all.

"The both of you," says Karlach. "You look like you could use a bit of a lie-down, too, mate."

"After he's cared for," Wyll says, stubborn, and doesn't miss the wry smile on Karlach's lips.

"I said both, yeah?" She reaches out to Astarion, gentler than Wyll thinks he's ever seen her do anything. "You ready, fangs? We're busting out of here."

She waits for the reply – waits for him to nod, the faintest of gestures. Then she gets her arms under him and lifts, and up he comes, as though he weighs nothing at all. Wyll staggers to his feet beside her – sways slightly, when he gets there.

He's lost more blood than he thought, perhaps; everything seems swimmy and distant, and he has to lean against the wall for a moment, before he gets his footing under him.

There in the center of the cellar, where Mizora's magic left it, still stands the portal. It's a strange, wavering thing, formed of brightness and shadow somehow both at once. Through it, Wyll can glimpse the cobblestones of a street at night and the poorly painted banner that hangs out front of Sorcerous Sundries.

Karlach cradles Astarion in close to her chest, careful as anything.

She glances to Wyll, to make sure he's following – make sure he's still standing, perhaps.

Then she steps through that tear in the fabric of the world, and an instant later she's gone, and Astarion along with her.

Wyll takes a breath, to steady himself. He glances back toward the hatch in the ceiling, where the Harpers in pursuit of Cazador Szarr have long vanished from view.

He takes one last look around the cellar: the shattered table, and the scattered implements of pain, and the now-broken marble sarcophagus in the far corner.

Then he lifts his chin, and he presses his lips together, and he steps through Mizora's portal, leaving all the rest behind.

Chapter 24



Chapter Text

The streets of Baldur's Gate stand the way Wyll left them, however much the world seems to have changed in the space of the past hour.

The night is dark; high above, clouds have choked out the moon. Lanterns glow in the windows, a warm yellow light to beckon in the day's last straggling customers. There are fewer now, perhaps, than when he set out; the hour is late, and those still on the street are mostly unsteady, walking in weaving lines as they stagger their way home from the taverns.

"Where we taking him?" Karlach asks.

In her arms, Astarion seems half-conscious; occasionally, his eyes flicker open, but the injuries have at last, perhaps, become too much for him. He lolls in Karlach's grasp, by all appearances barely aware of what's going on around him.

Wyll's eyes scan the street, looking for the potionmongers' shop nearby – and there it stands, across from Sorcerous Sundries, the wooden sign above the door proclaiming its wares. The lights in its windows are dark, Wyll notes with an anxious twist of alarm; here, there are no lanterns to usher in late-night custom.

He crosses to the door in a handful of hasty strides – pounds upon the wood with the fist of his good arm.

"Is anybody there?" he calls, and his voice is a touch frantic, no matter how he tries to keep it steady. "We need assistance. This is an emergency."

"Hells," says Karlach. "Look."

She nods toward a note pinned up in the window, penned in a bold, brash hand. "Out of town to gather ingredients," it reads. "Back by the end of Leaffall. We took all the potions, you bastards. If you break in again, I'll bloody well hunt you down."

Wyll scans the words – grimaces.

"We'll have to find someplace else," he says. Already, his thoughts are racing on ahead, turning over possibilities only to discard them.

Surely there's a temple open somewhere, staffed by a cleric who might be able to mitigate some of the damage. Surely a kind priest of Lathander or a priestess of Helm might welcome them inside out of the cold to offer their assistance.

But it's grown late, after the gala at the Ravengard manor, and it's later now still, after however long they've spent in that cursed cellar. Dawn can't be terribly far off; there's no way to know for certain what temples will welcome weary souls wandering the streets at this odd hour of the morning.

Besides which, Wyll realizes with a sinking sort of dread, he isn't entirely certain what sort of welcome Astarion is likely to receive. Vampires, for all that the one currently in Karlach's arms may be terribly charming, are not likely to be greeted with open arms at the temple of the sun god. Clerics are famed for the fear they can strike into the heart of an undead creature; they're welcomed into communities for just that gift, keeping otherwise defenseless villagers beyond the long-dead hands of skeletons and ghouls and spirits.

A month ago, Wyll had been ready to drive a stake into this man's heart, on the mere reputation amassed by his kind.

Can he truly trust that a temple will offer aid, instead of further hurt?

Wyll hesitates – glances down the street, toward those lighted windows. He glances back toward the wall that stands to divide the upper city from the lower.

"We'll bring him to my father's estate," Wyll decides. "There are healing supplies on hand, that those injured in training or in the course of their duties might be seen to promptly."

Karlach glances down at the man lying draped in her arms, bloodied and still. "You think he can hang in there that long?"

Wyll lowers his voice – steps in a touch nearer. "I think that we'd do ill to stumble our way into a room full of those who would do a vampire harm."

Karlach's eyes widen, there in the darkness, the cat-yellow glow making them look rounder than they are. "sh*t," she says. "I didn't even think about that. Yeah – the duke's place it is."

Wyll gives a nod, tight, and sets out to lead the way.

It seems to take a thousand years, however harried their pace. Something sick and anxious squirms in Wyll's chest, and each step seems to make him more aware of how hideously still Astarion has gone. He's not breathing, though he often keeps to the habit; his eyes are open, dazed and unfocused, his mangled arm dangling limply toward the cobbled street.

Before they're halfway there, Wyll is listing and stumbling as though he's had entirely too much wine. By the time they turn into the stately drive that houses the Ravengard manor, he's barely on his feet at all, the adrenaline of the fight at last bleeding away to leave nothing but bone-deep exhaustion and a tremor that runs all through him.

His arm aches like all nine hells, and his eye is throbbing worse even than that. The cold grey stone lodged in his eye socket grates against raw flesh and leaves him nauseated and trembling.

If he thinks about it too hard – if he closes his eyes, to try to gather himself again – he can see all too clearly a lovely painted smile and flawless skin the shade of a pale morning sky.

Not much further now, though.

When they reach his father's estate, there will be someplace to rest. One of the servants will see to their hurts, and Wyll can ensure that Astarion has somewhere safe to recover. Wyll hasn't lived with his father for half a decade now, but his private chambers still stand as he left them; surely his father won't mind if he avails himself of them again, just for the day.

They can lie low and keep to cover. Then, when Jaheira confirms that Lord Szarr has been safely put down, they can make other arrangements.

He'll need to talk to Astarion again, about what he wants. For all that they've spoken of plans for the future, that was before the gala and the devastation in its wake. Who's to say that Astarion wants to remain in the city at all, anymore? Who's to say that he'll bother, now that he's possessed of one more pile of nightmarish memories atop two hundred long years of them?

But aside from that – the least important thing, all told, however stubbornly it keeps coming back to the forefront of Wyll's thoughts – is how very little Astarion will likely want to do with Wyll, when all is said and done. What chance is there, really, that he'll speak another word to him, now that Wyll's fumbled his promises so completely?

And if Astarion never wants to look Wyll's way again, he can scarcely blame the man.

But that's a problem for another time – for tomorrow, or the day after, when they've both had the chance to heal and rest. For now, best to focus on getting Astarion to safety.

"Around back," says Wyll, voice low, as at last the Ravengard estate comes into view. "We'll go in through the kitchen entrance, in case the gala's still underway."

"You got it, soldier," says Karlach, and shifts Astarion carefully in her arms.

If anything, he's grown even paler during the trek through the city streets. There's a greyish cast to his lips, though his eyes are open, still, flickering here and there with a watchful wariness that breaks Wyll's heart.

For the first time, Wyll finds that he's grateful for Astarion's vampirism. For all its curses – for all the suffering it's inflicted upon him – it assures, at the least, that he can survive even this. Without a stake to the heart or the scorching rays of the sun, he'll live to see a new day, no matter how much blood he's lost.

It feels like cold comfort, somehow.

The door to the kitchens stands open to admit the night air. Inside, cooks bustle to and fro, arms full of sullied dishes from the banquet hall. Wyll wishes, with a slow, dull ache of regret, that he had a cloak that he could lay atop Astarion, to keep him safe from prying eyes as they pass – but there's nothing, and they haven't the time to come up with another solution.

Karlach steps in through the kitchen door, with Wyll at her side.

The scullery maid nearest them sucks in a startled gasp at the sight of them; the chef standing over a cauldron of stew gives an aborted yelp, stumbling as he backs into a wall. One of the maids presses a hand to her mouth and turns to flee the room.

"Master Ravengard," says the steward, frozen in the doorway to the kitchen. "What in the name of the gods – ?"

"We need someone to tend his wounds," says Wyll. "Immediately, if you please. Send them to my chambers."

"But your arm," says the steward, wringing his hands. "And your – is that a false eye?"

He's aware, acutely, of so many gazes fixed upon him – aware of Karlach's stare as she turns toward him, bright eyes clouded with concern, perhaps noticing the stone replacement for the first time.

"I'm afraid it's been an eventful night," says Wyll, and he works his hardest to keep his tone steady. "Now, if you'll excuse us."

The steward's gaze flickers from Wyll to Karlach, and then to the pale, bloodied form of Astarion, lying in her arms. "Of course," he says. "Of course."

And he steps out of the doorway to let them pass, still wringing his hands.

They don't get very far.

They're all of three steps into the hallway when Wyll's father appears, shoulders squared and jaw set, face imposing as an oncoming stormfront. At his side is the mousy little maid that fled the kitchen; she lingers for a moment only, and then she darts away again, disappearing down the hall.

Already Wyll can hear a sea of voices raised in fear, in curiosity, in alarm. Already, he can hear his name spreading on garrulous lips and tongues, the gossip setting in to take root.

None of that matters, just at the moment.

"Father," says Wyll. "Thank goodness. Is there anyone you can spare, to assist? Things didn't go precisely to plan."

Father's gaze sweeps over him, impassive. There's a slight twitch, as a muscle jumps in his jaw.

"Who," Wyll's father grates out, "is she?"

It isn't like Father, not to recall names. He's gotten to where he is the hard way, by forging hard-won alliances and earning the respect of nobles and servants alike. He's always had an exacting memory for names and faces, ever since Wyll was a child.

"Surely you remember Karlach," says Wyll, and turns to follow his gaze.

But it isn't Karlach that he's looking at.

It's Mizora, standing there in the hallway of the Ravengard estate, wings unfurled into graceful arcs and lips curled up into a perfect, painted smile.

"The f*ck did you come from?" says Karlach, and Wyll's gratified to notice that her instinct is to hold Astarion a little closer, turning so that her shoulder's to Mizora, the better to shield him.

"Why, Wyll," says Mizora, in a voice that's smooth and sweet as honey. "I'm insulted. You didn't think to mention me to your nearest and dearest?"

"There's hardly been time," says Wyll. And then, in the very next breath, to his father: "This isn't what it looks like."

Wyll's father has a hand set on the hilt of his sword. His brow is furrowed. "It looks as though you've brought a second monster to my home tonight."

"Oh, daddy dearest doesn't like me," Mizora drawls. "Well, I'm afraid I won't be going anywhere. Wyll and I have an accord, you see."

She says accord with a certain inflection to it, light and tittering, like a young lady in the market speaking of her conquests. There's something insinuating to the tone, something that makes heat rise to Wyll's cheeks, despite the situation.

"It isn't like that," says Wyll, and he can hear how very young he sounds, just in that moment. His voice cracks, like a lad not yet into adulthood; he sounds defensive, the way he used to get on the training grounds when he hadn't been practicing his forms and Father was there to watch him flub a lesson.

"Oh, isn't it?" Mizora purrs. She crosses around behind Karlach – sidles up to Wyll on his right side, leaning in to drape familiarly over his shoulder. "And here I thought you'd given me your soul, in exchange for a little power." When she says power, she lifts her hands, fingers up like the points of a crown. Light dances between them, a strange spectral fire that glimmers upward in the faintest flickering blue.

Astarion has roused himself from his daze; his eyes narrow, and his gaze darts from Mizora to Wyll and then back again.

"f*ck me sideways," breathes Karlach. "Really?"

"Wyll," says Wyll's father, and there is an edge to the words that Wyll thinks he's never heard there before.

What can he say, when everything she's told them is true? All at once, his chest feels hollowed out inside; all at once, it feels as though something has shriveled up to die in his throat. He swallows, with effort.

Surely Father will understand. Wyll has learned every line – every word – in the book of his personal code of morality from his father. Honor before self. Sacrifice for the protection of others. The tireless effort to be a better man, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of all those around him.

Perhaps he's fallen short before. Perhaps they've not always seen eye to eye. Perhaps they haven't been as close as they might have been, these past seven years.

But surely, he knows Wyll well enough to understand him better than this.

"Father, please," says Wyll. "It was for –"

"A good reason," is how he means to finish. Nevermind that he's not entirely sure his father will agree. Nevermind that he half suspects Father doesn't see Astarion as a person at all, much less one worth saving.

All the same, it is a good reason. He can't regret it now.

Astarion is pale as wax, hideously injured, but if Wyll hadn't come for him – hadn't made his pact with the devil at his shoulder – they wouldn't even know where he is right now. He would be under Cazador's knife still, or worse yet, confined to that awful stone sarcophagus, alone and afraid.

But Wyll finds that he can't say any of that.

The words stick in his throat, as though something physical is lodged there. His mouth works, but strain as he might, he can't force them past his lips.

"It was for quite a lot of power," Mizora cuts in, smoothly. "Not a bad bargain all around, if I do say so myself."

And she smiles again, those perfect painted lips parting to reveal the white of her teeth.

"Is this true?" says Father, and his voice trem bles, as though with some suppressed emotion.

In the background, the whisper of the servants sharing hushed words rises like waves on the sea shore. It sounds like white noise in Wyll's ears, a faint rushing somewhere behind his eyes.

"Father," says Wyll. "Please."

"Is this true?" demands Wyll's father, and his voice shakes.

"Now just you wait a minute," says Karlach, and she draws herself up as though she means to square off against Wyll's father, here and now, in the hallway of his manor, Astarion still in her arms.

Astarion looks more aware than he has for some time now. His lips are pressed into a thin, white line, and the tilt of his head is prickly somehow – haughty, like a well-groomed cat. Wyll rather suspects he would have something to say, if he was still in possession of his tongue.

"I am talking," Wyll's father snaps, "to my son."

Wyll has never seen his father like this before.

Twenty-three years, and he's seen what he thought was the full spectrum of Father's emotions.

He's seen Father tired, after a long day filled with diplomatic obligations. He's seen Father disappointed, more times than he cares to count, in dozens of half-remembered childhood memories, after Wyll's failed at his lessons or gotten into trouble in the city or spoken out of turn at an afternoon tea with allies Father hoped to secure. He's seen Father stricken through with grief, every year on Wyll's birthday, when he takes a bouquet of elegant white flowers to the cemetery to lay them upon Mother's grave.

But this is something new.

This is something that sets Father's jaw stiff and unyielding; it's something that's curled his hands into fists. He reminds Wyll of a blade just then, tempered steel, hard and sharp and unbreakable.

Wyll swallows. "It's true," he says. "But it –"

Was for a good cause, he means to add. He's not sure that Father would agree – not sure he sees Astarion as anything but a creature, a monster that should be slain for the sake of the city.

But all the same, he's sure that he can explain. Father is a reasonable man – a good man. Wyll's learned everything he knows about the way the world works from him. Surely if Wyll tells him what it was Astarion needed saving from, the utter horrors that faced him at his master's hand, Father will understand.

No explanation comes.

It's that same sensation again, as of something lodged in his throat – something sharp and cutting, like the barbed end of a fishhook. Wyll chokes on it.

And Father waits for him, is the hells of it. He waits to hear whatever explanation is coming, but for the life of him, Wyll can't drag it out.

His stomach feels tight and cold, as though it's lined in metal; his heart is heavier still, sunk like a stone in his chest.

And still the words stay where they are, locked inside him.

Vaguely, he's aware of Mizora draped over his arm, with her perfect smile and her perfect face and those awful, hells-touched wings. She smells faintly of magnolias, he realizes with a distant wash of something very like nausea.

On his other side is Karlach, turned toward him, brows furrowed and eyes bright with concern. Astarion still lies in her arms, face ghastly pale, eyes trained on Wyll. They flicker back and forth, taking in Wyll's expression like words on a page, intent for all that he looks wan and weary from the pain.

But it's Wyll's father that takes all his attention in that moment – Wyll's father who looms before him, larger than life, like a carving of Savras come to stand before a mortal and decide where their life might lead from this moment onward. In the kitchen behind him, the whispers have stopped.

"You know as well as I," says Wyll's father, in a voice that is dreadfully, painstakingly level, "that diabolism is not tolerated in this city."

Wyll opens his mouth to protest, and Wyll's father speaks over him.

"There is no place here for those who would invite such harm to the city and its people." His voice is hard as armor; his eyes are hard as flint. "You're to go directly to the gates. Your banishment begins now."

The words cut deeper than any wound he's ever known; they pierce like the great raging ice storms that fall upon Baldur's Gate in deepest winter. "Father," he begins, tongue clumsy.

"Go," says Wyll's father.

Wyll has never heard that tone before, but he knows what it means all the same. There is no room for argument here; that single word burrows in deep, like a nail hammered home into the polished, sturdy wood of a coffin.

He takes a shaking breath in – lets it out again.

"Yes, Father," he whispers.

To his left, Mizora laughs, soft and amused; to his right, Karlach sucks in an indignant breath.

"The f*ck do you mean, yes Father?" she demands. From the look on Astarion's face, it's a shared sentiment.

Wyll draws another unsteady breath. "We'll talk later," he manages. "For now, the important thing is to get him someplace safe."

Wyll steels himself – squares his shoulders. He turns back toward the kitchen door, ignoring the protest that Karlach calls after him and the growled words that are probably meant for his father.

She falls in after him, though, a beat later, and he can't bear to turn and see the expression on either her face or Astarion's.

Out they go again, past the scullery maid and the chef and the steward. Out they go, and those whispered words have all gone silent. They're just staring, now, eyes wide and fearful as they follow the devil beside him.

Out they go, through the warm, well-lit room, beset by counters Wyll used to sit on when he was but a boy, swinging his feet and charming lemon cakes off the cook.

Out they go, back into the frigid night, and the only thing that keeps the tears in his eyes from falling is the knowledge that Mizora is still watching him. Karlach is still watching him. Astarion is still watching him, and the only possible thing that could make this situation worse is if Astarion thought somehow that he regretted the choice he's made.

He doesn't. He can't, even now with some unimaginable weight crushing his chest.

Outside, the night is still with the sort of peace that comes in the early morning hours. Around front, a few carriages still idle, waiting to pick up the last handful of guests from a gala that feels lifetimes away. Overhead the moon has peeked out from behind the clouds again. Far off in the distance, from away in the lower city, the tabernacle bell rings out, slow and steady, as though nothing at all has changed in the world.

Perhaps, Wyll thinks, he's dreaming.

Perhaps it's the night before the gala still, and he's dozed off beside Astarion's bed in the cellar, head pillowed on the blankets. The plan will go flawlessly, this time; they'll dance away into the evening, and Jaheira will lead her Harpers to chase Astarion's master from the party, and this night will hold no pain, no terror, no devils.

Wyll closes his eyes, just for an instant, the better to imagine it – and when he opens them, a sight greets him that's so absurd that he's certain, all at once, that this is a dream.

Because there in the sky, larger than a carriage and horses combined – larger than a house – larger even than Father's estate – is some strange, whimsical creature that looks borne of the sea. Great tentacles sprout from the front of it, bunching and curling, beset by suckers like those on an octopus. The back of it is curved, a high and graceful arch like the shell of a snail.

As Wyll watches, it dips down from its place in the air, veering sharply toward the city streets. For a moment, he's so certain that he's dreaming that nothing registers but the peculiar, improbable shape of it.

Then two facts occur to him, in rapid succession: the first is that a chorus of screams has started up in the streets of the lower city, high and frantic, as the object in the sky comes careening nearer.

The second is that the thing above them is coming their way, and at this speed, it will be upon them in a handful of heartbeats.

Chapter 25


A thousand thanks to everyone who has read and taken the time to share your thoughts. Getting to see you all discover each new chapter as I post it has brought me so much glee. You're all amazing; thank you for sticking with me on this wild ride. <33

Now: onto these two continuing to have their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night. :>a

Chapter Text

For what feels like an eternity, Wyll stands where he is, just outside his father's estate, staring up at the sky.

Away in the city streets, close and coming closer, the screams as the massive sea beast in the sky looms overhead have reached a fever pitch. This is a dream, Wyll tells himself. Surely a dream.

Then a hand reaches out to him, and it cuts through the veil of unreality sure as any blade. It's Astarion's good hand, cold as ice, shaking where it clutches at him. When Wyll turns to look, he finds those captivating crimson eyes staring back at him, wide with burgeoning horror.

Karlach's mouth has fallen open, slack and staring. She looks up at the night sky, and she whispers, "f*ck me sideways."

To his other side, Mizora at last lets go her proprietary grip on his arm, elegant fingers easing away again. "Well," she says. "This all looks delightful, but I'm afraid I have someplace to be, pet. Do have fun, though, won't you?" And just like that, she flickers out of view, leaving them alone against the nightmare in the sky.

The thing in the air drifts sideways - careens into a tower, tearing out a chunk of stone and sending debris spilling to the city streets below it.

Wyll stares up at it, at the impossible size of it. He feels the absence of his sword like a wound in his side – reaches for the hilt regardless, and finds again that it is not here. "Take him and get to cover," he says, and takes a step toward the devastated streets in the city before them.

He doesn't get very far.

That trembling hand catches at him again, fingers clinging to the sleeve of Wyll's shirt. It's unsteady – outright shaking – but it refuses to let go. When Wyll turns to look, Astarion's gaze is on him, his stare so intense that the red of his eyes seems to burn. There's hardly any black to them; the pupil is a tiny pinprick, there at the center, all but swallowed up by the rest.

Wyll winces – reevaluates, in the space between one heartbeat and the next. "I'll come with you," he decides instead, and Astarion nods twice, frantic, and lets him go.

"Thank f*ck," says Karlach. "Let's get out of here." She jerks her head toward the street across from the Ravengard estate, and just like that, she turns to run.

By all appearances, she isn't hampered at all by the weight of a full-grown man, slight and starved as Astarion's narrow frame is. Her feet are quick on the cobblestones as they rush to find cover; behind them, Wyll can hear alarmed shouts as a half-dozen servants struggle to bar his father's doors.

The streets of the upper city are wide and well-lighted, not half so crowded as the narrow paths and alleyways common in the less affluent parts of Baldur's Gate. On a pleasant day, taking a stroll through the marketplace, it's a nod to city planning that Wyll has always quite enjoyed.

Here in this moment, however, the wide walkways and picturesque, open plazas spell nothing but danger. There is nowhere to hide from view – nowhere that might shield them – and before Wyll can so much as begin to think of an alternative plan, the great sea beast in the sky is upon them.

The size of it is immense; its great, arched back blots out the light of the moon.

Wyll curses, low, and catches at Karlach's arm, tugging her toward the nearby park. There are trees there, at least. Perhaps those arching branches and rustling leaves will help to hide them from view.

All around them, those unfortunates on the street at this early hour of the morning stream past, mouths wide and screaming, legs pounding against the stone beneath their feet. One after the next, they're touched by those massive, curling tentacles, and no sooner is contact made than their flesh dissolves like the ash of a late-night hearth fire, dissipating into the early morning air.

In ten steps, they'll be under the tree cover. In eight steps. In five.

The creature is directly above them, now. The bulk of it casts a moonshadow onto the ground that seems to swallow them whole.

Wyll's heart is hammering in his chest, a cacophony that drowns out the whole rest of the world. His blood is ice in his veins; his lungs burn with every ragged gasp.

In hideous slow motion, one of those grasping appendages unfurls. Wyll lurches to the side, mouth open to – scream? Call a warning? Deny what he's suddenly sure will happen?

Whatever he means to do, he doesn't have the time.

That massive tentacle reaches down from the sky, and it brushes the very tip of Karlach's horn. And just like that, she dissolves before him, those fire-bright eyes and her vibrant grin wiped carelessly away. All at once, she's nothing more than ash.

But he hasn't time for that either – can't begin to process it, can't even arrange his thoughts into any sort of order.

Because with her gone, there's nothing to hold Astarion up any longer, and he topples to the ground, landing hard on the cobblestones, shoulder first. The sound he makes is awful, an animal cry of pure pain, but worse still is the way he scrabbles to come to his feet and make for cover.

He can't. He hasn't the strength for it – pushes up to hands and knees, though only barely, taking in pained, frantic whines through clenched teeth as he puts the weight on his ruined arms.

Then Wyll is beside him, is reaching down to haul him to his feet. "I've got you," he breathes, and ducks his head under Astarion's arm to take his weight, trying hard not to think about how much hurt even that simple action must cause.

Astarion keens – shudders – lists against Wyll, reeling.

"Almost there," Wyll tells him – half begs, trembling himself from the exhaustion. If Astarion falls to the ground again, he's not entirely sure he has the strength to carry him.

But Astarion has his legs under him, wobbly though they are. Wyll braces as best he's able – steers him around, back toward the treeline. "A moment more," he says, as much to himself as to the man leaned up against him.

They haven't a moment, in the end.

Above them, the creature still looms like a dragon of old, like a part of the city skyline, like a force of nature. There's so much of it, gliding by with the breathtaking mass of an airborne mountain. Its appendages mar the sky in a twisting, writhing glut of serpentine forms.

Together Wyll and Astarion stagger beneath the treetops. Together they stand in the dark pool of shadows cast by the leaves.

Astarion is shaking; he can feel it where they're pressed together, side to side, hip to hip.

Wyll is shaking, and he can't seem to stop.

He doesn't dare speak, not now that they're under cover. He hasn't the faintest notion how well this thing can hear, and he certainly doesn't mean to give it a target.

For tense, endless seconds, they wait in silence. Wyll is holding his breath, he realizes. Astarion's eyes have gone so wide that he can see the white all around the edges of them. The air here is cool and slightly damp, redolent with the scent of growing things: sweet grass, and the tiny white flowers that dot the bush beside them.

Wyll finds that he's hyper aware of every sound, every minute detail. Beyond the cover of the trees, a woman is screaming, high and shrill and panicked. A bead of sweat traces its way between his shoulder blades, tickling down his spine. Astarion is cold and clammy to the touch, and Wyll can feel the way he wavers on his feet, from the pain or the terror or both.

Gods, let it pass them by. Let them catch one break in this hellish nightmare of a day.

Naturally, no sooner has Wyll thought it than one of those muscular tentacles descends from above. It doesn't just part the leaves; it shatters branches, shatters entire trunks, and the world explodes into a chaos of drifting leaves and shards of wood.

For one single, sickening moment, it occurs to Wyll that here, finally, is something that could kill Astarion, after all.

After all the horror of this night, all the torture and the threats and the suffering, any one of these splinters of wood, some larger than Wyll's whole forearm, could lodge itself in Astarion's chest and end him.

It seems unspeakable, after everything they've been through.

It seems like exactly the sort of unimaginably awful luck to cap off a day like this one.

Wyll cries out – moves, without thinking what he intends, to tackle Astarion to the ground. He lands atop him – tries hard to ignore the pained whine that comes with the impact. It doesn't matter, he tells himself, as he feels something hard glance off his shoulder blade, shredding the skin as it passes. As long as they can make it through this, they'll have time to recover. He'll have time to apologize.

He thinks it for all of two seconds – two endless seconds that stretch between breaths, between heartbeats, between one path of fate and another.

Then that tentacle, hideous and huge, skims along the fragrant grass that lines a picturesque path in an upper city park, and as it passes, it brushes along Astarion's arm.

That pallid, delicate limb dissolves out from under Wyll, dust and ash – all of Astarion does, the last thing to go the impression of eyes wide and frantic with terror.

Wyll doesn't stop to think.

He reaches out to take hold of one of those shattered fragments of wood, as though they're still locked in a struggle against Astarion's master. He shoves himself to his feet – takes two staggering steps after the tentacle as it retreats, carrying along its path, seemingly unaware of the destruction it's wrought.

There's something swelling in Wyll's chest, dark and growing darker. He follows after the thing with vicious determination, and he feels something deep within him shift and grow, squirming upward from the place where his soul used to live. A thick miasma in all the hues of night bleeds out from beneath his fingernails, from between his teeth; he can feel it dripping down his face, as it leaks from his eyes.

It's a formless bank of fog, black as pitch, some hells-touched creation of dread, spiraling up and out as it forms grasping tendrils of its own.

Just now, Wyll finds that he welcomes it.

Just now, he finds that it fills the gaping void inside him – pain, and grief, and a terrible, aching rage – with something that might still be done. He slashes downward with the shard of wood, and he feels it strike home. Those twisting, writhing tendrils that sprout from where his soul ought to be clench down on the monster, and they hold it fast.

For an instant – one endless, teetering instant, Wyll knows a surge of ferocious triumph.

Then the tentacle reaches back, as casually as a man might swat an insect, and knocks him flying.

The blow takes him from his feet – sends him entirely airborne. He knows a moment's terror at the strength of it, at the sensation of being cast aside with such unthinking, careless disregard.

Then Wyll, too, dissolves to ash, and he knows no more.

Chapter 26


I did it! I shook the fever! I am officially covid-free. ( •̀ .̫ •́ )✧

Thank you, as always, to the folks who take the time to read and kudos and comment. You bring me so much joy, you have no idea. <333

Chapter Text

Wyll does not expect to wake again.

He does all the same – comes to swaddled in something soft and moist, the reek of damp flesh all around him. When he shifts, whatever is pressed up against the sides of him ripples.

It's such a peculiar sensation – such an unsettling sensation – that his very first assumption is that he's died, after all. This is one of the hells, of course. He's sold his soul for what ended up nothing more than a child's fancy of a rescue, and now here he is condemned to a realm of suffering, still beset by the wounds he died with, the trade he made in his desperation to keep Astarion safe worth nothing in the end.

His eyes flicker open, and he half expects to see – he isn't entirely certain. The fire-scorched plains of Avernus, perhaps, or the ice-encrusted peaks of Stygia. Instead he sees a curved sheet of glass, directly in front of him, and all around it the wet, pink flesh of something that twitches and writhes, very much living.

He stares at it blankly for a long moment, wondering at the sight. He's heard many a tale of what lies within the hells – bardsong, yes, but varied and elaborate and laden with detail. None of those stories hold anything like this.

The walls around him ripple, and Wyll thinks, uneasily, that the color is like an organ – the pink, fleshy tone of a stomach, dissolving its meal.

It occurs to him, then, that perhaps he isn't in the hells at all.

Perhaps he yet lives, lodged somewhere in the gullet of the great airborne sea beast.

It's absurd, truly. It's so improbable that it flirts with the surreal. And yet a month ago, he might have sworn a vampire lord could not live in the Upper City of Baldur's Gate. A day ago, he would never have thought that a devil might offer him a pact. An hour ago, he would have crossed his heart and claimed that some great tentacled monster would never soar the air above his city.

And yet they have. Improbable, Wyll has come to realize of late, does not come anywhere near to impossible.

But more importantly, if he yet lives, perhaps Astarion and Karlach do, as well.

All at once, the pain of his wounds seems to fall away; all at once, Wyll sharpens like a blade, sitting up straighter in his peculiar prison.

He reaches out with his good arm and presses his hand to the glass, pushing as hard as he's able. It doesn't falter – doesn't so much as tremble – and so he pounds upon it instead, slamming his fist into the smooth, curved surface of it. If this is glass indeed, it doesn't crack.

But perhaps he makes enough sound to draw attention, for out beyond his prison, a figure approaches. It takes him a moment, to place the thing: the smooth, skull-less head, and the flat, emotionless eyes, and the damp tentacles that hang from the place a mouth used to be.

He's staring into the face of an illithid, he realizes with distant horror – and then the horror fades, and a peculiar sense of calm comes upon him.

There is nothing to be horrified of, here. This place that he thought was a prison is more like a womb, cradling and comforting him. He has had a long, terrible night, but here he is safe. Here he is wanted. Here he will be enfolded into a family that cherishes him.

The glass pulls away, rising up to expose him, but Wyll does not scramble to escape. He stays where he is, docile – blinks up at the creature.

Why would he ever want to leave? The creature before him – this magnificent being – has only his best interests at heart. It wants nothing more sinister than for Wyll to be welcome, for him to be a part of something greater than himself.

It sounds wonderful.

Wyll watches, placid, as the creature dips its hand into a pool behind it – watches as it turns to face him again, a wriggling worm-like thing pinched between thumb and forefinger.

It's fascinating, Wyll thinks distantly. He marvels over the way it squirms, rippling like a serpent many times its size. He's fought a great many monsters in his time, but he's never seen one with teeth quite like this one, rows upon rows of them.

The illithid brings it closer, and for the first time, an inkling of fear rises up in him. There's an instinctive flinch that builds in his shoulders, that settles into the core of him. An image flickers behind his eyes, of a woman with a perfect, painted smile and skin the color of a morning sky in summer.

All at once, reality crashes in again. Wyll gasps, wet and rasping. "Wait," he says. "Don't –"

It's too late. The illithid is reaching out again, pressing the worm to Wyll's sole remaining eye.

He feels it make contact, slick and wriggling – feels it slide beneath his eyelid, brushing against the bone of the socket as it burrows in deep, its gelatinous body a sickening pressure against the eyeball.

There's pain, then – great, blinding waves of it, somewhere in his head. A part of him – the part that's not currently incapacitated by the agony – roils with nausea, terror lacing the revulsion as he realizes with growing horror that the sensation is probably this creature burrowing its way into his brain.

Wyll screams, then; it's long and loud and strangled, and he thrashes in the confines of the flesh that enfolds him. His hands reach up, automatic. The bad one, he finds, won't bend to his will, but the good one claws at his face, as though he might dig the worm from his flesh by sheer force of will.

He can't, of course. The pain subsides, slowly; the wriggling behind his eye at last seems to settle. When his vision finally clears, he sees that the glass has been settled into place in front of him again, and the illithid has gone.

He has to make good his escape. He can't say for certain what the creature in his eye is likely to inflict, but he's heard tales enough of illithids. He can take a guess, and even the thought of what his mind supposes makes his flesh crawl.

He eyes the curved glass, searching for any hint of weakness.

If his fist wasn't enough to crack it, perhaps he can pry it open. Wyll hasn't a sword on him, still, but he recalls a shard of wood in his hand when he was dissolved. If all of his clothes were taken with him – and it seems that they were, soaked now with a putrid pink slime – surely what he was holding must also have been.

For endless moments, he gropes through the folds of the flesh that encases him, ignoring the revulsion that rises up at the warm, moist press of it. He finds nothing at first: only more slick, viscous liquid, and more pulsing skin, and – there it is. There, in the depths, somewhere near his knee, he finds a shard of wood.

Wyll lets out a breath, a rush that's part relief and part attempt to steady himself.

He can do this. He has to do this.

If he's alive that means that somewhere nearby, Astarion and Karlach may still live as well, doubtless trapped as he is. Perhaps even now those awful worms are burrowing into their eyes; perhaps if he hurries, he can stop their captors before the damage is done.

He hefts the splinter of wood like a dagger – sets the tip to the edge of the glass and drives it in. It sinks into the flesh, unleashing a clear, viscous ooze. There's a scent to it, something metallic and vaguely acrid, like the thick, dark smoke that rises from the refuse piles they sometimes set alight near the docks.

Wyll swallows down bile – grits his teeth together, and keeps digging.

He almost has it, he thinks. If he can get just a segment of the glass free, he'll be able to lever out the rest. After that, he'll search the beast that's swallowed him down for any in need of assistance, Astarion and Karlach among them. And then, all that's left to do is –

An impact comes, then. It seems to shake the very core of him. It's harsh and sudden, and he feels the vibrations of it in his chest. There's a lurch, abrupt and sickening, and then the world tilts suddenly sideways, and for an instant sideways is up.

Wyll draws the splinter back and slams it forward, with more urgency this time. It's nothing like chipping away at stone; it feels more like stabbing a gelatinous cube, again and again, the ungainly blade sinking into a texture that's far too yielding to quite be true flesh.

He hacks and he shoves, and he presses, and – the glass gives way, all at once.

Wyll sucks in a sudden, grateful breath; it stinks, still, metallic and reeking of damp flesh, but he's free, at least, or something close to it. He tucks the wood shard into the belt of his elaborate gala finest – ruined now, well and truly, beyond all repair – and then he sets his good hand on the side of the hole the glass has left in its wake, and he hauls himself free.

He comes out onto the floor just in time for another impact to rattle through the walls – curses, and stumbles, staggering as the world shifts and then rights itself again.

Now that he can see more than the pod he's trapped in, he half suspects this is less beast and more – vehicle? Ship? Not purely organic, at least. Still, whatever it is, he scarcely has time to think on it now. He needs to get moving.

To one side, a brain rests in a vat of noxious green fluid. To the other, a thick, viscous substance has spilled out across the floor in puddles. Wyll doesn't trust it not to burn its way directly through his boots, and so he veers around the edges of it, leaning hard on the slick surface of the wall.

This time, he gets all of ten steps before another impact rattles through the structure all around him, knocking him from his feet as the hallways tilt abruptly forward. He falls face first into the purple ooze spread across the floor – presses his mouth shut, instinctively.

Whatever it is doesn't burn at least, thank all the gods, but the smell of it seems to sting in his nose, sharp and pungent, like the water in Grey Harbor. He gets his hands out to push himself back up again, but the ship lists dangerously beneath him, and then he's sliding.

There's no traction on the floor, nothing to hold onto but that slick, pulsating flesh. The liquid, however thick it is, seems to grease the way. He glances up, quick and frantic, to see where he's likely to land – blanches when he sees what awaits him. It's some creature, or perhaps plant, strange and foreign and oddly graceful. For an instant, he recalls roaming the beach as a boy, splashing into tide pools and prodding sticks into anemones of an improbably vibrant teal, just to watch the fronds of them close in upon the intruder, trying to haul it into the center so that they might dissolve it to eat.

The thing before him reminds him of nothing so much as those anemones: curved, curling stalks that twitch and waver, as though they rest in an invisible pool of water. It glows with an inner light, small flickering motes drifting from the downturned head of the thing, seeming to welcome him into the alcove between all of those reaching, undulating strands.

Wyll hisses a curse and digs his heels in, to try to stop the slide. He thinks again of the way anemones gather in whatever ventures between those strands, the better to dissolve it – flinches back as those reaching tendrils stretch out to greet him.

And then the first of them brush his leg, and he feels a great, electric tingling all through him, brisk as the waters of the Chionthar in autumn, bright as a sunrise in spring. Wyll goes limp, all at once, unable to control his own limbs.

Those glowing tendrils gather him close, very gently indeed – bear him upward, toward the opening that waits there for him, gaping wide and inviting.

Then he's pressed into the creature's embrace, and he feels it run all through him: a sense of relief so intense and overwhelming that it forces the breath from his lungs. All at once, the pain is gone. All at once, the agony in what used to be his eye, and the constant screaming of his ruined arm, and the places where he's been bruised and battered in a scramble to survive no longer seem to hurt.

He's been exhausted for what seems like hours, but all at once, the exhaustion peels away, leaving him utterly refreshed. It feels as though he's slept the day away and has just awoken in the late afternoon light, sheets comfortable rumpled around him.

Gods help him, but it's lovely.

It takes him longer than it ought to, to struggle his way free again. The glowing tendrils release him when he tugs, and this time when he makes to stand, he finds that he doesn't have to lean so hard against the wall. His mind is clear; his legs are strong. Now if only he could find himself a sword, he'd be better able to face whatever comes his way.

Wyll makes to resume his path down the hall – turns to follow the corridor to the right of the strange glowing creature. Just before he can reach out toward the ring of muscle that blocks the way, however, a sound reaches his ears.

It's high and reedy and panicked, a sound he's grown to know all too well tonight. It's a sound he hopes to never hear again.

Astarion is screaming.

"Astarion?" he calls, turning abruptly back toward it.

All at once he's running, even as his boots skid on the liquid spilled across the floor – even as the world gives another shifting, unsettled heave around him, slamming him hard into a vacant pod.

The thought slides into him like a stiletto, a precision point so sharp and unforgiving that it sinks in there beside his heart: of course Astarion is screaming, if he's trapped inside one of these tiny, fleshy prisons. He's only just been freed from the sarcophagus that his master would have inflicted upon him for a century, and here he is again, consigned to a space every bit as claustrophobic.

The scream edges up a notch in pitch, the panic in it ratcheting higher, and Wyll ducks his head and puts on more speed. The corridors twist and turn – to one side, he sees a corpse splayed out on what looks to be a medical bed; to the other, something nauseatingly like a brain skitters across the floor.

Wyll doesn't stop to stare. He can't, not with that scream still echoing in his ears.

He rounds a corner, panting hard – barrels his way through some sort of a fleshy doorway, scarcely waiting for it to open before him.

And there on the other side is where he sees it: an array of pods like the ones he woke in, motionless figures trapped there behind the glass.

Mostly motionless, at least. In one of them, Astarion is thrashing and fighting, pounding his fists upon the curved glass. It must be excruciating, with the wounds his master has inflicted already this evening, but he can't seem to stop.

"Astarion!" Wyll calls, and he makes to rush forward.

He doesn't get terribly far.

When the floor lurches beneath him this time, it's stronger than before. It knocks Wyll from his feet – sets him flying airborne. His mouth comes open in alarm; he squeezes his eyes shut, instinctive, and gets his arms up to protect him from debris.

Because there is debris, all at once. Bits of flesh and metal and glass explode through the air in a great, chaotic arc. There's a spray of that awful purple liquid and then, improbably, a gust of wind.

Wyll opens his eyes again, and at first he isn't entirely sure what he's seeing. There's a forest very, very far below. There's a slice of water, a gleaming glimpse of the sea streaked silver with moonlight.

And there's no floor, because whatever this last impact was, it's torn half the structure entirely away. When Wyll comes down again, there's nothing for him to land on. There's a jagged edge of flesh and metal, and he reaches out, scrambling, desperate to hold on.

Beneath his dangling feet, the world seems a thousand miles away, a starlight landscape in perfect miniature. The wind rushes around his legs as though it means to draw him out into the night, and he grabs hold tighter, forces himself to put hand over hand.

For an instant, his fingers slip. For an instant, he thinks that this is where he'll end, a smear on the rocks after a fall of unfathomable depth.

But he holds fast, after all – drags himself up, with painstaking effort, until he's lying stomach-down on the floor again, panting.

It's only then that he realizes that Astarion has stopped screaming – only then that he glances up to see wide red eyes staring down at him, round with mute horror.

Wyll staggers to his feet – tries on a smile that he can only hope is reassuring. "What do you say we find someplace a touch more appealing to spend the rest of the night?" he says, casting about for a jagged bit of metal that he might use to pry the pod open. "After all this, I rather think we've earned it."

There behind the curved glass, Astarion's expression does something strange – spasms, in what Wyll thinks might be a soundless laugh. He's nodding, frantically, reaching up to scratch again at the prison that confines him.

Wyll finds a likely-looking scrap of debris, a wicked, jagged shard of metal. He sets it to the flesh surrounding the glass of the pod, meaning to pry it open as he did his own. It squelches beneath the impact of his blows. A hole forms, and then grows wider. Astarion presses his palms up against the glass, leaving smudged handprints where he touches.

He'll be free in just a cut or two further. Then all that's left is to find Karlach and put this nightmare of a night behind them, somehow. Find a way to land this – creature? Ship? And find shelter before the sun can rise.

They've come this far; they've managed to survive everything the world's thrown at them. This, surely, won't be enough to end them.

Wyll sets his jaw and digs the sharp bit of metal in harder. He almost has it. A moment or two longer now – that's all he needs.

But a moment or two, it would seem, is longer than he has to spare.

The world explodes again: a great, resounding impact, and that horrible sideways list, and debris rushing by through the air.

Astarion opens his mouth as though to speak – stares, eyes wide, toward something behind Wyll.

Then all at once they're falling. The ground beneath them is gone, cracked and plummeting away like wood in a rotten bridge. All around them are bits of the shattered walls: metal, and flesh, and gleaming glass.

Wyll just has time to hope, with a twisting lurch of panic, that he hasn't done too much damage to Astarion's pod. Perhaps there's enough padding in those fleshy walls to cushion from the impact with the ground so very, very far below.

Then something collides with his head, hard and sharp and sudden, and for a time, there is nothing at all.

Chapter 27


Thanks so much to everyone who's taken the time to leave a comment or kudos. Seeing your thoughts on the new chapters as I finish them has brought me so much joy, you have no idea. :>

Chapter Text

Everything hurts.

It's not an unusual state of affairs, all told. Astarion knows all too well what it means to awaken to broken bones, to missing skin, to the gnawing ache of hunger that signifies he's been bled dry or has failed to please his master well enough to earn a morsel in recent memory.

This time, he can't recall quite how he earned his hurts.

That's as usual as all the rest, in honesty. When he's able, he drifts away – and if that means that he often comes to himself again, muzzy-headed and hurting, not entirely sure what he's done to encourage it this time, well. It's a small price to pay.

But most of the time when he wakes, things aren't quite so – damp.

Most of the time there isn't that peculiar smell, like living flesh but acrid and sickly, with an undertone that's quite unlike any blood Astarion has ever smelled before.

When he wiggles his fingers, his whole arm pulses with pain, and the walls – are they walls? – pressed in all around him have an awful, slick sort of give to them. Astarion groans, and he shifts slightly, testing for manacles. There's no telltale clink of metal on stone, at least not this time. There seems to be no stone at all, and isn't that strange.

Astarion blinks his eyes open, and he discovers that everything is terribly dark.

Not dark like the night is dark, with lanterns in windows and the faint light of the stars overhead, no. Dark like the kennel when he's been there a month and a tenday, no window to let in any hint of the outside world. Dark like a head wound to knock him reeling for a time, well and truly under in a way nothing else allows him to reach. Dark like a year trapped in marble, scratching and clawing and pleading and –

It all comes back to him in a rush, all at once, slotting neatly into place.

In his mind's eye, he sees the stone slab sliding away; Wyll's kind smile; Karlach's bright laugh. Food, not just every now and again, when he's earned it, but once a day. Mounds of blankets, and clothes fit for a gala, and people who listen when he speaks to them.

And then a plan gone horribly awry. Pain, and more pain, and a rescue in truth. Cazador fleeing, wonder of all wonders, and a devil at Wyll's side, and Wyll's absolute bastard of a father.

And at last, there in the sky above Baldur's Gate, a creature the likes of which Astarion has never so much as imagined before.

Is this a dream?

It would make more sense than any of the rest of this night. Any of the rest of this entire month, truth be told.

The reverie of elves hold only dreams of things that have truly been and gone, but perhaps Astarion has been struck too hard, one time too many. Perhaps the damage has quite scrambled his brain, and he's lying in that wretched sarcophagus even now, blessedly unaware of how close it presses around him.

It makes more sense by far if this is the effort of his failing consciousness to soothe him – some cobbled-together nonsense of things he's glimpsed in passing decades before, now half-forgotten. The devil is some figure from a children's story; the creature in the sky is from a fisherman's catch at the docks, writ large.

He's never had a dream like this one before, scraps and fantastical horrors pieced together to form a cohesive whole. All the same, it seems infinitely more plausible than the notion that it might all have been real.

Astarion shifts again, cautiously – presses against the walls that hold him.

They don't feel at all like stone. They feel like – flesh, slick and warm and glistening, holding him perfectly still. He remembers teeth, and something writhing into his eye socket, and then – pain.

Sudden, piercing pain, just like he's feeling now, there behind his eye.

It crashes into him all at once, reality colliding with him so suddenly that he's breathless with it. He hurts, and there's a wretched creature burrowed somewhere inside his brain, and he's still in some sort of a gods-forsaken pod, and – why in the hells can't he see anything?

He remembers glimpsing Wyll, through a curved pane of glass. He remembers Wyll sprinting toward him like some gods-be-damned hero of old, fingers outstretched and reaching. And then a lurch, and an endless, soul-wrenching free-fall, and then –

Nothing. After that, nothing.

But here he still is, restrained in the pod, and everything is dark, and now that he's certain the walls around him are real, he can't seem to shake the sensation of them pressing in, claustrophobically close. Astarion's chest heaves, gulping in air he doesn't need; he reaches up and out until he finds the glass, pressing until the bones in his broken arms shift from the pressure.

He should stop. He needs to be as much in one piece as he's able, if he hopes to free himself.

That single, rational thought is like a twig swept away in a river's rapids. The panic surges up around him – on all sides of him – makes to pull him under like those frothing, foaming waters, sharp rocks lurking just below the surface. The heave of his chest grows jagged and unsteady, too fast and too shallow, and he slams harder against the glass of the pod.

"Is anybody there?" he tries to call, but of course his wretched tongue is still gone – will remain so, until he finds himself enough blood to heal the damage. All that comes out in the place of words is a garbled call, high and reedy with impending panic, and even the sound of it echoing in his own ears, flatly pathetic, isn't enough to stop him from replicating it.

His doesn't try for words, this time.

Perhaps that rising river tide has choked the sense from him, left him shaking and swallowed whole by the notion that the walls are closing in. Astarion squeezes his eyes shut – anything to block out the dark, the crushing lack of space, the memory of smooth, cold marble lodged there inside his skull.

Astarion starts to scream.

This time, it isn't a call for help; this time, there's no thought in it at all. It's high and shrill and frantic, and his arms batter themselves against the hard, curved glass with no input from his thinking mind. He can feel the bones grinding against each other, all ragged edges, but somehow it's nothing close to as unbearable as the suffocating press of the walls on every side of him.

The panic grows, like a ball of snow rolled down a hill.

He doesn't know where he is; he doesn't know where Wyll is. He doesn’t know if anyone else survived the crash, or whether he's likely to be found, or if he ever will at all. Suppose the pod fell into that distant swath of water he'd glimpsed as he tumbled downward. Suppose even now he's at the bottom of the Sea of Swords, deep enough that the light doesn't reach him, and he'll stay here, forever, forgotten beneath the waves.

The pounding becomes scratching – becomes clawing. He catches at the edges of the glass and makes to pry it free. He hasn't fingernails any longer – has nothing remaining but ragged flesh – and yet he tries, the most dreadful, keening animal noise of terror spilling from his throat all the while.

And then, somehow – from somewhere – the most impossible sound in all the realms reaches him: a voice.

It's Wyll's voice, and it's saying his name.

Calling him, as though from a great distance, but it falters and then comes nearer – calls again, from much closer at hand.

All at once, a frisson of something lightning-bright surges through Astarion, and he slams hard on the glass – feels the impacts all the way up to his shoulders. His chest is heaving in great, hitching heaves.

It ought to be impossible. Perhaps this is nothing but wishful thinking – his mind, lost in the dark, providing anything at all to break the silence, as it did during the long year he spent sealed in marble. But hope, he's discovered, is a vicious, stubborn little thing that never quite dies, no matter how hard he works to snuff it out.

He can't make his tortured mouth say Wyll's name, but oh, does he try.

And in reply, that voice speaks again, from very close at hand, if somewhat muffled by the walls of the pod. "Give me but a moment," says Wyll. "I'll find a way to free you."

It takes him longer than a moment. It takes him two, perhaps, or five. But just when Astarion is beginning to feel the press of the darkness in too close around him again, crushing near enough to strangle him, the walls of his prison shift.

He sucks in a breath, sharp, and then everything rocks again.

"I'll need to see you right-side up, first," says Wyll's voice. "It won't be long."

There's another shift, stronger this time; for a moment, the world tilts and his center of balance falters vaguely sideways. Then comes a faint grinding, as of sanding-paper over wood, and all at once light filters in through a pane of glass caked over with damp grains of sand.

Through it, just briefly, he catches the glimpse of a perfect blue sky, and he knows a moment of mingled terror and yearning. However much the sun will sear the skin from his bones, the sight of the sky in full daylight is something wondrous. It's a thing of awe, of beauty – lost to him, now, for two hundred long years.

Then the sight is swathed away again, as something covers up the glass.

"To keep the sun out," says Wyll. "Until we can get you to cover." There's a muffled thump, from somewhere above him. "I haven't the strength to drag the entire pod, I'm afraid." Another thump, louder than before.

Astarion makes a sound, somewhere at the back of his throat. It's meant to be acknowledgement; he hopes that Wyll gets the right idea.

"We can put my shirt over your face, for a moment or two," says Wyll. "Until we get you to the shade. It isn't terribly far."

The next thump accompanies a strange sound, viscous and wet, as of a foot stuck in the mud being pulled free. The pod rocks slightly around him again, and then – gods above, and then the curved glass is beginning to lift free.

Astarion doesn't wait for it, common sense be damned.

He slams his palms to the glass and surges upward – ignores the muffled cry of surprise from Wyll. The glass falls away, all at once, and then he's sitting upright again, and there's space enough for him to move his arms.

And there above them, suspended in an arc of impossible, glorious blue, shines the sun.

Astarion means to cringe away from it. Truly he does.

Even the hint of its coming carries with it an ingrained reaction, ground in from centuries of slinking about the darkened streets of the city, ever so careful to avoid the dawn.

But at the sight of it, hanging there above the world, he finds that he can't.

It's nothing like it looks in paintings, or in the ink-sketches printed in the pages of Baldur's Mouth. It's the most marvelous thing he thinks he's ever seen, a gleaming pinnacle of brilliance, so bright that it hurts to look upon.

And for a wonder, that's the only hurt it causes.

Where its light touches him, mellow and golden, there is no pain at all, no matter how Wyll scrambles to shield him with a swath of fabric. There's nothing but warmth, pleasant as a glowing hearth on a winter's night.

"Astarion," Wyll is saying. "Please. If we linger too long –"

But Astarion doesn't let him finish.

He reaches out to set one mangled hand atop Wyll's. There in the unflinching light of the sun, it looks dreadful; the skin has been peeled away, and beneath the muscle and shattered bones are exposed. But it does not burn, and it does not flake. The ragged edges of the flesh don't begin to crisp with unbearable heat.

It's just resting there, atop Wyll's.

Wyll's hand falters. "Is that," he begins, and then falls silent again. After a moment, he eases back the fabric covering Astarion's face, and the sunlight falls there, too, warm and all-encompassing.

Astarion tilts his face up toward it – lets his eyes drift closed. They sting, from staring at it. Surely the moisture that gathers in the corners by his lashes must be because of that. Surely when it spills down his cheeks, dripping softly from his chin, it must only be from having looked too long at that great, golden wonder high above them.

After what feels an eternity, Wyll reaches out to touch him again – not panicked, this time, not frantic at all. It's a steadying sort of a touch, careful, there on his shoulder.

"How can this be?" he asks, quietly.

Astarion doesn't have an answer for him. Even if he did, he hasn't the capacity just now to speak it.

But somehow, that scarcely seems to matter.

He turns his face in toward Wyll – presses his cheek against him, so that the finely woven fabric of those ruined gala trousers absorb the spill of tears. After a hesitant moment, Wyll reaches out his other hand, just as careful.

"Come," he says. "I would see you free of this."

Astarion can't help him do it. His legs are trembling things, wretched and weak. They buckle at the knees, and it's Wyll that has to lift him free and settle him on the sand beside the pod.

It's damp beneath his toes; for the first time, vaguely, he realizes that they're on a shoreline. The soft rushing of water in the background feels like a song, like the quiet tones of a lyre just beginning a lullaby.

When he blinks his eyes open again, he finds that Wyll has gone to his knees beside him – that Wyll is searching his face, hesitant and uncertain.

"May I?" he asks, quietly, and Astarion remembers, for an instant, a cellar and a pile of blankets, the nigh-miraculous light of a single lantern.

He nods, and Wyll reaches out to him, then – gathers him close, one arm around his back, the other hand resting gently at the nape of his neck.

They stay that way for a long time, two improbable survivors, there beneath the brilliant, impossible light of the sun.

Chapter 28


As always, thank you all for sticking with this fic. I think I know what I'm doing with the rest of it, finally, so fingers crossed you enjoy that as well, as it falls into place. You're all incredible <333

Thank you also to the very kind odessacastle, who listened to me natter on about this and helped me make sure there weren't any gaping holes anywhere. I think I finally know where this fic is going. ( •̀ ω •́ )y

Chapter Text

For the first time in two hundred years, the world is bathed in sunlight.

Nothing here hints at crowded, darkened streets; tavern doors don't spill open into the night, emitting the reek of cheap ale and a stream of raucous, drunken louts.

Everything is the sandy stretch of the shoreline and the peaceful rush of the water – and well, admittedly the decidedly less picturesque remnants of whatever grand creature snatched them up to begin with, but it's much deader than the last time Astarion saw the whole of it. He'll count that as a victory.

Because however much he's in pain, this is a victory. However much the hunger lances through him, digging in its claws now that he's been bled well and truly dry, he's here, somehow, on this sandy beach beneath the sun. By all rights, he ought to be in Cazador's stolen estate, down in the cellar amidst the wine. He ought to be lying, even now, in the unforgiving marble confines of a sarcophagus.

And yet somehow he isn't.

He hasn't quite managed to wrap his head around it, just yet.

He hasn't even the ire in him to feel indignant when Wyll manhandles him away from the pod. It's a dreadful sort of a rescue, Astarion slumped and listing against him, Wyll's arm offering ginger support as he struggles not to aggravate the injuries.

They make their way a short distance, stumbling and staggering, past flaming bits of wreckage and over unwelcoming shards of metal, to a little outcropping just next to the shore. It's a quiet spot; there's little but the shattered frame of a shipping crate, and a small ridge of rock that he can lean back against, and a smattering of wild flowers amidst the scrub grass. From here, with the wreckage almost out of view, it's nearly peaceful.

"Easy," Wyll tells him, as he helps Astarion lower himself to the ground in a patch of the grass. "There you are."

Astarion expects that Wyll will settle down beside him. He expects a moment to gather his wits.

Instead Wyll says, "I'm afraid you'll have to wait here," and Astarion sucks in a sharp, startled breath. He reaches out, automatic, to catch at the leg of Wyll's trousers.

They're unspeakably fine – the tailored set he wore to the gala, what seems a thousand years before. Astarion remembers having admired the way they showcase his legs, slim and shapely, but they don't show off much of anything, anymore. They've been well and truly ruined, torn in a dozen spots and drenched in slime besides.

Astarion holds tight to them all the same, ignoring the way the bones in his hand grind in protest, and shakes his head, twice, urgently.

"I won't be long," Wyll tells him. "You can scarcely walk in your condition, and we haven't the supplies to tend you. If you might yet be healed, I would see it done."

Astarion's fingers tighten still more. He presses his lips together, and he gives his head another little shake.

He expects that Wyll will pull away, now. He expects that the man will tug his trouser leg free and go striding off toward the wreckage, leaving Astarion alone on the beach. It's only sensible, after all. There's no point in quibbling over something so practical, not when there's nothing else to be done.

Instead Wyll hesitates for a moment and then lowers himself, carefully, to sit beside Astarion in the grass.When his eyes meet Astarion's, warm brown and pale stone, he looks very tired indeed.

"Astarion," says Wyll. "We have not come this far for me to leave you here. I swear it." He reaches out with gentle hands – rearranges his own shirt, draped over Astarion's shoulders, so that it's drawn in close about him like a cloak.

Wyll swallows, with effort – glances away again. "Would that I could have prevented the pain you've been put through," he says, and falters to a stop. His eyes are downcast; his hands are fists at his sides. "I would not ask for your forgiveness, for having failed you so completely, but I would ask that you let me find a way to see you whole again."

It's so utterly unfair that Astarion has no tongue, just at the moment.

He can't berate this man for blaming himself, nor mention the fact that Wyll has, by all appearances, sold his soul to a gods-be-damned devil in exchange for help enacting a rescue. He can't tease him for the ridiculous, heartfelt, adventure novel drivel that just spilled from his lips. He can't even tell the insufferable fool that if it weren't for him, Astarion would still be trapped in a sarcophagus, not just once but twice over, slowly losing his mind from the hunger.

In lieu of words, he makes an inelegant huff of a sound, and Wyll glances up toward him, eyes wide and startled.

Astarion can't say anything – can't properly manage the sort of dressing-down Wyll deserves – and so instead he leans in, just slightly, so that the pair of them are sitting shoulder to shoulder. It isn't much contact, all told, but it's warm where they press together, through the fabric of Wyll's shirt.

For the moment, that's all there is – that single point of contact, and the soft rushing of the waves behind them. Then Astarion reaches out, quite carefully indeed, and offers up his better hand.

Both of them are in shambles, really, but one of them, at least, is manageable; one has skin on it, still, and bones that aren't exposed to the brisk sea breeze. This is the one he holds out to Wyll, gingerly, palm face up, as though in offer.

After a long moment of hesitation, Wyll reaches out to take it, very gentle, just barely resting his palm against Astarion's.

"Well," he says at last. "Perhaps a moment or two longer wouldn't go amiss."

They take more than a moment or two. There's no way to tell the passage of time but the strong, steady rhythm of Wyll's heartbeat. It seems a thousand years and no time at all before Wyll at last stirs again beside him.

"May I?" he says, quietly. "I'll be able to take your hand properly, once it's whole again."

Astarion angles his head, just slightly, so that he can catch sight of Wyll's face. There's a crease at the center of his brows, and that unspeakable candor is on display, worry writ large in the tense line of his jaw.

Still, it's a dreadful idea.

The wilderness is full of beasts, to say nothing of tentacled monstrosities and their propensity to put toothy worms in people's eyes. Astarion hasn't the strength to fight, if it comes to that – hasn't even the strength to stand on his own.

But if there's a way to see him healed, they've a better chance of facing whatever trials loom before them. If he's able to stand on his own feet, he can hold a blade in his hand and wield it against any who might do them harm.

More than that, though, to his wonder he discovers that he believes this stupid, noble man who's charged in and gotten himself half-ruined in a struggle against Astarion's master. He believes, despite himself, that Wyll means to return.

The fingers pressed to Wyll's twitch, just slightly, as though to tighten their hold. It might have been a squeeze, if squeezing didn't hurt quite so badly. Astarion's throat works, as he swallows.

Then he nods once, tightly, and in reply Wyll graces him with a smile that has no worldly business being as reassuring as it is.

And when Wyll says, "I'll be but a moment," Astarion finds that he believes that, too.

He nods again, brief and tight, and Wyll reaches out gently to squeeze his shoulder. Then he rises and is gone, picking his way through the high grass toward the wreckage of the ship.

In his absence, there's little to do but keep watch.

Astarion leans back against the small outcropping of rock behind him, and he scans what little he can see of the crash site.

The dreadful, sickly purple of diseased flesh speckles the smoking ruins of what seems, now that Astarion looks closer, to be far more ship than creature. Away down the beach, the corpse of an unfortunate fisherman seems to have been caught unawares; the spill of blood soaked into the sand makes Astarion's mouth wet and his stomach twist, reminded of how very empty it is.

And above it all, of course, stretches the sky.

It's a touch distracting, honestly.

Despite the pain, despite the hunger, despite the awful, beastly little thing rooting around behind his eye, it's lovely. The sky stretches out above him like some glimmering swath of sapphire, impossibly bright.

And there in it, set like the finest of jewels, gleams the sun.

Astarion knows all too well that he ought to keep his eyes open for danger. Certainly nothing else about this day has yet gone to plan.

But for all that, he finds that he lets his eyes slide closed – tips his face up toward the sun, basking in its warmth. It doesn't dull the pain, perhaps, but it does offer a welcome sort of distraction from it.

He stays like that for longer than he means to – finds, against all odds, that he hovers on the border of reverie, here in the brightness of day, in the midst of the unknown. The adrenaline that's kept him alert until now seems as though it's bleeding away all at once, leaving him bone tired and trembling, relying more on the rock to keep him upright than his own power.

In a moment, Wyll will come back. He'll have a potion or two on hand, and then the pair of them will get underway to find – he isn't certain, honestly. Some means of extracting the unwanted little passengers from their eyes, perhaps, or a path that leads them far from the city and Astarion's waiting master.

Or – is he waiting? With Jaheira on his tail, it's hard to say. Perhaps the great Cazador Szarr lies dead in an alley even now, a Harper's stake between his ribs, an inglorious end for an absolute monster of a man.

Astarion loses himself in the fantasy, for a while. There's a great deal of blood, of course. Cazador died pleading; his hands are still clasped, and the look on his face is nothing at all like dignified. He's lying in the filthy alley behind some tavern, there amidst the trash where he belongs.

He's so intent on getting the details just right that it takes him a moment to hear the voices.

"Nothing of importance," says a woman, crisp and dry and no-nonsense. "I assure you."

And then comes the very last voice that Astarion expects. It's a voice he's rather hoped he would never hear again. It's pompous and self-satisfied, and the tone of it holds a tinge of greedy interest as it says, "Fancy thing like that? Looks plenty important to me."

It's Aradin, of course, because the gods do so enjoy mocking Astarion specifically. In the instant of recognition, ice shivers its way down Astarion's spine.

All at once, a hundred possibilities flash before his mind. Aradin will drive a stake through him. Aradin will truss him up to see him back to Cazador. Aradin will haul him into the still-burning wreckage and leave him there for the fire. Aradin will toss him into the water and let the rushing rapids of it burn him away like so much acid.

The impulse to call for Wyll comes upon him, sudden and unexpected. He clamps down on it, hard – bites down on his own lip, to keep silent. He wishes more than anything that he had cover, just at the moment, but there is none, and he doesn't think he has the strength to crawl into hiding.

"A pity for you, then," says the woman's voice, caustic now, "that I don't mean to let strangers paw through my belongings."

When Aradin laughs, it's a great braying show of a laugh. Astarion decides that he quite despises the sound, actually, almost as much as he despises the man's insufferable face.

"Come now," Aradin is saying. "Is that any way to treat a new friend?"

"I must admit I have a certain academic interest, myself," cuts in a third voice, bright and entirely more cheerful than the situation warrants. "The make is really quite remarkable. Something extra-planar, unless I miss my guess."

Perhaps they'll pass him by unseen. Perhaps they'll turn into the wreckage and miss his little spot here beside the water.

But no. An instant later, they're coming around the corner. They haven't noticed him, not just yet, but he has seconds before they will.

And then he feels it.

There behind his eye, something squirms, deep and slick and unpleasant. Pain shoots through him, sharp and then sharper, and a thin whine escapes him as his vision goes black around the edges.

There in the place of the sunlit shore flash images, somewhere behind his eyes: a darkened hall, grand and stately, with polished floors and finely carved statuary; a comfortable room with a glowing hearth fire and an overstuffed armchair; a room that smells of leather and linseed oil, parchments with the details of a half-dozen hunts tacked up upon the wall.

Astarion reels, the intense sensation of being somewhere else – being someone else – sweeping over him in a dizzying wave.

"Oh," says the third voice, though it sounds more curious than alarmed, all things considered. "Oh, that is unusual."

When Astarion opens his eyes again, it's to discover that the three of them stand on the sandy shore, not far off from the unfortunate fisherman: a trim and non-nonsense young woman with severe bangs; a dowdy bearded man in robes that Astarion wouldn't be caught dead in; and a man Astarion last saw letting his master walk him out the side door to the Ravengard estate.

Aradin's sporting a tremendous black eye, and for an instant, just one shining moment, Astarion knows a surge of triumph. He's not entirely sure who punched the bastard, but he hopes that it was a good one – hopes it laid him out flat on Grand Duke Ravengard's gleaming ballroom floor.

He only has a moment to imagine it, though. He's barely begun to appreciate the thought when Aradin ruins it entirely by opening his mouth.

And of course, the very first thing the wretched man says is, "Why, if it isn't the vampire."

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