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J’mon Sa Ord made love to their mate for hours as the sun moved across the sky, subtly dosing him with their sleep breath until the first consort was more than half asleep, and begging them to stop. The emperor lay in bed with him after, petting the sleeping form beside them, thinking over the prophecy the seer had foretold, and how it might be thwarted. Putting their mate to sleep was only the first step in a number of measures J’mon would take to ensure the gold dragon’s safety. There would have to be layers if fate was to be foiled.

As J’mon lay rapt in thought, the soft voice of one of the imperial messengers emerged from the hall beyond their bedroom. “Your Radiance…” The messenger was standing far enough back that they could not see into the room, maintaining discretion, and the emperor’s privacy. 

“There is word from the Teleportation Minister. Seven strangers from Tal’Dorei have just arrived in the city by means of a druidic Transport via Plants spell.”

Seven strangers all at once, transporting boldly into J’mon’s city without invitation or permission. It smacked of his beloved’s latest group of pet mortals. What were they called? God in the Machine? They certainly acted as though they felt they were godlings in their own right, and owed no one even the slightest courtesy. 

“Thank you,” J’mon told the messenger. “Have them watched from a distance, but take no further action at this time.” 

“As my emperor commands.” 

The brass dragon looked down at their mate, lying deep in an exhausted sleep. “Rest,” they whispered. “All of this will be over before you wake.” J’mon bent their head to bite and mark their mate’s throat, needing the universe to recognize that the gold dragon belonged to them and them alone. 

J’mon had plucked him from the nest, had carried him through countless wars, and had refused to surrender him to the last Calamity. They were not about to surrender their beloved to this one. 

 

*

 

Jarett had promised Opesa that he would find a way to make sure whatever was happening with her son was what the first consort wanted. But he had to wait for a time when Zaahir Kadin was alone. And it didn’t sound like he was.

So Jarett spent the day trying his best to stay busy while he waited for the emperor to release the first consort. Then Jarett could  check on him and speak with him to make certain His Highness was alright. 

Feeling restless, he stepped out into the private courtyard attached to his apartments to practice his archery. Though it was not Jarett’s preferred way to sin, until his lover returned to him, he would have to content himself with it.

Jarett thought about how different his life was now from what it had once been; not his early years in Ank’Harel, but his time in Tal’Dorei. He had set up an efficient network of informants throughout Emon and beyond, and built himself a small empire within the bigger one. By the time Vox Machina had made a name for themselves in the city, Jarett’s little empire was so self-sufficient that he could take a full time job with Vox Machina to track their comings and goings. All the while, keeping a wistful eye on the  mysterious owner of Gilmore’s Glorious Goods. That all felt like another life now. Someone else’s life.

He could never have imagined himself as a kept man, or a father to children that were not his own issue. But for the Heart of the Soul, he would do anything. Without regrets. And Jarett loved those little dragons. Strange to think that he had helped kill their sire. Part of him hoped the whelps would never learn the truth. 

In retrospect, Jarett did not feel good about it, in spite of all that Thordak had said and done. It still felt wrong to kill the parents of those who had grown precious to you. He understood why Zaahir Kadin had kept the secret of their lineage from Jarett for so long. 

He frowned again, remembering his confrontations with Vax’ildan in Shamal. The selfish oaf. How could he think the prince consort would want to have anything to do with him after he’d murdered their unborn children? Perhaps it was just the half elf’s sense of entitlement. He felt he deserved to be forgiven for anything, no matter how egregious, simply because he was himself. 

Or more likely, he simply did not see unhatched wyrmlings as sentient beings worthy of life. Which meant, by Jarett’s logic, he did not deserve to be loved by an adult dragon. If one felt that dragons weren’t people, then one did not deserve to be in a relationship with one, knowingly or unknowingly, as far as Jarett was concerned.  

He seriously hoped that was the last they would see of Vax’ildan or Vox Machina. Though Jarett had had some good times with them over the last few years, for the most part, they were an erratic and untrustworthy bunch, more likely to get one killed than do one good by the association. And though Jarett had once cast his eyes upon the lady Vex’ahlia, she was well and truly out of his reach now. Furthermore, Jarett had netted the true love of his life, and he would not have traded a single moment with the gold dragon for a night with her, lovely creature though she was. Not to mention that Vex’ahlia had the misfortune of being related to that awful Vax, and it could not reflect well on her, no matter how brilliant and beautiful she was.

Jarett practiced his archery until he was sweaty and sore, finally stopping to ask the servants if there had been any message from the first consort, or news of his having left the imperial suites. But there was none. 

Needing to distract himself further, he went out to the stables and asked for his gelding to be prepared for riding practice. The more active he was, the less he would obsess over what the emperor was doing to Gilt D’amour. And, Jarett had to remind himself, it was normal for them to be together. He just wished...he just wished J’mon would treat the man they both loved better. It was possible this rough courtship was dragon custom, and Jarett had been misreading the situation. He needed to speak with Zaahir Kadin; he would be able to explain it to Jarett. 

But for now, he needed to stop obsessing over their separation. He had become spoiled, being able to see his lover every day. Back in Whitestone...well, Jarett had still thought of the first consort often, but he had known they couldn’t be together every day. And he had still been able to focus on his duty. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps Jarett simply needed to focus on his work more. Establish a routine where Gilt D’amour could slip in and out of Jarett’s daily life as he had in the past. 

But how? How would he be able to go back to that after having had...this? After being part of the family? After being able to see Zaahir Kadin for hours each day?

Jarett sighed and pulled himself up onto the chestnut gelding’s back. “Hello, my friend,” he greeted his steed, realizing he should have done so before climbing into the saddle. “My apologies. I am out of sorts today.” He patted Nasim’s neck and urged him forward. Jarett practiced his riding until the sun had passed its zenith. Then he went back inside the palace and sent a message to one of his sources to inquire if the emperor was still indisposed. Eventually he got the answer back that they were. 

Jarett checked the first consort’s apartments one last time to make certain Zaahir Kadin wasn’t there. He found one of his lover’s handmaids, a bronze-skinned halfling, making the bed with fresh linens. “Is he...still with the emperor?” Jarett asked her. 

“You shouldn’t ask such things,” she told him, not looking up. “And you shouldn’t be in here without him.” 

“I do not mean to offend.”

“We know this,” she said. “But if one of the emperor’s servants catches you, you will be punished.”

Jarett leaned back against the wall. “It’s hard not being able to contact him.” 

She glanced up at him then, just as Leila walked into the room to join them. “J’arett effendi. You know better than to be alone with one of the handmaidens.” She was the senior among the first consort’s handmaids, and her authority was palpable. Jarett took a step back.

“Apologies.” 

Her dark brown eyes softened. “You miss him, I know this. And we worry, too, when he spends this much time with the emperor. It is not usual for them.”

“No?” So Jarett’s suspicions had been correct. 

“All of this business with the council, the party leaving to go north. We hear things. The timing is not a coincidence.”

“What are you thinking?” he asked. As someone who had attended to Zaahir Kadin’s needs for decades, she had valuable insights. 

“The emperor did not wish for him to attend the council meeting. Why, we cannot say. Perhaps…” Leila looked down at her hands. “Perhaps they know our master best.”

“He would have wanted to go,” Jarett said, knowing him a bit himself. 

Leila gave a curt nod. “He has always wished to be in the middle of things, to the point of recklessness.”

“So you think the emperor is just seeking to protect him?” 

“Perhaps,” she said. “Who can say? I do not pretend to know what is in the emperor’s mind.” 

“No.” But this got Jarett thinking. Just how dangerous was this foray to the pyramid in the north? Apparently Scanlan had thought it dangerous enough to alert Vox Machina. And now the emperor was scared for their first consort to get involved? 

“There have been ill omens,” Leila said, helping make the bed. “The palace grapevine reports Their Radiance visited the soothsayers earlier.” 

The soothsayers? Was that where the royal magician had taken the emperor after the council meeting? Jarett spent the rest of the afternoon questioning his sources about the party the council had assigned to journey north and trying to find out what vision had been revealed to the emperor earlier. But he could find nothing much of interest in the former, and gave up on the latter when the royal seers proved enigmatic. 

By then, it was late afternoon, and all of the children were done with their lessons for the day. Jarett found Kyor and Hunin and took them out to the yard for some weapons training. But both aasimar tired before long. Jarett gave them a break and they all went to join the younger children and their grandparents for the evening meal.  

When they were done eating, it was perhaps an hour before sunset. Jarett was just wondering about the best way to pull Opesa aside and tell her what little he had found out, when one of his informants approached with the servants and began to clear the table. The half orc discreetly slipped a piece of paper beneath his wine glass before following the other servants out. 

Jarett took the note between his fingers and unfolded it beneath the table. 

Vox Machina sighted near the Luck’s Run. 

His heart leapt into his throat. If they were here in Ank’Harel, there was sure to be trouble. Jarett excused himself and followed after the servants. His informant was waiting for him in the pantry.

“I will be there shortly,” Jarett said. “Tell the others to alert the Hand if they do anything untoward.” The man nodded and left. 

Jarett walked quickly back to the table and whispered in the ear of his mother-in-law. “Your son is still with the emperor. Our old friends from Tal’Dorei have just arrived in the city. I need to keep an eye on them and make certain they do not come anywhere near the palace.”

Opesa nodded in understanding. Then Jarett made the rounds, hugging and kissing each of the little ones, promising he would be back to tuck them in bed if he could. 

In the Suncut Bazaar, Jarett found Vox Machina making fools of themselves, as usual. He noted they had brought the pompous ass and his automaton with them, as well as a half orc Jarett knew to be one of Scanlan’s hired muscle. The gnome himself had donned his Aes Aedon disguise. 

Once their very long group hug was over, Jarett followed them to the Meat Man’s tobacco shop and loitered inconspicuously outside while they no doubt met with Kaylie. When they emerged perhaps an hour later, they had a brief discussion amongst themselves and then turned into clouds of mist, drifting north over the city before disappearing over the ivory walls. 

Jarett could only guess they were using the druid’s magic to travel to the Smoldercrown mountains more swiftly than by caravan. He wondered what would happen when they met the emperor’s party, if Vox Machina would team up with them, or if there would be a clash of egos and interests. 

He debated telling the prince consort of this development. Perhaps it would be better to spare him the knowledge that Vox Machina were in Marquet. Jarett made his way back to the palace to see if Zaahir Kadin was even awake before he decided anything further.

Chapter Text

While his mate slept, secure in the emperor’s bed, J’mon Sa Ord went to their study and pored over city business. The brass dragon was close enough to hear if their Heart should awaken, but far enough that they did not have to keep perfectly quiet. J’mon activated one of their musical clockworks so that the study was not completely silent while they worked. 

Beyond the imperial chambers, life at the palace wound on. The harem and the imperial families would be taking dinner soon, the servants cleaning the halls of justice from a long day of trials and hearings--from which J’mon had been suspiciously absent. But the emperor was allowed to take a day off. Especially when their mate’s life was being threatened by ill fortune. 

J’mon fully expected the strike force to reach the Smoldercrown and take care of whatever thieves or necromancers were trying to use Marquet as a base for their ill deeds before nightfall. So it came as a surprise when a message appeared on their desk from the warmaster a few hours early. Expecting good news, the emperor opened the letter.

Your Majesty,

The seers have lost contact with the strike force. Their last communique was outside the mountain which holds the pyramid. A rogue had scouted ahead to deactivate any traps, and emerged after having found but one high level arcane trap. The entire party proceeded within, and now we can neither reach nor scry on them. 

I recommend the council reconvene at once to discuss options. 

- Asiel

J’mon tossed aside the note, annoyed. This matter should have been dealt with easily. Not hearing from the strike force could mean a number of things, not all of them bad. However, it troubled the emperor that the affair was still pending. 

With a sigh, they walked to their wardrobe and allowed their servants to wash and dress them in clothing more fitting of a semi-public appearance. Before J’mon left, they checked on their beloved once more, noting that he was sleeping soundly still. Not one for sentiment, the emperor turned to leave, only to receive a Sending from the royal magician. 

At least three of the party are dead and raised. One of the seers had a vision of their ambulating corpses before her sight was cut off. 

The brass dragon growled, clenching their fist in annoyance, and proceeded more swiftly to the council chamber. 

 

*

 

When Jarett returned from spying on Vox Machina, the atmosphere of the palace had changed. Potentates were rushing through the halls, and all of the servants looked panicked, either rushing before or behind members of the court, or pretending to be very busy. Jarett found his source in the kitchen and pulled them aside. “What has happened?” 

“No one’s sure,” the cook’s assistant said. “But the emperor is angry, and the council members look worried.” 

That didn’t bode well. There must be some news. Perhaps about the strike force? Or maybe it was something to do with the first consort? Vox Machina had left town, and they had barely been in the city long enough to get into trouble--an accomplishment for them. So it couldn’t be them, for once.

This source had no access to news of either the first consort or imperial council business, so Jarett paid them and moved up a tier in the palace, looking for one of the royal servants. He peered into the first consort’s quarters, hoping against hope to catch sight of his lover. One of the younger handmaids caught him peering in. 

“He’s not back,” Mariam said. “Can you find him? Everyone’s afraid to go into the emperor’s sanctuary, and none of their servants have come out where we can speak to them.” 

“If he is still there, I will go,” Jarett promised. As the emperor was currently with the council, it should be easy enough for Jarett to sneak back in, as he had this morning. 

Mariam let him stealth in through Gilt D’amour’s apartments, and Jarett crouched low and moved close to the wall through the emperor’s private quarters for as long as he could. There was no sign of His Highness in the bath--Jarett checked there first this time. But he followed the trail he remembered the royal couple taking this morning and finally reached the emperor’s bedroom. 

On the enormous bed, Jarett spied a familiar head with long braids lying on a gold silk pillow, his limbs arranged haphazardly beneath the sheets. Jarett tip-toed into the room and hid on the opposite side of the bed, which was not difficult to do, given the imperial bed’s height. Metallic dragons were so tall in their humanoid forms.

He reached across the mattress, beneath the sheet, taking the first consort’s hand. Zaahir Kadin’s fingers felt warm, at least. He seemed in good health, apart from being in a deep sleep. “My light, can you hear me?” Jarett asked softly, keeping an eye out for the emperor’s personal servants. 

But there was no response. Gilt D’amour did not so much as stir. 

“My lord, I fear there is something wrong that you sleep so soundly. I need only to know that you are alright.” He reached up to grip the first consort’s wrist and shake it slightly. 

And still, there was no response. 

“Perhaps the emperor has told you, you missed the council meeting this morning.” He scratched his fingernails gently up Zaahir Kadin’s arm and back down again. “They are in council again now. The palace is on edge. I fear something has happened.” This time, Jarett reached higher, pinching the first consort’s upper arm quite sharply. 

But Gilt D’amour’s face remained a serene mask of sleep, with not even the barest eye movement. 

“I can only think that you might be able to help, to do something. Perhaps they are the wisest people in Ank’Harel and do not need your input or guidance. But I have never found your insight lacking. Usually you are the only one to see things no one else does. I do not understand why they would not want your help in this.” 

Feeling more bold, Jarett slipped into the bed, beneath the sheets, moving close to the sleeping prince consort, knowing he could be put to death just for occupying the emperor’s bed without an invitation. But this felt dire. “My lord.” Jarett pressed close and rubbed Zaahir Kadin’s cheek with his moustache. “Please hear me. Perhaps I am worried for nothing. I just need to know you are abstaining from these meetings by your own choice. I have never known you to sleep so deeply.” 

He kissed Zaahir Kadin’s beard. “Can you hear me?” Jarett slid one arm around the sleeping form and pulled their bodies against one another. “Please, my lord.” Jarett turned the handsome umber visage to face him, and pressed a kiss to plum colored lips. 

This time, the first consort groaned, softly. And, feeling encouraged, Jarett tried it again, scratching his nails down Gilt D’amour’s throat as he did so. He felt the breath catch in his lover’s throat, and His Highness moaned this time, though Jarett couldn’t tell if it meant he was trying to awaken, or that he did not want to be awakened. Zaahir Kadin’s eyebrows moved, knitting together and releasing several times. 

“My light.” Jarett took the prince consort’s hand in his and brought it to his lips. “Can you hear me? You seem so far away. This is the first you’ve stirred all day.” 

“Restoration,” Zaahir Kadin mumbled, softly. “Get me... diamond...dust.” 

Jarett slipped out of bed and hurried back to the prince consort’s apartments, to his workshop, where Jarett knew he kept most of his spell components. He wasn’t sure how much diamond dust to bring, so Jarett brought the entire mason jar full, rushing back to the emperor’s bedroom as swiftly as he dared.  

When he returned, the first consort was lying on his back, his eyes still closed. “I have it,” Jarett whispered, carefully pressing the jar into his hand and opening the lid. 

With a seemingly great effort, Zaahir Kadin reached into the mason jar and brought out a fistful of diamond dust, scattering it across his own body as he spoke the incantation and drew a sigil in the air with his free hand. There was the familiar glittering purple spark of Gilt D’amour’s signature arcane energy as he cast the spell, and then suddenly his eyes opened. 

“That bastard.” 

“Was it the emperor?” Jarett blurted out. 

“It doesn’t matter.” He reached for Jarett, putting an arm around him. 

“I can carry you back, if you need assistance--” Jarett began, but Zaahir Kadin was shaking his head. “I need to pray. Just make sure you take the sheets with us. I’m not wearing anything under here, and I would hate to scandalize the priests.” 

“Ah.” Jarett made sure to wind the sheet around the prince consort’s nude body and grab two fistfuls of fabric. “I think it should come with us now,” he said, guessing that his lover meant to cast Teleport on both of them. 

In a moment, Jarett’s vision was eclipsed by the violet sparkles of Gilt D’amour’s magic, and when he could see again, they were lying on the floor of a temple, the marble beneath them a silvery-grey hue with platinum veins. Jarett helped His Highness sit up; he was still very weak and groggy from whatever poison the emperor had given him. 

Then Jarett got to his feet and slowly lifted Zaahir Kadin to his, holding him close in case he should feel dizzy after lying down for so long. While he got his bearings, Jarett carefully wrapped the sheet around his lover’s nude form to maintain his modesty with a proper lungi.

The priests were a stoic sort, coming forth to greet the two men who had suddenly appeared in their temple with a calm curiosity. They waited discreetly for Jarett and His Highness to be ready before addressing them.  “How may we help?” one of them asked, an aasimar youth who looked not much older than Hunin. 

“I’ve come to speak with Him,” the first consort said. “But if you have some water...and perhaps a robe I could borrow...”

“Of course.” One of the older priests, a gold-scaled dragonborn nodded, and two acolytes ran to fulfill Zaahir Kadin’s request. 

“Should I take you somewhere quiet and leave you to your prayers?” Jarett asked, feeling strange standing in the temple of a god he did not worship. 

“No,” Gilt D’amour told him, his grip around Jarett’s shoulders tightening. “Never leave me again. At least not until I find out what is going on.” 

“I do not wish to leave you,” Jarett said, nuzzling his cheek. 

Once the priests had brought them clothing and water, they escorted Jarett and the prince consort to an alcove where they left them to themselves, to give them privacy. Jarett helped Gilt D’amour slip the robe on over his bedsheet lungi. “Thank you,” Zaahir Kadin said, the look in his dark brown eyes warming Jarett to his core. 

“I thank god you are returned to yourself,” Jarett said. glancing around the temple, nervously. “Though not this one, begging no offense.”

The prince consort chuckled, and it was a rich, golden sound that made Jarett feel that everything was going to be alright.

Chapter Text

Gilmore squeezed Jarett’s hands in his, and then pulled him close into a comforting embrace. He still wasn’t entirely certain what had transpired with his mate, but he did know that, whatever it was, Jarett had brought him out of it. 

Mangata’s warnings were fresh in his mind, and Gilmore was not afraid of what was to come. But he did need to know more so that he could play his part. If it spared others suffering, if it saved lives, it was alright that Gilmore suffered. Granted, he was in no rush to die, but everything had its price. Many eras of peace had been bought in blood. Gilmore just wanted to know what he was up against. 

Surely it had something to do with the twin ziggurats here and in Whitestone, and the business of stolen magical artifacts and tribespeople being snatched out of the mountains. But what precisely? None of these necessarily indicated that world-ending events were at hand. 

Gilmore stroked Jarett’s hair, enjoying the feel of his lover’s ebony curls sliding through his fingers. “I love you,” he said softly. Jarett placed hands on his shoulders and leaned up to kiss Gilmore on the lips; a sincere, lingering kiss. 

He could not tell Jarett any of what Mangata had said. He would worry too much. And what was the point upsetting Jarett before they knew specifics? 

“I’m going to pray,” Gilmore told him. “But stay close.”

Jarett nodded, moving a few feet away to kneel down and offer up his own prayers. Gilmore wasn’t as young as he’d once been. He needed to start stretching again. Sitting on the floor for meals now he was back home in Ank’Harel had been wreaking havoc on his knees and his bad back. So it was with a bit of envy that he watched Jarett get easily down on the floor to pray. Gilmore chose a well-worn wooden chair that had clearly been placed in the space for those whose bodies were not quite as spry. 

He glanced up at the nave and took a deep breath. I suppose I should have done this sooner.

There you are. I’ve been trying to reach you for days.

Really? That was disturbing. Since when could his elder brother not make contact with him? (And how could Gilmore duplicate it in times when he did not wish to be spied on by the platinum dragon?)

His power is growing. I do not like this.

Whose?

I believe you already know. 

Oh no. Suddenly Gilmore remembered in whose name the Briarwoods had corrupted the ziggurat in Whitestone.

The pretender has been released from bondage by a new sect of worshipers. 

But how? Hadn’t Vox Machina stopped the Briarwoods before they’d completed their ritual?

You must stop him before he ascends. For the sake of civilization. 

Naturally, I’m not a fan of simply letting necromancers do as they will. Any helpful hints?

Information is key, but it will be difficult to find. Don’t underestimate the forces at his command. 

So. Research. And perhaps solicit aid from Ioun?

She is too weak to help, but her priests may know something. The first time, he was betrayed from within. Look into that. And, as with all dark lords, there may be an artifact that can be used against him.

Gilmore didn’t like how vague his brother was being. If even you can’t recall the details, what hope is there for the rest of us? 

Secrets thrive in darkness. You will bring the light. 

Very well. I suppose there’s no time to lose. 

I am with you. 

It didn’t seem to do much good just now.

Your mate is overprotective. Who do you think sent the fae dragon to you?

Herself, I assume. 

With a bit of suggestion. You benefit one another.

Well, she’s a dear. I do hope her pet mortals can save her eggs…

They have.

Good.  

Gilmore opened his eyes and watched Jarett complete his prayers. It shouldn’t have been so distracting to have such an excellent view of his buttocks while he was bent forward, praying, but perhaps J’mon hadn’t exhausted Gilmore quite as much as he’d first thought. He sighed, closing his eyes again and trying to think. 

If Vance of Rotthold was back, this wasn’t going to be easy. But, as his elder brother had implied, every enemy had their weakness. If there was an antithetical weapon to the necromancer, finding it was paramount. But first they needed more information, and the self-declared god of secrets was very good at eliminating evidence.

Gilmore glanced around, trying to gauge the time. The imperial archivists and librarians were always on call, but he hated to get them out of bed--though this certainly was an emergency. 

When he looked back, Jarett was standing at his side, expectantly. “How do you feel about research?” Gilmore asked him. 

“Intimidated?” 

Gilmore took his hand. “You know, this might be an excellent learning opportunity for the boys. Do you think they’ll be awake at this hour?”

Jarett shrugged. “Kyor and Hunin rarely go to sleep when they’re supposed to. You’ve given them too much autonomy, having their own apartments.”

“They’re quite a bit older than they look, you know,” Gilmore said. 

Jarett hadn’t seemed to consider this. “How old?” 

“Likely older than you.” 

Jarett looked taken aback. “How am I to be their role model if they are older than me?” 

Gilmore took a deep breath. There were some things better left unsaid. “It’s possible they didn’t have role models like you when they were growing up.” 

“Neither did I,” Jarett said, thoughtful. 

Gilmore chose not to say more. It was not his trauma to tell. “Well. Let’s go to the library. Shall we?” 

Jarett took hold of Gilmore’s other hand, firmly. “Where you go, I go.” 

“Come along then.” He used his last Teleport spell to take them to the imperial archives. There, Gilmore rang the bell for the night clerk. 

When a young drow answered the bell, blinking owlishly, perhaps still in their night robe, Gilmore said, “Hello, dear. It’s a bit of an emergency. Will you summon the master scribe and whatever librarians and researchers you can find? 

“Of course, Your Highness.” The young elf hurried off, and Gilmore turned to Jarett.

“Would you bring the boys? Oh, and Reginald.” The fae dog was particularly well-read, even for an enchanted beast, and he had a way of sniffing out the right book. 

“I will.” Jarett nodded, but he looked hesitant to leave Gilmore’s side. 

“Should I have the servants fetch them?” Gilmore gripped Jarett’s shoulders, wondering what was making his lover so nervous. 

“No,” Jarett said, as if convincing himself. “I will go, but if the emperor is looking for me…”

“Ah, I see.” Gilmore stroked his beard. “Obviously, you know how to make yourself unseen, if necessary. Well.” He cast Invisibility on Jarett, just in case. 

“You are a boon, and a balm to my heart,” Jarett said. Invisible lips pressed against Gilmore’s, and he began to get distracted. “We will return soon,” Jarett promised. A playful swat on the rump, and he was off, leaving Gilmore with his motor running. 

Sadly, there were more serious matters at hand. Gilmore started looking in the religion section, pulling any tomes regarding Ioun. As an army of assistants gradually began to appear, he sent them to look through pre-Calamity history books. 

 

*

 

It was the middle of the night, and the five of them were deep in their research when the emperor swept into the library as if to set it ablaze. “Where have you been?” they demanded, ignoring the disapproving glances of the librarians, and the nervous glances from everyone else. 

Gilmore crossed his arms over his chest, ready for a fight. “Where should I have been, my Soul?” His words were a dare, and they made the fires of J’mon’s pupils burn more brightly. 

“I have been in an emergency meeting of the council, and I expected you to be in our chambers when I returned.” 

“Now why would I be in your chambers?” Gilmore was careful not to say “our”. “If there was an emergency meeting taking place, I should have been there, should I not?” 

The emperor scowled defensively. “You needed your rest.” 

“Apparently I slept for nearly an entire day. Why precisely did I need that much sleep, Devos? Especially when I was not particularly tired when we returned from the southeast quarter yestereve.”

“I wanted to keep you out of this.” Clearly J’mon had realized they were not going to be able to deceive him forever. “There has been a setback, but I’m confident we can solve this matter in short order with the council’s help.” 

Gilmore remained silent, allowing time for his mate to listen to their own lame excuse. Then he said, “Vance of Rotthold is back.” 

“Not him again.” Sometimes the bronze dragon began to really show their age. “Why is it always the necromancers?” 

“They’re persistent and tenacious, and have a flagrant disregard for death. Need you ask more?” 

“What does he want this time?” J’mon asked, annoyed.

“The same thing as before, I’d imagine. My brother said He’d been trying to contact me for days. It seems there was some interference.” 

“I don’t like that,” the emperor said. “It means the lich is powerful enough to cut you off from your patron.”

“Only temporarily. Perhaps that’s all my headaches were.” 

“Perhaps.” J’mon moved close, touching their wrist to Gilmore’s forehead to check for any signs of illness, or a returning headache. 

“I feel fine,” Gilmore said. “Or as fine as I can feel, knowing the task before us.” 

“Didn’t one of his own generals foil him the last time?” the brass dragon asked. “I seem to recall there being a mysteriously effortless victory in the eleventh hour.”

Gilmore took them by the elbow and led his mate to a table, asking one of the pages to bring tea. “That’s right. You are a living primary reference. Tell me everything you can remember about the last time the archlich tried this. Bahamut said there may have been an enchanted artefact involved.” 

The Soul looked thoughtful, trying to recall. “He had a surprising number of admirers for a lich. As you know, they are not people-people.”

“Not the living kind, no.” 

A memory sparked deep in the brass dragon’s eyes. “That’s what it was. His first lieutenant was also his lover. A blood-drinker, I believe.” 

Gilmore held J’mon’s hand and stroked it like a pet. “And did this lieutenant vampire have a name?” 

They frowned, trying to recall. “Have them search histories of the great families of Wildemount. Then cross-reference that with blood-drinkers; there should be something.” 

Slowly, as Gilmore spoke with J’mon more and helped jog their memory, a series of research leads emerged. Not just noble vampires of Wildemount, but the Beacon of Arms, Pelor’s holy army that had been nearly destroyed in the battle to bind the necromancer. Then there was Thar Amphala itself, the sacred city that had been overtaken by the archlich and teleported to the Shadowfell in his rise to power.

“That’s an excellent start,” Gilmore said, feeling less overwhelmed. “Thank you, my love.” But when he turned to give instructions to the team of researchers, J’mon held onto his hand, and would not let him walk away. 

“Your part ends with this research.” It wasn’t a question.

Gilmore sighed, turning back. “You’ll have to take that up with my brother, I’m afraid.” 

J’mon’s expression turned sour. “His Platinum Radiance has never been one to listen to me.” 

“There you are then.” 

The Soul looked at Gilmore sharply. “I will do what it takes to keep you safe.” 

“Like?” Gilmore leaned forward, daring them to try something. 

“I will put you to sleep again, if I must.” 

“My Soul, you know you cannot keep me from this. Better to help me prepare so that I have a better chance of success.”

A look of anguish crossed the emperor’s usually impassive face. “The seers have foretold the worst for you.” 

“I know,” Gilmore said, calmly. “But if the archlich can be stopped, I have to try. You must admit, I’m one of few beings with a decent chance of stopping him.” 

“No,” J’mon said, taking both of his hands. “You belong here. By my side. Not dashing off like a young adventurer.” 

“Much as I appreciate you reminding me of my age,” Gilmore said, kissing the tip of their nose, annoyed, “I’ve been told to do this. So I shall.” 

“You will not be going,” the brass dragon said.

“Is that so?” Gilmore had anticipated this reaction from his mate, and he was not intimidated. 

“It is far too dangerous,” they said.

“It can’t be that dangerous. You’ve just sent an entirely mortal party to go investigate the ziggurat, have you not?” 

J’mon fell silent, and averted their gaze. That’s when Gilmore knew. “They’re all dead.”

“If only that were true,” the emperor murmured. 

Undead, then. “Gods.” Gilmore turned away to think. So many more preparations would have to be made, knowing who and what they were up against. 

“You see now why you cannot go,” J’mon said, reasonably. 

“Not at all,” Gilmore said. “It just means I’ll need a team of my own to go with me.”

“And do what?” they asked.

“If there is an arcane weapon or artifact which can be used against him, then we’re going to seek it out and use it.”

“I won’t let you,” the emperor said softly, with a pleading look that said they knew they couldn’t make him stay. 

“I will come back to you,” Gilmore said. “One way or another. I promise.” 

J’mon kissed him, desperately, pulling Gilmore close.

Chapter Text

It was near dawn when Kyor, reading feverishly, his index finger sliding across the page to keep his place, gave a small yelp, waking Lockheed, who had been sleeping, draped over his shoulders. “I think I found it!”

Several researchers and Jarett rushed over while Gilmore waited to hear more. 

“Kas the Bloody-Handed. Once a princeling of Zeidel, he came to rule briefly after his six older brothers died under mysterious circumstances. Known for punishing his political rivals as harshly as he punished criminals, he was fond of death by torture, and liked to place the bodies of those who had crossed him on public display. Eventually overthrown by his own people, he was one of the first of the nobility to bend the knee to Vecna, who bestowed on him the gift of eternal undeath. 

“So highly favored by the archlich for his cruelty was he that the god of whispers forged for him a relic blade of great power. With a penchant for gore, the vampire prince took pride in never cleaning his gauntlets after battle, earning him the moniker Kas the Bloody-Handed.”

“And the weapon?” Gilmore asked. 

“It doesn’t say,” Kyor said, looking up in dismay. 

Jarett read grimly, looking over Kyor’s shoulder: “He was known for impaling enemy leaders on his legendary greatsword and leaving them for the crows.” 

Lockheed hissed at Jarett while he read, annoyed at having been awakened from its nap. The dragonet’s hissing made the passage sound even more sinister. 

“A greatsword, then,” Gilmore said. “I don’t suppose it has a name.” 

Jarett shook his head, reading further, and dodging when Lockheed snapped at him. 

“Very well, then,” Gilmore said. “Then we’ll call it the Sword of Kas, for now.” 

“But what happened to it after this final battle with the Beacon of Arms?” Jarett asked. Sources on the battle itself were scarce. What few survivors there had been had apparently not wished to talk of it. 

“Your Highness,” one of the librarians, a bronze-skinned dwarf, said. “If the Beacon of Arms was the main force sent against the necromancer’s armies, there may be records in the temple of the Dawnfather which the priests have access to, but are not public knowledge.”

“Will you send to them to find out?” Gilmore asked.

“I can do better than that,” the dwarf said. “I’ll go myself.” 

“Perfect. In the meantime…” Gilmore looked around at his companions. “I would say the possibility is strong that the sword remained in the city once the archlich was defeated. Unless the survivors took it with them, it could be that the sword remained where its wielder fell. Which would place it in the Shadowfell, in the city of Thar Amphala itself.”

“Let us hope not,” Jarett said. 

“I think, until we know for certain, we should prepare ourselves as if it is,” Gilmore said. 

“This is a lot,” Jarett said. “I want to discuss it further. But first, these pups need to get to bed.” The sun was already starting to show vaguely through the windows.

“Oh no!” Kyor said. “What about school?” 

“It’s up to you,” Gilmore said. “But I personally feel you’ve both done enough studying for today.” Though he did know the main reason they attended school was to socialize with other young people.

“Hurray!” Kyor said, jumping up and hugging Reginald, who’d dozed off over a cup of tea. 

“I say, what what?” The rottweiler realized he was being hugged after a few moments, and leaned his head on Kyor’s shoulder. 

“Hunin?” Gilmore glanced over to see what the elder aasimar thought of all this. 

“I want to keep going, if that’s alright,” Hunin said. He glanced at his brother. “You should go sleep, though.” Kyor opened his mouth to protest, so Hunin spoke first, “You have to take care of Lockheed. You know it needs its rest.” 

“That’s true,” Kyor said, petting the dragonet’s head, thoughtful. “You’re not going to do anything fun without me if I go to bed, are you?” he asked, glancing up at Gilmore and Jarett. 

“If we leave while you’re asleep, I promise we’ll come in and say goodbye first,” Gilmore said. 

“But not to the Shadowfell!” Kyor said, looking dismayed. 

“Hopefully not,” Jarett said. 

“Okay.” Kyor turned away reluctantly, like someone who knows he is being lied to but has little choice but to accept it. Hunin stood up and hugged his brother goodnight, whispering something to him as he stroked Lockheed’s spines. Kyor nodded and left with one hand on Reginald’s back. 

Once his brother was gone, Hunin turned around to face them. “You are going to the Shadowfell, aren’t you?” 

“Most likely, yes,” Gilmore said. 

“Not necessarily,” Jarett said simultaneously, wincing when he heard Gilmore’s answer. 

“Not if we don’t have to, of course,” Gilmore said. 

The aasimar glanced from one to the other of them. “If you go, you’ll both die.” 

“Now--” Gilmore began.

“You can’t go into a battle with defeatist--” Jarett began.

“I’m going with you,” Hunin said, resolved. 

“Absolutely not,” Gilmore said. 

“You have not yet seen your first battle. I’d like you to survive to see a second,” Jarett said. 

 

*

 

As the sun rose over the windowsill, Gilmore began to get a queer feeling. He couldn’t help looking to the reading lounge next door, which had windows that faced north.

“What is it?” Jarett asked, knowing that certain look Gilmore got. Did he know Vox Machina were close by? To Jarett’s knowledge, no one had told him of their arrival in the city last night.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I might need to scry.” Jarett escorted him to the nearest pillowed chair, where Gilmore sat down and shut his eyes. “Show me what I need to see.” 

 

*

A battle was taking place inside a cavern, at the top of a ziggurat which looked much like the one in Whitestone. A prismatic sphere blocked the apex, and all around it stood the bedraggled forms of Vox Machina. They were battered, but none of them seemed grievously injured, unlike the bodies of several robed cultists which lay around them–clearly worshipers of the lich by their missing left eyes. But the adventurers looked like they’d had a scare more than anything. 

“I’m going to dimension door through!” Scanlan announced to the group. So the gnome was back with them after all. 

Looking at it again, Gilmore noticed the bubble did seem to be hiding approximately where the siphon should be. If they were using it as a portal, perhaps the cultists didn’t want Vox Machina following them back through to the Shadowfell. Which was smart of them. But prismatic sphere was a ninth level spell...which meant that the lich had some powerful allies. 

Gilmore was distracted by an eerily familiar roar from above his vision of the battlefield. He turned his Sight upward and was shocked to see a young red dragon crouched on the ceiling of the cavern, raging because its prey was behind an impenetrable wall of magic. 

It was Keyleth. She’d taken on draconic form–his exact form, in fact–to fight this battle. Gilmore was incensed. That she could steal his lovely boy, murder his children with her bare hands, and then mimic their divine form was the deepest of personal insults. Gilmore let go of the scry, clenching his jaw so hard, his teeth groaned.

“My lord?” Jarett asked, seeing his emotional state. 

“I’m not angry,” Gilmore said. “I’m just disappointed.” In a way that made him want to burn Zephrah to the ground. 

“But what has happened?” Jarett looked confused, and rightly so. Gilmore’s ire had distracted him. 

He took a deep breath. “Vox Machina is engaged in battle atop the ziggurat.”

“At least they were not killed, like the emperor’s party,” Jarett said, both hopeful and grim at once. 

"So far, at least,” Gilmore said. Not that he wished them ill, irate as Keyleth’s mortal sin had made him. “We can’t even begin to assemble our party and what we’ll need until we have information from the temple of Pelor. I slept far too long yesterday, but I recommend the two of you get some rest for now.” When Jarett and Hunin both started to protest, Gilmore pressed on. “You’ll need it for the fight ahead. This may be your last chance to get any sleep.” 

Hunin nodded reluctantly, and left the library. But Jarett stayed where he was, looking at Gilmore with puppy eyes. “J’arett darling. I mean it,” he said. “Get some sleep. You've been through a lot in the past day.”

“You would not leave without me?” Jarett asked, looking anxious. 

“I might,” Gilmore said. “But I’ll need at least five other people to go with us, and you would doubtless see them arriving and preparing for battle.”

“True.” Jarett leaned in for a kiss. “I will be close by,” he whispered softly, tempting. 

“Thank you, my love,” Gilmore said. “That is comforting to know.” 

 

*

 

After they’d both left, Gilmore took a look around to see which researchers and librarians looked too tired to be of use, and ordered them to bed. He stayed with the few that remained, looking for any clues to the location of the Sword of Kas, or any details about Kas the Bloody-Handed or Vance of Rotthold that might be helpful. 

If it came down to it, Gilmore could scry himself, or have one of the royal seers look into the location of the sword. But knowing what it looked like first would give them the best chance of success. And even then, Scry was not the best spell to locate an object of legend, especially one that might well be on another plane. 

Gilmore felt better now that he’d sent his eldest and his lover to bed. And Jarett knew him well; Gilmore was sorely tempted to leave without them in order to keep them out of danger. But that would just be doing to them what J’mon had tried to do to him. 

Still. This was going to be the most dangerous task of their mortal lifetimes, and he did not want to risk losing them. Gilmore could see his mate’s point of view. 

For now, he pushed those thoughts aside and scried to check on Vox Machina again. They seemed to have emerged from their battle unscathed. And though they all looked shaken and upset, they were going about the business of exploring what was left of the cavern before pulling it down to hide the ziggurat, assuming that would render the siphon useless as a portal. Not a terrible idea, but very non-magical thinking on their parts. If Tiberius were still with them, Gilmore felt certain they would not be attempting to solve the problem quite so melee-minded. But Tiberius had returned to the gods to whom he belonged more than a year ago. Strange to think how long it had been. 

Watching Grog and Keyleth bring down the heart of the mountain, Gilmore shook his head. It was a good thing his party would not have to journey to the ziggurat. Moving all of that rock--or moving through it--would have been a pain. 

But where should they begin? Were there other gods they should consult or call upon? Should they visit Pelor’s temple in Vasselheim to see if the more ancient temple contained more extensive records of the Beacon of Arms’ last battle? Or was all of this just stalling before they had to make the inevitable journey to the Shadowfell? Gilmore’s gut told him that would be their ultimate destination. 

Just then, the dwarf librarian returned from his errand to the Dawnfather’s temple, looking flushed and windswept. He must have run all the way back. Again, very non-magical thinking, but Gilmore supposed Sending a top secret message from outside the palace would have probably been unwise. 

“I must stress to you that there is no official account of what happened,” the dwarf said. “This lives as a bit of a legend only.”

“Very well. Rumor is better than nothing,” Gilmore said, gesturing for the dwarf to continue. 

“It was believed that the sword, once its wielder had been slain, still retained a piece of the vampire’s consciousness. So, for safety, the remaining members of the Army of the Just buried it in Thar Amphala before they left.”

Choosing to leave a cursed object in a cursed place did not sound like a wise choice. But Yos Varda himself had perished in that battle as well, and gods knew what minds had remained at the time to make such a decision--if this legend was true. 

“So the Sword of Kas is buried somewhere within the lich’s city in the Shadowfell,” Gilmore repeated, to make certain he understood correctly. 

“So it seems, Your Highness.” The man bowed, nervously.

“Very well,” Gilmore said. “Then I suppose we should begin our preparations.” The first step would be to inform the emperor. Gilmore just hoped the brass dragon didn’t insist on going as well.