Milo was, barring one egregious error in ability score allocation, a naturally pragmatic person. So much so, in fact, that he was sometimes said to be almost robotic. Function over form, crunch over fluff, Grease over Burning Hands. He liked things efficient and cheap, and didn't much care about how they looked.
But even he had his breath taken by the City of Light. The City was laid out on a grid with evenly spaced, wide boulevards cutting through on the diagonal. This tended to wreak havoc on traffic systems and created complicated six-way intersections, but it had the (deliberate) effect of creating very striking sightlines clear through the city. Sweeping monuments, palaces, and key civic buildings were located at the intersections of these diagonal roads, and could be seen unimpeded, rising up above the city, every time they were crossed. On a mighty hill located in the middle of the urban centre was the domed Palace of the Azel Empire, where grand viziers had ruled with an iron goatee for centuries.
The only thing more expansive in the City of Light than its roads were the storm sewers, which housed, at latest estimates, the greatest population of kobolds in the known world.
The City had changed since Milo had visited last. Gone were the brightly-clothed guards endlessly touting the City's tagline, and gone were the great throngs of people scurrying about their business from early in the morning to late in the night. Signs had been posted on shop windows reading CLOSED—BY ORDER and CURFEW IN EFFECT: FINAL WARNING.
As he walked down the City's streets, he saw no-one, save, perhaps for the occasional furtive shadow in back alleys, where the Continual Flames that gave the city its name did not quite reach.
The party had split up. The others were gathering supplies and information. Normally, splitting the party is considered a cardinal sin, but Milo wasn't certain it really applied in this case. After all, hadn't the party been split since Bellatrix took Wellby?
Milo had a special job to do. He'd dragged Relkin along with him, though he still wasn't completely certain that the Bard wouldn't mess everything up. On the other hand, Milo would probably do that anyway. This was not a task he was well-suited for.
Navigating his way through the familiar streets, he eventually found the house he was looking for. It was a little place on a side street in a comfortable, but not exactly wealthy, part of town.
"Are you sure about this?" Relkin asked. She had stopped several paces back, and was sweating a little. "It's not too late to reconsider. We could get backup. Zook—"
"Has no business here," Milo said. "We do."
"Did I tell you that I once killed a Hill Giant with only a donkey? Yes? Good. Then believe me when I say that I am a very versatile and resourceful person, and even I have no idea how we're going to go in there and do this. I'm not equipped for it. This is out of my league, and it's sure as Hell out of yours."
"I learned a thing or two while I was gone," Milo said. "Trust me. But however it goes, it's something we have to do. It's our responsibility."
"Yours, maybe," Relkin grumbled.
"And yours. You and I both know it. You couldn't resist, could you? It would give you first dibs on my loot on the off-chance you recovered my body. Coming up with new names was never your strong suit. And—"
"It gave me roleplaying XP for, essentially, munchkining. Yes, I know. Fine. Let's just get this over with, shall we?" Relkin fingered the hilt of her sword nervously.
Milo reached his hand up to the door. He swallowed anxiously.
He knocked gently, three times.
The smell of fresh-baked bread wafted out through the doorway as it opened.
"Yes? Hello?" a woman asked. She had short, dark brown hair, streaked with grey, and lightly dusted with flour. She wore a similarly flour-ed white apron reading "MATERIAL PLANE'S GREATEST CHEF." An aging, tiny gray cat lounged on her shoulders, lazily watching them with too-intelligent eyes.
The woman gasped when she saw them. The cat, however, yawned and went back to sleep.
Milo tried to speak, but his throat was suddenly dry. As he tried to clear it, she threw her arms around him.
"Hi, Mom," said Relkin Amastacia-Liadon.
"Pull up your sleeve," Riddle commanded.
"Y-yes, my lord," Avery stammered, leaning aside his cane and complying.
Riddle couldn't believe the idiot had been foolish enough to get shot by a Muggle. Of all the ridiculous ways to be injured, being hit by a fast-moving piece of metal crudely launched by a chemical reaction had to be among the most unwizardly. And undignified, for that matter. Not to mention those who'd actually died in that idiotic fiasco...
The Dark Mark was clearly visible on Avery's left forearm, like an angry, red tattoo.
Riddle grabbed him by the wrist and pressed that idiot boy's wand against the Mark. Avery whimpered as the Mark burned black, calling his inner circle to join him.
"Go take your place," Riddle commanded. Avery reached for his cane, but Riddle kicked it away from him. Anyone stupid enough to come out the worse in a fight with a Muggle peace officer deserved what they got.
Within minutes, those Death Eaters too cowardly to be in Azkaban and too intelligent to ignore his summons stood, rank-and-file, in front of him. A stray dog wandered behind them in the dark forest.
"Greetings, friends," Riddle said, giving them his best smile. "Today, you're here to finish what you started two years ago." He kicked his hooded ritual offering to the ground and held him there with his foot. "Form a circle," he barked at his 'family.' "I believe you already know how to do the rest."
"You're back!" Ley exclaimed, putting out a plate of +5 Chocolate Croissants of Hazelnut. "And not dead!" she added, looking at Milo.
"You said that already," Relkin said, looking slightly embarrassed. "Three times."
Milo won initiative and went for the croissant with the most powdered sugar on top, though he needn't have bothered. Relkin stared at them as if she wasn't certain what they were for.
"How do you know it's really us?" Milo asked. "You should be more careful; something's awry in this city."
Ley made a gesture that suggested how much she cared about that idea. "Pfft. I can tell it's you."
"A mother can always tell?" Relkin suggested sarcastically.
"Sure. And the battery of Silent, Stilled Divinations I hit you with the moment I saw you didn't hurt. Now, what brings you back home?"
"Lestrange," Milo and Relkin said simultaneously.
"The psycho up at the palace?" Ley said. "'Bout time someone took her down. I'd do it myself, but I'm past all that, now, of course."
"Oh, yeah?" Milo said. "Then how did a high-level Wizard like you avoid being snatched up by Bellatrix's 'recruiters'?"
"Fine, fine," Ley said with a shrug that rained flour down on the table. "So I lead a little resistance movement from time-to-time. But who doesn't, these days?" She poured three cups of steaming tea. "So, you're here for help?"
"Not exactly," Milo said. "I..." he glanced at Relkin. "We haven't been home in a while. A long while." Not since their backstories. "And I in particular might not get a chance to see you again for a long time." Maybe ever. "So I just thought, I don't know..."
"It's all right," Ley said. "You don't need a reason to visit your old mother. And if you did, well, I charge less than an inn. So there's that." Ley gave Milo a Look that made him feel like she was using Detect Thoughts on him. Not that she really would, of course. "Was there something else?"
Milo shrugged uncomfortably. Then he looked at Relkin. "Hey, Relkin. Try one of these croissants."
Relkin shook her head. "I'm sure they're... nice, but I primarily derive sustenance from my bag of Everlasting—"
"Just eat one."
"Fine, fine." Relkin eyed the pastry suspiciously, then took a cautious nibble. Her eyes went wide and unfocused for a few seconds. Then she ate the rest of it in one or two titan-sized bites.
A few seconds later, she fainted on the table.
"Sensory overload," Milo explained to Ley, who looked surprised. "Nothing to worry about." The same thing had happened to him a couple of years ago when he'd first had Every-Flavoured Beans. "She'll be up and about in a few minutes. Longer if she got one of the dark chocolate ones."
Ley coughed. "So, now that you've so cleverly got me alone..." she looked at him in the eye with one of those mind-reading parental Looks. "Oh," she said. "Is this about, you know... your run-in with the mortal coil? That gnome friend of yours sent us a Sending about it."
Milo nodded mutely.
"It's okay," she said. "It's okay. Dying can be scary. You're allowed to be scared."
"But it was so scary," Milo said, feeling, perhaps for the first time, his actual age. He was just a kid. He wanted to elaborate further, but for some reason his throat was burning. Had his pastry been poisoned, again? Who had let house elves into the city?
"No-one's around," Ley said, putting a hand on his. "Relkin's out cold, and your father and the others are out of town until this whole 'Bellatrix' thing blows over. You don't have anything to prove."
The room got a little blurry for some reason. Definitely poison. "I thought I would be gone forever," he said in a voice that was barely audible, even to him. How could his throat be so dry if his eyes were so wet? "I thought, maybe, this was it. It's over. I'd be trapped in the Outlands. That all I was, and would ever be, was a collection of stats and abilities indistinguishable from the next. That I'd never managed to be anything… more than my spells, my feats, my items, my skills. All of which failed me in the end, regardless. I was useless. Worse than useless; I was a tool wielded by a monster. There were people who counted on me, people who… who are probably dead, now." That last part came out in a barely audible whisper.
"It's okay, honey. It's okay."
"I don't want to die, Mom."
"I know, sweetie. But, just in case, your father and I did set aside a not insignificant amount of diamond dust in case of that very event."
Milo sniffed. "Thanks, Mom." He moved to wipe his nose on his sleeve, but Ley gave him another Look, this one of Motherly Disapproval. She had a wide array of Looks. "Prestidigitation," he cast, feeling sheepish. His face and clothes were instantly surgery-room clean.
The two of them sat together in silence for a while, drinking tea. But it was one of those rare non-awkward silences that you really only get with family and friends that are as good as family.
Relkin groaned on her chair next to him. "What happened?" she asked. "I feel like someone hit me with a Mind Fog." She rubbed her forehead and groaned again. "And I got a natural one."
"You just used your taste buds for the first time since your backstory," Milo said, clearing his throat.
"It was... intense," Relkin admitted.
"Backstory? " Ley cocked an eyebrow and stared at her. "Are you both PCs now?" she asked.
"Erm," Milo said. "Sort of. Maybe. Yeah."
She got a scary-looking glint in her eye.
"Two PCs in the family?" She said with maybe a little too much excitement. "Oh, those old codgers at the Mage's Guild are going to choke on this," Ley rubbed her fingers together wickedly. "Well, they will when they stop being possessed, anyway."
"Speaking of," Relkin said. "I think I had an idea. We might be able to use your help after all..."
"How will we know if it's working?" Gerard whispered. "Is there a signal?"
"We arcanists have our ways," Milo said airily.
"Oooh, a communications spell?"
"Well, yes. Broadly speaking."
Relkin rolled her eyes. "When things go boom, we go zoom," she said.
"Are you really certain this trick is going to work?" Zook asked. "It doesn't seem terribly... reliable."
"Positive," Milo said.
"Couldn't we just... test it out? Just to be safe?"
"Absolutely not," Milo said firmly.
"It'll only work once. After that, I'd bet my spellbook the gods won't allow it again. Also, this spellbook is pretty gross anyway. Ink runs right off human skin. Who knew."
The ground shook, and the sky started flashing technicolour. Bolts of lightning, balls of fire, and bursts of glittering dust flew out of a tall, twisty tower visible on the City's skyline that was the home of the Mage's Guild. Thanks, Mom. A guerilla strike on a building full of angry, imprisoned or Dominated spellcasters was a Hell of a distraction.
"That's our signal," Milo said. "Shields up, people." Milo lifted the heavy tower shield with both hands awkwardly. He didn't like shields, and he especially didn't like tower shields. They got in the way of the delicate gestures and concentration needed to cast his spells. But, just this once, he needed one.
His companions, one by one did the same. And then they disappeared from vision.
"Remember that they can still hear you," Milo whispered. "So try to move around when there's no-one near or when there's already loud noise."
"I don't like all this sneaking about," Gerard said. "It's Rogue business."
"Well, our Rogue is a touch indisposed at the moment," Milo said. "So the dirty work falls to us."
The gates to the palace slammed open, and soldiers poured out, running right past them towards the Mage's Guild.
Milo licked his lips and hoped that his plan would work.
As the soldiers passed him, some of them—mostly officers and sergeants, with a fair number of enlisted as well—slowed, and looked around, blinking in confusion. Some soldiers ran right into them and fell, causing pileups, while others stopped to see what was going on.
Some of the confused soldiers started bellowing orders to their men to stop what they were doing, while others started arguing amongst themselves. Most were milling around aimlessly, and a small few were staring into space, sobbing.
Not one of them noticed that they had run over a line of Magic Circles against Evil, but all of them realized they were no longer under the effects of magical compulsion, either from the Imperius Curse or from an Enchantment spell.
"I just want to mention that that was all of my third-level spells," Zook whispered. "So if anyone has some, say, serious wounds that need, for example, curing, you're out of luck."
"We understand," Relkin said. "I can pick up the slack in the healing department if it comes to that. Let's move."
As the army fought amongst themselves, the party snuck past them, unseen, through the open gates of the palace.
"I can't believe this is really working," Zook whispered.
"The theory was perfectly sound," Milo said, though he wasn't, in truth, as certain as he was pretending. The theory was, of course, definitely sound. In fact, until he'd seen it working right in front of him, it had been nothing but sound.
The rules, however were indisputable. Fact one: tower shields could grant you cover, the same way that hiding behind a wall could. Fact two: if you have cover, so does all of your gear, including the tower shield granting you cover. Fact three: total cover blocked line-of-sight and line-of-effect.
All of this together meant that you could hide behind a tower shield and you—and the shield you were hiding behind—could become both invisible (no line-of-sight) and untargetable by attacks and many forms of magic (no line-of-effect).
But it was the kind of trick that would only work once before someone upstairs cottoned on and changed the very nature of the universe. But until then...
Milo grinned, and he and his invisible comrades began to infiltrate the most heavily-secured building in the empire.