It started when Caleb’s alarm spell went off.
Being woken by that particular spell was never a pleasant experience, but it was better than never waking up at all. Caleb’s eyes flew open and he sat straight up, looking around frantically, mumbling to himself in an attempt to chase the cobwebs from his head: “No, no, no…”
Nott was on watch, her silhouette limned in orange firelight. She glanced over to him, took in his expression in an instant, and didn’t even have to ask what was wrong. He saw her stand and draw her crossbow in one fluid movement, scanning the brush around them. “Get the others up,” she hissed to him.
Caleb gulped, nodded, and moved to do as he was bidden. The commanding confidence, the steel in Nott’s voice, helped him feel a little bit braver as well, at least enough to jolt him into action. He woke Fjord, then Jester, then Beauregard, and finally Molly was up and grabbing for his scimitars.
“I don’t hear anything,” Nott whispered as they all got themselves ready.
“Caleb? Lights?” Beau called, even as she fitted her goggles over her face.
Caleb nodded and, with a whisper and a pinch of phosphorous, sent four orbs of golden light spiraling to the edges of the camp, lighting up the shadowed edges, chasing away the ragged night mist. Still, as they all turned to scan the perimeter, watching one another’s flanks, they saw nothing.
“You sure it wasn’t just a big bird?” Beau asked, after a few moments had passed.
“I am very, very careful to exclude birds of all sizes from the spell’s effects,” Caleb replied, as he spun his diamond anxiously through his fingers.
Fjord still looked wary. “Could something that’s even more magical have gotten past it?”
Caleb shook his head. “But it did not get past it. I am awake, we are all awake, so we know the spell worked as, as it should have.”
“That it did,” said a jovial sort of voice from right behind Molly. “Quite the handy little spell it was, too.”
Every single one of them panicked momentarily – Molly whirled around, slicing his scimitars through the air, Nott fired off into the dark, Fjord shot an eldritch blast that took a chunk out of a nearby tree. Yet when the tumult died, the stranger still stood before them, unharmed, unruffled.
He was the most average man Caleb had ever seen. That was the thing that struck him at first. He was wearing very fine clothes but even Caleb could see that they were being worn in an attempt to disguise the fact that here was a thoroughly average, unmemorable figure. Caleb made an actual, active effort to be someone that no one wanted to look at for very long, but this man…
“Lucien!” the stranger said, throwing his arms out wide and stepping forward as if to embrace Molly like a long lost brother.
Molly bared his teeth and took three steps back, crossing his scimitars in front of him to ward the stranger off. Apparently, being woken up in such suspicious circumstances had left him with no patience for pretending this night. The newcomer took the hint, at least, stopped and lowered his arms and stared at Lucien with his head slightly tilted and a smile that seemed, even to Caleb, to be a very worrying sort of smile.
“Oh, Lucien.” He sighed and shook his head, acting the part of a disappointed school teacher almost well enough to be convincing. But he kept on smiling all the while, like he hadn’t expected much in the first place. “I thought just the fact that I was able to track you down this far would help you see that running wasn’t really an option anymore. Be reasonable, please. That’s all I ask.”
Molly’s hands were shaking around the hilts of his weapons. It wasn’t much of a tremor, maybe so small that the stranger didn’t notice. Caleb did, however, and so did the others, their attention torn between the threat and the effect it was having on their friend. They gathered in around him without so much as a word, and Molly seemed to take some comfort from that, enough to find his voice again. “You’ve got the wrong tiefling, friend. But I’m in a forgiving mood. Turn around and walk away and we can all chalk this up to a shared hallucination.” His voice was a growl and edged with the guttural accent of Infernal, before dropping into Infernal entirely. “Chasing the wrong secrets can leave you a dead man.”
Caleb held his breath, waiting to see if the magic would have any effect. The stranger winced, half-raising a hand to his head…then he shook his head, shook it off, and laughed. He threw back his head and laughed, the sound of a man who has just heard a sincerely funny joke and is enjoying himself immensely. “I know! Have you forgotten that was the point all along, Lucien?”
Then he smiled just a little too wide and reached for his pocket slowly. Nott immediately loaded another bolt into her crossbow. Caleb felt sparks of flame dancing through his fingers as he held the spell at the ready and held his breath.
The stranger pulled out a small, gleaming, silvery orb and started to twirl it through his fingers just the same way Caleb was doing, and Caleb knew that all their fears had just been proven entirely substantiated. “Spell component!” he called out, and fired over the top of Jester’s head just as Nott took her shot. His chromatic orb hit the newcomer in the face and exploded in a bloom of fire and Caleb swallowed down bile. Nott’s crossbow bolt thudded into his shoulder hard enough to send him staggering back a pace. Beau stepped in front of Molly and Molly activated his scimitars and Jester conjured up her spiritual weapon and Fjord called his falchion to hand.
Then suddenly, from the depths of the smoke still swirling around the stranger, Caleb heard an arcane word barked out and felt a spell take shape.
Then Caleb saw the earth itself rise up around Mollymauk Tealeaf and swallow him up and drag him down and then their friend was just gone before he even had time to cry out. Beau yelled “no!” and dived to save him but by the time she covered the scant inches between them there was nothing left but some disturbed earth of the sort that might mark a freshly dug grave.
Pandemonium broke out after that.
Jester screamed in fury and brought her spiritual weapon around in a swing that could have felled a tree. Fjord lunged in with his falchion, Nott followed after him with her hands crackling with shocking force. Beau scrabbled at the dirt, hyperventilating, looking as terrified as Caleb had ever seen her before her gaze snapped up to him and she snarled: “Do something!”
Caleb was already casting his spell, trying hard to block out the sounds of combat from his concentration. He didn’t know exactly what had been done here, but he’d learned enough magic on his own by now that sometimes he didn’t need to. He sent a wave of anti-magic force at the ground where Molly had been, hoping to dispel whatever had just been done.
Then he found that there was no magic there to dispel.
Desperately hoping to confirm something, Caleb followed up with a spell to try and locate Molly himself. Again, he felt nothing, which meant that the tiefling was not in range, not within a thousand feet in any direction.
“He’s not under there!” he cried, daring to hope, looking up at Beau just as the stranger pounced. Their opponent bore the monk to the ground even as she punched him with one hand and scrabbled for her staff with the other, but her attacks barely seemed to make him flinch.
“Why are you fighting me?” Caleb heard him whisper to her. “Why can’t we just be friends, like Lucien was supposed to be?”
Beau snarled in his face, tried to hit him in the jaw…and then went still and slack, slumping back onto the ground.
“I don’t know,” Caleb heard her say, in a dreamy and fond tone of voice that sounded as unlike her as Caleb had ever heard. Trying desperately not to panic now, Caleb readied the diamond again and spun it, gathering flecks of frost around it and aiming at the stranger’s back, mostly sure that he could hit him without hitting Beau and deciding that would just have to do for now.
“Don’t!” Nott yelped, leaping on Caleb’s back and making him stumble, shattering his concentration. “What are you doing? He’s our friend, don’t hurt him!”
“Was zur hölle are you talking about?!” Caleb demanded, trying for the first time he could remember to throw Nott off of his back. She would not be budged, digging her claws into his clothes, and so Caleb cast around desperately to see what else might have gone wrong in the few seconds he’d been occupied. Fjord was on the ground – wounded or simply stunned, Caleb didn’t know. But as he watched, Jester cast a spell that got him stumbling back up to his feet. He tried to rejoin the fray, with Jester hot on his heels, but suddenly there was no fray to rejoin.
“Woah, woah, woah!” Beau said, stepping in between her friend and her foe. “Hold on a second, maybe we should talk about this!”
Shock brought Fjord up short, head slightly tilted, an expression of utter disbelief on his face. “What the fuck?” Beau didn’t get the chance to answer before the stranger darted around her in a blur of speed and grabbed Fjord by the throat.
Caleb watched it all with wide eyes and a racing heart, and did some very quick mental math.
“Nott?” he asked, trying desperately to keep his voice from trembling as badly as the rest of him was. He or Jester were next, after all. “I am sorry I tried to attack our new friend. You…you know I am not at my best when I am woken suddenly. Please get down. I…I need to go to Jester. I need to get something from her.”
“Not something that will hurt him, right?” asked Nott doubtfully, and it broke his heart and froze his spine to hear her doubting him.
Still, at least he didn’t have to lie to her now. “No.”
Nott made a satisfied sort of sound and got down off his back. “All right! I know how much you hate being woken up so suddenly. Not much of a fan of it either, myself. But this…this is going to be good for us, Caleb! I just know it.”
She tried to take his hand. He pulled his hand away and tried to ignore how much it hurt to do so and raced for Jester instead.
“Caleb, what is going on?!” she demanded as he got close. She looked almost as scared as he probably did. Yet relief to see one of his friends still here, still talking and seeing sense, left Caleb feeling dizzy. Or maybe that was the holy energy he could feel thrumming through the air around her. She had at least maintained her wits enough to cast a protective enchantment. That meant she was doing much better than he felt, right now. That meant she had bought them some time and he might still be able to save her.
“One moment, please,” he stammered. Caleb clicked his fingers and suddenly his hands were full of Frumpkin. He lifted the cat until they were at eye level and kissed his familiar’s forehead. “Listen to Jester. Whatever she asks. Help her however you can.”
He felt Frumpkin agree, solemn and without hesitation. Maybe the cat knew more about what they were fighting than Caleb did, knew enough to be afraid as well, but there was no time to ask. Instead, he shoved Frumpkin into Jester’s hands and shoved them both away from him as hard as he could. Jester’s cry of alarm mixed with the words of the spell he spoke. Frumpkin’s eyes blazed blue from edge to edge as Caleb channeled the magic across the bond they shared and through the cat.
A hole tore open in the fabric of space as Jester stumbled back, and on the other side was a different patch of woods, as far from here as he could manage. Jester fell through the door he’d made and landed hard on the other side. She looked back at him, confused and terrified, and he had just enough time to see her reaching back for him and know that she was safe before the rift mended itself and something hit Caleb hard enough to knock him to the ground, dazed.
The stranger was on top of him, pinning Caleb’s hands on either side of his head with a grip so strong Caleb felt his bones creaking. “Why did you do that?” the nightmare asked, his breath ghosting cold over Caleb’s ear. “Why did you send her away? I want to be friends. Don’t you understand that? Wouldn’t you rather we be friends?”
He grabbed Caleb by the hair and yanked his head up so that their gazes met and suddenly Caleb felt like he was drowning.
The man had red eyes (but they were very nice red eyes) and his smile was too wide (but at least he was smiling after they’d all tried to hurt him). His teeth were gleaming, his teeth looked so..sharp (don’t worry, don’t look at that, it’s okay, shh).
Caleb felt the stranger’s will bearing down on his like a wave, trying to press thoughts that were not his into his head, trying to twist and turn his feelings until this man who had just buried Mollymauk alive was his friend. He was all too familiar with the feeling, but that didn’t mean he’d ever been much good at fighting it.
So it almost worked. Then, with the last shred of will he could cling to, Caleb called upon the mote of possibility nestled safely in his chest and bought himself a second chance. It was sheer luck it had been his turn to use it today, and he wasn’t about to waste that.
He felt the mote flicker and sputter out, spent, and suddenly Caleb could breathe a little easier, suddenly the whispers weren’t as loud and there was only him in his own head.
And suddenly he could remember why it might just be a good idea to keep pretending that wasn’t the case.
“I...” His voice failed him for a moment, because without having succumbed to the domination effect there was no ignoring the fact that he was being pinned by a vampire. Caleb swallowed, flexed his fingers, and tried again. “I don’t know...” He tried to make his voice the same as Beau’s had been. He tried to force his expression into something fond for this cold, sharp monster, he tried to seem sorry and innocent and clueless. “I am sorry.”
The vampire stared down at him without so much of a flicker in his eyes for a long moment, as Caleb wondered desperately if this had worked while trying not to let that desperation show on his face.
Then the vampire smiled, got up off of him, and dragged Caleb to his feet. “Well,” he said. “Apology accepted. It’s not as though it’s an irreparable mistake, anyway. Little goblin?” he pointed at Nott, who tapped her chest. “Yes. Would you please go and try to find your friend? These woods aren’t a safe place to be alone at night.”
Almost as if on cue, a wolf howled somewhere in the distance, long and forlorn.
Nott still looked a little uncertain. “Maybe one of them should do it,” she said, nodding towards Beau and a similarly blank-eyed Fjord. “I should keep an eye on Caleb. He still looks a little...dizzy.”
The vampire draped an arm heavily around Caleb’s shoulder and pulled him closer, and Caleb was forced to swallow back a whimper, staring at his feet as his world came to pieces around him. “But I’ll keep an eye on him. You don’t need to worry about that at all! You trust me, right?”
“Of course!” Nott answered without hesitation. “I guess that makes sense, then.” She walked over to the two of them and patted Caleb’s hand. “I’m just going to go find Jester, and then I’ll be back soon. Nothing to worry about!”
Caleb nodded miserably without looking up. He didn’t trust his voice and he didn’t trust her not to see the truth in his eyes.
“Just don’t be gone long,” said the monster. “If you haven’t found her by dawn, come back and join up with us. We’ll be heading back towards Tanner’s Crossing. You know where that is, right?”
“Of course! We were just on our way there anyway.”
“I know.” He sounded delighted and pleased with himself. “I’m so glad I was able to be your welcoming committee. It’s always nice to have new friends, isn’t it, Caleb?”
“Ja,” Caleb whispered, as his stomach roiled.
Nott moved a little closer and ducked her head so she could peer up at him. Caleb flinched before he could stop himself, wondering if he was doomed and hating himself for wondering because this was Nott he was thinking about and yet her eyes were so wrong. Even if the way she smiled and squeezed his hand was just what he was used to, her eyes were wrong and he knew if he begged her not to leave him with this thing she would not listen.
“Everything’s going to be just fine!” his best friend said. “This is going to be good for us. You’ll see. It’s like you said, Caleb – strength in numbers, right?”
He found the strength to smile for her by holding on to the idea that would be okay, eventually. He would make certain of it.
He would find an opportunity to find Mollymauk and burn this monster to ashes and then everything would be just fine.
It was a difficult lie to tell himself, because Caleb knew himself and knew that he was not strong all on his own and he was not brave and on top of a vampire he was obviously dealing with a wizard on a level far above him.
But he managed to tell it just well enough that, when Nott walked away and the vampire shoved him forward, Caleb was able to walk without stumbling. Fjord was already getting the horses ready, Beau was already sprawled comfortably in the cart. Caleb joined her there, as did their captor, who settled in as easily as if he’d owned the cart and its occupants and the horses all along.
“Aw, man,” Beau grumbled as they set off back towards the road. “Did Jester take the haversack when she ran off?”
Caleb’s heart skipped a beat. “I suppose she did. Probably panicked.”
“Still! I left some good shit in there. Gonna have to have a talk with that girl when Nott brings her back.”
Caleb prayed that he would also get the chance to talk to Jester again, and that Nott would not find her at all. He wished he still had his cat. There was absolutely nothing useful he could have instructed Frumpkin to do right now, but he could have warmed his hands in the cat’s fur and maybe they wouldn’t be shaking so much that he had to bury them in his pockets to keep up the illusion.
“Well!” said the monster, clapping his hands as the cart rolled along through the dark. “I suppose introductions are in order. I am Maxwell Virago, but just Maxwell will do fine. I know you must all be tired, but never fear – we’ll be home soon.”
* * *
Jester had no idea where she was. These were very big woods, and they’d only set up camp on the very outskirts of them, easily in sight of the road. Now she was so deep in the thick of them that the branches almost blocked out the stars overhead.
Frumpkin seemed to have half a clue, however, and so she was following the cat.
“That’s a good kitty,” she whispered as they wound their way through the dark trees. “Find me a Caleb! And then stay back when I smack him in the face!”
She was pretty sure she was joking. Besides, she was equally sure that if she didn’t stay angry she’d let herself be scared instead. Jester hadn’t realized until now how out of practice she’d gotten at being alone, and it wasn’t lost on her that now was perhaps the worst time to realize that.
Caleb might not even be Caleb when she found him again, not really. He might be all glassy-eyed and smiley and weird and in love with a monster like Beau had been. Maybe Fjord was, too, by now, or Nott! Maybe all her friends weren’t her friends anymore.
Jester told herself stubbornly that that would be fine, as long as they were alive. But to make sure they stayed that way, she had to catch up.
“Wish I could have stolen the cart, too.”
Almost as if to make her point for her, she stumbled over a fallen branch that she’d missed while hyperfocusing on the cat. Jester stumbled and yelped, more in surprise than pain, and as the sound died away it was replaced by the howling of wolves.
Then the sound of a familiar voice.
“Jester? Is that you?”
Jester’s heart leaped up into her throat. “Nott?!” she called back, waving in the direction she thought she’d heard the voice coming from. “Nott, I’m over here!” She heard familiar footsteps racing through the dead leaves and over fallen twigs towards her, until she saw Nott emerge from the underbrush at a run, grinning at the sight of her.
“There you are!” her friend said, hurrying over to grab Jester’s hand. “I’ve been looking all over! Everyone’s worried sick!”
“You were worried sick? I was worried sick!” Jester laughed and threaded her fingers through Nott’s. “I guess Caleb wasn’t really paying attention to where he sent me. What a jerkface. But how about you? I was afraid you guys would all be all brainwashed and crazy by the time I got back!”
“Oh, nothing like that! It was all just a misunderstanding.” Nott laughed and waved her free hand dismissively. “Now come on! We can probably catch up with the cart if we hurry. Shouldn’t be too long a ride back to Max’s house.”
Jester stopped dead, and dug in her heels when Nott tried to pull her forward. “’Max’?” she asked quietly, as the bottom dropped out of her stomach.
“Maxwell Virago!” Nott declared, grabbing on to Jester’s hand with both of hers’ now and trying harder to tug her along. “Our new friend and employer! You’ll really like him, Jester, he’s great. If you’ll just come…with…me…” She was panting slightly with effort, now, but Jester refused to be budged.
“What about Molly?” she asked quietly, staring into Nott’s eyes and searching for any sign of the horror that still had Jester’s heart in a vice grip. Molly had just disappeared, dragged below the earth. Was he still down there? Why was Nott smiling about the one who had done something like that to their friend?
Nott did look a little hesitant, and that was the only reason Jester didn’t burst into tears there and then. “Well…” she said, shifting anxiously from foot to foot. “I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. Molly, he…he shouldn’t have been so aggressive! Max was just defending himself. I’m sure it’s all fine, Jester, I’m sure Molly is fine and Max will explain everything and…”
“Fuck Maxwell,” Jester said, with feeling, and tore her hand free from Nott’s grip. “I am not going to listen to anything he says and I am not going with you while you’re like this!”
“Oh.” Nott’s face fell and she started chewing on her claws in agitation. “Oh no. Oh, I’m really sorry, Jester, I’m really sorry, but I don’t want to make him mad. So…”
She pointed at Jester and shot a bolt of magic from her hand that hit Jester and left all her muscles locked in an instant. Jester rocked and swayed and fell over into the dirt and dead leaves, and Nott immediately resumed the work of dragging her onwards. “I’m sorry,” the goblin whispered. “I’m really sorry but it’s all going to be okay, you’ll see, it’s agh!”
Frumpkin was suddenly a demon of yowling, spitting, clawing rage. Life and warmth and control flooded Jester’s body as Nott’s concentration was broken, as she was forced to grab at the cat who had leaped on top of her head and was clawing at her face. “Get off!” Nott shrieked. “Get off!”
“Sorry, Nott,” Jester said, and meant it, and fired a hold spell of her own back at the goblin. Nott froze mid-struggle and toppled over, her expression fixed in one of rage and panic. Frumpkin immediately hopped off and ran to Jester’s arms without Jester having to give the word, and the two of them ran in a random direction and didn’t stop until Jester’s lungs were screaming for air.
When she couldn’t run another step, Jester slumped to her knees, panting. Frumpkin hopped lightly out of her grip and onto the grass and sat down patiently while Jester caught her breath.
When Jester looked up, the cat’s eyes were blue from edge to edge as it looked back at her. She felt her heart skip a beat. “Caleb?” she asked hesitantly, leaning a little closer. “Caleb, is that you? Can you see me?”
Frumpkin started to wash his face, which was an unhelpful answer to say the least. Jester let out a huff of irritation. “Right,” she grumbled. “Too far away.” She vaguely remembered that Caleb could only tell Frumpkin what to do if he was kind of close, and they were both probably out of the range of any spell by now. Still, it was good to see that he was checking in. Good to know that he was alive.
Except then her stomach lurched and Jester wondered if it was a good thing. What if Caleb was like Nott right now, what if he was only spying on her so that monster could come and get her and make her forget all about Molly?
“Frumpkin?” she asked. “Maybe you know. Blink twice if Caleb is being mind-controlled right now.” Caleb’s last command had been for Frumpkin to listen to her, after all, and if he was too far away to give other orders this was probably safe to ask.
Frumpkin stared fixedly at Jester for several seconds, until she sighed with relief. “Okay, good.” She reached out and pulled the cat and the wizard inside it onto her lap, scratching Frumpkin’s chin and then his ears. Maybe Caleb felt that. She hoped it felt nice.
“Thank you for saving me,” she whispered to him. The world felt huge and dark and vast around her, and seemed to drink in the sound of her voice like it was nothing at all. “I wish you had come with me, but…it was really cool and brave of you to stay back and try to save everybody. Even if it looks like it didn’t work and you all got captured anyway. I just saw Nott. I don’t know if you were here for that. I…I had to cast a spell on her and run away and it really sucked, Caleb, I hate everything about this so I’m really glad you’re still here.”
Frumpkin butted his chin up against her face and purred. Jester swallowed painfully, trying to blink her eyes clear of the tears that had threatened to spill forth from her along with the words. “Okay,” she said, getting to her feet and dusting off her dress. “I hate everything about this, but…I am still going to save you. All of you. Okay, Frumpkin, you lead the way. Find me a wizard.”