Chapter 1: Warnings
But he made it clear he couldn't stay, no harbor was his home
It's been a damn long day, the kind that makes Fjord's chest feel full and happy. As exhausting as hours of offloading can be, they leave behind the satisfaction of another job well done and a well earned payday. He doesn't make half as much as he did when traveling with the Mighty Nein, but it's honest work and enough to make a living. By now, Fjord is used to this life, to the pace of the day as constant as the waves of the sea, but even after a year has gone by some days he misses the rush of adrenaline that came from fighting, from facing the impossible along friends and coming out victorious. He knows, deep down, that their parting ways was the best course of action —he's always done whatever it takes to survive, this was just one more sacrifice— but there's still nights like this where the warm air feels too quiet, like it's lacking Beau's verbal sparring, or Nott's impulsiveness, or Caleb's muttering, if he lets himself get too distracted by his thoughts, he could swear he sometimes hears Jester's familiar string of words by his side, he can recall her laugher, her mischievous smiles, clear as day.
He doesn't allow his thoughts to drag him there, though, he's been doing a good job at not getting emotional for months now, he won't let one lonely night ruin it. He holds on tighter to the weary contentment of finishing off a good day and even agrees to join the rest of the crew for a drink at a nearby bar once he's done double checking the logs to make sure everything arrived as it should have. By the time Fjord's making his way out of the docks, there's no one left on the docks. The stars shine bright over his head and the dark ocean reflects the shine of the moons. It's beautiful, he thinks, but he won't be fooled by its beauty twice. He knows all too well of the shadows that lurk beneath the surface. He hasn't dreamed of the giant eye in months, and he'd like to keep it that way.
His steps and the distant murmur of the sea are joined by a sudden new sound that makes him halt. Somewhere ahead, a child is crying. Fjord frowns, resuming his walk until he finds the source of the distressed sobs: a human child, with unruly red hair, curled up on himself in a corner between two large containers. For a second —barely an instant— Fjord thinks he should move on, walk away and accept that this is none of his business. Then, as quickly as it came, he discards the idea. He's been that crying kid all too many times, and all too many strangers walked passed him without a second thought.
"Hey there," he says, with a gentle drawl, "you okay, lil'fellow?"
The kid doesn't look up, keeps rubbing at his eyes and shakes his head emphatically.
"Are you hurt?"
Again, the kid just shakes his head 'no'.
"What's wrong, then?" Fjord insists. "Are... are your parents around?"
When he gets another negative answer, his chest tightens. Quietly, he curses himself, because he can't just leave a parentless child here on his own. It's not in him. With a heavy sigh, he squats down to the kid's eight.
"Hey, kid. My name's Fjord. What's your name?"
"Kee- Keelan," he finally gets a verbal reply. The kid looks up, his freckled cheeks are flushed and wet with tears, but when he looks at Fjord's orc-ish features, he doesn't seem scared by them.
"Hi, Keelan," Fjord tries a tentative smile. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"It's my friend," the kid whines, "I think she's gonna get in trouble."
"Why?" he asks, frowning. "What happened?"
"Nothing yet," the kid sobs, "but she's- she's gonna get in trouble. And there's no one there to help her."
"Aren't her parents around?"
Keelan shakes his head again, emphatically. Shit.
"Alright, hey," Fjord says, stepping back to give the kid some room, "why don't you come out of there and show me where your friend is? I might be able to help her."
Breathing shakily, the boy stands up —he barely reaches Fjord's hip— and walks out of the space where he'd been cornered.
"Now, that's better," Fjord smiles, "where's your friend?"
Keelan cleans his face with his sleeves and looks up at Fjord, with eyes that are surprisingly curious. When he finally speaks, his voice is surprisingly firm: "Alfield."
Wait a minute.
The kid takes off running.
Fjord calls for him to call back as he follows, while his mind comes to terms with what he just heard. Alfield is nowhere close to Port-Damali. That's in the Empire, the town where Bryce leaves, where they fought the gnolls, why would this kid know someone from there? As he turns around the corner, he finds himself in a dark alley. There's no trace of Keelan, though, in front of him stands a tall man whose face is mostly covered by a cloak. Startled, Fjord summons the falchion, the handle appears within his hand and the familiar weight of the blade feels like a welcomed comfort in the darkness.
"What's going on?" He demands to know. "Who are you? Where's the kid?"
"You better hurry," the man says, and his voice seems to echo all around Fjord, like it's coming from the air itself rather than the figure before him.
"Why? What's going on?"
"You can't keep running away. You have a long road to travel," the man replies.
"Who are you?" Fjord repeats, but before he's done speaking the man disappears, leaving behind a dark empty alley.
Fjord stands there in the darkness, falchion in hand and heartbeat rattled. He thinks of the kid with bright red hair and —now that he thinks about it— impossibly green eyes, he thinks of the tall stranger's ethereal voice, he thinks of what he said about having a friend in trouble in Alfield. His body seems to put two and two together before his brain does. He feels a sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach, worse than any urge to consume in his dreams, and his heart twists painfully with worry even before the name forms in his head: Jester.
Despite his attempts at being as apologetic as possible, Fjord still catches a sparkle of disappointment crossing his employer's face when he informs him he won't be able to join the crew for their next job. He does his best to explain that this is an urgent family matter that he needs to tend to up North, and that he would've informed him earlier if he'd known beforehand.
"You never mentioned any family before," the captain says, eyes narrowing slightly.
"Well, it's been a while since I last saw'em," Fjord says, and it doesn't even feel like a lie, "but now's 'bout time I showed up to take care of some pending business."
The grizzled dwarf's expression remains hard for half a minute before it all softens with a sad sigh.
"A'right, kid, I'm sad to see ya go, but family is family, I guess," he says, shaking Fjord's hand, "we don't walk away from family."
"No, Captain, we don't," Fjord replies, but that one feels like a lie, it makes his stomach ache.
"Very well. You're a good seaman, Fjord. If you're lookin' for a job later on, you've got a place in this crew."
"Thanks, I appreciate that," Fjord ducks his head slightly to hide the effect the comment has on him. He downs the rest of his drink and walks out of the bar. Better get this over with before he convinces himself that he's lost his mind.
The road back to the Empire is treacherous and exhausting. The first time he wandered through this road, he had Jester to keep him company, to fill the hours with playful banter, to watch each other's backs through the day and keep watch at night so the other could sleep. The second time he was with the Mighty Nein, and again the days were filled with small talk and jokes, and at night he would sleep peacefully, knowing no one would get a jump on him again in the darkness under the protection of Caleb's spells. This time, instead, he travels quietly and for as many hours as he and his horse can endure. His sleep is limited to a few restless hours in which the smallest nearby crack or twitch shakes him awake.
He reaches the Wuyun Gate after three and a half das, and puts up with the long wait before the crown guards let him through (not before giving him a stern warning about being careful on the road). The air feels much bleaker than the last time he was here, the line of people waiting to cross the gate and leave the Empire is three times as long, they look exhausted and hopeless, and most are being turned away. Fjord watches from the corner of his eye, trying not to stare too much. He's heard the tales in the harbors, every so often sailors bring word of the war east, of the decadence of the empire as it fights Xhorhas, but nothing they said compares to this, the reality of war takes him by surprise.
Nightfall has fallen by the time he reaches Trostenwald. Fjord disguises himself before reaching the town, he remembers the lawmaster's distaste for him and his party, even with a year gone by he'd rather not deal with it at the moment. He gets a single room at the same inn where he met his friends, gets himself a drink 'for old time's sake', and lets himself miss them for a while. Melancholy is not a feeling Fjord likes dwelling in —he's lost too much in life, if he mourned it all he'd never survive— but tonight he's tired and shaken by the things he's seen, so he allows himself to think back of Jester's terrible use of 'thaumaturgy' and Beau's excitement over meeting Frumpkin, and Caleb and Nott's initial reluctance to so much as talk to the rest of them, he also thinks back to the explosion of color that Molly brought with him whenever he entered a room, and Yasha's quiet reassuring presence. He misses them all. It's nothing new. He's missed them for a good while, but tonight the pain of their absence seems especially sharp. After an hour or so, he goes up to his lonely room and has the first restful night he's had all week.
At dusk, Fjord decides to stop and set camp while there's still light. By tomorrow, he'll reach Alfield and hopefully find Jester there. He has no actual idea of whether she's there or not, or if she's the person he's meant to be looking for, he hasn't heard from her in over a year. The closer he gets, the more he begins to think this was a terrible idea. He's left everything behind in a whim, chasing once more after something unknown. Now that he's almost there, Fjord wonders for the first time what the hell he's going to tell her to explain his presence after all this time. He's got no other excuse other than 'I think your god disguised itself as a child to tell me to come see you', which even to himself sounds insane.
His thoughts are interrupted by a deep gnarling growl behind him. Fjord's head snaps up, holds his breath, mentally curses whatever deity enjoys making his life miserable. As he turns around, the falchion appears in his hand, not fast enough to block the clawed arm swinging at him. His armor protects him from the brunt of it, but the attack is sharp enough to draw blood from his shoulder. Fjord grunts in pain, moves to the side to avoid the bite that comes flying for his face. Before he can recover his stance, something else hits him from behind and makes him stumble to the floor, he barely manages to roll away from the second attack falling on him. Then, a distant arrow catches him on the shoulder. Fjord looks up to discover a third gnoll standing a few feet way with a bow drown.
"You gotta be fucking kidding me," he mutters between clenched teeth. There's three of them, only one of him, but he didn't survive this long to be taken out by a pack of gnolls.
He swings twice at the gnoll that'd caught him from the back, making him back away enough to gain some breathing room, then he eldritch blasts the archer. It still leaves the first gnoll snarling over him with big teeth and a hungry stare. Fjord tries to shuffle away, but can't risk moving without giving him an opportunity to attack.
That's when a fourth shape appears standing between him and the monster, a familiar blue face framed by a green cloak. He sees her reach out until her fingers brush the gnoll. The instant the contact happens, dark energy crackles around the beast, that backs away whining in pain. He's seen the spell in action before: Inflict Wounds. The next one he recognizes too, by the way the air vibrates with a deep bell-like toll. The beast tries to cover its bleeding ears, but it's too late for it, it falls death to Jester's feet. Jester, who hasn't looked at him once. Jester who isn't looking when the second gnoll, seeing its ally fall, prepares to leap against her.
"Jester, watch out!" He yells, but even as he warns her it's too late. She turns around just as the creature jumps towards her, gnarly teeth aiming directly for her throat. Fjord watches the gnoll's trajectory through the air in horror, tries to take a desperate swing at it but his blade misses by two inches. The monster doesn't miss, doesn't touch Jester either, it just flies through her like she's a ghost, and lands a few feet away looking pissed off and confused. A familiar laughter rings mockingly through the forest, almost ethereal, he can't pinpoint the source.
An arrow sinks between his ribs, bringing him back to reality. Pissed off, he looks at the archer, points the hilt of his falchion towards it and casts Blight. He's barely used the past year, but as the power courses through him and hits the monster, he feels the familiar rush of energy in his veins. The eye on his sword looks at him hungrily, asking for more. The crackling dark energy hits the gnoll that howls in pain once and falls down like a lifeless puppet.
That leaves one. Fjord turns his body towards the remaining enemy, aware of Jester's illusion by his side. The creature looks at them both, as if trying to decide who poses the biggest threat. Before it can make its mind, though, something crosses the air, the projectile misses Fjord's head by an inch and sinks deep into the gnoll's torso. With a confused grunt, it grabs the axe embedded on its chest, collapses and stays down.
Fjord glances over his shoulder and finds Jester, the real Jester, standing behind him, her arm still outstretched after she made that impossible shot. She doesn't move yet, just blows away a strand curl falling between her eyes before letting a satisfied smile bloom on her face. Only then does her eyes meet his. With a sigh, she stands straight, still smiling nonchalant, and walks towards him.
"Jester," Fjord smiles, fondly, struck suddenly by the realization of how much he's missed her.
"You know, Fjord," she says conversationally, as if they'd just seen each other the day before, "you really shouldn't be out here on your own. It's dangerous."
"Well, seems to me you're out here alone too," he points out, as she brushes past him without pausing.
"Yes," her voice sounds dryer, "but I'm very good at it." She grabs her axe and with a grunt pulls it out of the gnoll's body. "And I'm never really alone, really."
She looks back up at him, still smiling, but something about her banter feels different than before. Less friendly. He frowns a little, as he sees her secure the axe back on her belt. Slowly, he approaches her, unsure on how to procede. Now that their lives aren't on the line, he notices she looks different from the last time they met. Her hair is longer, deep blue curls cascading past her shoulders. She doesn't wear her flowery dress anymore, clad instead on brown leather armor. Her green cloak is longer than he remembers too, reaching her ankles, it makes her look like she's part of the forest around them —and eerily reminds him of the figure that came to him in a dark alley a few nights ago.
"Hi," he finally breathes out when they are standing face to face.
"Hi," she replies. "What are you doing here?"
"I-" Fjord blinks. "I was actually looking for you."
Her smile fades, giving way to a more genuine expression of surprise. "Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah. It's kind of a long story. What are you doing out here on your own?"
"I'm helping people," Jester shrugs.
"The war," she says, as if it's a stupid question. "You've missed a lot."
"I figured," he mumbles. "What do you mean with 'helping people'?"
"Well, we've been getting people out before they get killed, of course."
"Who's we? The rest of the Nien with you?"
"Hush," Jester brings a finger to her lips.
"Hush," she says again, emphatically.
Fjord frowns. She's shushing him. He's seen a lot of weird things in his life, monsters and magic and hungry gods, but nothing as strange as Jester Lavorre advocating for silence. With a gesture, she motions for him to follow her, then starts making her way into the woods. And Fjord does the only thing that seems to make sense in this crazy world: he follows her.
Chapter 2: Hush
Brandy walks through a silent town
And loves a man who's not around
Jester moves through the forest with purpose, even if she's not entirely sure where she's going. She doesn't have Caleb's awesome memory, or Caduceus's ability to talk to plants, but she has a spell that helps her locate certain objects, and she lets herself be guided by the instinctual pull on her gut leading her towards the place where she left her backpack carefully tucked away. Even when she doubts, she avoids slowing down, because that would mean letting Fjord catch up, and she's not sure she's ready to deal with that. A myriad of emotions twist inside her every time she looks at him, mostly the kind she doesn't like to feel —anger, pain, fear, sadness—, there's nothing fun about feeling that way. It's much better to keep him on his toes, wondering where they are going, like they are playing some sort of secret game. She thinks his confusion, at least, is funny.
For a while, she doesn't dare look back towards him, afraid he won't be there at all. Maybe she dreamed him up again out of exhaustion or longing. Maybe he just left again. Only when they've nearly reached their destination, when she can hear the waterfall in the distance, does she turn around. He is there, though several feet behind. It seems like he's struggling with the road more than her. She watches as he clumsily climbs the hill she's standing on, grunting quietly as he moves.
"I think you might be out of shape, Fjord," she teases.
"Yeah, maybe," he groans, in a way she's heard before, long ago. He's in pain.
Jester takes a closer look, notices the way he's holding his side. Shit. She keeps forgetting that she needs to take care of that when Caduceus isn't around. She offers a hand to help him up and Fjord, after a moment where his ego seems wounded, takes the aid. It's easy enough to pull him up, and gives Jester the contact she needs to cast Cure Wounds on him. She notices the effect immediately by the way he sighs with relief.
"Thanks, Jester," he sighs.
"Fjord," she chastises him, "shush."
She knows it's ironic, because she was the first one to break the silence, but it's worth it to see frustration cross his face. With a smile, she lets go of his hand and resumes her walking. They reach the river a few minutes later, close to the tall waterfall that seems to fill the forest with its loud murmur and the chill mist its water rises.
"There was a waterfall scene in Tusk Love," Jester comments, as she walks directly to it's loud stream. She turns around to grin at Fjord and, walking backwards, sneaks through the small rock path that crosses behind the water. "I always thought it was quite romantic!" She yells a bit louder over the water rush.
"Jester! Where are you going?!" Fjord shouts, walking after her into the dark cave.
There's a wall of rock behind the waterfall that isn't a wall at all. Jester sneaks behind the illusion and watches him stumble in the darkness. He calls her name again. She likes that. It always sounds different when he says it.
Giggling, she reaches through the illusion, and pulls Fjord deeper into the cave. He yelps and staggers, nearly falling on top of her. She catches him, pressing both hands on his chest and narrowly saving them both from falling on the slippery floor. They stand like that for a moment, regaining their breath and their balance. Jester's heart hammers loudly, she hopes he can't feel it.
"What is this place?" He finally asks in the darkness, standing so close that she can feel his warm breath ruffling her bangs.
"A safe place," she replies, hoping her voice doesn't waver.
She's shaken by his closeness but, while she would've relished on it a year ago, now it scares her, brings with it the ghost of pain and abandonment. She pushes him back, to give herself room to breathe, then walks deeper into the cave, hoping he follows.
As they walk down the narrow hall of rocks, the waterfall's noise becomes duller and distant. Further away, a few lights become visible. Long before they reach the camp, though, she hears the bark, followed by a 'poof'. Fjord tenses behind her. Another bark, another poof, closer. Jester smiles and opens her arms. The third time, Nugget appears in her arms, leaning his upper legs on her shoulders to lick her face.
"Hi, Nuggie!" She chuckles. The dog excitedly poofs away and comes back on her right. She pets him, before he poofs to her left. She tries to guess where he'll appear next, but fails to brace herself before he shows up on her shoulders (he keeps trying to be a scarf like Frumpkin, even now that he's all grown). She staggers slightly, but manages to hold her dog's weight for a second, before it poofs back to the ground. Nugget appears in front of her, laying on his back. "Did you miss me? Did you miss me?" She asks, rubbing his belly. "I missed you too! Did you take care of everyone while I was out?"
"Well, I'll be damned. Is that Nugget?!" Fjord exclaims behind her.
His voice has a funny effect on the dog, that twists out of Jester's hold, jumps to its feet and stand between her and Fjord, growling and baring his teeth at him.
"What in sweet hell-" Fjord raises his hands in an attempt at surrender.
"No, Nuggie, no, don't be mean," Jester coos, petting his head. "That's just Fjord. Don't you remember Fjord?"
Nugget stops growling, but doesn't relax or take his eyes off Fjord.
"I guess it's been a while since we last saw each other," Fjord sighs, carefully reaching out a hand towards Nugget, inviting the dog to smell it.
"You guess?" Jester replies, a bit sharper than she intended. She turns on her heels. "C'mon, Nugget, let's go."
She keeps walking down the hallway and her dog, after a moment's hesitation, fallows suit. So does Fjord, further behind. A few feet later, she hears the buzzing over her head and smiles.
"Were you waiting for me?"
"Merely making sure you didn't need assistance," Shäkaste's voice reaches her from the darkness. "It's good to see you are back."
"Of course," Jester smiles. "And I'm happy to report that the woods are totally safe, you know, for now. But we should probably still wait 'till morning to move, probably."
"I trust your judgement," Shäkaste walks out of the darkness with duchess perched on his shoulder and sends her a smile. "You seem to have found a friend, too."
"Yes, well, I found him wandering on the woods on his own and had to save him from some nasty gnolls, you know?"
"Hi," Fjord says, clearing his throat. "Shakäste, it's good to see you."
"It's good to see you as well, my friend."
"Hey, Mr. Fjord!" A third voice, drawled in its own particular way, comes from the darkness. Caduceus's staff shines gently, illuminating all four of them. "Been a while," he smiles pleasantly, "how have you been."
"I'm... I'm... good," Fjord stutters, and in the soft glow Jester can see his the confusion on his features. It's very funny. He turns to look at her. "Caduceus is here," he says, as if it isn't obvious.
"Yeah," Jester nods.
She enjoys not giving him further explanation, just to see the way his features twist. He looks back up at the two men, then back at Jester, then back up. It's hilarious.
"What- What are y'all doing here? If- if you don't mind me asking."
"Come, I'll show you," Caduceus gestures for Fjord to follow him towards the lights.
All four of them move together, trailing after Caduceus's gentle glow through the darkness. As they approach the camp, the murmur of the refugees reaches them. Women, children, some old men and others not so old gather around small campfires all over the wide cavern. Most are shaking, covered in blankets and sharing food with one another.
"Who are these people?" Fjord asks.
"They are those who were left in Alfield," Shäkaste says. "Everyone we could save."
"Yes," Jester smiles, "not to brag but we totally saved everyone here, because team cleric is the best!" Jester says, punching the air with every word.
She raises a hand and Caduceus high fives her, smiling too.
"Yeah, I'd say we are," he says slowly.
"Wait. Saving them from what?" Fjord insists.
"Oh, right," Caduceus nods, "you've been gone a little while."
"So," Jester picks up, because she's seen Caduceus explain this before and it takes a while for him to get to the point, "the short story is that whatever is going on with the war east in Xhorhas, all that darkness and stuff, not even he monsters like it, so they've all been running away here and destroying everything in their way."
"And sadly, with all the crownsguards and able men fighting the war, most of this fine folks are left unprotected," Shäkaste says, gesturing towards the women and children sitting in the cave.
"Which is where we come in!" Jester grins. "Like secret heroes!"
"And we are forever grateful that once again you've come to us in our hour of need," a new voice reaches them.
"Hey, Bryce! There you are! Do you remember Fjord? Probably not, right? It's been very long since you last saw him."
"I remember," Bryce chuckles, smiling at Fjord, they reach out with a hand, "it is good to see you again."
"You too," Fjord shakes their hand and sounds genuinely happy to see them. "So what happened in Alfield? Is everyone alright?"
"Most of us," Bryce nods, "thanks to your friends here. A horde of giants took us by surprise, destroyed most of the town, I was honestly afraid that we wouldn't make it out alive."
"But then we totally came in and saved all of you!" Jester chimes in smiling.
"You did," they nod, smiling. "But I am afraid this won't be the last attack like this around here. That's why me and my people, those of us who are left, will be heading north to ask for reinforcements."
"You shouldn't leave yet," Caduceus intervenes, "the night might seem gentle and quiet, but it will not protect you of most things that roam these woods. I believe daylight would be better for you."
"I will accompany you north tomorrow," Shäkaste says. "There is people who might need help near the northern border as well."
"Yeah, you should totally go help them," Jester nods emphatically, "meanwhile I'll take whoever doesn't wanna fight for their lives out of here."
"You might have a hard time with that," Fjord says, "I just passed through the Wuyun Gates and the empire seemed reluctant about letting people leave. Guess they don't want everyone jumping ship."
"Well, duh, I'm gonna smuggle them out," she rolls her eyes.
"Which I probably should not know about," Bryce winces.
"You probably shouldn't," Jester agrees, smiling devilishly.
"I heard nothing," Bryce pretends to cover their ears, to Jester's amusement. "I'm gonna go now. My people will be ready to leave in the morning."
"And... thank you, again. Truly."
"The Traveler is with you," Jester says ceremoniously.
She can feel Fjord tense next to her at the mention of her forbidden deity, but Bryce smiles at her.
"I will take all the help we can get," they say before walking away.
"Does anyone need healing?" She asks, looking at Mr. Clay. "I still have some left."
"Actually, I believe some people might appreciate that, yes. I'll show you."
She sends Fjord one more look, both relieved and reluctant to leave him behind, then makes herself follow Caduceus without saying much else. He can probably find his way around.
Jester is exhausted and completely tapped out when she finishes healing the town's people, it must be very late at night by then but it's hard to tell inside the cave. Tiredness is good, though. It means she's been too busy to think. As long as there's someone to look after, someone to heal and make happy, she doesn't have to think of anything else. Especially, she avoids thinking of bright yellow eyes, and calloused hands, and that deep drawl that makes everything inside her shake with confusion. She wanders around, looking for a spot to sleep at and finds Fjord still awake, sitting by a small bonfire with a drink in his hand. After a moment of hesitation, Jester decides that the best way to keep thinks 'normal' is to just talk as if everything was okay. She approaches him quietly from behind, using her invisibility until she's standing right over his left shoulder.
"Jeez, Jester!" Fjord jumps. "Don't do that!"
Laughing, she walks around and sits in front of him across the fire.
"Hey," she smiles.
"Hey," he replies. He looks thoughtful.
"You are still hanging out with Caduceus," he says slowly. "You still seeing everybody?"
"Well, we don't see each other much, but I message them all the time," Jester shrugs. "We said we shouldn't travel together for a while, we never said we had to stop being friends, you know?"
"So where is everyone?" Fjord asks frowning.
"Beau is in Zadash with the Cobalt Soul, and Caleb and Nott are still moving around together but they some times drop by to see her, and some times I see them around. And Yasha is east, being Yasha. Caduceus is actually gonna see her soon, he's going east. Apparently she has a bunch of people that need some help too."
"And what about you? What have you been doing?" He tilts his head.
"Oh, you know, I've been around. Here and there."
"On your own?"
"Mostly," Jester shrugs. "I come and go, and I've been spreading the Traveler's word around. It's been fun."
"So what are you gonna do next?" he keeps interrogating.
"I told you! I'm gonna take these people to Nicodranas."
"You are taking them to Nicodranas by yourself?" Fjord sits up and gives her an intense stare. "Jester, you can't go there. Last time we were to Nicodranas we barely made it out alive, and I'm sure Lord Sharpe is still looking for you."
"I can handle it," Jester replies, offended. "You know, you're not the only one that's good at disguising himself and disappearing, Fjord."
She knows her tone is too resentful, even before she's done talking. But it's too late and the sharpness of that last statement is left hanging between them like an invisible wall. Fjord jumps a little, and gives her a long look.
"Jester," his voice is cautious when he finally speaks again, "are you mad at me?"
"Why would I be mad at you?" She feigns ignorance, even if she knows the question is loaded. She doesn't know the answer herself. "I haven't even seen you in a while."
"Is that what this is about? Really? Because we agreed that splitting up was for the best, Jester. We couldn't keep being the Mighty Nein while Myriad had its eyes on us."
"I know, I know," Jester rolls her eyes. "I just thought..."
Don't say it.
Don't make me say it.
"You thought..." Realization dawns on his face, she can see it even in the dim light. "You thought I'd bring you with me."
"I thought we were going together," she corrects him. She has to bite her tongue to keep herself from saying she would've. She would've gone with him anywhere if he'd asked. "I mean, we had a deal right? We'd started traveling together even before we were the Mighty Nein. So I thought... But you left without even saying goodbye. You disappeared."
She hates the way her voice betrays her, the way it quivers and allows him a glimpse inside her sadness. She hates it even more when she sees guilt and regret cross his usually guarded features.
"Jester..." he says, and his voice is soft and deep, full of feeling. She can't take it.
"It doesn't matter though!" She forces herself to sound chipper and up-beat. "I mean, in the end, it's probably for the best, right? Because I got to be here and help people and it's been very cool and stuff, and you got to do... whatever you were doing."
"Sailing," Fjord sighs, looking down at the drink in his hands. "I've been sailing, mostly. Moving around. Like before."
Silence stretches between them, heavy and unbearable like it never used to be. When he looks up, she can see pain reflected in his eyes. She made him feel bad. Shit. He opens his mouth to speak, but Jester is quicker.
"I'm gonna go to bed," she declares standing up.
"Right. Okay. Good night," Fjord's voice is barely a whisper.
Jester turns around, ready to walk away, then has another idea.
"You never did tell me why you were looking for me," she says, glancing at him over her shoulder.
"I'm not sure," he says, without meeting her eyes. "I thought- Someone gave me a weird message. I think it might've been your god."
"The Traveler talked to you?" Jester arches her eyebrows, not sure how she feels about it. She can't picture Fjord talking to him.
"I think so. He said- He said you might be in danger."
"I can handle danger."
"I know you can, Jester," he chuckles softly, finally looking up at her. She can tell he's being honest.
"And you came anyway, though."
"Yeah, I did."
She looks at him, trying to understand. She used to be able to read him like an open book, but right now her own chest is too full of emotions to even begin making out what his are.
"Good night," she repeats quickly and skips away from him to the opposite side of the cave.
As she does every night, Jester finds a quiet spot to draw before going to sleep. She doodles mindlessly for a while, until she realizes whose face she's drawing. Again. She frowns and slams her sketchbook closed.
"Did you really tell him to come?" She asks to the empty darkness in front of her. She gets no reply. "You, dick."
With a heavy sigh, Jester stomps away, pretending she can't hear a gentle chuckle behind her. She finds Caduceus laid down in a corner of the cave. He must be awake, because when she reaches him he spreads an arm open, inviting her to cuddle by his side. Jester doesn't get cold like most people do, but being pressed against his warm fur is still nice and comforting.
"You okay, little one?" She hears him ask over her head, as she settles down pressed against his ribs.
"Yeah," she repeats.
She's lying and they both know it, but Caduceus is not one to prod when others don't feel like sharing. Maybe he just doesn't care if people keep secrets.
"It's nice having Mr. Fjord around again, isn't it?" He goes on, voice thoughtful. "It must make you happy."
"Why do you say that?" She tenses.
"You two always seemed very close."
"Yeah," she smiles, even as her chest twists painfully, "I thought so too."
I was wrong.
"It was a nice surprise to see him, even if I knew he was coming."
"You did?!" Jester props herself up on her elbow.
"I had a vision," Caduceus shrugs.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asks, offended.
"I didn't?" He frowns. "Hm. I thought I did. Maybe I forgot."
"Yeah, probably," Jester chuckles fondly, laying back down. Forgetting to tell her something this important sounds like something he'd do.
"It'll be nice when we're all together again, don't you think?" Caduceus whispers.
"Did you see that in one of your visions, too?" Jester yawns heavily.
"No," she hears him say, as her eyes close, "I just know it will happen. Eventually."
"That's nice," Jester mumbles.
"It's a shame we can't see the stars in here," is the last thing she hears him say before sleep takes her away.
Chapter 3: Return
There's a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
DISCLAIMER: written before we got any actual canon Nicodranas or Lord Whatever information! Might come back to fix his name later, or not. We'll see. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Once everyone is inside the illusion cart, they take to the road. Part of Fjord is rather surprised that Jester'd keep the cart all this time, but then he remembers that she'd never give up the perfect chance to hide and prank people or —in this case— smuggle them across the border. It seems oddly fitting, that what was once used to take away people's freedom will now give them a chance at it. He thinks of all these as he boards on the front, next to Jester who insisted on driving, and tries not to feel anxious about what the future holds in store for them.
They travel for the better part of the day and don't talk. Actually, Jester talks, a lot, fills the hours with non-stop chatter and jokes and stories, but she doesn't actually talk about anything important. To Fjord, as comforting and familiar as it feels, it all just seems empty, like a distraction. By the time they reach Trostenwald, he doesn't feel like they held a single actual conversation (and definitely neither of them brought up their late night talk of the day before).
Avoiding the town, they set camp a couple miles away, where their big group can stretch their legs without drawing too much attention to themselves.
"I think I'm gonna go into town to get some provisions and stuff," Jester announces once everyone is set up.
"We should probably disguise ourselves, if I remember correctly people here weren't exactly fond of us."
"Oh, you're coming?" Jester blinks.
"Yeah, I'll come with you," he says matter of factly.
"Oh," for some reason she seems taken back by it for a minute, but then she smiles and shrugs. "Okay, Nugget can stay to look after everyone."
"You sure he can handle it?" Fjord asks, sending a look at the dog that's waggling his tail next to Jester excitedly. As far as Fjord recalls, Nugget was barely able to stay still in one place for over a minute when he was a puppy, doesn't seem to have changed much.
"Of course he can!" Jester seems offended. "Nugget is very smart, and very brave, and loyal. He'll do great!"
"Okay, okay, sorry," Fjord concedes, then grumbles, "guess we'll trust all these people to the dog. Sure."
Before they reach town, Fjord changes his appearance to that of an old man. He's found the more fragile and clueless he looks, the less attention anyone will pay him. Jester, on the other hand, gives herself an assortment of short red curls, blue eyes and a pale face sparkled with freckles, she also makes herself look much younger. She'd look exactly like an innocent little girl, if it wasn't for the mischievous glint in her eyes and that dangerous curve in her smile that not even the best disguise can hide.
"Ready, gramps?" She asks, teasingly.
"Let's get this over with," Fjord rolls his eyes.
They make their way to the only market place in town. He holds Jester by the arm as if he needed her assistance to move, though it's really to keep her from getting distracted on the way. The market is almost heart breaking. There's very few shops open, fewer people and even less products being sold. Trostenwald was never a specially welcoming place, but whatever life it had seems to have disappeared. It makes his stomach twist the way things can become grimmer within a single year, but he tries his best to shake the dark thoughts away and focus on the task at hand. It takes some haggling and some careful searching, but in the end he gets what should be enough dried food to last their group a few days.
"Getting ready for a long journey?" The butcher asks, as he hands him the large bag of jerky he purchased
"Something like that," Fjord replies, his voice wavering with fake old age.
"I'd be careful out there if I were you," the other man warns.
"Why's that, lad?"
"Why?" The butcher scoffs. "Look 'round ol'man. Roads ain't what they used to be. I'll tell you that. There's something darker out there, and it wants to get us."
"Then why do you stay here?"
"Where the hell else would I go? This is my home. I'll live and I'll die here before they drag me anywhere else like those traitors runnin' away."
"Hey, gramps!" Jester's voice is unmistakable, even when it lacks her energetic accent. "Ready to go?"
"Yeah, yeah, let's darling," he grumbles, turning around.
As Jester grabs him by the arm again and they start making their way out, his eyes catch the state of the market place. It's not the way they found it. The shelves are are messy and mixed up, most labels are upside down, and the vegetable stand has become a tall colorful pyramid that seems a blow of wind away from stumbling down. Dammit, Jester, he glances down at her exasperated and finds her smiling proudly. Something else stirs inside him with fondness. She may pretend a lot, but she hasn't changed a bit. It's oddly comforting. The world may be turning darker by the second, but it hasn't found a way to bring Jester Lavorre down yet.
"I'm gonna keep watch, you should go to bed," Jester informs him, once everyone's eaten and started to retire to their respective beds. Most people are tightly huddled against each other or back inside the cart to protect themselves from the chill night air.
"I'll take watch with you," Fjord says.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Jester replies almost immediately. "I mean, it's really just the two of us that can fight and if we both keep watch all night then we'll both be tired tomorrow, right? So maybe it's better if I take the first watch and you sleep and then we change, don't you think?"
The speed at which she talks makes him a little dizzy, he's not so used to it anymore. He catches up to the general idea, though, and manages to mumble a, "yeah, okay," before she walks away to the camp's edge. It's only once the whole thing settles in him that he feels a rush of disappointment in the pit of his stomach. It's hard to describe why, because she's right in her reasoning and this is what makes the most sense... but something about her refusing to share watch feels like she's telling him something else. A year ago she seemed excited to share watch with him. Maybe not anymore.
Alright, fine. That's fair, he tells himself. It's been a while, many things have changed. He keeps telling himself that as he goes to bed but the uneasiness doesn't go away.
He doesn't dream. He's too tired. It feels like barely a minute has passed when he's shaken awake.
"What, what?" He asks, looking around, expecting trouble, but only finds Jester's tired face.
"Nothing. It's just turn," she mumbles, rubbing her eyes.
"Oh, okay. Right. You should sleep."
"Yeah," Jester doesn't seem to be paying attention to him anymore. She curls up in the free space beside him, hugging her sketchbook, and closes her eyes. Fjord has an impulse to lay back down next to her, feel the warmth of her even breathing, sleep calmly for once, but he pushes it away and stands up.
With a heavy sigh, Fjord sits down on a log by the end of the camp and summons the falchion. The yellow eye, as usual, doesn't move or acknowledge him at all. With a sigh, Fjord raises his head, stares at the darkness ahead. It seems empty, unnaturally quiet.
"So, how does this work? Do I just... talk to you? Is that it?" He says out loud.
Oh, god, I'm losing my mind.
Definitely losing my mind.
"I don't even know if you're supposed to reply, y'know? But you should know, I think you got it wrong. If that even was you," because what are the chances that two deities would just show up to talk to a nobody orphan boy?
The wind howls through the trees, ruffles the leaves over his head and brings a chill to his spine. Fjord decides to take it as an answer.
"You got it wrong," he replies, more firmly. "She doesn't need me. She doesn't even want me here. Whatever you were trying to accomplish, I don't think- I'm not- This is stupid," he groans, grabs the falchion and sends the yellow eye a glare. "And you are not gonna say anything either, are you? Right. Thanks. Very helpful."
Fjord stabs his sword on the grass between his feet and sighs heavily.
What is he doing here?
Keeping watch. Let's just keep watch and get through today, he decides, then waits for the rest of the night in the silent darkness, not trying to talk to stupid gods that do nothing except get him in trouble.
They reach the gates as the sun is going down and it takes them the better part of two hours to get to the guards. The line is long and tedious, there's people shouting around them, complaining loudly about the wait, and every so often there seems to be a commotion ahead of them when a traveling party or family is denied exit. Fjord's nerves start to build up as the sky turns to a blood red tone. Before they reach the check point, both Jester and himself disguise themselves as farmers, as they'd planed.
"Morning," a guard greets them, despite his commanding tone, Fjord can tell that he's exhausted. Short, scrawny and with a young face, the boy looks like he's disguised as a soldier rather than a real one, but he knows better than to mention it.
"Morning," Fjord replies.
"What's your business south?"
"Well, sir," Jester intervenes, her voice deeper than usual, the way she talks whenever she's speaking to someone important, "you see, we wish to go south in order to sell our produce. As I'm sure you know, trade has not been very good around here lately, people can't buy our food, and we have too much. It's gonna go bad soon. We were hoping we could go south to sell it, so that we can come back and have more to spend. It will be good for everybody, don't you think? Especially considering all the taxes we will pay to the military."
The boy blinks, as if processing the string of words that just left her mouth. Fjord suppresses a smile.
"Alright, I'll just take a look," he nods.
"Of course," Jester smiles, with that face that is not her own, sun kissed skin and braided long dark hair. She jumps off the cart and follows the guard towards the back of the wagon. Fjord says nothing, but decides to follow. He sees her spreading her arms towards their 'cargo', as if she was presenting a grand price. "As you can see, only food and produce!" She announces.
The boy tilts his head, trying to glance further in. Fjord tenses. He hopes none of their refugees makes a sound to give them away.
"I'd... like to take a look further in," the crownsguard finally says, motioning to climb into the wagon.
Jester tenses, sends Fjord a quick panic look. He's way ahead of her, muttering a low incantation under his breath. The charming spell takes hold of the young man before he can climb into the wagon.
"I don't think that's really necessary," Fjord says, in his most convincing tone. "It's clearly just food and produce, as my wife just said."
"Yeah, it is," the boy nods, with conviction.
Fjord feels a little guilty about tricking him, but he hopes it won't come back to bite him in the ass. Enough carriages come through every day that letting a couple of farmers pass through shouldn't be too big of an offense to his superior officers. Besides, they are saving a lot of lives at the moment. It's worth the risk.
"Alright," he hears him say. "Move along, quickly. You're stopping the line."
"Thank you kindly, good sir," Jester smiles warmly at him, then rushes to the front.
Two minutes later, they are through. Fjord doesn't really breathe with relief until they are well down the road and the gate is barely a line in the horizon behind them. He hears Jester huff as she drops the incantation.
"You were very good back there, Fjord," Jester says smiling.
"Right back at ya," he says, tilting his head, and letting his own incantation fall.
"We make a pretty good team, right?" He sees her grin, in a way that feels more genuine than any other he's seen the past few days.
"Yeah, I guess we do."
Jester turns around and pokes her head into the wagon. "You all did very good!" he hears her say to their smuggled people. "Now, we won't be stopping tonight so we can reach Nicodranas in the morning. It's very pretty. I'm sure you're all gonna love it! Try to get some sleep as we go, okay?"
There's an affirmative rumor coming from inside, a general sense of relief and gratitud. Still smiling, Jester pulls her head out and sits next to Fjord. He sees her feet dangle playfully, as she looks around at the open road. The sun is gone, but they still have the last remains of light to make up the mountainous landscape around them.
"This is the road we first traveled together, remember?" She says after a while.
"It feels like a million years ago," Fjord sighs.
He thinks back of those days, of the lightness in their step even when doubts and confusion clouded his mind. Even with all the questions his powers brought and his misguided goals at the time, Fjord remembers feeling unusually happy. There was something about traveling together into the unknown, towards exciting adventures, that made the world seem wonderful and filled with opportunities.
"And then we went through here again with the others," Jester continues. "That was fun."
"I guess, though we had to fight those giants, remember?" Fjord snorts. "That's not exactly fun."
"I think it was! We were all together and we were beating all this monsters and doing so much cool stuff!"
"You got a point," he concedes.
From the corner of his eye, he can see the way Jester's mood changes. Her smile remains, but her shoulders drop and her tail falls still behind her. When a heavy sigh leaves her body, it almost seems to him like part of her energy is leaving her too.
"I'll go back there, to see if anyone needs me," she announces, voice tamed and soft. "Let me know when you wanna switch places so you can sleep, okay?"
"Okay," Fjord replies automatically, while his head is still trying to understand what changed. He thought they were having a good moment, good like before, but as unexpectedly as it arrived it seems to be gone. Jester disappears inside and he's left alone with the open road and the raising moons.
The sun is raising as they reach Nicodranas, its light makes the city colors pop like candy from afar and reflects on the sea like a silver mirror. Fjord can feel his heart swell with happiness as the salty air hits his skin. Beside him, Jester seems equally delighted to be home. A small smile, different than the mischievous grin she usually wears, curves the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are closed, so Fjord lets himself stare with more attention than usual. His eyes trail through her face, taking in the freckles peppered across her cheeks. Jester's always had freckles, he's sure, but something about them feels oddly new now, like they've multiplied under the sunlight, they resemble a constellation like the ones he's only ever seen out in the open sea. The breeze ruffles her ink blue curls and she doesn't seem to mind the way some strands get on her face. Some of her hair gets tangled between her horn and the silver jewelry she still wears. On a whim, he reaches out to untangle it, but before his fingers can brush it, Jester opens her eyes.
"Uh," Fjord curls his hand away quickly. "Your hair..."
"Oh," Jester brings her hands up and with experimented fingers untangles the rebellious strand.
After that, he really can't manage to talk much.
They make their way into the city and beeline straight to the nearest port. A year ago, they learnt the hard way that despite having grown in the city, Jester's contacts here are rather small, while Fjord's life as a sailor has given him enough of a name to, at the very least, get good information. While Jester takes their group to the nearest inn, where she promises to buy everyone food and drink from her own money, Fjord makes his way through the docks, meeting with old friends, acquittances and fellow crew members. It takes him a few hours of chatting them up before he's satisfied with the results of his business and heads back to the inn. He finds Jester sitting alone on a table, a plate of cookies to her right, a glass of milk on her left and her sketchbook spread before her. Nugget is curled by her feet, sleeping.
"Hey," he sighs, sitting down.
"Oh, hi!" She looks up, and for a moment it feels like she forgot he was showing up. "How did it go?"
"It went well," Fjord nods with a smile. "I mean, it's not perfect, but we got a few offers. I've got two or three ships heading to Tal'dorei that offered to give passage to our friends, and a couple other places in town that'd be willing to hire whoever wants to stay around here for a while."
"Oh, that's good!" Jester claps cheerfully and pushes the cookie plate towards him.
Fjord would rather something heartier, but he's too tired and hungry to refuse at least one pastry. As the sugary treat reaches his tongue, he realizes that it's been nearly a year since he's had any sweets. It tastes like fun and travel and a group of friends sitting around a campfire.
"Alright, so you should probably tell them," Jester says. "I'll wait for you. I've gotten them rooms here for tonight, but after that I think they need to see if they wanna go or find a place here. I mean, I'd buy them all rooms for as long as they need... but I don't have that much money right now. Maybe my mom can help."
"I think you've done quite enough, Jester," Fjord reassures her, "you can't be responsible for all of them forever. You saved their lives and got them out. I guess from here on out they will be alright by themselves."
"Yeah. They'll be alright. You gotta let them go."
Jester doesn't seem entirely happy with it, but he catches a wave of relief flashing through her face. It makes him wonder just how much responsibility she's been shouldering this past year on her own, but he knows he's got no right to ask about it. Without another word, he stands up and makes his way through the inn's tavern, talking to every person to let them know of the possible arrangements that have been negotiated. It feels a bit odd when they thank him profusely, shaking his hand and promising to repay him someday. It's funny, he thinks, how much easier it is to take distrust than gratitude. And yet, despite the awkwardness of each encounter, his chest feels warmer and light when he's done.
He'd forgotten. All this time, he'd forgotten what it felt like helping others just because it's the right thing to do. He wonders if he lost that part of himself when he left the others behind, if it was ever in him at all or just a good influence from traveling with people like Molly and Jester that lent a hand wherever they went. He always thought himself a helpful person, but for months he's looked after no one other than himself. When left alone, Jester decided to go on helping people, while Fjord sailed away from their problems and the war. What does that say about him?
Fjord downs the firewhiskey he got and walks back to Jester, who is still drawing absentmindedly in a lonely table. Nugget is sitting by her side now, nuzzling her side gently. He imagines the situation has been recurrent the past year, she seems comfortable enough with it. With loneliness. He wonders if it's real or 'an act' as Caleb once put it.
"Hey," this time she looks up before he even sits, slamming her sketchbook shut before he can get so much as a glance of her work. "All done?"
"All done," he nods.
"Perfect," Jester stands up grinning. "Then we're ready to go to my mom's!"
"Are you sure, Jester?" Fjord frowns. "Last time-"
"I'll be disguised," she rolls her eyes. "Please, Fjord, please! I miss her so much! I haven't seen her in months!"
Fuck him, he's never known how to tell her 'no'.
They leave the tavern as night falls around them and use a nearby alley to hide their true features. Unlike before, Fjord notices that Jester barely changed. Her horns are gone, as is the blue tint of her skin and the particular violet tone of her eyes, but other than that she looks pretty much the same: tanned freckled skin, bright blue eyes and black locks. He hopes that's enough to hide her.
As they leave the port district behind and move towards the most upper-end neighborhoods, the comforting sound of the ocean waves grows faint and distant. Fjord has stiled himself to look like a handsome half elven man, the kind that might maybe pay the legendary Ruby of the Sea a visit, but deep down still feels uncomfortable walking amongst all them fancy dressed folks. Jester, on the other hand, walks with purpose, her head held high and her stride sure and fast. Nugget walks by her side, waggling his tail with excitement as he takes in the new city around them. Every so often, the dog trails away to smell a plant or a store, but soon enough he pops by the tiefling's side (apparently recognizing her despite the disguise).
"Are you sure you know where we are going?" Fjord asks, pressing his pace to catch up with her. "I mean, no offense, but you didn't spend that much time in these streets, right?"
"Well... no," Jester says with a smile, "but I could see them from my window. It was always the same streets that I could see, though, so I memorized them all."
"Right," Fjord nods once. It makes sense.
"I also could see the sea from my room," Jester glances at him. "I liked looking at the ships. You know, I probably saw some ships that you were at, like, many times."
"Yeah, probably," he arches his eyebrows, surprised by the idea that Jester and him might've been so close to meeting and yet so far apart.
"What I liked most was dreaming I was in one of those ships," she goes on. "I would imagine that one day I'd get on one and go far far away, to one of those amazing places that I always heard about from my mom's clients."
"Yeah?" Fjord asks, and his voice is a little breathless. He thinks he could do that, bringer her with him on his next trip. She'd like that. He would, too.
"Yes!" Jester jumps a little, turns around to look at him as she walks backwards. "I wanted to see the whole world! You know, I always wanted to go to Tal'dorei. It sounds like a very exciting place."
"I guess it is, though I've only been to a few places there."
"Did you know they had dragons?" Her eyes are wide and full of child-like wonder. "Like four or five giant dragons! They killed them, of course, but I think maybe if we went there we could find one and fight it!"
"I think maybe-" he pushes her gently out of the way of a incoming person. "Maybe we've got enough with giants and gnolls for now."
"Oh, c'mon, Fjord. I think we could totally defeat a dragon," Jester insists, smiling.
"Maybe we could," he concedes, mostly because she sounds very excited and doesn't intend to bring her that. "Maybe some day."
"Some day," Jester repeats, like it's a promise, and then stops death on her tracks. Fjord barely manages to slow down before he runs her over. "We are here!" She announces.
Fjord looks up behind her. He was so focused on her that he nearly missed the giant mansion behind her. It's nearly impossible to miss, though. It's size is breath taking, as is its beauty. The deep red polished walls are decorated with an intricate design that crawls up its exterior like a golden climbing plant. It manages to be elegant and simple at the same time, in a way that few buildings ever achieve.
I used to see it too, he remembers suddenly. The golden building, shining high and proud in the most beautiful part of town. When he was younger, Fjord used to run up to the deck whenever they reached Nicodranas in hopes to catch it shining in the dawn light. From afar, it looked like a precious jewel. A ruby.
Jester grabs him by the hand and drags him to the front door, where she unceremoniously knocks. She's bouncing slightly on her feet, smiling brightly.
"Who's there?" A soft female voice comes from inside.
"Good night," Jester answers politely, "I am here to see the Ruby of the Sea, please."
"She's not taking visitors at the moment."
"I can wait," she insists, still smiling.
"She's not here."
"I can wait, really. It's no problem."
The door opens slightly and a beautiful woman stands there, blocking the entrance. Long blonde locks fall on her shoulders and frame a pretty round face with beautiful brown eyes and a small pouty mouth that seems stuck in an eternal kiss. Her expression, however, is not welcoming but severe.
"What is your business here?"
"Well, I have a very important message for her," Jester replies, standing taller. "If she is busy I can wait."
"She's really not here," the girl goes on, "but you could leave it with me. I'll be sure to make it get to her."
"No, no. See. It's very important that we deliver this message personally. If she's out with a client, we can wait for her return."
Jester's energy hasn't changed one bit by the negatives, but Fjord can see the other woman's face tense with annoyance at their insistence.
"And who is this message from, may I ask?"
Jester leans in closer and whispers her own name with a playful glint in her eye. The woman pales.
"We don't know anyone by that name here, please I must ask you to leave," she says as she pushes the door closed.
Jester stops the door with one hand. "Scarlet, it's me!" She laughs, her accent shining through.
It should not be possible, but the girl —Scarlet, apparently— goes even paler. Her big eyes open wide and she freezes for a full second. Then, she grabs them both by the arm and pulls them in. Fjord doesn't even resist the pull but braces himself once inside, taken by surprise by the sudden strength of the small woman. (Is every girl that grew in this house stronger than him?!).
"Jester?" Scarlet gasps.
"Ta-da!" Jester smiles and spreads her arms open.
Scarlet doesn't smile back. She grabs them again and pulls them through the lobby and into the nearest room.
"What's going on?" Fjord asks, finally finding his voice. He'd tried to let Jester do this on her own, but all this cloak and dagger thing is getting on his nerves.
"Jester, what are you doing here?" Scarlet asks. "Who is he?"
"Oh, this is my friend Fjord," Jester says, and she sounds proud of introducing him, which would probably melt his heart if he wasn't currently preoccupied by whatever is going on. "Well, I was in town and I just wanted to see my mom."
"You shouldn't be here."
"I know, that's why I'm on disguise. Where is my mom?"
"Jester, you really shouldn't be here."
"What's going on?" Fjord asks again, taking a step forward.
For the first time, Scarlet looks at him. She looks tense, nervous, but her posture changes entirely to a more pleasant stand. She claps her hands together and sends him a smile that doesn't fit her ghostly pale features.
"The Ruby of the Sea is not here at the moment."
"You've said that already," Fjord frowns. "May we know where she is?"
"Is she with a client?" Jester whispers, as if she's asking for a juicy piece of gossip. Scarlet nods. "Oh, who is it?"
It takes Scarlet a long time to reply. Jester is still smiling, but Fjord can feel her shift by his side. Whatever is not right here, she must notice too. She's too smart not to.
"Scarlet, where is my mom?" She asks again, and her voice is still friendly but her tone is firm. She's giving an order.
"With Lord Sharpe."
When the name registers, Fjord turns to look at Jester. Her smile is gone completely, she looks disgusted.
"Lord Sharpe?! Why would she be with him?"
"Jester..." he tries to appease her, but is promptly ignored.
"He came here two weeks ago," Scarlet finally speaks up, "with his guards. They took her to his castle."
"Why?" Jester asks. She must know why.
"They said she was to stay there until... until you showed up. She's- she's alright, staying in a chamber of her own. She's safe. She just has to stay there."
Jester is quiet, her fists clenched by her sides, her breathing heavier.
"You can't be here, Jester. It's not safe. She's given up a lot to ensure your freedom. You need to leave."
Fjord can see the way she processes the information, a small frown on her face as it dawns on her. When she snaps out of it, her eyes are hard and her chin held high.
"Alright. Okay. I'll go," she mutters, then walks out of the room.
Before he can even move after her, she peeks her head back in. "Scarlet, do you remember where Lord Sharpe's castle is? Never mind, I can find it."
"Jester, wait!" Fjord rushes after her, taking big step to catch up with her. He sees her drop the disguise spell as she makes her way for the door, barely manages to grab her by the arm before she reaches it. "Wait. Jester, you can't go there."
"He has my mom!"
She tries to pull herself free, and dammit she's stronger than Fjord, but he's not giving up. He grabs her by the other arm, makes her turn around and look at him. Her eyes avoid his entirely.
"I know. I know. But you can't go there, Jess, that man wants to kill you," he says, tightening his grip.
"Yes, and he has my mom!" She yells, looking up. He can see her fury clear as day, burning behind her eyes like the infernal fire in her blood. "Let go of me, Fjord," her voice is cold and low, a warning.
"Let me go!" She demands.
"No, Jester. No. You can't do this alone."
"Yes, I can!" Jester snaps herself free of his hold, pushes him away and takes a step backwards towards the door. "I can!"
Fjord nearly stumbles to the ground, but manages to catch himself. He tries to move forward again but she backs further away.
And then, as if things weren't fucking bad enough, with a POOF Nugget appears inside the house —apparently tired of waiting outside— and after taking in the scene, he positions himself between Fjord and Jester, glaring his teeth at him. Damn dog, I'm trying to save her.
Fjord's heart beats furiously in his chest. His whole body seems to shake as he stares at Jester. She's going to get herself killed. She's going to die and he can't bare the thought. If she walks out that door, he'll lose her for good.
"Alright, yes. Yes, you can," he breathes out desperately, "but you don't have to, okay? You don't have to do this alone."
He takes half a tentative step forward. Nugget growls. Fjord does his best to ignore him, keeps his focus on Jester, on the way her eyes tear up and her lower lip trembles.
"Jester, let us help you," Fjord begs. "I'll help you. We'll call the others, bring the Mighty Nein back together, and then we'll all save your mother, alright?"
When he tries to move again, Nugget makes a warning sound. Keeping her eyes on Fjord, Jester pets him gently and Nugget relaxes and moves away. Deciding to risk it, Fjord takes one more step forward, until they are standing face to face. She is still horribly quiet, in a way that makes his chest twist.
"Jester," he says firmly, looking into her eyes, "you don't have to do it alone. Please."
And then, what Fjord had thought impossible happens right before his eyes, and it's so much worse than he could've ever feared. It's a sight more terrifying than any deep pit of the ocean and every monster roaming his dreams.
Jester Lavorre breaks. With a gut wrenching sob, she falls apart, right in front of him.
No, no, no.
Fjord takes the final step to close the distance between them and wraps his arms tightly around her smaller frame, holding her tight against his chest. Jester doesn't even resist, she grabs onto his clothes and leans her weight on him, as if she'd collapse otherwise. He does his best to support her.
"It's my fault," Jester sobs quietly, her shaken voice muffled against his leather armor.
"It's not. It's not," he assures her gently. "We'll save her. I promise."
He looks up and finds Scarlet watching them tearfully. When his eyes meet hers, she looks away. Around them, their voices seem to have attracted other women, all clad in light silky dresses, all beautiful faces twisted with sorrow, like tearful sirens. Fjord looks back down and presses his lips to the top of Jester's head.
"I promise. We've got you."
ALL THE FEELS. :))))))
Also I made a spotify playlist for this fic (chill? what chill?)
Hope you like it! :D
Also, thank you all for your lovely comments and questions! They really make my day!
Chapter 4: Dreams
But he had always told the truth, Lord, he was an honest man
and Brandy does her best to understand
Worth noting I kinda assume that they are about level 9th or 10th at this point.
Also, after a year of living in the forest and training Nugget, Jester took a level in Ranger :)
(and I changed the Lord's last name to fit canon)
It's been so long since the last time Jester cried, that the intensity of it takes her by surprise and she can't bring herself to stop. The sobs hit her one after the other, like ocean waves against the shore during a storm, and she's pretty sure she'll just drown in her own pain. Fjord holds her the whole time, and she hates it. She hates that it makes her feel so raw and vulnerable, hates that he's probably worried sick and she can't even crack a joke to ease the air, and she hates —more than anything— how comforting it is. His embrace is warm and steady around her, anchors her in the middle of the storm, and she never wants to leave his arms's refuge. That's a dangerous desire. He's left before, he'll do it again, and if she lets herself depend on him, she'll fall apart when he does.
That's the thought that stops the tears.
"You alright?" Fjord asks, softly, when she pulls away.
"Yeah," Jester rubs her face with the palm of her hands and forces a smile. "I'm fine."
He still looks worried, and the intensity of his stare makes Jester uncomfortable.
"I'm fine," she repeats firmly. "We need to start making a plan to get my mom. You said we could call the others, yes? I can probably do that right now, probably, and then they can maybe come but it would take them a while, so we better-"
"Jester," Fjord interrupts, and his tone is still infuriatingly tender, "it's late, you're tired and they are probably sleeping."
"But we need to hurry up."
"One more night won't make the difference," he sighs. "Trust me. It'll be better if we plan once we're better rested."
She wants to complain, insist that they take action right away, but her head aches after all the crying and her body feels boneless with exhaustion. He might have a point.
"Scarlet," she turns to look at the other woman, "can we stay here?" She asks, pleading.
Scarlet, beautiful gentle Scarlet who's always been like a big sister to Jester, looks at her with sorrowful eyes.
"Is it safe?" Fjord adds, and his voice is commanding, it makes the blonde girl snap awake.
"I- I believe so, yes. Did anyone see you come in?"
Jester shakes her head.
"Then it should be alright. No one here will ever turn you in, Jester," her voice is soft, but when Scarlet eyes meet hers she can see firmness behind the statement. "You're home, it's safe."
Jester's eyes water again, and her chest swells with emotion at the kindness of Scarlet's words. Around them, every other woman echoes the sentiment quietly.
"Okay," she manages to choke out with a smile. "Okay."
"Your room is still as you left it, you may sleep there if you want. And we can find your friend accommodation in a guest room."
"That's very kind of you, ma'm, thank you," Fjord drawls.
Quickly, Scarlet turns around and begins ushering the other girls to move and prepare everything else. Then, she gestures for them to follow her upstairs.
"We have been taking no new patrons since your mother... left," Scarlet explains, "so you shouldn't have to worry about hiding in here."
"Alright, thank you," Jester nods. "But- isn't closing for two whole weeks bad for business?"
"As far as they know, we are remodeling the main lobby," she reassures her. "We're using it to build excitement."
"Okay, well, if you want to take people though, I don't mind hiding. I know how to move around unseen, you know? I'm very very sneaky" She sends her a wink.
It works. Scarlet laughs and the aire between them feels a little lighter. Jester smiles satisfied.
"I know you are," Scarlet laughs softly, "but for now I think we'll keep it this way. The girls are a bit rattled with what went down."
"Okay," Jester nods. She knows her mother values the girls's well being far more than whatever gold they make with their services. "It's alright. We'll get my mom back soon and then everyone can go back to doing their things."
"I pray you're right. I will see to the other room and come back in a moment."
When Scarlet leaves, it's only Fjord and Jester again standing in the hallway quietly.
"The guest rooms are around the corner, in another area," Jester says, to break the awkward silence, "this is kinda more where my mom and I lived, but it's pretty close."
She can see that Fjord doesn't like it. He frowns, in that particular way that means he's thinking about all the bad possibilities in a situation. He doesn't say it though, he just nods.
"Is that your room, then?" He peers over her shoulder.
Jester glances too, taking in the big ornate door behind her. It's very pretty, probably, but she mostly knew the other side of it, plain and heavy.
"You sure you're okay sleeping in there?" he arches an eyebrow, tilting his head.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Jester tilts her head too, mirroring him.
"Well, uh, you seem to have spent an awful long time locked in there, didn't ya? Just thought you might prefer not going back in."
"I don't mind," Jester shrugs. "It's just my room. I like it."
He still seems unconvinced, for some reason, but thankfully doesn't insist.
"Okay, so I guess we'll talk tomorrow," she says.
A memory comes and goes, like flashing lightning, and makes Jester's chest hurt, like an old wound reopening.
"It'll be alright, Jester. We'll save your mother. I promise."
"Stop doing that, Fjord," she snaps, meeting his eyes.
"Doing what?" He blinks confused.
She can see the way he freezes and the pained expression that crosses his face. She feels a pang of remorse over hurting him, but stands her ground. She won't be fooled again.
"Uh, excuse me," Scarlet's voice reaches them from the end of the hallway, "the room is ready. If you could follow me."
"Right," Fjord still keeps his eyes on her for a long moment before walking away. "Goodnight, Jester."
"Goodnight," she says quietly as she watches him walk away and, only once he's disappeared from view, she enters her room.
Moonlight comes in through the big windows, bathing the familiar silhouettes of her childhood bedroom with its pale light. Jester stands still, taking it all in. In the air float the faint traces of her mother's perfume. She was here not so long ago. Jester feels her throat tighten with tears and does her best to fight them back as she moves inside the room, her fingers trace the old furniture slowly and find no dust in it.
A sudden thud behind her makes Jester jump around, right hand reaching for her axe, only to find Nugget standing in here with her, tongue out and tail waggling.
"Oh, hi, Nuggie!" She relaxes and bends down to scratch his ears. "Sorry, I forgot to bring you in. I'm used to being here on my own mostly, you know?"
Nugget barks twice with excitement, then runs over to her big fluffy bed and jumps on it.
"It's a nice bed, isn't it? Better than the others we've been to on the road," Jester chuckles. "Of course you can sleep with me tonight. I'll just talk to the Traveler real quick and be there with you, okay?"
The dog just rolls on the bed, clearly enjoying himself, and Jester lets him be. She comes over to her desk and, after searching in the dark for a few seconds, finds her box of matches. She lights on her small lamp, pulls out her sketchbook and sits down in front of it. She has spent hours and hours sitting right here, drawing non-stop and talking to her best friend to pass the lonely days by, but tonight she finds herself blocked once more. She has no funny doodles or jokes to tell him, her mind is too busy worrying about her mom.
"Traveler?" Jester calls, voice trembling. "Are you there?"
She gets no answer. Tears well on her eyes and fall down her cheeks, dampening the sketchbook's paper.
The weight of a pair of hands suddenly falls on her shoulders and fills her with comfort.
"I'm here," he says behind her, and his voice is like a cup of hot chocolate in a winter's night.
"Hi," she whispers, unmoving. "Hum, do you know- do you know if my mom is alright?"
The Traveler takes a moment before he answers, as he always do, like he's picking carefully his best words for her.
"She is... not harmed," he replies slowly. "She is in a dangerous place, but she's comfortable and healthy."
"Okay," Jester nods to herself. "Did you- Did you know she was in trouble?"
The real question she's asking is why didn't you tell me before? but she doesn't want him to feel accused by her.
"I could foresee... turbulence around her, around you. I knew that your homecoming would put you in a dangerous situation, but the details of it were... obscured to me."
"You couldn't see?" Jester frowns. "Can that happen?"
"Apparently," he replies, and sounds thoughtful too. "The darkness spreading from the east has made this world hard to read, too many destinies interwoven, too many ulterior motives in the shadows, even for one of such power as my own."
"Oh," Jester tries to understand, but it's hard to picture something beyond his sight. Whatever darkness is coming from the East must be really bad. She might look into that, when her mother is safe. "So is that why you sent Fjord to find me?"
"I knew you'd need a friend to face what comes next."
"I have you, though. You are my friend."
"And I will be with you every step of the way," he assures her, squeezing her shoulders lightly, "but there are others that wish to help you. Numbers makes us stronger."
"Why him, though? Why did it have to be him?"
The Traveler chuckles, and reaches with a hand over her shoulder towards her sketchbook. The pages fly and open in a random page that shows a half-finished sketch of a man's face with high cheekbones and a square jaw. The Traveler's fingers swipe and the pages fly again, until they open in a detailed drawing of the sea, with a man's silhouette standing there, facing away from the page, a falchion in his hand. One more time the pages turn and stop in a realistic portrait in which Jester'd tried to recreate his face from memory, his eyes, the shape of his mouth, ever scar crossing his skin.
"Okay, okay, okay, okay, I get it," she mumbles, feeling her face burn as she slams the sketchbook shut. "He left though, how did you know he'd come?"
"He did come, didn't he?"
Jester sighs, and throws her head back to give him an exasperated look, but when she does he's gone. She stands up and looks around, and finds Nugget looking at her intensely.
"He just wanted to mess with me," she sighs, changing into one of her old pretty night gowns.
She climbs into the large bed, enjoying the softness of the sheets and the fluffiness of the pillows, along with all the small details of comfort that she didn't know how to appreciate before having faced the roughness of the outside world. Nugget shuffles until he's pressed against her and she buries her face into his soft fur with a sigh.
"Shit guys, that was bad," Beau groans while Jester heals her wounds with the little magic she has left.
"Really, really, really bad," Jester agrees.
"We can't keep doing this," Fjord sighs. "One more of those fuckers and we would've been done for."
"How do they keep finding us?" Nott asks, voice high pitched with frustration as she tries to fix her crossbow.
"It's the Myriad, it's what they do," Beauregard sighs. "They won't stop coming until they do what they were hired for."
"Then what do we do?" Jester asks, looking at her friends. More than one nearly dies today, Caduceus and her had barely been quick enough to keep them all on their feet. She'd barely gotten a chance to fight back with all the healing needed.
"We kill them all," Nott says. "We'll kill them all and win!"
"Nott, you can't just kill the Myriad," Fjord groans.
"Because they are not just 'some people'. They are a damn big organization, moving all over the world, they've got resources and spies and trained assassins."
Jester wonders how Fjord knows so much about this underworld organization, but thinks she'll ask him later. He's most likely to tell her in private.
"Yeah, you don't fuck with The Myriad, everyone knows it," Beau says matter-of-factly.
"Ja, I've read about it, too. Once you have been marked by the Myriad, there is no hiding away," says Caleb.
"Well," Caduceus's voice interrupts, with that heavy voice that seems to pause everything else around him, "if the Mighty Nein are marked by The Myriad, maybe we shouldn't be the Mighty Nein, right?"
"What?" Jester huffs.
"You're talking about fucking splitting up?" Beau frowns.
"For a while," Caduceus shrugs.
"I don't know. Splitting the party sounds dangerous," Fjord intervenes.
"Yes! What are we gonna do alone?" Jester adds.
"Survive," Yasha replies, her voice steady from the corner of the table.
"We are a colorful lot," Caleb sighs, running his fingers through his messy hair, "perhaps if we took separate paths for a while, we might be less noticeable as individuals." He sends Nott a look, and she nods.
"We can do that."
"You want to disband the Mighty Nein?!" Jester feels a pang of pain across her chest at the mere thought.
"Just for a while," Caleb gives her a soft look.
"I mean, I don't like it either, but they got a point," Beau huffs, crossing her arms over her chest. "We could hide in plain sight while they keep searching for a group."
"I think you're right," Fjord sighs heavily. "It might be our only chance to survive at this point."
"It won't be forever, Jester," he assures her, his voice gentle and soothing. "I promise. We'll just wait for the storm to pass, then regroup and find a way to deal with it. It will be alright."
He sounds so sure and steady. Jester's heart still aches, but she trusts Fjord, more than anyone she's ever met. If he says this is the best plan, she believes him.
"Okay," she whispers. "Alright, but we are still friends, right?"
"Of course, Jester," Beau reaches to grab her hand quickly.
"Alright, so tomorrow we're splitting up," Fjord says firmly.
"Just for a while," Caleb insists. "Until it's safe."
Yasha nods from her corner, then stands up and walks up to her room. One by one, the others go. Nott and Caleb walk up stairs together, whispering to each other. Caduceus goes too, sending them both a pleasant smile, as if this didn't feel terribly final. Beau says she wants to get shit faced and hangs back in the bar. Jester walks with Fjord upstairs.
"I think I wanna go to Hupperdook again," Jester says as they move.
"Yeah?" Fjord gives her a sideway glance.
"Yes. I miss Kiri, I would really like to see her, you know? And then, maybe it would be fun to go to Rexxentrum. I mean, it's supposed to be very cool because it's the capital and all that. I know you don't really care about the academy anymore, but I would still like to take a look."
"That sounds nice."
"It does, right?" Jester smiles. "Where do you wanna go?"
"Hm," Fjord frowns, "the Menagerie Coast, I guess. There's still some business I'd like to deal with back in Port Damali, and then maybe sail for a while."
"I've never been on a ship before. It sounds like fun."
"It is, though it can be heavy work too," Fjord nods.
They reach her room and Jester spins around to look at Fjord.
"So it won't be forever, right? I mean, you did promise."
"I did," Fjord nods.
"Okay, I'm trusting you, Fjord."
"I know, Jester. I promise. It'll all be alright and we'll meet again soon enough."
That's all she needs to know. If Fjord says so, it must be true. She doesn't like leaving their other friends behind, but as long as it's not forever it should be fine.
"Well, I'm gonna go tell the Traveler and then I'm gonna get a good sleep," she declares cheerfully. "Goodnight, Fjord."
He looks like he wants to say something else for a moment, but then he settles for a quiet, "goodnight, Jester," and walks away.
She should've known.
"Hi, Beau, it's Jester. I hope you're alright. I just- I'm in Nicodranas right now, with Fjord, it's kind of a long story, but the important thing is that-"
Hey, Jester! You're with Fjord? Damn, that's gotta be awkward. I mean, uh, it's nice, though. How is he? Have you two talked about that
"Yeah, he's fine. But look, I need your help. It's my mom. She's in trouble. Lord Sharpe has her and he won't let her go unless I-"
Shit, Jester, is she alright?! Beau's voice interrupts her once more. She keeps forgetting about the word limit. Of course we'll help. Actually, wait, Caleb is here, let me find him.
"Oh, really? Beau, would you come?" Jester wants to cry with happiness. Fjord sends her a look and she nods with relief. "That would be so great, because we really need help and I don't know what to do. We really need your help."
Of course, Jester. Actually, Caleb says he- what? Oh, he can teleport us! He just needs to know if there's a teleporting circle in Nicodranas.
Jester frowns to herself, trying to remember. She's never heard of anything like that before. She can feel Fjord's attentive eyes on her, waiting to get the information only she can hear.
"Fjord, do you know if there's a teleporting circle here in Nicodranas?"
He frowns, thoughtfully, looks down at the table as if he's staring at an old memory.
"Yeah," his head snaps up. "Yeah, there is. I heard about it. Somewhere in the port district, I think. Maybe... I think it was a temple, or the main market."
"Okay," Jester nods, then casts the spell a fourth time. "Okay, so Fjord says there is a circle here, but he doesn't remember where. Somewhere in the port district. It could be a temple, or the main market, or maybe a noble house, I heard many of those have important-"
Got it, Beau replies firmly. Caleb has to actually see the circle to take us there, so we'll do research. Somewhere in this damn library there's gotta be-
"Alright, I will message you again tomorrow to see if you found it. We'll look for it too here. And, Beau... thank you. Caleb too."
Of course, Jester. We'll find a way to get to you soon. Talk to you tomorrow. Be safe. Tell Fjord I say 'hi'.
"Beau says 'hi'," Jester relies to him, matter-of-factly.
"Oh, tell her- Never mind, not worth wasting another spell," he corrects himself. "How many more times can you do that today?"
Fjord nods thoughtfully. "Better make them count. You don't wanna overdue the words."
"Yeah, I know."
"Who are you calling next?"
"Uh... Caduceus. That way, maybe he can tell Yasha or message her."
The comment makes her smile a little, Fjord is one of the few people to ever call her that, but she schools her own features quickly. It's too easy to be sucked back in by his warmth. She needs to be careful.
"Okay, here it goes," she sighs, as her fingers begin the incantation. The tips of her fingers shine with pink sparkles for an instant before she feels the spell activate. "Hey, Caduceus," she starts and Fjord begins counting with his fingers to help her keep track. "It's Jester. I'm in Nicodranas with Fjord. Everyone is safe, but my mom is in trouble. I need your help. Can you come?"
There's an instant of silence, as she waits for an answer.
Jester, Caduceus's soothing voice reaches her, I'm sad to hear that. If you require assistance of course I will come. Yasha is here with me, I'm sure she will, too.
"Oh, great! He's with Yasha," Jester informs Fjord excitedly, before casting the spell one last time. "That's great. Beau, Caleb and Nott are in Zadash, they said they might be able to teleport here, so you could meet up with them."
We are actually on our way there, she can hear him smiling. I had a vision. Figured it was time we all got together again. Looks like I was right.
Jester wants to reply, to tell him more about how much she misses them and how thankful she is that they will come and help, but she can't use any more spells for now. Caduceus doesn't seem to think it's necessary to message her either. So, for now, it's done. She informs Fjord of the last part, and then they both fall silent staring at their half eaten breakfast. The rest of the day spreads before them, with nothing to do other than wait.
No, that won't do.
"I'm gonna go out," Jester declares, pushing herself to her feet.
"What? Jester, it's dangerous out there, you can't just leave the house like that."
"I'm gonna disguise myself," she rolls her eyes. "It's okay. You can stay here if you want. I'm going."
With that, she starts heading to the door. She hears him grumble and stand up behind her too. She can't repress a wave of satisfaction washing over her as he follows her steps.
Jester chooses a simple disguise, a blonde half-elven woman with worn out clothes and callous hands. Fjord, by her side, changes once more into an older man. He follows her through the streets, doesn't question her lead until she stops on the outskirts of town. Before them, high on a hill, stands a castle.
"Lord Sharpe's," Jester nods.
"Jester. We can't go in there alone."
"I know," says, eyes still locked on the building before them. "Not yet, but I have something." She looks down at her hand, holds her little pearled ring. "I can send one more message."
Fjord sends her a curious look.
"You don't need to be here to send the message."
"I know- I just-"
"I get it," he nods with a small smile.
"Okay," Jester says quietly. She grabs her holy symbol and feels her hands shake and her stomach twist. "Mom?" Her voice quivers, what if she doesn't answer? "It's me. I'm here. I'm alright. Are you-? I'll get you out, okay? I promise. Everything will be alright... I love you very much."
When she is done talking, there's silence. Her heart beats wild in her chest and she feels Fjord's worried eyes on her. She holds her breath.
Darling, her mother's voice is just a whisper in her head, but the sound of it nearly drags another sob out of her. Jester sighs with relief and smiles. You shouldn't be here. It's too dangerous. My love, I'm alright. You do not worry about me, okay? Be safe. I love you, too.
"She's alright," Jester tells Fjord, "I could hear her. She's alright."
He sighs relieved too, puts a hand on her shoulder. "I'm glad to hear that, Jester. What did she say?"
"She wants me to be safe, to not worry about her, but like clearly I'm not gonna do that, right? I mean, I can't just leave her there. I won't."
"Yeah, I know," he nods, "but let's figure out a way to do that where everyone gets to be safe, alright?"
Jester nods. In silence they walk back to the house.
Despite the worries she had the night before, Jester wakes up feeling refreshed with the perspective of a new adventure ahead of her. She does her best to put on a smile as she skips down the stairs to meet her friends at the inn's tavern for breakfast.
"Good morning!" She says, as she reaches the table. "Everyone ready?"
"Yeah, I guess," Beau shrugs. "Why are you so upbeat? This kinda sucks."
"I mean, I know," Jester sighs, "but it's just gonna be for a while, right? And then we'll just get back together and keep- Wait. Where's Fjord?"
"Ah, he left already," Caduceus shrugs.
"What?" She asks, though her voice sounds small and strained.
"Grabbed his stuff and left by dawn. He said it was better like that."
Jester's taken more than a few hits the past several months, but none have left her as breathless as those words. She drops on her chair, trying to process what Caduceus just said. Her eyes sting.
"Jester," Beau sighs, looking at her sadly.
"So where are you guys going now?" She asks, trying to smile, trying to swallow back the growing hole of darkness that keeps growing in her chest.
"Jester," now it's Caleb who's looking at her with sorrow, with pity like she's a broken thing.
"I'm fine," she assures them both with a smile, trying her best to be convincing. "So, where are you going?"
"Well," Nott looks unsure, glances around nervously like she's afraid to go on, "uh, Caleb and I thought we'd keep traveling around, you know, together."
"Ja, there's a few towns we haven't been to, I wish to revise their bookstores."
Of course they are going together. It makes sense. They are a team.
"I'm going back to Zadash," Beau says, leaning back and crossing her arms. "I wanna keep training so I can kick this Myriad's ass when we get the chance, plus maybe find out if the Cobalt Soul has any information on them, anything useful."
"Yasha?" Jester glances at the other woman.
"East. I'm heading East. There are... things I wish to take care of."
"I was heading that way myself," Caduceus smiles pleased. "I hope going near the border will reveal clues about where my family went to. You mind if I join you?"
Yasha seems taken back, but then she just nods. Jester thinks it's good that she has someone to go with her. She spends so much time on her own when she takes off.
"What about you?" Nott inquires.
"Well," Jester starts, but her voice dies down. She frowns down at her hands, tries to make her mind up. "Well, I wanted to go North, maybe see Rexxentrum, and I wanna visit Kiri in Hupperdook."
"Is that... is that close to Shady Creek?" Caduceus tilts his head.
"I want to go there too, check in on my family's temple. We could go together, when I'm back from the East border."
"Oh, yes!" Jester claps and smiles, excitedly. "Yes, I would like that very much."
"Me too," Caduceus smiles.
There's a long moment of silence, where they all look at each other, as if waiting for someone to say the final words. It occurs to Jester that it is usually Fjord who does, but he's gone.
"Alright, so I guess that's that," Caleb stands up.
"Yes, let's move," Beau stands up too.
"I left something upstairs," Jester says, jumping to her feet too. "You guys go. I won't take long."
She's rushes upstairs without looking back. She's not ready to see them leave, to face the road alone. Once she's safely in her room, she slams the door behind her and stands there completely alone, staring blankly at the wall.
"He left," she hears herself say, and her voice carries all the pain twisting in her chest. "He didn't even say goodbye."
A couple tears fall down her cheeks, but she tries to clean them quickly. One of her hands reaches for the holy symbol wrapped around her waist. The sending incantation is simple enough. She can just call Fjord, make sure he's alright, ask him why he left like that... She doesn't. She drops the symbol and walks back out. If Fjord doesn't want to travel with her, she'd rather not hear him say it. That'd be more than she can bare right now.
When she walks back down stairs, she finds the others waiting to say their goodbyes and the pain inside her numbs, just enough to let her smile and hold them tightly, one by one.
"Hey, Jess, wanna tag along with me? Zadash is on the way to Rexxentrum," Beau offers, trying to sound non-chalant.
"Oh, yes!" Jester hugs her again, filled with relief and reassurance. "Yes, yes, yes."
You're not alone, the Traveler whispers in her head. You're never alone.
"You sure you're alright?" Beau asks, as they hit the road.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Jester tilts her head, looking at Beau with false curiosity.
"Well, Fjord and you... You know what? Never mind."
"What?" Fjord has kept his eyes on her the whole time as she messages Caleb.
"They didn't find the circle."
"I mean, they know where it is and stuff, technically, but they can't find anything else about it in their library."
"Where is this teleportation circle?" Fjord frowns.
"The Mother's lighthouse," Jester sighs.
"We can go there."
"We can!" Jester claps, then twists her fingers across the air and sends a new message. "Hey, Caleb, I have an idea, what if I like went and saw the circle and described it to you so that you know what it looks like?"
There's a long silence before a heavy exasperated sigh reaches her. Nein, Jester, it won't be enough. I need to study it properly. Even if your description was good, I don't think it would work.
Jester groans some very not polite words in infernal and drops her head against the breakfast table.
"What?" Fjord asks.
"It won't work."
"He has to see it," she mutters bitterly. "He says he has to be able to see it for this to work."
Fjord falls quiet and Jester closes her eyes, her forehead still pressed against the hard wood. She starts counting in her head how many days her friends would take traveling from Zadash to Nicodranas. Two weeks at least. It's too much. She can let her mom be two more weeks locked in with that horrible man.
"What if he could see it?" Fjord ventures, in a cautious tone that makes Jester look up with curiosity. "I think I have an idea."
Fjord is in her bedroom, the lights are turned off and they are both only lit by the moonlight. She's laid down on the bed and he's sitting by her side, a hand on hers and his eyes set on her face, stern and focused. Needless to say, Jester is having a hard time to focus on anything else.
"Are you nervous, Fjord?" She asks, breathlessly.
"I've never done this before," he admits, sheepishly.
"Me neither," she chuckles quietly.
He smiles a little, as his fingers curl tighter around her hand.
"We'll figure it out," he assures her.
Jester nods and tries to swallow the lump in her throat.
"Alright, Jester, here we go," he says, then begins to mutter the incantation under his breath. His eyes light up with a bright green light and that's the last thing Jester sees before darkness takes over.
For an instant that feels fast and eternal there's nothing around her, just dark nothingness, then a figure emerges not too far away. Even from the distance, she recognizes him.
"Hey, Caleb!" Jester calls, waving. Her voices seems to echo all around them.
The wizards jumps startled, turns around and looks at her. He doesn't seem too surprised, just curious.
"Jester," he says as a greeting, barely moving a hand to wave back.
She walks towards him, and the thought alone brings her face to face to him. He flinches away slightly.
"This is weird, ja?" He laughs nervously.
"Ja," Jester agrees, smiling, then pulls him into a hug. He's tense within her arms. Even in dreams, Caleb doesn't seem too fond of body contact.
"What do we do now?" He asks as he pulls away.
"Well," Jester looks around at the darkness, "Fjord said I should be able to control everything within the dream. Let's try."
She closes her eyes, and focuses with all her might on a vivid memory. Then, she opens her eyes, and around them the world has changed. There's loud music coming from thin air. Above their heads there's a colorful tent and circus performers fly across the air gracefully as fire and sparkles fill the room.
"Oh, Caleb, look at it! Look at it! Isn't it cool!" Jester jumps and claps, turning around to look at the world her mind created.
He says something under his breath that sounds like Zemnian and she doesn't understand. She smiles and looks around. Their first night together. The memory is vivid in her mind —maybe a little more flamboyant than it was in reality— and she loves every little bit of it.
"Uh, Jester," Caleb calls her, but she's too busy dancing along to answer. "Jester," he insists.
"Don't you- Do you think maybe we need a more calm space for this?"
"Oh, right, right!" Jester rushes towards him, grabs him by the hand and closes her eyes. The noise stops.
As her eyes open they are met with infinite blue and the gentle rush of the ocean. She smiles widely at the sight.
"Better, yes?" She sends him a glance.
"Ja," Caleb whispers, with his sight set on the ocean too. He looks almost peaceful.
Jester glances down at her feet, imagines them bare and next thing she knows her blue toes are sinking in the soft white sand. She pictures Caleb barefoot and he suddenly is too, his feet sink ankle deep in the sand. He gives her a look, half exasperation and half fondness. She replies with a cheeky smile.
"I thought I could draw the circle in the sand for you," she declares, walking away to find a perfect even space for her to begin.
"Are you sure you remember it correctly?"
"Of course!" She says firmly.
"Yes, Caleb," Jester smiles and rolls her eyes. "I spent all day at the Mother's lighthouse with Fjord, memorizing it and drawing it on my sketchbook, until I could do it without even look it. I know it very very well."
"Okay," he nods.
With that, Jester gets down to work, tracing the sand with a single finger, slowly going through every curve and sharp edge of the sigil. There's silence for a few minutes as she works and Caleb dips his feet on the sea shore.
"How are you doing?" He asks.
"No, I mean... How are you doing?"
"Oh," Jester frowns, stopping her drawing. "I'm okay."
"Ja," she nods. "I'm... well, I'm a little worried about my mom, you know? But I know it's gonna be okay, probably, when you guys get here, probably."
"Hm," Caleb is still standing by the shore, not looking at her. "And Fjord?"
"He's alright too."
"No, I mean. Are you and him... have you two... talked?"
"Of course we've talked, Caleb," she huffs. "We've been traveling together for a few days now, it's not like we're gonna be silent all the time."
"Right. But. I mean, have you two talked about... that day?"
Jester starts tracing the sigil again.
"I'm more worried about my mom right now, you know?" She says, hoping her voice sounds convincing.
"Ja, of course," he answers, and doesn't add much else.
"Okay, I'm done!" She announces a few minutes later.
Caleb walks towards her, careful to stay at a safe distance from the symbol carved on the ground.
"Are you sure-"
"Yes, Caleb, I'm very sure. I looked at it so much that I could probably do it in my sleep. Actually, I am doing it in my sleep, you know. I'm a very good artist."
He nods, then starts walking around the circle in the sand, very slowly, muttering to himself as if he's taking mental notes. Jester watches him curiously.
"Alright, I got it."
"Are you sure you will remember it?" Jester asks, giving him a look, mostly to make fun of how he was asking her earlier.
He seems to catch on and sends her a small playful smile (the kind she's only seen him let out a few times when they are alone).
"All here," he says, tapping his temple.
Hey, Jester, Fjord's voice enters her head, coming apparently from nowhere, and she freezes.
"What is it?" Caleb frowns.
I don't know if you can hear me... I've never done this before.
"Did you hear that?" She asks Caleb, who shakes his head. "I think Fjord's talking to me."
You probably can't. I mean, you're sleeping, right?
"He doesn't know I can hear him," Jester grins at Caleb playfully.
"Perhaps you should wake up and let him know."
"No, no, no, wait. Don't wake up," Jester rushes to grab Caleb by the hand, as if her touch can keep him here. "Please, I just want to hear."
"Caleb, please," she begs.
"Alright," he grumbles.
Jester holds still, hoping Fjord will keep talking.
I just wanted to say, he finally goes on, as if he's talking to himself, and she can perfectly picture his thoughtful expression as he does. I don't know. I just- You know, I learnt this spell a few weeks ago, maybe months. I never tried it, but I somehow knew I could do it, you know? And I thought- I thought I could use it to contact you. Uh- Any of you, of the Nein. I thought it'd be nice to catch up, find out what you'd been up to this year. But I didn't. I'm not sure why. I guess- I guess I was afraid you wouldn't want to talk to me. I mean, I wouldn't blame you. I know it's been a long time. And, heh, I was right, wasn't I? Doesn't seem like you really wanted to talk to me at all. Still I... I wish I'd tried. I wish I'd done a lot of things differently, but now it's too late.
She hears him sigh. Then there's no more words.
"Jester?" Caleb is standing close to her, eyes locked on her face.
She brings a hand up and cleans a stray tear running down her cheek.
Above them, the beautiful beach day has turned into a gray stormy sky.
"I'm sorry," she mumbles, cleaning her face and trying to regain control. She sends him a smile, but Caleb's worried expression disarms her immediately. "I just- It's- It's so weird, Caleb. I missed him so much, but now he's here and I- I don't know what to do," she admits.
A heavy hand falls on her shoulder and squeezes it lightly.
"It'll be alright," he says assuredly. "We'll be there soon."
Jester nods, smiling again. This time, she manages to hold it together.
"Okay," she sighs. "Okay."
"I'll wake up now, ja? We'll see you tomorrow."
She nods, breaths deeply and opens her eyes.
Her room is still pale and dark, lit only by moonlight, but Fjord isn't by her side. Feeling her heart twist, Jester sits up, looking for him, and finds him sitting by her desk, his eyes locked on the ceiling as if he was looking at the stars. When he catches her movements, he looks down quickly and gives her an enquiring look.
"Did it work?"
"Yeah," Jester nods shakily. "Yeah, it's good. He said they'll be here tomorrow."
A relieved smile breaks through Fjord's worried expression and warms something inside Jester's chest.
"Good, that's good," he says softly.
Jester sits on the edge of her bed, looking at him, thinking of the words he unwittingly shared. Does he really think she didn't want to see him? That she didn't long every single day for his presence?
"I- I should probably go to bed, let you sleep," Fjord stands up suddenly. She stands up too, for some reason, they end up looking at each other from opposite ends of the room.
"Yeah, okay. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," he tilts his head, then crosses the room with large steps towards the door.
"Fjord," she calls before he reaches the handle.
He freezes entirely, as if he's been waiting for her voice. She can see his breathing grow faster. He turns around, just enough to look at her. In the moonlight, every line of his face is highlighted, every scar and every corner of his skin and the curve of his mouth.
"Yeah?" He sounds out of breath.
Something inside her ripples like an electric shock. A million words cross her mind, a thousand scenarios, every single time she imagined him here in her room with her, every night she's spent alone missing him.
"Thank you," she offers, lamely, but honestly.
Something crosses his face, it almost resembles disappointment but it quickly turns into something warmer. He used to look at her like that before. Long ago.
"Of course," Fjord says quietly, then walks out and closes the door behind him.
Jester is alone in her room again, standing there torn between feelings she can't quite name. She glances at the desk chair where he'd been sitting a moment ago. On the table her open sketchbook portrays the teleportation circle she'd dutifully practiced all day. Oh, Traveler, please let the others get here soon before I do something dumb. She collapses back down on the bed and like that, still fully clothed, she falls asleep.
Chapter 5: Visitors
Lonely sailors pass the time away
And talk about their homes
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Fuck. He shouldn’t have gone through Jester’s sketchbook. Fjord knew it was a bad idea from the moment his fingers touched the worn out leather, but he still couldn’t help himself from carefully flipping through the pages. He’s not sure what he was trying to find, maybe some answers as to why sometimes she seemed so cheerful and then in a blink turned sullen, or perhaps a hint about what she’d been up to the past year, or probably just a distraction from the sleeping figure before him that would keep him from making useless unheard confessions. Either way, he looked, and now as he lays in bed he can’t bring himself to sleep.
His mind is too busy conjuring the drawings he saw. Faces resembling his, half-finished and then violently crossed out. A drawing of his falchion, with carefully detailed barnacles growing from the blade. A drawing of his face so detailed and realistic that is almost like looking into a mirror, made with a care and precision that make something unnamed ache in his chest. And then there is the one from the night he left. He knew it immediately by the map Jester had traced with all the places she wanted to see, Nicodranas and Port Damali included and a small footnote: “I’m sad we are going to separate the party, but at least I still have Fjord, so it will all be okay.” That’s the point where he couldn’t keep looking, he opened the notebook back where it’d been spread and looked away, up to the ceiling trying desperately to fight back the overwhelming guilt that hit him. Just like he’s now staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, still attempting to recover.
Dear gods, she must have hated him for leaving. She probably still does, which explains a lot. And yet… that one drawing of him doesn’t seem like it was born out of loathing. No. Longing. That’s what it feels like. Maybe that’s why it hurts so badly because he knows the feeling all too well himself. It’s a familiar kind of pain that twists inside him and makes him toss and turn until dawn begins to break.
The day goes by with the same suffocating slowness the night did, Fjord tries to keep himself busy. He goes out to the docks, meets with some of the crewmates he’s been working with the past few months, tries to figure out if they have any useful information about their problem. Even if most of the men he talks to haven’t spent too much time in the port, it seems like gossip still travels faster than any spell.
People seem to know that the Ruby of the Sea hasn’t been seen nor taken suitors the past weeks, though most coin it to her having some especially wealthy suitor taking up most of her time. Of Lord Sharpe he doesn’t learn anything he couldn’t figure out by himself already: he’s generally regarded as a prideful man, who underwent some very public shaming and never recovered from the blow. Sailors joke, say Sharpe went insane with anger and locked himself away from the world two years ago. There’s word that he asked for the head of the person responsible for his disgrace, but that whatever genius had pranked him seemingly vanished into thin air, making the whole thing all the most hilarious for everyone else. No one seems to take Sharpe too seriously, he sounds harmless, nearly pitiable, but Fjord knows better than to underestimate a powerful man who’s been so publicly scorned.
By the time he returns to The Lavish Chateau he is exhausted but satisfied. Being by the port helps him feel more like himself, and at least doing something useful eases the worry that’d been weighing down his mind. One of the servants lets him in. Fjord frowns when he takes the first glance around and discovers the place to be nearly deserted. He feels worry knot in his stomach, coiling like a snake ready to bite, as he walks from room to room trying to find someone. He's making his way to the second floor when a choir of laughter reaches him. The sound leads him to a large room clearly meant to entertain clients in a more artistic way, there are several fancy looking couches spread around each with its own coffee table, a small empty stage by the door and a grand marble piano in the far corner.
Jester sits on the piano's bench, her back turned on the instrument and attention focused on the small crowd of women sitting around her. Though some of the girls are sitting on the nearby couches, most seem to have chosen to ignore the furniture completely and chosen to sit closer to Jester on the floor, legs crossed or tucked under them. They look at the young blue tiefling with eyes full of wonder, like children listening to a playful bard, as she recounts some kind of adventure. Fjord stops by the door, looking from a distance as Jester narrates excitedly, waving her arms around, using her thaumaturgy here and there to recreate battle sounds. The rest of the girls gasp and laugh on cue, entirely enthralled by the story, and she nearly seems to glow with the room's attention on her. Far gone is the heaviness that seemed to cloud her eyes the night before. She's giddy as a child and something inside Fjord's chest aches all over again with that old longing.
"...and then the skeleton guy said, 'well if I'd seen it I wouldn't be dead right now'!"
The room explodes with laughter and clapping. Jester smiles delighted, looking at the joy she just caused. Her eyes glance up for a moment and her eyes meet Fjord's, who smiles back without even thinking. For an instant, he regrets it, expects her to look away or change her expression to the anger he deserves, but instead, her eyes hold the same bright happiness until the girls reclaim her attention begging for one more story.
"Okay, okay, okay," Jester concedes. "I know which one I'm telling you, but Fjord has to help me," she announces, pointing at him.
"No, Jester, I really shouldn't-"
"Oh, come on, Fjord," she sing-songs wiggling his fingers towards him.
"Fine," he sighs heavily, making it clear that he'd rather be eaten alive by a gnoll than be put on the spot like this, but he still walks towards her and sits by her side on the piano bench, painfully aware of the close warmth of her skin.
"Okay so," Jester claps once with excitement, "there was this one time we were traveling through a swamp and a horrible stinky troll had been following us all day, right Fjord?"
"Oh, that fellow," Fjord blinks, "yeah that was an ugly fucker."
"Yes, he was, but because we could see him he kept hiding away... until we weren't paying attention and then he snatched our guide and ate him whole!"
"Did he really ate him whole?" Fjord gives Jester one enquiring look. That's not the way he remembers it.
"With one bite," Jester mimics throwing something into her mouth and the girls gasp opening their eyes wide.
"Oh, right, he did," Fjord nods, lying along because he can see that the point is not the truth but how everyone else reacts, "so we had to hunt him down for vengeance."
"Yes!" Jester punches the air. "And for the hundred gold that we had paid the guide too!"
"If I remember correctly, paying him that much was your idea," Fjord teases.
"Well..." Jester squeaks and shrugs awkwardly.
The girls chuckle loudly.
It's unlike any magic he's ever seen, the ease with which they fall back in sync. They take turns telling parts of the story, bouncing both real and made up details from each other, accepting their improvisation on the go and bantering here and there to poke fun at each other. Story after story, they recount their days together and even their most dangerous moments seem like fun adventures when looking back. The longing pain inside Fjord morphs into something different, half melancholy and half relief.
Night has fallen when their storytelling gets interrupted by a commotion downstairs: yelling and groaning and punching. As soon as he hears it, Fjord jumps to his feet and hurries towards it, closely followed by Jester. He rushes down the stairs as fast as he can and only pauses when he recognizes the figures standing by the door.
"Uh... sorry, I kinda punched your doorman, Jester, he was being a dick and not letting us in," Beau mumbles sheepishly, glancing past Fjord's shoulder towards the tiefling that squeals with delight and all but pushes him out of the way to hurry towards the monk.
"Beau!" She screams and hugs her tightly.
"Hi," Beau chuckles as Jester lifts her off the ground, "I missed you, too."
"Oh my god, so much!"
"Move, move, it's my turn!" Nott seems to appear out of thin air to elbow Beauregard away and jump into Jester's arms. Both girls giggle as they spin around, talking at the same time so quickly that words seem to merge together and Fjord can't make half of what they are yelling.
"Hey, Fjord!" Beau smiles and takes a step forward, arms stretched as if going in for a hug, then catches herself. "I mean- uh, what's up," she offers her fist.
Fjord snorts amused and fist bumps her. Then pulls her in for the hug she seemed to be too cool to ask for.
"Okay, okay, enough feelings," Beau groans, pulling away. "It's good to see you, man."
"You too," Fjord says sincerely.
"Ja, hi," Caleb appears by his right, offers a hand to shake. "Please don't hug me too. Jester already squeezed me quite a bit."
"Hey, Caleb," Fjord takes his hand, remembers to hold him by the forearm the way he taught him a while back.
"It's been a long time," the wizard says matter-of-factly.
"Not for me," Caduceus smiles pleasantly. "It's nice to see you again anyway, though."
"Yeah," Yasha agrees, keeping her distance and sending him a single nod, before getting tackled by Jester with a tight hug. "Oh. Uh. Hey... Jester..."
"Oh my god, Yasha, I missed you so so much!"
Fjord catches the way the barbarian's face goes from distressed to a softer smile, only for a second before she can finally wiggle out of the other girl's hold.
It still takes them a while to settle down around a table with a round of drinks in hand, and the image is so familiar that it feels like they've traveled back in time to the night they split up.
"So what are we gonna do about your mom?" Beau is the one that finally says it.
"I don't know," Jester admits, pulling at her long blue hair, "but we have to do something."
"I mean, we could just break her out of there," Beau shrugs.
"And then what?" Caleb frowns. "They might just come back, that's too big of a risk."
"Yes, but maybe she could leave too, like I did," Jester suggests.
"Jester," Fjord sighs, "do you think your mom would want that?"
She looks down and shakes her head. A life of adventures and travel might suit Jester, but her mother has a life of her own, one she shouldn't have to give up just because of some petulant ass.
"Wait, why are we discussing this?" Nott frowns, taking a swing of whiskey. "I thought we were just gonna kill this dude."
"We can't just kill him, Nott."
"Why? He deserves it."
"Because then we run into the same issue. They'll blame Jester or her Mother, and then they'll have to run away," Caleb sighs, running his fingers through his red hair.
"I mean, yeah," Beau shrugs, "if they wanna let this dude kill Jester over a prank, I guess it's gonna be even worse with fucking murder."
"Then we kill them too," Yasha offers.
"We can't just start killing everybody," Fjord protests quickly before this takes a darker turn.
"I mean, we could," Caduceus adds calmly as if they were discussing what kind of tea to share this evening, "but it would probably not be very nice."
"I think it could be nice," Yasha insists.
"There's gotta be another way," Beau frowns.
"Is there anyone here with power that we could talk to?" Caleb takes a sip of his beer. He doesn't seem terribly uncomfortable with talking to powerful people, which is definitely new.
"I'm afraid it don't work like that here," Fjord shakes his head.
"Yeah, people like Lord Sharpe are kinda very powerful," Jester mumbles. "I don't think anyone would wanna help us instead of him, maybe not even for my mom. I mean, she has some contacts but..."
"Do you know them, Jester?" Fjord perks up a little.
"I mean... kinda, but they don't know me. Though maybe I could say something... like I am a friend of my mom's trying to help her or something," she replies, not meeting his gaze.
Frumpkin jumps on her lap and purrs gently.
"Perhaps we need time to come up with a better plan," Caleb intervenes. "It's been a long day."
"Yeah, maybe tomorrow we can go 'round town and see how much information I can get," Beau says, then sends Fjord a grin. "I've gotten very good about this whole 'finding the truth' thing."
"Can't wait to see it," Fjord smiles.
"Ja, and maybe we can have Frumpkin do some recon of this Lord's place, prepare us for the worst, just in case."
"Oh, yeah, I know where that is. I'll show you," Jester says, smiling up at Caleb.
"Alright, so tomorrow," Yasha nods.
"Okay," Jester sighs, standing up. "I'm gonna go to bed now then. You guys can all stay in the same rooms you did last time if you want."
"Hey, you wanna share a room? You know, be roomies like old times," Beau offers, grinning.
"Oh my god, yes! Yes, yes, yes! Roomies! Okay, okay, we can totally share my room. It's going to be so great!"
"Yeah, sounds fun. You go ahead, I'll finish my drink and catch up with you."
Smiling again —though not with the brightness of earlier today— Jester waves goodbye and rushes away skipping.
"You know, she's not gonna let you sleep much with all that excitement," Caleb points out, his eyes already on a book.
"Can't be worse than your snoring. I can hear it across the walls. I'm better off in the other hallway with her."
Caleb flips her the bird without looking up. There's a sense of comfort between them that takes Fjord by surprise. They always seemed to get along, but their closeness seems more intense now, enough to be casual and easy. He regrets missing the chance to see that happen.
"Caleb doesn't snore," Nott intervenes, taking a swing.
"Then maybe it was you I was hearing," Beau grins cheekily.
"Oh, that's fun," Caduceus smiles a bit absently. "I don't know if I snore."
"You kinda do," Fjord snorts.
"Yeah, you kinda do," Yasha agrees.
"When did you hear Caduceus snore?" Beau gives him a look.
"When I caught up with Jester up by Alfield a couple weeks ago."
Beau arches a single eyebrow, enquiring and Caleb glances ever so slightly from his book, but it's Nott who finally asks: "Why did you go to Alfield?"
"I was... I was kinda looking for her. It's a long story."
"Did you have another wet dream?"
"No, Nott, I didn't. It was just- I'll explain later, alright?" Or never at all, because he's still not sure that he didn't hallucinate a child that turned into some sort of god in a dark alley. "I'm going to bed now."
He leaves before they can hit him with any more questions, or so he thinks, but Beauregard catches up with him on the stairs.
"Hey, Fjord, have you... talked to Jester?"
"About what?" He asks without slowing down.
Beauregard groans loudly and her frustration echoes through the building.
"Seriously, dude. You two need to talk about the whole thing when you left."
"We already did."
"Did you, really?"
"Kinda?" Fjord winces. "I guess... maybe not really... it was weird. I don't really think this is the best time for that."
"Yeah, probably not, but you two still gotta talk."
"Are you seriously giving me advice about how to talk to people?"
"Look, dude, believe me: I'm as surprised as you are," Beau shrugs, "but it's like she's your freaking blindspot or something."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know, man. I was trying to make a metaphor or something."
"Yeah, don't do that," Fjord gives her a look.
He missed Beau. A lot. Even this, while she's being annoyingly insistent, is fun.
"Look, just... talk to her, okay? Like, not tonight obviously, but soon. She was... upset when you left."
"Yeah, I know," he sighs.
"I mean... I guess."
"Just think about it," Beau gives him an awkward pat on the shoulder, then deviates around the corner towards the private area where Jester and her mother sleep.
Fjord is too exhausted not to sleep, but his mind is also too troubled for his dreams to be too deep. That's, probably, what saves his life when a foreign voice enters his head.
Uh... invisible thread. Problems. Company.
He jolts awake just as a blade is falling on him, barely managing to dodge the strike from hitting his heart. Instead, the sharp edge slices his side and sends a burning pain through his ribs. He pushes through the pain and manages to roll over before the second dagger hits him. His knees hit the floor as he feels the wound on his side burn with something that's gotta be poison or acid.
"Assassins," he replies, hoping Caleb can hear him through the message spell. "Wake the others."
Fjord's attacker jumps through the bed and tries to hit him again. One of the blades hits his arm, covered only by a light white shirt rather than his usual bracers, the other one misses. With a huff, he kicks the assassin away and summons his falchion. The beautiful golden blade appears in his hand, dripping water and bringing with it a slightly salty smell. The cloaked figure facing him stumbles backward, clearly not expecting the weapon. Fjord grins.
"You just made your last mistake in this world," he drawls darkly and shoots an eldritch blast that hits the assassin square on the chest and makes them tumble away until their knees hit the bed.
Two daggers fly his way. He dodges one and pushes the other one away with his falchion. With two slices, the dark figure attempts to run away but one final blast makes them drop.
Fjord wastes no time on the body left in his room. He rushes for the hallway and walks out just in time to see the door of the bedroom in front of his break in half. Another cloaked figure flies through the wooden splinters and falls to the ground. The half-elven man starts shuffling on the floor, trying to back away from the looming figure of Yasha stalking towards him. She seems to have it handled. Fjord walks around the man and finds more chaos. He hears screams coming from inside Caleb and Nott's room, next to his, and opens the door to find Nott dodging arrows trying to cover Caleb, who's crouching on the floor and bleeding badly. With one eldritch blast, he manages to shake their opponent long enough for Nott to get a crossbow bolt into their chest. Behind him, he hears a scream and finds a halfling man trying to run away from Caduceus's beetles.
"Wait- Jester!" Beau's voice reaches them from around the corner and Fjord's body goes cold. He forgets about the other people his friends are fighting and springs down the hallway as fast as he can, nearly sliding as he turns the corner and reaches Jester's bedroom. The door is open and Beauregard is fighting two guys, her fists and legs fast as thunder. She looks banged up, with a bleeding lip and a nasty cut across her ribs, but when she spots Fjord she pants:
"I got this. Go. Jester. Window. Go!"
Fjord does as he's told and runs into the room. One glance around confirms no one's in it. There's blood on the bed and ice spikes embedded on the wall next to it. Shit. No, no, no. Window. Beau said window. He rushes forward towards the big open window and looks around until he spots them: beneath him, crossing the dark gardens, there is a larger dark figure carrying a petrified Jester over their shoulder.
No. Fjord doesn't even think before jumping off the window at the same time as he casts the Flight spell. He takes control of his body's position in the air with a thought and launches himself forward at top speed. At some point, he sees Jester break out of the hold the stranger had on her and begin to trash around to set herself free. Slamming her elbow to their head, she manages to stun them long enough to drop free of their hold and onto the ground. Just what Fjord needed to get a clean shot at them. He lands 30 feet away from them and sends an eldritch blast that flies across the air and impacts them on the back. The stranger stumbles slightly, then turns around to glare at him. His face is not familiar but the hue of their skin and white hair falling past their shoulders suggest they are a drow.
"Fjord!" Jester calls, standing up. He sees her try to run towards him, but before she can reach him a series of dark tentacles emerges from the ground and trap her. Fjord hears her grunt in pain as she tries to break herself free.
"Let her go!" Fjord shouts, throwing another two eldritch blasts that miss. The fucker's too fast.
He hears the muttering of an arcane incantation. An ice ray crosses the night and impacts him on the shoulder, sending a wave of cold and pain across his bones. Fjord grunts and stumbles trying to regain his wits about him. Before he can recover, a second ray strikes him right on the stomach and makes him bend over. He thinks he hears Jester scream, but his vision is blurry and when he looks towards her she's gone. The tentacles are holding thin air.
What in the-
No time for that. He stands up and sends yet another blast towards their attacker, stepping even closer. He needs to engage him to make sure he won't get away.
When a third frost ray flies his way he's ready to dodge it. Then, with a soft 'poof', Jester appears by his side, just long enough to send a guiding bolt towards their enemy. The bright ray of the spell impacts them on the chest and makes them scream in pain. And then, she's gone again blinking away from this plane.
Which leaves him alone with the drow mage. Great.
Fjord takes two eldritch shots that finally impact the blinded assassin, then stands his ground ready to dodge the next frost ray. Instead, what shows up before his attentive eyes is a wall of merging beautiful colors. Fjord tries to look away but the patterns are everywhere he sees. His body relaxes immediately and his mind seems to pause with an odd sense of peace. He thinks he hears yelling around him, a battle still going on, but nor his body nor his mind register most of it. It's so easy and peaceful to just not think at all, to let go of all the pains and worries that have been eating at him for weeks...
"Fjord!" A familiar voice reaches him like a lost echo. He thinks he feels two hands on his shoulders, trying to shake him. "Fjord, wake up. Please!" Suddenly, a sharp pain crosses through his cheek and the strangely familiar burn of a slap brings reality back into focus.
"Ow!" He huffs, bringing a hand up to his throbbing cheek.
Jester is holding on to him, standing so close that he can see the new bruises barely starting to form under her blue skin. She winces when he looks at her.
"I'm sorry!" She squeaks sheepishly, then blinks away.
Trying to recover, Fjord looks around at their surroundings. The cloaked figure is standing closer to him than it was before, arcane magic simmering on their fingertips. That fucker. Now, Fjord is angry. He grabs his sword in front of him, points it at the drow and sends a Witch Bold their way. Fast and precise like an arrow, the small dark ball emerges from the tip of his falchion and hits his enemy, sending a ripple of dark lightning across their body. He hears the assassin scream.
Suddenly two crossbow bolts sink into their shoulder, followed by a firey ball that sends them flying several feet away. Fjord looks over his shoulder towards the window where Nott and Caleb are aiming at them.
He'd forgotten how good it is to have reinforcements.
"Hah!" Jester announces her arrival back to this plane with a satisfied laugh as she appears right next to the mage. Her hand reaches out and hits her attacker with a wave of necrotic energy that gets another pained scream out of them. They are looking pretty rough at the moment and for the first time, Fjord thinks they're going to make it out of this in one piece.
That's when Jester's spell goes wrong. She doesn't blink away. Her form shakes a little but stays in this plane.... standing right next to the dark elf trying to get to her.
"Shit," she hisses.
Before she can move away, Fjord sees the cloaked figure grab her by the arm and spin her around until she's grappled against their body, nearly acting as a shield while an arm chokes her. Jester struggles and tries to set herself free, but then the figure's hand shine with dark energy and her body tenses with a blood-curdling scream that makes something boil deep in the pits of Fjord's stomach. As the attack hits her, the attacker's wounds visibly begin to close.
"You gotta be kidding," Fjord mutters.
He moves forward towards the attacker and hits him again with the witch bolt, hoping the necrotic damage will be enough to make them let go of Jester, but their grip is firm and tight. A crossbow bolt hits the assassin on the shoulder. Jester grabs them by the arm, whispers and sends another shock of pain through the drow that screams and tightens their choking grip of her. The still-glowing hands of the mage light up brighter and once again Jester's screams fill the night air and chill Fjord to the bone. For a second, his brain freezes and nothing else seems to exist. Then he sees an explosion of ice surge from Jester's body and stab the drow's torso.
"Get her away from him!" Caleb shouts from the window behind him.
"I'm tryin'!" He growls back, hitting them with yet another witch bolt. Again, the attack is effective but they hold on their feet. If this fucker keeps using Jester to heal themselves they are never going to get rid of him.
Fjord looks at the situation around them, feeling his hands shake. Jester can barely hold herself up on her own legs, she's panting and bloody and clearly aching. Neither Caleb nor himself can attack the kidnapper without risking hurting her even worse. And on top of all that, Fjord's brain keeps conjuring another night when he miserably failed to save Jester from being taken against her will like this.
As he tries to process all this, his eyes met Jester's and he's shaken by the sudden determination in her face. Not a trace of fear.
She reaches a hand out towards him and whispers an incantation with the little breath she has left. Fjord feels the effect of the spell spread like a blessing through his body, filling him with unexpected strength and determination. Jester sends him half a smile, an encouraging nod, then blinks out of her captor's hold.
Fjord wastes no time. He hits with the witch bolt again, just as Caleb's fireballs light up the garden with a warm explosion that nearly burns Fjord too. He covers his face with his arm and, once the fire dies down to a few flames consuming the unfortunate trees around him, the scorched body of the would-be assassin is alone on the center of the ashen circle. As his blinded eyes get acquaintanced with the night once more, he sees Jester blink back to reality a few feet away. She's on her knees and breathing heavily. He runs towards her, thinks he can hear the healing incantation being muttered under her breath, but before he can reach her she 'poofs' away.
"Jester!" He calls, looking around, trying to find where she'll appear next.
The next shift of air happens right before him and his hands reach out without thinking to hold on to her arms and keep him by his side.
"Hey, hey, it's alright," he assures her quickly. "It's over. I got you."
Jester's wide violet eyes look at him, full of fear and exhaustion, then she sighs with relief and drops her head against his chest. Fjord hugs her tightly, rubbing her back. She's shaking in his hold and they should probably go back inside, but he doesn't let go until she pulls away.
"We should probably make sure the others are okay, right?" she says quietly.
"Yeah, we should," Fjord nods. He swings an arm beneath Jester's legs to swipe her up into his arms, then flies up back to the window.
"You can fly now?!" Jester gasps, holding on to his neck.
"Kinda yeah," he can't help a smirk. He had no idea that he could do this, not beyond some weird intuition like most of the spells he knows. It's cool, trying it out.
"It's very cool," she seems to agree with his thoughts. "Kinda romantic."
"Now, don't start with that," he gives her a look, but can't help the fondness that spreads through his chest and mixes with relief to have her back with him.
He was way too close to losing her tonight and he knows, deep in his soul, he wouldn't have survived it.
The spells used in this chapter are technically the ones this characters would be able to do at level 10.
Fjord used: Fly and Witch Bolt, both at 5th level. And Eldritch Blast as a cantrip.
Jester used: Guiding Bolt, Hellish Rebuke, Blink, Inflict Wounds (twice), Bless and Mass Cure Wounds
The mage used: Black tentacles, Vampiric Touch, Frost Ray, and Hypnotic Pattern.
Also, while writing this fic I've been listening to this cool playlist I made ... and to the album Rumors by Fleetwook Mac, if anyone wants to get in the mood for it!
Chapter 6: The Plan
She could feel the ocean fall and rise
She saw its ragin' glory
Fjord puts her down as soon as they cross the window and find their way back into her bedroom. Jester finds herself regretting the loss of his arms around her, but she hides it behind a smile as she thanks him. Her body is still sore from the fight, her head a little fuzzy.
"Jessy!" Beauregard tackles her like a boulder, wrapping her arms around her with much less care than Fjord to squeeze her into a hug.
"Uh, hi, Beau. Yeah, I'm fine," she mumbles, trying not to let her discomfort be known.
Beau pulls back quickly to look at her. Jester's eyes inspect her friend as well. She sports several bruises and cuts across her skin, a broken lip and a particularly ugly cut on her forehead. And yet, she seems far more concerned about Jester's wounds than her own.
"Damn, Jess. Are you okay?"
"I- I am. Is everyone else alright?" Jester looks around to inspect the party. Caleb is sitting on her bed, a hand clutching his bleeding ribs and breathing heavily. Nott is going through one of the fallen bodies, limping a little as she moves around to inspect the different pockets. Yasha looks fine aside from a small cut on her left arm that she doesn't seem particularly bothered about. Caduceus looks ruffled and a little bruised but mostly fine, mostly. "Okay, give me a moment."
Closing her eyes, Jester conjures the Traveler's magic one more time. She had just enough for a Mass Healing. The magic spreads across the air, healing every one of her friends it touches. She can hear them sigh with relief even before she opens her eyes and finds a collection of much healthier looking smiles.
"Thank you," Caleb says softly.
"No problem!" Jester grins.
"Right," Fjord's tone is clipped, still tense. "Now we gotta figure out what the hell this was all about."
"It was Myriad, right?" Beau asks, glancing up at him. "I mean, it has to be. We disbanded to hide from them. It's too much of a coincidence that they'll show up just as we all got back together."
"But why would the Myriad take this one?" Caleb asks, pointing at Jester.
"He's got a point," Fjord concedes. "That fellow did seem awfully interested on draggin' you away with him, Jester."
Fjord's face looks awfully serious and concerned as he looks at her. It's kinda sweet, but Jester's had enough of all this brooding.
"Well, that's because I'm so awesome and powerful, Fjord!" She declares. "I mean, technically, it makes sense to take away one healer away from people you're trying to kill, right? And maybe it wasn't even Myriad, I mean there's plenty of people who would want to kill me, really, if you think about it. Like, the people from the empire that we've been smuggling people away from, or the guys who don't like the Traveler, or-"
"Not helping," Fjord grumbles.
"And who says they were after me anyway!" She goes on, a little defensively. "I mean, maybe they just had to grab any person! Or maybe it just a distraction!"
"Actually, Jess," Nott's voice rises from the other corner of the room, "I think it was you."
She's holding a piece of paper in her hands, that she hands over to Jester while looking concerned.
Jester Lavorre. Wanted: Alive. Reward: $150,000 gold. To be handed over to Lord Robert Sharpe to collect.
"This is the guy who has my mom!" Jester gasps, holding out the paper for everyone to see.
"Damn, Jester!" Beau snaps the paper out of her hands to look at it. "You're worth a lot of gold!"
"Of course I am!" Jester grins. "I'm very cool!"
"Maybe we should just hand you over to collect the prize," Nott laughs.
Fjord sends a death glare her way, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed.
"I'm kidding!" The goblin adds, raising both hands. "I'm kidding!"
"Maybe it's not such a bad idea," Jester intervenes, brow furrowed as a plan begins to take form in her head.
"What?" Fjord looks at her, opening his eyes wide.
"Well," Jester taps her chin as she talks, "I mean, what if you guys hand me over and that way they will have to let my mom go!"
"How do we know he'll let her go, though?" Beau frowns.
"Jester's mother has a lot of powerful friends in high places," Caleb says, still sitting on the bed's edge. "We could say we were hired by one of them to hand over this one and get the Ruby free."
"Yes!" Nott jumps. "And we'll get the reward too!"
"That seems simple enough," Caduceus nods with a pleased smile.
"And then you just break me out!" Jester grins.
"Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a fucking second," Fjord steps forward. "You can't all be serious right now. Jester, this guy wants to kill you, remember?"
"Yeah, and he has my mom. We need to do something about it."
"Of course, but how is handing you over even an option, Jester? Beau, help me here."
"No, actually, I'm digging this plan," Beauregard says with her arms crossed. "I mean, giving this guy a taste of his own medicine? Taking his money and his prisoner and then breaking Jessy out? I'm kinda into it."
Jester can see the frustration growing on Fjord's face. He hasn't changed one bit. The way his jaw clenches and his brow furrows and his hands clench as if he wanted to grab his falchion to fight through any problem. He knows the look he sends her way like the back of her hand.
"He wants to kill you, Jester."
"He won't," she shrugs. "We'll make a very good plan and you guys can just break me out and then I'll just leave again and he won't be able to find me, like before."
"What if we are late? What if there's no time to break you out?"
"Well, this rich people always want to make a spectacle of things," Beau shrugs, "I bet he won't do much unless he gets an audience. You know, Jester kinda embarrassed him, so I guess he'd want to kill her publicly or something."
"Ja," Caleb sighs, "make an example out of you so that no one else will think about questioning him. That's how people keep their power."
"Are you- How are we even discussing this?!" Fjord snaps. "A public execution?! Jester!"
"It won't get to that," Caduceus shrugs. "We'll either break her out or stop it right there."
"Or we can just kill him," Yasha offers, leaning on the door frame.
"That could work too," Nott grins.
"No! No, no, no," Fjord raises his deep voice, glaring at all of them. "No way. We are not handing Jester over to some dick lord that wants to kill her. That's not an option."
As familiar as all of this is —making up crazy plans, arguing over their options, joking a little about the risks they are about to take—, Jester is suddenly very aware of something new. Whatever it is, it wasn't there a year ago when they were all first together. It's a new kinda heat that has found its way between her ribs, loud like a storm and firm like the forest she's been traveling through for months. She's survived pretty much on her own all this time, fought more battles, saved more people, made her choices... she's not about to be told what to do by anyone else. Not even him.
"Fjord," she says firmly, standing in front of him, "when we first came to Nicodranas you said that you would all follow my lead because it's my home, my mom, my life. Did you mean it or was it all bullshit?"
For a second he freezes. Then, he shakes his head and blinks a lot, as if she'd slapped him out of the hypnotic effect again. When he glances back down at her, he looks lost.
"Did you mean it?" She pushes.
He doesn't reply. His jaw is clenched and his breathing heavy. It's the first time in her whole life that Jester's seen Fjord this mad at her and for a second the sight of it makes her resolution shake, but she can't back down. Not on this. Mentally, she says a quick prayer for the Traveler.
"We are doing this," she says firmly, then turns to Caduceus and forces a smile. "Mister Clay, would you like to help me make some tea for everyone?"
"Yes, I think that would be a very nice idea," he nods and follows her as she marches out of the room, desperate to get away before she starts second-guessing herself.
Jester spent a lot of time in the kitchens growing up. She wasn't supposed to be here, but she'd often sneak out of her room to come and grab cookies and pastries past her bedtime. The Traveler also seemed to like it when she switched around the labels of the ingredients and spices to mess with the cooks. That's why she's careful to taste a pinch of sugar —to make sure it's not actually salt— before she puts in on the table.
Setting the table for tea parties is one of the things she likes to do the most. Her mother taught her the correct etiquette for it, always careful about the details despite it always being just the two of them (and the Traveler, of course). Tonight, she misses her so much it hurts deep in her chest, so she is especially careful to put it all together in a way she would be proud of. She feels tears well in her eyes as she stares at the delicate silverware in her fingers until a heavy hand carefully holds her shoulder.
"It's gonna be alright," Caduceus says, softly.
Jester nods, not looking up.
"You know that Mister Fjord's just worried about you, right?"
"Yeah," she sighs, cleaning a stray tear from her cheek, "but really right now I'm just worried about my mom, you know?"
Taking a deep breath, she looks up at him.
"Do you think this plan will work?"
Caduceus doesn't answer immediately. He furrows his brow and twists his lips as if slowly processing his thoughts. Jester's never been particularly patient but after a year of him coming and going in their Hush missions, she's learned how to wait out for his replies when it comes to important matters.
"I think," he finally says, "that our plans rarely go down the way we hope they will, but things always work out in the end. I don't see why this time would be different."
"Yeah," a small smile makes it to her lips, "you're right."
She'd almost forgotten. With all these months in between, mostly on her own, part of her forgot how good it feels to have friends, a team working together. There's something about the Mighty Nein that makes her feel invincible.
"Thank you, Caduceus," she says, turning around to wrap his waist into a tight hug.
"Oh, that's nice," he murmurs, bending over to hug her back. "Everything will work out. We must hold on to faith. And we are all here for you, Jester. Just... don't let fear blind you to those that love you, okay?"
"What do you mean?" Jester turns her head to glance up at him, but Caduecus offers no further explanation. "You are being mysterious, Mister Clay!"
"I am? Oh, I didn't realize it," he chuckles, honestly.
Before she can poke him for more answers the rest of the group comes downstairs too. Jester is slightly surprised to find Fjord amongst them, she half expected him to keep brooding on his own (part of her feared he'd disappear again into the night). He's here, though, grumpy and serious, and oh so quiet, but here and ready to help with the plan.
It takes them almost another hour to come up with an action plan and make sure of what everyone else is doing. It's chaotic and funny and frustrating, just like in the old days, and for the first time in a year, Jester feels a hole in her chest filling up. She's missed them all so freaking much.
After all the planning, the idea is pretty simple: tomorrow morning, Caleb will turn Frumpkin into a spider and send him into Lord Sharpe's house to find out everything they can about the building, where Marion is being held and where Jester would be locked. Then, late in the afternoon, they'll hand her over. Fjord and Caleb will pose as mercenaries hired by an anonymous rich person that wants the Ruby back in business. Once she's free and Jester's locked away —hopefully late enough at night that Sharpe won't have time to pull a public spectacle until the next day— Nott and Beau will sneak in and break her out. Then, they'll leave town and no one will be able to blame her mom for it.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Fjord still doesn't seem too happy about it, but this is the best chance Jester's got to save her mother. That's all that matters.
After the whole fight from last night, Jester's been especially jumpy. She feels on the edge all the time, ready to jump out of her own skin at any given second, ready to fight back another attack. Which is totally why she jumps startled when Fjord knocks on her bedroom door. Totally. It's got nothing to do with the way her heart pumps faster and her emotions get all mixed up at the sole sight of him. She's good at hiding it, though, behind a wide nonchalant smile.
"Oh, hi, Fjord," she greets him, as casually as she can muster.
"Uh, hi," he says walking in. It's the first thing he says to her all day. "Sorry, I just- Caleb says it's almost time to get going, but they insisted it'd be best if we got you tied up before we left the house, just in case."
He's holding a piece of rope in his hands. He looks tense and nervous, with his shoulders all tight and his jaw clenched, so Jester makes her best to seem cheerful.
"Okay, sure! Do you know how to do it?"
"Knots? Yeah, Jester, I'm pretty sure I know my way around the ropes."
"Oh. In a sexy way too?" She wiggles her eyebrows at him.
It works out. He makes an unimpressed face, but Jester can see the way his shoulders relax and the ghost of a smile in the corners of his mouth, right next to his scar.
"Let's just get this over with," he sighs.
With a firm nod, Jester steps forward and holds out her hands, wrists pressed together to facilitate his job. Fjord brings his hands forward and, after a second of hesitation, begins wrapping the rope around her arms, tight but not enough to be uncomfortable. Even so, as she feels the pressure building around her wrists, something old and uncomfortable starts twisting inside her gut, a dusty memory of another night, a cold cramped cart, a dark and bloody dungeon. She doesn't realize the way her heart has sped up and her palms are all sweaty... until Fjord makes a final knot and her breath hitches loudly.
Fjord freezes and she can feel is eyes suddenly on her face, worry pouring out of him.
"Jester, you don't have to do this, you know?" He says, very gently, as his hands come down to hold hers.
It helps. His skin is warm, his fingers a little callous, his hold firm around her trembling fingers. Jester takes in a deep breath and forces herself to look up.
"I'm fine, I can do this," her voice shakes but she smiles.
"But you don't have to," Fjord insists. "We can find some other way."
"I can't think of any other way my mom can get out of this without getting blamed for it. I mean, if we just free her, they will know and come back for her. If we kill him, they will only press more charges. This way, it won't be her fault at all."
"I don't like it."
"I know, but I need you to trust me, Fjord."
"Of course I trust you," he says almost immediately, eyes still set on hers. He looks intense and honest and she can't bring herself to look away. "I'm just worried about you going in there on your own."
"I won't be alone. The Traveler is always with me," Jester shrugs. Fjord's brow furrows again, unconvinced. "And... I'll have you guys, too. I trust you. I know you won't leave me in there."
She does. With her whole heart. For the first time, she's not afraid that he will walk away. Not with the way he's holding her hands right now. It might just be her heart playing hopeful tricks on her, but she needs all the faith she can get right now.
"I'll message you if something goes wrong, okay?"
"Of course, Fjord!"
Still frowning, he looks down and gives a conceding nod. His fingers tighten up around her bound hands and then let her go.
"Just be careful, Jester. Please."
Something about those words, about the tone of his voice when he says it, rings through her whole body like a bell. He's not looking at her anymore. She wishes he did, because right now, right when the whole thing is about to go down, it strucks her that this might really be the last time she sees him. If anything goes wrong, if he's right and this is a mistake, if hope fails her... this might really be her last chance. A sudden sense of urgency washes over her, as precious seconds go by in silence and she struggles to find any words that will tell him everything she wishes to say.
"You know," she finally manages to get out, "I would've liked it."
"What?" Fjord gives her a puzzled look.
"If- If you messaged me. Before. When you were gone. You thought I was just angry but- I would've really liked that."
Too late does she grow aware of the confusion that takes over his features, the wave of panic and realization.
"What? Wait. What? How do you-?"
Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. She's not supposed to know that. He confessed that when he thought she was sleeping! Oh, fuck.
"We better go! Caleb is waiting for us!" She blurts out dashing past him towards the door.
"C'mon, Fjord, is getting late!"
"No buts! We can talk later."
If there's a later at all. She kinda hopes there isn't one. She really, really, really, doesn't want to explain this to him. Ever.
Chapter 7: As Usual
"But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea"
Things go well at first. Almost too well.
Fjord was rather worried, as he disguised himself like a leathered half-elf mercenary, that his year at sea had washed away whatever ability to lie himself out of trouble he'd held during his time with the Mighty Nein. He was afraid that the wrong word or reaction would give up their ruse, especially since the sole sight of Jester bounded and vulnerable had his stomach making uneasy flips.
But it all goes well.
Caleb and Fjord walk into Lord Sharpe's castle at nightfall, pushing Jester along with a bit more harshness than necessary to sell the act. The two guards on duty are surprised at first, and then distrustful, but some well-placed words from the two magic users gain them the accorded-upon pay. As one of the guards hands Fjord the sack of gold, the other starts pulling Jester away, all but throwing her through the door and into the back room that —according to Frumpkin's recon— leads to the dungeon's cells.
"Move, demon," the man hisses, as he nearly makes her lose her footing and Fjord's hand suddenly finds itself craving the hilt of his falchion.
"That'd be all, then," the remaining guard says.
Fjord has to make himself peel his eyes away from Jester's back to focus on the problem at hand. One thing at a time. If he's lucky, he'll get a chance to make the man bleed for that later.
"I'm afraid that's not all," he replies, in a sharp accent that resembles Caleb's Zemnian. "You see, our employer is a very powerful man who was particularly interested in gaining the Ruby's liberty with this transaction, as your Lord assured he would proceed. We would feel most reassured if we could confirm ourselves that he's kept his word in this regard."
"Lord Sharpe has retired himself for the evening. I'm sure he will see to it tomorrow."
"You don't seem to be getting our meaning," Caleb interceeds, taking a step forward. "It would be best for all of us that our employer is left satisfied this very night."
"It's out of my-"
"You ever heard of the name The Gentleman," Fjord throws in, following a hunch.
It works. The guard's eyes twitch slightly and his shoulders tense, no doubt familiar with the consequences of crossing the continent's most powerful mobster.
"I'll see what I can do," he whispers and disappears behind the same door Jester and the other guard had.
Fjord and Caleb share a tense look. It's a risky gamble. They haven't been working under the Gentleman for over a year and, if he was to find out they are throwing his name around —especially here and in a matter related to the Ruby—, they might be the ones that will end up paying the price. They say nothing, though, unsure of who might be listening. Nearly ten minutes later, the guard returns, dragging the Ruby of the Sea by the arm. Marion is as beautiful as Fjord remembers her to be, even now, frazzled, with her long dark hair spilling over her shoulders and dark circles under her eyes.
"What is the meaning of this?" She asks, in a tone that is soft as usual but filled with command.
Fjord's heard Jester use that exact tone before around the Lavish Chateau.
"Ma'am if you would be so kind as to come with us."
"No," Marion frees her arm from the guard's grasp and glares around. "I demand to know what is going on! I am tired of being pushed around by you people."
"Good," the guard replies, "because you are free to go home."
"The accorded price has been paid. Now go."
"No. No, that means- Jester. My Jester, what did you do?" Her horrified dark eyes pin Fjord with an accusatory look. He can see tears gathering in them and pain too terrifying to bear. "What did you do?!"
"Go, now!" The guard snaps, pushing them all towards the door. "Before my Lord changes his mind and locks you all up!"
The threat is rather empty, but Fjord takes it as their chance to get the hell out of there. He and Caleb grab Marion by the arms, gently, and pull her out towards the street. She stops resisting. They don't let go until they are a couple of blocks away and safe from curious eyes.
"Now, let me expla-"
A red delicate hand crosses Fjord's face, slapping him across the cheek with surprising strength. Fjord's vision goes white for a second as the hot pain spreads across his face.
This is the second time in two days he's been hit like this by one of the Lavorre women.
It occurs to him that good looks are not the only thing Jester inherited from her mother.
"How dare you?!" Marion's voice brings him back to reality. She's crying. "How dare you two? My girl! My little girl! You have no idea what you've done! What he will do! How could you-"
"Ms- Ms. Ruby," Fjord tries to stop her, in his usual drawl. "Ms- Marion. Marion," her names seems to snap her out her crying. "It's me. It's Fjord."
"Ja," Caleb says. "Fjord. Caleb. It's us."
"What are you two doing? What did you do?"
"It's alright. I assure you," Fjord says, gently. "We'll explain everything, but we need to get off the streets first."
It's almost like an illusory spell. Marion cleans the tears off her face, stands straight and regains her composure. With regal air and her chin held high, she guides them back to the Chateau. Some people stare from a distance, but no one dares cross their path and Fjord is pretty sure that it's her imposing figure that's keeping them away rather than his and Caleb's "mercenary looks".
"Now," Marion demands, as soon as the Lavish Chateau doors close behind them. A hoard of people rush to her, filled with worry and questions, but she holds a hand up and everyone freezes a few feet away. Her eyes never leave Fjord. "Where is my daughter?"
"There is a plan," Caleb says. "She was... very insistent that we get you out of there first. We were to collect the reward. Then, in a few hours, we will break her out."
"A plan? That's not a plan. How could you let her go in there on her own? You have no idea how Robert is. He's gone mad with anger. He wants to kill her."
"We are aware," Fjord says firmly, "but we won't let him-"
"You said you would protect her," Marion's accusation hurts sharper than a slap. It nearly knocks the air out of his lungs.
"I- I try. I am. I will."
"By letting her go in there?! My daughter is too brave and too selfless for her own good, you two should know that!"
"We do," Caleb intercedes to Fjord's rescue, "but we also know she is a capable young woman. She is stronger than you know. And she's not alone."
"I assure you, no harm will come to her. I won't let that happen," Fjord says, earnestly. "I promise."
Caleb gives him a tense look. That's not an oath he should be taking at a time like this, but Fjord means it.
"We should get going," the wizard says, giving Fjord's arm a quick squeeze. "We should be ready for the next part."
"Yeah," Fjord nods and turns to follow.
Before he can make it out the door, a firm hand grabs him by the arm. He turns around to find Marion's deep dark eyes set on him. She no longer looks scared. Fjord makes a mental note: Jester got her determination from her mother, as well.
"Bring her back to me."
There's no need for Marion to make a threat in case he fails. He knows full well they will be receiving the full heat of her wrath if this goes poorly. If they fail... Fjord doubts there'll be punishment strong enough to match his regret.
The message comes sooner than it should. They are supposed to wait until it's nearly morning, until the guard change, to go in stealthily and break Jester out. Nothing is ever that simple. Her voice reaches his mind barely an hour after they've left the Chateau.
Fjord, help! They didn't- Shit. Shit. Shit. Oh, shit. Fjord, you need to come here. Now. Please.
As soon as the second word hits him, he's rushing forward through the streets, followed by the rest of the Nein. He ignores their questions as he makes his way to the front door. Caution be damned.
"We're coming, Jester! Hold on. Where are you?" He asks as an Eldritch Blast breaks the lock.
He gets no response. The silence makes his stomach sink.
"What's going on, man?!" Beau asks, catching up to him by the doorframe.
"She's in trouble. Something went wrong. I don't know. I-"
Panic strangles his voice. Beauregard grabs him by the arm and gives him a sympathetic look.
"Alright, we'll get her out. It's gonna be fine."
That's when the hall's door bursts open and a hoard of guards rushes to meet them.
The ensuing fight is a flash in which Fjord's mind can barely focus on one thing at a time. He sends blasts and swipes of his sword alike, carving through the lord's ranks like a madman. He's barely aware of the others around him, a flash of firey fury from Caleb, a deadly dash delivering stunning blows left and right, the occasional crossbow bolt zipping dangerously close to his head and finding its target in an unlucky guard's throat. Slowly, they make their way in.
The cell where Jester should be locked up is empty. Fjord grabs the nearest guard and slams him against the wall with a strength he never knew himself to have.
"Where is she?" He demands, voice dark and low, charged with every horror his patron has bestowed on him.
He can see fear overtake the man's eyes as he points to the door across the room.
"The-they took her down," he mumbles in a high-pitched voice, whatever they are paying him, its not enough to die for this. "To-to the dungeon. The-the interrogation room. I don't know, man!"
Horror grips Fjord's heart like a tentacle as he drops the terrified guard and rushes out the door, down the stairs, into the castles deep and dark hallways.
He finds the so-called dungeon. Another word comes to his mind as he walks into the dark room, a pair of handcuffs dangling from the ceiling, a set of metal tools spread across a small wooden table. Torture. He's suddenly back in the Iron Shepherds' lair. His breath hitches.
Focus, you fool. No time for this, he berates himself as he looks around. Two unconscious bodies, none of them Jester's. There's blood on the floor.
Fjord walks back out of the room in a daze, dizzy with worry. A flash of blue catches the corner of his eye, followed closely by a hoard of guards. He runs after them as they take a sharp left turn into a closed hallway. There, caged against a wall, he sees Jester. Her breathing is heavy, her dress bloodied, her eyes terrified as she raises both hands in a desperate attempt to protect herself. The guards charge their crossbows, take aim-
With a thought, Fjord grips his sword —the one that is part Molly's— and activates the spell hidden within its hilt. Like mist, he moves past the guards and appears between them and Jester just as their projectiles cross the air. The arrows pierce his armor and sink into his back, he grits his teeth in pain.
Before him, Jester's image wavers like a reflection in the water.
The world goes dark.
A sweet voice screams his name.