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MOLLY'S MOVING CASTLE

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In the land of Wildemount, where such things as genies and curses and seven-league boots really do exist, it is considered quite a misfortune to be the eldest of three. That misfortune might explain how Caleb Widogast came to be here, dressed in rags and tags on a barren hillside, watching the snow begin to fall and seriously considering whether this would be his last night alive. 

He had never foreseen himself coming to such a pass. One year ago at this time he had been boarding a carriage with a handful of other young people, students headed home for the end of term, grumbling bitterly about having to stand in the cold for long enough for the carriage to arrive and having to travel in such dismal conditions. One year ago at this time he had been a student, a wealthy merchant's son, an older brother, a tradesman's apprentice. 

One year later he was nothing at all, and it was all thanks to the curse of the Witch of the Waste. 

It was truly impressive how little time it had taken him to make the transformation from a prosperous merchant's son to gutter trash. Not even the full ten months. Within the first few weeks of leaving home, sleeping in alleyways and under bridges and in gutters, he'd very quickly learned that the Crownsguard who would nod and tip their helms respectfully on the way to the market were the same ones who would roust him and those like him out from under the bridge with jeers and kicks and blows of the nightstick.

He'd learned not to stand on his dignity to survive. He never got good at begging -- his appearance and manner didn't seem to stir the heartstrings -- but he learned where to go to pick up just-barely-rotten food after the markets and restaurants closed, how to keep warm on a cold night from the heat of a compost pile, how to sleep in the daytime when it was relatively safe, which street kids to avoid and which to befriend. Most of them, or at least the ones that stayed around for long, were to be avoided. 

The only companion he'd made and kept in his time on the street was Frumpkin, an alley cat he had befriended six months into his exile, at the tail end of summer when the first of autumn's chill had been stealing in. He had been woken from an uneasy doze by the crash and clatter of something falling over further down the alleyway, pulling him to the brink of fight or flight instantly. Peering down the alleyway he'd slowly relaxed when he saw no one, and a little investigation towards the back of the building revealed the source of the noise to be a ragged orange tomcat. 

The cat had been pawing insistently at a locked metal container; when Caleb stepped closer to examine it it looked like the sort of bin that in his hometown had been used to keep out bears. It was not exactly locked, but had a sliding metal mechanism that could only be opened by someone with hands. He obliged, and the cat jumped into the bin as soon it was opened, followed by the sounds of ripping paper and furtive eating.

The bin had provided Caleb's dinner that night as well as the alleycat's, and when he'd moved back to the wall to sleep, the cat followed over to sit beside him. 

Caleb was not quite sure what to make of the cat. The way he'd come right up to Caleb and let himself be petted, even held, seemed to imply that he had been a housecat once. But he was clearly savvy and clever enough to keep himself alive for long enough to grow thin and ragged, his ears scarred and his fur matted. Still there was an alertness in his brilliant green eyes that Caleb admired, almost envied at times. 

When he'd moved on from that alley, the approaching sound of a Crownsguard patrol making it impossible to stay put any longer, the cat had followed after him. And kept on following him, voicing increasing complaints the longer they went and the more tired the cat became, until finally Caleb had given in, crouched on the ground and let the cat climb up his arm to sit on his shoulders. 

The extra weight made him stagger when he stood back up again, but at least the cat was warm; and as the cat settled into the rhythm of Caleb's walk, a low purr sounded from his chest and went all the way down Caleb's spine. 

That had been four months ago. It had been ten months that he'd lived on the streets but the winter was coming on fast, now, and there was nowhere he could go to escape its cruel teeth. There had been a few bad nights in the early spring, but he had survived them… then. He didn't have the stamina he had back then, he was too worn down, too broken. He didn't have the strength. 

This might be the night that killed him. Or maybe the weather would turn in the night, the cold would lessen, and he'd still be alive in the morning. But if this night didn't kill them then maybe it would be the next, or the next, that one day dawn would break and he just wouldn't be moving any more. What was the point in fighting it, when it seemed so inevitable? 

The face of the Witch of the Waste floated hazily in front of his mind and in a numb, almost abstract fashion he thought about how much he hated her. How badly he wanted revenge for what she had done to him, to his family. But it was a hate with no heat to it. He would never see her again and if he did, what would he do? He would be as helpless in the face of her magic as he had been the first time. Might as well swear vengeance on the sun. 

He buried his nose in Frumpkin's ruff, letting the cat's fur -- just for a moment -- block out the biting cold. Frumpkin purred strongly, pushing up against his cheek with his furry head, before he wriggled out of the hold and ducked back into the gap between Caleb's legs and his coat. He did not begrudge the cat for seeking shelter and heat in his coat -- the night was bitter, and Frumpkin smaller and even less protected from the elements than he was. If he went to sleep here and did not wake up -- if his body eventually stopped producing heat at all -- would Frumpkin leave him to find shelter? Was there any shelter for him to find? 

"Let's give it one more try, hmm?" he mumbled to the cat, who chirped back at him. 

No, he couldn't lay down and die tonight. Not tonight. Frumpkin still needed him, after all. 

The thought was enough to stir him from his apathy but it provided no heat nor food nor any other useful resource. Caleb climbed to his feet and looked about him wearily. 

The landscape about him was withered and sere, a hillside covered in long grass that had mostly died back for the winter interspersed with sharp blocks of bare black stone. It had been a long time since he had consulted a map, but he at least knew with heartfelt certainty which way was north and how many miles he had come: he was on the outer fringes of the Empire now, hardscrabble hamlets that kept a wary defense against bandits and raiding parties from Xhorhas. Somewhere away to the east from here, up against the mountains, was supposed to be the lair of the Witch of the Waste. 

Which way to go? The town below the foothills had made it clear in their last scuffle that he had worn out whatever welcome a vagrant like him could expect in that town. He would have to keep moving if he wanted to reach another town tonight -- or more likely, tomorrow -- but there was a long reach of empty heather between here and there. 

The sun had sunk below the ridge, but there was still light in the western part of the sky. It took him a while to notice another light -- a strange, sourceless glow at the very edges of his perception that seemed to line the sharp edges and corners of the rocks and leave the grey grass in shadow. 

Frumpkin gave an anxious meow and jumped from the ground to his arms; he held out his hands to catch the cat and transfer him from hands to shoulder in a practiced, unconscious motion. It took a while more to pin down the source of whatever was upsetting the cat: a low-pitched, faraway roaring sound that made pebbles rattle on their beds of bare stone. 

A gust of wind threw a blast of smoke into his face; he turned and then he saw it. 

Cresting the ridge to the south, a lumbering, shuddering pile of metal and stone, was a walking castle. 

Caleb stood and stared. And stared. It took a while for his brain to comprehend what his eyes were seeing, straining against the failing light and his own disbelief. But there it was, a motley assortment of buildings -- watchtower, warehouse, turret and spire -- all thrown together like a small child carelessly jumbling his toy houses in a bin. What held them all together Caleb could not fathom, as the disparate pieces lurched and shuddered against each other with each step. The bundle of building-pieces perched precariously on top of a dark platform supported by sharp-angled, spindly legs. His eyes moved to count them, automatically, as each one rose and fell in a shambling unsteady gait. One, two, three… four…. Five? Or was that just the third leg again? No, it was  five, and what kind of gait was that supposed to accomplish? 

At last his wits caught up with his stunned eyes and he realized what he was seeing. This could only be the infamous walking castle of the Wizard Molly, the mysterious sorcerer who had been plaguing the border towns of the Empire for months. Often spoken with in the same breath of the Witch of the Waste, the two seemed to be akin -- two rogue magic-users who had broken the laws of the Empire regarding magic usage and fled to the fringes of society, hoarding their illicit powers for selfish gain. 

Caleb had never met the Wizard Molly, unlike his fateful encounter with the Witch of the Waste -- but he had heard all the rumors. That Wizard Molly was the spawn of the devil, that he made pacts with demons and consorted with goblins, that he stole the souls of innocents and bathed in the blood of virgins to keep his youth and beauty and ate beautiful women alive. 

By all means, anyone with any sense would steer far clear of the Wizard Molly and his infernal castle. But Caleb was tired, and hungry, and cold, and all he could think in the last moments of twilight was that all the foul smoke those many chimneys belched into the sky must surely indicate the presence of a fire somewhere in that mess of architecture. 

So he gathered up the last of his worldly possessions about him, wound his cat around his neck, and took off across the heather after the walking castle.

Caleb realized quickly that catching up to the castle was going to be easier said than done. Its seeming ponderousness was only a function of its size -- though it seemed to move slowly, it was actually covering a great deal of ground. Caleb's stride, though determined, was shortened by the cold eating into his muscles and the long months of deprivation. 

He tried to push himself further, feeling a shooting pain from his chest as he did; his pace sped up a bit, but he could feel a dangerous burn in his lungs that meant he could not keep up the pace for long. 

In the failing light he tried to judge the distance between him and the castle, the angles, and changed his course for the best hope of intercept. Frumpkin seemed a lump of lead around his neck, dragging him down, and his feet stumbled and dragged over the uneven ground. 

He was not going to make it. Already the castle, with its lurching gait, was beginning to mount the slope ahead. Caleb stumbled down the rocky slope towards it, desperately hoping he did not trip and break his neck, or even an ankle, which in this barren land would kill him just as surely. "Wait! Wait for me!" he shouted, heaving for breath. He had no idea if anyone in the castle could hear him, or would have any reason to stop, but he had to try. "Langsamer, bitte!" 

It had been months since Caleb had spoken in his native tongue. Even when he was alone with only Frumpkin for company, he tried to avoid reverting to his mother language so as not to get back in the habit. At school, he had been scolded by teachers and mocked by peers for speaking a 'funny foreign' tongue; at home, he had practiced hard so as not to offend customers with his accent; on the street, he had quickly learned that the only thing less welcome in an Empire town than a vagrant, was a foreign vagrant. 

So he kept his first language locked in the back of his throat as much as possible, even when no one was around. In times of stress, though, it still tended to creep out -- like now, where the Zemnian words echoed and reverberated from the stones around him. 

And just like that, obligingly, the castle began to slow. 

Caleb did not have the time or breath to wonder why. He staggered up the hill towards the castle, heaving for air, and squinted into the gloom to try to find a way in. There must  be a way in, right? 

The castle had slowed but it was still moving; he had to do some scrambling in among its mismatched metal legs to circle around it. There, at the back, set into a dirty plastered wall that seemed to belong to a tiny hut, was a plain wooden door. Leading down from the door was a short, black staircase that swung ponderously over the hills and rocks, never quite touching the ground. 

Caleb paced alongside the castle as he eyed the stairs, wondering how anyone was meant to get up them. Then there was a warning growl as some unseen engine revved up inside the castle, and it began to speed up again. 

No time for finesse. Caleb leapt for it, Frumpkin digging claws into his shoulder as he jumped, and grabbed hold of the doorframe for dear life as his feet found purchase on the stairs. 

The castle quickly built up to full speed again, leaving Caleb clinging to the doorstep as the dried grass and sharp rocks flowed by beneath them. Slowly he regained his breath and straightened back up again, petting Frumpkin's head for comfort. His or the cat's, he couldn't really say. 

Caleb considered knocking, but what would he do if Wizard Molly answered? What would he do if the door was locked? 

Well, he was committed now. 

It wasn't locked. The wooden door opened to a yawning darkness beyond, and Caleb stepped inside.

 


 

 

~to be continued...

Chapter Text

 

Caleb stood in the doorway with one foot over the threshold, one hand on the doorknob and the other clinging to the frame. The room beyond yawned as a wide darkness, but even in the dim lighting he could see shapes -- looming shapes that were probably just furniture but whose outlines were heaped with unknown clutter. He couldn't see the far walls in this light, but the darkness seemed to press on him all the same. 

"It will not happen this time," he muttered, his hands flexing on the doorframe. "It will be different!" 

A gust of cold wind snapped against his back, made him shiver; he was reminded why he could not stay outside in this cold any longer. He forced his hand to unclench from the doorframe and finished the step he had started, crossing the threshold into the room. It felt stifling, airless, though he could feel his chest drawing in breaths and releasing them, still calming slowly from his desperate sprint to reach the castle. 

He'd chosen to come here. He'd chosen. And now he was committed.

Frumpkin had considerably fewer reservations than he did; as soon as they were out of the wind the ginger cat poked his head up, wriggled down from Caleb's shoulders and jumped lightly onto the floor. He padded away into the gloom, pausing to sniff at one of the mysterious jumbled heaps, and Caleb moved after him automatically. 

He let the door fall shut behind him and was astonished at how quiet it was inside. No one seemed to be home, or if they were home they were not awake. As he followed after Frumpkin his eyes began to adjust. It was not completely dark in here; there was a dim glow in the far corner of the room, a stove that had been banked for the night. Frumpkin mrrped  and trotted towards it, his tail up. 

A crackle from the stove like a water droplet hitting hot coals, and all at once he could see the walls, his vision adjusting enough to the dark to bring them into focus. In the dim shadows they seemed to swim and writhe like a thousand insects swarmed over them, and then abruptly all at once they were engulfed in flame they were burning the room was burning  fire on all sides and he was trapped -- 

He stumbled backwards as fast as his feet could take him until he slammed into the door, then scrabbled desperately for the handle. He found it and it creaked as it turned, opening easily into the cold night air. And there he stopped. 

Outside the sun had set fully, barely a line of light to show where the horizon lay. It was even colder than it had been, and the snow was beginning to come down faster now, tiny stinging particles of ice whipped so fast as to be nearly invisible in the darkness. 

He wasn't trapped. The door was not locked. He took a deep breath, sagged against the doorframe with his hand clutched to his chest, trying to keep his heart from rabbiting out of his chest. 

A familiar sensation of warm fur brushed his legs, and he looked down to see Frumpkin twining about his legs, mewing anxiously. "Sorry about that," he whispered to the cat. "I know -- it is all right. It is all in my mind, I know." 

Reassured by the sound of his voice, the cat left off rubbing against him and began to walk back towards the stove. He stopped and looked over his shoulder, ears twitching with annoyance that Caleb was not following, and meowed again. 

"All right, all right." He let out a puff of laughter -- Frumpkin was the only thing that could get that out of him, these days -- and shuffled obediently towards the light and warmth of the stove.

Caleb stumbled forward slowly, cold-stiffened and hindered by the half-visible piles of junk on every side. To his unsurpassed gratitude when he reached the end of the corridor there was a chair waiting for him, a half-circle chair with a worn but clean-enough cushion set with the open arms facing the stove's heat. 

"Finally," Caleb murmured in his rusty voice, and settled himself in front of the fire with a great many cracks and creaks of his cold-stiffened joints. He felt like an old man as he finally relinquished his weight to the chair, giving over the half-feral crouch that was all the relaxation most people could afford on the streets. 

Frumpkin went right up to the fire and settled down in the warm space directly in front of the flames. He began to wash himself single-mindedly and the rhythmic movement of his head and neck as he made passes over his flank threw dancing shadows from the stove across the dark room. 

"I suppose this is an improvement for you, ja?" Caleb asked his cat, who unsurprisingly ignored him as he focused on working a burr out of the fur of his back leg. "Out of the cold and wind, settled in front of a lovely fire." 

It was a lovely fire, too. Now that Caleb was firmly in the present again and not stuck in the past he was able to appreciate just how lovely it was. The flames were not the ugly dull orange color of an uncontrolled conflagration, devouring all in its path -- no, this was a hearth fire, friendly and tamed, the flames making soft and rounded shapes as they flickered above rosy pink coals crusted with clean white ash. 

The fire was so pale that it was almost invisible, only small blue flickers showing above the coals, and as he watched and grew more drowsy Caleb imagined that he could see a human figure in the flames. The way they quivered and leapt and spun it almost looked like a young woman dancing above the coals, petticoats flaring as she pirouetted. Those darker blue flames near the bottom would be her legs and skirt, he decided, and the paler part up top made up a frilly blouse and free-spinning arms. The wild flares at the top must be her hair, he thought, framing a pale blue face. 

And then white eyes opened in the pale blue face and looked right at him. "That's quite a nasty curse you've got on you, there," a voice fluted from the fireplace. 

Caleb came to all at once in a jolt that threw him forward, remaining on the seat only by the thinnest of margins as his face came to a stop only a foot away from the flames. "You can see it?"  he yelped in a strangled voice. 

No one, ever since the Witch had visited their shop almost a year ago, had been aware of the curse that had been placed on him. None of his family, none of the Crownsguard, none of the dozens of people he had met and fled from ever since. 

The woman in the fire seemed to toss her head. "Of course I can see it!" she chirped. "I'm a fire demon, you know. Nobody knows more about fire magic than us. I wouldn't be much of a djinn if I couldn't tell a fire curse when I saw one!" 

Caleb stared frozen into the fireplace, mind wrenching into high gear in an attempt to combat his numbness and fatigue. "But -- if you know about it --" he stammered. 

The fireplace giggled. "Don't worry!" she said. "I won't let it get a hold in here.  This is my  castle, and no spell is going to go off inside it without my say-so!" 

Caleb sucked in a breath. He'd heard of fire demons. They were wild, elemental forces that came from beyond the boundaries of the world, and commanded powers of the earth and stars. From the sources he'd read every responsible magic-user was cautioned against interacting or under any circumstances making a deal with any fire demon, since the contracts made with them were magically enforced and binding, and the terms often beyond the scope of mortal comprehension. It was clear that Wizard Molly in his carelessness and hubris had made a deal with such a fire demon to bind it into his unnatural castle. 

But Caleb was in no position to complain about Wizard Molly's lack of professional ethics. "You can see it -- can you remove it?" he said urgently. "Please, bitte,  I had all but lost hope -- I will offer anything, anything, if you can --" 

"Hmm…" The figure in the fireplace sank down to a lower ember, as though the young woman had seated herself cross-legged on the coals. "Tricky. I'm already under contract, you see, and I can't make more than one. I'm bound to this hearth by pact to serve Wizard Molly, and until the terms of the contract are fulfilled I can't leave or act freely in any way." 

"And don't you get anything out of this contract?" Caleb asked shrewdly. 

"Of course!" The flames flared back up again as the fire demon leapt to her feet. "I wouldn't have agreed to it if that wasn't so. But I never knew it was going to be like this, either. Molly promised me that we'd travel the world, see new sights and meet new people, and get up to all sorts of fun adventures. But instead I'm bound to this fireplace and I can't move away. I used to be able to go anywhere I wanted and fly over everything. Now I can't go outside or even see what's outside the walls of this room! It's soooo borrrrring!" 

Caleb felt a stir of pity in his heart, long since scarred and iced over against any suffering but his own. He knew how it felt to be trapped, confined -- at least he had not been bound into magical slavery on top of it. "What if," he said slowly. "What if I could find a way to break your contract with Wizard Molly? Would you be able to help me with my curse, then?" 

"Yes!"  The fire leaped excitedly from side to side as the young woman danced about with glee. "That's a promise! I'll remove your curse the minute you free me from my contract with Molly!" 

"That's a deal then," Caleb said, feeling and ignoring a sudden stab at foreboding, at the realization that he was signing himself into a contract with an inhuman, fey and wild intelligence. "How do I break your contract?" 

"I can't tell you," the fire-woman admitted. At Caleb's dark scowl she hastened to add, "I'm sorry! I really can't. One of the terms of the contract is that I can't tell anyone else what the stipulations were. You know how it is. But you can figure it out if you try, I know you can. You look like a really smart human. Just stay around in the castle for a while and watch, and I know you will be able to find the clues and figure it out!" 

Caleb sighed, sinking back into the seat. "I suppose I have no choice," he said wearily. In all the time he'd been traveling alone there had never been anyone who had even known about the curse, let alone shown the power necessary to break it. He was an intelligent man -- or he had been, once -- so perhaps the demon was right, and observation would be all that was needed to solve the mystery. 

"It'll be fine,"  the fire girl said eagerly. "I'm so glad  to have another friend. And like I said, you'll be safe from any other fire magic so long as you're in here." 

"That is all I can ask," Caleb said solemnly. He held out his hand to the fire, palm up. "Let us swear on it, then. My name is Caleb Widogast." 

The flames flared and sputtered with excitement. "I'm Jester!" the fire demon yelled. Her voice was filled with the crackling and popping of flames, rising and falling in the same cadence as her excited leaps and bounds within the fireplace. She raised a wavering hand out of the fire in his direction, though even standing on her tip-toes she did not seem to quite be able to make the distance. "Glad to meet you, Caleb! We're gonna be such good friends!" 

He felt a smile coming on. He closed the distance enough to brush her fiery hand with his own -- a small flare of heat with an edge of pain, but worth it. He pulled his hand back and blew on it slightly. "I am always glad to make a friend," he said solemnly. 

As he sat back into the chair, huddling down into his coat, his mind began to move past the euphoric prospect of being free from his curse and onto the more practical difficulties that would litter the road ahead. "How are we going to make this work?" he said. "Wizard Molly, he, he will surely object to anyone who tries to take you away from him, will he not? Will he even let me stay here?" 

"Oh, he will, he will!" Jester said eagerly. "Don't worry, I'm sure that between you and me we can think of an excuse for you to be here! Molly's not really that smart, you know. In fact he's pretty useless in most things. He spends so much time wrapped up in himself, he barely notices what's in front of his face!" 

"Really?" Caleb said dubiously. 

"I'm sure," Jester emphasized, "that we can come up with a story that will work. Let's see. Maybe you can pretend that you are Molly's long-lost cousin who is visiting from Tal'Dorei?" 

"Er, does he have family in Tal'Dorei?" Caleb said dubiously. It was hard to think of such a wicked wizard as having any kind of family at all, let alone any in such a distant country that it might as well be another world. "Does he have humans in his family at all?"

"No idea," Jester said cheerfully. "I know, you can pretend to be some kind of Inspector. Checking to see that the castle's foundations are sound and do not have dry rot!" 

"The castle's foundations are walking around on five magical stilts," Caleb said, "I don't think they're particularly sound." 

"Well, that's what you're here to inspect, isn't it?" Jester said. "Oh! Maybe you can pretend you're a magical prodigy who has come for training?" 

"I would not be able to hold up that story for long," Caleb murmured, "since I don't have any magical talent whatsoever." 

He got the impression that the blue face in the flames was pouting at him. "You know, you're not being very helpful," the fire demon sulked. "Maybe if somebody wasn't constantly poking holes in my ideas, I would be able to think of something really good!" 

"Sorry," Caleb murmured, sinking back down into his chair. Jester seemed mollified by his apology and launched into another monologue of increasingly far-fetched and unlikely scenarios that would explain Caleb's presence in the castle. He found himself sinking further and further into the chair as she chattered on, occasionally flaring into glad roaring shouts as she was taken by an especially wild idea. Each time she did it sent another gust of warm air past his chair, tinged with a strong buzzing scent of magic. It had been so long since he was warm… so warm… 

He drifted off into sleep.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

Waking came slowly the next morning; it had been weeks (months) since he had a chance to sleep so well. The chair with its worn padding and hard wooden stiles was not as comfortable as a real bed might have been and his neck protested the slumped-over posture, but he was out of the wind and blessedly free of morning dew and oh so very warm. Archeart knew, it felt like years since he had really been warm. 

So he was slow to rouse from the sodden exhaustion that had overcome him; he felt warm and he felt safe,  and it was so long since he had been either that he didn't jolt awake the way he normally would have at the first tentative tug on his boots. 

Nor the second, either. Only when a clawed hand took hold of his boots and pulled,  his feet leaving the floor entirely, did Caleb jolt awake, arms and legs flailing backwards. His head jerked up, his eyes flew open, and he found himself staring down into a face that seemed to be composed entirely of wide, lamplike yellow eyes and a mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth. 

He screamed. The face shrieked. Caleb grabbed for balance and lost it, the chair tipping over backwards and filling his vision with stars as his head thudded against the stone floor. A small figure at the edge of his wobbly vision darted away from him, ran up against the edge of the bookcase, then swarmed up the side of the shelves to teeter precariously on the top of the case just under the ceiling. 

Caleb struggled to his feet, dragging himself away from the overturned chair. Panic seized his chest, making him pant for breath, and he looked around wildly until he found the source of the… teeth. 

"Who are you?" a creaky voice yelled from near the top of the bookcase. Caleb swung his gaze across the room and up it -- taking only a moment to be horrified by the haphazard way the books were piled and jumbled on the shelves -- to meet those glowing yellow eyes once more. With a little more distance, he was able to resolve the eyes and teeth -- and the long, green ears -- into a form that made sense: a goblin. Female goblin, he guessed from the hair, though it wasn't always easy to tell with goblins without getting considerably closer than most goblins would let you get. 

In his time on the streets Caleb had encountered plenty of goblins, always running in packs. They were not the worst hazard of life on the streets in that they wouldn't actively chase you to torment you for fun, but they were also ruthless in defense of each other and would work in tight-knit teams to strip you of whatever little you owned while another of them kept you distracted. But they always stuck close by and he'd never seen a female goblin alone before. Why was there a goblin here? 

"What were you doing to my shoes?" Caleb yelled, finally starting to get his breath back. 

"What are you doing in my house?" the goblin shrieked. 

Caleb froze, heart nearly stopping in his chest as he slowly looked up the bookshelf. "…are you the Wizard Molly?" he ventured. Gods, if he had managed to mortally offend the Wizard on his first day here before he'd even fully woken up, there was no way he'd be allowed to stay at the castle long enough for Jester to break his curse. 

"No, I'm not!" the goblin said, sounding offended. 

"If you are not the wizard, who are you?" 

"I already told you, I'm Nott!" she said, stridently annoyed to have to repeat herself. "I'm Nott the Brave. There's, there's no comma in that. But this is still my house and I don't like… home invaders!" 

"I was not invading anything! I was just having a nap!" Caleb protested. "If you are not the Wizard Molly, then it's none of your business what I'm doing in his castle… and anyway, you  were stealing my shoes!" 

"Just the soles!" Nott protested. "I have, I have a collection --" 

"You were trying to steal my soul?"  Caleb interrupted, horrified. It seemed that all the terrible stories he'd heard about Wizard Molly were true, after all. 

"No! No!" The goblin waved her arms frantically. "Shoe soles! I don't steal people  souls! I wouldn't even know how to do that, I'm only an apprentice!" 

"Oh." Finally things were starting to make sense again. Caleb never had been at his best first thing in the morning, and a face full of goblin teeth was a lot to wake up to. He squinted around in the morning light. 

In the daylight, the interior of the castle was a lot less ominous than it had been the night before. He was in a large room, about forty-five feet by forty, but it felt much smaller with the amount of clutter that was piled over every surface. There was a stairway on the far side of the room leading up and out of sight, and a ladder leading to some sort of loft that brimmed over with blankets and pillows. The corner with Jester's stove in it and the padded chair, now lying on its back with wooden legs sticking into the air, were almost the only items not being consumed by a slow tide of bric-a-brac. 

There was a case for books, but books were piled in heaps that slid out from the case to tumble onto the floor, many of them landing face-down on the stone floor. Caleb winced at the sight. More books made precarious piles on the tables, other chairs, even stools. Dishes were everywhere, silverware stuck into glasses like metal bouquets in glass vases, oddly clean despite the mess. 

Heavy black beams overhead trailed bundles of herbs, strings of onions and garlic knots, twists of colored paper and shiny metal and glass that served no apparent purpose and were probably magic. There were also things that were definitely magic, such as a workbench groaning under several sizes of cauldrons and flasks, beakers and evil-looking bottles and jars. 

More shelves were piled high with more confusing items, with no apparent rhyme or reason to any of them: Caleb caught a glimpse of a round-bellied lute leaning up against a pewter sculpture of a dragon mid-flame, a fancy and obviously theater-prop falchion colored in improbable blues and greens, and a yellowing human skull that seemed to be acting as a paperweight to hold down a sheaf of curling papers. 

And, of course, one goblin perched on top of a bookshelf, glaring down on him as though her luminous eyes could set him on fire. And if she was really a wizard's apprentice, perhaps she could. 

Where was this Wizard Molly? He was the one that Caleb had to convince, not a goblin apprentice and not a fire demon in a stove. "Is the Wizard at home?" he ventured cautiously. 

"No, he didn't come home last night." Nott gave a sniff, one that wrinkled her broad flat nose up on her face. "He'll probably do his Walk of Shame sometime around lunch." 

No doubt out seeking more innocent people to eat. Caleb thought fast, his mind finally waking up enough to think ahead instead of just reacting. He couldn't afford to make enemies here. They'd gotten off to a bad start -- he'd need to work hard to make himself pleasant to this Nott. "If you are studying magic, you must be very smart," he tried. 

"D'you think?" The green ears, pressed flat to her head, eased up slightly as she basked in the praise. Then they drooped a bit. "Actually, it was more that nobody else in town would take me in, so I fell asleep on his doorstep. He stepped on me the next time he went out and he was so sorry, he said I could go in to get a cup of tea and I did and then he just never told me to leave." 

The little speech confused more than it explained -- for one thing, why would a black wizard who ate people and made compacts with demons care about accidentally kicking a goblin girl? For another, the moving castle didn't have a doorstep; and for a third, the castle roved about on the moors, so what village? 

But there was one thing that he seized on above all the others. "Then would you not say that taking in people from the street is a fine tradition of this castle?" he argued. "In that sense, I am right at home." 

Nott frowned deeply, a fearsome expression on a face with that many teeth, and looked him up and down. Her eyes moved past him, settling on the stove in the corner. "Jester?" she creaked. "What's up with this guy? He's not one of the Witch's little pets, is he?" 

"Of course not," a voice floated back from the fire. Jester sounded grumpy, unlike her vivacious personality from the night before. Apparently she was not a morning… demon. "I wouldn't have let him in if he was. Now keep it down, would you? Some of us need our beauty sleep." 

Nott looked extremely doubtful, but she made no further move to try to evict Caleb from the castle. "Would you still want my… boot soles?" he hazarded. He was loath to part with his boots, the good leather of which had been the only thing enabling him to keep his toes as the nights got colder, but he needed the goblin's favor and he was not above bribery. 

"Oh! Can I?" Nott's expression lit up, and the happiness shining from her face made it almost worth the sacrifice. Caleb sat down and unlaced his shoes, and not without reluctance handed them over to Nott. The boots had traveled many unsavory places with him in the past few months, and of all of the parts of him were probably the dirtiest; but the little goblin showed no hesitance as she plunged her hands into the boots and peeled back the soles. New treasure in hand Nott glowed as she raced off up the ladder. "I'm putting these in my collection!" she yelled, heralding a series of scuffling thumps and then silence. 

Left alone in the castle -- well, alone aside from Jester -- Caleb decided to take a look around. There was not much to do before the Wizard returned, but he wanted to learn the lay of the land. Perhaps there would be some clues as to the nature of Jester's contract, and more importantly, it always helped to know where the exits were. 

The first tour of the room did not yield an exit. The ladder leading to the loft was on one side of the room, the stairs going up to the second floor on the other. A few plain wooden doors were set in the back wall. Caleb had assumed the rest of the castle must be beyond one of the doors since the room did not match the outside dimensions of the castle. 

But the doors opened only onto a pantry stuffed full of food, a storage closet piled with dusty curtains and a heap of miscellaneous trinkets, and a small courtyard surrounded by high walls and half-choked with rubble. Another door on the same wall, upstairs, led to a bathroom -- the shelves filled with packets and bottles of bewildering variety, the bathtub stained a deeply unsettling red. Was this where the Wizard Molly bathed in blood? Caleb shuddered and backed out of the bathroom without touching anything.

What was truly strange was that he could not feel the castle moving. He had not noticed the lack in the night, nor in the morning when distracted by Nott, but the rumbling noise that had been so deafening out on the hillside was completely absent inside. None of the precarious stacks of dishes so much as trembled or lurched. Filled with misgivings, Caleb went back over to the front door and opened it. 

It did not open out onto the moors. Instead, the door swung open onto a busy street scene: horses drawing grand carriages, hurrying pedestrians, a bard on one corner and a crier running down the road calling raucously. Caleb flinched back from the flood of color and noise and shut the door hastily. 

The castle was not where it had been when he had entered it last night. That much he understood, the castle walked after all. But how had it gotten from the far fringes of the Empire into the heart of a busy city? Had no one seen its entrance, or remarked on it, or stopped it? 

There was a window by the door. Caleb went to it, hoping to get some clue as to their location -- and stared. 

The window looked out onto a completely different scene than the door had opened onto. There were no grand buildings, no horses, no carriages -- barely any people, aside from an old woman sweeping off a stone step. A cat dozed contentedly in the window above her. Past the placid scene the cobbled road descended over a hill past more weathered board houses until it met the hazy blue line of the sea. 

Caleb tried the door again. Grand, gilded facades. Flagstone tiles on the road. The sound of a band playing from somewhere not too far away. 

Back to the window. The old woman had gone inside. A grizzled old sailor was sitting on a stoop, playing a harmonica that he could not hear. 

"I don't understand," he mumbled. 

A giggle from the stove in the corner behind him. He glanced over to see Jester leaning out of her stove, blue flames folded on the edge like arms and her pale face propped on her hands. She seemed a little more awake, and vastly amused by his consternation. "Try turning the wheel," she advised him. 

He looked at the door again and then saw there was a flat disc posted in the middle of the door, divided into four quadrants painted with different colors. There was a green, a red, a blue, and a black section, and the red section was currently pointing downwards. 

He tried turning it to green, and there was a sudden jolt  as though an electric shock had passed to his hand. When he cautiously opened the door again it was to a gust of cold wind blowing off the moors and the sight of sharp black rocks drifting slowly and lazily past the doorway as the roar of machinery filled his ears. 

He shut the door again and the noise instantly ceased. For several minutes he stared blankly at the door while Jester laughed behind him. 

He turned it back to red, opened the door, stepped outside. Even the short minute he spent outside was enough to garner dirty looks from the fancy passersby outside, but he ignored them as he turned and studied the building he just came from. It was a red-painted, gold-gilted door in a high, narrow façade, crowded on either side by similar facades decorated with crenelations and superfluous arches. Off in the distance above the skyline he saw three tall spires, varying in height and construction material but each breathtakingly magnificent. 

Back inside, back to green, he stepped down onto the stairs that hung in the open air above the passing rocks and craned his neck to study the castle overhead. It was even more unnerving in the daylight, the buildings and rooms and towers all jumbling together with every lurching, mismatched five-footed step. 

Back inside once more and he turned the knob to blue, opened the door, stepped outside. This was the landscape that had shown through the window, and he smelled the salt in the breeze as soon as he set foot on the slightly grungy cobblestones. From here he could hear the harmonica, some distant shouting from a few streets over, and the squabbling of seagulls. He turned and examined the building he had just come from, arms folded across his chest, then nodded and stepped back inside. 

"The doors are magic, and the room we are in is actually in the port town," he announced as he stepped back inside. From her fireplace Jester clapped excitedly. 

"You're right! How'd you know?" she wanted to know. 

"It is the only building that matches the dimensions of the room inside," he explained. "The city façade is too narrow and too tall, and if we were actually on the moors right now we should be able to feel the movement of the castle. The fact that we cannot means that this is the real location." 

"See, I knew that you were smart!" Jester exclaimed. 

"It's an idea that Molly came up with," a scratchy voice said from behind them and Caleb turned to see the goblin girl, Nott, coming back down the ladder. She seemed somewhat more reconciled to his presence here. "He says that roaming around the moors in a dark and brooding castle is good for his wicked reputation, but that if he had to live so far away from a decent shopping district he'd wither and die." 

"He might have come up with the idea, but I'm  the one who has to keep the castle together and keep it moving," Jester grumbled. The fire flared as she huffed. "Why did I get stuck with a wizard who is so lazy." 

"I'm going to make myself some breakfast," Nott said, ignoring the fire demon's criticism of her mentor. "D'you want some?" 

Caleb had been hungry for so long he was adept at ignoring it, and the whole business with the walking castle and the fire demon and waking up to a faceful of goblin and the magic doors had been overwhelming enough to put other concerns out of his mind. But once Nott had mentioned it, Caleb realized that he had not eaten in several days, and his traitorous body threatened a violent revolt if food was not secured quickly. "Yes, please," he said faintly. 

Nott scuttled over to the door of the pantry and swung it open, sticking her head inside. "We've got ham, bacon and sausage," she reported, amidst clanks and clatters. "Also pancetta, lox, pork paste, and a piece of cold kidney and mutton pie if that's your sort of thing." 

The listing of meat-based breakfast foods made Caleb feel slightly ill, even in the face of the hunger. "I don't suppose you have… toast?" he said. 

The goblin drew her head back out of the pantry and stared at him in perplexity. "Toast?" 

"You know… bread?" Caleb said somewhat hopelessly. 

A moment of silence ticked passed in the kitchen. From the stove, Jester giggled. 

"We have eggs," Nott said at last. 

Caleb sighed. "That will be very well, please," he said.

He supposed it was too much to hope that a carnivorous goblin, a demon and a devil-wizard's kitchen would have any kind of normal breakfast foods.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

Frumpkin made himself known as soon as the smells of cooking egg and bacon filled the room, twining around Caleb's legs and meowing pathetically. He picked up the cat and held him in his arms so that he would not get in the way of Nott's cooking, scratching his ears slightly in an attempt to distract both of them. 

Thankfully breakfast did not take long, and Nott turned back to them with a beaming smile on her face and a plate of food in each hand. "Breakfast!" she announced delightedly. She cast a more dubious look over the overburdened table, only a tiny corner of it cleared, and a second chair which was piled with books and clothes.. "Er, you can just sort of… shove things over to make room." 

He did so, gingerly, not wanting to break any of the unknown knickknacks; Nott was more casual, sweeping an entire flotilla of tiny statues onto a pile of books on the floor. Caleb winced at the crashing sound, although nothing actually seemed to be broken. 

Caleb sat gingerly at the small cleared area. One thing that was rather puzzling was the fact that despite the chaotic mess the surface of the table was actually quite clean, as were the dishes that Nott handed him. It seemed out of place that everything could be so haphazardly strewn about and yet not accumulate any dirt. He fed bits of each dish to Frumpkin, who hunkered under the table and purred as he devoured them. 

Nott tore into her food and if Caleb had any worries about hunger destroying his table manners, one glance at her dispelled them. In fact, he found he had to eat his own portion slowly; he'd been on short rations so long that he could only manage small bites at a time. The rich, protein-heavy food threatened rebellion on a stomach that had been subsisting on rotten scraps for months. 

He attempted to pace himself with some distraction. "Where are we, really?" Caleb asked, nodding towards the port city in the window. 

"Nicodranas," Nott answered readily, mouth stuffed full of food. Bits of egg sprayed onto the table as she talked, some of them landing on the books as Caleb stared in horror. "Oh, shib." She swallowed hastily and put down her fork, making a hasty gesture with one clawed hand. Astoundingly a flare of silver light followed her fingers, and the spilled food raised up in the air and vanished. 

Well. That explained the unusual cleanliness. Caleb supposed this scotched any plans he might have had of persuading Wizard Molly to hire him on as a cleaning lady. Cleaning man. Whatever. 

Nott stuffed in another bite of food and and went on talking. "The red door opens onto Zadash near the Trispires district. The green door, we keep it moving around in the wilderness, mostly places people don't go. The black door is Molly's super secret wizard lair,  we don't know where it goes, nobody but him can get through that door." 

"Surely Jester must know," Caleb said, looking over at the fire demon. 

She gave a flickering shrug. "I maintain the spell, but I can't see what's on the other side of it," she said. "I told  you I can't see outside of this room." 

"Oh." Caleb made a note to snoop around in the 'secret lair' at the first chance he got. Most likely Molly's notes would be hidden there, a good place to start his research.  

As he ate, Caleb mentally reviewed what he knew about fire demons. Fire spirits,  his tutor would have corrected scrupulously, also known as djinns, genies or elementals. They had acquired a number of names over the years, more or less derogatory depending on how the encounter with mortals had gone. 

If he recalled his planar cosmology classes right, fire demons came from the Elemental Chaos, which formed an amorphous ring of being outside of the Material Plane. No -- there was the Material Plane, the Ethereal Plane, the Astral Sea, and then  the Elemental Chaos outside of it. They were, according to their nature, beings of fundamental disorder, and their presence in the Material Plane were inevitably followed by wakes of chaos. 

The only thing that distinguished them from the unstructured chaos of their surroundings was their rigid adherence to laws and contracts that, once made, could not be broken. It was for this reason that contracts between mortals and elementals were so fraught: they were magically binding and enforced, but often contained elements and stipulations thought up by minds intrinsically alien to mortals. 

But elementals could not exist in the Material Plane for long. Caleb remembered that. It was rare for an elemental to turn up in the Material Plane at all unless summoned by an unscrupulous spellcaster, since they would have to cross the entirety of the Astral Plane and break through the Crystal Sphere to get here. 

Caleb had no idea what a summoning ritual would entail -- his had been a general education, not tailored specifically to the topic; there was no reason for anyone but a spellcaster to learn spells and rituals. But he knew enough cosmology to know that an elemental on the Material Plane would soon fade and vanish without help. Probably somewhere in the castle would be books on the topic he could read to get a better idea of how the summoning ritual had been done and what sort of exchange had taken place. 

So, Caleb concluded, Wizard Molly must have summoned Jester to this world for some favor, and was holding her here until the contract was completed. It was one thing to know in the abstract that this sort of deal took place all the time, with spellcasters exploiting elemental spirits for power, and another thing to meet  an actual fire spirit. Jester was smart and funny, and kind even to a homeless vagrant that stumbled onto her fire. Anyone who would exploit and abuse that, who would imprison and enslave a sapient being in exchange for power, must truly be a monster.

The knob on the door suddenly turned without being touched, ending up black-side down. A wave of darkness fell over the windows beside the door. Caleb looked up from the remains of his sausages as the door creaked open and a man stepped through it, only darkness framed in the doorway behind him. 

"Oh, hello Molly," Nott said, sounding nervous and guilty. "You're, er, back early?" 

Caleb stared. 

The first thing that surprised him about the Wizard Molly was that the man was a tiefling. That explains the whole 'spawn of the devil' thing, I suppose,  he thought. The second thing that surprised him was that Wizard Molly was young -- he'd been envisioning an old man in a robe and pointed hat, doddering about with a white beard down to his knees. This man could be no more than Caleb's age, though he looked much younger and fresher without Caleb's months of hard living to mar his face. 

He was tall and slim, dressed in a fabulous outfit that accentuated the fit and toned shape of his body. Tailored black pants clung to his legs and tucked into boots decorated with jewels, elevated on heeled platforms that boosted his height. He wore a rich, flowy poet's shirt left unlaced to reveal the skin of his chest, a striking lavender color that Caleb had never seen before, fine elegant collarbones leading up to a slender neck. Topping the ensemble was a fabulous coat of blue and pink diamonds with broad belled sleeves, a high pointed collar, and a weighted hem that swirled dramatically with each movement. 

His hair was a rich bright purple, his horns curled gracefully around his head, and both were decorated extensively with enough jewelry to make a magpie blush: bright silver chains and charms on his horns, jeweled pins in his hair, deep emerald and gold glinting from his ears. It would have been the most arresting thing about him if not for the third thing that surprised Caleb, which was his eyes. 

The wizard's eyes were a bright blue -- not just the irises but the entire eye from lid to lid was filled with the pure jewel tone that showed neither pupil nor sclera. Caleb hadn't encountered many tieflings in his life, but he was pretty certain most of them didn't have eyes like this. Right now they were widened, taken aback, as the tiefling stared at Caleb with as much astonishment as Caleb felt looking at him. 

Because the fourth thing that surprised Caleb was a searing flash of recognition, a tumult of memories, and on the heels of them a driving realization: 

Wizard Molly was a fraud.

 


 

 A year ago now, shortly after his return to Blumenthal to take over the bookbinding shop, he'd been forced to go out on a busy festival day to make a meeting with a supplier. It had not been a good day for him; the streets had been thronged with people, the sun hot and bright overhead, and the air was filled with a cacophony of noise, screaming, overpowering scents, bright flashing colors, and people dancing and running without regard to who they might trample underfoot. 

It had all been too much for Caleb; his best efforts to block out the overwhelming sensory assault had failed and he was on the point of a meltdown. He'd had to crouch by the parapet of a bridge to take deep breaths, eyes closed and ears covered, trying to regain enough strength to go on when one of the dancing partygoers had bumped into him.  

Caleb had shied violently away and the man took a step back and held out his hands reassuringly. "Easy, darling, I mean no harm," the tiefling had laughed. "Are you all right? Do you need any help?"  

He'd shaken his head. It was all he could do. He couldn't summon the words to say  no  or even yes,  too overwhelmed to even think of what help  would look like. 

"Hmm, if you say so," the purple tiefling said, then smiled brightly and spread his arms wide in an extravagant gesture. "Well, if you change your mind, come and see me! I can tell your future, extremely  accurate, ten pennies a reading but for such a handsome man I'm certain I can manage a discount. It's the red and purple booth by the clock tower, ask for Mollymauk Tealeaf, open all day, stop by anytime!" 

And he'd swirled his coat and pranced off, and watching him go was so distracting that by the time he'd disappeared into the crowd Caleb had calmed down enough to get his breath back. He'd managed to complete his errand and escape home, and the encounter had faded back into his memory as just one more overwhelming encounter in a city filled to the brim with them. 

He wasn't particularly worried that Molly would recognize him. It had been a year -- Caleb knew that most people didn't have his memory. They'd only met for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day, and besides his own appearance had changed so much in the interim -- he was no longer the clean-cut merchant's son he had been, even his own family would have trouble recognizing him now. 

If it was the same tiefling -- Caleb hadn't looked at his eyes then, but how many purple-skinned tieflings could there be in Wildemount? -- there was no legitimate reason for a real wizard to be telling bogus fortunes in a crowded market square for pennies apiece. Jester had said that the moving castle and magic doors had been Molly's idea but it had fallen to her to execute it, and now he thought he saw why: Molly had no genuine magic of his own. He had somehow stumbled into a contract with a fire demon, and now used her to keep up the illusion of wizardry when he had none of his own. 

But he could not say any of his realization, of course. Not with the so-called Wizard standing right in front of him at any rate. He still had command over Jester, and could expel Caleb from the castle at a word. He had to find some way to convince Molly to let him stay, and not let on what he knew. 

"Who in the world are you?" Molly said, looking bewildered. "Have I met you before?" 

"No," Caleb said firmly. "I am a total stranger." 

"Oh," Molly said. "Good." 

As Caleb was trying to figure out what he meant by that Molly walked forward, removing his coat and swirling it behind him dramatically as he did. "And what is a total stranger doing in my home, pray tell?" he asked.

He remembered what Nott had said about the castle -- how Wizard Molly was using it to cultivate his reputation -- and in a flash he knew just what to say. 

"I," he announced, drawing himself up proudly, "am your new butler." 

"Are you now?" Molly said, seeming bemused. "Who says you are?" 

"I  do," Caleb repeated firmly. "Any wicked sorcerer who wishes to be taken seriously in this day and age simply must employ an equally wicked butler." 

"Molly's not wicked!" Nott piped up, jumping gamely to the defense of her mentor. 

"Yes I am," Molly countered. He looked back at Caleb. "What if I don't have the budget to spare for a wicked butler?" 

"You can take me on free for a month's trial," Caleb said, thinking that would give him plenty of time to investigate and find the secret of Jester's contract while also having a safe place to sleep at night. "If my services don't please you, I can leave at the end of it without a copper piece spent on your part." 

"A generous offer," Molly said. Caleb couldn't tell if the tiefling was laughing at him or not. "And what exactly does wicked butlering entail?" 

Caleb couldn't help but scoff. "Your library is a complete disaster area," he said, gesturing to the slow-motion avalanche of books off the shelf. "Your brewing ingredients are in utter disarray. Your spell components are scattered from here to Marquet. It's clear that you cannot manage your own belongings, you need wicked minions to do your bidding." 

"That's me," Nott put in. 

Caleb wracked his brains, trying to think of other things that butlers did. It was clear that Molly was a man who cared a lot about his appearance, who seemed to spend a lot of time and money on his clothes. "I can also keep your wardrobe in order," he said, "make certain that your clothes are washed and pressed and ready for you." 

Molly's eyebrows rose over those startling eyes. "Forgive me my doubts that you  would be one to turn to for keeping my clothes clean," he said. "Or just about anything clean, for that matter." 

That was rude, Caleb thought, but perhaps fair. "I would think a wizard would know better, than to be deceived by appearances," was all he could think to say. 

"Hm," Molly said. 

"I think he should stay with us!" Nott piped up unexpectedly, lending her support to Caleb's case. "He's not a scary person at all, and he let me have his shoes for my collection?" 

Molly glanced down at Caleb's feet, now only clad in his tattered, filthy socks, and he felt an intense urge to hide his feet that he pushed back strongly against. "That's... nice," Molly said. 

"He is  nice!" Jester piped up from the stove, and executed a twirl as Molly looked over at her. "You promised me that I would get to make new friends, Molly, and I almost never get to meet people!" 

"You meet new people all the time," Molly said. 

"Yes and then we kill them  Molly that's not the same," Jester pouted. Caleb choked slightly, though neither Molly nor Nott seemed to find anything unusual about this statement. "Pretty please, Molly Molly Molly!" 

"Am I still dreaming or are the two of you actually in agreement for once?" Molly said, looking Caleb up and down. "You know what, sure. Let's just start a shelter for strays in here, why not?" 

Since he was looking at Caleb at the time, the tiefling didn't see how Nott flinched slightly, ears drooping a bit at the word. With some difficulty, he forced a smile onto his face. "I live to serve," he said through gritted teeth. 

"Well, if you are so dearly in love with servitude, then far be it from me to be the one to deprive you. Do you have a name, or should I just call you 'boy' and snap my fingers when I want you?" 

"My name is Caleb," he said stiffly. He did not give his surname; Molly did not need to know that, and there was still a risk that the tiefling might remember him from Blumenthal. His parents' business had been well-established and well-known, before he had ruined everything. 

"Caleb,"  Molly repeated, and he said the name in an odd sing-song tone, the two syllables on a falling intonation. Caleb still could not tell if Molly was mocking him or not.  The tiefling tossed his coat at Caleb, who caught one sleeve as the tail of it hit him in the face. "Be a dear and get this washed, would you?" 

He then headed for the stairs, calling out as he did, "Hot water, Jester darling, and keep it coming!" Upstairs on the landing, a door slammed shut. 

"Hooray!" Jester cheered. "You get to stay, and that means we can get to working on the," she leaned forward and spoke in a whisper that clearly sounded across the whole room, "that super secret project." 

"I can still hear you, you know," Nott called out as she crossed the room to dig into a cabinet. "I'm glad you'll be staying with us, Caleb. Now, can we finish breakfast already?"

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

Molly stayed in the bathroom throughout the rest of breakfast, Jester's fire flickering as splashing noises sounded from overhead. Nott used the same spell again on the breakfast dishes to leave them clean and shining, then shoved them carelessly into the same pile of junk that covered the rest of the table. 

"If you're going to be staying here after all," Nott said, "we're going to need to buy more food." 

She went over to the corner of the room near the stove, where the junk-pile was lower, and shifted aside a splintery wooden crate. A patch of smooth flagstone was revealed, which Nott levered up with a quick deft action of her claws. 

Revealed under the loose flagstone was a surprisingly roomy hidey-hole full of a jumble of… Caleb craned his neck trying to get a good look in Jester's flickering light, and his eyebrows went up. There was practically a pirate's treasure under there; a jumbled mess of jewelry, bracelets, brooches, rings, and wallets. The wallets were a pretty good indication, in case there was any doubt, that Nott was almost certainly not the original owner of this largesse. 

"Is Molly aware of this, ah, stash?" Caleb asked as casually as he could. If he wasn't, then Jester was right, he really was oblivious of what went on his own home. 

Nott froze and looked up over her shoulder at him, eyes wide and guilty. "Don't tell him!" she pleaded, an answer all its own. "Molly is terrible  with money. I need to keep this aside if we're going to have enough money to eat." 

"He is," Jester grumbled, punctuating her complaints with little spitting flares. "I went to all that trouble of making sending stones for the Seventh Legion, and the day after we got paid for that Molly went to the market and spent it all.

"He did buy some  useful things," Nott defended her mentor. "He bought me a new cauldron after my last one, um, melted." 

"Yes, but he didn't buy any food,  let alone coal!"  Jester complained. "It was super rude of him. You guys can go hungry if you want, but I  need fuel!" 

"We only had a few gold pieces left," Nott said glumly, "and the next day he went to some little trinket shop and spent the last of it on that stupid fake sword and the lute. He said they called  to him." She picked up a few of the wallets and shook them out upside down, showing most of them to be empty before she finally got a few coins from one of them. The empty ones got tossed back in on top of the rest. 

Caleb nodded understanding. He had certainly been on the street long enough to appreciate the need for a little pickpocketing in the face of starvation. It was not the motivation, but the method that puzzled him. "Why keep so much of the jewelry, then?" he said. "Surely this is worth quite a lot." 

"Oh, well…" Nott shuffled her clawed feet a bit. "I do  go for the coinpurses usually, they're a lot more useful, but… the other stuff is just so shiny.  But it's dangerous to try to sell it." She let out a gusty sigh. "The second time I tried to sell a pocketwatch at a pawn shop, the broker recognized it from a missing property report the owner filed with the Crownsguard. I had to run like blazes to get out of that one, and I just… couldn't risk it, after that." 

Caleb winced at the mention of the Crownsguard, and nodded hasty agreement. "Yes, yes, good idea," he said fervently. "No Crownsguard, no. But... you have a moving castle with magic doors, which can take you between cities at a moment's notice. Why not steal in the morning from one city, then fence it in the afternoon in another location, before the description of missing property could possibly make it from one city to the next?" 

Nott's big lamplike eyes blinked in consideration. "I suppose I could do that…" she said uncertainly. She chewed on her lip. "But, how do I remember which jewelry comes from which city?" 

Caleb measured out the space under the floorboard by eye, then reached over and dug out a set of empty wooden boxes from a nearby pile. They smelled pungently, if old and faded, of tobacco. "Keep one box for each city, with their names written on them, and as you get new jewelry you can put it in the corresponding box," he said. "That way you will never forget where you picked it up." 

Nott clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes round and shining. Before Caleb could react, she threw herself forward and wrapped her arms around his thighs in a tight hug. "I like  this one!" she declared. "Can we keep him, Jester?!" 

"Ooh, yes!" Jester said delightedly. "I'm glad you guys are friends!" 

"I am glad too," Caleb said as he attempted to peel the goblin off him. "But perhaps we should cover up your stash? Molly might come down at any time and see it." 

Nott and Jester both scoffed, Jester with a crackle of burning twigs and Nott with a sound like a hacking cough. "Not likely," Jester said. "He'll have me heating water for him for hours." 

"Especially if he's going to go out tonight," Nott agreed. "He won't come out of that bathroom any time soon, that's for sure." 

"If you say so," Caleb said. "Then perhaps we should go on this shopping trip?" 

The coins disappeared into Nott's clothes and she scampered over to the door. She reached up and pulled a cloak from the coatrack, smaller and plainer than Molly's ridiculous checkered coat. It looked just about goblin- or Halfling-sized, an impression confirmed when Nott looped the cloak around her shoulders and pulled the hood over her head -- 

There was a complicated swirl of color and shape inside the hood, and a moment later in Nott's place there stood a red-headed Halfling girl. A light brown face spattered with darker freckles framed by bright copper hair grinned out at him from the depths of the hood -- and though the teeth were no longer sharp, Caleb recognized Nott's distinctive smile even through the disguise. 

"That is very handy," was all he could think of to say. In fact -- "I don't suppose you have any more of those?" Such a thing seemed like it would be invaluable for avoiding attention from the Crownsguard. 

"No, Molly had Jester make this one just for me," Nott said. "I can't wear it all the time -- too bad -- but it's good for getting the shopping done without people getting shitty about the whole, you know, the whole goblin thing. It's cool, huh?" 

It seemed a marvel in fact, magic more useful than any number of walking castles or sending stones. "May I try it on?" he asked. A cloak that could disguise him as someone entirely new might… be very handy, in the future. 

"Oh, try it!" Jester urged him. "Do try, do! I want to see this?" 

Nott hesitated, then shrugged. "Sure, if you want," she said as she pulled off the cloak; the red-haired illusion seemed to peel away like a thin gossamer layer of cloth to reveal Nott again, green skin and dark-blue hair and shark teeth. "I'm not sure it'll work for you, though, it's really made for someone smaller --" 

Caleb slung the cloak across his own shoulders. Right away he felt an odd stuck, pulling sensation like trying to get into a pair of leggings two sizes too small. He managed to get it in place, but as soon as he turned around Jester shrieked with laughter that caused the flames to whoosh nearly to the ceiling. 

"Oh -- oh!" she shrieked. "You have to, you have to see a mirror! You look like -- some kind of zombie!" 

Nott looked torn between laughter and horrified revulsion, and after a few minutes of scuffling she dug up a shiny baking pan from the piles of clutter and held it up for Caleb to see the source of all this hilarity. 

He had to admit, Jester wasn't wrong. The illusion did not cover his height at all. It looked elongated, like a sheet of paper that had been wetted and then stretched upwards, and patches of his original skin color showed through under the darker brown. He had been on the thin side already from his months living on the street but he now had Halfling-width limbs on a full human-sized body, leaving him look practically like a skeleton. A diseased skeleton. Even his hair looked wrong, like it couldn't decide whether it was straight or curly and ended up just sticking out in every direction.

He sighed. "Not exactly inconspicuous," he said. "Perhaps I had better go out under my own appearance." 

"I think that might be for the best," Nott agreed. "Maybe Jester can make you one of your own, later?" 

"Maybe," Caleb agreed, although he had no intention of staying that long. He pulled off the cloak and returned it to Nott, then went over to the coatrack and looked it over. "Is that all you have? No scarf or gloves? The magic cloak is nice, but it is not very warm."

"I'll be fine!" Nott assured him. "I don't get cold easy, and besides, it's a lot warmer in Nicodranas. We won't be out long enough for it to be a problem." 

Caleb was willing to defer to Nott; she was the native here and he was not. He reclaimed his own shabby coat and returned his feet to his broken-down boots, all the more broken now with the inner soles having gone to feed Nott's collection. Between the holes in the outer soles of the boot and the ragged holes in his socks -- widening by the hour under the wear he was subjecting them to -- his feet were getting to know the ground better than he would have liked. 

Nothing to be done about it, he supposed. He wound his sash around his waist, crossing over his chest and back and up around his neck, and once again he had all his worldly possessions on his back, ready to move on at a moment's notice. Frumpkin appeared from between the shelves, no doubt drawn by the familiar routine of Caleb's preparations, and jumped over onto his shoulders. Caleb gave a rusty chuckle as the cat settled himself, shifting his weight between Caleb's neck and his hood, and heaved a feline sigh. 

"Shall we?" Caleb said, and gestured for Nott to lead the way. 

The little street outside the blue door was familiar enough to Caleb by now, but he had not yet set foot anywhere else in the city. He followed Nott on the cobbled road leading down the hill towards the harbor that strung itself out in a half-circle around the calm and peaceful bay. Up from the water the land began to rise, a gentle slope at first before it rose into steeper hills and over on the far side of the bay, a towering promontory of stone. White seabirds wheeled and circled in the blue sky around the rocks, no doubt riddled with their nests. 

They reached the end of the road at the hill and turned to the west, going along the curve of the harbor and towards the rest of the town. The bigger hills also had the bigger buildings, humans in their typical way wanting to build houses that let them look down on the world around them. 

The streets and buildings around Molly's castle entrance had a shabby, run-down look to them. Paint peeled and faded, metal rusted, cobbles grew a coating of salt and lime, wood slumped in a soft and slow disintegration in the humid air. The other side of the bay, where they seemed to be headed, was a little better kept up; the buildings were newer, the paving stones crisper, thick blue paint coating metal and wood to protect it against the sea air. 

The smells drifting up from the harbor were, unfortunately, inescapable -- salt and seaweed and rotting fish, to say nothing of the trash and effluvia that inevitably ran down into the water from the town itself. Frumpkin sniffed curiously at the fishy smells but was content to stay on Caleb's shoulders for now, ears pricked as he watched everything with interest. 

Caleb was no less fascinated. "Is this your first time being in Nicodranas?" Nott asked, watching the way his head craned around to take everything in. 

"Yes," Caleb said. He'd moved around to a lot of cities in the last ten months, but he'd never been outside the borders of the Empire. He looked around with great interest, noting subtle differences in the architecture and construction. The Empire liked tall, strong vertical columns with columns and arches forming diamond shapes across them; Nicodranas seemed to prefer elegant curlicues and scrolling carvings. They also seemed to prefer wood and plaster, contrasted with the Empire's shining marble and metal. 

"Where did you grow up?" Nott said. "I've never heard an accent like yours before. No offense." 

"None taken," Caleb said. "I grew up in Blumenthal. It is a little town in the Zemni Fields, near Rexxentrum." 

"Oh, in the Dwendalian Empire?" Nott said. 

"Yes," Caleb said. 

Nott looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and cleared her throat. "Is your family, er…" She made a vague gesture with her hands. 

"Dead?" Caleb grimaced. "My parents are." 

Nott coughed apologetically. "I was going to say 'poor,' but um, sorry to hear that." 

"It is all right." Caleb stuck his hands in his pockets as they walked, though the weather was much gentler here than it had been on the moors. Damper, with an acidic tang of salt that hung over everything, but mild enough to even be warm in the sunlight. "My mother died when I was young, my father passed away last winter. I have two younger siblings, though. A little brother and sister." 

"Oh, so you're the eldest!" Nott exclaimed. "That fits, somehow. You have that sort of… vibe." 

"Yes," Caleb agreed morosely. "The eldest is always the failure of the family, and I am no exception to that." Though for a time it had seemed like he might have been. 

"Oh, no, that's not what I meant," Nott said hastily. "It just seems like you're used to, you know, taking care of people." 

"I have had some practice," Caleb said. "But to answer your other question, no, we were not poor. My parents ran a bookbinding business and we were mostly quite successful." 

"Bookbinding?" Nott's nose wrinkled slightly in puzzlement. "So you sold books?" 

"Not quite. We did sell some books, but that was not our primary practice." His eyes went distant, focusing more on memory than on the present day. "We did the printing and binding for other people's books that they brought to us. We had a little storefront, and we would sell copies there of the books that we printed, but that was more for their benefit than anything else -- a way to advertise their newest books. You could not just, just walk into our store and ask for any book, only the books that we had printed." 

"So that's why you like books so much!" Nott exclaimed. 

Caleb smiled a bit. "Yes, I grew up around them. They were a refuge to a quiet boy that didn't make many friends his age, and I learned so much about what goes into making a good book." He thought for a moment. "I think you value things more, when you truly understand how they are made." 

"So you read a lot of books growing up?" She sounded a little envious. "You must be really smart." 

"Yes." Caleb grimaced at the reminder. He had heard that so many times growing up, how smart and clever he was, and it had bought him nothing but trouble in the end. "I was the best student in our little town's school. My father was so proud of me, he always told me I was destined for great… great things. He saved money, saved enough money to send me to Rexxentrum to go to a special school there." 

He brooded on the memories for some time, walking through the bright autumn sunlight of the port town without seeing any of it. As they turned onto a broad avenue running straight uphill from the harbor, the smell of the sea was at least countered out by the kinder scent of flowers growing in boxes that lined the road. 

When the breeze shifted it carried with a hubbub of voices, shouting and laughing and arguing over wares, as well as the complex medley of organic and inorganic scents that signaled a market. It reminded him of the market in his home town, and the reminder was a bitter one. "For a time… for a time there, I thought I might really be somebody." 

"What happened?" Nott said tentatively. 

"My father died." He remembered the letter, delivered to him in the middle of class one day. How everything had seemed to come crashing down around him. At the time it had seemed like the worst day of his life; now, he looked back and realized it was only the beginning of the end. "And I came home. He had taken out many loans, many debts to pay for my schooling, and never told us. Once he was gone, there was no way I could have stayed in school." 

"So… did you… lose your business?" Nott said. "Because of all the debts. Is that why you were out on the street?" 

He shook his head. "No. Not then. I took over the business and… took over with my siblings as well, or I tried to." 

He had been gone for long enough, and the gap between him and his siblings great enough, that he had returned home to find them virtual strangers. Both in the throes of their own teenage troubles, made much worse for the grief of their father's death. Caleb had been no fit replacement for their father. Their father had been always patient, always firm, always knowing just what to say and he was... not.

Eodwulf had chosen to take out his teenage rebellion by running wild through what nightlife a city like Blumenthal could muster.  He kept company with the worst the town had to offer and dragged back home in the small hours every morning reeking of alcohol, sporting bloody noses or black eyes or worse. Astrid… Astrid had been quieter in her defiance but in some ways she had worried him even more, with the dark stains he'd seen on her bedroom floor or the small dead things that he found scattered around the house. 

He had not known how to reach them. He had not known how to manage them. He had been too busy struggling with the business to even try. And then it had been too late. 

He shook the memories away. "It was not always easy, but we were doing all right. Keeping afloat. And then…" He swallowed; his throat was thick and dry. "Then I fucked up." 

"What happened?" Nott asked gently. 

"I..."He shook his head. It was getting harder and harder to talk the closer he got to That Day. "I resented having to leave the school. I didn't like having to manage the business, look after my siblings, talk to customers. I was rude, and insolent, and I made angry… a wrong person." 

The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer he had ever seen came in, with a gauzy wrap draped over her elaborately embroidered corset and a majestic, feathered tricorn hat perched on her head. Diamonds winked like countless eyes from all over the gauzy wrap, each one doubtless enough to purchase the store and everything in it. The lady herself was imposingly, powerfully beautiful. She had long auburn hair that fell in waves down her back, unbound and yet with every strand perfectly in place.  

She was trailed by another man, perhaps a servant, and despite the pale white color of his hair the man appeared to be quite young. His eyes were also pale and colorless, and there was something oddly formless about him, like his face and features were smudged in his memory even when he was looking right at the man. The young man trailed after his mistress with careful obedience, but there was something approaching horror in his expression when he looked at the shop and at Caleb.  

"Come along Percival, don't dawdle," the woman tsked over her shoulder as she stepped into the shop, her tall heels clicking along the floor. Caleb switched his attention back to the customer, and felt an unpleasant shock as he forced himself to look up to her eyes. Her eyes were red -- not just bloodshot or red irises, but solid red from lid to lid.  

With eyes like those it seemed like she ought to be blind, yet she surveyed the display area with an expression of carefully controlled disdain. She turned to Caleb with a sneer already on her lips. "I heard that you produce fine books," she said. "Show me."  

After a few minutes of watching him visibly struggle in silence, Nott offered, "You made a powerful enemy." 

"Yes," he choked out. "And I… they…" 

Red hair, red eyes, fire wreathing from her lips, burning in his ears… 

Nothing more made it out of his mouth. Nott misunderstood the source of his reticence and said with pity, "It's okay Caleb, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

Caleb nodded miserably. The words howled behind his throat, clamoring to be let out, desperate to be heard; but the curse kept his mouth shut. It was not that he did not want to talk about it as that he could not. 

"I don't mean to pry," Nott apologized. 

He managed a watery smile. "Yes you do, but it is okay," he said. "Nobody has ever asked before. There are some things… I cannot talk about, but I do not mind that you asked. It is nice that you are interested, that you… care." 

They continued walking in silence. At last Nott plucked up the nerve to continue the conversation. "So… um… what happened to your little brother and sister?" 

"Hm?" Caleb roused from his thoughts, good memories made black by hindsight. 

"With… whatever happened." She waved her hand. "Did they go out on the street with you? Are they still out there? Maybe we could find them, help them." 

"You are very kind," he assured her. "But I don't think so. After… what happened, I had to leave, alone. They are still in Blumenthal as far as I know. I believe they are staying with relatives. I was the one who could not stay." 

A small hand slipped into his pocket, making him jump. Under the disguise Nott's hand was still that of a goblin, cold and dry with long sharp claws. She took his hand and squeezed tentatively. "Well, you can stay with us, Caleb," she said firmly. "We're happy to have you." 

"Thank you," Caleb said. 

They turned a final corner and were at the market, a broad plaza lined by storefronts, canvas stalls scattered around the square. Thankfully it didn't look too busy; not market-day perhaps, or not the time that most people usually went shopping. Nott trotted off among the stalls with easy familiarity, and Caleb followed behind. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly given how breakfast had gone she showed the most interest in meats, passing by a fruit stand with hardly a second glance but spending a long, intent time over a stall selling various kinds of sausages. The vendor even had a small display of Zemnian leberkäse, which Caleb suggested Nott might like; she added the corned beef sausages to her order with enthusiasm. Caleb willingly played the role of baggage donkey, and in return managed a few murmured suggestions that perhaps bread  or even vegetables  might not go amiss. Nott obligingly added a few knots of dark bread and a handful of eggs to the basket, although she wrinkled her disguised nose at the box of turnips.

"I haven't had to think about other kinds of food in a long time," Nott admitted. "Jester doesn't need to eat, and I really only can eat meat." 

"What about Wizard Molly?" Caleb asked. "Is he more like you? Only wanting meat?" 

Nott sniffed. "Molly goes out to eat all the time," she said. "It costs so much! The only groceries he ever buys are cake and pastries." 

"Wizard Molly, he seems kind of…" Caleb searched for the right words in Common. "A dick." 

Nott giggled, for a moment sounding like Jester before her face smoothed into seriousness. "He's not so bad really," she said earnestly. "He can be awfully sarcastic sometimes, but he does care, honest. He let me stay at the castle, and he let me read his books and learn magic, so I'll always have something I can do in the future!" 

It seemed to Caleb more that Molly had allowed Nott to read the books and learn magic for the purpose of exploiting her labor, but he supposed there was nothing to be gained by driving a further wedge between them. "Mm." 

"You just have to look at his actions more than his words," Nott said, kicking a loose cobblestone along the road before kicking it up into her hand. "He's a nice guy, really he is." 

"If you say so," Caleb said skeptically. 

They came to the end of the stalls and Nott turned towards the buildings instead. It was hard for Caleb to tell exactly what the shop sold: all of the shops in the row seemed to be full of a chaotic variety of different wares packed into the tiny storefronts. He hesitated at the doorway, wavering between one step and the next --

The walls were burning, burning, and the door was barred and he could not get out --

He flinched back from the shop doorway, stumbling a little on the cobbles, and Nott turned to look at him with a confused expression. "Caleb? Is there something wrong?" 

Frumpkin, sensing his speeding heartbeat and ragged breaths, nuzzled at the back of his neck and purred. Caleb reached up to grip the cat's fur, grateful for the grounding presence he provided. It was fine, it would be fine. It was the middle of the day, in a public place,  and shops had never been a problem for him before. He was more likely to be chased out for his shabby clothes and lack of money (which, in truth, he still did not have) before anything else could happen. 

Still the dark wood of the ceiling seemed to hang too close, menacing, entrapping, and he could taste  the smoke… 

"I… perhaps it is better if I stay out here?" he choked out, clutching at the basket of groceries with one hand. "The storekeepers might not like it if I brought a basket into of other people's wares inside. And there is Frumpkin, too -- many merchants do not like animals, yes?" 

Nott blinked, looking uncertain. "Okay, I guess," she said. She scrutinized him carefully and seemed to come to some conclusion, and took a step forward to take and squeeze his hand. She lowered her voice. "It's hard to get used to houses again, isn't it? After you've been outside for a long time." 

Caleb made himself nod. She wasn't completely wrong, she just didn't understand why,  and he could not explain. "I will wait here," he promised, and she smiled at him and went back into the store.

He lingered outside in the square, by habit drifting to a less heavily trafficked part of the street, his eyes going from corner to alley to overhang as he automatically calculated what might be the safest place to sleep, the best place to find food. He shook his head, trying to drive the thoughts out; he didn't have to do that anymore, he had a safe place to stay and Nott was buying food that she seemed perfectly happy to share with him. He tried not to think, For now. 

Frumpkin stiffened on his shoulders, going from a warm limp weight to a tense hot wire across the back of his neck. The cat hissed in his ear as claws dug into his shoulder through the coat, and Caleb whipped around to find the source of the cat's unease. 

A brown dog trotted across the mouth of the alley, then stopped short when it saw them. There was a leash trailing down from its collar to a broken, frayed end that dragged along the ground. It saw them, or smelled them, and its ears perked; it took a step forward. 

Dogs made Caleb nervous. He'd always been a cat person, but for the first part of his life had no more than a casual disinterest in dogs. All of the dogs he'd met had been tame, penned behind fences as he walked along the street or on the end of leashes. He'd resented the customers that brought their little dogs into the shop and let them run free, but he hadn't feared them. 

That all had changed when he'd gone on the street. When he'd gone from being the sort of person that dogs were kept to protect, to the sort of person to that dogs were kept to protect against. It was hard to say which was worse -- the truly feral dogs that ran wild through streets and alleys and would fight you for the limited supply of food, or the police dogs. They weren't feral or wild at all but they would go after you mercilessly no matter how you tried to run, no matter how you curled into a ball and tried to protect your face from their snapping jaws. 

This is not that,  he tried to tell himself. This wasn't a police dog, following orders to snap and bite and crush. This wasn't even an ugly, half-starved alley dog. It was just a stray. Somebody's pet that had broken its leash and jumped its fence, and now ran wild in the city with no constraints at all… 

Caleb began to panic, and in his panic, slipped into his native language. 

"Ach so?" he chuckled nervously. "Was für einen großes… wütendes… Hündchen du bist…" 

The dog stepped forward and seemed to swell, its snarls deepening in tone and increasing in volume. Caleb backed up a little faster and stopped short as his heels hit the alley wall behind him. 

"Okay, I've got --" Nott's voice came from behind him, then broke off into a gasp. He darted a glance over to her to see her standing stock-still, both arms wrapped around a canvas bag, staring at the dog. The hound's interest switched to her unerringly, and it dropped into a low slinking pose as it approached, lips peeling back from his teeth. 

"Caleb?" Nott said in a small voice. "I - I think that it can still smell my… I mean, I don't think the cloak changes the way I smell…" 

"Scheiss."  Caleb had never met a dog that could tolerate the smell of goblins. And they couldn't risk trying to get help from someone else; if anyone thought to investigate why the dog was so intent on Nott, and the cloak was pulled off in the scuffle… 

"It can't follow us both, right?" Nott said in a light, nervous babble. "Tell you what -- you go right, I'll go left, and I'll lead it away from here. Deal?" 

Caleb nodded without listening, all his attention on the slavering beast in front of them. "Okay, I will -- what?" 

"One, two, go!" Nott said, and bolted off to the left. 

The dog lunged for her. Caleb moved at the same time, and managed to cut the inside corner and reach Nott before the dog did. They collided with a shout and a snarl, and Nott was knocked off her feet as the two larger bodies tumbled into her. The dog snapped and slavered as it tried to get its jaws into Caleb, but the thick and bulky canvas of his coat proved too much of a mouthful. 

One arm stuck crosswise in the dog's mouth -- its teeth weren't cutting the fabric yet, but if it decided to really bite down with all the strength in its jaws it would probably break his arm. So far, it seemed to dislike the taste of him enough that it wouldn't really commit to the bite, but that could change in any second. He shouted, trying to get a shoulder under it so he could shove it back, trying to block its eyes or its nose so that it would back off. 

There was a shattering of glass behind him and he was suddenly drenched. It was as though someone had dumped out a tub of water on the street beside them, and the splash and cold of it startled the dog enough that it flinched back and yelped, releasing its hold on Caleb's arm as it did. A small hand seized his and yanked, and the two of them were running, the grocery bag still tangled around Caleb's arms, eggs flying in all directions and splatting as they landed behind them. 

"I said go right!" Nott shrieked as they ran, legs thudding and lungs pumping. The hood had fallen back from her head with the speed of passage, leaving her features an odd uncertain mixture of goblin and human. "I was going to lead it off!" 

"I could not let you do that!" Caleb panted back. Oh, Archeart, he was not in any kind of shape for running. "It was going to go for you, it would have savaged you! I could not let that happen!" 

Talking was briefly suspended as they reached a wall and scrambled over it, Caleb giving Nott a boost over the uneven bricks as they thudded down on the other side. This part of the port town was never meant to be the public face; it was a confusing maze of tiny houses and back-alleys, little gardens and cut-off courtyards with no obvious way in or out. He was hoping that they would lose the dog -- he at least was certainly lost -- but as he dared a glance behind them, he saw the dog easily clear the same jump they had just made. "It's still back there!" 

"This way!" Nott's scared face -- all goblin now, no more illusion -- appeared at the edge of his view and tugged him off to the side. He followed her as best as he could through a garden, around a well and out another alley onto another narrow street, steps heavy and stumbling, expecting at any moment to feel hot dirty fangs piercing his leg and dragging him down -- 

Nott vanished. Caleb looked wildly around, and managed to make sense of a ladder that had suddenly swung down into his vision. He followed it up and saw glowing yellow eyes and vibrating green ears framed in a splintery wooden trapdoor, from which the ladder descended. "Up here!" she hissed. 

He scrambled up the ladder. They were in a rickety little loft, once no doubt having held trade goods but now empty except for a dusting of refuse on the floor and the tracks of rats. Once he was up Nott grabbed the top of the ladder and hauled it up -- it only went partway, but it was enough. The dog burst into the alleyway, cast around in some confusion, and barked in frustration as their scent vanished into thin air. 

Caleb watched, somewhat dolefully, as the dog found their fallen groceries dashed on the floor of the alleyway and began to noisily chomp them down. It looked smaller from up here, less like a wild beast -- but he still was not going to argue with a large and feral dog for their dinner. 

"That was close," Nott huffed, still getting her breath back. She looked up at Caleb, eyes wide. "You… you got between it and me." 

Caleb shifted uncomfortably. It hadn't been as heroic as she'd made it sound; he hadn't wanted to be separated from her, since without her he would be lost in the strange city, unable to make the doors work to return to the castle. "It… it wasn't anything," he stuttered, and changed the subject. "Where did you get the water? That you used to distract the dog?" 

Nott fished in her pockets and pulled out a few of the little glass bottles to show him. "Create Water," she explained. "It's actually an awful waste to use one of them like this, but, well… I couldn't think of anything else. I don't know a lot of magic that's good at hurting people." 

"That is not so bad of a thing," Caleb said quietly, thinking of the Witch. 

The dog was still down there. Caleb tried to reposition his aching legs, felt the slight sucking stickiness on his heel that indicated his feet were bleeding inside the shoes. 

"Are you okay?" Nott said, eyeing his movements with some concern. And there was no way Caleb was going to admit to her that her plundering of his shoes had resulted in his feet becoming injured as a result. 

"Tripped over a rock in that last garden," Caleb lied, then swiftly changed the subject. "What other spells do you have? Perhaps they are not effective for fighting, but they seem otherwise very useful." 

Nott perked up at the topic, and was happy enough to begin talking about her work and her schooling, the different kinds of magic she was learning and all the things she could do. Some of these things Caleb knew about in a vague and nonspecific way from his own schooling, but he had never been taught any of the details of how magic worked and found it unexpectedly fascinating. 

At last the dog grew bored and left, but not without having eaten most of their groceries in the process. When they climbed down stiffly from the loft, Caleb could not bring himself to walk all the way back to the market for another load, and begged Nott to return to the castle instead. She agreed with only a little persuasion, and the two of them limped back to the Castle in the slanting golden light of afternoon over the harbor.

 


 

By the time they got back -- hours after they'd left, with barely a loaf of bread to make a meager dinner -- Molly was still  in the bathroom.

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

The next thing to worry about was Molly's coat. The so-called wizard had tossed it at him and told it to get it clean -- but had then locked himself in the bathroom for the next five hours. How exactly Molly expected him to clean anything without access to running water, he couldn't imagine. 

Fortunately he'd picked up a few tricks in the last few months about staying clean -- or at least, on the near side of disgusting -- when launderers were little more than a fond memory. (Washing one's clothes in a river or creek was much less practical and romantic than it sounded, especially when the river was downstream of a sizeable city and the creek was overgrown with pond scum.)

"Look at you," he grumbled to himself as he worked the seams of the coat, trying to get a particularly stubborn stain out -- was that blood?  No, it must surely be red wine. "Loud, gaudy. Just like your owner. Always needing to be, what's that word, im Fokus der Aufmerksamkeit. Disgusting." 

In the end he had to give up on that stain, but he'd at least managed to drive it back to the seam and out of view. Some vinegar, one of Nott's Create Water spells, and a bit of drying powder got the worst sweat marks out of the coat and left it fresh and crisp. 

Just in time. Molly came out of the bathroom just as the sun was setting over Nicodranas, shooting rose-gold rays through the window by the magic door. Caleb had finally gotten his toast, and Nott (and Frumpkin) were making a dinner out of breakfast meats when Molly breezed out of the bathroom in a puff of purple scented steam. 

"Far be it from me to disturb your hanging about, when you should be working," Molly said sardonically as he descended the staircase, "but I do  have somewhere to be tonight. Caleb, could  you see your way to getting my coat clean before --" 

"It is already done," Caleb said, somewhat testily. 

Molly blinked, stopping for a moment mid-step, before he bounced down the rest of the stairwell. "Marvelous, Caleb, you are a treasure," he said, sweeping the coat off the hook by the fire and over his shoulders. "Well, seems like you have everything in hand then. Don't wait up, would you? I expect I'll be out quite  late." He threw the room a wink -- which had Jester giggling and Nott rolling her eyes -- before he turned the door red-downwards, shifting from the sinking gold of the Nicodranas sunset to the sodium-shot darkness of night over Zadash. He threw the door against the opposite wall, posed dramatically for a moment in the doorway, went out and slammed it behind him.

Annoyed, Caleb got up and turned the knob back to the blue-side down, bringing the waning sunlight back into the room. Nott cleared her throat. "Um… Molly might need to come back," she said.

"He is a wizard, is he not?" Caleb said. "He can let himself in." 

"Don't worry Nott, when Molly comes back I can open the door for him," Jester said cheerfully. "Assuming I'm awake, of course!" 

"He did say not to wait up," Caleb said. 

"He always says that," Nott said glumly. "And then he always comes back in roaring drunk and needing help. If I'm not there to help him, he makes an awful  mess downstairs." 

The last of the golden rays faded from the room as the sun finally sank out of sight, leaving only a pale blue light coming in from the front window. They finished their rather sad dinner of bread and cheese and Nott cleaned the dishes with another quick spell -- prestidigitation, she'd told him it was called, and it fascinatingly sounded like it could do many things at once. There was a lot about magic that seemed fascinating, really; a subject one could study for a lifetime, even if one lacked the talent to actually perform it. 

The thought was enough to pull him over to the bookshelf, start pulling the books upright and set them into order while perusing the titles. Some of them, to his surprise, were books he recognized -- fairly common books the sort that were sold in any bookstore. There was even a volume of slow-cooked recipes that his family had done the binding for, some twelve years earlier. 

Nott disappeared headfirst into the coal hood and came back covered with black dust and lugging a load of coal. Jester craned her head with interest as Nott shoveled out the old cinders from her stove and fed in a new load of coal. 

"How many do you think he's gonna get tonight?" Jester asked, setting her fiery elbows at the edge of the stove and leaning over it to watch Nott work, small pointed chin resting on her hands. 

"I dunno," Nott said, shrugging as cinders flew. "Two?" 

Caleb twitched, reminded rather unpleasantly of the red-stained bathtub in the bathroom upstairs. He had been trying not to think of Wizard Molly's gruesome activities all throughout the day, and here the girls were discussing it so casually. 

"Ooh, you're lowballing!" Jester cried. "He left early tonight, I think he's got time for at least  five." 

Nott scoffed. "That's giving him way  too much credit," she said. "You're buying into his bragging if you think he can get five  girls in a night. Three, max." 

Jester grinned. "Wanna make a bet?" she said. 

Caleb slammed his current volume down on the shelf with more force than the poor book had really deserved.  "You are being very casual about this!" 

The girls looked at him with wide, glowing eyes. "Well, I am an adult," Nott said placatingly. "I mean, back in the clan I would definitely be of child-bearing age. I know how things work." 

"Yes, but it is still a very casual way of discussing Wizard Molly finding new… victims to devour," Caleb exclaimed. 

Jester giggled. "I don't think they mind," she said. 

Caleb frowned, feeling like he was missing something vital. "I don't understand," he said at length. "How could they not mind? From what I heard --" 

He broke off. Nott cleared her throat nervously. "Uhm, well, what exactly had you heard?" she said. 

"That Wizard Molly hunts virgins and eats them alive." He'd heard rumors in much more detailed and graphic terms than that -- several versions, in fact -- but that was the version that was most commonly circulated. 

To his further confusion Jester just burst out into even more giggles. Nott looked uncomfortable. "Oh, well, uh, it's not that that's not  true, it's just that it's not exactly true in a… literal sense?" 

How could it be true but not true in any literal sense? "You have lost me," Caleb said. 

"Well you see  Caleb," Jester said in a singsong voice. "When a man and a woman love each other very very much, they like to go into a bedroom and take each others' clothes off and -- " 

"What?" Caleb interrupted her, his ears burning. "What does this have to do with that?" 

"Like I said it's more of a metaphor,"  Nott stressed. "Like when you are very hungry and you see a plate of food that's very delicious, and you want to eat it all up? But instead of food and being hungry, let's say you are Molly and you see a pretty girl --" 

"That you want to fuck!" Jester shouted with delight. 

"Jester!" Nott begged her. The fire demon only grinned. 

"What?" she said innocently. "It's true." 

"So you are saying --" Caleb interrupted them, trying to handle this slowly dawning revelation. "That instead of literally eating girls, he just… what? Flirts with them? Makes…" He stuttered slightly and blushed, not even sure entirely why. "Makes love with them?" 

"More the second one really," Jester said. 

"Then why not just say that?" Caleb burst out. He felt an absolute fool, naïve and moronic. Once again, he had been led astray by taking people too literally. "Why say horrible things about hunting and eating? That is something completely different! Why do people say things they do not mean?!" 

"I'm sorry Caleb," Nott said nervously. "If it helps any I think Molly helped spread some of the, uhm, 'devouring people' rumors himself. He's very preoccupied lately with making sure he has a wicked reputation." 

"Oh. So it is all Molly's fault then," Caleb bit out. He could certainly handle blaming everything on the wizard. "Fine." 

The mood was somewhat more subdued as they each went back to their occupations; Caleb found a book that he had not seen before and took it to read, Jester fell into humming and singing to herself and Nott went back to her workbench. Caleb felt a little bad for having brought down the mood -- though the hour was getting late anyway, and fatigue did as much as anything else to dampen their spirits. 

Ten o'clock went by, and then eleven, and Jester sank down to a low ember as the clock struck for midnight. Frumpkin gave up chasing stray pieces of trash around the castle and curled up on the top of the bookcase, small chest rising and falling with his nose tucked under his tail. Caleb envied him his peaceful, effortless slumber, but Molly still had not returned. 

"Why don't you go to bed, Nott?" Caleb suggested, seeing the way the goblin's head dipped and swayed before jerking back upright in an attempt to stay awake. "It has been a long day, and you have done a lot of things."

"I know, but I can't go to bed yet. I ca..." She interrupted herself with a wide yawn, which Caleb fought not to unconsciously echo. "Molly won't get back 'till late, and he'll need me to help him."

Caleb snorted. "Molly is a grown man and a wizard besides," he said harshly. "I'm sure he can take care of himself."

Nott shook her head. "Maybe, I mean usually, but you haven't seen him when he's really drunk," she mumbled. "He'll need me... or someone..."

Looking at the tired goblin, Caleb found himself unexpectedly moved by pity. He had no sympathy at all for whatever trouble the wizard Molly would get himself into, but Nott was just trying to do the right thing for her mentor. He reached out hesitantly and laid a hand on her shoulder; she looked up at him, eyes widening. "Go on to bed," he said. "I will wait up for Molly."

"Are you sure?" Sharp teeth worried her lower lip. "It might be super late... and you were up just as early today as me..."

"It will be no problem. I don't often sleep through the night," Caleb said truthfully. Indeed, the previous night had been the first time in almost a year. He was used to only half-dozing at best at night, ready to jerk awake at a moment's notice. "And besides, I think this duty really does call for a butler. Not an apprentice."

Nott considered the argument for a moment longer, but another jaw-cracking yawn seemed to decide her. "I'm goin' to bed then," she mumbled. "Night, Caleb."

"Good night, Nott," he called softly after her as she scampered up the ladder to her loft. 

Her rustling soon stopped, replaced by the faint sound of snoring from the loft not quite in time with the little wheezing sighs Frumpkin made in his sleep. Jester seemed to be sleeping too, or some demonic equivalent, her flames banked into a low rosy glow for the night. 

It was peaceful, more so than he would ever have expected a wizard's castle would be. Despite the somnolent atmosphere Caleb was in no danger of falling asleep. He replaced his book and picked another from the shelf, flipping it open to scan for some mention in the text of demons, or pacts, or summoning. The best time for him to do his research was now, when none of the other castle's inhabitants were awake. 

The wheel on the door cranked around and the light through the window changed character, from the low lamplight of the sleepy port town to the bright sodium glare of the Zadash streetlights. The doorknob rattled and all at once Caleb could hear the sounds of the city coming from the door. He snapped the book closed and reshelved it quickly, moving back and turning to face the door. 

Background scuffle of footsteps, rattle of carriage wheels, someone calling and something clanging, and right up front and center was Mollymauk's voice singing. He had a surprisingly rich and pleasant voice, although whatever tune he was trying to follow had parted ways from him several streets ago and gone back to the party while Molly staggered onwards. 

Then the door swung open and Molly toppled inwards, and any enjoyment Caleb might have gotten from his voice was squashed by the immense irritation of Molly's actual presence. He was still singing at the top of his lungs, a racket in the quiet atmosphere of the castle and Caleb's first immediate thought was that he didn't blame Nott for intending to stay up: there was no way she could have slept through this anyway. "I do it all, to! Fall in love with a girl like you!" he sang lustily. "You can't run  and you can't hide  you and me are gonna touch the skyyy~!" 

"A little quieter, if you please," Caleb hissed as he moved forward. Molly stumbled in from the doorway and failed to make the step up from the entryway, toppling slowly forward on his face as his foot caught the lintel. Caleb caught him just before he could hit the floor and received a blast full of potent alcoholic breath in the face for his troubles. 

Molly was a mess. Arguably he'd already been a gaudy mess when he'd left the house but now he was a thoroughly debauched mess. His makeup had run, his clothes were rumpled and marred with stains -- food, drink, and other fluids that Caleb declined to guess at. At least one earring seemed to be missing from his array, and much of his other jewelry was askew. 

"A little bit of quieter," Molly said and giggled, and then seemed to take it up in a new nonsense rhyme. "A little bit of Monica, in my life, a little bit of Erica, by my side, a little bit of Rita's all I need, a little bit of Tina's all I see…" 

Caleb controlled a spurt of potent irritation at this litany of women's names. All Molly's latest victims he supposed -- or if what Jester and Nott said were true, latest conquests. How he found the energy for all of them in one night Caleb couldn't imagine, but it was not his business. 

"Quieter than that if you are capable," he said frostily. "It is late, and everyone else is in bed. Time for you to be in bed as well." 

"Bed sounds nice," Molly crooned as Caleb pulled him up and slung an arm over his shoulder, hauling him further into the castle. "Nice bed. Soft bed. Warm bed… will you  be in it?" He giggled. 

Caleb stopped in mid-haul and slung Molly around into the nearest chair. The tiefling went in a flailing bundle of limbs, his rear hitting the seat with a yelp as his tail folded under him painfully. He windmilled backwards and if not for Caleb's steadying foot on the chair leg would have gone arse over teakettle. 

"You are drunk indeed if you have mistaken me for one of your girls," Caleb told him severely. When he judged Molly had settled into the chair and was unlikely to fall out of it he went to get the drink he had prepared, still warm in one of Nott's covered copper mugs. 

It was strange how familiar this all felt, how it brought back memories… less than a year ago, but they felt like another lifetime. How he would haul Eodwulf home after one of his wild nights out -- considerably more surly and aggressive than this, most of the time. He'd gotten good at handling him, getting him cleaned up and tucked safely into his bed, and he felt a pang of longing for his old life, for his siblings. 

"Here." He brought the mug over to Molly and picked up one of his hands to press the drink firmly into it. "Drink that." 

Molly lifted it obediently to his lips, making a face when he noticed the taste. "This is foul," he complained. 

"It's not meant to be fun," Caleb said. "You have already had your fun for the night. This is to ensure that you will not get sick in the night and choke on your own vomit." 

"Yugh." Another face, but Molly drank it at least without fighting him over it as Eodwulf would have done. Caleb waited patiently, intercepting the mug several times when Molly made to return it to the table before it was empty and pushing it back to his lips. 

He was quieter now at least, only humming to himself in snatches and bars occasionally, and Caleb judged him unlikely to kick him in the face for this next step. He knelt down to the side of Molly's chair and began working on his boots, yanking the laces out briskly with every pass. 

"You're cruel," Molly whined, wincing at a particularly harsh tug. "I want Nott. Nott is never this mean." 

"Nott is asleep, unless your caterwauling has woken her," Caleb told him. "You should not force her to look after you when you are in such a state. It is not fair to make her be your mother, she is only a girl." 

"She's full-grown for a goblin," Molly responded, so quickly and automatically that Caleb thought he was repeating one of Nott's own lines back at him. Molly's voice went quiet. "She's lived more of her life than I've lived of mine." 

"What do you mean?" Caleb said absently as he maneuvered Molly's boots carefully off his feet. 

"I don't remember my mother," Molly said. "I don't remember a lot of things. I don't remember… my life from before, before all this." A wave of a purple hand took in the castle, Jester's stove in the corner, the shadowed heights of the loft. "It fucking sucks, not remembering, you know? Two fucking years is all I have. I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know, I don't know any of it." 

Molly was fast wading into the maudlin end of drunk, Caleb judged, if the way his words were sliding into rambling incoherence was any marker. "I'm surprised you can even remember your own name in this state," he said unsympathetically. 

"Who says I could remember it in the first place?" Molly said, and giggled. "Mollymauk Tealeaf, long under the tea! Molly to my friends, Mister Tealeaf… Mister Tea... I pity, I pity the fool…"

Caleb tuned out the rambling as he considered his next move. Molly had drunk the restorative which meant that he shouldn't be too badly off in the morning; but just to be safe Caleb would have to stay close enough to listen for sounds of coughing or retching. That had happened to Eodwulf once or twice, and those had been harrowing nights before Caleb had learned the trick of it. His boots were off, and his shirt was loose enough to sleep in; the pants were another question, but Caleb was not quite a masochist enough to try to peel those off of him. 

He went around to Molly's back and began methodically stripping the jewelry from his head and neck. Earrings might catch in the pillow in the night and cause bleeding, sharp posts could dig into skin, and necklace chains might drag and strangle. His hands were brisk and businesslike making one pile on the table for each kind of jewelry -- hairpins in one pile, earrings in another, pendants in a third. One, two, three, four... The little treasure trove had grown to quite a heap by the time he finished and came around to stand in front of Molly again. 

The tiefling had sunk down in his chair, head dipping low on his chest in a way that reminded Caleb of Nott earlier in the night. He woke up with a start when Caleb attacked his face ruthlessly with a wet towel, scrubbing off the bulk of the makeup -- and whatever spilled drink or other fluids were on there -- with a brisk touch. "Gah!" 

Caleb tossed the towel aside, streaked with red and blue and glitter, and stood back. "Ready to sleep?" he asked rhetorically. "Good, that will keep you out of trouble for the rest of the night." 

"M' sleeping now," Molly protested feebly. He batted at Caleb's hands, no strength behind the shiny, colorful-enameled claws. "Go 'way." 

"I will not." He got hold of Molly's shoulder, braced himself against the stone floor, and pulled him upright. 

He had meant to be cold. He intended to be brusque. But he found that when the moment came to it, when he actually laid hands on Molly, his hands -- all of their own accord -- were quite gentle.

Right now Molly didn't seem like the terrifying child of the devil that his reputation had made him out to be. He didn't even seem like the obnoxious, self-absorbed prig that Caleb had met in the castle the morning before. Right now, he was just -- a man. An exhausted, vulnerable man and whatever Caleb's feelings towards him, he could not bring himself to be harsh or cruel in this moment. 

"Come on, just a little further," he said softly, and led the stumbling tiefling up the stairs. 

It was the first time he'd been on the second floor of the castle or in Molly's bedroom, and it was too dark now to make out any details. He could barely make out enough in the shadows to locate the bed -- it was impossible to miss, a monstrosity that dominated half the room -- and steer Molly onto it. The tiefling sank onto it with a grateful moan, rousing enough to mumble in protest as Caleb firmly turned him onto his side with his face pointing to the edge of the bed. 

"Schlafen sie gut, Mollymauk," Caleb whispered, and retreated back out of the room and down the shadowed stairs. Behind him Molly sighed happily and settled down into a peaceful slumber. 

After some thought he pulled the spare curtain from the storage closet and a pillow that had toppled over from Nott's loft and made himself a comfortable enough seat on the stairs. It was close enough to Molly's room that he would hear if the tiefling was in distress, and he had slept in much, much more uncomfortable places in the last ten months. 

Just as he was settling down into a doze the blue fire flared in the corner, and Jester -- who had been quiet for hours -- sat up and looked over at him. 

"You got your first clue tonight, you know," Jester said. "About my contract." 

"Did I?" Caleb asked, half to himself and half already lost in a doze. If Jester answered, he never heard it.

 

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

 

The next day Caleb threw himself headfirst into his self-appointed task of organizing the castle. It gave him something to do, distracted him from unwanted brooding about Wizard Molly, and was the only way he could see to find out more information about Jester's contract. 

Jester's cryptic words from last night -- about Caleb having gotten a hint already -- spun around and around in his head. What was the hint? Did it have something to do with Molly coming back drunk from his night out on the town? Had one of the names he'd mentioned been part of the pact? Their discussion about Nott and her being old enough to be a mother? Did Nott have a child somewhere, was that what Jester had meant? What had Molly said about how he wasn't sure of his own name, was that significant? 'Two years,' was that the length of their pact, or did that refer to something else? Had the hint been in Molly's drunken rambling, or something Caleb himself had said by accident? 

There were too many possibilities, his mind spun off on endless speculation about each one, until at last he gave it up. He could not triangulate on only one data point. He needed to know more. 

That problem was not one he could solve right now. Instead, he turned to trying to sort out the enormous mess that was Molly's library. 

The castle held more books than Caleb initially suspected. He'd only seen the one bookcase to start with, and that one filled only haphazardly with books, so at first he had thought that they could all fit on the one shelf if only they were arranged properly. The deeper he waded into the piles however, the more books he found -- some in the oddest places. They were stuck on tables, on chairs, stuffed under the stairs in the stairwell -- one particularly thick set of volumes was actually supporting one end of a fishtank, an arrangement that nearly gave him heart palpitations. 

Before long he had completely filled up the single bookcase even with the books all closed and resting properly on the shelves, and he kept finding more -- and every time he found a new passel of books he had to completely re-do his alphabetization. Three days into this project and Caleb was beginning to see gold-lettered spines in his dreams. 

Not that he had many of those. The night he'd entered the castle turned out to be the last full night of sleep he was to have for quite some time. Molly continued to go out every evening, carousing and partying and staggering home in the small hours of the morning shit-faced drunk. Caleb continued to wait up for him each night, grimly determined to continue with this duty so as to spare Nott at least, to meet him at the door and clean him up and steer him into bed. At least he had plenty of practice with Eodwulf, he told himself, although Molly was in some ways worse than Eodwulf ever was. 

With Eodwulf most of the struggle had been physical: hauling him through the house and fending off kicks and punches in the process. Molly didn't struggle, but he went limp  in Caleb's arms and forced him to carry his dead weight through the castle and up the stairs. Eodwulf swore and spat insults, but he didn't sing racy songs at the top of his lungs directly into Caleb's ear. And he also hadn't been half so clingy: every night at the end of the journey Caleb had to pry Molly's hands off his arms and shoulders, evade the octopus-like grip in order to firmly settle the tiefling into his own bed. 

Where he would then sleep all through the morning and well into the afternoon, emerge from his bedroom directly into the bathroom (causing Jester to whine about how much water he was making her heat) stop out in the main room to scarf down some food and raid the cashbox, and then go out again. 

This left the mornings (and noons) far more dull and uneventful than Caleb had ever imagined life in a wizard's castle to be. He spent the time methodically going through the piles of clutter that had accumulated in the main room, sorting everything painstakingly into smaller, more numerous, more homogenous piles that could then be stored in some sort of order. The extra income from Nott's stash of stolen jewelry proved a lifesaver here; now that she could safely sell her takings she was happy enough to donate some of the extra money to purchasing a great many shelves and drawers and cubbyholes for Caleb to put things in. He had to work to keep a straight face when he saw her trundling home through the streets of Nicodranas, bent double under the weight of a set of long wooden shelves taller than she was. 

Aside from trips out into the market to buy groceries or sell stolen jewelry, or to haul home more shelves from the lumber yard, Nott mostly spent her time doing Molly's job for him. As he sorted Caleb had the opportunity to watch her at her workbench, poring over heavy tomes open before her as she mixed and poured and carefully scratched out spell after spell. 

Magic had always been a mystery to Caleb; the way they had talked about it at his school made it seem like something grand and cosmic, woven in with the movements of the planets about their cycles and the ethereal energies tied to the fabric of the planes. Or, in the books he had devoured as a boy, magic was a force of power and destruction, explosions and magical flames and guns that fired disintegrating rays. 

He'd never known magic could be so… every day, so pragmatic and benign. Nott filled up little flasks with spells of mending that you could pour over a broken object to fix it, potions to cure coughs and minor ailments, potions that you could drink to let you understand different languages or to help stave off cold or resist fire. He remembered her spell to Create Water from the encounter with the dog (and, even more confusingly, a similar spell that would destroy water, instantly drying anything it touched) and yet another that was a bottled version of her cleaning-things spell. 

There was a little hand-held device that would produce a small tongue of flame, another that would produce a sourceless radiant light, a small toy shovel that could move half a ton of earth, a spoon that would detect poison in food or drink and another that could purify it.

All in all there were so many uses for magic in everyday life that he was amazed that everyone in the world wasn't using it. But then, he supposed magic was a talent you just had to be born with; there were those like Nott who had it, and others like himself who simply did not. 

Caleb had reached the middle of the J's when there came a knock at the door. "Nicodranas door!" Jester sang helpfully, and Nott jammed a mixing stick into the middle of her workbench to hold everything in place as she hopped off the stool and scampered over to the door. She pulled the cloak of disguises off the coatrack and over her shoulder in one quick moment, and it was a dark-skinned Halfling girl that turned the wheel blue-side down and opened the door. 

Arms raised to slot books back into the shelf, Caleb peered under his elbow to watch the scene at the door. An old man stood at the door and everything about him drooped: his eyes drooped, his jowls hung down, his mustache tips fell below the level of his jaw. His posture was stooped, his legs bandy, and he held a cloth hat that was so shapeless that it hung like a rag in his hands. 

"Is Mr. Albatross in?" the drooping man wheezed. "I've a need for another of those magic fixin' spells. Me cart axle's broke again, and I cain't get me catch to market without me cart." 

"He's not here, but I can get the spell for you," Nott said; her scratchy voice seemed at odds with her appearance, but the old fellow didn't seem to notice. She ran lightly over to one of the shelves and pulled off a little bottle with a blue label written in silver ink. 

"Here you are," Nott said as she returned to the door, dropping the vial into the man's hand. "Just open this and upturn it onto whatever is broken, and it'll be fixed right away. Results guaranteed." 

"Thankee, thankee lass," the drooping man wheezed, and his whole attitude brightened so much he almost stood up straight. His hands quivered as he pulled out a pouch and slowly began counting small coins from it. "Blessins be on ye, an' Mr. Albatross too. What's this?" He suddenly leaned past Nott, almost inside the castle, and a pair of unexpectedly keen eyes landed on Caleb. "An' this lad too! Who's this 'un? New student? New wizard?" 

Nott dithered for a moment, unsure how to respond; Caleb thought she might have said yes   just to end the conversation sooner and get him out the door, so he answered instead. "I am Mr. Mollymauk's new butler," he said. 

"Butler?" The old fisherman looked astonished. "Would that be like a magic butler, then?" 

"Oh yes," Caleb said. "I am the most wicked, most magical butler in all Wildemount." 

The keen eye gleamed with interest again, but Nott's nervousness won out. "Thanks for coming enjoy your spell bye!" she shouted as she pushed him out the door, slammed it shut, and turned the wheel firmly green-down. "That rumor is going to be all over town now," she sighed. "Molly may not like that." 

"I do not particularly care what Molly does not like," Caleb said distantly. Nott frowned at him, but as he said nothing more, she eventually went to put the coins in the cashbox. Caleb watched her idly, and counted them as she dropped each one in: one, two, three four five… eight, nine, ten… twelve. All in copper, not a single silver piece among them? "That sounds like an extremely powerful and useful spell. I am surprised that you would let the man have it for so cheap." 

"That's what I keep telling him," Jester piped up from the corner. "You could charge ten silver for that piece, easy-peasy!" 

Nott grimaced, quite a fearsome expression given her amount of teeth. "I know, but Molly won't let me," she said. "Nicodranas isn't, well, it's not a rich town, and most of the fishermen are barely scraping by. He won't let me charge more than fifteen copper for anything that goes out the Nicodranas door, even if it takes more than that to make." 

"At least you can make up for it in Zadash," Jester consoled her. "Charge them ten gold apiece! They'll be sure they're getting the best magic ever!" 

"They aren't worth that  much," Nott protested. 

Jester giggled. "It's all in the marketing," she said. "The more they pay, the more they're convinced they're getting. Why do you think Molly always spends so much time on his appearance? No one would hire a wizard who looks like he can't make money off his trade!" 

"I thought he just likes clothes," Nott said. 

Caleb barely paid attention to the banter between them, preoccupied with what Nott had said about the poor fishermen of Nicodranas. Had Molly really forbidden Nott to charge people the full worth of the spells? What could possibly motivate him to do such a thing? 

The simple answer -- that he felt sorry for them -- didn't make sense with any of the rest of what he knew about the man. Surely there had to be some sinister, ulterior motive. He just hadn't figured out what it was yet. 

There were several more such visits over the course of that day, the next, and the next after that. Every few hours a knock would come at the door and Nott would rush to the coatrack to pull the Cloak of Disguise over her head and answer it. Some of the knocks came from Zadash, some from Nicodranas; in each case they would offer a purse and Nott would hand over the spell bottle in return, explaining what it would do and how to use it. 

The demand was so high, especially out the Zadash door, that Nott had to work long hours just to replenish the stock of spells that were sold. The spoons that were meant to detect poison were an especially popular item in Zadash; a giggling trio of girls bought six, and before they walked away Caleb saw one girl stick two of them in her updo. 

"Do people commonly wear spells in the capital?" Caleb asked as the door shut behind them and shifted back to the green side. 

"It's fashion," Jester said in a supremely knowing tone.

Nott sighed. "I hope it doesn't catch on. We're almost out of spoons." 

One afternoon Molly drifted in as Nott was mid-spell, kibitzing over her shoulder until it nearly drove Caleb to distraction. "It's looking very nice dear, coming along very well," he encouraged her. "You'll be selling them to the King's Court by next week!" 

"If you are so concerned about the sales of the spells in Zadash, perhaps you could pitch in and help with them?" Caleb said, unable to keep the biting tone out of his voice. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nott frown and look back down at her work. 

Molly laughed brightly and headed over to the door, pulling his bright pink-and-blue coat off the coatrack and raiding the cashbox by the door on his way out. "No need for that," he said reassuringly. "You're doing just fine without me!" 

Caleb bit back on a second, much more sharply worded retort; it seemed plain to him that Molly was living off the efforts of his demon and his apprentice, spending all their money gadding about while they slaved away in his home. But it was none of his business how Molly treated people, he told himself. He was just here to break Jester's contract and get his own broken in turn. 

The walls of the main castle room were sprouting respectable ranks of shelves now, and he had made enough progress that by that afternoon he was finally able to start on the storage closet. He hadn't been able to make a dent until there was enough free space in the main room that he could pull things out and lay them out, most of the space being blocked by bulky armfuls of fabric; he pulled out three curtains from different sets, a moth-eaten comforter and a gaudy tapestry of a silver dragon before he could even see the far wall. 

In the corner of the storage closet he found a dust-covered box, painted in what must once have been gaudy purple that had faded, gilted with gold paint that was flaking off. Ostentatious red eyes were painted on each face of the box, and there was an ornate latch that pulled right out of the wood when he tugged at it. 

Inside was a strange, eclectic mix of items, many of them in various states of decay and all of them covered with dust. There were short lengths of knotted ropes, silk handkerchiefs in a rainbow of colors including black, a tarnished silver hand mirror, and a set of battered tarot cards. Under those he found the crumbled remains of what he thought from the smell must be old pork rinds; false eyelashes; severed halves of coins of copper and iron; little glass vials whose contents had long since dried out; and a paper envelope of some kind of strong-smelling substance that he realized, on close examination, was flash powder. 

It was just as he had thought. These were the tools of a street magician, of a con man. A con man who had somehow managed to capture an elemental and enslave her to his will, who took a talented young wizard off the street only to put her to work making coin to support his lavish, wasteful lifestyle. And there was no way for Caleb to expose him for the fraud he was, not without losing his only place of safety and his only chance at breaking his curse. 

He was still in a fuming temper over this when Molly breezed in from Zadash, new rings sparkling from his horn and a package under his arm. His uncanny blue eyes swept across the castle until they met Caleb's, and he smiled in blithe disregard of Caleb's glower. 

"Cayleb, there you are! Here, I got something for you," he said, and to Caleb's surprise Molly tossed the package at his head. Caleb managed to catch it out of the air although he staggered back a step under the weight of it. 

He directed his glare down at the package rather than meet Molly's eyes. "I don't recall asking you to get me anything," he said. "Didn't you take the last of the cashbox before you went out?"

Molly pouted. "Well no, but I got it anyway," he said. "I bought you new clothes! It was high time you changed out of those horrid rags." 

Warranted, perhaps, but still rude. "I think my clothes are perfectly serviceable," Caleb said firmly. 

"Caleb." Molly leaned over the railing of the stairway, hanging over it to stare at Caleb in disbelief. "Darling. You've been going around telling everyone that you're my butler. That means you represent  me, you're my public face,  and I can't have a public face that looks like a walking landfill that's been on fire! Not when I'm just starting to really make a name for myself in the scene. I need you to make me look good, and that means I need you to look good, or what else do I pay you for?" 

"You don't actually pay me," Caleb pointed out. 

"Semantics." Molly flicked his fingers in a dismissive gesture. "Now, why don't you be a lamb and take yourself up to the washroom, if you still remember what those are for, and get yourself clean before you try on your new clothes." 

Furious, Caleb took off up the stairs to the bathroom. He had not ventured into it much in his stay, since Molly inhabited it for so long each day and drained all the hot water Jester could produce. 

The bathtub was an old, claw-footed standalone with pipes arching up to tower over it like a church organ. The windows were clouded over with layers of sediment, and the interior of the bathroom was ringed with a deep, unsettling red. One could definitely see how the rumor could get started that Wizard Molly took baths in blood; but Caleb had encountered enough blood in his life, both old and new, to know that old bloodstains didn't look like this. The color was too bright and vibrant, not browned and rusting. 

Shelves lined the bathroom walls, above the tub and under the window, crowded with small tubes and packets and oddly-shaped brushes. Caleb picked up a few and read them, but the labels were so worn off that the writing was mostly illegible. Still, he was able to make out the word eyes, teeth, look younger, against decay.   

"Vain peacock," he muttered, setting the against decay  bottle back on the shelf. He had no idea how much these luxuries cost, but judging by the ostentatiousness of the packaging, it couldn't be cheap. One bottle, larger than the rest, had vivid reddish stains around the nozzle and purple streaks down the side that covered most of the labels. He picked it up to squint at the lettering: Get the RADIANT color you deserve! Luxuriate in flowing locks with deep SHINE that brings out the BEAUTIFUL you! Collect admiring looks on the street with our trademark SHIMMER… 

"Unbelievable," Caleb grumbled, but even that didn't seem to cover it. "Tawdry. Tasteless. Geschmacklos." 

He slammed the bottle back into place and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. What was it about the wizard that got under his skin like this? When Molly called his old clothes rags  he hadn't been far from wrong; he should be taking advantage of the opportunity to change them out for newer ones, at no cost to himself. 

What was it Nott had said? That you had to pay attention to Molly's actions, not his words? They were just some damned  obnoxious words, he thought resentfully. 

He ignored the bathtub and washed up in the basin instead, filling it with warm water and scrubbing himself down with hand towels and a dusty sliver of cake soap that he found at the back of the cabinet. He would be damned if he used any of Molly's ridiculous products, but the soap seemed safe enough. 

He had to admit, stripping off the layers of old dirt from living on the streets was not just a relief. It made him feel more like a person, more like the man he had once been, before the curse had upended his life. He even washed his hair in the basin, struggling to pull a wide-toothed comb through the knots, slicking the water-heavy locks back over his head to drip down his back. 

Once clean he found he did not really want to crawl back into his old soiled clothes. With deep reluctance he picked up the bundle that Molly had thrown at him, and sorted through it. 

Plain drawers, unexceptionable enough. Plain black pants of a sturdy cloth, thankfully not of a rough or scratchy texture that would grow intolerable. There was a long-sleeved shirt of white linen, mostly plain but with a surprising touch of gleaming embroidery at the cuff and collar, with brass buttons that could have come straight from Nott's hoard. A brown vest that went over the shirt, socks of a matching color, and a trim black coat that fitted loose across his shoulders but exactly correct down to his wrist. And… 

The coat had been wrapped around a pair of boots, heavy and new-smelling. The soles were tough, but the tongue and lining was a soft suede. Not without a feeling of trepidation, he drew them on. 

They were… exactly his size, actually; they felt tight and confining on his feet that had spent so long rattling around in his old boots, but he knew that he and the boots would adjust to a comfortable fit within a few days. And he also knew that a brand new set of good boots were not cheap; they had probably cost as much as all of the other clothes combined. 

Molly had claimed the clothes were purely a matter of appearances, of presenting a  better image for himself by proxy of Caleb. Yet Caleb's boots, while broken-down, still looked fine from the outside. The new pants would have covered the ragged tops of the boots and nothing untoward would have showed. 

But Molly had given him new boots anyway. Molly had known about Nott taking the soles for her collection, knew how badly Caleb needed new shoes, and given him a pair without asking. While lying about what the new clothes were really for. 

He found himself filled with a strange and conflicting mix of anger and gratitude. It was an uncomfortable combination and he didn't know how to process both at once. In the end he shoved the feelings into a box in the back of his head marked Molly,  and went back downstairs.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

In the next few days Caleb kept on working on organizing the mess in the castle. He was pretty confident by now that he'd uncovered all the books -- all the ones downstairs, at least -- and had them in some order on the shelves. Everything was orderly and up off the floor, in tidy color-coordinated rows on the shelves. 

"It seems much more spacious in here for some reason," Molly remarked the next time he was in the castle. "Jester? Did you expand the castle again?" 

"It's Caleb," Nott said with a note of pride in her voice. She'd done such a facefault when Caleb had emerged in his new clothes that he was somewhat offended, shrieking about invaders in the castle before Caleb had been able to calm her down and assure her that he was still himself. "He's been working nonstop!" 

"Really? Whatever for?" Molly wondered to the air. "All work and no play makes Caleb a dull boy, you know. Well, duller," he laughed at his own joke, and breezed out the door to another party. 

"Is that all he has to say?" Caleb said to Nott, annoyed. 

"Honestly, it's impressive that he noticed at all," Nott said. "You've really transformed the place!" 

"Yeah, it looks so cool now!" Jester chimed in from her stove. Caleb gave her a small smile; at least someone  appreciated him. 

It was good to be in civilization once more, but it did mean that he was running out of excuses to stay here. Once the downstairs was wrestled into some semblance of order and he was certain that Molly would be out for several hours, Caleb moved in on Molly's bedroom. After the mess downstairs he was expecting to find absolute wreckage in Molly's actual sleeping quarters, and was fully prepared to ruthlessly disassemble everything down to the ground to restore order to it. 

The door creaked when he opened it and stuck his head in. A riot of colors assaulted his senses but he steeled himself and pushed forward. 

The first thing that caught his attention was a large, walk-in closet on the left side of the bedroom, across from the door. It was actually so large it took up a good chunk of the room, leaving barely enough room for anything else. To the right of it a large, four-poster bed was shoved into a corner, smothered with bedclothes and draped with red and purple curtains hanging from the posts. The floor was invisible under a layer of dropped papers, trinkets and discarded clothing, and the walls were so heavily hung with charms and amulets that the wallpaper could not be discerned at all. Grey dust seemed to cover everything. 

Caleb took one look at the bedroom, turned and walked into the closet instead. He had promised Molly that he would look after his wardrobe so he might as well start there. 

He had never seen so many clothes belonging to one man -- rarely seen so many different outfits at all outside a clothing shop. He lost himself in the soothing rhythm of sorting, separating shirts from vests from jackets, boleros from waistcoats from heavy outerwear. All of it was gaudy and ostentatious, in a fabulous range of colors varying from a bright red suit with exquisite silver embroidery to a long white coat, trimmed with white fur around the hood and cuffs and decorated with broad geometric designs in blue satin. The pants at least tended to be more restful on the eyes -- they tended towards blacks and blues, even if the cuts were positively indecent -- but Caleb was getting along well enough until he encountered the first dress.

It took him several seconds to even realize what he was holding, following a long red sleeve up to a lace-trimmed blouse, and only then realizing that the long fall of silk was directly attached to it and what it was.  Once he did, he dropped it as though the cloth were red-hot, and stared at it on the floor. 

Now that he had seen one, he was able to identify another gauzy, pink and silver dress crumpled on the floor beside it. Mixed in with his pants and his underwear, the satin pajamas and flashy capes, Molly had carelessly left some dresses off his conquests on his wardrobe floor. 

For a moment Caleb was seized by an ugly surge of resentment for whoever the owner of this dress had been, to visit Molly's deepest sanctum so casually that she even left her outfit on the floor behind her. The nasty thought occurred to him that he could take the dress and rip it apart -- stain the skirts with water from the drains, crisp the lace into a withered mess -- to let Molly's careless lover know just what Caleb thought of her. 

Almost on the heels of the thought came a black depression, a shrinking away from the ugliness that had seized him. He had no right to any say in what kind of company Molly chose to keep, let alone take out his vitriol on some innocent girl who didn't know better. The fact that the thought had even occurred to him just underscored what a garbage person he was. 

Unable to face the wardrobe full of clothes any longer, Caleb backed out of the walk-in closet and turned towards the bedroom. The debris on the floor took very little time to clean; most of it was books and papers, easily stacked and collated and put away. Then he turned his attention to the mess of junk on the walls, and hesitated with one arm outstretched. 

On first glance the riot of charms and trinkets hung against the wall looked like a crowded mess, things tacked in wherever there was space. But now that he looked at it more closely, he could see there was a… a pattern. This feathered sunburst trinket hung in a perfect triangle with this  round blue patterned glass and that silver crescent moon, he realized now. And it sat in perfect opposition to that  odd pyramid with the silver-engraved eye, on the opposite wall. Which in turn was perfectly arranged with that  ceremonial mask and that  charm of snakes… 

The more he looked, the more connections he saw. Each piece on the wall was part of a small pattern with others beside it, a larger pattern with others further up and down the wall, and a wide-spaced pattern arcing across all four walls of the bedroom. The visual chaos resolved itself into a careful array of dozens, of hundreds  of perfectly placed pieces, not one of which could be removed without throwing the rest of the array off-balance. 

It was a masterpiece. 

He was still standing there lost in thought, mesmerized by all the different patterns and ratios and relationships he saw, when Molly came back. He didn't even notice when the tiefling walked into his bedroom and came to an abrupt halt, jerking forward with his mouth open on a cry of indignation before he stopped himself. 

Molly stood there for a while longer just watching, before he leaned against the jamb of the door, crossed his arms and legs in an insolent posture, and cleared his throat loudly. 

Caleb jumped like a scalded cat as the noise intruded on his trance, and whirled around to see Molly standing there. "Er, ah," he gasped, stuttering for an excuse. "I was just, just…" 

"It's fine," Molly said. He stood up straight and sauntered into the bedroom, tail waving lazily behind him as he did. "I see you finally got around to the upstairs." 

"Yes, well, it is what I'm here for," Caleb muttered untruthfully. "I was going to organize all of the things on your walls, but it looks like, it looks like…" 

"Looks like what?" Molly said, his head tilted to one side. 

Caleb shrugged. "It looks like it is already perfect," he said. "These patterns, they are incredible. It must have taken a long time, and a lot of work, to get them set just so." 

Molly grinned, his fangs showing as he did so. "You're not wrong there," he said. "It was a lot of tedious work getting everything into alignment. But they're all protective charms, and they all do a little piece of keeping this place safe." 

"That is amazing," Caleb said sincerely. 

Molly's smile softened, and he looked at Caleb for a long moment with his head tilted just slightly to the side. Then the smile shifted again to something more like a leer. "You know," he said, and leaned forward, "if you wanted a private tour of my bedroom, you could have just said." 

Caleb flushed, and his mind flashed back to the dresses on the floor of Molly's closet. He knew that he  was not the sort of partner that Molly would ever invite back into his bedroom. "That's -- " he huffed, and his shoulders hunched as he took a step back. "That's rather rude, Mollymauk." 

Molly frowned, one hand reaching out to pat at empty space as Caleb moved out of his range. "Rude? I didn't…" he trailed off, seemingly at a loss for words. 

Annoyance flared. Molly had been mocking him like this ever since he'd blackmailed Caleb into the new clothes, with false compliments and making such a great show of gushing about how handsome he was. Caleb was heartily sick of it. "If you do not want me to intrude on your private space you should just say so," Caleb said stiffly, and he marched to the door. "There is no call to make fun of me on top of it." 

"Wait, Caleb, I wasn't --" Molly started to say, but it was cut off as Caleb slammed the door behind him.

 


 

 

He avoided Molly for the next few days, taking himself out on errands in the rare periods when the tiefling was hanging around the castle and only venturing out when he was safely asleep or in the bathroom. Molly had been fussing more over his hair lately, apparently displeased with the fading color, and it was a guaranteed few hours free of his disruptive presence for Caleb to do research. 

Molly had gone into the bathroom after announcing his intention to re-dye his hair. Caleb waited until he heard the squeaking and rattling of the pipes, then set to work. He pulled out his notebook and the books he was working with. Bookmarking the relevant pages might have tipped off what he was doing, but fortunately he was able to remember the page numbers without marking them. 

From what Caleb read in these texts, elemental summoning was a much more flexible and customizable practice than he had thought. There was not just one summoning circle, one ritual, but a broad variety depending on what you were trying to do. He'd need to pin down what the terms of the summoning had been if he was to find a loophole that Jester could use to escape it. 

"Jester," Caleb said. "Do you remember when Molly first summoned you, what the shape of the circle he was using was? Or what color gems he was using?" 

Jester shook her head, little flames flaring like horns from her head and flickering out. "I can't answer that, Caleb," she said. 

"I realize it may be a difficult thing for you to remember, especially as it was likely a traumatic experience, but --" 

"That's not it," Jester interrupted him. "I can't talk about the terms of the compact to anyone who doesn't already know about it. I'm sorry." 

"But I do know about it," Caleb said, beginning to get frustrated. "I already know that Molly summoned you from the Elemental Plane of fire, that he bound you to some compact, I just need to know --" 

"I'm sorry," Jester repeated. "It's not my choice, it's just how the rules of the magic work. I can't talk about it to someone who doesn't already know about it." 

"And I'm telling you that I do  know about it!" Caleb shot back, but Jester just shook her head again and sank down onto the coals. 

Caleb went back to his books, simmering with annoyance. Why was Jester being so difficult? Why couldn't she answer a simple question? But he knew that was unfair. Jester was bound by rules and laws that defined her very nature; she could not choose to go against them any more than he could choose to fly. 

But wait. Her very refusal to answer, or inability to answer, that was an answer in itself wasn't it? If he already knew about the summoning and the binding, then Jester should be able to answer his questions. If she couldn't answer… then that meant he didn't actually know what he thought he knew. 

Maybe he had it wrong. He went back to the beginning. What if Molly hadn't been the one to summon Jester? What if someone else had summoned her here, and Molly had made the compact after she was already here? That theory made some sense; Molly shouldn't even have been able to summon her in the first place, if he wasn't really a -- 

An unearthly shriek shook him out of his concentration. The bathroom door crashed open and Caleb jumped a foot in the air, slapping the book hastily shut and stuffing it back on the shelf before anyone saw what he was looking. He needn't have bothered; Molly was in no state to pay attention to book titles. Nott popped her head over the edge of the loft, ears twitching, at the sudden explosion of noise. 

"Look at this!" he yelled. He was wearing only a towel as he came stumbling down the stairs to the main room, and Caleb hastily averted his eyes, blushing furiously. Molly was dripping wet, drops and runnels of water streaming off more skin than he had ever seen exposed on the tiefling before. It was so distracting it took him to realize that Molly was clutching at his hair, and his face was a study in anguished horror. "Look  at it! What has that wretched one-man force of chaos done  to my hair products?!" 

Caleb forced his eyes up from Molly's chest, with some difficulty, to look at his head. Lavender fingers tangled in bright purple hair; it was startling to see his horns so bare of jewelry or ornamentation, but other than that he couldn't see anything obviously different about it. 

"If you mean me -- " Caleb started. 

"I do  mean you! Look!" Molly shrieked. He stumbled to a stop at the bottom of the stairs and doubled over, pushing his head into Caleb's personal space and grabbing a hank of hair to yank it out in Caleb's direction. "Look at this, just look! I look like a bowl of sherbet!" 

Caleb looked. Now that Molly was in proper lighting he could see that the tiefling's hair had  changed, from the rich purple it had been to a brighter, almost neon purple shade which as he moved proved itself shot through with glittering sparks of diamond. Personally, Caleb thought it matched the flamboyant tiefling's image perfectly. 

"I think it suits you," he told Molly. 

"You would!" Molly shouted. "You did this, it had to be you. Nothing like this happened until you  came into my house. I won't be able to show my face in public for months. I'll never be invited back anywhere again. You've sabotaged my career before it even got off the ground are you happy?" 

On the last word he threw his head back and flung his arms out passionately. The room began to darken rapidly as though storm clouds were gathering over the sun, but the shadows pooled and thickened in the corners and edges of the room. Faint whispers began to sound from the shadows, growing quickly in number and volume, faint hissing and buzzing in some language Caleb could not fathom. 

"Oh shit," Nott said with a squeak and came down the ladder in a flash. Her clawed hand grabbed Caleb's and towed him to the door just barely ahead of the creeping tide of shadows. 

"Despair!"  Molly's voice screamed from a thousand tongues, magically amplified words bouncing off the walls. "Anguish! Horror!" 

Nott turned the knob blue-down and yanked them out the door onto the streets of Nicodranas just before a billowing wave of darkness engulfed them. It spilled out onto the doorstep but thankfully followed them no further, instead just oozing and undulating in a slowly growing puddle across the street. 

The noise and brimstone smell, however, followed them out into the street. Passersby dropped their packages and covered their ears as the awful cacophony of moans and wails filled the air, growing to a throbbing, almost unbearable shriek. The window of the little house glowed a poisonous green as the street echoed with the impossibly magnified sound of Molly's sobbing. The puddles of black ooze on the street bubbled ominously and Caleb took another prudent step back. 

Though half-frozen with shock and alarm, a part of Caleb couldn't help but worry about Molly, smack in the center of all this. "Should we leave him alone in this state?" he asked Nott, having to shout to be heard over the noise. 

"Definitely," Nott shouted back. "If he thinks it's your fault, absolutely. He'll come down in a few minutes." 

"He's done this before?"  Caleb yelled, hands over his ears. 

"Oh yes," Nott nodded emphatically. "Regularly. Last time it was when a guy dumped him." 

Caleb was sure he must have misheard Nott, but as the noise escalated more there was no possible way to ask for clarification. 

At last the noises faded away to a last, gasping moan, then silence. The small crowd of bystanders that had gathered looked at each other, then back at the little wizard's shop. 

" 'Scuse me," an old man quavered, and Caleb recognized him by his drooping mustache as the fisherman who'd come by to get a mending-spell. "Is Mister Albatross all right?" 

Caleb shook his head wordlessly. The assault of noise had left him numb and, honestly, he had no clue how to react. 

"He just needed to get it out of his system," Nott predicted confidently. "It's all over now." 

But it was not. They ventured back into the castle to find Molly slumped forward over the back of an armchair, his posture a study in despair, dripping a thick black slime that crept in a steady tide across the floor. It hung in strings from the rafters where some dramatic force had flung it, dripping in streamers from the walls and tables. It had already engulfed Nott's workbench on one side of the room and on the other, threatened to overtake Jester's stove. 

"Help!" Jester implored them, leaping above the coals. "This stuff is going to put me out!" Nott rushed forward with a metal pan to scoop her up and lift her out of the danger zone, and Caleb snapped out of his shock long enough to march over to Molly. 

"Stop this at once," he snapped. "You are frightening Jester. Stop acting like a child!" 

Molly just stared at him with a wide, hollow gaze, his expression utterly tragic, and did not answer. 

"What do you usually do when he gets like this?" Caleb asked Nott. 

Nott shrugged. "Stay up out of his reach and wait for him to snap out of it," she said. "I can't exactly move him on my own." 

"Well, I can," Caleb said. "And we can't just let him keep on like this. He's going to damage the books." 

Nott looked from her perch on the coal hood across the disaster of the room, then cast a doubtful eye at the stairs. "Bathroom, then?" she said. "The slime can just go down the drain." 

Honestly Caleb would have been perfectly happy to hang him out the steps on the moors until he stopped dripping slime, but as tempting as the thought was it was impractical. "Right," he sighed, and got to work. 

Molly still would not move; Caleb had to hook him under the arms to budge him and all the slime made him slippery as a fish to hold onto. Somewhere on the way up the stairs Molly lost his towel, and Caleb had to fix his eyes on the ceiling and battle to keep his flush down, nearly tripping and sprawling on his ass once they reached the top landing. Then it took him and Nott between them to maneuver Molly into the claw-footed bathtub and turn on the taps, washing the black slime away down the drain in a trickle. 

The next hour was spent in damage control; they wouldn't even begin to be able to clean up until the slime was all rid of. Jester helpfully burned through a cord of wood to produce ashes, which Nott shoveled out onto the slime, drying it up with a noisome hiss. Caleb turned the knob green-side down and shoveled the crud out the front door onto the barren rocks of the moor. 

At last it was all gone, leaving the room a blackened wasteland in its wake. Nott was upstairs fussing over Molly in the bathroom, the pipes thrumming. The wooden chair was overturned, its slats pitted from the slime; numbly, he uprighted it and sat down. 

As soon as his weight was off his legs they began to shake with delayed reaction. He'd gotten through the whole episode on shock and adrenaline but it was wearing off now, the full import of what had happened dawning on him. All the overwhelming noise and light and shadows, the smells and screams had left him numb but in the peace and quiet that was wearing off. 

Molly had -- that absolute drama queen had summoned monsters from the planes of darkness  over a bad hair day.  Nott had been really panicked when she yanked Caleb out the door and if she hadn't he might not have known to, and Jester had almost, and he'd -- 

Molly. 

Molly summoned specters of darkness. He'd amplified his screams across half Nicodranas. He'd filled the room with black slime. 

"Oh, Heilige Mutter Gottes,"  Caleb said aloud in the empty room, jolting upright in his seat. "He really is  a wizard!"

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

"He really is  a wizard!" Caleb exclaimed. 

"Uh, yeah?" Jester was giving Caleb a very strange look. "Of course he is a wizard. Why would you think he was not?" 

"But…" Caleb stammered. "But -- the square in. The festival. The clock tower?" 

"What are you talking about?" Jester seemed confused. Of course, there was no way she could have known about their chance meeting in Caleb's home town, where he had met Molly selling penny fortunes at a festival. 

Now that he thought about it, as evidence went it was foolish -- it didn't make sense why a real wizard would be telling fortunes, but then Molly was very strange in many ways and a lot of things he did were inexplicable to Caleb. 

"The box!" Caleb said, seizing on the only evidence left he could think of. "I -- I found a box in his closet of, of street performer tools, for fraud and forgery --" 

"Do you mean his box of old spell components?" Jester asked. "Because that was in the closet because he hasn't needed them in years. But he definitely did used to use those to cast spells, then. Why would that make you think he wasn't one?" 

Caleb had no answer for that, all his certainty crumbling away in his hands. He never liked surprises at the best of times and this one came as a nasty shock, all his safe and comfortable assumptions upended and casting him adrift. He had been so sure -- so sure of his conclusions but now that he turned them around and faced them from a clinical perspective, he could no longer be certain. Why had  he been so convinced that Molly was a fraud, based on a thirty-second first impression and a box of old sundries? 

He had wanted  to believe that Molly was not a wizard, because if Molly was not a wizard then Caleb would have nothing to fear from him. If Molly was not a wizard, then he and Caleb could be on near-equal footing. If Molly was a wizard -- 

Then there was a chance he might find out about Caleb's curse. 

The thought triggered a wave of panic in him and he had to pace, hands wringing against his cuffs as he muttered to himself. No, no, he does not know, he will not know, he does not -- 

He forced himself to calm down, hooking his hands behind his neck and breathing deeply, holding it till he got dizzy. The panic receded slightly, though it still frothed at the edges of his mind, and he tried to reason through his reaction. 

When he had entered the moving castle he'd done so believing that Molly was a tyrant, a terrorizer of women and a murderer of innocents. He'd believed that Molly deserved  what Caleb's curse would bring on him. If he wasn't -- if he didn't deserve that, then… 

Then the only monster here was Caleb himself for brazenly bringing his own curse on Molly's head. On Nott's head. On Jester's, if she hadn't been able to block it. If Molly knew -- if Molly found out what Caleb had nearly done, had been willing  to do -- 

He would surely evict Caleb from the castle at once if not worse. If Molly knew about Jester and Caleb's bargain, if the wizards knew of Caleb's plan to steal away his fire demon, he would surely break them apart and with them his one and only chance of being free of the curse. 

Molly must not know. Caleb seized on the thought and held onto it with both hands, the one spar of wood keeping his head above the water. Molly could not know. Whatever happened, Caleb must keep Molly from finding out the truth. 

And that meant he had to go on and pretend that everything was normal, that he really was the deadpan manservant to the wicked wizard he had claimed to be. He had to play his part so well that Molly would not suspect anything was wrong. 

He took a few minutes to compose himself: the fear went back in its box, the anger, the feeling of having been tricked, the chagrin at knowing he had only himself to blame, it all got neatly packed away. By the time Nott popped up over the stair railing to report that Molly had stopped producing any more black slime, that she'd gotten him scrubbed up, and could Caleb come help him to bed? -- he had pulled a calm demeanor over himself like a raincoat, against which all else could roll off. 

He kept up a brisk and businesslike attitude all through the business of getting Molly out of the bath, wrapped in a bathrobe and tucked into bed. Like this Molly looked much less a creature of poison and darkness and much more wretched, hair plastered flat against his scalp except for a few locks that had tangled around his horns. He sniffled miserably, for once free of makeup and jewelry, and as much as he hated himself for doing it Caleb knew that now was the time for honest words. 

Setting aside the smoke and infernal screaming and slime, Caleb recognized the afternoon for what it was at its core: a tantrum. Caleb had plenty of experience with tantrums, since Astrid had pulled off some spectacular ones, and if he could ground Molly for a week with no pastries he would do so. Anyway, he had enough experience to know that tantrums are rarely really about the thing they seem to be about. 

So he stood in front of Molly's line of sight, crossed his arms over his chest and put on his most forbidding scowl. "All right, what's this about?" he said.

"You ruined my hair," Molly said sulkily.

Caleb scoffed. "I did no such thing, and even if I had, that's no excuse to behave in such a way," he said. "You frightened Nott, and you could have hurt Jester. And you know perfectly well that hair can be fixed. So what's really behind this?"

Molly deflated into his pillow, looking limp and worn-out. "I..." He sighed. "It's just getting to be too much. All these parties, shows, invitations, especially lately, everyone wants me to be there, everyone wants me to put on a show. They all want and want and want, and there's not enough of me to go around."

"Why don't you just tell them no, then?" Caleb demanded.

Molly lifted half off-his pillow to demand, "Because if not for them, who do I have?!" He sank back down, looking noble and tragic. " I... I don't want to be alone again. Everybody wants something from me, and if I don't give them what they want they'll leave me." 

He sniffed. "The nobles of Zadash want my tricks for their party. The fishermen of Nicodranas want my magic. Jester, well, I'm not getting back what she  has.  Nott wants me to teach her  more advanced magic and I don't know how, the things I do don't fit with all these books and I don't know what they mean! King Dwendal wants me to fight off Xhorhas for him, to be his Court Wizard to replace Fairmont. The Marquis wants me to be Nicodranas'  Civil Wizard, to fight off the Dwendalian Empire for them. Everybody wants a piece!"

That sounded like a lot of words to complain about how popular you were, but Caleb knew better to say that. Instead he offered, "Well, I don't want anything from you." It was actually the truth; what he wanted he would get from Jester, not from Molly, so he really wanted nothing more from Molly than to stay out of his way while he got on with it.

Molly snorted, his expression bitter. "Yeah, you just want your wages from me."

"You aren't paying me," Caleb pointed out.

"That's... true." The wormwood-tight line of Molly's lips softened, and he gave Caleb a glance he couldn't decipher.

Back to the point. "You're lonely?" Caleb asked.

"Yes!" Molly said. "Is that so hard to believe?"

"Well, you aren't going to find a solution to that in parties and balls," Caleb said. "If you want someone meaningful in your life then you have to put the effort into making an actual connection with someone."

"I know that!" Molly rolled over and punched at his pillow, not making more than an ineffective dent. He stared down at the pillow as he said, "But the one person I really want to get closer to won't give me the time of day." 

Caleb snorted. "If you act around her like you act around the rest of us, I can hardly blame her," he said, and Molly winced. "If you put so much effort into pretense and putting on airs, how can she hope to know the real you? Be genuine. Show her how you really feel, how you really are, not just illusions. Let yourself be vulnerable around her. I'm sure she'll come around." 

"Do you really think so?" Molly asked, expression showing an almost pathetic degree of hopefulness. 

"I'm sure of it," said Caleb with all the confidence he could muster, a twenty-one year old virgin who had not so much as held hands with a girl since second form. 

"Well," Molly said, tipping his head back against the pillow and letting his eyes slip shut. "I can try. Thanks, Caleb." 

It was clearly a dismissal. Caleb retreated from the bedroom, feeling unaccountably discouraged.

 


 

 

Nott looked up from brushing out Jester's stove as Caleb made his way slowly down the stairs, legs shaky with relief at having gotten away with his secret intact. "Did he say?" Nott demanded. "Did he talk to you?" 

Caleb heaved a sigh. "It seems he is pining over a girl," he said.

"I knew  it!" Nott exclaimed. "No wonder he's been so dramatic lately, he's in love." 

"Is he not always this dramatic?" Caleb wondered. 

"Well, yeah," Nott conceded. "But that's because he's always in love." 

"He's always moving from one crush to another for as long as I've known him, seems like," Jester added. "Did he tell you who this new girl was?" 

Caleb shook his head, thinking back to the dresses left on the floor of Molly's wardrobe. "No, he did not say," he said, "but she must have visited here at least once before." 

"Really?" Nott said, sounding surprised. "I don't know how I missed her. We don't get many visitors at the Castle, except for you of course. Well, I'm sure that I can figure it out. Nott the Detective is on the case!" 

"Ooh, a case!" Jester said delightedly. Her voice adopted a sing-song tone. "We'll hunt down all the clues! We'll never miss a trick!" 

"When there's a mystery to be solved, we're always in the thick!"  Nott joined her in chorusing the next line, and the little goblin girl high-fived the fire demon in a flare of sparks. Nott turned towards Caleb, bouncing slightly on her heels. "Do you want to be part of our detective agency, Caleb?" 

Caleb shook his head. "I do not see how Molly's love life is any of my business," he said stiffly. Honestly, just the thought of Molly being in love with some hapless girl caused a wave of annoyance in him that he was hard put to suppress. 

"Well, as long as you're gonna be living here, it kind of is  your business," Jester said. "Unless you want to deal with a slime episode every other day." 

Nott and Caleb both groaned at the thought of it. "That," Caleb had to concede, "is a very good point." 

There was another point to consider as well, Caleb thought reluctantly. If he wished to distract Molly from Caleb's curse, there would probably be no better way to do it than setting him up with whoever this mysterious girl turned out to be. That would be a good way of getting Molly out of the house, too, leaving him to do his research and his work with Jester in peace. 

The thought filled him with an unaccustomed depression, but he pushed it aside with the ease of long practice. "I'll consider it," was all he would say.

 


 

 

By the next day Molly was evidently feeling enough better to come downstairs, although he spent most of his time draped dramatically across the couch and letting out attention-grabbing sniffs or coughs to let the other residents of the castle know how miserable he was. His hair, Caleb noticed, had reverted to a plain black color that honestly suited him much better than even the purple color he'd had before.

"Don't be such a baby," Caleb told him, unimpressed. "There's nothing wrong with you." 

"But there is," Molly said pathetically. "My reservoirs of magic have been drained dry, I am exhausted, I am depleted." 

Jester giggled. Caleb was still not impressed. "You did this to yourself, you know," he said. 

"I know." Molly threw an arm dramatically over his eyes. "The cruelest cuts always come from the sources closest to the heart. Is it really too much to expect a hint of compassion from you, Caleb, or are you truly as heartless as you appear?" 

"Oh, you're one to talk about being heartless," Jester grumbled. "Wizards who live in moving castles shouldn't throw stones, you know." 

"What do you mean by that?" Caleb wanted to know. He would have thought it was just banter, but the long, strange look exchanged by the wizard and the fire demon made him wonder -- 

A sudden rapping at the door interrupted the conversation, loud and sharp and authoritative. It didn't sound like any of Molly's regular customers, too quick and too aggressive. 

Jester flared upwards from her stove in a swirl of agitation. "Zadash door!" she exclaimed. "Molly, it's the Crownsguard!" 

"What?"  Molly yelped, springing up from the couch as though he had not, moments before, been feigning weakness nigh unto death. "They weren't supposed to come back till Wednesday!" 

"It is  Wednesday," Nott reminded him, looking nervously from the wizard to the door. "Molly, what's this about?" 

"The King gave me an ultimatum, I was supposed to come see him so he could try to dragoon me into being Court Wizard," Molly admitted sheepishly. "Honestly, it's not my fault, it's been a very busy week and I've been distracted --" 

"We can just wait for them to go away," Caleb suggested, voice tight. He very much wanted nothing to do with the Crownsguard, even if they would be more focused on Molly than on him. "We could turn to the Nicodranas door, they would see nothing but an empty room even if they broke down the door." 

Molly and Jester groaned simultaneously. "If they do  break down the door, I won't be able to use that portal again ever," she grumbled. "Don't let those thugs ruin all my hard work!" 

"Besides, they'd just redouble the search for me," Molly moaned. "I'd never be able to show my face in Zadash again, or anywhere  in the empire. We just need to get them to go away." 

"You could use your magic?" Nott suggested uncertainly. 

"I already told you, I'm dry. Wait! Caleb!" Molly seized at his shoulders, looking him straight in the eye. "You  can get rid of them, can't you?" 

"How would I get rid of them?" Caleb said. 

"I don't know, you can think of something, just be rude and unpleasant to them and they'll go away! You're good  at that," Molly wheedled. 

The pounding started up again on the door, harder than ever and with angry voices behind it. Molly yelped, and dived into the closet out of sight from the door. "Please, Caleb?" Jester begged him. "Don't let them break my door!" 

"Caleb, can't you do something?" Nott pleaded, tugging at the stained hem of his coat with her claws. She had her halfling disguise on but worry still twisted her unfamiliar features.  "Molly's useless --" 

"Hey," Molly objected from the closet. 

"You are, and they're not going to listen to someone who looks like a kid," Nott exclaimed. "If they find out I'm a goblin --" 

"We can't let that happen!" Jester cried. 

Caleb had his own run-ins with the Crownsguard since leaving home. None of them could have been said to end well  for him, precisely, but some had ended worse than others. 

One thing he had learned early on is that if you looked like a dirty, disreputable sort the Crownsguard were likely to target you for harassment. But there was another level of dirty and disreputable entirely that, if you could achieve it, would get an entirely different kind of response -- 

"Nott," he said, making up his mind all at once. "Give me your cloak." 

She looked confused but started unwrapping it from her shoulders at once, green-black hair spilling out from under the hood as her appearance reverted to that of a goblin girl. "But Caleb, the cloak doesn't work for you?" she said even as she handed it over. 

"It will for what I mean to do," Caleb said, pulling the cloak over his own shoulders. He gritted his teeth against the pulling, too-tight sensation until the stretched illusion settled over his body. His clothes were still stained and ragged from cleaning up the black slime from yesterday, which he had briefly mourned but now served his purposes. 

"Should I hide in the closet too? If they see me --" Nott said nervously. 

"Good," Caleb said. He caught sight of the healer's kit still sitting out on the table and went over to it, pulling lengths of gauze bandage free and scattering the rest of the supplies over the table and floor. "Here, wrap this over your face and hands. Quickly." 

The hammering at the door came again, and Caleb had to leave Nott to her confused preparations. He made a quick pass at the alchemy station, selecting the chemical  bottle he had observed to make the most pungent smell and unstopping it, sprinkling a bit over his clothing before upending the bulk of it onto the floor. He stopped in front of the mirror on his way over to the door and checked his reflection, making a few last-minute adjustments to his appearance. 

The pounding intensified, joined not only with angry voices but with ominous-sounding chanting. Caleb waited with his hand on the knob until the chanting had almost reached some conclusion, then turned the knob and pulled the door open a crack. 

The chanting cut off abruptly, and the voices turned to confusion. Caleb counted seconds in his head: one, two, three, four, five… and pulled the door open another crack before any of them could step into the gap. Slowly, inch by inch he worked the door open, wringing every creak and groan out of the hinges that he could manage until at last the door stood open. 

He had a good idea of what the men outside would see: an emaciated figure in filthy and tattered clothes, face sunken, hair falling out in clumps, skin discolored. He leaned on the open door as though it were the only thing holding him up, looked directly in the eye of the lead man and rasped, "A… are you the doctors we sent for?" 

The leader, a half-elf with distinguished grey at his temples, stumbled a step back at the sight of him. He stammered for a moment before seeming to remember his prepared speech. "I come from the court of the King to deliver a summons to the Wizard Molly, that he report to his duties as the Court Wizard at once. Is he -- who the devil are you?" 

"I am Wizard Molly's butler," Caleb said, and he found it easy enough to draw an air of maudlin, resigned suffering over him. "He is in, but bedridden in his chambers. The course of the disease is terrible in its later days. I fear I am the last of the household who can still stand, at least for the time being." 

"Good God, man!" the clerk standing at the captain's shoulder exclaimed. "What's wrong with you?" 

Caleb let out a groan in order to cover his quickly racing thoughts. He hadn't thought ahead this far. "Syphilis," he croaked, saying the first ailment that came to mind. "Terrible… terribly advanced, syphilis." 

Two of the guards exchanged horrified glances. "My cousin had that," one of them exclaimed, sounding alarmed and skeptical. "It didn't look nothing like this!" 

Caleb groaned again, leaning on the doorframe theatrically. "Carcerian  syphilis," he improvised, drawing from the tomes he'd been researching on the nature of the different tomes. "From the blackest depths of Hell, the forsaken realm of Porphatys, the Red Prison. The Wizard… Wizard Molly has been consorting with terrible, horrible creatures…" 

"I knew it,"  one of the other guards muttered, shuffling behind one of his fellows who scowled at him and shook him aside. 

"But we must have a doctor," Caleb croaked, pushing the door open a calculated arc to show the part of the room he had wrecked, the chemicals he'd deliberately spilled letting out a foul reek that made unwary eyes water. "If not for me or for my master, then at least for our servant girl -- Nott my dear, look, help has come…" 

Nott edged forward, looking at the group in the doorway warily. She'd had time while Caleb stalled to wrap the bandages around her hands and face, but the overall effect was horrifying rather than reassuring. Green skin still peeked out around the edges of the bandages and her hair fell in matted clumps around her face. "What do they want?" she said, and her raspy and creaking voice only served to cement the illusion of deathly ill health. 

By now all the guards had retreated to a safe distance and the captain seemed to be holding his ground only by sheer force of will. "We -- will see what we can do for a doctor," he said in a rush. 

"Should I tell my master to report to the King's presence?" Caleb said. "But I fear this disease is contagious -- terribly contagious. Look what only living in the same house with the Wizard has done to us." 

"No, you're right, of course, you should stay home until the illness has passed," the clerk said hastily. "Definitely stay home. Absolutely stay home. Do not set foot outside this door, in fact. We will  send a doctor to check on you as soon as one can be found!" 

"My thanks," Caleb said. "Though I fear that no medicine can be found for the wounds left on my soul by the terrible things I have witnessed. The fiends that he has called upon in his dark magics, the tawdry lusts in which he indulges -- the claws, the tentacles, so very, very many nipples -- " 

"Say no more!" the guard captain said a little too hastily. "Seriously though, you've said enough. We will convey the grave news of this illness to the King." 

"I will await the doctor," Caleb croaked, and pushed the door shut. As soon as it was shut he turned the knob firmly green-down, and the lights of Zadash vanished from the window. 

As soon as they were gone Jester let out a whoop and fell to laughing hysterically, her flames leaping and falling. "Carcerian syphilis!"  she said with a shriek of laughter. "Caleb that was awesome!  You are so  full of shit!" 

"You did it!" Nott jumped around gleefully, the bandages trailing off her as she waved her arms excitedly. "They believed you, they left!" 

Molly burst out of the closet, nearly tripping over his own tail as he stumbled forward, laughing. He hugged Nott, swooping her up and spinning them both around in a circle. "I'm a free man!" he exclaimed, hugging her before setting her back on her feet. "Jester is right, Caleb. That was the most brilliant bullshit I have ever seen, and I've seen a lot." 

"Yes, well," Caleb said as he pulled the cloak off with a sigh of relief. It really was uncomfortable to wear. "I have learned that most men of authority prefer not to look too closely at the sick and disfigured. It is discomforting." 

"Well, you certainly achieved that," Molly exclaimed. He spun in a circle and landed with his arm over Caleb's shoulder, seeming not to notice how Caleb froze up at his touch. Molly was so warm,  he could feel the heat burning even through Molly's flowing shirt and his own ragged cloak. Molly gave Caleb a quick kiss on the cheek and grinned at him, leaving Caleb's cheek tingling from the touch. "You look repulsive darling, absolutely hideous. Anyone would run screaming when they saw your face." 

Caleb went rigid, then moved in stiff, precise moments to remove Molly's arm from around his shoulder. "By all means, tell me in more detail how repulsive  I look," he said bitterly. 

"For the con,  dear, the con," Molly protested, still laughing. "Cheer up! It accomplished what it needed to, which is to keep me out of service to the Crown for a little longer, and that's what really matters." 

"Yes, well," Caleb said tightly. It had been a stressful morning and the last thing he needed was Molly mocking and insulting him to his face on top of it all and expecting him to bear it with a smile. "Myself, I find it rather repulsive that a coward and a deserter should spend so much effort evading his responsibilities to crown and country, but I suppose my opinion is not in consideration here." 

The chuckles and celebration from around the room died down, Nott looking at him with wide golden eyes while Jester gave a little "ooooh"  from the stove. Molly kept smiling, but the smile that remained was tight and bitter, a chicken-wire line stretched across his face. "As a matter of fact, it's not," he said. "If you're really that desperate to serve the Empire, the door's right there, darling; I certainly won't stop you." 

Caleb gave a bitter scoff. "I would if I had anything worth offering," he said. "I do not. You do. You are a powerful magic-user, Mollymauk Tealeaf, despite your pretense of buffoonery. The Empire could make use of your magic." 

Molly stepped away. "I've no doubt they could," he said lightly, that same razor-thin smile still on his face. "But should  they? That's the real question. I begin to think, Mister Caleb, that you don't know nearly as much about the Empire as you think you do." 

He breezed away up the stairs, his manner light and unaffected until he reached his bedroom door, which slammed with enough force to shake dust from the rafters. Everyone downstairs winced. 

"I'll… just go clean up," Nott stammered, but she disappeared through the far door and didn't come out again. 

"Wow, you really did it this time," Jester commented, sounding impressed. "I haven't seen him this  mad in ages." 

Caleb sat down in his chair in the corner and clasped his hands around his knees, waiting for his legs to stop shaking. 

In truth he did not actually care a fig for the Empire or its ambitions. He had learned as a child, been taught in school that service to the Empire was a solemn duty and the highest thing that they could aspire to and perhaps once he had entertained dreams of doing just that, of going into research or perhaps joining the Army as an officer. But all those dreams had gone by the wayside after his father's death, when it had seemed that maintaining his parents' business would be the highest goal that he could aspire to. And then, with the curse, even that had crumbled to ash in his hands. 

He didn't care about the Empire, he admitted to himself. He had just wanted a way to strike back at Molly, to hurt him with his words as much as the wizard had hurt him. 

It seemed like he'd gotten what he wanted, and he didn't much care for the taste of it.

 

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

Caleb awoke to thunder.

He raised his head and blinked blearily, trying to pin down the noise that had woken him. The light streaming in through the front window was just returning to full brightness as though a cloud had passed over the sun and gone.

He thought he remembered hearing thunder, but there was no rain. Had he been dreaming?

He picked himself out of his bed -- well, bedding, the pile of spare curtains and other miscellanea under the stairs that he slept in nowadays -- and went over to the window to look. The sky was bright and clear, not a shadow of a cloud anywhere. The knob, when he checked it, was turned black-down.

Caleb hesitated. Prudence and politeness held him back on one hand; Jester had said that beyond the black door was Molly's private sanctum that even she didn't know anything about. Poking his nose into an active spell or enchantment he knew nothing about, incurring the wrath of his host and a powerful magic user at the same time, seemed... unwise.

But he was only human. A part of him, the part who daydreamed through magic lessons at school and read Molly's shelf of tomes from cover to cover, was intensely  curious to see what was happening on the other side of that door.

Besides -- he was here to figure out the riddle of Jester's contract with Molly. So far, none of the books or spell components or anything else in the castle had given him much of a lead to go on. If there were clues to be found -- and Jester seemed sure that this was a mystery he could solve -- then they could only be out there.

Mind made up Caleb reached out and gripped the knob, pushing at the door. It didn't open, not even when he twisted the handle and gave it a little shove. Not even a budge -- it didn't feel like he was pushing at a door that was stuck or locked, but more like he was pushing against a solid wall.

Disappointed and relieved at once, Caleb tried turning the door to a different setting. It went easily, switching over to the blue of Nicodranas and Caleb opened the door onto the familiar bustle of the port city's street. He looked up and down the street. No sign of Molly.

Caleb closed the doors and went back to his usual morning routine, his mind working idly on the question of the black door. Jester hadn't been able to tell him anything about the place behind the black door except that "there's a big power there, a power I don't know anything about." But that could be almost anything -- and it was a guarantee that anything Jester didn't know about, Caleb knew even less.

Was it a portal to another world? Another plane, perhaps? A backdoor into the Elemental Planes of Chaos where he could go and fetch elementals to do his bidding? But Jester would have recognized that, he thought. Another continent? Tal'Dorei, perhaps, or the distant Issylra?

His ponderings were interrupted by rustles and thumps from the loft as Nott began to stir. Caleb put his book back on the shelf and went to prepare breakfast, putting together a plate of all meats as Nott preferred it, slicing some bread for himself. By the time Nott's green ears poked up over the top of the ladder he had a plate of breakfast sizzling, a smaller bowl of cold cuts on the floor for Frumpkin to settle contentedly into.

"Is he gone?" Nott said in a stage-whisper that clearly carried across the room to him. She was staring up the stairs at Molly's room, and her meaning was clear without even saying the wizard's name.

"Yes, he went out a short while ago, less than an hour," Caleb said. "He went out the black door."

"Good, he'll be a while then. He always stays out for hours when he goes out the black door." Nott hopped nimbly down from the ladder and scampered across the room, going straight to Jester's stove and opening the coal hood.

There was a rattle of coal, then the silhouette of a young woman emerged from the banked flames, yawning and stretching as her fire flared higher. "Oh, good morning Nott!" Jester chirped. "What are we up to today?"

"Just wait and see!" Nott said. She clambered up onto the table, using the chair as a ladder. She teetered for a moment then raised her hands dramatically and said, "I call this meeting of the Great Agency of Detectives to order. The Great Detectives have a new case!"

Jester cheered. Caleb raised a skeptical eyebrow. "This is the first I have heard of this Great Agency of Detectives," he said.

"Well, we're new," Nott explained. "This will be our first mystery to tackle!"

"And what is this great mystery?" Caleb asked.

He regretted it a moment later as both Nott and Jester chorused together, "The Mystery of Molly's Girlfriend!"

Caleb held up one hand. "Pass."

Jester pouted at him. Nott scampered over and took hold of his sleeve, golden eyes wide and pleading. "Come on, Caleb!" Nott wheedled. "Don't you want to know the identity of Molly's mystery girl?"

"I absolutely do not," Caleb said. "Molly's affairs are none of my business and it is none of our places to pry into his private life."

"Yes, but consider this," Jester's voice went coy and persuasive. "The longer Molly goes without getting this girl he likes, the longer he'll spend moping. And the more he mopes, the more the chances of another slime episode!"

Nott shuddered. "We just finished cleaning up after the last one," he groaned.

That, Caleb had to admit, was a not inconsiderable point. For the sake of peace in the household -- and the quiet to continue his research untroubled -- the sooner this business with Molly's girl was resolved, the better.

It was a good argument, and Caleb wasn't sure why it stuck on some deep-down resistance, some part of him that absolutely hated the idea of some strange girl hanging all over Molly. Hated even more the thought of Molly hanging all over her in return. He didn't care who Molly liked, he told himself. It was none of his business to care.

"First things first!" Jester announced, apparently having either decided that Caleb was on board or not particularly caring whether he was. "Let's put together a case file with everything we know!"

"Ooh! Can we have a bulletin board?" Nott said, hopping up and down with excitement. "With a map and a bunch of pins to stick in it, and strings connecting all the different scraps of paper with what we know written on it?"

"A bulletin board would be very obvious," Caleb pointed out. "Molly would see it as soon as he came back."

Nott looked deeply disappointed. "We could throw a sheet over it?" she said. "I'm sure he wouldn't notice."

"I think it would be easier to conceal a single book," Caleb said.

"Good thinking, Caleb!" Jester enthused. "Now we have to write down everything we know about Molly and the mystery girl."

"That won't take long," Caleb said, "since we know nothing."

That caused a brief pause in the conference, but Jester and Nott didn't let themselves be discouraged for long. "Then we need to find some Clues!" Nott cried.

"Yes!" Jester cheered, flaring up in blue flames as she did. "Our search will start right here in the house, since this is where Molly lives! Caleb, you get a notebook and start writing things down while Nott and I investigate!"

Since Jester was confined to the stove, of course, that meant Caleb spent the next hour following Nott around the castle with a book and a pen while Nott raced from place to place, carefully scrutinizing each speck of dust and scuff mark while Jester yelled suggestions from downstairs.

"We need to check for prints!" Jester declared.

"Yes!" Nott agreed enthusiastically. "What does that mean?"

Jester wriggled and leapt from her stove, flames dancing back and forth with the force of her enthusiasm. "It's in all the crime shows! You seeee , each person has a unique imprint on the tips of their fingers which doesn't quite  match anyone else in the world! And people's hands usually have little bits of dirt and oil on them that leave tiiny invisible marks anywhere they touch. So if you can find a place that the person you're looking for has touched, and taken an imprint of the prints left by their fingers --"

"-- then you can find them anywhere!" Nott finished. "That's clever! That's so clever. And I bet Mystery Girl has put her hands all over  Molly!"

Caleb scowled, then caught himself doing it and smoothed the expression out with an effort. None of my business,  he reminded himself. "And how do you propose to make these invisible prints visible?" he asked.

"Well usually there's a special type of dust that the investigators use," Jester said, "but I don't think we have any of that here. But instead we could use --"

"FLOUR!" Nott yelled, and the castle dissolved into pandemonium again as the goblin girl raced off into the pantry and plunged her hands into the sack of flour. She came back holding some cupped in her hands, spotted Molly's coat draped over the back of a chair and made a beeline for it.

"Nott, I do not think this is --" Caleb tried to say, then gave up and concentrated on getting out of the blast zone.

Nott delivered the double handful of flour with a yell that would not have been out of place on a battlefield and an enthusiastic scatter. Flour did indeed go all over the coat, and the table, and the floor, and into much of the air around. Caleb hastily went to Jester's stove and shut the intake valve, before a stray flame could ignite the cloud of fine dust that had overtaken the room, Jester complaining loudly as he did so that she couldn't see what was going on.

One of Nott's water spells helped settle the room down again, and Jester was bouncing as Caleb uncovered the vent again. "Well, did you get it? Did you get it?" the fire demon said excitedly.

"I think so!" Nott said, holding up a thin film of tape which she brought over to show Caleb and Jester in the corner.

Caleb peered at it. "I am not certain what I am looking at," he said mildly. "It looks like a dirty piece of tape."

"No it is -- it is but --" Nott tilted the tape back and forth, just so to catch the fire's light. "There! See, there!"

And indeed, just like Jester had described, there was a faintly raised pattern of loops and swirls, small enough that he could have just covered it with the tips of his own fingers. Despite himself, Caleb was impressed.

"Well done," he told Nott, who glowed under the praise. He tilted the tape back and forth, trying to parse the loops and curves of the faint mark. "Now that we have this, what do we do with it?"

Nott paused a moment. "Um."

"This is normally when the Detective would run it against the database of other fingerprints to find a match," Jester suggested helpfully.

"Do we have such a database?"

Another pause.

"Oh," Jester said. "I didn't think about that. Maybe not."

Caleb sighed, handed the tape back to Nott, and went to go clean up the flour.

"But, but!" Jester said hastily. "Now we have a baseline that we can use as a comparison! So if we meet up with a lady who we think might be Mystery Lady, we can ask her to put her fingers in ink and then press them against paper, and we can compare those fingerprints with these to see if they match!"

"Maybe we could go house to house?" Nott suggested. "Like in that one story about the girl and the ball and the shoe, except instead of shoes it's fingerprints?"

Jester and Nott fell into a ferocious debate about possible ways to capture fingerprints from all the eligible girls in town while Caleb worked. Molly would not be pleased to come back and find his favorite coat with flour embedded into the seams, he suspected. Fortunately he'd had plenty of practice by now getting far more questionable materials out of the panels of this coat.

"You need a lot of looking after, don't you?" he murmured to the coat as he worked. "Just like your owner."

He was drawn from his thoughts by Nott springing to her feet. "Let's take the Great Agency of Detectives on the road!" she declared. "We've found all the clues there are to find in this house, time to hit the streets!"

"You need a magnifying glass, to look for Clues," Jester told her.

"I think there's one in Molly's old trinkets box," Nott said, and went hunting for one. She disappeared into the closet with a clatter, followed by a crash, followed by Nott emerging and triumphantly brandishing a large convex lens with an ornate silver handle. "Got it!"

"And you need a pipe!" Jester shouted. "It's traditional. Oh, oh, and that silly looking hat! You can't be a proper detective without a hat."

Nott ran off to collect the items, while Jester danced and twirled in her stove.  "Ohh, ohh, this is so exciting!" Jester exclaimed. Then she drooped a bit, her flames flickering down. "I wish I could go with you."

"Why can't you?" Caleb said, moved despite himself by her sad tone. He might not be on board with the point of this mission, but he didn't like seeing Jester so unhappy, it was at odds with her usual exuberant nature.

Keeping Jester happy is important,  he told himself, you need to stay on her good side if she's going to break your curse.

Jester sighed. "The castle and all the doors were built around my stove," she said. "I can't go outside of them, or the spells will collapse. Believe me, I wish I could. I'd love to see more of this world than just these boring old stone walls."

"We'll bring back some souvenirs," Caleb promised her. "And soon you'll be free of this pact and this stove, yes?"

"Yes, of course," Jester said, perking up somewhat. "I can't wait to be able to fly again. Maybe mess with some birds. That was so much fun, they never expect anyone else to be up in the sky with them."

Caleb thought about it. He hadn't found as many clues about Jester and Molly's contract in among the books as he'd hoped to. He would have expected notes, maybe papers buried in the spellbooks, but for the most part there was no customization at all. It was as though Molly hardly bothered to read his own library, which would have made sense if Molly was not truly a wizard, but his magical abilities had been pretty conclusively proven with the slime incident.

It had seemed very reasonable and logical that Molly would have summoned and bound Jester for her power, but Jester had said (indirectly) that that was not the case. If he had not summoned her to this plane, then how did she get here?

I used to be able to go anywhere I wanted and fly over everything,  Jester had said at their first meeting, now I can't go outside or see beyond the walls of this room.  That had been before their agreement to discover her pact, so he hadn't really registered the words at the time.

He'd assumed that she had been talking about flying in the Elemental Plane, but her comment just now seemed to imply she'd been flying here  on the Material Plane. But Jester, as a fire elemental, would not have been able to survive for long on the Material Plane without the help of a magic user to support her. And surely -- as one of a species bound by extremely explicit laws and rules -- she'd known that.

Why had she come to the Material Plane in the first place, if not because Molly -- or someone -- had summoned her against her will?

"You seem to know a lot about being a detective," Caleb said instead. He knew by now that it was fruitless to ask Jester direct questions about her and Molly's pact; magic would not allow her to answer. But sometimes asking questions around the edges, could elicit answers that she didn't even know she knew.

Jester beamed. "Thanks," she said. "I had to learn from books and stuff when I came here. Finding people back home was much   easier, you just have to know their name and their face and the right spells, but here it's so complicated. But I had to learn."

"Jester," Caleb said slowly. "Did you come to this world to find someone?"

Jester didn't answer. Caleb was trying to figure out whether she was being restricted from answering by the spell or not, and what that might mean, or whether she just didn't want to answer, when the conversation was interrupted by Nott. She came down the stairs wearing a grey cloth hat, lumpy and oddly shaped, with a soot-blackened pipe clutched in one hand. "Got them!" she said triumphantly.

"Ohh, perfect!" Jester said, flaring up again so quickly that there could be no question she was avoiding answering Caleb's question. "Now you really look the part of a Great Detective!"

Nott went and got her halfling cloak from the closet, which thankfully had escaped the range of the flour-pocalypse. She paused in the process of suiting up, tugging on the edge of the hood as the illusion flickered in and out. "Oh, blisters," she muttered. "I don't think I can wear the hat with my cloak."

"That's okay, Caleb can wear it," Jester said quickly.

"I do not want to --" Caleb said, but before he could finish the sentence Nott raced up on the chair beside him and jammed the grey hat over his head and down over his eyes. " -- wear the hat," he muttered, reaching up to adjust the hat so that he could at least see.

"But you have to wear a hat when you're solving a case," Jester exhorted him.

"Come on, Caleb, let's go!" Nott said.

"I never agreed to any of this," Caleb pointed out.

"You did! You're part of the case now, you can't take-backsies," Jester was quick to argue.

"It's all right, he doesn't have to go if he doesn't want to," Nott said. "I'll be fine on my own."

"No, he does! The streets of Zadash are a jungle, a hard, dangerous world! You can't possibly go out there alone," Jester said emphatically. "Caleb you have to go with her!"

Caleb couldn't help but wonder if she was trying to get rid of him so that she wouldn't have to answer his question. At the same time, though, she had a point. It was one thing for Nott to go around in Nicodranas by herself; it was a fairly quiet town and most people knew her by now. But Zadash was bigger, louder, harsher. It wouldn't take much for her to be jostled, disturbing her disguise and revealing her true self. Even if she weren't revealed, there were plenty of low-life types haunting the capital who wouldn't hesitate to attack a halfling girl out by herself.

"Fine," he relented. "I will go."

"And you'll wear the hat?" Nott said.

"And I will wear the hat," he repeated wearily.

 

---

An hour of wandering around Zadash on Nott's heels was testing his commitment. Starting at the door to the castle Nott walked through the street hunched over, magnifying glass glued to her face, the unlit pipe clenched between her lips. Occasionally she would let out a triumphant "aha!" as she pointed to a scuff mark that looked sort of the right size for Molly's boots, or a piece of lint that could  have come from his coat, but Caleb was fairly sure none of this actually had any connection to Molly. Even if he had come this way, his footprints would have been swept away long ago by the sheer volume of traffic.

Even in her halfling disguise Nott garnered a number of curious stares and wondering comments, sometimes more hostile stares and comments as she didn't particularly seem to care who she bumped into or pushed past to stay on the trail. Caleb was left to trail behind her, making apologies or occasionally physically intervening when an angry, burly man looked like he was going to take a swing.

At least the hat seemed to convince people that he was a professional of some kind, and so far they had been willing to take "we are conducting an investigation, so sorry for the inconvenience" as an answer.

They had walked over a mile from the entrance to the castle -- not all of it in a straight line, with plenty of backtracking along the way -- when Nott finally stopped with a gusty sigh and said "Okay, I give up. I've completely lost the trail."

"I did not realize we ever had a trail to begin with," Caleb replied.

Nott let out a frustrated growl. "I had it at the start! I know I did. But it got all muddled back at the last intersection and I don't know, I took a guess, but he could have gone a dozen different ways from there. I'm so stupid!"

"You are not stupid," Caleb attempted to console her. "It was a bit of a long shot, don't you think?"

"Yes, but what other chance do we have?" Nott said despairingly. "If we can't find the girl then we'll never be able to get her and Molly together and Molly will never be happy and the castle will probably explode  one day from all the unrequited feelings and we'll all be out on the street again and die."

"Let's not give up hope just yet," Caleb said hastily, trying to distract Nott from her slide into the maudlin. "I am sure we can pick up the, the trail again."

"How?" Nott said, sniffling a little.

Caleb nodded towards the building across the road from them. "Perhaps we could ask around if anyone has seen them in the salon over there?" he suggested.

Nott looked over at the building on the other side of the street from where they'd stopped. It was a fairly nice-looking place with large, arched windows along the street which shone like mirrors, reflecting back the passersby on the street. The gilded sign above the entrance said only, Lettie's.

"How do you know it's a salon?" Nott asked. "You can hardly see anything from out here."

Caleb reached into his pocket and fished for a moment, pulled out the piece of paper and displayed it to her. You are cordially invited to,  the invitation went on for several elegant cursive lines, with Lettie's  in the same font and coloring as on the sign.

"Where did you get this?" Nott said with astonishment, grabbing the paper out of his hand to examine it.

"It was in the pocket of Molly's coat," Caleb said with a small smile. "I found it when I was cleaning up from the, ah, fingerprinting incident."

"A Clue!" Nott cheered, and grabbed him around the waist in a hug. "Caleb, you're a genius!"

Caleb laughed. "I do not think this was all that hard, but thank you," he said. "Do you want to go inside? Perhaps you can ask around to see if anyone has seen Molly's mysterious girl."

When it came to actually setting foot inside the establishment, however, Caleb found himself stuck. He stood in the doorway, paralyzed, feeling the walls and ceiling loom overhead. "Stupid," he muttered to himself and shook his head, striking himself in the chest.

"What was that Caleb?" Nott said, craning her head around to get a good look at the place. Through the doorway they could see an array of prettily-painted tables and couches dressed in elegant brocade. Waitresses carried drinks with little stacks of fruit on top of them between patrons in fancy suits and gowns.

Flames roaring up the walls, the paintings peeling and blackening, every one of the fancy wooden tables going up like torches, the chatter of the patrons turned to screaming...

Caleb took a hasty step back, his hand pulling out of Nott's as he did so. "I, I will wait out here," he said with a bit of a stutter. "I am sorry but I cannot, I can not..."

Nott looked at him with shock, which quickly turned to a softened understanding. "Still?" she said, her voice pitched low.

Heart in his mouth, Caleb could only nod.

"Okay... tell you what... you just wait out here, and I'll be right back," Nott said.

" Ja,  that sounds like a good idea," Caleb mumbled. He took several more steps back until he was fully back on the street, surrounded by free air, and the hammering of his heart began to recede somewhat. Nott gave him another worried look, but then turned and vanished into the salon.

While waiting for her to come out Caleb paced back and forth along the mouth of a nearby alley, berating himself, counting the seconds and minutes. Stupid, he chastised himself, what good did you think you were going to be? You cannot even go into a shop without panicking.

"What good is any of this?" he muttered aloud. What did any of this have to do with Molly's pact, with Jester's promise, with the road to removing his curse? He was just delaying, wasting time. Waste of time, waste of space, waste of everything...

Nott came back out in a hurry, fingers clenched around the hem of the disguise cloak, looking frustrated. Caleb willingly abandoned his spiraling thoughts to attend to her again. "How did it go? Did you find out anything about the girl?"

"Well no," Nott sighed. "I explained that I was friends with Molly and they said that yes, he came here sometimes. Apparently there is  a girl that he spends time with, more than anything else, but when I asked for her information they clammed up on me! Said they couldn't give out patron's private information to a ragamuffin off the street!"

So there really is  a girl,  Caleb thought, and tried not to think about why he felt so disappointed. "Yes, well, it is a very exclusive establishment so I can't say I'm surprised," Caleb said. "What should we do?"

"We need to question them," Nott said firmly. "Find a quiet room somewhere and tie them to a chair, then shine bright lights in their face until they talk!"

"No," Caleb said.

"Slip truth drugs into the drinks until they talk?" Nott suggested.

"No, we are not going to be interrogating anybody," Caleb said firmly. "There are other ways to find things out. Tell me, while you were in there, did you see a desk with many drawers or folders on them?"

Nott thought about it, then nodded. "Yes, I think so! Do you think they keep their signed confessions there?!"

"No, but they probably keep folders with client information there," Caleb said. "If this Mystery Girl is a regular at the salon, they probably have a file on her. If you could sneak in and find the right file..."

"But they're watching all the time," Nott said. "And if we don't even know her name how will we know which is the right file?"

Caleb considered it for a few minutes. Paced around a few more circuits while he thought. "Do you think you could get in a back way?" he said. "Through a back door or perhaps a window?"

"Yes, I think so," Nott said. "Oh! Are we going to break in to steal the files??"

"You are, my friend," he said with a smile. "I will provide a distraction."



---



Twenty minutes and a quick assembly of props and costumes later, Caleb knocked on the front door to the Salon, then hastily brought his hand back down to support the enormous array of flowers he was juggling.

 

The door cracked open and an older matron blinked out at him. She was a graceful, plump-looking middle-aged woman with greying hair piled in a swathe at the back of her head and a small pair of spectacles perched on her nose. "Can I help you?" she said, polite but not warm.

"Yes, I hope so," Caleb said, juggling the flower arrangement. It was a huge, ungainly thing with at least ten different types of flowers mashed into a single huge vase, and it mostly obscured his torso and face. "Are you the mistress at Lettie's salon, madame? I have a delivery from the Wizard Molly."

"I am Lettie, yes," the woman said, peering uncertainly at him from behind the screen of flowers. "Who is the delivery for?"

Caleb let out a theatrical groan. "I was hoping you would know," he said, adopting a mournful tone. "He did not tell me her name, he never tells me anything,  he simply said, 'You must get those flowers to the love of my life.' 'She is the love of my life, she must  accept my feelings!' Can you deliver these to her from me, please?"

"Oh!" Lettie blinked and adjusted her glasses. "Well, I believe... yes, I do think I know what this is about. That young lady with whom he's been spending his evenings? I'm afraid to tell you, sir, that we can't divulge any information about our patrons --"

"That is all right," Caleb said hastily, shifting the flower arrangement in his hands so that it creaked and swayed ominously, shedding flower petals and leaves in the doorway. "As long as you  know I do not need to know I do not want  to know, I am a butler, not matchmaker, please, just tell me you can deliver these flowers to their destination? If they go astray he will want to know why, and I cannot just tell  him 'you did not give me a name or address or anything to go on, how was I to know,' but of course he does not want to hear it --"

The attention of the entire salon was on them, he saw past the screen of flowers, and nobody at all was watching as a window along the back wall slowly scraped open and a small, cloaked figure darted in. Nott looked towards the door, flashed him a brief thumbs up, then scampered to hide behind a tall potted plant. She was in.

"Yes, yes, quite all right, I'll be sure to get these to the right person," Lettie said, cutting in to his monologue about all the terrible trials Wizard Molly put his fellows through. "You can go back to him and assure them that the delivery was made. Just make sure he understands though, that just because we deliver the arrangement does not  mean that she will accept them. That is up to her."

"Yes, of course," Caleb said. Two of the taller and heftier looking waiters arrived and Caleb was finally able to turn over the heavy ceramic vase to them. He retreated and watched through the doorway of the salon as Lettie went back over to the desk in the corner and wrote a note. She pulled open a drawer, leafed through a number of files and selected one, pulling it out and placing the note in the file before setting it back into the desk.

"The green folder," Caleb whispered into the wire that Nott had given him before starting the plan. It was enchanted so that she could hear anything spoken into it, although since he did not have magic himself, he would be unable to hear anything from her. As Lettie walked away, he watched the shadow detach from the potted plant and hurry over to the desk, rummaging through it. " Beeile dich,  Nott!" he added urgently, slipping back into Zemnian in his worry.

Nott seemed to become a dark blur, zipping from her corner to the desk in a flash, then vanishing back out of sight before Lettie could turn around again. Within a blink she was out of sight, and by the time Caleb hurried back over to the mouth of the alley she was already there, folder in hand.

"You got it!" Caleb exclaimed and she grinned in triumph, waving the folder aloft.

"Yep, thanks to you!" Nott said. "This is great Caleb, it has her address and everything. We'll find her for sure!"

He shook his head in amazement. "I still cannot believe we pulled that off," he admitted. "I never thought we'd get this far."

Caleb still wasn't sure whether he wanted  to help Molly win his suit with this mystery girl, but he had to admit that Nott's enthusiasm was infectious. The two of them made their way through the streets in the waning hours of daylight, navigating their way through the mazelike streets of Zadash . They left behind the grand architecture of the Trispires district, the quaint and cozy buildings around the salon and entered a more crowded part of town. The streets were narrower, the walls dirtier; the elegant streetlamps on poles were replaced by less frequent brackets hanging out from second-story windows.

At last, according to the directions in Nott's file, they found themselves on a doorstep.

"Are you sure we're in the right place?" Caleb asked her. The door ahead of them was narrow, dingy and with a few cracks and splinters; the address seemed to be set well back from the main road, built into the back of a larger tenement building. This part of the city didn't seem to leave a single square foot of space unbuilt, even if it often meant that buildings became piled on top of and squeezed into each other.

"I think so," Nott said, though she sounded equally doubtful. This was the sort of place that Caleb would have slept outside of in his time on the streets in hopes that the built-over second stories would shield him from the rain. It wasn't the sort of place where the dignified, courtly patrons of the salon would stay.

Caleb reached out and pulled the bell-pull, which went with no resistance and no sound. He tried knocking instead which produced a loud, hollow sound throughout the little alleyway, but no response.

"Maybe we have the wrong street," he said, but Nott shook her head.

"No, I'm sure this is right," she said, "fourteen back, Sander Street, the address on file for Astrid Widogast."

Caleb froze. No, that was wrong, he couldn't have heard that right, it couldn't be --

"What?" Nott asked, turning to look up at his reaction with concern. "What is it?"

And then the door swung open.

She looked older than when he'd last seen her, Caleb couldn't help but notice, aged far more than the ten-something-months of time that he'd been away. Older and more tired, her color faded, dark shadows under her eyes not-quite concealed by makeup. She'd cut her hair, the long buttery-yellow locks that she used to braid down to her waist now in a short, stylish bob around her ears, and the light flowery frocks she'd worn as a girl had been replaced with a darker blouse and skirt that swept the floor. But her eyes were the same, blue eyes to match his own, now staring at him with an expression of shock swiftly dawning into outrage.

"Caleb?!"  his sister exclaimed. "What are you doing  here?"

" Hallo , Astrid," was all he could think to say.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

" Caleb?"  Astrid said, aghast.

"I... I..." Caleb knew he must look a fool, standing with his mouth open like a fish. He closed it with a snap and shuddered. "This was a mistake. We should not have come here."

"What? Caleb! What are you doing here?" Astrid demanded. She darted forward out of the doorway and grabbed his arm, pulling him back as he started to turn away. "Where are you going? Where have you been? "

"Caleb? What's going on?" Nott said, tugging at his other sleeve.

Caleb stood between the two of them, head hanging, and at least he took a deep breath and turned back. "Nott... this is Astrid," he said, gesturing weakly in her direction. "My sister."

After the first glance Astrid ignored Nott, focusing her attention on Caleb. "What's going on? You disappeared. You left us," she said, and the words were like a stab to the heart. "Standing on the streets with no money, no home. We thought you were dead."

"No," Caleb said, which, well, obviously. "I am sorry, Astrid. I had no choice. Some things happened and I..." His throat closed.

"What's that supposed to mean? Why  didn't you have a choice?" Astrid insisted, trying to pull him around to face her straight on.

Caleb shook his head. Already the curse was tight around his throat, strangling like a noose, gagging all the explanations and apologies that he owed her before they could be voiced. This was why he had left then, this was why he'd never gone back, this was why he'd never planned to seek them out: he could not tell her why.

He shook his head and turned to leave, pulling his sleeve free from her grasp. Nott, confused, tagged along after a moment. Behind him Astrid drew herself up, nearly spitting in her fury.

"Don't you dare walk away from me!" Astrid yelled, loud enough that Jester probably heard her all the way on the moors. "Not this time. What are those clothes? What is that ridiculous hat? What have you been doing all this time? Did you run away just to get work as a servant, scraping the boots of gentlemen?"

"And you?" Caleb turned back on her, stung by her accusations to fling words of his own. "Hanging around fancy salons, sniffing after older men? Do you have any idea what kind of man the Wizard Molly is like Astrid, do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into?"

Astrid stamped her foot in a fury. "You have no right to take that tone with me Caleb, you lost the right to tell me what to do when you left us!" she raged. "What were we supposed to do? We were just children! We had nowhere to go, no one to support us. Father told us that you would look after us when he was gone, did you forget that?"

Caleb flinched, he couldn't help it. He hadn't forgotten, he had never forgotten, but there had been nothing he could do. Nothing he could do, he could barely keep himself alive, let alone two more teenagers. He couldn't have taken them with him, and he couldn't have stayed. "No," he whispered, but Astrid ignored him as she drove passionately on.

"Eodwulf took the King's Shilling you know. He's up on the northern Xhorhas ready to march and die against the cricks and me, well, they wouldn't take a girl of sixteen! What was I supposed to do?" She made a broad, frustrated gesture at herself, her shabby run-down quarters, at everything. "At least if I could find a wizard to apprentice to, I would have some way to make a living! At least if I could find a wealthy man to attach to, I would have somewhere to go that isn't here!"

"Listen, lady," Nott started to say. "Molly isn't exactly husband material..."

"You stay out of this!" Astrid snapped, still barely sparing Nott a glance before turning her glare back on Caleb. "This is none of your business, this is between my brother and me. Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

The words hung in the air, harsh and unforgiving, and there was nothing he could  say. Nothing except -- "I'm sorry."

And he walked away.

"Caleb!" Astrid yelled at his retreating back. "If you walk away from me now don't you dare think you can come back! CALEB!"

As he turned the corner she was working up into a tantrum that would have put all of Molly's magic slime to shame, cursing in words he'd never heard her say before he left from the Academy. Something flew past him to shatter against the brick wall beside him, but aside from a flinch he kept walking on.

Nott kept pace with him, but she said nothing more as they turned the corner and his sister's voice faded behind them.

 

 


 

 

As soon as the castle door closed behind them, Caleb turned the wheel over so that no one could follow behind them. Only then did he feel like he could breathe freely.

"Oh, you guys are back!" Jester leapt up in her stove, smiling and happy, but the smile faded as she took in the dark air around them. "How'd it go? Did you find the mystery girl  that Molly's been pining over?"

"I'm... not sure..." Nott said. "I -- I mean I think we did, but she wasn't at all what I thought? And she seemed to know Caleb! I mean, she said she was his sister? But she seemed, um, really not happy to see him."

"What?" Jester cried. "Caleb you have a sister? Why did you tell me before? How does she know Molly? Why aren't you guys staying together any more?!"

He shook his head, but couldn't answer. Frumpkin was sleeping in a neat donut shape on the padded chair in front of the fire; as Caleb approached he woke up and chirruped a greeting. Caleb picked him up and sat down in his place, setting the cat on his lap as he did, and just held him.

Frumpkin didn't resist his grip even though it must be painful to him; the tabby cat had always been able to tell somehow when Caleb was feeling particularly hollow. He purred loudly and butted his head against Caleb's chin. Slowly his heart began to slow, feeling less like a battering ram against the cage of his ribs, but he still had no answer he could give to Nott.

"Caleb what's wrong?" Nott asked. "Why can't you talk? You said something happened, but you didn't -- are you..." she faltered.

Caleb shook his head, wordless. He couldn't explain, and he couldn't even explain why  he couldn't explain, and everything just got locked up in his throat and nothing could get past --

"Caleb," and Jester's voice was unusually serious for her. "Is the reason you can't talk about what happened because it was related to your curse?"

He nodded. Nott gasped. Jester said, "If you want, I can tell Nott about the curse. If she knows, then you can talk about it to her."

"J-ja." He managed to unlock his jaw enough to let that word out. "Bitte."

"What?" Nott said. "Caleb, you have a curse? Why didn't you tell us sooner?!"

Jester rolled her eyes in a flare of flames. "He didn't tell you because he couldn't  tell you, Nott, keep up," she said. "Okay. Caleb definitely has a curse on him. I can tell 'cause it's a fire curse and I can always see fire magic, it looks like it's about ten months old, and it's got the Witch of the Waste written all over it. That's about all I know, but maybe Caleb can tell us the rest."

"You are correct," Caleb said, his voice rusty and painful but Archeart, it was so good to have control of it again. "I… I met the Witch of the Waste last -- at the beginning of this year. I told you our family had a bookbinding shop, did I not?"

"Yes," Nott said. Her eyes grew rounder. "Oh, no, so the person you said you made an enemy -- the very powerful person who you were rude to --"

"That was the Witch." Caleb nodded. "I did not know who she was at the time, she was just, I thought she was just another bitchy customer. At first."

"You called the Witch of the Waste bitchy?" Nott said, and he could not tell whether she was horrified or impressed.

"No, no, I did not say that to her face!" Caleb said hastily. "I was not that  rude to the customers. I just… thought it, very loudly."

"How rude were  you though?" Jester was leaning out of her stove, hands propped against her cheeks, a twist of flame lashing behind her like Frumpkin's tail. "What did you say to her? What'd you say?  I wanna know!"

"I said…" Caleb swallowed against a dry mouth. "Sh-she was being very rude about our books. She called them trash, said I was wasting her time. I said to her --" he took a deep breath -- "that no matter, no matter how bad the writing was, at least that trashy romance book had brought happiness to many people. So it had done more good in the world than she ever had."

Nott made impressed noises, and Jester gave a delighted gurgle. Caleb couldn't laugh though, not when he remember what his moment of self-indulgence had led to. He closed his eyes. "That made her, made her very angry. She said --" Even without his excellent memory, he thought he would always remember what the Witch said to him then, written on his brain in searing letters, " 'You have a fire in you, boy. I hope it'll be enough to keep you warm for the rest of your life, because you'll never sleep under a roof again.' "

He opened his eyes again. "And then she left, and her man went with her, and I… I did not realize what had happened at first. It is not that I thought it was nothing, I was very shaken, but I did not realize -- I did not understand what it really meant. I closed up the store just like normal, and, and I went to bed."

"What happened?" Nott said.

"That night our house burned down," Caleb said, his voice flat. "We all got out, Astrid and Eodwulf and I, we all got out safely, but the house was gone. The store was gone -- our rooms had been over the store. The workshop was ruined. Everything was gone."

Such small words to encompass the scope of it -- the house he'd lived in all his life, grown up in, his old childhood bedrooms and closets and collections of books dating back to the first stubby picture book he'd ever read gone up in smoke. All their belongings, everything they'd ever had of their father, the last mementoes of their mother, all of it burning on a pyre to the Witch's wounded pride.

And that really was the least of it.

"Even then I did not realize -- " His voice caught, broke in midsentence. "I was so stupid! I didn't realize. I thought, perhaps the fire just happened, sometimes these things just happen. We… the fire brigade came, and saved what they could, and the three of us, we were just orphan children with no home now. So they took us to stay with our aunt, our father's sister on the other side of the town, and the next night we stayed in her spare room. Astrid took the bed, Eodwulf the couch, and I was on the floor with blankets."

Neither Nott nor Jester interrupted him this time as he took a deep, steadying breath. "And that night, my aunt's house also burned down."

The noise of the fire had been tremendous -- so loud he had barely been able to hear Eodwulf shouting from the same room. He had heard nothing at all from Aunt Martha, up the stairs and down the hall.

"Eodwulf smashed the window, and the three of us crawled out through it. I don't… I don't know whether my aunt made it out. Her bedroom was upstairs. The fire brigade came again and by that time I had got the point, I had got the fucking  point, I knew I had to leave and so I left. Right then." His voice was shaking as he recalled it. His hands were shaking too, so he clasped his hands between his knees. "And I have been on the move since that time. That is the curse. The Witch's curse. I cannot spend the night in any house because it will burn, like my parents' house burned, like my aunt's house burned. They all burn."

He wondered when it would occur to them what this meant, that he had come into the castle with this curse on him not knowing yet that the castle contained a fire demon who could keep the curse from activating. That he had entered the castle knowing full well that his presence there would destroy it, would burn their house and all their possessions and them as well if they did not move quickly enough to get out. That he had known  and he had not cared  because all that had been left in him was the cold, the weakness and the fear, and the willingness to burn down Molly's life as long as it meant that he could live for one more night.

He did not think that Jester got it; being a fire demon herself she had only an abstract concept of what it meant for mortals to be caught in a house fire. Nott, though -- he thought that Nott was beginning to get it.

He cleared his throat. "So that is why -- that is why," he said, his voice cracking. "Astrid was right, I abandoned her, I abandoned them both and I know what that makes me, but I had  to go. It wasn't safe to be near me. I was sorry to leave them but I cannot go back, I cannot go home while this magic is on me."

"I understand," Nott murmured. She was giving him an intense look he could not decipher, and he wondered if she was disgusted by him.

"So if the curse triggers when you spend a night in a house…" Jester said slowly. "Is it triggered by a length of time, or a specific time of day? Like, at midnight, or if --"

"I have tried!" Caleb snapped, his stretched-taut nerves flaring to anger. "Whatever trick or workaround or loophole you are about to suggest, I have tried!  I have had many, many nights since then to try. I have tried sleeping in things that are not houses, sleeping during the day, sleeping only for a short time, it doesn't matter. It always finds a way. I tried until I got tired of destroying other people's lives with the trying!"

The shout rang in the dark castle room. Jester fell silent, daunted perhaps for the first time since Caleb had met her. He bent his head down and locked his hands behind his neck, drawing deep unsteady breaths into his lungs.

"Is that..." Nott's voice sounded soft, hesitant. "Is that why you can't... go into houses? And why you're afraid of the Crownsguard, because they remind you of that night?"

"No." He shook his head, moved his hands from his neck to press against the sides of his head. "That came later."

"What happened?" Jester asked. She flickered from side to side in the grate, unsettled.  "And what do you mean, 'destroying people's lives with trying?' "

He sat silent for a moment. He did not want to tell them, did not want to destroy himself in their eyes. But... they deserved to know just what kind of a monster they had taken under their roof. And the curse closed his throat to all other ears but theirs; if he could not tell them now, he might never be able to speak of it again.

"That... that came later. After..." He swallowed against a dry throat, and took a deep breath. "After a couple months had gone by and I had been living on the streets for a while, I ended up in a town called Shady Run. I couldn't stay in any one town for too long, you see. The Crownsguard don't like vagrants that linger in one place for too long. Eventually they would run us off, and I would have to move on.

"But when I came to Shady Run Creek I heard… rumors, grumbling really, about the troubles the town was having. I don't know if you have ever been there, or ever heard of it. They talked about gangs, about gangs that had grown so big they ran parts of the town, who had bought out much of the town leadership and hardly even bothered to keep themselves secret. I heard about the corruption of the Jagentoths, about the Iron Shepherds who set themselves up as little lords with their own palaces and walled complexes in the nicer parts of town. I heard about this and I thought… why not? Perhaps I can get some good out of this curse, after all. Perhaps I can turn evil magic to good purpose."

"Ooh! Good thinking!" Jester cheered, while Nott sounded more anxious. "That sounds dangerous! Did… it work?"

He laughed, although it came out strangled and ghastly. "Oh yes, it worked. The first night, at least. One of the warehouses of the Shepherds went up in flames. They scurried around like ants from a flooded anthill. I felt so proud of myself, so… powerful."

The smile faded, and he swallowed again. "And then the second night. I slept under the eaves of the Jagentoths' palace. And that worked too, yes, but they were on alert now. When the building caught, the guard was all over the place in minutes. And I did not have time or space to get away."

Another painful, strangled chuckle. "It turns out that the Crownsguard does not… they do not actually care whether you light a fire with a torch or a bomb, or a magical curse. They only care that the fire was lit and you were there."

"But they couldn't prove anything, right?" Nott's voice had pitched up another notch in anxiety. "I mean, you didn't have any matches or tinder on you or anything, so they couldn't prove  it was you."

"They could not prove it was me," Caleb agreed. "But they did not have to. I was nearby, so I was a suspect. They took me to the precinct jail, and held me there… overnight."

He could still recall with perfect clarity what had turned out to be the worst day of his life, worse than the day his mother died, worse than receiving news of his father's death, worse even than the day the Witch cursed him. How every minute that passed felt like a drop of water striking his flinching skin, filling up the room he was in until he was drowning. Knowing what would happen, what was happening,  and being utterly helpless to stop it.

"I argued. I raged. I begged. I had no shame left, none at all," Caleb said, forcing out each word through a mouth dry as desert. "I would have offered… anything. I did offer anything. But the guards there, they were too good to take me up on any of… my offers. Maybe it would have been better if they were a little less good. Maybe then more of them would be alive."

He'd collected some bruises and fractures during those terrible hours, lost a tooth, but there had been no real malice behind the blows. They were only simple guards, accustomed to simple routines, and his manic frenzy unnerved them. They had tried to stop him talking in the only way their training had taught them, but he could not stop. Could not stop arguing, begging, pleading, screaming,  but the one thing he could not say was the truth, the only truth that might have saved them.

Or maybe not. They would have no reason to believe him, after all.

He was going to die. He had known all day that he would die, and maybe that should have brought peace, should have brought calm, but that was a mercy he had been denied. Every nerve had been a torment of waiting, of anticipation, and when it finally started it was no relief at all.

"You were not correct earlier, Jester. The curse is not tied to midnight. It was ten-fourteen at night when it activated." His voice quivered, and he clamped his lips down tight to try to contain it.

It all came back to him with perfect clarity: there had not been enough time to dull the memories for him. Perhaps there never would be enough time for that. The shouts of alarm from the wardens, shouts that quickly transmuted to screams. So many screams, screams from all around. So many voices. Men, women, humans, orcs and gnomes and elves whom he had never seen and never met, people whose voices etched like acid onto his brain as they cooked alive because of him.

"The wardens fled, I think, and I think most of them had made it out. Not the prisoners; there had been no one to let them out. They did not have a… I don't think anyone expected that that jail could catch fire. It was solid stone and metal, after all. It should not have been able to burn. But it did. Hot enough for the stones themselves to catch, for the iron to melt, for the entire place to burn…"

Most of the cells had been full for the night when the fire started, and the other prisoners had shrieked like souls in hell as they burned.  Caleb's cell had been burning, the walls on every side engulfed in flame, and he had screamed as he threw himself against the barred window, begging, pleading in his mother tongue to gods who would not hear: "Raus! Lass mich raus, bitte lass mich raus! Bitte, bitte..."

And then he had been out.

He had no memory of how it had happened, only that he had come to his senses on his hands and knees outside the burning prison. Ugly brown smoke billowed into the night sky, orange flames teeming with black crawled over the building. There was shouting and clamor from all around, the Crownsguard and the fire brigade swarming the place, the roar of the fire nearly drowning out the last faint, desperate, high-pitched noises coming from inside. Almost, but not quite.

He had staggered to his feet and stumbled forward, found that he was on the bank of the canal that ran through the city. He splashed into the cold, dark water, a balm for his singed and smoking skin, and waded through the sludge until daybreak. By the time morning broke he had been outside the city limits, still walking.

"Caleb, that's horrible…" Nott said, her voice thin.

"It's pretty awful, but it's not that big of a deal really, right?" Jester's voice intruded tentatively. "I mean, they were only criminals, so it's not like they were good people…"

"Criminals?" Caleb snapped, suddenly angry, suddenly furious. No doubt that was what the wardens told themselves as they fled, as they looked on the conflagration from the outside, that it was all right that they had not even tried to save anyone inside because they were only criminals. "How do you know what they were? Maybe they were pickpockets like Nott? Stupid kids like Eodwulf, who got themselves in a fight in the street? Or maybe they were just vagrants like me, whose only crimes were being poor and having no place to go and taking up too much space? Maybe they were! Maybe they were murderers and rapists, I do not know! But even if that were true, they did not deserve to die that way!"

"But it wasn't your fault," Nott said bravely, pushing forward in the face of Caleb's fury. "You didn't mean   to start the fire, you tried everything you could to stop it, you didn't intend…"

"So what? So what?"  he shouted, his voice overriding her objections. "I did intend to start a fire! And a fire started, just like I wanted. What good are my intentions now? I set out to hurt people and people got hurt! I do not get to 'cry backsies' now just because the people who got hurt weren't the right ones!"

"It wasn't you," Jester said staunchly. "I mean it was the Witch's spell that lit the fire, it was the guards that put you in a position where it would go off, and they were the ones who didn't let any of the prisoners out either! A lot of people were responsible for that fire Caleb, it wasn't all on you. You said, all you wanted to do was to try to use your curse for good! It's not your fault that went wrong."

"That is the story I told myself." He huddled down on himself, eyes trained on the ground, arms wrapped tightly around his torso. "But the truth is not so noble. I thought it was not fair that I was a good person and I was hungry and cold, while they were wicked people who were comfortable and warm and had everything. I told myself that I was doing justice but the truth was that I wanted them to know how I felt. I wanted them to hurt like I was hurting. And they did. And then I was sorry, but it was too late."

Silence fell, apart from the crackling off Jester's flames. Neither of them seemed to know what to say.  There was nothing to say.

All at once the room was too close, too dark. He stood up abruptly, saw how Nott startled in response to his sudden movement. "I have to go," Caleb mumbled, and stood. Frumpkin tumbled off his lap when he stood up and meowed in protest as he walked away.

The knob was set to green-down which was good because Caleb didn't think he could have faced the busy riot of Zadash right now, couldn't even have faced the friendly smiles of their neighbors in Nicodranas. He sat on the little set of stairs leading down from the castle and listened to it rumble and lurch above him.

They were miles away from the place his path had crossed with the castle for the first time, but in the darkness the moors all looked the same. He stared down at a sloping hillside of dark stone and wondered why he had even bothered trying to leave in the first place.

He should never have sought shelter in the first place. He was a danger to everyone around him and obviously, couldn't be trusted to contain himself. He should have walked back to Shady Creek Run and turned himself into the crownsguard there, except that he was still terrified of dying in the fire that would follow. He should have just laid down on the hillside and let himself die that night, and saved Nott and Jester and the Wizard Molly and all of them all of the trouble.

"Caleb?" Nott's voice came softly from behind him. He hunched over automatically, as if expecting a blow, but the little goblin only came up behind him and sat next to him on the step. Her legs swung out over the edge but came nowhere near brushing against the ground. After a moment, she leaned up against him, a point of warmth in the biting cold.

He closed his eyes. "Why do you not despise me?" he said softly. "I do."

She said nothing, only shifted on the stoop, and after a moment he went on. "I didn't know that you were living here in the castle. I didn't know that Jester was here or that she could block the curse. I didn't care. I came in here knowing that my presence here would destroy everything, and I was only glad that Molly was a wicked person who deserved to be destroyed. I could have killed you without ever knowing you just because I was weak, because I was cold, because I did not want to die."

"You forget," she said quietly. "I've been where you were. I lived for a long time on the street, I was alone before Molly took me in. Every household in this town spat on me, beat me with brooms when I went to steal a bite of bread. You think I don't understand what you feel but I do. I know what it's like to have nothing, to be hungry and tired and cold and afraid. I know --"

She stopped herself mid-word, making a sound of frustration. He opened his eyes, although they stayed trained on the ground. At the periphery of his vision he saw Nott move and a tiny clawed hand slipped into his.

"I'm not sure whether I would have done what you did," she said bluntly. "But that wasn't a choice I ever had to make, either. I found someplace safe. I can't blame you for wanting the same. I don't hate you, Caleb. I'm really glad that things worked out, that Jester was able to help you, and I hope we'll be able to help you get rid of the curse for good. But most of all I'm glad I got a chance to meet you and that we got a chance to be friends."

He felt a hot rush of emotion surge up through his throat, burning behind his eyes and he felt his face crumple. Affection, guilt, shame, relief... but above all else, gratitude. Thankfulness that against all the odds, of all the places in the world that he could stumble upon the strangest of all possible partners, that she would be his friend.

"So am I," he whispered and squeezed her hand back.

They stayed out on the step for a little longer, before Nott swung her legs and got to her feet. "Come on," she said. "Let's get someplace warm."

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text


In the following days the weather worsened out all of the doors: stinging grains of snow on the moors, pouring rain in Zadash and pea-soup fog in Nicodranas. The chill and the wet made Jester grumble, hissing when an open door let in a wave of fog to sizzle against her grate.  Caleb mostly stayed inside, continuing his cataloging and sorting efforts and letting himself be quietly grateful -- for once -- to have this shelter from the elements. Rain was alternately a romantic whimsy of nature, or an uncomfortable nuisance -- unless you had no way to get out of it, in which case time could turn it deadly.

Caleb understood that. So, he thought, did Nott. The two of them had developed an easy companionship in the castle on days when Molly was not around, Nott working on magic while Caleb labeled the little flasks and tucked them away neatly in the appropriate bins, a soothing and satisfying task. When he saw Nott rolling her shoulders while hunching over her workbench Caleb called a break for lunch, and managed to distract her away from her work afterwards by asking if she knew any card games.

By the time Molly got back in the afternoon the two of them were arranged on the floor in front of Jester's hearth, playing a game that Nott called Emperors. She'd won the first few rounds effortlessly but once he'd absorbed the general rules and strategies Caleb's flawless memory helped him remember what cards had and hadn't been played, and he'd pulled ahead in the tally. Nott was accusing Caleb as cheating even as spare cards spilled out of her sleeves and Jester bounced back and forth between them, cheering for one or the other indiscriminately, when Molly came back.

Molly slammed the door shut behind him and leaned against it with one arm flung over his head and one booted foot propped against the stairs. "Look at you all!" he complained. "Ruin stares me in the face. I slave every day to keep this household running, and this is the thanks I get! Not one of you, even Jester, can spare time from your merriment to even say hello."

"Hello, Molly," Jester said sweetly. 

"You've never worked a day since I came to this castle," Caleb said.

"Is something wrong?" Nott asked, putting down her hand of cards.

"How kind of you to ask," Molly said. "Yes, in fact, something is wrong. Terribly wrong. Drastically wrong!"

Caleb was not going to ask, but Nott took the bait: "What happened?" she asked.

Molly dropped his dramatic posture against the door only to make his way over to the couch and fling himself dramatically there instead. "I've been banned   from Lettie's Salon," he declaimed tragically.

Caleb and Nott exchanged wide-eyed looks, leaving Jester to exclaim innocently, "What! Whatever for? I thought they loved you there!"

"They did."   Molly scowled blackly at the door. "I was their most requested guest. But apparently somebody   levied a complaint against me for harassing a young woman who was a regular there. Me! Making 'unwanted advancements against a young lady!' I've never made an advance against anybody who didn't 'advance' on me first!"

With a sinking heart Caleb realized what had happened: the next time she attended the salon Astrid would have learned that Caleb had visited there, claiming to be representing the Wizard Molly. In her fury she had blamed Molly for Caleb's actions, and apparently gotten him banned from the salon entirely.

"This is going to spread all over town now," Molly said moodily. "Never mind that it isn't true, every respectable institution is going to hear that I made unwanted advancements . I can just about kiss my social calendar good-bye for the next few months."

"Weren't you the one complaining that your social schedule was over-full, Molly?" Caleb said a trifle defensively. "That should no longer be a problem."

Molly frowned at him, looking stormy. "Yes, and I do wonder whether you   had anything to do with this, mister butler," he said. Caleb tried not to flinch guiltily. "Lettie seemed to think that I had sent my manservant on my behalf, but I'm quite certain I never sent you on any errands there."

Caleb stayed silent. "But Molly," Nott burst out, unable to take the tension. "Didn't you say that you wanted to blacken your name in the capital? Won't this be great   for your wicked reputation?"

Molly shook his head. "There's wickedness and then there's wickedness,"   he said. "The right degree of wickedness makes you into a cool, bad sort of boy that all the ladies love   to spend time with and makes you unreliable to do certain kinds of government work. This is the wrong   type of wickedness, the type that harasses underage girls." 

"Well," Nott said, then in a burst of forced cheeriness, "Well, this isn't all bad, Molly! At least it means you'll have some more free time to give me magic lessons?"

"Some trade-up," Molly huffed. "From wining and dining with the most attractive youths of Zadash to giving magic lessons to a goblin."

"There's no call to take your temper out on Nott," Caleb snapped. "If you must blame anyone for this, blame me."

"Oh, I intend to," Molly said, and refused to say anything more to Caleb for the rest of the morning.

Which ought to have been restful, but turned out to just be inconvenient. With the rain pouring outside two of the doors, there was nowhere for Caleb to really go to absent himself from the castle; but with Molly hanging around in the front room, neither could he continue any of his research. Caleb was reduced to puttering around in the background as Molly and Nott worked on what seemed to him to be the truly fascinating business of magic, which he decidedly had not been invited in on.

"No, don't do it that way, follow the book," Molly was insisting as he bent over the workbench, Nott standing on a crate to be of a height with him. "That will just lead to the spell blowing up in your face."

 "That's how you do it," Nott protested. 

Molly laughed. "I'm a terrible example to follow," he said, and Caleb secretly agreed. "I can get away with cutting corners that you can't. Always read it right through, carefully, before you begin. The shape of it should tell you a lot: whether it's abjuration, evocation, conjuration, enchantment, necromancy or divine; whether it requires only a verbal incantation or mixed action and speech, and whether it's a cast-and-go or something that takes continued concentration. Once you've worked all that out, go back through the text and try to find the mistake." 

"Mistake?" Nott frowned. "They're proper spell books, why would they have mistakes?" 

"You're getting on to more powerful levels of magic and you'll find that the more powerful spells aren't just written down in plain text, they always have some kind of cipher or trigger left out to keep them from falling into the wrong hands," Molly explained. "Now let's take this telecommunication spell to study…" 

Caleb found himself in a quandary. He had already organized everything downstairs and so long as Molly hung around he couldn't risk continuing his research into magical contracts. Nott was distracted by Molly, and Molly himself was ignoring him. That left him with very little to do except eavesdrop on their conversation or play with Frumpkin.

 The cat had made himself comfortable in the castle within the first few days of their arrival; it sent a pang through Caleb's heart to think that when his deal with Jester was complete he would have to take the animal away from what had become his new home. Then again, once the curse was broken there'd be nothing stopping him from finding them a new home elsewhere.

 Caleb tried to shut out the melodic sound of Molly's voice rising and falling in the background, looking around for his faithful companion. A thump and rustle drew his eye and he saw the ginger cat crouched beside one of the bookcases, shoulder against the floor as he stretched his paw into the gap under the lowest shelf. He fished around and drew back, stared close with twitching whiskers and lunged. Caleb saw something vaguely arachnid flop between the cat's paws before flipping and scuttling for the darkness under the shelf. Frumpkin pounced again and came up with something dark and wriggling in his jaws.

"What is that you have found, my friend?" Caleb asked him in a friendly tone as Frumpkin trotted over, ears pricked and tail held high in triumph. "You are a mighty hunter, aren't you?"

Frumpkin trilled in delight, sat down and dropped his prey, then pounced again when it tried to escape. The noise and motion was enough to capture the attention of the others, craning their neck over the table to try to see what exactly was going on.

"What is that?" Jester wanted to know, having the best view of Frumpkin's antics from her grate.

"I think it is a roach," Caleb said absently. Bugs did not particularly bother him any more after his time living on the street, although he preferred that Frumpkin eat them so that he could save more palatable food for himself.

"A roach?" Nott shrieked, and a moment later was standing on the seat of the chair with the chair back squarely between her and the intruder. "Kill it! Make him kill it!"

"There can't be a roach," Molly protested. "I have spells down, what kind of a wizard do you think I am? It must be something else." He came around the table, frowning down at the cat and his prey.

"Let me see," Caleb said to Frumpkin and the cat permitted Caleb to reach down and take hold of the wriggling thing, which make Nott shriek a bit more.

To his surprise the thing was not a roach, nor a mouse, nor any other kind of bug or beast that Caleb knew. In fact it didn't seem to be entirely living -- it was like a construct that had been made out of paper folds to resemble a beetle with six legs, which scuttled and sidled with a rustling paper sound. Black words writhed along the paper surfaces, and the thing let out a hiss like rustling paper.

"What is that?"   Nott retreated even further, to the tabletop instead of the chair seat.

But Molly's attention zeroed in on the strange critter and he stepped forward and snatched it out of Caleb's hand. "A spy," he said darkly, and slammed his hand down on the table.

"What?" Caleb said, bewildered.

"Jester," Molly called out in a sharp, authoritative tone that Caleb had never heard him use before. He was surprised enough to look up at Molly's face as he moved, and so he saw the way the solid blueness of his eyes flared and dimmed again. At the same moment Jester roared up in her grate and then subsided again, and Caleb could almost see   the wave of power passing between them. 

Molly held out one hand and snapped his fingers; a bright blue spark leapt from his hand and grounded itself in the scuttling construct of paper. The papery thing fell on its side and convulsed for a moment in a truly disturbing fashion, writhing and curling in on itself as though it were truly alive. Then in a fizzle of smoke all movement ceased and what fluttered onto the countertop was a plain folded sheet of paper.

"You could have just done that as a ritual, you know," Jester remarked. 

"I didn't feel like chasing it around the room for ten minutes," Molly replied. He approached the countertop warily and reached for the paper before hesitating, his hand hovering above it for a moment as though feeling for heat. When nothing happened he picked up the piece of paper, unfolded it, and frowned.

"What is it?" said Caleb, who could no longer contain himself. This was all very weird to him, alarming and exciting in equal measure.

"I'm not sure," Molly said. He turned the sheet of paper over, then rotated it in his hand and frowned some more. "This... isn't Common? Not unless someone's handwriting is truly   atrocious."

Curiosity now well and truly piqued Caleb went to look over Molly's shoulder. The ink gleamed black with dull red highlights on the page, looping in the curls and serifs that took a moment to register with Caleb. "It is in Sylvan," he remarked.

Molly scoffed. "And what exactly was the point of sending me a note in Sylvan?" he demanded, tossing the paper back onto the counter.

"Maybe you should burn it," Nott said, her luminous eyes tracking the paper's every move. "It's the only way to be sure."

"That could be dangerous if we don't know what it says," Jester warned. "Fire cleanses, sure, but it can also release an awful lot of latent magical energy if you're not careful. I don't want to blow anything up accidentally. "

"You really do not read Sylvan?" Caleb said to Molly, surprised.

Molly started to retort, then looked over at Caleb with a frown. "Are you saying you do?"

"It is not that difficult, compared to Common," Caleb said loftily. In truth he was rather excited by the prospect of knowing something that Molly, the all-powerful wizard, did not. He reached over Molly's arm and picked up the paper, turning it towards the light. "Really, I am surprised that any wizard worth his salt could get away with not   knowing the language."

After that nothing would do but that he start work at once: Nott enthusiastically cleared space on the table by shoving her spellwork into a messy pile, and produced paper and pencil from somewhere. Caleb searched the bookcases until he found the small, slim dictionary of Sylvan words that he remembered filing a week ago; Molly stared at the book in astonishment as though he had no idea how it had come to be in his library.

As Caleb sat down to work Molly prowled around the castle as intently as Frumpkin ever did, scrutinizing every corner and cranny as though on the lookout for more such magical paper roaches. He switched the door from Zadash to Nicodranas, then to the moors, then one last time to the mysterious black door and left it there. He galloped upstairs out of sight and they heard him prowling around upstairs before he came back down and lurked restlessly over Caleb's shoulder.

Trying to put Molly's strange behavior from his mind Caleb bent to focus on the translation. The whole paper was only a handful of lines long, and Caleb had only gotten halfway through when he let out a sardonic scoff.

"What is it?" Molly said, a definite edge to his voice.

"This isn't Sylvan," Caleb said, then moved to clarify. "Or at least, it wasn't written in Sylvan originally. Someone wrote it in Common then translated it into Sylvan for some reason. Someone who thought they were very clever."

"How can you tell?" Nott asked.

"Because the translation back into Common rhymes,"   Caleb said. When that did not seem to be explanation enough he added, "There's no reason for a fragment of Sylvan to rhyme in translation, not unless the translated language was the original. If I took a Zemnian nursery rhyme and translated it into Common, then it would not rhyme, yes? But this does."

"Maybe it's just a coincidence?" Jester suggested.

Caleb shook his head. "If it was just one or two words it might be a coincidence, but -- just listen," he said, and raised the fragment of paper to read it aloud. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Molly surge forward suddenly, hands outspread, but by then it was too late.

The moment the first word of the translation left his lips, it seemed to seize and drag the other words rolling along behind them. He tried to stop and found he could not and then, a moment later, could no longer remember why he wanted   to. The castle room seemed frozen in place, nothing moving except the words that dripped from his mouth and twined through the air.

 

 

 

"Mollymauk Tealeaf, long under the tea,

From this day henceforth thou shalt never be free.

Monstrous blood shall reveal with each passing hour

Until thou divest of thy stolen power."

 

When the verse finished and his voice fell away, silence seemed to roll around the room three times before sinking away into the floorboards, and the four of them could breathe again. Jester's soft gasp felt very loud in the sudden quiet, but it heralded the return of normal sound again: the creaking of Molly's boots, the scraping of Nott's claws on the floor, the quiet crackling of flames in the grate.

"Well!" Molly said jovially. There was a bright smile on his face but his face was a pale shade of lavender-grey, and sweat beaded his forehead. "That was invigorating. You do have a way of throwing a wrench into things, don't you Caleb?"

Before Caleb could respond the tiefling walked across the room to the front door, his steps as unsteady as though he'd just come in from a night of drinking. No one else moved to stop him as he pushed open the door to darkness and walked out through it, slamming the door behind him. The wheel creaked and turned, darkness passed over the window and then was gone.

"Don't listen to him Caleb," Nott said quickly, as soon as Molly was gone from the room. "It wasn't your fault. You didn't know."

Caleb stared at the drying ink of his translation, an awful realization crawling up the back of his throat. "That was a curse, wasn't it," he said. It wasn't really a question. As mundane and unmagical as he might be, even he'd felt the power in the words he'd unwittingly spoken to life.

"Yep, it sure was," Jester said. Her usual cheer sounded strained. "Feels like one of the Witch of the Waste's curses to me."

"I -- I'm sorry," Caleb stammered helplessly. How could he have been so foolish? "If I hadn't --"

Jester shook her head resolutely. "The Witch has been trying to get one over on Molly for ages now, you know," she said. "You just kinda got stuck in the middle."

Caleb had not   known. "What does the Witch of the Waste want with Molly?" he demanded.

Nott shrugged. "He never said, but the whole reason he wanted to set up the moving castle in the first place was to throw her off his trail. Well, her and the half-dozen other people who want to corner him into things," he added. "Molly really doesn't like obligations."

"Yes, I noticed that about him," Caleb said acidly, then immediately regretted it. It was easy to fall into the rhythm of complaining with Jester and Nott about Molly, but Caleb of all people was surely the last person in the world to be leveling criticism.

Nott seemed lost in a tangle of speculation. "Maybe they used to be dating and he dumped her, so now she's a lover scorned!" she said.

Caleb hesitated. It didn't seem out of the question, knowing Molly's womanizing ways. Perhaps that dress in Molly's closet that they'd never found the owner for... but it didn't feel right. "That message did not sound like an angry lover to me," he said. "It was not... not personal.  What was that bit about 'stolen power?' "

"I dunno," Nott said. "Maybe he took something of hers and she wants it back?"

Jester was silent for a long moment, then her flames flickered in a fiery shrug. "May be," she said, her voice small.

Caleb stared at the fire demon, who uneasily avoided his gaze. Reading people was not one of his strengths -- even less so when they were made of fire -- but he knew Jester well enough to know that this was not her usual manner, especially not when there was a mystery to be solved. 

"I'd better get rid of this before Molly comes back," Nott said. With a couple of pieces of card stock paper she carefully scraped up the smoking remains of the curse-bearing paper critter, and scampered upstairs without a look back.

That left Jester and Caleb alone downstairs. Caleb was trying to figure out what question to ask Jester, when she asked one of her own. "Caleb, do you know the difference between a wizard and a warlock?"

"I, erhm," Caleb stopped to think. "Is a warlock not just a wizard who is evil?"

Jester shrugged again. "Well, not really. I mean some are, but then some just plain wizards are plenty evil too. It's not about good or bad, it's about power. The difference is that wizards draw magic from themselves, from books and from components, and warlocks draw magic from an inherently magical being."

"Like Molly draws from you?" Caleb thought of the way that the light in Molly's eyes had flared in tandem with Jester's flames when he cast the spell, and wondered why he'd never noticed before that they were the exact same shade of blue.

"Yes," Jester said.

Divest of thy stolen power. "Then it sounds like the Witch wants to cut him off from you," Caleb said slowly. "Or you from him."

"...It does sound like that, yes," Jester said in a small voice.

"That doesn't sound so bad," Caleb said encouragingly. "It's what you wanted, right? To be free of the contract?"

Jester let out a sigh. "Maybe, but I don't think she's exactly concerned about my freedom," she said. "The Witch of the Waste is legendary across the planes for her cruelty."

"What is she after, then?"

The demon's fiery corona flickered as Jester shook her head. "I don't know. I only know that Molly isn't the first magic-user to be targeted by the Witch. For years she was chasing after Wizard Fairmont. Now he's gone and she's coming after Molly instead. Nobody knows what happened to Wizard Fairmont, and I don't think we want to find out first-hand."

Caleb stared at the door that the wizard had gone out through. He of all people knew better than to underestimate the Witch of the Waste's power, or her taste for cruel and petty vengeance. He had no idea how their power actually stacked up, but if Jester seemed to think there was a danger -- if the Witch had already overpowered another, more experienced magic-user -- then Molly might truly be in danger. If this was a magical war, then she'd already landed her first sally. And there were few other allies Caleb could think of whom Molly could turn to for aid. "Then Molly must be very shaken," he realized.

Jester sank down onto the coals on her grate and said nothing more.

"I should go after him," Caleb said. He moved towards the door, then hesitated. He'd never been able to get through the black door before. Maybe Molly had left it unlocked in his haste?

No such luck. The knob was firmly stuck under his hand, unbudging no matter how he rattled it. Magic at work, for certain. Caleb sighed. "Jester, how do I open the door?" he said. "How does Molly do it?"

"I don't know how he does it," Jester admitted. She flickered for a moment, then said, "But maybe it will open if you ask nicely."

"I do not think that is how doors work," Caleb said incredulously. Jester just shrugged.

Maybe there was a password needed to make the door open, or a magic word. "Open," he said aloud, feeling foolish as he did so, and even more so when absolutely nothing happened. Jester had said to ask nicely, though. Perhaps the door could hear him? "Um. Open, please?"

Nothing. He looked back at Jester with a helpless plea; she only gestured for him to keep going.

"Open sesame," he tried, using a phrase from one of Molly's books of fairy tales. When that failed, he tried open   in a variety of languages, starting with Sylvan. " Mellon. Lethounn. Ouvrez-vous. Aufmachen --"

That was as far as he got before the doorknob clicked   under his hand. Caleb stared at it in surprise; why would Molly have set the password on his door to Zemnian, of all possible languages?

Still, he was not inclined to look a gift in the mouth. With some misgivings he turned the knob and pushed the door open, revealing --

Nothingness. A darkness so thorough that even the light spilling out of the friendly castle room didn't illuminate the floor beyond. A draft of chill, damp air washed over him, but there was no light and no sound from beyond the door. Anything could be out there, Caleb thought. Bottomless pits, terrible traps, monsters with forms Caleb couldn't even imagine. 

Molly was out there somewhere. Caleb stopped long enough to pull on his coat from the hook on the wall, then stepped out of the door into the darkness.




The darkness beyond the door was thick and smothering, heavy and cold. Caleb could feel it pressing down around him with an almost palpable weight. He wished he'd thought to bring a torch, although there was the nagging feeling that even the light of a fire could not have cut through this darkness. It stretched out beyond him, above him, and on all sides; there seemed no reason why it should not go on forever.

But there had to be something beyond the darkness, something on the other side of the door. Molly had made this door, and maintained this door, and disappeared for hours on end through this door. He was out here now somewhere, and if Caleb only kept on pressing forward he was sure to find him.

Gradually a sound began to penetrate the darkness, the echoing noise of trickling water. Caleb headed in the direction of the noise and it increased, along with the steady rushing sound of drumming rain. Rain. He must not be too far from the outdoors if he could hear it; as if in confirmation thunder growled from somewhere far away. The air was growing colder, wetter, and the ground under his feet was beginning to slip with a thin layer of water.

All at once, as though another door had been opened beside him, Caleb came around a corner of dark stone and saw the cool blue shape of a passageway opening somewhere to his left. It was far from bright, but after the absolute darkness of the cave even the faint illumination was welcome.

Less welcome, once he made his way to the end of the passage, was the pouring rain that he'd heard from deeper inside the cavern. Caleb stood for a moment at the cave mouth, staring up at the silver sheets of water cascading off the lip of the stone. He had no love for rain. The past year on the streets had seen far too many miserable days and dangerously chill nights, too many blue-white hands and feet and racking coughs, for him to find any romance in rain.

But there was the castle, after all, warmed by Jester's magical flame. Once he'd found Molly they could go back together and dry off in front of the stove. No doubt Molly would fuss and complain dramatically, peeling off the wet clothes and letting them slap on the stone floor on a straight line from the door to Jester. He would huddle pathetically in front of her stove and Caleb would have to haul him back, chiding him against dripping on Jester and extinguishing her flame, wrap him roughly in a towel and sit him down at a safe distance to warm up. He would collect Molly's wet clothes and hang them to dry before peeling out of his own wet coat and boots, and perhaps Nott would take pity on them and brew a hot drink to warm them against a dangerous chill.

It was a nice fantasy, a dangerously seductive thought, and probably not at all the way his luck would go. But clinging to it gave him the strength to push away from the mouth of the cave and go in search of Molly. He'd go for a mile, he thought. If he reached a mile and there was still no sign of Molly, then he'd consider turning back.

The landscape outside the cave mouth was one Caleb did not recognize in the least. Steep, forbidding slopes rose on every side, a dark stone he'd never seen before washed darker by the rain. A narrow path wound away up the side of the mountain, bracketed by a sheer precipice that put Caleb's heart in his mouth at every switchback turn, but he was able to make his way up the path without too much trouble. While not the utter darkness of the cave behind him, it was hard to see: the skies were filled with dark, heavy clouds that turned day into a gloaming twilight. He was able to find north, at least, but that told him absolutely nothing about what mountain range, kingdom, or indeed what continent   he was on now.

Caleb slogged up the path, stopping to take a breather now and then and let his burning legs rest. Where in all this was Mollymauk? An anxious thought unspooled in his mind that he was going the wrong way. He hadn't seen any turnoffs along the path, but the visibility was poor, so he might have missed something. Or he could easily have missed Molly in the dark of the cave. What if he was heading off in entirely the wrong direction, getting more and more lost with every step?

He reached the mile mark. Thunder rumbled from far overhead, and he kept going. 

All of a sudden the path crested a ridge and he saw ahead of him a shallow little valley, about an acre of flat gravel and stone hidden among the mountainous folds. The path headed down into the valley and led right to an unnaturally circular ring of... trees? He wasn't sure what they might be if they were not trees, but they had no leaves and their trunks were black and shining as jet. Slowly, cautiously, Caleb headed down the path.

The black trees surrounded a small lea of stone, perfectly flat and polished smooth. In the center of the circle was square-cut, sharp-cornered block of the same black stone, a long rectangle that came up about half-high on a man. Lying on its back on the top of the block of stone was a human figure.

In the dimness and the rain, Caleb couldn't tell at first whether the body on the stone slab was a person, or just an incredibly realistic stone carving. The figure was that of a woman, six feet tall with powerful shoulders and arms and tree-trunk legs. She was dressed in a motley collection of leather and armor, the metal a dull matte color and furs pressed flat in the rain. Her hands were folded together on top of her chest, holding the hilt a long unsheathed sword that did not gleam, and her eyes were closed.

She looked lifelike, vividly real, every line of clothes and armor and every eyelash perfectly defined -- but the entire body was colored in shades of black and white and grey, not a flush of breathing color anywhere on her cold white skin. She did not move or breathe and the long black hair that fanned out from her head like a halo sank back into the black stone on which she lay, perfectly melding body and stone into one.

Leaning against one side of the -- statue? tomb? block of stone -- was Mollymauk. He was soaking wet from the rain, his white shirt gone translucent and his hair plastered against his skull, but even in this dim lighting he was a vivid splash of color against the monochrome background. He half-knelt, half-sat next to the stone slab with his forehead pressed against the cold stone, and one hand clutching at the figure's sleeve.

Caleb took a step forward. As he moved his foot he felt gravel scrape against stone, and the noise was enough to alert Mollymauk to his presence. The tiefling moved at once, shooting to his feet as he turned to face Caleb. Bright sapphire light began to gather in his open palm, then dispersed as Molly got a good look at who had followed him.

"You!" he shouted, voice nearly lost in another growl of thunder. "What are you doing here? How did you follow me?"

Now that he'd found what he sought, Caleb was at a loss for what to say. Why had   he followed Molly out here, anyway? "I--" he stammered. "You, you left the door on the black setting, and I followed you..."

"You shouldn't have been able to do that," Molly snapped. " No one   should have been able to do that, especially   you! You just don't stop, do you?"

Caleb fell back a step at the sheer force of hostility Molly was directing his way. "I didn't mean..." he faltered.

"I don't care what you meant! Haven't you done enough?" Molly shouted. "You come into my house, you disrupt my life, you sabotage my career, you helped her   get a knife in, you turn my apprentice and my demon against me, and! And if that wasn't enough, now you force your way into the last private retreat I had left! Isn't it enough to ruin my life without prying into every one of my secrets too? Go away!"

"But --"

"Go away!"   Molly screamed. Thunder cracked, and the rain poured, and Caleb realized for the first time that Molly was crying.

The rejection was as clear as could be: Molly wanted nothing to do with him now. Still, despite every scrap of good sense telling him he should go now, Caleb hesitated.

Caleb wasn't good with people. He never had been, had been at a loss all his life with the strange unspoken rules of what to say and do that everyone else had been given a copy of the rulebook for except him. He had even less experience with deeper hurts and how to comfort them, but among all the sensible voices telling him to go there was one even deeper than the rest that told him that leaving now would be the worst possible thing he could do.

Molly was crying. Molly had come out here in the dark and the rain to sit in a posture of heartbroken despair at the side of this strange woman on the stone slab. Molly had just received a terrible shock, been assaulted with malicious magics the likes of which Caleb knew all too well. Molly needed someone   and while Caleb might be the worst person in the world to offer comfort, he was the one who was here now.

Slowly he took a step forward, then another. "Didn't you hear me? I said go!"   Molly glared at his approach, but the closer he came the more the angry expression seemed to crumble. "I said --" When at last Caleb reached him, he jerked his head to the side, but didn't resist as Caleb reached out and pulled him into a hug.

Molly was sopping wet, but so was Caleb, so he didn't mind too much. At least the tiefling was warm in the circle of his arms, and after a moment of stiff resistance, Molly broke down.

"I don't know how to fix this," Molly sobbed, his voice almost lost among the wash of rain and thunder. "I just don't -- I just -- I've tried everything. I've tried so many things and nothing works. I don't know what else -- What can I do? What am I going to do, Caleb? What am I going to do?"

Caleb had no idea what Molly was talking about, but he didn't need to understand to offer comfort. He hugged him tighter, swayed a little from side to side, tried to recall what his mother used to do. How his mother had drawn him into her arms on the days when the world had been too much, when everything had hurt, she had drawn him under the protection of her coat and held him. "Shhh.  Alles wird in Ordnung sein, mein Elster,"   Caleb murmured.

Inspired by a sudden memory, he drew back far enough to take a gentle grip on Molly's chin and tilt his face down a little bit. Just enough to plant a gentle kiss on his forehead, the same place his mother had kissed him. "Hor auf zer Weinen."

He heard Molly gasp and for a moment thought he might have taken it too far; but at least the tears stopped, so he couldn't have done too wrong. 

It took a few more minutes for the hitching sniffles to wind their way down, and he held Molly patiently through them. He wished he'd brought a handkerchief. At last Molly slumped slightly against his side, and Caleb dared to clear his throat and speak again. The rain had slowed and the sky had lightened a little, enough to more clearly see the woman Molly had been crying over. From this close up it was clear that she was a real person, not a stone statue, but also that she was not alive. Rain slid off her as though she were made of polished stone or slick ice, and for all Caleb knew, she might have been. The only thing he could think was that she had been enchanted somehow.

"Who is she?" Caleb asked softly, giving a nod towards the stone slab. "This lady that you care so much for?"

He was braced for any answer: that the unknown woman was Molly's mother, or his sister, or perhaps even his girlfriend or wife, although if that were true it put his womanizing behavior in another light. Still he was prepared for any answer -- except the one he actually got, which was Molly's voice muffled from where his face pressed against Caleb's shoulder.

"I don't know."



 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

Molly said nothing more for the rest of the night. Try as he might Caleb could not get another word out of him. The uncharacteristic silence frightened him almost as much as the rest of the scene: the ominous mountains, the eerie stillness of the stone woman, the tears mingled with rainwater on Molly's cheeks.

Wrestling Molly back down the flooded mountain path and through the lightless caves was a nerve-wracking experience. With one arm over Caleb's shoulders Molly would walk, but offered no direction on the way back. He seemed completely lost in his own thoughts, sunk in his own misery, leaving Caleb almost as alone when he stumbled back into the castle through the black door as when he had stepped out of it.

Once safely back inside there was nothing Caleb would have liked better than to collapse in his chair before the heat of Jester's grill, but Molly was soaked to the bone and wearing only his thin shirt. The tiefling had to be toweled off, stripped of his sodden clothes and tucked into bed with warm water bottles before Caleb could even let himself take off his soaking boots. 

At last he lowered himself creaking into the chair before the fire. He hadn't felt so cold and stiff and creaky since the first night he'd come to the castle, and it gave him a dizzying sense of deja vu, as though the last few weeks had been just a daydream in front of the fire.

Just as then a fluid, bluish head poked itself up from the fire, little tendrils of flame rising from Jester's fiery cloud of hair like horns. Or perhaps they really were flames; she was a fire demon,   after all. "Caleb?" Jester asked tentatively. "Is everything okay? Is Molly okay?"

"He is fine; I have put him to bed in warm clothes." Caleb rubbed at his own clothes, still damp and drawing a hungry chill, with a grimace. "I followed him through the rain for nearly an hour, to find... I am not sure what I found." He frowned at Jester. If anyone in the house could supply the lacking context for that eerie scene, surely it was Molly's own demon. "Do you know who that woman was, Jester? The, the strange sleeping woman with the pale skin and black hair."

"I'm afraid not," she confessed and Caleb felt his heart sink a little lower. "I mean, I know who you mean, I've seen her before. But I don't know who she is at all, or who she is to Molly."

"That is the very same thing he said," Caleb muttered.

Jester said nothing.

Caleb supposed he should have expected that. He vented a tired sigh and sank a little further into the chair, his head dipping forward towards his knees. He didn't know how to approach this tangle, and after the day he'd had the task seemed daunting, impossible. Right now he didn't feel like much of a detective; he felt like a tired, cold, old man desperately in need of some of the comfort he'd doled out to Molly earlier. Frumpkin, seeing an opportunity now that Caleb was sitting still, levitated up onto his lap and settled down there, purring. At least he had this, Caleb thought as he stroked Frumpkin's soft short fur, losing himself in the soothing repetitive motions. 

In the quiet, he found himself thinking of his mother again. Drawing on her memory to comfort Molly earlier today had brought her to the front of his mind and once invoked, her shade lingered. It had seemed to young Caleb that his mother always, always knew. Always knew what to say, what to do, how to fix any problem. There had been many times when young Caleb had been weeping or in a tantrum and had not even known why until his mother stopped and asked him shrewd questions. For all he missed her, for all he mourned her, more than anything he wished that he had inherited just a fraction of her insight. 

Or maybe it was time and the ignorance of childhood that blurred his memory, made his mother seem larger than life in his memory. Foolishness, surely, to be a man grown and yet sit here wishing for a parent to swoop in and solve all their problems.

"Caleb, are you okay?" Jester asked timidly. "You've gone all... quiet. Are you coming down with a chill? Humans do that, right?"

"No, I am fine," Caleb sat back up with a little grimace. "I was just thinking of my mother."

"Oh, yes!" Jester flared up in excitement, then banked a little in caution. "Was she... Did she die when your house burned up?"

"No. Thank the gods, no," Caleb said fervently. "She was long gone by then, her and my father too. I shouldn't mope and maunder so, he lived long enough to see his children grown. Well, only me. Astrid and Eodwulf were still children." He brooded a little, on past losses and past failures. "I tried to take over, to be mother and father for them as we had none... but it all went wrong."

"Astrid..." Jester flickered pensively. "She's the one you saw a few days ago, right? The one Molly was courting?"

Caleb grimaced. "More like she was attempting to court Molly, and not even that any more." His and Nott's antics had managed to get Molly banned from the salon, but there was no guarantee -- knowing Astrid -- that her fury would be vented with just that. Astrid had always been exceptionally good at holding a grudge; as the youngest of three, she'd learned to be patient. "I can't help but wonder what Mother would think of the hash I've made of things. But then I think that I do not know, I have no idea, because I was only a child when she died and I'll never know now what she would think of what I have become as a man."

"She'd probably be very proud of you!" Jester said bracingly. 

"Proud of what?" Caleb snapped, then gestured down at his shabby state. "A homeless, destitute, accursed drifter, whose only friends are demons and goblins, whose best chance at employment is being a servant to an equally accursed warlock?"

"Well -- well --" Jester hesitated. "At least she'd want you to be okay."

Caleb gave a hollow little laugh. "Then that is another way in which I would have disappointed her."

The words hovered between them, the hissing of the coals barely audible. Jester's flames grew and waned, but she said nothing.

"I don't know why I am telling you about all this," Caleb said bitterly. "It is not as though fire demons have mothers to miss."

The conversation stopped there, cold; cold lay like a smothering blanket over the dark castle room. Caleb pulled his damp coat closer around him, and tried not to think of how much warmer it would be upstairs, tucked into Molly's bed. The only light in the room came from Jester, flickering bravely and tenaciously against the dark, uncommonly quiet now in the face of his bitterness.

At last she said, "Have you ever heard of the Ruby of the Astral Sea?"

Caleb frowned for a minute, trying to think. The name sounded vaguely familiar but it took him several moments to place it. At last he snapped his fingers in epiphany and stood from his chair, disturbing an annoyed Frumpkin in the process. The cat climbed up and settled on his shoulders instead as he crossed to the bookshelf, dancing along the titles until he found the one he was looking for. It was the same one he'd been reading when he'd asked Jester about her summoning and she had been unable to answer him. He'd put the volume away, certain it was going off the wrong track, but it did have many accounts of wizards summoning demons and elementals from the other planes.

" 'At last I beheld her,' " he quoted the unnamed author, " 'A figure of scarlet flame, singing the sweetest melodies of heaven. In all my searches I never found another like her, solitary and perfect, a ruby in the astral sea.' Is that what you meant?"

"Yes, that's her!" Jester crowed, leaping for a moment before she settled down on her grate. "The Ruby of the Astral Sea. That's not her real name of course, but they wouldn't just write down her real name in any old book that any old wizard could read. Even if she is really nice and really, really popular, so famous that people even know her here on the Material Plane."

"And who is she? This Ruby of the Astral Sea?" Caleb asked.

Jeser turned more subdued, flickering to a lower ember. "That's my mom," she said.

Caleb blinked, completely at a loss for how to respond. It had never occurred to him that fire elementals even had   parents, or indeed how they reproduced at all. "Your mother," he managed to say.

"Yep," Jester said. "The prettiest, smartest, most powerful fire spirit in the Elemental Plane! The nicest,   too. The reason she's so famous even here on the Material Plane is that she's really, really nice, and she always tries to help everyone who asks her. 

"When I was growing up my mom was gone a lot. She'd get called away to the Material Plane by some wizard who wanted her to do something or other for them -- enchant this wand, slay this beast, cast a great spell to impress the King, this that or whatever. Someone from the em-pee would call and she'd get up, put on her business face and go, and I'd be all alone for a couple of hours or days before whoever it was would dismiss her and she'd come back. One time she was gone for two weeks and I was so mad, I made her promise she'd never leave for so long again. And she promised   she wouldn't!"

"And then?" Caleb murmured.

Jester drooped. "And then... three years ago, she went on a business trip," she said. "And she never came back."

The words hung in the quiet between them, heavy and fraught. "I thought fire spirits could not --" he said, then paused a moment and rephrased. "Your mother must have found something that could sustain her on this plane, then," he said.

"Yes, she did!"   Jester said in an adamant tone. "She must   have! But she'd never   been away for so long before. Week after week after week!   She even missed my birthday   and my mummy would never let that happen, never!   So I knew then that... that something must have happened, and she'd gotten stuck   somehow. Either here on the Material Plane or... or somewhere between here and home. So I knew what I had to do."

"You came here to search for your mother?" Caleb said. It all made sense now.

"Yes," Jester said, and drooped some more. "I thought I could get in and get out quickly, just search in little bursts and duck back into the Ethereal every time I got tired and not,  you know, get drained of my essence and die. But I never knew how big   the Material Plane is. You've got so much nothing   here, not like home where every place is something. I... well, I slipped up. And I couldn't get back into the Ethereal Plane. And I fell."

Caleb nodded understanding. "You were in trouble," he said, "and then you met Molly." That seemed to be the common thread of it, the way that they all knew Molly: one of them had been in trouble and Wizard Molly had appeared out of nowhere, loud and obnoxious and colorful and brimming over with astonishing kindness.

"Yes," Jester said.

She said nothing more, instead seeming to be waiting for something. The stipulations of the contract must be coming into effect, Caleb realized; she couldn't tell him anything about it that he didn't already know. But he could make an educated guess -- reason it out -- then she could tell him if he was right. He sat for long minutes, unmoving except for the scratch of his fingers under Frumpkin's chin, feeling the reverberation of his purr.

"You fell," Caleb said slowly, "and you found yourself close to Molly. A lost little fire spirit, far from home, looking for your mother and doomed now to dwindle and die. He felt sorry for you, perhaps."

"Yes," Jester whispered. 

"So he offered you the compact," Caleb continued. "In exchange for something he wanted you to do for him, he offered you something in return, something that bound you to this plane. A link that would keep you alive, but trapped until the contract was fulfilled. What did he give you?"

Jester said nothing, flickering in silent flame, and Caleb realized that he would have to figure it out himself. What Jester had given to Molly was clear enough from the magic that burned brightly in his unearthly eyes. What had Molly given to Jester?

Jester, well, I'm not getting back what she   has,   Molly had said bitterly, the day after his tantrum with the slime. What else had Molly said that day? 

He put the pieces together methodically, like untangling a mess of wires, pulling each piece free and following it back to the ends.  Who says I could remember my name in the first place?   Molly had giggled while blind drunk. His name? Had he given up his name? But, She's lived more of her life than I've lived of mine   he'd said of Nott. Given up years of his life? Was that possible?

I don't remember my mother   Molly had said once, and Caleb had dismissed it as a too-common plight of orphans. Two years is all I have.  How bewildered he'd seemed when Caleb first appeared in his life, how he'd just accepted Caleb's word that they'd never met before. How he never seemed to even know what books were in his own library.

Who is she?   Caleb had asked, of the woman whose plight left him grieving in the rain, and Molly had said, I don't know.

"You took his memory," Caleb realized. All at once everything fell into place. "The memories of his past, that's what he gave to you. That is why he cannot remember."

"That's right," Jester said, snapping in satisfaction. At the expression on Caleb's face she hurried to add, "But I didn't take, like, his head- memories. Only the other   kind."

"Head memories?" Caleb said, bewildered.

"Like, you know," Jester said, and tossed her fiery hair. "How to speak Common, how to read and write, how to lace up your shoelaces, how to do maths. How to put on clothes and walk and all that stuff that you humans need in your daily lives. I didn't take away any of that.   Only the other   kind."

The other   kind. Body-memories, perhaps, the memories of your own name and self and whatever family you'd once had. Memories of your childhood and family and everyone you'd ever loved, everything you'd ever wanted. Just those.

"That's not all, is it?" Caleb said after a long moment.

Jester said nothing.

Caleb sighed. Of course, it couldn't be that simple. And of course, Jester couldn't tell him anything until he'd worked it out for himself. You look really smart,   Jester had told him his first night in the castle, tired and chilled just like he was tonight. I know you can piece together the clues and figure it out!

Maybe if he went to sleep, his subconscious could work on the problem. Perhaps an answer would be delivered in his dreams.

Or even if it wasn't, it didn't feel like he'd have much choice in the matter one way or another. Sodden fatigue weighed him down like a ten-pound blanket draped over every limb. He was still cold, but the warmth of the brightly glowing fire formed a bubble of comfort, beyond which he couldn't even imagine venturing. 

Caleb barely managed to manage to mumble a gute nacht   to Jester before his chin sank down onto his chest, fingers tangled in Frumpkin's fur, and darkness pulled across his vision like a curtain.






Breakfast the next morning was subdued by the standards of the castle; Molly did not reappear from his bedroom (not that Caleb really expected him to) and Jester flickered at a low ember and said little. Nott managed to keep up most of the volume by herself, though, munching through a plate of bacon at high speed as she demanded from Caleb an account of last night.

Nott did not recognize the description of the pale woman either, much to Caleb's disappointment. She seemed to veer back and forth between opining that mystery woman   was Molly's secret wife,   and speculating that perhaps she was a warrior vampire ninja princess who was under a curse .

"Well, if she truly is under a curse, then she'll fit right in with this household," Caleb mumbled.

" I'm   not cursed!" Jester said brightly. Nott did not immediately pursue the theory, instead changing subjects onto a detailed speculation on Mollymauk and Mystery Woman's hypothetical courtship and wedding. 

Personally, Caleb didn't think she could be a wife, although it was hard for him to find evidence to support his certainty. Most of it was that Molly   didn't seem to think she was a wife, or girlfriend -- if he believed that, surely he wouldn't go gadding about with so many other girls!

Or would he? The doubts remained. He thought that Molly, the Molly that he'd grown to know rather than the sinister reputation he'd cultivated, would never do such a thing. Would never turn his back on a friend, let alone a lover that had been brought low by uncanny illnesses or curses. But how well did he know Molly, really? And how much of this was just his own projection -- his desperate wish   to believe, regardless of the truth of the matter?

Whatever the mystery woman was or was not, he should not entertain such thoughts, Caleb told himself firmly. Molly would never be available to him -- foolish to think of himself as the sort of lovely lady that filled Molly's social calendar. Even if he were, the gulf between them was too great, a gap filled with the clutter and debris of the lies and callous comments he'd dropped between them. Molly was powerful, beautiful, respected; he was a wreck of a man who'd lost everything, including his youth and looks, without a penny to his name. 

No, it was better not to entertain such thoughts, no matter how the memory of Molly -- warm and loose-limbed and sleepy in his bed, reaching out towards Caleb with a heated look in his sleep-slitted eyes -- lingered. 

His brooding thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door -- a different sound than the usual petitioners seeking magical spells. Soft, almost diffident, it nevertheless managed to sound through the entire room and snare the attention of all three occupants.

Jester flared up, spinning in excitement and alarm. "Zadash door!" she called out.

Caleb and Nott froze and stared at each other, wide-eyed. The last   knock they'd gotten at the Zadash door had been the patrol of Crownsguard come to summon Mollymauk for an audience to the King. With a little artful disguise and a lot of nerve, he'd managed to convince them that the household was beset by some horrifying plague that Mollymauk had contracted from the denizens of the Abyss; they couldn't quarantine the house fast enough. Caleb didn't know what news had been taken back to the palace but they'd heard nothing from the Zadash door -- no crownsguard, no customers, no curious onlookers -- since then.

It seemed their grace period was up. "Quick, quick, get the cloak!" Nott hissed at him as she flew into motion, dashing here and there. Alchemical bottles were overturned, bandages wound hastily around her face and hands; seized with a sudden enthusiasm, Nott seized the leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast and began smearing it artistically around. 

The visitor at the door, whoever it was, persisted; the soft knocking grew steadily louder as they scrambled to set the scene. By the time Caleb found the disguise cloak and yanked it on, wincing at the tight pulling sensation as the enchantment took effect, it echoed relentlessly through the entire castle. He took his place by the door and tried to compose his thoughts, to assume the demeanor of the haggard and wasted servant. 

The best way to sell a lie, he reminded himself, was to bury a seed of truth in every one. He really was exhausted and depleted from last night's adventure in the rain. Nott truly did need to be sheltered from public view, for her own safety. And Molly truly was in no state to see visitors, let alone carry out duties for the King. He just had to lean into the truths, and they would help him see this through.

And if there was a squad of Crownsguard on the other side of the door, he decided, he would slam it in their faces and spin the wheel. Molly could complain all he wanted about the Zadash portal being destroyed; keeping him and Nott and Jester safe mattered more. He squared his shoulders and put his hand on the doorknob, already rehearsing his lines.

When he finally opened the door, he was greeted with a most unusual sight. Instead of a squad of Crownsguard he found himself faced with a single tall -- towering, in fact -- pale, skinny firbolg dressed in dark green. He didn't look like a guard -- or a customer for that matter. In fact, he looked like nothing Caleb had ever seen before, and trying to take in all the details stunned him for a few crucial seconds.

Tall   was the overwhelming impression, with the firbolg's height topping out over seven feet. That was quickly followed by the pink?!   of the man's hair, falling in gentle waves down one side of his head and shaved on the other. It drew the eye to the man's face, which was dominated by an affable smile that almost distracted from his sharp, penetrating eyes.

Caleb was so wrong-footed by the unexpected appearance of his visitor that he quite forgot that he was supposed to be moaning and groaning and afflicted by a terrible wasting disease. He did little more than gape, in fact, until the apparition spoke. "Oh, hello," it said in a cheerful deep rumble. "I'm the doctor."

"A doctor..." If nothing else, the reminder nudged Caleb's brain back on track. Taking a page from Molly's book, he slumped dramatically against the doorframe, staring up at the visitor with hollow eyes. "I think it is too late for such help. We would need the services of a mortician."

"Oh, I'm that too," the firbolg said. "My name is Caduceus Clay. Can I come in?"

"No..." Caleb's mind raced, trying to think of a valid reason to deny entry. His best deterrent -- virulent, communicable disease -- had already backfired by drawing this alarming official down on them. No, the castle is too dirty for visitors? No, the castle is full of bees? "...you can't," he finished weakly.

Several heartbeats passed as the two of them stared at each other, and then firbolg sighed. "I can see that this is a bad time," he said. "I'm terribly sorry, but the King did send me. I'm afraid I have no choice but to do my duty."

The implication was clear: if Caleb did not stand aside and let him in, he could leave and return with another squad of guardsmen. Surely it would be easier to deal with this Caduceus Clay by himself?  "Besides," Caduceus added, unaware of the drift of Caleb's thoughts, "if people are hurt or sick, I really do want to help."

He sounded sincere in his desire to help. Perhaps this Caduceus would be as naive as his kindly manner suggested, and he and Nott could spin him in a yarn and send him away again. "Very well," Caleb gave way reluctantly, and opened the door to let Caduceus inside.

It was odd how having another person inside your space made a familiar space suddenly seem unfamiliar. Caleb had done a lot over the past few weeks to transform the front room of the castle, to organize and tidy and make a place for everyone. Now he wished he hadn't been quite so vigilant; it would be harder to convey an atmosphere of ruin and decay in such a neat and tidy space.

Harder to hide things, too. As he turned back to the castle room his eyes passed over Jester's stove, then widened with horror as he realized she was out in plain view. He locked gazes with Nott, hovering uncertainly, and gave a little jerk of his chin back towards the stove. Nott's lamplike eyes moved from Caleb to Jester to Caduceus before realization widened in her eyes and she scuttled over to close the front vents of the stove and draw the hood. Jester's complaint was quickly muffled by the iron plates.

Without Jester's light it was much darker in here. Good, the less their guest saw the better. Caleb stood aside grudgingly as the firbolg ducked his head under the lintel and stepped inside, blinking as he straightened up and surveyed the room. "Huh," he said, looking thoughtfully around, ears twitching slightly. "That's odd."

At a loss for what else to do, Caleb gestured for their guest to seat himself on the divan and went to prepare a cup of tea. Not that he particularly wanted him to stay around for tea, but if he was sitting then he couldn't be roaming around the place and noticing too much. The faint sounds of Jester's grumbling were still audible from the stove in the corner; Nott suddenly burst out into an extended cough to try to cover the sound.

"Oh, my," their guest said, blinking over at Nott. "Are you quite all right, Miss? Sounds like you could use a glass of tea as well."

"Do not come too close, Nott, my dear," Caleb said, putting on his best rusty and illness-wracked voice. He set the cup of tea down on the table next to the firbolgs knee. "We don't want you to infect the good doctor."

"Oh, it's fine," Caduceus assured them in a friendly voice. "She looks quite healthy for a goblin of her age."

Caleb and Nott both froze in place and exchanged a wide-eyed look of horror. Nott cleared her throat frantically but couldn't seem to find the words. "UM --"

"You must be mistaken!" Caleb threw in hastily. "She is not a goblin, ehm, that would be absurd."

"It's a skin condition! A skin condition!" Nott insisted shrilly. 

"Which sadly afflicts us both --" Caleb started trying to follow Nott's line, pushing up his sleeves to display the piebald flecks that the enchanted halfling disguise left him with. He realized his error a moment later, though, when Caduceus reached out and took gentle hold of his arm, turning it over to inspect the discoloration. Caleb froze.

"Well, now," Caduceus said in his slow, comfortable way. "All those magics you are tangled in don't look comfortable at all, but I'm sure you could take them off you if you tried."

He released Caleb's arm and leaned back, smiling up with him in a friendly sort of way, and Caleb realized too late that he had vastly underestimated just how much their unwanted guest would notice.

Caduceus looked around the castle, then frowned up the stairs. "Well, this visit has been very nice, thank you for the tea," he said. "But I really do need to see the Wizard."

That spurred Caleb into action. "No. He is deeply unwell," he said firmly. "He can see no one, he can do no work for the King. What afflicts him, you cannot help."

Caduceus looked back to him with a faint frown. "No offense, but don't you think the doctor would be the better judge of how sick he is?" he said. In an earnest voice he added "I'm very good at healing, you know. I can at least try."

For a moment Caleb was torn, distracted by a sudden unexpected hope. If Caduceus really was an accomplished healer, one who was at least familiar with magical afflictions -- perhaps he would be able to help the mysterious pale woman beyond the black door? Perhaps he would be the answer to the problem Mollymauk had not been able to solve?

But that would mean telling this firbolg, this stranger, details about Molly's private life that he had not even meant for Caleb to see. That would mean letting him into Molly's secret sanctum, without his permission or even notifying him, and that was a breach of trust Caleb could not contemplate. No, the only thing that he could do with Caduceus for Molly's sake was to see him off, and free him from the threat of the King and the war they wanted to drag him into.

"No," Caleb said firmly. "He had a very bad night and he is deep in sleep now. I will not allow him to be disturbed."

Caduceus turned speculative eyes on him, and Caleb braced himself and set his teeth not to squirm under the scrutiny. "It's very considerate of you to guard his slumber," he said. "You care for him a lot, considering all the terrible things he's put you through."

The comment stung more than Caleb had expected, considering that a week ago he might have agreed. Now, though -- " He has not put me through anything!" he said hotly. "He -- he has been nothing but kind and good to me. If annoying sometimes."

" That's   the truth," Nott muttered.

"Hmmm," Caduceus said. It occurred to Caleb only belatedly that this was not doing much to bolster Molly's reputation of wickedness. His eyes strayed back towards the stairwell. "I really think that I ought to see Mr. Tealeaf."

"I think not." Caleb firmed his stance and raised his chin, standing between Caduceus and the stairs with his arms crossed and feet planted. 

He was just wondering whether Caduceus would be bold enough to try to push past him physically, and what he would do if that were the case, when the creak of an opening doorway sounded from upstairs behind him. Caleb felt the hair raise on the back of his neck as light footsteps rushed towards the landing, but there was no time to call out or go upstairs. Caleb turned around, still blocking Caduceus from the stairs, a warning call on his lips -- which died unspoken when Molly himself burst into view.

Molly seemed fully recovered from his harrowing night. In fact, no one who saw him now would have believed that he'd gone to bed a bedraggled, harrowed, soaking wreck. Sometime during the morning he'd cleaned and brushed his hair, made up his face so that no hint of shadow was visible, and gotten dressed.

Not just put clothes on -- gotten dressed.   In a long, sheer, crimson red dress cut low across the collarbones and high up on the hips, showing flashes of sheer lavender skin with every extravagant step.

"Caleb, darling!" the wizard called brightly from the landing. "I'm feeling very femme today and the world deserves to know!"

"Oh no,"   Caleb dimly heard Nott say, though he had no eyes for anyone but the vision at the top of the stairs.

Caleb recognized, dimly, that specific item of clothing from Molly's closet. He'd held it up when sorting through the man's clothes and then dropped it, leaping at once to the conclusion that it had been left there by one of Molly's lovers. But it seemed his assumption had been vastly misplaced, because the red fabric fitted perfectly to Molly's height and the shape of his body and he moved in it with absolute assurance. Before Caleb's frozen eyes Molly stopped on the landing, leaned theatrically against the railing and set one foot on the banister in an utterly familiar, perfectly practised move. 

If Molly noticed Caleb's shocked, poleaxed response to his unexpected appearance, he didn't remark on it. "Let's make tonight a night on the town, a spec tac ular spectacle," Molly burbled on, lips curved and blue eyes shining with amusement. " Fuck Lettie's salon, fuck the King and his summons, fuck all   of it. Let's go out and paint the town red! You absolutely must be my escort, of course, and you'll need --"

For the first time Molly looked past Caleb standing at the bottom of the stairs, and his eyes widened as they landed on Caduceus. He stopped dead, one hand still on the railing, and looked between Caleb and Nott.

"Um," he said. "We... have a visitor? Caleb?"

Caleb couldn't respond, aside from an inarticulate little noise that seeped past his lips. He was still trying to process the vision of Molly in the red dress, the perfect self-assurance in the way he moved, and oh god was that glitter   in his hair was he wearing bronzer   was that a garter --

Fortunately, Nott was there to complete the introductions. "This is Caduceus Clay!" she chirped. "He's a doctor sent by the King to cure you of your horrible wasting disease   so you can fight in battles for the king!"

Molly's mouth opened, then closed, and Caleb's eyes were riveted on the smooth sheen of his lips. "Oh," the wizard said finally.

He seemed to consider the situation for a long moment, looking from Caleb to Nott to Caduceus, who gave a friendly little wave. At last he turned around, gathered up the train of his dress in one hand, and marched back into his bedroom, where he closed the door.

An awkward silence settled over the castle. Caduceus finally broke it with a little cough. "Well," the firbolg said. "He certainly seems healthy enough."

Caleb knew he ought to say something, do something to try to convince the doctor otherwise, but his tongue was still a lead block in his mouth and his chest felt like it was being wrapped in bands of elastic. It fell to Nott to leap into the gap, doing her best to continue the pretense. "Ummm, well, sure, he LOOKS fine! On the outside! But all that demonic magic has warped his mind! He's a deviant! A terrible pervert! Y-you've heard the rumors, surely?"

A lopsided smile stole over Caduceus' face, and he shook his head ruefully. "Yeah... no, he seems like a perfectly fine young man to me."

With graceful movements Caduceus collected his staff and his satchel from the kitchen table and stood up straight, shrugging the strap around his chest. "If it makes you feel any better, I won't tell anyone," he said in a kindly tone. "I think it's really nice that you want to help protect your friend. But I have to do my job, so I'm just going to report back to the King that Wizard Molly is on the mend."

Caleb had no choice but to turn the door to Zadash for him, then hold it as the healer saw himself out.  Nott sidled up beside Caleb, climbing the banister to be close to his ear. " Should we kill him?"  she whispered, in a voice that probably carried all the way back up to Porthaven.

Caleb winced and shook his head. "No," he said, closing the door firmly behind Caduceus and turning it to the green setting. "I think the jig is, uh, how do you say it, the jig is out of the bag."

Nott considered this for a moment, then frowned and shook her head. "No, you say the jig is up."

"Yes, thank you," Caleb said, torn between gratitude and irritation at the correction. "The jig is up the bag."

For a moment the castle room was quiet, a subdued pall cast over the inhabitants. Jester was the first one to speak up. "What are we going to do now?"

 


 

 

~tbc...