Caleb’s entire being feels hollowed out and empty. There’s an all too familiar cotton-like sensation overpowering everything else in his brain and he’s had tunnel vision since before he was struck down for the first time. The rest of the group was nearby, he could hear them moving around the chamber but he felt too wrung out, empty, to pay attention to anyone’s direct location. Vaguely, he can feel his hands working in practiced motions to summon the hut so that they can rest but there’s a disconnect, a lag, between commands his brain issues and any physical response his body has. The fight had been rough to be sure, and he can clearly remember the image of a charmed Yasha standing over him with the Magician’s Judge positioned and to cut through him (again and again), to finally put an end to his life-
But he hadn’t been afraid of dying- he’d been ready to lay his life down at the foot of The Empire since childhood. Death was nothing new to him. In those moments awaiting death, the only thing he could think about was the fire . He’d told the group that Bren was gone, that he wasn’t that person anymore. But tonight, he’d turned his murderous hands against them . Beau had looked at him warily, Jester had been angry , Fjord had used his patron’s power to subdue him and Yasha had had to hurt him to snap him out of the trance he’d been in.
It was too familiar, the feeling of betrayal, the flames extending from his fingertips, the voice in his head telling him to kill . Months ago, Nott and Beau had told him that what he’d done to his parents wasn’t his fault, that he wasn’t to blame. But he knew that wasn’t true, the memories had been false but the desire to was his own and, once again, he’d wanted to kill these people-his friends. Only minutes before he’d hurt them, Jester had told him he must have had a big heart; maybe that had mostly been a joke but he was acutely aware of the fact that she knew now that she’d been way off base. He was completely and utterly untrustworthy, Caleb was Bren and Bren was Caleb and no amount of running could change that. No magical necklace or change of wardrobe and friends could stop who he was inside. Caleb was a trained killer, and now the most magical person in his life knew.
He’d had no time to dwell on the smell of burning flesh or the betrayal in his friends’ eyes as they’d been almost immediately thrust into another battle with an even larger creature and then Yasha had been charmed and tried to take him out… He hadn’t wanted to stop her, either. He was tired.
He’s so terribly exhausted and he can feel himself drifting dangerously between Caleb Widogast, member of the Mighty Nein, and Bren Aldric Ermendrud, student of the Cerberus Assembly. Murderers, the both of them. He thinks of Old Portis, executed not long ago for murdering his family under the influence of the succubus and incubus and he’s only a little bit shocked to find himself envious . He’d vowed to live, years ago, to avenge his family and save the person Bren could have become… Somehow. But somewhere between meeting Nott and his friends and finding himself about to murder The Mighty Nein, he’d lost that drive. The desire to protect these odd people was beginning to outweigh his obsession with changing time and that left him nauseous to think about. If he couldn’t save his parents, if he broke that vow, then why was he still breathing?
Suddenly someone’s hand is on his right one, which had long since abandoned his task to summon the dome in order to violently claw at his other arm unconsciously. He feels himself tense and flinch despite the fact that he trusts these people. But that was before-
Before he’d tried to kill them-
Before his hands had extended and blackened and released a powerful magical spell towards them-
Before he’d burned them-
“Caleb,” It’s Nott’s voice he hears because of course it’s his little goblin friend, “You need to stop that.” Then, her nimble fingers are forcing themselves under and around his newly bloodied hand and she’s frowning at him with so much concern and he’s so disgusted at himself for betraying her even though she’d betrayed him first by contacting-
He hadn’t forgotten the bomb she’d dropped on him right after the charm had taken effect.
She’d contacted Astrid.
Thinking about her makes him think again of Bren, and how Bren had made an appearance for the first time in more than a decade. Thinking of Bren makes him think of his parents and Trent and every single face of every single person he’d ever burned to death under Trent Ikithon’s tutelage and then he’s back in that floaty, disconnected haze again. Maybe he did go mad and he never left the asylum, maybe he was in hell.
Hands squeeze his, a clawed (clawed?) thumb rubs circled onto the side of his wrist and he looks up instinctively and it’s a goblin. He… knows her? He thinks he knows her. She looks so scared. Of him? For him? He doesn’t know. He cocks his head to the side when she begins speaking to him because the words sound wrong. She isn’t speaking Zemnian, or he’s sure he would understand her but… He knows her, he’s spoken to her-so why can’t he understand her now? Why would Trent send a-
No, Trent hasn’t been a part of his life in years , so who-
Nott. Everything comes back to him in a rush, the past few wild months of his life, meeting Nott in jail, meeting The Mighty Nein, the demon toad and the circus, Mollymauk , The Iron Shepherds, Avantika, Darktow, The Krynn and The Cerberus Assembly possibly working together to kidnap Yeza Brenatto- Nott’s husband whom she has a son with- and now Xhorhas, where he’d been charmed into trying to murder his friends .
More hands join Nott’s tiny ones and, with as overwhelmed as he is, he flinches violently away until his back is pushing roughly against stone. The pain of grinding barely closed wounds against the wall of a cavern grounds him again and he’s back but the present feels worse somehow than the past. At least with Trent, insolence was harshly dealt with. His eyes are squeezed shut as though not looking at his friends will keep them from looking back at him and seeing-
Seeing what? His true colors? Bren? An untrustworthy murderer? He doesn’t know what he’s hiding anymore, his arms are bare and on most days he feels like an exposed nerve. It had never been a secret, that he was a selfish coward, he practically introduced himself as ‘Caleb Widogast; coward’. But the group hadn’t understood what that meant until he’d tried to take a scroll in Zadash and Fjord had held a falchion to his exposed throat. That had been one of the only smart things the group had done against him, other than not-Yasha slashing at him repeatedly until he was a bloody corpse. He didn’t deserve his friends and, while their fake, charm-hallucinated betrayal had stung profusely, he was cognizant enough to know they should have finished the job. On one of his best days he was a dangerous liability, but if the fight between him and the entire group had proven anything, on a bad day he could almost easily take them all down.
He’d nearly killed the only people he’d properly loved since his parents-
Since Astrid and Eodwulf-
He’d nearly killed them, he’d knocked the sweetest woman’s puppy unconscious with barely a flick of his wrist after burning that same girl without pause. And they hadn’t even known to expect it from him. Since helping to save Fjord, Jester and Yasha from Lorenzo, they trusted him far more than he deserved and he’d finally had an excuse to come clean about everything and he’d kept the information surrounding his parent’s deaths a secret. He was too selfish to tell them, he hadn’t wanted them to look at him differently so he hadn’t told them he was a killer .
And then they had hesitated to fight back , the absolute fools. If they hesitated ever again, he knew in his heart that they’d all be dead. If Trent ever found him-
The Mighty Nein would be snuffed from existence like ants .
“You don’t know that for sure, man.” Beauregard.
Slowly, Caleb’s eyes open and sees Nott who had, at some point, been joined by Beauregard in front of him. Both look nervous and nauseous and afraid and so terribly small despite the power he knows they both possess . It’s an emotion he doesn’t like affixed to them, fear. Of him? For him? He’s looking back at them now, and realizing that at least some of his internal dilemma had been verbally released against his will. The exhaustion he feels is directly mirrored in Beau and Nott’s eyes though neither of them are allowing any weakness to manifest physically.
They’re tensed, muscles ready to jump at him at any indication that he’s not done mutilating the scars that cover his arms but Caleb is far too gone to notice anything beyond Beau and Nott sitting far enough away from him that he doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Despite everything they’d seen of him, both in the past and today, they were still prioritizing his comfort. He… Trusts them, even if they shouldn’t trust him back and he knows that that trust is monumentally stupid. He’s been ready for them to abandon him for the sake of the group as a whole since the Mighty Nein first formed, but so far they haven’t. Because of that, he’s allowed himself to selfishly latch onto them for the emotional support he hadn’t received in decades.
He realizes he hasn’t responded when Nott’s broken voice croaks, “Caleb? Are you okay?”
He’s not. “... Yeah, yeah I’m… Fine.” Caleb looks between the two of them slowly, “I’m fine.”
Beauregard snorts in a manner that is distinctly unladylike and she falls ungracefully to the ground and then crisscrosses her legs in front of her, “You’re back?”
“Where did I go?” He wants them to just drop it and leave him to recast his spell before the rest of the group started to wonder why the dome still isn’t up. Though, when he peeks around his two friends he realizes that the rest of the group looks about as shell-shocked as he’s sure he looks. Fjord is sitting silently between a frowning Yasha and an uncharacteristically subdued Jester, who has Caduceus’ head pillowed against her thighs and Nugget curled next to the firbolg. All of them are bloody, and bruised and so defeated looking.
Fingers snap inches from his face and, with a jolt, he realizes that he was quiet for too long which was the wrong thing to do because Beau and Nott look nervous again . He doesn’t know what they said in response to his question, he doesn’t even know which of the two of them responded… Caleb’s shoulders slump even further and he allows his body to slouch limply; he’s too tired to play this game with them. His brain is still full of cotton and his heart is pounding violently in his chest which makes every single slash and bruise he sustained during the fight pulse painfully-
The girls share a look and then, carefully, as though Caleb is a particularly dense child, Nott says, “You already said that… We… Don’t think that’s true.”
He closes his eyes again for a long moment, “I will be fine.”
“That was uh,” Beau scratches the back of her head, “some heavy shit. Back there, I mean.”
Caleb nods because that’s what they aren’t expecting, him being honest about something involving emotions, “It was, yeah. But not completely out of the realm of any other shit the group has faced before either.” He wants to be honest with them, out of everyone else but Nott in the group, by the nature of the knowledge Beau has of his past, he’s pretty sure she’s his closest friend. He doesn’t want to lie to either of them, not really. But he also can’t deal with their concern, not so soon after almost every old wound from his past has been so violently ripped open-
He doesn’t deserve their concern, he doesn’t particularly want it either. He wants to be invisible. Unnoticed. One dirty face in a sea of many peasants-
Everything was easier when he was no one.
Not Bren, not Caleb-
But before he has a chance to spiral too far, Beau finally reaches out to touch him and as she makes contact with the arm he’d been cradling to his chest he becomes keenly aware of the sticky, drying blood covering it. While the sensation isn’t pleasant, it helps to firmly ground him into the moment.
Beau is uncharacteristically gentle as she extends his arm towards her, grimacing at the multitude of shallow crescents gouged into his skin, “I should call Jes-”
“No- that isn’t… It isn’t necessary, you shouldn’t bother her, it’ll be- fine.”
Nott looks, if possible, even more crestfallen, “Caleb… It wouldn’t be a bother to her.”
“She is… Tapped, at least until tomorrow morning so I should,” he makes an aborted motion with the hand not trapped in Beau’s grip, “make the dome and-and we should all just-”
“I’m not ignoring this.” Beau tightens her grip minutely, “So let me wrap this or let me get Jester but,” she turns away briefly and Caleb is horrified to see tears brimming in her eyes when she looks back to him, “don’t shut us out… Don’t- don’t run.”
The repetition of her words from that day in Felderwin has him looking from her to Nott, looking for any sign of hesitation and finding nothing but determination staring back. He nods, content in the knowledge that these foolishly loyal women aren’t going to just leave him be and the rest of the tension in the air between them dissipates like smoke. Nott flings herself towards him, and squeezes him against her chest like the mother he now knows she is. Beau pulls out a roll of her blue wrappings and a salve that Caduceus had probably given her at some point.
Caleb inhales, pushes Bren back into a locked crate in the back of his mind and thinks about what Molly said all those months ago after his first flashback in the gnoll mines:
There’s time for that later.