Bren is just about halfway through his second year at the Soltryce Academy for Magic, when he is approached by Trent Ikithon, one of the Masters of the Cerberus Assembly, the Archmage of Civil Influence himself(!) The man offers him a place in the specialized advanced classes that he teaches himself.
“Very exclusive,” he says. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t think you had potential,” he says.
And Bren wants to say yes, nearly rushes right into it, but- there’s something. He can’t put his finger on it, just an uneasiness in his chest, his instincts whispering, telling him no . It makes him think of his Mother, back in Blumenthal, who always trusted her instincts; once, she’d insisted that his Father stay home from his work in the fields- he’d protested, of course, it had been a bright, clear day and he had no plausible excuse to stay home. But Mother convinced him, and the next day, word was brought of a wolf attack in the very fields Father would have been working in. After that, everybody listened to Mother’s instincts. One of their neighbors, Frau Adele, said that she was blessed by the Archheart.
He tells Master Ikithon,
“May I think about it for a night? I’ll have an answer by tomorrow,” and an emotion Bren can’t place flickers over his face, so fast Bren thinks he imagines it, because a few seconds later he replies,
“Of course, that’s only natural,” with a genial smile and nod.
So Bren heads back to his dormitory, and thinks, hard , if he really wants to enter an advanced class. And while the opportunity to learn more calls him, of course, Bren always wants to learn more, he can’t ignore the feeling in his chest that’s only gotten more insistent, makes him feel like a pit is opening up right between his ribs, and the next day he tells Master Ikithon,
“I’m sorry, but I must decline your generous offer.”
And he is truly sorry, to give up the chance to learn from such an experienced man, but he supposes he can always ask one of the librarians to help him.
(When Bren declines his offer- His! The Archmage of Civil Influence himself offers to teach you and you turn it down?!- he wants to compel him. Use his not-inconsiderable skill to make him agree. It wouldn’t be difficult, it’s clear how much the boy wants to say yes. But he refrains. While it is a blow to his ego, yes, he has two other very encouraging candidates lined up, and there’s no reason to go setting off any alarms. So he smiles, if a little coldly, and dismisses the boy from his office, and his mind.)
When one of his dorm-mates asks if it’s really true he turned down the chance to be taught by Master Ikithon himself, he shrugs, uncomfortable. “I don’t have time in my schedule, and I’m not even going into that school of magic anyway,” is what he tells them.
He mentions nothing of his instincts. These kids are from Rexxentrum, from the heart of the Empire. They would not understand, nice though they are.
But then, a few days later, Astrid and Eodwulf join him in the dining hall, and, after they catch up (they are all housed in different dormitories. It had been hard, when they first arrived, to be separated for so long, after living so close to one another, spending so long together. But they adapted) cheeks red and eyes shining, and tell him the news, “We’ve been accepted into an accelerated program!” and he smiles uneasily and congratulates them.
This is the start of their drifting apart, although at the time none of them notice it. At first it’s just Astrid and Eodwulf missing a few meals, or complaining of their tiredness- he doesn’t take it too seriously because it is plain as day they are having the time of their lives, being challenged like they’ve never been, and as they chatter happily of their classes, Bren pushes away a small bit of jealousy and lets himself be happy for them. Over the months, they start looking more and more tired, with red eyes and drooping statures, and they talk about their classes less. When Bren asks, they tell him it’s too complicated to explain right then.
They start to wear long sleeves throughout the year, they look away and refuse to answer his concerns, and the lunches they share together become rarer than the ones they don’t, and on the occasions they do sit with one another, Astrid and Eodwulf speak oddly, exchange looks Bren can’t dechiper the meaning of, and eventually Bren starts sitting with his dorm-mates instead. He gets to know them better, Luis and Phineas, Madeline and Galiena.
It’s been months since Bren, Astrid, and Eodwulf have hung out together, and when Bren tries to catch their eyes in the halls, but they look away instead. Eventually he gives up, saddened by the loss of his friends.
But, he has others now, he’s joined a bookclub, is writing an article that one of his professors says might have the potential to be published, if under a pseudonym to protect Bren’s identity, and he lets his old friends slip farther and farther from his mind. Before he knows it, graduation day has arrived. He is the top of his class, and when he spots his parents waving wildly in the crowd, he nearly cries.
After the ceremony, his mother and father hold him tight and kiss his head and tell him how very, very proud they are of him, of all he’s accomplished, how the whole town wanted to come up with them and were only placated by promises of a visit, soon, and it is the best day of his life .
He spends the next year traveling (although he makes sure to plan routes that run through Blumenthal often) and writing books about magical theory- he uses the pen name he’d chosen during school, Caleb Widogast, and he makes a comfortable living (and summons a familiar. Frumpkin, he calls him, for the old tomcat that had passed away just months before, and he is a great comfort.)
He eventually decides to open a bookstore. He misses having a home, a place to store his books and bake bread. The Talisman , he calls it, and fills it with every type of tome imaginable. Bodice rippers, thrillers, textbooks, obscure books on magical theory that he stashes in the back, only to be brought out upon request, and a few scrolls that he’s not actually sure are legal in this part of Wildemount. It’s successful, and he becomes a staple of the small neighborhood he’s set up shop in, known for occasionally passing out slices of homemade bread that he refuses to share the recipe for, no matter how many jars of spiced peaches his neighbors try to bribe him with, and feeding the local stray cats. They’ve started to congregate at the back of his shop, now, and every evening after he closes, they receive scraps.
He lives in a slightly crowded flat above the bookstore, and for the next two years, has never been happier. He writes to his parents and academy friends frequently, travels to Blumenthal for the holidays, and even occasionally pays for his parents to come up and visit him.
And then one day, when he heads out to feed the cats, he instead sees someone has beat him to it. Someone short- a child? Is bent over, and a stray- the black one with white socks- is nibbling from their hand. “Hallo?” he calls out, and is surprised at how violently the figure flinches. He assumes them to be a vagrant child, a sight unfortunately common in this neighborhood, and invites her in.
It takes him an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Nott is a goblin, but by the time he does, they’ve had a truly fascinating conversation about bread recipes (he’s ashamed to admit he takes notes) and he can’t find it in his heart to alert the Crownsguard to her presence. That, and Archheart help him, he likes her. Nott leaves the The Talisman and an offer to return next week.
She does, and the weeks after that, until they settle into a comfortable routine. One night, it’s storming violently, and he can see the trepidation on her face at the idea of going out in such a storm, and so invites her to spend the night in the store.
It’s not long after that he invites her to move in with him. She is a dear friend, and it does get lonely, sometimes, with just Frumpkin and the neighbors to keep him company. It takes a little persuading, but she accepts. She is small enough that her addition to the flat is no bother, and all her possession she carries on her.
He learns that she’s an accomplished alchemist (although when he tells her that, she blushes and mumbles something about being an amateur, really, just an assistant at best) and The Talisman eventually becomes part bookstore/part apothecary. And one night, as he is about ready to light his latest manuscript on fire , she pads over to his desk and starts giving him suggestions. This goes on until the final draft is one of his best.
He offers to formally hire her as his editor after reading it over. By then, he’s loaned her a quill and red ink, and the parchment is littered with her cramped handwriting. She tries to defer, “I’ve barely been to school! There’s no way I’m qualified for this!” and while it’s true that she’s hardly an expert in grammar, her suggestions are thoughtful for someone with no formal magical training. (Magical training- a thought for later?)
He is five and a half years out of the academy, when there is a violent knocking at the door in the middle of the night. Nott wakes immediately, grabs her crossbow and sinks into the shadows. Bren prepares his component pouch and heads downstairs. He is no expert on combat spells, of course, but he is not incapable of defending himself.
When he opens the door, the last thing he expects to see are the gaunt and desperate faces of Eodwulf and Astrid. Were he anyone else, he thinks he would not have recognized them.
Several hours later, after they have sat down and spilled their story, Bren is trying very hard to not throw up. He sees the scars on their arms and remembers seeing them wear long sleeves in the middle of summer. His mind runs back through the conversation with Trent Ikithon as a teenager, and his panic rises slightly at how close he’d come-
Nott reaches out from the shadows and places a clawed hand over his own, and he takes some deep breaths, and tries to think clearly about the situation. When they ask if they can stay (“Only for a week, we swear, then we’ll go, we just-, need to figure out where to go next-,”) he waves them off and tells them
“Of course you can stay, for as long as you need.”
It’s even more cramped than usual, upstairs, with three humans and a goblin, and oh the looks on their faces when Nott had emerged from the shadows, in her hands and wearing flannel pajamas. But after looking to Bren for confirmation, they accepted it and collapse onto the makeshift beds he constructs.
Once they’re asleep, Nott turns to him and demands to know the details, and he tells her. A look comes over her face that he only places as purpose later, but at the time assumes is outrage and horror similar to his.
Throughout the next week, Nott mothers the two nearly to death, making sure to stuff them full of food and wrap them in blankets, all while making time in the evening to scheme with Bren. It takes them just over a week to come up with the plan. They propose it to Astrid and Eodwulf over dinner the next day.
“I have enough money saved up to get you to Tal’Dorei. You’d be safe there, Ikithon couldn’t get to you without causing a diplomatic incident, especially if you apply formally for citizenship.”
They’re speechless at first, and try to refuse, but Nott won’t take no for an answer (“You’re damn well worth it, you’re people and you deserve to live in peace, and if we have to move you to a different continent to do it, well, then, we will-”) and Bren just sits back and adds in when they look uncertain.
It takes a few more days to get everything sorted and packed, and then Astrid, Eodwulf, Nott, and Bren are on their way to the Coast, to catch a ship to Stilben. Only Eodwulf and Astrid are crossing, of course, but “We can’t let you travel alone- it’s always safer to be in a group.”
And the journey’s pleasant, if rather tense, given that Eodwulf and Astrid don’t know if Ikithon can track them.
But Bren takes the opportunity to reconnect with his two oldest friends, and Eodwulf and Astrid are more than happy to learn about Bren’s life. By the time their group reaches the port, they’ve all agreed to write.
(And then, after the pair disembark and eventually find themselves in Emon, once they’ve found an apartment to share and somewhat steady jobs, maybe they wander into a temple of Sarenrae. Maybe at first it’s to marvel at the open worship of a god outlawed, maybe it’s simple academic fascination, but then it’s something more.
It’s a chance to heal, to be forgiven, to make up for even a fraction of their horrible deeds. And so they visit, as often as they can, and become friendly with the locals,
“Those two, with the funny accents, I think they’re from Wildemount? Very kind, if a bit quiet,”
and maybe they start to find a new purpose in healing, in worshiping Sarenrae. Slowly, slowly, as they help to heal the people around them, they start to heal themselves. Maybe one day, a gnome with white hair and kind eyes enters the temple, and introduces herself as Pike, and spends the day talking with the two “Oh, you’re from Wildemount? I have a friend from there, but I’ve never been, myself,”
And only once she leaves are they introduced to the legend of Pike Trickfoot, member of Vox Machina but more importantly, Sarenrae’s Chosen , and maybe they have retroactive panic attacks because they just casually hung out with Sarenrae’s Chosen , oh my gods .
And when, a few weeks later, she returns, Eodwulf asks what it’s like, to be a cleric of Sarenrae, and if- maybe, he could do that, too? And Pike is more than happy to talk with him about it, and Astrid is pleased for him, but being a cleric just doesn’t feel right, for her. And then one day, Astrid meets another member of the temple who’s just returned from a long journey, who wears armor of a type Astrid’s never seen, and she learns about a paladin’s oath, and this? This feels right , righter than anything under Trent ever did.)
And throughout all of this, Bren sits behind the counter of The Talisman , reading the letters from his friends and smiling at the joy practically radiating from them.