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My Fire and the Place I Need to Reach

Chapter Text

The moment it happened, Caleb started to shake. He put the final line in the paper and his hands, so steady and precise until then, started to flutter like butterflies. His heart too seemed to grow wings, beating so fast inside his chest he thought he might die. He had asked for death for such a long time, but he couldn’t have it then and he didn’t want it now. Not when he had finally done it, not when he had finally learned the spell that could change his life.

He looked down at the scrolled papers around him and released a breath he didn’t remember holding. He had purchased all the ingredients necessary and he had written down the spell enough times to commit it to memory, now all he had to do was say the words and draw the teleportation circle. A few lines of chalk and some words and he could be back to before it all went wrong, before he became a murderer, an orphan, a broken man...

But he couldn’t do it then. No, not without a night’s rest.

“In the morning, Widowgast, in the morning.” He told himself, his voice echoing trough the room. It felt like talking to a ghost. In less then 24 hours no one would know that name. He would be Bren again and Caleb Widowgast would disappear from history. In a way it did feel like death, like saying goodbye to a close friend. And he was already overwhelmed by the idea of saying goodbye to his other friends, the real ones sleeping next door. He hadn’t told them about the spell and he didn’t plan to, it was easier that way, no last words, no last chances to change his mind. Not that they could, not unless... no.

In a couple of hours, the sun would rise like it always did and they would awake like they always did, except he wouldn’t be there and they wouldn’t remember that he was supposed to be. He didn’t feel guilty, they wouldn’t have to feel the pain of missing him, but he would live with their loss, knowing that they would be out there, adventuring without him. Happy without him.

He laid down in bed but couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes, he kept remembering his brotherly arguments with Beau, his long nights teaching Nott magic, the time he did a crazy blood pact with Fjord, and Jester... Oh Jester, he knew he would miss her most of all, her smile like sunshine in his darkest days, her jokes that always broke trough his somber facade, the way her accent added syllables to his name, Cay-leb. No one would ever call him that again...

Before he knew what he was doing, he sprung out of bed and opened his door. He needed to go outside, needed to fill his lungs with the night air and ground himself. For years his mind had been consumed with only this, this manic search for the spell, and now he had it. There was no time for second guessing, no time for weakness. The only faces he should be picturing should be his parents but whenever he tried all he saw were flames. Scheisse, he wanted to scream!

He stepped out into the hallway and froze. Jester was at the other end of corridor, standing by an open window in just her chemise, the simple white one with the pink flower trim, the long sleeves flowing in the breeze like ghostly manifestations.

Caleb thought about going back into his room, but it seemed like torture, the four walls like a cage meant for him and his thoughts alone. He had stopped mid-step, his breath caught in his lungs, and she hadn’t stirred, apparently still unaware of his presence. So he stayed, stopped in front of his door, like an idiot, taking in the way her skinned glowed like a sapphire under the moonlight, for what would be the last time.

After a while he noticed the way her shoulders kept shaking, going up and down in quick jerky motions, while the rest of her body stayed stiff, her head bowed down. She was crying. Jester, the most cheerful member of their group, hell the most cheerful person he had ever met! was crying...

“Hey, Jester, are you okay?” He asked against his better judgement. She jumped at the sound of his voice, her hands going up to wipe away her tears with remarkable speed. He immediately regretted speaking.

“Oh, Cay-leb! Yeah, of course, I’m totally good!” She lied, turning to face him. She smiled brightly but her eyes were still reddened and shinny.

“You don’t have to lie to me, blueberry.” He walked up to her, his steps echoing far too loudly trough the hallway.

“But I’m such a good liar!” Her face started to go back to its normal, relaxed state, her smile brightening up even more. If he didn’t know better, he would have never guessed she had been crying a minute ago.

“Why are you upset? Was the barmaid flirting with Fjord again?”

She let out a snort of laughter, her freckled nose wrinkling up adorably. “Nooo. I mean, yes, but that’s not why.” She lifter her hands up and Caleb saw she had been clutching her Traveler’s symbol, tightening her small fists around it so hard her knuckles were almost white. “Cay-leb, do you ever feel like you’re not strong enough and all your friends will die because of it?”

He felt his heart stop in his chest. It was a thought that occurred to him...oh about a thousand times a day. “All the time.” His voice was a horse whisper, barely audible in the wind.

She nodded vigorously. “That’s how I feel. Technically not all the time, technically. But from time to time. And specially after yesterday’s battle.” They had just returned from fighting a group of giants, a fairly straight forward deal that, after a couple of failed spells, had turned into a very tricky situation. “I told Caduceus to not worry about preparing revivify, because I wanted to do it, if we needed it. But then I went down and Beau almost died and there was nothing Cad could do about it! If Yasha hadn’t landed that last blow, Beau could be gone now and it would all be my fault!” Tears filled her eyes again, spilling over full cheeks and staining her gown.

“Nein, Jester that wasn’t your fault!” Without even thinking, he grabbed her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “ You couldn’t have known things would go that poorly. But we’re all fine now, that’s what matters.”

“But what about next time?” She looked up at him, her full bottom lip trembling. For a moment he thought of nothing but biting that lip, kissing it with his own over and over until it was swollen and flushed a deep purple and she was wrapped in his arms, her tears forgotten. But he didn’t, of course. He shouldn’t have even thought it, but he was a wicked man and she was beautiful and vulnerable and oh so close. This is why he needed to leave, so they could all be happy. So he could have his parents and she could have someone worthy of her, someone honourable, like Fjord.

“Next time we’ll try to do better. Not just you, all of us. We’ll try not to get hurt, and you’ll try to be there if we fail. Deal?”

“Deal!” She jumped up and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him with a strength far greater than his. Oh he was wicked and broken and he didn’t deserve it, but he was also weak, so he hugged her back, his arms snaking around her soft waist. It is a goodbye hug, he told himself, let me remember this last moment, let me have a life of imagining what could have been.

“Oh Cay-leb, I’m just so glad I met you all! You’re the only friends I’ve ever had and I don’t know what I would do if any of you...” She chocked on the word, her breath ruffling his hair, her cheek surprisingly cool against his shoulder. He breathed in and inhaled the sugary sweet sent of her skin. “Not after Molly... You understand, right?” He nodded, not trusting his voice, sure that if he spoke the moment would be over. And he wanted it to last forever, to give him time to remember every detail of how she sounded and how she felt, so he could recall it for the rest of his life. “I knew you would understand. You always try so hard to learn more, to become better, even if you’re already so powerful! I want to be like that, I want to be powerful like you Cay-leb.” She stepped back and looked him in the eye and suddenly it became very hard for him to breathe. “I know I joke about not wanting to heal and not being the cleric, but I really want to become a better healer, for all of you.”

You don’t want to be like me, Schatz, he wanted to say, you’re far to good for that. You want to learn because you care, because you’re giving and pure. I just learn for my own selfish reasons.

“And you will, with time.” He said instead. “ But don’t ever doubt you’re worth, blueberry, you’re good enough as you are.”

She gave him a big smile then and it was like the sun coming out after a storm, he swore he could feel its warmth on his face. He was glad he got to tell her that, even if it was the last thing he would say. Those were the words he wanted her to remember him by. Except she wouldn’t remember him.

“Even if I can’t reach you in time and you go unconscious in battle?”

Ja, because that will most likely be my fault for being so squishy...”

“And even if I use up all my spells to evoke my spiritual weapon instead of saving them for healing?”

“That’s a perfectly valid choice, so again Ja.”

“And even if I draw dicks on all your books?” Her smile turned mischievous, her fangs shinning in the dim light. He couldn’t help but smile back.

“Even if you draw dicks on my face when I fall asleep, Jester.”

She laughed, her giggles soft like wind-chimes. “Thank you, Cay-leb. I’m really glad we talked, I feel a lot better now.” She yawned then, her moth forming a perfect little o, her tail swishing lazily behind her. “I think I need to get some sleep now, it’s been a long day. I’ll see you in the morning, Cay-leb.” Reaching up on her tippy-toes, she kissed his cheek, just above where his stubble gave way to smooth pale skin. It was the gentlest touch Caleb had ever felt, yet he knew he would feel its ghostly presence on his skin forever. How bitter-sweet, goodbye kisses were. How hauntingly lovely, unrequited love felt.

“Ja, see you in the morning, Jester.” He lied to her, for the last time.

*

When the sun rose, Jester crept into Caleb’s room, her quill and ink pots ready to draw some detailed appendages on his face. When she didn’t see him in bed she was confused, and when she saw the teleportarion circle on the floor she started to panic. She was about to run out to tell the others Caleb was missing when she realized she didn’t know who that was. In fact, she didn’t even know who’s room she was in, or why she had come in at all. Gathering her things, she slowly walked out. It was a beautiful day, she had no reason to be sad or worried, but the heaviness in her chest remained.

Chapter Text

Caleb didn’t sleep the entire night. He tossed and turned in bed, full of thoughts of the past, both recent and ancient. Things he had done, things he wished he had, things he wanted to forget and things he would always try to remember.


Eventually he decided to get up and start preparing the spell. He readied the candles, one for each cardinal direction, then he took out the purple chalk and started to draw the arcane circle. It took him longer than he expected. He wanted to draw the symbols as accurately as possible, leaving no room for error, but his hands wouldn’t stop shaking, leaving him no choice but to re-do several of the more complex designs.


When he finished it, the sun still hadn’t risen, but his senses told him it was close. So he sat by the window, his knees tucked into his chest, watching the sky get progressively lighter. His shirt smelled like Jester, where she had laid her cheek, sweet and spiced like her cinnamon pastries. He closed his eyes for a second, taking in her scent and remembering the feel of her soft lips against his cheek. He wanted to leave her a note, tell her he was sorry he had to leave them and that he hopped she would be happy. She wouldn’t remember him for long but at least, if she saw it, she would know that someone named Caleb missed her.


“Meow?” Frumpkin said worriedly, jumping up on the chair next to him. Caleb petted him absentmindedly, stroking his fur from head to tail and back again.


“Don’t worry buddy, you’re coming with me.” Frumpkin started to purr, pushing his paws against his owner’s leg. “You’ll get to meet my parents and my old cat, he looks just like you...” He could hardly remember the old Frumpkin anymore, but he knew that when he had first summoned his familiar it was his parents’ cat he was thinking of.


The Eastern sky turned a beautiful shade of indigo and Caleb got up and put his coat on.


“Okay, let’s do this, before I do something else I’ll regret.”


He walked into the circle, careful not to step on any of the symbols. Then he summoned a ball of fire into his palm and started to light the candles, going counter clockwise starting from the North. When all four were lit, he put Frumpkin on his shoulder and started to chant. One by one the orange flames turned a bright green, their ghostly light spreading out until the lines of the chalk circle took their same sickly glow. All the while Caleb continued to chant, his voice the only sound in the morning air, his thoughts focused solely on the moment in time he wanted to go back to.


As the light grew brighter, forcing him to close his eyes against the glare, he felt his body become weightless and rise off of the wooden floor, pushed up by the flow of arcane energy. He thought of his parents, of their modest little house at the edge of the woods, of the afternoons he had spent among their, in the grass, with Astrid and Eodwulf. The light seemed to burn trough the skin of his eyelids and then, without warning, the was a loud bang, like crashing lightning, and Caleb felt himself getting pushed trough an invisible barrier, wind and sound rushing by him as he flew, an incorporeal mass, trough time.

*


Caleb felt his weight return and his feet touch solid ground again, but he did not dare open his eyes until he felt the wind stop. He heard birds chirping happily around him and slowly, carefully, blinked his eyes opened.


He was in the woods. Far off, between the trees, he could see the faint outline of his parents’ small wooden cabin. He was home.


Without even knowing, he started to walk towards the building, his feet gliding trough the familiar uneven forest floor. Instinctively, he knew where to duck to avoid low branches, where to jump over larger roots, where to stop to touch the tree where he and his friends had once carved their initials. There they were, right next to Astrid’s and Eodwulf’s. B. A. E., Bren Aldric Ermendrud, the name of a ghost, brought back from the grave.


A branch cracked behind him and he turned with lightning speed, one of his hands inside his component pouch, ready to strike. But behind him was just that ghost, his younger self.


Caleb didn’t know what to do. In his excited panic, trying to get everything ready for the spell, he had forgotten to consider the implications of time travel. What would happen to his other self? What would happen to the timeline where the two of them to meet? Had he ruined everything just mere seconds after arriving?
It was too late now to worry about these things. Young Bren stopped mid step, his face a mask of wonder and confusion as he recognized himself in the much older, haggard face of the man in front of him.


Caleb felt like he was looking into a funhouse mirror, the boy was who he remembered being but there was something off about him. His smooth, hairless face looked too innocent, his neat short hair too stiff, his posture too confident. With a startle, he realized he had been picturing the boy he wished he still was, but that Bren had never existed, there was only the puppet Ikithon had created.


His younger self reached out to touch him, his sleeve falling away to reveal bloody bandages covering his forearm. As the tip of his fingers brushed against Caleb’s face, they seemed to turn to dust, fading into his skin. The two men merged, creating a singular version, the only Bren in that timeline.


At first, Caleb wasn’t aware of the transformation, he had seen his younger self disappear but he felt the same, he thought the same. But reaching up to instinctively brush his long locks away from his face, he felt only the spiky feel of a buzzcut. Only then did he know they had become one, Caleb’s broken mind, Bren’s broken body.


He took a moment to get re-acquainted with his younger form, letting his hands roam his face and hair, down his wrapped arms. He knew what he would see if he took the bandages off, open wounds, fresh cuts, maybe some crystal fragments. He wasn’t ready to face that yet. Down by his ankles, Frumpkin let out a confused meow.


“Don’t worry buddy, it’s still me.” He said, in a voice that he almost didn’t recognize. Bending down, he picked up his familiar and scratched him behind the ears. “Welcome to my past.”


Off in the distance, he heard someone call his name, a frantic feminine voice, followed by a male one with a more laid back tone.


“Bren! Where are you? Breeeen!” The female voice sounded closer and closer. “Eodwulf, help me look for him, he could be hurt!”


“Relax, he probably just passed out again.” The male, who Caleb now knew was Eodwulf, said. He felt deep seethed panic and the bitter taste of bile filled his mouth, he wanted to run but he knew he could only avoid his old friends for so long.


“That’s what I’m worried about! Get up, you big lump!”


There was a cracking noise and the male let out a cry of pain. “Ahh, okay okay, stop it, I’ll help. Bren! Wake up, you wimp!”


“Don’t call him that! He’s been having a lot of private sessions with Master Ikithon and you know how those can mess you up...”


“The perks of being the favourite...”


“You mean the strongest.” Astrid’s voice held a twinge of defensive pride, like a lioness roaring to defend her cub. “Don’t be jealous, Eodwulf, it’s a bad look on you.”


Caleb watched them emerge trough the trees, first Astrid, lean and elegant, then Eodwulf, the tallest and burliest of them all. When she saw him, her icy blue eyes lit up and she half-ran towards him, arms outstretched.


“Oh, Göttern gedankt! Are you alright?” She grabbed him by the shoulders, her eyes roaming his face for any signs of pain or illness. Up close, she was even more handsomely beautiful than he remembered, her cheekbones and jaw sharp in an almost elvish, androgynous way. “Did you pass out? You left to get food almost half an hour ago!”


“I’m fine, Schatz.” To his surprise, he slipped into the role of his younger self almost seamlessly, calling her by the pet name he used so often back than. But the second he said it out loud, he realized he had been calling Jester the same thing in his head and felt nauseous. There were no similarities between the two girls, Astrid was sharp where Jester was soft, serious where she was funny, vicious where she was caring. And although Astrid had owned his entire heart at one point, that was no longer true and it felt wrong to pretend otherwise. “I’m... I’m alright.”


“Ugh” Eodwulf groaned, turning back towards the forest. Caleb had always suspected the bigger boy was jealous of their relationship, but looking into his eyes now he could see that it was more, a deeper sense of hidden hatred, like a dark flame. “Okay, you found him, I did my part. Now I’ll leave you two alone. If you need me, I’ll be taking a nap by the lake. Don’t wake me up unless it’s an emergency.”


Astrid dismissed him with a flick of her wrist, not even bothering to look in his direction, her eyes still glued to Caleb’s face. “What happened, Bren? Did you start to bleed out again?”


“No, I just found this guy and got a little distracted.” He lifted up Frumpkin, showing her his soft belly.


“Ugh, that thing is following you again?” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. Frumpkin hissed at her and jumped down from his arms, running off in the cottage’s direction. “You should lock it in a closet tomorrow, let it burn with the rest of your family.”


Caleb felt a lump form in his chest, making it hard to breathe. He remembered Astrid being unemotional and extremely devoted to the Empire, but he didn’t recall her being so flippant when it came to murder.


“Astrid... are you... are you sure we should go ahead with that plan?”


“Of course, silly, they’re traitors. Traitors need to die. But if you’re not sure about the fire, I have extra poison you can use.” He could only stare at her, wide eyed and feeling slightly sick, as she shrugged nonchalantly. Deep down, although he had never admitted it to himself, he had thought he could save Astrid, break trough her brain washing and stop her from killing her family. But now, standing in front of her, it was obvious that she was too far gone. “Now give me your arm, I want to check your bandages. You’re looking a little pale.”


She didn’t wait for him to reply, with quick, efficient motions, she grabbed his right arm, pulled up his sleeve and started to undo the wrappings. Slowly, she revealed his cuts and scars, some pale and old, most fresh and bleeding. The biggest one, running down his arm, from wrist to elbow, still had shards inside it, gleaming among the blood. Caleb wanted to throw up. Astrid just tsked in annoyance.


“He cut too deep, again... Why does he always do this to you? Did you talk back to him again?” She analyzed the cut with a detached, clinical eye, her face set in a grimace of disapproval, not for the wound, but for his assumed bad behaviour. Then, without bothering to remove the crystal shards or attempting to close the cut, she began re-wrapping his arm. When she was done, she gave it what could pass for a reassuring squeeze, but it sent a wave of pain coursing trough Caleb’s entire body.
“B-bigger crystals...” Caleb managed to choke out. His mouth felt dry and his vision was blurry at the edges. “He’s trying bigger crystals on me.”


She smiled wide, cat-like in the scariest of ways. “Of course! I knew he had something special prepared for you, Liebling. Master Ikithon is a genius! Tell me, did it work? Did they make you stronger?” Caleb could only nod, her smile widened even more, impossibly so. “I hope he tries them on me next. Maybe after we kill the traitors? He’ll be so pleased!” From beneath the bangs of her pixie cut, her eyes shone with fervent devotion. Caleb knew with certainty that she would do whatever it took to please her Master, including killing her family and his as well. If he wanted to save his parents, there was no time for negotiating or hesitating. They had to run, now.


“Relax Bren, Master Ikithon will make us the strongest wizards at the Academy. Burning some traitors is a small price for that.” She reached up and kissed him, her lips thin and cold against his.

Caleb could feel nothing but dread, his mind was already on the road.

Chapter Text

Night fell and Astrid and Eodwulf left. Caleb couldn’t stop thinking about their calm, neutral expressions as they walked away, casually talking about spending one last night with their parents, before taking their lives. Their eyes had the glazed over look of brainwashed puppets, it was terrifying.


He took his time making his way back to his parents’ cottage. On one hand he wanted to run, he was desperate to tell them all about Ikithon and his friends’ wicked plans and have them leave town, go somewhere far off, where they would be safe. On the other hand, his feet felt stuck to the forest’s grassy floor, he had thought about reuniting with his parents for so long, but now he was scared that reality would not live up to his fantasies. What if they noticed there was something different about him? What if they didn’t believe him? Would they turn him in for treason? The parents he remembered would never do that, but he was aware that his memories didn’t always match up to reality, they were too clouded by the sweet agony of grief.


When he finally reached the shack’s wooden door, he froze. Should he knock? Did he usually knock? He couldn’t remember... there was so much he couldn’t remember. He stood there for a second, hand raised in the air, mid-knock, his eyes closed, taking in the nostalgic sent of smoke and freshly baked bread and trying desperately to remember.
But then, before he could act, the door opened and his father walked out. He was a big man, Leofric, just slightly taller than Caleb but much larger.His hair was a deep chocolate brown that Caleb had not inherited, but their eyes were the same shade of blue, clear and inviting.


“Bren!” He smiled warmly and it was just as he remembered it, his chest filled up with hope. “Come in Sohn, dinner is ready.”


He wordlessly walked in, his eyes roaming the cozy inside of the cottage, all aged wood and colourful fabrics. So nostalgic. So flammable.


His mother was standing in the kitchen, cutting up a loaf of bread, her dress and arms covered in flour up to her elbows. She was as lovely as in his dreams, small and curvy, her hair like a flame, even brighter than his. She turned around and smiled at him, her brown eyes crinkling around the edges, emanating love and warmth. Without hesitation, Caleb ran and grabbed her in a tight hug, lifting her off the ground, his young body carrying the weight in a way that his older self could never. She laughed, letting him spin her around, breathing in her sent of wildflowers and good food. From the doorway, his father watched it all, smiling with fatherly pride.


“Oh Liebling, it is so good to see you! You should come home more often, you spend too much time at the Academy.” Una said when he let her down. She looked him over, taking in every detail of his face, just like he had done with her before. “Look how much you have grown! My boy is becoming a big Empire soldier!”


He felt his blood run cold then. There it was, the nationalistic pride, the love for the Empire.


Mama, Papa, I have something very important to tell you... Can we talk?”


“Of course, Liebling. But let’s eat first. Come Leofric, sit.”

They did, and she served them his favourite meal, sausages and mashed potatoes and fresh dark bread. It was the most delicious thing he ever remembered eating, but as soon as he thought about what he had to tell them, it turned to ashes in his mouth. Half way trough the meal he couldn’t take it anymore, he let it all out. He told them about Ikithon and the memory spell. He told them about the plan to kill all of their parents and Ikithon’s crystal experiments. Their faces showed confusion, then fear, then hesitation.

 

“Bren, Sohn... that is... That’s no possible...” His father said, his voice low, like he was talking to a scared child.


He didn’t answer, instead he pushed up his sleeves and unwrapped his bandages, letting them see the cuts and scars. His mother inhaled sharply, her eyes going wide with panic.


“My child... Why would they do this to you? The Empire would never...they just want to protect us... they would never...” She started to tear up, it broke Caleb’s heart.


“You don’t have to turn your back on the Empire, you don’t even have to believe me. All I ask of you is that you do this one thing: go away for a couple of days, leave town, just be as far away from here as you can tomorrow.” His father started to say something but he interrupted him. “Please! Indulge me with this one thing. If I’m right, you’ll be safe, if I’m wrong, nothing will have changed.


His parents looked at each-other for a while, silently communicating in the way that only people who had loved one-another for a long time can.


“Let us sleep on it, Bren. Things will be cleared in the morning.”


That was as far as he was willing to push them. He knew asking them to think of the Academy in a negative light was a lot, it was an integral part of the Empire and blind faith in their rulers was all they had ever known. All he could do now was hope they would do as he had said.


He had another restless night. Laying down in his childhood bed felt odd, like putting on a favourite shoe that didn’t fit anymore. He felt exhausted, when he closed his eyes they stung and burned, like there were grains of sand under his lids. But he couldn’t fall asleep. Trough the cottage’s thin walls he could hear his parents talking, their hushed tones loud enough that he could understand their nervousness but not enough for him to decipher their exact words.


At some point, exhaustion must have gotten the best of him, because he woke up with the weight of a cat pressed against his chest. Hesitantly, he opened his eyes, blinking one at a time. The feline on top of him was clearly not Frumpkin. He had once thought that his familiar looked exactly like his parents’ cat, but the differences between them were crystal clear now. While their coat was the same color and pattern and their eyes were the same shade, this kitten, adorable as he was, had the rounded, portly features of a spoiled house cat, while Frumpkin, being a Fae creature, was sleeker and more angular.


Patting the cat that wasn’t his, he got up and made his way to the kitchen. To his dismay, his parents were still there, their faces somber, their eyes shadowed a deep purple. He felt a wave of panic build up inside him. Had they contacted the Academy? Was Ikithon on his way right now?


“Are you turning me in for treason?”


His mother rushed to his side and gave him a tight hug. “Oh no, mein Kind, never!”


“We are just unsure, Bren.” His father patted his shoulder, his heavy hand steadying him in his anxious state. “We’ll leave by the end of the day, but if nothing happens... if you’re wrong, Sohn, we’ll need to get you some help...”


“That’s fine, I’ll do whatever you ask, just get out. Do it as fast as you can. I’ll try to slow them down but they’ll be here before sundown.” He hugged them both fast and walked out of their home, silently saying goodbye. “And Mama, Papa... pray for their families, there’s only so much I can do...”

 

*


He spent most of the day in the woods. He told himself he was preparing his spell components, in case something went horribly wrong, but he was actually hiding. He had spent his entire life trying to go back to this moment, to change it, to fix it. But what if, after all his work, he still couldn’t make anything better? What if he had to watch them die all over again? Just thinking about it made him sick.


In the afternoon, Astrid found him by the lake. She was wearing brand new robes in the colors of the Academy, the Cerberus Assembly’s crest embroidered over her chest. Smiling from ear to ear, she sat down next to him on a rock by the water.


“You look happy.” He said, trying to avoid her gaze. Her wide grin was making him incredibly uncomfortable.


“Of course I am, today is a very important day!”

 

“Because we’re becoming orphans?” He asked, his voice caustic.


“You really need to stop seeing it like that. They’re traitors, blood means nothing without loyalty. We’re just doing our part, for the Empire.”


“That doesn’t mean you need to be happy about it...” He grabbed a rock and threw it angrily into the water, the piece of stone sank under the depths with a pleasant plop. “I’ve never known you to be this callous.”


“And I’ve never known you to be this weak willed!” Her smile fell, her expression shattering like a broken porcelain doll. “Master Ikithon is giving us the chance to belong to the Assembly, to be part of the magical elite! It is the highest honor we could receive. Get over your ridiculous feelings and be thankful!”


Caleb breathed in deeply, trying to stay calm. He felt deep seethed anger boiling just under the surface of his skin. He wanted to yell, he wanted to grab her and shake her, maybe even hit her. Asking him to murder his family was foul, but asking him to be thankful for it was another level of wickedness.


But he couldn’t break character, he couldn’t let her know how opposed he was to this or she might take him to Ikithon. He couldn’t save his parents if he was in a cell in Rexxentrum.


He knew he wasn’t the best actor but Astrid wanted to believe him, to believe there was nothing wrong with their plan and their relationship. He closed his eyes and imagined a wall rising around him, keeping his feelings in, turning his boiling blood to frozen water.


“You’re right.” He said, his voice almost robotic. “I don’t know what got into me, I apologize.”


Her smile returned, large and sharp and full of madness. “That’s alright, Schatz. I knew you’d see the truth in the end. Now let us go, Eodwulf is waiting for us. We have much to do.”


She pulled him up to his feet and he grabbed her chin, pulling her head up to kiss her. He tried to forget their situation, tried to imagine her as the girl he knew before the Academy and kiss her with all the passion he had felt for her once. She melted into him, her arms coming up to encircle his neck, her mouth opened to ask for more. And he gave. Astrid was never a sweet lover, her touch always felt like a competition, each kiss and bite and lick was a sign of dominance and Caleb gave as much as he got. They kissed for what seemed like forever, it was rough and aggressive and it made Caleb feel absolutely ashamed of himself, but he kept it going for as long as he could, because he knew that afterwards there would only be death.

Chapter Text

They walked to Eodwulf’s house, holding hands, their fingers painfully laced together in a dark imitation of actual intimacy. In reality, it wasn’t a romantic gesture, it was Astrid’s way of making sure he wouldn’t run off. He knew that, on a surface level, he had convinced her that he was willing to follow their plan, but deep down there was still something in her that didn’t trust him completely.

As they got closer to the village’s center, people passed by them and smiled, taken by the picture perfect image of the two young lovers. All the while Caleb felt like he was loosing circulation in his fingers, the tips going cold while his palms were sweating. If he tried to move his hand, even the slightest bit, she would only hold on tighter, threatening to crush his fingers in her far stronger grip. And that smile... her smiled never wavered.

It didn’t take them too long to reach Eodwulf’s place. His family was by far the poorest of the three and their house showed it. It was little more than a shack, far smaller than Caleb’s parents’ already modest cottage and in clear need of repairs. From afar it looked pleasant enough, half hidden in one of the village’s back streets, between a stable and another equally aged home. But the closer they got, the more Caleb could see the cracks in the dark, mouldy wood, the dust and grime on the glass windows and the way it leaned slightly to the left, the roof just starting to sink in on itself.

Eodwulf was standing outside, dressed in his brand new Assembly robes, leaning against the short stone fence that encircled the home, creating a muddy, desolated, stand in for a front yard. He had summoned a fireball into his palm and kept juggling it from hand to hand, his eyes entirely focused on the flame, reflecting the orange glow. When he heard their approaching footsteps, he closed his hand into a tight fist, snuffing the flame until a plume of smoke escaped between his fingers, only then did he look up.

“You’re late.” Unlike Astrid, he wasn’t smiling. The darkness Caleb had noticed yesterday only seemed more evident today, it deepened his stare, pulled at the corner of his eyes, created strange shadows over his features. “And you’re not wearing the Assembly’s robes.”

“He hasn’t gone back to the Academy yet. But never mind that, Master Ikithon can give Bren his robes personally, when he officially initiates us into the Cerberus Assembly.” She turned her wicked smile on him, her hand still holding Caleb’s like a vice. Eodwulf noticed their intertwined fingers and scowled but kept his mouth shut. “Are they both inside?”

She nodded towards the house and Eodwulf nodded back.

Ja. He’s sleeping his hangover off and she’s making dinner.” Eodwulf’s mother was a chamber maid for one the wealthy families in Rexxentrum and his father was a miner in one of the Empire mining sites. He was rarely home but when he was, he was usually drinking. “Told her I had some big news, that she should buy something nice to celebrate. She got fish. I fucking hate fish.”

Astrid laughed and patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry Wulf, you’re not having dinner here anyway.” He smiled a bit then, leaning against her touch.

Recht. It’s just good to know they never knew me at all.”

“You were never their child, Eodwulf. You’re too good for that. You’re the Empire’s son.” His smile grew, coaxed by her compliments. Caleb wondered how he had never realized their twisted dynamic before, how Astrid pulled both of their strings. In many ways she was like Ikithon, but while he kept them in check with punishments, she was all about the rewards.

“Alright, let me get this over with.” Eodwulf walked around to the back of the shack and came back with a big jug of oil. He started pouring the liquid around, letting it drip down the walls, windows and doors, splashing it on the sparse bits of grass on the ground and even on the neighbor’s bushes, where he abandoned the jug.       

“I hope your house burns too, you old bastards. Always complaining about my dad yelling? After today you won’t hear him ever again!” He snorted, then turned back towards Astrid and Caleb. “Now back up, you two. I’m getting this barbecue started!”

Caleb tried desperately to pull his hand away one more time but it has hopeless, Astrid held on tight, not even bothering to look away from the house. He didn’t know if he could do this, see another human being burn. Even if it wasn’t his parents, it was still too horrible. And the screams! If they screamed he knew he would brake down.

Eodwulf summoned a fire bolt and tossed it towards the roof. For a second there was nothing and Caleb almost sighed with relief. But then the flame reached the oil and grew, engulfing everything in sight. Eodwulf stared, in awe of his work, his lips moving frantically to summon more balls of fire to make sure that every single corner of the shack was ablaze.

The heat was unbearable, it seared the skin on Caleb’s face and set his heart into a frenzy. Run. Run. Run. Run. It rumbled trough his chest. He felt like he couldn’t breath.

Eodwulf’s parents finally noticed the flames and their panicked screams echoed out trough the street. They sounded confused at first, then startled, they started calling out for help, yelling their son’s name, afterwards it was just pain, the screams of pure agony of the dying.

Caleb doubled over, retching on an empty stomach, his eyes burning from the smoke and brimming with unshed tears. All the while, Astrid held him down like an anchor, keeping him in place while she watched the house burn down like it was a fireworks display.

When the screaming stopped, he could hear Eodwulf laughing. There were tears running down his face but his smile was as wide and sharp as Astrid’s. Terrifying and utterly mad.

“It’s done.” He whispered trough the blaze. “One down, two more to go.”

 

*

They wasted no time making their way to Astrid’s place, Caleb being half dragged behind the other two.

Eodwulf’s neighbors’ front yard had started to burn too, but they didn’t stay to watch. With the first step of their plan complete, Astrid was now even more motivated, eager to do her part. Even Eodwulf had more of a pep in his step, a foreign straightness in his posture, like a weight had been taken off his shoulders, like he he was relieved that he had actually gone ahead with the arson and there was now nothing he could do to reverse it. He was finally an orphan, a murderer, a perfect son of the Empire.

Astrid lived in the center of the village, in one of the better homes, two stories tall and made of beautiful gray stone and stained wood. Her family had been wealthy merchants for generations and she could have afforded to study at the Academy even if she hadn’t been personally picked by Ikithon.

Caleb couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had picked any other people, from any other village. She would have gone to the Academy anyway, it was always her dream. Nothing in the universe could have kept Astrid away from her own potential. But would he have noticed her power, if she was just another student? Would she have begged to study under him? Was there no timeline where her family could survive?

Astrid walked in without knocking, the door banging against the wall as she threw it open. Caleb stumbled in, her unyielding grip on his hand propelling him forward. At this point he was too weak to pull away or even try to resist her directions. His arm was sore and his hand throbbed with pain but it was his mind that was in true agony, caught in a cycle of flames and screaming.

Mama, I’m home!” She yelled with child-like glee. “I’ve brought Bren and Eodwulf with me for dinner. Is that okay?”

Her mother walked into the common room from the kitchen, a polite smile that did not quite reach her eyes illuminating her face. “Of course, Liebe. You know your friends are always welcome.” She was a beautiful woman, Astrid’s mother. Tall and elegant like her daughter but with softer features, not really tainted by time. Her long blond hair, stripped with gray, fell behind her in a heavy braid. “But I do wish you’d warned me sooner, I’d make more food.”

“Don’t worry ma’am, we don’t eat as much as it seems.” Eodwulf said with a chuckle, closing the door behind him as he walked in.

“Nonsense! You are growing boys, you need to eat! Specially you Bren. Mein Gott, you’re getting handsomer by the minute! But you look a little pale...” She gently pinched his cheek. “Sit, sit, I’ll have the table set in a second.”

“Wait up Mama, I’ll help you with the cooking.” Astrid added. Finally letting Caleb’s hand go to follow her mother into the kitchen, that smile still plastered on her face.

Caleb let his body slump into a large armchair, his legs going limp beneath him. He felt helpless, useless. He had come back to right his wrongs but, even if he managed to save his parents, could he really feel innocent if he did nothing as his friends killed their families?

Eodwulf started pacing in front of him, his shoulders tense, muttering under his breath. All of a sudden, he stopped and leaned down, one hand on each of the chair’s armrests, pinning Caleb against the plush upholstered back.

“Oh handsome, gifted Bren! You’re just so lovable, aren’t you? First the daughter, now the mother, you have them all fooled.” He loomed over him, his breath far too close, his eyes dark as pitch. “But I can see right through you. You’re weak Bren, you don’t have the nerve to do what the Empire requires! You’re buckling under the pressure, I doubt you’ll make it trough the day. And when you brake, they’ll all finally realize who you really are, wimp. Ikithon, Astrid, they’ll all see!” He laughed, his hand squeezing the armrest like it was Caleb’s throat. “I hope I get to be the one who kills you. I want to see you burn, to hear you scream!” Caleb look deep into those dark eyes, trying to find the boy he had once called his best friend, the one who had taught him how to play hide and seek in the woods and how to skip stones in the lake. Somewhere along the way, Ikithon had destroyed him too, whoever this man was, he was not the boy Caleb had known. “The only thing I’ll feel sorry for is that you wont see me get everything I deserve, everything you’ve been taking from me!”

For a second he though Eodwulf was really going to reach for his neck and all he could do was stand still in panic. But then they heard a noise, the soft pitter-patter of bare feet running down the stairs, and the larger boy straightened up, his face going back to a mask of pleasantry.

Caleb looked up, his posture still uncomfortably stiff, ready for Eodwulf to turn around and strike, and saw Astrid’s younger sister skipping down the stairs.

“Bren!” Esther yelled, running to jump up on his lap and wrap her tiny arms around him. “Are you staying for dinner? Can we play afterwards? I’ve been practicing that cantrip you taught me! Look!” She closed her eyes very tightly, mumbling the incantation with a little bit of a lisp. After a second, a single sphere of light rose up from her tiny hands, illuminating the room.  

Caleb’s stomach twisted painfully. The six year old looked just like Astrid did at her age, vibrant and innocent and full of potential. He didn’t remember much of what had happened that faithful night, before his mind had chattered, but he didn’t know how he could have forgotten Esther dying. It was one thing to watch adults die but a child? Astrid couldn’t possibly want to kill her sister...

Sehr gut, Esther!” Eodwulf said as Caleb stayed trapped in a horrified silence. “If you keep practicing you’ll be as good as us someday! Maybe you’ll get to go to the Academy too. Would you like that?”

The little girl looked up at Eodwulf skeptically, her button nose wrinkled up. “No, the Academy is stupid! If Astrid didn’t go to the Academy we could play all the time! I just want Bren to teach me magic. He’s the best, anyway.”

Eodwulf’s face turned splotchy and as red as a beet, making Caleb honestly afraid that he would hit a child. The three of them stood there, still for a tense moment, Esther looking defiantly at Eodwulf, unaware of the danger she was in, Eodwulf trying to control his temper and Caleb, slowly inching towards his component pouch.

Then Astrid returned, still all smiles, and the tension broke. “Dinner is ready, boys. Come to the kitchen.”

Schwester, I don’t like your big friend.” Esther said, jumping down from Caleb’s lap. “You should just bring Bren next time.”

“Be nice, Esther.” She said, but Esther stuck her tongue out at Eodwulf and ran towards the kitchen. A brave, defiant little girl, even in the face of danger. Caleb couldn’t help but think of Jester, it was exactly what she would do. His heart ached for the two of them.

“What a brat.” Eodwulf muttered, teeth clenched. He turned towards Astrid, visibly trying to relax his face. “Did you do it?”

Ja, it’s in the soup, so watch out for that. I used the entire bottle, just to be sure.” She took a small green glass vile out of her pocket and turned it upside down, making a single clear drop spill out, it hit the carpet with a hiss. Eodwulf smiled.

“Good, let us eat then!”

Chapter Text

They all walked into the kitchen, Caleb’s feet propelled by the sheer fear of what might happen to Esther if she ate that soup.


His mind kept running trough horrifying scenarios, pictures of Astrid’s family’s dead bodies propped up on the table in a gruesome imitation of familial bliss, their bloated corpses smiling stiffly, their eyes clouded white. In some of those horrible images, Esther sat at the head of the table, her lips blackened by the poison, smiling with childish glee, while her dead eyes stared at him accusingly. In others she was safe in her sister’s arms, hiding her face from the offensive image of her dead parents, traumatized but safe. At this point, the second scenario was the best he could hope for.


The kitchen was small but well lit, one of its walls was composed of three large windows that let in the soft light of the setting sun. In the center of the room was a big dark wooden table, set for dinner, complete with fine china and a vase of fresh flowers.


“Sit boys, sit! Esther, go get your father.” Astrid’s mom said, while ladling soup into smaller bowls. Astrid, ever the perfect hostess, started distributing them throughout the table, one serving of poison per seat.


“Bren, sit.” She aggressively whispered in his hear when he didn’t move, pushing the chair at the foot of the table out for him and discretely shoving him down. “What’s wrong with you?”


“Esther...” Was all he could say, his pleading eyes looking up into hers.


She looked confused for a second, then it dawned on her. “Don’t worry, it’ll be quick. Don’t you dare ruin this for me, Bren...”


She left him at that, moving on with her serving duties. All Caleb could do was stare at the deceitfully pleasant smelling bowl of broth in front of him.


Following her mother’s instructions, little Esther started to run up the stairs, her pretty blue dress swirling around her bony knees as she jumped from step to step. Half-way up the stairwell, she turned around and yelled down to her sister.


“Astrid, save me a seat next to Bren, please!” Astrid didn’t answer but the corner of her mouth twitched, like holding her perfect smile was getting harder. Esther’s footsteps resumed. “Papa, dinner is ready! We have company!”


She returned soon after with her father, a middle aged man with flaxen hair, an imposing moustache and thick, rounded glasses. There was a softness to Astrid’s father that was not present in his older daughter but shinned trough in the younger one. Esther had her father’s sweet, genuine smile, his goofy sense of humour, his clumsy mannerism, Astrid had her mother’s confidence, her elegance, her no-nonsense attitude. Caleb had always appreciated those parts of Astrid, they were great assets for a member of the Academy, a soldier, an assassin. But after having lived an entirely new life, he couldn’t help but wish she had been a bit more like her sister.


“Oh, good evening boys! Vergib mir for my delay, it’s a very busy time of year you know, that with the end of the harvest and all...”


Schatz, you know the rules, no business talk at the table.” Astrid’s mother said, sitting down. Esther scurried up and hoisted herself onto the chair next to Caleb’s. “Sit before the soup gets cold.”


He quickly took a seat at the head of the table, between Astrid and his wife, who he smiled shyly at. “Of course, darling! Shall I commence our prayers tonight?”


Like many Empire families, Astrid’s was devout to the allowed Gods, but specially the Dawnfather, as he was responsible for the crops they bought and sold. One by one they joined hands and closed their eyes, Caleb taking Esther’s tiny palm into his. But before the young girl closed her lids, he turned to her and and mouthed the words “Don’t eat the soup”. She nodded, smiling mischievously, like it was their little game. He wished it was a game. He wished, he hoped and wished and did nothing. Gods, he felt so powerless!


“Thank you Dawnfather, for growing the crops which keep gold in our pockets and meals on our table.” Astrid’s father chanted, his voice low and reverent. After their exchange, Esther closed her eyes too, giving a piece of her tiny heart away in prayer to the God who’s gifts were being used as Astrid’s instrument of death. “Let this meal fuel us, so that we may worship you again, day after day, under your glorious sunlight.”


Caleb couldn’t allow himself to close his eyes, he needed to memorize this moment of normalcy, of family, of love. He couldn’t stop Astrid’s plan, not if he wanted to save his parents, but he could honor their memory by remembering them like this, happy and united and alive.

 

“To you we pray! Alright, let us eat!” He opened his eyes and eagerly ate a spoonfull of soup. Caleb held his breath. “This is delicious, Liebling. New recipe?”


“No, just those lovely carrots who brought home yesterday.” Astrid’s mother started to eat too, spoonfull by spoonfull, Caleb counted them all.


Astrid herself had taken to theatrically filling her spoon and taking it up to her mouth, only to spill the broth back into the bowl, her plastic smile still glued on. While Eodwulf had forgotten the soup altogether and was shoving pieces of bread into his mouth. Caleb looked worriedly at Esther but the young girl, true to their silent agreement, was not eating, playing instead with her spoon, moving the floating pieces of carrot in the bowl around like their were schools of fish.


“Well, whatever it is, it tastes-” Astrid’s father’s body started to convulse, shaking erratically against the wooden table, his limbs flailing around wildly.


Liebe? Mein Gott, what is wrong?” Astrid’s mother screamed, grabbing his face between her hands to steady him. By this point his eyes had started to roll back in his head, only the whites showing and thick green foam was running down the corners of his mouth. “Astrid go get a healer! Go-” She too started to shake, falling over her husband’s twitching body.


“Don’t worry Mama, that won’t be necessary. It’ll be over soon.” Astrid stopped her farce and just sat, staring at both of her parents as they died. Esther started to cry, sobbing hysterically, her eyes frantically looking between her parent’s body and her sister’s smiling face. Astrid’s attention snapped back to her. “Now Esther, be a good girl and eat your soup.”


“Astrid, don’t do this. She’s innocent, she doesn’t have to die!” Caleb pleaded, standing up from his chair.


“Children of traitor’s will grow to be traitor’s themselves. You know this Bren, it’s why we must do this, to prove ourselves.”


“Let her prove herself too, please Astrid! Take her to the Academy, let her become like us so she can atone for her parents’ sins.” He couldn’t think of a worst future for Esther, but at least she would have one. He would say anything to keep her alive.


Astrid thought about it, looking at her sister’s tear streaked face. “No. She’s too weak for the battlefield, this will be a mercy. Eat the soup, Esther.”


The little girl looked at Caleb, her eyes wide with fear, like he was her saviour, like he was her only hope. His hands twitched, he wanted to grab her and fight his way out of that house. But he couldn’t.


“Run.” He whispered.


She jumped down from the chair and ran as fast as her little legs could take her, crawling under the table and around the chair.


“Wulf, get her!” Astrid yelled, her smiling face cracking into an angry scowl.


Esther darted around the kitchen, making her way towards the living room, Eodwulf tried to block the doorway but she scurried around his legs. As she ran trough the living room though, Eodwulf’s much larger legs covered the distance between them before she could reach the front door and he scooped her up into his arms, kicking and screaming.


“Quiet, you brat!”


He dragged her back to the kitchen and sat her on a chair, pinning her down with his heavy hands on her bony shoulders. She screamed as loud as she could, yelling in both Common and Zemnian, her tears streaming like rivers. Before Caleb could plea one more time for her life, Astrid took her own bowl of soup and forced it down her sister’s throat, the liquid spilling down her chin and staining her pretty blue dress.


Caleb couldn’t look. He tucked his head between his knees and tried his best to block out Esther’s final screams before her body gave in to the convulsions. His mouth filled with bile and his eyes burned but no tears came. He could hear his own heartbeat, overwhelmingly loud in his ears, drowning out reality, drowning out death. It sounded like a choir, yelling at him in their melodic voices, screaming Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Murderer. Murderer. Murderer.


They continued screaming, even in the darkness of his closed eyelids when he passed out. Caleb was sure they would continue screaming forever.

 

*


He came to with searing pain coursing trough his face, his left cheek burning and stinging. He reluctantly opened his eyes, just the slightest bit, afraid that he would have to face Esther’s tiny corpse. Fortunately, Eodwulf and Astrid had dragged him out to the alley behind the house and dumped him on the dirt floor, propped against a wall. Astrid was crouching in front of him, her hand raise to strike again.


“I think he’s waking up.”


“Took him long enough.” Eodwulf was leaning against the opposite wall, his impressive height looming over them. “I told you we was too weak to go through with the plan, the wimp.”


“He just got overwhelmed, that’s it. My sister got to his head. But he’ll go through with it, you’ll see. Just wait until he wakes up.”


“We’re wasting time, just slap him again.”


She did, without hesitation, her arm going back to gain momentum and then swinging forward, her palm connecting with his cheek with a resounding crack. Eodwulf chuckled. Caleb’s eyes snapped open.


“Hey Schatz, welcome back! You had me worried there, for a minute.” She lifted his chin with her hand and turned his head from side to side, inspecting him. “Feeling better?”
“Esther...” Once again, it was all he could say, his throat felt like it was closing up. Astrid’s smiling face turned sour. Behind her, the streets were getting darker with the setting sun, Eodwulf conjured dancing lights, bright and beautiful in the midst of all that horror.


“She’s gone, don’t worry about it.” She got up, brushing the dirt from her robes and then grabbed him by the arm and unceremoniously yanked him to his feet. His legs were shaking and he thought he was going to collapse again but, after a few stumbling steps, they settled. “You have more important things to focus on right now. It’s your turn.”


“Astrid, I don’t...”


“No, I won’t hear it.” She shook her head vigorously, her short hair sticking up wildly, and grabbed his hand like she had done on the way to Eodwulf’s house. “Wulf did his part, I did mine, now you’ll do yours. Don’t ruin this for me Bren. Don’t ruin it for yourself. Remember Master Ikithon’s orders.”


She didn’t let him answer, he didn’t think he could have found the words to do it anyway. With her considerable strength, she started pulling him again, dragging him trough the town for the final stretch of their macabre tour. He stumbled trough the cobblestone streets and slipped in the dirt ones but he stayed on his two feet, pulled by Astrid ahead and pushed by Eodwulf behind him. The few people that saw them averted their gaze, most probably thought he was drunk but even the ones that didn’t wouldn’t dare interfere once they saw his companions’ Assembly robes.


As they gotten to the edge of town, where the streets gave place to the woods and Caleb’s home started to appear in the distance, he felt his body become more solid, fueled by conviction. No matter how much he had failed to save other innocent lives, this was the real reason why he had come back, to save his family, this was his time to act.


The stopped in front of the cottage and Caleb felt like sighing with relief. There was no light coming from the front windows and no smoke emanating from the chimney. They had listened to him, they were gone.


“Hey Astrid, I don’t think they’re home.” Eodwulf said, passing in front of the house. “Everything’s dark inside.”


“That doesn’t make any sense, they’re always home after sunset.” Astrid’s voice got high, manic. “No, they have to be in there.”


“Unless he tipped them off.” Eodwulf grabbed Caleb’s arm with his meaty hand, squeezing painfully. “Did you tell them we were coming?”


Caleb looked him straight in the eye and smiled, as widely and sharply as Astrid had all afternoon. “Now why would I ever do that?”


“Oh, you little...” He lifter his arm to punch him and Caleb braced for the impact. But before the hit landed, a single sound rang through the forest, making them all freeze. A meow. Just a single cat’s lament, coming from inside their house.


“It’s their stupid cat! They wouldn’t leave without it.” Astrid grinned like she had just won the lottery. “They’re home. They just probably went to bed early.”


Caleb felt cold sweat running down the back of his neck. Was she right? Were they still there? They wouldn’t leave without the cat but what if it was Frumpkin? He knew his familiar couldn’t die, he would just return to the Feywild from where he could be called back at any time. But that was in his original timeline, this was unknown territory. In his past, hadn’t gotten Frumpkin until he was an adult, if he died now, would he not be able to call him back for years? Everything was a big unknown and his feelings of helplessness started to creep back. He didn’t know much, but he was sure that whatever was in that house needed to be protected.


“Alright, it’s time. Make them burn, Bren.” She said.


“No.” He turned Astrid around so she could face him. “Listen to me, Astrid. Ikithon has been manipulating us this whole time. Our parents have never said anything against the Empire, they’re loyal, they would never do that. Ikithon’s altered our memories.”


“That’s ridiculous-”


“No, it isn’t. He wants to isolate us so our only allegiance is to him. He’s a terrible, terrible man, Astrid!”


“I told you he was going to lose it.” Eodwulf said, putting his hand on Astrid’s shoulder. “He’s not one of us, he’s not cut out to be an Empire soldier. He’s a traitor like his parents.”


“No! You’re just confused, Bren. That’s it, you’re just confused.” Astrid’s voice sounded panicked now, her eyes were starting to tear up at the corners. “I know this is very stressful and it can mess with your mind...but you just have to do this, okay? Just do this and everything will be better, like Master Ikithon said.” She grabbed both of his hands in hers and tried to smile but half of her face wouldn’t obey her. Caleb could physically see her rational side trying to fight against the effects of Ikithon’s magic and failing. “Please Bren, do this for me. For us.”


“I can’t, Astrid, I have to do what is right. I hope you realize what you’ve done someday. I hope you can forgive yourself.”


He pulled away and ran towards the house, his feet barely touching the ground as he sped towards the door and threw it open. Behind him, Astrid kept screaming his name, begging him to come back.


“Stop, Astrid, he’s not worth it. Let him burn with the rest of his traitorous family.” Caleb could hear Eodwulf say. He started rummaging trough the cabin, looking for his parents or any sign that they had packed their things and left. Nothing. Nothing. They were nowhere to be seen but everything was still in its usual place.


“Let me try one last time. Please Wulf, we know him, he’s not like this.” She walked up to the cottage’s door and yelled out to him. “Bren, this is your last chance! Come out or Eodwulf will burn you all. It doesn’t have to be like this. If you repent, Master Ikithon will forgive your momentary lapse of judgement. Please Schatz, make the right choice.”


“Fuck Ikithon and his forgiveness. Tell him I’ll see him in Hell.” He screamed from the inside.


Slowly, he heard her back away towards Eodwulf, her feet making the leaves beneath crunch with every step. He held his breath and in the absolute silence he heard her whisper “Light them up, Wulf.”


The next few seconds seemed to last an eternity. He was sure that his family was gone but he still couldn’t find the cat and he also needed a way to protect himself from the flames. He had an idea, it was insane and maybe illogical but it could work. His younger self, although possibly more magically powerful, had not learned the spell for Leomund’s Tiny Hut but his older mind knew it. He wasn’t at all sure about the laws of time, but he had to give it a try.


As the cabin started to fill with smoke, he closed his eyes and started to prepare the spell. It was hard at first, harder than it had ever been in his original timeline. His hands kept slipping into the wrong shapes, his words sounded sharper than they should. It was the habits of someone used to only using offensive magic. His mind was the one of an aged, weak wizard, but his body was that of a young soldier, a weapon.


The air got thick with gray smoke and Caleb’s eyes had started to sting by the time he finished the spell. The magical hut went up seamlessly, invisible to anyone but him. Breathing was still hard and the air was impossibly hot, but he felt relatively safe inside his magic bubble. His work done, he let himself go, dropping to the floor. It was over, they were safe. Soon enough, Astrid and Eodwulf would leave and tell Ikithon that he and his family were dead. It would all be over, they would be free.


He sat with his knees up to his chest and closed his eyes. Only then did the tears come. He cried for everything that had happened that day, he cried of relief for his parents, he cried in grief for Esther, he even cried for Astrid and Eodwulf, for the guilt they would one day feel if they managed to get away from Ikithon. Oh, how he hoped they would be able to break trough his mind control someday, no matter how long it took.


In the fog of his tears, he heard the meowing noise again. It was close and it sounded more desperate. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hands and walked through the flaming house, looking for the cat. He found him on top of a closet, surrounded by a burning inferno, his Frumpkin. Slowly, hesitantly, he walked trough the fire, seeing the flames part around his hut and grabbed his cat, letting him into the protective barrier.


He held him trough the night, sitting on the floor of his childhood bedroom. Frumpkin was his anchor, his warm, soft body kept him grounded as the hours passed, even when the tears returned, even when they dried up and he shook with dry sobs.


When the sun came out, Caleb saw it rise trough what had once been his roof. His house was nothing but ash and remnants of walls, his home was destroyed. Sure that his old friends were long gone, Caleb took down the hut and rose up. It took a while, but step by step, he made his way trough the woods and out of town, into a new dawn.


A couple of days later, he found his parents in the next town over. They had been hesitant until the last second but when one of their neighbors came over to tell them one of the village’s homes had burned down with a family trapped inside, they fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They decided to keep moving, to the edges of the Empire and beyond. They were dead to the world and, unless someone from the Academy found them, they would remain that way. Like before, Bren Ermendrud gave way to Caleb Widowgast. It felt right, like rebirth.


By their fifth day of travel, Caleb had to admit he had started to fall into a false sense of security. He was alive, his parents were safe, he had done his part and everything would be alright. But, of course, that was little more than a childish dream. As he laid down under a three to get a few hours of sleep before the next leg of their journey, a message rang trough his head.


Hallo, Bren.” Astrid’s lilting voice said, making him jump up. “Everyone may think you’re dead but not me. You could never fool me. I’ll find you, traitor. No matter where, I’ll find you.”


Safety was an illusion, peace was a dream, their search for a new home would never end. Caleb woke his parents up and, fighting trough their exhaustion, the walked on.

Chapter Text

Twelve long years passed. They became nomadic, traveling from place to place, staying in smaller villages and closer to the edge of the Empire, never lingering in one location for more than a few weeks. Sometimes they would travel together, taking back roads to isolated places but, most times, Caleb would give them a day of advance before starting his own journey. It was safer to be apart, a party of three drew more attention then just an elderly couple or a lone traveler. Plus, he was the one Astrid truly wanted, if he got caught, he would want his parents to be as far away as possible.

When they stayed in inns, Caleb made sure to get a room in a different establishment or sleep in the woods just outside of town, when they got a house, he would sneak in at night or stay hidden inside all day. No matter what, he made sure that he stayed unseen and that he got to spend as much time with his parents as possible, enjoying the moments with them he did not have in his previous life.

Every once in a while, his mother would ask him if he didn’t want more out of his life. His parents would never leave the Empire, it was their home, but she would ask him if he didn’t want to leave and settle down somewhere safer, where he could get a home of his own and a simple job, maybe start a family. Caleb would always tell her the he had all he could ask for, as long as they were safe and together, he was happy. And most times, that was the truth.

And than there were the days where his feelings threatened to overwhelm him. When all the magic and familial affection were not enough to distract his troubled mind and he felt like he would brake. Most times he would be filled with a restless impulse and would travel alone to one of the Empire’s biggest cities, closer to Rexxentrum. He would justify it by telling himself he needed to take the risk to get paper and ink and interesting books, but he really was just a masochist testing his luck. He knew Astrid was still looking for him, not only because it wasn’t in her nature to give up, but also because she kept sending him messages, even if he didn’t answer. Most times she would taunt him, calling him a traitor and a coward and suggesting locations where she thought he could be hiding. Sometimes she was angry and would scream about killing and torturing him, she would talk about Esther and blame him for her death. At times she would cry. Once, late at night, she told him that she missed him.

“I’m marrying Wulf tomorrow.” The low, mournful voice echoed trough Caleb’s head as he laid in bed. It had been six years since that fateful night, he was now twenty three. “It was supposed to be you... I miss you Bren... Come back, please, for me! Surrender and Master Ikithon will-”

The message cut off. He had awoken to the sound of her voice and, for a second, her tearful tone made him want to cry too, but the mention of Ikithon snapped him right back to reality. She had been the one once, when they were younger, when they were innocent. In another life he would be the one taking her as his wife. And, in yet another one, he would still be locked in an asylum with his mind in shatters. There was a reality out there where the two of them could have been happy, but any world where Ikithon existed made that impossible.

He didn’t answer and the days passed, long and silent, leaving him with a fake sense of safety. But eventually they came back, more angry than taunting now. With time, they became part of his routine, his moment of Astrid induced self flagellation.

On his worst days, though, Caleb would be filled with a longing that took his breath away. A longing not for the family he had saved, but for the one he had lost. He was particularly reckless in those moments, motivated not by reason but by desperation. He missed them like they were a part of his very soul, a missing limb, a lost piece of his heart.

Sometimes, he would ride to Felderwin to see Veth from afar, he would even visit the Apothecary, if he felt brave enough.

 If he was close to Rexxentrum, he would pass by the Cobalt Reserve and try to catch a glimpse of Beau. He never did, but just the fleeting vision of the monks’ bright blue robes brought him solace.

He learned to Scry so he could spy on Fjord’s pirating adventures and Yasha’s tribal hunts and Cadeceus playing with his siblings.

Once, he even tracked down the circus. But it was too early and they didn’t have any card readers yet, no purple tieflings dressed in moons and stars, no bloodhunters fresh from the grave. He still sat trough the show, it was wonderful, no one died, no one attacked and Caleb’s heart shattered again and again with every act, because it was different, because he was alone.

He watched over everyone, he watched them grow into the wonderfully flawed people he had come to meet. Except Jester. He never went to Nicodranas or scried on her, it would hurt too much. But he would see her in dreams, as she was when he left her, under the moonlight, by the window. Sometimes she would run to him and hug him like they hadn’t seen each other in years. Sometimes he would kiss her like he had wanted to. Most times she was crying, just like that night.

“Why are you upset? Was the barmaid flirting with Fjord again?” He would ask and wait for her to laugh like before, but she wouldn’t.

“You left, Caleb.” She would stare at him trough her tears, her purple eyes wide and red-rimmed. “You promised things would be better in the morning and then you left.”

He would try to reach for her hand but his finger would just pass trough her, like he was nothing more than air and moonlight.

“And now you’re not here. And maybe I won’t be here either. Because no one will be there to keep us safe when things get serious, no one who’ll be brave enough to use a wall of fire against Avantika, or to show the dodecahedron to the Bright Queen. Maybe I’ll die there, maybe I’ll die before. Maybe I’ll stay locked up in a cell, being tortured by Lorenzo and his slavers until my body gives in...”

Nein, never Jester. I won’t let that happen, I’ll fix it, I’ll-”

“No, you won’t. You can’t save everyone Caleb, something has to be left behind. And, this time, you left me.”

The dream would always end there, the world fading around the edges until all he could see was her tear stained face, so close but so far away. If going to the circus shattered his heart, the dreams burned it to ashes.

 

*

Eventually, the passage of time and the miles on the road started to weigh heavily on his parents’ minds and bodies. When Caleb turned twenty seven, they celebrated their tenth year on the run by getting a small cottage in Feeldon, a village close to the border between the Empire and the Clovis Concord. It was supposed to be a temporary residence, their hideaway for a couple of weeks, but it ended up being his parents’ final destination.

They had been there for less then two days when his father fell ill. It started out like a common cold, a bone deep tiredness, muscle pain and heaviness of breath. But then the fever started and it would not break. They got a healer but there was very little he could do, his father had a severe lung infection and his heart was too weak to fight it. Caleb did what he could, he didn’t know healing magic but he tried to make him comfortable. He was gone by the end of the week.

They buried him in the backyard, by a large elm tree. After that, his mother refused to leave. She would not abandon her one true love, where he laid, she would lay too. She made the cottage her home, she started a small farm on the land around it and made friends with the people in the village. And every day, she would go up to his father’s grave at sun rise and sun set, to wish him a good morning and a good night. She made a life for herself. She was a survivor and, even heartbroken, she found a way to feel a little happiness every day.

All the while, Caleb hid inside. Sometimes he read and practiced magic, most times he just curled into a ball and stared at the walls until night came. At some point, his mother couldn’t stand it anymore.

“That’s it! I’m not going to stand here and watch you waste your youth away, Liebling.” She pulled him out of bed, her tone stern but loving, and started dragging him out of the house. His things were already packed and strapped to his horse, Frumpkin laying in the back of the saddle, stretched out in the sun. “You need to live! Go, see the world, meet people! Be careful but not too much son, there’s no point in running away if you’re going to be locked in a cage anyway.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that if they caught him, they would do much worse than just lock him up. He kissed her goodbye and did as she told, he travelled. He visited the Clovis Concord, skirting around Nicodranas, he visited Xhorhas but stayed far away from Rosohna. He met different people, he learned different things, but he never found a home, he always returned. On the anniversary of his father’s death he would visit his mother and talk about memories of his childhood, about her life in the countryside, about his travelling adventures. On the anniversary of the night where everything had changed, he did something stupider. He went to Rexxentrum.

The first year he did it, his mind was in a frenzy, full of ridiculous plots to sneak into the Academy and assassinate Ikithon. He ended up hiding in an alley with a bottle of Dwarven wine, watching the guards go by as he drank, looking for a way in, until exhaustion and the alcohol took over and he fell asleep on the dirty floor. When he woke up, hungover and covered in mud, he swore he would do it the next year.

But, a year after that, on the twelfth anniversary of their escape, there he was, in Rexxentrum, frozen with fear. Putting his hood up, he walked around the busy city streets, sneakily assessing the Academy from every angle. He knew from experience that it was an almost impenetrable fortress, guarded by the best guards because of the magical wonders kept inside. They would never let someone like him in and he would never be able to sneak by them. There were only two miracles that could get him to his goal: he could either wait for a student to leave, steal their robes and pray that the guards didn’t ask him any questions; or he could hope that Ikithon left the Academy, something he rarely did, so he could kill him outside.

But he couldn’t do any of that if he didn’t calm his nerves.

Steadying his resolve, he dragged his body into the nearest tavern, a run down place that stank of mould and spilled drinks, full of rowdy, unsavoury types. A perfect place to hide in the crowd. Just one drink, he told himself, a strong one to calm down and then I’ll go.

But one drink turned to two and two turned to three. Soon enough he was too drunk to even stand, let alone go through with an assassination ploy. There was always next year...

Giving up, he let himself sink into the darkest parts of his drunken stupor. If he had taken his time, sipping his drinks, he could have enjoyed a few moments of alcohol induced inhibition, that light, in between state where you feel happy and brave. Maybe he could have talked to the bartender, maybe he could have laughed, maybe he could have even killed Ikithon. But instead he had downed his tankard in a rush, trying to find calm in the bottom of the cup, so his brain had jumped right through the good part and into the pit of sadness and despair that laid at the end of all his drunken nights.

 He closed his eyes and laid his head on the counter, ignoring the fact that his now long hair was probably soaking up all the grime and spilled ale left on it. He had dreamth of Jester again that night, beautiful, sad Jester in her floral nightgown. It was getting harder and harder not to think about her as time passed, as they got closer to the time they were meant to meet, in Trostenwald. When he woke up in a panicked sweat from one of his Jester dreams, he would think about going to Trostenwald like before, about rejoining them. But he knew he wouldn’t, things were different in this world, this Caleb didn’t belong with them. But in times like these, where his mind was too clouded by alcohol and grief, he couldn’t help but think about that other life.

He hit his forehead gently against the wooden bar, and then again a little harder, trying to beat the thoughts out of his head.

“Wow there! You alright, man?” A raspy female voice said as the person took a seat next to him.

He raised his head slowly, only to see a familiar face. A young Beau was staring at him with an amused smile, one of her eyes rimmed in purple and almost swollen shut.

Ja, sure... I’m great.” He mumbled, his tongue felt thick in his mouth.

“Suit yourself, dude.” She signalled the bartender and asked for ale. “You just look a little...”

“Miserable? Broken? Drunk?”

“All the above, actually.” She laughed, pushing a lock of hair out of her face with an annoyed flick of her wrist. She still hadn’t shaved it and it hung long and dark in a messy braid, making her look even younger than she was. “I’m Beau, by the way.”

She extended her hand and Caleb shook it. “Caleb. Widowgast.”

“So why are you so down, Caleb Widowgast? Girl problems?”

Ja... that’s part of it.” He grabbed his tankard, surprised that there was still some ale at the bottom. He sipped it with less enthusiasm, the drink was warm now but he didn’t really care, he wasn’t drinking it for the taste.

“Ah, I’ve been there.” She gave him one of her sharp smiles and he felt a pang of nostalgic affection. “She hot?”

“Oh yeah... Tiefling, stunning blue skin, very curvy...” It was the first time he got to voice his attraction towards Jester out loud and it felt oddly liberating.

“Damn... very hot then.” Beau took a big sip of her drink and Caleb laughed. Deep down, he always knew Beau had a little crush on Jester. It was just one of the many things they had in common. “Did she brake your heart?”

Nein.” He shook his head and the movement made him sick. For a second he was pretty sure he was going to throw up. “She doesn’t even know I exist.” A stunningly accurate statement.

“Ah man, you should go talk to her! If you don’t tell her how you feel, then you’ll never have a shot!” She punched him lightly on the shoulder.

“I-I don’t think I’d have a shot anyway.” He hiccupped. At some point, the room had started to spin and he was just now noticing. “I’m not really her type...”

“You’d be surprised by how many times I thought that and was proven very wrong. Hell, most times I think I’m not even their preferred gender and yet... there we are.” She got a far off look in her eyes that made him think that she was remembering a very specific past situation.

“She’s also pretty far away...”

“Okay, so no booty call. But you can still like send her a letter. Or make the trip to see her, that shit’s pretty romantic.” A pretty human girl with curly blonde hair walked into the tavern and Beau jumped out of her seat. “Well, that’s my date. But think about what I said, it usually works. Good luck, Widowgast!”

Caleb watched her strut with cat-like grace to the girl and put a possessive arm over her shoulders. She whispered something in the blonde’s ear and the girl blushed a deep pink. Soon after, they were walking out.

Caleb ordered another drink, which was a bad idea, but he was also considering following Beau’s advice which, even in his drunken state, he knew was a terrible idea. But maybe, just maybe, if he got to talk to Jester once, if he got to hear her voice and it was happy and sweet, his dark dreams would stop.

At some point in this new life, he had taken the time to learn the Sending spell and now he finally had a reason to use it. He mulled over what he should say, he wanted it to be heartfelt and eloquent, he wanted to let her know someone out there cared about her. But as he readied the spell, focusing on his memories of her, all his prepared sentences vanished from his mind until all that was left was a drunken mess of disjointed thoughts.

Liebling...” He slurred, fully aware that he wasn’t in control of his mouth. “Remember that time I faked a heart attack and you gave me mouth to mouth? I think about that all the time... Do you-”

The message cut off and he tried replaying what he had said in his head. It took a while for him to understand his own words but when he did, the shock was enough to sober him up. What the hell had he said? That time... oh no... Why? Why had he said that? Of course she didn’t remember it, it hadn’t happened yet! He doubted that even the Jester from his original timeline remembered it. It had just been a joke, not a big deal. At least for her, it had meant a lot more for him. And yes he did think about it all the time. The weight of her body over his, the feel of her lips on his...

His only solace was that he highly doubted that she would answer. This Jester was young, she probably didn’t even know how the Sending spell worked, plus she didn’t know who was messaging her. Some of his desperation started to fade. As the minutes passed, he began to breath more easily again. She wasn’t going to answer, they weren’t going to talk, things would just go back to normal. And that was fine. Despite the small pit of disappointment opening up in his chest, he would be just fine...

And then he heard her voice in his head, small and rough with sleep but so undoubtedly hers.

“Hmm... Think you have the wrong person. Unless you’re the Traveler playing a prank... I’m not Libwhateveryousaid but I’m here if you wanna talk about-”

Her words faded away as she reached the spell limit and Caleb knew he was in trouble. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to not message her back.

Chapter Text

For the next five days, Caleb forced himself to play a game of self-control. He told himself that he could message her once he left Rexxentrum and then that he would do it when he reached Zadash. He kept postponing it, convincing himself that he had to think things over some more before sending anything after the disaster that was their last communication.

 But whenever he stopped for the night and tried to get some sleep, her words always echoed trough his head. I’m here if you wanna talk. So simple, so Jester. Wanting to talk to a stranger, to help a random drunken idiot... He wandered if she felt lonely, locked in her room like a fairytale princess, he wandered if she needed his company as much as he needed hers...

Which, of course, was just self-indulgent of him. She didn’t need him, she had a perfectly good home and a loving mother, she was just fine before he came around. The best thing he could do for her was never speak to her again, keep her away from him and the terrible people hunting him down.

He had almost convinced himself of this when her message came. He was on horseback and almost fell off when her words echoed trough his head.

“Heyyyy you! I was waiting for you to message me back but you didn’t...rude! So I had to ask the Traveler for this spell-”

She reached the words limit and the spell cut her off. Just like his Jester, this younger one was incapable of keeping her messages short and to the point. Caleb would have laughed if he wasn’t so shocked.

She had messaged him. She had messaged him. More importantly, she had gone trough the trouble of asking her God for a spell just so she could message him!

He wanted to answer immediately but he didn’t know what to say. Sorry I didn’t answer, sorry I messaged you a cryptic memory of something that hasn’t yet happened? I’m an idiot, forgive me? Yeah, that one sounded about right...

 

*

 

It wasn’t unusual for Jester to be awoken by strangers’ voices. There were strangers inside her mother’s room at all times. Merchants and lords, pirates and thieves, they could all be pretty loud. But this time, the strange voice that rose her out of her dreamless slumber didn’t come from outside the thick wall that hid her secret room but from inside her own head.

At first she thought it was the Traveler, playing one of his pranks. The stranger didn’t sound like the Traveler, but she wouldn’t put it pass her God to use a fake voice. But if this was a prank, she really wasn’t getting it.

Liebling...” The voice had called her in a foreign accent that was incredibly sexy. “Remember that time I faked a heart attack and you gave me mouth to mouth? I think about that all the time... Do you-”

If it was a secret code, she couldn’t decipher it. Heart attack? That was never a prank she and the Traveler had talked about. And what had he said in the beginning? Lieb... what?

She mulled it over in her head for a while, replaying the words in her mind until the accent started to meld into something more akin to her own. That’s when she realized something else about the voice, the slow, mumbled cadence in the words she had heard in many of the Lavish Chateau’s patrons. Whoever this messenger was, he was very, very drunk.

And that meant that it was definitely, probably, most likely, not the Traveler. Because Gods didn’t get drunk, right? Which meant she had been messaged by a mysterious stranger, just like one of the girls in her books! Crossed messages, an encounter of the fates, oh it was so romantic!

Except... he had intended to message someone else, right? This Lieb-something person. What if she had just gotten in the way of someone else’s love story? That was far less romantic...

“Hmm...” She started hesitantly. If this person had really messaged her by mistake, they needed to know. She couldn’t bare the thought of him thinking his loved one was ignoring him. “Think you have the wrong person. Unless you’re the Traveler playing a prank...” She added, just in case she was wrong and it really was him. “I’m not Libwhateveryousaid but I’m here if you wanna talk about-”

The spell cut her off, disappearing like a pressure lifting off her shoulders even though she wasn’t done talking. There was so much more she wanted to say and ask. She wanted to know everything about this stranger and his message and the person he had wanted to message originally. If she hadn’t been cut off, Jester could have talked forever.

But it was done now and there was nothing she could do but wait until the stranger messaged back. She laid back down, getting ready to go back to sleep, half hoping that he would answer right away. But it was pretty late and her secret sender was considerably drunk so she wasn’t that disappointed when he didn’t say anything.  She could wait until the morning. Until then, she would close her eyes and dream of a cloaked stranger, whispering sweet nothings to her in the dark.

But when morning came and went and the sun started to set again without any answers, Jester became antsy. What if, after learning that she was the wrong girl, he had decided to not message her again? Honestly he didn’t owe her anything, honestly. But she was just so curious! What if she was missing out on the love of her life? Or on one of the greatest unwritten love stories of all time! She needed to know more. And, to be totally, completely honest, she also wanted to hear that sexy accent again.

So, when her bed time came and her Mama disappeared into one of the other rooms with a client, she called on the Traveler.

“Traveler, are you there? I need a tinsy winsy favour...” She said, grasping his symbol in her small fist. There was only silence and the sound of crashing waves in the distance. “Pleaaaaase, pretty please! It’s really important!”

Two bright green eyes blinked into existence in the dark, followed by a large floating smile.

“What do you need, child?” His smooth voice echoed trough her room, pleasantly familiar but so very different from the stranger’s.

“Hey Traveler! So I got a message from a stranger and at first I thought it was you but now I know it wasn’t you and I was waiting for him to message me back and then he didn’t and...”

“Breath, little one” He laughed. “Do you want me to play a prank on this mysterious sender for ignoring you?”

“Well... technically no, technically. But I do want to learn a spell so I can message him.”

The Traveler’s floating features frowned. “That doesn’t sound very fun, child.”

“Pleaaaaaase! I reeeeeaally need it! I’ll do anything!”

The Traveler smiled again. “Anything? Now that does allow for some fun possibilities... I want you to come up with a prank, something big...”

“Sure! I’ll totally do that. Teach me the spell!”

“Not yet, eager one. Come up with a plan for our big prank, then you’ll learn.”

Like fog, he faded into the wall, leaving Jester alone and unfulfilled.

For three days, Jester racked her brain for prank ideas, nothing seemed good enough, big enough. A couple of times, she got impatient and tried to call her God to give him some sub-par idea, but he would not come. Finally, four days after the stranger had messaged her, four days of her secretly waiting for him to message again and getting disappointed, she came up with an idea.

 “Hey Traaaaveleeeeeer!” She yelled in the emptiness of her room, swinging her holy symbol around on its chain. “What if I drew dicks all over some other God’s temple? Will that do?”

A familiar, fully formed hooded figure appeared at the end of her bed. “Go on, child. I’m listening.”

Jester smiled widely, like a cat. “I’m going to sneak into one of the other Gods’ temples around town, leave some pamphlets talking about how cool you are and then draw dicks all over their statues!”

The Traveler chuckled deeply. “That sounds excellent, little one. You truly have a gift for mischief.” His hand ruffled her hair and, even though he wasn’t truly there, she felt his caress. “Alright, sit down and listen closely. This is important magic, child.”

Jester sat with her God for hours, taking in every single one of his words, absorbing his precious knowledge and power, even sending practice messages to Blude and some of the other Chateau employees. By the time the sun started to rise, the Traveler had left but Jester stayed up, thinking about what she was going to message her mysterious stranger in the morning.

Eventually, she must have passed out because when she awoke again, the midday sun was shinning brightly trough her window. Rubbing her eyes in a half panicked state, she rashly decided to send her message right away, not waiting to even get dressed or brush her hair first.

“Heyyyy you! I was waiting for you to message me back but you didn’t...rude! So I had to ask the Traveler for this spell-”

The magic dissipated and Jester just stood there for a minute, rethinking her words in her still half-awake state... Before she jumped back in bed, buried her head in her pillow and screamed. How could she have been so dumb? After all the planning and the thinking she ended up not really saying anything! She didn’t even ask him his name! And she called him rude! He technically was, technically... but that wasn’t the point! What if he felt insulted and didn’t answer back? She’d truly mess up...again.

She screamed one more time, biting down on her plush goose feather pillow, kicking her feet against the mattress. Should she message him again? Should she apologize? Or would that make her sound desperate? Gods, things were never this complicated in her books!

That’s when his reply came.

“I-I’m sorry...” He started, hesitantly. Jester sat up in bed, hugging her pillow against her chest. His accented voice was as distinct as she remembered it, deliciously thick and warm, it reminded her of the princes from foreign kingdoms in the fairytales her Mama used to read to her. “For not replying and drunk messaging you... It was a mistake... but I’m really glad I did it. I’m Caleb, by the way.”

 She messaged him back immediately, all pretenses of being cool and aloof forgotten. She gave him her name, they talked about where they were from, she even told him who the Traveler was and, to her surprise, he seemed to understand.

 Jester had very few friends, none really if you didn’t count the people that worked for her Mama, but she knew her connection to this stranger, to Caleb, was something truly special. The way he listened to her stories like they were the most interesting thing in the world, the way his voice filled with warmth and laughter when she joked or flirted playfully, the way he seemed to understand her completely, almost like he had known her for years, it was not just any run of the mill friendship, it was magical. It was better than any romance book, he was better than any fictional hero, because he was real and he was hers.

For weeks kept him like a secret, always on her mind, but never shared with anyone, not even her Mama. They would talk all day, exchanging messages until both of their spells were used up and they felt exhausted. At least until she convinced the Traveler to teach her a more powerful messaging spell, one that allowed them to exchange unlimited messages of any size.

It was perfect, except that when Jester’s mind wandered and she reached for her paints, as she so often did, she realized she still didn’t really know Caleb, she couldn’t even tell what he looked like...

“Caleb...” She finally said one afternoon, biting down on the tip of one of her paint brushes. “I was wondering... What do you look like?”

“Oh...” He sounded surprised and also a little tired. Jester wandered if he was on the road, he had told her once that he traveled a lot and it had filled her mind with dreams of discovering exotic places by his side. “I don’t- I don’t really know how to describe myself... How do you imagine me to look?”

“It changes every time. You’re a very mysterious man, Cayleb Widogast.” She grabbed the green, ready to pain a background for his future portrait. Then she changed her mind and got the orange and the yellow instead, it just seamed more fitting. “But I do know you’re handsome.”

“That’s flattering but no...I don’t think I am handsome. I’m not manly and muscled like the men in the covers of your storybooks, I’m just a lanky human who’s awkward and...bookish.”

“A bookish wizard sounds very handsome to me!” She began painting her canvas, intending on doing a lovely sunset behind her handsome wizard. The paints started to meld more into what looked like flames, but she didn’t mind, that looked good too. “What color are your eyes?”

“Blue. Pale blue. I guess they’re nice, I’ve been told so a couple of times. But yours are so much lovelier... I assume.”

She put her brush down and immediately started roaming trough her paints for the perfect shade of blue. In her mind, she could see two stunning eyes staring back at her from the canvas, floating in nothingness like the Traveler’s. “How do you imagine me?”

She heard him take a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts, almost like he was remembering instead of imagining her. “I know you’re beautiful. I don’t need to see you to know that. And I think you have skin like the early evening sky, just before darkness takes over. And that your eyes are like pieces of precious purple amethyst. And that you have the most perfect smile, warm and dimpled and contagious...”

 She stopped painting, her brush hanging in midair as she lost herself in his beautiful words. She had always wished someone would talk about her like that, like people did about her Mama, like she was something otherworldly and precious and loved. It had always seemed like a silly, childish wish. She knew she wasn’t an extraordinary beauty like the Ruby of the Sea, she was not elegant or graceful or sensual, she was just the Little Sapphire. And that was enough. At least until Caleb said it and made her want it all over again.

Except he had never actually seen her and, although his description was stunningly accurate, she was suddenly afraid that she would not live up to his expectations. “How do you know all of that? All I told you about me is that I’m a tiefling... Have you been spying on me, Cay-leb?” She joked.

“I would never. I guess I just have a very vivid imagination.”

“What... What if I’m not as pretty in person as you imagine? What if we finally meet and you’re disappointed?”

“You could never disappoint me, Jester Lavorre.” He whispered inside her head, his voice so honest and sweet, that Jester couldn’t help but believe him.

She wrapped her arms around herself, wishing she could hold him. Was it silly to want to hold someone you’ve never seen? Was it ridiculous to have a crush on someone you’ve never met? Because Jester was feeling pretty ridiculous, but in the best way. “What if I’ve been lying to you this entire time and I’m actually a firbolg with pink hair? Or a goblin with wayyyyy too many teeth?”

He laughed and it filled her with joy. “You’d still be the most adorable goblin, I’m sure. But, as far as you know, I could also be a hideous hobgoblin.”

“Cayleb Widogast, the blue eyed hobgoblin! I’m sorry but that still sounds pretty handsome to me. I guess we just have to meet in person to find out.”

“I would like that. Maybe one day?”

“Maybe one day.” She said, putting all her painting supplies away. There was no pointing in painting him now, before they met. Any version her head could come up with was sure to pale in comparison to the real Caleb.

She send him a goodnight message and got ready for sleep, her head filled with dreams of what that “one day” would be like. Were she less distracted, she would have heard the sound of crashing waves in the background of his reply. Were she less distracted, she would have known Caleb had already arrived to Nicodranas.

Chapter Text

Caleb didn’t know when he had decided to go to Nicodranas. One moment he was making his way further north, and the next he had turned his horse around and was galloping towards the Menagerie Coast like his life depended on it.

For years he had avoided Nicodranas, had refused to let himself see the girl that made his heart beat faster, but all it had taken was a couple of friendly conversations for him to throw all his self-control away and run to her.

But mein Gott, she sounded just like the Jester from his timeline! The way she said his name made him weak, the way she laughed and flirted... flirted with him! His Jester had acted flirty around him a couple of times, it was just the way Jester was, she did it well and she did it often. But the way this Jester flirted was different, less teasing, more shy and heartfelt. Like future Jester did with Fjord. Like she meant it.

Except he wasn’t Fjord, of course. He wasn’t charismatic or good looking or recklessly adventurous. He just wasn’t her type. And although she could never disappoint him, he could bet she would be let down when she realized her mystery man was just a skinny ginger... Which made this whole idea of going to see her sound even more disastrous than it already was!

A couple of times, he almost made himself turn back around. They could just keep talking from afar until she realized what a mess he was and lost interest, like he knew she would... It would be less painful if he didn’t have to look her in the eye when she rejected him. But, then again, he’d always been a sucker for pain.

He spent a few days in Felderwin, stalling. But also checking in on Veth and Yeza, making sure the anti-goblin wards he had set up in the woods still held, putting some new, stronger protection spells in place. He knew it would still be a while before the goblins attacked the small farming community, but he couldn’t take any risks. Not with Veth. Not if there was a chance that he could be found by Ikithon and not be present to protect her and her family when the time came. But they were fine. Luc had just been born and they couldn’t be happier. It filled him with joy to see his best friend living the life she deserved, but it also hurt to witness it from the sidelines, to look but never touch. Eventually, he continued his journey.

One night, when he was approaching Alfield, he received a message from a far less welcome sender: Astrid.

“You were spotted in Rexxentrum, Bren. Are you getting sloppy? Do you think I’ve given up?” She laughed inside his mind, the sound shrill and devout of any real joy. “Never. I’m coming for you, Schatz. See you soon.”

He didn’t answer, he never did. But he almost felt like thanking her, after all, Astrid’s message was a blessing in disguise. Now he knew they were looking for him around the capital, so he had to stay as far away as possible. And there was nowhere safer than outside the borders of the Empire, where the Cerberus Assembly wasn’t untouchable. A place like... the Menagerie Coast? He made up his mind, that was the last time he thought about turning around.  

He arrived in Nicodranas less than a week later and got a room at a cozy little inn in the center of the city. He didn’t stay at the Chateau, it was way above his means, plus it just felt wrong, being under Jester’s roof without letting her know. And he wasn’t ready to let her know yet.

He did, however, keep his eye on the luxurious building, trying to catch a glimpse of any blue tieflings in the windows. Eventually, he found a back road that lead to a small garden area, just behind the Chateau. He supposed it was someone’s private garden but he never saw anybody tending to it, so he took to spending his days there, reading in a small wooden bench under an old oak. It was a lovely location, quiet, peaceful, but the biggest perk of the garden was that, if he looked up over the overgrown bushes, he could see Jester’s balcony.

It was a bit creepy, he supposed, but it wasn’t like he was was stalking her... He wasn’t just any weirdo spying on her... He was weirdo from the future who was madly in love with her and was too awkward to tell her he was in town so he was waiting for her to go out so they could meet organically... yeah, it sounded less creepy when he didn’t say it out loud.

But the biggest problem was that Jester never seemed to leave the Chateau, which left him with a couple of afternoons of just sitting around, seeing her paint by the window, messaging her behind the bushes, dying to tell her to just look down but being too much of a coward to do it.

Until, one evening, he saw her tie a long white sheet around the balcony’s railing and climbed her way down, her strong arms making the descent look almost effortless. Jumping the small distance the sheets couldn’t reach, she landed on the stone paved street and put the hood of her green cape up before starting to weave her way into the crowded streets of Nicodranas. His heart in his throat, Caleb decided to follow her, trying hard not to lose sight of her green covered head in the crowd but also keeping his distance, despise how much faster his long legs made him. To his surprise, she entered the Moonweaver’s temple.

He waited a few minutes across the road, keeping an eye on the door to see if she would leave but, when she didn’t, he made his way in. There was a ceremony going on, a daily communal prayer to the Moon Goddess, and a surprising number of people were inside, sitting silently and listening to the priestess, chanting along at times. Jester had taken a seat close to the front and Caleb looked for a spot in the row of pews behind her. She had taken her hood down and her head was bowed respectfully, as if in prayer. To anybody else, she seemed like the perfect picture of a devout follower of Sehanine, but Caleb knew better. There was only one God Jester would ever pray to, and this wasn’t his temple.

From behind, he saw her reach inside a leather pouch and take out a small carving knife. During the entirety of the rest of the Moonweaver’s mass, Jester carved the wooden pew, stopping when the room was silent but doubling her efforts whenever the chanting got louder or people sang songs of praise. Caleb would look over her shoulder from time to time and admire her work, holding back laughter behind his thick woolen scarf. Dicks. Jester had carved out a sea of dicks of every size and shape. If they had more time, he didn’t doubt she would paint them in every color too, but the ceremony ended before she could get to that.

Jester got up, her knife disappearing into her bag again. But, unlike everyone else, she didn’t walk towards the door, sneakily passing by the other parishioners and making her way into a hallway to the side, that went deeper into the temple. Once again, Caleb followed, just a couple of steps behind.

The hallway was dark, illuminated only by clusters of white candles that burned inside recess in the walls, their dripping wax making odd root-like paths down towards the floor. He made his way carefully, trying to avoid the pools of wax in his way, his soft leather booths not making any sound on the polished stone floor. The hallway split at the end, leading to two different doorways that were separated by a large statue of the Moonweaver in a dark marble.

Jester was in front of the statue, her tail waving in the air as she painted the stone. There was already a dick in the statue’s cheek, another one being finished on her hand. The statue’s base said “The Traveler was here” in lime green.

“What are you doing?” He said before he had time to even think if he should. Before he could decide if he wanted to let her know it was him or if he wanted to disguise his accent. His heart made the decision before his brain could catch up. It was probably for the best, he sucked at accents anyway.

She turned around, brush hanging in the air, eyes wide as a frightened doe’s. But then she took in the sight of him, noticing his lack of priestly robes and his amused expression and she smiled mischievously.

“Shhhh” Jester whispered, putting her index finger over her smiling blue lips. “I’m almost done.”

She didn’t wait for him to answer. She wordlessly turned around and continued painting, adding more and more inappropriate details until the sound of heavy footsteps echoed down the hall. With a final stroke of paint, she finished her work and tucked her materials inside her bag. Then she faced him again and reached for his hand.

“We need to go. Now.” Caleb stared at her hand, dumbfounded, as she grabbed his, entwining their fingers , her skin cool against his sweaty palm. She started pulling him back into the hallway, before she abruptly stopped and reached for her bag again. “Oh, I almost forgot the best part!”

She took out a messy bundle of paper, handmade pamphlets Caleb could tell, carelessly folded but intricately decorated, and threw them in the air, making them fly around them like Autumn leaves in the wind as they started to walk again. Caleb looked down as they fell and saw a drawing of a cloaked figure with the words “Have you heard of the Traveler? He’s pretty cool!” written under it.

The footsteps sounded closer and closer and, as they entered the hallway from the statue chamber, they could see the temple’s priestess walking towards them, carrying a lit incense holder that filled the hall with the smell of woodsy greenary and exotic spices. Jester gripped his hand harder and started to run, pulling him with an amount of strength that would be surprising, had Caleb not seen her in battle before. They sped by the priestess, leaving her staring after them, looking both surprised and mildly terrified.

Although no one followed them, Jester didn’t stop running until they were back in the backstreet under her balcony. Only then did she let go of his hand and lean against the wall, bent over with her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath trough a fit of laughter.

“That was... awesome!” She said, more to herself than him. Then she looked up to the sky and yelled. “I hope you’re happy!” Caleb didn’t need to ask, he knew this kind of prank could only be the Traveler’s doing. After searching the sky for an invisible sign from her God, she finally looked at him. “Oh yeah, you... look, this? This never happened! I was never at the temple, got it?” She waved her hands in front of her face, as if casting an imaginary suggestion spell.

“Sure. But I don’t think the Moonweaver will be very happy with your artwork.” He said, trying to sound stern but not being able to stop the smile that lit up his face as he stared at her flushed face and messy hair. It was much longer than he had ever seen it, falling in unruly navy waves over her shoulders. It made her look younger, but then again, she really was younger than he remembered.

“She’s the Goddess of love and, like, late night affairs so...” She wiggled her eyebrows at him, eliciting an involuntary guffaw of laughter. “I doubt she’ll be offended by some dicks.” She stared at him as he laughed, her mischievous smile turning into a serious look of curiosity. “Waiiit, do I know you? Have I seen you before?”  

“Maybe...” Caleb said hesitantly, a part of him wished she would have recognized him immediately, but why would she? This Jester had never seen him before, all she had to go on was his voice and, to be honest, most people from his part of the empire sounded just like him. Plus, as far as she knew, he was not in Nicodranas...

She started to walk around him, inspecting him up and down, taking in his facial features, his tall, lanky frame and his unsuitably warm clothing. “Hmmm... I don’t think so... I wouldn’t forget someone so good looking. But your accent is reeeaally familiar.”

Caleb blushed furiously. She really thought he was good looking? Had she always thought that? Even back in his original timeline, when he was stinky and gross? She had never indicated anything of the sort... but, then again, neither had he and he was pretty sure she was the most stunning being he had ever seen. “Maybe you haven’t seen me, but you’ve heard me before...”

She stopped her pacing and just looked him in the eye for one long tense minute.

“Cayleb?” She whispered, uncertain, her head cocked to the side adorably. Caleb just nodded.

Without warning, Jester jumped up on him, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him with so much strength she almost threw them both down. Caleb was too stunned to answer right away but, as he started to wrap his arms around her, she jumped down.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to Nicodranas?” She punched his arm with what was intended to be a playful amount of force, but Caleb winced, grabbing his arm, visibly in pain. “Oh Gods... Oh no, I’m sorry! I didn’t think that would hurt...”

“It’s alright. I told you I’m very weak and-”

“But I’m also kinda, sorta, not sorry...” She interrupted him. “BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T TELL ME YOU WERE COMING!” She yelled with feigned anger. But she also grabbed him by the waist in another tight hug, burring her face in his chest. “We could have made plans and I could have shown you all the cool places in town. But instead we met in a stupid temple and that’s not very romantic...”

He hugged her back, putting one arm around her shoulders, letting his other hand trail over her silky hair. It was so incredibly soft, he wondered how he had stopped himself from doing it for so long. “Did you want our first meeting to be romantic, Blueberry?”

Now she was the one blushing. “Yeah, I mean... maybe? Unless I totally misread the situation and this is just a friendly thing... which would totally be okay-”

He stopped her with a kiss on the forehead. She smelled like cinnamon and fresh vanilla bean, just like he remembered. “No, you were right. But I’ll make it up to you. I promise I’m not leaving Nicodranas until I do.”

“I may never let you leave. ” She whispered against the thick fabric of his jacket, hugging him tighter.

“I’m prepared to deal with those consequences. It’s only fair.” He said with fake seriousness.

She nodded, looking very serious as well. “That’s true. You need to take responsibility for your actions, Cayleb. Oh, and you also lied to me about being a hobgoblin! You need to make up for that as well.”

He chuckled. “Are you terribly disappointed?”

“If it’ll get you to stay longer, yes, I’m heart-broken.”