The spell scroll was tucked away at the bottom of a crate of other scrolls, nailed to the back of a rickety cart drawn by a mule and led by a wizened gnome. The old merchant had been heading south on a road they'd been going north on, part of a long and boring journey to the next town, and the Mighty Nein were happy enough to pass a few hours looking through his store of trinkets and miscellany. Caleb had taken the time to cast a quiet detect magic on himself to sort the real stuff from the fakes. To his surprise, almost half of the wares held the glow of some kind of magic or another (as did the gnome himself.)
The rickety cart lumbered off into the distance leaving Mollymauk with a new pair of horn charms, Jester with a smutty book, Yasha with a beautiful flower encased in a bubble of glass, Caduceus with a softly glowing crystal pendant and Caleb with the scroll. It had been the only one of the crackling rolls of parchment in the crate to glow with magic, and his interest had been piqued as soon as he unrolled the first few inches to see that it was written in Sylvan.
The town was still a few hours more down the road, so Caleb perched in the back of the cart as they rumbled on towards their destination and quickly absorbed himself in reading. To his disappointment the scroll had taken some water damage: several lines of text in the outermost layer were blurred or outright destroyed, although the damaged spots grew less as he continued to the inner, more protected parts.
"What does it do?" Nott wanted to know, arms folded along the edge of the cart and her pointy chin resting on her forearms.
"I am not entirely sure," Caleb admitted, squinting at the smudged lines of text again. "Parts of the description are damaged and hard to read. Sylvan is not my best language, and it tends to be a highly context-dependent language at the best of times."
She frowned. "So it's useless?"
"No, not quite, I can still cast it, just some of the description is unclear. This part --" Caleb pointed to one of the few intact passages in the upper part of the document. "Seems to promise that this is a spell that will 'change how you are seen in the eyes of others.' "
"Oh! So it's a disguise spell?" Nott's eyes lit. "But we already know spells like that... Seems kinda redundant."
"Maybe, but it never hurts to know more," Caleb answered. "Also, this spell looks like it lasts much longer than some of our other disguise spells -- eight hours, instead of just one hour at a time."
"Eight hours? That would be great!" Nott enthused. "You have to learn this spell, Caleb! And maybe once you learn it, you can teach me?"
"I will definitely do that, my friend, as soon as I have mastered it," Caleb promised her solemnly. She flashed him a pleased thumbs-up, then scrambled ahead to go talk to Caduceus at the front of the cart so that Caleb could bend back to his work.
By the time they stopped for lunch at noon, Caleb felt confident enough that he could cast the spell. He had to scrounge a little bit for the components -- a capful of alcohol and a piece of pink-tinted crystal? An odd choice for a disguise spell, he thought, but material components were often only tangentially related to the spell at hand -- but he was able to secure the alcohol from Nott and the quartz from Jester.
He stepped away from the group a little ways to do the actual casting, just to be safe. Components in one hand, scroll in the other, he read out the words in a rolling cadence that seemed to make the air around him hum. Casting in Sylvan always felt different than casting in any other language: the words felt less academic, more organic, seeming to dance in the air with a life of their own. Even as he spoke them there was always a part of him that felt like the words weren't really his, not really.
A ribbon of reddish light erupted from the chunk of colored glass in his hands and twined up around his arm, then down around the rest of his body. He felt an intense tingling sensation that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, then a sudden snap as the magic was released. He staggered; that had actually drained much more of his magic than he'd been anticipating, Caleb thought as he shook his head woozily. Disguise spells were elementary magic, but this felt like he'd cast Cat's Ire and used it to tear down a tree.
The thimble full of alcohol had gone, evaporated in the casting, although the quartz remained. Caleb patted himself down, puzzlement growing as he took in his own appearance; he did not seem to have changed.
Perhaps it was an illusion that was only visible to others, not to yourself? Caleb stepped back to the encampment and cleared his throat, drawing the attention of the others. "Well?" he said as they looked up to him. "How do I look?"
Seven pairs of eyes turned towards him, then glanced at each other curiously. "Well what?" Beau demanded. "Are we supposed to be seeing something here?"
"Oh," Caleb said, disappointment and frustration welling in him. "I look the same? The spell did not change me?"
"No, sorry," Yasha said after studying him for a moment.
"Just our usual favorite scruffy wizard," Molly said cheerfully, and Caleb's pang of disappointment warred with the unaccustomed warmth of being called favorite.
"I am your only scruffy wizard," he reminded the tiefling, who only laughed.
"Guess it didn't work, then," Nott said with barely-concealed disappointment.
"Perhaps I just made a mistake in the casting," Caleb said. "I will study it more and try again tomorrow."
The Mighty Nein settled in for a leisurely lunch: they would make it to town by nightfall and be able to restock, so they might as well eat up all their perishables now. They fell into a comfortable routine around the cart, chatting or crafting or, in Caleb's case, reading.
A tap on his shoulder made him look up. Yasha was standing over him, and he blinked bemusedly up at the barbarian. "Here," she said, extending her hand down towards him; it took him a moment to tear his gaze away from her massive biceps to focus on the small bundle held delicately between her thumb and forefingers. A dozen tiny, star-shaped red-and-yellow blossoms on fragile stems. "I saw these when I was looking for flowers and thought of you. I thought you would like to have them."
"Oh... ah... thank you," Caleb said, confused. He and Yasha got along well enough -- largely on the strength that they were both highly uncomfortable dealing with people -- but they didn't exactly have the kind of relationship where they gave each other spontaneous gifts. After a moment his manners kicked in and he reached up and took the flowers carefully from her hand. "Perhaps I will press them in my own spellbook, ja?"
She beamed. He returned the smile hesitantly, hoping his confusion wasn't too evident. With a decisive nod she moved off, serving herself some stew from the communal cookpot.
"Here, Caleb," A familiar drawl caught his attention and he looked up to see one of their battered serving bowls barely a foot away from his face. He blinked further up to see Fjord standing there with his arms outstretched, a steaming bowl of soup in his hands. "Thought I'd save a little bit of lunch for you. Seems to me like you don't always eat enough, you're a mite on the skinny side."
"...Thank you?" Caleb said, his confusion increasing. He reached up to take the bowl, a bit clumsy with only one hand free.
"And I know you prefer bread, so I grabbed some of that for you too," Fjord said, bringing around a fluffy crusty roll with his other hand. Caleb hesitated, awkwardly having to juggle the items in his hands around a bit before he could take the bread. Once he did Fjord gave him a wide sparkling smile, somehow reminiscent of Yasha's from a few minutes ago, gripped his shoulder in a firm friendly squeeze, and moved off.
He spent a few minutes trying to juggle bread, soup, sausage roll and book; eventually he managed to balance his book on his knees, dip the bread in the soup and devour the remains of the roll in a few bites, freeing one hand to turn the page of his book. No sooner had he gotten himself all arranged, though, than another tap on his shoulder made him jump. He looked up to see Caduceus Clay standing over him, sporting his usual gentle, wise smile.
"Mister Caleb, I couldn't help but notice that Mister Fjord didn't bring you anything to drink," Caduceus said in his rich baritone. From across the clearing, Caleb saw Fjord level a glare at the firbolg. "I thought I'd brew up some tea for you. Ginseng and red clover. I think it'll really make you feel nice."
Caleb blinked owlishly up at Caduceus, completely confused as to why Mollymauk of all people stifled a sudden bark of laughter. "Ah... that is very kind of you," Caleb managed to get out, "but it was not necessary to trouble yourself. As you can see I ah, I am somewhat running out of hands."
"It was no trouble at all Mister Caleb," Caduceus said immediately. He set the teacup and saucer down on a nearby flat rock. "Here, I'll just leave this here for you and you can get to it whenever you want."
"Thank you," Caleb said, now more confused than ever. What was going on? Were his friends setting him up for some elaborate prank? He shot a pleading look over at Nott, wordlessly asking whether she had engaged in some conspiracy with the others to get him to 'take care of himself' more, but Nott was fixated on Fjord with a ferocious glower for some reason and didn't even notice his silent entreaty.
Looking around at the others he saw a strange, nonverbal battle apparently going on among the Nein -- Nott glaring at Fjord, who was glaring at Caduceus, Molly and Beau apparently having some childish slapfight over who got the better seat on the good log, Yasha watching them all with wary eyes. Only Jester was looking at him over her open sketchbook, and doing so with such an intensity of expression that he began to feel nervous.
As soon as she saw him looking back Jester got up from her seat on the other side of the fire and closed her sketchbook, hugging it across her chest. She fluffed out her skirts before sitting next to him, sidling very close -- even though there was plenty of room for two on the rock -- and letting her tail drape over his leg.
"Uh, Jester?" was all Caleb managed to ask.
"Do you believe in soulmates, Caleb?" Jester asked abruptly. Her violet eyes bored into his, intense and expectant.
"Uh... not particularly, no," Caleb stammered out. "In stories yes, but not in real life. If such magic existed, it would have been intensely studied."
Jester sniffed eloquently. "Well, I think those stuffy old academics don't know anything about anything," she said. "Because you know what, I think soulmates are a thing and I think you are mine."
"I... what?" Caleb found himself completely at a loss for words. "I -- is this a joke, Jester? Good one, very funny, haha." He forced an unfelt laugh, hoping to skip to the end of this conversation where Jester dropped the kayfabe and they all had a good laugh over it.
"It's not a joke!" Jester looked rather displeased by the suggestion. "Not everything is a joke, Caleb! I wouldn't joke about true love at first sight."
Caleb's heart plummeted. This would have been upsetting enough as a joke, much worse if she was serious. He'd known Jester was naive, romantically minded and prone to fixing on fantasy over reality, but something was very wrong if that was extending to thinking of him as a potential... suitor. "But you have seen me many times before," Caleb argued weakly. He tried to scoot over to put more room between them, but ended up leaning over the very edge of the rock as Jester readily closed the distance between them.
"Sure I've seen you before, but I," Jester sighed dreamily, clasping her journal close to her chest. "I never really looked before today, but now I have, and now I understand that I am yours and you are mine!"
"Just a minute, Jester," another voice interrupted them and Caleb looked frantically around to see Fjord standing over them with his arms crossed, and a foreboding frown on his face. "Give the man a little space, will you? It's obvious that you're making him uncomfortable."
"No I'm not," Jester shot back, and Fjord rolled his eyes.
"You are, and enough of this soulmates talk, he ain't yours, all right?"
"You're just saying that because you want him to be yours!" Jester shot back, coming to her feet and facing off against Fjord. It ought to have looked ridiculous, the pretty petit tiefling having a showdown against the half-orc man with a foot and a half of height on her, but there was a fire in her eyes that was more than equal to his own.
Caleb meanwhile was just looking for a way out of this conversation, somewhere he could crawl into and hide. Salvation appeared in the form of Caduceus, who came up behind Caleb and touched his arm to get his attention. "Mister Caleb, can I talk to you in private for a minute?" he asked in a soft, low voice.
"Of course," Caleb said, relieved to be presented with an escape route. He set the remains of his lunch aside and stood up to follow the cleric. Thankfully Jester and Fjord were too intent on their staring match to notice him leaving, although Nott's eyes tracked his departure.
Caduceus led him a short way away from the campsite, to a beautiful sunlit clearing peppered with wildflowers and short herbs and surrounded by trees. A brook bubbled softly somewhere nearby. Caduceus turned to Caleb with a smile and presented him with a crown of woven flowers, woody stems and green leaves interlaced to form a neat circlet. "I made this for you, Mister Caleb, I hope you will accept it."
"Oh, for me?" Surprised, Caleb took the crown and turned it over in his hands; there were a few larger flowers, peonies he thought, woven together with smaller bursts of daisies and queen-anne's-lace. He wasn't sure what had inspired this but it was entirely typical of Caduceus to make spontaneous gestures of kindness, and Caleb was not so ungracious as to refuse his handiwork. He put the crown on his head, impressed at how well it fit to his head. But then, Caduceus had a keenly observant eye. "That is very kind, Mister Clay. Of course I will accept."
Caduceus beamed, a broad smile that somehow reminded him of Yasha's smile from earlier. "Great!" he said happily. "I'll get to work building a house for us to live in right away."
Caleb blinked, feeling a bit lost. "A... house?" he repeated, sure he'd misheard.
Caduceus nodded. "It wouldn't be right for us to live together before, but now that we're married, it's only right that we should make a home together. Where else would we sleep?"
"I'm sorry, now that we're what?"
Caduceus blinked wide, sweet eyes at him. "Married, of course. You accepted my offering, didn't you?"
As Caleb floundered, trying to stammer out a response, Caduceus beamed at him again and hooked Caleb's elbow in his own. For such a gangly, bony person he had a surprising amount of strength in his grip. "It'll be great," he said. "Once the Wildmother has blessed our union I'm sure we can --"
"Hey!" Caleb never got to hear what exactly they could do with the Wildmother's blessing, as the scene was interrupted by a shout from the direction of the campsite. Caleb looked over with wide eyes to see Jester barge into the clearing, expression stormy, hands crackling with green energy. "What do you think you're doing, mister? Trying to steal my soulmate!"
Fjord tailed behind after Jester. "And I already told you, Jester, he ain't your soulmate!"
Caduceus turned to Jester with a mild frown, the most disapproving expression he'd ever seen on the mild-mannered firbolg. "Well, I don't see that you have any greater claim on him than I do," Caduceus told her. "As a cleric I'm able to officiate marriages, of course --"
Jester stamped her foot and scowled. "Well, I'm a cleric too, so I can un- officiate them!" she huffed. "Caleb, you can't actually want to be married to stinky Caduceus, do you?"
"Well no," Caleb had to admit, "But --"
"See!" Jester jabbed a finger in Caleb's direction. "You're divorced! It's official! I'm a cleric and I'm un-marrying you!"
"Wow, uh, it takes a lot of chutzpah to think you can override the Wildmother's will," Caduceus said. "I don't think your god is even actually real."
"My god can kick your flowery goddess' ass!" Jester yelled.
Sparks began to fly, an ominous green light crackling around Jester's fingers and a viridescent glow in Caduceus' eyes. Caduceus finally let go of Caleb's arm in order to turn and face Jester, raising his staff, and Caleb tried to back away.
Unfortunately Jester spotted him trying to creep out of sight. "And where do you think you're going, mister?" she yelled, and one hand flew out in his direction. He didn't have time to react before he felt the familiar creeping stiffness of Hold Person encircling him, pinning him frozen to the spot.
A moment later, the spell shattered and fell away from him as Fjord uttered the words of a counterspell. The half-orc himself stepped between Caleb and the two clerics, facing them and brandishing his sword in their direction. "Run!" he yelled over his shoulder at the flabbergasted wizard. "I'll hold them off for you, my love!"
"What," Caleb said.
A flash of darkness leapt from Caduceus' staff and arced towards Jester, who cried out and summoned her spiritual lollipop in response. The whimsical shape was decorated around the edges with alarming serrations, and Caleb began to retreat in the direction of the camp.
As he turned around to go he came face to face with Nott, hurrying in with her crossbow ready. "Nott!" he exclaimed. "Thank goodness you're here. Something is wrong with the others and I don't know..."
"I know exactly what they're up to," Nott interrupted him.
"You do?" Caleb said with relief.
Nott cocked her crossbow with a definitive motion, a strange gleam in her eye. "They're trying to steal what doesn't belong to them," she hissed.
Caleb blinked at Nott, slowly beginning to percolate in that Nott was not going to be helpful in sorting out this mess. "...What?" he managed to say.
Nott looked up at him, eyes blazing over her mask, hands clasping around his ankles. "You stay right here, Caleb," she said with an emphatic squeeze. "Don't go anywhere! I'll set these heart-thieves straight and come right back. HANDS OFF MY CALEB, YOU MAGIC FUCKERS!" Nott yelled, charging into the fray at top speed. "HE'S MINE! I HAVE DIBS!"
Caleb tried to follow after her, heedless of Nott's last instruction, and paid for it in the next moment when something yanked back on his foot and sent him faceplanting into the ground. He let out a yelp as pain exploded in his ankle, his foot bending back at an angle it was not intended to go, and he couldn't save himself from landing painfully on his knee, elbows and face.
Shouts erupted from the clearing ahead, punctuated with the familiar noise of one of Nott's arrows, as Caleb rolled painfully over and tried to reach back down to see what had tripped him. His fingers found and gingerly patted over a sharp metal wire, followed it back to a stake driven into the ground; apparently while he hadn't noticed, Nott had taken the opportunity to leash him firmly in place so that he wouldn't run off.
The cacophony increased as Caleb gingerly extracted himself from the wire noose; it was not really securely fastened, and with a hiss he unwound the wire from the throbbing flesh of his ankle and wobbled back to his feet. He hesitated for a moment in the direction of the tussle in the clearing behind him, but a vengeful screech made up his mind to head in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.
Which wasn't very quick; he couldn't put any weight on his ankle and every step was a painful hop-limp combination. But it was enough to get him back to the campsite, where the remaining members of the Mighty Nein -- Mollymauk, Yasha and Beau -- were looking curious, confused, and annoyed respectively.
"Caleb? What happened?!" Molly exclaimed as Caleb limped into the campsite and collapsed on the nearest available seat.
Caleb grimaced, stretching his leg out in front of him and peeling back his pant sleeve to reveal the wire-sliced skin. "Ah, well... apparently when Nott tells you to stay put, she really wants you to stay put...."
Molly's confusion transmuted to outrage as completely as one of Caleb's money pot scams. " Nott hurt you?" he exclaimed.
"What the fuck?" Beau exclaimed, equally taken aback but quicker to anger.
"It's not serious, it's just a sprain," Caleb said hastily. "I did it to myself, really." Yasha said nothing, but came over and knelt in front of him, studying his wounded ankle with a critical eye. A frown darkened her face like a stormcloud and she laid her hands around his ankle, glowing briefly with a white light. Caleb felt something in his ankle shift, felt the pain flare and ebb, and he bent it gingerly. Still sore, but he thought he could walk now. Or -- at the very least -- limp.
"Thank you," he muttered to Yasha before turning to the others. "It could have been worse, Jester tried to use Hold Person on me --"
"What in the nine layers of hell is wrong with everyone today?" Molly exclaim. "First Fjord and Jester get in a fight, then you and Caduceus sneak off, then Nott tries to hobble you?"
Caleb shook his head miserably. "I don't know, but it seems to be affecting everyone. Everyone but --" A new and disturbing thought took hold of him, and he turned towards the tiefling. "Mollymauk, you aren't going to claim to be my soulmate, or try to force me into a marriage with you or anything like that?"
"What? No, of course not!" Molly's tail lashed behind him. The don't be absurd was implied.
Caleb tried to summon the appropriate feeling of relief, rather than a sodden, leaden feeling of disappointment. "Of course not," he echoed hollowly, then tried to shift his attention forward. "Beau, Yasha, you don't think you're in love with me, do you?"
The two women looked at him with matching expressions of incredulous disbelief. Yasha silently shook her head as Beau said, "Uh, definitely not, you are absolutely not my type."
"Not your type..." Caleb repeated. A light was beginning to dawn somewhere in his brain, the phrase tickling an old association. Soulmates, love, magic... attraction. "I think I know what's happening!"
Before he could explain, the sound of a tremendous crash reached the campsite from the woods that Caleb had recently come from. It sounded like several small trees (or one big one) had toppled onto the forest floor. The sound was accompanied by a blood-curdling screech of outrage. It was a voice that they were all familiar with, even if none of them had heard it raised in such anger before. " Where is he?" Jester yelled.
Caleb flinched. The rest of the Mighty Nein exchanged worried looks. "What's happening is that we need to get you out of here," Molly said. "Jester's on the warpath. We can figure this out on the road!"
"I can go, the rest of you don't have to," Caleb said -- rather feebly -- even as Yasha and Molly began to grab a few hasty items from around the camp. "It's me she's after --" Beau came over and unceremoniously hauled him to his feet, steadying him when he staggered on his newly-healed ankle.
"No way," Beau said briskly. "You're our squishy wizard, there's no telling what kind of trouble you'll get in if we let you run off on your own. We'll look after you -- that's what friends do, right?"
Friends, Caleb thought as he followed helplessly along in Beau's wake. That was just further evidence to support his theory, but Molly was right -- the explanation could wait.
The three of them were quickly on the road, traveling light. Molly and Yasha had plenty of experience with leaving towns in a hurry and had known just what the most important things were to grab; Caleb, thankfully, kept his books and components on his person, in his holster and his coat. Beau had nothing but her staff, but the town was just an hour up the road anyway.
"So, spill," Beau said, poking him in the shoulder with far less force than she normally would. "You said you thought you knew what was happening?"
"I... I have a theory," Caleb said hesitantly. "It's something I've only read about, never encountered before today, und it is not -- it does not exactly make sense. The magical item in question is a potion, not a spell, and the causality seems to be reversed, and also the duration is not --"
Beau smacked the back of his hand; it barely stung, but it did get his attention. "Focus," she said. "Stop telling us all the things it's not. What is it?"
He took a deep breath. "There is a potion, a, a magic item, known as the Philter of Love," he said.
Molly's eyebrows rose. "Are you serious? Those things are always scams," he said. "You'll find 'em in apothecary shops from here to Tal'Dorei. Usually just rose petal water, maybe a bit of ginseng..."
"Ginseng? Is that why --" Caleb got himself back on task before Beau could smack him again. "No, this is very much the real thing. In its original form the Philter of Love is a potion that you drink, or rather, have the intended object of your affection drink. Once it takes effect then, then the next person that person looks at, if it is someone to whom they would be attracted, they will instantly and magically fall in love."
"You think that's what happened here?" Yasha was frowning. "So you drank -- no, it would have been us who drank..."
"That is why I said this is not quite the same," Caleb said. "If it were the Philter we were talking about, then everyone else would have had to drink it. Instead it seems to be an effect that I cast on myself. It must have been the scroll, the one in Sylvan, the one I could not understand."
"You cast a spell on yourself that you didn't even know what it did?" Beau demanded.
"Not intentionally!" Caleb winced. "I thought it was a disguise spell. But I asked you all to look at me, and you did, and my appearance had not changed, but shortly afterwards everyone began to act so strangely..."
"Not a disguise spell, then," Molly said.
"No," Caleb sighed.
"Wait, so if this spell makes everyone who looks at you fall in love with you, then why weren't the three of us affected?" Beau said.
"It only makes you fall in love if the other person is someone to whom you would normally be attracted, " Caleb clarified. "As you said earlier Beau I am, erm, very much not your type. I assume the same is true for Yasha."
"Oh. So we got out of the spell free 'cause we're lesbians?" Beau said. She grinned and held up a fist towards Yasha, who solemnly bumped it. "Hell yeah, lesbian power."
"It is not that the spell has no effect at all," Caleb added, in the interests of full disclosure. "If the target is not, well, attractive to you, then the spell functions as a charm spell instead. In other words, it makes you think that you are -- makes you want to be my friend."
Beau and Yasha shared a look, then Yasha nodded. "So, no change then," the bigger woman said.
"Oh," Caleb said in a small voice.
Privately he was not sure that was entirely true, that there was no change. The fact that all three of them had made it their first priority to get Caleb to safety rather than trying to talk to their other friends and maybe help them dispel the effect, indicated to him that the spell had shifted him up several notches in their priority list. But even if that were true, arguing with them would not change their minds on the matter; the magic would not allow their minds to change.
"Okay, so that explains Yasha and me," Beau said, turning back to Molly. "What I don't get is, how'd you get out of it? I know you like dudes, we got that lesson pretty thoroughly back at the Pillow Trove. So. Why?"
Caleb stayed silent. The answer was obvious enough, but that didn't mean he wanted to say it out loud -- that Molly might be attracted to men in general, but specifically not to Caleb.
Molly shrugged. "I honestly have no idea?" he said. "All this magic stuff is Marquesian to me. Except that sometimes, my weird blood powers do weird blood things that I don't get. I've noticed sometimes in the past that I'm a lot more resistant to charm spells and other things like that, and I usually wind up bleeding afterwards, so maybe this is another thing like that."
Beau gave Molly a fishy glare. "So are you? Bleeding?" she demanded.
Caleb hastily pushed himself into the exchange before Molly could answer, happy to accept any possibility that didn't confirm his own inherent unloveableness. "Well, that is not important now, and anyway I am sure that Mollymauk knows best about his own powers, ja?" he said.
"Not really," Yasha murmured, but Caleb let it pass.
"At any rate, our primary concern should be those of our friends who are still under the charm, and how we can free them," Caleb said.
"Can't you just, you know," Beau made a squiggly gesture with her fingers. "Do that anti-spell thing you do?"
"Unfortunately, Counterspell will not work on this type of spell," Caleb said. "Nor will a simple restoration. Dispel Magic might, but I do not have that one, and I do not think either of the clerics will be willing to cast for us in their current state.
"I believe our best course of action is to continue onwards. If I recall, Alpena is supposed to have a reputable library. I should be able to do some more research into the Love Philter and how to counter it. If nothing else, if I can get hold of a dictionary of Sylvan I might be able to better translate the original spell scroll and find the proper way of dispelling it."
Yasha nodded. "Sounds good to me," Beau agreed, and Caleb felt a twinge of consciousness as he sensed the charm effect at work again. The Beau he knew would not normally let his plans go so unchallenged.
"One way or the other, it is probably for the best that we remain out of the presence of the others for now," Caleb said. "The longer the spell goes on, the more difficult it will be for reason to break through the shell of enchantment they are under, and they will only grow more irrational."
Molly scowled and shoved his hands in the pocket of his coat, the hem swinging as he kicked a rock along the rut in the road. "Magic or no magic, there's no excuse for the way they're acting," he grumbled. "Even if they think they're in love, grown-ass adults should be able to control themselves! You don't just shove your feelings at a person if they don't feel the same, sheesh. How can you claim to love someone if you don't have even a little respect for their boundaries?"
"Well, there are... there are many different ways to love," was the only way Caleb could think to express it. "I can see that someone like Caduceus, who is still very naive to some things and spent most of his life very homebound, would experience love as a desire to get married and settle down. Whereas for someone like Fjord, who takes his responsibilities very seriously, perhaps it manifests more like protecting and taking care of someone.
"Nott is -- I do love her dearly, but Nott is a collector," he sighed. "A hoarder, even. And she has lost so much, she can get very jealous when someone tries to take away something she thinks of as hers."
"Like you?" Beau said.
"Like me," he agreed.
"And Jester?" Yasha questioned.
Caleb winced. Everybody winced.
"Jester is..." Caleb sighed. "Jester is a lovely woman, but... she is very used to always getting what she wants. And is she is also very um, very um..."
"Competitive as shit?" Beau supplied, rubbing her arm as if in the memory of a certain Inflict Wounds.
"She does not like to lose," was all Caleb could say.
"She sure doesn't," Beau agreed heartily. "And that's why we're over here and not back there."
There was a moment of silence as Caleb, and probably the rest of them, considered how Jester was likely to react if she caught them making a concerted effort to keep her away from her self-proclaimed soulmate.
"Let's move along a little faster, shall we?" Molly suggested with an effort at nonchalance.
Caleb had never been to Alpena, but he knew it by reputation. It was not a large town and didn't have much in the way of industry, but it attracted a fair number of travelers -- including a disproportionate number of academics, wizards, and artists -- by virtue of being one of the few towns in the Dwendalian Empire that had no laws against the sale and consumption of skein.
Alpena was a busy, prosperous town with sturdy stone buildings and wide, well-paved streets. It was well past noon, the day warm, and the plaza was lined with vendors hawking snacks and chilled drinks (and drugs.) Beau called a pit stop, and while the other three lingered around a stall waiting for the vendor to finish deep-frying the cheese- and pepper-stuffed mushrooms, Caleb tried to figure out the route to the library.
The streets had no signs, and Caleb did not see any tall stone buildings towering over the streetline. As little as he liked drawing attention to himself, he was going to have to ask for directions. With a little huff of frustration Caleb looked around the city square for someone who might know. His eyes landed on a tall, half-elven woman with distinguished grey streaks in her dark hair, one arm crooked around a bundle of books and parchment, and hastened over towards her.
"Excuse me," he mumbled, then cleared his throat and spoke louder to get her attention. "Excuse me, ahem, madame, I was hoping you could give me directions? To the library?"
The half-elf looked over to him with a forbidding frown which faltered as her eyes settled on him. She blinked, and after a moment the frown was replaced by a smile. "Certainly, I can do that," she said. She pulled out a piece of paper and graphite, balanced it against her armful of books, and began writing. "Are you a scholar, then?"
"Ah, of a sort," Caleb said cautiously. He didn't maintain quite as dirty a demeanor as he used to before joining with the Mighty Nein, but they had been on the road for some days now and he knew he looked quite shabby. "I have... a project I need to research."
"Oh? Anything I can help with?" the woman said encouragingly as she sketched a quick map. "I'm in the middle of a project on pre-Calamity runic engraving. You seem like a man who would be interested in history."
"Er... I am, yes, but that's not what I'm after today," Caleb mumbled. He was never good at small talk. "Th-thank you kindly, but directions are all I require."
"Hmm. Well, if you say so." The woman seemed disappointed, but she finished the sheet of paper and handed it over. Caleb took a glance. There was a rough sketch of the streets and a few lines of directions; Caleb memorized the route quickly. At the bottom of the page was an address to someplace that seemed to be further on the outskirts of the town. "Er, this is..."
"My address." The woman actually winked at him, rearranging her armful of papers and books back to a carrying position. "Feel free to look me up before you leave town."
She strolled away, leaving Caleb looking after her in bafflement.
The encounter left him unnerved; he was not used to getting that kind of reaction from strangers, and it threatened to kick off his paranoia. Had the woman recognized him? Was she connected with the Cerberus Assembly?
He couldn't stay out in the open like this; he had to get undercover. Caleb walked quickly in the direction he had left the others, keeping his head down and eyes on the ground.
It might have been better to keep an eye on where he was going. He saw the shadow on the ground in front of him an instant before he slammed into another body, knocking him backwards in a flurry of... feathers? "Hey, watch it!" an annoyed voice said as he flinched backwards.
"Sorry!" Caleb muttered, wincing as he retreated into himself. His eyes darted left and right, trying to locate his friends, before steadying on the person he'd run into. Somewhat to his surprise he saw dark greenish feathers that gave way to a bright iridescent green crown, and two dark eyes staring at him over a fierce-looking beak. A tenku? No, for the stranger had spoken. Aarakocra, then. They were a rare sight in the Empire, but then so were blue tieflings.
"No harm done," the stranger responded. The initial hostility in his -- her -- their? Caleb didn't know how to tell the difference on that avian face -- faded as they studied Caleb more closely. They turned their head to one side, then the other, as if to study him from each angle. "Say, you're new in town, aren't you? Need someone to show you around? There's a pretty nice restaurant near here; I could buy you dinner..."
"No! No, thank you." Caleb couldn't help but recoil, though he tried to get hold of himself quickly. "I, I have plans for today, I am here with my friends, goodbye," and he walked quickly away, detouring around the aarakocra on his way back to his friends.
Much to his dismay the aarakocra trailed after him. "You okay?" they called out, and Caleb winced as the scene they were making began to attract the attention of others in the square. He kept his head down and walked faster, and felt a wave of relief as the others came in sight.
"Hey man, he already said no," Beau's familiar, aggressive tones were music to Caleb's ears. "Back off already, would you?"
"Look, I was just trying to be friendly," the aarakocra said, sounding hurt. Caleb felt a stab of guilt, but not enough to keep from sidling around to put Yasha between him and his unexpected admirer. Yasha made a substantial bulwark to pretty much any kind of unwanted attention.
"Everything okay?" Molly asked him in an undertone as he came within hearing range. The tiefling had his head ducked to the side, looking concerned, and Caleb couldn't help but feel simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the trouble he was putting his friends through.
"It's fine, I got directions to the library, we can -- ow!" A sharp, unexpected pain from behind made him jump. More startled than anything he whirled around to face his attacker only to see a tiny, frail old lady with snow-white hair just drawing back her hand from where she had pinched his bum.
"Just a friendly nip for good luck, sonny boy!" she cackled and, even more horrifyingly, winked at him.
Molly stepped in front of him, pasting a smile on his face that looked to Caleb's eye more like a grimace. "Now, grandma, let's just try to keep our hands to ourselves --" he started.
Yasha frowned at the old lady, and at the aarakocra who was still arguing with Beau, and turned a questioning look on Caleb. "What's going on?" she said softly.
What was going on? Caleb knew that he could attract people if he tried -- he'd had training, after all -- but in the past few years he'd gone to great pains to make sure that strangers would not find him appealing, and in the past few years no one ever had. Not just one or two but three strangers paying attention to him, flirting with him in one day? What was happening here? Why --
Then a sudden thought arrested him.
The spell. The spell that had been written in sylvan, which affected the mind of all of his friends who had looked at him. It was still on him. In the middle of a street in broad daylight, right in a busy town.
"This was a terrible mistake," he said aloud. "We should -- we need to go. Now. Out of sight of all these people."
Yasha's eyes widened as she came to the same conclusion he had, and she looked around. The escalating arguments with Caleb's admirers was drawing the attention of more and more people -- and the more people looked in his direction, the more would be ensnared by his spell. "Let's move," she said, and Caleb had to agree.
He hadn't taken more than a few steps before he suddenly found himself jolted to a stop by an iron grip on his wrist. He looked to his side, then down, his gaze having to travel several feet to meet the eyes of the halfling girl who had seized hold of his wrist. She had dark skin and flaming red hair, and she grinned up at him with startlingly white teeth. He tried to tug his wrist free, but she was astonishingly strong for her size.
"Hey there, handsome," she said, a playful, purring tone to her voice. "Did anyone ever tell you you're real cute?"
"Let go of him," Yasha said, anger darkening her tone as she pushed between Caleb and the halfling girl, and the two women stared at each other with narrowing eyes as anger began to spark the air between them.
Caleb backed away from the growing confrontation, terribly aware that all three of his friends had now been drawn into arguments and he was on his own. There were already more people on the street watching with interest, and two dark-haired young ladies who appeared to be out shopping together -- one in an acolyte's tabard and the other in wizard robes -- were eyeing him with disturbing avarice. His back hit the wall of a nearby building and he began to edge to the side, trying to find an alleyway where he could duck out of sight.
This couldn't be happening. How could he have fucked up so badly? This -- this attention was the last thing in the world he wanted, to have the eye of every stranger in a mile fixed on him --
He was so preoccupied with his own anxiety and self-blame that he failed to notice the shifting whisper of the wall behind him until a pair of arms extended from the stone wall and wrapped around his chest.
Caleb went rigid, a yelp sticking in his throat as the arms were followed by a long, skinny chest in green-enameled armor pressed against his back, and a sharp chin digging into the top of his head. "Hello, husband," Caduceus purred in his ear, hugging him close. "Good thing I found you. It wasn't very considerate of you to run away on our wedding day, you know..."
Caleb froze up like Frumpkin the first time Jester had tried to put him in a kitty harness. Before he had time to react -- or even decide how to react -- there was a bang off to the side as Fjord materialized in the street nearby. "Caleb, my love!" he exclaimed as he started over, sword in hand. "Thank goodness we found ya."
"I think it was me who found him actually," Caduceus corrected a bit frostily, but Fjord ignored him.
"When we got back to the campsite and you were missing, we were afraid that you'd been attacked or kidnapped or somethin'. It's so good to see you're all right." He hesitated, looking over the growing chaos in the street with a concerned frown. "What all is happenin' here? Who are all these people?"
"They are, ah, they are, they seem to want to be my suitors," Caleb wheezed, barely able to get half a breath to speak with between Caduceus' embrace and his own strangling anxiety. The commotion in the street was beginning to break into chaos; over by the stall where Beau and Molly had been attempting to hold off Caleb's admirers, a scuffle broke out as someone threw the first punch.
" Thieves!" Nott's voice shrieked from somewhere nearby, though Caleb couldn't see her anywhere. " Homewreckers! I'll kill every single one of ya!"
He winced as sharp whistle sounded from the end of the street, announcing the arrival of one of the town guard onto the scene. He was a bright yellow tiefling with horns that curled back and down around his skull, hooded thrown over his shoulder and the insignia of the guard embroidered on his jerkin. "What's all this, then?" he demanded. "What's going on here? Who's responsible for this?"
Caleb cringed and tried to creep away, hoping to avoid the notice of any official authority, but a ripple passed through the crowd as half a dozen voices raised in helpful explanation for the guard, directing his attention right back to Caleb.
The guard's eyes narrowed on him, and for a moment Caleb almost hoped that he saw right through the spell and dismissed him as another vagrant.
Then the guard spoke, and all hope of that was dispelled. "Right," he said. "There's been enough harassment of this honored guest. All of you, go home. I can escort this gentleman anywhere you care to go -- Mister...?"
Rather than disperse the crowd, this only seemed to incite them further. More voices were raised in shouts as the crowd pressed closer, and Fjord stepped in front of Caleb with his sword drawn.
"You'd better get out of here," Fjord said to Caleb over his shoulder. "Caduceus, can you make sure he's safe?"
"Oh I can do better than that," Caduceus replied with a confidence that sent chills down Caleb's spine. "I can take him somewhere that nobody will ever be able to hurt or threaten him again."
"No, I need to -- the library --" Caleb started to say, but the rest of his breath left him in a squeak (also not unlike Frumpkin when Jester picked him up) as the firbolg lifted him in his arms.
Before they could go anywhere, though, there was a rumble on the horizon that cut even through the shouting of the crowd. Caleb looked over in the direction of the noise -- back towards the edge of the town -- and saw a cloud of dust moving ominously up the road. The dust was shot through with green lightning, and colorful sparkles of light dancing above it resolved itself -- tiny at this distance -- into a herd of hamster unicorns, the afternoon sunlight flashing off their tiny, adorable meat cleavers.
"CAYYYYYYYYY-LEEEEEEEEB! " a familiar, terrifying voice reverberated over the town square, amplified by magic. "WHERE ARE YOU HIDING THE BAE? WHERE ARE YOU HIDING HIM? BRING HIM OUT!"
"Aw, nuts," Fjord muttered, his voice barely loud enough to be heard over the unearthly reverberations of the Thaumaturgy spell. "She caught up."
Caduceus let go of Caleb to turn towards the new challenger, and he and Fjord began wading back into the crowd. Caleb took a hesitant step after them, dreading what he might face but uncertain where else to go. Somewhere in the crowd, the tiefling guardsman was yelling that they were all under arrest, until the red-haired halfling headbutted him in the stomach and he folded like an empty backpack.
A hand gripped his wrist and Caleb jumped, spinning around and yanking his arm free with his other hand raised to cast Firebolt. He'd had enough of being groped, grabbed, jumped, and restrained today to last him a lifetime -- or at least, knowing the Mighty Nein, another week.
But it was only Beau. "Chill, it's me!" she exclaimed, leaning back and eyeing the flames in his hand warily. He let the spell sputter out as Molly and Yasha emerged around the corner behind her, Yasha nursing a fresh bruise on her jaw and a stormy glare. "C'mon, we gotta get you out of here."
"But this is all my fault," he said anxiously. In truth he wasn't sure what he was going to do if he stayed, as the situation was quickly devolving beyond his control; even so, he had a responsibility.
"Yeah, but you can't do anything about it if you get mobbed," Beau pointed out reasonably. "No way we're getting to the library at this rate. Even if we did, you'd just seduce the librarian."
"We need to go to ground," Molly said, checking around a corner before pulling back. "I scouted out a place that looks good. Empty, so as long as nobody sees us go in we should be safe."
Caleb might have protested more, but the BANG of one of Nott's explosive arrows from the street behind them decided him. "Okay," he said somewhat shakily, and let Beau and Yasha grab his forearms to hustle him away.
The place Molly had scouted turned out to be a (currently) uninhabited wine shop with a surprisingly substantial basement. Once they got inside Beau dragged over furniture against the door, piling crates and barrels against the window to block out all view except a narrow strip they could use to keep watch. Yasha stayed upstairs to keep a lookout while Beau, Caleb and Molly retreated downstairs.
It seemed safe enough, but there was little to do once they were blockaded in except wait. And, in Caleb's case, think himself into a frenzy.
Caleb was well aware that he had a terrible tendency to ruin everything he touched, but how had he managed to screw things up this spectacularly, this quickly? He should have known better than to cast a spell that he did not fully understand -- he did know better, but he had thought that it would be fine to test the spell on himself. It should have been fine -- if the spell had gone wrong, he would be the only one affected.
But he hadn't been the only one affected. He'd managed to spell-thrall half of the Mighty Nein, even Beauregard and Yasha were not completely unaffected by his foolishness. And then, not content just to violate his friends' minds and wills, he'd gone and dragged half a civilian town into this mess.
Caleb honestly didn't know which was worse. Without question, what he had done had betrayed the trust of his friends, and probably sabotaged their friendship for him forever. But at least the Mighty Nein were in the trade, as it were, of having weird spell shit happen to them. They were tough, resilient, and could take care of themselves. But to then spill over uncontained magical effects into a civilian area, completely disrupting the law and order of the region -- if nobody died from his careless actions tonight, it would be a mercy on the part of the Gods that he did not deserve.
What was he going to do? How was he going to fix this? Even if he could find a way to take the spell off his person, the damage had been done. And that was assuming he could find a way to dispel it, now that the library was off-limits to him. He didn't dare go out in public again with this enchantment on him, he should never have set foot inside the town. He was trapped here, trapped in this claustrophobic basement, and worst of all he had dragged three of the best friends he'd ever had down here with him.
Yasha -- as reticent as she was he had always felt a connection with her, born of their similar quiet natures and a certain haunting sorrow that lay over both of their pasts. Beau -- hers was a loyalty he had never done anything to deserve, an abuse of her staunch nature and trusting heart. He should never have dragged her down like this, never have tarnished her judgment with his carelessness.
And Mollymauk. Of all the Nein, of all the people in the world Caleb was at once the most and least grateful that Molly had inexplicably been spared from the enchantment. He knew that magic intervention was the only way that someone like him ever could hope to be loved by someone like Molly, knew that he'd never have any other chance -- but at the same time to hear those words in Molly's voice, see that look of mindless adoration on his face, and know it to be false might have killed him.
"This is not the end of the world, you know," Molly spoke up, shaking Caleb from his churning, agonizing cycle of thoughts. Caleb blinked and shot him a look of sheer disbelief.
"How can you say that?" Caleb said, his voice shaking. "This is -- this is a disaster!"
"Not everything that shakes people out of their routine is a disaster," Molly disagreed. "Rampaging gnolls are a disaster. Earthquakes, fires, floods, those are disasters. This? This is an amusing mishap."
"Amusing?" Caleb demanded. "You think this is funny?"
Molly shrugged. "It's at least a little funny."
Caleb stared at him, not sure whether to be outraged that Molly wasn't taking this more seriously, or pathetically grateful for the unexpected support the tiefling was showing him.
"C'mon, Mister Caleb, chin up." Molly pushed up from the wine bottle he'd been leaning against and came over to set on the dusty crates next to Caleb, their shoulders almost brushing in the close quarters. His hands moved expressively as he wove the tale. "Things may look bad now, but ten years from now everyone involved will look back on this and laugh. You've given them a story they can tell for ages to come. 'I was in Alpena the day the love potion got in the water,' they'll say. 'See this scar? I got this from a lovelorn grandma with a mean right hook,' they'll say."
"It's not. It's not funny." Caleb insisted heatedly. "I enchanted these people, our friends --"
And that was the sticking point, really. Caleb had never been above using strangers if he had to, a bit of suggestion or charm to get him and Nott out of trouble, or even conning them out a bit of money for food or a room for the night. But it was one thing to do it to a stranger to whom you owed nothing, and another thing to do it to people he actually cared about .
"Yeah, they'll get over it," Molly said dismissively.
"How?!" Caleb's hands clenched into fists, shaking with the force of his emotions. "They'll never trust me again. Fjord -- Nott -- Jester -- how can they ever forgive me for this? Why should they?"
"They'll forgive you because they're your friends, Caleb, and they care about you," Molly said, sounding exasperated by Caleb's denseness. "We all care about you. Let's be realistic, this is hardly the worst situation this group has ever gotten themselves into."
Beau snorted, no doubt remembering a few such scenarios. Caleb had to admit they had a point, but -- "But this was not some enemy that did this to them," he said. "It was me."
"Yes, but you didn't mean to," Molly said. "It was a mistake, and once they're back to their senses they'll understand that. They might yell a little, but I can guarantee that none of them will beat you up about it harder than you're beating yourself up right now."
"That's for fuckin' sure," Beau muttered.
Caleb stared at the ground, unwilling to raise his eyes to meet either of his friends. Molly leaned in and hooked his fingers under Caleb's chin, mindful ever of his claws, and lifted his face high enough to see the tiefling's handsome, fond features.
"It's going to be okay," Molly promised him, sounding so certain that Caleb almost believed him. "We'll find a way to get out of this, and the others will forgive you. We all love you, Mister Caleb, with or without any magic at work, and we want you to be okay, and we definitely don't want you to sit here flagellating yourself over a simple mistake. Mistakes happen. They don't make you any less wonderful, any less lovable of a person. Just try to be a little kinder to yourself, okay?"
He finished off his speech with a gentle kiss to Caleb's forehead, brushing strands of his hair out of the way before he pressed his lips to Caleb's skin. The heat of it lingered even as he leaned back and let his hand drop, and Caleb stared at him, feeling a slowly mounting sense of horror.
"Oh, Gottern, " he said in a hollow voice. "The spell -- it's got you too."
How had he missed this? When had it happened? It must have been when he'd gone to scout the basement; he'd gone out of sight and when he'd come back and laid eyes on Caleb again the spell had a second chance to take hold of him, and whatever had spared him the first time hadn't worked again. Or -- had he ever even escaped it in the first place? Had he been charmed all this time?
"What?" Molly said, and his voice went up half an octave as a panicky look briefly crossed his face, to be replaced with an overbright smile. "No, it hasn't. What? Why would you say that?"
Beau was glowering at Molly suspiciously now. "Uh, you even have to ask, after that little speech?" she said. "Going on about how wonderful and lovable he is, what the fuck, it sure as hell sounds like you're in love with him."
"I --" Molly ran his hands through his hair, pushing the curls back from his face, and heaved a sigh of frustration. "I mean. Okay. I am in love with him. But not because of the spell."
Caleb flinched. He hadn't been wrong; hearing the word love from Molly's lips felt like a blow. "That sounds like something that someone under a love spell would say," Beau said accusingly.
"No!" Molly denied hotly. "I know it's not the spell, because --"
"Because what?" Caleb demanded. He was hurting and furious, but he knew Molly wasn't to blame -- his own damned magic, his own damned fault.
"Because I've been in love with you for months," Molly admitted.
Caleb's brain skidded to a halt. He gaped at Molly. "...What?"
"Are you shitting me, dude? Months?" Beau demanded. "And you never said anything? That's it, you never get to make fun of my lack of game again."
Molly flipped her a rude gesture before turning back to Caleb with an earnest, entreating expression. "I'm not saying it was love at first sight or anything like that but Caleb -- I was interested in you from the moment I saw you. You were mysterious, intriguing and yeah, pretty cute under the dust. I was always interested in you."
"That was only because you did not know me," Caleb muttered.
"Getting to know you has done nothing to make you less attractive, I can promise you that," Molly said. "But the more I got to know you, the more I came to understand that you weren't interested in that with me, maybe not with anyone, that you weren't looking for more and you were too hurt and too scared to let anyone too close. You have no idea how many times I found myself daydreaming about pinning you against a wall -- in a sexy way, that is -- or, or crawling into your bed at night, but I didn't because I'm a decent fucking person that doesn't pressure my teammates and friends into crossing lines that they don't want to cross!"
Caleb looked at him, his feeling of horror increasing. "The spell is getting worse," he muttered. "Now it's creating fake memories!"
"Oh, fuck you, Caleb Widogast!" Molly snapped, all his passion suddenly going to anger. "You don't get to do that! You don't get to tell me what I actually feel, or don't feel! You don't get to tell me what I don't feel about a handsome, mysterious stranger who became a handsome, brilliant, shy, kind, clever, and surprisingly funny teammate and friend.
"And yes, I wanted to be more than just a teammate, more than just a friend, I would have loved to find out what kind of a body was hiding under that coat and those holsters. I kept my distance and I didn't push, I didn't crawl into your bedroll in camp even thought I wanted to, and I didn't pin you to the side of the tub of the bath even though I wanted to, and I didn't kiss you under the colored lights in Hupperdook even though I wanted to, and absolutely none of that means that I didn't love you then, or that I don't love you now, or that you get to tell me that any of what I feel is because of your fucking spell!"
Molly's voice rose over the course of his monologue; he sprang to his feet and paced back and forth in the tight space, gesturing emphatically as he did. When he finally wound down to a close he stood there, panting slightly, before crossing his arms with a huff. From somewhere in this cellar Beau had somehow dug up a jar of toasted nuts, which she popped in her mouth with every sign of absolute fascination as Molly spilled his guts.
Caleb, meanwhile, found himself struggling. On one side was the almost irresistible urge to keep arguing, to protest Molly's declaration, to push him away and protect him from Caleb himself. Balanced against that was his own intense and urgent longing for Mollymauk, for the chance that he might someday find someone who would love and accept him. "I -- I --" he croaked out, his throat thick with the threat of tears. He blinked blurred eyes and looked back down at the cellar floor. "I want to believe it, but it cannot be real."
With a flash of color in his peripheral vision Molly was in front of him, threading his fingers through Caleb's hair and nudging his head back. Caleb looked up at him, suddenly nervous about what he might see in Molly's eyes. "Believe it," Molly told him, and kissed him.
This time it was a proper kiss -- Molly's lips covered his and seemed to draw him forward into the soft heat of his mouth, pulling Caleb out of his spiral of doubt and self-hatred and making it impossible to focus on anything in the universe other than him. His eyes had fluttered closed and at this short distance Caleb realized that his eyelashes were a dark purple too, not black like he'd always seemed, and there were the faintest of freckles dusting his cheeks, trailing down his neck, and Caleb yearned towards Molly's body with every inch of his own.
Beau whistled, sharp and piercing, and followed it up with loud clapping. "Yeah! Get it!" she cheered, even as Molly broke off the kiss, Caleb tucking back down into his seat blushing fiercely.
"Get what?" Yasha called from upstairs.
"Molly and Caleb are sucking face!" Beau yelled back up the stairs.
Caleb winced. "Ah, I don't think Yasha needs to --"
"Oh, Molly finally made a move?" Yasha's voice floated down the stairs. A pause, then, "Good for him."
"Damn right," Beau said as she returned her attention to the two of them. "But don't, you know, get too gross, because we're stuck in here and I don't actually want to have to watch the two of you going at it."
It was eight-twenty two, and Caleb knew that the sun had gone down an hour and a half ago even though no light from outside was visible through the window barricade. But he knew that was the time in the moment he suddenly felt the atmosphere shiver and blur, an invisible ripple starting with him at the focal point before spreading out and out in every direction. Beau clutched at her head for a moment and he heard Yasha stumble upstairs --
And then the ripple passed outwards and moved on.
"Oh, ah," Caleb said, blinking hard to clear his vision. "I think -- I think the spell just wore off." Now he remembered -- the scroll had clearly specified a duration of eight hours, because Nott had been happy for the prospect of a long-lasting disguise spell.
"Fuck, man, feels like Jester just did her toll-the-dead spell right over my head," Beau grumbled. She shook her head to clear it, then sat back and make a face. "Okay, wow, that is... that was weird, yeah. Fuckin' weird."
"Are you... okay?" Caleb said a little timidly.
She looked at him with a closed expression and for a moment his heart plummeted -- but then she only shrugged. "We're still friends, if that's what you're asking," she said. "But man, I'm glad that's over with. Ugh. I think we'd better go out and find the others."
She clambered up the steep stairway and disappeared out of sight, and he heard her talking to Yasha upstairs. He looked after her, not daring to look at the man by his side, until Molly reached over and took his hand. Caleb gulped and took a breath, trying to nerve himself up to speak.
"Before you ask," Molly spoke up beside him. "My feelings haven't changed."
The breath went out of him in a rush of relief so intense that it made him dizzy, and now he had the courage to look up at Molly's smiling face. The tiefling's smile widened, showing just a hint of fang, and he leaned in and captured Caleb in another kiss.
They were still kissing several moments later when Yasha came down the stairs and reported that they were all clear. The streets were empty, if not undamaged -- apparently, Jester's wake had cut through the city like a hurricane. "If we follow the trail, we can probably find the others at the end of it," she said optimistically.
"Let's do that, then," Molly said cheerfully. "Get our friends, get our stuff, and get the hell out of town."
"I suppose it is time to face the music," Caleb said glumly.
Molly laughed and kissed his hand. "Don't worry, I'll protect you," he said, and Caleb felt his spirits lift despite himself.
"I should have remembered that the spell had a duration," Caleb murmured as they got their things together and prepared to climb out of the basement. Molly was fishing coins out of his purse, counting out a few to leave the shopkeeper for the trouble of disturbing his store. "If I had realized, we didn't need to go into the town or the library at all. We could have just camped out in the woods and waited."
"Maybe, but I'm just as happy that things turned out the way they did," Molly assured him, with a smile and a squeeze of his hand around Caleb's. "Just promise me one thing, darling."
"No more messing around with disguise spells, okay?"