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SOJOURN (the house that caleb built)

Chapter Text

 

It was the right choice, taking a route that went over the mountains instead of down through the valley passes. Any gap in the range that would have offered easy passage for them, almost by definition would be easy passage for the hordes of troops and soldiers that were crawling along the border. By heading further up into the mountains and picking their way through gulleys and ridges far too steep and rugged for soldiers they were able to avoid detection and capture.

It was the right choice but that didn't make it easy or pleasant . By the time the sun sank behind the ridge and cast them all in shadow they'd made it just barely below the snow line, but they'd been walking through snow and ice over rough terrain all day and they were all wet, chilled, and exhausted.

"Do you think you can set up your bubble here, Caleb?" Fjord said, looking around a little doubtfully. The Mighty Nein had called a halt on the flattest, widest stretch of ground they'd seen all day, but this mountain ledge was still steep and narrow and even at its broadest part probably wouldn't be wide enough for the Tiny Hut. "I know the circumstances aren't ideal, but we're gonna need to get warm and dry before night falls or else we'll all be in trouble."

"Of course, I can..." Caleb trailed off as some thought took hold of him, and his expression notably brightened. He didn't smile, but his eyes shone with excitement and he straightened up from his usual disarming, hunched posture. "Ah, you know, you know what? No, I will not   set up the hut."

"What do you think -- " Beau started, but Caleb held up a finger, calling for silence.

"I will not set up the hut tonight, because... I can do something much better than that!" Caleb paused dramatically, looking from one to another of his friends. "I have not had a chance to try out this spell since we left the city, because every day there has been some new thing... But tonight, I think I have enough magic to try it. If I can make this work, then we can spend tonight not only warm and dry, but in comfort."

"Are you gonna teleport us somewhere?" Jester asked, excited. "Ooh, did you learn how to teleport from Essek? That would be so great!"

"If you could teleport us why didn't you just do that in the first place?" Beau demanded. Caleb shook his head.

"No, it is not a teleportation spell, that would entirely defeat the purpose of traveling out here in the first place," Caleb said. "It is more like, more like... it is a little bit like the hut, but even better. Give me some space. Let me work. I will show you."

"Okay, but I really hope this works because it's getting colder fast," Molly muttered. He leaned against Yasha, Nott under one arm; as the smallest of them she had been the worst off in the deep drifts of snow and was now bone-chilled and exhausted, barely able to stand even with Molly's support. Caduceus didn't see any particular need to wait for Caleb to finish, so he brought out the tiny camp stove and tea kettle he carried with him. Within a few minutes he had tea going and was able to pass around cracked cups of hot tea to everyone, which revived their spirits somewhat.

But it was getting darker fast as the daylight waned, and the temperature was plummeting as night reached the mountains. Caleb spent a good ten minutes pacing back and forth in a tight circuit, mumbling and gesturing, while the rest of the Nein watched with mounting anxiousness and frustration.

Jester poked around a bit on the dry ground and found a pinecone -- light but spiky -- which she chucked in Caleb's direction. "Caleb! What's taking   so long?" she yelled.

"For fuck's sake, don't distract him," Beau groaned. "If he messes this up he'll have to start all over again and then it'll take twice   as long. Just chill."

Caleb stumbled a bit and faltered in his incantation when the pinecone bounced off his shoulder, but he was well accustomed to tuning out the distraction that was Jester and quickly picked back up again. At last his pacing came to a sudden halt with him standing facing away from them, his back soldier-straight. He clapped his hands together in front of him and held them for a minute, then slowly began to push them apart. A pale shimmer of light appeared in the space between his hands and expanded as he pulled his hands away from each other.

As they watched, the pale gauzy shimmer blew outwards from Caleb's hands to fill the space before him with a white, softly glowing shape, easily seen in the fast-dimming twilight. It grew more solid, though still faintly glowing, taking on the shape of a tall arched portal. Jester let out a little "oh!"   noise as the shape became clear, automatically moving her hand to check the holy symbol at her belt.

When the doorway seemed to settle into itself, no longer threatening to blow away under the stiff cold breeze, Caleb dropped his hands and turned back to them, eyes alight with triumph. "Wow Caleb that's really cool!" Jester exclaimed, the words rushing out of her. "What is it?!"

"What does it look like?" Caleb said. He snapped his fingers and Frumpkin reappeared on his shoulder from wherever Caleb had sent him while he was concentrating on casting the spell. "It is a door."

"Yes, but where to?"   Fjord wanted to know.

A small smile hovered around Caleb's mouth as he walked forward and took hold of a large, gleaming handle embedded in one half of the doors. He pulled it and the door swung soundlessly open, spilling light -- not the silvery glow but something warm, golden, like lamplight -- out onto the darkening mountainside. "Why don't we go inside and find out?"

The Mighty Nein piled inside, and Caduceus followed.

The room inside was much warmer than the chilly mountainside and they were fairly blasted with warm air as they crossed the threshold. The door was tall enough that even he didn't have to duck, and three of them were able to walk abreast. That didn't stop there from being a bit of a shoving match as Jester eagerly pushed to the front, took in the view of the room inside, and let out a shriek of pure delight.

There had been nothing on the mountainside behind the door except an empty drop, but through  the door was an entire hall. It opened out on either side of the door and swept upwards in a wide, tall, arching chamber with white walls, red ceilings and brass trimming along the doorways and corners.  A huge, elegant chandelier shed warm yellow light over everything. The hall was echoingly large, probably large enough to fit fifty people; at the far end of the hall was a long, broad table of ostentatious dark wood with eight tall carved chairs arranged around it. 

Instead of long tables with benches or chairs, the rest of the hall was filled with little stations of curved couches and divans arranged around low polished marble tables.  The setup looked familiar but nobody couldn't quite place it until Jester gasped and said, "Oh! Aren't these the tables from the lounge in the Lavish Chateau? How did they get here?"

"Ja, that is where I copied them from," Caleb said, coming up behind the rest of the group and smiling faintly at their awed and appreciative reactions. "Technically I can make the house and the architecture look like anything, but as this is the first time I cast the spell I thought it would be, hm, a time-saver to copy from places that already existed."

"It's amazing," Fjord said admiringly, turning in a circle to look at the high ceilings, the vaults and jointure. "But I don't remember Jester's mama's place having a ceiling like this."

"No, only the couches and chairs and carpet are from the Chateau," Caleb replied. "The hall itself and the high table and, ah, a few other things are from. They are from another hall I know."

"Well this is a lovely dining area to be sure," Molly exclaimed. "But is there food?"

"We have our own food," Fjord pointed out, but Caleb was nodding along.

"Of course, there is food," Caleb said. He pointed over to the left, where the large hall ran into a low-ceilinged, warmly-lit area divided from the main area with a long granite-topped counter. "There is a kitchen over there with as many different kinds of food as I could think of -- foods that are ready to eat right away as well as foods that can be cooked, if people want to cook."

"I'd love that," Caduceus said, beaming at the thought of having a proper kitchen again.

"A hot meal sounds wonderful,"   Nott sighed. Being in out of the cold had revived her somewhat, but she was still dragging with fatigue and wanted little more than to warm up, eat, and sleep.

Caleb continued. "There are more supplies in the pantry in the back if we run out of what's in the kitchen, although we should not be here long enough for that to happen."

"Oh? Not settling in for an extended stay?" Molly said. 

Caleb shook his head. "No, unfortunately the spell only lasts for twenty-four hours," he said. "I can recast it again later but I cannot extend the time longer than that, I am afraid."

"Well, even if it's just for a day, this beats the night I thought   we were going to have by a mile," Fjord declared. "Thank you, Caleb, this is very impressive."

Caleb smiled. "Do not say that just yet," he said. "There is a lot more to see."

The rest of the Nein -- except for Nott, who chose to perch on one of the couches and carefully examine the shiny stones set into the arm of the chair -- followed behind as Caleb took them on a quick tour of the hall, pointing out a few smaller doors. There was a privy ("Indoor plumbing," Jester sighed with a dreamy smile,) a library ("Of course you included a library," Fjord teased him to general but fond agreement,) and a large closet-like space by the front door where they could leave their weapons and armor. "Any creatures - that is us - that are still in the mansion when the spell ends will be ejected back to our starting point, but I am not at all sure that gear and other things would go along," Caleb said. "So we should all be packed up and ready to go well before then."

"I dunno that I'm comfortable leaving my staff out here," Beau said. "What if someone breaks in? They'd be closer to our weapons than we would."

Caleb nodded understanding. "In a normal house that would be dangerous, but this place is like the hut," he said. "No one else can come inside without my explicit permission. Even if someone were to find the door -- in the middle of nowhere as it is -- they would not be able to get in. You don't have to be without your weapons or gear, you can keep them with you if it makes you comfortable, but the mansion should be completely safe."

"What about monsters coming from inside the house?" Jester wanted to know. "What if there are giant rats in the basement? Ooh, giant rats would be so cool!"

He smiled. "Only things that I visualize will appear in the house. I did not include any giant rats, but I suppose if you are short on entertainment I could try to make some for next time."

Fjord had been going from door to door, testing each one and poking his head inside. He examined the storage room, admired the library, then exclaimed when the next door opened onto a stairwell leading down. "Hey!" he called out, drawing the attention of the rest of the group. "There's more to the house than this?"

"Oh, ja,"   Caleb said. He gestured back in the direction of the door they'd come in, and on turning back to face that wall they realized there were two flanking staircases that curved upwards and disappeared overhead. "There is a top floor where all the bedrooms are of course, and then there is a bottom floor as well. I thought it would be better to put it as far away as possible from the bedrooms, just so that the noise does not disturb anyone."

"Noise?" Nott exclaimed. "What noise?"

Another one of those sly smiles that made Caleb look like a boy bursting over with a secret. "Come and see," he said, and disappeared down the stairwell. Infused with curiosity, the rest of them followed.

The doorway was narrower than the main door and the stairs a little cramped, but once around the switchback there was room for everyone to spread out. More than enough room, they realized; the lower level was a single large chamber that spread the entire width of the floor above. It lacked the chandelier from the main level but lamps on the walls filled the space with a cozy light which illuminated a wide sandy floor marked with chalk circles and lines.

"Hey!" Beau said, delighted. She strode forward, stepped over the line into the sandy portion and bounced a little, testing the footing. "It's... a training salle?"

Caleb had been watching for reaction and her obvious approval eased a tension out of him. "That was the idea," he said. "Not everyone in the party needs to train every day, but for those of us who do I thought it would be nice to have a place where you have plenty of space to move, and all the training dummies you care to destroy."

Indeed, there was a stack of training dummies tucked into one of the corners of the salle, along with a cabinet of other miscellaneous items: punching bags, racks of light practice weapons, protective wrappings. "This is really great!" Beau said, delighted. She stepped up to one of the punching bags and unleashed a quick flurry of blows, increasing the speed and force as the bag stood up under the punishment. She grinned. "I'll have to take this for a real spin tomorrow morning."

"I might do so as well," Yasha said, her voice soft and wondering. She shot Caleb an approving look that made his ears warm. "This was very thoughtful, Caleb. Thank you."

Beau came out from a roll and bounced to her feet, shooting Caleb a challenging grin. "Of course since you made this place you're gonna have to test it out with me, quality assurance and all that."

"I will absolutely not be doing that," Caleb said to general laughter from the Nein. "Also, if you get sandy or sweaty from training, there is, um. There wasn't enough space on the upper floor for each room to have its own individual bath, they would have been much too small for us to really sit down in, but I thought down here..."

He turned and pointed to the other half of the basement. They noticed for the first time that the air down on this level was not only warmer than a subterranean level normally would be, it was actually warmer and more humid than the hall upstairs. What they had taken for a pair of raised wooden platforms was actually two sets of long wooden slats covering two enormous sunken tubs. A discreet, delicate folding screen that Jester recognized from her mother's house was set between them, currently retracted but if extended it would block line of sight between the two basins.

"Ooh," Molly said appreciatively. "Baths!"

"I copied them from the place in Zadash," Caleb said. His eyes flicked briefly to Nott. "The covers are there just so that nobody, um, falls in by accident, but you can put them aside easily." He knelt down beside one of the covers and folded back the edge of it, releasing a waft of fresh-smelling steam into the basement. Frumpkin actually jumped down to sniff interestedly at the hidden bath, even dipping his paw in it before he shook the water off with a piqued expression.

"That'll be a welcome change," Fjord said approvingly. "It's been ages since we went to a proper bathhouse."

"I'll pass," Nott said with a shudder, but followed it up loyally with "But it was very nice of you to think of everyone, thank you Caleb."

"There are two baths that can be divided with the screen," Caleb said, letting the cover fall back in place and getting back to his feet, gesturing towards the privacy screen. "One for the gentlemen and, uh, one for the ladies."

"Fantastic!" Molly said brightly. "Where's mine?"

Another wave of general laughter, which Caleb this time joined in on. Then Jester gasped.

"Oh no, Caleb, you made a mistake!" she said loudly. "You put the baths all the way down here, but our rooms are all the way up top! That means we'll have to go up all these stairs and through the main hall completely naked!"

Caleb flushed. "No, no, that is not necessary," he said, and started over to a large standing wardrobe with doors that opened on either side of the folding screen. "There are, there are robes in here, there are towels..."

"Completely naked!"   Jester said again, louder.

"So where are these bedrooms, again?" Fjord said, taking pity on Caleb who was now sputtering. "I'd like to see those next, if you don't mind. It's been a long day."

"Yes of course," Caleb said, obviously relieved by the change of subject. "They are upstairs, um, not the main level but above that..."

The Mighty Nein trooped out again, Beau sending glances of lingering regret at the battered practice dummy before taking the stairs three at a time to catch up. 

The stairs deposited them back in the main hall facing the outer doors, which were far more ornate and ornamented from this side than they had been from outside. To the left and right of the doors were two broad, curving staircases with sweeping bronze handrails that curved up and back into the main body of the house overhead. Jester took off for the right staircase yelling "Race you!" and Beau bolted after her, never one to pass up a challenge. The rest of them followed at a sedate pace.

At the top of the stairs they found themselves in a hallway lit with the same pleasant gas-lamp lighting as below, although the ceiling was less spacious. Doors marched off to the left and the right, each door a smaller version of the ornate front doors with little brass name-plates for each of them. 

Behind them, shielded from the staircases by delicate wrought iron railings, was a cozy-looking sitting area with chairs and couches surrounding a metal grill glowing with rosy coals. Nott squealed with delight and dived for it, practically plastering herself on top of the grill despite the shimmering waves of heat radiating from it. "Warm, so warm," she crooned, fanning her hands in the rising hot air. "Caleb, I love you."

"Just be careful please, and do not burn yourself," Caleb said. "Our clerics have already had too much work to do today."

"Hey!" Beau said. To the side of the sitting area was a bar of smooth, polished dark wood with a few stools perched in front of it. Beau, already behind the bar and rummaging around, came up with a dark green bottle topped with gold foil. "Booze! This place really has everything, huh Caleb?"

"Of course," Caleb said with a smile. 

"Ooh, what have you got?" Molly said, hoisting himself on his stomach on the bar to hang upside down and examine the shelves. "I'm always on the lookout for something new."

"Eh, well, there could only be types of liquor that I know about," Caleb said with a little throwaway gesture, "so nothing too exotic, I'm afraid."

"Four... five... six... seven," Jester was counting as she turned in a circle, ticking off each of the doors in turn. She cocked her head. "Do we each get a room to ourselves, Caleb? No more doubling up?"

"Yes, there should be one for each of you," Caleb said with a nod. "You can of course share rooms if you would like, but I thought perhaps a little privacy would be a welcome change."

Jester squealed and ran over to the doors, examining the nameplates. "Where's mine?" she cried.

"Down at the end of the hall, opposite from Fjord," Caleb indicated, and Jester ran off to check it out. "Although um, right now all of the rooms are the same. I did not really have a chance to customize each one, so they all have the same..."

He trailed off, realizing he had lost his audience as Jester disappeared into the bedroom with her name on it, trailed by Fjord. Jester let out an excited yell that attracted the attention of the others and they all went to go see.

The bedroom was a little crowded by all eight of them, partly because of the enormous   bed that took up most of the floor space, which Jester was currently testing by bouncing on it. The far corner of the room was blocked off into what turned out to be a private bathroom -- smaller than the one on the main level but still containing a privy and sink, toothbrushes and hand towels and a little grooming kit. Another corner was cluttered up by a cozy breakfast nook, a pair of chairs and a small marble-topped cabinet that proved to be stuffed with snacks and pastries. A little table by the side of the bed had a carafe of water and a vase of fresh flowers.

"I love it!" Jester said, spreading her arms and flopping down directly onto the bed. "I want to live here forever now!"

"The spell only lasts twenty-four hours," Caleb reminded them, and was on the receiving end of several pouts at that news. "Or less -- if I go outside the boundaries the spell will end, like with the hut."

Caduceus was impressed by the bed, which measured by eye was a good eight feet long and half that wide. "You said that all the rooms have the same furniture?"

"Ja, they are all the same," Caleb said, glancing at him and then over at Yasha. "I thought, uh, I know the beds in most of the places we stay are not very comfortable for... for people who are very tall. It was easier to make just one very large bed and copy it, than to make different sized beds for everybody."

"Well thank you, that was very thoughtful," Caduceus said and beamed at him, and was rewarded with a shy smile back. 

"No windows," Yasha said suddenly. Several pairs of eyes turned to her, and she seemed a little surprised by all the attention. She gave a little cough, then nodded towards the walls. "This room is on the end of the row, and on the outside corner of the house, isn't it? I just noticed that there are no windows. That made sense down in the basement, but here..."

"How come there are no windows?" Jester said, sitting up. "You could make doors, but not windows?"

"Well, there could be," Caleb shrugged. "But what is outside you would not want to see."

That slightly ominous statement killed the conversation for a moment, before Jester rallied "What do you mean? What's outside?"

"Technically we -- and this house -- are in the Astral Plane right now," Caleb said, which prompted several wide-eyed glances and buzzed muttering. "It is actually a two-part spell, complex and advanced enough that I could not cast it before now. 

"The first part creates a stable gateway leading to another plane in the first place, and the second part is to create the actual mansion. The Astral Plane is not only removed from anything that might threaten us on the Material Plane, it is also highly reactive to magic and to mental influences. On the astral plane anything you can imagine, can be , with a much lower energy cost than summoning or transmutation magic back in our world."

" Anything??"  Nott demanded, wide-eyed. 

"Anything I can imagine," Caleb amended, and glanced over at Jester. "So whatever you are thinking, Jester, probably not."

Some laughter, and Jester pouted. "Oh. Well, next time do you think you could imagine up some windows? Maybe! Maybe with a nice view of the ocean or something?"

"That'd be nice," Fjord said.

"I'll pass," Nott said and Caduceus nodded agreement.

"Well, if they're fake windows anyway they don't have to all have the same view do they?" Molly said. "Each one could have some new amazing thing."

Caleb laid a solemn hand over his heart. "I'll do my best," he said. "As well as, um, any other changes you would like to see --"

This set off a round of shouting and talking over one another as various members of the Mighty Nein started voicing their suggestions for improvement or requests for customization. Jester's voice overrode the rest of the cacophony, though, with "CALEB DO YOU THINK INSTEAD OF A BAR FOR BOOZE YOU COULD MAKE A BAR FOR PASTRIES??"

"I'm not sure what that would entail, but I guess I can try," Caleb said.

Jester wriggled with delight. "Ooh! With, with maybe a tap for hot chocolate! And one for whipped cream!"

"How about an alchemy lab?" Nott said thoughtfully. "It's been so long since I had a proper workshop. If the tools are anything as good as the ones in the kitchen, that would be wonderful."

"I can do that but," Caleb looked pained, "You cannot take anything created by the mansion out of the mansion. So anything you made in here would just turn to smoke once the spell ended."

"Oh." Nott looked crestfallen, and several of the others seemed to be rethinking their requests.

Jester's hand shot into the air. "Ooh! Can I have an art studio in my room? With lots of paint and glitter??"

"I don't see why not," Caleb said.

"How about a garden? Or a greenhouse?" Beau said, shooting glances over at Yasha. "Just because, y'know, Yasha likes flowers. And Deuces does too, I mean..."

"I can try, but there is not a lot of space in the floor plan to add extra rooms," Caleb said. "It was difficult just trying to get the current layout to fit."

"Oh, bummer," Beau said, crestfallen. 

"It's fine," Yasha told Beau. "Molly, is there anything you want?" 

Molly shrugged. "I'm having a blast just with what you've conjured up so far, honestly," he said. "I'm sure whatever you think of will be fine."

"Yeah, me too," Fjord said loyally.

"Oh!" Jester jumped up again as a new thought occurred to her. "Caleb how about a wardrobe full of amazing pretty dresses and gowns that we can try on!"

Molly sat up and stared at Jester, pointing. "You know what? That. I want that," he declared. Fjord glowered at him briefly for having led him into nobly requesting nothing and then abandoning him.

"Keeping in mind you cannot take --" Caleb started, but Jester waved him aside impatiently.

"I know that! Just for the night,"   she wheedled. "Just pretty clothes that we can try on, even if they would be totally impractical to wear outside! We can have a fashion show! Fjord, you can be the judge!"

"What," Fjord said.

Caleb sighed. "I suppose --"

"Oh!" Jester interrupted. "But if the spell ended while we had the clothes on does that mean that we would be spat out in the middle of nowhere naked?"

"You sure do spend a lot of time thinking about naked people," Caduceus said to Jester as several other people groaned.

Jester shrugged. "It's not my fault Caleb's magic is trying to get us all naked!" she defended herself. "Do you think he's doing it on purpose? Caleb, are you trying to get all of us naked?"

"I absolutely am not," Caleb said, but Jester was undeterred. 

"Is there just one   of us you're trying to get naked?" She leaned in close and dropped her voice into a whisper. "Is it me? You can tell me if it's me! Or even if it's not."

"I think," Fjord said, throwing some much-needed moderation into the debate, "that we can all take some time to think about it, and maybe write down lists of things we'd like to see for next time, and give it to Caleb later. Since he can't make any changes tonight anyway."

"Yes," Caleb said thankfully. "I cannot promise I will be able to do everything you ask for, but I can certainly try. I want you all to be comfortable here, even if we will only be here for a night."

"I think we will," Caduceus said.

With that promise in mind the Mighty Nein split apart for a while. Night had fallen outside but the mansion was well-lit and warm and full of delights to explore. As tired as they all were they weren't ready to call it a day just yet. 

To no one's surprise Caleb disappeared to the library. There was an armchair with a drafting desk and excellent lighting, a fancy cat tree placed close to hand where Frumpkin quickly made himself comfortable. Yet Caduceus couldn't help but notice that while Caleb could easily have shut the door, blocking out the rest of the house and the rest of them, instead he kept the door open. He stayed in line of sight of the rest of the house, keeping them in view as they explored and worked and played. Fjord went in after him and started browsing the shelves, making the occasional comment on the titles but otherwise sharing a comfortable silence.

Molly and Jester called first dibs on the bath, the subsequent splash war carrying their laughter up the stairwell from the basement. Nott stuck close to the firepit on the upper level, setting her cloak and clothes out to dry above the heater while she bundled up in one of the robes from the wardrobe. The robes came in small, medium, and extra-tall sizes, and once again Caduceus was touched by the level of detail and consideration that Caleb had put into this.

After a while Jester came upstairs and discovered the dart board, dragging Beau and Fjord into a quick game while Yasha went to join Molly downstairs. Caduceus thought he would check out the baths tomorrow before moving on, but right now he was more interested in a hot meal and a good night's sleep. The kitchen really did have an amazing array of foods and an impressive supply of cookware, even if much of it wasn't anything he recognized. 

Once Nott's clothes were dry she came to join him in the kitchen and pointed out a number of dishes or ingredients that had apparently come from Caleb's homeland. Zemnian cuisine tended to be meat-heavy -- Nott identified five different types of sausage and four of bread -- but there was also a thick potato dumpling that Nott named schupfnudeln.  Before too long Caduceus had a pot on the stove boiling away, filling the main level of the house with rich smells that drew the others in like a lodestone. Caduceus left the dumplings to cook while he happily diced up several of the fresh vegetables that had been sitting in the pantry, some with smudges of earth still on them.

Dinner ended up being a disjointed, haphazard affair; Caduceus kept bringing out dishes to set on the big head table before getting the idea for something new and going back into the kitchen to start a new batch. "You know, Deuces, you don't have to cook for us," Beau said after the second dish, collaring him in that brusque way she had. "We're grown adults, we can get our own food, you're not our fuckin' servant."

Caduceus just smiled at her; it would be easy to be put off by her aggressive manner but Caduceus could recognize it as the way she showed care. "I'm really loving this actually," he said. "It's been months since I had a kitchen setup as good as this one, and there are so many ingredients I've never seen before. I like cooking, I like having someone to eat what I cook, I'm happy."

Beau pulled a face. "Suit yourself, man," she said and headed for the kitchen door, pausing to nick a strawberry from the bowl of fruit on her way back downstairs. Caduceus went back to cooking, reflecting as he did on the many different kinds of love language. 

Shortly afterwards Caleb himself came into the kitchen, Frumpkin perched on his neck. He stopped to sniff the smells emanating from the cookpot, and let out a gusty sigh.

"That is wunderbar,"   he said. "Thank you, Caduceus. It was not necessary for you to cook for us all, but it is truly appreciated."

"The pleasure is mine, really," Caduceus said. "I think I should be the one thanking you for giving me all these shiny toys to play with. This really is some very impressive magic, Caleb."

"Yes," Caleb said. "It is very complicated, very advanced. I was not sure that I was ready to cast it just yet, but I wanted to try, I wanted to see if I was strong enough."

Caduceus nodded. "And you enjoy using your magic to help out your friends, don't you?" he said, keeping his voice casual and unpressing. "It's how you show them you love them."

"Yes, well..." Caleb trailed off, stayed stuck for a good minute. Caduceus waited patiently.

"In the past I have used magic in, um, in not so good ways," Caleb said at last, barely above a whisper. "I have hurt a lot of people with magic. And I still do sometimes when we fight, when it is necessary. But I would rather use magic to do good things, to help good people. I would like to show people that magic is wonderful and beautiful, even if sometimes it is misused by terrible men."

"It can be pretty wonderful," Caduceus agreed, "when it's in the right hands. I think yours are the right hands."

Caleb turned pink and muttered something, then made a hasty excuse and left. Caduceus went back to his cooking, smiling a little.

It was a strange feeling, being indoors in comfort and yet also having the place to themselves. On the road they could relax and be themselves, but at the cost of the considerable discomfort of traveling. In town they could be dry and warm and comfortable, but also surrounded by strangers in places owned by strangers. Having the best of both worlds -- a place of comfort, but without having to watch their behavior or their words or pull their punches -- was something he hadn't experienced since leaving the Blooming Grove. 

Here they had no one to worry about but themselves. It felt strange. It felt good.

It felt... like home.

 


 

The evening wore on and even the many delights of the magical mansion couldn't counter the dragging fatigue of the day or the knowledge that they still had many miles to travel tomorrow. "Though I don't see any reason we have to get an early start, do you?" Fjord said. 

Five out of eight were assembled around the grill in the upstairs sitting room; Nott and Yasha toasting pieces of sausage on skewers above the heat, Molly lounging around in a bathrobe. "We have to be out of here before the twenty-four hours are up, but that's not till evening," Fjord continued. "We can rest up, eat ourselves full, recover from the hangovers --" that one was directed at Beau, who was still experimenting with the little bottles behind the bar -- "before we have to move on."

"Yo, Caleb," Beau said. She stood in the corridor between the bedrooms and the sitting area, turning a circle on her heel as she counted. "Where are you sleeping? There's only seven bedrooms, but there are eight of us."

"Oh," Caleb looked a little uncomfortable. "Yes, well, unfortunately I ran out of space. I could not make the bedrooms any smaller and still fit the bed, but that meant that there was only room for seven bedrooms on this level."

"So are you sharing with Nott?" Molly said.

"I don't mind, Caleb," Nott said quickly.

"No, no, Nott has a room of her own," Caleb said almost as quickly. "I was able to find a place to stick it in, it's just not as... regular as the others." 

Standing up he walked to the end of the hallway with Nott's room on one side and Beau's on the other. Beyond the elegant door to Nott's room, almost lost in the shadow, was a corner around which was a short narrow hallway that led to another door. This one was narrower and plainer than the rest, with no nameplate. Caleb pointed. "This one's mine," he said.

"It doesn't look like the other doors," Beau said.

"That is because it is not like them," Caleb said. 

"But you said all the rooms were identical?" she prodded, inquisitive as ever.

"They are," Caleb said, now looking extremely uncomfortable. "Except for this one. There just wasn't room --"

"If this room is different I wanna see!" Jester said, practically bouncing up and down on the spot. "I wanna seeeee!"

Caleb sighed, sounding put upon but also sounding far too tired to resist Hurricane Jester. No doubt he suspected that if he continued to refuse, she would simply wait until he had gone to bed to pounce on him in the middle of the night. Without a word, he pushed the door open.

The room beyond was -- honestly, Caduceus would have taken it for a spacious closet if not for the bed tucked into the corner. It was an odd shape, the roof slanted sharply inwards over a space that took a dogleg around a corner. Aside from the bed there was a small desk wedged into a corner and a trunk under the bed. A lamp hung from a hook next to the door. That was all.

If someone had asked Caduceus to guess what sort of things Caleb would put in his own room, he would have thought for a minute and probably come up with books. If pressed, he would have imagined a room with shelves and shelves of books lining every wall and overflowing every corner, but this room had none.

"Oh," Yasha said, sounding shocked and subdued. 

"Why the hell is your room so small?" Beau demanded.

"I told you already, I ran out of space to place another room," Caleb said defensively.

"Yeah, but you could've taken space from the sitting area outside, or the hall downstairs, or the library, or the basement," Fjord pointed out. "Hell, you could have taken out one of the stairs. There is   space Caleb, you could have used any of that space."

"I had already finalized the floor plan and didn't want to redo everything," Caleb shrugged. "It's all that I need. It's only for one night, anyway."

"Yes, but you made sure that our   rooms had bathrooms and comfy chairs and huge beds and snacks and flowers and everything, " Jester said. She sounded distressed, nearly in tears. "Why did you make all that stuff for us and not for you?"

Caleb looked down at the floor, growing visibly more uncomfortable the longer the intense gazes and piercing questions were on him. "I wanted to make sure that you had everything you would want or need," he mumbled. "I already knew what I would need. Or wouldn't need."

"Or what you thought you didn't deserve?" Nott said shrewdly. Caleb hunched a little, drawing into his coat like a turtle withdrawing into its shell.

"You know what I think," Caduceus said at last, breaking into the conversation. "I think that this is Caleb's room, so the only person it has to be just right for is Caleb himself. It's getting late, so maybe we should all go back to our own rooms and not worry so much about his."

That wasn't enough to completely end the discussion --  Beau at least looked prepared to argue all night -- but it broke things up somewhat, most of the group drifting off as Caduceus himself turned and walked away. Caleb shot him a look that was full of gratitude, to which Caduceus returned a smile. 

For himself, Caduceus was more than ready to call it a night. It had been a long and difficult day and the evening, while more enjoyable, had been tiring in its own way. He made his way back to his own room, stopped a moment to admire the elegant curling brasswork of his nameplate, and shut the door behind him on the sound of Jester begging Molly and Fjord for one more round of cards.

The room was cozy -- a bit crowded with all the furniture but it was a relief to lie on a bed long enough that he could stretch out. Most places they stayed at had beds that were modest even for human-sized people, on which he practically had to fold double to fit. It had been nice of Caleb to think of him when making these beds.

He took some time to examine the flowers in the vase by the bedside, admiring the attention to detail that had gone into such a little touch. Lilies, mostly: slender white calla lilies, bright orange tiger lilies with fierce black accents, pink-and-white stargazers, purple martagons with their tight-curled leaves. They hadn't had many lilies at the Blooming Grove; they didn't have much to offer in terms of food or medicinal value, and they were poisonous to almost all peoples. Still, they were beautiful to look at. 

Since Caleb had said it was safe inside the house Caduceus took the time to take off his armor, arranging it carefully on the chair before leaning his staff against the bedside table. He lowered the hood on the lamps, reducing their light to a faint orange glow, and crawled into bed.

 


 

His dreams were unusually vivid, filled with intense colored lights and disorienting perceptions of depth and space. He dreamed that his home in the Blooming Grove had come to Caleb's mansion, moss carpeting the bedrooms as vines trailed over the stairs, trees growing up in the great hall and shafts of sunlight piercing down through the uncertain ceilings. The baths became a pond became a stream that trickled away up the stairwell, falling away out of sight as Caduceus wandered the house looking for his friends.

He came to the doorway of the kitchen, which for some reason was on the top floor at the end of the hallway. Green ivy grew on each of the cabinet doors and golden sunlight flooded in from above, and the two of them twisted together with such vivacious color that he found his breath taken away. Abruptly the pattern of gold and green was something more   than just a growth of plants; in that instant She was there, as he had only seen Her a handful of times before.

" caduceus ," She whispered, Her voice a symphony of breeze and flowing streams and bird calls and rustling leaves. " child ..."

"Mother," Caduceus murmured, and his throat would be dry if this were real life. The sunlight increased to such an intensity that it made his eyes hurt.

" beware ..." She sighed in the rustling of the wind in the branches. " beware ... beware .... "

"What?" Caduceus squinted against the sunlight, but he couldn't make out Her face among the leaves. "Beware of what?"

Abruptly the light was quenched -- not like the sun had gone behind a cloud but like a torch plunged into water. She was gone. A sudden wind howled through the mansion tearing the leaves off the trees, driving dirt into the water and withering the plants. Caduceus raised a hand to shield his face, tears in his eyes as he tried to make out what was driving the wind, but he couldn't see --

He woke.

To darkness.

Something was wrong. When he'd gone to bed that night the lamps had still been on; he'd turned down the wick and draped a hood over it so that he would be able to sleep, but he liked to have a little light to sleep by since unlike most of his friends he didn't have darkvision. Now the lamp was out.

He pushed back the covers. It was cold, much too cold, and there was a tang in the air he didn't like.

Caduceus fumbled for the staff he'd propped against the edge of the table, grateful now that he hadn't put it further away. A quick spell sent magic shimmering in the crystal at the end of the staff, lighting the room in verdant green.

The greenish hue was not kind to the furnishings and decorations of the bedroom, sending a sickly hue over everything. No -- that was not just the light. Caduceus leaned over and looked at the flowers that had been blooming in the vase by the bed.

Wilted, withered, every one of them. The stems were starting to rot and the water stank of it.

He stood up from the bed and did a circuit around the room. The food that had been stored in the little cabinet was stale and rotted, the source of the rancid smell that had greeted his nose on awakening. The floor was awash in dust and clutter, as though a careless wind had thrown dirt and trash everywhere. 

Beware ,   the Wildmother's voice echoed in his head.

"Of what?" Caduceus said aloud. "What did this?"

"Caduceus?" A soft rapping at the door to his room heralded the knob turning and the door opening a crack. Jester peeked around the door jamb, her eyes reflecting silver in the low light and her face washed out pale. Her voice was small, scared, lacking its usual cheer. "Are you up?"

"Yes," Caduceus said, abandoning his inspection of the ruined room and coming over to the door. "What's going on?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. I woke up because I had a dream..." Her lower lip trembled slightly. "The Traveler spoke to me, he told me to wake up because something bad was going to happen. And my room was..."

"You too, huh?" Caduceus said softly. He was wide awake now. Whatever was dire enough to garner omens from not just one but two gods, it went far beyond withered flowers and cold rooms.

"There was dirt and trash everywhere!" Jester fussed. "And all of the snacks had gone bad! I don't understand it! It's looks like it's been weeks, not hours, but we can't have slept for weeks! Can we?"

"I don't think so," Caduceus said slowly. "The spell is supposed to end after twenty-four hours, isn't it? If it's still going, it can't have been more than one day."

Jester swallowed; he saw her throat move in the pale light. "I'm not sure the spell is working right," she whispered.

"Tell you what," Caduceus said. "Let's go and talk to Caleb. He'll know how close we are to morning and if something is wrong with the spell, he can fix it."

He left the trashed room behind him and stepped out into the hall. The corridor seemed longer than it had earlier that night, echoing and dark. They walked along the hallway down to Caleb's room, passing the rest of the doors on their left and the sitting area on the right. The coals in the firepit had gone stone-cold and the unpleasant stink of wet ashes permeated the hallway.

There was a soft sound just at the edge of his hearing, the sound of something moving -- scuttling   in the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by his staff. He couldn't place it, not with all his knowledge of animals, and that lack of familiarity raised the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. Whatever it was, it didn't belong here -- Caleb had said that nothing should be able to enter the house without his permission.

Jester didn't seem to have heard the faint noises. Nothing came at them out of the darkness, so Caduceus didn't mention it. No point in worrying her over nothing. The house was safe, after all.

Supposed to be.

They reached the far end of the hallway with Nott and Beau's room, the sharp corner and short hallway that led to Caleb's room. Jester hurried ahead as they got near, rounding the corner to knock urgently at Caleb's door. She waited, jittering impatiently as Caduceus caught up, then knocked again. The sound echoed hollowly, but there was no answer from within.

"Caleb?" Jester said in the loudest whisper Caduceus had ever heard.  "Caleb wake up! Something's wrong with your mansion spell thing and we don't know how to fix it! Caleb?"

"What's happening?" another voice came from Caduceus' right. The door opened a crack to reveal one glowing yellow eye; the other was closed as Nott rubbed sleepily at her face. "What about Caleb?"

"We're not sure," Caduceus told her frankly. "Something seems to be wrong with the spell; the lights and fires are all out and Caleb isn't answering his door."

Nott's eyes widened, and she disappeared back into her room for a moment to the advent of thumping sounds. Jester knocked again, harder. 

"What happened to the lights?" a cranky voice drifted from behind him. "Ow! Fuck! Where's my goggles?" A series of thumps and crashes came from the door behind him; Beau could not see in the dark like the other girls and did not have any spells to light her way. Caduceus went over to her door and pushed it open so that the light from his staff could shine into her room.

"Jeez, Deuces, could you knock first?" Beau grumbled as she straightened, rubbing her shins. "The fuck's going on?"

"You said something's happened to Caleb?" Nott reappeared with her cloak and armor on, crossbow at the ready in her hand as she peered out into the corridor. "What is it? Where is he?"

"I don't know what's happened," Caduceus said to both of them. "Only that the lights were all out when we woke up and we can't seem to wake Caleb."

"Caleb!" Jester's voice rose from in front of Caleb's door, and she pounded her fist on the wooden surface with all her considerable might. "Open up! Don't make me break down this door to make sure you're okay because I will!"

"Is it even locked? The others weren't," Caduceus pointed out. Leaving Beau and Nott to peer warily and squint blindly down the dark corridor, respectively, Caduceus came around the corner to shine his light on Caleb's door.

Or rather, on the blank stretch of wall where the corridor abruptly dead-ended.

Caleb's room was gone.

 


 

 

~tbc...

 

Chapter Text

 

Fjord would've liked to say that he'd been leery of this whole setup from the start. That he'd disliked the idea of stepping into a whole new dimension, been wary of creating whole little worlds out of nothingness, that he'd had second thoughts about putting down his head to sleep in such an unknown, uncanny environment.

It would've been nice to be able to say that he'd been careful, watchful, that he'd held back a few contingency plans in the event that something went catastrophically wrong. But he hadn't. He'd been so charmed by Caleb's little world, so tempted by the possibilities of being able to rest the night in comfort and safety, that he'd swallowed it down whole. Never gave a single thought to how it might go wrong, because it never had before, right?

And he'd trusted Caleb. They all had.

Fjord had never really known real   darkness, not the way other races did; he'd always been able to see a little bit, even in the caves beneath Alfield, even in the deepness of the midnight watch. He'd always been able to see but that wasn't the same as being able to see,   not like you could in real light. Colors got washed out first thing, textures and surfaces rendered as flat looming planes of slate and charcoal. You could see, in the dark, but you couldn't search. Not really.

So he picked his way across the middle level of the mansion with a torch in one hand, methodically searching every room for any sign of Caleb. He didn't expect to find him, not really; there was no goddamn reason for Caleb to have hidden himself in a kitchen cabinet or under the desk in the library. But they didn't understand any   of this, so one nonsensical explanation was as good as any; they had to check them all.

The kitchen had been unpleasant. That was underselling it, Fjord thought. The kitchen had been stuffed with food the night before and all of it had rotted -- somehow -- in the last few hours, sinking down into festering puddles that dripped over the edge of the shelves and pooled on the floor. The stink of rancid rot was indescribable, but at least it had been a smell he'd recognized. A smell he understood.

If he'd really expected to find Caleb anywhere it was in the library, but there was no sign of him. The shelves and shelves of books had all undergone the same decay as the food, shells and husks of books that crumbled apart at a touch. There was a smell there, too, one that came and went, one that slipped around the very edge of his senses. Worse than the kitchen, somehow, because for all the mess and cess and refuse he'd seen in his thirty-odd years of life -- for all the blood brimstone and bile they'd waded through in the past six months -- he didn't know this one. Didn't know what it heralded. Didn't know what it meant.

Bilge duty was always the least popular duty on a ship, worse even than emptying out the chamber pots in the crew's quarters. Fjord had gotten stuck with it a lot, as a junior crewmember nobody had liked enough to trade shifts with. He still remembered the darkness -- never full dark, no, but the world washed out into charcoal and slate -- and the stinking brine sloshing against his shins and smarting in his scrapes. 

But most of all he remembered the creak and groan of the ocean around him, the weight of water that surrounded the ship and pressed in on all sides. Tight boards and well-caulked joints kept it at bay -- for the most part. Water still oozed in through cracks, through seams, through little plugholes, seeped across the floorboards and lapped at your ankles. That was the whole reason bilge duty was needed, after all; the sea crept in all the same, one drop at a time.

The house now felt like the ship then, a pocket of space far below the waterline, with the weight of the sea pressing in on every side. But always before, always, always had been the sound of the ocean on the other side of the beams; the water carried sounds from leagues away. Whatever was on the other side of these walls, it carried only silence.

No sign of Caleb. The others were searching too; he heard Molly and Yasha knocking around in the basement, calling every now and then as though Caleb were a stray cat who just needed to be coaxed back with honeyed words and little treats. Nott was somewhere on this floor, and the clerics and Beauregard searching the top floor. Fjord didn't expect to find Caleb, didn't expect any of them to find Caleb. But he kept looking, all the same.

The main room was trashed, just like the rest of it. The stately chandelier had crashed to the floor and lay in shattered, mangled pieces near the center of the room. The furniture was overturned, scattered, but mostly whole. When the light of his torch shone on it the beautiful fabrics looked discolored, diseased, as though a flood had come through here and washed over everything before subsiding. No damp, though. Dry as a bone.

When the light of his torch didn't shine on it the furniture still loomed at the corners of his darkvision, blank and featureless, looming faces of slate and charcoal. It was only his imagination that they moved when he wasn't looking, he was sure; they were always blank and still when he looked back. He couldn't hear them shift, when he was looking the other way. He couldn't hear anything at all.

Something was wrong.

Well, obviously there was a lot   wrong here; but there was something that needled at him, a little whisper he couldn't quite bring himself to ignore. Something was different from last night. It was always the missing pieces, the things that weren't   there, that were the hardest --

It itched at the corner of his vision but every time he turned to look, he saw nothing. Just blank looming silhouettes, silent, unmoving. Nothing. Nothing.

Just blank faces, charcoal and gray...

Just blank...

Just...

He turned around slowly, so slowly, the light of his torch following him as his eyes moved up and saw what was behind him. What was not behind him. As his brain labored to complete the thought behind the rising panic, the gibbering horror, the choking sensation of water rushing up past his chin. As he saw -- 

Nothing.

He snapped and bolted for the stairs, taking them at a pace that put Jester and Beau's race from last night to shame.

"Beauregard!" he bellowed, and if it came out more high-pitched and panicked than he would've liked to admit, there were bigger things to worry about right now. He reached the top of the stairs and saw her turn towards him, the goggles on her face letting her share in his brand of night-vision. (Caleb would have said she looked like a nerd, but then, Caleb couldn't exactly throw stones, now could he --) "We've got a problem."

"I'd fucking say!" Beau hollered back.

He hit the top of the stairs and used the railing to turn; the elegant wrought-iron was rusted and corroded into a tangle which bit his hands as he gripped it. "The door's gone," he said.

In the dimness he saw Jester lift her hands, letting out a loud huff of exasperation. "Yes we know   Fjord, Caleb's gone, that's why we're trying to find   him, he's not in any   of the rooms upstairs --" she started.

"Not Caleb's   door," Fjord interrupted harshly. "The other door."

Jester stared at him. "What?!"

"The way out," Fjord reported, still catching his breath. "The door back to the real world. It's gone."

" What?!"






The mad rush that followed down to the missing door brought the rest of the Nein back to the main level, abandoning their fruitless and increasingly desperate search for Caleb in the ruined mansion. 

Not that there was much for them to do on arrival except stare at the blank stretch of wall where the door should have been, hearts sinking collectively into their shoes as the reality of the situation began to weigh in.

"We need to find Caleb," Nott said, her voice shrill with a suppressed edge of panic. "He can fix this."

"What the fuck do you think we've been trying to do!?"   Beau snapped, never one for holding her temper. "He's not anywhere in this goddamned house! He's not anywhere!"

"He has to be somewhere,"   Caduceus said, with an air of one desperately trying to cling to a thread of reason. "He can't just -- simply cease to exist."

Yasha stirred herself enough to say, in a soft and empty tone, "Maybe he left."

"He wouldn't!" Jester denied it vehemently. "Not if it meant we would be stuck here!"

"Besides, he said this place was like the hut," Nott added. "If he leaves, the spell ends. He can't have left, and he wouldn't have left! Not without telling us. Something must have taken him. He could be in danger! He could be dead!"

"He can't be dead," Molly said quickly, trying to head off this spiral into hysteria. "Because then the spell would end, wouldn't it?"

"Unless it wouldn't! Unless he's dead and we're all trapped here forever! Unless --"

"Guys!" Jester said loudly, interrupting the rest of the shouting. "I have an idea for how to get the door back!"

That stopped the debate as everyone's gaze turned on Jester, who flushed a little at the attention. "I have my paints, remember?" she said. "If we need a door, I can just draw a door! And then we can go out and maybe we'll find Caleb outside."

"Worth a shot," Beau said with a shrug.

"Hells, I'll try anything once," Molly agreed.

Fjord wasn't so sure, but so far Jester was the only one with an idea. So he hung back and watched, barely daring to breathe, as Jester set down the haversack and dug around in it for her magic paints. Magic paints which Caleb had given her, Fjord remembered with a pang. One of many, many things the wizard had given them.

It couldn't be true what Nott said, that Caleb was dead. It couldn't be true what Yasha said, that Caleb had left them. It couldn't be true, what Fjord feared, that Caleb would --

It couldn't be true, and he focused on Jester instead.

With broad, sweeping strokes of the paintbrush Jester traced a space on the wall wide enough for them to walk through, an arch over her head high enough to duck through. The dark paint flashed in the gloom, iridescent colors washing over the new doorway before it settled.

Where there had been just a wall there now was a door; not as fancy as the door to the Mansion had been, not as large, but solid and very, very real. Jester grinned at them in delight over her shoulder, reached for the handle, and flung the door wide --

Into emptiness.

A wall of air slammed into them with as much force as Caleb's wall of fire, as breath-stealing as a wall of water. Fjord was barely able to keep his feet , and stumbled a step towards the doorway as the air pushed at him. He barely managed to grab Nott with one hand and pull her back against a drop that was suddenly endless because the mountain landscape was gone. The landscape   was gone. Mountains, snow, trees, ground, it was all gone as the floor past Jester's doorway dropped away into a gulf of absolute nothing.

The wind continued to howl past them, no longer pulling them out but whipping in frenzied whirlwind around their ears. Jester clung to the doorway with tenacious strength; Nott clung to Jester, her ears flat to her skull in terror as they were flooded with alien sights and sounds. 

Far beyond the horizon, stars glimmered in swirling clouds of dust that glowed with an eerie iridescence. The space beyond the doorway was filled with stars, some distant, some close enough that they seemed less than a stone's throw away. Among this vast field of stars, shapes moved, swimming between the glowing currents with deceptive speed. In the dizzying gulf of space beyond the door it was impossible to tell if they were near at hand and moving slowly, or far distant and enormous at speed. 

Fjord could hardly make sense of what he saw. In his sailor's experience they looked like creatures of the ocean, swimming strangely through this darkened space: floating rafts of jellyfish with a gentle luminescence, long stretches of serrated fins undulating their way between columns of dust, and from far ahead, coming towards them -- 

Coming towards them -- massive, impossible,  jaws larger than this house and claws that could snap a ship in two like a twig --

" Shut the godsdamn door!"   Molly yelled, and Jester and Yasha had to wrestle with the double doors together against the pressure of the wind.

The door slammed closed, and it was suddenly quiet again. Dark, too; the wind had blown out their torches. Caduceus spoke a word and eerie green light shone again from his staff, illuminating their shocked faces staring in a ring around the doorway.

Beau was the first to recover. "What the fuck was that place?!" she demanded in a shaking voice.

"The Astral Plane," Fjord said, and all the faces turned towards him. "Remember? Caleb said that the house was actually in the Astral Plane, because it was easier to magically create things there."

"I guess that makes sense," Caduceus said. "All those stars."

"Sure, it's beautiful, but not exactly where I planned to set up my retirement home," Molly said, only an edge to his quipping revealing his nervous tension. "How do we get back to the real world?"

"We find Caleb," Nott said. "He'll get us home."

"And if we can't find him?" Molly challenged.

The conversation stuttered for a moment as they all groped around for answers. "Didn't he say that when the spell ends it would spit us all out back where we started?" Fjord said after a minute.

Beau was nodding. "Yeah, that was why he wanted us to get all our gear together before we left..."

"Then maybe all we have to do is wait here," Fjord said. "I don't like this place any more than you do, but if the spell will expire on its own..."

"No! We have to find Caleb!" Nott snapped. "Who knows where he is or what's happening to him? What if he's out there somewhere? We can't just sit here and do nothing!"

Fjord's head throbbed, a dull pain that echoed down through his neck into the twisting tension of his shoulders. He didn't want to argue with her, he didn't want   to leave Caleb, but somebody had to be realistic and think of all   the options and she was --

"She's right, you know," someone said. 

It took Fjord a second to realize that he didn't know who. That the light, accented tenor didn't match up with any of the voices in their party. He jerked back, summoning the Star Razor to his hand on instinct, and squinted around in the shadows to no avail. Nothing. "Who said that?" he demanded, feeling the thin edge between foolish and sudden movement.

"I did," the voice said again.

It came from the darkness beyond Caduceus' circle of light. It came from deeper in the mansion. It came from... somewhere near the floor?

Fjord stepped back from Jester's doorway, dragging his gaze slowly across the floor in the direction of the voice. He jerked backwards when a pair of eyes suddenly flashed back at him in the gloom, shining red for a moment before shifting to viridescent green.

A small shadow detached from the darkness and padded over towards them, resolving as it did into the shape of a cat.

"Frumpkin!" Nott exclaimed, her voice rich with relief. "You're okay!"

The fey cat jumped up onto the back of the sofa, one of the few pieces of furniture left intact by the howling winds, and blinked at them. It opened its mouth, and the same voice from before emanated from it, a light tenor blurred with the same Zemnian accent that always shaped Caleb's speech. "Correct," it said in a dust-dry tone, "though not for lack of chances otherwise."

The Mighty Nein stared. "Frumpy?" Jester squeaked. "You can talk?"

Caduceus gave a start. "Oh wow, the rest of you can hear him too," he said. "I thought it was just me. Wow, cats can talk here? That's neat."

Frumpkin sat back on his haunches and gave Jester a disdainful stare. "I'm not actually a cat, you realize," he said.

"Of course not, you're not a cat," Fjord said, dizzy with the weirdness of this all. "You're just a ... fey... cat."

"A fey being , yes," Frumpkin corrected frostily. "My foolish master simply prefers that I look like a cat most of the time, and I oblige him."

Caduceus tilted his head to the side in a curious gesture. "If you can speak and understand in human tongue, why did you never speak up before this?"

Frumpkin flirted his tail to the side, managing to convey a careless shrug. "The rules are different here than on the Material Plane, as you are aware. The circumstances are a little... extenuating. You all are a group of clumsy disasters, but I suppose you'll have to do."

"Hey... I don't have to take that from a cat..." Beau protested, though it was half-hearted.

" Fey cat," Fjord corrected her.

"What the fuck ever!" Beau snapped.

Nott squinted at the familiar with no small amount of doubt. "How do we know that you aren't some kind of monster that just looks like Frumpkin?" she said suspiciously. 

"It's refreshing that you're being cautious -- for a change," Frumpkin said dryly. "Many denizens of the Astral Plane can change their shape according to what they see in your mind. But I am Caleb's familiar. The telepathic bond that links us means that I know everything that he knows. Ask me anything, if it will help you believe me. But be aware that you have limited time."

Beau frowned. "Limited time for what?"

"To find my idiot of a wizard and recover him before the spell runs out," Frumpkin replied.

"Oh yes! Caleb!" Jester pushed forward eagerly. "Where is he? Do you know?"

Another flick of the tail. "Still in the house, of course. If he left it, the spell would end."

"But we searched the house already and did not find him!" Yasha protested.

"You searched this   iteration of the house, yes," Frumpkin replied. "He's further in, on a deeper level."

Fjord tried to make sense of this. Deeper in? But Molly and Yasha had already searched the lower level. A hidden tunnel? To where, if the place was surrounded by oceans of star and sky? "Okay, you're going to have to explain that one from the top," he said, giving up on the riddle.

Frumpkin let out a remarkably put-upon sight, for a cat. "Must I?" he said, apparently rhetorically, for he continued on without prompting. "All right, listen. 

"The primary difference between the Astral Plane and the Material Plane is its comparatively low levels of ontological inertia, which decreases in a steady gradient as you travel outwards from the Material Plane itself. This renders the Astral Plane highly receptive to thaumaturgic influences as well as psionic manipulation of both the conscious and unconscious kind."

Frumpkin went on. "The function of the Magnificent Mansion spell is fourfold: first to open a stable and time-controlled portal from the Material Plane to the Outer Planes, second to delimit a boundary within the Astral Plane to be affected, third to specify a set of reality parameters and to impose them upon the materia of the plane, fourth to execute the spell and impose the parameters upon the designated space. It is the responsibility of the arcanist, of any responsible arcanist to terminate the input parameters before actually imposing the command to reshape reality on the designated space. My incompetent master, attempting to cast a spell too advanced for him and allowing himself to be distracted during a crucial part of the ritual, left that parameter open ."

He delivered that line with heavy emphasis, the words dripping with portent, and Fjord wasn't sure how to admit that he had no idea what all that was supposed to mean. Fortunately, someone else in the party did.

Nott spoke up. "So you're saying that the spell was still taking mental input from Caleb even after he was done casting." Fjord was reminded that she had the sharpest mind in the group after Caleb's, and the closest thing out of the rest of them to a proper arcane education from her apprenticeship with him.

"Correct." Frumpkin's whiskers fanned forward, his eyes half-closing. "At least one of you is capable of basic comprehension."

This time, Beau ignored the insult to focus on the message. "Wait, what?" she said. "The mansion changed to reflect Caleb's thoughts?!"

"Yes."

"But -- everything was fine at first!" Jester protested. "The spell was working fine last night!"

"Last night he was lucid, and calm, and still concentrating on what he wanted the mansion to look like," Frumpkin said. "Then he went to bed -- in a part of the house that was tacked on outside the original boundaries of the spell I might add, and already on shaky ground ontologically speaking."

Caduceus spoke up for the first time. "And he had a nightmare."

Everyone turned to look at him. Caduceus looked around at the ring of faces. "Didn't he?" he said. "Sleeping alone for the first time in a new, strange place after a stressful day?"

"Oh, no..." Jester whispered.

Frumpkin nodded, a weirdly human gesture for a cat-shaped being. "You are correct. Yes, he had a nightmare, and that would have been bad enough by itself. Then he woke up -- alone -- saw the changes that were already taking place around him, and panicked. The thaumatic delimiters were already collapsing and that shattered them entirely. The resulting backlash rent the very fabric of the plane around it, causing iterative layering of overlapping spaces and exposing it to the surrounding plane."

"Meaning what?" Beau demanded.

"Meaning just what I said," Frumpkin said, beginning to sound exasperated. "The house is supposed to be sealed against the native thaumic currents of the Astral Plane. Once that seal was broken, they tore the mansion apart. The whole place is crawling with the fauna of immateria, now."

Molly raised one hand in the air. "Can anyone translate this for the non-casters in the party?" he said, sounding frustrated and plaintive.

"Oh boy," Nott said. She took her flask out of her pocket and took a long drink, the first drink she'd had since entering the mansion the night before. She squinted at Frumpkin, then turned to look at Molly. "So, um... you know Jester's magic paints, and how anything she paints becomes real?"

Molly gestured to the brand-new door behind them, and Jester nodded emphatically. 

Nott sighed. "Well, it's like that, except instead of having magic paints that do that, imagine you have a magic piece of canvas where anything you paint on it becomes real. And Caleb painted a nice little house on it, with magic. With me so far?"

"Sure," Molly said. 

"But then he forgot to, um, forgot to put the cap back on the paints when he was done," Nott said, words beginning to tumble out in a nervous rush. "And then he had a nightmare and knocked the paint over and it went all over the magic canvas. Except that the paint looked like all of his worst nightmares and memories and terrors, so all of those are real now.  And also in the process the canvas tore into a bunch of pieces and also the canvas was holding back a whole other magical plane full of weird creepy monsters that are now coming in through rips in the canvas. And also there's no door back home and we're trapped here and the whole world we're in will stop existing in less than twenty-four hours."

The rest of them stared. Nott looked over at Frumpkin. "Have I got that right?" she said.

"Allowing for the crudity of the metaphor, yes," Frumpkin replied.

"Well, fuck," Molly said eloquently. 

"Pretty much," Nott agreed.

"Are you telling me we're in a haunted magical mansion designed by Caleb's worst nightmares?" Beau demanded.

Frumpkin's tail lashed in agitation, but he settled back again. "That is what I have been telling you, yes."

" Fuck."   Beau looked like she could have used a drain off Nott's flask. "We're gonna need so much fire resistance."

"But why did the first door disappear? And why did my door show us all that weird stuff?" Jester said plaintively.

"Because your door was only   a door, and it led only to the exterior of the house, which is currently on the Astral Plane," Frumpkin said. "It had the same effect as knocking a hole in the physical wall of the house, which I don't recommend, by the way. The actual portal back to the Material Plane is a part of the spell, and it only exists as long as the caster is within thirty yards of it. Assuming you can return my wayward master to this iteration of the house, the door to the Material Plane will return as well."

"But you said earlier that he's still in the house." Fjord was still not following this particular point. "That the spell would have ended otherwise."

"Yes." Frumpkin's voice was decidedly irritated by now. "Haven't you been listening? He is still in the house. Just not on this level."

Nott butted in, which was probably for the best as she seemed to be the only one able to follow the fey creature. "You keep saying things like that - 'this iteration' and 'this level.' What does that mean?" she said. "Downstairs, upstairs, or what?"

" 'Or what' indeed," Frumpkin said. "The boundaries on the spell maintaining this house have been stretched and warped all beyond their original configurations. You'll find multiple iterations of the original mansion below this one, further into the Astral Plane. Precisely how many, I can't be sure -- more than two, less than a thousand."

"A thousand?!" Beau squawked, dismayed.

"Yes. So I advise you don't waste too much time," Frumpkin said, his voice dust-dry. "You'll need to find him and bring him back before the end of the twenty-four hours."

"What happens if we don't find him in time?" Molly asked in a low voice.

Another feline shrug. "Anything on this level will be returned to its temporal anchor on the Material Plane, as per the specifications of the spell. But anything on the lower levels will be cut off, stranded in the Astral Plane. Most likely forever."

Dead silence rang after that.

"Well, we can't let that happen to Caleb," Jester said definitively. "He's the only wizard we've got!"

"Definitely not," Molly agreed, to various levels of head-nodding all around.

Nott crouched down to Frumpkin's level, intent. "How do we get there? How do we reach him?"

"Finally, a useful question." Frumpkin climbed to his feet. "You'll need to find the location that the rupture occurred in the first place. You need to find Caleb's room."

"But it's not there," Caduceus said, bewildered. "It was the first place we looked."

"It's here. Somewhere," Frumpkin said, and Fjord had never seen a cat radiate such conviction. "It was ripped from its original anchor point, but it can't have migrated outside the boundaries of the spell. there's no guarantee that it will be in the same part of the house every time, but it will always be here somewhere ."

Yasha leaned in. "Will anything try to stop us?" she asked.

"Very likely," Frumpkin said.

"What?" Jester exclaimed. "But the house was supposed to be safe!"

Frumpkin sighed. "It was safe when it was sealed against the Astral Plane. Now that seal is broken. Any number of local denizens could crawl in through the cracks, and they are unlikely to be friendly."

"Oh, that's just great," Molly said with disgust.

"Can you show us the way, Frumpy?" Jester entreated.

"Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to wade out into the jagged edges of a shattered spell built on the unstable currents of magic and reality while dodging abominations from the far realms and figments of my master's worst nightmares," Frumpkin said, and wow,   the air was just sopping with sarcasm after that. "But sadly,   I will need to stay here."

"Convenient for you, huh?" Beau muttered.

Frumpkin heard her easily. "And for you as well, if you wish to ever be able to return to the Material Plane," he said sharply. "Someone will need to remain on the upper level to ensure the pathway stays open and the entire Mansion does not collapse into itself. It could be any of you, but that would leave you down a combatant when going into an uncertain situation."

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Fjord admitted, "but the cat is right."

"Of course   I'm right," Frumpkin said witheringly. 

"If we're going, we should all go together," Fjord continued. "And if we are all going, we should go sooner instead of later."

"Well, I'm definitely going," Nott declared. "My boy needs   me."

"Me too!" Jester seconded enthusiastically. "We have to rescue Caleb!"

"Count me in," Molly said. The prospect of facing off against abominations from the Astral Plane in a crawl through an uncanny dungeon had done surprisingly little to daunt him; if anything, his red eyes gleamed with a current of excitement. Yasha nodded her own confirmation.

"Shit yeah, I'm going," Beau said.

"Then we're agreed," Caduceus finished the round. "Shall we get started?"

"Guess so," Fjord said. "All right everyone, get whatever you're taking with you and then comb the house. If Frumpkin here says there's a door --" and he felt ridiculous saying it, but wasn't that just his life these days -- "then there's a door, and we've got to find it as soon as possible."






They found the door to Caleb's bedroom, of all places, on the inner wall of the bathroom in Beauregard's room. She'd missed it in the dark on her first sweep -- but then again she'd been looking for a man, not a doorway. Didn't stop Molly from twitting her about it, or Beau from grumbling.

It looked bizarre and out of place, a plain doorway set about a foot off the ground, with no matching exit on the other side of the wall. It looked like a fake or a painting and yet when they opened it, there was a stairway leading down.

Jester went first with Nott hot on her heels, keen eyes searching the space for any traps or hazards. Molly followed with his swords unsheathed, and Yasha looming over his shoulder. Caduceus had to duck his head to fit through the doorway in a way he hadn't for the rest of the mansion. Once on the stairs he turned his head over his shoulder to send Fjord a look of silent question; Fjord waved him onwards, an equally silent assurance.

"Well," Frumpkin said, from his place crouching on the sink of Beaureagard's bathroom. "Good luck, I suppose. You'll need it. I hope that you will be more cautious down there than you usually are; there are many things in the Astral Plane that are not as they appear."

"Yes, thank you for that," Fjord said with a sigh. He hesitated a moment at the stairs, looking around the Mansion, and turned back to Frumpkin one more time. "If you don't mind my asking... there's just one thing I'd like to understand."

"You can certainly try," Frumpkin said dryly.

Fjord bit at his upper lip, felt the slight dig of his tusks. "What does   happen if we don't go further into the house? If we just bunker down here and wait the spell out?"

Frumpkin's eyes lowered to half-mast, and he ducked his head a little before he replied: "When the duration of the spell expires, it ends, and all creatures within the mansion are returned to their starting point in the Material Plane."

"And that's the case even if the door is gone?" Fjord asked.

"Yes. I believe so."

Fjord took a deep breath. "So we'd all get out safely if we just waited here. If we didn't risk ourselves, and instead sat here and did nothing."

"Correct."

"All of us except for Caleb."

A longer pause this time, but eventually Frumpkin's voice came again, a little more strained. "Yes."

"He'd die?" Fjord said. The words felt empty to say, echoed around the little room like arrows on the ricochet.

"Eventually," Frumpkin said.

For the first time Fjord heard real emotion in the fey creature's voice, sorrow and fear and a deep-buried anger, and he thought about what true affection might be concealed by the surface facade of sarcasm and flippancy. Many things on this plane are not what they appear,   he'd said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Fjord said at last. He squared his shoulders and turned towards the door, resettling his armor and gear on his shoulders. "Well, better get going. We've got a wizard to save."

Ducking a few inches to clear the lintel of the door, he started down the stairs with the others.






The stairwell that descended from Caleb's door was an exact copy of the one by the main doors, leading to the basement. By all rights, starting from the upper floor, it should have taken them to the main level. Instead they found themselves deposited in the basement level, the wide-open training salle and bathing room they'd visited last night. Where Caleb's basement had been designed to be wide-open and welcoming, though, this version of the room was a wreck. 

Fjord had been to Port Morro once, the northernmost port on the Menagerie Coast, shortly after the earthquake that had ripped through the city and torn half its buildings down. Many of the ones that had survived the quake had perched at a skewed angle, the roads buckled, fences and girders twisted as though the hand of a god had reached down and crumpled them up. This room, now, reminded him of walking through the streets of that city.

The ceiling was uneven -- pinched into a high arch in one corner, dipping so low in another that there was barely room to stand. Fjord swore he could hear the creaking of beams from overhead, and places where the beams had been forced apart let a low grey light shine over the space that was its only source of illumination. They found themselves having to pick their way over the churned-up ground; some places had been blasted clean of sand while others had sand and dirt piled deeply enough to make the footing treacherous.

"Keep your eyes peeled, guys," Beau ordered them. 

Caduceus peered obediently into the darker corners, though it was clear he couldn't see much in the dim light. "What are we looking for?" he asked. 

"I dunno, anything?" Beau shrugged. "Any sign of Caleb. Or the door that Frumpkin said would always be somewhere. Or any of those 'fauna of the immateria.' Or any traps. Or --"

"Right, I get it," Mollymauk interrupted her. " 'Anything' it is."

"Do you think there would be traps?" Jester asked in a hushed voice. "I mean, everything here was put here by Caleb, right? He wouldn't want to hurt us!"

"I think that we are in an uncertain situation, and that almost anything is possible," Yasha said. "Beau is right. We should be prepared for anything."

The sounds of their voice echoed through the hushed space, coming back at them repeated by the walls. No -- that wasn't   just an echo, Fjord realized. Their voices had stirred something up in the far corner, something moving --

"Look sharp!" he warned, summoning his sword to his hand. The others all snapped to attention with admirable speed, already tense and on edge for any trouble.

Trouble came melting out of the shadows towards them, coming from two opposite corners and heading straight for them. As they passed under one of the spills of light from above Fjord felt his stomach turn; long, low bodies covered with mangy grey fur and mottled patches of greenish skin. They looked and moved a little like rats, with naked tails and feet and long snouts filled with teeth, but he didn't think rats -- even giant ones -- had three pairs of legs. 

The first of the beasts fell on them with a jagged squeal and Fjord slashed out with his sword, more to force it to keep its distance than in any real hope of connecting. It cringed back, letting out a hiss that dripped spittle, and fell into a wary circling of the party. Up close it was even more hideous; not just the fur but the skin itself was eaten away, showing muscle and viscera and discolored bone, and by the filmy glaze of its eyes he wasn't sure this thing was even really alive.

"What the fuck?" Mollymauk shouted, as his first slash on his monster went wide. Fjord had to squeeze his eyes closed to resolve what he was seeing: the sword stroke seemed   to strike dead-center on the rat, but instead passed harmlessly through and struck up a spray of loose dirt. Beside him, Yasha growled in frustration as her overhand stroke went similarly wide; a crossbow bolt loosed from Nott's position, passed directly through another rat and embedded itself in the walls. "What are   these things?"

Four... five... six rats, Fjord counted, and tried to keep his focus on one, to keep it from darting past him. It lunged, and although Fjord kept his eyes on it all the time, he felt sharp teeth dig into his arm -- a good foot to the left of where the beast had appeared to be. He swore and batted at the place where pain blossomed in his arm, felt his fist connect with something   slimy and a moment later, the rat-thing went tumbling away with a shrill cry.

Fjord grabbed the wound with his free hand, felt blood oozing between his fingers. "It's a trick," he called out. "Some kind of... of illusion? They aren't really where you see them!"

Beau darted forward towards one of the rats and let out a flurry of blows in a fan towards it; one, two punches missed but the third one connected, and the thing crumpled up like an empty cardboard box under the force of the blow. "It's like six inches to the left!" she called out. "And they're fast, but they aren't tough. Try attacks that cover more ground?"

The Mighty Nein did their best to shift tactics. Fjord tried adding a little buzz of thunder to his sword strokes, managing to clip the rat on his next swing even though he missed a dead-center blow. Bright white fire arced from Jester's hand, and the creature let out a dreadful shriek as fire engulfed it. The smell of burned fur and charred flesh spread out over the basement, which honestly was an improvement.

"You realize this is your fault, Jester?" Mollymauk called out, breathless between swings that largely didn't connect. The rat-things died easy enough once you connected a solid hit; it was landing that hit that was tough.

"Nuh uh!" Fire flashed from Jester's hands again, but failed to find a target this time. "What? Why?"

A flash of white fangs from Molly's direction as he danced back, avoiding a vicious bite. "You were the one who asked for giant rats in the basement, after all. You got what you wanted, just a little late!"

"What? Oh. Oh!" A faint blush rose to Jester's face, and she skipped and twirled backwards. "Well. I was hoping they'd be a little cuter!"

"Next time, ask for something harmless!" Nott said. The rats were almost as big as she was; she had to wrestle with one to make it let go of her, dodging to hide behind Yasha's legs. "Like baby birds! Or bunnies!"

"I dunno, rabbits can be pretty vicious," Caduceus said thoughtfully. His hands lit up with a bolt of energy that leapt from his fingers and traveled in an arc, passing through the illusion of the rat to strike the body beside it. The thing screeched and flickered, suddenly appearing in place at the site of the impact, and Beau darted quickly forward and struck it with an arcing overhand blow of her staff before it could recover.

That was the last one. The group stood tensely, hands clenched on their weapons, but no more dark figures melted out of the shadows. The corpses lay inert (or splattered, depending on the force of the blow that had killed them) on the floor, leaking dark viscous fluid into the sand. Caduceus straightened up, looking around at all of them. "Is everyone all right? Anyone need healing?" he called out. "Fjord, you got bit, didn't you?"

"I did, but... maybe you'd better not," Fjord said after a hesitation. 

"What?" Caduceus frowned. "Why not?"

"We don't know how much further we still have to go," Fjord said. "This is just the first room, the first fight. We can't afford for you to waste your magic. This stings, but it won't impede me. I think we can just wrap it up and keep going."

"Well, I'll   take some healing if you're offering it, Deucey," Nott butted in. It was hard to tell, given her skin color and the light in this place, but he thought she looked more greenish than normal. "Fucker took a chunk out of me. Its claws were filthy, too. Ugh!"

Fjord frowned, but didn't stop Caduceus as he stepped forward and laid a gently glowing hand on Nott's side. The rest of them slowly dispersed around the room, searching for any sign -- of Caleb, of the door, of more monsters or hints which way to go -- but found nothing.

The door leading back to the main level was still where it had been in the original, although the frame was bent and twisted. They could only go in single file, the taller members of the party ducking their head to avoid the places the ceiling bulged down.

"Well, I think that could have gone worse," Molly said brightly as they climbed the stairs. "Aside from a few bumps and scrapes, we took care of those things quite handily! If those are the 'fauna of the immateria' that Frumpkin warned us about, then this should be a cakewalk!"

"Why would you even say that?" Beau hissed back. "Why tempt fate? Just... why."

Cautiously the Mighty Nein made their way up the stairwell, emerging into the main hall -- and stopped. The light cast from their torches stopped moving when they did but the shadows kept moving for several seconds after, vague formless patches of darkness scuttling away from them into corners or up walls to blend into the shadows of the ceiling.

The hall they'd woken up to in the morning had been trashed, but still fundamentally the same as the one where they'd dined and played the night before. Here it was again -- in outline -- but warped and changed almost beyond recognition.

Halfway across the room the architecture wrenched abruptly from one side to another; the wooden beams melted suddenly into stone in a way that shouldn't have been physically possible. The high table at the far end of the hall was still there, but the walls around it had been replaced with echoingly high and barren stone walls draped with tapestries bleeding red down to the floor. On the wall behind the head table hung a large, stately coat-of-arms that Fjord recognized as the official seal of the Dwendalian Empire.

The ceiling was vaulted and high, round windows opening to -- not the Astral Plane, that was for sure -- let slanting beams of light down into the hall. In the cold, colorless grey light leaking in from the windows floated countless motes of white. Dust, or -- or Fjord wasn't sure what, but they drifted in choking clouds suspended off the floor. 

The other half of the room retained the warm wooden architecture of Caleb's mansion, but it was half-buried under rising waves of filth. Heaps and heaps of greyish matter -- fungus, rotting fabric, waste matter, decaying corpses, Fjord wasn't even sure -- spilled out of the doorway leading into the kitchen and poured over the floor. Insects buzzed unceasingly and the air was thick with an overpowering, nauseating sickly-sweet smell. Behind him he heard Jester gagging, and barely managed to keep down his own last meal.

"Fuckin' gross,"   Beau muttered, and "What in the Wildmother's name?" he heard Caduceus ask, but Fjord's eyes were drawn towards the kitchen doorway. The rotpile rose even higher there until it was half-blocking the door, and Fjord couldn't even imagine how they were going to get in there, let alone search for any trace of their goal in the filth-choked room.

But he never got the chance to try. From the open gap that was left of the kitchen doorway, three long, slender tendrils snaked through and wrapped themselves around the lintel Another set of three mirrored them on the other side, and the spindly -- fingers, Fjord realized, fingers each as long as his arm -- flexed and heaved as the rest of the creature clambered through the gap.

Long, red-brown hair that straggled like dead grass or water-weeds hung from a lumpish, deformed head. A face with no chin descended into a too-long neck and a spare, almost skeletal frame that sported only the thinnest coverings of flesh. Long strands of some sticky substance stretched and snapped, draped and rejoined with every movement of its spindly limbs. Much of the details of the thing was obscured by a heavy, greenish-colored mist that moved in a cloud around it and heralded its coming.

It climbed out of the kitchen doorway, past the pile of trash, and righted itself under the ceiling. It could not seem to stand straight but instead stooped, its neck and spine almost bent double under the weight of its misshapen head and straggling hair. With every move it made a wave of decay seemed to surge outwards from its deathly appendages, each motion echoed by a creeping spread of the fungal decay that overtook a little more of the room.

The thing turned to face them, and through the haze of decay and the curtain of mouldering hair Fjord saw one single, bulging red eye open over a mouth full of flat, beastlike teeth. It howled,   the sound of the wind going through a tunnel in the a  desolate, wretched cavern in the most distant corner of the map.

Nott shrieked and clutched at Jester; Jester yelled, and a serrated lollipop manifested abruptly over her head. Beau cursed with feeling as she brought her staff around into a stance, and the rest of the Mighty Nein scrabbled for their weapons.

"Well," Fjord said with a sigh, " shit,"   and he summoned his blade.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

Molly was usually all in favor of exciting new circumstances, but this was ridiculous .

The adventuring life had taken the Mighty Nein -- and by extension him -- to all sorts of interesting places. Adventure took them to magic-blasted wastelands and merrow-infested swamps and drowned temples and stinking sewers and chillingly necrotic catacombs, but did it ever take them anywhere nice?

Last night he might have said the answer was yes: that adventure had delivered them for once   to good food and warm beds, luxury pulled from the jaws of rigor and hardship. Last night he would have asked for no more in the world than that: traveling the corners of the map by day to fight wonders and horrors side-by-side with his family, if only they could retire by night to camaraderie and comfort.

And sometime in the middle of the night that had all been turned on its head. Abundant food to rot, hot baths to slimy pits, lamplight to shadow and safety to deadly danger. Wasn't that just his luck.

But hey. Not all was lost. He was still fighting side by side with family, most of them, and they were going to make it whole. One way or another. 

And they certainly had the 'fighting against horrors' part down to the letter.

The monster heaved its stark frame forward over the festering trashheaps that Molly suspected once had been furniture. Greyish ripples spread out from its footprints, wet stinking rot that grew as fast as a man could walk. But the further into the room it moved the more of its flanks it exposed, and Molly strafed to the side to try to close in behind it, form a pincer movement with one of the others. 

His boots slipped in a puddle of rot, leaving a dark streak of slime underfoot and releasing a cloud of spores upwards that made his stomach heave. He coughed, gagged, eyes watering furiously -- almost missed the stringy unmentionable whip of something  that came at his eyes. He dodged, kicked up another cloud of spores, and had to back out before he choked.

The others weren't faring much better, to his dismay; Yasha was coughing, a deeply unpleasant hacking sound in her throat as she pulled a corner of her cloak across her nose and mouth. Nott was pawing at her face as if in attempt to clear it, and Fjord was slumped against the wall, gagging and retching. Only Beau seemed unaffected by the noxious cloud of fumes, dancing in and out of the monster's range as her staff flickered in sharp bursts.

"C'mon, guys, get your shit together!" she rapped out smartly. "Don't all piss around doing your own things. Hit it all together!"

Molly snarled under his breath and pushed forward into the miasma once more, striping the razor-edged blades along his sides as he did to blood them. The swords lit up with a blaze of radiance that was more than light, and he hoped that this unnatural thing   would be weak to it; but it seemed unbothered by the holy glow. Well, just because it was immune to radiance didn't mean it was going to be immune to cold steel.

He slashed once, hit; twice, missed; he had to back out to gasp a lungful of clean air and, holding it, jumped back in. The sword-hits left deep, satisfying gouges in the diseased flesh, jarring impacts back up his hands where they struck bone. Less satisfyingly the hits also knocked loose sprays of oily fluid -- entirely the wrong color and consistency to be blood -- and more clouds of choking spores, puffing into his face and leaving him gasping. The edge of his sword dripped with vile fluids, the flat of the blade stained dark with it...

No -- wait -- the substance of the blade itself   was darkening with it, wisps of dark pewter smoke writhing away from the metal as pits and scars formed along the spine. "What the fuck?"   he demanded as he jerked backwards, brushing frantically away at the foul matter that coated it.

Before his eyes his blade was tarnishing, corroding, sunken pits appearing in the body of the blade and the edge eroding like a sandy beach being eaten by a coming tide. It was not aciding -- his hands brushing frantically didn't burn -- but whatever unholy substance was in its blood was practically digesting   his weapon before his eyes.

"Watch it!" he called out as he fell back another pace and tried to wipe off his sword the best he could. Too late, the damage was already done, damn damn damn.   "This thing'll rot your blades right off the hilt!" 

"Huh?" Beau snatched her staff back from a cracking blow, spinning around to effortlessly evade another clumsy swipe. The dense, polished wood of the staff was smoking like a piece of kindling thrust into a fire, and as she blocked another swipe with the staff a good six inches of it broke off with the force of the blow. " Fuck!"  

"Everybody get back," Fjord called out from his corner, backing up against the walls. "Handle it from range. Don't get near it if you can help it!"

"I absolutely already was not going to go anywhere near it," Nott called out from somewhere near the doorway.

"Don't have to tell me twice," Molly said as he backed cautiously away. His steel scimitar was a lost cause, but so far Summer's Dance was holding up well against the corrosive effects of the creature. Gold didn't corrode easily, it seemed. "Yasha! Get out of there!"

"I'm fine," Yasha called over to him, not looking away from the hideous creature as it inched forward across the floor, filth and fungus growing in waves ahead of it. "My sword's fine. I'll hold it here, the rest of you unload into it!"

And for a while that seemed to work. Jester called her hamster-unicorns and Caduceus lit up like a swarm of fireflies on a summer evening; Fjord pumped blast after blast of verdant energy from a distance. The creature howled and flailed but couldn't get past Yasha, the Magician's Judge retaining an aura of cold clarity through the murk and haze of its aura. Bolt after bolt snapped from Nott's crossbow. Beau and Molly watched from the sidelines as they hit it again, and again, and again.

But for all it writhed and howled and flinched back from their blows, it just never seemed to go down.   It wasn't until the thing reared back Molly got a good look at the mottled, leprous flank under its long trailing arms -- the shiny unmarked flesh where he knew   he had landed hits to the bone -- that he realized what he was seeing.

"It's regenerating!"   he shouted and fuck,   that just wasn't fair.

They could sit here for the rest of the day and pump fire into it, and it would do them no good if it could just heal itself endlessly against the damage they dealt. This thing was blocking their path, it would come for them as soon as they turned their back, and it was taking too long.

Fjord cursed. "We need to step it up!" Beau said. "We gotta go all in, take it out before it gets a chance to recover." She shifted stances, swung her staff back over her shoulder as she rearranged into a bare-hands pose.

"Don't you dare   touch that thing with your bare hands, Beau!" Jester warned with an edge to her voice.

"But our weapons --" Molly protested.

"Better the weapons than your skin," Caduceus agreed. "Is everybody ready? Come on, now --"

While they'd argued and waffled, the monster lurched back a little, hunching over itself so far that the weeds trailing from its chin almost brushed the ground. Then it tensed -- bulged,   the shape of it shifting and coagulating -- and raised its head, single cyclopean eye opening wide and red.

The eye burned with its own inner light, cast out in a red glow that colored everything ahead of it in a broad, spreading cone. The glow intensified, the air shimmered dangerously, the ground on which the light fell began to smoke --

"Now!"   Yasha shouted, and they all went on her signal. Molly gritted his teeth and dove forward, striking again and again until his hands were numb and his vision clouded over from grime caking his eyes, until his nose and mouth were clouded and clogged with dirt and filth and his throat was full of dirt and he couldn't breathe   oh Gods he couldn't breathe --

He missed his strike and staggered to the left, thank the Moonweaver behind the thing and out of the path of its deadly lambent gaze. But he lost his balance and fell forward into a heap of rot that gave way sickeningly beneath his weight, and the dirt under his hands was soft loose earth in his hands and he clawed and clawed but the weight of it was on top of him and he couldn't get out he couldn't see he couldn't breathe --

Lost in his panic, lost in time and space and his own head, he barely heard his own name shouted, the voices of his friends who couldn't possibly be there, in the grave in the woods in the moonlight in the snow. A very small part of him, a very faint  voice in the back of his head told him that he was letting down the team, that they were all supposed to be focusing fire to take down this vile thing before it surged back up again and engulfed them all. But it wasn't strong enough to fight past the fear, the memory, the no no no not again not again that had consumed his world.

"Hey, ugly fucker!" he heard Nott's voice call, as if from a great distance. "Time for me to take out the trash!"

And then there was an explosion, a burst of flame and head and light that washed over his skin even from his position partially shielded behind the monster's body. That   was interesting enough to pull him out of his head, out of the place where his mind was at that moment to jar him back to the present. 

He found control over his arms again, swiped his face aggressively against the rough cloth of his sleeve; rough cloth dragged and stung against his skin but it cleared the worst of the gunk from his nose and eyes. He could breathe again (if he didn't mind the stink of it) and see   as the fire from Nott's bolt exploded around the monster's head, out of the point where it had embedded into the thing's face, just below its single staring eye.

It screeched, staggering backwards, but the sound was cut off in a surprisingly soft and liquid thuppp   as the structure of its skull and neck and part of its ribcage gave way. The rest of its frame collapsed, like one of Gustav's marionettes when the strings had been cut, and though tremors continued to pass through its body and make the tendrils quiver, there could be no doubt that it was dead.

He was all-at-once aware of his own body again, and his stomach wrung out with such force that he was barely able to turn his face downwards before heaving his guts out. He ends up braced on his hands and knees, head hanging down between his shoulders, and dimly thinks that at least the mess he's made is no more disgusting than the floor was already.

"Take out the trash? Really?"   Beau said in disgust, and Molly scrubbed at his face again and looked over to see her shaking her head in disgust. "Fucking weak, man."

"Oh, you think you could do better?" Nott retorted.

"Keep it simple! Just say, 'Go to hell, motherfucker!' Always works for me."

"But that's so generic,"   Nott complained.

Jester's voice chimed in with the other girls. "Maybe you could have said, like, 'Time to do some spring cleaning!' "   she said in an imitation of Nott's voice.

"How's that any better than mine?" Nott whined. "Taking out the trash, spring cleaning, potayto potahto..."

"I like it," Fjord said.

"I like it," Beau also said.

Nott's voice went sulky. "Well, when you kill a horrible rot monster, you can pick the witty quips," she said.

Molly felt a touch on his shoulder, and finally thought he felt enough better to look up. He expected to see Yasha hovering over him and there she was, worried face pale in the background, but the hand on his shoulder belonged to Caduceus. "Are you all right?" he asked. "You looked pretty bad there for a moment. Poison?"

"No, I uh..." Molly pushed himself off his elbows with an effort and ended up falling onto his tail. "I don't think so. Maybe? Fuck, I dunno."

"You collapsed," Caduceus pointed out. "Looked like your body was trying to rid itself of something pretty nasty."

"That was   something pretty nasty. But that wasn't what made me... yeah. That was something else." Molly shivered at the memory of choking, suffocating, wet-earth-soil-damp-rot --

Caduceus frowned, then laid a careful hand on Molly's forehead. "Yeah that's definitely some poison," he said. He stood up and beckoned. "Beauregard, Yasha, come over here. I think I can get all three of you at once."

"Nah, I'm good man," Beau shook her head, but Yasha moved obligingly over. From up close Molly could see there was a sheen of sweat on her forehead, she favored her right arm, and her alabaster complexion was even more grey and colorless than usual. 

Caduceus laid one hand on Yasha's shoulder and the other on Molly's, eyes closed. His expression turned momentarily distant, serene terrifying;   then green light flared and a cool feeling swept over Molly. Immediately he felt better, although the pounding headache and gnawing lethargy of the panic attack still lurked around the corners of his consciousness.

"You should probably stay put for a bit while we search the rest of the level," Caduceus advised them. "Even you, I know you are very strong Miss Yasha but you took some hard hits for us. Take it easy for a bit, okay? Mollymauk, why don't you stay and keep her company?"

Caduceus moved off, joining Fjord and Jester in some conference about where to start their search. Molly snorted. "Subtle, he ain't."

"No, but his intentions are good," Yasha said. She sat down next to Molly on a clear(ish) patch of floor, and frowned at the ragged mess that was all that remained of half his weaponry.

Not that Molly especially minded Yasha's company. She didn't tax him with pointless questions about how he was feeling or what had just happened. She knew, and she also knew the best way to help him was just to sit quietly, making occasional practical conversation about weapons and supplies. Molly ate a strip of the weird mystery jerky that Yasha always carried around with her (he thought this particular variety was turtle, but he wasn't certain) and felt a bit steadier.

With a groan Beau flung herself on the floor next to them. She had the remains of her staff clutched in one hand, and up close Molly couldn't help a sympathetic wince at the damage: the top half of the staff was badly scarred and pitted, a good foot at the top of it was just gone and another foot beyond it was splintered. The bright ribbon that had marked the top of the staff was nowhere to be seen.

Beau brooded over her weapon. "Trashed," she declared.

"Mine too," Molly said gloomily, bringing his second sword around for inspection. At least the gold of Summer's Dance seemed to have resisted the corrosion. "Hey, at least you have some of your stick left? The rest of it looks pretty solid..."

"Nah, the balance is shot to shit." Beau let out a gusty sigh. "Fuck. I brought this thing all the way from the Cobalt Soul, you know."

"At least you don't necessarily need a weapon," Yasha offered tentatively. "I mean... you kind of are   the weapon."

"I am, aren't I?" Beau brightened up a bit at the reminder, smirking. Molly rolled his eyes. Easy for Yasha to say; her   enchanted sword was untouched. 

"Hey!" Jester's bright voice called out from the other side of the room, drawing their attention like a beacon. "I found the other stairs, guys!"

"Really?" Fjord said, poking his head out of the doorway they'd been investigating. "That was quick."

"Yeah!" Jester said enthusiastically. "I didn't wanna actually go through the doorway because it's, like, super gross,   but I used Locate Object and thought real hard about the stairway we came down to this level through. And I found the one back in the basement but there's another one through the kitchen in the pantry. We just have to clear away the mountain of yucky stuff in the way and we can head right on down!"

"Sure would be nice to have Caleb's cat-paw thingy right now," Beau remarked, her tone a little more subdued. 

"You mean Maximilian's Earthen Grasp?" Nott asked.

"Yeah, that cat thingy," Beau said.

"We could have used some of Caleb's fire against that monster as well," Molly couldn't help but observe. He shifted a bit uncomfortably on the floor; the patch they were sitting in was starting to grow somehow wet. What they got for sitting on a patch of fungus, he supposed. "He's the best distance fighter we had. We might not have needed to get close after all."

"Sure would be nice if he were here," Caduceus said agreeably.

"Yeah," Yasha said.

The group lapsed into a gloomy silence for a moment; the familiar bickering and banter could help keep up their moods in the face of the sinister mansion, but it couldn't quite scab over the gaping hole in their ranks, the reminder of why they were doing this in the first place. The reminder of what they were missing, of what was lost.

"We'll get him back," Yasha said, softly but with conviction. Molly nodded.

"Well, let's get started clearing a path," Caduceus said, picking up his staff. "Sooner begun, soonest done."

"Uh... guys?" Nott said in a nervous tone. That in itself didn't immediately get Molly's interest; Nott spent more of her time anxious than not, sometimes startling and shrieking for absolutely no reason apparent to the rest of the Nein (perhaps for no other reason than being reminded of her existence.) "Guys??"

"What is it, Nott?" Jester said absently, trying to calculate if her spiritual lollipop would work to move the mounds of detritus blocking the kitchen door.

"Where's all this water coming from?"

"What?"

That got their attention. Molly tore his gaze away from the blocked kitchen door and glanced back around the hallway. "What water?"

"There," Nott said, pointing at a patch of floor on the stone end of the great hall, where the fungus gave way to smooth flagstones. The slight depression in the middle of the flagstones was filled by a shallow puddle of dark water, water running in channels where the stones fitted together. Where the puddles ran into the rest of the room they vanished from view under the coating of filth, but it squashed unpleasantly under Molly's feet as he stepped in that direction. " That   water."

"It's just a little bit of water, Nott," Jester said soothingly.

"Yeah but it wasn't there before," the goblin said, her voice sharp-edged. "I would have noticed. I definitely would have noticed!"

"There wasn't time to notice much before that ugly fucker jumped out of us --"

"No, she's right," Caduceus interrupted. "We would have noticed this much wet."

"Um, guys?" Yasha ventured. "It's... getting deeper."

Even as they watched, the puddle lapped over the ridge formed between one stone in the next, subsuming both under the spreading pool of water. A ripple formed in the middle of the pool and spread outwards, lapping over the edge of the yet-dry floor and covering more of it with each ticking second.

Caduceus' nostrils flared as he took a deep sniff, braver than Molly would have dared to be in this fetid environment. "Smells like seawater," he observed.

The party broke up into a momentary chaos, each of them engaging in a frantic search for the source of the leak. Molly spun around, back the way they came, looking for some kind of sink or spigot or spring, but although the twisted walls grinned at him in architectural malice from every direction, he couldn't see where it was coming from. At least it's not blood we're drowning in...

"Stairs!" Beau gave a cry of triumph, drawing all eyes to her. 

The grand staircase that Caleb had built to connect the main entrance to the upper level had become a streambed, each step a miniature waterfall of trickling liquid. More water poured from the landing overhead straight down the walls, puddling and pooling in the corners before spreading out to link with the rest of the pools. 

It wasn't exactly a roaring torrent, but more and more of the floor of the main hall was being covered by the spreading pool of water. And it was still coming.

"Maybe somebody left the tap on?" Jester said. The attempted joke fell flat in the heavy, uneasy haze that pervaded the hall.

"We should go up and see what it is," Mollymauk said. The words were dragged out of him slowly, reluctantly, but there was a deep-rooted part of him that could not abide the idea of leaving an unknown threat unaddressed behind them. "Put a stop to it. Whatever it is."

"Hell no!" Beau's response was immediate and vehement. "If we go up there, we're going to be dragged into another fight with some fucking kracken   or whatever. We have our exit, we don't need to get into any more fights, let's just go."

"But we have to come back this way, don't we?" Jester said. "When we find Caleb and rescue him, we'll have to come back through here and go down to the basement to get back to the stairs. What if it's all completely filled up with water by the time we get back and there's no way through?"

Nott shuddered spastically and clutched at her flask, drinking deep, and nobody had the heart to stop her.

"We could try to find someplace for the water to drain," Fjord suggested, his laconic manner belying the sudden tension that had seized his muscles; and Molly was reminded that Nott was not the only one who had faced drowning in their pasts. 

"Drain to where?"   Nott demanded.

"Knock a hole in the floor, if we have to," Yasha suggested pragmatically. "There's a whole empty dimension out there for it to go."

"I'm pretty sure that Frumpkin specifically said we should not   punch any holes in the house," Caduceus suggested in a mild tone. "There's still those floaty things out there, after all."

"Well, what other choice is there?!"

"The only choice," Fjord said in a tone of firm conviction. "We go up. We see what's there. We put a stop to it."

"Look, if it's not dangerous then this'll be easy," Molly said, although even he didn't really believe it. "If it is   something dangerous, then better to deal with it now   than to leave it behind us. What if it sneaks up on us when we're in the middle of fighting something else?"

That was a mental image that no one   liked, not even Beau, so the course of action was decided. While they'd stood around arguing the water had continued to trickle down the stairs, and the entire floor was now under an inch of standing water. Slow, dark ripples spread outwards from the base of the stairs, making Molly shiver convulsively when it lapped against his skin. Seawater for certain, given its weight and the sticky way it clung. And it was cold.

The Mighty Nein forged on up the stairs. Well, sloshed   their way up the stairs at least. The footing was treacherous, the stone of the treads slippery and the visibility blurred by the dark moving water. Even with Caduceus' light, it forced them to keep their heads down and eyes trained on where they were putting their feet, pushing against the increasing force of the water current as they climbed upwards.

The upper level of the mansion -- the pleasant, open common area with the warm crackling grate, the bedrooms where they had gone to sleep in such comfort -- had transformed into a prison. The walls to the bedrooms, and between the bedrooms, had been replaced with dark, rugged-looking iron bars. Through the bars Molly caught glimpses of barren cots, splintery-looking benches with manacles attached to the corners. Any other details were lost to the level of dark water that flowed smoothly between one cell and the next, the wide-spaced bars doing nothing to dam the flood.

Even the shape of the top floor had changed, the open seating area squashed sideways into the hallway and the corridor itself drawn out long and narrow. The walls didn't quite meet the ceiling at the right angle, leaving the place looking tilted and unsteady, and -- Molly discovered as he took a step forward and splashed into a pool up to his knee -- the floor was rocky and uneven too. The level surface of the water was deceptive; parts of it slanted away at an angle or plunged into a sudden dip.

"Caleb and I met in a place like this," Nott muttered, sounding subdued.

"Makes sense when you think about it," Beau said. "I mean, this place is supposed to be all out of his memories, right? Like that hall downstairs."

Molly hadn't considered that angle, but he supposed it made sense. But he was certain there was no prison in the real world as madly-designed as this one. The layout was nonsensical -- some cells opening onto other cells instead of the main corridor, others having no doors at all, yet others with one wall wide-open. They passed by one cell set far into the floor, its ceiling barely waist-high to the corridor.  That cell had completely flooded, the spartan furniture completely submerged until the rising tide so that the cell appeared to contain nothing all but water rising steadily to the ceiling. Molly tried not to imagine being locked in that cell: shouting for help, clinging to the bars as the water got higher and higher... Don't think about it,   he told himself forcefully, this place is just getting to you. Don't think about it.

They slogged on. The water grew deeper as they pressed forward, which didn't make any goddamned sense;   didn't water seek its own level? Didn't it have two whole floors below them to fill up before it would start rising up here? At least they could be fairly sure that they were going in the right direction, since the pressing current came at them down the hallway ahead of them. From the far end of the hallway ahead of them, wherever that was. It stretched out ahead of them interminably, endlessly: Caduceus' light didn't extend far enough to illuminate whatever was at the end. Molly should have been able to see in the dark without it, but he couldn't, and the lack made him jittery and jumpy.

Learn ,   he thought he heard a flitting whisper, a word like a bat that fluttered about his head and darted off into the distance. Grow .

And then he really did jump, with a splash and an undignified yelp, as something brushed against the top of his boot. Something colder than the water it swam in, something soft and barely-substantial had wrapped around his calf for just a moment   before unwinding and flowing on. "Mother fuck!" he swore aloud, and hopped on one foot for a moment before he found steady ground again. He yanked Summer's Dance out of the scabbard and peered around, looking for whatever had touched him.

"What happened?" Fjord said.

"Something grabbed my leg," he said, feeling foolish in hindsight. "Or... well, touched my leg, anyway. I don't know, it's gone now."

They splashed around for a few seconds more, Molly poking in the direction he'd felt it. Nothing there now.

"You fucking baby," Beau scolded him.

"Could it have been just a piece of trash, something carried by the current?" Caduceus suggested.

"Maybe," Molly said, feeling increasingly ridiculous, but also relieved at the same time. "I guess it..."

Consume .

The dark water rose in a smooth, silent swell from the other side of the party. Molly had barely registered what he was seeing, didn't have the chance to shout before Nott suddenly disappeared under the surface of the water with a yell.

"Nott!"   Jester shrieked. Molly jerked forward a step, drawn reflexively to the place where Nott had disappeared, but it was Beau who got there first: moving with supernatural speed she pounced forward, her hands following some subtle current before plunging into the dark water. 

In the next moment she sprang back again, bracing her feet against the pull and with a screaming Nott in her arms.

Molly had heard plenty of Nott screeching, whether in battle or in an argument (or just that one and only time   at the circus that she'd tried to sing, Gods, he was glad she hadn't tried again since) but this was different, somehow. This was a note and tempo he'd never heard before, and would never forget again. Nott was screaming.

As Beau struggled back into the circle of Caduceus' light, Molly saw that there was a long black tentacle stretching from the water to wrap around Nott's waist. He stared at it, horrified and fascinated, as he saw for the first time the shape of the thing that had wrapped around his boot -- "Fucking do something!" Beau exclaimed, her teeth gritted as her tendons strained with the effort of holding on.

With a little jolt Molly moved forward again, completing his aborted lunge from earlier; swinging Summer's Dance around to his left size so that neither of his friends would be in the path of the blow, he arced the blade forward and chopped through the tentacle. Black blood flew from the severed ends; black flesh recoiled and splashed down into the dark water; blackness was all that remained on the slowly swelling surface of the water.

The tentacle was gone, but Nott was still screaming. It was not that Molly didn't sympathize; he well remembered what a panic attack felt like, having been through one of his own less than an hour ago. But the noise she was making would draw every monster on the Astral Plane to them; they couldn't continue on while she was like this; and if she stayed in this hysterical state she was likely to hurt herself. 

When attempts from Jester and Caduceus, and even Beau failed to make an impression on Nott, he stepped forward and slapped her.

She slapped him back. "WHAT THE FUCK, MOLLY!" she screeched, and at least now there were words and a thinking mind behind it.

"Pull yourself together," he instructed her. "We've got to see this through, and we need you to be along with us when we do."

"DON'T YOU FUCKING TELL ME   TO PULL MYSELF TOGETHER, YOU AMNESIAC LITTLE SHIT!" Nott continued to rant, still too caught up in her fear and the adrenaline behind her own reaction to really listen either to him or to herself. "IT'S EASY FOR YOU, ISN'T IT? YOU DON'T HAVE TO WADE UP TO YOUR EYEBALLS THROUGH THIS SHIT! YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORRY IF EVERY STEP IS GOING TO TAKE THE GROUND OUT FROM UNDER YOU! D'YOU THINK THIS IS EASY   FOR ME? DO YOU?"

Nott was in full voice, and looked like she wasn't going to run out of breath or invective anytime soon, until without comment Fjord reached out, plucked Nott from Beau's arms and plunked her down on his own shoulders instead. The rant abruptly cut off into a squawk as she had to grab for purchase, and then into silence as she gasped for breath.

"This should keep you clear of it," Fjord said in a mild tone. Nott grumbled for a few more moments, muttering and hissing imprecations too low for Molly to hear, but made no attempt to get down from her new perch.

"Fine," she said at last, hoarsely, but calm once more. "But I'm only   staying up here because you're the tallest. If the rest of you drown I'm going to climb on top of your bodies to stay afloat, see if I don't."

Caduceus was actually taller than Fjord, but Molly decided not to dispute her version of events.

While all this was going on the others had been peering out into the darkness, wary and on edge for the return of the tentacle or any of its brothers. Beau used her truncated staff to probe the dark waters, coming up with soggy lumps of unidentifiable filth but no monsters. "Do you think it's gone?" she asked uncertainly. 

"Whether it's gone or not, we can't linger here," Yasha replied. "The water is only getting deeper the longer we delay. We have to put a stop to it."

Without much choice in the matter, they pressed on. Molly was hyperaware with every step of the cold pull and drag of the water against his calves, wondering if every brush of the current was another tendril threatening to yank his feet out from under him. 

Nothing else grabbed them.

Nerves stretched taut, the Mighty Nein found their way at last to the end of the corridor. For the first time there was a wall here -- though bars stretched out on either side of them, giving view to a broad open space beyond the wall, they could not see past the door. It was locked; only Nott among them had any chance of picking it. But the floor right in front of the door proved to be a gap, a deep trench that even Molly could not feel the floor under.

In the end Yasha had to hold Nott out in front of her while the little goblin worked the lock, her ears laid flat to her head and hissing her dislike for being suspended over an unknown drop this way. As soon as the lock clicked she was climbing back up to Yasha's shoulders; "C'mon, don't get in the way of her sword arm," Fjord muttered, and Nott reluctantly transferred to the sailor's shoulder.

Yasha stepped forward and pushed the door open; she had to put some muscle into it to push past the rust and unknown detritus clogging up the mechanisms. Slowly, painfully the door scraped open; Caduceus held the light of his staff forward.

Darkness.

Molly peered forward, trying to parse the shadows. Caduceus' light... it cast into the corners of the room, but what it revealed was less foreboding than what it didn't   illuminate. There was a patch in the dead center of the room that held the shadows around it, dark and amorphous even with Caduceus shining his light right on it.

It lifted its head, took a step, and the shadows coalesced into a man-shape.

Not a man -- not quite. A little too tall, limbs not quite the right shape. The arms attached to the shoulders well enough, hung down limply by the thighs, but the forearms thickened just enough towards the hands to look wrong,   the fingers coming together in thick clamps that reminded Molly of a crab's pincers. But it stood like a man and it walked like a man, it had two arms and two legs and a head where the head should be.

There ended its resemblance to any kind of person -- the thing's skin was a nightmare.

The thing was covered from head to foot in a thick, jet-black, oily-shiny substance that glistened and shifted slightly in the light of Caduceus' crystal. The tar-like skin oozed, flowed,   and as it did a dozen dozen pustules that clustered all over its body shifted and contracted in response. As the black substance melted away the clusters twitched --

Opened -- 

And a dozen dozen lambent yellow eyes, split-pupiled, swiveled to pin them in their inhuman gazes --

The thing took a shambling step towards them. Those horrifying eyes must have lent it sight, for there was none to be found in its face: deep black empty pits gazed from where the eyes should have been. Its jaw hung slack, no visible lips, and from its open mouth gushed a constant stream of salt water that dribbled down its body in spurts, gushed away to join the deepening pool that surrounded it.

Another step. Another gush of liquid. A deep groaning sound came from that nightmare face, a burbling drowning voice that came from some endless fathomless deeps. 

Uk'otoa,   the figure groaned, and a dozen tinier mouths from all over its body echoed: Uk'otoa.

"What the shit?!"   Beau exclaimed. Molly shh'd!   her frantically; she jabbed him back with an elbow and hissed, " What's that scaly fucker doing here?"

"No time for that now," Fjord said in a low, tense voice. "We've got to take this thing down, fast.   We can't afford to let this stretch out longer than absolutely necessary. Give it your biggest shot, hit it all together, and don't stop until it   stops. Ready?"

The party gave various, hushed assents, and there followed a quick furious scuffle of preparation. Molly took a few precious seconds to blood Summer's Dance again, a glimmer of radiant light growing along the edge of the blade like a sunrise. Surely sooner or later, something   down here would be unholy enough for the light to bite it.

Another step, squelch,   and another spurt of water. The thing groaned wordlessly, the eyes flickered, and the water around it churned restlessly as a pot coming to a sudden boil. " Now!"   Fjord snapped out, and the Mighty Nein let loose.

As they leapt forward Molly barely managed to dodge the glistening, thick black tendrils that rose out of the water surrounding the thing, arched like cobras to strike. He couldn't see whether they continued on to go after the casters, but this was no time to play defense: Fjord's injunction to take it down and take it hard   rang in his ears. 

He struck with Summer's Dance and opened a gash along the thing's side. It gaped wide, black fluid oozing out far too slowly to be blood, and his blade stuck and dragged against his hands as he tried to pull it free. "Shit!" Molly hissed, finally managing to yank it free with brute strength.

Taking a deep gulp of the fetid air Molly tensed as he reached deep in himself, tugging at his bones for a power he every time   hoped he would never have to use again. The darkness around him faded, became ghostly charcoal grey, the figures around him attenuating to mere outlines. He slashed again, his now-ghostly blades encountering no resistance; as the thing turned towards him he stepped forward through   its body to the other side.

As he turned back to face it the world fell back into place again, solid and dark and sopping wet, and he managed to get in one more strike: a slash of light-edged gold against a staring cluster of eyes. One went dark, and the thing screamed.

And then the rest of the attacks came thudding in: a rapid series of crossbow bolts from Nott, still clinging to Fjord's shoulders. Yasha charged in with a wordless yell, mottled rage suffusing her face, swinging the Magician's Judge with furious, reckless abandon. From the other side of the chamber, blocked from his sight from the bodies of the others, Molly heard voices raised in commotion and consternation as the others had to deal with the slithering, striking tendrils.

But they struck back: the familiar sight of Jester's spiritual lollipop came in swinging, edged with the extra spikes and serrations that suggested she put extra feeling   into her smite. Caduceus didn't attack directly -- he rarely did -- but even as Beauregard moved in to attack her fists were sheathed in a golden glow that underlit her fierce, exultant grin. She stepped in and snapped out a flurry of blows, each one forcing the monster to flinch back from the burning impact.

A pinprick of green light flickered in the corner of his vision -- not bright, yet it made his eyes water to look at it. A moment later it burst into an orb of blinding, sickening brilliance that centered on the monster (though Molly had to back hastily away to not get caught in it too.) It was no brighter than a good wax candle but the light burned,   crawled over every inch of its prey and left sizzling smoke in its wake, the black skin bubbling, the demonic eyes shriveling and popping in its wake.

PUNISH , thundered a voice that came from everywhere and nowhere, and Fjord flinched back as the eyeless gaze turned towards him.

Battered and blooded the thing started to move, started to retaliate, striding forward through the deep water with no apparent sign of resistance. But it was moving slowly now, with nerve-wracking implacability as it raised one monstrous hand, blackness beginning to roil at the end of it --

Yasha was there, between them. She took the spell to the chest barely flinching, the malignant blackness rolling off to either side of her shoulders without finding purchase. With a furious snarl she pressed close again, raising her sword, and Molly was moved to come up behind it, pinning it between them; he stabbed forward with his remaining sword in a straight line, pinning its chest like an insect on a pin, holding it transfixed as the Magician's Judge came around and cleaved down the collarbone nearly halfway through the chest.

The thing collapsed to the floor, setting up an almighty splash in the water, and ended up lying on its side half-submerged. Blood -- or whatever it had instead of blood -- continued to trickle from its wounds, but it hardly made the water any more dark or foul than it had already been. Molly let out a breath of relief, almost dizzy with the tension, and let the point of his sword drop.

With the monster dead, the Mighty Nein took a moment to relax. Caduceus went to check on Yasha, her breath coming in heaving gulps as she slowly cooled down from her rage, to see that she hadn't taken too big of a hurt. Beau sighed in disappointment as the radiant glow that had surrounded her fists flickered out.  Fjord let his spell flicker out too, the greenish radiance dying down to nothing, but Molly couldn't say he was disappointed at all.

The half-orc reached up to nudge at one of Nott's legs slung over his shoulder. "You can get down now, Nott," he suggested. "It's over."

Nott sniffed. "I could if I wanted to, maybe I'm starting to like it up here," she shot out, apparently just for the sake of being contrary.

"But what was this thing even doing   here?" Molly asked, trying fruitlessly to find a place to clean the sticky residue off his sword. "I mean, you ditched   old scaly ages ago. How did it find this place? How did it get in?"

"Well, it doesn't have to actually be   connected with him, does it?" Beau suggested. "I mean, this is all Caleb's head, isn't it? All it means is that Uk'otoa was scary enough to turn up in Caleb's nightmares and I mean, shit man, can you blame him?"

Fjord shivered, a sharp spastic movement that nearly dislodged Nott. "You're not wrong," he said. "Whatever it was, what matters now is that it's dead."

That didn't sound quite right to Molly, but he didn't have an alternative explanation to offer. "We should head on back down, find that door again and get the hell out of here," he said as Nott began to clamber down from her perch, using Fjord's limbs and armor as stepladders as she went.

Jester, who'd been crouching over the thing's body and poking at it with the end of her handaxe, turned her face up to the rest of them. "Um, guys?" she said, with an air of studied casualness in her voice, the subtle strain of wanting   to be casual because admitting to the seriousness of the situation would be too frightening. "The... the water's still coming out."

"What?"

The words didn't register at first. They didn't make sense. They'd killed   the monster, it was dead,   how could it still be doing -- anything? Bad things were supposed to stop   when you killed them. That was the way the world worked.

Except this wasn't the world and this wasn't any kind of real monster and when Molly dragged his eyes down to study it, he saw that Jester was right. Even bloodless and unmoving, bereft of any spark of life, the monster's gaping mouth continued to spew out water. And the water continued to rise.

"Oh, shit,"   Beau said.

Nott immediately reversed her course and went back up onto Fjord's shoulders again, her hands gripping his shoulders hard enough to turn her knuckles white. Fjord didn't complain.

"What, what," Beau choked out. "What are we gonna do,   man? If we can't -- How are we supposed to stop it?!"

"We need to get rid of the body," Caduceus said immediately. "I should have known the job's not done until then."

Without waiting for any of them to respond he moved forward and knelt by the corpse, an orange light springing around the hand that he reached out and touched to one shoulder. Molly watched in horrified fascination as the by-now familiar process of decomposition began, fungus spreading out from the point of contact and beginning to sink into the thing's flesh.

Something about the process nagged him, made him think of something he'd seen r -- something was wrong.   The mushrooms that sprouted in the wake of the magic withered and died almost as soon as they appeared, and no flowers grew from its polluted flesh. The withering stripped away skin and flesh and then stopped at the bone, seeming unable to continue its work of decaying the frame of the corpse down into nothingness. Caduceus' fingers jerked back as the spell sputtered to nothingness, and still the water poured.

" Melora,"   Caduceus breathed, backing quickly away. His face was ashen-grey, a level of distress Molly hadn't seen on him since he'd nearly drowned at sea. "I can't, it's -- it's not a creature , its body isn't -- "

"No, it'll be fine," Fjord said quickly, moving up beside him to touch his elbow in support. "You had the right idea. We're on the right track. We just have to get rid of the body, contain it or get it out of here somehow. Ideas?"

A pause, as everyone tried to get their brains working in gear. "Chuck it out a window?" Beau suggested uncertainly.

"No windows," Yasha reminded her, and Beau cursed.

"Could you use your dimension door spell to get rid of it, Jes?" Fjord asked. "Or -- do you have to be able to see where you're going?"

Jester shook her head, looking doubtful. "I, um, I could just go a hundred feet straight up, but I'd have to go with   it... We could turn it into something else maybe..."

"That would only last for a minute, and then it would be back," Nott said.

"Banishment?" Molly asked tightly, well aware that he   didn't have much to offer when it came to creative spellcasting. "Because this thing is definitely   an aberration of some kind."

"But we're on its   home plane, the Astral plane, so it would still only work for a minute, " Nott shot that down. She grimaced. "If Caleb were here he could burn it to ashes..."

"If Caleb were here we wouldn't be doing any   of this!" Beau hissed, and Nott made a rude gesture in her direction.

"Well, we have to think of something!"   Beau snapped. She stepped forward, wading through the murk as it sloshed over her legs, and the pushing waves of water were now up to her thighs.

Caduceus made a gesture and incantation, and the level of the water abruptly sank by several inches, swirling and sloshing from wall to wall in agitation as its volume dropped. Almost immediately the level began to creep back up again. "We'd better think of something fast, I can't keep doing this," he said. 

"Um -- uhhh --" Jester made a dash for the wall at the end of the hallway, scrambling in her haversack for her paints. As the others watched she painted in quick aggressive strokes: a broad square, two squiggles at the top, a curving loop at the bottom. As she capped the paints the magic shimmered and washed over the drawing, solidified, and there was a hatch in the wall where there had been nothing. "There! Throw him out there! Go, go, go!"

This was ridiculous, Molly thought, light-headed even as he ran to pick up one end of the unholy corpse and manhandle it over to the trapdoor. Yasha took the other, Jester pulled the trapdoor open against a vicious punch of wind, and between them they managed to manhandle the body through the hatch. 

Between the wounds and Caduceus' spell it was hardly even a body any more, a dessicated skeleton whose skin burned and tugged at Molly's hands, and when they finally got it through the hatch and out he couldn't resist the temptation to drop down and rinse his hands in the water. Black, silty, filthy   water, the touch of it almost as unclean as the thing's skin had been, and Molly had waded through sewers before but this was some shit.

The hatch slammed closed, a reverberation that traveled down the hallway and echoed back up again, and for a moment they held their breath as though waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Nothing happened. The water still sloshed and swirled about their knees, still tricked away down the stairs at the far end, but it was no longer rising.

"That's almost all my paints, guys," Jester said shakily, tucking them carefully back into the haversack and looking around at them all. "I've only got enough for one more, maybe   two, and then it's all gone. Let's try not to do this again, yeah?"

"We're still on the first level," Beau said, and let out a heartfelt groan when the rest of them turned to look at her. "We're on the first level.   Frumpkin told us that there would be, whadidhesay -- more than two, less than a thousand?! We've gotta   be more careful with our resources."

"I really hate this place," Fjord said with feeling, and Molly couldn't help but agree.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

Was it just Molly's imagination or were the stairs getting longer? 

They'd left the creepy flooded prison level behind them, following the trail further down into the nightmare mansion, and it seemed to Molly that the descent got longer every time. Hard to say whether that was real -- or as real as anything in this place could possibly be -- or just a reflection of the growing dread he felt towards what was waiting for them downstairs.

Hard to say what was uppermost in his own mind -- dread for himself, fear for his friends, or the sinking spreading sickness whenever he let his thoughts dwell on the party's missing member. Where was Caleb in all this? They'd already passed through so much horror, past vicious monsters and deadly hazards trying with no restraint or compunction to murder them all. And Caleb was somewhere even further ahead, and he was alone.

Would they even find him alive? How could anyone live through all this? Caduceus hadn't been willing to spend a cast of Locate Person until they thought they were close enough for the spell to find something. Beau at least seemed very certain that if the spell was still running, Caleb must still be alive somewhere. Privately Molly wasn't so sure; there was so much magic out there that didn't play by the nice tame rules that wizards set out to contain and control it. In a place like this anything could happen. Probably would, too.

But Molly kept those thoughts to himself. He knew the others relied on him to be the optimistic one, the one who always saw the bright side of things, the one who could find hope in every situation. There had to be a way through this maze, a string they could follow to lead them to the imprisoned princess. Wasn't that always how the stories went? What would be the point, otherwise?

In the end, it didn't matter whether it was likely or not. If Caleb was still down there, they couldn't leave him.

The stairs seemed to stretch endlessly down and down and down , cramped overhead and not quite wide enough for more than one person to walk abreast. Molly had no idea how Caduceus, bringing up the rear, could stand it. He realized his hand was clamped in a death-grip on his one remaining sword and made an effort to relax it; even if something did   come at them on the stairs there'd be no room to swing in here without taking off Fjord's head in the process. If something came at them from behind, from ahead, from below the stairs --

Nothing did. 

In a way, that was almost worse.

He strained his ears for the sound of footsteps that were not their own, scraping of metal or cloth, the drip of water -- it took long moments to realize what he was   hearing, so out of place was it. The sound of a voice -- high and feminine, hard to tell if it was a child or just a light-voiced woman -- singing. Too distant and too muffled to make out the words but it was a simple tune with a basic, even rhythm. It reminded him of the rhythm games that Mona and Yuli would sometimes play while they were practicing, or the warm-up exercises Toya would do before singing. 

"Does anyone else hear that?" Molly said aloud, pulling the attention of the rest of the group suddenly into focus on him.

"Shhh!"   said Nott, as though blasting their way through every obstacle that had been in their way thus far hadn't ensured that everything within a mile radius already knew they were coming.

"Yes shhh,   I'm trying to hear!" He gestured them all to hold still for a minute and they clattered to an uncertain halt.

Once they were stopped they could all hear it, the melodic humming coming from somewhere above. Now that their own footsteps weren't echoing in the stairwell he could hear another sound as well, a rhythmic thump whack, thump whack of something hitting wood and bouncing back, bouncing back, bouncing back again in time with the words. Molly shifted a step and the voice came into focus, turning from indistinct muttering into the words of a song. 


You don't have a clue

You don't even know

The Gen-tle-man is down below

 

"Oh, it's a creepy little girl singing awful nursery rhymes," Fjord said in a false, bright tone. "That's great. That's just what this place needed."

Molly shushed Fjord again. Ever since the encounter with the water-creature from the last level Fjord had been on edge, his usual aura of calm control fraying into something splintered, something sharp-edged and shattered. Molly couldn't exactly blame him, but his nervous snapping and frenzied sarcasm was getting increasingly grating.

The voice was still singing. It sounded like it was echoing down from the stairs above them, although they'd just come that way   and seen no one; either she'd followed them into the stairwell from the level above, or... or something weirder that Molly didn't even want to venture a guess.

 

Better take care

Better go home

'Cause if he gets you, you'll die a-lone

 

"Hello?" Caduceus called out to the voice, because of course he would. "Is anyone there?"

The singing cut off, the rhythmic thumping coming to a stop. "What are you doing?"   Beauregard hissed at him. "Don't talk   to the spooky ghosts, Deuces!"

"Talking to spooky things is a big part of my job," he reminded her in a low tone. "This is the first creature we've encountered in here that doesn't seem overtly hostile, and the first one that's been able to speak -- well, to speak more than one word. It's always worth trying to talk. It would be good to find a friend."

"I've been watching you~u," the unseen speaker said in a singsong tone. "You're all very  funny."

"Glad we're so entertaining ," Molly grumbled. Caduceus gestured for silence and tried again.

"We're looking for our friend," Caduceus called up into the empty space in the stairwell. "Have you seen him? He'd be a human man, about thirty years old, with red hair. Can you tell us where he is?"

Silence. 

"I'm all done with this one," the voice said at last. "It's no fun anymore. You can have it," and there was another thump. Then a sequence of thump, thump, thump thumpthumpthump   in increasing frequency as the whatever-it-was tumbled down the stairs. Molly tensed, watching the turn of the stairwell above, hand cramping on his sword.

Something small and round descended from the shadows above, little bounces off each stair that turned into a wobbly spin on the landing before it drifted to the edge and tumbled off the next step in turn. Molly reached out a foot to stop it as it got close, then squinted in the low light to look.

Round but irregular, dark patches interspersed with light and "That's somebody's head," Molly said abruptly, and he wasn't even fucking surprised.

" Oh that's cool,"   Fjord said in a voice that was half an octave above his usual register.  Further down, he heard a gutteral noise from Beau that he hoped wasn't retching; he didn't want to have to walk through it.

With his stomach a block of solid ice Molly reached out with the tip of his sword and turned the head face-up to the light. It --

Wasn't Caleb, thank the Moonweaver,   for a moment he'd been convinced he would see Caleb's face. But the face that turned up towards the light -- what was left of it -- was a stranger's. The head was human -- female, Molly thought, although it was hard to tell from a decapitated head alone. Dark hair chopped short, fair skin with freckles, eyes filmy and colorless in death. 

A human head wasn't actually   perfectly round, of course, but this head had been hacked at and filed down in several places to make it more ball-shaped. 

The callous desecration turned Molly's stomach even knowing perfectly well that this had almost certainly never been a live person.

"I, uh," he said, and had to stop to swallow bile. "I don't... think this mystery voice is a friend to us, Caddy."

"No," Caduceus said, his voice low and somber. "I don't think she is." He reached out and took the head from Molly, and Molly gave it up gladly. Green light waxed, then waned between Caduceus' fingers, and the severed head crumbled into soft grey nothing.

They waited, but there was no further movement nor sound of anyone overhead. After a few minutes they continued on down, Molly casting nervous glances behind them every few steps.

The stairs finally flattened out, opening onto a room with eye-wateringly bright whitewash. Molly actually winced when they stepped out into a T-end intersection between two corridors, white tile underfoot and white plaster on the walls -- low-light vision was a blessing in so many ways but it did come with its own little annoyances, light-sensitivity among them.

It was hard for Molly to place exactly where they were in the mansion. The second level had looked like a warped, nightmare version of the first, but now the layout of rooms and corridors themselves seemed to be shuffling around. And just in case there was any doubt that they were still stuck in the middle of a magic hellscape -- there was something... wrong   with the walls. 

The walls and doors in the immediate area around them looked fine. But as the corridors receded into the distance, broad splintering cracks began to appear in the surfaces and structures. The wall at the far end of the hallway was missing a triangular chunk large enough for Molly to have stuck his head through; on the other side was... blackness. A deep crushing void with pinpricks of stars glinting diamond-bright at an endless distance. 

As Molly walked towards it, the distance seemed to ripple in front of him. The gash of stars and void melted closed, the walls peeling back into place and revealing nothing more than unremarkable white walls. White corridors led off to the left and to the right as well as straight down the center in front of them. At intervals along each corridor were heavy, whitewashed doors with thick bolts on the outside of each one and tiny windows set into the center of the door. 

Bolts, but not locks? Molly wondered. "What is   this place?" he wondered, aloud.

"It looks sort of like a hospital?" Yasha said, her voice betraying the uncertainty her face didn't show.

"Yeah, uh," Beau cleared her throat. "Think this is an asylum."

Caduceus frowned, ears tipping down as he turned his head from side to side to take in the details. "What is an asylum?" he asked.

And Molly was grateful Caduceus had been the one to ask, because he'd been wondering too, but didn't want to admit his ignorance. Jester answered, "It's sorta like a hospital, but for people who are sick or hurt in the brain instead of sick or hurt in the body."

Fjord said, in a tone heavy with doubt, "We've met a lot   of people who have got something weird going on in their brains."

"Yeah but this is for people who are like, super   sick, and can't take care of themselves at all." Jester made a face. "I don't know why it's here , though. We  haven't been through any asylums for Caleb to get scared in!"

Nott cleared her rusty throat. "Caleb spent a lot of time in an asylum after he quit being a Scourger... I guess it makes sense..."

Beau gave Nott a little glare, which the goblin either didn't see or ignored. Fjord said, "How much time is a lot of time?"

"Well, it started when he was seventeen, and he's thirty-three now..." Nott took a moment to count backwards from some internal calendar. "And he was out on the road on his own for five years before we met, or so he said... So about eleven years, I guess?"

A shocked silence went round the group, circling twice before it sank into the floor. Jester was the first to break it, of course. "Wow, that's..." Her voice failed for a moment, and she had to clear her throat and start again. "That's a really long time."

"Yeah," Beau said shortly.

"I didn't know," Jester said in a small voice.

"He doesn't really like for people to know," Beau said, and glared at Nott again. " Nott."

"It's fucking relevant, okay?!" Nott snapped back.

Jester chimed in on Nott's behalf. "It kind of is if it means we're going to be running into gross monsters down here that are based on all his memories!"

"They don't need to know all the details!"  Beau snapped. 

"Now, let's not fight. We're all here because we want to help Caleb, even if we have different ideas of what's necessary to do that," Caduceus said in a conciliatory tone.

"I think it's clear that while Caleb is a private person, he's willing to part with his secrets when the situation calls for it," Fjord said. "Or else he wouldn't have told you in the first place, eh? Well, I'd say the situation calls for it now."

"Yeah I guess..." Beau sighed, ran a hand up over her hair. "I just -- I wasn't even supposed to know in the first place. He didn't want to tell me -- I bullied him into it. I guess there was always a chance that everyone else would find out someday I just... I didn't want it to come from me."

"Well you didn't," Jester said.

"Let's just go," Beau grunted, and turned to walk purposefully down the corridor.

"Check in each room as we go," Yasha suggested practically. "So we don't miss anything. Caleb. Another door."

He didn't want to look through those windows, really   didn't want to look inside those rooms. But Yasha was right. If this was Caleb's nightmare then it wasn't out of the question that he was here, trapped in one of these rooms. So he made himself go up to the little window and look, bracing himself for anything, anything at all, and he saw --

Nothing. White walls, white floor, a bed in the center of the room. An empty bed, with a mattress but no bedding, no sheets or blankets, just a thin pad on a bare metal frame. From each corner of the bed hung a set of loose, empty leather straps.

"Nothing here," he reported, managing to keep his voice steady despite the surge of upset that wanted to crawl up his stomach out of his mouth. Lucky him that he'd already lost his last meal in this place, and had nothing more to give.

People who are hurt in their brains, people who can't take care of themselves at all. People who couldn't remember their pasts, maybe? People who were empty? He'd always known how lucky he was that it had been Gustav and the carnival who had found him and not someone less compassionate, less tolerant of strangeness. It didn't take much of a stretch of his imagination to think that if things had gone differently for him then he might very well have ended up in one of these places. In one of these cells, in one of these beds. Tied down with those straps...

"This one's empty," Fjord reported from the next door down.

"No Caleb," Caduceus said in turn, and then " Huh," in a tone of voice that instantly drew the others' attention to him.

"What is it?" Fjord asked, crossing over to the door Caduceus was at to peer through the aperture. "If it's not -- oh.   Oh, gross ."

And, well, how could Molly not   go over to check it out? He nudged his way between the two taller men by strategic use of horns, peeked in through the window, then recoiled.

The cell certainly did not have Caleb. But it wasn't empty. One far corner of the room was occupied by -- honestly Molly didn't know what the fuck   it was. It was a pile,   that's what, a heap of sickening brown and grey and green flesh that moved with each inhale, fluttering with some unnatural pulse. The cell had the standard white walls and white floor, but radiating out from the corner was a patch of... stained, malformed, greasy-looking floor that made his skin crawl just to imagine touching it.

"Oh that's nice. That's great, real great,"   Fjord muttered as he pushed back from the door, retreating as far as he could from the portal. "What the fuck is   that thing?"

"Lemme see, don't be a baby." Beau pushed her way in brusquely and then had to make a definite effort to keep her expression casual and not react the same way Fjord had. She swallowed carefully, and said, "I think it's... the... the books called it a gibbering mouther? It's, um... definitely not from the real world. Our world."

"Frumpkin did warn us that the lower levels were swarming with local critters," Nott reminded them. She made no effort to look through the window herself, not that she could have seen it without a boost.

"It kind of looks like a big pile of poop," Jester opined brightly, taking her turn at the window.

"Well... we don't have to fight it, do we?" Molly suggested tentatively. "I mean, if it's in the cell then we can just -- keep going, right? We don't have to --"

At that moment -- whether triggered by all the activity by the door or just on some internal hellish schedule known to itself -- the creature stirred, heaved, bulged   upwards and all over its vile body opened new mouths. It let out a noise -- a chorus of shrieks, screams, sobs, a cacophony of vile malice and tormented suffering that momentarily shut down all light in Molly's world.

In the endless blackness he thought he heard a familiar voice, Caleb's voice, pleading in a voice that rent his heart:

Take them out. Take them out! TAKE THEM OU --

-- and then he was back, and the voice was gone. 

A rapport echoed in his ears and pain blossomed across his cheek; someone had slapped him across the face. He blinked and his vision swam back into focus, and he saw Jester's face frowning into his at close range. "Are you awake now?" she demanded.

"Y -- what happened?"   He looked around wildly, grabbing at his -- evidently -- useless sword hilt. It seemed to him that he'd only been out for a few seconds, but the formerly pristine corridor had transformed into a slaughterhouse. Blood spattered the walls, dripped down to pool in the corners, and bloodstained huddles lay in spreading pools on the floor. The dead flesh looked... oddly transparent, but it was too mangled now to make sense of whatever it had been before.

Jester rolled her eyes. Molly looked from one to another of his friends for an explanation. Fjord was catching his breath, holding his side; Caduceus was holding a glowing hand over a nasty-looking wound on Beau's head. Yasha was heaving for breath, gripping the hilt of her sword as it dripped blood onto the floor, and looking... embarrassed?

"We all got hit by that... thing's noise, though not as bad as you," Fjord explained. He jerked his head towards the barbarian woman. "Yasha here thought it would be a good idea to start hacking at the other doors with her sword --"

"And then these things came out -- through the bars! -- and attacked us!" Nott interrupted.  She squinted at him. " You   just stood there like a dressmaker's dummy through the whole thing, until Jester woke you up."

"Sorry about that," Molly muttered sheepishly. He walked over and took a moment to lean against Yasha, looking up at her and silently checking in. She gave an equally silent nod in return, although there was still a dismayed tightness lurking around her mouth. Losing control of herself and attacking the wrong target, Molly knew, was a specter that haunted too many of Yasha's nightmares. "It's not like you attacked any of us.   Can't be helped."

"I thought I saw --" Yasha broke off and shook her head. "It doesn't matter."

Molly considered relating what he had seen, or rather heard   in that moment of blackness, but decided against it. Most likely it was just a product of the horror's madness. And if it wasn't -- what more could they do than they were already doing?

Once Caduceus had finished healing Beau of the head wound, they continued on. They were careful not to disturb any more of the cells they passed, although Caduceus and Fjord peeked into each one on the right and left to be sure that none of the cells contained Caleb. None did, although not every cell was empty: some had more of the strange semi-transparent creatures that had come through the bars at them, and another had a robed, hooded figure that could almost have been a human until it raised its head and stared at them with one single glaring eye from the middle of its forehead.

At the end of the corridor to the right was another stairway, this one leading up. Molly wasn't sure what to make of that -- he could have sworn this was the top floor, with the bedrooms, but the layout of the mansion made less and less sense the further down they got. At least this time, no strange girlish voices sang from the depths of the stairwell, and nothing attacked them as they climbed the stairs.

They felt the fire long before they saw it. Dry heat growing on their faces and hands even from dozens of yards below. A thick smell of ash in their nose, sharp with the smell of hot metal. Heavy taste of cinders on their tongue, the disquieting underlying tang of cooking meat. Orange-red light flickered on the wall of the stairwell, making their eyes sting and water; and when they crested the last of the stairs and grouped up on the landing, they saw.

The main level was on fire. It wasn't just a   fire; every part of the grand hall beyond them was consumed by it. Sheets of fire licked up the walls, the beams of the roof glowing cherry-red through the smoke. Smaller bonfires roared in the smaller rooms off the main hall, barely visible through doorways. The floor burned in gusts and waves of flame that traveled from one end of the room to another as though driven before a hot wind. Fire dug its claws into each chair, each table, each couch and turned each of them into their own little torches in the greater conflagration.

"Aw shit," Beau said, and added "Told you so" in the defeated tone of voice of someone who was not at all happy to be proven right. 

"Well, shit," Molly couldn't help but echo. He stepped as close as he could bear and took a deep breath, puffing a bit after the climb. Even from yards away, the heat of the fire seared in his lungs. If he was feeling the heat from this, he knew the rest of them felt it even more; no wonder they were hanging back.

"How are we supposed to get through this?!" Yasha shouted, barely able to make herself heard over the roar of the fire.

"A fire this size shouldn't be able to keep going forever," Caduceus said, having to raise his own voice to match.

"I don't think anything about this fire behaves the way it should,"   Nott called back. "I mean, it's burning at a pretty good rate, but it doesn't actually seem to be consuming   any of its fuel."

" Do   we need to get past it?" Molly said, raising what was perhaps a feeble hope. "I mean, the stairs down have never been in the same part of the mansion twice. We don't know whether it's beyond this part of the house, somewhere further back, or what?"

"Jester?" Beau said, and the blue tiefling made a face as she pulled out her holy symbol.

She muttered the invocation and held it tightly in her hand, and it flowed for a moment before a streamer of light peeled off it and drifted purposefully away -- right into the fire. By getting as close as he dared, close enough that he could see the edges of his clothes beginning to smoke, Molly could just make out the darkened archway of a doorway on the far side of the burning hall.

Fjord groaned. "So much for that idea," Beau said with disgust. "Hey Jes, I don't suppose you can get us across there with that door spell of yours?"

"I don't think so," Jester said unhappily. "Well I mean I could, of course I could,   but I can only take one person with me and I'd have to use it again to come back! I'd have to cast it..." she did a quick headcount, "like, ten more times to get us all across, and I don't have that much magic left."

"All right," Beau said, sounding briefly disappointed. "Caduceus? Do you have anything?"

Caduceus shook his head. "That's not really up my alley, I'm afraid," he said. "I could possibly meld into the stone and get across that way, but it wouldn't help the rest of you."

"Molly, could you --"

Molly was already shaking his head, holding up one hand to fend off the question. "I'm less sensitive to heat and fire than the rest of you, but this goes beyond resistance," he said. "I wouldn't make it ten steps out there."

"Okay," Beau said after a moment of daunted silence, "if we can't get across the fire, then we have to put the fire out. That's better anyways; it's no good getting over there if we don't have a way to get back. Deuces? Don't you and Jester have that spell that lets you create water, like back on the boat?"

"Oh, yeah," Caduceus said. "But, I mean, that's really for drinking or maybe washing. You'd need much more water to put out a fire this size than that spell could create, even if Jester and I used up all the rest of our magic on it."

"That figures," Nott grumbled. "Back upstairs there was more water than anyone could have ever wanted, but it's not down here where we need it!"

Beau's eyes widened, and she turned to grab Nott on the shoulder. "Wait, wait, I think you're on to something," she said excitedly. "Because what if it was?"

"What are you saying?"

"I mean what if we could find a way to bring the water from up there, down here?" Beau said. "What if there was some way to redirect it --"

"It's too far, and there'd have to be a way to get it up that last flight of stairs," Molly objected.

"Could we do it with magic?" Yasha said. "Someone could go back, take control of the water with magic, and bring it up here."

Jester and Caduceus looked at each other, doubt playing across their features. "I've never tried to use it for that," Jester said hesitantly, and "I'm not sure if --" Caduceus said.

"I think I could do it," Fjord interrupted.

They looked at him with some surprise. The half-orc's features were a study in misgivings, but he nodded shortly at their questioning gazes. "The power over water that Uk'otoa gave me, I still have it even now," he said. "I've never -- I've never found an outer limit to how much water I can move at a time. Guess I can find out now."

"Well, then let's get to it!" Nott exclaimed. "We're losing time!"

"Yes, but..." Fjord said reluctantly. "If I do this -- if I spend it on this -- then that's going to be it for me. That'll be my last spell. Unless we find a place down here that we can bunker down and take a rest, and I'm not sure we have time to spare for that."

"What of it?" Beau said. "You'll still be able to fight, won't you?"

"I was hoping to save that last spell for when we find Caleb," Fjord admitted. "If we could just get close enough to see   him -- no matter what else was happening, or was in the way -- I would've been able to teleport to him and get him to safety. If I use my last spell on this, I can't do that."

"Fjord, you dummy!" Jester exclaimed. " I'll   be able to save him! If it's just one person, I can definitely use my Dimension Door spell to get him out of the way of any bad things!"

"Yeah, it's just... that was kind of my thing," Fjord muttered. "If something was threatening him, I'd use Thunderstep to get him clear. That was our thing."

"Look, before any   of us can rescue Caleb, we have to find him,"   Beau snapped, her patience clearly beginning to fray. "And we can't do that unless we get past this fucking   fire, so just man up and go get that water already!"

"Okay, okay!" Fjord said, already retreating back the way they came. 

"Caduceus, Yasha, go with him to make sure another floating jelly thing doesn't try to eat him on his way up there," Beau ordered. "Nott, probably better if you stay here, where the water isn't."

"Don't have to tell me twice," Nott said fervently.

"It's okay Fjord," Jester said, patting him consolingly on the arm as he passed. "If it makes you feel any better, this is something only   you can do, and I'm sure   Caleb will be super   impressed and grateful when we tell him later!"

Molly just hoped she was right. Not that Caleb would be suitably impressed, but that they'd have the chance to tell him about it at all.

The four of them remaining -- Molly, Beau, Jester and Nott -- hunkered on the landing as far back as they could from the fire's heat to wait. And wait.

As Molly's eyes adjusted to the inferno ahead of them, he caught sight of several swirls of movement in them that seemed more deliberate, less random than the natural flickering of flames. He caught a glimpse of thin, spindly limbs of light and ash, a lashing twist of flame for a tail, and sheets of smoke and light that beat above their heads to carry them through the flame. So far, they seemed perfectly content to frolic in the conflagration and paid no attention to the travelers; but more than ever Molly was sure it would be folly to try to cross the flame-filled chamber.

"What time do you think it is?" Molly asked as the minutes crawled by with no lessening of the fire's heat, or sign of Fjord's return. 

"Not a clue." Beau grimaced. "We don't even know for sure when we woke up this 'morning' to find the spell gone all wrong, let alone how long it's been since then."

"Caleb would know," Nott muttered, and took another drink from her flask. Molly let it pass.

"Well, we know it isn't sunset yet," Jester put in hopefully, "because if it were, the spell would expire and the mansion would poof and we'd all be floating around in the Astral Plane right now."

"Thanks for that mental image, Jes," Beau said with a groan.

"It would be nice to know how much time we had left." Molly didn't usually waste his time wishing for impossible things, but, yeah, knowing how long they had before the world ended around their ears would have been really nice.   "Or at least how much further we had to go. How far down did Frumpkin say Caleb was, again?"

"He didn't say," Nott said. "Just more than two and less than a thousand." After a moment Nott said reflectively, "He was kind of an asshole about this whole thing."

"Cats, man," Beau shrugged.

Molly's straining ears caught a faint sound, and he stood up to go to the top of the stairs and peer down. Footsteps, voices -- familiar voices, thank the Moonweaver, sounding excited and stressed but not in fear or pain. Had it worked, then? Or not?

He didn't have long to wonder. Yasha came around the corner, barreling up the stairs at a breakneck speed, Caduceus at her heels. "Get out of the way!" Yasha called out when she saw Molly. "It's coming!"

What's coming?   Molly wondered, but he obligingly tucked himself up into a corner as Yasha thundered past, Caduceus practically falling over the landing in his haste. He looked up again to see --

A wall of blackness, just a faint gleam of light at the front of it, creeping up the stairs at a deceptively smooth pace. Molly yelped as he scrambled after the other two. "Did it work?" Jester was just asking as he caught up with them, Yasha and Caduceus gasping for breath from their sprint. Without a word Molly grabbed her in one hand, Nott in the other, and threw all three of them flat against the wall. And then --

A cannon of water blasted   past them, passing inches from Molly's nose. It didn't touch the floor, didn't quite   reach the walls or ceiling, but it continued on and on   as Molly began to realize just what volume of water they were dealing with. He craned his neck over the shoulders at the stairs and finally saw Fjord, bringing up the rear. The half orc had a rictus-grin of concentration on his face as he extended his hands in front of him, as though he could push the tons and tons of water through space with his strength alone. Hard to tell if the water beading on his face was sweat, since he was soaking wet.

Water hit fire with the sound of an explosion.

The orange light flared, then dimmed, then was obscured by a cloud of steam as the burst of water struck the conflagration. Some of the fire went out immediately but it did not go without a fight; the cloud of steam thickened, roiled, burst --

"Oh shit,"  Beau said just as Molly realized the problem: the fire had been replaced by a cloud of superheated steam expanding in all directions, and in seconds it would engulf them.

Nott shrieked and Molly thought he might have too; Yasha swung around to grab Beau and Jester and drag them both against her chest, back towards the fire. Caduceus slapped a palm full of wet clay against the stone wall and as he dragged his hand back the stone came with it. He managed to throw a wall of stone across the hallway ahead of them just seconds before the cloud of steam washed over them; even with the wall blocking the way Molly felt the air in the corridor suddenly grow hot, hotter, choking, scalding --

It subsided. Molly lowered his arm from where it had been protecting his face and looked cautiously ahead. The stone wall Caduceus had created melted away and they were faced with a scene of absolute ruin. The air was completely choked with grey steam, floating ash, the floor a mess from the passing flood. But, Molly couldn't help but note, it was a ruin that was no longer on fire.

"Good job Fjord, you almost killed us all," Nott said crankily, and Fjord made a sound of protest.

"No need for that. Fjord, you did exactly what we wanted, good job," Molly assured him. "But, uh, let's not   do it again."

Everyone groaned agreement. Fjord sighed.

The hall was still hot when they ventured out into it; the stones radiating warmth under their feet, the steam scalding where it fell onto unprotected skin. Even with the flood of water some patches of fire still remained; in the far corners, smoldering in the ceiling. There was also a muffled sound that they hadn't been able to hear under the roaring of the fire: the sound of chanting.

"Well, that's ominous," Molly muttered to Yasha, walking by his side.

She nodded. "It is, but not as ominous as that,"   she said, with a jerk of her chin. Molly followed the direction of her gaze to the far wall.

A jumble of charred wood was lying on top of a pile of cinders; it was hard to tell now, but Molly thought it might have been the half-burned remains of their bar. Even as Molly watched, yellow and black flames flickered from underneath it, then one side of the bar caught and came alight.

"Uh, it shouldn't be doing that, should it?" Molly said, seized with a sudden panic.

"No," Yasha agreed.

The rest of the bar burst into flames. Jester grabbed Beau's hand on one side, Nott's on the other, and dragged them both forward. "Hey so maybe we should get out of this place super duper quick!?" she chirped, and Molly couldn't agree more.

As they dashed across the charred hall, swirls of ash and smoke seemed to coalesce out of the steam around them and came at them. "Heads up!" Molly called as he ducked away from one, not quite fast enough -- a jagged spike of pain went through his arm following a slashing claw. For critters that seemed to be made of air and water themselves their claws were solid enough, he thought with a wince.  He dragged Summer's Dance across his arm to light it up with ice, and the first one recoiled away from his blade with a shrieking hiss like a boiling kettle. 

The ash creatures weren't particularly dangerous -- the biggest risk was that they slowed the party down, dogging their steps and taking swipes at them every time they tried to continue on out of the room. Nott made it to the far side of the room first and wheeled around, taking shots with her crossbow at the one advancing on Jester from behind. Two of them ganged up on Fjord, dragging him to a standstill -- could they somehow sense his magic in the water that had quenched the fire? Beau crossed the space in a flash and directed a flurry of hits at one that disintegrated completely under the force of her blows. 

But the heat was building again, and Molly knew they couldn't linger here much longer.

"Don't stand and fight. Go!" Beau shouted and took her own advice, sprinting off to the far side of the room to join Nott. The others followed; Molly lingered behind only long enough to help Caduceus, covering his retreat and blocking the slash of the ashy creature that tried to dog his heels as he went. 

At last they were all on the far side of the hall, the dark opening that Molly had seen briefly through the flames. The floor here was smooth and cool again, not blasted black by fire or coated by a layer of cinders, and the steam creatures seemed reluctant to go beyond the boundary defined by that fire. Only one was brave or determined enough to follow them, and Molly's ice-coated scimitar took it out with the wet, sparking hiss of sand dumped over a firepit.

They stood, catching their breath. From hear they could hear the sounds of chanting again, louder and closer than ever before.

Jester looked at the rekindling fire and for a moment she looked so furious and full of despair that Molly half-expected to see her spitting ice. But instead of just -- saying what she felt, of course, she wrestled it down and tamped it into something cute, something funny. She pouted and stamped her foot on the floor and wailed, "No fair!"

"Thought we were supposed to be clearing the way for when we have to come back this way," Beau said. Molly gave her an elbow to shut her up, and of course she jabbed back, harder and scowling to add insult on injury. "How are we supposed to get through from this side?"

"It's not a normal fire," Nott reasoned. "Someone or something must be keeping it going. If we follow the source of the spell, maybe we can cut it off from this side."

"I think that creepy chanting might be a good place to look, don't you?" Caduceus suggested.

"And now we're going towards   the creepy chanting," Fjord muttered bitterly. "That's fine, that's cool, that's great."

With one last resentful glare back to the burning hall, Molly turned towards the corridor ahead. It was starting to look more like a natural cave than fitted blocks of cut stone that had made up the hall. The floor sloped away from them in a broad, shallow curve, and on the far wall of the cavern -- hundreds of feet away, still -- he saw those same mind-wrenching cracks that had been on the top floor. Top floor... lower floor? They'd gone up, then down again to get here. It felt   like they were deep below the earth's surface, but through the cracks and rents in the stone glimmered sharp distant stars. 

As they moved further into the cavern, approaching the far wall, the cracks sealed up again until they faced only smooth stone. Molly glanced once over his shoulder -- trying to gage the spread of the fire -- only to see another fissure appear in the stone wall behind them. That hadn't been there, they'd just   walked past it he knew   that hadn't been there!

Instead of opening onto a star-studded sky it showed only darkness. Only darkness until suddenly not, until looking back at him through the crack was the slit pupil of an enormous staring eye. It twitched a bit, focused, dilated. Then was gone. Shadow,   a shadow that moved and shifted and slithered, until all that shone through the crack was stars again.

Molly shuddered and quickly turned to look forward again. Better not to look behind. Better not to see what might be gaining on you.

The chanting continued, growing louder the further down they went. Set at intervals along the stone pathway, the left offset from the right, were hip-high braziers of polished black glass. Each was topped with a shining black bowl -- and that bowl looked familiar somehow, but Molly couldn't place it -- and the flames inside them flared and sputtered in time with the distant chanting. Every one of them in perfect synchrony, as though they were mirror images of each other reflected across an endless hallway.

Other things were scattered beside the pathway, too. Other things that didn't belong. A tower, growing out of the wall like an unearthed relic. A tree, perfectly colorless, rooted in sheer solid rock. Half of what looked like an enormous hourglass, the other half embedded in the wall and floor. And set against the inner curving wall of the passageway, the plain unmarked wood standing in free space at an angle to the stone, stood the door to Caleb's room.

"Well, this is it." Beau, who had been using her truncated staff as a walking stick for the last ten minutes, grounded the stick and leaned on it as she frowned at the door. "So do we go down, or do we go on?" She looked around at the rest of them. 

"It looks like we can just go to the next level and not have to mess with whatever creepy evil shit is down that path," Fjord pointed out.

"Yeah, but there's still that fire up in the hall, isn't there?" Molly spoke up. "Even if we find Caleb and come back --" " When,"   Nott insisted, and Molly course-corrected. " --When  we find Caleb and come back, we have to get through that somehow. It would be better to stop it now, while we don't have to... worry about Caleb."

"But if Caleb is with us on the way back, won't that make the fight that much easier?" Caduceus said reasonably. "I mean, we've all been missing his magic in the fights so far."

"That assumes that he'll be in any shape to help," Yasha pointed out.

That struck a nerve. They'd all been thinking it -- Molly knew he'd been thinking it -- but it didn't feel good to put words to the possibility. They knew that Caleb was alive. But alive   didn't mean well .

Molly sighed. "We can hope that you're right, Caddy, and he'll be ready and able to fight and run as soon as we get him. But just in case he's not, it would be better to take care of this now."

"Okay, but if this all goes to shit, don't say I didn't warn you," Fjord grumbled. 

Not without some misgivings, they passed by the doorway and kept on going into the cavern. Part of Molly wanted to insist that they just go down now, seized by an irrational fear that if they turned their back on their goal for an instant they would lose it.

The cavern narrowed in around them as they went down, the ground becoming more sharply sloped and less even. Molly kept his eyes and ears open; there was a smell down here he didn't like at all. He would have liked to say it was because he'd never smelled it before, but he had an even more foreboding feeling that he had.

A chittering sound from overhead caused him to look up; he saw a small humanoid figure crouching on a ledge ahead of them, all stick-thin limbs and dark red skin. It unfolded skeletal, leathery wings over a head that was unexpectedly long and bulbous, red eyes staring down at them forebodingly. Before any of them could bring their weapons around, it was gone.

"Whatinhell was that thing?" Beau demanded. 

Berbalang,   the word supplied itself in Molly's mind, and he wished he hadn't known it. A flesh-eating demon, feasts on the dead, commonly found on battlefields; vulnerable to sunlight, silver, weapons enchanted or blessed... "What 'in hell' is right, I think," he said aloud. "Some kind of demon. There's probably more."

They pushed on. Molly caught sight of the fiend a few more times, always looking back at them and retreating ahead. It was almost a relief when the first attack came, a swarm of tiny, awful creatures that were little more than wings and a biting mouth, dragging behind them a mane of tendrils that bit and stung painfully. Vargouille,   Molly thought, and wished he hadn't known that. 

When the first cloaked figure rushed them Molly thought it was another demon at first, until his radiance-wreathed blade bit into one of them and didn't elicit the usual demonic shriek. Draped from head to toe in a shrouding black cloak, it moved and fought like a human, but under the hood was nothing but shadow. They had voices, though, hoarse and guttural voices that rose and fell in perfect cadence -- in unerring unison -- with the chanting below.

"Finally!" Beau said as she danced backwards, slipping through the crowd of enemies with ease. "Something to fight that isn't a demon or an abomination or smoke freak! I'd rather fight humans any day of the week!"

"I wouldn't," Molly muttered as another winged vargouille dove at him, and he hacked at it with a stroke that chopped off one wing and sent it careening away.

"Well, they're not really human either way, yeah?" Caduceus pointed out. The cleric was mostly hanging back, only casting Sacred Flame when he could. "I mean, we're in the Astral Plane, right? Everything that's here belongs here, whether it looks   like a person or not. The only real people who are down here are us."

Are we?   Molly couldn't help but wonder, suddenly uneasy. Are we the only people down here?   He'd like to believe that Caduceus was right, that there were all just... shadows, but the way they choked and twitched and gurgled when they died was all too horribly real. That came from Caleb's memories too, he supposed.

They kept coming and the Mighty Nein kept pushing, fighting now for every foot of ground they gained. But at last they came around one last hallway and the cave opened up before them, an enormous cavern beyond lit by a dozen of those shining, black, perfectly synchronized braziers.

The walls of the cavern -- chamber -- were dressed in more shining black stone -- obsidian, Molly thought, but there was no time to get a close enough look to analyze all the sigils and grotesque murals worked into those walls. Five channels ran from evenly spaced points around the room to meet in the center, a sunken pit in the stone whose lip was inscribed with more silver sigils. The surface inside the pit was smooth, but glowed with a furious light that heaved and shifted with bubbles breaching the surface. Molten metal? It was ferociously hot down here.

Standing at the edge of the pit was a lone humanoid figure, its black draping robe incised with crimson embroidery around the cuffs and collar and hood. Its back was to them, its arms raised in supplication, and the chanting cadence that reverberated up from the center of it all -- the one that echoed in the voice of every cultist, in the flicker of every brazier -- came from it.

The liquid in the pit heaved and roiled in time with those chanting words, and Molly was seized with a sudden sourceless certainty   that whatever ritual the hooded figure was performing, it must not be allowed to finish its cast. "Stop him!" he cried, pointing at the hooded figure with his sword. "Shut him up, kill him, whatever it takes!"

"On it!" Beau snapped, and the Mighty Nein surged forward.

Pushed, and were met and pushed back almost at once by another wave of black-cloaked figures that seemed to appear from nowhere -- melting in from the shadows around the cavern, springing up from the dark stones themselves. The Mighty Nein fought, but were soon bogged to a halt by the sheer numbers of opponents.

Molly shoved his way forward, determined, obsessed --   if he could just get to that one central figure, if he could just kill that motherfucker,   then that would solve everything. He knew it, he knew   it in a way that he did not know how he knew. The fires would go out, the demons would fuck off, the shadowy cultists would melt back into the stones. He just had to kill him -- and how did he know it was a him, anyway?! --   and everything else would be fixed.

He ground to a halt on a wave of black-cloaked bodies and, in a sudden fit of frustration, called upon the scars from his uncanny rituals. Surged forward into the bodies blocking his way, through   them, leaving trails of freezing chill and spreading necrotic death in his wake. He sprinted towards the hooded figure --

Ruddy dark skin and a bulbous head were suddenly in his way, leathery wings spread to block his vision. The berbaleng was on him, slashing with rotting claws and razor-edged wings, and Molly suddenly remembered something else he knew: in addition to feeding on dead corpses for their flesh, the berbaleng also fed on nightmares and painful memories to fuel its psionic attacks. In that moment he knew, he knew   that this was no manifestation of Caleb's mind; this was a real fiend that had come from outside the Mansion to dine on the feast of terror and agony that Caleb's mind was presenting. To feed on Molly's friend   while he was helpless, while they were powerless to help him, and this thing would do anything in its power to protect its meal.

Filled with a sudden fury Molly went into a frenzy; he hacked his way forward uncaring of the danger from the creature's claws, his one sword blurring twice as fast to make up for the lack of his other one. He took hits, but he didn't care, he just didn't care,  all that mattered was taking this thing down with him.

In the face of this determined assault the berbaleng's cowardice reasserted itself; with another heave of its mottled wings it took to the air, warbling and muttering in a discordant tone as it flapped towards safety. Molly wanted to pursue it but his true target was just ahead, the dark-robed figure, the demonic cultist at the center of this whole nightmare of blood and flame and madness --

He lunged forward and grabbed the figure's shoulder, yanking him back from the edge of the pit and whirling him around. " Fuck off!"   he screamed into its face, his voice laced with the hellish rebuke of his heritage, and he swung back his arm and prepared to --

Froze

Stopped, mid-swing, unable to strike or speak or move,   because the face under the hood  --

The face under the hood was --

It was him.

His own face, he saw it in the mirror every day,   his own eyes and nose and mouth and chin but it was all wrong, because there were no gorgeous colorful tattoos, no brightly colored hair, no jangling mess of jewelry and charms meant to disarm, to bring luck, to bring joy with every flash of light and chime of sound.

It was him but his black hair was cropped short, an almost military buzz cut, his horns were capped only with black metal spikes. It was him but his smile was cruel, and his eyes were cold, and nine blood-red eyes blazed from his hands and his neck and everywhere on his body, uncovered and disguised and unfettered.

It was him but it was --

"Lucien?!"

No. No no no no. This can't be, it isn't, how can it be him how can he be here how can this be how why why why --

For seconds, seconds that stretched off into eternity Molly was convinced, horribly convinced, that his own evil past self had somehow come to life and stepped free of his body to manifest his own, come back from Molly's shadowed past to destroy his future, to swallow and sacrifice and defile everything that Molly loved, how how how how how --

And the terror that gripped him was slow to pass because -- because if this wasn't   him , if this wasn't Lucien, then that meant. That meant.

"Molly!"   A voice from behind him, a shout filled with concern. Before him the Lucien- thing   laughed in his face, hands dripping with black magics, and let out a stream of words that -- that sounded   like Infernal but they made no sense, they were just garbled meaningless syllables --

A crossbow bolt sprouted from Lucien thing's   throat, and the laughter turned to choking, gasping, as he staggered back a step and clawed at his own throat. Stopped, looked at Molly one more time, smiled a ghastly smile, teeth coated in blood.

"Too late," he said in a voice that burbled and bubbled and drowned in blood. " She comes."  

and then he stepped back and spread his arms and smiled and smiled and

fell, in a strangely graceful arc, into the boiling metal behind him.

Molly stumbled back a step, fell on his ass, body numb and mind blanking at what he had just seen. Because why, why, why  would Lucien be here,  that wasn't Caleb's nightmare that was his,  unless unless unless --

The surface of the metal churned and boiled, the stink of hot metal and brimstone almost (not quite) overwhelming the smell of burning flesh. Then the surface heaved upwards, the liquid metal spilled over the side and ran through the channels, and a massive pair of shoulders pushed up from below the surface. A head lifted, looking around the cavern. A pair of colossal wings lifted, flexed, and snapped outwards, spattering tiny droplets of fire throughout the cavern.

It was huge, imposing, bulging with muscles, a massive sword gripped in one hand. Its wingspan brushed the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling, breaking off little pieces of stone to fall down on them as it moved. The figure alone was ten feet tall, twice that with the wings, with a broken halo forming pointed, shattered horns arcing above a corona of darkness surrounding its head. It was monstrous. It was celestial, it was demonic. It was terrifying.

It was Yasha.

She stretched to her full height and looked down on him with a cold glare devoid of any kind of recognition. Raised her sword in one hand, dark flames catching and running up the blade, and Molly stared up at her with a sudden icy terror streaking through his body as he stared into the face of death.

"Hey! Pick on someone your own size!" A streak of blue came from the side and it was Beauregard, of course; why would he have expected anything else? She launched herself at the new foe with all her speed, all her dauntless courage and verve. Her fists flashed out once, twice, a third time, crack crackcrack  against the dark Yasha's chest --

And did nothing. The dark Yasha didn't even flinch back. She turned her cold stare onto Beauregard and before the monk could react, that monstrous sword arced around and smashed downward, cleaving into Beauregard's collar and driving her a dozen feet across the ground.

Jester screamed. Molly jolted to his feet and staggered forward, blood frozen in his veins. Fire flared and ran off the demonic figure with no more effect than the molten metal she'd emerged from; cold bloomed and was shrugged away with as little effect. A crossbow bolt struck her face and skipped off it without so much as changing her expression as she heaved upwards, struggling to pull one massive leg and then the other out of the pit and climb to her feet in the cavern.

Fjord sprinted forward, lunging across the ground to grab Beau and drag her back. "Run!" he bellowed, his powerful voice rising over the rest of the cacophony in the cavern. "We can't fight her! Run!"

He was right, of course he was right, and wasted no time in following his own directive, the insensible form of Beauregard pumping blood out across his armor. The rest of them broke off, scattering in all directions away from their foe's deadly reach, running flat out of the cavern and up the slope. The massive footfalls sounded behind them, each one shaking the cavern walls, but it seemed that as powerful and implacable as this dark Yasha was, she could not move quickly enough to catch them. Caduceus ran along beside Fjord, trying to grasp Beau's shoulder through the blood only to slip off again, trying to get a heal in.

"Get to the door!" Nott said shrilly, running at his side. "She can't get through it, she's too big, we'll be safe!"

"But why?" Jester cried out, distraught. "Why is she attacking us? Why would she attack Beau? Even if she's in Caleb's mind, she ought to be our friend!"

The images unfolded across his mind's eye in sequence, each one perfectly illuminated with this new horrifying clarity. A woman's voice in childish tones, playing deadly games in the darkest of surroundings. A tall man completely given over to the domination of Uk'otoa, stripped of everything but the dark god's will and words, seawater gushing endlessly from his mouth. A stooped and spindly figure, grey-skinned and red-haired, whose hands spread fungus and decay to everything they touched. Whose gaze was too bright and eyes too penetrating -- how had he missed this? How had he failed to understand? Twenty damn months at the carnival, watching Gustav's play from backstage, and he had failed to grasp the most basic idea that the symbol   of the thing was far stronger than the reality of it?

"They're us!" Molly shouted even as he ran, the not-Yasha hard on their heels. "All of them! All of the monsters have been us!"

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

It had gone wrong, it had all gone so fucking wrong, and there was nothing she could do about it.

The Mighty Nein had tumbled out on the landing in the worst possible order; Molly still shouting about the monsters, Jester crying in bewilderment, Caduceus and Fjord between them trying to get Beau stabilized. The monk was sitting up now, still coughing up blood; even though the wound had healed over there was still blood in her throat and lungs. Crimson gobbets sprayed with every cough and all Nott could do was mechanically offer sips of her flask to help Beau clear the taste out of her mouth between coughs.

There were only stars, stars and void every direction Nott looked, so there was nothing to do but not look. Sometime soon they'd have to move. She knew it, they all knew it. They couldn't stay here when Caleb was still out there, her wizard, her boy, her best friend,   he needed them and he needed her and so she was just going to have to be Nott, the Brave (and not the brave) and somehow she was going to have to find the courage to stand up straight and take another step. Sometime. Somehow.

Maybe another drink would help.

Now Fjord was the one freaking out. Pacing around in a tight circle in the little island of wooden floor, ranting and waving his arms without caring if he knocked one of them off into the sky. "I didn't sign up for this!" Fjord shouted, and his voice cracked. "I never asked to be... to get cast as the villain in Caleb's little self-flagellating puppet show!"

"What?" Nott demanded.

Yasha slowly shook her head. Her arms were wrapped tight around herself, fingers digging channels into her biceps. "Me either."

"What?"   Nott was on her feet, one hand on her flask, the other on her shortsword. "This isn't Caleb's fault and I won't let you all blame him for what isn't his fault! You all   are the ones who -- who --"

"It's true," Jester said in a voice that wobbled, a voice that threatened to break. "We are pretty scary. We're really... um... we're pretty scary."

"Yeah, but not to him!" Fjord objected and Nott barked out a laugh, because really? Really?   That   was how he wanted to do this?

"The hell you're not!" Nott spurned this. " You put a sword to his neck!  Back at the High Richter's house! Did you think he'd forget? You know he never forgets! And you?" She rounded on Yasha, drunk enough -- just barely drunk enough -- that her anger outweighed her usual fear of the woman. "You stabbed him   once! How dare you say now that you've never given him any reason to be afraid of you all?"

"I only -- because --" Yasha started to say while Fjord's voice overrode her, "Now wait just   one minute, that wasn't --"

Beau surged up from her position prone at Caduceus' feet, clutching a bloodied wad of bandages against her chest. "After all this time, after everything we've done for him, what's it gonna take -- !" she said, then broke off into coughing, more red spattering against her lips.

"Listen, we all need to calm down," Caduceus started to say, large hands pressing Beau down flat again.

But Nott was too far gone to feel anything like concern, anything except indignation for Caduceus' transparent attempts to manage   them all. " Don't tell me to calm down!"   she hissed, leveling a finger at the firbolg. "This isn't my fault either. It's you! You are   all terrifying and you did   hurt him and you don't get to get up on your high horses now and get offended about that!"

"No one is at fault here, none of us are casting blame," Caduceus said, trying to make his voice sound calm and reasonable. Nott glared at him, because hadn't he been listening?

Fjord turned to Caduceus with a sneer on his lips. "And what about you, Caduceus? Doesn't it bother you just a little   that Caleb apparently thinks of you as some kind of dumb, mindless -- rotting plague creature?"

"No, it doesn't," Caduceus replied, and okay, that was kind of a surprise. "Because that's not me, and has nothing to do with me. Any more than the rest of these monsters have to do with you."

"Well apparently it has something   to do with us!" Jester said, her voice rising with a hint of hysteria. "Or do you think the lot of us are all in here for no reason?"

"This isn't about reason. It's about fear," Caduceus said readily. "Fear isn't a rational emotion. You can know something in your head but you'll never truly convince your heart. You can totally, sincerely believe that someone is good, that they're trustworthy, that you're safe around them, but if you've been hurt before that fear never truly goes away."

Beau got shakily to her feet, pushing Caduceus' hands aside, mouth opening for some hot remark -- but Yasha suddenly stood, one hand on her sword hilt, head cocked to the side. "Listen!"

As Beau's voice trailed off in a mumble they all heard it: a long, low sound like the note from some vast horn. Deep enough that Nott could feel it in her bones, made her teeth ache.

After several long seconds it fell away, and was replaced with silence. Nott made herself swallow, made her tongue unstick from the roof of her mouth to ask, " What was that?!"

"Not here, whatever it was," Yasha answered, and slowly lowered her hand.

"At least not yet," Jester added brightly, and Fjord let out a disgusted groan.

"Look," Molly said, speaking up for the first time since their desperate tumble down the stairs. "None of you are wrong exactly, but this really isn't the conversation we need to be having right now."

"And what's your oh-so-important conversation you think we should be having instead, huh?" Beau said acidly. 

"We need to consider whether it's time to cut our losses," Molly said, and all other sound abruptly dropped away. "Whether we're going to keep pushing forward, or admit to ourselves that it's time to go back."

For a moment the rest of them stood staring at him, shocked. Furious protests sprang to her lips, tumbling over each other, and Molly raised both hands in a frustrated gesture. "Look, I don't like it any more than you!" he said, raising his voice. "But we've got to think about where we are, really think   for a moment. 

"Frumpkin said there could be anywhere between two levels and a thousand -- a thousand   of these levels between us and Caleb. We've come down three levels since then and it's already taken much longer than we thought, longer than we'd hoped. And even if we can find him we still have to make it back up the way we came. At what point are we going to say okay, this is impossible?"

Molly looked around the group, looking at each of them in turn. Nott wanted to be angry at him, to be furious,   but the expression in his eyes when they met her was so pained that she didn't have the heart for it. "I don't want to leave Caleb. But at least I know that Caleb cared about all of us -- especially you, Nott. You've got a husband and kid waiting back home for you. Do you really believe that he'd want you -- that he'd want the seven of us to sacrifice our lives for nothing? If there's no chance at all of saving him?"

A daunted silence reigned.

Beau broke it. "Okay, so what do we do?" she said, her voice unusually subdued. "We still don't know where he is and we don't know how much time we have left. How do we make this call?"

Molly turned to the firbolg, still supporting Beau with one hand under her arm. "Caduceus, do you still have your spell prepared?" he asked. "The one to find Caleb, that you didn't want to use unless we were close enough?"

"I do," Caduceus said, guarded.

"That's, what, a thousand yards? That should be enough to cover this whole level and the next one down," Molly said. "So here's what I think. 

"Caduceus is going to cast his spell, and if Caleb is within range of it, then he's close enough that we have a chance of reaching him and escaping before the time runs out. If he's not... then we don't. Does that sound right to everyone here?"

Another silence. The Mighty Nein shifted uncomfortably, darting glances around at each other, none of them sure what to say.

"Cast the spell, Deuces," Beau ordered.

Caduceus nodded slowly. He brought his staff around and set the butt of it on the ground, moving to grip the gnarled wood with both hands. As he leaned forward and set his forehead against the amethyst,topping the staff, it began to glow softly, and he shut his eyes.

Nott watched him, heart pounding, her skin crawling with the miserable uncertainty. Say yes, say yes, say yes   she chanted silently, as though it could affect the outcome -- as though it could drown out the tiny whimper in the back of her mind that wanted him to say no,   so that she could just go home. For a moment she was seized with the urge to cry out, interrupt the spell before he could complete it; they still wouldn't know, but at least they wouldn't know...

She stayed put. After an endless moment, Caduceus lifted his head and opened his eyes. "I got something," he reported, and Nott felt all the air in her lungs leave her in a rush of relief. "He's close."

"Where?" Beau demanded. " How close?"

Caduceus pointed off into the starry void, a substantial angle away from where the jagged path led. "That way. And down," he said. "But I don't know how to get there from here."

"There's got to be a way," Jester said resolutely. "And if there isn't, we'll make one. But let's go."

The Mighty Nein moved swiftly now, argument forgotten, filled with new purpose. For the first time Nott got a good look at their new surroundings and the sight nearly threatened her newfound resolve. 

The world around them had stopped even pretending to be a house; there was no ceiling, the walls were only half-there at best, and the ground was shredded away everywhere except the floor they were standing on. They were gathered in a little vestibule at the foot of the stairs, the plain wooden stairs and doors so ordinary and solid-looking against the endless sky that Nott found herself practically clinging to them by her claws. 

They managed to assemble themselves into something like a marching order -- Yasha ahead, Nott sticking close to her, the others ranged out behind -- and Yasha stepped forward onto the path.

The stars went out. Yasha stumbled a step until Caduceus, bringing up the rear, brought light to his staff and raised it up high. To either side of the path the light fell away uselessly into nothingness, but at least they could see the track ahead of them again.

Someone was waiting for them there.

Revealed by Caduceus' light was a woman -- that much at least was clear by the silhouette -- with boots, skirts, and a long sweeping cloak. In the light the cloak showed as a deep forest green, and the hood was pulled low over the figure's face; but there was enough skin showing to leave no mistake that it was blue.

A little humming tune drifted its way to them across the space, and the other-Jester kept moving in little rhythmic hops. As they got closer and more of her fell into the light, a twist of movement resolved itself into a length of soft wriggly material that she was using as a skipping-rope, arcing overhead and striking the path again with a splat that sent little droplets flying with each impact. It took a moment, but Nott recognized the material the skipping-rope was made of and gagged, barely keeping back her last meal.

"Hello..." Caduceus piped up from the back, sounding cautious. The Nein advanced cautiously; Nott made sure to keep Yasha's bulk between her and the other-Jester. Just because she hadn't attacked them yet,   didn't mean she was safe.

Although -- this was the Jester that lived in Caleb's head, wasn't it? We are pretty scary,   Jester had said, but Nott had trouble imagining being frightened of Jester. Had trouble imagining anyone being frightened of Jester, even Caleb.

The other Jester raised her head to look at them, her eyes reflecting vivid green in the light of Caduceus' staff. " Finally,"   she drawled . "I wondered if you guys were ever going to get a move on, or if you were just going to stand around talking for ev er."

Her voice made Nott shudder. It was definitely Jester's voice, but -- wrong   somehow. It sounded hollow, almost buzzing, like Jester's voice filtered through a metal tube. The rest of her was equally wrong, off in equally subtle ways: her horns curled a little more, ended in sharper points, her skin wiped clean of the familiar friendly freckles. Heavy black kohl surrounded her eyes, poured down her cheeks, painted her lips. After a moment's thought Nott was able to place her clothes -- the extravagant black leather and mesh that Jester had worn as her disguise when they'd first infiltrated Rosohna. The only splash of color was her drowned-blue skin and the vivid green of her cloak, which exactly matched the green glow of her eyes.

"When we spoke earlier," Molly was saying, his expression and body language bristling with caution. "You said earlier that the Gentleman is down below."

"Yup!" the other Jester said cheerfully. "In his lab oratory. And he'll fuck you up   if he gets his hands on you." She didn't sound particularly worried about the prospect.

"So did you mean, like, the   Gentleman? The blue, sweaty guy?" Beau demanded suspiciously. "Because he's a jerk, sure, but I didn't think he was scary enough to get a spot in Caleb's subconscious."

The other Jester scoffed. "Of course not," she said witheringly. "Do you think there's only one gentleman in the world?"

"So who is the Gentlemen you're talking about?"

Why were they standing around babbling about the Gentleman when Caleb was still out there? Nott's growing impatience overrode her wariness enough that she pushed forward into the conversation. "Have you seen Caleb? Where is he?!"

A sneer crossed the dark Jester's face, twisting it with disgust. "Why would I care about that   guy?" she said, and Nott's stomach dropped. 

"What do you mean, why would you care?" Jester said, her voice hot with outrage.   "Caleb's our friend! And that means he's your   friend too!"

"No, he's not," the other Jester replied, sounding no less than incredulous that they would even suggest   such a thing. "Why would I ever be friends with him?   He's filthy, and he's ugly , and he stinks, and he's boring.  He's no fun at all,   why would I ever want to be around him or spend time with someone like that?"

Jester's face twisted with fury -- for a moment, she and her double looked almost exactly   alike -- and then with a wordless yell she lunged forward. The lollipop sprang to life in the air above her and hurtled towards her doppelganger in a matching arc to her hand-axe, both blows calculated with murderous intent.

They never made contact. In the space above the other Jester's head there was a flash of something   in the darkness -- lightless color like what you saw when you pressed your fingers against your eyeballs -- that outlined the shape of a man in a flowing cloak, a twisted jagged grin. Then it was gone, and she   was gone, the outline of the other Jester bursting like a soap-bubble as soon as the real Jester touched her. "And you're all just a bunch of farty-pants. Thhpbbt!  " the duplicate shouted, and dissolved into the sound of laughter.

In the space she left behind, still in a humanoid shape for just one second before the outlines collapsed and began pouring across the ground, was a cloud of bright green gas. Nott only got a glimpse of it before it engulfed her, tumbling out in all directions like an avalanche. Almost immediately her eyes began to sting and water, her skin began to itch, and she took in a surprised gasp before she could stop herself and then it was in her --

The gas was green and rancid and cool and it burned and scalded  in her mouth, in her throat, it was everywhere and she couldn't see, just an ocean of green fog through which she could see outlines and silhouettes of taller figures; the others, coughing and choking and retching along with her. 

"Don't breathe! Run!" Beau yelled, out of all of them the only one unaffected by the cloud. Staggering, clawing at her throat with one hand Nott moved forward, stumbling each step along the path. She saw the others through the smoke too; Fjord helping Molly along with an arm slung over the tielfing's shoulders, Yasha snarling like an animal as she pushed forward with the sheer force of her rage. She saw Jester, coughing and choking, her spiritual weapon weaving back and forth in the air ahead of her as though she could fan the poison away. And over it all, coming from nowhere and anywhere, the sound of echoing laughter; a shrill childlike giggling as though the speaker could not imagine any funnier joke than the sight of them choking and clawing for air.

From inside the cloud it had seemed endless; but as Nott staggered forward, gradually it began to thin out. Ten steps, twenty, and her eyes and her lungs were still full of fire but she could see again. The laughter faded too, whether left behind with the smoke or gone off somewhere else in this fucking mansion Nott didn't know, and didn't care. 

Beau was the last one out, pushing a near-insensible Caduceus ahead of her. He collapsed on the pathway well clear of the gas and sat cross-legged, head bent, taking deep gulps of air. Bea stood for a moment with her hands on her knees, catching her own breath, but then inhaled deeply and stood up straight, cracking her spine and rotating her shoulder as she did. "Well, that sucked," she said. She shaded her eyes and looked back the way they had come, frowning. "But it looks like it's pouring off the sides mostly. By the time we come back this way, it should be safe."

"What were you thinking, taking a swing at her?" Fjord demanded of Jester. "She didn't make any move to attack us until you did that!"

The tiefling stood on the path with her back to the rest of them, shoulders heaving in little gasps; Nott thought she was just recovering her breath too until Fjord gripped her shoulder and pulled her around, and they saw tears tracking down over her cheeks. "I'm not," she said and gulped for air. "I'm not like   that! I'm not, I'm not!"

"We know you're not, Jester," Yasha said kindly. 

"I'm not!" Jester repeated in a near-whisper, as much to convince herself as any of the rest of them. And, well. Nott could   have disagreed, could have reminded her that this was just as grounded in reality as any of the rest of them had been -- that she had   insulted Caleb, that she had   mocked him and called him filthy to his face, that just because she hadn't meant to be cruel didn't mean she hadn't been cruel after all.

But she didn't, because there was no point. She took another drink of her flask to wash out the taste of the gas, and said nothing.

"It's not really about you, you know," Caduceus said, beginning now to recover his breath. His voice was rusty and strained, just like all the rest of them save Beau; and of course the first thing he would concentrate on would be Jester's feelings and not how she'd nearly gotten them all killed. "It's about Caleb. It just means that this is what he fears   from you, not that it would ever really happen."

"Speaking of fears..." Molly said. He stood up, looking down the pathway ahead, then back at the rest of them with a serious expression. "That girl said that the 'gentleman' down in the lab isn't the   gentleman. But then who is it?"

Fjord looked around, then shrugged. "Seems to be the big kahuna, the one calling down the shots."

Yasha nodded. "Most likely we will have to kill him to get to Caleb, then," she said.

"Then we'll have to be ready."

"But we don't know what we're getting ready for!" Jester objected. "Besides, she was probably lying."

"Well, the best we can do is make a guess," Molly said. "Who's the one person Caleb fears and hates the most in the world?"

And oh, Nott knew   this one. "Trent Ikithon," she said, and heard her voice coming out in chorus with Beau's. The two of them exchanged glances.

"Yeah... that sounds right," Fjord agreed. "I mean, I don't know as much about this Trent guy as you do -- but from everything I've heard about him, everything he's done to Caleb, it makes sense that it would be him."

"But will it be just   Trent Ikithon though?" said Jester, convinced or just distracted enough to go along with the rest of them. "Or, like, dark  Trent Ikithon, with tentacles and stuff? Because that would be suuuper ugly."

"He's already pretty ugly as is," Beau said grimly. Yasha, as the only other one among them who had met the man face-to-face, nodded in solemn agreement.

"Well," Molly said. He reached down and gave Caduceus a hand up, then drew Summer's Dance and spun it dramatically in his hand. "Let's get ready to fight a high-level wizard, then."

Yasha hefted the Magician's Judge once, and nodded. "I'm ready," she said.

 


 

 

As soon as they had recovered from the cloud of deadly gas that the other Jester had unleashed, they went on. There was no other real choice; they couldn't go back until the gas had cleared, even if there was anything to go back for. And the road they were on didn't offer a lot of opportunities to get sidetracked.

The place they were in couldn't be called a house any more, really. The floor was the only really real thing left about it, wooden beams giving way to tile and flagstones and back again. The roof overhead was gone, leaving them wide-open to a view of the stygian vault overhead and the icy pinpricks of stars within them. 

The walls... well, they weren't really walls either. The only thing Nott could think to compare it to was walking a path through the woods at night with the trees making up dark shapes in the space on either side. She couldn't see   anything there, but she also couldn't see anything beyond them either except in snatches and glimpses, flashes of color and light and shape that slid away between the shadowy branches before she could make them out. It felt at once that they were exposed, out in the open (which sucked) and yet surrounded and hemmed in (which also   sucked.)

Every now and then the path changed direction or dropped a few feet and the space around them seemed to shift and come into focus, opening up the shadowy shapes and providing a clear line of sight into the space around them. Within a dozen steps they went from walking through a wooded path at night to walking through a meadow in the daytime. The sky was blue, the sunlight gold, the fields waving stalks of grain -- but the whole thing had a flat and faded feel to it, like a tapestry whose dye was fading out over time. 

They caught glimpses between the rolling fields of wheat of buildings off in the distance; squat stone walls, high peaked roofs of wood and thatch. Nott had an awful feeling she knew exactly   where this was from, although she didn't volunteer the information and nobody asked.

And anyway there were scarecrows attacking them, thatch-stuffed burlap dummies that looked almost exactly like the ones from the training salle the first night, and that   probably wasn't accurate to the original Blumenthal. The things wobbled towards them with voiceless menace, swinging at them with fists of knotted rope and strange grunting voices; when sliced open they leaked a strange silvery light that surged away into the ether and left inert sacks of straw behind. 

Surreptitiously her hand crept for her flask, and she snuck another pull off it while Caduceus and Fjord were talking over which way they thought the path was going to turn next. She felt Jester's gaze on her, violet eyes full of saddened hurt and reproach, but that was just too bad. She needed this, dammit, needed   it, to keep her feet pointing the right way -- forward -- and not bolting back for the entrance.

Jester came up beside her as they moved again, keeping a cautious eye out for more possessed scarecrows. Nott and Beau were walking together in the middle of the group, Caduceus and Molly behind, Yasha and Fjord up at the front. Jester skipped up next to her, swinging her arms as though they were on the road again, walking beside the cart on the track without a care in the world.

"So, what do you think your evil selves will look like?" Jester chirped. 

Beau blinked out of whatever thoughts were preoccupying her and looked over at the tiefling. "Say what now?" she said.

"Well, I mean, we've seen evil Caduceus and evil Fjord and evil Molly and Yasha and evil me,   but we still haven't seen either of you, so that means we're gonna later right?" Jester said.

"Not necessarily," Caduceus rumbled from behind them, but Jester ignored him. 

"The evil versions of the boys were kinda gross, but evil me   was all goth and cool and badass," Jester said blithely. "Maybe your evil selves will be all dressed up in leather and whips and dark eye makeup!"

Beau groaned. "Honestly, I don't wanna know," she said. "If we can get through this without meeting any other of these creepy doubles, that'd be aces."

Jester leaned in next to her. "But you'd look really good in black leather and latex, Beau! Super hot!" she cooed.

"I said I don't wanna think about it!" Beau snapped, shrugging her off. Jester went with an offended huff.

"Okay, okay! Geez," Jester grumbled. Nott was pretty sure this was a not-very-subtle attempt to distract her from drinking, or maybe just to distract all of them from the horrible surroundings, but she wished Jester could have found a different topic.

"You know what I think?" Molly spoke up, not that anyone had asked him. "It's not necessarily that these mirror selves are evil, just that they're the versions of us that Caleb is most afraid of."

"If they're the worst versions of us, then evil me is probably going to be like... a feral goblin," Nott said glumly. "Mindless and ravening, just like goblins are. That'd be the worst."

"Nott, you know that some goblins aren't like that," Molly chided her, and really? "We've met plenty -- Yussah's apprentice, or that apothecary in Rosohna..."

"Don't you not-all-goblins me, Mollymauk Tealeaf, I know   that!" Nott snapped back. "I just... that doesn't mean there aren't   goblins like that. They attacked my home, they kidnapped my family! There are   goblins like that out there. And they made me one of them."

An uncomfortable silence ruled the group as Nott glared at Mollymauk. He put his hands up in silent surrender, dropping back a pace in the marching order, but the conversation had definitely been blighted. 

"Well," Caduceus said. "Either we'll meet them and then we'll know, or we won't and we don't have to worry about it."

"Yeah, what are the odds --"

Beau's words cut off by a sudden blast of sound. Nott clamped her hands over her ears as the note went on and on, a foghorn sounding from somewhere beyond the not-walls, somewhere beyond the track they were on. It made the shadows surrounding the path thrash, made the fuzzy blue and green meadows ripple like pebbles tossed into a pond before they ripped apart entirely, ribbons of color twining away into the void. 

The sound ceased. As the Mighty Nein crouched frozen on the pathway a deep shadow passed over them, the light of the stars on the far side winking out one by one.

...And the shadow passed and was gone, and the distant pinpricks of light returned, shining in serenely through the holes in the world.

"What the fuck was that?" Beau sputtered, looking wildly around.

"Getting closer," Yasha said grimly. 

"Let's move," Fjord said. "I don't want to be here when whatever that is comes back."

They moved, stars shining and winking out between the tangle of shadows that were all that remained of the walls. Between one step and the next the light changed, going from a dim yellow glow to something dull and gray-green. The air wavered as though seen through a rising heat mirage, dark shadows creeping out into the corners and edges. It was hard to see the walls through the gloom but they looked like stone dressed over with dark green slime, peered through swaying fronds of kelp.

"Is this --" Molly whispered, breaking off as his voice echoed unexpectedly, eerie and distorted by the heaviness of the air.

"Dashilla's lair?" Fjord finished the word for him grimly. "Sure looks like it."

"That sucked enough the first   time we went through it," Jester whined. Yasha just sighed.

"If I see any ghosts, I'll punch em for you," Beau promised Caduceus, who gave her a little smile.

From somewhere in the dark -- somewhere off the track -- they heard a high sound, shrill as the cry of a bird, that seemed to transmute from one note to the next into the high-pitched sound of a baby's cry. The Mighty Nein jumped, gripping their weapons as they peered into the shadows.

The cry came again, beginning with what could almost be a human voice before transmuting partway through into something raucous and inhuman. The waving strands of kelp bent to the side as though in a heavy wind, the shadows seethed and flowed, and a silhouette swam into view.

It was her. Not her as she was now, the goblin, Nott,   but her-as-she-had-been, her back when she was Veth. She was the spitting image of, well, the image   she had put on back when she'd gone to see old Edith; brown braids, brown skin, yellow cloth headband and green dress festooned with colorful buttons. 

She was also dead. 

Unquestionably dead, a ring of stark black bruises around her throat, hands and lips purple and swollen, eyes filmed over with white. It was Veth but it was Veth as a drowned and bloated corpse, drifting through the currents like a tethered strand of kelp. One of the apparition's arms clutched a swaddled bundle of cloth close, the source of that eerie cry. 

Veth, drowned-Veth, dead-Veth took a step towards the road and as she moved she slid between one beam of light and the next and changed ; features melted and ran like wax, a spark of green caught and expanded into a line of color that ran over the thing's face like a sheet of paper igniting. What had begun the step as Veth finished it as Nott, and the thing clutched in its arms was a bloodied and lifeless lump of ginger fur.

The goblin was dead too, the ghoulish features marked with signs of brutal violence. Vast bruises that covered whole limbs, spreading black patches of charred and flaking skin, the snapped and shattered stumps of teeth leaving bloody imprints in its upper lip. The goblin was dead and not peacefully, every mark and wound the evidence of cruel and deliberate violence inflicted on a helpless target.

It looked right at her, one eye blistered and burst from scorching heat and the other orbit filled with blood; the green-black lips moved and tore against the shattered teeth, and the creature croaked, "Your fault."

The words hurt. The voice hurt,  an escalating descant that scraped against the ears and drove rusty nails into the brain as it stepped forward again, drowned and bloated halfling skin washing over tortured goblin flesh once more. "You did this," the creature said, still Nott's voice coming from Veth's blackened lips, hideous and wrong. "Your people did this, it's your fault, you did this --"

Jester was crying again, sobbing too hard to call out an incantation; Fjord dropped his sword, vanishing into a puff of snow as he stumbled back; Molly doubled over on the path, clutching his head. The voice hurt,   setting up an inescapable clamor in their heads that drowned out all thought, all will to fight, left no room for anything but panic and pain. Nott dimly registered the psychic attack even as she let the warm fizz of alcohol wash over her, muting the terror into something that scratched and whined and clawed at her mind but could find no purchase. The others were fleeing if they could, transfixed and paralyzed if they couldn't, except for her.

The dead thing took one more step towards them, caught twisted mid-transformation between drowned Veth and mutilated Nott; and she raised her blaster, pointed dead-level at the creature's head, and fired.

It didn't take much. The bolt caught it straight in the forehead and blasted apart, blowing the thing off its feet and sending it floating gently backwards in the current. It didn't so much bleed as it crumbled;   as though the whole creature from the head downwards was constructed of tiny building blocks, clumping together to hold the shape of a humanoid form that collapsed back into grains of sand as soon as the slightest pressure was applied.

The terrible wailing ceased, the shroud of fear and horror that had been pushing the rest of the Mighty Nein backwards lifted, and the rest of the adventurers stood up straight and breathed deeply again, looking from the dissolving corpse to Nott and then back again. 

Nott looked away from all their gazes, looking down, fiddling with the Tinkertop as she slid another bolt into the slot. It was not until the blur in her vision shifted, a drop of water splashed down onto her hands and ran into the groove that she realized she was crying.

Caduceus was the first one to approach her, bending down and reaching to put one huge hand on her shoulder. "Nott," he said tentatively. "You know it's not --"

" -- Really me, yes, I know, I fucking know," Nott cut him off, nerves suddenly stretched to the breaking point by his handling,   by all their tiptoeing around her, by this whole fucking place, by this whole fucking   day. "It's about him   and what's in his   head, except that I was the one who put those words in his head. Me. 

"And there's nothing I can do to change that now, all right? They'll always be there, no matter what I say, no matter whether or not I really meant it." She had. "No matter whether or not I said I'm sorry." She hadn't. "I still said it and that can never be undone."

The words rang out in the suffocating blue underwater space, bouncing back even harsher than before. The others shifted uncomfortably, looking from one to another, none of them daring to speak. Not even Jester, not even Caduceus. "Let's just go," Nott mumbled. She swiped against her cheek with the hand still holding the blaster, smearing tears over her face and into her hair. "Let's get this over with. I don't want to be here any more."

There was nothing more to say to that. They moved on.

 


 

 

The rest of the walk passed in a blur. Nott wasn't sure how long they kept walking except that it was long enough for the numb haze to start to wear off, long enough that she re-thought the wisdom of chasing another. The path took a sharp turn, then an even sharper dive, passing over a set of stairs that were angled all wrong for climbing, but at least made decent hand-holds for making the descent. Past the staircase the track turned again, bending back on itself in an impossible loop, and if Nott squinted she could just see the underside of the path they'd walked to get here over their heads. If this was the down   Caduceus had spoken of, Nott allowed herself to think, then maybe they were getting close?

"Guys, I see it!" Jester cried excitedly, running a few steps ahead on the path. "I see the door! Caleb's door! That means we've found -- oh..."

Her steps slowed again as they rounded the final turn in the track and saw where it opened out. They were in a cave -- or, well, what pretended to be a cave -- not unlike where they'd faced the dark clones of Molly and Yasha, further up in the house. This cavern was thankfully free of evil cultists and burning demon-summoning circles, with a floor of dirt and natural-looking walls of rock.

Perfectly natural, that was, aside from the six doors set into the walls, spaced out evenly around the cavern. Plain, wooden doors, six feet high and two wide, with worn looking brass handles, and no nameplates. Caleb's door.

Six of them. Seven, eight... nine total.

"Which way now?" Molly demanded, turning to Caduceus for a hint. The firbolg turned in a slow circle, looking at each one in turn, then back up the way they'd come, then down again.

"Down," was all he said, and Molly's shoulders slumped. Caduceus shrugged. "Further down. Straight down, as far as I can tell. There must be another level under this one. But I can't tell which of these doors leads there."

"Maybe they all do?" Jester said hopefully. She advanced on one of the doors -- cautiously, shield first, they'd learned some   caution crawling through this evil house -- and pushed one of the doors open.

It swung open onto a dark hallway, disappearing into the distance without any landmarks. No sign of a stairwell, or anything else useful. Jester's shoulders slumped with disappointment.

"They're all the same," Yasha reported, opening one door after another to check. 

"We'll just have to check them all until we find the right one," Caduceus said.

"We don't have time for that!" Nott exclaimed.

"I mean, do we?" Molly said. "If Caduceus is right and this is the last level down, that means that Trent Ikithon or whatever else we have to face is in the next room, and that will be the last foe we must face before we get to Caleb. Wouldn't it make sense for us to rest a bit here, treat our wounds, make sure that we're in the best possible shape to face whatever's coming next?"

"I admit, I would be the better for a chance to sit down and get something to drink," Caduceus admitted quietly. 

"I don't need to rest," Yasha volunteered. "I can check the hallways while the clerics get a bit of their magic back."

"Yeah, same," Beau said.

Nott couldn't argue with the logic, but it was frustrating to be so close and be delayed, with who knew how much time left in the clock. Caleb   would have known... A sudden idea seized her. "Jester, do you still have your Sending spell?" she exclaimed. 

"Yeah?" Jester sounded uncertain.

"Then you can message Frumpkin!" Nott said. "He said that he knows everything Caleb knows. He would definitely know what time it is and how much time we have left!"

"Ooh, good idea Nott!" Jester said.

Yasha went around, opening the rest of the doors and peering down the hallway before coming back to join the others. Jester gripped her holy symbol in one hand as Fjord prepared to count out the words. "Heyy Frumpykins!" Jester sang out. "We're on the third level of the house and we think we're pretty close. Do you know how much time we have left --"

"Cut!" Fjord called out and Jester stuck out her tongue and grinned at him. It was a familiar back-and-forth between them, familiar enough to make Nott smile. 

But the expression on Jester's face, as she listened to whatever Frumpkin said in reply, was the exact opposite of encouraging; her smile wavered and flattened even as her shoulders slumped. Her eyes, when she opened them, were sheened with tears.

"Less than an hour, guys," she said in a small voice.

For a moment the words hung in the air, heavy with realization.

"Right," Molly said, breaking the silence. "Right.   Forget resting. We've got a lot of doors to check, and not much time. We need to split up."

"Split up? Is that smart?" Caduceus asked.

"We're way past smart," Molly said. "But you're right, none of us should go alone. We'll go in pairs. Caduceus, go with me, I can see in the dark. Jester, go with Fjord. Nott, you're with Yasha. Every team will have some fighting power and a little healing in case they get in a scrap."

"What about me?" Beau demanded.

"You're the fastest of all of us, so you stay here," the tiefling pointed out. "As soon as one of us finds the right door, they'll shout down the hallway if they can or come here if they can't, and you'll run and get the others."

Beau scowled at him for deciding things so cavalierly, but couldn't see any real grounds to object. "Yeah, I guess," she caved. "I am   pretty fucking fast."

"That's what Keg said," Nott muttered, and Beau scowled and aimed an elbow at her that Nott just managed to dodge. "Okay, let's go, let's go."

They went.

Nott wasn't sure about her choice of partner; on one hand Yasha was the scariest person in the Nein, but on the other hand she was the biggest person to hide behind if things went wrong. Only as they entered the tunnel together did Nott think to ask, "Oh -- Yasha -- should I light a torch or something? I can see in the dark, but you --"

"I can see fine," Yasha reassured her. "Let's not waste time with a torch." She was off, striding down the tunnel with great, long legs that really made it obvious how much she usually curtailed her stride to match the others. Nott scurried off behind, having to take two steps for Yasha's one, torn between feeling foolish and feeling glad that at last, somebody   was moving fast enough for her liking. 

The corridor was long and narrow, not exactly cramped for Nott but she was sure Yasha was feeling it; if so, she let none of it show on her face. Nott wasn't quite sure what to make of the place, seen in the slate-grey of a goblin's night eyes; it looked a little like a cave, a little like a stone corridor, with rocks and debris spilling in from the walls at several points. Nott kept an eye out for traps -- tripwires, loose stones, hatches overhead, recesses in the walls -- but found nothing.

Even moving fast as they were, it took several minutes before the end of the hallway came in sight. Another of the wooden doors, this one with the brasswork and nameplate, although the text on the nameplate was completely garbled. C̸͡J̷͏a̸͞͡ą̷ḑ̴̢l̵̸y̕͘u̷͘̕c̨̧͡ş̶̛͜͞t̵̸̴̨e̷̵̡̛u͜s҉̡͝d̴͜, it read, as though all of their names had been scribbled over on top of one another.

Cautiously Yasha reached over and pushed the door. Nott hid behind her legs, peeking out, crossbow at the ready. 

Beyond the door was one of the bedrooms from the first level. Perfect in every detail, completely normal, completely unaltered. Lamps cast a friendly warm light on the pastel colored walls; the bed was freshly made; a knitted rug was thrown over the floorboards; the side table sported a fresh batch of flowers.

Yasha and Nott shared a look, for once in their lives in perfect understanding with each other.

"Bait?" Yasha asked, and Nott nodded emphatically.

"Absofucking lutely   bait," she said.

Yasha dug around in her pack for a minute and came up with a battered, slightly crushed straw hat that Caduceus had made for her some time ago and had lived in her bags since they'd moved to lightless Rosohna. She tossed it ahead of her into the room, giving it a slight spin with her wrist.

For a moment, as the hat drifted slowly towards the floor, nothing happened. Then it struck the side of the bed -- lightly -- before bouncing off and settling on the rug.

Sudden, violent movement twisted the space ahead of them as the 'bed' opened two eyes along its bedposts, and the mattress split into a cavernous mouth lined with multiple rows of teeth. It snapped towards the hat as the 'table' also came alive, the flowers sticking innocently to its upper surface as long, slimy-looking tendrils whipped around from either side and grabbed for the hat. The rug also flapped into motion, corners whipping wildly as it tried to get in on the action, and Nott shuddered as she remembered being enveloped by just such a creature long ago and having to fight her way free. Just as the ceiling above peeled off in a sheet and dropped, grey underbelly enveloping everything underneath it, Yasha slammed the door shut.

"Right," Nott said, almost too stunned to be frightened. "So, that's a no."

Yasha nodded.

They retraced their steps, faster now that they didn't have to check ahead of them for traps, and re-entered the central cavern. Beau was crouching in the middle of the cavern, a piece of chalk in her hand, several X's marked in the direction of the various tunnel mouths.

"No good?" Beau called out as they popped out of the tunnel and moved to the next one over. Nott shook her head, and Beau marked another X in the direction they'd just come. "Okay, keep me posted."

"Also, don't go into the bedrooms, they are totally a trap!"   Nott called as they disappeared out of sight down the tunnel.

The second tunnel was identical to the first. Nott did her best to keep focus, telling herself that just because there weren't   traps so far didn't mean there wouldn't   be, and Yasha was counting on her to keep them safe. Yasha was counting on her, Caleb was counting on her, they were all   counting on her, including the ones that weren't even here, an invisible tether pulling her in opposite ways. Gods, what a horrible thing it was, to be relied on.

"Wait," Yasha said suddenly, stopping in the middle of the hallway. Nott almost ran into her tree-trunk legs before she managed to brake to a halt. "What is it?" she asked.

Without answering, Yasha turned and began marking off a section of the wall, one of the spots where debris was spilling into the hallway. She punched at the wall and a section of rock and dirt crumbled and showered away, then reached into the cleared spot and pulled some more rock and debris aside. As she worked, she revealed the space of a doorway -- no door set in the frame, but it extended past the wall of the tunnel before it hit a stairwell leading down.

"Good catch, Yasha!" Nott exclaimed, and the big woman smiled.

"I thought I felt a draft," she said modestly. "I'll stay here, clear the doorway a bit. You get the others."

"Right, yes, going," Nott said, and took off running. She was filled with excitement and dread, in equal measures; excitement that they'd found the way forward, and apprehension of what would be at the bottom of the stairs.

As she ran Nott fumbled for her flask, promising herself just a sip, just enough to tip the balance back away from fear. Her steps slowed and stumbled as she felt something   ghost past her, a cold air going the other way.

Steps slowed, stumbled, came to a halt. Nott looked around, trying to pin down what she'd felt. "Just a draft," she muttered to herself, then waited to see if anything answered.

Nothing did. She was wasting time, she needed to get back to the main room, to Beau, to the others... it was probably just her imagination.

It was probably --

Nott came to a decision and reached into a pocket, pulled out her wire, pointed it down the corridor back the way they'd come. "Beau, it's me! Yasha found the stair leading down," she said. "Get the others come to us, hurry! See you there youcanreplytothismessage."

She didn't wait for an answer though, instead taking off running in the opposite direction. She didn't know if Beau had even heard her, she might have been out of range, but the more she ran the more her worried suspicion began to grow.

As she approached the junction where Yasha had broken through the wall, Nott looked ahead to see Yasha still uncovering the opening. Everything was painted in the faint colorless greys of dim light; the walls, the floors, Yasha herself glowing like a pale beacon in the darkness; and between then, walking swiftly ahead of Nott down the corridor, was the dark silhouette of Beau.

Beau hadn't passed her going the other way.

Yasha saw her coming and turned towards the other woman with a smile. "You are   fast," she said, as the silhouette approached. "Let's clear this out together, while we wait --"

"Yasha!" Nott shouted, shrill and panicked. The words reverberated off down the corridor, dying away into nothing. "That's not her! That's not --"

The silhouette moved in a blur, a shadow, faster than Nott's eye could follow; and maybe it didn't even matter that Nott had shouted her warning because a surprised Yasha had no chance to react. It blurred up beside Yasha and struck out once, twice, pop pop,   before sliding away and vanishing into the shadow beside her.

" Yasha!"   Nott dashed forward, fumbling for her weapon, in a panic. She shouldn't have shouted, shouldn't have attracted attention to herself, but all she could think of was that if they were being attacked, there was no safer place to be than beside Yasha.

Except not this time. Yasha stood statue-still, the only movement about her a faint trembling that ran up and down her limbs, shook the blood in her veins and set the beads in her hair to clattering. 

Nott ran up reaching for her wire, for her weapon, for something anything   that could do something --   but even as she arrived Yasha took one step, stumbled to her knees, and crashed down onto the floor. She was face-up before Nott as she skidded to a halt, and she --

Wasn't moving. Wasn't breathing,   blue and violet eyes leached to grey in this light, staring up at the ceiling in frozen surprise.

Nott looked up, her heart kicking into overdrive, pulse thudding in her veins as she realized that their strongest fighter had just been taken down in one single hit. 

She was alone, looking up at the monster that just killed her friend.

It was Beau's silhouette, unmistakably. But the figure that blocked the hallway ahead of them was not Beau. Its skin was coal-black, more shadow than skin except for the bright, piercing eyes that looked out from the featureless face. It moved and the arms seemed to split into a dozen pairs, shadows that fanned out from each other as the silhouette adopted a stance that was attack and defense and instant death all at once.

Distantly, somewhere behind her, Nott heard the clamor of voices, the sound of running footsteps. The others were on their way, but it would be long seconds before they arrived.

"Sorry guys, " Beau's voice crackled in her ear, sounding like it came down the end of a long hollow tube. "Nothing personal, you know? You can still turn around and walk away, if you want to live. But I can't let you release what's beyond this door."

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

"Nott!"   She heard her name bellowed from behind her, and a moment later a blur of blue whizzed past her as Beau sprinted up the corridor and leapt headlong into battle with her evil self.

"Beau, be careful!" Nott screeched, even as she gladly fell back to open a bit of distance between her and the enemy. She loosed a bolt from her crossbow -- it passed between the two Beaus, just barely missing the dark one -- and then ducked aside, wishing there was more to hide behind in this bare hallway than a few loose rocks.  "She's dangerous!"

"Yeah I fuckin see that,"   Beau snapped out, and lashed out with a flurry of blows that missed, missed, missed again as her shadow copy dodged and weaved smoothly out of the way. The dark Beau returned a volley of her own, hands flickering all at once like shadows, and Beau ducked -- almost   as well as her counterpart, hissing in pain as two punches cracked against her cheek and ribs. She fell back, hands still up, still in the fight. 

"Ohh, this is bad, this is so bad," Nott mumbled as she went to reload. Her hands trembled as she fit in another quarrel. She only had a few left; most of the ones she'd shot into the horrors in this house had been gone for good, no chance of recovery. Evil Beau was so dangerous, she could kill with one hit, they had to put her down fast.   She hesitated, then made up her mind and snapped her last explosive arrow into the channel. 

More footsteps rang behind her, the familiar sounds of her friends; she glanced over her shoulder and saw Caduceus and Molly coming up the passageway, Fjord and Jester behind them. Light still poured from Caduceus' staff, and as the pool of light advanced down the corridor towards them it brought color back to the dim shades of black and grey. 

Light took hold of the edge of evil Beau's robes and spread upwards like licking tongues of flame, illuminating brilliant scarlet edged with flashing gold. Carmine robes embroidered with ostentatious designs: rampant golden lions, starbursts centering on repeated lidless eyes. Nott had never seen one in person before, but she'd read books,   enough to recognize the iconography of an Imperial Inquisitor.

But the robes were only trappings, and the figure shrouded inside them looked nothing like a human. Her skin was coal black, threatening to bleed into the shadows around her, and she shifted and flickered with too many arms. They weren't even illusions, or at least, they couldn't all   be; one set of arms held a pair of shuriken at the ready, another pair held a brutal-looking staff ringed with bands of iron in a defensive posture, and yet a third set fluttered and quivered open-handed. 

The thing wore golden crown with a blood-red ruby blazing over her brow, but above it her hair and the shape of her face vanished into darkness, a halo of shadows that remained impenetrable even with the light shining directly on it. Her face was a slate of blackness but her eyes -- they were Beau's eyes, blue eyes, human eyes in the face of a nightmare.

The thought of any of them getting in close with this horrible monster scared her silly; what if she took Molly or, or Jester out as easily as she'd taken down Yasha?

"Fast, fast, kill her fast,"   she muttered to herself, then ducked back up again and fired, a spark at the tip of the explosive bolt as it traveled towards its target.

"Nott, no!"   Beau screamed, but it was too late. Faster than shadow the dark silhouette of Beau whirled around, plucked the bolt out of the air as easily as picking an apple from a branch, and flung it back at her with equal speed and force.

Nott flinched, turning to try to shield her face from the impact, and was just in time to see Caduceus slow in his pace, see the bolt fly past her and strike against Caduceus' chest, lodge into the seam between the plates of his armor. Had just time to hear Caduceus say "Oh, no, not ag --"   before the bolt exploded.

Everything went dark and muffled after that, very far away. 






She didn't think she'd lost consciousness, not completely. There were still voices (on the other side of a pane of glass) and still light and movement (at the end of a long tunnel, far away.) But she couldn't bring herself to move or do   anything about it until she felt a hand on her chest, blazing with bright bubbling energy, pouring into her with a fizzy lightness that let her lungs inflate fully for the first time.

Nott sat up, a tearing gasp in her throat, and looked around wildly. "What? What is it? What happened?!"

Jester was kneeling over her and Nott was glad to see her, as ever, except -- she was crying. That was bad, Jester shouldn't ever cry. "It's -- it's bad," Jester said, gulping. 

For the first time Nott was able to see the damage her explosive arrow had done. Caduceus was sprawled across the corridor, his limbs and hair in disarray, and there was a nasty smell of burned skin and cooked meat coming off him. Beau had been in front of them when the explosion went off, and was bleeding from a dozen tiny pieces of shrapnel peppering her back and shoulder. Yasha... Yasha was already beyond harm.

Molly and Fjord had gotten into it, at least, and together with Beau formed a triangle around the shadow-Beau with Molly against the wall and Fjord in the hallway beyond. For all that she was surrounded, though, evil Beau seemed to be having an easy time of it; she moved with a speed that kept them all knocked back on their heels. 

Even as Nott watched she moved again, a sweeping circle kick and low-darting blows that left Fjord doubled over clutching his stomach, Beau staggering back clutching her bleeding mouth and swearing, and Molly pinned against the wall with the staff pressed across his throat. Molly snarled something in Infernal that made evil Beau slip, her grip loosening, and managed to tear himself free of her hold and back away.

But at least the three of them were managing to keep her busy , giving her and Jester a chance to breathe and recoup. 

Nott tore her eyes away from the melee and looked across the corridor to Caduceus again. Fear and remorse combined to seize her breath, strangled her words as she choked out, "Is -- is he dead?"

"No," Jester said and gulped back tears again. "I got him stable, then I had to help you, but he, he's going to be okay. But Yasha -- "

"Can you help her?" Nott asked urgently, because Yasha might be terrifying but she was also the woman who collected flowers and helped Caleb shave and shared rats with Nott because they were the only ones who liked them and stood between them and danger, and they needed   her now. "You can save her, can't you Jester? You can save anyone!"

"I'm going to try," Jester said, dashing her tears quickly with her sleeve. "I have the diamond, just one left but I have it, but there's no time,   can you, can you just, I know things are awful and scary but I need you to stay awake and do whatever you can, because if anyone else goes down I won't be able to help them!"

"Okay," Nott said, heart hammering in her chest but she couldn't, she wouldn't say no to Jester. She'd just have to be Nott the Brave, and if that meant she had to take a hit --

Well, she'd done it before.

She took a precious few seconds to find her flask; it had fallen open on its side on the ground and liquid pumped steadily out of the neck of it, but the enchantment that kept it bottomless meant that there was still a mouth full of liquid fire when she scooped it up again. She left the crossbow slung on her back this time -- she'd learned her lesson -- and drew out her shortsword as she slipped forward into the shadows.

 


 

Jester tried to let the sounds of combat fade into the background, tried to focus on what was in front of her as she scrambled across the tunnel on her hands and knees to kneel beside Caduceus. Things were bad, things were so   bad and she felt like she hardly had time to breathe with how fast everything had happened. They'd been coming up the tunnel, her and Fjord and Molly with Caduceus and Beau ahead, and then they'd heard Nott yell and then everything was shouting and running, and Beau had sprinted off and she hadn't been able to keep up,   and the twang   of Nott's crossbow and then --

It felt like she was running in a dream, no matter how fast she forced her legs to move she just moved oh so slowly like she was running through mud. The blast had gone off and by the time she even got there   three of her friends were on the ground and Beau's evil twin was beating up on the rest of them and the only one who could help them was her   and she wasn't fast enough.

She was casting her spells as fast as she possibly could, a prayer on the inhale and another on the exhale, and she felt   how fast she was running through her magic and she knew   she couldn't keep this up for long. One for Caduceus to keep him from death's door. One for Nott to get her back on her feet. One for Beau because Beau was the only one who could match their enemy's speed, and if she went down they were all as good as dead. Another for Caduceus because she needed   his help and his magic and his reassuring calm, and all the while the clock was ticking for Yasha and what if she'd left it too late...

She'd tried praying to the Traveler, not just her normal praying but something deeper, something more heartfelt, pleading for him just this once to stand next to her and take her hand and help her do more than she could do alone. She'd read about other clerics who could do that, sometimes, invoke an extra-special prayer and have their god show up in person  to grant it, and well, the Traveler loved her just as much as those other gods loved their   clerics, right? Of course right.

So she'd tried. And nothing had happened. She'd wished and wished for all her might for the Traveler to appear, and he hadn't. And she knew, somehow with a terrible sinking certainty, that whatever desolate layer of nowhere they were in, it was a place the Traveler could not go. He had no power here except through her.

Well.

Okay then.

She'd just have to do it all herself.

Caduceus moaned and stirred as the Traveler's bright green light washed over him, and the burned-meat subsided as the wound healed under Jester's touch. It wasn't healed all the way, she didn't have enough magic left for that   not even if she poured everything she had into it, but it was enough. Enough to bring him around, to get him on his feet, get him fighting and casting again. "Get up, Caduceus, please get up," she begged him. "You're a better healer than me, they need you, get up!"

The firbolg staggered to his feet, groping for his staff. Verdant magic still filled the crystal at the head of the staff and as he lifted it into the air the light spilled over the scene, bringing color back to it once more. Blocked by bodies, confined in the space of the tunnel, the light from the crystal cast crazy shadows over the scene, framing some in bright light and casting others in darkness. It completely ruined Jester's dark-adapted vision and she almost wished the light would go again -- but that wasn't fair to Caduceus, she knew, who needed it to see.

With Caduceus on his feet away Jester turned back to the last member of their party: Yasha. She wasn't sure how long it had been; would she be in time, was she too late? It seemed like forever since the fight started but at the same time everything had happened so fast, like it had only been a handful of seconds. 

Jester fumbled for her haversack as she crawled the last of the distance over to Yasha, where the woman lay still and tumbled with her wide-open eyes to the ceiling, looking stunned in her last moments of life. Her fingers found the diamond, cold and hard -- their last diamond, their last hope. "Traveler, tell the Storm Lord..." Jester began, huffing and panting as she tried to move and speak and summon a prayer all on one lungful of breath. "Tell the Storm Lord that Yasha..."

She didn't get the chance to finish the prayer. 

Caduceus' spell cast wild-angled shadows across the battlefield, striping the combatants in light and darkness. The Mighty Nein pressed in on their opponent -- kept her surrounded, harried, contained. 

And shadowed.

Blue eyes moved past the ring of opponents, settled on Jester, moving to Yasha with the diamond in hand. Blue eyes narrowed, shadowed limbs moved in a blur. Beau, starting forward to unleash a flurry of blows on her opponent, instead found herself countered -- parried, off balance, stumbling onto the wrong foot. A shadowed hand found a gap in her defenses and moved in like a striking snake, jabbing her in the solar plexus in a move that left her stunned.

Beau stumbled, stunned, and her dark mirror turned in the shadow and --

-- vanished --

-- appeared again in an instant thirty feet away, past the ring of bodies, stepping from one shadow to another. Impossibly swift, uncannily silent. Jester gasped and whirled around as the shadow loomed over her -- and found herself suddenly alone, face-to-face with the nightmare in red and gold robes. Dark Beau stepped on Yasha as she advanced, careless of the body underfoot, eyes intent on her prey.

The iron staff whirred around the dark Beau's head with blurring speed, and the iron-wrapped bands cracked against Jester's hand with the force of a sledgehammer. Jester cried out as her shield -- the one she'd carried with her for so long, the one she'd wielded against a dragon   for the Traveler's sake -- splintered, shattering down the middle.

So did Jester's arm, the bones of her forearm snapping and splintering under the force of the blow.

And so did the diamond in her hand, shattering under the force of the blow into three long razor-edged shards.

Jester screamed -- with pain, with fear, with despair. That was their last diamond, their only hope and now -- and now --

Yasha was dead, she was going to stay dead -- and dark Beau reared up over her, and in a minute she'd be dead too. 

"Stop!" The word came out laced with magic, Jester throwing all her desperation into one last spell, the one to pin people and paralyze them in place. If she could just get dark Beau stopped for a moment the others would be there in just a few seconds, if she could just hold on until then...

A shiver ran over her opponent as the magic washed over her -- passed over her and dispersed, not taking hold. The thing in the Inquisitor's robes drew herself up again, too many arms drawing back like a nest of snakes ready to strike, iron-bound staff raised for a killing blow --

BWOOOOOMMM

A blast of sound ripped through the hallway, knocking dirt and pebbles loose from the walls and making every puddle of liquid seize and shake. Closer, louder, more terrible than any of the previous blasts -- if Jester had not already been on the ground it would have knocked her down, knocked all of them from their feet.

And the dark Beau hesitated. Just for a moment, she wavered on the cusp of delivering the final blow, looking up and studying the ceiling for a moment instead of striking. One moment of hesitation, and it was enough.

The blast of sound had knocked Caduceus against the wall, had taken Fjord's feet out from under him -- but it had also shaken Beau out of her stunned stupor. "Jes!"   she shouted and burst into a blur of movement, following her dark counterpart across the corridor.

As she passed by Caduceus the cleric reached out and grabbed her arm, light flaring along his hand and transferring to hers. Beau shrugged irritably, starting to scowl towards him for the interruption before her expression changed to delight. "Hey, thanks!" she shouted before she took off again, closing the rest of the distance to place herself between Jester and the enemy.

"Keep her in the light, Beau!" Nott called out from her own hiding place. "Don't let her melt into the shadows again!"

"On it!" Beau called back. "I'm not letting this bitch out of my reach again."

"She's you, you know," Molly called out as he followed, circling warily around Beau's dark mirror as he looked for an opportunity to strike.

"Yeah, what of it? I'm a bitch too!" Beau said irritably.

Jester scooted back away from the melee, the locus of the fight having re-formed nearly on top of her. Her eyes were drawn inextricably to Yasha's still form, still tumbled on the floor of the corridor, and her heart spasmed nearly crumbled under the grip of despair. She'd come so close and she'd failed, she'd failed...

A flutter of green at the corner of her vision, a touch on her shoulder pushing her forward. Just a little nudge, a little voice that she'd heard for much of her life whispering a little word in her ear. Try.

"But the diamond's broken," she whispered back. "It's no good... is it?"

A brush of lips over her ear, a hand on her shoulder. Try anyway. You never know.

"You never know," she repeated aloud, and renewed her crawl over to Yasha's side with determination. "Might as well try."  

Her broken arm was throbbing where it wasn't worryingly numb, the broken shards of the shield digging into her arm, but she still had the three shards of the diamond clutched in her hand. She still had all the parts   of the diamond, right? It was all the same stuff, wasn't it? Maybe, maybe   it would still be enough...

She had to lift up her broken hand with her good one to lay it on Yasha's chest, had to force the screaming fingers open to let the shards fall from them. "Traveler, please," she said, resuming the prayer that the dark Beau had so violently interrupted. " Yasha needs HELP!"

The diamond shards lay on Yasha's chest, inert, tumbling a bit from where they'd fallen from her hand. Nothing stirred among them.

But a crack   of thunder from what seemed right below their feet shook the air, and Yasha gasped suddenly, her chest heaving, her shoulders shaking, and she sat up with a wild look in her eyes and a feral snarl on her lips; furious, bleeding, and alive   once again.

"What?" Jester looked at the inert shards of the diamond, bewildered. Why hadn't they turned to dust like the other times she'd used this spell? What was going on? She knew that the Traveler was just the coolest,   but...

Then she pushed it aside, because there was no time to stop and ponder the mystery now: the battle was still raging. Caduceus had retreated down the corridor towards her, doing his best to stay out of range; the firbolg was swaying on his feet and looked as though one good punch would crumple him like tinfoil. Dark Beau knew it too, and kept making little darts and jabs in his direction as she tried to go for him again -- but so far she hadn't been able to get past Beau. So far.

The rest of the Mighty Nein were holding the line, giving it their all, but it was hard to say if they were making much progress. The iron-bound staff gave dark Beau such reach that even Fjord and Molly were forced to hang back a healthy distance or risk their limbs to the same force that had broken Jester's arm. Nott was hesitant to fire her crossbow again, risking another friendly fire strike, so there was little she could do -- Jester caught flickers of magic rising from the corner she'd hidden herself in, but they didn't seem to be getting hold.

Should she mix in? What could she do? Dark Beau was so dangerous and awful, Jester wanted nothing more than to take a lollipop to that featureless face -- but she was afraid to use too much of her magic. She'd already burned through so much just getting everyone up, and Caduceus looked like he could fall apart at any time, and, and every choice was bad and she didn't know what to do.

All at once dark Beau fell back, switching up her stance -- she went from loose-limbed and flicker-quick to something more tightly guarded, something watchful and ready. Her eyes began to glow, and -- and so did the iron bands wrapping her staff, starting a dull cherry red and quickly heating up to white-hot. Jester got a draft of hot air in her face, carrying the scorching smell of hot metal across the distance, but the heat didn't seem to borrow dark Beau's bare hands at all.

"Beau, get in close," Caduceus called out, one of the few times Jester had heard him ever raise his voice. "Do it, now! Everyone -- close your eyes!"

Caduceus didn't take the lead often but the iron certainty in his voice had Jester obeying without thought, clenching her eyelids tightly shut even as she saw Beau throw herself recklessly forward. She heard Caduceus speak a word, and then -- then there was a flash  actinic white light behind her eyelids, making her wince even in the darkness, and when her eyes popped open she blinked purple spots from them.

The radiant glow around Beau's fists had gone, but the flash had taken evil Beau full in the face. She reeled back, her inhuman grace nowhere to be seen as she stumbled and staggered, and one pair of hands reached up -- too late -- to try and shield her eyes.

"That's it! You got her, Deuces!" Beau shouted, and needed no further encouragement as she threw herself forward. "Mighty Nein, fuck her up!"

The others flung themselves into the fray with a will, and for the first time were able to get close enough to do some real damage. Molly charged in with his sword, Beau with her (no longer holy, but still pretty bitchin') fists, and Nott plucked up the nerve to try firing her crossbow again. Bolts thudded home, sticking out of the carmine robes like a hedgehog's spikes, and Jester threw herself into throwing fire with a will matched by Fjord's eldritch blasts.

All too soon the dark Beau recovered, blinking back to sight again as the stunning effect of the radiant burst wore off; she began again to dodge and weave and retaliate, but she was knocked off-balance and looking rough. In a bold move Fjord pushed into melee and brought the Star Razor around in a sweeping overhead strike. The mithral blade collided with the crown on dark Beau's brow, in a clash of metal that rang out across the room.

The crown cracked. The dark Beau leaped aside, twisting with inhuman agility to avoid the swipe of Summer's Dance, giving herself just enough breathing room. The dark shadows that braided back from her head writhed and spasmed as though seeking escape. Shadowy hands flew up to grab her head, dark fingers clutching at the crown where the crack spread through it; whether she was trying to hold it together or pull it apart Jester couldn't tell, but either way the fissure deepened until the golden crown snapped in half and fell away, tarnished.

Unbound from the circlet, the shadow boiled out from dark Beau's head in a black cloud that filled the corridor from side to side. Jester stumbled, suddenly blind; her tiefling eyes were no help to her in this cloud of magical darkness. 

Only a few times in her life had Jester known darkness this complete, and panic seized her at the thought that the shadowy Beau could be sneaking up on her from any direction, anywhere;   she seized the handle of her handaxe and flailed around in the darkness around her, hoping that none of her friends were too close. "Stay back!" she shouted.

No attack came, only the faintest whisper of footsteps over stone. "She's running," Caduceus' voice came from the darkness. 

"Don't let her get away!" Nott warned and it wasn't like Jester wanted   to, but how was she supposed to stop her?

A brush of wind beside her, a footstep just behind her; Jester jumped and whirled around but it was already gone. A few seconds later, though, from further along the corridor towards the exit came a thump   and a strangled, cut-off cry of pain.

" Yasha?"   Jester exclaimed because she'd just   brought Yasha back, she was still hurt so bad, and if dark Beau got her and killed her again --

The magical darkness abruptly dispersed, leaving only normal shadows behind. Behind her Caduceus spoke a word and his staff filled with light again, raising it high to illuminate the scene.

Yasha stood in the mouth of the tunnel, holding dark Beau aloft with one hand by the neck. She still looked terrible, her pale skin sheened with sweat and tinged an unhealthy gray, but there was no weakness in her eyes when she looked at the enemy she'd clotheslined in the middle of her dash for freedom.

Dark Beau struggled to no avail, coughed, spoke again. "Wait --" she called out, Beau's-voice-but-wrong  sending chills down Jester's spine like a file.

Yasha ignored her, throwing her to the ground and pinning her there with one foot. Dark Beau coughed and raised a hand to her throat, two more clutching at Yasha's ankle, yet another scrabbling desperately for a weapon. She looked downright pitiful now, staring up into the implacable face of Yasha, but Jester couldn't feel too sorry for her; she'd almost killed   them. She had   killed Yasha.

She went on talking, her voice low and urgent. "You don't really want to do what you came to do," she said. "You don't know what he's really like. You don't know what he's done. You don't know what he is --"

Her voice rose with urgency on the last few words but Yasha ignored them, reaching over her back to draw the Magician's Judge and twist it around, point facing down like an executioner. "I know   what he is," she said, and brought the sword down with a vengeance.

The body on the end of the blade spasmed and shuddered and Yasha leaned into it, face stone-cold and utterly empty of mercy. Only once the twitching had stopped did she let up, pulling the sword free of the body with a grinding twist. The blade was coated with black fluid, blood like liquid shadows, and Yasha flicked it to the side. "I already know what he is," she repeated as the others caught up to her, each of them staggering slightly in the aftermath of the fierce melee. "He's our friend."






The fight had seemed to last forever, but in reality it had been only a handful of minutes. Yasha and Fjord were working to clear the rest of the debris from the hallway, revealing the stairwell dropping away beyond. Beau picked up the heavy staff from where evil-Beau had dropped it, hissing a little as her fingers skirted the still-hot iron bands. "Fuck yeah, I'm taking this," she said, hefting it and trying a practice swing that had Molly ducking away. "I deserve   it, after all that."

"All right," Caduceus said, tottering a little as he stepped forward. "Who's hurt? Who needs healing?"

Jester gave him a disbelieving look, because really? "Uh... you do,"   she said.

In truth they were all looking pretty ragged. Each of them had taken a few knocks even before coming down to this level, and between evil-bitchy-Jester's poisonous deluge and freaky-undead-Nott's psychic wailing, none of them were at their best. But Yasha had died,   Caduceus had almost   died, Nott had been hovering on the brink -- if she thought about it too much it made her go numb, nearly whited out her mind, so she tried not to think about it too much.

"What we really need is to stop and rest," Caduceus said, looking around their tattered group ruefully; no doubt he was making the same calculations Jester was.

"We don't have time for that," Beau said.

"No, I guess we don't," Caduceus said. "I'll do what I can as we go. But I can't get all of you. Who here's seriously injured?"

"I'm still solid," Fjord said bracingly. 

"Yeah, same," Beau said.

"Well fuck me, I'll take healing if you're offering!" Nott put in, and Yasha nodded wordless agreement. Her skin still looked grey and bruised, and a shadow still haunted her eyes.

"I could go for a while longer," Molly said, but Jester wasn't entirely sure she believed him; he had to hurt himself to fight, after all, and he always   needed her help. 

"I'll be okay too!" Jester volunteered, but Caduceus only frowned at her. 

"Let me see your arm," he said, and Jester reluctantly stepped further into his circle of light. She couldn't lift the arm for his inspection because she couldn't lift it, and as stoic as she was trying to pretend to be she couldn't stifle the pained whine when he took hold of it and lifted it away from her chest.

Caduceus gave her a look of mild reproof. "You shouldn't hide this, Jester," he said. "We need to fix this, you need to be able to use your arm."

"I don't need to be able to use my arm to cast my spells," she protested. "I didn't want you to waste magic on me, Caduceus, I know you're almost out. How many spells will you have left after this one?"

Caduceus was silent for long enough that Jester knew the answer wasn't much. "I have enough for what needs to be done," was what he said at last and well, if he wasn't going to listen to her then there was no point in arguing.  "Nott, Yasha, Jester, stay by me as we go on. Mollymauk, you too. Miss Beauregard, if you could scout ahead, and Fjord, if you could bring up the rear."

They fell into the marching order according to Caduceus, and Jester heard him muttering the words of the prayer under his breath as they walked. Led by Beauregard they advanced cautiously down the stairs.

As they went down the stairs Jester fell back to walk beside Yasha. "Are you going to be... okay?" she ventured.

Yasha glanced over at her. "Why wouldn't I be?" she asked, reserved.

"Yasha, you just died,"   Jester protested. "That isn't... you wouldn't... I mean, it would make sense if you weren't   okay."

Yasha shrugged. She went down a few more stairs before she spoke again. "You're right, I did die," she said. "And I don't want to do it again. Which means that we have to get to the end of this and do what needs to be done. Once we're somewhere safe... ask me again."

Jester nodded, mouth dry, and let Yasha take the steps down two at a time.

At the bottom of the stairs a pool of golden light grew, friendly and tame, until it enveloped them. The raw stone and earth walls gave way to smooth-cut stone slabs, then to sanded and polished wood, and the stairs flattened out in a landing of the same material. Just as they reached the bottom of the stairs Caduceus' prayer concluded, and Jester felt a rush of relief wash over her as a surge of warm magic passed through her system, a painful tingling running down her arm into her hand and then back up again as the bones knitted. Nothing magic could do for her shield, though; that one was a loss.

The rest of them looked as relieved as she felt, cuts closing, bruises clearing, all of them standing a little straighter and breathing a little easier. They looked ready for a fight again, ready to run if they had to, and Jester tried not to think about how this was probably the last time Caduceus would be able to cast that spell. It would be down to her now, and she just had to hope -- that this would be enough. That she   would be enough.

Set into the wall at the end of the stairwell was a door. Not Caleb's door, simple wood with a brass handle, but an ornate door with elaborate carvings inlaid in the wood and a decorative arch at the top. The latch was solid and imposing, surrounded by several bolts and keyholes, but when Fjord reached out and tested the lock it gave way easily before them.

Beyond the door was a wide room. One single room, unlike any of the others they'd seen in the house so far. Bigger than the bedrooms, smaller than the great halls, Jester didn't recognize this room from anywhere else. The walls seemed solid, not the half-real shadows of the last level they'd crawled through, at least -- yet despite the warm wooden beams and the inviting yellow lamplight, this room was far from inviting. It was crowded around with crates and trunks and boxes, benches and tables laid out in rows across the space. The surfaces were too cluttered for Jester to recognize everything she saw at a glance. Some of it she thought looked familiar from the libraries and magic shops they'd visited in towns. Some of it, she thought looked familiar from the awful rooms and dungeons they'd been to in the Sour Nest. 

It was hard to tell for sure, though, because the walls and bookshelves and benches were wrapped round and round with yards, no, miles   of thin silver thread until the walls themselves were barely visible. It looked as though a spider had gone crazy in here and tried to cocoon the entire room from the inside, or that a silver thread-making machine had exploded and coated the walls with its contents. If she looked closely at the threads they seemed to shiver and shimmer under her gaze, light pulsing along them and away out of sight, but what did it mean?

A man stood in front of one of the workbenches with his back to them. He was dressed in an ostentatious yellow robe, heavily embroidered with golden thread, and his collar was loaded with insignia. She didn't recognize what that insignia was supposed to mean -- it wasn't from any military or navy or system she knew -- but there sure was a lot of it. She heard Beau muttering to Yasha, who nodded without taking her eyes off of the man, one hand gripping tightly to the hilt of the Magician's Judge.

"The Gentleman, I presume," Molly said quietly, coming up beside her. His eyes were narrowed, slits of ruby red peering out and glaring holes in the man's back, and Jester's heart thumped into double time. The one that evil-her had been singing about, the one who sat in his laboratory at the bottom of the nightmare mansion, the one who'd been promised to destroy whatever came into his reach.

None of them were speaking loudly but they weren't exactly being stealthy,   either, and maybe it wasn't a surprise that the man in the archmage's robes heard them, stood up straight, and turned around to face them.

And it was Caleb.

Caleb, but cleaned up and tidied to an extent she'd never seen him before -- his hair combed and neatly trimmed, his face clean-shaven without a hint of five o'clock shadow. His skin was unmarked, his hair gleamed bright red in the yellow light, and his clothes were spotless. "Ah, gute nacht,   my friends," he said and the voice was unquestionably him, the same deep timbres, the same accent. "Just in time. In fact," he said, glancing off to some timepiece they could not see from this angle, "you have cut it a little close, but I suppose I can forgive you for that."

"Caleb?" Jester said uncertainly, taking a step forward. He looked... he looked well, he looked healthy, he looked fine,   and she was so   relieved but at the same time she didn't know what to think. They'd come all this way, battling through four levels of hell to reach him, they'd choked and bled and burned and scrambled to get here and Caleb was fine,   and... "You were... were you waiting for us? Why didn't you come meet us?"

"Well, I could hardly have left my laboratory with that horrid nosy woman sitting across the doorway," Caleb said, a sneer passing over his face that smoothed out into a bright smile a moment later. "I take it by your presence that you have disposed of her?"

"Um... yeah..." Jester said, still off-balance. It couldn't be that easy, could it? That the evil Beau had been the last foe they had to face, that they could just leave   now without any more fighting, that everything would be okay?   

"Let us be on our way, then," Caleb said, stepping forward and straightening his robes, carefully adjusting the golden-embroidered cuffs. "We have just under half an hour to make it to the top floor, and return from there to the Material Plane."

"Yeah, I guess?" Jester quailed. Caleb smiled at her again as he walked briskly towards the door, and something about that smile seemed wrong. It had taken such a long time before she'd seen Caleb smile, before she'd been able to make him laugh, and she'd treasured every smile she'd won from him since then and this was... wrong. "I... I kinda thought you'd be more happy to see us..."

"Do not get me wrong, I'm quite pleased that you survived this far," he said in an offhand tone. "I did my best with the materials that were available to me down here, yet none of my little creations were able --"

His voice cut off in the twang   of a string discharging and a sudden thump   and Caleb stumbled forward, wheeling about to stare in astonishment. So did Jester, because Nott had just pulled out her crossbow and shot Caleb in the back.

"Nott?"   Jester said, utterly astonished. Not that she hadn't seen this before, but always as part of some kind of con, and that couldn't be this so why --

"You're not him," Nott said, and though her voice was quivering her aim was rock-steady on Caleb. "You're not my boy."

Caleb smiled. It was such a strange smile to see on his face, wide and gleaming and utterly without warmth. He raised one gloved hand into the air and Nott jerked forward as an invisible force took hold of the end of her crossbow, tipping it upwards. The crossbow rose slowly into the air and for all that Nott tried to hang onto it -- even to the point where her feet lifted off the ground -- she had to let go, and dropped to the ground. Caleb closed his hand and the Tinkertop Bolt Blaster 1000 crumpled in onto itself with a crunch of splintering wood and twisting metal. "No," he agreed. "I am not. Because to be certain, I would never   associate myself with vermin such as you."

Molly muttered an oath and unsheathed Summer's Dance. "He's one of them," he said, then raised his voice in a shout. "He's another one of them! He's not Caleb!"

"Oh, but I am," the false Caleb countered. "Or rather I am Caleb as he was meant   to be, as he should  have been, if he had not faltered and failed in his most crucial task all those years ago. I am his wasted time, his squandered potential, and all that he is and all that he has is mine   by right!   I will be once more what he   should have been all along --  der Erzmagier, Bren Aldric Ermendrud -- what was, what should be, and what will be again!"

His voice had risen steadily over the course of this diatribe; on the final word his wrists twisted, his hands jerked apart in a gesture she had seen Caleb make many times, and a wall of flames roared into existence. Jester flinched away from it, shielding her eyes and blinking back tears from the heat; it took a moment before her eyes adjusted to see past the flames, and when they did she felt a hand of dread grip her throat.

The wall of flames was between them and the false Caleb -- and he was on the side with the door.

"I thank you all for the aid you have provided me," Caleb -- no, Bren  said, raising his voice to be heard over the flames. "You have made it possible for me to leave this place, and seize my destiny where it awaits on the Material Plane. I hope you will continue to enjoy the comforts of my home -- at least for the next half-hour or so."

Robes swirling around him, he turned to walk out the door. 

"No!" Even as he shouted, Caduceus stepped forward until the flames nearly singed his hair, then slammed the butt of his staff down against the flagstone floor. A surge of energy gathered around his staff and surged outwards, rolling like the incoming tide; where it washed over the flames they smothered and sank back into the floor as the magic sustaining them was dispelled.

"No matter what happens now, you will never be Caleb," Caduceus said with an iron, unshakeable certainty. "Caleb made it clear that he wanted to use his magic to help people, to do good things. You will never replace him, and we will not let you exploit his image any longer."

Bren's face twisted in a snarl that rendered his handsome face almost unrecognizable. "I do not! Have! Time   for you!" he shouted, and raised his hands again. Jester felt power beginning to gather around him, the air crackling like an oncoming storm, and the battle was on.

The Mighty Nein spread out as much as they could around the room, trying to deprive Bren of a concentrated group that he could rain fire on. Jester and Caduceus flanked him, one on either side, and Jester summoned her lollipop with a sick twinge of fear in her stomach and throat. After this, she would be down to only a handful of spells -- and they had no more diamonds. But the littler cantrips weren't going to be enough, she could feel it in her bones, not with the time they had and not with how much fire their enemy was throwing around.

Beau, Molly, and Yasha closed in on Bren from each side, while Caduceus, Fjord and herself circled from a greater distance. For once Molly beat Beau to the punch, dashing in with his sword rimed with brittle ice and aiming a slash along the back of his robes.

The blade connected, and blood flew -- but the instant Mollymauk's blade made contact with Bren's flesh, there was a hellish crack   and an eye-searing flash of green light as a second spell triggered. Molly flinched back, eyes wide, but not in time to avoid the bolt of green light that welled up from the rent in the robe and fired towards him. Before Jester's horrified eyes the beam made contact, and Molly evaporated in a flash of dark light.

"Molly!"   she screamed even as she sent her lollipop barreling towards Bren, running forward to the spot where Molly had vanished -- no body, there was no body, how could she cast Revivify if there was no body?  

Time seemed to stop between the start of her heart beating and the end. For a moment she was cast back to that horrible, horrible week in Shady Run Creek when Molly had been killed trying to rescue her, when they'd had to race against time to try to find a cleric willing and able to cast the resurrection spell before the time limit was up. They'd made it in time -- barely -- and after that Jester had vowed that they'd never skirt that close to the edge again, that she'd always be there and ready for her friends if ever they went down. And in every case since then -- Caduceus under the well, Nott in the Prison of Soot, Yasha in the hallway just outside -- she always had been.

Now, though, now she had no diamonds, she had no magic, and there wasn't even a chance of getting another cleric to help if there was nothing left but floating motes of ash. If -- 

The heartbeat finished and Mollymauk appeared in the space he had vanished from, falling backwards on his tail as he tried desperately to scramble backwards. "Fuck, shit, balls,"   Molly gasped. One hand clutched the red eye on the side of his neck which was dripping blood, a sure sign that he had pulled on one of his creepy Blood Hunter powers. "He almost had me, Weaver protect, I thought he had me --"  

"Molly, get clear!" Yasha bellowed as she charged in, her sword raised; Bren whirled to face her and magic flashed as his hand came up, warding off the blow. Yasha stumbled aside, losing her footing, but there were no more horrific flashes of lethal green light. She turned back to her opponent, face contorted in a snarl, eyes dark with fury and blood-lust.

Bren raised one hand wreathed in flames, arcane words dripping from his lips that made Jester's skin crawl. He reached into his burning palm and pulled a string of fire from it, and with a deft flick of his hand a line of fire twisted out from his hand and spun in a ring around his head. There it resolved into a little string of dancing flames, each one burning angry and molten, circling his head like a crown. He glanced over in her direction and pointed and two of the tiny meteors streaked off towards her face. Jester saw them coming and dived for to get out of the way. The little motes of fire whistled overhead and for a moment she thought she'd gotten lucky -- until they hit the walls and burst.

  Flames roared around her, fire licked at her skin and Jester dropped to the floor, for a moment unable to think of anything other than the burning, oh god, she was burning. She couldn't keep focus on keeping the lollipop through it, frantically rolling on the floor and patting at her clothes to put the fire out, and it sputtered out inches away from the wizard's head.

Jester's weapon might have missed, but the others of the Mighty Nein did not. The wizard staggered as blows beset him from all around, some of them deflecting off his arcane armor with flashes of light, others getting through and connecting solidly. For the first time Jester felt hope rise in her chest, felt like maybe they could do   this. Bren's magic hit hard, it hurt   without question, but in some ways this wasn't anything like as bad as fighting evil Beau had been. Bren hit hard but he didn't move fast, he couldn't keep all of them locked down at once, and he wasn't nearly as good at ducking and evading their blows. Jester saw several solid hits go in, Fjord's eldritch blasts and even Caduceus' bright bursts of fire doing a steady thud of damage while Beau continued to pummel him from close range. If this evil Caleb was anything like as squishy as his good counterpart, then it shouldn't take too much more --

Bren raised one hand, uttering a sharp incantation, and a ring on the back of his hand flashed with rainbow light. It pulsed, dimmed, then burst   into a flare of prismatic light that shot out in every direction, each beam a different color. Beau ducked; Fjord didn't; and Jester was surrounded by the shouts and cries of her friends as a half-dozen different types of magic started trying to eat them alive.

The pulse of light that flew towards her was a deep indigo, a light so dark as to almost be black, and as tired as she was Jester didn't quite move fast enough to avoid it. It splashed over her, rushed around her with the feeling of a current pulling but it didn't hurt,   and for a moment Jester wondered if maybe Bren had flubbed his spell.

Then she tried to take a step forward and found herself trapped in place, stuck fast as she'd tried to stop dark Beau not half an hour ago. She couldn't move, she couldn't even blink   and as she strained against the invisible force holding her she felt the magic creeping inwards, seeking to paralyze her muscles and lungs and heart.

Helpless and unmoving, she watched as the others rallied and went for Bren again. Beau shook off the killing frost that had been creeping over her and moved in faster than a blink, striking out against the wizard with a flurry of blows. Bren stumbled back and one hand went up, fire beginning to smoulder in his open palm, but Beau managed to avoid it as she ducked under his outstretched arm and jabbed him hard in the solar plexus.

He stumbled to a halt, stunned, and Beau started to whoop in triumph as she straightened up. "Yeah! That's what y --"

That was as far as she got before three of the spinning motes of fire surrounding Bren peeled away from him and swarmed towards her, blasting her back as she scrambled to get clear. 

But the damage had been done, and for a moment -- for just a precious few seconds -- Bren was vulnerable. Fjord stepped in close behind him, the Star Razor flashing cold in the yellow light, and a horizontal slice of his sword took Bren's head off at the shoulders. The head flew off with a spurt of blood, tumbled to the floor and bounced to a stop a few feet away. 

For a moment the Mighty Nein sat stunned, breathless with disbelief that it was done, it was over. Nott began to cheer and Jester wanted to join in but she still couldn't move,   the spell holding her fast hadn't faltered --

Bren's body was still standing upright, wobbling a bit unsteadily on its legs. Jester could understand a body standing for a second or so, but shouldn't it have fallen over by now?

And then -- it did   move, but not to collapse. It took a step, then another, then turned, all without the direction of its head. From where the head had fallen Jester heard a horrible noise -- a rusty, raspy chuckle.

"I'm afraid it will not be that easy, my friends," spoke Bren's voice, and Jester realized that his head was still animate, the eyes still open, the lips still curving up in a malicious smile. 

"You've got to be kidding   me," Fjord said as the headless body reached down, plucked the severed head from where it had come to a stop, and casually set it back on his neck. Bren tipped his head to one side, then the other, as if testing the fit; rolled his shoulders, cracking his knuckles, and then smiled.

And released a storm of lightning from his hands that lit Fjord up like one of the Hupperdook fireworks. As Fjord seized and shook, horribly haloed in the actinic blue light, the bolt of energy jumped from Fjord to every other body close enough to touch -- Molly, Beau, and Yasha, all of whom had crowded in close to try to land a hit. Beau made a horrible noise -- not quite a scream -- and as the lightning flickered and grounded itself in the stone floor, three bodies collapsed to the floor like puppets with their strings cut.

That left only Yasha standing, her body riddled with mottled burns and horrible wounds but too stubborn to fall. She stumbled a step and tried to grab for Beau as she fell, missed; fell to her knees beside Molly, his graceful limbs and handsome face locked in a terrible seizure by the force of the electricity. She threw her head back to the sky and screamed in rage, eyes darkening as though shrouded by racing stormclouds, and a boil of darkness sprouting from between her shoulderblades unfurled into a set of vast, jet-black wings. 

Somehow -- Jester couldn't even imagine what strength she was drawing on -- Yasha got back up, drew her sword in front of her and stepped forward again. Another fireball thudded against her and detonated, the explosion of fire washing over her and dispersing, but somehow   she kept her feet even through that. She was clinging to consciousness -- to life -- by her fingernails, sustained only by her all-encompassing rage, and she was alone.

Move!   Jester screamed inside her head, trying to force her body to work   instead of just standing there like a statue. What use was she? What use was she even if she could move? What use could there possibly be, what could take down someone who couldn't even die?

"There!"  Caduceus' voice called out from the far side of the room, where the firbolg was barely keeping his feet. Jester's eyes flicked over in that direction -- the only movement she could manage right now -- and saw Caduceus pointing to the... floor? She followed his gaze to one of the silver threads that snaked across the room, leading from the mess of boxes to the ground on which Bren stood... did it connect to him, root itself in his body like some obscene umbilical? She couldn't tell from here. "One of these boxes is healing him somehow, I don't know. Every time he gets hurt, it lights up!"

Jester tracked the thread she was pointing to and after a moment she saw what Caduceus meant. Yasha pressed forward with her sword, rising and falling and falling again in brutal strokes, and every time she connected, the silver thread that snaked from Bren to the boxes glowed and pulsed. Bren glanced over at Caduceus, looking deeply annoyed; with a gesture another meteor peeled itself off from the string and went streaking towards the firbolg, forcing him to duck down out of sight as fire roared and bloomed.

Hope surged in Jester so sudden and fierce that she broke out of the paralysis that gripped her. She stumbled a step, then came down running, and sprinted across the floor towards the pile of crates and boxes. Bren saw her move and his face contorted with fury. "No!" he shouted, and pointed in her direction --

The green ray of light went wild, splashed off the ceiling where it turned a significant chunk of the beams to ash, as a goblin appeared from nowhere and launched herself onto his back. Nott clung and grappled with frenetic, furious determination; her legs wrapped around Bren's neck and throat as her hands grabbed fistfulls of hair and yanked.  Bren yelled bloody murder, all thoughts of Jester forgotten as he tried to pry the furious goblin off his head. "Go!"   Nott screeched in her direction, and buried her sharp teeth in the wizard's ear.

Jester went. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Bren's hands light up with fire, saw him reach up to grab Nott by the legs, saw the flames lick up to consume Nott like a torch. "Get off me!" Bren shouted, and with a final heave tore her off his back and hurled her onto the floor. "How dare you touch me?"

Nott was burning, Nott was screaming,   and Jester was on her knees by the chest but she couldn't see what to do, it had no locks or hinges or handy buttons she could press. But from here she could see how a dozen strands of silver thread gathered here, winding around the chest from every angle to bundle together and pulse light along to the middle of the room, along to Bren. If he was getting life and healing from this connection, somehow, if it was keeping him alive magically, then -- 

"Yasha, cut the thread!" she shouted, because she couldn't think of anything she had that could sever this cord, but Yasha did.   "Hurry, now!"

Yasha wasn't listening, so lost in her own rage and bloodlust that Jester's words fell on deaf ears. Jester's eyes flew fearfully from Molly and Beau and Fjord, lying still and lifeless on the floor, to Nott, writhing and rolling on the floor now in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames that devoured her flesh. No, no, no time,  they had to end this now. "Yasha, please!"

This time her words got through. She saw Yasha stop, saw the muscles of her back and neck bulge with strain as Yasha had to physically hold herself back from continuing to hack mindlessly away at her enemy. But after one heart-stopping delay she whirled around, giving Jester a full view of her blood-spattered and tear-ravaged face. She raised her sword and her wings and, with a scream of vengeful fury, brought the Magician's Judge down on the glowing silver thread.

"Nein!"  Bren screamed, and Jester really shouldn't have enjoyed the note of panic she heard in his voice as much as she did. The silver thread went dark and dead, the light draining swiftly away from its cut ends, traveling back to its origin and down the rest of the way to Bren. Bren who, as Jester watched, was beginning to sprout terrible wounds all over his body, evidence of the violence they had wreaked on him before now. "You cannot! You do not have the right! It should be mine,  it was meant to be mine, I deserve..."

The fading silver light reached him and his words cut off, his voice died as a deep dark stain spread over his neck. He stood in place for a moment, one arm outstretched in a futile plea in her direction -- and then his head tilted to one side and slid off his neck, tumbling to the floor as a lifeless bloody piece of meat.

When the body burst into flames, shredding away into cinders and ash before her very eyes, it seemed almost overkill.

 


 

The laboratory seemed very quiet all of a sudden with the roar of magic and flames dampened, only the normal crackling of smaller fires around the room where they had gained footholds in the wooden paneling. They didn't seem to be any immediate danger right now, though, no more so than the deadline they were all racing against. Caduceus came down from the storage platform he'd been hiding on, swaying slightly, and sank to his knees on the scorched patch of floor next to Bren's body. 

With a deep inhale like a marathon runner sighting the finish line, he brought his staff around and tapped it on the floor. Green light blossomed, spread outwards like creeping vines, and with a word that sang in Jester's mind it surrounded the bodies of their friends and sank in. The three who had been downed by the lightning strikes stirred and groaned, and Yasha sank down to the floor with a look of utter relief as her rage ebbed and the black wings faded away into nothing.

Nott sat bolt upright on the floor with a yell. "Nott, it's okay!" Jester tried to reassure her. "Bren is dead. Everything's fine!"

"Everything's not   fine, we still have to find Caleb!" Nott insisted as she scrambled to her feet, wobbling slightly. The fire that Bren had set in her had gone out but it had left marks behind that they hadn't yet been able to heal, large patches of angry red blisters under clothing that had been scorched and crisped by the fire's heat. "That wasn't him but he must   be in here somewhere, he must   be!"

"The box," Caduceus spoke up, and Jester looked at him blankly. Caduceus nodded towards the chest she sat by, the one that had been connected to Bren by that tangled silver thread.

For a moment Jester didn't understand what Caduceus meant; that there was something in the box that would lead them to Caleb? But then understanding dawned, and with it a flash of horror. "What? No way," she protested, feeling faint. She found her eyes drawn back to the box. It was a chest with a slightly curved top, about the size of the chests she used to keep her clothes in back at the Lavish Chateau. "It can't be, it's too small, it's not big enough..."

"Are you sure?" Caduceus said. He stood with an effort, took a few more stumbling steps and then sank down again next to Jester. "He's a skinny guy, he folds up pretty small. I'm not saying it would be easy..."

"Wait, what?" Beau piped up as the others began to tune into the conversation. She looked over at the chest and horror began to bloom on her features, an expression echoed by the rest of them. "Are you saying that Caleb is in the box?"

"For fuck's sake get him out!"   Molly shouted.

"I'm trying! I can't see how!" Jester snapped, panic creeping back into her voice as she went frantically over the chest again and again. "There's no, there's no latch, there's no hinges or anything!"

Yasha's shoulders heaved as she climbed to her feet, clutching the Magician's Judge. She started to raise the sword for an overhead stroke until Nott threw herself against Yasha's knee, hampering her step forward. "Wait, no!" she screeched. "You'll kill him!"

Yasha hesitated. The others clamored, yelling orders or protests or imprecations. "Everybody shut up!" Jester yelled over the racket. "I need to think!"

Not that that stopped them talking, but it at least lowered the noise level a little. If they smashed the box Caleb would be hurt -- more   hurt. But there was no lid that she could see to the chest, no way to open it without magic. Magic? She looked over at Caduceus, who shook his head in the face of her anxious plea. "I'm tapped," he said. "Getting everyone up was the absolute last of my spells." 

So it was down to her. Spells spun around in Jester's head but she couldn't think of any that would work for this, that would make a lid and hinges appear where there were none...

Inspiration struck in a flash. "Wait!" she called out and dove into her haversack, rifling around inside it in a frenzy. Her hand closed on her box of paints and she pulled them out, and for just a moment she thought she could feel Caleb's hand brushing hers as he passed the box over, his voice saying Jester, I think that these should be yours.

She opened the box in shaking hands. There was hardly any of the magic paint left, only a little smeared around the bottom of the vial. She stared at the nearly-empty container in dismay; this wouldn't be enough to paint hinges and a lid and   a latch. It would barely be enough to go around the diameter of the box even once...

Wait. No. She could still do this. She went to work, hands flying in a frenzy as she began to dribble paint around the outside of the box in a neat line. Where each dab of paint settled against the box it made a hole, not quite enough to form a solid line but enough for a dashed line. She didn't quite close the loop around the top of the box again, but she'd gotten what she meant to: a series of neat dark holes sinking through the wood, forming a perforated line around the body of the box.

Jester stood up and backed away. "Yasha!" she said and the other woman was there at her side in an instant. "What do you need me to do?" she asked.

"Can you, like, rip   the box open along the perforations?" Jester said. Yasha looked at her with puzzlement for a moment, then understanding bloomed as she studied the box more closely. The rest of them hastily cleared a space, pushing boxes and silver strands aside in a circle as Yasha stooped, gripped, and heaved the chest up in her arms.

Her hands found a grip on either side of the wooden chest, fingers settling into the holes Jester had made, and she saw the big woman's muscles shift and bulge as she heaved. Jester knew that she was strong, that she was as Beau had put it fuckin' jacked,   but if Yasha couldn't do it then she knew she had no chance. If Yasha couldn't do it...

Yasha's muscles shifted and clenched again as she let out a furious roar, the tendons on her neck standing out with a strain -- and then the wooden chest cracked along the perforation and broke into two halves, ripped apart with the force of Yasha's might.

The chest split apart, and a body tumbled out from inside it to sprawl on the floor in a wash of blood.

"Caleb!"  Nott screamed. Jester couldn't blame her. She was used to blood and gore by now but oh, Traveler,   that was a lot   of blood. For a moment she could hardly make out Caleb's face and form through it, where was it all coming   from? The wizard didn't respond to Nott's voice, didn't seem conscious at all -- although he had to be alive, must be , or else the mansion spell would have ended, right? -- Jester reached out with a shaking hand to grip his shoulder and turn him over, and jerked her hand back with a hiss as something sharp bit her palm.

The two halves of the broken chest landed on the floor with a raucous clatter of wood and the sound of shattering glass, and little shards of something sharp and bright rained down onto the floor beside them. Tearing her eyes away from Caleb she looked up to see the source of the noise, and --

The inside of the chest had been lined with what looked like broken glass. No, crystals,   shimmering green in the light. Dozens, maybe hundreds of needle-like protrusions grew inwards from the wood of the chest, some of them now broken off, some of them still intact and shining dark with blood. And now that she knew what to look for Jester could see their matches, the places on Caleb's body where the crystals had grown into his skin, some of them still glinting darkly from the mouths of the wounds.

Caleb looked like shit,   Jester had seen him through some shit but never, never   this bad, not even the first day they'd met when he'd been exhausted and emaciated and filthy, hunkering down like a turtle in the shell of his filthy coat and scarf in the corner of the tavern in Trostenwald. Since then she'd seen him hurt, seen him unconscious, seen him near death far too many times but he'd never looked so much like a corpse as he did now, his flesh drawn down and sunken to the bones, black lines creeping out through his veins from a dozen dozen tiny wounds, muscles and tendons locked into a tight fetal crouch on the ground. His eyes were semi-open, slits of blue gleaming from between swollen eyelids and they didn't move or flicker or focus as she bent over him but --

He was breathing. Shallow, fluttery, short gulps of breath that fluttered in his throat, but he was breathing and he was alive.

"Do something," Nott begged them, crouching over Caleb's head, holding it in her hands. "Help him! Heal him! You're supposed to be healers, aren't you!?"

Fjord was at her shoulder, Fjord's breath hissed between his teeth, and he bent down beside her and laid his hand on Caleb's shoulder. Light welled from his hand, washed over Caleb's skin, but immediately sputtered out. Fjord shook his head in frustration. "It's not taking," he said. "I don't understand."

"These wounds are necrotic," Caduceus reported, touching one of the black lines on Caleb's skin. "They can't be healed until they're cleansed, and that'll take time and rest."

"We don't have time for rest ," Beau snapped. She was pacing in short circles like a caged tiger; three strides to the edge of the circle, punch the wall, turn back again. 

"We can't move him like this," Caduceus insisted. "We need to get the rest of the crystals out of him or they'll just do more damage."

A shout from the lab doorway drew their attention, and Jester and Caduceus looked up to see Molly sprinting in with his face dead pale under the peacock tattoos. "We've got to go! Now!"   he shouted at the top of his considerable voice. "Get moving, get going, go!"

"I know time is running out, but we have to get him stable before we can move him --" Jester started, but Molly's head was shaking before she even finished talking.

"There's no time!" Molly's voice overrode hers. "It's coming, hells, fuck coming it's here,   we need to get out of here now!"

" What's   coming?" Beau demanded, but the answer didn't come from Molly.

The same foghorn sound that they'd heard time and again since they'd come down the  last set of stairs came again, louder than ever, loud enough that Jester's brain momentarily shut down from the noise of it. Along with the deep, brassy horn that they'd heard before she heard other noises mixed in -- sounds of high, nasal pitches overlaid over the deep roaring note, the rush of wind through an enormous hollow tube, the sound of crunching and scratching and stone grinding to powder.

The room was shaking, boxes and shelves falling over, beakers crashing to the floor and spilling out their contents. But the shuddering didn't stop when the noise finally ceased; it only increased until with a bone-rending jolt   the far wall of the laboratory caved in.

The ceiling crunched down, the floor buckled up, and the far wall folded and vanished. Everything in that part of the room crumpled together into blackness and vanished, and then the blackness parted. Around the edges of the newly-made raw, ragged hole in the room they could see stars glimmering against an endless black void.

Only around the edges, though, since most of the hole was filled by the bulk of a massive set of jaws, slowly retreating from the gap as it bit down and chewed on the mouthful of beams and slabs of rock it had gotten. The jaw moved aside, out of their vision, and was replaced by the sight of a gargantuan eyeball peering in through the new gap.

In a frozen moment, paralyzed as though Bren's spell had gripped her once more, Jester remembered where she had seen that monstrous eye once before -- outside of the first level of the house, through her own paint-created doorway, a massive creature from leagues away that had slowly started moving in their direction.

The Dreadnaught had arrived.

 


 

 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

The eye fell on Beau felt it like a physical weight. The thing's gaze fell over the half-destroyed room like a blanket, like a flood, an almost-palpable riptide that tugged her limbs and sought to drag her under. She felt weakened, paralyzed and feeble, every limb a lead weight clutching at the floor that was tilting forward to dump her and everyone she loved into the abyss. There was nothing out there nothing nothing nothing -- a hunger that could never be sated, a cold that could never be thawed, an emptiness that would never be filled -- 

And then it withdrew. The eye blinked -- sideways, like a lizard -- and lifted away from the gap. The cold passed and so did the weakness, the fatigue, the fear.  Beau knew that the fact that the eye had retreated meant the creature would be returning for another bite, so they had only seconds -- but they had   those seconds and they could use them.

"Move!" she bellowed, adding her command to Molly's, and the shocked Nein lurched to their feet and then into a scrambling run. Yasha swept up Caleb in her arms -- no time now to worry about niceties like how to lift or carry him without causing further harm. He spasmed but did not cry out, which was almost more worrying than the alternative, but --

No time. They bolted out of the room at top speed; Beau ahead, clearing the stairs with long steps, Yasha right behind with Caleb in her arms. She couldn't see what was happening to the others, which felt like a maddening itch on her neck and shoulders, but if she turned back to look now she would just be blocking the stairs.

She cleared the little tunnel at the top of the stairs and found herself in the corridor where they'd fought her dark mirror-self, where Yasha had friggin' died.   Now she did turn back, waving the others on as they cleared the stairs one by one. As he cleared the doorway Fjord pulled off his cape and tossed it over to Yasha, who wound it around Caleb in her arms with hardly a hitch in her stride.

Nott was the last one up, scurrying up the stairs on her small legs, and Beau began to feel real concern. Would Nott be able to keep up? The little goblin saw her hesitating and waved her on. "I'm fine! Go, go!" she scolded.

Just in time. No sooner had she left the stairwell than there was a hideous crackling sound, the tortured scream of wood and stone, and the stairwell vanished into the same gargantuan maw as the room behind it. This time Beau didn't wait for the thing to turn its gaze on them, bolting after the others and quickly passing all of them.

The thing could eat up whole rooms in bites behind them but it took precious seconds for it to chew and swallow, and now that they had their momentum they could easily outpace it. The only question was going to be whether they could keep up that pace -- and whether there were things lying in wait that would ambush them and slow them down.

"I'll scout ahead!" she called to the others and peeled off, eating up the path ahead of the rest of them in long strides. Within seconds she was alone, nothing but the rasp of her breath and the heat of her muscles to keep her company, the rhythmic impact of her boots on stone. It had been a while since she'd really stretched her legs like this and despite all the panic and pain that lay ahead and behind, she couldn't deny that the burn felt good.

Already she was around the curve on the road where it had bent downwards towards the laboratory. From up here she could get a clear view of the rest of the level -- no enemies in sight, but...

The world on either side of the path was crumbling apart, shaking and shattering and dissolving. Not that it had been any too stable to begin with, but now it was coming apart in whole sections. The eerie underwater lair distorted as seen through thick glass, strands of kelp untwisting into columns of color and light that knifed up an infinite distance into the black sky above them before winking out. The hazy, bucolic farming village was shaking and swaying as though in an earthquake or high wind, deep sinkholes appearing in the grass fields as the thatch huts crumpled and slid into the depths.

If it had just been the weird unreal scenery on either side of the road that was one thing -- but if the path fell apart they'd be fucked.   Some of the flagstones were trembling in a way that was seriously ominous. If she put her weight on one of them and it gave way, tipping her down into that bottomless darkness...

Well, better that she find out than Yasha; she had the balance to recover from a slip that Yasha, carrying Caleb, probably did not. She made her way along the path, testing the stones as she went; a few gave way but they were nearest to the edges of the path, trembling with the force of the destruction of the world around them.

"Stay to the center of the path, it's still pretty solid!" she yelled back to the rest of the Nein, coming up the path behind her. She turned back to the path ahead -- and froze, as the vast shadow of the dreadnought fell over them.

It was strange; although the path looked   like it was surrounded on all sides by empty space, leaving them sitting birds to be plucked off a wire, the space around them didn't quite seem to work that way. She saw the Dreadnought heading towards them, its baleful eye sliding over her and leaving her cold -- but it couldn't quite seem to come right at them, gliding off to the side instead and sliding out of view beneath the path with a disorienting sidewise refraction. There was another crunch,   another horrible shuddering under her feet, and the last view of Caleb's idyllic childhood vanished into the thing's maw.

Then it was gone, and Beau breathed relief -- at least until a gargantuan tail whipped around and smashed against the path behind them. The tail alone was thick around as the Ball Eater, and it snapped the path like a thread. Behind   them, thank the gods, a few of the Nein stumbled and lost their footing but were able to pick up again and keep running.

There was nothing she could do if the thing came back. The only thing she could do was to clear the way for them as much as she could, and so Beau picked up running again. Up the rest of the path in long strides, past the place where the dark clone of Jester had unleashed her vile gas on them -- no sign of her now, thankfully, nothing remaining of the poisonous substance except a few stains on the grey stones. 

She made it to the door as the others were coming around the last corner and took the stairs up, pulling herself along with the handrails to go even faster. There was the door again, Caleb's door, and she flung it open with one hand --

To find herself faced with a sword as tall as she was.

Beau yelped and leaped backwards, slamming the door behind her. "Shit!" she said, heart hammering nearly out of her chest. The others were beginning to run up behind her now. "Shit fuck! She's still there, the evil Yasha!"

"We can't fight her," Molly said, his voice stressed but certain. "We don't have the spells, we don't have the endurance, we don't have the time."

"No shit we can't!" Beau said. Yeah, maybe she was panicking, yeah, maybe she wasn't helping as much as she could. All that filled her mind was the replay of the moment hours ago -- only hours? -- when that same sword had driven down into her collar, the way the cold metal grated against her bone. Laid on top of that, more recent and all the more vivid for it -- the vision of Yasha herself standing over Beau's own dark mirror on the ground, the way her arms and back had bunched as she drove her sword home. And yeah, sure, other her was evil and Yasha more than deserved that bit of karma, but -- fuck.

"We don't have to," Jester said. Her outline shimmered and warped and for a moment Beau thought she was coming apart like the unreal world behind them -- but instead there was a second one of Jester standing beside the first, identical expressions of determination on both her faces. "Open the door, and get ready to run!"

Fjord pulled the door open, and they all jumped backwards as the massive sword arced down into the opening and slammed into the floor, just barely missing Fjord and cracking several of the flagstones. Beau found herself riveted on the sight, barely breathing, but a blue streak out of the corner of her vision marked Jester's duplicate bolting through the door, turning just out of Yasha's range and taunting her. "Nyah, nyah, whatcha gonna do?"   the duplicate taunted, raising her hands to her face in a blue raspberry. " Too slow, betcha can't catch meeeee!"

Thankfully the dark Yasha turned to follow this new target, wrenching the sword from the stones and taking an earthshaking step back, then another. With a bellow of rage she hefted the sword and lunged towards Jester's duplicate, and the doorway was clear.

"Go!" Fjord ordered, but the rest of them needed no prompting. Beau bolted out of the stairwell, dread seizing her limbs until she was halfway up the hallway and well out of dark Yasha's range.

Even from up here she could still hear her roaring, that strange combination of animal bellows and the chiming of bells. Beau drew near enough to Yasha to ask her, "Is she speaking Celestial?" she said, panting as they ran. "What's she saying?"

For a moment she wasn't sure Yasha was going to answer; or maybe it was nothing, just nonsense words like dark-Molly's Infernal speech. "Hope," Yasha said after a moment, then paused to listen to another clamor of voice and music from her dark counterpart. "Ends."

"Are you all right? Carrying him, I mean?" Beau said, nodding towards the dark green bundle wrapped in Yasha's arms. Hell, she   was panting and puffing, and she wasn't the one with a hundred-plus pounds of dead weight to carry. "Want someone else to carry him, to spell you?"

"I'll be fine," Yasha said.

This time around, they ignored sloping path leading downwards into the cavern and turned upwards to the rest of the mansion. Beau stumbled a step as the ground jumped under her feet, and the sound of crashing stone and sliding sand echoed up the cavern from below them. She heard the bells-and-bellows sound again, and then the massive BWAAAAAAMMMMMM  of the Dreadnought, and thought she could guess what had happened.

On this one fight -- probably the only one -- Beau wasn't going to put her money on the dark Yasha coming out the victor.

They came up to the top of the ramp, then stopped in dismay. Part of Beau had hoped that, with the Lucien-Molly gone and the cavern below in shambles, the fire in the main hall would have gone out. It hadn't -- the roaring heat still blew across her in gusts -- but that was the least of their problems now.

The great hall had crumbled, the arches overhead fallen and the walls caving in. The parts of it that were there   were still on fire -- patchily, the flames snatched into irregular sputters by the roaring wind -- but huge chunks of it, including the floor, were just gone. 

"Well, shit," she heard Fjord say as he came up behind her. He stood stooped over for a minute, hands on his knees, then straightened up with a gulp of air and squinted out over the destroyed hall. "At least it looks like the other side is still there...?"

"We might be able to jump it?" Beau said, somewhat hopelessly. She probably could, but Caduceus? Fjord? Yasha,   carrying Caleb? Jester --

"Now would be a really great time for a giant eagle," Molly suggested, his voice tight.

"I didn't prepare that one today! I didn't think we'd need it!" Jester snapped. She wrung her hands, her eyes darting around the room. "I... I can get across, I think, but I can only take one   person with me --"

"Take Caleb," Yasha ordered, passing the bundled figure over. He'd bled through the cloak, and reddish smears were all over the inside of her arms as well as a darker pooling at her chest. "Go. Don't look back."

"Are you sure?" Jester said, staggering a step under Caleb's weight. She wasn't quite big enough to carry him in her arms as Yasha had done, but she hefted him over her shoulder in a decent rescue carry, her own arms and shoulders flexing as she took the weight.

"Yes, go, get gone," Molly ordered her. "We'll find a way across, easier without having to worry about juggling Caleb. Don't worry about us, okay?"

Jester nodded, then took a deep breath and turned to face the chasm. She raised her free hand in front of her glowing with green light, the other steadying her precious bundle over her shoulder. A dark rip appeared in space ahead of her, and she stepped into it.

The mirroring rift was so far on the other side of the room that Beau could barely see it through the heat-wavering air and the gloom. But she saw the blue figure take off running, and not look back.

"Let's try over there," Molly suggested, once Jester and Caleb were on their way. He pointed towards the edge of the room; the floor where it joined to the wall was a little more intact. 

They made their way across the perimeter of the room, the remaining flames sizzling at their skin occasionally but much less of a hazard than the yawning gulf of the floor. At last they reached the point where the floor ran out, and there was still a gap of some dozen feet between it and the next solid section of floor. Further on, and a little ways down, there was a sort of collapsed ramp that they could use to get up to the other side of the room -- but it was a long way to jump.

"Do you guys think you can make it?" Beau said, somewhat hopelessly. She might be able to jump the distance, she estimated, maybe Yasha and maybe   Nott. But Fjord looked already done in from their desperate sprint so far, and Caduceus just shook his head wordlessly and leaned against the wall.

"Okay okay okay," Beau muttered, wracking her brains, pacing back and forth at the edge of the gap. She could still hear the crashing from the halls behind them, they couldn't let this stymie them long, fuck.  No telling where this chasm opened out, whether there even was a ground to hit, or just an unending fall -- No, that wasn't helping. Think. No magic, just regular bodies and brains. "Anybody got any rope?"

Another chorus of headshakes, but Caduceus rummaged around in his backpack and produced a coil of rope. Beau brightened. "Hey! Now we're getting somewhere," she said. She measured the rope by eye, then the gap, yeah, that'd do it. "Okay. I'm going to cross with one end, and Yasha you hold onto the other, and then you can cross on the rope --"

"I don't think I can walk on a rope," Fjord said, and Caduceus nodded agreement. "How's Yasha supposed to get across?" Molly wanted to know.

"Fuck!" Beau said. She looked up, looked around, looked back across the gap. "Okay. New plan."

Beau took the iron-banded staff she'd taken off the shadow monk, and pacing back a few steps, jammed it as hard as she could into a crack in the stone floor. She couldn't help a pang of regret as she did so, this was a sweet staff, and she deserved it to replace the one that this fucking place had destroyed. But it was the only thing they had that would do the trick. "Tie one end to this," she said, and with the other end of the rope in her hand she took a running leap across the gap.

It wasn't exactly easy -- it took a few more leaps and a bit of wall-running, suspending over a heart-stopping chasm -- but she managed to make it to the other side of the gap. With the remains of her old staff, much shorter than it had been a day ago, she managed to jam it into a cluster of rocks and stone cracks on her end and wound the rope around it until it was reasonably taut. "Take a belt or something and sling it over the rope, and slide down," she called out. "One at a time. Zipline style. Yasha, hold the other end steady."

Nott came first, throwing her belt over the rope and sliding down it so fast she almost knocked Beau off on the other end. One by one, with varying degrees of confidence, the boys ziplined down the rope until only Yasha was left, holding the other anchor steady.

"All right, let's do this," Beau said. She wound the tail end of the rope around her hand, just for insurance. "Yasha, go!"

Yasha looped her arm around the rope -- disdaining a belt -- and hopped off the edge, beginning to slide down towards them. Almost immediately the staff at the other end of the rope began to list over sideways, losing its anchor in the stone. "Fuck!" Beau said, grabbing for the rope as Yasha began to plummet out of sight. 

A moment later she was almost yanked over the edge herself, but the grip of the others on her and on the rope pulled her back. It took a heart-stopping few moments of them all hauling on the rope, but they were able to pull Yasha to safety, the pale woman looking even whiter for her brief swing over the abyss. 

None too soon; even as they climbed the slope of dirt and debris to the other side of the hall, the terrible horn sounded again and the back half of the hall vanished into the abyss. They broke into a run, winded but more than motivated to keep going, and pelted for the other stairwell.

Down the next set of stairs, and though the horrid blank-walled asylum: the monsters and critters were howling and yammering in their cells, but though something threw itself at the wall as she ran by nothing came through the doors at them. Probably anything that could get itself out of dodge already had done, Beau reflected, but it wasn't like she was going to stop and take time to open doors for monsters that had already tried to eat them once.

In the next stairwell -- leading back up to the flooded level, where they had fought the gross evil Fjord and Caduceus -- Beau caught up to Jester. The many stairs and her burden were slowing her down substantially, blowing for breath as her boots pumped doggedly at the stairs. Beau hovered a bit, uncertain but unsure how to help. "Do you need someone else to take him, Jess?" she said, a bit of pleading in her voice.

Jester shook her head, too winded to reply immediately. "No, no, I got him," she managed between blowing lungfuls of air. "Almost there."

And she was right; they were almost there. When they crested the top of these stairs they found themselves in the rotted pantry, with a clear line of sight through the hall and down towards the basement. The floor squelched and stuck underfoot, soggy and sticky with the remains of the saltwater flood, but it wasn't deep enough to slow them down. And hey, if Beau was remembering right, they hadn't left anything behind them past the fire in the main hall that could hinder them! "It should be a straight shot," she said.

No sooner had she spoken, then the air filled with a deep, resonant sound. Not the battle-cry of the celestial monster that was dark Yasha, nor the titanic roaring of the Astral Dreadnought: this was the musical sound of a deep bell, gathering its gears to the correct position to toll the hour. BONGGG, the chime sounded, and though Beau could not sight where the clock had come from, the reverberations made the house shake to its foundations.

"The hell is that noise?" Beau exclaimed. BONGGG.

"Oh, no!" Jester cried. She picked up her pace to a staggering run once more. "That bell, Frumpkin said, it's almost sunset outside! When it reaches six o'clock, the spell will end, and we have to be -- !"

BONGGG,  the chime repeated. Beau bit off the stream of profanity that wanted to take up all her breath, and concentrated on running. Across the hall, down the stairs, through the basement. It was littered with the corpses of the disappearing rats but to be honest, those were the last thing on Beau's mind right now. Another stairwell up, this one ending in the cramped space of the upstairs bedroom, and BONGGG sounded again as Beau burst through the door.

She was back at the first level of the house, the one built by Caleb -- on purpose -- to give his friends shelter, to make them happy. Here came Jester, blowing like a bellows but not slowing down for anything   as she charged through the door and kept going. Behind her came Nott, and then Yasha, and Beau stood by the door and slapped their shoulders to keep them moving out of the cramped little space and into the hallway. BONGGG, and there were Molly and Fjord, Molly limping and Fjord clutching his ribs. And there following up the rear was Caduceus, the firbolg completely exhausted and depleted by the sustained mad dash, staggering as he made his way up the last stairs. Beau grabbed him by the arm and yanked him forward through the door, out onto the landing, just as the clock went BONGGG for the sixth and final time.

As Beau turned and made for the door, a white glow began to start up in the walls themselves, turning them milky and insubstantial. Even as she bolted down the hallway and made the top of the stairs, the walls and ceiling began to break apart into streams of colored, confetti. She had just one frozen instant to see Frumpkin standing in front of the door, the door, back arched fur on end pupils blown round, and then -- 

-- the floor itself gave way under her feet, she heard the others beginning to cry out and then -- 

-- And then they were out, in the open air.

The close dark air of the mansion gave way to the cold, cloying dark of open air, of twilight in the mountains. She could see the mountains, she could see the mountains   and there was a part of her (part of her that she hadn't wanted to acknowledge, because admitting the fear made it more real) that had been afraid she would never see them again. Never see the last of the sun setting over the mountains, heavy clouds looming over the rugged horizon reflecting the last tinges of rose and gold over the dying yellow-green sunset. 

She could see the mountains   again.

In fact she was getting a pretty damn good view of the mountains, because they were a good forty feet up in the air. And falling fast.

The last dying vestige of the spell had spat them out pretty much exactly where the door to the mansion had been last night -- just at the edge of the ledge. Even covered by a fresh coating of snow the narrow, rocky sledge of the path didn't look like a very soft landing -- but their current trajectory was taking them over that edge and into the ravine below.

The ravine was full of tumbled boulders, evergreen trees and deeper snow almost lost in the twilight gloaming, and it looked like far from a soft landing to Beau. Torquing her body in mid-air, Beau managed to angle her fall such that she could just barely brush the edge of the ledge as she fell. The impact jolted up her arm but she could use that, use it to slow her momentum and angle her down to the next platform. From stone face to gravel scree to the branch of a pine tree that buckled and splintered under the force of her landing to a tall boulder, she finally came to a three-point landing in a fresh bank of snow.

She'd landed safe, but the others --

Beau wallowed up from the snowbank, sputtering and spitting pine needles, looking around wildly for -- honestly she didn't know what   she was gonna do, not like she could catch all seven of them. Just their luck to have survived the haunted mansion from hell and outrun the ugliest fucker in the Astral Plane just to be taken out by some fucking rocks and trees.

...But instead of thudding like missiles into the snow around her, she looked up to see the rest of the Mighty Nein drifting slowly down into the ravine from the air above, their descent leisurely and soft. She caught a glimpse of Frumpkin cradled in Nott's arms, a bit of snowy down drifting leisurely away from her fingers, and realized what had happened.

"Nott, c'mon, man!" she complained up at them. "Why did I get left hanging?!"

"Because I could only get six people, and I knew you'd be fine on your own!" Nott shouted back down to her, which, fair.

But the moment of levity dropped away as the rest of the Nein settled onto the snowy ground. Caduceus immediately called light back to his staff, since in the shadow of the rock face and the growing twilight it would have been too dark to see otherwise. Beau found herself shivering, her light and sweat-soaked garments little proof against the icy cold now that she was no longer running for her life. 

Caduceus wobbled over to the nearest tree and sat down in front of it, closed his eyes, and slumped back against the trunk with a look of utter exhaustion on his face. Fjord rolled to his feet and looked around, all business once more now that they were out of the creepy freaky house. "Everyone okay?" he demanded, and received various weak callbacks of assent. 

"Caleb!" Nott squawked, coming upright suddenly with snow falling off her hair. She floundered out of the snowbank, dropping Frumpkin unceremoniously onto the ground, and scurried over to where Jester was sitting with Caleb in her arms. Frumpkin immediately followed after her and jumped up onto his wizard's chest, quickly huddling down into a cat-loaf against the cold air and falling snow. Nott yanked the cloak away from Caleb's head and stuck her hands against his neck; a moment later she cried out "He's alive!" in a tone wobbling and cracking with relief.

Beau came over, wincing a little as she forced her stiffening legs to bend, and crouched down next to Jester. She and Yasha were helping to unroll the green bundle of Fjord's cloak -- now thoroughly soaked through with blood -- to reveal Caleb. 

He looked better, and worse -- every one of the vile green crystals seemed to have vanished into thin air when the house did. While the newly cleared wounds slowly oozed blood from dozens of punctures, much of the poisonous blackness seemed to have gone with the crystals. He was still drawn and sunken -- Beau couldn't believe how much vigor he'd lost over the course of a single day -- and beginning to shiver now in unconscious, febrile tremors as the cold mountain air sank in.

There was still no focusing of his eyes no indication of consciousness. Beau just hoped that wherever his head was right now, he at least recognized that they were here and that he was -- not there , not any more. The worst was over, Beau vowed, it would get better from here. They'd find a way to make sure of it.

"We'll need to keep him warm," Caduceus opined, having come up to join in their worried assessment of Caleb's state. "It'll be tough on a night like this, especially if we can't get a fire going. But if we all huddle in close that'll help."

"Just try to keep me away," Nott challenged, and Beau wouldn't have taken that bet.

"I can look for firewood," Fjord offered. "We'll need to find shelter, though. Molly? Beau? I know you're tired, but if you can scout around for any kind of cave around here, even just a sheltered overhang..."

"On it," Molly said, sounding tired but at least determined to show willing. Beau stood up straight, sighed, and stared out into the growing dark of the snowy woods.

Behind her, Jester began to giggle. Beau looked at her, incredulous. Not that she didn't always love Jester's laughter, but -- "Okay, what?" she demanded.

"C-Caleb said," Jester said, then broke into giggles and had to start over. "I k-kept asking him whether the house was trying to get us naked,  and he said no,   and I wanted to know which one of us   he was trying to get naked, and he said no one, and -- and it was him!" 

She broke into a full-out laugh and now that she heard it, Beau recognized the suppressed hysteria in the laughter, the giddy relief that drove a stupid joke into the funniest goddamn thing she'd ever heard, and in spite of herself, Beau began to laugh as well.

They were right back where they'd started the day before -- on the side of a barren mountain on a snowy night, with no shelter to be found -- but worse; they were all exhausted, most of them injured, and days' travel away from civilization. Caleb, the one they always relied on, would be in no position to help provide shelter or warmth or transportation to safety for Gods knew how long, and it would be a hellish struggle to keep him warm and his wounds treated in the middle of fuck-all nowhere like this.

But they were out. They had made it back to the Material Plane alive, through dark dungeons and malevolent mansions. They'd gone to Hell and made it back and dragged their friend out of that gruesome oubliette, snatching him almost literally out of the jaws of a fucking Astral Dreadnought.   How many people could say that?

They'd made it home, and they were together, and the rest? Well. They'll take that as it comes.

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

It was three o'clock. 

Not that you could tell by the light; it was always night here in Rosohna. But one of the daylight globes from the roof had been hung in his window, throwing a warm yellow light over the room. It was bright enough to read by, but dim enough not to disturb him when he lapsed into another episode of fatigue and dozed in his bed, sitting against the headboard with the book open in his lap. Frumpkin was curled at his side, a warm softness that he could reach down and pet any time, giving off little rumbling purrs before the cat settled back down into sleep.

It had been a week since their return from the mountain range and Caleb was still not back up to full strength. Both Jester and Caduceus had done all they could for him, in addition to having a physician from the city come in to look him over; but although magical healing could close wounds and cleanse poison, the deep debilitation that he had suffered was something that could only be recovered through time.

Being confined to bed-rest was a little tiresome and a little isolating, but so far all of his friends had made efforts to stop by and cheer him up. Nott had brought him several books, as had Beau -- well, she dropped them off on his bedside table with a loud disclaimer of how she had been to the library for her own   reasons and just saw something that she thought a nerd like him might like by chance,   but absolutely no one was fooled.

Every one of them had brought him something (in Nott's case, many somethings, some more appropriate than others but all welcome) to show that they cared. Yet none of them seemed to want to stick around. Mollymauk had been the closest; he'd come in on several evenings to keep Caleb company and fill his ears with funny stories and chatter. (According to Molly, he and a few of the others had found sticky gum on their clothes from their close brush with the Astral Dreadnought that turned out to be a rare and expensive spell component, which they'd been able to sell in Rosohna for a substantial profit. Caleb was not certain how true that was.) The tiefling had been as outgoing and affectionate as ever, tucking up the blankets and planting a get-well kiss on Caleb's forehad -- but as soon as Caleb wanted to say anything in return, he had made his excuses and fled.

He could understand that, he supposed -- sickrooms were not terribly welcoming environments, and he was not the most congenial company even when he was at his best -- but it did leave him feeling a trifle lonely, and more than a little confused. He could understand anger -- he would have expected anger. They had all gone to great lengths to assure him they were not angry, but then why did they stay away?

A knock on the door to his bedroom roused him out of his self-pity and he straightened up on the bed as best as he could. "Ja, come in," he called out.

The door rattled and a moment later swung open to reveal Caduceus, carrying a covered pot between a pair of oven mitts. A delicious savory smell wafted out of the pot and over to the bedside, and Caleb felt his stomach rumbling in hunger -- for the first time in a while, a welcome difference from the frozen blank block it had been the first few days back.

"Hello there," Caduceus said in that comfortable way of his. "I figured since this would be your first day eating real food again, I'd make something special, a little bit of celebration."

"Thank you," Caleb said, voice filled with gratitude. "Here, you can, um." He tried to reach out and clear a space on the bedside table, but his arms still shook with fatigue when he tried to lift any weight with them. Caduceus swooped in and moved things around for him, placing the container on his bedside within comfortable reach.

"There we go," he said. "Wow, you've really accumulated a lot of presents here, haven't you?" A gesture took in the bed, the books, the little pile of trinkets that Nott kept bringing to him.

A vase of flowers on the sill under the daylight globe were a gift from Yasha, bright white daisies and pink peonies glowing yellow and peach under the magical light, and pale night jasmine emitting a sweet scent from the open window was the work of Caduceus. Still on the sidetable from noon today was a mug of some old sailor cureall Fjord had brought up, which seemed to be mostly hot rum and honey with a shot of lemon in it. Jester -- he was told -- had tried to bring him pastries before remembering that he was not allowed to eat solid foods yet, but she had more than made up for it with a brightly decorated card that sat propped up against the vase. Flakes of glitter were regularly shed from the paper edges and drifted down onto the floor, but there was still more than enough left to spell out Get Well Caleb!   in bright and loud letters on the card's front. (And a cleverly papercrafted pop-out dick when you opened the card, because this was   Jester, after all.)

"Yes, everyone has been very generous," Caleb replied, but there was a tinge of sadness he couldn't quite suppress. At Caduceus' inquiring look, he explained, "I just -- I suppose everyone must be very busy, that they do not have time to spare to spend in here, that they do not seem to want to talk."

"I think maybe our friends have been staying away because they don't know what to say," Caduceus said. "What happened to you, it was a lot. We've all been worried, and we care about you."

Caleb flinched a little, tried to hide it by ostentatiously marking his place in his book and setting it aside, but as usual Caduceus was too perceptive for comfort. He tilted his head to the side, ears shifting as his eyes narrowed. "Why does that bother you? That we care?"

"It is not that it bothers me," Caleb mumbled, mostly directed towards the bedclothes. "I -- just do not understand why they, you, are all being so kind. I fucked up, I put everyone in a lot of trouble and danger, I would have expected at least a little bit of yelling."

"When it comes to trouble and danger, this group manages to get into plenty of that on their own, with no help from you," Caduceus pointed out. "Often for much worse causes than trying to save a friend. Is that the only reason you think they should be upset with you?"

"I just," Caleb said, and sighed. He didn't particularly want to have this discussion with anyone, but Caduceus was probably the best person to have it with. "I just wish that they had not had to see... all that. What a mess it is, inside my head. How broken I am, how... twisted, my true self is."

Caduceus frowned at him, and Caleb never ceased to be amazed at how stern and foreboding a look it was on that usually kind and affable face. "Now, don't even go there," he chided. "What was in that basement wasn't your 'true self,' any more than any other of the dark copies was our 'true self.' It's what you fear -- and the fact that you fear it means it isn't what you are. Since if you were, you'd embrace it, not reject it."

"It is still a part of me, though," Caleb mumbled. "It always will be."

"No one is composed only of the parts they want to be," Caduceus said. "No one's self is all goodness and light, without any darker corners we'd rather other people not see."

"Except maybe for Jester," Caleb joked and smiled, but Caduceus only hummed thoughtfully.

"Not even Jester," he disagreed. "We're all combinations of what we've made of ourselves and what life has made of us. It's not a matter of what we are, so much as the choices we make, that define us. And you've made your choices, you've made pretty clear what kind of man you want to be. Even those parts of us that you don't want to see, those darker parts of yourself, show in that. 

"When you were trapped and in darkness and not in control of yourself, even then. Those creatures in the lower levels of the mansion were made from your mind, even if not your conscious mind -- and they put themselves on guard, protecting the rest of the world from the worst you could become. Even protecting you from yourself."

Caleb fiddled with the blankets, petted Frumpkin, anything to keep his hands occupied and his eyes trained down and away from Caduceus'. Despite himself he felt tears filling up his eyes, and he blinked to try to hold them back.

Caduceus leaned back a little and smiled, his expression opening back up again. "And we learn more about ourselves, and we grow," he said. "And next time you cast that spell, you'll know better." 

"Next time?" Caleb was surprised into looking up. "Surely you don't think... I mean, I can't see the others allowing me to try that same spell again."

"I don't see why not," Caduceus said. "Before it went bad, it was very   good. It was really nice to have a place that was sheltered and out of the way of harm. I'd like to have that again, and I think the others would too, though you can ask them if you don't feel sure."

"But it went so wrong," Caleb said.

Caduceus nodded. "Yes, the first time, it didn't quite work as expected," he said. "But you're a very smart man, Caleb -- Frumpkin seemed to have a clear idea of what went wrong, and since he knows what you know, that means you do too. I'm confident that you can figure out a way to fix what went wrong and not have it happened again.

"A fair idea," Caleb admitted. He'd had plenty of time to think it over -- not so much while the spell was going wrong but plenty of time afterwards, to pick it apart and highlight every error, every fumble. "I don't think I would make those same mistakes again, but..."

"That's not to say it wouldn't be a good idea to take some precautions," Caduceus said. "Like sitting on Jester so she can't throw any pinecones. Or maybe we could all sleep in one room closer to the door, like we do in the Tiny Hut, at least at first. Having individual rooms is nice -- that bigger bed was really   nice -- but if you want to recreate your childhood bedroom again, you should at least make sure it's in the protected part of the house."

This time, Caleb didn't even try to hide the wince. "How did you know?" he asked.

"I guessed," Caduceus admitted. "The size of the room was a tipoff. The proportions were all wrong for an adult human, but they made sense from the perspective of a young human. And you did say that you took pieces from other places you'd known to build the Mansion."

After a moment where Caleb could find nothing to say, Caduceus continued. "Was that part of the problem? Being back in your childhood bedroom again?"

"It vas -- it was nice at first," Caleb said in a low voice. "To see a part of my past that I will never otherwise see again. But I, I went to sleep, and I had a nightmare --"

Caduceus gave a satisfied, I-thought-so  sort of nod, then waved for Caleb to go on.

Caleb drew in a breath. "I woke up," he said, "and there was -- there was something   in the room with me, and nothing, nothing was supposed to get in. I knew then that something had gone very wrong. It was dark, none of my friends were there, I was still mostly asleep... I panicked."

"Of course," Caduceus murmured, barely audible. "Anyone would."

"I didn't know where I was," Caleb admitted. "I didn't know when   I was. For an instant... I thought I really was back in my childhood home, and that meant... that he   was coming." That his younger self was on his way, that he was coming to board up the doors and windows and murder them all. "And I suppose because, because I fucked up the spell, as soon as I  thought   he was there -- he was. And. Well. You saw the rest."

The conversation lapsed between them. Caleb fell back onto petting Frumpkin, finding reassurance in the steady rough texture of his fur. Frumpkin nudged up onto his thigh, half-climbing into his lap, and despite the dark memories Caleb still found himself smiling down at his familiar.

"I have to say, I think you're handling this whole experience remarkably well," Caduceus said unexpectedly, and Caleb shot him a look of astonished disbelief. Caduceus shrugged. "Not to say it hasn't left its marks, but your recovery has been remarkable. What happened to you, it would be enough to give anyone nightmares for months."

In honesty, he didn't remember very much of that day. Aside from the part he had related to Caduceus, most of the rest of the day -- after being dragged down out of the main level of the Mansion by his dark and twisted younger self -- the rest of the time had passed in a delirious haze of pain. Was that why the others were avoiding him? Not because they were angry or upset, but because they felt the need to walk on eggshells around him for fear of damaging him more? "Well, yes," Caleb said, "but the thing is -- the thing is that these nightmares are not, are not new for me. There was nothing in that mansion that did not already exist inside my head, that I had not dreamed or lived before. Being at the mercy of cruel men -- or cruel beings, men or not -- that is not new to me." 

He made himself raise his head for the next part because he wanted Caduceus to understand this, he wanted Caduceus to believe. "That is not new. But that anyone would come to my rescue, that they would come for me even when they didn't have to -- that is   new. And that is the part that I choose to remember, to take away from all this. Not the rest."

Caduceus smiled, that gentle ear-to-ear beaming smile that did as much to light up the room as the globe of sunlight. "Good," he said. "That's good. I'm really glad to hear that. And if a time comes when you aren't as okay as you want to be -- if you find it is   bothering you after all -- then we'll be here for that, too.

"I won't ask you to have faith in your friends, because I already know that you do," he said confidently. "Instead, trust us that if we trust you, we have good reason for it, and have a little more trust in yourself."

Caleb's breath caught, and the cheerful bedroom swam a little in vision suddenly blurred with tears. He nodded, throat too thick for speech, and Caduceus clapped his hands together and got to his feet. 

"Well, time to get going," he said cheerfully. "Tubers to weed, you know. Try that," and he nodded towards the plate, "when you feel up to it. I'll bring you more for dinner and if you want to talk more then, I'd be happy to listen."

" Ja,   thank you," Caleb managed to say, and Caduceus nodded at him before he let himself out.

Frumpkin was being warm and adorable on his lap, but eventually Caleb's rumbling stomach persuaded him to move the cat aside and reach for the covered dish. It was steaming less now, still warm but not too hot to set on his lap, and when he took the cover off he had to laugh. 

Caduceus had made him schupfnudeln.   Where he'd found the potatoes in Rosohna he had no idea; maybe the firbolg had grown them himself. That mattered less than the fact that Caduceus had remembered how much he'd loved the dish, and made an effort to get him for it again.

Caleb went back to his spellbook with a lighter heart. If he was going to be stuck here in bed for awhile longer, he might as well make the most of it; there was still so much to learn. For this spell alone there were so many variables, so many advanced thaumaturgic mechanics that he should have mastered before trying it the first time, and he resolved that he would not try it again until he was absolutely sure he could command them safely.

Still he found his hand straying to the blank reverse side of the page, scratching out squares on the paper and marking off rooms. Kitchen, training salle, baths, common room and bar would have to stay... Caduceus had said he really liked the larger beds, and Jester had asked for a pastry bar... but perhaps the upper level didn't need two   staircases. If he took out the left one, moved the bar -- yes, there would be space for another bedroom in the protected heart of the house, surrounded on all sides by the ones who cared for him... 

A little daydreaming never hurt anyone. He might as well think ahead, do a little planning for the shelter he would build for them all on their next sojourn.

 


 

~end.