Caleb tried to take a deep breath as soon as the golem let go of his throat, but found that the metal collar it had snapped onto him made it difficult to do so. Holding tightly onto Fjord, he ran through as many possibilities of what this thing could be as he could come up with. Electrocution. Magic dispelling. Tracking. It was probably tracking, given that the collar itself was more uncomfortable than truly painful.
Fjord has managed to get them onto the large gear, and he could see the others on the other side, Jester in her giant owl form hovering to the side. He was weak; the poison had taken so much out of him. He needed to get away from this golem before it killed him. Pulling a cocoon out of one of his pockets, he leapt from Fjord’s towards the void, casting Polymorph as he jumped. Or, he would have, if the words had come out.
Magic dispelling, he realized as he began to fall. But before he had a chance to process this, a taloned foot was grabbing him. He looked around and saw Jester catch Fjord in her other foot.
As she flew them, he tried to come up with a plan. He could not cast any spells. That was… not great, but as long as he could warn the others to avoid the clawed hand, they should be fine. Obviously, it would be much better if he could cast, but he still should be able to use his intellect to help the group.
It would be fine.
Once Jester had dropped them off, Fjord ran to the opposite end of the island to investigate something. He put his hand up to his mouth, ready to call out: “Fjord, make sure you do not get a collar on you or else you will not be able to cast,” but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out.
No. No no no no no no no no no no no. Scheiße. This could not be real. This couldn’t be happening. Oh no. Oh no no no. He needed to get this off now. He needed to get this off now. Fumbling through his pockets, his fingers brushed against the edge of his Transmuter Stone.
He pulled it out of his pocket and began bashing the stone against the metal around his neck. He has to get this off. He has to be able to talk. He has to be able to help. He has to be useful.
“Caleb, what are you- oh my gods,” Fjord was by his side, wide eyes staring at him in horror.
“Caleb, please don’t hurt yourself. That’s not going to get it off. Here, let me help.”
Fjord held out his hand as if to summon his sword, but nothing happened. Caleb couldn’t help but notice the blue light surrounding them.
“Shit,” Fjord mumbled, “No, no, no, no, you don’t! Give that here!”
The stone, which he’d been lifting up to strike again with, was now being wrestled for. How could Fjord not understand? He needed to get this off now.
“Caleb, please, just calm down for one minute. When Nott gets here, she can get it off of you. But what you’re trying to do right now isn’t helping anyone. You’re just going to get yourself hurt.”
He was already hurt. He was hurt and embarrassed and ashamed and fucking terrified. But Fjord was right. If anyone could get it off, it would be Nott. He just had to wait for her, and then it would be fine.
With as deep of a breath as he could take, he slid the stone back into his pocket. Fjord gave him a clap on the shoulder, a grim attempt at a smile on his face.
“Just stay alive until we can get away from this thing, okay?”
He nodded. He had to stay out of the way and wait. He had to wait until Nott got here because she would be able to save him. She would get rid of this and she would save him and then everything would be fine and he would be fine and…
Fjord was watching him, concern in his eyes. Caleb did his best to give a comforting nod, which Fjord replicated before running to the edge of the floating island, whip in hand.
Caleb stood there watching, waiting, trying to keep his hands from shaking as the others tried to stop this golem. If only he could do something, anything. But as it was, he couldn’t even summon Frumpkin to help calm his nerves. When he saw his moment, after Caduceus had forcefully shut it down, he dragged Nott through the door.
“Cay, what the fuck, why did we-“ Nott stopped mid sentence, staring up at him. “Cay, what is that?”
He opened his mouth, trying to gesticulate the sound that should be coming out of his throat. Nott frowned.
“Oh, Caleb,” she whispered fondly, “Don’t worry, we’ll get this off in no time.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, and he obediently knelt down so she could reach the collar, trying to think of anything except how much this whole situation reminded him of the harness from the City of Beasts and the humiliation he had felt that day.
But despite his growing panic and humiliation, a small bubble of relief rose in his chest as he watched Nott pull out her thieves’ tools. If anyone could get him out of this, it was her.
So when she fumbled slightly, it was doubly shocking to him, since he had not expected the mistake or the surge of electricity that went through his body moments afterward.
Electricity coursed through his veins, not unlike the mites in the garden but feeling so, so much worse. He felt the tear in his throat as he screamed without sound coming out. He must have blacked out for a moment, because the next thing he knew, he was on the floor in the fetal position, tears streaming down his face.
“Caleb?” It was Jester’s voice that he heard first.
“What’s wrong with him?” And that was Beauregard.
He felt a tiny hand squeeze his. Nott.
“I’ve never seen anything like this… Caleb, can you sit up, please?” she asked. And he obeyed, forcing himself to face his friends, who were all staring at him in horror.
“What the fuck?”
“When did that-“
“Oh, Caleb, I-“
“We need to get out of here. Fast-“
“Can you get it off?”
“I tried,” Nott explained, “But- it hurt him. And he’s already so badly off, I don’t think I can risk trying again.”
“Hurt him how?” Caduceus asked.
“It shocked him… pretty badly,” Nott said, her sad eyes watching him.
Caleb looked away, unable to handle her pity. He didn’t need pity. He needed this thing off. He needed to be useful. He needed to be able to help. You might keep a broken tool around if it’s still functional but a tool that can’t do anything gets thrown away. He has to be useful. He has to be able to help.
“We probably won’t be able to do much healing today,” Caduceus said, “We might have to wait until tomorrow after we’ve rested.”
“Will that be alright, Caleb?” Fjord asked, “I mean, you’re already pretty quiet as is.”
Yes, yes, he was usually quiet. But that was because he didn’t want to attract attention. And, sure, there were plenty of times where the words were hard. There were days he barely spoke outside of spells. But that was his choice. It might be difficult, but he could force the words out if he needed to. But this? Speaking, and yet no words being spoken? Screaming, and yet no one hearing a sound?
He felt every pair of eyes on him as the tears began to fall even faster than they already had been. He recognized what was happening as it happened. He had had panic attacks before; he had hyperventilated before. Was it better or worse to hyperventilate without hearing it? Worse, he decided, as the silence only served to make him feel like he was being pulled out of his body more than he normally did in situations like this.
“Hey,” Beauregard was inches from his face, “Hey, can you breathe with me?”
She grabbed his trembling hand, placing it against her clavicle. He felt her heart thumping loudly against her chest.
“Come on, man, breathe with me.”
He closed his eyes, listening to the gentle, purposeful way in which she breathed.
“Yeah, that’s it,” she whispered, “Yeah, let’s count this shit out. Inhale one, two, three. Exhale one, two, three. Yeah, that’s it.”
It took a long time, longer than it should have, for his breathing to regulate. When it did, he looked up to see Beauregard smiling at him.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked.
He shrugged. Beauregard squeezed his hand before walking away. Now he could see the others all watching him nervously.
“Hey, Caleb, can I talk to you for a minute?” Jester took a step forward, offering her hand. He took it, allowing the small blue tiefling to drag him to his feet. She led him away from the group, into a corner, and he followed.
“I’m gonna heal you up a bit, okay, Caleb?” she asked, biting her lip.
He nodded, and soon he was surrounded by the familiar, cinnamon scented green glow of her magic. She smiled, looking up at him.
“There, now you look a little better,” she said with a weak giggle, reaching up on her tiptoes to wipe away tears he hadn’t realized he’d been crying.
“You’re doing so good, Caleb,” she whispered, gently brushing a strand of hair out of his face, “You are so strong, and I’m so sorry that this is happening to you, but we’re going to get you through this, okay?”
He nodded, looking away from her to wipe his eyes. Jester smiled at him.
“Would you like a hug?”
He nodded, one deliberate one then followed by a series of weak, frantic ones as she pulled him close. Though she was small in stature, she squeezed him tightly against her. He could feel her chest rising and falling, smell the cinnamon of her magic as she healed him a little more with her embrace.
“We’re going to fix this,” she said, holding his hands the same way she had after Essek had left that one day, “We’re gonna fix this, and it’ll be all over as soon as we possibly…Just… you’re gonna need to trust us- and you’re so good at that already, Caleb. But you’re gonna need to trust us to protect you, to take care of you, okay?”
He nodded, blinking rapidly to hold back more tears. He did not deserve this. He did not deserve her, or any of them, for that matter. But the knowledge that they were not giving up on him yet was more comforting than words could explain, even if he could speak.
Jester seemed to understand, smiling and squeezing his hands before walking back towards the group. He followed right behind, as close as he could get.
That was a good idea, it seemed, since the next several minutes were pure chaos. Looking back, he would probably be able to remember a clear order of events that led to this. But now, all he knew was that he had ended up behind Jester as they tried to fight the golem from a distance. Beauregard was up in front, alone, trying to punch the shit out of it. And despite how well she was doing, she was getting hurt.
Jester glanced between Beauregard, the golem, and him.
“Caduceus, take care of him!” she shouted, rushing to the front.
Caleb opened his mouth to call out a warning, but remembered. Caduceus ran over to him, worry evident in his face. Not that Caleb could blame him. Things were not looking good.
Wasn’t there anything he could do? He had to have spells that didn’t have a verbal component. He began racking his brain. Verbal, somatic. Verbal, somatic, material.
He had to come up with something. He had to do something. He needed to help. He needed to be useful. There had to be something he could do, some way he could be useful.
Friends. Catapult. Counterspell.
Those were the spells he knew without a verbal component, and he only had one prepared. And it wasn’t like Counterspell would be useful against something that wasn’t casting.
“Let’s see what that does,” Caduceus muttered, pointing to the ballista. They ran over to one, and Caleb immediately recognized the sigils: ice, fire, lightning, acid, poison. Any wizard worth their salt would recognize those symbols.
Caduceus pressed the button for ice, freezing the golem but also Beauregard and Jester. But the golem did take some damage.
From the corner of his eye, Caleb saw Nott climb into the other ballista and also shoot out. Beauregard cried out as she was also hit by ice.
They needed to find something that wasn’t an area affect. Fire? No, fire was always an area affect. Acid, yes that was it. Acid would work.
Unfortunately, Caduceus pressed the lightning button instead.
“Ow, fuck!” Beau shouted.
Acid. Acid. Acid. The answer was acid. But how could he tell Caduceus?
He began tapping on Caduceus’ shoulder furiously, but Caduceus didn’t seem to notice. He was staring at the sigils in utter confusion.
Acid. Acid. Acid. Acid. Acid. He needed to get Caduceus to understand which one was acid.
He started pounding on the side of the ballista, the sound of metal clanging echoing throughout the chamber.
Finally, Caduceus turned to him.
“Mr. Caleb, what’s-“
The moment Caduceus looked away from the controls, Caleb yanked on the acid lever. A line of acid sprayed directly at the golem, slowly eating away at the metal and stone.
“Huh,” Caduceus said after a moment, “Okay, then. Do you wanna steer this thing?”
Caleb nodded, feeling rather like a child as he clambered up on top of Caduceus. It was a tight squeeze and he had no idea why the firbolg hadn’t just gotten up, but the setup would work. Caleb reset the lever and pulled it again, spraying more acid at the thing. Seconds later, Fjord hit it with another eldritch blast.
From across the room, Nott sprayed acid from her ballista as well.
“I figured it out!” she cried, laughing maniacally, “Take that, fucker!”
The group began to wale on this golem. Jester’s spiritual lollipop whacking it upside the head. Beauregard punching and ripping out its wires. Fjord using his eldritch blasts to burn holes into the thing. And Caleb, Caduceus, and Nott spraying it with as much acid as they could. In the end, it was a particularly well-aimed spray from Nott that brought the golem down.
“Take that, you piece of shit!” she yelled at the heap of corroding metal.
Caleb, who was still at the back of the room stretching his legs, smiled at that.
“Should we… look around here for a bit?” Beauregard asked, glancing around, “I mean, I know we didn’t see a door, but there could still be some neat shit in here.”
“That… seems fair. We might find something that can help us later on in our… in our expedition, I suppose,” Caduceus said.
They spent a grand total of twelve minutes examining every inch of the room they could. In the end, they found no secret doors like Fjord had been hoping for. However, they had found two items: a rod and a circlet.
“Hey, Jes, check this out!” Beauregard shouted, waving the circlet in the air.
Caleb began to walk over, curiosity peaked, as Jester ran from across the room.
“Oh, it’s so pretty!”
Oh no. Caleb could guess where this was going. Jester was going to put on the circlet and end up with four eyes or go mad or die or some other horrible curse.
He had to stop it.
Feeling rather like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum, he began banging himself against the wall. Kicking and pounding at the stone while flailing about, as humiliating as it was, got their attention much faster than how he’d try to catch Caduceus’ attention. Immediately, all eyes were on him.
“Is everything okay, Caleb?” Beauregard asked, “I mean, no new developments?”
He panicked for a moment, not knowing how to convey everything he needed to get across. He settled for simply pointing at the circlet.
“You want it?” Beauregard asked.
He shook his head furiously.
“This is silly,” Jester said, walking to him, “You don’t have to mime everything. We can write it!”
She pulled out her sketchbook, delicately flipping to a blank page before handing it to him along with a pen and ink.
He sat down, this being a lot to hold, and Jester sat down right beside him.
It might be cursed , he scribbled before handing the sketchbook back to her. Jester read it carefully, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth, before pulling out some blue ink and beginning to write herself.
But it’s so pretty! Pretty things don’t get cursed.
He smiled to himself for a brief moment before scribbling his response.
Pretty things get cursed when someone wants a lot of people to get cursed. You might grow four extra eyes or something even worse.
Jester frowned at his response before writing back.
But what if it makes me look like a pretty princess?
You already do.
“Is everything alright over there?” Fjord called from across the room. Everyone was more or less watching them now, everything they needed to accomplish pretty much achieved.
“Yeah, Fjord, everything’s fine; we’re just talking about stuff!” Jester called before turning back to him and the book.
For a moment, Caleb remembered a very different type of note passing he had participated with many, many years ago. But then the sketchbook was back in his lap.
What should we do then?
Bring them, he wrote, I will identify them as soon as possible.
Jester nodded thoughtfully.
So, the sooner we sleep the better?
Yes, but we will not have the dome.
It’s weird to not have you say ja.
It is easier to translate when writing. I can take my time more.
That makes sense. Should we discuss this with the others?
Jester giggled before handing him the sketchbook and turning to face everyone else.
“Hey, you guys? Can we do like a huddle kind of thing maybe?”
Everyone made their way over.
“Okay, so Caleb says we should not mess with the rod or the circlet until he can use his Identify spell so nobody gets cursed,” she said.
“Makes sense,” Caduceus commented pleasantly.
“But he can’t do that until the thing is off of him right?” Fjord asked.
“Okay, so what we were thinking,” Jester said, begin to ramble slightly, “Is that maybe we sleep here cuz we’re pretty sure it’s safe and then, when we wake up, Nott can break the thingy and then Caleb can talk again! But we won’t have the dome and so I don’t know how anybody else feels about sleeping without it because, you know…”
The heavy silence of memories hung over the group and, for a moment, Caleb was not the only one cursed with silence.
Except for Caduceus, of course, who simply watched them all for a few long moments before speaking.
“I don’t think we’re going to find many places as safe as here while we’re in here,” he said, “If we have to sleep without the dome, I’d rather do it in here than somewhere more dangerous.”
“And I can stand guard,” Fjord offered, “I’m doing alright. I chugged a healing potion, so I can keep going for a while.”
“I don’t love it,” Nott said with a frown, “But I think it’s our best option.”
“Mr. Caleb, what do you think?” Caduceus asked.
Caleb scribbled his response into Jester’s sketchbook.
Every decision we make here is a high risk one. This is relatively lower than most of our other options, so I am for it.
He passed the book to Caduceus, who stared at the page for a moment.
“Yeah, uh, I can’t read that,” he said with a smile, handing the book back to a blushing Caleb. He gave a thumbs up instead.
Without all of Caleb’s rituals, there was very little to be done to get ready for a long rest. Jester conjured up a simple meal for them, and they ate in companionable silence before unfurling their bedrolls.
Caleb laid down beside Nott, wrapped around each other as always, and fell asleep almost instantly. He did not stay asleep, though, as dreams of screams and smoke jolted him awake. The first thing he noticed was the blue gleam of Fjord’s sword dancing across the ceiling. The second thing that he noticed was that he was completely surrounded on all sides by his friends.
Not that them all being huddled together in a giant heap was unusual. Cuddle piles were more or less the norm on the road. However, he was usually close to the edge of said pile, curled up with Nott close to his chest, facing the group. But, right now, he was sandwiched between Nott and Beauregard, with Caduceus laying next to Nott, his arm reaching so his arm was around Caleb. Jester’s face was next to his as she lay perpendicular to the rest of the group, sketchbook held tightly in her grasp.
He felt a surge of affection and gratitude towards them all, overwhelming all other thoughts he had. They cared. They were trying. Trying to protect him, someone who deserved none of their kindness. And yet, as he rolled onto his side, he was extremely grateful for them.
“Good morning, Caleb! Wakey wakey!”
Caleb groaned as he rolled over. Or, at least, he attempted to before remembering the stupid fucking collar.
“Come on, Caleb!” Jester said with a giggle, “It’s time to get up now. Caduceus and I already have our spells prepared, and Nott is ready to go whenever you are!”
Blinking blearily, he sat up. Everyone was sitting around in a loose circle, eating whatever fruits the clerics had conjured up.
“Morning, Mr. Caleb,” Caduceus greeted warmly.
“Hungry?” Beauregard asked, offering a tropical fruit. Smiling, he took it. Nibbling on the fruit, he watched as the others talked and ate.
“Alright, Caleb, you ready?” Nott asked, wiping juice on her dress.
He nodded eagerly.
“Now I’ve got a restoration ready to go-“ Caduceus said.
“Won’t need it,” Nott snapped, “This is gonna work and everything is gonna be fine. Cay, can you tilt your head up for me please?”
He did as he was told as Nott clambered up beside him. It took two minutes and twenty seven seconds, but eventually, the collar fell off of him.
“Did it work?” Fjord asked.
Caleb took a moment, studying each of his friends as they waited with bated breath, rubbing the chafed skin of his neck.
“I-I-I,” he said, barely above a whisper, “Ja.”
“Ja!” Jester cried, pumping the air with her fist, “Fuck yeah! You can talk again!”
“Danke, my friend,” he said to Nott, placing a kiss on her forehead as he pocketed the collar, “I am glad I will not continue on being useless anymore.”
“Useless?” Beauregard repeated in a way that a stranger would find casual, but Caleb recognized as meaning he was fucked.
“Ja, I mean, I am not… very helpful if I cannot cast spells or even tell you what time it is, no?”
There was silence, as the group all looked around at each other.
Why were they so uncomfortable? He was only telling the truth.
“We care about you for more than your functionality. You know that, don’t you, Mr. Caleb? You matter as a person to us, a talented person but a person. You’re not some asset we’ll throw away if you somehow aren’t being useful. You know that, right?” Caduceus asked, staring directly at him with those concerned eyes that somehow saw everything. He averted his eyes.
“Oh no, Caleb, you don’t think we would abandon you, do you?” Jester asked, a frown on her face, “We love you.”
Caleb felt his face go pink as he searched for anywhere to look but his friends’ faces. Dummkopf. It only made sense that the first thing he’d say after getting his voice back would be something wrong.
“Hey, man, this place is fucking hard,” Beauregard said, putting an arm around his shoulder, “I mean, Allura said it’s called the Archmage’s Bane. So like, I guess you’re an archmage, cuz it’s the bane of your existence.”
He gave her a weak smile.
“That’s not quite how that works, Beauregard,” he said, “But thank you.”
She leaned into him, making an awkward side hug. Caleb closed his eyes, allowing himself to enjoy the contact.
When they pulled apart, Nott was shaking her head at him.
“Was?” he asked defensively, “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” she said, “I was just thinking… for a genius, you really can be an idiot.”
Caleb chuckled at that.
“Ja, I think-I think that’s fair.”
At once, Beauregard, Jester, and Caduceus let out a high pitched “eh” sort of sound, sustaining it for the exact same amount of time before dropping it.
“You were, like, being turned into a weapon when you were a kid,” Beauregard said, “It makes sense that some of that… shit lingered, ya know?”
Caduceus nodded solemnly.
“Not all the scars we have are visible,” he said sagely.
“Welp,” Fjord said, glancing around the group awkwardly, “Should we get going?”
There was a general consensus of muttering as the group grabbed their things. As they began to walk towards the door, Caleb stopped.
“Um, Jester?” he asked quietly.
Instantly, she turned around, a smile on her face.
“Um, I-uh, thank you… for everything,” he said, feeling his cheeks go a little pink, “I was wondering if I could… if I could have another hug?”
Jester’s small smile turned into a grin as she wrapped her arms tightly around him. He barely had a moment to enjoy the sensation of her cool and comforting touch before another person joined in. And another. And another. And, if the clinging at his leg was to be believed, they had formed a true group hug. Caleb couldn’t help but smile to himself. Sure, it might get crowded and stuffy in a minute once they’d all been holding each other for a while…
But then he could just ask them to stop, and they’d listen.
They would always listen.