When he left his home that morning, Essek didn’t think the day would find him staring at the lifeless faces of the Mighty Nein. Of course, no one ever expected a day to end so horribly, but Essek was the Shadowhand to the Bright Queen. If anything of such consequence was going to happen, he would know. And yet…
The day started like any other. He wandered through the Lucid Bastion, content to spend his time doing his usual dunamantic research. There was nothing truly important to do. Just checking in on his ring of dynasty spies and keeping up with the whispered rumors of Rosohna. It was more of the same mundane news. Talk of the Empire withdrawing their forces here, strengthening them there was always what he looked out for, but even that was scarce. It was a rare time of tranquillity amongst the stresses of war. For once, Essek was allowed to dwell in the Conservatory and enjoy the quiet—
“Heyyyy Essek!” Jester’s voice blared through his thoughts, pushing away everything else until her message was the only thing he could focus on. “We’re baaaack! And we have so much to tell you. Meet us at the Xhorhaus for a surprise! You’ll love it, I swear!” After over a month of no contact (though he told them to keep in touch), he’d almost forgotten the overwhelming sensation of Jester Lavorre bounding into his head. As the feeling ebbed, Essek rubbed his temples.
With a heavy sigh, he utilized the time given to him to reply. “Hello, Jester. It is good to hear from you again. I’ll visit when I can.” It was an empty promise; he was going to drag his feet before getting there. While he was entertained by the Mighty Nein and found them all intriguing, especially that wizard of theirs, he was in no hurry to be tossed into the chaos of their small den.
He turned back to the book before him, flipping through page upon page of theoretical applications of dunamancy. The latest project under his belt was a spell that would—if developed correctly—allow someone to pass through their timeline on a larger scale than the Nodes of Possibility already granted. Hours, perhaps days could be rewritten. It would be a splendid subject to get lost in if Jester didn’t insist on messaging him again.
“Could you come soon, please? We have some important stuff to tell you. Like, really important Also, you can use more words for your reply!”
Essek took a deep breath, forcing down any annoyance, and shut his book. His focus would be elsewhere for the day apparently. “I am aware. I am also a busy man; I will come to your home when I am able.” It took a lot of effort to hold back the frustration that threatened to seep into his tone. Perhaps he was just running on a short fuse today. What with the growing pressures of the war and the Mighty Nein popping in after being away for so long, he was just tired. When the familiar feeling of an incoming message came yet again, his patience was pulled to its limits.
“ Shadowhand, we apprehended a member of the royal court accused of working against the interests of the Dynasty. She’s ready for questioning at your convenience.”
It was the voice of a guard from the Dungeon of Penance. Though the message held the promise of more stress for him, he was more apt to handle this matter. The Bright Queen gave him and other trusted advisors the task of rooting out the mole in their ranks weeks ago. Any possible leads were Luxon sent. It would also give him useful information to share with the Mighty Nein when he saw them.
It took too long to reach the Dungeon of Penance, but he eventually found himself winding through the halls and floors with practised ease. Cell after cell passed as he was led to the newest prisoner, and when he arrived he was not at all surprised by the person he found. Chadra Bilan, an assistant to Skysybil Abrianna Mirimm and a frequent face found amongst meetings of the royal court, glowered back at him. Her elegant drow features were marred by distaste, and there were long scratches running down her left cheek. It was a pitiful display.
Chadra Bilan wasn’t at the top of his list of suspected moles in the Dynasty, but she was certainly on it. There was always something about how she showed so much interest in meetings of strategy and planning. That combined with the way she climbed through the ranks in not only her den but the royal court was all a recipe for a truly ambitious spy.
“Did the Skysybil give you those scratches?” he asked as he drew closer to the bars between them. Never close enough to be touched, of course.
Chadra choked on a dry laugh, rubbing the raw skin of her cheek as if trying to wipe away the marks. It just streaked the dirt from the floor across her purple skin. “She said they would be a token to remember her by as I rot here.”
Well, he thought to himself, the Skysybil always had a vicious sort of vengeance . He preferred the quiet kind himself. “Was she the one who turned you in, then?” A nod. These were the harmless questions, the ones meant to poke holes in hard exteriors. Build rapport.
“Turned me in?” Chadra guffawed (though there was no humor in it). “She would have thrown me in this cell herself if they let her.”
“She must have caught you in the midst of something truly treacherous,” he said, casting the lead. Her shoulders slumped, and she pulled her knees closer to her chest. The line had been drawn; it was his job to slowly cross it. “Or is this some sort of mistake? Did she make up some wild conspiracy? If so, do tell; I could use a fanciful tale right now.”
“Then I’ll disappoint you,” she sighed, though it didn’t look like she would offer anything more than that. The words fostered some hope, though. He hated long and dull interrogations; if she was already budging, perhaps this would go quickly and he could make it to the Mighty Nein before the end of the day. If he did learn something, he’d be in a remarkably better mood.
Any eagerness was wiped from his tone when he spoke, “So she really did catch you.” It took a moment, but Chadra nodded. There was no explanation, and she still looked hesitant to offer one, but he could work with the little bit she’d given him. “Den Bilan stands to lose some of their good reputation when this comes to light,” he said. The words were only the truth, but there was an unmistakable edge to it. “They were so kind as to take you in, but that comes with… unfortunate consequences, doesn’t it?” The stony expression on her face didn’t break, but her right eye twitched. “See, I heard you had a little boy last Duscar. I wonder if Den Bilan will look on him so kindly now.”
Chadra sneered at him. “Do you find joy in this?”
Essek responded with the same easy and accommodating smile he always wore. “I take no pleasure in the suffering of others.”
Her eyes narrowed before she looked away. “I don’t believe you.”
Why should she? Essek didn’t mean it. At least, not fully. He wouldn’t be in his line of work if he didn’t find joy in what he did, but his satisfaction came from rooting out the corruption in his own land. To make it better.
“I could change things,” he offered. “I could convince Lord Bilan to keep the child and raise him up, in time, and I could curb the damage you’ve done to your Den’s name.” This was the true way to information. There was seldom success in torture, even if the Bright Queen preferred that method. People lied when they were faced to pain because they knew they would be safe until the lie was found out. And then the cycle continued. Offering them something for the truth? That was an option where everyone won.
And, just like they always did, Chandra lifted her gaze. Good, there was room for progress.
“I could do that… if you tell me exactly what happened and who your connections are. If you lie, and I’ll know if you do, I can take all that away.” He waited then, comfortable to sit in silence. Whoever broke first was at a disadvantage, and he never broke.
It took a moment, and he almost went to pull up a chair to settle in, but then she sighed. “You promise you’ll see him taken care of?” Essek nodded. “...Alright.”
And so the breaking began. He settled against a nearby wall, ready to act as an open ear. Chadra seemed to do the same; her gaze settled on her hands as they rung together. “The Skysybil caught me writing a letter about the intricacies of dunamancy to someone in the Cerberus Assembly.”
Essek’s blood ran cold in his veins. The iciness of dread hammered through his chest as the implications of that confession slammed into him. The Empire had always viewed dunamancy as the Dynasty’s mysterious brand of magic, and—as it aided them in so many of their military tactics—that was the Dynasty’s greatest boon. As much as Essek hated the Cerberus Assembly, despised their methods and dealings, he knew many among their ranks were gifted in the arcane. Some might even match the levels of Caleb Widogast. If they understood even the fundamentals… the possibilities were terrifying. “How much do they know?” Essek demanded though he was careful to hold back any hint of panic.
Perhaps it wasn’t good enough; there was the slightest smile on her thin lips. “Enough to figure everything out in time,” she said. “They were particularly interested in how dunamantic power could be drawn out of our Beacons.”
Essek bristled at that. The Beacon wasn’t just a tool; it was sacred. How on-brand of an organization like the Cerberus Assembly to be so callous with something worthy of deference. The rush of anger nearly distracted him from his next realization. His eyes narrowed at her. “You’re not a student of the arcane,” it wasn’t a question. He made a habit of knowing the name of every single magic-user who could be of importance; the very first things he would have learned about her when investigating her upon her introduction into the court was her status as a skilled arcanist. “Where did you find this information?”
That wiped away her smile. Instead, her expression turned grim. “I don’t know.”
“You handed over highly classified information to our enemies and you don’t even know how you obtained said information?” Essek challenged, and Chadra’s mouth opened and closed like a fish as she floundered for words. If she was going to give him excuses, he didn’t want to hear it. “May I remind you, if I don’t like the quality of the information you give me, your son will—“
“I know!” Chadra growled, practically lunging at him. “I’m telling the truth! There’s—there is someone who began to use Sending to speak with me, but I… I don’t know who they are.”
Though he’d hoped she was working alone, hoped this interrogation would mark the end of whatever link existed between spies in the Dynasty and the Empire, it was looking less like that with every second. “What does the voice sound like? What does it tell you?” he pushed.
“It sounds like a man. They’ve never introduced themselves, though so I can’t say for sure. It’s familiar too; I know I’ve spoken to them but I can never figure out who,” she explained. That all pointed to some sort of mind muddying spell; Essek could try to break it if he had time, or he could come back when it wore off. Something like that would have to be constantly recast with each new exposure to the person. “All I know is they’ll message me, and the next day all the information I need—books from the Conservatory, notes about dunamancy—are sitting on my desk.”
The genuinely clueless look on her face told Essek any more questions along that line would only lead to the same answers. Perhaps a different route, then. “Who in the Assembly receives the information?”
“Multiple people, almost never the same name,” she supplied.
“Do you remember any of them?” Even with just one name, he would have a lead on where to start. Perhaps Caleb and the Mighty Nein could give him information or contacts. Caleb, in particular, could have vital insight, though Essek knew he was uncomfortable talking about his past.
She thought to herself for a moment. “There was an Ikithon and… and a DeRogna. They showed up a few times.”
Two names he was marginally familiar with thanks to his own research and his conversations with Yeza Brenatto and the Mighty Nein. There was much more sleuthing to be done, though. If he wasn’t already set to see them, he was by then. Essek nodded. “There are other questions I’ll need to ask, but for now you can rest while I verify all of this.”
Chadra’s head tilted and her brows furrowed as she watched Essek turn to leave. “You’re not going to ask why I did it?”
He turned only enough to meet her eyes. “Everyone has their reasons. Greed, lust, power, love: I’m sure you’ve used whatever it is to make you feel better about why you’re sitting in that cell. I hope whatever warm and fuzzy feeling it gives you is enough to stave off the cold nights you’ll face here.” In his line of work, he quickly learned all the excuses were shit anyway. Leaving behind this prisoner would be as easy as passing a squashed bug on the street.
“Will I be killed?” The question stopped him again, mainly because there was a hint of fear in it.
Since a hopeless prisoner was close to useless, he said, “Perhaps. Perhaps not. There are rewards for offering credible information.”
Chadra nodded, a little too quickly, and scrambled to the bars of the cell as if to chase after him. Essek stepped back, further out of reach. “And my child?” she pressed, eyes searching his almost frantically for any sign of dishonesty when he answered. She wouldn’t find it.
“I’m a man of my word.” With that, he strode away from the cell, winding back through the distorted halls of the Dungeon of Penance. It was a relief to step into the fresh air again, but he barely had a chance to enjoy it when one of the guards inside the dungeon stepped out and flagged him down.
They bowed deeply, only rising when Essek insisted. “Shadowhand, the Bright Queen sent word to us while you were with the prisoner. She requires your presence for a sentencing at the Lucid Bastion,” they rushed out, almost too quick for Essek to understand. When he did process everything, it didn’t make any sense. He thanked the guard nevertheless and hurried to the Lucid Bastion.
The Cathedral of the Bright Queen was an imposing structure that usually commanded respect from onlookers, not gawking. Yet that was what Essek found as he approached. Those in uniform had to sweep aside the crowd gathered so Essek could enter; even then it was difficult, and Essek found himself dispelling his levitation spell so he could go faster. The thrum and murmur of voices sparked the embers of worry in his stomach, making it roil until it was unbearable. He didn’t even know what was going on, but none of it was encouraging.
He wandered through the heavy doors and into a throne room almost as full as the streets outside. No one stood on the main floor, but the Bright Queen sat high on her throne beset by the other four chairs. Essek caught the arm of an important-looking man passing by. “What’s going on?” he hissed.
The man looked just as confused as Essek felt (and Essek hated feeling confused). “No one seems to know.”
That didn’t bode well. Essek let him go and straightened his own mantle, slipping back into complete composure. It was a hard facade to keep as he glanced around at the puzzled faces. He ascended to the Bright Queen’s throne and bowed before her. “My Queen,” he greeted her, wanting to say more but not daring to.
“Shadowhand,” there was something clipped in the address, a rigidness Essek wasn’t accustomed to hearing when her attention was on him. “I trust you’re well.”
He took his seat in the chair to her right. “I am, though I’m a little confused. Was another spy caught?” It would be a miracle if that was the case; he wouldn’t have to do any digging at all and could go back to the matters he truly enjoyed even faster.
The Bright Queen’s expression gave away nothing; she stared straight ahead, her regal gaze burning through the heavy doors. “You could say that.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than those heavy doors of the room pushed open. A motley and bloody crew were ushered inside, looking not dissimilar to the first time they stepped through those doors. The Mighty Nein looked haggard and beaten, their only saving grace coming in Jester’s still beaming face. Whatever they encountered before arriving in Rosohna, it sapped them of whatever energy they had. They looked just as confused to be there as everyone else. The doors fell shut behind them.
Essek nodded to them, assuming they were there to bear witness to the sentencing too. Caleb managed a nod back, and Jester waved. Guards stepped into place in front of the doors, an eerie finality in their stiff stops. “Mighty Nein,” the Bright Queen began once they stood before her. “You’ve been brought here today under the accusation of conspiring to betray the Dynasty.”
The breath was ripped from Essek’s lungs fast enough to burn. His head snapped to the Bright Queen, stunned into terrifying silence as the realization of just who was going to be sentenced slammed into him. There were several beats of silence before the room erupted in chatter. Beau’s voice could barely be heard over the din, “What?”
Not faltering for a second, the Bright Queen straightened her posture and her voice boomed through the building, “Our attack on Rexxentrum was halted on good faith after we were informed of the complete situation, and yet you called the Dynasty your enemy .”
“My Queen, I’m sure—” Essek’s desperate interruption—his attempt to cut in with a voice of reason—was cut off by the severity of the Bright Queen’s glare. Beneath his mantle, he gripped his knees tightly. The fabric obscured his shaking hands, and he was thankful for that. He desperately hoped the Mighty Nein would have a chance to talk their way out of this, whatever this was.
“Beyond that already worrying display, you have been witnessed plotting a scheme that would see me and my closest advisors captured or assassinated.”
That was new information to Essek. The last he heard, the Mighty Nein was brokering a possible peace negotiation. He found it hard to believe their allegiances and goals would change so quickly given all the begging they did for a peaceful end to the war. Just as he thought, they all wore confused expressions aside from Caleb. The Empire Wizard was at the back of the crew, his hand clutched tightly by his little Goblin friend. There was dread and hopelessness written on his bruised and bloodied face.
Essek needed to do something, but even just looking at the Bright Queen earned him another chastising look. His mouth snapped shut and he prayed to the Luxon that this would all be revealed as the misunderstanding he knew it was. The room fell silent as Beau stepped closer to the base of the platform. Even as she spoke, the guards at the back of the Cathedral began to walk toward the Mighty Nein.
“Please, if you give us a chance to explain, we can clear this all up; we would never dream of betraying you. We even—”
The Bright Queen rose from her throne, her towering and graceful figure commanding respect and terror alike. Not even a whisper could be heard after she raised her slender right hand to halt Beau. Then came the words Essek feared. “I’m afraid you misunderstood what is happening here. This is not a trial, it is your sentencing.”
With a wave of her hand, chaos erupted. Several arrows were loosed from two of the guards in the back, all of them finding a home in Beau and Fjord’s necks. Essek stood, his veil of composure slipping into the horror he had tried to fight back. He watched, helpless, as the others in the group were tackled to the ground and their throats were torn into with cold and unforgiving blades. It was messy and gruesome and cruel for even the most cut-throat criminals. The sparkling tiles were bathed in dark blood. The entire court was suspended in silent disbelief.
A painful twist in his gut made him dizzy. Surely his mind was playing tricks on him. Surely this was all a dream and he was going to wake up to Jester’s cheerful messages blaring through his head. Yet, when he closed his eyes and opened them again, the Mighty Nein were still a crumpled, limp mess on the floor. No one was celebrating, though he knew there were several there who were prejudiced against the Nein. Everyone simply shuffled out of the Cathedral wordlessly. Essek was stuck in place.
Eventually, it was just him, the Bright Queen, and the guards who busied themselves with cleaning up the bodies and blood that would no doubt stain the Cathedral floors. He had so many questions; he clenched his fists beneath his robes and thought about asking why he was forced to watch this, why he wasn’t given the opportunity to convince her not to do it, or why she even thought it was a good idea in the first place. All that came was a quiet, “Why?”
The Bright Queen didn’t meet his eyes at first. She wandered to the pillar which held the replica of a Beacon and ran her hand over one smooth edge. “You heard everything I said; you know why they had to die,” she sighed. There was no sign of remorse on her face. Perhaps she was used to things like this after all her many years.
“You didn’t even give them a chance to explain.”
“They were playing us,” she said, frustration creeping into her words. “I couldn’t trust anything they might have said.”
“Or they were playing the Empire; saying what they needed to in order to be in their good graces again and glean more information,” he reasoned, though it fell on a closed mind.
She rounded on him, mire in her eyes. It should have been enough to make him back down, to take his leave and save himself from scolding. After what he’d witnessed, he was done biting his tongue. “Are you questioning my judgement, Shadowhand?” The provocation carried an edge. Before he could even consider his answer, she barrelled on, stepping toward him until he was covered in her gloomy shadow. “Am I one of your spies now? Must I answer to you? I received information from a source I trust and I acted in the way I saw fit. I thought you were level headed enough to trust in me, but I see now that I underestimated your affection for foreigners.”
The biting words snatched away whatever response laid on his tongue. A part of him wanted to curl inward and disappear under her critical gaze, but the other part still raged against the accusation. Affection ? That wasn’t what this was about. The Mighty Nein were innocent, he knew they had to be, and he was just upset by the injustice of their deaths. They were good assets too, and so much more could have been done with them. They already recovered one Beacon and Caleb Widogast had been a gifted arcanist full of potential.
And the Bright Queen threw it all away on the word of… of— “Who told you they betrayed us?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You are in no position to question me any more than you already have.” Without a second glance, she turned on her heels and went to exit the Cathedral. As she went, she called back, “The house Den Thelyss granted them will return to your possession; anything within it is yours.”
Essek was left in the Cathedral, looking down at where the bodies of Nott and Caleb hadn’t yet been cleared away. Caleb’s cat familiar butted their head against the lifeless wizard’s cheek. The world was quiet.
The Xhorhaus—gods, he hated that name—stood mournful and still amongst the noisy neighbourhood. Essek remembered standing in this very spot before, looking up at the gigantic tree as Jester and Caduceus strung enchanted lights along its stretching trunk. Now, he held Frumpkin in his arms as he watched a team of workers, hired by Den Thelyss’ Den Mother, begin the process of tearing that tree down. He tried to tell her that was a mistake; if nothing else, it would have increased the value of the house since everyone in the neighbourhood was jealous of it.
Eventually, he would need to go inside and sort through everything within. For some reason, he dreaded hearing the chimes on the door. He didn’t want to wander through the halls without first being ushered in by Beau’s attempts at hospitality. Even walking through their meagre library, a place he actually enjoyed, sounded awful. It wasn’t going to be the same without them. Essek was going to…
He was going to miss them.
The realization slammed into him like a runaway Moorbounder. It twisted around in his chest until the only thing he could focus on was the spreading feeling of despair. As much as he loathed to admit it, life before the Mighty Nein came crashing into the Dynasty wasn’t nearly as fun. He enjoyed their obnoxiousness as much as it annoyed them, and he liked finding a kindred spirit in Caleb. Damn them and their constant efforts to get closer. In his world of political intrigue, there was no room for friends and yet they just kept pushing until their roots in him were as deep as the Xhorhaus tree’s.
In his arms, Frumpkin let out a truly pitiful meow. Essek looked down at the fey creature and saw his own sadness reflected back at him. He hated feeling helpless; usually, there was something he could do, but the Mighty Nein were dead and there was no rewriting that. Frumpkin meowed again, and with the noise came the obvious revelation. Time was his speciality. If anyone could find a way to change the past, it was him.
He got back to his home in record time. The servants who greeted him were surprised to see Frumpkin, but they didn’t ask any questions as he handed one of them his heavy mantle before locking himself in his study. It would take all night, but he was determined to figure out the mechanics before it was too late to go back. At least he had the advantage of working off some of his past research. He poured over his notes, scouring them for anything useful.
The breakthrough came in the wee hours of the night (though it was virtually always night in Xhorhas). Though drow didn’t need sleep, he found himself longing to enter a trance to replenish his energy. There was no time. In his tired mind, he managed to slot together the last few pieces of the complicated spell’s puzzle. It was a work of beauty and desperation, and he held all the answers in the simple book before him.
Later, he might question why it was so easy to accept the possibility of throwing everything away—his life, his career, his kingdom—but at that moment he had only one goal. The Mighty Nein needed to be saved. He threw a handful of the gold dust in the air, traced the complicated ruins in the air, and said a prayer to the Luxon as Frumpkin watched him from a nearby chair. For a second, it looked as though it didn’t work. Then, like the gold dust that fluttered to the ground rose into the air again.
Things in the room began to shift. Frumpkin disappeared, and the books he drew from the shelves returned to their places. At one point, a servant entered the room backwards. He almost told them to leave, but the command stuck in his throat when he saw the odd way they walked. It was as if they were entering the room in reverse. Their movements were sped up to impossible speeds as they puttered around, cleaning the disorder in the room (or they uncleaned everything). They left eventually and Essek was surprised when he saw himself stroll into the room in much the same way. The jerking manner of walking ended with himself sitting in his large chair, settling in for his trance.
Watching time go in the wrong direction wasn’t so odd. Essek was used to bending the elements of time to his will with his other spells. This was simply an extension of it. Though, he would admit it was strange to watch himself look so peaceful. He stepped closer to himself (a self younger than him by a day), drawn closer by the dunamancy that connected the two timelines in which he existed. The second he reached out and touched his own arm, the world was yanked into utter blackness.