Chapter 1: Attempt 0
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.
Chapter 2: Attempt 1
Essek tries again, this time carrying some trauma with him.
It's sad boi hours for Essek.
He opened his eyes with a gasp. Around him was his study, but he saw it from his chair. There were no longer two Esseks in the room. The only things that remained from the future timeline were the memories Essek had.
“It worked,” he whispered to himself, not believing it at first. Of course, he never doubted his own abilities, but this… this was another level. Laughter bubbled out of him as relief flooded his system. “It worked!”
Reinvigorated and holding enough hope in his body to take on the world, Essek practically jumped out of his chair. He felt younger, as if he was in his first century again and discovering the wonders of dunamancy all over again. With a deep breath, he steadied himself and thought over everything that had to be done. First, he had to see the Mighty Nein and speak with them about their travels; he needed to know their side of the story. Then he would explain everything to the Bright Queen. She would understand. She had to understand.
It took all his effort to not rush to the Xhorhaus right away. He didn’t know when they arrived the day before. Instead, he tried to retrace his steps and waited for Jester’s message. Sitting through conversations he’d already heard before was exhausting, but he managed to keep the appearance of interest. Better not to offend anyone; for them, this was their first time speaking to him. Still, he counted the minutes until it was over and he was seated in the Conservatory, flipping through books.
“Heyyyy Essek! 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!”
Jester’s voice came through more gently now that Essek expected it. Instead of the annoyance he felt before, there was only relief. He was already closing his books and putting them away as he answered. “Hello, Jester. I will be by soon; I’m in the area so it won't take me long.” Then, as he remembered the bloody state they were in when they entered the Cathedral, he added, “I hope you all are well.”
There was no answer, but Essek preferred that. It was better if she saved her energy for other spells in case they were needed. He suspected they didn’t fight back in the Cathedral because they didn’t have the strength or energy. Hopefully, they wouldn’t need to worry about that this time around.
On his way there he received the message about the prisoner and told the guard he’d be there eventually. He put more speed into his levitation spell than usual. It got him there ten minutes faster than usual, and he was glad he was no longer being accompanied by guards. However, there was a collection of guards standing outside the Xhorhaus. Most likely the ones meant to take them to the Cathedral. He nodded to them before he entered the home.
Those ridiculous chimes alerted the entire house to his presence, and Caduceus poked his head into the main entryway. “Hey, Essek,” he said in that easy way of his, words drawn out with a kind and knowing smile. “Everyone’s upstairs in the war room; I’ll be up with some tea in a moment.” The Firbolg was as bloodied and bruised as the day before but his calm content and enduring friendliness were still there.
Essek nodded, though he really just wanted to greet the others and get down to the business of finding out how he could save their lives. “Thank you,” he said, moving toward the hallway that leads to the stairs.
“Would you like a cup?” Caduceus asked as he passed. “It’s a special blend: the Runetrees.”
It was tempting to decline as he did so often, but he was probably going to be there for a while and he was a little parched. So, with a slight cock of his head, he sent Caduceus a smile of his own. “Sure, I would love a cup.”
Though he didn’t expect it to cause any trouble, Caduceus gave him an odd look between confusion and inquisition. It was soon pushed aside by another smile and a happy, “Alright.”
Choosing not to dwell on that odd look, Essek climbed the stairs. He could hear the quiet chatter of voices coming from what they called the ‘War Room’. Beau’s abrasive tone rose above the others before everything got suspiciously quiet. He stepped through the doorway just to see them gathered in front of something on the large table. All of them wore expressions of giddiness, a stark contrast to how they appeared in the throne room (though they still looked in bad shape).
“Essek!” Jester shouted the embodiment of pure sunshine as always. “Are you ready? You’re going to really like it!”
Now his curiosity was beyond piqued; he nodded, drawing closer. Only to be stopped in his tracks when they all stepped aside with Jester’s shout of “ta-da”. A Beacon. Bless the Luxon, they had a Beacon sitting on their table. His mouth practically hung open: he knew they were capable of finding more, but it still amazed him.
“This…” he trailed off, too stunned to form proper words for a second. “This is what you were going to show me?” He was sure he sounded more than a little devastated. If only he had spoken to them the other day; it would have changed everything.
“We’ve broken Essek,” Beau whispered to Fjord when Essek went quiet again, still trying to work through the shock.
“Essek?” Jester prodded, a little nervous now. Surprising himself and everyone else, Essek wrapped her in a hug. They’d just solved all the problems they didn’t know they had. He wouldn’t have to watch them die again.
It wasn’t a long hug, but Jester and everyone else still looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Well done,” he said, his smile soft and more sincere than it’d been in a while as he released her. “I consider this a favor well returned; you’ve brought great honor to Den Thelyss and to me.” Their stunned expressions slowly slipped into pride. That was good; they deserved to be proud of themselves. Not just anyone could recover and return and Beacon, and this was the second time they’d done it.
“It wasn’t easy getting ahold of it,” Fjord huffed. “Caleb nearly died.”
Essek’s smile dipped, and he looked at the faces staring back at him. Caleb wasn’t there, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed before. “Oh,” he mumbled. Was there a dark patch of blood over his chest at the Cathedral or was Essek’s mind fooling him? “I’m sorry to hear that. Is he alright? Are all of you alright?”
“Yeah, he’s chilling down in the library,” Beau said. “We’re just tired, you know?”
“Well,” he sighed, trying to push away his worry and coax back his easy smile from before, “I’ll want to hear all about what happened.” His eyes caught on the back of the room, where their Aasimar friend was sharpening her sword. He remembered seeing her amongst them at the Cathedral, but the circumstances made her presence hard to process. When she looked up and smiled at him, he added, “Welcome back; your friends have missed you greatly.”
Whatever response she might’ve given was cut off by Jester’s teasing. “And what about you, Essek? Did you miss us?”
Thankfully, he was saved from having to answer and reveal too much of his own relief when Caduceus ducked into the room with his arms filled with cups. Essek used his full mug to hide his face. The tea was a delightful distraction. He sipped until he was sure everyone forgot the line of conversation they’d been on. As he set it on the table, he looked over them again.
Almost the entire left side of Beau’s face was coated in dried blood, and her right eye was swollen shut. Though most of them looked like they’d been healed, they wore blood on their faces and clothes all the same. Out of everyone there, Nott seemed to be the least damaged, though it looked like part of her hair had been singed. That wouldn’t do at all. “Would you like me to clean you all up before we discuss everything? I’m sure you’ll want to look your best when you return this,” he gestured to the Beacon, “to the Bright Queen.”
“Could you do that?” Beaud wondered as Jester tacked on an excited, “That’d be great!”
With a wave of his hand, he cast Prestidigitation on each of them until the only evidence of whatever fight they encountered was their torn clothes and tired eyes. “Now then,” he began, “what happened?”
“The fucking Assembly happened,” Beau scoffed. “I mean, we all knew they were assholes, but damn .”
“They beat us up real bad,” Jester cringed. “I’m pretty sure they hate us now.”
“To be fair, a lot of people hate us,” Fjord said, veering further from the matter at hand.
After a beat of silence where they all wore different reactions (Jester looked offended at the thought of lots of people hating her), Beau cleared her throat. “Anyway, we went to Rexxentrum because that’s where some shit was going down with the Angel of Irons cult—”
“Yes, I was informed of your whereabouts,” Essek nodded, gesturing for her to skip that part of the explanation. “An Arcanist from Tal'Dorei—”
“Allura!” Jester shouted, absolutely endeared.
After a small sigh, Essek smiled at her, “Yes. She negotiated the ceasefire while you all dealt with the cult. I heard it went well, and then you all were propositioned by the Empire to carry out a peace talk with the Dynasty. My confusion comes from what happened after that.”
Beau had no trouble picking up from that point. “Well, they wanted to use the Beacon they had as a bargaining chip.” Essek’s eyes travelled to the Beacon on the table, a silent question on his tongue. “Oh, no, that’s a different one. You see, the Assembly showed us the Beacon they uncovered through some excavation, and I did some research just to see if that checked out—”
“It did,” Nott supplied, just for clarity.
“Yeah, but we remembered that they definitely had a Beacon in Felderwin. You know, before the Dynasty snatched Nott’s husband; they were experimenting with it, and we had our Beacon by then, so it had to be a different one.” Beau took a deep breath and smacked her hand down on the Beacon. The thwap echoed through the room. “We think this one is the one from Felderwin.”
“You’re saying there’s another ?” The news just kept getting better. There was no way anyone could question their allegiance after this; if they weren’t rewarded in their weight in platinum, there would be no justice in Exandria.
Fjord nodded. “That’s the one they’re hoping to negotiate with.”
“And negotiations are still an option even after you took this?” Essek asked as he gestured to the Beacon, still eyeing where Beau’s hand tapped against one of its smooth edges. He couldn’t imagine the Empire would view them as worthy moderators if they ‘stole’ what they were supposed to trade.
“That’s the best part,” Jester whispered conspiratorially. “The Empire didn’t even know this one existed.” Her triumphant grin was probably a response to the genuinely shocked expression that took over Essek’s face. Sure, the Assembly were notorious liars and spies, but this was beyond even Essek’s imagination.
“That means,” he began, connecting the dots as he spoke, “The Assembly can’t accuse you of taking it without incriminating themselves.”
“We’re geniuses, aren’t we?” Beau prodded, that shit-eating grin of hers popping up. “It’s alright, you can say it.”
If this was in the last timeline, he might’ve rolled his eyes. Here, he just shook his head with that same smile. “It’s certainly impressive. I shall never underestimate you again.”
That was victory enough; Beau held up a hand for a high-five that Fjord and Jester both met. Essek shook his head with the smallest of chuckles before he drank the rest of the cooled tea in his cup and straightened his mantle. “Now, I believe the Bright Queen intends to call you all to the Cathedral later today. It is imperative that you bring the Beacon with you and present it to her and everyone in the court as soon as you arrive.” He looked at their tattered clothes. “Try to clean up a little more before then.”
“And now he’s back to patronizing,” Beau grumbled. There was only faux annoyance behind the words, and even that broke away when she added, “It’s good to be back.”
And they were back in more ways than they knew. Essek nodded once again before offering them a bow and floating out of the room. If he headed straight to the Dungeon of Penance, he would still be able to question Chadra again (and possibly gain new information). It would be a tight squeeze into the already busy day, but it wasn’t too far.
The shout came from the open door of the library just as Essek reached the door of the entryway. Caleb’s unmistakably thick accent filled the silence then, muttering more curses. Though the man probably wanted his space after whatever he endured in the Empire, Essek couldn’t help but be curious. He floated to the door of the library.
Caleb was hunched over his ink-covered spellbook as he dabbed furiously at the ruined pages. His red hair fell in disarray; it obscured his face just like his bulky coat obscured most of his body. That didn’t stop the wounds from peaking through; there was definitely blood on his chest and soaked into his sleeves. It was a worrying sight. Though he was sure Caleb was healed under that coat, the reminder of those wounds was ever-present.
Essek waved his hand and the ink pulled away from the page, leaving it just as pristine as it was before the paper was ruined. The careful scrawl of Caleb’s handwriting could be seen at the very top. With a surprised little sound, Caleb’s gaze snapped up to meet Essek’s. The surprise only lasted for a second before a relieved smile swiped it away. “Ah, Essek,” Caleb said, his voice soft and low. “Thank you; you’ve saved me quite a bit of coin with that.”
Though Essek smiled, it didn’t quite reach his eyes. The moment Caleb looked up at him, Essek was reminded of those bright blue eyes turning cold and blue. An unpleasant chill ran down his spine and tingled the tips of his fingers. There was an overwhelming urge to touch Caleb, to make sure he was really alive and well, but Essek managed to push that down and cleared his throat. “I could clean away the blood as well,” he said, gesturing to… well, Caleb.
The responding humble smile was predictable; it was small and shy like it always tended to be in Essek’s presence. “You don’t need to waste your energy on me—“
“It’s not a waste.” And it wasn’t. Call him selfish, but he wanted the Mighty Nein to show up to the Cathedral looking prim and proper. He wanted everyone to look on them with respect as they brought back another Beacon. It would reflect well on Den Thelyss. It would reflect well on Essek.
Caleb’s mouth fell open, though, as if Essek revealed more than that. Then, with the same shy smile slipping back into place, he said, “Well, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course.” It was easy as another wave of his hand. As soon as the blood was wiped from Caleb and his clothing, it was like a weight was lifted from his shoulders. He slipped into one of the chairs in the library with a small sigh.
“Thank you,” he said eventually, words soft and quieter than usual. One of his hands rubbed over the parts of his forearms where Essek knew scars laid beneath the heavy coat. It was rude to stare. His gaze lingered there nevertheless.
After a moment of consideration, he stepped onto uneven ground as he spoke. “Beau said you fought with the Cerberus Assembly,” from the way Caleb immediately tensed again, Essek knew he was right to be cautious. “Are you alright?”
It took a moment, but the tense line of his shoulders slumped again, and he let out a small, almost defeated sigh before he met Essek’s eyes again. “Perhaps not, but I will be.”
Essek didn’t like the way Caleb’s eyes looked then. Usually, they were bright blue, lit up with eagerness to learn and grow. Now they were dull. Distant. When Essek saw him in the Cathedral, he assumed the change was just because he—like the others in the Mighty Nein—was just worn out from a grisly fight. He wasn’t so sure.
There were things Essek wanted to say, something that might lift the heavy weight on Caleb’s shoulders, but it all fell short. It’s not my place , he told himself. Surely the Mighty Nein were close enough to see each other’s discomfort and the others would care for Caleb better than Essek ever could. They hardly knew anything about each other. It would be silly to ask Caleb to unload his cares and worries now. That didn’t stop Essek from wanting to stay and pry.
“I’ll let you rest; take care,” Essek allowed himself to say, only the slightest hint of worry in the words. If Caleb caught it, he hid his reaction well. Essek left him, cleaner but just as troubled, and stepped out of the Xhorhaus with more hope than he had when he entered.
The interrogation went exactly as it went before, and Essek was almost giddy when the guard stopped him and told him to go to the Cathedral. There was still a crowd when he relieved, and the court was alive with chatter. This time, Essek didn’t need to waste time asking anyone what was going on. He climbed the steps to the Bright Queen and stopped to bow before her just like before. “My Queen,” he greeted.
“Shadowhand,” she said in return. “I trust you’re well.”
The repetition was maddening but necessary. It would end differently this time. All he had to do was gently nudge this timeline. He smiled warmly at the Bright Queen. “I am; I spoke with the Mighty Nein earlier today and they’ve brought wonderful news with them.”
Her jaw clenched. Not convinced now, perhaps, but he was sure that would change. It had to change. He took his seat even though she didn’t answer, this time fidgeting beneath the cover of his mantle because of excitement instead of nervous anticipation.
The Mighty Nein came in just like they had before (though considerably cleaner this time), and Caleb held a bulky bag in one of his hands. How fitting that he would be the one presenting yet another Beacon. A sense of pride swelled in Essek; these were his wards, and they were twice the heroes of the Dynasty. Perhaps he had no influence over their accomplishments, but he’d helped them, hadn’t he?
“Mighty Nein,” the Bright Queen began. Essek held his breath. “The Shadowhand tells me you’ve arrived with good news.”
There was a pause as the Mighty Nein turned their eyes to him, and Essek nodded. Beau and Caleb stepped up together, children of the Empire and saviors of the Dynasty. “Yes,” Beau said, “We’ve brought you another Beacon, and the possibility of obtaining another.” As she said it, Caleb freed the Beacon from the pink haversack in his hands.
Gasps rang through the Cathedral. Even the Bright Queen leaned forward in her throne, eyes wide. Her eyes wandered to someone Essek couldn’t find amongst the crowd, and whatever surprise was there seemed to fade away. “I see,” the words were measured, careful. With an artful crook of her finger, she drew on of the guards closer and whispered in their ear.
With a stiff back, the guard’s voice boomed through the hushed Cathedral, “The Bright Queen wishes to celebrate this joyous return amongst her closest council and the heroes of the Dynasty.”
The message was clear; it was time for everyone else to leave. Like the dutiful subjects they were, everyone who wasn’t up at the front—like Essek, the Skysybil, and the Queen’s General—filed out of the Cathedral. It was an odd gesture, not at all like the first time the Mighty Nein brought them a Beacon, but Essek pushed aside his doubts. She simply wanted to thank them more personally, he reasoned.
When her eyes turned to Essek, the gaze was just soft enough to foster hope. “Shadowhand,” she said, voice lilting and commanding all at once, “Retrieve the Beacon, please.”
He didn’t have to be told twice. With the swish of his mantle’s hem, he stood and descended to meet Caleb halfway. The Empire wizard still bore dark and heavy bag under his blue eyes, but he smiled at Essek as he passed over the Beacon. Their hands brushed as Essek took it; it was all too easy to return that smile, drunk on pride and relief that they were still alive. “Well done, my friend,” he whispered, enjoying the way that sparkle returned to Caleb’s eye for just a moment.
He climbed the stairs again, this time with the Beacon cradled in his arms. With his lingering smile, he looked to the Bright Queen. And watched with horror as she waved her hand. He turned back toward the Mighty Nein just as the thwip of a loosed arrow filled the room. It was worse this time. Perhaps not as violent, but just as jarring and terrible. Essek couldn't bear to watch and yet it was impossible to look away. The bodies fell with dull thumps against the cold hard tiles of the Cathedral and it was so much less than what they deserved.
The Beacon’s weight tripled in his arms. It was an anchor pulling him to the ground, and it took everything in him to stay on his feet when his levitation spell was ripped away by surprise. His mouth opened as if to speak, to scream, to do something . Nothing came. How had it all gone wrong again?
Steps approached him, but the tap-tap of the feet against stone barely registered. His attention was wholly on the dead bodies littering the Cathedrals. A hand settled on his shoulder, cold and reassuring in equal parts. “They were playing us, Essek.”
The Bright Queen’s words barely registered. When she took the Beacon from him, he didn’t flinch. If returning yet another Beacon wasn’t enough to ensure the safety and survival of the Mighty Nein, then hope was lost. Still, he met her eyes and was surprised by the malice that dripped from his words, “They were trying to bring peace .”
Despite the biting edge, her eyes softened; she stepped away from him with a shake of her head. “How nice it must be to be so very young and naive,” she sighed. “People who want peace don’t plot to kill you behind your back.”
There was that baseless accusation again. “They wouldn’t have—” he stopped, remembering where his challenges and questions got him before. His distant gaze fell to their lifeless forms, huddled together as if sleeping on the Cathedral floor. They had trusted him and wound up dying again because of it. “They were good.”
The break in his voice gave him away, and it flipped a switch on the Bright Queen’s expression. All softness ripped away, and her eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you grew attached.”
“I—” he began, but any defense he had died on his tongue. There was nothing to say; his cards were on clear display. Why else would he have gone back to try and fix things? Practicing such extreme and unapproved magic was enough to strip him of his name and position, and yet he did it. He would do it again.
Instead of waiting for his explanations, she shook her head again and turned. “The house Den Thelyss granted them will return to your possession; anything within it is yours.”
Essek stayed in his spot, his eyes still on the Mighty Nein. He thought he’d done everything right this time. He thought, if he could just get them in good graces it would be enough to explain the rest. What did he have to do?
A hand grabbed his arm, and he startled before he looked over and met the High General’s eyes. He meant to recast his levitation spell, to hastily put up his barriers again, but he found himself completely caught off guard by the softness in the High General’s eyes. “I’m sorry it ended this way.” It wasn’t much of a consolation, but they looked like they knew that. “I tried—I honestly tried to talk her out of it.”
If even the High General tried to stop this and failed, then Essek was truly lost. There was perhaps too much heartbreak in the words, too much vulnerability. That was alright; no one would remember seeing his facade break when he went back and did this all again. When he spoke, it was just as much a question for himself as it was for her, “What did they do wrong?”
The High General sighed, heavy and drawn out as their gaze turned to what was left of the Mighty Nein as well. “She’s angry. Angry that it seems like no progress being made, angry that a spy is in her court and she doesn’t know who it is, and with all that anger sometimes you just need someone to blame. I think they were just the easiest targets.”
It was the worst sort of answer. To know that it wasn’t really anything they did, or anything he did, but rather just a thing of convenience. War was full of convenient punishments; Essek learned that long ago, but it didn’t make him hate it any less.
“Get some rest, Shadowhand,” the High General said before they left him in the Cathedral. Just like the last time, it was just him, the guards clearing away the bodies, and Frumpkin. Essek sucked in a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and descended the stairs to scoop up the orange cat.
This is only temporary , he told himself, it can all be done again .
But at what cost? He tried not to think of that.
Chapter 3: Attempt 2
Essek thinks he's making the right choice, but there are consequences for everything.
This took me so long to write up, but here it is! I haven't had a chance to edit it so it may be a bit rough, but here's some more angst because why not!
He opened his eyes again to see the familiar set up of his study, exactly as he left it the day before (two days before? His timeline was growing more complicated). The day before him was a brand new slate, and he had no idea where to start. The only thing that came to mind was that he wanted to see the Mighty Nein. He needed the reassurance that they were alive again .
Essek cancelled all the meetings he’d already been through twice before. It would be impossible to sit through them again. Even if the action brought on curious questions and raised brows, he couldn’t pretend to feign interest while his mind was elsewhere. It hadn’t gotten him anywhere in the other timelines.
As soon as Jester’s message came, he crossed the short distance from his house to theirs. It was lit up just like before, a beacon of light after all the weeks it stood still and dark. The neighbors probably loathed having them back, but Essek...it was funny how losing something made him appreciate it even more.
The door swung open easily and the familiar chimes echoed in the main entry. Just like before, Caduceus popped his head into the room and smile. “Hey, Essek,” he said, just as drawn out and languid as before. “Everyone’s upstairs in the war room; I’ll be up with some tea in a moment.”
It was odd. The last time Essek went back, he knew exactly where to begin. In this timeline, he was floundering. He needed a soundboard; someone to listen to everything and point him in the right direction. Usually, he was more clever than this. Usually, he would put two and two together and find the way forward with little effort, but this was stumping him and he needed an equally keen mind...
The pieces clicked, and Essek stepped toward the direction of the library. “Actually, I’m in a bit of a hurry; I need to speak with Caleb.”
“Oh,” Caduceus mumbled, brow furrowed. “Well, alright. He’s—”
“In the library, yes,” Essek finished, only thinking better of it after it left his mouth. Any hopes that Caduceus wouldn’t have caught the slip were in vain.
Though the Firbolg’s head tilted and his bright eyes narrowed, his next words weren’t a question. Instead, he drew out an inquisitive, “Yeah.” Then, seeming to shake off any suspicions, he added, “Would you like some tea?”
“I don’t think I can afford to stay that long,” Essek answered truthfully. Whatever answers Caleb could give him would need to be acted on immediately if he was going to have any chance of stopping this cycle. So, with a short goodbye to Caduceus, he ducked into the training room and followed the sound of Caleb’s muttering until he was at the door of the library.
Caleb wasn’t fretting over spilt ink this time, but he was just as frazzled. That fiery hair fell from its usual neat bundle and into his bruised and blood-freckled face. The coat was soaked through like before, and Essek hated the sight just as much. He’d ask about what happened in the Empire when there was time, but Essek had to succeed first.
As soon as Essek shut the door to the library, Caleb’s head snapped up. “Ah, Essek,” he said, that same softness in the way he said Essek’s name. A reminder that they were friends.
“I need your help.” It was abrupt, but that couldn’t be helped. Essek had to remind himself that there was no time for anything but strategizing. There were only so many hours before the Bright Queen called for the Mighty Nein, and Essek really didn’t want to go through everything again.
Perhaps the panic in Essek’s body seeped into his words; Caleb’s brows shot up and his smile slipped away. “Oh, I—Is something wrong?”
What was he supposed to say? Tip-toeing around the task at hand would get them nowhere. Essek took in a deep breath before he rushed through the confession, “The Bright Queen is planning to execute you. All of you.”
The color drained from Caleb’s already pale face. “What?” the word barely came out. Caleb stumbled back a little. “ Why? ”
“She’s convinced you all are traitors, that you’ve been conspiring with the Empire to lure her to a peace talk that’s really a trap,” he explained. The reason sounded hollow to his own ears. More than anything, he wished he knew who put that conspiracy in the Bright Queen’s head.
Caleb crossed the space between them in seconds and his hands found Essek’s arms through the heavy mantle. The grip was urgent, desperate. “We would never dream of such a thing,” Caleb said. “You have to believe me—”
“I do.” Essek’s hands rose to cradle Caleb’s elbows (partly because part of him still needed to know Caleb and the others were alive and real and partly to catch Caleb’s attention). The frantic look ebbed into confusion. “You and the Mighty Nein have spoken of nothing but peace ever since you arrived in Rosohna. I believe this accusation of betrayal is manufactured.”
It took a moment, but Caleb’s hands eventually slipped away. Essek found himself missing the feeling as the Empire wizard wandered back to a chair in the library and plunked down with a distant look. “I could teleport us all away from here,” Caleb muttered; there was little conviction in the proposal.
“The Dynasty has ways of tracking you all down; it would be all too easy for the Bright Queen to send our most skilled assassins after you,” Essek said. He hated saying it as much as Caleb probably hated hearing it, but that didn’t make it any less true. If the Bright Queen truly saw them as a threat there would be no hiding away in some distant land.
“Then what are we supposed to do?” Caleb asked, his hands tugging at his red hair as if that would anchor him to this time and place. “I won’t lead my friends to their deaths. Why is this happening?”
He thought back to the High General’s words. “She is looking for someone to blame for everything that has been going wrong. If she finds that, I’m sure you all will be safe.” Perhaps it was wrong to burden Caleb with this knowledge when Essek didn’t have any of the answers. He was hoping to gain some insight from it, but it was becoming more and more clear that this was a selfish decision. What he really wanted was someone to confide in. It was so tempting to share the rest of this story, to tell Caleb that he’d already witnessed the execution. That would just make things worse, though.
There was no response for several seconds. Caleb looked just as deep in thought, his gaze shifting to some random spot in the room. One hand dropped to his forearm, rubbing over the fabric of his bloody coat. “All she needs is someone to blame?” he repeated, that vacant tone returning.
Essek nodded. “Rumors of a spy in the Dynasty have been going around for months and they’re not without their merit. I have a lead, but I don’t know if it will prove fruitful; I suspect her memory has been modified.”
Though Caleb flinched, his expression was unchanged. Essek let his levitation spell fizzle out. His feet settled into the plush and colorful accent carpet, and he approached Caleb as if he was an animal prone to startle. Vulnerability wasn’t his strong suit, but he found it came naturally then. “I will do my best, Caleb,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. Gently, slowly, he laid a hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “I promise you; I’ll do everything in my power to stop this.”
It took a moment, but Caleb met his eyes. “And if that’s not enough?”
Then I’ll try again, Essek thought, but he couldn’t say it. Instead, he settled on, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t anywhere near comforting. What else could he do though? He huffed out a sigh; his fingers curled into the fabric of Caleb’s coat. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have burdened you with this.”
“No,” Caleb said, and his hand rose to cover Essek’s. It was almost too much; a small part of Essek wanted to pull away, but a larger part begged for more contact. More reassurance. “I’m glad you told me. It gives me time to consider our options.”
The touch faded eventually when Caleb stood up to walk toward the door of his nearby room. That was probably for the best. Essek wasn’t sure if he ever would’ve left otherwise. Caleb’s touch had been an anchor and without it, he was left to float in this neverending sea that was his repeating timelines and the possibilities they held. He felt more lost than when he stepped into the Xhorhaus.
Somehow, he found his voice. “I should leave; there’s much to do.” He made no move toward the door, though. Leaving meant he actually had to face the realities outside.
Despite everything, despite the doubts that probably bled into Essek’s expression, Caleb smiled at him. It didn’t reach his eyes—it held more sadness than Essek liked—but it was there. There was a softness that made Essek’s breath catch in his throat. “Thank you, Essek, for trusting me with this,” he said, “and I’m sorry.”
An incredulous laugh was shocked out of Essek. “For what?” Essek was the one who should be repeating the words for being selfish. For ruining the ignorant bliss Caleb and the Mighty Nein were cloaked in before.
“For whatever may happen,” Caleb answered, and he left Essek with that cryptic message.
The Dungeon of Penance was filled with the mournful moans of the long-forgotten prisoners held there. Sunken and sallow faces stared back at Essek as he passed each cell. He could probably name each one of them if he tried hard enough. Only one of them truly mattered to him, though. Chadra’s face was fresher than the others even with the dirt splotched across her purplish-blue skin. The look she gave him when he entered her sightline was familiar, but his own words were foreign compared to the last time he stood there.
“I’m going to skip the pleasantries; you don’t want to hear them and I don’t have the patience.”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “We’re going to start with the torture, then? You won’t get anything out of me, I can promise you that.” There were chains around her wrist; they clinked in a horrible cacophony of noise that grated on Essek’s nerves even more.
When Essek smiled it was brittle and performative. “I find torture to be terribly inefficient.” One of her artful brows rose. “I’m prepared to offer you an ideal life for your child; he will want for nothing, receive the best education, and rise through the ranks of the court with ease. Your reputation won’t taint his.” Repeating himself was miserable. All he wanted was to get to the point, but he couldn’t do that without laying the foundation. At least he knew the right buttons to push.
Chadra swallowed thickly, her eyes fluttering for a moment as her unbothered facade cracked. “I don’t—”
There was the slightest hint of a challenge already edging into her voice, but Essek wouldn’t allow any of that. “Is the information you hold worth destroying your son’s life? I can ensure that too, Chadra. I can have him thrown onto the street if you keep things from me. If you lie to me.” His smile turned vicious, biting. “I could have my little shadows spread the worst sorts of rumors about him until he is less than nothing, would you like that?”
“Stop!” she demanded, eyes wild with fear and panic. Essek reigned himself in at the words, pulled back into his cool and collected mask. Cruelty had a time and place, and it was unwise to push too far. “I’ll tell you. Just leave him alone.” And those were the magic words; Essek waved for the healer waiting outside to come in. One guard pulled open the door of the cell to let them inside while the other kept a crossbow trained on Chadra in case she tried anything. She scurried back, flattening against the farthest wall.
“They’re just a healer,” Essek assured her. “I have reason to believe your memories have been meddled with.”
Though she didn’t look like she fully believed him, she didn’t shy away when the healer reached out to cast Greater Restoration. There was a moment where it looked like it hadn’t worked. Then, as if shaking away a troublesome thought, Chadra shook her head and blinked once… twice… when she looked back at Essek there was something changed in her gaze. A good sign.
Essek floated closer to the bars of the cell. “I know most of the story already,” he said because there was no need to rehash the interrogation; every second he wasted was another second without the answers he desperately needed. “So I’ll make this quick: who told you what to do? Who gave you the information you sent to the Assembly?”
There was a pause and, for one painful moment, it looked like she was going to toy with him. Essek was just impatient enough that she might’ve seen the signs cropping up; the slightest slip in composure was a malleable weakness. Then, whatever resolve was there seemed to break. “I don’t know.”
A sickly shock of dread shattered through Essek’s body. His hands curled into fists between his mantle, and his expression lost all humor as his tone darkened. “Lies will cost you dearly, Chadra.”
“No!” she protested, pulling against her chains. “I’m not lying! Whenever he gave me anything he always wore a different face. The disguises were so I couldn’t give up his identity.”
Essek wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the bars in front of him and shake with all his might until the entire Dungeon of Penance crumbled around him. It took everything in his power to hold back everything but a shaky sigh. “You don’t remember anything ?” his voice quivered with anger. The guards shifted nervously.
“He gave me a name,” Chadra said, almost desperate. As if she knew how close he was to snapping. “Godabert Dressler.”
A Zemnian name. That wasn’t going to do him any good; the name he needed was the alias the person was using in the court. The name they were hiding behind to get them closer to the Bright Queen and the Beacons. “That’s all you have?” he bit out.
Chadra never looked as much like a caged bird as right then. Her voice broke when she said, “That’s all.”
The spark of rage that tore through him wasn’t really directed at her. It was more toward himself. For promising Caleb that he would try his best and still coming up short even with the stakes being what they were. For being foolish enough to think he could solve this so easily. He was back to where he began, and there were mere minutes left before the Bright Queen would call for him.
If it wasn’t for the levitation spell, his exit would have been punctuated by thundering stomps through the dungeon as Chadra called out after him. Beneath his mantle, his hands fought to remain at his sides. He wouldn’t—he couldn’t watch the Mighty Nein be slaughtered again. He promised Caleb he wouldn’t let that happen; everything would still be alright if Essek just went back to his home and started the day over again before the execution took place. Yes, that solved everything—
Of course, it was never that easy. A figure stepped up beside him almost as soon as he left the Dungeon of Penance. The face was familiar in the most distant sense, like someone he’d passed on the streets many times and always looked through rather than at. It was another Drow, slender and taller than most with long white hair half pulled back and golden earrings running up the length of his pointed ears.
“Shadowhand Essek Thelyss,” he said, words easy and inviting as he smiled. “How fortunate that I should run into you; I believe we’re both on our way to the Bright Queen’s Cathedral, are we not?”
Essek’s stomach sank, and he tried to point in the direction of his home, “Actually, I need to—”
“Why don’t we walk together? I’ve been meaning to become acquainted with you for a while now,” he insisted. The expectant look in the man’s strange golden eyes was almost hypnotic. Essek tried to string his excuses together, but they all died on his tongue. That golden gaze stayed firm.
“Alright,” Essek said, the word tasting like sickness on his tongue. Even after he said it, he couldn’t will himself to move toward the Cathedral. Was fate going to make him watch it all again? He didn’t know how much more he could take.
The man eventually led him along with a far too familiar hand at the small of Essek’s back. Even with the mantle’s thick fabric between them, Essek felt the cold creep against his spine. “My name is Valvyr Kilani,” the Drow said once they were moving. “Our Queen has referred to me as the… tamer version of you; I do surveillance work.”
That rang a bell. Perhaps Essek had seen him sitting in on an occasional court meeting or trailing behind the Bright Queen. As far as Essek could remember, Valvyr had been a part of the court for… years? A decade at the very least. Certainly a few years longer than Essek had held the position of Shadowhand. “It’s strange that we’ve never worked closely before,” Essek said. After all, he did his fair share of surveillance as well.
Valvyr chuckled. “The court is a jungle. It’s easy for faces to get lost amongst the chaos. That is why people like you and I must be careful to take notice.”
“Right,” Essek sighed. That’s what he’d been trying for the past several months; monitoring every little face, every twitch of the lips that was suspicious enough to warrant questioning. None of it had been enough; the Mighty Nein were still going to die. Gods, he couldn’t go through that again. “Lord Kilani, is it alright if we discuss this at another time? I’m afraid I really do have some urgent business—”
“More urgent than our Queen’s orders?” The quirked brow was a challenge. Essek’s mouth snapped shut. That appeared to be good enough for Valvyr to continue. “As I was saying… you and I would cover more ground if we worked together. I hear you apprehended a possible spy recently—the Skysybil’s assistant, yes?”
“That’s correct,” Essek grumbled. The closer they drew to the Cathedral the more he wanted to curl into his own skin and disappear. Was there really no way out of the impending brutality? He fidgeted relentlessly beneath his mantle.
If Valvyr noticed his discomfort, he didn’t care. The Cathedral was in sight, and there was no sign of slowing. “Has she given anything up? Any names of people you would have me scry on for more information? You’re a very busy man, I hate to see you take this all on by yourself.”
The words were demeaning in the same way they always were (no matter who spoke them). A clear dismissal of all Essek had done to get to where he was. He bristled. “I’m more than capable of handling it on my own.”
Valvyr’s hand finally left his back as he raised his palms in surrender. They stepped through the doors of the Cathedral and into the Bright Queen’s line of sight. It was too late to escape unnoticed. All the indignation and annoyance made way for dread. Essek’s body was heavier than ever; it hurt to move, and it distracted him as Valvyr stepped away and muttered, “Whatever you say, Shadowhand.”
All eyes were on Essek (or it felt like they were). The Bright Queen watched him closely as he climbed the stairs to his seat beside her. Why was he here? Gods, he wanted to be sick. If he had to watch it all again he might just scream. It was bad enough the second time; he could still picture their lifeless eyes staring unblinkingly back at him. Could still see the blood, jarring and bright against the pristine tiles of the Cathedral.
“Are you alright, Shadowhand? You look ill,” the Bright Queen said.
“I don’t feel entirely well; is there any way I can be excused from this meeting?” Though he would never think of saying it under any other circumstances, it was easier to show weakness when he knew he could just go back and no one would remember the slip.
Though there was a hint of sympathy in her eyes, she still shook her head. “I’m afraid not,” she said, and any hope of escaping the horrors about to unfold was dashed away. Essek tried not to slump with defeat; his mantle dug into his back.
The doors opened to the Mighty Nein just like before, and they strolled in looking just as battered as the first time. Behind them, the guards stood at the entrance of the Cathedral with their weapons ready. Nott cradled Frumpkin in her arms as one of Caleb’s hands rubbed over his forearm. For a moment, Caleb met Essek’s gaze and an unspoken question passed between them. Had Essek found the mole? He shook his head. Caleb’s expression hardened as he looked away.
There was no disappointment written on Caleb’s face, no fear. Just acceptance. Essek admired and hated that in equal parts. If it was him staring down death, especially without the promise of consecution, he liked to think he would be half as brave.
“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.”
Confusion filled their faces much like the first time; everyone but Caleb looked surprised. Then, he began to clap. The already quiet room turned to a deafening silence as the claps echoed and bounced off the lofty ceiling. “Congratulations,” Caleb said, voice filled with practiced mirth and bite, “I was wondering how long it was going to take for you to figure it out, and yet you still managed to fall just short in your conclusion.”
Essek sat up in his seat, the mantle digging into his back even more as his breath caught in his throat. What was Caleb doing? A glance toward the Bright Queen showed she was just as confused as everyone else, though her lips stayed put in their hard frown.
“Do you honestly think this group of babbling buffoons would be capable of betraying you? No, they were just a convenient distraction I was able to use to infiltrate this splendid ,” he spat out the word, “Dynasty of yours.”
No, no, no! The mantra repeated in Essek’s mind as he leaned forward in his chair, hands darting out to grab the armrests tight enough to blanch his knuckles. This foolish, self-sacrificial man! Everything in Essek’s body was telling him to stand up, to tell Caleb to stop lying just to save the others, but his body was frozen.
“Caleb, what the fuck are you doing?” Beau spoke through barred teeth, reaching out to grab his arm. Though he turned to her, and it looked like he said something, he eventually pulled away from her grip and faced the Bright Queen’s growing rage.
With a deep breath and a resigned determination in his eyes, he said, “My name is not Caleb. I am Bren Ermendrud, and I have come in the name of the Cerberus Assembly to end this once and for all.” The room erupted in shouts and screams as Caleb clicked his fingers and muttered the worlds to a spell that sparked a flame in his hands.
As soon as the spark came, so too did the arrows. The sharp twang following the Queen’s command was hardly audible over the roar of the court. Five, ten, fifteen arrows found their mark in Caleb’s chest, neck, and head. The force of them threw the wizards body around like a rag doll until—with one last shuddering breath—he crumpled to the floor.
Nott screamed. Frumpkin jumped from her arms and onto Caleb’s arrow riddled chest. The rest of the party looked at their friend’s body with mute horror. It didn’t process at first; the sinking devastation didn’t come until Jester’s sobs filled the room. Essek felt the weight of it like a Moorbounder sitting on his chest. His eyes never left Caleb’s blank face.
“I can heal him!” she sobbed, stumbling toward the unmoving body. The Bright Queen snapped her fingers, though, and before Jester could reach Caleb several guards were pulling her and the rest of the Mighty Nein away. Most of them went easily, too shocked to put up a fight.
“Take them to the Dungeon of Penance for questioning,” the Bright Queen demanded, her voice ringing out above the others.
“No!” Jester yelled, fighting against the two guards who were having trouble holding her back. “No! Caleb! Please , let me heal him!”
Even the shouts faded when the doors closed. Essek was left in a court of chattering people, his own nerves prickling through his body like a fire raging in his veins. The Bright Queen dismissed the rest of the court, but the words droned on like the buzzing of a fly by his ear. All he could do was stare at the blood slowly stretching across the floor.
He’d done this. Essek was to blame this time. If he had just found a way to leave and go back before this even happened… if he hadn’t told Caleb this would happen. He should have known this group was too devoted to each other to let the others die. It was all Essek’s fault.
“I thought you said his past with the Assembly was nothing to worry about,” the Bright Queen practically growled. It still only half registered in Essek’s mind. “How did you miss this?”
Nothing would come out, no matter how hard he tried. Eventually, his lack of response was frustrating enough that she just left him. He was glad for that. For once, he wanted to be the only one in the room. On shaking legs, Essek stumbled down the stairs until he stood above Caleb’s body. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Why did it feel worse this time around?
It was too much. Essek rushed out of the Cathedral, overcome by a wave of sickness. As soon as he was in the open air, he heaved into the bushes nearby. Guards stared at him, but he didn’t have the energy to care. By the time the sickness passed, his bones were heavy and all he wanted was to go back home and fall into a trance. He wanted to be done with all this, and yet he knew he couldn’t stop.
In many ways, this would be a good enough ending. Only Caleb died; the rest of the Nein still lived and could still be a force for good in this world. But there was little chance that they would ever work with the Dynasty again if they made it out of the Dungeon of Penance. And Essek hated this. He hated that the Nein were suffering and he hated that Caleb was dead.
He sucked in a deep breath and steadied himself against a nearby wall. He had to go on, no matter how much he didn’t want to. The most logical place to go was his home. So he could start this disastrous day over again. Instead, his feet carried him back to the Dungeon of Penance.
Though a few of the guards seemed to hesitate before letting him in, he was eventually granted access to where the remainder of the Mighty Nein were being held. Even before he reached the cell, he could hear the pounding of fists against stone and the echo of heartbreaking cries.
“That fucking bastard!” Beau’s growling voice yelled, each word punctuated by another punch. Essek stepped in front of the cell just in time to watch her land another hit. Her knuckles were bleeding. “What was he thinking, getting himself killed. And now we’re stuck here!” Caduceus placed a hand on her shoulder to try and stop her from doing more damage to herself, but Beau shrugged him off easily. “Don’t fucking touch me!” The words broke on the way out, though, and her last punch fell short. Her shoulders shook with silent cries as the anger broke. This time, she didn’t push Caduceus away as he pulled her into a hug.
Nott and Jester were curled into each other, weeping. The cries cut off when Jester saw Essek standing there. “Essek!” she practically screeched, rushing to the cell’s bars and clutching them tightly. “Essek! You have to convince them to let us out. We have to bring Caleb back. He didn’t do anything!”
“I—” he began, stepping closer and surprising them both when he covered one of her hands with his own. “I know, Jester.”
“How much did you know?” Fjord said. With how quiet he and Yasha were being, Essek almost forgot he was there. When he looked up to meet Fjord’s eyes, there was something icy in them. “You’re like the Queen’s right-hand man; you can’t tell me you didn’t know she was going to do that.”
“I did,” Essek admitted. The words hurt. If it was the first time they wouldn’t have been true, but they were now.
Jester’s hand slipped away and she stumbled back. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You told Caleb,” Beau cut in, a rueful little chuckle breaking through. “You told him, didn’t you?”
“I told him I was trying to stop it,” Essek explained. As soon as he said it Beau lunged through the bars, grabbing hold of Essek’s robe and yanking him forward. His brow met the metal with a thud and the world went blurry for a second. Caduceus and Yasha had to pull her away before she could do it again.
“It wasn’t enough! You got him killed! I thought you liked him!” More profanities followed, and each one cut deeper and deeper into Essek. Blood trickled down from his brow and nearly fell into his eye before he wiped it away with a cringe.
“Do you think I’m happy about this?” he grumbled. “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” As much as he hated it, he could feel the sharp sting of tears. He blamed it on the pain blooming through his head. As frustration dug through him, he pulled on the short tufts of his white hair. “I don’t even know why I’m here; none of you are even going to remember this.”
“What do you mean none of us are going to remember?” Yasha wondered.
Instead of answering, he drew closer to the bars again, resting his head against them and ignoring the bite of the cold metal. “I promise you all, I will fix this.”
“Are you going to bring him back?” Nott asked, and there was so much hope that it broke something deep within him. Her scream back in the Cathedral had been enough to make anyone pity her loss.
“In a way,” he said.
“You’re fucking around with your time shit, aren’t you?” Beau demanded though it lacked the same angry conviction from before. It almost felt… nice to share the secret with someone. The larger part of him was still reeling from the loss of the day, but this was a weight off his shoulders. Even if it wouldn’t last.
“I have… been trying to prevent your deaths, yes,” he admitted. The sick feeling didn’t leave, but they all looked relieved.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Yasha wondered. It was dangerous in many ways. Essek was meddling with a spell he didn’t fully understand. He had no idea how many tries he had left; it would work until it didn’t anymore, and he could only hope that he solved this puzzle before that happened. There was no way he was going to voice that, not when he’d just given them hope.
With a sigh, he said, “Whatever risk there is, I’m willing to take it.”
He was surprised by how true those words were.
Chapter 4: Attempt 3
Essek learns some new things.
This chapter was delayed thanks to college, medical stuff, and my own laziness but it's here now! Have some shadowgast content because it's what we all deserve.
The return was rougher this time around. Essek wasn’t sure if he did something wrong or if it was because he was in desperate need of a rest, but the overwhelming fear of failure washed over him until he was able to ask a servant what day it was and they answered with the same day it’d been before. The relief didn’t last for long; he was still left with the crushing weight of having to live this day again. He hoped it would be the last time.
He cancelled the morning plans again and shut himself into his study to pour over his records in peace. There were names of Scourgers and past prisoners in some of his notes. None of them were what he was looking for. The searching didn’t end, though; he only stopped when Jester’s message filtered through.
When he arrived at the Xhorhaus, Caduceus wasn’t there to greet him like all the other times. It was a small change, but it concerned Essek all the same. Had he messed up part of the spell? Were certain things changing because he kept interfering? The last thing he wanted to do was rip apart time itself, but… well, he would keep trying to fix this.
Caduceus was in the kitchen; Essek could hear the now familiar pattering of feet against the wood floors and Caduceus’ gentle humming floating through the unusually still air of the home. Perhaps he was just a few minutes earlier or later than usual and Caduceus was too entranced by his blends to greet him. That was a reassuring possibility. The doubt still clung to him like a persistent parasite.
He made his way to the study first. Though he originally intended to speak with everyone in the Might Nein about whether they’d heard the name of this possible traitor, something pulled him to where he knew Caleb was. When he pushed open the door and saw Caleb, bloodied but as alive as before, he let out a shaky sigh. It wasn’t as quiet as he thought.
With strands of red hair falling into his eyes, Caleb raised his gaze. The second he saw Essek standing in the doorway, he smiled. It was painful and calming in equal parts. How had he seen that smile and heard the quiet yet fond, “Oh, Essek” and even considered tainting it by sharing his troubles? He’d gotten Caleb killed the last time, but he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
“Caleb,” he greeted, his own voice betraying just how thankful he was to see the Empire wizard. There was a softness he rarely allowed himself; he dropped his levitation spell as well, gaining a raised brow from Caleb. “I pray this isn’t a bad time; I was hoping to ask you something.” It was calmer than his frantic confession in the last try, and it somehow felt better. Maybe he was still revelling in Caleb’s liveliness.
“Not at all,” Caleb assured him, standing from his own seat. “Please, have a seat.”
With a small thanks, Essek took off his mantle—not missing Caleb’s small hum of surprise—and sank into the available chair in the room. He was barely seated before Caleb leaned forward in the space between them and studied his face. “Is that blood?” Caleb wondered, concern peeking into the words as his hand reached out. Before he could actually touch Essek, he asked, “May I?”
With all the worry and panic to get back and start over, Essek forgot to take care of the wound Beau gave him. Though it probably wasn’t bleeding anymore and he no longer noticed the pain, he was sure it was noticeable enough. Though he nodded, he said, “I’m fine, really.”
Caleb touched him with familiar ease. It wasn’t what Essek expected, that gentle press of fingers across the crest of his cheek and then his split brow, but it was nice. Despite his best efforts, he leaned into the touch like a content cat. The warmth of Caleb’s palm was like an anchor to reality; it made the pain easy to forget.
“How’d this happen?” There was something genuinely perturbed in the question. “Did someone attack you?”
“In a way, though I suppose I deserved it,” Essek hummed, eyes falling closed for just a moment as he relished Caleb’s touches and his presence.
The chuckle Caleb offered him was foreign, but the smile was one Essek had seen on occasion. “I highly doubt that.”
So much faith in me , Essek thought to himself as he watched Caleb carefully inspect his wound. I doubt I’m worthy of half of it. For now, he held his tongue, too afraid to lose the reverence or the touch.
“I should ask Jester to take a look at this; she has at least one spell left in her,” Caleb said, his hand drawing away to grab a wire from his spell component pocket. As much as he tried not to, Essek frowned at the coldness that seeped in.
Though he spoke, Caleb was already halfway through the spell. “That really won’t be necessary; she doesn’t need to waste her energy on me.”
If Caleb’s almost… hurt expression was any indication, the words were scandalous. He hadn’t intended them to come out so self-deprecating, but it was too late to take it back. “I just—” he tried, nevertheless, “You look as if you’ve come from a fight; I’m sure you’re all very tired, and you should save your energy—”
“Nonsense,” Caleb said, his smile returning just as fond as before, “you’re always taking care of us; it’s time to return one of those favors, even if it’s small. Besides, we’re in Rosohna; we’re safe now.”
A sharp stab of guilt and sorrow made Essek’s chest ache. By some miracle, he managed to nod without his face betraying what was to come. It should have been safe. After everything they’d done for the Dynasty, there shouldn’t have been any questions about their loyalty. He still couldn’t wrap his head around the ‘why’ of this situation. Who did the Bright Queen trust enough to follow without question and why did she feel the need to hide it?
Before any of his questions could be answered, the door of the study flew open. Jester, with her flowing clothes and bubbly personality, waltzed in with a beaming smile. “Essek! Why didn’t you let us know you were here; we’ve been waiting for you!” she shouted with enough vigor and liveliness to shake the whole house. He appreciated it more now.
Though he sighed, there was a fond little smile on his lips as he stood. Her arms were already thrown open for a hug he had no intentions of deflecting. Oh how far he’d come. “I’m sorry, I wanted to speak with Caleb before I—”
She stopped, eyes wide and jaw dropped. “You’re naked!”
Even though he knew she wasn’t right— couldn’t be right—he still looked down at himself as his cheeks darkened. Behind him, Caleb spluttered, “ What?”
“I mean,” she floundered, hands on her cheeks as she continued to look him over, “You’re not wearing your thingy.”
Oh. Essek’s rigged body relaxed, and he huffed out a strangled laugh. “Yes, I was expecting to stay a while so I removed my mantle.”
Instead of looking the least bit embarrassed (Essek doubted Jester was capable of feeling embarrassment), Jester’s already surprised face lit up again. Her brows wiggled suggestively and her voice took on a meaningful trill, “OR did you take it off because you and Caleb were getting busy .”
“Jester,” Caleb said, his tone carrying a warning. “Please, the Shadowhand needs some healing.”
All teasing dropped in seconds, and she took his face in her hands without asking, tilting it down to see better. “Does it hurt?” she wondered, poking it and gaining the smallest cringe from Essek. It hadn’t before, but the prodding was making it sensitive.
“I’ve faced worse,” he offered, and that seemed to be a small comfort. One of her fingers slid over the wound with the mutter of a healing spell under her breath; Essek felt the skin knit back together. He was sure he looked as good as new. “Thank you,” he said, meaning every bit of it.
“You should really be more careful,” she tutted. “What if we hadn’t been here to help?” There wasn’t much to help with; it was just a scratch, but Essek didn’t say that. What was the harm in playing along with her jests and jabs?
“I suppose I would have suffered through it.”
Jester tapped his cheek lightly—affectionately—when the spell was finished. Though he scrunched his nose at the gesture, he didn’t protest. “Did you miss us?” she wondered as she stepped away to give Essek his space. He was thankful for that; even if he was allowing himself to indulge in some things, there was only so much his introversion could endure.
Not bothering to hide his genuine relief, Essek nodded. It was strange. Months ago, he would’ve clung to the claim that the Mighty Nein were just his wards to look after and manage. That month where they didn’t contact him shook him to his core, though. There were times when he thought they might’ve died on their latest quest. And yet they were safe until they came back.
“I knew it!” she squealed, clapping her hands together and clasping them beneath her chin. The wide-eyed and happy look she gave him was akin to an excited puppy. A flash of her face, blank and vacant with death, bombarded his thoughts. If his expression fell, Jester didn’t notice. “Oh man, you’re going to be so sad when we leave again! Especially when you find out what we brought you. You have to come upstairs to see it!”
“Perhaps in a moment,” he said. If he didn’t already know there was a Beacon awaiting him, he might’ve gone right then. There were other matters to attend to, though. “I need to speak with Caleb about a few things.”
“Alright, but it’s a really good surprise,” she grumbled. Before she left, she stopped at the doorway and leaned to look past Essek. “Caleb, Fjord said to tell you the scrying orb is back.” And the door shut behind her as soon as Caleb thanked her. The information swam through Essek’s head, consuming his thoughts and raising so many questions that it was eventually impossible not to turn to Caleb.
“You’re being scryed on?”
Caleb shrugged his shoulders, but one hand wandered to the necklace he wore. “Well, not me , but one of us is. We were hoping it was you or someone else in the Dynasty,” he said.
Essek sunk back into the chair he was in before, thoughts racing to try and find an answer. “I was assigned to monitor you all in the beginning, but that ended about a month ago.” The Bright Queen told him a more personal touch could be used for the Nein. Though they were never completely trusted, there’d been enough mutual aid between them and the Dynasty to warrant some good faith. Something must have changed in that month. But, if the Mighty Nein was being watched by someone important in the Dynasty, Essek would know. Then again, there seemed to be a few things the Bright Queen was keeping from him in those days…
With a forced smile, Essek just shook his head and said, “It’s probably nothing.” No need to worry them. He would look into it later.
It wasn’t the most reassuring answer, but Caleb nodded and sat in his own chair. There was a second where he seemed to consider his next actions carefully; in the end, whatever was holding him back slipped away and he removed his bloodied coat. The scars underneath—something Eseek had seen before, though in passing—looked fresher than usual, and dried blood cracked and flaked off his forearms. Essek tried not to stare. What exactly transpired in their fight for the Beacon?
“We had a bit of a run-in,” Caleb explained, his hands self consciously running over the exposed and gnarly scars. And, even if Essek already heard what happened from Beau and the others, hearing the pain in Caleb’s voice was a surprise in itself. He knew as much as he’d been told about Caleb’s history; any encounter was probably fraught with unease and old, unpleasant memories.
“Ah,” Essek hummed because it was better than the somewhat ominous answer of ‘I know’. “I’m glad to see you all came out on the better side of it.”
Caleb’s lips pursed around a tight smile. “Ja, we were a bit lucky,” he said. “It was close there, for a while…”
“What happened?” Essek asked; he heard the basics from the others, but there was so much behind whatever fight they might have endured.
“We were able to determine the location of a second Beacon the Assembly were hiding away, and we snuck in during the night to steal it.” Essek had to remember to look surprised; to Caleb, this was the first time Essek was hearing the news of their stolen Beacon. An almost guilty look took over Caleb’s expression. “Ah… I wasn’t supposed to ruin the surprise. Jester will be disappointed.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t know,” Essek assure him; after all, that was what he was doing right then.
That seemed to be enough for Caleb. He offered Essek a thankful smile before he continued, slumping further and further in his chair as he spoke, “It went well at first. I thought—stupidly—that we could make it out without even having to fight. Then everything started falling apart.” The pause held a palpable disgust, and something haunted drowned the light in Caleb’s eyes. “My old teacher, the one who did this,” he gestured to the many scars on his forearms, “cornered us. Him and several others. If I hadn’t finished the teleportation spell when I did… I don’t want to know what would have become of my friends.”
The last part caught Essek’s attention. “Just your friends?” He’d already seen Caleb was selfless enough to sacrifice himself for his friends, but the wording was odd.
What answered him was a rueful laugh. “Trent wouldn’t have killed me. He would have wanted to see me suffer; he made that clear from the moment he reopened the scars.”
And—oh. The confession curled in Essek’s stomach. That would explain the bloodied coat sleeves. There was little blood anywhere else on Caleb apart from what might’ve been a split lip and several small cuts. Reliving trauma was a terrible thing to do to anyone. Essek’s heart sunk and his chest ached. “Oh,” he said because nothing else felt good enough to ease the pain he saw in Caleb’s eyes.
“He wanted to remind me of what he made me into,” Caleb sighed, words shaking on the way out. His hands wrung together in his lap. “But he can't do that anymore; I’ve made these scars into a reminder of the life—the family—I’ve built for myself. They are only a small part of what brought me here.”
Though it was more than he thought safe—more than he would have allowed himself on any other day—Essek reached across the table between them to cover Caleb’s hands with his own. When Caleb met his eyes, there was an earnestness there Essek could barely handle. “I am glad you realize how much you have made yourself into,” he said, the words almost whispered in the still air of the study. “You are so much more than whatever they could ever take from you. You are a Hero of the Dynasty, a talented arcanist, and a true friend.”
It must’ve been the right thing to say; the distant look in Caleb’s eyes was wiped away and replaced with something else. A sort of… consideration came as Caleb turned his hands under Essek’s touch and their palms met. Part of Essek wanted to pull away from the contact, to put his mantle back on and hide from the vulnerability. Instead, he took a deep breath and let himself dwell in the moment. For some reason, it was easy to enjoy this side of Caleb. This softness and comfort.
Eventually, Caleb cleared his throat, though his hands stayed put and his fingers ghosted over Essek’s skin. “You came to ask me something,” he said, tone curious as he met Essek’s gaze.
As hard as it was to fathom, Essek almost forgot his goals entirely. There was a floundering moment where he struggled to remember, and then he felt foolish for letting himself get so distracted. “It’s, ah, actually a question about the Assembly.”
Caleb’s hands drew away. His shoulders drew up and his body went rigid. All Essek could do was watch as all the mask went back up and Caleb’s rare smiles disappeared. “Oh.”
If it wasn’t necessary—if the fate of the Mighty Nein didn’t depend on it—Essek might’ve backed down. Instead, he took a deep breath and corrected his posture. He was here for a reason; he had to remember that. “I was wondering if you remembered ever hearing the name Godabert Dressler.”
No initial recognition came. That was enough to dampen Essek’s hopes. The sinking feeling only worsened when Caleb shook his head. “I can’t say it sounds familiar, but I was just a student; the only names I remember are the ones under the portraits I passed in the halls,” Caleb said. As perceptive as he was, he caught Essek’s frown and matched it with his own. “I’m sorry; I wish I could be of more help, I—”
“No,” Essek stopped him there. The last thing he wanted was for Caleb to start disparaging himself. “No, I knew there was only the slightest possibility. After all, not all Drows know each other; I imagine the same can be said for members of the Assembly.”
Perhaps it didn’t ease Caleb’s guilt completely, but he did nod. “I like to think that’s true,” he said. “We, ah, we have met one or two amongst their ranks who seem to be removed from the corruption.” As much as Essek despised the Assembly—for what they did to people like Caleb and for the deep wounds they dealt to the Dynasty—he had to believe there were good people being deceived. People like Caleb. Some could be redeemed; brilliant minds could be divorced from the rot that surrounded them.
After a few beats of silence, Caleb’s brow furrowed. It was the same look he bore when Essek showed him the notes for a particularly difficult spell and the pieces started to come together. “Is this about the suspected spy?”
Though it was a horrible idea to tell anyone outside of an investigation the details, a large part of Essek still hoped Caleb would be able to help in some way. He nodded. “It was a name given to me by a prisoner. Whoever they are, they’re using a different name here.”
“Perhaps—” Caleb began, and he shifted forward in his chair, “my training was never completed, but I learned some of the tricks they use. If there is anything else you find out, I would be more than willing to help you find this person.”
Words failed Essek for a moment. It wasn’t an answer to everything, but it was a star. With help, he could cover twice as much ground, and he didn’t have to worry about Caleb keeping up. If they worked together… Essek didn’t have to tell him the fate of this day to gain his help. He didn’t have to lead Caleb to his death again. “I deeply appreciate that,” Essek managed to say; he wouldn’t be able to take Caleb up on the offer on this day, but perhaps when he went back… he’d be prepared the next time. “For now, I ought to speak with the others before Jester drags me upstairs herself,” he joked, and it was just enough to grace him with another small smile.
“She’s strong enough to do it, you know.”
Essek chuckled. A sound so long forgotten it caught him off guard as much as it did Caleb. “Oh, I don’t doubt it.” After pulling his heavy mantle back on, Essek turned to the door of the study.
“Essek,” Caleb called after him, and he turned just enough to meet his eyes. The blue swirled with the glow Essek missed from before; maybe it wasn’t at its usual intensity, but it was there again. When had Essek become so fond of that particular shade of blue?
“Thank you for… for listening. I’m sorry if I burdened you—”
Again, Essek wouldn’t allow any of that. “You could never be a burden.” Though he left it at that, he didn’t miss the bloom of red that painted Caleb’s cheeks. The mumbled goodbye Caleb offered him was almost shellshocked. Essek tried not to think about what any of that meant as he climbed the stairs of the Xhorhaus.
It was surprisingly easy to fall into a conversation with the others and act like it hadn’t happened before. Increasingly, Essek was caught off guard by how much he enjoyed their company. That realization didn’t help him; if anything, it made things harder. Now more than ever he didn’t want to see them die.
He spent more time than he should have at the Xhorhaus. The call to the Cathedral was going to come at any second, and he knew he couldn’t go. Instead, he shut himself into his home and readied the spell. At least he wouldn’t have to watch it again this time. He was thankful for the reprieve and the hope that Caleb’s offer had promised. So, even as the spell took its toll on him again, he was more willing to bear it than ever.
Chapter 5: Attempt 7
Essek tries to reason with the Bright Queen.
This is a pretty short one: sorry! There's three more chapters left and I'm kind of banking on them being preeeeetty long as this wraps up sooooo. Thank you so much for all the kudos and the comments!!
Several more tries, and several more deaths. Essek spent most of the attempts gathering all the information he could. One time was spent just trancing when he realized how much the multiple uses of the spell was wearing down on him. Each time he felt closer and closer to a breakthrough and yet it always ended the same way. Once, he was able to avoid watching their deaths yet again but on most tries, he was stopped before he could return to the solitude and ignorance of his home.
When he came through this time, it was with a pounding headache. The room around him span for several seconds. It settled, but with the stability came the realization that blood was on his hands. The deep crimson covered his palms where they had pressed just under his nose. Sure enough, his nose was dripping onto the floor. It took half an hour to staunch the flow.
He’d hoped that would be the end of his worries. Yet, when he stepped outside and looked up at the dark sky of Rosohna, his eyes caught on something. The familiar weathervane—the swirling spheres meant to represent the shifting ley lines—on the top of his highest tower was whirring wildly. The dazzling metal seemed to expand and contract in impossible ways. There was a terrifying moment where Essek thought it would shatter with the stress, raining down on his estate like a thousand tiny swords. It stayed put, though; shuttering with each new pulse. Essek’s blood ran cold as he watched it. The ley lines were shifting in ways they never had before, and he had the sneaking suspicion that he was to blame.
Unable to face the consequences of his actions, Essek dispelled the magic that fueled the shifting. It didn’t take away the pounding headache. The pain ebbed and flowed until it consumed his every thought; he didn’t even realize he was walking toward the Lucid Bastion until he was halfway there.
The winding hallways didn’t help his disorientation, and he only made it to his eventual destination because he’d been there several times before. It was hard to figure out why he was there. None of his thoughts made complete sense. All he knew was everything else had failed so far and he wasn’t getting anywhere in his search for the spy, so this was as good a method as any other.
The guards outside the Bright Queen’s private chambers stopped Essek before he could barrel inside (which was probably for the best). One of them steadied him as the other went in to tell the Bright Queen he was there to speak with her. Essek was vaguely aware of someone saying she was in the middle of speaking with someone. His mind was buzzing; what was he going to say? He needed to go about this tactfully and yet his thoughts were muddied and fuzzy.
Eventually, the doors open and Essek was allowed inside. The Bright Queen sat behind her regal, dark oak desk with several papers spread before her. Just beside her was a familiar face: Valvyr Kilani. Essek hardly spared him a glance as he considered the Bright Queen, tunnel vision taking over. Before she could even address him, words tumbled from his mouth. “I know you’re planning on executing the Mighty Nein,” he said. It was the worst way to lead.
The Bright Queen’s open and welcoming expression dropped into a cold, clenched jaw look. To her credit, she didn’t try to seem surprised. Instead, she turned sharply to Valvyr and gave a short nod; he took his leave, looking just as desperate to leave as Essek was to be heard.
As soon as the doors were closed and they were alone, her low tone floated through the room. “Who told you?”
“Does it matter?” he drew closer with the words, but not enough to be threatening. He doubted if he could look threatening if he tried in this state; it dawned on him that he forgot his mantle at his home and he was planted firmly on the ground. The anger and desperation had clouded the reasonable and insecure part of his mind.
In all her regal glory, the Bright Queen straightened in her chair and steepled her fingers beneath her chin. “Say what you must.”
Essek didn’t need to be told twice. “It’s ludicrous. They have continually said they are on the side of whoever wants to end the war; they have returned one Beacon and intend to return another. You have always been a reasonable woman—”
“Choose your next words carefully, Shadowhand.”
“—Why kill them? Why not question them? Why not give them a trial so they at least have a chance to prove their innocence?” That was the crux of this, wasn’t it? Why was he forced into this endless repetition in the first place; the Mighty Nein never should have been slaughtered in the Cathedral. “They have been our allies; how are you willing to just throw that away?”
Thankfully, the surety and severity with which she regarded him seemed to break for a few seconds. The slip was soon corrected. Essek’s stomach sank. “Even allies are capable of betraying us.”
“They haven’t,” he insisted, his hands curled into fists atop her desk. The pain of his fingernails digging tiny crescents into the flesh of his palm was a distraction from the throbbing of his head. Blood rushed through his ears, drowning out his usually ordered thoughts. Gods, what was going on? He shook it away to listen to the Bright Queen.
“They have .” She sighed and rubbed her temples as if warding off a headache of her own. “I understand this must be confusing and difficult to take, but there are things that they’ve been doing that I haven’t informed you of—”
“What things? ” Essek demanded though he knew he had no right. Things were already heading in a dismal direction. If he ruined his good graces with the Bright Queen there was always another try. He doubted this would be the one to stick.
She gave a heavy sigh. “I have it on good authority that they have met with the Empire and called us their enemies. There are also reputable reports that they have been working with the Cerberus Assembly to infiltrate the dynasty and that they did not, in fact, recover the original Beacon as they told us. It was given to them to get closer to us. To build trust.”
It was ridiculous. It was more than Essek was even willing to stomach. After hearing the hatred for the Assembly in Caleb’s voice—hearing the bitter tone in his voice—Essek couldn’t believe it. The Bright Queen didn’t have his knowledge, though; she hadn’t spent time with the Nein outside of the diplomatic as he had. All her information was second hand.
“That’s not true ,” he protested. The words came out like those of a petulant child who hadn’t gotten their way. Essek hated it. With each second, the frustration of not being truly heard mounted.
It must’ve been her last straw because she rang a bell on the edge of her table and the door of the room opened as her two guards stepped in. “I don’t know what to tell you, Essek,” it landed like a knife in his chest, twisting and digging in until it was hard to breathe. Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Essek was still disappointed.
Even as the guards drew closer, he kept going, desperate to use every spare moment to his advantage. Time was a precious thing; he knew that better than most. “Please, I’m following a lead; I can find the real spy in our court if you only give me time.”
“Time for them to do more damage?” she challenged.
He was not above pleading with her. Damn the guards and damn the consequences; his body ached and he just wanted this to be done no matter how futile it was proving to be. “My Queen,” he sagged with the words, shoulders dropping as if dragged toward the ground, “I am begging you. Please— please, spare them.”
A tinge of sympathy came, but it looked more directed at his sorry state than his plight. Then, with the shuttering of her expression and squared shoulders, she said, “Give me proof.”
More than anything, Essek wished he had something more than loose ends to give her. There was the name, but no face to attach to it; there was Chadra, but the unverified words of a traitor were nothing to base an argument on. All he had was what he knew to be true; the Mighty Nein were good people and they deserved to keep living. It’d been years since Essek last felt the need to cry, but he was nearing the point of angry tears. “I—I… please . They are my friends.”
She didn’t look surprised. Of course she didn’t. It only worked to confirm her suspicions, no doubt; his personal fondness for the Nein was driving his words, not his head. That didn’t mean he was wrong . Still, she waved her hand and the guards grabbed Essek’s arms with just enough force to pull him away from her desk. “Take the Shadowhand to his home. He’s to stay there, under supervision, until further notice.”
Essek didn’t fight the guards. Some of his dignity was already left in that room, but he would try to hold his head high as he was led out of the Lucid Bastion and back to the confines of his quiet home. The Mighty Nein would be dead in several hours. He would have to do this all again.
The pain didn’t strike him in its full force until he was back. It ripped through his body until he was nearly doubled over in his study. Blood dripped from his nose like it had that morning, but it was joined by the worrying tinge of red in his vision. Two unseen forces held tight to him, one clinging to his skin and the other what laid beneath, and each one gave a terrible pull that made every stitch of his being strain to stay together.
He was going to die. That terrifying thought bounced around in his head as he scrambled, half-blinded by the blood clouding his vision, for the healing potions he kept tucked away inside his desk. He was going to die and come back in Luxon knows how long and the Mighty Nein would still be dead. A cough racked through his aching chest and splattered dark red against the papers on his desk. This would be a terrible place to die. Alone and in pain and crushed by the knowledge that he’d failed them.
By some miracle, one of his hands closed around the cool glass of a vial. Trembling fingers managed to pop off the cork, and he choked down the viscous liquid inside. It scorched its way down his throat and spread like fire through his veins, pulsing and beating back the pain until it was manageable. It was a little less like death and more like resurfacing after a brutal fight.
He took several more healing potions just to be safe. Each one went down with more ease, and the cold terror from before was washed away. So there were consequences to this spell of his. First the ley lines and now... whatever happened to him. How much longer could he keep doing this before he ripped apart the very fabric of time itself?
Perhaps he would find out.
Essek’s hands shook as he leaned against his desk. The bright red splotches of blood still marred his pages of spellwork, though they didn’t leave any of it unreadable. There was a choice before him; a choice to let go or hold on even tighter even if it killed him. Was it all worth it?
He drew the arcane symbols on his floor once again and muttered the spell that would take him back.
Chapter 6: Attempt 15
Essek spends an attempt with the Mighty Nein. Beau points out some feelings that make everything a little more complicated.
This late update is brought to you by the flu! Stay safe out there!
Again and again and again. The endless monotony of failure after failure clung to Essek just as much as the pain that came with each new reset. He grew into a routine of taking a healing potion or two after the spell ended. That didn’t stop the never-fading reminder of the ley line weathervane spinning wildly above his tower. The whirring became the soundtrack of his life.
Once, in a truly pitiful display of weakness, he decided to drink himself into a stupor in his own home. That did nothing but make him dizzy until the next try came. The Mighty Nein went to the Bright Queen all the same. They were slaughtered. At least he didn’t have to watch it for the tenth time; that was a kind reprieve. After so many repetitions the faces of the fallen mercenaries were stuck in his head, frozen in surprise and horror. Jester was always just turning to look at him, something like betrayal written on her face. Essek hated it.
He spent another try trancing to regain his energy which was frustrating because nothing was getting done. It wasn’t nearly as annoying as the time Valvyr stopped him, yet again , from getting out of going to the Cathedral for the execution. Though he managed to escape it several times, it still stabbed into him when he was stuck in that chair and unable to say or do anything to stop it. There should have been a break by then; he should have been able to find something .
He was fully prepared for this try to end like all the others. He was ready to go through the day frantically searching for a new thread just to come up short. After several run-throughs where he spent most of his days in the Conservatory or pouring over his detailed notes on Court members, he was convinced there was nothing to be found. So, when Jester’s familiar message came, he was tempted to turn down the offer in favor of continuing his fruitless efforts. He could only take so much discouragement, though.
On the other hand, he hadn’t seen them outside of the Cathedral in several attempts, and a large part of him ached for their company. An hour later, he was at their door with a bottle of fine wine. Beau opened the door (that was different; it was Fjord the last time he knocked), her face bruised and bloodied in a different pattern from before. Her signature sneer was replaced with an arched brow as she took in his appearance.
“Essek’s here!” she shouted to the rest of the house even though it didn’t look like anyone was waiting in the entryway. As she stepped aside to let him in, her eyes dropped to where the hem of his mantle dragged across the ground. “You’re not floating.” It wasn’t a question, but she did look genuinely surprised.
He stopped floating a while ago. Usually, the spell was so small it hardly cost him any energy to keep it going. Now just thinking about casting it made his body sore. He needed to save his energy to recast the time manipulation spell. There was no room for anything frivolous if he intended on keeping his pace (and he did). “No, I thought we were perhaps past that,” he said, and he took off his mantle as well. It was heavy, slumping his tired shoulders.
Though Beau took the mantle to hang it nearby, she didn’t stop staring at him as if he’d grown a third head. There was no reason; neither his body nor clothes were particularly odd as far as he was aware. He had to remember that, for Beau, this was the first time he’d ever taken off his mantle in front of her. Was he ever going to get used to the disconnect?
“I brought wine,” he added after clearing his throat, “to toast this thing Jester is excited to show me and ease the pain of whatever fight you’ve all come from.”
Beau’s face lit up at that, and she took the bottle from him when he held it out. “Oh, dope!” She motioned for him to follow her past the entryway. “You can head on up to the war room; I’ll bring this up in a second.” Before he could nod or say thank you, her loud shout rang through the air as she turned to the direction of the study. “Hey, Caleb! Come on out, Essek is here and he brought drinks!”
“Oh, you needn’t bother him—” Essek tried because it was impossible to forget how tired and beaten down Caleb always looked right about now.
“Nonsense; he’ll want to see you,” Beau shrugged.
The words were touching, though Essek didn’t know why. Perhaps it was just the reminder that the Mighty Nein wanted him around. Every time he showed up they seemed genuinely excited, if not merely interested, to see him. Even if he was only being used for teleportation purposes, it was nice to feel wanted. To feel needed.
Caleb wandered out of the training room soon after, not quite hurrying but also walking faster than was strictly necessary. As soon as he saw Essek his features softened, and Essek noticed he wasn’t wearing his bloodied coat. Instead, there was a crisp white shirt with sleeves that just barely concealed the closed wounds underneath. “Essek,” he said, the greeting soft and lovely as always. It washed over Essek like a welcomed balm, calming any fraying nerves and reminding him why he was going through this hell of a day over and over again.
“Caleb,” he greeted in return, his own smile coming easily, “I hope you’re feeling well.”
“As well as can be expected.” Caleb came closer as if to follow Essek toward the stairs, but he stopped when his eyes caught on something near Essek’s chin. The calm and open expression from before crumpled into a furrowed look of concern. “There’s blood on your collar.”
And your blood will be on the floor of the Cathedral later, prickled a bitter voice in Essek’s mind; the thought stabbed through his chest with enough force to make it hard to breathe. He steadied himself, forced the image of Caleb’s broken and bloodied body from his head, and tried to smile as he replied, “I had a nosebleed earlier.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
If Essek wasn’t so used to hiding behind a cool and collected facade, it would’ve been impossible to fight off a responding cringe. Instead, he clung to his smile. “Not at all. Just the weather, I think.” It was a lie, but it was also safer than the truth. He’d seen the way things went when Caleb knew the full story, and he could share bits and pieces of information but he was never going to watch things play out that way again.
They climbed the stairs to the war room where the others were waiting. Jester and Nott’s animated conversation about… something wandered from the room’s archway. When Essek stepped inside, the Beacon was on full display. “Essek!” Jester shouted the second she saw him, and the others offered their own greetings.
“Jester,” he responded in a tone so fond it caught everyone off guard but him. After all these tries, he’d grown used to her boisterousness. It was never annoying , just disarming and slightly disconcerting. It took a moment to become familiar with it, but now he understood why the group loved her so dearly.
“Come see,” she said as she tugged him toward the Beacon. “We managed to steal this one back from the Assembly!”
Right , he reminded himself, this is a surprise . It was hard to go over the same conversation, feign the same shock, but he always managed it. He asked the same questions he always asked (how? What about the peace talks? Where’s the other Beacon?) and received the same answers. Eventually, he was allowed to stop performing as they all settled at the table and Beau brought up (rather precariously) several cups and Essek’s wine.
“I hope you all know how proud I am to have you as my wards,” he said once they all had their own cups. A pointed yet teasing look came from Caleb then, and Essek amended his statement with, “And as my friends.” The sincerity in the words was enough to make his chest ache.
Frumpkin jumped into his lap, and Essek startled for just a moment before he cooed at the cat and scratched behind their orange ears. “Oh, Frumpkin,” Caleb stammered, looking surprised to see the cat rubbing their head against Essek’s chest, “I can dismiss him if you’d like; he usually doesn’t jump on people without my command.”
That was odd. Essek assumed Caleb was the one who encouraged Frumpkin to greet him. Though, when he looked down at the tabby and met their eyes, there was something there he couldn’t quite understand. A knowing look. Essek shook his head and kept petting Frumpkin; it was silly to think that Frumpkin would remember anything from the past tries. “It’s alright; I enjoy his company,” Essek said.
“You look a little tired,” Caduceus observed from the opposite end of the table. If it was anyone else saying it, Essek might’ve assumed they were being rude. Instead, he just felt like he was caught in a lie. “Is the war being particularly demanding right now?”
He was grateful for the easy out. “It has been… tense while you all were gone. Both sides are eager for the war to come to an end and neither wants to be the one to lose. Hopefully, these potential peace talks will bring an end to it.”
“And then we’ll all get some rest,” Fjord said with a huff of laughter. Essek tried to match it with his own small, “yes”, but he knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. He couldn’t truly rest until they were safe. The Dynasty and the Empire might go on fighting, but his priority was to make sure they were no longer caught in the middle.
“Have you been able to find the spy here in the Dynasty?” Beau asked. Essek barely managed not to flinch at the question. No matter how much he tried to forget the task at hand, something always dragged him back (whether it was his own haunted thoughts or the words of others).
After a long gulp of his wine, Essek shook his head. “No, though there was another prisoner brought in recently. She had new information, but I’m afraid none of it was useful enough to lead anywhere.” The line was blurry between what had happened and what still needed to happen; he stopped trying to make the distinction a while ago. His failed attempts were in the past; this one would likely join them.
“That sucks,” Jester grumbled. “There was a spy in the Empire too. Or, there was an agent of Tharizdun working against both the Empire and the Dynasty. I bet the same thing is happening here.”
Essek had considered that. He certainly didn’t doubt it as a possibility. “For the time being, this case seems more tied to the Assembly than anything else.”
“Doesn’t mean they can’t be tied to Tharizdun too,” Beau pointed out. “Those fuckers are tricky and I don’t doubt they’d meddle in cult stuff if it meant getting the Empire off their back.” She looked around at the others, waving her cup around and almost spilling some of her wine on the wooden table. “They were being real shifty about not letting us help clean up that cathedral.”
Just the mention of the word “cathedral” made Essek flinch. It was a horribly vulnerable reaction that thankfully went unnoticed. “I’ll keep an open mind,” Essek told her. “But for now I have a name and good reason to believe someone from the Assembly, or someone closely connected to it, has gained enough access to leak important information on the Beacon.”
“Whatever they’ve leaked, it hasn’t been enough for the Assembly to figure out everything ,” Caleb said, and that was reassurance in itself. “They seemed genuinely perplexed by the Beacon.”
“Let us hope it stays that way.” He would need to go soon if there was any hope of getting back to his home before anyone tried to stop him and bring him to the Cathedral instead. Just thinking about performing the spell again conjured a headache. Another sip of wine didn’t take that away, but it certainly distracted him.
“But if they’ve gotten close enough to get information that would mean they’re a drow or a goblin or something,” Jester huffed, twirling her already empty cup. The milk Beau brought up especially for her hadn’t lasted long. “There’s no one like that in the Assembly, right Caleb?”
“Unless their ideologies have drastically changed, no.”
Essek shook his head. “No, it’s probably a human or an elf masquerading as something else. I just didn’t expect it to be this hard to track them down.”
“Well, let us know if you find out anything else and need our help,” Caduceus said. “You look like you could use a hand.”
“And we could work toward repaying those favors,” Fjord added.
It was odd to hear it brought up. Of course, Essek remembered the first time he introduced the concept of his assistance coming at a cost. At first, he was accruing the favors to put toward asking them to find the other Beacon. Then he kept collecting them just to give the Mighty Nein an excuse to come back to the Dynasty. To come back to him .
Who was he ever trying to fool? He became attached long ago.
“Consider them all repaid in full,” he offered, enjoying the looks of pleasant surprise that answered him. “Now, if you ask me to teleport you twice in one day again, I can reconsider that—”
A few stuttering laughs started around the table, the first coming from Jester who looked equal parts happy and surprised. It was the first joke of his that actually earned a laugh from all of them and… Essek didn’t want to admit it, but it felt good . And it was terrible at the same time. He shouldn’t have wasted this day. He shouldn’t have felt so comfortable sitting around a table with them, drinking and joking when he knew where they would end up at the end of the day. That didn’t stop him from wanting to stay in that moment.
His logic won out over his heart, as it often did, and he pushed his empty cup toward the center of the table. Frumpkin chirped in his lap as Essek disturbed their slumber by placing them—gently—onto the empty chair beside him. “I should get going; there’s still much to be done.”
“You don’t want to stay for dinner?” Jester pouted. It was a truly tragic picture. Essek hated that he almost caved.
“It’s not a question of want; I have some business to take care of,” he corrected, because—even if they wouldn’t remember—he needed them to know that he enjoyed their company. He hadn’t said it enough before they were in immediate danger. “I’m sure there will be another time.” Essek was going to make sure of it.
“Here, I’ll walk you out,” Beau said, and he didn’t even have time to protest—to say he was more than capable of making it back to the front door—before she vaulted out of her seat and was at his side. Though she didn’t grab his arm, it was a near thing. There wasn’t hostility in her rigid demeanor, but Essek could see the way her jaw clenched. He followed her lead after waving goodbye to the rest of the Nein.
She didn’t stop him until they reached the front door. Calloused, strong fingers dug into the fabric of his tunic and held him in place. Part of him was expecting it; he didn’t try to pull away. When Essek looked at her, Beau’s eyes searched his for any sign of… well, he wasn’t sure. Eventually, she found her words, “I know you’ve got like a thing for Caleb—”
Essek’s heart slammed against his chest for one painful second. The sudden jolt reminded him too much of the tearing feeling from a few tries back as if his heart was fighting to escape. It settled, though his pulse didn’t slow. None of it made sense to him; it was as though he’d been caught. But caught doing what?
A thing for Caleb? Somehow, he knew she wasn’t referring to the respect he had for the other wizard (though he had plenty of that). Surely she was just trying to poke and prod at him until she got a reaction. Why was it working?
Unable to wrangle his racing thoughts or heart, he stammered, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Alright, yeah, I get you might not want to admit it but you’re not really subtle,” she grumbled, and Essek scoffed as if to protest but she soldiered on. “Can you just be careful? He’s been through a lot, and he’s—he’s not fragile , but there’s a lot there, you know?”
There were few moments in Essek’s life when he was genuinely stumped. This was one of them. His thoughts were going in so many different directions that, eventually, they all fell away. The only thing left was a sort of realization. “I…”
“Just don’t hurt him or I’ll kill you.”
Still too numb to give an intelligible answer, Essek nodded. Apparently that was enough; Beau gave him a crooked smile and a light punch on the shoulder before saying goodbye and closing the door. Essek was left to stand there, eyes wide and heart beating wildly. By some miracle, he found the will to walk away from the Xhorhaus.
It was ridiculous. Essek didn’t have feelings for Caleb. Sure, he hated having to watch Caleb die, and he especially hated it when it was his fault. But having feelings for someone and not wanting them to die are two very different things! It wasn’t as though Essek was just trying to save Caleb. And yet…
And yet Essek couldn’t deny that, in every attempt and even before his shitty situation began, he always looked forward to seeing Caleb. In the beginning, the Empire wizard was a curiosity and little more. Now, Essek found a kinship with him and the rest of the Mighty Nein that Essek hadn’t felt in a while. He and Caleb were on the same page. There were few things more invigorating than discussing dunamancy with someone and watching their eyes light up just as much as his own.
Essek’s feet carried him back to his home out of habit. Part of him cursed Beau. Out of all the days when she could have jolted him out of his obliviousness, she had to do it then. He was determined to put it aside. It could wait until he managed to save the Mighty Nein. Or he would die trying and he could rest in ignorance until he was reborn and had to bear the memory of this all over again. (Or he would rip apart time itself, but he didn’t want to consider that option).
Just as he made it to the gates of his home, a voice called to him. “Shadowhand!” His gaze snapped to who was speaking, and it took every inch of his self-control not to groan when he saw Valvyr coming closer. Of course. Essek wondered how his luck went from never seeing this man to finding Valvyr around every corner. “Do you have a moment?”
“Not really,” Essek grumbled, but his hand fell away from the gate of his home. It wasn’t going to stop Valvyr from talking; Essek had been through this enough times to know Valvyr just liked the sound of his own voice. If he was lucky, he could dodge a few questions and slip inside before he was asked to accompany Valvyr to the Cathedral.
“It really won't take long,” Valvyr said, but the tone and biting smile that came with the words made it clear that he didn’t care if that was a lie or not. “I just thought I would stop by to deliver an invitation to some proceedings happening in the Cathedral soon.”
An invitation, Essek bristled; as if the execution of the Mighty Nein was some sort of celebration. Perhaps it was for some. As much as he knew it was a lost cause, Essek spoke through a tight smile, “Unfortunately, I have a lot of work to do—”
Valvyr’s pleasant smile slipped away. “I’m afraid this isn’t optional.” Ah, Essek was afraid of that. If he had to go back to that Cathedral he was sure he’d make a scene. The question was just how to evade going. “I think you’ll want to be there for this anyway. Your little wards will be there; you know, the ones you deem fit to share Dynasty secrets with.” Essek’s eyes narrowed and his shoulders squared with prickly defensiveness. “You really shouldn’t share such sensitive information with traitors.”
That time, Essek didn’t bother to hide the rancour in his tone; his words were practically growled. “They’re not traitors.”
None of it was enough to make Valvyr look threatened. He simply raised his hands in surrender; a ring on his right hand caught the light of a nearby streetlamp. “Alright.”
“How do you even know what I shared with them?” The sickly spread of realization, like the creep of disease through one’s veins, invaded Essek’s thoughts. “Were you scrying on me?”
Valvyr snorted. At least they were both past hiding their contempt for each other. “Don’t flatter yourself. I was scrying on the Mighty Nein . You just happened to be there.”
“And when did the Bright Queen authorize this new surveillance?” They were his wards; he was supposed to be informed on any new developments in case he needed to get involved.
“Oh, Shadowhand,” Valvyr tutted. It was filled with a condescension that Essek hated in part because it’s the same tone he used on others sometimes. Being on the receiving end came like a slap to the face. “She stopped including you on the scrying schedule as soon as she realized how… involved you were becoming with them. As far as I’m concerned, you’re no longer qualified to ask about authorization.”
Though Essek probably could have guessed that on his own, he deflated. The infiltration ran deep if the Bright Queen had been turned against him until his word meant nothing to her anymore. Even though he knew that after he tried reasoning with her, it hurt to be reminded. Gods, everything hurt. Why was his head pounding? It was a terrible time for things to go wrong: a terrible time to show weakness.
“It is strange,” Valvyr began again, one brow arched with curiosity. “How you seem to know so much about what the new prisoner has to say and yet, as far as my records show, you haven’t visited her yet.”
That cut through everything. Essek’s eyes blew wide and he tried to keep anything from showing in his voice when he said, “How do you know that?” There was no way Valvyr knew about the repeated day… he couldn’t.
“You’re not the only one who has a habit of keeping tabs on others,” Valvyr smirked after seeing Essek’s uneasiness before he straightened up and schooled his features into something more professional. “Come, the Queen is waiting.”
An icy dread stabbed into Essek; he didn’t know if he could move even if he wanted to. “No.”
Valvyr’s ridiculously sculpted brow shot up. “No?”
Without answering, Essek opened the gates to his home, rushed inside, and slammed them closed behind him. “What are you doing?!” He ignored the shout, opting instead to race into his own home, locking every door behind him to at least slow Valvyr if the ass of a man was following. It was dangerous to rush any complex spell, let alone one that was still largely experimental. Essek didn’t care.
He grabbed his book of notes from his desk—it kept all the details of his past attempts and failures along with the notes on the spell—and he tucked it under his arm. The doors of his home were banging open. He grabbed a fistful of gold dust—more than he needed—and tossed it into the air before muttering the words of the spell and tracing the arcane symbols in the air.
The door to his study banged open, and just as Valvyr stepped in the spell took hold of reality. Essek let out a breath as, for what felt like the thousandth time, time turned back.
Chapter 7: Attempt 16
Essek gets some new information and decides to get help from the only person he trusts enough to ask.
Ayyy, got this out later than I wanted (as always) but still before the current episode ended!
All of Exandria stood still. The planet shifted into what seemed to be an eternal slumber before lurching back into motion, and Essek was sure he was the only one who felt it. He also felt the familiar tearing of his body. The pull of inside against out as if each plane of existence grabbed hold of a different part of his being and yanked . For several moments, he ground his teeth through the pain and tried to wait for it to pass.
The book in his hand filled with his notes from previous attempts weighed heavy in his hands. He tried to focus on the rough feel of its leather cover. The cold press of its silver buckle. With a few deep breaths and steadying thoughts, he was finally able to recover his composure. Even if the pain wasn’t gone, it was bearable (it would have to stay that way; he was out of healing potions and had no time to buy anymore).
He was lucky Valvyr just barely made it into the room. A few steps closer and he would’ve been swept up into the spell with Essek and who knows how that would have ended. That man had the ability to get under Essek’s skin faster than anyone else; he was a nuisance .
There was no time to worry about him. No time . There were so few seconds in the day and still so much to do. That was always the hardest part of going back: what needed to be found? What needed to be corrected first? And where was he supposed to start? This time around, he was lost and waiting for a sign of what might be amiss.
When Jester messaged him, he let her know he would be by later. Until then, there was something he needed to do. Maybe he didn’t know what that was right then, but he was going to find out. At least ten minutes were spent just pacing—ten minutes wasted —before the next message came.
Shadowhand, the Skysybil would like to speak to you about her suspicions of a possible spy. She wants you to meet her at her office.
That was different. Though that was possibly a boon for Essek, it made his already pounding heart beat faster. How many more things were going to change and why were they changing? He knew there would be risks to going back so many times, but he hoped the costs weren’t too great. After this was all said and done he was going to burn the notes for this spell. It was too dangerous to be meddled with.
He hurried to the Lucid Bastion and toward the Skysybil’s office. It was a large thing tucked into a space near the Bright Queen’s quarters, and Essek had been enough time that the guards didn’t give him any troubles. The doors opened for him and he stepped in to see Skysybil Abrianna Mirimm’s ancient goblin form hunched over papers on her desk, muttering wildly. As soon as Essek was inside and the doors closed behind him, her gaze snapped up.
“Shadowhand!” she shrieked through what might’ve been intended to be a whispered yell. “Come here.”
Essek wasn’t fond of the demanding tone, but he did try to disobey. He knew better than that. The papers looked to be hastily scrawled notes and diagrams of one of the Luxon Beacons. Of all the times he spoke to Chadra, he never had the time to see the evidence that convicted her. If he had to guess, that was what he was looking at right then.
“My damn assistant has been sending information about the Beacon to the Cerberus Assembly,” the Skysybil hissed, jabbing her finger into the crumpled page of one of the notes. Trent Ikithon was scratched into the top of it, and the content of the letter was damning.
“Did you send for her to be apprehended?” he wondered, almost as an afterthought while he read through some of the attached documents. Most were collections from the Conservatory detailing what the Dynasty knew of the inner workings of the Beacons and how they were used.
The Skysybil crossed her green arms over her chest and huffed. “I’m going to ask that bastard Valvyr to scry on her to find out where she’s hiding so I can tear her up like a weed myself. Don’t worry, I’ll send her to you for questioning when I’m done with her.”
Just the mention of Valvyr’s name struck him until his body went rigid and he grumbled, “Don’t do that.”
“Don’t send her to the Dungeons?” Skysybil scoffed, but Essek shook his head quickly.
“Don’t ask Valvyr to be the one to scry on her; I don’t trust him.”
He was prepared to be brushed off, but he figured it was worth a try. The less Valvyr was involved in all this, the better Essek would feel. Though the Skysybil cocked a brow at him, she didn’t protest. She simply nodded and told one of her guards to go find Chadra. At least his word was still enough to sway someone .
“Someone had to give her this information,” the Skysybil tutted. “I know for a fact she was never granted access to the Conservatory. These types of documents aren’t just lying around for anyone to look at let alone take .”
Essek nodded. That’s what he figured. Chadra said she was given all the documents she sent to the Assembly. The question still stood: who gave her those documents?
“Can I take these? I might be able to learn something by reading through them.” It was a significant request. These papers were evidence and, even as the Shadowhand, he knew it probably looked suspicious. The Skysybil narrowed her eyes at him. It was a long few seconds before she nodded. “I will bring them back to you when I’m done.”
As long as I don’t have to do this all again, he thought to himself.
The suspicion didn’t seem to disappear, but it lessened as Skysybil nodded again and said, “Alright.”
Not needing any more reassurance, he collected the papers and tucked them into his pocket dimension to free up his hands. Best not to walk around in public with sensitive information out for all to see. “Thank you, Skysybil,” he said, bowing to her before he took his leave.
His feet carried him to the Xhorhaus easily. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but he still ended up outside of their door. Jester opened the door this time, eyes wide and excited when she saw him standing on the stoop. She wasted no time pulling him inside. “Essek, you have to see what we got!”
“Alright,” he huffed out through a little laugh; it was impossible not to be charmed by Jester’s bubbliness (no matter how hard he tried to resist it in the beginning). After all these dismal attempts, there were few things that managed to put a smile on his face and make him forget—if only for a second—how terribly all this could turn out. “I do need to speak to Caleb afterwards, though.”
Jester’s brows shot up with something close to surprise before turning mischievous. It looked like she was about to tease him—he wasn’t sure how he would’ve handled that since he was still recovering from Beau’s confrontation—but that slipped away into something more serious. “Just… be gentle when you talk to him. We got in a fight with the Assembly earlier and—and Beau died—”
Essek’s body froze in the middle of the next step up the stairs. A searing and pulsing pain shattered through his chest, and his voice broke when he spoke, “What?”
“She’s alright! I managed to revive her, but Caleb isn’t taking it well,” the response flooded out like a deluge as Jester took him by the arms as if to steady him. She was stronger than she looked and her grip was a bit tight, but it was grounding.
Of course, Caleb wouldn’t take it well. The Assembly was already a sore spot for Caleb, and for them to lose one of their party members at the hands of the Assembly—that was an unimaginable pain. And, though Essek was worried about Beau and Caleb, he was more worried about the implications. This wasn’t misplaced bruises or a different person answering the front door: this was death . Essek was supposed to be the only one caught in the crossfire of this spell.
How many more tries were left before one of them died and couldn’t be brought back?
“Is she resting?” he asked once he had control over his thoughts and his voice again.
Jester grumbled, “I told her to, but she and Caleb are in the study right now.” Her face lit up again after that, though the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes as it did before. “But you can talk to them later! We brought something back with us!”
Even as he followed her, a numbness crept through his limbs. It wasn’t quite like the pain he experienced when he restarted each day, but it was close. Instead of the harsh jabs and stabbing, there was the pinprick of a thousand tiny needles across the bluish-grey expanse of his skin. He managed to smile through Jester presenting the recovered Beacon, and he hugged her like he so often did during these attempts. None of it pushed away the insistent buzzing in his bones.
He made it downstairs again by some miracle. Caduceus sent him into the study with three precariously balanced cups of steaming tea. When he pushed the door open with his foot, it creaked. The sound seemed to alert Beau and Caleb to his presence; Beau dropped her hand from where it was on Caleb’s shoulder. They were both hunched close together in the room’s two chairs, seemingly taking comfort in each other’s presence.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much, alright?” she said before she stood, patting Caleb on the back and earning a string of mumbled words. As she went to the door, she offered Essek one of her more sincere smiles. “Hey, dude, did you talk to Jester?”
There was a giant patch of dried blood over her abdomen, outlining where a gnarly gash probably once was. Whatever she asked didn’t register; his eyes were stuck to the spot. Somehow, this was worse than seeing their limp bodies on the Cathedral floor. This was his fault.
He snapped back into himself and held out one of the cups of tea. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well,” he finally said, trying to smile through the guilt. It must’ve been convincing enough; Beau smiled back at him.
“It’d take a bit more than a group of magical fucks to kill me,” she joked as she took the tea he offered. Though it was obviously meant to be comforting, Caleb made a choked off sound behind her and she cringed as if that wounded her all over again. “I’ll, uh—I’ll leave you two to talk,” she sighed. Just as she made it to the door, she turned back and looked at Caleb, “I mean it; don’t blame yourself.”
They were alone then and—though Caleb seemed happy to see him—there was sadness in the other wizard’s eyes that hadn’t quite been there before. “Essek,” he greeted, and at least that was familiar.
“Jester told me what happened,” he said in a greeting of his own, taking the chair Beau left.
A rueful laugh stuttered out of Caleb’s chest. “Did she tell you the only reason Beau died is because she was protecting me ? She took the brunt of a spell that was meant for me .”
There was anger and sorrow in the words, and Caleb didn’t meet his eyes while he spoke. Essek took the chance to glance over Caleb’s form. The usual blood wasn’t as present; though his arms were still bloodied, there didn’t seem to be any remnant of wounds beside that. “Ah… no, she failed to mention that,” he said, but he was quick to go on. “But that doesn’t make it your fault.”
“Doesn’t it?” Caleb bit back. “It was my idea to grab the Beacon before we left. It was my plan because I thought I knew Ikithon well enough to predict his moves; if I hadn’t suggested any of it, we never would’ve been caught.”
The more Essek spoke, the more he hated the tone. The deep loathing laced into the words, of Caleb tearing himself down, made his own skin itch with distaste. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t because of the feelings brought into question by Beau, but he knew better than that. In the end, it was enough to let his words slip out, “It’s not your fault. It’s—it’s my fault.”
At least it stopped Caleb’s self-deprecated rant. But Essek’s mistake registered the second he saw Caleb’s brow lift with confusion. “Essek—” he began, but Essek was already tripping over a plausible explanation.
“You wouldn’t have felt you had to get the Beacon if I hadn’t pushed the idea of these ridiculous favors,” Essek stumbled over the words; it was his turn to avoid Caleb’s gaze. “If I hadn’t asked for the Beacon of all things—”
“You couldn’t have known,” Caleb insisted.
“And neither could you,” Essek pointed out, managing to hit the heart of the situation enough that Caleb’s mouth snapped closed and his look of challenge turned to resignation. “What matters is Beau is alive.”
Apparently, Caleb wasn’t completely finished. “I’m putting them in danger.”
Reaching over and scooting closer on his chair, Essek placed his hand over Caleb’s. The simple touch made Caleb’s head snap up again, his eyes meeting Essek’s earnestness. “They seem happy to be there; I think, if you asked them, they’d tell you they were happy to help.”
They were close—closer than they’d ever been in the past attempts—and Essek cursed his mind when it wandered to the thought of breaching the little distance between them. His eyes dropped to Caleb’s lips for just a second. It was enough; Caleb let out a shaky laugh, his cheeks going dark, and he pulled his hands away from Essek to turn them toward a pile of string on the nearby desk. Curse Beau for putting these realizations in front of him; none of this was productive.
“You didn’t come to comfort me,” Caleb rushed out as if chastising himself for something. “What can I help you with, Essek?”
Part of Essek wanted to correct Caleb—to tell him comforting him wasn’t part of the plan, but it was something he was more than willing to do—but he had to remind himself that there were grander things at play. It wouldn’t be long before the guards would come looking for the Mighty Nein. Still weighing his options, he eventually opened the pocket dimension that held Chadra’s paper.
“I know you probably don’t want to discuss the Assembly,” just as he thought, Caleb’s body went rigid at the words, “but I have reason to believe they have a spy here in the Dynasty, and I’m close to finding out who it is and bringing them down.”
When Caleb looked at him again, there was a light in his eyes that was gone before, but it held the edge of something vicious. “I don’t want to discuss the Assembly, but I’ll do anything to throw a wrench in their plans.” He sounded delighted . After what happened, Essek couldn’t blame him. “But, to be fair, Beau probably has more experience with espionage—or, well, counterespionage. I could message her to come back in and—”
“That’s alright; I think we can handle this on our own,” Essek cut in, not wanting to be rude but also not eager to welcome someone back into this private space. Then, because he knew it probably came off as desperate or suspicious, he added on, “She should take her time to rest.”
It’s only for practical reasons , Essek told himself, Caleb is the only one with protection against scrying . The others would just put the information at risk without meaning to, and he couldn’t chance that when he was so close to getting an answer. Not to mention he didn’t want to repeat himself to another person. Yes, this would be for practical reasons (and practical reasons only).
Essek set the papers out on the desk, spreading them out so every detail could be seen. The writing was precise in some places and messy in others, dotted with spilt ink and smudged letters. Every diagram was part of meticulous Conservatory notes, and Caleb stared at those for a moment before his eyes wandered to one of the letters laid out and—Caleb sucked in a sharp breath.
The letter addressed to Ikithon.
Carefully, Essek pointed to the scrawled name and spoke in a low tone, “Your old mentor, right? I’m sorry to remind you of him, especially after—“
“It’s alright. This is more important than my distaste.” Essek went to protest but was stopped when Caleb continued. “I just find it odd. He and the others in the Assembly have had the Beacons for so long, and these notes are so detailed…” He glanced at Essek again, brows furrowed. “How long has the spy been sending information like this?”
There were always suspicions of spies being thrown about in times of war, but figuring out when an accusation was true was always the hard part; Essek shrugged. “It could be months or years; there’s no way to know for sure until I know who it is. I suspect it’s at least been happening since the start of the war.”
Caleb didn’t look surprised, but he did turn his eyes back to the papers and let out an almost mirthful laugh, “Even with so many pieces to the puzzle, none of them seem to have grasped Dunamancy the way they hope.”
“Not everyone can be as gifted and powerful as you.” The compliment slipped out easily, and Essek didn’t regret saying it. Caleb was prone to downplaying his talents; Essek would take any chance he could get to build him up instead.
Another laugh bubbled out of Caleb this time, little but fond all the same. The sharp light in his bright blue eyes seemed to soften. “Not everyone has such a brilliant teacher.”
Cheeks burning, Essek focused on the clues in front of them again, muttering something incoherent. For the better part of half an hour, they poured over the details of each page and paper. Even with all the information inside, there was little to be found about the spy. The sign off bore the familiar name: Godabert Dressler.
At some point, after Essek relayed his conversation with Chadra, Caleb sat up a little straighter in his chair. “Do you think they’re masquerading as a Drow or Goblin or something that wouldn’t stick out here?” he asked, not completely meeting Essek’s eyes as the gears in his head seemed to turn.
“I imagine so; they wouldn’t get far walking around as a human if that’s what they truly are.”
“Well then, there are ways to disguise oneself for an extended amount of time…” at the thought, Caleb’s easy and thoughtful look turned into something… hesitant. There wasn’t fear, but it neared that. Even Essek grew nervous as he waited for whatever Caleb didn’t want to say. “We, ah, perhaps weren’t entirely truthful about our old housekeeper.”
“Dairon?” Caleb nodded and Essek couldn’t help but chuckle as he remembered the woman the Mighty Nein tried to casually introduce to him. “Oh, don’t worry; your friends are not very skilled liars. I looked into Dairon soon after we were introduced. She was with the Cobalt Soul, wasn’t she?”
Again, Caleb nodded. “You know about her ring, then.”
The humor was sucked out of Essek; he leaned forward with interest and intrigue. “Her ring?”
“She’s not actually Drow; the disguise would drop if you twisted the ring.”
That made a little sense; the Cobalt Soul probably didn’t have many—if any—Drow amongst their ranks. Though he considered the use of enchanted objects for disguise in past attempts, it was nice to know of a specific method . “Do you think this leak, this mole, might be doing the same?”
“I mean, if she has access to such a thing, why not someone just as powerful from the Assembly?”
It was a good point, but it was interrupted by a banging on the front door and the sound of guards yelling for someone to answer their call. An icy dread shot through Essek’s body and he stood from his chair as panic rose in his chest like bile. “Don’t let them in,” Essek demanded, the words harsh even to his ears.
“What?” Caleb wondered, halfway out of his own chair and heading toward the door of the room. As soon as Essek heard the others in the house coming down the stairs, he frantically searched through his pockets for his spell components. The gold dust was in his pockets, and he borrowed the chalk on Caleb’s desk.
“Keep them out of this room!” Essek said, more urgent this time. The ruins on the floor were rushed, but they would work in a pinch. He could hear the door at the front of the house creaking open, and he went faster, fumbling the last few markings before he stood up.
Caleb still stood at the door, bracing it with his back even though he looked confused. “What are you doing?” he wondered as Essek stepped into the center of the circle and took out a handful of golden dust.
“Saving you,” he said, and he threw the golden dust, muttered the words and returned to the day’s beginning for what he hoped was the last time.
Chapter 8: Attempt 17
Essek is running out of time. More than just the survival of the Mighty Nein is at stake, but who would he be if he wasn't willing to risk it all to save his friends?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The mistakes in the ruins were enough to deal a brutal blow to Essek when he arrived at the beginning of the day again. After all the times he’d gone through it, the pain came easily. That didn’t make it any more manageable than before. He swore it was worse, tearing at his bones and his body until both were diametrically opposed.
It didn’t help that he tried the spell in a new environment. He’d never been outside of the place he technically started the day in, and when he was returned to his study it was like being tied to a Moorbounder and dragged through Rosohna. Limbs ached and muscles groaned with each movement. It took him nearly an hour to feel even a fraction better than he did then. And then came the distraction of Jester’s message.
Hey, Essek. We’re back in Rosohna, but we have some bad news. Can you come by the Xhorhausn to talk?
Everything in Essek froze. Even the discordant unrest of his buzzing and aching bones quieted with horror at the message. It was unlike Jester to use less than the 25 words allotted for the spell. And bad news?
His first thought was that someone died. Perhaps it was Beau again, or maybe someone else slipped away during the battle. What if they didn’t have the ability to heal whoever it was? If someone was dead… it was all Essek’s fault. All these attempts to save them were putting them in just as much danger.
He didn’t even respond; he just clutched his book of notes and raced to the Xhorhaus, heart in his throat and threatening to beat itself to an early death. Even reaching the door didn’t calm his fears; his head pounded like the beat of a thousand war drums, and the sound of his knock shattered through his skull. When the door opened, it swept him into a fit of dizziness; he could barely make out the vague shape of Caduceus’ lanky form through his swimming vision.
“Are you alright?”
The words came to him from an ocean away. It was garbled and muffled, but it shot white-hot pain through Essek’s body nevertheless. Every nerve ending was alight with inescapable agony, and he felt every second of it before—
Before it stopped. As quickly as it came, it retreated like a wave on sand, pulling back into itself. Essek waited for it to crash into him again, turn his thoughts over in its tumbling current, but nothing came. All that greeted him was Caduceus’ worried features and outstretched hand.
“Is everyone alive?” he blurted out as if it was his first thought coming out of a nightmare. Perhaps that was more accurate than he wanted to admit.
Caduceus stopped, heavy brow furrowed and ears turning down. For a long moment, he studied Essek, examining him like a sickly patient. Each second that ticked by was another excruciating moment of worry. “Yes?” Caduceus finally said, the perplexed tone shining through as his hand rose again as if to touch Essek’s face. It landed on his nose. The second Caduceus touched the place where his cheek met his nose, a shock of pain hit Essek. “Are you—”
“Where’s Caleb?” he stumbled out, not meaning to be rude but pushing past Caduceus all the same. He had to see everyone—he had to see Caleb —just to make sure he hadn’t fucked everything up before he even began again. “Is he here? I need to see him.”
“He’s in the study, but—”
The words were barely out before Essek started walking in that direction. It was familiar now, this path. What wasn’t familiar was seeing Beau and Yasha sparring in the training room, not bloodied or bruised from a fight but breathless and bubbly as Jester watched them exchange barely-there hits. The second she saw him, Jester shot up from her place. “Essek!” it was a much different tone from what greeted him in her message, but the smile fell when her gaze swept over his face. From the direction of the study, there was a loud bang and a string of curses. “What happened? Are you alright? Your nose—”
“Caleb,” he mumbled, voice barely there as he turned toward the door of the study “I need to see Caleb—”. He probably sounded crazed, but it was all worth it when the door of the study swung open and Caleb stood there, out of breath but clean and—for-fucking-once—not covered in blood.
The smile that he received, so fond and genuine, rivaled all the others from the different tries. For several glorious moments, it was focused on Essek and nothing else until—
Until Caleb’s eyes caught something on Essek’s face. “You’re bleeding,” he said, a frown marring his rough features as he stepped closer. Though Essek wasn’t expecting it, Caleb reached to touch where Caduceus had just a few moments before. It still burned, but Essek couldn’t care less; he was sure Caleb’s touch would burn wherever it landed. His eyes closed, half with relief and half with contentment.
“I was going to try healing him,” Caduceus’ voice wandered into the room, sounding just as concerned as when Essek brushed past him.
“That’s a lot of blood,” Beau pointed out, sounding almost… impressed. “Did someone deck you?”
It’s not nearly as much as you’re normally wearing , he wanted to say, but he only managed to open his eyes again and look at her before Caduceus cut in.
“It started on the doorstep; I didn’t get a chance to see what was wrong.”
Caleb tutted his tongue as if he was reprimanding Frumpkin, but Essek couldn’t find the will to be upset about it; all that came was a deep wave of endearment. “Let Caduceus take a look at this, alright? Beau’s right; it’s a lot of blood,” Caleb said; Essek knew he’d go along with anything this wizard told him to do. He nodded numbly.
By some miracle, he managed to string together an intelligible sentence as Caduceus took his face in two large—but gentle—hands. “I don’t have much time.” Time. Time . It was all moving so quickly and he was wasting so much of it. None of them should be worrying about him; there was too much to do and such little time. Time . He counted the seconds as Caduceus looked him over it; ten, eleven, twelve—seconds that could have been spent on better things. More productive things. There was just no time .
“Hm,” Caduceus grumbled, his mouth turned down with displeasure. “I’m not quite sure what caused it.”
“I’m fine,” Essek was quick to say, ready to pull Caleb into the study and pick up where they left off. “The weather has just been a little dry lately—”
“Are you sure?” Jester asked, her big eyes boring into Essek. “Let me heal you just in case.”
“Perhaps later,” he responded with a cringe, hating to reject the help but knowing he could apologize for it later when they weren’t all about to be killed. He turned back to Caleb. “Can we talk? I have some urgent matters—”
“Of course,” Caleb didn’t even hesitate, stepping aside to let Essek into the study even as he sent him a few worried looks.
Before he could leave the training room completely, Jester grabbed the sleeve of his shirt. “Essek, wait!” he stopped, though he loathed to do it, and he gave her his full attention as she bit her lip and looked… ashamed. “We found out the location of another Beacon, and we tried to get it, but it was too dangerous—”
With the sincerest smile he could muster, Essek took her by the shoulders to stop her nervous ramble. “I am sure you all tried your best, but what matters is you’re here and you’re safe. That is enough for me.”
For a very painful moment, it looked as though Jester was going to cry. Instead, she tackled him in a hug that both knocked his bones into painful discordance and knit a few back together. Surprising everyone else in the room, he returned the hug easily and with just as much vigor. However, there was still work to be done; he eventually extracted himself from her strong grip and followed Caleb the rest of the way into the study.
“Take a seat,” Caleb insisted, even pulling one of the chairs in the room away from its desk and leaving it open for Essek. As much as he wanted to protest the special treatment, his body was too heavy to put up much of a fight. He sunk into the upholstered cushions and let his shoulders slump. “Give me one moment, I think I have…” the words trailed off as Caleb disappeared into his room and came back with what looked to be a damp cloth. “Here, I’m sure you’ll feel much better without that blood on you.”
Instead of handing the cloth to Essek, Caleb leaned against the desk for a moment as he hunched over Essek and dabbed the cool cloth against Essek’s face. It was a needed balm. Essek wasn’t sure if he would ever grow used to the easy way the Mighty Nein seemed to touch and receive touch, but this… this was nice. As he stared up at Caleb’s blue eyes (gods, had they always been so blue?), he tried to imagine this under different circumstances. That just made him acutely aware of the situation—of the time —and he grabbed Caleb’s wrist to stop his efforts.
It was the smallest contact of skin, the gentlest grip, but Caleb froze. Essek was about to apologize before a dark flush rolled over Caleb’s cheeks and the tips of his pale ears. “Right, you can do this yourself,” he rushed out, handing the bloodied cloth to Essek before quickly turning away to no doubt hide his growing blush. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s alright,” Essek assured him, glad for his darker skin and the way it hopefully concealed his own embarrassment. His heart thrummed wildly in his chest, and for once it wasn’t because of the impending gloom of failure. Was it foolish to think Caleb had feelings for him too? After all, Beau did warn him not to hurt Caleb; she hadn’t warned him to stay away because Caleb wasn’t interested. That had to be a good sign and—
There was no time for this. No time . Essek needed answers and he needed them fast.
“You said we needed to talk,” Caleb prompted after clearing his throat. When he turned around again, there were still remnants of his blush.
Essek launched into the long explanation of the spy and the Assembly and the letters, words tumbling out faster than his mind could keep up with. He scrambled to lay the letters on the table, flipped through the pages in his book of notes with fumbling fingers, and stuttered over past revelations. Eventually, he found his way to Caleb’s words from the last try: “So, it’s very probably that they’re using something like an enchanted ring to blend in and the disguises used to speak with Chadra were just meant to cover their tracks—”
“So now you just have to find out who’s wearing the enchanted object?”
“Exactly,” Essek breathed, happy to have it all out. Though his body screamed at him, he forced himself onto his feet to stand over the letters on the desk. Caleb took the place beside him, keen eyes searching every page and only stopping on a letter sent by Trent Ikithon to this spy. Almost absentmindedly, Caleb reached out to trace the markings on the page.
“His handwriting is still the same after all these years,” Caleb grumbled, no trace of fondness at the familiarity. It did spark something in his eyes, though; his gaze shot up to meet Essek’s. “What about the spy’s handwriting? Do you recognize it?”
Essek looked it over again, brow furrowed as he scoured every page for some familiar stroke of a quill or looping letter. Nothing stood out. “I’m not sure. I’m only familiar with the Bright Queen’s and the Skysybil’s.”
“But you said these notes were from the Conservatory. That means, assuming they didn’t break in, their name would be on some sort of log? Perhaps you could match the writing and—”
The realization crashed over Essek like a mighty wave, dragging him down with devastating relief and it was—it was brilliant . Caleb was brilliant. Before he was even fully aware of his own actions, he dropped his book of notes, closed the space between them, and took Caleb’s face between his hands.
The kiss was soft and rushed, breathless with the exhilaration of an epiphany, and Essek swore he was floating even without his spell in place. His stomach swept up in a way that might’ve made him nauseous if it didn’t feel so right . Caleb’s scratchy beard tickled his lips and chin and the palms of his hands, and—and oh gods what was he doing?
He pulled away from Caleb in a rush just as Caleb’s hands went to rest on his hips. Covering his mouth with a shaking hand, Essek felt his face grow hot. That was a horrible idea; even if Caleb did have feelings for him, there was a disconnect. Unlike Essek, Caleb wasn’t an amalgamation of all the other times. He didn’t remember the attempts they spent together. Essek couldn’t expect him to share the same excitement or admiration. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t have—“
The blue eyes staring back at him were wide with what appeared to be wonder; Caleb’s mouth parted with surprise, but he managed to say, “No, it’s fine, I just—“ The words failed, but Caleb actually smiled at him as he placed a steadying hand on Essek’s arm. “I don’t suppose kissing is a common Kryn response when excited?”
If it was possible, Essek’s cheeks burned even more. In a mad scramble that was half fueled by embarrassment and half by excitement, Essek grabbed the papers from the table and shoved them into his pocket dimension. All the while, he rushed over his words, “There are much more important things to be done; it’s imperative that I find out who this mole is—“
The grip on Essek’s arm tightened as if to keep him there. “Essek, wait—“
Though he wanted nothing more to stop, wanted to trip over more apologizes with the secret hope that Caleb would shut him up with a kiss of his own, he knew there was no time. No time . There was only an hour or two left before the Bright Queen would call the Mighty Nein to the Cathedral. Essek slipped away from Caleb, cringing as he said, “I’m sorry. I can explain everything later, but—but I’m afraid there’s much more to be done until you’re safe.”
Caleb’s brow furrowed, “Until I’m safe? Essek, What—“ Before he could even think of answering (an explanation could be given when this was all over), Essek was rushing toward the study’s door. “Wait! Your book—“
After waving a quick ‘goodbye’ to the others, he left the Xhorhaus. The dark sky hung over him, blanketing the ground in its reassuring nothingness. It was the one constant in this whole thing, and he hated it just as much as he loved it. As he stumbled his way to the Conservatory, he turned his disoriented gaze to that endless sea of darkness.
Though the keeper of the Conservatory attendance logs gave him an odd look when he practically barrelled into the building (much less graceful than normal; he would worry about that later), they didn’t question his request for the record of names. Essek flipped to one of the more recent pages, his hand guiding his eyes when he wasn’t using it to dab away the sweat on his forehead. The room was sweltering; Essek’s body was on fire. But there was no time to worry about any of it. No time .
None of the swooping letters matched the blocky writing in the letters. As much as his excitement fueled his flurry of action, he felt himself deflate as name after name bore no similarities. Had he really come this close just to—
The familiar name stuck out against the background of all the other delicate letters. There were several entries, all of them corresponding with dates on the letters in Essek’s hands. And, as he held the record and the letters side by side, he took note of the rigid letters. How had he not realized before? He knew his hate for Valvyr was more than just thinly veiled annoyance.
With a restored vigor and new determination, Essek looked to the keeper of the log. “I need to take this with me,” Essek said, not looking for negotiation even though the keeper looked intent to challenge him.
“I can’t just give you the book—”
“Just this page, then,” Essek shot back, trying to keep back the desperation. There was no time for this! No time. “Good people will die if I don’t take this page.”
At least that caught the keeper’s attention. Their brows shot up to their hairline, but they eventually gave a hesitant nod. Not caring about decorum, Essek tore the page from the record. The keeper made a strangled noise, but they didn’t stop him. However, they did say, “Shadowhand, are you alright? You don’t seem like yourself.”
The sad part was, besides the pain and the feverish heat, Essek was feeling more like himself than ever before. “I’m fine,” he assured them, but that was all he gave himself time for. If there was any chance of saving the Nein this time, he would have to take the information to the Bright Queen as soon as possible. He prayed she would listen to him.
The walk to the Lucid Bastion never felt so impossible. Heaviness weighed down his limbs and sparks of needling pain took turns torturing different parts of his body. When it grew to be almost too much, Essek just clenched his jaw, ground his teeth, and pushed further. There was no time to rest. No time .
No guard stopped him as he made his way to the Bright Queen’s chambers. There was the faint hum of talking behind the heavy and guarded door; Essek was too tired to strain to hear who might be on the other side, but he wasn’t at all surprised to see Valvyr standing by the Bright Queen’s desk when he stepped inside. Something in his stomach lurched. This was convenient even as it complicated things.
“Shadowhand,” the Bright Queen greeted him, a smile on her lips that was only slightly tinged with guilt for what was to come. Valvyr just offered him a cold nod. “What can I help you with?”
Essek’s heart raced in his chest, beating wildly as his thoughts ran over how this could potentially go. There was no way Valvyr would let him get through his first accusation without trying to refute it—or worse, hurt the Bright Queen or Essek. Neither of those options would make this go as smoothly as Essek hoped. Why did he have to be everywhere Essek went?
“One moment,” he said. Essek stepped outside, speaking to the guards in rushed tones. They stepped in after him, staying back enough to not be suspicious. Then, Essek produced a small piece of iron from his pocket dimension, whispered the words to a spell under his breath and made the gesture that held Valvyr in place. There was a sickly moment of anticipation where it seemed like Valvyr—or Godabert Dressler or whoever the fuck he was—might’ve resisted the spell. It held; Valvyr stood paralyzed.
“Shackle him,” Essek told the guards, and they did as he said while the Bright Queen stood from her chair, mouth agape and eyes wide.
“Essek, what in the name of the Luxon are you doing?! This is an attack on a member of the court—”
The words that left his mouth then were the most satisfying he’d said in a long time, “He’s a traitor.”
The shell shocked look didn’t disappear, though anger seeped in, “What?”
There was only a minute left to the spell before Valvyr was capable of speaking and moving again; Essek was going to use that time to his advantage. He opened the pocket dimension where the letters and the record page were and scattered them across the table.
“The Skysybil gave me these letters; her assistant was acting as a messenger between the Cerberus Assembly and a mole in the Dynasty. With some help, I was able to match the handwriting in the letter to Valvyr’s name in this record from the Conservatory and—”
Valvyr came to life then, bucking against the guards who held him back. “You’re lying! Don’t tell me you believe him, my Queen; the Mighty Nein have filled him with these ridiculous notions—”
“There should be a ring on one of his fingers; remove it,” Essek demanded; he was not going to let this get away from him. There was no time for Valvyr’s games. No time .
“Unhand me!” Valvyr shouted, struggling with a new passion.
A glimmer surrounded his body for a moment, and Essek held his breath. Even if he knew how this all would end, a sickly dread curled in his stomach when he thought about being wrong. Yet, when the glimmer fizzled out, the man standing in shackles was no longer Valvyr: they stared at the face of a distinctly elven man, dressed in the fine robes of a Dynasty official but wearing all the features of an Empire citizen.
Whatever veil of civility he was clinging to dropped, and a sneer took over his still delicate features as he fought to lunge at Essek. “You sniveling little child—!”
For once, Essek felt his usual calm confidence coming back. He simply responded to Valvyr with a wave of his hand and addressed the guards, “Take him to the Dungeon of Penance.”
As soon as the words were out, Valvyr mumbled the words to a spell under his breath, eyes focused on the Bright Queen. “I command you to tell them to unhand me,” he growled. Whatever effect he was hoping for, it didn’t come.
The Bright Queen, in all her infinite glory, straightened her shoulders, set her jaw, and reached one hand out. “You should not have done that,” she said, and—with the flick of her wrist—Valvyr’s body crumbled in on itself, bones snapping audibly and blood splattering out of his mouth. It reminded Essek so much of his own trick in the Dungeon of Penance with the Vollstrecker after they stabbed Caleb. Valvyr, or what he once was, fell to the ground.
“Take him out of here; take him to a Cleric and have him readied to be brought back for questioning,” she commanded, voice booming with anger and something Essek couldn’t quite place. As soon as the guards exited with the body of the mole, the Bright Queen fell back into her chair and her head fell into her hands. “You would think,” she began, frustration and rage dripping from the biting words, “You would think after how many lifetimes I’ve been through I would be able to see a snake in the grass! He fooled me!”
She was mere seconds away from throwing something; he could feel it as her disappointment and anger rolled off of her in waves. It was a side he’d never seen. “He fooled everyone,” Essek tried to reason.
“I’m not everyone!” she shot back, taking several deep breaths before she managed to look up at him, eyes looking so impossibly tired and resigned. “He didn’t fool you . How did you know?”
As much as he would normally love to take an opportunity to flaunt his own skills, he knew where credit was due. “I didn’t; I wouldn’t have discovered this without the help of Caleb and the Mighty Nein,” he said, not being able to hide the fondness in his tone. It was a nice distraction from the splitting headache, after all.
“The Mighty Nein…” she said, looking horrified, “I—I was going to have them executed. He convinced me they were traitors and—It was all a lie, wasn’t it?”
“From what they told me today, it sounds as though they were close to recovering a Beacon,” Essek explained. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just trying to neutralize a threat to the Assembly and played off your trust for him and his position.” Then, because paranoia and panic still clung to him like the sweat on his brow, he added, “You won’t go through with it, will you?”
“What?” she wondered, one sculpted brow raised.
“You won’t have them executed.”
The aghast expression she sent him was so reassuring he almost collapsed with relief right then and there. “Of course not!” she said, “They’re one of our greatest boons, especially if they know the location of another Beacon.”
Essek’s breath left him in a shuddering sigh, and his body felt so much heavier than when he entered the room. With the relief came the crushing weight of his own pain; his bones ground together with the goal of turning to dust, and his chest felt close to caving in. The sweat on his brow and the heat that caused it was oppressive as if someone poked a hole in the Rosohna and let the sun’s rays fall solely on him.
“That is… good,” the words came from far away; he was barely aware of his own mouth moving. Blood rushed through his ears and sang with the force of a building crescendo.
The Bright Queen’s gaze seemed to focus on him for a moment, “Are you alright, Shadowhand?”
“I’ll be fine,” he lied. He wanted to curl up on the cold floor beneath him and block everything out. Everything hurt. “I think I’ll go to tell them the good news, though.” He just needed to see them again. He needed to sit down at their large table and drink wine with them until his worries were wiped away. He needed to be around friends. It might be his last chance.
Though she didn’t look like she believed him, she nodded. “Get some rest. I’d like you to question Valvyr when they bring him back and I’d like to be there for it, but I think that can wait for now. You’ve done more than enough to earn a break.”
The praise only just registered. “Thank you, my Queen,” he mumbled before stumbling out of her chambers.
It was a long journey back to the Xhorhaus. Muscle memory was the only thing that got him there and even that was a miracle since his muscles screamed with every move. The blackness of the sky above him was closing in with every step, and it hung dangerously close when he finally knocked on the familiar door. When Caleb answered, he was both relieved and panicked.
Without even hesitating, Caleb pulled him inside. It wasn’t harsh, but it didn’t jumble Essek’s thoughts as if his brain bounced around in his skull. Even after the door closed and he and Essek were alone, Caleb didn’t release him. Instead, he clutched Essek’s shoulders and tried to meet Essek’s darting eyes.
“Essek, what did you do? ” Caleb asked, his voice far away and muffled like Essek had cotton in his ears. Everything grew more distorted with every passing second.
“I don’t—” Essek tried; his tongue was heavy in his mouth and words came slowly if at all. “What?”
“Your book,” Caleb said, and Essek could just barely make out the frantic edge to his words. “You left your book and I know I probably wasn’t supposed to read it but—have you been using an experimental spell to go back in time? To save us? You could have died! You could have ripped apart time itself!”
It was hard to make sense of anything, but he reached out to cup Caleb’s cheek. The warmth wasn’t unpleasant like Essek’s own feverish state. It grounded him in a way. “It was worth it,” he whispered, and with the words his legs gave out beneath him. He pitched forward, boneless and crumbling in Caleb’s arms, only able to make out the panicked shout of,
“Essek?! Essek! Jester! Caduceus! Help!”
Even that faded with time.
Was he dying? The thought scared him for only a moment before it was flooded out by bone-deep peace. That would be alright, wouldn’t it? He saved the Mighty Nein; his job was done. If it was the last thing he did in his first life, would that be so terrible?
His head swam and darkness crept into the periphery of his vision. With it came the crushing thought. He was running out of time in a very different way now.
The world went dark and time—for one blessed moment—stood still.
When Essek came to, it wasn’t to the hazy first memories of a child. It was to the wafting scent of a hearty soup, a pounding headache, and pressure on his hand. Opening his eyes was straining, but he pried them open just to see an unfamiliar and dimly lit room. Soft sheets were tucked around him, bracketing him in a soft but foreign bed. There was the distant sound of laughter and conversation (the cackling of a blue tiefling). He looked at his hand.
There, sitting in a chair beside Essek’s bed and with his hand firmly clutching Essek’s as he dozed, was Caleb Widogast. It was a ridiculously endearing sight, with Caleb’s dazzling red hair fanned out atop the bed’s sheets and Frumpkin curled up just behind his head. Essek couldn’t think of a better way to wake up. Then again, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up in this body again, so anything would have been a pleasant surprise.
The door creaked open, a mellow whistle following it. Caduceus stepped in with a bowl in his hands, balancing it carefully to make sure whatever was inside didn’t spill over. Without looking at Essek, he placed the bowl on the counter and went to nudge Caleb. Then, as a barely suppressed groan left Essek’s lips, he stopped.
“Oh,” he sighed, a soft smile curling his lips and wrinkling his kind eyes, “Hello. It’s good to see you made it through.”
“Where am I?” Essek wondered, rubbing his forehead with the hand that wasn’t claimed by Caleb. “All I remember is making it into the entryway.”
“We brought you into Caleb’s room; it was the closest,” Caduceus explained. He was keeping his voice low, seemingly not as eager to wake up Caleb as he was before.
Essek tried to move, just to test the ache in his muscles, but it was too painful to do anything more than shift in the bed. That woke up Frumpkin, but Caleb slept as soundly as ever. “I feel like death,” Essek grumbled.
“That’s because you died.”
It was sad with such a casual air that Essek thought he misheard at first. Then, when all Caduceus did was blink at him, he squeaked out, “What?”
Caduceus nodded. “It took the guidance of both the Wildmother and the Traveller to bring you back. You had us worried there for a second. It was like your body was tearing itself in two. Caleb thinks that has something to do with how you were jumping through time.”
Oh , Essek thought to himself, so they all know . It wasn’t bad , but it was a bit of a surprise. Part of him was thankful; he wouldn’t have to hide any of it from them. Perhaps it was better that way.
“We didn’t know if bringing you back would violate some sort of tenant of your faith with consecution and all that, but Caleb insisted…” Caduceus’ gaze wandered to said man, watching as Frumpkin butted their head against Caleb’s before trotting over to climb onto Essek’s chest. “He hasn’t left your side, you know. You’ve been out for three days and he just sat there the entire time.”
That explained the darker than usual circles under Caleb’s eyes, sunken in like heavy charcoal on an otherwise pristine page. Though he hated the thought of causing Caleb more grief, part of him was endeared. No one in his den was looking for him, he was sure of that, but at least he had the Mighty Nein to worry over him. At least he had Caleb.
At that moment, Essek was still too shocked to admit any of it, and Frumpkin interrupted him with loud chirping sounds when he actually tried to speak. That was alright, though; Caduceus seemed eager to get back to the soup he no doubt left waiting in the kitchen. “If he wakes up soon try to get him to eat that,” Caduceus instructed, and then he ducked out of the too-small door.
Insistent, Frumpkin butted his head rather aggressively against Essek’s chin, his soft fur tickling Essek’s nest and his weight making Essek wheeze. He pushed away the small discomfort to scratch behind one orange ear. Frumpkin purred loudly, shaking as if ready to explode. Those inquisitive eyes stared back at him and—for once—Essek entertained the idea that the only one who remembered anything from the previous times was Frumpkin. Perhaps time moved differently for fae creatures.
Just as Frumpkin settled on top of his chest, seemingly content to curl up and rest there, Caleb stirred. A soft grumble slipped past his lips, and he let go of Essek’s hand for only a moment to rub the sleep out of his eyes.
“Sleeping in a chair like that is terrible for your back,” Essek said, because he was too impatient to wait for Caleb to realize he was awake. As much as his body ached, there was a buzzing excitement that came with being alive.
Caleb’s gaze snapped to his, eyes wide even as tiredness clung to them. Then, as if he was staring at a ghost and was afraid speaking would scare it away, he mumbled, “Essek.”
Essek smiled, eyes closing as he let the flood of contentment wash over him. If he could hear Caleb say his name like that, reverent and hopeful and happy, he would die a happy man. The bed shifted beneath him, and when he opened his eyes again, Caleb sat on the edge of the bed and reached out as if to touch Essek. When Essek didn’t try to move away, a calloused hand met his cheek.
“How do you feel? Jester said your body was pulling itself apart,” Caleb rushed out, and it was the most Essek had ever heard him say at once. Rushing and mumbly Caleb was a rare sight. “Do you feel like you’re being pulled apart?”
“No,” Essek assured him, his soft smile never leaving, “no, I just feel like I fell from the roof of the Xhorhaus.”
“I can ask Caduceus to look you over—”
Essek covered Caleb’s hand with his own, keeping it on his cheek. “I’m fine; I’m certain I’ve been well taken care of.” Then, with his thumb daring to run over the soft skin of the back of Caleb’s hand, he mumbled, “I was told I had a dutiful guardian.”
Though he hadn’t meant to embarrass Caleb, the blush that crept up his neck and cheeks was an added bonus. The hand stayed, but it dropped to where Essek’s neck met his shoulder. Caleb’s grip tightened there, fingers digging into Essek’s skin and anchoring him to this time and place. He never wanted to leave.
“You… you died,” Caleb said, still sounding like he didn’t quite believe Essek was actually there. “I couldn’t let it end like that, not after everything you did for us. Not after—” The words cut off, but Caleb’s eyes drifted to Essek’s lips. It was enough to make Essek’s blush match Caleb’s. They were both disasters, weren’t they?
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad to still be alive,” Essek admitted, but the words didn’t seem to reach Caleb. He still looked distracted and partially distraught.
“What you did…” he trailed off again, seeming unable to find the right words for a moment until he eventually settled on, “We’ll never be able to repay you, Essek.”
It brought a cringe with it; Essek hated to be reminded of the times when he used to keep tally. He managed to speak through it, his fingers closing around Caleb’s wrist just so he could touch some part of him. “I didn’t do it to collect more favors; I did it because I care about you. All of you.”
“It wasn’t worth your life,” Caleb insisted, his grip more sure than before, pushing and pulling as if fighting the urge to pull Essek closer.
“Of course it was,” Essek protested, brows furrowing as he watched a thousand conflicting emotions flit through Caleb’s piercing blue gaze. Between them, Frumpkin was still purring; it was the only thing keeping Essek’s heart from bursting out of his chest. “You all are the first friends I’ve made; I wasn’t about to lose that without putting up a fight.”
Caleb let out a shuddering sigh, the relief pouring off him as he leaned forward just enough to press their foreheads together. It was too much and not enough at the same time; the warmth of Caleb’s skin calmed him and made his chest grow tighter. “And what if we lost you ?” Caleb asked, feigned anger in his eyes. “Jester would’ve been devastated.”
Stuttering laughter tumbled past Caleb’s parted lips; their noses brushed. “I suppose I would be upset too,” he joked, his tone light and close to jovial. The hand on Essek’s shoulder wandered back to skim the sharp cut of his jawline, fingers curling into Essek’s fluffy white hair.
As much as Essek loved every second of closeness, the slow progression was maddening. As he let his eyes closed, he whispered into the space between them, “Kiss me.”
“Gladly,” Caleb mumbled back, rushed with anticipation before he broke through the distance and pressed his parted lips to Essek’s. It wasn’t like the first time. There was no slightly awkward non-response brought on by shock. Instead, Caleb’s hands came to frame his face, fingers tangled in Essek’s hair. Even though Essek’s limbs fought for him to stay still, he pushed through the ache to pull Caleb closer by the lapels of his cloak.
If anyone asked him at the beginning, he never could have predicted that this would be where he ended up. Not even his wildest dreams compared to the feeling of having Caleb there, alive and well and kissing him. They would have to talk about it later; there was so much more to discuss from the past attempts. That could wait; Essek had all the time in the world now, and he was more than happy to spend it with Caleb and the Mighty Nein.
The same Mighty Nein who burst through the door of Caleb’s room. The SLAM of the door against the wall forced them apart, both a little breathless and cherry red as Jester strode in with a shit-eating grin and Beau hollered behind her. Soon, the entire Might Nein filtered into the room.
“I tried to convince them to give you both some time, but—”
“Essek!” Jester squealed, throwing herself between Caleb and him to throw her arms around Essek. She just barely missed crushing Frumpkin; Essek held her back just as tightly. “We were so worried!”
“It’s good to see you pulled through, man,” Beau added on, snickering something to Caleb under her breath afterward. She ruffled his hair as his blush darkened.
“Caleb told us what you did; I’m still not entirely sure I understand all of it, but we all appreciate it nevertheless,” Fjord said. For once, it didn’t sound like he was cherry-picking his words around Essek.
Nott stepped forward, resting a small hand on Essek’s forearm. “It was very brave of you.”
“Very stupid,” Yasha corrected, “but very brave.”
Releasing him, Jester flattened down his shirt where she crumpled it. She spoke through a deep pout, “I’m sorry you had to watch us die, like, so many times—”
Caleb let out a strangled noise just as Essek’s face fell. The thought of their lifeless bodies filled his head again, their vacant stares and bloodied stone floors haunting his mind. “Jester—”
“No, it’s alright,” Essek said, doing his best to shake away the memories. With time they would fade. At least, he hoped they would. “I… I’m just sorry I didn’t figure any of this out sooner; I wouldn’t have figured it out at all without all you—”
“You would’ve,” Caleb insisted. “You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for.”
As much as he wanted to take the compliment, wanted to use it to soothe his wounded pride, he knew his limits. “I was just floating through days,” Essek said. “But I’m glad I didn’t give up. I honestly don’t know what I would do without any of you.”
“You’d go back in time to get us back,” Jester joked, coaxing out a laugh from him. It felt so good. Even after the pain and the constant worry, he was allowed to have this. Happiness. Time. All of it.
And, this time, he wouldn’t go back and change a single thing.
Thank you all for coming on this wild ride with me. If you'd like to drop by, you can find me at my tumblr: https://i-think-therefore-i-ham.tumblr.com/ As much as I loved writing this and getting everyone's feedback, I can say I'm excited to get back to my supernatural lesbians in the Wild West WIP!