It starts with a breath.
Or, at least, an attempt to breathe. Caleb can barely feel his lungs, his lips, any part of himself at all. There is light, he thinks, though it could also be shadow; uncertainty plays tricks with his vision. A familiar warmth surrounds him, wrapping what little he can feel of himself in a cocoon of softly undulating light.
There is no fear. There is no panic, and the calm acceptance Caleb feels within himself causes a momentary flash of concern, muted, like everything else. He blinks, focus shifting to take in the endless expanse of stars that seem to fill the air around him. He is moving, slowly drifting, feeling a faint tug somewhere inside him that urges him forwards into the endless sea of light and shadow.
Something holds him back, though, tethering Caleb's thoughts before they drift too far. He can feel it, like a thread tied around his heart, keeping him from straying any further into the familiar light.
Soft motes of grey drift past Caleb's vision, caught in a wind he cannot feel. They brush past him with the faintest whisper of sound: a low soothing hum that has his mind drifting once more. It is only the tug around his heart that keeps Caleb in place, returning to himself in a flurry of thought. Time seems to have no meaning, he cannot feel it passing. He can’t feel anything but the urge to move onwards, at odds with the anchor inside him.
Glancing down, Caleb can see a shimmering thread in the centre of his chest and realises with dull surprise that he is naked. He frowns, trying to blink away the fog that clouds his thoughts.
How did he get here?
The more he thinks, the more he can feel; the brush of those grey motes against his skin, the faint tickle of unbound hair on bare shoulders, the warmth of the muted grey light surrounding him.
The complete lack of a heartbeat in his chest.
Realisation dawns slowly as memories start to seep back in. There was a fight, of course. There is always a fight.
Closing his eyes Caleb can still see the light and stars imprinted on the back of his eyelids as he pats himself down, hands coming to rest below his ribs. He winces as a wave of memory washes over him when his fingertips brush against a single spot that flares with the ghost of pain.
The panic Caleb was expecting does not come, only dull acceptance and the wistful thought that he could have done better. He hopes his friends have fared better than he did. There is no sign of them alongside him and Caleb glances around once more, finding only that same expanse of stars. They blur and twist in his vision, fracturing into diamond-bright shards that stretch and join, weaving around each other until Caleb can see a familiar tangled web of threads, stretching in every direction around him.
His own thread ends here, he supposes.
Drawing a deep breath that he no longer needs, Caleb tries to step forward and feels the tether that holds him grow taut. He cannot move forward, he cannot move back. There is a growing spot of warmth in his chest that seems to stop him from answering the distant call that urges him onwards.
If this is death, Caleb supposes, then it is not what he expected—though he has never let that particular introspection go too far. He stares into the distance, searching for some sort of sign and finds only stars reflecting back. Above and below, ahead and behind, the flickering light lulls Caleb back to calmness. In time, his mind starts to drift once more, the lines of his body starting to waver as his concentration falters.
The tether of light holds strong.
“So you see, in light of recent occurrences, any further infiltration into Empire territory will be strictly controlled. Our agents already in the field must take extreme caution to prevent detection, at least until negotiations have been confirmed.”
Essek nods along, his fingertips pressed together within the folds of his cloak, clenching only slightly when the Bright Queen turns her gaze on him.
“As we know, The Mighty Nein are to be the liaisons during the upcoming talks and I trust they will be in contact in due course."
"One would hope," Essek says, trying to ignore the stab of discomfort that comes from hearing the group's name. Almost two months without contact and the first he heard about his…friends?...was from Allura—some foreign wizard from halfway around the world who evidently is far better informed than he is. Essek can feel his ears twitching up in annoyance and straightens himself in his chair. "It has been some time since I have heard from them directly." He schools his face into a pleasant smile, hiding the faint hurt that admitting it aloud causes. "As soon as I hear anything, I will inform you."
"Thank you, Shadowhand. We shall keep our troops on standby, I don't trust the Dwendalians to keep themselves in check for long. Hopefully your friends will have an appropriate location for the negotiations soon."
Your friends. Essek swallows against the rising uncertainty inside him and nods towards the Bright Queen as she dismisses the rest of her council. He shouldn't worry, according to the Vysoren woman the Nein are all fine. There is a part of Essek, however—the part of him that dreams of red hair and chapped lips—that wants to make sure for himself.
It would be so easy to cast Sending, turn the tables on Jester for once, but that feels too much like weakness for Essek’s liking. If he contacts the Nein then he is admitting that he is worried about them...that he misses them—Caleb most of all.
Essek’s stomach flips at the thought of Caleb’s name, the image of that tired smile flickering like a flame in his mind. He grits his teeth and clenches his fists, willing the butterflies from his stomach. He has no time for such foolishness. He had hoped that this infatuation would fade over time but it seems the old adage has some truth to it; absence has indeed made his heart grow fonder, and Essek hates it.
He feels disarmed, weak, and—much as he hates to admit it, even to himself—desperately lonely.
Essek's path takes him back to his rooms without conscious thought as he muses, drifting through the hallways as silent as the shadows around him. The pain that runs through his body is a constant companion and today it seems not even the Levitation spell will help. Essek clenches his fingers in the smooth satin of his robes, dreading the thought of another evening with only aching joints and his own thoughts for company.
He supposes he should be grateful, the current ceasefire has lessened his number of duties slightly—though he has instructed his agents to continue their work regardless. He needs to keep his mind occupied, too. Far too many of his free hours have been spent imagining the worst. Though at this point he is unsure which is worse; that the Mighty Nein have found themselves in some sort of trouble, unable to contact anyone, or if they have merely forgotten about him.
With a deep sigh, Essek sits, pulling his books towards him, hoping that study can drag him from his own thoughts, at least for a little while. He closes his eyes against a new wave of pain that rolls up his spine, pressing his fingertips to the hard wood of the table as he rides it out. This is familiar at least, less worrysome than the empty ache that comes with the thought that the Mighty Nein might simply have cast him aside. Essek shoves his hair from his face with a rough sweep of one hand, gritting his teeth against the melancholy that threatens to submerge him. He is being ridiculous: of course they needed him for his spells, nothing more, he needs to accept that.
There is a faint prickle on the back of Essek's neck and he tenses, recognising the familiar touch of the Sending spell.
Of course now they decide to contact him.
He settles back in his chair, arms folded at his chest, waiting for whatever nonsense Jester is about to tell him.
It doesn't come.
There is a sniff and what sounds like a sob before Jester's voice comes through, thick and choked. "Essek? I don't know…We didn't know who to call, it's…" Another sob, swallowed back. Essek sits up straight, cold washing over him, his heartbeat starting to speed. "It's Caleb, he— The Resurrection, it didn't work. There's a light, Dunamancy light, we—”
Essek's mind races, panic rushing through him as he digests the words. Resurrection. Dunamancy. Caleb. He presses his fingers to his forehead, as if it will stop the blood that thunders through his every vein, making his head pound, his ears ringing with the echo of his worst fears realised.
He needs to do something. He needs to help.
"Jester," Essek says, swallowing back against the lump of tension that has risen to his throat. "Tell me where you are exactly, a map point if possible. Describe as much as you can, in detail." He rises, snatching a map of the Dwendalian Empire and wrinkling his nose against the wave of nausea that comes from being on his own two feet. "I am on my way."
The Shadowhand mantle is tossed to one side as Essek rolls out the map, pulse increasing with every moment Jester does not reply. If there has been a fight then there is every chance that she is drained of spells. Unconsciously, Essek's teeth scrape over his lower lip, digging in almost enough to draw blood, though in his worry he does not feel the pain. Tension runs through every muscle of his body as he skims over the map, trying to familiarise himself as much as possible, breath held.
He breathes out a sigh when Jester's presence prickles in his mind once more. Her voice is trembling, though slightly stronger now. "The mountains, half a day north of Rexxentrum. Lake shaped like a kidney bean, west shore. Three pine trees, rock that looks like a butt."
Despite the gravity of the situation, Essek's lip twitches up and he runs his finger over the rough parchment, searching. He can feel his heart pounding, making his focus waver and blur. He needs to move as fast as possible.
Finally, after what feels like forever, Essek spots it, the only place that matches Jester's description: an ink-smudged blot with the title 'Lake Namere' in spidery writing. He nods to himself, already patting his component pouch down to grab for chalk: the sooner he gets there the better. There is a heavy weight in the pit of his stomach at the thought of what he might find when he arrives.
Essek breathes deep, fixing the map point in his mind and trying to visualise the spot that Jester has described. It is hard not to get distracted, all he can think about is Caleb. A slow, sickening coldness fills Essek’s belly; what if he cannot help? For all that he has talked up his abilities, there is every chance they will fail him when he needs them most.
Worrying at his lower lip once more, Essek steps back, placing his palms on the desk before him. He needs to think.
This is the Empire, this is a place that would kill him on sight. Is it really worth the chance of breaking the ceasefire?
Essek thinks of his friends, thinks of Caleb, and his heart clenches.
It is absolutely worth it.
Turning away from the map, Essek glances at himself in the mirror that hangs by the door to his office. It is the work of an instant to cast Disguise Self, shifting his skin to the russet brown of a wood elf, his hair darkening to match. His reflection stares back at him, familiar yet not, fear and worry lining his eyes, making him look even younger than he already is. Essek swallows, grabbing a simple grey cloak and swinging it around his shoulders, clearing his mind as much as he is able before starting his spell.
It is through sheer force of will that he makes himself focus, keeping the map point clear in his mind. He breathes deep, picturing the lake shore, the trees...the rock. With a flick of his wrists, light flares, blanking out Essek’s vision as he holds his hands up, tracing the symbols of the spell. Feeling negative space pressing in around him, Essek releases the breath he has been holding with a final flick of his chalk. Blood rushes through him, his stomach lurching as he is thrust through space towards the unknown, fear still lacing his every thought.
Unexpectedly, Essek lands on his feet, the sudden impact sending a jarring pain through his knees and making him hiss in a breath. His stomach is roiling, the sound of his own heartbeat steadily pounding in his ears, black spots blooming before his eyes. There is grass around him, and a large body of water to one side: it seems, despite the odds against him, his spell was on target. Desperation has pushed him past any possible mishaps and straight into the heart of enemy territory.
He is in the Empire.
Straightening up, Essek rolls his shoulders, steeling himself; his usual Levitation is far too conspicuous, he will simply have to bear the pain that coils around his spine as best he can.
The sky is thankfully overcast, the dark clouds that roll overhead keeping the worst of the sunlight-strain from Essek’s eyes. He can hear a familiar—if slightly confused—voice, just audible over the rushing in his ears.
"Who the fu—"
Ridiculously strong arms wrap around Essek's middle, one curled horn digging into his ribs as Jester barrels into him, squeezing tight. "We didn't know who else to call," she sniffles, voice breaking, "we're so glad you're here. We tried, and there was this light, and it looks like Dunamancy magic." She drags in a shaking breath and Essek can feel a dampness against his chest, warm tears seeping into the front of his shirt. When Jester pulls back she gives a shaky smile. "I knew you'd come."
"I—" Essek's words fail him; so much of the Nein's expectations rest on his already aching shoulders. He attempts a smile that feels more like a grimace and pats awkwardly at Jester's arm. "I will do as much as I can."
Glancing around he can see Fjord and Beau a few paces away, Fjord's arms folded over his chest, deep lines of pain etched into his face. Beau's eyes are red-rimmed, her fists clenched, an expression of rage on her tear-stained face, as if she wants nothing more than to fight her own anguish.
Another wave of nausea wracks through Essek, fear washing him in cold and sending a shiver up his spine: something terrible has happened here. He stumbles, catching himself on Jester's arm and hissing in a breath.
"Are you okay?" she whispers, gaze travelling over him and landing at his feet, firmly planted in the damp grass. “Can you walk?”
“I can walk,” Essek murmurs through gritted teeth. “It just causes me trouble sometimes.” He shakes his head, dismissing the worry in Jester’s eyes. “We have more important things to worry about right now.” He nods to both Beau and Fjord, searching the wide expanse of the lakeside for the rest of the Mighty Nein, for some sign of Caleb. “What happened?”
Beau’s brows draw together in a twisted frown. “I don’t fuckin’ know, man,” she says with a vicious shake of her head. “I’m no good with this magic shit.” She takes a deep breath, seeming to straighten up when Jester’s hand finds her shoulder. “It’s probably better if you see it for yourself.”
“We appreciate you coming to help,” Fjord says, his head tilting slightly, as if he can't quite believe Essek has actually shown up. “I know it must be dangerous for you, coming here.”
“Yes, well…” Essek really has no answer to that. There was no way he couldn’t have come. Like it or not, he is far more invested in the Nein than he wants to admit. They are the closest things to friends he has known in a long, long while. He twists his fingers in his sleeves, following along towards a small clearing, stomach plummeting when he sees Caduceus kneeling over a still figure in the grass. Beside him, Yasha holds tight to an inconsolable Nott, her sobs rending the still air and making Essek’s heart ache. He steels himself, coming closer and kneeling by Caduceus’ side, hoping that he is too busy to notice the anguish that cracks through Essek's usually calm facade.
Caleb’s face is pale, the frown lines between his brows softened and slack, lips gently parted in a frozen breath. He could be sleeping but for the blood that covers his skin and clothes, a ragged hole burned through the purple fabric of his coat, just beneath his ribs. He is still and silent, drained of colour. That vibrant spark of life that Essek has always seen inside Caleb, that he has felt resonate within himself since the moment they met, is gone.
Essek gasps in a breath, desperately trying to force back the tears that prickle in the corners of his eyes. He wants to turn away, to bury his face in his hands and hope that if he cannot see it then it cannot be true, that Caleb isn’t actually dead. Instead he stares, drinking in the details, hardening his heart against the sight.
“I don’t know how much you can tell, but this isn’t right,” says Caduceus, his voice a low rumble that seems to soothe the trembling of Essek’s hands. “The Resurrection worked, but it didn’t work, y’know? I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Essek turns his head and finds Caduceus’ steady gaze already on him, assessing his reactions. There is a flutter in Essek’s stomach at the sympathetic smile, as if Caduceus can see the ache that rests in his heart. He purses his lips, voice far softer than he expected as he asks, “What happened?”
“We were following up on a Beacon,” Beau says, crouching down to brush a stray lock of hair from Caleb’s still face. “Caleb said that Ikithon had a research tower near here, so we went for it.” She swallows, her hand bunching into a fist, voice thick with emotion. “It, uh, didn’t go so well.”
“I could have been faster!” Nott sobs, muffled against Yasha’s chest, “It’s all my fault.”
Fjord shakes his head, laying a hand on her back. “Nothing is your fault, Nott. We wouldn’t have got out if it wasn’t for you.”
“We were in pretty bad shape,” Beau says, “Caleb was down, Jester almost went down”—a shiver visibly runs through her—“Nott got a potion into her before that happened, thankfully. I don't know how we all made it out.” There is a hollow look in her eyes that tells Essek she is underplaying just how badly their battle went.
Caduceus pets gently at Beau’s elbow, a look of mixed sorrow and confusion on his face. “I carried Caleb and we got out of there, but it was a while before we lost them so there was no time to Revivify.” He reaches towards Caleb’s still body, gesturing towards the blackened hole in his side. “The Raise Dead spell worked,” there is an edge of frustration in his voice, something that Essek has never heard before, “and it didn’t work. Look.”
Essek peers down, tilting his head as he takes in the patch of unmarred skin beneath the bloodstained clothes. “There’s no wound?”
“Exactly,” Caduceus gently reaches for Caleb’s hands, clasped together on his chest, “and then this happened.” He softly prises Caleb’s hands apart. There is something about those unresisting fingers that makes bile rise in Essek’s throat. He swallows it back, leaning in close as a softly pulsing light seems to fill the small clearing. A mote of grey hovers above Caleb’s heart, rising and falling like a breath, disappearing back into his chest and then rising once more.
“Oh,” Essek says, feeling the familiar touch of dunamantic energy that fills the air every time the light rises. “This is—”
“Dunamagic, right?” Beau’s arms are folded and she nods towards Jester, “That’s why we figured we needed you.”
Tentatively reaching out, Essek places his hand above Caleb’s chest, not daring to actually touch him. Much as his thoughts have so often turned in that direction, he never wanted it like this. He can feel a soft pulse, like a heartbeat, though he can’t tell if it comes from the unexplained magic or from Caleb himself. “Is he alive or not?” he asks Caduceus, leaving his hand hovering above Caleb’s heart, the little light creating a faint buzz of warmth in his palm.
“I’m not sure,” Caduceus says with a shake of his head, ears flattened in frustration. “He’s not undead, I can tell you that much. The Wildmother definitely has him, I felt that, but there is...something else, as well.” He sits back and Essek joins him, both their gazes fixed on the grey glow emanating from Caleb’s chest. “I felt it in the ritual,” Caduceus says, “his soul wanted to come back, but something stopped it.”
Essek purses his lips, his mind racing despite the pain and sorrow that fills every inch of his body. There is a familiarity to the magic that rises and falls in Caleb's chest, so close to that which runs through Essek's very veins. The last time Essek felt a power like this was during his own consecution, and the thought brings a glimmer of hope to the surface. It is a near impossible chance, admittedly, but there is so little that Essek truly knows about the potential power of the beacons, it might well be possible. He places his hand over his own heart and lets his disguise drop, figuring there is little need for it when only the Nein are present. “I have some ideas,” he says, fingers twitching and twisting in his shirt front. He doesn't want to get anyone's hopes up, not when he is so unsure himself. “There is a way to check if I am correct, but I do not wish to overstep.”
“Check what?” says Nott, raising her tear-splodged face from Yasha’s shoulder. “Do you know what happened? Why isn’t he back? Why isn’t he okay?” She scrambles from Yasha’s grasp and rushes towards Essek, who—despite knowing he could halt her with the wave of a hand—feels a prickle of fear run through him.
Sharp goblin claws dig into Essek’s arm, breaking the skin and making him wince. Nott’s eyes are wide and pleading as she meets Essek’s gaze. “Can you help my Caleb?”
Essek swallows, nerves rising, the tremor returning to his hands under Nott’s intense gaze. “M-maybe. I can’t be sure, but I will try everything I can to get him back,” his voice catches in his throat before he realises it, “I promise I will.” Tears well in Essek’s eyes and he fights them down, swallowing hard.
Beau seems to notice his predicament and clears her throat, rubbing viciously to clear any errant tears from her own eyes. “So what’s your idea? You said you had to check something?”
Essek nods, raising his gaze to Beauregard, and with a surge of self-consciousness, flicks open the first few buttons of his shirt. He can feel heat rising to his cheeks despite the gravity of the situation. “This,” he says, pointing to the small geometric scar above his heart, “is a mark of consecution. You said you were on the trail of a Beacon near here? Well perhaps there is something to that.” His voice trails off a little as he continues thinking aloud, his conjectures overcoming the embarrassment of baring his skin to people. “Though it is only consecuted souls that should return to the beacon, unless there has been some sort of attunement...which I suppose could have happened in the past, but without the chance to research I—”
“Okay, okay, you can figure that out later,” Beau flaps a hand, “we gotta check if that’s what’s happened.” She leans over Caleb, reaching for the collar of his shirt before pausing, her hands recoiling. She wrinkles her nose and mutters, “This is weird, man, he’s like my brother.” She sits back on her heels, pressing her lips tight together and drawing in a breath that sounds suspiciously like a sob.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Caduceus says as both Jester and Yasha reach for Beau, wrapping her in a multi-armed hug which Nott quickly joins. “I can check, if you like, I already helped move him.”
"Do you need me to do anything?" Fjord asks, hovering awkwardly by Caduceus' shoulder.
"I think we're okay," Caduceus murmurs with a glance towards Essek, "just keep an eye out. We'll need to move on soon." He gently parts Caleb's clothes, just enough to see the point where the mote of light rises and falls. "Sorry, Caleb," he mumbles, "we gotta check."
Essek leans close, breath catching when he sees the mark, nestled beneath a patch of red hair, a faintly greenish glow outlining the geometric spiral imprinted on Caleb's far-too-pale skin. To his astonishment he hears Caduceus chuckle.
"See, I knew it, the Wildmother has him," he waves his hand over the small scar and the green light blooms like a flower, flaring brightly before the wavering grey mote of dunamancy sinks back beneath Caleb's skin, dulling the colour. "It looks like your Luxon has him too."
"It's not my—" Essek starts before shaking his head. "Never mind," he glances around the Nein, speaking aloud as he thinks, "It looks like he has been caught between two powers. It seems that Caduceus' magic indeed brought Caleb back, but whatever beacon is nearby has already claimed his soul. With a body still alive, the soul is still…tethered to it, still attached in a way. It can't be reborn. But at the same time, without his soul, Caleb’s body is in a sort of…stasis, held by Caduceus' Wildmother." He frowns to himself. "Does that make sense?"
"As much sense as any magic," says Beau with a shallow attempt at a smile. "I guess what we gotta know is: can we get him back?"
Essek presses his fingertips together, unable to drag his gaze from Caleb for more than a few seconds. He has known for a long while that the true power of the beacons has yet to be explored and he inwardly curses the gaps in his knowledge. So often he has requested the opportunity to study them, to no avail. Maybe if the higher-ups in the Dynasty had allowed it then he would have at least some knowledge, some sort of solution, some way of saving the person he—
Essek cuts that train of thought short, feeling blood rush to the tips of his ears as emotion surges through him. He clears his throat, bringing his mind back to the task at hand. “I think it could be possible.” His teeth scrape over his lower lip as he considers. “We would need to get the Beacon, and then it would be a matter of trying to extract Caleb’s soul from it. I don’t think anything like that has ever been done, or at least, there has never been research to see if it is possible. I’m sure that if we had it though, I could come up with something.”
His mind is racing, fragments of potential spells and rituals flooding his thoughts. This could be the chance he has been looking for, to truly find out what the beacons are capable of. He has always wanted the chance to find the extent of their power, and if it brings Caleb back then he will do whatever it takes.
Essek's gaze falls on Caleb's lips, an errant flutter of sorrow making his stomach ache. "Was the Beacon at this tower you spoke of?”
“We were pretty sure it was," Beau says, meeting Essek's eyes and groaning. "We gotta go back there, don't we?”
Essek presses his lips in a tight line and nods apologetically. "I believe that is where Caleb is. If he truly has been consecuted—however that may have happened—his soul will be within that beacon." There is a flare of excitement inside him, burning against the coldness in his heart. "If I can get my hands on it, I think I can bring him back."
"Then we have to go back!" Nott says, voice shrill, hefting her crossbow to her side. "We need to go now!"
Placing a hand on Nott's shoulder, Fjord holds her in place. "Nott, we all want to help Caleb, but we are drained. We need rest."
"He's right," Caduceus agrees. "We gotta figure out a plan. We can't just leave Caleb here while we go to the tower, and I don't think it's a good idea to bring him with us."
"Maybe we could…"
The intermingling voices of the Nein fade into static as Essek watches the steady dance of grey and green light above Caleb’s heart. There is something tugging deep inside him that he isn't willing to acknowledge, not when there is a chance that Caleb is already lost. He reaches out, brushing a single finger over the back of Caleb's hand, breathing deep to centre himself.
It will be okay, he thinks to himself. We'll get you back, Caleb.
I'll get you back.