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By the Light

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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.

Oh.

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—"

"Essek!"

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.

Chapter Text

The damp grass has long since seeped into Essek’s trousers by the time the Nein seem to come to a consensus. He is lost in his own thoughts, stringing together fragments of spells and loose ideas, trying to tangle them into something, anything that might bring the light back to Caleb's still body. The cold is numbing, but welcome, dousing the flares of pain that sear up Essek's spine.

He is dimly aware of Nott's eyes, wide and expectant, fixed firmly on his face, unblinking from where she sits crouched at Caleb's side.

With a surge of effort, Essek summons up something that could almost pass as a smile, meeting Nott's gaze. He aches in so many ways, but the pain he sees etched in the lines of her face is so much worse. He speaks, voice low, fingers twisting in the fabric of his cloak, "I will help you fight at the tower, you know. We can get the beacon." His gaze falls—as it has from the moment they met—on Caleb. "We can help him."

Essek hopes he can believe his own words.

Nott nods silently, finally blinking as she reaches for Caleb’s limp hand, giving it a gentle pat. "He'd be happy to know you're here," she says, voice roughened by sobs, the corner of one lip twitching up in apparent amusement. "He thinks very highly of you."

"Oh," Essek says, feeling heat creep up his cheeks despite himself, "I feel the same way. He is…" Essek pauses, trying to find a term that encompasses even half of the feelings that arise when he thinks of Caleb, settling for, "he is an extremely talented wizard. Brilliant even."

Nott raises an eyebrow and Essek can feel his face burn brighter. She grins. "You're not wrong there." Her smile falters and she reaches for Caleb's hand again, holding tight.

"Okay," says a voice behind Essek and Beau appears, squatting down by his side in the damp grass. "We gotta get to Zadash. Caleb can stay at my place in the Cobalt Soul. He’ll be safe there. We can rest up for the night, get our strength back, make some plans and figure out how we can get to the beacon in the morning." She folds her arms over her chest, gaze fixed on her feet, lips twisted in a grimace. "Can you get us to Zadash, Essek?”

Essek runs his fingers over his component pouch, wishing the spells he'd prepared for the day weren't quite so useless to the situation. "I can," he says, "though I don't know the exact location you're referring to, there might be some difficulty." He glances around, taking in the bruised and battered state of the Nein—he hadn't even noticed with all his focus taken by Caleb. "There is the chance of injury if I go wrong." He twists the fabric of his cloak in his fingers once more, feeling the edges start to fray. "I don't want anyone else getting hurt. It has happened before." Essek sighs. "If there was a fixed circle or something then it would be so much easier." It hurts to admit his weaknesses, for the Nein to know just how inadequate he really is.

"There's a circle at the Soul," Beau says, muscled shoulders tightening as she digs her fingers into the grass, pulling out a handful of blades. "Caleb knows it, he knows all the circles." She sighs, letting the grass fall, cast away in the faint breeze, her voice bitter, "Of course he memorised them. Stupid bastard and his stupid amazing memory."

Essek raises his eyebrows. "He memorised them?”

“Oh yes,” Nott says, a hint of pride clearly audible beneath her sob-roughened tones. “Caleb can remember almost everything he sees, or reads,” she lists off on her fingers, “he can tell you where North is, and he always knows what time it is."

Essek can't help but feel a smile creep over his lips. The more he learns about Caleb, the more he wants to find out everything there is to know about him. His stomach gives a flutter despite the coldness inside him. Of course it is only now that he realises the true depth of his feelings.

It only solidifies his resolve to get Caleb back.

"Surely there is some sort of a backup?" Essek says. "Even the best wizards need to keep notes." He thinks of his own spellbook and resists the urge to pull it from its pocket in space: the weight of a book in his hands has always been a reassurance to him.

"I mean, I suppose you could check his book," says Beau with a shrug. The rest of the Nein are starting to gather around Caleb once more, eyes red, faces lined, weariness a heavy cloak that covers them all. "Maybe he made a note of it there?”

"It's worth a look," says Fjord, rubbing at what must be a very recent wound in his shoulder. "I mean, if it helps us get where we want to go without getting hurt." He inclines his head with a rueful half-smile. "No offense, Essek. I just don't think I have it in me to take any more hits today."

“None taken,” Essek murmurs. He clenches his jaw, not daring to reach out but knowing that he must. Caleb’s spellbook is on his body, strapped to his side. Essek’s gaze has landed on that spot too many times to count during their study sessions. He presses his lips tight together, conjuring a Mage Hand with a whispered apology. “Please forgive me for this, Caleb. I promise I will return them when you are back with us.” The silvery hand reaches out, delicately unfastening each buckle of the book holster and gently tugging it away from Caleb’s still form to land in Essek’s lap.

“I will need a little time to commit the circles to memory if they are in here,” Essek advises. “If they are not then you will need to give me all the information you can on the point in Zadash and I will try to get us there as safely as possible.” The expectation in the Nein’s eyes is almost too much to bear. He can feel the weight pressing down on him and drags in a breath as a jolt of pain lances up his spine.

“That’s okay,” Yasha says, her voice soft, her tone cutting through the growing panic inside Essek. “Take all the time you need. If it helps Caleb then we can wait until you are ready.” She hefts one of her giant swords over one shoulder and sits a few feet from Essek, plucking a handful of white clovers from the grass. “We will keep watch for you for now.”

“Is there anything you’ll need?” Jester asks, her exuberant voice far softer and smaller than the one that has broken through Essek’s concentration so many times in the past. “I have a few pastries if you’re hungry or anything.” The corner of her lip curves in a smile, though Essek can see the effort that it takes. The smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

“I am fine, thank you.” Essek says, reaching for Caleb’s books. He frowns slightly when he opens the first, finding none of the shorthand used in magical notation. Instead, the pages are filled with long, flowing notes in a language Essek does not understand. The writing he recognises as Caleb’s own and there is a flutter of discomfort inside him at the thought that this might be a journal of some sort. He closes the book over, muttering another apology to Caleb’s body, glad that Zemnian is not one of the languages he has studied. Despite everything, poring through Caleb’s private writings seems a step too far.

Essek pats the first book gently, sliding it carefully back into the holster. He turns his attention to the other, quickly thumbing through the pages and feeling a burst of excitement at a few of the equations he finds. Some of the spells Caleb is in the process of creating are nothing short of remarkable. Warmth blooms in Essek’s stomach, the sudden image of them learning and creating together swimming in the forefront of his mind’s eye. What he wouldn’t give to be able to share these discoveries alongside Caleb, to further his own research with a partner by his side. Essek blinks away the fantasy, flicking through a few more pages before he finds what he is looking for.

The sigils for the Cobalt Soul Teleportation circles are copied meticulously in Caleb’s distinct, flowing hand and Essek breathes a sigh of relief; he should have known Caleb wouldn’t let him down. He smiles faintly, studying the Zadash circle intently, committing it to his own memory. He will transcribe it into his own book later. At least now he knows he can transport the Nein safely.

Confident that he has the circle in his mind, Essek stands, wincing at the pain that flares through him. “Okay,” he says, “I have the circle for Zadash.” He slides his finger down the empty space in front of him, opening the pocket where his own spellbook resides and slips the holster and both Caleb’s books inside. “I can keep the books safe here,” he says by way of explanation when Fjord raises an eyebrow.

“Good idea,” says Nott with a nod of approval, coming to stand by Essek’s side. “I think Caleb will be happy to know you’re taking care of his things. She drags in a shaky breath. “So, we’re taking him to Zadash.” She glances behind her to where Caduceus is already gathering Caleb in his arms with a strength unexpected of his lanky frame. Nott’s breath catches as one limp arm falls to dangle by Caleb’s side, and without realising he has reached for it, Essek finds a small hand grasped tight in his own. He glances down, meeting Nott’s eyes and finds his own sorrow reflected back. She nods at Essek, eyes brimming with tears, a flicker of understanding flowing between them. “Let’s go,” Nott says, giving Essek’s hand a quick squeeze. “We aren’t getting him back standing around here.”

Essek nods, letting go of Nott’s hand and reaching for his components. He knows less of Zadash then he does of Rexxentrum, but if Beau is certain that Caleb will be safe there then he is going to trust her. Pulling out his chalk, he ushers the Nein closer, trying to avoid focusing on Caleb’s blank, pale face. He reaches out to start the spell and feels a tug on his sleeve.

“Wait!” Jester hisses, breaking Essek’s focus and sending a wave of irritation prickling through him. “You need to change. You need like, a disguise or something.”

“Oh,” Essek says, realisation dawning, a faint wave of shame washing over him at his momentary annoyance. “You’re right. My kind aren’t supposed to be anywhere near the Empire during the ceasefire.” He can feel heat rising to his cheeks, embarrassment at his own oversight.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Jester says with a shade of her usual brightness, already digging through the bright pink of her backpack. She emerges with a small kit and what looks alarmingly like a tail. “This way you can keep your spells. Just hold still a moment.”

Essek closes his eyes, bracing himself, bowing his head slightly as Jester’s fingers dance over his hairline. There is a pressure at his forehead and something tacky on his skin that makes his nose wrinkle. He hears a faint snort of laughter from Beau and frowns, raising a hand to find a pair of curved horns arching back over his skull.

“I’ll let you put your own tail on,” Jester says with a wiggle of her eyebrows. “But now people will just think you are a tiefling.” She scrunches her face, hands going to her hips as she looks over her work. “Okay, maybe a tiefling with big ears.” She hands over a spade-tipped tail made of some sort of grey fabric. “It should be enough to get us into the Cobalt Soul.”

Essek attempts a smile, clipping the tail beneath his cloak. He doesn’t want to insult Jester by using Disguise Self now, though his confidence in this disguise couldn’t possibly be lower.

“I think you look great,” Caduceus helpfully supplies and Essek feels a stab of guilt deep in his gut. These people—his friends—trust him enough to help them, the least he can do is grant them the same courtesy.

“It’s not like we’ll let anyone give you shit anyway,” Beau says, as if she and the rest of their party aren’t already injured and worn to breaking point. “And I’m sure you can hold your own in a fight.”

Essek smiles for real at that. He knows the extent of his powers. “You’re not wrong,” he says, flexing his fingers and bringing his chalk out once more. “Are we ready?”

There is a chorus of voices around him as Essek makes the first marks of the circle, quickly sketching the sigils that will take them to Zadash. “Ready.”

Light flares as the spell is complete and Essek once more feels the rush of space distorting around him. At least this time he is not alone.

“Ah, shit,” Beauregard says the instant they arrive, stepping out of the circle with her hands held wide in apology. Two guards stand before her, suddenly tense, weapons at the ready. Beau slaps a hand on one guard’s shoulder, laughing, the sound harsh and false in Essek’s ears. “Sorry guys, I always forget to tell you we’re coming, don’t I?”

The pair visibly relax, the taller of the two shaking their head. “Expositor Beauregard. Should we inform Archivist Zeenoth of your arrival?”

“Yeah, sure, I’ll check in with him in the morning.” Beau waves the rest of the group towards the door. “We’re just gonna head up to my room, Caleb’s beat.”

Essek breathes deep, holding his head high. He takes care to stay somewhere in the middle of the group, hoping that his relative shortness is enough to keep him at least partially hidden between Fjord and Yasha. As it is, the guards take little notice as they make their way upstairs.

It seems that the weather is better down here in Zadash, early evening sunlight streaming through the windows to illuminate the halls of the Cobalt Soul in a wash of gold. It makes Essek’s eyes ache and he winces, steeling himself against yet another discomfort. Caduceus walks beside him, Caleb held limp in his arms, the glow of magic in his chest still rising and falling like a slow breath. It puts Essek in mind of the few tales he was told as a child; of lovers, incarnated separately and meeting once more, only for one to be cursed into an eternal sleep, neither regaining their memories of each other until awoken with a kiss. An old tale that had always sickened Essek.

If only the solution were as simple as that.

“Here we go,” Beau says, drawing Essek from his thoughts and swinging open the door to a large—though sparsely furnished—chamber. “Cad, you wanna get Caleb on the bed there?”

“Sure,” says Caduceus, stepping in to lay Caleb on the bed. It would be so easy to believe he was sleeping if it weren’t for the blood that stains his clothes. Glancing over his shoulder at Essek, Caduceus’ brows crease in a frown. “Hey, Fjord, can you close the shutters over, it’s a little bright in here.”

Fjord blinks in confusion before his gaze alights on Essek and realisation dawns. “Oh, yes, of course.”

With the shutters closed, the sunlight is a lot more tolerable and Essek gives Caduceus a grateful smile, letting himself sink into the one chair the chamber holds. He reaches up, plucking the fake horns from his forehead and setting them aside.

“You know, we never did get more furniture for here,” Jester says, glancing around the chamber, “we should change that.”

Yasha circles around, taking in the space, it seems this is the first time she has seen it. “So this is all yours?”

“Yup,” says Beau, “perks of being an Expositor. It’s not the most personal but y’know, it’ll keep Caleb safe until we rescue his soul or whatever.”

“How exactly do we do that?” Nott asks, clambering onto the bed to take her place at Caleb’s side, gently taking hold of his hand once more. “Essek, do you know?”

Essek glances up, feeling everyone’s gaze fall on him. “I am thinking,” he says. Exhaustion seems to have slowed his thoughts to a crawl, the turmoil of the day catching up with him. “I can study while you all sleep. I don’t need the same rest you do.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty beat,” says Beau, reaching for her pack and unfurling a bedroll onto the floor. “We can talk it out in the morning.” She glances towards Caleb and her lip twitches in a small smile. “Can’t believe I have to sleep on the floor of my own room.”

“At least we know we’re safe here,” Caduceus says, sitting cross-legged by the bed before pulling out a small tripod and a kettle, lighting up his staff with a flare of amethyst light. “Does anyone want some tea?”

Both Fjord and Yasha nod, moving to sit by his side. Beau has already stretched out on the floor while Jester kneels by the bed, one hand on Nott’s back, gently murmuring in her ear, though Essek cannot hear her words. He stares towards the shuttered windows, the light outside starting to fade to an orange glow that creeps along the floor like scattered flames. There is a heavy sorrow in the pit of Essek’s stomach, threatening to overwhelm him and it is with a dawning horror that he realises he might cry.

Breathing deep, Essek tries to force back the tears from his eyes. He has shown so much weakness already, he cannot afford to reveal any more. His fingers clench in the rapidly unravelling seam of his cloak, his teeth digging into his lower lip as he tries to hold it all back.

“Essek? Would you like to join us?”

Caduceus’ calm tones break through the tumult of Essek’s mind and he turns his head to the small circle on the floor, giving a brief nod. The pain in his hips is becoming too much and he whispers a Levitation spell, coming to rest in a cross-legged sitting position an inch or so above the ground.

His friends don’t mention it, Caduceus handing over a small tea bowl, a pattern of ferns delicately etched into the rim. Essek takes a sip, feeling the delicate blend start to warm him from the inside out, the simple act of drinking oddly soothing to him. He can see the weariness of the day starting to overcome the Nein one by one, the soft murmur of conversation quieting as sleep claims them. Essek knows he should rest himself, though he isn't sure where. His friends have arrayed themselves in a circle around the bed that holds Caleb, a scatter of bedrolls rolled out on the floor.

They say they are safe, but Essek can't help but notice how his friends crowd together. Nott's head lies on Jester's lap, Fjord by their feet, Caduceus at his shoulder. Beau is sprawled out by the end of the bed, her legs resting over Caduceus' own. One movement and they would all wake.

Yasha stands by the window and Essek realises she is watching him watch the group. She folds her arms over her chest and nudges the shutters ajar, letting in the comforting dark of the early evening. There is a flash of distant lightning, far to the north, back towards Rexxentrum and Essek sees a smile twitch on Yasha's lips.

"I think it will be okay," she says, her voice gentle.

"Really?" Essek asks, rising to drift over to Yasha's side. "How can you be sure?”

She inclines her head, nodding towards the group scattered across the floor. "Those people there." She sighs, arms tightening around herself ever so slightly. "When I thought I was lost, they came for me. They saved me." She looks to Caleb, the twin magics weaving through him in a dance of green and grey. "They didn't give up on me, and we won't give up on Caleb." She reaches out as if to pat Essek on the shoulder before reconsidering, dragging her hand back and turning away. Her voice is a low murmur. "Caleb and I, we're lucky; we have so many people who care about us." She meets Essek's gaze. "You care about him a lot, don't you?"

There is no accusation or insinuation in her voice, just the question, simple and straightforward. Essek nods, wordless. He never intended to get to this point, but now, when asked directly, there is no adequate way to voice just how much he cares.

Yasha smiles at Essek, a sadness in her eyes that is far deeper and far older than events of this day. "Like I said," she murmurs, "Caleb is very lucky." She turns from the window, carefully stepping over Beau's legs to settle in front of the door like a sentinel. "Goodnight, Essek."

"Goodnight."

Essek gazes out the window a while longer, watching as the stars begin to flare into visibility. It is a novelty almost, to be looking at the true night sky as opposed to the facsimile above Rosohna. He wonders if within the beacon, Caleb can see stars too.

Reaching out, Essek pulls Caleb's spellbook to him from the pocket in space, cradling it against his chest in a moment of weakness. If all else fails, this may be the only link he will have to a future he has only just started to dream of. He watches the light rise and fall from Caleb’s chest once more, the flare of green highlighting the contours of his face and making Essek's heart ache. He sits back against the window shutters, gravity cushioning the worst of his pains.

Tracing his fingers over the spellbook's cover, Essek can feel the rough binding beneath his fingertips. He thinks of calloused hands, ink-stained and beautiful, recalling the one time, so many weeks ago, that Caleb reached out to him and he pulled away.

Essek sighs, letting the book fall open in his lap and tracing his fingers over the flowing script. This is Caleb. This is his work, his magic, a little piece of him that Essek can hold. He flips through, feeling his mind start to relax as he focuses on Caleb’s notations. A few familiar sigils catch his eye: his own spells copied down in Caleb’s meticulous hand. This at least brings a faint smile to Essek’s face. He turns another page, interest rising at the sight of Caleb’s own spell creations, some more finished than others.

So much work, so much attention has been focused on these pages that Essek can practically feel Caleb’s imprint upon them.

There is a twist deep in Essek’s core; even now, he can feel himself falling further with every little touch Caleb has left behind. He presses his fingers to the pages, closing his eyes and leaning back against the shutters. The air is filled with the sounds of sleep: soft shifting beneath covers and deep, even breaths. The dark of night surrounds Essek, as close a comfort as he can find in the middle of the Empire.

It is only now, in this still moment, that he lets the first tear fall.

In time, Essek pulls himself together, drifting back to the simple desk and pulling out his own spellbook to sit alongside Caleb’s. He knows he should be resting, but there is an itch in the back of his mind, a need to do something. He taps his fingers against the hard wood, summoning pen and ink and starting to copy what he can. Even if Caleb never completes some of these spells, Essek will make sure his time was not wasted.

A few hours later and Essek hears movement, turning to see Caduceus stretching out, blinking towards him in the dark. He frowns, disapproving. “Are you still up? You really should get some rest.”

Essek can feel a smile twitch at the corner of his lips. “You sound like my mother,” he says. “It has been a long while since I have been chided for staying up to read.” Still, he closes both books, slipping them into the pocket in space. “You are right, though. I will be no use tomorrow otherwise.”

“Well I’m sure that’s wrong.” Caduceus yawns, patting around for his pack. “I have a spare blanket if you want it?”

“I—yes, thank you.” Essek accepts the blanket, floating over the tangle of limbs that is his friends and heading back towards the window. He is stopped by a gentle hand at his elbow.

"I don't want to overstep, but you don't have to stay out of the way. I feel like you belong with the rest of us."

Essek pauses in momentary consideration; he has never been part of a group before, always an outsider. But then, it seems that this odd little family is just that: a collection of outsiders that—through fate or happenstance—have found each other. He drifts back, lowering himself to the ground by Caduceus' side.

"Okay," he says, draping the blanket over himself and breathing deep, trying to settle his mind into the conscious meditation of trance-sleep.

"Good," Caduceus rumbles by his side. "And one more thing. I think you need this—"

Essek starts as long arms wrap around him in a gentle hug, his cheek suddenly pressed against a mass of hair that smells like damp moss. He tenses, unsure how to react. No one ever reaches out to him—except for Caleb that one time. His eyes squeeze shut, mind racing to contemplate the sensation of being held; it has been so very long.

Caduceus moves back and Essek feels like he can breathe again.

"Sorry," Caduceus murmurs, "was that too much? I didn't mean to overstep."

Essek shakes his head before realising that Caduceus probably can't see him. "No," he says, wrapping his own arms around himself in a crude imitation of an embrace. "You were right, I did need that…I do."

"Well we're right here," says Caduceus, laying his head back down onto his folded arms. "You're not alone in this."

Essek nods, mostly to himself. "I'm starting to realise that. Thank you."

There is no answer, only the soft rumble of a snore and Essek shakes his head, a faint smile creeping up his lips. He sits back, letting his shoulders drop, easing each aching limb into restfulness. The world falls away, the dark behind Essek's eyes stretching out in an infinite plane. He would like to dream, he thinks.


The rest of the night passes in relative silence, Essek's ears twitching at every shift and snore. The dreams he so dearly desires do not come but he can feel his strength returning, the prickle of magic rising in his veins. He is dimly aware of motion around him as the Nein start to rise, a few faint whispers echoing around him.

"Hey, Fjord, I'm gonna check in with Zeenoth real quick, see if I can swipe us some breakfast." A pause. "What do you think Essek likes?"

A sleepy mumble, "I dunno, ask him."

"Nah, man, let him sleep, dude needs it."

A few more scuffles and a faint cough. Essek feels a shift by his side before Fjord's voice comes through once more. "Good morning, Caduceus."

"Hey, where’s Beau? Are we heading out already?"

"Food first, then we need a plan."

"Okay, cool. Plans are good." Caduceus shifts again and Essek can hear the sound of him setting up his teapot once more. He supposes he should let himself wake completely, draw his mind from the comfortable cloud of trance-sleep and face whatever the day has to offer.

"Do all elves sleep sitting up?" It seems that Jester is awake now, too. Her voice sounds bright, even in a whisper. "That's pretty cool."

"I think it's like a meditation thing," says Fjord, "he can probably hear us."

"I don't think so," Jester says. "He looks pretty asleep to me, Fjord." There is a moment of silence before she speaks once more. "You should poke him."

"What? No, Jester, I'm not poking him."

"Please don't poke me," Essek says, his eyes still closed, body slowly stirring to wakefulness. He runs a hand through his hair, shoving it roughly into place. Yawning, he blinks his eyes open to find Jester, only a few inches away, one finger outstretched.

Essek raises an eyebrow and Jester sits back on her heels, grinning. “Good morning,” she says. “Did you sleep well?”

Essek stretches out his arms, the blanket he borrowed falling into a pile in his lap. “As well as possible, thank you.” His gaze falls immediately on Caleb and pain rises in his chest. Essek pushes it down. He is going to master this pain, channel it into something more productive. Caleb isn’t lost yet. Despair can wait.

The door slams open and Beauregard appears, arms laden with precariously balanced plates. “Hey look, I got room service,” she says, smiling as Yasha immediately steps up to help her. “I checked in with Zeenoth as well. He says he’ll make sure Caleb is safe here.” Her lips twist, brows furrowing. “I’ve been thinking, though. People know us here, they recognise us, and you know that fucker Trent is gonna have eyes on us at some point."

Jester's nose wrinkles. "Ew, Trent."

Her reaction seems to be shared with the rest of the Nein, a simmer of tension hanging unspoken in the air. Beau nods, her mouth already half-filled with bacon.

"Yeah, and I dunno about the rest of you, but I don’t want him knowing that his…things hurt Caleb.” Her fist clenches. “That bastard can’t know he’s gone.”

Essek frowns in confusion. "You are referring to Trent Ikithon of the Cerberus Assembly?” He has heard a few things about the man, none of them good. There is some sort of connection between him and Caleb, though Essek isn't entirely sure of the details.

"Yeah, he's bad news," says Caduceus, Yasha nodding along beside him. "He's hurt Caleb in the past."

"And I think he'd be pretty pleased to know he's done it again." Fjord folds his arms over his chest, gaze fixed on Nott, who seems to be radiating a cold fury, fangs bared in a snarl.

"I'll kill him," she hisses, "for everything he's done."

Essek presses his lips tight together. Clearly there is something unspoken here, something huge of which he knows only a few fragments. He wants to ask more, but the looks on his friend's faces make it clear that it is not their story to tell. Essek straightens up to his full—admittedly not very impressive—height.

"If you want to avoid attracting attention then I have a solution," Essek says, waving his hand over his face as he murmurs an incantation. "You don't want people to know Caleb is hurt, then he won't be. He'll be with you."

The spell flares into life, lightening Essek's skin, a scatter of freckles spreading over his nose, the white of his hair blooming into vibrant copper. He glances down at his own hands, seeing them shift into the ink-spattered, calloused ones he is so familiar with.

The Nein's eyes are fixed on Essek as he looks around them, his heart beginning to speed. This may have been a mistake; they are still processing the shock of Caleb’s apparent death, the last thing they need is Essek wearing his face as a disguise.

After what seems like an eternity, Nott pipes up, her voice hoarse with choked back tears. "Brilliant," she says, glancing over her shoulder to where the real Caleb lies. "I think you made him more handsome."

Fjord shakes his head, though his smile is fond. "This is good," he says, "but if you're going to be Caleb, I need to know one thing..."

Essek raises an eyebrow as Fjord grins at him.

"Can you cast Fireball?"

Chapter Text

Essek drops his disguise as they eat breakfast. The Nein still haven't mentioned what to expect at the tower, but they seem happy to at least have figured out how to pass through Zadash without arousing suspicion.

"I mean, you shouldn't need to talk to anyone, we just need to grab a few supplies, but if you do, can you do a Zemnian accent?" Beau speaks with her mouth full, gesturing with a half-eaten roll.

"Um, no." Essek says. "I am very bad at accents."

Jester draws in an excited breath, her eyes wide and shining. She looks Essek over, hands pressed to her cheeks. "Oh my gosh, you guys are so meant to be! Caleb can't do accents either!"

"C'mon, give it a try," Fjord says, tactfully ignoring the 'meant to be' comment—for which Essek is exceedingly grateful, he does not want to go down that road of thought, not until Caleb is safe and sound and back in his body.

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” Essek mumbles.

"Something simple," Nott suggests. "Say 'I like cats'."

"Or 'paper and ink', he likes that, too," says Caduceus.

Essek frowns, feeling a faint heat creeping over his cheeks. So many pairs of eyes are turned on him. He breathes deep, trying to conjure the sound of Caleb's voice in his ears, the soft inflection on certain consonants. "I…like cats," he says, the words twisting in his mouth as he tries to curtail his own accent.

He blinks around at the Nein, seeing only blank faces before Beau's lips twist in amusement and she snorts, "Yeah, maybe don't talk?“

Beside her, Jester gives an encouraging smile. "It's not bad," she says. "You're much better than Caleb."

Essek feels his lip twitch up and glances back to where Caleb lies. It seems that there is no point where at least one of the Nein's gaze doesn’t fall on him. "So," he says, "the plan? I can take us back to where I found you, you said that is near the tower. How far will we need to go from there?”

“It’s less than an hour's journey on foot," says Fjord, "if we take the same route then we can bypass the traps that Nott disarmed the last time."

Essek nods, steepling his fingers together at his chin, already forming a mental list of spells to prepare for the day. "And once inside? What can we expect there?" He swallows against a surge of sorrow that leaves a lump in his throat. "What hurt Caleb?”

Faces pale all around Essek, a silence falling over the Nein that he never would have thought possible. Finally Caduceus speaks.

"Dead things. Dead people, stitched into other dead things."

"Caleb knew them," Beau whispers, her voice hoarse. "He said he recognised some of the faces. I think he might have killed them...I don’t know how many years ago, during his training."

"They screamed," Jester says, a visible shiver running through her. "There were so many."

"We took out the first few, but there was another," Fjord says. "It had magic. Lightning. It just kept healing the others with the lightning."

"There were crystals inside it," mutters Beau, "the same kind that Ikithon used on Caleb and the other Scourgers, Residuum."

Essek blinks, the thought of a residuum infused flesh-golem making his stomach turn, his breakfast threatening to make a reappearance. “Okay,” he says, “how many are left?”

“Three, and the big one,” says Yasha, a grim look on her face. "Unless it brought more back."

“At least we’ve already disarmed all the traps on the way,” Fjord gives a hopeful smile that doesn’t quite meet his eyes, “unless they reset after a certain amount of time.”

“It’s been a day,” says Beau. “He might not even know we’ve been there.” Like Fjord, she doesn’t sound hopeful.

Essek presses his fingers to his lips, trying to approach this the same way as any other strategy meeting. It should be easy enough, a single tower is much simpler to infiltrate than a powerful nation—in theory at least. “Do you have any idea what other defences there are: you mentioned traps?”

“There were some arrow traps on the ground floor, and lightning further up.” Nott sits at the end of the bed, her feet dangling. “Jester’s spell said the Beacon was somewhere in the higher levels, but we only made it about halfway.”

Essek nods, dissecting the information. “So there is a very high chance of more defences as we progress up the tower.”

“It’s Ikithon, of course there is.” Beau’s hand clenches into a fist. “What I wouldn’t give to just—” she punches her own hand, the impact ringing in Essek’s ears. “We’ll get that asshole one of these days.”

“I am to understand he has a lot to answer for,” Essek says. His eyes are drawn to Caleb once again, the faint lines of scar tissue just visible beneath his sleeves, the same as those on the captured Scourger, marks he now knows were Ikithon’s doing. He smiles, baring the slight points of his teeth. “Maybe I will be lucky enough to join you when you take him down.”

“He is one of the ones that’s fucking with your beacons,” says Fjord. “Do you have any idea what we might need to do once we get ahold of this one?”

Essek sighs, achingly aware of his own lack of knowledge. He sits back, meeting Fjord’s gaze. “You must understand that very few individuals are permitted to study the Luxon beacons, the majority of my people see them as a...deity.”

“But you don’t?”

Essek wrinkles his nose, unsure how to best word his frustration with the belief system he was raised in. “I believe— I know that they are powerful, yes. But in order to truly understand the real power of something, it must be studied. Very little research has actually been done on them, something which is an eternal frustration to me. I feel that we are holding ourselves back by blindly venerating something when we could be understanding that power instead.” His fingers return to the frayed edge of his cloak, twisting it in frustration. “I want to know how it works, and how we can use it. I think if I can get the Beacon in my hands, I can come up with some sort of spell to retrieve Caleb. I can use its own power to aid me.” He glances up at Fjord. “What I am trying to say is that I don’t know what to do yet. But I will. I’ll find a way to bring Caleb back, no matter how long it takes.”

Nott gives a soft smile, reaching over to pat Essek on the shoulder. “You sound like him when you talk like that. Once Caleb’s back you should study more together, I think he’d like that.”

Essek swallows, tugging a loose thread from his cloak. “I’d like nothing more.”

There is a moment of silence and Essek shifts, acutely aware of just how much of himself he is exposing. He has always been slow to trust, never letting anyone close—mostly in self defence, fear of exposing his own shortcomings too close to the forefront of his mind. He clears his throat, shoving his hair from his face with one hand. “Anyway...we can discuss future plans when we know for certain that there is a future.”

“Yeah, we gotta get this done first,” says Beau, “we should grab some supplies and head out.”

“Let me prepare my spells first,” Jester says, Caduceus nodding by her side.

“I should do the same,” Essek says, sorting through his components and frowning to himself. “I’m afraid I will need to pick up a few more things if I am to sufficiently emulate Caleb’s particularly...fiery spell set.”

There is a soft thump next to him, a simple leather pouch landing by Essek’s side and he looks up to see Nott’s soft smile. “You’re already taking care of his books, I’m sure Caleb won’t mind you using a few more of his things.”

Essek feels something catch in his chest and he gives Nott a grateful smile. “Thank you. I will be sure to repay him once we are back in Rosohna.”

It is a nice fantasy, to think they might get to that point once more. Maybe Essek could visit to bring the components over, or maybe Caleb would like to accompany him to buy them together—maybe they could even make a day of it.

Caduceus’ voice comes through, breaking Essek’s daydream. “I’m gonna need to get at least one more diamond. I used my big one on Caleb.”

“Oh,” Essek’s hands fly to the drops at his earlobes, hastily unfastening them. In his hurry, his fingers tangle in the other adornments that decorate the length of his ears, tugging slightly. “You can have these, if you like.”

“Really?” Caduceus says as Jester leans in, her eyes wide.

“Wow, they’re really sparkly, they look expensive.”

Essek shrugs. “A few hundred gold, but what does it matter if they will help save a life. We are in this together, are we not?”

Caduceus smiles. “You are absolutely right.” He tucks the earrings into a pocket of his pack and settles back into a pose not too dissimilar to Essek’s sleep trance. Essek presumes this meditation is how he prepares his spells. On his other side, Jester scribbles intently into a sketchbook, her tongue poking out in concentration. Essek settles back as well, sorting through Caleb’s components, each meticulously separated into its own little section of the pouch. His fingers close on something hard and smooth and Essek pulls it out, finding a polished chunk of amber, gleaming even in the faint morning light that creeps past the shutters. It quickly warms to Essek’s touch and he feels an answering warmth rise within his chest. With a quick glance around, Essek slips the stone into his pocket, the faint weight reassuring against his skin. He has never been one for superstitions, but it feels right to have this close to him. Even if Caleb’s body is here in Zadash, Essek can carry a little bit of his warmth with him.

Tucking the component pouch on his belt alongside his own, Essek turns to both his spellbook and Caleb’s, flicking through their pages, memoristing somatic components and incantations, hoping that everything he is preparing will help them in their mission.

He eventually snaps the books shut and slides them both back into the pocket of space, looking up to see the rest of the group gathering their things. He stands, the ache around the base of his spine twinging only a little. This is good, he should be fine without the floating for a while. Essek turns to face Caleb, breathing deep. “So,” he says, “shall we gather our supplies and be on our way?”

Beau nods her head. “Zeenoth says he’ll make sure no one comes near here. I didn’t say why, but I’m sure it’s cool.”

Nott tenses, her wide ears flattened as she drags her gaze from Caleb. “Will he really be okay?”

“I’m sure he will,” Fjord says, his tone soft, “the Wildmother is taking care of his body, and the Luxon is looking after his soul, I’m sure that is more than enough.” He raises his eyebrows, clearly trying to bring a smile to Nott’s face. “That’s like two whole gods.”

“If you like, I can ask the Traveler to watch over him, too,” Jester says, digging in her pack to pull out a small statue of a cloaked figure and setting it on the bedside table. “Now we have three gods.” Her eyebrows shoot up, clearly another idea coming to mind. “And I can always leave Sprinkle here as well, he can be like an extra guard.” She reaches into her hood and Essek is astonished to see a length of what looks like red fur held in her hands. He frowns before the limp creature jerks its head up, ink-bright eyes glimmering. The weasel bares its tiny fangs at Essek, struggling in Jester’s grip.

“It’s, uh, it’s okay,” Nott says, eyeing the little beast with suspicion. “I’m sure Sprinkle would rather stay with you.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” Jester shrugs, letting Sprinkle dart up her arm and coil up beneath her hair. Her tone immediately softens and she places a hand on Nott’s shoulder. “I know it will be hard to leave, but just think: the sooner we go, the sooner we can get Caleb back.”

Nott nods, glancing over her shoulder and catching Essek’s eye. He gives her a weak half-smile and steps forward. “If we are heading out then I should probably change my face.” He murmurs the spell, feeling the prickle of magic spread over his skin. “I promise I will try not to talk to anyone,” he says with a wry smile.

“Okay, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” Beau says, “let’s go.” She nods towards Caleb’s still body, her jaw clenching slightly. “We’ll get you back, man.”

There is a chorus of murmurs, directed towards Caleb, though Essek keeps his mouth shut.

“We’ll be back soon.”

“Wildmother keep you.”

“Don’t worry, Caleb, we’ve got Essek this time, and you know he’s super powerful.”

Nott is the last to leave before Essek, though she doesn’t say anything, simply squeezing at Caleb’s hand and turning away with a ragged hiss of indrawn breath: tears choked back.

Essek looks over Caleb’s pale face, lit in turns by grey and green. He can feel his hands trembling and scrapes his teeth over his lower lip, hesitating.

“Caleb, I—”

He shakes his head, not entirely sure himself how that sentence ends, “...I’ll tell you when you’re back.”

The door clicks shut behind Essek and he holds his head high, following behind his friends into the bright light of the morning.


Their errands around the city go quickly, a few simple supplies all they need: potions and crossbow bolts mostly. There are one of two glances in their direction: a couple of crownsguard, a shifty-looking Tabaxi, who darts into the shadows of an alleyway, and a friendly-faced firbolg, who gives a jovial wave before the Nein dash off, no time for pleasantries.

Essek keeps his head held high, well aware of the target he has painted on his back for himself in donning this disguise. There is a faint sense of defiance, however, and Essek can’t help but smile to himself. If Trent Ikithon truly wishes to hurt Caleb still then he will have to go through Essek first—and despite his relatively sheltered upbringing, Essek knows how to fight.

There is a sense of nervous anticipation in the air as the Nein gather in a quiet courtyard, supplies tucked away in packs. "Are we ready?" Essek asks. He doesn't have quite the same keen mind as Caleb but he is aware of time marching on. "This disguise will only last a little longer and I would rather be near the tower when I cast it again."

"I think we're good," says Beau, hurriedly glancing around. "I don't think anyone is watching us." She glances up at Caduceus, eyebrow raised in question.

"I haven't noticed anything," he confirms, shifting the grip on his staff and scanning the empty space. "Yeah, I think we're fine."

"Okay," Beau says with a nod, "Es-Caleb, time to do your thing."

"Very well," Essek says, feeling a stir of discomfort, being addressed by Caleb’s name. "Around me, please."

He can feel Nott's hand slide into his own, gripping tight, Yasha on his other side, steady and solid, and it reassures Essek slightly. He is with friends, they can do this, they will bring Caleb back.

Power surges around them the instant Essek finishes the incantation, light flaring at their feet. The world drops away, blood rushing to Essek's ears as he feels the familiar jolt in the pit of his stomach. There is a rush of sensation and then Essek's feet hit the ground, a soft breeze ruffling his hair from his face.

"We're here! I can see the butt rock," Jester announces. "Thank you, Essek." She peers around, brows faintly creased. "I think we need to go that way, but I can cast Locate Object to be sure."

"It's okay," Fjord says, "it's definitely that way. Save your spells, we're going to need them."

Essek feels his disguise dissipate and a twitch of amusement runs through him as Beau's gaze drops a few inches, from Caleb’s eyeline to his own. "I thought you were taller," she says with a small shake of her head. "That’s not why you float, is it?”

“No," Essek says, dragging a few more loose threads from his cloak and twisting them in his fingers. His nose wrinkles. "If you must know, I float because some days it is difficult to walk." He can see the concern in Beau's eyes and waves a hand, dismissive. "There was an accident a few decades back and the injury left its traces." He shrugs. "It is irrelevant."

“Okay, if you’re sure,” Beau says, her voice tinged with skepticism, “just let us know if you need a break or some shit, ‘kay?”

Essek nods, feeling a flicker of warmth at her concern for him. “I’ll be sure to let you know.”

He falls into walking pace between Caduceus and Jester, Fjord and Nott leading the way towards the trees and following a winding path forward. There is a tightness in Essek’s belly, the almost-anticipation of a fight to come making the tension rise inside him. He continues to fiddle with the threads pulled from his cloak, twisting and knotting, needing something to keep his hands occupied as his mind races through potential encounters. He hopes he is prepared.

The group is mostly silent as they trudge through the trees, the criss-crossing shadows of branches obscuring the worst of the afternoon sun. Essek can feel the pressure descending on them the closer they get to their destination and clears his throat, trying to distract the group from the gathering tension. “So...um,” he falters, unsure what to say. “Where will you be heading once this is all over?”

There is a sinking feeling in the pit of Essek’s stomach, even as he asks the question. He dreads to think of another two months without hearing a word, of not knowing where his friends are or how they might be doing. Really, Essek thinks, if it were up to him, he would want them home—in Rosohna—for at least a little while, if only so he can keep them safe.

“We have a few things to take care of,” Fjord murmurs, with a meaningful glance in Caduceus’ direction. “Though I think maybe we should spend a little time at the Xhorhaus, at least until Caleb gets back on his feet. I can’t imagine dying and coming back is easy on someone.”

“It’s not.” Caduceus’ voice is somber and Essek can see his knuckles tighten on his staff. "The longer you've been gone, the weaker you'll be. Caleb is gonna be pretty beat for a while."

"Well, I'm sure he—”

There is a crackle of breaking branches and Nott freezes, seeming to sink into the shadows of the trees almost effortlessly. The rest of the group still, breaths held. Essek glances around, though the light of the sun obscures his vision even through the canopy of leaves. He tenses in place, sorting spells in his head before Nott reappears from the shadows, crouched low.

"It's fine, just a deer," she says with a sigh of relief. "We're almost there, though."

Essek nods to himself, whispering his spell and feeling the flutter of magic on his skin, a gentle caress as Caleb's form settles atop his own—and isn't that a thought that makes his blood race. Essek is grateful for the glamour, hiding the heat that rises to his cheeks and spreads up the length of his ears.

They are reaching the edge of the treeline, heading for a small clearing and Essek catches his first glimpse of the tower: dark sandstone, elegantly carved with reliefs of birds and beasts around every window, though there are what look to be scorch marks lower down, marring the stone in slashes of black. There is a heavy, greasy feeling in the air, the telltale sign of concentrated magic. It is acrid on Essek's tongue and he feels his nose wrinkle. His own tower is far more pleasant.

"Okay, Nott, you go first, look for any traps we might have missed last time, or any that might have reset." Fjord whispers, gathering the group around him. "When we get to the golems, hide, wait for the rest of us to attack and see if you can get the drop on them."

"Go for the big one first," Beau says, mostly to Yasha, who nods, pulling a sword etched with runes from her back. "There's no point going for the others when it can heal them with lightning. Once it's down we can take them out." She glances towards Essek. "Fire hurts them, a lot, so if they have any kind of memory, they will come for you first."

"Just stay by me," Jester says, the fingers plucking at her holy symbol the only indication of her nerves. "I'll make sure you're okay."

Essek nods. "We should try to get through them quickly, there is no telling what the rest of the tower may hold. Conserve your spells if you can."

Caduceus nods in agreement. "I'd rather not have to revive anyone else today so take care." He presses one large hand to Nott's skinny shoulder, pale green light flaring. "Wildmother guide you."

Nott catches Essek's eye and grins. "Let's do this." She turns on her heel and vanishes, suddenly invisible, not even the sound of footsteps breaking the still air. Essek can't help but be impressed, tilting his head in a vain attempt to discern Nott’s whereabouts. He glances upwards, squinting against the glare of the sun, peering upwards to the tower’s top and hoping that the Beacon—that Caleb’s soul—awaits them somewhere inside.

They wait only a few moments before Fjord nods, starting forward. “Nott says everything is the same inside so far, let’s go.”

Essek follows, keeping close to Jester’s side, alert to any movement, to any noise. They crowd through the small door at the tower’s base, the scent of old magic growing even thicker in Essek’s nostrils. There is something else, though, something sickly sweet, cutting through the heavy permeation of magic in the air, it smells ripe and rotten, of bursting flesh and rot. Essek can feel his stomach roll and glances around, seeing only bare stone walls peppered with a volley of arrows, a few spots of blood visible on the floorboards.

Whatever magic, whatever research has gone on in this tower in the past, there is no sign of it, at least not on the few floors the group pass. There are a few corpses dotted around, strange constructs of twisted flesh already spotted with mushrooms and mold. “Your work, I presume?” Essek whispers to Caduceus, who nods, every line of his lanky body taut and tense. .

Slowly creeping up the winding stairs, Essek sees the corpses become larger and more misshapen, the faces of the Nein growing ever darker with each glimpse of blood spilled only the day before. There is a pressure growing inside Essek, pressing down on his temples and making his vision blur. He isn’t sure if it is the stress of the situation or something more; there is a sense of power in the air, of magical potential so heavy he can almost taste it.

A slow, shuddering scrape has the group freezing in place. The sound seems to echo around them, steadily shuffling across the floorboards above their head. There is another sound, softer, a muffled throb, low in the throat. It sounds to Essek like the sound of someone sobbing, though there is a more guttural quality to the voice.

“That’s them,” Jester hisses, reaching out and taking hold of Essek’s cloak. “Stay close, Nott is probably already in there.”

Essek nods, wetting his lips and flexing his fingers, hoping that they have the element of surprise on their hands. He dips into Caleb’s component bag, easily finding the well-worn pouch containing sulfur, the guano pouch directly beside it and no less worn. Essek’s other hand comes to rest on the chunk of amber in his pocket, thumb running over the smooth stone in a brief touch that is enough to reassure him, to remind him exactly why he is doing this.

“Ready?” Beau whispers over one shoulder, catching Yasha’s gaze. She nods, a soft smile creeping up her lips that Beau instantly returns. “Right, let’s fuck ‘em up. For Caleb.”

Essek feels his own lip twitch in the ghost of a smile. It has been a little while since he truly fought, but there is a part of him that relishes the thought of stretching his abilities. It will be nice to have the Nein see what he is actually capable of, beyond mere Teleportation.

Beau kicks the door open and darts forward in a blur of blue, Fjord close behind her.

There is a moment’s silence.

And then the screams begin.

Essek has barely an instant to take in the circular room before his ears are assaulted with an inhuman screech, wet breath forced from shredded lungs. He keeps behind Jester, whose hands flare with a burst of pink light, a flurry of small horned shapes springing into existence around them to dart through the air.

There is a groan and the slap of flesh against wood, heavy footsteps approaching on Essek’s left. His gaze is caught by the sight of a tall, humanoid shape, the varied tones of human skin crudely stitched together into a form that moves with the shambling gait of something long-dead. Breath wheezes with every heavy footstep, the sound of so many voices, the knitted-together strings of vocal cords tangling into a single, drawn-out wail. Jagged green crystals protrude from the creature’s body, shimmering with swirls of magic and glinting in the low light. There is a scream of rage and Essek sees Yasha lunging for the creature, her teeth bared in a snarl and her sword drawn.

Eyes widening, Essek can’t help but flinch as the sword sinks deep, scraping against the residuum crystals with a harsh rasp. He expects blood when Yasha drags the sword free, tearing at old flesh as she takes a second swing. Instead, there is a slow seep of black, thick and foul-smelling, the scent of rot rising in the air.

The golem turns, a flicker of long-dead intellect flaring in one clouded eye when it spots Essek in the guise of Caleb. Its twisted mouth opens to show ragged, broken teeth, a low moan falling from torn lips as it surges forward, clearly intent on finishing what it started the previous day. Lightning crackles over the creature’s skin, building up inside the crystals only to flicker out when Yasha steps forward, sword thrust out in defense.

“I’m not done with you,” she hisses.

The golem howls, the sound rebounding back, answered in a cacophony of voices as more heavy footfalls shake the floor. It swings for Yasha, catching her once in the stomach and again in the jaw, though she barely flinches from the impact. There is another drawn-out wail that makes Essek's teeth clench, the sound raw pain in his ears.

“Fuck, looks like his friends are here,” Beau says, dashing up as Yasha wrenches her sword from the wound in the creature’s side. Vaulting off Yasha’s back, she twists in the air, her fists a flurry of movement as she pummels down the length of the creature’s spine, each impact ringing with a slap. The golem seems to tremble, muscles locking in place, straining against some invisible bond. Beau lands on her feet, grinning and punching the air with a whoop of triumph. “He’s stunned, fuck him up!”

Essek hears a laugh somewhere in the shadows of the rafters above him and glances up in time to see a single crossbow bolt sail into the golem’s chest, burying itself far enough to disappear beneath the mess of stitched flesh, closely followed by a second that punches into almost the exact same spot. Essek smiles, seeing Nott give him a wink before she dashes along the rafter and back out of sight. He spins, feeling fire in his veins as he slaps together the sulfur and guano. There is no way to attack the crystal-imbued golem without catching Beau and Yasha, so Essek aims for the shambling figures on the other side of the room.

There is a rush and a roar as the spell leaves Essek’s fingertips, bright fire blooming in a burst of heat, the crackle of burning hair and skin almost enough to drown out the maelstrom of screams. Essek moves back, seeing all the creature’s attention turning towards him and feels a brief tinge of worry. He stays within the swirling pink...unicorn? creatures that surround himself and Jester and braces himself for an attack.

The remaining golems shamble forward, joints creaking and snapping as limbs that were never meant to hinge together are forced into action. They force their way through Jester’s barrier, the creatures biting and goring with their tiny horns, outlining the golems in shimmering pink light. One in particular is stabbed in a long-dead eye and screeches, muscles tensing as it lashes out towards Jester with one massive fist.

She bounces back, easily parrying the blow with her shield, eyes widening as she spots the other two descending upon Essek.

They swing at the same time and Essek throws up a shield spell, the blows glancing off the shimmer of arcane energy, save one.

Essek feels his breath knocked from his body as the creature hits, pain blooming in his ribs, bright and vibrant. He hisses, clutching at his side and trying to drag in a breath as the two golems seem to focus on him. “Fuck,” he mutters.

Between his two opponents, Essek spots Fjord dashing towards the fray, the silvery blade of his sword brightly glowing, arcing in a wide swing towards the crystal-infused golem and cutting another dark line down its torso. “We gotta get this one down before it heals the others, right?” He swings again, slicing across one meaty thigh, though this cut is much less deep.

“Yup, and he’s still stunned,” Beau yells, an air of triumph in her voice as pale white flames engulf the golem’s head, blisters bursting and crackling on patchwork skin.

“Nice shot, Caduceus,” Fjord shouts, a grin creeping up his lips. “He’s looking rough.”

“Good, then maybe we can start thinking about these other ones?” Jester says, her voice raised. She wrinkles her nose and reaches her hands forward with a murmur of, “Gross, gross, gross,” as they sink into too-soft flesh.

The creature screeches, veins of black spreading outwards from the point Jester’s hands touch. The skin shrivels and blackens, seeming to rot from the inside out. The golem twists in Jester's grip, limbs twitching before, with a final gurgle, it slumps to the floor, dead.

As if spurred on by this first victory, Yasha lets out a battle cry, her sword arcing up in a surprisingly graceful swing, slicing up the creature’s abdomen to spill more of the sluggish, black blood across the floor. Her next swing goes wide, glancing off one of the embedded crystals with a ringing clash of metal against stone. Even so, Essek can see the way the golem is starting to sag, muscles still locked in place. Beau stands behind it with her fists raised, her eyes wide and her mouth curled in a snarl.

“Fucking die,” she growls, spinning around to drive her knee into the golem’s spine wth a loud crunch. It drops to the ground, breath wheezing like a burst bellows. Beau’s own breath is speeding with every hit, tears shining in her eyes as she grabs the golem’s head, twisting it with a resounding final crack.

The golem crumples, dark blood seeping into the scarred wood of the floor. Beau’s chest is heaving, her face blotchy as tears stream freely from her eyes. “That’s for Caleb you son-of-a-bitch,” she mutters.

Essek feels his heart wrench, his pain rebounding against the pulsing bruises he knows are already blooming on his ribs. His ears twitch as a screech of anger fills the air and Nott reappears from the shadowed rafters once more, rapidly firing a pair of crossbow bolts into one of the golems still looming over Essek. It grunts, falling sideways, the flicker of arcane light dying from its eyes. If such a thing could ever have been truly called alive, it no longer is.

Only one remains, battered and burned, bloodstains on its knuckles that are far fresher than the black mess that seeps from every puncture Jester’s unicorns have inflicted. Essek stands straight, the image of Caleb’s still face flickering in his mind like a pale flame.

Something catches in his gut, a burn of anger, of sorrow. The heavy realisation that this is where Caleb was killed, that these were the creatures that hurt him, only serves to make the simmer of anger boil, burning through Essek in a flash. Power fills his veins and he raises one hand. Every ounce of hurt, every pain Essek feels in his heart, all are condensed, crushed into a single burst of arcane energy that surrounds the remaining golem, anchoring into its crudely-stitched skin.

Essek grips tight, raising the creature off the ground, the rage that runs through him burning like a furnace. His mind, though, is clear. These monstrosities dared hurt Caleb?

Essek cannot allow them to live.

He draws in his fingers, clenching tight and feeling gravity do the same. The stitches burst, loose limbs falling limp to the floor as the creature caves in on itself with a harsh crunch. A wail of many voices is cut short, the only sound left that of Essek’s ragged breath. He holds on just a moment longer, trying to steady himself, knees feeling weak. When Essek speaks, though, his voice is steady, even if he himself is not.

"Is that all of them?” he asks, dropping his hand and hearing the wet mess of flesh hit the floor. His stomach rolls, nausea building inside him.

"I think so." There is a tremor of uncertainty in Fjord's voice. "Um, not that that wasn't impressive—and utterly terrifying—but you're supposed to be Caleb right now. Caleb doesn't know magic like that."

"He will," Essek snarls, "I'll make sure of it." He can feel his hands trembling. With his power, with the magic they can build together, he is going to make sure that Caleb is never hurt again. There is a burn of tears in the corner of his eyes, angrily brushed away with the hem of his rapidly-unravelling cloak.

A warm hand grips tentatively at his forearm and Essek turns to see Jester, her eyebrows creased in concern. “Essek?” she murmurs. “Are you okay?”

Essek shakes his head, a shudder running through him. “No.”

Jester’s other hand finds his back, gently stroking in circles. “That’s okay,” she says. “Things have been really tough, but we’ll be okay." She smiles, a small thing, but enough to make Essek take a deep breath, pulling himself together. He can feel the dull throb at the base of his spine, heralding further pain.

Beau vaults over the corpse of the imbued golem, quickly glancing over it. "I don't think these guys have anything good on them. Nott's in the lab next door, though, there might be some shit worth taking in there." She claps Essek on the shoulder, her hand phasing through the Caleb disguise as she does. "That last spell was sick, remind me not to get on your bad side, man. That looked painful."

"It is," Essek murmurs, taking a deep breath as he lets his Levitation spell take hold, rising up a few inches within his glamour, Beau's hand still on his shoulder. "It was the development of that particular spell that brought about my need for assistive magic."

Beau's eyes widen, her voice dropping to a whisper far quieter than Essek thought her capable of. "You did that? To yourself?"

Essek gives a thin smile. "Thankfully, I was much less powerful then." He takes Beau's hand from his shoulder, drifting towards the archway that leads to the lab. "Shall we move on?"

The lab, like everything else Essek has seen of the tower, seems long abandoned. A wide stone table lies in the centre, stained with gods-know how many years worth of blood. Nott is rifling through a multi-drawered cabinet, the scent of old herbs rising in the air but doing little to cover the rotting scent of the flesh golems.

"Anything good on your side?" Fjord asks, flipping through a sheaf of crumbling paper.

Nott shakes her head, deft hands dipping into drawer after drawer. "A few alchemy supplies, nothing great."

"I'm not detecting any magic here, either," says Caduceus, his calm gaze sweeping the room. "But I did find the next set of stairs."

Fjord nods, waiting for Beau, Jester, and Yasha to come through, balking a little at the sight of dark blood on Jester's hands.

She shrugs towards him. "What? Residuum is valuable. I thought maybe I could yank some out."

"And how did that go?"

Jester pouts. "It didn't come out very well, and I don't want golem chunks in my bag, so I left it."

"Probably for the best," Caduceus says, wide nose wrinkling. "I don't think we want to take anything from here." He pauses a moment, considering, "Except the beacon, we need that." Wandering back into the previous chamber, he passes his staff over the flesh piles of their enemies, a few small sprouts immediately rising from the mass.

Essek's skin prickles, his stomach clenching in an odd tug between impatience and apprehension. He catches Nott's gaze, seeing the way her fingers twitch at the flask on her belt and pulls another thread from his cloak, needing something to do with his own hands as well. Knotting and twisting, Essek turns the thread in his hands, breathing a sigh of relief when Nott tugs her cloak up.

"Right, if 'Deucey is done, can we get on to the next floor? I'll check for traps."

She doesn't wait for a reply, simply turning towards the staircase and pressing into the shadows, all but vanishing from view. Essek drifts after, waiting in the doorway for some sign that it is safe to move forward.

After a few minutes of tense silence, Essek hears Nott’s voice in his head with the telltale trace of a Message spell. “There are a few odd things up here, but I can’t tell what they are. Come up, but be careful. You can reply to this message.”

“Thank you, Nott. I shall inform the group.” Essek turns back to the Nein, relaying the message, readying a Detect Magic, just in case.

At the top of the stairs is another simple circular room, complete with desks and worktables; this, at least, looks like somewhere research took place. It seems the closer they get to the top, the more habitable and furnished the tower becomes. Essek throws out his spell, feeling only his friends and himself carrying any sort of magical resonance. Nott is rummaging through a small cabinet when they walk in, casting wary glances towards the ceiling.

Following her line of sight, Essek glances up to see a myriad of multi-coloured bottles hanging from the rafters in clusters. “I’m guessing that is what you meant by ‘odd’,” he says, tilting his head, trying to discern exactly what the bottles contain. “They are not magical, I can tell you that much.”

“Want me to grab one down?” Beau says, eyeing the shelves that line one wall. “I can probably do some parkour shit to reach them.”

“It’s either that or Nott shoots one down,” Fjord says, “and something tells me that isn’t the best solution.”

Nott nods. “I actually agree with you on that one,” she flashes Fjord a toothy grin. “Don’t expect me to say that again soon.”

Fjord returns the smile, a fond look on his face. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Essek smiles to himself. Even now, in this place, he can see the bonds that thread between the Nein, tying them together in their little mismatched family. There is a part, deep inside of him, that hopes that after this he has somehow earned his own place alongside them. He can see Beau doing a few stretches, limbering up to leap for the bottles. Essek knows that he could probably use his Levitation to easily pull one down himself. He holds out a hand, extending the gravity field that surrounds him, just as Beau dashes up the side of a shelf, leaping in an elegant arc to tug at one cluster of bottles.

The strings holding the bottles together unravel, coming loose in Beau’s hand. Essek watches as it whips back, pulling away from every single bottle that dangles above them. Before he can react, the sound of shattering glass fills the air, every bottle falling as one directly onto the Nein.

“Shit!”

“Fuck!”

“Oh, this isn’t good.”

“What is this? It smells weird.”

Whatever was in the bottles, it doesn’t seem to have caused any damage, simply dousing the Nein—save Nott, who is shielded beneath a table—in a faintly yellowish liquid. There is no burning, no yells of pain. Essek himself is completely untouched, the gravity of his Levitation spell shielding him from the downpour. He floats back towards his friends, curious.

“Do any of you feel strange? Any effects you can identify?”

“It feels sticky,” Jester says, grimacing when she tries to move her foot. “I think I’m stuck to the floor.”

“Nott, you know alchemy, do you know what this is?” Yasha’s voice is calm and steady, though Essek can see the straining bulge of her bicep when she tries to wrench her hand from where it is resting on the table.

Nott scrambles out from her shelter, quickly glancing over the rest of the group, yellow eyes wide. She carefully picks up a curved piece of glass, the liquid inside rapidly evaporating. “Hmm.” Nott sniffs, dipping one fingertip in the liquid before it disappears. She presses her finger against her palm, lip twitching in a small smile when there is no reaction. “It’s a binding solution,” she says, “fast-acting, but only in the right combinations.” She steps tentatively over the shards of glass, nudging them out of the way with one foot. “If I am right, any places that had pressure between them when the bottles fell will be stuck.”

Caduceus shakes his hand, seemingly trying to loosen his grip on his staff. “Yeah, that seems pretty stuck,” he says.

“So what? Is the idea that our shoes get stuck so we need to take them off and walk on broken glass?” Fjord’s face is scrunched as he struggles to lift one foot. “This seems so stupid. I would have expected better of a super powerful, creepy-ass wizard like Trent Ikithon.”

There is a loud clunk, and a rattling in the walls that sounds like chains. With a fwip, a volley of spinning blades fires from the ceiling on one side of the room, the floor suddenly embedded with knives alongside the sea of shattered glass.

“Oh, you just had to say that, didn’t you?” Beau says, glaring at Fjord. She tenses in anticipation, glancing around as another volley gouges into the floor on the opposite side.

“Essek? Can you shield us?” Jester squeaks.

Racing through the spells he has prepared, Essek feels panic bloom, there is only so much Levitation power he can muster in one day. “I think so,” he mutters, “I have something that might be able to get you free.” He dips into his own component pouch, drawing out a shard of obsidian and sketching an angular glyph above his palm. It flares with a burst of smoky grey Dunamantic light and then darkens, lining Essek’s fingers with shadow. He crouches, hearing the blades release again, coming closer,

Hurriedly, Essek traces around the soles of the Nein’s feet, leaving trails of inky blackness in the path of every finger. He circles Yasha’s palm on the table and brushes over Caduceus’ knuckles. “Just...give it a second.”

Nott has already dived back beneath the table and Essek cannot blame her, the next volley of blades lands less than a foot away. He can only hope that the spell reaction kicks in fast enough. Pulling back to where the knives have already landed, Essek thrusts his hands out, wrenching a bookshelf from the wall and dragging it to hover over the Nein, feeling a burn of pain lance up his spine as he does; combining Levitation magic while he is already floating always causes problems.

The bookcase splinters as the final volley of blades thunders into it like a storm and Essek feels his concentration waver. The tips of his toes drag against the floor when he tries to hold himself up, broken glass scraping at the leather of his boots. “Is everyone all right?” he asks, shifting the bookcase to one side and letting it drop with a grateful sigh.

The Nein are crouched together beneath, crammed in a roughly rectangular patch of floor, uninjured.

Jester is the first to move, lifting her feet one by one and grinning when she finds they are no longer stuck. “You did it!” she says, her eyes gleaming as she steps over, wrapping Essek in her arms, hugging tightly.

Essek hesitates for only a moment before he gives in, relief flooding through him. He hugs back, warmth blooming in his chest, easing his pains slightly.

“Man, I am so glad you are here,” Beau says, running a finger over one of the recurved knives embedded in the floor beside her. “What was that spell?”

“Entropic Touch,” Essek says. “It creates a closed point in space, breaking down any bonds by speeding up the natural progression of time.”

“So, like, an aging spell?” Jester is peering at the sole of one boot, brows furrowed. “My shoes don’t look older.”

Essek can’t help but smile. “Not quite like that,” he says. “Think of it more as a...Dunamantic version of Caduceus’ Decompose spell. It breaks things down, to put it simply.”

“Glad you had it, then,” Caduceus says. “I don’t think my spell would have helped much there.” He uses his staff to nudge a path through the wreckage of the bottles, the sound of tinkling glass rising in the air. Fjord follows close behind him, one hand on the hilt of his sword.

“I guess we keep going up?” Beau says, peering around. “Jester, did you try to locate the beacon already?”

“Not today, do you think Trent would have moved it already?”

“I hope not, but maybe we should check, just in case.”

Essek watches as Jester nods, clasping her Holy Symbol in her hands. His gaze is caught, however, by a reflection in his periphery. Caleb’s face—his own face, stares back from innumerable shards with a look of grim determination. Essek gives a small smile, feeling his heart lurch as Caleb’s lips curve in his reflection. Caleb’s smile is so rare a thing, Essek has had barely a handful of glimpses. It is like the sun through stormclouds, bright yet fleeting, warming Essek from the inside out. He would give anything to see it again for real.

Jester jumps up, clapping her hands and pointing towards the ceiling, breaking Essek from his contemplation. “It’s there, it’s definitely there,” she says. “We’re super close, you guys.”

“Well then, let us not hang around any longer,” Essek says. He can feel anticipation rising in his belly, the thought that they are close buoying him onwards. Soon, the beacon will be in his hands, and Essek will know for sure that Caleb is safe. He takes a moment to cast Gift of Alacrity on himself, wanting to quicken his own reactions, just in case the beacon has further guardians. There is a pat at his thigh as Nott passes.

"Come on then, let's get our boy back."

"He's not my—”

Nott winks, a wide grin on her face at the sight of Essek sputtering. He can feel the heat rising to his cheeks and presses his lips shut. "Yes, let's go."

Following behind Nott, Essek can see the shadows growing thinner as they ascend the next set of stairs. Light dances on the heavy carved stone with the flicker of torchlight. Essek tenses and a quick glance behind him shows that his friends have done the same. As one, they seem to inhale, pace slowing to a slow, stealthy creep. Jester whispers an incantation, seeming to draw the remaining shadows around them. Nott has completely vanished from Essek's sight, scouting ahead once more. He can't help but feel a burn of admiration at her skill.

They emerge from the stairway into a small stone room, almost like an antechamber, a low arch and another small set of steps marking the entrance to the main part of this floor of the tower. Nott's voice comes through, a whisper in Essek's ear.

"There's someone here, Caleb's old friend, Eodwulf or something. It looks like he's alone. He isn't doing anything...you can reply to this message."

"Can you see the beacon?” Essek asks, relaying Nott's message to the group while he waits for a reply.

Nott's voice comes through a few seconds later. "It's here, just sitting there, should I shoot him?”

"Don't shoot him," Essek hisses, "maybe we can negotiate."

"Sure about that, man?" says Beau, already flexing her arms, gearing up for a fight. "That dude is like, one of Trent's top guys."

Essek presses his lips together, considering. "What if I go in alone? Nott said he is—or at least was—a friend of Caleb's."

"Yeah, something like that," Beau says, looking skeptical, "maybe an ex; I never have gotten the full story there."

Essek raises an eyebrow, unsure what to make of that statement.

"Oh, don't worry, he's definitely single now!" Jester interjects, a wide smile on her face. She winks and Essek has to resist the urge to bury his face in his palm. It is good information to know, but now is really not the time.

"Anyway…" Fjord says, shaking his head, one hand on the hilt of his sword. "Do you really think it's a good idea to go alone?"

Essek gestures toward the archway, palm wide. "Technically, Nott is already in there."

"And we'll be right behind him," Yasha says, the corner of one lip twitching up in a smile. She nods at Essek. "I'm sure you can take care of yourself for a few minutes without us."

Essek returns her smile. "Good to know you have faith in me." He meets Beau's eyes, noticing the way her brows are still furrowed. "I'll be fine," he says.

"Okay, fine, but the minute I hear a yell or anything, we're coming in, got it?”

“Understood," Essek says, straightening his shoulders and taking a steady breath. "I would expect nothing less." He heads for the archway, drifting over the stone, the footsteps of his Caleb glamour casting no sound.

The room he emerges into is lit with torches, the thin slits of windows letting in only the smallest slivers of wavering daylight. The ceiling arches high, rising to a point that must be the tower's top.

A dais stands in the middle of the floor, and atop it, the sight making Essek's heart race, the Beacon, emanating a glow that is familiar—almost comforting. Beside it a single human, tall and well built, his dark hair cropped close. As soon as he sees Essek he smiles.

“Ah! You made it then. We knew you would come.”

We?

Essek feels cold steel slide between his ribs, pain blooming in a bright sunburst that blanks all thought from his head. A soft voice, etched in sadness whispers in his—in Caleb's—ear.

"Es tut mir leid, Bren. Es ist besser so."

Chapter Text

Pain burns through Essek's veins like wildfire and he can taste the copper tang of blood in his mouth. His vision swims, blooming black before his eyes. He can dimly hear Nott's gasp from the shadows and stumbles forward, Levitation failing. Essek hisses in a ragged breath feeling blood already soaking through the fabric of his shirt where he clutches it to his side, sticky between his fingers.

His assailant steps back, invisibility dropping, hood falling away to reveal a human woman, eyes lined in grim determination. She frowns in confusion for the briefest of seconds before a pair of crossbow bolts punch into her thigh, her knees crumpling at the impact. Nott appears on the other side of the room, crossbow in hand and fury in her eyes.

“Guys! In here! Now!”

Essek grits his teeth, throwing out his hand to cast the first spell that comes to mind. He has no time to think about memorised incantations, simply acting on instinct to throw out a spell he has known since he was young. Violet light streams from his fingertips to outline the woman in an arcane glimmer, preventing her from any further invisibility. This, at least should help protect his friends from further sneak attacks.

Realising that Faerie Fire probably wouldn’t be Caleb’s first instinct, Essek brings forth a firebolt as well, tossing it towards the woman and seeing what could possibly be a faint flare of fear in her eyes as it bursts across one arm. A large burn already covers her neck, violently red, and Essek feels a sense of grim triumph; he can use that fear to his advantage. His vision swims before him when he tries to move, blood running freely down his side to drip onto the floor. Gritting his teeth, Essek takes a shuddering step forwards. This is just yet another pain to work through, he can do this. For Caleb.

The woman backs up, her face creased in a grimace, and Essek tosses another firebolt as she turns away. Pain flares through him, throwing off his aim, fire streaking past the woman, who still flinches at the burst of heat. The bolt bursts uselessly against one wall and Essek winces, holding himself steady as he braces for another attack.

It doesn’t come.

Instead, the woman backs up towards the dais, pulling her hand through the air, a cloud of daggers springing into existence in front of her. Using her free hand, she yanks the crossbow bolts from her leg without so much as a wince. Her eyes are steely as she meets Essek’s gaze, sad recognition echoing in their depths, her face lined with a pain that Essek suspects has little to do with her injuries. Her lips are pressed tight, as are those of the man at her side, his gaze also fixed on Essek where he continues to bleed steadily onto the floor, blood spreading in a pool around his feet.

The room is suddenly filled with the sound of shouts, of footsteps, swords being drawn and a harsh battle cry that can only be Yasha. Essek gives a wavering smile and falls to one knee, his breath ragged. He is dimly aware of the sound of sword against sword, spells he can’t quite recognise shouted in a language that is only vaguely familiar. Nott skids to a halt beside him, shielding him as she fires a pair of bolts towards the fray, the arcane light of Shield spells flaring in return.

“Are you okay?” Nott hisses, reaching out to help Essek to his feet.

Essek doesn’t answer. There is a low buzz in his ears, drawing him forwards: the whisper of the Beacon calling out to him from across the room. He blinks, trying to focus, feeling oddly separate from the battle surrounding him. The air feels lighter, and in the corners of his eyes Essek swears he can see the threads that fill the Beacon stretching forth to encircle the room, drawing him in. He steps forward, every step bringing a burn of pain to his lungs, his breath shallow. Dunamantic potential seems to be swirling around him, invisible to everyone else, curling around his body with the promises of change. Pasts, presents, futures, all are there, right in front of Essek, if he can only reach the Beacon.

His attention is brought back to the present as Beau yells, tumbling to the floor in a crumpled heap, a harsh blow from Eodwulf’s now ice-crusted sword knocking her to one side. She bounces back up, wiping a trickle of blood from her nose, grinning. “Oh man, you’re not the usual kind of squishy wizard, are you?”

Eodwulf’s only reply is a low chuckle, the muscles of his arms flexing as he shifts to a more defensive stance, one hand held out in a spellcasting motion.

Jester dashes to Beau’s side with a worried shout of her name, daggers bouncing off her shield as she passes through the cloud. They crouch together, those same unicorn creatures—hamsters, Essek realises—bursting into life around them in a flare of pink light. “It’s okay, I’ve got you,” she says, the soft smile she shares with Beau making Essek’s heart swell.

He’s not the only person here fighting for someone he cares about.

Caduceus appears in the corner of Essek’s eye, his staff held aloft, pulsing with some dark energy that swirls around both Eodwulf and the woman who stabbed Essek, their eyes turning briefly black in the signature sign of a successful Bane spell. Essek can feel his confidence rising, the lure of the beacon still tugging him onwards even as the battle rages around him.

A blast of green light hits the wall beside Essek’s head, an Eldritch Blast gone awry. He winces, his only goal to keep moving forwards, to reach the Beacon. He knows he can trust his friends to cover him.

Raw magic sizzles through the air, a swirl of ice whipping through the tower interior, hail spattering on the floorboards and making Essek stumble. Thankfully, it seems the spell is not concentrated on him. The two humans are distracted by his friends, though their attacks are still beautifully coordinated. Their palms are pressed to the beacon, something which seems to allow them to send out spells at a greater rate than Essek thought possible.

The Ice Storm catches Yasha, who grits her teeth, standing her ground and Essek feels a brief flutter of worry. Before her the humans stand side by side, the Beacon between them, matching expressions of resolute determination on their faces.

Knowing he has to split them up somehow, Essek reaches once more for Caleb’s component pouch, his belly quivering as his mind races through spells. Phosphorus squelches in Essek’s palm, the increasingly-familiar thrill of fire racing within him as he swipes his hand through the mess, a wall of fire blooming between the two humans with a roar. He is starting to see why Caleb feels an affinity to these kinds of spells, though it is not Essek’s preferred way to fight. He would much rather be using the Dunamancy he is specialised in.

The fire zigzags, rushing over the wooden floor, splitting the room in two. Heat rushes through the air, dampening the Ice Storm spell, meltwater pattering like rain. Essek glances around, eyes widening as he realises he has made a mistake; he has trapped himself on one side of the room with the man, Eodwulf, the beacon still held firmly in one large hand. The rest of his friends are on the other side.

“Shit,” Essek mutters to himself.

Eodwulf tilts his head, his lips curving in something that could almost be called a smile. “You know we would rather not hurt you, Bren.” He gives a pointed look towards the blood still dripping between Essek’s fingers. “I think Astrid gave you enough of a warning, ja?” The beacon is in his hands, faintly undulating and Essek grits his teeth. All his hopes for rescuing Caleb lie in the hands of an enemy. His mind is working, even as he looks on, trying to figure out some sort of solution without giving away the fact that he is not actually Caleb.

A voice, roughened through the roar of flames calls out, “‘Wulf, I could use some assistance here.” Astrid does not sound afraid, merely concerned.

Eodwulf smiles for real now, meeting Essek’s eyes. His grip tightens on the beacon. “You’ll like this one, Bren. You always did like new spells.” There is a note of wistfulness to his voice, though Essek cannot be sure if he is imagining it. “This artifact is powerful,” Eodwulf says, gaze fixed on Essek’s face, his eyes shining. “There is so much to be learned. Watch.”

Holding the beacon aloft, Eodwulf places his hand on the surface, his fingers seeming to sink into the grey light as he murmurs a name.

“Owelia Fairfallow.”

Essek frowns in confusion, wondering if that is someone Caleb knows. If the name is supposed to mean something to him. He watches as Eodwulf removes his hand, pulling free from the beacon, dragging something from the inside.

It starts as smoke, trailing between Eodwulf’s fingers before the shape solidifies into an arm, a shoulder, a head, an entire humanoid form pulled from the beacon in Eodwulf’s grasp. The shadows coalesce into something almost solid, glowing with the same grey light as the Beacon itself.

The apparition’s feet hit the floor silently before it stands straight and Essek can see the form of a halfling woman, her hair short, the shadowy forms of her arms crossed in a maze of tattoos. He blinks, taken aback, there are no traces of a spell cast, though he can see the resemblance to his own Resonant Echo.

The woman, Owelia, steps forward, her face expressionless, eyes blank, pulling forth what Essek recognises as an Acid Arrow, though the colour is of the same dull grey as the rest of her form, leached and muted. The shot goes wide and Essek breathes a sigh of relief, cut short as he feels the acid splash against his back, burning through the layers of his disguise. Pain lances up the back of one thigh, unravelling spell and fabric alike to reach Essek’s skin, scoring a deep welt. Essek’s breath catches, the pulse of pain causing his concentration to waver, his tenuous grasp on the spell he is holding breaking free as his vision swims.

The wall of fire fades down to embers, glowing in a charred line across the floor, giving Essek a glimpse at his friends. They seem to be holding their own, though he can see a few more injuries than before. Astrid darts back to Eodwulf’s side, panting, a wide gash on one arm. She nods at the shade of Owelia in approval.

“Showing off, ‘Wulf?”

Eodwulf shakes his head, softness in his eyes. “You asked for the help, my dear.”

“Wait, I know her,” Beau says, brows creasing as Owelia pulls a pair of daggers, seemingly from inside herself, the same shadow-stuff of grey undulating with its own light. “We met her at the Sanatorium place.” She glares at Eodwulf in accusation. “Did you kill her?!”

“She volunteered to help with research,” Astrid says with a shrug. “We had to see what we could do. Her death has helped us understand more of the power the artifact holds.” Her voice is emotionless, her eyes the same. “You cannot change the world without some sacrifices.”

Essek can feel disgust rising in his belly, his own thoughts echoed by Fjord. “That’s her soul, and you’re using it to fight for you?”

Eodwulf laughs, a deep, rich chuckle that would be pleasant if it weren’t for the circumstances. “It is a shade, not her soul. Think of it as more of an echo. We haven’t figured out how to retrieve the actual soul...yet.”

Essek’s hand whips into his own component pouch, drawing out a piece of obsidian. Anger is rising inside him once more. If it is echoes they want, it is echoes they will get.

He needs to move fast, though. His Disguise Self does not have much time left.

The brief lull ends in an instant, everyone seeming to move at once. Essek throws out the Resonant Echo, moving in the opposite direction to circle the tower, back against the wall. Astrid reaches into the beacon, drawing another shade—though Essek doesn’t hear the name—a tall half-elf who immediately brings forth a long spear and charges.

The air rings with the clash of metal as Yasha rushes Eodwulf, sword striking at his own cold-infused blade. She is followed closely by Beau, her fists sparking with what looks like lightning. Essek can hear the sound of air tearing, spells arcing through the tower, shattering against stone and filling the air with the acrid scent of cordite. In the corner of his eye Nott skids behind the dais where the beacon was sat, crossbow at the ready, firing towards Owelia, prone on the floor after being knocked back by Caduceus’ shield. Fjord stands by his side, one hand on his shoulder, his own sword outstretched and glowing..

The sound of battle rings in Essek’s ears and he wills his echo into the fray, to create as much distraction as possible. It darts forward, its shape clearly Elven—something that makes both Astrid and Eodwulf pause—before igniting a Fireball, immolating both itself and the shades from the beacon.

Heat roars, light blooms, and the battle rages on, Astrid tossing out yet another nameless shade, quickly followed by a Cone of Cold, dousing the fires and catching both Beau and Yasha in it’s freezing grip. Despite her cold precision, Essek can see the flicker of fear in Astrid’s eyes at the destruction caused by the flames.

Caduceus is waving his staff now, even more magic filling the air, making it feel heavy and volatile. There is a pressure building, swelling with every further burst of the arcane, the atmosphere all but crackling with power.

Skin tingling and ears ringing, Essek is still focused, lured onwards by the tug of the beacon. He inches forward, reaching out with his own Gravity spell in an attempt to wrench it from Astrid’s grasp where she continues tossing out spells as shades as fast as the Nein can strike them down.

When Essek tugs at the tether of his spell there is resistance; Astrid is stronger than expected, her feet dragging along the floor as she holds tight to the beacon with grim determination. She meets Essek’s eyes as he pulls the undulating grey stone into his hands, face falling as his disguise finally fades. She takes in his face, his ears, the shade of his skin and hair, and her eyes flicker with an expression that could be sadness were it not for the hatred that flares beneath.

“You’re not— I should have known!” Her eyes are wide, teeth bared in a snarl. “Where is—”

Essek’s gaze unconsciously flicks down to the beacon in his hands and realisation dawns in Astrid’s eyes. She jerks her hand back, trying to wrench the beacon from Essek’s grasp—though at this point he knows there is no power in Exandria that could make him let go.

The ghost of an idea brushes against Essek’s mind, and at the same time he sees a light—a frantic, desperate hope—flare in Astrid’s eyes. They move in the same instant, hands plunging into the fathomless depths of the beacon, Essek praying to the gods he doesn’t even believe in that what he is doing is right.

Astrid’s voice is a low hiss, her breath choked back in something that could almost be a sob. “Bren Aldric Ermendrud.”

Essek focuses, the image of blue eyes and red hair settling into his mind with a tired smile. “Caleb Widogast,” he whispers.

The world seems to lurch forward and Essek can feel the depths of the beacon around him, fathomless depths of ancient power wrapping his senses, strengthening him. It feels as if time has stopped, motes of grey and threads of light dancing behind Essek’s eyelids. He feels like he is reaching into potentiality itself. Flickers of thoughts shatter in his mind—of spells undreamed, of timelines fractured, of futures that may yet come to pass.

Slim fingers entwine between Essek’s own, squeezing, bringing him back to the present. They hold tight and do not let go.

Essek’s eyes snap open and he smiles at Astrid, pulling back, revealing the grey light of the hand held in his own. “Sorry,” he says, the familiar scarred arms emerging when he pulls upwards, Caleb’s bright hair dulled to greyness as his shade rises from within the depths. “I think the man you knew is gone.” Essek can see the briefest flash of sorrow in Astrid’s eyes and leans forward, whispering. “You can still help me save the man I know.”

Astrid’s expression is unreadable as she stumbles back, her face sliding into a blank mask as she stares at the shade of Caleb. She straightens up, drawing her dagger—still wet with Essek’s blood—and lunges for him.

Essek has only a moment to react, the sight of Caleb standing before him throwing him unfortunately off-guard. The Shield fails when he calls it up, Astrid’s strike too fast to counter. His breath seems to fade in his throat as the knife cuts deep into his forearm, slicing through fabric and skin alike, saturating Essek’s clothes with yet more of his own blood.

It has reached the point where Essek feels beyond pain, the stab wounds and acid burns all combining into a singular heavy presence to be pushed aside, the same as every other day of his life. His vision blurs with streaks of blue, Beau and Jester somehow appearing on either side to take hold of his arms and pull him back to where Caduceus is waiting, a healing spell in his hands.

Essek barely notices his wounds knit back together, vision still spotty and blurred as it is. The beacon is in his hands, he knows that much, and there is a shade of Caleb beside him. The face is as blank as the other shades, still fighting alongside Eodwulf as Fjord and Yasha strike in tandem, their swords glinting in the miasma of magical energy that is still pooling in the tower’s point with every spell cast. Essek can feel the pressure building and rises shakily to his feet. They need to get away. They need to end this.

Astrid and Eodwulf are back to back once more, bleeding and panting yet still resolute, countering every strike that comes at them. They won’t stop fighting, Essek realises, and there is a part of him that balks at the thought of hurting Caleb’s friends—former or otherwise. He reaches for the torn and twisted loose threads of his cloak, winding them in his hands. Every thread, every knot, every tangle, has been made with thoughts of Caleb. Essek weaves it between his fingers, spreading phosphorus as he does. The page of Caleb’s spellbook blooms bright in his mind’s eye, the verbal component falling from Essek’s lips in a whisper, mirrored by the shade of Caleb at his side.

Widogast’s Web of Fire.

Sparks fly, racing for the remaining shades, converging on Astrid and Eodwulf, who seem to freeze in fear, both moving to shove the other out of the way of incoming fire. It is easy to see their bond, and Essek feels a pang at the thought that Caleb would once have belonged with them.

Orange blooms almost blindingly bright in Essek’s eyes and he turns away, raising the tattered remains of his cloak as a shield against the flare of flame. The Nein are around him, crouched together as the fire’s roar drowns out all other sounds.

When the sound finally dulls down, there is only the faint crackle of burning wood and Essek looks up to see the beams of the tower’s roof smoking. The only shade still standing is Caleb, tilting his head towards where Astrid and Eodwulf sit, arms clutched around each other, battered, bruised, and burned. Essek steps up, knowing that the battle is over.

“Please,” he says, breath still ragged, the healing spell not quite enough to wipe out the pain of his wounds, “I don’t wish to fight you any more. Just leave.”

Eodwulf’s voice is hoarse, his skin streaked with ash. “Not without the artifact. Our master—”

“Wulf,” Astrid places a hand on his forearm, her gaze cast towards the floor. “Look.” She inclines her head to where the shade of Caleb stands, blank face showing none of the spark that Essek knows is inside him.

Eodwulf’s face crumples, his fingers tightening on Astrid’s shoulder. His breath leaves him in a rush. “Oh.”

“I can get him back,” Essek says. “I know it. I have waited all my life for a chance to explore these beacons.” He holds the stone close to his chest, feeling the wavering pulse of grey light resonate with his own heartbeat. “I can help him.”

Eodwulf’s face is frozen in a mask of shock, his teeth scraping across his lower lip as he swallows. He draws in a shaking breath, glancing up to meet Essek’s eyes. Nodding slightly, he turns to Astrid, something unspoken passing between them in a shared glance. “Go then,” he mutters, sliding an arm around Astrid’s shoulders to prop himself up. “For Bren.”

“For Bren,” Astrid agrees. She waves her hand, muttering an incantation.

The air seems to draw in around them, outlining the pair in a faint light before their shapes wink out of sight. Essek knows they won’t have gone far but is content to let them go. He can only hope that he doesn’t regret the decision in the future. Turning back to his friends, he can see them gathered around the shade of Caleb, who doesn’t react to their voices.

“This isn’t him, is it?” Yasha asks as Essek returns to them, his injuries throbbing now that the adrenaline of the fight is starting to wear off.

“No, I’m not entirely sure what this is,” Essek admits. “I think he may be similar to the Resonant Echo: a possible Caleb from some other timeline. I can’t be sure, though. Did you see what happened to the others you were fighting?”

“They kinda just...poof.” Fjord waves a hand, glancing nervously to the shadowed Caleb-form at his side. “I don’t know if we should do that with this one, though.”

“No.”

“Definitely not.”

Both Beau and Nott draw in closer to the shade, protective, Beau shaking her head. “I mean, what if do that and then we bring Caleb back and he’s, like, missing part of himself?”

“What? Like his dick or something?” Jester’s eyes widen and she turns, very obviously, to look at Essek. “I don’t think he’d like that.”

Beau sputters, a flush rising to her cheeks that Essek feels mirrored on himself. “What?! No, I meant like his memory, or sense of humour, or, I dunno, the ability to walk up stairs or something like that.”

“Maybe we should ask him,” says Caduceus, peering at the blank face of the shade, a faint frown between his brows. “He was able to fight, so there must be something of Caleb in there.”

“That sounds like a good idea, actually,” Fjord says, coming to stand by Caduceus and patting him gently on the arm. “Essek, you pulled him out, do you want to talk to him?”

Essek has barely been able to look away from Caleb since the moment he knew they were safe. There is nothing he would love more than to talk with Caleb, the real Caleb.

“Go on,” Nott says, nudging at Essek’s leg, urging him forwards. He twists his fingers through the cat’s cradle, over and over, words leaving his tongue the longer he stares at Caleb’s face.

“I...um…”

Blank eyes stare into Essek’s own, familiar yet not. Essek’s stomach is in as many knots as the threads in his hands, his heartbeat speeding despite itself. He breathes deep, holding the beacon out with both hands. Raw power seems to spill from it, wrapping around Essek’s veins and urging him to fall into the endless depths.

“Caleb, I don’t know if you can hear me, if this is even a part of you or just a memory, but we are here, and we are going to help, and we are going to get you back.” Essek swallows, feeling a lump start to rise in his throat. “I promise we will get you back.” He offers the beacon forth, gently levitating it to float between Caleb and himself.

The Caleb-shade tilts his head, reaching out a hand; not to the beacon, but to Essek. The expression on his face does not change, even when Essek offers his own hand.

Cool fingers entwine between his own once more, smooth and unmarred by the calluses that Essek knows the real Caleb has. So much of his attention has been caught by those hands when they have studied, and nice as it is to have this touch, Essek’s heart burns with the desire to feel the real thing. He presses his lips tight together, bringing their joined hands to the beacon’s surface, feeling his stomach flip at that same familiar lurch into the infinite.

For a moment he is alone, the soft hum of the beacon filling his ears and making his thoughts drift, and then Caleb’s hand squeezes tight. Essek can feel the threads of possibility surrounding them, knotting around them both in a soft golden light. On the edges of his awareness, Essek can feel further threads entwined between their own, bright and shining and filling him with warmth.

Their friends, Essek realises.

Blinking back the sea of stars, Essek feels Caleb’s hand slip away. Their threads are still entangled, though, and as Essek sees the shade fade into the grey expanse there is a flicker of an idea, a realisation of how he can bring Caleb back.

“I’ll see you soon,” he murmurs.

Essek’s ears rush when he pulls back to himself, his friends surrounding him. The beacon pulses in his hand, warmer than before, though he may just be imagining it.

“We should leave,” Caduceus says, eyes cast towards the ceiling where the last embers of fire are mingling with the swirling cloud of arcane residue above their heads. “I don’t really trust that.”

“Yeah, let’s move.” Beau turns, placing one hand on Jester’s back, another on Yasha’s. “Essek? You got enough juice in you to get us back to the Soul?”

Essek nods, feeling stunned, his mind still trying to process the battle, the beacon, his plan going forwards, everything. His entire life he has been searching for a way to find out the power of the beacons, and now there is one here, in his hands, and the only thing Essek wants is to bring Caleb back. So much time has been spent dreaming and planning an theorising about this moment and now that it is here, Essek’s mind his blank. He is listening to his heart this time, nothing more. Everything else can wait.

Nott’s hand finds his own and she gives a gentle tug. “Come on, let’s go.”

They are halfway down the stairs when the first arcane explosion rocks the tower, the flagstones shifting beneath Essek’s feet and making him stumble. Fjord catches his arm, keeping him upright as he hurries the group along, panic rising in his voice.

“Okay, come on, down the stairs, down the stairs, let’s go!”

The second explosion, a few seconds later, is far larger, dust and pebbles raining down on all their heads, the sounds of cracking wood and stone filling the air. Essek feels a flare of worry, weaving a net of gravity above them all that he dearly hopes will be strong enough to keep them safe. Ahead of him he can see Nott digging through her pockets, pulling out a feather for a spell that is only going to be useful if the tower doesn’t collapse on top of them first.

“There’s a window there, should we jump out of the window?” Jester shouts, her voice barely audible over the rumble of crumbling bricks.

“Best idea we’ve got.”

Skidding to a halt by the narrow window, Yasha smashes it outwards with her sword, the shatter of glass only adding to the cacophony in Essek’s ears. He still feels dizzy with blood loss, barely comprehending Nott’s shrill shouts.

“Beau, Essek, you can both get down okay, right? I can Feather Fall everyone else.”

“I’m good, I got this. Just gonna run down the side of the tower,” Beau replies, a confidence in her voice that tells Essek that is something she actually can do. He sifts through Caleb’s components and his own, panic still rising; his Levitation isn’t going to help this high up.

A steady hand finds Essek’s shoulder and he glances up to see Caduceus, as bruised and bloodied as the rest of his friends. “Take a moment to breathe,” he says, the roar of crumbling stone growing louder, “but not too long. We need to leave.” He steps forward, taking hold of Fjord’s elbow and edging out onto the ledge of the window. Beau has already dashed ahead and Essek feels a momentary flash of disbelief as he sees her easily darting down the tower’s side.

“Essek, you got a spell ready?” Nott shouts. “We’ll jump when you do.”

Wind whips Essek’s hair from his face and his stomach flips, the knowledge that his friends won’t leave without him vanquishing the fear and exhaustion that weighs on him. He pulls out a feather of his own, giving Nott a definitive nod as his fingers trace the glyphs for flight.

The tower top bursts as they leap, magic-tinged flames arcing outwards to rain stone all around. The air is filled with the crackle of fire and the crumbling of stone as the tower’s integrity starts to fail, the walls collapsing with a rumble.

Essek sees Beau reach the ground and a cheer goes up from his friends, gently floating alongside him. He feels light, almost happy, and when Jester grins at him, the smile he gives in return is entirely genuine. The beacon is held tight to his chest, the warmth it brings making Essek’s heart flutter. This is the answer to the questions he has been asking his whole life.

This is his future.

The instant they reach the ground, the group converges, laughing and hugging as the tower crumbles to dust. Whatever remnants of Ikithon’s research were still in there are now buried in rubble and Essek is content to leave it that way. He is surrounded by friends, Jester squeezing tight enough to make his ribs creak, Nott’s skinny arm around his neck, joy shining in all their eyes. Essek closes his eyes, breathing deep and letting himself relax into the embrace for a few more moments before he clears his throat, stepping back.

His Caleb disguise falls easily into place, the weight on Essek’s heart far lighter than before. Even his friends seem to look on with a bit more hope. He pulls out his chalk, starting to sketch the circle for the Cobalt soul, pausing before he finishes the final mark. “Well then,” Essek says, his words twisting in an extremely poor approximation of a Zemnian accent, “we have one more thing to do, ja?”

Beau snorts, shaking her head with a fond smile. “Yeah, you absolutely suck at that, man.” She pats Essek on the shoulder. “Still better than Caleb, though.”

Jester bounces up alongside her. “Don’t worry, I’m sure once he’s back you’ll have plenty of time to listen to his voice,” she clasps her hands together at her chest, “and look into his eyes, and maybe even ki—”

Fjord steps up, clapping a hand on Jester’s shoulder and cutting her off. “Let the man do his spell, Jester.” He glances at Essek, an apologetic smile on his face. “Everyone ready?”

With a chorus of agreement, Essek finishes the circle just as Beau swears.

“Fuck, we didn’t tell them we were—”

Chapter Text

“—coming.”

Their feet hit the flagstones of the Cobalt Soul transportation circle before Beau can finish speaking. The guards have a moment of tension, weapons briefly raising before they share a glance. They turn back to their posts before Beau can even start to apologise and she shrugs towards the rest of the Nein.

“Okay, well, I guess we can just go get what we need from my room and then be outta your hair.” Beau smiles towards the guards—something wide and genuine that only seems to unnerve them. “I’ll let Zeenoth know we’re leaving.”

“That’s quite all right, Expositor, we can tell him if you have business to attend to.” One of the guards is looking over their group, visibly uncertain of what to make of them. The other guard, the older of the pair, rolls his eyes but nods as well.

“We can certainly pass on the message.”

“Oh, okay, cool.” Beau smiles once more. “C’mon then, we can just get going.” She heads towards the stairs, a distinct bounce in her step that Essek can’t help but smile at. The mood as they return to Beau’s quarters is a million miles away from the dark cloud that weighed above them all the previous day. They may not have Caleb back yet, but there is a lightness in Essek’s heart that tells him he can do it.

That lightness fades when Essek’s gaze falls on Caleb’s lifeless form once again. It feels like a sudden physical pain layered on top of injuries that will take time yet to heal, a weight that drops straight into the centre of his chest. Essek can feel the mood change as everyone crowds around the bed, eyes collectively drawn to those same twin lights of magic rising and falling from Caleb’s chest like the breath he does not have.

It is quiet, the air is still, and Caleb is still dead.

Soon. Essek thinks, I’ll fix this soon.

“Should we do this here?” Jester asks, breaking the silence as she scoops up the little cloaked statue from the bedside and tucks it somewhere into her bag. “Essek, is there anything you need for the spell?”

Essek frowns, he needs to think.

“I don't know, maybe the Xhorhaus would be better,” Caduceus says. “It'll be easier for us all to recover in our own space. I mean, this is a nice room and all, but we can't exactly stay here for a long time."

Essek nods, feeling relief flood through him. "I would be more comfortable closer to my own home, should there be anything I need." He presses his lips together, fingertips tracing over the angles of the beacon, reluctant to let it out of his grasp for too long. Whatever magic allowed him to pull the shade of Caleb from the depths seems to have faded for the moment, all Essek can feel is hard stone, faintly warm, resonating a low hum that thrums through his very bones. "I think I have enough spells left in me to take us directly there."

The power inside Essek is diminished, but not quite spent, though he can feel exhaustion creeping in. His back gives a twinge that tells him he will be floating for a few days to come.

"What are we waiting for, then?" Nott says, having already clambered onto the bed to take Caleb's hand. "To Xhorhas!”

Essek's lip twitches up in a smile and he draws in a deep breath. The stab wound in his side aches with each inhale, Caduceus' healing doing only enough to stop the bleeding. He flexes his fingers, rolling his shoulders in an attempt to chase away the aches that line every muscle of his body. “Okay, all I need is Caleb, and the beacon, I think."

"And us," Yasha says, gently taking Caleb into her arms, "you need us, too." She smiles softly to Essek, who can feel a warmth blooming in the pit of his stomach.

"I think that goes without saying at this point," Essek says, voice low, glancing to each of his friends in turn. "I am glad we have each other." He offers out his hands, whispering the incantation that will take them home. “Let us be on our way.”

Nott's hand grips tight in Essek's own, a far larger palm finding his other hand that can only be Caduceus. He holds tight, feeling the power drawn from within him to swirl around the group, light flaring as space itself presses in around them. Fjord and Beau hold tight to Yasha's shoulders, Caleb limp in her arms. The sight of his pale face is the last thing Essek sees before the spell is complete and they are rushed through darkness towards the closest thing the Nein have to a home.

Pain rushes through Essek the instant they arrive in the familiar wood-panelled hallway and his feet hit the floor, sending a jarring twinge up his spine. He squeezes tight on Caduceus' hand, glad to have something to steady him. Essek can't remember the last time he was so low on spells. The lack of magic in his veins is making him lightheaded—or maybe it's the blood loss.

Caduceus lets go, crouching a little to look Essek in the face. His hand comes to rest on one shoulder, supportive. "Are you sure you're okay to do this right now? I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but you're looking a little pale."

“I’m fine,” Essek says, gritting his teeth as Caduceus raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“You’re not,” he says.

“Okay, fine, I’m not. I am tired and I am sore and I am almost drained of power.” Essek turns his head to see Caleb in Yasha’s arms and it feels like a fist clamped tight around his heart. “But I need to do this, I need to do it now, because if I wait any longer then I doubt I can handle the pain.” Essek’s words hiss from his lips in a breath that makes his chest burn. “I am afraid, Caduceus; afraid that if I wait any longer he will be lost, and I cannot have that…” Tears rise unbidden to Essek’s eyes, only to be angrily brushed away with his bloodied sleeve. “...I can’t.”

Essek knows there are eyes on him and lowers his head, hoping to hide behind Caduceus' lanky form at least a little. Though he knows his friends don’t judge him, it is still hard to have them see him cry. Essek hears Fjord clear his throat. “Okay, let’s take Caleb upstairs. The happy room should be big enough for everyone, we don’t want to do this in the hall.”

“Yeah, good call, I’ll get the lamps lit and everything.”

“I’ll get snacks, I’m pretty sure resurrection makes you hungry.”

Footsteps move away in all directions and Essek leans forward, resting his forehead against Caduceus’ lichen-encrusted chestplate. He can feel one big hand land on his back, slowly rubbing in circles.

“It’s okay,” Caduceus says, his tone as low and soothing as ever, “you care a lot about Caleb, that’s good. Sometimes, when you care, it makes things harder, because you’re invested, your heart is in it, and all you can think about is what if it goes wrong.” Essek sniffs, nodding, eyes closed against the burn of tears. “You know we’ll still be here, though, don’t you? Whatever happens, you’ll have your friends.” Caduceus pulls back and Essek can see the gentle smile on his face. “If there is one thing that I have learned from these people, it’s that we stick together.”

Essek tries a small smile that feels as weak and shaky as he does and Caduceus nods approvingly. “It’s okay to let us help you. I get the feeling you’re used to relying on just yourself?”

“For the last hundred and nineteen years,” Essek says, wiping away the tears that have managed to slip through before shaking his hair back from his face. “Though now I am thinking that maybe I could get used to being part of a group.”

“Well you’re always welcome,” says a voice from the stairs: Nott, her fingers twisted in the hem of her skirt, “you’re part of the Mighty Nein now.”

Essek can’t help the small puff of laughter that escapes him, the easy acceptance he has never before felt striking him in the heart and making his eyes well all over again. “Thank you,” he says, to both Nott and Caduceus before clapping his hands together, determination in his voice if nothing else. “I think I am ready. It is time to see what the beacons are indeed capable of.”

“We’re right behind you,” Caduceus says, nodding for Nott to lead the way upstairs.

Essek takes a deep breath, his feet dragging despite the faint bloom of confidence his friends have given him. He pulls out the beacon, holding it in front of his chest, letting the undulating light wash over him. The power he feels may or may not be divine, these artifacts may or may not be the remains of a god, but whatever other mysteries they may possess, Essek knows only one thing: they will bring Caleb back.

He is going to make sure of it.

The room Fjord referred to as ‘the happy room’ is large and airy, the lanterns casting flickering flames over the floor, which is scattered with cushions in myriad colours. Caleb lies on a makeshift bed, Yasha standing beside him like a sentinel as Beau and Fjord watch on, murmuring to each other in quiet conversation. As Essek steps in he can hear Jester clattering with something in the kitchen downstairs, a sound which makes Caduceus immediately turn around and head back—to help her or shoo her out of the kitchen, Essek does not know.

Nott moves to sit by Yasha’s feet, her gaze not leaving Caleb for a second. She glances from his face to Essek’s, smiling softly to herself when she seems to see something in Essek’s eyes.

“Is there anything we can do?” Beau asks, pacing in short steps back and forth, watching as Essek lowers himself onto a cushion at Caleb’s side.

“Just be here,” Essek says. “I believe it will help.” His mind is caught in those tangled threads that he saw within the beacon’s depths. Call them fate or bonds or destiny, there is something that binds the Nein together, and Essek hopes that following those threads will help bring Caleb back.

“I don’t know how long this will take,” Essek says, pulling the beacon forth and gently laying it between himself and Caleb, his eyes following the mote that weaves back and forth above his chest. “But if that light goes out and I do not return to my body within a few days, it is safe to assume we are both lost.”

“A week,” Nott says firmly, her fists clenched in her lap. “Mighty Nein policy is to wait a week.” Yasha nods behind her, a faintly amused smile on her face.

Jester and Caduceus appear, a laden tray in Caduceus’ hands. “We’ve got food and drink if anyone wants it,” he says, setting the tray to one side and moving to sit opposite Essek.

“I’m just gonna sit here in case the Wildmother has anything to say,” Caduceus says, moving to place one hand over Caleb’s heart, the wavering green light threading through his fingers like a vine.

“Thank you,” Essek says, glancing around each of his friends in turn. “I am glad you are all here.” He places two fingers on Caleb’s forehead and rests his other hand on the beacon, steeling himself. “Light be with you.”

The world is stripped away, Essek’s consciousness making a headlong plunge into the familiar depths of infinity. Grey and gold swirl together in a dance of light and shadow. The universe itself is present, vast and powerful, yet small and close enough to touch. Essek reaches out, not with his body, but with his very soul. The answers to everything lie just ahead.

He only needs to reach it.


It starts with a touch.

Caleb can feel, just barely. His thoughts swirl like stardust inside the endless depths, ebbing and flowing in the undulating grey light. There is warmth, he thinks, though it could also be cold, prickling through him as his consciousness slowly starts to drift together.

It is only with effort that Caleb is able to blink, his physical form coming to him with every whisper of sensation. He is naked, drifting in a sea of light and shadow, a faint tickle in the back of his mind that tells him he is missing something. Motes of light drift past in a breathless wind, stroking over Caleb’s cheeks like gentle hands that he knows he should remember.

A light glows in front of Caleb, too far to reach, and as he stretches out his hands he can feel a resonance, a vibration. A web of tangled threads flare into existence, stretching out and away, as far as Caleb can see, into the endless expanse of stars. There is an irresistible urge inside him, to follow those threads, to see where they lead, each one branching out into a future he cannot fathom.

Still, something holds him back.

Turning back, Caleb sees still more light, warm and welcoming, familiar. He knows in his heart that this light means home. There is a spot of warmth in Caleb’s chest that seems to call him back, an anchor to the body he is so familiar with. He cannot move towards it, though: the jangling threads of the future hold Caleb in place.

He cannot move forward, he cannot move back.

Caleb

A whisper, so faint that Caleb thinks he must be imagining it. He focuses on the warmth inside him, that anchor point that seems to bring back more and more of himself as he concentrates; his father’s laughter, the cool hand of his mother on his brow, the burn of fire in his veins and the crushing horror that settles deep within his bones.

Oh,

Of course. Caleb thinks. The anchor is to life, his life, with all the pain and heartache and regrets it entails. He curls his arms around himself in the hope of feeling something other than the weight of his own guilt.

Caleb

That touch again, like a hand on Caleb’s shoulder, reassuring. It comes from that anchor point, and as Caleb peers back he can see the glowing light of other threads, interwoven with his own.

New memories now; raucous laughs, stubborn silences, earnest sweetness and steadfast loyalty. Faces blur, though the feelings stay: forgiveness, understanding, love.

Family.

Caleb struggles now, reaching out with his consciousness, trying to find some way out, away from the branching lifetimes ahead and back to that anchor of home.

Caleb

“Yes, I am here, I hear you. Where are you?”

Caleb’s voice bursts from him in a shout that sounds like a whisper, the sound swallowed up by the endless sky around him. There is a tug somewhere inside him, vibrating along the thread that encircles his heart.

“I’m here,” Caleb whispers once more, reaching his hand out into eternity.

I have you

And suddenly there is a hand in Caleb’s own, holding tight and not letting go. He blinks away the light that flares as another faint thread reaches his own, weaving around it in an inextricable dance.

When his vision clears, Caleb finds a familiar face, a few scant inches from his own.

Skin darker than the shadows, hair brighter than the stars, eyes that echo the pain Caleb is so familiar with in his waking life. He feels a rush of warmth and squeezes at the fingers entwined between his own.

“Essek.”

Essek smiles, the relief that radiates from him almost enough for Caleb to feel on his bare skin.

“Caleb Widogast,” he says, “I found you.”

Caleb feels light, formless, the indistinct lines of his body pressed against Essek’s own. There is a burn inside him, of joy and pain and too many other emotions to process in this place of half-formed futures.

Caleb reaches out, his fingers brushing over Essek’s cheek as they seem to float, tangled together beneath the endlessly drifting stars. “Did you die, too?”

“I don’t think so,” Essek murmurs, leading Caleb’s hand down to his chest, bare, like the rest of him, “see.”

There is warmth, there is strength, and the steady pound of a heartbeat beneath Caleb’s fingertips. “I came to bring you home,” Essek says.

Caleb smiles, feeling a deep ache inside him. “I don’t know if I can.” He gestures out towards the multitudinous threads that stretch into the unending distance. “I don’t know what these threads are, but they don’t seem to want to let me go.”

Together they look out, and for the first time, Caleb notices that there is a similar web surrounding Essek, numerous lifetimes branching outwards in a glowing net of possibility.

“Hm,” Essek says, reaching forward, his fingers passing over each thread slowly and gracefully, as if he could play them like a harp, “so this is what consecution looks like.” He meets Caleb’s eyes, and even in this shadowed place of not-quite life, Caleb feels his stomach flip.

“Do you want to go back?” Essek asks, his voice barely a whisper over the faint hum of the beacon. “Your friends...Our friends, miss you dearly, but the choice is yours.”

Caleb looks out over the endless horizon, starlight glimmering all around them. There is a chance to start over, to fix things in a new life and hope he doesn’t fuck it up this time around. He frowns to himself, shaking his head. That doesn’t seem right.

“I don’t know,” Caleb says, “I still have a lot to do with this life.” He gives Essek a rueful smile. “I have a lot to make up for and I would much rather do it as myself.”

Essek smiles, a brilliant, gleaming thing that has Caleb holding him even tighter. Their bodies—what Caleb can feel of them—are entwined in a welcome closeness that Caleb knows would set his heartbeat speeding if he had one.

“How do we get back?” he asks, and receives another breathtaking smile in return.

“Remind me to show you this spell when we get back,” Essek says, “though it will require components out there. In here I think I can draw the power from the Luxon itself.” He raises the hand that is not joined with Caleb’s, murmuring an incantation.

Shadows seem to gather around them both, the undulating grey motes coalescing into a glowing cloud that hovers above Essek’s outstretched palm. He grins in triumph, smile softening as he turns to Caleb. “So much power at my very fingertips, yet I cannot think of anything more rewarding than allowing you the life you deserve.” Essek waves his hand through the smoky grey dunamis light, which flares and then darkens, lining his fingers with shadow. “I don’t know if this will hurt, but I hope not.”

He runs his fingers over the first thread, which snaps like spider silk, drifting away in a wind that Caleb cannot feel. There is no pain, only the tug towards home, steadily growing with every thread Essek releases.

With a jolt, Caleb can feel himself moving, drawn irresistibly backwards to where he now knows his body waits. He keeps hold of Essek’s hand, feeling a faint thrill run through him as the last thread falls away.

He is held in place, though, and as Caleb frowns to himself, he can see Essek, outlined in light, those same threads of futures unclaimed holding him and not letting go.

“Seriously?” Essek says, seemingly to himself, amusement clear in his voice. He looks forward into the distance, into the thousandfold glimmering branches of possible futures and turns back to Caleb, a soft smile on his face. “Well this is not a very hard decision.”

Essek’s black-tinged hand darts forward, severing every thread in a single sweep. There is an odd gleam in his eyes that Caleb recognises: the look of a man freed. He drifts back into Caleb’s arms, a laugh bubbling on his lips that Caleb could kiss from them were it not for the inexorable force dragging them backwards.

The homeward thread tugs once more, pulling Caleb in, light and shadow and stars fading, his mind spinning, thoughts splitting and drifting apart. He can feel the weight of his body calling to him, with all the pain and aches that it entails. His vision goes black and then white and then black again as he is pulled through space and time itself. Through it all, though, there is a hand in his own, there is Essek at his side.

Caleb holds tight.


When Essek comes back to himself his body is aching, his every joint lined with a pain multitudes worse than anything he has ever felt before. He hisses in a breath, unable to hold himself up and slumping to the floor.

“C-ca—” Essek’s voice is scratchy, his throat raw. His mind is a blur of half-remembered conversation and the faded sensation of pure power burning within his veins. None of that matters, however. Essek’s only thoughts are for Caleb. He fights against the waves of darkness that threaten to overwhelm his senses. “Ca...leb?” Essek’s vision swims in a blur of pink, a familiar voice sounding at his side.

“Hey, it’s okay, Caleb’s okay. He's sleeping, you should, too. Rest for now, we can talk in the morning.”

Caduceus. Good. Essek can relax. He is with his friends.

“That was so cool, Essek. You’re, like, really brave.”

Essek feels his lip twitch up in a smile as his body gives up and the darkness takes over. This is not the conscious dreaming of a trance-sleep, this is the true sleep that only utter exhaustion can bring. He briefly feels himself being lifted in strong arms, the faint scent of spring flowers filling the air.

And then there is only black.

Essek doesn’t know how long the true-sleep lasts, only that when he wakes he can hear the sound of voices.

“Seriously, though, it was your magic that kept him from moving on, that was really...something.”

Our magic, Fjord.” Caduceus’ voice is soft. “The Wildmother chose you, too. I’m happy to share it with you.”

“Yeah, I am, too.” Fjord’s voice is gentler than Essek has ever heard it, and he suspects that if Fjord knew he were awake that would not be the case. He is happy, though, the amount of love his friends have for each other brings a warmth to his heart. Essek closes his eyes once more, facing towards the wall and keeping his breathing as steady as he can, feigning sleep, not wanting to interrupt anything. He can feel his ear twitch as there is a knock on the door followed by Yasha’s voice.

“How is he doing, anything yet?”

“Not yet,” says Fjord with what sounds like a self-conscious cough. “How about Caleb?”

“Still sleeping, but he’s all healed up now, at least.”

“That’s good.”

Essek’s heart leaps at the sound of Caleb’s name and he rolls over, blinking. His limbs feel heavy, but all pain seems to be gone for the time being. “Good, um, morning?” he says, feeling a lightness inside him as his friends all break into smiles. “How long have I been asleep?”

“The better part of two days,” Caduceus says, already helping Essek sit up and looking him over. “How do you feel?”

Stretching out, Essek moves his arms and legs, gingerly running his fingers over the stab wound in his side and finding it completely healed, a slight roughness to the skin the only sign of scarring. There are no other aches or pains and Essek finds himself smiling. “I feel good, thank you.” He yawns. “Still somewhat tired, though.”

“I’m not surprised, you’ve been through a lot,” says Caduceus, nodding towards the slightly sagging collar of Essek’s tunic. “Your, uh, mark...thing is gone. Caleb’s too, for that matter.”

“Ah, yes,” Essek says, pushing the overlarge sleeves back, only just now noticing that he is no longer wearing his bloodstained shirt. “It seems I have discovered a way to reverse consecution, I can remember that much, though the rest is a little fuzzy.” He raises an eyebrow at Caduceus. “Did you change my clothes?”

“Just the shirt,” Caduceus says with a shrug. “I figured Caleb was the closest size so I borrowed something of his.”

“And Caleb is still asleep?”

Yasha nods, her arms folded over her chest. “The others are with him just now.”

“Good,” Essek says, rubbing his hands across his face. There is a lot he cannot remember, so much of what transpired within the beacon blurring into a swirl of shadowed memories. “Where is the beacon now?”

“Up in the tower,” Fjord says, “we put it next to the shrine since it’s, y’know, a god part or something.”

“Or something,” Essek agrees. He stretches out again, needing to move. There is a faint tightness in his chest, one that he knows will not go away until he knows Caleb is all right. He glances to Yasha. “May I see Caleb?”

Fjord laughs, sharing a quick glance with Caduceus. “Of course you can, do you need help getting up or anything?”

“I think I’m okay,” Essek says, slowly setting his feet on the floor and pushing himself upright with only the faintest stir of nausea. “Though I will need to eat, and probably wash soon.”

“You can stay here as long as you need,” says Caduceus, keeping a close eye on Essek as he slowly shambles across the floor. It would be so easy to float, but as he feels no pain for the time being, Essek walks, slowly making his way downstairs, occasionally taking Yasha’s arm when he feels himself wobble. Fjord and Caduceus follow behind, returning to whatever hushed conversation Essek’s waking interrupted.

As they enter the main hall, Essek feels his breath catch, as from the other side, Caleb emerges from a doorway, leaning heavily on Beau’s shoulder. Both Nott and Jester follow behind with matching smiles and tear-filled eyes.

Beau is the first to spot Essek, his fingers tight on Yasha’s arm and she grins. “Hey, look who else is up!” She nudges Caleb in the ribs, making him wince.

Essek wants to run over, to throw his arms around Caleb’s neck and hold him close, but he is too slow and too tired. Instead the Nein seem to slowly converge, voices raised and conversation flowing in celebration.

Essek does not hear a word.

He is focused on Caleb and Caleb alone, his mussed hair standing out like a halo in the lamplight of the hallway. His face is lined and tired, but his eyes shine with light and life when he looks to Nott at his side. The soft curve of his lips is turned up in the faintest of exhausted smiles and as Essek gazes on, he doesn’t think he has ever seen anything more beautiful.

Finally, they all come together in the middle of the hall, arms slung around arms, sobs and laughter alike filling the air. Essek can feel his eyes spilling over and he does not care, his heart has never felt lighter. So much of his life, he has wanted knowledge, wanted power, thinking it would fill the aching pit of loneliness inside him. Now he has a beacon in easy reach and he could not care less. Everything he needs is right here. Essek is wrapped in friendship, in family, the warmth they bring making his heart flutter.

This is the answer to the questions he has been asking his whole life.

Caleb’s eyes meet his own, a flicker of acknowledgement passing between them in a shared smile. Essek feels time itself has stopped and nods in understanding. They will talk soon. For now, though, he enjoys the embrace of his friends, the sounds of their happiness washing over him in a wave of warmth.

This is his future.

In time, the group pull apart with sniffs and tear-filled eyes, Jester immediately announcing they should have a party to celebrate. Beau and Yasha are quickly dispatched for drinks while Caduceus grins, heading for the kitchen, Fjord in tow, mumbling something about helping.

Nott has Caleb by the hand, tugging him into a tight hug that has him kneeling on the floor. Essek can hear the sound of sobs and turns away, catching Jester’s eye.

“Um, is there somewhere I might freshen up?” he asks, shoving his limp hair back from his face. “Sleeping for two days has left me feeling a little…”

“Gross?”

Essek smiles. “For lack of a better term, yes.”

“Sure, we have a shower room and we have a hot tub. Maybe once we have food and everything everyone can join you there?” Jester’s smile is wide, her fangs gleaming as she leads Essek towards the door at the base of the tower.

“Um,” Essek says, feeling a wave of self-consciousness. He is still getting used to opening up to his friends, and the thought of sharing a bath together is maybe a step too far. “I was thinking more of a quick wash, before dinner—or whatever meal it is we are having. I have no idea what time it is.”

Jester’s lips purse in a pout. “Well, fine, but you’ll miss out on seeing everyone naked.” She folds her arms, tail swishing. “Or maybe you just want to see one person naked, is that it?” She wiggles her eyebrows. “Don’t pretend like you don’t know who.”

Heat rushes through Essek, burning away a little of the tiredness within him. “Jester, please,” he says, quickly glancing behind him to make sure Caleb and Nott are still deep in their private conversation. “It has been a very tiring couple of days, I do not have the energy to argue with you,” he lowers his voice, blood rushing to the very tips of his ears, “but if I am going to talk to anyone about my feelings it will be Caleb. So if you could maybe not mention anything for the time being, I would be very grateful.”

Jester’s teasing expression softens and she leans in, wrapping her arms around Essek in a hug that squeezes the breath from him. “Oh, Essek, you know I won’t say anything if you don’t want me to,” Jester says. She breaks the hug, leading Essek around the root-roofed room that holds the hot tub and pointing into a smaller room off to one side. “Showers are in there and there are towels, too. I’ll make sure no one comes to spy on you.”

Essek raises an eyebrow, seeing the gleam of mischief that shines in Jester’s eyes. “Are you going to spy on me?”

She shakes her hair, silver jewellery bouncing from one horn and filling the air with soft tinkling sounds. “I don’t have time, I need to decorate for the party. Oh my god, it’s going to be so good!” Jester pauses for a moment, clapping her hands together. “Hey, Essek, what’s your favourite colour?”

“Oh,” Essek says with a frown, “I have never really considered that.” He purses his lips, the blue of Caleb’s eyes coming to mind along with the copper of his hair. “I don’t think I have one.”

Jester, to his surprise, does not seem discouraged by his answer, almost the opposite in fact. She smiles as she turns away and Essek can hear her murmur, “...meant to be.”

Essek washes quickly, not lingering too long under the fall of water. He can feel a little of his tiredness washed away, though it will probably take at least another night of true-sleep to really rid him of the bone-deep weariness that comes from altering his entire soul. Essek brushes his fingers over the spot where his mark of consecution once was, the skin now smooth and unmarred, not a trace of the Dynasty’s highest honour marking him. He supposes he should feel sad, but when the ceremony itself was a formality—more to do with his family’s prestige than his own achievements—Essek feels like a weight has been lifted. So much of his life has been spent trying to raise himself to the standards that his family, that the Dynasty, have expected of him, his own ambitions and researches falling by the wayside. Now it feels like his life is finally his own.

When Essek emerges, towelling himself off and slipping back into the borrowed tunic of Caleb’s—the faint scent of charcoal imprinted in the fabric—he can hear voices in the hallway. He nudges the door ajar, catching a glimpse of Beau, gesturing in the air in front of Caleb.

“—like a shadow of you helping us. You don’t remember that?”

“Nothing like that.” There is a faint note of sadness in Caleb’s voice, along with the slightest edge of frustration. “I do not remember much. There was Trent’s tower, and then nothing, light and dark, and Essek. And then I am waking up here, in my own bed.”

Beau places a hand on Caleb’s shoulder, squeezing. “I’m glad I was there when you woke up, man.” Her hand clenches into a fist and she gives Caleb a light punch to the arm that still has him hissing in a breath of pain. “Don’t you ever fucking do that again. I don’t know what we would have done if Jester hadn’t thought to call Essek.”

Ja, Nott tells me he was very impressive.” There is a soft smile on Caleb’s lips that has Essek’s chest tightening. Beau seems to notice this too and tilts her head at Caleb, one eyebrow raised, her own mouth curving in a knowing smirk.

“Please tell me you’re gonna talk to him soon.”

“Of course I am, we just have not had a moment yet. We only woke up a short time ago.” He shakes his head, hair bouncing. “There is a lot to process.” Caleb pushes his hair back from his face, colour rising to his cheeks, voice lowering to a murmur. “I still...I cannot believe he did all this for us.”

Beau scoffs, “Not for us, for you, idiot.” Her tone softens and she places a hand on Caleb’s elbow. “Caleb, you do realise he's in love with you, right?”

Caleb’s flush deepens and Essek shrinks back, his heart hammering in his chest. He does not hear Caleb’s reply, only the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, pounding on his senses hard enough to bring blackness to the edges of his vision. Essek flattens his back up against the wall, letting the cool stone soothe the heat inside of him. After all his talk with Jester, Beau is the one who blurts it out. Of course it is.

Breathing deep, Essek catches that faint scent of woodsmoke on his clothes once more. It is a small comfort, soothing the faint panic that runs through his veins.

He cannot deny it, though. Much as he has told himself that his feelings were temporary, just a crush, they have only continued to grow. Essek has been falling for Caleb for so long, almost since the moment they met, he thinks. Even when Caleb has been gone Essek has been falling in love with him. Falling in love with every new facet he has learned. Falling in love with who Caleb is.

Essek draws in another deep breath, needing a moment to think. He glances upwards, seeing the steps that curl around the inside of the tower, the faint glow of daylight visible at the top. He follows the stairs, keeping his gaze cast downwards, though the glow of the sun lamps causes nowhere near the same discomfort as the sun itself. His legs protest against the steps, exhaustion still holding Essek firmly in its grasp. He presses on anyway, breathing in the fresh scent of growing things, getting ever stronger as he climbs.

Finally, Essek steps out into a garden, life bursting around him with the infamous tree at its centre. He smiles to himself, taking in the flowers that would never otherwise grow in this city of eternal night. He can see little alcoves, shrines to the various deities of the Nein, the faintly undulating light of the beacon just visible inside one.

Essek ignores that for now, instead stepping up to the tree itself, and the symbol of the Wildmother that rests there.

“Thank you for keeping him safe,” Essek murmurs. “I could not have done any of this if it were not for that.” He trails his fingers over the rough bark, letting his eyes close.

There is a light breeze, stirring the leaves of the tree in a gentle flurry of rustles and Essek smiles. It may be a sign, it may be nothing, but he bows his head in thanks anyway. The night is silent, save the wind, the same stars still shining above Rosohna that Essek has seen countless times before.

Tonight they seem to shine a little brighter.

When the breeze dies down, Essek moves forward once more, stopping at the alcove the beacon rests in and folding his arms over his chest, considering.

“What are you going to do with it?”

Caleb’s voice breaks the silence and Essek feels his stomach flip, though he tries not to show it.

“I don’t know,” he says, keeping his eyes on the undulating glow. “We could learn a lot from it, don’t you think?”

“True,” Caleb says, and Essek can hear his footsteps, slowly coming closer. “We, ah, I mean, I—”

Essek turns to face Caleb, doing nothing to hide the joy that comes from hearing his voice; he has hidden far too much of himself away until now. “Yes?”

Caleb returns Essek’s soft smile, his fingers twisting around themselves. “You brought my soul back.”

Essek nods, unable to read the light that seems to burn in Caleb’s eyes. “Do you remember much?”

“Only that you were there.” Caleb frowns and shakes his head slightly. “It is fuzzy. I am not used to my memory failing me.”

“You and I, both,” Essek says. His own memories are somewhat clouded, words faded, though the sensations remain. “I think it may be a side effect of deconsecution.”

Caleb’s eyes widen. “I was—”

“You were, but are no longer,” Essek says. “Like myself.”

Caleb steps forward at this point, his hand landing on Essek’s forearm, his mouth open in disbelief. “Y-you did that for me?”

Essek lowers his gaze, trying to hide the way his cheeks flush as he nods.

Caleb is slowly shaking his head, his thumb now rubbing small circles on Essek’s arm. "You gave up so much. You gave up lifetimes."

Essek shrugs, letting himself smile. "My lifespan is long enough as it is. I am starting to think that maybe my people have it wrong, I think knowing that we can come back makes us lazy.” He waves one hand, gesturing to the faint lights of the city surrounding them. “How can we improve who we are if we come back already knowing who we are supposed to be?”

Essek takes Caleb’s wrist, slowly sliding his arm from the gentle grip. “Surely doing the most with the one life you have is much more rewarding?" He meets Caleb’s eyes and can feel a pressure swelling in his chest, joy and freedom swimming through him. "I mean, everyone else does it, why shouldn't I? I would much rather have a single life, lived to the fullest, knowing that I made the most of it." Essek draws in a deep breath, taking Caleb’s hand and holding it between his own. “My people spend cycle after cycle in the pursuit of perfection, yet life itself is imperfection. I think that is the life I would rather experience, with all the highs and lows it may bring.”

Caleb nods, the corner of his lip twitching up, the blue of his eyes bright and shining in the sunlight. “I doubt the rest of the Dynasty feels that way.”

Essek shrugs again. “I am sure I am in enough trouble already for coming to help you, what is one more transgression?”

Caleb reaches out, brushing a loose wave of Essek’s hair behind one ear. "Well, I, for one, hope you are not in too much trouble.” The soft skin around his eyes creases, his brows sliding together. His voice is low and hesitant, “Why put yourself at such risk, in the heart of the Empire, just for me?"

Essek smiles softly, his gaze locked on Caleb’s own, the truth of Beau’s earlier statement still ringing in his ears. He leans into the touch of Caleb’s hand, warmth bubbling through him. "Do I really need to tell you?"

Caleb’s hand drops lower to caress Essek’s cheek. “No,” he says. “but I would like to hear it anyway.” His touch is tentative but unafraid, his skin warm against Essek’s own. Caleb leans down, his voice dropping to barely a whisper, “It will make it easier for me to do this—”

Essek feels his eyes slip shut, Caleb’s lips softly pressing against his own in a gentle kiss that makes his heart swell. It is slow and tentative, a delicate brush of lips against lips until Essek slides his arms around Caleb’s neck, pulling him closer. Caleb lets out a gasp, his mouth briefly parting enough to allow Essek to swipe his tongue over the curve of his lower lip. His embrace tightens, arms firmly wrapped around Essek to hold him as close as he can, the kiss deepening with every second they are pressed together.

Essek can feel the sunlight from the lanterns on his skin, incomparable to the warmth that fills him from head to toe as Caleb’s tongue brushes his own. He combs his fingers into Caleb’s hair, feeling it slide like silk on his skin, another point of sensation in a moment that is fast becoming overwhelming.

“Caleb,” Essek gasps out, his breath catching as they pull apart and he can see the soft smile that graces Caleb’s features.

Ja,” Caleb says in agreement, his face as flushed as Essek feels, the pink of his blush extending even to those ridiculously round human ears. He seems stunned, as if he cannot believe his own boldness. He meets Essek’s gaze, smiling, and pulls him into a gentle hug, the stubble of his cheek brushing against Essek’s own and making him shiver. “Thank you,” Caleb whispers, his breath warm on Essek’s neck. “Thank you for finding me, and for bringing me back.”

Essek closes his eyes, burying his face in Caleb’s shoulder and breathing in that same charcoal scent. “Of course,” he says. “Thank you for choosing to come back.”

Caleb huffs out a small laugh. “It is like you said, I want to make the most of the life I have, with the people I care about the most.” He squeezes Essek tight before pulling back and pressing a soft kiss to his forehead. “We can do some good together, I think?”

Essek nods, wordless, tilting his head up for another brief kiss. His voice cracks in his throat, tears prickling in the corners of his eyes. “Caleb, I—”

Caleb takes his hand with a slow smile. “It’s okay,” he says. “You can tell me later.” He turns towards the stairs, tilting his head. "You know, there is a party going on downstairs.” Caleb’s fingers entwine with Essek’s own, his thumb gently stroking over the back of his hand. “Will you stay?"

Essek blinks the tears from his eyes, following as Caleb leads him back through the garden. They share a glance and a smile and Essek instantly knows he has made the right decision; one life, lived fully with people he loves, is far better than a cycle of lives without knowing that love at all.

"I will stay for the rest of my life, if you'll have me."

Caleb smiles, squeezing at Essek’s hand. "Let's start with this for now."

It starts with a kiss.