Essek discovers he has a soulmate at the moment of their death.
The topic of course is forced on him since the moment he gets chosen for consecution near the end of his sixth decade. Not yet appointed Shadowhand, but already a prodigy of dunamancy at such an early age, relatives and acquaintances have deemed him “highly eligible” long ago, so the questions start almost immediately after the ritual. Has he an intended? Has he discovered them yet?
What Essek has found by then, over the few short decades of serious academic endeavors that have led to his consecution, is the conclusion that he does not entirely believe in the existence of the Luxon as a deity, let alone in Their mandate over which consecuted souls belong together. Surely, he would think, he is not the only one who sees that the soul bonds need not be the work of a missing deity, when they are a clear result of the already proved powers of the Beacons.
As an arcanist, the phenomenon is fascinating - a metaphysical entanglement with a tangible physical expression, that poses so many as of yet unanswered questions that could further dunamantic research. The bonds are just another facet of the vast unexplored subspaces within the Beacons where souls get stored until rebirth.
In practice however, much like most facets of the Dynasty’s culture, everything that fascinates Essek about them is off-limits for research and buried beneath layers of superstition and religious blather that make little sense. The Luxon is omnipotent, but can bestow this highest gift only upon a select view out of the select few. The Luxon is most benevolent, but the expression of Their gift of a soul bond is shared pain. Essek has always considered it much more reasonable to think that the entanglement is accidental, maybe even a product of the misuse of the Beacons by ignorant priests who believed in rules written by their even more ignorant predecessors. As for the bonded individuals, it is not hard to believe that they would find mutual comfort and grow close to one another over their shared injuries, especially if they believe there truly is someone or something out there that dictates their destinies.
Essek has always preferred shaping his own fate.
Of course, the views he holds are rather sacrilegious, unfit especially for the son of umavi Deirta Thelyss and heir of her Den, so for decades he has fielded the inquiries about his soulmate with non-committal politeness and only let his frustrations show in the privacy of his own study.
Still, sometimes he lets himself indulge in thoughts of a soulmate. When the expectations of noble society have made his parents even more distant, when his tutors and supervisors are not willing to hear him out, limited in their fear of sacrilege instead of striving to advance their understanding of dunamancy—in the moments when he is lonely in his solitude, as a close ally, turned good friend will say much later—Essek lets himself yearn for someone that would be on his side. Someone with the same passion for learning and experimentation, someone willing to push the boundaries of the possible to unravel the secrets of the universe.
He has never allowed himself to entertain such thoughts for too long, of course. And even in the rare moments when he has inspected his skin, almost desperately looking for inexplicable bruises or scars, there have never been any for him to find. As a matter of fact, there are barely any marks on his skin anyway, the poise and grace, and care for his appearance instilled by his mother and tutors, coupled with his constant use of telekinesis to get around and his upbringing as an academic, have led to several decades of life with no serious injuries of any kind.
So it is, until one day early on in Essek’s ninth decade, when, now as recently appointed Shadowhand, he has moved to a larger study inside the Lucid Bastion, as fits his post. He rises from his seat to cross the room (on foot, because there is no one around, whose presence would require that he prove his arcane prowess) towards the blackboard on the wall to try a different combination of arcane glyphs for a spell he is working on. He has barely taken a step, when a sudden, visceral pain in his chest makes him double over, one hand reaching blindly towards his desk for support.
Essek takes a deep breath. The pain thankfully subsides after only a few moments, going from blinding to a dull ache. Almost three decades, and the first inclination he has received of having a soulmate is them being grievously injured. With the hand that is not latched onto the edge of the desk, he sets his mantle to one side and starts undoing the buttons of his shirt to check himself for a physical reflection of the injury.
The second bout of pain comes just then, indescribable in its intensity, leaving him robbed of all senses and with a feeling that his soul is forcefully being ripped from his body.
Then for a while there is nothing.
He must have fallen unconscious, because when his awareness returns, Essek finds himself slumped on the floor next to his desk. A moment later he realizes that there is an insistent knocking coming from the other side of his door. It must have been what brought him back to consciousness.
He rises, movements sluggish. The pain has subsided almost fully, save for the now vague memory of an ache in his chest, but every part of his body feels wrong and disconnected from the rest, as if his soul has been jostled and the connection between it and his body is unstable. He hurriedly tugs his mantle back into place, covering his still half-opened shirt and goes to open the door.
“Shadowhand,” the attendant on the other side greets, a barely-hidden look of panic on her face as she looks at him. Her regular duties do not include acting as a simple messenger, so Essek surmises there is an emergency. “Are you well?”
“Yes, Linna, thank you,” he answers, keeping his expression neutral, despite his unease. “Am I needed?”
“Yes!” she answers, voice raising slightly. “There has been an attack on the outpost in Bazzoxan, a group of mostly magic users, strongly suspected to be Empire agents. They made off with the Beacon stationed there, in the process killing several of the guard, as well as the three members of the Conservatory, who were there to watch over it. The Bright Queen has called for an emergency gathering of the council.”
“I will be right there,” Essek says, barely waiting for her to nod in response, before closing the door and leaning back onto it.
He sets his mantle to the side again, this time able to take in the dark bruise-like mark over his heart, veins of the same grey-black color as it branching out in all directions. The longest one of them almost reaches up to his neck. The spell it’s a result of is necromantic in origin, he is certain. Just as he is certain that one of those protectors of the Beacon in Bazzoxan, the one that was hit with it, is… was his soulmate.
After the attack on Bazzoxan, Essek dives into his duties as Shadowhand and with the exacerbation of the war, he is plenty occupied. He does not allow himself to look into the identities of the victims further than what is necessary for his work, but acquires enough information to deduce that his soulmate was one of the Conservatory mages. He also does not allow himself to wonder whether they are going to be reborn as an Empire citizen or to worry that their soul might be lost in whatever tampering with the Beacons the Empire’s mages are likely to conduct. The latter is far more likely anyway, so it is unnecessary to spare any thought for someone, whose existence he had not even suspected until its very end.
He does not disclose his bond to anyone and, despite the protection of his mantle, takes to only wearing and commissioning clothing with collars sufficiently high as to cover the now dull grey, but still visible remains of the reflected spell.
The other spell, the one that was used to deal the killing blow, has its lasting effects too, he discovers. That feeling of disjointedness between body and mind returns sometimes, rarely, but it returns with a vengeance. At times he feels the general unease of it, as if his senses are all a bit off and everything is too bright or too loud or not enough at all. Sometimes he temporarily loses the use of an extremity. It never lasts long, but Essek still finds himself for the first time using his gravity manipulation trick out of necessity, rather than just as a demonstration of his power.
The war continues and the longer it goes on, the less Essek needs to stop himself from thinking about the soul bound, as his duties and research take over every last waking moment. If he feels any inexplicable pains or finds scratches he does not remember getting, despite always being so careful with his person, he blames them on the after effects of that fatal spell and dismisses any other thought.
Until one day, about seventeen years after the attack on Bazzoxan.
Essek is in his study again, standing in front of his desk with a large stack of heavy tomes floating in the air above him as he attempts to optimize his immovable object spell and reduce its (for now) frankly ridiculous cost.
He takes another large pinch of his quickly diminishing supply of gold dust and begins the practiced motions of the spell only to be stopped by a sharp pain in his forearm. It makes the movements of his casting stutter as his fingers contract involuntarily, releasing the dust, which scatters all over the midnight blue of his robes.
The books drop and scatter over the floor, but Essek pays them no mind for now, quickly moving over to sit in his chair. Extending his arm over the desk, he takes in the unnatural jagged hole that has opened in the skin just under the crook of his elbow. As it is only a reflection of the true injury, it is already closing, the stabbing pain receding. He watches another one form diagonally from it, biting his lip at the wave of pain that accompanies it. The third and final one comes soon after, sharper and deeper, as if making up for a supposed failure in the previous attempts.
And then Essek is left sitting in his chair, looking at these three inexplicable brutal wounds and thinking about his soulmate, who would now be just barely old enough to begin their anamnesis, and who is already a victim of what could only be some twisted form of torture.
The painful process continues over the next several months, covering more and more of the undersides of Essek's forearms in jagged holes of different sizes and shapes. He adds long sleeves to his high-collared attire and resolutely keeps his arms under his cloak as much as he is able to.
He also finds himself growing frantic, suddenly understanding how shared pain could bring people to care for one another. How is he to ignore that somewhere out there, there is a person bound to him who has been reborn so very recently, likely in the middle of enemy territory, and is maybe just barely old enough to remember their past lives, but is already experiencing such atrocities? The pain he feels is only a reflection of the true agony too. They must be suffering so much, how could he not feel obliged to protect them?
So Essek uses the resources available to him as Shadowhand and subtly digs for information. The Dynasty’s spies in the Empire have nothing to offer to his very specific requests, so he branches out. He researches arcane experiments, religious rituals, obscure cuts and demonic summonings, anything that could include such vile, but possibly ceremonial injuries.
After months of subtle research, with no space for any more scars left on his forearms, Essek still comes up empty-handed.
It is only a few days after the wounds have stopped appearing, during a very early morning meeting with the Bright Queen, when he barely manages to hold in a pained yell as fire licks up his palms and forearms. Everyone gathered turns to look at him inquisitively, the Queen’s eyes piercing, as Essek weakly manages an excuse about his breakfast not agreeing with him. Later, in the privacy of his own chambers he hesitantly rolls up the loose sleeves of his shirt and finds a faint spider web of burn marks. They disappear completely over the next several days.
And then there is nothing.
For almost two decades—another seventeen years actually, but Essek has decisively not been counting—there is almost no sign of his soulmate, save for the occasional bruise or scratch that does not leave a mark, but serves to let Essek know they are still alive this time around. He dives back into his research, manages to significantly reduce the cost of his Immovable Object spell —among many other successful arcane endeavors— and generally tries to be comfortable in the position he holds, despite its solitary nature. He needs no distractions.
But distractions he gets, when slowly but steadily new wounds and scars begin appearing. Battle injuries, he concludes a few months into the new status quo. They seem more the result of minor scrapes between people, with the occasional bout against a monstrous creature, going by the rare claw marks that sometimes appear instead of weapon injuries. None of them are as severe as Essek’s first experiences with his soulmate’s pain, but still enough of them are serious enough to leave a mark and, on a couple of momentous occasions, to get him close to losing consciousness again.
The worst of those occasions comes about half a year after his soulmate apparently began a lifestyle that involves more than the regular amount of danger a person is supposed to put themselves in, and falls right on the night before Essek is to unknowingly meet him.
It is a late night in Rosohna and Essek is for once not burning the midnight oil in his study, but is instead comfortably settled in his spacious bed with a treatise on transmutation. The reading is quite dry and he feels the weariness of a long busy day settling in, ready to rest once he gets to a logical pausing point in his reading.
He feels the cuts of a blade first, the sting, now familiar enough after repeated exposure, bringing him back to a state of awareness. This is somewhat usual, so he attempts to ignore the pain and the insistent, but irrational worry at the back of his mind.
The following shocks are not usual at all.
Essek has never been struck by lightning, but from his studies of spells that could evoke it, he wagers it would feel much like what he is experiencing. All of his muscles spasm, the back of his head connecting painfully with the wooden headboard, while the thick parchment of the treatise crumples in his hand with the contraction of his fingers. His breath stops for a short moment, as does his heart.
The worst of the pain passes quickly then, as it always does, letting him take a deep breath of relief, before lightning strikes again, more brutal. Fatal. It has been some time since he’s felt his soulmate fight for their life and as the shock passes, Essek stays there unmoving, not even daring a breath, waiting. He suspects his soulmate has some sort of companion or companions, because they have been brought back from the brink every time before this, always fast enough that by the time the pain has passed for Essek, he no longer feels their life is in danger.
The seconds tick by this time but no relief comes. Essek clenches his eyes shut and in his powerlessness against this unwanted bond, for the first time since his youth, he sends his thoughts out to the supposed cosmic power of the Luxon. He does not know this person, maybe he never will, but he wants them to be safe. Surely no one deserves to have gone through all Essek has felt and seen reflected on his skin only to die in so much pain again. So he thinks about them with all the intensity he is capable of and asks whoever or whatever is out there for help.
Maybe the Luxon hears him and intervenes, maybe someone dumps a healing potion into their throat, but he feels his soulmate drawn away from the brink of death just a few moments later and gasps hard, releasing the heavy breath he did not realize he was holding.
His relief is tragically short lived, for this time the heavy blade from before returns, slashing deep into his soulmate’s torso, enough to draw blood on Essek’s skin too, before returning to pierce through their ribcage, just above the heart. This time, the touch with death is familiar, too close to the sensation of his soul being severed that he had distantly experienced over three decades ago
The resuscitation comes almost immediately this time and Essek slumps heavily against the headrest, finally dropping the damned transmutation manuscript and bringing both hands to rub at his face as his heart pounds. He is still bleeding, black spots forming on his dark nightshirt, but the wounds are bound to close on their own shortly and Essek is too emotionally exhausted to do anything about them.
He falls into a deep rest, less of the usual meditative state his people use to recharge and more of the deep sleep other races are known for. He sleeps at least two times longer than he has in decades.
Essek wakes up much later than is proper, but thankfully not late enough to have missed any important engagements. He quickly disposes of his now ruined with dried blood nightshirt. Shame, it was one of his favorites.
The tasks for the day as usual are many, but unimportant. He does the scheduled inspection of the Dungeons of Penance and settles prisoner transfers, before heading to the cathedral of the Bright Queen, resigned at the prospect of another needlessly long strategy discussion, likely to stretch very late into the night.
Relief comes in the surprising form of Lady Olios, who interrupts the meeting to petition the favour of the Queen for a meeting with some outsiders. The deliberation whether to allow them in drags on too long and near its end Essek if half-desperate for them to enter on the off chance that their presence bring some respite from useless circular discussions.
Finally, the court agrees for them to be allowed an audience and the group ushered in exceeds his expectations of eccentricity, even with Lady Olios’ warnings. It is made up of mostly Xhorhasian races, but boasts two humans bound in slave harnesses. That makes him scowl for a moment before he inspects the way the humans hold themselves and decides the harnesses are definitely a pretense. Are they Empire spies then? But they can’t be because there is something disjointed about them, their attempts at lying to the Queen are outright outrageous, unless the Empire is experimenting with some absurd double-cross tactics. The Queen is of course above their insolence. Essek sighs, steepling his fingers together under his mantle, as she orders their arrest, not harboring any sympathies for the outsiders, but reluctant to return to the even more exasperating official matters of the council.
One of the humans steps forward then. Essek has not paid him much mind, but now he takes in the frankly fascinating hair color and the way he suddenly seems to stand confident and regal, despite his disheveled appearance. Definitely not a slave then.
The man speaks then, his voice reaching and tugging at something deep into Essek’s mind. The words are unimportant as he tries to figure out why the man sounds so strangely familiar when he has never heard his voice before. He sits frozen then as the outsider goes over to his tiefling companion, still speaking as he reaches into her backpack-
Quiet gasps come from all around him when the man presents a Beacon of the Luxon, his eyes scanning the crowd around him and for just an instant meeting Essek’s—their color a fascinating piercing blue—before moving back to look at the Bright Queen.
Essek realizes he has been holding his breath only when the Queen proclaims the newcomers heroes of the Dynasty and he breathes out heavily amid the excited chatter around him.
The newcomers, these Mighty Nein, are fascinating. They are brash and loud, they have no finesse and their general approach can be summed up as choosing to light a hearth with a whole fireball rather than by conjuring a simple spark. They talk to him with familiarity no one would dare to exhibit in front of the Shadowhand, asking personal questions and even initiating physical contact. By Asmodeus, he thinks, he has not been embraced by anyone in such a familiar and even familial way since his mother stopped considering it necessary for his proper upbringing in his teenage years.
But they also prove capable and bring in results, dealing with actual threats to the Dynasty’s people that have been ignored in favor of funneling all forces to the front lines. They find evidence and uncover Empire schemes more masterfully than some of the Queen’s best spies. The dissonance between who they are as people and the results they achieve is staggering.
Word of their heroics spreads fast and Essek’s mother decides to accrue favor with the Queen by presenting the Nein with one of Den Thelyss’ estates. He regrets not being able to witness her receiving the news of the giant tree they grow on top of it and the complaints by Lord Bilan. They are like no Den that Rosohna’s high society has seen and for the first time in decades Essek is intrigued. And although he is cautious, ever so cautious about it, he admits to himself his lively interest in further interactions with them.
Naturally, the human has remained most intriguing to him, a mage himself and seemingly of a similar mindset. Maybe Essek is reckless, deciding to share his magic so quickly, too easily convinced by bright blue eyes and a simple modification of a rudimentary spell that speaks as much about the character of its creator as it does about his arcane prowess. The man has a long way to go to get to Essek’s own level, but he sees the potential there, the keen mind and the spirit that is even keener when it comes to learning.
As they sit in the Mighty Nein’s new Den, the other man hunched over his spellbook, copying from the pages of Essek’s own with more care than a priest handling one of the Beacons of the Luxon, Essek surreptitiously studies his profile. The gentle firelight of the hearth nearby reflects off his auburn strands of hair, much like flame sparks, and gives his eyes a slight glow, the blue of them light with wonder.
Sneaking glances at the other mage like that whenever they end up meeting, Essek feels a pull he has not felt before. Of course the man is physically attractive to him, Essek knows his own tastes well and has had his share of inconsequential dalliances in the past with people he found alluring in the same way.
But he is also attracted to the possibility of a kindred soul he sees in the man. The possibility to be close to someone who is just as fascinated by the arcane in all of its forms and dunamancy in particular, but whose perceptions have not been not muddled by the Dynasty’s spiritual indoctrination. While Widogast- Caleb could be an invaluable collaborator and Essek will work to make him so, he also cannot help but wonder at the other possibilities of what more he could be, of what they could be to each other. He realizes these are the same things he had allowed himself to want when he thought of his soulmate in his youth. He might yet prove the Luxon wrong.
And then the Dynasty captures a scourger. A vollstrecker, as they call themselves apparently. Essek is of course one of the few allowed to see the captive and, as is the burden of his post, the one responsible for extracting any and all information she has to give.
He squares his shoulders and enters the cell, features settling into the familiar mask of the Shadowhand, poised and lethal.
The most dangerous captives always look the most innocent, he finds himself thinking immediately. The woman looks more a sparrow than a vulture, her stature small, her dark hair obscuring most of her face as she leans forward, hands chained securely behind of her, with the length of chain connecting the cuffs around her wrists to the bottom of the chair she sits on, limiting her movement. Maybe she has not heard him approach, maybe she is pretending, but she only reacts to his appearance once he has entered the cell and slowly begins circling her.
Suddenly she is thrashing against her restraints, a growl coming out of her throat. A lesser man might have startled, but the Shadowhand remains impassive and observant, aware enough to notice the insides of her forearms as she attempts to free herself from the chains. Sharp enough to see a set of very familiar scars peeking underneath her torn sleeves.
“I see you have enough energy still to resist,” he says, voice carefully kept neutral. “I shall let you tire yourself out some more and return soon, then.”
These are not the words he intended to begin with, but Essek needs to flee, barely keeping his composure as his telekinesis spell carries him out of the dungeon and back to his study as fast as he can will it to do so. He has barely closed the door, not even bothering to lock it when his back remains pressed against it as he frantically pulls at his sleeves.
He has studied his own forearms enough to remember the exact shape and position of each scar, yet he still needed to look at them with his own eyes to confirm.
The same type of injury. Different pattern.
The woman in the cell is not his soulmate. But his soulmate is a vollstrecker.
Essek sinks into worry and doubt as the scourger remains in her cell refusing to cooperate, despite his and his subordinates’ best efforts. Soon the Mighty Nein return one member short and rattled from their experience in Bazzoxan. Essek’s heart settles somewhat at their presence, even if his mind remains foggy and the insides of his forearms sting with phantom pains. He goes through the motions of his duties, then through having to explain to the Queen why he is not getting results and why he tutored the human mage in the secrets of dunamancy.
Later he will blame his distracted state for his inability to make the simple connection, even when Caleb had come to him personally to talk about his past with the scourgers, even when he had seen the sliver of scar tissue peaking under the man’s sleeve as the Nein held hands the first time he teleported them to their desired destination.
But he does not figure anything out. The truth comes for him cruel and unforgiving, like the scourger as she lunges at Caleb’s throat. The pain is sharp and surprising and Essek barely suppresses a jerk, feeling the piercing of the metal piece the woman is holding on his own skin, blood immediately starting to seep into the fabric of his shirt.
He stays frozen there for several moments, one hand lifted under his mantle to press against the wound, as he watches Caleb’s friends rush to his aid, while the guards enter the cell to restrain the woman. His senses return then and he is suddenly so angry. Angry at himself for not realizing sooner, angry at the Luxon for bringing this upon him, all this pain he has suffered for decades. But most importantly, he is angry at this scourger. So he tempers the flames of his rage into ice, immediately sliding back into the mask of the Shadowhand and steps forward. He does not think about the blood on his fingers as he extends his arm out from under his mantle, channeling more power than is strictly necessary into contracting the gravitational field around the woman, feeling more than hearing her choking breaths.
He waits, watches as Caleb takes a few steps towards the prisoner again. He turns to meet Essek’s eyes for just a moment then, an intense understanding passing between them before he looks back at the scourger. The hand that’s not held over the sluggishly bleeding wound on his neck raises in Essek’s direction in a clenched fist.
Essek channels all of his anger into the spell, the irrational part of it that is aimed at Caleb and the cold rage he feels towards the woman for hurting him. Her whole torso contorts and breaks, before all the viciousness he felt leaves him and Essek lets her lifeless body slump to the ground.
Caleb is his soulmate.
His mind is stuck on the word as he watches the Mighty Nein try to strategize with the scourger’s dead body at their feet. He watches Caduceus kneel down to inspect the corpse and roll up a sleeve to expose the full extent of the scars on her forearms. The Nein all turn to Caleb to confirm and Essek does not need him to answer. He knows that there, under the sleeves that the human’s hands are nervously ruffling now, lay the exact pattern of scars he knows from his own skin.
What irony, a Dynasty mage reborn and turned failed scourger. Did the Assembly know, Essek wonders. And what of Caleb’s memories?
The man himself pulls Essek out of his reverie, a hopeful look in his eyes. It’s knowledge he is after, of course, but how would Essek keep it from him? Now that he knows, there is a part of him holding a speck of bitter anger at him for all the pain he has inadvertently caused him, where Essek has never responded in kind. But the rest of his heart is filled with a need to protect the man, who has suffered so much more pain than the faint reflections of it that Essek has felt. He allows himself to be led to the Nein’s Den, the already closing wound at the juncture between his neck and clavicle is still smarting.
He does not let Caleb choose what he wants to learn this time however. The spells he teaches him are carefully selected and full of intent.
The first one feels less like being given and more like Essek is simply returning something that belongs to the other man by right. It is one of the first lessons that everyone who goes through arcane training in the Dynasty learns, to be able to find an ally in themselves first, before anyone else. The incantation to create the resonant echo itself is learned much later of course, but what little Essek has allowed himself to learn about Caleb’s past life makes it clear that he was far more than simply capable as an arcanist, just like he still is.
“Be careful with its use, this spell will denote you as a mage from the Dynasty,” he warns, demonstrating the somatic component of the incantation, his eyes intent on Caleb’s face.
To his disappointment, the other man’s face remains impassive, save for the live passion for knowledge in his eyes. Either he can hide his emotions impeccably, or he truly does not remember anything of his past lives. Essek selfishly hopes that if it is the latter, the spell might spark a lost memory, anything to bring Caleb closer to him.
The sentimental— weak , his mind supplies—part of him is the one he allows to choose the second spell. It is the immovable object incantation of his own invention, perfected now, with its cost brought as low as it could possibly be. Caleb does not know of his part in the history of the spell, but Essek is content to offer him a reminder of their bond, even if he is the only one who knows about it.
It is both better and worse, knowing the exact identity of his intended, Essek finds. On the one hand, he worries less at the unknown and at the thought that Caleb is always near at least two very capable healers. On the other, he is now in danger of being consumed by his own frustration.
As the Mighty Nein go about their self-appointed tasks and turn to Essek with more and more transport requests, resentment slowly starts accumulating behind his ribs. In the Lotusden, already weary after a particularly grueling day in the Dungeon of Penance, he flinches under Caleb’s touch, repulsed at the grasp of the man’s fingers on his sleeve, right over the lines of their shared scars. He resents Caleb for inflicting those scars upon him once again, for just a moment. More so, he resents the ease with which he allows himself to be convinced to exert a significant amount of his powers for a second time this day, just because the Mighty Nein did not care enough to be clear in their instructions when they asked for his help the first time around.
Most of all he resents the Luxon for inflicting this destiny upon him. The feelings he was developing for Caleb, the hopes he had for the future of his relationship with him and the Mighty Nein are slowly turning into bitterness, their authenticity now questionable at best.
Essek cannot sleep that night, after he’s returned from the Lotusden, fixated on the dangerous path he just helped set the Nein on, trying to hold still and stay aware so he would be able to feel each faint injury Caleb might get.
He falls into an uneasy meditation sometime during the night and the next day, when he gets word of their return, he rushes over to apologize for his harshness.
And then he spends almost forty excruciating days without any news of the Mighty Nein. There are no annoying messages from Jester, no reports of their whereabouts from spies within the Empire or envoys stationed anywhere else on Exandria. And Essek does ask, goes through every channel and pulls at every thread. It is like they vanished into thin air overnight, except it isn’t as simple, because Essek is still connected to Caleb and his pain and on a couple of occasions ends up spending hours feeling crushing pain seeping into the flesh of his torso, or in a bout of choking, just sufficiently strong for him to be fighting for every gasping breath, but not enough to grant the blissful relief of unconsciousness.
He almost misses the news of their sudden resurfacing in Rexxentrum. Taskhand Tasithar’s treachery has just been revealed and Essek is sucked into an endless cycle of unsuccessful interrogations, including one where he is the one being questioned.
“You know them better than even the agents I assigned to spy on them, Essek,” the Bright Queen says, her eyes sharp enough to bore holes straight through his flesh. “I just stopped an assault on the enemy capital for them at the word of an outsider. I am asking you now why I should not resume it immediately. How can I know they are not reporting every tactical weakness they saw within Rosohna to King Dwendal himself right at this moment?”
Because they are currently busy battling someone in Rexxentrum, Essek thinks, feeling the first pinpricks of pain along his arms and torso. They are barely noticeable, more akin to paper cuts or the needle treatments that some natural healers practice than to battle injuries (and especially they feel like none of the means of assault used by Dynasty soldiers), but Essek fancies himself familiar enough with Caleb and the Mighty Nein’s modus operandi to be able to guess when battle is afoot.
He of course would never be this flippant in front of the Queen. She has always had his full loyalty, but Essek knows she cannot reign in her emotions when it comes to the Beacons, unless beseeched by her own intended. Captain Quana’s word is always enough to dissuade her from any militant action and for a moment Essek considers addressing his own soul bond as a means to persuade her, but rejects the idea quickly. He does not intend even for Caleb himself to find out, he would not reveal this secret even to his Queen.
“Nothing I have seen in their actions since they returned the Beacon to us has branded them friends of the Empire, my Queen,” he responds instead, voice level. “I believe we should give them a chance to return and explain themselves, they might yet bring us valuable tactical information.
She hums in response, not satisfied with his response, but pacified enough.
“You grant them more trust than they warrant, Essek. Take care that you don’t get burned.”
The Nein return to Rosohna eventually and he really should not be surprised that they bring with them a possibility to end the war. They are truly capable of anything and Essek finds that he has missed them so much. Standing in their eccentric, cozy Den, laughing at Caleb’s mischief and Fjord’s mortified expression, he thinks he feels at home. It lasts for only an instant, before his post and duties reel him back into the real world. There is no place for the solitary Shadowhand in this mismatched, yet perfectly functioning group and they have made that clear too. He retreats into himself and returns to strictly business matters.
Except, he catches Caleb’s gaze when he makes to leave and there is a different sadness there than what he has seen before. It is nothing like the look he gave Essek when he told him about his vollstrecker past, or the resignation mirrored on all of his companions' faces when they returned from Bazzoxan without Yasha. It is too much to hope that it is for Essek himself, still.
Later that evening, when Jester’s message, impossibly more intrusive than ever, sounds in his mind, Essek curses all bonds. He curses the soul bond that drags him towards Caleb, he curses the kinship he feels with the Mighty Nein. And yet, he only stays home long enough only to summon a fine bottle of wine from his collection before heading back out towards the most quaint building in all of Rosohna.
It is so easy to fall into their orbit, each of the Mighty Nein fascinates him in their own way.
Jester is always the most welcoming among them and the most charming. Essek wonders whether she has met anyone yet who has been able to withstand her open and honest kindness. In a very different life he might have fallen for her himself, he thinks as his eyes move over to Beauregard.
She is so similar to him, that unruly monk. Neither of them would admit it out loud of course, but besides the completely divergent paths taken to prove themselves, they are the same child who grew up trying to manage the impossible expectations placed on them in the best way they could. Catching his eyes, Beauregard raises a glass and Essek responds in kind with a nod and a smile.
He can relate to Fjord too, to his deceptively easy confidence and the insecurity that was barely hidden behind the fake accent. Essek has seen the new sword, heard the man now speak in his natural cadence and wonders whether he himself will ever be brave enough to drop his own mask.
He does not know what to make of Caduceus on the best days. The man is deceptively simple, but Essek knows he understands much more of what goes unsaid than possibly anyone he’s ever met. It is both comforting and intimidating.
Almost like Yasha. The intimidating woman has returned to the group and he is uncertain of the circumstances that had parted her from them, but he can read the hurt in her posture well enough. She asks him about feeling lonely and he sees it in her eyes then, the detachment. Perhaps he is not the only one in this Den who does not yet feel part of it.
If Caduceus is an enigma, Nott is a children’s puzzle that looks easy, but attempting to solve it ends with your fingers stuck painfully between its parts. She seems to be the most stereotypical of goblins: brash, loud, slightly feral, and prone to obsessions. But he has learned that she is as knowledgeable as her halfling lover who Essek had kept in the Dungeons of Penance. Has seen her go through Caleb’s spell scrolls with intent and understanding fit only for an arcanist and he wonders at the relationship she has with the human. It does not seem like they share any feelings that would be untoward between a man and a woman married to another, but there is an infinite closeness there. Essek has seen her watch him ever so carefully when he gets close to Caleb, her yellow eyes intent and judging.
And then there is the matter of Caleb himself.
“Hey Essek,” Beau interrupts his reverie. “Where did you go, did you have too much to drink or something?”
“Perhaps,” Essek responds noncommittally, absent-mindedly swinging his feet inside the hot water from where he’s perched at the edge of the pool. His right leg has been numb for most of the evening, but the feeling in it is slowly returning.
And if that admission is not another show of his weakness for this ragtag bunch.
“Okay, sober up a bit, cause Jessie had a question.”
He looks to the tiefling where she’s leaning against Beauregard’s shoulder. There is a slight flush to her cheeks and Essek does not know if it is from the heat, her closeness to the other woman, or the question she means to ask, although Jester has so far been entirely shameless with all inquiries directed at him.
“Oh right! Okay-okay,” she begins. “So, I read this book, it’s a romance, I will lend it to you if you want, it’s very good.” She does not seem to notice the incredulous rise of Essek’s eyebrows in her direction. “So it’s from the Dynasty and it is about this echo knight who saves a den mother’s life and gets consecuted for it. And then he finds out he has a soulmate, because he can feel it when she gets hurt, but!” a pause here, as if to build anticipation. “He is already marrieeeeeed!” she finishes with an exaggerated hand gesture.
Essek is not aware of the book. For the best probably.
“So,” Jester continues almost immediately. Her voice has risen half an octave. “Is that a real thing? The soulmates? Professor Waccoh didn’t want to tell me,” she adds with a pout.
Essek could lie to her, but if she learns the truth from somewhere else, he would seem that much more suspicious.
“Indeed it is,” he responds instead.
There is an exclamation of delight from Jester, but he notices everyone else’s attention has now been drawn back to him too.
So Essek explains. From the idealized dogmatic version of the story about the souls destined to love one another and brought together by shared pain, to his own speculations about metaphysical entanglement and sheer chance, and his frustrations with the lack of academic exploration on the issue.
“You are such a nerd,” Beauregard comments on the last part, but her voice is fond and Essek does not know how to respond. “So do you have one?”
He sneaks a glance at Caduceus out of the corner of his eye. If he lies, the firbolg at least will surely know, if not everyone else. They have been forthright with him, he should offer them a piece of himself too.
He resolutely does not look in Caleb’s direction.
“Indeed I do.”
“That is SO romantic!” Jester squeals. “Isn’t it Beau?”
“Forgive me if the question is intrusive,” Fjord chimes in, ever so diplomatic.
“I believe we are past that,” Essek answers with a good-natured laugh.
“Right. I wonder if we have met them, your.... soulmate?”
Essek sighs. He chances a look at Caleb, quickly running his eyes over the rest of the group to disguise his intention. The man’s expression is one of carefully neutral interest, Essek does not know what he expected.
So he undoes the top button of his shirt and pulls the collar down slightly. Just enough to reveal the faded grey vein running up to his collarbone.
“This is how I found out about them.”
He tells the Nein about the attack on Bazzoxan and the death of his soulmate, lets them go through the same speculations about the Empire he himself considered way back then. But he does not tell them about the myriad of other injuries that have marked his body since. He is resolute in his decision not to impose this supposed "fate" on Caleb, who considers himself a child of the Empire, despite his alliance to the Bright Queen. Essek has also managed not to put himself in harm's way for almost as long as a human lifespan is, he could manage another several decades, so Caleb need not know.
There are several muttered apologies for broaching the subject and guilty looks thrown his way, but Essek is glad the Nein do not treat him with pity. He is not sure he would be able to bear it.
“We will get you that Beacon, Essek,” Jester promises with as much solemnity that her always optimistic tone allows. “And then you will figure out everything and your soulmate will be reborn so you can be together!”
Essek tries to manage a smile in response, guilt at his dishonesty weighing heavy in his chest.
“Thank you, Jester.”
As the night grows later, the topic of soulmates somewhat forgotten, Essek finally, though with some regret, stands to leave and is blindsided by Caleb’s solitary offer to accompany him on the way back, so the Mighty Nein might know where to visit him in the future.
There is something weighing in the air between them, but Essek dares not hope, certain that he is projecting his own feelings onto the other man. They exchange a few opinions on a treatise he has lent to Caleb, but their hearts are not in the discussion. The human is distracted by something else, fidgeting with a torn thread on his sleeve, and when they reach the gate to Essek’s estate he seems to have finally gathered the resolution to say whatever is on his mind as they stop in front of one another.
“What you shared with us was deeply personal. Thank you for trusting us still, even after all our missteps, Essek.”
You all have become closer to me than my own den, Essek wants to tell him.
“We all make mistakes. None of what you think yours are have warranted my distrust in you. I am glad to call you friends,” he says instead.
“It must be hard, carrying someone else’s pain besides your own,” Caleb muses. “I would not know how to live with myself if I knew I had been inflicting so much pain on someone else with my carelessness.”
I would take all your pain , Essek wants to tell him, feels his throat closing up at the bitter irony of it all.
“For what it’s worth,” Caleb takes half a step forward then. There is just a foot separating them now, and the man’s blue gaze is intense. If he were to lean now and kiss him, Essek thinks he would not only tell him everything about their bond, but also completely surrender to all the religious nonsense and put his trust in the Luxon to guide his fate fully.
“I am sorry about your soulmate,” Caleb finishes, blue eyes holding Essek’s, but he does not reach out.
“Yes, so am I,” Essek returns.
There are more chances for him to own up for his lie in front of the other man. Or more moments of weakness, as Essek starts to consider them. There is the day when they figure out Halas’ spell and he sees the fire in Caleb’s eyes, as hot as he feels the arm thrown around him in the victorious embrace they share with Nott. He is ready to confess then, even with her as audience, because there is little Essek would not do to get a chance to relive this moment of intimacy and elation at a shared arcane discovery. Later, once the Nein have left on a quest to break the curse that impedes the spell, he realizes that was the moment in which he truly, hopelessly fell in love.
In the Whitedawn Lagoon, he wants to pull Caleb aside and kiss him in the shade of a tree, mesmerized by the way the greens of the jungle contrast with the color of his hair.
When they manage to restore Nott to her former body, Caleb approaches him with the same elated expression he fell in love with and puts his hands on Essek’s shoulders, standing there for several moments, eyes searching for something in Essek’s expression. He dares not breathe, confronted with the man’s gaze and does not know what Caleb finds, but the crushing hug that follows and the soft “Thank you, my friend.” will have to be answer enough.
Later that night, shortly before the Nein are to leave to rest in their den one last time before departing for the peace talks, Essek feels dread and a feeling of finality settle over him. This is the last he will see of them before they meet the Empire diplomats at sea and after, if the war is ended, he wonders whether they would find any need to return to Rosohna at all. Perhaps this is his only chance to be forthright with Caleb, lest he never see him again once the negotiations are over. It is a foolish thought perhaps, but a possibility nonetheless.
But then he looks towards the man, sitting on Essek’s expensive sofa with his legs crossed and Nott half-asleep in his lap, deep in conversation with Beauregard, who’s perched on the armrest next to him. On his other side, Caduceus is tiredly leaning on the wizard’s shoulder, probably not really listening to Fjord and Jester’s conversation. Sitting on the ground in front of the sofa, Yasha dozes with Frumpkin curled on her shoulders. They are inseparable like this and Essek would not dare drive a wedge between them with any attempt to tie Caleb to himself.
Yet again the choice is taken out of his hands with the arrival of the peace negotiations.
Essek arrives to the somewhat-predictably named, considering it belongs to the Mighty Nein, Ball Eater alongside a newly-appointed Taskhand, with a contingent of echo knights, a draft for a possible peace treaty, and a large sending mirror. The other side seems similarly prepared and is represented by the Martinet and Headmaster Hass, accompanied by mages of lower ranks. He wonders how many of them are vollstrecker.
The answer turns out to be none, because the scourgers have been hiding in the waters below, prepared to strike at the exact moment when the Beacon was handed off. Essek curses himself internally for not being more thorough in his inspection of their surroundings upon arriving, knowing from his own scars the lengths that the Assembly would go to unlock hidden power.
Ludinus Da’leth is in front of him, Beacon held between the two of them, when he hears the first bolt fly above his head. The fireball explodes with a deafening boom behind him. Essek was never the most dextrous among his peers in his young age, but he fancies himself fast enough to dupe the positively ancient elf in front of him.
“Mighty Nein,” he yells in the next moment, turning to his left where the group is stationed and tossing the artifact in their direction. It would be a reckless move if he did not trust them with his whole life.
Chaos erupts on the deck of the Ball Eater as now at least three different parties vie for their separate interests. The vollstrecker go for his people, so Essek has no time to assess whether the Empire forces are actively assisting them. The scourgers are fast and cunning, spreading out and not allowing him to catch more than one of them in his gravitational fields. The echo knights hold their ground, but like any battle between mages, it quickly becomes a war of attrition, counterspells cancelling out each other until one side has not choice but to give up in exhaustion.
But no war is bound to last if the Mighty Nein are involved. Essek notices pink faerie creatures dancing in his peripheral vision and the buzz of insects followed by pained yells from a scourger. When he turns to slow one of them that was approaching Jester, Beauregard is near, leaving another two stunned on the ground.
The tide seems to turn, the Empire troops wary to support their supposed allies and retreating. But he should have known that Trent Ikithon leaves his best for last.
Essek can see the end of the battle approaching, but he does not sense in any way the figure that appears behind him in the next moment. There is suddenly fire burning at his shoulder and a female voice at his ear.
“So, you are one of Bren’s new friends.”
Then the fire turns sharp, piercing through Essek’s back and twisting, the agony so much more terrible than any faint reflection of pain he has ever felt.
He thinks he can see Caleb before he falls and everything turns dark.
Awareness comes to him slowly and Essek’s mind is foggy, answers about his whereabouts and purpose hanging on a thread just out of reach.
His whole body feels heavy and there’s a dull but insistent pain in his back. For a moment he wonders how Caleb managed to get injured this time, because the pain is nothing like he has felt before and stubbornly is not fading.
He thinks he lets out a pained gasp. There is possibly someone calling his name.
Nothing happens for a few moments or maybe hours, but then there’s blessed relief and some of the fog dissipates as Essek opens his eyes to see Jester and Caduceus leaning over him.
“Essek,” the tiefling exclaims, reaching for his hand. “How are you feeling?”
“Confused,” he answers and hears a quiet chuckle from Caduceus.
“Oh, Essek, we were so scared,” Jester answers. “She… she didn’t kill you exactly, but I still had to ask the Traveler to revivify you and we were afraid your soul… with the Beacon so close…” she is babbling now and Essek is not yet aware enough to make out all of it, but he manages to slightly lift himself up against the pillows and turn his head to look around. The room is unfamiliar, but at the door he sees the rest of the Mighty Nein, except for Caleb, quietly watching over them. Caleb he finds when he looks back in Jester’s direction and over her shoulder, the wizard sitting motionless in an armchair at Essek’s side.
“I think we can let Caleb fill you in on the rest,” Caduceus adds once Jester seems to have finished her account of events. He then leads her out, taking the rest of the group with them and closing the door.
“How are you feeling,” Caleb asks quietly.
“In pain still-” Essek begins, trying to settle more comfortably against the pillows so he would be able to face the other man, before the realization settles in, choking him on his next breath. “Caleb, I-”
“You were hurt, you almost died,” his voice is still so quiet and gentle.
Essek feels a new pain constricting his chest, entirely unrelated to any physical injury. He hurt Caleb.
“I am so sorry.”
“No, Essek, I am the one who is sorry.”
And he has never seen those blue eyes so dark with sadness and despair, not over a lost friend or the man’s own terrifying past.
Caleb leans forward then, extending his hand in the direction of Essek’s own, a determined crease forming between his eyebrows.
Essek does not know what is required of him, but he has come to realize that there is little in his power that he would not offer to the man. He extends his hand.
Caleb takes it in his own in the gentlest of holds and carefully turns it palm up, reaching for the fabric of Essek’s sleeve with his other hand. His determined expression molds into on of uncertainty as he meets Essek’s eyes again, waiting for permission.
Essek nods and watches him pull the sleeve up, all the way to his elbow. Caleb then reaches for his own sleeve, doing the same thing until both of their scars are revealed, perfectly matched, the marks on Essek’s forearm a pale mirror to Caleb’s own.
“I told you once, that I would not be able to bear the thought of inflicting such pain upon another,” Caleb says, voice louder now, but rough. “Is this why you did not tell me?”
“Partly,” Essek responds. “I also did not want to burden you with a bond that is not yours. You are not of the Dynasty first of all. You are not of the Empire even. You are of the Mighty Nein and I did not want to impose on you anything that might keep you away from them.”
“I do not remember anything from my past life,” Caleb answers, running his thumb over Essek’s wrist. The motion makes the hair on the back of his neck stand. His heart aches at the tenderness of it. Essek has never been offered anything like it in his over a century-long life. “They tampered with my memories too much, I think they wanted to impede my anamnesis on purpose… and they have succeeded.”
“I know nothing of your past life, just your death.”
“And now I know of yours, Essek.”
There is such hurt in the words, it cuts him like a blade. When he looks into Caleb’s eyes he finds tears clouding their clear blue.
“When she appeared behind you, when I saw her stab you in the back, when I felt the pain and the… I can’t even describe how sensing you on the brink of death felt… It was agony watching you fall, I could not even feel the wound anymore.”
“You worry about keeping me away from my friends, my family. What about keeping me with you? What if I want you to be part of my family too?”
And this is the answer to all of Essek’s hopes and fears, is it not? Every time so far it has been brought on by an outside force, be it the Luxon steering his destiny or pure chance. This time he makes good on his wish to forge his own fate and turns his hand to catch Caleb around the wrist, tugging him to sit on the bed next to him. The human goes willingly, warm weight settling next to Essek’s thigh. With the distance between them reduced, Caleb turns Essek's hand in his grasp and holds it up to his lips, planting tiny kisses on his knuckles. But Essek has a better purpose in mind for the man’s lips, sneaking his other hand up his neck and into his hair, pulling him down as he rises from his pillows to meet them with his own.
Later he will learn about the fallout of the attack and the identity of his would-be assassin. Later the rest of the Mighty Nein will welcome him back and show him around this tower, property of a new tentative ally to the Dynasty. Much later, he will deal with the still ongoing war and part from his friends for at least a while to return to Rosohna and report to the Bright Queen.
For now, Essek stays in the arms of the man with whom he shares the most profound bond and it occurs to him that even after everything, he still cannot ascertain whether the Luxon meant it to be so, or whether their souls collided by sheer chance in the vast void of the Beacons to lead them here.
Perhaps that is the point.