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the lone wolf dies

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As part of the cover, Lord Thane has a room under his name at a suitably upscale establishment. Tonight, that bed is empty.

The room they’ve set him up in on their ship appears to be crew’s quarters, judging by the hammock, and Essek wonders if he’s kicked someone out of their room for the night. It’s hardly a blip on his conscience, at this point.

Having him stay on the ship was part offer, part demand. They don’t want him out of their sight—that, he understands. But they removed his manacles and have done nothing to inhibit his casting. Caleb put an alarm spell on the door, but they all know full well he can teleport. Essek can recognize a test when he sees one.

He’s never failed a test in his life, and he doesn’t plan on starting now.

The ship creaks and groans with the motion of the waves, small as they are in the harbor. Essek can’t imagine being able to sleep out at sea, with even stronger currents and no comfort of solid land nearby.

Even if it weren’t for the motion, it’s not as though he’d be able to trance tonight anyway. Panic, fear, and guilt are all extremely effective stimulants.

He almost doesn’t register the knock amid the other sounds, but his ears prick up, recognizing a different pitch than the white noise of Nicodranas at night.

“Come in?” he calls, and it sounds like a question. He has not earned any sliver of privacy, and it’s not as though this space is his to deny entry.

The door creaks open to reveal a familiar silhouette, changed out of his formal jacket and into more comfortable clothes. The pants are Empire in style, but the shirt comes from Xhorhas.

The single, low-burning candle highlights the stark shadows on Caleb’s face, making sharp angles look even harsher. His hair glints with the flicker of the light, like it too is make of dancing flames. He closes the door behind him.

“Hello,” Essek says after a minute of tense silence. He has no idea what Caleb is here for, and no idea how to respond to his presence. The sight of him triggers an avalanche of emotion the likes of which Essek is not accustomed to feeling. Guilt and sadness and pain, but also hope and affection and the tiny spark of something deep he doesn’t dare put a name to.

“Veth and Jester have gone back to the Chateau. They wanted to spend the night with their families. The rest of us are staying here.” Essek searches Caleb’s tone for a hint towards what he is thinking, but finds nothing. His expression, too, remains unreadable, dour and pained but no more so than he’s looked most times Essek has seen him.

“Veth,” Essek repeats. “That is Nott’s name, yes? For her true form?”

Caleb nods.

“I noticed you changed her back. There wasn’t a good chance to say anything before but I—I’m glad it was successful, this time,” Essek stammers. “I was quite proud of our collective efforts that day.”

Caleb reaches down to his side and pulls one of the books from his ever-present holsters. Essek recognizes his spell book.

“Speaking of which,” Caleb says, and begins walking toward the desk where Essek is sitting, dragging over a chest since there are no extra chairs. “I still owe you that spell.”

Essek blinks. Did he mishear? Is he hallucinating?

“I—I didn’t think…After everything.”

“I thought about it,” Caleb interrupts him. “And I imagine the others would have something to say about me giving this to you. But a promise is a promise.” He looks Essek dead in the eye. “And we still owe you many favors.”

Essek opens him mouth dumbly, no sound coming out for a long while. Finally, he manages a scratchy exhale that is something like a laugh.

“I would think that, in light of recent events, I have no right to ask anything of you anymore. Forgiveness if worth quite a bit more than a few teleports.”

“Consider it a gift, then.” Caleb has averted his eyes and is now flipping through his book to the correct page. “Friend to friend.”

The words hit him like a punch to the chest. Even after that interrogation, the empathy they showed him, he didn’t dare think…

“You trust me with this? Such a powerful spell?”

“You helped create it,” Caleb says, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “And I struggle to see what damage you could do with it even if you wanted to.”

Fair. It’s not exactly a destructive spell, and the parameters make it more or less impossible to cast on an unwilling creature. 

It feels pointless to argue any further. He’s not even sure why he is arguing at all. He wants the spell, why would he try to talk Caleb out of sharing it?

Because. Because he’s not worthy of a gift, no matter if he had a hand in its creation. Because Caleb shouldn’t trust him with so much as a cantrip at this point. Because the scales have shifted so heavily that he has become the one in debt, and it is already far too steep to possibly repay.

“Here.” Caleb shifts the book towards him, letting the pages better catch the dimming candlelight. Essek recognizes the glyphs from their notes in his laboratory only a week or so ago—can it really have been so little time? He feels like he’s looking back on another century. This night has marked a new millennium, and everything before now is separated by a fog of ages.

Essek summons his own spell book and a pen, and begins copying. He can feel Caleb’s eyes on him like targeted beams of sunlight, prickling his sensitive skin. He doesn’t look up once until he’s traced out the entire spell.

When he’s done, he says, without having planned to speak, “It’s been a long time since I was able to work on making a new spell. I don’t know if I’ll ever have use for it, but it’s nice to have your own creation as part of your repertoire.”

“I agree,” says Caleb, and Essek wonders if he has invented anything else. Those are spells Essek would very much like to see.

“I thought it might have something to do with consecution. That you wanted the spell,” Caleb clarifies at Essek’s confused expression.

“It had crossed my mind. In the Dynasty, there is a lot of importance placed on experiencing life from different points, in different bodies, but I rather like being a drow. Yet another way I diverge from the common opinion. Though,” Essek huffs another laugh, this one even more fragile than the last, “if I am executed, then it won’t matter. They’ll make sure to do it far from a Beacon.”

“We won’t let that happen,” says Caleb.

“Now that I think of it,” Essek continues, looking at the ceiling in thought, “I’m not sure a consecuted individual has ever been executed by the state before. There must be protocol for that, to ensure that I won’t come back.”

There is a sudden pressure on Essek face, and then his head is being whipped to the side by a surprising force. Caleb’s hand on his chin, forcing Essek to look at him, just as he did before.

“You will not be executed.” Caleb’s voice is gravelly with emotion again, deep and haunted as when he told Essek redemption was possible, and Essek was forced to believe it. They are close enough that he can feel Caleb’s warm breath on his face. “We will not let it happen.”

Euphoria sets the unnamed spark in Essek’s stomach alight, even as the flame is choked by the serpent of shame curling in his gut.

“Why not?” Unable to look Caleb directly in the eye, Essek settles for a point between his eyebrows, and doesn’t think about the feeling of Caleb’s lips pressed against the same spot. “Why not turn me in, when all this is over, when the Beacons are returned?”

“You are not a very good listener, are you?” The accusation hurts more than it really has any right to. “We look out for our own in the Mighty Nein.”

Essek sighs. “All my life, everyone I’ve ever known has looked out for themselves. Everyone clawing for a place at the top, and those who have already made the climb are ready to kick down anyone who threatens their position. And I was alone in my field, alone in my beliefs. I did everything myself, and thought I was better for it.” He drags his eyes lower to meet Caleb’s gaze. “I guess I still need more practice at having friends.”

Caleb leans forward until his forehead is pressed against Essek’s, the hand on his chin traveling to hold the back of his head.

“You are not a lone wolf anymore, Essek,” Caleb growls. “You are part of a pack.”

Essek closes his eyes. He’s never known this kind of closeness, and he has to wonder if it is yet another foreign custom or unique to here and now, him and Caleb. He feels warm, and he can't be sure if it is the heat radiating off Caleb’s body or if it’s coming from within himself.

A rebellious part of him can’t help but think about how near Caleb’s lips are to his own, how easy it would be to close the gap. It’s not like he hasn’t thought about it before, even if he pretends not to know how he feels. Even if he tries to forget the way Caleb’s face and voice swim into his mind whenever he dares let his thoughts wander.

But Essek doesn’t move. Whatever Caleb’s done to make him understand redemption, whatever he has experienced that makes him see a mirror in Essek’s crimes, he still deserves better. He burns like a bonfire, and Essek is a cold-blooded creature.

Drow are not meant for the sun. Essek is not meant for Caleb.

The overworked candle finally gives out in a stream of smoke, and Essek and Caleb jump apart in the shock of being plunged into darkness.

Essek can still see every detail, now in the gray-scale of dark vision. He doesn’t know exactly how much or little Caleb can see. He’s read that humans experience darkness as entirely blinding, as though their eyes are closed, but surely that can’t be true. Caleb must be able to detect some outline of shapes, at least.

Still, Essek moves slowly as he stands, not wanting to startle Caleb any further.

“Thank you for the spell,” he says stiffly. “I’ll see you and the others in the morning.”

Caleb nods, and stands as well.

“Good night, Essek,” he says, eyes downcast, and retreats out the door with his spell book in hand.