You blast the mind of a creature that you can see within range, attempting to shatter its intellect and personality... On a failed save, the creature’s Intelligence and Charisma scores become 1. The creature can’t cast spells, activate magic items, understand language, or communicate in any intelligible way. The creature can, however, identify its friends, follow them, and even protect them.
Feeblemind, D&D 5th Edition
It started when Jester sent the message over breakfast. She finished chewing a bite of bacon, turned something closer to the texture of jerky after time in someone’s pocket, and then she brought her hand to the symbol of the Traveler and said, “Heyyy, Essek! It’s us! We’re gonna be there soon, like, this morning! We totally have this super cool thing to give you!” She glanced at Fjord, who was still holding up three fingers. “We miss you!”
There was a pause where she went for another bite, and then her fingers uncurled and the piece of bacon landed in her lap.
“Hey,” Fjord started to say.
“Guys,” Jester said. “I think Essek is in trouble.”
“What?” Beau demanded.
“What did he say?” Caleb asked.
“He didn’t…” she glanced around the room. “He didn’t say anything?”
“The spell failed to reach him?”
“No,” she said. “It—he just. He made a. Sound.”
“What kind of sound?” Beau asked.
“Like, um.” Jester said. “Like someone was hurting him.”
“He screamed?” Yasha asked.
“It was more like…” Jester wrung her hands. “A whimper?”
“Shit,” Beau said.
“It’s not like what it sounded like with Yussa,” Jester said. “It was Essek, it was just—bad. It was bad you guys.”
“It’s Trent,” Beau said. “It’s gotta be Trent, right?”
“That seems—“ Caleb clenched his jaw, willing himself to focus. “That seems most likely. While it is possible that Essek has some other enemy we are unaware of or has found himself in trouble some other way…”
“Occam’s Razor,” Beau said. “Yeah.”
She met his gaze grimly. Caleb glanced around the dome from her to Jester, who still just looked worried. Fjord was hard to read. Veth was watching him, but he couldn’t tell if the concern in her eyes was about Essek, the situation, or for Caleb himself. He couldn’t really see Yasha in her position directly next to him. Caduceus was frowning a little, but he didn’t say anything.
“So what are we gonna do?” Beau wanted to know. “Are we prepared to fight that dude?”
“Well,” Caleb said, “I do not know if this is something that he would do in person. It is equally possible that it is another Scourger, sent to do his bidding. Or potentially both. He would not come out here unprotected.”
They all glanced uneasily around at each other.
“He was pre-tty scary,” Jester said. “Not that we couldn’t fight him! We definitely could. He was just like, super powerful last time.”
“We can try to fight him,” Veth said. “He can’t be that bad against all of us. We have all our spells.”
“Well, and I’m not suggesting this,” Fjord said, raising his hands preemptively. “But we could do nothing.”
“He’s our friend!” Jester protested.
“I am not leaving him to the mercy of that man,” Caleb said flatly.
“No, I agree,” Fjord said. “I just had to put it out there. If we don’t think we can win…”
“I do not know if we can kill him,” Caleb said. “He will be expecting us. This is likely to be a trap.”
“But he hasn’t like, told us he has Essek yet,” Jester said. “And we made better time than they would expect from where we were. So maybe if we show up now it will be a surprise?”
“We will have to figure out what that means,” Caduceus said. “I mean, did they just keep him at the Outpost? Did they take him somewhere else?”
“Where would they take him?” Yasha asked.
“The Empire has places like this, right?” Beau said. “They could have brought him there.”
“They could have left Aeor,” said Veth. “It’s not hard to leave, right?”
“Do they know that? DeRogna seemed to think you couldn’t teleport out.”
Caleb shook his head. “I am not sure. It was Essek who told us you could do so safely with a circle.”
They were back to where they started. Caleb summoned Frumpkin and began to pet him methodically to have something to do with his hands.
“I can scry on him,” Jester offered.
“If they don’t have him somewhere you can’t scry on,” Beau said.
“It is worth a shot,” Caleb said. “Assuming he is still at the outpost, what is the plan?”
“Grab him,” Beau said flatly. “Get out.”
“If we don’t want to fight him we don’t have to,” Yasha said. “As long as we can get him out. Right?”
“I do not think he will be eager to let us escape twice,” Caleb said. “But yes, it is—it could be done.”
“Where are we going when we get out?”
“Somewhere nondescript,” Caleb said.
“It’s gonna take Essek at least an hour to attune to that necklace,” Beau said. “Right?”
“What about the Tower?” Fjord asked.
“The Tower would help,” Caleb said. “But we will need to cast it someplace anyway. So perhaps we Send a message and see if we could get some rooms in an inn that is known to us, and we can teleport there.”
“It’s still risky to teleport out of here,” Caduceus said. “Right?”
“Without a circle, yes,” Caleb said. “But we will not have time for circles. And Essek did say it was a little easier to get out than get in.”
“I mean, this all depends on where he is, right?” Beau said.
“Yes,” Caleb said. “So perhaps it is time for you to scry on him, Jester, if you can.”
“Okay, Artie,” Jester said, closing her eyes. “Show me Essek.”
She was quiet for a time. “He’s still at the new encampment,” she said. “There’s—he looks pretty bad, you guys. He’s all burned and stuff.”
“Is he alive?” Beau asked.
“Yeah yeah he’s definitely alive,” Jester said. “There’s—I don’t see any bodies. Maybe the guards got away?”
“That does not seem likely,” Caleb said.
“Possible,” Caduceus put in. “But maybe not likely.”
“It’s just the outpost. There’s some blood on the floor. Um. I can’t see any further out. Maybe they have necklaces like ours?”
“That is unfortunately very likely,” Caleb said.
“So what is the plan?” Jester said. “Are we going to sneak up there and burst in and grab him?”
“I will be prepared to Teleport us as soon as we are in range,” Caleb said. “We must assume he is going to Counterspell it, so…” he glanced at the others.
“I can Counterspell him,” Fjord said.
“I can stun him,” Beau said.
“There are likely other Volstrucker with him,” Caleb said. “I have no doubt.”
“The rest of us will just have to attack them so they can’t counterspell,” Jester said.
“We must be ready,” Caleb said. “The element of surprise may be all we have.”
“I’m going to message Reani,” Jester said. “About the room at the inn.”
“Yes,” Caleb said. “Good.”
Time seemed to melt and slip as they gathered up camp. Jester reported that Reani had gotten rooms at the inn where she had met the Clay family, and described the layout to Caleb. It inlaid itself into his memory as she spoke, even though his thoughts kept drifting to Jester’s expression when she’d heard Essek earlier.
A whimper. Not even a word.
Caleb didn’t like it at all.
“It’ll be fine,” Jester said, as they set off across the landscape. “We’ll save him and it will be fine.”
“In and out,” Caleb said. “We cannot stay and fight.”
“What’s the backup plan?” Beau said. “He counterspells your teleport, then what?”
“I have Word of Recall still,” Jester said.
“I do too,” Caduceus said. “That will put us in Nicodranas.”
“We’ll have to move quickly then,” Caleb said. “As we must assume they will be able to scry on Essek. But yes. That is not a bad backup plan.”
“If we end up fighting,” Beau said, “Then I’ll try and jam this fucking collar on his neck and kick his ass.”
Caleb nodded. “That is the backup plan.”
“Essek looked hurt,” Jester said, softly. “We need to get him out.”
As they got within an hour of the outpost, Jester cast Pass Without a Trace on them and they took care to move as quietly as possible, trying to blend in with the landscape. There were two guards standing at the door to the spire, but they weren’t dressed in white as Caleb had come to expect--Empire guards, Caleb realized with a jolt.
Empire guards, here, at the Dynasty outpost. Beau seemed to have the realization at the same time as Caleb and he heard her hiss. Veth and Beau broke off to take them out quietly, a crossbow bolt landing with a snick in the neck of one at the same instance as Beau’s staff slammed into the neck of the other.
“So far, so good,” Caleb murmured, and they all glanced at each other once more, and Yasha kicked the door in and went in first.
There were six more Empire guards standing in the room, and two Volstrucker who Caleb recognized by demeanor and dress if not by their face, and Trent Ikithon. There was a momentary stab of satisfaction at the shock that crossed the old archmage’s face.
Essek was, oddly, unchained. He was hurt, as Jester had said—there was a deep rent in his cape, darkened with blood, and dark stains of ash spread up his arm. His shoulders were drawn up around his ears, his arms pulled up in front, as though he was mid-action but couldn’t remember what it was. His pupils were so large they nearly swallowed his silver irises.
His feet, Caleb saw, were firmly on the ground.
Caleb met his eyes from his position right behind Beau as they stormed into the room. There was no relief on Essek’s face. No increase in resolve. There was some recognition, Caleb thought, but it was hard to tell through the obvious, unrelenting fear.
Essek’s odd demeanor and Caleb’s hesitation thankfully did not infect the rest of the party. Beau slammed Trent with her staff before he could raise a hand. “Let’s go, come on!”
“Essek!” Caleb shouted. “Come here!” The sound of Veth’s crossbow and the heavy impact of Yasha’s sword did not overtake his voice, but Essek didn’t turn at the sound of his own name. He flinched from the noise rather than moving to reposition himself towards his allies or get away from his captors.
It might, if you were generous, be mistaken as the actions of a terrified civilian who had no idea what to do in a fight. But Caleb knew far better than that. Essek should have been waiting for an opening, moving, crossing the field towards Caleb at the first direction in the trust that they had a plan.
Caleb’s heart dropped. Please, let it not be this. “Essek!” Essek didn’t look at him, and Caleb knew.
“Out!” he shouted. “We have to get out! Jester!” She was close enough to him that once he had her attention, he dropped his voice. “I need you to try and Dimension Door with him. Can you send your Duplicate?”
She nodded, eyes wide. The fight had begun in earnest by then, but Trent seemed to have been stunned by Beau’s first blow, buying a little time though his companions were still burning spells to keep the other casters at bay. Every second they stayed multiplied the risk.
“Caleb!” Beau snapped.
“One moment,” Caleb said. “There is—a complication!”
“Fine!” Beau struck and stunned Trent again as Jester’s duplicate bolted to Essek and cast Dimension Door. Somewhere, Fjord grunted—he and Caduceus were in heavy combat with one of the Volstrucker.
Jester’s duplicate and Essek reappeared beside the real Jester and Caleb, and the wave of relief was so strong it almost felt like nausea. Real Jester reached over and cast a healing spell on him.
“I am sorry, friend,” Caleb said to Essek. “I hope I am wrong about what has been done to you. Am I wrong?”
Essek’s lips parted, and for a moment Caleb thought he might speak, but then his mouth closed again. He tugged anxiously at his sleeves.
Jester started to say something, but then Fjord shouted “Anytime now would be good!” from across the room, voice going up in alarm. Caleb raised a hand and cast Teleport. Trent had taken another staff blow, or perhaps the same one, or was simply otherwise engaged, because he didn’t react. One of the Volstrucker did Counterspell, and Fjord Counterspelled that, and Caleb felt the spell lock, and to his immense relief Essek was among their number.
They landed hard in the rooms; when Caleb looked, he was standing on the floor, but his whole body felt jarred, as though he’d actually fallen a few inches.
“That went well,” Yasha said. Caleb couldn’t tell if she was being serious. Her blade was dark to the hilt with blood
“Well, all’s well that ends well and all that,“ Fjord said, banishing the sword. He had a lot of blood on him, but it didn’t seem to be coming out anywhere. Caduceus had looked out for him, Caleb guessed. “Essek, how about—“
He took only a half step towards the drow before Essek turned and bolted through the doorway to the adjoining room.
“Whoa!” Fjord said.
“Essek?” Jester said.
“Hey, man—“ Beau also started.
“Jester,” Caleb said. He didn’t speak very loudly, but it silenced all the conversation anyway. “Do you have Greater Restoration prepared?”
“What?” Jester blinked at him. “No, I didn’t take it today. Caduceus, did you take it?”
“Well,” Caduceus said. “I had it, but I don’t have it left.”
“Well,” Caleb said. “This—we may have a problem. I believe Essek is—not himself.”
“Like, possessed?” Beau said. “Shit.”
“No,” Caleb said hastily. “Under the effects of a spell, however.”
Veth cocked the crossbow. “Is he gonna…”
“No,” Caleb said. “No, put that away, he is no danger to us.”
She lowered it. Caleb surveyed the group. They were all looking to him. “Jester,” he said. “Come with me.”
No one argued. Jester followed him into the adjoining room. He stopped short in the entryway. The front room had a bed, a wardrobe, and a small table. This room was even more sparse, bereft of anything but a bed and a window-ledge where objects might have been placed.
There was also no Essek.
“He could be anywhere,” Jester said. She turned to him, eyes big. “It’s Essek, he’s clever. He could have teleported somewhere!”
“No, he could not,” Caleb said heavily. “He cannot use magic in this state. Nor is he—the spell that I believe him to be under shatters the intellect of the creature. In all likelihood, he is under the bed.”
Jester knelt down to look. “Oh. Essek...” she spoke in a hushed voice. “He doesn’t know what’s happening?”
“He does not understand us,” Caleb said. “The—emotions stay. Memory stays. A creature will still know who to fear. I have also heard that one under such a spell can recognize a friend, but I did not see that demonstrated.”
“Yeah?” Beau asked. Caleb glanced back to see she had followed and was standing in the doorway.
“The...subject on which I have seen this spell demonstrated, they had no friends present,” Caleb said. “I am sorry I delayed our departure. Teleport…only works on a willing creature.”
“We’re Essek’s friends,” Jester said. “Essek, come here, let me finish healing you.” She sat cross-legged on the floor of the sparse room.
“Jester,” Caleb knelt beside her to get a look at the form crouched under the bed. “I do not think...”
Movement. Essek crept forward to the edge of the bed frame. His eyes reflected the light—the whole thing reminded Caleb abruptly of coaxing over a stray cat.
Then he kept moving, rising from hands and knees to standing as soon as he emerged from under the bed, eyeing them carefully. He wasn’t floating and his clothes were damaged and askew—of course he hadn’t been able to set it to rights after the fight. He was still bloodied. His pupils were blown wide. Some dust clung to his clothes and one ear.
“Essek,” Caleb said softly, then stopped. Nothing he said would mean anything.
Jester didn’t say anything. Instead, she stood up and opened her arms.
“I am not sure—“ Caleb began, keeping his voice deliberately even, but then Essek was moving towards them. Jester stood still, patiently, and he picked up speed and then all of a sudden Jester had an armful of Essek, shuddering, clutching at her.
“Oh man,” Jester said. “It’s okay, we’ve got you. The Traveler’s going to help you, okay?” As she spoke she hugged him, and healing magic flowed from her hands into him, clearing the lacerations on his arms and face, soothing the burns.
Essek clung to her; his fingers gripped the front of her coat. He looked small in a way he never had before, frightened in a way that Caleb hadn’t fully processed he could be. It wasn’t Essek’s nervousness, the anxiety of a brilliant man who could see danger all around him, who could see the falling dominoes and the way the web he had woven had entangled him. It was the fear of a small child, or indeed, a stray cat—the fear of a creature trapped in a terrifying world it did not understand.
Essek, brilliant Essek, Essek who believed he could find the answers to everything, unable to understand a thing—the thought of it stabbed at Caleb’s heart.
Jester was no longer casting spells, but her hands stayed on him, gently checking him over for any wounds she might have missed. Caleb had expected Essek to stiffen at her touch—had felt that reaction himself, when he’d laid a hand on Essek’s arm—but instead he leaned into it, into her. He let her cup his cheek to check whether any injury remained under the blood on his cheek, brush the dust from his clothes, smooth a hand through his hair.
Eventually his grip loosened, his fingers going slack. His pupils had shrunk to a normal size and his eyes, while they still flashed about the room, had lost their panic.
“You okay?” Jester asked, gently withdrawing her hold. Caleb opened his mouth to remind her again that Essek couldn’t understand her, but she just kept going, not expecting an answer. “That’s much better, isn’t it? Let’s go sit on the bed that’s so much nicer than being under it. And we’re going to be in a much nicer place soon, Caleb’s going to make a tower and it’s so pretty and nice and big.” She took him by the hand and led him over to the bed. He sat down on it easily at her prompting.
“I will—go make the tower,” Caleb said. Beau had vanished from the doorway again, presumably to report back to the others. He took a few steps to follow her, and then he heard a strange broken noise behind him.
“Essek?” Jester said, and Caleb turned around. Essek had stood up and was reaching out for Caleb, only restrained by Jester’s hand on his arm. From his throat came that same noise—not quite a cry, not quite a whimper. It was not meant to be a noise; it was speech without words, the frustrated edge emerging where muscle memory struck up against the shattered ruins of his mind.
“ Ja , okay, I am not going far,” Caleb promised, but he went back anyway because he knew the words alone meant nothing. “Come, we will all go together.” He took the hand that Essek had outstretched and led him towards the door. Jester, who still hadn’t let go, rose and walked with them.
“Caleb,” she said, and Caleb looked at her over Essek’s shoulder and saw her eyes shining with tears. “This is horrible .”
“We will set it to rights tomorrow,” Caleb vowed. “It will not be for long.”
“Hey,” Fjord said, when the three of them re-entered. “Everything…good?”
“We’re okay,” Jester sniffled.
“Want to give us the rundown?” Beau directed the question at Caleb.
“This is a spell,” Caleb said. “It is not forever. Greater Restoration will put it right. Until then, Essek, he will not understand your words. He cannot do magic, he cannot speak. It will not—this spell, it shatters the intellect of the creature. However you feel about Essek, you must be kind, because he will not understand anything beyond kindness or cruelty. He knows us. He feels how he did about us. He will not have—context, for those things.”
“So what do we do?” Yasha asked. She was looking at Essek strangely; Caleb wasn’t sure if it was merely uncertainty or if some aspect of this reminded her of the times when her own mind was not hers.
“Be kind,” Caleb said. “Be careful. He cannot tell us what he needs. I am not sure he knows.” He looked back at Essek, who stood there between him and Jester. His hand was still in Caleb’s; he’d made no move to pull it back.
“Are we putting the tower up?” Fjord asked. He gestured with the Star Razor. “No one’s scrying yet, but…”
“Ah, yes,” Caleb said. He turned to Essek, patted his hand, and said, “I am not going far.” He went to the wardrobe and withdrew the wand. Either Essek had calmed or he hadn’t gone too far this time, because he made no move to stop Caleb.
“Hey, man,” Beau said awkwardly, and took a step towards Essek. She lifted a hand—Caleb guessed to pat him on the shoulder—and Essek full-body flinched back, stumbling into Jester. She steadied him.
“Hey, it’s okay, it’s cool,” Jester said. “It’s Beau! You know Beau.”
Caleb turned away from the doorway to the tower at the tableau—Beau, frozen, frustration spreading over her face. Jester had her hands on Essek’s shoulders again and her tail curled about his legs, expression full of concern. Essek’s pupils had blown wide again.
“What the fuck,” Beau said. She sounded more upset than angry, though. “I wouldn’t— hurt him.”
“You probably just startled him,” Fjord offered.
“He didn’t do that to anyone else,” Beau said.
“You talked about turning him in, before,” Jester said. She looked around at their expressions. “Only she did, though.”
“That’s like—“ Beau looked frustrated. “If it was the only way or if he fucked us over. I’m not gonna fucking, hit him. Especially not like this.”
“He does not—“ Caleb interjected. “Beauregard. This is not our Essek. This is—it is the mind of a stray cat. He has only trust and fear in him; he cannot decide when he might be able to trust you, and when he might not. You cannot reason with him; he no longer knows the logic of your actions. He only knows who has kicked and thrown things, and who has left the door open.”
Caleb watched Beau’s face as she visibly tamped down the frustration. It had to hurt, he knew, to be treated as a villain, made to feel as though she had been unfair. She had not been unfair—in fact, Caleb wasn’t sure why Essek did not extend the same reservations to him.
He looked over at Jester. “It is no surprise to me that he went first to you,” Caleb said. “You have been nothing but kind to him. You must be the closest thing to safety he knows.”
Jester nodded. She had her hand on Essek’s shoulder still, and she used it to draw him in closer so her arm was fully around him. Without hesitation or embarrassment, he tucked himself into her side, cheek pressed against her shoulder. Her tail came up and curled around him. “I’ve got you,” she said.
“Let’s get inside,” Caduceus said. “I’d like to take another look at his injuries, if he’ll let me.”
“I think I got them,” Jester said. “But you should look too.”
They filed into the tower, Jester guiding Essek. He moved easily enough with her at his side.
Caleb felt another stab of loss in the lobby of the tower. He’d been looking forward to showing this to Essek—looking forward to his enthusiasm for all things magic, to his questions, to show him the little details Caleb had crafted. Looking forward, even, to showing him the cats—he seemed to like Frumpkin well enough. But while Essek looked around owlishly at the new space, there was not joy nor eagerness in his expression, no excitement for the new discovery.
“Would you mind if I took a look at you?” Caduceus asked Essek, once they were all inside.
“He can’t understand you,” Beau said.
“Still polite to ask,” Caduceus said mildly.
Essek didn’t mind, or at least he didn’t flinch when Caduceus came up to him and wiped at Essek’s face with a damp handkerchief. The blood came off easily enough, and the scratches beneath were the pale violet that Caleb guessed signaled new-healed skin on a drow.
“Not bad,” Caduceus decided. “I don’t know if I can do much else with that,” he brushed at Essek’s mantle. “Do you think he’d like a bath?”
“Oh, that would be nice,” Jester said.
“I am not so sure,” Caleb said. “I do not…he was not exactly eager to take his clothes off in front of us, before. It does not seem…”
“Well, we have to do something,” Jester said. “He’s got blood on him.”
“Well, that’s not so bad,” Yasha said.
“I don’t think Essek is the sort to enjoy being bloody,” Fjord said.
“I do not—“ Caleb scrubbed a hand over his face. “I do not want to—it is very important we not take advantage in this state. Or do more harm, however unintentional.”
“What if he were unconscious?” Beau said. “What would we do then? It’s basically the same thing.” She looked around at them, a little defensive. “Except he’s staring at you.”
Caleb thought about it. If Essek had been unconscious and injured—well, they wouldn’t have risked a bath, but yes, he probably would have undressed him, if only to check for wounds. Did that make it alright to do now?
“What would you want?” Yasha said. “If it were you. Would you want us to get the blood off you?”
“Well,” Jester said, “I think Essek dislikes being dirty more than Caleb does.”
Caleb cracked a smile at the joke more because it was unexpected than anything. “ Ja , I imagine he does not like it. I would not mind if you, ah, cleaned me up,” he said. “But you are my friends. My family. I trust you very much.”
“We’re Essek’s friends,” Jester said. “He said so.”
“He is a liar,” Veth said.
“Yeah,” Beau said. “But the spell—you said he knows who his friends are, right? That he knows who he trusts and who he doesn’t.”
“ Ja ,” Caleb said, waiting for her to continue.
“If he doesn’t like it, stop,” Beau shrugged. “But you are his friend.”
“Alright,” Caleb said. He looked at Essek, who still stood there, uncertain but waiting. Trusting them. “Alright. Let us get the rest of this off of you, how does that sound.”
Of course it didn’t sound like anything to Essek, who just continued to regard Caleb. He had very striking eyes and a habit of staring very directly at you—or, had once had that habit. Not since that night on the ship in Nicodranas had Caleb gotten the full force of Essek’s gaze like this.
Not quite like this before, either. There was something open and guileless about it. It sent a shiver through Caleb, to see Essek’s eyes with nothing swimming behind them.
“Come,” Caleb said. He led Essek to the guest bedroom—Essek’s bedroom, he’d known which guest would be occupying it, after all. The interior décor was inspired by Essek’s own home, the lights emitting the soft green glow of the arcane flame favored in Rosohna. A fire burned in the hearth, crackling with light and warmth. Little silver models and instruments lined the mantelpiece, inspired by if not perfect replicas of the ones he had seen in Essek’s workshop. Caleb had been looking forward to showing it to him, but there was no real reaction now.
Or—no, there was a reaction. It was just a subtle one, living in the body in the way that Essek’s carefully measured responses usually didn’t. The tension had melted out of his shoulders, and his pupils had blown to adjust to the light. He slipped his hand out of Caleb’s and went for the stained glass window.
Caleb waited—Essek went right up to it and touched it, fingers slipping from the green facets to the blue to the purple, over the image of the Xhorhouse with its tree, and the beacons, and the eternal Twilight sky over Rosohna. Caleb stepped up close to see Essek’s expression, and for the first time since they had gotten Essek back not quite whole, he felt his heart lift.
There was still no understanding, not really, but there was some recognition on Essek’s face. And as he passed his hand over the stretch of cityscape, it morphed into an uncomplicated joy.
“It is very beautiful, Caleb ,” the Essek in his head said, the Essek who had a voice. This Essek just smiled, and looked.
“I am glad you like it,” Caleb told him. “I made it for you.”
“Caleb?” Jester’s voice; Caleb turned and saw her hovering in the doorway. “I was wondering if maybe you wanted me to help?”
“ Ja, that would be appreciated,” he told her. “We are just having a look around.”
“Ohhh, Caleb!” Jester spun, taking the whole thing in. “It’s so nice! It looks like Rosohna!”
“That was the idea,” Caleb said. “I think it is familiar to him.”
“Oh my gosh,” Jester said. “He is going to be so impressed, you know.”
The reminder had the opposite effect that Caleb thought Jester had intended—he sobered at the thought. “We will see. Essek, will you come here?”
Essek didn’t react to the sound of his name, still running his hands over the shapes in the window, but Caleb saw how his head tilted, one ear towards them, tracking the sounds if not the meaning.
“Essek,” Jester said again, louder. “Oh, I hate this.”
Caleb went over and then Essek did look at him. “Come here,” Caleb said. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The mantle was pretty easy to take off—Caleb had seen Essek unclasp it before. The cloak was the same, although Caleb took some care spreading it out, noting the dirt and the bloodstains. Jester took it from him and folded it.
“We will try to clean and mend what we can,” Caleb said.
“Do you have other clothes?” Jester asked.
“In the tower,” Caleb said. “They only exist here, but it will do for now.”
Mantle and cloak set aside, the real trouble began. Caleb hesitated, a hand on Essek’s shoulder, avoiding the straightforwardness of his gaze. Essek had willingly undressed this much in front of them, but beyond that—
—no, wait, he’d taken his boots off too. Caleb got Essek to sit by taking Essek’s hands and sitting himself, prompting the elf to follow him. It was a simple thing to unlace his boots and take them off, first the right, then the left. They were caked in dirt and blood, too, and Caleb set them next to the chair where Jester had placed the mantle and the folded cloak.
Socks next. Caleb concentrated on the task—the wool was dampened by snow, and on the left side blood had dripped down his leg and soaked into it. Caleb tugged carefully to loosen the fabric from the dried blood, worried he was going to break open some scab, but if there had been one it had been healed enough to come away cleanly.
As he peeled the sock down, he found himself with one hand braced on Essek’s calf, the other cupping the bare skin of his ankle, and felt his face heat. Stay on task, Widogast.
Socks finished, there really was nowhere to go but Essek’s shirt. Caleb hesitated. Up until now, it was easy to take their past interactions as tacit permission to go this far. Now he would be going beyond anything Essek had bared to them.
“Are you worried he’s going to be upset about it?” Jester wondered, noticing his hesitation.
Caleb studied the clasps on Essek’s shirt, trying to work up the nerve to unhook them. “It was four months of acquaintance before he took his cloak off in front of us. Yes , I am a little nervous about violating a cultural taboo.”
He slumped a little to look the elf in the face. Essek stared dociley back, apparently unbothered.
“We don’t have to,” Jester said. “He could sleep in his clothes.”
“Yes,” Caleb said. “We could leave him covered in filth and his own blood with no means to extricate himself because he does not know how buttons work.” The words came out more sharply than he intended, and Essek ducked his head a little. “Ah, schatz , I am not upset at you.”
He reached out and cupped the underside of Essek’s jaw, gently as he could manage, and tipped his head up. Essek looked at him again, uncomprehending, but unmoving. Putting himself in Caleb’s hands.
Caleb’s hands, which were shaking a little with the weight of that trust. He stilled himself with some effort, because Essek would not understand Caleb’s hesitation. Rejection had no nuance. “Alright,” he said. “I hope this does not trouble you too badly.”
There were clasps on the shirt down the back and at both wrists; Caleb started with the wrists and then moved to the base of Essek’s neck. There was blood dried in his white hair. “Jester,” he said. “Did he have a head wound?”
“A little one,” Jester said. “I healed it, don’t worry. They bleed a lot,” she said knowingly, when she saw him looking at the blood. “It wasn’t very bad.”
Nothing compared to Feeblemind, of course. Caleb was very glad for the clerics; he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a concussion and the effects of the spell. “We will get that out of there,” Caleb told Essek, brushing his hand over a clump of dried blood.
Essek cooperated as Caleb stripped off the shirt. He had a cotton undershirt beneath it, which Caleb stripped off too. He had worried that it would be difficult or he might have to cut it off, but Essek was very compliant. Caleb passed both garments to Jester to fold.
There were the remnants of bruises on his skin, mostly healed from the magic, but you could see the places where they were darkest. All along his left side, including his left arm, as though he had fallen and tried to catch himself. Along the outside of his right arm, where Caleb guessed a shield spell might have failed.
Essek had fought. The last thing he remembered, the last bit of coherence of his mind, would be that adrenaline and fear, the expectation of further violence. Then knowing only that the people who surrounded you were enemies and wanted to cause you hurt.
Abruptly, Caleb realized that Essek was still standing there, half-naked; it was cruel to continue to hesitate. Without letting himself think about it anymore, he stripped off Essek’s pants and underclothes and led him to the bath, already full and steaming. He left the clothes there; behind him, he could hear Jester moving to gather and fold them.
Essek went with Caleb willingly. The bath was a trickier matter. Caleb put his hand in to test it—it was hot, but not too hot. He took Essek’s hand and put it in, and Essek swirled it absently, the water lapping further up his arm.
“Let’s get in,” Caleb said. It was rather awkward to nudge Essek forward and get him to step over the ledge into the water while trying not to touch him too much, even though he didn’t seem to mind it. Part of Caleb wanted to think Essek would stop him if he did something undesired, flinch back or lash out. But even if this Essek was untroubled, Caleb thought that the Essek they would restore tomorrow would feel differently.
Once he’d gotten Essek into the water, he realized that he was a fool. The drow slumped neck-deep in the water immediately, eyes closing in pleasure at the warmth, but then he just sat there. Caleb was not going to be able to avoid touching him if the goal was to get him clean.
“I am sorry,” Caleb said. “Let’s—start with your hair.” That felt—if not safe—at least less intimate.
It was a miracle he could trust them at all, Caleb thought. Let alone that he allowed Caleb to do this—to strip off his clothes, piece by piece; to lead him through an unfamiliar place, no matter how beautiful; to let Caleb stand behind him and not try to crane his neck and see what he was doing.
A spell like this was vulnerability; there was no other word for it. But there was the way the spell broke the subject, the way it shattered pieces of them beyond use, and then there was this—the way Essek let Caleb tip his head back and pour water through his hair, work out the clumps of dried blood, comb it smooth again with his fingers. The way he shut his eyes and put his head into Caleb’s hands. His life in Caleb’s hands.
“I confess I do not understand,” Caleb said quietly. “I do not know what I have done to earn this faith you have in me, Essek.”
Essek opened one eye to look at him. Caleb brushed a strand of hair out of his face and he closed the eye again.
“The truth is,” Caleb said, picking up a washcloth and dampening it, “I do not know if I have been any better to you than Beauregard has. I did not lie to you—it is true, I see myself in you. I see how easily your path could have been mine, or mine yours. But I am thinking that this has made me be—suspicious, in a way that you have not earned. That I fear what you might do less because I have cause and more because I fear myself.”
He started with Essek’s face, making sure the blood and dirt were gone, wiping away the red that had dripped down the back of his neck, the dark brown smudge at his collarbone that could have been dirt or blood.
The effort to say the words cut deep into Caleb, like sinking a knife into his own breastbone and prying out what lay beneath. Yet they flowed over Essek like the water, meaningless. He relaxed further under Caleb’s hands as he spoke, as though he was offering comfort instead of delivering a confession.
“Yet here we are,” Caleb whispered, gentling the brush of the cloth as he moved over the bruises on Essek’s arm. “I might have said anything to you, if I thought it would keep you on the path. And yet here we are.”
He wrung out the cloth and began again, working his way down his bruised side. “I worry I have misused you terribly, Essek. You would not be here if not for me. I know this. Perhaps you were a loose end before, but that—that is not the attention of Trent Ikithon. He meant to be cruel to you because he wished to hurt me. And do you know, it was only when I saw this was his intention that I realized that he was right.”
“You are dear to me,” Caleb continued. “I have been cruel to you because I see myself in you, and this cannot continue. But I think it is—the distance between us, it is so small. So I think I will have to be kinder to us both.”
Essek blinked at him. Droplets of water had settled on his eyelashes. He really was very handsome, Caleb thought ruefully.
“I hope you will forgive us this trespass,” Caleb said. “I do not know if you would want this, and you cannot tell me. I wish you could tell me what you needed, and I would do it. But I must guess. Perhaps you will wish we had let you alone, in the morning. I am sorry if this is so. But I—“
He broke off and fell silent for a long moment, moving as clinically as he could over Essek’s hips, avoiding between his legs. The water would have to be enough there—that was surely a bridge too far. He recovered his train of thought when he’d moved onto Essek’s legs, where the water had softened the mix of dirt and blood that had clung to his calves.
“I did not wish my fear—any of my fears—to prevent me from caring for you,” Caleb said. “We do care for you. You are our friend. I cannot imagine what we have done, what I have done, that you have such trust in me. But I hope you know how grateful I am for it.”
He sat back and regarded Essek as clinically as he could. “I think that is the best we will do, my friend.” He reached out a hand and helped Essek to his feet. Thankfully, he stepped out of the bath without Caleb having to do anything besides move away from it—he wasn’t sure how he would have managed it if Essek had resisted.
Caleb retrieved a towel and draped it over Essek’s shoulders. Essek took an end in each hand and drew it close around himself, driven by some muscle memory or maybe just the cold. It was at once comforting to see Essek take some initiative and a little chilling, because the result was a picture of more vulnerability—Essek, hugging the towel to himself, the water dripping from his hair.
“I can get some clothes from the wardrobe,” Jester offered from the doorway of the bathroom. “Since his are still dirty.”
“That will do for now,” Caleb said. “We will need the others tomorrow.” They certainly weren’t planning to leave the tower tonight.
“We should get you dry,” Caleb turned to address Essek, but he was moving, out the door of the bathroom after Jester. Caleb followed quickly, but Essek didn’t seem alarmed, just focused.
“Where are you going?” Caleb asked. Jester turned from the wardrobe.
“Oh!” She also watched. Essek beelined for the fireplace and sat on the hearth, inches from the flame. Caleb jerked forward, but he didn’t move to touch it, just basked in the heat.
Jester laughed, a surprised little sound. “He’s like a cat!”
Caleb couldn’t help but smile a little too. “ Ja ,” he said. “That’s good. Keep warm.”
Between the towel and the warmth wafting off the fireplace, Essek started to dry off. When his skin no longer seemed damp, Caleb got him into a nightshirt and then knotted a blanket around his shoulders like a cloak. Jester took a comb to his hair, sitting next to him on the floor.
Caleb had a thought about going to get food, or update the others, but he couldn’t look away from them, Essek sitting silhouetted by the flame, Jester’s face a mask of concentration, her tongue poking out of her mouth as she carefully parted his hair. Instead, he sat on the sofa a few feet back and watched.
When she was finished, Essek looked more like Essek than he had in some time—half-swallowed by the blanket the way his cloaks tended to envelope him, his hair in its usual order, his pupils contracting in the close light of the flame. It was an illusion, Caleb knew that; this Essek knew no more than he had before it. But Caleb couldn’t help the relief that surged up. This much of himself, they have been able to give back to him. This much, at least.
“Will you mind if I go to get you food?” Caleb asked.
“I can do it,” Jester offered.
Caleb almost declined. Almost said that he could do it—why not try? Why not experiment and see if Essek would let Caleb leave, now that he was calmer and his hurt eased and settled in a place made for him? But the second the word crossed his mind— experiment— he recoiled.
Essek was not an experiment. Why risk the distress, if it was not necessary?
“ Ja, ” Caleb said. “That would be good. I think…something he can eat with his fingers. And something warm to drink.”
“Okay,” Jester said.
“I do not think he much likes sweets,” Caleb said. “So, meat and cheese, maybe.”
“I got it, don’t worry!” Jester chirped. “I’ll find something he’ll definitely like!”
Essek watched her go, but to Caleb’s relief, he didn’t object. He just settled in further against the hearth.
“I do not much know what you like to eat,” Caleb admitted. “I am sorry, Essek.”
Essek looked at him. His pupils enlarged a little as he turned away from the flame, watching Caleb’s face.
“You will tell me tomorrow,” Caleb said. “I hope you will tell me tomorrow. I hope you will not be angry with me, Essek.”
Essek reached out a hand towards him. Caleb lifted his own hand to mirror it, and Essek suddenly stood, stumbling to unsteady bare feet. He closed the distance between the sofa and the fireplace and then sat again, not on the sofa but at Caleb’s feet, head dropping onto his knee.
Caleb couldn’t stifle the hushed exhale of breath. He lowered his hand slowly and tentatively settled it on Essek’s back between his shoulders, careful to just rest it there rather than hold him in place.
“Oh, Essek,” Caleb murmured. “I hope I am not doing you more harm.”
He didn’t want to push Essek away, and Essek didn’t move, so they were still sitting like that when Jester came back with a plate. Her eyes went wide when she saw them, and then she grinned.
Caleb felt himself flush. He looked away, except away meant down, at Essek, slumped against his legs, eyes shut. It was the most physical contact they’d ever had, Caleb realized with a jolt.
“Did he do that?” Jester whispered.
“ Ja ,” Caleb whispered back, matching her volume although he wasn’t sure why. It wouldn’t stop Essek from hearing it, and nothing would make him understand.
“That’s so sweet,” Jester said. “He hugged me really tight, you know, when we got him out from under the bed.”
“I saw,” Caleb said. He studied Essek’s face; his eyelashes were as white as his hair, and stood out against the dark skin of his upturned cheek. The skin under his eyes was bruised with exhaustion. “Are you sleeping? I did not think elves did that.”
“They don’t?” Jester wondered. Essek himself continued to doze.
Caleb shook his head. “They go into trances. I wonder if that is possible right now.” He didn’t know enough about it to venture a guess, but if it required some presence of mind to trigger—well, perhaps sleep was Essek’s only refuge.
Jester came over with the food, showing the plate to Caleb. She had gotten a selection of cold cuts—different types of cheeses, sliced sausage and thin-cut ham, some golden crackers—and green grapes. “I thought they maybe wouldn’t be too sweet for him,” Jester explained. “Oh! And I asked for cocoa for all of us, I’ll be right back.”
She darted off again. Caleb nudged Essek’s shoulder gently—he startled awake almost immediately, head jerking up, breath quickening.
“I am sorry,” Caleb said softly. “It is just me.”
That seemed good enough; Essek’s breathing settled and he relaxed again. Caleb wasn’t sure what he dreamed about, if the world inside his head was as wordless and chaotic as the one he was experiencing outside it now.
“Come up here,” Caleb said, patting the sofa. Essek rose and sat beside him, tucking his legs beneath him so they vanished under the fall of the blanket-cloak. “Let’s get some food in you before you go back to sleep.”
As he’d suspected, Essek recognized the food and ate once Caleb put the plate in reach. There wasn’t a lot of finesse to it, but he remained oddly fastidious, picking up a chunk of cheese or a grape between two fingertips and putting it in his mouth. After a few bites, he picked up a cracker and held it out to Caleb rather than eating it.
“Thank you,” Caleb said, taking it and eating. Essek resumed eating, but when Caleb had finished the cracker and didn’t pick anything else up, he picked up a piece of sausage and held it out again, waiting.
“ Ja, okay,” Caleb said, amused in spite of himself. “I will eat too. This I will have to tease you for, Herr Thelyss. I do not think this spell is supposed to leave you with manners.”
Strange, what the spell had stripped away and what it hadn’t. This Essek was so quiet, quiet in a way that Essek was surely not meant to be. But he was also so open , expressive in a way that his Essek never was, every moment of happiness and glint of fear easily readable in his eyes. His Essek would not have sat at his feet so easily, would not have reached out and taken the contact he so obviously desired.
Would his Essek have wanted it at all? It was one thing, Caleb thought, for language to go. Essek could not articulate what he needed and wanted—Caleb could only guess, could offer, could hope that Essek would take what he wanted and reject what he didn’t in a way that Caleb could understand. That was one matter. The other was what this Essek would want and need, and whether Essek in his right mind would have felt the same way.
Would Essek be grateful for this, tomorrow? Or angry that they had taken advantage of him at his most vulnerable?
Jester’s voice broke into his thoughts; she’d returned carrying a tray with three mugs on it. She set it down on the side table and retrieved the cups one by one. “This one’s Essek’s,” she said. “I had the cats add extra milk so it’s not too hot.”
Caleb made sure Essek had wrapped both hands firmly around it before he released it, but he needn’t have worried. Essek had lost no coordination and the concept of a cup wasn’t beyond him; he drank from it with his typical grace. It was possible to imagine that Essek was fine; that any moment now, he would set down the cup and would speak.
He didn’t, of course. He drank the hot cocoa, and they finished off the plate of food. Unusually, even Jester didn’t seem to have much to say—she just watched Caleb and Essek and when they were finished, she gathered the plate and the mugs onto the tray.
“Are you going to stay here?” she asked. “Do you want anything else?”
“I’m alright,” Caleb said. “Thank you, Jester.”
“Okay,” Jester said. “If you think of anything…”
“I can send Annabelle for it,” Caleb said, making a gesture towards the bell pull. “If Essek does not want me to go.”
She nodded. “I’m going to go to bed early,” she said. “So I can get up and fix him. I can fix him, right? You’re sure?”
“Greater Restoration will do it,” Caleb said. “I am as sure as I can be.” But he felt the anxiety in the pit of his stomach when she said it. If he was wrong—no, he was not wrong.
He could not be wrong, because this—this evening, it was a sad thing, but it was a bearable thing. It was a sad thing because Essek was so vulnerable, and Caleb was so afraid of making a mistake, and it would be a worse mistake now than another time because like this Essek was so easy to hurt. It was a sad thing, too, because so much of Essek was broken, and Caleb could feel it, and he expected that somewhere inside him Essek could feel it, too. That in the swirl of confusion, in the wordlessness, in the magic and knowledge that had been set out of his reach, there was frustration.
Essek was brilliant, and was meant to be brilliant. Some fundamental part of him had been snatched away.
But this—this was reparable. This was damage that would be healed. Tomorrow morning they would make Essek whole again, heal this great wound and mend the smaller ones that Caleb had surely inflicted without meaning to.
If it was not—if Essek could not be helped—
Caleb couldn’t think about it. It made him nauseous to think about, Essek left wordless, uncertain, reduced to a fragment of himself. If this could not be repaired—
Caleb crushed the thought. They would save Essek, and there was no need to think about what might be mercy, then.
Oblivious to his inner turmoil, Jester was headed for the door. “I’ll be back early tomorrow, then,” she said. “Send a cat if he needs me. Or you need me! Goodnight!”
She shut the door behind her. Caleb turned back to Essek, who remained on the couch, but had slumped again, eyes half-lidded.
“You are very tired, I think,” Caleb said. “I am, too. How about we go to sleep?” There was a four-poster bed in the room, which Caleb went to and turned the sheets down, hoping that he could direct Essek into it the way he had with the bath. But when Caleb got up, Essek did too, and wandered back to the hearth, sinking to his knees and then tipping over onto one side, braced on his less-bruised arm.
“Alright,” Caleb said. “That is alright, too.” He stripped the pillows from the bed first and carried them over, nudging one of them under Essek’s head and setting the others down beside him. Then he took the quilt and brought it over. There was a wool blanket folded at the end and he got that too, spreading it out and urging Essek onto it instead of the hard stone. The quilt went over the top, and Caleb stood.
“There we go,” he said. “Sleep well, Essek.”
He started to step away. From beneath the quilt, Essek’s hand emerged and his fingers hooked around Caleb’s ankle, not hard enough to overbalance him but gripping enough to hold him there.
“Do you want me to stay?” Caleb asked.
Essek turned over and looked up at him. The firelight reflected back in his eyes.
“Alright,” Caleb said. “I will stay.”
He stayed close as he undressed partly—boots off, book holsters off, belt off. He left his pants and shirt on after a moment of hesitation. He took the tie out of his hair and let it fall loose. Then he lay down carefully, on the blanket but leaving space between them, retrieving one of the other pillows.
They lay there for a moment, and then Essek was moving, reaching for him. Without any hesitation, he fitted himself against Caleb’s side, tucked under his arm. He curled up in a way that reminded Caleb as much of a cat as a person.
Perhaps it would have been better for Caleb to push him away. This could not be what Essek in his right mind would have done—could not be what he wanted, not really. But this Essek wanted it, and even knowing that it was not right, even knowing this might be taking advantage, Caleb could not bring himself to deny him it. He could not bear to be cruel now, even if it meant that he would have been cruel, later.
“I am sorry,” Caleb murmured, letting his arm tighten around Essek a little, feeling the heat of the fire and the heat of Essek’s body close beside him. “I am sorry.”
That would mean nothing, of course, when Essek was angry tomorrow and Caleb would have no defense. But Essek’s breathing was already smoothing out. Caleb could feel the steady thud of his heartbeat.
“Tomorrow,” Caleb promised. “I will make it up to you.” He couldn’t crush the last bit of guilt and unease, but the knowledge of safety and the warmth of the body pressed to his made it easy to slip into sleep anyway.
When Caleb woke, they were still tangled together, Essek curled tight to his chest. It was morning, and in other places in the tower light would be shining through the stained glass, but in this room modeled on Rosohna the darkness outside remained.
Essek was still sleeping. In the flickering shadows that the firelight cast against his face, he looked very young. Some of the bruising beneath his eyes had faded a little. He breathed evenly, and didn’t seem to have moved much in his sleep.
For his part, Caleb had been oddly undisturbed by dreams, and he chose not to examine that too closely.
What had woken him was Jester. She stood in the doorway, watching them. When she saw Caleb looking at her, she held out a sack of diamond dust.
“Should I do it now?” she whispered. “Do you want to wake him up?”
Caleb almost said yes, but then he suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of looking into Essek’s frightened, empty eyes again. “No,” he said. He sat up carefully, lifting his arm up and freeing Essek. The drow curled up a little tighter. “Unless you need him awake.”
She shook her head. She took a fistful of diamond dust from the sack, weighing it in her palm to make sure it was enough, and she pressed her hand to his shoulder. The diamond dust flared with light that seemed to sink into him as the dust burned away, leaving a smear of diamond residue on his shoulder.
Essek shuddered a little. His fingers clenched in the folds of the blanket, but he didn’t wake.
“Did it work?” Caleb asked.
“I think so,” Jester said. “Do you want to—wake him up?”
Caleb did, and he didn’t. He wanted to see Essek’s eyes with the light back in them. He was terrified the drow might wake and still be empty. “Essek,” he said, and gently shook him by the shoulder. “Wake up, my friend.”
Essek’s eyes opened. He inhaled sharply and twisted around, tried to jerk his hand up to cast something and got tangled in the blanket. “I—“
“Essek,” Caleb said. He held off from touching him, although he badly wanted to put a hand on Essek’s arm. “Breathe. You are safe. You are in our home, in an extraplanar space, the door to which is currently in Uthodurn.”
“Caleb,” Essek said. He was definitely hyperventilating. “Jester. I—remember…?”
Caleb had no idea what the memories of a Feebleminded creature were like. He could guess, by the expression on Essek’s face, that they were confusing.
“Just breathe, Essek. Count with me. In, zwei, drei, vier. Hold, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben . Out, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht. Good. Again.”
He counted Essek through another breath, and then a third. By then he had recovered a bit of himself, and Caleb spoke, deliberately keeping his voice even.
“You had a spell cast on you,” he began.
“Feeblemind,” Essek said. “I—“
“I cast Greater Restoration on you,” Jester said. “This morning. I’m sorry, I didn’t have it yesterday.”
He nodded. “That is—“ his breath was starting to quicken again. Caleb watched his eyes flick to Jester, watched his fingers curl into a fist, nails digging into his palm.
“Jester,” Caleb said, quietly. “Could you go and grab some cocoa?”
“Can’t you send a—“ Jester started to say, and then she caught Caleb’s meaningful look and said, “Sure!” with false brightness. She jumped up and darted off.
“May I?” Caleb asked. He extended a hand, slowly, to make his intent clear. Essek gave a jerky nod, and Caleb took his hand and gently uncurled the fingers, smoothing his thumb over the red marks that Essek had made on his palm. “You do not need to pretend you are okay in front of me. You are safe here.”
Essek stared at him with incomprehension—not the blind incomprehension of the day before, but the incomprehension of someone brilliant whose math, inexplicably, was failing to add up. Then he took another breath, carefully, perhaps the most even breath that Caleb had seen him take since he woke.
Then he burst into tears. Caleb watched him try to calm himself and fail, repeatedly, breath coming in heaving gasps, choking on his words. He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. Caleb guessed that he was unaccustomed to losing control of his own body. His fingers were balling up again and Caleb had a vision of bloody scratches dug into Essek’s own hands and arms.
“If this is not welcome,” Caleb said, “Push me away.” He drew Essek forward into his arms with the same deliberate, careful movements as before, giving Essek a chance to react. He didn’t; Caleb pulled him fully against himself and Essek only continued to sob. Several times, he started to speak, but he couldn’t get more than a word out before a hiccupping sob interrupted him. His hands, thankfully, clutched at Caleb instead of clawing at himself.
“Just breathe,” Caleb said. “You are safe. There is no shame in needing this. I would in your shoes, I think.”
Essek cried for a long time. Caleb rubbed circles into his back and held him through it. At first Essek kept trying to regain control of himself, breaths shortening into little hiccupping gulps as he failed to calm himself, but eventually he gave into it. His breathing started to even of its own accord, eventually, and the tears slowed.
Caleb didn’t loosen his hold, and Essek didn’t pull back. They just sat there like that, Essek’s breathing slowly falling into sync with Caleb’s.
“I am sorry,” Essek said, eventually. “I didn’t intend to—“ he made an aborted motion and Caleb realized he was, absurdly, apologizing for soaking Caleb’s shirt.
“Do not be,” Caleb said. “Truly.”
“I—“ Essek took another moment to gather himself and then drew back. He wiped at his wet face with a sleeve. Caleb fumbled for a handkerchief and eventually found and offered one. “Thank you. It, ah—I was very—I believe I was fairly frightened yesterday, but it did not—the magnitude of…”
“I think anyone would find what happened to you to be distressing,” Caleb reminded. “It was—I am sorry to have brought this upon you.”
Essek shook his head. “How badly that could have—I do not think I have the words to express how terribly this—“ He broke off. “At the outpost. Did you see how many—were there many corpses, outside?”
“No,” Caleb said, after a pause. “There was—perhaps a body or two.”
“Good,” Essek said. “Then perhaps some of them might live.”
“It is not Ikithon’s way, I think,” Caleb warned, “To leave them alive. We saw no other prisoners with you…”
Essek shook his head. “When they attacked, I sounded an alarm. We were—already on some alert. They were under orders to escape if possible. There are—other places, controlled by the Dynasty, that they might go to.”
“You ordered them to run?” Caleb asked, startled.
“My presence there put them in danger,” Essek said. “I had hoped it might be a position of relative safety, but—there was no reason not to make contingency plans.”
“You are—that was good,” Caleb said.
“Sound surprised if you like,” Essek said. Caleb couldn’t tell if it was sadness or amusement that made him duck his head. “I am…trying. To be better. I was responsible for them. If this were—if this were an attack on the Dynasty, then perhaps I might have ordered them to stay and fight. It is their duty, after all. An attack on myself, brought on by my own actions—it would be selfishness, I think, to expect their aid. Especially when I do not think it would have done any good.”
“No,” Caleb said. “Probably not.”
“I hope that your knowledge is right,” Essek said. “That most of them survived. I tried to—I fought for a time, before.” He stared into the fire, lost in thought for a moment.
Caleb bit his lip. There was no sense in putting it off. “Essek. I am—I would like to apologize to you. I am afraid that—I do not know how well you remember yesterday.”
“I remember it,” Essek said. “It is—the events were hard to process at the time, but I can make some sense of them in retrospect. There are no gaps in my memory, I think.” He frowned. “Except that I—think I slept?”
Caleb nodded. “You did. We—Essek. What I mean to say is, I am sorry if—for all the ways in which I overstepped, yesterday. I know I should not have—you were not able to tell me what you were comfortable with, and—“
Essek was shaking his head, and Caleb cut off. He said, “Caleb, you—I think I have expressed to you before—there are, in this world, there are so few people who I have any trust in. To have—the odds of having ended in the hands of those very few, I—that is impossibly lucky. I do not—I make luck, and this seems closer to a miracle.”
“We were coming,” Caleb said. “Did you think that we would leave you there?”
“I think you would have been justified in it,” Essek said. “Yes.”
“How could you think that,” Caleb said. “And yet trust me to—“ he broke off. “To care for you? To Teleport you, when you did not understand my intentions?”
“I thought you were familiar with the spell,” Essek said. “You must know that even under it, you can recognize your friends.” He looked up and met Caleb’s gaze, steadily, even though his eyes were still rimmed in red. “You are my friends. You have been—I do not deserve your kindness, and I know it. That does not mean I do not believe it.”
“You are our friend, too,” Caleb said. “Essek. It is important to me that you know—we could not have left you. I could not have left you to that. But that is not—no decent person could.”
Essek’s mouth lifted into a practiced smile. “The world has very few decent people, Caleb. You know this.” It was a relief to see some of his confidence begin to return, albeit slowly, as though he were carefully trying it on piece by piece. “And I think you know well enough that I have brought this upon myself.”
“You did not—Trent’s interest in you, it is not only your fault,” Caleb said. “I am sorry. We had—a run-in. I used some of the magic that—some dunamancy. He—guessed who I might have learned it from.”
“Resonant Echo?” Essek asked.
“Ah, no,” Caleb said. “It is—the spell you cast on the Volstrucker in the Dungeon of Penance. I—may have reverse-engineered it.”
“That,” Essek said frankly, “Is remarkable.”
“I—thank you,” Caleb said. “But it speaks ill of your trust in me.”
“I trust,” Essek said, “That you did not use this magic frivolously and that it was in your own defense.”
“Yes,” Caleb said, “But—“
“Then it has served its purpose,” Essek said. “Ikithon would have been in no position to guess who might have taught you that magic except for the position I put myself in. Your actions put me in no more danger than my own already had.”
“Except that now he knows you are connected to me,” Caleb said. “And he is—he is angry at me. I have stolen something from him.”
“No,” Essek said, fiercely. “You have not. You never belonged to that man.”
“I—“ Caleb smiled without meaning to. “No, I have, quite literally.” He pulled the chain of his amulet out of his shirt and showed it to Essek. “I escaped from him the first time with one of these. We—we found that Lucien was able to scry on us so easily, we thought these might be necessary. Now they will serve a dual purpose, to hide us all from him. We have one for you.”
“I will be glad to have it,” Essek said. “Thank you.”
“Essek,” Caleb said. “I have been—I know you have not always been honest with us. But you are—you must be aware that I have not been perfectly honest with you. You do not—I have not shared the full extent of my history with the Assembly, or with Ikithon. I have not always been forthright in my intentions.”
“Caleb,” Essek said. “If you think I did not know you sometimes intended to manipulate me, you are a fool.”
“Even so,” Caleb began.
“Even so,” Essek said, quickly interrupting. “I have—placed my trust in you. I do not know if there is trust between us, but for my part I have placed myself in your hands.” He looked Caleb in the face. “If I had needed it born out by experiment—well, that is done.”
“If I had any doubt,” Essek said simply, still holding his gaze, “It is gone. I trust you. You have proven to me that this was not misplaced.”
It had been some time since Essek had met Caleb’s eyes so deliberately, but this time it was Caleb who found he had to look away.
“You were injured,” he said, to escape the subject. “You should let Jester take a look again.”
“I will,” Essek said. “I feel…I need to thank her, I didn’t—you did not have to send her away.”
“I thought it might be easier,” Caleb said. “Without her here. I am—no one wishes to upset Jester.”
Essek smiled. “It is something of a relief to know I am not the only one susceptible to her charms.”
“No,” Caleb said. “You are not.” He was surprised that Jester hadn’t returned by now; going to the door and opening it, he found a tray with two mugs of cocoa. He picked the tray up and carried them back. “I think she wanted to give us more time.” He set the tray down on the coffee table and picked up the first mug, passing it to Essek.
Essek accepted it with a nod of thanks. “I am—yes,” he said. “I am grateful for it. For the time. For the chance you have given me.”
Caleb sipped at his cocoa, and then said, “It is not—you said that you remembered yesterday.”
“Yes,” Essek said.
“I said some things to you,” Caleb said.
Essek frowned. “I know. I am—afraid that though I heard them, words did not have meaning, and though I remember your speaking I still do not know what you said. As though it were all a foreign language. Your remarkable memory—I wonder if you might know. Mine, I do not remember it well enough. I am sorry.”
“It is alright,” Caleb said. “Only, I meant to say I have not been entirely fair to you. There is a great deal we have in common, you and I, and I think it has been—to look at you, and see a reflection of my own mistakes. I have not been fair to you. I do not want you to think—this is not a test. Our every conversation, I am not testing you. I am not—waiting on you to fail. I want to see you—I believe you are capable of greater things than you have done so far, Thelyss, and I wish to see you become that person.”
Essek took a drink of his own cocoa. Caleb recognized what ‘stalling for time’ looked like. Then he said, “I would not blame you, if it were. A test.”
“No,” Caleb said. “If anything, it is as you said. An experiment.”
“The hypothesis is…?”
“Caleb Widogast can trust Essek Thelyss.”
“And the results?”
“Mixed,” Caleb admitted. “So far. But trending upwards, nonetheless. I have a lot of hope.”
“I am very glad to hear it,” Essek said quietly.
They fell into a silence, but a comfortable one. Eventually Caleb said, “We can stay here as long as you like, or we can join the others.”
“I would like to thank Jester,” Essek said. “Yes. I cannot hide from them forever.”
“Maybe not,” Caleb admitted. “But if you wished to a little longer, I would not fault you.”
“Do not enable my cowardice,” Essek said, rising. He seemed to register, for the first time, that he was still wearing a blanket as a cloak over a nightshirt. “I—do you have my clothes?”
“Jester was going to mend them, I think,” Caleb said. “None of us are going to judge you, Thelyss.”
Essek hesitated, then straightened the blanket. “Alright.” He made a small gesture and Caleb watched his floating spell activate. He caught Caleb’s gaze and ducked his head.
“That,” Caleb said. “That was when I began to worry. When I saw you were not floating.”
“You have seen me stop it before,” Essek said. “In your own home, in fact.”
“Yes,” Caleb said. “Among friends.”
“Yes,” Essek said. “Well.” He hesitated for a moment, and Caleb could see him trying to decide whether to dispel it.
“If you are more comfortable like this,” Caleb said, “I will not push you.”
That, oddly, seemed to decide it; his expression resolved and he dropped back to the ground. “I—did not say, yesterday—“ he broke off and hurried onwards, seemingly realizing the implications of his statement. “This room is very beautiful. The glass—“
“I am glad you like it,” Caleb said. “It was meant for you.”
“I—wondered,” Essek said, looking around it again. The way he said wondered made Caleb think he’d substituted it for another word at the last minute. “This is all of your design?”
“Yes,” Caleb said, “If you have any interest, I would like to show you the rest of the tower.”
“I have a great deal of interest,” Essek said.
“I am glad to hear it,” Caleb said, and carefully took Essek’s arm and led him into the atrium. “Then there is a great deal to see.”
“Yes,” Essek said. His eyes roved the interior, taking it all in, and Caleb felt both pleasure and relief at the way they seemed to come alight. They stayed that way, spark gleaming within them, as his gaze came back to Caleb. “There is.”