Caleb is pretty sure he’s already dead. His limbs are numb, whether from pain or blood loss or freezing cold, he doesn’t know. But numbly, he keeps running, climbing, pulling his body forward and away from the collapsing ruins behind him. He feels the presence of his friends around him as they drag themselves along with him.
Instinctually, he reaches for the store of arcane energy inside him but the well comes up dry. He’s completely tapped.
He thinks he hears screams, maybe from his friends, maybe from himself, or even something else, but he’s too far gone to make it out.
They reach the open air of the surface and the storm around them is wild and violent. The clouds are dark and menacing and sheets of ice swirl and batter them from all sides. Shards of ice cut across their clothes and exposed skin.
A hand grabs his wrist and pulls him along before he’s even realized that he’s slowed. He can hardly make out the shapes of the party around him through the snow and mist that blots out his vision. Not to mention the fog that fills his nearly unconscious mind.
Another scream. The ground quakes beneath him and he stumbles before the same hand pulls him back up into a run.
Caleb looks behind him and watches distantly as tower-sized shards of ice and stone are jutted out of the ground by the quaking. He sees ravines breaking across the landscape like shattering glass.
The hand stays steadily grasped around Caleb’s wrist but the screams and other figures become distant. The thought drifts in his mind that he should be worried but he’s too confused to know why.
He hears a horrific cracking noise like the shattering of bone. A ravine opens up beside him, devouring ice and rubble and splitting him off from the distant figures before he’s pulled in the opposite direction.
They run. Caleb doesn’t feel himself moving anymore, only knows that he is. The snow and hail continue to batter them from all sides but eventually the ground no longer trembles and the noise becomes quiet.
A dark shape grows beyond them and they shift direction towards it. The outline of a cavern, the mouth of a cave, his brain registers. A few bleary moments later they reach the opening. They climb their way over the piled rubble through the tunnel as more stone falls around them blocking the way back out. Caleb is glad to put a wall between himself and the confusing world outside.
They stumble into an open cavern. As the dust settles, Caleb’s legs collapse beneath him. His body falls to rest on the cold, stone floor and finally his mind goes blissfully dark.
When he wakes again, he can feel the rock wall behind him pressing sharply into his back. His whole body aches and for a moment he regrets ever regaining consciousness. It almost feels like a cruel joke for the gods to refuse him any final rest by pulling him back into his body to face what’s become of it. When he shifts to sit up, Caleb winces in pain. The skin of his face feels sticky with his own dried blood. Slowly he starts to come back to his senses. He opens his eyes, trying to figure out where he is.
His vision is bleary but he surveys his surroundings and finds himself in a small cave. The snow has piled up in the entrance enough to block much of the light but it’s keeping out the raging storm outside. That’s when he notices the anomaly. Despite the frigid storm beyond the cave, he isn’t cold. Tucked under his arms in his lap is a glowing orb that is gently warming the air around it.
Then he sees a form on the opposite end of the cavern. In the low light, he can make out the humanoid figure curled up against the other wall, laying on its side with knees pulled up against the cold. Essek, Caleb realizes. The drow is curled tightly into a ball, his purple cloak around him. Despite the dark, Caleb can see that Essek is shaking from the frigid temperature.
Caleb suddenly remembers why they’re here. His mind swims with visions of the past day. Their battle and their near escape. The ruins of Aeor collapsing in on itself like an enormous sinkhole. The plates of rock and ice fissuring across the landscape. Losing the rest of the Nein in the fray.
He remembers a hand held tightly onto his wrist, pulling him towards safety.
Caleb struggles to get to his feet but winces as pain shoots through his body. He pushes past it and stumbles onto his knees.
“Essek!” He yells, but it sounds weaker than he means it to. He sees Essek startle awake. “We have to go find them.” He stumbles forward, bracing himself on the wall. “We have to—”
It takes Essek a moment to shake off the confusion but in a flash of indigo, he rushes to Caleb’s side.
Caleb is light-headed from pain and blood loss, but he commands his body to move. He hears Essek’s voice behind him but he doesn’t hear the words as he starts digging out snow and debris at the cave entrance. He has to get out there. He has to go help them .
“Caleb! You have to stop”.
A hand reaches around his arm trying to pull him away but he fights to keep digging. He has to save his friends. They don’t understand, he has to get out there . The hand is replaced by two arms that grapple him and pull him back, and he fights against them. Then he sees Essek’s frightened face and it’s enough to pull him back to reality. His fighting suddenly stops and his exhausted body falls limp.
Essek helps to lower him to the floor but he doesn’t let go yet. “There’s nothing that can be done right now,” He tells him. Caleb’s face rests against the soft heavy fabric of Essek’s cloak. “You won’t be any help to them if you’re dead. You must wait and heal up. The Nein are strong and cunning and there are several healers among them. They’ll be able to fend for themselves as well as we will”.
Essek is right, he knows. There’s nothing he can do to help his friends when he can barely stand. Caleb resigns. Waiting it out is the only thing he can do.
Essek helps move Caleb back to a seated position on the floor. Caleb slumps against the wall which is still hard and cold against his back. He picks up the warming orb that still rests where he left it before his dazed panic.
He watches Essek sit back down a few feet from him in the centre of the chamber. The drow’s legs are tucked under himself, obscured by the cloak, like Caleb has seen him do when he trances. It’s then that he sees Essek shivering and Caleb finally remembers himself. The least he can do is help them both stay warm.
“Essek, you’re shaking,” he says. “Here. Take this back”. Caleb holds out the warming orb towards him.
Essek shakes his head. “Thank you, Caleb, but please… Keep it,” he refuses, despite his obvious chill.
“No, truly I am alright,” Caleb insists. “I still have a few tricks up my sleeve”.
He gives Essek a smile. Even though Caleb is feeling pretty drained, he still has his cantrips to work with now that he’s awake. He summons a small flame into his hands to show Essek.
Essek gives him a small nod and returns Caleb’s smile. “You always have another card up your sleeve, Widogast”. He leans down to take the orb from Caleb but Caleb grabs his arm before he can step away.
Essek’s eyes meet Caleb’s in a question.
“Please. Sit with me. No use heating the whole place”.
Wordlessly, Essek obliges. Caleb places the orb into his lap and Essek pulls his cloak around it.
Caleb holds the flame in his own lap and the two watch as it causes shadows to dance along the cave walls. The snow around them glows white with reflected light.
“Thank you.” Essek nearly whispers.
Caleb looks at him in disbelief. Thank you? “Essek, you… you saved my life today. I owe you an immeasurable gratitude. I have to admit, I was pretty far gone by the time we reached the surface but—” he shook his head. “I wouldn’t have gotten out of there without your help. I just hope the rest of the Nein…” he can’t let his thoughts go there. He has to believe they made it to safety as well.
Essek catches his gaze, his expression sympathetic. “If a couple of arcane librarians could survive that, your— Our friends will surely be fine”.
Caleb chuckles. “With that, you are correct”.
A moment of silence rests between them before Essek speaks up.
“You did good work out there today. This whole expedition. You’ve learned quite a few powerful tricks since we first met”.
“I’d like to think so,” Caleb acknowledges, “but I’m afraid I can’t take all the credit away from you for those things”.
Essek shakes his head.
“I was simply the catalyst for your efforts”.
Caleb doesn’t argue against that. Essek has been a catalyst for Caleb since the day they first met. The lessons Essek gave him. Just watching him, Shadowhand Essek Thelyss, the dunamancy prodigy. It was like the initial spark of an alchemical reaction in Caleb. A fascination that Caleb could not control nor comprehend. A fascination that extended, perhaps, beyond the field of magic itself.
After the events that unfolded in the dungeons of penance with the scorger prisoner, Caleb became obsessed with reverse engineering the spell Essek had used. With white-hot pain clouding his vision, he had barely seen the delicate somatic movements of Essek’s fingers but the dark malice in Essek’s eyes was seared into his memory.
Essek had a power in him that was dark and controlled and Caleb could feel the allure that his past-self would have jumped at. Essek was a dangerous fascination, but Caleb never found himself able to fully pull away.
But now, Caleb knows the changed man that Essek has become. The kind of man who risks his life to save the world. To save his friends.
To save Caleb.
In the dim light, the presence of Essek beside him is a comfort. As he watches the other man, Caleb notices that despite the orb, Essek is still shivering. The drow is hunched in on himself, trying to sink as far into his furred cloak as he can. His long, pointed ears are folded down pitifully.
“If you’re still cold, I may be able help with that”.
“Oh,” Essek says, as if he hasn’t noticed. “There is no need, I…” he trails off, seeming to realize how unconvincing he sounds.
Caleb holds his hands out face-up towards Essek, an invitation Caleb hopes he’ll accept.
Essek’s thin arms drift out from beneath his cloak. He’s wearing a sleeved layer that covers down to his wrists, but his long, elegant hands are left bare so as not to impede his somatic spellcasting.
Essek is predictably hesitant, but his survival instinct appears to win out as he lets Caleb take his arms. Caleb holds Essek’s forearms in his hands and pulls them in towards his chest. The position causes Essek to shift closer to Caleb until their knees rest next to one another, barely brushing. Caleb calls his magic forward and pushes the warmth of fire through his hands and into the air around them.
With the contact, Caleb can feel the rise and fall of Essek’s chest and shoulders as he breathes. The breath that leaves Essek’s lips is still frosty, but the shivering seems to have eased. Caleb watches the tension slowly leave Essek’s posture, seemingly appreciative of the new warmth. His eyes linger on Essek’s lips out of their own accord and for a moment it seems like Essek’s breath catches.
Caleb drops his gaze.
“I must apologize, I lost most of my spell components in the escape so I’m not able to create the dome that we are accustomed to for these sorts of harsh conditions”.
Essek shakes his head. “It is no worry. We are lucky to have made it out of there at all”.
“Just seems fitting for us,” Caleb almost laughs, “To survive the end of the world as we know it only to be taken out by some bad weather”.
Essek chuckles with him, shaking his head in disbelief. Another silence passes between them as the realisation of what they’ve experienced and accomplished washes over them.
“I have to admit my hubris assumed it would be something of greater import. That my deeds would get back to the dynasty or the assembly and their ilk would finally catch up to me. But I suppose that is only an arrogant assumption of my own importance”. Essek sighs. “Oh, that I were worthy enough to go out in a battle of glory. I have to admit, after my outlook started to look so poor, I began to like the idea of dying for something meaningful. To live on in your history if I could not otherwise”.
“Your ideas were not far from my own”, Caleb commiserates. “For the last many years, I have searched for a way to atone for my past. For a long while I was set upon an idea that nothing short of undoing the past would resolve my guilt. Even my own death would not be enough. But after a long time journeying with the Nein I realised that, even if I could not take back the things I had done, I could at least use my small wretched life to leave the world better than when I came to it”.
Essek nods solemnly. “If it is of any significance, I believe you have more than achieved your goal”. He pauses and adds, “You have certainly left me changed for the better”.
The words hang in the space for a moment. Caleb catches Essek’s eye and gives him a small but genuine smile. He also notices that Essek has become more settled next to him. The awkward posture is gone and he leans in towards Caleb while they converse, feeling comfortable enough to let his legs rest against Caleb’s. Caleb can feel every point of contact between them burning hotter than the fire in his hands.
It reminds him of something.
“I was born in a small village called Blumenthal, just south of Rexxentrum. It was a poor farming village stuck out in the mud of the Zemni fields. But it was home”.
Caleb never shares much about his childhood. The memories are often still too painful, but he finds himself speaking almost compulsively.
“My family and I hardly had a gold piece to our names but we had a small farmhouse and a community and each other. And most of the time, it was enough”. He lets his mind wander back to simple days in Blumenthal. “But the winters were often a different story.”
Essek is watching Caleb with a silent attentiveness. Caleb goes on.
“There was one winter when I was a young boy. It was despairingly cold. The nights were worst of all and our supply of firewood and oil was starting to run low. We hardly had enough fuel to keep a single fire going in the farmhouse.
“We tried to feed it as slow as we could to keep it alive like a starved calf. My parents and I, we would sleep curled up together around the hearth, trying to stay warm.
“I remember one night, late into that winter. The sun had hardly shone for days and the cold nipped at your skin even while you worked. And when the night came…”
He trails off for a moment. Caleb knows that, as the son of an Umavi in one of the most important Dens in Rosohna, Essek must have grown up in relative wealth and comfort. He doesn’t know how much Essek could really understand the life Caleb had as a young child in Blumenthal, but the look Essek gives him is compassionate, not pitying, so he lets himself continue.
“At night I would stare and watch the flames slowly dying to embers as the remnants of our meager kindling was burned away. I would wait while the cold slowly crept in around the edges. By now, I’m sure you have noticed my penchant for fire. Well, it began at an early age.
“I was an imaginative young child with nothing to lose, so I looked into the hearth, as I did every night of those cold winters, and with all my energy I willed it to keep burning.
“And to my surprise? It did. I thought my hopeful eyes were playing tricks on me. But as I stared, right before my eyes, the fire sparked and grew. And as it did, so too was a spark born in me.
“Slowly, throughout that winter, I learned to keep the fire going with my own magic. I didn’t understand it at the time but I was hooked. The feeling of power under my skin. It became irresistible to me, even as a young boy. I spent all my time trying to discover more. Anything to keep my own appetite alight”.
As he recounts, Caleb feels his hands start to warm with the memory of fire. For a moment he regains his senses and he flinches away, letting go of Essek.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to burn you. I… Maybe I can--”
Essek quickly interjects. “No! Please. It was not too hot. It was… It was nice actually”. He doesn’t pull his arms away.
Caleb cautiously takes Essek’s arms in his hands again.
“You’re remarkable, Caleb”. Essek tilts his head to meet Caleb’s eyes. His gaze is intense, letting Caleb know he means what he says. “I know you fear the destructive capabilities of your power but I have seen many men with more hunger, less control, and none of the caution you show. Even at the birth of your powers, you have always used them to protect the people you love”.
Caleb wants to argue. To contend that Essek doesn’t truly know his past. But in a way, Essek is still right. Even on the worst night of Caleb’s life, misguided and manipulated as he was, he was only trying to protect the home that he loved.
Instead he smiles softly at the drow. “You see a hope in me that is often obscured from my own view. However, I know that the reverse is often true as well. We’re a couple of miserable bastards aren’t we, Thelyss”.
The drow chuckles. “I think we are lucky to have found each other, then”.
“Perhaps,” Caleb smiles coyly. “Perhaps, we are not as much ‘trouble’ as I once believed”.
Essek shrugs. “Perhaps we are”.
And then Caleb feels Essek’s hands delicately clasp the front of his robes and he is pulled forward. Their foreheads touch hesitantly for a moment before Caleb lifts his chin to close the distance. When their lips meet, Caleb can feel they are chapped from the cold, but the kiss is warm and soft.
Kissing Essek feels like energy. Electric charge, gravity and potential. All points of uncertainty collapsing into one timeline, one present moment stretching on between them. It’s the feeling of controlled fire beneath his skin. Like peering into a Luxon beacon and seeing the world as strings of fate weaving together in his mind’s eye.
Time seems to slow. Caleb feels almost weightless as if he is caught in Essek’s gravity.
And when the two of them withdraw back into reality, Essek’s eyes meet Caleb’s in a weighted gaze. He looks so vulnerable, a far cry from the Shadowhand persona.
Essek’s voice is soft when he says, “Trust?”
Caleb's heart melts. He pulls Essek’s arms in, close enough to hug them against his chest. Their hands soon find each other’s until their fingers are threaded together.
“With everything that I am”.
In the morning, they wake slowly to find themselves wrapped warmly in each other’s arms. Essek’s cloak is draped around them both. Still half-asleep, Caleb hears the noise of shouts and clambering.
He jolts up when he recognizes the voices of the Mighty Nein. Yasha and Jester appear first, pushing their way through the rubble and snow.
“Caleb! Essek!” Jester shouts.
Caleb is so relieved to see them that he surrenders to Jester’s enveloping hug before she releases him and submits Essek to the same fate. The drow gives a faint startled noise but gives in to her affection anyway.
However, in the moment since the girls arrived, no one else follows through the cave entrance. Caleb gives Jester a concerned look but she’s quick to reassure him. “We’re all safe, Caleb. Everyone’s here. Everyone’s okay”. And for the first time in what feels like days, Caleb can finally breathe again.
Eventually, the rest of the Nein make their way through, a little battered but eased with the benefits of a long rest. The group reunites with more hugs and rejoicing, the worst of their fears alleviated.
Caleb feels the familiar thrum of arcane energy under his skin, letting him know that the rest was enough to bring back his resources. He doesn’t need it yet though, as he watches the clerics begin their preparation for Word of Recall. Caleb can almost hear the rolling waves on the shores of Nicodranas, a sound he never thought he’d hear again.
“Alright, Mighty Nein,” Caleb calls as the party gathers up, “let’s go home”.
And just before the space around them shifts instantaneously, sending them teleporting across Exandria, Caleb feels Essek’s hand slip into his own and he gives it a reassuring squeeze.
A moment later, they are home. Caleb doesn’t let go.