Chapter 1: Familiar Vulnerability
When Caleb was traveling through his familiar, his eyes were like marbles in the light of a hearth. They were still blue, but he wasn't really there. It sent a shiver down Molly’s spine. Not because the emptiness brought back memories (because it didn't) but because it made Caleb so vulnerable. While his mind flied or crept or crawled elsewhere, he was entirely dependent on his companions to keep him safe. It was a kind of trust Molly hadn't known he was ready for until he met this lot and, in particular, this scruffy wizard with his softly-accented voice and quiet demeanor.
At the moment, Caleb was holding onto Fjord as they strolled, fingers nestled into the crook of his elbow. Fjord led him through the market without issue. However, it would have taken more than a guiding hand to divert Jester, who was up to her usual antics. "Caaaleb," she drew out his name, nudging his cheek with a finger.
"As I have told you before, I can still feel that."
Jester winked at Beau, who joined the shenanigans by extending her staff in front of Caleb's shin. He stumbled, eyes flickering as his concentration wavered. The stubbled jaw tighten, but in the end Caleb just shook his head, well aware of the game they were playing. Fjord gave a disapproving cough, and from behind, Yasha spoke in her calm voice. "You know, it's considered rude to touch someone without their consent."
Jester seemed unphased. "Oh, don't worry. We’re just teasing, like good friends do. Isn’t that right, Caleb?" When he didn’t answer, Jester giggled. "Oh, right. But he would definitely agree if he could hear me! Wouldn’t he, Fjord?"
Fjord glanced at the absent wizard, his brow faintly creased. Caleb was a difficult read. It was possible he considered them good friends. However, Molly couldn't help but think of the confusion that came over his face whenever Beau thumped an ale down in front of him, or how his eyes widened when Molly guarded him during a scrimmage, or how he flinched from Jester when she entered his personal space too quickly. In short, probably. But who really knew?
Because he was paying attention, Molly noticed Nott shift into Beau and Jester’s shadow. A smile twitched onto his lips. Should he say something? Before he could properly decide, the deed was done. As they took another step forward, both ladies fell. Somehow, one of the dangling sleeves of Jester’s dress had knotted around Beau’s ankle. Plumes of dust went up as they attempted to free themselves, but they made little progress until Fjord heaved a sigh and went to help.
“Hold still, now,” he said, making deft work of the knot.
However, in going to assist the girls, Fjord left Caleb standing alone in the middle of the road. His head turned, arms drawing in as he realized he’d been left anchorless, but before he gave up his concentration on Frumpkin, Molly stepped neatly into the space Fjord had vacated. The sightless eyes looked at him, frowning. "Fjord?" There was no way to answer with words, so Molly did what came naturally and pressed a kiss to the man's forehead. He could see the tension drain, and Caleb reached searchingly. His thumb found the rings on Molly's fingers. "Mollymauk."
"Correct," Molly said, pleased that Caleb knew him by such small details. He tucked Caleb's hand under his arm and led him beneath an awning. "Let's have a rest, shall we? Even though it is a nice morning for a stroll."
Caleb's face turned to the sky, eyes falling shut. "It is a pretty day."
Molly grinned, caught by surprise. It wasn't what he expected, Caleb making unintentional small talk. By way of answer, he gave their attached hands a squeeze, just as Nott appeared. She didn't say anything, but her expression was stormy. Molly said, "Fear not, friend Nott. Your boy is safe with me. Nice trick, by the way."
"They deserved it."
"Now, now. You know Jester," Molly said. "Pranking is a form of worship for her, but she usually knows not to take it too far, at least with us."
Nott did not look mollified. "He doesn’t like it. Plus it's not fair when he's not here."
It was a decent point, but Molly felt there was more to the frustration etching its way onto Nott's face. Hoping that a gentle nudge would bring out what was truly bothering her, he ventured, "You're upset."
Nott glanced at him, then back at Fjord and the rest, who had untangled themselves but were now distracted by an arm wrestling booth. Jester had her elbow on the table, looking dainty and ditzy as usual, while Beau cackled in the background, probably already counting coin in her mind. Fjord, ever practical, seemed to be negotiating the bet. He was usually the one trying to drag Jester out of her gambling sprees, but even he couldn't look the other way when such a sure mark presented itself. They wouldn't even need to cheat. Beneath those frilly sleeves were biceps that could grapple a grown man.
Nott said, "They’re good people, but they aren’t careful enough." The ’with him’ went unspoken, but was no less understood.
"No, sometimes they aren’t," Molly agreed.
There was a commotion across the way; a man in fine linen clothing was arguing with a merchant. He had a very nice leather pouch and, on his wrists, were several shining bracelets. Molly saw Nott's fingers twitch.
"Go on. That man is definitely grumpy." When she hesitated, he reassured her. "Don’t worry. I won’t leave him."
That was enough, it seemed. Nott darted away. Molly tried to track her progress, but she'd gotten much better at sneaking. There was a slight tug on his arm, a quiet sigh, and then Caleb blinked, his eyes returning to their natural color.
"Have a nice journey?" Molly asked.
Caleb leaned against the building. He snapped his fingers, and Frumpkin wound around their ankles. "We have many things to talk about, I think."
The Mighty Nein were in the town of Pamell, a homely farming village with one major land holding. The owner of that holding was Baron Urim Vector, a retired solider in The Gentleman’s employ. They’d been sent to investigate whether he was selling information to competitors; a simple espionage mission. In the form of Frumpkin, Caleb had been able to scout the manor grounds without rousing suspicion. Now, using a scrap of parchment, he sketched a rough outline of what he’d discovered.
"The grounds are not so heavily defended, though there are guards. Since we know the baron keeps his papers close at hand, we may find a lead if we can get access."
"We’ve cracked tougher nuts. Our real problem is them." Fjord leaned back, glaring around the tavern, where several seasoned fighters were mixing with the usual denizens of a sleepy town like Pamell. They were easy enough to spot, the hilts of their weapons visible on their belts or strapped over their backs. A bard had her foot propped on a bench and was playing a song about the defeat of an incubus in very...colorful detail. "Damned obnoxious."
Molly shrugged in a ‘what can you do’ kind of way. As it turned out, they’d arrived in time for a tournament in honor of the harvest festival. It was apparently a big deal; every warrior with a sword and a sharp eye seemed to have gathered, and not-a-few of them had given the Nein a once-over. Molly stifled a laugh, wondering what they looked like from the outside. Probably a bunch of thugs.
"Well, the reward is pretty good," Jester said. She had somehow managed to steal a quill and was busy drawing tiny mounds of poop on the table surface. She attempted to doddle a tiny one on the junction of Beau's thumb and forefinger, but was noticed. The quill disintegrated with an audible snap. "Beau! That was Caleb's quill."
Caleb sighed, a sound that came from deep within. "Jester is right. About the reward, I mean."
"You can say that again!" The tournament flier swam up before Molly's eyes, along with a tantalizing figure: three thousand gold. By the Maker, it was enough to start up a whole new life! Or at least to live in the lap of luxury for a considerable time.
"It means we must be extra cautious," Caleb said, though his expression wasn't hopeful. Molly caught his eye and winked. Yeah. Cautious might be a bit too much to ask for with this lot.
"What is our plan of attack, then?"
“I say we take advantage of the situation,” Molly suggested. “Let’s join the tournament!”
Beau perked up. “Say that again, Mollymauk.”
This time he did laugh. “I’m serious. The timing could actually be perfect. Think about it. This kind of event is a huge undertaking, and I’ll bet you anything the baron and everyone he employs are distracted by the preparations. On the day of the tournament itself, things will be even more chaotic.”
“The household was very busy,” Caleb confirmed. “Many people going in and out.”
“Right. So what we really need is for all of Pamell to show up for this tournament. Clear the field, as it were. Nobody on the streets around the manor, nobody in the house. Just plenty of time to take care of business while everyone else enjoys the show. And what a show we could make of it. Don’t you think?”
Fjord shifted. “I don’t know. Aren’t their rules?”
“Three-on-three,” Yasha repeated what they’d all heard at the market that day. “A swordsman, an unarmed fighter, and a mage in mixed melee combat.”
Beau looked close to rapture. “Oh, please, Fjord. We have to. I’m begging you.”
Fjord himself looked like he was having uneasy flashbacks of the Victory Pit, but, hey, that had been kind of fun, if you ignored the parts where they nearly died. Jester was nodding vigorously. “Oh, oh, I can see it, you guys,” she said. “We are really, really good at attracting attention.”
Molly rapped his claws on the tabletop. “So what do you all say?”
“I’m in,” Beau said without hesitation, and Jester wasn’t far behind.
Yasha gave a slow nod. “I like the idea of drawing attention away from those who have to enter the baron’s house.”
“Fjord?” Molly asked.
Fjord’s chin was sunk in thought as he weighing the risk and rewards. They’d never made it official, but they had a tendency to leave final decisions to him. Fjord was careful and strategic, but not over-cautious. He came to a verdict. “It seems like we have a plan.”
"Alright!” Beau cheered. “Tomorrow we get our swagger on. Make a lot of noise, look tough. Then, when the tournament comes around, we kick everybody’s asses while the sneaky people wiggle their way into the manor. Done and done." She rubbed her hands together with relish.
"I would rather you not have to risk so much. Some of these people look dangerous," Caleb said, and there was the other side of the coin in their little party.
Caleb called himself a coward, but it wasn't weakness that made him turn from violence. It was apparent to anyone who knew him that Caleb had been ravaged by the cruelty of others. Molly didn't know what form that cruelty had taken, but it came out in foibles: averted eyes, slow, awkward interactions with others. Sometimes Molly had a temptation to squeeze the anxiety out of him. Of course, that would have made Celeb deeply uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop Molly from wanting more moments like today, relaxing in the sunshine.
Beau dug a knuckle into her cheek. "Aw, Caleb. Are you worried about us?"
"Yes, very. I’m worried you will be crushed by that barbarian we saw, or have your heart stopped by a thunderbolt, or have your limbs severed by an opponent with a longsword."
Nott shuddered. "Do we have to talk about this?"
Jester patted her head over the hood. "Don't worry, Nott. You will be sneaking, safe and sound, not standing in the ring with Beau when her heart gets stopped."
"What if I get caught while you’re off somewhere else?"
"You will not be alone," Caleb said. "You and I, we will be very careful, quiet, and swift. And our friends will be creating such a scene that all eyes will be turned in their direction."
Nott gripped the edge of his coat. "If you say so, Caleb, I believe you."
"It’s settled then," Fjord said. "Tomorrow we sign up for the tournament. But let’s try not to pick any fights until then, alright?"
"I thought attracting a lot of attention was kind of our jam on this one. Won't it make things better if we mix it up a bit, create a little excitement?"
Molly leaned into Beau’s space. "You're adorable, and while I’m generally in full support of your reckless self-destruction, we've got a fine line to walk here. Sure, we want people to have their eyes on the ring, but Caleb’s right. There are some powerful people here, and if we provoke the wrong person, we could end up biting off more than we can chew. And that would – ?”
"Sabotage the mission," Beau finished, her shoulders wilting. "Yeah, yeah, I get it."
Chapter 2: Making Enemies
The following morning dawned bright and clear. There was a jubilant mood as the street filled with the sounds of criers, sizzling food, and the fermented smell of ale. Music twirled around every tent peg as bards did their work, and the laughter of the crowd lifted up like a song in its own right; a joyous, raucous hymn of humanity. Through it all, Molly strode. Three sand-filled sacks, a holdover from his circus days had drifted from pocket to hand, and he was tossing them in the air, one after another. It was very nostalgic, and Molly felt self-assured, content, and ready for whatever life had to offer.
Fjord's voice filtered through the ambient noise. "I'm telling you, Beau, you keep that stick to yourself or we're going to have words."
"Ah, mind your own business. I was just twirling it."
"You came this close to my face."
"Gee, Fjord, I didn't know you were such a baby."
That, too, was comforting. An unexpected development, but not a bad one. Six months ago he would have laughed in the face of anyone who told him these people would mean more to him than coin, but it was safe to say they'd stepped over that line some time ago. Take Fjord, for example. You learned a lot about someone by seeing how they folded their socks, so to speak. He was a good man. Sometimes too good, maybe, but Molly liked him. The others, too.
A pace or two behind him walked Jester, pointing out various commodities to Yasha, and bringing up the end of their group was Caleb, who was holding Nott's hand. With her hood pulled up and her mask affixed, they really did look like a parent leading a child, though only the Mighty Nein knew which was which. Those two were already drifting back. No doubt they'd get lost in the crowd at some point, up to their own devices.
A sudden shout broke the peace of the morning, and Molly tensed. It was more barfight than battle, but there was still an edge to it that put his hackles up. He glanced at Fjord, who was already moving. Together, they headed toward the disturbance. Molly found himself in a central courtyard which displayed town news, and at the moment, tournament information. Hawkers sold tickets nearby, and it seemed that a number of participants had gathered to posture and boast. Molly stopped at the edge of the crowd and took in the scene.
There was a man – no, not a man. A half-orc wearing quality boots of midnight-colored leather, with silver-threaded runes adorning the hemline of his cloak. His face was smooth and young, paler than Fjord’s, but with none of the scars that gave him character. Sharp eyebrows quirked over eyes like chips of mica, and even smiling, his mouth looked as though it had been negotiated from an edge.
Molly turned to a villager on his left. "Who's that?”
"Talisman Salvatore, a sorcerer from over the hills. He just electrocuted a cat. See?"
Mollymauk saw a scorched patch of ichor and fur blackening the cobblestone. It smelled like raw meat. His lip curled. What was the point of that? A stray cat did no harm to anyone. He glanced over his shoulder for Caleb, but didn’t find him. Small mercies.
Snaps of residual energy zipped between Talisman's fingers. His line of sight roved over the crowd. "Anyone else?"
As an intimidation tactic, it was effective. Eyes fell away. It was hard to watch, honestly. Molly hated bullies. That this guy had the power to back it up only made him a nastier piece of work. Nor was he alone. There were two others. One was an orcish barbarian, grey skinned and heavily muscled. The other, a lean human wearing a hood. Rogue, Molly wagered.
The excitement had attracted several children. In their eagerness to get near the action, a pair of them, an ashy-colored tiefling and a human boy, jostled until an awkward shove sent one of them stumbling onto the cobblestones. As he fell, his arm tangled in the hem of Talisman's cloak.
Had such an accident happened in any other street or town, what happened next would have been inconsequential. If it had involved the Nein, Fjord would’ve brushed dirt from the boy’s pants while Beau shot off borderline rude advice about the importance of keeping your balance. Nott would’ve thrown in a ghoulish grin, but Jester’s pastry bag would serve as a suitable distraction. And Caleb, who probably hadn't looked much different than this kid once upon a time, might even have offered up one of his tentative smiles.
But Talisman wasn't the Nein, and his mouth knifed downward. He turned on his heel, pebbles scrapping under his boot. "Are there even more pests here for me to deal with?”
The boy’s eyes darted. Barefoot and bone-thin, he had the shabby look of a kid who belonged to no one. “I didn't meant to.”
The barbarian grabbed the kid by the back of his tunic. "Do you know what I hate, Sisk?” Talisman continued. “Clumsy fleshbags who don't mind their manners." He held up the edge of his cloak, examining it with care. "I do believe you tarnished my cloak."
"I'm sorry! Please. I don't have any coin, but –"
Lightning zipped through Talisman's fingers as he said, "Dogs get punished.”
"Hey!" Muscles tense to act, Molly was spared interjecting himself by another voice bellowing into the square. He saw the look of raw anger on Fjord’s face and knew things were about to get interesting. Smiling, he drew a scimitar from its sheathe and stepped forward. Beau as well. The two of them shadowed their friend, subtle and not-yet-engaged, but present should they be needed.
Talisman did a double take. Perhaps it was because, even at a glance, Fjord's heritage was clear enough. "Another of the true bloodline," he said with interest. "What a surprise. It’s not often I come across kinfolk in this part of the country."
Fjord's chin jutted, and Molly wondered if he regretted his missing tusks in situations like this. Did he crave the validation they lent among his fellow orcish people, or did he prefer the demarcation, especially when it cast him in such stark contrast to a pissant like Talisman? "You’re not my kin, and I’d like to know what the hell you’re doing, picking on a kid."
"This piece of garbage damaged my belongings."
"What? Did your coat get a smudgie-wudgie?" Jester pipped up, irreverent as always. "Boohoo. I feel really sorry for you."
Talisman's sneer, if anything, intensified. "I see you keep mixed company. That’s unfortunate."
“You’re not exactly flying solo yourself,” Fjord said.
"These two? Well, Sisk is a childhood companion, and as for our third..." He glanced at the human man situated somewhat behind them. "He’s a means to an end, aren't you, Bekkit, dear?"
The hooded member of their party turned away but said nothing.
"As for myself, I am Talisman Salvatore, champion of a thousand battles." Talisman gave a flourishing bow that seemed only partially serious. "My father's tribe was the Red Claws of Greystone. I'm known there. Who are you?"
Fjord’s jaw tightened. "I’m Fjord."
Molly looked at his friend, thinking of the bits of personal history they’d shared. There’d been stories over tankards, and when Molly prayed over his swords at night, Fjord often sat alongside, staring at his own weapon in reverent confusion. Very little of that, however, had hinted at Fjord's relationship with his own people. He was an orphan, that was all Molly knew. Whether Fjord himself knew much more than that was a mystery.
Fjord cleared his throat. "Look, me and mine are participating in the tournament, so if you're spoiling for a fight, why not wait until then? In the meantime, take your hands off that kid, and we'll go our separate ways."
Molly knew instinctively that Fjord's attempt to defuse the situation would only whet this fellow's appetite for conflict. "I don't appreciate orders, Just Fjord,” said Talisman.
"You don't seem to be taking my meaning. It was a suggestion, the tournament being so near. I don't know about you, but I like to fight on a battlefield, not brawl in a public square like a half-wit teenager. But, hey, if you want to force things..."
‘That a boy,’ Molly thought. This was what he most admired about Fjord – his cunning. It was the reason they looked to him when it came to social graces. He, more than any of them, was a seer of people, and if that sometimes also allowed him to be a manipulator of people? In Molly's humble opinion, so much the better.
The look on Talisman's face made it clear he knew exactly what Fjord was up to, but that didn't mitigate the challenge. It was a matter of saving face now, and Molly had seen enough of how Talisman operated to know that ego drove him. The decision made, he lifted his shoulders in a kind of shrug and hitched his head at Sisk. The barbarian growled but let the kid go, and, like a rabbit out of a snare, the youngster disappeared into a sea of arms and legs.
Which left Fjord and Talisman, each with their own set of companions, locked in tense standoff. Things could have either fizzled or exploded from there, had it not been for a tiny green hand slipping into Talisman's belt pouch. She was all but invisible to the average person, but Bekkit moved like a snake, and then he had Nott by the arm. Nott hissed, flailing. She probably could have taken him, but the struggle knocked her hood back, and in that moment of full exposure – there in front of everybody – she froze.
Talisman's cheeks flushed. "Beast!”
Fjord’s hands rose. "Now, wait, Talisman. Let's slow this down."
The man did not wait. “How dare you steal from me." He snatched Nott's throat. Nott squeaked in terror, but Talisman's grip was tight. "Broil in your own skin, thief.”
Before he could activate his magic, Talisman’s back erupted in fire. He bellowed as flames tore across his cloak and shoulders. Had it been allowed to continue, it might have done serious damage, but before it could, Sisk was beating it with his bare fists, scrunching and twisting the cloth. It tore, and a bundle of smoldering fabric lay discarded on the ground. Heaving, his hair disheveled, Talisman’s snake-eyes roved the crowd.
"Who did that?"
A figure lowered a blackened hand, and Molly's heart thrilled because, oh, this was going to be good. Caleb had arrived, and he was pissed. If there was one thing that could draw a fight out the man, it was threatening Nott. He stepped forward with no trace of fear. "Let her go."
Bekkit stared at the outstretched hand which had so recently reduced a cloak to ash. There was a moment of hesitation, a slight slackening of his grip, and Nott seized the opportunity. With a deft twist, she dashed for Caleb’s side. Once she was safe, the two of them faced Talisman.
"If you are smart," Caleb said in a voice strongly marked by his Zemnian roots, "you and your people will leave my friends and me alone."
Talisman drew his head back, and Molly knew what he saw. A human man dressed in a dirty coat that did little to hide his meager frame, even if his cheekbones hadn't stood out in sharp relief. Unkempt and unshaved. An equally grubby goblin hanging onto his belt. Honestly, Caleb couldn’t have looked less impressive if he tried. Talisman sneered. "Is this your contender, Fjord?"
He wasn't. When they'd discussed their choice of a mage for the tournament, they’d decided on Fjord. For one thing, Fjord was the more versatile fighter. He could also take a hit, which Caleb definitely could not. This was cemented by memories of Caleb laying unmoving on wet cave floors, or sagging, impaled on a pike, or – gods above – dazedly pulling crossbow bolts out of half-healed flesh. In short, none of them had any desire to see their squishy wizard in mixed melee combat. So, yeah. Fjord it would be.
But Caleb’s unsuitability for tournament combat had nothing to do with his actual ability as a mage. Throw in the ferocity that Molly saw at the present moment, and you had a very serious opponent. Even a casual observer could sense it, and the crowd backed off, leaving open space around Caleb and Nott. Talisman, likewise, focused until the air between them sang with arcane energy. It made the hair stick up all along Mollymauk's arms.
Clouds built overhead as Talisman spoke. "Fine. Drown the pups and cull the mutts, as they say. Perhaps you, too, need a lesson."
Without further warning, a thunderbolt sizzled from his hand like a tongue of death. It crackled over his knuckles, radiating in a long, twisting line directly at Caleb and Nott. Jester's gasp was audible, and Molly cursed as he activated his swords. However, before any of them could react, Caleb’s Shield snapped to life. For a sparse moment, it wavered as though it might not be enough, then burst into even more vivid life. Arches of electrical energy glanced off to die as they reached the ground or fizzled in the air over the crowd.
Caleb called upon his element, and the courtyard turned into a furnace. Talisman barely had time to draw on his own defenses before he was hammered by the flames and thrown back into Sisk. Both of them hit the dirt, on their backs like beetles. Meanwhile, remnants of fire and smoke twisted around Caleb's face, drawing his copper-colored hair around his ears so that he looked like something more than human, almost elemental, with his arm still extended.
Then the fire died, both in the air and in Caleb. He shook his head, darted a prey-like glance at the people surrounding him, and went completely rigid. Nott tugged at his arm, and in an instant, both of the shiest members of the Nein disappeared entirely. In their wake was Talisman, who came up seething. When he found Caleb gone, he swung around to the opponent he could still see.
"You'll pay for sending your wizard dog to attack me, Fjord of Nothing. You and your people will regret meeting Talisman Salvatore of the Red Claws of Greystone."
Jester blew a raspberry. "You smell like poop," she said. "Your mother would be ashamed of you!"
Molly edged around to Fjord's side, flanking him. "Caleb's a funny guy, you know. Shy as anything, but he doesn't take kindly to racist bastards. None of us do, as a matter of fact. So perhaps you had better scoot along before things get really nasty." There was a familiar sound, boots and buckles, and Molly looked up. "Ah, perfect timing."
Crownsguard were filling the courtyard. They weren't alarmed, but their faces were serious, and it was clear they were here to break up whatever was disturbing the peace. Fjord's gaze cut to Talisman. "I’m not looking for a quarrel."
Talisman had time for a parting shot. "Spoken like a true milk-blood."
From the way Fjord's face paled, the pejorative was one he knew well. Molly elbowed him, keeping him mindful that he had allies. Putting their backs to their future opponents, the two of them retreated together. Jester was talking animatedly to one of the crownsguard. "And there was this little boy he tried to shock with lightning, which is not a very nice thing to do, and that's when things really started to get icky – "
'Ma'am," said the guard, sounding tired. "Were you or were you not involved in this altercation?"
Jester’s lavender eyes were as big as buckets on her open, unassuming face. "Me? Of course not. I'm just a beautiful young lady out for a stroll."
The guard did not look convinced, but he let her statement be and turned instead to Fjord. "And you? We won't have a disturbance in this town, no matter what kind of feuds are in place."
Fjord winced at almost the same time Molly did. "There’s no feud. I’ve never met that guy, and I didn't attack him."
"That's right," Jester pipped up. "That was someone else."
Beau agreed. "Yeah. Some hobo. Lots of fire. Nothing to do with us."
"Right," said the guard, already turning toward his fellow guards, who were speaking to Talisman. He spared them a hard look before he left. "Just keep it together while you’re here. Fighting is to be in the arena only. We won't hesitate to jail anybody who breaks the rules, and you'll be liable for damages to the town. Understood?"
Molly saluted lazily. "Of course, officer."
When he was gone, the group shared significant looks. Fjord rubbed the ridge between his eyes, the very picture of someone who was nursing a serious headache. "Well, that happened. It doesn't matter so much for us three." He indicated himself, Beau, and Yasha. "But I wouldn't exactly call that 'lying low' on Caleb and Nott's part. Might mean we should change some things."
"They're still the best for the job," Molly said. "Besides, I don't know that it was so bad. If you ask me, that guy was begging to be brought down a notch." His nose wrinkled as he spoke. There were few things he hated more than the way folks divvyed themselves up. As a tiefling, Mollymauk had often been on the wrong end of that kind of prejudice.
They were just leaving the square, rejoining the festival on the interior streets, when they were interrupted by a quiet cough from the shadows between two stalls. Out of this space stepped a teifling, grey in color with the wiry look of a kid who hadn't yet reached puberty. He raised his shoulders. 'Trying so hard to be big,' Molly thought with a mixture of admiration and melancholy.
"Well, hello,” he said. “Did you need something?"
The kid swiped at his nose. His expression was like one of Jester’s doodles, the ones she drew at the corners of her journal and flipped through with her thumb to make them move. It slipped between awkwardness, anxiety, and determination. Finally, though, the kid settled on determination. He gestured at the shadows, and another kid joined him. It was the boy from the courtyard, the one who’d tripped into Talisman.
They stood together, facing the Nein. "We wanted to say 'thank you.' For what you did.”
Molly looked over their dirty faces and the way they slouched so close, and he knew what he was seeing. Street folk stuck together. Jester reached out a finger toward the bruises on their bony knees and elbows. "Are you okay? I could..."
The tiefling jerked out of her range. "We don't need nothing. We just wanted to tell you. Mica and me, we’ve been together since we was almost babies. I didn't mean to push him. If he got really hurt, I would have..." His tough façade cracked, along with his voice.
Fjord stepped forward. The children tensed, but he was so deliberate in his movements that they didn’t run. In that deep voice of his, the one that could sound so reassuring when he put his mind to it, Fjord said, "It's good that you boys are looking out for one another. We all need friends in the world. We were happy to help."
The human boy, Mica, flushed straight to his ears. A hero had undoubtedly been born. That it was Fjord, a half-orc like Talisman, was nice in a way. It went a ways toward proving one bad apple didn't spoil the whole batch, so to speak. The tiefling was a little more reserved, but he wasn't shrinking away. "Thanks," he said, one more time.
"Our pleasure," said Beau, and because she was a softie underneath all that gruffness, she yanked a handful of coins out of her belt pouch and shoved it into the kids' hands before stalking off down the road. Both boys stared at the unexpected bounty.
"Keep that under wraps so you don't attract any unwanted attention," Fjord advised, then gave them both a pat on the head that – because he was Fjord – managed not to come over condescending.
The tiefling said, "We didn't see where the other one went, the...the goblin." He swallowed, like he wasn't exactly sure what to think about that. And yeah, fair. Goblins hardly had a reputation for being anything but bad news, especially for those at the edge of a herd, like these boys doubtless were. "If you see him, will you tell him we said 'thanks'?"
"Nott will be happy to hear that," Jester said. "We will be sure to tell her."
"And the fire mage."
A subtle flinch went through the group, and Molly was glad Caleb wasn't around to hear that appellation. It was the kind of thing that would’ve had him staring into space for the rest of the evening, and nobody wanted that. Dammit, festivals were supposed to be fun, not filled with sharp, trauma-laced edges. Though it was possible that ship had sailed. 'Please don't be off, sinking into a brown study somewhere.' Molly directed his thoughts into the ether, hoping they would somehow reach Caleb wherever he was hiding with Nott.
More quietly that before, Jester assured, "We will tell him."
With a final look back and a feeble wave, the boys retreated, and the Mighty Nein were left once more to their own devices. "We ought to be called the Sentimental Nein," Molly said.
"Yeah, yeah," Fjord said.
Jester put her hands behind her back, tail swishing. "Ooh. That's what we should do once we get famous and rich, guys. We can go around and help all the little kiddies that need help."
"Not enough coin in the world for that," Mollymauk said, and a little more sobriety crept into his voice than he intended. He saw it echoed in Fjord as he turned away.
Chapter 3: Promises and Premonitions
They didn't catch up with Caleb and Nott until later that night, and the two made no mention of where they'd been. It wasn't hard to have suspicions; Nott was dotting more than usual, and Caleb was wearing a leather bracelet which Molly had never seen before, though he had spotted several on display in the market today. No doubt Nott's attempt to show her gratitude, which she tended to do by nudging baubles into their packs or pockets. One day, after Molly put himself between a wounded Caleb and a mountain orc, he'd stuck a hand into his jacket only to come up with a vial of lavender bathing oil. He hadn't bought it himself, and while Jester was also known for gift giving, she wouldn’t have done it anonymously. Later, Molly had met Nott's eyes and nodded. She nodded back, and that was all that had been said about it. The events of earlier that day, including Caleb's dramatic rescue, had no doubt awakened those same feelings of thankfulness in Nott, resulting in the new bracelet.
'Well, at least she didn't get caught, or we'd have heard about it,' he thought.
Caleb was quiet, though not more than usual. His presence at the table meant he’d mostly recovered from his unexpected bout in the spotlight. He was picking around the edges of his gloves, and Molly wondered if his hands hurt after calling up his fire. The way they blackened always looked painful, though as far as he knew, it left no lasting ill effect.
"I am sorry about today," Caleb said finally, and it was so shocking a thing that the whole table grew quiet. The picking at his gloves grew more intent. "It was not wise to reveal ourselves that way."
Fjord leaned in. "Nobody expects you not to defend yourself, Caleb. Sure, it wasn't ideal, but sometimes stuff like that can't be helped. We'll work around it."
"I do not think that man will forget my face," Caleb said regretfully.
"Who cares?" Beau said. "He's going to be too busy facing my fist in the arena to mess with our plans. Sure, he's an asshole, and you probably want to avoid running into him again, but I don't see how today's gonna be a problem for us."
"I hope you are right, Beauregard."
Mollymauk put a hand on the man's shoulder. Several versions of a joke rolled through his mind, but when initiating physical contact with Caleb, silence and a smile was often best. Nott cast him an approving look and nudged Caleb's plate under his hand, coaxing him into taking a reflexive bite. Jeez, what a mom she was. It killed him they hadn't picked up on that earlier.
"Everything stays the same," Fjord was saying, meanwhile. "Nott, do you think you'll have any trouble getting inside?"
"I'll need a closer look to know for sure. Maybe tomorrow I can do a little more casing?"
"I'll go with you," Yasha offered, which was probably a good idea. Yasha would keep Nott on track, and she would also be excellent back up.
Caleb seemed to agree. "In that case, I will remain at the warehouse we found. If you can get a window open, Frumpkin can go ahead of you. It will be safer, and perhaps it will let us narrow down our search."
After that, the members of the Mighty Nein settled into the evening. Jester spent a bit of time waltzing between partners, but ultimately she and Nott settled at a table with a group of people playing cards. Probably not a good idea, but Nott would let them know if Jester's coffers grew too low. Fjord and Beau had started a bluffing game, trading secrets in the form of boldfaced lies. Molly listened in on one particularly interesting whopper (Beau declaring she was part of a secret agency that intended to topple kingdoms), but ultimately his attention was drawn elsewhere. He winked at Yasha, who was nursing an ale in contented silence, and headed to a quiet corner where Caleb sat. Molly had expected the man to disappear upstairs, but apparently he was content to soak in the atmosphere, albeit with a modicum of distance.
Mollymauk scrapped up a chair, reclining with an audible groan and folding his arms behind his head. As a final flourish, he rested one booted foot on top of Caleb's knee. "Some day, huh?"
Caleb looked up from his reading, regarded Molly's boot with confusion, then dismissed it just as easily. Good. That meant he was relaxed. "Did you want something, Mollymauk?"
"Just some conversation."
"There are better conversational partners than me."
"Oh, I don't know." Molly drew out his words. "You're a pretty interesting guy, at least when one can coax you to use your words. Plus, I think you might have a gallant streak under that introverted veneer of yours. Who knew?"
Caleb shuddered, as if the very idea of gallantry was stressful. "You are mistaken."
"Things could have gotten out of hand today without you stepping in. Which, by the way, you weren’t obliged to do. We were all there. But it was Nott, and you couldn't help coming to her rescue like a damned paladin, now could you?"
The man looked across the tavern toward the card game. Nott glanced up, and, even with the mask affixed, her smile reached her eyes. He offered the same in return – a gentle upturn of the lips, just noticeable to one who was paying attention and knew him well. "We look out for one another."
"True, but it doesn't change the fact that you were the big hero today. Did you see the kids?" When Caleb gave him a confused look, Molly elaborated. "Caught up to us afterward. They were like most street kids. Hungry-looking. Skittish and wanting to look tough. But they still chased after us to say thank you."
As he'd suspected, Caleb's eyes went momentarily distant as he traveled back over days of sparsity in Zemnian winters and his own bout of true homelessness in the days before the Mighty Nein. Nott had shared a little about that. Huddled in alleyways, cruel crownsguards. Hollow hunger that drove itchy fingers to increasingly risky ventures in search of bread. Cons they'd spun from wooden bowls and precious copper pieces in hopes of passing a single night somewhere less vulnerable than under a ceiling of stars. Caleb threaded his fingers through Frumpkin's fur, who gave a soft chirrup. "They were just children, roughhousing as children do. They meant no harm."
"No, they did not. Don't worry, though. Beau shoved enough coin in their hands to keep them from getting into trouble over an empty belly, at least for a while. And Fjord put the love-light in their eyes. I think they'll be okay. We might even see them at the fight."
Caleb made a humming sound in his throat. "You should tell Nott," he said. "It will make her feel good about what she did. She claims not to be brave – "
"Yeah, that’s a bunch of malarkey."
"She has a valiant heart," Caleb agreed. "Despite thinking herself unworthy of one."
"Sounds like somebody else I know."
Caleb gave him a censorious look but must have decided there was no use arguing. Instead, he resumed petting his cat. "Was there something else on your mind?"
Before Molly could answer, a scuffle near the bar drew their eyes. Two individuals were locked in terse conversation. Molly and Caleb exchanged a look. Then Caleb flicked a finger, and Frumpkin hopped down. A hand settled over Mollymauk’s wrist, then mist overtook Caleb’s eyes, and he stared out, narrating quietly. "They are discussing the tournament. The dwarf insists they cannot wait to move the merchandise until afterward, but her companion is saying...he is saying he was not paid enough to risk that, and that – that someone, I cannot hear the name – cannot change their mind now. The dwarf is angry. I cannot hear –"
At the bar, the dwarf made an annoyed, final kind of jab into her companion's chest, and then she stalked off. Left alone at the bar, the man slumped in his seat. He gestured for another ale, drowned it in a long swig, wiped his mouth, and heading for the exit.
Caleb's fingers flexed, and he was back inside himself. "Ah. That was interesting."
"Sounds like our friends in high places have similar ideas about the tournament, using it to keep attention off of sensitive places."
"Yes, but they may have more in mind." Brushing his hands over his chin, Caleb sighed. "I do not cherish these trips for The Gentleman. They have a way of becoming...complicated."
Wasn't that the understatement of the year? "Still, it sounded like whatever it is they’re planning won't go down for a couple of days. We should be good tomorrow. Besides, it's no hair off our nose if they want to move merchandise during the fight. We're here for information, that's all."
"I...I do not know. I have a feeling, a bad feeling. But that is foolish."
"No, no. Instincts are important. A wise person heeds them," Mollymauk said. There was a whisper in his own chest, a premonition. All of a sudden, he wasn't entirely sure of this situation himself. "What did you think of that Talisman character. Can Fjord take him?"
Caleb tensed. "I never liked sorcerers. They have much power, but take little responsibility for it."
Molly could understand where that was coming from, even if it did prickle a bit. His own abilities, much like a sorcerer’s, weren't studied. Still, he liked to think that the price he paid to make use of them granted him a bit more humility and restraint than someone like Talisman. "Are you worried, after what happened? He did threaten you specifically."
Caleb gazed directly at him, and for a moment it reminded Molly of how he looked at Nott. It was brief but sincere, and in that moment, he said, "I will have to trust you to be my shield, ja?"
Molly felt a flutter in his chest. Responsibility. Was he ready for something like that? Yet, ready or not, here was Caleb – the cautious, cagey wizard who trusted no one – offering it to him with the same faith he exhibited when he pressed his hand to Molly's wrist and made himself blind. Resolved, Molly did what he did best. Accepted life as it was and laughed. He reached into his coat. "How do you feel about a reading? I'm getting rusty."
Caleb set aside his book. "I think, perhaps, I should give you a reading.”
Molly's eyebrows flew into his hair. "Mister Caleb, you surprise me. I knew you were a man of many talents, but fortune telling?"
"You already know that Nott and I were conmen for a time," Caleb said. "Still, I freely admit that I lack the...let's call it theatricality that really sells the trick. Still. Let us see if I remember how this is done."
He shuffled the cards with deft hands. They whispered through his fingers, perhaps with less flare than they flew through Molly's, but still with the kind of mesmerizing quality that came from ease of use. Caleb had clearly handled playing cards before, many times. It put a smile on Molly's lips. Traveling with people was so much fun. Everyone was a puzzle, filled up inside with innumerable pieces to be fit together, one by one.
Caleb drew Molly's cards. He turned the first, the one which symbolized the past, the cause of his current situation. "The emperor, symbol of authority and control."
Molly chuckled. "That one isn't hard to interpret. Remember when we used to bust up manticore nests for quaint little villages just because we felt like it? Now look at where we are."
A grin negotiated with the corners of Caleb's mouth. "Perhaps you are right. Next." He flipped the card representing the present. This card spoke of a current problem, and Molly’s playful mood died. Its rendered face seemed to leer at him, and he and his companion grew still. "The fool," Caleb said after a moment. "In its regular sense it may represent free spiritedness, but reversed, it speaks of recklessness and lack of consideration."
They both looked at the last card on the table. Part of Molly didn't want to reveal it, but that wasn't how the game was played. "Turn it," he said.
Caleb did, and a slice of ice went through Molly's heart. The eight of swords. Entrapment, binding, and despair. Caleb cleared his throat. "I don’t really know what I am doing. When I did cold readings before, it was just to keep people's attention long enough for Nott to pick their pockets." He slid the three cards off the table, slipped them back into their box. "It is nothing."
It was true that the cards’ qualities were more imbued by the user than any divine force that Molly knew of. Like Caleb, he had also mostly made interpretations. There was an art to it, and it was great theatre. However, there had been times, more times than he cared to admit, that it spoke to people. He thought it might be that a person saw in the cards what was lurking in their own heart. Worries. Intuitions. The reading merely brought them to the surface. Other times...
He plucked the deck out of Caleb's hand. "No use worrying about it. How about we play a different game? Ever heard of two truths and a lie?"
The almost-smile was back on Caleb's face. "It is as if you are trying to pull information out of me by disguising your ill intentions as a game."
"Me?" Molly pressed his chest, as though scandalized.
The wizard gave a small huff that could almost have been a chuckle. "You have chosen the wrong opponent, Mollymauk Tealeaf. I am an excellent liar."
"We'll see," Molly said.
The rest of the night was long and pleasant. Ale was drunk and more games were played. The only slight damper was a pervasive sense of being watched that Molly felt as an itch on the back of his neck. Yet whenever he searched the spaces of the room, he never saw anything out of the ordinary. Eventually, he shrugged it off and simply ordered another tankard. When they finally turned in for the night, Molly laid on his back, relaxed and comfortably tipsy. The tarot card reading and the prickling feeling had all but faded under the buzz of alcohol and good company and the anticipation of what was to come.
As his mind wandered, he thought, 'Not a bad day. Though I supposed tomorrow the real work will begin.'
Like a watch that had been wound, the timeline for their mission began to tick down as the sun rose the following morning. A hasty breakfast was eaten, and then their three competitors – Beau, Fjord, and Yasha – showed up dutifully for the training exhibition, garnering a fair amount of attention. However, by the time the sun began to set, they relocated to an abandoned warehouse near the baron’s manor. They'd been careful, and Molly felt reasonably sure they would go unseen under cover of darkness.
Everyone was in good spirits, but when it came time to separate, Nott grew restless. "Couldn't you just come with us, Caleb?"
"My friend, I do not have the ability to move silently as you do, and if Frumpkin is going, it’s better I observe from here. He will be out of my range to command, but I have told him to obey you. Please allow him to take the risks. After all, Frumpkin can be brought back with a few sticks of incense and a handful of gold." He touched her chin. "You are much more valuable."
Nott melted; however, the knot of worry on her forehead didn't fade. "It's not me I'm worried about."
"Geez, Nott, what are we? Chopped liver?" Beau tapped her staff aggressively against the ground. "We'll be right here."
"Do you promise? He's very frail, and he doesn't have good survival skills. When he gets distracted, he runs into things, and one time he fell into a ditch because we were walking beside a bookstore, and..."
"Nott," Caleb sighed. "Despite your poor opinion of me, I am not going to fall into a ditch because I am out of your sight for a few hours. I will be fine."
Her grip on his hand intensified. "Do you promise?"
He squeezed back. "Versprochen. Now go with Molly and Yasha and be safe." He looked at the two them. "You will take care of her."
Yasha said, "Of course."
Jester blew them kisses. "Look really hard, Nott, so we can find those papers tomorrow and get out of here. Zadash has much better pastry shops, and last night I think my pillow was filled with rocks."
"I didn't think the beds were all that uncomfortable," Fjord commented.
"Fjord, you used to sleep in a stinky ship. I'm worried you don't really know what it's like to have nice things." Jester shrugged. "Maybe The Gentleman will give us a nice reward so we can afford to stay at The Pillow Trove again. It's not the best place, but it's a lot better than here or The Leaky Tap."
"What's wrong with The Leaky Tap?" Beau wanted to know.
Yasha gave Molly's arm a tug, and he, in turn, nudged Nott. As entertaining as this was, it was time to get this show on the road. Nott looked back once more, then let go. Caleb waved as they rounded the corner, and as they did, Molly’s stomach gave an uneasy turn. Why did he suddenly feel like he was leaving disaster behind him?
The warehouse was dusky with disuse. There were remnants of what it used to be; shadows in the dust-caked floor where machines once sat, a certain smell of packing sawdust and raw textiles. At his nearest guess, Caleb thought it had probably been used to prepare shipments for export to other cities. Perhaps even by those they now hunted, though it was clear this space had gone unused for some time. Even the air felt stale. Now that the sun was almost down, very little light came in from outside, but dust motes still danced in the dying shafts of sun. It wasn’t a very welcoming space, but it had a certain quiet that softened Caleb's shoulders. 'Like a library,' he thought. He'd always liked such places. He didn't mind holing up here at all.
"I am heading up to the second floor," he decided. "If you need anything, jostle me to get my attention."
Fjord clapped his shoulder, which was only a little painful. He had a good gauge on his strength, and was always conscientious. It was just that Caleb was a little bonier than he cared to admit. "Sounds like a plan. We'll hold down the fort."
"Even if it will be super boring," Jester complained. "The festival is much nicer than this place."
Caleb understood her feelings. His current companions were all doers. They found it hard to wait around while others carried out feats. As for himself, he would much rather be out of danger. It was one of the many reasons he loved his cat. As Frumpkin, he could go anywhere. Also, it was often the best way he could serve his friends. Like now. "If you need me to come back, I give you permission to poke me with your staff, Beauregard."
She gave the weapon a little twirl. "Now that's a good offer."
"Do not make me regret it."
He climbed the wooden stairs, which creaked under his weight. This floor was in an even more advanced state of disuse. He wound around stacks of discarded containers and broken furniture, motheaten rolls of burlap, and other detritus. All of it created a kind of shadowy alcove, which was exactly what he needed. Settling on the floor, he leaned against a wall and drew his legs loosely into a crossed position. Then he let go of his mortal body and stretched out to find a different conduit for sense and spirit. Frumpkin welcomed him, carving out a bright shape that he fit into like a perfectly tailored glove. He opened his eyes. They were glassy and blue.
Back in an abandoned warehouse, an all-but-abandoned body hunched against a wall, breathing.
Fjord stood for a long moment over their wizard companion. The man had taken on a lax expression, though there were minute twitches and small movements. At one point, his nose scrunched as though sniffing, and Fjord had to smile. On a human, it was a strange look. He seemed settled, tucked away here in the warehouse’s upper floor, and should be secure for the operation. Not wanting to leave him alone without touching base, Fjord gave Caleb's shoulder a slow, reassuring squeeze: ‘We're here.’
Caleb first tensed, then relaxed. "Fjord," he said in that uncanny way that never ceased to impress. How did he know them without eyes or ears? Was it the strength of his grip, the texture of his callouses, a certain smell? "Is all well?"
Fjord answered with another careful squeeze. "Everything’s just fine," he said, even though he knew that only the movement and not the words would carry.
It seemed enough. Caleb nodded. "Frumpkin is separate from the others. I will let you know if anything important comes up."
Fjord made his way down the rickety stairs to where the others waited. Beau was playing with her staff, keeping it balanced on one finger. "Anything?”
"Not yet, and I suspect it will be a quiet night. They're just reconnoitering."
Jester groaned, throwing herself across a crate. "This is SO boring."
It had to have been the forty-third time Jester made this placative cry, and it was beginning to tax even Fjord’s exhaustive stores of patience. Which isn't to say that he had no sympathy. This kind of stakeout was boring, but it didn't always make sense for the entire group to get involved, especially considering how visible he and Beau needed to be for the plan to go smoothly. If they were spotted near the baron's house, the whole mission could be a bust. It was risky enough just sending Yasha.
"We could be out there, enjoying the parade and dancing and rearranging all the merchandise in the vendor's carts." Jester gazed forlornly toward the not-so-distant celebration. It was everywhere, including outside the warehouse. If he concentrated, Fjord could even smell fried meat and hot buns on the air. Music, too. It had a good beat to it, the kind that reached him on a primal level. He cocked his head, listening.
Beau was the one who suggested it: "I don't see why we can't keep an eye on the place from the street. After all, won't it just make our alibi more believable if someone gets suspicious? You know, that everybody saw us soaking up the atmosphere?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" Jester agreed immediately, "Oh, Beau, you are so smart. That's an absolutely great idea."
Fjord crossed his arms over his chest. "How will Caleb let us know what's happening if we're not here?"
Beau threw her head back. "Have you even seen the guy when he's like this? He's practically comatose. It's like having a lawn gnome. It just sits there and looks kind of creepy and makes you want to kick it over to see if it's alive."
Fjord stared. "You...never mind. I don't want to know. Look, we're supposed to keep an eye out for Caleb. We promised Nott, remember?"
“Yeah, yeah. Of course we'll look out for him. He'll be right here, hiding in the attic where no one will bother him. Besides, if he really needs to tell us something, he can just wake up and come get us. No big deal."
Jester leaned on his arm. "Please, Fjord?"
For a long moment, he withstood their pleading looks – Jester's so sweet it could give you cavities; Beau's narrowed in a way that threatened bodily harm – and then he broke. "Alright," he said. "Just for a half hour or so. Then we come back and check on him. And if he snaps out of it and gets mad, I'm not taking the blame."
"Of course not," Jester soothed. "I will tell him it was my fault. Beau and I, we kidnapped you."
"Yeah, and bought you an ale," Beau said. "You know. After the kidnapping thing."
An ale did sound pretty good. It had been a stressful few days. After his encounter with Talisman, Fjord had started having dreams of his childhood, back when his heritage had been such a burden to him that he committed an act of minor maiming to erase the appearance of his orcish half. Mostly, he'd been able to ignore the uneasiness that altercation had brought on, but in the quiet moments... He gave the loft another glance. The building seemed secure and still. The only movement came from a mouse darting across the far wall and the faint movement of a moth overhead. He relented. "Okay. A half an hour. I'm holding you to it."
Beau sloppily ran her fingers over her chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die," she said, and Jester squealed, already digging around in her haversack.
"I'm going to paint boobs on everything."
Fjord passed the threshold, though not without a twist of guilt in his gut. But it was alright. Caleb was safe, and so were the others. A little merrymaking wouldn't hurt and might even help. Everything was fine.
Chapter 4: Eight of Swords
On the far side of the warehouse, in the docking yard where the light of the village streets did not reach, two figures Passed Unseen. One had the physique of a goliath, grey-skinned and hunched to avoid even starlight. The other was lither, but in a way was more imposing. As he moved, the silver runes on his clothing pulsed. It made his companion shudder, and wasn’t that an indulgent feeling?
Before going farther, Talisman made a final query. "You're sure he's alone?"
The answer came, not from the orcish giant, but from the outline of a shadow. "Yes," Bekkit murmured. Even his voice was insubstantial, and Talisman's lips twisted in contempt.
"Very well. Will you be joining us, dear?"
The gloom twisted, and Talisman savored the discomfort he sensed. "Someone should keep watch. Though I don’t expect you’ll be interrupted."
"Fools.” Talisman had seen the brute stupidity of these people during their first encounter, but it still surprised him this had been so easy.
After the humiliating encounter in the square, Talisman had returned to his well-appointed rooms. The burns on his neck were like the bristles of a wire brush; they spurred him, pricking and twisting until he could think of little else. Perversely, it filled him with a sense of expectancy. A dull, provincial tournament; that’s all he’d expected from Pamell. Now he nursed images of disembowelment, of gristle and bone, in fetishistic detail. He would scrap that fleshbag off his boots and offer up his remains with a prayer. Such thoughts had provided several hours of pleasurable anticipation.
Then he’d discovered the human wasn’t participating in the tournament, and he’d nearly broken his own teeth, grinding them. He’d paced the floor in a sulking furor, destroyed the china washbasin and pitcher by his bed. A sense of being thwarted poisoned him until his mood turned so black that not even Sisk dared approach him.
But Bekkit, useful Bekkit, had found a solution. He'd located the tavern where Fjord and his people were staying, confirmed the wizard was among their party, and reported back, whereupon a seed of cruel intent had put down roots in Talisman’s mind. Now he rubbed his fingertips together, feeling a surge of arcane energy. “Mirdautas vras," he murmured. "Bless my vengeance. Sisk?"
As they pushed inside, they detected no traps. There was no sentry. Only the sounds of an empty building, the faint creaking of wood as it contracted in the night air. Talisman stood, listening and sensing. Behind him, Sisk’s heavy feet fell magically silent. An unnecessary precaution, as it turned out, for when they reached the second floor, they found the wizard more than alone. For Talisman knew the glassy look in those pale, vividly blue eyes, knew the meaning of the lax jaw and expression of profound introspection. This man had a familiar, and he was traveling. To him, Talisman and Sisk were nothing more than vibrations, heat. They could not be seen or heard, only felt. Talisman’s mouth twisted into the smile of an egg-sucker who had found an unprotected brood. His belly grew hot with ready triumph. Yes. He could not have planned a better, more satisfying revenge.
'You have failed more profoundly than words can describe, Fjord. At least if this creature means anything to you,' he thought, looking lustfully at the thin, unguarded throat.
He knelt in front of the vulnerable wizard. It gave him satisfaction that the human fit neatly between his knees. If he’d wanted to make this short, he could have snapped the man's neck. Instead, he breathed. Something, the warmth or the smell, reached beyond the veil. The man stirred and gave a very slow blink, as one in the midst of a dream. His chin tipped, gazing through the enemy looming over him with unseeing eyes, and in a soft, accented voice that Talisman remembered from the square, asked, "Fjord?"
An actual sigh of pleasure slipped from Talisman's lips. It was too perfect. "No, my dear." He lifted two fingers, and in a voice of Power, touched the man's temple. "Lock."
The human jerked as the spell took effect, and a laugh tumbled from Talisman’s mouth. He had no more care for subtlety and watched with relish as the wizard struggled to pull himself back into his body. It would not work. In a panic, his hands shot out to defend himself, but Talisman seized them, bending back the twiggy fingers and drawing forth a bark of pain.
"Sisk," Talisman summoned, and the orc was there in an instant. "Mouth, for the moment."
A giant hand clamped down over the panicked wizard's face even as he began to stammer, attempting to summon aid or fire. Talisman saw the copper wire around his wrist and tore it off, flinging it across the room. He felt the man's cry as it came away.
"Now, now," Talisman said. "We can't have anyone spoiling this, not before I'm finished." Anger pressed against his chest, surging past even his gratification. "No one puts a son of Salvatore on his back. You ran like a coward before I could teach you, but now there’s no escaping. Sisk, the belt and coat. Then hands. You know the way."
A cloth belt took the place of Sisk's hand. However, as Sisk moved to bind the wizard’s wrists, a scorched odor filled the air. Sisk grunted, then squeezed. Something popped, and there was a muffled shriek. After that, the cord wound without resistance around dislocated bone. "Done," Sisk grunted. The coat, belt, and component pouch were thrown out of reach. He tossed the boots as well. It was an understandable precaution; Sisk had been half-blinded by a mage who kept a twist of sulfur in the heel of his shoe.
Talisman took the wizard's face between his hands. "Do you know me? I do so want you to know." He pressed against the stubbled jaw, resting their faces together so that a tusk brushed the man's cheek. The human stiffened, and Talisman smiled. "Ah. There it is." He took the time to mutter a spell under his breath, feeling the walls of silence close around them, then yanked the gag free.
Having reclaimed his voice, their captive begged, "Let – let me go. I have no quarrel with you."
Talisman backhanded him. He could see the bruise blooming against his cheekbone. It would swell in moments, he had so little flesh on him. A poor specimen, even with his meager magic. This was no sorcerer. Just a poor little mouse who had ferreted away a few tricks from dusty tomes and learned to speak in a tongue his fleshy lips had no right to utter. 'I should cut off those lips,' Talisman thought.
"Did you hear that, Sisk? It thinks itself worthy of a quarrel with me. No, this is about punishment. For you, and for that milk-blood Fjord. He looks the sentimental type, squalling over street urchins. What do you do for him? Is it just your clever fingers? Or is there more – what did that tiefling call you? Caleb?"
Of course, the human could hear none of this, not even his name. It didn't matter. His nerve endings were functional, and that was enough. Sisk had sensed were this was going, and his bloodlust was rising. His hands kept tightening and slackening around the Caleb’s arms, like tenderizing meat. Talisman enjoyed feeding that need for violence, would gladly feed it now, but first...
He pressed his hands together and rubbed until sparks traveled through them. "Hands off, Sisk," he said and dug his nails in like talons, sending a stream of pure energy racing into the body of the bound human wizard.
Oh, how he thrashed under Talisman's fingers. His scream was high and beautiful. Under ordinary circumstances, it might have been heard, but that did not matter with Talisman's spell in place. The silence would hold his voice, keeping it for Talisman's ears alone. It could swell to fill all the spaces, but not a soul would answer. That was an exquisite loneliness, was it not?
The Shocking Grasp eventually faded, and Talisman could see how weak his prey was already. One measly cantrip and already he sagged, eyes shot through with broken capillaries. Pathetic.
Talisman drew a long, slim dagger from his belt. He traced the edge with one finger. "I've been wanting to try this, but sadly it’s more of a defensive maneuver, since most can maneuver to avoid its area of effect. But you won’t have that problem. Would you like to see? They call it Cloud of Daggers."
A hundred or more sharp and stinging objects materialized, flashing and twisting in the air. Having found their target, the daggers – like a swarm of living insects – penetrated, twisted, and furrowed. Instantly, the floorboards were wet with blood. The wizard’s voice rose, near the edge of endurance. By the time Talisman snapped his fingers, dispelling the magic, he had gone silent. Talisman surveyed his handiwork. In place of the human who had gone under his knives, there was now a mess of quivering meat. It bled, runny ichor streaking from stretches of ruined tissue.
Talisman took a moment to drink it in. Then he let out a sigh. It was too much, unfortunately. That would kill, and he wasn't done yet. He reached down and called on an ability that came, not from his blood, but from his devotion. The spell hit his captive, who convulsed. Like a needle through sailcloth, the worst wounds formed evil seams. Pink, hot scars formed.
In the end, the wizard lay on his back, gasping, sickened to the crux of spirt and soul, but alive. Talisman stepped back. "There now. All better."
Sisk was looking at him, rubbing his arm. Yes, he knew the cruelty of that spell, with its unique flavor of curative power. He remembered it by his own scars, and now he looked at his master with wary remembrance. Talisman enjoyed his fear. "Pull him up," he ordered.
Afterward, Talisman straddled Caleb as his eyelids fluttered like moths. The man wet his lips, searching for words. "W-why?"
"Why?" Talisman took his time with the question. "Many reasons. Because your leader annoyed me, and I want to make him sorry. Because it satisfies me to take apart my enemies with my own hands. Because what is power if it lays fallow and unused?"
Caleb blinked, gears shifting like clockwork behind absent eyes. He gazed straight ahead, and in that moment it was almost as if he were looking directly at Talisman. His jaw set. "It is weak people who attack the defenseless."
Rage flared up, and Talisman struck the wizard again. "Smart, aren't you?" he hissed. "Too smart for you own good. Well, let's dissect that pretty brain of yours and see what you have inside." He slid a copper coin out of his pocket, pressed it to the man's temple. "Won't you oblige me?"
With a word, he shoved into the man's mind. The surface thoughts came easily, though they were so slipstream, so like silver fish in a fast-moving body of water, that at first he had trouble grasping them. But there was something...something smoldering under the brittle, unimpressive shell this mind inhabited, something like the blackest parts of a well or the inside of a star. Places no one was supposed to see. Intrigued, Talisman pressed in further.
Except, where he had curled up and taken the abuse before, now Caleb fought. His leg lurched in a jerky but purposeful thrust, taking Talisman in the hip and making him lose his grip. "Sisk!" he snarled. "Take care of that leg."
This time the popping was more like a crunch, and the wizard wailed. Talisman watched the muscles of his leg twitch and bunch in an attempt to escape the pain. Only when he slackened did Talisman reclaim the sweaty temples, copper pressing like a brand, and cast his spell again. He expected it to be easy this time, but his captive had a trained mind and resisted the incursion with a strength that surprised him. He pressed a boot into Caleb’s leg, winning a cruel victory in the form of a shattered cry. Talisman seized his opportunity as the besieged mind faltered, shoving until a fragment of what lay deep, deep down became known to him.
What he found he only particularly understood. Fire, a great deal of it. It both illuminated and burned, snapping cruelly around even the gentlest memories. Faces, both friends and foes. This man Caleb had noteworthy examples of each, although the categories were confused. In some ways, the foes seemed friends and the friends seemed foes. A man with steel in his eyes and pain-bringing hands. Two beloved souls that spoke in an unknown tongue. A leader, green with hands that smelled like salt. A bubbly, taunting tiefling. Fellow human, fellow child of the empire. Another tiefling, a helper who came sometimes with a slap and other times with a kiss. And the little thief, who Talisman recognized well enough, even tinged as she was by the strangest familial feeling.
Underneath it all was the sense of a great, burdensome secret. Something both past and future, always in the periphery of this man's mind. Something he was driving for, something that drove him, something dangerous, world-altering, unnatural...
With sudden force, Caleb shoved the intruder from his mind. Talisman grunted, stuck by a blinding headache. He knew he didn’t dare delve so deep again. One thing had become crystal clear, though. Whatever else drove this man, he was full of one thing. Talisman reached into his pocket and withdrew a white feather. He looked down at the man on the ground. "You deserve this," he said.
The feather crunched between his knuckles, and he evoked Fear.
He didn't know what the wizard saw – a man’s worst fears were his own – but this bile must have been impressive, because even with his broken leg, Celeb tried to run. It was compulsion, raw animal instinct, and when he failed, he curled up as tightly as he could and wept bitterly. In a voice that was guttural and foreign, he cried out, "Nein, nein, nein!"
Talisman watched impassively while Sisk lurked at the edges. He knew the spell had run its course when the wretched tone waned to hiccups. Talisman toed the prostrate wizard. The response was a reflexive flinch, nothing more. No matter. They were almost done. He locked eyes with Sisk, who moved into place, drawing the wizard into his arms. Talisman searched for his knife. It had fallen to the floor. He picked it up and flicked blood onto the ground.
"You know, I could simply kill you. In a way, it would be kinder. It's true you angered me, but if I'm being truthful, you're beneath my notice. That makes me want to kill you. But I can't, you see? I need your companions to discover you, to slick their boots in warm blood, to feel their skin creep with horror. You understand that, don't you?"
The wizard gave a little jerk, something of consciousness returning. His eyes, glazed with pain, wandered. He licked crackled lips, whispered. "You are going to die for this.”
Talisman yanked Caleb’s head back by the hair. "What?"
"My...my friends...they will kill you. There are...more of us. The ones who were gone...they will destroy you…for hurting us."
Talisman actually laughed. "Is that what you think? That your friends fell defending you? Oh, dear one. What a sad disillusionment you will have if you survive to experience it." His knife caught the light. "What do you think, Sisk? I think – the hands. We will maim him as his little thief should have been maimed, a fitting lesson. Is it not perfect?"
Sisk’s grip tightened. "You need serrated knife."
"No. I'll just cut through the soft tissue. You can snap the little bones, can't you?"
Muscles corded as Talisman maneuvered the arm into place, but the wizard was so weak his resistance was like an anxious child’s, being drawn to bed. Talisman turned the wrist, thumbed the smooth flesh over the pulse point. He waited until Sisk fixed a tourniquet and the fingers began to blue. Then he looked into Caleb’s face. Delicate veins threaded his eyelids. Blood oozed from bitten lips.
Talisman let the warmth of his breath mist so that the half-lidded eyes snapped toward him. Their gazes met across planes of existence. Talisman poised the knife on a prominent bone in the wrist. "If you live, I hope you remember this," he said, and he made his first cut.
What came after was filled with sound. Yet outside the cone of silence, nothing.
Mollymauk had a bad feeling. It started near midnight while he was standing a block away from the manor. His stomach, which had been uneasy since they left, slowly tightened until he was overcome by an anxiety that had no source, no reference point. Why? He looked up at the moon, which was darting in and out of cloud cover, and felt a powerful sense of premonition.
A shadow moved at his back. "Yes?"
"Something feels wrong. We need to call it a night." He kept his voice as casual as he could; nonetheless, his friend seemed to sense the profundity of his mood. She considered it, then disappeared without a word. They'd arranged a system by which Nott would check with them via Message at regular intervals, and he heard Yasha murmuring.
She returned. "Nott's coming."
It took a quarter of an hour, during which time Molly wanted to peel himself out of this own flesh. Nott showed up looking perplexed and wary. "Why did you call me back? I had another wing to go, and there wasn't a soul in sight."
"Molly feels we should leave this place for the night."
Was that it? Molly searched himself, realized it wasn't quite. "We need to get back to the others," he corrected, hoping they didn't demand an explanation. Gods, he felt crazy. Yet he couldn't stop fidgeting, his hands and feet twitching with the desire to be gone.
The two women shared a long glance. He waited, beseeching. Finally, Yasha – the one person in his life who knew him too deeply to doubt, who never demanded what he could not give – nodded. "Of course. Lead the way."
The crowds made it easy to blend in, so there was no need for subterfuge once they hit the streets. Molly set a challenging pace, abandoning his usual languid gait for something more insistent. Soon, he was near a run. Nott jogged in Yasha's shadow. "Molly, do we really need to go this fast? Did the others say something?"
"I don't know," was all he could say. "I don't –"
A flash of orange caught the edge of his vision, stopping him mid-step. He moved away from the crowd, into an alleyway. There were barrels of trash, a spool of heavy cord. He knelt by the later, looking into the gloom it created, and saw a huddled animal. Its ears were flat against its head, its paws drawn tight, and it was shuddering violently. Nott drew a sharp breath. "Frumpkin? But what is he doing here? He's supposed to be spying on the other hallways."
With incredible gentleness, Molly reached under the spool. He half-expected the animal to lash out, but it didn't respond as Molly drew it into his arms. It just stared out, and that was when Molly recognized the eyes, which were a deep, penetrating blue. His heart stuttered. "Caleb?"
A ripple went through the muscles of the animal, a tremble that was neither animal nor fey, but human. Nott scrabbled, drawing him down so she could press close. "Caleb, Caleb, is that you? What's wrong? Did something happen to Frumpkin?"
The warm body of the animal was pressed against him, and Molly moved his fingers through its fur, looking for any sign of a wound. There was nothing, not that a wound made sense. If Frumpkin had been hurt, Caleb could simply abort the mission and snap him back into the Feywild. Why, then, was he here in an alleyway, paralyzed and hiding? "There's nothing wrong with Frumpkin, but this looks – it looks like trauma, or pain."
Nott's spine snapped taut. "If it's not Frumpkin..."
Mollymauk's throat knotted. Yasha was already moving. Out of the ally and into the press, which parted around her much more easily than it had for Molly. Her eyes had a wild look, and her hand was on the hilt of her sword. Nott and Molly darted behind her.
"We're coming," Molly mumbled into orange fur as he ran. "Just be alive when we get there. Dammit, Caleb, we're coming."
Frumpkin laid in his arms and didn’t move.
Chapter 5: Spare the Dying
It took them longer than they wanted. Even with Yasha taking point, the street was packed with people. Torchlight gleamed on every twinkling eye, and music spun like a dervish. To the three travelers, it took on a distorted, nightmarish quality. 'Like the circus on rainy days,' Mollymauk thought. When the moist heat pressed on empty bleachers and a veil of rain made those inside feel too close and hot and wedged in. Like a fever dream, where familiar faces became fiends and light and heat became daggers.
Finally they reached the warehouse. It was a dark shape against the otherwise brightly lit shops and awnings. On the street in front of it, a lively folk reel was in progress. Jester was amongst the dancers. Her face was lit up as she fumbled the footwork, smiling at her neighbor with flirty, fluttering lashes. Nearby, Beau and Fjord looked on with flagons in their fists. There was no urgency, no concern in their posture. They lifted their cups. Cheers.
Rage, blistering with heat. Molly got into their faces. "Where’s Caleb?"
"Molly?" Chagrin was written all over Fjord’s face. He set his tankard down immediately.
Beau held on to hers, jaw set with defiance. It was her natural reaction to guilt. "What's the big deal?"
Yasha and Nott had already rounded the building, but Molly took the time to say, "I swear, if he's dead while you chuckleheads were out here having a great time, it will take the blood in the Gentleman’s vials to find what’s left of you."
Beau's incredulous voice trailed behind him as he disappeared onto the side road, through the gap in the wall, and so into the empty building. Only belatedly he remembered to draw his weapon. His eyes swung around the darkness, which by now had become so intense that even his enhanced senses were dim. "Yasha?"
She lifted her head. "I have the ground floor. Nott's on the exterior. Go up."
He took the stairs, heavy planks warped by passage and time. At the top he found a scuffmark. A stranger had passed here. He set down Frumpkin. He couldn't risk holding the animal if an enemy lurked somewhere. Still, he paused long enough to press the tiny head, and whispered, "I'm here, Caleb," before laying his own foot, his senses trained for the slightest movement.
Instead he found blood. It caked the wood, mixed with dust in gritty runnels. The toe of his boot came up with a tacky, peeling sound – it was old enough to be partially congealed. And the quantity...it looked like someone had slaughtered an animal. He wanted to bellow for the others. Instead, his eyes flew over walls and surfaces. The signs of what happened lit up like beacons, as intelligible to him as letters to a literate man.
Caleb had been settled against a back wall. There was evidence off where he was sitting. The struggle had also started here. The dustcover had been thrashed away. A box had been knocked over, packing hay spilled and stirred. There were signs of dragging. Gouges in the floor as though many knifes had been rained down, but that made no sense. And unless someone had been gutted, it wouldn't account for...for all of this.
That was when he saw the streak of blood, like water threshed with a broom. It was darker in places and wispy in others, like someone had crawled, pausing and starting. It lead to several stacks of crates. There was a crevice between them, too narrow for a fully grown man. Molly probably couldn’t get further than his shoulder. But it might, just might, be wide enough for a skinny wizard. As he approached, Molly’s footfalls felt loud to him. There was no other sound, not even the mice. He touched the nearest crate, throat thick with conflicting desires. The blood...this wasn't a trail he wanted to find a friend at the end of, but was that worse than finding nothing it all?
He knelt, eyes searching the darkness. It was pitch black, and he cursed. Then he caught sight of a lantern hanging on the wall. He fumbled for flint as he drew it from its peg. It was hard to tell, but it looked as though there was fuel. He tried, and the wick caught. Soft light filled the room, which he surveyed once more, though he was almost certain that whatever threat had been here was gone. The question was, was their friend gone, too?
The crevice beckoned. This time, when he extended the lantern inside, it caught the tail of a sodden tunic, bordering a crescent-shaped stripe of freckled flesh. Mollymauk’s breath caught. "Caleb?"
There was a near-human moan from behind him, and he turned to see Frumpkin lying on his side, staring at him with blue, blue eyes.
"Nott!" he screamed at the top of his voice, giving up entirely on stealth. By the time she reached him, he had already tried wedging himself into the hidey-hole, but he could go no further without getting stuck. His efforts to move the crates had also failed. They were too heavy to shift.
A small body thumped against him. He could feel her claws skittering as she tried to shove him out of the way. "What's wrong. Where is he? Is he hurt?"
"There," Molly managed to say. "I can't get closer."
She disappeared before another flicker had passed. Molly pressed the lantern further, listening when his eyes failed him. He knew when Nott reached the end because she burst into tears. "Caleb! Oh, Caleb. Caleb, Caleb, Caleb!"
"Don't shake him, Nott," Mollymauk said, shoving against the immoveable crates. He bellowed over his shoulder, "Yasha! I need you! Nott, can you bring him closer?"
She was crying so hard she could barely speak. "I can't. His leg, Molly. If I pull... It's too tight in here. But he's hurt, he's hurt, he's hurt – Caleb!"
"Just hold on," Molly grunted, bracing against the wall and trying to get his foot wedged in. The topmost crate rattled, he froze. He dared not risk a collapse. Then large arms entered his periphery, and Yasha began moving boxes without being told. Molly joined her just as more footsteps crowded the warehouse. He saw Fjord first, his skin reflecting strangely in the low lighting. His eyes tracked the floor, darted to the obvious signs of a struggle, then broadcasted stricken horror.
"Caleb," he said.
"Yes, you bastard," Molly said, flashing his teeth at him even as he tugged at a wooden box which had to be lined with lead it was so heavy. "Where were you?"
Fjord opened his mouth to answer, but Yasha spoke before he could. "Not the time," she said, and Fjord rushed to take the other side of the crate. Part of Molly wanted to refuse his help, but Yasha was right. They needed to reach Caleb and get him proper healing. There would be time for sorting out blame later, once they’d seen to their own.
Finally, they saw Nott's hunched back. She looked over her shoulder, eyes over-bright with tears. "Help.”
"Gods," Fjord said, and Molly wholeheartedly agreed. In fact, his own epitaphs were considerably stronger.
What they found with Nott was a huddled figure, folded inward to protect his vulnerable places. The ginger hair, the stubble-scrapped jaw, the shape of his spine and shoulders. They were familiar in every way expect for their stillness. Hair hung down into his face, obscuring it, but still the shadow of bruises stood out. It was clear he’d taken a beating. Worse still, he wasn't responsive.
Molly exhaled. "Is...is..." He couldn't form the words.
A tear molded itself to Nott's nose. "I can hear him breathing, but it sounds bad.”
Yasha reached. "Shift out of the way, Nott."
Caleb had never looked so small as he did in Yasha's arms. He’d lost his coat and belt, and his feet were bare. As his head lolled, Molly got a glimpse of slitted eyes, staring at nothing. Behind him, he heard Jester gasp as she got her first look, and Beau said, "Holy shit."
There was no time for shock. Mollymauk’s mind was racing. "Bring Frumpkin over here.” Frumpkin always grounded Caleb. Maybe if they put them together, it would help. It was Beau who put the animal in his hands, and he leaned toward the huddled wizard. "Yasha, can you uncurl him? I want to put Frumpkin on his chest."
She did, and then...then…
The smell hit him first. Blood-smell. Not the odor of the room or the half-dried mess on the floor. This was thick and metallic, fresh, and copious. Next he saw red. A swath of it, painted across Caleb's stomach. At first, Molly thought he’d been gutted. What else could cause that much bleeding? Then, too slowly by far, his mind assembled the input, and he saw – really saw – what was wrong. Gorge rose so violently in his throat he twisted around, hands clasped over his mouth as his gag reflex kicked in. It took absolutely everything in him not to throw up.
Through ringing ears, he heard Nott wail.
Beau was cursing when he came back to his senses. A long litany of vulgarity, one after another. She was pacing, hands on her forehead. Molly turned back to Caleb, tilted back in Yasha's grasp. His mutilated arms were on full display, laying across his midsection. They'd taken his hands. Oh, gods. Molly came to himself with a gasp, the world solidifying, his horror taking a back seat to what needed to be done. "Jester!"
She was sobbing as she joined him, her hands outstretched. "Oh, oh. I don't know what to do!"
Fjord was beside her. "Assess then assist. Remember, Jester?"
She drew a shaky breath. "Shakäste told me that."
"Yes he did. I was listening. Do it now, and hurry. Not hasty, mind. Just – we can't wait."
The words anchored Jester enough to do her work. She closed her eyes and tapped into whatever senses let her see into an injured body. More than once, her face twisted, but it was only when she placed a hand on his head that her eyes jerked open. Her cheeks were wet. "He's so hurt, guys."
"Heal him," Molly said.
"I don't know if I should. I mean, I could heal the –" she staggered. "But It wouldn't really fix things. Even if I just try to heal the others parts, I'm not sure I could control where my magic goes."
Molly shook his head. No, they couldn't let that happened. It would mean crippling him. "What if we found his hands?" He heard Nott, who had been seemingly paralyzed, jerk back to life. She darted off into the shadows, and he heard her crashing around, feverishly searching. His heart thumped with an awful hope. He'd heard of magic that could restore limbs, even regrow them.
But Jester was shaking her head. "I don't know Regenerate. It's a very advanced spell. If I try, I could mess it up so badly."
"What's wrong with his eyes?" Until now, Caleb’s near comatose state had only seemed expected, but Fjord's words put in mind all the things that had felt wrong since finding Frumpkin huddled in an alley. That was when it hit him. Cat. The cat, Caleb's familiar.
"Those bastards," Molly whispered, sick with understanding. "He's still scrying."
And all of a sudden, what happened was all too clear. While he was defenseless, his eyes sealed and his ears closed, an enemy had come upon Caleb and trapped him in his own head. Then they had mutilated him while he remained in a world where only sensation was possible.
Fjord had realized, too, but unlike Molly, he was unable to fight the nausea back. At least he took himself away from their huddle to be sick. The air was already thick with bodily fluids. Anything more, and Molly didn't know if he could’ve taken it. "Jester, if you can't heal him, we need to get him to someone who can."
Jester was wringing her hands. "But who? Pamell’s not very big. There's no temple."
"The tournament," Yasha said. She cradled Caleb, pressing his head to her breast. "It starts tomorrow. They wouldn't dare begin without an experienced cleric on hand."
Molly lifted the orange tabby from the ground and pressed its limp form under Caleb's chin. Neither animal nor man reacted, but it eased something in Molly's mind. If it was true that Caleb's only sense of sight and hearing was through his familiar, it was better they were together.
Beau led the way, knuckles white around her staff. Nott stopped Molly at the top of the stairs, a bundle of cloth in her hands. He lifted a corner, saw the shredded flesh, and had to fight once more not to be sick. He folded the fabric back down and swallowed. "Good, Nott," he said, even as he grieved. "We'll need them."
"Molly," Fjord said hoarsely.
Mollymauk ignored him, heading down the stairs with Nott close behind.
At first, the men at the gate were reluctant to grant them an audience. It was only by pure chance that a more senior guard wandered over to check on the commotion, and, sensing their desperation, sent for the head cleric. The cleric herself was a half-elf, silvering at the temples and clothed in a priest’s robes. She took one look at Caleb and ordered the guards to let them in.
There was a small chapel in the manor, and it was there they placed Caleb. Molly sensed Yasha’s need to step away, to breathe clean air, and took her place. As he watched, the healer laid a hand on Caleb’s head, eyes fluttering shut. When she opened them, her face was grim.
A teeny voice, cracked with anxiety, asked, "Can you help him?" Nott offered her pitiful package, and in her moment of great need, Molly realized she wasn’t wearing her mask or any other form of disguise. He braced himself for some sort of backlash.
For a long moment, the cleric didn’t speak. Then she took the bloodied fabric from Nott’s hands. "I will do all I can. Are you his daughter?"
Nott swallowed. The weight of what was between her and Caleb was too big to explain to a stranger, would likely be misunderstood even if she tried. So she settled. "He's mine."
She nodded as though that did not surprise her. "Then I must recommend you step outside. It will do you harm to watch, and my assistants need space. The rest of you should leave as well."
There was initial resistance, but Fjord put one hand on Jester and the other on Beau. "We'll wait in the courtyard."
"Like hell I'm leaving," Beau snarled. "This lady could do anything."
"Beau," Fjord said, stopping her even as tears began to track down Jester's cheeks. "We're going to do what's best for Caleb."
Molly couldn't help the snort that tore from his mouth, and his friend – if he could still be called a friend – shot him a wounded look. Molly didn’t care. Let him be wounded. Nott made no move to go, and when someone reached for her, the growl she loosed wasn't even passably non-goblin. Her eyes were fixed on Caleb, unwilling to be separated but desperate to do what was in his best interest.
Molly caught her eye. "Fear not, friend Nott" he said in soft parody of earlier words. "I won't leave him."
It was enough. She brushed past Fjord into the corridor, leaving Molly alone with the healer, two adepts, and Caleb. Without the chaos of everyone’s swirling emotions, the air seemed still. Molly spoke into it, his voice thin as it hung between them. "Can you really help?"
"I can, though I will not lie. I'm not sure how deep the wounding goes or how completely he can be made well. There’s been magic worked upon his mind as well as his body. That must be removed first."
"I've never heard of someone being trapped like this."
"It would take a wicked mind to conceive of such a thing," the cleric agreed.
A snarl rose in Molly’s throat. "The butcher who did this will pay."
"Let’s think of your friend’s wellbeing before plotting revenge, shall we?" The cleric’s voice was gentle despite the admonition pressed beneath it. To her aides, one of whom was holding Nott's bundle, she said, "Ready yourselves." And to Molly: "Hold him firmly. I don't know how he will react."
Molly obeyed. "Do it."
The cleric evoked her divine gift, tracing slow runes on Caleb's skin. For a moment, there was only radiant light and the smell of cloves, and then, suddenly, all magic affecting Caleb's person was dispelled. He took a deep, greedy breath as though surfacing after a long time underwater, and Frumpkin came alive, springing up with ungodly yowl and darting away to skulk in a corner. There the animal stood, a bristling mass of fur, hissing like a kettle. In Molly's arms, a noise worked its way out of Caleb’s throat, guttural and barely human. Caleb keened.
The healers were a flurry of motion, and belatedly Molly realized there was a fresh glut of blood. Had some magic kept him stabilized until now? 'They wanted us to find him,' Mollymauk realized. 'Whoever it was, they didn't want us to find a corpse. They wanted us to be with him while he was dying.'
The other assistant was chanting rapidly under his breath, deft fingers and celestial words urging bone and tendon together. Molly had to look away. He ended up staring at the half-elf cleric, whose forehead was beaded with sweat. At one point she pulled away, breathing heavily, but before Molly could become afraid, her hand was back. It was a tense, near-invisible fight with death. Molly pressed Caleb's forehead under his chin and whispered half-understood words in all the languages he knew: common, carnie, even infernal. He hummed a Zemnian drinking song. Mostly, though, he held on, hoping that by doing so he could anchor Caleb long enough for these strangers to knit together the worst rifts and keep his spirit in the same plane as the rest of them.
Chapter 6: Stress Fractures
Two hours later, Molly emerged into the courtyard. He saw Fjord first, sitting against a wall with his face in his hands. On another occasion, Molly might have felt compassion. Might even have shoved a tankard in his hands and invited him to share his woes in that brisk, light way that Fjord seemed to prefer. Molly liked to believe he knew the man and his burdens well, but on this night he had no sympathy to spare for the shame Fjord wore like the tassels on his armor. "He's alive," he said as they drew close. "They also saved his hands, though they don't know yet how 'settled' that healing will be. With luck, he'll have full use of them."
A wet and wavering smile lightened Jester’s face. "That is good news."
"They're letting him stay overnight. The cleric – Johann – wants him close in case he relapses."
Nott pressed against his coat. "Can I see him?"
Molly nodded without hesitation, certain she wouldn’t be stopped or harassed. Left alone with those who remained, he felt suppressed anger come closer to the surface and start forming bubbles. The first of them blistered: "Well, what do you have to say?"
His voice was raspy, not unlike the curses he flung at their enemies, and he saw them flinch. All but Yasha. She said nothing, but he knew she was listening. It was Beau who answered. Agitated, she drummed her fingers, averted her eyes. "We just stepped outside for a bit. I did a perimeter check, like, five minutes before we left. It was quiet."
"And you were bored, weren't you? So you left and joined the party. Gods, he trusted you. How could you leave him by himself?"
Beau's cry was tinged with frustration. "We didn’t leave him. We were right there."
"Yes, you were right there," Molly growled. "Yards away while he was…was… Don't you think he screamed for help? Don't you think he waited for you to come?"
"Then why didn't we hear him?"
"Magic," said Fjord, speaking for the first time. He sounded wretched. "They must have silenced him. That’s why we couldn't hear a thing."
It was the likeliest scenario. Molly could imagine it. Caleb's face as he realized someone was in the room with him, waiting trustingly for the touch that would let him know which of them it was. How long had it taken for him to realize it was a stranger and not a friend? Not long. Gods, it could not have taken long.
He slammed Fjord. "I've been letting you take the lead because I thought you were sensible. I thought you cared enough about doing the right thing to keep this bunch of misfits from going too far outside the law and still make a little cash on the side. And you know what? I was even starting to think we could be more than that. I was starting to think this – this thing we're doing could be like the circus. A half-baked, weird kind of family who at least looked out for one another when no one else did. Was I wrong about that, Fjord?"
"No, you weren't. I haven't had a lot of people in my life I really cared about, but –"
"But you do care, right, Fjord?" Jester pipped up in a small voice. "We are a family, right?"
His eyes softened when he looked at her. It was difficult not to when she sounded like that; not silly or sweet, but like the affection-starved young woman she was under the ruffles and pranks. Had Molly not had blood under his fingernails, he might have softened, too. Fjord said, "Of course, Jester. At least as near to one as I've ever had. What about you, Beau?"
Beau gave a pebble a kick, and Molly heard it ricochet off an unseen surface. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, this ain't just a money thing for me. Not anymore."
"If that's the case," Yasha said. "We need to think a bit more about what our choices mean for the group."
Beau scoffed. "Like Caleb and Nott? The two of them would take the magical shoes off our feet and the buttons off our blouses if we weren't looking. I'd hardly call them team players."
"That's not fair," Molly said, though he felt a prick of conviction, remembering a time when he'd felt the same. After all, he was the one who’d cornered Caleb outside the sewers of Zadash about withholding loot and had then charmed Nott to pry into her secrets. Worst of all was the tense conversation they'd had in the wake of the Xhorhasian disaster, skin still singed from the heat of the High Richter’s house and nerves like livewires. They'd cornered Nott then, and in his genuine anger (and fear, fear that he'd made the worst mistake of his life, tying himself to these people), Molly had said things he regretted. He'd made mistakes, is what he was saying. He’d been trying to read Caleb and Nott like they were written in Common, but neither of them were common.
To the others, he said, "They express it differently, but both of them care."
"Care about gold or paper and ink, maybe."
Molly’s temper flared. "If you're going to be stupid, Beau, then you ought to keep your mouth shut."
Her feathers ruffled, but before either of them could get into it, Fjord interrupted. "Stop, stop. I think Molly's right. I've had my doubts, especially about Caleb, and I'm still not sure I trust him. But when the cards are down, he's been there. He carries his weight."
"We are back to talking like this is a party, not a family," Jester said sadly. "I don't think it is just a party. I don't care about weight. I just want him to be okay, and he and Nott are more okay with us than by themselves, right?"
Molly had honestly, candidly believed that to be true, but tonight had rocked his faith. Were Nott and Caleb really safer with them? Were any of them safer together?
"What about your promise to Nott? You knew from the minute they started traveling with us how badly they’d been treated. And, hell, maybe you didn't care back then. Now, though? You can't tell me you don't know what a big deal it is that Nott doesn't check her food before she eats or that Caleb lets himself get drunk enough to fumble secrets. We've been telling them for weeks they're safe with us, and they were starting to believe it. Then you left him."
“That’s not fair!”
“Oh, yeah? And what exactly seems fair about any of this to you, Beau?”
Yasha spoke this time. "Arguing will not change what happened. One of our friends is hurt, and we have to think about him right now. When Caleb is well, we can mend fences."
"What if this is too much? What if this is the final straw?" Molly felt ugly even mentioning it, but his very real fear goaded him. Suppose Caleb simply wasn't able to assimilate what happened. What if he never woke up? Or what if he did, and he still had that thousand-mile stare, as though he’d never returned from the Feywild or wherever it was he’d been trapped. What if he hobbled away from them with Nott clinging to his half-functioning hands?
"He will be well," Yasha said with a certainty Molly didn't feel. "I think he finds it safer to hide his strength behind a facade of weakness, like he uses dirt to go unseen, but he’s not so fragile as that.”
Her words made Molly think of the steely-eyed Caleb who'd emerged in defense of Nott, the one who stood ramrod straight, like a soldier, and dispensed destruction without a hint of hesitation. He didn't know that Caleb. He'd seen glimpses only. But that part did exist. Was Yasha right? Would that inner strength surface, even under such extreme circumstances?
Jester’s usually bombastic voice was small. "We didn’t mean to hurt him."
"Well, intentions don't mean a damn thing when it comes down to it, do they?"
"You don't even believe that," Beau groused.
And she might have been right, but in that moment, Moly didn't care. He turned his back and walked away.
Beau and Fjord stood side by side. Both were absorbed in thoughts of their own, but as the stars sunk low, Beau spoke. "Who do you think did it?" Like mist, the question settled around their ankles. Released from their unspoken thoughts, it began taking up more and more space. She cleared her throat. "One of Baron Urim's people?"
Fjord's gazed at the ground. "We wouldn't be standing here if that was the case. He's a smuggler, and maybe an informant, but not the kind to – to do what was done to Caleb. That was someone with a grudge."
Behind them, near but separate, Yasha lifted her chin. "The sorcerer."
Fjord sighed. "I imagine so."
"But how? He had some skills," Beau said, "but that doesn't explain why he'd want to do this. I mean, we had some little tiff over a stupid tournament. So what?"
Quietly, Yasha said, "We saw his ego, and perhaps that was justification enough for him. However, my gut is telling me that if this were just about vengeance, Caleb would not be hurt. He would be dead." The truth of her words resonated, difficult as they were to accept. It meant mercy would’ve been finding a body, because survival was deemed worse. None of them wanted to believe that could be the case, but the evidence, the strong suggestion that worse than they could imagine had taken place in that alcove above the warehouse floor...
Beau’s teeth ground together. "I'll kill him."
"I'm not sure if now is the best time for that.”
"When would be a better time? It's not as though we're doing any good here. When he wakes up, Caleb might not even want to see us." Beau kicked another stone, and the resulting crack echoed like a shot from those strange gunpowder projectile weapons. Fjord winced, but she carried on regardless. "If we've messed everything up, we can at least make sure he never has to worry about that bastard ever again. Right?"
Yasha pushed away from the wall. She gazed at the night sky. A fringe of clouds was there, and the wind stirred her hair. "Caleb has his own way of thinking about things, so I don’t know if it will matter to him. But I would find it...satisfying to find this man and see that he's served the full measure of justice for what he's done."
"Hell, yeah," Beau agreed. "Fjord?"
Fjord’s features were poorly visible, and whatever he felt, it remained hidden for several heartbeats. Then he stretched his hand into the night, and his falchion appeared. Yellow eyes pierced the dark. "Let's get it done."
Molly found himself pacing the halls of the baron’s manor. No one stopped him, and the few people he saw merely glanced at him fleetingly with expressions of pity rather than suspicion. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, he became too exhausted to go any further, and his weary steps turned toward the sickroom where Caleb had been placed.
He found Jester at his bedside.
She was holding his hand, flexing and bending his fingers. By every appearance, they were as they had always been, lightly freckled on the back, dark at the fingertips, heat-calloused at the palm. And firmly attached to Caleb's wrists. On the wrists themselves there was some evidence of what had happened. Thin scars, pink and raised, like bracelets. Jester saw him looking. "The internal bleeding was more urgent, and the adept wasn't so experienced with Regenerate. That's why there's a mark. But the healer said it will fade. She sounded very sure."
Molly spotted Nott. Her bristly hair was a tuft sticking out from Caleb's armpit. She didn't stir when he tucked her bangs out of her face. The room was peaceful and quiet, the hard work of tomorrow still a part of the future. Yet he could feel Jester quivering, so he asked, "What is it, Jester?"
She set Caleb's hand down and tucked it under the covers. She began picking at a loose thread at the corner of the blanket, then seemed to recognize her restless movement and stopped. “Nott won’t talk to me.”
And, yeah, he could see that. “Does that surprise you?”
Jester made a little congested noise, like she was on the verge of crying again. “No. I wouldn’t talk to me either.” She looked at the slumbering pair like she wanted to swaddle them both in her arms, but didn’t dare disturb them. “I want to say sorry, but it’s not good enough."
"No," Molly said, though not with real malice. He'd worn that out hours ago on his twentieth loop of the building. All that remained was lethargy. "When Caleb wakes up, you should say it anyway." He doubted Nott would be interested in hearing anything until that happened.
"I wish he would wake up now. I don't think I can sleep until he does."
"You know that even the best magical healing isn’t a panacea. He could sleep for a long time." Long enough that they might have to think of moving him. As generous as Johann had been on her employer’s behalf, they couldn't risk overstaying their welcome.
Jester stuck out her chin. "I'll wait."
Molly didn't gainsay her. He could see the hang of her body from here and knew she wouldn’t last long. Which, fine. He could keep watch. It wasn't like his muscles ached or his head was so thick he could barely put two and two together. He massaged his temple.
Jester tentatively raised her hand. "Do you need me to..."
"No, no. Just a headache."
After that, they just breathed. Two conscious companions and two sleeping ones. Something drew Molly's eye, and he lifted the edge of Caleb’s blanket to get a closer look. They'd bathed him, Molly found, removing the grime that could have caused infection or discomfort. He’d been left undressed, exposing new, ropy scars. Molly touched one of them. He didn't remember Caleb being cut like this when they carried him here. Where had these come from?
"Somebody healed him. Before, I mean." Jester told him. "Not in a nice way, though. I’ve never thought about it, but I guess mean gods take followers, too.”
It wasn't hard to imagine a bastard like Talisman pledging loyalty to a cruel godhead. It meant this scar tissue was just another kind of wound. Molly felt a tightness in his throat, swallowed it away. Gods, he couldn't bear it. "Did Johann say anything else about lasting effects?'
Jester lifted Caleb's left hand, tilting it so he could see. One of the fingers was missing past the knuckle. "The bones in his fingers were all splintery, probably to keep him from casting. That was the worst one. Maybe the healers could have restored it, but there was a lot – a lot."
Molly shouldn't have been upset. Caleb was alive against all odds, and he hadn't been crippled or stripped permanently of his abilities. His mind was restored. What was the partial loss of a finger compared to that? Grief pooled in Molly’s stomach nonetheless. He’d risked all kinds of bodily harm in battle, some of it self-inflicted. This felt different, like something had been stolen. "Jester, what were you thinking?"
Her expression crumpled. "I promise, Molly. I was sure he was totally, totally safe or I never would have left. We didn't mean to let something bad to happen. It wasn't on purpose."
She sounded like a child. "It doesn't always matter what you meant," he said.
He knew he'd struck her when she turned away. She sniffed, looking at Caleb. "Do you think he knows?"
"That we left."
She swallowed. "That's what I'm scared of most, I think. Other than him waking up and not being...you know."
The sun rose in the background, peeking through the gauzy window coverings. At some point, Jester slumped across Caleb's legs. Molly resisted for a while, but eventually his will gave out. He closed the door and drew the bolt. Then he stretched out against Caleb, making a barrier with his back, and cast his arm over to tangle in Nott's hair. It was a close fit with all four of them on the bed, but in that moment it soothed rather than smothered. Molly closed his eyes, listening to Jester's sleepy murmurs, Nott's snuffly breathing, and Caleb's steady heartbeat. Eventually, it lulled him to sleep.
Chapter 7: Breach of Trust
It was late in the afternoon when Molly awoke, a quiet knock bringing him up through layers of unconsciousness. It was Johann. The healer waited patiently for Molly to usher her through the door before pressing her fingers to Caleb's forehead. "He's recovering. Not as rapidly as I’d like, but he's a little on the undernourished side, and that can affect things. Do you get enough to eat?"
Molly had never had a parent, at least not one he remembered, but in that moment, Johann reminded him so much of Gustav that it provoked an honest answer. "We haven’t been traveling together long, but I gather his cornucopia hasn't exactly been full."
Johann looked knowing. "I can see that easily enough. The body tells a story, you know. I hope both he and his little friend are in better hands now."
Bitterness flooded Molly's stomach, but one of the first rules of carnie life was that you didn’t air your dirty laundry outside the tent. "We try."
"That’s good to hear, because he’ll need care. Newborn bones, muscle, and skin require time to remember how they're supposed to work. Then there's the traumatic nature of his injuries. Without knowing him, I can't tell you how he'll cope. Sometimes, there's a kind of amnesia. It can be helpful in the short term."
"He has a perfect memory." Molly gestured bleakly at his temple. "It's a...thing."
Johann’s lips pressed together. "That’s unfortunate. Sometimes blurred edges can be a mercy."
"Can we take him –" Molly paused around the unfamiliar word 'home'. Home, in Molly's limited experience, had always been people rather than a place, and that was what he meant now. A room in an inn, with the others nearby and the low murmur of a bustling tavern somewhere down below. He wanted Caleb in their own keeping.
The cleric considered. "He would do best in a place where he could get regular meals and a safe place to rest. Would you be able to ensure he gets these things?"
"Then I see no reason for him not to leave. He'll be groggy and need assistance, but his injures are mostly healed. You can move him without risk."
A preoccupied looking Nott slipped through the half-open door. There was a loaf of bread, two apples, an egg, and what appeared to be an entire wedge of cooked chicken tucked into her arms. When she saw them, she froze. Johann gazed at her plunder, almost certainly snatched from the larder of their host, but thankfully said nothing. Instead she excused herself and swept out of the room in a whisper of linen robes. Nott watched her go before returning to the bed.
Molly cleared his throat. "I thought we had a talk about the kind of people we steal from."
Nott’s shoulders hunched. "Caleb will need to get his strength up." She looked at Molly with an expression that was equal parts stubborn and pitiful. "This will help."
It would have taken a harder soul than Molly's to rebuke her in the face of that kind of reasoning. "Right."
She relaxed. "Did that healer tell you when he would wake up?"
"Soon, but he'll be sore and weak. We'll have to take good care of him."
"I always do that," she answered. "If he was with me, this wouldn't have happened."
He heard her anger and wouldn’t have wanted that acerbic hiss directed at him, not for all the gold in the world. Nott might not have been big or strong, but there was a ruthlessness to her, the kind that mixed poison and added it to your drink.
"We're still stronger together," he said. With several hours of sleep under his belt, his faith that this was the case had returned, though not without some misgivings.
Nott turned her head away. "Maybe."
This was another wound, Molly thought. A breach of trust, like the night in Zadash when the tower fell. How many moments like this would there be, he wondered, and how many would it take to break things forever? "Won't you let me help, Nott?"
He could tell she wanted to trust him, but she was wary, so wary. Finally, though, something in his posture or his history with her, or maybe just Nott's trusting nature broke through. Jerkily, she nodded. "Okay."
"Okay," Molly said. It was something.
Johann saw them off. "How much?" It was one of the last things Molly asked before they departed. It stood to reason. Even temple clerics charged for their services, and Caleb had stood at the very doorway of death.
But Johann demanded nothing. "As I understand it, you are participants in tonight's tournament, which makes you my responsibility. Besides," she said, and her eyes lingered on Caleb, wrapped in a woolen blanket. "I think enough payment has been rendered for one night. Go with my blessing, and my sorrow for what you have endured.
Molly shook Johann's hand. "You're a good woman, Johann."
"In a world such as this, I strive to be," the cleric said, and sighed from the depth of her bones. "Would that more of us succeeded."
It was several hours after dark when Fjord, Beau, and Yasha returned to the inn, trailing weariness and defeat behind them. They’d stopped at the manor, where they’d been told their friends had taken the ‘poor wounded man’ home. At the moment, that meant a tavern, and so that’s where they returned. When they reached the top floor, Molly stepped into the hallway to meet them. "And where have you been?"
Beau leaned on her staff like it was a crutch. "Looking for the bastard who did this, what else?"
"And were you successful?"
Fjord slumped against a doorjamb, feeling like a man who had come through a hurricane with barely his skin intact. His voice was rough with weariness. "No. We didn't find anything."
"Stupid to try. You don't have the skill set to make heads or tails of what they left behind. The whole group ought to be in on that."
Yasha touched Molly’s shoulder. "How is he?"
Mollymauk’s noncommittal shift did nothing to soothe anyone’s nerves. "Johann said he should wake up soon. He stirred on the way over, just enough to mutter something in Zemnian – ‘ich bin so müde, Astrid’ – or something like that. I can mimic the sounds, but I have no idea what it means. Just that the name upset Nott and Jester."
Fjord caught Beau grimacing and wondered what she knew.
"Jester brought him back?" That made sense. She was astonishingly strong for her size, and Fjord had seen her lift people before with no apparent strain. "Is she with him now?"
"No, I put her to bed. It’s been a long day."
Fjord took in the maroon bags under Molly’s eyes. "You look nearly six feet under yourself." He only realized the words might be tactless when everyone winced.
Beau jabbed him. "Good one, Fjord."
He hastened to apologize. "Gods. I'm sorry, Molly. I didn't mean anything. Like you said, it's been a long day."
Molly’s nod jangled the chains on his horns, and Fjord was relieved to see the icy anger from earlier had thawed. This was a Molly who could speak and would listen. He looked at Fjord and seemed to read his need, consider it, and finally accept it. "Are you ready to hit the sack, Fjord, or are you up to taking a watch?"
Fjord was more grateful than he could put into words. "I'm up for a watch," he said. "Get some rest, everybody."
Molly reluctantly peeled himself away from the doorway. His red eyes bored into Fjord as he headed for their shared room. Fjord read the message in them: "Don't mess this up."
It was dark inside Caleb's room. The only light came from the coals in the hearth, but the monochromatic palette was no obstacle for him. It was just another way of seeing. He spotted two figures on the bed, one of whom was propped against the headboard. "Nott?"
He had to suppress a shudder when she looked at him like that. She looked like a predator, and it made his instincts jerk to life. But he’d never let himself be controlled by his instincts. Caleb was under the covers, leg extended stiffly. His fingers were curled neatly into his palms, an extremely welcome sight. Molly had told them they’d been saved, of course, but seeing it was different.
He drew up a chair to the bedside; slowly, in case Nott decided to refuse. Caleb stirred. For a moment, it seemed all he could do was feebly shift. Then, abruptly, his eyes flew open, the pupils darting. It took Fjord longer than it should have to realize the problem, and he snatched Caleb's hand. "Caleb, you're not blind. You’re back in your body. It's just dark in here, that's all."
Nott lunged toward the lamp, lighting the wick and adjusting the band until it emitted a warm but not intrusive light. There were colors again, and the first thing Fjord saw was Caleb's eyes, blue swallowed in white. He was clutching Fjord, but his lips were pressed tight, and he looked like he sometimes did after a bad fire. Belatedly, Fjord realized the man was shivering. Shock or fear?
"Hey," he said, quieter this time. "Caleb, you're in the tavern with me and Nott and the others. You're in bed because you were hurt, but you're safe now."
Frumpkin meowed, rubbing Caleb’s chin. It seemed to have a calming effect because the panic died down. Especially when Nott stepped back onto the pillow, carding her claws through his hair. His eyes fixed on her, and in a hoarse, barely audible voice he said, "Nott?"
"I’m here," she said, voice cracking with emotion. "I'm here."
Caleb sank back into the covers, and it was humbling to Fjord to see that complete faith. He remembered when he first laid eyes on these two, Nott with her creepy mask making eyes at their coin, and Caleb, looking like a quay-side bum. Yet of the entire party, it was perhaps these two who had the most intimate bond. They genuinely cared for one another, and they trusted each another in a way Fjord wasn't sure he was willing to trust anyone. As someone who'd grown up without a family, It made him uncomfortable at the same time he felt a prick of jealousy.
Relieved that Caleb was awake but still apprehensive, Fjord coaxed, “Caleb, do you remember what happened?" Caleb looked at Fjord with blank eyes, and for a moment Fjord was terrified that this was all that was left, that some irreversible damage had been done to Caleb's psyche, something a cleric's magic could not heal. His labored breathing was turning panicky again, and Fjord pressed a large hand to his chest. "Shhh, now. Just breathe."
It took time for the glaze of his eyes to fade. The whole time he leaned into Nott's persistent gentling of his hair like a kitten. Eventually, though, he spoke. It was raspy, and his throat clicked the first few times he tried to form speech, but eventually he was able to say, "Some-someone came. In the warehouse?"
So he did remember. Fjord cleared his throat. "That's right. You were investigating the manor."
"Frumpkin," Caleb said, and the animal settled onto his chest. Caleb's free hand clutched its fur.
Fjord nodded. "You were looking through him, so you couldn't see or hear what was going on, and someone took advantage of that. We don’t know how they did it.”
Now that he was awake, Caleb’s mind was working. "Arcane Lock, I think. It – is not for that, but, in theory it could – it could be –" His words cut off, unable to be articulated or just lost in the mire of his thoughts. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, they shone in the lamplight.
"You were trapped."
"Trapped, ja. Trapped." Caleb started to wheeze again, but Fjord pressed down until his breathing evened out. "Then, shocks and knives. Tried to get into my head. My leg." He stretched it feebly. "And they took my, m-my – " His arms jerked, and this time nothing Fjord or Nott did could keep him from spiraling.
"No, Caleb. They didn't take them. We found a cleric who restored them. Look!"
The tips of Caleb’s fingers twitched. He drew them to his face, touched his cheeks, his eyelids, his lips. In slow, deliberate movements, he flexed the joints. In the end, he rested them over his eyes and muttered something in Zemnian, "Gott sei Dank," which Fjord somehow understood even though the words remained foreign. He took a deep breath of his own. "Yeah. Thank the Maker."
Nott was trembling. In a tiny voice that was almost as deeply affected as Caleb himself, she asked, "Are you okay, Caleb?"
This question could only have come from her. Fjord was certain he’d have felt like a fool asking it, because, hell, how could Caleb be okay? But because it was her, Caleb emerged from where he'd retreated and extended one of his restored hands. She snatched it eagerly.
"It seems I've survived," he said, more steadily than anything that had come before, and Fjord was so grateful his throat closed, close to an emotional outpouring he was determined not to have. 'Strength,' he told himself. It enabled him to answer when Caleb said, "You found a healer? I would not have expected one in a town this small."
"It was the tournament cleric," Fjord told him. "They let you stay in Baron Urim’s manor and everything. We brought you back this afternoon."
"Has it been long?"
"Only a day. You were attacked last night. It's dark now."
A slow consideration followed. It was so good to see him thinking coherently, Fjord wasn't prepared for what he asked next. "Is everyone alright, then?"
Fjord didn't understand. "Everyone?"
"Yes. Jester. I thought I heard her voice while I was sleeping. And Beau. Did those arschlöcher hurt them badly?"
A terrible understanding came over Fjord. When Caleb went under, the four of them had been together in the warehouse. As far as he knew, they’d still been there when the attack came. How did Fjord even begin to explain the truth? He looked at Nott, who was gazing at him accusingly. 'Explain yourself,' she seemed to say, but what actually came out of her mouth was, "Everyone is alright, Caleb. We can talk more later, after you rest."
But even in this state, Caleb was too sharp to misdirect. He gazed searchingly at Fjord. "Do not lie to me. How bad was it? Did they torture you, or – did they touch Jester or Beau? I was afraid for them."
Gods, was this his punishment? Only hours ago, they'd argued about Caleb’s selfishness. Yet here he was, admitting that during his capture he’d been afraid his companions had died defending him, or that the women had been abused by the ones who abused him. Fjord's control threatened to break down. He pressed his temples, struggling for equilibrium. "No, he didn't hurt them."
"Good," Caleb said, sinking back into the pillow and blinking. "Good."
And though he should have seized that moment, right then, to tell Caleb the truth, to bring out into the open all that had happened and why, Fjord just couldn’t. Nott glared, yellow eyed, as Caleb drifted off. Then she dropped the wick in the lamp, and everything went dim.
"He woke up," Fjord said as he pulled his sweat-stiffened tunic over his head.
Molly shifted, clearly awake. He folded his hands over his stomach. "How was he?"
"He asked if we were hurt. Jester, Beau, and I."
“Did you tell him?" When no answer came, Molly turned over. "Coward,” he said.
Fjord didn’t argue.
Chapter 8: Superficial Healing
Caleb slept for most of morning, but the cleric had done good work, and he was able to make a wobbly appearance at lunch. After the night's revels, the room was mostly empty, with only a barkeep puttering around in the kitchen and the occasional patron passing through. They had the place entirely to themselves. Keeping in mind Johann's instructions, Molly had put together a plate of bread, soft cheese, and pickles. There was also a very passable cabbage soup. Caleb looked at them like he'd never seen food before, but whenever he tried to press them a bit further away, Nott would give him a look until he picked at some part of their offering.
While they ate (and watched Caleb eat), tension kept building. Not shockingly, it was Beau who broke first. She threw down a slice of bacon and blurted, "Well? Are we going to talk about this?"
"Talk about what? " Molly asked sharply. "The mission? The warehouse? Or maybe you have something you wanted to say, Beau."
She flinched, and so, by the way, did Fjord. Jester was crumpling a muffin into a thousand bits, and Nott had begun sharpening her dagger. Caleb glanced at all of them. "I know we need to speak about what happened, and I admit it makes me...uncomfortable to think about. However, we have all been injured before, even mortally wounded. Why are you acting so strange?"
Fjord grimaced. "I don't know if 'injured' really sums it up, Caleb."
"You were tortured," Yasha said, and Molly wanted to both bless her and curse her for using the word no one else wanted to say.
Caleb set his spoon into the bowl of cabbage. "That is true," he acknowledged. "But that is also not a new experience for me." His nonchalance was cutting. Nott made an actual noise of distress, discarding her dagger so she could sink into his side. He patted her. "There now, liebling. All is well. I am fine."
From her side of the table, Jester covered her face. "Oh, Caleb," she said. "How can you say that?"
Caleb, damn him, looked concerned. "Ah. Jester. Are you okay?"
"Am I –" she began.
Fjord it seemed, had reached his threshold. "Caleb, we do need to talk. Because while I'm glad you're feeling like yourself, what happened wasn't a small thing. Plus there’s the tournament to deal with and the Gentleman. We need to decide what to do."
"Oh," Caleb said. "Very well. What do you want to discuss first?"
They all stared at him. "You're taking this very well," Beau said, eyes narrowed. It was classic Beau. Only she could manage to sound suspicious of a recently dying comrade.
"I do not like cabbage," he commented, wrinkling his nose at the bowl. He glanced at Nott. "Perhaps just the broth and a bit of bread?"
"If you eat the pickle," she said.
He picked the vegetable up with his newly restored fingers. There was a bit of a tremble to them, but he managed it. "The difficult part first," he said, and Molly thought he was talking about the pickle until he faced all of them. "I cannot tell you much about what happened in the warehouse. I was deaf and blind for most of it, but I will try to fill in the gaps. What do you already know?"
"Yasha found another way inside, close to the dockyard. We assume that’s how they came in. We don't know who it was, but we have our suspicions."
Caleb nodded. "I do as well. But did you not see them yourselves?"
And here it was, the place where they had to either lie or come clean. Molly waited, his patience like jagged glass. He braced himself, too, for the fallout, edging closer to Caleb until their shoulders touched. The three at the other side of the table held a silent exchange, but in the end, Beau was the one to lean forward. "Listen. Caleb, there's something we need to tell you."
Trepidation slipped into his expression. "Yes?"
"Fjord and Jester and me, we didn't see anything yesterday night. We didn't even know you'd been attacked until Molly and the others came charging back with Frumpkin."
Caleb’s brows bent. "I don’t understand. I assume some kind of magic was used to contain the scene, but even so..."
"We weren't there!" Jester blurted.
The strings were beginning to unravel. Fjord, seeing that clearly enough, let out a long, slow breath. Then he said, "Caleb, this doesn't make me proud, but the fact is we weren't in the warehouse that night. After we checked that everything seemed alright, we stepped outside to join the festival."
Molly was watching Caleb, trying to discern what he felt. His first reaction was to swallow. "You..."
"We weren't there, Caleb," Fjord repeated, head shaking with palpable regret. "If I could go back and change that, I would, but that's the truth of it. You were alone when those bastards got to you. I'm so sorry."
Beau looked both wrecked and pissed off. "Yeah, we’re damn sorry."
Jester reached across the table to take his hands, but Caleb withdrew them, tucking them into his lap. "I was alone."
"It was just going to be for a few minutes," Jester fretted. "Everything seemed okay! We didn't think about spellcasters. It was so wrong of us, and we're really, really sorry you got hurt."
No one could doubt their sincerity. It was written all over them: in their tightly pressed lips, their taut shoulders, and, in Jester's case, tears. Even without social graces, Caleb couldn't fail to recognize their earnestness. How he would respond, though, was less clear. At first, his face remained like a blank parchment. Then, very quietly, he said, "Excuse me. I think I need to step out for a moment."
He untucked himself from the bench. Molly couldn't help but notice he was limping, the bones of his leg still soft and painful. When he reached the door, Nott scurried after him.
Beau said, "Should we let him go?"
"He's with Nott."
"Should we let them go? What if they disappear?"
"Don't you think they have right to decide that, Beauregard?”
Jester looked devastated. “I don’t want them to leave. As stinky as Caleb is, I’ve gotten really, really attached to him and Nott. I’m scared they won’t forgive us.”
Molly looked down. He wanted to believe the group could weather this, but the truth was he didn’t know for sure. Still, he stood by what he said. “We have to trust them."
"You told me once that you didn't trust anyone," Fjord said. "You told me that we were all looking out for our best interests. That that was what made the circus work."
Molly had said those things, but that had been during early days, when their acquaintance had still been new and there was barely a manticore and a few gnolls between them and being strangers. Since then, he'd come to expect much more from these people, and he had a feeling Caleb had, too. In a way, that made the situation worse. After all, it was always more disappointing to be let down by people in whom you'd placed your faith.
Caleb was sitting between the tavern and another nondescript building. He'd known many alleyways like this one, more than he cared to count. His hands laid in his lap, palms facing upward. He recognized every crease and freckle, every scar. They were his hands, but somehow they felt foreign. Heavy. Attached by thin pink bands. And the finger. The not-finger. When he looked at it, his vision started to blur, so he turned resolutely away.
Instead, he stared at the wall across from him and waited for Nott. A small hand pressed into his, covering the missing finger, and it was so present and comforting he bit his lip to suppress a wave of emotion. "Are you okay?"
It was easier to keep staring at the view across from him. "Do you remember staying in places like this, Nott?"
She surveyed the moldering refuse, the shadow-filled recesses of back doorways, and the tiny patch of sky, barely visible overhead. "It was always warmer," she agreed, "and easier to find food. But if we got caught, people were more likely to call a guard than when we slept under bridges and things."
"In so short a time, I've grown accustomed to better. Is that strange?"
Nott considered her answer. "I don’t think it’s strange,” she said. “Our lives have changed. I have enough gold saved that we never have to sleep outside again if we don't want to. And we're stronger, much stronger. We could be happy and safe for the rest of our lives doing jobs a lot less dangerous than the ones we do with the weirdos."
Caleb’s lips twitched. "Do you still think of them that way?"
She looked away. "Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no."
"I know you're fond of Jester."
Her expression grew hard. "Not now."
And as easy as that, the gate was unlatched, beckoning him to walk through. He sighed. "You are very angry with them."
Her claws, which tapered into delicate tips at the ends, bore in just enough for him to feel them, but, of course, she was very careful. She would not hurt him, yet he felt the emotion expressed by the pinch of her nails against his skin. "They could have gotten you killed. Or – or –"
"Maimed," he said, flexing his fingers. A flash of agony went through them, twisting the sinews where his mind, memory, and muscle connected, and in that moment he could feel what he had not been able to see: the hacked flesh, the bone, the red crescendo that ended in nothing, nothing, nothing... He realized he was beginning to hyperventilate when Nott murmured worriedly in his ear, and he shoved the panic away with almost physical effort. He had grown proficient at encasing volatile thoughts in a kind of metaphoric chest at the farther reaches of his mind; not gone, but contained. This was where he put the butchering of his hands. He took a shuddering breath. "I am fine, Nott, as I've told you."
"You don't have to say that," she said. "I know what torture is like. People aren't okay afterward."
"You know my story," he told her. "You know that it wasn't the first time. Perhaps one grows used to it."
"More like it will hit you later, some time when we're all in danger, and then it will be really bad. I'd rather you cried right now where it's safe."
"In this alley with the garbage, you mean?"
She wrinkled her nose. "Are you sassing me?"
The grin snuck up on him, easing the tight muscles of his face. Few others could do such a thing, and he loved her for it. The next moment, though, reality cascaded down. "What shall we do with all this, my friend?" He felt a bolt of shame. He’d run from them. It had simply been too much. A fog had come over his mind, and they were all staring, waiting for a reaction when really all he felt was numb... Nott leaned into him. He felt the warmth bleeding through like so many nights when the wind had been his only other company. So faithful. He didn't deserve her. He tucked her hand tenderly under his arm.
“You’re sad,” Nott said. “Why are you sad instead of angry?”
There was a scroll in Caleb’s mind, and it contained the names of the people he had…that he loved. A few were inked and sanded, irrevocably stamped. Others, newer, were traced in charcoal, light enough to be erased if needed. But as lightly as he pressed, those names did exist. It scared him because, in his experience, attachment led only to disappointment and suffering. ‘And yet whose fault is that?’ whispered a severe Zemnian voice, borrowed from the vaults of his memory. ‘What right have you to expect loyalty? Stupid, sensitive boy. Care for them if you're foolish enough to do so, but remain under no delusions; you have always been on borrowed time.’
Caleb pressed the space between his eyes, drawing himself into the present. “Do you think I should be angry at our friends, Nott?”
She tipped her head back. "Part of me wants to hate them. Or steal their smallclothes and dip them in a public privy. Or poor acid on Fjord's crotch. Or saw through Beau's stick and cover it with bandages so it snaps when she leans on it. Or feed the pastries in Jester's bag to rats..."
She sobered. "I think they're stupid, but I don't think they're bad. It's up to you, though, Caleb. If you can forgive them, then I guess I can try to do that, too. But sometimes mistakes are too big for second chances."
He swallowed, guilt gnawing at his stomach.
She noticed, of course, and embraced him. "Oh, Caleb. I didn't mean it like that."
"No, you’re right," he said, more hoarsely than he intended. "Some 'mistakes' are too big to forgive, but I do not know if that is true in this case."
"I would leave with you, if that's what you wanted," she murmured, and Caleb’s throat contracted. Is that what he wanted? These people… He’d been so certain Jester, Beau, and Fjord were dead, and that grief had penetrated deeply, even competing with so many other hurts. To walk away now seemed profane. But had they not been the ones to do the walking?
To avoid making a decision, he picked at his tunic. It was soft, with fine stitches in the hem. “I do not recognize this.”
Nott squirmed. “I found it in a closet before we left the manor. You needed a new one, so I took it. A got you the trousers, too. Yasha found your boots and your coat, though. She thought you’d want them back.”
In truth, he had not thought about his coat. That morning he’d dressed himself half in a trance, barely feeling the buttons fumbled between his fingers. He thought, at some point, Nott had stepped in to fasten the last few. He felt humbled by the care she showed him. “You are always looking out for me.”
There was a profundity to the way Nott gazed at him in moments like these. It held all the things he’d come to expect; the tenderness and affection. However, there was something else, something in the depths of her golden eyes that he could never quite put his finger on. “Well,” she said. “You’re very bad at these things. Someone has to help you.”
The teasing was a balm to his nerves. He wanted to respond. He tried to make his mouth move into the right shape, but found it impossible. The weight of the situation was pressing down pitilessly, and he lowered his head, pressing it into shaking hands. His abbreviated finger brushed his eyebrow, and he flinched.
“What should I do, Nott?”
He felt her weight against his side, knew she wanted to spare him the decision, but he also knew she would not do so. She stroked his back gently, so gently. “You’re very smart, Caleb. I know you’ll do the right thing.”
If only he had so much certainty.
Even at the best of times, there was a touch of uncertainty when Caleb stepped away from the group. The shaggy coat would frame a doorway or disappear around the trunk of a pine, and those who saw it go would wonder. Which is why Molly let out a slow, private breath of relief when the door to their room finally creaked open and Caleb slipped inside.
He stood before them and said, "I am with you."
Fjord and Jester’s relief was palpable. Beau, with great subtlety for her, punched Caleb's shoulder. It probably hurt, but Molly could tell how much she was holding back, trying to make the gesture soft. A Beauregard-esque type of embrace, if there ever was one. "That’s great, Caleb. It means a lot that you'd give us a chance to make things right." She looked at the others for confirmation. "We are going to kill those bastards, right?"
Fjord's expression was carved into a frown. "We didn't have much luck when we tried."
Molly took note of Caleb's subtle shift. "You tried?"
"We were gone most of yesterday," Yasha said. "But we found no sign."
Caleb nodded as though that didn’t surprise him. "The one who attacked me was adept. He used many types of magic: evocation, conjuration, abjuration. Even clerical magic." He touched his torso, which Molly knew to be ribbed with scar tissue. "Supremely confident. He mocked me, though I was no match for him in that state. He took his time, despite the possibility of discovery, and he is someone who enjoys inflicting pain."
Fjord looked miserable. "It sounds as though we've come to the same conclusion."
"Yes, I believe so. The sorcerer from the square. The one who attacked Nott."
"Talisman Salvatore of Greystone," Molly said.
"Bastard," Beau hissed.
The profile certainly fit. Molly had no problem recalling the light off Talisman's teeth when he smiled at Nott, trapped in the shadow of his crackling hand. Nor had he forgotten the man’s rage at being thwarted, his racist remarks, or his promise of revenge. At the time, he'd seemed more like a blowhard than a serious threat. Certainly, Molly had never imagined him capable of such a sadistic attack. That he might, this very moment, be sipping wine in some opulent room, grinning to himself about how he left Caleb for them to find... Tieflings had a tendency to run hot, but he could still feel his skin baking. He took deep breaths through his nose, seeking calm that did not want to come.
Caleb had gone distant, not as though he were seeing through Frumpkin, but worryingly absent nonetheless. Without thinking, Molly grabbed his arm. Caleb’s misty gaze slowly became more present. When he recognized Molly, he said, "You do not have to do that.”
Molly winked. "Clearly wizards need a keeper.”
The man shook his head, but there was humor in his eyes. "That position is spoken for, I'm afraid, but I appreciate your kindness, Mollymauk."
"So, so," Jester was speaking. "Now that we know who he is, what should we do? Should we go looking for where he is?"
"Why bother? We know where he's going to be."
Fjord seemed thoughtful. "That presents its own problems. If we wait until the tournament, we're more or less obliged to abide by the rules, and I'm not sure a round of recreational bloodshed is what I had in mind." The words were all Fjord, measured and logical, but there was an edge to his voice, something Molly wasn’t used to hearing.
Caleb said, "I do not think we should break our agreement with The Gentleman. So far, he’s been an ally, but he would be a terrible enemy, and his reach is extensive. Would it not be better to take care of...personal business once our obligation to the powerful crime lord is absolved?"
Yasha stated the obvious: "If we do that, it means sneaking back into the manor, and they were kind to us."
At the mention of the manor, Caleb’s line of sight skittered away from their faces. It anchored only once, on Frumpkin, before darting to his suddenly shaking hands. "I...I do not think…I do not think that, at this time, that I will be a-able –"
"Oh, no, Caleb," Jester jumped in. "We won't ask you to do that."
"I can go inside by myself," Nott asserted. "If you just tell me the parts Frumpkin saw, so I have a little more of the layout in my head, I'm sure I can get what we need without any more searching."
Caleb hesitated. "I do not want you to be alone."
"She won't be," Fjord interrupted. "None of us are doing anything alone. The question is, are you up for it? Be honest, Caleb. I won't force you to face Talisman or follow through on our deal with The Gentleman or anything else. So, think hard. What do you want to do?”
Whether or not it was intentional, Fjord was extending agency. That, more than anything, convinced Molly that what had happened – while awful and wrong – was, at its core, a misjudgment and not a deep flaw of character. Fjord had already learned, and going forward, he would no doubt be a scrupulous steward of his companions’ trust. It didn't erase his share of the blame, but it made Molly think kinder thoughts. He waited, along with the others, for Caleb's decision.
There was a quiet clearing of the throat. "As long as I can stand in the back."
Beau slapped her thigh and barked. Jester, too, burst into giggles, and soon they were all laughing. It broke the awful tension that had come over them, and like the cooling of a fever, it was deeply welcome. Molly went along with it, relieved in his spirit. Until he looked at Caleb. The man was making an effort; that much was apparent. His expression remained deliberately mild, smooth, and calm. However, there was a tightness around his eyes that wasn’t quite concealed, and his hands were tucked rigidly under his armpits, out of sight. At his feet, Frumpkin wound around his ankles, pawed at his leg. It gave a plaintive cry.
Caleb snapped his fingers, and Frumpkin disappeared.
Chapter 9: Strange Reflections
There was a mirror hanging on the door in Fjord’s room. He’d barely looked at it during their time here, but as he pulled on his armor and buckled it in place, it caught his reflection, and Fjord saw himself. Verdant complexion cut through with a few pale lines. Black hair, streaked white. Tawny eyes. As an adult, he’d been called rugged, even handsome. Now when he looked, he saw Talisman.
“You’re not like him,” he told the image, but doubt slipped into the fertile soil of old insecurities and began putting down roots. All of his life, Fjord’s heritage had been a source of trouble to him. It had stripped him of a childhood, literally scarred him, and put him under tremendous pressure to assimilate. By the time he’d reached Vandren, he’d been wound as tight as a slungshot, and it had taken years for him to stop staring at himself in the water and wishing he saw something else.
‘I’m past that,’ he thought, glaring at the yellow eyes that pierced. ‘I know who I am.’
-- CONSUME --
The word was huge, filling all the spaces in his mind with a voice that wasn’t a voice, at least not one like any he’d ever heard on the mortal plane. It raked his brain, made his fingers prickle with energy, demanded expression. It made him hungry.
Fjord shook his head, desperate to drive those thoughts away. Yet he couldn’t escape the truth about who he was. Orcish blood ran through his veins. It granted him things: a robust constitution, eyes that paid no mind to shadow, a fierceness in combat that thrilled instead of recoiled. That was part of who he was, as much (or more?) as his carefully cultivated reason and charm. Moreover, though he liked to think of himself as self-made, the driver of his own destiny, in reality, he had no idea about the origin of the arcane power that was quickly coming to define him. What if, one day, it twisted him into something like Talisman? After all, look at what he’d already done. He called himself a decent person, but he’d abandoned a friend on a whim, and the result was…terrible. Even Caleb’s apparent forgiveness had provided only temporary solace. At first, he hadn’t known why, but as the headiness of his initial relief faded, he started to understand. It was too easy.
‘Maybe if you stop tiptoeing around the truth (he’s not okay, and neither are you) and offer more than a half-assed apology and a combat strategy. But, no. You’ve gotten used to your façade, haven’t you, Fjord Tough? Wouldn’t want to threaten that with a little emotional availability. Besides, haven’t you let him down enough? Better to let water flow under the bridge.’ Yet even as this bitter inward rambling attempted justification, another murmured a warning: ‘Not everything flows downstream, Fjord. Some rivers choke.’
Before he could spiral any farther down that particular rabbit hole, there was a quiet knock on the door. Fjord drew a hand over his face, bringing his nerves back under control. “Come in.”
Hinges whispered, and Caleb peeked through the opening. “Fjord?”
Fjord was so stunned he fumbled for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Yeah, Caleb, come on in. I was just getting geared up. Did you need something?”
The man looked worse than he had that morning. The way he held his leg was awkward, and it gave him a tender-looking limp. There was also a hectic flush to his face, and Fjord suspected he was feverish. That happened sometimes, after a really serious healing. Caleb probably ought to be in bed, sleeping off the effects, but instead they were about to drag him into a situation that might well end in bloodshed.
‘Bastard.’ Fjord heard Beau and knew she was speaking about Talisman, but it sounded for all the world like it was directed at him.
A leather bag was offered, and Fjord hesitantly took it. “What’s this?”
“My component pouch.”
It was like having a pan of cold water dumped over him. An image flew through Fjord’s mind, of darkness cut by lamplight, the smell of dust and burning oil – (and blood) – and Yasha dragging a barefoot, broken Caleb out of the cramped space where he’d taken refuge. When they found him, he’d been stripped almost entirely of his outer trappings, and yet no one had thought of going back to search for the missing items; Fjord certainly hadn’t had the will to face that place again. But Yasha, always so much stronger in so many ways, had slipped away without a word and returned just as quietly with Caleb’s coat, belt, and boots. And, apparently, his component pouch. It sat in Fjord’s hand, dingy and shapeless, segmented with a thousand pockets. It smelled like bitter herbs and honey.
‘Molasses,’ Fjord corrected himself. ‘He uses molasses for that Slow spell of his.’
“Why are you giving this to me?”
“You aren’t allowed a sword during your matches, and that is your focus, is it not?”
Fjord had never discussed his abilities, not in detail. He didn’t hash out how they worked and the nature of his bond with his falchion. Didn’t like to admit what he could do or how it made him feel (powerful), sometimes even to himself. He should have realized that Caleb, who was so studied in the arcane and so unrepentantly voyeuristic, had made connections of his own. Fjord cleared his throat. “Maybe.”
There was an almost inaudible sigh. “You do not have to tell me,” Caleb said, and Fjord’s conscience seared him like heated metal. Was this really the time to hoard secrets?
“It is,” he admitted. “The sword. Or maybe the eye on the sword. I don’t really know.”
The concession, however small, made a difference. Caleb met his eyes. “If that is the case, you’ll need a different approach today.”
Fjord realized what he was saying, and his stomach filled with trepidation. For his best spells, Fjord required a focus, in this case, his falchion. However, the rules of the tournament forbade him from wielding it. He looked at the component pouch. “But I won’t be able to use this. I don’t know how.”
Caleb inched closer. “I can show you.”
For the next hour, Caleb dissected the pouch, showing Fjord the mechanical properties of his own spells. Fjord listened, fearful that he wouldn’t understand this other way of casting, but Caleb was patient, systematic. Slowly, the mystery cleared, and as Fjord rubbed a bit of pitch between his finger and thumb, he became more confident. Maybe he could do this after all.
“Caleb,” he said. “Thank you for this. I don’t like to admit it, but Talisman –” he fumbled, letting his voice crumple and dissolve, like power in water.
Caleb didn’t force him to be more coherent. Instead, he nodded wordlessly. “I suspect he prefers his enemies to be without defense, but you will not be defenseless.” And while guilt made jagged lines between them, he added, “You’re smart, Fjord. I know you will do well.”
Voice low, Fjord said, “Your confidence in me…it means a lot.” Like seeping water, the things that were going unsaid accumulated between them with steady persistence. Would it reach the point where bailing did no good and they simply floundered?
Caleb seemed absorbed with a cobweb in the corner. “Of course,” he said, and, their business completed, he turned to go.
Caleb stopped, his hand lingering on the brass doorknob. He looked over his shoulder, eyes heavy with weariness. He waited.
Fjord fought for words. He wanted to say things: 'Forgive me – for being a careless bastard, for claiming I'd be your protector and leaving you to the wolves instead. Forgive me – for wanting a quick resolution to this, even though you're not okay. Because I know you're not okay, even if you say you are, and you can tell me that, Caleb. I'd listen, and I wouldn't judge you, and if you tell me you can't do this thing we're about to do, I wouldn't make you face him, I –'
Pride held him back. Pride and shame. He wouldn’t beg for a pardon he didn’t deserve. He wouldn’t make Caleb responsible for absolving him of guilt. And he wouldn’t push the man to reveal the cracks he was working so hard to hide. After all, what would Fjord do if he actually broke?
He lifted the pouch. “Thanks for the…components and stuff.”
Caleb nodded. The knob turned, and the man slipped into the corridor as quietly as he came.
Silence echoed in the empty space. The mirror, visible again, caught his face. Fjord looked at it, self-loathing filling his gut. Pride and cowardice, what a combination. Would outright cruelty be next? ‘I’m not like him,’ his inner-self insisted.
Aloud, he said, “Keep telling yourself that.”
Just outside the town of Pamell was a recessed area, the bed of a river that had long since shifted routes. The basin left behind had a floor of petrified clay, with huge piles of smooth stone and steep banks which created a natural protection for the audience seated above. A judges' box had been constructed on the opposite bank, with covered viewing spaces for more affluent spectators. Molly stood surveying the area, keeping an eye out, but no one he recognized caught his eye.
At his elbow stood a nervous human man. He had a peaked, heightened look, the whites of his eyes shining as they darted around the crowd. It was exhausting to watch.
"Caleb," Molly said. Just that, his name. Caleb had never responded well to outright concern, and Molly didn't want a hasty brush-off.
Caleb mumbled. "I don't see –"
“All the competitors are in the waiting area. We won’t be running into any of them up here. Besides, you and I are just backup, remember?” In an attempt to divert his attention, Molly pointed toward an outcropping of grassy stone that had gone unclaimed. "Shall we get settled?"
Not long after they were seated, Caleb tilted his head as though listening to something far away. He murmured under his breath, then turned to Molly. "That was Jester. She says that she and Nott are in place and not to worry. Baron Urim’s manor appears all but deserted."
That was excellent news. As a group, they'd decided to send Jester and Nott on The Gentleman’s errand. Nott, because her clever fingers were the most suited, and Jester because she was known to the baron’s people. If something went wrong, she could simply knock on the door. Meanwhile, Fjord, Beau, and Yasha had assumed their roles in the tournament itself, while Molly and Caleb had been placed amongst the bystanders.
"If Talisman decides to step outside the rules," Fjord had explained, "I'd like to have a little firepower on standby."
So decided, they’d taken a moment for shoulder clasps and promises to be careful, and then they’d split up. Molly had walked away from their huddle with a secret, secondary mission. No one had stated it outright, but he’d understood Fjord’s silent command, read it in Nott’s fierce expression: Look after Caleb.
Of course, the man wasn't stupid. As they sat on the outcropping, Caleb said, "You don't have to stare at me like that."
"I'm hardly staring," Molly retorted, even as he averted his eyes. The worry mark on his forehead stayed, but short of a really strong drink, he wasn’t sure he would have any luck erasing that.
"I am fine,” Caleb said. “I have told you I am fine."
Something in the clipped tone set him off, and Molly said, "Sure you are. Anyone would be. It's not like a little paranoia wouldn't be totally normal after –”
Caleb turned sharply. "Don't, Mollymauk."
Molly's lips twisted. It didn't normally bother him that Caleb called him by his full name. It came over as a linguistic quirk, the way he called Beau 'Beauregard' or pronounced Fjord's name with an extra vowel. However, in this instant, Molly couldn't help but see it as a censure for approaching too close, and his lips zippered tightly shut in a combination of both annoyance and chagrin. And he called Beau out for her lack of sensitivity. Gods, what was he doing? "I'm sorry.”
"You do not need to be. I know how I am, but I still don't want to be treated like I'm broken."
It was hard to suppress a sigh, even an inward one, whenever Caleb let slip these kind of depressive clues about his self-image. He'd mellowed a great deal since they first met him in that dingy tavern in Trostenwald, but when his demons were closer to the surface and there were fewer distractions to bury what laid beneath, the underlying brokenness had a way of slipping out and reminding them that their wizard was a damned mess. And the longer they knew him, it was getting harder to remember it was none of their business. Now was not the time, however, and Molly suppressed all the messy emotions he was feeling in order to focus on the present.
Fortunately, the world threw him a bone in the form of two familiar faces peeking furtively out of the crowd. Mollymauk smiled brightly and waved. "Hey, boys! I hoped we might see you here."
“It’s you,” the tiefling said. He climbed onto the rock beside Molly. "We were looking."
At ground level, Caleb and the other scamp were gazing at each other with interest. "And who is this?”
The human boy was massaging his hands, a nervous, repetitive gesture. He appeared to be gobbling Caleb up from toe to temple. "I saw you in the square the other day. You used magic on that spellcaster, the one who was going to hurt me. I'm Mica."
Molly grinned. "The boys were wanting to thank you." It seemed like a long time ago, but it had barely been twenty-four hours since the boys first cornered them on their way through the market.
The tiefling, whose name was William, said, "Thanks, okay? That guy was real bad. Everyone is saying so."
Mica nodded in agreement. "Thank you."
"I did not save you,” Caleb said. “That was Fjord and my friend Nott."
"But you saved her. You work together, right? Like Will and me."
"Do you 'work' together like Nott was working?" Caleb asked, clearly referring to the hand Nott had down Talisman's belt pouch before she'd been caught. It was what Molly had also suspected; in fact, it was almost inevitable that these two got into a bit of thieving. Not as a form of mischief, but as a matter of survival.
Will made a face. "So what if we do?"
"Nothing, but it can be quite dangerous. If you're caught by the wrong person or if the law decides to make an example of you, you could get hurt. I hope you're very careful and look out for one another. Do you have a safe place to stay?"
Mica crawled up onto the stony seat and tucked his fingers around Caleb's coat sleeve. When he was not rebuffed, he said, "We're alright. Can we watch the tournament with you?"
It was ridiculously precious, watching a kid cuddle up to Caleb. Kind of reminded Molly of Kiri and how she would find one of their laps, fluffing up her feathers and settling in with total certainty of her welcome and their protection. To be fair, these kids looked like they were seriously lacking in a sense of security, and while Molly considered Caleb and himself dubious protection at best, it seemed they’d been adopted all the same. Of course, Molly thought, it wasn’t a great day for it. Although... The first few rounds should be okay, right?
"It’s fine with me if they stick around awhile. Caleb?"
Caleb’s eyes were on the kid, who was gazing at arena floor, the judge’s booth, and the armored contestants with boyish awe. His shoulders relaxed by an inch or two. "Ah,” he said. “For now, I suppose, that is fine."
The opening match was supposed to set the tone for what was to come. Some clever programmer had made the decision to place a favorite into the first round, namely, Talisman. Their opponents arrived first: two humans and a half-elf in country leathers. They were greeted with provincial rounds of applause and friendly jeering. One of them flexed and blew a kiss. 'Hardly hardened warriors,’ Molly thought with a frown. It set a cold stone in his stomach.
William was an observant kid. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Eat your jerky," Molly said. He'd bought them something to eat because, hell, how could he not? He nudged Caleb. "You good?" The man answered with a nod, though he didn't speak. His eyes were fastened on the clay, where the announcer was using a magically amplified voice to announce the second team.
It was impossible not to notice them the moment they set foot on the clay. Molly didn't know how Talisman had spent the hours after he tortured and mutilated another person, but he certainly didn't look any worse for it. His robes were opulent, flowing around him in silky electric blue. His pale skin appeared youthfully supple. He was handsome. Moreover, there was an aura about him. It set Molly's hair rising on end, and he felt Will shiver beside him, a tiny fang peeking out as he sneered through his discomfort.
Caleb was shaking.
Mollymauk pressed a boot into his back, not wanting to make a scene, especially in front of the kids. When he got no immediate response, he began to lean forward. However, before he could, Caleb put an arm around Mica's shoulders. Oh. 'Forest for the trees,' Molly thought, belatedly remembering that Caleb had not been Talisman’s only victim of the last two days. Will slid down and held Mica’s hand, and the three of them sat in a row, wordlessly watching. Something about it brought back the red-hot rage from earlier, and Molly gritted his teeth. His eyes slid to Talisman like a razor blade, wishing he could cut through air and space to his heart.
Talisman's teammates were the two from the square. The orcish fellow, who carried a huge sword with a handle crafted out of what appeared to be bleached hip bone, and the human, still in his black cloak. He must have been the hand-to-hand fighter, though he hardly looked the type. It made Molly suspicious. It was never good to face an opponent whose fighting style was unknown.
The teams lined up. Then, with a flutter of purple cloth, the official teleported, and the fight began.
Molly wasn't sure what to expect. The rules of the tournament were simple: one unarmed fighter, one swordsman, and one mage in three-on-three combat. Other than that, fighters were not permitted to endanger the crowd, manipulate officials, or leave the arena boundaries. Winning meant rendering a defeat condition to the opposing team, which included being knocked unconsciousness, a wound that required immediate medical attention, or surrender. Death was not mentioned, but the possibility lurked. That had been part of the whispers, the excitement. The stakes were high in more than just a monetary sense.
Talisman could have played within those boundaries. He could even have made a show of it, flaunting his superior ability and that of his companions like a cat playing with a mouse. It would have made the best show. What he actually did was raise his hand. Caleb stiffened. "Scheisse."
Bolts of electricity rained from heaven, raw elemental power. The light was so intense it was blinding, and for a moment, all anyone saw was white. When it faded, Molly saw strands of his hair floating around his horns as though gravity had ceased to affect them. There was an awful tightness in his chest, and his heart was pounding. The entire crowd had gone silent. Out on the clay, the ground was pitted, and lying prostrate were three steaming bodies. Somewhere near the front, there was a heart-wrenching cry. Talisman lowered his hand.
The medics were pelting across the surface. An official haltingly called an end to the match. The winners received one or two sparse claps, but most people seemed too stunned to respond. One of the medics gave a frustrated snarl and began to do chest compressions, his magic weaving green between his fingers. Talisman walked away with a flourish of his immaculate cloak, flanked by his minions, and left the scene behind him.
"Gods," Molly said.
He looked at the others. Mica was sobbing silently, and though William remained stony-faced, he looked no less devastated. Numbly, he said, "That was Hamish and his friends. He lets us sweep up at the mill sometimes. He tugs on my horns and tells me they’re too big for my face. He was supposed to get married at Winter’s Crest."
"He will still do so," Caleb reassured. He raised bleak eyes to Mollymauk. "Though I am not sure about his half-elf friend."
They cleared the field, and for a time there was little to see. Eventually, the official returned. More soberly than before, he announced that no one had died. A ripple of relief went through everyone, though it did not revive the jovial atmosphere of before. The announcer went on to confirm Talisman's triumph and hesitantly introduced two new teams. They came onto the clay like an anticlimax.
The tournament went on. There were winners and losers. Finally, three familiar faces appeared. Fjord, looking strange without his falchion. Yasha, as formidable as usual with hers. And Beau, who appeared small, though her musculature was clear even from this distance. In an attempt at levity, she flexed a bit and winked. An uneasy ripple of laughter followed this unintentional encore, but it turned real when Beau did a few fancy jumps on the toes of her feet and slipped on a loose stone. She was rubbing her ass and grimacing as she got up, and it should have make her look amateurish, but it didn't. Molly tried to understand why that was, then realized. You could feel it, that thing which was missing from the miller and his friends; Beau and the others moved and breathed and felt like warriors, and that was so recognizable that even Beau’s pratfalling couldn’t undermine it. It made Molly proud. They’d come a long way from the ragtag group in a circus tent, struggling with a few undead crownsguard. The question was, would it be enough?
In the short term, the answer was a decided ‘yes.’ Fjord was graceful, reserved with his casting. He made it look easy. Beau took on her fellow unarmed fighter, and it was like an exhibition match. She lead her opponent, trading blows and adjusting to his level. Yasha, meanwhile, remained defensive. Only when her opponent had exhausted his resources did she step neatly around him and clip his ear. He went down like a sack of potatoes, but Molly knew he’d suffered no real harm. A minute later, the match was called. The Mighty Nein shook hands with their opponents, clapped them on the back, and left the field as clear victors. In their wake was admiration and an atmosphere of restored calm.
Mica said, "They're so strong!"
"It is amazing how greatly your abilities improve when you are in constant danger of being killed by gnolls and bandits," Caleb said wryly.
"Hear, hear," Molly agreed with some humor. "And manticores, and sahuagin, and trolls..."
William glared at him. "Are you making stuff up?"
"What do you think?" Molly asked, smirking. Will crossed his arms, seemingly affronted by his own lack of certainty, and Molly knuckled his scalp, which made the boy growl something nasty in infernal. Molly chuckled. "Oh, kid. I like you."
"Yeah?" Will said. His tone had changed to something else. He looked up through overlong bangs that gave Molly a flashback of Toya. To cover his feelings, he gave Will's hair another ruffle. Then he caught Caleb's knowing look and stuck out his tongue at him. The man rolled his eyes and turned back to the tournament, which was down to its final stages. As the sky darkened and sunset began to drape the world in lengthening shadows, torches were lit and the scenery changed. A different mood came over the crowd once more. It was nearly time.
Uneasily, Molly shifted. "Kid," he said to Will. "I think it's time that you and Mica shoved off."
Will looked up sharply. "Why?" They had been sitting together for hours. He could see the kid searching his mind for something he had done to annoy them, but was coming up empty. There was no apparent change that would merit a sendoff. Yet they could not safely stay, not for what came next.
Truth or lies? Molly decided on truth, because as much as he approved of subterfuge as a general rule, it never felt right when it came to kids, especially not ones as world-wise as Will and Mica. "This match with Talisman could get dangerous. And not just for those down there. If it comes down to it, Caleb and I might be forced to intervene, and we wouldn't want you caught in the middle."
Caleb had been listening, and now he drew Mica to his feet and tugged his ragged vest into some semblance of order. Molly had seen Nott do almost exactly the same to Caleb's scarf or lapels when she was feeling especially nervous for him. "You two must find another place to watch. Perhaps toward the back. Or even farther."
Mica seized his hands. "Come with us."
"We cannot do that," Caleb said gently. "Suppose our friends need us and we are too far from them to help."
Will grabbed his friend by the sleeve. "We get it."
"See you after," Molly said. Assuming they weren't dead and they had the ability to stick around. More often than not, the Mighty Nein ended up fleeing their quests under threat of assault or arrest or bleeding from every orifice, but, hey, this could be the time things worked out. He gave a jaunty wave. "Don't be stupid.”
Caleb watched them go with a pensive expression. "I hope they will be safe."
"They will be. Kids like that know how to make themselves scarce when the gavel comes down."
"The gavel. An interesting choice of words,” Caleb said wryly. Perhaps he was remembering less-than-equitable encounters with the law, maybe something from his past. One way or another, Molly understood what he was thinking; true justice was perilously rare.
“Maybe this time the universe will be fair,” he dared say aloud. It was what he most wanted, more even than personal vengeance.
A sigh drifted in his direction, and Caleb closed his eyes. His damaged hands spasmed in his lap. “You have more faith than I, Mollymauk Tealeaf.”
Maybe he did, and maybe it was stupid, but Molly made it a point to live his life daringly. He crossed his fingers behind his back and pressed his lips tight around a short, silent supplication to the near-transparent sickle of moon on the horizon line. ‘Just this once, Moonweaver,’ he prayed fervently, ‘let evil get what it deserves.’ The words remained fixed in his mind even as Fjord, Yasha, and Beau took the clay for the last time.
The final match began as the sun kissed the horizon. The line of clouds were an ink stroke, final and definitive. As Fjord stepped out, the world smelled purple, and his nose, more sensitive these days to the movement of wind and water, picked up a promise of distant rain. Yasha’s chin was tipped toward the sky. "That is not a natural cloud front." Fjord saw the edge of it, tinged black, and knew she was right. He had seen the sky when Talisman and his people took the field the first time, though they hadn’t been permitted to watch the fight itself. The restless field overhead now was similar.
"Is he like you?" Beau murmured. She had her arms crossed, a poise associated with discomfort, though to an outsider she might just have looked tough. "Storms and stuff, I mean."
"No," Yasha mused. "There’s something, but I don't know what."
Fjord was unnerved. Sorcerers weren't like other spellcasters. They didn't use components like Caleb or share a pact with something more powerful than themselves like a cleric's deity or a warlock's patron. No, sorcerers were powered by lineage, and without knowing Talisman's, it would be hard to understand how his magic worked. Worse still, Fjord was working at a disadvantage. Caleb had prepared him as best he could – ‘a twig for lightning, tallow for flames' – but even with this tutoring, Fjord felt slow and clumsy. Now, facing a caster like Talisman, he was afraid his fledgling skills would not be enough.
'If you have to,' he coached himself, 'call on the falchion. None of us really gives a damn about this tournament. Remember that, Fjord.'
It offended his ego to think he might need to break the rules in order to compete seriously, but this was no time for ego. His fellow fighters were counting on him, and somewhere out there Molly and Caleb were watching. He didn't want them to get involved, especially Caleb. Still, a fear lingered. Were they in over their heads?
The time for thinking had expired, for at that moment a familiar figure stepped onto the field. He exuded extreme arrogance. If there was ever any doubt as to who was responsible for what happened to Caleb, it was settled then. His smile was reptilian, and self-satisfaction oozed from him like a waste product. It brined the air between them, put bitterness into Fjord's bones. Quite suddenly, he was furious. Furious for the suffering this man had caused, and for the suffering to which he had made Fjord a party. His blood itched, singing for his sword. Only by great effort did he suppress that urge. Instead, he stood his ground, strengthened by the presence of Beau and Yasha on either side of him and by the invisible presence of his friends in the crowd.
"Fjord of Nothing," Talisman said when he was close enough. They faced one another across the clay.
Fjord felt as though he'd swallowed a flagon of curdled milk. Not for the first time, he wondered what made a man revel in bloodshed. He’d known since childhood he had the potential for it. It crept up on him sometimes; a fascination for the end of life, be it a hawk coming down on a seagull or a sword piercing flesh. A relish for eating his meat rare, so that the taste of iron remained in his mouth. A pleasure in combat that at times bordered on euphoria. Where these trademarks of a bloodline he didn't often claim? Or quirks, coincidences? What would it have taken for him to embrace the orcish side of himself like this brute at Talisman's side, or to delight in suffering as the sorcerer himself so obviously did? If he'd been claimed and not abandoned, would Fjord be a different man?
He didn't know.
"Still so retiring. You can always tell the clanless ones, can't you, Sisk? No father to beat the weakness out of you, no whore mother, even, to sooth the pain of belonging nowhere. Were you left in one of those pitiful human temples? Was there an orphanage rather than a tribe firepit for you to cut your tusks around?"
Talisman’s hulking companion grunted, but there was a soberness to his expression that Fjord read not as contempt but as resignation. It made his wonder where Talisman had found Sisk. With his twisted back, he had the look of a monstrous half-formed brute, as though his mixed hereditary had done him no favors. In honesty, he looked more orc than half-orc, and Fjord wondered if he had also been abandoned, easily exploited by a stronger, smarter version of himself. There was certainly nothing of friendship between them. And Bekkit. Even now he stood at the back, a morose shadow leaning away from Talisman as though he were the adversary and not Fjord.
"The way I see it,” Fjord said, “you're the one to pity. I have a hard time believing any self-respecting orc would take pride in subduing children and pickpockets, or torturing a blind man. What was your clan again, Talisman? I may want to file away that name for future reference if they're all as bottom-feeding as you."
His words found their mark. Fjord could see the cold anger that flew across Talisman’s face, barely restrained behind his clenched jaw. "So it does have teeth.”
"There's this thing called restraint," Fjord told him. "It's power under control." It was something his captain had told him once, back when, as a young buck who'd gotten kicked to hell at a dive bar, he'd ended up needing to be bailed out of jail. As Vandren had none-so-gently bound his ribs, he'd said, "If your manhood is so thin it goes to tatter at any insult, you'll have nothing but rags before you grow into those fists of yours." He'd had more to say, that day and in the months and years that followed, and though Fjord had not always taken his advice with good grace, he’d forgotten none of it, and it had changed him. "I don't need to oppress a person to demonstrate strength."
"You're no warrior," Yasha spoke, and Fjord could feel her sheltered rage behind her back, like unseen wings. She, too, was showing restraint, but the time for that rage to find expression was nearly upon them.
"What, then, am I?" Talisman challenged her.
"A butcher," Beau spat.
"Is that really why you're so upset? Because I took my pound of flesh from that human garbage? I found him nestled away, as pink and helpless as a newborn rat. Yet here you are, with these faces like wrath, to avenge his death."
"He's not dead,” Fjord snapped before he could stop himself.
"No?" A spark of interest. "I did put forth some effort into keeping him lingering. I wanted you to find him with a little warmth left in. It seems I took it too far. Tell me, did he weep to find himself a cripple? Or has he already resigned himself?"
Fjord thought of Caleb, sound of mind despite what he'd been through. His willingness to keep fighting beside them, even here, in this place, with the one who hurt him so near at hand. And this in spite of the unintentional treachery of those he called his friends. "Caleb is stronger than you imagine."
"Humans are weak. They're all weak,” Talisman said. Behind him, Bekkit flinched.
"I'm starting to think you were the one who missed out on a decent upbringing," Fjord said. "You treat people like garbage, but we'll see if that gets you anything but enemies, chasing behind your back." Talisman had certainly managed to make enemies of them, and they were not good enemies to have.
"Bold claims from one who has not proven himself bold,” Talisman said.
Fjord stepped forward. "Let's see, then."
"They're starting," Molly said, up on the embankment.
Caleb leaned in.
On the other side of town, deep inside the baron’s manor, Nott shivered in her skin. She had what she came for, but the papers in her hand seemed thin and insubstantial, unimportant. She raised her wrist, with its little coil of wire. "I have the scroll, but something seems...bad. I think we need to go to Caleb and the others."
Three was a pause before Jester's uncharacteristically sober reply. "The sky is weird." And then, "You should hurry, Nott."
Chapter 10: Call of the Sovereign
The start of the match began with the flutter of a purple sash, dropped by an official whose hand shook when he glanced at Talisman. It drifted toward the ground like a loop of Jester’s frilly handwriting, and even before it touched the earth, the waiting fighters engaged. Talisman, to no one’s surprise, went straight for Fjord. Which, in Beau’s opinion, was unfair. During her admittedly fitful snatches of sleep, her dreams had been full of Talisman’s delicate cranial bones cackling and snapping under her fists. But, heck, if she really had to, she could put a pin in that. After all, it wasn’t like Talisman was alone in his bastardry. There were two more for the taking.
She ended up facing off with the orcish barbarian, seven and a half feet of muscle and bone, and a face not even a mother could love. He towered, wrinkled lips pulled over his teeth, while one red-lidded eye rolled lividly and a string of drool dripped down his jaw. When he moved, he looked like an animal, and the weapon he wielded, with its knob of bone, was a sword in name only. Really, it was more of a club. Only the end, horn-tipped like an antler, had the piercing power of a more traditional weapon. That he weaved through the air, drawing ever decreasing circles like he was honing in on her vital parts.
Ha, Beau thought over the wild palpitations of her heart. She was going to eat this guy for breakfast. "We gonna dance, big guy?"
With a roar, he charged.
His fighting style was vicious. He wielded his faux-sword with terrific speed, and more than once, Beau felt it scraping across her belly, promising disembowelment if she moved just a little less quickly. It was her training that saved her. Brute strength wasn't the Cobalt Soul way, but finesse was, and Beau brought all of it out to play. She dodged and rolled, dashed and flipped. She could tell it was disorienting Sisk, but he was dogged, absolutely intent. Even when she got in a flurry of blows, low over his kidneys, he merely grunted, turning on dime to catch her in the ribs.
That sent her tumbling, and by the time she was upright again, her whole midsection was throbbing. "Really wish I had some nice platted armor right now," she muttered. "Preferably with nasty ice powers. Yeah, ice powers would be nice."
She looked Sisk in the eye, saw that he was still fighting off the pain of her own attack, and seized the opportunity to throw a different kind of punch. “So, Sisk. Tell me, why did you go after my friend that night? Talisman, I get. The guy’s a lunatic. But what possible reason could you have to cut off somebody’s hands and leave them for dead?”
Hesitation percolated through the cloudy rage in Sisk’s eyes. “Wizard made master angry.”
Master, huh? Well, that explained a few things. “Oh, yeah? And what role did you play? You hold him down, Sisk?”
Sick's expression twisted in Beau read as discomfort. “I hold,” he said. “I break. Small bones and big bones.” He wade an unidentifiable sound, like a great dog who’d had someone step on his tail.
The description cut through Beau. She had a vivid imagination and was more than equipped to visualize what had happened to Caleb, yet somehow, hearing this halting, monosyllabic account was worse. “You broke his bones,” she repeated.
“Knife not right knife. Not cut enough.”
Beau thought she might be sick. Instead, she clung to her anger. “Right, and you went along with it. Did he fight? Did he curse you?”
Sisk’s huge shoulders sagged. “He cry,” the orc said.
Beau’s stomach lurched. She told herself it was stupid to feel any kind of pity for this monster. Still, she knew exploitation when she saw it, and while it didn’t exactly surprise her given what they knew of Talisman, that didn’t make it any less scummy. “Sisk,” she said. “You know, you don’t have listen to Talisman.”
Sisk shook his head. Violence was entering his eyes again, driving away the brief moment of clarity. "No," he grunted. "Master said."
“Caleb was defenseless,” Beau snapped. “He didn’t deserve to be hurt like that. No one does. Talisman was wrong.”
“NO!” Sisk thundered, and any semblance of sanity was lost. The beast-like disposition returned, and he threw himself back into the fray.
As the fight carried on, Beau maintained rigorous control of her respiration and heartrate, yet even so, she knew the strain was beginning to tell. It was time to take this brute down. "Hey, Sisk," she snapped. "You going to keep swinging that hedge clipper around or are we actually going to fight?"
If her words trickled through Sisk’s consciousness, all they appeared to do was outrage him. He came at her like a charging manticore, spittle flying from his mouth. She took the opening his rage provided, slipping under his guard and coming up under his chin with the palm of her hand. She felt it sink into his throat, but just as she felt a spike of triumph, an iron hold clamped down under her armpit. He lifted her without apparent effort, like lifting a rickety wooden bench in a tavern. He shook her, and her teeth slammed together, her stomach flipping over. Nausea rose high as her eyeballs, and she gagged even as her hands scrambled for any kind of grip.
Her heel got in a lucky blow, but his only response was to snap her harder, and this time she felt her shoulder give. She couldn't help but howl as the bones dislocated. White sunk her vision, and for a moment, there was only agony, paralysis, fear...
‘Focus,' hummed Xenoth's voice, and she swallowed down bile. By effort alone, she controlled the pain. It slipped down the scale from debilitating to manageable, and she opened her eyes to the orc's slavering face. "Hey," she said to him, perhaps a little dreamily. Which, lightheadedness could do that to a person, you know? "I hate to say this, but I'm a bit done in. Not that I'm not having fun or anything. It's just, like, my insides feel a little pulverized. So, if you don't mind..."
The kick was perfect. She had to practically bend in half to get the right angle, but, hell, Beau liked a challenge. This time she felt the bones of his nose give, knew the shards would be traveling upward, into delicate tissue. Not enough to enter the brain. Nope. She intended to follow the rules. So she held back, using only enough force to keep the guy down until a healer could perform a Greater Restoration on his face.
Had Sisk been any other race, he probably would have collapsed outright, but that orcish vitality – man, it was a thing. Instead, he backpedaled. There was a final moment of crushing pressure on Beau’s arm, and then she was airborne. Sisk slammed into the clay, splayed on his back. Beau landed not much farther away, more or less on her feet. Panting, she remarked, "Perfect three point landing. Urk." Then, slowly, she stood, holding her arching shoulder as she hobbled over to make sure her foe wouldn't be getting up anytime soon.
On another part of the field, a different kind of battle was taking place.
Far from sinking into Sisk's primitive rage, Yasha had taken the time to make a careful evaluation of her opponent, and what she saw prompted her to take the greatest caution. He was small, between Jester and Caleb in height, and slight of build, though the dark cloak obscured most of his body. Though he was supposedly an unarmed fighter, he didn't move like one. His steps were mincing and silent, and he kept his hands tucked out of sight. Even his clothing was wrong. Kicking and punching would be restricted. And he watched her with eyes like a martin – beady and fierce, but keenly aware of its size.
And cornered animals did not fight fair.
"You do not have to fight me," she said, letting the wind carry her words rather than increase their volume.
The human flinched, his jaw tightening, but he did not respond.
She raised her sword as he darted forward, but even as her footing shifted, his body moved like an eel, and he was no longer in front of her. There was a flash of metal beneath her arm, and then pain burned across her side, deep and penetrating. She looked down. Blood already soaked her woolen tunic, and she could feel the cut.
Her opponent was watching, wary and whetted. His eyes never left her, even as she hunched slightly from her wound. Yasha searched for a weapon, but she saw none. His hands, though still mostly lost in the folds of his garment, were empty. A hidden blade, then. She’d seen them in use before, clever devices that folded into the sleeves or were enchanted to take the form of a ring or a bangle. That he was so willing to use such a thing without even the pretense of abiding by the rules meant that he knew this confrontation went far beyond the tournament itself. They were fighting for their lives, and this man meant to live.
And possibly to kill.
"Okay," she murmured, straightening slowly. Death did not frighten her. It had been close to her all her life, every long winter a lesson, every frozen stream or barren womb or wolf cry in the night a ringing reminder. She had lived by her sword and by her strength always, and she did not mind doing it now, especially not when righteous anger simmered so close to the surface, ready to be called on. Ignoring the pain of her wound, she raised her weapon.
The rogue – for that was what he was – moved.
He was a shadow; here and gone, insubstantial, a wraith. She barely tracked his shape, even now that she knew how he moved. This time he did not get close enough to cut her. Her sword created a huge swath of deadly space, and though he nimbly avoided it, it forced him out of range. He cursed, low and thready. They moved around one another, him outside, her in. Seeking an opening.
It came as he stumbled. Just the tiniest uneven step, and she lunged. There was enough time to see the whites of his eyes, to turn the edge of her blade, but as she made her final approach, she saw her error. His fingers twisted something, and there was the tiniest pop. Yasha flung herself back too late. The vial was already shattered, sinking wetly into the stinging cuts it had made on her hand. Fumes, deceptively sweet and sinuous, filled her nostrils, and she felt the spell take hold, weight piling on her limbs until she could barely move. She felt herself beginning to sink...
Yasha closed her eyes, concentrating even as her thoughts became syrupy and slow. From within, she heard a voice speaking in a quiet Zemnian accent: “It is a battle of wills, magic. If you focus your mind and funnel it properly, any spell can be broken." This he’d said to her over a campfire during a midnight watch. They'd shared many such conversations, letting them meander naturally, without demands. It was easy to speak with Caleb, and now this piece of advice came back, seeping even through the influence of the potion’s effect.
"Will," she said, and exercised all of her own on the unseen chains binding her limbs together.
They needed her.
Her friends needed her.
Caleb needed her.
The chains snapped. Heaving, she stumbled, in full control of her limbs once more. She flexed her hands, feeling them respond at the normal speed. Coal-darkened eyes speared the rogue, who looked dumbfounded. "You shouldn’t have been able to do that," he stammered. "I paid plenty to make sure –"
"You would be surprised what you can do when people are depending on you," Yasha said, and his mouth snapped shut under the weight of her gaze. Yasha breathed out. She felt empowered, emboldened. Readiness filled her completely, rushed through her nerves like a roll of thunder in a coming storm. She looked at the unfortunate human, netted into this battle by some unknown pressure, and weighed him down under an impassive gaze. "I think I would like to rage."
Terror entered him, and he backed up a hasty step. Not that any amount of steps would keep him away from her once the tide of her anger was fixed on him. She decided to give him a final chance. Her eyes rotated slowly to where Fjord and Talisman were locked in combat of their own. In this setting, the sorcerer wore no mask to hide himself. He wielded his magic and his words with equal venom, and when he sensed her gaze, he snapped at Bekkit, "Do you need a graven invitation, you fool?"
To the hesitating rogue, Yasha asked, "Is this a man you plan to die for?"
Bekkit was clearly at war with duel fears. Then there was movement under his cloak, a cloud of smoke, and he disappeared.
Talisman saw Bekkit run. "Traitorous worm!”
Fjord watched the rogue disengage. He hadn't heard what Yasha said to him, but he had heard Talisman, who had made no secret of his disdain for his human comrade. It didn't surprise him that, given the choice between a contemptuous master and a fully-enraged barbarian, he had chosen flight. "Thin loyalties will do that."
A dark head jerked around. "Do not mock me."
Truth had a sting, Fjord knew. "I think you're the one whose words have done the most damage."
He was expecting the attack, but still the heat of it crackled so close he felt his skin burn. Hissing, Fjord reached into his belt pouch. With an effort, he managed to get off a Witch Bolt, but Talisman brushed off the energy as though it were flecks of water. He demanded, "Can you do no more than tickle me?"
"Dammit, Caleb. How do you do this?" Fjord muttered, banking to avoid an attack aimed directly at him. He was able to duck and roll, using a pile of stones as cover, but he was off his game, reaching blindly for a weapon he wasn't wielding. There was an itch beneath his skin, and it was calling, whispering, cajoling, but he shoved it down, exerted the self-control he valued so greatly. He stepped out from cover, calling on another bolt and almost lost his head when a bolt of electric energy cratered into the earth so close to him that the concussion lifted him off his feet. "Ah!"
He needed to slow things down. But what usually came so naturally was now difficult. He knew what he needed, had practiced time and again, but still Fjord fumbled over the slippery glob of flesh, nearly losing it through his fingers.
Seeing him struggle, Talisman scoffed at him. "What is this pitiful display? I know acolytes who can do better." His own powers seemed fully under his control. Fjord could see the power simmering beneath the surface, in the veins and skin of his grey-green body. 'And you,' he thought, 'barely able to hold onto a newt's eye.' But even as he said it, the component was in between his fingers and he whispered the words aloud that usually came from his spirit.
For once, his ineptitude was his advantage; Talisman wasn't guarded enough to avoid the enchantment, screaming as the necrotic effect kicked in. It was his dexterity Fjord targeted; he'd be slower to react now, less agile. Hopefully less dangerous, though Fjord wasn't holding his breath. The added damage wouldn't have much of an impact since he couldn't actually hit anything without his falchion. Which he needed, needed, needed...
'No, I can do this my own strength,' he insisted, tamping down the urge. Waters hissed within, but not to the point he was overwhelmed – and an idea came. The edge of one tooth pressed against his lip as he smiled. He'd seen what Talisman could do; knew the magic he drew on most easily was a current, and knew even more intimately from his burns and bruises just how powerful those currents could be. So what he needed...
He stepped into full view and got off another bolt, but clumsily. Even hexed, Talisman had no trouble dodging. But it did make him angry. "You swine. Do you think you can best me with this paltry show of magic?"
"I think that little goblin girl you attacked could best you with her pinky finger," Fjord retorted. "She's certainly got you beat when it comes to looks."
Juvenile, but he had judged Talisman rightly as a man who could broker no insult. Fjord could actually see the glaze of anger go over his eyes. His fingers crackled, and then a great shocking bolt streaked toward his opponent, tearing up the terrain as it went. Ready for this assault, Fjord threw himself behind the rocky outcropping, already muttering under his breath. The mist seized him as stones exploded, pelting everyone and everything in a twenty foot radius with shards of shale and bits of dirt. Talisman leaned forward, seeking, perhaps, a charred body...
...and Fjord appeared behind him.
The arcane fire slammed into Talisman's back with all the force of Fjord's will, which was so intense it was pulsing. It felt as though every cell of his body was alive, and as the Eldritch flames burst into vivid life, they took that intensity with them, building into the strongest blast he'd yet created. It hurled his opponent to the earth, ricocheting him like a stone across a lake. Only there was no lake, just rough ground that scrapped the skin off his face and tore his robes. The fire snarled, scorching before it died. The Talisman who pushed himself onto his elbows and knees was no longer a resplendent figure in blue silk. He was tattered, oozing blood that made his hairline caked with dirt. He made such a pathetic figure that some person in the crowd barked a laugh.
Talisman's head snapped toward it.
"You INSECT," he snarled, sounding completely unhinged. Without the veneer of poshness, there was an insanity that turned his handsome face into angles and teeth. He held out his hand, and before Fjord could do anyhing about it, a streak of energy bolted directly into the crowd. There were screams. More dirt rained. Fjord’s mouth hung open, and faintly he could hear an official bellowing.
"No! You can’t endanger spectators. The crownsguard will –"
The official didn’t get to finish his statement before another bolt went streaking in his direction. Fjord saw a mage’s shield go up, which he hoped meant the man was alive, but there was so much dust, pluming from the explosions of dry earth, that he was unable to tell for certain. "Talisman!" he shouted, wanting to draw the fight back to himself and away from vulnerable onlookers. The tournament was clearly over, but that didn’t mean the fight was. In fact, he felt certain it had just begun in earnest. "Talisman, where are you, you bastard?"
His answer was his feet leaving the ground, as it was suddenly not there anymore. He lost consciousness for a moment, and when he came to a second later, the situation had changed. Yasha was pulling him onto his knees. Beau was sunk into a defensive posture he knew well after months of fighting in tandem. Others had joined them: crownsguard and some of the defeated competitors, even a few audience members who apparently had some martial background. They surrounded Talisman, who was crouched in the center of them all. His voice was high. "Fools! You think you can challenge me?"
"Sir, you must not resist arrest," the crownsguard said. "Lower your guard immediately and remain still while we approach."
Talisman actually laughed. "Arrest?"
"You killed people," said the sober officer. His weapon did not tremble in his hand, though grief showed on his face. Fjord wondered how many casualties there were.
Beau spoke, "Yeah, you sicko. And this time you didn't do it in the dark. So stand the hell down already. You're defeated."
"Defeated? Me?” Talisman’s eyes were skittering. Blood was making a gory streak down the side of his face, and there was a starling amount of it. He took a hobbling step, and the defenders reacted, retreating even as their hands and weapons readied, but Talisman did nothing violent. Instead, his gaze was directed upward, almost as though they – or he – wasn't there. He was shaking his head. "I am Talisman Salvatore of the Red Claws of Greystone,” he muttered. "I will accept no defeat."
Wariness came upon Fjord like a vice. "Talisman –"
The half-orc giggled. It was an unnerving sound. He was still looking at the sky, his eyes wet and wild as the storm itself. He muttered, "Is that what it would take? All of it, I could have all of it, and you –" His chest hitched, and he looked wrecked. "Everything, no more grasping, no more – you promise, Father?"
The bottom dropped out of Fjord’s stomach. He didn't understand what was happening here, but he knew it wasn't good. Yasha, too, was stiff as a board. Her eyes were on the swirling clouds, head shaking. "No. This is wrong," she was saying. "It's not what he thinks –"
Fjord shouted into the gathering tempest. The hair on his arms was standing straight up, and he realized with a sudden primal fear that he air smiled of ozone. "TALISMAN."
But Talisman was beyond their hearing. His dark hair was drifting around his head, moved by a wind that tugged and pulled. In slow motion, he raised his arms, and as he did his body raised with them until his feet left the ground. He was levitating, but not any kind of levitation that Fjord had ever seen. Torches died, and whirlwinds and pockets of hot and cold air turned the river basin into a nightmarish scene. Head tipped back so that his throat was exposed, Talisman opened his mouth and screamed, and from the clouds directly overhead a thunderbolt struck him dead on.
There was the impression of terrible heat. Fjord shielded his eyes, and when he withdrew his arm, expecting to see nothing but a smudgy ashen crater where Talisman had once been, instead he saw a creature overtaken. No longer a person, for a person could not have survived. Yet a figure that resembled the half-orc sorcerer remained, rotating in the air, the remaining strips of his clothing fluttering around him like war banners, and his voice, echoing magically, gagging as he laughed through blood.
At the same time, the earth began to break apart. Chunks of sediment, formerly crusted into the packed earth, came up in masses. Half-submerged rocks rose and fell like debris launched from a trebuchet. Part of the embankment ran like liquid into the basin. It felt as though the earth was being literally torn apart as lightning fell and the air began to sizzle.
Fjord could see Talisman, the centerpiece of the storm. Blood was seeping from his tear ducts and nose, was red on his teeth. This was too much for him, that much was clear. Whatever it was that had claimed him in order to give him this power, he wasn’t holding the reigns, not any longer. This wasn't a sorcerer’s power. This was Something Else.
"He did healer things, but bad." Jester's tired words came back to him. She'd sounded sad, almost betrayed, and he had understood it was because this was a perversion of something she found sacred. "Did you know there were bad clerics like that, Fjord?"
He heard a shriek. Beau went down, clutching her leg. For a horrible moment, Fjord was sure it had been blasted completely away. There was bone and blood and the stink of cooked flesh, but though Beau panted with pain, she was alive. Yasha was looking at Fjord. He could barely hear her over the wind. "What do we do?"
The time for rules was past. Fjord summoned his falchion. However, his attack merely ricocheted off the swirling winds. It didn't even get close to reaching Talisman or whatever it was he had become. Yet something must have remained because as the Eldritch Blast dissipated into nothing, the head that had been thrown back turned, a mask of gore and tusks and eyes that were no longer yellow but blazing, luminescent gold. It sneered directly at Fjord and licked its gory lips.
It said, "Now we will see who is defeated.”
Then it attacked.
The sky was screaming. That was what it seemed like to Nott. She bolted headlong through streets washed in grey and black, the only colors left as the remaining light was devoured. Jester panted behind her, struggling to keep up.
"Come on!" Nott pressed past others heading in the opposite direction, away from the river basin. From the sky, there seemed to be laughter, ancient and terrible.
Jester cried, "Oh, Nott. What is that?"
She didn't know, and she didn't care. All that mattered was Caleb. As the first, fist-sized pieces of hail began to fall, Nott picked up her pace.
It was the end of the world, or so it seemed to Molly. The wind was howling around his ears, and his skin was raw from gusting grit and debris. Caleb grunted as he was pelted, and Molly tried to shield him, through it seemed impossible. They were both kneeling beside the rock formation, which provided some shelter. However, from the way the grass was bristling, tearing up and twisting into the air, there was no telling how long it would last.
Molly growled, "How is he doing this?"
Caleb squinted, though between the madness of rushing bodies and torn earth and screams, neither could see much. "I believe he is possessed," he said, his accent made almost indistinguishable by the roaring in Molly’s ears. "There is something in him, something inhuman, though I do not know what that might be."
"Or who," Molly said, wincing as a stone caught him in the eye. “We didn't exactly prepare to face a god."
"Perhaps not a god," Caleb corrected. “But it is not good. We must get out of here."
A good plan, but more easily said than done. They could probably get away if they followed the crowd, but Yasha was down there. Plus Fjord and Beau. Mouth dry, Molly said, "Can you send them a message?"
Caleb raised his arm. "Beau. Beau you must leave." Almost immediately, his brow tightened. "She is hurt. And Talisman is looking right at them."
He saw what Caleb was referring to. Until this moment, the destructive power swirling around them had seemed all-encompassing rather than targeted. Now, though, Talisman’s eerily levitating body was turning, and his eyes, lit up like lightening, beaded on three familiar figures. His magically amplified words rang throughout the basin, and the malice of them was like a cold sluice of rain water, going straight to Molly's heart.
"WE WILL SEE WHO IS DEFEATED."
Molly rose. "He’s going to kill them."
"Perhaps there is a way to…" Caleb was still kneeling, and instead of looking at their enemy, he was staring at his hands.
Mollymauk all but dropped beside him. "Tell me, Caleb."
The man shook his head. "I do not know for certain. This is – out of my experience, but..."
When he started to drift, Molly actually shook him. "No! There is no time for that. No time for doubts, no time for second guessing. Tell me. What are you thinking?"
"If he has been marked by a deity, or even a higher fiend or archfey, there is nothing we can do. He would be too changed, to endued with power to be affected. But if he is possessed, Mollymauk, if he is just a conduit –"
The pieces snapped together in Molly's mind. His head swung around, trying to discern if there was anything that might tell him...and what he saw was blood. "His body's not taking it, Caleb. I think he is possessed." However, he'd seen Fjord's blast dissipate like it was nothing. How could this knowledge help if they couldn't get close?
That was when it came to him, the solution. They'd done it a thousand, thousand times. In fact, it had been almost the first thing they’d learned Caleb could do, and since then they’d taken advantage of it so often that, until yesterday, it had been taken for granted.
"Frumpkin," he said.
He saw the moment his meaning struck because Caleb went rigid. “You want me to –”
Numbly, the man recited, “The bond between a familiar and its master is such that a spell can be cast through the animal form, provided the range is touch.”
"No, Caleb. Not can it be done. Can you do it?"
Because they'd meant to give him time, to let him reconnect with Frumpkin when he was ready. Now there was no time, and Molly knew that merely giving Frumpkin a command wouldn’t be enough. It would take human intelligence to pull off what he was suggesting. Which meant Caleb would need to plunge himself once more into his familiar’s mind and spirit. But could he?
Caleb's lips were pressed so tightly together they were almost white. "I'll need to get closer."
Without the outcropping to protect them, they staggered under the full weight of the wind. It was very hard to move over the broken incline. More than once, they fell, and each time Molly's heart went into his throat. If they turned an ankle or cracked open their head, everything would be lost. Finally, they reached the fringe of the river bank. By then, everything was screaming. Magic and electricity baked the air, and Molly was afraid to search the battlefield, terrified they were too late.
"This will have to be close enough, Caleb. Caleb?" Pressed together as close as they were, Molly could feel the man shaking. And, oh, Moonweaver, they had no time for this. "Caleb," he pleaded. "I know this is a lot, but I'm begging you. Don't go away on me now."
Yet there was a limit to what a man could do. Molly knew that, and trauma had a way of rearing its head at times that suited no one. It was rattling around in Caleb now. Too hard a push, and he might retreat entirely. But if he sank, what would that mean for Yasha and the others? The thrill of utter terror that streaked through him had Molly yanking Caleb back and raising his hand, ready to strike him if that’s what it took. However, even as he did so, a strange calm crossed his anxious mind.
'I can't force him,' he realized. 'If he can, he can. And if he can't, he can’t.' Talisman's assault, the half-orc's insane decision, this terrible situation. None of it was Caleb’s fault, and Molly would be damned if made his friend, coming apart in his arms, responsible to fix everything.
So instead of cajoling, he wrapped his arms around Caleb, guarding him as best he could from the wounding wind. He kissed the top of man's head and said, "It's alright, Caleb."
Caleb shifted. “But, I –”
“No. No buts.”
“But if I don’t…”
“It’s not your fault,” Molly said, as earnestly as he could. “We all have to die sometime.”
He felt hands digging into the back of his coat. A forehead dug into his shoulder. It muffled Caleb’s words, which were already so quiet he could barely hear them. But hear them he did, not broken as he’d feared, but tight and sincere. “We have survived too much to die now.”
Molly chuckled, despite everything. “I don’t think it works like that, dear.”
“I don’t want him to kill us.”
Molly heard the determination, and his heart thumped as a tendril of hope surged. “Caleb?”
"If I do this, if I go into Frumpkin, you will...you will watch me, ja?"
It was the easiest promise Mollymauk had ever made. "You have my word."
He felt the gradual, deliberate loosening of over-tightened muscles. “Alright,” Caleb said, and then he drew back enough to hold up his wrist, his hand, his missing finger, and call on his familiar.
It took him two tries, but Caleb snapped his fingers, and a tiny, huddled animal appeared. It mewed pitifully. Caleb touched its head with tenderness, speaking in Zemnian. Then he closed his eyes, and when he opened them, both he and Frumpkin were staring out into a world through otherworldly blue. The cat looked up at Molly and cried in a voice so small it made Molly want to scoop the animal up and press it against his chest. But it wasn't the cat who needed his protection. It was the man who’d been entrusted into Molly's care.
"Go," he urged, and the cat flew off in the direction of the field.
He tried to follow its orange coat as it dodged through patches of torn grass and stones that rolled as easily as autumn leaves before the wind, but it was impossible. More than once, Frumpkin disappeared entirely, and Molly feared the animal lost, squashed, lacerated, or trapped. The only reassurance he had this was not the case was Caleb, who muttered under his breath as he concentrated. Then, as suddenly as Molly lost sight of it, a tiny orange figure appeared on the fringe of the battlefield. Caleb was panting. "I see..."
Mollymauk wanted to bolster his courage, to reassure him he could do what no one else could do, but while Caleb was in Frumpkin, he was deaf and blind. So Molly pressed his face against Caleb's ear so the man could feel the vibration of his voice, even if he couldn’t hear the sound. "You can do it, Caleb. I'm with you. We're all with you. Go get him."
Caleb took a long, trembling breath, and then Frumpkin shot across the final stretch of the ruined, craterous landscape, an insignificant speck on a field of giants. "I have to touch him," Caleb murmured. He held his wrist to his mouth. "Fjord."
A whisper tickled his ear, interrupting what Fjord was certain would be his final moments alive. The world was full of hissing lightning, and nothing so small as a voice should have been heard, but this voice was not brought to him by a physical sound. Magically, it spoke, giving him the message of a friend.
"I need to touch him, but the wind is too high for Frumpkin. You must get Talisman on the ground."
Initially, the words made no sense. Caleb wasn't here, and even if he were, Talisman's state of hypervigilance would mean the wizard had no chance of approaching near enough to touch.
"Fjord," this time it was Beau. She sounded half out of her mind. There was blood soaking through her pants, and her shoulder was a mess. Yet her eyes were trained to a monk’s standards, and even dull with pain, they missed nothing. At the moment they were fixed on something behind their enemy, and Fjord followed her gaze.
"Well, damn," he said, struggling to his feet and mustering his strength. Possibly for the last gambit he would ever make. He inhaled deeply, took new grip on his falchion, and stepped into the mist.
Through eyes that were blue with fire, a cat with the soul of a man waited on a battlefield. The wind was almost tearing it off its feet, but the cat was not always a cat, and it was able to cling to the earth – just. Inside, the spirit of the man was quaking. The last time they’d traveled together, he had gotten lost. This time death was roaring overhead. Frumpkin saw the beast, the one who had taken their – his – hands. The one who had torn and burned and laughed. The part of it that was not a cat, that was near-immortal and powerful, wanted revenge, but the part that was a man had a different aim, and he was the one who was in charge right now.
The opportunity came in a green blur. Their friend had appeared within the mist, and he was grappling the beast. Not enough to defeat him. He was a toy to the possessed creature the beast had become. But his weight did bear the creature to the earth, and before he was cast off, boneless and steaming with electrical energy, the beast touched the earth with one foot.
Frumpkin's hindquarters bunched.
Beneath Molly's arm, Caleb let a handful of powdered iron fall to the earth. His lips moved as he incanted, "Protection from Evil and Good.”
Talisman – or the thing inside him – screamed.
It ended with the cooling earth. The clouds untwisted, and as they did, a warm rain began to fall. It soaked into the ground, softening its edges. Down in the river basin, Yasha raised her face, letting it fall on her skin. Propped up and mostly insensible of anything but the sudden quiet, Beau offered a wavery smile. The pelting drops revived Fjord, who was several feet away. Though he hurt in every joint and sinew, he drew himself onto his elbows and looked across the clay.
A dead sorcerer lay on his back.
Fjord let out a shuddering sigh. "Bless the Maker."
Somewhere above, Caleb came back to himself. A bloodied Mollymauk gripped him with concern. "Are you alright?"
Caleb took stock, finding bruises and nothing more. In a voice hoarse with strain but otherwise intact, he said, "I am well. And you, Mollymauk?” Molly’s answer was a full belly laugh. It was a wild, we-are-alive-against-all-odds kind of laugh, and Caleb understood. He even felt a bit like laughing himself, at least if his side and ribs hadn't been so tender. "Ahh. On second thought, I may have been struck by a stone."
Molly's laughter died down to giggling. "A stone, eh? I wonder how that could have happened."
"Oh, be quiet," Caleb answered, but his mind had cleared wonderfully. For the first time since waking, he felt not-terrible. It was ironic, really. The earth around him was torn asunder. He did not know where their friends were or how they had faired in those final moments of battle. However, something within, something he couldn't define, told him the worst was past, that the near-catastrophic threat and been held back for now, and that the beast who’d hurt him had paid for what he'd done in a most permeant way. And Molly... He grasped the man's sleeve. "Thank you."
Molly, who had been casting around eagerly, probably for their friends, paused. "For what?"
"For watching. For always watching, Mollymauk."
He smiled, warm and earnest and without a hint of mockery. "Always,” he said, and winked.
Caleb was opening his mouth, searching for a rejoinder that wouldn't be too sentimental, when a shrill voice broke over everything, and then his arms were full of goblin. "CALEB." He held Nott, let her rake her claws over his face and hair, unmindful of the scratches. Frumpkin did the same thing, bless him. They both loved him more than he deserved.
"Hallo, Nott," he said to her. The realty-altering moment was past, and they had survived.
It ended as it so often did – on the road. Their cart was creaking its way down a dirt path, the noise of the horses and the chatter of their friends filling up the empty spaces. Molly tipped his head back, letting it rest it against the wooden sideboard, and smiled at the canopy overhead with its dappled sunshine. A patch of rays settled on his belly, and it was warm and golden.
"I don't think I've ever been so happy to leave a place," Fjord was saying from one of the horses.
Of course, Beau had to be contrary, even after having her leg half burned off. "I don't know. Labenda Swamp was a pretty nasty place, and I can think of a few others I've been glad to leave behind. Pamell at least had good ale."
"Not in the end they didn't," Nott grumbled. She was still put out that the tavern had been partially demolished, and the owner had not reopened while they were still in town. She had her bottomless flask, of course, but Molly had tasted the stuff, and aside from a very efficient burning sensation, it didn't do much for the palette.
"Oh, you two are so grumpy." From atop the other saddle, Jester was attempting to share something of their latest adventure with the Traveler. Her tongue was sticking out, which was cute, but she wasn't finding it easy to sketch on horseback. Finally, she sprinkled a bit of sand to dry out the ink and clapped the book shut. "Which is stupid, because everything turned out okay. The crownsguard were super nice to us, those cute kids are in good hands with Johann, and we even have the scroll for the Gentleman."
They did, against all odds. It was nestled into Jester's haversack, somewhere next to the reality-altering dodecahedron, dozens of battle-claimed swords and daggers, and probably a thousand pastries. That scroll had been at the very, very bottom of Molly's priority list a short time ago, but he was glad now that Nott and Jester had kept their heads and taken care of things. He had no idea if it would be relevant after that god-awful mess they'd left behind, but if there was one thing he knew about shady, underground figures, it was that it was better to keep them happy and thinking of you as little as possible.
"We also kind of blew up the town," Beau muttered.
"Nope. We are not taking responsibility for that," Molly said, thumping his heel against the bed of the cart. "It was that bastard and nobody else. Hell, we might’ve even saved the world."
"That's a bit melodramatic," Yasha said. She was walking alongside, and the sunlight made her woolen tunic look so white it almost glowed.
"Did you see those rocks? Did you see those bolts of lightning?"
"Yes," she said simply, at the same time Beau rubbed her thigh and muttered, "I sure did."
"I think we can agree we were damned lucky," Fjord spoke up. "But if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not be involved in any more end-of-day’s events for a good long while. And if I never see another sorcerer again, it will be too soon."
"Aren't you a sorcerer?" Jester asked.
Fjord looked affronted. "I am not."
"How do you know? Maybe you're great-grandma was a dragon!"
"My grandmother was not a dragon."
"But she could have been, Fjord. Did you ask her?"
The absurdity of the light-hearted back and forth was relaxing, so Molly tuned out all but the sound of their voices and returned to his enjoyment of the forest. Someone clearing their throat drew his attention. On the other side of the cart, Caleb was reading a book. Frumpkin was there, too, a little orange bread loaf with half-lidded eyes, blinking in the sun. Both cat and man looked tranquil. It was a nice thing to see. It coaxed Molly out of his pending nap long enough for a quiet conversation. "How are you feeling?"
"As you know, I am completely well. After all, in the end I was one of the least injured."
It was technically true. Once the dust settled, several of them had needed a healer. Fjord was bleeding internally, and as he swayed under the effects of Johann’s healing hand, Molly had clapped his shoulder and offered a quiet cough. Fjord met his eyes, and an understanding had passed between them. Caleb and Beau, meanwhile, had been engaged in one of their uncomfortable hugs, though Beau’s grip seemed less stiff and more earnest than usual. “I’m sorry,” she muttered into Caleb’s shoulder.
His hand went pat, pat on her back. “It’s okay, Beauregard. We can start again, ja?”
All in all, they'd made out okay, or at least with the same number of body parts as they'd started out with (which...yeah, maybe it was too soon for that kind of joke). Still, a kernel of worry remained. Because despite the normalcy of the moment, and though Caleb looked physically healthy sitting across from him in the cart, that didn't erase what happened or disqualify the possibility that some mending was still needed.
So he pushed, just a little. "I noticed you were awfully careful this morning, putting on those bandages of yours." He glanced at Caleb's wrists, hidden beneath strips of linen.
Caleb's foreshortened finger shifted against the corner of his book. "Do you regularly watch your companions as they dress, Mollymauk Tealeaf?"
"Oh, yeah. Definitely," Molly said without shame. Because, hey. Truth. Plus, he wasn't going to let go of an opportunity when it presented itself.
Rather than respond directly, Caleb asked a seeming unrelated question. "Do you remember me reading your fortune?"
"The Eight of Swords." Mollymauk could see it now, that token of the future. At the time, its meaning had been obscured, all fancy and no substance. The thought of it now made him frown. "I suppose it came true, didn't it?"
"No," Caleb said. "The Eight of Swords is binding and abandonment. I was not abandoned."
Molly lowered his voice. He didn't want it to travel. "Weren't you, though?"
The man shook his head. "No, I was not. I won't pretend that I don't think of it, especially when I see what was left behind, but I think I will carry these marks easier knowing they will not keep me from going forward." Frumpkin chirped, nudging his hand, and Caleb stroked him. "Nor will I forget how far I've come from being alone." He huffed a soft laugh. "A little ironic, I know, but the way the mind works is a funny thing."
Nott, who had been sitting with her feet hanging off the back of the cart, turned her head. "I love you, Caleb."
He had such a fond expression, when he looked at her. "Ah. Thank you, Nott. You know I care for you, too."
"We all care," Beau grunted from her seat above him, because of course she had been eavesdropping. Her face twisted. "Gods, that sounds stupid."
Jester giggled. "It's okay, Beau. We love you, too."
Beau made a gagging sound, but she didn’t mean it. Molly knew because he could feel it in his own chest, the warmth of companionship. To think, he'd worried this was destroyed such a short time ago, but it seemed their bonds were more durable than he'd suspected. He glanced once more at Caleb and found him gazing at Beau and Jester while they bickered, at Fjord, who was pretending not to listen, at Yasha, holding onto the cart with her hand near his neck, and at Nott, who had pulled out her buttons and appeared to be sorting them by color. He caught Molly looking, and – Molly swore – he winked. "Have you also a declaration of love, my friend?"
Happiness bubbled up in Molly's chest, and he tilted his head toward the sun. "Gods, I love you people. You know, I really do."
"Very flattering," Caleb said, turning a page. But he was smiling – Molly swore – and that was enough for the moment, here in this place where they were together, sincere in each other's faith and in one another’s trust.
I’m going to be upfront. Mostly my dreams about Critical Role involve literally every character wrapping Caleb in soft blankets and petting his head and assuring him everything will be fine. I don’t know why this is the case. I love every member of the Mighty Nein so, so much, but, gee, I just want that sad wizard to be happy. Another note on the spell Caleb casts to de-possess Talisman. It’s a stretch from the official reading, I know, but it’s close enough for horseshoes, right? :D
Thank you to everyone who supported this story as it was being published. I hope you enjoyed!