“He used to put crystals in--he experimented on us, on the three of us.”
Nott, her anger forgotten for the moment, looks up at Caleb, her lip trembling just a bit. “What would they do? Crystals?”
“He was trying to strengthen us.” The dirty bandage falls away to reveal a scatter of little white scars against Caleb’s pink skin.
“Oh.” Jester’s voice is very small. She reaches out a hesitant finger to touch the scars, running her hand gently over Caleb’s broken skin, before stopping with a gasp. “Wait, there’s--Caleb, I can feel--”
Caleb meets her eyes and gives a sad little smile.
“He didn’t leave them in.” Beau’s tone sounds angry, but the horror in her voice is clear to anyone who knows her. “Caleb, tell me he didn’t leave them inside you.”
Caleb is already wrapping his arm again, eager to get out of the center of attention. “They do not hurt,” he says softly.
- - - - -
It’s probably Caduceus who first notices Caleb’s twitchiness, but if he does, he doesn’t comment on it. In the end, it’s Fjord who puts a hand on Caleb’s and murmurs softly, “Hey, you might want to try not to move around quite so much. This isn’t a place we want to attract any extra attention. ‘Specially not those of us who don’t look so Xhorhasian.”
Caleb looks down at his arm, where he’s been scratching at the tattered bandages, as if just now noticing what he’s been doing. He quickly glances around the Four Corners, scanning to see if any of the other patrons have been as perceptive as Fjord.
“Yes,” he says. “Sorry. I was--sorry.”
“No worries, just--we want to be extra careful, y’know?”
Caleb shifts in his seat and then picks up the drink he hasn’t touched all night, his fingers clenching on the handle of the oversized mug a little harder than maybe they need to.
“You okay?” Fjord asks softly.
“I am fine,” Caleb replies. “I am just . . . this is a strange place.”
“You’re telling me,” Fjord says--although for him, the strangeness is more that he’s, for once in his life, not the one attracting the stares and the suspicious sideways glances. Even now, with his tusks growing in, and his scar-slashed green face, he doesn’t stand out at all among the crowd of drows, bugbears, ogres, goblins, orcs, and other nonhumans. He’s . . . ordinary. The unfamiliarity of it puts him ill at ease. He’d like to ask Nott about it, see if she’s feeling the same way.
Beside him, Caleb shivers, and Fjord glances down to see him picking at the bandages again. Before Fjord can murmur a warning, Caleb shoots to his feet, swinging his leg over the bench.
“Caleb, are you--” Jester begins.
“Sorry--I have to--I just need some air.” Caleb is already out the door before anybody can ask him what’s going on.
The Mighty Nein look at each other over the small silent space he leaves behind.
“Too many people?” Jester wonders.
Nott nods. “Sometimes he gets nervous when there are a lot of people about. But I think it happens more in the Em-- . . . um, in the big cities, where there might be . . . bad people who he used to know. I don’t think we’re likely to run into those folks here.”
“Still, he’s been on edge all evening,” Beau notes.
“We all have,” Caduceus rumbles. “I think we all could use a good night’s rest.”
“Maybe we should leave the rest of the investigating for tomorrow?” Jester suggests. “I don’t feel very good about wandering around in this city after dark; it seems like that could be pretty dangerous here.”
“Speaking of . . .” Fjord casts a glance over his shoulder at the door Caleb had vanished through. “Someone should probably go check on him.”
Beau drains the last of her drink and pushes back from the table. “I’ll go.”
“Are you sure, Beau? You’re back to human form. It might be just as dangerous for you.” Jester pulls a face.
“If he’s right outside, we’ll be fine,” Beau argues. “If he’s gone farther, I’ll come back in and get someone else to come with me.”
When Beau first steps out into the chilly night, blinking as her eyes adjust to the darkness, she sees no sign of Caleb. She’s about to return to her friends for (as much as it pains her to admit it) backup, when a small sound in the alleyway catches her attention.
Caleb is leaning against the wall of the building, forehead to the stone, his clenched fists up against the wall by his face. As Beau watches, he kicks the wall, hard. Then again. Beau frowns. Caleb’s boots are old leather, stiff from years of hard use but not solid enough to hold up against a stone wall.
“Hey, man,” Beau says carefully. “Why, um . . . why’re you kicking our tavern?”
Caleb starts and looks up, and Beau is shocked to see the sharp tension in his face. “It’s my arms, they . . . the crystals. I’m trying to take my mind off it.”
“Itching.” Caleb sighs and turns around, leaning back against the wall. “I’m sorry if I worried everyone. I just . . . I couldn’t sit still any longer.”
“I thought you said they didn’t bother you.”
Caleb shakes his head. “Usually they don’t. Sometimes I, you know, I start to think about them being, being inside me, and I . . . I can’t stop thinking it. That’s when--” His hand twitches toward the wrappings and Beau can see the effort it takes him to stop from scratching. Already the bandages are hanging loose and ragged, and streaks of blood are visible where Caleb’s nails have broken the skin.
“Listen, it’s not safe to wander around alone. Let’s go back to our rooms--or our stalls, I guess, whatever we’re calling them--where no one’s watching. I’ll get Jester and we can try to take your mind off it in a more pleasant way than smashing your toes against a building.” Beau starts to take Caleb’s arm, then stops, staring him dead in the face. “ Don’t interpret that in a dirty way.”
Caleb gives her a strained grin. “I’m not Jester,” he says.
Despite Beau’s best efforts to phrase it as innocuously as possible, Jester does find a way to make the request to help Caleb cope into an innuendo--but maybe that’s all right, because her gleefully dirty chatter on their way back to the lodging area does seem to pull Caleb out of his head a little bit. They set up in the farther of the two stalls the party has rented, and Jester plops down cross-legged on the pile of straw and announces that they need to play the Never Game, as it’s an absolute crime that the group hasn’t yet played it together.
“I mean, it's so good for getting to know people. And everybody just looooves drinking so much anyway,” she adds with a little pout. “I’m glad at least I’ve got Caduceus to be sober with me now.”
“We all have too many secrets for that game to work well for us,” Beau argues. “You never know what might come up.”
“We’ll play a tame version tonight,” Jester insists, “since Caleb isn’t feeling good. No drinking, and just things like, um . . . like . . . I never ate the intestines of any animal.” She gapes when both Beau and Caleb sigh and hold up nine fingers. “What, both of you?”
“Tripe is a pretty common food, in the Empire,” Beau tells her. “Wouldn’t you say, Caleb?”
Caleb’s a little distracted, but her question pulls him in. “J--ja,” he says. “Not, maybe, so much where I come from. But in the central parts of the Empire, I had it. Many times.”
Jester wrinkles her nose. “But is it . . . nice?”
Caleb shrugs. “When I got it, I was grateful enough to have it that it tasted good to me. I do not think I would choose it over, say, a good meat pie. Beauregard?”
“Yeah, I guess I like it. I grew up with it, y’know? Kinda smells like home, or something like that.” She grimaces at the admission.
“Well then! We will have to make tripe the next time we can get it!” Jester declares.
“Probably not too hard in this city,” Beau suggests. “I get the feeling they eat all kinds of stuff.”
“Ooh!” Jester exclaims. “I wonder if they have it here! Caleb, do you think they would cook tripe for us here?”
Caleb guiltily snatches his hand away from his arm. “Sorry, what?”
“Do you think, if we asked reallllly nicely, the innkeeper here would cook tripe for us?”
Caleb’s smile is tight but fond. “I do not think asking nicely carries much weight in this city.”
“So we should threaten him,” Jester concludes. “‘Hey, Mister Innkeeper, we’ve got a reeeeally big firbolg with us, and he’s gonna rip your arms off if you don’t make us a big bowl full of tripe right-a now!”
Caleb giggles in spite of himself, but then a strange look flits across his face.
“You okay?” Beau asks.
“ J-ja ,” Caleb responds after a longer pause than it should take to answer that question. “ Ja. I am fine.”
“Good, cause it’s your turn. For the game,” she prompts when he doesn’t seem to understand.
“Oh. Right.” He frowns. “I have never . . .” His hand darts toward his scratched-up skin again, wavering in midair as he tries to resist the temptation to dig at his arms.
Beau grabs it in hers. “Is that okay?” she asks softly.
Caleb nods. “Thank you.” Jester reaches out for his other one, and he closes his eyes for a minute, taking a deep breath in through his nose, before saying, “I have never seen an . . . an elephant.”
“Never?” Jester crows. “They’re so. Cool! ”
“There’s a menagerie in Zadash that has one, I think,” Beau says. “Next time we go through there, we’ll have to check it out.”
If we ever go back to the Empire, nobody says. Jester reaches across, forming the third leg of a triangle, to pat Beau’s hand.
The game continues, dancing from one unimportant topic to another, with Jester throwing in irreverent jokes and questions that come out of nowhere when Caleb’s attention seems to wander. It seems to be helping.
Then, in the middle of Jester’s impassioned objections to Beau using “I’ve never cast a spell” for her next turn, Caleb’s hands clench against those of the girls, and a faint whine breaks through his clenched teeth.
“Caleb?” Jester asks, the game forgotten. “What’s wrong?”
He shakes his head, eyes squeezed shut. His hands tremble in theirs.
A moment later he tears away from them and stumbles to his feet. The stall is small, but he still doesn’t make it outside before he’s throwing up, doubled over retching even as he starts raking at his arms again with his fingernails.
Beau jumps up to hold his head as he heaves, pulling the shaggy red hair away from his face. Even after there’s nothing left to come up, Caleb continues retching, his breath coming in frantic sobs in between heaves.
“Caleb, what’s the matter?” Jester is dancing with worry, her chatter filling the small space as Caleb struggles to get himself under control. “Did you eat something bad? Do you think you could be poisoned? Maybe I should cast healing on you, should I cast healing do you think?”
Shaking, his already pale skin now ghost-white, Caleb sits back to lean against the wall, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. “Moving,” he grits out between clenched teeth. “They’re moving.”
Beau goes still. “Okay, what?”
Eyes clenched shut, Caleb holds up his arm. It’s faint, barely there, but he’s right: Where his skin is marked by scars, there is a small movement under the skin, a twitching of something. As they watch, there’s a bigger movement, as if the crystals inside his flesh are struggling to get out.
Beau has to look away. Caleb gags, and leans away from her to dry-heave onto the floor of the shed again.
“I’m going to get Caduceus,” Jester says in a small voice. Jester has never before voluntarily gone to the other cleric for help, has never admitted that something is beyond her abilities.
Beau grabs onto Caleb’s shoulders, trying to hold him steady. “Okay, man,” she says. “Hang on. It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna figure this out.” She’s not sure he can even hear her, but she needs the words herself.
Nott is first through the door, of course, but Caduceus is right on her heels, and he strides right up to Caleb and kneels in front of him, ignoring the mess on the floor. “Hey, Mister Caleb,” he rumbles. “Let’s see if we can help you feel better.” Beau gratefully cedes her place at Caleb’s side to people whose skills include things other than punching shit and making snarky remarks, and she watches as Caduceus coaxes Caleb into a calmer state. “Deep breaths,” he reminds the wizard. “As much as you can, in through the nose and out through the mouth.”
Caleb manages to stop heaving and catch his breath, and he leans his head back against the wall as Nott wipes his face with one end of her ragged scarf. “What happened, Caleb?” she asks him.
“Oh, fuck.” Fjord is already staring down at Caleb’s arms, where his fingers are still worrying at the scars. His fingertips are bloody, and his skin is torn up in many places, but underneath the streaks of red, small shapes can be seen moving around under the muscle.
“They’re moving,” Caleb mutters through bitten lips. “They're moving, they're inside me and--I can't--I can't--” His voice soars up an octave. “Nott, they hurt! ”
“What is it?” Nott asks Beau. “What’s moving?”
“It’s the crystals that fucker put in him,” she mutters.
“Has this ever happened before?” Fjord asks, peering closer.
“N--no, never,” Caleb grits out. One trembling hand flies out to clutch at Fjord’s arm. “Please, you have to do something--please, they’re-- ngh --”
“You said they were too deep to take out,” Nott wails. “You said if we cut into your arms, it could stop your hands working!”
“Is that true?” Fjord looks up at the clerics.
Caduceus shrugs slowly. “I don’t really know. I’ve never seen anything like this before, have you, Jester?”
Jester shakes her head. “No. We could try to take them out, but there’s like twenty of them in there, he told us before, and there are a lot of really important parts in the arms, you know.” She crouches down next to Caleb and takes his hand. “Caleb?”
“Mmh.” Caleb’s voice is half a groan, but his eyes open to slits and he meets her gaze.
“Listen, we could try to fix your arms, but we don’t reallllly know what we’re doing, and I would hate to make a mistake that would make it so you couldn’t cast spells so well, and maybe we wouldn’t be able to undo the mistake. I mean, I’ll try it if you want me to, but you know, this started out of nowhere, and maybe it’ll stop again soon, so if you think you can stand it, maybe we should wait and see what happens?”
Caleb closes his eyes and takes a shaky breath. “ Ja, ” he whispers. “I can do it.”
“Good for you, Caleb!” Jester crows. “Now! We’re gonna get you away from your puke, ‘cause that’s nasty, and make you nice and comfy, and it’s gonna be okay, all right? We’re gonna take care of you.”
Her smile falters as a moan escapes Caleb’s lips, and his hand clenches on hers until the knuckles go white.
“We’re right here,” Nott says in his ear.
“C’mon, buddy,” Fjord says, helping Jester hoist Caleb to his feet.
They lead him, stumbling, across the narrow room and help him lie down on the straw that Beau has covered with her cloak, teal side up. Caleb won’t let go of their hands, so Nott scrambles over him to perch, knees tucked up to her chin, between his arm and the wall, and Jester settles down by his other side. Caleb clenches his teeth and breathes shakily through his nose, in and out, in and out. Sweat stands out on his forehead.
“You’re doing so good, Caleb,” Jester encourages. He doesn’t seem to hear.
“This never happened before,” Nott says. She stares at her boy’s blood-streaked skin, at the visible movement of the crystals under the flesh. She looks a little pale herself, under the dull green of her skin, and her free hand keeps going to worry at the cap of her flask. “They never gave him any trouble at all until tonight.”
“We’re going to figure it out,” Fjord assures her.
The whistle of Caleb’s slow breathing stops as his whole body goes rigid, his hands squeezing Jester and Nott’s so tightly that Nott squeaks in surprise. The moment passes and Caleb breathes again, moaning softly. Beau turns away, clenches fists swinging uselessly at her sides.
“Caleb? You still okay?” Fjord asks.
“It--it hurts,” Caleb whispers. “I don’t-- ahh --” He stiffens again, and Jester presses her free hand to his face.
“Breathe,” she murmurs. “Hang on. It’ll pass.”
And it does--but then it comes back again and again, and soon Caleb is crying out, clinging to their hands as Caduceus and Fjord hold his thrashing legs to keep him from kicking.
“It’s getting worse,” Nott says in the tense silence after a spasm of pain has left Caleb gasping, tears tracing down his temples.
“Does it--does it look like they’re getting . . . bigger?” Fjord whispers, pointing at Caleb’s arms. There’s no question about it. Where once were tiny slivers of hard stone deep beneath the little white marks, now the angular shapes of several large crystals can be seen under the skin, quivering and shifting around sickeningly.
“Maybe we should try to take them out,” Jester says. “But what if we do him more harm? What if he can’t move his hands afterward?”
“It would be . . . truly awful, to lose the ability to work magic,” Fjord says, worrying at his lip with his tusks.
“But he would live and be well,” Caduceus points out.
“We can’t let him keep going through that,” Beau says.
“ N-nein, ” Caleb gasps. His voice is rough from throwing up and screaming, and it trembles. “I can do it. Don’t--don’t try to--” Another wave of pain rolls over him, and the words are lost.
Tears are running down Nott’s cheeks as she holds Caleb’s arm down. “What if it doesn’t stop?” she asks.
“It’ll stop,” Jester says. “It has to stop. It started out of nowhere, it has to stop too, right?” She brushes her sleeve against her face, pushing the sweaty hair out of her eyes. “It has to,” she repeats firmly.
Caleb thrashes against their grip again, his broken whimpers swelling into a scream. Very far away, Yasha’s voice can be heard, telling curious passers-by to mind their own business and keep walking. Beau paces the room, fists swinging useless at her side. And Caleb’s scream is suddenly cut off by a horrible choking noise, and he wrenches his head to one side to retch into the straw as the jagged edge of a crystal tears through his skin, gleaming with his blood in the low light.
Nott shrieks. Fjord swears under his breath and turns away, his throat working. Jester, fingers trembling, reaches out and touches the crystal. It is just rock, warm from Caleb’s blood and vibrating slightly. She closes her fingers around it and tugs, and it slips from Caleb’s flesh. She flings it away and it skitters across the stone floor and comes to rest, perfectly still, to all appearances just a normal piece of rock.
“Well, that’s very strange,” Caduceus murmurs.
“We should take them out,” Jester says, a sudden certainty in her voice. “If they’re coming out of him anyway, we won’t do any more damage. We might as well get it over with as quickly as possible.”
“Is that okay with you, Mister Caleb?” Caduceus asks.
Caleb’s eyes roll wildly as he struggles to focus on the faces above him. “What?” he pants.
“We’re gonna take those things out,” Nott tells him. “Okay?”
Caleb hesitates, then nods. “ J-ja, get them out,” he grits out. “Quickly--please!”
“How many of those . . . things . . . are in him?” Fjord asks, his voice still a little strained.
Nott looks up from brushing the sweat-drenched hair from Caleb’s face. “Twenty-seven.”
Fjord swears again, and Caduceus sighs. “Wildmother help us.”
Nott holds Caleb’s head steady and tries to stop him biting his tongue. Fjord and Beau hold his arms down while Caduceus uses the sharp little blade from the healer’s kit (Jester’s or Beau’s, they’ve stopped keeping track of whose things are whose, for the most part) to slice cut after cut into Caleb’s flesh, and Jester tries to snatch the gems out. For the ones that are still in deep, she has to use Nott’s lockpicks to pry them out, apologizing over and over to Caleb as she does it, blinking back the tears that blur her vision. They’re still not fast enough to stop four or five from ripping through the skin like the first one did, leaving behind horrible jagged gashes that seep blood into the cloak and straw beneath.
When twenty-seven blood-covered crystals finally lie scattered across the stone floor, Caduceus heaves a long sigh.
“That’s done,” he says.
“It’s finished, Caleb,” Nott murmurs, sniffling. “They’re out. You’re going to be okay.” Caleb’s screams have faded to weak sobs, and his hand twitches in Beau’s, both slippery with blood.
“Now we can heal you up, and you’re going to feel fine,” Jester sings, her cheerful voice cracking with unshed tears. “Just one more minute, okay?” She lays her hand on Caleb’s arm and murmurs a prayer to the Traveler. There’s a swell of purple light--and nothing changes. She tries again, with the same result, and looks up anxiously. “Caduceus?”
The firbolg places his large, furry hand on Caleb’s torn flesh and says his own prayer. Again, there’s a flow of light, but the wounds don’t knit themselves together like they usually do. “Something’s stopping it,” he says. “I don’t understand this one.”
“Enchantment . . .” Caleb mutters. His eyes, half-shut, are slivers of blue.
“What's that?” Fjord asks.
“On the stones.” Caleb's voice is shaky and faint, as if it's coming from very far away. “No healing.”
Caduceus turns away with a low rumbling noise that's almost a growl, and Jester puts a hand on his arm. “Why, Caleb?” she asks. “Why would they do that?”
Caleb's eye sockets are dark bruises against the pallor of his face. “Kept . . . coming out . . . otherwise.”
Nott whimpers and clutches his hand to her face.
“How long will it last?” Caduceus asks.
“Don’t know . . . I--” The last word is choked off in a whimper as Caleb moves, shifting the ravaged flesh of his arms. The movement brings another gush of blood, such a dark red it almost looks black in the dim light. The straw and the cloak underneath Caleb are soaked with it, as are Caduceus and Jester’s arms, nearly to the elbow.
“Okay, well, we’ve got to do something to stop this bleeding,” Beau says. She picks up the healer’s kit again and rummages through it for rolls of bandages. “Not as good as a healing spell, but a whole lot better than nothing.” She tosses one to Jester. “You do one side, I’ve got the other.”
The blood soaks through the bandages almost at once, and it takes layer upon tight layer before they can be hopeful that the bleeding is slowing. By this point, Caleb’s face is stark white, his lips tinged with blue. He barely responds when Nott taps his face and talks to him, and Jester, listening at his chest, reports that his heartbeat is fluttery and far too fast.
“Let’s get him off of all this,” Caduceus suggests, narrowly missing cracking his head against the low ceiling as he gets to his feet. “We can make up a clean bed in the other room and deal with the mess after.”
Caleb rouses a little bit as they lift him from the bed, and he tries a few wavering steps before his knees give way. Yasha scoops him up as he falls and holds him to her chest as she carries him across the courtyard of the inn, his head lolling against her shoulder. She ducks under the door of the other stall, deftly sidestepping around Nott, who is scurrying around frantically underfoot. Jester sweeps the straw into a pile and lays a cloak over it, while Caduceus collects more blankets from the group’s packs. As Yasha lays Caleb down, his eyelids flutter, and his hands reach out, clutching at nothing. Nott slips a thin little hand into his.
“We should probably get him to drink something,” Jester says. “He was pretty sick, and he lost a lot of blood, too.”
Caduceus sighs. “I suppose tea isn’t an option. I don’t know if they’d take kindly to us building a fire out here, horse stalls or no.”
“Maybe they’ll give us some hot water from the kitchen,” Beau says. Relieved to have a mission, she’s out the door in moments.
Caleb is still shivering, but it’s erratic, as if his body is too drained to keep up the motion. Jester tucks blankets around him, humming under her breath.
“Mmmh,” Caleb’s voice is weak, more than half a moan. “Nott.”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Nott,” he says again, turning his head toward her, eyes still closed.
“Caleb?” she asks anxiously when nothing else follows. “Are you all right?”
“Going to . . . fall?” Caleb murmurs muzzily.
“No, we’re not going to fall. Why would we be falling?”
Caleb’s eyes flicker open. “Everything’s . . . spinning,” he whispers. “Why?”
“Don’t worry, Caleb, it’s all in your head,” Jester tells him, brushing a hand over his forehead. “You had . . . there was a little problem, but we took care of it, and you’re going to be just fine. You just relax, and in the morning you’re gonna feel so much better.”
Caleb struggles to sit up, getting as far as lifting his shoulders off the makeshift bed before falling back against the cloak, panting.
“What can we do? What do you need?” Nott asks.
“Pouch . . . need molasses.”
“Cast slow ,” Caleb falters. “Everything is . . . mmh . . . very fast.”
“Don't you worry about that,” Jester soothes. “We'll take care of everything. You can just shut your eyes and rest.”
Caleb tosses his head restlessly. “Too fast,” he mutters, petulant. “Can't. Can't follow.”
Caduceus gently pats his head. “Don’t worry, Mister Caleb, you don’t have to. We’ll take care of things for now. You just rest.”
Nott presses his hand between hers. “It’ll be all right, Caleb,” she assures him, struggling to slow the usual pace of her chatter. “We’re all here keeping watch.”
Beau returns, cheeks flushed from an argument she doesn’t recount to the group, carrying a kettle of hot water. Some of the lines soften in Caduceus’s face as he busies himself selecting herbs and brewing tea.
Nott presses her hand to Caleb’s forehead, frowning when he doesn’t respond to her touch. “He’s so cold,” she whispers to Jester. “It’s like touching a--” She shudders, and doesn’t finish the sentence.
Jester puts an arm around Nott’s thin shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay, Nott,” she tells her.
“Okay, Mister Caleb,” Caduceus murmurs. “Let’s get some fluids into you.”
Caleb mutters something that begins with “I didn’t--” and devolves into incomprehensible mumbling.
“Up we go,” Caduceus says, wrapping an arm around Caleb’s shoulders and lifting him up. Beau slides in behind so Caduceus can lean Caleb back against her. His eyes flutter open, and he tries to lift his head, before giving up and letting it loll back against her shoulder.
“Just a little to start with,” Caduceus tells him. He holds a steaming mug to Caleb’s mouth, and Caleb swallows automatically. His face is even whiter now that he’s upright, and his eyes are already falling closed. His head nods, jarring the rim of the mug, and warm tea soaks into Beau’s robes.
“Very good,” Caduceus rumbles. “Rest for a minute now, then we’ll try a little more before we let you sleep.”
A shiver runs through Caleb’s body, his thin frame shuddering against Beau’s.
“Caleb? You okay?”
“ Kalt ,” Caleb whispers. “ Warum . . . sind wir . . .”
Jester strokes his hair. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, tears in her eyes. “I wish we could fix you.”
“It’s not your fault,” Nott hisses, angry. “It’s that bastard Ikithon! He’s the one who--”
At the name, Caleb stiffens; it looks like he might be trying to get up, but he can’t manage more that a brief flail of limbs before falling limply back. He pants, his breathing rapid and shallow, eyelids twitching as he struggles to open his eyes. Nott claps a hand over her mouth.
“It’s okay, Caleb,” Beau says quickly. “You’re here with the Mighty Nein. In Xhorhas. It’s just us. Nott’s here; Caduceus is here.”
“Let’s try a little more tea, and then you can sleep, all right?” Caduceus suggests. He holds up the mug again. Caleb tries to turn his head again.
“ So müde . . .” he whispers. “ Bitte . . . lass mich . . . ”
“Just a little more,” Caduceus urges, and Caleb gets down a couple of swallows. “Well done,” Caduceus responds, nodding to Beau to lay Caleb back down.
Caleb stirs fitfully, muttering something none of them can make out. Nott brushes the sweat-soaked hair from his forehead again. “Just sleep now,” she murmurs. And after a minute, Caleb obeys.
“I made enough tea for everyone,” Caduceus announces quietly. “I have a feeling we all could use it. Miss Beau, perhaps you could help me pass it around?”
Beau gratefully accepts the task and hands around mugs of tea--not quite piping hot any longer, but still warm, and smelling of mint and sage and other herbs, unfamiliar but comforting. Jester wraps her hands around her mug and leans into Nott’s side; Nott holds hers in one hand, refusing to let go of Caleb’s lax fingers with the other. Caduceus gives Yasha her cup, murmuring something in her ear that makes her face soften into almost a smile.
Beau looks around for Fjord and comes up one half-orc short. Scooping up a second cup of tea for herself, she goes outside to look for him.
He hasn’t gone far; even without her dark-vision goggles, the light from the inn is enough for her to pick him out quickly on the other side of the courtard, leaning against a wall. Steam rises from her mugs as she makes her way across the courtyard to him.
“Here,” she says, holding out the cup. “Caduceus made some for everyone.”
He takes it from her with a nod but doesn’t say anything.
She leans back against the wall, feeling it solid and rough against her shoulder blades and sips her own tea. The night air feels thin and cold after the feverish closeness of the air in the stalls. Overhead, the sky is a bottomless sea full of stars that you could imagine falling into.
“You okay?” she finally asks.
“Y--yeah,” Fjord says after a hesitation. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
She looks at him curiously. It’s not like Fjord to be squeamish about these things; and while cutting the crystals out of Caleb was awful, to be sure, it’s not like they haven’t all seen worse over these months of adventuring and fighting and killing together.
“You don’t seem fine,” she says bluntly.
There’s a long pause. Fjord lifts the mug of tea to his mouth but doesn’t actually drink. Finally, looking up at the stars, not at Beau, he mutters, “D’you ever see something that made you realize that . . . that you’re not a good person?”
Beau barks out a short laugh. “Only all the time.”
Fjord grimaces, and she remembers that he likes to think of himself as a good person, that “Asshole” and “Troublemaker” have always been labels he struggled to shed, not the liberating identities they’ve been for her. She wants to say sorry, but doesn’t know how to do it right, and then the silence has gone on too long for her to say anything in response.
“I used to be jealous of him.”
He nods. “He has so much power; he can do so much. And I can barely get out a couple of spells without havin’ to rest--and I never know whether this, this thing that’s got me in its grip is gonna--” He breaks off, worrying at his lip with his tusks.
“And I know--he hasn’t told us everything, but I know this teacher of his, at the Academy, did some terrible things to him. But I couldn’t . . . I can’t help but be jealous that he got any teaching at all. That he had somebody to explain things to him and do things--even terrible things--to make him more powerful.” He shakes his head.
“I was watching him lying there in his blood, in so much pain he couldn’t talk right, and it hit me that, even then--even with all I saw him goin’ through--I was still jealous.” Fjord finally turns and looks at Beau, the moonlight glinting on the yellow of his eyes. “And then I thought, ‘What does that say about me?’”
Beau says carefully, “I think it says that you are eager to learn, whatever the cost. And I think . . . if the places tonight were reversed, and you were the one with the crystals, I think I know Caleb well enough to know that he’d be feeling the same thing you are now.”
Fjord smiles bitterly. “Y’think so?”
Beau recalls a cloud of blood in warm water. “He’s as ambitious as you are,” she reminds him. “You both have this, this drive to become more powerful. And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It just matters what you want that power for. ”
They fall silent for several minutes, Beau sipping at lukewarm tea, Fjord staring up into the depths of the sky.
“Well,” says Fjord finally. “Guess we should get back to the group.” He looks down at the mug in his hand, as if just remembering it, then drains it in one long swallow.
“Guess we should.”
“Hey, Beau . . . thanks.”
Beau feels herself freeze. She can’t do hugs, and a punch on the arm doesn’t seem right here. She shrugs, and forces lightness into her voice. “Yeah, man. Any time.”
- - - - -
In the morning, Caleb is sitting propped against the wall of the stall, gray faced but awake. The gashes in his arms are still resistant to Caduceus and Jester’s spells, but Caduceus reports that the cuts show signs of starting to knit together naturally.
“Our bodies have a kind of magic all their own,” he says, “that even the strongest enchantments can’t stop.”
Caleb lets Nott spoon-feed him watery porridge, and doesn’t argue when Jester informs him he is not allowed out of bed for at least a full day.
“That sounds . . . kind of nice,” he admits.
“I hope we did okay,” Jester tells him. “We tried our best, but we’ve never done something like this before, you know, and I don’t know if we did it right. Oh! Caleb, see if you can still do magic!”
“Yeah, were those things like, a power source?” Beau asks.
He shakes his head. “ Nein , they were . . . meant to focus, to amplify what we already had. I had the power before and it should be there still.” He works a bandaged arm out from under the blankets and, wincing, snaps his fingers.
Frumpkin poofs into existence on his lap and immediately pushes Caleb back against the wall before settling down to pur into his chest. Caleb smiles weakly. “See? Just as it should be.”
“What do you want us to do with the crystals, Caleb?” Caduceus asks. “Should we throw them away?”
Caleb shakes his head, confusion in his eyes. “No, why would we do that? We should keep them. Maybe they’ll be useful to us someday.”