Caleb is suffocating in Bren’s terror.
The air is too thick to breathe – he’s walking, he thinks, but it’s unclear. Everything around him feels off-kilter and strange. The edges of the buildings haze underneath his eyes, the sharp lines of the cobblestones blurring into a single, solid mass. He is walking. They are walking.
Returning to the city of his youth has been –
(Bren is screaming).
Caleb reaches down with shaky hands to grab at Frumpkin’s fur. This is real, he thinks, running his fingers roughly along the spine of his cat. You are real. They are real.
If he closes his eyes, he will see flashes of things long-dead. Bren is walking alongside him, skinny and arrogant and filthy inside and out. He doesn’t see the blood running down his arms and caking his hands, but he will one day. Astrid is beside him, lovely and young and untouched by time. Caleb doesn’t want to look at her. Caleb doesn’t want to look at either of them, because they are not real and –
“Caleb?” Jester says, skipping in front of him and turning around to walk backwards as they continue through the city. “Is everything okay?”
“Ja,” Caleb says. He considers smiling, but ultimately decides against it. Jester has complained often enough that he is a terrible liar, in any case. Best keep to small words that his mouth won’t run away with.
“You look very pale,” Jester says, eyeing him critically. She dodges out of the way of an incoming lamppost before Caleb has time to warn her. “And your skin is kind of sweaty. You look kind of like a glow-worm in these lights. Doesn’t he, Caduceus?”
Caduceus turns to give Caleb a thorough once-over. Caleb feels skinned.
Then Caduceus’ face softens, and his voice – when it comes out – is soothing. “You know, Caleb, you kind of do.”
“See?” Jester says, waving her hands around and turning back to Caleb. “Even Caduceus agrees with me! I don’t think you’re fine. I think you’re lying to me.”
“Oh no,” Caleb says, deadpan. Talking is good. Talking helps. “Why-ever would I do that?”
Jester pokes her finger into his chest. Caleb tries not to wince. Yeah, that’s going to leave a bruise tomorrow.
(Assuming there is a tomorrow).
(Bren is still screaming).
“Don’t act all tough with me, young man!” Jester says. Her tail whips around behind her, cracking down in emphasis. “I know you better than you think I do, Caleb. And I don’t think this place is very good for you.”
Beau glances over her shoulder. “How’re you holding up?”
“I’ve been…better,” Caleb says. His grip on Frumpkin squeezes tighter. “But we have a job to do, and a friend to save. I will be better once we have Yasha back again.”
“What I think Jester is trying to say,” Fjord says, dropping back a few paces so that he’s walking side-by-side with Caleb. “Is that we’re worried about you.”
“Yeah,” Beau says. “This has gotta be tough, walking around your old haunt.”
“Haunt is a very good word for it,” Caleb says. “I am surrounded by ghosts.”
“Is there anywhere we should be avoiding?” Beau says.
“We’re going in the opposite direction,” Caleb says. “I will be fine. Once again, we must focus on the task at hand. We have left Yasha in this – creature’s clutches for too long.”
Bren and Astrid are talking. Bren used to love doing that, impressing his best friend with things he thought he knew. I read this really interesting book, he would start off, and Astrid always let him ramble. Bren thought Astrid was a nice girl. Caleb knows better.
Caleb can still feel them, the spikes of stone sticking into his skin. He runs his free hand over the scars, long-healed and white, and feels them twinge in a way that they haven’t done in years. They had once been a badge of honour, of a sort. Bren would fight to wear sleeveless shirts, would do whatever he could underneath the layers of secrecy Trent insisted they uphold to show them off. It made him feel powerful. Not just the way that magic surged through his fingertips whenever they would test the shards, but in other ways.
Bren really liked the way his arms matched with Astrid. They would spend hours observing each other’s scars, drawing invisible lines between them as the moon waxed fat and thin in the distance.
“We will get her back,” Jester says, staring right into his eyes. Caleb wants to look away. He’s never been very good at this sort of thing. But this is Jester – this is his friend, his compatriot. Caleb has laughed more with her than Bren has ever done at the Academy. “Caleb, I believe that we will get her back.”
“It – it eats you,” Caleb says, the words dropping like stones from his mouth. “What you do. When you’re not in control. It makes the world feel colder than it is. And Yasha is already so sad.”
“We will be sad with her,” Jester says. “And we will be happy with her. We won’t leave her like this, Caleb. We wouldn’t leave you like this.”
“If this happens to me again,” Caleb says. “And I am Bren, and Trent has me, I want you to kill me.”
“No,” Jester says. She doesn’t sound angry at all – just amused, like she’s been expecting this request.
“I cannot be under his control again,” Caleb says. “What he is – it’s not magic, it’s not science, it’s the way he looks at me. When – when I did certain things, it was under my own will, but I had become bent towards his. I can still feel the smoke sometimes.”
“We will get you back,” Jester says. “And we will be sad with you, too.”
“This is a little more than just being sad,” Caleb says.
“I know,” Jester says. Her smile is the brightest thing Caleb has seen in a long time. Beside him, Bren stops and stares at her in awe.
“Caleb,” Nott the Brave says.
Caleb Widogast looks down at his best friend. He feels like a fraud.
“Caleb, I know that this is hard,” Nott says. “But we need you to focus. You’re our guide. You’re the only person who knows how to get around in here. This place is a maze. I don’t want to get lost.”
“I know,” Caleb says. He doesn’t quite mean for it to come out so frustrated, but there’s something itching inside his gut that he needs to dig out. He wants Frumpkin’s claws. He wants to pull apart his ribs and scoop out his rot.
“I know this is really scary,” Nott says. She reaches up to take Caleb’s free hand. “But we’re here with you. We’re all together with you. We believe in you.”
“What she said,” Beau says, looking straight ahead. The tips of her ears are red.
Astrid is walking faster, now. She’s ahead of them, bumping into Beau and briskly striding further and further away. Bren hesitates at the crossroads, hesitates to look back at Caleb-and-Nott-and-Jester-and-Beau-and-Caduceus-and-Fjord, but he ultimately follows her. Bren has always been such a good follower.
Caleb squeezes down on Nott’s hand. He takes a deep breath. The buildings remain blurred and out of focus, but he knows this area. He’s walked it a thousand times before.
“Okay,” he says, voice hardly shaking. It’s a start. “This way.”