“Eodwulf. I have an assignment for you. Come to the Sanitarium at once.”
His old master’s voice is a grating whisper in Eodwulf’s mind.
“Yes sir, right away,” Eodwulf says immediately in response, waiting until he feels the sending spell flutter away like an excitable messenger bird.
Once he’s sure the spell has flown, Eodwulf sighs. So much for a day to himself. But, with the war being what it is, he’s lucky he was able to eat breakfast in his own home for once and not in a foreign land behind enemy lines, or in some war council.
He stands and puts away his dishes, then readies himself. He wonders what the assignment is. It’s possible that there is someone there who needs his special brand of interrogation. But more than likely, Master Ikithon is just working at the Sanitarium and needs Eodwulf to go out on yet another expedition. There are some disadvantages to proving yourself hardy as well as powerful.
Hopefully it’s not somewhere overly warm this time.
Moments later, Eodwulf teleports to the entrance of Vergessen Sanitarium. He makes his way into the main building.
“Eodwulf, welcome. Master Ikithon is awaiting you in the Relic’s chamber,” the slim man in the entry says with a nod.
“Thank you,” Eodwulf says. He knows the building well enough to follow the halls on his own. The Relic’s chamber. Interesting.
When he arrives, Eodwulf walks into a room full of chaotic bustle. Papers and books are quickly being packed away by Master Ikithon’s researchers. Master Ikithon himself oversees their work, a slight frown on his sallow face, thin arms folded across his chest.
“You have an assignment for me, sir,” Eodwulf says by way of greeting.
Master Ikithon turns, a chilled smile twisting his face.
“Ah, Eodwulf, my boy. Yes, I need you to stand guard over the Relic here for just a little bit,” he says.
Eodwulf blinks. Stand guard? Like a common soldier?
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, sir. You want me to guard the Relic?” he repeats. He doesn’t make any effort to mask his disdain.
“Yes, yes. You see, we have some very…unpredictable guests coming to look at this object. I need you here, making sure they don’t cause trouble,” Master Ikithon says.
Eodwulf relaxes slightly, but his frown remains. What sort of guests could possibly spook Master Ikithon into setting him as a guard?
“Anything I should know?” he asks carefully.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of a group of misfit adventurers called The Mighty Nein?” Master Ikithon says.
“The name rings a bell. They’re the ones caught up in that mess with the Chained Oblivion at the temple, right?” Eodwulf says. If the rumors are true, they were able to take down multiple demons, including a nasty looking being known as the Laughing Hand. He’d seen the burned out husk of the beast, but not the people responsible.
“Indeed. They’re quite a busy group, this Mighty Nein. In addition to hunting down the cult of the Chained Oblivion, they have connections in Xhorhas and have been tasked with bargaining for a meeting with the Krick Queen herself. This Relic is their bargaining chip,” Master Ikithon says.
“I see. And we need to make sure they don’t take it and disappear on us,” Eodwulf says. The setup sounds suspicious; Master Ikithon’s caution isn’t uncalled for.
“Among other things, yes.” Master Ikithon nods.
“Understood,” Eodwulf says. The room begins to clear. Eodwulf takes his place on one side of the Relic, nodding at the halfing on the other side—he doesn’t remember her name. She only graduated recently. It’s the younger graduates that usually get this kind of work.
“Oh, and Eodwulf,” Master Ikithon says. Eodwulf turns. His master has a strange smile. “These Mighty Nein…our dear old friend Bren is with them. You remember Bren, don’t you?”
Eodwulf’s ears ring as if an explosion had gone off. Bren. He can’t have said Bren was with them. The last he had seen of Bren was in this very Sanitarium.
Eodwulf holds Bren up by his left arm, Astrid braces under his right. Bren is shaking violently, as though he’s overcome by a fever. He’s muttering under his breath. Astrid had healed his burned hands and arms to the best of her ability, but the shaking and muttering hasn’t stopped. Master Ikithon had told them to bring him to the Sanitarium.
“Leave him in front of me, please,” Master Ikithon says, his voice cold. Eodwulf flinches from the sound of his disappointment like a slap. He and Astrid lower Bren to the ground, where he sinks to his knees. They back away quickly. Astrid slips her hand into Eodwulf’s. He grips it tightly.
“Bren, is it done?” Master Ikithon demands loudly.
Bren doesn’t reply at first. He looks down at his hands, then to the floor.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please.” Bren’s voice is hoarse. He’d torn out his throat. His screams had been inhuman as he had rushed toward his house—the house where Bren and Eodwulf played together since they were small. The house where Bren’s mother had repaired Eodwulf’s trousers quickly and neatly every time he’d torn them so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his own mother. The house where he would eat good food and listen to Bren’s father tell stories from his tours as a soldier. The house where, along with Eodwulf’s parents and Astrid’s, Una and Leofric Ermendrud had plotted their treason.
Eodwulf squeezes Astrid’s hand.
“You’re sorry?” Matser Ikithon says, looking down his nose at the boy in front of him. “Have you failed me, Bren?”
“Mother, Father…I’m so sorry. Please take it back. Show me how to take it back,” Bren finally looks up at their master, his blue eyes fierce as tears stream from them.
“Take it back? You want to take it back? You would allow such disgusting traitors to live and disrupt our kingdom?” Master Ikithon’s voice drips with disdain and disappointment.
Bren flinches away, falling forward with his forearms to the ground, his face buried in his arms.
“Please, please, I’m sorry. Take it back. Put out the fire. Put out the fire! Put it out!” Bren’s cries grow louder. “Make it stop!”
Master Ikithon looks down at Bren as though he’s some insect writhing on the floor.
“Can you help him, Master?” the words burst from Astrid, her voice too high.
“I’m afraid not, Astrid. He’s too weak after all,” Master Ikithon says.
“He’s not weak,” Eodwulf says before he can stop himself. “Maybe if we just give him time…”
“I know it’s hard to see an ally fall, but our dear friend Bren is a failure. Perhaps someday, he’ll show himself useful, but until then…well.” Master Ikithon shakes his head. “Get him to his feet.”
Eodwulf and Astrid step forward, releasing each other to take one of Bren’s arms. He’s still sobbing into the ground. His eyes go wide as they lift him up, stiffening. They’re as gentle as they can be, but he still protests.
“No, please, no. No!”
“I’m so very sorry, Bren. But you’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you. Sleep now,” Master Ikithon reaches toward Bren. Bren reels back but Eodwulf and Astrid grip him tighter. When Master Ikithon touches him, Bren slumps loosely in their arms.
“Take him to secure wing. They’ll take him from there,” Master Ikithon says. He turns away, back to his desk.
Eodwulf and Astrid are dismissed, left to carry Bren to his new home alone.
“Yes sir, I do,” Eodwulf says, his voice sounding strange, almost faint to his own ears. He takes a deep breath to steady himself.
“Good. I thought a little reunion might be nice. Do be professional, though,” Master Ikithon says, the strange little smile still on his face. For just a moment, Eodwulf sees the flash of burning hatred in his old master’s eyes. Bren the failure, who hadn’t been strong enough to survive their training. Bren the traitor who escaped and burned down half the hospital, disappearing into the night.
Bren, his first and oldest friend.
Eodwulf stands at a stiff attention. He does not move when the door opens and the strangest group of people he’s ever seen file in after Martinet Da’Leth. He keeps his eyes on the same place on the wall as greetings are made.
A small, green figure darts forward. Eodwulf glances at Master Ikithon who gives him the most minute of nods. Eodwulf does not move, though he gives the small goblin a closer look. She’s dressed in bright yellow, with a strange amalgamation of buttons and baubles strung together in several layers of necklace. A vibrant green tattoo spreads across her face, glowing with a touch of crystalline power.
Only then does Eodwulf allow himself to raise his eyes to the rest of the group. This Mighty Nein. Such a strange bunch of people. A pink firbolg with a pleasantly curious solemnity, a blue tiefling with no solemnity whatsoever, a half orc and a Cobalt Soul Expositor who both look on-edge and suspicious, a tall, dangerous looking woman in greys and blacks, and then, finally, he rests his eyes on the slight man with dark auburn hair.
It was bright red when they were young, standing in a messy halo of fire around his head.
Bren isn’t much taller than he’d been last time Eodwulf had seen him, but he’s holding himself differently now. He can’t put his finger on it. Bren wears a long, purple coat, cut in a Xorhasian style. He’d always liked things like that...long coats with a dramatic flair. His hair is longer than Eodwulf has ever seen it, pulled back at the base of his neck, out of the way. He’d kept it short when they were young, at first out of a desire to look like his father, and then at the command of Mater Ikithon. Finally, Eodwulf looks into the face of his oldest friend and finds bright blue eyes staring right back at him, at him, into him. And it’s him. It’s Bren’s piercing blue eyes, deep, thoughtful, and intelligent.
Eodwulf breathes, not listening to the conversation. It’s against his training. He should be listening, thinking, analyzing every move these people make. If he is questioned later, Master Ikithon will be disappointed in him. He’s focusing on breathing and not letting Bren know how unnerving those eyes are. After all this time, it really is him. Little Bren.
“Mother, Wulf and I are going into the woods!” Bren calls.
“All right. Be careful. Look after each other,” Bren’s mother replies. She gives Eodwulf a wink. It’s Eodwulf that ends up carrying Bren back home when he’s fallen out of a tree, or into a creek, or down the steep hill just past the abandoned shack. If he’s not carrying Bren, Eodwulf carries their treasures back home. It’s Eodwulf who ends up covered in mud and grime, Eodwulf who does the heavy lifting. And little Bren bounces along beside him, blue eyes dancing. Bren may be older (but only by a few months), but Eodwulf is bigger and stronger. When Una says “Look after each other,” she means Eodwulf to look after Bren.
“Look after each other,” is what Una tells them both with tears in her eyes when the carriage comes to take them to Soltryce. The whole village has turned out to see them off. And Una Ermendrud hugs her son and the boy who’s spent more time at her home than his own for the past fourteen years.
“Look after each other. Keep each other safe. I am so, so proud of you,” Una says.
So it’s Eodwulf who looks after Bren when the kids whose parents sent them to school with no scholarships come to make fun of the backwater Blumenthal kids and those blue eyes burn with angry tears. It’s Eodwulf who forgets his magic and takes his fists to those kids later, when Bren is studying and doesn’t notice him leaving their room. It’s Eodwulf who carries Bren home after they’ve had too much to drink in Rexxentrum, and Bren’s eyes are warm and happy as he gazes up at him. It’s Eodwulf who carries Bren back to their dorm after their lessons with Master Ikithon, both of them collapsing on the nearest, too tired to move any further.
Look after each other, Una had said often. Look after Bren, she had meant for Eodwulf. After they had burned her (her and Leofric’s betrayal had hurt more than his own parents’), it was Eodwulf who carried Bren home and Eodwulf who locked him away. And it was Eodwulf who sometimes came to peer in at Bren…little Bren whose blue eyes were glassed over and far away, never to focus on Eodwulf again, until he couldn’t bear to come anymore.
Eodwulf blinks. Bren is looking away now, his blue eyes watching Master Ikithon’s movements and sliding over to check on the goblin. His face is harder now, worn. He looks old. Not that Eodwulf has seen him since they were both seventeen, but even for so much time passing, he looks so much older. Flecks of grey are starting to show at his temples and in his beard—gods, he has a beard now. He hadn’t been able to grow one when they were young. Eodwulf had teased him about it relentlessly. With the beard and the lines on his face, Bren looks so much like his father, it’s uncanny.
He’s a traitor like his father, too, a part of Eodwulf’s mind reminds him. The thought stills him. He notices then how set Bren’s jaw is, how he has his shoulders at a stiff attention. He is not here as a friend. He is here in Xorhasian clothes, on what is very possibly a Xhorhasian errand.
Eodwulf focuses on the conversation, picking his spot on the wall once again. Bren doesn’t speak at first; his friends do most of the talking, taking turns like children with a skipping rope. When he does speak, Eodwulf looks at him again. His voice is so quiet now; when they were younger, he had been loud and confident, always speaking as if he already knew the answer. He had been charming and almost careless, throwing his intelligence around like a dandy throws a purse. Now, his voice is quiet, but with a different kind of force behind it. Every word is carefully chosen. He speaks to Master Ikithon as an equal, as a fellow scholar.
“So you have found this object not to be…dangerous,” Bren says evenly. His eyes flicker to Eodwulf’s and hold them there, eyebrows going up slightly. “Have you found any use for it?”
He emphasizes the word use. Eodwulf breathes out slowly. So he remembers that last interview with Master Ikithon. Eodwulf glances at Master Ikithon. His old master’s eyes narrow slightly.
“It has a great amount of use, but if it can help end the bloodshed of this war, that is a far greater use for it,” Master Ikithon says carefully.
Eodwulf looks back to Bren. They aren’t talking about the Relic. They’re talking about Bren. He hasn’t lost his skill in the art of subtility that Master Ikithon had taught them so carefully. The electricity between master and ex-student becomes almost palpable. The firbolg cuts in, seeming to not notice the tension in the air and the conversation moves away.
Eodwulf keeps his eyes on Bren. The moment having passed, Bren looks slightly out of breath, like he’s completed a complex spell and briefly held a large amount of power. For just a moment, a shadow passes across his eyes, a ghost of the broken boy Eodwulf had brought here before. Without looking at him, the Expositor puts a hand on his shoulder. Bren’s face softens in a way Eodwulf recognizes. During some of their more intense training exercises, Eodwulf would tap Bren twice as he passed. A quick enough motion not to be noticed, but letting him know he was there. Bren’s face would soften in the same way.
Master Ikithon is looking at him. Eodwulf notices the goblin has been staring into the Relic for some time.
“I find it curious that you know exactly how to reach toward this object,” Master Ikithon is saying.
Eodwulf starts to move toward the goblin, but Bren speaks again.
“You’d suspect that from touching? She’s a curious girl,” Bren says, this time, his quiet voice defensive. At the sound of his voice, the goblin backs away from the Relic, with a slight shake of her head. She backs up toward Bren, backing directly into his legs. He puts a hand on the top of her head, giving it the smallest of tousles, almost as though he’s reassuring her. Eodwulf knows a protective touch when he sees it, and glances back at Master Ikithon.
“You should know better than to assume that I do not see intent where it is placed, Bren,” Master Ikithon hisses. Eodwulf sees the flash of anger in his master’s eyes again, before it is replaced with calm diplomacy.
The strangers, the Mighty Nein move in closer to Bren, ever so slightly. They saw the flash as well. They fire off questions at Master Ikithon, innocent questions with subtle suggestions underneath them. The Expositor’s hand doesn’t leave Bren’s shoulder. The goblin reaches up to take Bren’s hand, removing it from her head and clutching it in her own. The tiefling moves closer to Bren, so their arms touch. The firbolg leisurely stretches to his full height. The half orc throws his shoulders back, standing almost at a military attention. And the pale woman’s multicolored eyes are fixed on Master Ikithon with a stormy disapproval.
Look after each other. Bren has new friends to look after him now. From the look of things, he is very well looked after. If it wasn’t for the serious situation, Eodwulf would laugh.
“Tell us a little bit more. Knowledge is power, you know that,” Bren says from the midst of these people, his ice blue gaze fixed on Master Ikithon.
Knowledge is power. Again, Eodwulf fights back a smile. There it is. A bit of the over-confident student he’d known in their youth. With his innocent smile and his hunger for more knowledge, always more, Bren had often charmed Master Ikithon and the other instructors into teaching him things they would not have otherwise taught him, letting him poke at dangerous spells far before he should have. An innocent, eager charm, Master Ikithon had said, the day he’d appraised their talents.
Master Ikithon recognizes it too. He smiles.
“Indeed,” he replies mildly.
“These properties…what are they?” Bren asks, nodding his head at the Relic. He gives Master Ikithon an all-to-familiar look, the one he used to wear that said I am a good student who just wants to learn and I know you want to teach me.
Ikithon’s eyes narrow. He meets Bren, stare for stare. His pleasant smile turns cold.
“I don’t think it’s anything you don’t already know,” he says softly.
Eodwulf looks at Bren, who seems disappointed somehow. What does Bren already know? They all seem to know something…there is a sense that they are all in on some game that they’re playing with Master Ikithon. It’s in the way the Expositor smirks, a twinkle in her eye, and the way the half orc seems to almost talk down to Master Ikithon, and the way the firbolg seems to have no fear or respect whatsoever. Something is afoot here. What do they know? But the Master’s patience is running dry.
Eodwulf notices the half orc looking at him, a curious expression on his face. He directs a question toward Master Ikithon, his tone flowery, careful.
“Is there anyone you would like to go with us on this journey?” he asks, turning as he speaks to look at Bren. The goblin looks at the half orc, then up at Bren as well.
“What do you think, Caleb?” she asks pointedly, tugging at his hand.
Caleb? Bren is going by Caleb now? He had heard the name mentioned at the temple before, a Caleb Widogast. This Caleb Widogast had been the one they said had burned through the Laughing Hand. Had that been Bren?
Bren sighs, giving the goblin a warning look. She looks back down, making a face as if they’d had a whole conversation.
“I…have not been a part of…this for a long time,” Bren (Caleb?) says, looking at Master Ikithon. He glances at Eodwulf again. “I would not presume to know…who would I trust now?”
Look after each other. Eodwulf finds his spot on the wall again, jaw clenched. Once, they trusted each other. Bren and Eodwulf had trusted each other, and then Astrid. The three of them and no one else. Bren would have trusted him without question. Before Bren failed, and long before he became a traitor. Before years upon years had passed. For the first time since Bren had walked into the room, Eodwulf feels the years spanning between them. Now they are nothing more than strangers.
The tiefling flatly invites Master Ikithon himself to join them, sarcasm apparent in her heavily accented voice. She doesn’t bother to hide her dislike for him on her heart-shaped face. Mater Ikithon declines, but his smile freezes when Bren speaks.
“I think he’s right though. His previous poking about in the Dynasty did not end well,” he says. For the first time, Eodwulf hears the fiery anger in his voice. And for the first time, Master Ikithon looks…unsure.
“You…misunderstand…I have not…myself traveled to the Dynasty,” Master Ikithon says. All of the training he’d given them on how to hold your cards close to your chest, and Eodwulf can hear the hesitance in his voice. From the deepening of Bren’s frown (making him look so much more like Leofric), he hears it, too.
“No, you don’t do that. You don’t need to. You have help for that,” Bren snaps in a hard voice. One corner of his mouth turns up into a bitter smile. “Always help for that.”
There is a long pause. Bren never takes his eyes from Master Ikithon, anger burning as brightly as the fire Bren used to be so good at creating. And for once, Master Ikithon looks unsteady.
“Not always as helpful,” he murmurs. What does that mean? What had Bren’s words meant to the master? Once again, Eodwulf wonders what Bren knows.
As if a spell had ended, Master Ikithon gives his head a little shake and dismisses the Nein.
The half orc looks at Eodwulf again, but starts as if noticing him for the first time. He catches him looking back and grins.
“I’m so sorry, I forgot to ask the names of your associates,” the half orc says.
Eodwulf can almost hear Master Ikithon grinding his teeth, but with a forced smile, he introduces Luelia, then he smiles again at Bren.
“And this is Eodwulf, one of my long time associates, and one of my favored associates. I believe you two already know each other,” he says.
Eodwulf crosses his arms over his chest and gives Bren a stiff nod. Bren’s ears are red; he’s embarrassed. He glances at the half orc who is also watching Bren. He already knew me. They all did, didn’t they? They’re trying to get us to interact, aren’t they? Eodwulf looks back at Bren. What kind of company are you keeping these days, Bren? How much do they know? And who are they?
As the Martinet begins ushering them out of the room with a pained expression on his face, starting with the giggling tiefling, Bren turns toward Eodwulf.
“Wulf,” he says softly. No one has used that nickname in many, many years, yet Bren says it so easily then, like he had every day of their lives growing up. The time and distance between them is so hard to believe. “It’s good to see you again.”
His voice is so soft. It’s the quiet, wistful voice he’d used when they used to lay awake talking about their dreams in the loft bedroom of Bren’s small cottage home, or late at night in their dorm at the Academy. It’s the voice he’d used when he told Eodwulf he was going to marry Astrid someday, after they’d graduated. It’s the voice he’d used when they’d talked about their future together, as heroes of the Empire.
Eodwulf hears how many things Bren puts behind those words, but can’t discern any of them.
Eodwulf nods, then shrugs, searching for the right words.
“It’s good to see you too. It’s been some time,” he says, then pauses. “You look good.”
You look alive, which is more than I’d expected, he doesn’t say. You look so strong for someone who I last saw nearly catatonic in this very asylum. You look so much stronger than the boy I used to have to carry home again and again and again. You look capable and sure. You look like your father. You look like a completely different person, and yet so the same. I’ve missed you. Why did you betray us?
Bren looks at him for a moment more, and in that moment Eodwulf is surprised to see a crushing wave of grief and regret and longing darken his blue eyes before they close briefly.
“Let’s go,” Bren says. He begins walking away, turning his back on Eodwulf. For the first time, Bren is the one walking away.
That’s what it is, Eodwulf realizes. Bren carries himself differently because he’s carrying himself now. He doesn’t need anyone to carry him home now. He may still be smaller than Eodwulf, but he’s strong.
The goblin reaches up to take Bren’s hand again. The tiefling takes the other, swinging it lightly as they walk away. The Expositor replaces her hand on Bren’s left shoulder, with the firbolg lightly touching the right. The pale woman walks behind them as a rear guard. The half orc tosses a pleasant smile to Master Ikithon, then he glances at Eodwulf and winks before following them out.
Eodwulf watches Bren go.
Bren doesn’t look back.