“I wonder what this is?”
“I haven’t checked anything over there yet, don’t touch it,” Essek calls over his shoulder. Caleb is holding his remaining magic in reserve for the Tower, leaving Essek to slog his way through checking every nook and cranny for some whiff of magical besiegement. He hears Caleb’s absent ja ja ja and rolls his eyes. Caleb is acting as if they haven’t both nearly had their extremities magically removed more than once today.
They both agreed that the series of rooms they’d found this morning (which had subsequently consumed their entire day) were once part of a mage’s personal estate. A very, very paranoid mage. Nearly everything interesting has been trapped (and some utterly uninteresting things as well—a drawer full of nothing but bent cutlery, truly? It’s borderline depraved, that kind of thing.) which has burned up a fair amount of their strength on Dispels and Identifies.
What they hadn’t agreed on was whether to continue after breaking their way into this last room. Essek had wanted to stop, to rest, and to review what they’d already found. Caleb had insisted on going forward with a near feverish intensity, however, and eventually won the argument. Essek would think Caleb’s dedication to plumbing the depths of this lunatic’s collection brave if he were in a better mood, but he is tired and uncharitable and instead wonders if Caleb will be as clever casting if one of these damned traps claims a hand or worse.
Essek frowns. He must be very tired indeed, to be thinking like that. This day has been one long string of shocks and near misses, starting with a pair of painful lessons this morning and devolving from there. (Essek’s entire left side is sore from a lightning spell that was protecting a set of bound forum minutes; Caleb’s fingernails are still discolored from a necrotic glyph that had been etched into the ceiling of what was either a sitting room or a dining room, but the pain had only made him more determined to loot the place, stuffing everything but the flaking gilding into his amber necklace.) They’d taken more caution as the day wore on, but there were just so many pitfalls in this place, left by an utter bastard. Essek sighs and goes back to inspecting the bookshelf before him, making chalk marks below the tomes glowing under his Detect Magic spell, leaving Caleb to his own mundane searching.
Essek is just about to refresh Detect Magic when he hears a yelp and a sharp thump behind him. He spins, aggravation and terror warring to color his reaction. He sees Caleb, facing away, standing with his shoulders hunched and a dull, crystalline orb rolling away from his feet.
“I told you not to touch it!” Essek snaps. What if he’d been killed? It was so difficult to travel from this place, and while Essek might be able to tweak fate for their benefit, they both knew he was utterly useless in the face of death. Caleb was the one who had the training and strength to shape dead flesh back into a living person, which was all the more reason for him to be careful.
(He cannot make Essek care for his corpse, so far from their divinely empowered friends. Not when the puckered scars of his last trip through the Veil haven’t yet faded. Not when the wretched memory of his lifeless face still invades Essek’s trances.)
Caleb’s only response is a low, aching whine, and any frustration Essek feels burns anyway in a wash of panic. He rushes to Caleb’s side, but Caleb shies away from him, backing toward a bookshelf with wide, spooked eyes. A trickle of dark blood flows from one nostril, staining his beard and dripping onto his scarf, and the sight of it makes Essek’s stomach knot.
“Caleb? Are you all right?”
Caleb just whimpers again, turning away and lifting his arms over his head. Guilt laces its way through Essek’s panic, making a sour combination. Caleb had certainly sprung this dead asshole’s trap, but now he’s hurt and here Essek is being techy when he should be trying to help.
“Caleb, please, you’re bleeding.”
Caleb shrinks further back, like he’s trying to make himself small. That—that’s not right. Essek’s panic gives way to something harder and colder, a tight feeling in his chest. He’s never seen Caleb act this way, like a terrified child. The wrongness of it makes Essek’s pulse quicken.
“I’m sorry, I was just frightened, please, just tell me you’re all right,” Essek tries. Pleads, really.
Caleb’s answer is to tremble.
“Can you understand me?” Nothing. Essek bites his lip, then slowly, haltingly, says, “Bitte, Bren. Verstehst du mich?”
Neither language got a reaction. Caleb knows a fair few others, but Essek doesn’t share them. But in any case, he should recognize Essek. Know him to—to not be a threat. Essek glances to the crystalline ball on the floor with his fading Detect spell, and sees a whiff of enchantment magic lingering. A theory is beginning to form in Essek’s mind, but he hates it.
Feeblemind would do this. Essek has never actually seen a victim of this spell before, only heard descriptions. They were chilling enough in text, but in person, but in Caleb—
Essek swallows past a lump forming in his throat. Caleb has been broken down into little more than instinct, if Essek is correct, though he might still have some notion of who he can trust. Essek has to count among that number if he’s to get him help.
Essek lets himself drop to the floor and inches forward. He’s already shorter than Caleb, but he hunches even lower, to cut a less threatening figure.
“Caleb? It’s only me. Only Essek. I shouldn't have snapped at you.” The words are probably so much noise to him, but Essek doesn’t know how else to soothe him. It is simply reflexive, talking to Caleb. Still, even little children and well-habituated animals respond to tone, so Essek tries for the gentlest one he can manage, something that would suit Caduceus. Caleb peaks out from behind his arms, eyes glittering with tears. Essek’s heart twists, but he continues, “Please, don’t be afraid. I will help you, of course, I will.”
He extends his hand, palm facing up, and smiles, biting his vicious tongue until he tastes copper.
Caleb makes another one of those little, wretched sounds, low in his throat, but after a moment he edges closer. Essek keeps smiling and stays perfectly still, even after Caleb’s hand slips into Essek’s.
“Very good, thank you, Caleb.”
Essek resists the urge to hold him tightly, so he can’t get away. Light, if that frightened him and he ran? Feebleminded, nearly anything could kill him. Instead Essek pats the back of Caleb’s hand, Prestidigitates the blood off his face, then gives him a gentle tug. Caleb lets himself be led, so Essek takes them both out of the room, back to somewhere that will be safer, relatively speaking.
A powerful cleric could undo this enchantment, and luckily, he knows two. It’s only a matter of who between Jester and Caduceus has the materials at hand and how to get to them.
Essek can still travel by circle, but no further. He has quite a few inscribed in his spellbook, and Caleb still more, but almost all of them come with too many eyes and too many questions. The thought of dragging Caleb like this in front of anyone—Essek rubs his thumb in a small circle across the back of Caleb’s hand, trying to soothe them both.
No, better to be discreet. It cuts down on their options significantly, but Essek would have discarded most of the Dynasty outright anyway, the Empire as well. There are other places though—
Like Nicodranas. There is an archmage there who, at least by Essek’s reckoning, owes Caleb any favor he might like to call in, and plenty of safe lodgings for them besides. Well, safe for Caleb. Essek’s mind immediately went to Veth’s home, and while there is likely no more secure place for Caleb in Wildemount, she’ll probably kill Essek on the spot for letting this happen on his watch. Well—
It will be a quick death. And Jester will almost certainly make her feel bad about it after.
Nicodranas it is, then. Hopefully Archmage Errenis tolerates the imposition on his circle. Essek will be using it regardless, but it would be best if his household cooperated. He’s not entirely without manners or precaution, though, so a Sending to warn of their imminent arrival is in order.
Essek, carefully, gently, removes his hand from Caleb’s grip and guides him to hold the edge of his cloak instead. Caleb grips the fabric tightly, staring at Essek with wide, empty eyes. Light, how it hurts to see him this way. Essek brushes a few stray locks of hair back behind Caleb’s ear, cleans his face of the blood that's dripped down again, and then begins to cast, picturing Errenis’ servant as he Sends.
Apologies for the intrusion, I'm Widogast's research partner. Encountered trouble, require immediate evacuation from Aeor, no other assistance. May we come through your master's circle?
A moment, then—
Yes, all right. The Master's busy, but if you'll be in and out I'm sure that's fine. I'll be waiting.
Essek sighs in relief, then prepares to cast again, this time focusing on a certain tiefling.
Jester, have you the materials for Greater Restoration? Caleb needs it. If not, I'll ask Caduceus. I won’t be able to come until tomorrow, regardless.
Oh no! That’s really not good. Yeah, I can do it, I have enough diamond dust, but are you sure he can wait that long?
Before Essek can respond, Jester continues with a Sending of her own.
What happened? Are you okay? Will you come straight to us? Isn’t that super dangerous? Please be careful, you’re both so squishy. Love you both.
Essek takes a deep breath, then replies.
Trap, Feeblemind spell. Going to Nicodranas now, will want to bring you there tomorrow. We are both safe otherwise, don’t worry. He counts back in his head. Four more words. We love you too.
It might be presumptuous to speak on Caleb’s behalf, but in this instance Essek is certain he’s at least not misrepresenting Caleb.
Jester doesn’t Send again, seemingly satisfied for the moment. Essek rubs one temple, then looks back at Caleb. He’s still holding the edge of Essek’s cloak, staring blankly at him.
At least he isn’t frightened of Essek anymore.
Essek opens his spellbook to the proper page and begins drawing the sigils for Errenis’ circle on the ground. Caleb moves with him, trailing wherever the hem of Essek’s cloak takes him. One or twice Essek has to nudge him away from the chalk work, but it goes as smoothly as Eseek could hope.
Before the draws the last stroke, he makes sure that all Caleb’s gear is accounted for. If they’re to endure this ordeal, best to not leave anything behind. But his necklace is still safely around his neck, his book in its holster, and his effects in their bags. Essek nods to himself, takes Caleb’s hand again, and draws the final strokes.
Caleb doesn’t balk when Essek leads him into the circle, and Essek hadn’t realized how much he’d feared that until they’re already standing in Tidepeak Tower. He followed easily, though, and appears unmoved by the change of location. The circle room is as Essek remembers, and the goblin gentleman Errenis employs, Wensforth, is waiting for them.
“Ah, there you are.”
Essek inclines his head and shoulders. It's not quite a proper bow, but he’s loath to let go of Caleb’s hand for propriety’s sake.
“Thank you for understanding our urgency. Give the master of the tower our regards, but I think it’s best if we go quickly about our business.”
“It’s all right, Mister Thelyss, Mister Widogast.” The goblin’s eyes narrow as he looks at Caleb. “Is Mister Widogast—?”
Essek instinctively pulls Caleb close, puts himself between Wensforth and Caleb. Silly. Wensforth would, at the very worst, gossip, and even accusing him of a loose tongue seems like unforgivable slander.
“We encountered trouble, as I said. I am anxious to be on our way to resolve it.”
“I understand,” Wensforth says smoothly, turning away and starting down the stairs.
“Come, Caleb,” Essek says in an undertone, gently pulling at Caleb’s hand.
He follows Wensforth down the stairs to the receiving room. There, he takes a moment to cast Seeming . He doesn’t know how Caleb would react if he took an entirely different face, and so contents himself with the appearance of a hooded cloak more suitable to the climate, but he nearly inverts everything about Caleb as a disguise. In a moment, he’s standing next to a grizzled, sun-beaten half-elf woman of advanced age.
“Until we meet again, Wensforth.” Essek says.
“Of course, Mister Thelyss. Mister Widogast,” he replies as he opens the door.
Essek could probably have not bothered with disguises at all. The hour is late, but the quay is still crowded, a riot of people and color. Essek loops his arm through Caleb’s, as if he is taking care of an elderly relative, and leads them through the throng. Caleb presses close, making a small, scared noise as they walk. Essek shushes him and pats his arm.
“It’s all right, no one will hurt you.”
Caleb turns into him, pressing his face into Essek’s shoulder, but he keeps walking.
Damn that Aeoran mage. Hopefully he’s rotting in some lower plane, and will remain there until the last syllable of time.
The crowd thins out as they approach the street where Veth has made her home, and Essek can’t help but be relieved. Caleb seems to relax as well, looking up again, though he doesn’t try to free his arm. A few blocks from their destination, Essek drops their disguises. They are conspicuously overdressed for the weather, but now there is almost no one around to notice.
Essek stops them across the street from Veth’s address. The windows are lit, warm light peeking out from curtains. Essek hesitates to interrupt the Brenatto’s night, but only for a moment. Caleb needs a safe place to wait until Essek can Teleport, and there is no safer place for him than under Veth’s roof. Essek crosses the street, walking up to Veth’s door. He almost knocks, but pulls a wire from Caleb’s components and casts Message instead.
I’m sorry to bother you with no prior warning, but we ran into a little trouble on the last expedition, and Caleb needs someplace safe to stay.
Veth’s response is near instant.
What happened, where are you, is he okay, why didn’t he message me, is he hurt, did you let him get hurt—
She pauses for a breath, but that seems to be enough for the spell to end.
We’re outside your home. I’d like to get him off the street first, then I’ll explain everything.
Veth doesn’t reply, but Essek can hear clattering inside, then the door is thrown open.
Before Essek can so much as open his mouth, Caleb tugs them both forward. He’s laughing, giddy, and crouches down to hug Veth, without having let Essek free.
Veth circles her arms around his neck, but she’s staring up at Essek with undiluted horror.
“Lead him inside, please,” Essek says helplessly.
She gently coaxes Caleb indoors, and he follows her easily. He drags Essek behind him, before Veth can properly invite him inside, but Essek resolves to be a good guest to absolve himself of the breach of etiquette.
“Caleb? You’re scaring me. What happened?”
He beams mutely down at her, scrambling for her hand. She lets him take it, almost unthinkingly.
“He can’t understand you right now.” Essek says. He swallows, dreading the coming explanation. “But I think he’s soothed by familiar voices. Ah, tone seems to be the key.”
“What happened?” Veth asks again, this time to Essek. Her voice cracks and her eyes are shining. Caleb whines, plainly distressed, and kneels to wrap his arms around her.
“She’s all right, Caleb, don’t worry,” Essek says. Possessed by a instinct and hazy nursery memory, he bends down and rubs a small circle between Caleb’s shoulder blades, like he thinks he’d done for his brother, an eon ago. “He fell victim to a trapped artifact. I think it was set with the Feeblemind spell. It’s powerful magic, but I’ve already talked to Jester, and I’m sure she can reverse it.”
Veth nods emphatically.
“Of course she can.” Then she turns a critical eye toward Essek. “You’ll take him tomorrow?”
“Ah, I was going to bring Jester here.” Veth narrows her eyes, unsatisfied. “I can’t bring him if he’s unwilling. We came here by circle, but—I’m not even sure he can be willing.” I don’t know if he trusts me that much Essek doesn’t say. I don’t want to know, not yet. “It seemed simpler to ask her to prepare to come here, since she might have had to regardless.”
“Makes sense,” she says, though she doesn’t sound completely convinced. “Well. Has he eaten?”
“Not for a few hours, that I know of. We were rather caught up.”
“Find anything good?”
“Some bastard’s cursed cutlery and a lot of books.”
Veth huffs in a way that might be amusement. That, more than anything else, seems to settle Caleb, and he lets her go.
“Wait here. I think—” Veth stops, chews her bottom lip. “I think this will upset the boy. He’s fond of Caleb.”
“As you wish.”
Veth bustles into another room. Caleb reaches out after her, but Essek takes his hand in on of his own and uses the other to tip Caleb’s face away from the door Veth vanished through.
“She’ll be back in a moment, but she’s still in the house. Quite safe. Soon this will be over. Jester will help you, and this will turn into one of the very frightening stories you tell people as if they’re completely normal.”
Caleb smiles at him, and Essek can’t help but reflect it back, even if he doesn’t feel it.
What he feels is terrified. He wants to be certain that Jester will be able to help, and if she can’t, then that Caduceus will be able to petition a much more established deity, and on some level he is certain, but another part of him doubts. Doubts that anything could be equal to a power that could ruin a mind like Caleb’s.
“Okay, come on,” Veth calls from somewhere deeper in the house.
Caleb turns towards the sound, and Essek nudges him forward. Essek has never spent much time in Veth’s home—it feels too fraught, to be this close to her husband and child, but Caleb is here frequently and perhaps there is some lingering memory, because he unerringly leads them to the diminutive kitchen.
Veth has set two plates out, both filled with food, in front of a pair of cushions. They look fairly comfortable, and a glance would put them at just plush enough to put a human, or elf, or tiefling, or anyone of comparable size at eye level with a halfling sat in one of the chairs.
Caleb drops onto a cushion and grins at Veth. Essek looks around—no sign of anyone else. Perhaps that is for the best. He sits beside Caleb.
“Thank you, for the meal, Veth,” he says, though hunger is the last thing on his mind.
“It’s just left over from earlier,” she mutters, perhaps self-consciously, settling into a chair across from Caleb.
Caleb begins picking at the food, first pushing it into neat little piles, then eating it a piece at a time. Still meticulous, nearly pathologically so, just like always.
He’s still in there.
Essek has to believe that.
“How long?” Veth asks, her eyes fixed on Caleb.
How long has it been? Stress has both compressed and extended the time since Essek turned and saw Caleb curling in on himself in his memory.
“I don’t know that it’s even been an hour. Two, perhaps, at the outside.”
So little time has passed since Caleb was struck by the spell, but Essek already fiercely misses Caleb’s mind, his insight, his companionship. He twists one of his rings under the table to keep from more obviously fidgeting.
“You moved quick, then.”
“I couldn’t risk staying longer in Aeor with him like this.”
Veth nods. Approvingly, perhaps.
Silence falls then, except for the sounds of Caleb eating. Essek picks at his own plate, trying to eat just enough to not appear ungrateful. His stomach is a churning mess of knots and anxiety, and the roasted vegetables and fish could be sawdust for all Essek tastes of it. All he wants is to find a quiet place to trance and gather his strength, so this can be over.
Caleb yawns, long and wide, and turns away from his food. He shuffles until he can lean against Essek’s side, using Essek’s thick cloak collar as an impromptu pillow. In any other circumstances, Essek might have panicked at such a brazen (an affectionate, some part of him interjects, unhelpfully) invasion of his personal space, but in the moment he’s only glad Caleb seems calm and content. Essek wraps his arm across Caleb’s shoulders, holding him in place, and some atrophied instinct to comfort moves his hand up and down Caleb’s arm.
“I only have the one guest room,” Veth says as she clears away their plates.
“It might be unwise for him to be alone,” Essek replies. He starts to follow up with we are used to cramped quarters, it’s no trouble, I only need a place to sit in any case but stops himself. It occurs to him that she might want to keep watch herself, since Essek has proved himself an unworthy minder of Caleb’s safety. The thought stings, but in that way true things sometimes do.
Veth glances at him over her shoulder. Only then does the picture they make, Caleb tucked up against Essek’s side like this is a thing they do, make itself clear in his mind. He can’t very well extricate himself, so he sits there under her scrutiny while his ears burn. Veth turns back to her cleaning.
“You’ll say with him?” Veth says.
“Second door on the right. Better get him in bed now, before he really falls asleep.”
Caleb grumbles irritably when Essek makes him stand, but he follows Essek to the guest room. It’s small, dominated by a rather average sized bed that looks enormous in a halfling sized space, but it’s all they need.
Essek sits Caleb on the edge and tugs his coat off, then his boots. It feels intimate, like overstepping, even if Essek’s intentions are entirely innocent. He just doesn’t want Caleb to overheat, doesn’t want to get Veth’s sheets dirtier than necessary. Caleb is hardly a modest man in any case, and Essek has seen him in far less than his tunic and sturdy traveling pants.
Essek Prestidigitates the coat and boots clean, then lays them over the back of a chair in the corner. He pulls his own cloak off, meaning to set it alongside the coat, but he hears Caleb moving. When he turns back, Caleb is lying on his side, knees tucked up and head pillowed on his arm, on top of the quilt. Essek sighs, then drapes his cloak over Caleb, rather than trying to get him up and back into the bed.
Essek watches him for a moment. He has seen Caleb sleep before. The slow cycling of his chest, the careless tumble of his limbs, the gentle blankness of his face, they’re all familiar. It might be any night.
(But not any night—no other time has Caleb slept under Essek’s cloak. No other time has Essek been so afraid of the morning. What if he is worse, what if he is beyond help, what if what if what if—)
Essek takes a deep breath, holds it, then blows it out past his teeth. Casts his levitation spell, and folds his legs up. Trancing will not come easily, so best he starts as early as possible.
It is still dark when Essek becomes properly aware of his surroundings again. He rolls his head on his shoulders, shakes out his hands, and reflexively delves into his reserves of magic. The well is again full.
He thinks he could easily Teleport three times, but it is far too early. As much as he’d like to collect Jester, she will likely need more rest than the handful of hours Essek has taken, and it is imperative she is at her best.
Essek combs his fingers through his hair a few times—it’s too little to properly arrange it, and it’s too long besides, but he can't find the will to do better—and withdraws his spellbook from his Wristpocket. He hardly needs to review the pages for Teleport, they are nearly burned permanently into his memory, but he takes his time with his other selections. He focuses most heavily on his spells for bending possibility, but can’t help himself from peering at a few purely offensive ones. Just in case.
He’s pulled from his study by a noise from the bed. Caleb—
Caleb is whimpering.
Essek snaps his spellbook shut and pulls himself over on nothing but instinct. Caleb’s face is screwed up in agony, eyes still shut. Essek knows well the signs of a nightmare. How much worse must a bad dream be, in a state like this?
“Caleb, Caleb, wake up.”
Essek shakes him, firm but gentle, until his eyes flutter open. Tears immediately spring up and Caleb fumbles to free himself from Essek’s cloak, whining in that low, awful way. Essek tries to shush him, pulls the cloak down to his legs. Caleb curls tighter in on himself, and Essek can’t help but press a hand into his shoulder.
“There’s nothing to fear. It was just a dream,” Essek says uselessly. Caleb bucks up into his touch, and, in a moment of boldness, Essek drops onto the bed beside Caleb.
All on his own, Caleb buries himself in Essek’s arms. Essek could only ever hold him. In that moment, inspiration strikes.
A memory, half forgotten, of a song sung by a beloved nanny in a similar dark, warding off bad dreams. Essek still remembers the tune, and even most of the words. He half hums, half sings that little rhyme spun in a simple meter. It repeats indefinitely, meant to be sung on and on until the audience fell asleep. He runs the tips of his fingers and down Caleb’s back in time.
It doesn’t take long before Caleb is asleep again. Essek should settle him back down. Should go back to his study.
Instead he sits there until the sunlight peters in through the window.
Are you ready? I will be there momentarily, if so.
Yep! Got my components and everything. Fjord’s going to come too, hope that’s okay. I prepared all my healing spells, extra special, just for Caleb.
Essek replies by appearing on the deck of the Nein Heroez.
It’s terribly bright, but Essek was expecting as much. He should have expected the crushing hug from Jester, but he’s nearly toppled by it.
“Oh, Essek, it’s so good to see you!”
“Likewise, though I wish the circumstances were better.”
Jester squeezes him even tighter before letting him go. Essek nods to Fjord, giving him a tight smile, which he returns.
“Well, best to return quickly. Shall we?”
Essek holds out his elbow, letting Jester loop her arm around it. Fjord wraps his own around her waist, and Essek begins to cast.
Essek aims for Veth's balcony instead of her living room, on the assumption it will be unoccupied. He's correct, and he's also managed to place Jester and Fjord out of the way of the wicker furniture Veth keeps there, which he's proud of. His precision is sharp, when he knows where he's going anyway, but there's a certain pleasure in a spell going just so.
His private preening is cut short when he realizes there's some kind of commotion inside.
Any house Veth occupies could hardly be a quiet one, but this is unusually loud, even for her. Essek hears her shout, and he throws the door open, not looking back to see if Jester and Fjord follow. Caleb can't defend himself, and if something's happened—
"Lebby, Lebby, it’s okay. You're all right, hush."
There's a wretched moan, low and wordless. Essek's heart sinks to his knees, and he Misty Steps towards the sound.
"What's happened?" He blurts as he appears in Veth's living room. She and Caleb are sitting on the floor, Caleb weeping openly in her arms. She’s stroking his hair and rocking him back and forth.
"He just—he freaked out when you left."
Caleb reaches up for him, pawing at the air between them. Essek folds, takes the extended hand in both of his. At a loss, he begins to hum the lullaby again. Caleb’s breathing evens out, and a guileless smile replaces the tears. He hums a few notes then laughs.
“I brought help,” Essek says, reaching up to wipe Caleb’s face with the sleeve of his cloak. “Jester promised to remove the spell. I only left to get her, and Fjord came as well.”
Both of them are lingering in the doorway, horror on Fjord’s face and agony on Jester’s.
“H—hey, Caleb,” Jester says.
Caleb whirls, starts to get up, but then looks back at Essek and Veth. It’s as if he’s torn.
“Come, both of you,” Essek says. “He seems to want everyone close.”
Jester flounces over with a smile that doesn’t sit quite right, and drops into a heap of tulle and jangling jewelry beside Caleb. He smiles at her, takes one of her hands. Fjord kneels down just behind Jester, clearly at a loss.
“Feeblemind, you called it.”
“Yes. I’m as sure as I can be.” Essek pauses to gather himself. Glances at Caleb, now in profile. Utterly hollowed, but grinning as he looks between all of them with vacant eyes. Only a few moments more, then he will be Caleb again.
“Greater Restoration?” Jester asks, an edge to her voice.
“All right. C’mon, Artie, let’s do this.”
She plucks a handful of glittering powder from a pouch on her hip and, that seemingly all the invocation she needs, blows it in a cloud over Caleb. As it hangs in the air, it takes on an odd green sheen, then settles over and then into Caleb. There’s a breeze that seems to come from nowhere, carrying with it a smell Essek can’t name, but that could be every place he’s ever been and none of them, and then the diamond dust is gone and Caleb goes absolutely rigid.
“Caleb?” Veth asks. “Can you understand me?”
“Ja, ja, I can—I can—Götter. ”
Caleb curls in on himself, burying his face in his hands. His shoulders shake silently, and Essek isn’t sure if he’s crying or laughing. He starts to reach out to soothe him, but stops. How quickly that had become natural, but now Essek questions himself.
“I know, I know, don’t touch it.”
Veth grabs him around the neck and nearly bowls him over. Jester wraps her arms around them both, and Fjord reaches out and grabs Caleb’s shoulder. Essek just sits there, unsure, before he realizes he’s still reaching and folds his hands together in his lap.
Essek’s own relief hits him with nearly overwhelming force. He should never have harbored any doubt of Jester, but having one’s intellect shattered—it is such a massive thing. More pernicious than death, at least by Essek’s reckoning. Having watched a few resurrections now, they seem like—like hauling someone out of a very deep pit. Or perhaps a mire. Pulling them from someplace else. To reconstruct a mind, that seems as if it should be like rebuilding a shattered mirror. Tedious and delicate, not accomplished by strength but by care.
But maybe he is wrong. Maybe it is, well, not a small thing, certainly, but less daunting. Maybe considering how it could have gone wrong, how Caleb could be alive but dead in all the ways that mattered, waiting until his body caught up, is not helpful.
"It—it just drew me in! I knew better, but I just couldn't help myself."
Essek's hands curl into fists. Had that mage enchanted that orb or whatever it was to draw an intruder in, then enfeeble them? They would. Essek has never hated anyone he's never met before, but apparently he's finding the knack.
"Jester, my dear, could you perhaps resurrect someone who is quite dead? I have a bone to pick, as you say, then a very upsetting murder to commit."
"How dead? And how upsetting?" Jester asks, a little distractedly.
"Almost a millennium, likely, and deeply, I'm afraid."
Caleb barks a laugh and finally looks at Essek. That sharpness, the bright intelligence Essek prizes and cherishes is back.
"No, no, my friend, I call dibs."
Essek huffs a watery chuckle and makes a sweeping, deferential gesture.
"Anything you like."
Veth declared them all in need of breakfast soon after Caleb was restored, but Essek begged off, citing his sensitive vision. The inside of Veth’s house is no particular bother, but Essek feared his composure wouldn’t hold.
He’s now sitting at the foot of Veth’s guest bed with his head in his hands, breathing carefully through his nose, and that fear is a hair’s breadth from reality.
He spent less than a day without Caleb and he feels unraveled. They go weeks without speaking, was that really so different? (It was, it was, because Caleb wasn’t merely a Sending away, he was gone, gone, gone—)
Essek is usually so good at tamping down whatever this is, but now it seems to leach out his very skin. Certainly it is leaching out of his eyes. It’s silly, to weep now, when nothing is the matter, but he can’t stop it.
Light, what would he have done?
It’s pointless, blessedly pointless, to consider, but a grim future spins itself out in Essek’s mind. He curls further forward, clutching at his head.
It shouldn’t matter, he’s fine now, just in the other room, perfectly himself, and Essek needs to get a hold on his emotions.
There’s a harsh rapping at the door, then it opens.
“Veth said you didn’t eat enough last night and fairly threatened to shoot you if you didn’t eat this morning, so—Essek? What’s wrong?”
Essek doubts Caleb will miss him magically setting his appearance to rights, but he does it anyway.
Caleb hums noncommittally and steps inside, pulling the door shut behind him. He walks slowly to the end of the bed and lowers himself to sit beside Essek, an agonizing inch at a time, as if Essek might spook.
“Is that so?”
Essek doesn’t bother to answer. Any pretense will not last under scrutiny anyway. Caleb sighs and bumps their shoulders together.
“I haven’t yet thanked you.”
“I don’t think your gratitude is—”
“Essek, ” Caleb cuts him off. “You brought me to safety. Got help. Let me thank you.”
“I am thanked, then.”
A tense quiet falls between them. Elsewhere, the hum of voices, the drone of a city coming to life. Essek worries the rings on his fingers, spinning them around and around.
“You are handling this remarkably well,” Essek finally says.
“I was in good hands.”
“You remember it?” Essek blurts, before he can even consider if he really wants to know.
“It’s muddled,” Caleb begins, frowning. Essek fights down the bile rising in his throat. Caleb's memory is never muddled. “but I remember bits. You were gentle.”
“I was beside myself,” Essek says with a shaky, near hysterical laugh.
“And yet, all I remember is your kindness.”
Caleb bends, trying to catch his eyes. Essek had done nearly the same, not even an entire day ago. Remembering Caleb’s fear, his helpless tears, nearly undoes Essek again. He had failed to be kind at first.
“I am—” Essek starts. His voice wavers. It takes three breaths to stabilize it again. “Am very glad you are yourself again.”
“Me too. It was—” Caleb pauses, scratches his fingers through his thick stubble. “Even when I Polymorph into a very simple creature, there is always that, that, wie sagt man,” Caleb holds his hand out, fist clenched. “I know if I just let go, I will be me again. I could not find the way back to myself. Could not even conceive of it. So again, thank you.”
Essek faces him now, in spite of his better judgement. Stares into eyes that are full of wit and curiosity, that stare back with fond recognition.
“You act as if I had any other course of action but to help you. As if any possibility that you could remain that way was remotely acceptable. As if I could carry on.”
Caleb’s hand covers his, his fingers intertwining with Essek’s.
Caleb is very clever, and more perceptive than most. Essek hadn’t forgotten that, not in so short a time, so why, why would he say something that—
Caleb, bold, brave Caleb, lifts their intertwined hands and presses a feather-light kiss into Essek’s knuckles. It is not the first time Essek has tasted of that affection, but it still makes him feel witless and dizzy.
“Caleb—” Essek breathes.
“Essek! ” Jester shouts from the hallway. “Have you seen Caleb? Are you hiding in him in there? Are you finally making out?”
“Scandalously making out,” Caleb calls back, utterly tonelessly.
Jester giggles, and Esseks expects her to barge in, but she restrains herself.
“He’s fine Veth, you can stop worrying.”
Essek doubts she will, but that’s all right. He doesn’t think he will either. Caleb shakes his head, a wry little smile pulling at his lips. His finger are still laced between Essek’s, warm and deliberate.
“Breakfast, then join me in looking at our spoils?” Caleb says. He's still smiling, but it's a little brighter, a little more open now.
Essek smiles back. A real smile, this time. Doesn’t pull his hand free.
“Of course, Caleb. Gladly.”