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An Evening Among Friends

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The discordant noises inside the Xhorhaus along with the muffled conversation was enough to make Essek rethink interrupting the Mighty Nein’s evening. Essek stood before their door hesitating for only the briefest of moments before he knocked. The dinner invitation still stood - he hoped.

“Who i-” he heard Jester start calling out before there were murmured words he couldn’t quite catch on the other side of the door.

Then it was opening, with Caduceus’ smiling face greeting him, stepping to the side to allow Essek to see everyone sitting around on the couches just past the foyer. Before Caduceus could get in a word though, Beau was shouting out over the sound of the door chimes, “Is this a noise complaint?”

“No, it's - it is not a noise complaint, um -” Essek drifted nervously on the doorstep. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. “I just, ah -” He looked down, glancing up only hesitantly. “If you would have a guest for dinner, perhaps?”

Jester’s mouth immediately dropped open in excited surprise, Caleb’s eyes widening ever so slightly as he paused, the drink in his hand freezing halfway to his mouth.

“Oh,” Veth gasped, blinking in surprise as Jester motioned for Essek eagerly.

“Come on in, Essek, we invited you before!” Jester exclaimed. “Come, come, come!”

“I thought about it, it - I hadn’t really, you know, done something like this in a while and perhaps it is a -” he explains as he moves inside. He catches Caleb’s eye for just a second, noticing that he’s put his drink down entirely now. “Just something I should do.”

Beauregard’s eyes narrow as she watches him carefully, and he suddenly remembers that he hadn’t come empty handed.

Summoning it from his pocket dimension, he pulls out the bottle of wine from beneath his cloak. “This is, ah, Solvia Groves, ah, Diamond Plum Wine.”

Veth takes the bottle from him, giving him a smile. “Oh, I’ll decant it right away.”

He looks around at all of them, and, feeling a little braver than usual, he inclines his head. “My apologies,” he gets out quietly, willing his gravitational spell to fade. He feels himself settle onto the ground, his fingers finding the clasps of his mantle and unfastening it. He doesn’t meet their eyes as he does so lest he lose his nerve, but he can hear more gasps of surprise - and a quiet intake of breath.

Off to the side Essek sees an unoccupied chair, and he quickly lays his mantle across the back of it, finally turning to the group. Even though he wishes he could keep from looking at Caleb, his eyes flit over to him. His eyes are on Essek, his right hand very slowly rubbing circles along the edge of his left palm. Essek shakes off the sudden wonder of how it would feel if Caleb were rubbing those circles into his own hand.

“Do you float all the time?” Fjord asks, pulling Essek’s attention to him. “I’m sorry - I called it float,” he corrects. “It just seems you’re always,” he makes a motion with his hands. “Gaaa-liding.”

“Ah, not all the time,” Essek answers, stepping closer to the group as Caduceus walks past him to retake his own place on the couch beside Caleb. And although it feels weird to walk in front of them rather than glide and though he feels like maybe he shouldn’t be so honest with his reasoning, he finds himself saying, “For me, it's more of a, ah -” He sighs heavily, standing uneasily now. “I don’t know - it’s an expectation, I guess.”

“People expect it of you?” Fjord says, eyebrows raised - and out of the corner of his eye he can see Caleb mirroring the expression.

“Well, i- when you’re young and impetuous, you tend to do things to try and impress people and then once you’ve set a sort of expectation for a presentation, you have to maintain it,” he rushes out, feeling as if he pauses he might not finish what he’s saying. He gives them a tired smile.

“It’s your gimmick!” Veth calls out, coming back from the kitchen with a tray of precariously balanced wine glasses and what seems to be a glass of milk and a mug of tea and the uncorked wine bottle.

“More or less,” Essek agrees.

“So people just expect you to float everywhere?” Yasha asks.

“Yes,” Essek nods, the word coming out softly.

“Does it make you tired?” Fjord frowned.

“Not particularly,” Essek shrugged. He’d gotten so used to it at this point that he didn’t notice the slight tug on his energy every morning.

“I mean, walking makes you tired, if you think about it,” Caduceus commented.

“Can you make - yeah, can you make anyone float?” Yasha asked. “Or it's just yours-self?”

Essek gave a small nod. “I mean, via certain incantations, of course, but, ah, this is more just a developed-for-myself type,” he gestured toward Veth, who’s making quick work of uncorking the win. “Trick - gimmick, if you will.”

Jester handed Essek a glass of wine that Veth had filled. “Here you go.”

“It still - it still needs more time to, to aerate,” Veth told him, taking a glass for herself but not drinking from it yet as the rest of the glasses were filled and distributed.

Caduceus stands up, the mug that Essek had seen on the tray now in his hands. “I’m gonna go get everything going in the kitchen - I’ll have everything up and running real quick.”

“You’re in for a treat - Caduceus is quite a cook,” Caleb says, finally breaking his silence since Essek had arrived.

Moving closer still - maybe meaning to take Caduceus’ now vacant seat or just to no longer remain awkwardly where he’d been standing - Essek smiles, “I’m very excited, thank you very much.”

“Come into the dining room,” Veth invites him, turning to the rest of the group and motioning them to follow her into the room Caduceus had disappeared into.

They all get up from their places and trail after her, with Jester immediately sidling up to Essek. “So, are you single? Do you have kids? What’s your last name?”

Before Essek can answer Jester’s flurry of questions, Veth graciously comes to his rescue. “Let’s sit down and do some small talk first.” She extends a hand to the dining table that sits in the room, surrounded by over half a dozen chairs - the dining room table he had picked out, he remembers, way back when he had merely wanted them close to ensure they didn’t catch onto him.

Now, as he counts out the chairs, he realizes he’d always given them an extra one, - a total of nine chairs, one for each member, Yeza, and one more. And while he could easily shrug it off as ensuring they had a seat at the table for any guest that may arrive, back then he knew that the only person they may be contacting often enough to invite into their home was him, their liaison.

Even way back then, he had imagined himself here, with them. Essek isn’t sure how he feels about finally admitting that.

“Okay, come on in,” Jester beckons, taking a seat and immediately patting the chair beside her.

“Jester - c’mon, let him sit down,” Fjord lightly chided.

“I - I’ll build a fire,” Yasha volunteers, striding towards the back of the room and starting to get a fire going in the fireplace.

“Oh, I’ll start heating up the hot tub, just in case, later,” Veth muses, glancing over to Jester.

Nodding enthusiastically, Jester agrees. “Oh, that’s a good idea.”

“It takes like an hour or two to -” Veth explains, but Fjord interrupts with a slight laugh.

“Very presumptuous,” he grins.

And - and, Essek may have imagined himself there, but he doesn’t think he’d ever be able to imagine what any conversation with the Mighty Nein might entail. They were too unpredictable, too spontaneous - too them for him to ever be able to guess what they’ll do or say next.

“Where you from?” Beauregard asks, sitting gruffly in a chair across from Jester.

“Here,” Essek answers after clearing his throat. He has no idea why he’s suddenly so nervous - he felt mildly like he was being interviewed for something that he desperately wanted to get approval for.

“Are you married?” she continues, a reiteration of one of Jester’s earlier questions.

His eyes glance to Caleb for what feels like the shortest breath possible. “No,” he tells her.

“What’s your mother’s name?” she inquires, arms crossed.

“Well, ah, my mother’s name is, ah,” Essek starts, thrown by the question but answering nonetheless. “Ah, Deirta Thelyss, she’s the Umavi of my den.”

“Umavi,” Fjord nods, impressed, while Jester gets out an amazed gasp and a “Oh, wow.”

Veth pauses at the door, where she was about to head to the “hot tub”, Essek presumes. “What was your last name again?”

“Thelyss,” he says, and he’s told them this before, and a part of him is still so surprised that they haven’t paid that piece of information as much attention as everyone in Rosohna and in Xhorhas seemed to pay it.

“Which den? Thelyss Den?” Jester asks.

Veth nods, as if remembering, “Thelyss, Den Thelyss.”

“Yes,” Essek agrees. It leaves him feeling as if he is on uneven ground - they do not try to get on his good side because he is of Den Thelyss like everyone else. They do not invite him in and attempt to befriend him because he is of Den Thelyss - no, they do it because he is Essek , and that, for them, seems to be enough. It brings an unexpected lump to his throat that he tries to swallow down.

“Den Thelyss,” Jester repeats, as if committing it to memory.

Essek almost tells her to forget about it, but instead laughs out a quiet, “One of the multitude of dens.” He gestures to the chair Jester has pulled out beside her. “Shall we sit?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, come and have a seat,” Jester grins, and when Essek takes a seat, she gives him a brilliant smile that he’s getting more and more used to receiving.

He gives her a small smile before turning to the rest of the group. “I’m not imposing, am I?”

There’s a chorus of “no’s” from the group before Jester points at Yasha. “No, we were just playing a concert for, um, our family.”

Suddenly the sounds from earlier made sense. “I was wondering what that sound was.”

“That was us,” Yasha nods, stoking the fire and making the small flame that she had started jump onto more of the kindling.

“It carries quite a distance,” he told her.

“Oh, yeah?” Yasha asked.

“Yes,” Essek confirmed. It was no wonder Beauregard wondered if they were getting a noise complaint when he had first arrived.

Yasha gave him a small smile, looking at him over her shoulder. “Good.”

“It’s how we focus after a huge meeting,” Fjord informed him, taking a seat across from the empty chair to Essek’s left. “We play, and join our thoughts as one.”

Essek nodded, trying to wrap his head around the new information. “An unfamiliar custom, ah, but, ah -”

Fjord gave him a knowing smile. “It grows on you.”

“Hey, ah, it is not unlike some things I’ve seen in Asarius,” Essek shrugged, remembering the nights of revelry and discordant song he could hear drifting through the streets of the City of Beasts from the chilly halls of Lady Olios’ abode.

He sees Fjord nod before he feels a weight suddenly settle on his lap. “Oh,” he greets, looking down to find Caleb’s familiar - Frumpkin, as he’d heard Caleb call him whenever the cat would rambunctiously swat at Caleb’s quill when he copied down a new spell Essek taught him - staring up at him with wide eyes. “Hello,” he says quietly, running a hesitant hand over the ginger fur.

When Frumpkin nuzzles into the touch, Essek breathes a relieved sigh, smiling down at him. He’d always heard that cats were rather fickle creatures - and he figured that a familiar who took on the form of a cat would be even pickier than a regular cat, so hearing the slightest beginnings of a purr coming from Frumpkin made Essek feel like he’d passed some sort of test.

“So, um,” Caleb starts, pulling Essek’s attention from Frumpkin. He’s sitting in the chair across from Essek, between Fjord and Beau. “What is the mood here - in the Dynasty, here?”

“Right now, it is tension,” Essek tells him, choosing his next words carefully. “Um, a little bit of frustration in the halting of what was to be a very successful raid on Rexxentrum.” He looks down at the table, still scratching Frumpkin’s back. “Tense, um - that’s primarily it. This is so far removed from the front lines, it's mostly just information disseminated via, ah, word of mouth and the occasional street speaker, but,” he gives Caleb a small shrug. “Warfare makes for...not entirely pleasant opinions of the opposing side.”

“Ah, the tension in the throne room was fairly easy to read,” Caleb comments, running his fingers absentmindedly along his wrists. Not scratching, thought. “Um, my wonder what the dens, the various dens think, the people here?”

“That varies from den to den.” Essek sighs. “There are numerous, so, and it depends on which opinion you want. Um -”

“What about Den Thelyss?” Caleb asks, his blue eyes holding Essek’s gaze.

Essek feels himself grow warm under Caleb’s attention and averts his eyes. “Den Thelyss, um, they would like very much to see our nation established and respected in the broader sense of the world.” He frowns, swallowing down his regrets. When had he forgotten that his den’s goals were of the nobler, gentler kind? When had he let them fall to the wayside to chase illusions of grandeur that were looking more and more like ruin with each passing day? “Unfortunately, our most neighboring nation tends to consider most everything to the east, um, savage landscapes and dangerous cutthroats and -” He swallows hard. These were the people he had betrayed his nation to - the leaders of the nation that viewed his people as monsters. “You know, drow killers and everything else, so.”

“And that is foolish - that has not been our experience here,” Caleb rushes to assure him - to reassure him that they are not the Empire, they do not hold the Empire’s views. They do not view his people, they do not view him as a savage cutthroat, a drow killer.

With all the blood on his hands from this war, he wasn’t sure if he, himself, was safe from that stereotype.

“But there are people on our end and many folks who assume that the Empire is nothing but a bunch of money-crazed, murderous villagers ready to kill each other for a scrap of meat,” Essek told them. His nation wasn’t free of bias either - he wasn’t sure if he was telling them to lighten whatever sour taste the Empire’s biases had left in their mouth, or if he was reminding himself to try and excuse his own actions. He hoped it was the former.

“That - that’s very true, that’s how everyone is there,” Jester nodded.

“Really?” Essek asked, taken aback.

“Jester, that’s not, that’s -” Fjord started.

“Not true,” Jester confirmed, giving Essek a smile. Her own way of lightening the mood it seemed.

“I care little for politics, to be honest,” Essek admitted - surprising even himself. Because while it was true that he got wrapped up in the politics of it all, he had merely been looking for knowledge. Knowledge that never even came, with too steep a price tag all the same. “But it seems you did as well, but circumstances thrust us into spaces where we least expect.”

“What, ah, what do you care for? What are, you know, your hobbies and things that you like to do?” Yasha asks, taking the seat beside Fjord, the one at the head of the table and directly in front of the hearth.

His eyes jump to Caleb for a second before he drops his eyes to Frumpkin as he hears Veth stepping back into the room, and, having apparently caught the end of Yasha’s question, Veth adds, “Pet peeves?”

“Allergies?” Fjord tacks on.

“Hopefully none of this,” Caduceus interrupts, much to Essek’s relief, bringing out a platter of various cheeses and vegetables.

“Thank you so much,” he tells Caduceus.

“Right,” Caduceus nods, looking around at the rest of the group. “Main course coming, thank you, thank you.”

Veth slides into the chair between Beau and Jester, at the other end of the table directly across from Yasha. “Thank you, Caduceus.”

“This looks delicious,” Yasha praises, reaching over and picking up one of the small metal skewers that Caduceus had also brought out, spearing a tiny carrot and taking a bite.

“Do you need help in there, Caduceus?” Beauregard offers.

“Su-” he starts before he waves the offer aside. “I’ll be - I’ll be just a minute, I’m fine.”

“That’s a ‘stay the fuck outta the kitchen’,” Fjord teases, looking over at Beauregard.

“Yeah, I-I got that,” she answers, picking up her own skewer and popping a cheese cube into her mouth.

Caduceus gives her an easy smile. “I’ll cut you,” he jokes, before ducking into the door that leads to the kitchen.

Beauregard laughs so hard she has to cover her mouth to keep from spitting up her food. “Wow, this is where Caduceus gets violent,” she gets out around her mouthful.

They lapsed into a few beats of relaxed silence, merely poking at whatever caught their fancy on the platter that Caduceus brought out. Essek got a few cheese cubes and a cherry tomato or two, but as soon as he could feel the group’s attention begin to wander he spoke up.

“Well, you’ve asked me quite a few questions, and I’m willing to converse, but I’m - I’m curious,” he paused for just a breath, just to swallow down his nerves and say, “I’m curious to get to j - to know you as well. Um - what, what is it you want to achieve? What are your goals? What are the things you are looking to do?” He looks around at all of them, his eyes landing on Caleb as he can see Caleb beginning to answer. “I assume you weren’t intending to bring a beacon here and throw yourself into the midst of this chaos, so - what else it is pushes you forward?”

“Would it surprise you to know that perhaps a year ago, we didn’t even know of a beacon, or of the Dynasty, or of any of this?” Fjord tells him.

“Hmm,” Essek hums, ready to hear more.

“We knew of bacon, just not of a beacon,” Beauregard adds.

“Important distinction,” Essek comments, and Beauregard readily agrees.

Veth looks around at them, turning to Essek as she says, “We all have individual goals, and issues that we’re working on, but, ah -”

“What about you?” Essek asks, watching the goblin curiously. He knew she was loud and fiercely loved her best friend, Caleb, and that the rest of her friends cared about her enough to risk their lives to help rescue her husband, but her background was still a mystery to him - even more so due to the handful of things he did know, like that her husband was Yeza, a halfling, and that she disguised herself as a halfling when she first saw him again in the Dungeon of Penance.

“Oh, me?” she blinks, surprised.

“Yes,” Essek nods, taking a sip from his wine.

“Um -” Veth starts, looking down at her hands.

“Tell him,” Jester prompts, nodding towards Essek. “Maybe he can do it!”

Her eyes widen at Jester’s words, and she blindly reaches for her wine glass, taking a drink and bringing it down to less than 3/4ths of what was originally in the glass. She looks up at him. “I, um, I’ve just had, ah, some, ah - I, I-I’m not myself and haven’t been for a while and was,” she trails off with a sigh. “Ah, like many of us, we’re all - we’re all sort of searching for, well, many of us are searching for sort of who we are, but - but mine is much more, um, odd, ‘cause I know I-I’m not - I’m not supposed to be like this and, ah, I’m trying to change myself, physically.”

Essek hums again, watching her carefully. “So this is not your original form?”

“No, and actually, being in the throne room of your Queen, it actually gave me a lot of hope,” Veth admitted. “I mean, seeing that people among you and her and some of the den leaders, I suppose, have changed form and shape many times over and put their spirits into other bodies.”

“This is true,” Essek nods, getting a small word in to give her a chance to gather her thoughts. Frumpkin is warm beneath his hand, still purring as his fingers brush through his fur.

“I-it’s actually given me a lot of hope. I - they said that, when we were in there, that you had to be, what was the term again?” she asked.

He knows exactly what she’s talking about. “Consecuted.”

“Consecuted,” she repeats.

“That is a process, though I would say it is, ah, one that requires a lot of patience,” he tells her, trying to keep his voice level. “It is a bit convoluted.”

“Does it take a long time?” Jester asks.

“The ritual, itself, takes about a day,” Essek answers. He remembered going in, his mother and other consecuted “elders” there to help guide him. A great honor, as he was always reminded.

“Is it painful?” Yasha adds.

Essek shakes his head. “The consecution is not,” he says - or at least for him it wasn’t. He could remember his mother’s eyes, the way they landed on him at then end of the ritual, the only other living person who knew his secret. He shook the memory away. “The process of having to die to be consecuted or returned to a new form, ah, depending, can be painful, I’m sure.”

“How do they do it?” Veth inquires, and there’s a hungry gleam in her eye. He’s seen it in plenty of others before, and he’s sure that look has been in his eyes more times than he can count.

“Well, they don’t kill them once they’re consecuted, but when life comes to an end, and they are within a radial region of a beacon,” he makes a vague circle in front of him. “Then the soul is taken by the beacon and then implanted within a new life.”

“Have there ever been any instances of outsiders having this done?” Caleb asks curiously.

There’s a brief hiccup in Essek’s brain, a moment where in his mind’s eye he imagines it, consecution, finding the Mighty Nein and falling for their friendship and charm over and over and over again in every life. Finding Caleb and falling for him over and over and over again. He wonders if in any of those lifetimes Caleb would fall for him too. He knows he’d fall for him every single time.

Just as quickly as it comes he shakes the thought from his mind.

Even if they achieved it he - he was -

“No one who has not been bound to the beacons via consecution has fallen into its net. It is a requirement for the process,” Essek explains, cutting off his own thoughts.

Jester gives him a curious look. “Are you consecuted?”

“I am,” he answers, trying to keep his annoyance from his voice - trying to hide his annoyance at this charade he’s had to put up since the ritual.

Trying and failing, obviously, since Jester frowns. “You’re not excited about it?”

Essek waves a hand. “I mean, prolonging life is - is ‘divine’,” he puts air quotes around the word, finding his distaste growing more and more by the second. “But I think religion is a…” he trails off, before finishing, “I would say a crutch, to some spaces.” He looks down when Frumpkin butts his head to his stomach, and resumes his petting with a hollow laugh. “Ah, I mean, the Dynasty is so focused on this Luxon, and this religion, and the possibility of, of what it means,” he shakes his head. “But it's distracting them from what other good things they could do with the time and focus, maybe.”

And it feels so good to say it, out loud - to voice his feelings about all of this Luxon worship and beacon zealotry and not fear the repercussions that would come if he ever told anyone else how he felt. And it feels good too, to allow himself to be bitter about what happened.

Fjord speaks up. “And it’s selective, right? N-not everyone in the Dynasty is consecuted, so there are some that expire in this life and that’s the end for them.”

He nods. He would certainly know just how selective consecution could be. “There is a - an expectation of advancement within the faith to be consecuted,” Essek explains. “I -” he pauses, taking a breath before just barreling on, “really do not care for the specific theology behind it, but I was lucky enough and privileged enough to be born within a den to where it was not questioned, but, ah -”

“So, it's reserved for people within certain families,” Beauregard said. It wasn’t a question.

“Well, it’s expended into those that aren’t part of the dens,” Essek clarifies. “But, they don’t just consecute anyone who steps into the Dynasty and requests it.”

“And you are, forgive me, on your first life?” Caleb asks, remembering what Essek told them what felt like a lifetime ago.

“Yes, I’m nearly the youngest of my den,” Essek admits. His first and only life. He shakes the thought away. He’s never liked dwelling on it. Not even Verin, his brother, knew - he didn’t know why this was coming up so insistently now .

Caleb leans forward. “Ah - um, forgive me if this is presumptuous. How old are you?”

Essek has to think about that for a second - as elves by nature, drow already have longer lifespans than most, but here in the Dynasty age and such things tend to get forgotten, especially within the consecuted circles that surrounded him. “I would be close to 120 years.”

“Yeah, same for all of us, just a…” Fjord trails off, taking a drink from his wine glass.

Jester’s brow furrows. “Do you have to be consecuted every single lifetime?”

“No, once your consecuted the process continues, yes,” Essek answers.

“You’re in - for thousands of years, you’re just there,” Jester gets out.

“Well, until you’re - die too far from a beacon,” Essek tells her. And wars like these, where many of the consecuted generals go out onto the front is a risk they take for the Dynasty. He tries not to think of Verin, out there risking his life. He wasn’t consecuted either, but just knowing that his actions had put him there...

“Oooh,” both Fjord and Jester hum, getting him out of his head. “That’s -” Jester starts, as Fjord finishes, “That’s, that’s a thing.”

Tears sting Essek’s eyes but he clenches his jaw and manages to blink them away. “You see, that is why the beacons are so important. They allow the expansion of our civilization.”

“Right,” Jester nods.

“If a city does not exist within some radius of a beacon, everyone within that city is unable to return,” Essek says - and here it was, the price he had refused to consider, the one that he had ignored because deep down he fucking knew, he knew that looking at that too closely would leave him hollow. Even if he could care less about the beacon that had rejected him, about all the worship and adoration that suffocated him, the people shouldn’t be made to pay for it.

“And just to follow our thought experiment with our friend, Nott, here,” Caleb starts, gesturing towards Veth - and Essek now realizes that Nott is probably a nickname of some kind for Veth, one that he had heard before but had never thought to ask. “If she were to be consecuted, she would need to remain here.”

Essek nods. “Ah, well you would have to ensure that if you were to pass away, ah, it was within the radius of a beacon, yes.”

“But again you would - she would be transferred to a new body, and a new, young life, not a current one?” Fjord asks.

“Correct, and you would -” Essek begins but is interrupted by Veth.

“Like a baby?” she cuts in.

“Yes, and you would grow and age,” Essek tells her.

Jester looks from Veth to Essek. “How old - how old are you before you realize there’s, there’s like the same person you were before?”

“Ah, a little bit into adolescence.” Essek doesn’t have any experience with this, but he had heard enough stories. “You begin to have dreams and visions of memories of your previous life or lives -”

“Whoa, that’s crazy,” Jester gasps.

“- and, um, you begin to seek out members of the Dynasty to then bring you through this anamnesis process in which you are to combine your current life’s memories with the personality’s memories of your previous lives to become one,” he finishes. He’s glad he doesn’t have to wonder how his next life would react, how they would take it when they went through anamnesis and realize what he’s done - he doesn’t have to worry about the burden of reaching his next life.

Fjord shakes his head in disbelief. “Yeah, that’s -”

“Sounds very confusing,” Veth says.

“I’m sure, I’ve not done it myself,” Essek shrugs, his weak attempt at trying to wash his hands of the conversation.

“But, like,” Jester starts, frowning and waving her arms as she puts her thoughts into words, “what’s to keep somebody else from, like, coming, and saying, ‘Oh, I’m the Queen, I’m the Bright Queen’s soul’?”

“Well, those who would receive her would then ask many questions that only the Bright Queen would know the answer to,” Essek tells her. He had heard the Skysibil mention it a few times, citing specifically how easy it was to validate that the consecuted was indeed the Bright Queen whenever her partner, Quana, had already been found.

“I guess that makes sense,” Jester nods.

“Do you remember your previous life fully?” Yasha asks.

Essek feigns thinking for a second. “I don’t know - I have not undergone this process myself.”

Yasha nods at that, her mouth turning into a small “o” as she remembers that Essek was still in his first life. For outsiders like themselves, it must be hard to remember that just because someone is consecuted does not automatically mean they already have a plethora of past lives behind them - and just because someone says they are “consecuted” doesn’t mean that the soul has truly been bound.

Beauregard uncrosses her arms. “Has anyone, like an adult been, consec - like, ah, have you used an adult body before instead of a infant?”

And maybe it's also that they’ve had a bit to drink and this conversation is becoming harder to follow the fuzzier the wine makes their thoughts.

“I think what he’s saying is that a - a new life is born and the soul is within it,” Caleb explains to her.

“It is not of - not of our choosing,” Essek elaborates. “It is the choosing of the, of the beacon.”

“Wow,” Jester gets out again.

“And we’ve had issues in the past where beacons - and our soldiers were killed on foreign soil, and then souls were born in elements of the Empire,” Essek tells them. “We had one conflict about 13, 14 years ago on the northern side of the Empire in which many of - soldiers on both sides were killed. And recently, some of those spirits began to undergo anamnesis there, around Nogvurot, and as such, we helped the children return to the destiny -”

“Holy moly!” Jester exclaims, jumping up from her seat.

“- and as such, have now been reintroduced into our society,” he finishes, looking over at Jester.

“So, Empire kids,” Veth starts, looking up and working through the information, “might turn 15 and be like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m a Kryn - I need to go back’.”

“Under the - under the rare conditions in which a, ah, a spirit that has been consecuted were to die near a beacon, away from the Dynasty,” Essek explained.

“That’s why - do you remember? The criers were going, ‘Children are being stolen from Nogvurot’!” Jester reminded them.

Essek nods. “Mmm, that would make sense. A unique spin to the tale,” he notes.

“Stolen from Nogvurot,” Veth mused, turning to Jester. “So they may have just awakened and left.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jester agrees.

“Wow,” Veth breathes.

“Fuck,” Fjord blinks. “Whoa, shit.”

“I wonder how old those children were,” Beauregard comments.

“Adolescents, I bet,” Jester shrugs, sitting back down in her chair.

“There’s food,” Caduceus announces, coming back in from the kitchen. “Alright.”

“Oh, wow,” Veth grins, looking at the various plates of stew that Caduceus brings out, before he goes back in a few more times to retrieve the rest of them along with a tray full of cookies.

He set a plate down in front of Essek, setting a spoon beside it and giving Essek an inviting smile that Essek gratefully returned.

“So, to your point,” Essek continued, turning to Veth, “it is possibly a way, though there is no, ah, guarantee which body will find you.” Or if it would take, he doesn’t add. “It could very well be another goblin.” He smiled at her, “It could be one of our fine drow, which is not so bad - it could be all manner of creature. If what you are seeking is some sort of a, ah, transference to a new body, I don’t think that’s within my purview.”

“Can you just, like, turn this body into a different body?” Jester asked.

“I do not know of such magic myself, unfortunately,” Essek answered, and when he saw the crestfallen look Jester gave Veth he rushed out, “There are rumors of extremely powerful polymorph , ah, spells and incantations, but even those have limitations that can be temporary or dispelled. But, if I hear of anything, I will let you know.”

Caleb cleared his throat quietly, and Veth gave him a quick glance before her eyes found Essek’s again. “If we hear of something, could we ask your aid?”

“If I can,” Essek nods, picking up his spoon.

“In deciphering it?” Veth presses.

He gives another nod. “If I can.”

Veth gives Caleb a loaded look, but Caleb is looking at Essek, those blue eyes piercing and curious all at the same time.

“So, you live alone, huh?” Jester asks, glancing up at Essek in between bites of stew.

Essek gives her a feeble smile, dropping his gaze. “I do.” He felt so incredibly lonely admitting that, especially when he knew this group of people lived together, their house always loud and lively and so full of warmth. He brought a spoonful of stew to his mouth, to avoid saying more - and he finds that Caleb wasn’t wrong, the food was extremely delicious.

“You, ah, mentioned that you felt like the Dynasty could utilize it's time for much better purposes,” Beauregard started, pulling his gaze over to her. “What would you see the Dynasty do?”

He lapses into silence, wondering how honest he can be before he remembers that he already showed them his distaste for the religious aspect of it all. “I would not focus so much on pressing these religious beliefs that are based on myth and interpretation - I know gods exist because we have proof, and there are those who speak to them, there are visions and, and miracles that happen.” He huffed out a breath. “But the Luxons do not speak to anyone. It’s a lot of religion based on assumption, on existing scripture written by individuals hundreds and hundreds of years ago. There is power in the beacons, and dunamancy in itself is something unique.” He looked at Beauregard. “That, I think, is worth pursuing. The rest of this is a distraction.”

“Is that pursuit frowned upon or, or largely ignored?” Fjord asks. “Like a standard is kept and additional knowledge not sought out?”

“It’s not so much ignored more than not as much of a priority,” Essek clarified. And that had always been it - it had always been his priority, his only priority. Until now.

Fjord gave his group a sideways glance. “It’s like not knowing how deep the ocean is.”

“Indeed,” Essek agreed.

“Do you know how deep the ocean is?” Beauregard asked, raising a brow at Fjord.

“It’s pretty fucking deep,” he answered without missing a beat.

“And that is what I spend my time toiling away, is to find those depths,” Essek told them. He swirled his wine around in his glass before setting it down. “And there is so much, so much untapped possibility in the utilization of dunamis.” He looked around at them, forcing his eyes to pass over Caleb rather than stay there. “I, to answer your question of what it is I want to do -” But he can’t help it, not when Caleb hasn’t taken his eyes off of him, and Essek finally meets his gaze. “And I believe you, you can understand this, and I can see a similar spark in you, Caleb.” Even saying his name sends a thrill down his back, a thrill he had only ever gotten when studying dunamis. “I want to unlock these mysteries. I want to dive as deep as I can into that ocean of the unknown and see what is possible.” With you , he finishes in his head.

Caleb gives him the smallest smile, his lips moving, as if he is about to say something, but then Jester leans closer to Essek, whispering conspiratorially, “Are you saying - are you saying you want to date Fjord? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I don’t think that’s what he’s saying,” Veth answers for him, giving Jester a strange look.

“That - that isn’t what I was saying,” Essek quickly confirms, caught completely off guard by Jester’s question. He was being so painfully obvious, he realized - but Jester had concluded on the wrong person.

Across the table, Caleb breathes out a sigh - of relief or of what, Essek has no idea.

“I’m sorry, I got - I was distracted by, there’s cookies,” Jester explains, picking up a maple cookie from the small cookie platter Caduceus had also brought out and taking a bite. She had already finished her plate of stew, it seemed.

“Yeah, and also the ocean talk,” Veth added.

Jester nodded. “Yeah, the ocean, dive deep into the ocean.”

“It’s a met - it’s a metaphor,” Fjord sighed.

Swallowing hard, Essek turned his glance back to Caleb, hoping that he didn’t seem as flustered as Jester’s question had left him. “To pursue beyond the limits of what you’re told is capable, to seek the impossible - to do what every archmage before us,” and Essek savors how that sounds on his tongue, savors the feel of us , “has failed to do.”

“I don’t think anything is impossible,” Caleb said, gracing him with a small smile. “You just have to look long enough and hard enough.”

Essek could have sworn Caleb’s eyes darted to his lips. “Indeed,” Essek got out, looking down at Frumpkin to try and will the heat he could feel beneath his skin to grow quiet. Caleb certainly had a way with words.

“The things we’ve seen,” Caduceus comments, helping himself to the food he made.

“You don’t strike me as having much of an appetite for war,” Caleb notes.

“No,” Essek agrees. “I have an appetite for knowledge.” His heart clenches in his chest. Those had become one and the same in terms of consequences for his actions.

They hold each other’s gaze for more than strictly necessary, and Essek only looks away when Beauregard starts talking, “Yea - going back to the ocean metaphor, because it’s kind of working.”

“Thank you,” Fjord grins.

Beauregard shrugs. “You could also get crushed into oblivion by several tons of weight at the bottom of the ocean, or, you know, consumed by some other -”

“Of course,” Essek acknowledged. He thinks he knows what being consumed felt like. The Assembly had their hooks deep in him, after all.

She continued. “- Um, scary being, like -”

“Uk’otoa,” both Beauregard and Jester whisper ominously.

“Are you not remotely humbled or afraid of some of the unknowns you might find?” Beauregard finishes.

“I am as afraid as anybody is facing into the unknown, but that’s what makes it worthwhile, is it not?” Essek is honest in his answer, but he thinks of them, not of dunamis, when he answers. He thinks of Caleb.

“High risk, high reward,” Caleb adds - and oh, Caleb does not know how accurate those words are for Essek, in the situation he finds himself, with the feelings that are now bleeding into his reasoning.

Essek nods. “Indeed - but you can mitigate the risk.”

“That’s actually an interesting train of thought,” Fjord muses as Jester and Veth begin to loudly ask, “How - how can you mitigate the risk?”

“I-investigating your Luxon and, and the beacons, has anyone ever, I don’t know,” Fjord glances over at Caleb. “Died researching it, or perhaps gazed in it too deeply, I don’t know.”

He understands their worry. “There have been those who have not understood what they’re capable of and reached beyond their means too soon. Their research was incomplete - they attempted to bend the core elements of existence before they were ready to do so.” Essek gives a small shrug. “And that is a lesson we all must learn from.”

“Maybe the lesson is that it’s waaay too much power for any one person to be fucking with,” Beauregard commented.

“It is possible,” Essek admitted. “But that’s why you take care, and that’s why you work,” his eyes glanced at Caleb, and even though the reward would be so incredibly high, Essek didn’t want to consider the risks. “Alone.”

Fjord leaned forward. “Only because Jester loves the details, what happened to those people that messed around with things sooner than they should have?”

In his lifetime, only one thing of note had happened that he had been too young to witness firsthand, but he’s heard the run of the mill ghost stories around the Marble Tomes to get the gist of what happened. “There are rumors of some that just vanished, that either succeeded in finding some sort of alteration to the planes of existence and never returned. There is two tales I can think of off the top of my head of those that wished to try and use dunamancy to actually step into the annals of history, to step into the time before.”

Caleb had gone pale where he sat in front of him, setting down his spoon, as Jester bounced in her seat, breathing out an awed, “Whoa, really?”

“And one of them returned -” Essek continued.

Fjord gave out a disbelieving, “What?”

“- to scatter to dust,” he finished. “It’s possible, but it seems to be extremely dangerous. So,” and he turned to Beauregard, his eyes dragging over Caleb, “to answer your question, there are things that are possible, but if we’re careful, and we take our time, who knows?”

Fjord and Beauregard share a look over Caleb’s head as Yasha settles an elbow on the table. “W-what do you mean someone came back and then they returned to dust?” Yasha asks. “That they came back and then just poof?”

“Meaning they - this, this was a, an assisted ritual and when they returned, they turned to dust,” Essek explained.

“Poof,” Fjord repeated, stifling a giggle at Yasha’s word choice behind a spoonful of food.

“I don’t know how else to describe it,” Essek shrugs, eating more of his stew.

“How long were they gone?” Jester asks.

“Oh, it was but a few moments,” Essek remembers from what he’d read.

“Really?” Jester gapes.

Caleb finally speaks up again, getting out a rather strained, “How long ago was this?”

“Mmm, 70 years,” Essek answers.

“How long - were, were you able to talk to them when they arrived?” Yasha asked.

Essek shook his head. “Oh, I wasn’t present for this, but I heard about it.”

“And you’ve heard of two instances?” Caleb pressed.

“Mhm,” Essek hummed.

“But you do not know the result of the other,” Caleb commented.

“No,” Essek confirmed.

A smile crept on Caleb’s face, the hunger for knowledge shining brightly in his eyes. “Well, just because we don’t know the end of the story does not mean it didn’t go on.”

“This is true,” Essek granted.

“We met a guy who kind of could control time,” Jester casually mentions, swiping another cookie.

“I was just thinking about that,” Caduceus adds, looking over at her past Essek.

“Oh, yeah - we played in his like, ah, festival fun house,” Fjord recalled.

“Yeah, his Happy Fun Ball,” both Jester and Beauregard nod.

Happy Fun Ball ...had he heard that correctly?

“But even if that person was gone for just a moment, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t gone for a very long time,” Yasha muses, still caught on the mage that returned and fell away - or, poofed, as they said - to dust.

“True,” Fjord agreed.

“What was his name again?” Veth asked - but she wasn’t asking Essek, she was looking at Jester.

“Halas,” Jester and Caleb answered. “Have you ever heard of him?” Jester continued, eyes on Essek.

The name struck a chord in Essek - it was a name he hadn’t heard in a long time, one he had come across in his research ages ago. “I have.”

“You have?” Jester repeated, eyes wide, the answer completely unexpected.

“Was he the other guy - was he the other story?” Veth rushed out.

“Did you know he eats, like, people or something?” Jester told him. “He’s like, really weird.”

“No, I’ve - I just know of scattered records from the previous age,” Essek admitted.

“He trapped a demon,” Jester added. “It’s still trapped in his Happy Fun Ball.”

And there was that name again. “What is this Happy Fun Ball?”
“Mmm,” Veth hummed, like this was common knowledge she was bestowing upon a child - but even then it didn’t make him feel the way everyone else in the Dynasty made him feel, it felt more motherly and patient, less condescending. “It’s a dimension that he made, or, or at least used to create a space where he could experiment, ah, draw -”

“How did you access this?” Essek asks - this “Happy Fun Ball” as they called it, something that Halas used of all people, of all mages .

“Well, it's a weird little puzzle, and y-y-you shift it around just right,” Caduceus explained, miming a sphere and moving things around.

Veth and Jester both made the same hand motions. “Yeah, it's two, two turns left and two turns right,” Veth began.

“We really didn’t -” Caleb quietly starts.

“And then all of a sudden, you get sucked in and, like, you can’t get out unless you find -” Jester interrupts.

Essek’s brow furrows in concern - and interest. “You have this right now?”

There’s a resounding “no” around the table, some sounding relieved while some sound rather disheartened.

“I mean, come on,” Veth shrugs.

Caleb finally gets a word in. “We sort of lucked into it, actually. We are not in possession of it anymore.”

“It’s called the Arch - also the Archmage’s,” Fjord starts.

“Bane,” Fjord, Jester, and Beauregard say at the same time, with Caleb’s quiet, “Bane” coming like a breath after everyone else.

Fjord shrugs. “It was attracted to, you know, terminate magic practitioners that wandered in.”

“It had a few names,” Beauregard remembers, looking up as if she’s trying to recall any of the other ones.

“Have you heard of that?” Jester asks Essek.

“I have not,” Essek admits. And for such a seemingly powerful artifact to have never appeared in his readings must mean it is an extremely ancient relic.

“Is Halas the other story that you knew?” Veth presses.

“No, no,” Essek shakes his head. “This was all dunamantic-based, within the Dynasty.”

“But the thing that happened -” Caduceus starts.

“Didn’t know if his was too, maybe,” Jester mused.

“-Ah, was t-time moved at a different speed on the inside than on the outside, although - and apparently, it could change, if I recall?” Caduceus finished.

“You couldn’t really control it - you could be there for like 80 years or, like, 8 minutes,” Beauregard shrugs.

“It was more changing the rate of passage,” Caleb explains.

“Mmm,” Essek hums. “That is dunamis-adjacent, though I do not know if that is specifically, or perhaps an, an un - a lack of a realization of what he was dabbling with.”

“Hey, Essek,” Jester says, giving him a curious look.

He raises a brow. “Yes?”

“How come, all of a sudden, you want to talk to us like we’re friends?” Jester asks - immediately rushing out, “Not that I mind ‘cause I’m really happy that you’re here, but did we do something cool or something that you like us all of the sudden?”

Essek clears his throat, pursing his lips before picking up his wine glass and taking a big sip to buy himself time. He didn’t want to admit how worried he’d been about them - because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? He’d been fraying at the seams when he had been unable to see them or contact them, fearing the worse and the unthinkable. Now they were here and he - he was a weak man, a weak man that had come to realize too little, too late, that he cared about this group of people deeply, much deeper than he had ever cared for anyone before.

“Throw me a tea-cracker cookie thing,” Fjord whispers to Jester as he finishes his stew and pushes the bowl aside.

“Oh my gods, they’re so good,” Jester gushes.

“Just frisbee that bitch,” Fjord tells her, as she picks it up and tosses it to him. “Thank you.”

“Would you like a frisbee cookie, Essek?” Yasha offers, gesturing towards the cookie tray.

“I’m alright, thank you,” he declines, still translating his feelings into words that won’t betray everything he feels about all of them. He doesn’t think he’ll be capable of making himself that vulnerable - yet.

He swallows. “The Dynasty - I’ve lived here my entire life, and while there are benefits, and there are other places that are much more challenging to live in, I find it frustrating at times.” He drops his eyes to Frumpkin, who’s now curled up in his lap, seemingly dozing comfortably. “I find that, ah, the obsession with this Luxon entity belies what the truth may be, that these artifacts, I theorize, have nothing to do with a - a divine being but are just perhaps artifacts designed in the Age of Arcanum that have been misread.” And he doesn’t know why he’s saying this, instead of just answering Jester’s question - he doesn’t know why he keeps coming back to his disinterest in the Luxon religion, in his obsession with what it can do, with what rejected him. “In which case, it is being misused, or at least, only the surface has been scratched of what’s possible.” He takes a shaky breath, looking up at them. “So - my interests leave me not trusting anyone, not feeling like I, in some ways, belong.” If he’d belonged, he finally allowed himself to admit, finally allowed himself to whisper at the back of his mind, something he hadn’t let himself since the failed ritual. If he did belong, the Luxon would have accepted him. He would have been consecuted. “And as such, I spend a lot of my time in solitude.”

“Why trust us with your interests?” Caleb asks softly, gently.

Essek averts his gaze again, breathing deeply past the sudden lump in his throat. “Because I’m thankful to have met you,” he says, looking straight at Caleb. “I don’t have much in the way of friends, due to the expectations placed upon me,” he looks around at them. “And you are driven, you are adaptable, you’re clever, and not shackled by blind devotion to one flawed society or another.” Even Caleb, in all his pursuits of knowledge, is not shackled by it - not the way Essek has become. “I think you all have what it takes to survive in this cold, cruel world, as it's something I pride myself on,” he admits. But he knows that while he merely survives, they live , making every moment count rather than plotting how to advance above everyone else. “And…” he shakes his head, biting his lip. He thinks of his den, of his peers. “I don’t know, I haven’t felt a kinship with…” His den, his peers, all strangers in their cold distance from him. “Anyone in a long time.”

“Is this friendship safe for you here?” Caleb says, still in that quiet, soft voice, a gentle caress that helps soothe Essek’s nerves where he feels he’s bared more than he bargained for.

He thinks of his rejection by the Luxon, of his betrayal of the Dynasty, of the Assembly’s hold on him - of his feelings for the Nein, for Caleb. “Nothing I do is safe,” Essek smiles, and he feels warm when he says it, honest in a way that should frighten him but doesn’t. When you realize that everything you’ve ever wanted you’ve found in the people around you, who want you around for you - he feels warmer than he’s felt in a long time.

Beauregard’s eyes narrow. “Fuck,” she curses, shoving away her empty bowl and picking up a cookie and taking an annoyed bite. “Fuck, I like him.”

And even though he should feel proud that Beauregard now officially likes him, Essek can’t take his eyes off of Caleb.

“You want to go get in the hot tub?” Jester asks - and now that pulls him from Caleb.

“Ah -” he flounders, deciding on just ignoring her question outright and picking up a cookie from the tray as he also finds himself finished with his food. “This is very good, Caduceus,” he says, taking a bite to excuse himself from having to say anything.

“We appreciate the trust - it, it means a lot,” Fjord tells him. “We move around quite a bit ourselves. You’ve been a rock for us and that’s appreciated.”

“Should I tell him secrets?” Beauregard muses, looking around at the table. “I feel like I should tell him secrets.”

“Right now - right, now?” Fjord gets out.

“We owe him some favors,” Jester reminds them.

“Hey, what did - yeah, let’s, let’s do that first. What do you mean by that? What favors?” Beauregard asks.

“I don’t know,” Essek answers honestly. Aside from his thoughtless request of having them recover the beacon he gave away, nothing comes to mind. His eyes glance over to Caleb. “Perhaps some of my research at some time might require, ah, more hands than those I have myself.”

“How many do you have?” Fjord deadpans.

“Two,” Essek says, raising his hands.

Caduceus nods. “We can get hands, we kill a lot of people on occasion.”

“Yeah, or we can use our own hands,” Jester offers instead.

“Oh - oh, yeah, okay,” Caduceus nods at Essek, giving him a knowing look and then motioning to Caleb.

Essek doesn’t necessarily like feeling like Caduceus knows something, so he picks up the thread of the conversation, “While we’re asking questions, you’ve asked a few questions of me, I’ll ask a few questions - and you can ask some more. This is how conversation works, right?” he smiles a little nervously.

Jester gives him a reassuring nod. “Yeah.”

“I’m a little rusty,” he finishes, laying his chin on his palm. He can feel the faintest pull of the wine at the back of his mind.

Veth raises a brow at Caleb. “Oh, wow,” she whispers. When she sees Essek looking at her, she straightens. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I can relate,” Caleb breathes out across from him.

“Do you -” Yasha starts, and Essek looks to her. “Do you ever get lonely in your solitude?”

He remembers how the peace and quiet of his tower used to be so comforting - remembers how he felt when he walked in earlier that evening, how it felt empty instead. “I didn’t think so, until recently.” Yasha hums at his answer, which prompts Essek to ask, “What about you?”

“Um, yes,” she starts slowly, carefully picking her words. “I think, if I’m answering honestly, I think, um, but I-I think I almost became, ah, more lonely in my solitude after I became friends with all of them.”

Essek nods. He knew that feeling very well now.

“Because I realized, ah, what having good friends feels like,” she smiles.

He nods again, not finding it in himself to agree out loud.

Jester, who had pulled out what seemed like a sketchbook, pauses in her drawing. “Oh, you’re going to be so sad if we leave ‘cause you like us so much now,” she gushed.

“What, ah,” Essek starts, trying not to let Jester’s words get to him. He looks around the table, turning to Beauregard. “What is it that you wish to accomplish, Beauregard?”

“I’m doing pretty good,” she shrugs, gesturing to her raiments. “I’m an Expositor now.”

“Congratulations,” he smiles.

“Thank you,” she nods. “So, considering,” she takes a deep breath and on the exhale says, “I wasn’t sure if I was gonna live past 19, or make it out of my hometown, or amount to any remote decent person in society -” She looks down. “I’m not really, I don’t know if I’d say I’m a decent -” she cuts herself off, looking at him again. “I didn’t know if I was going to amount to anything, so. I’m feeling pretty fucking great.”

“Feels nice sometimes to be the youngest while people expect little of you and then to prove them wrong,” Essek tells her.

“Yeah, the bar was pretty low,” Beauregard agrees.

“Just hope you can maintain that bar you raise to your own standards, not theirs,” he advises.

Beauregard gives him a self deprecating shrug. “Yeah, well, you always hold yourself to the highest of standards first, right?”

“Hm, true,” Essek nods. He felt that sentiment rather intimately. His eyes glanced from Beauregard to Fjord, dragging over Caleb but not holding his gaze - he knew his eyes would stay on Caleb if he did. “What about you, Fjord?”

Fjord scratched at the back of his neck. “What do I want?”

“What do you want?” Essek echoed.

“He’s very religious,” Veth volunteered when Fjord was still thinking.

“Na - no,” Fjord denied. “I - I’m practicing faith, um…” It seemed like an important distinction to him. “Ah, I’m not actually sure,” he finally said. “Um, whatever it was that I started out thinking was important to me seems, with time, to have faded into something else.” He looks down at the table as he continues talking. “Um, I’ve been pulled into adven-adventures and conflicts with this wonderful group of people and I want to see them protected and kept.” He nods, almost as if to himself. “It seems my personal matters from before just have sort of taken a back seat to sort of the grander things on our stage these days.”

“Hmm,” Essek hums, and he feels something settle in his chest. Out of the group, Fjord seemed to fall into the more levelheaded of them, and Essek was glad that he was looking out for all of them - that he was looking out to protect them in ways Essek would never be able to. Essek turns to Jester. “And you, Jester? What is it you are seeking?”

“What am I seeking?” she asks, putting her sketchbook down and now he sees that it's a drawing of him, petting Frumpkin, looking at someone across the table, someone who lives off the page, and Jester has drawn Essek’s eyes incredibly soft, and it makes Essek’s heart hammer in his chest as much as it makes him ache.

“Mhm,” Essek hums, because he needs to rein in his emotions before he can string together enough words to make a sentence after seeing Jester’s drawing.

“Well,” she begins. “There’s TravelerCon coming up, so I’m seeking -”

“I’m not familiar with that,” he gets out.

“He doesn’t know what that is,” Fjord prompts, gesturing towards Essek.

Jester gives Fjord a small nod, before her eyes widen, turning to Essek. “Well -”

“She’s seeking a room at an inn, and -” Beauregard says, smiling at her.

“Here’s the - I mean, yeah, we have to find, there’s so many preparations we have to make,” Jester trails off.

“Give him the staircase pitch,” Caleb recommends.

“Okay, have you - have you heard of the Traveler?” Jester asks Essek.

“Oh, no,” Fjord mumbles into his wine glass on the other side of the table.

“I’ve heard of it in the context of your arrival,” Essek tells her.

Jester gets instantly excited before she nods, realizing that he only knew about the Traveler because she’d mentioned him before. “Oh.” She blinks once, then gives Essek a determined look. “Well, the Traveler is a god, who, obviously, like normally, I wouldn’t, you know, mention it around people here because I don’t want to get murdered because of, you know - but that-that’s okay ‘cause sometimes, you know, if you’re super into your god, you’re supposed to maybe get killed for them, I don’t know,” she rushes out, looking around at the rest of them. “I don’t think the Traveler would want me to be killed for him, though, right now -”

“No, that’s not,” Beauregard assures her.

“You know - anyway,” Jester continues, “the Traveler’s really cool, he wears this green cloak, he’s super powerful, he travels around, he’s always with us - um, he likes, you know, for you to do good things and bad things, he likes for there to be a good balance.” And suddenly a lot about Jester’s chaotic and unpredictable nature makes sense. “If you feel like doing something funny, he’s into it.”

“Bad things?” Caleb asks quietly.

“What?” Jester turned to him.

“Well, like, little bad things, not like bad things,” Veth clarified, turning to Jester.

“No, not like, bad things-bad things,” she agreed. “But it’s like -”

“Tricky things,” Veth tried.

“Like naughty things?” Caleb said.

Jester nodded. “Well, yeah, but like, that’s, you know, everybody shows their devotion to the Traveler differently. I’m sure maybe there’s murderers out there or something that can be, you know, liking the Traveler, but at the same time, if they murder people, then maybe they have to go and make a lot of babies. I don’t know, you know, it’s all about balance.”

And this explanation seems to have gone completely out of control as Essek watches her rush out with what seems like slightly flawed logic and everyone seems to be mirroring his look of confusion as they listen to her.

“That seems…” Fjord starts.

“Maybe I’m presenting this wrong,” Jester admits, which seems like a small understatement. “What I’m saying is, we’re having a big convention for everybody that’s, like, super into him and we’re gonna get together and that’s happening in, like, a month.”

“Interesting,” Essek allowed himself to say.

“It’s never sounded more like a cult,” Beauregard whispers to Caleb and Fjord, trying to keep from laughing. “It’s never sounded more like a cult.”

Caduceus nods. “It’s a cult.”

Jester shook her head vehemently. “It’s not a cult - it’s not a cult! It’s not a cult,” she finished, looking at Essek. “There’s like, because, the thing is, here’s the thing - if it's a cult, then it's not, you’re not actually worshipping, like, a god or something, you know, you’re just worshipping a person that thinks they’re, like, religious or a god or something, but this guy really is a god.”

“Wow,” Essek got out.

“So it's a religion,” Jester assured him.

“You have a point,” Caduceus agreed.

“W-w - well, good luck,” Essek nodded, not sure what else to say.

“Do you want to hear more about him?” she offers.

“I’m fine,” Essek promises. He doesn’t think anything she says about him could reel him into this “religion” - not after the information she just unloaded onto him.

Jester rocked in her chair. “I can - I have, here,” she digs through one of the pockets of her dress. “Here, take it,” she says, handing him a brochure. “If you just want to read up sometime, or if you just, like, want to meditate with me and talk, you know, then maybe we can discuss. If you want to come to TravelerCon -”

He opens up the brochure, seeing the drawings of the cloaked figure, and of the symbol - a doorway leading out to a road. “Some good pictures in here,” he tells her.

Fjord jumps in with a gentle suggestion. “Do you want to tell him what happens at TravelerCon, perhaps?”

“We’re going and it's going to be at the volcano, and it's going to be super fun. We’ll probably have some big speakers, maybe a band play, I’m not sure,” Jester informs him, her excitement mounting.  “Um, we’ll probably have some, like, a party, a dance party, maybe, like, you know? Maybe a costume contest, I’m not sure.”

“Do you want to come to a volcano?” Caleb asks him, his brows raised playfully.

Jester echoes him happily, “Do you want to go to a volcano?”

“I’m alright,” Essek declines, feeling completely out of his depth. If this dinner was already pushing his social skills to the limit, he had no idea what a dance-party-cult-meeting at a volcano of all places would be like.

“We have a ship,” Jester offered.

“Jessie?” Veth starts, giving Jester a searching look. When Jester turns to her, Veth continues, “TravelerCon - I’m a hundred percent down with and I think it's great - but going to TravelerCon is not what you seek, is it?”

“Well,” Jester gets out. “N-n-no, but, well, I mean, ultimately, you know, I’m kind of just trying to find, you know, like, where I fit in in the world,” she answers in fits and starts. She turns to Essek. “Ultimately.”

“That is a very, ah, a very noble, mortal cause,” Essek says with a reassuring smile.

“Also,” Beauregard jumps in, leaning in, “How many babies makes up for a murder?”

“You know, maybe one,” Jester shrugs. “You take one, you give one, I’m not sure.”

“Give a copper, take a copper, got it,” Beauregard nods.

Essek can’t help but laugh as Jester continues, “I’m not sure, you know? I haven’t actually talked to the Traveler about that ‘cause I don’t, you know, murder people on a regular basis, but he did give me healing powers because, you know, maybe because we’re out doing these kinds of things, you know? We fight people so maybe that’s why I can heal people.”

“What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Caleb suddenly asks her. “As far as bad things go.”

“Oh, well, I stuck a, um, an axe in a dude’s head one time,” Jester recalls, making the motion an axe.

“Yeah, I watched you do it,” Caleb nods, and Essek takes another sip of his wine as he listens to all of this.

Jester taps at her chin. “Yeah, that one was pretty fucked up.”

“But that was badass, and totally justified,” Beauregard argued.

“I mean, he was going to potentially kill us,” Jester reasons.

Beauregard nods. “Yeah.”

“Too, so, I was just defending,” Jester shrugs.

“What about you, Essek?” Beauregard asks, turning to him. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

Essek gives a self deprecating laugh that turns into a sigh. Oh, he has plenty of ways he could answer this question, with his betrayal probably taking the crown. “I would say,” he starts, knowing he can’t answer that, knowing he can’t let them know, not when he can keep it a secret and keep them and himself safe. He suddenly remembers the loud slam of a door, a crisp white letter that returned a few weeks letter with the Dynasty seal. He remembered his mother blinking back tears before striding out of the room, Verin enlisting not long after. “Anger my father to a point where he went unprepared into the depths of Bazzoxan and didn’t return.”

Caleb tilts his head, his eyes unreadable as he watches him. Jester’s eyes widen where she glances at Veth, and beside him Caduceus and Yasha share a look as well.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fjord offers, and he sounds genuine in his condolences.

“Alright, that’s, um,” Beauregard starts, caught off guard and unsure what to say now.

“What’d you do to make him so mad?” Jester asks.

“That’s a lot to unpack,” Beauregard finishes. “And why do you think you’re responsible for that? Like, even before you, you tell us what you did, why do you think you’re responsible for your dad not returning?”

“It’s complicated,” Essek answers honestly. They were feelings he hadn’t allowed himself to examine since it had happened - feelings that had reared their terrifying head when Essek hadn’t been able to scry on Caleb when they had all left for Bazzoxan and had lost Yasha. “When I say bad in the sense of what is largely assumed to be considered a bad thing. It doesn’t bother me, necessarily - he wasn’t a great man.” He remembered all the reprimands, the look of thinly veiled disappointment when Essek came of age and never went through anamnesis, revealing himself to an unconsecuted soul in his new life. He remembered how much worse everything got when he went through the ritual only for it not to succeed, how his mother had confided in his father only for his father to grow colder and more demanding, more cruel, afterwards. “He had little aspirations.” For himself , Essek finished privately. For was too many, too much, and all on someone too young to achieve them.

“D-do you mind if I ask if it was - is Bazzoxan near a beacon?” Fjord hazards carefully.

“Ah, yes, and, ah, there is an opportunity that he will return,” Essek answers. And that’s a major downside to the consecuted life, isn’t it? When someone proves to be your nightmare, there’s the risk that they’ll continue to haunt you in the flesh for many lifetimes to come. Maybe it was for the best that he was only getting one go on the mortal plane.

“Just wanted to check,” Fjord nods.

“That’s gotta be odd,” Caduceus muses. “Raising your parents.”

“Oh, weird,” Jester gets out, wrinkling her nose.

“Yeah, the more you think about it,” Caduceus frowns, mirroring Jester’s expression.

“Did you say raising your parents?” Fjord asked.

“Well, if he comes back as a kid,” Veth shrugs.

“And you know he’s your dad but he’s also five,” Jester added.

“Nope, not going there,” Fjord shook his head.

“It has to have happened,” Caleb comments, looking at Essek.

Essek nods. “Oh, numerous times - not to me, yet, and I’m,” he thinks through his words, “Curious to see what that would be like when or if he returns.”

Jester’s eyes widen. “When somebody dies, and they’re, like, in love with somebody else, and then that person gets really old, and it's like a, like a 200 year old person, right? And then the other person realizes when they were, like, 15 that, like, ‘Oh my god, I loved this person’ - do they, like, marry, like, the person when they’re, like, adolescent or does it, like, not transfer, like, that sort of emotional feeling?” She looks at Essek. “Like, are you star-crossed lovers for all time or do you, like -”

“Reset,” Fjord suggested.

“Yeah,” Jester nodded.

“It, it - ah, these are not matters I’ve conjectured too often -” There’s the brief flare of that thought, that wonder of Caleb and himself, finding each other over and over and over again. “- but there are individuals that have relationships that span multiple lifetimes.”

“Whoa,” Jester gasped.

“There are those that, over lifetimes, feelings change, as the heart itself, for some, does evolve and wander.” Essek has the feeling deep in his bones that he wouldn’t fall into that group. “For others, it is, ah, held straight and narrow.”

“How long - I’m-I’m still figuring a lot of this out,” Yasha starts.

“I understand, it’s a lot to take in,” Essek agrees.

“Yeah,” Yasha nods. “It - so can a-a person still be dead for a very long time for them to come back into another body, or, is, does it happen,” she snaps, “instantly?”

“As far as I understand it, it’s fairly quick,” Essek told her. “I mean, as long as it happens in a place where people are being born. I think, theoretically, if a Luxon were to be in the presence of, let’s say, theoretically, thousands of deaths and yet no children are born, they would just be waiting.” And he wonders where exactly the missing beacon is, where the Assembly is keeping it - if it is kept near enough to Rexxentrum or any other settlements that consecuted souls are being born into Empire children. “But then with each progressive birth within the radius of the Luxon, those souls would be then transferred with each new child.”

“So, like, if one of the beacons got stolen with a bunch of souls,” Jester frowns, “Or does it -”

“Yeah,” Fjord nods.

“But,” Jester continues, “It would just, like, let out the souls as it traveled, right?”

Veth hums her agreement, as Fjord says, “But only to those that have been consecuted.”

“Well, the souls that’ve been captured are the considered consecuted,” Essek clears up.

Fjord nods his understanding, “Oh, right.”

“If you were to travel with the beacon, in theory, then they would disperse as children were born within that radius,” Essek explained.

Everyone at the table exchanged a sheepish look - probably wondering of how many consecuted souls were released from the beacon they carried throughout their travels.

“Do the other beacons share,” Beauregard starts, drawing a vague shape with her hands. “Like a, like, a pocket universe, like, are they all connected? Or are you - you jettison into a specific beacon, and then that’s -”

“Or is that part of your research?” Fjord cuts in.

“That is part of what I’m curious about,” Essek grants. “But, um, such beacons are heavily guarded,” which he knows very, very much about, “And are assigned to certain individuals, for the, ah, interests of the religion, to keep.”

“Is - is there any knowledge of, of the in between?” Caleb asks. “Any recollection?”

“Ah, none that have been recorded,” Essek answered, thinking back on everything he had read in his research.

“How often are you able to interact with a beacon?” Fjord inquires - a rather dangerous question if Essek doesn’t pick his words out carefully. “Like, you, beacon - study hall.”

“Not often,” Essek shrugs as nonchalantly as he can. “Uh, there is a lot of, ah, importance in having them specifically located and kept safe within approved areas of Xhorhas, to ensure that the masses of the population are usually within the radius of one.”

“Have you ever stared at one for about a minute?” Beauregard asks.

“If you’re referring as to whether or not I have, ah, attuned with it for a moment, numerous times, yes,” Essek answers. A fleeting connection with barely enough depth to give him just a brief change of fortune.

“Of course,” Caleb breathes, leaning forward, running his hand along his bicep - not moving to scratch or any of that, but just a tentative motion, as if to keep his hands busy.

“I’ll trade you a secret,” Beauregard offered, drawing Essek’s attention away from Caleb’s arms. “If it crosses off one of those favors.”

“It better be one heck of a secret,” Essek says, raising a brow.

Beauregard gave him a rather smug smile. “Done some research on the Luxons.”

“And?” Essek prompted.

“Beacon, the Luxons - are those the same thing?” Beauregard asked.

“Luxon beacons,” Essek corrected.

“The Luxon beacons,” Beauregard repeated. “I’ve done some research on the Luxon beaxons - beacons.”

“You sound very knowledgeable about them, so, this’ll be -” Jester teased her.

“We’ve had like, two bottles of wine, okay?” Beauregard defended herself. “With tossing - tossing maple cookies.”

“They’re really good,” Jester said again.

Caleb nodded. “They are very good - sweet.”

Beauregard turns back to Essek. “The Empire found another one.”

The easy smile that had found itself on Essek’s face slid off acidly.

Noticing the change in his demeanour, Beauregard delicately continued, “They uncovered it, in the archeological dig site of Pride’s Call, where they found a lot of arcane weapons from the, um, pre-Calamity stuff - from the Age of Arcanum, right? That’s what I was looking for.”

Essek felt hot under his collar - not the warmth that being around them and that being around Caleb caused, but a blistering heat centered in the pit of his stomach. “I ask you this - what are your opinions on war, on this conflict?”

“What is it good for?” Fjord shrugged.

“Nothing, that’s what,” Veth answered.

“Huh,” Caleb huffed out.

“Say it again,” Caduceus nodded.

“If you truly intend on maintaining this peace,” Essek advised, furious and frustrated and - and worried, “of seeing this negotiation through, and find that this conflict gives no benefit to you and your interests, it would do well to not let that information find its way to the Bright Queen.”

“Don’t tell her about that?” Beauregard asks. “You don’t want to tell her about that?”

“Why? Why?” Veth clamored.

“I think it might tip the scales -” Fjord starts.

“Because then there would be no reason to stop the conflict if they’re not giving all the beacons back,” Essek tells them seriously. “It is largely considered, within the Dynasty, that these are the religious - religious right of those that follow the Luxon, to find and maintain the beacons.”

“And you care more about stopping this war than serving your Queen?” Veth presses.

Essek paused. This information meant a larger victory than he thought - the war ends, but beacon research continues. And yet, his blood boiled. “The Dynasty is where I live,” Essek began to answer. “The Dynasty has many great things it does and provides. I don’t necessarily believe with this theological focus to the point where it continues the cycle of warfare and bloodshed.”

“War is a cycle and an addiction,” Caleb observed.

“Of course,” Essek nodded. “I’ve seen it happen many times - and it will continue to happen.”

“And it has little to do with its people,” Caleb finished.

“Well,” Beauregard shrugged.

Fjord looked around. “We’re not being watched, right? We don’t have a little floating ball in the-”

“Yeah, have we been watched since we’ve been here?” Beauregard asks, as Fjord summons his sword. He blinked, his eyes taking on a glassy quality as he looked around the room. “Does the Dynasty have us bugged, in this house?”

“Ah, it would not surprise me if they’ve, at times, chimed in,” Essek told them, wondering how honest he could be without making them distrust him. “You have been under watch, here and there, since you’ve arrived as you were a, ah, a challenging addition to the proximity.”

“Were you one of the ones watching us? Did you ever watch us?” Jester rushes out, tail swishing rather wildy behind her.

Fjord nodded, “Yeah, to be specific, we’ve seen ourselves being watched. We were hoping it was you?”

Hearing that makes it easier for him to admit. “Ah, at times it was.” And all the other times the reports were neatly placed on his desk, and all the information that got passed along to the people of a higher ranking was information that Essek selectively chose.

“Hey,” Fjord smiled, looking relieved.

Jester gasps, her eyes mischievously bright. “Oh my gosh, did you see us when we were changing clothes? Were you watching us when we were naked?” she sings out.

Veth motions over to Jester. “Jester’s naked a lot.”

“No,” Essek answers, feeling his face begin to grow warm in embarrassment. “But it was part of my assignment when you first came under my wing to ensure that there wasn’t a-any chances of undue Empire business finding its way within the proximity of the Bastion.”

“Makes sense,” Jester nods.

“If you chimed in when we were changing, would you have kept watching or would you have checked out?” Beauregard follows up.

“I am more respectful than that and have no interest in such things,” Essek told her, trying to get away from this thread of questioning as quickly as possible. “Why -”

“Is there one of us that you would’ve watched longer than -” Yasha starts, immediately cutting herself off when Caduceus starts laughing loudly and Fjord just huffs out a disbelieving “WOW.”

“Great question - and which one? You can be open here,” Veth assured him.

Essek was not answering that question. Besides, he thought to himself, feeling his face grow even hotter. Now knowing that Caleb couldn’t be scried on at all - he was answering honestly when he said he had no interest in watching any of the others. He does hope he would have respectfully let the spell fade if he ever had caught Caleb changing. Definitely. Probably - hopefully.

“So,” he said instead, turning his gaze to Caleb who had not said anything about scrying and changing and all of that.

“How much has he had to drink?” Fjord asks, and the question makes Essek acutely aware of the fuzziness at the back of his head again - a fuzziness that could easily lead to many slips of the tongue.

“This additional beacon, where is it now?” Essek inquires.

“We don’t know,” Jester answers.

“We’ll tell you,” Veth begins, “if you tell us which one of us is the hottest.”

He gives a weak shake of his head as Jester grins and cheers, “ Zone of Truuuth ,” making everyone at the table burst out laughing - laughter that even Essek can’t fight off despite feeling his insides turn to pudding at the mere nightmare of having to submit to a Zone of Truth spell. They would find out about his betrayal, about his lack of consecution, about his feelings for -

“Yeah, we - we don’t, we don’t know where it is,” Caduceus tells him. “We’ve just, um.”

“Well, we know where it came from,” Veth reminds them.

“I can tell you, it’s the one they plan to give back,” Beau shrugged. “Which I find deeply problematic, and have since they poised that plan, because, I’m assuming as soon as the Bright Queen takes one look at it -”

Veth nods. “Yeah, it’s not like a dead goldfish, where you can just like, swap out another one, and be like, ‘Here’s your goldfish,’ like she’ll know that it’s not the same goldfish.”

“Will she?” Jester asks.

Essek sighs. This was getting so complicated on so many levels. “Well, it depends - if they’re handing over this new one they’ve found, or if they’re returning the one that was taken,” stolen, stolen, traitor, thief, “and then plan to keep this new one for themselves.”

“I mean, there’s no way to really know which one is which,” Jester muses.

“What you’re saying, though, is any one of them, even this one that has been found, dug up within the Empire’s reaches, would be considered the property of the Dynasty,” Caleb carefully asked.

“By their divine right to own these artifacts that extend their ability to maintain the cycle of life, yes,” Essek answered.

“What if these things are, like, all over the world, though?” Jester frowned.

“I believe they are,” Essek told her. “That is the assumption.”

“And you’re telling us you would prefer to keep this a secret in this room?” Caleb asked him, watching him intently.

Essek almost nodded, but instead refrained from that. “I am advising, based on your proclivity to not continue this conflict and the lengths at which you’ve gone to prevent this war from spreading further and further, putting yourselves in harm’s way to do so -” All because of Essek’s stupid decision years ago. “- That if that is what you continually wish to do, to not notify the Bright Queen or any other members of the council around her of this.”

“Would it - would it be, ah, advisable for us to urge -” Caduceus starts, looking towards Beauregard.

“The Empire to give back -” Beauregard continues.

“Either the correct one, or honestly, both?” Caduceus finishes.

“Or steal it back,” Veth offers.

“That,” Caduceus shakes his head. “I don't think that would accomplish what we’re - that would just be us, plundering them, they would have no reason to stop.”

“It’s really shiny, though,” Veth commented.

Essek frowned. “That would be a very - well, is it in the hands of the, the Empire -”

“Cerberus Assembly,” Veth told him.

“Yes,” Caleb quietly confirmed.

“Of the Assembly?” Essek repeats. His stomach twists in knots.

“At the top,” Caleb nodded.

“That both makes sense and confirms that you should not attempt to take it from them,” Essek advises them. He doesn’t want them to risk themselves - not now, not ever again, not against the Assembly.

Caduceus agreed. “That’s what I thought.”

“Plus, if we take it from them, they’re just going to blame it on the Kryn,” Beauregard assumes.

“Start the war more,” Caduceus says.

“You know about these things,” Caleb starts, looking at Essek. “What could they do with it to abuse its powers?”

Essek takes a deep breath. “Well, they have some powerful minds in the Assembly.” Which is why Essek was working with them in the first place - or why he’s allowed himself to be used by them, as it seemed. “Or if they are somewhat dubious, so does anyone of true intelligence and capability.” He gave a self deprecating laugh. “If your necessary choices are moral choices, and, ah, in my experience, I’d trust, ah, they would have similar interests of seeing what it's capable of.” And he would know - he would certainly know. “Perhaps they can be reasoned with, and perhaps…” he trailed off, feeling his mounting anger and frustration threatening to bleed into his words. “I will think on this.”

“I don’t know if - I’m not sure if the Empire even knows that they’re giving the wrong one,” Caduceus comments. “I don’t think they talk to each other enough. I think there may be secrets within secrets.”

“Oh, there’s definitely secrets within secrets,” Beauregard agreed, and Essek had to stop himself from nodding as well. “It’s just a matter of who knows -”

“Just like here,” Caleb muses, looking to Essek.

“Too many people - too many people not lying, too many people not telling the truth, then all the truths conflict,” Caduceus sighed.

“Do you have -” Essek starts, trying to remain cool beneath Caleb’s gaze.

“Someone’ll know,” Beauregard finishes.

“- a relationship with the Assembly?” Essek asks.

“Some of them,” Veth frowns.

Caleb pales, but he doesn’t look away from Essek. “Somewhat. Our sense is to, um, and I’m sure that you all have guessed this yourselves, but the Assembly has it's plans separate from the King.”

“I would assume,” Essek says, rather than, I know . “Well, if they have it, at this moment I cannot see a path to its retrieval nor any true benefit in attempting to blow things up, if you will.”

“Man, I am so glad I talked to you about this first,” Beauregard smiles.

“That woulda been super bad if you’d have just, like, brought that up, woof,” Jester adds, shaking her head.

“I’m really proud of you, actually, that was really good,” Caduceus praises. “That was another - another good move.”

“There has to be something about this new beacon, right?” Fjord asks the group at large. “There has to be a reason why they are even offering it up. It has to be different from the first one.”

“Could they, like, booby trap it or something?” Jester frowns, turning to Essek.

“As long as we have been so forthright with you already,” Caleb starts, “we are very skeptical of the intentions of the Assembly in this meeting. We are expecting fuckery.”

Essek nods. “As you should - as you should.”

“While we are - we would like to, um, pull the rug out from under them,” Caleb confides in him. “Not to topple the Empire, but,” he looks away. “Maybe to clear the rot a bit from our nation.”

And oh, isn’t Essek just covered in rot, ready for the worms to eat his flesh?

He leans forward nonetheless, watching Caleb. “And you believe that the individuals that make the laws and employ them across your Empire are more capable than these mages? Do you not think there is perhaps a necessary balance between the two that maintains the order?”

There’s a long, drawn out silence before Caleb quietly shakes his head. “No.”

It sounds almost like the final nail to Essek’s coffin, and his heart tightens in the cage of his ribs.

Beauregard looks at Caleb but speaks to Essek. “It’s the dance the Cobalt Soul and the Cerberus Assembly have been in for hundreds of years now, at this point.”

“Understand, the Assembly, and individuals of which I have no sum of, seem to be dangerous and calculating, but anyone of such extended study and pursuits, I can understand far better and see eye to eye with than I can a power hungry monarch who came into their seat through bloodline,” Essek gets out - and it's as much a plea to be understood as it is a feeble excuse to his own ears. He sold out his people - no disdain for monarchies and bloodlines was ever going to change that.

Caleb holds his gaze before looking away. “I get the sense that they feel they have found the upper hand, somehow.”

“Well,” Essek sighed, because they had - and Essek had delivered it to them on a silver platter.

“I want to see the conflict and I do not get that sense from them,” Caleb said.

“What is the biggest danger to secret research?” Essek asked him suddenly.

They held each other’s gaze, not saying anything, before Fjord broke the silence. “People finding out what you’re researching or what you’re -”

“Discovery,” Caduceus summarized.

Essek nodded. “Discovery. What better way to avoid discovery than to find a way to stop a conflict that pries into what you’re doing?”

“He’s got a point,” Beauregard admitted.

Caleb stared at the table in silence before saying. “You are suggesting that they want to keep their extra.”

“It could be,” Essek shrugged. “Or they intend to trap whatever it is they’re delivering and gain an upper hand.” But Essek wouldn’t allow that - he’d intercede before he allowed that sort of foul play. “Or something else. I’m but one mind, they are many,” he finished, as much telling them as reminding himself. He’d always had the losing hand, hadn’t he?

Fjord sighed. “It’s likely something else.”

“We know they can extract things from the beacons,” Veth mused.

“Yeah,” Jester nodded. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“Like energy or liquid or something,” Veth continued.

Jester turned to Essek, “Yeah, they made potions out of it.”

“Really?” Essek asked carefully, keeping his voice level. “And where did you s-see this?”

“When, when we found the, the - when we were in the Empire, we saw it,” Jester told him. “We found a place that they had been doing some of their research and there was, like, potions there.”

He lets out a frustrated huff. “Well - if you have any means of discovering more of such experiments that they’re doing in their private chambers, that would be of definite interest to me.”

“What if they’re willing to give it back, ‘cause it's not the one that they found that was empty?” Beauregard asks. “‘Cause Nott looked at it and she got a signal. What if they drained the other one that they stole?”
Essek felt his breath catch in his lungs. “That would be an astronomical feat based on the sheer volume of power within each of these beacons,” Essek told her, reassuring himself too. It’s not possible that they would be able to accomplish something of that nature.

“That buried one was just sitting there, not absorbing,” Caduceus muses.

“Maybe it was absorbing,” Jester countered.

“The potential lives in a beacon - thousands, hundreds, m-m-millions?” Fjord inquired.

“It would have to depend on who was consecuted and passed in its presence,” Essek told him, lifting his arms in a shrug. “I have no idea.”

“What does the ritual entail?” Jester asked.

“They cut - they cut the foreskin off,” Veth says, looking between Essek and Caleb pointedly.

Essek knew what the ritual was like - he’d been through it and relived it in enough trances to know. “You are guided by an Umavi through a, ah, soul binding process.” He could still see his mother’s face when she felt it too - the barring of his soul from bonding with the beacon. “It is extensive, it entails a bunch of, ah, spoken rites. It, ah, is usually observed by many individuals of various dens, especially if you belong to one.” She remembered her congratulations in front of everyone, the blank look in her eyes that told her that this was a secret that would be kept between them. “And often, when you are consecuted, you are given a path to a den. The families are expensive.”

“Oh,” Jester nodded.

“Hypothetically, if we had one of these potions, that they had derived from the beacon, what would you do with it?” Veth casually brought up.

“I would study it top to bottom,” Essek answered her honestly.

“What could it tell you?” she raised a brow.

Essek shook his head. “I have no idea - that would be the purpose of researching it. Why, do you have one such thing?”

“I mean,” Veth backpedaled, just as Caleb pulled something out of a satchel hanging off the back of his chair.

“Let’s call this one favor,” he told Essek, holding out a crystal vial filled with silvery liquid. “Taken care of.”

“You fucking drop a thing on the Dynasty every time,” Fjord grinned, shaking his head.

“That,” Essek got out, feeling his mouth go dry - because Fjord was right, it was always Caleb, always, always Caleb. “Would be a favor accepted.” He reached for the vial, taking it from Caleb. Their fingers brushed, Caleb’s warm and solid, not shying away from his touch as he handed it over.

“Oh, he didn’t accept your s-secret,” Jester whispers loudly to Beauregard.

“Secrets are very valuable,” Beauregard huffed as Essek looked over the vial, his mind racing to uncover whatever might be in it,

“We’re giving them up like candy, here,” Veth shrugged.

“All you gotta do is be nice to us,” Jester told Essek. “We don’t have enough people being nice to us.”

“I have plenty of people being nice to me,” Caduceus countered.

“She’s got a point,” Beauregard agreed as Essek gave Jester a soft smile. He didn’t have enough people being nice to him either - they were some of the first.

He sets the vial to the side. “I can commiserate with that. Um - honestly, part of the reason I accepted your invitation was after thinking and realizing that, ah, perhaps it's been awhile since somebody’s extended such niceties to myself.” Jester gives him a warm smile in return. “There are,” he sighs, “elements to a solitary life that sometimes can be more challenging once you have a basis of comparison.”

“The whole ‘returning favor’ thing is kind of a bit in jest,” Beauregard admits. “In all honesty, we do deeply appreciate all the things that you’ve done for us over these past several months.”

“Yeah, if you ever feel like ditching out here and traveling with us, just let us know, you know?” Jester offered.

Essek laughed, not at her offer, but at the rush warmth her words brought him.

Veth shook her head. “Yeah, well no, she’s - she’s, she’s not joking. I mean, you know you said, you said an important part of what you do is, is staying alone and I think we all thought that too before we met each other.”

“It's true,” Jester agrees.

“Literally,” Caduceus adds.

“Very lonely, all of us,” Jester tells him.

Hearing that softens him in a way he would have thought impossible just mere weeks ago - that felt like a whole different lifetime ago. And maybe, maybe this is what consecution felt like - a fundamental shift that changed how you viewed life, a moment that marked your past from your present. His moment was when those doors to the Bright Queen’s chamber opened and all of them marched inside, some confident, some with their heads bent - but all ready to shake him to his core. “Well, if I can be of help in some way,” Essek gestures to Veth. “Perhaps with your predicament as you were requesting -”

“Well, I -” Veth starts.

“- let me know,” Essek offers.

“There was a woman - a mage,” Veth says. “Who helped them turn me, into this. I don’t really know anything about her though.”

“What was her name?” Jester asks.

“I don’t know,” Veth shrugs.

Jester raises a brow. “What’d she look like?”

“A lady,” Veth vaguely responds.

“Like, what color was her hair?” Jester presses.

Veth shakes her head. “I don’t know, I was like, mostly dead when I saw her.”

“Was she ugly, was she pretty?” Jester continues.

“I mean, not as pretty as you, but she was pretty,” Veth admits.

“You, Caleb,” Essek says, turning his attention back to him. “Your specialty in the arcane lies in the realm of transmutation, yes?”

“Primarily,” Caleb nods. A small smile peeks out as Caleb ducks his head shyly. “Although, I, ah, similar to you - I’m an avid reader. I’m very curious about everything - everything.”

“He’s been studying something to help me lately,” Veth adds. “Working on equations.”

“Yeah,” Caleb confirms softly. “I’ve been noodling about with something.”

“Well, perhaps I can offer some aid,” Essek smiles, eyes soft on Caleb’s face.

“Then we would be willing to accept that,” Caleb says, meeting his gaze. “I think we have a full plate for the next couple of days, but hopefully it will be wrapped up safely.”

“You should just show him now,” Jester suggested. “You just show him now.”

Veth gave Essek a searching look before turning to Jester. “Well, he’s a little drunk, he might not be able to -”

“Oh, right,” Jester nodded, idly running a finger along the glass of milk that she had finished long ago.

“Maybe we could get into the hot tub and just sort of look through the pages?” Veth asked.

“That makes the drunk worse, actually,” Fjord tells her.

“Does it?” Veth frowns.

“Yes, oh yeah, way worse,” Fjord nods.

“Getting in the hot tub?” Jester asks.

“Then lets do it!” Veth grins.

“I’m game,” Beauregard says, rising from her chair.

Essek looks around at them, suddenly realizing they are very, very serious. “You seriously have a hot tub?”

“We really, really do,” Jester smiled. “We made it - you want to see it?”

“It’s very nice,” Yasha told him.

Jester jumped up from her chair, doing a little dance. “It is really great, you will like it!”

“Like a bricked-in hole in the ground that we heated, like, with our magic,” Beauregard explains.

Giving a defeated sigh and knowing he’ll need all the courage he can get, Essek picks up his wine glass and polishes off his drink in one go.

“Or with fire,” Jester added.

“I’m certainly curious,” Essek allowed himself to say, lifting up Frumpkin carefully in his arms.

Veth shouted in excitement as Jester clapped loudly. “He’s doing it! He’s getting in!”

“Let’s do it! Let’s do it!” Veth cheered.

“We’ve worked very hard on that hot tub,” Caduceus said, getting up from his chair along with everyone else. “It’s very nice.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Beauregard apologized to him. “I’m not trying to minimize it.”

“Don’t minimize it,” Caduceus chided lightly. “It’s spectacular.”

“I’m not,” Beauregard assured him as they all began to make their way out of the dining room.

Essek swayed with his first step - the wine and walking, no levitation spell as he was used to. Well, this was going to be something.

Caleb caught his arm gently, helping Essek steady himself, and Essek found himself looking up at him, giving him a soft smile of gratitude. Caleb was taller than him, he realized, when he was actually on the ground and not hovering a few inches off with his spell. It made something swoop low in his stomach, his knees going a little weak.

The hand Caleb hand on his arm held him close, making sure Essek didn’t trip. Essek was briefly reminded of their first trip to the Dungeon of Penance, when Essek had done the same for Caleb when he’d been disoriented by the wards of the prison.

“And it's got a good view, you see up in the tree,” Jester continued, but she sounded far away as he stared up into Caleb’s eyes.

Caduceus’ voice floated to Caleb as if through water. “The tree roots, like, the way that, like, they’ve been expertly carved.”

“It's so beautiful,” Jester agreed.

“Do you - do you want to borrow some, some knickers or something?” Nott asked, tugging on Essek’s other arm.

Essek jumped, swaying into Caleb before he quickly straightened himself. Caleb had never realized that Essek was shorter than him - but here he was, shorter by maybe an inch and a half. It made something in Caleb want to pull Essek close and tuck him under his arm - but he knew that was just the alcohol loosening his inhibitions.

“You want to go naked?” Jester offered, wiggling her eyebrows at Essek.

Caleb felt all his blood begin to rush south as his imagination began to run wild before Essek quickly answered, “I just wanted to see it.”

Nott whined. “Oooh.”

Jester gave Essek a bright smile. “You want to get in,” she coaxed.

There’s a breath of silence before Essek gets out a tiny, “A small dip, maybe.”

With a loud cheer, Nott and Jester high-fived excitedly, leading the way to the hot tub.

Putting a hesitant hand to the small of Essek’s back - and letting out a breath of relief when Essek didn’t shy away - Caleb led the both of them to the tower, where the hot tub sat, light swirls of steam already rising from the water from Nott having already come and started it up.

Nott sat herself on the edge, not getting in as Jester pulled off her dress, jumping into the hot tub with Beau and Yasha right behind her. Fjord and Caduceus also strip down, settling into the tub with much less splashing than the girls.

Suddenly feeling self conscious, Caleb takes a step away from Essek, slowly starting to unbutton his shirt before pulling off his boots and taking off his pants, staying in his undergarments.

Essek followed suit - albeit to a more modest degree. He set Frumpkin gently on the ground, where he dashed off, out of the steam filled room, before Essek pushed up the sleeves of his shirt before also taking off his boots, setting them off to the side beside Caleb’s pair. He rolled up his pants to just above the knee, turning to glance over at everyone as they began talking and laughing amongst themselves.

“They do not bite,” Caleb assured him as Caleb pulled his hair up, to keep it from getting wet.

He gave Caleb a shy smile. “I’m just not used to, ah…” he shrugged, gesturing to them.

Caleb smiled. “They grow on you - once they like you, there’s no getting out of it.”

“Then I’m very glad they like me,” Essek said, holding Caleb’s gaze. Caleb felt like looking away - he was barely wearing clothes, Essek was looking up at him with such a loaded gaze, Caleb felt like he was on fire.

“Shall we join them?” he got out.

“Let’s,” Essek nodded, following Caleb as Caleb got into the hot tub and slid down until he was sitting on one of the small underwater benches Jester and Caduceus had put in, letting the water reach his chest. Essek sat beside him on the edge of the tub, letting his feet dangle in the water.

“Hey - hey, Essek, I’m just curious,” Nott started, calling over to the pair. “Something occurred to me when we were talking about lives and reborn and stuff like that - in your den or when you were growing up -” She frowned. “Wait, how many people live here in Xhorhas? Like thousands, right?”

“In Xhorhas, between the Dynasty’s influence in particular, hm,” Essek hummed, looking up in thought. “Somewhere between,” Essek swallowed, and Caleb tracked the motion, letting himself sink further into the water to hide his reaction. “In the neighborhood of 300,000, within the - within the Dynasty. That involves multiple cities, probably more than that. There are many of those who exist outside of the Dynasty’s purview.”

Nott shrugged. “I just thought maybe you might have heard of a friend of ours, maybe. Have you ever heard of someone named Lucien or Nonagon?”

Caleb turned to Essek quickly, reading his reaction. Essek shook his head. “I cannot say I have. My apologies.”

“Alright,” Nott nodded, looking from Beau to Jester. “Worth a shot.”

“Yeah, there was this story he told me,” Beau started, leaning against the edge of the tub, looking up at the tree roots. Caleb watched her, and it was all too easy to wonder how the evening would have gone if he’d been there - laughing and joking and teasing, maybe even convincing Essek to get a tarot reading.

“What?” Jester prompted, getting closer to her.

“It was right before he died - there was this story he told me about how he convinced some town he was a god,” Beau smiled.

“Mollytown,” Fjord grinned.

“Somewhere - yeah, somewhere out there,” Beau mused.

Jester settled into the space between Beau and Yasha. “Molly has a cult.”

“Huh?” Beau turned to Jester.

“Molly has a cult,” Jester repeated.

Beau nodded, “Molly has a cult. Somewhere out there there’s a town that thinks - that thinks Molly is, like, the shit.”

“Why did they think that about him?” Nott asked.

Fjord turned to Yasha. “Do you know - do you know more about this story?”

“I’ve - I, I vaguely remember it and I feel like it always made me laugh,” Yasha smiles.

“Yeah, it was actually a good story,” Beau admitted.

Caleb felt a gentle hand settle on his shoulder. He looked up, finding Essek giving him a sad smile. He didn’t say anything, but he could feel Essek’s condolences, could read them in his eyes. Caleb nodded, and Essek gave his shoulder a small squeeze before pulling back.

“I wonder if we strung up lights from the roots,” Jester said, looking to Caduceus and pointing at the tree roots.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Caduceus smiled. “Plus I’m going to try and get some, some plants that like the steam, that smell really good, so you’ll always have like a -”

With a flick of his wrist, Caleb sent the globules of light into the tree roots, dancing along above their heads.

“Can you make them change colors?” Beau asked. “Can you - can you make them, like, rotate through the color spectrum?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - do it!” Jester grinned.

Focusing on the lights, Caleb was able to shift their regular amber light to the soft colors of the spectrum, having the reds and blues and greens and purples and yellows chase each other around.

They watched them for a bit, enjoying the colors. Caleb peeked over at Essek, finding him also looking at the lights, an easy smile on his face. He looked beautiful.

“Hey, Caduceus?” Beau called out, breaking the silence. Caduceus nodded that he was listening. “While we’re gettin’ real and shit - why have you never wanted to scry on any of your siblings? You’ve been separated from ‘em, they went off lookin’ for these things. Why not check in?”

“As the token sober person in this group,” Caduceus started.

“I’m also sober,” Jester immediately jumped in.

“Are you also sober?” Caduceus asked.

“Yeah,” Jester nodded.

“Have I not noticed that you haven’t been drinking?” Caduceus said, shaking his head.

Jester shrugged. “I don’t drink.”

“She just drinks milk,” both Nott and Yasha say.

“Token sober person who’s just really not been paying attention to what you’ve been drinking,” Caduceus amended.

“It’s okay - I always seem slightly drunk, anyway, I think,” Jester admitted.

Caduceus smiled at her. “It’s part of your charm.” He turned to Beau. “Ah, I don’t know - it’s either, if you had asked me that a month ago, I would’ve said ‘because I don’t need to.’”

“Why?” Beau pressed.

“‘Cause I’m on this path, it’s the right path, and uh…” he trailed off.

“But we’re asking you now,” Jester commented.

“I think I’m on this path and I do think it’s the right path,” Caduceus repeated. He looked down, into the water. “Maybe I’m afraid.”

“Afraid something happened to them?” Beau asked.

Caduceus sighed. “Afraid that if something did happen to them, what would it mean? I, ah, I don’t want to, ah, open the envelope, so to say, before it's time and be hurt before I’m there.” He looks up at the tree roots, at the dancing lights . “I’d rather trust and try to process the fear. Fear is kind of new. Ah -” and he turns to Essek. “Ah, for the record, I’m - my home is dying, slowly, up north.”

“I’m s-sorry to hear that,” Essek gets out.

“Ah, I have been on a quest, sent by my goddess to fix my home, to, ah, bring it back to life, to replenish it.” He looks down again. “My family - all my family - already begun this quest without me, and I do not know if they are alive or dead, but, this is the quest.” And Caduceus looks around fondly at all of them. “And I was given these people and I have done my best to support them as they have blossomed into heroes. And I thought I was going to save my home and regain my family, and that would be my reward, and now I’m -” A sigh. “This world has - this world has changed me, I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what is going to happen, um, not because I think that I’ve been lied to or been given the...I don’t necessarily believe that I understand what it is I’ve been asked to do yet, and I don’t understand what it is I want anymore. And that, ah, has shaken me, but this is a very big world.” He lets out an easy laugh. “Ah, it’s been a lot. It’s been nice to be useful.”

“It’s good to be useful,” Caleb agrees.

“These are good people,” Caduceus finishes. “Despite themselves.”

“Faith is a strange thing,” Essek finally gets out, and when Caleb looks up at him he could almost swear there are tears in Essek’s eyes, but when Essek blinks, they’re gone.

“It is,” Caduceus nods.

“That’s why I find no use for it,” Essek shrugs.

Another nod. “I understand.”

“But,” Essek continues. “I hope you find what it is you’re looking for.”

“Thank you - I’ll find something, at the very least, and whatever it is will be, in the end, what I was looking for,” Caduceus says.

Essek hums at that. “Well, if there is any way I can be helpful,” he glances at Jester, “You know how to contact me.”

Jester laughs. “Have you ever been doing something that’s, like, you were really embarrassed about when I was, like, talking to you?”

“Not particularly,” Essek answers after a pause. “Anyway,” he continues, a little reluctantly. “The evening draws late, I should probably return to my - my home. Ah, thank you for -”

“You could spend the night here,” Jester offers.

“I live not far from here,” Essek stammers out.

“How come we never seen your house?” Jester whines.

“Ne-next time?” Nott asks.

“Well, perhaps - perhaps if you want to discuss this equation you’re working on,” Essek says, turning to Caleb.

“Please, yes,” Caleb readily agrees, almost a little too quickly.

“Yes, what’s your address?” Nott follows up.

“Uh - I’ll show it to you,” Essek tells them. “Um, easier to show, than to describe, really.”

“Sure,” Nott nods.

“Um, let me know when, and I’ll come, ah, show you to my place,” he offered.

“Okay,” Jester clapped happily.

“But, ah,” he slowly gets up, the water dripping down his legs. Caleb’s imagination quickly supplies an image of water drops gliding down the hollow of Essek’s throat, racing down his chest before Caleb quickly shakes the visual from his head.

Nott jumps off the edge of the tub, grabbing Essek’s boots and handing them to him, brushing up against Essek’s leg. “Oh, sorry, sorry,” she apologized, stepping back.

“I feel like you’re over apologizing,” Essek notes, brow raised. “It’s fine.”

He dries himself with a quick cantrip, beginning to roll down his pants.

Caleb finds himself climbing out of the water, grabbing one of the many fluffy towels Jester and Caduceus had stocked in a chest at the back of the room and using it to get as dry as possible before tugging on his pants.

Essek finished lacing up his boots, straightening and looking at the group. “This was nice,” he admits. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Jester sings out. “That was really fun!”

“Could you, um - could we walk,” Caleb starts, pulling on his shirt and buttoning it up quickly. “Could you show me where you live so we know where to go?”

“Sure, come with,” Essek nods, and Caleb smiles, moving to follow him.

Ja ,” he gets out, before he hears splashing from behind them.

“I’m coming, too,” Beau shouts.

“Alright,” Essek says, heading to the front door with Caleb following behind. He stops at the foyer, grabbing his mantle and fastening it back on.

Caleb watches him, hearing Beau and the rest of them laugh and talk from the hot tub as she puts on her clothes. Essek meets his eyes, giving him a soft smile, and Caleb opens his mouth, about to say something before Beau arrives, clapping a hand to his shoulder loudly.

He shuts his mouth, giving Essek an apologetic smile, but Essek’s expression only grows fonder as he turns around, opening the door.

Essek steps out of their house, willing his spell to raise him aloft again. He turns around, watching Caleb and Beauregard fall into step behind them, and he begins to lead them the short way to his home, with his three towers coming into view after only a short walk.

“He’s got a fun house,” Beauregard whispers to Caleb, and Essek glances behind him, catching the awed look on Caleb’s face as he takes in the exterior of his house.

“This is where you can find me most of the time,” Essek tells them, gesturing to the towers. “Ever.”

Caleb looks up, taking everything in. “This is, ah, fascinating,” he gets out, then points to the leyline weather vane atop the tallest tower. “Is this, ah, to do with the turning of the heavens or?”

“Ah, this has to do more with the, ah, adjusting of the - how do I put it?” he pauses, collecting his thoughts. “There are almost ley lines of energy that themselves span like a net across all of Exandria, and these leylines sometimes shift and swell and expand and reduce based on the seasons, based on the time of year, based on celestial, ah, gatherings and, ah, alignments,” he explains. “This is part of a device that just, ah, just keeps track of it.”

“Mirrors it,” Caleb mumbles to himself, looking up at it again. “Well,” he says, turning back to Essek. “Now we know where you live. Um, I would like to take you up on your offer to, ah, examine that thing that Nott and I are working on. I-I have a number of things, um, including, ah, some souvenirs from inside the, um, Happy Fun Ball we told you about.”

“I’m very curious about that,” Essek admits.

“I would love -” he cuts himself off, smiling at Essek. “So am I, and I, and I think you and I share, um, interests.”

Essek watches him carefully, watches the adorable nervousness that seems to come over him even as Essek’s own heartbeat begins to race.

“Ah, I understand the pressure, um, of being young and - and expectation,” Caleb confides in him. He shrugs, trying to seem nonchalant despite the sadness in his eyes. “I’m not 120 years old, but I feel like I understand a little bit.”

Allowing himself to look - actually , unabashedly, look - Essek drifts closer to Caleb. “I have seen those far older than you that have experienced maybe half the pain I see in your eyes. Age isn’t everything.” He brushes his hand against Caleb’s, letting their fingers thread loosely. “Experience is what hardens you, prepares you for the worst.” He gives Caleb’s hand a squeeze. “I think you’re prepared for more than you give yourself credit for, Caleb.”

“Well,” Caleb gets out, giving his hand a squeeze back. “We’ll come back later and compare notes.”

“I’ll be here,” Essek nodded. “Perhaps, I can, ah, provide breakfast as a thank you.” He hears Jester’s playful, “ You could spend the night here ” and he almost says it, almost offers Caleb a place to stay - but that would be ridiculous, he lives just a few blocks away, where he could comfortably sleep in his own bed. Essek remembers how warm the skin of Caleb’s shoulder had felt beneath his fingers, remembers the way the water looked as it slid down his back when he stood. In his mind’s eye he imagines what it would be like to trace those paths with his fingers, letting his hands run across his skin, letting himself touch what he had only dreamed of -

“Dope,” Beauregard grins, and suddenly Essek remembers that she was there too, standing off to the side with her arms crossed and a knowing smirk on her face.

Essek steps away from Caleb, dropping his hand. “Well, good night.”

“Glad you got home saaafe,” Beauregard sings out.

“Thank you for the escort,” Essek tells her, turning around with one last look to Caleb before floating in, past his gate and into the interior of his home.

“- but his is floating,” Beau continued, still going on about Essek’s admission about the floating being more of an expectation of presentation - much like many in the group had come in with, like Fjord’s accent and Nott and his own name. “And he’s just committed to floating.”

“Commit to the bit, Beauregard,” Caleb comments as they begin to head back to the Xhorhaus, with Caleb giving the spires of Essek’s home a lingering glance before turning away. After Ikithon and the Candles...towers were beautiful things, but he’d grown rather nervous around them. But now, with the tower in their own home and Yussa’s in Nicodranas, and now - and now Essek’s, Caleb was finding himself liking that style of architecture all over again. They were elegant - and they certainly suited Essek.

Beau sighed. “But like why fl - Does he feel like, is he, he’s going to have shame?” Beau asks. “Does he feel, like, ashamed if he doesn’t float? It’s just so fascinating.”

“It’s one of many things that are fascinating about him,” Caleb gets out, thinking about Essek under the glow of his dancing lights , about his hand in his. “Yeah.” And they continue on, through the streets of Rosohna, heading home, with Caleb wondering what may have happened if Essek had taken Jester up on her offer for him to stay the night.

Before going into his trance, Essek pulled out his copper wire. He’d put his mantle away, and gotten into more comfortable attire. He’d even decided trancing in his bed would be nice tonight. He was still warm and fuzzy from the evening he’d had with the Mighty Nein, with Caleb, but he had one last thing to take care of.

He traced out the glyphs, focusing his mind and trying to keep his words from sounding too clipped.

I heard about your employee - Vence ,” Esssek said. “ His involvement with the Angel of Irons. Should there be surprise if you are also part of the cult?

The response came back rather quickly. “ Of course not, why would I be a part of that - especially when it's a front for Tharizdun? ” There was a beat of silence before Ludinus added, “But I see the news travelled quickly.”

Why should I even trust your word when you never told me about the beacon your people uncovered?” Essek snapped. “Tharizdun is no stretch of the imagination.

Like how you didn’t tell us about your adventurers? Your Mighty Nein?” Ludinus sneered. “One of which is an old student of Ikithon’s, someone dangerous for us.”

Essek feels himself grow cold all over - he can see the scouger’s scars on her arms, when she was bound in the cell, remembers how Caduceus had lifted up her broken limbs.

“Is this the same thing that happened to you?” Caduceus had asked.

Caleb looked away. “Yes, all of his…” he trailed off, finishing in a whisper, “students.”

He sees Caleb’s scars, scars that he had seen so many times when they worked on spells together, scars that he’d seen today when Caleb had taken off his shirt to get in the hot tub. He sees the scars and his breath catches in his lungs - he was working with the man that had put them there, with the monster that haunted Caleb even here, in the safety of Rosohna.

We all have our secrets, Shadowhand, ” Ludinus continued, this time sending Essek a message. “Because, at the end of the day, all we care about is getting one step above everyone else.

Essek didn’t deem him with a response, setting the wire down on his bedside table as if it had burned him.

There were a few beats of silence where the only sound was Essek’s thundering heart before Ludinus’ voice came through one last time. “We’ll talk more in person. I’ll contact you soon with details for this meeting .”

He sits there for who knows how long before he finally forces himself to lie down. He needed to trance - needed to rest. He needed to get back his energy, needed to be at his most focused now. He took a deep breath, willing his breathing to slow, and when he finally felt his trance begin to take him, Essek could have sworn it was to the ghost of a memory that hadn’t happened yet, the brush of soft lips against his forehead, and the promise of a chance to make things right.