In retrospect, they probably should have known better than to plan.
It had been meant to be a quick in-and-out smash and grab at an isolated Cerberus Assembly tower not far from the Xhorhassian border. Mostly for anything Beau could send back to the Cobalt Reserve plus enough of whatever else they could carry to disguise what they’d been after. They'd planned to get in, avoid as many people as they could and incapacitate any they couldn't, then get out before anyone could do anything about it. They were stronger now, but the idea of fighting an entire tower full of Cerberus researchers and warmages wasn't an appealing one.
But of course, their plans had a history of going... awry . Occasionally, something would go approximately the way they wanted it to, but usually, that was absolutely not the case.
This plan had been irrevocably fucked since its inception because they hadn't known who was in residence. Caleb wasn't sure if they would have aborted the plan entirely and stayed away if they'd known, or if they'd have gone in intending to murder everything between them and-
They'd gotten separated, splitting off to cover as much ground as they could as quickly as possible. Nott had been with him, naturally, but while she worked on a stubborn lock he'd felt a familiar thread of magic. He hadn't entirely meant to, but he'd followed it.
It couldn't have been avoided forever, even he had to admit that, and it was, perhaps, no more than he deserved. And he was stronger than he'd ever been.
He needed to be, because now he was alone and face to face with the worst person in the world.
He was trembling from a tangle of emotions too complicated to put a name to, but certainly fear and anger made up the larger portion of it. Caleb wanted to run, but it would have done him little good. So he held his ground, not trusting himself to speak, and glared across the chamber at Trent Ikithon.
"Bren, my boy," Ikithon said in that commanding voice that had once seemed so enticing, a beacon of truth and trust, that promised power if only he'd do as he was told without question. It made Caleb's skin crawl. "I'm so pleased to see you've returned to us, healthy and whole of mind again." He'd always been good at saying the right thing, but now Caleb could hear the poison under it, the deep, sardonic evil in every word.
"That is, that is not my name anymore," Caleb snarled. His hands were clenched tight in an unsuccessful attempt to minimize the shaking. "And I, I did not... I did not return to you." It was a statement he never could have imagined uttering, not to Trent Ikithon, and if he'd had time to think about it the words would have caught in his throat. But he'd spoken without thought, and now that he'd said it he wouldn't take it back. Even if having said that to the man who had once been the center of his universe made his heart try to beat out of his chest.
Ikithon's pleasant smile vanished. "You always were too stubborn for your own good. I see I shall have to re-educate you." His hands started moving in arcane gestures. "You belong to me, Bren. I made you. I own you."
Once, that had been true. There was no denying that Bren had belonged to Trent Ikithon, mind, body and soul. But- and Caleb hadn't realized it until just now- Bren was dead . Bren had been dead for a long time. " No ," he said, surprising even himself as he held up his own hands and his Counterspell unravelled the enchantment the archmage was weaving. "My name. Is Caleb. Widogast." And Caleb belonged only to the Mighty Nein. His hand started to crackle and blacken, bursting into flames.
Ikithon sneered. "You wouldn't dare attack me. I, who taught you so much, who did my best to make a weak boy strong. I, who was like a father to you. Stop making a fool of yourself and cease this meaningless posturing this instant."
For a moment, Caleb thought he was right. Even now, even after everything, there was a part of him that doubted. A part of him that thought Trent had always been right and he was simply too weak to bear it. But the fire in his hand didn't go out, and he took a step forward. "No. You will, you will never, you will never use me again. Or anyone else."
And Trent Ikithon, the man who had haunted Caleb's waking nightmare for years, the person Caleb feared most in the world, took a step back. Caleb lifted his hand, and for a timeless moment, Caleb had the unthinkable privilege of seeing something in Ikithon's eyes he'd never thought to see.
Then the moment shattered as the pain hit. It wasn't a spell, not really , at least, it was nothing that could be counterspelled. Caleb inhaled sharply, fighting the urge to double over in agony. A countermeasure, he realized dimly. Or a contingency. He'd been unaware of it until just now. But he'd been trained to fight through the pain, to ignore mere physical discomfort if it meant accomplishing his mission. He kept his hand up, despite the way he was shaking, and reached for the fire.
Another spasm wracked him and he couldn't help dropping to one knee. His breathing was harsh and he couldn't get enough air in, and the world kept swimming in and out of focus. But even now he wouldn't back down. He tried again. The third spasm was worse than ever, and he could taste blood bubbling up in his mouth.
"You stupid boy," Ikithon hissed. "What good is a weapon that can be turned against the man who made it?" He'd recovered his self-possession once it was clear that Caleb couldn't attack him. "Did you really think I'd ever give you the capability of harming me? All you are is a defective tool that needs must be destroyed. What a waste."
Caleb fell to his knees, oddly serene through the haze of pain. He was going to die here, but he had one comfort. He wasn't Trent's, and he never would be again. Here in this moment, he wanted nothing more than to kill Trent. He wanted it more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life, up to and including a way to turn back the time. The will was there, and the fire in his hand flared brighter as he tried one last time. He wanted to do it. He genuinely wanted to kill this man.
He choked on blood and slumped over backwards. In the end, he thought muzzily, he was his own. He had no idea what was waiting for him in the Raven Queen’s realm, doubtless nothing pleasant. But he was his own, he didn’t belong to Trent Ikithon and he couldn’t take him back.
Then Nott’s voice shrieked “NO!” Two bolts flew out of the darkness and hit Ikithon in the torso, making him stagger back.
Before he could regain his balance, three streaks of light sizzled through the air over Caleb's head. Ikithon was able to bring up a shield that caught two of them, but the third went through and Caleb could hear the strangled curse as the old man spent a few precious moments patting the flames out of his ornate robes. Fjord strode past Caleb and halted two steps in front of him, glove still smoking.
Caleb was so startled by the half-orc's sudden appearance that he was slow in noticing he hadn't fallen against the stone tiles of the floor, but was propped up against someone's chest, with an arm around him. "I've got you, Mister Caleb," Caduceus rumbled, and there was a warm surge of magic that smelled like leaf mould and tea. His vision cleared a bit and it was easier to breathe, but there was no hope of him getting to his feet just yet. Behind him, he could hear movement, but there was too much Caduceus in the way to see.
"Fjord?" Beau's voice was rough and there was a restrained fury in it that Caleb was astonished by.
"I've got them," he said quietly, never taking his eyes off of Ikithon. "Fuck him up."
With no more warning than that, there was a blur of blue off to one side, followed almost immediately by a second, and the bright pink of Jester's floating lollipop. And maybe once he'd have tried to convince the rest of them to stay out of harm's way and let him deal with Ikithon. It was his problem, after all, and if it was a fight he couldn't win, well, he had it coming.
But he knew better now. Easier to convince the sun to rise in the west than to keep the Mighty Nein from protecting one of their own, and he was, for better or for worse, one of the Mighty Nein.
Everything became a little frenetic at that point, and Caleb could barely keep track of what was going on. Caduceus wouldn't let him up, worried that the wizard would aggravate the internal injuries he'd managed to give himself... and it wouldn't have made much difference anyway. Caleb couldn't attack Ikithon, that had been made abundantly clear... but he'd been watching Ikithon's hands, which started to twist together in arcane gestures as the girls bolted towards him. "Nein," Caleb whispered, and the Counterspell dissipated the magic before it had a chance to be anything. Beau and Jester were laying into the archmage, Beau's hands glowing with the Wildmother's light as he jerked out of the way just in time to narrowly avoid a shattered jaw. Periodically, crossbow bolts would rain down as well, but between Nott's natural stealthy nature and what was almost certainly the Traveller's blessing, even Caleb couldn't spot her.
They had, Caleb realized with dull wonder, managed to force Ikithon to go on the defensive. Between the unpredictable crossbow bolts, Beau's relentless attacks, and Jester's floating lollipop and the dull bong of Toll the Dead, he could barely get the time to cast. And when he did, Caleb was waiting.
His head was enough in the game that he recognized the somatic components of the spells as Ikithon started to cast.
Charm Person. "Nein..." Counterspell.
Sleep. "Nein." Counterspell.
Feeblemind. " Nein ."
He didn't recognize that one, it was one he hadn't learned but it looked indescribably nasty. " NEIN ."
Ikithon whirled, throwing up a Shield at the last moment to block a devastating blow from Jester's spiritual weapon. His urbane, controlled mask had fallen, and he was nearly unrecognizable with his face twisted in rage and fury. "You dare !" he screamed. " You who were born nothing and will die nothing! I made you, and you are mine to destroy!" He pulled his hand back, and flung a fistful of crackling death directly at Caleb.
Fjord had been keeping out of the fight, standing protectively in front of Caleb and Caduceus, but he moved then. He threw his arm out, and his shield glinted with an otherworldly light as it caught the spell and sent it careening away to impact harmlessly on the wall. Then he grabbed the spiral-carved seashell hanging innocently from a cord around his neck. " Stop ," he said in a quiet, commanding tone that could not be argued with.
And Trent Ikithon's body locked up.
Jester darted forward with her hands filled with necrotic energy laced with green. She grabbed Ikithon and he bellowed in rage and pain. Then the Hold Person failed, and he jerked in her hands. Lightning crackled against her before Caleb could do anything about it. He made an incoherent sound of rage, and the only reason he didn't forget himself and try to set Ikithon alight then and there was Caduceus's gently restraining grip. By some miracle neither Jester nor Beau had taken a hit yet but that couldn't last and he knew that but like hell was Caleb going to let this monster ruin his family the way he ruined him...
"Just trust us, Mister Caleb," Caduceus said softly. "We've faced worse." Caleb made a breathless, hysterical noise at that. Hard to imagine anything worse -
There was a startled squeak as the lightning discharged, then Duplicity vanished with a soft pop.
If Beau had been furious before, she was enraged now, in a way that rivaled Yasha in the heat of battle. " Fuck you ," she snarled. Of course, they all tended to get offended when anyone targeted Jester, so that wasn't surprising. What was surprising was what she said next. "You don't get to talk about my brother like that, you son of a fuck ." Before he could sneer a response, her fist slammed into his spine hard enough he went down to one knee, and whatever spell he'd been trying to cast fizzled as his arms went limp.
"Do you- do you even know what you are protecting?" Ikithon snapped. "Do you know what he's done ? Who he's ki-"
"Yeah. I do ." Beau crossed her arms as two more crossbow bolts found their mark and Ikithon cried out. "I know exactly what you made him into and what you convinced him was the right thing to do about it. And it doesn't fucking matter ."
"We've all done super shitty things," Jester said as she appeared out of the darkness. "And we've killed a lot of people. We love him and we don't care ! You don't even care, you're just trying to make us hate him!" Green light flared in her hands and he fell to his other knee when it hit him and he screamed.
"You've lost," Beau said in a dangerously soft voice. "There's hell to pay and we've come to collect. We didn't know you'd be here today, but we were always going to come for your ass. And I really hope there's a special place in the Nine Hells all set up just for you."
The reality of the situation seemed to hit Ikithon all at once. He couldn't teleport away or even run; he'd used a lot of magic already and Caleb was waiting with at least three more Counterspells. He was barely alive at this stage, after the damage the girls had done. And it was plain to anyone with eyes or ears that they weren't going to let him walk away. For the first time, he was faced with his own mortality and realized that for all of his cunning and all of his planning, this ragtag bunch of barely functional assholes had beaten him. "There may be a place in the Nine Hells marked for me," he growled. "But I won't be going there alone ." Then a Word rumbled through the air. It didn't matter that a crossbow bolt immediately sank into his eye or that Beau almost instantly snapped his neck, because the Word had already been spoken.
And Caleb choked before slumping lifelessly in Caduceus's arms.
Wind whipped around him, and nothing seemed to stabilize long enough for him to make out any details. Pink and blue and green flared, and he didn't know if he should be comforted or afraid. Then purple added to the mix and even though his surroundings were still a chaotic mess, the sound of the wind died away and gave him space to think.
'I like this person, right now, is a good person, a fine person.... That person is dead, and not- It's just a person who had this body. They abandoned it...'
A sensation he couldn't identify ghosted across his forehead. 'Time for that later.'
There was a small weight in his lap, and he blinked dazedly at the blurs of green and blue and pink that surrounded him before they resolved into the rest of the Nein clustered around him. He was still half in Caduceus's lap, with Jester kneeling on the other side and Fjord looking at him upside down from somewhere above his head. Nott was crouched on top of him, her claws caught in his coat and tears running down her face. Beau was a little distance away, taut as a wire and worrying at her thumbnail.
Caleb took a rattling breath and coughed. Then he shifted a little, and became aware of the dull shards of useless stone scattered across his chest and the floor around him. Nott's reaction was immediate. "Caleb!" She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him like she'd never let go again. It practically knocked what little air he had out of him, but that didn't stop him from slowly putting his own arms around her in a shaky hug.
Over her shoulder, Caduceus gave him a surprisingly relieved smile. "Welcome back, Mister Caleb."
Jester clutched at one of his hands tightly. Her eyes were red, and there were still tear tracks down her face. "Caleb! I'm so so sorry we didn't kill that dickhead sooner! We should have- we let him-"
He managed to squeeze her fingers slightly. "It is, it is all right, blueberry. I was..." He trailed off, then offered her a brittle half-smile. "I had long... come to terms with... the idea that... I would.... I would have to die... to... to be free of him."
Fjord's hand came down on his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. "He can't hurt you again. We made sure of that. You or anyone else."
"...Ja. Ja. That is... that is gut. Th.... thank you..." He wouldn't ask. They'd done so much for him, more than he'd ever dreamed, it would be churlish to ask. He trusted them, after all, and if they said it was so, then-
Beau understood him better than most, though, and she saw something in his shadowed eyes that even Nott didn't. So after a few minutes, while everyone clung to him and reassured themselves he was alive, she stepped forward. "C'mere." She reached down to give him a hand up, gently shooing Nott off of him and taking his hand from Jester. They obligingly moved, and she hauled Caleb up like he weighed nothing at all. She pulled one arm around her neck and held onto it, and put her other arm around his waist. He probably could have kept his feet without the support, but for once in his life he wasn't going to protest the contact.
No one said anything as she kept hold of him, walking him over to the center of the room. Trent Ikithon's body was lying in an unceremonious, inert heap. It was impossible to tell what had killed him, the crossbow or Jester's magic, or the extremely comprehensive beating Beau had dished out. Maybe it didn't matter. But seeing it... that made it real. Caleb took a shuddering breath, then closed his eyes for a moment. "You okay, man?" Beau asked quietly.
"...No. But... but perhaps... I will be. In time. With... with help." He didn't look at her as he said it, but he didn't have to.
She squeezed the hand she'd pulled over her shoulder. "You've got it," she said. "We're here to catch you."
"I know." And funnily enough, he did . He was surprised to realize he actually believed her. "Beauregard?"
"...I would, I would be honored. To call you my sister."
Her dark skin flushed a little and she looked away. But he could tell she was pleased. "You ready to get out of here?"
Caleb looked down at his free hand for a moment. Beau didn't jump when the flames licked out of his palm to cover it, but she did raise an eyebrow. He stared at his hand for a heartbeat longer, then looked at the body on the floor. This time, there was no pain, nothing prevented him from casting Fire Bolt. And when the body burst into flames there was no reaction after all. Caleb sagged against Beau. A weight had lifted off of him, so heavy that its absence was a physical thing that left him disoriented. "It's over," he murmured. "It's finally over."
"Yeah. Come on, we stole a bunch of shit you should look at."
He gave her a breathless little laugh, and let her help him out of the room, with Nott clinging to his free hand and the others trailing behind. It was, he thought, a good way to start the rest of his life.