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Subtle Spell

Chapter Text

It was only the beginning of winter, and already the ground was covered by a thin layer of frost and snow. The pale, dead grass boasted crystals in the morning, ice forming fractals before the sun thawed them away. In certain corners, under the cover of a thick canopy, trees stood with snow piled up higher than the sun could reach. It was a cold autumn, chilly and devoid of warmth. The sun had sank below the horizon without showing its face to the world below. Clouds covered the sky above; the stars were shrouded in mystery, the moon a radius of silver light.

As the moon crested over the trees ahead, a kid made another scratch on their pack. Squinting in the darkness, they used a small blade to mar the leather surface of their bag. Beside it were tally marks from days gone by, marked out in a little row. It almost looked like a pattern now. The notches marched along the edge of the flap and crossed back. Each little group of ten gathered with a double line. There were quite a few of those tens, enough for a season’s worth of days.

In their little hiding spot under a barren cherry tree, the kid pulled out the last of their food. They’d been careful, in the days prior, to eat only what they needed. The small chunk of stale bread and colorless cheese didn’t look appetizing, but they knew; they must eat. Food would no longer be easy pickings, things collected from the boughs of long-forgotten trees, or grabbed from roadside farms under the cover of darkness.

The small handful of food was not enough to satiate the gnawing feeling in the pit of their stomach, but it helped. They lay their head back against the bark of the tree and sighed. Five more minutes, and they’d be off. Their head swam; whether it was from lack of food, water, or from a fever, they had no skills to know.

It was too cold, now that autumn was turning cold all day round, to wait around for very long. The frost would grow over their fingers and toes. And every child from the North knew that spelled death. They’d feel the spider webs of frozen, lifelessness grow on their limbs, make them sleepy and warm, and kill them without wound or word. It would be a slow, terrifying death. They had heard the stories.

So, they pressed on.

It took some effort to push themselves from their little nest of roots, but they managed to stand up and start making their way through the forest. Pulling their thin cloak around them, they marched forwards. With all the branches and leaves and needles above their head, they couldn’t exactly tell what direction they were moving. But raking their hands on a few trees, they found the lichen and moss. Those pointed north, towards the darkness.

They needed to go south. If they went far enough, they’d leave the Dwendalian Empire and reach the Menagerie Coast. There… there they should be safe. Nobody would follow them there. It was too far, they thought, for someone to follow a child. Even one as dangerous as they were.

With each step they took, the kid carried themselves further from everything that they knew. Further away from the small town, full of people who knew them by name. It was a name they’d long given up, deciding to go nameless. Anonymous. It was easier, than be reminded of their old family. Easier than remember what their parents had decided. What their parents had done to them. Even as a child no more than eight, all those years ago, they knew what their parents decided had been wrong. Inconceivable.

Who would tear out their child’s voice?

Scratching the still visible scar on their throat, they soldiered onward, and made their slow and meandering way. They didn’t walk along the path, but through the bushes and brush. It was denser here, in the underbrush. What with the leaves from the autumn and the banked piles of snow. It was safer, that way. The child kept an eye on the trail, keeping it within sight but far enough that they could hide. And, as of then, they hadn’t needed to deal with bears or wolves. Plus, it was a tiny bit warmer. There were no winds raging through the cleared path.

In the back of their mind, they knew that Zadash lay behind them. They’d passed through a few days previous, escaping the Crown’s Guard at the last minute, tearing through town on their weak and tired legs. The guards there didn’t like to see a small child hiding out, or picking their way through the market, or… well. Stealing food. That hadn’t lasted, in more ways than one.

Still, their pack still held a couple loaves of bread and a small bit of cheese they’d managed to sneak before running for their lives out of the town. The sound of armored feet chasing after them would ring in their ears for a while longer. Stealing wasn’t on their agenda, if they could help it. It would make life much harder if they were captured.

They could be sent home, then. The soldiers were smart— adults with connections and resources and knowledge— and at some point, the kid reasoned, the guards would figure out where they were from. There were not many small towns bordering the old Zemnian Fields. There were not many whose populace whispered of the treachery of wizards, of the dangers a caster in the family would bring. Not many towns were fearful of arcane fire, not in the way theirs had been.

Not many heard the rumors, of a Zemnian town burned down by three of its youngest wizard hopefuls.

Taking a deep and steadying breath, they reminded themselves; they were in the forests now. They were nowhere near that place. As they trudged on, they continued to trade a known fear for an unknown one. It was their choice to leave, their choice to continue on.

And at this point, they dared not turn back. The book in their pack, even with their voiceless breath, was too dangerous to go home. They were no longer welcome.

But a few days trek was Alfield. A small town would be a better place— farmers liked to help little kids. They’d found that out before. They could work at the tavern, cleaning plates and washing floors, buy enough food to last them a week or two, and then continue to meander their way down south.

A small dream lay on the edge of their consciousness, of seeing the ocean sparkling before them. Pushing sweaty hair from their head, they let the thought sink in. Better to think of that hopeful thing, and not of the places they’d left behind. It carried their feet with a renewed energy, lit their heart with a warm fire. They trekked on, trying to imagine the glimmering and glittering blue.

—————

It was Caleb and Mollymauk’s turn for watch. The two sat up, staring at the darkened forest that surrounded them. The group knew the road cut through the forest in a snaking path, but it was better than going straight though the under brush. They had a cart, after all, and that cart was not meant for off-roading.

The group decided to camp in a small clearing a ways off from the road leading out of Zadash. The trees wove in a gentle arc around them, letting the group watch the stars whirl around their head before they all started to fall asleep. The next day, they reasoned as they looked at the map over dinner, they would enter Alfield. Jester was excited to see Bryce again, to ask after the town’s repairs, and to see if there were still gnolls raiding the area.

Nott grew worried, that night, as the group continued south. She and Caleb had a long heart-to-heart near the treeline, discussing something between themselves. Molly glanced in Caleb’s direction as they stared out of the bubble, watching the wizard glare into the darkness. He seemed busy, thinking about something.

Molly, too, had contemplated their journey. Of the time Jester, Fjord, and Yasha had been taken from them. Of their fight to get them back. Narrowly escaping death, only for the dodecahedron’s Fragment and a lot of luck to pull him back to consciousness. And then getting the three of them back.

It was quiet, in the darkness. Molly kept an eye on the stars and moon above, relishing the moonbeams. There was something about coming back to life— with all his memories and feelings and self in tact— that made the night even more satisfying to enjoy. He wasn’t one to keep his worship of the Moonweaver a secret, but he also wasn’t one for conventional forms of worship. Yes, he sometimes prayed over his swords. And yes, he would call upon her protection in the dark. But he wouldn’t seek out a shrine, or converse with her like the others did.

What was left of that night’s fire, crackling low and red behind him, blocked out some of the stars as the smoke wove through the cool air.

Caleb was more worried about the forest than the skies. Every rustle of leaves made the hairs on his arm stand on end. The summer months had quickly disappeared as the Mighty Nein made their way through the countryside. The road was muddy and tough, the pace of their horses and cart slow. Every whisper through the underbrush made his heart pick up in rhythm.

He was eyeing a small clump of trees when ice flowed through his stomach. There. There was no mistaking it. A figure, formless enough to be anything from a bear to a beserker, pushed their way through the bushes and low-hanging branches. The figure was quiet; he heard the rustling of leaves and branches and nothing more. Caleb reached out, patted Molly on his arm and put a finger to his lips. When he got the tiefling’s attention, he gestured to the figure, visible in the shifting moonlight. It was approaching.

Whispering, Molly asked, “Should we wake the others?” His red eyes lay trained on the figure, readying for a fight.

“I think it best,” he breathed back, leaning over and shaking Nott. He put a finger to his lips, pointed into the trees at the now close figure, and gestured to the others. At his side, Molly did the same, waking Yasha. She nodded, wordless, and grabbed the handle of her great sword, tensing to strike.

The figure wandered through the underbrush and reached the clearing. They did not seem to raise their head, nor pay careful attention to their surroundings. At this distance, it was obvious they were small. A halfling, perhaps, or a short human. Their clothes didn’t scream goblin, but it was still a possibility. Once the whole team was awake, they tensed for a fight.

It hadn’t been long since Lorenzo split their party in two. Jester and Fjord still hated small places. Yasha never talked about it, but there was a different hollowness to her eyes when she woke and saw the cart. It was natural that they were this tense.

Terrified and concerned, Caleb looked to Fjord. He nodded and stood. They all knew that he may appear weaponless, but his falchion was just a second away from summoning into his hand. “Stop,” he said, voice low and commanding.

The little figure froze. Wobbling legs and unsteady feet stumbled back, small hands coming up to grip their hood. They stayed silent, but started to move back with weary strides.

Fjord took a step forward, lit by the coals and embers of the fire, and said, “We mean no harm, unless you mean us harm. Please, remove your hood, so we can talk.”

The figure shook their head, violently, the hood slinging back and forth over their face. The Nein tensed. (Except for Caduceus, who seemed a bit nonplussed at their attitude. Granted, though, the group believed him to be utterly unflappable, so that could be nothing.) It was odd, to see someone so silent, when just a few words would solve a great deal. Cautious, Jester stood up, a hand on the hilt of her ax. So, too, did Beau; she wrapped the knuckles of her hands in a length of fabric.

When the small person took a couple, stumbling steps back, Fjord commanded, “It is unwise to run— and unwise to fight. Don’t move.” When they shook their head, holding hands out in front of him, he grumbled, “Who are you? Explain yourself, so we may all be on our way.”

A hand disappeared into their hood. The party tensed as it pointed at the figure’s neck. “What does that mean?” Beau asked.

Caduceus cleared his throat and asked, “Can you explain it to us in a different way?” The group blinked at him, wondering how he kept his head. Granted, though, Caduceus had not been around for the near death of Molly, had not been there when Lorenzo had taken half their members. He was unaware of their worst nightmares. And perhaps that was a good thing.

They pointed again, and then shook their head. Jester seemed to get it. She pointed at her own throat as she said, “Can you, like, not talk?” They nodded. “That’s, like, the worst!”

“And how do we know,” Caleb said, hand tensing around his spell book, “that you are not lying?”

“I think we should just all take a deep breath,” Caduceus muttered, hands ready to appease tempers.

They could all see the figure take a deep, stuttering breath in. Then, with trembling hands, they pushed the hood back from their face.

There were three things the group noticed. It was obvious, then, that the figure was only small because it was a child, no more than twelve. Their hair was unkempt and long, twisted into the semblance of a braid at nape of their neck. There were scratches on their dark skin. And they were thin. So very thin.

Second, was the fear in their eyes. Yasha dropped her great sword back onto her bedroll, and slapped Molly’s scimitars from his hands. With a quiet, sobbing noise, Jester let her hand drop loose at her side. Even Beau relaxed, standing loose and tired. In the light, it was difficult to tell the color of their irises, but Beau guessed that they were a greenish color: bright, inquisitive, watching the group for any sign that they should run.

The last thing the group noticed was the scar on their neck. It wasn’t easy to see; there was just enough light to reflect off the scarred tissue. It was a light, near-white gash that stretched, starting near one ear and disappearing past the collar of their cloak. It looked nasty; it wasn’t just a straight line. Nor was it thin. It crawled, spidering and uneven, down their neck. When they moved their neck to look at the entire group, parts of it pulled.

It looked painful. Caleb itched the wrappings on his forearms as he watched their wandering, uncomfortable eyes.

“Alright.” Fjord deflated, sighing. He sat down, resting his head in his hand for a moment, thinking. “We’re sorry. Please don’t run, we mean you no harm. Truly, we don’t.” The kid nodded at him, their tan hands worrying at the hem of their cloak.

When he stayed silent for too long, though and Jester quietly asked, “Are you hungry?” She reached down and rummaged in her pack, producing a flattened, old pastry. “It’s super tasty. And, like, sweet. It’s apple flavored,” she added, holding it out. “Apples are in season, so they’re super good.”

The child looked at the food in her hand, a hand grasping their cloak above their stomach. It gurgled and rumbled audibly. Yasha grunted, flung her pack open, and produced some real food— travel rations, but hearty stuffs. She put a couple pieces of jerky, a roll of brown bread, and some cheese into a wooden bowl and stood up. Passing by Jester, she let the tiefling drop the pastry in. Without another word, she walked towards the kid.

They froze, tensing up and taking a step back. She slowed at that, but placed the bowl onto the grassy ground of the clearing. Standing by it for a second, the two locked eyes. Then she turned and found her place back at the darkening fireside.

Molly sat down, curling his legs underneath him. “Go on,” he said, gesturing to the food she’d proffered. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone more in need of some food in a long while.” He looked at the group. They weren’t exactly the most… wealthy group. But they had a bit to spare. And whenever he had a bit to spare, it was his gods-given duty to give it to anyone who might need it. It made him happy.

Stunned was the best description for the kid. They inched forward, a single step at a time. When they reached the bowl, they crouched with such slow movements it seemed rehearsed. With a hand on their pack, they reached for the bread and took a bite out of it.

“Well,” Fjord sighed, “since you aren’t one to talk about yourself,” he winked at the kid, who seemed utterly confused by the gesture, “maybe we can ask you some questions? Just shake your head or gesture. We’ll figure it out.”

“Eventually,” Beau grumbled. She caught the look Fjord shot at her, and seemed a bit mollified by Jester’s puppy-dog eyes.

“How long have you been on your own?” Nott asked, fiddling with the mask hanging in front of her. There wasn’t a point, now that the kid had seen her true self, to hide behind it. She doubted they would judge. “Not for very long?”

The kid rolled a piece of jerky in their hands and held up three fingers. “Two days?” Jester asked.

“Two weeks,” Molly guessed. The kid gestured for something much, much bigger.

“Two years?” With a shake, Fjord decided, “Two months.” He saw their wobbling hand and added, “Give or take.”

“Do you know where you are?” Caduceus asked. The kid shook their head and gestured rolling something and opening it. “Do you want to see a map?” They nodded, chewing on the last piece of jerky.

Yasha sat down next to them, plopping some more food into the bowl as the group watched Fjord pull the map out of his pack. “It’s the first of Cuersaar right now,” he intoned as he pulled and unfurled the parchment from his pack. Laying it on the ground, he cursed. “Dammit. We’ve got no light.”

“Ah. That is… here.” Caleb snapped, and Dancing Lights spun round the group, a couple hovering just above the corners of the map. “Now we can all see.” The kid’s eyes widened, staring, transfixed by his hands and words. Caleb directed a couple of the balls to hover above the map. In the beat of silence, the kid did not take their eyes from him. He’s Zemnian, they thought, remembering the voices of merchants who passed through their little town. He would know.

With a half-frown, Fjord chuckled. “Right. Magic. So yesterday we left from here,” he pointed at Zadash, and then traced a finger down the road. “We should hit Alfield by tomorrow. So, we’re somewhere in the middle, but closer to this little dot.”

“Do you know where you come from, little one?” Molly asked, practically sitting atop Yasha as he lounged next to her. “Are you from around here?”

The kid made no motion to answer that. Instead, their eyes stared at the map as they shook their head. “Is it not on the map?” Nott asked, tip-toeing to look over Fjord’s shoulder. When the kid shook their head, she grumbled, “Shitty map we’ve got then.”

“Or it is a small town,” Yasha added.

Jester looked at the kid in the light of Caleb’s magic. Their hair was pitch black, but sometimes looked a bit brown. Their eyes were a clear turquoise color, contrasting their dirty skin. “You’re tan, under that dirt, right?” Jester leaned in closer to them, her sketchbook in hand. The kid paused, and nodded. “And not, like, from being out in the sun all the time?”

“Are you tan like me?” Beau asked, sticking an arm out. The kid blinked for a moment, and then stuck their arm out. “No. That’s… see all you’re showing me is your coat and— here, lemme just—” and she pulled the hem of their coat up to reveal tanned skin covered in a layer of dirt and scratches. A leaf fluttered to the ground.

“You need a bath.” Jester decided, standing up. “Like, you’re almost as dirty as Caleb, and he’s a stinky wizard.” She made the word ‘stinky’ bounce, as though it were a compliment instead of an insult. The kid looked between the two. The red-headed man didn’t seem angry at it. He seemed almost to accept it.

They pulled their arm back and covered it up, shivering, but made a wiggling motion with their fingers. Then, they pointed excitedly at Caleb, then to themselves. “Hm? What about me?” He looked at them as they tried to make a few gestures, but nothing stuck. It was the first time the Nein saw the kid’s mouth moving to emulate speech. “I… I am sorry; I do not understand.”

At that, they seemed a bit crestfallen, and stopped gesturing.

“Let’s stoke the fire, a bit, if we’re all going to chat for an hour or so.” Caduceus stood up and pushed a log onto the fire. “A bit of warmth and something bright wouldn’t be amiss.”

“I agree.” Fjord stood up and moved towards the forest, picking up some branches and leaves to help as kindling while the others began to stoke the fire.

Nott and Molly continued their questions, though. The kid seemed at a loss to explain some things— “So, what’s your name?” Nott asked, and was met with a look of frustration— but they were answering the Nein.

“Where are you going?” Yasha asked, pointing back at the map. The kid leaned forwards again and traced their finger down south. The path seemed aimless, though, since it never ended at a town.

Brightening up, Molly cheered. “Well, then Lady Luck is on our side. We’re headed southwards, too, towards Port Damali and Nicodranas.” Their eyes opened up more, the fire catching the blue of their eyes and making it sparkle. “Ah, I see you’re as curious as I! Our lovely, wonderful trickster of a cleric hails from Nicodranas. Fjord, too, comes from the Menagerie Coast.”

“I do!” Jester bounced towards the kid and started to explain what she remembered of her childhood. Of the sparkling ocean that surrounded the town. Of the colorful buildings and beautiful tiled roofs. Of the birds that flew in from the waters and called overhead at all hours of the day and night. Fjord, too, added in, talking of the seas he’d voyaged across.

The kid was hooked. They pointed to the ocean, to the group in general, and then back at themselves. “I mean…” Beau coughed into her hand, looking at the others. “We did take Kiri to a new city.”

“Kiri had no family,” Jester whined.

Caleb nodded, and Nott added, turning towards the kid, “Her family had left her. Do you know where your family is, kid?” They looked away, pointedly not in the direction of the Empire. They just traced their finger back to the Menagerie Coast, and gestured with more force at the group. Then pointed at themselves with an urgency that was covering for something. Though none of the Nein knew quite what.

“Guess you’ve got family like mine,” Beau said. “I don’t mind. Kid’s quieter than Kiri was. We can take ‘em with us.” She shrugged, pulling her blankets back open and flopping down on her pack. “When we’re there, we can talk to Jester’s mom. She’d probably know a good place to take them.”

The kid looked excited, eyes darting between Jester, Fjord, and Beau. Before their chest, they clasped their hands together and gave their best puppy-dog eyes: eyebrows arched, lip pouted, posture cute and innocent. “I agree!” Nott said, transfixed. Most of the others just nodded and agreed.

To the group’s surprise, Yasha was one of the more vocal members. “Someone needs to protect them. It’ll be safer in a group. They should cross the border with us and not alone.”

“I don’t see why not! We’re just adding a new friend to the mix. Welcome to the squad, darling.” Molly grinned, throwing his arm around Yasha. “Just a quick question, kiddo. You’ve been gone for two whole months, and you’ve only worn this?” He picked at the hem of their tunic, looking at the weave. “It looks like it’ll fall apart!”

Bouncing to her feet, Jester called, “I’ve got a really cool dress and some pretty shirts… and maybe a sweater in my pack!” Jester dug into her bag, pulling out items. The fabric floated through the air as she all but tossed the contents of her bag onto the ground. Most of her items seemed way too big for a kid their size. Molly pushed the pile of items back at Jester, and retrieved an extra scarf to wrap around the kid’s neck for the time being.

“There. Keeps you warm and looks nice!” The kid relished in the feeling of it for a few seconds, letting their hands trace the knitted pattern on the yarn. Looking up and blinking back tears, they pointed to the scarf and then to Caleb. “Yes! Our stinky wizard also wears one.”

They kid nodded, and made the wiggling-finger gesture at Caleb again. “I… am not good with gestures,” he admitted, sitting on his haunches by the fire. He wove his hands through the air and set the fire alight with a Fire Bolt, feeling the heat begin to radiate from the damp, but dead, leaves. The child redoubled their efforts, making the same gesture as Caleb just did. “Fire Bolt?” He asked, “The spell?” They shook their head, and gestured for something bigger. “Fire Ball?”

“No. I think they mean magic,” Beau called. “Big like general.” When the others blinked at her, she clarified: “Big picture.” Everyone nodded in understanding.

“Can you do magic, kiddy?” Jester asked. Their face now lit by the fire, the group could see that they were holding back when they just shook their head and stared into the fire. As their body disappeared into itself, their hands seemed to disappear into the scarf, hiding somewhere under their cloak. Their hands held up a 3, and then stretched quite long. When the group repeated back the right answer— three years— they curled up. They weren’t answering, not any longer. It went quiet, for a while, as the others tucked into their packs. For a while it was silent; the sounds of the forest grew loud in the stillness.

And then Molly smirked. “I thought you said ‘Kiri,’” he said, leaning towards the fire as he looked at Jester.

She shook her head. “No. But I miss Kiri.” Poking the fire with a stick at her side, Jester frowned, her lip sticking out as she pouted.

“We just said goodbye the other day,” Fjord reminded her.

“I know!” Jester pouted, pulling her blanket around herself. “But I can still miss her.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Molly said. He looked to the kid, and added, “Of course, you haven’t met Kiri! She was the cutest little Kenku. Sweet voice, kept parroting back everything we sad.”

“She wasn’t a parrot!”

“It’s a figure of speech, Jester,” Beau chuckled. “Yeah, she was cute. It was fun to see her talk like Jester, and then like Fjord.” The kid cocked their head to the side, watching her. “Uh, well, Kenku were like, cursed or something, and they can’t speak their own words.”

Molly nodded, adding, “So instead, they repeat the sounds and words they hear.”

Quietly, from the other side of the fire, Caleb piped up in a voice quite like Kiri’s imitations of Jester, “Go fuck yourself! Bird-eyed Fjord. Welcome to the Mighty Nein!” They weren’t good, but it made the group chuckle, and the kid smile a bit.

“Hey! We are nine, now. Nine neins?” Nott pointed to the group, counting.

“Guess we are.” Fjord turned to the kid and smiled. “Welcome to the Mighty Nein.”

The kid took their hands out from under their coat, and wiggled them in the air.

“What’s that?” Beau asked, yawning. “Happiness?” The kid shook their head and made a different sign. “So what’s the wiggly palms, then?” The kid paused, and shrugged. Beau signed back at them— and, before she rolled over to sleep, mumbled, “Yeah, we’re glad you’re here, too.”

Chapter Text

Yasha and Nott poked the Nein awake the next morning. The resident rogue smiled to herself, looking at the kid knocked out cold, now squished between Caduceus and Jester. At some point, she’d rolled over and snuggled close, and he’d done the same. It was cute; a cleric sandwich. Nott wished there were a way to save a memory, or something. It would be great blackmail later, when she and Jester were arguing about a detective case.

The kid woke when Yasha prodded their shoulder, their hood fluffing their hair as it fell from their head. In the morning light their eyes blinked, sand bits of sleep stuck at the corners. When he woke and stared at the world, Caduceus passed them a piece of bread and some dried mushrooms. Without thinking, they started to nibble away at the food. The others discussed the plan— another day hoping for calm travel and a warmer sun— while the kid watched with lidded eyes.

It took a while for them to fully wake up. As the driver of the group’s cart, Caduceus had patted the seat next to him and told them to hop on. For all of ten minutes, they sat upright and awake. But then their head lolled to the side as the cart rattled on. Once the sun had risen enough to shine right in their eyes, they started to react to the world around them.

It was a beautiful, fall day.

The forests surrounding the Mighty Nein were slowly turning from pines and conifers into deciduous trees, with rounded leaves still hanging on in the autumn air. The colors brightened as the sun climbed its way in the sky. So, too, did the kid. As Yasha started to pick through the grass growing beside the road, looking for wildflowers, the kid hopped off the cart and wandered towards her. “Ah.” Yasha caught their eye as she plucked a small, blue flower.

She held the star-shaped flower out to the kid. “It’s a willow gentian.” She held it towards the kid, who took it in their hand. They turned it over in their palm, studying the flower.

“She collects them, you know,” Molly mentioned, sidling past the pair to drape his arm over Yasha’s shoulder. “They’re all pressed into a book.” When the kid made an inquisitive expression, he shrugged. “Why do you collect them?”

“I think they’re beautiful,” she put, simply.

For a moment, Rowan contemplated something. It’s a place to start. The kid dropped the flower back into Yasha’s hands and darted off, looking at the underbrush. They ran ahead of the group, and started to scour the edge of the treeline in search of— presumably— more flowers.

“There should be some winter heath growing near the pines,” Caduceus called out, a wide smile across his face he watched the kid light up and start crashing through the underbrush. This was good.

“Careful!” Nott called, looking through the broken branches at the kid’s disappearing figure. Their hooded figure started to blend in with the forest and trees around them. Even with her keen, yellow eyes, it grew difficult to see where they were. “Keep up with the cart!” She huffed, looking around. “Is it safe?”

“They’ve been on their own for months, and haven’t died yet.” Caduceus shrugged.

With a nod, Caleb added, “They seem intelligent enough to handle themselves.” But as Nott glared at him— without words the two argued, and she won— he let out an exaggerated sigh. Snapping Frumpkin into existence, he picked up his familiar by the scruff of its neck and stared right into its eyes. “Keep an eye on them, katze, but stay close enough.”

The fae cat meowed.

“Ja, you’re a good boy.” Crouching to the ground, he released Frumpkin, who dashed off into the woods. Caleb then wandered towards Beau, who was talking with Fjord, and clapped her on the shoulder. “Do not walk me into a tree,” he mumbled, as his vision went blank and he projected his consciousness through Frumpkin’s eyes.

“Shit! Give me some warning, here.” Startled, she watched as the blue of Caleb’s eyes turned a bit icy, a layer of grey and white flitting over his irises. “Shit’s creepy.” Patting the hand on her shoulder to reassure the wizard, she kept going.

“He did,” Fjord pointed out, watching as Caleb continued to walk forwards at a steady pace while in Frumpkin. “I’ll never know how he can do that.”

With a proud smile, Nott said, “He’s a smart boy.”

“It is a neat trick.” Caduceus watched the forest too, the horses walking along the road without his input. A moment of quietness passed, and he looked to Yasha. “Do they remind you of someone?” He asked, his firbolg ears pricking forwards as he waited for a response. “You don’t often warm up to people so readily.”

She shrugged. “I do not know. As a child, I, too, had to survive on my own.”

“Perhaps you see a part of you in them,” Molly guessed, hopping up to kiss her temple. “They’re lucky to have your care.” She shrugged at that, but kept an eye on Frumpkin through the bushes. It took five more minutes before the kid pushed a few branches aside, a whole bunch of wildflowers clutched in a scratched hand. They beamed— pleased with their spoils.

—————

Alfield greeted the party at the end of the afternoon, the colorful forest giving way to the farmland that surrounded the area. The kid watched from the back of the cart as people meandered through their rough fields, some of the houses still covered in soot. Their eyes picked out the burnt remains of a great oak tree, one that would’ve towered above the small houses. A large building, in the process of finishing the first floor, stood surrounded by scaffolding and people. Workers and farmers and blacksmiths and carpenters and townsfolk were all starting to finish up for the day as the winter sun began to sink behind the horizon.

“You ever been to Alfield, kid?” Beau asked, watching as they stared at the people around them. They shook their head no, pointing at the people and gesturing for something big. “Yeah, there’s a lot of people about,” she said, hopping off the cart. “Looks like they’re rebuilding quickly.”

The party all started to dismount, watching as townsfolk called out to the Mighty Nein. Some gave their thanks, others watched with thankful eyes. A few bowed their heads as the cart passed.

A halfling approaches the cart, running up to the Nein. Bits of splintered wood, dust, and other debris seem to slough off as he approaches, knocking the dirt off his shirt. “Thadeus Candleglow,” Nott says, almost to herself.

“I wasn’t expecting to see y'all return. Things are going along well. We’re doing what we can.”

“How much have you built back already,” Jester asks, looking around at the building. The kid stays in the cart, watching as the group begins to talk about their previous stay here, of the fires that broke out. Of gnolls, living and undead, that ravaged this small town.

“Hey Thadeus,” Beau asks, looking around, “Is Bryce in?” The halfling directs them to the local jail, the Salt Trench. “We should go over there,” Beau says, nodding at Thadeus.

As the group nears the jail, the kid starts to cower further into the cart. Jester looks at them questioningly, watching as they sink further down. “It’s totally, like, magicked so you can’t be seen,” she says aloud, looking at them. “So, like, if you don’t want to see Bryce, you could just hide there.”

“It would be safe, in the cart,” Caleb agreed, nodding. “We have traveled along and were unseen before. It is quite… useful.”

The kid leaned out, shaking their head. They pointed to the group, to the jail near the treeline, and then to them. Nott blinked, and said, “We aren’t taking you to jail. Why would we do that?”

Immediately, they looked around, eyes darting about. Then, they pulled a loaf of bread, and half a handfull of dusty cheese. “Did you steal that?” Jester asked, putting two and two together.

“They will not be angry,” Yasha said. “They will not know.”

“Unless you tell them,” Molly pointed out. “So just… don’t tell them. Then, they won’t know.” He got a nod from the kid, and as the group neared the building, the kid hopped from the cart and trudged along in the dusty road. Half-hiding themselves behind Caleb, they watched as a guard chewing a piece of hay or straw grabbed Bryce from inside.

“To be fair,” Beau said, “I don’t remember him.” She gestured to the room.

Realizing something, Fjord turned to Caduceus, and added, “Hey, Caduceus, you should probably be aware: we fought off a bunch of gnolls when we were making our way up through here.”

“We cut off their ears and sold them for money.” Jester seemed satisfied with that, looking at the kid. “It was super gross.” The group began chatting about gnolls while the kid looked around to the forest, eyes wide. They’d not encountered them, themselves, but based on what everyone was saying… they seemed mean. Stories of creatures— half man, half beast— that roamed the countryside sprang up in their mind; stories from their parents, long ago, and the last little town they’d spent some time in. All spoke of the dangers of these creatures.

The Nein, however, seemed unphased. The door opened to reveal a half-elf, their blonde, shoulder-length hair curling softly in the ponytail that kept it away from their face. There were dark circles under their eyes, but they looked more overworked than unwell. Armor on, helmet in hand, Bryce welcomed the group, saying, “I wasn’t expecting company, let alone such welcome visitors.” Smiling, they add, “It’s good to see you.”

They all chatted, Caduceus and the kid the only ones not receiving a welcome.

“Did you describe us, or just say The Mighty Nein?” Jester asked, turning to Caduceus, and then glancing down at the kid, who stood half-behind the firbolg.

“We’re new,” Caduceus said, gesturing to the kid peeking out from behind him. “Caduceus. Caduceus Clay. Pleasure. You’re a lot shorter than the last one they introduced me to.”

“That’s all right. Pleasure to meet you” They looked up at him, neck straining. “You are very tall and… strange.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed everybody else is very short.” He patted the top of the kid’s head. “It’s fascinating.”

“Who is this?” Bryce tried to lean over to see the kid, but they ducked to the other side of Caduceus instead. Still smiling, Bryce chuckled a bit, leaning over the other way. Their eyes caught, and the kid gave a small nod of acknowledgement.

“Oh, they’re just a kid,” Caduceus said, ruffling their unkempt hair.

“Are they someone’s in particular?” Bryce pushed a hair from their face and said, “Taking them home to their family, perhaps?”

“Oh, no. They’re, like, totally riding along with us,” Jester said. “We’re going to Nicodranas, and the kiddo is coming, too!”

“That seems… dangerous.”

“Well,” Caduceus said, rubbing his chin, “It’s better than leaving them to travel on their own.” He noticed Bryce panic a bit at that, a hand grasping their helm tighter than before. “So, we thought it best to keep our eye on them.”

“Ah, yes. That would be preferable.” They looked to the others, and lowered their voice, adding, “Would it not be even safer, though, to ask someone to take care of them? Even with such a heroic group, traveling can be quite… unsafe.”

“Don’t we know it,” Molly said. “It’ll be fine— we’ve helped a kid before. It’s like a protection mission.”

“Alright,” Bryce said, sighing. “Well, welcome to Alfield. Any friends of these are friends of ours. Are you passing through? Or you’ve come to stay for a bit? You need not worry about finding lodging, we can have that arranged.”

“That’s awfully kind of you,” Fjord drawled, smiling.

“We’ve done that before, we can do it again. Well, I have a little bit more business to attend to and then I’ll be off my shift and perhaps I’ll join you for drinks.” Bryce gave the child a smile. “And something non-alcoholic for the child, perhaps?”

The Nien all flashed back to Kiri— ‘Do you drink, Kiri? Booze? Liquor? Alcohol?’— before nodding, vigorously.

“Yeah, of course! They can totally have some milk,” Jester said, looking at the group. Everyone agreed, watching the kid shrug behind Caduceus. They all sighed small sighs of relief at that, grinning. “Party time!”

They walked on towards the Feed & Mead Tavern ahead of Bryce, who had to finish up some business, first. The group was greeted with merry cheers and celebration, townsfolk offering to buy the group drinks as thanks for the earlier help. Some of their eyes lingered on Caduceus— who stood out for his height, pinkness, and status as the newest member of the Mighty Nein— and to the child. Some of the parents seemed to whisper, watching the child as they sat down with the group. A milk— upon Jester’s request— was placed before them before dinner was served.

The group talked around the child, filling Caduceus in on their shenanigans, as they looked around the tavern. It wasn’t beautiful, not like some of the buildings in Zadash. But it was homey and comforting, great wooden beams stretching across the ceiling. A roaring fireplace sat at one end, the bar at the other, with tables full of patrons all chatting and dinding in between. From the kitchens came an older man, tired but jolly, who served food to the group as Bryce returned.

They were in comfortable clothing; a light blue tunic draped over some brown leggings, their boots treading quietly across the floor as they walked. The kid’s turquoise eyes watched them carefully, ears picking up small conversations about why the Mighty Nein was traveling with a small child. It was all drowned out as the group cheered Bryce’s return, offering them a spot at the table to join them.

It was kind of comforting— save for the few moments where Jester used Thaumaturgy to open all the windows with a loud crash. The conversation around and above them lulled them, the noise turning into static before it reached their ears. Above them, the group discussed adult things— wars and gnoll incursions and people that’d gotten thrown in jail. About friends lost, friends returned, and friends nearly lost.

A few moments later, they were asleep. Thankfully, the group decided, Molly draping his coat over their shoulders, before the talk of dicks began.

Before Bryce left, though, they looked down at the sleeping child and around at the sloshed group. Jester and Caduceus seemed fine, but most of the others were pink or slurring their words from the alcohol. “Are you still sure you want to take the child with you?” They put a hand on the kid’s shoulder, looking at them carefully. A couple leaves poked out from the kid’s hair, and their face seemed a bit sunburnt. “There would be quite a few families happy and willing to take them in.”

“No,” Molly said, petting their head, “We’ve taken them in now. What’s done is done— hey! We’re their family now,” he hiccuped, grinning in a bit of a manic way.

Putting a hand up in the air as a farewell, Caduceus assured them, “We’ll take care of them.”

And with that, Bryce made their leave and the Mighty Nein— sloshed, sober, or sleeping— made their way upstairs for the night.

—————

The child awoke in a bed. Groggy and frazzled, they blinked for a few moments before panic dawned on them. They pushed themselves up— they didn’t remember falling asleep at all. The last thing they remember was being in the tavern with the Mighty Nein, of Bryce’s assurances that someone could take them… They whirled about the room and saw nobody there.

The room was empty.

Pushing the bedding aside, they ran to the door. It was open. Thank the gods above it was open. On unsteady, still sleepy legs, they dashed down the hall outside, found the stairway, and ran down.

The tavern stretched out around them and, for a moment, they panicked. Where were they? Did they really leave them? The kid remembered the looks of the townsfolk. The whispers of the families. Thoughts of their safety not knowing… It was better if they were on the move. They wouldn’t be found that way.

But, peering at the crowd— some of whom turned to watch the kid barrel down the stairs— they saw the Nein. Most of them had the remnants of breakfast still laid out in front of them. Pastries, cheese and breads, some vegetables from the night before. Relief pulsed through the kid and they sank to sit on the bottom stair.

Caduceus pushed himself from the table, the only one who’d noticed the kid’s entrance from the other side of the room. The others were discussing the next town, of someone left behind at Trostenwald. It seemed like an apt time to break away. He felt Yasha watching him as he walked over to the kid, who glanced up at him with tired eyes. “Good morning, there,” he said, taking a seat a few stairs up. He didn’t fit on the bottom level. “How’re you this morning?”

They couldn’t answer, but instead turned to face him and pointed at the group, and up at the room. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that. We didn’t want to wake you up. We were going to come get you before we left.” He looked at their still hesitant face, and asked, “Why don’t you bring your things down, we can get some breakfast, and then be on our way?”

Nodding, they stood up and walked to his step. For a moment, it seemed like they were going to say something— sign something— but they went back up, grabbed their bag, and came down to see Caduceus holding a plate of food for them, waving them over to the table with a steady grin on his firbolg face.

“It’s really pretty, the ocean,” Jester was saying as they returned, everyone making small talk about the waters. The kid perked up, listening to the group intently as they nibbled away at their food.

“Have you ever been out of Empire?” Caleb asked, turning to Beau.

“No,” she replied, thinking, “furthest south I’ve been, I think, is Trostenwald.”

The two humans nodded as Jester continued, “The water is really blue. I think you guys will like it. Yes, Nott, even you.” She seemed unconvinced. Something about swimming lessons was drowned out by the kid chewing on particularly crunchy toast, their eyes scanning the crowd again. People were staring, yes, but it seemed more reverent than angry. Maybe… maybe they would stay. Nobody seemed ready to take them away, anyways.

“It sounds amazing,” Caduceus said, thrilled, as the group began to pack up and get ready to leave. Gold exchanged hands— more than the kid had ever seen before. They watched in awe as the group bought some feed for their horses, Caleb waving away Nott’s attempts to give him money.

It was good luck, they thought as they took their last bite of toast, that they’d stumbled across the Mighty Nein. There were much, much worse people to find in the woods.

Chapter Text

Caduceus and Jester took point that day, letting the horses lead the cart down the road. It was uneventful— the kid rode in the back with the others as they left Alfield and traveled further southward along the road. Some of the townsfolk— including a small kid— waved goodbye at them as they left the town’s limits.

“Aw man, we saved their lives. That’s pretty cool.” Jester gushed, waving behind her as the figures of the town dissolved into the horizon.

“We’re awesome, yeah,” Nott said, looking back too.

The cart sways down the road as the group continues on their journey, rocking gently as the horses pull it along. They chat; Nott pulls out some darning and shows Beau how to handle a needle and sew up some holes in her garments. The goblin pulls the kid in, too, saying that, “Everybody should know how to sew. You can sew up your clothes, or a cut, or a tear, or… other things.”

“Yeah! You could sew someone’s mouth shut!” Beau guffawed, mimicking it.

“I think Nott meant wounds,” Fjord said from beside the cart, leaning his head in to see the trio. “It can help save a limb, keep it from going gangrene.” He paused, eyes falling on the child. They had a hand to their throat, touching the scar that spanned most of their neck. “Aye, like that.”

Catching their eye, he gestured to his forehead, where a bright line cut through his eyebrows, and the various other lines that marked his face. “It just means you’ve had an interesting life,” he clarified, trying to empathize.

“Meant nothing by it. We’ve all got our own fair share of marks.”

The kid nodded, pulling the scarf further up to cover their neck, their ears turning a bit pink.

Fjord leaned back out of the cart, sighing. He caught Nott’s eyes, and shrugged. Sensing an opportunity to chat, Jester leaned in and started to explain how, when she was but a little, blue tiefling, she’d gotten into trouble doing this or that, pointing out small scars on her knees and elbows. Beau jumped on it, too, showing off all marks of accidents in training. From climbing trees as a kid in Kamordah. From climbing cliffs as a teenager. From climbing buildings as a young adult. Sliding into the conversation, Molly undid the top few laces of his shirt— got an earful from Beau— and showed the kid the multitude of scars down his front. All wild stories from Tealeaf, the next one more unbelievable than the last.

The chatter left some time for Fjord and Nott to have a silent conversation. That morning, the Nein decided that while none of them quite knew each others’ stories, they were adults. That was a reasonable choice to make. But a kid on their own? Something didn’t sit well with the group.

Of course, kids ran away from home and hung out in the woods for a couple days. Maybe. But most came home within the week. This kid, though. Two months, he remembered, trying to think of his own childhood.

He was independent, sure. Any kid raised in that orphanage had to know how to fend for themselves. But that was versus other children. Not adults, not the wilderness. As Caleb had pointed out that morning, the kid was walking alongside the road that came from Zadash. That was a long ways away from where they said they hailed. To go it all alone, for months on end? He wondered if they were lying, or how much they were hiding.

Would it bite them all in the ass? No more than anyone else’s backstory would. Looking at Beau and Molly display their rather limitless number of scars with pride, he wondered whose past would come to claim them first. Molly’s had almost killed them. They didn’t even know Beau’s surname, yet. Caleb kept flippantly giving every townsperson and guard his full name— there had to be some secret behind that. Jester’s god made everyone nervous. Yasha barely spoke of her past, as did Yasha. Caduceus was an open book in some respects, but details were few and far between— hints of family members with bigger fish to fry. Without noticing, Fjord ran his tongue over his shaved-down tusks.

Adding another bit of complexity to their already difficult group wasn’t that much, considering. There were nine of them now, counting the kid. Going from eight to nine couldn’t be that much different. Plus the kid was quieter than Kiri, and if the need arose, would be able to run away and take care of themselves for a bit.

Just in case.

—————

That evening, as the shadows began to grow along the path, Caleb pulled his spellbook from his pack and sat down on the cart. “Give me ten minutes,” he mumbled as he began reciting a spell, his hands gently pushing and pulling unseen arcane energy. Around him, there was a sot of buzz in the air. It made Caduceus’s fur stand up on end, send a bit of a shock to Yasha, and curl Molly’s hair.

Most of the Nein was focused on pitching up camp for the night, and went about their usual duties without much of a second glance. Still holding and talking about the jewels they’d found, Jester hopped out of the cart and started to dance and sing again.

The kid sat near him, watching his hands with rapt attention. There was something in that look that the Mighty Nein couldn’t quite explain. It wasn’t pure curiosity. They’d seen the group perform magic before; most weren’t shy about keeping it a secret. No, this was different. There was a knowledge behind their transfixed eyes. A clarity in the turquoise that came from experience.

“Hey kid, did you know a caster, before?”

They nodded, without answering Beau or looking away from Caleb. Their eyes just trailed down from his hands to the book. Subconsciously, their hand moved to rest on their little bag, fingers feeling the shape of it. She watched as they traced the outline of a rectangle.

“Do you have a magic book?” Jester asked, bounding up to the end of the cart. She pressed herself against the last board, leaning her chest on the wood. It would be odd for anyone but Jester to do. Alluring and coy was her default setting. “Is that why you’re— like— watching Caleb so, you know, carefully?”

In response, the kid blinked and tore their eyes from Caleb’s form as he began to complete a ritual casting. On their shoulder bag, their hand gripped the book within tighter. Even their lips seemed tense, flattening into a straight, whitened line.

Don’t say anything, they told themselves, If they don’t know where I’m from, they can’t take me back. And if they don’t know who I am… They’ll be safer. So, they shrugged.

“Nah, I think you know more than you’re telling us,” Molly muttered, leaning against the cart, too. Everyone agreed that when he was ‘born’ two years ago, his default behavior was also set to ‘flirtatious,’ but it came across as more known than Jester’s apparent cluelessness.

“Perhaps,” Caleb said, putting a hand on his book, “Now you can explain better.”

Nodding, the kid pointed to the page, and signed something. The group all watched, a bit surprised, at the speed and dexterity of their fingers. It wasn’t just random shapes, either. There was a sort of pattern to the shapes their fingers took. And, from what the Nein could tell, it wasn’t arcane ones either. Most of them had watched Caleb or Jester or Fjord or Caduceus enough to tell what was and wasn’t a spell.

The kid seemed to finish a few sentences before Caleb smiled.

“They say,” he translated, scratching the stubble of a beard that was starting to grow in, “That they knew magic. And that there was an old man in town who used to show them.” The kid signed something a couple of times, and Caleb clarified, “Teach. He used to teach them.”

Beau whistled, leaning against the cart to watch. There was a different air about them, one of focus and clarity instead of the slight fever they had the night before. Maybe the long rest and food had helped. Maybe it was the day spent cat-napping in the cart. Maybe it was all in their heads. Who knew? Jester and Caduceus certainly would have healed the kid up, but they didn’t make a move to. So they couldn’t have been that bad. “You know magic, kid?”

Watching as the kid’s shoulders deflated a bit, but signed on, Caleb translated, “Years ago, they learned from this old man. But they can’t talk anymore, so they can’t cast magic.”

“But, like—” Jester stuttered, pouting, “can’t you do magic without talking?”

Caduceus shook his head. “Try,” he prompted. And Jester did. She stood there, brow furrowed for a moment, clutching her symbol of the Traveler, to no avail. “I was trying to use Thaumaturgy to make all of the snow fall from the trees,” she complained, slumping over. “It’s super hard, you guys.”

“There are very few mages who can do it. It’s a sort of myth, all things considered,” Fjord supplied, rubbing his jaw with a free hand. “Maybe you can try?”

“They already have,” Caleb said, “they said they’ve been trying since, that.” The kid pointed at their scar.

“So like,” Beau asked, pointing at it with an accusative finger, “What’s up with that? What’s the story? If you didn’t have it when you were younger, why in the hell do you have it now? You gonna tell us?”

“Wow, Beau, that’s super rude,” Jester said, giving her a sad face.

“What?” She looked to Fjord, who shook his head. “You’re all thinking that too, right?”

“Yeah, but we aren’t going to ask like that!” Nott piped up, hopping up next to Caleb.

“They say it was taken out.” The wizard looked at them, a bit forlorn. He knew what it felt like to have magic wrenched from his grasp, to no longer feel the arcane weave beneath his fingers. It was like taking a sense away, to go from tasting sweet honey to tasting ashes.

“We won’t pry any further,” Molly said, putting a gentle hand on the kid’s. They jumped a bit, but nodded with teary eyes. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to answer that asshole.” He jutted his thumb in Beau’s direction, grimacing. “She’s kind of fucked up.”

“Language!” Nott screeched. The kid seemed to giggle, their shoulders bouncing and hands covering a small grin that stretched across their face. The group froze for a moment, their minds whirring to comprehend what it all meant before Nott jumped to her feet and cheered. “Hah! I got their first smile, suckers!”

“No, I think that was Yasha,” Jester said, pointing at the barbarian. “They were super happy this morning with the flowers and stuff.”

Pushing himself from the cart, Molly said, “Yasha got the first smile, but you got their first laugh.”

“I’ll take that!”

“Alright, we’ve got to bed down for the night, so let’s split into groups. Caduceus, if you could park the cart and take care of the horses, Caleb and Beau— fire duty again? With the kid, so you can keep talking to them, Caleb— and Yasha and I can start some dinner.”

“I’ll take first watch with Nott,” Molly said, nodding to his compatriot. “Hunting can be fun. We’ll shoot anything that flies.”

“Or rats. They’re tasty, too,” Nott added, waltzing off towards the treeline. Molly rolled his eyes and joined.

The two moved off, Nott readying her crossbow while Molly strode forwards to send birds or beasts her way. With a final smirk to the kid, the rogue started to crawl through the underbrush and disappeared behind the banks of snow.

While the group finished setting up camp, the Nein would drift back to the kid and ask quick questions. They clarified that they didn’t have a voice because, as Caleb tried to translate, “It was bad?” Jester asked what their favorite color is, and they admitted it was dark red.

When she came back all in a tussle, running towards the now smoldering fire, Nott wanted to know whether or not the kid had ever eaten a rat. When they shook their head, she didn’t need to wait for Caleb to translate it before she began to explain why it was so good, and delicious, and that she would certainly find one for them to try.

They hid a quick sign of terror to Caleb as she sprinted off into the forest, joining up with a waiting purple blob.

“You don’t have to eat it,” Caleb said, looking them in the eye over the fire. The flames licked around his hand as he kept it burning, waiting for the damp wood to dry enough to self-contain itself.

“Didn’t she say you guys are like, family or something? Beau asked, looking towards the spot where Molly and Nott had disappeared. “You were her son, or something?”

“Was?”

“She said something about ‘parent and child’ the other day,” she clarified, shrugging. “Then Jester decided that must’ve meant you were her son.”

“I am not her son.” He blinked, perplexed. “She is a goblin,” he reminded her.

“Yeah, but not in the blood-related sense,” Beau said. “Fuck blood related family,” she grumbled, poking the fire with a stick she’d found, “Found family’s the way to go.” She cackled when the kid nodded, watching her with a new light in their eyes. “See! Even the kid agrees, and they’re what… twelve?” They nodded. “Yeah, not even a teenager.”

Still confused, Caleb asked, “Do you mean… like Yasha and Mollymauk?”

“Yeah, well. I guess they count. They’re not related, but they’re like family. So. Found family.” She nodded at the kid. “It’s a thing.”

“I do not know if Nott believes I am her son— or like a son. I… do not see that as our relationship.”

“It’s cool.” She leaned over close to him though, and— under her breath— added, “Just. Don’t tell her that, yeah? Sounded kind of secret.”

“You are terrible with secrets.” The kid followed along, giving Beau a sidelong stare. It made the two adults laugh, attracting Caduceus, Fjord, and Jester.

The firbolg sidled up to the fire and began to pull out his cooking equipment. “Everything alright?”

“Oh, the horses are doing just fine,” he said, situating a metal tripod over the now steady fire. A large, copper pot was hung from the center, and filled with clear water from his waterskin. “The trees are looking wonderful.” His pink eyes swept around the canopy, looking at the autumnal colors surrounding them. “It’s a shame we’re going so far South— we may not see any snow in the Menagerie Coast.”

“Definitely not in Nicodranas,” Fjord added, shrugging, “Much too warm for that.”

Flouncing next to them and taking out a piece of old pastry, Jester added, “But, like, snow’s super cold and wet— which is so not fun when your socks are all nasty and freezing. So it’s nice in the wintertime!”

As Fjord started pulling out some vegetables from the bottom of his pack to hand to Caduceus, he sighed. “Snow on the ocean is mighty beautiful,” he said, a wistful air in his voice. “It’s cold enough that it falls, but the water just dissolves it. So the only thing that turns white is the ship, glittering in the light of lanterns. It’s gorgeous.” He smiled at the others now returning with some poor, dead birds. “And it’s so quiet, too. Like someone’s magicked the world into silence.”

“Is there enough snow for snowmen?”

“If there is, you wouldn’t want to be outside to make them,” he specified, “If it’s coming down that hard, it’s best to hoist the sail, lower the anchor, and stay put as best as you can.”

Sliding in beside the kid, Molly propped his elbow on his knee and added, “I’d still make a snowman in that weather. It’d be fun to put it right on the pointy part of the ship.”

He blinked. “You mean the bow?”

“Mhmm,” Molly hummed, looking at the kid and winking, “I most assuredly knew that was the name for the pointy, front end of a vessel.” The kid gave him a small grin, and started signing something.

Interpreting, Caleb narrated the signs with slightly furrowed brow. “They say their favorite thing to do when it snows is to make little castles.” The group watched as the kid motioned building one, putting little roofs on circular towers, making a drawbridge, and marking out the spot for a moat in the air. “Uh… they were just showing you what it looked like,” Caleb added, apologetic. “That didn’t seem to translate…”

“Oh. It wasn’t words, per say.” He frowned. “This is quite confusing.”

The kid shrugged, signing something. Nodding, he explained, “They don’t know a lot of— hand language? Is that what it is called? No, Hand Common? Sign Common— They’re still learning Signed Common, so they just… gesture when they don’t know the word. Or spell it.”

“Can you teach us the alphabet, kiddo?”

They looked to Beau, and nodded. For the next half-hour, until the last of Comprehend Languages wore off, Caleb and the kid tried to teach the Mighty Nein how to spell in Signed Common. He would narrate and explain as the kid leaned over and prodded and moved fingers and hands into the right shape, slowly moving through the letters.

After the lesson— which continued over the stew Caduceus made, and the kid tried to show everyone the sign for everything they knew— Caleb, Nott, and Beau seemed to be faring quite well. While Caduceus and Jester made good attempts, they didn’t seem to get the handle of signing it. Molly had fun spelling out dirty words behind their backs, and Yasha started to gently spell out the names of flowers she knew.

Jester loved it.

“We can, like, totally talk while the enemy doesn’t know what hit them!” She started trying to figure out how to sign her moves, mistakes flying from her fingers left and right, as she hopped around the group, swinging her axe through the night air, still in its cover.

The kid shook their head, tapped her on the knee, and proceeded to try explaining the signs as best as they could, but she was too excited about the prospect of silent battle strategies to be focused. Molly eventually took her over, talking about how much he wanted to see and talk to Jester’s mother, while the kid turned to Caduceus and started helping him sign the word for ‘mushroom’ and ‘grow.’ He got them, but putting them together was hard.

By the end of the evening, Caleb had promised to cast Comprehend Languages when he had enough spells when the Nein bunked down for the night, and the kid said they’d try and teach the team some signs for use in combat. They signed slowly, letting each motion rest in the air for a moment before moving on to the next one, spelling out the words one at a time. “‘I don’t know all the words for fighting,’” Nott read aloud, watching their hands with her bright, yellow eyes, “‘But we can always make up some!’ I quite like the sound of that. Secret signs!”

“What do you do for names,” Yasha asked, forming her hand into the letters of her name. “It seems long, to spell it out.”

“‘You get sign names,’” Beau recited. “Oh, that’s cool. So, I guess, do you have a sign name?”

The kid made a K with their fingers, bringing it near their nose. “... What does that mean.” They spelled it out. “Oh. So ‘kid’ and K.”

“Your name is just ‘Kid?’” Molly asked, frowning. “Seems… odd.” They shrugged.

The group looked at the kid; an unspoken thought lingered in the back of their minds. Who would’ve given a child the name ‘Kid?’ It was not their own, that was obvious. A cruel nickname, perhaps, or something borne of necessity. Either answer was unknown. Coughing to clear his throat, Fjord asked, “Ah, do you have another name you go by, small one?”

The kid just shook their heads.

“Do you have a name you, like, want to use? Sometimes I call myself Jester Fluffypants!” She patted her legs, showing off the bloomers underneath her skirt. “It’s super fun.”

Again, the kid seemed unconvinced.

“Seems you don’t want us to use your name,” Caduceus guessed, watching as a bit of horror and fear laced through the kid’s eyes. “That’s alright; names are special things. Some people give them away, some people keep them secret. Guess you’re the latter.”

“I made up my own name,” Mollymauk said, leaning against Yasha. “Picked it out myself.” He leaned over and asked, “Hey, kiddo? Since you’ve got one of those fancy name signs, can we have some? Is that alright?”

The kid nodded, pointed to him, and made a sign. “Ooh, is this for me?” The child nodded, and signed it slower, showing him the M formed in their hands, and curling it around to look like his horns. “Oh! I get it!” He made the sign himself, proud. “It’s my horns,” he preened, triumphant.

For Jester, the kid signed a J that ended with their pinky pointing at their cheek, which the Nein figured out as Jester’s dimples. “I love it!” She grinned, signing her name over and over, her little finger prodding her cheek and pointing out her dimples.

Fjord’s sign was an F, pointer finger and thumb tapping his lips. He thanked the kid, a bit curious. “Why there?” When they leaned forwards and displayed their own teeth, pointing at the canines, he blushed. “Ah, yes.” Deflating a bit, the kid looked up at him with a concerned expression. “No, it’s nice. A good sign.” They weren’t convinced, though, but let it slide when Fjord assured them he wasn’t uncomfortable. But once they turned their back to help Molly with his sign again, the half-orc started picking at his tusks again.

Turning to Yasha, they gave her a one-handed, Y shaped version of ‘strong,’ pointing to her muscular arms and explaining the choice as best as they could.

When the kid turned to Caduceus, however, the whole party understood. “My hair,” he said, tracing a C down his long, pink locks. “I guess I’m not allowed to cut it, then.”

Nott’s was simple, too. But like Fjord, she seemed quite uncomfortable at the thought that her name sign was based solely on her pointy ears. Just a simple N, tracing the outline of her goblin ears. The kid saw her expression and frowned, pointing to Fjord and signing something to themselves. “It’s okay,” Nott tried to say, before the kid shook their head and crossed their arms. They seemed to think for a bit, and came up with an N, tracing their neck. At Nott’s confusion, they pointed at the buttons around her neck. “Oh, yeah! That’s a good one,” she said, a hand to the little necklace of buttons she had made. “I like it.”

Beau’s was simple, and the group agreed. It made sense. It was just a B, tracing down in front of her. Like when she stands at the ready. Or, as the kid literally pointed out, “Like my bo staff!” she chuckled, picking it up and holding it in front of her. “Yep. That’s perfect.”

To everyone’s surprise, Caleb’s was the hardest. The kid looked at him, signing a few ideas to themselves. One focused on his beard, another his scarf, and a third on his books. The kid settled, though, for a cuter one. “Like whiskers on a cat, ja?” He said, hand stroking nonexistent hairs above his lip. “What is the sign for cat?” When the kid showed it to him, he nodded, understanding. “Would Frumpkin’s name be this?” He asked, adjusting the sign to be more of an F. The kid shrugged. “Thank you.”

—————

When Caleb awoke, feeling the frost crack and rustle on the grass around him as he pushed himself up, he saw the kid sitting up, looking at a book. It sat on their lap, partially covered by the draping fabric of their cloak. Reading with their head bowed, finger tracing the page, he watched their lips form the shape of silent words. When their hands formed the telltale shape for Prestidigitation, he sighed. At some point, they’d been a little wizard. He scratched his forearms absently, watching as they finished the silent incantation and nothing came out.

Their brow furrowed and they tried again. And again. At least ten times, they did all the steps correctly, reciting the words in their mind and forming the proper shapes with their free hand. But none of the arcane power poured through them.

A slow drip of ice landed in Caleb’s stomach. The thought of losing his own powers— however weak his spells were now— was terrifying. Silence was one thing— it was easily disturbed by damage, and only lasted so long. This… this was like an everlasting Silence, one that lingered, indefinite and invulnerable. He wondered, watching the kid try for the eleventh time just that morning, if they did this before. If they spent a few minutes, every day, trying to make the spells come forth. It was obvious, to him, that they’d experienced the rush of adrenaline as the weave around them bent. The electric power that one could focus and use. There was a comforting rush of release, like stress blown away, when a spell cast properly.

The fifteenth time they tried, he leaned over and tapped the corner of their book. Horrified, their eyes widening as they shuffled backwards on their ass, the kid stared at him. “You will drive yourself mad,” he mumbled, eyes looking down at their tome. “Every wizard tries to cast without words. It is not possible for us. We are not powerful enough. Perhaps for mages who have lived hundreds or thousands of years. Whose body is made of their own magic. But our ilk?” He gestured at the two of them, quiet but frustrated, “it is not for us.”

The kid shook their head, signing something. From underneath Caleb’s hand, they wrenched their book, frustrated tears leaking out of the corner of their eyes.

Oh no. That was wrong, all wrong. “I am sorry,” he said, feeling himself backtracking, “But it’s not— the stories say— I’ve only heard of great and powerful casters who can do this. The tales are all of old, experienced mages.” They shied away from him further, turning around so their back was to the now pained wizard. “I— I do not… I do not think it healthy to— to hurt yourself like this.”

With a final scoot away from him, they covered their ears and buried their head between their knees.

He sat back, a new kind of fear rising up in him. That… wasn’t a good move. He shouldn’t have done that. His mind began to spiral as he stood up, retrieving a little bit of frosty firewood, as he stoked the cinders back to life. He’d ruined everything, just when the group was feeling a bit more stable and capable. They’d run away. It would be all his fault.

Caduceus woke a minute or so later, as little, yellow flames began to lick the sides of a log. His eyes lingered on Caleb, whose gaze was transfixed on the play of the fire along the wood, his hand resting outwards as he shaped a Fire Bolt to coax the campfire. Then, he turned around and saw the kid, shoulders hunched and hiccuping. “Hey,” he said, moving to sit next to them. “It’s alright. Let it all out.” He rested a blanket over their shoulders, pulling it around their curled form. He watched as their little hands— a bit pale from the chill, he suspected— crawled out from under their tangled hair to grab the blanket. As they pulled it close to themselves, he saw the pages of a book peeking out from their lap.

“Oh, is this your book?” He asked, tapping the binding. When he got no response, he said, “I don’t think it’s comfortable to sit like that, and it could crumple the pages. Do you want me to hold it?” They burrowed their face into the blanket, but unfurled just enough for him to take the tome.

It was a spellbook, that was sure. He’d seen Caleb pull his own out, and knew spell instructions when he saw them. The writing on it was a bit rough— he assumed the child had written it themselves— but readable. He scanned the page, flipping a few more. “You should ask Miss Jester about Thaumaturgy,” he said, thinking back. “She’s very good at blowing windows open.”

Now under the blanket, the kid shook side to side.

“Oh, well, it can be used for more than that. You can make candles go out, or make noises happen, all that.” They gave him another no, which made him remember. “Right. Well.” He watched their posture for a moment later, before he looked to Caleb, who was distinctly not meeting his eye. The wizard had his back turned, but a hand was stroking his own spellbook. Caduceus saw the pale fingers stroking the binding, contemplative. “I don’t think there’s any harm in trying,” he said, closing the kid’s tome. “Does it use energy to try and cast?” The kid shrugged. “Does it make you sad or angry when it doesn’t work?” They shrugged again, but peered out at him from under the blankets.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with trying,” he repeated, tapping the book. “If it doesn’t work, nothing’s changed. The situation can’t get worse. There’s a chance it’ll get better.” Contemplating it, he nodded. “So the only way from here is up, don’t you think?”

Looking away, they kid nodded after a few quiet moments. A hand stretched out from under the blankets and reached for the book. He gave it to them, and they flipped it open to the very first page.

On it was a small inscription, in a handwriting that was much more fluid and well-versed than the kid’s own script. A dedication, Caduceus decided after reading it over for a moment; his eyes traveled across the words quite slowly. Some of the letters were smeared and splotchy, little circles of water damage that scattered across the page. From what he could read, though, it was hopeful. A master’s dedication to a pupil.

He assumed the name at the top was the kid’s, but decided to keep it a secret. Rowan was such a nice name.

“Did your teacher write this for you?” The kid nodded, tapping the name at the bottom. Rowan leaned against Caduceus as they signed out the name, now too faded and damaged to read. “One more time?” They repeated the gestures, cold fingers forming clear letters. “Theron?” he asked, sounding out the name. “Was that the old man you told us about?”

They nodded against his arm, curling into his side. For a moment Rowan sat there, their eyes fixed on the book. He watched their gaze, noticing the glassy look in their eyes, before they pulled themselves up and away in a sharp motion, stepping so that there was space between themselves and Caduceus.

He closed the front cover and handed them the book, unphased. “Thank you for showing me this,” he said, handing it back. “If you want my help, I’d be happy to help.” A wordless promised rested on his lips. I will not tell the others who you are. If you want to keep it a secret, it’s yours to share. In the back of his mind, though, he wished they would be more open. The Nein would not judge them for anything they’d done or been through.

Rowan nodded, handing him back his blanket, and went off to stuff their book into their backpack.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Caleb looking between them, his own expression dark and guilty. He pet Frumpkin with one hand, not watching the other as it sat a bit too close to the fire. It took him a few moments to pull his fingers back, wincing at the pain. Caduceus caught his eye, and pointed to his own hand as if to ask, ‘Are you alright?’

Caleb shrugged away from the firbolg’s look, ears deepening to a pinkish shade.

Wizards are like cats, he thought to himself, folding his blanket and packing the rest of his bedroll away. He looked across the group and counted, realizing there were only eight of them. At some point in the night, Yasha had wandered away, her footprints disappearing into the underbrush a few hundred feet away.

He leaned over, tapping Molly on the shoulder. The tiefling awoke, looking at the ground Caduceus was pointing at. He nodded, mumbling about how she said goodbye in the night, and rolled over, trying to fall back asleep. “She does that,” he added, “every once in a while.”

Chapter Text

The rest of the Nein noticed that the kid seemed more comfortable with Caduceus for the next few days. The group watched as Rowan sat behind him, their legs straight in front of them as they watched the sky and the trees. Sometimes, they walked alongside the cart, stretching their legs until they were tired, with a hand resting on the bench. But always within earshot and eyeshot of Caduceus.

They would lean over and pat him on the knee, every few yours, and show him something they’d noticed. A pretty field of flowers off in the distance. The shadowed figure of a crow flying dozens of feet above the group. Or the approaching mountains in the distance.

On the contrary, they seemed to shy away from Caleb. Which was saying something, seeing as how they were so thankful he had cast a spell to understand them. Their wizard, too, seemed to steer clear of them, and chose to walk beside Nott or practically hide himself behind Beau.

Fjord sighed, wondering what in the world happened.

The rest of the day was quiet, save for the bandit they passed. That was a tense few minutes.

In the front of the cart, Caduceus and Jester disguised themselves, the kid feeling a small twinge in their heart. It came so easily to the clerics, something pulled from a place aetherial. It felt fresh, their magics; like green shoots and sparkling waters. The two turned around to shush the rest of the Nein, hiding under the enchanted cart, looking like two normal humans on their way to sell goods at a market. It felt weird, not seeing blue and pink and aquamarine.

As the figure on horseback passed by, those who hid watched with quieted breaths. Dark, salt and pepper hair. Darkened clothing, with a strip of fabric over his suntanned face. Something shifty about him, as he passed. Something full of intent written into the creases in his face. The look of a man who didn’t want to be stopped, or noticed, or remembered.

Oh, they would remember.

They all kept their cool for ten minutes after he passed, watching as his form galloped over a hill, disappearing as he made his way down the other end of the slope. Beau snapped her fingers and whispered, “Oh my god, those were totally his jewels the other day.”

The group bust up laughing at that, Caduceus smiling and patting Jester as both of them let their Disguise Self drop. Their color returned, and it felt like the group returned too. Quiet did not easily surround the Nein. “He’s so in trouble. Big, big doody piles of trouble!” Jester sent Nott and Beau a smirk, patting Caduceus on the arm. “Such a good find!”

“I’ll drink to that!” Nott called. As she took a swig from her flask, Fjord gave her a look. “What? You haven’t had a problem with this before!” She followed his look and saw Rowan watching, looking inquisitive.

“Stay in school, don’t drink, don’t do drugs,” Beau repeated, some old mantra coming to the forefront of her mind. Like a sour flashback. “Well. I guess the first one is kind of out of the question, now.”

“I dunno,” Molly said, leaning on Jester's lap, “There are a lot of things you can learn on the road. I learned everything I know on the road!”

“You don’t count,” Beau said, giving him a look. “You weren’t even, like, a person two years ago.”

“I was a person, just not me.” His tail twitched in irritation. “Point still stands,” he said, waving his hand in the air. “You’ve got a book, kiddo! Do you have a pencil? Some charcoal? Ink and a quill? We can teach you. How’s that, for school?”

Quietly, Caleb mumbled, “School is overrated.”

Beau held out her hand for a fist bump. “I can get behind that.” They shared a moment of solidarity before the monk hopped out of the cart. “I can teach you to fight, kid, but not much more than that.”

“Don’t the teachers at the Cobalt Soul tell you anything about, I don’t know… gods and magic and history and monk shit?” Nott asked, leaning her head outside the cart.

“Well, yeah. But like, I’m not really meant for classroom environments,” she shrugged, stretching her arms out as she walked. “So no guarantees that I’ll remember anything. Slept through class mostly. Shrugging, Beau didn’t look particularly broken up about the lost possibilities. “Stuff’s all boring, anyways.”

“Caleb can teach you about history, and magic, and all of that!” Nott decided, popping her head back into the cart to turn to the kid. “He’s very smart!” Rowan tilted their head to the side, expression smooth; they remained unconvinced. “I could teach you about potions and poisons! And acids!” Leaping across the cart, she rummaged in her pack and took out a vial of greenish, viscous liquid. “Acids are amazing!”

The group all chatted, offering their knowledge to the kid. Though they displayed their small collection of random objects— pretty leaves, old bottles of ink, buts of nice paper— the kid didn’t have anything reasonable to write with. And with the swaying of the cart, and the probable guilt at using Jester’s pretty inks, Rowan never took out their spellbook to take notes. But they listened. That was something they were good at. The stories made the rest of the uneventful afternoon more exciting, at least.

Everyone seemed to have fun sharing stories. Nothing important, nothing that bared their souls. But fun things, ones that spoke of hijinks and rule-breaking. Of old friendships. Of family. Their most colorful memories— though, the ones suitable for a ten-year-old’s ears. Even Caduceus chimed in, talking about the families he’d seen during his work at the cemetery.

“It feels like only yesterday,” Molly quipped, now lounging half on an annoyed Beauregard, half on his pack, “that I met you all.”

“Yeah, it totally doesn’t feel like a month or whatever,” Jester agreed. “And now we’re going to Nicodranas! You all will get to see my momma! And the Menagerie Coast!”

“But first, we have to get through,” Fjord said, looking to the horizon. “Should get there tomorrow.”

And indeed, the next afternoon saw the Nein reaching Trostenwald. They hitched the wagon at the same inn they’d visited the last time they were there. Everyone piled in to the jailhouse and watched as Caduceus— still calm, quiet, and peaceful as ever— scared the holy water out of Gustav. After they drank and made merry in the inn, and climbed their way up to their few rooms, the firbolg himself noticed the kid sneaking quick and worried glances his direction. But they tried to act unphased.

As the morning rose, the kid woke up in a room with Jester and Beau. The sun was shining through the window, and the Nein’s monk was doing push ups, sit ups, pull ups, and all forms of ups in the morning light that shone through the room’s little window.

“Four days travel to the Wuyun Gates,” Caleb said as they left the city’s streets and made their way to the road connecting the Empire with the Coast. “Should be quiet enough.”

And it was. For three days, the road was quiet. Beau and Caduceus headed the trail, as their firbolg companion seemed in tune with the horses in more ways then one. The group all took turns on the cart; the kid was the most frequent rider, though. Sometimes, when they were alone, they’d try casting again, pulling their spell book from their pouch and mumbling the shapes for the words.

When Caleb was near, he’d do his best not to watch. Guilt still played in the back of his mind. But in a twisted way, he felt a bit vindicated every time one of the kid’s spells did not work. And then that sickening feeling would rear its head in his stomach and he’d walk away to find Nott, or Fjord, or Beau.

It was difficult, for both of them. Their frustration would rise and fall, often ending in a book snapped shut and spell components shoved into their pack. Other times, the kid would huff and sigh. A few times, though, they would start to sniffle, drop their things on the cart, and climb over to the bench and sit beside Caduceus. He never seemed phased when Rowan buried their face into his coat. He would just pat their head, and talk about plants, or fungi, or death.

It was difficult because it felt like they were close. That welling up of pressure inside their heart seemed to appear, at random intervals, but nothing took. On the third day, after a full hour of attempting to cast a cantrip, Caduceus chuckled when they silently sighed and threw their head back onto the bench of the cart. He looked down at them, at their upside down face, and asked, “Still not good?” They shook their heads, watching as Beau looked at their head. She grinned.

“You look like a floating head,” she said, gesturing to the cart. “Damn that illusion is fun.” The kid gave her a watery grin. She made a pained face and grimaced.

“Are you going to keep trying?” Caduceus asked, seeming to ignore Beau’s amusement.

“Keep trying at what?” Beau asked, before making a noise of realization as the kid disappeared and reappeared with their book. “Right. Yeah. Totally remember you used to be able to cast spells.” When they tapped their throat, she nodded again. “Yep. No, I didn’t forget. Uh-uh. I remember all, just like Caleb.”

“Just like me, was?” He asked, sidling over. “I heard my name?”

“Nope, nothing at all.” Beau said, smirking as she hopped up onto the cart. “We weren’t talking about you, were we?” The kid caught her gaze and shook their head, retracting their book. Caduceus watched the other two, decided it was a thing, and shook his head too.

“Ja, I don’t believe you all,” Caleb grumbled, letting the cart move away from him as he waited a moment for Nott. “You are terrible at lying,” he called, looking over at Rowan. “You cannot lie for beans.”

The trio giggled— the kid without a sound— and Beau looked to them. “So, like, you used to cast magic? What were you, a sorcerer?”

Shaking their head, the kid clambered up onto the seat between the two. They showed Beau their book, opening it to the first page. “This was, like, specially for you?” They nodded. “Fancy.”

“How have your attempts gone?” Caduceus asked, keeping an eye on the road. He watched the world around him, fascinated by the wide, open spaces. “Any luck?”

With a wobbly hand, the kid spelled out a few sentences to Beau. “So. You’re— maybe— almost there? What’s that?” She watched, and then asked, “What’s this about your heart feeling tight?” With an impressed look, she asked the firbolg, “Is that what all magic feels like?”

Still driving, Caduceus said, “When I cast, I’m using the Wild Mother’s blessings. I often feel her near me. I use her power to call forth magic.” He looked down at the kid. “It’s less of my heart feeling tight. It feels more open, to me.”

“Sick,” Beau added. “Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re a cleric— you get your magic from a deity— and the kid got their magic from… what… the arcane? The world around them?” She watched them sign, and shook her head. “Yeah the whole ‘bending the weave of the world’ is all beyond me,” she admitted. “Talk to the nerd for that one.”

There was a quiet beat. Then, Rowan shrugged, and put their book back in the bed of the cart. The trio lapsed into silence, just enjoying the quiet day.

A complete secret to everyone but herself, Beau was surprised the kid was comfortable with the close proximity. What with Caduceus on one side, and her on the other, the kid was bumping shoulders and knocking against them as the cart rocked back and forth. She remembered the first couple of days, when Molly or Jester would try to brush a hand over their head, or grab their attention with a gentle hand on their shoulder. They’d jump, something wild in their eyes. But now the kiddo seemed unphased. In just a few days, they’d grown used to the touchy-feely friendliness most of the Nein had towards each other.

Instead, they watched the world around them, too, noticing the approaching wall that lined most— if not all— of the horizon. They pointed at it, looking at Beau for clarification; one of their eyebrows disappeared into their messy hair.

“Those are the Cryios Mountains,” she said, pointing to one side, “and those are the Ashkeeper Peaks. Where they meet up, there’s the Wuyun Gates. That’s where the path’s going.”

Sidling up to the cart, Jester giggled. “Yeah,” she said. “There’s like, this gorge between the two of them, and the path goes right through the middle.” She leaned against the cart, looking up at Beau. “I’ve been here before, so I’m totally used to the area.”

As they began to reach the end of the Marrow Valley, they finally saw the gates themselves. Great, iron and wood gates, over two stories high, reached up into the clear, late autumn skies. “They’re a good ten, fifteen feet thick,” Fjord added, gesturing with his arms out. “With the battlements and such, the gates themselves are even taller.” As they came closer, they saw a group of soldiers, around fifty in number, clothed reddish garments and a very different set of armor. It looked nothing like the Crownsguard.

“What do you make of those, Mr. Fjord?”

“The Righteous Brand,” Fjord told Caduceus, whistling under his breath. He leaned an arm against the cart and added, “Should be fine, though it’s gone up ten-fold since we were here. We’re leaving, which isn’t as dire as enterin’ would be.”

“Seems fair,” Beau agreed, hopping off the cart. “They’re going to inspect us, though.”

The Nein looked at their very enchanted cart and thought fast. The firbolg, however, seemed stuck on something, his clever eyes glazed over in an odd, unbecoming way. “Uh… Caduceus? Why is your nose bleeding?”

“What?”

“Are you okay?” Jester asked again, looking over him. “Are you ill? Does that happen when you think, like, really hard?”

“Hm?”

The kid took a piece of fabric from their pack— a scrap of something from years ago— and held it out to him. He nodded, wiping the blood dribbling from his nose.

The others began contemplating how to turn off the enchantment on the cart, trying to figure out if there was any way that it can be disrupted or dispelled temporarily. “We should empty the cart,” Caleb said, when they realized it would only turn off if the whole illusion went away. “Then we walk by foot? If they poke a stick in, then there’s nothing there?”

“What’s the excuse, then, for an enchanted cart?” Fjord asked, thinking. “We need a reason.”

“It’s a very good cart. We are merchants, ja, and have a cart made to deter theives.”

“I like this plan.” Fjord watched as Jester pulled a leaden box out of her bag and opened it. “Shouldn’t I be the one to look into it? Seeing as how I haven’t, yet, and will be doing all the talkin’?”

“Oh, yeah!” Jester handed the box over, the kid watching with a curious expression. They tried to look at the object inside of that box, but Fjord had it under wraps. “Your turn, so you can be, like, super persuasive.”

 

“Silver tongue,” Caleb agreed.

“I promise I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Beau said, looking to Nott. The two shared a look of solidarity. The kid tapped Beau’s shoulder, and acted like they were buttoning up their lips. “Hey, that’s a good one,” she said, clapping them ever-so-gently on the shoulder. “You should teach Molly that one. He’s too loud.”

“Excuse you,” he said, “I’m a treasure.”

“That’s a hell of a thing,” Fjord said, looking up from the box and blinking.

As they neared the passage, Nott retreated behind the cart and mumbled something to herself. A small halfling woman stepped from behind the cart, and said, “I’m ready.”

When the group did approach the soldiers, the kid stayed on the cart, sitting next to Beau. The guards approached with Fjord with their queries, who lied quite well about their business. When they started to peer at the goods stacked up behind them all, even though Fjord said they carried nothing, Caduceus chimed in: “There’s actually nothing on the cart. This is a preventative measure against theft. You can feel free to inspect the cart yourself, if you like.” As the guards poked their heads in, he added, “It’s kind of neat, right?”

“What are you looking to attain in Nicodranas and Port Damali?” The captain continued, still fascinated by the cart.

“Some fabrics and meats. My friends have yet to experience what the Coast has to offer, so I’m hoping to show them around some.”

After a tense moment, the captain nodded. “Very well,” she said, “move along.”

They made their way through the gates; Fjord looked up at the guards above them on a walkway, and then at the ones stationed at further points along the mountains. He gave them a nod, and a smile, but said nothing to the group.

It took a few moments before everyone relaxed, and the thought set in. “We’re not in the Dwendalian Empire any longer,” Caleb mused aloud, sitting on the end of the cart. He watched as his homeland, the only place he had ever known, move off into the distance, blocked off by the mountain range that surrounded them.

“I know, right! Fucking exciting!” Beau leapt from the cart and started to run alongside, hopping rocks and climbing up the walls. She looked ahead, watching as the path meandered through the two mountain ranges, the gorge itself steep in some areas and flat in others.

Away from the other carts trying to enter the Empire, the air is quiet and still again. Some birds flew above, their calls and voices echoing in the cavern below. Caduceus kept the cart on the straight and narrow, but watched as a weird formation of rocks moved into his vision. They jutted out, great boulders and caves created by centuries’ old seismic activities. In comparison, Molly looked thrilled at the area, sighing. “It’s been so long since we’ve been out of the Empire,” he added, looking around. “I’ve forgotten how odd this area looks.”

“It’s the mountains,” Caleb explained, kicking loose pebbles from underfoot. “The two ranges create an environment of their own.” He glanced at the sun, high in the sky, loosening his scarf. “It is quite warm, now.”

“Amazing how much better the weather is down here!” Molly said, shedding his cloak to remove a sweater, tossing that in the cart, and putting his riotous coat back on. “Feel the warm air! I can almost smell that salty breeze.”

“Before we celebrate,” Caduceus muttered, pulling the horses to a standstill. “Can we be quiet for a moment?” The group hushed around him, the kid watching as his ears pricked forwards and a bit to the side. “I hear voices.”

“What kind?” Nott whisperde.

“There’s giants, up ahead.”

The group blinked, and all eyes fell on the kid. They startled, looking at everyone’s faces, and then gestured to the cart, and underneath it. “Yeah, seems like a good plan. But watch out for rocks,” Beau said, and nodded when the kid seemed to understand. She pointed back towards the gates. “Run if you need to. The guards will protect you, if the giants come too close.” They give her a pained expression, looking back to where they came, but nodded. “Good.” They’re hours away, but in an emergency, it would be more than enough distance.

“I think he was planning on ambushing us,” Caduceus mumbled, pointing at a fifteen-foot tall gaint about thirty feet away and up the cliffside. Reaching into the cart, he retrieved his staff and mumbled an incantation. “Let’s see if Calm Emotions does anything,” he whispered. The wind picked up as he released the spell, all eyes watching the figure of the giant. “Oh, that worked.”

He grinned, watching the others stare at him in awe. With a quiet word to the horses to keep going, despite anything else, he got the cart rolling again. Caduceus waved to the giant, saying, “Nice leathers you’ve got there.”

Under his breath, Fjord murmured, “Holy — Are you fucking kidding me.”

“I know. Holy shit,” Beau agreed.

The cart moved past the first giant, until a second voice rang out, shouting something in giant. “Oh no,” Caduceus said, pulling the cart to a standstill. The horses stomped, their ears flickering like the firbolg’s.

“There’s two of them?” Nott scream-whispered, looking around.

“I don’t think the Ettins see you guys,” he said, looking around. “You’re all in the cart.” Then he felt a light tapping, and looked down at the kid, still sitting beside him. “Oh dear.”

Looking up at the second, aggravated Ettin, Caduceus called, “I think it’s really unfair you’re just putting this all on him. I think you really– you’ve got to chill out a bit. I mean, you seem like a nice guy. You’re really listening to this? Good.” He kept the cart moving forward, feeling Rowan start to shrink against him. Perhaps the two hadn’t seen them? They were quite small. “You guys have got issues, man.”

They started shouting at each other, and above the din, the group could hear Caduceus scoff: “Language! Come on!”

One of the Ettins looked down at him, perplexed, and addressed the firbolg directly. “Yeah, man. Who doesn’t speak giant? That’s just rude.” A pause, more babbling, and he said, “I don’t think you’re dumb.”

From inside the cart, they could hear Caleb mumbling a spell. Rowan recognized it, feeling the effects of the arcane weave as they watched the second giantkin fall under the effects of the Fear spell. It picked up a boulder, starting to heft it above its head, before it screamed. The sound reverberated through the gorge, and the group watched the second Ettin high-tailed it away, dropping the boulder on the cliff behind him.

The first one, who’d been calmed, continued to wave for the better part of a minute as Caduceus urged the horses to run, pulling the cart at speed as they all tried to make the last of his spell worth it. The group all heard a collective noise, and their firbolg friend began to cackle, saying, “The Ettin said, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ The jig is up!” But the group was too far away. As they cleared the area, the figure of the giant disappeared up and behind the cliffsides. When it was out of range, they let out a collective breath. The sigh of relief slowed down the horses, too, who seemed happy to carry the cart at a normal speed.

And then everyone started to laugh.

“Oh my god!” Beau and Fjord looked at each other, amazed.

“Wizards,” Caleb said, poking Nott. “I just made him see his worst fears.”

“Simply amazing.” Molly said, grinning ear to ear.

“Well done!” Nott poked him in the back, watching him twitch at the weird feeling of her nail digging into his spine. “Caduceus, that was amazing!” They all took a few moments to catch their breath, push down their fear, and think of the rest of the road ahead.

“Wait.” Beau hopped from the cart, running along side of it. “Do you hear that?”

“Shit,” Caleb murmured, looking at his tome. He knew that feeling. Something snapped. “It broke through.”

The group all looked at each other, and everyone sprung into action. Rowan didn’t seem to notice, since they were still squished into Caduceus’s cloak. “Let’s do this thing!” Nott screamed, standing up and yanking her crossbow free. She knocked back a bolt and fired, missing the closest Ettin. The second one hit, sinking into the creature’s flesh.

Beau dashed forwards, planting herself between the two Ettins and readied to defend, arms tensing. Caleb, sensing her action, pulled a component out from one of his pouches as he leapt off the cart, and suddenly Beau was twice her size. The group cheered as she grinned; the game was afoot.

They all started to lay the hurt on thick, Beau keeping herself planted between the cart and the creatures, the others darting in as they saw fit. Molly and Jester used their casting more than their weapons, seeing as how the creatures were much too high up to reach. The divine lollipop swung around, glitter trailing to the ground along with ettin blood. Caleb kept his concentration, resorting to small cantrips and simple spells, keeping Beau in her enlarged state.

As the creatures got closer, the group redoubled their efforts. Caduceus, the kid, and the cart continued to move forwards, drawing the battle out along the road. As Caduceus was busy trying to calm the horses, the kid lept into the back of the cart. “Don’t—” he shouted, looking back, as they disappeared and reappeared on the other side.

Now was their chance.

The kid pulled their book from their bag on the way there, sprinting off the cart and running forwards. One ettin was dead, lying in a heap of flesh and blood on the valley floor. Fifteen feet. They knew that number by heart. It was their biggest, best move. It could help. It would make them useful. Their magic could make them indispensable. They used up what little time they had, ran directly in front of the Ettin, and cast.

Their heart seized in their chest, pushing itself to their throat. Their silent lips commanded the weave to do it. To bend to their will. They needed this, more than they’d ever needed it before. Their fingers pushed and pulled at the threads of reality as their sheer force of will bent space around them. Arcane energy surged. Rowan felt the incantation pour from their fingers. In their blood, the adrenaline of arcane energy again coursed in their veins. In the back of their mind, their could hear the Nein screaming at them, the words not reaching them. Anger? Worry? Frustration? Excitement? They couldn't tell. Rowan’s mind and hands and lips were singularly focused on one thing. The weave. And with it-- magic.

And it worked.

Rowan stood just before the Ettin, looking it dead in the eye, just out of reach, and cast Thunderwave, the biggest and baddest spell they knew. A radius of energy thrust out from them in a great circle, flinging the Ettin back on his ass. They watched as the thunderous energy ripped through him; the creature screamed in pain. Their blood rushed in their ears as they felt feet pummel the ground from behind them, hands grab them, and someone pull them back and away from the creature. They saw a few strikes of a sword-- just a flash of silver in their eyes-- and the creature was dead on the rocky ground.

More words were spoken, and really… Rowan couldn’t hear. The rush of their heart pounded too loudly for anyone else. The weave around them began to settle, the feeling of the threads still rough against their fingers. They did it. They finally did it. Elation mixed with the realization that now… now they were more dangerous than before. For despite what their parents did, they could still hurt. They could still maim. Even without a voice in their throat, Rowan was dangerous. Their eyes, glazed over, blinked at the dead corpse of the Ettin. It was their fault. What had they done?

Hands. On their shoulders and arms, insistent hands that shook them a bit. The pressure brought them back to the world around them. “What the fuck did you do that for?” Beau asked, no longer twice her size. She glared at them, holding them firm. “You could’ve died!”

“Really, you could’ve,” Molly said, checking them. “What were you thinking? I mean… that was… Not going to lie, that was impressive but… the folly!”

Caduceus walked over, prodded the Ettins, and sighed. “At least they’re useful for something,” he said as he watched greenery that made no sense for the area start to overtake the bodies. Scrubby bushes budded forth, springing from under the bodies along with muted wildflowers and thorn-like branches.

“Don’t ever do that again!” Jester said, grabbing them tight.

Fjord knelt down, looking at Rowan at eye level, and stared. He was silent for a while before sighing. “Thank you for helping, but that was a mighty big risk you took. They’re not lying— it probably would’ve gotten you killed, if it hadn’t have worked.” Looking over at Beau, he added, “Thankfully, Beau had a good reach, and was able to knock that guy out cold, grab you, and then dash back over.”

“What were you thinking?” Molly said.

The kid blinked, realizing tears were streaming down their eyes. Sniffling, Rowan held their book to their chest and waved a hand in the air. Words appeared as they cast Prestidigitation, silently, looking ashamed and afraid. “I just wanted to help,” the words said, before they disappeared.

“You don’t need to help,” Nott said, putting a hand on their shoulder. They hiccuped, looking at her. “You’re just a kid. It’s not your job to fight.”

“No, it is not.” Caduceus crouched by them. “But thank you.”

Caleb sat down on the back of the cart, and sighed. There was an odd feeling in his chest as he looked at the kid, at the book in their hands. If silent casting could be learned, perhaps other things could be, too. Other things that nobody had done before. It would take time, and effort. But it could happen. Maybe... maybe he really did have a chance. “Ja, that was impressive.” He looked Rowan over, hope in his chest for the first time in a while. “What you just did? Nobody I know has been able to do that. Wizards and mages and sorcerers, with more years on them than you and I and everyone here, have not been able to do what you just did.” He paused, and gave them a wan smile. “Good job.”

“But really,” Molly said, taking them up in a sudden, deep embrace. “Don’t fucking do that again.”

They nodded, and let him soothe their hair down as they tried not to sob into his nice shirt.

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much of a thought to linger after murdering the ettins; the pain and relative unsafety of the area made the Nein pause. Once patched up and healed enough, though, the group hopped on the cart and were off. It was another four and a half days until their destination, after all, so they moved on. But there was merriment among them all, a happiness that they did not get to experience often. Killing a few wily creatures was nothing compared to this. Compared to a small miracle.

Caleb seemed a bit shaken, looking at the soot that covered his hands, but couldn’t help himself. He, too, felt glad. Though the gladness was met with resistance in the deeper, less conscious parts of his mind. The kid was just so ecstatic. They kept talking to the Nein with Prestidigitation, making the words appear in the air above their head. The child was so expressive with the words, too, making some appear bigger. Or tilted.

He wondered if they were trying to emulate stress patterns in speech. Watching the words, he started to read them with the energy of a ten-year-old’s, and realized they were happy. So very, very happy. Like Jester when she got fresh donuts. Or Molly when he saw a particularly gaudy piece of jewelry or clothing. Or when he himself found a stash of paper and inks in a dusty dungeon.

Their bright smile was enough to chase away his demons, for now.

All too soon, the kid was starting to tire. While he didn’t expect them to be so tired after using a cantrip, something that required no real power, he decided it was the excitement. It’d been too long for him to remember the first moment he cast. He’d long forgotten the first time when, as a child, he felt the arcane energy surge through him. The second time he’d learned as an adult, it was much weaker. But it was so good; it had filled him with a sudden, wonderful feeling after nothing for so long.

Casting after so long must have taken its toll, and the kid hadn’t exactly stopped since then. It was all quite sudden. Awake one minute, asleep the next.

For the next hour or so after the fight with the trolls, as the Nein chatted in the cart, the kid joined in with their magicked words. They didn’t seem phased, for the first quarter of an hour. After half an hour, they seemed a bit tired. And just as the group was starting to watch the sun slink behind the high cliff walls, they flopped over, asleep, their head rolling onto his lap.

Oh.

As the mountains gave way to hills, and the sun set for the night, the group pulled away from the road and made camp. He prodded the kid awake, who sat up with energy before rubbing the sleep from their eyes. “Good nap?” He asked, understanding. Rowan nodded, tapping his arm and signing something. “Too tired to cast?” Their head bobbed again. “What did that sign mean? Can you spell it?”

They signed a short word, and redid the original sign. “Ah, you do not need to be sorry.” They shook their head. “Can you explain?” They sighed, pushed a few loose locks from their face, and explained. He watched their signs, reading them all, and gave them a worn smile. “I, too, am sorry, then. I did not mean to push. I… it was not my place.” They nodded, and gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm. “Yes, well.” Comfort from a child seemed especially odd, when it came from one who looked so sleepy. “I—I forgive you too.”

When they bedded down for the night, Nott asked, “What’s it like, casting again?”

The kid made a motion, and spelled it out. “So it’s stronger?” They nodded. “Wicked.”

“It’s very impressive, indeed.” Caduceus handed them a bowl of stew and a piece of bread. Beau gave them a piece of jerky and thanked the firbolg for cooking. “Oh, any time. I do enjoy it. It’s like making tea. There’s something soothing and meditative about it.” He ladeled out a bowl for himself and added, “Three years of working on that, huh?” The kid nodded. “I wonder if anyone’s capable of it, if they apply themselves.”

“We can certainly try,” Caleb said, shrugging. “But I doubt most people who do not need to learn will not take the time to learn. That is a large ask, to dedicate one’s efforts to one thing for so long.” He paused, thinking.

“Perhaps it is their age. Children learn faster than most, and are more creative in their thinking than adults.” He looked over to them, adding, “Even wizards hundreds of years old can learn a thing or two from you.”

The kid sat up straighter, pushing a loose hair from their eyes. A wide smile settled over their face, beaming in the firelight. They preened at the attention, not a care in the world as they all but vibrated with happiness.

“I have a question,” Molly asked, and the group all looked towards him. “Does this mean when you’re a super powerful wizard, that you’ll be impervious to the Silence spell?” The group went silent themselves, thinking. The kid shrugged, looking over at Caleb, who sent one back.

“I don’t see why not,” Beau said. “I mean, they’re still silent. Their hands do the casting. And those don’t make sound.” The kid clapped.Sending them a frustrated look, she lunged forward and grabbed their shoulders. With a look of surprise, and less than a second more, the kid was all but upside down and under Beau’s arm in a headlock. Grinning and noogying the kid with her knuckles, she grumbled, “Most of the time.”

“When I learn it,” Caleb said, poking his food with his spoon, “We will test this. Agreed?” The kid nodded, pushing away Beau’s hand as they watched him. They wondered. How far away he was from something so powerful, so game-changing? It was hard to think that someone so low in skill could best something so effective. “I believe I am capable of casting, but I need the instructions as to how.”

“I wonder how much more powerful you’d be,” Jester said, “If you didn’t have that three year gap.” The kid shrugged, but she looked at Caleb. “You’d probably be just as powerful as our stinky wizard!” She gave him a smile, and added, “When we get into town, both of you are having a bath.”

“Why, Jester, are you goin’ and insinuatin’ that the kiddo’s just as stinky as Caleb?”

“Yes, Fjord! They both look like they haven’t had a bath in forever!” She pushed Fjord’s shoulder with her arm, all playful, but he stumbled back a bit from sheer power.

“Oh, let’s all have baths,” Molly agreed, rolling over onto his side to look at the kid. “Would you mind if I brushed out your hair? It might be a bit painful, but I’ll work slowly, I promise.”

As they nodded, he hopped up, retrieved a little bag of items, and stared to work away.

“You should let go, unpleasant one” he said on return, looking to Beau. “I need the kid’s head more than you do.”

“Ya see, if I just squeeze a bit more, it’ll pop right off!”

The expression on the kid’s face made the group laugh. “No, heads don’t do that little one,” Caduceus said, patting them on the hand. “You’d need to sever the skin, muscles, and spine in order to pop a head right off.”

“Gruesome, Caddy.” Molly chuckled, patting the ground in front of him. “Please, spare the child!”

First with a comb, then with a hairy brush, he undid the knots in their hair. The group talked around them, sometimes discussing their plans when in Nicodranas, of jobs they could do. The kid just relished the feeling of being happy. Of being well protected. Of— if they didn’t get their hopes up too far— being well loved. Or, at least, well liked.

And as Molly worked through the knots in their hair, and piled up the tangled hairs that came loose from their head, the kid began to think— for the first time— about their future. Because, for once, it felt like they truly had one.

The next morning, as the group began to set out, they saw a merchant caravan moving towards them. The quiet road trip filled with chatter as everyone peered out across the flat terrain. They saw metal cages, big and elaborate things, with wings and limbs contained within. Colorful feathers flashed in the sun.

It took a lot of restraint, on Molly’s part, not to buy the peacock. He stared at it, the feathers tattooed on his face mirroring the creature within the cage. It cried out at him— that was it. It sounded like a child calling for its parents. The image of that sound, laid over a memory of Kiri and the kid. Nope. That just wouldn’t do. What didn’t surprise him, though, is that Beauregard found the perfect bird.

The owl was ornery to say the least. It matched her expression, softly hooting in the sun as the merchant handed Beau a glove to wear. It flew to her hand, latching its giant claws into the glove. He winced— sharp talons like those are not fun to feel piercing the skin.

What also did not surprise the Nein was Jester’s torn expression, staring at the whole herd of beasts before her. In particular, her eyes darted between a blink puppy— a cute thing that popped in and out of this plane with a little puff of fae magic— and a crimson weasel. The weasel was a small thing, which curled up in her hand as she held it.

“I’m getting the owl,” Beau said, displaying him. He hooted as she moved around, the bird’s head unmoving. “His name is Thaddeus. Professor Thaddeus.”

“What an odd name for a bird,” Molly mused, looking at it glare at him.

“I— do I get the puppy? Or this cute, little weasel?”

He waltzed over to her, saying, “Do what your heart desires. Get both.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Fjord coughed. “But remember, you’ve got to train that puppy, or he’ll poof out of existence and never come back. Plus, if they’re in combat…” He looked over at the weasel. “Will it even survive a single fireball?”

Offended at the thought that she would ever put her pets in harm’s way, Jester pouted. “Sprinkle can hide in my armor,” she decided, pulling out her purse to pay the merchant.

“I’ll go halfsies on the puppy,” Beau said, elbowing her. “We could teach him to fetch and shit.”

She gave Beau a sigh, staring at the puppy. Her eyes rested on the kid, wondering. Nott pulled alongside the other two, and whispered, “I think they can take care of themselves.” The trio turned to look at the kid, who was fixed in a staring contest with Prof. Thaddeus. The bird was winning. It turned its body around on the branch, still watching the kid with yellow eyes.

“Though,” Caleb said, pointing at the weasel, “One animal may be a good limit right now. In case of an emergency, we may need your strength to help the kid along. ”

“I could carry one under each of my arms! I’m super strong, you know,” she said.

Beau pointed out, “Yes, but you’ll need one of those thick arms to fight and cast.”

Jester sighed, looking at the cute puppy. Its tongue was lolling out of its little mouth, pink and slobbery, as it stared with rounded eyes at her. Tearing her heart in two, she turned from the cart. “I think I’ll stick to Sprinkle, she said, nudging his head with her chin. “He’ll be easier to protect.”

“A good choice,” Fjord said, nodding to the merchant. The two groups made their way off, pets or purse in tow.

The rest of the day passed, with Beau attempting to train Thaddeus, and Jester feeding Sprinkle bits and bobs of pastries. The creature seemed happy with the sugar, nibbling on it. It whirled and curled around her horns, climbing from her shoulders into her hair. Giggling, Jester scooped him up and plopped him between her boobs and her armor. “There!” She declared, puffing her chest out to show the kid. “Now he’ll be safe!” They grinned.

“Hey. What do owls eat?”

“Rats!” Nott cried, pulling out a bit of jerky. “Give him this. But make him shake, first.”

“That’s for dogs, isn’t it?” Fjord asked, watching as Beau tried to establish dominance by glaring at her bird. A minute later, when the creature rotated its head around to stare at Nott, instead, she guffawed. It was force-fed a bit of jerky, looking unhappy the entire time.

While the Nein continued on the road to Nicodranas, the smell of salt grew in the air. Above, seagulls began swooping around, calling out to their brethren. The ocean was growing nearer. Each approaching day, even every hour, they could see a bit more of the sea. The band of glittering blue expanded to fill up most of the horizon, then encroached on the land. The air felt cooler as they took the cart off the road, aiming straight for the sandy shoreline.

When they did reach the waters, pets in tow, it was magnificent. The sun shone on the sea, glittering in a way that beads or crystals or jewels could never achieve. Something that small could never compare to something so massive.

It stretched across their field of vision, surrounding them. The effect was different than the feeling of trees rising up beside them. The emptiness of the flat water, the air between it and the sky. The black blurs of gulls as they swooped down to pick up pin-prick fish from the surface. Fjord seemed to calm as the ocean on the horizon grew and neared. Jester, too, appeared to open up more, relishing the thought of the waters between her fingers. It made them feel freer.

It made Molly feel excited. Although he couldn’t remember if he’d ever been to the ocean, Mollymauk was ecstatic to find out if the stories he’d heard were true. Of the cold slap of the waves. Of the stinging feeling on fresh cuts. Of the briny taste when you accidentally gulped a large portion of salt water down. He’d heard so many wonderful and fascinating tales, and he was dying to try, to experience it for himself.

It made some feel alone. The kid watched the waters with a wariness that Caleb reflected. And even though Caduceus was unsure, the whole area lacking anything that he could recognize, it was Nott who seemed most terrified.

She stayed on land with the cart as everyone started to race— a mad dash into the breaking waves. The surf was gentle here, the sands warm in a comforting way. As the Nein began to throw off their clothing, Rowan felt hands cover their eyes. A reedy voice from behind them shouted, “Caleb! Put some pants on, there’s a child present!”

“Was? Oh, ja.” He shimmied around a second on the sand, and kept his small clothes on. “Happy?”

“Enough,” Nott griped. You all have fun in the water. I’m going to stay on solid ground.”

“See, I was wonderin’,” Fjord said, crouching down as he wiggled his boots off, “When we get into town, and stop by Jester’s mom’s place, will ya be sleeping with the boys or the girls?”

“Oooh! Well, like, since Yasha isn’t here, it’ll probably be me and Beau in one room, and like, you and Molly in the other, huh? Caleb and Nott always take one room for themselves.” Jester undid the laces of her dress with careful but quick fingers. “It’s even. But now we’ve got you!”

“You forgot about Caduceus.” Beau pulled off her vest and shoved it into her pack. Jester made a face just thinking about the wrinkles it would have later. “So you can just, I don’t know, sleep with him?” She turned around and shouted at the firbolg already in the water; “Hey Caduceus! Can the kid stay with you in Nicodranus?”

“I don’t see why not,” He said, calm voice drowned out— for the most part— by the waves. He gave them a thumbs up.

“Well, that’s if ‘n’ when we have four rooms. When there’s three, Caduceus will probably stay with us, and the kid will go with you two.” Fjord folded his socks and stuck them into his boot. He really, really did not want sand everywhere. He knew its sins, and wanted nothing to do with them.

“I mean, like yeah, that makes sense.” Jester braided her hair and smiled. “Ready!”

“Race ya,” Beau said, stretching.

“Last one in’s a smelly dick!”

 

“LANGUAGE” Nott screamed from behind a bush, sending a small group of seagulls flying. “FUCK— SHIT!”

“Language yourself,” Fjord shot back. He sat on the sand for a bit, looking out at the waves where the rest of the swimmers were. “I was just wonderin’,” he added, looking over at the kid— who was rolling up their trousers up to their knees, “Are you… ah… uncomfortable at all sleeping with Caduceus? Or with the girls?”

They stared at him, trying to figure out what that question meant. Shaking their head, they cast a quick questions themselves.

“Oh, it’s just… Well, when I was a kid… back where I was raised, I never was allowed to spend much time in the girls’ rooms, if you’re catching my drift.” The kid shook their head. With a sigh, he continued, “‘Cause I was a boy.” Rowan just blinked at him. “And the girls weren’t supposed to spend a night in the boys’ rooms either.”

More blinking. Slowly at first, they opened their mouth in a round shape, eyes alight with understanding. “It’s ok. It’s not against the rules ‘cause I’m both. And neither. But not a boy or a girl.” They let the words hover in the air for a bit as they made their way to the break, relishing the feeling of the hot sand. It cooled as the water approached, the wateriness of it spilling out into little puddles around their footprints.

Rowan watched the sand fill back up with miniature tidal pools in the shape of their feet as they wandered across the beach. They did not pay attention to the group, except to keep them in earshot. So they did not see the complete and utter confusion on Fjord’s face. He just sat there, perplexed, before shaking his head and mumbling something to himself. They did hear the splash as he started to swim in the water, hell bent on annoying Caleb, who was still floating in the waters.

In the relative quiet of the waves, they realized that they’d wandered quite a ways away. When they turned back, they saw Jester waving at them as the rest of the party dried off. Behind her, Beau was shaking her head like a dog, the droplets catching the sun as they sprayed Fjord and Nott. Caduceus seemed just as wet as Caleb was, the firbolg’s fur sticking to his face just like Caleb’s hair did. Everyone seemed happy. Molly turned around, toweling off his hair, and called out to the kid.

It got lost on the breeze, but the kid knew what they were saying. Feeling the tide rush up to splash their legs, they started jogging back to the group, the shells closing with a soft click within their hand.