The moment they enter the guest quarters they’ve been granted by the Empire, a guard no doubt posted outside their door, Caleb starts to prepare what he needs to put up their dome. He’s got that same look on his face, blank and haunted all at once, like he’s frozen beneath a mask of his own making, as much a shield as their little circle of protection is.
No one would’ve ask him to do anymore casting today, but no one will stop him either, not when he sets down in the spot furthest from any windows, in a large sitting room beyond the foyer, just large enough to accommodate them, and begins to murmur to himself over his spell book, taking the ten minutes he needs to create yet another barrier between him and everything that today has culminated to.
Nott perches at his knee with her knees drawn into her chest, hugging herself tightly—she doesn’t want to interrupt him, but she’s waiting to be able to crawl into his lap and wrap her arms around his neck and sit there until he stops trembling and his shaking hands settles on the pages of his spell book.
Yasha sits down beside him before he’s finished with the casting, petting Frumpkin, who purrs soothingly beside his thigh. She rests both swords on the ground and leans—lightly, but with enough weight to remind them both that the other person is there—against his back, and his stiff shoulders settle a little with her support.
She has just escaped from under the thumb of a man who has directed her hands to do terrible things, the wounds and the blood still fresh in her mind, the callouses of her battle-hardened palms still rough, and he has long since been under that kind of control, but it is both fresh and raw for both of them, and her low voice barely meets his ears as her hand finds the hilt of the Magician’s Judge. “He will meet our judgment, one day,” she says, and the promise takes a long time to snake its way through his ears and into his brain, but it settles, like a dull spark amidst a pile of coal and ash.
With a little more time and kindling, it may grow into something more, but for now it is just enough to keep him awake and alive.
By the time the hut is finished, Jester has curled herself up on his other side, careful not to disturb him in case he wants space, but Sprinkle hesitantly shuffles from her shoulders to his and settles in the crook of his neck.
He doesn’t notice Fjord and Beau murmuring just beyond the edge of the hut as Nott takes her spot on his lap, his arms still trembling as he wraps them around her on instinct, his long breaths shaking with each more noticeable shake of his body. Caduceus, carrying a tray of tea and cups for each of them, meets them both and joins their low conversation. They glance toward the rest of the group before walking to the middle of the room, where Caduceus starts to pour tea and pass it around, and Caleb’s hands close around a warm cup that imbues his fingers with a little bit of the strength that they’ve lacked for the last few hours. He hasn’t been able to get warm since they reached Rexxentrum, marched into this storm, stood in the throne room in front of the king himself.
Fjord’s weapon is in his hand, knuckles pale where they’re clenched around it, and Beau’s knuckles crack as she massages her fists into each palm. Both of them look just as bad as the rest, blood and bruises still littering Beau’s exposed torso, blackened necrotic energy still staining Fjord’s skin. They sit down in front of Caleb, facing the door, side by side.
“We’ll take first watch,” Fjord says, glancing back at the group. He looks like he might collapse right here in front of them, but his eyes are steady, his brow hard.
“The hut is safe,” Caleb insists faintly, and even holding onto Nott and sipping his tea cannot put much energy back into his voice, and he can see from the sharp edges of their shoulders that they will not budge from their positions, guarding him. Guarding all of them. “You were both on death’s door hours ago, you need sleep—“
“I’ll take second watch,” Jester pipes up, and Nott makes a noise of agreement, joining in, and he cannot believe that his friends, who have much time to finally defeat, are taking watch in the middle of the capital city where they are now diplomatic ambassadors of the Empire, on guard even here. But he does believe it, because they have not gotten this far by trusting those outside their circle, and they have not survived this long by being lax.
Caduceus raises a hand. “I’ll take last watch,” he offers, and when Yasha sits up a bit to raise a hand, he waves her down. “No. I’ll be just fine on my own.”
The firbolg’s eyes are firm and Yasha is too tired to protest, and she settles down on the floor as Jester pulls cushions and pillows from the chairs in the sitting room and Beau and Nott drag blankets from the bedrooms into the center of their camp. It is so distinct, this hobbled together camp that they’ve created, from the Shimmer Ward that he knows is beyond the drawn window shades and the glass panes, and the warmth of the dome and his friends’ captured body heat permeates this ten foot radius quickly. It is almost enough to forget the name that he has discarded, the one that severed his soul today when it was spoken in that voice that he has never been able to rid from his head.
“Caleb,” Yasha says softly, her voice heavy with half sleep and exhaustion, her eyelids drooping close where her head rests on her hands, together as though in prayer. And perhaps it is a prayer, as the rain continues to descend outside, the storm steady and reassuring where they can hear it patter on the roof. “We’re safe here.”
He knows this, but he also knows that he won’t be safe tomorrow, or the day after that. He won’t be safe in the Empire, and he won’t be safe in Xhorhas, where the Scourgers have already proven they can go. But Nott curls up against his chest and squeezes his hands beneath hers, even though she can only cover his fingers. “You are not who he thinks you are,” she says, and presses her forehead to his, and he closes his eyes because he cannot bear to meet hers. “You are Caleb, you’re our Caleb, and you’re here, with us.”
He doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to fall asleep anytime soon, as wiped and as broken as he is, but he wills his breathing to even out. He can’t stand to hear their reassurances when every muscle in his body is willing him to lock himself in another room and draw out a teleportation circle—where, he doesn’t know, but somewhere no one can find him, not even the Mighty Nein.
Except that if he leaves them now, his former master will use them to find him—he’d probably torture them until Caleb turned himself in, and it is terrifying to know that he has given Trent Ikithon a weapon to control him only by becoming close to these people around him. The last time he ran, he had nothing—no one who could’ve been a pawn in Trent’s game. Now he has dragged six other people into this.
And yet they are the ones who are trying to protect and reassure him, when he should be on hands and knees apologizing, begging for their forgiveness for putting them in such danger. With him, they are as good as dead. Without him, they will soon be, once they are disposable.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, and presses his hands to his face to shield him from their probing eyes. “I am sorry, I am so sorry, I’m sorry—“
Jester’s strong hands find his arms and pull him up, with an ease that scares him a little for different reasons, and she presses her palms to his cheeks as tears begin to fall from beneath his closed eyelids. “Caleb, stop it,” she tells him, with her sharp, direct tone. “Stop it right now. Caleb. Stop.”
He feels someone else shuffle closer to him, and Beau’s firm hand lands on his shoulder. He thinks he should feel claustrophobic as his friends press closer toward him, forming a circle, but all he feels is the sense that they’ve created a barricade wide enough that no one would dare try to cross. The dirt and blood on his face is tear-streaked by the time he opens his eyes, and leans forward into Jester’s arms as she hugs him tightly, Nott captured in the embrace between them, Beau joining in from the side. Caduceus sets his tea down and stretches his long arms around the group, smiling comfortably, and pulls an awkward Fjord and an uncertain Yasha into the mix.
Caleb can’t bring himself to say anything else as they stay there, held together like fate herself has joined their grasp, and he knows he couldn’t leave them if he tried, no matter how much he would like to run from them, and their destiny, and the task the king and the Cerberus Assembly has laid out for them.
Perhaps in the morning, there will be avenues for escape, once they speak to Essek and put the wheels into motion to liaise with the Bright Queen, but for now, there is safety here, in the midst of the city that he ran from for so long, beneath the watchful eye of the man who stole over a decade of his life and far more than that. But it is this safety that he clings to, a beacon in the midst of a storm and a black sea, and he sails toward it with his eyes closed, hoping the light behind his eyes will guide him to a time and place where safety and this—the tight embrace of his friends—is all there is.