When he rose from his trance in the early hours of the morning, he had no idea that he was going to be caught off guard - completely and totally at a loss, if only briefly, as the consequences of his actions finally came for him. He had no idea, as he put on his mantle and as he mentally prepared himself for the day’s meetings to come, that he could have never been ready for this.
He could have never been ready for them as they pranced their way into the Bright Queen’s chambers and into his life. He could have never been ready for him as he announced his origin and denounced his allegiance all in the same breath.
Nothing in the past century of his life could have prepared him for this, and he knows, deep in his heart, that even if he had lived more than one life, he never would have been ready. When the raw power of the elements have you at their mercy, there is nothing you can do - and they came through with the absolute force of a hurricane.
The war to the south meant that most of the meetings in the Bright Queen’s Cathedral were filled with talk of battle strategy and tactical ploys. They were important, but dry, and, more often than not, disheartening to say the least. It was hard to keep spirits up when the enemy seemed to have an endless amount of soldiers pouring in from all over the Empire and even hired from the Menagerie Coast.
Which is why any news that wasn’t focused on the war was good news. Lady Olios had come with news that a demonic plot had been thwarted in Asarius, and that the group that had done the job had requested to be repaid with a favor from the Bright Queen herself. Murmurs rippled throughout the chamber as the Bright Queen raised a hand, indicating that the newcomers be let in.
As the doors opened, he glanced up at the queen, trying to make out what she might be thinking, gauging how this request might be taken. Her expression was serene - functionally unreadable. With one lingering glance, he turned back to the group now making their way towards the center of the daisies, and had to remind himself to keep his face blank as well.
A goblin and blue tiefling led the charge, striding forward as a lean half-orc, a tall, rugged woman, and an even taller man with a shock of bright pink hair followed. Behind them trailed two humans, bound in leather, one a woman with dark skin and the other a man with bright red hair. They were, without the shadow of a doubt, the strangest group of people he’d ever seen.
“Visitors, you bear witness to the Bright Queen, Leylas Kryn,” one of the guard announced. Some of the group were glancing around, taking everything in, while others seemed shiftier, less sure. The goblin and the tiefling were definitely the most confident, while the human woman looked around defiantly, and the central three glanced around cautiously, tension clear in the way they walked. The human man kept his head down, but every few seconds he would peek up before quickly hiding his gaze again.
As they came to a stop at the center, the voice rang out again as the Bright Queen stood, “May she warm your weariness.”
And so the strangers began to talk. They talked of demonic rifts and an artifact recovered, they talked of nightmares and voices and mind control. They admitted to not being from Xhorhas, yet of being without a home, having apparently met at sea.
Then came their request. A rather simple one, if he was being honest. The release, or at the very least the allowance to interrogate a prisoner that was in their custody, a chemist captured in Felderwin.
As the Queen took everything in there was a slight shift, a shimmer in the air around the goblin - something so imperceptible that he was sure he only noticed because he excelled in dunamancy and knew it well. Glancing up at the Queen, he saw the tilt of her head. It clearly had not escaped her either.
Before they could say anything, however, Lythir, who had also come with Lady Olios and the group, spoke up. “My queen, if I could speak.”
“Of course,” she nods, raising a hand in his direction.
“My eye has been caught by these travelers,” he starts, stepping forward, “for their smell is alien, their intent unclear. I myself still recover from wounds suffered along the western edges of the Ashkeeper Mountains not a week before.”
The group shifts, the goblin’s eyes going wide as the half orc grimaces. The bound man flinches as his gaze remains on the ground.
“As does my partner, a lauded echo knight in your service, my queen,” Lythir continues. “We came upon a troop of Dwendalian scouts seeking weakness in our borders, wishing subterfuge upon our brave soldiers. We did battle, and slew many of their filthy ilk, but were forced to flee when the tides turned against us.” He pointed at the group, his expression hard, his words sharp, “When these creatures, these allies of the Empire assailed us!”
There’s a brief hush across the room before everyone is on their feet, staring down at the group. The Queen’s staff thuds on the stone as she looks down on the group, no trace of the sereneness that had been on her features just moments before.
“Is this true?” she asks quietly.
There’s a moment of hesitation before the goblin nods. “Yep, yep, that’s true,” she answers. “Ye-yeah, we did - we did fight, ah, with some - some of your soldiers upon crossing into the Dynasty, yes. That is true -”
“But we’re not - we’re not soldiers of the - of the Empire,” the tiefling denies.
“My queen,” the half orc steps forward, wringing his hands before dropping them to his side. “Clearly the gentleman is confused. We too were found and ambushed and found ourselves assaulted from both sides. Your friend over here,” he gestures towards Lythir, “did not seem to take any special actions to ascertain the nature of our journey. We did trade blows, although I do not recognize him from that particular encounter, but yes, this did occur. We were trying to make our way to the City of Beasts, which we successfully did.”
The Queen seems unmoved. “I am curious why you would walk into my sanctum.” She looks at each of them in turn, and he can see the way they all squirm beneath her gaze. “Have you nothing to say for yourselves?”
“We simply seek your aid,” the tiefling answered, dropping her gaze.
There is only the briefest beat of silence before the Bright Queen looks past them. “Guards.”
“Wait, wait!” the goblin calls out as the guards step forward. “We have not been honest with you, it’s true -”
“Guards,” the Queen commands again.
“We don’t work for the Empire!” the tiefling shouts. “Please!”
The guards get to them, starting to grab them as they pull out manacles, their cries of mercy falling on deaf ears as the assembly turns their attention away from them.
One of the guards grabs the man with the red hair, and the man shouts, “I’m sorry!” He struggles shouting louder. “We are sorry. We have come to bring you something.” Two guards are holding him now, but calls out again, “We have come to bring you something. We have come a long way.”
The man with the pink hair is on the ground, and the tall woman is being put in shackles as the goblin cries, “Please, please, you have my husband! He’s my husband! You’re holding my husband!”
Everyone’s attention is on the queen, but he can’t take his eyes off them, can’t take his eyes off the human who is speaking out in front of everyone.
“The Empire is working against you. Wildemount is working against you, and we have brought the proof, if you will allow me to show it to you,” he says, loud and insistent.
“What proof?” one of the assembly members sneers.
“I need to approach my friend,” he tells them. “I mean no harm. I need to remove something from -”
“You have a moment,” the guard holding him allows. “Anything strange and I take off your head.”
Without realizing it, he finds himself leaning forward, watching all of this with rapt attention.
“Jester, I’m coming to you, okay?” the man says, slowly walking towards the tiefling. “I’m just going to open this bag,” he informs the guard, reaching out for the pink bag slung across the tiefling’s back.
The sound of blades being drawn all across the chamber is deafening. The man remains steady in his movements, opening it up slowly and reaching in.
“I say this as a child of the Empire,” he starts, closing his eyes. “Connected to inner circles there, long ago.” He opens his eyes, and pulls out his hand.
This time, Essek Thelyss stands with everyone else as the clattering of metal rings around the room as blades are dropped to the floor, gasps rushing through the crowd. The Bright Queen steps forward, tears in her eyes as she looks down on the Luxon Beacon held aloft by this human of the Empire.
“I am of the Empire,” the man continues. “But I am no friend to the Empire. One of your own came to retrieve this, and fell. And I bring it to you.” He steps forward, away from his group, setting the Beacon gently on the ground before stepping back, hands in the air.
All he can do is stare in shock as all his hard work - all of the meticulous hard work to ferry the beacons out in secret - is halfway undone, in one fell swoop, by these - these -
“- Heroes of the Dynasty.”
It is to a stunned and silent crowd that the strangers, now led by the man, explain how they came upon the Beacon, and how they hope that the act of good faith will facilitate the release of the prisoner they were looking for. The man’s sentences are carefully built around the silence, his accent intriguing, drawing Essek in with ease as he hangs onto every word, trying to figure out where the plan went wrong, trying to account for this unthinkable variable in the equation, almost like tunnel vision as he focuses entirely on the man.
Now that the man is looking up and talking, Essek can see the intelligence behind his startlingly blue eyes, can see the quiet power along with the nervousness that settles on his shoulders. He holds his head high, bowing when necessary, but he’s sure in his words.
The Queen turns to Essek, asking him something he doesn’t quite catch, but thankfully the goblin girl says, “He’s a halfling man. His - His name is Yeza Brenatto. He’s a chemist,” and Essek can piece together what was asked from that, putting on his mask to keep from exposing himself like a fledgling novice.
“Yes, we do indeed have this figure in our,” Essek pauses for a second, dropping his gaze as the group now turns to look at him, and he can feel the blue eyes watching him carefully, “Dungeon of Penance.”
“I’m sorry, Dungeon of Penance?” the goblin squeaks out.
The Queen lifts her hand to stop the outburst, her eyes still on Essek. “When this discussion is over,” she instructs, “take them with you to see this prisoner. Thank you, Shadowhand.”
Nodding in answer, Essek sits back in his chair, trying to regain his cool composure again, equal parts relieved and nervous about getting to be closer to this group. His eyes glance over at the man for a second, catching the man’s gaze, before Essek turns his attention back to the queen.
It is hard, keeping his eyes just on the queen, especially when the man keeps advocating for a way to avoid war - he asks if there are things to be done, things to avoid bloodshed. And while every single word sounds like another nail to his coffin, while every single word is a threat to unravel everything he’s worked for, it is brave, and new, and bold, and Essek can’t help but wonder about what circumstances led to this in the first place, a Zemnian human in the Bright Queen’s sanctum, traitor of the Empire, advocating for peace over war.
A quieter part of him wonders how he must seem, a Xhorhassian drow working with the Cerberus Assembly, traitor of the Dynasty, facilitating war during delicate peace.
When the conversation drops to less charged topics, Essek decides to glance over at the group as the Bright Queen nods, “To that point, I did notice that some of you would have a difficult time traversing Xhorhas,” looking pointedly at the humans bound in leather.
The woman mumbles something to the half orc, lifting her arms in annoyance. The half orc summons a sword from midair - an interesting trick that Essek knows himself - and cuts the leather bindings off her.
“Caleb,” he says quietly, gesturing towards the man.
With a small nod the man steps closer to the half orc, who tugs on the bindings just enough to give his sword room to cut through. The human - Caleb - winces, and Essek can see the way his jaw clenches as he swallows around the tightness against his throat before the bindings fall away.
Essek would be a damn liar if he said his mouth didn’t go a little dry at that - an absolutely fatal reaction in light of the threat this group, this Caleb poses.
The rest of the time was spent giving the group medallions that symbolized their achievement for the Bright Queen, allowing them unmolested passage throughout the city - passage that the two humans would definitely need. There was more talk about the Luxons and destiny and even a bold statement about breaking cycles from the human woman, before the Bright Queen was turning to him, sharp gaze drawing his attention away from the - from the group. Away from the group.
“Shadowhand Essek,” she began, inclining her head towards the new heroes of the Dynasty, “I assign you to be their steward for the time being -”
Luxon’s light, was this really happening?
“- help them find a place to stay, perhaps,” the Bright Queen paused, pondering something for a half second before continuing, “show them to the Firmaments of the city. Maybe to find their next fortune, to learn and keep handy,” she finished, now looking over the group. “Professor Waccoh is still seeking skilled hands for her projects, perhaps there is good to be done there.”
Essek nodded his understanding, masterfully keeping his expression neutral. First their escort to the dungeon and now their steward? He wasn’t sure if this was going to be a blessing or a curse - he wasn’t sure if keeping them close would help him cover his tracks better or expose him completely.
“Are we going to the prison now?” the tiefling - Jester, from what the man called her - asked, her eyes going from her friends to the Bright Queen.
With a nod, the Bright Queen addressed him again. “Essek, if you do not mind, take them to the Dungeon of Penance through the Shadowshire and see them to the prison.”
“Thank you,” Jester smiled, something small but genuinely grateful as she gave a small bow.
The Bright Queen returned her smile. “Thank you.”
And with that - and a quick exchange between the group’s half-orc and Lythir - the group began to head the way they came. There’s tension in their movements, a hesitation and reluctance to turn their back on the Bright Queen’s chambers, as if fearing to be attacked when their back is turned. A smart instinct to have in all honesty.
Essek stands, gliding over to them quickly - both his gravitational and time-centric dunamantic powers at work - as he slides in front of them. He keeps his face politely blank but he has his back to them, hoping they can see this as a vote of confidence.
He can’t help it though. Eseek stops partway, glancing over his shoulder, catching bright blue eyes with his. “Are you following?” Essek asks.
“Yes,” Jester answers, as the goblin gives an affirmative “Mhm.” The human - Caleb, he reminds himself - nods once. Essek drops his gaze and continues to lead the way.
As soon as the doors shut behind himself and his newly appointed wards, he turns to them. “Do you require a moment to speak amongst yourselves or…?
“Mhm, yep,” the goblin quickly answers.
Essek nods as the half orc speaks up, “If you wouldn’t mind, we’d appreciate that. Just to check our pants and make sure nobody needs a change.”
A joke. Essek grants him another nod as he answers, half joking, half serious, “A common reaction.” Maybe he can do this. He moves towards the doors that will take them out of the antechamber of the Bright Queen’s throne room and into the vast halls of the Lucid Bastion. “I’ll be on the other side. Knock when you’re ready.”
Before he makes his way out, the human woman catches his attention with a brusque, “Hey.”
He turns, waiting on her to continue.
“Is there, like, listening devices in here? You guys monitoring us?” she asks, waving her hand to signal the antechamber, looking rather bored and almost tired that this is a question that she’s asking, as if they’ve somehow caused her some inconvenience if they were monitoring her. “While we’re in here?”
“Not that that matters,” the half orc quickly follows up, shooting her a nervous look.
“Why, is there anything to mistrust?” Essek shoots back just as quickly.
“Nope, open book,” the half orc continues, trying to patch things as best as he can. “Every page being written as we speak.” He’s nodding and gesturing with his hands as he talks, scrambling to sound believable. “We’ll be out shortly,” he finally finishes.
“Just curious,” the woman talks over him.
“Hmm,” Essek merely hums in response, not trusting his words, giving their group a final sweep - catching those blue eyes watching his every move intently - before he finally leaves the room.
Even though he easily could have, Essek refrains from scrying or listening in on their discussion in the antechamber. He didn’t want to know what he would hear - didn’t want to know if that would complicate his already tenuous hold on the situation. If he remained ignorant, for now, he could continue this charade until he was able to solidify some new plan. And besides, there were probably others listening in already. He’d have their reports on his desk by tomorrow.
About 15 minutes later, there’s a loud rap on the door accompanied by a slightly muffled, “We’re ready to go!”
The doors open without his touch, just simple magic that Essek doesn’t even need to think twice to perform, and he can catch the tail end of their conversation, Jester and the goblin discussing amongst themselves before the goblin quietly says, “Let’s ask Mr. Essek.”
While being simply referred to as “Mr” Essek is a disservice to his title as the Bright Queen’s Shadowhand, he finds her politeness almost endearing.
“Are you ready?” Essek asks, glancing around at everyone, trying to keep his eyes from staying on a certain individual for too long.
“Man, that was so dramatic,” the half orc whispered to Jester, and it gives Essek an excuse for his eyes to find a new target. The half orc stands straighter, his demeanor growing more confident. “Uh, I believe we are.”
“How far away is the, um - is the dungeon?” Jester asks, a gentle hand reaching out and brushing the goblin’s arm.
“I’d say about, um,” he glances up, thinking about his frequent commute between the Lucid Bastion and the Dungeon of Penance. “By foot, about an hour’s travel at most.”
“Okay, so maybe wait just a minute,” Jester tells the goblin as the goblin nods and answers, “I will.”
Jester pats her on the shoulder, trying to be reassuring, “Okay.”
He watches the exchange with mild curiosity, figuring that the goblin must be bracing herself for whatever condition she will find her...husband? in. Essek can’t say with absolute certainty, and berates himself internally for being so affected by their arrival with the beacon that he didn’t pay more attention. Regardless, while the prisoner hasn’t gone through anything violent, he has been denied food and water aside from the absolute bare minimum...Essek decides to keep that to himself. Hopefully seeing that he is whole will put her fears at rest. “Very well, follow me.”
They walk in relative silence through the halls of the Lucid Bastion, and subtle glances back show that they are taking it in, the awe on some of their faces ill-concealed as they admire the beautiful cathedral inspired architecture that makes up the Bastion. Essek can’t help but feel even more curious when he sees the Caleb doesn’t seem at all impressed, taking everything in in a way that suggests he is merely getting a lay of the land, calculating escape routes and vantage points.
A smart man, clearly.
When they step outside though - that’s when Caleb finally looks surprised. He’s looking up at the night sky, at the stars shining in the darkness overhead, expression confused, as if he were receiving contradictory information that wasn’t allowing him to reach the correct conclusion.
“Why is it so dark outside?” Jester asks, her eyes, which had also been on the night sky, turning to Essek.
“Oh,” Essek remembers, and it actually manages to startle a light laugh out of him. “That’s right, you’re not from around here.” He actually looks up at the sky too, the beautiful night that he has grown to take for granted after living his whole life in Rosohna. “Um, for most of us, uh, sunlight can be a bit of a bother.” And while he pauses in his explanation because he feels like maybe he’s betraying a weakness, he figures that this will show as another vote of confidence. Besides, this is information that they can easily get from any other citizen of the city, or any other drow they ever meet elsewhere. “And, uh, we do have periods of worship in which we give ourselves to the sunlight as part of our means of showing our faith, it does impede our day-to-day business.” His gaze falls back on the group as he shrugs. “So as part of our craft, we’ve found a way to, ah, keep it at bay, for as long as we’d like.”
There’s an impressed murmur in the group, Jester nodding, a surprised, “Oh wow,” clearly coming from her. Caleb’s expression, however, completely captivates his attention.
While his eyes had drifted to Essek as Essek explained the perpetual darkness, when Essek mentioned that it was part of their spellcraft his eyes lit up. “How high does this darkness rise?” he asked, his curiosity shining through.
Essek glances up, tries to keep the heat from rising up his skin at the intensity from the human’s gaze. “About a mile,” he answers.
“That is fascinating,” Caleb says, genuine and enthralled and almost a little breathless at hearing of the extent of this magic.
And this time Essek really can’t help himself. A half smile curls on his face as his eyes meet Caleb’s, holding his gaze with what he knows is a charged look. “Oh, there’s so much more,” Essek hears himself saying, before he can stop himself. He leaves it at that though, hoping that’ll be tantalizing enough that his new ward - one out of a whole group of them, he reminds himself - will ask him questions about it, questions that require more in depth explanations that will be lengthy and time consuming. “Come.”
As they resume their walk, the firbolg walks closer to him. “The correct stars, in the sky?” he asks, pointing up.
“It’s where they would be,” Essek nods.
“Alright,” the firbolg returns the nod, slow and relaxed, easy going for someone who could easily use his imposing height to cut an intimidating figure.
It makes Essek almost like him, and it makes Essek sort him into maybe one of the more level-headed ones of the group. “It’s as if there was no sun at all above you,” Essek continues, for the sake of sating what is clearly a giant fountain of curiosity. And this - Essek can stay in charge in a conversation like this.
“So not a different sky,” the firbolg asked, as if making sure. “It’s, ah, it’s this sky.”
“It’s this sky,” Essek assures as the firbolg nods again, his pink hair bobbing with the movement of his head. “Just through a lens of dunamantic,” he pauses, just a beat, “magic.”
While his eyes are on the firbolg as he explains, he can feel Caleb looking at him, can feel the questions and curiosity radiate off of him as he mentions dunamancy.
Ask, Caleb , Essek whispers to himself. Ask, and as your steward, I will have to answer. Ask, so that I may have something to hold over you.
“What do we call you, uh - just Shadowhand?” the half-orc asks, interrupting his thoughts. “Or is there another name you prefer?”
The question catches him off guard in a new way. He hadn’t been asked what his preference was in a long time. He thinks for a second, but can come up with nothing that isn’t his official and hard-earned title.
“Shadowhand Essek Thelyss,” is his answer.
“Essek Thelyss,” the half-orc repeats, and for a beat Essek wonders why it sounded like such a mouthful coming from himself when it sounds so easy from the half-orc.
“Of Den Thelyss,” Essek continues, pushing that tidbit to the back of his mind where everything else is being stored right now, to be sorted out later in the privacy of his tower.
“Sure, sure, we know it well,” the goblin nods.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, Den Thelyss is like, the most popular one,” Jester chimes in, sounding so confident Essek almost believes she knows what she’s talking about.
“That’s one of the top three, is that right?” the goblin asks.
The smile that curls across Essek’s face is cautious yet still amused, unsure if they are genuinely trying to get onto his good side or if they are just like this naturally. “It is indeed.”
“Is it, uh, impolite, forgive me if it is to ask,” the half-orc starts again, clearly treading carefully with his words, “how many years you have been through the - bop-bop - beacon?”
And even with such care that’s the string of words he chose. Essek is left more flat-footed with this group by the minute.
Which is maybe why he answers honestly. “Uh - interestingly enough, I, um - while I am consecuted, I have not gone beyond the first life yet.”
The half-orc nods, glancing at his group.
“I am what you refer to as a prodigy of dunamancy,” Essek follows up, needing to prove that despite being in his first life he was worthy and capable - that he wasn’t a child the way many of the other consecuted denizens of the city viewed him. “And, uh,” his next words are a little harder to say, but he gets them out nonetheless, “the den was very kind to accept me for one comparably young as myself - I’m only partway into my second century, so.”
“A great honor,” Caleb volunteers, and he sounds genuine, not condescending, not patronizing, not the way the consecuted sound when they’ve said the same.
He’s not sure what he’s feeling when he answers a brief, “It is.” He averts his gaze, swallowing hard. “Anyway, come - we have a prison to show you to.”
And that helps - that is a reminder of what’s at stake. If he is found out, he will rot in that dungeon for the rest of this life, and every single life afterwards. He will be a dead man walking in every sense of the word.
No matter how genuine and curious and new to all of this this group may seem - these heroes of the Dynasty, no friends of the Empire - they are the biggest threat to his work, to his life, to his very existence. Being their steward could give him an edge, some leverage to keep them in line and off his trail, but if they managed to get an audience with the Bright Queen, he isn’t sure what else they’ll be able to pull off - a blessing or a curse, a blessing or a curse.
As he leads them further away from the Lucid Bastion, they cross into another sector of the city, and he nods his head at the surroundings. “Welcome to the Firmaments. This is the place of higher learning. This is where, um, well,” and against his better judgement, he glances at Caleb, “Based on what you have been talking about and your curiosity, perhaps you’ll be returning to, maybe when this ordeal is done.”
Caleb’s eyes are alight, eagerness and awe and - and excitement shining, making his startlingly blue eyes even brighter.
“Especially if you’re looking for the professor - she is within the, um, the Marble Tomes Conservatory,” Essek rushes out. “And, ah, should be a unique meeting of minds I would like to be present for,” he adds without thinking, a lapse in his own control again , his eyes solely on Caleb as he realizes that he’s smiling at the man, intrigued and interested in Caleb, in his mind, his abilities, his eagerness and excitement and curiosity, the razor thin divide between blessing or curse, blessing or curse, blessing or curse - “But, this way,” Essek interrupts his own traitorous, dangerous thoughts, turning away from them, continuing to lead them to the Dungeon of Penance, allowing himself one final, selfish thought.
Whether they be a blessing or a curse, with such intriguing company Essek can’t help but be a little excited too - like a moth to a flame, being unable to resist the allure of the bright and new after being in the same shadows for so long.