I see death cresting over the hill
over the hill
I see death cresting over the hill
coming over that hill
and I don't know what to do
no I don't know what to do
when it comes for you
♫ Over the Hill by Wax//Wane (feat. Sleeping at Last)
“Hi, Essek, it's me,” her voice is quiet, uneasy, lacking her usual exuberance, and it cuts through Essek's studies. “Just wanted to let you know we had a terrible night and Fjord and another crew member were killed but they—”
The spell fragments and shatters under its constraints and Essek—Essek doesn't breathe, only manages an alarmed, “What?” in response before her second message comes.
“Sorry. They're okay now. Caduceus and I brought them back. But it's going to be a rough trip. Hope you're better than us.”
“What?” Essek demands a second time. Growing restless, shifting about his study back in Rosohna. “Jester. I don't understand. What happened?” Frustrated, he knows she probably can't risk sending him more messages. Perhaps he should have joined the fleet as Thane, then he'd have been near, then he could have helped. He holds the spell in his mind, doesn't let it fizzle out as he tries to get a grasp on his thoughts. “Please, if I can be of any aid, let me know. I am fine. But very worried.”
As expected, there is no response, and he tries to not let it bother him. Tries to go about preparing the Kryn side for the meeting ahead.
Two mornings later, another message comes. He is at sea with a force to match the Empire, hidden below from the rising sun in his own quarters, a separate ship entirely from the delegates.
“I shouldn't be using energy,” if at all possible, her voice is smaller than before, and for her to skip a greeting, she must be using all she can of one spell. “A god named Uk'otoa has been hunting us. We're really scared. We might not make it to the meeting.”
Unacceptable, really. He can't put himself up for suspicion, but is it truly a concern if he's already told those on his ship to not disturb him under any circumstance, his door barred with a magic that none of them could break? He had been working on dangerous magics, using the constant movement of the ship to aid in newer experimental calculations, thinking it would only endanger the crew if they tried to interrupt him. But...
“Jester. I'm coming to you. Teleporting onto a moving target is risky—however I am familiar enough with at least a part of that ship.”
If she could reply or risk using another spell, she'd probably tell him no and that he was being foolish. But she can't, and besides, he knows. He knows he's being foolish but they still have days of travel and they might be dead before then.
He dons a different illusion—not Thane, that raises too many questions for the rest of the crew, but still elven features, though more rugged than would be his usual.
He surveys his quarters once more, making sure the spell he had been working on was cleaned up; it would be tragic if he left the crew to any errant arcane magic. Then a breath, and he traces the familiar sigils, pictures the cargo hold in his mind, and puffs out of his chamber—one ship to another, days apart. He's met with the sight of Caleb seated on a crate, a hand raised suddenly holding spell energy and frowning, uncertain.
“Caleb,” Essek says in his normal voice, very careful.
“Ah,” Caleb answers, and lets the spell fade. “It is very dangerous for you to have come, my friend.”
“No one will notice my absence. They believe I am enthralled in spellwork until the end of our voyage.”
Interest peaks in Caleb's gaze. “Were you?” he can't help but ask.
“Yes. But your safety is more important to me.”
Something shutters through Caleb's expression and he doesn't say anything. “What should we call you?”
“'Thalra' will do fine.”
Caleb nods. “Teleported in to be of aid,” he says, with a little bit more lightness.
Essek lifts his shoulders in a slow shrug, his hands laced before him. “It is the truth.”
“Come, then. We're all still... well. Napping, I suppose.”
He leads Essek to the Captain's Quarters where instead of a floor there is only bedrolls, the rest of the Nein all laid out like a puzzle.
“This is our good friend,” Caleb says, gesturing at Essek, “remember, Thalra.”
Jester extracts herself and gets to her feet and launches herself at Essek, hugging him tight.
“Oh, I'm sorry to have kept worrying you—you shouldn't have come but I'm really glad you're here anyway it's been awful.”
“You're all... still alive, I see?”
“Not for lack of trying,” Fjord says weakly, and he's in the middle of the strange grouping. “Kind of foolish of me to think he'd just give up after failing the one time.”
“This is the... Uk'otoa Jester spoke of?”
“Yeah. Don't ever piss off a sea god and then go to sea. Not fun.”
“If the sea is the problem, why not leave it?”
“I have not gotten the proper rest I need to be able to cast the spell,” Caleb says from besides Essek, and now Essek can hear the exhaustion. Can see it in all of them, really. “Uk'otoa will stop at nothing to get back what Fjord stole from him.”
“And that is?”
Fjord makes a small illusion of one of the eyes in his hand.
“Key to releasing him. Thought I'd dumped it in a volcano but apparently that was just metaphorically.”
“It's in his stomach,” Jester says, still clutching to Essek, and it's a testament to how awful she looks that he's letting her. “I suggested surgery but Fjord doesn't think it'll work.”
“I literally absorbed it, Jester.”
“Yeah, but, like, everything just keeps stabbing you in the stomach like they can dig it out.”
“And it hasn't worked! So I think they're just a bit mindless with the way they're going about this.”
“You all need rest,” Essek interrupts, “I will watch over you.” He wants to add if you'll trust me but he thinks they're too tired to even care.
“You really don't have to do that, man,” Beau says.
“I'm here now, aren't I?” He hesitantly puts a hand on Jester's shoulder. “It's something to take advantage of.”
“I'll accept that,” Caduceus says. “Sleeping in shifts didn't go so well for us last time.”
“Is there anything I should particularly keep an eye out for?”
“Nah,” Veth says, “it'll be pretty obvious. They'll come right for Fjord and try to shovel out his stomach. It's super disturbing. They'll also just straight up try and kidnap him.”
Essek frowns. “Sleep,” he says, gently pushing Jester from him, “we will discuss further when you wake.”
Essek watches. He's floating, legs crossed, back to a wall. The Nein twitch in fits and struggles, sleep an uneasy, restless thing. They cling to each other, keep connected, and he imagines it's so strong that buried deep in their subconscious is a count of all the party members.
There's an old wound here, he thinks. Bleeding open and raw now. This isn't just the paranoia of a near-death; this is loss, reverberating between them. Reminder.
Not again is what they say in how they all weave neatly together around Fjord. Not another one.
He continues to watch, silent.
“What of the rest of the fleet? Are they unaware of your struggles?”
They collectively look uncomfortable.
“While we haven't been able to leave,” Caleb starts, “there's still a part of us that must stay and see... this through. And if... the rest of the fleet know, they will deem us a liability and cut ties.”
Essek stares at him but Caleb won't meet his eyes. None of them will.
“You'll risk all of you dying just for peace between two nations you have no stake?” And ah, there are his loyalties again, explosive. He grits his teeth and tries a new tactic, “So instead you'll bring this destructive force on your wake into the talks themselves. You'll bring Uk'otoa down on everyone.”
Fjord bristles. “We're not trying to kill everyone! We're not—”
“Me?” Essek cuts in.
“That's not,” Fjord tries.
“Stop it!” Jester shouts, fists bunched in her bedroll.
Essek wants to dig his hands into his hair in frustration but he bottles it all down. He wants desperately to stab at the hornet's nest of his betrayal just to get someone to be angry at him, but Jester's tone stops him. It doesn't help anything.
“If we were able to remove the 'key' from you I may perhaps be able to... hide it away through arcane means. However, the spell components are costly, and would take time to procure. You said he was a sea god—you've been safe up til now?”
“Yeah. I mean, relatively. There'd be real bad dreams, ones that he probably could have killed me through, but those stopped after I made my oath with the Wildmother.”
Caleb flips through his spellbook. His legs are folded over one another and stretched across Yasha's back, and his shoulder pressed up against Beau's side. “You think if we landlock the eye, it will give us time to get what you need for your spell?” Caleb muses.
“Land has been a deterrent so far, it stands to reason that it would continue to be.”
“Okay, but you know, we still have to get it out of him,” Beau says. “None of these plans matter if we don't do that.”
“We've still got a few days before we reach the meeting point, right?” Caduceus asks. “We got time to figure it out.”
Veth scrambles up from under his arm. “If Uk'otoa doesn't keep hounding us we do,” she adds in. “He's sorta due for another gut-punch. Or a gut-stab, I guess.”
“Thanks for that, N—Veth,” Fjord grumbles.
“Hey, Fjord, maybe you should pray,” Jester says suddenly.
“I don't—know if the Wildmother can help. She already... did what she could, I think.”
Essek makes a face of dissatisfaction.
Fjord shakes his head, trying to remember a conversation long ago in the cold. He'd... forgotten, perhaps. Put it out of his mind and focused on the... rebirth of sorts that the Wildmother had granted him.
He lets his mind slip into that blocked darkness and he feels that same, stomach-clenching ice. An ever-spinning black hole within him, sucking at his lifeforce but surrounded by a protective bloom, constantly fighting back against the disease.
“This seed of darkness... This seed I cannot heal but I can help you carry the burden. I can free you from the fiend that feeds.”
A rock, a coal, an eye.
He puts a hand to his chest and breathes. How long had he ignored it? Acted like it wasn't there? Let himself forget that a part of him still belonged to Uk'otoa?
“I think I need to talk to her, even if she can't help,” Fjord whispers, and looks to Caduceus, who nods in response.
“It will be better if we move this to the deck.” He takes it slow getting up from the sprawl that is the Mighty Nein, accidentally knocked Veth and Jester in the process more than once. “I think everyone can help just a bit with the ritual.” If only because they'd already participated in a group ritual for Fjord's sake a few days ago—it just feels right, now. Just another interlocked weave to their lives. He looks directly at Essek, noting his discomfort and making no mention of it. “Will you join us, Thalra?”
“I'm not sure how I'd be able to contribute,” Essek admits.
“You need to have an understanding of nature to warp it in the way that you do,” Caduceus states, tilting his head slightly. “I'm not asking you to thrust yourself in another's faith—just to keep an open mind, and a respect of that nature.”
Essek isn't sure what to say to that, and his gaze flicks briefly to Caleb and his acceptance of Caduceus's words, then nods once, unfolding his legs and setting his feet back to the ground.
The deck of the Ball-Eater is scarred with battle, spell burns and gaps in the wood, blood splatter and drag marks, the crew moving about their work mechanically and with a constant air of caution.
Essek wishes he had come sooner. He couldn't have known, certainly, after the first time Jester messaged him. The Mighty Nein couldn't have known that they'd keep falling under attack. He watches, standing back, as Caduceus takes charge, sitting in the center of the deck and gesturing Fjord to do the same across from him. There's a blackened blood stain at the base of the mast. Essek only sees Fjord's gaze go distant because he's hyper-focused.
Fjord was killed, Jester had said.
The rest of the Mighty Nein move to sit out around the two of them in a circle, well-practiced, like they'd done it before.
Her and Caduceus brought him back, Jester had said.
Essek's entire society is focused around the concept of rebirth, but consecution is very different from resurrection.
Caleb nudges him gently with his knuckles and Essek startles and Caleb frowns just a little.
Essek knows that mention of one of them dying had bothered him but he hadn't expected the proof to choke him. It shouldn't matter, really. Sure, he's acknowledged them as his friends and his very livelihood is in their hands, but attachment is a complete other story. He hadn't prepared for it.
“Come,” Caleb says, “we can balance out each other's arcane.”
Essek still doesn't think he can do anything to help, but seeing the blood he's more convinced to try.
He takes a seat to offset Caleb—Yasha and Jester across from each other, and Veth and Beauregard.
The only religious rituals he's ever sat in on were those to the Luxon. Stifling and rigid.
This is... There's something free about it. The way the group doesn't change, doesn't force themselves to be anything than who they are for the sake of a faith that isn't even theirs. There's a vibrancy to them. A power ripples out from the center of Caduceus and Fjord and the group echoes it back tenfold. Essek doubts, truly, that they're needed for the ritual. That any one of them makes it more likely that this Wildmother will answer. But it isn't the point, he realizes.
The point makes him want to run. Because they're only doing this together because they're a family and so he shouldn't be here. He betrayed them and there will never—should never—be any growing friendships from here on out. And he warned them about getting too close and what's he doing? What's he doing here? Isn't he, ultimately, just damning them by trying to help them?
He meets Caleb's gaze across the way and he feels locked in place and he can't move, couldn't move even if he wanted to. He thinks of the blood stain and Caduceus inviting him and no one arguing it and he stays, damning them by being here and damning himself.
The air bends, whispers. Jester laughs to herself as though to an inside joke. Fjord shivers and Caduceus reaches out to him in reassurance. There's a distant rumble of thunder even though the sky is clear and the sun is a pressure on Essek's illusioned form but he weathers it for Fjord.
Essek, avid in his studies of Dunamancy, feels like time slows. That the wind takes on a languid dance, an embrace, a caress of skin, impossibly gentle, impossibly understanding. Caduceus smiles, eyes closed, hands entangled with Fjord's clenched grip and increasingly worsening state. Caduceus words sound sluggish, out of sync with the rest of the world and Essek feels them vibrate around him and wonders if this is just because he feels like he doesn't belong here.
He pieces Caduceus's sentence together, though it takes all his attention. “Can we get the orb out of Fjord?”
There's salt on the wind as it meanders. Essek tastes it on his tongue.
Fjord hiccups a cry and Essek's gaze snaps to him and he can't tell if it's pain or joy and the only one with any certainty is Caduceus. There's a war going on, Essek realizes, somewhere within Fjord. A battle of the soul. The ship starts to rock, waves taking up a strength of their own from no source at all. A glance behind him and Essek can see the alarm and terror in the crew, who made no comment on the Mighty Nein starting a ritual on the middle of the deck, not even a comment for Essek's disguised presence.
“You've got this, Fjord,” Beau says suddenly. “He's got nothing on you, or any of us.”
“The Traveler's watching,” Jester adds, and Essek is certain it's a platitude until he sees the barest sight of a green cloak looming over Jester in protection.
Another rumble of thunder.
“I think the Stormlord is, too,” Yasha comments, very quiet.
Essek doesn't have any idea how one deity, let alone several, could have any weigh-in on mortals; were the Luxon not scattered across the world in pieces, would they, too, have any whisper? Or would they remain silently casting their light, their influence only a dream made up by their followers?
Such a waste, Essek reminds himself, but it's duller, blocked out by the sounds of Fjord's fight with himself.
“Do we have the means on our ship to get the orb out?” Caduceus asks, his voice slicing into Essek's thoughts and scattering them wide.
Essek doesn't hear any answer, can't interpret any answer, but Caduceus is still radiating a lightness about him equal to the sun, and just as unbearable to Essek.
Time starts to properly reassert itself. It leaves Essek unsteady.
“Do we have to cut it out?”
Whatever the response, Caduceus frowns, uncertain.
“Well that doesn't seem reassuring,” Veth says.
“It doesn't mean it's bad,” Caleb replies.
Fjord crumples forward and Caduceus reaches out, arms enveloping him and there's the heaviness of magic in the air. Entwined schools pulling naturally from each of them, a woven web that he hadn't even realized. The wind is its own creature again, but the web stays strong.
“What did she say, Caduceus?” Jester asks. “Do we have to cut it out of him?” She looks ready to bolt for them, but the conflict in her eyes says that she isn't sure if they can break the circle yet.
Caduceus answers by holding out and arm to her in offering, and she scrambles across the deck to join in the embrace.
“I think she was unsure if that was the way to go about it, but she believes we have the means to get it out of him with what we have at our disposal.” He smooths a hand down Fjord's back. “You put up a good fight,” he praises, “you should be proud of yourself.”
“Are you gonna be okay, Fjord?” Jester asks.
“Think so,” Fjord rasps, like he's been screaming the entire time. “Guess that piece of him inside me didn't like the Wildmother contesting his territory.”
“...The sea or you?” Yasha asks.
Fjord chokes on a laugh. “Both?”
“Maybe it's an—mm, uhhh—literal and metaphorical thing,” Veth suggests. “We have to cut it out of you mentally and then cut it out physically.”
Fjord turns his head, slow, to stare at her. “Do you just want to stab me?” he squeaks.
“No! I've seen you stabbed enough in the last few days. I'm so over it. But the Wildmother's usually pretty definitive with her answers, right? And she didn't just outright imply no, don't cut you up. So I think that means something.”
“It's a part of your soul,” Essek says, quiet.
Everyone looks at him. It's disorienting.
“Whaddaya mean?” Fjord asks.
“You were fighting in a test of willpower. We only witnessed what was surface level, I can only imagine what was going on within.”
“War on two fronts,” Beau says, a touch of ice in her voice, knowledge in her eyes.
“Ohhh,” Jester exclaims, sitting back on her heels, “we kick him out of your head, then pull him out of your chest. It'd make sense, right? Because the fish-faces couldn't get it out.”
“Got any weird mushrooms, Caduceus?” Beau asks.
Caduceus smiles, finally releasing Fjord. “I think I could whip up something nice.”
“I don't know if I like where this is going,” Fjord says.
“We'll look after you,” Yasha tells him.
“So I'm going to let Cad drug me and you're probably gonna be the one to cut into my stomach.”
“Actually that will probably be me,” Jester says, “I'm pretty good at medicine. Oh, you know what, I'll talk Veth through it. She's better with small pointy objects.”
Veth cringes. “I promise, Fjord, this wasn't my plan. I don't like it any better than you do.”
Fjord looks close to real panic.
Caleb glances at Essek, both Wizards trapped running calculations in their minds, and Essek just sighs and nods an acknowledgment to Caleb before saying, “If all goes poorly, I can drag time to nearly a stop.”
Fjord blinks. “You can do that?”
“Relatively,” Essek clips. It isn't an ability he's perfected.
But even that seems enough to relax Fjord. “Alright.”
Caleb stands. “I say we barricade ourselves back in the Captain's Quarters. I'll put up the dome. It'll be a small space to work so we should only have Fjord, Caduceus, Jester, and Veth inside. And myself to sustain the spell.”
“Rest of us will be on guard,” Beau says. She walks over to Essek and elbows him. “Right, man?” There's wariness underlying her tone, and Essek can't blame her.
“Right,” he agrees, matching the tone.
He's been gone from his ship for barely twelve hours, but for Essek it feels like days. Provided nothing has gone wrong for the Xhorhas fleet, his crew still thinks Essek is on board, not throwing himself into everything he was determined to avoid.
There's something about being stuck on the outside of the dome, watching, that is harder than watching over the group sleep. It's knowing that Fjord is actively fighting, that the rest of them are on standby, waiting. Fjord seizes and twists, Caduceus and Jester holding him down to keep him from hurting himself, Veth and Caleb taking up positions on the inside edge of the dome.
“I still think you're kind of a shit,” Beau says aloud, barely looking at Essek from the corner of her eyes. “But it's cool that you came to help. You could've just let us all die.”
“No,” Essek answers, voice quiet, “I couldn't.”
She raises a disbelieving brow. “Yeah? But then we couldn't be a problem for you anymore, with what we know.”
“That's...” Not as complicated as it was a few days ago, when he was overwhelmed with the panic of seeing them. “Not why all of you are my problem.”
She snorts. Caleb doesn't say anything, but there's a ghost of a smile there.
And then that same languid wind from the deck brushes through the closed balcony doors where Yasha is standing guard, warm and protective, a silent song to its presence. As it dissipates, Caduceus drops unconscious and Fjord arches with a scream and then goes limp. Jester shouts, Beau jerks forward, Essek tenses.
“Jester?” Beau asks, twitchy. “Are they okay?”
“I think?” Jester says. “I think so.” Her palms light with a divine aura. She fusses, then presses one hand to each of their necks, feeling for a pulse. “Their heartbeats are in sync. I think Caduceus is helping Fjord.”
“That's too much to take a chance on, Jester,” Essek says, trying to understand where she's coming from, but... it's too much.
She jerks her gaze up and glares at him. “But we have to. I can't wake either of them, I tried. And I know they're still alive. All I can do is rely on the gifts they've been given.” Her expression softens. “It's hard for me too, you know.”
Essek looks away in time to see Yasha stiffen, alarm in her eyes, and then something slams to the ship and the Ball-Eater rocks as though hit by a massive wave. The Mighty Nein scatter, knocked off balance, Caleb grabbing at Jester to help him stay within the dome in case they're hit again. Fjord and Caduceus let out matching yells and a plume of inky-black smoke rises from Fjord's chest. His eyes open and roll back and Jester has her hands over his chest in panic.
“Yasha, what did you see?” Essek demands.
“They're coming,” Yasha says, just as the bell on the deck starts to ring.
Jester looks at Caleb. “Fjord must be close if they're attacking now, right?”
“I don't know, Jester.”
“Doesn't matter,” Beau says, pushing away from the wall and crackling her knuckles. “We won't let them get to you.” Her gaze hardens. “Don't leave the dome. We have to do this, it might be the only chance we get.”
“But—” Jester starts to argue.
“Jester,” Beau warns.
“But if we cut it out of him and they steal it from us, then what?” Jester says.
“Caleb,” Essek says, drawing the Wizard's attention, “can you prepare to travel to a Circle? Somewhere other than Rosohna. Somewhere you trust to leave the orb.”
“Can you get us back?”
Essek smirks. “If this battle does not go poorly, then yes.”
Caleb nods. “I have somewhere in mind. I'll take care of it.”
Jester traces a sigil in the air and claps her hands together, saying, “Orly, just as planned, barricade everyone so that they come directly to us. We'll take care of everything this time. I hope.” She tilts her head like she's listening to someone speak, and then nods. The plume still stretches from Fjord. “Veth, come here, we have to be ready.”
“Okay, Jessie.” Veth scoots down besides Jester, the only space available to her with Caducues laid out half on Fjord, half at his side. She holds up a dagger and looks uncomfortable. “You sure there's not a better blade to use?”
“Fjord's got really thick muscles you know, so I think it's best.”
“Yeah, okay,” Veth says, not at all in agreement.
Yasha draws her blade, stepping back from the balcony doors in a ready stance. Beau takes the other door.
Essek reaches into a component's pouch and rubs powder made from a clear gemstone along the pads of his fingers as he steps into the center of the room, pushing his palm through the air as he speaks in a hushed tone. He turns, hands still poised, creating panels of an invisible barrier around them, then drops his hand.
“Nice, Theylss,” Caleb says admiringly from behind him.
“Sure,” Beau agrees, “the hell did he just do?”
“Wall of Force,” Caleb answers. “It gives us ten minutes of defense.”
“Hopefully it's all we need,” Essek says, looking back at the prone bodies of Fjord and Caduceus.
Maybe Fjord shouldn't have drank what Caduceus gave him.
It's not... not that he doesn't trust Caduceus... it's just that. Well.
He'd expected—or maybe hoped for—that same forest he'd been in before.
Not the crushing pressure of the sea floor, pushing him deep into the grains of sand, ethereal-like vines curling over his limbs, dragging him down like quicksand.
“You dare,” the familiar voice quakes, shaking the waters, “you dare to DEFY me.”
Fjord, with his head still above the sands, can see only darkness. And then thousands of yellow eyes open, pulsing with anger, crackling with the same energy of an Eldritch Blast.
“Well,” Fjord croaks, “I know you made such a great friend.”
One of the plants wraps around his neck and pulls and he starts to struggle, starts to fight against the hold.
The eyes close, one by one, like a Domino effect, and the water thrashes, alive, monstrous with an alien power.
“Give back,” Uk'otoa's roars, “what belongs,” just three eyes open, radiating and far, far too close to Fjord, enough that he can see the shards of teeth lining the leviathan's jaws, “TO ME.”
Fjord's pulled through the sand completely, the grains seeping into his open mouth still caught in a scream, flinging his neck back. He expects more suffocating darkness and then death, but he's forced through like he's shifting planes and again he's in the watery depths of the sea, sinking, sinking.
Scales move at his back. There and gone. He feels the swell of the water follow the motion. Turns in the current, sees nothing. A whirl of water, a glimpse of yellow.
He's being hunted.
Angry, he tries to summon the Star Razor, and his hand is empty.
“You belong,” Uk'otoa rumbles, distant like a storm, “to me. You are powerless... WITHOUT me.”
The weight of a three dozen bricks slams into Fjord's chest and he coughs up blood, thoughts skittering from his mind. He isn't sure why he thought he could do this. Maybe because he didn't expect Uk'otoa to be here, this close, fighting back against Fjord and Fjord's choices.
“I'm not,” he rasps, remembering Caduceus, remembering the group before he had the Wildmother, how they accepted him regardless of what he could do. “You were a crutch and I never should have leaned on you—but I don't need you now.”
This time when he reaches out, the Star Razor comes to him. He whispers galas'var and the silvery-blue light reflects off Uk'otoa's rolling scales, overwhelmingly infinite.
“I am not alone,” he says with conviction as his blood mingles with the water around him. His hands tighten on the blade as those eyes all open once more, but they don't intimidate him as they had before. “And I made a promise to protect all that is her—and you are against that.”
He bends the sword through the water and casts Divine Favor on himself and that more than Fjord's words riles Uk'otoa, the spell an outright rejection of what the leviathan gifted to Fjord. The water seizes and Fjord finds himself pelted through, back to the sea floor where he started, but this time he doesn't let the sands or plants entangle him.
He feels the orb within him, rotting him from the inside out. But instead of cold, there's the Wildmother's warmth. A part of him is in that forest; he hears birdsong, but then her voice in his ear, “I cannot aid you as much as I'd wish—but I can give you someone who is able.”
It puts Fjord just a bit at ease and he glares up at the mess of life that is Uk'otoa.
And he laughs. “You're just as caged here as you are in reality, aren't you? You can't hurt me as much as you could before.”
The water boils and hundreds of spears cut out of the abyss, blocked only by a beacon of light stretched as far up as the eye can see, radiance sizzling through the attack. Caduceus steps backward out of it until he is side by side with Fjord.
“Wow,” Caduceus says, “that's a real nasty piece of work.”
A wreathing of vines surrounds Uk'otoa, holding him back from attacking further, but Fjord knows it can't last.
He laughs again. “Yeah, I'll say. I was kind of expecting you, but your timing is still impeccable.”
Caduceus smiles. “I don't know how much I can help here. I feel... limited. But I can share in your pain, and make it a little less terrible.” He puts a hand to Fjord's back, and Fjord can feel the already strange link between them solidify into something further. He hands Fjord a simple platinum ring. “Just wear this for now, okay?”
Fjord makes a strange face, but it's no weirder than taking a funny smelling drink from Caduceus earlier, and he puts on the ring.
“Anything else?” Fjord asks, feeling weird.
“Stay within sixty feet of me and don't die?”
“We definitely wouldn't want that.”
As the vines tighten further, Uk'otoa's muscles ripple and break free, and immediately he moves likes a whip-crack and coming directly for Fjord, jaws wide. Fjord meets him with the sword, thrusting into the mouth and heaving with a strength unlike his own naturally but this—this is his mind and Uk'otoa is the trespasser. Fjord roars back to match him. “My mind!” he yells, slashing wide. “Belongs to me!”
Uk'otoa sideswipes him, taking a chunk of flesh, but the platinum ring hums and it doesn't hurt as much as it should, though Caduceus lets out a shout behind him, staff digging into the sands to support himself.
Fjord realizes that share in your pain wasn't some kind of Weird Caduceus Metaphor.
The runes on his blade shimmer as Fjord casts Faerie Fire on the leviathan, finally being able to actually track his movements and take several slashes with the Star Razor when Uk'otoa comes for him again, rays of Eldritch Blast striking Fjord.
Another pass and Uk'otoa demands, “Give in,” as jaws open beyond what is natural and swallow Fjord whole.
He's in darkness again, nothing like the sea, even the Star Razor's light is snuffed out. He shudders and feels Uk'otoa's very voice crawl under his skin. “GIVE IN,” he roars again.
No. He closes his eyes and finds a peace within himself. Feels Caduceus's beacon throb within his mind. “No,” he yells, his mind blocking out the influence and he's standing again on the sands like he never actually left them, Uk'otoa just playing mind games once more. Far above, so many eyes, ever-moving. “You know what!” Fjord continues, gesturing with the still-glowing sword. “I'm going about this all wrong!” He looks over his shoulder to his friend. “Can you handle me doing something dumb? It's really going to hurt.”
Caduceus grins wide. “Sounds like fun. I'm ready for it.”
Fjord turns the Star Razor in his hand, a mirror to the last time he held a blade to himself to defy a god, and stares with a vileness up into Uk'otoa's suddenly halted form. “Shame you still needed me,” he snarls, and plunges the blade into his chest.
A shadowy blade conjured in Essek's hand is the only thing keeping the falchion from digging into his jugular. Even as his grip starts to falter he still, strangely, doesn't regret his decision to teleport onto the Ball-Eater.
“Caleb,” Jester yells, “get the teleportation ready! Essek!”
He only hopes she's making these calls because Fjord's mental battle is done. “Little,” he grunts, “preoccupied.”
A sword sticks out of the Deep Scion's neck and Essek freezes and sinks more into the wall, but then its falchion drops, the body falling after it, and Yasha's there, blood smeared down her front.
“Thanks,” he says, with more of a shudder than he'd prefer.
“You have to go,” Yasha tells him, “or Caleb won't be able to get back.”
He peels away from the wall. There's only two of the Deep Scions left, both occupied with Beau, and already Yasha is moving away from him to engage. Caduceus is standing out from the dome, staff raised, beetles alight around him and a prayer on his tongue and healing bathes all of them. Jester and Veth are pulling an unconscious Fjord out, and Caleb is sketching the finishing scrawl of his spell. His eyes snap up to lock with Essek, chalk pressed with one hand to the floorboards, his other raised in beckoning, two fingers curled around a crystal amber cat eye.
Caleb drops the dome, finishes the circle, and Essek runs.
“Where are we?”
Essek goes absolutely still.
Caleb looks at him from where he's on his hands and knees in the center of the inert Teleportation Circle.
“You are safe, Thalra.”
Essek had forgotten he'd been under an illusion.
Caleb smiles. “I think you'd be safe, anyway. You know that very strange tower in the Open Quay?”
“That's where we are. You'd probably get along far too well with Yussa.”
“I'm not sure if that is a compliment or an insult,” Essek says dully.
There's a patter of footfalls and then a pristine-dressed goblin in the doorway. He blinks and tilts his head. “Just one of you, then? And a stranger. The master doesn't like strangers.”
“I know. It was an emergency, Wensforth. I'm sorry. Is the master in?”
Wensforth sighs, long and put-out. “Yes. Come along. I'll inform him of your presence.”
Caleb drags himself off the floor and starts to walk, only to pause and turn to Essek. “You're still bleeding.”
“Nothing that will kill me,” Essek says.
Caleb pats down his sides. “I think I still have a healing potion...”
“Caleb. Don't waste it.”
Caleb's eyes are fire when he looks up. “It's not a waste,” he says, fierce.
Essek hates this man some days. “Save it for battle, then.”
Caleb looks like he wants to argue further, but he can't exactly force-feed Essek a potion, so they catch up with Wensforth.
Halfway through introductions and talk of Uk'otoa, Caleb pauses mid-sentence, staring off into space, and then instantly relaxing for the first time since they arrived. “Jester says that everyone is safe and Fjord's awake.”
That same relief washes over Essek. “That's good.” Until that message they had no way of knowing, just blind... faith.
“I will talk with Allura and see if there might be somewhere not by the water that we can hide this away and out of reach until you've prepared the spell you wish to use,” Yussa says. “I admit, I am intrigued.”
Essek isn't in a sharing mood, and Yussa doesn't fault him for it, so Essek can at least see some potential respect there.
“We must be getting back.” he says instead.
“We can't be sure they won't just come after Fjord, or if they'll know the orb is no longer in him,” Caleb adds.
Yussa nods. “Well. Good luck.”
Essek hopes Uk'otoa won't try for Fjord now that the orb is gone; he's going to need to rest if he's ever going to make it back to the right fleet.
He draws out his spell through the air and—
“Essek!” Caleb yells, halfway over the balcony outside the Captain's Quarters, both his hands barely wrapped around one of Essek's wrists.
It's the confusion of where they've ended up that takes time for Essek to focus, but before he can even reach for a spell, Yasha is helping heave Essek onto the balcony.
Caleb laughs, just a little distraught.
“Well,” Essek says, catching his breath, “this is a better outcome than ending up in a wall.”
“This is true,” Caleb agrees.
“A swim would not have been so bad,” Yasha says, “though perhaps with your wounds...” She trails off, patting a hand to Essek's shoulder and it feels easier to breathe.
“Is everyone okay, truly?” Essek asks.
Yasha looks beyond the doors to the tired bunch of the Nein. “As well as anyone could expect.”
“Fjord?” Caleb asks as he reenters, the two others following him.
Fjord groans from where he's sitting against the wall, Beau on one side of him, Caduceus on the other. “Still alive this time around.” He pats his chest, bandaged and bloody, but not a gaping wound where Veth had performed “surgery.”
“I am never going into medicine,” Veth says. Both her and Jester are trying to wash their hands from a bucket of water. “You actually really do have some muscle there, Fjord. I'm impressed.”
“Told you,” Jester chirps.
“...When were you guys talking about my muscles?”
“Oh,” Jester hums, “while you were writhing on the ground in a very non-sexy way.”
“Do you think we're done with this now, finally?” Beau asks.
“We brought the orb to Yussa,” Caleb says, “he said he and Allura would find somewhere surrounded by enough land to keep it protected until we're ready with the spell.”
“You know, I'm just saying, and for once I don't mean any offense, Essek—but if he pulls a move on us like Essek did, we're more screwed this time,” Beau says.
Essek flinches regardless.
Beau does too, throwing up her hands from where she's seated, “I really didn't! But I'm just! Saying! He's got the Happy Fun Ball, he's got Halas' soul, and now he's got this! That's some dangerous shit.”
Caleb looks a little helpless standing in the center of the room. “Well,” he finally says, “we have nowhere else we could have brought it. Any of our other options... with anyone else it might just put them in peril.”
Beau sighs. She thumps her head against the wall. “Yeah, I guess.”
“All we can really do now is wait,” Fjord says. “And hope. He might just take his anger out on me. But I sort of think he can't. I think he needed that connection in order to come at me.”
“We're still all sleeping together until we're done with this whole trip at sea,” Veth declares.
“Yes, obviously,” Fjord agrees, despite making a face at Veth's choice of words. “No way am I sleeping alone in this room again. I'm lucky they didn't kill me and take me that first time, with no one any the wiser.”
“I will have to stay here and rest another day,” Essek says slowly. “I don't have the means to get back to my ship.”
“That's fine,” Beau mumbles, looking away, “you can fit in the dome.”
“That is unnecessary.”
“It's completely necessary. We all need another nap and no one can take a watch. It's the only way it's safe.”
“Beau's right,” Caleb says, just to drive the point in.
Essek is tired. He's emotionally tired, and physically tired. He's used more spells today than he usually would in any daily capacity unless research was involved.
So he openly glares at Caleb.
“Caduceus makes a really comfortable pillow,” Jester says, as though it would help. She moves to the balcony with the bucket and empties the bloodied water over the side before coming back.
“That's... quite alright,” Essek manages.
After Caleb scuffs out his chalk from his earlier spell and the bedrolls are laid back out, the group reassembling the strange sleeping puzzle, Essek continues just to stare. It feels like the ritual on the deck all over again, a gaping chasm of what they shouldn't allow him, but are.
Beau, curling into one of Caduceus's sides, looks at him. Maybe even looks through him. “Dude. Do you trust us?”
“I... should be asking you that,” he whispers.
“You didn't abandon us,” Beau says, “and you didn't run, and you bled for us. That's something, you know? Like. A whole lot. Makes me feel a lot more comfortable for the peace talks.”
From Caduceus's other side, Yasha says, “And now we know some of how you can fight alongside us.”
“If I don't have to Teleport,” he starts, “I can be a lot more effective.”
“Don't sell yourself short,” Beau replies. “You held your own.”
“Everyone just stop talking and go to sleep,” Fjord groans, laying horizontal to Beau, Jester at his back and Veth nestled and already well-into sleep on Jester's arm. “Jester, you told Orly we were alive right?”
“Yup, I sent him a message while you were still coming to consciousness and told him we'd probably be sleeping. Again. Guys, we've only been awake for like... four whole hours. Maybe five?”
“But you've had exhaustion from several days,” Essek points out.
“Oh. I guess that's true,” Jester agrees. “Come on, Essek, Caleb can't cast the dome until you're in its radius.”
Caleb, his head pillowed on Yasha's stomach, the monkey-cat Frumpkin sleeping atop him, is fiddling with a small crystal bead, waiting. “We do not wish for you to feel uncomfortable,” he says to the ceiling. “However, you allowed us to sleep and feel safe—we only wish to return the favor.”
Essek resigns himself to this. To these people. No one is going to sleep (except Veth) until Caleb casts the spell, and Caleb isn't going to cast the spell until Essek is within.
He settles in the space near Yasha's legs and along Caleb's side. Caleb finishes with the spell and flicks the bead into the air—it remains poised, and then the dome stretches over all of them, and darkness falls over the interior, quelling much of Essek's nerves.
“Fjord,” Caduceus says into the darkness, “wake someone if you have any weird dreams, okay?”
“Okay,” Fjord agrees, trepidation in his voice.
“Whatever happens,” Yasha says, “we've got you covered.”
“We'll get through this together,” Beau agrees.
Silence, eventually, comes over the group, sleep slowly dropping them one after another, the exhaustion easy to succumb to. He feels a weight thump onto his chest, startling, but not enough for him to raise alarm. His darkvision picks up the small fuzzy shape of Frumpkin, getting comfortable and sinking in.
He thinks Caleb is responsible, but Caleb is a slumbering shape against Essek—not restful by any means, but certainly asleep. He runs a curious finger along fur. What a strange, small fey creature. Essek allows Frumpkin to stay put. Thinks Caleb will forgive a lot of things, but harming or denying his cat isn't one of them. Essek finally begins to settle. Doesn't think he'll be able to sleep as he wants, unable to fully fit and understand and accept for himself the brand of safety the Nein offer, but he'll get the rest that he needs.
When he wakes he hopes it isn't to a beast sent by Uk'otoa.
When he wakes he'll return to his ship. To his spellwork. To his... solitary.
He shifts, finding a deeper comfort.
Another day doesn't do any harm. He'll have to make sure they're safe. It would be a careless waste of spells for both Jester and himself if he had to come back. It's only sensible.
I see hope coming over the hill
over the hill
I see hope coming over the hill
coming over that hill
and I don't know if it's true
no I don't know it's true
and neither do you