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Your name is Caleb Widogast.

All the entries in his book start the same.

You have departed with the Mighty Nein for the ruins of Aeor to stop Lucien and his Tomb Takers from bringing the corrupted Somnovem through to this world from the Astral Sea. The odds are... not favorable. You have considered bringing allies, but in the end there are few you can trust.

Essek Theylas, Shadowhand of the Kryn Dynasty, has joined you.

Caleb doesn't elaborate on Essek; earlier entries in his little book have already discussed the man at length.

Despite everything, you trust him.

It is Frumpkin who notices the intrusion into Caleb's privacy first, due to the lack of footsteps for Caleb to hear. He looks up at the soft chirp his familiar gives, to see Essek lingering in the doorway.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Essek says.

Caleb shuts the book and slides it back into its holster across from his spellbook. Frumpkin curls back up into his ball and ostensibly goes to sleep. "I was just finishing, in truth," he admits. "I am as prepared as I am ever going to be for tomorrow, I think."

Essek nods. "May I join you?"

Caleb gestures at the other chairs surrounding his little study table. Essek glides over, sparing a glance at the ornate stained-glass representation of Mollymauk's coat above the fireplace before settling into the chair next to Caleb. There is a small satchel in his hand, which he places on the table. "This place is astounding," he says.

Caleb shrugs. "I've seen your tower," he says. "Mine is only temporary, and pales in comparison."

"Nonsense," Essek scoffs. "Every corner I turn in this place is more impressive than the last. Though I admit I find myself curious as to what is above the seventh floor."

Caleb doesn't rise to the bait.

"Apologies," he says. "Verin always tells me that for someone so keen on my own secrets, I am still insufferably nosy. I should also thank you, I think, for my own quarters." Caleb had patterned the design of Essek's chambers after what he had observed of the man's taste in interior design from the brief time he spent in Essek's own tower with the Nein. "To be honest, I thought we would be making an uncomfortable camp in the snow. This far exceeds my expectations."

Caleb nods. There is a moment of somewhat awkward silence as he realizes Essek has been actually babbling, as though nervous, until he puts together that he hasn't been left alone with Essek since long before they met in Eiselcross, and subsequently wonders if Essek sought him out intentionally, knowing he was alone in the MT salon.

"...Forgive me," Essek says eventually, breaking the silence, "I did not come here to applaud your arcane abilities, impressive though they are." He gestures to the satchel he had deposited on the table. "If you'll allow me, I thought I might... provide what aid I can, on your..." He trails off, and motions vaguely at Caleb's left shoulder. "I confess I'm not certain what to call it."

"Ah," Caleb says. He had discarded his heavy coat and other layers in his own chambers, but the red eye on his shoulder is still concealed by the sleeve of his simple shirt. "If you're thinking of trying to dispel it, don't bother. We've tried all manner of things to try to rid ourselves of them."

Essek frowns. "Are there... more than just yourself and Beauregard?"

"Nein, just us," Caleb says. "We were the only two foolhardy enough to read Lucien's mysterious book." He unbuckles his book harness from his shoulders and sets it gently aside on the table, unbuttoning his shirt enough to shrug his left arm out of its sleeve. The red eye stares unblinking just under his shoulder.

Essek reaches for his satchel without looking away from the eye. "Have you had any adverse effects from it?"

"Some very unsettling dreams," Caleb tells him. "Beauregard was able to psychically contact Lucien by meditating on hers, though I find myself loathe to try it."

"Do you think he can see through it?" Essek asks. He removes several vials from the satchel, which Caleb belatedly realizes is likely full of spell components.

"I don't know," he says. "I certainly hope not. We have been keeping them covered, though I don't know if that would be an impediment or not."

Essek empties the contents of a few vials into a small bowl, mixing them together. Caleb recognizes a scent similar to the sweet oil he uses for suggestion, as well as something earthy and pungent that reminds him of Caduceus' cooking. "What have you tried? To remove them, I mean."

"Acid," Caleb answers sheepishly. "Several of us tried dispelling them. And we wasted quite a bit of diamond dust on greater restoration. I'd also advise against identify, there was quite a bit of psychic backlash."

"Noted," Essek says. He scoops the mixture into a vial and produces a dropper. Caleb presents his shoulder, but rather than apply it to the mark, Essek droppers the tincture into his own eyes, blinking rapidly as they water in response.

"I'll admit I'm unfamiliar with this particular practice," Caleb says.

"True seeing," Essek says in response. He sets the dropper back down, still blinking. "It allows insight into the Ethereal Plane, not the Astral Plane, but I thought it might at least uncover something."

A bit of the residue from the mixture runs along the high, delicate arch of Essek's cheekbone. Caleb looks away before he can do something ill-advised like brush it off himself.

He's not blind. He knows why the rest of the group teases him about his attraction to Essek - because it is attraction, Caleb knows himself well enough to recognize that. Essek is exactly his type - intelligent, ambitious, driven.

Dangerous.

Still, it isn't as if - there's no time for any of that, Caleb tells himself. It serves no purpose. It's incredibly foolish, just like this hopeless infatuation with Jester - it can't happen, it won't happen, and dwelling on it only distracts from everything Caleb still needs to do.

"Interesting," Essek says, but when Caleb looks back at him the other wizard is looking not at his arm but upwards and all around them. His eyes are hugely dilated, the pupil nearly blocking out the silver irises, and there is an iridescent sheen barely visible near the corners of his eyes where moisture has gathered.

"Well?" Caleb asks.

Essek jolts. "Ah, yes," he says, now looking at Caleb's shoulder. "I often forget how distracting this spell can be. On our own Material Plane, I would expect walls and floors and such to appear also ethereally - but this is a pocket dimension, an aspect of another plane entirely, and the sight is - well, it's indescribable, but - in any case, the matter at hand..."

He tilts his head, now utterly focused on the red eye. One elegantly manicured hand rises to touch it, then stops. "May I?" Essek asks.

"Ja, go on," Caleb allows.

Essek prods gently at the edges of the eye. "Well, I can certainly see why acid wouldn't have worked," he says, idly and almost to himself. "It's not on your skin, exactly - it seems more that it's tethered to your very being, and I think to remove it would require fundamentally altering your soul in some way - inadvisable, at the least, and incredibly dangerous, more likely..."

"My... soul?" Caleb frowns.

"Not as mysterious a thing as many philosophers would posit," Essek muses, "no, it's... quantifiable, if not tangible. The soul is the center of Luxon theology, the very core of one's being, drawn into the beacons and sent out again, the absolute sense of self."

"And you can see my soul?" Caleb asks, now somewhat concerned.

"Not as such," Essek says. "I can see the eye, though, and its connection to something within you, and I can hypothesize. It's almost certainly - by the Light," he says suddenly, and Caleb realizes his gaze is now affixed on the scars on his forearm.

There's a sinking feeling in Caleb's gut. "...Ah, yes. Those."

"I - I apologize," Essek says immediately, "I didn't mean to... I'm being incredibly rude, I'm sure, I've seen them before and I know it's none of my business, it's just that... did you know they glow?"

Caleb digs the fingers of his right hand into his thigh, resisting the urge to scratch at the scars. "In your... truesight?"

"They seem to have a sort of magical residue," Essek says. "Almost... crystalline in nature."

Caleb snatches his arm away from Essek's gentle grasp, and now he does scratch, the phantom itch under his skin too strong to ignore.

"Forgive me," Essek says, "I have overstepped, and for that I apologize."

"It's alright," Caleb says, "it's just... an old wound."

"I know," Essek tells him. He steeples his fingers together in front of him in a gesture that Caleb has come to learn indicates shame. "That is... I know a little. I've met the man, after all."

Caleb swallows the lump that has made itself present in his throat. "You... know?"

"Only what I've put together," Essek says. "The Scourger in the Dungeons of Penance had similar scars. And you've mentioned Trent Ikithon yourself, so I suppose I just put two and two together, as they say."

"I'm not a Volstrucker," Caleb says immediately.

"I know," Essek says. "You wouldn't be here if you were."

"I was very close to becoming one, I think," Caleb tells him, quietly. He doesn't want to lay it all bare, here, now. He can't. But Essek deserves to know the things they have in common. "I failed the final test."

Essek's face is a painful vision of understanding. "I'm glad of that," he says, "selfish as it may be."

Caleb nods. "I am, as well," he says. "I have done... terrible things, Essek."

"The difference between us is thinner than a razor," Essek quotes. "I understand, Caleb. Whatever you have done, it pales in comparison to the suffering I have caused."

Caleb takes a deep breath. "Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't," he says, but doesn't elaborate. He gestures at the scars. "Synthetic residuum, if I understand it correctly. I shouldn't be surprised that it left a deeper mark than what is on my skin."

"Synthetic -" Essek begins, then shakes his head in disbelief. "There was a time when I thought myself the foremost expert in an entirely new field of magic, and now - the things I have seen since meeting all of you, the things all of you have seen, would baffle even the most educated minds in the Dynasty. Synthetic residuum - impossible."

Caleb shrugs halfheartedly. "I've lost count of the impossible things I've witnessed in the last few years," he says. "What else do you see?"

"Just the glowing residue," he says. "It's very faint - I'd be surprised if it was enough to actually affect anything. Like... ashes, left over after a fire."

"An appropriate metaphor," Caleb says. "What else?"

Essek shrugs, and looks away from Caleb's arm. The purple of his cheeks deepens as he glances up at Caleb's chest. Caleb thinks about the way he refused to entirely disrobe at the Vermist Outpost and surmises that the Kryn must have a very different view of nudity and modesty than Dwendalians. "Your heart chakra is terribly blocked," he comments, almost lightly as if joking. "You really should see someone about that."

"My what?" Caleb asks, eyebrows raised. "Chakra?"

"Your - honestly, what are they teaching in that Empire of yours these days?" Essek asks. "You don't know what chakra are?"

Caleb shakes his head.

Essek almost laughs. "They - well, I'm not a healer or a medical expert, by any means, but they're the points at which energy flows and collects through your body. Yours are... well, fairly healthy, I suppose, though the third eye could use some cleansing, but the heart chakra - blockages of it usually indicate recent grief, or heartbreak."

"Ah," Caleb says, trying not to bely the knot twisting in his chest. He thinks of Beau and Yasha, hands joined, and the longing he feels for something similar - thinks of Jester, laying her head on Fjord's shoulder, of Fjord kissing her in the middle of a snowfield.

"And I'm overstepping again," Essek says. He makes a gesture and the iridescent sheen disappears from his eyes. "As I said - I know I'm nosy. It's none of my business."

"It's fine," Caleb says. "There have been some... romantic developments within our group in recent weeks. It's all very heartwarming. And at the same time, it can be lonely."

"I understand," Essek says. "Better than you might think." His gaze, even freed of truesight, is still piercing in a way that makes Caleb unable to look away.

Caleb knows what he's thinking. He knows what it means.

"I... Essek," he says, haltingly, "doch, I don't - this isn't - that isn't for me, you understand? People like me... we don't get that. There's too much at stake, and I - you -"

"I used to think that I was above it all," Essek says. "Romance. Love. The things I was doing were too important. And then - well. You all barreled into my life, you convinced me - you convinced me, Caleb. You did. That the things I was doing - the life I was living - the things I have done - well. You already know." He shakes his head. "And yet - you're still here, and you still say that you trust me, despite everything. You still call us friends, which is somehow - the best thing I have ever heard, and also the worst, because I want so much more than that, and... I have to think - that it means something, this - what I feel for you, I -"

"No," Caleb says, standing abruptly. He shoves his arm back in his sleeve, steps away from the desk. "No. This can't - this isn't good for anyone, for us, for - no, Essek. I can't - what you are asking of me, what I think you are asking, I can't - "

"And why not?" Essek presses, and stands as well. His feet are firmly on the floor, and though he stands several inches shorter than Caleb, it feels as though he towers over him with the conviction with which he speaks. "Caleb, you look at me, and you see me. Not the... Shadowhand, or the prodigy, or the war criminal, you see me, right through all the walls I've spent over a century building, and it's agony." He reaches for Caleb's shoulder, gripping his arm just under where the eye sits. "And this? You said it yourself, we are the same. We are driven, we are ambitious. We are curious - to a fault. And either we are above it all - romantic developments, as you call it - or we don't deserve it. It can't be both. So which is it?"

Caleb feels like he did after four polymorph spells in a row, as if all the energy and breath has gone from his body. "Essek, I - verdammt. I do see you. And you can see - you can see what I am. We are - you know it's the latter, Essek. I don't deserve it. Any of it. There is. Too much to do, to much at stake. This can't be - you cannot ask this of me, Essek, because I am a weak man, and I - if you are a coward, so am I. I cannot - I cannot dare this much, Essek." He shakes his head, and to his horror feels moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes. "I cannot, because to have it would be - so good, but - to lose it, I couldn't - I couldn't bear it. I can't - lose it again. And I will Essek. I will lose it. I always do. And it is always my own fault."

Saying the words feels like all the fight has gone out of him, and he sinks back into his chair as his knees give out. He drops his head into his hands, elbows on his knees, unable to look up at the other man.

So long passes in silence that Caleb thinks that Essek has left, simply floated back up and away like Caleb deserves. Then he feels a gentle hand on his knee, and one on his wrist, and looks up to see Essek kneeling before him, eyes overbright to match his own.

"I will not promise you that you won't lose me," Essek says softly. "I will not promise things that I cannot give. And I will not promise that this, that - us, if there is an 'us' - that we won't go awry, or grow apart, or take each other down the darker paths that we have already walked. I can only tell you what I know to be true, which is that... you make me a better man, Caleb. All of you do - the Mighty Nein - but you, Caleb. You make me want to be a better man, because I want to be deserving of you."

Caleb shakes his head, but the words won't come.

"I am willing to try," Essek says. "If you are. And perhaps we can teach each other to be better together."

Caleb tips his head forward, forehead resting against Essek's as he slumps forwards. "I don't know if I can," he says, and closes his eyes.

He thinks of Beau and Caduceus, telling him that he was a child when he killed his parents, that it was under duress, that it wasn't his fault. Thinks of Jester, talking about lying to protect themselves. Thinks of Marion, trying to teach him to forgive himself, to let go of guilt.

"I'm not sure I know how to let myself... change," he says, finally. "Or even if I can. But... I will try, Essek. I can try."

He feels more than sees the smile that breaks over Essek's face, the smallest amount of tension lifted. He waits for a moment, stuck on the edge, before realizing Essek is waiting for him to commit, to make the first move.

A calculated risk, Caleb thinks, and kisses him.

Essek's lips are soft and full in comparison to his own, almost certainly rough and chapped. It feels strange, wrong, to have Essek beneath him, on his knees still - and so Caleb slides from the chair, down to the same level, gasping as Essek's lips part under his. Essek's hand tangles in his hair, the other sliding down to clutch at his shoulder, and Caleb bears him down further, laying them both out on the carpeted floor of the salon, turning them to feel Essek's weight atop him, grounding. The movement jostles the study table, and Frumpkin gives an annoyed mrrrrp as he is rudely awakened from his slumber.

"Scheiße," Caleb curses as they break apart, Essek's perfect white coif tousled and his lips swollen a dark purple.

"Perhaps we should take this elsewhere?" Essek says, and though his voice is smooth and suave there is still a trace of brownish goop on his face from his spell, making him both somehow adorable and also impossible to take seriously.

Caleb wipes it away, and lets his thumb linger on Essek's cheekbone. "We have what might be the fight of our lives tomorrow," he says, though he's sure Essek can tell from his voice that his heart isn't in the protest.

Essek shrugs. "I only need four hours to trance," he says, "though if your delicate human constitution says otherwise..."

Caleb laughs in a way that he hasn't in a long time, a joyous, surprised thing that bubbles up from his throat unbidden. "Okay," he says. "Ja, lets go then."

Much later, when he returns to his book, he will finish his entry:

Your name is Caleb Widogast.

You have departed with the Mighty Nein for the ruins of Aeor to stop Lucien and his Tomb Takers from bringing the corrupted Somnovem through to this world from the Astral Sea. The odds are... not favorable. You have considered bringing allies, but in the end there are few you can trust.

Essek Theylas, Shadowhand of the Kryn Dynasty, has joined you.

You trust him. You are learning to change, together. He says you make him a better man, but you are better with him, too. You are trying to let yourself change. It is hard, but you are trying. Perhaps, if you survive, you can let yourself love him, too.