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I wake up more awake than I've ever been before

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Essek dies the way he hoped he might: quickly, for a purpose, and not alone.

It happens in the span of seconds. Beauregard is on the ground at Lucien’s feet, bloodied and still. Yasha is screaming but is too far away to help, and Lucien's blade is raised for a final, killing strike. And that cannot happen - and Lucien's antimagic cone is facing away from Essek, leaving his back exposed. So Essek claws at the gravity behind Lucien, crushes it to a sucking point, and tears him off his feet. Lucien hangs writhing in the grip of the Gravity Sinkhole for a few heartbeats, then crashes back onto the ice. He staggers to his feet and rounds on Essek, teeth bared. There’s blood on his lips and murder in his eyes.

Ah, Essek thinks. I made him angry.

Then Lucien is on him.

A hand around his throat. Nails cutting into his skin. A too-wide smile on Lucien’s face. ‘You should have left them to die alone, pretty boy.'

Essek flails for something to say, something good, something that might shake that awful smile. But he can think of nothing that wouldn’t sound like a feeble attempt to save some face in his final moments. So he bares his fangs and snarls.

And then, pain.

Pain as blood runs from his eyes and mouth, spraying across the ground. His mind is one red-hot scream, and his vision whites out into nothingness, and oh, Light, let it end – and then it's over and his back is crashing onto the ice, and the chamber around him is collapsing into blackness.

No, Essek thinks, because of course he does, even though he knew this was coming. Because he’s selfish and he’s scared. Please, no, no –

From somewhere deep in the maelstrom of blades and colliding spells, Jester screams his name. There’s a pounding of feet, a bellow from Yasha. The sound of a sword meeting flesh, and Lucien yelping. And Caleb, roaring above it all. ‘Essek is down! Caduceus, get him up!’ Then, louder still, and hoarse with fear: ‘Stay with us, Essek!’

Well, that's an alright sound to die to. His friends crying out for him. His own name in Caleb's voice.

Then those sounds go numb and distant. Lucien's blades must sweep again - the killing blow - but Essek does not feel it.

And then –

– then, he breathes.

And immediately finds himself gasping to take in more air. There’s cold ice beneath him, a warm hand on his arm. Somewhere close to him, Caleb lets out a shaky huff of relief, and Jester whispers, ‘He’s okay, you guys.’ Her voice is shaking.

Essek opens his eyes. Jester is crouching over him, her face a mess of bloodstains slashed through by tear–tracks. Caleb kneels beside her, one hand on Essek's forearm, the other clenched tight into his scarf. On Essek’s other side, Caduceus is bending down to spread pink lichen over what must have been the fatal wound. Behind them, the rest of the Mighty Nein are standing in the gaps between the brown moulds, bruised and bedraggled but smiling.

No sign of Lucien. No sign of any of the Tombtakers. Essek tries to rise, tries to see past the circle of his friends, because the last thing he remembers is flying spells and a blur of blades, and it can’t be over so soon –

Caleb's hand squeezes tighter around Essek's arm. Essek stops.

‘It's over,’ Caleb says. ‘Just breathe.’

And Caleb would not say such a thing unless Essek were truly safe, so he lies back on the ice and breathes. The Mighty Nein are all alive, which means the Tombtakers must be dead. The fight must have ended while he was –

While he was –

Oh. Oh, Light.

His lungs are not working. And then they're working too much. Essek bunches his fingers into the front of his cloak and tries not to shake, clinging both to the fabric to the sound of Caleb's voice.

‘It's all right. You're back with us. Breathe, Essek. Just breathe.’

Later, while the others pull the Tombtakers’ bodies together into a corner so that their corpses aren't watching the Mighty Nein rest, Caduceus brews a kettle, sits beside Essek, and presses a mug into his hands. ‘Drink all of that,’ he says, and after Essek has taken a few sips, ‘How are you holding up?’

Essek gulps down a little more of the tea, savouring the feeling of the warmth spreading through his aching body. ‘I am all right.’

‘You sure? You were, uh. You were gone there, for a moment.’

Yes, he was. And every time he remembers it, a scream tries to rise up his throat, and Caduceus can surely tell. Essek glances about the cavern, checking that none of the others are in earshot. Then he says, before he has time to reconsider it, ‘I am not consecuted. I would not have returned.’

Caduceus’s ears twitch. ‘Huh. All right.’

Essek stares at his tea. He can’t lift his eyes, can’t bear to see the gentle reprimand that will be in Caduceus’s face as he realises: another lie. He tightens his grip on his teacup in an attempt to stop his fingers from trembling, but that only leads to the tea sloshing over the rim of the mug. A few drops fall onto Essek’s coat, joining the array of bloodstains that he’s too exhausted to Prestidigitate out.

Caduceus seems to be waiting for Essek to go on, so Essek swallows and does. ‘In the Dynasty – or at least in the circles I inhabited, where the majority of people are consecuted – death is almost celebrated. It heralds rebirth. It means that a soul's knowledge is about to be expanded as they embark upon a new life. And then there was me, pretending that death could not touch me, but knowing that to die would be to die for good.’

‘I mean. Most of us know that all the time.’

‘Of course. But you –’ Essek stops, and lifts his mug to shield his face. ‘You all blaze into combat with such confidence. And here I am, after a century of feigning indifference to death, finally being forced to face how afraid I am. How easy it is for death to reach me. I have survived dying, and yet I - I still feel like a coward.’

Caduceus tilts his head to one side and stares at Essek for a long time. ‘You're ashamed,’ he says quietly. ‘Because you were taught that death was a blessing, and you could never see it that way.’

Essek stares into his tea. He knows that the guilt he feels does not belong to him, but to the Luxon clerics and to the Den who raised him on it. They put it into his veins along with the venom. Knowing that does not make it any weaker.

Caduceus is watching him in that patient, gentle Caduceus way. Essek waits, but this cleric utters no words of judgement, and his smile never grows less kind.

‘It's nothing to be ashamed of,’ he says at last. ‘All of us get scared. Maybe we're a little less scared than you've been, but honestly, I think that's just because we know everyone else is going to look out for us. It's not your fault that you haven't had that.’

It is Essek's fault, but what Caduceus is saying is as soothing as his tea, so Essek doesn't argue.

‘You know, my family has a lot of rituals that involve going pretty close to death. And I was always a little afraid, and I thought maybe that meant I wasn’t doing it right. But my family told me that it’s just natural. Most living things prefer not to die.' Caduceus's ears fold back as he takes a long swig from his own mug. Then he smiles at Essek again. ‘You’re not wrong to be afraid. Honestly, it'd be weird if you weren't. There's only one thing you're wrong about.’

‘And what is that?'

‘You said it’s easy for death to reach you. It’s not.’

A disbelieving laugh pulls itself from Essek throat. ‘It took about two hits to down me. I doubt I could be any more delicate.’

‘Well, sure. But you think it's easy to get past me and Jester, if we’ve got diamonds and we want you to be alive?’ Caduceus jerks his head at where Jester is slumped on the other side of the cavern, leaning her head against Fjord’s shoulder. ‘I'm stubborn. She's Jester.’

Essek stares at him.

Caduceus pats his shoulder. ‘Drink your tea,’ he says. ‘Get some warmth back in you.’ And then, because Caduceus notices everything, and he must have seen Essek’s hands shaking – ‘You're doing okay. We’re all here. Just breathe.’

Beauregard slumps down beside Essek with a thump and without a greeting. There’s a silence, while Essek waits for her to speak and she glances at him, then glances away, then looks back. ‘So, uh,' she says at last. 'Thanks.’

Her clothes are still torn in places from the impact of Lucien’s swords. Swords that would have killed her, without the assistance of a well-placed Gravity Sinkhole. ‘You are welcome, Beauregard.’

She tugs a torn thread from her sleeve. ‘You pissed him off. You didn't have to do that.’

‘I think I did.' And because he's tired, and bad at these kinds of discussions and very reluctant to engage in one, and it's making him short-tempered - 'Would you have preferred for me to have done nothing? I'm aware that you have been waiting for me to betray you.'

Beauregard holds up her hands. ‘Okay, shut up. We’re having a fucking deep conversation right now, all right? So keep the smart remarks out of it for, like, five minutes so I can get this said, and then we can go back to sassing each other. All right?’

‘All right,’ Essek says, too surprised to say anything else, and Beauregard nods with satisfaction.

‘Okay. So the thing is, you didn't have to be an ass about it, but you're right. I was waiting for you to fuck us over.’

Was. Which implies that she is no longer doing so. Essek curses his own snippiness. Of all the outcomes to this battle that he expected, an extension of trust from Beauregard was not one of them - and perhaps he has already made her regret it. 'I apologise. Your caution was, after all, warranted.'

‘Yeah, it was,’ she says, with the bluntness that has made Essek flinch so many times, but which is also the very reason why he likes her so much. ‘Because - shit, you would not believe how many people have done that kind of thing to us. And then we'd just started to trust you, and you blindsided us, and that felt like shit.' She scuffs the ground with her boot, sending up a spray of ice. ‘I was ready for you to be a selfish wizard asshole again, because if you did anything to hurt us, I wanted to be prepared, you know? I was trying to protect my friends. And now I don't think I have to do that anymore, 'cause it looks like you want the same thing. Keeping these idiots safe.'

She punctuates the end of this speech by giving Essek a light punch to the arm, right on a patch of bruises. ‘Right?’

Essek fights back a wince, and nods. ‘Right indeed. And you should know, Beauregard, that I didn't save you in the hopes of proving myself. I saved you to... well. To save you.’

‘Yeah. I know. And I'm sorry it took you dying for me to be sure about you. Don't do anything fucking stupid again, and we're good.’

‘I'm glad,’ Essek says, and he is. He has missed being this woman’s friend. He has missed being someone whom Beauregard would prank by scattering ball-bearings on a floor, someone she would call man.

Beauregard must hear the tremor in his voice, because a trace of fondness creeps into her smile. ‘I said we’re good, man. You can breathe now.’

Fjord wanders over in a way that is clearly deliberate, but meant to look casual. He stops in front of Essek and waves a hand at the floor beside him. ‘Is it okay if I sit here?’

‘I've cleared away the mould,’ Essek says dryly.

‘Good. Right,’ Fjord says and drops down onto the ice at Essek’s side. He hesitates, then draws in a loud breath. ‘So. Dying. Sucks, right?

Essek contemplates this. ‘It does indeed suck.’

‘It’s shit,’ Fjord says, nodding, and after a moment Essek realises what he is implying. I've died too. I understand. ‘I’m sorry you went through that. But what you did in that fight... That was very brave, Essek.’

Essek almost chokes on the dregs of his tea. ‘Brave is not the word I would have chosen.’ He spent the entire battle shaking in his float.

‘I mean, sure, you were scared, but you saved Beau. And thank you. For doing that.’ Fjord’s voice has taken on a quiet, sincere tone. It’s not a tone Essek is familiar with. Sincerity has not been a commonplace in his life. ‘Look, I know how much nerve it takes to do things like this. I know all about going after knowledge or power or whatever, and then realising you're in over your head. And it's fucking hard, choosing to throw all that away, so you can be the person you want to be for your friends. I know what it's like to die for it.’

He’s looking right into Essek’s eyes, not fiercely, but firmly. ‘So don't say it's not brave, all right? I know it doesn't feel brave when you're doing it, it feels like being scared shitless, but... It's brave. You were brave today, Essek.’

Unable to hold Fjord’s eyes anymore, Essek ducks his head and fiddles with his fur collar. He thinks he understands now why Beauregard calls Fjord her captain. Why it’s Fjord who so often speaks for the Mighty Nein. His words are very believable. Essek would certainly like to believe him. 'I appreciate that, Fjord.'

‘No problem. And just so you know - it's worth it. This part is shitty, but everything that's on the other side of it? It's worth it.’

‘It has been so far. But… I am not certain there is another side for me, Fjord. Ludinus desires my death now as much as he did before, and the Dynasty may very soon become wise to my treason -’

‘Don’t think about that for now, okay?’ Fjord says, and Essek is tired enough to comply. ‘We’ll deal with the Assembly when they show up. I think we get at least one hour to feel fucking proud of ourselves. Just give yourself some time to breathe.’

He nudges Essek’s arm with his elbow, then strolls away across the cavern to curl himself back into Jester’s side. Essek watches him go, then leans back against the wall and allows himself to forget that the Assembly want him dead.

Fjord’s right. They have earned this. He has earned it.

When Veth comes over to Essek, she folds her arms and stares at him for so long that Essek starts to wonder if she actually intends to say anything, or whether the new Mighty Nein initiation ritual is some kind of staring contest. At last she takes in a breath and looks across the chamber at Caleb, who is sprawled out in his sleep, his scarf covering his face.

‘You like him,’ she says, too quiet for anyone else to hear.

Oh, Light. She knows.

She was not meant to see this. None of them were, but least of all Veth, who already knows that the people she loves are not safe around Essek. Veth, to whom harming Caleb is a crime equal with treason.

‘I –’ Essek takes a moment to fight the panic out of his voice. ‘Veth, I assure you, I do not have any intentions –’

Veth cuts across him. ‘He likes you too. And you hurt him, when we found you out. When he realised what you did. And you hurt him again today.’

Today? Essek casts his mind back through the battle, through every spell that he released. Surely, surely he was careful enough to place his magic in such a way that Caleb could not have been caught in any of his spells –

‘You died, ’ Veth says impatiently. ‘And Caleb was yelling for us to get you up, like you being dead was the scariest thing he'd seen that whole fight. Scarier than Lucien.’

Essek stares at her. And stares. Her words imply that he possesses a power he had never considered that he might own: to hurt Caleb, not by his actions, but by his pain.

‘I'm not staying after this,’ Veth says, more quietly. ‘I mean – I might be sticking around for a bit, while we take care of Icky, but after that, I want to go back to my husband and my boy. So I need to know that you're not going to hurt Caleb again.’

She lifts her head, crystal tattoos flashing in the light reflected on the ice, and Essek remembers with a jolt that this is the body he helped put her into. He sat beside her on the floor of his tower to weave the equation for this flesh and skin. And perhaps she remembers that too, because the look she’s giving him has lost some of its hard edge.

She looks magnificent , Essek realises, so bold and determined in this body in a way he never remembers her being before. There is no saying no to her.

So he nods. ‘I have no wish to go back to the person that I was, Veth. I assure you of that. In whatever time I have left to be alive, I will not hurt him.'

‘Then stay alive. Don't you dare hurt him by being not alive.’ She gives one sharp nod – a gesture, Essek thinks, that signals that they have reached an understanding. ‘Don't hurt him by being hurt. Keep breathing.’

‘I'm sorry,’ says Yasha.

Essek frowns. ‘Sorry for what?’

‘For not being there sooner. I'm – I want to be a protector.’ She tugs her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. ‘But Lucien – he got away from me. And then he killed you. And – yeah.’

As far as Essek remembers, at the moment when Lucien was advancing on him, Yasha was kneeling over Beauregard, channelling a spark of divine healing into her torn body. ‘From what I saw, you had... important things on your mind, at the time.’

‘But I should have been keeping him away from you. And Caleb. You two are very squishy.’ She sighs. ‘Anyway, I wanted to say sorry, and to let you know that I killed him.’

Essek dips his head. ‘It is alright. And thank you.’

Yasha does not look at him. ‘He used to be our friend. It was so hard, to hurt him, to kill him, when he had Molly's face. But he had to die, because of what he was going to do, and because he hurt my family, and because he killed you.’

Because he killed you. Essek swallows. It makes sense that the Mighty Nein might want to keep Essek alive so that he can be useful. It makes less sense that they might think it important to avenge him.

‘You fought with us,’ Yasha says, as if she has heard his thoughts, ‘so you're one of us, so I protect you. And if things hurt you, I kill them.’ She looks at him at last, and there's the smallest of smiles on her face. ‘Also, you make me hit things really fast, and I like that.’

Essek smiles back at her. He’s been realising over the past few days that he likes Yasha a lot, if just because she is as awkward as he is, and because Xhorhas connects them even if it has never really been a home to either of them, and because they can both agree on spiders being a delicacy. ‘Well. I will be sure to keep that up, should we encounter any more aggressive denizens of these ruins.’

He tries to keep his voice light, so as not to betray the fact that the thought of more fighting makes him want to howl aloud. But it doesn’t work, clearly, because Yasha puts a hand on his shoulder.

‘It's going to be okay,’ she says. ‘We're not going to let you die again. You can breathe.’

She gets to her feet, turns to leave, then stops and looks back. ‘And – thank you. Thank you for saving Beau.’

After half an hour of rest, Jester regains enough energy to leap and spin between the patches of mould as she crosses the cavern, as if the floor is a playground game and not a death trap. She skids over the last stretch of ice to Essek’s side, and wraps her tail over her legs as she settles down cross-legged next to him. ‘Are you okay, Essek?’

Instinct makes him nod, makes him smile. ‘I am alright, Jester.’

She tilts her head and looks at him with an unusually serious, un-Jester-like gaze. ‘Essek, you are very powerful and very handsome and charming, but you are still a little bit full of shit. You don’t have to pretend you’re okay when you’re not.’ She grins, and lowers her voice to an exaggeratedly deep pitch. ‘I see right through you anyway.’

‘So I see.’

Jester tucks herself up close to him. ‘We’re your friends, Essek. You know that we want to know if you’re scared or freaking out or whatever?’

No. He does not know that. That goes against every code of pleasant behaviour that he was ever taught. It defies a hundred years of forgetting how to cry or swear or raise his voice, hiding all such urges behind the Shadowhand’s endless smile. Essek is a child of Den Thelyss. He is an Umavi’s son. He has a responsibility not to impinge on others’ minds, others’ time, with his own pain. Nobody wants his pain.

So he tries to smile at Jester. ‘We have all been through a lot over the past several days. I do not wish to impose.’

‘It’s not imposing. Sheesh.’ Her tone is light, but there’s a trace of something sad in her smile. ‘You know, we’re all a little bit shit about talking about this stuff too. It’s like, talking about being sad and scared makes you feel more sad and scared when you’re saying it. But it’s better after, usually.’ She scoops up Essek’s hand. ‘We want you to be actually okay, Essek, not fake okay. We don't want you to be always super easy to have around, you know? Because then you're the Shadowhand again, and you’re just floaty and smiling. And I mean, the Shadowhand is pretty cool. But Essek is a lot cooler.’

She squeezes his hand. And because Essek is so tired, and because Jester is so kind, he leans against her and squeezes back.

‘Being the Shadowhand kept me alive,’ he admits. ‘It protected me for my whole life, Jester. We’ve all witnessed how fragile I am in any truly violent situation. When I acted like I was always in control, like I was unflappable and untouchable – it kept my enemies afraid, and so it kept them at bay.’

‘I know. But you don't have any enemies here. We love you, Essek.’

Essek freezes.

And then, to his horror, he begins to cry.

He cries because he has never heard those words before, because he does not know how else to respond to them. He cries because he died and Jester’s right, he is not okay. And Jester pulls his head against her shoulder and holds him, her hands stroking his back, her voice in his ears. ‘It’s okay, Essek. I'm so sorry it happened. But you're okay. You can cry if you need to. Just breathe, okay, Essek? Just breathe.’

It’s not until an hour has passed, and the others are standing and stretching and discussing how to make it back up the cliff, that Caleb comes.

He approaches with tired, strained steps. As soon as he’s seated next to Essek, he lets his head and shoulders fall back against the chamber wall. ‘Well, friend, now you know what it’s like being a little twig of a wizard in a fight against people with very big swords.’

‘Indeed. That is one piece of knowledge I think I could have gone without.’

‘How are you holding up? Are you keeping it together?’

Essek glances at the others, and smiles. ‘Better than I had anticipated, yes.’

‘That's good.’

A moment passes, and Essek realises that Caleb is giving him a space in which to speak, if he wants to. So he says, ‘I'm very grateful to you all for bringing me back. Honestly, I don't think I had quite realised that you could.’

‘But you knew we had clerics with us.’

‘Of course. But clerics in the Dynasty rarely revive people. They don’t want to disrupt the cycle of consecution, and all that. Between that and the fact that I have spent the last month anticipating death... I suppose it hadn't fully registered with me that death might not stick.’

‘Essek,’ Caleb says, very quietly. ‘Are you telling me that you went into this fight convinced you would never get up if you went down?’

Essek places a hand over the centre of his chest, the place where Lucien’s blade hit. The place where Jester’s diamond shattered. ‘Yes.’

‘But of course we would get you back.’

‘So everybody keeps saying. And I’m still not convinced that I understand why. I believe Jester when she says that she loves me, but she is Jester. The rest of you –’

Essek stops. His throat is dry.

Caleb is still for a moment. Then he rubs his face and shakes his head. ‘We want you alive. That's it. We want you alive.’ And clearly he sees that Essek is fighting to believe it, because he twists around to face Essek, and once again, his hand comes to rest on Essek’s forearm. Steady. Warm.

‘I was afraid for you, when I realised I had betrayed your dealings with me to my old teacher. I was afraid for you when I learned that some of his Scourgers had followed us to the north, and that we could have led them to you. I was afraid for you when I saw that man grab you by the throat. And I was so afraid when I saw you on the ground, bleeding. I want you to be living, Essek. After all, without you here, Beauregard would be dead. And we would all have had a much shittier time trying to make it through this ruin.’

Essek looks away. So. I am useful.

‘And I would be without a friend. I would be without someone brilliant and driven who – who gets how I think, and who is a little bit awkward sometimes, like I am. And who I like being around. I wouldn't want to be without that, Essek. Without you.’

Caleb’s hand lifts from Essek’s arm to his cheek. Even in the cold, his fingers are warm.

He’s so close. And oh, Light, Essek wants very badly to kiss him. (Or maybe to break down in tears again. He's still not quite got the hang of reading his own emotional extremes.) Because what Caleb is saying - it means that Essek is more than useful. It means that Essek is loved, and he bites his lip so that he can't cry, nor give in to that fierce urge to kiss Caleb, or say anything that he might regret.

But he dares to something that feels, oddly, far more intimate. He closes his eyes and leans into Caleb’s touch. And Caleb lets him.

A few silent seconds pass before Caleb’s hand falls back into his lap. ‘Will you promise me something, Essek?

It's a good question to ask right now, Essek thinks dryly, at a moment when this man could ask him for the severed head of Trent Ikithon and Essek would gladly find some way to deliver. ‘Yes.’

‘I know you are afraid that my teacher’s people are going to find you at any moment. I know you think that your days are numbered. But will you promise me that you'll let us protect you?’

Caleb looks at him until Essek has no choice but to look back – and somehow, it is easy. After all that time of ducking away from Caleb's face, somehow it feels like the most natural thing in the world to hold his eye contact now. ‘I – you're very persuasive. But I have already tangled you all in so much danger, Caleb.’

‘And we have tangled you back. We are friends. We want you to have the opportunity to take your second chance, Essek, and I want you to breathe. So breathe.’

Again, Essek closes his eyes.

He cannot deny this man anything. Not now, when Caleb’s words are putting the breath back into Essek’s lungs as much as Jester’s diamond did.

In the end, the choice is simple. The Mighty Nein want Essek alive. To die would hurt them. Add Essek loves them too fiercely to hurt them again.

‘I promise,’ he says.

Caleb smiles. 'Good,' he says. And then, ‘Well, with that out of the way, I have burned through all my magic and bled all over the floor, and I don’t think I can stand up again right now. So I am going to sit here and do nothing for another hour.’

And without a trace of hesitation or embarrassment, he drops his head onto Essek's shoulder and shuts his eyes.

Essek freezes. Then, because he is apparently less of a coward than he thought, and because he is ludicrously tired as well, he leans his own head against Caleb's. ‘I am in agreement with this plan.’

Caleb makes a faint noise of approval. ‘Your collar is very cosy,’ he says thickly.

And you are still feeling the after-effects of magical exhaustion, and a little bit out of it, and impossibly loveable, Essek thinks. ‘I am glad to hear it. It is at your disposal.’

‘Mm,’ Caleb mumbles into the fur. ‘We made the right choice when we brought you with us.’

And maybe he really does just mean that Essek is a comfortable pillow. But Essek is fairly sure there is more to it than that, and he feels suddenly, deliriously happy.

He and Caleb sit and breathe together in the quiet cavern, surrounded by the bodies of their enemies and the voices of their friends.